by Paul Burman
One September several years back, my job took me to Thessaloniki, northern Greece, for a couple of weeks. As I flew out of Australia, Sydney launched its Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, and the irony of seeing several events taking place in my home country through the medium of Greek TV wasn't lost on me. I'd lounge in my hotel room at the end of the day, watching the 100 metres or the discus throwing, and find it bizarre that Mount Olympus was only a spit and a lick away. As was Alexander the Great, Aristotle and Socrates, and there were more Byzantine churches, Roman baths, temples and tombs around than you could poke a javelin at... It's a stunning country to visit, not least because its rich history and culture is apparent at almost every turn. So many stories.
However, this isn't a travelogue, and while there were many experiences (from both contemporary and ancient Greece) to enjoy on that trip, and which I've often savoured since, it was a fragment of domestic grief only briefly witnessed that created the most profound effect on me. Comedy and tragedy happens all around us - unreachable and unalterable, despite being uncannily close at times - and sometimes all we can do is join the Chorus as unwitting and helpless observers, hoping that the worst of the stories are never our own.
On my last morning in Thessaloniki, before flying to Athens, I was up and packed by 5am and standing at the open window of my room. It was still dark outside - still and dark - and warm with the promise of another hot day. My room was located on the fourth floor, at the rear of the hotel, looking across to the back of a couple of high-rise apartment blocks. They didn't seem too big a stretch away and it would have probably added to the ambience of the place if someone had slung a washing line between, but I've always enjoyed the backyard and rooftop views of cities, seeking out the back streets and lanes in preference to postcard hotspots, and so it suited me fine.
It was good to breathe in the end of night, the start of day, and to catch a few moments of stillness before heading down to the lobby and catching the airport bus. And I was thinking this and mentally checking to make sure I hadn't forgot something - that I'd kept my passport and tickets handy and that sort of thing - when, from an apartment almost opposite, a woman began crying.
It began as a sobbing. Deep sobs, one after the other. Until one sob became an intense wail: a drawn-out cry that reminded me of someone drowning. She was sobbing and crying as if the best of her life was over, and I couldn't tell whether it was from grief or pain or loss or betrayal or... There suddenly seemed so many reasons a woman might cry at 5 o'clock in the morning. I peered out to try and identify which apartment and which room she might be in. Was she hurt? Had she witnessed the death of her child. Or a husband? What sort of loss was it? Was she sitting next to a telephone or a bloody mess? Was there a scribbled note in her hand? Was she in danger? Did she need help? I couldn't tell, but the solitary sound of this woman crying was amplified across the courtyard of tall buildings, along with its poignancy, and it found its way into me. It was one of the most plaintive, lonely sounds I'd ever heard.
It seemed that at any moment someone would have to join her, to soothe and comfort her, or to continue bullying and berating her; that the click or slam of a door would be equally clear on a morning like this, along with the ripple of soothing words or the throwing of pans, the smashing of crockery. But none of that happened. Just as she began her lament, so she ended it. As I stood and listened and wondered what - if anything - could be done, a current swept her from one end of grief to another, and her wailing once again became a series of sobs punctuated by silence. Except the silence now seemed louder than before. And I had to catch a bus to the airport.
So evocative was this scene for me that I've tried writing it numerous times across the years, although most often when I'm somewhere far from home. Usually as a poem, but occasionally as a short story. Except the words I really want and the view I really want to present have always eluded me. All I've created are scraps of paper with scribbled jottings and crossings-out to join the heap of other scraps of paper covered in scribbled jottings and crossings-out. (I have trees worth of these and sometimes, when we're short of winter firewood, I'll burn a box or two of them and we'll warm ourselves on the flames of old words.)
I could leave it well alone, of course, and allow the scene to simply hang in the gallery of my memories. Except I'm reluctant to. And so, I do what many writers do and begin to analyse why what I've tried won't work, while searching for a way of telling it in a way that might work instead. I look at the possibilities from different perspectives and learn that I can't see my way forward, perhaps, because my focus has been misdirected. Maybe, instead of attempting to present a view of the woman's predicament and an interpretation of her situation, or even just capturing an evocative moment in life, the power of the scene might lie in the many questions that are raised but left begging. Or, in a Carveresque manner, it might lie in describing two characters who, for very different reasons, find themselves on the brink of change. There are so many possibilities. Maybe it needs to be one of those stories whereby, instead of making sense of the world - or a slice of the world - we end up with even more questions than answers along with a weightier awareness of our smallness in the universe. Maybe I should turn to Euripedes, Homer, Sophocles, and ask how the Greek poets would have shaped the telling of this story. Perhaps I should question what universal truth might be revealed here. Maybe, perhaps, possibly... There are so many ways of telling a story, if only we, as writers, can find one that works.