Dimitra paused halfway up the stairs, heaving a few breaths into her lungs. The lift had been out of order for two years; five apartments in the block and between them they couldn’t afford to get it repaired.
A door slammed on the third floor. Rapid steps approached. Dimitra dragged her shopper close and pressed herself against the wall.
—Excuse me! A young man’s voice. He stopped. —Let me help you.
—No need. You’re in a hurry. Go.
He hesitated, then bounded past her. —Thank you.
At first glance, he was smartly dressed. She watched him descend, noticing the shine on the seat of his trousers, his badly cut hair. —Alexis. Your new neighbour, he called up. —I’ll introduce myself properly soon.
Dimitra grunted. He’d be lucky to get a name out of her. She continued her climb to the fifth floor, the shopper bumping behind her. All her family wanted her to move; especially those who’d left Greece for a better life elsewhere. But she wouldn’t budge. She’d die in her apartment or she’d die on these accursed stairs.
Once she was inside, door bolted, safety chain on, her breaths came more regularly. Nowadays, breathing was never easy. In summer, tear gas drifted across the city. As winter encroached, smoke from domestic fires thickened the air. Athenians were burning old furniture to keep warm. The previous night’s acrid smoke lingered, a smell she’d tried to erase from her memory. The stench of occupation.
As she trundled her shopper through to the kitchen she greeted each houseplant individually. Then she unloaded two armfuls of weeds, gathered on the outskirts of the cemetery, and turned on the cold tap to rinse them. Out on the balcony she removed two ice cream tubs from the bottom of the shopper. They were packed with good soil dug from the National Gardens early that morning. Every day she reclaimed a fraction of her stolen pension. She tipped the soil into the planter she’d earmarked for peppers. Sunlight slowly penetrated the haze, tumbling into her balcony. The herbs perked up. Her precious lemon tree, in its turquoise glazed urn, sent a smile straight to her heart.
A rap on the door. Dimitra padded through from the kitchen, the ferrous taste of boiled weeds coating her tongue. She peered through the spyhole. Alexis. Leaving the safety chain on, she opened the door.
—Good evening! He held out a box of loukoumi. —A client gave me these. I’m not meant to eat sweets. I wondered if you’d like them?
She weighed him up, judged him harmless. Her tongue, her stomach, her whole being cried out for the sweet rose flavoured cubes, their clouds of icing sugar.
—Come in, she said, unhooking the safety chain. —I’ll make coffee.
Twice a week Alexis calls to offload treats from his clients. They drink coffee on the balcony. He smokes a pungent cigarette while Dimitra sinks into sugar heaven. The lemon tree thinks only of its sour fruit.
Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but moved to London half a lifetime ago. She has had short stories and poetry published in several anthologies and various magazines, including Magma, Brittle Star, Wet Ink, Under the Radar and Smoke: A London Peculiar. Her novel Hearts on Ice was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2000. Blog: http://hilaireinlondon.wordpress.com.