May 2012


The Insult

By Peter Robb
Statue of a kouros in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. © Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Corbis
Statue of a kouros in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. © Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Corbis
An incurious encounter takes flight

It was getting dark and the plane for Darwin was almost full. Well back in Economy, the two seats between me and the window were empty. The doors were about to close. I was reading my book, and hoping to spread out later. Eric Ambler was made for moments like this.

At the last minute a couple arrived. They were – to me – youngish, in their thirties, and they could only have been Greek. I stood up smiling vaguely to let them in. The woman looked deeply tired, her jet black hair pinned up over pale creamy skin, except a few loose distracted wisps. She squeezed past, took the window and sank back. I’d seen her in Athens a long time before, and as now, always in profile.

I remembered the way her white brow descended to her nose in a single straight line. The Achilles Painter had depicted her often on amphoras against a white ground, two and a half millennia ago. As a muse strumming a kithara with a small bird listening at her feet. As a maid with her mistress. As the seated wife a warrior was leaving, helmet under his arm.

The man behind her was from at least a hundred years earlier. Which in Athens then was an age, an aeon in art. She was a painting, he was a statue. A kouros, not tall, but powerfully built, with shining protuberant eyes, a broad face, a big chin, a permanent smile and oiled hair long on the back of his neck. His skin was dark from a long, long time in the sun. He was a happy warrior. With helmet and greaves, massive in buttock and thigh, he’d stood on the plain below Troy. On the side of a vase, with horse tail and erection, neither of which I noticed, he might have been a satyr. Benignly, I let them settle in. There were a lot of Greeks in Darwin. I remembered that.

As he clipped his belt and the lights went down, the stocky Greek warrior then turned and spoke. I was already back in Ambler’s sleazy Levant. I hope, he said, in a light and pleasant singsong voice, you’re not going to be one of those people who wants to talk the whole way till we get to Darwin.

He said it in a mild offhand way, still smiling, but the words cut deep. Nobody had said anything like this in my 55 years of flying. I had given him no reason to think he was stuck with an airline bore. I was planning to read this book, I snapped. But now you’ve put the idea into my head, maybe I’ll spend the next four hours telling you the story of my life. He said nothing. He smiled slightly again. It was a strange archaic smile. The woman was already asleep.

I was trying to concentrate on the body floating in the oily water of Istanbul’s harbour. Outside, the sun showed strips of brilliant colour as it died, the incomparable atmospherics of the Australian horizon at nightfall. I leant across to look, beyond the warrior’s wife. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw the stone face beside me, smiling in the shadow. I returned to Ambler’s Dimitrios.

Dinner came banging down the aisle, announced by little stale gusts of warmed-up carbohydrate. You had to pay Qantas six dollars for 187 millilitres of red wine to get you through this. I fumbled in my jeans, cursing the Qantas meanness. If I had the right change I would, if not I wouldn’t. I didn’t. Ill temper increased.

He’d been watching me. When the caddy reached the Red e-Dealers, at about the point where the tail section snaps off on impact, the quiet voice beside me said, Not a word all the way. I’d like to buy you the wine. I don’t drink myself, but you’ve been good so far. High horse fought base appetite and lost. We ripped the foil from the plastic containers. Slow on the uptake, I realised at last he’d been wanting to talk all along. Not to hear my story but to tell me his. I like your voice, he said. You seem like an educated kind of person. The chosen vessel.

So he did tell me. I told him nothing in return. I asked some questions, made some comments. He moved around in time as he talked, shuttling between now and the recent past, between his own early years and his father’s. He was not a practised storyteller and he was not pushing a thesis and it took me a while to get the fragments – some of which were entirely inconsequential – into some kind of sense. I did feel from the start that there was something he badly wanted me to know, so I listened and tried to work out what that thing was. His singsong voice was partly Australian and partly reminded me of the domestic talk I used to hear in the darkest Greek recesses of Naples many years ago.

He was born in Darwin just after Cyclone Tracy – must have been early 1975. His father had come out not long before from one of the smaller and poorer Greek islands – I hadn’t even heard of it – and found work in Darwin as a builder’s labourer. He worked hard, saved like an islander with centuries of poverty behind him, and invested astutely. Always in property because land and buildings were what he knew. A dozen years after Tracy the city was rebuilt and his father owned over 50 properties in and around Darwin. He was a wealthy man.

Having done what he came to do in Australia, the warrior’s father sold everything he had in Darwin and took his family back to the Greek island he’d come from. There he was a very rich man indeed. His elder son Nikos – I’ve forgotten his name, it sounded like Nikos, maybe it was Nikos – was 13 and now became Greek. Starting with learning the language while he struggled through school and national service in the Greek army. Everyone was puzzled by this Greek boy who couldn’t speak Greek but they made things easy for him and he settled in. Having a rich father made things easy, too. Several times between Sydney and Darwin he told me, I was a spoilt boy. A marriage was arranged for him and Nikos was soon the very young father of two children.

He started a few business things – seed money never a problem – and some went OK but none brilliantly. He felt the constraints in Greek society. Social constraints, family constraints, economic constraints. He had an easy life but there was no scope. The marriage went adrift. I was a spoilt boy. Nikos decided to emigrate, alone. He went back to Darwin. He worked as a builder’s labourer.

His boss was an oldish Greek man with a phenomenal capacity for hard yakka. Nikos has never seen anyone work a spade like this old man. The old man was doing pretty well, too, mainly from the endless flow of work for the government agency which was building houses for Aboriginal people in remote communities. Nikos would spend weeks, months at a time in these communities while he worked on the houses. He got to know quite a few of them, scattered over a vast area of the Northern Territory, and he got to know the people who lived there, too.

Nikos started noticing things about the places he worked in. He spoke in an incurious and uninformed way about the people he’d been spending so much time among. He expressed no thoughts, in his child’s singsong, on how or why things had come about. And yet he was deeply empathetic. He thought life in these places was awful, because that’s how it was for him. There was nothing to do. Just one little shop that closed at five and then nothing. No wonder they piled into the car and went off to buy grog and spent the rest of the time drinking. What else could they do?

He didn’t say the word himself, but he’d found a deep and generalised depression in the places he worked in. Boredom. Demoralisation. Whatever. Without thinking much about why this should be so, he wanted to cheer people up. An early effort was to turn up one Easter with a truckload of Easter eggs. You wouldn’t believe it, he said. They were SO happy. They couldn’t have been happier if I’d brought them a million dollars. His eyes shone in the penumbra of Red e-Deal economy. The people didn’t forget either. When he finished his work weeks later they filled his truck with fresh fish and mud crabs to take home to Darwin.

Another time Nikos set up a big Greek gyros over a fire. When the spit started turning slowly over the embers and the smell of roasting meat wafted across the air, you should have seen how many people started coming out of the bush. Nikos wanted people to enjoy life and he was very happy when they gathered around his barbecue.

Because he was a builder, most of all Nikos noticed the houses he was helping to build in these places. They were horrible. Heavy, ugly, all wrong … He also noticed that the housing agency paid his boss several times what the houses cost to build. My eyes went beady at this, but Nikos didn’t think the problem was any worse than the agency’s conservatism and inertia. They preferred to stick with known contractors who did a reliable job on time rather than put work out to tender in the hope some untried builder might do as well for less. Later, I read that through Remote Housing NT, the Northern Territory has $1.7 billion to spend on indigenous housing in 73 communities over the decade that ends in 2018.

What Nikos saw in the remote settlements got mixed up in his telling of the things that happened to him. Like the time he cut his leg at work and it got infected and he nearly lost it. He was laid up for the better part of a year, could hardly move, let alone work.

He told me, too, how straight after arriving in Darwin after all those years away in Greece he walked into a supermarket and ran into a woman he’d known as a child, when they were young Greek Australian kids together. They got married straight away. She was the warrior’s wife asleep by the window. Suddenly there were the twins. He whipped out his iPhone and showed me two identical babies, lying side by side on their backs and kicking their legs in the air in perfect synchronicity, like a newborn chorus line.

All through his own new domestic life, Nikos went on brooding about the awful houses and dreary futility in the little communities where he worked. He wondered what he could do. Maybe he could make something brighter and better, so that people would enjoy living in these places. Something cheaper, too. He had this idea of making modular units out of shipping containers, small buildings you could deliver on the back of a truck and relocate when people wanted change. Brighter, tougher and more portable than the horrible demountables he saw in the Territory. Fun buildings.

You’re joking, I said. They’d be like ovens.

No, no, Nikos said. I insulate them. Like coolrooms for storing food. Takes up no space. One tiny air-conditioning unit’s all you need. He explained how you had to understand a container’s structure, and cut windows and doors of a size and placement that didn’t compromise its strength.

Along with his own good construction sense, Nikos had the confidence of the housing agency people. They knew him from his work with the building contractor. He was able to break through their fear of the new. His pilot project was a community office building, and he made it so fast, so well and so cheaply that he won them over straight away.

It was tougher reckoning with the conservatism and inertia of the local inhabitants. Not everybody liked the container idea. But Nikos knew how to sweet talk people. He brought out three modules on the back of a big transporter, red, yellow and green. Look guys, reggae colours! They were a hit. I asked him where his container houses were, and he said vaguely that they were scattered all over the place. Quite a few were in the area around Katherine.

Nikos loved inventing new container buildings. He was specially proud of his cinema.

A cinema in a shipping container?

Yep. Eight seats in the dress circle and eight in the stalls. Packed every night.

He flipped though images on his iPhone, a string of brightly coloured cuboids. I admired a larger house, three containers set at right angles in a U-shape. Some light decking on the ground they enclosed and a canopy over the space above and you had a front verandah.

You can pack up and move the whole thing in an hour.

So the people who live in them like your houses. You do good work on time and you do it cheap. You must be pretty busy, I said.

Nikos looked baffled for a moment. It’s not … I’m not doing it for money. I still didn’t get it, evidently. One more time he reminded me, I was a spoilt boy.

He explained how his wife was busy running an agency that helped young economic refugees from the Greek catastrophe. She showed them how to negotiate Australian bureaucracy, find work, homes, settle in Australia. I’m helping her with that. And the kids. I make the houses on the weekend. But didn’t he have people working for him? He frowned slightly again. I was more obtuse than he’d supposed when he chose me to hear his story. A couple of blokes help me a bit … I do it because I like doing it. I like …  

Nikos was not wildly articulate in his singsong narrative and at this point words failed him altogether. I like … he said, and trailed off again.

I think he wanted to say he liked making people happy. I think this is why he told me at take-off that he didn’t want me talking all the way to Darwin. For once, Nikos had something to say himself. He felt he’d done something good in his life and he wanted someone else to know about it. He was overflowing with happiness. By the time we landed in Darwin I was feeling pretty happy myself.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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