Coffee with Phosforakis by Matthew John Fletcher

Dokathismata variety. The female figurine in the Museum of Cycladic Art had been nothing short of extraordinary. Modernism four thousand years before its time. Talk about precocious. His head hurt when he thought about it.

Needing time to process, he had practically run out of the museum just fifteen minutes after entering. That was a seven-euro ticket. But no matter. He stood outside on the step. It was close, the thing he was trying to conceptualise, hovering on the edge of consciousness with an annoying persistence like a mosquito. He needed time to think. Think.

A voice hailed him from somewhere behind his left shoulder.

‘Ah, there you are, old friend. Just the person I was hoping to meet.’

He groaned inwardly. Phosforakis. Damn the man, he had a knack of turning up just when you wanted to be on your own. He hurriedly filed the thought away in its little room, lest it escape him between the garrulity of Phosforakis and the insistent blaring of the traffic.

He turned around to find Phosforakis bearing down upon him in a flush of pink health and a zephyr of expensive cologne. As he drew up alongside, the look of delight turned into one of concern.

‘Are you quite well, old chap? You look a little agitated.’

He muttered something about work and intimated that actually, at present, he was rather busy. Phosforakis brushed this aside as he would a fly that was threatening to ruin an al fresco dinner and he found himself being propelled up the street, forced to listen to some nonsense about decorating a yacht. Phosforakis, as well as having the knack of interrupting you at the most inopportune moments also had the gift of making money. Positively obscene, really. He was from an old family and even they felt slightly embarrassed about the way he managed to haul it in. They apparently thought it quite nouveau.

As usual, he found himself getting drawn in by that curiously engaging voice, peppered with an assortment of almost parodic public school mannerisms that he assumed Phosforakis must have picked up at the English boarding school on Spetses which he had attended as a boy.

Without warning, for very cogent reasons of his own he stopped his friend in mid-flow to ask him a question.

‘Phosforakis, remind me, won’t you, how we get to Dal Segno from here?’

He knew full well the answer to his own question; it was, after all, a regular haunt of his. 

His friend looked at him strangely, ‘Why just around the corner here. It’s the one next to the square.’ He added by way of further elucidation, ‘the one we always go to.’

‘Of course. Of course.’

‘I should ease off a bit, if I were you old boy.’ Phosforakis gave him a worried look, before swiftly continuing, ‘No matter, I feel the call of a marocchino. Shall we?’

They were soon there. It was a curious thing; Phosforakis, as intimated, was extremely rich; he, however, was not. Why then was it that he was the one who always bought the coffees? Phosforakis was in the habit of nonchalantly saying ‘Mine’s a marocchino, old man. I’ll get us a seat’, and promptly disappearing. Though, to his credit, Phosforakis always managed to find a seat, even on difficult days. People would simply get up and leave as he approached a table, as if suddenly reminded of some pressing errand that would brook no further delay. He, meanwhile, would queue at the counter, order, pay and then wait whilst the barista prepared the coffees. He enjoyed watching how the machine, a new Gaggia, hissed and steamed as it transformed the ground beans into the coffee that was universally acknowledged to be the best in Athens.

Although he would invariably take a cappuccino, he had often considered trying the marocchino, a double espresso with a drop of warm milky froth that was Phosforakis’ favoured drink. Whilst waiting, he would engage the barista in a brief conversation regarding the heat, the ever-increasing numbers of tourists and the likelihood of early elections before picking up a tray, placing the two coffees onto it and walking outside.

He saw that on this occasion, Phosforakis had sat down about half-way along the line of tables which stretched the length of the outside wall of the coffee shop. He watched as Phosforakis took a sip of his marocchino and sighed in satisfaction.

‘Mostly dark, with just a touch of light for old time’s sake.’

Phosforakis always said this after taking his first sip of coffee. He had a habit of pointing with that long bony finger of his at the body of the coffee when he said ‘mostly dark’ and then at the milky froth when he said ‘with a touch of light’. He would then sigh nostalgically.

He watched as Phosforakis sighed on cue. When the mood had passed, as it always did, and, without so much as an ‘As I was saying’ to acknowledge the interlude, Phosforakis resumed at the very point he had left off, twirling his moustache the while and eying the plentiful stream of beautiful women which flowed down Tsakalof Street into the square; this natural strategic advantage combined with excellent coffee had secured a veritable perpetual annuity for the family who had been astute enough to buy the place fifty years ago around the time the Colonels had come in.

‘So the question is: black or white?’ said Phosforakis, looking at him expectantly.

‘Come again?’ he felt lost.

Phosforakis gave an exasperated sigh.

‘Do try to keep up, old chap. The yacht. Black or white?’

He really had no answer to that and tried to nose his way into this unfamiliar mental territory.

‘Well, I suppose white is a good traditional colour. Yes, I am sure I have seen many white yachts. Perhaps that’s the way to go.’

Phosforakis gave his moustache another twirl.

‘Well, you say that, but black has its attractions as well.’ He took another sip of coffee. ‘Besides which, it might well prove more practical.’

‘Doesn’t show the dirt so easily?’ he suggested helpfully.

‘Well, partly that. But more importantly it would help with the Pirates.’

He stared at Phosforakis. What on earth was he on about? Really the man became more outré the more you thought you were finally beginning to pin him down.

‘Pirates, I-, I don’t understand.’

‘Well, it’s simple really.’

And Phosforakis proceeded to describe to him a new diversion of the global mega-rich. It had apparently started with the Russian oligarchs. The scheme required a large yacht with helipad; a helicopter capable of landing on said yacht; around fifteen ex-special forces soldiers, all of whom must have seen active service (the Russians naturally favoured Spetsnaz, veterans of Afghanistan, Chechnya, and all those funny little conflicts in the North Caucasus that nobody talks about: Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria); and a well-stocked arsenal of small arms, heavy machine guns, grenades and surface-to-surface missiles. It was simplicity itself really: the crew steered the yacht into pirate-infested waters. Then-

‘Barbary? The Pirates, I mean,’ he interjected, much to the amusement of Phosforakis.

‘No, no. Somali, old boy. Or possibly Malay. Malacca strait, don’t you know?’

‘Oh, I see,’ he said, nodding.

Phosforakis continued, ‘Anyway, once in said pirate-infested waters you lie doggo, all innocent. You know, drape a few women over the deck. Crack open the champagne. Sure enough, like bees to honey, the Pirates are drawn by the mysterious pull of cupidity and the siren song of bare flesh. Fast motor boats suddenly race towards the yacht, bristling with heavily armed specimens of the species piraticus Somalis, or piraticus Malaysius.’ Phosforakis winked mischievously, ‘And that’s where the fun begins.’

He listened as Phosforakis described how the signal would be given to the soldiers waiting below decks; how a well-trained unit could be topside in under a minute; how four of the platoon would form the personal bodyguard of the oligarch (who, after all, was paying for the whole show; an oligarch who, incidentally, would be bristling with more weapons than a Cretan guerrilla who’d just plundered an arms depot); how the platoon commander would then take over, carefully waiting until the boats are in range, until they could see the whites of their eyes.

‘And then. You’ll never guess.’

Phosforakis was building it up like it was the punchline of a joke. He watched as someone walked up to their table, stood undecidedly, looking at the chair Phosforakis was sitting in, clearly in two minds about asking whether or not it was free, and then turned and walked away. This often happened when he was out with Phosforakis.

Phosforakis continued undeterred, ‘And then they smash the shit out of them.’ Phosforakis smacked his hand down on the table and roared with laughter. People at the tables next to them turned around to look at him and he found himself wishing for the thousandth time that Phosforakis would learn to laugh in a more discrete manner. But now he had reached the crescendo of his story, there was no reigning him in.

Words tumbling over themselves in a jumble, tears streaming from his eyes, Phosforakis enthused, ‘I mean, you should see it. The heavy machine gun is potting holes in the hulls of the pirate boats. BLAM. BLAM. BL-BL-BLAM. The soldiers are peppering them with Kalashnikov fire. The Pirates don’t know what’s hit them. And then-’

Phosforakis, suddenly dead calm, took a sip of marocchino and daintily dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief. He leered at a woman who was making her way down Tsakalof Street, sniggering as she suddenly stumbled, swayed precariously on her high heels, and then righted herself in the nick of time. Annoyingly, and despite his better judgement, he found himself wanting to know what came next.

Phosforakis gave a knowing smile and resumed exactly where he had left off, ‘-comes the pièce de résistance. Under careful supervision, the oligarch prepares the surface-to-surface missile. He takes careful aim and then clicks the button. WHOOSH. Off it goes and the boatload of Pirates is suddenly matchwood and assorted limbs falling down upon the waters from a great height. Delighted, he hands it to one of the soldiers to prep for the next shot just like a gentleman would hand a shotgun to his loader on a pheasant shoot. Lock and load, as our American friends say. If the rest of the Pirates haven’t desisted by then, the Spetsnaz just pick them off at their leisure.’

Phosforakis gave a delighted chuckle and proceeded to describe the aftermath: the fishing for trophies of war, some oligarchs apparently opting for heads in the grand tradition that had once been practiced by the piratical Iban, or Sea-Dayak of Sarawak (there was, Phosforakis assured him, a place in Moscow you could get the heads shrunk and preserved strictly according to traditional methods; these hunting trophies could be seen adorning the walls of Moscow townhouse or forest dacha, just like the antlered heads of deer you see in hunting lodges in the Scottish Highlands). It would all end in the customary orgy, a final flare up and release of the animal spirits aroused by the slaughter. Phosforakis smirked and smacked his lips.

He was aghast. ‘But surely this isn’t allowed. The relevant authorities- ‘

‘- are entirely for it. Saves them a job. Why there’s even been talk of making it official. Selling permits, you know, like big game hunting.’  Phosforakis paused, evidently giving the matter serious consideration, ‘Though you’d have to impose some sort of quota, else the genus piraticus would soon be extinct.’

‘I find the whole thing obscene’, he sniffed. ‘And distasteful.’ He was struck by a thought. ‘But why the helicopter?’

‘Helicopter? Oh yes, I see. Well, just in case. On the off-chance something goes wrong, the oligarch and his current favourite can be whisked away to safety.’ He smiled. ‘Which is why, of course, you need to be sure of the credentials of the purported pilots. You’d be amazed about how many mercenaries lie about such things; pilots get paid more, and they generally figure the helicopter probably won’t be needed so they can get away with it.’ Phosforakis took another sip of coffee. Then, all evidence of a smile was instantly wiped from his face like a murderer cleaning up after the crime, ‘So you see my dilemma. Black or white?’

Really this was too much. He finished off his cappuccino; after the incident with the museum ticket, he was determined to get his money’s worth here at least. He put the empty cup back on the saucer and got up abruptly.

‘Fascinating. So sorry to have to leave you like this. Things to do. Goodbye, Phosforakis’, he said in what he hoped was a curt tone.

He walked away just like that, leaving his friend sitting there twirling his moustache.

Damn the man! He really knew how to bring you down. He was aware, of course, that they’d made quite a scene there, his friend being, as he had slowly come to realise as the acquaintance evolved, unaccountably invisible to others. He thought it was more a matter of Phosforakis somehow deflecting attention from himself by some mental sleight of hand. He didn’t think it likely he was actually invisible; for example, he couldn’t imagine that when Phosforakis took a sip of coffee others saw a cup apparently levitating to what would be mouth level, tilting forward slightly, then gradually lowering itself to the table once more. So, most probably, to the outside observer, he had been engaged in a particularly intense soliloquy interspersed with the occasional bout of manic laughter. He shrugged. So what. Let them talk. It was too late to start worrying about that.

As he walked up Tsakalof Street he couldn’t help but think about what Phosforakis had told him. He’d never look at a yacht the same way again. Which was a shame, really. He’d always enjoyed seeing the yachts in the harbour on Hydra. There goes another pleasure, he thought. That damned Phosforakis. Soon there would be nothing left.


Matthew Fletcher is a British writer, currently working on his first short story collection. He has one prior publication (‘The Renewal’, STORGY, April 2017) and one pending publication (‘Cracks’, Horla). As an undergraduate he studied English and German Literature, but has tried not to let this deter him from putting pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard.

                                         

 

 

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