The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything;
and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you.
—Marcus Aurelius, “The Meditations”

THERE WERE DAYS WHEN THE MIST GAVE WAY. Those days the actual color of the sidewalks, the dry patches of lawn in the front gardens, and the mold growing on the roofs of the like-next-to-like houses revealed themselves. Those days the trees were relieved of some sort of invisible weight, as if the town took a long, deep breath.

It was those days that he took long, premeditated walks. All by himself, wrapped up in a scarf and coat, and in multiple layers of clothes. He climbed up the seven steps to the sidewalk, counting them one by one, every single time. As if taken over by the fear of finding—at some point or other—that there were fewer or more than seven. Once he reached the top, he probed the sidewalk with the tip of his shoe—as if testing the water temperature of a (hypothetical) sea. And then he set out: keeping to the sidewalk, making sure each footstep landed precisely within the four sides of each slab, or—if snow had fallen—precisely within the last passerby’s footmarks. He always walked slowly. He always crossed the street via zebra crossings. And he always navigated using the same signs: the red Royal Mail postbox around the corner, the deserted Fox & Hounds pub, the corner house in that hideous green color, the homeless man by the town library wall, the window of the tea shop in the Covered Market. Every time he took the same left and right turns on his everyday-life map, making sure he wouldn’t get lost in a city he barely knew—already three years there.

One Thursday afternoon all the signs had vanished. He pretended not to notice, and climbed up the seven steps as usual. Fresh snow had fallen against the windows of his flat and covered the red post box from top to bottom. The Fox & Hounds pub was being converted into a Tesco’s; the hideously colored house was all wrapped up in nylon, and workers dressed in space suits were rushing in and out; the homeless man was nowhere to be found. He kept on walking, he did not believe in signs. The window of the tea shop remained the same: vertical stacks of English breakfast, Green leaf, Darjeeling, and Earl Grey boxes. A bus, a red double-decker, one of those traveling back and forth to London, climbed the sidewalk. He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing. He died on the spot. A crowd gathered, some crying as if having lost one of their own kin. His blood smeared the tea shop window, and police blocked the street for hours—POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. The incident was recorded in great detail, and countless photos were taken. Until late that evening his corpse lay flat on the sidewalk.

Next morning, his death was on the front page of the Oxford Times and the Oxford Mail. Together with statements from neighbors with whom he had never exchanged as much as a glance.


ŸHe did not leave anything behind. His parents and sister, in two cars, helped with the move. So did a cousin of his—whom he had not seen in years and whose name he had trouble remembering—in his minivan. They packed everything up. In cardboard boxes and black plastic bags. One by one, all his belongings. They packed things at random, and—once a box or bag was full—he stacked them one on top of another in the living room. In the hallway a pile of objects he no longer needed quickly formed—clothes he had not worn in years, a basketball, a rug, a record player. He would only carry with him on the plane what could fit in a large suitcase and a travel bag.

“Nothing more,” he had said.

His parents insisted they should ship some more things over. He agreed, but demanded he’d be the one to select those things: bed sheets, towels, pots gave their place to tapes and CDs, books and photo albums, his coin collection, his old bicycle. All these now formed a new pile outside his (former) bedroom. A yellow Post-it on top read: Ladies and gentlemen, we are moving out. While the others loaded the cars, he went around the flat one last time. Just in case he had missed something. Everything stood empty. He left the windows open and the keys in the door. Before leaving the lobby he removed the blue sticker with his name from the doorbell.

Until the day of his departure he stayed at his parents’. He refused to sleep in their bed. He refused to sleep on the new IKEA sofa bed. He chose to squeeze into his old room, amongst tons of junk. On his first night there he went to bed early, but could not sleep wrapped up in the Asterix & Obelix wallpaper. It felt as if he were a child again, eight or nine years old. With his little nightlight off. Big boys don’t sleep with the lights on. The clock in the living room struck eleven. He put on his glasses and crawled down the corridor. He stood outside his parents’ open bedroom door. In their sleep their chests would move up and down in perfect synchrony. On one side of their bed he could make out his sister’s crib, where his mother’s porcelain dolls now lived. His father ran his hand through his hair every now and then, on that side that touched the pillow—as if standing in front of a large mirror. His mother’s eyelids fluttered—as if fighting to wake herself up. He stood there and watched them. With his back against the wall. He could have sworn that a train, long like women’s legs on billboards, kept traversing the hallway. Eventually he fell asleep. Right there. Next morning no one said a thing about this.


ŸŸHe rented the very first available flat he visited, from the very first letting agency he found online. His search took less than fifteen minutes. Two bedrooms for seven hundred and ninety five pounds per month. The agent took him there to see it in her car. And put on her best smile. It was part of a (former) Protestant church, which had now been converted into a small block of flats. The tour included all four rooms. He was told this particular space was used for Sunday school. The walls were full of stains the color of Aspergillus. The kitchen sink was rusty around the edges. There was a chair with its back legs broken.

“Looking at it from the side it seems as if it’s bowing, doesn’t it?” said the lady smiling. He did not react.

The living room was empty, except for an electric radiator laying on its side. The light switches were embossed with someone’s fingerprints. The mattress, on the flat’s only bed, had given in to someone’s weight; he could tell by the outline of long-evaporated sweat. He did not care. He signed the contract without reading it. And without asking questions. He paid the security deposit in cash: twenty fifty-pound bills, held together by a plastic strap, exactly the way he’d brought it from Athens. He took the handwritten receipt. That day his Facebook status read: In my cage. As his profile picture he had a photograph of the seven steps leading down to his front door, taken with his mobile.

With a copy of the contract in his jacket pocket, and the iPod’s earpieces in his ears, he walked along the river’s towpath. Listening to Dinu Lipatti playing Chopin, he saw—for the first time—a goose and a swan (for the second time, should the ones in Niels Holgerson count). They made no real impression on him. Aside from their annoying croaking, which kept distracting him from thinking of Levin’s and Harlow’s experiments, of Karlson’s observations, of Ceaușescu’s orphanages—of the ease by which he confessed his adoption to his supervisor. Then he noticed a young man, not more than twenty, sitting on a bench. He was in a dark suit, white shirt, and bow tie, shiny shoes. Smoking in front of him stood a lady. She seemed twice his age. She was in baggy sweatpants, a soiled raincoat, fluffy pink slippers. She carried a bag full of plastic bottles. They were talking over one another. She talked loudly. He was almost whispering.

He slowed down. And stopped the music. He eavesdropped as they were telling each other stories of love lost. Their eyes never met—their hands touched every now and then. He pressed “play” again.

“That thing the woman said, people come together and drift apart by chance, could equally be the title of a song or a thesis,” he thought to himself as he left them behind.


ŸŸŸHe had no washing machine, no television. Nor did he ever buy one. The microwave he’d inherited from the previous tenant only served as a nightstand. As a place for putting his glasses and a bottle of water before turning in. In the hallway, right behind the front door, all his stuff still stood packed in carton boxes and black plastic bags. Exactly the way they had been delivered by the moving company. Books, CDs, and tapes he had no way of playing, his coin collection. In the next room: not a single object, besides the permanently crooked floor lamp and a secondhand sofa—over there I might put a desk (which he never did, out of that permanent sense of impermanence). The floor was covered, wall to wall, by carpet. Olive green, all worn out. He had vacuumed it hundreds of times, but still he found the hair and clipped nails of the previous tenant. About a year later, another Greek asked him to move in together: newer flat, more affordable rent, washing machine and television included. He said no without much thought. “I’ve got my cage now.”

Day by day he built a routine. In an effort to ignore how time flew. The pill of everyday life. He woke up, took a quick shower, washed the dishes, went to the lab. He entered the institute by swiping his card, he wished his colleagues in the lab “good morning”—they would answer back in a soft voice—and began his experiments. He allowed himself a break for: going to the loo, visiting the room where the mice were kept, having lunch. His vocabulary was limited to more or less the same words each day.

“Yes, I did read that article.”

“No, no, I haven’t seen it yet.”

“Sound like a good idea though.”

“Did you do anything nice this weekend?”

“How are the mice doing? Happy?”

“Where is that thing you…?”


“What time is that guy’s lecture?”


“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it tonight.”

“How about the weather today?”

“No, unfortunately not tonight either.”

It was not until late in the afternoon that he left for home. Every third day, on his way back, he stopped at the closest ATM. He withdrew thirty pounds—twenty if the machine was out of ten-pound notes—by typing in his PIN in pretend secrecy. That was the day he also did his shopping. And he always paid in cash.

He bought most things from a Lebanese guy who owned a little off-license. A rather dirty one right around the corner from his house. He must have been his most regular client. He bought donuts and low-fat milk for breakfast, Diet Coke, ready-made sandwiches, chocolate croissants, the occasional bottle of cheap wine. Every time he got to the till to pay, his mother came to mind. All the different foods she prepared. Her cheese pies and olive oil straight from the village. The bread she kneaded herself. He thought of how much he liked those donuts that tasted like plastic, those ready-made sandwiches. The fizzy feeling of Diet Coke in his stomach. Homemade food had (apparently) always disgusted him. He also bought cigarettes—he started smoking there. Pall Malls, already from day one. The Lebanese guy promised to bring in Greek newspapers from London for him; he never once did.


ŸŸŸHe had no friends. Nor did he try to make any. He especially avoided Greeks—he kept every word in his native tongue for his mother. He addressed even himself in English. He only accepted invitations to go out when he could not do otherwise. And even then, when he could not do otherwise and did go out, he wasn’t very talkative. He preferred drowning in his own clothes. And kept his eyes fixed on the tips of his shoes. He almost never had a drink.

Once, after one of these rare outings, he came home with a half-drunk Australian. A blonde without a name. Actually, it was she that stirred everything up: she talked to him first, she bought him beer, she suggested they go back to his flat. After unlocking the door he made a gesture to say come in. He did not notice her surprised look when she saw inside the flat. He followed her to the living room. When she pulled him down on the carpet, in front of the sofa, he shoved his hand between her white legs. They undressed hastily. They fucked hastily.

The room was cold. After he came, he rolled over next to her. He lit a cigarette, then offered it to her. She said no. He did not have anything else to offer her (nor did he want to). She opened the door and let herself out—she left a contour of body lotion on the carpet. He never saw her again.


ŸEvery day he made a new attempt to acquaint himself with the city. He took the risk of riding bus routes the destination of which he did not know beforehand. He climbed on, he said “good morning” to the driver. He only bought one-way tickets. He preferred standing. He preferred keeping close to the door—ready to climb off at any moment. With the iPod’s earpieces in his ears he looked at the other passengers. He examined their faces, and tried to picture them as children: the two teenagers snuggling in the back; the middle-aged woman with her expensive suit and umbrella. Anyone older he would picture in a parting scene, projected in black and white, their mothers kissing them on the forehead.

At the same time he tried to take in the different stops and turns. After several attempts he realized that any bus running in front of his house followed the same, more or less, route to the city center—such a fortunate disappointment. From there he always took the same path to the institute: via St. Aldate’s, on to Cornmarket, right at the corner with Broad Street, straight across onto Hollywell Street, left onto Mansfield Road, and then straight on to meet South Parks Road.

Saturdays, he almost invariably spent at the lab. At his bench with his pipettes and colourful solutions, ecstatic about his successful experiments, and devastated about all those that had failed. He walked the three and a half miles from his house, in his sweatpants and jogging shoes. And he usually made a brief stop at Blackwell’s, pretending to browse new book titles. What he really did was examine the reflection of passersby in the shop’s window. In winter he tried to make out their faces as they hid behind scarves and popped-up jacket collars. In summer it was pale feet in sandals and women’s cleavage. After a while there were people he immediately recognized by how they wore their scarf, by their disfigured toenails, by a mole near their collarbone. From time to time his Facebook profile read: muted, peculiar acquaintances.

At the corner of Hollywell and Mansfield he bought coffee and a sandwich from the tuck shop. Both for three pounds and seventy-five cents. At the lab he placed the paper cup by his keyboard and started an experiment, went through last week’s notes, or visited the animal facility to see if the mice were happy. He stayed at the lab till dusk—the institute was empty on Saturdays, especially if the weather was nice; this pleased him. And on a rainy Saturday, when the city was sliced up in wet and dry partitions within minutes, he stopped whatever it was he was doing and rushed out the door. Without a raincoat or umbrella. He returned wet to the bone. In the unlikely event that someone noticed him, he explained: “I look for those places where it’s raining on one side and the sun shines on the other. I stand there, under this meteorological guillotine, and take a deep breath. As if standing at the border between Attica and Oxfordshire, which is probably nowhere.” As if that answer, in itself, required no further clarification.


ŸŸŸWinter afternoons were most difficult. Mainly because darkness fell early. One such afternoon, under rain, he headed for the bus stop. Walking past the little café across from Lincoln College, he slowed down. The shop’s window, fogged from people’s breath, caught his eye. No one waited for him at home (obviously). He closed his umbrella and went in. The girl behind the till had a heavy accent and he had trouble understanding her. He managed to order a cup of tea. He sat by the fogged window. Using his sleeve he cleaned a small bit at eye level. He took his mobile out of his pocket and placed it on the table—as if waiting for someone to call. He took the phone in his hand, and sent his sister a picture he’d taken of her and one of his nieces at their christening. Then he remembered a Greek-Canadian cousin his parents had put up for a couple of summers to help him improve his English. Her name was Ruth. It was around the time he’d started high school. He remembered how he echoed her words, waiting for the lesson to finish. “What is this? This is….” He also remembered how—when she stood up and went—he was (finally) left all alone with the picture of her breasts all red from the sun.

His thoughts got interrupted by the girl that brought his tea. He thanked her with a nod. And took the hot cup in his hands. That very moment the rain stopped. Everyone else in the shop stood up and left, almost simultaneously. He kept looking out the window, at a group of students. Not more than twenty years old, but dressed like academics from the ‘30s. The girl had started sweeping the floor on the other side of the room. And she had left the door open. He felt the cold draft on his feet. He gulped his tea, and went out into the cold saying thank you in a low voice.

Right outside, between the College wall and the library, he made out a female figure. She was in her thirties, if he had to guess. She lay in her cardboard bed in front of a poster advertising a production of Macbeth. She did not seem to need anything, though he was too embarrassed to offer her something. The woman, laying on her belly, was reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis (or so he thought).

“Instead of a lullaby or instead of a prayer?” he said out loud, while adjusting the coat on his shoulders. Once back home he logged on to Facebook and changed his status to: solitude should not be prescribed to everyone.


ŸŸŸMore often than not he thought of his parents; with a hint of guilt, as if he had made two orphans out of them. He thought of them while doing his laundry at the launderette. Otherwise, he would think of his mice’s DNA double helix, of pipetting solutions from one tube to another, of typing data into long Excel spreadsheets.

“A dose of detergent, a dose of fabric softener”; he pushed a two-pound coin down the slot, turned the knob, and waited.

“Eighty five minutes to go,” said the digitized voice.

Over the years, his parents had turned from one dynamic equilibrium to another. At first, his mother took care of the children; his father took care of the money. Then, without any children to take care of, his mother would cook nonstop (to keep her hands and mind busy) and his father—well into retirement already—would do DIY nonstop (for the exact same reason): nails, screws, sandpaper, drilling. His father passed away in November 2009. He did not cry the day it was announced to him over the phone by some (distantly-related) aunt. He did not cry forty days later, nor did he come back to Greece for the funeral. He constantly made up excuses: the pending army service he was evading, that expensive airfare, those deadlines at the lab. For weeks he called his mother every evening, and listened to her crying. All he said was “hi” at the very beginning of the call. Eventually, he hung up once there was a very long pause, or—unintentionally—when her mourning worked as a lullaby. The next day he woke up —without exception—with a sour taste of breast milk on his tongue.

During one of their long phone calls he tried to explain sensory adaptation to her.

“I don’t get it, I simply don’t,” she kept saying.

It was impossible for her to understand how one would just “stop feeling.” So, he asked her to perform an experiment with him (the only thing he really knew how to do). To press down on her chest with force, and keep at it. He then asked if she felt that; she said yes. A few moments later, having said nothing in between, he asked again.

“No, not anymore,” said his mother.

“That’s sensory adaptation. It won’t be long before you stop missing him.”

“That is my greatest fear,” said she. They never discussed this again.

Three months after his father passed away, his mother sent him a tiny plant: a bonsai tree in a small pot, with a shiny round fruit hanging from one side. To bring you good luck, and some earth from your father’s grave, she wrote on the card. His memorial was attended by two hundred people, they were all asking for you, your sister too (as if meant to read: even her). That night he couldn’t sleep. He let himself slide from his bed to the floor. He reached, half-blind, for his glasses on top of the microwave oven, put them on, and crawled down the corridor. He pinched his glasses up against his nose, and—with his back against the wall—stood watching at the fuse box that fueled bright sparks. In the random dark intervals he saw his dead father in one of his son’s t-shirts, a Nirvana logo where his weak heart stood, waltzing with his wife, just like in that old video from their wedding.

Next morning he prepared Turkish coffee without sugar, put on his white shirt and black trousers, and called his mother—this is how people send the dead away back home. He put the bonsai tree by the window. He would water it with whatever he had each time: water, Diet Coke, black tea, or wine. But not a day went by that he did not water it.


ŸŸŸ“[…] I chose to tell this story about my brother. I don’t really know what else to say about him besides this story. It’s one of the earliest memories I have, together with blurry scenes from a video of my parents waltzing at their wedding. It was the summer I started riding a bike with training wheels; he rode one without. He was almost eleven, I had just turned six. We had a little yellow Fiat 127 back then and he liked to sit with his legs folded on the seat. He always sat behind Mother, and I always sat close to him. He had eight stitches over his left eyebrow, and he kept touching it with his fingers.” (She pauses to have a sip of water.) “So, he was sitting behind Mother. The tape player in the Fiat was broken, so me and my parents were singing ‘La isla bonita’ without really knowing the lyrics. He was not taking part, though—that much I know—he could recite every verse. Mother was hand-feeding us biscuits. Father had loaded a freshly-slaughtered lamb into the trunk—the rest of our stuff was sitting on top of the car on a rack. He was smoking filterless cigarettes and sipping Greek coffee out of a plastic cup. While we sang, my brother pointed at a butterfly caught in the windscreen wiper. It was hot and the road was winding, and I started to feel dizzy. I folded a towel to use as a pillow on his lap. He didn’t like that. I stared at our flip-flops full of sand. I remember Mother, her feet on the dashboard, eating chocolate, the pots and pans up on the rack rattling, the little Fiat slowly climbing uphill, my brother’s skin tasting of salt, cicadas singing, trees running past the car window. At some point Father accelerated past a hitchhiker, and my brother kept his gaze fixed on that disappointed guy until he disappeared. Then, he put his hand out of the passenger window—in the Fiat you could only roll down the two front windows. He held his fingers together against the headwind, and pretended they were an airplane that took off, turned, and landed. He kept playing that game for hours, until night fell and we were still at Elefsina, and the flames from the refineries fueled bright flames that lit the sky. I fell asleep. I did not wake up until we had made it home. There my parents were going up and down the stairs unloading the Fiat, my brother stayed with me in the back seat. It must have been the first and only time we actually played together. Those days they told him about the adoption, and he kept stroking himself on the back of his head.” (Another pause for water.) “A while ago, from the UK, he sent me a photo he had taken with his mobile. I am holding one of the twins and I’m hand-feeding her chocolate. And we‘re both smiling. It’s a very nice picture.” (She pauses.) “It’s very vivid. I keep it framed in the living room. Mother too. But, you see, this is how my brother always was, he loved us all, but silently; he loved us when we turned our eyes away, when he escaped our notice. When he looked at us through a keyhole, we were his whole world. I don’t know what else to say about him.” (She pauses.) “Really, I don’t know what else to say,“ said his sister in a telephone interview for a local radio station, which never aired.


Akis Papantonis

Akis Papantonis (b. 1978, Athens) studied biology at the University of Athens, worked as a lecturer at the University of Oxford, and has been an assistant professor at the University of Cologne since 2013. His prose has featured in Greek and English literary journals, and in short story anthologies, and his book reviews have appeared in Greek newspapers. He translated Miroslav Penkov’s short story collection, East of the West, and an anthology of Raymond Carver’s poems from the English into Greek. For his first book, the novella Karyotype (Kichli, 2014), he received the 2015 First Book Award (Anagnostis).

Akis Papantonis

Akis Papantonis is both the author and the translator of Karyotype.

Copyright (c) Akis Papantonis, 2014. English translation copyright (c) Akis Papantonis, 2017.