Roza Kosma's Song

Issue 30
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Smyrna 1922

The ship’s cabin would have been entirely dark but for the single brass-rimmed porthole above the upper bunk. Kneeling on the thin mattress, resting her sharp elbows on the metal frame, Roza Papakaragiorgas stared out through the smeary glass. The swelling, glittering water stretched away toward a pale stripe, a sandy beach. Above it was a bank of dark green fronds, and above that, a crooked line of white flat-roofed houses, like a row of uneven teeth, under the blue sky.

All Roza’s being cried out to be standing on that shore. She had never been on a ship before today, and now she had spent ten unbroken hours at sea. Tossed about on the open ocean, with no sight of land, she had felt completely abandoned, a helpless floating scrap. For all she knew the world might have ceased to be; it might have been drowned once again, as in the time of Noah. Maybe she was condemned to float in this boat full of frightened, hungry people for ever.

So she prayed for the boat to draw in toward the white beach. But it maintained its course, and in a little while, despite her prayers, the land fell away astern. Craning her neck to look through the flat glass of the porthole she saw that it was only an island, not real land at all. She watched it getting smaller and smaller. To be so close, and now to be taken further out to sea, terrified her.

Roza had no idea where she was. She knew nothing of geography. Fourteen years old, she had learned to write and read, and memorised some prayers by heart, but that was all. She had depended on her mother and father for her understanding of the world. Now they were gone. Her father she had last seen lying in the street outside their house, his white shirt torn open, showing the black hair on his chest, and a big puddle of bright red blood spreading out under his head and running quickly into the gutter, as if it were only rainwater, as if it didn’t matter at all. He was looking up at her but his eyes were like marbles, they didn’t see anything, and although she bent over him and shouted into his face he did not respond, didn’t get up and tell her everything would be all right, didn’t move at all. She saw black smoke and flames above the rooftops, and there was a stench of burning, and people were shouting and screaming. She was so bewildered that when her aunt Eleni came, grabbed her hand, and dragged her, running and stumbling, through the narrow streets to the dock, then up a wooden gangplank and onto a ship, she did not even ask why.

Then the ship had cast off, to a terrible chorus of shouting and screaming and wailing from those still massed on the dock, a cloud of sound through which a frantic clanging of church bells could just be heard, under a dark sky full of the smell of smoke and diesel oil and another smell, sweet and nauseous. Her aunt had wrestled through the throngs of shoving, shouting people crowding the deck, found a cabin miraculously empty, pushed Roza inside and lifted her up onto the top bunk. Through all this Roza was silent. Others, seeing the door open, followed them in to the little cabin until it was crammed full of people, all giving off a stench of sweat and fear and burning, men who stood silent, not looking in each other’s eyes, and women who wailed and dragged their nails down their cheeks. But nobody interfered with the pale black-browed girl huddled, her arms wrapped tightly round her bony knees, up on the top bunk.

The day dragged on, the boat rolling and heaving, until the sky turned a pale violet, and silver specks, stars, appeared. Roza continued to stare fixedly through the porthole, every second willing land to appear again, and an hour later she was rewarded. A long bluish bank formed on the horizon, and the ship must have turned towards it, because the dark blue shape got bigger, pushing the sky up out of its way. Perhaps this would be at last Greece.

Roza had no idea what Greece was. She had lived all her life in Smyrna, Smyrna was the whole world, and now she was not in Smyrna but floating on the sea, which was nowhere, and she didn’t know why. She knew something very terrible had happened, and she understood that she would never again see the stone house in which her family had lived, nor the rooftops of Smyrna, nor the huge trays of figs in the shade, nor the palms along the waterfront, nor any of it.

All she wanted now was to be somewhere safe, where there would be no burning houses and no blood and no screaming and running. Aunt Eleni said they would be safe in Greece, so whatever Greece was, Roza wanted to be there. She was thirsty and hungry. The crammed cabin now reeked of vomit as well as sweat and smoke. Her head was hot, and her arms and legs began to shake. The dark blue mass was all she could see through the porthole now; rows of small white lights were winking along the edge of it. Soon she heard shouts above her head, then there was a bump, so hard it rattled her teeth together, and a grating sound, and the engines stopped. This must be Greece.

Salonika 1928

Roza Kosma was eating dolmades at a table pressed up against a tiny stage. All around her was the hubbub of a crowded café. She was waiting to sing. She was dressed, as always, entirely in black. People assumed her to be one of the many young widows in Salonika at that time, but she was no widow; she had never been married.

She had donned black at first to mourn her father, whose white, staring face even now came to her in her dreams. But she kept wearing widow’s clothing to help keep men at arm’s length. Even though she was short and squat and not beautiful, with a frowning, heavy-browed face, because she sang publicly in cafés and bars, men assumed they could approach her at any time and urge themselves on her.

She had learned, from everything that had happened to her between her fourteenth year and this one, to trust nobody. She did not seek friends, she did not dance with anyone, she spoke little. The only ones who knew her at all were Anastasiou and Giannidis, who accompanied her on lyra and baglamas.

They too were poor, and lived as desperately as she did. Because they were from Smyrna, they spoke her dialect; because they were musicians, they understood what she was doing with her words and her voice; because they were male, their presence helped protect her. Especially Anastasiou, who was a big, heavy-handed man with a broad white scar on his forehead. Perhaps out of respect for her talent and intensity, or out of pity for her youth and vulnerability, he had become a kind of protector to her, asking nothing in return.

  The most important thing in her life, more important than God, as she said to Anastasiou one night when they were drinking, was the music. The trio played in the waterfront cafés and bars of Salonika, where the exiles gathered, her countrymen, Greeks from outside Greece, treated with suspicion, wanted nowhere. She sang the songs that told the stories of their lives, the stories of the poor, the hashish-smoker, the out-of-work, the criminal, the heartbroken.

And her voice, untutored but resonant, full of pain, coarsened by cigarettes, retsina and ouzo, was the perfect voice for this music. “In this empty world, no good can come to me,” she sang, and when she did she saw again her father’s face, and smelt the acrid smoke of Smyrna burning. And when she sang it, people believed her, believed she was singing about them and to them, saying what they felt and wanted to say themselves, and they sat and listened and ate fish and olives and drank ouzo and sweet Mavrodaphne wine, so that the café proprietors were happy to pay her to sing again the next night.

When she became popular enough for cafés to advertise her appearances, the manager of one place told her to change her name.

‘Papakaragiorgas is too long to write, and anyway it sounds like you come from the village,’ he told her. ‘It was my father’s name,’ she replied sharply. He shrugged, lighting a cigarette. Where I come from is gone, she thought, and my father is gone, so I won’t be from anywhere, and I won’t be anyone’s daughter. I will owe my life to Kosma, the world, the universe. ‘Very well, you can put Roza Kosma,’ she told him. And so it appeared, Ροζα Κοσμά, ‘Roza Kosma,’ the new name first written unevenly on a board propped in front of them while they played, but soon enough painted properly on a solid wooden sign, printed on little grey paper handbills, and passed about by word of mouth, Roza Kosma, Roza Kosma the rebetiko singer.

She sang her own songs, Anastasiou and Giannis played skilfully, the lyre and baglamas weaving around her stark, anguished voice, and more and more people came to hear the trio. By the end of the year they were making a little money. Anastasiou had a new suit made, and Giannis bought the two-tone shoes he so much desired. They could even afford to eat in the better restaurants on Pavlou Mela Street, and once or twice they did, but they preferred the waterfront places. If the food was not as good there, at least they felt at home. That Christmas Eve they didn’t play, but got drunk together.

In the new year, the record company came from Athens, and set up a temporary studio in the ballroom in the Hotel Olympia. They came to record other singers, Roza Eskanazi and Elena Smirnea, but Anastasiou heard about it, and dragged Roza unwillingly there. Somehow he talked his way in, pushed her forward and told the guys from Athens, smooth young guys with brilliantined hair and striped shirts and high-waisted trousers, that they had to record her. They looked at her, looked at Anastasiou, looked at each other. There was half an hour of recording time left; they shrugged and agreed.

She cut one record, in one take, her own song Tha pnigó sti thlípsi mou, I will drown in my sorrow. The company made a hundred copies; they sold out in a week. It was played in every café in Salonika that had a gramophone. She did not get any money for the recording, but after that more people squeezed in to the little cafés to hear her sing, and Anastasiou demanded, and got, higher wages from the café owners.

But the essence of her life didn’t change. She moved into a better place, with its own running water and even a tiny balcony, but she still dressed in black, she still drank retsina, she still sang rebetika. Only living like this could she keep her pain under control.

She refused, bluntly and harshly, anyone who might have become her lover. She had been told by a doctor that she could not bear children, because of what men had done to her in the months after she arrived in Greece, sleeping in the refugee camp. Twice since then she had nevertheless fallen pregnant, and both times lost the child early. After that she did not allow it to happen again, but it was a pain that lay beneath her breast, with all the other pains that lay there, that she could not have a child.

When she sang, she felt alive. At other times she felt suspended, vacant. She sang, and she drank, and she composed songs in her head, teaching them to the others as they played. The songs she wrote followed different melodies, but all told of loss, of sorrow, and sometimes of death or wishing for death. The trio played three or four nights a week, every week. There was nothing else she wanted to do.

The cafés and the nights blurred one into another. A year or so later, Giannis left Salonika for Athens, a love affair, he told her, and another guy – what was his name? – joined to play baglamas. She noticed occasionally that the men in the audiences appeared older; instead of young, hot-blooded men, men on the verge of risking everything, staring at her as she sang, there were grizzled men, some with greying hair, who drank less and fought less and cried more. But still she sang, she drew on her sorrow and she sang.

Then the war came to Salonika. Some singers made names for themselves performing patriotic songs for the troops, but Roza could not do it. She knew only one kind of song, her songs, songs of grief and loss. These were not the songs Greece needed then.

After the war new music came, American-style music. Salonika changed, too; there were lots of new buildings, and the old, unhygienic bars and cafés along the waterfront were closed down and bulldozed. There was nowhere for her to sing, and no one for her to sing to. So she began a new life.

Rosa had been cautious with the money she earned; without telling anybody, she had bought not only her own small apartment, but two others in the building. After the war, those who had put their money in the bank or bought war bonds lost everything, but she could still afford to live; in fact, she lived more simply than she needed to.

But the old days, those days of her youth, were gone, completely gone. Anastasiou was dead, killed fighting with the partisans, someone told her, although others said he had been killed over some stolen petrol. Giannis was in jail for homosexuality, which was suddenly now a crime. Most of all, she didn’t sing any more.

Roza adjusted herself to this new life. She had only cared about singing, and now she didn’t sing. So she cared little about anything, but on the other hand nothing much pained her. She did not drink any more. In the market she bought a canary, and hung its cage in the kitchen, near the window. It gave her pleasure to feed it every morning and listen to its trilling song.

She did not seek friends. She reluctantly had the telephone connected, but gave her number to very few. She maintained some acquaintances from former years, but she had always been so forbidding that no-one was close to her. And if she did meet someone she knew, she would not talk about the old times. If they began to reminisce, she broke off the conversation and hurried away. People spoke as if they had been good days, golden days, but the truth was they were hard days, days full of poverty and bitterness and sorrow, and there was no pleasure in remembering any of it at all.

She lived quietly. In her black clothes she was unnoticed; once again widows were to be seen everywhere in Salonika. She did not listen to music. Occasionally she heard the new popular songs on the neighbours’ radio, but they seemed soft, like candy floss. Twice a week she took the tram to the market. Nobody recognised her, a stout woman in widow’s weeds carrying a wicker shopping basket, as Roza Kosma.

She noticed the signs of becoming old. Her back hurt when she lay down, and her feet swelled up at night. But even so she preferred to be old than to remember her youth.

Then one day, it must have been not long after the rule of the Colonels ended, she was alarmed to have two young men come to her door, well-dressed, one wearing glasses. They said they were from a magazine. Speaking respectfully, they told her that nowadays people were interested in rebetiko again. Musicians were learning the old songs. Someone had even found a copy of her record, I will drown in my sorrow, and it had been played on the radio. Now a young woman was going to record it, they said. They asked her if they could interview her about her memories.

Roza was astonished. How could anyone play rebetiko nowadays?  That music went with the life we lived, and life is not like that any more, nobody’s life is like it was then. There was no point in talking about those days. She flatly refused to be interviewed.

But a few months later they came again, bringing a letter with an official seal, and invited her to sing at a special anniversary concert, the anniversary of what she didn’t catch. The new President would be there. It would be a great event, a triumph, she, one of the legends of rebetiko, singing to the President and a huge audience, and on television all over Greece. She would of course be paid; they mentioned a very large sum.

At first she thought they were making fun of her, or trying to swindle her in some way, and she told them to go away. But then old Manolis Batis came to visit, and told her the concert was on the level, and that he was going to play. So she listened to them.

She was to sing one song, her great song, her record. They sent her two young men who played baglamas and lyra, to rehearse. She was bemused; they were so very young, one had an earring, they looked like those, what do you call it, rock, musicians. But they played well, they knew all the notes, the one with the earring even copied Giannis’ improvisation in the middle bars.

So they rehearsed her song. At first she was embarrassed, an old, fat woman, her voice harsh and uncertain, to sing with these young men with their suede boots and long hair and sideburns. Still, she remembered the words and the melody. But she did not feel inside her song at all; it was as if someone else were singing it.

After they left she thought about this, and realised why it was. When she had sung with Anastasiou and Giannis, they had all been young, they struggled and suffered, they and everyone around them. And when she sang then, she sang about her life as it was, and that made the song real. Now she did not live like that, it was just words, without pain. It didn’t affect her. So she would sing it if they wanted, especially as they were prepared to pay her so much.

A few weeks before the concert, they brought her a copy of a poster for the event. In the top corner was an old black and white photograph, a studio portrait of her sitting between Anastasiou and Giannis. She didn’t remember posing for it. She looked at this woman’s face, hard, flat and two-dimensional, staring into the camera. It was her, but it was not her any more. That time was over; to see herself as she was then did not touch her. But when she looked at the other two, Anastasiou and Giannis, it stung her, sharply. Their faces brought back a surge of memory.

She remembered that chalk-striped suit of Anastasiou’s, ah yes, and Giannis’ moustache. And as she looked she remembered more, their voices, their jokes, how they ate, how they walked, how Giannis slapped a card down with a twist of his fingers. And she found herself once again in those times when her voice and their playing intertwined, and soared over the noise of the cafés, and it was her only happiness, and also the mirror of her grief.

She kept her composure while the polite young men were there, but once she was alone, she lay on her bed and wept. It was the first time she had wept in nearly fifty years, and she wept bitterly. She wept because suddenly she felt it all, all that she had suffered, all that had been, she felt it all over again, and she could not bear it. The photograph had opened a floodgate, and the memories she had resisted poured through her and over her, she could not hold them back, and they were hard and scalding and sweet and crushing. There was a pain in her heart, a physical pain like a spike of ice that would not melt, and she thought she might die, and for a time, as night was falling, she wished she might die.

On waking the next day she knew immediately, absolutely, that she could not sing at the concert. She rang the polite young men. Let someone else sing it for me, she said, one of the young women, I will allow it. I have not sung for thirty years, and now my voice is old, cracked, she said, I will make a fool of myself, spoil the memory of my song. I cannot do it. They tried to persuade her, but quickly found she could not be persuaded.

She told them that, but it was not the real reason she refused to sing. The real reason had come to her when she lay there on the pink counterpane, with the memories of her youth twisting her heart like an old towel, wringing out her tears.

In the rehearsal, the song had not touched her. But the photograph had summoned up so much that the veil between past and present, between the calm acceptance she had learned with such effort and the bitterness of the old days, was too thin, too transparent. And now, with those memories hanging so heavily about her, if she sang I will drown in my sorrow, she would really sing it, would live it again, and she would be plunged back into her life in Salonika fifty years ago. And not just that life, but back to Smyrna, and her father, and that could not be borne. She would never sing her song again, she did not want to hear it ever again, not even in her head.

She didn’t attend the concert, and she would not have watched it even if she had a television. Later she was brought a bank cheque, for royalties, they said.

After that she turned away anyone who came looking for Roza Kosma. They came, some asking questions, some bringing gifts, a woman from America with dyed-blonde hair who wanted her to sign a copy of the photograph, but she told them they had the wrong address, or that the woman who had lived here before had moved out.

But then a newspaper published an article about Roza Kosma, saying she was a living treasure of Thessaloniki, and even mentioning the name of her street. More and more people came to her door, pestering her. So she did move, regretfully, out of her home of thirty years into an apartment building in Dikitirio.

In the new place, she registered as Roza Papakaragiorgas. And so Roza Kosma disappears from the world, she thought, as she filled in the registration forms. I created her, this Roza Kosma, I suffered with her, and now I can put her to rest at last. Her heart felt empty of anything, for which she was thankful.

Peter Newall

Peter Newall was born in Sydney, Australia, where he worked as a roadmender, in a dockyard and as a lawyer, but has also lived in Kyoto, Japan, where he fronted a popular blues band, and in Odessa, Ukraine. He has been published in England, Hong Kong, the USA and Australia.

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