Lemon Barley

A Story

I go into the kitchen to make myself another cup of coffee and perhaps a glass of… just a glass of… Then it happens again. The word, this everyday word has gone. It’s a black hole, like looking down a lift shaft of memory.

And, as always, that stab of panic. My tongue sticks to the top of my mouth, my heart races as I try to slow my breathing.  I make an effort to reason back the memory of this, this… what is it?

It’s a … fruit. Yes, that word’s still there. Now, think. Concentrate. See it.  Picture it in the terracotta fruit bowl on the table. It’s not smooth skinned, it’s not round, it’s egg shaped, a bit larger than an egg. It’s yellow, like the round one which is … and, as quickly as it disappeared, the word returns. Lemon. And, the round one, orange.

The pain is over. I breathe deeply with relief. I sit down. I am shaking.

Lemon. Of course. How could I forget the word lemon? Citrus limoni. The lemon, which along with the other citrus fruits, came originally from the Far East, perhaps China. The words itself from Arabic or Persian. The first citrus fruit was not a lemon or orange, but its ancestor, the citron. A few people, I know, believe the knowledge of citrus cultivation was spread by Jewish communities. I love that fact, and also relish how much it would have annoyed my lemon-loving and self-hating mother.

Lemon. The scent of the fresh lemon is perhaps the most magical of all perfumes, isn’t it? I pick up one from the bowl and inhale it. Who would prefer a land of milk and honey over a valley of orange groves? The English aristocracy for a start, with their passion for the orangery. I wonder whether Nikos has an orangery in his Dorset mansion. I haven’t been invited there. Well, not yet, anyway.

And now that my memory cells have been unlocked, the names are all there for my delectation: grapefruit, tangerine, navel oranges, Seville oranges for making marmalade, uglis, clementines, mandarins, satsumas, limes. For which we English were named, because of their use against scurvy, though it’s not the only citrus fruit which contains vitamin C. When he was looking for the North West Passage, Captain Parry fed his men on mustard, which he grew inside his ship on hot water pipes, and thus prevented their going down with scurvy during the long Arctic winter. The tenuous circuits in my brain respond to the stimulus. My mind fills with associations. I revel in my memories of lemons.

Lemons. All these years in Greece where they pile them on to the plate with your fish or charcoal grilled meat. And these are proper lemons, green and yellow lemons. Back in England, you only get uniform yellow lemons, which are created by ripening the fruit with ethylene gas. So the fruit has to be scrubbed by the producers before use and, because this shortens its life, the poor fruit is then polished with an edible wax, not unlike the wax used for furniture polish. Thus the modern fruit is created. And that’s why lemons in England have no scent. Even the unpolished organic lemons, which I always buy when I can, despite the fact they often go bad before I use them, and have little in common with a lemon just picked off a tree.

I have a small lemon tree in my garden here in Chiona. It’s new, of course, as is my house. I miss my old lemon tree and my old garden, to tell the truth. At least the smaller olive has survived the move, and the wait and the replanting. Of course it was getting out the root of the ancient large olive that had finally died that led of course to the extraordinary find of the Minoan treasure and the lost palace of Chiona. How small things can lead to larger ones.

That was the day that changed my life and enabled me to work with dear Nikos on creating the Leotakis Gallery and the great exhibition in Cambridge. I dearly hope to be alive in a few months for that. At least my liver will give up before my brain does which is a small mercy. Though on days like these…

How could I forget lemons? I love lemons. The zest of lemons that perks up so many sweets. The pleasure of mixing lemon with chicken, like the Moroccans do, or my favourite of all lemon dishes, Jane Grigson’s cold lemon soufflé.

Homemade lemon barley on a hot day. The Cretans make rusks with barley and craft beers, but they don’t know about lemon barley.  Even better with a little sprig of lemon balm. And how interesting that we call it lemon balm when the herb is older than the fruit. Melissa, originally bee balm and a plant loved by bees, but now the scent of lemon is so well known that when we encounter it, we name plants after it and that supersedes their earlier names.

Lemons. There are Greek peasant remedies for balding – Henry doesn’t need those with his strong thatch of white hair – which involves rubbing the scalp with lemon juice. Old Kyria Eleni, who used to clean my house here in Chiona, always said lemon juice was the only thing to stop vomiting, though not so good for a hangover.

Haven’t had one of those for years.

Lemons. Oh yes, lemons. I know poems about lemons, songs about lemons, recipes for using lemons. The word has reappeared, along with the accumulation of related material that my brain stores away like a computer. But for how long? Am I going to lose my language? Is my brain going to give out on me before my body? 

The fear. The terror of it. That I shall sit here one day in a fog, frantically, hopelessly searching for words that do not return. That all the knowledge that I have accumulated will somehow fade away.  To read a book and no longer make any connections or to forget what I read, even as I read it. Not yet, thank God. But these brief lapses, these moments when words evaporate, fill me with fear. 

The phrases the doctor uses are intended to reassure. It could be the effects of my drinking or a small anomaly. A tiny bleed.  

‘It’s just possible that your brain is growing older faster than your body,’ he says.

‘Perhaps I should take up smoking again, so that my body can catch up,’ I tell him, but he doesn’t think that’s amusing and smoking, it turns out, isn’t a good idea anyway. I need to lower my blood pressure, not raise it. 

I’ve never taken my blood pressure very seriously. I expect my body, like my ancient car, to start showing its age. I have never treated it well. I don’t stop drinking because. Well, because.

I still walk and swim and paint. Even with a small anomaly. I’ve repeated this word so often now that it begins to sound strange. It could be a South American anteater or other edentata. Edentata are my favourite mammals; they seem to wander through jungles with the disdain of philosophers. And they have great names. Aardvarks, pangolins, sloths, anteaters. Actually as Henry might remind me, pangolins and aardvarks have been reclassified. Pangolins are now Pholidota, but that sounds both foolish and botanic and I can’t be doing with it. Henry always seems to know about everything.

‘And here comes a small anomaly.’ Breathed in a David Attenborough voice. ‘Look at its mole-like tail and silky white fur that covers even its eyes and ears.’ Actually that description is the gloriously-named fairy armadillo. Armadillos are a somewhat paranoid species. They curl into balls to protect themselves and burrow into the ground whenever possible. However, they have plenty of reasons to be paranoid. Gauchos hate the burrows which trip them up, motorists drive over them and dogs and humans find them good to eat. I feel rather sorry for armadillos.

I know this because Nikos lived in South America and knows everything. Moreover in his library here in Crete is a dictionary of mammals.  I can’t envisage life without dictionaries. Jen says she’s always telling her students to use dictionaries. Get closer to your subject, find out everything you can about it, give it a Sherlock Holmes, shake it about. Examine it. Ask whether it’s true? Is it as close to the truth as you can get? It always comes down to truth in the end, she says. I’m so proud of her. My beautiful daughter. Even though we fight like cats when we’re together.

It’s not that doctors aren’t truthful. They simply hide behind phrases like NATO spokesmen. A small anomaly, friendly fire, collateral damage. Just a small bit of my brain that isn’t receiving messages properly or holding information, to be precise. I try to remember the list the doctor gives me. But it’s like when I was a child on the beach, trying to hold the seawater in my hand. The words trickle away. I can’t hold on to them. Not for a moment. Reading a list of words creates a kind of poetry, the sounds of them – the unexpected marriages. 

About forty years ago, I won a bottle of vintage Bollinger from the Sunday Times by sending in a list of beautiful words. That was it. Beautiful words. I didn’t win the main competition. The columnist had worked out the most popular beautiful words and the winner was the one who had the most popular. I didn’t have any of the popular words. But my list stayed in his mind; the words resonated and I got to drink vintage champagne for the first time. Only time, come to think of it. I’ve always had a strictly NV household. Where was I? Beautiful words, yes. There was no pattern or system in my choice. Just a few beautiful words. I’ve still got the yellowed cutting on a cork board in my study. ‘The more I read the card from Stephanie Michaels from Cambridge, the more it grew on me: squirrel, benison, rivulet, stone, tamarind, murmur, nightingale, still cinnamon and gentle.’

Do not go gentle…I’ve had to get up from my sofa five times to read this list and write it down. I can’t hold more than two words in my head at a time. This is so irritating, though I imagine the exercise is good for me. I’ve always been able to remember everything. Since I was a child, I could read something once and remember it. 

I’m not a polymath though I’m good at quizzes, especially the kind they have on the box which I watch when I go to visit Jen in Cambridge.

Colin, my dear former husband and father of my beloved Jen, used to call me Polly sometimes as a joke. I’ve just got a crammed filing cabinet inside my head with more information that I need. I could happily lose most of it, but I’d like to choose which bits to weed out.

A small anomaly. From the Greek, ανομαλια. Without regularity, evenness. A small irregularity. Something not quite right. Seventy isn’t so old. Unless you’re young, like the archaeology students, who come here in the summer and think it’s ancient. 

It’s not that bad yet. It may not get that bad. I can’t bear the idea that a day will come when I don’t know who Henry or Nikos are. Or, horror of horrors, forget Jen.

No. I’ll be dead before then. I can rely on my liver for that.

‘Is it Alzheimer’s?’ Nikos asks me. Direct as ever. 

‘No,’ I say. ‘Just old age.’

‘I don’t believe in that.’ And he laughed. But it’s true. He’s ageless. 

‘What are you doing today? I ask him.

‘I’m selling a hotel,’ he replies. ‘I might buy a small boutique hotel in Venice. Do you want to come to Venice with me?’

‘I’d love to,’ I say. ‘After we open your gallery. I’m tied up with that till the end of June.’

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘As am I. You have no idea how much time it takes when royalty are involved.’

‘What else are you doing?’ I ask him. Do I want him to be thinking of me?

‘I’m Skyping with a friend in Tierra del Fuego. He’s trying to get shots of the piebald porpoise, which is actually a dolphin and used to be called the Jacobite. I haven’t been able as yet to find out why. Were Jacobites striped? Did they wear striped costumes? Do you know, Stephanie?’

I tell him I don’t, but I’ll look it up..

There are always things to do, words to find. And I think I shall make a jug of lemon barley and take it round to Henry. He’ll enjoy that. Just get on with it, Stephanie, keep living. I learned that, didn’t I after Laurent died. It’s what Popi taught me; my brave clever friend, Popi. Keep breathing. Keep living. Get on with it.