A while ago we sent off an old chest of drawers to our local furniture restorer. We’d bought it from a barn sale in Vermont years ago because it was solid and extremely cheap. Over the years it had been slathered in so much white emulsion that it could have been cast out of rubber. But it had interesting handles. We brought it with us when we came back to England, but in the relentless damp of south Dartmoor the drawers had stopped opening. We needed the storage. And we liked the handles. So off it went to be dipped and stripped.
What came back yesterday is almost unrecognisable. From under the rubbery carapace has emerged a mid-Victorian American chest in oak with details in walnut and mahogany. Quite an act of vandalism, to start slapping a wet, white brush over all that lovely quarter-sawn oak grain. There’s so much life in wood: it resists being reduced to faux flat pack conformity. But then I found that the painter hadn’t been the first vandal to attack our chest of drawers.
On the top I found what I thought was an old scratch, but looking closer it resolved into two tiny letters. Someone had burned their initials into the wood with something hot. M. A. I have a jeweller’s loup which I found, conveniently enough, on top of a Dartmoor tor. Through the loop, the letters became a pattern of black dots: tremulous and badly formed. A child’s handiwork. And the A has no crossbar. Perhaps the little vandal was in a hurry, or was interrupted. Perhaps, though, it isn’t A at all but Λ, a Greek lamda.
Could our chest of drawers have belonged to immigrants in New England? Being half Greek, the possibility grabbed me straight away. I grew up listening to stories of the Greek diaspora: lives abandoned, houses on fire, the bodies of loved ones left behind, unburied; new lives begun, grudgingly, in cold, alien countries. If I remember my grandmother’s stories properly, my grandfather had a brother or a cousin in Lowell, Massachussetts who had started a shoe factory. I searched for him last night and with the disturbing power of the search engine found, very easily, a shoemaker with our name living in Lowell in the 192os.
They’d escaped the burning edges of the Ottoman Empire, my family; the adventurous ones, anyway. From Epirus, from Macedonia and Smyrna. My grandfather, Constantine, was the son of a bandit who put him on the back of his white horse and rode down from Kastoria in the mountains to Salonika where the ship was waiting that would take him away. He never saw his father again.
Constantine was meant to go to India to work for the Ralli brothers, Greek rubber tycoons in Bengal, but he was hijacked by his brothers in Southampton where he was changing ships and ended up sitting in the window of their East End cigarette shop dressed as a Turk and rolling cigarettes. When we go into exile, our identities begin to dissolve in disturbing ways.
I wonder, now, whether M. Λ. was born in Greece or in America, whether his or her faint graffito was a tiny act of defiance. Immigrants were invisible until they conformed: that is what I learned from my grandmother. You raised your children to be as native as you were foreign. I keep thinking of that Λ, and if it represents a secret: the name a child left behind at the front door when she went off to school, the accent stripped away by scowling teachers, by rulers across knuckles. The faint Greek voice, spoken in the head and in the blood, that needed to be let out somehow. So she heats a nail or a shoemaker’s awl in the stove and pricks out two letters. An A without a crossbar. A cryptograph, which holds everything she has left behind. The whole of a vandalised world.