The Melon Seller by artist Theo Michael, a typical scene of a Larnaca street vendor

The moment I said it, I knew I shouldn't have...

A fictional short story for Theo's painting The Melon Seller

I step off the plane and the heat hits me like a slap across the face. I’ve been coming to Cyprus for years, you’d think I would have got used to it by now but, for some reason, it’s still a shock. I don’t really understand how people can live and work in conditions like this.

My husband and I were stationed here in Cyprus and I never really stopped visiting the island, even after he had died. He was a soldier in the RAF and this time I am here for his memorial.
When I arrive, my apartment is not far from the airport, the place is clean and tidy, just as I would expect. Maria my neighbour looks after it for me; it gives her something to do in her latter years.  The first thing I do is switch on the air condition unit.

A few minutes later, and with Greek cakes in their hands, Maria and her husband knock on the door. I invite them in for a coffee and pay them for looking after the flat.  As usual they are in no rush to leave.
I pull out my laptop acting busy, and they finally get the hint. I keep forgetting how the pace of life is so different over here.

Early the next morning I walk along the beach and notice the sun seekers dipping their toes into the water. ‘Oh it is so cold.’

A second voice echoes from someone in the water, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay once you are in.’

Me, I remove my shirt and place it down neatly next to my sandals. I run and dive straight in, it is so exhilarating. These wimps have obviously never learnt to swim in the North Sea.

After a refreshing swim, I head back to my apartment along the coast road, passing many melon sellers stationed along the side of the street. I learnt, early on, that the vendors have all the same patter. ‘This is the sweetest melon in town.’ At first I believed them, but now I know better. I pass them all by and go a mile out of my way to find Petros, he’s never sold me a bad one yet.

His van is immaculate, well stocked and extremely tidy. A long time ago he explained to me how to spot the good ones. Dark green webbed skin, tap it on the side, a hollow sound should resonate. He claims he can spot one just by looking, of course he would say that.

Unfortunately Petros isn’t there today. I don’t know why, but I’m a little disappointed. Of course how could he know that I was back on the island.  
Returning the next day, the sun’s out again and I spot him. His shirt is off. He’s wearing a hat with his trademark cigarette hanging from his lips. A broad grin appears on his face. ‘Sophia, you are back. It’s lovely to see you again.’ He guides me to a small table and chairs under a large umbrella. The sea breeze is cool and fresh as he brings me a fresh cup of tea; I sometimes wonder if he keeps a box of teabags just for me. It’s his genuine warmth that keeps me returning to his van. It’s not about business. He’s not concerned if I’m buying a melon or anything else.

We chat like long lost friends. However, different cultures see things in a different way and like a fool I asked him if he wanted to do more with his life.
Did he ever think of starting a real business, or a proper job? The moment I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have. If it hurt him, he never let on. He pulls his chair closer, looking me in the eye and says. ‘Have you ever noticed the amount o lemon and orange trees here in Cyprus? They grow in abundance. A few years ago, I decided to sell more than just my melons. I had ambition and I wanted to be different. We are known for our beautiful potatoes. I began to plant and grow these, soon expanding to a vast variety of vegetables. My van was becoming very popular. You should have seen it, people were cueing just for my tomatoes. It was a good start but I wanted more. Soon I employed my brother to run a van on a corner in the next village. I had two vans now and I was very proud of myself. The demand grew and soon we were running six vans on the road and along with it came staff. The Inland Revenue came knocking. I now had to employ an accountant. With his advice we soon started supplying the major supermarket chain in our area. It was very successful. I got up at the crack of dawn making sure the fields were harvested and the shops were supplied.

Money was coming in, and yes, my lifestyle changed. And yes I had a bigger car and a bigger house, but happier, I don’t know. Naively I never thought to look ahead. I should have guessed when disputes began with my main customer.

It all came to a crash when this supermarket chain went bankrupt just over night. They owed me for 12 months of supply. I never saw a penny from them and I was unable to pay my staff and my bills. I cried, not only for myself, but for my staff and their families.

So in answer to your question, yes I did consider running a business, but in all that time what I really missed most, was sitting by my melon van, basking in the sun, enjoying my cigarette and engaging with friends like you, like I am doing now.

He smiles, stands up and looks at me,’ more tea?’ he asks.

I see him in a different light. He seems much wiser now, assured and full of confidence. He is enjoying life, something I had forgotten how to do.

Story written by Theo Michael and Neil Smith


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