Two girls

It was not the sort of thing you think of writing on the postcards home (the ones that always arrive with cheery ineptitude a week or so after you have returned yourself), and in fact, at the time, I scarcely gave it a thought: just two different children, little girls, in that park near the hotel in Heraklion.

They had nothing to do with each other, and apart from their both being Cretan, might as well have inhabited worlds apart. Or at least that was my assessment, though holidays in places where the language is unknown always make you exaggerate the meaning of what you see, not unlike an art critic faced with a picture but deprived of the modifying power of a title.

Nor were the two children silent.The first took us by surprise -- deliberately. We were sitting on a bench sharing an enormous orange bought in the market that morning when suddenly this child was shoving some candy or chewing gum into my coat pocket, and chattering at me with a kind of automatic rapidity. I didn't immediately realize what she was doing -- until I caught one phrase: "No mama, no papa!" I firmly gave her back her offering. She didn't look dismayed, her expression didn't communicate anything very much, she just turned her attention to my wife instead. Again her unasked presentation was handed back.

You encounter more begging on the London underground or in a Glasgow cinema queue than we did anywhere in Crete, though in Britain it is rarely done by children (unless in the guise of "penny-for-the-guy" during the build-up to bonfire night in November). This cretan child wore a dress that seemed to have been almost deliberately torn. She wasn't particularly dirty and didn't look especially hungry or miserable or maltreated. Immediately after her unsuccessful attempt with us, she was playing and kidding around with two other girls. Perhaps they were just mischief-making. I felt there was something fraudulent about her, though it is only too likely that the fraud was perpetrated on her, rather than by her. Vague thoughts of Oliver Twistm flitted across my mind. We saw her once or twice more over the next couple days, trying the same tactics on others (she even, before she realized, tried us again) and once on a Cretan national serviceman who looked just as puzzled as we foreigners had.

The other little girl, who arrived a few minutes later on the scene (and there was about the place a slight element of theatre, being a circular area with paths leading into it, in the middle of this small garden of palms and bougainvillea) was about half the size of the first one, and not even a third of the size of the two men she was with -- her father I suppose, and her uncle or older brother. They brought with them a football, and had been sent into the park possibly by the child's mother who wanted to shop in peace.

At first the two adults made her "pig-in-the-middle." They passed the ball with some deftness to each other across the space and the small child pursued it , but always with a hopeless time lag. She thought this immensely funny which was perhaps fortunate as some children would have been annoyed with such lofty teasing. She just smiled and laughed with delight. She knew they were doing it for her, not against her. And she seemed to understand the humor of the situation: that it is the comedian at the receiving end of a joke (or a custard pie) who attracts all the attention. But she wasn't showing off. She was completely absorbed and unself-conscious, and even unaware of her British audience-of-two.

She managed quite quickly, I'm not sure how, to turn the game entirely to her own advantage, though. With repeated cries of "ela, ela" she made it clear to her giant playmates that the game to be played this afternoon wasn't "pig-in-the-middle" at all. It was a unique form of Cretan three-year-old association football, with herself cast in the roles of both centre-forward and goal-keeper (not to mention a few flights on the left wing, just for good measure). Her menfolk were to be mere feeders: they were to keep her provided with the ball to boot. The advantage of playing in so many positions simultaneously was that she didn't have to be dismayed when a goal was scored -- because shem had scored it, triumphantly yelling, "cole."m If, on the other hand, she missed a goal (and the goalposts themselves, to add spice to the situation, were always moving position in her mind's eye) this was also victorious: obviously, as goalie, she had saved it.

From then on she did most of the hard work, which was the way she wanted it. For a child of her age, her kicking was remarkably accurate. She was having the greatest fun imaginable -- queen for the day, her two vassals subservient out of all proportion to their size. She even had another man, who happened to stroll through the park at a crucial moment in the game, taking part for a moment or two. Some people are born organizers.

We were laughing spontaneously at this delightful instance of female tyranny (and the liberation of women apparently has a long way to go yet in Greece) because she was so supremely confident that the adult male world was there for her benefit, so secure in the knowledge that she was the epicenter of her own universe.

"Elam -- come on!" she cried, pointing to her head to indicate that it was now time for headingm practice.

That was all there was to it. Since it was the last day or so of our holiday , it was no longer a hardship to sit on a park bench doing nothing. Perhaps this was the reason I didn't notice the contrast between the two children until later. A child's promise and potential is such a tender affair that I can't help seeing these two as differe nt sides of a penny.

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