​The first Greek dictator, Georgios Papadopoulos (in power, 1967-73) cracks a red-painted Greek Easter egg with his successor to be, Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannidis (dictator, 1973-74)

COUP D’ETAT

 

PART ONE: The Cruellest Month

1

 

          The gravel crackled as the General's boot scuffed it. 'Where the hell have they got to?' They were the first and last words that he said to Kostas.

          'It's nearly seven,' Kostas offered.

          The General ignored him. Still the military bus did not come, that should take them to the Pentagon; and no vehicle came, no staff-car, no jeep. They turned where they stood, scanning for trouble: but all they saw was the still bright morning, with the huts and chalets of the summer camp spaced between olive groves as far as the sea. Just sleeping silence, not a child had woken; and the sea was as calm as a bowl of water.

          The General fretted fiercely: an officer of the old school, broad, barrel-chested, tautly erect; with thick tight-curled moustaches, and eyes that frowned whatever they saw. Beside him, tall, lean, sleek in his uniform, his papers neat in his slim portfolio, Kostas stood like a dagger.

          Still no one came, and the bus did not come.

            Kostas took a slight stoop of respect. 'Shall we take a taxi?'

            The General turned and seemed just to make out, like some dot on the horizon, Kostas. He gave a guttural snort: they set out for the main road and presently caught a taxi.

            The taxi drove quickly through the suburbs of Athens. The roads were empty, it was like a Sunday morning.

            'Eh, where is everyone?' the driver cried; he was just driving in himself, from the village where he lived. He turned on the car radio, but got only atmospherics or military music: he twiddled the knob, but it was as empty of voices as if the world had died.

            He looked round at his passengers, shrugging enormously; and they looked about them, puzzled, at the still sunlit city. A tank was parked in a side street, its gun-barrel levelled. It was so much what they were used to seeing every day in the barracks that they had passed it before they blinked: what was it doing here? Then they passed two tanks, driving at full speed — grinding fast like careering lorries — the way they had come. The General's face sharpened, his breath came hard; but he made no remark.

            All they saw, as they drove into town, were blind houses and dead avenues, shining in the morning, where nothing stirred except isolated tanks, crossing the white face of the city like giant ironclad beetle creatures.

            When they reached the Pentagon they found the dual carriageway blocked with soldiers, and the Pentagon itself ringed by tanks: its bleak yellow walls just showed over the lined gun turrets.

They got out of the taxi, and a soldier they had never seen before, a sergeant, bawled out to them to say who they were. He carried a machine gun casually; he spoke as rudely to the General as he did to Kostas. Other soldiers came forward, and frisked them in a series of hard knocks: the General's hat came off. Kostas prepared to protest; for any breach of respect was distasteful to him, and he was not afraid. But when he saw that the General bore these things with no trace of reaction, with a face like concrete, he decided that wisdom was to do the same.

            From what regiment were these soldiers? He had never seen them.

            'You can go to your offices. Stay in them!' the sergeant shouted, and turned away. They were dismissed.

            More soldiers, armed, stood at the gates, and more again at the doors of the Pentagon. Kostas kept glancing at the General, thinking he must explode with fury. But the General did not explode, he only glanced witheringly at the strange soldiers and marched between them, going where he wanted to go.

Only in his own office did Kostas find someone he knew; and all he heard then was that the unknown soldiers had taken over in the night. They were from some provincial garrison, it was not clear who was in charge of them.

            There was a clattering racket outside, the room went dark, a helicopter was descending into the courtyard. Kostas looked out and saw, between long blades turning slowly, soldiers hustling men out of the machine — men in odd clothes, in pyjamas and dressing gowns, in loose slippers. Another helicopter landed, and more half-dressed men were bundled out and stood around in the courtyard at a loss. Among them he made out, looking like real people — unshaven, grey-faced, blear-eyed — politicians he had seen only on television before.

            The first helicopter rose again, another one landed, and thereafter there was no pause as the huge machines slowly rose and sank between the courtyard and the sky in a continuous drumming thunder, while the men in dressing gowns were herded and sorted and shipped away again in other helicopters or lorries.

            Eventually these movements slackened. Later, when Kostas again dawdled at the window, he saw a slightly ruffled and crumpled young officer, with no hat, walk hurriedly into the courtyard. Other officers scurried deferential beside him. Kostas stared at the hurrying man with the sallow, plump face: and of course he knew him.

            'Hey Couli, come here! It's the King!'

            As the King approached the main entrance, a small troop of soldiers stationed there came to attention but did not present arms. The King walked past them and out of sight.

            Presently Kostas invented a reason for going to the other end of the Pentagon, and ventured into the corridors. He walked briskly, as if under orders; at every corner the unknown soldiers, in full battledress, stood with their guns. The guns especially disconcerted Kostas, for though the Pentagon directed wars he had not seen soldiers with weapons inside it.

            He passed a large hall, the Theatre of Assembly, where they had concerts, theatricals, receptions. And this was the strangest thing of all, for it seemed that, in the midst of the invasion, there was a performance going on. Through the entrance he could see that the hall was crowded, and the guards at the door were leaning in. Yet it was quiet, everyone there was attending to something going forward on the dais at the far end.

            With a face of urgency Kostas pushed in, and got as far as he could before the crowd grew too thick. He looked about him bewildered, for the hall was crowded with soldiers and officers of all ranks, none of whom he had seen before. On the stage there was a long table: at one end sat the King, at the other sat several officers, one of whom had a moist bald head. Kostas thrilled: he was witnessing history.

            The King looked assured, he seemed to speak firmly: but though everyone strained to hear him, still the low noise of the stirring crowd obscured his speech, so his words were passed back by relay to where Kostas stood. The man in front turned and quoted, 'Gentlemen, this is ridiculous. I give you till 2.30 to return to your barracks.'

            The hall grew quieter still, for one of the officers was now replying. His voice was too fine, they could hear the silk of courtesy in it, but his words had to follow like an echo, 'We thank you, Your Majesty. You say you give us till 2.30. We give you till 1.30 to sign.'

            The King fingered a sheet of paper: it looked like any piece of office paper, with some typing on it. All eyes studied him, the room hardly breathed. He rested his cheek on his hand, and sat at the table like any young officer, looking thoughtful and depressed.

            The crowd shifted and jostled, there were comings and goings at the rear of the hall, but the room stayed whisper quiet: it was — the contest.

            The King sat straight, took up a pen, and signed the paper. He and the officers stood: there was a general sigh: and everywhere men began quietly talking, leaving the hall.

            The atmosphere in the corridors had relaxed, and Kostas walked back to his office unwatched. He was moved by what he had seen: it was a solemn moment. The soldiers in battle-dress stood easy with their guns, some chatting, as though it were the most natural thing for them to be there. They were legitimate.

            In the afternoon, by stealthy telephone calls, Kostas and his friend Coulis began to learn who the new men were. They were hardly wiser, for the names meant nothing to them, with the exception of a colonel who had once inspected the setting of the guns at a time when Kostas was adjutant to the Sergeant Major of Ordnance. Kostas and the Sergeant Major had disagreed about the angle of the guns, but the Colonel saw at a glance that the setting was correct, and congratulated Kostas. Kostas remembered him well, he was a short man with wide energetic eyes and a high bulging forehead.

            'He was decisive, up-to-date — impressive, I thought. Who knows, perhaps he's the man Greece needs.'

            Coulis nodded but shrugged, it was early yet to commit oneself.

            The day ended quietly, there was only one mishap. Kostas had gone down to the transport yard, which was packed with the extra traffic of the day, lorries, tanks, jeeps, armoured cars, military buses, staff cars, motor-cycles, all milling and quivering in a sour haze of dust and exhaust. At a distance, in their own gritty tornados of dust, helicopter gunships, used now as transports, descended and rose. Spaced through the traffic and smother, officers of all ranks stood about, waiting to go, while the occupying soldiers, still with guns in their hands, tired and harassed, tried to direct the vehicles clear of these unfamiliar barracks.

Absently, Kostas heard one of these soldiers ordering the driver of a truck to a particular depot.

            The driver leaned out of his cab, shrugging with all his shoulders and arms, 'What the hell should I take it there for?'

            'How do I know? Just take it!' the soldier shouted hoarsely, waving his gun.

            'Ach, the idiots! What the hell good is it there?' The driver clambered down, and walked towards the soldier, who was peering fretfully at his papers. He looked up and saw the driver.

            'Get back,' he shouted. 'Get back there!'

            'Who the fuck do you lot think you are? Don't tell me to get back! What have you got on that paper?' The driver strode quickly towards the soldier: he was a hefty broad-built man with an inflamed angry face, he rolled his eyes with rhetoric and waved his arms.

            'Stop! Get back!' the soldier shouted, but the driver didn't get back, there was a sudden rattle and crackle of shots, he jigged in the air, jerked, in a collapsing dance he tumbled heavy on the concrete. Everyone moved, but the soldier who had shot him crouched where he stood, holding his gun wedged tight into his body, and swinging it from side to side covering all of them. At the top of his voice he shouted 'Get back! Get back everyone!' They had frozen but the soldier still jerked his gun round at them.

            Slowly he relaxed, and they could proceed. He shouted to others, who came and lifted the inert body onto a stretcher. The soldier continued dispatching the transports, his face wide-eyed, and as tight and stretched as if a hand behind him were straining to pull the skin off his head.

            It was the only bloodshed. In due course, Kostas took his seat in the military bus to the summer camp, and in the rear window the long yellow bulk of the Pentagon shrank away behind telegraph poles and apartment blocks. The officers chatted about the takeover: it had been well planned and well carried out, it was a clean operation. Kostas nodded, with excited eyes. He was impressed….

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

  • Facebook
  • Twitter