1908 – 2012

Light on stone and sea blinding. Lap of waves, a fisherman calling out across the bay, his voice immortal above the silence. In an island courtyard; heat, stray cats, the smell of white cheese and watermelon. A baby boy lies on his back, staring upward. Marble cool on his neck and the back of his knees, sound of running water.

Above his outstretched arms, patterns of leaf and vine, a lozenge of pale sky. His mother and many children. He looks up into their soft, cooing faces. They are all saying his name.

Pavlos Bellos was born on the Greek island of Symi in 1908 to Stathia and Dimitri, the youngest of nine children. He was a diminutive, energetic child, with unruly black hair, olive skin and eyes the colour of the Aegean. He was doted on by his mother, who wanted him to go to high school and become a priest. But times were hard in pre-war Greece, a country racked by a 400-year Ottoman occupation, and a difficult and long path to independence. Pavlos was only schooled for three years, then sent to Piraeus at the age of ten to work with an uncle selling trinkets, ties, lighters and cigarettes on the street.

Soon, his time in the alleyways of the port taught him to lie, scam, steal. Instead of sending money home to the island, he evaded his uncle and began life as a criminal. He slept in cheap bunk-houses on the waterfront, looked after by prostitutes, approached by drug-dealers. He became a teenage dealer himself, a hashish smoker and raki drinker. His parents and siblings didn’t hear from him until he was older, with children of his own.

When Pavlos was seventeen, he was involved with four other boys in the robbery of a rich, isolated monastery on the outskirts of Athens. His orders were to break into the chapel at night, carry away gold plate and crucifixes, and any icons with silver or gold inlay or jewels. He was told to threaten and beat any monks who challenged them, but not to kill. The robbery went smoothly, none of the monks woke, and Pavlos was just about to leave when, in the doorway of the monastery chapel, he saw an icon lit by the flickering light. It was small, as big as his two palms joined together in prayer. The scene was painted on a blackened wood panel, as if it had been charred in a fire. He picked it up, looking closer in the dim, fitful light of votive candles. Around him, the smell of lilies and old incense. The icon in his hands depicted a nativity scene, in the reds and golds and ochre of blood, sunlight, island earth. It wasn’t Greek; he couldn’t understand the sinuous letters that flowed from the head and outspread hands of the Mother of God. He thought of his own mother, kneading dough with knuckles that tore and bled. He took the icon. It was small enough to fit in the waistband of his trousers; his boss wouldn’t see it.

In 1933, at the age of twenty-five, Pavlos emigrated to Australia. The icon was in his suitcase, wrapped in underpants beneath his neatly-folded suit, two threadbare white shirts and one pair of socks. He had it valued once he got back to Athens – it was Russian, of the Moscow school of the seventeenth century, in a frame of pure silver. It was worth 1,000 American dollars.

In Sydney, he sold the icon to an auction-house and drank or gambled away most of the proceeds in a few short years. When he met his future wife, Leda Waters, he was working in a factory and could only afford a rented room. They married in a Greek Orthodox ceremony when he was thirty-three, settled in the inner-west of Sydney and had two daughters. Pavlos was a loving, if distracted father. His passion for his family was expressed in songs, dancing, food. Mostly he expressed it away from home. His daughters never saw the violence he inflicted on his wife, always asleep when he came home drunk and abusive. He never mentioned his past or the icon to her.

When Leda left him and Australia for eight years, Pavlos became a single father to his youngest daughter, Eleni. He continued to drink, but only at home. She would arrive home from primary school to find him slumped on the floor near the couch, and leave him there until the next morning. Her dinner was toast and cheese, her breakfast whatever bread was left in the fridge. She never had any lunch at school.

When Leda divorced Pavlos, he fantasised about finding the icon and taking it back to the Athens monastery. He confided in his eldest daughter and she tracked it down to a private collection in Boston. She managed to buy it back and accompanied Pavlos to Greece where he made his confession to the elder of the monastery, and handed the icon back. When he joined Leda at the clinic in Switzerland where she had chosen an assisted suicide, he promised to die with her, even if that meant going against his Orthodox religious beliefs.

In the final moment, he could not take his own life. Pavlos Bellos died in Sydney at the age of 104, in his sleep.