WALKING LONDON’S WATERWAYS – RARE COLLECTOR’S ITEM?

A  weir on the Wandle, which runs through a lively industrial history ribbons of green  and before meeting the Thames at Wandsworth

A weir on the Wandle, which runs through a lively industrial history ribbons of green and before meeting the Thames at Wandsworth

Yours for £566, a ‘new’ copy of my book Walking London’s Waterways on Amazon. It has clearly increased in value from its cover price of £10.99 since it went out of print last year.  Used and new copies of both editions (the original one was Walking London’s Docks, Rivers & Canals) range in price from £20 to £70 and above.  Even more amazingly, there seem to be bidders.

The book is, of course, unique: there are other guides to exploring London on foot, but none from the most attractive and interesting perspective of the Thames and other surviving London rivers, the network of canals, and docks built to accommodate ever-bigger ships. After all, the rivers and the ways in which they have been harnessed define London’s history from its origins to its development as a port, commercial centre and cultural capital.

Good news, we hope for those who are more interested in the walking routes, the waterways and the stories they have to tell,  than in a collector’s edition, the publisher has broached the subject of a new edition. So hang on….

 

23 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: insights into a writer’s life on Hydra

INSTALMENT 23, 5 FEB
Chapter Eleven

The germ of Kate’s new idea for a book duly germinated. One she began, the discipline of writing every day, which had been denied to her for so many months, was a relief that went beyond the pleasure of returning confidence; it was a comforting balm. Most mornings were spent throwing away some of what she had written the day before. This refusal to progress further until she was satisfied with what had already been committed to paper was a self-inflicted, joyful tyranny, part of the discipline.

The title was important. Where Peace Comes Dropping Slow had been one thought, because the book taking shape in her mind was something other than an affectionate memoir of Hydra, a garland for a favoured place. It was a distillation of the calm she had found there, the gradual seeping away of stress after those first few unhappy, doubtful days when she had felt so alien. She had thought about photographs – Robin or Angela might know of a photographer who would enjoy such a commission. Pictures would reduce the amount of writing space to be filled and make the task a little less daunting. But the more she thought about it, the more Kate felt she wanted to paint her own word picture of the island rather than be reliant on a photographer’s view. What she had experienced was so very personal, it should not be examined or questioned by a co-author. Hydra as heroine – that was the essence. No, Hydra as benign force – this was to be the heart of it.

Thinking back to the early days, Kate remembered the clump of nasturtiums. Why not Turn Left at the Nasturtiums? It might only be a working title, but it appealed to her, and distilling the essence, drop by drop, would be easier with a title she liked. It always had been in the past when she was feeling her way with a piece of writing.

Before she started, Kate talked over the idea with Robin and Angela, inviting herself down the hill one afternoon. They sat in the cool interior courtyard drinking lemonade made by Robin using his own lemons and island honey. He was in the process of pruning and re-pruning his thriller. Fine-tuning, he called it. He’s as happy as a sand-boy, I’ve never known him so absorbed, Angela said. Kate knew that sense of excitement, and the reluctance to part with the first-born until sure it was quite ready. She barely liked to disturb him.

Angela’s initial enthusiasm for Kate’s new book was shortly tempered by caution.
“Hydra’s such a tiny place. We wouldn’t want the book to cause an invasion.”
“There aren’t enough hotels here for a serious invasion,” Robin pointed out, “And the price of land would prevent most people from thinking about buying.”

Robin went on to suggest, firmly and with great good sense, that Kate hadn’t been on the island long enough to write about it. She should at least spend a winter here, when the island closed in on itself  and pulled down the shutters. Barely any tavernas opened, and the port became a ghost town, especially at night. It could be uncomfortable: there was a sense of isolation, particularly when the sea was too rough for the Dolphins to run, with no mail or newspapers, food in short supply, and sometimes no fresh milk. You learned to tap into your resources. And then suddenly there’d be a run of magically blue ‘halcyon’ days – a forerunner of spring warmth.

“I love it in the winter. The island returns to the islanders and seems to step back in time.” Robin turned to Angela. “Shall we ask her?”
Angela nodded. Robin continued.
“We’ve had an idea too. We own another small house here. It’s quite tiny, just one bedroom, but one could probably build on.”
“Yes?” Kate was puzzled.
“We’ve actually never thought of selling it before; we’ve lent it to friends occasionally, and the boys used to camp out there with their friends. My dear…” Robin took one of Kate’s hands for a moment. “You introduced me to Sam Gordon, and encouraged me. I’m very much in your debt.
“What Rob’s trying to say”, interrupted Angela, “is that if you ever felt like buying, we’d sell it to you at a very fair price, a peppercorn price, even. And of course, we’d love to have you as a neighbour.”

“There may be all sorts of reasons why it wouldn’t work, “Robin added. “You may be longing to go back to London…having a holiday house might be too much of a worry. But do think about it.”

Kate did think about it. She lay in bed that night, thinking of nothing else. A permanent bolt-hole that was entirely her own, to come to whenever she needed to get away, for whatever reason. Skye was Nell’s. Kate had no sense of place there, lovely though it was.

Doing up houses was something Kate had always enjoyed. It had started with modest bed-sitters during her student days. Cheap but stylish solutions of the day: fringed shawls thrown over the backs of sagging sofas, cushions covered in purple velvet cut from an old evening, an old Victorian screen covered with a patchwork of cut-outs. That screen had gone everywhere with Kate. When Poppy was a kitten she had used it as a climbing frame, and once, when Nell was very small, she had amused herself for an entire afternoon picking off and eating a large part of the patchwork. It was one of the few occasions when Kate had smacked her daughter. Kate still had the screen, banished now to an attic by Conrad, who would never let sentiment cloud his aesthetic sense.

After the bed-sitting rooms there had been a series of flats, which had become more and more ambitious as her income increased. Holland Park had taken two years to get right: many mistakes and bitter disappointments, and eventually, after Conrad had come onto the scene, a wonderful find. He had a very good eye, and a will of iron when there was something that Kate liked and he didn’t. Kate had wanted a simple bedroom, not austere, but Conrad had set his heart on a four-poster, and one had duly been installed. Kate ended up loving it, there was no denying – being on the bed was like being marooned on a pretty little island. But she still rather longed for simplicity, and that was something she could achieve in a Greek house.

Neither Robin nor Angela had mentioned a price. She’d have to talk to her accountant, and would she, should she. discuss the idea with Sam, or even Conrad?

********

Anna was full of unconcealed curiosity about Kate’s outing with Luke. She crowed with triumph when Kate had to admit, faced with a direct question, that she had indeed had dinner with him on Saturday night too. And no, there were no other diners joining them. To distract Anna from further questions, Kate told her about the Benedictus’ house offer. Anna’s response was immediate and unequivocal:

“Go for it, Kate. One, it’s a very good investment. Two, I’d like it – I could bolt there too sometimes. Alex has this thing about Mykonos like so many Athenians, but I’ve always preferred Hydra.

Kate then told Anna about Turn Left at the Nasturtiums, which was greeted with  more delighted squawks.
“You could dedicate it to me.”
Kate pointed out that it hadn’t been written yet, much less approved by Sam or accepted by her publisher.
“Rubbish. With your name on the dust jacket the thing would sell if it were no more accomplished than a promotional leaflet. Do you have enough material yet? You’ve only been there five minutes…”
“That’s what Robin said. He said I ought to stay the winter at least.”
“There you are, then. One more reason to buy the house.”
Kate felt that events were overtaking her.

22 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: a deepening friendship on Hydra

 

Luke waited until after dinner before he demanded his pound of flesh – Kate’s story. He began by asking about Nell, as if to ease her into talking about herself. Kate told him of living with Nell’s father, living together before it was a universally accepted option, when they were regarded with a mixture of horror, envy and covert admiration. They rather enjoyed the game of pretending to be married when staying in country hotels, signing in with ridiculous names such as Mr and Mrs Anstruther-Ogilvie or Mr and Mrs Scrimgeous-Venables – the more outlandish the better. No desk clerk would argue with a name like Scrimgeous-Venables. Kate had the sense of being alive to her fingertips. The fights with her parents about her irregular life, however, were not so amusing. Kate had loved her parents, and they had died within weeks of each other shortly after Nell was born. They may have been reluctant grandparents, but they had visited their new grandchild, and at least had seen her.

“After that, lots of things seemed to happen at once. Nell’s father did a bunk; I began to be more successful as a writer. Nell arrived a month early, and it was touch and go, the first few days of her life. And then both my parents died.”

“Quite a year.”
“Mmm. And now, seven books and twenty-five years on, here I am, incapable of writing a line.”
Again, one of Luke’s silences. Was it tact beyond the call of duty, embarrassment or ignorance?
“Did you know?” Kate went on. “Did Felicity say anything?”
“Um, yes. She did just mention that there was a – difficulty.” It was said with some reluctance.

When Luke later asked her to describe what it felt like not being able to write, Kate realised that nobody else had posed such a question, not even Sam. Trying to put into words what it was like was akin to the lifting of a bad headache, agonising toothache.

“I have – a loss of identity. I feel panicky, completely unfocused, and, well, worthless. Trying to write makes me feel physically sick. My heart thumps and I sweat a lot. It’s the panic that’s worst – the utter conviction that I’ll never be able to write again. I used to feel like that as a child when I was ill – that the ‘flu or the measles or whatever would go on forever. I know I’m not unique: actors have stage fright, vicars can’t preach, surgeons get the shakes and can’t operate. For me, though, it’s a creative process that seems to have gone wrong, and I feel bereft. And lonely, too, as if I’ve lost a friend -a difficult and demanding friend, but still a friend.

“Desolating.”
“It’s certainly not jolly! But writers can and do – write themselves out; they simply have nothing more to say. Maybe that’s where I am, and I should recognise the fact.”
It would have been easy for Luke to say “of course you’ll write again,” to give polite, meaningless reassurance. It was one of the things she was beginning to like about him, the fact that he didn’t retreat into conventional, conversational humbug.
“The fear must always be there,” Luke suggested.
“It used not to be. When you’re on a writing high, when the words, the ideas are flowing as smoothly as satin, you think they’ll never dry up. It gives you a feeling of great power – I used to feel omniscient, unassailable.”
“It sounds rather excluding.”
“I suppose it was. You have to exclude. My friends understood, and my husband was well used to writers and their needs. Why am I talking in the past tense?”

Kate got up to fetch more wine from the fridge. “What time do you go back tomorrow?” she called from the kitchen.
“I ought to take the early one.”
Kate was surprised, overtaken by pain. Surprised by the depth of her disappointment – she had begun to hope that Luke might stay another day, was going to suggest hiring a boat again to Dokos. It was quite disconcerting. I’ve just slipped into an easy, pleasant relationship with him, she thought as she searched for another candle to replace the one guttering on the terrace. Like I did with Anna. He’s also an attractive man and I’m used to having plenty of male company. Kate returned to the terrace.

“Anna’s been a great help,” she said, pressing the new candle into the stub of the old one. “She gave me some reviewing to do for her magazine, and it didn’t go too badly.” Kate told Luke of her initial despair and subsequent relief.

They began to talk about Anna and how much they both liked her. Luke said she could be a minx, but an entertaining minx, with no vice as such, just a hint of malice. He thought it a pity Felicity and Anna didn’t hit it off better as Felicity didn’t have very many friends in Athens. There was Rose Dukakis, of course, but she was to be away a lot this summer. Felicity found Anna a little too raunchy and outspoken.

“Part of her appeal,” said Kate.
“I agree. But I sometimes think she pulls all the stops out when Felicity’s around. And I laugh, which makes things worse.”
Kate remembered Anna saying “Felicity makes me want to tell off-colour jokes and flirt outrageously with Luke.” No doubt she did exactly that from time to time. He’d be delightful to flirt with.
“To be fair,” Luke continued. “I think Felicity condescends to Anna. Without meaning to. She once said Anna’s work was a child substitute.”
“Surely not to Anna?”
Luke laughed. “No, to me, thank God.”
“Anna’s only thirty-seven. She may surprise Felicity yet”.
“Poor Felicity, she’d lose face. What about and Conrad?”
“No. I just have Nell.”

Luke’s boat went at six forty-five, the early one that Kate had taken. He said he’d have to be up at five-thirty as he liked plenty of time in the mornings.
“So does Conrad. I never know what men find to do in the bathroom.”
“The same things that women do, I suppose, only to rather less effect. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try.”
“Oh really?” Kate was amused. “What exactly do you do?”
“Gaze at our wrinkles, worry a lot, you know.”

Kate saw Luke to the gate, through the hot, still garden. The tiny breeze that had guttered the candle half an hour ago had gone. Scent from the starry white jasmine hung on the air, stronger than during the day.
“I envy you.” Luke waved an expressive arm.
“I envy me.”
“Well…” Smiling, Luke looked down at her.
“Give my regards to Felicity. I hope Jamie makes a good recovery”
“No doubt we’ll be meeting again soon. I know Felicity wants to have you over.”
They touched cheeks again, this time, rather less awkwardly, watched Grubby for a moment, bawling abuse at his cronies, then Luke closed the gate. Kate followed the progress of his bobbing torch from the terrace until it was lost to view.

 

21 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: Kate recognises the beneficial effects of Hydra life…and the company of a man

The view through Kate’s bathroom window was no longer of Van Gogh poppies. The figs were swelling, plump and purple. The year was turning fast,  ripening into full summer. It was a miracle that Luke had got a room at the Miranda. Kate peered into the murky glass over the wash-hand basin. Whatever the Arkwrights were like, they certainly couldn’t be vain because the image reflected in it was far from flattering. She made up in her bedroom where the light was better. Her skin was now the colour of rather old heather honey, dark and gipsyish.

Luke was already at the restaurant. He got to his feet as she climbed the steps. They bumped cheeks a little awkwardly. Like Robin, Luke was head and shoulders above all the Greeks. He was wearing a soft, blue well-washed shirt and canary yellow trousers. The trousers were a surprise; they were so, well, joyous.

“I’m glad you could come.” Luke pulled out her chair. “I hate eating alone.”
“I had to disappoint Anna; she was trying to haul me to Athens for some sort of bash.”
“High-powered dinner parties are one of Anna’s passions. Felicity hates them and refuses to go. Even I have to be in the mood, although Anna does do them very well.”
Luke asked what she’d like to drink. The waiter came over. He beamed, recognising Kate and acknowledging Luke. To Kate’s untutored ear, Luke’s Greek sounded fluent. He greeted the waiter by name.

They ordered fried kalamari, Greek salad, hot cheese pies and aubergine salad. Everything arrived at the same time.
Luke surveyed the laden table ruefully.
“I’ve never managed to crack this. I suppose if you order the dishes one at a time, you could have them served in succession.”

The taverna was full of local people and visitors, including a table of Australians drinking beer and apparently intent on working their way through the entire menu. The paper cloth was littered with fish bones, bread crusts and plates of discarded mountain greens. More and more dishes arrived, each one greeted with a boisterous cheer. The Aussies were unruly and good-humoured; when Kate and Luke left, quite late, they were roaring out Waltzing Matilda. The noise was considerable. Kate thought how much more fun it was than Anna’s elaborate do. Luke ordered a second bottle of wine.

“Pretty shirt. All that lace makes you look like a decadent choir boy”.
Kate was wearing her Mexican shirt again, this time with Mexican earrings the shape of white daisies.
“Conrad hates it. He thinks it’s vulgar. I must tell him that someone thought I looked like a choir boy.”
“A decadent choir boy.” Luke smiled.
“I think I’ll pass on the decadent.”

Luke asked no questions about Conrad, whether she missed him, or even “what does Conrad do?” – a question so often investigated by the English five minutes after introduction. Perhaps he already knew. He didn’t say “look at the moon on the water” either. It didn’t need comment. It was there, serene and aloof. Instead, in his staccato voice, Luke began to talk about himself. English public school days, and why he’d chosen archaeology as a career (partly encouraged by an uncle who had been an amateur archaeologist but who had been persuaded by his father, Luke’s grandfather, to become a banker and had always regretted it.)

School had been an ordeal until Luke had taken up boxing. He had been small in stature, only starting to shoot up when he was fifteen, and a rather pretty child. As a result, he had been bullied and at the receiving end of some embarrassing attention from older boys…until he had learned to box. He hadn’t been particularly good at any other sports, except swimming; he liked cricket but was only a moderate player and was hopeless at rugby. His father had been sympathetic to his problems at school, but not sufficiently so to remove him; instead he had recommended boxing. It had proved to be a stroke of genius and commanded respect from his peers.

“Why am I telling you all this?” Luke asked once, breaking off from a description of the school cadet force and how much he’d hated that too, with its ferocious sergeant major and ridiculous emphasis on military jargon. He certainly wasn’t sending Jamie to his old school.

“Because you want to,” Kate had replied. “And because I’m a good listener.” (This was not strictly true: usually, if people embarked on their life stories unasked, Kate would become restive and find an excuse to leave. Tonight, though, she had no wish to leave.
“I shall expect you to take your turn as story-teller as well.”
“Then I may have to disappoint.”
Luke lit her cigarette and took one from her packet for himself. Kate raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, Felicity really does hate smoking, but I’m one of those people who can take it or leave it.”
“Very disciplined.”
“More like luck.”

“Where did you meet Felicity?”
Kate was genuinely curious. But she also had an ambiguous feeling that by keeping Felicity’s name in the conversation all was still as it should be. Felicity hadn’t been forgotten or relegated to the wings while she and Luke moved into the limelight. Maybe it was silly, but it was a strong enough feeling to cause her keep Luke’s wife in the conversation.
“In Glencoe.”
Kate had been expecting a dinner party, an art gallery (although maybe not, with Felicity), but certainly not Glencoe. “What a gloomy place for a rendezvous.”
“It was indeed, extremely gloomy. It was sleeting and Glencoe was looking even more lugubrious than usual. Felicity’s car had broken down, and I could hardly drive straight past. Besides, there was all that glorious hair.”
“Not many people can say that romance first blossomed in that haunted place.”
“You know it?”
“Yes, quite well. I like Scotland. My daughter lives on Skye. But I must say I always scuttle in to and out of the Pass of Glencoe as fast as I possibly can. The spirit of the place is melancholy almost malign.”
“I think that’s what Felicity felt, but she didn’t put it quite so eloquently. Anyway, I got the car going again and took her out to tea. And we – went on from there.”
“We went on from there,” not “we fell in love” or even “we both liked what we saw.” I was right about the hair though, thought Kate.

“How long have you been married?”
“Don’t you know that men never know the answer to questions like that?”
Laughing, Kate said, “well, roughly, no need to be absolutely precise.”
“Let’s see. I was twenty-seven then; I’m forty-four now. About seventeen years.”
“And you have three children? ”
“Yes. Felicity had Priscilla within the year then Chloe four years later. Jamie’s the youngest. I’m surprised Felicity hasn’t filled you in with all this. She usually does.”
“I’m not that keen on talking about children. So men like talking about their children too?”
“This one doesn’t.”
“I don’t believe you.”

Luke glanced at her, almost speculatively, as if testing the water. If he pulls out some battered photographs, how shall I feel, Kate wondered. Bored? I usually am.
“They’re nice children. Felicity has brought them up very well. It’s what she does best”.
A model mother, Anna had said. “Do you have a favourite?”
“Yes.”
No hesitation or concealment. They were both laughing now.
“Jamie.”
“How did you know?”
“It’s hardly difficult, he’s the only boy, and the youngest. Anna said he was an attractive child and looked like you. Perhaps it’s a narcissistic thing; you see yourself reflected in him.”
“And do I strike you as especially vain? In love with my own image? Narcissus died of love for himself, remember. ”
“We are talking about Jamie. How did we get into dying of love?”
“By your wild accusations.”

They were at ease, enjoying one another. It occurred to Kate that this was the first time she’d been alone with a man since she’d sat on the port with Robin Benedictus the night of her arrival on Hydra. The conversation drifted to mythology, to uncanny, inexplicable encounters. Haunted places like Glencoe, and houses with uncomfortable atmospheres. Luke told her of strange happenings during archaeological digs – odd smells, unaccountable gusts of wind, unexplained feelings of apprehension or suffocation. He described an occasion in Turkey, when he and fellow archaeologists had fled a particular valley because of the overwhelming feeling of sadness they had all experienced there. Some of their number had been in tears, unable to stop them. Luke hadn’t wept, but had felt an annihilating sadness that was beyond tears. He found it hard to describe and impossible to explain.

“What had happened there?” Kate was attentive, her interest caught.
“We were never able to discover. The people in the village where we were staying refused to talk about it. They just looked wild-eyed. So I imagine something must have happened. Another massacre, perhaps, like Glencoe. Something bloody, anyway, that wasn’t recorded in any history book that I could find.”

It was after midnight when they left the taverna. Luke had again mentioned his plans for a trip to the monastery, but didn’t ask Kate to accompany him. They parted at her gate.
“A lovely evening, Luke. Thank you.”
“Tomorrow night?”
Since Kate had been hoping that plans for tomorrow night might be proposed, it seemed humbug to hesitate, so she didn’t.
“How about supper with me? If you’re not a stretcher case after your trek up the mountain.”
“I may be walking wounded, but I should be able to stagger as far as here. Are you sure? I don’t want to take over your life – there are plenty of places I can eat on the port.”
“But you don’t like eating alone.”
“No.”
“Eight o’clock, then?”
“Eight o’clock.”

 

*********

 

On the rocks the next morning with Angela mentioned that Susanna and Yiorgo were having a barbecue the following weekend, and that she had been asked to bring Kate.
“They’re famous for their barbecues. Everyone drinks too much and all the men end up doing the sitaki – you know, the island dance.”
“Do the women just  watch?”

“Most do, but Susanna joins in. So does Tilda.”
“What about you?”
“Robin would have me locked up. But you’re younger. You could try.”

Early that evening, as she was grilling plump red peppers, Kate thought about how her life had changed since coming to Hydra. She had no intellectual life now, not even the crossword. Her life was almost entirely physical. She lived alone, so the inevitable frictions of co-habiting were absent, and most of the time, was distracted from fretting about Conrad. She saw people, or not, as she felt inclined. She didn’t have her mobile; the telephone seldom rang, and no-one made demands. She was steeped in a peaceful, lazy life. Although the lack of work discipline concerned her, that too was receding. I mustn’t fall into the trap of worrying about not being worried, she reflected.

Just before Luke arrived, a germ of an idea occurred to her. Something she might enjoy writing. It was nothing to do with the unfinished novel gathering dust in London, picking up where she left off. A jeu d’esprit. Sam would probably be horrified.

“I couldn’t bring you flowers. Couldn’t find any.” Luke produced an elaborate box of truffles.
“There aren’t any flower shops on Hydra that I’ve discovered, just a tiny place that sells rather weedy plants. These look sumptuous. How was your tramp?”
“The only person I saw was an elderly nun strapped to a mule. She had the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen.”
“Nuns often do? How long did it take?”
“About three and a half hours up and rather less on the way back. There’s little to see when you get there. The place seems quite impenetrable. The only signs of life were a ferocious looking rooster and his harem, and a baby donkey.”
Kate laughed. “Oh dear”.
“So I petted the donkey, stayed well clear of the rooster, had my picnic, and came down.”
“Any blisters?”
“Blisters opon blisters. I’m getting soft – I haven’t done any serious walking for far too long.”
“I rather wish I’d come.”
“I think you would have enjoyed it. Felicity wouldn’t, but you would.”

It was at that precise moment, watching him open a bottle, that Kate realised who Luke reminded her of. It had been round the corner of her mind all day, maddening and elusive. Now she had it – Charles Dance: he looked a lot like Charles Dance as Guy Perron in the televised version of The Raj Quartet. The relief of nailing his likeness was considerable.

They ate in the kitchen, side by side at the kitchen table. Grilled peppers and a fish soup of Kate’s own invention. This promised much and delivered very little: there was an acrid bitterness to it that wasn’t at all reassuring. Kate put her spoon down after one mouthful. Luke did his best until Kate removed his bowl.
“I hope you like bread and cheese.”
“Have you got any eggs? Mayonnaise is my culinary raison d’etre. My only one apart from opening oysters.”
“Felicity said you couldn’t boil a kettle.”
“Boiling a kettle is dull. Mayonnaise is an art form.”

Kate collected eggs, oil, salt and lemon and provided Luke with an apron and whisk. Twenty minutes later he had produced a bowl of rich yellow mayonnaise.
“There.” Luke dipped in a finger and tasted the magical emulsion.
“My father used to make it when I was a little girl”, Kate observed. “I used to think the pale pink of salmon and the pale green of cucumber and the yellow of mayonnaise were the colours of summer.”
“What a poetic child.”
“Just greedy. I was quite plump.”
Luke smiled and remained silent. Some men might have felt obliged to say “well, you certainly aren’t plump now” or “I can’t believe that” or “were you really?” with flattering emphasis on the really. They ate Luke’s masterpiece with tomatoes, the heart of a lettuce and coarse village bread. Kate offered the fish soup to Grubby, who walked away after one sniff.

“Maybe you got the liver of some of the fish in it,” Luke suggested,  “that can turn the taste very rank.”
“Poor Grubby looks quite offended.”
“I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”

 

20 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: Kate realises she’s hooked on Hydra, and is asked out on a date

 

Kate also enjoyed visiting the small market place with its view down to the caiques bobbing in the harbour. She was less keen on the butcher’s shop, where unidentifiable slabs of meat were sold and buckets full of unmentionable debris collected a motley crew of many cats.  Cleanliness didn’t seem to be a top priority; Kate had to walk past the mincing machine with averted eyes. The fruit and vegetable stalls and their produce, though, were gleaming clean and brimming with strange roots, herbs and bundles of what looked like weeds – ‘xhorta’, or mountain greens, beloved of every Greek. As often as not there was a mare and her still-nursing foal tied up in the shade. The mare belonged to one of the stall-holders and the tiny foal would trot after him and its dam like a dog, still uncertain on its wobbly, spidery legs. Kate once asked Robin the whereabouts of the island vet; there were so many animals, surely there must be one? In the back of her mind was the thought of some calamity involving Grubby, who often came back from his wanderings with a ragged ear or a nasty-looking eye. The nearest vet was on Poros; he came to Hydra once a week to see urgent cases. Otherwise you took your sick beast to him, or to Piraeus.

*****

One day Kate took the early Dolphin to Athens. The summer schedules were now operating, and the first boat went at 6.45 a.m. There was a surprising number of passengers but they were rather subdued at that early hour. Kate had nearly run out of books, and in any case felt that getting of the island for a break might be good for her and would make her thankful to get back. And so it turned out: after serene, unpolluted Hydra, Athens was a sweaty, malodorous nightmare. Kate’s away-day coincided with a garbage strike that had been going on for three weeks. In the heat – about 35C -  the smell was overpowering. In some of the poorer parts of the city, Anna told her, there had been reports of cholera; Kate wasn’t surprised. She submitted to the sticky embrace of a taxi, which rattled her into the centre of Athens, and escaped into the city’s best and mercifully air-conditioned book-shop, where she bought half a dozen paperbacks. Afterwards, she met Anna for a brief lunch in Kolonaki, an area of elegant shopping and residences close to the British Embassy, then Anna drove her back to the port at Piraeus.

“Alex thought you were very stylish. He wants you to come and have dinner,” Anna said.
“I’d love to, when it’s not such a furnace. I don’t know how you stand this heat in the city.”
“Everything’s air conditioned – the car, the office, the house. We have a  swimming pool in the garden. I just creep from one oasis to another.”
“What does Alex do to keep you in all this luxury – swimming pools, matching BMWs?”
Kate’s head ached from the heat; she was beginning to feel like a truculent child after an outing that has gone on too long.
“Rich Greeks are either in oil, shipping or import-export. Alex has a finger in all three.”
“Lucky Anna. ”
Anna laughed. “I don’t think Conrad’s fighting for his next crust. Neither are you.”
Kate’s mind was wandering: next time, I’ll do without the books, and re-read what I have, she was thinking.  I’d forgotten the noise and stress of a big city. She touched Anna’s arm for a moment, ashamed of her petulance.
“Perfectly true. I think I’m going native, Anna. I can’t wait to get back to the island. ”
“Hydra has that effect on people.”

*******

Robin Benedictus took his book to Sam Gordon in person rather than posting it. He said he had other things to do in London. Angela told Kate that she didn’t think he’d trust his manuscript to the vagaries of the Greek mail, and Kate told her that a first book was like a first baby – extremely precious and  much fussed over. It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling; subsequent books might win awards or swell the bank balance, but the first one was  special.

Forty-eight hours later Kate had a call from Sam, and Angela had a call from Robin. Sam, not normally given to eulogy, was positively crooning.
“It’s got everything. Cracking dialogue and plot. And there’s a sensible amount of sex, which is –usually a minefield for new writers -they’re either scared of it or use it to work out their own fantasies.”

Kate was pleased. It was nice to do something for Robin and Angela, and also to please Sam. Her relief was considerable.
“It’s too long, of course, as you said,” Sam continued, “but the structure is so professional, he might have been writing for years.”
“How did you like Robin?”
“Oh, I took him out to dinner, I liked him so much. He was very amusing about the Arkwrights – seems to know them quite well. He was very amusing and delicately indiscreet.”
“Oh really?” Kate was now amused. “Delicacy and indiscretion so seldom go together. I can’t think why men are thought never to gossip. Where did you go?”
“The Acropoli“. Sam chortled. “I thought it might be a nice change from Greek food.”

The Acropoli. Another thorn to snag the memory. She and Conrad used to go there, ten or twelve years ago. They’d always had a table upstairs, under a rather winsome portrait of Lord Byron. Literary agents seemed to favour the restaurant as a place to treat deserving clients or use as a carrot for potential clients who needed wooing. Kate and Conrad went there because they liked it. She asked Sam if he’d had any more calls from Conrad, but learned that he was in New York.

CHAPTER TEN

Kate was in the priest’s hole writing to Nell when Luke rang. It was comparatively cool there and the rat droppings had long since disappeared, perhaps due to Grubby’s magisterial presence. The hedgehog had gone too. Only the bats returned occasionally, and Kate had come to like them and welcome their elegant, formal dance above her head. She was extremely surprised to hear from him.
“Hullo Kate, it’s Luke Waterlow”.
“Who?”
“Luke. Felicity’s Luke. ”
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. It was the Waterlow that confused me. I only know Felicity as Felicity.”
“How are you?”
“Very well. It would be a crime against nature to be anything else here. ”

Kate wondered why Luke had rung. She hoped it was not an invitation from Felicity to dine in Kifissia, however pretty it might be. Kate had no plans to return to the mainland and would make no bones about saying so. Luke was telling her how the garbage strike in Athens was still unresolved, and that it was impossible to get away from the stench. Luckily for her, Felicity had gone home for a few days as Jamie was having a minor operation and she wanted to be near him. Aah, so this was not an invitation from Felicity, Kate thought.

“I wondered if I could take you out to dinner. I’m coming to Hydra tomorrow night, and have booked into the Miranda again.”
“Well,” Kate considered, “I can’t claim a pressing engagement because I haven’t got one. So thank you, I’d love to.”

They arranged to meet at the taverna where Kate had lunched with Anna and the others. She found herself looking forward to her outing. She also wondered if Luke often made a dash for the hills, so to speak, when Felicity made a dash for the children. There were worse ways of managing one’s life – each doing what they wanted, but separately. Luke had said that one of his reasons for coming was to go up to the monastery high above Hydra town. Kate had told him that she wouldn’t be accompanying him.

Kate returned to her letter. She was describing Grubby’s regrettable liking for lizards. That morning, she had come across him hunched over the grisly remains of one. The large, succulent cicadas were another of the cat’s dietary supplements: he would stalk, pounce and capture, and after a lot of loud crunching, there would be nothing left but the tough wing cases. Kate drew the line at butterflies, clapping her hands sharply when she caught him. Grubby would wander off, looking offended, then stop to glance over his shoulder to see if she’d gone away so that he could return to his rightful ploys. Nell was a cat lover too; she’d had two on Skye, a stray and a Burmese. The Burmese had been a present from a grateful guest. Grateful but ill-advised, Nell had thought at first, but the exotic little creature had hopped blithely into the stray’s basket and the two were now inseparable.

Anna rang about half an hour after Luke. She was planning a big dinner party with lots of amusing Brits and Greeks. What’s more, she would meet Kate off the Dolphin at Piraeus; Kate simply must come. Tomorrow – the morning would suit her best. Kate explained about Luke, and Anna was intensely curious.
“Is he staying with you?”
“Of course not. He’s staying at the Miranda.”
“A moonlit tête-à-tête dinner? What was that appalling song… ‘Give me the moonlight, Give me the girl, and leave the rest to me…’?”
“Anna!” Kate was laughing. “That’s just your diseased imagination. It’ll probably be the first and last I see of him. On Saturday he’s intent on plodding up the mountain to the monastery, and he’ll certainly be doing that on his own.”
“I’ll lay very long odds you’ll have dinner with him on Saturday night as well.”
“He’ll be too tired.”
“Some chaps are never too tired.”
Amused, Kate returned to her letter.

19 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: an awkward favour, and Kate reflects on what she misses about Conrad

Chapter Nine

Angela and Robin went to London. They were gone for a week, partly to attend a silver wedding, and also to catch up with their children. Kate had asked Angela to get her a hair conditioner that was not available in Greece. Angela brought it up to the house the day after her return. She arrived wearing a blue and white cotton frock and carrying a trug and secateurs for taking geranium cuttings. She handed Kate the conditioner.
“Thanks Angela. Goodness, you look as if you’re on the way to a vicarage tea-party. I’m sorry there aren’t any cucumber sandwiches. Plenty of cucumber, no thinly sliced wholemeal.”

Angela stood up. “Oh, in that case….” then sat down again, laughing. Her frequent laughter lit up her face and was infectious.
“I do have rock cakes,” offered Kate, “although they are rock by name and rock by texture, I’m afraid. I still haven’t got the hang of that wretched oven.”
Edging themselves deeper and deeper into the shade, they sipped lemon tea, attempted and abandoned the rock cakes. Kate asked about London.

” Best described as cold, though beautifully green and bosky, of course. There’s been a lot of rain and no sun to speak of. Wimbledon will be a write-off if it goes on. But for all that, it was lovely to be there”.
“As long as you’ve got Hydra to come back to?”
“Oh yes. This is where I want to lay my bones. I think as you get older you need the heat.”

They went round the garden, Angela snipping her cuttings. Grubby strolled after them. Kate wondered out loud how he’d manage when she left the island. Angela was comforting.
“Well, I hope you’re not thinking of leaving us yet. Don’t worry about Grubby, he’s an island cat, a survivor. You said yourself that he may have another home somewhere, but he’s found himself an alternative soft billet with you, and will move on to another when he has to.”
Kate hoped so.

They finished the jug of iced tea after filling Angela’s trug. She seemed preoccupied. A few minutes later Kate found out why.
“Kate…”
“Yes?”
“When we came to dinner the other night Anna said you’d reviewed some books for her.”
“Yes, I did”

How tiresome of Anna. It wasn’t a secret, of course, but even so, what was the point of mentioning it, especially as she’d made such a point of Kate not needing to put her name to the column. Angela was continuing:

“It would be such a help if you could have a quick look at something Rob’s written. He wouldn’t dream of asking himself. But do say no if you’d rather not.”

Kate would very much rather not. She had always fanatically avoided commenting on friends’ work, there were far too many minefields of embarrassment, and potential for the abrupt end to a friendship. Angela couldn’t possibly realise what she was asking. It was a thriller, too. Kate never read thrillers.

“My dear, you look aghast, ” Angela went on. She seemed rather shocked. Plainly a refusal hadn’t been what she expected, in spite of the “do say if you’d rather not. ” Perhaps she thought it was a compliment, rather than a bloody sweat.
“A thriller?”
“Unputdownable. You won’t be bored, I promise you. ”

Robin had taken two years to write this apparent masterpiece. There had been many drafts, each one typed out by Angela, who had also helped with the names. Rob had rather liked her choice of names. Faced with such transparent and engaging enthusiasm, Kate tried to adjust her expression, but also tried to extricate herself.
“Thrillers aren’t really my line, Angela. I’m sure I’m not the person to ask. And if I did do it, I’d have to say what I thought. I wouldn’t pull my punches.”
“Of course not. Rob wouldn’t want you to, and neither would I.”

But there had been a flicker of – of what – apprehension, disbelief? What if it was drivel? Robin was an intelligent man. Angela, loyal wife that she was, would mind if Kate was deflating in her criticism more than Robin would. If I agree, and it’s a wash-out, Kate fretted, I’ll have to find a way of softening the blow – oh, what a bore. The trust in her judgement was rather touching – Robin handing over his first-born, as it were – but it was such a responsibility. I don’t want to read the damned thing. That’s what agents are for.
Kate agreed to do it.

*********

Sam had a telephone in his bathroom. Kate could hear the water sloshing around in the tub as she talked.
“I think it’s a winner, Sam, I really do. I was up half the night. Needs a prune, but it’s very deft and very funny.”
“Who is this chap?”
“Nice, nice man. He’s lived on Hydra for years. Used to be in the SAS. Diplomatic Service – that’s the background to his plot. He and his wife have been astonishingly kind to me.”
“Well, I suppose I could have a look at it. Is it properly typed? Not handwritten on the backs of old envelopes?”
“Beautifully typed, don’t worry. Angela did it, that’s Robin’s wife. I don’t think you’ll regret it. Shall I tell him to send it?”

Sam then began to ask Kate about her own work. And Kate found herself almost, but not quite, lying to him for the first time. She said she’d been doing a lot of thinking (perfectly true, but not a great deal of thinking about how she might proceed with the half-finished manuscript she’d abandoned in London). Her thoughts had been about Conrad and how much she missed him. She’d realised too, how much she didn’t miss the darker side of their life together – the evasive answers from Conrad’s personal assistant when he was ‘out’ on some mysterious errand (Kate had learnt not to press for details, it was too embarrassing for both her and the PA), and his occasional, late-night returns. He’d never come back dishevelled and lipstick-stained (nothing so vulgar or so ill-mannered), but the heightened look of him, almost the smell of him, and his air of elation combined with repletion were hard to bear. He couldn’t hide his triumph and it was uncomfortable and undignified to witness. On such occasions Conrad would sleep on the chaise-longue in the bathroom, a tacit agreement that Kate didn’t want proof of his Lord of the Jungle preening, however he might try to conceal it. These were the matters that were preoccupying her. What to do? Hydra was seductive of most of the senses, but it was hardly a permanent solution. She could go and live with Nell. Skye was just as beautiful, in its own way. If she could write at all, it should be just as easy to write there as in Holland Park or anywhere. From the money point of view, she need never tap out another line on her word processor. And if she left Conrad, half the value of Holland Park was hers anyway.

I can’t believe I’m thinking such things, Kate would reflect – I have a perfectly nice life, an enviable life. Con’s behaviour hasn’t changed – he’s always been perfectly consistent in his infidelities. I’m the one who’s changed.

To her great relief, Sam didn’t press the subject of progress.

 

 

*********

From time to time, and more and more reluctantly, Kate made a trip down to the port, but letters had to be collected, and she had to have her hair trimmed. It grew so fast in the heat, and may be with all the olive oil too. Angela had told her of a curious little establishment just off the port. It was approached through a pretty courtyard, hung about with ornamental gourds and the unreal, electric blue of Morning Glory. Cages of brilliantly coloured finches were attached to the walls; Kate always tried to comfort herself with the fact that the birds were singing, but did’t succeed: – the cages were very small and the birds were wild.

At the kommatirio, the hairdresser’s, there was no messing about with a back-wash: you leaned forward and dipped your head in the basin in the old-fashioned way, while water was poured carefully from a can. The dryer was retro to the point of archaic, and the cramped little room, intensely decorated with indigo baubles against the Evil Eye, crucifixes, plastic carnations and First Communion photographs, was so dark that Eleni, who wielded the scissors, almost seemed to feel where to cut, to do it by feel. The results were remarkably good however and cost a fraction of what it would have done in London. Eleni spoke a little English. She was a beautiful creature, with the pale, flower-like pallor that some Greek women have, and the heavy-lidded, heavily lashed eyes. Her own hair fell to her waist. It was peaceful there, the charged, competitive atmosphere of a London hairdresser entirely absent. Nobody to compete with except a pretty little cat, which was above such things, complacent in its own superiority.

 

18 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS. a midnight swim, picnic on a deserted island, and Kate gets to know Luke….

Sorry, readers, a long weekend away caused me to miss another Monday deadline. We’re on target for Instalment 19 on Thursday, though. 

 

INSTALMENT 18, due 19 Jan

It occurred to Kate that neither Luke nor Alex had asked her why she was on the island. It would have been a perfectly normal question. Perhaps Anna and Felicity had warned their husbands not on any account to broach the subject…that it would be better not mention writing at all and certainly not the next book. Felicity was good-hearted for all her tiresome ways, and Anna may have given Alex a superficial, diluted version of events in the interests of female solidarity, or ‘sisters under the skin’ as Felicity might have put it. Kate felt pretty sure that Greek wives didn’t go rushing off to remote islands in moments of crisis. They would attack a problem like Conrad obliquely, Kate guessed: marshal mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters and sisters-in-law to find plenty of ways of making life uncomfortable without either side even declaring war. Besides, despite his British education, Alex was Greek, and would no doubt find it impossible to understand or grasp the complexities of her position.

The evening ended on the upper terrace, where there was a slight breeze. Felicity and Angela cleared the table and carried the dishes indoors. Anna and Susanna simply walked away from the (considerable) debris and led the way through Kate’s raftered, airy bedroom. Kate felt like following. She hated cleaning up after dinner and invariably left it to her daily. Tonight she compromised by doing a bit of scraping and stacking but forbidding any attempt to wash up.

The midnight swim was Anna’s idea. Down to the rocks, off with their clothes and into the water – what could be nicer, more deliciously cool? Her suggestion had a mixed reception, in part decided by nationality: the two Greeks and the German were enthusiastic. The British, with the exception of Anna, were not.

“My skinny-dipping days are over,” Angela announced. “And so are Rob’s, if he’s got any sense.”

Felicity told Luke that the brandy had given her a headache, and would he mind awfully accompanying her back to the hotel. Anna was blunt; she liked Luke and wanted him to come:

“Do let Luke off the leading rein just for once, Felicity. You know your way back to the hotel blindfold.”

In the end, Robin and Angela escorted Felicity, while Anna, Susanna, Luke, Alex and Giorgo set off for the rocks. Kate provided the towels but had no particular wish to go. In some ways she’d found her dinner party debut a strain. It’s not that she was particularly tired, just uncomfortably strung up. Maybe it would have done her good to join the swimming party.

*********

Anna’s next idea, for the following day, was to go on a boating picnic to Dokos, a small, uninhabited island not far from Hydra, where there were proper beaches with sand. She and Alex would buy the food and wine. Kate was delighted, she loved picnics. Robin and Angela were expecting guests and had to refuse but Angela lent them a large golf umbrella for shade. Felicity fussed about her lack of a bathing suit and was told to buy something on the port.

Depending on one’s point of view or turn of imagination, Dokos was shaped like a man lying on his side or a snoozing dragon. There were eleven uninhabited houses on the island and a tiny chapel, and not a single tree. It took half an hour to get there – Alex and Giorgo had hired a little boat with a peaceful put-put engine and a gaily striped awning. Giorgo steered, Anna and Alex sat with their arms around each other, sharing a cigarette – they reminded Kate of the entwined couples she’d seen on the Flying Dolphin the day her Hydriot adventure had started. Felicity was trying to talk to Susanna, but Susanna was nursing a hangover, and would have preferred to have been left in peace. Kate sat with Luke.

“How was the swimming party?”
“Very proper. The walk down along those tiny, enclosed streets was almost the best part. The walls were still warm, cats like shadows. We heard donkeys shuffling about in lean-to stables, and strains of bouzouki from tavernas I didn’t know existed -  and I thought I knew the island fairly well.”

Luke was evidently off the leading rein and enjoying himself. Felicity, had she gone, would have been squawking about bathing too soon after food. “What was the water like?”
“Warm and silky, like new milk – the oddest sensation. There wasn’t a breath of wind. The phosphorescence was extraordinary – the girls looked illluminated. Are you sorry you didn’t come?”
“No. I’d had enough of the evening”.”Oh!” Luke laughed.
“I didn’t mean you. I didn’t mean anyone. Just…”
“I know. I sometimes feel like that at home, in Kew, when Felicity’s entertaining. It’s different with Greeks, though, they’re such good talkers.”
“You live at Kew?”
“Yes. Just off the Green.”
“No wonder Athens must seem – a bit alien to Felicity”.
“What about you? Where do you lie in London?”
“Holland Park”.
“I could say the same about Holland Park. ”
“You could. And you’d be right. The difference is I don’t feel alien here. I like it.”
“We’re only going to be in Greece another year. I just wish Felicity could enjoy what there is to enjoy. Perhaps you have more capacity for contentment than she has.”

It was Luke’s first and only faint note of disapproval, and it was still-born. “If my friends in London could hear you, they’d wonder who you were talking about”.
“You don’t strike me as discontented.”
“Resigned?”
“No. Nothing so dull or lack-lustre. Serene, perhaps.”
“I’m a lot older than Felicity. I’ve had more time to achieve this – bovine state you’re wishing on me.”
“You’r certainly not bovine. And age has nothing to do with it”.

***********

Luke lit the fire, Giorgo supervised the grilling of the fish, which someone at the Miranda had had the wit to pack in ice. Alex watched. The hotel had provided a feast of a picnic: there was salad enough for twelve, a kilo of lemons and a basket of other fruits; meatballs to eat in the fingers and a large honey-drenched cake that hadn’t travelled well. Alex had steered them to a tiny beach of such perfection it was a cliché. They swam from the boat, beachcombed for shells. Felicity, hand in hand with Luke, forgot her discontent. Anna challenged Giorgo to a swimming race and was only narrowly beaten. Alex fitted cigarette after cigarette into an amber holder. He seldom finished them, Kate noticed, two or three puffs, that was all, and like any self-respecting Greek, left behind a neat little pile of butts when they climbed aboard again. She had never, Kate realised, found out what he did. Just that he was rich and spoilt, and that Anna loved him.

On the way back to Hydra, Kate reflected with wry amusement how very much Conrad would have hated such a picnic. Conrad’s idea of déjeuner sur l’herbe began and ended with Glyndebourne. Anything more primitive, such eating with one’s fingers, greasy hands, and drinking warm wine from plastic cups, was regarded with alarm. In some ways Conrad was a throwback, belonging to an Edwardian world of picnic hampers, expensive tartan rugs and touring cars with imperious klaxons; motoring veils and adultery – discreet affairs, of course, carried out with style. If only his had been, or could be like that. Kate suddenly felt extremely bleak. It was nothing to do with being odd woman out, or maybe it was everything to do with that.

 

17. TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: Kate throws a dinner party and meets the husbands

Chapter Eight

INSTALMENT 17

Kate had taken to sharing her morning swim with Angela Benedictus and a couple of new friends. Tilda was Dutch, married to a Greek, and had the neatness and flaxen prettiness of a Dutch doll but none of the insipidity. Kate felt that beneath the fragile porcelain exterior was a woman of considerable spirit and determination, rather in the mould of Helena Bredon, but without the artifice and flightiness. Inge was much younger, a journalist. She had two of the most beautiful children Kate had ever seen (Nell had been an appealing rather than a pretty child). They couldn’t have been more than three or four, yet in the water, they were waterbabies, and as buoyant as corks. They’d stay in the sea for up to an hour, gypsy dark against the red lilo, flashing like fish in the clear water. One of the little girls wore a shell necklace and flowers in her hair and was very aware of her femaleness. Both children were entirely self-possessed and slightly aloof, playing together some distance from the grown-ups. The only false note was their nail varnish. Kate remembered Nell’s own forbidden experiments when she was much of an age.

Extraordinary, Kate thought one morning, surrounded by Angela, Tilda, Inge and her daughters: I’ve never spent so much time exclusively in the company of women, or enjoyed time with women so much. Is this part of the healing process? Am I deliberately, unconsciously, seeking female company? The question remained with her as she swam alongside Angela, happily and idly talking about anything and nothing, and still remained with her as she climbed the hill back to the house for lunch. Grubby at least was male. You couldn’t get much more masculine than Grubby. Lying on her bed, feeling too hot even for a sheet, during the torpid, heat-silenced siesta hours, Kate began to think about widening her horizons. Just a little.

 

*****

Kate had asked Robin and Angela to dinner, with Anna and Alex, Felicity and Luke, Susanna and her husband (remember in good time to ask Angela his name – Kate had no memory of being introduced to him, although she supposed she must have been). It would be quite an impressive debut. Extra chairs were borrowed from Maria and hauled up to the house on the back of Dimitri’s obliging mules. The dining table could take ten at a squeeze;  she would drag it out and put it under the vine, which was no longer sickly but covered in rampant green tendrils. No need to worry about rain, after all. She could serve gallons of gazpacho (admittedly, not very Greek but cold and refreshing) and a chicken pilav, most of which could be prepared in the cool of the early morning.

 

*********

While Kate was chopping, slicing and peeling vegetables, Sam rang. It was a week since she had spoken to him, expecting questions about her progress. Sam had been told of the book reviewing exercise and was delighted by its success. But he made no mention of that;  it turned out that his concern was was Conrad.

“He’s bugging me practically every day, Kate. Certainly two or three times a week.”
“What do you say?”
“That you want to be left in peace”.

Kate could hear Sam striking a match – the sound of it conjured up his familiar, book-strewn office where she had so often sat, perched on his desk, taking occasional puffs from his cigar.
“You’re not worried about him?”
“It’s just so unlike Conrad. Normally he’d be relishing his freedom, not seeking to end it. If your return is what he’s after.”
“He’s always had his freedom, Sam.”
“True.”
“When have I ever stood in his way? You’ve always said I ought to have done so. But lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps now that the risk – and the spice have gone, now he hasn’t got an audience.”
Sam laughed. “I think primitive island life must suit you, Kate. You sound so calm – and able to stand back.”
“Perhaps. But I know Conrad so well. He likes being centre-stage, and now he’s playing to an empty house. Has he asked you to ask me to ring him?”
“No. He hasn’t. Too much like begging, I suspect”.
“You’r right, Conrad never begs. Normally he never has to.”

Kate suggested that Sam should try and find out what Conrad did want – her return, or just a number where he could reach her. They had always talked at length when one or the other was away and had always able to amuse each other. It was one of the nice things about their marriage. Kate sometimes felt as if she was beginning to lose sight of the several good things about their relationship, and wonder why they were apart.

Alex and Anna and Luke and Felicity were all staying at the Miranda. It was a pretty little hotel just off the port, painted blue and white – the colours of the Greek flag. It was cool looking with a shady courtyard, and the bathrooms were comfortable.
Kate was relieved not to have a house-full. Women together could laugh at less-than-perfect plumbing arrangements, take their turn at slopping out, didn’t mind pigging it a bit. Men always seemed to need copious supplies of hot water, shaving points, and lockable lavatory doors. Besides, she might not take to Alex Constantinides, or to Luke Waterlow.

Looking back to that first evening, as she was often to do in subsequent weeks, Kate would try to remember what her first impressions had been of Luke. Nothing especially memorable conversation-wise. About the same height as Robin Benedictus and something of the same type, but younger, early forties, perhaps. Nice eyes – almost navy blue, and yes, his skin was rather pock-marked, as Anna had said. A pleasant voice, but clipped, slightly staccato, quite unlike Conrad’s seductive drawl. Felicity had fluttered round her husband (Kate got the feeling that she didn’t greatly care for Alex), and then settled down with Angela, who asked sensitive questions about the children, but was sensibly brisk when Felicity showed any signs of complaining about being so far away from them. Luke, Alex and Robin went off to look at the disused well to see if it could be made to work. Anna followed Kate into the kitchen.

“What do you think of Alex? Isn’t he a treat?”

It was a considerable understatement. Alex was tall, taller than most Greek men and very attractive in the blue-chinned sort of way that Anna had described. Alex It later turned out that he and Robin had a schoolmaster in common. As a young man, the master had taught Robin at Marlborough; a decade on, he had moved to Bryanston, where Alex had known him.

“Yes, a huge treat. He’d give Conrad a run for his money.”
“It’s that wonderful Greek hair-line – Englishmen never seem to have it in quite the same way. But he doesn’t have the X factor, like Conrad. Angela isn’t visibly going weak at the knees, and Felicity’s never liked him.”
“Do you know why?” Kate was amused at Anna with her cat’s eyes narrowed, defending her property.
“Because he’s a foreigner, of course! You watch, she’ll be making up to Robin Benedictus all night because he is the absolute antithesis of ‘foreign.’ And he doesn’t smoke either.  Felicity can’t stand Alex’s chain-smoking”

Susanna and Giorgo Damascous (Angela had come to the rescue with his name) were late. Giorgo had been kept at the hospital where he was a consultant three times a week. Susanna’s eyelashes were the same vibrant azure – Kate could see Felicity trying hard not to stare. They all crammed onto the terrace, sitting on the hot wall and steps, to watch the tail-end of a regatta that had been going on all day – sixty or so small boats with sails the colour of children’s party frocks, pink, lemon and pale blue. Felicity helped to fetch and carry; Anna didn’t lift a finger; Angela had thoughtfully provided a large thermos of ice. Kate had made dozens of tiny feta cheese pies fragrant with mint that she’d picked that morning, and served hot from the oven. Alex and Giorgo occasionally dropped into Greek, but the rest of the time they all spoke English.

It was well after ten when they started to eat. Kate, seated at the head of the table, with four aside, looked down the length of it, over the flickering bee’s wax candles and posies of jasmine and roses she’d arranged down the middle, to where Conrad might have been sitting. It was, she reflected, the first proper dinner party she’d given without him. It was a strange sensation to be without Conrad eyeing up the women, yes, but also without the prospect of being able to pick it all over with him afterwards.  It felt incomplete. Kate turned to Robin, seated on her left.

“The drinking water seems so much better recently, had you noticed? Not quite so fierce.”
“Yes. The Mayor of Hydra, the Chief of Police and probably some ecclesiastical representative got together. The result is a new, or newish, water boat. Less leaky, anyway.”
“Rob had a hand in it too. He’s too modest to admit it.” Angela called down the table. “He has a hand in quite a lot of the goings-on here. They trust his judgement even if we’re still seen as outsiders. ”

Robin, Alex and Giorgo began to talk of island politics and minor instances of corruption, and of the different characteristics of islanders from Hydra, Crete, Mykonos, Cythera. Felicity turned back to talk to Angela; Anna and Susanna were enthusiastically engaged in discovering mutual acquaintances in Athens.

Luke, sitting on Kate’s right, picked a small spider off her shoulder, which had dropped from the vine, and carefully sent it on its way; many people would have just flicked it off.

“There. I like spiders. Drives Felicity mad. That was a memorable pilav. Was there cinnamon in it?”
“A powdering as it’s not to everyone’s taste. I tend to live on tomatoes and feta on my own. It’s been rather nice to have the excuse to cook for someone else.” Kate hoped she hadn’t sounded lonely or pathetic.
“How long are you here for?”
“Perhaps until September. The family who own this house always come here in September, and having had it to myself I don’t think I want to share.”
“No. I can understand that. I love Hydra. I’d have a house here like a shot if – well, if they weren’t so expensive, for one thing.”
And if Felicity would let you, thought Kate. There’s no possible way that she would fit in with such a life. Hydra wasn’t Wimbledon, and Maria’s hardly compared with London delis. There was a hint of disappointed man about Luke, she felt.
“Felicity hasn’t quite settled in Greece, you see,” Luke went on. “She misses the children, and her friends.”
“Yes.”
No word of criticism or approach. He’d said “Felicity hasn’t quite settled” rather than ” doesn’t like Greece.” It was softer, almost protective.

“And have you? Settled, I mean?”
“It’s different for me. My work’s here, and the British School of Archaeology is being very good to me. I’m lucky.”
Luke picked up his glass of wine, staring into the pale retsina. “And anyway, I like Greece, I like the heat, and I like the Greeks, infuriating though they can be.”

He smiled down again at Kate. “I even like the food. And poor Felicity doesn’t.”

16 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: a hot hike over the island, a deepening friendship

INSTALMENT 16 

“I think it’s a honey buzzard by the blunt shape of its wings. Look, it’s barely moving them as it climbs on the thermals.”
“You are surprising, Kate. I always thought thermals were something to do with vests.”
Kate smiled. “No you didn’t.”
Anna agreed that she didn’t. The two women watched the majestic bird, high above them in the cloudless sky, appearing to drift effortlessly in lazy circles on the warm air. They were half-way into their hike, resting for ten minutes in the black shade of a wild fig. Anna’s protests that she didn’t have sensible shoes for hiking over mountains had been swept aside by Kate. They’d set off at seven. It was now ten and getting hotter by the minute. The path was Indian file, rocky, narrow and steep; every step had to be watched. Sometimes they’d lose sight of the sea completely, then it would come into view again, blazingly sapphire blue. Today the surface was as still as milk, with tiny, motionless white sails and dinky toy steamers painted on it. There were no sounds other than those of insects and the distant bleating of goats. The smell was almost a parody of  hot, southern landscape – sun-warmed flowers, baked earth, hot resin. Kate drew a deep breath.

“We haven’t seen a soul for three hours.”
“When I think of what Athens must be like.” Anna had her back against the tree, eyes closed. “I sometimes think that Greeks can’t  – and don’t want to do anything without making a noise.”
“My first day in Greece, driving down from Piraeus, I couldn’t believe it. I nearly told the driver to turn round and take me back to the airport.
Are you glad you came, by the way?” (Anna’s protests at being roused so early, stuffed into Kate’s spare trainers and told to help with the picnic had been vigorous.)
“Yes, very.” Anna smiled at Kate. “But I am glad that Felicity isn’t with us. She’d be wondering if the grass was damp.”
“Ooh, that’s a bit unkind. Although I can imagine that damp grass, even if there isn’t a blade about, might be one of Felicity’s preoccupations. Have you seen her since she was here?”

Anna shook her head. “Half-term. So she rushes back to England as she always does. In some ways she’s a model mother, but model mothering needs to be combined with something else. It’s all she can do, or ever done, as far as I can tell. She won’t make the slightest attempt to learn Greek. Won’t drive a car in Athens. Surrounds herself with jars of Marmite and Cooper’s Oxford marmalade and tries to create a Little England. I think Luke’s a saint.”
“I’ll have them over, sometime.”
“Well, don’t invite me.”
“Really, why not?”

“It might be interesting to see what you make of him.” Anna drank again from the thermos of water. “It’s not that I dislike Felicity. She can disarm with kindness and thoughtfulness. It’s just that I find her intensely irritating; she makes me want to tell smutty jokes and flirt outrageously with every man in sight, especially Luke.”

*********

Kate’s plan was that they should cross the island; see the sea from the other side. Robin Benedictus, when rung for directions, had said perfectly possible to do. It was a wonderful walk, but long. And so it proved to be – not only long, but deceptive.

“Just round the bend, over the next little hill, and I’m sure we’ll see the other side,” Kate encouraged, rather more than once. But just round the bend and over the next little hill were more rocks to scramble over, more basking lizards, bright, papery rock-roses and prickly thistles, and still no sign of the sea.
“Let’s just say we saw it,” Anna suggested, after the fourth or fifth such disappointment. At one point they had to climb a particularly steep bit of path that was slippery underfoot with shale. Kate was hauling a reluctant Anna after her. Her foot slipped, and they clung together, laughing and swaying, before toppling over, still in each other’s arms. They smelt sun-burnt hair, fresh, clean sweat, warm, healthy bodies as they subsided. Lying where they had fallen, listening to the silence, Anna examined a broken nail and Kate remarked that she felt about thirteen.

“Shall we stop and have the picnic, then head back?” asked Kate a few minutes later. She would have liked to go on, but Anna, eyes shut against the glare, was fading fast.
“Yes.” said Anna. “Unless you want to carry me.”
The picnic had suffered in transit. Olives, salami, and egg mayonnaise, which had looked so tempting in the shady kitchen at seven that morning, were sullen and greasy in the mid-day heat. Only the hearts of lettuce still looked crisp and cool. Sun-warmed cherries sounded poetic, but the reality was unrefreshing, and the less said about hot melon the better. Anna, aware of Kate’s dismay, was only faintly malicious.
“At least there aren’t any wasps. There would be plenty at an English picnic, or it would be raining.”

They collapsed onto their beds the moment they got back. Anna didn’t reappear until after six. Kate slept for an hour, and then re-typed her final review. She was waiting on the terrace.
“Do you want to look through the pieces now?” she asked when Anna joined her, “while I water the garden.”
Kate heaved the heavy hose around the thirsty roses and geraniums, glad to have something to do. Sitting around while Anna read was too reminiscent of tutorials. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Anna’s judgement, but Kate was sufficiently proud of her acclaim as a writer to feel that only her peers – Sam, or her editor – had the right to reach for the blue pencil. She wound up the hose and returned to the terrace. Anna was petting Grubby, who had been away for twenty-four hours on one of his mysterious outings. Anna, like Kate, had been feeling apprehensive.

“Want a permanent job?”
Kate laughed and sat down.
“If I were Lawrence Durrell or Dilys Powell,” Anna continued, “I’d be turning cartwheels. They’re delightful. Thanks.”
“I’ve dipped a toe back in. Can’t tell you what it feels like. I should thank you.”
“There are just a couple of things.” Anna felt now she could make one or two small criticisms. She was good at her job. Kate recognised that as soon as Anna made her intelligent, thoughtful suggestions. They were mainly to do with emphasis and length – Kate, untypically, had been less than spare with Patrick Leigh Fermor. They discussed the possibility of more contributions.

Anna was catching the ten o’clock Dolphin back to Athens the following morning. Both of them felt the effect of the route march, as Anna called it, and went to bed early. Lying on her back, watching the lambent pattern of stars through the wide-open window, Kate reflected on her rapport with Anna. Usually it took her a long time to make friends. With Anna there had been no barriers and few irritations. She wondered if the instant closeness had anything to do with Sam. Kate was very fond of him, Anna had loved him possibly still did. Was he some sort of nexus? When I get back to London I must ask Sam about Anna, she thought. I can imagine her being perfectly suited to him – stylish, funny, bright. Was it simply that Sam didn’t want to be ensnared?
And when am I going back to London? I Still can’t face Conrad and the carry-on, which is no doubt still going on. But I can’t kick him out again either. Kate fell asleep and dreamed that Conrad was camping out in the courtyard of the house in Holland Park. Throwing stones against what had been his bedroom window in happier times. It wasn’t a nightmare, but neither was it the sweetest.

15 TURN LEFT AT THE NASTURTIUMS: Revelations in a girls’ chat

Chapter Seven

INSTALMENT 15

When Anna rang up to ask how soon she could expect her review copy, Kate thought she might go over to the mainland and deliver it in person. She had completed four reviews and there were two to go. Working on a typewriter rather than a laptop was an odd, only half-remembered sensation; she might as well have been be hacking it out with a goose quill and a pot of ink. And to think that wrote my first novel in long hand in lined exercise books, because I couldn’t afford typing paper, let alone a typewriter, she reflected.  Her plan to go to Athens was scuttled by a sudden increase in temperature. Out of interest, she’d bought a small thermometer on the port; it was now registering 38C – hotter than Calcutta – and the idea of crowded, polluted Athens didn’t please. Anna was emphatic: “Don’t even think of it. It’s a hell’s kitchen here. Alex is away for a couple of days – I’ll come to you.”

So Kate again had company. They had supper on the terrace, trying to catch what little breeze there was. Anna sat with Grubby on her knee while Kate grilled fish on a portable barbecue she’d found under the stairs. They ate it with bread and a large salad dressed with local olive oil and lemon juice. Kate had still to get over the excitement of picking her own lemons; fruit from the previous winter was still clinging on, and tasted almost sweet. Anna was amused.
“It beats trailing round a London supermarket,” Kate said.
“And when did you last do that? More likely an upmarket shop online, surely.”
“You’re entirely wrong. I enjoy shopping, wouldn’t dream of letting someone else pick out my stuff. Don’t forget I had a French grandmother. Well, why should you know, but I did.”

Kate fried bananas. Drowned them in brandy, a spoonful of honey (also local), and more lemon. The temperature dropped slightly as the evening grew deeper, and the sky was as powdered with stars as it had been on Kate’s first night. Drifts of laughter reached them from below from other people eating in the caressing evening air. A cruise ship, dressed over-all with fairy lights, slid silently by on her way to Spetses.
“How old is Nell?” The question came out of the blue. They’d been talking of Sam, and why he’d never married.
“She’s twenty-five. Coming up to twenty-six”.
“You weren’t married?”
“No. Wedding bells and woolly bootees weren’t her dad’s cup of tea. Wouldn’t have lasted anyway.”
“Funny how things work out.”
“Yes.”

Kate waited. Anna looked pensive. Kate poured more coffee.
“Rose was lucky. She didn’t have a mother-in-law, especially a Greek mother-in-law. ”
An abrupt change, Kate thought, but perhaps there was a link somewhere. She decided against saying that Rose’s luck had run out pretty quickly.
“How long have you and Alex been married?”
“Three years. And do you know, every single time Angeliki – that’s his mother – comes into the room, her eyes drift to the level of my navel. Every single time. She’s obsessed.”
“You mean where’s the grandchild?”
“Yes. She blames me, of course, for the lack of one, never Alex. Couldn’t possibly be anything to do with her son. She’d haul me off to the nearest wise woman, given half a chance. Underneath the sables and the expensive perfume, she’s as superstitious as a peasant”.
Kate laughed. “Surely not sables in Greece?”
“Well, you can’t really call Kifissia Greece, but the people who live there are typical of a certain sort of rich Greek.  Athens can be bitterly cold in the winter – it often snows – and out come the sables, Kate, not mink.”

Anna went on to tell Kate about life in Kifissia. The keeping-up-with-the-neighbours. If somebody hired a Philippino maid, the next person trumped their ace and got two. A Philippino houseboy was considered even more chic. Status symbols were important, especially cars: this year it was a BMW; last year you were invisible if you didn’t have a Mercedes – a matched set, his and hers. Sons were sent to Athens College, the Eton of Greece, to England to be educated. Everyone had a boat, a house in the country or by the sea. Everyone went skiing in the winter, had an obligatory visit to Mykonos in the summer. Such sheep.

“You don’t enjoy it?” Kate felt that Anna was rather over-stating her case. She looked very sleek on the diet of status symbols.
“Of course I do. It’s a lovely life, in many ways. But I can stand back. I can laugh at the absurdities, and they can’t. I don’t care really care about all these things, but they do.”
After a while, Anna returned to the subject of children. She said that Alex was quite relaxed about it, which was unusual for a Greek.
“And you, are you quite relaxed about it?”
“Oh, you know. One does feel rather incomplete. I do love Alex and I’d like to give him a child. He’d be a wonderful, though probably over-indulgent father. They all are. No doubt Angeliki would try to boss the show, but I can handle her. She knows I won’t stand any nonsense, whereas a Greek wife might knuckle under.”
“My mother-in-law would have disowned me if I’d made her a granny. Last thing she wanted. There’s only twelve years between us, and it does have its tricky moments.”

The two women sat and talked and occasionally woke a slumbering Grubby with their laughter. Kate found herself warming to Anna, who revealed a softer side when her guard was down. The caustic comments were still there, but leavened now and then by unexpected vulnerabilities. It became perfectly clear that she had once loved Sam Gordon deeply. Possibly still did, in spite of Alex. There were echoes of real pain. It was also clear that her first marriage had been a short-lived calamity.

Anna came back from the lavatory.
“Your lav seat doesn’t get any better, does it? I nearly fell off – must be the brandy.” She lit another cigarette and picked up where she had left off before she sought Kate’s bathroom. “My first marriage was a farce, you know. Once the honeymoon was over. We were far too young, and I had no notion of how to be an Army wife, n o notion of the restrictions.”
“A bird in a not very gilded cage?”
“The gilding was Alistair in his overalls. You’ve never seen anything so irresistible, but that soon wore off. The rows we used to have – I was ruining his career, refusing to conform, making him conspicuous – all that. He even felt I was making a fool of him. Poor Alistair, he was such a stuffed shirt. A stuffed shirt with a pretty face. He’s a full Colonel now.”
“Did he re-marry?”
“With amazing speed. Three children. Funny how things turn out…”
“It is.”
“And then there was Sam.”
“It’s not that I’m not happy with Alex. But perhaps one really only does have one great love, and if it’s not allowed to take root, to flower.”

Conrad is the love of my life, damn his eyes, thought Kate. What a prize to pull out of the matrimonial bran-tub. A man incapable of fidelity and incapable too, apparently, of seeing that his infidelities hurt so much – and still do.
Anna was continuing her own train:
“I really don’t think I’d mind Sam having other liaisons. As long as I was Number One. Number One Wife, of course, not Number One Girlfriend”.
With self-deprecating humour, Anna described her pursuit of Sam, and her campaign to captivate him, until the sobering realisation that Sam could be captivated but not captured. She insisted that she wouldn’t have minded his diversions, but Kate interjected:
“My guess is you’d have absolutely hated it. In any case, I don’t believe Sam would have strayed, had he married. There’s something quite strait-laced about him. He deplores Conrad’s behaviour.”

A reference to Conrad’s deplorable behaviour  hung on the air, unsaid by Anna.
“Anyway, I don’t recommend my position to anyone,” Kate finished.
“And you’ve never gone astray? Not even close?”
Kate was silent for a moment, remembering one or two that might be called close shaves. But the bother, the deceit had always stopped her. The life-force for that sort of behaviour was absent.
“Come on, Kate.”
“They would have been so peripheral. Not worth the effort”. Kate tilted back her chair. Stared at the stars for a moment.
“Adultery requires energy – all the planning and dodging in and out of restaurants, in and out of strange beds. Maybe some people see it as part of the fun, but to me it seems too much effort ”
“Lack of energy strikes me as a pretty negative reason for not having an affair. Especially in your shoes. I don’t think I quite believe you.”
Kate laughed.
Anna waited.
“I suppose I’m simply a faithful wife. I’m certainly not interested in settling scores. Besides, think how exhausting that would be – I’d never be able to keep up with Conrad”.
“You wouldn’t have had time to write a postcard, let alone all those books.” Anna glanced at Kate. “I suppose in any event, Conrad would be a hard act to follow.”
“Mmm.”

She looks inquisitive, thought Kate. Nostrils flared, antennae waving. Can’t oblige, I’m afraid. Won’t oblige… Kate, unlike many of her contemporaries, had never been comfortable discussing sexual prowess. The quirks and quiddities of husbands. The subject had sometimes occasioned much laughter, late in the evening, when she was alone with close women friends. They could be amazingly frank. A combination of loyalty, reticence, a sort of fastidiousness, perhaps, held Kate back. Was it inhibition? Even when writing her love scenes were sketched rather than fully detailed. Subtle rather than full-frontal.

Anna didn’t pursue the conversation. For the next morning, Kate had suggested a long hike over the craggy hills to the other side of the island. Anna thought the idea lunatic, and said so. Why not go in a boat? Kate had countered with promises of flasks of iced water, a delicious picnic, an early start, taking it slowly.

They still had to run over Kate’s reviews, which was, after all the main object of Anna’s visit. Anna felt she could hardly ask Kate to change anything, as long as the pieces were to length. She reluctant to offer suggestions to a writer of Kate’s reputation, even by so much as the removal of a semi-colon. Her idea of rescuing Kate from her writer’s block might backfire if they ended up not speaking to one another. In fact, Anna had rung Sam – she hadn’t spoken to him or seen him for years – to ask if Kate took direction kindly. She convinced herself that really was the reason why she was ringing him. Sam had been affectionate, unaffectedly pleased to hear from her. The conversation had caused Anna some pain, and pleasure. But a counterpoint of pain.