Island of Secrets
Crete, present day.
The village of Amiras stilled, like a theatre waiting the curtain to rise. Heat shimmered from the cobbled streets. In front of the kafenion, empty chairs stood in random groups between square tables. Outside the closed supermarket, hessian olive sacks hung over boxes of potatoes and vegetables, protecting them from the fierce Mediterranean light.
A herd of long-haired goats shifted into the shadow of the hilltop chapel. For a few seconds, the dull clatter of their bells broke the peace and quiet of siesta time. In the lower village, a blue door squeaked open and a wide-hipped, middle-aged housewife hurried up the narrow streets. From the shade of a vermillion bougainvillea, a skinny white cat sniffed the air, narrowed its eyes, and watched the woman.
Inside one cottage, an elderly couple sat as still and silent as the stone walls. A crucifix hung over a garish icon of Agios Yeorgos, Saint George. The martyr seemed distracted from his dragon-slaying by an object in the living room. A chocolate box overflowed with photographs, letters and mementoes in the centre of a low round table.
The old woman, Maria, reached for a faded picture of Poppy cradling her baby. She studied the image and recalled Poppy’s last words, still fresh in her ears although decades had passed.
Forget me, Mama. Forget I ever existed.
A shaft of sunlight streamed through the window illuminating Maria’s scarred hands—an ugly reminder of the fire. It took time for those wounds to heal.
Her wizened face hardened with a decision.
‘I will write to them, Vassili,’ she said to the Einstein look-alike sitting by the fireplace. ‘Voula can help me.’ She replaced the picture and closed the box. ‘God’s getting impatient, and I’m tired of it all.’ She crossed herself three times and prayer locked her arthritic fingers.
Vassili nodded as though he understood, but passing years had eroded his grief. He dropped his amber worry-beads and hobbled to her side.
‘Don’t waste your thoughts on what’s dead and gone, old woman.’ He kissed her forehead.
Despite his words, scenes from the past returned and filled Maria’s head.
‘I can’t forget,’ she whispered staring at ghosts that crowded into the whitewashed room.
Vassili followed her gaze, unable to see those who haunted her.
Recognising his confusion, Maria wished the spores of old age would moulder her mind too. Regrets were useless now. The time had come for forgiveness and, before she died, Maria hoped to touch the cheek of Poppy’s child.
‘Angelika has a right to know the truth, old man, she’s our granddaughter.’
‘Mama, Papa, your dinner’s here.’ Voula’s rotund body crashed through the doorway. The fly curtain whipped around her black dress like a multicoloured explosion. She gripped a casserole pot against her belly and grinned, her face a friendly gargoyle.
‘No need to shout, Voula, we’re not deaf,’ Maria said.
Vassili cupped a hand behind his ear. ‘Eeh, what’s that? Ah, the food. No chance of any meat I suppose? I’ll be glad when Lent’s over. I can smell the lamb already.’ He shuffled to the kitchen table.
‘Only a few more days until Easter, Papa. I’ve made stuffed peppers. Will you have a glass of Demitri’s wine?’ Voula clattered the dishes and then helped Maria out of the armchair. ‘Anything else?’ she asked, pouring cloudy red krassié into tumblers before serving their meals.
Maria cut open a green pepper, hunched over her plate and sniffed the food
Voula stopped bustling and watched her taste the rice stuffing flavoured with herbs, currants, and pine nuts. When Maria approved with a nod, Voula took a breath and smiled.
‘I want to write to Poppy and Angelika,’ Maria said.
Voula’s eyes widened. She glanced around the tabletop and then at Vassili who guzzled his food. ‘Are you sure, Mama?’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘What if it starts up again, the trouble, after all these years? Isn’t it better to forget? We can’t bring back the dead.’
‘No,’ Maria said, her face drawn and thin above the mound of colourful vegetables. ‘I’ve decided.’
The next day Voula asked, ‘How do you want to start the letter, Mama?’ Her pencil poised over a child’s exercise book.
Maria grunted. ‘I’ve thought about it for hours. The beginning is the most difficult part. If it’s not perfect, they’ll screw it up and throw it away. We’ve got one chance at this, Voula, we’d better get it right. Address the letter to Angelika. I think Poppy might tear it up unopened. Now, let’s see, how shall we begin?’
‘I know, what about: Dear Angelika?’
Maria rolled her eyes. She wondered if her daughter-in-law had lost more of her marbles in sixty-five years than Maria had in ninety. ‘Yes, very good, Voula,’ she snorted. ‘And then?’
Voula lifted and dropped her shoulders, which made her breasts quiver against her belly.
‘Write this then,’ Maria said. ‘I have wanted to send you a letter for a long time. I hoped to see you before I die, but I realise our meeting is unlikely.’
‘Oh, face the facts, Voula; I’m on my way out. Let’s get on with the letter before the Angel Gabriel replaces you as my personal assistant.’
Voula scratched her lip and nodded.
‘Now, write this, Voula: Angelika, please tell your mother I have always loved her. Put your arms around her and kiss her from me. Poppy is in my heart. Say that I am sorry. If I could have changed things, I would.’
‘Mama, how do we know Angelika reads Greek?’
‘I’m sure Poppy will have taught her. Anyway, we can ask Demitri to translate for us. What shall we write next? Perhaps something about Angelika’s father.’ Maria tilted her head to one side. ‘Yeorgo,’ she sighed. ‘Wasn’t he a beautiful man, Voula?’ Silent for a moment, Maria’s eyes glazed. ‘That’s another difficult part. I wonder if Angelika knows the truth.’
At the kitchen table, Voula sat opposite Maria and opened the exercise book. ‘It’s been a week and we’re no further, Mama. Perhaps we should write To Be Continued on the bottom and post it, just in case…’ Their eyes met.
Maria shook her head. ‘It isn’t as easy as I thought. What do you think we should write?’
‘Tell her about her aunts, uncles and cousins. What about me and my children and grandchildren?’ Voula said.
‘No, I want it to be something important.’ Their eyes met again. A cockerel crowed outside the door. ‘Tut, you know what I mean, Voula. Considering I was a teacher, I shouldn’t find a simple letter so difficult. Make us a coffee and then we’ll sit in the garden and crochet.’
They settled in the shade of the big olive tree. Maria gazed down, over the village rooftops and the bell-tower of the church of Agios Yeorgos. Her eyes followed the school bus, miniature in the distance, traveling the pale, dusty road beyond the village. Barely two cars wide, the highway snaked between silver-green olive groves, descending to the beach and fishing village of Arvi. The sound of a tootling horn drifted up as the bus neared a bend. The Arvi gorge, clearly visible, was nothing but a deep slash in the red rock to the left of the scene. From the shear-sided canyon, griffon vultures launched off their narrow ledges to circle up, over Amiras, on the mid-morning thermals.
The view drew her in, so peaceful and calm, showing no hint of the horrors Maria had witnessed from under that very tree, long ago. She sniffed the air and caught the scent of burning wood, lamb, and rosemary. Chops on someone’s BBQ. The memory of a fire, her darling boys in mortal danger, and the worst day of her life, hit her with such startling clarity she whimpered.
Voula looked up from her crocheting. ‘Are you all right, Mama?’
Maria huffed. ‘Why shouldn’t I be? Let’s get on with this letter.’
‘Why don’t we tell Angelika about the village, it might make her want to visit; or about the olive crop, or that the school is closing.’ Voula’s crochet hook flashed and dipped through a half-made tablecloth.
‘So much to say, but nothing seems worthy of such a significant letter.’ Maria struggled with her work, the silk snagging on her crooked fingers, but if she lost a day she’d never return to her crocheting.
‘I know!’ Voula said, making Maria jump and two hours’ work unravel as it fell to the ground.
Maria took a swipe at her daughter-in-law, but missed. ‘Now look what you’ve made me do. This had better be good, Voula.’
Voula had trouble picking up the crocheting, her legs too fat to bend, and her belly too round for the reach. ‘Start by telling Angelika about Poppy and Yeorgo’s wedding day. Tell her you still have Poppy’s dress. Ask if she’d like to have it.’
‘Mmm, that’s an idea.’ Maria nodded.
Grunting and panting, Voula reached for Maria’s work and came up red-faced but triumphant. The moment she plopped into the garden chair one of her black knee-highs rolled to her ankle and the house telephone rang.
‘Virgin Mary!’ Voula cried.
They both crossed themselves three times.
Villa of Secrets
It wasn’t the size of the girl in the war, but the size of the war in the girl.
Rhodes, Greece. Present day.
Naomi shut the heavy door and slipped through a crumbling archway that spanned the street. She stood for a moment, eyes closed and face turned to the sun. Perhaps she shouldn’t leave her grandmother alone, but Bubba was sleeping and Naomi, desperate for some fresh air, would return in twenty minutes.
She tossed her dark hair back and power-walked along the village side road, pumping her arms and heading for the beach. Wild ox-eye daisies, poking from cracked kerb stones, nodded in welcome as she rushed by. Sandstone walls lined her way, time-worn, dull and dusty. Pastel masonry broken by startling blocks of colour – her neighbours’ courtyard doors. Blue, mauve, turquoise, crimson, and green.
A motley assortment of pots pinched the road into pedestrian narrowness. Containers housed a riotous collection of flowers: salmon geraniums, cerise dahlias, and top-heavy Easter lilies that exuded an exotic perfume. A vermillion bougainvillea, vivid and impenetrable, reached over a high stone wall halfway down the street, providing a much-needed patch of shade across scorching cobbles.
Nearer the beach, a web of familiar smells surrounded Naomi. She inhaled the scent of summer and the sea, and childhood scenes with their inseparable perfumes rushed into her mind.
She recalled piles of yellow net on the seawall, drying in the noon sun.
The cement wharf was spattered with translucent fish scales, glinting harlequin sequins in the harsh light. Weather-worn canvas sails that had scooped endless journeys out of the wind ended their days hanging heavy and exhausted over harbour railings.
On her arms, briny crystals sparkled like carnival face paint. When she licked the prickling salt off her skin, she tasted pure Mediterranean and longed to dive into the sea.
When she was five years old, Naomi helped to scrub sacks of blue-black mussels with her mother, on the deck of her father’s boat. She inspected each one carefully before dropping it into the bucket. Side-by-side, content and silent, her parents exchanged wide smiles, which only now Naomi realised were full of pride. She recalled leaping off the pier with her school friends, bombing the water, howling with laughter when they broke the surface.
Rowdy birds had screamed and jostled behind her father’s laden boat on its return to port each morning. Before school, Naomi would race along the shore parallel to the vessel, waving and calling, ‘Papa! Papa!’ over the sea.
On the beach a row of weathered men, with their arsenal of long fishing-rods, laughed and encourage her. ‘Run, Naomi, Run!’ Papa would sound the foghorn in her honour and wave back.
Treasured days of love and laughter with her parents. Then Rebecca was born, and everything changed.
Naomi loved the sea, its sounds and its basic salty shape-shifting aroma – despite all it had taken from her. She found the beach empty, apart from a lone fisherman who sat on an upturned bucket and stared out over the Mediterranean. Naomi had seen him there before, clean shaven, weathered face, well-worn expensive clothes. She returned his nod as she passed.
Smooth grey stones spliced by veins of white marble, clacked and slipped underfoot. She hurried towards a ribbon of wet sand, skirting the waterline. In the distance, a magnificent cruise ship headed for Kos, and she imagined her husband serving dinner in one of the sumptuous dining rooms.
At dawn, the Royal Sapphire had berthed in Rhodes Town. When Costa finished work, he had slipped home.
‘Surprise!’ he called, barging through the door with a bunch of yellow roses thrust at her.
‘Costa! Oh, Costa!’ She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him fervently.
Costa, a head taller than Naomi, lifted her off her feet and said, ‘You drive me crazy, Naomi love. I had to come.’
She stuffed the bouquet in a jug of water, and then grabbed his hand. With two months catching up to do, they rushed upstairs and spent the entire afternoon between the sheets. Tumbling and fumbling, laughing and loving, never needing to say how much they still cared for each other.
After, they showered together, kisses tasting of toothpaste, bodies slippery with bath foam. Scrubbing each other’s backs, they made plans for the winter, talked about their boys at university, the olive harvest, and what type of sofa to buy.
She glanced at the ship. I love you, Costa.
The day’s boisterous waves had abated and a path of orange light reached across the Mediterranean from the setting sun.
Startled when a white bird darted, arrow-like, from the bamboo thicket, Naomi pulled up. The little egret pursued a dragonfly, then folded its angelic wings and returned to the dense shoreline vegetation.
Stunned by the magical scene, Naomi thought of her sister in London. She longed to share the precious moment and imagined telling Rebecca what she had witnessed. Would Rebecca experience such beauty in the big city? Did Rebecca realise what she was missing and how much she was missed, or had the magic of Rhodes faded from her memory forever? Her life was probably full, with her handsome husband and the chaos of young children.
Naomi recalled Rebecca’s giggle whenever they got up to mischief, her self-effacing humour, the playful glint in her eye. The downturn of her mouth when she contemplated the less fortunate. Saddened that her sister was now lost to her, Naomi regretted not knowing her nieces or nephews.
She reached her turning point, a cement bunker in the shallows, remnant of the last war. It faced the Turkish mountains, visible across the sea. Although tilted by shore erosion, the grey pillbox appeared indestructible. Naomi sat on a rock. With her eyes on the cruise ship, her thoughts returned to her only sister.
At least Rebecca wouldn’t have money worries. London was a place for the wealthy, where people lived in luxury that they took for granted. Naomi hugged herself, wondering if she would ever see her sister again. She wished old wounds would heal and that they could exchange a few words occasionally.
No one doubted Rebecca and her husband were in love. If only Bubba had explained the reason for her wrath . . . perhaps Rebecca wouldn’t have retaliated with such vehemence. A decade had passed since Rebecca’s departure. Ten years of a crowded house, growing boys, exams and overstretched finances. But now, with Naomi’s sons settled at university, and Costa back on The Royal Sapphire for the cruising season, her home felt echoingly empty.
She turned and retraced her steps. On the way, she peered into the bamboo. The egret had vanished. Such a beautiful bird, yet there was no sign it had ever existed. Just like Rebecca, she thought.
Ten years was a long time, and Naomi and her sister used to be so close. Naomi could start peace talks, why not? Someone had to try and bring the family back together.
Yet Rebecca’s fair-haired Austrian husband was the problem. No, that wasn’t quite true. Naomi’s grandmother had caused the split. Naomi suspected that Bubba, who was Jewish, had too many wartime memories buried the recesses of her mind. If she was right and those recollections resurfaced now in Bubba’s feeble state after the stroke, Naomi didn’t want to contemplate the consequences.
A wave broke over her trainers. She stared at her wet shoes and, for the first time in many years, found herself hurled back in time to that same beach on the worst day of her life.
Rhodes, Greece. December 1984.
Bubba yelled up the stairs, ‘Put your coat on, Naomi. Let’s go before it gets worse. I can’t sit here feeling useless. I have to look myself!’
Naomi, ten years old, ran down the stone steps as her grandmother, with Rebecca bundled in a shawl and clutched to her chest, called out, ‘I’m taking the baby across the road, child.’
‘I’m coming, Bubba.’ Naomi followed her grandmother into the blustery street. Her red coat danced around like a gleeful puppy but Naomi was in no mood for games. She struggled to get her arms into the sleeves.
Bubba passed the infant to the priest’s wife, promising to return soon. The priest, Papas Yiannis Voskos, came to the door. He dropped to his knees and fastened Naomi’s buttons. She had never seen him look so downcast, his eyes bloodshot and restless in his hirsute face. He would usually grin and say, ‘How’s my big girl today?’ and in a flash, produce a sweet or a cent from behind her ear. On the day of the storm, fun had abandoned him.
‘Any news?’ he said to Bubba, gripping the wooden crucifix that hung against his chest.
Bubba shook her head. In a voice shrill with worry she said, ‘I can’t stand the wait. It’s driving me to madness.’
Papas Yiannis glared at the black thunderous clouds. ‘God, keep them safe.’ He rested his hand on Bubba’s shoulder. ‘Be careful on the beach, woman. It’s dangerous down there.’
Bubba and Naomi leaned into the wind and hurried towards the shore. The roar of the sea met their ears long before the water came into view.
They rounded the corner, hammered back by the gale as huge waves rode on the shoulders of a fearsome swell. Tumultuous foam crashed onto the sand, terrifying Naomi. She clutched her grandmother’s hand and stumbled along the slope of pebbles. They stayed high on the slippery stones, yet her shoes were soon soaked through.
The squall whipped Naomi’s clothes around her almost knocking her off balance. She tried to yell, ‘I’m scared, Bubba!’ but the wind stole the words from her mouth. In the racket made by rolling pebbles, roaring breakers, and the gale howling in her ears, she peered out to sea.
Although barely five o’clock, black clouds scudded across a full, December moon, throwing the scene into eerie darkness. Then, shafts of brilliant moonlight broke through and illuminated the tempest.
Naomi thought of her grandmother as a bucket of hugs and kisses waiting to be delivered. But the gentle expression had gone, leaving Bubba’s face pinched and bitter. Her eyes narrowed to slits and her jaw thrust forward as they peered through spume and spray, desperate for a glimpse of Elevtheria, her parents’ boat. The sea kept coming at them, driving them even higher up the wet stones.
Mama and Papa should have sailed home that morning after a night’s fishing.
‘They’ll be all right, Bubba,’ Naomi tried to say. Papa was the perfect sailor and she never doubted his sea-faring skills. He’d told her many exciting stories that involved stormy nights on the boat. Tales about waves as high as the house, mermaids, and sea monsters, and she would glance sideways at him, unsure which parts of his story were fact and which were fiction.
Bubba, stick thin but strong as a mule and just as stubborn, was beaten back by tiredness and gale-force winds. They returned home reluctantly. Papas Yiannis said he would pray for them, and Naomi noticed his eyes were unusually puffy. Bubba’s tears ran like red rivers on her pale, salt-dried face. At first, Naomi thought they were tears of blood.
Embarrassed to see her grandmother weep, she didn’t know where to look. Bubba sat next to Rebecca’s wooden cradle, rocking the new born and staring at nothing. Every once in a while, her chin shivered with a fresh bout of crying. She placed her hand on Naomi’s cheek and said, ‘Child, you’re so like your mother. My poor, sweet, Sonia. Pray to God she’s safe.’
Even now, when Naomi looked in the mirror, she saw the classic Greek features of her mother and, she guessed, of her grandmother too when she was young. Small in stature, olive skin, brown eyes, and a thick tumble of dark curls.
She tried to make Bubba feel better, brushing her tears away, hugging her and kissing her cheeks, exactly as Mama did when Naomi grazed her knees.
The show of affection only made Bubba worse.
Naomi was more worried about Bubba than her own parents. Her father was the best sailor in the world. He would have found a safe haven somewhere. She knew all about ‘safe havens’ because they featured in most of his bedtime stories.
‘Remember, Naomi, no matter how bad the storm, you can always find a safe haven, a calm place to shelter until things settle and it’s safe to go on.’
Later that evening Bubba crept out of the house. Naomi, mature for her years but still not realising the seriousness of the situation, worried when she didn’t return. Remembering Bubba’s earlier distress, she suspected the old lady had returned to the beach. She checked on baby Rebecca, who was sleeping in her cot, then followed her grandmother to the shore.
The storm had abated. The moon slid behind thick clouds, and the wind complained moodily. Alone in the dark, Naomi grew scared, sensing evil in the night, but then Bubba’s shriek ripped through the darkness. For a moment, afraid of the Bogeyman, Naomi shouted, ‘Bubba!’ into the stiff breeze, desperate for her grandmother to hear her.
Bubba’s wailing made Naomi think the Bogeyman had her. She didn’t know what to do. What if Bubba had fallen, broken a leg, and lay screaming in agony? Naomi had to help but her trepidation mounted. Monsters and demons returned to her imagination and dampened her bravery once more.
‘Bubba!’ she shouted again, running across slippery stones, fast as she could, because everyone knew the Bogyman couldn’t run very well. ‘Bubba, where are you?’ She stopped, enveloped by the night, twirling around because the Bogeyman was always behind you . . . or under your bed . . . or wherever you could not see him. But he looked for you, and you daren’t even breathe in case he heard you and pounced. Now he was on the beach, in the dark. She sensed his presence, looming.
A shape lurched out of the night. Naomi squealed and cowered, unable to move her feet. Bubba staggered towards her, clutching a splintered plank that Naomi recognised as part of a wrecked fishing boat.
‘Are they home, Naomi? Are they safe?’ the old woman wailed.
‘No, I haven’t heard, Bubba, but they’ll be all right. Papa’s a good sailor.’ Overcome with relief, she was ready to deny, even to herself, she’d been scared.
Naomi took Bubba’s gnarled hand and led her back to the house. ‘Shush, you’ll wake the baby,’ she said, quite the grown-up one. Her parents would be proud. When they returned, she might receive a pocket money rise. ‘You dry your eyes and wash your hands, and I’ll make you some cocoa,’ she told her grandmother, because that was what her mother would say when Naomi got upset about anything.
The next morning, haggard and red-eyed, Bubba rocked Rebecca to quieten her crying.
‘Get dressed, Naomi. We must go to the chemist for baby formula,’ she said.
Naomi flung a flat stone across the water counting four bounces before it disappeared beneath the waves. Although her memories were painful, there was something pure and cleansing about them.
The fisherman was re-baiting his hook. ‘Any luck?’ she called.
He shook his head. ‘Nothing.’
‘Perhaps tomorrow,’ she said encouragingly.
He smiled, eyes crinkling in the corners, rugged features lifting. She had the impression he didn’t smile often enough.
Naomi arrived home, pushed open the blue front door, and stopped dead.
Sweet old Bubba sat on the edge of the bed, crying, struggling with a gun in her good hand.
Naomi leapt forward. ‘No!’
In a flash, she imagined a deafening explosion with grotesque consequences. Everything frothed up inside her like milk on the boil and she almost vomited on the pebble mosaic floor.
She lunged, desperate to grab the weapon before her grandmother could pull the trigger.