A PLACE IN THE SUN
“I’ve not come to sleep with you” she said, in response to a question I had not, as yet, asked. “It’s different here. I have a new life – you need to know that!”
It was a sweltering hot August near the turn of the last century and I had gone wandering with my guitar, rucksack and PDA. I was taking my traditional break as much of my business at that time was seasonal. i.e. virtually none in the summer. I had found a £99.00 return flight to Corfu, in the Ionian Islands of Greece, and packed my bag and headed for the sun. Well, that was the plan – play some guitar, write a few stories and slow the pace for a while.
I chose a room in Corfu Town on the fourth floor of a guest house overlooking the fish market – away from the holiday complexes and the drunken adolescents and their partying.
I watched the peaceful sunset and talked with the grizzle-faced old men in the bars, who told me of how the island had been before the influx of package tourists, and woke to the cries of the market being brought to life. I walked the beaches before the revellers could rouse themselves and scribbled pen pictures to my notepad or voicenotes to my PDA.
After two days, the idea of an adventure dawned on me. Skiathos! To look up the only person I knew in Greece, an old girlfriend. It seemed like a reasonable and fun ‘quest’ and a way to see the islands and meet the people.
In London she had been a serious party animal and, as our relationship was long dead and had, to my mind, ended amicably, I thought that it would be fun to visit her, however, the journey, not the destination was the goal.
She had left England a few years previously to work the summers in the Islands and return to the centrally-heated suburbs of London for the winters. I had got a card from her some months before to say that she had come to rest on the Island of Skiathos, on the other side of the mainland.
In retrospect it was a truly crazy idea: I was on holiday for a week and was contemplating a 400 mile return journey, as the crow flies, by ferry and bus, to drop in on someone who might well not be in.
I got up early, took the bus to the harbour and caught a ferry going down the coast via Paxi, Antipaxi, Preveza and Lefkada.
As the ferry pulled out I found a place in the shade and sat down to play my guitar. In no time at all a large group of curious children gathered around me. Soon their parents came and life stories were exchanged mingled with offers of hospitality.
We ambled down to Lefkada and at last landed.
From Lefkada I took the bus to Athens and then a bus to Thessaloniki. The journey took the greater part of the day and there were no ferries to Skiathos until the morning.
So I found a hotel in Thessaloniki to pass the night before the island hopping ferry. I was warned that accommodation on Skiathos was sparse at this time of year so I geared myself for a possible night on the beach.
The ferry took me across to Skiathos where I was again warned of the room shortage but the guide also said that one of his cousins might know of a place.
The ‘cousins system’ bore fruit on the third attempt and I was whisked off to see my new home balanced on the back of a motor bike, sans helmet, with my guitar case in hand. We sped off up gravel paths and not-so-well-maintained roads to my new lodgings.
It was the tour guide’s hut, which was not presently in use. More of a bedsit with an external shower; it would be fine for a couple of days.
I freshened up, had a cup of coffee and then set off to explore the island. I was trying to retrace the route from the harbour..
After an hour of slow walking and the occasional dead end, I found the main road and was heading for the harbour when I saw a name I thought I recognised. It was, I thought, the name of the hotel my friend said she was working at.
I wandered in and found the cafe by the swimming pool and was welcomed by the barman like a long lost friend.
“Are you American?”
“No, I’m English, from London.”
“From London? We have many people from London here, maybe you know them?”
I said that I doubted it and excused myself. I transported my cold beer to the shade near the pool where I pondered the light shimmering on the water and drank in the sounds of the holidaymakers while jotting down ideas and overheard phrases for later use. The beer was almost done when a familiar voice semi-whispered, “What are you doing here?”
She was not as I expected to see her. The last time we met she had been dolled up in a her skimpy, out-to-party outfit which signalled to any man in the area that the ‘fun’ had now arrived. Today she wore highly polished black shoes and a modest black fitted skirt topped with a crisp white blouse which was open at the neck, but revealing no cleavage. She carried a silver tray on which I could see a prawn sandwich and side salad.
Taken aback, I replied. “I was just passing.”
“Stay there”, she hissed, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
So I obediently sat and contemplated the end of my beer.
After a while she returned and still in this unfamiliar voice said. “We need to talk, but you can’t stay here. My boss will be back any minute.”
She asked where I was staying and said she would come and see me later, after work, but that I should leave right away.
This was the point at which her boss arrived. “You know each other? I tell you many people from London here.” Her ‘boss’ was the ‘barman’ I had met earlier.
“Yes, what a surprise!” she replied, before I could speak. “An old friend from London. He’s not staying long”.
“Then you must come to the beach bar for a drink tonight”, he said addressing me again. “It is the first chance I have had to meet one of Cassandra’s friends. Say you will come”.
“I’m not sure about my plans, I’m only here for a couple of days”, I said, trying to decline the invitation gracefully, while at the same time thinking ‘who the hell is Cassandra?’
“No you must come. Cassandra, try to get him to join us.”
Cassandra! I remembered, at last. She had been christened Cassandra, but she never used that name apart from on legal documents. This was the first time I had ever heard her addressed as Cassandra.
“I’ll try, George, I’ll try”, said the woman now known as Cassandra.
George went back to the bar, looking back at us from time to time as he went. “Please go now?” She implored. “I’ll explain later.”
I left to continue my tour.
At the appointed hour I returned to my room. She was not there so I made myself a cup of tea and sat out under the porch, rerunning the events of the day and scribbling notes in my pad.
After about twenty minutes she arrived, this time in flip flops, shorts and a loose flowing top.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No thanks, I’d prefer coffee and can we have it inside, please?”
We went inside and I offered her the only chair. She sat on the bed. We made small talk as I made the coffee and as I was carrying the two cups over to the coffee table she stood, closed the distance between us and planted a prize-winning kiss on my lips. When we parted, she sat on the chair. “I’ve not come to sleep with you. It’s different here. I have a new life, you need to know that.”
I put the cups on the coffee table, took a pillow from the bed and sat on it on the floor facing her.
“That’s not why I came”, I replied in earnest. “I really am just ‘passing by’. I’ve a couple of days at most and then I’m off back to Corfu. I chose to travel to Skiathos for the journey but not necessarily to see you. Although, that’s very nice too.”
She laughed, she didn’t believe me.
“Can you tell me about the Cassandra thing?”
She was silent for a while. “You know that Cassandra is my real name, don’t you?”
“I came away from London to get away from the whole scene; the dirt, the grime, the mad, mad parties and all the accumulated crap of growing up in that place. My old name is part of that so I sloughed it off when I came here.
I’ve built myself a new world and a new history here - I’m happy with who I am here. Now you come along and have the power to destroy everything that I have so carefully built. But, you can also help me strengthen the foundations of my new life.
George is very curious about you, and me. You are the only person from my London life he has ever met. He insists that you come to the bar tonight.
I’ve told him that we were good friends in London and that I would try to get you to come along. He was very curious about my past before and your arrival has only made him more so.
If you are my friend, as I believe you are, you can help me build something beautiful and new here, with George. Will you?”
It took a second for me to reply, “Of course, I will.” And I really meant it.
For the next thirty minutes, I was schooled in her/our new history. On what I could/should talk about and what I should avoid.
As she left she smiled, stared into my eyes for a moment, then squeezed both my hands and gave me a peck on the cheek.
I arrived at the bar around 9.00pm. It had an excellent beach view but was situated near the end of the beach inhabited by the night clubs. It was sparsely populated at this time of night as it was the wrong area for the old folk and too early for the young.
To George I was a minor singer and writer who she had met through her ex-husband. When George asked me questions he scrutinised my face; I, in turn, lied like a champion.
For two hours I played my part, not deviating from my script and embellishing her new memories as appropriate and required. Then I bid them both a good night.
I walked home and poured myself a stiff drink.
In the morning, I got up early and walked out to the main road. I hitched a lift to the harbour and handed my key over to the Guide and gave him an extra day’s rent for my leaving so suddenly. The events of the previous night had started to make me feel a bit uneasy as I replayed them. The strong Greek coffee in the café helped settle my mind. Surely, everyone is entitled to a bit of happiness?
The Guide was checking our tickets as we boarded the ferry. He wished me a safe journey and hoped that I would find what I was looking for on another island.
I smiled and shook his hand. I had lost a crazy, wild, self-destructive, ex lover and found a friend in shiny black shoes serving prawn sandwiches. That’s good enough for me.