Good Reading : August 2001
bookbites eventually and been slotted into place. I’m not sure why I felt that – it was nothing he actually said. And so after lunch I took a taxi up to Gastouri in the sweet-smelling hills behind the town with the curious feeling that I was the last piece this Mr Berwick had needed for some jigsaw puzzle he’d been working on. Stuck awkwardly amongst straggly olive-trees on the high side of the road winding up from the village to the crest above the sea, the house had not a skerrick of charm. To tell the truth, it almost looked like a child’s drawing of a house: a square, white block, with two shuttered windows upstairs and a door and one window downstairs. Some scruffy greenery drooped from the window-boxes. No sign of life. It was not at all what I’d had in mind. I stood and stared up at it glumly. The silence at that time of the afternoon was so deep it was almost like a dinning in the ears. The odd whine of a motor-scooter somewhere down in the village only made the quiet more intense. Spiralling down inside, I nevertheless climbed up the damp stone steps to the narrow terrace outside the front door and stood for a while taking in the afternoon. Purple honesty sprinkled the cobbles. Of course, at that time everything still reached my eyes through a William-coloured haze. A thousand times a day I saw those chunky black boots of his touch the platform at Roma Termini and felt my soul turn to lead. Over and over again I heard myself say ‘I’m so happy to see you’ as my lips brushed the cheekbone I’d once – indeed, just minutes before – thought more beautiful than beaten gold. Well, certainly striking. Even now, the gaudy mauve judas-trees across the road amongst the cypresses swam towards me through memories of what had happened when we left the station – in the taxi, in the cramped, yellow hotel room with its unforgivably purple bedspread filling half the room. was wearing a deep-blue dress, so can’t have been a widow. Who was she exactly? A neighbour? Surely not Kester Berwick’s mother-in-law? She made the odd comment in Greek, laughing softly once or twice and not minding at all, it seemed, that none of her comments would be understood. Although sparsely furnished, the house felt curiously far from empty. The downstairs kitchen felt talked in, the wobbly table sat around, and the cool silence in the two upstairs rooms strangely inhabited. It was a comfortable, intimate sort of silence, the sort of silence you can sit back and let creep over you at the end of a long evening with a friend. Was it the books crammed into the home-made bookshelves that gave me that feeling? E.M. Forster, Peer Gynt, Annie Besant, Clive James, The Odyssey and several old Time magazines – rather a queer assortment, actually. Was it the framed photographs dotted about the house? The amateur canvases high on the walls? The faint smell of dog? Whether the life lived in these rooms was small or big, though, was hard to tell – there just weren’t enough clues. From the upstairs window the view was actually more Italian than Greek: cypresses spearing the sky as far as the eye could see, pink and cream houses curving away to the left down the slope towards the jumbled village, while up on the brow of the hill that hid us from the sea, partly concealed by the huge holm-oaks in the gully between us, I could just make out a large, white palace of some kind. Still, turning back from the window to meet Agape’s eye, I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in a stranger’s house, eating off his plates, squeezing my clothes into his wardrobe, sleeping between his sheets. But I took it, of course. It was less a decision than a matter of hearing myself saying ‘Ne, yes, I’ll take it.’ Agape nodded peaceably and smiled. She’d never doubted it, apparently. She led me outside and banded the door shut. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Efharistó’ ‘Bitte schön,’ she said, rather unaccountably at the time. But all of a sudden, around the corner came Agape. Who else could it have been? No ancient Greek crone, Agape. Grey-haired, a trifle hunched, a little pear-shaped, but nimble and sharply alive, possibly to things I couldn’t see. ‘Hérete,’ she said with a smile, inspecting me in careful detail and drawing a large key dramatically out of her cardigan pocket. Chatting amiably to me in Greek, she rattled the key in the lock, pushed open the weathered wooden door and stood aside to let me go in, nodding encouragingly. At first it gave me a prickly, uncomfortable feeling, to be 54 At first it gave me a prickly, uncomfortable feeling, to be honest, prowling through someone else’s house like that. Walking up to the bus-stop outside the white palace, I had the strong, sudden feeling that the silence of Gastouri was almost certainly deceptive. honest, prowling through someone else’s house like that. But Agape seemed perfectly at home, opening doors, peering into cupboards and flinging the shutters wide. She I should never have been in Greece at all, that’s the point. I was actually on my way home. Greece, as we know, is full of foreigners who were once on their way home from somewhere and got stranded there. They wash up on the beach while floating idly past, disappointed by something or other – the lack of a new beginning, perhaps, wherever they’ve just been. They get snared amongst the driftwood ?