One Candle

Ενακερίαρκεί. Η κάμαρη απόψι
νά μύ έχει φώς πολύ.

One candle suffices. The room tonight
Must not be too well lit.

For Them to Come  C. P. Cavafy

At dawn Tom was at the laptop, downloading onto his Kindle. Below his apartment, fortuitously, Petro’sbar had WiFi.Caroline was coming in on the nine-twenty ferry. The calendar had eighty days neatly ruled out. Eighty days since she left last time.He ate breakfast on the balcony. This was the only time he sat in the sun in the summer, even so his face and forearms were a startling mahogany colour which he never quite recognised as his own.

He wanted to meet the ferry. He wanted to stand on the quay and watch while the boat rounded the headland, but he had never done this. They always met at the bar.

Since childhood Tom had warned himself about excitement and schooled himself to put it firmly to one side.His wife had been the same. A quiet-faced Thai woman, they had met at work, not, as everyone assumed, on some website. She, like him, had wanted order and safety. Her depression had not been discussed between them. He always accompanied her to the doctors, made sure she took her pills and visited her in hospital. When the two policewomen came, it was their subdued excitement which he found disturbing. They expected him to be shocked, but he had known for years that her illness could not be cured by pills or visiting nurses taking her out for a walk. He had known that it could kill her.

He had been ten years older than his wife. He could retire, so he sold up and bought Sophia apartment on Kapotheni, the island they had visited every year in July. In the final years there were times when she had smiled, when they sat together at the taverna on the Port Beach.

At six he settled himself in his usual chair and Petro brought him a beer.

‘It’s very hot,’ said Petro unnecessarily.
‘Yes. It is a wave of hot,’ he said.
‘What?’
‘In English we say wave of hot,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ said Petro.
They spoke in Greek. Tom had worked hard with his textbooks and dictionaries.

Tom opened his Kindle. He did not like the novel about a gay professor; the sexual detail was unpleasant, but once started he did not stop. If he looked up, he could see down the alley where Caroline would appear.

But she surprised him and suddenly she was sitting down at his table, her shopping bags spilling out at his feet, fanning herself with a coaster.

‘Bloody hell,’ she said. ‘This is a bit much. What is it? Forty?’
‘Thirty-eight at midday,’ he said. ‘Hello Caroline.’ They shook hands but she pulled him forward and kissed his cheek.

‘How are you Tom? Been keeping busy?’
Petro appeared, put a small beer on the table and shook Caroline’s hand.

‘Yeiasou Petro, I’ve been looking forward to this all day,’ said Caroline. She turned to Tom, ‘Gotta tell you, Tom, I met Dawn in London. Complete chance. Did you know she’d left thingy?’

‘No,’ said Tom.
‘Trust you,’ she laughed. ‘Yes, about a month ago. She’s living with her mother. Can you believe it? Mother’s about a hundred. Dawn must be seventy.’
‘He never said anything,’ said Tom.
‘Really, Tom. I do expect you to keep your ears open for the scandal. Where are you eating?’
‘Clocktower.’
‘Oh great. I’ll tag along then, if that’s OK?’

While they sat next to each other in the bar he did not look at her, but her perfume floated around him and the colour of her dress glowed in the corner of his eye. She touched him frequently, little strokes of his arm, if she took one of his cigarettes or thought he had said something funny or wanted him to call to Petro for another drink. People came up to greet her and shake her hand. Vassili the florist (to distinguish him from Vassili at the Daphne) and Dimitri the boat (not Dimitri the goats, who rarely appeared and smelled hideous). Tom tentatively allowed himself to enjoy the feeling that Caroline was with him, while the men came and went.

At Clocktower, he sat next to her again. Sitting opposite her would have made them seem too much like a couple, which was presumptuous. He would ask her, when she was recovered from the journey.

She wanted to know what he had been doing. He found he was busy now, on the island. The women’s group had needed a pianist for their folk-dancing evenings. The new English couple had been glad of his help decorating and advising them on how to get deliveries from Amazon and IKEA.He was renovating an old Lambretta for the Samagdios’s youngest next door. With some amusement, he told her about Mrs Samagdios’s alarming habit of smashing the plates she could not be bothered to wash at the celebrations for her monastery’s name day, but Caroline did not seem to be listening.

‘Oh God,’ she said. ‘Three weeks off. Bliss.’
He did not know what her work was. Perhaps she had told him. Anyway, she must be fifty and coming up to an age when retirement would be possible.
‘Look,’ she said gripping his arm, ‘there’s thingy.’
Dawn’s husband, Paul, was wandering along the quay.
‘Hey,’ she called.
Paul wavered over. He had a kitten in his hand, ‘Hi,’ he said. ‘What d’you think of this little sweetie?’
‘Adorable,’ she said, but did not make a move to stroke it. Tom was glad. The island cats had fleas.
‘How’s Dawn?’ she asked, which made Tom shift nervously in his chair.

Paul stared out at the harbour with a small frown, as if he were trying to remember who Dawn was. ‘Oh,’ he said slowly, ‘yes. She’s OK. Anyway, we’ll be off. Gotta date with a saucer of milk, haven’t we pussy?’ He ambled away.

‘What’s he on?’ she said. ‘Spaced out. Dawn said he was doing an awful lot of weed.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ said Tom, laughing so that it did not sound pompous.
‘Pot not your thing, then?’ she asked. ‘What is your thing, Tom?’
He laughed again, embarrassed, ‘I don’t think I’ve got one.’
‘You mean you’re not telling,’ she said.

He carefully split the bill, but Caroline would have none of it, ‘My treat,’ she said. ‘Go on, bite the bullet. I won’t do this again.’

They stopped for a drink at Petro’s bar.

‘Did you eat well with this beautiful lady?’ Petro asked. ‘Food tastes better with company.’
‘Yes, I bite on myself very often and it is not joyful,’ agreed Tom.
Petro turned away hurriedly.
‘Blimey, your Greek is coming on,’ said Caroline. ‘What’s Petrodollar laughing about? Petro baby, what’s the joke?’
‘Is nothing, Karolina,’ he spluttered, waving a hand and holding on to a chair with the other.
‘He’s really got the giggles,’ she said. ‘You must have said something hilarious.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Tom.

They stayed at the bar watching the parade of tourists meandering round the harbour and the locals roaring about on their bikes. The ranks of boats rocked gently. Rigging tinkled, while the hills above the town turned from grey to pink to black. A large Englishwoman, her breasts haphazardly contained in a sequinned sundress, bustled up attended by two embarrassed daughters, ‘Oh there you are,’ she bellowed at Tom. ‘Now, where should we eat? You’ve got the local knowledge.’

‘Well . . .Clocktower. The Schooner.The Captain. I eat in all of them.’
‘Ranking?’ she demanded. ‘On a scale of one to ten?’
Tom looked uneasily at the table of islanders nearby, who were all listening.
‘They’re all good in their different ways,’ he said.
‘Not like home, then?’ she said, laughing.
This is my home,’ he said.
‘Well, thanks,’ she said. ‘We’ll try The Captain. Come on girls.’
The islanders grinned.
‘Let’s hope they don’t get food poisoning,’ said Caroline, ‘or she’ll be after you.’
‘They won’t. Eva is very careful about hygiene,’ he said.
‘Joke,’ said Caroline. ‘Where did you pick sparkly up?’
‘They were trying to find the bus stop,’ he said. ‘One has to be polite.’

He walked her up the alley. At her doorway she pointed out the huge moon which hung over the rooftops. He told her about the size of the moon being due to the position of the sun and the earth.

‘Thanks Tom,’ she said, yawning. ‘See you at Petro’s tomorrow.’

He went to the church with its cobbled courtyard and sat on the wall talking to his wife, wondering if she minded, wondering what she thought. But she had never told him what she thought in life, so he was not surprised that she did not answer. He did not like to smoke in the church grounds, so he walked back to Petro for a last drink.

Petro put a beer on the table, ‘You like Karolina, don’t you?’ he said.
Tom smiled, ‘Oh, maybe.’
‘I see how you look at her,’ Petro persisted. ‘Do you want to marry her?’
‘What?’ said Tom, his Greek deserting him in his panic.
‘Marry,’ repeated Petro sitting down. ‘I think you would like to marry Karolina.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Tom, laughing in extreme discomfort. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Anyway,’ said Petro, ‘Will you take this to her? She left it.’ He took an iPhone from his pocket. Tom remembered her checking her emails.
‘She is in the bed,’ he demurred.
‘She will want it. I won’t open in the morning, my son and the children have come to see my mother.’

Reluctantly Tom took it.

He was expecting the outer door to be locked, in which case, he would have to take the phone home and return in the morning, but, at his tentative push, the door swung open. The enormous moon illuminated the courtyard and showed everything carved in stillness, the umbrella, the lounger, the table and chairs.There was a bottle of wine on the table and two glasses. He went over this a hundred times for many nights. Two glasses. He could have put the phone down on the table. He could have put the phone down and left.

He stood by the inner door, ‘Caroline?’ he said and he pushed the door. It opened and suddenly, as if all three of them had been holding their breath, there were gasps and noise and rapid movements and Caroline was coming toward him very fast, like a ghost in a horror film, pushing him backwards with one hand, holding some flimsy white thing to her breasts, and the man was standing motionless in the corner by the window, as if, by standing still, he would not be seen.

Abruptly Tom was in the courtyard and the door slammed shut. He put the phone down on the table very quietly.

He could not sleep. His mind was stuck, like a damaged DVD, on the scene in Caroline’s room. Downstairs he heard Petro opening up, which bewildered him. He must have lost a day, yet every minute ached. He kept away from the balcony, heartsick at the thought of seeing Caroline fluttering nonchalantly down the alley.

He did not go out for two days. He told Mrs Samagdios he had a headache. She brought him some stifado and said he must eat and go to the doctor.He managed to get a night flight to Bournemouth and hurried to the ferry, stumbling through all the back alleys.At his sister’s in Nottingham he tried to appear normal. By the end of two weeks his sister was very alarmed about him, but he could not begin to tell her anything. He could not begin to tell himself anything, except why had he not just put the phone down on the table?

Eventually he returned, heavy with the grey skies and long days of television. Petro gave him a beer and sat down beside him, ‘How is your sister?’ he asked.

‘She is hairy,’ said Tom.
‘You mean happy,’ corrected Petro, without a smile. ‘I think you are not happy?’
Tom was silent. He had no words in Greek or English to describe how he was.
‘Karolina is lovely, but she would not make a good wife,’ said Petro. He patted Tom gently on his back, ‘Maybe you will find one. But you are home now. Eh, my friend?’

I am now revising my novel A Certain Disbelief, working on a new book called Come Back and more short stories.

I should be very glad to hear from any readers. There is nothing like feedback to stimulate the mind.