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The Spring At Kardaki

Rating: PG-13

Thomas would have noticed the girl anyway, as she threaded her way between the sun-sodden families and couples who lay melting on the pebbly beach. Even from where he was sitting, he could see her dress was made from some wispy stuff the colour of Parma Violets. It skimmed the contours of her slight figure, making her appear as unsubstantial as the dress itself. He couldn't make out her shoes very well, except they seemed to have very high heels, but she was miraculously sure-footed among the bathers who stumbled and hopped barefoot on the hot stones. But what first caught his attention was not the way she was dressed, or the delicacy of her bare shoulders and throat, but that in her left hand she grasped the strings of about a dozen pastel coloured helium balloons.

Just below where he sat on the edge of the taverna's terrace, a pair of teenagers lay glued from mouth to crotch. Occasionally the boy's hand strayed to the back of the girl's head, seemingly to ensure a more complete seal of their mouths, or down her back to cup a buttock that was almost completely exposed by the cut of her swimsuit. Otherwise they were motionless, as oblivious of the children that splashed at the water's edge as they were of the swifts swooping and diving into their mud nests in the eaves of the taverna. He still found it amazing, this acceptance of public intimacy; he and Eileen had never laid together like that until after their wedding, and then only in private. In comparison with the teenagers' solid near-nakedness the approaching girl seemed almost ethereal, as though she was made of something less dense than flesh and blood.

Thomas took his eyes from the couple's taut brown limbs and looked down at his own old man's legs, wasted to the sinew in flapping khaki shorts, his slack belly and chest spotted with dark brown blemishes caused by too many years' exposure to the Greek sun.

"Your son and his family, they have returned to England I think?"

Adonis set down a glass one-third full of ouzo and ice and another of water. Whenever Thomas looked at Adonis, a small leathery man with an aggressively jutting moustache, the word misnomer always came into his head. He and Eileen had laughed about it for over twenty years, since Adonis took over the taverna from his father.

"Yes that's right. I opened the house up earlier than usual this year so they could come over before the boys go back to school."

"How long you been coming in Corfu now, Thomas?"

"Let's see ... we bought the house in 1979, but we must have come over first in 1970. So it's over thirty years."

"And your wife, she come no more?"

"She can't manage the walk down from the house, or get about on the beach anymore. It's just not worth it."

"When I see her last year, I think she no come back. She very bent over. But you, you always come back I think?"

Thomas couldn't see the woman any longer, but he knew where she was - the balloons bobbed above a sun umbrella near the shoreline. He tipped half of the water into the ouzo and took a sip of the cloudy liquid. Its aniseed taste was the very essence of the place to him, just as the taste of watermelon reminded him of plunging into the sea first thing in the morning.

"Yes, I'll always come back. I drank the water at Kardaki."

"I remember you tell me this before."

The two men smiled into each other's eyes, then Adonis patted Thomas heavily upon the shoulder and moved away to take another order.

Kardaki. It was their first holiday without the children. Their new sense of freedom was expressed by their decision to travel to the island then hardly heard of in England, except by the readers of Lawrence or Gerald Durrell. On the boat over from the mainland, an aristocratic-looking Greek woman had told them about the tradition of the spring.

"The spring at Kardaki, it never will dry up. And whoever drinks from it is destined to forget his homeland and always return to Corfu."

"What, return again and again, or return for good?" Thomas had asked.

The woman shrugged. "Who knows? I tell you only the tradition."

On a day when the air was alive with the rasping of large green and gold crickets, they had picked their way down the steep path, stopping to inhale the breeze, spicy with the scent of wild thyme and oregano.

Eileen had on a straw hat that reminded him of the roof of a hut from an African village and one of the loose white frocks she had made before they left England. The shade from the hat smoothed away the years from her face and the frock emphasised her still slender frame. Thomas kept seeing her as the girl she had been when they married; a peculiar slippage in time, as though the years had been burned away by the heat of the sun.

The spring itself flowed from the mouth of a stone lion. Eileen looked at the water doubtfully.

"You're not really going to drink from it are you?"

"Why not? The locals must have been drinking from it for hundreds of years."

"Well rather you than me."

"But you must be thirsty."

"I'd rather be thirsty than have dysentery, thank you."

So Thomas had cupped his hands together and drunk the icy, rusty tasting water.

"There, now I'll always come back. And you'll have to come with me, like it or not." He took her hand and turned it over to kiss the palm, his lips brushing the soft gold of her wedding ring.

As the girl came nearer, Thomas could see the ends of her long wavy hair flickering gently in the breeze. Thomas tried to give a name to the colour of her hair and failed. It reminded him of the beaten gold applied to the icons in the local churches, yet was more complex than that, with strands of bronze and an almost silvery blond catching the sunlight. Now she was closer, he could see she was older than he had supposed. A tightness round her eyes, a slight coarsening of her skin of her throat. Possibly in her mid-thirties. Her expression was grave, belying the gaiety of the balloons which dipped and bobbed above her head, candy pink, mint green, primrose yellow, baby blue.

He looked at his watch. It was just after eleven, which meant that at home in England it would be nine o'clock. Eileen would be up by now, helped to wash and dress by the agency nurse they'd employed for a fortnight. Was it too early to ring her? He could never tell whether keeping in touch every day, letting her know he missed her, made her feel included or bitter. Her voice had little inflection these days and sometimes he wondered whether her mind might not be losing its acuity alongside her faltering body.

He shouldn't have come here without her. The tiny house they had bought all those years ago badly needed renovation now, but he didn't see how that could be achieved. He certainly wasn't up to doing the work himself these days, and in any case he'd never been practical. It had been Eileen who'd run up curtains and cushions, painted the rough plaster walls and planted geraniums in pots on the balcony. And it had always been she who had found local people to help with repairs. She had lived alone in the house for the whole of one spring and summer, learning to speak Greek and making friends with their neighbours. Meanwhile, he'd crept back and forth from home to his job in town, the greyness of England wrapped around him like a damp cloak.

And when he retired, they had stayed together in the little village house on the hill for six whole weeks. He waited for a perfect day, clear and glittering, with a slight breeze riffling the vines shading the balcony.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't move out here for good," he said, "we'd have enough from selling up in England to last us."

She looked at him over her newly acquired half-moon glasses.

"What would we do all through the winter? The weather can turn pretty cold and miserable you know." She ran a series of swift gathering stitches along a folded strip of terracotta fabric.

"Nothing like the British winters though."

"No, but at home in England you can go to the pictures, or theatre, see friends and family when the weather's bad."

At home in England. That was the difference between them. She was at home in England, whereas he ... he didn't know anymore. He watched her tack the brick red strip onto the edge of a bedspread she was mending. She'd be the same wherever she was; like a snail, she carried their home with her.

And here he was, still returning year after year, playing at having gone native, basking in the sun like a very old, stubborn lizard. Many of the things that had attracted him in the first place had been destroyed. The shrill early morning calls of the Greek women had been replaced by English voices shouting at their children; donkeys laden with vastly disproportionate bunches of twigs had given way to mopeds roaring up and down the narrow roads at all hours of the day and night. Football relayed by satellite, and karaoke, had reached even this quietest part of the island. And still he came, his skin turning to hide, his step increasingly uncertain on the steep rocky path down from the villa.

As the woman drew level with him, she must have sensed his gaze, for she turned her face towards him and regarded him for a moment with eyes the blue of Wedgewood china. They were too pale, too startling in her dark face. She nodded once without smiling, but then turned away again and continued up the beach towards the jetty.

"Adonis, do you know that woman?"

Adonis paused as he fixed a white paper tablecloth over the plastic covering of an adjoining table. He squinted at the woman's back.

"Yes, I know her. She come every year, just like you."

"She's not local then?"

"No, I think she from Italy."

"I wonder why I've never seen her before?"

Adonis shrugged. "She always here, just this time, every year."

Thomas took another mouthful of ouzo. From the back, the figure of the woman regained the illusion of extreme youth, her feet seeming to walk on a firm, even surface a few inches above the rough stones. How marvellous to have that lightness of body, to be fully in command of your flesh.

He couldn't remember the point at which he'd started to feel old. It must have been a gradual accumulation of aches and pains, a gathering of minor physical inconveniences. He should, he supposed, be grateful that he had nothing major wrong with him. Many of his friends had died, snuffed out by cancer or heart disease. Poor Eileen had become diabetic in recent years and terribly limited by the osteoporosis that was turning her bones to brittle, honeycombed sticks. He should be grateful that once he'd flexed his knees a few times to get the clicks out of them, he could still, with care, manage the path through the olives to the beach.

Where could she be going? To a wedding perhaps? He narrowed his eyes and looked out to sea. A small cruiser was rounding the edge of the bay and was heading for the crumbling concrete jetty. Yes, it must be a wedding. That would explain her expensive-looking dress and the balloons. Probably there would be a whole party of guests on board. It was odd, though, that she was on her own. Perhaps others would join her where she waited, now, at the far end of the jetty.

Twisting round in his chair, Thomas could just make out the roof of the house, high above the bay. It would be cool in there now, its small windows and thick walls making the dark rooms cave-like. He felt he would give anything to be lying on his own in the cool rather than sitting among dozens of almost naked people with bodies the colour of freshly butchered meat.

At this moment, Eileen might be hauling herself to her feet to look out

at the garden, the long stretch of grass beaded with dew, the far end misty where the woodland began. In the early morning, the mist clung to your clothing and face, so you felt you were walking through a cloud. He reached up to touch his forehead, to brush away droplets of mist, but his fingers came away salty with sweat. He could feel his heart pulsing in his temple and just below his ribcage.

The boat's engine cut out as it approached the jetty. It was a small passenger boat that would seat about twelve people. The sort hired for the day by a party who wanted to swim off deserted beaches or venture further out to sea in the hope of spotting dolphins. But apart from the skipper, a wiry Greek with a shock of silver hair, there were no other passengers. Without waiting, he handed the woman into the boat and immediately reversed the craft, turning it back into the bay.

"Are you okay Thomas? Do you need more water perhaps?"

Adonis' concerned face looked down at him. Thomas realised suddenly he was slumped forward, his head almost on the table, half-propped on one elbow, the other arm hanging loose by his side. He straightened up, and as he did so, the world swung through ninety degrees, before slowly settling back to normal.

"I'm fine."

"You are not ill?"

"Just a little over-heated I think. Some more water would be just the ticket."

He drew a deep breath and then looked again at the boat. He had expected it to return the way it had come, or to continue round the headland on the other side of the bay, to deliver its passenger to one of villages further up the coast. Instead, it headed straight out to sea.

Adonis returned with a jug of water chinking with ice, the glass clouded with condensation. He poured out a large glass for Thomas and then stood with his arms folded to watch him drink it.

"It very important not to get dehydrate. I always tell you this."

As he drained the glass, Thomas imagined the chilled water gurgling into all the myriad tiny channels in his parched body. The thudding in his temple began to ebb away.

"Adonis, do you know where that woman's going? I thought perhaps she was going to a wedding in Kassiopi or Ipsos. But the boat's going straight out. It'll be in Albania soon, by the looks of it."

At that moment, just beyond the mouth of the bay, the boat's engine was cut and the skipper fed the anchor over the side. The craft drifted a little and then settled on the cerulean water. Then the woman climbed from under the boat's canopy and stepped onto the small deck. The balloons glistened opalescent in the sun. Adonis followed his gaze.

"She come every year on the birthday of her son. They were here first about ten years ago. They hire a boat for a party."

"So it is a party. But where are the rest of the guests?"

The woman steadied herself and then held the balloons at arm's length. One by one, she let them drift up into the still, burning air. Adonis scanned them as they drifted up on a thermal.

"...endeka, dodeka, deka tria. Thirteen."

"Thirteen balloons?"

"Yes, always one more each year. Her son would have been thirteen now."

The thudding in Thomas' head returned abruptly, and more savagely than before. When he closed his eyes, the drifting balloons were replaced by hectic dark red spots rising against a white glare.

"Adonis, what happened? What happened to the son?" He found he was almost whispering.

"The parents get drunk. Nobody watch him, so he fall over the side and drown. He only a little boy. Two, three, maybe. Her husband come back with her for the first few years, but now she come on her own. I think it make her a little mad."

Thomas patrolled the small dark rooms of the house on the hill to make sure nothing had been forgotten. A slight mustiness seemed to have invaded the place already, or perhaps it had always smelled like that and he'd never noticed it before.

Most of the furniture was staying; everything was old and faded - the same stuff they'd brought over more than twenty years before. Whoever bought the place could use it or throw it out as they pleased.

In the tiny village square, two large suitcases and a few boxes of things Eileen had listed over the phone, stood by the fountain that had never worked.

When he first told her, standing at the public telephone at the corner of the square, the line had gone silent. He was suddenly aware of the soapy scent of jasmine and the stridulation of a single cricket.

"Eileen? Darling, are you there?"

"Yes, of course. I was just thinking. Somehow selling up makes it all so much more final. I suppose I was hoping I might be better next year ..."

"Well if you think you might be ..."

"No, we both know I'm only going to get worse. You're doing the right thing. As long as you're sure."

"It's not the same without you. I miss you too much. And this way, I can remember how it used to be when we came here together. Not how it is now, me on my own pretending to enjoy myself."

"Remember the spring? That was supposed to make you go back forever."

"I know, I know. But we can't keep harking back. We have to look to the future."

"What there is of it."

"All the more reason then."

"I love you."

"I love you too."

As Thomas watched from the terrace of the taverna, the boat had returned slowly to the jetty. The woman climbed out and, glancing over her shoulder as she did so, began picking her way back up the beach. Thomas sat on the tavern's terrace in the harsh brightness of noon and watched as thirteen pastel pinpricks drifted higher and higher into the sky until they became lost in the glare of the sun.