On a holiday escape to the Greek islands, Annie Buchanan discovers what – and then who – is missing from her life. See excerpt below…
Blue Star Ferry, Aegean Sea, Greece. Thursday 23 June 2016.
Second time we’ve come to Symi, Jude and me. Before that, we’d been on a plane together just the once and that was with Mum and Dad for a couple of weeks in Spain. Kind of them but I didn’t take them up on it again. Jude was three and screamed all the way on both flights, Glasgow to Alicante and back. We were not popular. Yesterday on the plane he had a silent moody because I’d made us sandwiches instead of buying the overpriced onboard scran. The adolescent sulk was a pain for me, but much easier on the other passengers. By the time we got to the hotel on Rhodes he was so starving he wolfed the lot anyway. Gave me time to zap off a few messages to tell my remaining friends where we were.
Now in the warm breeze on the afternoon Blue Star ferry to Symi, my phone pings a message from Shona in reply to mine from last night –
‘That was a sudden decision. You didn’t tell me you were going to Greece this year. Have a good time – Shona x’.
I feel a teeny stab of guilt. Do I tell her only the negative stuff? Next to me on deck, Jude’s having another strop because he’s forgotten to charge the new Android phone his grandparents gave him for his birthday, so he doesn’t have a screen to stare at. We’re just moving into the harbour. Like everyone says, it’s a stunner. Almost a film set – no, more a sort of 3D oil painting round the water. Not your average blue and white postcard stuff but houses in mustardy or pale yellow with light and dark borders round the roofs, doors and windows and flowerpot orange roofs – Clair knows the right arty words. All down to the Italians occupying the islands for years, she said. Jude’s underwhelmed. Saw it all last time. Techno-bereft thirteen-year-olds and classy architecture aren’t a natural mix.
That metal diarrhoea noise is the anchor dropping. The crew start throwing out ropes. And there on the harbour-side is Fraser looking like some actor in a holiday ad.. Jude perks up.
– and buggers off, ducking round the crew who are trying to hold back the holiday herd, and leaving dunderhead-moi to heft the luggage. Uncle and nephew start doing complicated male hand-jive bonding while I stagger about under Jude’s backpack, the guitar, my shoulder bag and the wheelie suitcase – until a guy offers to help. Blond, beard. And tall. I’d only recognise him again by looking up his nostrils. He speaks English with an accent of some kind and looks like Dutch – or Scandinavian? For once I’m not so bloody independent and let him give me a hand. He delivers me to dry land, chatting the while; Do I know Symi? Where am I staying? Am I a professional musician? What are my musical tastes? Any other time, I might join in the fun – because despite the height difference, he’s easy on the eye. But I need Fraser to stop the greeting rituals and notice I’m here so I can find a loo. Which he does none too soon.
“Mighty mou – kalos eelthate stin Symi!”
Welcome to Symi.
“Thanks, Puke. But I’m dying for a pee and a beer. In that order.”
I turn to wave to my giant Galahad but he’s already walking away. So I lead on to Nobby’s Bar for essential relief.
Nobby must have been a strong personality, ’cos the place is still known as Nobby’s even though he sold it and went back to England a few years ago. Like Taggart carrying on for years after Mark McManus died. Flopped at a table with a beer, I start sinking into Symi time. Fraser has a couple to my one and Jude, a Coke. My brother’s looking heavier than last time and, to put it kindly, his forehead’s increasing, a change that Jude doesn’t miss.
“You going bald, Uncle Puke?”
“You want your teeth rearranging, we’an?”
Family banter activated, we continue walking back up the harbour. Fraser points out the fire damage on the Customs House from a month ago. I’m more taken by the groups of people sitting on the dockside or trying to catch what shade there is – noticeably greater numbers than last year. Young men, families, women with tiny babies. Not tourists, refugees. They must have arrived this morning and still have to be ‘processed’ – recorded by the port authority. What sort of boats did they arrive in? Did all of them make it as far as the Symi coast, even? Will there be enough accommodation? Any accommodation? There are people moving amongst them, volunteers and aid workers by their body language. Fraser notices my look.
“Yes, we’re still helping them. And we’ll keep on helping them. Just recharge your batteries a bit before piling in, eh?”
“I feel really bad about last year. I did nothing.”
“Annie, you helped as much as you could. You and Jude had just had the ’flu when you got here, you were knackered.”
Did I really help much? OK, I gave to the food banks, helped sort the donated clothes, spent time with the refugees who Clair took in at Harkin House, and played with the kids before they went on to Athens; some – if they were lucky – had a parent with them, some were alone, lost little souls who had to be allocated care. But most of the time I just flaked out. Odd evenings I did some gigs with Fraser. So I didn’t do anything really important. Which means now: Could Do Better.
As we’re about to turn inland, a salty old sea dog yells to us from a ship’s deck, ‘Fraser, eh-la!’. Panos. We met him last year. He’s still relaxing on his canvas chair, half-hidden in a sickly smog of vape. He remembers us, too.
“Ani! Jude! Kalos eelthate stin Symi!”
“Efharisto, Panos. Glad to be back.”
Panos and his wife, Marina, were very hospitable to us when we were here before, with trips round the island on the Giorgios and a wonderful meal at their house above Harani, just round from Yialos harbour. The Giorgios is still fresh from its Spring coat of blue and white. Panos insists that we climb aboard, giving me a huge smacker on the lips and a dose of his pungent moustache. He also presses a welcome drink and pours a round of retsina, including one for Jude. I decide to allow it this once; alcoholic turps could put him off booze for life.
“How are you, Panos?”
I’ve forgotten how to ask it in Greek.
“Ah, Ani, trouble, today – tomorrow, trouble. Marina make everyone detective me – I can do nothing!”
Despite having cancer a couple of years back, meaning endless trips to Rhodes and Athens for oncologist’s appointments and chemotherapy, he finds his wife’s continued efforts to keep him alive annoying. Marina’s spies are everywhere, hence the vape instead of a permanent, smouldering roll-up. The macho sea captain image is ruined when he exhales wafts of cafe crême – or as today, something like mango and strawberry. His hair has grown back a luxuriant iron grey. That upsets him, too.
“Not good. Panos is old man. The ladies don’t like.”
Fraser reminds him, unkindly I feel, that he never pulled the girls before because Marina’s spies watched him from the day they met. Panos responds by hawking heftily over the side into the green water where a school of tiddler-type fish cluster gratefully. Jude is fascinated and adds a gob of his own.
“Enough, Jude! Thank you, Panos. Clair’s waiting for us.”
“Yassas. See you tomorrow!”
We leave him sucking mightily on his vape and expelling nauseating great billows into the holiday crowds. Quaint, storybook Greek sketch, you might think, a tad patronising of me, even. But that’s just a role Panos plays. The other side to the captain of the Giorgios is he’s made his boat available to the Hellenic Coastguard for refugee rescue missions. And my brother is a frequent deckhand.
Fraser and Jude between them lug our stuff all the way up the three hundred and odd Kali Strata – the ‘good steps’ – to Clair’s house in Chorio. On the way, another message pings in. Shona, again.
‘Just Googled Symi. Fabulous. You never mentioned your brother lives there. Lucky him – lucky you.’
It seems unlikely I never said about Fraser living here, but obviously I can’t have. She’s been quite a support, Shona, I must catch up with her properly. But not now. Now I want to see Clair and Jess.