I’m delighted to announce that my short story “Out of Office” is going to be included in “The Word for Freedom” anthology, a collection of stories of women’s suffrage published by Retreat West Books to raise money for the charity Hestia. It’s due to be published at the beginning of November to coincide with the Hundred Years March, when a group of women living and working in East London will march to honour and celebrate what has been achieved in women’s suffrage, but with a clear manifesto and voice that women’s rights still need fighting for.
Once upon a time in a far away land, there was a little harbour. It was nestled in a curving bay surrounded by gently undulating hills. Seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, the little harbour was a constant whirl of action. Fishing vessels flocked in and out as they chased their catch. Cruise ships swept into their private moorings with an air of superiority, while container ships slowly carried their cargo into port with stolid determination.
Overseeing this activity was the harbour master’s boat. This stately vessel motored up and down between the rows of ships, making sure the harbour followed the directives of the neighbouring town. The landlubbers of the town had little idea of the reality of life on the water, but their influence over the harbour was strong.
Every time the mayor’s car drew up alongside the harbour master’s boat, the ships in the harbour would rock nervously in their moorings. They were right to be concerned. After every such meeting, the harbour master’s boat would head out, engine spluttering, and make the ships move round into new moorings because the town wanted things done in a different way.
The fishing vessels would shake their rigging but they were the easiest to move. They were so grateful just to have a mooring, they were willing to tie up anywhere the harbour master’s boat told them to. The container ships and the cruise liners were a different matter. They were big boats, tough and difficult to manoeuvre. Even if they reluctantly agreed to move, they needed help to steer to their new positions. And so they turned to a little tug boat named Good Will. Good Will was an eager, hard-working ship. He loved the harbour and was proud to call it home. And because he was proud of the harbour and cared about its reputation, whenever the harbour master’s boat delivered the town’s orders, Good Will was happy to help.
The harbour went from strength to strength, but the more it thrived, the more demands the town sent in its direction. It seemed that every day the mayor’s car would draw up on the quay with new instructions about how business in the little harbour should be conducted. But the ships could not keep up with the demands. They had to rely more and more upon their tug boat friend. Eventually Good Will didn’t even have time to undergo maintenance. His ropes grew frayed and his boards started cracking. The other boats were worried about what was happening to Good Will, but they needed him too much to be able to give him the break he so desperately needed. Although they tried to speak to the harbour master’s boat about the situation, he just revved his engine louder and spluttered off into the distance.
One day a terrible storm struck the little harbour. The waves battered the sides of boats and the wind lashed their decks. The ships shuddered by the quayside and were happy to be safely in port. But then the mayor’s car pulled up alongside the harbour master’s boat. The ships rocked in their moorings. Surely the town would not have new directives for the harbour, not during such a terrible storm?
Sure enough, as soon as the mayor’s car left, the harbour master’s boat chugged out to deliver new instructions from the town. These orders were the biggest yet. The boats bounced around on the waves. “This is madness,” they cried. “This is too much to ask. We refuse.”
“I don’t care how it happens, it has to be done,” replied the harbour master’s boat. “If you won’t move yourselves, I know I can rely on Good Will to make it happen.”
Good Will was anxious about going out in the storm. Nevertheless with the words of the harbour master’s boat echoing around his deck, he chugged out into the wind and rain.
Today the town wanted the biggest cruise ship moved to a new mooring at the opposite side of the harbour. Good Will dutifully tied the cruise ship’s weighty ropes to his deck and started the difficult journey across the water. The waves slapped over his bows and the wind rattled his rigging. As he tried to make progress forward, the combined forces of the storm and the heavy cruise ship pulled him backwards. The harbour master’s ship watched from the safety of his sheltered mooring.
“Come on, stop messing around,” he called. “If you don’t get this sorted, I’ll want to know the reason why.”
There was a dreadful cracking noise as one of Good Will’s boards snapped in half. Water started to pour in and Good Will realised he could no longer steer. He was heading for the harbour wall with the heavy cruise ship on a direct collision course behind him. Now the whole harbour was at risk.
The cruise ship shouted across at the harbour master’s boat. “This whole place works because of Good Will. You have taken advantage of Good Will and pushed him too far. Now you have destroyed everything.”
The cruise ship fired up its powerful engines. With inches to spare, it managed to reverse away from the harbour wall. It powered away from the harbour and out to sea, dragging the poor wreck of the little tug boat Good Will alongside.
That was the last the harbour saw of them. But from that day onwards, the little harbour started to decline. Boats no longer wanted to moor up there, no matter what the harbour master’s boat tried. Stories began to circulate of another port, just along the coast, somewhere safe and welcoming. Somewhere run by a little tug boat…
As a journalist, I spend a significant proportion of my working life on the telephone. I’d like to say that this time is productively spent confirming facts, drawing out interviewees and generally uncovering stories worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, reality is somewhat different.
Picture the scene. It’s one minute to five on a Friday afternoon and I have to ring the council to speak to someone about an item of breaking news. I flick through my contacts to find the relevant number and press dial. I’m already slightly anxious. This is not a good time to be ringing a press office. With the weekend just around the corner, they probably switched the phone to answer machine at least half an hour ago.
Sadly I don’t even get the joy of being invited to leave a message. I’m greeted instead with the dull disconnected tone. This council press officer is so desperate not to be contacted by the media, he’s changed his number.
Now I have to move onto the more dangerous territory of the switchboard.
Like most self respecting public bodies, the council really doesn’t want to have to deal with actual members of the public, so even tracking down a phone number is a mission in itself. By the time I’ve found a likely looking one, the minute hand on the clock has gone to the wrong side of 5pm.
A robot answers.
“Welcome to your local council. Your call may be recorded for training purposes. For pest control, press one. For queries about council tax, press two. To speak to an operator, please hold.”
I hold, for an unfeasibly long period of time.
The robot occasionally thanks me and assures me my call is extremely important to it.
In between this, I am serenaded with some synthetic Vivaldi. As a bit of a connoisseur of hold music, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed.
I’ve just started singing along with a particularly vigorous section of the Four Seasons when the music cuts out.
I try a tentative hello, happy to be caught warbling away if it means I get to speak to an actual human being.
No such luck. I get a different robot, impressively grumpy sounding for a computer programme.
This one doesn’t bother reassuring me about the importance of my call. Instead it demands I say the name of the department I wish to speak to.
“Press Office” I try to enunciate as clearly as possible.
“Was that pest control?” It asks.
Arguably not the most inaccurate interpretation of my request, at least from the council’s point of view.
“No,” I reply, looking anxiously at the clock. It’s now approaching the even more dangerous time of half past five. I suspect these two phone robots have been left in charge for the weekend.
“Name the department you wish to speak to.”
This time the robot tries to point me to Mortuary Services.
I try the more sophisticated sounding “Corporate Communications” in case the council has been re-branding their departments.
“Sorry I don’t understand. Connecting you to the switchboard,” threatens the robot.
“Just put me through to the bastard press office,” I shout, all patience gone as my deadline looms ever closer.
“Connecting you to Press Office,” the robot parrots as I inadvertently hit on the correct combination of words for the request to be fulfilled.
I’m treated to cover versions of Michael Bublé tracks this time.
By song number three, I’m ready to do a van Gough and chop my own ear off.
Eventually the call clicks through.
“Hello, it’s Keith.”
“Hi Keith my name is Emily and I’m calling from…” I start to say, but I’m interrupted and realise I’ve been caught out by yet another answer phone.
“…it’s Keith O’Connor. The office is closed until 9am on Monday. Please leave a message. If your call is urgent, please contact the switchboard.”
I hang up in defeat.
Two minutes later, I get a text.
“Thank you for contacting your local council. Please rate your experience on a scale of 1 to 10.”
I type in zero.
Sorrento may be beautiful and all that, but boy does it have a lot of steps. I reckon in the fortnight we’ve been on tour out here, I’ve sweated off several spare pounds. Of course, I’ve more than compensated for this in the amount of ice cream I’ve consumed, but ice cream doesn’t count, right? There aren’t many pennies left over at the end of the month when you’re an impoverished violinist, but I can always find the cash for a gelato or three.
I’m enjoying a particularly scrummy one at the moment. It’s a delicious tangy lemon and it’s about the only thing keeping me cool as I struggle up yet another flight of stairs, rucksack on my back and violin case in the non-ice cream toting hand. I’m rewarding myself with a lick every three steps. Yummy.
The ice cream may be helping to cool my body temperature, but unfortunately it’s doing absolutely nothing to cool my temper which will reach boiling point soon if I’m not careful. You see, half an hour ago, the brakes of our coach failed on one of those super-scary hairpin bend roads which wiggle their way along the coastline here. Fortunately said coach was crawling along at a snail’s pace at the time. Francesco must be the first Italian driver I’ve ever met who approaches corners at less than 70 miles per hour. Thanks to his caution, we survived drifting into the crash barrier with nothing more than a few fragile musical temperaments shaken. However, as our tour manager couldn’t commandeer transport out of thin air, we had to set off on foot to catch the ferry which is to take us to our next performing location. It’s a higgledy-piggledy and exhausting journey, heaving ourselves up one flight of stairs, winding along narrow shady streets, before taking our lives into our hands as we teeter down another set of steps which seem to be defying gravity hanging off the cliffs.
We look like a bunch of children in straggling crocodile formation on a school trip. And despite my best efforts, Adrian the percussionist and chief orchestra sex pest has inveigled his way into the line behind me. As we climb yet another staircase he’s taking great delight in prodding my backside with his drumstick. And no, that’s not an innuendo. He thinks it’s hilarious. I most decidedly do not.
“Look Adrian, just cut it out,” I foolishly try to reason with him.
“Cut what out?” He attempts innocence which makes him look like he’s got trapped wind.
“Poke me one more time and I’ll take that drumstick and shove it where the sun don’t shine,” I threaten.
“Calm down, love. No need to get your knickers in a twist,” he smirks.
I’m so annoyed, I actually snarl. Mentally composing my letter of complaint to HR gives me the strength to get up another three flights of stairs. I’m reaching the point where I have to buy more paper for the printer because my imaginary letter has so many supporting statements from fellow victims when I feel it again. A persistent irritating jab taps out a rhythm on the back of my thigh.
“Hey baby, I’ll play an air on your G-string any day,” perves Adrian, clearly delighted at the levels of sleazy musical innuendo he’s stooping to.
“Right, that’s it. Paws off you pig,” I bellow, swinging round and bashing his drumstick out of his hand. In slow motion it ricochets off my violin case and clatters over the cliff edge to the resounding cheers of my fellow musicians.
Sadly that’s not the only clattering noise. Gingerly I move my violin case and hear it rattle. This is not good.
It’s only when we’re finally on the ferry buzzing across choppy turquoise waters to Ischia that I dare open the case to inspect the damage.
“Please be ok, please be ok,” I mutter under my breath. It’s difficult to see properly with the sun reflecting off the water and sending a shimmering glare along the ferry deck. I blink a few times and run my fingers along the smooth wood of my precious violin. The bridge has fallen out of place, so the strings are lying slack. I breathe a sigh of relief. The bridge is fixable. Carefully I undo the Velcro that holds the violin in place and tenderly lift it out of the case.
A collective gasp of horror goes up from my fellow string section members.
“Oh Rosie, what are you going to do?” Amelia is the first to speak.
The neck of my lovely violin, my pride and joy, not to mention my sole source of income, is cracked at the point where it joins the body of the instrument. With trembling fingers I trace the fracture and feel it give instantly. I am so screwed.
“Welcome, everyone, welcome to the Giardini La Mortella. My name is Juliana and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to welcome you, our orchestra in residence here for the summer season. As you know, this was the garden of the English composer Sir William Walton…”
I let our host’s introductory speech wash over me. I’m sitting on the steps of an open air Greek style amphitheatre. The tinkling sounds of fountains fill the breezes and the soft scents of hundreds of flowers are whispering around us. I should be soaking up the atmosphere and revelling in the stunning surroundings. Instead, a steel band is tightening round my forehead and I’m genuinely concerned I might throw up from sheer stress.
“Can I help you? I understand you’ve had an accident with your violin?” Juliana has finished her speech and made a beeline in my direction, watched by the rest of the orchestra. News travels fast in these parts.
She frowns when she sees the instrument.
“Indeed the damage is extensive. “ She fumbles in her handbag for a piece of paper and writes down an address. “Go and see this man. Gustavo Russo. He is the best luthier I know. If he cannot fix your violin, then it is unfixable.”
“Go,” Amelia shoves me in the direction of the garden’s exit. “Don’t worry. We’ll make your excuses to the conductor. You need to get that violin sorted before anything else.”
“Here, borrow my bicycle,” Juliana offers. I politely decline and set off on foot. My violin would end up in smithereens if I attempted cycling on these rocky roads. The word “unfixable” echoes round my head throughout the hot journey down to the little coastal town of Forio.
Thankfully I find Gustavo Russo’s establishment relatively easily. A peach painted building nestled between honey coloured neighbours, it looks like it’s been here for centuries. Praying he speaks more English than I do Italian, I enter the shop. It takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the gloom after the brightness outside, but when they do I am sure I am hallucinating. Standing behind the counter is what my grandma would call a fine figure of a man. A very fine figure of a man. Tall, with chocolate brown hair and warm brown eyes, he looks like he’s stepped off the set of an advert for smooth blend coffee. I feel my cheeks going pink and pray he doesn’t notice.
“Can I help you?” he asks in perfect English peppered with a delicious Italian lilt.
I curse myself for getting so easily distracted, and gently place the case on the counter.
“I had a slight, um, accident with my violin. I was told Gustavo Russo could help me?”
He raises his eyebrows at the damage. “A very nasty accident by the looks of things.”
He stretches out his hand to shake mine. “I am Guido Russo by the way. My father Gustavo is the violin repairer.”
“I’m Rosie,” I squeak.
He takes out a pair of glasses and looks more closely at the fractured instrument. “It is not a clean break,” he points out, gesturing for me to follow his fingertips running along the splinters. It is an oddly intimate moment which I would definitely have enjoyed more if I hadn’t been so worried. “I will pass the violin on to my father, but I fear it will not be a simple job.”
“Oh God.” The sick feeling increases exponentially.
“Do not worry. Leave it here. We will go and have a gelato while he examines it.”
He disappears into the back room with my violin, then re-emerges, takes my arm and leads me out of the shop.
“You are one of the musicians staying at the Giardini La Mortella aren’t you? I cannot think of more beautiful surroundings to perform in.”
Somehow I manage to reply, even though I am completely distracted by the way he is cupping my elbow with his hand and guiding me through the bustling streets.
“It’s a huge honour. We’re not a particularly well established orchestra so it was pretty amazing for us to be chosen for the summer residence,” I say.
“The garden has always encouraged young, up-and-coming musicians. You will have a wonderful time there.”
And for the next couple of hours, I do have a wonderful time. Guido buys us a giant ice cream cornet each, and we wander around the jewel of a town admiring boats in the harbour and playing an impromptu game of guess the nationality of the many tourists scurrying around. He actually manages to make me forget my violin is on the operating table, its fate in the balance. He is an easy person to spend time with, and his gentle charm is a breath of fresh air after the sleazy attentions of Adrian the sex pest.
Dusk is beginning to fall when we return to the violin shop.
Guido’s father, an ebullient character with rosy cheeks, meets us at the doorway.
“Rosie, has my son been looking after you?”
I give a shaky nod, all my happiness vanishing away as I brace myself for Gustavo’s verdict.
“It’s ok, I can fix her.”
He names a price so high I nearly drop to the floor. I’m so relieved my violin isn’t dead I nod and give the go-ahead, praying my insurance will cover the bill.
“You can borrow Guido’s violin in the meantime,” continues Gustavo.
Guido shrugs his shoulders in assent. I am astonished at this gesture of kindness. Musicians tend to be rather possessive when it comes to their instruments.
“No more accidents, though, eh?” says Guido.
I nod heartily. Next time I’ll shove an ice cream in Adrian’s face rather than lashing out with my violin.
The next few days pass in a whirlwind of rehearsals. Guido’s violin is a joy to play, and in no time at all my fingers are flying through fugues and cadenzas. The only problem is my mind keeps on drifting off half way through pieces. I find I’m wondering what Guido is doing instead of counting notes and paying attention to what I should be playing. I’m acting like a schoolgirl with a crush which is plain ridiculous. The thing is, the man in question keeps on appearing in the garden at odd times, smiling that dreamy smile, making my heart beat staccato and filling me with warm fuzzy feelings. I’m hoping his frequent visits are because he wants to see me, but knowing my luck, he’s probably just checking I haven’t broken his violin yet.
“He’s definitely interested,” says Amelia as we sit in the shade of an embellished stone relief of Apollo, taking a break from the baking heat.
She sings the bars of music which are carved in the sunbeams surrounding the god. It’s a theme from the opera Troilus and Cressida, “How can I sleep when love is waking.”
“Very funny,” I say, feigning concentration as I sort through piles of sheet music.
“Well, it isn’t me he keeps bringing ice cream for.”
I smile. Guido has told me all about the gelato business he’s in the process of setting up. I’d be more than happy to be his official tester.
“I never say no to free ice cream. Besides, it’s two weeks until pay day and at the rate things are going, ice cream is going to be my only form of nourishment.”
“Have you heard back from your insurance company yet?”
The steel band tightens around my forehead again.
“No. They said they’d have an answer for me within 48 hours, but it’s been longer than that and I’m too scared to call them.”
Amelia looks anxious. “Rosie, I’m not sure how to tell you this.” She shuffles the music round and coughs nervously.
“What’s the matter?”
“What exactly did you tell your insurance company?” she asks.
“That I had an accident with my violin and it needs repairing of course.”
She shakes her head. “Rosie, you need to check the small print of your policy. Adrian’s been saying he’ll tell your insurance company you assaulted him with your violin. They’ll probably count that as deliberate damage, in which case…” Her voice trails off. The implications are all too obvious.
“Surely they’ll understand if I explain the full circumstances to them?” I try.
Amelia’s pessimistic expression says it all.
I bury my head in my hands. “I’ll never be able to pay for it. What am I going to do?”
“Hi Rosie, what’s the matter?”
Guido has appeared, bearing ice creams again. I accept a white chocolate cone, but my heart isn’t in it.
I open my mouth, preparing to pour out my financial woes, when Amelia answers for me.
“Oh we’re just a little worried about a duet we’re doing next week. Rosie’s concerned she won’t have memorised it in time.”
I’m wondering what Amelia is playing at when Guido puts his arm round me and squeezes my shoulders.
“Nil desperandum – don’t panic. That’s what the ancient Romans used to say. You have plenty of time to learn it. Anyway, I have good news for you. My father told me your violin should be ready by the end of the week.”
I force a smile. “That’s great.”
It may be fixed, but as I’m unable to pay for the repairs, Gustavo would be perfectly within his rights to sell my violin to make up for his losses. I can’t be a professional musician without my instrument. I’m living in a nightmare.
“How about a meal out to celebrate?” invites Guido.
“Um,” I hesitate. I don’t think I can cope with dinner when the spectre of losing everything I’ve ever worked for is hanging over my head.
“She’d love to,” Amelia gets in first once again.
“I’ll meet you at Forio harbour this evening at eight?” says Guido and I find myself nodding numbly. This time yesterday a dinner invitation from Guido would have made my year, but now I’m too miserable to find the joy in anything.
Guido wanders off, whistling happily.
“There, you don’t need to worry anymore,” says Amelia with great satisfaction.
“What do you mean?”
She laughs. “It’s obvious, silly! Be nice to Guido and get him to persuade his papa to drop the bill.”
“That’s an outrageous suggestion,” I react with horror. “Besides, it would never work.”
“You don’t know until you try.” She sashays off, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Such is my fear for my violin’s future that for about five minutes I actually contemplate following her advice. However, my conscience soon jumpstarts itself. I like Guido far too much to use him. The only thing I can do is confess to Gustavo and throw myself on his mercy.
The walk into town seems even longer than usual and my mood is at rock bottom. I’ve worked myself up into quite a state by the time I reach the shop. I hover outside on the dusty path for at least ten minutes trying to summon up the courage to enter.
“Rosie, are you going to come and say hello, or are you waiting out there forever?” Gustavo appears in the doorway looking so pleased to see me I have to fight the urge to run away and hide. He’s going to hate me once he finds out I’ve got him repairing my fiddle under false pretences.
“Oh Gustavo, I’m so sorry.” Before I know it, the whole sorry tale is pouring out.
Bless him, he pats my hand, produces a large handkerchief when I get a bit teary and somehow manages to say all the right things. It can’t be much fun for him to have me turning up on his doorstep, confessing my crimes and blubbing all over the place.
“Rosie, listen to me carefully. I understand you left the violin with me in good faith. You did not know your insurance company would not pay for it to be repaired. It sounds like that Adrian deserved what he got, though I would recommend another weapon for the future.”
He hands me a glass of water and as I calm down, he grows more business-like.
“Now, you are here in Ischia for how long?” he asks.
“The next three weeks. We’ve a full programme of performances coming up.”
Performances which I won’t be able to do. I resign myself to the prospect of returning to gloomy England in disgrace and signing on at the local dole office. I’ll never get another job in an orchestra. They won’t employ an unreliable musician who doesn’t even have her own violin.
“Ok, this is what we will do. For the rest of your stay, you will come and assist me in the shop. I will let you have your violin back when it is fixed. You will work for me for free, then at the end of the three weeks, we will tally up and see how much more you owe me, and we will arrange some way of you paying the rest of the money.”
“But Gustavo, you barely know me. How do you know I’ll be good for the money?” I am astonished at such a generous offer.
“I am an excellent judge of character. And I have mafia connections who will hunt you down if you don’t pay.” He laughs merrily. “I am joking of course. It will be good for me to have someone to help out in the shop. Guido is busy with his own business and I don’t like to keep him away from that. I’m not as young as I was and he worries about me.”
“I can never repay you enough for letting me do this.” I hug Gustavo. “I’ll work here every spare second I have. You won’t regret it, I promise.”
“I ask just one thing,” he says. “Could you not tell Guido about our arrangement? It will be useful having you assist me but when you leave, he will be insisting on helping me once again. I don’t want him to miss his own chances because he thinks I can’t cope without him.”
I’m not entirely sure how we’ll get through the next three weeks without Guido finding out the truth, but I’m prepared to agree to anything at the moment. Hopefully everything will work out alright in the end.
“I hope you don’t get sea sick,” he says as he helps me into the water taxi. “I thought we’d take a trip to Maronti beach. It’s time you saw more of my island.”
Dusk is falling as we approach the beach. Tiny tea lights are twinkling on the tables of cafes lining the waterfront. I can smell garlic and other delicious scents wafting out to the boat. It feels like this place is touched with magic.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else but here,” I say. “There can’t be a better way to travel to dinner than by boat.”
“I hope you have a good appetite tonight. My friend Luigi has prepared a feast for us. He will be most offended if we don’t manage it all.”
“Oh I can definitely handle a feast,” I chuckle.
It turns out Luigi is quite the master chef. He personally greets us from the boat and escorts us to his restaurant at the far end of the beach. We are seated at a table on the sand, the gentle waves rolling only metres away from us.
“You know I’ve been in Italy for weeks now, and I haven’t been for a swim in the sea. Heck, I haven’t even been for a paddle,” I say.
“You musicians work too hard. There is always time for a paddle in the sea.”
Guido catches my eye, takes hold of my hand and together we kick off our shoes and run down the beach.
The water is a perfect temperature and we splash around in the shallows laughing. It’s so nice to relax and enjoy the moment.
“Ooh, I think a fish just tried to eat me,” I squeal.
“Are you sure it was a fish?” teases Guido. “In ancient times, the emperor Tiberius moved to Capri which is down the coast from here. He trained his slaves to pretend to be fish and nibble at his guests when they went swimming. Perhaps their ghosts are keeping up the tradition.”
“Wow, bet that was a grim job,” I say. “I can see why he would have wanted to live in this area though.”
“I don’t think Tiberius was particularly well loved by his staff. But if I had been an emperor, I think I would have wanted to live on an island rather than in busy old Rome. Tiberius hosted parties and feasts and basically pleased himself.”
“Speaking of feasts, I am absolutely starving.” My stomach growls with perfect timing. “I’m looking forward to seeing what Luigi has cooked for us.”
As we wander back to our table, I stumble slightly and Guido catches hold of me, bringing me close to his chest. He leans forward and my heart starts pounding heavily when…
“Alright Rosie,” Amelia staggers into view. From the slurring in her voice I can tell she’s had more than a few drinks. “See the old plan is working well. Nice one. I said you didn’t have to worry about the insurance money. Make sure you get a violin’s worth, eh Guido. I’ll leave you lovebirds to it.” She giggles and drags her escort, who looks suspiciously like Adrian, away into the shadows.
Guido lets go of me instantly.
“What does she mean, Rosie? What’s this about insurance?” he asks, suspicion growing in his features.
I open my mouth to explain, but remember my promise of silence to Gustavo. I wish a wave would come and wash me away. There is no way I can explain this to Guido. I’ve hesitated too long and I can tell he is already forming his own conclusions.
“Your insurance company won’t pay up,” he says starkly.
I shake my head.
“And you decided this would be the best way to sort it out? Hoping I would cancel the debt for services rendered?” It would almost be better if he was shouting at me. His calm, controlled tone is far more upsetting.
“Guido, that’s not how it is at all,” I protest, but I know I’ve lost him. “Please, trust me.”
“I don’t know you well enough to trust you. I don’t know you at all,” is all he will say.
We choke down Luigi’s feast in stony silence and return to Forio without speaking a word to each other. We bump into a couple of cellists from the orchestra and Guido leaves me to walk back to La Mortella with them. I know I won’t be seeing him again.
I feel I have lost something very precious. I’ve only known Guido for a matter of days, but I so wanted the opportunity to see where things could go with us. I focus on work, and notice an increased poignancy in the music I am playing. After an easy start, we are now caught up in a relentless schedule of performances at the gardens. Hundreds of tourists and locals pour in to hear us play, but the one person I would like to be there never makes an appearance.
When I am not on orchestra duty, I hurry down to Forio to put in some hours at Gustavo’s violin shop. For a tiny establishment on a small island, it is surprisingly busy. There must be something about the water in this place to encourage so many musicians. I welcome the distraction. I want these weeks to be over so I can return to England. I never thought I would be saying that! Everywhere I go on this island I expect to see Guido, and am disappointed when he isn’t there. It’s not exactly a recipe for happiness.
It’s Saturday morning and instead of having a lie in after a late performance last night, I am up early and waiting outside the shop for Gustavo to let me in for another day’s work paying off my debt. I check my watch. It’s gone nine o’clock now. Gustavo is normally pretty prompt about opening up at eight thirty. I knock on the door but there are no footsteps shuffling along, no cheery welcome. I check my phone in the unlikely event he has learnt how to text and sent me a message. Nothing at all.
I peer through the dusty windows to see if there is any sign of him. I am about to give up and return to La Mortella for a bit more shut eye when I spot a shadow by the counter. I blink a couple of times and check again. There seems to be something on the floor. It’s difficult to tell what it is, but I have a bad feeling about this. I rush to the door and try the handle. It’s locked. I shove at it ineffectually. I’m going to have to break in. Remembering something I saw on television, I use my sandal to smash the glass, then rip my t-shirt off to protect my hand from the sharp edges while I reach in to open the latch.
“What is going on here?” Guido bounds up like an angry puppy. “You’re not content with ripping my father off, now you have to break into his shop?”
The man has the worst timing ever.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Guido,” I snap. “I’m worried about your dad. I think he’s had an accident.”
He turns pale. Together we rush inside.
Gustavo is a crumpled shape on the floor, an overturned chair beside him.
“No, don’t touch him,” I warn, as Guido reaches out to pull him up. “He looks like he’s got a head injury. We need to keep him still and get help.”
Gustavo groans. I take his hand and keep talking reassuring nonsense while Guido calls an ambulance. I pray he’ll be alright. There’s no way of telling how long he has been unconscious on the floor.
After what seems like a lifetime, the ambulance squeals to a halt outside, its siren trilling like an opera singer on an off day. Gustavo, who seems to be reviving a bit now, is tenderly strapped to a stretcher and they sweep him off to hospital, Guido by his side. I watch as they vanish into the distance.
Someone wolf-whistles at me from the opposite pavement. I realise I’ve been rushing around without my t-shirt on for the past half hour. The day gets better and better. I hastily cover up, then set about clearing away the mess and arranging for the broken window to be boarded over.
I decide to stay and keep the shop open. It’s a particularly busy day, mostly because I’m fielding dozens of queries about Gustavo’s health. I wish I could give an answer.
I’m clearing up an explosion of rosin dust when the shop bell tinkles yet again.
“I’ll be with you in a moment. Un momento,” I call out, using about the only Italian I know.
Guido is standing there with a violin case in one hand and an ice cream in the other.
I try to read his expression. “Is Gustavo ok?”
“He’s going to be fine. They think his blood pressure fell while he was trying to reach something down and he fainted then hit his head.”
“I’m glad he’s ok.” I avoid catching his gaze. “I’d best be off then.”
“Rosie,” Guido stops me from leaving. “I’ve been talking with my father. He’s told me about your agreement and how much you’ve helped him in the past few days. I’ve been really stupid. I shouldn’t have believed the word of some drunk girl over you. I’m truly sorry. Can we start over?”
He looks genuinely nervous.
I pretend to consider, though I know exactly what my answer will be.
“What’s with the violin and the ice cream?” I ask.
“I thought I’d cover both eventualities. The gelato is if you say yes.” He’s starting to smile now. He can read my answer in my expression.
“And if I say no?” I ask.
“Well, I thought I’d better provide a violin for you to hit me with. It’s Amelia’s by the way, so feel free to really lay into me with it.”
I laugh and slip my arm around his waist.
“I’ll go for the gelato, I think.”
Something was happening in the newsroom. Well, something was always happening in the newsroom, but today rather than the journalists going out to the news, the news had come in to find the journalists. It was the News Editor who noticed it. First in and last out, she often wondered why she bothered going home at night. Turning on the lights in the office at 6.30am, she was surprised to see the presenter still at his desk.
“Morning Graham,” she greeted cheerily, keen to get on his good side for a change.
She wasn’t surprised. As a television presenter, Graham believed far too much of his own publicity. He loved the sound of his own voice so much that rumour had it he went to sleep listening to reruns of the programme.
She shrugged and set to work preparing a list of potential stories to be discussed in the morning meeting. She kept up a running commentary as she was doing it. Graham liked to feel involved. In fact, he’d probably claim credit for the whole list, not that it particularly bothered her. She knew the truth after all.
Graham really was being unusually quiet. She had a bit of a closer look. Wasn’t that the same suit he had been wearing yesterday? Definitely out of character. He was fastidious when it came to his personal appearance, claiming the viewers looked to him to lead the way in the sartorial stakes.
She blinked. Removed her glasses. Polished them and put them back on. Yes, there was no doubt about it.
Graham was dead.
She hit return on her keyboard a few times and started typing.
Presenter dead – news presenter found dead with microphone cord wrapped around his throat. Possible live report from newsroom?
Well, that was the top story for the programme sorted.
Reporters picked their way around the police as both sides tried to get their jobs done. It really was rather inconvenient having a dead body cluttering up the place. Plus there was the other small matter of a microphone being out of action, something they couldn’t afford to do without, given all the equipment cutbacks they’d had to cope with recently. Fortunately the police were kind enough to turn a blind eye whilst they borrowed the one from round Graham’s throat. The Sound Guys were pleased the wire hadn’t been damaged. Equipment was so expensive to replace nowadays.
After the lunchtime bulletin went out – the Substitute Presenter swelling with pride – the phones started ringing. At least two viewers wanted to claim responsibility for Graham’s death. The journalists filmed the police taking some of the calls. This was turning into a great story. They could probably get enough material for a half hour special. The Producer got on the phone to scheduling.
The Production Assistant stumbled across the next body during the evening bulletin while he was handing out scripts. They couldn’t see whose body it was in the dark control gallery, but a quick visual check confirmed it was no one immediately vital to the programme.
The programme went well. The Substitute Presenter managed to contain his glee at promotion just about long enough to read the news in a suitably sombre manner. The Director hit the button to play the weather. Nearly hometime. They turned on the gallery lights as the end titles played. The prostrate form of the Weatherman was revealed, his slide clicker rammed up his nose.
“Thank goodness he pre-recorded his forecast,” sighed the Producer.
The journalists formed a guard of honour as the police removed the Weatherman’s body. It was the least they could do. After all, he had helped them rake it in last year by giving insider tips on the odds of a white Christmas.
It was decided the Blonde Reporter would stand in for the Weatherman. Looking on the bright side, she’d be much cheaper.
She was extremely excited about making her weather debut. The only down side was that the police were being awkward about giving back the slide clicker. It was inconvenient to say the least, but then again, it was probably still a bit bloody from being rammed up her predecessor’s nose. A fellow Reporter volunteered to help out and change the slides whenever the Blonde tapped the screen which the weather map was projected onto. It worked pretty well. Until they got to the penultimate slide that was.
The Blonde tapped the wall. The Reporter leaned forward to hit the button. His chair jerked abruptly. He smashed through the computer screen and lay still.
The Blonde tapped the wall impatiently. What was taking so long? She’d miss her bikini wax appointment at this rate. What time was it? Two fift… A studio light plummeted onto her head.
Over the next few days, it seemed no one could move anywhere in the newsroom without unearthing a body. The Craft Editor was found with her mouth stuffed full of video tape. The Director was impaled on the mixing desk. The Senior Correspondent appeared to have been pickled to death in a vat of wine, but the police were pretty confident that that could be attributed to natural causes. It was getting rather difficult to find a new angle to the story for the programme each night. The final straw was when the Substitute Presenter got trapped in his dressing room and apparently suffocated in his panic.
“You over there. There’s nothing for it, you’ll have to present the news tonight.”
The Work Experience girl wandered over.
“Now that is just what I’ve been hoping to hear.”
Quickly and efficiently she battered the Producer over the head with a camera.
“A girl’s got to get herself a job somehow.” She turned and headed into the studio.
I’m over the moon to have been awarded second prize in the Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story Competition 2014 for my story Authentic Athens. It was a pretty exciting night being asked to read an extract out in front of an audience which included a Booker prize finalist, gulp! Fortunately they all laughed in the right places.
The competition was judged by Dreda Say Mitchell. Here’s what she had to say about Authentic Athens:
“A great opening scene nicely sets up our protagonist with a tense dilemma that needs solving. The setting of a prison cell really had me intrigued about where this story was going to lead me. It plays around with time structure so it starts at the end rather than the beginning. It is very funny, but under the layers of humour it deals with very serious and topical issues. Written in a fluid and confident style with characters that easily jump off the page.”
Thirteen bricks high, nineteen wide. How many bricks does that make? One hundred and something, sixty-eight is it? Maths has never been my strong point, but there’s nothing much else for me to do as I languish in a stuffy jail cell two hundred yards from the Acropolis. When my boss sent me for a holiday in ‘Authentic Athens’, this is definitely not how authentic I thought things would get.
The day before….
I lugged my heavy luggage from the conveyor belt and set off in search of the exit, grateful the Greek signs were translated into English letters, giving me some chance of working out where I should go in all this chaos. I was hot, sweaty, tired and counting the minutes until I could set up my laptop on a shady balcony and check my emails whilst sipping a cool glass of white wine. After an hour and a half of waiting for my suitcase to show up, my patience was wearing thin.
I emerged into the cacophony of the arrivals hall and flinched as hundreds of handwritten signs were eagerly thrust in my direction, promising transport for Kyrios Rouvas, Mrs Jones, Leanne Kingston. I peered carefully at all the signs but my name didn’t appear anywhere. I double checked the itinerary which my PA had carefully printed out and colour-coded (pink for travel, yellow for accommodation, green for activities.) It definitely stated a guide would await my arrival at Eleftherios Venizelos airport and accompany me to my accommodation in the picturesque Plaka district of Athens. I checked my watch. The flight had landed spot on time, so there was no reason for my guide not to be here. My irritation levels increased. I’d only booked this damn vacation because my boss had threatened to fire me if I didn’t take a break. It was meant to reduce my stress levels, not increase them. I trundled my suitcase over to a quieter area where I could phone the travel company, but as I negotiated my way through the crowds, six foot something of blundering man careered into me, knocking me stumbling backwards into the very angular, very sharp metal seating which formed rows down the length of the building.
“Watch where you’re going, you idiot,” I yelled, my voice all squeaky and shrill with pain.
“Sygnome, Kyria,” he said, briefly taking my hand, then hurrying on his way.
“That better have meant you were sorry,” I muttered, angrily waiting for my phone to connect.
“Kalispera,” a masculine voice answered. “Hello? Can I help you?”
“Yes, hello, this is Lia Stephens. I am trying to get in touch with a Mr Sakis Papadopoulos. He was meant to have met me at the airport an hour ago, but he appears to have been delayed.”
“Ah, Kyria, I am glad you are here safe. I am Sakis. Where are you? I am in the arrivals hall. I am the one speaking on the phone.”
That really didn’t narrow it down. Practically every person in the place had some form of electronic device glued to their skull.
“How about you wave?” he suggested.
Feeling very stupid, I reluctantly wiggled my fingers in the general direction of the ceiling. It garnered quite a few waves back. I felt my face turn pink.
“Look, I’m standing in the corner beneath a bloody great big sign for car hire, surely it won’t be too difficult to find me?” I hissed.
He made some kind of response but the echoing din of the place drowned it out completely. Somebody tapped me on my shoulder.
“Kyria, are you ready to go?”
“I was ready half an hour ago.” I spun round, then bent my head back to see my guide properly. I got a funny sensation in my stomach as I recognised the man. “Oh great, it’s the blundering giant.”
He looked decidedly nonplussed, then grinned. “Yes, I am Sakis. I am sorry for bumping into you, Kyria. I was in a rush and I forgot my glasses. I hope I did not hurt you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well if that’s how short-sighted you are, I hope you’re not driving me to my accommodation.”
“Oh no, we are not driving. It is Authentic Athens holiday. We take the metro.”
My back twinged in protest at the thought of having to lug my bag any further. “The metro?” I repeated weakly.
“Yes of course. It is the best way to travel into the city.” He picked up my suitcase as if it weighed no more than a pillow and gestured to me to follow him. “This is where your experience of the real Athens begins.”
The train trundled us past mile upon mile of motorway, then dived below the surface as we hit a line of identikit apartment blocks in the suburbs. We re-emerged to a different world. I couldn’t help gasping as I clambered the final steps out of the metro and looked up to see the Acropolis looming above me. Hundreds of people streamed past as I gazed upon the ancient buildings of weathered marble perched dramatically on the top of the cliff.
“Welcome to my home city,” beamed Sakis, throwing his arms open expansively. I ducked to avoid being thumped by my suitcase which he was still clutching.
“This way,” he continued, setting a punishing pace through a maze of winding alleyways. The heat was oppressive and I swear my brain was starting to slowly cook inside my skull. I had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other just to keep going. I had no idea Athens was so hilly.
“Here we are. This is where you will be staying.” Sakis wasn’t even perspiring after the climb.
I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and blinked up at the building in front of me. It was a non-descript apartment block with lines of laundry criss-crossing its balconies, a rambling, over-grown bougainvillea bush its only redeeming feature.
“This is my hotel?” A wealth of exhaustion and general pissed off-ness made my question come out rather more forcibly than was maybe polite, but by this stage I was beyond caring.
“No, do not worry. You are not staying in a hotel. This is Authentic Athens. My family will be looking after you.”
Before I could give my honest response to that, a wrinkled whirlwind in black rushed out and took both my hands.
Sakis bent down to kiss her cheek. “Lia, this is my mother Penelope. Mama, this is Lia Stephens.”
“Welcome, welcome to my home. And your home too for the next week.” She was so enthusiastic in her greeting, that my demand to be taken to the nearest hotel died in my mouth.
“Er, hello,” I stammered. I turned to her son. “Can I have a word Sakis?”
“Let me show you to your room,” he countered. “Mama will be busy preparing dinner, and you must be hungry after your journey.”
I pursed my lips, but consented to be led upstairs, my desire to be back in my safe, uncomplicated office increasing at every step.
“Here you are, everything you could want.” Sakis gestured around the room with its single bed, desk, chair and pile of clean towels. “And this is the best bit.” He stepped forward and flung open double doors onto the balcony. “Before you is the real Athens.”
“Can you see the Acropolis?” I asked refusing to look.
“No, but this view is better,” he replied, enthusiastic as a puppy.
“No but the bathroom is only down the corridor.”
He smiled. “Why would you want wifi when there is so much to explore in the real world?”
I nearly choked. “This is ridiculous. How am I meant to relax when I can’t even check my emails?”
His olive eyes sparkled in a way which served only to increase my level of irritation. “You never know, you may find not being able to check them more relaxing. I will leave you to unpack, then come and join the family for our evening meal. You will feel better once you have had something to eat.”
Something to eat would make me feel better? In his dreams. The only thing which would make me feel better right now would be an air conditioned five star room with a fully-stocked mini bar. I pulled my phone out ready to make an angry call to my PA to sort out this debacle when I realised the battery had died. I actually threw my folder of travel documents across the room in frustration. I slumped down on the bed in defeat, a wave of tiredness hitting me. I would lie down for five minutes, then sort out this mess.
The clattering of a two stroke engine in the street below woke me. I sat up, scrabbling around to find out what time it was. 8am. I must have slept straight through. Someone had removed my shoes and placed a light blanket over me. I staggered over to my suitcase, but that had been emptied and thoughtfully unpacked. I hoped it had been Penelope who’d done it and not her son. I didn’t really like to think what he’d make of my collection of boring old M&S underwear and business-like blouses and skirts. Not that his opinion of me mattered one jot of course. I collected the aforementioned items, and padded down the corridor to the bathroom. Shower time, then find a proper hotel I reckoned.
I had heard complaints about Greek bathrooms, but I’d never actually had to confront the reality of not being allowed to flush toilet paper before. Then there was the shower cubicle or rather, non-cubicle, as there was no sign of a curtain to keep the water from escaping into the rest of the room. Maybe if I stood really still whilst showering it wouldn’t matter. I soon discovered my mistake. The moment I turned the tap on, water sprayed everywhere, drenching my clothes, my towel and the toilet paper. It didn’t make for a relaxing bathing experience. I washed as quickly as I could, then wrapped the dripping bath-towel around me and made a hasty dash back to my room. Of course, sod’s law dictated I encountered Sakis on my way back.
“Kalimera, good morning. Did you sleep well?” he asked, having the good grace at least to appear to be ignorant of my state of undress, but I still felt myself blushing like a schoolgirl.
“Fine,” I muttered begrudgingly.
“My mother has prepared breakfast, then we shall go exploring.”
My stomach gurgled in anticipation. Maybe I could put off transferring to a hotel until I’d had some food. And perhaps the exploring would help me find somewhere else to stay, somewhere with that holy grail, internet access. I dreaded to think how many emails would be filling my inbox.
I had expected us to start with a visit to the Acropolis but Sakis seemed reluctant.
“At this time of the day, it is no good. We will go tomorrow, very early. It is better then. Let us explore the Plaka first. It is the neighbourhood of the gods. Let me hold that for you.”
I had been surreptitiously trying to check for wifi, but it seemed we wouldn’t be going anywhere unless I surrendered my phone. I reluctantly handed it over. I felt naked without it but the stern look on Sakis’ face told me there was no point in arguing with him. He took my arm and we set off down a narrow road.
Only a few streets from the main tourist areas, it was like stepping back in time. The alleyways in this area of the Plaka were too narrow for cars and so the locals had set up tables and chairs and were sitting in the sunshine, chatting back and forth across the passageways. I felt like we were walking through their front rooms, but everyone we went past had a smile and a greeting for us. The friendly atmosphere was catching and gradually I realised the unfamiliar feeling creeping over me was actually a sense of relaxation.
“This is Adrianou Street,” said Sakis as we turned another corner. “It is the oldest street in the city. My friend is an archaeologist and he says the road has the same layout as it did in the times of the ancient city.”
“So we are literally walking in the footsteps of people like Socrates?” I asked, with a frisson of excitement.
He laughed. “Yes, and breathing the same air as he did.”
“Thank you for showing me this,” I said sincerely. “I would never have thought of coming down here.”
“That is the beauty of an Authentic Athens holiday,” he smiled.
“What is with all the English graffiti though?” I asked as I spotted yet another spray mural exhorting the authorities to “Free the people from hunger.”
A shadow crossed his face. “That is another part of authentic Athens, but not one I normally mention to my visitors.”
That piqued my curiosity. “Well you have to tell me about it now,” I insisted.
He stared at me intently as if he was trying to read in my face whether I meant it or not. Whatever he saw there must have satisfied him because he took my hand and led me in a different direction. We hurried past Syntagma Square with its guards dressed in their uniform of funny mini-skirts and pom-pommed shoes and dived once more into a maze of streets. These lacked the quaint charm of the Plaka district and instead looked tired and rundown. Occasionally we passed a shop which was open, but most of them were boarded up with more of the graffiti sprayed across their doorways. Finally we came to a halt at a café which had a queue of customers snaking out down the street.
“This is ‘Trophe gia olous’. It means ‘Food for All.’ It is a soup kitchen for those who cannot afford to feed themselves.”
“But there are so many people. And they look…” The words died in my mouth. They looked so normal is what I wanted to say, but I knew it would sound rude. Sakis seemed to understand what I was getting at though.
“Yes, they are. They are former government employees, business people, doctors. The financial crisis has caused hardship for many people.”
“And is this what all the graffiti is about?”
“Yes. They want the world to know about the difficulties we are facing. I am a qualified teacher, but I work as a tour guide on the side so I have money to help my mother,” he confessed. My admiration for him grew. “There is another vote in parliament tonight. We expect the politicians will decide upon more cuts and the queues here will grow longer.” He hesitated. “A group of us were planning to go down to Syntagma Square and wait for the result of the vote. You are welcome to join us, but I should warn you that things can get a little lively.”
Penelope didn’t look pleased when Sakis informed her of our plans, but she didn’t say anything and instead thrust a packet of sandwiches and a scarf at me as we set off that evening.
“It’s not going to get that cold is it?” I smiled at Sakis as he tied an identical scarf round his throat. He tweaked the jaunty bow I’d constructed around my neck.
“It’s in case there is any tear gas. It will protect you from the worst of it.”
What was I getting myself into? The sensible voice in my head told me to turn back now, pack up my belongings and move to a hotel to continue my holiday in comfortable ignorance, but the memory of the quiet resignation on the faces of those in the soup kitchen queue stirred my conscience. I wanted to stand in solidarity with the people who had so generously welcomed me to their home and their city.
Syntagma Square shone with the light of thousands of candles held aloft by a peaceful crowd. People of all ages stood together, their gaze focussed on the parliament building in front of them where their fates were being decided. I shivered, more from the atmosphere of nervous anticipation than from the cold, but didn’t object when Sakis wrapped his arms round me.
Suddenly a policeman stumbled into me, knocking me flying.
Sakis unleashed a torrent of Greek, the gist of which was clearly warning the man to watch where he was going. My assailant looked like he was about to square up to Sakis. I didn’t stop to think. I threw my packet of sandwiches at him, hitting him squarely in the face. I reckon I would have got away with it if I hadn’t started laughing at how ridiculous he looked with tzatziki dripping down onto his pristine uniform. Soon the whole crowd were laughing along with me. They cheered as my ‘victim’ arrested me and led me off into the police van. I felt like a folk heroine. I may even have shouted something along the lines of “Vive la revolution”, not exactly the correct lingo I know, but the crowd appreciated the sentiment.
So that’s how I ended up in this sweat box, experiencing an authentic Athenian jail cell. No wifi, no ensuite, no problem.
“168 bricks,” I call across the corridor to my fellow jail bird. He looks pretty good, even in the dim light of the cell block.
“Close, it’s 169,” Sakis corrects me.
A guard walks down the corridor.
“Lia Stephens? Sakis Papadopoulos?” He lets us out, indicating bail has been posted.
Sakis takes my hand and we walk out of the police station together.
“I’m afraid you’re about to experience something else authentically Athenian. My mother is going to kill us.”