Prologue & Chapter 1
A man stands naked in the moonlight, his feet sinking gently into the sand beneath his feet.
The sound of cicadas in the brush at the head of a long, curved beach echo off the rocks as a gentle surf rolls in and out. The spray throws up phosphorous in the water, which glows and fades with each wave. The sound grows in his head. The lapping of the sea is deeply rhythmical and coupled with the crickets the sound builds into a rhythm that becomes a drumming in the distance.
The man turns.
Splashes in the waves, phosphorescence flying, a luminescent sea of stars in the surf. Something huge, something violent is coming out of the waves. Hooves are breaking in the foaming water.
First one, then two, then three, and finally a fourth – four horses are charging along the beach at full gallop.
A pale grey is in the lead. Its head, wet from the spray, shimmers as if wearing an ethereal crown.
The next is to the left, scattering spray as it gallops through the shallows – a chestnut, almost a deep red in this light, its hooves glistening like shining swords slicing the water.
Behind comes a thin, bedraggled stray, black and bony but with deep set eyes that bore into the man as he waits.
Finally, a huge dappled grey that in the moonlight radiates a green hue as it gallops with long majestic, purposeful strides across the sand.
Frozen to the spot the man cannot escape. The first two beasts gallop past him on either side and he manages to dodge the third but the last rears before him and descends, hooves flailing at him as he covers his face with his hands . . .
‘I, John, your companion in tribulation . . .
was on the island of Patmos . . .’
It is early morning, late September, and the ferry approaching the historic port of Skala on the Greek island of Patmos is busy. There is a golden hue to the sunlight as it filters through the boat’s window casting a warm glow in the passenger lounge. The still, blue Aegean sea stretches out towards the headland, which is now visible in the distance. The view of sky over sea is serene.
Jon leans on the ship’s rail and looks out across the water, his face breaking into deep, leathered lines as he brushes his unkempt greying hair from his face. His rucksack is still lying on the worn deck bench where he spent the night, using it as a pillow to rest his head. Subconsciously he picks away at a hole under the arm of his old, light cotton checked shirt. It has always been a favourite and one that he refuses to discard; rather threadbare, but what is the point of a new shirt now?
He is wiry, deeply and grubbily tanned, enhanced as much by his mongrel mixed heritage as the fact that he hasn’t bothered to have a proper wash for a few days. There are frown lines carved into his face around his blue eyes as he peers out from under a heavy brow. He never considered himself to be tall and yet he holds himself in an apologetic stoop, his head held low, eyes forever glancing from side to side beneath an untidy fringe that falls over his face.
Whatever happened to a summer of enlightenment and discovery?
Not a chance. Rather, this summer has become a reinforcement of failure, regret and a creeping despair. Jon has meandered from mainland to one idyllic island after another idyllic island; some a vision of pristine white washed walls, blue shutters, windmills and beaches crammed with sun loungers and umbrellas; some little more than a barren rock bursting to life around a small harbour of colourful fishing boats. Then there were others full of fabulous yachts screaming wealth and privilege; some with little ports rammed full with the regurgitated passengers spewing forth from enormous cruise liners to gawp at a church or a town square but rarely offering more to a suffering local economy than the price of a coffee or an ice cream.
This last check-list of destinations up from Rhodes has at least provided some sense of a genuine experience of discovery as he has explored the smaller scattering of islands that run up alongside the coast of Turkey form Rhodes to Lesvos in the North. First came little Symi, where an eager scooter hire shop will sell you a day’s freedom on the one road which peters out two hundred yards beyond the edge of town. Really, the confused looking tourists in their ill-fitting helmets buzzing up and down the one street in town trying to find somewhere to go and explore should have been a clue.
Chalki next, with its gorgeous little harbour and a short walk over the hill to a perfect bay under the ruin of an old Turkish fort. That was a good four hour hike to take under the afternoon sun… thank goodness for the young tourist doctor sipping a beer at the first taverna on the way down; the supply of rehydration tablets she carried in her knapsack was a life saver as much as her friend’s bottle of chamomile aftersun cream. They were good company for a while, until Jon realised that he was twice their age and cultural references got lost in translation as the conversation ran dry. He had more in common with the scrawny old stray dog that followed him around for a while. That was, until his master, the village postman, claimed him back with a scowl and bag of biscuit treats. What fickle emotions, these Greek hounds have…
Tilos was serene, the little port of Livadia offering visual perfection, the ‘ghost village’ of Mikro Chorio offering spiritual reflection and the unmade, natural beach at Eristos, without a single sun-bed or umbrella, offering hot stones and warm shallow water to cool off in. All this before the madness of Kos, where overcrowded refugee camps sit side by side with all inclusive encampments of package holiday tourists who pay thousands to share the same soulless experience, albeit with the comfort of three meals a day and a swimming pool. Kos town was fun, though, with its mixture of tourist frippery, night clubs and fine open air dining under olive trees, narrow back streets laced with less well visited culinary discoveries and characterful corner bars, and a harbour offering multiple options for sight-seeing trips on yet another ferry, or perhaps a crowded catamaran or even in glorious comfort on a converted fishing caique to take one across the narrow straight to Bodrun, where thousands wait to make the opposite trip in dangerously overcrowded inflatables. The contrast was hard to ignore and it was good to get away from the all too visible tragedy and cultural divide between the have plenty and the have nothing, whilst feeling helpless and powerless to do anything about it.
Then it was back onto the high speed hydrofoil ferry to the crystal clear waters of Kalimnos, famous for its sponges, and Leros, where Artemis, the ancient goddess, once hunted for deer, though diving for a sponge or trying to find a deer nowadays seems a rather impossible dream. So Jon bought a dangerously phallic looking loofa from a street vendor on one island before spending a couple of days walking from village to village on the other, failing to find any goddesses or deer, but instead watching the old ferry make its way back past him from the ruin of a medieval castle on top of the cliff face at Pandeli. He spent a night and a day strolling around the village of Alinda before heading on to the smaller island of Lipsi, staying in a beach room at idyllic Kambos where his Kalimnos souvenir of a Made-in-China loofa fell apart under a cold open air shower.
Finally Patmos. But as welcoming as the locals are, as friendly as his fellow passengers have been throughout this experience, the shiftless, restless idleness of such an aimless expedition has done nothing to change Jon’s disposition.
What a stupid idea. Backpacking is for students – teenagers. You can’t revisit. You can’t reinvent. What is done is done, you carry it with you for life and you can’t wipe the slate clean by simply buying a cut-price airline ticket.
Dominating Jon’s view is what appears to be a fortress sitting on top of the island, like a tarnished crown on a thick necked and flat-headed ancient god. The dark, fortified bastille is intimidating and overwhelming... but this is not a castle or fortress, it is the medieval monastery of St John, towering above the town. The dark grey walls are austere, foreboding, in stark contrast to the dazzling whitewashed walls that surround it, bright in the morning sun, and the flower-filled balconies and blue shutters of the town below.
Jon is spellbound as he stares at the blue sky, the glittering sea and the seemingly endless beach that curves away to the east, lined with tamarisk trees that runs into the distance west of the dock. Even this early in the day the heat from the sun leaves a shimmering haze rising up from the quayside. He takes a deep breath; the view is perfect, a picture postcard image of a Greek island in late summer.
Still feeling a little unsettled, Jon fiddles with the clasp of his watchstrap – a Rolex; Perpetual – a timepiece that never ages. He used to treasure that watch. It cost him a fortune but now it feels like a ridiculous indulgence.
I should sell it, he thinks, get some cash and spend a few nights in a nice hotel, clean myself up and perhaps get a new suit. As if that would do any good. A crooked smile breaks the haggard face for a moment as he clicks the clasp shut on his wrist.
Below him he hears the bustle on the car deck as impatient passengers start their engines and petrol fumes fill the air. There is a small pickup loaded with vegetables, a few travellers queuing to exit carrying bags and rucksacks and behind them a few national service soldiers returning on leave.
The men in their camouflage and khaki, tired from their journey, are surly and resentful of the foreigner in his tattered jeans wearing an expensive watch. He can sense their unease, feel their resentment – who does he think he is, late season tourist, slumming it with the locals? Perhaps he think’s he’s cool, revisiting his backpacking youth? What a wanker.
Jon drops his head to avoid eye contact, a strand of his unkempt hair falling over his face.
The shouts from the crewmen are drowned out by the rattling starter motor of the pickup as its driver fires up the ancient engine, clouding the enclosed car deck in black diesel smoke. The young soldiers look on in disdain, dispersing, waving away the offensive fumes with grubby hands emerging from the rolled up sleeves of their uniforms, absurdly over sized on their barely adult physiques.
On the dockside, Jon can see a few locals waiting to welcome relatives, or perhaps to offer rooms, studios and apartments, or just simply to observe the main event of the day. This is the final stop on the ferry’s route up through the Dodecanese islands before it turns and heads back towards Rhodes, so everyone is disembarking.
Still on the top deck Jon stands in the shadows by the gangway, a dark, brooding, solitary figure. A group of children run excitedly towards the ramp, brushing past him as they go, eager to get onto dry land and into the arms of their grandparents waiting on the dockside. Jostled by their youthful energy, Jon steps aside…
Not so long ago a similar group of enthusiastic ‘children’ brushed past Jon. He remembers a clinical, clean open plan office in the heart of the city, up on the nineteenth floor, where several young traders ran past him engrossed in excitable chatter having managed to secure a deal.
A clean-shaven Jon emerges through the mist of his selective memory – paler, heavier and wearing a grey suit – invisible to his colleagues, he knows he is ignored, overlooked and outdated. He sees the traders moving at a feverishly high speed and yet he seems to be stuck in slow motion, as though he is swimming through treacle. Dragging his hands across his desktop as he stares at two screens filled with graphs and data. Once they made sense to him, but now all the graphs seem to spiral downwards in a tangled web of sorrowful loss.
He doesn’t have the stomach to do this any more. He could pull it back from the brink of disaster; of course he could. But it’s all just too much effort...
A door opens to a private side office and a younger manager in a sharp suit calls over in his direction. Her doorplate reads ‘Pippa Bruce-Harris, Executive Director, Wealth Management’.
“Jon, could you pop in for a minute please?”
Jon sighs and gets to his feet with little enthusiasm. As he steps towards the open door in his mind he knows what lies beyond; the inevitable execution of an outdated and outmoded underachiever.
The ferry jolts as it hits the dock forcing Jon to take hold of the handrail to steady himself, bringing him back from his sorrowful memory to the present moment. A rusty speaker not far from his head suddenly crackles into life making him duck involuntarily.
A voice in Greek patters away in loud staccato before being followed by an English translation:
“Patmos, this is Patmos. This is the last port of call. The final destination. All passengers are to disembark here.”
This is followed by a beeping, loud and insistent, that cracks the air; it is the warning that the ferry doors are descending. As the bright light floods the deck, the approaching dockside comes into full view. The ramp hits the concrete dock with a resounding slam. Do they have to do that? Does it have to be so violent? And does that alarm have to be so bloody loud?
Jon is in no hurry; he leans against a metal beam, closes his eyes and waits as the incessant beeping continues... in his head it gets louder, reverberating in his brain, bouncing off the walls inside his cranium.
The incessant sound triggers another memory; one of a kitchen where an oven timer is beeping to signify that the cakes are ready.
Jon is leaning against the doorframe. A boy approaches from behind, hesitates, then pushes past him on his way out to the garden with a football tucked under one arm. Belatedly, Jon steps aside, aware that he was in the way.
There is a loud sigh and the clink of a glass. The sigh emanates from a woman sitting at the table. She turns to watch the young boy leave, frowning at her dad. In front of her a laptop is open and the table is strewn with papers leaving little space for her glass of iced tea. As she gets to her feet she places the glass to stand on an old, stained coaster on the faded pine table and runs a hand through her hair with a sigh. She is a busy young mother who is used to multi-tasking. Jon, on the other hand, is not tasking anything very much.
This is Gina’s kitchen. Her dad is uncomfortable, perhaps he could explain that he was simply lost in thought at the door, oblivious to his grandson running past him, that he didn’t mean to block the boy’s path, but Gina is incredulous, placing her hands on her hips, which makes him feel misplaced and a little defensive.
“Dad! For heaven’s sake, Dad, you’re always in the way! Are you even going to...?”
“Just tell me, Gina, what have I done wrong now?”
She tries to soften her tone;
“You know Joey would love it if you could, just once…”
Jon looks back, confused and simply not getting the point, not through any obduracy, just not up to speed with where this is going. Nothing new there. Lost in his own thoughts, he’s often missing the point. For God’s sake, get a grip, Jon…
“No. Well, no, you’re not are you?”
She stoops down to pick up the oven gloves that have fallen on the floor. Jon, feeling thoroughly told off by his daughter and annoyed by the beeping, turns and goes out into the garden to follow Joey. But, as usual, the moment has gone, his timing is off and Joey has left. The back gate is open, the boy has gone to the park to play with his friends, his friend’s dog and, no doubt, the friend’s quicker off the mark and gainfully employed or fully pensioned up grandpa.
Back in Pippa’s office the beeping continues... a lorry is reversing in the street below. The beeping is accompanied by the flat tones of a recorded message, another warning, as Pippa idly watches on.
“Attention, this vehicle is reversing... attention, this vehicle is reversing...”
“So it’s goodbye and fuck off, is it?”
Jon’s painfully accurate summary brings Pippa’s attention back to the room.
“Don’t be like that, Jon, look on the bright side. It’s a decent package, you could take time out, Lord knows, you’ll hardly be alone...”
Jon is unmoved and his expression remains inscrutable as Pippa flounders on. She hates to have to do this but she has had her instructions from above; worse still it seems to be happening every week now, breaking bad news to staff who have been loyal to the company, some who have been here years. What happened to last in first out? Damn it, Jon’s been here since the day she joined and she always thought of him as part of the furniture. But there’s a problem... he’s quiet and moody nowadays, and his clients aren’t sure of him. His performance is less than spectacular and it appears no one wants to work with him anymore. He was a crashing bore at last week’s golf day. God, if you can play like that and win that easily, at least show some grace, he can’t even be bothered to pretend, he can’t even manage to lose a game to a client when he knows he should.
She brings her mind back into focus and back to the room.
“Look, I don’t know. Since you lost Alex you’ve not been yourself. Take some time out – do a PhD, go fishing, play golf...”
Pippa does not get the reaction she hopes for as Jon’s face descends into a scowl. This is not going well. It rarely does.
“Maybe take your daughter shopping...”
“There are easier ways to kill myself.”
Pippa laughs uneasily, “Look, I don’t know, you could travel... yes, why not? Take the gap year you never had. I’ve seen your file. You didn’t even do the university thing. How old were you when you came into this business?”
“I didn’t want to waste any time.”
“Nearly forty years of this? God, I’d kill myself.”
“So get out! Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag and all that. I know I would if I could. Look, I’ll give you some time to think it through, get used to it, you know...”
Jon’s stare is unnerving. Shit, let’s just get this over with.
“No worries... Just...”
“What?” he says impatiently.
“Well, if you could clear your desk first,” she said shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “Yes... and if you could be out of the building, shall we say, no later than twelve?”
Jon glances sideways at the clock. It is just coming up to ten thirty.
“And all the very best to you, old chap.”
The awkward, insincere epithet does nothing to ease the mood as Pippa comes around from behind the desk and Jon stands and moves to the door. She puts a hand on the crook of Jon’s elbow in a last vain attempt to soften the blow. Jon turns sharply, the look is a glower, cynical more than raging, but all the same, she can tell that there is something dark, bleak and destructive simmering under the surface. It’s not threatening, the anger is focused inwards, but she is deeply uncomfortable and can’t wait for him to leave.
The beeping noise continues outside the window as the refuse lorry reverses further down the road...
Back on the ferry, back in the present and back in his faded, ripped and holed check shirt and torn jeans, Jon steps forward towards the exit. He momentarily loses balance and the hand on his elbow is no longer that of Pippa anymore, now it is a crewman steadying him. Jon instinctively shakes the man off, then smiles thinly, muttering, “Sorry . . .”
The crewman remains charming and polite, “Pada Calo.”
Jon puts his hands to his head as the beeping continues... the ringing in his ears is becoming too much to bear... please stop, just stop.
In London the lorry beeping in the street below is waiting for a car to move out of the way. Shouts, curses and the sound of a car horn float up towards the open window on the fifth floor of the London office block. Jon moves over and looks out of the window, closes it, and then turns away for the last time, taking a cardboard box off the windowsill as he leaves the room. The sound outside and inside Jon’s head ceases with one last ‘ping’.
Back in time, Jon stands in front of a microwave oven in his kitchen. He opens the door and reaches in to take out a steaming baked potato. It is red hot and burns him. He whips his hand away dropping the potato, which rolls out onto the worktop. He wrings his hand and sucks his scalded fingers. Pulling a drying-up cloth from the drawer under the counter, he tries again, picking up the potato and gingerly placing it on a small floral plate.
Taking a sharp knife from a knife-block he holds the potato in his left hand, protected by the cloth, and pierces the skin with the point of the knife, clinically and cleanly slicing it down the middle and letting it fall open. Pleased with himself, he takes a plastic bottle of mayonnaise, flips the lid and squeezes some onto the steaming innards of the potato. Grabbing a tray from the side he places the plate and its appetizing contents on the tray with a small knife and fork and pours cold water from the tap into a glass.
Balancing the glass and plate on the tray, Jon steps out of the kitchen and begins to climb the stairs. An urgent call echoes down the stairwell.
“Jon! Jon! Where the hell are you?”
“Coming, darling, just coming…”
Jon comes off the top step and crosses to the bedroom door. As the door swings open...
“There was no need to be all day about it!”
He proudly places the tray on a large bedside table beside the bed where Alex lies propped up on pillows with a brightly coloured headscarf tied around her head, an open book at her side as she pulls off her reading glasses and pinches her nose between thumb and forefinger.
Smiling, Jon plays the part of the room service waiter…
“Lunch! Just as you requested, madam, Pommes de Terre a la Mayonaise!”
“Baked potato… with lashings of your favourite Heinz Mayo…”
Alex is confounded,
“What the hell are you talking about? I hate mayonnaise!”
Jon drops the act…
“It’s what you asked for…”
“No, I didn’t… why would I do such a thing?”
“But you did… perhaps you forgot.”
“Forgot? Of course I didn’t forget. I’ve never liked mayonnaise. You know that. Surely you know that? All the time we’ve been married have you ever seen me put mayonnaise on anything? Just answer me that? Have I ever? Have I?”
Jon looks down at his feet, like a scolded schoolboy.
“I don’t know… it’s just what you asked for…”
”Are you calling me a liar? You are, aren’t you, you’re calling me a liar.”
“No. No, of course not…”
Alex’s voice rises to a thin screech,
“Take it away, will you? Take it away!!”
In a fit of temper, Alex sweeps out her arm, sending the tray flying onto the floor. The glass of water sprays Jon as the potato and mayonnaise splash out in bits onto the carpet. Shocked at her own outburst, Alex turns her head away and buries her face in the bedding as Jon goes down onto his hands and knees to clear up the mess.
Jon becomes aware that Alex is now sobbing, short little gasps of breath, or at least, as much as she can manage, as she gives little, wheezy wails of anguish into the soft pillow. He looks up, getting up on one knee and places a hand on the bed next to her trailing left arm…
“I’m sorry, darling… I’ll get you something else…”
She is almost inaudible, into the pillow…
“No… no, don’t bother…”
Jon takes his wife’s left hand in his and although she doesn’t turn over, keeping her back to him as she gasps for snatches of breath through the tears, he is, at least, a little comforted by the gentle squeeze she gives him in return.
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