A HOUSE IN CORFU (Chapter One)
Where are you planting this? Is it xorta--weed?' And the old woman laughs up at me, whipping her donkey on down the rocky path ahead before I have time to answer. I hear her call her greeting to the many--and invisible--other occupants of the Greek landscape: 'Herete!' as she wends her way to the sea from her tiny demesne of olive and scrub. Her upright figure in black is like a needle, threading through a patchwork of fiercely owned and tended land that is as intimately known and impossible to ignore as the network of interrelated families in the village of Liapades, above us on the steep hill. All those who call back are owners, brothers, uncles, daughters, grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the land. And here, for the past thirty-five years or more, since my parents bought squares and triangles of this Mediterranean quilt, we have been a part of the landscape too.
What I am carrying is actually a pot of mint, a present for my mother and for the garden she has made under the house on the old terraces that go down to the grove. I'm hoping the mint will join the landscape; surprisingly, given the curly-leafed basil, plentiful chives and small forests of wild thyme, rosemary and sage that guard the flights of stone steps to the bay, there has never been mint here at Rovinia. Everything else is here, one might say. The hill across the narrow valley from our house is covered with one of the few remaining examples of autochthonous wood remaining on the island, a tangle of holm-oak, myrtle, white Mediterranean heath, viburnum, bay, laurel, arbutus and Judas tree; beyond, on the mountains above the Plain of Liapades, every herb of the eastern Mediterranean seems to grow, giving off a summery smell that is both healing and soporific. But neither sign nor scent exists of the iridescent green that proclaims the presence of mint. Of course, I know it's lack of water that deprives us of that sharp taste in the tsatsiki, the local yoghurt mixed with sturdy cucumber from allotments up by the church; and of an unashamedly English mint sauce to go with the shoulder of lamb. It's what you forget, when you walk in the Tuscan lushness of this hidden, untouched land on the west coast of the island of Corfu. Cypresses stand firmly Italian against a Quattrocento sky. Tiles on the roofs of the old houses left behind in the village in the scramble down to the sea are Venetian; crumbling, ochre and sun-baked to brown. It's only too easy to forget, when winter rain is plentiful, the long season of drought. When it comes to comparisons with Italy, the island of Corfu lies across the Ionian Sea from the heel of the country, Calabria, a long way south of Tuscany. Can I really expect my pot of mint to take, in these conditions? Am I trying to do the equivalent of growing strawberries at the North Pole?
Time has a way of eliding here, making a constantly changing pattern of lives and beliefs, light and sombre against the background of an ever-changing sea.
How did we come to be here? Could it really be that a cruise round the Greek islands--a cruise run by Swan Hellenic, with on-board lectures by archaeologists and historians, stop-overs at little-known ports, and the sense of adventure and excitement of the trip--had so enthused my (by then) late middle-aged parents that they decided there and then to throw over everything and live in Corfu? And I? How did I come to be drawn to this place, after my first glimpse down the wooded valley when playing truant on a trip for a glossy magazine, insisting that a group of hot journalists come with me over a boulder-strewn hillside to make a first long appraisal of the spot? Did I sense I was part of a chain, going back millennia to the first inhabitants of a slice of this beautiful coast? Was it a feeling that, despite the Venetian name, 'Rovinia'--meaning (gloomily) ruin, and causing friends to raise eyebrows and throw hands in the air when news broke of the plan to live in Corfu--there had been a great deal more in distant days than the crumbling lime-kiln along the path from the high-water mark and the traces of grey stone on abandoned cultivated land, long ago swallowed by the Mediterranean jungle on the hill? How did the site of the house my father would build, fifty yards above the bay, come to be decided on with such uncanny prescience?
For, as we sit here now, on the stone terrace above the bay, we realise, for the hundredth time, that the choice of site was extraordinary indeed. It's the autumn equinox, 21st September, and the mountain across the sea that unfurls before us--we call the mountain the Monkey's Head, for it is round and brown and intelligent-looking, and guards the entrance to the famous bay of Paleokastritsa--now wears an unusual piece of headgear. It is 7 p.m. and the red sun sets midway over the Monkey's Head--just above, in fact, a parting, a limestone scar, which runs down the centre of the skull. Far below, on rocks where foam shoots up, a white peacock's tail in the backlash of a southerly gale far out to sea, the light from the lighthouse will flash off and on, warning the ships of danger once darkness comes down.
Not now, though: not yet. This is a moment we savour each year at the spring and autumn equinoxes, the few seconds when the sun sinks into the ape's cranium, dead-centre, and we see not the face of a monkey but of a god. We know in those brief moments that the house we have built is, by an inexplicable coincidence, straight in the path of the sun. The sun is, invariably, red as blood when it disappears on those two equinoctial occasions--and, despite all the scepticism and sophistication of our age, we can't help shivering at the thought of sacrifice and ritual, of Greek tragedy and rebirth, and of the secrets that lie buried in the groves and on the shifting stony and sandy beaches of the bay.
Then it's suddenly dark. Scarlet feathers, all that remain of the monkey's hat, stream out across a sky washed with clouds of black and indigo. We're holding our drinks, a little embarrassed perhaps by the sense of having been plunged into the ancient world and then pulled from it again--and we turn to each other, and to the lighted sitting room beyond the verandah. Someone brings out whisky, and ice; and in a twilight going so fast it's barely possible to see the terracotta pot where the mint grows, on the balustrade above the trees and shrubs on the hillside, I pick a sprig and add it to a drink. Yes, the mint has accepted its new home, on the west coast of the island of Corfu. But it will only live here if tended like a precious plant; it refuses to spread and naturalise. And now, as I look down in dusk at the rings and rusty covers of the seven wells we dug when we first came here to live, I wonder that I ever thought this water-craving herb would settle down with us at all.
It's a hot day, and the sun comes in through the long, dusty windows of the estate agent's office and makes a ring of rainbow bubbles around the surface of the tiny cups of metriou coffee on the desk between us. It's an indispensable part of the negotiations, which Pandelios's black-skirted, white-bloused young secretary seems to serve with the same air of solicitude that I remember at a monastery on the pinnacles of Meteora: a thimble of coffee; a loukoumi, pale rose-water Turkish delight powdered with fine sugar; a tall glass and a short one, with water and ouzo respectively. She could be the daughter of the papas I still see in my mind's eye when, with a friend (and refusing the offer of being hauled up in a basket to the summit), we had climbed the hundreds of steps and entered the dark, incense-haunted church and gone through into the high, vaulted library. With her dark eyes and downcast expression, she could be an icon, a Byzantine Madonna captured in a painted haze of gold sunshine. But before I can romanticise any further, Pandelios the estate agent has stretched across me to hand the little white china cups to my mother and father, and the conversation continues where it had broken off with the arrival of the sweet, thick metriou.
'Anna Georgiadis is holding out for more,' Pandelios says. His bushy hair, reddish and receding at the temples, makes him look like a pantomime lion. 'It's a vital part of the property, as you know, so I'm afraid you'll have to take her terms.'
'Very well,' comes my father's answer. 'We don't want anyone to be unhappy there--and her parcel of land does lie right in the middle of the grove. As we said before, we want the right of way down from the village to continue--in fact we wouldn't dream of stopping anyone from bringing their sheep down to graze anywhere on the land'--and he turns to my mother, who nods in confirmation. 'The only way the fishermen can get down to the sea is by going on the path just behind the house we plan to build,' my father goes on. 'And we wouldn't contemplate blocking the path when we own those stremata [acres] at the top of the hill.'
Pandelios scratches his chin and looks business-like, but I can tell he is pleased with our wish to leave undisturbed the way of life of the Corfiots in this remote part of the west coast. There have been stories--we are actually only to hear them later--of the foolhardy foreigner who blocked access to the well on his land, only to find the well blocked up with cement the next time he came to the island to enjoy his property. And stories of hauntings, of the patron saint, St Spiridon, displeased at an incomer's reluctance to share amenities that have belonged to the local people for as long as there has been a St Spiridon in the great gold catafalque in the town's church. But at the time of our meeting with the estate agent, we knew none of this. We just knew it didn't make sense to demand privacy when the seashore belongs to everyone--and is anyway never short of men pushing out their boats or dragging them up the beach again. The landscape, however empty it may look, has as many denizens as a tapestry depicting hidden animals in a forest alive with huntsmen and spears. In Greece, you're never alone, and when I put in my contribution--saying the word for private is idiotikos, and surely there must be a good reason for that--everyone laughs, though the agent and his demure secretary laugh a trifle uncertainly. Will we really leave the local population to their old ways, which involve a 4 a.m. trudge down the rock path and on to the shingle, shouting as the boats are rolled out over logs, voices echoing across the water and ricocheting back to the valley we are about to buy? Do we know what we're letting ourselves in for? Smart folk from Athens would be likely to try and restrict the ways and livelihoods of country and fishing people by building private marinas and swimming pools. Why not us? 'I don't want a fence at the high-tide mark where the beach goes into the grove,' my mother says when Pandelios makes a suggestion that public and private land should be separated by the erection of boards and notices. 'It should all flow--one into the other, not shut off at all.' And the agent looks in amazement and relief at these two xenoi, the foreigners who want all to make use of the land near the sea below Liapades.
Of course, that was then. As I daydream (for I'm not involved in the financial side of this new life-plan of my parents, and at the time--the early 1960s--I had no idea how strong a part the place would play in my own life), I look out of the window on a typical street scene of Corfu town. Tall Venetian houses, in faded watermelon colours, lean like guests at a party, slightly jaded by their long years of civilised enjoyment. The street is narrow, and a woman walks along with a bag of small artichokes and a carrier bursting with minute fish, a kind of whitebait it seems, which glint silver in the spring sunlight. I imagine it's her midday meal, for I know offices close at lunchtime and don't reopen until at least five in the evening, the afternoon idled away in the sacred Greek siesta. I see a table, a balcony, a blind pulled low, as it is already hot at this time of year by one o'clock. A dish is on the table, in a darkened room just inside from the balcony with its ornamental railing. Elegant and curved, this is in all probability a relic of the French occupation of Corfu. In the dish are small artichokes, to be eaten whole, with a side plate of minuscule broad beans, startlingly green due to the removal of the outer skin, the bean being gripped between finger and thumb.
'I will speak to Anna Georgiadis and explain she may also bring her goats to the grove,' says Pandelios, while I feel my parents control their reaction to the prospect: sheep add to the charming rural idyll under the olives, but goats? 'So, unless there are any problems, I believe we have discussed all there is to discuss,' Pandelios concludes. (Of course there will be problems. But, for now, we pretend all is well.) Pandelios glances out of the window, and I see in his eyes the pleasure of anticipating the coming meal. I hope for him that he will have the new season's artichokes, so tender the inner thistle doesn't need to be cut out. And I find myself wishing now for a frittura of the little fish.
'We'll have lunch at the harbour, shall we?' my parents say, after we have said goodbye to Pandelios and arranged to meet again next week, to explore the necessity for a foreign company to be formed in order to buy land in Corfu. I agree, and accompany them, as entranced by this new direction in all our lives as they so clearly are. But before we go I listen to Pandelios's last story--about the tradition of the youngest son of a Greek family inevitably being the recipient of the poorest land as his inheritance: shallow and gravel-choked, with brackish water, away from the good agricultural areas and near the sea. 'Yet this may all change for the youngest sons,' Pandelios says, as if recounting a fairy-tale that he senses is destined for a new ending. 'When people come who want to live by the sea,' he says thoughtfully, looking at us, an English family with no apparent need to uproot and come to live in Corfu, 'then, I think, all may very well change.' And he smiles and waves to us, and we walk down the street. I hadn't liked to ask, in the halting demotic I had learnt a couple of years before, whether our good agent was himself the youngest son in his family.
The island of Corfu is sixty miles long and thirty miles wide at its widest. The mountains--particularly Pantokrator with its Olympian splendour--give an illusion of scale to the island that is quite at odds with the reality. Corfu looks out at Albanian mountains to the east, and across the sea to Italy in the west, with mountain ranges, again, giving the sense of a land of limitless proportions. Giants or trolls must once have lived here, one thinks when morning makes of the mountains a blue-mauve hugeness along the edges of the plain between Liapades and the eastern side of the island, the Plain of Ropa; or when evening pencils the mountains black, as if they had turned to sleeping giants themselves. Space, as well as time, is unreliable here: the prevalence of mountains makes for winding roads, corkscrews that draw the clear air like wine from the necks of valleys and gorges as one goes up and up, and then drops down. It can take longer to travel five miles, in Corfu, than to drive across a prairie or an entire county in England--the Somerset Levels, say, or the East Anglian fens.
So what are the size and scale of the land we have bought, in this land of endless miles and long-distance journeys to the nearest mountain village? How do we measure the depth and width of Rovinia, how do we throw in the unchartable sea? Will we feel cramped or generously accommodated in our new home? Will we have the sense of perching on a ledge, if we hack out rock from the hillside and build there--or will it seem as if the house has always been waiting for us to build it, just as wide and long as it was intended by nature to be?
The most difficult problems, it seems, are these. However meticulous the plan, the finished living space may somehow just be wrong. The landscape has refused you; and the mountains across the big bay at Paleokastritsa, which can disappear into a roof of cloud and rain, will frown across the water at efforts unrewarded by 'rightness' of scale and measurement. It's a responsibility I can see weighs heavily on my father, who is enough of an architect to have built a Georgian doll's house of exquisite proportions for me as a child, a yacht (for my brother) and a Gothic castle for my younger sister. He'll try none of these here in Corfu, obviously; but what exactly is 'right', in this island where the Venetians were succeeded by the French, at the time of the Revolution, and then the French by the British, just as the most deadly Victorian architecture was becoming fashionable? He won't build good Queen Victoria's Osborne on this Mediterranean shore, complete with ramparts to enable John Brown to look out across the sea. He won't be drawn to Italian palazzi or anything too grandly pretentious, that's for sure. But for now, as we make the lengthy trip--the road in those early days across the island has more potholes than the worst of its kind in Ireland or Scotland--we have no ideas about the future appearance of the house at Rovinia. And if he does, he's not letting on.
So what do we own? Or, if Anna Georgiadis consents to sell her strip of land in the grove, what will we own, once the hideous complications of buying land on a Greek island that is a 'borderline' area (in the case of Corfu, a mere mile across Corfu channel to Albania) have been resolved? Is our terrain large or small, confined by steep hills or a wide passageway to the sea? It depends on how you look at it, you could say: to us, as we finally drive down the side road to Liapades and park the car in the plateia between the church and the cafeneon where the old men sit staring at us tortoise-like in the evening sun, it is clearly a place that has always been there, a place of significance once, though when and how we shall probably never know. We haven't just decided to set ourselves down on raw, uncultivated woodland, to hack away at the ground and make a new place to live. We're returning: that's the unmistakable feeling we get, even in these days when we hardly know the land below Liapades by the edge of the sea. And there's just time, before the sun sets, to go at a brisk pace down the boulder-strewn path--twenty minutes down, twenty-five back up--before the sun sets and a primeval darkness seizes land and Liapades alike.
A monopati--a Greek path, that most essential of travel methods of much of Greece in those days, and to this day the only way to go down the length of the roadless west coast from Rovinia to the south of the island--has its quota of obstacles, and we walk warily past the mad white dog (which once chewed off the end of the stick I was carrying). People--always people--inhabit here, and just when you think you're unobserved, alone in this Arcadian paradise, the oddest of the villagers comes at you: the ancient crone who clutches my mother's sleeve and wants her question answered, with the urgency of a seeker after the truth of the Sphinx--but none of us can understand the question. The boy, staring-eyed and jowly, who in the past would have been known as the village idiot in England: he lopes along behind us, until he loses patience and wanders off back up the hill again. The donkey, tethered to a stake at the side of the path, which aims a kick and gives a long, mournful bray at the same time (its owner, previously invisible in the woods, appears in her black clothes to tie bundles of faggots to its back). The birds, jay and golden oriole--and, as we grow nearer the sea, white gulls, circling and diving, always going back to the carpet of blue that spreads out in the gaps between the cypress and olive trees.
Forty-two stremata (about twelve acres) of all this are shortly to be ours.
It wasn't long before we discovered that Rovinia--land over-grown except for, here and there, a small vegetable patch in the deep incline at the end of the valley; or, in the case of the sweep down to the sea, grazed and olive-picked, clearly a part of the jigsaw of Liapades owners--was very probably just where Homer had placed the famous meeting between the shipwrecked and naked Odysseus and the princess, Nausicaa. As anyone fortunate enough to find themselves in these acres--where the west wind blows day and night and the sea turns violent blue, crude as a child's paintbox colour, when it swings to the maestro (surely the wind that brought Odysseus's boat on the rocks)--will know, there must be literally hundreds of origins for this chapter in the Odyssey. Isn't there a scholarly book, anyway, which 'proves' that the historic encounter took place in Sicily? Yet the evidence, as we come to piece it together in the summer of the house being built, does appear to conclude that it really was in 'our' bay, on 'our' beach and in the grove where Anna Georgiadis now frolics with her goats. Rovinia was the scene of the most romantic non-romance of the antique world.
We're sitting at a table, late lunchtime, in (at this time, 1965) the only hotel for miles and discussing the evidence from our different points of view.
'There, after all, is the ship,' says my father, prepared to suspend disbelief on so warm and agreeable a day, when retsina is brought to the table by boys running like deer and xoriatiki salad, as they make it in the village, comes down before us in big shared bowls. He spears a lump of feta, looks less happily at an olive, then overcomes the dislike of a lifetime and pops it in his mouth. He smiles; as long as there's no mention of garlic, he will eat the food at the Tourist Pavilion happily.
'Yes,' agrees Peter, a young actor friend of mine. He is less contented than the rest of us: the Tourist Pavilion--situated in Corfu's most renowned and beautiful bay of Paleokastritsa, and enjoying a position on a piece of land that turns, magically, to beach and then to a wooded isthmus, which joins it with the next inlet of blue water on the coast--has rooms for all of us, but no room for Peter. Another, much smaller hotel has just been completed, about a hundred yards back from the view that Edward Lear, watercolourist and nonsense poet, painted so often: delicate, exact portrayals of the bay and the steep hill at its western tip, where the monastery stands high and white. The new, less view-blessed hotel has daringly been named The Living Lobster. Peter has to share with a dentist, who snores. 'I might join Odysseus's ship,' he jokes. 'At least I might get a cabin to myself.'
The boat is ineluctably there, out in the wide stretch of water beyond Paleokastritsa bay, making what seems at first to be a great lake, guarded by the Monkey's Head with its flashing beacon on one side, and by the curve of the coastline as it plunges south on the other. In the middle, three bays to the south of where we sit, and just the right distance from the rock everyone claims is Odysseus's boat, turned to stone by the gods after it foundered in heavy seas, is Rovinia Bay.
'Odysseus could easily swim to our beach from there,' says my younger sister Catherine, who is seventeen and so obsessed with the sea that she swims with my mother right down the virgin coast to the south of us, clambering out from time to time to lie like a seal on the beaches at Yalli and Iliodoros. 'And then there was the river, where he could wash off all the salt on his back.'
We all fall silent, realising Catherine's schooling has been more recent than ours. But the image of the handsome young man's salt-encrusted back returns, followed by a conversation, increasingly argumentative, on the subject of the riverbed at Rovinia. It is dried-out now, bearer of Judas trees with their bright purple blossoms in spring, and wild quinces and pear. But water is known to rush down in sudden torrents, as if a plug has been let out somewhere up the high hill under Liapades, when the winter rains force the riverbed to revert to river. Then, so we've been told, the water rushes out on to the beach, sculpting new sandbanks, covering the shingle and turning the blue sea to a muddy brown. 'Of course it must have been a river in Homeric times,' says Mark, a friend whose cousin, a dauntingly well-educated cosmopolitan, occupies a house on the east of the island, above Corfu town. 'And Lawrence Durrell states that Homer identifies the bay where Odysseus swam ashore from the wreck as three bays south of Paleokastritsa, which was certainly where King Alcinous, the father of Nausicaa, had his palace. This proves it, surely.'
Fish comes to the table at last, and we all watch as my father, host to this party of his children and their friends, fillets it carefully: sinegrida, a large and succulent fish not unlike a loup de mer; and barbouni, red mullet sharp and tangy, and delicious with lemon and olive oil. Plates of chips--the eternal Greek chips--join the salad with its shredded lettuce and carrot, feta, olives and onion and cucumber. The retsina, so strong you can actually feel under attack from an entire pine forest, slips gold into our tumblers. 'Ighia!'--health!--we say, if a trifle self-consciously.
It is late afternoon by the time we step into the little boat that will take us over the sea from Palcokastritsa to the bay where the foundations of our new house have been laid on the hillside.
The engine of the little fishing caique is uncertain, and midway there we simply stop and sit in the great silence of the distant mountains and the soft whisper of the sea.
This is what it must have been like, I think, when the storm blew away and Odysseus stood on the beach and looked back at his petrified ship under a clear sky. It was like this then.
But before I have time to summon up the picture of King Alcinous's palace--with its bronze walls and great terrace, its four acres of garden with peach and vine, left behind us on the slopes above Paleokastritsa Bay--the engine, responding to a pull on the string from Yannis the fisherman, gives an ear-splitting roar. We lurch forward, over water so clear that we can see small fish down by the white stones on the seabed at least forty feet below. A flying fish leaps from the calm inlet by the mouth of the cave on the southern side of the bay. We seem to dash at the shingle as if we, too, are trying to fly over the sea. There is no time at all to return in time: to think of the tabloid story that the meeting of Odysseus and the daughter of the king from Paleokastritsa would make today. The princess and the naked stranger who comes ashore; her revelations to her confidantes that this man could be a husband for her. The invitation to the palace and the journey there, in the great wagon, over ancient cobbled roads along to Lakones and then down the grove of Athena to the palace, where Alcinous and Arete live happily ever after...
We have to jump out of the boat into the sea. Yannis says tomorrow will be asximos kairos, bad weather, and not a good day for a trip down the coast with a picnic. 'Metavrio,' the day after tomorrow, he insists, as we stand on the shingle, dazed after our long meal, staring up at the beginnings of a new life--for my parents, at least. I wish them all the happiness of the King and Queen, in their three-and-a-half-thousand-years-ago lives at Paleokastritsa. And I walk up the dried-out riverbed, where in this high summer heat there are still poppies growing amongst the stones. Then, with Peter and Mark and my sister, I walk up the olive grove that runs beside the river: surely this wide grove has always been here; surely this is where Nausicaa and Odysseus met and talked?
'Katzikaki, katzikako,' comes a screeching voice at the end of the grove where the olives go up in wide terraces to the tangle of scrub and trees on the hill. 'Ela, ela...!'
The goats stand in the grove, baring their teeth and moving deftly to the middle of the brown carpeting of olive leaves and pine needles that have replaced the green of earlier months. They're getting ready to kick, and they look as if they mean to do it hard.
'Katzikaki,' comes the ugly jay sound again. Then an old woman, so wrapped in black that her face and limbs are barely visible, darts down through the trees. 'Kali spera!' she screams at us, and thus moves the long day into evening, as the Greek greetings invariably do. With one hand she tugs at a leash hidden in the leaves scattered on the floor of the grove, and we see to our further shame that the goats were tethered to the olive trees all along.
This was my first glimpse of Anna Georgiadis.
Collas is the name of the architect who has sited our house. His wife Maria is a grand island lady who doesn't come down the precipice to observe her husband's deliberations. I meet her once--and, despite her pleasant smile and smart town suit, I feel we are all a million miles from her, in attitude and in the way we appreciate this (to her) distinctly too out-of-the-way spot. She's a Corfiot, and we are not; but I've seen enough of the country people round here to know how much easier they are to get on with than the Greek middle class. They ask direct questions, of course, the fisherfolk, and sometimes of the crudest nature--but the Athenian, or Corfu-bourgeois is just as eager to know how much money you have, whether you sleep with your husband/wife, how old you are; and their way of asking tends to be masked by a false good nature. One of the joys of this remote spot, I soon understand, is that it doesn't attract the wearer of court shoes, the carrier of handbags. The path must be taken seriously; and I hear my father, as he paces the land where the walls of Rovinia House will go up, speaking against applying for a road to lead to the property.
To the north of the land that will comprise Rovinia is a steeply shelving set of terraces, these facing out to a landscape so unlike the Homeric grove and wooded hill we have come to see as the most beautiful of the island's bays that it could appear to belong to another country. The cliffs across a small, perfect--but sunless--bay are pink and grey, huge and rugged, a kind of Albania of the imagination. Edward Lear painted and portrayed in watercolour the wildness and roughness of this scene so near to us and yet so distant; and my father soon sketches and paints this operatic scenery.
Yet the possibility of houses going up on these terraces is far from agreeable. We can all see in our mind's eye the steps hewn in rock leading down to the sea, to a platform of rock and a sunny raft out in the water; and my parents, who dread noise at night (and we will come to live with it for several summers, from music floating with the power of sound-over-water across the large bay to us from Paleokastritsa) become determined to ensure a calm and silence that only privacy can bring. The land must be bought, in this outpost of Rovinia: beyond the house is the high hump of the hill; then the monopati, which must be left open to the fisherfolk; then the stremata that go down to the edge of the precipice where (already) a rectangular cement box has been constructed, this the weekend cottage (so we assume) of a dweller in Corfu town. Noise from the cement box won't affect us, as the position is low on the cliff edge (it's a temptation to push it over), but higher up a development of houses would certainly be audible. So, with the same long pauses, acceptances and withdrawals, these pretty, sunbathed terraces are bought; and it's impossible not to think they're a safeguard, too, against a future decision to sell or leave Rovinia. Even with that gone, this cliff garden of scrub and olive facing a majestic ravine will still belong to us.
'But will you not find it difficult here in winter or when the sea is rough and you cannot go round to Alipa [the nearest harbour] by boat?' asks Collas. He is too polite to speak out against my father's wishes, but he looks incredulous. Tall, pale, with the air of an intellectual, our architect has yet to draw up plans for the English, and the way in which my parents are intending to isolate themselves clearly alarms him. Do they know how grim it can be here right through the winter downpours and storms, cold and windy right up to Pasca, the Greek Easter that is the watershed of the year, whenever it falls in the calendar? Then I see his brow--as pale as only a Greek office-dweller's can be, who avoids the national glory, the sun--crease further. He steals a glance at us as we stand on the floor of the room where we will one day sit, eat and watch the swallows make their long calls as they fly back and forth from the verandah outside. Are we perhaps in trouble? In dire financial straits? Are we hiding from the police, even, with our stated desire not to apply for a road? 'Of course, the land up to the village has so many owners,' Collas adds, trying to make sense of it all: he's seen the negotiations, the withdrawals and retracted acceptances of the six who own the pieces of land that form the 'estate' of Rovinia. Not to mention the troubles and demands of Anna Georgiadis, his sympathetic glance seems to say. Little wonder the very idea of making a road doesn't appeal. 'And it would be very expensive,' Collas ends up, diplomatically.
The reaction of the architect to my father's firm rejection of a link with the outside world does, however, lead me to ponder what is being given up and what embraced, in this unexpected move to an island never visited until the occasion of an island cruise a few years back. What had they thought, my parents, when, on deciding to return to Corfu a year after their first vision of the west coast, they found themselves in a small boat, being rowed over from Paleokastritsa to the secret bay at Rovinia--secret because no-one had 'discovered' it yet, and only fishermen frequented the shore? Had they taken into account the challenge that building in so inaccessible a spot would be? Had they decided, there and then, to give up a home in England (or Scotland, as happened to be the case) and settle permanently in the valley by the sea?
As I was to discover years later, the decision to live permanently in Corfu didn't come as a bolt from the Ionian blue. The house was planned as a substitute for the modest farmhouse in the South of France they'd sold in the mid 1960s--a holiday house that could also be let out. It was only in the summer of 1964, while sitting on the neighbouring beach of Stellari and staring out to sea from the great expanse of sand there, that the decision was reached to live at Rovinia all year round. My father, then aged sixty-five and two years from leaving his City job, had a 'why not?' attitude when the idea struck them both simultaneously; the rest is Rovinia's myth and history.
And it doesn't need saying that anyone wanting to up sticks and move a thousand miles, to a country where a foreign language is spoken and the local customs are in need of strict observance, must be so filled with wonder by the place that they are, like Odysseus as he approaches Circe's island, incapable of stopping themselves from anchoring there.
It wasn't hard to see that this valley three bays south of Paleokastritsa had everything.
The cave on the southern extremity of the bay was claimed by some to be Prospero's (but, unlike the ship overturned by waves as it came into view of the Phaeacians, there is no real evidence for this. Unless the Odyssey can be counted as evidence, that is--and why not?). But, even had it not been Prospero's, this was clearly an extraordinary cave. To find, as we did soon after moving there, that a path runs up inside this almost artificial-looking entrance to the Underworld (the proportions are so perfect one half-expects an eighteenth-century party on the Grand Tour to stroll from its delectable grey, black and white mouth) made the cave even more mysterious than before. Where did this path lead? Whom did it serve, so steep and dark, before coming out on to a brambly path, the only way down the coast along the high cliffs? Smugglers, perhaps? Sailors fleeing from the black storm behind them in a raging sea?
The grove was equally enticing: so gracious, wide and prettily flanked by olive trees in their prime. I felt the first time I went there the odd silence that comes down as soon as one walks along the grove towards the woods that go up the hill. It's a place that is both inland and sea-guarded; where the waves come in like the white net skirts of ballerinas, green silk at their back, and just a few paces away from the shore is the interior.
Little wonder, then, that my parents made an instant decision when they stepped from the rowing-boat and stood by the cave and the olive grove and the sea. It didn't seem like a decision, probably--like all the best decisions.
But now, as we turn to Collas the architect in the hope of reassuring him of our sanity, we find it is his turn to demonstrate (though of course we don't recognise this at the time) that he lives in another world to that of the sensible, the wise. 'Oh yes, you will find water without much difficulty here,' Collas says. He glances at his watch; evening in the colonnaded town awaits him. And tomorrow he comes here again, to supervise the building of the walls, which will be of limestone blasted from the quarry on the hill behind the property. 'You shouldn't have a problem finding water at all,' Collas says again, as he picks his way up through the rocks on the long haul back to the village.
It's a strange sensation, seeing the beginnings of a house where none has been dreamt of before. First--and it seemed an act of barbarism--the wood is cut by hand, at least ten men hacking and pulling at bushes and trees that seem to take on human proportions as they are dragged from the ground: an elderly satyr, in the tortured branches of an arbutus tree; nymphs struggling against the rape of the woodcutters, in their bright dresses. Do we really need to destroy so much ancient forest and scrub--and then blow a large portion of the rock beneath sky-high in order to enjoy a fine view and stroll on terraces still impossible to envisage? Are we colons, the new type, who pretend to blend in with the landscape and then, unstoppably, cut swathes through it, bulldozing and wrecking to the end?
At least there won't be bulldozers; and thus, no question of a road. The very thought of the mechanised dinosaurs trying to come down into this Paradise causes a shudder. Of course, it's not just bulldozers that the workmen have to do without--for what can't come down the monopati can't get here by sea either: no drills, no machinery that would make Nikiforos, brave Foreman of the diggers of Rovinia foundations, throw up his hands in relief. We are in an antique past here; and while we may enjoy dreaming of the Iliad and the Odyssey (or of neolithic ancestors: my father, after the first blasting of the rock, has already found some shards of what seems very old pottery: 'Ela,' says Nikiforos, when he's proudly shown it--and he points at the crumbling and disused lime-kiln at the foot of the hill opposite: 'Ela [Come], I show you!' and he skips across the valley at an amazing speed, to return with similar brown crockery, clearly no more than five years old).
Not that the diggers (there are twenty-eight of these altogether) seem unused to the primitive methods forced upon them here at Rovinia. We arrive each day at around 10 a.m. to watch the proceedings and to walk about in the stremata that we still find it hard to believe are ours to wander in. Sometimes I sit in the grove and read, feeling grateful for the shade of the olive trees as it grows deeper with the increasing power of the sun. All goes well at first, but soon, drawn by the incessant labour up the hill, I lay the book down--several novels by Elizabeth Bowen and the works of the Durrell brothers have been abandoned this way--but, as it doesn't rain all summer, they are regularly rescued, their pages slightly baked, from the earthen hollows where they were left at the foot of the trees. I go up the rough paths on the steep slope to the site of the house. And each time I am astonished by the energy of the men, picks in hand, as they dig deep to make the foundations. Sun makes stripes of sweat on their backs and the earth is eaten by their spiked blows. The base of the new building is almost there, thanks to the men from Lakones, the village so high on the mountain across the bay of Paleokastritsa that it is often invisible, in a dark-blue fog that looks as if it's been thrown there by an angry Zeus; and results, too, are due to the men of Doukades, and those from Liapades itself. Marsalas, one of the diggers, comes up to my mother on the last day of the digging of the foundations of Rovinia and hands her what looks like a corn dolly--though maybe the original material is reeds from the reedbeds by a hidden pond on the Plain of Ropa. This is a good sign: Nikiforos has ensured pleasant working conditions (as far as that's possible, in this blazing heat) and everyone laughs at my father's cheerful attempts to communicate without learning a word of Greek.
Now, a week later, the walls are going up. Each day when we come--by boat if the sea permits it, by road if it's rough (we stop always at the one gap in the hills where it's possible to look across at our bay and say 'There it is!', the shore white and crescent-moon shaped, protective cliffs holding it; the cave agape, waiting for our entry to its dark coolness)--each day the walls go higher and the house begins to look as if it will one day be ready for us to live in. Window-frames are ordered from Sotiri, the carpenter, and it's strange to think of these views envisaged by my father--he paces out the distances between them on the newly flattened rock, the future terrace--as one day framed by curtains and crowned with wooden poles.
There's a long way to go, of course. But the fact that the house is coming up vertically from the side of the hill--pale and ghostly, the rooms could be tombs, I can't help thinking morbidly, as the car rattles down over the potholes on the unmade road to Liapades--gives an indication of the efforts that have been made to get this far. There was a blasting of rock in the hill on the northern side of the valley, before the stone could be laid to build out and form a terrace that will run down the side of the house facing south. (The other side of the house is right up against the hill behind.) There will be space for a passage leading from a wood-store at the back; the passage will have a boiler room off it, and an area for drying clothes out of view of the kitchen. The terrace will be three yards wide, and at the western extremity there will be another place to sit--which I can tell already occupies my mother's thoughts as we clamber out of the hired car in the plateia in Liapades and begin the vertiginous descent on foot to Rovinia once more.
I can understand why this particular spot holds a place in my mother's heart before its future beauties can even be discerned. There's the quality of the natural rocky wall--cistus with its pink and white flowers grows down over it, and broom in spring, and rosemary and thyme grow wild in great bushes along the top of the wall, to make a stunning background for the plants she'll want to put in. This terrace will be the first thing a visitor sees when coming in to the sitting room. The sea, too: a long blue swirl straight from the tube marked Ultramarine. This sea-facing part of the house, with her bedroom directly above the long sitting room, has everything she must always have dreamt of: the Mediterranean (only in this case the Ionian Sea); the chance to grow a vine just under her bedroom, which will one day provide shade for eating out on the stone apron; the marriage of olive tree and shrub with cultivated flowers; even (thrown in for good luck) an oblique view of the famous cave.
As we come down the steepest part of the cliff above Rovinia, the part where the path simply gives up and runs off in several directions, like hair that has been prepared for plaiting and then abandoned, we stop for a moment and look down at the first view of the bay from above. The site of the house is clearly visible: the strawberry grapes my mother will grow along the iron framework over the far terrace clearly established in all our minds, as she tells us of the heady scent the little purple grapes give off, enhanced by sudden showers of September rain. 'Hibiscus', my mother is saying as we stand, staring down at what will be Rovinia House, 'Datura...' And to a chorus of 'What's that?' she begins to explain: 'A great white drooping bell of a flower--terribly poisonous but very beautiful. And gardenias, as well as the lovely geranium that's there already, of course...'
'What about the low garden?' someone says. The speaker is Marie Aspioti, who in the space of a few short meetings has become a close friend on the island. Marie is from an old family fallen on hard times, lives with her mother in a large, dilapidated house in the town and is about as far from the 'smart' lady of Corfu as it is possible to get. Marie teaches English now, to earn a living, and her sister teaches folk dance (on my first visit to the island, when I led the hot journalists to inspect the site at Rovinia, I'd been staying in a castellated hotel to the north of the town, and after dinner there a wild, white-haired lady had shown the precision of the Greek dance steps with great aplomb and accuracy). Marie it is who has grown close to us--to these foreigners--but then she has all her life been a friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the author, amongst other extraordinary books, of Mani.
'I thought we might dig out a sunken garden right at the lowest point of the land,' my mother says rather shyly. Although she has a natural affinity with gardens and with plants in the wild, she resists the label of expert or even practised gardener.
'It is a good idea,' Marie pronounces, her elfish face breaking into a smile. She is small, with a determined walk, and even in the height of summer wears brown sweater and jacket and tweed skirt: she is an Anglophile, living in her imagination in an England where this is the right costume all year round, and of course she may well be right. 'You have all those terraces that need repair,' Marie points out as we continue down a deep gorge where the path, having decided to reconstitute itself, plunges us without so much as a zigzag under scrub grown so tall it is as menacing as jungle. 'Then when they are built up again, you may set out flowerbeds on them.'
Neither my mother nor I say anything in reply, but I know we both feel that the crumbling terraces of grey stone that go down the hill behind the house now being built are on no account to be 'modernised' or restored. They'll have irises and plumbago and lemon trees growing on them--they already have the lemons, large and green and knobbly, ripening to an acidic yellow in the spring--and then, never to be omitted, wild flowers, for which this terraced (and presumably once vine-cultivated) land will make a perfect base. We recite the names of the few we can positively look forward to identifying, once we're all back here (we hope) in the spring. 'Marigold, grape hyacinth, speedwell, scarlet pimpernel, anemone, star-of-Bethlehem, bee orchids, honesty...' Our voices tail off: Marie, who teaches us so much about Greece, and about the secrets of Corfu, adds to the list while we all fall uncharacteristically silent. 'Lithospermum,' she says, reminding us of the gentian-blue flower that loves to grow on a bank beside a leaking pipe, and we all start up again: 'Camomile, campanula...'
The litany goes on, as we complete the last tortuous portion of the path and come down on the peninsula, a razor-backed fish of layered stone jutting out to sea, which is where we turn sharply to the left to arrive at Mr Collas and the site of Rovinia House.
We've arrived too early. The place is deserted, with an unappealing glare coming off the sea, and the half-built walls of the house could as well be a ruin as the start of an exciting new life.
Why didn't we guess the siesta would run until well after five in the afternoon? It does in the town, where the closed shops with their grilles pulled down and the empty Corfu Bar (there are so few tourists at this stage that the northerners, with their ignorance of the siesta, have not yet brought an unwanted life to the afternoons) don't fill up till the blue hour of evening. Do we expect the builders here to toil right through this great heat? Why shouldn't they lie in the dappled shade of the olives (and, as our eyes acclimatise to the glare, we see they are doing precisely that) and wait until a more civilised time for carrying stone and cement up to the site? The fact that every single one of the builders is a woman makes our air of dismay all the more unsuitable. After all, we couldn't take the weight--not even a half of the loads they carry--and we certainly couldn't, as they do, bring it up all fifty yards on our heads.
'Sica!' As always in the apparently empty landscape, a figure emerges, barely visible at first in the scrub on the side of the hill beneath our feet. The figure is a boy, about ten years old, and as soon as he reaches us and sets down a wide pannier on the just-laid terrace, he runs off again, this time to climb the tree we'd failed to see him in: a tall, majestic tree laden with dark fruit.
'Figs!' we all say together, as if we somehow knew this part of the afternoon demands the plunge into the interior of a fig: purple, scented, as intermeshed with scarlet and purple filaments as an Ottoman tapestry. A fig will quench thirst and satisfy hunger: most important of all, it will give a sense of languorous shade, away from a time of day that is too brassy and open, the sun hanging like a gold coin in a sky that's overdone it on the blue.
The child runs up again, his hands full. The figs have a green, soft skin like the leather slippers on sale in the market: easily bruised, yet resilient. We bite in, only my father thinking to ask how much we should give the boy for his efforts.
'Decca drachmas,' comes the boy's voice, as if he could understand us perfectly well.
'Nonsense!' Marie says in English. 'They're your figs anyway,' and she laughs at my father, to show the folly of his offer to pay. She then narrows her eyes, and looks just like the schoolmistress she is. 'Ela, paidi mou,' Marie says, 'come here, child.' And we see her slip a tube of what looks suspiciously like cough sweets into his hand. 'Ti lei?' she demands, as if coaching the child in the catechism.
The boy hangs his head. Although she doesn't come often to this side of the island, the chances are that Marie will know whose son this is; and that she will have attended his christening, departing with the sugared almonds and extravagant sweets that are deemed essential on these occasions. She may even be a koumbara, one of the many godparents of the child, calling out to the waiting children in the street the name they have all chosen for the just-baptised child. Sure enough, Marie does appear to know a good deal about the lad. 'Ten drachmas indeed,' she mutters as he darts off, clutching the cough sweets with an expression that can only be described as wry, resigned. 'Yannis is Dassia's boy,' Marie begins. 'Now there's a tale...'
Before she can go any further, the afternoon suddenly wakes up. Down in the grove a procession appears, religious perhaps, as the white head-dresses march slowly under the trees and turn to mount the path on our side of the hill. We stand, figs half in our mouths, juice trickling down chins, as what appears to be a line of votaries with saucer-shaped containers on their heads rises to meet us. Only Yannis the fig-picker makes this unnerving arrival human, by running to the skirts of one of the vestal virgins and tugging hard. 'There is Dassia,' Marie says. And she strides along the half-made balustrade and directs a torrent of words in Greek, in a low voice. We all stand, like children, as Yannis and his mother are addressed, and some furtive chin-wiping takes place. Then Yannis, shoved forward, comes up the last few feet of the path and positions himself in front of Marie. All at once it seems hotter than it has been all day--though the olives and cypresses down in the lowest point of the valley have lengthening shadows now. 'Efaristo para poli.' It's clear poor Yannis is being made to express gratitude for the sweet. Marie smiles and steps off the balustrade, her kindly good nature restored. And the women walk round us, white cloths tied to their heads, and unload their burdens on the floors of the skeletal rooms. Stefanos, the chief builder, appears from nowhere and directs them, then they descend again, to walk to the limestone quarry at the back of land we still cannot believe is ours to build and live on--olive trees, figs and all.
Stefanos has his hands full, for he has to work without water here at Rovinia. It has to come round by sea--and here, as we walk into the embryo of the sitting room where my father has just a few days back added a yard to the length (it turns out to make all the difference, the decision to make the room eleven yards long, not ten), we gaze across the expanse of stone at the caique as it putters towards our little bay. Cement must be mixed on the beach--and, again, carried up on the white head supports--though there is a suspicion that sometimes the well at the foot of the hill, an unsatisfying provider of salty water, is drawn from in the mixing: it's quicker and less of a trouble than waiting for the next shipment of fresh water to come by sea. If this is the case, the house will be irremediably damp: no amount of the olive wood fires of which we dream will warm its chilly soul and we will be like maroons, living in a land that is cold and saline.
Today the beach is a hive of activity. Yorgos, the fisherman who shouts so loudly, even if he's standing next to you, that you look around for the Force 8 Beaufort gale, is dragging his small boat down into the sea with the help of a couple of youths from the village. It sticks on the logs, old timbers black with tar, and Yorgos practically deafens his comrades with his comments on the situation. The cement mixer, earsplitting as a two-foot-distant lorry, churns out reassuring quantities of cement mixed with the good water brought by caique. The women--we are beginning to know Thekli and Dassia and Sula--go back and forth, an unending frieze of figures in clothes dusty-white with cement and limestone. And Stefanos, short and stout, with an air of cunning that his glasses and bustling manner fail to disguise, is up here at the site and down at the beach again with bewildering speed.
Today is not a day for the architect to visit Rovinia, that's now clear. But none of us regrets coming over in the car from Paleokastritsa, parking in the plateia in Liapades and walking self-consciously down the rocky street until it peters out and becomes the monopati down to the sea. Why are we embarrassed to go down this way? It's the presence of the men who sit in what is clearly their club that makes us want to avert our eyes, for we are recipients of a hail of questions each time we go by. 'Possa chronia?'--How old are you? Are you married? and a good many others, including a whole exam to be taken on the subject of the Second World War; 'Germanos?'--Are you German?; and, with a touch of yearning in the voice, 'Americana?'
We may be some or none of these, but we know what we are not, when we stand idle and the women toil up and down from grove and shore to build the house at Rovinia. We are not capable of being loaders and carriers, their efforts show us that; but then, so it seems, neither are the men.
The sitting room, at eleven yards long and six wide, will be where we eat as well as where we sit, and there is talk of having a sofa made that is L-shaped, forming a room-within-a-room in front of and at right angles to the fireplace. A chair of the same design as the sofa will be made to fit in next to the fire--which will burn on a stone base, with the mantel high above. For eating outdoors, there's the verandah; and to go there we need a table long enough to accommodate nine or ten people. Already a mental note has been made of those vital clips, in use in all the tavernas, which anchor down the plastic tablecloths against the gloriously named winds: the Bora, the Tramontana, the Maestro and the Scirocco, to name but a few. On top of the plastic will go a simple linen cloth, equally secured. The prospect of resembling an outdoor restaurant is appealing to the pale-faced indoor-eaters we alas all are.
The question arises, where do we have made the long table--and, indeed, the sofa? What about the chests of drawers that will be needed upstairs in the bedrooms: three of these, one with double aspect to wooded hill and dazzling blue sea, and huge, where my parents will sleep; the other two at back and front respectively, one single and the other a double room with a view right up the valley at the back, designated for my still only eighteen-year-old younger sister Catherine. All must be furnished, simply and well--a lot to ask, or so we think. How can my mother acquire a dressing-table without having to disguise it with miles of unwanted fabric? How do we find simple things? Do they understand plain?
It turns out our suspicions were insulting to the Corfiot carpenters. Whether a long tradition of Venetian and then French design and excellence of handiwork had been the guiding influence on the island was impossible to tell; but a visit to the workshop of the wondrous Panayotis on the outskirts of the town showed it was possible to order solid chests in the best beech. A straightforward dressing-table, with the requisite row of drawers down both sides of the kneehole, would be no problem. Even fitted cupboards--for the small room that my father would use as a dressing-room when there wasn't a guest in need of it--could be manufactured in a short space of time. As for the sofa, the most ambitious of the Rovinia requirements, the small warehouse and carpenter's shop on the edge of the potholed roaring road leading into Corfu town gave an undertaking to construct and upholster one in a period of time that would have been seen as laughable at home. Prices, too, were much lower than we expected: after totting up figures on the back of an envelope on which he had sketched the articles of furniture required, my father's complexion took on a healthy hue. We decided to go on into town to celebrate finding this good place (Marie Aspioti, inevitably, had been the one to guide us to it), and only my mother's faint doubts--'We haven't seen what they're going to produce yet, remember'--prevented over-rejoicing. (However, Marie was proved right in her commendation: everything ordered that day was sensibly made and a pleasure to look at, the sole exception being the table for the bedroom overlooking the valley, which had a wooden-framed mirror on top, but refused access to anyone, tall or small, who sat on one of the rush-seated Van Gogh wooden chairs in front of it. Knees came up--and do to this day--bang against the underside of the table. The mirror, thus at a distance from the would-be user, looks blankly out into the plain, whitewashed room.)
This, however, was not to be foreseen on the triumphant day of the Corfu carpenters, and would not have mattered much if it had been. We sat in the taverna by the harbour at tables that were distinctly rickety--due to the cobbles--and ordered moussaka. The time of the year when the melanzane, aubergines, are at their juicy, deep plum-colour best is summer as it turns to the infinite early autumn enjoyed by Greece. It took some time to realise that Peter, our actor friend, wasn't ordering anything at all.
'What's the matter?' my sister asks. She is, as often before, quick to perceive the changes in mood of someone she likes--and she has psychic gifts too, as we've all noticed since she was twelve years old and obsessed with the Ouija board in the disused room in our house in Scotland, a room that ghosts would surely visit if they came at all.
'I've forgotten my point,' Peter says.
Both I and my sister know immediately what Peter means. It's hard enough being an actor--and Peter is still very young, only twenty-four--and he has had to endure a year's run in Son of Oblomov with Peter Sellers, the famous comedian taking the opportunity to mock and trip up poor Peter at every performance. No doubt he'd come out to Corfu to restore his equilibrium after this appalling experience. And what had we done for him? The house had taken over, causing friendships and perception to blur. The archetypal nature of the land at Rovinia--the olive grove, the sea--had made us insensitive to small human pains. 'What shall we do?' my sister asks tenderly.
Peter surprises us by saying he'd like to go and see Marie Aspioti. We hadn't even noticed that he'd been taken with her, though the scholarly detail that Marie supplies on all subjects to do with Greek drama, history and politics would be bound to enthral him. Her down-to-earth nature and brusque kindness would suit Peter's highly sensitive nature. 'We'll go after lunch,' my mother says, who is prone to ingest crises of this nature and quietly try to solve them.
When the carpouzi, the irresistible watermelon, has been eaten (and Peter did have some of that) we decide to skip coffee and go in search of Marie. First we try her house, the Villa Rossa, an ugly nineteenth-century building put up by her family and still lived in by Marie and her mother, despite the fact that the family suffered financial ruin in the Second World War. The walled garden, for all the desuetude of the once-grand house, simmers in the afternoon heat, the orange and lemon trees, with their trunks white-painted against insect infestation, giving a formal air in contrast to the generally run-down atmosphere. Shutters, green and flaking paint peeling back to reveal the rotten wood underneath, hang from their nails by the windows. Is Marie asleep inside? It is of course, as we guiltily remember yet again, the siesta hour. 'I don't think that brother of hers will allow her a siesta,' my mother says sadly. She's told us of Marie's brother's insistence on hard work and low pay at Corfu Travel, the bureau the family has set up on the hill leading down to Capodistriou Street (the main thorough-fare) in the town. Marie would almost certainly not be permitted a snooze during the hot months, if there are tickets to be booked. And those booking tickets are as often as not foreigners, as oblivious as we sometimes tend to be to the two-to-five siesta rule in Corfu.
Marie's office is efficient and cool, with a fan riffling the papers and brochures on her desk. Posters for Greek island ferries (some I already know and dread for their discomfort and casual approach to safety) hang on the walls. Her office is a back room, and a pleasant young woman in the front room stands behind a tall bar of glistening dark wood. Her name, we learn, is Athina--and I find myself wondering, with so many reminders of the Odyssey on this island, why Nausicaa never seems to crop up as a girl's name. It can't be the obvious reason, its similarity as a word to nausea--for nausea isn't known to the Greeks, although they have plenty of words for being sick.
It's as I'm sleepily thinking these thoughts (the siesta has reached me, even if I'm not back in the Tourist Pavilion in Paleokastritsa, lying on my bed) that the door to the back room is flung open by Athina and we are asked to enter.
Peter goes straight to Marie and--as if she's known all along that he's in need of sympathy and understanding--she asks him about his next part. Or, when she sees this isn't decided yet, 'What would you really like to be in?' she asks in her quick, clipped English.
To our surprise, and possibly Peter's, he replies, 'The Merchant of Venice.'
'Ah, the quality of mercy is not strained,' says Marie gently. 'It falleth as the gentle rain from heaven...'
Peter goes over, walks behind the desk and sits on it, his long legs dangling. And he starts reciting--reciting furiously and brilliantly--great chunks of The Merchant of Venice.
'Let's go and see if Olympic have new schedules for the autumn yet,' my mother suggests in a low voice. And we troop into the front room and stand by the long bar that is almost shoulder-height.
'So how do I help you?' says Athina, as the voice, muted now by the wall and closed door between us and Marie's office, recites on, Marie staying enraptured by the twice-her-size actor perched on the desk.
'Flights to London via Athens,' my mother says; though none of us listens to Athina's reply.
We leave the town, the arcades with their shops and cafés fast asleep in the afternoon sun, the cricket pitch--a relic of British occupation--scandalously dry and brown in the heat. The sea, so different from ours on the west coast that it could belong to another country, gives off its usual unappetising smell. Shall we drive home, stopping perhaps at the little church where the resident papas grows onions and herbs in the shade of the modest Byzantine dome?--or shall we head up to Gastouri, a village on the hill?
My friend Mark's cosmopolitan cousin lives at Gastouri; and it's a place, I know, which seduces those in search of the 'real Greece': for the Hellenophile, our seascape is too heavily surrounded by forest to be anything other than Italian (though in fact Rovinia and the coastline down to the south on the west side of the island must resemble archaic Greece, before goats nibbled all the vegetation away; the dusty brown landscapes so beloved of the traveller in Greece are relatively recent).
'He may be exploring the Epirus,' Mark says. 'But we can try.'
I can feel the temperature drop, as Mark's cousin Justin and his superior and eclectic knowledge of all things Greek come once more into the conversation. Justin will undoubtedly cause us to feel inferior when it comes to understanding Greece. Worse still, we actually have the temerity to plan to come and live here. 'We'll have to ask them over to Rovinia,' my mother says in a low voice. We can all sense the failure of the meal we have come to enjoy at the humble Tourist Pavilion: souvlaki (lamb kebabs), chips--and fish if something's come in that day. Justin and Christina, who is as fiercely 'authentic' as her husband, will probably bring a picnic: olives, feta, bread. My father likes his bit of skewered lamb at lunch.
Gastouri is on an unmade road--the old olive trees for which Corfu is famous flanking houses that are like the houses in faded frescos, of stone that is the palest of washed reds, a blue that looks as if the colour has been sucked out of it into the sky, a yellow like melons when you cut them open and all the white pips spill out. An inland heat we never suffer on the windward side of the island has preserved trees, houses and sudden shockingly green patches of watered and tended grass in a bell jar, a kaleidoscope where the shimmering caused by the excessive temperatures squeezes all together in patterns and stripes, pure and two-dimensional. It's impossible to tell where the shadow of a black wrought-iron gate or cypress tree ends and the real entrance to a house begins. My father, at the wheel of the rented Ford estate car, drives slowly over the bumpy stones in the road. Even so, he almost goes straight into the gatepost of the house where Justin, refuting the siesta in a way that is surprising for so international a traveller, is leaning from a ground-floor window. The watermelon walls and faded green shutters behind him give an air of a decrepit fruit-and-vegetable stall, with Justin, blond and wispy-bearded, tending the produce right through the heat of the day. 'I'm delighted to see you,' he calls out, recognising first his cousin and then us, whom he has briefly met in the town. 'Come through, come through.'
The inside of the old house that Justin and his wife take each year from the Corfiot owners is as much a tapestry of beautiful near-dereliction as the view of the old village from outside. Chairs stand--just about--with backs lopsided or cane seats missing altogether. A large round table, once polished but now bearing marks of ancient inks and paints, is laden with journals in sprigged-paper covers and pressed wild flowers, making an autumnal atmosphere in the heavily shuttered room. Dried grasses and faded poppies lie on yellowed paper. A sideboard holds Venetian glass, red and white goblets and a decanter containing something that looks suspiciously like black wine. 'I insist you try some of this,' says Justin. 'Ah, here is Christina. She will explain how this wine was made, she was a part of the process.' And he laughs, throwing back his head to reveal a long, scrawny neck only partly camouflaged by the yellow beard. Christina, dark and determined-looking, greets us all and goes over to the decanter. A tiny chink of sunlight penetrates the almost-dark room and dust motes dance on the Venetian goblets, ghostly fireflies lit by the ruby glass.
'I'm so looking forward to seeing the garden,' my mother says, saving us just in time from the satanic wine. 'I've heard so much about it.'
Even if this is an exaggeration, we know Gastouri's most alluring side lies precisely behind those houses that seem so impregnable, due to their gates and tall, funereal cypresses. And we also know that Justin and his wife have left the garden to run wild (the owners have apparently no interest in it). As my mother wishes for an almost wild garden at Rovinia, on the terraces that lead down to the grove, this has certainly intrigued her. We know there is a steep incline on the far side of the row of habitations, and that the road runs along a ridge, particularly narrow just here. 'This is the way we love to live in Greece,' Justin says, throwing open a french window into the garden, the shutters swinging as he impatiently pushes them back. 'You may desire to embark for Ithaca, from your Liapades Bay'--exchanging glances with Christina, as if they have already discussed and dismissed the insalubrious air at Rovinia, the climate that will not be congenial to gardening--'but we here may well have found Arcadia.'
We have to admit--equally with exchanged glances--that, for all his affectations, Justin is probably right. These old roses (I can sense my mother wondering if they could ever grow in the stiff salt breezes from the sea) that ramble along the stone walls look as if they've been here two hundred years since the Venetians built the house. A heavenly scent comes from them; and as we take our eyes from a dwelling-place that seems to have grown into a bower, we see beds of lavender and canna lilies that grow up to the windows from an unkempt border running along the wall. The garden here doesn't seem all that wild--until, gazing down the steep bank immediately below us, it's possible to see what Justin meant by Arcadia. He also meant, without a doubt, a Greece in miniature: a grove such as Pan would have played in; a sense of mountain, grotto and sacred place. Enchanted, we make our way down the bank.
A small piece of woodland on the hill at Gastouri comprises the 'wild' area of Justin's carefully untended retreat. Pines give a delicious cool, and their needles make a fine, soft carpet. Cypresses add an air of dignity. Oleanders gleam in the undergrowth; pink and white blossoms in very dark green leaves form a garland on the head of the hill. Ivy grows up a column and then runs to a table, stone inset with a marble mosaic, rough and unpolished. An intense silence, broken by the sound that pines make when a breeze, not palpable at ground level, touches their branches, leads us all to fall silent in the middle of our words of praise. 'This is where we like to sit in the evening,' Justin says, and he leads us down through the pines to a clearing high above the mountains, the distant sea and the sun-baked houses of Gastouri. There is another table, wooden and by now so rickety and ivy-entwined that it has become a part of the forest. Wicker chairs are discernible in the deep shade of the trees.
'It's like being outside the monastery near Delphi,' Christina says, 'Ossios Loukas. Don't you agree?'
It is time to go home. We're given a rapid tour of the house--distempered rooms, old boards on the floors with spaces so wide between them that I see my father's eyes roll in disbelief. On the wall of one room the name of Christina's mother has been scrawled, in red paint: 'Maman Natasha'. Then back to the dark dining room, past the unsavoured black wine and out into the now-heavier gold of late afternoon.
'It is beautiful, after all,' my mother says as we drive on the unfrequented back road from Gastouri across the island to the west.
Everyone agrees. But I can't wait for our house to be built: the house that will be white and square, with the wide doors that my father always insists on, and the bright light from the sea.
I'm on the beach loading a bag with pebbles. They'll go down on the new paths and flights of steps to the house, which rises, a frame almost ready to be roofed, behind me on the hill. I know the patterns we'll lay them in: circular, concentric, like a mosaic already laid on the table left behind on the small terrace of the cottage--or minor bastide--my father bought in the South of France in the 1930s and then returned to, married to my mother, to restore when the war was over. I feel I know the shapes without even opening my eyes--we ate bread and honey from the Alpes-Maritimes on the surface of that pebbled table, with wonderful coffee to wash it down. But here, despite the repeated swirls and geometric order of the mosaic, the familiarity of the contrast between grey, white and rose-tinged, I can see a very different enterprise is foreseen. The bastide near Valbonne, unspoilt then, a pocket of lavender and olive trees as unlike those here as they would be if they belonged to another species, was visited in spring and summer, for holidays. The rooms were old, low-ceilinged and dark--but no-one cared. Here, it will be real life, everyday life that the new house will provide. The stone platforms on the paths going down to the sea--and on a table in the sunken garden, once it's dug out--will be no more than reminders of those now-cancelled days. All the same, I feel a twinge of nostalgia as I search the shoreline for any new throw-ups from the sea. There had been yellow butterflies in France, and umbrella pines, which gave off a scent recognisable even after years away. Here, I've seen only one brimstone, attaching to the flowers of cistus and broom, and a red admiral or two. For all the assurances that there are swallowtails to be seen here, I've yet to come across one. Something about the inland nature of those small fields and blue lavender beds could never be found here, I sense: there's just too much salt in both water and air.
As if to underline the rightness of my thoughts about missing France, and the pleasures of driving through meadows bright with buttercups into Antibes, with the sputtering of Lambrettas along a wide boulevard leading to a café-fringed sea, a sound identical to those long-forgotten pop-poppings rises above the (today fairly buoyant) waves. I look up, Juan-les-Pins vanishing from my mind, and see one of the fishermen approach in his boat. There's nothing new about that--the bay appears to suck in and spew out small craft virtually every hour of the day. It's Yorgos--and it is he, as so often, who comes up to the shingle bank with a last roar of the exhausted engine and leaps out, up to mid-calf in the clear, warm water--but there is also another figure in the stern of the boat and it is he who commands attention. Despite announcements made daily on the lack of availability of a new pump for the well that Achilleos has dug just above the line where beach meets grass (or brown, baked earth, as is the case at this time of year), here is Stefanos the builder with something in his arms. It isn't a child--or a consignment of watermelons--or anything that could be expected, at this stage in its erection, to go in the shell of Rovinia House. It must be--and here I draw in my breath as Stefanos, with a casual gesture that would have been proved fatal by a larger-than-usual wave, throws the heavy object, apparently wrapped in a tarpaulin, on to the beach.
The shouting begins: it's the magnified shouting we've all grown used to, whenever we come over to Rovinia. But in this case there is news to be conveyed. Collas the architect appears on the nearly completed terrace and peers down. I see Thekli, her skirts grey with building dust, join him and shade her eyes as she peers down at the beach. Then excitement starts to spread. The pump has come. The powerful new pump, which will draw the fresh water Achilleos has so effortlessly (as the architect predicted) discovered at Rovinia. Easy! All that is needed is a good strong pump.
For some reason the commotion makes me apprehensive, and I go on sorting pebbles as Yorgos and the two men who invariably materialise out of nowhere heave the small fishing caique up on the tramlines of ancient timbers. I run the stones through my fingers--blue-grey, some of them; never enough black; white as snow, nearly white, deep cream. I wonder, as I put those ripe for the mosaic paths into my bag, if these are pebbles washed down in Homer's time by the river in full spate, before it made an estuary with sandbanks six feet high, like a roofless tunnel leading to the sea. And I think of the story again: the young woman, a king's daughter, and the stranger made welcome in her father's splendid palace three bays to the north. Why did she never try to seduce this handsome man washed in like the pebbles on to this shore? All other maidens, witches, sirens tried to keep Odysseus for themselves. Was it because this young woman wanted to observe and record, and not to marry and lose her voice to any man, that she turned away from her first idea of marriage? Had Nausicaa--as I knew had been claimed by certain scholars at the beginning of the last century--been the real writer of the Odyssey?
The shouting up beyond the high-water mark has grown in volume. My parents have joined Stefanos; and Achilleos, the valiant digger, has appeared. As I walk slowly up to become a part of the scene--fresh water! we must all have in our minds images of drinking deep in the excellent cold water of Rovinia, and the atmosphere is one of rejoicing--I see a couple walking along the grove and crossing the riverbed just below the well. I remember--these must be Thodoros and Maria Mazis, from Liapades, who will keep their house and land up in the village, but will also live in a house behind Rovinia House, just now going up. A site with olive trees all round it, and terraces going down into the deep valley--the part furthest inland at present a vegetable patch cultivated by the Mazis family, but soon to be the sheltered garden where roses and lilies, so my mother hopes, will grow. Thodoros's family were also the owners of the land where Collas has placed our four walls and our terrace. I wonder at first what he and his wife--who have applied to live here and work for my parents, he as boatman and caretaker, she as cook--must make of the familiar plots turned to such eccentric use. But it is possible to see, as I come up close and take a quick glance at their faces, that the selling of this bit of land, on bad soil and open to every rogue wind that chooses to blow in, has not been a painful decision for the couple. They look friendly and relaxed, their expressions that Greek mixture of transparency and humorous cynicism it would be impossible to find in Italy, directly across the Ionian Sea from where we stand.
Thodoros comes from an intensely religious family (his father a holy and respected man in Liapades, his mother responsible for all the farming work, and out all day on the family stremata) and is dark, with commanding good looks. He has a jaunty air and appears--quite a mistaken impression, as it turns out--to be something of a popinjay. Although the young couple already have an infant son, Spiro, they are completely dependent on Thodoros's father, and he and Maria must ask for money for everything as well as, in Maria's case, permission to go into town. Every drachma they earn here will be handed over to the patriarch.
Maria, whose family name is Repoulios, is one of six children--a jolly, singing family of which she is the eldest daughter. Brown-haired and bursting with vitality, it's possible to see her as the belle of Liapades, a lover of all the social occasions that the village can offer. She immediately shows herself as a leader of festivities: red handkerchief held high, she's known to head the dancers at weddings and fairs.
The look of amusement on both Maria's and Thodoros's faces, as I am soon to discover, is not so much due to the wild shouting and gesticulating of Yorgos--who has dragged up his boat, as he so often does, so they say, within one-eighth of an inch of the huge breakers forecast in tonight's storm, and has joined the celebratory crowd--as to the sight of a woman, in black as before but now with hair flying loose from her snood, who crosses the riverbed at a run, in hot pursuit of two furious billy-goats. 'Katzikaki, katzikako,' the by now well-known cry rings out. And I see my mother and father, as the goats rush to the well and Anna Georgiadis dashes after them, turn and exchange glances with Thodoros and Maria. They all burst out laughing. Things are going to go happily here--despite the fact that Stefanos can't assemble the pump, and the first rumblings of thunder can be heard in a sky suddenly the colour of a bad bruising. Things will go well here at Rovinia. We're all going to get on.
Anna Georgiadis has a reputation for violence. My mother's mastery of demotic Greek, which is in its early stages at this point, can run to the understanding of stories about the village; mine, which I embarked on a couple of years before (travelling in the Peloponnese and northern Greece with a learned older friend, I suffered shame at my inability to return the hospitality offered everywhere with at least some information about myself--'How old are you? Is this man your husband? How old is he? Saranda pende?'--and eyes would roll, though Fred, my companion, was neither husband nor lover) has deteriorated badly.
I find I can understand, perversely, when a rush of words, accompanied by the steady gaze of the Greek raconteur, are directed at me. But the slow, careful enunciation of one who knows he must reach the limited comprehension of foreigners has me at a loss. At present, as we walk up the path, I'm at a disadvantage. The teller of the tale is up ahead of me, with my mother, who has asked about Anna Georgiadis, so I cannot see him as he speaks. And--as if to mock the betrayal of his friend, a cock crows continually on the rocky way up to Liapades. I'm aware we could be hearing the truth about Anna--or a version that comes down in a bias of cousinages, doctored by reason of feud or loyalty.
'Anna Georgiadis's husband died,' says Yannis, whose brother is mayor of Liapades; Yannis himself is a fisherman.
'Ah, she is a widow,' my mother puts in.
'No, not at all,' Yannis says. 'She beat her husband, that is the fact about Anna Georgiadis.'
I conceal my surprise; and I note my mother does the same. The woman with the goats, who forced my father into paying more than he paid any of the others for the land, is not someone with whom it would be safe to be closely involved.
'And she beats her second husband also,' Yannis says. Even lagging behind on the path, I can hear the delight in his voice. Clearly, we do not know all there is to be known of the redoubtable Anna Georgiadis. 'She is a very smart woman,' Yannis continues, as the mad white dog tethered to the railing of the first outpost of Liapades life, a house on four pillars, the lower floor reserved for animals and fodder, comes into view. I try to remember the advice given by travellers in Greece to those who come across aggressive dogs--a frequent occurrence and potentially fatal. Sit on a low wall, runs the adage. The dog won't attack you if you're sitting down. Unbeknownst to family and friends, I have been trying this out; but the last time I lowered myself nervously on to a wall, the stones slipped and cascaded to the ground, causing a frenzy of rushing and barking.
'A smart woman?' I call up the hill to Yannis. I don't want to lose the story of Anna Georgiadis--but the dog is now gobbling the end of the olive stick I carry with me for just this reason. 'What kind of smart?'
'She has much gold jewellery,' Yannis says, turning and looking straight down at me so that I can understand more easily. 'And this is why the new husband stays with her. But they wanted a child. So--' he shrugs, and shouts to the dog, which falls quiet. 'So she is too old and she cannot have a child--'
The rest of Yannis's words are lost in a cacophony of cocks' crows from the patch of land just under Liapades. It is the noisiest place in the world here, I think, wondering how the rural idyll of peace-and-whispering-sea can be realised with a village like this just up the hill. At night, as I know from expeditions by moonlight to swim and picnic in the place we will one day take for granted, dogs chase shadows down the grove. But Corfiot dogs--with the exception of the crazy white canine on the path--are too likeable to blame for nocturnal barking. Brown--generally--with white patches, and with the air of Labrador and collie combined, they have intelligent, enquiring faces. Only too often, as we've seen driving on the island, they're run over by the maniacal lorries indigenous to Greece. I promise myself, if we have a dog here, that it will be locked up at night.
Yannis has finished his tale, which appears to include adoption and cruelty. We pant on, over great scissor-shaped rocks, which stick up from the mud and shingle that make up the Liapades roads; and as we go I note, as I do every time, the totally primitive quality of the villagers' lives. They have neither running water nor electricity. Water is carried up by the women on their heads or in the saddlebags of donkeys, from a well at the foot of the steep Liapades hill. Light is provided by oil lamps--and often there is none at all, so the place is plunged into a medieval blackness once night falls. Lavatories are open holes in the ground. Cold and rain all winter bring chest complaints, pleurisy, pneumonia. It occurs to me that childbearing must also be unchanged since earliest times, and I find myself directing at Yannis, as we walk past the closed and paint-peeling wooden doors that open into the yards of the houses, the type of questions so often asked of us, the xenoi. 'How old is Anna Georgiadis?' I call to him. 'Ti?' Yannis swivels round and looks at me with the blank, shut-off expression I've seen in Greeks when a question is unanswerable, or the time has passed to prolong conversation.
'Dhen pirazei.' At least I know the demotic for the endlessly repeated mantra of Greece. 'Never mind.' I see I was tactless; besides, for all I know, the husband-beater Anna may be here, behind one of these doors. But the fact is that it's impossible to tell from her appearance just how old Anna Georgiadis--or indeed any of the women here--may be. Work and climate make crones of women considered young still in western Europe or America. A ya-ya--granny--can be in her thirties. Plenty of women known as pro-ya-ya--great-grandmother--have reached the mid-century, no more. Possibly Anna Georgiadis, despairing of bearing a child for her handsome young husband, wasn't old, but simply unable to conceive.
We arrive at last at the end of the lane. Not one of the houses we pass reveals its life to us--the high whitewashed walls and bolted door set in the plaster and stone give a Moorish feel. This must be an Arab influence, one thinks at first. But Corfu looks to the west, and not to the east: the Turks invaded, but were never able to colonise here--and, despite the super-sweet Turkish coffee, the loukoumi and the lilting Eastern music that plays day and night on the radio, the island bears the memories of Venetian and French ownership rather than of Constantinople.
The lane comes to the corner where the men sit--White's Club, as my father calls it. They're in the cafeneon, which has one side facing the plateia, the central square with the church and high steps built into its far side, so that grocery shops sit perched above the rest, in this village that goes up and up.
Here is our car. For sweets and toiletries we'll go to Stavros, the only supermarket, which stands on the crossroads, six miles down the road into town. But we'll buy what we can here--notebooks in blue shiny covers, ouzo for drinking in the evening in our rooms at the Tourist Pavilion. We'll be shopping here one day soon, for the house. Everything will have to come down the path on donkey or mule. Will it really be viable, this new way of life just now being hammered and knocked into existence? 'Everything is possible,' my father says. Then we go right into the darkest and deepest recesses of 'White's' taverna, to ask if there's any mail. Addressed to Rovinia--a new address for a new life.
The new electric pump for the well, admired for its power, turned out to be too powerful after all.
Sweet water, to be tasted like every drop in Greece with a knowledgeable smacking of the lips (a glass of water accompanies everything that's put on the table, even the simplest meze), had confidently been expected from the deep well dug by Achilleos at Rovinia. Even with the use of the old pump, we had expressed delight and relief at the fresh water so miraculously drawn up from ground as hard as the baked clay for the pots and pitchers you see in a village courtyard: a desert-red, suitable for storing water but not for yielding it.
We're standing round the well when the new pump goes into action: but in truth there is so much going on by now that the producing of water is overlooked by us as being of prime importance. The roof tiles of Rovinia are on, and it's this historic occasion that the Greeks celebrate with a great feast--which is precisely what we are about to do. The tiles arrived--by sea in the caique, like everything else--and we stand on the beach admiring these slabs of fired earth, the covering for our future house: faded, and ranging from deep ochre to a colour that's like the sun when it goes down over the Monkey's Head. It's impossible not to reflect on the lives, deaths, disappointments and joys that these roofs of old and abandoned houses have overseen. (The battle, at first, had been with Stefanos, whose determination to provide new tiles, glistening, uniform and a bright orange, 'treated' not to fade, had been prolonged. There was disbelief--and then, as was the way with Stefanos, a sudden rush of understanding, 'Nai, nai'--as he visualised the derelict buildings from which the tiles would be removed, and the ensuing profit.)
For our feast, there are long wooden trestle tables being carried from the caique on to the beach and then into the grove. Luckily, the weather is calm. The Feast of the Assumption, 15th August, the day on which the entire Mediterranean drops tools, moves to visit families, celebrates and prays, has passed; as has, particular to Corfu, the Feast Day of St Spiridon, four days before. The intense heat, said to subside after the Virgin's ascent to the heavens, has indeed gone down since a spectacular storm that had us wondering, over in the well-protected Tourist Pavilion at Paleokastritsa, how the new house at Rovinia would handle the lightning. (But we have been assured by Collas that a lightning conductor has been ordered for the new roof.)
Along with the tables, which we set up, along with Thekli and Dassia and the fourteen-year-old Athina, are upwards of forty chairs. Wicker demijohns of retsina are lugged up the grove by Yorgos and Yannis. Knives and forks, borrowed from Paleokastritsa, go down next to the white paper plates, these brought down the path from Liapades in the saddlebag of a mule. A smell of cooking meat begins to make itself noticed as far down as the flat bottom of the valley. Four sheep are turning on a spit, up the hill behind the newly roofed house. No wonder the well is only visited from time to time. Someone says it's bad timing--as well as bad luck--that the new pump needed electrical repairs before it can be primed to bring up fresh water; a pity it all had to happen today. General agreement--but we don't know yet just what bad luck it will turn out to be.
For now, nothing can go wrong. The sun shines, the sea has taken on its coat of many colours: deep royal blue, turquoise, soft pale green by the cave where the sun never reaches, where it is, as I think it, Kubla Khan's sunless sea. The olive trees are dancing in the slight breeze, turning from young girls decked in bright-green ribbons to tossing grey heads, and back again. My son is here--it's the school holidays--and he stands looking in pleasure at the little boat he will be able to row across the sea in, to Yefira, the neighbouring bay, or Alipa. He is seven years old, eight in November. He has named the bright-yellow rowing-boat 'Swift Swan'.
We walk up the forking paths where the women go with their loads of bricks and cement, and when we reach the half-made terrace we turn away from the path and head towards the sharp peninsula that juts out into the sea. Known as 'The Point', this is one of my son's favourite places; and the layers of the dark rock-face there are black and shining. In order to go down it, we must go in single file, through flora that turns marine as we walk: sea pinks, tall white squills, which push like stumps out of the inhospitable ground but then flower as profusely as asphodel, sea vetch yellow with an intricate, pretty leaf.
Before we go right out to the point--and sometimes it's possible to forget this is part of Rovinia too, this long inky snout pushing out into deep water--we stand on the path a while. Here it refuses to go to the point, choosing to turn on itself like the tail of a snake and return to the village, or plunge down through bramble and scrub to the beach. We look back at the house, a frame with a skeletal wooden roof on which the tiles and guttering have been placed. My son remarks of the bricks that they're 'not like our bricks'--and it's true, they are hollow and oblong in shape. But I see the women, as they rise slowly with their head pads, as caryatids: even if they do neither brick-laying nor plastering, the weight of the house is borne by them. 'Come on,' I say--and the child walks first, down over the scissor-sharp rocks to the stone bench, carved by Nature to seat a king--Poseidon perhaps--so that he can sit all day long on a throne and overlook the sea.
Shouting down below brings us from the daydream that sitting on the point invariably brings. It's to do with the sheer hugeness of the blue Ionian that rolls out from here, with the porcupine's nose that is the point shelving away steeply on either side. And the vertiginous cliffs at Yefira, visible from here as they are not from anywhere else on the property. Cliffs tall and madder red, with cypresses and olives growing down the sides of a deep ravine, plunge to the sea. We say we'll row over to Yefira--there's a tiny taverna there, reachable only by boat or down a difficult path, the one the fishermen take when they leave their boats there in tricky weather. We'll go there, and sit right on the edge of the sandy beach and order egg and chips, and then we'll row back again. And Coke, of course; even in a place as inaccessible as this, where there's a fridge, there's a Coke.
The shouting brings us back up the point, on to the path and down the scramble to the beach. We see the tables under the grove are filling up: the landscape spews out guests for the great day of celebration in Greece for any new house owner: the day of putting on the roof. All those concerned with the building of Rovinia are here, and a good proportion of the village it seems; and the roasted sheep are being carried down. Wine is poured and bread goes round, brown and gnarled as the roots of the olives that guard the tables in the grove. There is laughter, and a kind of anarchic gaiety--and as my son comes near, he's seized by one of the women and then tossed from arm to arm.
But there's another kind of shouting to be heard, from the well at the foot of the path where the first steps will go up to the house. I see Stefanos, a gobbet of mutton hanging from his lips, leave the table and leap the dried-out riverbed to arrive at the site of the beautiful new pump. Heads turn to watch him as he goes.
Somehow, it's impossible not to know the outcome of Stefanos's brief journey--though it feels as if he has crossed continents and swum seas by the time he comes back.
The men at the well had turned the pump to full blast. And what came up, from the depths, was not the fresh water we had tasted at first, drawn gently from a shallow level. It was brackish. It was salt. It was the sea.
The lunch winds on, becomes an afternoon, a day, a cycle of the Greek sun. Retsina flows in glasses lent by the xenodoxeion in Paleokastritsa, and the frieze of figures around the long tables jerks into life, like early cinema. Yorgos the fisherman is dancing, silly-faced with love for the young woman who twirls at the end of his reach; two caryatids, brown-cheeked and no longer with faces whitened by limestone from the quarry in the trees behind our table, are coming up the beach from the clear, pale sea. Singing--songs that are strangely sad and haunting when all around is gaiety and celebration--echoes down the grove as it may have done thousands of years ago, when the women from Alcinous's palace disported themselves on the banks of the river here.
A grandmother--a ya-ya (or a pro-ya-ya), she is too heavily shrouded in black clothes to be anything other than an emblem of extreme old age--appears at the head of the grove, where the formality of the two lines of trees dissolves to disused terraces, dappled with shade beckoning for the after-lunch siesta. She tethers her donkey to a tree and is called to, told to join us and eat. The xoriatiki salad, of feta, carrots and tomatoes, with its punctuation of dark olives and tiny strips of lettuce and cucumber, is carried in a bowl down the length of the brown earth-hard floor of the grove where we sit. Then the mutton: Yannis shouts out a joke we can't understand, as a long bone glistening with fat and hanging with gobbets of meat is broken off and also carried down to this figure of ancient Greek drama. Does she curse us, or bring us good fortune, on this all-important day? Who is she and where is she from? But for the moment her appearance, after an initial chill, is causing too much merriment for anyone to tell us what we want to know. We'll hope instead, as the stranger at our banquet eats, that the giving of hospitality, though unexpected, has brought us luck.
The sheep, still turning on the spit as the day wears on, have not been hung--and, drastically, have not been cooked with herbs--and I find the taste, well, too sheep-like. It's the way the country people here like it, evidently; but as the greatest scent of Greece, the mix of rosemary and thyme, sage and camomile and honey-giving broom wafts down to us in the summer heat, it does seem odd that these are not stuffed into the mutton grilling over the fire. One of the best medicines known--the tsai tou vounou, mountain tea, which cures headaches, malaise, stomach pains and anything you care to name--is concocted from the magic wild plants on the heights of Pantokrator, or the range of towering hills above the Plain of Ropa, which stretches out beyond 'our' village of Liapades. Are the herbs, then, seen as prophylactics or medicines, rather than culinary delights? I can't stop myself wondering what the reaction would have been if I had secretly stuffed the glorious herbs supplied by Nature into our singeing sheep.
People are sleeping on the terraces now, under the olives, and they look as if they are lying on bunks made up for the purpose; soft, green beds (for there is grass higher up, above the burnt floor of the grove: the comfort is sublime). Someone in our party finds the first clump of cyclamen, down amongst the stones and pebbles in the deep cavity where the torrent, as we've been told, will rush down so fast in winter it will take our breath away. At first I think, mournfully, of our approaching departure: the cyclamen must be a sign of autumn; my son returns to school and I to work, in London. The party will most definitely be over, for at least another eight or nine months. But then, as I hold the small, mauve flower in my hand (the dark, distinguished leaves come later: it's too early for them yet), I understand that it's impossible to tell, in Corfu, when one season succeeds another. There is a perpetual spring; and Marie Aspioti tells us, as the little posy of cyclamen goes into a wine glass of water on the trestle table, that she has seen narcissi out already, on a country road on the way up to Strinilas. 'Where the turtles live, under a hump-backed bridge,' she says. 'And a big colony of snowdrops--they usually come in October, along with autumn crocus; the stem, as you know, is the same colour as the bloom.'
Marie has confessed to a love for England that consists mainly of a passion for robins--her favourite book, in a lifetime of serious English reading, is Lark Rise to Candleford. It's obvious why snowdrops thrill her--but then it is odd and exotic, somehow, for spring and winter and summer and autumn to be so mixed up together, as they are here. The thought of a climate without frost, however hard it may rain on this sometimes Tuscany-resembling island, is difficult to believe.
The house, its cement frame ready for pipes to be laid and electricity to be installed (but God--or indeed the Deii, the gods, as the electricians are named--alone will know when this may be), stands above the resting builders, carousing fishermen and gossiping women in the grove and olive terraces below. Will it ever be ready for habitation? Since my mother and my younger sister, on their way home from a business trip with my father to Australia in January 1965, saw the cement frame of Rovinia, another eight months have passed. It's tempting to see the roofed building as readier to move into than, of course, it is. Will the pebbles we've brought, and laid in Roman patterns in cement, make good platforms along the path, where wild olives will seed themselves and geraniums will flower from the blasted rock?
Above all--and I know my father thinks gravely of this, as he conducts a conversation in mime with Yorgos (they seem to understand each other well; even to be highly satisfied with each other's incomprehensible answers)--above all, my father thinks of the plumbing at Rovinia and of the expensive, all-important Panyatockis Report. Will the fat file of questions and answers supplied by the Athens plumbing engineers Panyatockis come up with the impossible, in Greece: modern plumbing? We have all visited hotels and houses, tavernas and bars, some exclusive in their nature, others humble, but all with one thing in common--the lavatory and accompanying waste basket, in which used lavatory paper has to be placed. It has been firmly decided that, even if Rovinia House is to set a precedent, this is what we shall try for: a bathroom or WC that contains a lavatory and not a waste basket alongside. The Report has promised four-inch soil pipes, and other sophisticated improvements. But we all wonder if the very nature of Greek plumbing, along with the ubiquitous 'Niagara', the loo with snapping chain and thunderous cistern, won't triumph over us in the end.
Now the feast is over. Clutching the bouquet of cyclamens, we return across the bay to Paleokastritsa, shamingly grateful for the calm sea and lack of necessity to do what the villagers are doing, which is toil up the path on the hill to Liapades. The summer seems to recede as a stiff breeze gets up halfway, and we arrive at the little crumbling jetty drenched to the skin. For all the perpetual spring that the flowers provide, a true sense of the coming autumn has descended. The Tourist Pavilion suddenly seems bare, the beds hard and the walls white and empty. It's time to go back to London, leaving a house that may, or may not, still be a wreck when we return.
A HOUSE IN CORFU Copyright © 2002 by Emma Tennant