Authors: Sara Alexi
THE ENGLISH LESSON
Also by Sara Alexi
sun reflects off the water, almost blinding Juliet as she eases her old car into a spot by the harbour wall. Over the cracking plastic dashboard and through the dust-smeared windscreen, the sea’s surface shimmers. The late summer heat is still stifling as August temperatures linger on.
A fishing boat amongst the few remaining tourist yachts bobs and wallows lazily. The fisherman on board moves without haste, his net between his toes, his hands maintaining tension as he weaves, making good last night’s damage. He looks up, nods his recognition to Juliet, and glances briefly at Michelle.
Michelle links Juliet's arm as they dodge tanned men on mopeds to cross the road to the cafés. Juliet leads away from the touristy coffee houses and tavernas in by the harbour.
'I thought we were going for coffee?' Michelle releases Juliet's arm to put her hand up to shade her eyes from the sun, scanning the lines of comfy chairs. Waiters beckon, music seeps towards them, cats wind around table legs with promises of love in return for food. The place is pleasantly empty of tourists this early in the day, this late in the year.
Juliet ignores the temptation and leads the way down a narrow side road to the lane that runs behind the relatively noisy promenade. Without the chrome and glass facades, it is easier to appreciate the beauty of these big, Venetian-influenced buildings. They are solid and square, made from cut, yellowish stone. Some are two storeys high, some three. Ornate embellishments decorate the lintels, and marble cantilevered balconies hang over the road. On the ground floor, are several archways leading into each building. Intricately carved double doors give access to the ground level and the stairs to the apartments above. High up against the blue sky, fancy brickwork under the eaves suggests the original grandeur of these homes. The majority have grey or the palest of blue shutters over closed windows on the upper floors. The architecture is of a past era, built by ship owners and businessmen after Greece was liberated from Turkish rule and before the economic crash.
Michelle hurries to catch Juliet.
'This lady, Toula, suggested a new café round the back here.' Juliet waits for Michelle.
'I thought she was from our village?' Michelle has almost caught up with her.
'She is—was—but her husband did well and they moved into town. Been here most of her married life, I believe.' Juliet moves with long, languid strides as if the heat has sucked the haste from her. Her pale, loose clothes flow as she moves.
The lane is too narrow for cars, giving the appearance that it has been pedestrianised, although mopeds still weave past. The noises from the harbour are muffled now they have turned the corner, leaving an air of peace and tranquility.
A man wearing black trousers, a white shirt, and a narrow white apron comes hurrying past them. He has a key in his hand and, with a well-practiced movement, he opens one of the grand, ground level doors to reveal a wide, sweeping staircase, the shine of wood glimmering in the darkness. The waiter strides into the gloom and returns presently, wobbling with the weight of a crate of beer in one hand and a stack of pressed and clean tablecloths in the other. He takes the time to smile at them both in his hurry, but his presence shatters the illusion of the mansion’s continued opulence. The upper stories are now broken up into storage units for the cafés and tavernas below. Juliet knows that the Port Police offices take up the whole of one upper floor of one of the buildings. A notorious lawyer has another. She has heard that is difficult to live in these upper floors now because of the noise generated by the cafés below in the small hours of the morning. Occasionally she has spotted little old ladies, dressed in black, slipping, like mice, out of the majestic doorways. Sometimes they lean over one of the balcony railings to haul shopping up in wicker baskets. But that is a rare sight these days.
Those that remain must struggle with the cost of maintenance as the ornate stonework crumbles in the sea air, the roofs almost impossible to get to in order to repair. To her knowledge, there is only one mansion where the whole of the two upper floors retain their residential status and that is owned by Toula, the lady she is due to meet.
'She lives here, I believe.' Juliet points at a pair of neatly trimmed box trees that stand sentinel either side of elaborately carved and freshly painted wooden double doors. A cat is curled up on the doorstep.
'Oh, what a lovely place to live.' Michelle looks up at Toula's balconies with their fancy iron railings. All the houses on the street, both the grand ones on the right and the more modest dwellings on the left, have balconies. Those on the left, away from the noise of the cafés—smaller, newer, cheaper—are lived in and consequently, their balconies explode with well-tended bougainvillea. The trailing plants have been hooked across the road to create tunnels of colour interspersed between patches of sunlight. Toula's is the only balcony on the right that has done the same. Her bougainvillea is pale orange. Halfway across the void, it intertwines with a pink plant and the colours merge in a shocking contrast.
'Is that the café?' Michelle points ahead to two tables and four chairs tucked under a vine that trails to the floor.
'I guess so.' There is no sign to indicate it is a café.
'She’s an old lady, you said?'
'It’s hard to tell on the phone, but by the way she was talking, reminiscing about the village, my guess is that she won't be young.'
'It seems odd that she wants to bother with English lessons if she is really old.'
'Once fifty was a very old age to live to. Now, people like us are uprooting and moving abroad at that age.' Juliet pulls out a chair and sits. Michelle does the same, tucking a vine tendril back on itself so it is out of her way.
'So tell me, how was summer?' Once seated, Juliet starts the conversation with energy.
'Good. No, great! I wondered a couple of times if I had done the right thing. You know, having a house in the village over here and the bed and breakfast over on Orino island, but now I am back for the winter, I feel more sure. I definitely need a break from the island now the season is over. Even if my home wasn't here, I would definitely go off somewhere, but having the village to return to is so... What’s the right word? Grounding? Stabilising? Relaxing?' She shrugs.
'Well, your home is here and what’s more, it was very successful as a holiday let over the summer. I even filled that gap of three days you had back in June,' Juliet says as she scans the menu. 'Now you have done a season, do you feel you made the right choice to sell up in the UK?' She looks up, waiting for the reply.
Putting down the menu, Michelle looks up at the blue sky between the orange tiled roofs.
'Without hesitation, yes! The real question is why I didn't do it earlier like you. Fear of the unknown, I suppose. You know what I do miss about my old life, though?'
'No, what?' There is a chuckle in her throat as she says this, as if she is ready for the punchline.
'Nothing,' Michelle scoffs.
Whenever they are together, it never takes long before they drift into behaving without any sense, teenagers again. The years pass, their experiences grow, but it all drops away once they are together.
They laugh in unison at their mutual childish sense of humour, and the waiter who has come out to take their order smiles to join in and waits for their merriment to subside before he asks what they want. After he returns inside, Juliet continues.
'I do want to hear more details about your summer. But mostly...' Juliet lowers her voice and leans towards Michelle. ‘Have you heard from Dino?’
‘Well, we agreed we wouldn’t write.’ The words are stiff.
‘You agreed that you wouldn’t write, but I wasn’t so sure that he was going to stick with your rules.’
Michelle takes a deep breath and lets it out noisily through her nose as she starts to shake her head.
‘I feel so bad. There’s not a day that has passed since he left that I have not thought about him. But, I mean, he’s just a boy. He needs a life, not an old hag like me. But I can’t seem to let him go. I know it would only take one move from him and all my resolution would be gone.’
‘Hey, less of the “old,” please. Remember we are the same age.’ Juliet tries to lighten the mood, but Michelle does not even smile.
‘It was just a summer romance, a fling, a little fantasy.’ Michelle continues to shake her head as she speaks.
‘I really don’t think it was, for him.’
Michelle looks down into her lap and a shadow crosses her face.
‘Hey, what is it?’ Juliet leans over and puts a hand on her friend’s arm.
Michelle looks up and flashes a smile. ‘I’m alright, really. Sorry. I’m being silly. But you know, since they stationed him in Preveza…’
‘Oh, I thought he was at the barracks in Thessaloniki?’
‘He was, but you know, they move them around every month or so, and his friend Adonis told me that he is now in Preveza. But even that was a couple of months ago, and I don’t really know. I mean, a part of me wants him to forget about me, but a part of me hurts, too. Is that very selfish?’
Juliet shakes her head. ‘No, no, Mich. That’s not selfish. I think that has another word...’
Michelle’s eyes flash as she looks at Juliet, a warning, a spark of hope. She is not sure.
‘Here you go.’ The waiter’s voice is bright as he returns with two cold coffees. Juliet and Michelle sit back and, with a glance at each other, their conversation drops for the moment.
The waiter has also brought glasses of iced water for them both and a plate of small biscuits. He gently fusses about, trying to find room on the small table. He has grey flecks in his hair and a softness of manner, and a smile that lights up his face as he works. A movement takes Juliet’s gaze past him, along the street to a woman with a bad stoop who is closing the door to the end building, and a little shiver runs down her spine.
'What’s up?' Michelle asks, following her gaze. The waiter leaves.
'I guess that's her. Toula,' Juliet replies and shivers again.
'Yes, but why did you shiver?'
'I’m not sure. Just when I saw her, I had the strangest of feelings, like someone had walked over my grave. Actually, not so much my grave as someone else's.'
'Wierdo,' Michelle says, but Juliet does not smile.
They sip their coffees and watch as the old woman makes her way towards them. She stops to pet the cat that was curled on her doorstep, fussing over it. She bends down and picks up a paper bag that someone has scrunched and dropped. Then she goes in another door.
'I think she has stood you up,' Michelle says.
'Isn't that the office of the electrician?' Juliet asks.
The old woman comes out again, the paper bag no longer in her hand, and her progress continues. Michelle and Juliet continue to watch and sip their coffees. The woman’s progress is very slow. She stops again and pinches off a flower from a white bougainvillea before continuing on her way.
'She looks harmless enough to me,' says Michelle, putting one of the small biscuits into her mouth whole. Each of the old woman's steps has a little shake at the end and her head judders from side to side, her eyes forced on the ground by the curve of her back. It is only when she is some feet away that she makes an attempt to straighten up. She catches Juliet's eye and the smile this ignites is so bright and warm, both Michelle and Juliet exhale at the same time. Michelle leans back in her chair, relaxed, and Juliet leans forward to greet the newcomer.