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Authors: John Fowles

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The Magus (8 page)

BOOK: The Magus
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11

The next morning after breakfast I crossed over to Demetriades’s table. He had been in the village the previous evening and I hadn’t bothered to wait up until he returned. Demetriades was small, very plump, frog-faced, a Corfiot, with a pathological dislike of sunshine and the rural. He grumbled incessantly about the ‘disgusting’ provincial life we had to lead on the island. In Athens he lived by night, indulging in his two hobbies, whoring and eating. He spent all his money on these two pursuits and on his clothes, and he ought to have looked sallow and oily and corrupt, but he was always pink and immaculate. His hero in history was Casanova. He lacked the Boswellian charm, to say nothing of the genius, of the Italian, but he was in his alternately gay and lugubrious way better company than Mitford had suggested. And at least he was not a hypocrite. He had the charm of all people who believe implicitly in themselves, that of integration.

I took him out into the garden. His nickname was Méli, or honey. He had a childlike passion for sweet things.

‘Méli, what do you know about the man over at Bourani?’

‘You’ve met him?’

‘No.’

‘Ail’
He shouted petulantly at a boy who was carving a word on an almond tree. The Casanova persona was confined strictly to his private life; in class he was a martinet.

‘You don’t know his name?’

‘Conchis.’ He pronounced the
ch
hard.

‘Mitford said he had a row with him. A quarrel with him.’

‘He was telling lies. He was always telling lies.’

‘Maybe. But he must have met him.’

‘Po po.’ Po po
is Greek for ‘Tell that to the marines.’ ‘That man never sees anyone. Never. Ask the other professors.’

‘But why?’

‘Ech … ‘ He shrugged. ‘Many old stories. I don’t know them.’

‘Come on.’

‘It is not interesting.’

We walked down a cobbled path. Méli disliked silence, and in a moment he began to tell me what he knew about Conchis.

‘He worked for the Germans in the war. He never comes to the village. The villagers would kill him with stones. So would I, if I saw him.’

I grinned. ‘Why?’

‘Because he is rich and he lives on a desert island like this when he could be in Paris … ‘ He waved his pink right hand in rapid small circles, a favourite gesture. It was his own deepest ambition – an apartment overlooking the Seine, containing a room with no windows and various other peculiar features.

‘Does he speak English?’

‘I suppose. But why are you so interested?’

‘I’m not. I just saw the house.’

The bell for second school rang through the orchards and paths against the high white walls of the grounds. On the way back to class I invited Méli to have dinner with me in the village the next day.

The leading
estiatoras
of the village, a great walrus of a man called Sarantopoulos, knew more about Conchis. He came and had a glass of wine with us while we ate the meal he’d cooked. It was true that Conchis was a recluse and never came to the village, but that he had been a collaborationist was a lie. He had been made mayor by the Germans during the Occupation, and had in fact done his best for the villagers. If he was not popular now, it was because he ordered most of his provisions from Athens. He launched out on a long story. The island dialect was difficult, even for other Greeks, and I couldn’t understand a word. He leant earnestly across the table. Demetriades looked bored and nodded complacently in the pauses.

‘What’s he say, Méli?’

‘Nothing. A war story. Nothing at all.’

Sarantopoulos suddenly looked past us. He said something to Demetriades, and rose. I turned. In the door stood a tall, mournful-looking islander. He went to a table in the far corner, the islanders’ corner, of the long bare room. I saw Sarantopoulos put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The man stared at us doubtfully, then gave in and allowed himself to be led to our table.

‘He is the
agogiati
of Mr Conchis.’

‘The how much?’

‘He has a donkey. He takes the mail and the food to Bourani.’

‘What’s his name?’ His name was Hermes. I had become far too used to hearing not conspicuously brilliant boys called Socrates and Aristotle, and to addressing the ill-favoured old woman who did my room out as Aphrodite, to smile. The donkey-driver sat down and rather grudgingly accepted a small tumbler of retsina. He fingered his
koumbologi,
his amber patience-beads. He had a bad eye, fixed, with a sinister pallor. From him Méli, who was much more interested in eating his lobster, extracted a little information.

What did Mr Conchis do? He lived alone-yes, alone-with a housekeeper, and he cultivated his garden, quite literally, it seemed. He read. He had many books. He had a piano. He spoke many languages. The
agogiati
did not know which – all, he thought. Where did he go in winter? Sometimes he went to Athens, and to other countries. Which? The man did not know. He knew nothing about Mitford visiting Bourani. No one ever visited.

‘Ask him if he thinks I might visit Mr Conchis.’

No; it was impossible.

Our curiosity was perfectly natural, in Greece – it was his reserve that was strange. He might have been picked for his sullenness. He stood up to go.

‘Are you sure he hasn’t got a harem of pretty girls hidden there?’ said Méli. The
agogiati
raised his blue chin and eyebrows in a silent no, then turned contemptuously away.

‘What a villager!’ Having muttered the worst insult in the Greek language at his back Méli touched my wrist moistly. ‘My dear fellow, did I ever tell you about the way two men and two ladies I once met on Mykonos made love?’

‘Yes. But never mind.’

I felt oddly disappointed. And it was not only because it was the third time I had heard precisely how that acrobatic quartet achieved congress.

Back at the school I picked up, during the rest of the week, a little more. Only two of the masters had been there before the war. They had both met Conchis once or twice then, but not since the school had re-started in 1949. One said he was a retired musician. The other had found him a very cynical man, an atheist. But they both agreed that Conchis was a man who cherished his privacy. In the war the Germans had forced him to live in the village. They had one day captured some
andarte –
resistance fighters – from the mainland and ordered him to execute them. He had refused and had been put before a firing-squad with a number of the villagers. But by a miracle he had not been killed outright, and was saved. This was evidently the story Sarantopoulos had told us. In the opinion of many of the villagers, and naturally of all those who’d had relatives massacred in the German reprisal, he should have done what they ordered. But that was all past. If he had been wrong, it was to the honour of Greece. However, he had never set foot in the village again.

Then I discovered something small, but anomalous. I asked several people besides Demetriades, who had been at the school only a year, whether Leverrier, Mitford’s predecessor, or Mitford himself had ever spoken about meeting Conchis. The answer was always no -understandably enough, it seemed, in Leverrier’s case, because he was very reserved, ‘too serious’ as one master put it, tapping his head. It so happened that the last person I asked, over coffee in his room, was the biology master. Karazoglou said in his aromatic broken French that he was sure Leverrier had never been there, as he would have told him. He’d known Leverrier rather better than the other masters; they had shared a common interest in botany. He rummaged about in a chest of drawers, and then produced a box of sheets of paper with dried flowers that Leverrier had collected and mounted. There were lengthy notes in an admirably clear handwriting and a highly technical vocabulary, and here and there professional-looking sketches in Indian ink and water-colour. As I sorted uninterestedly through the box I dropped one of the pages of dried flowers, to which was attached a sheet of paper with additional notes. This sheet slipped from the clip that was holding it. On the back was the beginning of a letter, which had been crossed out, but was still legible. It was dated June 6th, 1951, two years before.
Dear Mr
Conchis, I am much afraid that since the extraordinary …
and then it stopped.

I didn’t say anything to Karazoglou, who had noticed nothing; but I then and there decided to visit Mr Conchis.

I cannot say why I suddenly became so curious about him. Partly it was for lack of anything else to be curious about, the usual island obsession with trivialities; partly it was that one cryptic phrase from Mitford and the discovery about Leverrier; partly, perhaps mostly, a peculiar feeling that I had a sort of right to visit. My two predecessors had both met this unmeetable man; and not wanted to talk about it. In some way it was now my turn.

I did one other thing that week: I wrote a letter to Alison. I sent it inside an envelope addressed to Ann in the flat below in Russell Square, asking her to post it on to wherever Alison was living. I said almost nothing in the letter; only that I’d thought about her once or twice, that I had discovered what ‘the waiting-room’ meant; and that she was to write back only if she really wanted to, I’d quite understand if she didn’t.

I knew that on the island one was driven back into the past. There was so much space, so much silence, so few meetings that one too easily saw out of the present, and then the past seemed ten times closer than it was. It was likely that Alison hadn’t given me a thought for weeks, and that she had had half a dozen more affaires. So I posted the letter rather as one throws a message in a bottle into the sea; not quite as ajoke, perhaps, but almost.

12

The absence of the usually unfailing sun-wind made the next Saturday oppressively hot. The cicadas had begun. They racketed in a ragged chorus, never quite finding a common beat, rasping one’s nerves, but finally so familiar that when one day they stopped in a rare shower of rain, the silence was like an explosion. They completely changed the character of the pine-forest. Now it was live and multitudinous, an audible, invisible hive of energy, with all its pure solitude gone, for besides the
tzitzikia
the air throbbed, whined, hummed with carmine-winged grasshoppers, locusts, huge hornets, bees, midges, bots, and ten thousand other anonymous insects. In some places there were nagging clouds of black flies, so that I climbed through the trees like a new Orestes, cursing and slapping.

I came to the ridge again. The sea was a pearly turquoise, the far mountains ash-blue in the windless heat. I could see the shimmering green crown of pine trees around Bourani. It was about noon when I came through the trees out on to the shingle of the beach with the chapel. It was deserted. I searched among the rocks, but there was nothing, and I didn’t feel watched. I had a swim, then lunch, black bread and ochra and fried squid. A long way south a plump caique thudded past towing a line of six little lamp-boats, like a mallard with ducklings. Its bow-wave made a dark miraging ripple on the creamy blue surface of the sea, and that was all that remained of civilization when the boats had disappeared behind the western headland. There was the infinitesimal lap of the transparent blue water on the stones, the waiting trees, the myriad dynamos of the insects, and the enormous landscape of silence. I dozed under the thin shade of a pine, in the agelessness, the absolute dissociation of wild Greece.

The sun moved, came on me, and made me erotic. I thought of Alison, of sex things we had done together. I wished she was beside me, naked. We would have made love against the pine-needles, then swum, then made love again. I was filled with a dry sadness, a mixture of remembering and knowing; remembering what was and what might have been and knowing it was all past; at the same time knowing, or beginning to know, that other things were happily past – at least some of my illusions about myself, and then the syphilis, for there were no signs that it was going to come back. I felt physically very well. What was going to become of my life I didn’t know; but lying there that day by the sea it didn’t seem to matter much. To be was enough. I felt myself in suspension, waiting without fear for some impulse to drive me on. I turned on my stomach and made love to the memory of Alison, like an animal, without guilt or shame, a mere machine for sensation spread-eagled on the earth. Then I ran across the burning stones into the sea.

I climbed the path by the wire and the undergrowth, passed beside the peeling gate, stood once more before the mysterious sign. The grassy track ran level, curved and dipped a little, emerged from the trees. The house, dazzlingly white where the afternoon sun touched it, stood with its shadowed back to me. It had been built on the seaward side of a small cottage that had evidently existed before it. It was square, with a flat roof and a colonnade of slender arches running round the south and east sides. Above the colonnade was a terrace. I could see the open french windows of a first-floor room giving access to it. To the east and back of the house there were lines of swordplants and small clumps of bushes with vivid scarlet and yellow flowers. In front, southwards and seawards, there was a stretch of gravel and then the ground fell away abruptly down to the sea. At both corners of the gravel stood palm trees, in neat whitewashed rings of stones. The pines had been thinned to clear the view.

The house abashed me. It was too reminiscent of the Cote d’Azur, too un-Greek. It stood, white and opulent, like Swiss snow, and made me feel sticky-palmed and uncouth.

I walked up a small flight of steps to the red-tiled side colonnade. There was a closed door with an iron knocker cast in the shape of a dolphin. The windows beside it were heavily shuttered. I knocked on the door; the knocks barked sharply over stone floors. But no one came. The house and I waited silently in a sea of insect sound. I went along the colonnade to the corner of the southern front of the house. There the colonnade was wider and the slender arches more open; standing in the deep shade, I looked out over the tree-tops and the sea to the languishing ash-lilac mountains … a
déjà vu
feeling of having stood in the same place, before that particular proportion of the arches, that particular contrast of shade and burning landscape outside – I couldn’t say.

There were two old cane chairs in the middle of the colonnade, and a table covered with a blue-and-white folkweave cloth, on which were two cups and saucers and two large plates covered in muslin. By the wall stood a rattan couch with cushions; and hanging from a bracket by the open french windows was a small brightly polished bell with a faded maroon tassel hanging from the clapper.

I noticed the twoness of the tea-table, and stood by the corner, embarrassed, aware of a trite English desire to sneak away. Then, without warning, a figure appeared in the doorway. It was Conchis.

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