Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
Before anything else, I knew I was expected. He saw me without surprise, with a small smile, almost a grimace, on his face.
He was nearly completely bald, brown as old leather, short and spare, a man whose age was impossible to tell: perhaps sixty, perhaps seventy; dressed in a navy-blue shirt, knee-length shorts, and a pair of salt-stained gym shoes. The most striking thing about him was the intensity of his eyes; very dark brown, staring, with a simian penetration emphasized by the remarkably clear whites; eyes that seemed not quite human.
He raised his left hand briefly in a kind of silent salutation, then strode to the corner of the colonnade, leaving me with my formed words unspoken, and called back to the cottage.
I heard a faint wail of answer.
‘My name is…’ I began, as he turned.
But he raised his left hand again, this time to silence me; took my arm and led me to the edge of the colonnade. He had an authority, an abrupt decisiveness, that caught me off balance. He surveyed the landscape, then me. The sweet saffron-like smell of some flowers that grew below, at the edge of the gravel, wafted up into the shade.
‘I chose well?’
His English sounded perfect.
‘Wonderfully. But you must let me – ‘
Once again his arm, brown and corded, swept silencingly towards the sea and the mountains and the south, as if I might not have properly appreciated it. I looked sideways at him. He was obviously a man who rarely smiled. There was something mask-like, emotion-purged, about his face. Deep furrows ran from beside his nose to the corners of his mouth; they suggested experience, command, impatience with fools. He was slightly mad, no doubt harmlessly so, but mad. I had an idea that he thought I was someone else. He kept his ape-like eyes on me. The silence and the stare were alarming, and faintly comic, as if he was trying to hypnotize a bird.
Suddenly he gave a curious little rapid shake of the head; quizzical, rhetorical, not expecting an answer. Then he changed, as if what had happened between us till then was a joke, a charade, that had been rehearsed and gone according to plan, but could now be ended. And I was completely off-balance again. He wasn’t mad after all. He even smiled, and the ape-eyes became almost squirrel-eyes.
He turned back to the table. ‘Let us have tea.’
‘I only came for a glass of water. This is…’
‘You came here to meet me. Please. Life is short.’
I sat down. The second place was mine. An old woman appeared, in black, a black grey with age, her face as lined as an Indian squaw’s. She was incongruously carrying a tray with an elegant silver teapot, a kettle, a bowl of sugar, a saucer with sliced lemon.
‘This is my housekeeper, Maria.’
He spoke to her in very precise Greek, and I heard my own name and the name ofthe school. The old woman bobbed at me, her eyes on the ground, unsmiling, and then unloaded her tray. Conchis plucked the muslin away from one of the plates with the quick aplomb of a conjurer. I saw cucumber sandwiches. He poured the tea, and indicated the lemon.
‘How do you know who I am, Mr Conchis?’
‘Anglicize my name. I prefer the “ch” soft.’ He sipped his tea. ‘If you question Hermes, Zeus will know.’
‘I’m afraid my colleague was tactless.’
‘You no doubt found out all about me.’
‘I found out very little. But that makes this even kinder of you.’
He looked out to sea. ‘There is a poem of the T’ang dynasty.’ He sounded the precious glottal stop. ‘“Here at the frontier, there are falling leaves. Although my neighbours are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups on my table.”‘
I smiled. ‘Always?’
‘I saw you last Sunday.’
‘They were your things down there?’
He bowed his head. ‘And I also saw you this afternoon.’
‘I hope I haven’t kept you from your beach.’
‘Not at all. My private beach is down there.’ He pointed over the gravel. ‘But I always like a beach to myself. And I presume the same of you. Now. Eat the sandwiches.’
He poured me more tea. It had huge torn leaves and a tarry China fragrance. On the other plate were
conical butter-cakes rolled in icing sugar. I’d forgotten what a delicious meal tea could be; and sitting there I felt invaded by the envy of the man who lives in an institution, and has to put up with institution meals and institution everything else, for the rich private life of the established. I remembered having tea with one of my tutors, an old bachelor don at Magdalen; and the same envy for his rooms, his books, his calm, precise, ticking peace.
I bit into my first
and gave an appreciative nod.
‘You are not the first English person to have admired Maria’s cooking.’
‘Mitford?’ His eyes fixed me sharply again. ‘I met him in London.’
He poured more tea. ‘How did you like Captain Mitford?’
‘Not my type.’
‘He spoke of me?’
‘Not at all. That is … His eyes were intent. ‘He just said you’d had
‘Captain Mitford made me ashamed to have English blood.’
Till then I had felt I was beginning to get his measure; first of all, his English, though excellent, was somehow not contemporary, more that of someone who hadn’t been in England for many years; and then his whole appearance was foreign. He had a bizarre family resemblance to Picasso; saurian as well as simian, decades of living in the sun, the quintessential Mediterranean man, who had discarded everything that lay between him and his vitality. A monkey—glander, essence of queen bees; and intense by choice and exercise as much as by nature. He was plainly not a dandy about clothes; but there are other sorts of narcissism.
‘I didn’t realize you were English.’
‘I spent the first nineteen years of my life in England. Now I have Greek nationality and my mother’s name. My mother was Greek.’
‘You go back to England?’
‘Rarely.’ He jumped swiftly on. ‘Do you like my house? I designed and built it myself.’
I looked round. ‘I envy you.’
‘And I envy you. You have the one thing that matters. You have all your discoveries before you.’
His face was without the offensively avuncular smile that usually accompanies such trite statements; and something intent about the look he gave me made it clear he did not mean it tritely.
‘Well. Now I will leave you for a few minutes. Then we shall have a look round.’ I had risen with him, but he gestured me down again. ‘Finish the cakes. Maria will be honoured. Please.’
He walked into the sunlight at the edge of the colonnade, stretched his arms and fingers, and with another gesture to me to help myself passed back inside the room. From where I was sitting I could see one end of a cretonne-covered sofa, a table with a bowl of milky flowers on it. The wall behind was covered by bookshelves, from the ceiling to the floor. I stole another
The sun was beginning to float down on the mountains, and the sea glittered lazily at the foot of their ashy, opaque shadows. Then there was an unannounced shock of antique sound, a rapid arpeggio, far too real to come from a radio or record. I stopped eating, wondering what new surprise I was being presented with.
There was a moment’s silence, perhaps to leave me guessing. Then came the quiet plangent sound of a harpsichord. I hesitated, then decided that two could play the independence game. He played quickly, and then tranquilly; once or twice he stopped and retook a phrase. The old woman came and silently cleared away, without once looking at me, even when I pointed at the few cakes left and praised them in my stilted Greek; the hermit master evidently liked silent servants. The music came clearly out of the room, and flowed round me and out through the colonnade into the light. He broke off, repeated a passage, and then stopped as abruptly as he had begun. A door closed, there was a silence. Five minutes passed, then ten. The sun crept towards me over the red tiles.
I felt I ought to have gone in earlier; that now I had put him in a huff. But he appeared in the doorway, speaking.
‘I have not driven you away.’
‘Not at all. It was Bach?’
‘You play very well.’
play. Never mind. Come.’ Hisjerkiness was pathological; not only as if he wanted to get rid of me, but of time itself.
I stood up. ‘I hope I shall hear you play again.’ He made a little bow, refusing the invitation to invite. ‘One gets so starved of music here.’
‘Only of music?’ He went on before I could answer. ‘Come now. Prospero will show you his domaine.’
As we went down the steps to the gravel I said, ‘Prospero had a daughter.’
‘Prospero had many things.’ He turned a dry look on me. ‘And not all young and beautiful, Mr Urfe.’
I smiled tactfully, thinking he must be referring to memories of the war, and left a little silence.
‘You live alone here?’
‘What some would call alone. What others would not.’
It was said with a kind of grim contempt, and he stared ahead as he spoke. Whether to mystify me once more or because there was no more to be said to a stranger, I couldn’t tell.
He walked rapidly on, incessantly pointing things out. He showed me round his little vegetable-garden terrace; his cucumbers, his almonds, his long-leaved loquats, his pistachios. From the far edge of the terrace I could see down to where I had been lying only an hour or two before.
‘I haven’t heard it called that before.’
‘Albanian.’ He tapped his nose. ‘Snout. Because of the cliff over there.’
‘Not very poetic for such a lovely beach.’
‘The Albanians were pirates, not poets. Their word for this cape was Bourani. Two hundred years ago it was their slang word for gourd. Also for skull.’ He moved away. ‘Death and water.’
As I walked behind him, I said, ‘I wondered about the sign by the gate.
‘The German soldiers put it there. They requisitioned Bourani during the war.’
‘But why that?’
‘I think they had been stationed in France. They found it dull being garrisoned here.’ He turned and saw me smile. ‘Precisely. One must be grateful for the smallest grain of humour from the Germans. I should not like the responsibility of destroying such a rare plant.’
‘You know Germany?’
‘It is not possible to know Germany. Only to endure it.’
‘Bach? Isn’t he reasonably endurable?’
He stopped. ‘I do not judge countries by their geniuses. I judge them by their racial characteristics. The ancient Greeks could laugh at themselves. The Romans could not. That is why France is a civilized society and Spain is not. That is why I forgive the Jews and the Anglo-Saxons their countless vices. And why I should thank God, if I believed in God, that I have no German blood.’
We had come to an arbour of bourgainvillaea and morning glory at the end of the kitchen-garden terrace, set back and obliquely. He gestured me in. In the shadows, in front of an outcrop of rock, stood a pedestal. On it was a bronze manikin with a grotesquely enormous erect phallus. Its hands were flung up as well, as if to frighten children; and on its face it had a manic-satyric grin. It was only eighteen inches or so high, yet it emitted a distinct primitive terror.
‘You know what it is?’ He was standing close behind me.
‘A Priapus. In classical times every garden and orchard had one. To frighten away thieves and bring fertility. It should be made of pearwood.’
‘Where did you find it?’
‘I had it made. Come.’ He said ‘Come’ as Greeks prod their donkeys; as if, it later struck me, I was a potential employee who had to be shown briefly round the works.
We went back towards the house. A narrow path zigzagged steeply down from in front of the colonnade to the shore. There was a small cove there, not fifty yards across at its cliffed mouth. He had built a miniature jetty, and a small green and rose-pink boat, an open island boat with an engine fitted, was tied up alongside. At one end of the beach I could see a small cave; drums of kerosene. And there was a little pump-house, with a pipe running back up the cliff.
‘Would you like to swim?’
We were standing on the jetty.
‘I left my trunks at the house.’
‘A costume is not necessary.’ His eyes were those of a chess-player who has made a good move. I remembered a joke of Demetriades’ about English bottoms; and the Priapus. Perhaps this was the explanation: Conchis was simply an old queer.
‘I don’t think I will.’
‘As you please.’
We moved back to the strip of shingle and sat on a large baulk of timber that had been dragged up away from the water.
I lit a cigarette and looked at him; tried to determine him. I was in something not unlike a mild state of shock. It was not only the fact that this man who spoke English so fluently, who was seemingly cultured, cosmopolitan, had come to ‘my’ desert island, had sprung almost overnight from the barren earth, like some weird plant. It was not even that he conformed so little to what I had imagined. But I knew that there must really be some mystery about the previous year, some deliberate and inexplicable suppression on Mitford’s part. Second meanings hung in the air; ambiguities, unexpectednesses.
‘How did you first come here, Mr Conchis?’
‘Will you forgive me if I ask you not to ask me questions?’
And that was that. I bit my lip. If anyone else had been there I should have had to laugh.
Shadows began to fall across the water from the pines on the bluff to our right, and there was peace, absolute peace over the world; the insects stilled and the water like a mirror. He sat in silence with his hands on his knees, apparently engaged in deep-breathing exercises. Not only his age but everything about him was difficult to tell. Outwardly he seemed to have very little interest in me, yet he watched me; even when he was looking away, he watched me; and he waited. Right from the beginning I had this: he was indifferent to me, yet he watched and he waited. So we sat there in the silence as if we knew each other well and had no need merely to talk; and as a matter of fact it seemed in a way to suit the stillness of the day. It was an unnatural, but not an embarrassing, silence.