ANNIE’S LAST TWO ISLANDS
My wife Annie always said she loved Greek islands above all other destinations because she liked above all things to swim in a nice warm sea. We were also two devout Portugal addicts, but the Algarve capital Faro which we visited at least twenty times, has at nearby Praia de Faro massive breakers (Odeceixe pronounced ‘Odd-saysh’, in the remote far west, is a surfer’s paradise) and unless you are a powerful swimmer, it is very heavy going. Annie couldn’t take it, and as I only learnt to swim aged 49, under eleven year-old Ione’s tuition in Kimolos in 2000, I am, as they say, a permanent novice. I can swim a breadth, which is about the same as saying I can eat half a crisp or walk five yards on a good day. As for the beaches in the north of Portugal, the Costa Verde, they are very beautiful, but as windy as hell, and in for example fabled Viano do Castelo, downright cold outside of July and August.
Ione taught me to swim in tiny Cycladean Kimolos in August 2000, and on the same holiday we spent a week on adjacent Milos. Memorably, one day on a crowded Milos beach, Ione was trying to remember the name of that exquisitely funny film starring John Cleese, Jamie-Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin. She definitely wasn’t trying to be rude, but eventually she came out in all innocence with… A Fish Called Wanker. You should have heard our uproarious family hysterics, we all thought we were going to die of paralysing laughter, Ione included. In retrospect, fifteen years on, I realise that her replacing ‘Wanda’ with ‘Wanker’ could have a more than adequate and environmental as opposed to heredity-style explanation, inasmuch as in every village and town in the whole of Greece, the word malaka meaning ‘wanker’, not to speak of the abstract noun malakya meaning ‘wankerdom’, is uttered in every conversation in absolutely every adult mouth, on average about every three seconds.
There was a ramshackle beach taverna on Kimolos, where the overweight and complacent owner Giorgos, was about 65. He did nothing all day but sit on his kingly backside and talk to his pals, while all the considerable graft was done by a pretty Russian girl of 20, Tatiana. We went there several times, and eventually Tatiana confided as she extended a plate of aubergine imam to me, that one of the employment conditions was that she slept with Giorgos. She had no option she explained, as jobs back in Russia were both rare and pitifully rewarded. And it is true that even now in 2015 many elderly Greek males with puckered jowls and faces like pustuled behinds, expect very young women to be their bedfellows as their natural right. Incidentally, the name imam indicates that my aubergine lunch was of Turkish origin, its full title being imam bayeldi or ‘the imam fainted’. The apocryphal reason why the venerable Muslim cleric fainted, was that the dish was swimming in so much delectable olive oil, it made him dizzy. Suffice to say that obese Giorgos was possibly close to terminal fainting because of swimming in the rich but suicidal oil of his exploitative hold over Tatiana. In short, I expected him to take a heart attack one day while during the act of love, in which case I hoped that his and Tatiana’s coital position was not the conventional missionary one. If he died on top of her, she would have to be a female Tarzan to get the bladder of lard off her diminutive Russian stomach, is what I mean….
In all, Annie and I visited about thirty-five Greek islands, starting with Skiros, Evia, Chios and Samothraki in 1982, and finishing with two very small and distant Cyclades shortly before her death from secondary cancer. The last two islands we visited were on the same trip in September 2009 and I can give you the precise dates, because believe me precision can have its virtues, it is not always a sign of finicky obsession. Our final Greek island visit together was from September 8th to September 22nd , 2009. By special request, though neither of us remotely expected her to die in three months time, she asked for Sikinos, her eternal favourite, a tiny island we had visited earlier with Ione in 1993. Ione had had her fourth birthday there, and I recall buying lots of birthday knick-knacks and plastic dollies and Greek sweets in a motley supermarket in Folegandros, before we took the boat to its minuscule island neighbour. In 1993 the Sikinos port, Allopronia, had only vestigial tourism and the room we got, shuttled there at speed by the owners’ jeep some 500 yards, was touchingly simple. It was whitewashed, had bare floors, and was right over the sea, meaning the vivid green waves sloshed against the slabs of rock that held up the domatia. There was no wardrobe, and only three motley nails to hang our garments on. The shower had only cold water, but as it was June and inordinately roasting we were glad the water was so cool.
The owners Sofia and Kostas were in their thirties, both handsome and amiable, and they had two boys called Zafiris and Angelos, plus a daughter Tasia the same age as ours. Inevitably all the kids played together on the impressively primitive beach, with its rusty swings and barely rotating roundabout, and before long our infant daughter was gnashing souvlaki as if she had never gnashed anything else. Angelos who was 9 years old belied his name and was far from being an angel. Once I saw his grandad, Iannis, aged 70, land him a massive clout across the chops for some seriously reckless misdeed. He cried of course, but when his beautiful and peaceable mother came out and learned exactly what the commotion was about, she landed her little Angel another one, but this time on his indignant backside. Sofia was thin and statuesquely attractive, but was a gold medal arse-smiter and he all but nose-dived the hundred yards into the sea with the frictional impact.
They also owned the village shop tended by old Zia, Iannis’ wife, and two bonny if brainless hens would cluck and pirouette both inside and outside the shop, and be petted and chatted to by Sofia’s doting mother. Sixteen years on we stayed by choice in the identical room, after recognising Sofia and Kostas immediately. Sofia now had a lined and pallid face and her good looks had all but disappeared. She looked both depressed and resentful, though seemingly not of us. Zafiris and Angelos were now 27 and 25, and both working in Athens. Tasia was 20 and married and living in Santorini. We told Sofia about our 1993 visit and she nodded significantly, but it was clear she had no memory of our previous visit.
The word ‘identical’ is inaccurate, because although the room was the same one, it had been refurbished to a sumptuous 2009 standard, and now had inlaid wardrobes, an enormous new TV, a bathroom with a bidet, and enough embellished mirrors to suit the most demanding Narcissus. It was definitely bad luck in September, but in the six days we were there, there were occasional torrential showers, especially in the evenings, and a warm bedroom was somewhere we were glad to retire to. Annie was as brave and optimistic as ever, but she could not leg it along the roads like she did less than six months earlier in Kythnos. Then with student Ione for company, we were hiking to idyllic sandy bays, ten miles a day for twelve consecutive days, and loving every minute of it. Annie had been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, meaning she had ugly liver and bone tumours, for a whole year, and in that time had used minimal painkillers and for most of the time none. Going by past experience, I hoped she was invincible, and she hoped she was invincible, and 18 year-old Ione definitely wished her to be invincible. If you think there is any fey fantasy at work there, I advise you try it yourself with someone you love with all your guts. You hope for the moon because you hope for the fucking moon, it is as simple as that. She had had primary breast cancer in 1998 when she was only 43, and had endured a mastectomy, lymph node clearance and a few months of intensive chemotherapy. Like the hero she was, she kept on working throughout, and miraculously there was neither any vomiting nor hair loss. She thought she was invincible and I thought she was invincible, and Ione who was only eight and had never heard of cancer, had no opinions either way. Annie had had a beautiful convalescence from her mastectomy operation, when the three of us went to tender and comforting Dodecanese Tilos, just about the least known of that island chain which basks opposite Turkey. Then had followed almost ten years of her being cancer-free, or at least that’s what we thought…
In the frightening small hours of one night in April 2008, Annie was seized by an agonising pain in the extended breast area. It went on and on terrifyingly without remit, and in the end there was nothing for it but to ring the out of hours number for the local surgery. After what seemed an eternity, but was probably only an hour, a young Indian lady doctor arrived in a car with a driver, and gave her a morphine shot for the utterly unbelievable pain. The businesslike but patient doctor assumed it was gallstones or similar, and rang for an ambulance to attend. That arrived another hour later and was staffed by two sturdy, attractive and very heartening women in their early forties. They gave Annie more morphine plus oxygen, told her to hang on in there, kid, lass, kiddo, and then drove her off to the hospital. She was 52 but she was still a kid, still a lass, still a girl, still a kiddo, and I really appreciated that, and I thought those two tough North Cumbrian women were the finest thing I’d seen for the last century or so.
I drove down to the hospital a couple of hours later, by which time she’d had umpteen tests and scans, including a CT scan. A youngish frightened-looking haematologist who happened to be on duty but was no cancer specialist, took us into a room and in hushed tones told us the worst. The terrible pain was because Annie had massive secondary tumours in her liver and a great many smaller ones in her bones. In brief the chemotherapy of nine years ago had almost done the job, but sadly a few cancer seeds had remained in circulation. Over the next nine years they had grown very slowly, which was of course a blessing. Nonetheless last night one of the liver tumours had reached a critical size and it had suddenly infarcted.
“You mean burst?”I asked, while Annie sat and shuddered. “The liver tumour exploded?”
Exactly, he whispered guiltily, as if it was his fault. And that was why the pain level was off the scale, about as bad as a very bad heart attack. He sighed and muttered something inaudible, then ushered in an earnest and embarrassed woman nurse who was supposed to offer sensitive counselling for such times as this. She was a homely, friendly, altogether bland, wholly insight-free woman of about 50, and about as much good at subtle counselling of someone like consultant trainer Annie, as she was at reading Akkadian or Elamite or Hittite. Our dog Bonny could have done the job better, and indeed she did. She licked Annie’s hand a few hours later, and Annie smiled and then burst into convulsive tears. Her biggest grief you can easily imagine. She had to tell her young student daughter Ione she had secondary cancer which could not be treated, but only held in check by medication. The medication was antihormonal tablets all generically similar to Tamoxifen, alongside bone strengtheners called Bondronat. Once out of bed you swallowed the latter first, and had to fast for an hour before you could have anything to eat for your breakfast. Annie like me liked her pequeno almoco and her proino, to quote the Portuguese and the Greek, one reason being we had had such wonderful and romantic breakfasts in both countries so many times.
Now in Sikinos in 2009, Annie and her newly volatile and painful liver and bone tumours sat on the beach while I took a solo walk up to a little chapel above Allopronia. She would never have remained behind until recently, because she liked hiking in Cycladean Greece as much as I did. In any case, the day before she had walked with me to the west of the island, along a stony and lengthy and not very exciting monopati, and something quite extraordinary had happened. On the return hike, we had bumped into a wispy and likeable looking Frenchwoman of about 70, and I had made some light-hearted jest which she had taken entirely the wrong way. She thought I had said something demeaning, and stomped off huffily and left me baffled, even hurt. I double checked with Annie and all I had said was, I bet you are tired after that long hike…and with the unspoken hint that the two of us talking to her were completely knackered by it as well. After her petulant rebuff, I wished I could have met her again and said, by the way, my wife of thirty years has had eighteen months of painful secondary cancer, tumours in her bones and liver, and she is now having regular flare-ups that need urgent morphine tablets. If she can deal so courageously with all of that, how come an obviously sensitive woman of your mature years take the fucking huff about absolutely nothing? Are you half mad or just nine tenths boring or both? Could it possibly be related to the fact you are elderly and French perhaps?
We moved on to fabled tiny Anafi, the last of the Cyclades, a place we had only read about. Our travel guide was only just out of date, so the multiple domatias in the port, one of them run by a foreigner, resolved to only one run by two irritable old Greeks and their much more reasonable daughter visiting from Athens. The room was already booked, but the person had not confirmed it, nor were they confident the woman would turn up, so they gave it to us at thirty euros a night. It was just and so tolerable, without being remotely atmospheric, and nothing like the refurbished munificence of our Allopronia quarters. Had she not been getting nasty tumour twinges and needing morphine pills, I imagined Annie would have held out for something better. However she decided to take the path of least resistance. There were two dour and friendly German couples in their sixties in adjacent rooms, and we nattered away amiably and humorously in German and English. As we bantered, I was still thinking of today’s strange behaviour of our Sikinos domatia owner Sofia, the one who sixteen years on had lost most of her looks and seemed resentful or everything and possibly everyone. The boat to Anafi had been late, and when I went back to the shop to ask her a polite question about when it might arrive, she was outstandingly rude. She muttered something to the effect that it would turn up when it would turn up, and implied I was an idiot for asking inane questions. We had paid for our six days in her domatia, so likely she couldn’t give a damn if she drastically upset us now. I thought again of the rude Frenchwoman and wondered if I was some blunderer who got up everyone’s nose if I tried hard enough. Of course neither she nor Sofia knew that Annie had secondary cancer, or perhaps they might have been gentler with her husband. And perhaps not. People are very strange, as was once mooted to me by a very wise young American woman called Barbara who lives in Jamaica, but who attended one of my writing courses in Cambridge.
“There are a great many extremely odd and extremely peculiar people in this world. Don’t you ever forget it, and you will save yourself a lot of soul searching and wrongly blaming yourself perhaps.”
The domatia owner in her mid seventies, was a prime candidate for eccentric old Cycladean lady of the decade, or possibly the century. She kept a big and ugly wooden pole which she flung at any stray dogs that came begging food. She always missed them and they scuttered off with drooping tails, but you could tell she would have loved to have hit them hard. Annie suggested it would be good to see her hit between the shoulders or the arse herself, with such a hefty weapon. I said I might do it at dead of night in the pitch dark, but was worried I might hit her on the head to fatal effect. By way of slyly punishing her, we made sure we dined up at the Hora every night, and refused her smirking blandishments of what she had on the go here at the single eatery in Anafi’s little port.
Meanwhile every morning Annie got up before me and swallowed her bone strengtheners, and had to wait an hour before she could eat. She read her phone and sent messages related to work and to her best friend who lived in Aberdeen. She always had the same copious breakfast, yoghurt with seasonal fresh fruit of peaches and melons and apricots, and double Greek coffee sketo. The old bat of a landlady took our orders and nodded as I asked for the kanoniko proino, the regular breakfast. She also, and it was the only time I ever witnessed her showing any kindness to anyone, looked at Annie with great reverence and told me every morning in a strange voice that my wife was a truly remarkable woman. I translated for Annie’s benefit and Annie smiled. Bizarrely I wanted to tell the angry old lady that this remarkable woman had ugly secondary cancer, as if her unique adoration of my lovely wife might somehow be transformed into a magical cure by an old crone’s witchlike intervention. I know it sounds completely mad, but you will know exactly and uncomfortably what I am talking about if ever you need to walk the same stony path as Annie and I did in late 2009.
We spent many hours just sat reading in the little cafe in the port, run by a young boy in his mid twenties. He was fine-featured, sleepy, and looked outstandingly unGreek, even English. His patience and plodding calmness of manner were mesmerising. Annie read her first ever John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicles, and was so moved and touched by the delicacy of comic tragedy that as she related her impressions to me, she broke down and wept. I reread The Trumpet Major by Hardy, which coming from a towering Dorset genius struck me as downright bad and inane. I also read a Patrick White novel which culminated in an individual going mad, and I was both impressed and thoroughly annoyed by the eerie forensic distance from the creatures he had created.
We walked to the far west of the island and stopped and picnicked by a lonely chapel. I went inside and prayed for Annie to recover, while she sat outside and slowly ate a tiropitta and sipped retsina from what we always called a Liokri or Malamatina or Kourtaki pop bottle. I didn’t tell her I had prayed for her, and I never knew if she guessed or not as to my heartfelt petition on Anafi. The next day we went to the east to a monastery and viewed Kalamos, the huge pap of a mountain at the far end, where every year they have a solemn and rugged and difficult panagiri pilgrimage. Our out of date guide said there was no proper road heading east, but now it was asphalted all the way to the monastery. The guide also stated there was no nudist bathing permitted within the vicinity of a Greek church, but right enough at the beach before the monastery there was plenty of nude swimming. An ill-looking German man of about 70 was naked as the day he was born, and was pale, ugly and with both a swollen hairy belly and a shrivelled and hideous penis. If he wanted to swim naked, of course, why not, but why within sight of the venerable Greek monastery, why not back in Baden fucking Baden or down by palmy Bodensee aka Lake Constance, come to that?
The last day on Anafi we walked due north. There was a little bus went to the Hora several times a day and it was this we used in the evenings to get our excellent taverna dinners, and also to start us on the day’s excursion. The view from the elevated Hora to the still and magnetic sea below, would have made a solemn atheist an instant clamorous convert, for it was as vertiginous and delightful as a rapturous dream, and also as disturbing as every worrying fantasy you have ever had that perhaps this thing called Eternity actually means what it says…for ever and ever and ever and ever, you poor little oh so human clowns, who really think you have all the time in the world to keep on getting it ever so wrong….
We headed up north for about an hour, and after passing a cemetery with its massive sarcophagi and the poignant, dusty photos of all those loved ones…we reached a tiny crossroads. Immediately before us was a dazzlingly white little Orthodox chapel, and beyond that an enticing narrow road that obviously led to the end of the world… and just possibly the secrets of Life and Death and the Reality which of course is Neither, and all the better for that. Only a few months earlier Annie would have delighted to have followed that sumptuous mirage of a welcoming and symbolic eternity. Instead she looked at me with all her infinite and unassuming courage and said:
“You go ahead. And I’ll sit just here in the churchyard. I’ll check my phone and I’ll sit and sunbathe here. I’ll be quite happy, John, I promise you.”
I kissed her gently, held back my Aegean ocean of salty tears, and wanted the fucking universe to swallow us both. For the second time this holiday, she had admitted she was too weak to hike another kilometre. I did her bidding and set off on the remotest road in the Cyclades, to the parish of Drapano, Anafi, that of the three scattered farms and the towering precipitous abysses that gazed down so dizzily yet fearlessly over the sea, a place only the old and the helpless would cling to rather than forsake their ancestral homes.
I did not reach as far as Drapano, as it was a very long walk and the farms were only just discernible as radiant and enticing specks. And I was worried and infinitely sad about my lovely wife of thirty years. In a week’s time she would have another agonising liver tumour infarction while working in the South of Scotland. She would be rushed at dead of night into Melrose hospital, but she would not die, for she would recover and last another ten weeks. We had one more little holiday in beautiful Berwick on Tweed at the end of October 2009, where she hobbled about on her painful legs but never once complained. Five weeks after that she passed away, once and for all.
Someone at her funeral, a close friend in her nineties and therefore wise with her many years, said that Annie Murray as a woman and as a friend was simply ‘pure gold, right to the core’…
Mostly human beings get it wrong about almost everything almost every second of their lives. But for once these testamentary words, were, like the one above, an absolute distillation of the only truth that matters…