Under My Umbrella

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Patricia Cole

My fingers on the keyboard were sticky with sweat. The saying horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow didn’t apply at all as I was definitely sweating. It was running down my back, my hair was stuck to my scalp and my thighs were clinging to each other in a most unfeminine manner. This is a waste of time today, I thought as I turned off the computer.

It seemed longer than two years ago . . . 

*****

“Ashes to ashes….”

The familiar words droned over me as I picked up a handful of soil, kissed the single red rose and dropped both onto the coffin lid. I felt empty. We had grieved together, Charles and I, when we knew that he was dying. We faced his fears; I felt his pain and part of me died as he breathed his last.

But I remembered his words.

 “You’re still young, my darling. You must go on living…..why don’t you go to our lovely island and write that novel…you know the one you’ve been threatening to write for years….and…don’t be afraid to love again…..you’ve so much love to give….”

I heard the ewes call worriedly to their lambs in a nearby meadow, an early butterfly fluttered over the open grave landing momentarily on the heap of fresh brown earth and the scent of blossom floated on the mild air as nature burst into life after her long winter sleep.

Charles had loved spring. It was his favourite time of year. We had met in the spring and memories of our courtship crowded my mind. Walking hand in hand, ankle deep in bluebells in the woods, laughing together as we tried to avoid trampling the fragile flowers; passionate kissing under the heavy pink blossom of the cherry trees; swimming in the freezing sea, running out blue and shivering and trying to dress under the towels then giving up and falling naked into each others arms. The memories shifted and focused in my head.

It was fitting that he should be returned to Mother Earth on such a day and I felt his liberation from suffering rise like a cloud from the grave; it seemed to engulf me,

sending me a last message; I felt a hint of warmth in the spring sunshine and somewhere deep inside of my being I knew that I could start to rebuild my life.

Our two strapping sons stood by my side, towering over me protectively; one held my hand; the other had his arm protectively around my shoulder.

But I knew I would be fine. Oh yes, I would miss Charles dreadfully; my loving husband of almost thirty years. We had a good marriage. It had matured from crazy passion into a deep and special friendship but now it was over.

I straightened my shoulders from their hunch over the open grave, buttoned the jacket of my new black suit and turned, the two boys forever watchful, steeling myself for the many condolences that would flow my way from well meaning friends and family.

But at last the final farewells had been made, the dishwasher loaded by willing friends and all there was to show for the afternoon were a few curling sandwiches sitting sadly on a lone plate.

“Are you sure you’ll be OK on your own, Mum?” asked Anthony.

I looked at the concerned faces of the boys.

“Yes…I need to be on my own…..I need to get used to it…but, of course I’ll give you a call if I need anything.”

They hugged me tightly as they left for their cars. I felt their concern and a lump rose in my throat. It had been hard for them as well; coping with the death of their father; taken from us all before his time.

The house echoed hollow and empty as I went from room to room touching furniture, fingering curtains, letting memories and tears flow; We had bought the house just after we married; it was an old rectory; empty and sad; needing lots of work and love to turn it into a home. It was really beyond our means but by dint of begging loans from family for the deposit and just managing to secure a mortgage based on our combined salaries it was ours. It was on the edge of the village, a solid square stone building standing in a good sized garden. A garden that would be perfect for the family we planned. A house to grow old in…but that was not to be.

In the kitchen I saw it as it had been way back then. An erratic solid fuel range dominated the space, an old sink, marked and chipped from years of use, with a wooden

draining board. The boys had lain across the wood when they were toddlers while I had washed their gorgeous sweet smelling baby hair. We had a twin tub washing machine; a wedding gift from Charles’ parents; it had come with a free blow heater. I remember being a bit put out when they kept the heater for themselves when we were desperate for some form of heating. Many hours of my life were spent hauling wet washing out of that tub with large wooden tongs and dumping it into the spin drier, which when turned on, caused the whole machine to waltz across the stone floor; white terry towelling nappies blowing on the line, soaking in buckets, baby bottles  in bowls. Now it was state of the art units and appliances but it was still the heart of the house; the scrubbed pine table where the boys had pored over their homework, noisily played and argued over snakes and ladders, ludo and monopoly. My babies had grown, in a blink of an eye, from sitting strapped in high chairs to young men making their own way in the world. 

Anthony was serious and responsible. He had a job in the city…I’d never really understood exactly what it was. He was married to Serena and they had a little girl called Lisa. Lisa was adorable. She was six years old and leggy, dark haired and pretty with a button nose and hazel eyes. She reminded me so much of myself at that age. She loved books and when I visited we would spend time in a comfortable chair, her small body curled up on my lap while I read to her from my childhood favourites….Winnie the Pooh, Anne of Green Gables, What Katy did…oh how they all brought back memories of my own childhood. Unfortunately as they lived in London I only saw her a few times a year, so when I crystallised the plan lurking at the back of my mind I knew I could still keep up our very special relationship.

Bryan was charismatic and I knew he would always be able to charm his way through life. He worked for the media and was on short term contracts but never seemed to be out of work and never seemed to be short of money. I knew that Charles had hoped that he would turn to a more secure way of making a living but it was what he had always wanted and it seemed that he was always in demand. He was not married but never seemed to be short of female companionship…a series of stunning looking girls had come and gone…..had been brought for a visit but usually only the once…then had never been seen again….that charm again!

As I let my fingers wander over the curtains in the lounge, I visualised the original ones. The fabric had come from the street market and peas could easily have been shot through it. I had proudly run them up on my mother’s old treadle sewing machine. We were so pleased with the privacy that they afforded us. Now warm velvet curtains enhanced the room that was filled with furnishings chosen carefully and lovingly at auctions and second hand shops; every piece had a memory attached; it was heart breaking to look at it without Charles.

I trudged slowly upstairs to the master bedroom. I saw Charles and me writhing in passion on the mattress on the floor; loving each other to pieces; conceiving our boys. Now it was a comfortable brass bed, thick pile carpet to wriggle bare toes into and loads and loads of wardrobe space. It was a cool and soothing room; the colours were neutral except for the duvet set and that was deep autumn shades of terracotta and warm greens. The bed looked welcoming but I could visualise Charles lying there, wasting away, eaten from within by the unremitting cancer that had slowly but surely taken him from us.

But I knew without Charles’ presence it was just a house; a building filled with inanimate objects. I would not allow it to become a mausoleum and I knew that in time I would turn my back on it. I hoped it would go to another young couple, setting out with the hopes and aspirations that we had but that theirs would not be unexpectedly cut short as ours had been. 

I squared my shoulders; it wouldn’t be easy this step I was contemplating but Charles was expecting it of me.

*****

Charles and I had always been proud of our boys. I would dearly have loved a daughter but after Bryan some complications ensued that meant I would never have another child.

Anthony had been such a serious little boy. He always went off to school with his tie painstakingly tied, his blazer looking like new and his grey socks precisely pulled up to within a millimetre of each other. Bryan, on the other hand, had gone off with his school cap stuffed in his pocket, his tie askew and his satchel trailing on the ground; a real ‘Just William’.

However neither of them had ever been a worry; a few of the normal boyish pranks; scrumping for apples, smoking behind the garden shed and trying out Charles’ whisky which resulted in them both being violently sick. But compared to the terrible stories I had heard about other children I felt we had been incredibly lucky.

Strangely enough it was Anthony who gave us our biggest shock when his girl friend Serena became pregnant while they were both still at university. They immediately got married and although Serena gave up her studies when Lisa was born, Anthony kept going and now had his well paid position in the city and we had gained a daughter in law and, of course, the adorable Lisa.

I had asked the boys to come to our house in Cheshire for the weekend. I thought it only fair that they should be apprised of the situation and be allowed their say in the matter.

“You’re doing what….Mum are you sure…it’s far too soon to make decisions…especially one like this…….anyway you can’t sell the house…we grew up here…  it holds all our childhood…..you’re betraying dad’s memory……what about Lisa…she’ll be devastated.”

“Anthony…..I don’t want to hurt …but it’s only a house…bricks and mortar…Dad didn’t want me to stay drifting around here…keeping everything intact…until……until…. what?   I know you think I’m past it…all children think that of their parents…but I’m only in my fifties…I could live for another thirty years…I need to do something for me…..now…please… please….try to understand. As for Lisa…I only see her a few times a year and I’m hoping that you and Serena will bring her to visit…and, of course, I’ll make regular trips back. I promise I won’t miss out on birthdays and all her special occasions.”

Bryan, my youngest, always my baby, hugged me. I was constantly amazed at the size and strength of these boys that Charles and I had produced. They made me feel somehow small and fragile but that fragility masked an inner strength and I knew I would have to draw on all of that to see me through my plan.

“Mum, whatever you decide you know we’ll always be here for you…it’s just a bit of a shock…..but I suppose Greece isn’t the end of the world…wouldn’t you like to keep the house though…at least for a while….you could rent it out.”

“No boys….it’s….it’s a fresh start…no clutching at yesterdays…..no looking back…Dad wouldn’t have expected that of me.”

*****

So I had sold up and moved to this Greek island; this small chunk of rock in the Aegean Sea where Charles and I had spent so many happy times.

It had been strange and a bit scary to disembark from the ferry without Charles organising the luggage and smoothing the way but friends we had made over the years were still here. I mentally gritted my teeth, brushed up on my limited knowledge of the language and found a new life slowly starting to emerge from the ashes of the old like the mythical phoenix.

I was lucky enough to find an apartment right on the harbour. It was small but so airy and cool with tiled floors and minimal furnishings. It was traditional Greek. I loved the faded turquoise colour on the wood that you only seem to find in Greece. I don’t know if you can buy it faded or if it is the sun that does its usual work. There were cupboards in the most unexpected places; all sorts of nooks and crannies; the kitchen still had the old shallow traditional stone sink but there had been modern plumbing installed so the old sink now sported a large tub of geraniums tumbling their scarlet beauty into the room. Over the edge of my balcony purple bougainvillea and peach hibiscus rioted happily and in profusion; this country that I had loved for many years always seemed to me to be a blinding mix of white walls and garishly bright flowers; the sun forever bouncing and reflecting wherever you looked.

Sitting out on the balcony was better than any television programme and I missed nothing of the constant activity. I spent many happy hours watching neophyte sailors try to moor their hired boats; I smiled at the chaos that ensued when anchors became entangled deep under the water; I saw with amusement the amazing attire of the many visitors as they arrived on the ferries; and I heard the trundling of suitcase wheels on cobbles as people left at the end of their holidays and was always pleased that it wasn’t me. Unfortunately it was so easy for me to become distracted from the writing that I had promised Charles I would do.

Anthony had spent two weeks here with the family and, as I had fully expected, Lisa had fallen in love with Greece. She spent most of her time swimming like a dolphin

in the warm silky Aegean sea……I showed her the delights of the island….we ate at all my favourite tavernas and she went home brown as a berry and oozing good health.

Bryan had been out with his latest lady and, perhaps it was only wishful thinking, but I sensed a difference in this relationship. Bryan seemed to be as enthralled by Kathleen as she was with him…perhaps…perhaps…but only time would tell.

*****

I sighed as I closed the lid of my laptop. This novel wasn’t going as well as I had hoped…..I slumped back in the chair, looked out over the harbour and felt the wetness trickle down my back. A swim’s in order, I thought.

I changed into a swimsuit, slipped on shorts and a top, grabbed a towel and started round the harbour.

There must be a storm brewing, I thought. The air was oppressive and seemed to press down on me. I brushed away a lazy hornet hovering in the heavy air; a small lizard hung motionless on a wall; only his eyes darting on the lookout for mosquitoes. Feral kittens scattered from their play as my feet approached. I must look like a giant to them, I thought or perhaps they don’t see things as we do.

As I passed the scooter hire kiosk I heard “yiasou Maria…” the friendly Greek greeting float out from under the awning. I looked round but all I could see in the dim interior was Yannis’ strong brown forearms doing something technical to a bike. I firmly closed down any thoughts of these arms being anywhere near me; don’t be silly at your age.

*****

I was sitting in the churchyard in the welcome shade of the tall dark Cyprus trees. The cicadas were chirruping loudly as if attempting to drown out the chanting emanating from the open door of the church. I’m not at all a believer but the soft voice of the chanter and the sweet scent of the incense were quietly soporific and I felt calm and relaxed. 

I love the cicadas. They start with a lone voice and gradually others join in until it is a swelling crescendo drowning out all other sounds. Then suddenly, as if some unseen conductor has dropped his baton, it stops and the ensuing silence is palpable until one rogue hidden deep within the foliage tentatively chirrups, others join and the whole

cacophony starts again. To me this sound is the epitome of long hot Mediterranean summers.

I had wandered into the churchyard as I could see that there was a service taking place possibly a name day and I sat at the back and watched the ladies, dressed almost predominately in black, as they went up to the front, dropped a coin in a box, lit a candle and crossed themselves. I’ve always found other cultures and religions fascinating.

I was aware of someone approaching and looked up to see a man; not any man but the most quintessentially Greek man. His wiry curly hair framed his dark olive skinned face but it was his eyes that had my complete attention. They were almost black; bottomless pools framed by jet black lashes. I felt something deep inside stir; something I thought was dead and gone.

“What is a beautiful lady doing sitting on her own?”

“I… well . . .  my Greek isn’t very good so I thought it best to sit here at the back.”

“May I sit here too? . . . My name is Yannis.”

He proffered his hand and I shook it trying not to notice the quiver of electricity that passed between us.

“Maria,” I replied.

His English was impeccable and I silently vowed to try harder with my Greek.

We chatted quietly and the time flew. 

I saw the Papa emerge and bless the bread and I gratefully accepted a slice with some cold water to wash it down. 

The scraping of plastic chairs heralded the close of the service and people started to drift away forming and reforming in small groups to chat and catch up with neighbours and friends.

“I have enjoyed your company,” Yannis said formally; then added “Would you like to come for a drink with me sometime?”

I nodded . . . “Yes . . . that would be lovely.”

And so it became a common occurrence for me to walk down to the hire shop when Yannis was closing up for the night and we would walk the back streets where only the most intrepid of tourists ever ventured. We would end up in small local bars where

old men were playing and arguing over games of backgammon and feral cats dozed in safe corners oblivious to the odd cockroach scuttling across the stone floor.

Yannis was well known in these places and by association I was accepted.

He asked about my life and I told him about Charles and the boys.

“My wife left me for a rich man in Athens . . . she never really liked the 

island . . .and she preferred the money to me.” “Have you any children Yanni?”

“I have a beautiful and clever daughter. She is at university in your country . . . in London. She comes here whenever she can. She has the island in her soul . . . like me . . . she is her father’s daughter.”

The spark between us was scary and I knew that he felt it too. He would gaze at me with these hypnotic eyes and I felt I could drown in their depths. But we never even touched hands. It was as if we were both wary of stepping over an invisible threshold into a different place. 

*****

The bike rental business was hard work and long hours in the summer keeping the tourists supplied with transport. It was easy to spot the tourists as they sat demurely on the bikes wearing their helmets. The locals, on the other hand, blatantly ignored the law and on a scooter you could see the whole family, the dog in the foot-well and Grandma sitting side saddle on the back. I never ceased to be amazed at how many people could squeeze onto a bike.

The stalls along the harbour were overflowing with overpriced souvenirs waiting to be exchanged for the euros of the day trippers due to arrive for their holiday excursion.

‘Day trip to an unspoiled island included in the price of your package!’ I had seen the advertisements.

Yachts jostled cheek by jowl; the happy would be sailors swabbing decks, coiling ropes and attending to the many chores that came with the hired boats.

Not my kind of holiday, I mused; much too much like hard work…now, if I was sailing….I’d have one of these huge gin palaces with all mod cons, flush toilets, proper showers and hot and cold running crew to attend to my every whim. I could see myself reclining on the deck on thick floral cushions nursing a pink gin…

Well, actually…I admitted to myself . . . I would settle for being swept off on the back of one of Yannis’ scooters. I blushed at the thoughts starting to creep into my mind. I could almost hear Charles laughing……’go for it, girl’. Don’t be silly Charles.

I came down to earth as a large fat raindrop hit my hand. Another one splattered at my feet leaving a damp mark as large as an old penny on the hot dusty ground. Thunder rumbled threateningly in the distance.

Perhaps no swim, I thought as I turned back. Abruptly the heavens opened in earnest. When it rains in Greece it doesn’t hold back. Stair-rods definitely come to mind…the rain hammered down blotting out everything…the water in the harbour churned, turned grey and merged with the sky. In an instant I was saturated. My clothing clung like a second skin.

As I turned for home I noticed that everyone had miraculously disappeared; the people from the boats had scurried below decks and the stall holders had retreated as far back as they could into their cave-like interiors. I was totally alone in this world of streaming water.

As I squelched along in my flip flops the thick curtain of rain parted and Yannis appeared; with a flourish he opened a large black umbrella and raised it over my head. He smiled down at me with his blazing Greek smile and my heart turned a somersault. For the first time ever his arm went round my shoulders and he pulled me close. We seemed cut off from the rest of the world; safe inside our tiny shelter. His head bent towards me and his lips grazed mine. 

Inside my head I heard Charles voice singing a line from the Hollies song from the sixties (was I really that old!).

“Love grows, under my umbrella.”

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