A TRUE STORY, MORE OR LESS

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[All the names in what follows have been changed.  Nothing else has.  I give you what I heard.]

Once upon a time, in the very early 1980’s, there was an English lass named Mary Louise who lived in Nottingham, home of Robin Hood’s sheriff.  After she passed her O levels, she began working in an office, typing and filing and generally helping her boss.  She also married a boy from school.  Mary Louise had a younger sister named Cathy Anne who did the same thing two years later — O levels, office work, marriage to a chap from school.  After that, the sisters lived in flats not too far away from each other and their mum and dad.

Cathy Anne stayed married, went on living in Nottingham, and eventually had three children.  Mary Louise and her husband divorced after twenty-one months. It just hadn’t been right.  No hard feelings.  They stayed chums and all that.  But when the divorce was final, Mary Louise decided to celebrate by taking her summer holiday on a Greek cruise boat, with a girlfriend from the office. 

Mary Louise was big. Nice looking if you had a taste for big, but she was just under thirteen stone in weight.  [That’s about 180 pounds.] She wore navy blue a lot, because it was slimming.  However, she kept her naturally brown hair blonde, and she had friendly brown eyes, a generous smile and a genuine liking for people. Although she knew nothing about Greece, and not a word of Greek, she had a grand time on the trip.  The captain and other ship’s officers could speak some English — and they certainly tried to make the passengers feel they were getting value for their money.  There was delicious Greek food, and Greek music and dancing at night, and the first mate, especially, was an amazing dancer.  Slim and straight as a young tree, when he went into action solo he was so fast and graceful it took Mary Louise’s breath away.

Her appreciation must have showed, because he paid her a lot of attention after the dancing.  In his growly Greek-accented English, he said he liked a woman with some meat on her, which made her blush. And when she blushed, he looked at her as if he could eat her up.  After that, he came to find her every single evening.  But he was a perfect gentleman the whole time.  He might not have looked like a gentleman, what with his thick curly hair down to his shoulders, and a bit of stubble on his cheeks and chin.  Her girlfriend said to watch out.  But he never laid a hand on her, except once to help her on with the jacket that went with her sleeveless navy cotton dress on an evening when the breeze came up.

Until the last night.  She knew she’d never see him again when the cruise was over, and that was okay.  She hadn’t expected to.  She was already looking forward to getting home again and telling her mum and dad and everyone in the office all about her holiday, maybe throwing in something about the first mate to show that thirteen stone was not fatal in the romance department.  That’s just when he came over to her as she was looking over the ship’s rail at the dark water.  He had something to ask, he said.  He wanted her phone number. In Nottingham!  What a lot of nonsense. He lived on some tiny little Greek island near Turkey when he wasn’t on the cruise ship. But she gave him the number anyway, because he looked so sexy when he asked.  Then — as swiftly as he danced — he suddenly swept her into his arms and kissed her.  Oh.  That kiss.  She knew she would never forget it.

When they disembarked the next day, it was all business.  He stood in his white uniform between the captain and the second mate seeing the passengers down the gangplank.  He did give her a wink.  But then it was over.

She had moved back in with her parents since the divorce. One evening, about three weeks after the cruise, the phone rang.  Her mum picked it up.  “Mary Louise,” she called.  “For you.  It’s some Greek.”

It was Tomas.  (That was the first-mate’s name.)  He wanted her to come to his tiny island.  For a visit?  No.  To live with him.  He would give up his job on the cruise ship.  His father owned a boat and a little house. He would run the boat with his father, so he could stay on the island with her if she came, and not be cruising the world.  He knew what he wanted, he said.  Did she?

Did she?  From what she had heard, the island had no paved roads, unreliable electricity, no cars. She couldn’t speak a word of Greek. What would she do there, except be with him?  She thought about the office in Nottingham, and the typing and the filing, and finding another chap, and another flat, and hanging up nappies to dry in the kitchen, as Cathy was now doing. And then she thought about the kiss.

Her boss said he’d keep her job open for her for a year.  Her mum said she could always come back. Her dad said she should listen to her mum.  So she went.

He met her at the Athens airport.  They spent the night in Athens because they had to take another plane to get to an island called Leros; the second plane didn’t go but once a day, and they had already missed it. Then they crossed Leros by bus to reach the dock where Tomas’s father was waiting in his boat to pick them up and take them at last to the tiny island near Turkey. “And he never went further than a kiss until his father had met me and approved,” said Mary Louise twenty years later, which was about ten years ago.

But by then she was no longer Mary Louise.  She was Maria.  She spoke Greek badly but without fear, and with a strong Nottingham accent.  She had also lost four stone, and never wore navy blue any more. She zipped around the island on a bright red Vespa, and leaped in and out of small boats as if born to it, and ran a beautiful, stylish set of furnished studios for tourists that had become the island’s “best-kept secret.”  She had two gorgeous children whose first language was Greek, and who spoke English somewhat, although not like English children.  But first she had lived, unmarried, with Tomas for ten years, in one room of a two-room house, in which they slept, made love, ate, and in which she did laundry by hand, cooked, and kept the books for the boat business. Tomas’s father lived in the other room, so she did his cooking and laundry, too.  She also opened a small shop with an Italian woman on the island; the shop — Maria and Teresa — sold lovely long resort dresses and small objets d’art, and bags, and pareos, and got Maria out of the two-room house and talking to tourists, which she loved to do, and let her make shopping trips to Athens, which she loved even more.  But what she loved most of all, and still does, was Tomas, even if he did make her wait ten years before he married her, when she became pregnant with their first child.  And what she worked hardest at was keeping him — with his roving eyes and appetites for a lovely bosom or a well-turned leg.  Her hair stayed blonde, her figure slim, her clothing bold and inviting, her cooking plain, good, Greek and copious. And she has a great belly laugh.

There was no doctor on the island until recently; the one there now is just out of school and on a one-year assignment, after which he leaves and a new medical school graduate arrives.  [Maria flew to England to have her babies — in part to ensure her children had dual citizenship but also to have proper medical care in case anything went wrong.]  Electricity still fails regularly, at which time the toilets fail to flush.  The last time I was there, nearly seven years ago, dial-up internet was just arriving, and only for the businesses in the harbor.

One could therefore say that in many ways, Maria’s life has been physically and emotionally hard.  She lives halfway between the English world she was born into and the Greek island world of her children, who are now entering their twenties.  Tomas has not always been a flawless husband, if gossip on the island is to be believed. And on such a tiny island why shouldn’t it be — in general, if not in detail?  She lives in a country crippled by financial calamities, on an island not likely to be an immediate beneficiary of any European Union assistance that reaches Greece.

Would she have been better off back in Nottingham, with or without that unforgettable kiss?  Does she ever envy Cathy Anne, her sister, living out a probably foreseeable life, albeit in an England of financial austerity?  I don’t think she entertains such questions. Mary Louise grabbed what was offered, and didn’t look back.  Although her name is now Maria, I’m sure she hasn’t changed.

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