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Sycamore Trees 


They landed in Santorini on a Sunday afternoon. As they stepped out of the airport, a mix of cigarette smoke and melted tarmac hit Jack like a sickly blow.  

“He’s not picking up”, he said, shoving the phone back in his pocket. “What is this noise from hell?” he asked, vigorously rubbing his left ear. 

“Crickets”, Dora said. She pointed to the handful of stocky men in tank tops circling the taxi point across the road. “Let’s try one of them”. 

The heat turned holidaymakers and honking cars into hazy afterthoughts wavering in the corner of the eye. Jack, the stony beauty of his full moon face now eclipsed to a mottled puff, fixed his hat against the sun.  

“Time to get creamed up,” Dora said, thinking the hat gave him a vaguely maidenly look. “We don’t want you getting burned on the first day.”  

Smoking at a slight distance from the others was a man leaning on an old Panda. Dora gestured to him.  

Yassas,” the taxi driver greeted them, his pupilless eyes lingering on Dora’s bare legs. As Dora watched him load the trunk of his battered car, he reminded her of a great, steadfast feline. With a glance at his ID card, dangling from a string of amber beads clipped to the rear-view mirror, she found with surprise that he was six months from turning seventy-five. 

As the driver jerked them to the ferry port, prompting Jack to tighten his grip on the handle, Dora secretly smiled at the driver’s invective at the cars ahead, her eyes resting hypnotised on the cigarette’s maw glowing closer and closer to the man’s slack mouth. The man’s impulsivity, his utter lack of inhibition, gave her a pleasure she could explain only by contrast to her own safely urbane existence, of which each day rotted away like fresh milk going sour before she could get a taste. 


*** 


When, five months before, Jack had insisted they change their summer plans to go to Naxos, Dora felt a desire to roach somewhere with the door locked. 

“I thought we’d already agreed on Spain”. She had spent hours sifting through the jazzy brochure, signposting each local must-see with a pink sticky tab. Now she’d have to do it all over again.  

“Come on now, Dolly. We can’t refuse a present from my mum and dad,” said Jack, and kissed her on the lips. Dora went quiet. 

“A romantic getaway to Greece can’t be all that bad. You used to love performing Aeschylus back at university,” Jack insisted, thumbing the furrows in her brow.  

 “Greece sounds wonderful. We’d been set on Spain for so long that I got used to the idea, is all”.  

After closing the door behind him, Dora sank back onto the sofa, squinting at the day hovering grey and out of reach through the condensation of the window glass. At one end of the garden, two sycamore trees stood so closely entwined as to look like one. Their eternal embrace, which had moved her on every other day, now betrayed a gratingly stilted quality. Dora’s head went thump on the wall, one, two, three times, until a delicious sickness folded all in a glaze.  


*** 


The ferry was teeming with limbs eagerly sprawled into the glare of the sun, mixed with heaps of discarded garments, backpacks and empty water bottles, so that Dora felt easy about stripping off her own dress. She leaned far over the rail to watch the water foam and crease into a trackless trail. From time to time, she remembered to turn over to Jack, who had taken shelter in a shaded corner, and blew him a guilty kiss.  

She liked the Naxos apartment at first sight. The tiny kitchen lounge was furnished simply, with orange plastic chairs and a ceiling fan whirring to no avail in the sizzling heat. Nothing could distract from the fleshy glory of vegetation outside, where hibiscus flowers stuck out forked tongues at her, aloe veras oozed moisture in viscous drops, and agaves towered as tall as seven feet. At the back of the house, a cat dozed under the shadow of a bougainvillaea tree, while the droning of crickets drifting up from among the plants held everything in drowsy suspension. Leaving a dizzy Jack lying in bed with the shutters down, Dora ran to the beach. 


*** 


Each day thereafter glided by in uniformity. With satisfaction, she observed her body groan awake as if after a long sleep. What would it be like to be pure body? she wondered. As she examined the freckles swarming her arms or lay listening to the quiet beating of her heart, the blankness washing through her mind was a triumph of sense. Wonderful, she decided. It would be wonderful. 

At her insistence, they hired a set of sunbeds for the full ten days, in a spot three rows from the shoreline. The beach was small, spilled over by a squat cliff of the same tattered finish of an elephant’s skin. Every day, Dora strolled along its rocky path to the top, her body loose and bracing, watching nature stretch around her.  Once, she saw something creeping up from a patch of dried black grass. Wide-eyed, she stared. Should she stay perfectly still or run? No one ever taught her how to act around wild animals. But soon Dora realised that what she saw was no snake, but a twig shaped like one.  

As her heart slowed in her chest, Dora slumped to the ground, with her eyes still on the twig. How lifelike it seemed, as if attempting to clamber out of stasis into a feeling thing. For a moment, Dora was convinced that she understood the twig, that the twig was reaching after life and failed to seize it. Much in the same way, Dora failed to seize life in all but the times when she was on the stage, pretending to be something she was not. Life unfurled all its colours then, rushing like a raging cry or a hot stream from deep within her and beating all containment, until darkness shone through like the brightest light. In comparison, her relationship with Jack, her work for the insurance company, the chase after cheap thrills, all ballooned in Dora’s mind in the shape of a big, vulgar lie, so tenuous she could pop it with a pin.  

Dusk was beginning to drain the colours from Dora’s surroundings, when she finally rose from the ground, propping up her sunglasses. If she hid out on the cliff long enough, she thought, maybe Jack would give her up for lost, and she smiled at this silly little thought. How many days had it been? Five? Six. And just four more to go. 

As the beach came into view, Dora saw that only a few swimmers remained bobbing in the water. She scanned the neat rows of umbrellas, expecting to find Jack asleep as usual on his sunbed. Struggling to pick out their umbrella from the dozens of identical ones, she paused on the shore. There Jack’s hat was, gently swaying in the breeze from its hook, but of Jack himself no trace. Dora felt a sting of irritation. He must be at the beach bar, she assumed, on yet another mission to connect to the local Wi-Fi (“The stinker’s right here, see? It just won’t wire, for some reason”). But the bar was shut.  


*** 


Twenty minutes later, Dora was stalking into the apartment, barely aware of the pine needles prickling her feet.  

“Jack,” she called out, hesitantly. No reply came, but for the crickets chirping their shrill back and forth. “Jack,” she repeated, this time louder. “Are you here?”  

Half-way to the bedroom, she caught a glimpse of someone slinking by. If not for the dull brown bob of hair and the eyes with the upward slant, Dora might have mistaken the woman glowing with vitality in the long mirror for somebody else. She entered the bedroom with renewed carelessness.  

There lay Jack, his long legs tangled in the sheets and his face buried in the pillow, a hand silky with pale hair holding onto a corner of it. Quietly, she climbed onto the bed and turned him over.  

All at once, Dora felt sick, deadly sick. The face looking up at her was no one’s she knew, pale and swollen, as if having laid in water for a long time. Glassy eyes sunk under bulging folds of flesh and the folds were like limbs, the soft limbs of a mollusc wrapped around a man’s head. As he stirred with a groan, Dora fought the urge to scream, hot perspiration sopping her face. Weakly, she wrestled away, but the grip on her arm tightened. 

“Calm down, Dolly,” Jack’s sleepy voice said, “It’s just me.” 

Dora could say nothing, besieged as she was by a spinning sense of vertigo, one hand clutching the bedhead for support.  

“Gosh, Jack—Gosh,” she whispered at last, unable to tear her eyes away from Jack’s disfigured face.  

“Sun poisoning. I told you this weather would be the death of me,” Jack chuckled, but Dora didn’t laugh. She simply stared at Jack with dazed eyes, fighting the urge to shake him off like a carcass.  

“I’m absolutely shattered. Will you lie down with me for a minute, Dolly?” Jack’s voice asked, his arms circling her waist and pulling her rigid body close to his weary one. “Just a minute, and I’ll set you free.” 


*** 


For their final dinner, they opted for a restaurant in the town centre.  

“Jack,” called Dora. “Are you ready yet?”  

The bathroom door opened, releasing steam into the room. 

“Give me five and we’ll head,” Jack said, looking Dora up and down. “You look nice. What’s the occasion?” he joked, and touched his cheek; the swelling hadn’t quite subsided.  

“Great,” Dora said. “I’ll help you pick a shirt.” The quicker they made it to the restaurant, the sooner they’d be back, and Dora could tell him she wasn’t coming back to London. 

Were it not for the cluster of tourists lined up by the entrance, the restaurant could have passed for someone’s house. Inside was revealed to be the shell of an old Venetian building, stripped down to mud brick walls and wooden beams bared to the sky above. They were received by a tall waiter with a black bow tie and black parted hair, who aimed a greasy smile at Dora. His name was Pyralis and he would be looking after them that night. Dora smiled back. 

With a sweep, the chequered cloth and dishes disappeared from their table for two, replaced by a fresh set.  

“How lovely,” Dora said, casting a glance around as she settled in her seat. “Is your back still in pain?” she asked, to say something. 

“So and so. The shirt keeps rubbing on my skin,” Jack said, reaching for the menu. 

Dora’s mind drifted back to the night she tended to Jack’s sunburnt back. With freakish speed, the livid skin soaked layer after thick layer of cream, throbbing for more. Spellbound, Dora kept on feeding it even after Jack had gone to sleep. 

“A sea bream to share?” 

“The sea bream sounds delightful.” 

Jack motioned for Pyralis and, after giving his order of the sea bream with a side of potatoes and a quarter of house white, leaned back in his chair with a deep sigh. 

“I’m kind of glad we’re flying back tomorrow,” he said. “I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I’ve had enough of Greece.” 

Dora’s smile grew stiff.  

“Plus, I have to make up for the intern’s screw ups.” 

“Still a headache?”  

“Like pulling teeth, to try and get any decent work out of him.” 

Dora laughed, this time wholeheartedly.  

“Don’t forget that you once were the intern,” she said. 

“I was never that bad.” Jack put his hands up, “But let’s not let the intern ruin our last dinner here.” He leant toward her. “I’ve moaned about my sunstroke enough as is and I thank you for your patience,” he said, and leaned forward to kiss her hand.  

Dora pressed his, without passion, but with the warmth of familiarity. She was thankful to Jack, too. Whenever consciousness hammered her mind too piercingly for wake, he brushed her hair, helped her dress and made her breakfast, all while in the dark as to the reason for her sadness, with the obtuse heroism of a beast of burden.  

“Delicious,” Jack mumbled with a full mouth. “Good call.” 

Once, Dora told him about her train commutes back home from work, how she tried to focus on the city slipping by in a hula of blues, yellows and reds. Each time, the laughter of night revellers bouncing off the stone buildings echoed in Dora’s ears long after speeding past the city centre, ‘ha-ha-ha,’ a spell on witching night, pulling her deep into an abyss of loneliness. Jack could have called her a freak but instead stood stoutly by, shouldering his way through the mist of her abstractions. 

“You know dad has picked up fishing?” 

“Oh, has he?” 

“He’ll be treating us to some grilled Thames trout soon enough, you’ll see.” 

When they first met, they loved each other with a blind physical relentlessness that came close to animality. What Dora had felt then was, she knew, the very edge of life. To be in the world and not love him had seemed inconceivable. Yet, love had left, and here she was. 

Dora watched the stride of a fly crawling its way to one side of the table. Dinner was over.  

“Shall we head home?” she asked, and her own voice sounded faraway.  

She felt Jack’s touch on her cheek, his hand tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Are we not going to have one last wander around town?” 

“Let’s make it a short one. I don’t feel so well,” she lied.  


*** 


They wandered in and out the little winding streets, lined with spinner racks and stalls flashing a motley of seductive colours. Jack bought himself a pair of sunglasses and Dora a necklace he’d noticed her admiring once.  

At last, they found themselves alone in a quiet residential alley. The air was mellow with expired sunshine and the smell of washed sheets hung to dry. They slowed down to study the images of saints and children’s pictures in wooden cassettes adorning the houses’ façades. A few streets away, a band must have been playing for the entertainment of late diners, for a faint music trickled their way like drops in an empty fountain. 

Through open windows, the ground floor homes offered their interiors to the casual glance of passers-by. Framed by one of these, an old man was watching television on his couch. As if waiting for a signal to sprint forward, he was sitting with his back and neck stretched out toward the screen, and his hands clasped on both knees. Dora observed him more closely.  

The man’s expression described complete absorption, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly, as if parroting what was being spoken on TV. Their chatter must have reached him, because suddenly, the man turned towards them. As his mouth curled up in a smile to match the couple’s one, his eyes sparked with something like recognition, and a reflective attitude of gladness loosened his shoulders. He had a broad chest, green eyes fading into a ring of mist around the irises, and a high, hefty forehead crowned in feathery white. 

Yassas,” Dora said brightly, and she and Jack made to walk on. 

But before they could reach the end of the road, a mumbled shout prompted them to turn back. Now standing in the puddle of light from the street lamp, the old man had walked out onto the road and held one hand up in greeting. He was tall, in only a white vest and shorts, and must once have been strong, for his flesh sagged from still muscular arms. Even from where she now stood, Dora could make up the stains on his clothes. What did he see, who did he think he was waving his hand to with such familiarity? 

The man’s wild joy, which couldn’t be explained by the present circumstances, but had to be meant for some other people at some other time, acted like a clasp around Dora’s beating heart. Like a picture rained on, the orange of the lamplight, the white of the man’s clothing, the deep blue sky, began bleeding into one another.  

Jack waved once more in the direction of the old man and, catching Dora by the shoulder, pushed her on. As they walked away, she was conscious of the man still standing there, a smile lingering on his lips. She was conscious, most of all, of her and Jack’s figures flitting and swaying, morphing into shadows at the back of the lone man’s mind.  

Hiding her face in Jack’s shoulder, she caught herself before letting out a whimper. 

“What is it, darling?” 

“Oh nothing. I just love you, is all.” 




A short story by Maria Albano 

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