THE SAME IN ANY LANGUAGE
The day my father is to take me where the lepers used to live is hotter than ever. Even the old women with black scarves wrapped around their heads sit inside the bus station instead of on the chairs outside the tavernas. Kate fans herself with her straw hat like a basket someone’s sat on and gives my father one of those smiles they’ve made up between them. She’s leaning forwards to see if that’s our bus when he says “Why do you think they call them lepers, Hugh?”
I can hear what he’s going to say, but I have to humour him. “I don’t know.”
“Because they never stop leaping up and down.”
It takes him much longer to say the first four words than the rest of it. I groan because he expects me to, and Kate lets off one of her giggles I keep hearing whenever they stay in my father’s and my room at the hotel and send me down for a swim. “If you can’t give a grin, give a groan,” my father says for about the millionth time, and Kate pokes him with her freckly elbow as if he’s too funny for words. She annoys me so much that I say “Lepers don’t rhyme with creepers, dad.”
“I never thought they did, son. I was just having a laugh. If we
can’t laugh we might as well be dead, ain’t that straight, Kate?” He
winks at her thigh and slaps his own instead, and says to me “Since
you’re so clever, why don’t you find out when our bus is coming.”
“That’s it now.”
“And I’m Hercules.” He lifts up his fists to make his muscles bulge for Kateand says “You’re telling us that tripe spells A Flounder?”
“Elounda, dad. It does. The letter like a Y upside down is how they write an L.”
“About time they learned how to write properly, then,” he says, staring around to show he doesn’t care who hears. “Well, there it is if you really want to trudge round another old ruin instead of having a swim.”
“I expect he’ll be able to do both once we get to the village,”
Kate says, but I can tell she’s hoping I’ll just swim. “Will you two gentlemen see me across the road?”
My mother used to link arms with me and my father when he was living with us. “I’d better make sure it’s the right bus,” I say and run out so fast I can pretend I didn’t hear my father calling me back.
A man with skin like a boot is walking backwards in the dust behind the bus, shouting “Elounda” and waving his arms as if he’s pulling the bus into the space in line. I sit on a seat opposite two Germans who block the aisle until they’ve taken off their rucksacks, but my father finds three seats together at the rear. “Aren’t you with us, Hugh?” he shouts, and everyone on the bus looks at him.
When I see him getting ready to shout again I walk down the
aisle. I’m hoping nobody notices me, but Kate says loudly “It’s a
pity you ran off like that, Hugh. I was going to ask if you’d like an ice cream.”
“No thank you,” I say, trying to sound like my mother when she was only just speaking to my father, and step over Kate’s legs. As the bus rumbles uphill I turn as much of my back on her as I can, and watch the streets.
Aghios Nikolaos looks as if they haven’t finished building it. Some of the tavernas are on the bottom floors of blocks with no roofs, and sometimes there are more tables on the pavements outside than in. The bus goes downhill again as if it’s hiccuping, and when it reaches the bottomless pool where young people with no children stay in the hotels with discos, it follows the edge of the bay. I watch the white boats on the blue water, but really I’m seeing die conductor coming down the aisle and feeling as if a lump is growing in my stomach from me wondering what my father will say to him.
The bus is climbing beside the sea when he reaches us. “Three for leper land,” my father says.
The conductor stares at him and shrugs. “As far as you go,” Kate says, and rubs herself against my father. “All the way.”
When the conductor pushes his lips forwards out of his moustache and beard my father begins to get angry, unless he’s pretending. “Where you kept your lepers. Spiny Lobster or whatever you call the damned place.”
“It’s Spinalonga, dad, and it’s off the coast from where we’re going.”
“I know that, and he should.” My father is really angry now. “Did you get that?” he says to the conductor. “My ten-year-old can speak your lingo, so don’t tell me you can’t speak ours.”
The conductor looks at me, and I’m afraid he wants me to talk Greek. My mother gave me a little computer that translates words into Greek when you type them, but I’ve left it at the hotel because my father said it sounded like a bird which only knew one note. “We’re going to Elounda, please,” I stammer.
“Elounda, boss,” the conductor says to me. He takes the money from my father without looking at him and gives me the tickets and change. “Fish is good by the harbour in the evening,” he says, and goes to sit next to the driver while the bus swings round the zigzags of the hill road.
My father laughs for the whole bus to hear. “They think you’re so important, Hugh, you won’t be wanting to go home to your mother.”
Kate strokes his head as if he’s her pet, then she turns to me. “What do you like most about Greece?”
She’s trying to make friends with me like when she kept saying I could call her Kate, only now I see it’s for my father’s sake. All she’s done is make me think how the magic places seemed to have lost their magic because my mother wasn’t there with me, even Knossos where Theseus killed the Minotaur. There were just a few corridors left that might have been the maze he was supposed to find his way out of, and my father let me stay in them for a while, but then he lost his temper because all the guided tours were in foreign languages and nobody could tell him how to get back to the coach. We nearly got stuck overnight in Heraklion, when he’d promised to take Kate for dinner that night by the bottomless pool. “I don’t know,” I mumble, and gaze out the window.
“I like the sun, don’t you? And the people when they’re being nice, and the lovely clear sea.”
It sounds to me as if she’s getting ready to send me off swimming again. They met while I was, our second morning at the hotel. When I came out of the sea my father had moved his towel next to hers and she was giggling. I watch Spinalonga Island float over the horizon like a ship made of rock and grey towers, and hope she’ll think I’m agreeing with her if that means she’ll leave me alone. But she says “I suppose most boys are morbid at your age. Let’s hope you’ll grow up to be like your father.”
She’s making it sound as if the leper colony is the only place I’ve wanted to visit, but it’s just another old place I can tell my mother I’ve been. Kate doesn’t want to go there because she doesn’t like old places—she said if Knossos was a palace she was glad she’s not a queen. I don’t speak to her again until the bus has stopped by the harbour.
There aren’t many tourists, even in the shops and tavernas lined up along the winding pavement. Greek people who look as if they were born in the sun sit drinking at tables under awnings like stalls in a market. Some priests who I think at first are wearing black hatboxes on their heads march by, and fishermen come up from their boats with octopuses on sticks like big kebabs. The bus turns round in a cloud of dust and petrol fumes while Kate hangs onto my father with one hand and flaps the front of her flowery dress with the other. A boatman stares at the tops of her boobs which make me think of spotted fish and shouts “Spinalonga” with both hands round his mouth.
“We’ve hours yet,” Kate says. “Let’s have a drink. Hugh may even get that ice cream if he’s good.”
If she’s going to talk about me as though I’m not there I’ll do my best not to be. She and my father sit under an awning and I kick dust on the pavement outside until she says “Come under, Hugh. We don’t want you with sunstroke.”
I don’t want her pretending she’s my mother, but if I say so I’ll only spoil the day more than she already has. I shuffle to the table next to the one she’s sharing with my father and throw myself on a chair. “Well, Hugh,” she says, “do you want one?”
“No thank you,” I say, even though the thought of an ice cream or a drink starts my mouth trying to drool.
“You can have some of my lager if it ever arrives,” my father says at the top of his voice, and stares hard at some Greeks sitting at a table. “Anyone here a waiter?” he says, lifting his hand to his mouth as if he’s holding a glass.
When all the people at the table smile and raise their glasses and shout cheerily at him, Kate says “I’ll find someone and then I’m going to the little girls’ room while you men have a talk.”
My father watches her crossing the road and gazes at the doorway of the taverna once she’s gone in. He’s quiet for a while, then he says “Are you going to be able to say you had a good time?”
I know he wants me to enjoy myself when I’m with him, but I also think what my mother stopped herself from saying to me is true—that he booked the holiday in Greece as a way of scoring off her by taking me somewhere she’d always wanted to go. He stares at the taverna as if he can’t move until I let him, and I say “I expect so, if we go to the island.”
“That’s my boy. Never give in too easily.” He smiles at me with one side of his face. “You don’t mind if I have some fun as well, do you?”
He’s making it sound as though he wouldn’t have had much fun if it had just been die two of us, and I think that was how he’d started to feel before he met Kate. “It’s your holiday,” I say.
He’s opening his mouth after another long silence when Kate comes out of the taverna with a man carrying two lagers and a lemonade on a tray. “See that you thank her,” my father tells me.
I didn’t ask for lemonade. He said I could have some lager. I say “Thank you very much,” and feel my throat tightening as I gulp the lemonade, because her eyes are saying that she’s won.
“That must have been welcome,” she says when I put down the empty glass. “Another? Then I should find yourself something to do. Your father and I may be here for a while.”
“Have a swim,” my father suggests.
“I haven’t brought my cossy.”
“Neither have those boys,” Kate says, pointing at the harbour. “Don’t worry, I’ve seen boys wearing less.”
My father smirks behind his hand, and I can’t bear it. I run to the jetty the boys are diving off, and drop my T-shirt and shorts on it and my sandals on top of them, and dive in.
The water’s cold, but not for long. It’s full of little fish that nibble you if you only float, and it’s clearer than tap water, so you can see down to the pebbles and the fish pretending to be them. I chase fish and swim underwater and almost catch an octopus before it squirms out to sea. Then three Greek boys about my age swim over, and we’re pointing at ourselves and saying our names when I see Kate and my father kissing.
I know their tongues are in each other’s mouths—getting some tongue, the kids at my school call it. I feel like swimming away as far as I can go and never coming back. But Stavros and Stathis and Costas are using their hands to tell me we should see who can swim fastest, so I do that instead. Soon I’ve forgotten my father and Kate, even when we sit on the jetty for a rest before we have more races. It must be hours later when I realise Kate is calling “Come here a minute.”
The sun isn’t so hot now. It’s reaching under the awning, but she and my father haven’t moved back into the shadow. A boatman shouts “Spinalonga” and points at how low the sun is. I don’t mind swimming with my new friends instead of going to the island, and I’m about to tell my father so when Kate says “I’ve been telling your dad he should be proud of you. Come and see what I’ve got for you.”
They’ve both had a lot to drink. She almost falls across the table as I go to her. Just as I get there I see what she’s going to give me, but it’s too late. She grabs my head with both hands and sticks a kiss on my mouth.
She tastes of old lager. Her mouth is wet and bigger than mine, and when it squirms it makes me think of an octopus. “Mmmmwa,” it says, and then I manage to duck out of her hands, leaving her blinking at me as if her eyes won’t quite work. “Nothing wrong with a bit of loving,” she says. “You’ll find that out when you grow up.”
My father knows I don’t like to be kissed, but he’s frowning at me as if I should have let her. Suddenly I want to get my own back on them in the only way I can think of. “We need to go to the island now.”
“Better go to the loo first,” my father says. “They wouldn’t have one on the island when all their willies had dropped off.”
Kate hoots at that while I’m getting dressed, and I feel as if she’s laughing at the way my ribs show through my skin however much I eat. I stop myself from shivering in case she or my father makes out that’s a reason for us to go back to the hotel. I’m heading for the toilet when my father says “Watch out you don’t catch anything in there or we’ll have to leave you on the island.”
I know there are all sorts of reasons why my parents split up, but just now this is the only one I can think of— my mother not being able to stand his jokes and how the more she told him to finish the more he would do it, as if he couldn’t stop himself. I run into the toilet, trying not to look at the pedal bin where you have to drop the used paper, and close my eyes once I’ve taken aim.
Is today going to be what I remember about Greece? My mother brought me up to believe that even the sunlight here had magic in it, and I expected to feel the ghosts of legends in all the old places. If there isn’t any magic in the sunlight, I want there to be some in the dark. The thought seems to make the insides of my eyelids darker, and I can smell the drains. I pull the chain and zip myself up, and then I wonder if my father sent me in here so we’ll miss the boat. I nearly break the hook on the door, I’m so desperate to be outside.
The boat is still tied to the harbour, but I can’t see the boatman. Kate and my father are holding hands across the table, and my father’s looking around as though he means to order another drink. I squeeze my eyes shut so hard that when I open them everything’s gone black. The blackness fades along with whatever I wished, and I see the boatman kneeling on the jetty, talking to Stavros. “Spinalonga,” I shout.
He looks at me, and I’m afraid he’ll say it’s too late. I feel tears building up behind my eyes. Then he stands up and holds out a hand towards my father and Kate. “One hour,” he says.
Kate’s gazing after a bus that has just begun to climb the hill. “We may as well go over as wait for the next bus,” my father says, “and then it’ll be back to the hotel for dinner.”
Kate looks sideways at me. “And after all that he’ll be ready for bed,” she says like a question she isn’t quite admitting to.
“Out like a light, I reckon.”
“Fair enough,” she says, and uses his arm to get herself up.
The boatman’s name is Iannis, and he doesn’t speak much English. My father seems to think he’s charging too much for the trip until he realises it’s that much for all three of us, and then he grins as if he thinks Iannis has cheated himself. “Heave ho then, Janice,” he says with a wink at me and Kate.
The boat is about the size of a big rowing-boat. It has a cabin at the front and benches along die sides and a long box in die middle that shakes and smells of petrol. I watch the point of the boat sliding dirough die water like a knife and feel as if we’re on our way to the Greece I’ve been dreaming of. The white buildings of Elounda shrink until they look like teeth in the mouth of the hills, and then Spinalonga floats up ahead.
It makes me think of an abandoned ship bigger than a liner, a ship so dead that it’s standing still in the water without having to be anchored. The evening light seems to shine out of the steep rusty sides and the bony towers and walls high above the sea. I know it was a fort to begin with, but I think it might as well have been built for the lepers. I can imagine them trying to swim to Elounda and drowning because there wasn’t enough left of them to swim with, if they didn’t just throw themselves off the walls because they couldn’t bear what they’d turned into. If I say these things to Kate I bet more than her mouth will squirm—but my father gets in first. “Look, there’s the welcoming committee.”
Kate gives a shiver that reminds me I’m trying not to feel cold. “Don’t say things like that. They’re just people like us, probably wishing they hadn’t come.”
I don’t think she can see them any more clearly than I can. Their heads are poking over the wall at the top of the cliff above the little pebbly beach which is the only place a boat can land. There are five or six of them, only I’m not sure they’re heads; they might be stones someone has balanced on the wall—they’re almost the same colour. I’m wishing I had some binoculars when Kate grabs my father so hard the boat rocks and Iannis waves a finger at her, which doesn’t please my father. “You keep your eye on your steering, Janice,” he says.
Iannis is already taking the boat towards the beach. He didn’t seem to notice the heads on the wall, and when I look again they aren’t there. Maybe they belonged to some of the people who are coming down to a boat bigger than Iannis‘s. That boat chugs away as Iannis’s bumps into the jetty. “One hour,” he says. “Back here.”
He helps Kate onto the jetty while my father glowers at him, then he lifts me out of the boat. As soon as my father steps onto the jetty Iannis pushes the boat out again. “Aren’t you staying?” Kate pleads.
He shakes his head and points hard at the beach. “Back here, one hour.”
She looks as if she wants to run into the water and climb aboard the boat, but my father shoves his arm round her waist. “Don’t worry, you’ve got two fellers to keep you safe, and neither of them with a girl’s name.”
The only way up to the fort is through a tunnel that bends in the middle so you can’t see the end until you’re nearly halfway in. I wonder how long it will take for the rest of the island to be as dark as the middle of the tunnel. When Kate sees the end she runs until she’s in the open and stares at the sunlight, which is perched on top of the towers now. “Fancying a climb?” my father says.
She makes a face at him as I walk past her. We’re in a kind of street of stone sheds that have mostly caved in. They must be where the lepers lived, but there are only shadows in them now, not even birds. “Don’t go too far, Hugh,” Kate says.
“I want to go all the way round, otherwise it wasn’t worth coming.”
“I don’t, and I’m sure your father expects you to consider me.”
“Now, now, children,” my father says. “Hugh can do as he likes as long as he’s careful and the same goes for us, eh, Kate?”
I can tell he’s surprised when she doesn’t laugh. He looks unsure of himself and angry about it, the way he did when he and my mother were getting ready to tell me they were splitting up. I run along the line of huts and think of hiding in one so I can jump out at Kate. Maybe they aren’t empty after all; something rattles in one as if bones are crawling about in the dark. It could be a snake under part of the roof that’s fallen. I keep running until I come to steps leading up from the street to the top of the island, where most of the light is, and I’ve started jogging up them when Kate shouts “Stay where we can see you. We don’t want you hurting yourself.”
“It’s all right, Kate, leave him be,” my father says. “He’s sensible.”
“If I’m not allowed to speak to him I don’t know why you invited me at all.”
I can’t help grinning as I sprint to the top of the steps and duck out of sight behind a grassy mound that makes me think of a grave. From up here I can see the whole island, and we aren’t alone on it. The path I’ve run up from leads all round the island, past more huts and towers and a few bigger buildings, and then it goes down to the tunnel. Just before it does it passes the wall above the beach, and between the path and the wall there’s a stone yard full of slabs. Some of the slabs have been moved away from holes like long boxes full of soil or darkness. They’re by the wall where I thought I saw heads looking over at us. They aren’t there now, but I can see heads bobbing down towards the tunnel. Before long they’ll be behind Kate and my father.
Iannis is well on his way back to Elounda. His boat is passing one that’s heading for the island. Soon the sun will touch the sea. If I went down to the huts I’d see it sink with me and drown. Instead I lie on the mound and look over the island, and see more of the boxy holes hiding behind some of the huts. If I went closer I could see how deep they are, but I quite like not knowing—if I was Greek I expect I’d think they lead to the underworld where all the dead live. Besides, I like being able to look down on my father and Kate and see them trying to see me.
I stay there until Iannis’s boat is back at Elounda and the other one has almost reached Spinalonga, and the sun looks as if its gone down to the sea for a drink. Kate and my father are having an argument. I expect it’s about me, though I can’t hear what they’re saying; the darker it gets between the huts the more Kate waves her arms. I’m getting ready to let my father see me when she screams.
She’s jumped back from a hut which has a hole behind it. “Come out, Hugh. I know it’s you,” she cries.
I can tell what my father’s going to say, and I cringe. “Is that you, Hugh? Yoo-hoo,” he shouts.
I won’t show myself for a joke like that. He leans into the hut through the spiky stone window, then he turns to Kate. “It wasn’t Hugh. There’s nobody.”
I can only just hear him, but I don’t have to strain to hear Kate. “Don’t tell me that,” she cries. “You’re both too fond of jokes.”
She screams again, because someone’s come running up the tunnel. “Everything all right?” this man shouts. “There’s a boat about to leave if you’ve had enough.”
“I don’t know what you two are doing,” Kate says like a duchess to my father, “but I’m going with this gentleman.”
My father calls me twice. If I go to him I’ll be letting Kate win. “I don’t think our man will wait,” the new one says.
“It doesn’t matter,” my father says, so fiercely that I know it does. “We’ve our own boat coming.”
“If there’s a bus before you get back I won’t be hanging around,” Kate warns him.
“Please yourself,” my father says, so loud that his voice goes into the tunnel. He stares after her as she marches away; he must be hoping she’ll change her mind. But I see her step off the jetty into the boat, and it moves out to sea as if the ripples are pushing it to Elounda.
My father puts a hand to his ear as the sound of the engine fades. “So every buggers left me now, have they?” he says in a kind of shout at himself. “Well, good riddance.”
He’s waving his fists as if he wants to punch something, and he sounds as if he’s suddenly got drunk. He must have been holding it back while Kate was there. I’ve never seen him like this. It frightens me, so I stay where I am.
It isn’t only my father that frightens me. There’s only a little bump of the sun left above the water now, and I’m afraid how dark the island may be once that goes. Bits of sunlight shiver on the water all the way to the island, and I think I see some heads above the wall of the yard full of slabs, against the light. Which side of the wall are they on? The light’s too dazzling, it seems to pinch the sides of the heads so they look thinner than any heads I’ve ever seen. Then I notice a boat setting out from Elounda, and I squint at it until I’m sure it’s Iannis’s boat.
He’s coming early to fetch us. Even that frightens me, because I wonder why he is. Doesn’t he want us to be on the island now he realises how dark it’s getting? I look at the wall, and the heads have gone. Then the sea puts the sun out, and it feels as if the island is buried in darkness.
I can still see my way down the steps are paler than the dark—and I don’t like being alone now I’ve started shivering. I back off from the mound, because I don’t like to touch it, and almost back into a shape with bits of its head poking out and arms that look as if they’ve dropped off at the elbows. It’s a cactus. I’m just standing up when my father says “There you are, Hugh.”
He can’t see me yet. He must have heard me gasp. I go to the top of the steps, but I can’t see him for the dark. Then his voice moves away. “Don’t start hiding again. Looks like we’ve seen the last of Kate, but we’ve got each other, haven’t we?”
He’s still drunk. He sounds as if he s talking to somebody nearer to him than I am. “All right, we’ll wait on the beach,” he says, and his voice echoes. He’s gone into the tunnel, and he thinks he’s following me. “I’m here, dad,” I shout so loud that I squeak.
“I heard you, Hugh. Wait there. I’m coming.” He’s walking deeper into the tunnel. While he’s in there my voice must seem to be coming from beyond the far end. I’m sucking in a breath that tastes dusty, so I can tell him where I am, when he says “Who’s that?” with a laugh that almost shakes his words to pieces.
He’s met whoever he thought was me when he was heading for the tunnel. I’m holding my breath—I can’t breathe or swallow, and I don’t know if I feel hot or frozen. “Let me past,” he says as if he’s trying to make his voice as big as the tunnel. “My son’s waiting for me on the beach.”
There are so many echoes in the tunnel I’m not sure what I’m hearing besides him. I think there’s a lot of shuffling, and the other noise must be voices, because my father says “What kind of language do you call mat? You sound drunker than I am. I said my son’s waiting.
”He’s talking even louder as if that’ll make him understood. I’m embarrassed, but I’m more afraid for him. “Dad,” I nearly scream, and run down the steps as fast as I can without falling.
“See, I told you. That’s my son,” he says as if he’s talking to a crowd of idiots. The shuffling starts moving like a slow march, and he says “All right, we’ll all go to the beach together. What’s the matter with your friends, too drunk to walk?”
I reach the bottom of the steps, hurting my ankles, and run along the ruined street because I can’t stop myself. The shuffling sounds as though it’s growing thinner, as if the people with my father are leaving bits of themselves behind, and the voices are changing too—they’re looser. Maybe the mouths are getting bigger somehow. But my father’s laughing, so loud that he might be trying to think of a joke. “That’s what I call a hug. No harder, love, or I won’t have any puff left,” he says to someone. “Come on then, give us a kiss. They’re the same in any language.”
All the voices stop, but the shuffling doesn’t. I hear it go out of the tunnel and onto the pebbles, and then my father tries to scream as if he’s swallowed something that won’t let him. I scream for him and dash into the tunnel, slipping on things that weren’t on the floor when we first came through, and fall out onto the beach.
My father’s in the sea. He’s already so far out that the water is up to his neck. About six people who look stuck together and to him are walking him away as if they don’t need to breathe when their heads start to sink. Bits of them float away on the waves my father makes as he throws his arms about and gurgles. I try to run after him, but I’ve got nowhere when his head goes underwater. The sea pushes me back on the beach, and I run crying up and down it until Iannis comes.
It doesn’t take him long to find my father once he understands what I’m saying. Iannis wraps me in a blanket and hugs me all the way to Elounda and the police take me back to the hotel. Kate gets my mother’s number and calls her, saying she’s someone at the hotel who’s looking after me because my father’s drowned, and I don’t care what she says, I just feel numb. I don’t start screaming until I’m on the plane back to England, because then I dream that my father has come back to tell a joke. “That’s what I call getting some tongue,” he says, leaning his face close to mine and showing me what’s in his mouth.
Collection and introduction copyright © 1998 by Ramsey Campbell