When her trip to Greece goes from idyllic to tragic in one night, a woman finds that outrunning her secrets might be the only key to survival
Helen North's Greek vacation is not going as planned. She booked her trip envisioning a free-spirited getaway—unaware that everything was poised to crumble around her. While writing postcards by herself at a café, she meets Carla Finch, another solo, British traveler. Carla is charming and unpredictable, and the two become fast friends, taking advantage of every moment of their adventure abroad. But things with Carla aren't as they seem, and after a night out, something goes horribly wrong. Carla is dead, and only Helen knows what happened. Back in England and wracked with guilt, Helen tries to move on, but specters from Carla's life keep turning up around her. When Helen learns that her own dark secret might be exposed, she must struggle to separate truth from deception before it's too late.
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By Joanna Hines
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Joanna Hines
All rights reserved.
These days, I see Carla everywhere.
Emerging from Green Park station through the morning crowds, I catch sight of a woman just ahead of me, a tumble of auburn hair falling on narrow shoulders and that quick, jerky way of moving that she had, and for an impossible moment I think, Carla! Wait for me! Or when I'm running through the lamplit streets after work, running, always running—but not for my health like the other joggers, nothing so mundane as mere health for me after what happened on the island; I'm running for survival, running to escape the Furies that howl and shriek through my mind, only I never will escape them, not any more. And then, when I least expect it, there's the clacketty-click of high heels tapping along the pavement towards me, or a potent gust of the scent she wore, musky and sweet, or maybe an echo of that laugh last heard in a Greek taverna by the sea's edge ... and each time my chest tightens in a spasm of hope. Perhaps, I think, in spite of everything, these last months have been a kind of delirium and now I'm coming to my senses at last and the woman up ahead will turn and her face will light up with recognition. She will call out, 'Hi, Helen! I thought it was you.' And then, inevitably, disillusion follows, a sharper agony each time it happens.
That's not Carla, you idiot. How could I imagine it was her, even for a moment? Carla is dead. Just think of that fragile, fractured body lying on the empty road as the sun rose over the sea and filtered down between the olive trees. No stranger brushing up against me in a crowded London street is going to be Carla, not ever.
I know all this, yet still I see her. Still the sound of a voice so similar to hers in the room next to mine at work can make me forget what I'm doing for whole chunks of time. On bad days London seems to have become a city of Carlas. As if, at the moment of her death, an image of her shattered into a thousand fragments and tiny shards of Carla have lodged in a thousand women so that now her likeness is stamped on their features, the very sound and breath of her saturating their stranger-bodies.
Is this a modern kind of haunting? I struggle to banish the thought. Even the possibility of being haunted by Carla is a taste of madness.
A more prosaic explanation might be that Carla has been survived by a whole host of sisters. During our time together on the island, she never mentioned any sisters, but that doesn't mean anything, because we never talked about the details of our real lives. I knew none of those mundane facts about her.
No real facts at all, except for the one huge truth that is my secret. The single truth that, even now, no one else has discovered and, pray God, they never will. Oh, they think they know, but they couldn't be more wrong. That certainty is mine alone. It is clamped to my shoulders like a succubus, the foul and rotting stench of it filling my nostrils each time I draw a breath.
Because I alone know how she died. That moment when her life ended and mine changed for ever.
BC: Before Carla.
AD: After Death.
Back there in the early morning when the air was so clear and sweet you'd think you'd stumbled on the beginning of the world—like finding Eden, the garden of lost innocence and hope. I was a different person then, and I was with her on that dawn road. And her death was not an accident, in spite of what it says on her death certificate and what everyone else believes. I should know, because I was there when it happened.
So that makes me—?
There's no need for me to say the words: try working it out for yourself.
At our first meeting, there was no hint of the horrors to come. Maybe it was inevitable that we should bump into each other, two women travelling alone among the hordes of families and couples checking into Gatwick in the murky early morning greyness, but I don't remember seeing her until after we arrived at the island.
For me, sun-deprived Londoner that I am, that moment of arrival was always a thrill, and on that day more so than ever. A long, wet spring had left England stalled in permanent November. Suddenly, it was as if we had fast-forwarded at least two seasons and reached high summer in the space of a couple of hours. Stepping out of the plane into the blinding glare and heat of a Greek morning, I felt absurdly overdressed in my tights and skirt and sweater and leather shoes. I wanted to race across the asphalt runway and rip my clothes off and dive into the glittering sea. From the concrete bastions of Gatwick, solid and serious against the English gloom, to the rickety brightness of the Mediterranean—that first moment was a taste of heaven.
Like a flock of docile, pink-faced sheep, we shuffled into Baggage Reclaim. There followed the obligatory period of waiting and milling about, accompanied by a vague sense of unease: the anxiety of travellers separated from their possessions. Then the conveyor belt creaked into life and everyone turned towards the plastic flap, watching intently until the first piece of luggage, a rumpled canvas bag covered in travel stickers, sailed triumphantly through. A man of about my age reached through the crush of bodies, seized the canvas bag and swung it down to land at his girlfriend's feet. After that, everyone was rushing forward, heaving their bags off and stacking them carefully before moving off towards Customs, and the people who must be waiting beyond the barrier holding cards saying things like Sunnyhols and Hotel Aphrodite.
Almost everyone, that is. As the crowds drifted away, proud reclaimers of their baggage, only a few were left behind, and as each wave of suitcases came through, and none of them mine, I began to feel ridiculously bereft, like not being chosen till last for a team in a school sports lesson. At length, I was left alone with only a handful of fellow luggageless pariahs: an elderly couple with binoculars and sensible shoes, and a jolly family with Yorkshire accents and three tow-haired little boys who must have been given strict instructions not to run in the airport building. Instead they moved around the empty space at a loping walk and chased each other, still low-chassis loping, into corners and out again. And Carla. Though at the time, of course, I didn't know her name, only that she seemed, like me, to be travelling alone.
Thin and spiky-looking, with an impressive cascade of red-brown hair, she remained stoically distant from the rest of us failed baggage reclaimers. She gave an impression of being on edge, electric with nervous energy. She fiddled with her hair, the strap of her shoulder bag, smoothed her palms against her trousers. She was wearing clothes for an English summer day: knitted black cotton top, black trousers, high-heeled sandals. All in black and with her mane of burnished hair and her taut, rapid movements, she reminded me of some elegantly nervy bird.
The carousel creaked to a halt. Silence descended on Baggage Reclaim. The male half of the elderly couple moved towards the father from Yorkshire and they conferred in anxious masculine tones. What had gone wrong? Our luggage was nowhere to be seen. There was no one around. While the two men continued to murmur together, I decided it was time to approach the other solitary female traveller, so I made a vague move in her direction and smiled to show that my intentions were friendly.
Pointedly, she turned away and, with those agitated movements I'd already noticed, she pulled a make-up compact out of her satchel bag and peered critically at her face, running the tip of her tongue over her lips. Then she rummaged some more and withdrew a little pot of lip gloss, grimacing at her reflection as she rubbed some in.
Rebuffed, I turned and wandered aimlessly away. My impatience was growing. The island, with all its sounds and smells and siren pleasures, was waiting beyond those doors and here I was, stuck in the deadening limbo of Arrivals, the first precious day of my escape ebbing away in inefficiency and frustration. Morosely, I watched the others. The oldest of the small boys, unobserved by his parents, had lope-walked onto the now-stationary carousel. He began to jig up and down. His smallest brother had got as far as leaning his stomach on the top of the conveyor belt and was waving one red-sandalled foot up to join his stomach when there was a burst of masculine laughter from outside, the machinery cranked back to life, two small boys leaped or fell to safety just as their parents noticed what they were up to and descended on them with good-humoured reproach, and my navy-blue suitcase glided serenely into view.
Or so I thought.
No sooner had I moved forward to fall on it with glad rejoicing, when there was a movement at my side and the other woman—Carla—reached forward to grab it too.
'Excuse me,' I said, English to the last as our hands collided against the handle, 'but I think—'
She glanced at me with irritation, her eyes dark and deepset, auburn hair cascading over her shoulders. 'I'm so sorry,' she breathed, not to be outdone in Englishness, 'but I'm sure this is mine.' Her voice was stifled with tension.
Still battling politely, we had heaved the suitcase off the carousel.
'Maybe we should open it,' I suggested grimly.
'I don't see why—'
We were both so locked in the fierce courtesies of our struggle that we almost didn't notice when a second, identical suitcase trundled past us and began speeding towards the exit flap, but then:
'Well, I never!'
Relief broke down her reserve and she was grinning gleefully as she scampered after the second suitcase and lugged it back to join the first. Like proud mothers comparing notes, we identified our errant baggage, congratulated ourselves on our lucky escape and began following the elderly couple and the Yorkshire family towards Customs.
'Thank heavens I didn't have to open mine,' she confided cheerfully. 'Full to the brim with condoms. Most embarrassing.'
She flashed me a delighted grin and I was about to make some appropriately conspiratorial riposte when she caught sight of her reflection in a glass-panelled door. 'Oh my God, just look at my hair! Where's the nearest Ladies?'
'I think there was one back there.'
'Great. I must be doomed to spend the whole day in Baggage Reclaim. See you, then.'
And with that she pivoted neatly on the corner of her suitcase and went back the way we had come.
I was half-inclined to wait for her. It had been refreshing to break out of the mute bubble of solitary travel which was already becoming oppressive, but then I reflected that her generous quota of condoms indicated holiday plans somewhat different from mine, so I went on alone.
Through Customs, past the waiting taxi drivers and tour guides and out, out at last, into the brilliant noon sunshine. There I paused, savouring the moment. The heat lapped around me like a luxurious bath, heat pulsing on the Mediterranean air, heat rising from the concrete forecourt of the terminal building and warming my London-pale, nylon-itchy legs. I wriggled my feet inside my shoes. Not long now, toes, I told them. Sand and salt water and bare freedom await you before the afternoon is over.
Sunlight bounced off the windows of the hundreds of parked cars in front of me, lavish sunlight spilling over every surface, endless sunlight, dazzling and glorious.
I took dark glasses from my bag and slid them on. The colours around me took on a bronzy hue. I ran my fingers through my hair, adjusted the weight of my shoulder bag ... and then, gradually, I realised that I was being watched.
Safe behind my dark glasses, I let my eyes slide round to see whose steady gaze was making the fine hairs on the back of my neck rise, chilly, in spite of the heat.
A man was leaning against the bonnet of a white car which was parked right in front of the building. He was tall, dressed with casual elegance in linen slacks, canvas shoes and a loose, long-sleeved overshirt. Beneath his Panama hat, he gave an impression of pallor and reddish hair; a fine-boned, sensitive face, with a generous, strongly-muscled mouth, and he had the long, delicately tapered hands of a Florentine angel.
He reached into his jacket pocket and slipped on a pair of wraparound dark glasses, but still, I knew he was watching me.
I wondered briefly if he might be the man from the car hire company, but on reflection that didn't seem probable. He did not look like an islander, nor yet a tourist either. He did not smile or turn away, but continued to observe me in a way that was disconcerting without actually being rude.
I was rapidly learning that a stare veiled by two discs of dark plastic—or in our case, four—is somehow more unnerving than one where the eyes are properly visible. Was he smiling, leering, full of malice or contempt, bored or humorous? Or did I perhaps, cliché of clichés, remind him of someone he once knew? There was no way of knowing.
Crossed sunglasses, I thought. Showdown at noon. But this did not seem the right time to start giggling.
Automatically I turned, hefted my suitcase and began to walk away from him with as much lopsided dignity as I could muster, only to realise after a few steps, that the car hire firm was at the other end of the airport building. I was obliged to turn and retrace my steps. He continued to watch me as I walked past him with my suitcase, which seemed to have grown remarkably heavy during the flight, and I felt myself grow self-conscious under his gaze.
Then I was annoyed with myself for being put out by the stare of a stranger with more curiosity than manners, and then doubly annoyed with him for doing the putting out.
And then I found the hire car company and the briskly efficient woman who had been waiting for me to stop wandering around on the forecourt and come and collect my car so that she could shut up shop for a couple of hours and go and have her lunch, probably with the man who had been watching me, and I forgot all about the vexation of unsolicited stares.
Within ten minutes I was behind the wheel of a smart, white and no doubt mechanically defective Fiat, and needed all my concentration to navigate my way out of the airport. At first I thought I had somehow landed on the wrong island. The road that led away from the terminal building was so magnificently broad that I thought it must be taking me to a six-lane highway at least. But reality was soon resumed in the shape of a series of enormous potholes, the first of which took me by surprise so that I nearly careered into a stately palm. After that, I gave all my attention to the task in hand. Remembering to drive on the right, getting accustomed to the shimmer and glare of other cars and the almost liquid shine of the tarmac road, I struggled to interpret the complex instructions for finding the small hotel I was booked into for the next two weeks.
It was the most harrowing drive of my life. At least half a dozen times I was convinced my holiday was doomed to end before it had even begun.
Now, of course, I wish it had.
The avenue of palms that led away from the airport soon gave way to a coast road fringed by endless discos, tavernas, campsites, bars and cheap hotels. Here the main danger was from tourists who seemed determined to step off the pavement and walk in front of my car. I slowed down to a crawl to avert loss of life, and taxis roared past me in droves, their horns blaring angrily.
At last the road began to climb, the hotels and cafés were spaced further and further apart. I was vaguely aware of a good deal of blue sea and vistas on my right, craggy hills and more vistas on my left, but Jason and all his Argonauts could have sailed by and I'd not have dared allow my eyes to flicker from the road ahead. Twice I was overtaken on hairpin bends by crazed taxi drivers and once I was almost forced off the road and down a precipitous gully by the equally crazed driver of an enormous tour bus. Worst of all were the lorries loaded high with gravel and stone that careered downhill towards me at a speed which would have made braking a mere formality. And then, just when I was about to abandon the car altogether and complete my journey on foot, I saw the sign I had been looking out for: Neapolis. And underneath, painted in blue lettering on a plank of wood: Manoli's. Whooping with delight I swerved down a narrow road and round a bend and then I saw the bay, just as it had appeared in the holiday brochure, only a hundred times more beautiful.
Excerpted from Improvising Carla by Joanna Hines. Copyright © 2001 Joanna Hines. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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