Albanian coastline from the White House Balcony with Kalami headland

Extract - Melissa's account of her arrival for the first time in Corfu



By the time I reached Corfu, the season was in its last gasp.

The White House Evening hung early over the bay when I walked the stony beach at Kalami and found the White House. It was just as he described: defiant on a rock, the sea clawing at its feet. On the headland behind, cypress trees pointed into a curdling sky. Pebbles crunched under my feet as I went closer, and waves sighed on grey stones. A brackish smell of nets and seaweed was sharp in the air.

This was how my search began. Looking for someone I didn't know, many years too late. And looking, at the same time, for someone I had always known, but trying to place her in a strange setting, reconfigured in some new history.

It was late October. My summer had disappeared, hour by hour, into the oppressive sun and rain of an English heat wave that drained suddenly into autumn while it was still August. Here, though, warmth lingered. I'd fallen asleep for an hour, late afternoon, to the weary hum of ageing insects and woke with the drumming thought: time present is only a breath, a heartbeat, and then it's gone. So I went out quickly, clutching the book. My knuckles were white around it, I noticed, as if my hands belonged to someone else.

I don't mind admitting it: I was nervous, frightened of what I might find and how much it might alter my old certainties when so many of the recent ones had already gone. In retrospect, it was the perfect frame of mind in which to begin what I was trying to do; alive to changes and misinterpretations, I trusted nothing.

This was a new way of thinking for me. It still felt odd, to have no trust in the world. But thanks to Richard, there was deceit and duplicity everywhere. It was like a cold knife in the flesh, this newly minted cynicism, sharpened by my own small deceptions to cover the wound.

Albanian coast view The lies had started as soon as I arrived alone at the boat hire office where I picked up the key to the Prospero Apartments.

'Unfortunately my husband couldn't come with me,' I told Manolis Kiotzas. He was frowning at the print-out of my booking, clearly made for a married couple: Richard and Melissa Quiller.

Manolis, a jovial, wide-faced man in his forties, was sympathetic and eager to offer help. He was also waiting for more. The Greeks are tactful as well as hospitable; for all that, they are unembarrassed in their curiosity about other people's lives, especially on this island. I had learned that much already from Julian Adie.

'Work…his business, he couldn't get away,' I said.

Manolis pulled down the corners of his mouth, with a wry twist this time. He nodded sagely, acknowledging a wise decision not to have cancelled in the circumstances. 'Is good you have come. You will have a nice time. Still sunny for a few days, nice rest, nice food...'

'I'm sure I will.'

'You come to the Prospero Taverna this evening, you have some wine…'

I smiled, without committing myself.

He handed over two large keys and gave me directions to the apartment, about a hundred metres further up the road. It was on the first floor of a modern house overlooking the sea, a few steps up a path on the hill side of the road. I found the outside stairs at one side, and carried my bags up feeling suddenly exhausted. There was no evidence that any of the other apartments in the property were occupied. The door opened easily. Inside, it was clean and white: a bedroom, a shower room and a sitting room with a basic kitchen along one wall.

I sluiced off the grime of travel, the early morning start on the motorway, the sweat of penned-in airport queues, then lay down wrapped in a dry towel on the double bed.

I could cry now if I wanted. It didn't matter. I knew no-one here in Corfu. No need for any pretence. The stupid lie to Manolis apart, I was feeling all right. Or as well as could be expected. There was relief in simply being away, a guilty relief, that the worst had happened and I could stop fearing it. I didn't intend to sleep, but my eyes closed and oblivion took over.

That first evening, thoughts of my mother came easily as I sat on the rocks below the White House. It was certainly possible to imagine her in this place.

A lilac veil was poised to drop over the water between the island and the mountainous Albanian coast so close by. Julian Adie's description of its hulking nearness was more accurate than I had expected.

Sunset over Albania, viewed from The White House
The Gates of Paradise was his account of an idyllic sojourn by the Ionian Sea, first published at a time when Britain was "a place of thin greasy soup and shrivelled lips" and most people could only dream of sensuous escape, of unbroken sunshine and the freedom to swim each day in dark blue seas, to eat fresh figs and drink wine, make love and write poetry under the sun. Sixty years ago, it was the book that made Julian Adie famous.

Near the end he writes of this very place, this fabled white house, after he and his first wife Grace had reluctantly sailed away in the teeth of imminent war: "It is never mentioned. The house is destroyed, and the lovely boat lies holed and upturned, a ribcage rotting in the sun. Only the shrine and the sacred pool are unchanged."

The Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's place of predilection Disingenuous, of course. All the biographical sources note, usually in a spirit of indulgence, that Adie was not to be trusted with the truth when it came to spinning his literary web. Better to mesmerise with prose studded with poetic jewels, to conjure a yearning nostalgia by smashing up the beautiful landscape, setting it out of reach like a myth, than to tell it how it was.

Maybe the house was damaged, but it was never destroyed, for all that the Germans cruelly bombed the island. It still stands, solid as it ever was, at the southern end of the horseshoe bay. The boat had been sold before they left, according to other accounts, and if Grace and Julian never spoke of their idyll it was because by the time he came to write the words, she had left him, taking their baby daughter with her. By 1945 she was back in England, while he was rampaging through parties in Cairo.

Time and truth are elastic. I could feel that strongly here, sitting on the rocks where they once sat and which he described so alluringly, peeling away the layers of the present and the past. The slippage of years is like a strong undertow of the sea over steeply shelving beach. Could Julian Adie have been right all along, in his romantic claims? Was it possible to escape from the English way of death, and emerge in the blue light of a Greek island to collect and restructure the past, current and recurrent?

The rocks under The White House


Between the bay's twin headlands where tall cypresses blackened into dark fringes, the sea was glassy. The looming foreign coastline was a bulge of rocky muscle, indigo-ridged on the horizon, as I strained the sinews of my own memory for the clues I must have missed.

There was no doubt in my mind that she had sent me here deliberately when she gave me the book of poetry and with it all the unanswered questions.

Collected Poems by Julian Adie, published 1980. On the title page is an inscription by the author. "To Elizabeth, always remembering Corfu, what could have been and what we must both forget."

To Elizabeth, my mother.

Kouloura Bay


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