This is a somewhat lighter and longer story about love and relationships. Is it worth investing in a lifelong relationship and all the predicaments it comes with? Alain de Botton concludes in his novel, The course of love, and I fully agree with him, that it is expected that true love and commitment may begin several years or even decades into a relationship and it is always the product of hard work against the odds by both parties involved.
They were walking down a winding path, when he spotted it.
‘Here, here,’ he said, noticeably out of breath, ‘that’s the place we had been staying!’
‘Are you sure?’
She was stunned. How much hope there was of finding the hideaway they had first inhabited as young lovers forty years ago?
‘Look, it’s not quite the same type of bookshop it was back then, but still a bookshop! And can you see the spiral staircase at the back? It must lead up to the same apartment we had stayed in.
Mauve teared up. She still remembered like in a snapshot that apartment up the secret staircase at the back of the bookshop, the staircase no longer secret in fact, but more like in plain view, if Jon was right and this was the same place they had first become lovers, hidden in the labyrinth like back streets of Fira Chora. They had met on the ferry from Piraeus to Cyclades and Crete. She was alone, he with a bunch of friends, clearly heading to the Greek isles for a boyish drunken holiday. Back then, there were no planes to the islands, so a day’s journey by ferry and sleeping rough on the wet, petrol infused floor of the upper deck was the norm. The boys were heading to Crete, Mauve found out, when Jon offered to buy her coffee after the unforthcoming bar tender refused to take her large note of Greek drachmas and said she could only buy the coffee, if she had the correct change. It was six am and they seemed to be the only passengers awake on the open deck along with the rude moustached sailor behind the bar.
‘You didn’t manage much sleep, did you?’ he smiled and it was at that moment that something had pinned Mauve’s gaze onto his face, his eyes were luminous, like a tiny bit of deep ocean surface where the sunlight falls and this matched well with the dimples formed by his smile.
‘I am not one for sleeping rough,’ she had shrugged her shoulders, hoping that her large sunglasses would conceal the black circles under her eyes and the bandana she wore on her head would make the mess that had become of her hair look stylish enough.
‘Neither am I,’ he smiled some more.
They had watched the sun rise together, sipping their strong coffees. Mauve could still not believe she had agreed to it, but before noon, they had both disembarked in Santorini, Mauve’s final destination. Jon could also still not believe to this day that he had the nerve to ask. ‘Can I explore Santorini with you?’ he had dared in a casual tone. ‘I can always catch up with my friends later, when you expel me from the island.’ This was the beginning, but what followed between then and now was much more like a roller coaster than watching the sun rise calmly over the Aegean Sea.
‘How come you are travelling alone?’ he had asked.
‘Does that offend your sensibilities?’ she had asked back, perhaps the first sign of what she considered to be her snappy and witty French temperament, despite her diplomat’s daughter good manners education. She gave him the standard story, her bohemian upbringing by parents who were too preoccupied with their careers and social life to really have any energy to restrict her freedom. In fact, her mother was a known sculptor, as unconventional as it gets, so she would be highly unlikely to think that there was anything the matter with her twenty-three year old daughter deciding to travel to the Greek islands all alone. It was years later that she confided in him that she was recovering from a broken heart, her previous boyfriend had dropped her softly by just being off the radar, which had put her in touch for the first time (but not the last) with the pain of her parents’ chronic oblivion of her throughout her childhood. The one thing she had promised herself was not to allow to be picked up by a man in her trip, not now, perhaps not ever again. Mauve knew that it was easy for her to attract the male gaze, yet she also knew by now that what happened after the initial attraction was much less pleasant and far more complicated.
Jon on the other hand, was rather lost. He had decided last minute to go travelling with his school mates who were all in the business of spending their wealthy parents’ money, as an act of minor rebellion against his own father’s tyranny. In his case at least, the money he spent on holiday was hard won in the form of slavery services for his father’s textile export business. He was in truth much less upper class than the rest of his mates and having money to spend came with a very tight string attached. Apparently, studying architecture, the one thing he had ever declared he had wanted to do was both expensive and not a profitable profession to follow, and though his father had a talent of imposing his will without once ever saying no, the message was received by Jon. He was to work to develop further his father’s financial affairs. As for his mother, she was a true bimbo of sorts (how else could she have been married to his father?), her apparent passivity (or was it indifference to his pain?) only exacerbated his father’s dominating tendencies, and so, the thing that had got him falling for Mauve instantly was that she clearly was nothing but a bimbo. He has had attempts at relationships before, but they were all rather short lived and after a few tries, he had almost concluded that not only relationships were not exactly plain sailing for him, but he did not much care about sex either.
That early afternoon in Santorini had remained indelible in Mauve’s memory. They took a bus to Chora, the only place where apparently they were likely to find a room to let, but after walking up and down the narrow winding paths, only stopping once at a small Greek tavern, where a glass of ouzo had nearly knocked Mauve off her feet after the sleepless night she had, they started losing hope that they could find a roof over their heads for the night. And another sleepless night would just not do. Just before dusk and after hearing ‘no rooms available’ one too many times, they were directed to the one and only estate agent in the little central square. The owner was a platinum blonde middle aged woman smoking a pipette. Mauve took to her eccentricity straight away.
‘My mother smokes one of those too,’ she exclaimed.
The woman offered them a seat across from her imposing stone white desk (everything seemed to be stone white in Santorini!) and started examining them with her eyes as though they were specimens in an insectarium.
‘Darlings,’ she said after a while, seeming amused ‘what got into you and you came to Santorini at the top of the tourist season with no reservation in hand? Besides, even if the locals have a spare room, they wouldn’t give it you, would they? You clearly look like a young, unmarried couple, and the English have no good reputation on this island. They drink too much and cause trouble.’
‘I am not English…’ Mauve started, but Jon gave her a sideways shushing look. She could almost read his thoughts, what were you doing mad girl coming here alone with no reservation for a room, he must be thinking.
‘Look, I am a physiognomist,’ the woman continued in her impeccable English. ‘In case, you don’t know what that means, it means, I can tell from somebody’s face, what kind of a person they are. You both have innocent, fresh, kind faces and you are clearly suited for each other. You will have a long, happy life together.’ Mauve and Jon looked at each other and they nearly burst out laughing. ‘I will give you a very special place that belongs to my family and we only give out to friends and family to stay when they visit. I will charge you the minimum rent, but you are to treat it with uttermost respect, no drunken nights, no visitors. Though I can tell that you will just want to be the two of you!’ At this point, her serious demeanour broke down and she let out a warm laugh.
The place she took them to would remain in Jon’s memory as one of these true magic moments in life and a turning point, as it was in that flat that he fell head over heels for the first (and last) time in his life and also, where he decided that he would study to become an architect and specialise in designing seaside properties. Right in the heart of old Chora, in one of its narrow streets, there was an old bookshop, full of dusty wooden bookcases loaded with books. Just behind one of these bookcases and out of customers’ view, there was a spiral wooden staircase leading up to a magnificent one bedroom flat overlooking the Chora and the sea.
‘And you can borrow any book you like,’ the woman said leaving them alone in the flat, very soon after she had shown them around.
That first night, they did not manage to defy the drunken English tourist stereotype. They drank so much that they fell unconscious in bed fully clothed next to each other. Mauve got up in the middle of the night and managed to get sick on her way to the bathroom, breaking yet another of the woman’s rules to ‘treat the place with respect’. They spent their first day there cleaning the mess and making sure no trace was left behind in case the woman came to check and changed her mind about them. Sex did not happen for a while and it was Mauve who had to prompt him, ‘it will not be my first time silly,’ she told him tenderly after Jon had given her a first timid kiss, but pulled back sharply. But in fact, it was a first for both of them, the very first experience of losing themselves into another.
In the years that ensued, Mauve often wondered if it was worth devoting a lifetime to a relationship with one person. Two miscarriages (one that she needed a blood transfusion for and the depression that came with it was so deep that she almost wished she had lost all her blood alongside that baby), three healthy children, a cancer diagnosis which nearly split them up (Mauve wanted Jon to take an alternative path, but he would only do as the doctor told, one of the leftover traits of his tricky relationship with his father, which he lived to regret as his heart was damaged after chemo and the best way to deal with the recurrence a few years later was the alternative path Mauve had suggested in the first place). Mauve flirted wildly with the idea of having an affair during the cancer years, but she decided she would rather abandon Jon than pick up the mess an affair would leave them with. When the cancer came back, she had decided to do just that unless Jon was prepared this time to face up to what was causing the cancer, his unresolved relationship with his father. By then, Mauve had trained as an art therapist, making good use of the artistic skills she has inherited from her mother and the ulcerated psychic wounds the emotional deprivation of her childhood had left her with.
Jon also wondered sometimes, if all the effort he had invested in this relationship was worthwhile. Mauve was easy to anger and not hesitant about expressing it, a trait that made Jon uncomfortable. In some ways, it was refreshing though, as the rage that had never even once erupted between him and his father, had done him the most damage after all. Yet, working hard to raise a family felt at times not that far from the imposed slavery by this father. When could he ever do what he wanted? At those times of doubt, he absented himself, he buried his head in work, but Mauve would just not let him be, it was connection or the end of the relationship, the message was clear. Jon thought at times that he had not been given a choice, but while he walked down the path where that first flat of their love above the bookshop was on the first evening of their trip to celebrate his retirement at sixty five and his thirty years of significant contribution to architecture, to also celebrate forty tumultuous, but glorious years of being together, he knew that he had chosen connection after all.
You can subscribe to my newsletter in the footer below and you’ll receive my blogs in your inbox monthly.