PRELUDE TO AEGINA.
I have read in several literary sources that a Greek man, wherever he is in the world, hankers after his motherland and like a tracker-dog, will eventually find his way back there. Personally, I believe that for everyone, home really is where the heart is whether one is Greek or not. Nevertheless, if a camera were to film my life, the girl visiting Aegina in 1982 had no idea that 21 years later she’d have three children ranging from 11 to 7 years, an interesting part-time job, a lovely home, wonderful, witty friends, two predictable incomes and a husband who wanted to give all this up to return to his birth-place. But life is experience, and every opportunity should be embraced to enrich its tapestry, which is why I eventually relented and agreed to support George in his venture to return to Aegina
On my list of ‘things to do before moving to Aegina’, item number eight, below ‘get lawn re-turfed’,was ‘get ovaries scanned’. So one afternoon, before leaving to collect the children from their last day at school, I phoned down to scanning to ask a friendly radiographer if she could quickly fit me in between her list of patients . She obliged and as I lay impatiently waiting for her to acknowledge the re-emergence of a pesky cyst, her knitted brow remained knitted and the ultrasound hovered over one area of my abdomen, pressing and kneading. Words like “sinister”and “must exclude” echoed as if coming from a long, dark tunnel and I felt sick with terror. Wishing I’d deleted item eight, I shakily pulled myself off the couch; now I’d have to add other points to my list, like: ‘get MRI result’, ‘surgery’ and’ ‘ check histology result,’ perhaps even’ ‘cancel going to Aegina’.
At school, the children were high on excited farewells, proudly sporting their school shirts which were adorned with well- wishing graffiti, their faces sweaty and glowing with enjoyment of their end-of –term party. They mistook my detachment and swollen, tear-stained face to mean that I was sad to be leaving the warmth and security of our school community which had been the heart and focus of our lives for seven years
That evening, I was relieved to dispatch them to their grandparents for a week, which was supposed to have enabled me to complete my research trial data and prepare to ‘hand over’ to my successor but instead, my awesome employer, an eminent oncologist and compassionate friend, sped round from her gruelling workout at the gym, still dressed in keep-fit gear but armed with red wine, logical yet humorous advice and a plan of action to ensure that I could still make major life-changing decisions within a couple of weeks before giving up my house, job and the children’s schools.
Within two weeks I had had scans, blood tests and major surgery at a leading London hospital. Not once did I have to ask for anything, for this was all arranged altruistically by truly philanthropic individuals who genuinely wanted to help me.
Fortunately for me, ten days later the word’ benign’ resounded like party music and I was able to return to point nine on my old list.
During my post-operative convalescence ,my parents heroically organised the children to pack up their personal belongings, while I was periodically taxied in to work to sorely but surely tie up those inevitable loose ends . During the evenings, I interviewed prospective tenants, eager to live in our elegant Edwardian home and finally I found the right people who appeared to understand and love our house, a temple of our family dramas.
I don’t remember George flying to London to collect the children, I don’t remember them going to the airport or any profound goodbyes. I don’t even remember them leaving.
I suppose denial is a symptom of something and ovarian surgery is definitely a hormonal assault which coupled together seemed to create a state of detachment from reality, of being outside oneself.
My friends rallied round to help pack up my house contents and frequently made executive decisions to determine the fate of many useless items one acquires in life. Once the house was fully minimalised, leaving large unoccupied spaces which echoed when I walked, I hired the services of a most diligent Portuguese cleaner to work solidly for a whole day, cleaning every nook and cranny to create a sterile home for the tenants. The problem though was that when the work was finished, the house, spruced and smartened, appeared wonderfully enticing and as the evening sun-rays provocatively tickled the atoms of memory embedded in the dependable, old, wooden kitchen table, a host to the children’s first paintings, and homework projects and witness to the complete repertoire of our family life, I lingered for just one minute and indulged the comforting thought of imagining we weren’t going away at all, that the children would tumble noisily back into the house after an hour of bike-riding in the park and George would phone to tell me he was on his way home.
That evening, my sister, girlfriends and I treated ourselves to a sumptuous meal at our favourite French restaurant in St. John’s wood, a place normally reserved for intimate celebrations with husbands but we felt it was worthy of my final departure party, hence we spent several hours savouring our last few hours together, basking in the warm mesh of familiarity and security that is interwoven by the bonds of female friendship when, over the years our histories and shared experiences have intertwined.
I spent my last official English night tucked up in my childhood bedroom in the country house I’d mainly grown up in. My mother had cooked my favourite food; roast English lamb with copious quantities of swede, roast potatoes and brussel sprouts followed by sherry trifle. Dad produced one of his fine red wines and I relaxed temporarily in the safety and familiarity of home, resorting to the role of the protected child beneath the roof of un-conditional love. For that time at least, I took advantage of the symbiosis of caring and being cared for, typified by the parent/child relationship. Aged forty three, I was grateful to my parents for being alive and healthy and for simply being there for me on the threshold of yet another major life-changing event.
The following day was departure day and I still hadn’t quite grasped the enormity of what was happening; I felt as if I was taking part in a play for which I hadn’t learnt my lines. My parents, typical of their generation, are punctual people who like to be ahead of time, particularly if there is transport involved; I on the other hand, love the excitement of possibly missing my journey but beating the clock just in the nick of time. That day however, I wasn’t being allowed any opportunity to race against time; instead, my movements were policed by dad, who simultaneously cross-examined me, ensuring I’d remembered vital documents, packed all necessary items and for the umpteenth time assured him that I wouldn’t lift my over-weight luggage when I arrived in Athens.
Feeling vaguely nauseas at the airport, I felt as if I was waiting to enter a dentist’s treatment room and neither of us really spoke to each other but quietly enjoyed the comfort of hot cappuccino. Dad had placed my luggage onto a trolley which he held possessively, ensuring that no potential terrorist could slip in the odd bomb during a momentary distraction. I felt slightly irritated by the cacophony of hissing coffee machines, the banal chatter in multiple languages, chairs scraping across hard, polished floors and cups chinking as they re-met their saucers.
Finally, when the moment arrived to enter the departure lounge, my reserve collapsed and feeling excessively vulnerable, like a child starting school for the first time, I reluctantly bade my parents farewell behind copious tears and small stifled sobs. Out of embarrassment for myself and concern for them though, I tried to stop myself crying but the effort made my face ache and I was aware that I was heading towards adopting the guise of a bull-frog. After promising yet again not to lift any suitcases at Athens airport, and nodding in agreement to be emotionally strong, I hugged them, then stoically walked away, holding a tissue to my bulbous nose and fishing for my sunglasses from the depths of my handbag.
It wasn’t just saying goodbye to my parents that made me feel so emotionally fragile but more the realisation that I was leaving behind a whole lifetime of familiarity, my history and personal dramas which had all taken place on the same stage. Now my life was transferring to another theatre, another stage with new actors and a fresh script….
- Apologies to all for not having March/April issue on air but being obsessed with chronology of events, I wanted to write this piece.
- In future, each article will be available on the last day of each month.