CAPTAIN FROM CORFU
A Novel of Adventure and Romance
It always gave him a strange feeling to return to Corfu.
So many happy times he remembered from before the war. Diving through the seaweed for colored shells, catching crabs, playing in the olive groves where he and his brothers chased lizards hiding in the moss-covered walls. Listening to the cicadas and goldfinches and the buzzing of insects in the thickets of myrtle. There was nothing better to be a boy growing up on an island and to be a Greek.
Nikos paced back and forth on the bridge of the ship smoking a cigarette.
So long ago now, those good times with the family. His father, tall, severe, his mother singing in the kitchen while she baked bread, his two brothers . . .
They were all gone now.
He still had the ikon of Saint Nicholas, his patron saint, that his mother had given him the first time he went to sea. It had protected him during the war and on many voyages since.
They were passing through the narrow channel between Albania and Corfu. There was bright sunshine, the air was warm, a beautiful day. The sailors were happy. A Greek ship returning to Greek soil after five months in the Caribbean.
He looked through his binoculars. He could see figures waiting on the dock, waving at the ship. He gave a blast of the whistle.
He wondered if Fanis had changed much. At this age there were always changes. They would telephone Evangelos in Athens. He was in school and he would see him in a week. At Easter the shipping line let the officers' families travel on the ship. The purser was not married but all the other officers were. For a Greek man, the family came above everything. The sons. When you get old, they are your tomorrow. If you have no sons, there is nothing.
A girl on the dock was waving a long white scarf. She was young, the girlfriend of one of the crew. The sailors were leaning out of the portholes cheering.
He even liked the pilot who had come on. But then he was Greek. Nikos smiled. It was good to be back in a Greek port. Seagulls were following the ship. Greek seagulls.
They pulled alongside the dock. He saw Katina and Fanis. She was wearing a red sweater and a brown skirt. She had put on weight. Fanis was jumping up and down. He waved to them.
Fanis started to run toward the ship. Katina caught him just as he neared the edge of the dock.
Nikos smiled. You always had to run after Fanis. He was crazy about ships, about water. Not Evangelos. Evangelos, plump, studious, his head always in a book. He took after Katina's family.
He waved again. It was good for a man to have sons.
Alexa looked up and saw the captain waving from the bridge to some people on the dock. She followed his eyes and saw a woman holding a small boy by the hand. The woman was dark, very Greek-looking, her heavy black hair escaping from a coil at the back of her neck, and Alexa judged her to be in her early forties. Alexa wondered if she had been pretty when the captain married her. The woman walked down the pier holding tightly to the little boy who was trying to pull away. The boy was dressed neatly in gray shorts and a blue sweater with high white socks and polished black shoes, and Alexa wondered again at the European custom of dressing up their children in their Sunday best, while the women were indifferent about the way they looked.
Somehow she had pictured the captain's wife differently.
She moved away from the rail. The sailors were shouting and laughing and calling greetings in Greek to the people on the dock.
Then she saw the sign: 21 APRILIOU.
April, she thought, I can read that much in Greek, but today isn't the twenty-first, it's the sixth of April.
The purser had come on deck and was standing at the top of the gangway. She went up to him.
"What does that sign say?" she asked, pointing.
His face darkened. "The Junta," he whispered. "It is when they took over. Three years ago. They put the signs everywhere so we do not forget. As if we could forget." He stopped suddenly.
"I see," she said. She had heard that it was not safe for any Greek to speak against the colonels. They never knew who might report them, turn in their names as traitors to the regime. "I understand," she repeated. She would not mention it again.
21 APRILIOU. Like the swastika over Nazi Germany, she thought. It was like a gray cloud suddenly descending.
She took her landing tag from the bulletin board. The other passengers were forming in groups, waiting to board the sightseeing buses that had been chartered.
Eric clapped his hands for attention. The chattering continued. He picked up the microphone by the reception desk.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to disembark at Corfu. Be sure to pick up your landing tags before you leave the ship. The buses are waiting. You will be served a box luncheon at Kanoni after we have seen Achilleion Palace. The temperature is warm. It is a beautiful day. Welcome to Greece."
Alexa looked out the window of the bus. Groves of olive trees and fields of wild flowers, yellow, purple, and white. A peasant woman walking along the road in a gray dress with a black kerchief, carrying a blue basket on her head. Stucco houses, white with blue shutters, pink with green shutters, tile roofs, wisteria, calla lilies, laundry hanging out to dry in the bright sunshine.
"Oh, look," Bev said. "How adorable!"
A baby goat was drinking from a stream. Two old women in black dresses and kerchiefs looked up at the bus and smiled. One waved, and Alexa could see that she had two teeth missing in front.
They passed a young boy pulling a donkey. There were clumps of poplars and in the distance they could see Mount Pantokrato.
"Did you read Lawrence Durrell's book about Corfu?" asked the man sitting across the aisle from them who was an English teacher at a boys' prep school in Connecticut.
"No, but I'm going to when I get back," Alexa said.
They started up the hill toward Achilleion and were met by another tourist bus coming down. The road was too narrow for them to pass so both buses stopped while the drivers yelled at each other in Greek, waving their hands.
"This is interesting," Bev said. "We may be here all day."
Finally their driver made a gesture with five fingers extended, turning his open palm to the man. The other driver did the same thing and spat.
"I think that's the gesture they warn tourists not to use if they're counting on their fingers," Alexa said. "It's supposed to be one of the worst Greek insults."
Shouting more obscenities in Greek, the driver of their bus backed down the road and pulled over so the other bus could pass.
"I'm glad they settled that," the English teacher said. He took out his guide book and started reading a description of Achilleion to his wife.
They pulled up outside the gates of the villa and let everyone off the buses. Achilleion was a smaller version of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and painted the same Hapsburg yellow. In front of the entrance was an oval bed of bright red tulips. There were statues everywhere, on the balconies, the stairways, in the gardens, dominated by the favorite of Empress Elisabeth, the dying Achilles. It was all garish and overdone, Alexa thought, but the setting was superb. Looking out over the sea toward the coast of Albania, there were winding paths with wildflowers and purple iris, old pines and cypress trees, and birds and butterflies. She could picture the empress wandering through these gardens, lonely and tortured, mourning the death of her son, the Crown Prince Rudolph at Mayerling, and somehow finding peace here.
"Now let's go inside," said Anastasia, the Greek guide.
The interior of the villa was decorated in monstrous taste with much gilt and marble. The upstairs was roped off, and Alexa was disappointed, as she wanted to see the bedroom of Elisabeth.
"This is the chapel where the empress spent much time praying for her son," the guide said.
There was a beautiful painting of the Virgin and Child above the altar and on the ceiling a large painting of Christ and his disciples. The chapel was tiny but it had an air of peace and beauty. Alexa was sorry they had to rush on so quickly.
They went through the other rooms, each more hideous than the last.
"This is Kaiser Wilhelm's desk," said Anastasia. "You must remember that the Kaiser had the palace after Elisabeth, and much of the heavy furniture that you see belonged to him."
There were photographs of the Kaiser and his family and pictures of the royal yacht. In glass cases were letters and jewelry belonging to Elisabeth and the Hapsburgs.
The group stood in front of a large oil painting of the empress.
"As you can see," Anastasia said, "she was one of the most beautiful women in Europe."
The eyes of the tragic Elisabeth looked down on them.
"But unfortunately," continued the guide, with some satisfaction, "beauty is no guarantee of happiness. Now, back to the buses." Anastasia wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses and on her upper lip there was the hint of a mustache. "Please, ladies and gentlemen, do not stop to buy postcards or souvenirs now. We are due at Kanoni and we are late. Come." She beckoned to the group and said something in Greek to the guard, shrugging her shoulders hopelessly.
* * *
Nikos walked slowly along the beach holding his son's hand. There were herring-gull tracks in the sand and the cove was deserted except for an old fisherman.
"We must get back to the house now, Fanis," he said. "It is time for luncheon. Mother will be waiting."
It was precious, this time with his son. They climbed the steep path, rocky and winding among the myrtle groves. At the top of the cliffs he looked back and the sea had become a deep emerald.
"Can we go fishing afterward?" Fanis asked.
"Perhaps for a little while. I have to get back to the ship."
Fanis looked disappointed.
He rumpled his son's dark curly hair. "I think there will be time."
To the boy, Nikos thought, the touch of the father is different from the touch of the mother. The mother is gentle, she protects him, but he needs the father. The father must teach him to be strong, brave, to be a man. A Greek man.
"Look!" Fanis pointed. A brown and yellow shell lay in the path, and then a wrinkled, scaly head appeared cautiously and bleary eyes blinked at them. "A tortoise!" He ran toward it.
The tortoise blinked again, then he spread his legs, rose slowly, and ambled down the path toward a clover patch under a cypress tree. They watched him. The tortoise's mouth opened, he tore off the clover leaves and sat there munching happily.
"Come," Nikos said. "We must eat too."
They walked on. A swallow-tail butterfly pirouetted in the sunshine. The tinkling of lambs' bells came from the olive groves.
Ah, my son, he thought, may you never lose the wonder and joy in being alive that you have now.
"Nikos! Fanis!" It was Katina's voice calling them.
"We are coming."
He saw her standing in front of the white stucco house with its blue tile roof and shutters. The house of her parents.
"Stelios and Manolis are here," she called.
"Ah, good." His cousins. He had not seen them for a long time. They would sit around the table and talk, tell stories, find out what had happened to everyone. And then suddenly, as always, he would become restless, he would want to get back to the ship. "Hurry, Fanis," he said. "We are late."