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1 Oleander House

Σελίδα 1 από 25


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ilda carefully picked up the arm of the old RCA record player and touched the needle to the vinyl surface. The room flooded with the sweet melody of a song from a different era. If you could come for a while, if only for one night to fill my deep darkness with light within your arms’ warm embrace if you could just come for a while, before you are lost.

She began singing along, softly murmuring in a high voice. She rose to her feet in a trance as she sang, as if responding to an invisible hand that had beckoned her to dance. Embracing her invisible partner, her eyes closed, she swayed around the furniture to the sensual, passionate rhythm of Danae’s voice, repeating the lyrics as she danced. Where are you truly on this night that I feel so, but so, alone . . .

She often listened to this song, on moonlit nights like this, when no one was at home. When it ended she would play it again, listening to it over and over, never tiring of it. She listened to it even more often when she felt troubled in the depths of her soul. It transported her back to a poignant moment of the unforgettable spring when—at the dance of the music school where she was taking piano lessons—she met him. Thanos. It was 1938. She’d never been to a dance before and wore a beige-colored lace dress with an open satin collar and pumps bought specially for the occasion. There, at her first dance, the imaginary hand that now beckoned her in her daydreams, had actually reached out to her and invited her to dance.

Σελίδα 2 από 25


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No matter how much she wanted to or how hard she tried, she never managed to find out more about the young man who had danced with her that night. After the dance, he nestled her in an armchair before leaving, touching her hand for the last time as he looked into her eyes. He had sparkling green eyes, his face framed with luxuriant curls that flopped in tufts to the right and left. Was he a musician, Jilda wondered? His wild hair seemed to say so. Maybe, she couldn’t tell. She never saw him again except for in her daydreams. After that night, out of stubbornness, she never touched the piano again. For a long time she persistently believed that he would come back and take her away to live with him, dancing as they had that night. When she later heard Danae sing “if you would just come for a while,” she associated the song with him and began to imagine that he had written it for her. This is how the song became part of her life and remained there forever. Meanwhile, she had naturally married someone else—Petros, a medical school graduate. He met with the approval of Jilda’s aunt, who had raised her and was like a mother to her after both of her parents had died. But Jilda never fell in love with him. Even now, just as then, she didn’t want him in her life and resigned herself to living with him because she had nowhere else to go. She agonized over her loveless marriage for many years and reached the point where she felt overwhelmed and couldn’t take it anymore. But divorce and separation were never part of Jilda’s moral code, which is why she didn’t dare to leave him. She hardened her heart and persevered. The scratching of the needle on the last groove of the record awoke her from her reverie and she found herself her sitting in the armchair, her eyes fixed on the dining room chair. I’ll dance again but this time with the chair, she mused to herself. After all, Petros isn’t here. And anyway, what’s the difference between Petros and the chair . . . they have the same

Σελίδα 3 από 25


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soul, she said as she broke into laughter, creating the kind of physical spasm that made her say “that was good for me” when it was over. The doorbell rang suddenly, causing her to jump to her feet with a start. She looked up at the wooden clock on the wall; Petros had returned from his work at the hospital. She quickly turned off the record player and stuffed the record into the cupboard of the buffet. She straightened her skirt in one swift movement, rubbed her eyes, smoothed her hair and proceeded to open the door. Petros came in upset. He gave her a sideways glace as he pushed past her. “Where did you disappear to? I’ve been calling you since six and I haven’t been able to reach you,” he said as he threw his leather jacket onto the chair. “I took a jam tart to the new neighbor across the street. Why what’s wrong?” “Your sister’s dead.” “Ellie? How? So suddenly? Oh God!” “She was found dead in her house. They don’t know what caused it yet, probably her heart.”

* *

*

The truth is that Jilda wasn’t very close to her one and only older sister. She felt resentful towards Ellie because, being older, she’d had more time to know their mother and be cared for by her. A little while after Jilda was born their mother abandoned them as well as their father in order to run off with another man to America. After this, Ellie was taken care of by their father and Jilda by their aunt, her mother’s sister. “They might as well have thrown me in the trash!” Jilda was often heard saying. Although her aunt was a serious, cultivated and God-fearing woman who cared for her just as a mother would, Jilda never

Σελίδα 4 από 25


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saw her in that way. She always considered herself to be an orphan. Her father died later, but in the meantime her much older sister Ellie joined the Red Cross and became a nurse. The family home in Vrilyssia, “the house with the oleanders” as they called it, was inherited by Ellie. As they were both alone in the world, the two sisters talked occasionally, each one always finding something to criticize about the other’s life. Ellie never married. For years she lived with a left-wing writer and poet who was always unemployed. When he died, Ellie fixed herself up with his brother who was a mechanic, whom she also never married. He had a daughter from a previous marriage and kept trying to convince Ellie to leave the family home to his daughter. Ellie never liked the girl and was always commenting that she was “galavanting around with this and that man.” As if she herself had behaved differently. She always responded to the mechanic by saying “alright, alright” but never actually did anything about it. In the summertime, Ellie would go away with the mechanic to the island of Andros, which is where he was from, and Jilda would go to the house and water the oleanders, even though they really didn’t need much water. “Mind my oleanders Jilda, don’t let them wilt,” Ellie would say. The oleander plants certainly were beautiful with all of their vibrant hues. Some had white flowers, some salmon, fuchsia, pink and red. In the summer when the flowers were in full bloom, they displayed their colors like teenagers cruising the boardwalk of a busy seaside resort. Now that Ellie was dead, Jilda would inherit the house, as she was the only living relative. What would become of the mechanic? He didn’t seem to need much. “I’m going . . . I’d like to live out the rest of my days on Andros” he told Jilda. It was Ellie who was behind Jilda’s marriage to Petros. She was the one who had met him at the Red Cross. He was a young doctor, still gaining experience in his area of specialization, but

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he was likable enough and had a promising career ahead of him. And what cunning plan did Ellie hatch? She went straight to their aunt to discuss his suitability as a possible suitor for Jilda, keeping her sister in the dark the whole time. She knew that Jilda wouldn’t like it and especially if Ellie had suggested it. That’s how the good doctor showed up one day, when her aunt supposedly wasn’t feeling well and how “it all came to pass,” as Jilda would say when she described how she met the doctor. She accidentally discovered what went on behind the scenes leading up to her marriage by picking up and reading the “wrong book”. It was a day when she had gone over to Ellie’s house to water the oleander plants. She had turned on the garden hose and waited in the living room until the oleander plants were sufficiently watered. To kill time, she took a book off the shelf. Only it wasn’t a book, it was one of Ellie’s old diaries, which described the whole story in detail. At first Jilda was livid; she even considered taking revenge on her sister. She toyed with the idea of putting the garden hose that she used to water the oleander plants into the house and letting it run until it flooded the rooms. So! This was the real reason why she had ended up leading this dull life with Petros. With that dull, terse, rude, unattractive man, who never lost a chance to chip away at her soul. How could it be? How could Ellie do that to her? When Jilda was younger she thought that since it was her aunt, who loved her so, who had introduced her to Petros, that he must be good man and that everything would work out for the best. But now it dawned on her that that wasn’t how it had happened at all. Now she finally knew the truth, that Ellie—whom she struggled not to curse in her mind,—was responsible for her life being stolen from under her. She had already stolen her happiness just by having being born first and having had more time with their mother. And once again she stole her happiness

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when she introduced her to that scumbag Petros. Jilda hated talking about her husband that way. But what kind of man was he? He didn’t give her children or a life worth mentioning, or anything, anything at all! With all of these thoughts racing through her mind, the water overflowing from the oleander bed, she put the “wrong book” back in its place, locked up the house as well as her mouth, and left. She never said a word of what she had discovered to anyone. Only on those moonlit nights when she was alone, would she put on the record again and again and listen to Danae sing, “If you could come for a while, if only for one night . . .”

* *

*

Petros, a doctor for so many years, had only ever given her a miserable apartment that housed the two of them as well as his surgery in Pangrati. In Pangrati! An established doctor with so much experience. Granted, the apartment did look out onto the park behind the Byzantine museum. It was close to Evangelismos hospital so that the doctor was within walking distance of his patients when they needed him. But of course, Doctor! He didn’t even have a car. “I’m not saying that he should get one for me” Jilda would say “but the first people to afford cars were doctors! And him . . .” she would slap her knees with her hands in frustration, as if she didn’t know what to say. But now, now she vowed to show him who she was. Look at what life had brought her. Her father’s house, “the oleander house,” a beautiful neoclassic house, which her father had built so that he could spend the summers in Vrilyssia, was now hers. Better late than never. She’d ask Petros to move there. Nowadays Vrilyssia was a suburb north of Athens. The doctor would retire soon and keep seeing only his oldest patients—whoever hadn’t died

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in the meantime that is. This was a good opportunity for a change of scene, a change in their lives. After her sister’s death, the inheritance was settled and one morning, like an excited new home-owner, she entered the “oleander house” with the help of a locksmith. She had needed the locksmith because the mechanic who had been living with Ellie had suddenly disappeared after the funeral without a word to anyone, taking the keys along with him. She installed new locks, paid the locksmith and wandered through the rooms with her new keys clenched tightly in her hand. Everything was as she remembered it to be and as Ellie had left it, except for the mechanic’s things that were no longer in his room, and quite a few books were also missing from the bookshelves. “This is where I’ll put this, with that there, the couch here, dining table there” and on she went. The upstairs had two bedrooms and a guest room, “this will be my room and the doctor can sleep next door,” she said emphatically. “It’s high time that we each have our own space, there we have it.” Despite the strange way that all of it had come to pass, she felt that her father had finally left her something, even though he had never showed her that he cared about her while he was still alive. She gathered her purse and keys and got ready to leave. She’d come back another day so that she could begin settling in. She went out the door, locked it behind her and walked through the garden which was blooming with oleander. As she was locking the outer gate she looked at the plants and spoke to them. “Do you remember when I took care of you during the summers? Now you’ll bloom for me,” she said to them. What was that about, talking to the flowers, she thought and smiled as she put the keys in her purse. That was when he suddenly appeared. “Good morning madam,” someone said from behind her. Jilda gasped in surprise. She had been lost in her thoughts.

Σελίδα 8 από 25


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“I’m sorry madam, I didn’t mean to startle you,” said a mature gentleman wearing a lightweight grey suit, as he stepped out from behind her. Jilda gasped in surprise once again, as she turned and saw his face. “I am Athanasios Saracenos” said the Head of the District Police. Jilda wanted to cry out but no sound emerged. Her jaw dropped leaving her mouth gaping open. She held her hand up to cover it so as not to show her doubt and surprise. What was it that caused her to lose her voice when she saw this stranger’s face? “Pardon me madam,” Saracenos said, somewhat awkwardly but with confidence. “I came because some neighbors called to report that the home of the recently deceased Miss Ellie had been entered.” Despite this explanation, Jilda’s facial expression remained frozen in surprise. And why? The person standing before her had unruly hair that flopped onto his forehead in curly tufts, which he had parted in the middle, sending the curly tufts to either side of his face. “Thanos?” she whispered. “What did you say madam? Do you know me? Are you from Corfu too?” What could Jilda say to him, how could she explain this? No, she certainly wasn’t from Corfu. Forty years had passed from ‘38 to ‘78. Should she ask if it was he who had asked her to dance forty years ago, that night at the music school? That would be ridiculous! How could he remember? After all, maybe it wasn’t even him. But what about his hair—that unruly hair flopping around his face? And the curls that were no longer as luxuriant as they once were, but it was easy to tell that he had made some effort to comb them down into smooth waves. And those green eyes, that now

Σελίδα 9 από 25


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looked almost blue in the sunlight, the pale translucent skin, slightly blotched. Oh yes, it was him. Here in front of Jilda was her “if you could just come for a while,” as she called him in her mind. Her legs felt like jelly and could barely support her, but she gathered her wits and replied to him in a serious tone. “So when an unoccupied house shows signs of life, the police force sends the Chief?” she asked resentfully. His face broke into a smile and he rubbed his chin. He replied: “Of course not. But since she died suddenly and there’s been an autopsy . . . there’s something about Miss Ellie’s death that . . .” His voice trailed off. “Why don’t you come down to my office madam . . . What did you say your name was?” “Jilda Patrikiou” she fired back abruptly. “I’m Ellie’s sister.” “Ah. Of course, of course. Good Ms. Jilda, here’s my card. Come by my office tomorrow morning if you are able to so that we can have a chat about your sister. You might be able to help me answer some questions . . . all my questions,” he added politely, smiling and giving her a thumbs-up. “Including how you knew my name!” “How I knew his name?” she thought. So he wasn’t a musician, he was a cop? Impossible! She continued her inner dialogue. “He wasn’t who I thought he was, he wasn’t the one who wrote our song for me?” Could this cop really be the invisible dancer who, throughout the years, had beckoned her to dance during so many moonlit nights in her little apartment in Pangrati? What strange turns does life bring! How she managed to regain control of her limbs and walk away, only she knew. “Can I ask you something Jilda?” Saracenos said suddenly as he turned back. “Is your husband a doctor?” “Yes sir, he is a doctor.” “Your sister was a nurse if I’m not mistaken?”

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“Yes, a nurse.” “Did they ever work together? I mean did they work in the same place, or ever see each other?” “Well he’s got some nerve!” she thought for a moment, knitting her brow as she looked at him without answering. He recognized her look and continued. “Um, it sometimes happens you know, because relatives . . .” “I know sir. Ellie was in the Red Cross and my husband is a doctor at Evangelismos Hospital.” “I see, I see. Very well Jilda, I apologize. I’ll see you at my office. Goodbye.” This exchange caused Jilda to panic. What was the officer implying? And what did Petros have to do with Ellie’s sudden death? Ellie had been a wreck her whole life, even though she was ten years older. Petros wasn’t a great doctor, but he knew what a heart attack was. Her imagination was in frenzy. She schemed all the way back to Pangrati. She wanted to get home, grab Petros by the collar and press him up against the wall. She wanted to smack him and say, “We’re finished doctor. I have no desire to get mixed up with the police at my age, and because of you.” If only this was enough to set things right. A whole life Jilda had spent with him, and he never missed a chance to demean her, insult her, and break her down psychologically. Once, when some relatives had been invited over to their house, Petros had said in the presence of his brother who was a lawyer, his wife, and her mother-in-law, that women who grow up without their parents don’t make good mothers. What a horrible thing to say! When she heard this, her blood rushed to her head. So it was her fault that they didn’t have children? When he married her, didn’t he know that she was adopted?

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She was holding a glass of red wine and found the nerve to throw its contents at his face. “Maybe the red wine will make you blush about what you said” she retorted. Everyone in the room rushed to her. “He didn’t mean you Jilda!” they kept saying and the like. Can things like that be forgotten? She had wanted to leave then, but where would she go? She cried, sobbing as she remembered times like these when she deeply felt the pain of being an orphan for most of her life. As if that weren’t enough. Once when they were having their house painted, Petros had humiliated her in front of the painters just for suggesting that they paint his office beige. “Doctor’s offices are painted light blue, yellow or light green, woman!” he shouted at her in front of the workers. He had called her “woman”. What a brute. He didn’t know anything except for his work at the hospital. What’s more, he had developed some strange idea that she was cursed and he never stopped telling her this. He claimed that whenever he told her something about one of his patients, they suddenly took a turn for the worse or died. She seemed to be the reason behind everything that went wrong. “Even your own mother abandoned you!” he said to her one day. “You don’t deserve to be loved.” How could he say something so cruel? Why did he harbour such feelings of hatred towards her? Even with everything that she did for him. She was his companion, she encouraged him; she took care of him and made sure that he was always clean and presentable. She waited hours and hours for him to come home from seeing his patients. Then a new memory came to mind. Why did she have to remember this?! Petros had once taken her along to a patient visit because afterwards they were going to go to the theater. He had her wait for him in the living room for two whole hours all alone. She thought that he

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was examining his patient, but a two-hour examination? She couldn’t stand waiting anymore so she went to the bedroom and opened the door. And what sight met with her eyes? The doctor and his patient playing cards. Jilda was shocked. “When the doctor’s examining he is not to be disturbed,” Petros said cheekily. “But I’ve been waiting in the living room for two hours. I’m your wife and we have plans for later.” “When the doctor’s examining there is no wife,” he said harshly, shutting the door in her face. With all of these memories reverberating in her mind mixed with today’s incident, Jilda felt justified in slapping him at least once on seeing him. She’d been looking for a way to get back at Petros for years, even if this desire was driven by female spite. But she felt that she had been putting things off for a whole lifetime and her life had passed her by. Just as today’s incident would go by without her having done a thing. Without having said a thing once again. And not only that. Now she couldn’t, she wouldn’t be able to bear playing Danae’s record, to listen to and sing the words “if you could just come for a while,” swaying to the melody with him. “He did ‘come for a while’ and he’ll be waiting for me at his office tomorrow,” Jilda thought. “The police officer summoned me and I will go.” ‘The policeman’; maybe some good will come of it she thought and chuckled, saying “it’s good for me” as she always did when she laughed.

* *

*

Jilda woke up early, put on her robe, drank a cup of coffee and waited for Petros, cup in hand. A little while later he breezed into the kitchen, obviously in a good mood. She started talking to him about oleander house.

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“What do you say we go live there,” he said suddenly, with the first sip of his sweet Greek coffee. She wanted to hug and kiss him so much that she almost jumped on top of him. Like any woman would do. But she was still furious from yesterday. She wanted to use this opportunity to change her life. To have something exciting happen to her, something that would free her soul and expose her virtues. Not her vices. “We should, if it’s for the best,” she replied simply. “I wanted to tell you,” continued Petros “that your departed sister . . . Well you see, I spoke with Gika, the lawyer, and he told me that Ellie had an account at the National Bank with some savings in it, about half a million. We’re entitled to this money as well.” Now you’re talking doctor, thought Jilda. Yours, yours and mine, ours. “I have to go,” she said abruptly as she rose, picking her cup off the table. “I have to run some errands and then I’m going to go to Vrilyssia to get the house together,” she said quickly as she excused herself, in order to avoid further conversation that might cause her to let something slip. She went to the bedroom and took a beautiful beige mohair dress off the hanger in the closet. She held it up to her chest and coyly looked in the mirror. Then she remembered that she was in mourning for her sister, grimaced and instead reached for a grey wool dress with fine checkered print and a white collar, accompanied by a black jacket. By ten o’clock she was at Saracenos’s office, seated in the chair facing his desk that he had indicated to her. He had helpfully pulled it up to her and then sat down himself, facing her. As he busied himself opening and closing his desk drawers in search of a folder, she had the chance to furtively study his face. It was as if there was a magic glass wall between them.

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She knew who this man was, the man before her, the man she’d been dreaming of for so many years. Yet, he knew nothing about her. He could not even imagine, despite the fact that he was a detective. It was laughable. “Mrs. Patrikiou,” he said, shattering her reverie. “Please call me Jilda.” “Jilda” he said smiling. Then he immediately turned serious. “Your sister, as I told you and as you are already aware, died suddenly. She was found dead by the man she was living with. According to the law, an autopsy was required. The coroner couldn’t diagnose the cause of death, not even from the toxicology report, so he sent the autopsy record to the district attorney. Nothing came up however, and the case was filed away.” “But didn’t she die of a heart attack?” Jilda interrupted. “At least that’s what my husband, who’s a doctor, told me.” “Yes, from a heart attack,” said Saracenos, looking into her eyes “but they couldn’t find any medical reason that may have caused it. In any case that’s really not my department,” he said as he rose from his seat. “The fact is that her companion, whom she had lived with for years, paid me a visit after the funeral to express his concerns ad questions about your sister’s death, and so the case was reopened.” “So why was it reopened, did new evidence emerge?” she asked. “Yes of course. He came to us and recounted his and his daughter’s rights in relation to the deceased’s promises to leave her estate to his daughter. Then he said that you turned out to be the legal heiress and were left the house and whatever else . . . and that’s why . . .” Saracenos’s voice trailed off as he distractedly doodled concentric circles with his pencil. Jilda felt that he was implying something.

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“Whatever do you mean by ‘that’s why’ sir,” she shot back at him. “I am a suspect in this case because I’m my sister’s legal heir? Ellie wasn’t married and that man had an income from his pension anyway. What can I say?” “Hmmm. No Jilda, that’s not quite what I meant. What brought you to that conclusion? But the fact is that he showed us this picture and . . .” Saracenos pulled a photograph the size of a cigarette pack from the folder and turned it towards her slowly, as if he meant to shock her. It was somewhat old, the paper had yellowed and all the shades were in sepia, like all old pictures. He held it steadily in front of her face and pointed his pen at the woman.” “Do you recognize your sister here?” He asked her. “Yes, of course, it’s Ellie, much younger of course.” “And who is this with his arm around her waist?” “Jilda almost fainted. Her bag fell from her grasp and onto the floor, its contents scattering everywhere. “Is this your husband Jilda?” Saracenos demanded, as he bent over the photo to make sure he was pointing to the right figure. His hair almost touched her face. “Yes it is. But that’s not possible,” Jilda whispered, grasping at her bag and the things scattered around her feet, although what she really wanted was to crouch down and hide. “One photograph means nothing whatsoever!” she shouted self-righteously. She searched for her handkerchief as her eyes flooded with tears. She felt so embarrassed, so utterly ashamed. She took the picture out of his hands and turned it over. Written on the back was Aegina 2/6/1950. She placed it on the desk and stared at it, trying to remember. Nothing came to mind. Saracenos took a box of tissues out of the middle drawer of his desk and offered it to her. She plucked out two or three and wiped her eyes with ladylike grace.

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“I think that the man who gave you that picture simply wants to do me harm,” she said quietly. “He simply wants what’s in his best interest, but what am I to gain?” Saracenos asked. “Ah you . . . why don’t you just let it go.” She said finally, as she stole a sideways glance of his unruly hair flopping on his forehead. “Would you like some water?” He asked, pushing a glass towards her. “Are you going to keep me for me long?” “Not for much longer Jilda,” said Saracenos as he looked through the folder. “Tell me though; did you know that your sister met with your husband on the morning of her death?” “No I didn’t sir.” “Shouldn’t you have?” “Why should I have? He was her doctor and he checked up on her sometimes when she wasn’t well. She trusted only him because she’d seen a lot as a nurse.” “Yes, why should you have,” pondered Saracenos. “Perhaps because she is your sister, madam,” he continued, looking straight at her. “And why did your sister call a neighbor first, who then called the doctor? If something had suddenly happened and your husband decided to check up on her, why didn’t he say to you ‘I’m going over to your sister’s because she isn’t well.’ You live together don’t you?” “Excuse me, but why don’t you call him and ask him yourself? Why does it matter whether or not I knew where my husband was? Are you under the impression that he tells me where he’s going every time he visits a patient?” As she was speaking, Saracenos picked up the photograph again with two fingers, holding the edge, and waved it in front of her as if he wanted to say something and but felt she was

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stopping him somehow. He finally managed to get out the words. “Let me remind you because it seems that you don’t remember. This picture was taken on a hospital staff trip to Aegina Jilda. Did you go on this trip?” “No,” she answered with certainty. “But my husband didn’t go on the trip either. That’s what he told me, if I remember correctly, now that you’ve brought it up.” “Really? Then who is this then?” Saracenos asked tapping his finger on the picture. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but as you can see, I’m in a position to know that your husband was having an affair with your sister, and for a good many years at that.” She turned and looked at him, no longer in surprise, as she’d gotten over the first shock, but gazed at him girlishly as she had done at the music school where she had laid eyes on him for the first time. She wanted to cling to him, become ivy and wrap herself around him, ask him to dance to “If you could come for a while . . .” or even to “Tango Nocturno.” She wanted to explain that things had turned out this way for the best, now that she had finally found him, and that she would make herself available to be with him because she’d been waiting for him a whole lifetime. All of it was right there in the song lyrics “within you arms’ warm embrace.”. She wanted to tell him so many things. That’s why she had come to meet him. But there was the pane of glass that separated them, the awareness that she had while he was still in the dark. Yes, it was there. Or wasn’t it? It was his glass wall, his veil, that now allowed him to render the impression that he was informed, not her. She suddenly realized this as he pulled a bunch of letters wrapped in ribbon from his bag and tossed it onto the desk. “Here’s the proof,” he said. “Love letters between your husband and your sister.”

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“Are you inferring that Ellie was murdered?” “I mean to say that there is evidence indicating that your sister led a double life which you knew nothing about.” Saracenos looked at her as she nervously fidgeted in her chair, not knowing what to do with her hands, making it obvious that he had put her in a difficult position. Giving a gesture of desperation, he appeared to soften his stance. “Of course you’re not responsible for all this, but I happened to run into you yesterday morning at the house, and for the first time . . .” “That’s what I mean to say Thanos.” “How do you know my name?” he asked abruptly, turning the corners of his lips up, as if to smile. “Well . . .” she stalled. What could she say to him now? Jilda continued. “Well, you’re from Corfu and since I love music, . . .” then she artfully changed the subject. “But Saracenos isn’t a traditional Corfiot surname . . .” “My family originates from the Saracenian pirates who held siege to the island and robbed boats once upon a time,” he proudly told her of his past, forgetting the most vital element. “Really?” “Yes. The family finally settled in Kassiopi. I’ve hung my great grandfather’s Saracenian sword above the fireplace in our house on Corfu,” he told her, sticking out his chest proudly, as if this was proof of his mettle. “Being from Corfu you must enjoy music,” Jilda said, subtly steering the conversation in the direction she wanted. “It’s my soul,” he said, switching to the accent characteristic of the Ionian Islands. “I wanted to be a composer when I left Corfu. I attended music school after music school when I first got to Athens, but then . . . necessity caught up with me. How can one make a living from music?” “Er, we may have met before, Thanos.”

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But he was no longer paying attention to what she was saying. He seemed to be absorbed in thoughts of the past that the conversation had stirred up. He continued reminiscing. “One of my cousins convinced me to join the force . . . now that was back in ‘38,” Saracenos said, waving his raised palm backward, gesturing to the past. “It was ‘38 exactly, back when the composer Souyiol . . .” his voice trailed off, then he continued as if Jilda were not there. “ . . . All these years the job’s done me in . . . No house, no family, no children. You can’t begin to imagine what I’ve lived through in here, what my eyes have seen.” Jilda, having gotten what she wanted from the conversation, abruptly rose to her feet. “I will be leaving if the interrogation is over, if you no longer need me,” she said, bringing an end to his daydream. “But what interrogation, what are you talking about? We were just having a little chat. You see, we found something in common, music,” he said as he guided her towards the door with his hand on her shoulder. So he did actually hear what she was saying, Jilda concluded as she descended the stairs of the police station. Of course, after all, he was a detective and had to be on the ball. Jilda really didn’t care for police officers. It put a bit of a damper on her dream and the ideal image she had created. But this would-be musician, who had for years been her invisible lover, with his exotic Arab—as she had learned—rare and singular beauty, had arrived and turned her life upside down at exactly the moment that everything around her was changing. What he had told her about Ellie’s sudden death was bothering her now. She could feel a storm brewing inside her. So that’s why Ellie had passed Petros on to her, using their aunt as a ploy. So that she could have him somewhere nearby. Or was it after that they got together? Maybe the “wrong book”,

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Why

the journal, had made it into Saracenos’s hands as well, through Ellie’s boyfriend the mechanic? Maybe he knew more about her than he had let on, that Ellie had engineered her marriage to the doctor. God, how embarrassing, what a disaster! She felt that everything was collapsing around her. Some things were only slightly affected, like her fantasy . . .”if you could just come for a while.” But not like this, she babbled to herself! Other things were collapsing in a more dramatic way, like her marriage. Before she too collapsed into a heap on the sidewalk, Jilda waved down a cab and got in. “To Vrilyssia,” she instructed the driver and took her little compact mirror out of her purse. She examined herself and smoothed her stylish gray hair. Then, still looking in the mirror, she raised her other hand and with her palm turned towards her face, her fingers splayed, she made the classic Greek gesture toward herself, showing disgust. “There you are, fool!” she said out loud, causing the driver to give her strange look in the rear-view mirror. Jilda couldn’t get over the fact that she had found the diary and didn’t read the whole thing, just because she was distracted by the oleander beds which were flooding with water. She could have at least taken it and hidden it somewhere in order to read it later. Her anger and spite had clouded her mind, only this could explain it. Now, yes now, she would set the whole situation right. She would leave no stone unturned . . . Photographs, bookcases, drawers, closet; she would even look underneath the rugs to uncover her sister’s life. “Ellie led a double life and I had but half of one,” she said to herself. “Are you alright madam,” the cabbie asked her, looking at her again from the rear-view mirror.

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Why

* *

*

Jilda rushed into the living room and proceeded toward the bookcase. She noticed that quite a few books were missing from the shelves. The mechanic must have taken them, she thought, because he was the one who had arranged them there. Her sister wasn’t much of a book person. She took all the books off the shelves in search of the diary. She remembered that it had a hardcover in slightly faded green with dark red triangles at the corners. She found it on the third shelf, lodged between Boccaccio’s 10 Days’ Entertainment and Gorky’s In the World. She hugged the diary to her chest and rushed into the bedroom. “As my aunt used to say, ‘she who searches, finds what she is looking for’, ” Jilda thought. Her aunt had the habit of searching through her things, looking for love notes from unsuitable boys. Jilda continued her search, emptying the drawers and closets but to no avail, in the meantime making a mountain out of the clothes that got in her way. “I will find it in the same place that the mechanic found that photograph,” she murmured to herself and went back to the living room. She opened the door of the Elizabethan buffet and found one of Ellie’s photo albums, but the pictures she was looking for weren’t in the album. She went back to the bedroom and threw the photo album onto the bed. She grabbed the bathroom footstool and stepping onto it, reached up to the highest closet. She thrust her hands around inside, causing everything to fall out onto the floor . . . Hat boxes and hats, fur capes, scarves, neatly folded sweaters, lace curtains, blankets and a red wooden box tied shut with a ribbon, which tumbled out onto the floor making a loud thud. She grabbed it and promptly untied the ribbon, but in her haste it slipped from her grasp and turned over, causing its contents to scatter all over the floor. Out came a pile of pictures, letters, dried flowers, love notes, even pebbles from the beach which

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Why

bounced in all directions, as well as a card featuring a red, hand drawn heart on its cover, in the center of which Petros had written his name by sketching each letter in the design of a flower. As she was holding the empty wooden box by its lid, she suddenly erupted in a fit of rage and hurled it at the wall opposite her. But instead the box hit a globe-shaped, glass lampshade of a silver lamp that was positioned on an old desk. Glass exploded everywhere. The box and the heavy silver lamp crashed onto one of the desk’s cabinets, which popped open of its own accord. In a strange sequence of events, like a line of falling dominoes, the door of the safe that was underneath the cabinet opened and out rolled a gold ring, followed by a bar of gold, one or two photographs, a fat journal and a few more pieces of paper. Jilda leapt over the mountain of clothes and grabbed what looked like the biggest treasure—the picture! On the yellowed paper with its sepia tones she immediately recognized her father, with Ellie standing in front of him. She seemed to be about ten years old and was dressed in sailor-style clothing. Her mother was beside them, holding up a baby in a wicker bassinet with frilly lace trimming. On the back of the picture, written in ink, was the date February 1920. This was the year that Jilda was born; the picture was taken a month after her birth. She was the baby. The photo had been taken at a photographer’s studio. She had never seen her family all together before. The other picture was of a soldier. Then Jilda examined the ring. It was a man’s ring, with a flat gold oval piece in the center, on which four long leaves resembling some kind of plant had been engraved. Each leaf was decorated with an equal number of flowers, and each flower had eight petals. She eagerly opened the faded journal and on the inside cover she saw the ink inscription written in large calligraphy script: Life—Love—Death. Death, she wondered. How could someone start a journal with death? She quickly

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Why

leafed threw it and realized that it was her father’s journal. The entries had been made on random dates and were written with different pens and pencils. The first entry was dated August 1st 1913. In addition to the journal, there was a small book of the same size about oleander plants, with sketches showing how to grow them and drawings of its leaves and flowers. She weighed the bar of gold in her hand and looked to see if it was engraved. It was. She wiped the sweat off her forehead that had been trickling into her eyes and dumped the whole lot onto the bed, next to Ellie’s diary and the photo album. She bent down and gathered all the photographs and letters that had scattered on the floor when the wooden box fell and dumped those onto the bed as well. Finally she too fell onto the bed in a heap, exhausted. She wanted to stay in this position so that she could hide her tears. She wanted to fall into someone’s embrace. But her hand unconsciously went to her father’s journal. She pulled it towards her, and it in turn pushed the ring engraved with the four leaves and flowers next to her eye, so close that she it was too blurry to focus on. Oleander . . . she whispered in a flat voice. She slipped it onto her middle finger, opened the journal and began to read, taking in the contents on each page with whatever courage she had left. She wanted to read what her father had said without having to wait another minute, but the journal was dedicated to an entire lifetime, or rather four lifetimes. As many lifetimes as there were oleander leaves on the ring, flowering; father, mother, Ellie and Jilda. This lasted for days. She lost count of how many days it took her to read her father’s journal. She came and went from her sister’s house, in the morning and the afternoon, without breathing a word to Petros about what she was up to. She read the whole thing. She looked at all of her sister’s secret pictures; she leafed through all of the pages in her albums. She read Ellie’s diary, everything that she hadn’t gotten to the first time, which

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was most of it . . . again and again. She turned pages, lined up pictures in rows, sorted through the letters and categorized them according to date. It wasn’t due to indiscretion or idle curiosity; she wasn’t driven by female egotism, or even the opportunity for her to expose someone else. The time had come for her to piece together her own story, to fill in the holes of her life, to lighten her soul with the truth, the reasons she was an orphan and the cause of her loneliness.

* *

*

Continues in the pages of the book..

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Oleander House