Cressida hugged her book. She had studied the Australian classic My Brother Jack by George Johnston last year in her literature class at college. It had been transformational — nothing less than her passport to a new life — for it had revealed a precious secret: you could choose to go and live on a Greek island. It was an epiphany, she decided. She sat smug with the knowledge that she was escaping her drab neighbourhood of monotone houses with rigid doors that remained closed against the sunshine. The grid of conformity had finally lost its hold.
She re-checked her safety belt. The reassuring band held her tight against her window seat. She replaced her book with an in-flight magazine. Idyllic beach scenes lazed across the page. Crete was renowned for its turquoise seas and white sands. And pink, she grinned, the thought offering a maverick sense of joy. She fumbled in her pocket and retrieved a small container. She slipped a pill into her mouth and swallowed. One could never be too sure.
Crete had been an easy choice. Get away, the sirens had sung, and lured by an array of aiding and abetting cheap flights, her usual struggle in making decisions went on hiatus. It made sense to run away to the birthplace of the Gods; as a child, she devoured Greek mythology, never fairy tales. She had read everything about the goddesses of old: Artemis, Athena, Hera, Demeter and Persephone. Time had been her co-conspirator as she immersed in their fantastical tales — eons away from her desolate reality.
Sitting compliant in her seat, she counted the minutes to take-off. Countdown to forever. Forever would take a bit over four hours to reach from England, and as she gazed up, distracted by its possibilities, a crack opened just wide enough to let an image of her mother slip in.
What the fuck?
Mother had no forever, not now. Cressida shifted in her seat. The man next to her had taken up all the armrest. She examined her mother’s image cautiously. Mother who, despite years of physical beat ups and emotional teardowns, never left the man she loved. Cressida turned the page of the magazine. She coughed and rubbed her nose.
As the plane began to taxi, she pushed her head firmly against the headrest. It wouldn’t be long now. Her hands lay clasped in her lap, her elbows in tight — a lifelong lesson of constraint. Body memory shuddered as he swaggered in, uninvited, trespassing her mind. She tried to block him but it was too late. She could at least avoid his face by focusing on the damage to his car. Side-swiped by a young learner driver. The car was a write off. Both cars were. The young driver had survived. Cressida felt glad about that. One less victim.
Her mother had stayed with her father in the hospital, sitting bedside for the two days of his coma and then mourned at his graveside, before succumbing to the eternal embrace of grief. Cressida had thought, had hoped, she was free of them.
The island airport greeted her with nonchalant hospitality and casual security checks. The bus into town maintained an aura of effortless welcome. Sipping her coffee, Cressida marvelled at the Venetian port. She never knew such beauty existed. She bought an English-Greek language book and set about organising a few day trips to learn more about the paradise she had inadvertently chosen. It seemed impossible that she was breathing in mythological air and walking down ancient paths.
Delight coloured her discovery of an older civilisation than the familiar pantheon of Greek gods. These Minoans worshipped a Snake Goddess. This Goddess was not any Adam and Eve fly-by-night snake, but a full-on Earth Mother, Divinity Goddess of Everything. The Minoans had been the most advanced European civilisation in the Bronze Age around 2000 BCE, and the island bore testament to many ruins of their cities, temples, and palaces. It was unbelievable to think this history had not been in the curriculum.
‘Perhaps it was taught on a day I wasn’t at school,’ Cressida thought, instinctively touching the slither of a barely visible scar on her forehead.
Brilliant sunlight streaming through the open window of her small flat in the picturesque village on the south coast woke her. Waking was never easy. Had she slept, or been hit? Possibly worse, was she waking from a panic attack? Immediate signs were noted: her pants were dry, there was no blood in her mouth or taste of vomit. She blinked rapidly to help recover memory and take in her surroundings. It took a moment to register where she was, and then her smile matched the sun’s. She had done it. She had a new home, a new job, a new life. She still couldn’t believe that she had been living here for several weeks. She had found the perfect village, where you could either walk in on trails or take the ferry. There were no cars, only pedestrian traffic. It was a destination, not a thoroughfare.
She had not dared to hope. She had learnt that for such a small word, it weighed heavy with expectations. Hope came with no instructions, only tears. She had come to Crete looking for escape; hope held no place in her dreams. Escape had been achieved.
Opening the door, Cressida welcomed the day. The crisp morning air kissed her skin. She struggled down the sandbank, her pink feet still tender against the particles of rock and stone, and was rewarded with a quick swim to the buoy and back, in pristine water.
It was a short stroll to the taverna where she worked; one of many, lining the shoreline with umbrellas and beach beds. The steady pace of service and laid-back attitude of her island’s hosts made work a pleasure. By late afternoon, the horn from the departing ferry was her prompt to collect the empty glasses, plastic frappe cups and overspilling ashtrays.
Cleaning up was already agreeably routine, and her thoughts wandered freely into stories, myths, or songs. She was accountable to no one, mindless work allowing for traversing trails of daydreams. Such was the power of the island that she could not help but be inspired. Tables cleared; she retrieved the mop from the back cupboard behind the bar.
“Where is my Greek broom?” she joked with the manager, searching out the hose. What he called the elastic’ did a fine job, and she took pride in the glistening marble floor. Once done, all was ready for the next shift of patrons who would arrive any time after 10 pm for dinner and drinking.
It was when the day’s work was done, the current book read, and time was her own that Cressida struggled. Settling in was more difficult than she anticipated. She was not hungry, but her stomach complained. It felt empty, like something was gnawing away, creating a hole, a gap — some sort of nothingness. Keeping busy meant walking, swimming, drinking. And drinking. And drinking. She revelled late into the midnight hours with her new friends, Tequila and Margarita, and danced with Dionysus in uninhibited glory.
Waking up became more difficult for different reasons. Her head hurt. Over the weeks, strong Greek coffee became a morning ritual. It was a relief when the nothingness in her stomach began to feel full. She blamed the fluttering on the copious amounts of raki shots and beer she consumed. It was, however, persistent.
Unbelievable. You idiot.
She lifted her head from the toilet bowl, before having even peed on the stick. Her self-criticism was familiar.
Bet it will be blue — just my luck — blue for positive, blue for a boy. Fuck.
Mother would have called her tardy.
More ‘negligent’, I reckon.
Her Greek had not progressed very far.
“Umm, I want ah, na thelo oh, you speak English? Great.”
She booked into the city hospital for a thorough check up, slightly more invasive than the urine strip.
Anxiety hitched a ride to the hospital. Her clammy palms reminded her to take deep breaths. The ferry was on time, gliding effortlessly into port over an oil-slick sea. Choosing a seat upstairs in the morning sun, Cressida adjusted her sunglasses before turning the page of her book. There was irony in considering terminating the residue of a random night of passion while immersed in a paperback romance. The ferry snaked its way past sheer rock cliffs standing sentry.
With the cold jellied tip of the ultrasound pressed to her tanned belly, she stared at a blob outlined on the screen. In the background, she heard the nurse proudly exclaim that she may be right, perhaps it was a boy, although admittedly it was too early to tell. Contempt seethed. A boy — not bad enough she was pregnant — but a boy?
“I don’t want a boy. Actually, I don’t want a baby, but especially not a boy.”
The nurse discretely left the room, avoiding the dark tone of Cressida’s outburst. Cressida poked her belly.
‘Whoa, now what would he say about this?’ she asked. She had not thought about her father for such a long time. She swallowed and tried to laugh it off. It sounded hollow and empty.
“Hey, you there, do you think…”
Tears started to fall. She ignored them.
“Do you think…” sniff, “you can come…” another sniff, “… come into my world.” She swallowed. “And… and… just change everything? Demand everything… just cos, just cos you’re a boy. Like your dick makes a difference? Do you?”
Memories as a daughter contaminated any possible maternal instinct. Accusations scratched at her throat.
“Are you gonna be a…?” she whispered hoarsely. “A fucker like him? Are you? Comes with the territory, you know. It’s in your DNA. Oh, he would like that.”
Tears prickled their downward path. The thin thread of emotion binding her to her father was a baited hook and leaked pain. Jagged breath splintered her lungs. Faded bruises and unseen scars rose to the surface of her skin. She sweated loathing.
What would he have said about this? The ache in her heart diluted her wrath. Incessant thoughts and questions started to crowd out her thinking and she could not find any clear space to sort it out. She bundled up her belongings and fled the women’s clinic with its scent of responsibility.
Outside, a glint of light flickered, catching her attention. “What the…?”
She looked up. The sky was blue. It was an enormous wide blue sky. The brilliance of light shone through its blueness. It was so absolute and certain. She had never noticed before. The blueness of the sky held everything, and yet nothing, in all its vastness. It stretched into infinity. She breathed in the pause. Breathe out, breathe in. Relax.
The lapse was short-lived. An incoming tidal wave of released emotion crashed through her mind, tumbling thoughts in its wake: Fuckfuckfuck. What have I done, what should I do, how could this happen, why, what should I do, what can I do, it’s not fair.
His words rode her tears as she dribbled angst into the world.
“You were right Daddy, I am dirty, I’m nothing, I deserve this. It’s my fault, it’s all my fault. I’m a dirty, dirty slut. You said so. You were right. I am so sorry, so sorry. Daddy?”
Disgust reached down into all her dark hidden places. She cramped in response and moaned. It ripped through her gut as disdain flexed its muscle. Wiping her streaked face, Cressida sneered at her pitiful state; no backbone, no grace. Woeful.
Numbness crept up, offering respite, but Cressida shook it away. She deserved to feel this bad, to be punished. It felt like home. Her thoughts scrambled through a maze of dead ends. She could not find any answers, consolation, or resolution. Her head spun. She stood up.
“Get out!” she pleaded aloud. “Enough. Enough now.”
Determination entered her game plan and speaking into the world outside her mind helped regain some control. Revulsion retreated and her thoughts receded to background clamour. This, Cressida could work with. She resigned to being pregnant for a few days longer, until she could clear her head of the white noise that had turned red.
Feeling like she had somewhat corralled the unrelenting chaos, Cressida boarded a bus to return to the port. She sat down the back where it was empty of passengers. When the bus stopped again, at some indistinct part of the main road, a large woman in a colourful scarf climbed aboard with her equally large and colourful bags and packages and array of children of varying sizes. She carried a baby strapped across her very ample bosom and a small, skinny child clung tightly to her one free hand. The woman was followed by a young boy holding the hand of a smaller version of himself. They trudged down to the back of the bus and sat opposite and next to Cressida, filling all the spaces and places of her desired solitude.
The woman heaved her large form onto the seat with a grateful sigh and the assorted children appropriated the remaining space around her as if neatly arranging a life-sized jigsaw puzzle. Well, not quite neatly. There were overflowing bags, bra straps flopping down dimpled arms, shoelaces flapping and was that, oh yes, thick yellow snot riding the inhale and exhale of the toddler’s breath through one nostril. Cressida shifted in her seat to minimise any hint of body language that might be confused as an invitation for interaction. Her attempt to blend into her seat failed dismally. Her blond cropped hair did nothing to help.
“Hello dear, yassas.” The woman addressed her in accented English. Cressida smiled weakly; there was no escape except point-blank rudeness. Before she could answer, her attention diverted to the young boy. She watched as he pulled a tissue from his pocket and wiped the toddler’s nose. Just like that. Everything in that moment seemed to change. Cressida felt a wave of gratitude. Nope, that was nausea. The woman turned and thanked the boy, “Efharisto, kalo agéri mou.”
She returned her gaze to Cressida. “This one is like his father, sees the smallest things and makes good,” she explained, and ruffled his hair with a hand that miraculously seemed to be free of child, bags strap and burdens of retail. She laughed easily. “We raise our sons to be good people, yes? That is our job. Well, at least we try.”
The bus lurched and the family scene shifted abruptly with the jolt. Cressida now saw a fat perspiring woman burdened with a sleeping baby at her breast, with a hardening trail of vomit and milk dribbled on to her dress. A child clung to her hand with a plastic nappy smelling oh so unpleasant in the afternoon heat. The two boys were squabbling over some minute plastic gadget banned in any self-respecting first-world country, which, having dropped onto the floor, was rolling down to the front of the bus, sending both these brats chasing forward in howls of protest. It was a sweaty, smelly, loud, dirty example of domesticity, and, overcome with this stench of humanity, Cressida gagged.
“Stop the bus!” she blurted, “err… stasi, na stamatisei”
Standing on shaky legs, she pulled the cord to make good her escape. Fortunately, it was a short walk to the port and relief rode on a fresh afternoon sea breeze. The ferry waited patiently at the dock for her to board. It was thankfully an uneventful return trip, save for a buffeting wind and a bigger swell than usual. After disembarking, Cressida walked along the shoreline of black sand. Waves tumbled awry, splashing her calves, then sucked at her ankles as they returned to the depths.
She sat on the warm sand and watched as the waves took it in turn to crash onto the shore. She wished the day would sort itself out.
Cressida woke disorientated, suspended in the faint smudge of a dream. She wriggled her fingers; pins and needles prickling her hands. Had she screamed? She looked around. The beach was strangely deserted. Stiffly she rolled over and sat up. She looked out to the ocean. The waves seemed bigger than usual.
She could not remember falling asleep, but she could remember the dream. The sole gift of a recurring dream is in knowing the outcome. She shook her head hoping to shake out the dregs, but the images remained. Caught between wakefulness and sleep, she could still see a younger blackhaired version of herself rowing a small boat. The craft was laden with woven baskets filled with animals. A previous dream stocktake had revealed a rooster, several hens, a urine-soaked billy goat, two does accompanied by knowledge one was pregnant, two sheep and a ram. They weighed the boat down. Although the ocean was calm, Cressida knew a storm would come.
She also knew that the boat would land safely in a small harbour. Yet her fear remained in the creases of time, for when the storm broke, with the rising crescendo of waves and rain lashing her face, it was impossible to see the cove from the water. Moreover, the young dark-haired Cressida was only a child and she had to carry the heavy responsibility of keeping the entire livestock safe, a weight just as solid as the massive oars held in her weakened arms. Cressida would wake screaming and drenched, soaked from either the waves of her dream or the sweat of her fear.
The mayhem in her mind realised she was awake and raised its volume. Her thoughts lobbed back into overdrive. Dozing off had only provided a temporary reprieve. Swallow, focus, deep breaths, plan of action — her doctor’s instructions echoed. Meditation might help, medication definitely would.
She looked for her pills — were they in her bag? She had not needed them since arriving in Crete. Was that four, maybe five weeks ago? Time here seemed to move at a different pace. Time was different; everything was different. If only she had not ruined it.
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