Part of getting sober is facing up to your past behaviour, your misdemeanors. And then finding the people you have hurt and doing your best to make some kind of restitution.
Six months sober, and thirty years after I had worked for her, I tracked down Alison to an address in New York. I sent an email apologizing for walking out of my job and her and Thor’s life. Would she even remember me, I wondered. God knows. But at least I’d written.
Two hours later an email came winging its way back.
A joy to hear from you Dom. All is forgiven.
She’d been sober those thirty years, had a full life and was author of many books, including the global best seller, Anne Frank Remembered. Thor was in his twenties, living in Hollywood, working in film. She still had a house on Hydra, went there several times a year.
A few months later, I was in New York on business.
Alison and I met for dinner and we talked and talked; laughed and cried. About her writing career and its ups and downs, Her love affairs, and their ups and downs. And about Hydra and those we knew there. Quite a few were dead. Decent people with fragile minds, casualties of drink, drugs, life.
“We’re survivors Dom, survivors,” she said.
Indeed we are. Survivors and dear friends.
Who would have thought that nearly fifty years on from our first meeting, Alison would be writing kind and generous words about a book of mine?
Funny how the world turns.
Towards the end of the summer I went to Gozo to meet up with my parents for a few days. On the second day I became ill and was rushed to the island’s hospital, a crumbling single storey building, its paint peeling and metal windows rusting. The only spare bed they had for me was in the geriatric ward.
I spent a sleepless week with the old and the dying. Four o’clock in the morning is the optimum time to die. The death rattle? It’s loud and long and lonely.
I was flown back to hospital in London. Word was sent to Alison that I wouldn’t be returning to Hydra.
I never got in touch with Alison. Never apologized for letting her down, for walking out on a young boy who had placed his love and trust in me.
More tomorrow, the finale.
I started work the next day. Six days a week with Thor. One day off, mixing with lost-soul expats like Bowery Bill who’d been washed up on the island years ago and had never left.
Bill was in his late fifties, a gravel-voiced and cantankerous drunk. The young inheritor of a modest trust fund, he’d lived in Paris in the forties. I’d buy him drinks and he’d tell me stories about the Lost Generation of Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein. I revered their work and had worshipped them all from afar. Once a week this old man shared his memories that brought me within touching distance of their lives.
I was in heaven, living on bohemia’s sidelines. Lawrence Durrell visited the island and I got his autograph. Leonard Cohen had a small villa behind the port. I never talked to him but I sat near him in cafes and tavernas and that was enough.
Alison was a writer, but alcohol was proving too much of a distraction for her to get beyond page one.
I didn’t know who or what I was. And alcohol wasn’t making the picture any clearer.
All I knew was that I felt safe living in the island’s embrace, under Alison’s roof and looking after Thor.
WEALTHY MANHATTAN LADY SEEKS YOUNG BOY
Hydra. Spring. Circa 1970.
I’d been on the island a day and wanted to stay forever.
No roads, no cars, revving engines, exhaust or pollution.
Donkeys set the pace here.
Washing machines, fridges, TVs, even dining tables - seemed no load was too heavy. All items collected off the day’s ferry from Athens, strapped onto tired, hollowed backs and delivered across the island.
The little town was built round a horseshoe of a harbour. Lovingly maintained blue and white caiques bobbed at anchor. A lazy, peacock blue sea lapped against the harbour wall. For an hour every afternoon, the island’s pelican stood sentinel on an ancient canon.
I was in a waterfront café. My funds were low and I was making my coffee last as long as I could. Behind and above me, the town’s houses clung to the rock. Every house a crisp icing sugar white, bright against the blue blanket of sky above. Pastel-coloured doors and windows - lavender, lemon, and pistachio dotted the buildings with blushes of colour. To my young and impressionable eyes, the town felt like a living, breathing work of art.
A couple sat near me with their two children and we got talking. They were Danish and were staying on the island for a year, home-schooling the kids. Very alternative. I told them I was travelling and needed work in order to stay on the island.
They knew just the lady, they said. She was looking for a young man like me. She’d be joining them shortly and they suggested I sit with them, have a drink and meet her.
Alison arrived with Thor, her six-year old son. She ordered a Rusty Nail, a lethal cocktail of drambuie and whisky mixed – and Thor asked for an ice cream.
Alison and I talked for a few minutes. Where was I from, how long would I be on the island, how old was I? Simple stuff, but she must have liked the answers. She was looking for an au pair boy to look after Thor, would I be interested?
Drinking. I seemed to take to it like a duck to water.
When I went out, it was hard to get me back indoors.
I was the last person to leave my own wedding. It was a free bar.
"Until this bar shuts, I’m staying”, I said.
Got a job in a bakery. Perfect because it was opposite the pub. I drank every day at lunchtime, 6 days a week. I would sleep on the table at the bakery rather than go home.
I had to leave that job, unfortunately. I became allergic to flour dust.