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?
Little Good Harbour. Barbados.
Sunday morning, traffic is light and the turtles are having a lie-in.
So are the locals, except for the old fisherman rowing his way north to his lucky spot. It’s a tiny row boat, six foot long at most, and it takes him an hour to get there. He drops anchor, out comes the rod and he starts to fish, his back hunched against the sun.
He’ll be there all morning. A couple of good tuna though, and he’ll have money in his pocket for several days.
A cormorant floats on the thermals looking for breakfast. Then a silent kamikaze dives into the shallows. She surfaces, beak empty, and looks embarrassed - like someone who’s run for a bus and missed it. She glances round to check no one was looking and then takes off.
I sit on the plastic bench at the end of the pontoon. Sea crystal clear, one white sail on the horizon, a lazy swim.
Be grateful Dom. It doesn’t get much better than this.
The wind is blowing from the east today.
A ribbon of white smoke pours from the cement factory and floats out to sea. Against the empty blue sky it looks harmless, a benign and pretty strip of cloud but get too close and the smell of sulphur will tell you otherwise, its acrid taste catching the back of your throat.
The evergreen Travis makes his way along the foreshore with his net slung over his shoulder. Same old blue faded baseball cap, torn Tee shirt and baggy trunks. No shoes and a jaunty walk. He stops and watches the water then inches his way into the shallows until he’s waist high. He raises his net above his shoulders, pauses, and throws. The net billows out in a perfect arc and lands with a soft splash. Travis chuckles to himself as he hauls in his catch. Half a dozen bait fish flap and jump as he pours them into the bucket on the sand.
We board the Grady White and the twin 150 Yamahas power up and we speed half a mile out to sea and then Ralph drops us down to five knots as he plots a course due south.
Charlie sets up the rods. Five in all. Two outriggers with their pink and silver lures skimming the surface. Two downriggers, their five-pound weights taking the bait down twenty foot and forty feet. The last rod with another surface lure is secured in the middle of the stern.
Charlie watches the new radar he’s had installed. It’s meant to tell us if we’re over any large fish. Charlie admits he hasn’t watched the on-line tutorial. He fiddles with knobs. The screen flickers. An empty ocean floor.
My job is to watch the rod tips. Shout if they bend.
We pass the Sandy Lane Hotel. Charter yachts under full sail, a pest of jet skis skidding across the bay, a glass-bottomed boat lingering over the reef and its bounty. Turtles, moray eels, blue tang.
We head on down towards Bridgetown. I keep watching the rods but there’s no need for me to shout. Flying fish leap and fly forty, fifty, sixty feet above the waves before disappearing without a hint of a splash. A wonderful, ethereal sight, their silver bodies catching the sun as they fly silently just inches above the surface.
Sea birds come and look at us. Fly alongside at right angles and then give up when they detect there’s no food to be had.
We make a long slow turn in front of the old tanker that’s moored offshore. It’s a rusting, creaking, dying hulk, baking in the noon sun. There’s not a sign of life, a modern-day Marie Celeste. Ralph says it’s been there for years. Why? No one knows. This is Barbados, mate.
We head back up north at eight knots, closer to shore now and trying for barracuda. I sit and watch the rod tips. Not a flicker, not a twitch.
Being at sea is a cure for madness, says Charlie. Well, it certainly puts things in perspective. Brexit, Boris, Corbyn, Cameron. Whatever.
As we head back to Little Good Harbour we pass Travis in his little white skiff. He gives us a wave. There are two twenty-pound kingfish lying in the stern.
No wonder he’s singing.