The Fish

The Fish

Barbara van Schaik

A powerful man and his female companion begin to feel trapped on holiday in the Greek islands.

When they arrived the week before on the boat, it hadn’t looked like this and she had been disappointed. But the skies had been dark and so the sea was too, with white caps racing alongside the ferry on its way down to the islands. As long as she could remember, she had dreamed of water like this. It had to be shallow enough where it began, on the shore, to show the texture of the sand beneath. Then pebbles, and a few small fish. And maybe at the edges of vision, some rocks where the crystal clarity would be even more apparent as it eddied around the stone. And of course, the color. Purest turquoise, everywhere she looked, except at the furthest reaches, where it became deepest indigo.

She felt as if she had been standing there forever, but she was a careful person and her conscience pricked. John would be back by now, up at the cottage they were renting. He liked to be by the jetty when the fishing boats came in, buying his fish, enjoying the ritual of using his few words of Greek and being among the “ordinary folk” as he called them. Most of all he enjoyed pretending, for that was what it was, being like them, ordinary too.

Because he was not one of them. Most definitely not one of them. John was a ‘public figure’—Wikipedia, Google, tv, lecture platforms, after-dinner speeches, newspaper and magazine interviews—John was omnipresent. It was only in places like this—one of the smaller Little Cyclades—that he went unrecognized. And even here, a couple hiking nearby had stopped when they saw them sitting on the wooden chairs outside the cottage, and stared before hurrying on again, heads together, sharing the sighting.

Marian sighed a faint sigh, turning her back on the translucence, putting her attention to the narrow path between the rough clumps of thyme and the sharp rocks they grew amongst.

“Hello, there you are!” He was standing in the doorway, a drying cloth in his hands. His voice conveyed nothing but a cheerful greeting, but she knew he had been less than pleased not to find her waiting for him. She arranged her face in reciprocal smile and adopted the same cheerful tone.

”Just looking at the sea. How was it?”

They had been doing this for some years now. She wasn’t John’s first wife, or even his second. By the time he met Marian, John had broken relationships and family ties scattered behind him like torn shreds in the wind. Children too—almost grown up and hard at first to establish any kind of connection with.

She herself was no inexperienced ingénue. She had been in a demanding job in tv production before they married; in fact that was how they met. John was appearing in a ‘talking heads’ Sunday morning news programme and she had been assigned to ‘manage’ him, to assist his path through the studios, make-up—all the way to the cameras. He had been charming, his public persona, and when he suggested they go for a drink after the filming, she had agreed. It had been difficult getting the relationship off the ground; John was always going away—international conferences, appearances up and down the country, evening engagements. But he had been persistent, flowers, perfume, dinners at expensively fashionable restaurants. And so she had been wooed, and won-over, and eventually when he proposed, she found herself accepting. Their impending nuptials were filmed, and she had seen them over and over as they emerged from the registry. She had known something of this world, but it was as an onlooker, an outsider to the world of the privileged, the feted few.

And then she had become one of them. The best table at the latest restaurant, or one found when there had been only shaken heads before. The cars, always there, people to help, carry, assist, generally be on hand for anything desired. And people’s attitudes were so different—respectful or openly admiring. It hadn’t been hard to be dazzled by his world, and she knew she was captivated by what he brought to her, and by John himself.

“What did you get?” He had turned back to the sink, pulling at the newspaper around the fish.

“Look” he said, triumphantly producing his find—obediently she looked down and saw the flaccid silver bodies, the limp fins, the dead eyes. She thought of them slicing through the watery blue—snatched without mercy from that environment, the only one where they could breathe, the only way they could live. Now they lay dead, their silvery shine was diminishingly even under her gaze.

“So fresh” he said. “That’s what I like about fish from here—so much better than in London.”

He always said this. His ritual—the same actions, the same words. She wondered sometimes if it was his age—he was nearly twenty years older than her after all.

She had been attracted to him though; he was strong-looking and handsome for his age, full of a charisma that pulled people in, one of the reasons, apart from his learning, of his huge success. But most of all, she had been impressed by his confidence in himself, his sureness. She herself did not have these qualities.

They set about their usual tasks; the way they always did at the cottage. Marian began to sort through the herbs she bought in the village as soon as she arrived—thyme of course, but also mint, oregano, rosemary, and sage.

It never ceased to surprise her the way the Greeks used—or didn’t use—basil. Although it grew more virulently than anywhere else she had seen, even Italy where it was almost mandatory for every dish, it was not used in cooking here. Instead it was a decorative plant, trimmed into round shapes in pots, large outside restaurants, and smaller on the tables. Outside private homes too. She always meant to find out the nature of the Greek relationship to the herb but always forgot after they left. Only the blue remained.

John was cheerful, chattering away. “Panos was there. He’s a great guy, always looks so happy. These simple people have all the answers.” She remembered Panos—his nut-brown weathered face, his cheerful grin splitting over his uneven teeth. And she had to agree—the Greek people they had got to know by coming here over the years had all the qualities they were celebrated for. Fortitude, kindness, and humour whatever their station—that happy readiness for dance and their balalaika music! The first time she heard it with John in one of the harbour-side cafes, she had been surprised to see him get up and join in. Although he was a big man, he was surprisingly light on his feet, moving with the men and laughing. It had been a great evening. No reason why the same experience had become less so with each passing year. Maybe it was repetition, because each occasion was like the last, but if it was enjoyable to everyone but her, why did it now seem stale, without true joy?

John cooked the fish, and they ate it with the local ouzo. She mixed hers with mineral water; he didn’t—which was probably the reason he was now asleep in the only comfortable chair in the small room. She looked at him. There was something about him when he slept with his guard down; his public persona that was there, even with her, slipped and she saw something else. She continued looking, aware that she was doing more than that; she was searching. She hadn’t really done that before, and the realization made her suddenly uncomfortable. She got up to go into the small kitchen to clear away their lunch things. The remains of the fish lay amongst the crumpled paper. She gathered it up in her bare hands and looked around for the bin. No recycling here, always difficult to get used to, and the bin was outside, everything went into that.

She stood in the doorway aware of the smell of fish on her hands. It didn’t seem to matter. She knew that here, on the islands, life was so different for her. She had felt it almost as soon as she arrived, her sense of self slipped away and everything changed. Although John appeared to feel the same, she knew in her heart he didn’t, not really. He was always John. He carried his John-ness with him wherever he went, never allowing outside elements to influence him, to really penetrate, break down the John-self he had created. She knew she had sensed this before, early on, when she had tried to feel closer to him, but it hadn’t happened. The public persona, always there, had never faltered.

She toyed briefly with the fantasy that she might slip away over the narrow earth path worn over the years between the thyme clumps and the rocks, down to the blue. It called her with its siren song, its promise of…what exactly? Perhaps another life—different from this one—a life more fulfilling, satisfying—beyond the banal, the expected? Had she dreamed of this before she met John? Before she married him? She had her work, the tv studios, the deadlines, pressure—no time to think beyond keeping on top of it all. Then the evenings with friends, weekends seeing family, the one or two relationships, begun with hope, ending with sadness. She had even tried online dating for a while. Friends married, left the country, but she had her job, her work. Then there was John.

When marriage was first suggested, Marian had thought she would keep her own name. At first John seemed not to object, but as the date came closer, he began to make his feelings known. “Not sure it’s a good idea” he would say, smiling and holding her hand. “After all, we’re making a bond for life, aren’t we?” He would claim not to hold ‘old-fashioned’ views about it, but she realized quite soon that in fact, he did. So she became Marian Scott. She had had her own name for so long it seemed odd and was difficult to identify with the person she was—and would become. Then there was the question of her work. It really went together with her name—she had a professional reputation and was respected in her own area. But although initially John had seemed agreeable, quite soon after their marriage, he had begun to dissuade her. The first time they had been in bed, lying in the warmth of a summer afternoon in Malta where they had taken a short holiday—neither wanted to call it a honeymoon. Doubtless John had memories of previous hopeful honeymoons which he preferred not to remember.

“You don’t really want to work any more now, do you?” he had said, leaning towards her and playing with her hair. “I’m away so much. Don’t you want to spend as much time together as we can?” And now, five years later, five years as John’s wife—what was left of her? As if on cue she heard his voice, slightly querulous: “Marry,” (he called her that) “are you there?”

They had taken out a boat that afternoon. John was an experienced sailor and had done a lot in the past. They commandeered their boat from the same small boatyard near the fishing harbour. Amidst the clicking of the wind in the masts—a small breeze had sprung up—John was looking for the old man whose name he remembered and whose response to John himself could be relied upon. Today, however, he wasn’t there, and a much younger Greek man strolled out of the white-washed house near the quay.

John was displeased by his appearance. “Where’s Stavros?” he asked, with ill-concealed disappointment. The new young boatman looked at him without interest.

“My uncle is not well, he is in hospital in Athens,” he replied. His English was perfect and his appearance, with his fashionable hairstyle and stylish jeans, was far away from the familiar old man John expected to see. There was no opportunity for reflected glory here—the boy saw no world figure, just a well-preserved older man whose holiday clothes of faded shorts and worn-out canvas shoes gave no indication of success and renown. John, deprived of the experience he expected, had mulled at length over the old ways of the islands giving way to new things and younger people. She knew there was resentment of the confident young man from Athens, which to her was entirely unfathomable. And so the afternoon’s pleasant passage over the gentle waters of the bay was spoiled for him, and he sat silently at the helm as he guided their boat over the waves.

Marian was not affected by his mood—she absorbed the colors, turquoise, light to dark, shading to indigo, the small fish shoals where the water was shallow, the way the lapping waves turned silvery in the sunlight. She could have travelled like this forever. But he noticed, of course, her distraction from him. He tried to be cheery, the usual John. It was forced—she knew it, and he knew it too. And so their afternoon was spoiled, and his steps were heavy as they left the boat by the harbour and began the walk back to the cottage. She guessed there would be more ouzo than usual tonight, and she was right.

* * *

The new day started with promise. The island morning shimmered all around them and brought a better, brighter mood to them both.

“Let’s buy vegetables from the market on the wall!” There was a daily summer market where local people brought their produce to a low wall in the centre of the small town. And “Let’s have breakfast at that café under the tree.”

“Shall we take the bus or the car?” Marian was at the open window with the bare, hot hills behind, pulling on a loose blouse. She turned and caught her reflection in a mirror high on the wall. It had tilted with age and reflected nearly the whole of the room. She saw them both and paused, while continuing to tuck her blouse into her jeans. Seen like this, the two of them were thrown into sharp relief. John was bending over, sitting on the bed, pulling on his socks. It always surprised her that a man of his undoubted sophistication actually wore socks with his sandals. She had teased him about it at first, but soon realised there was no point—he did not respond to jokes about himself or his habits. In fact, he had become irritated. She had not persevered. Now, she saw at this angle, his bent head revealed the extent of his balding scalp. A feature his height precluded under normal circumstances.

John looked—in the reflection in the mirror—just a reflection, no pomp, no charisma directed at her, at anyone—old. Struck, she found herself gazing wordlessly.

“Come on!” He was standing up now, assuming John-ness, and something shifted back, he was as usual. But the man in the mirror had been seen and could not now be un-seen.

They took the bus into town.

For the first time, their solitude was invaded and there were tourists on board, mostly young people, the inevitable backpacks between their brown legs on the floor.

They were all different shapes and sizes, nationalities, styles of casual holiday dress, along with decoration in the form of the beaded or woven bracelets that could be found in all the shops in the villages.

But they all shared one thing—that brilliant, youthful, careless ease. Smiling, eyes bright, laughing together and with the conductor—a fat man who was nimble nevertheless as he swung along between the seats checking their tickets as the bus rocked and jerked over rough patches in the road. Marian was forced to confront the difference between these tourists and herself and John. Alone together at the cottage, or on their walks—John used the islands as walking practice as much as anything else—they were of course just themselves, the two of them, unremarked and unobserved. But now their differentness was thrown into direct relief—they were both old, although she wasn’t really. But now, after five years, she and John seemed the same age. Out of nowhere, the word came, ‘prisoner’. She had not heard it before—gazing out at the low hills, dotted with the white churches found all over the islands, she tentatively tried the word again. Prisoner. That’s what she had become now, a prisoner. John’s prisoner and the cage was shut tight. A prisoner to John’s whims, his dictates, his very persona, a prisoner in his life.

They reached their stop, and the young tourists were first on their feet, laughing as they hoisted their backpacks. John held back and Marian watched them go past them; one by one they climbed down the bus steps, jumping off the bottom one, out into the morning of a day full of limitless potential.

John was ahead, the old straw hat he always brought here in place, turning round to her “Come on,” he called. Let’s get a seat!” The myriad possibilities, like the iridescent bubbles of a child’s toy, that only moments ago had hovered and danced in the blue before her, evaporated in a flash. She followed, beginning the route she knew he would want to take—the chosen café, the favourite table under the spreading branches of the old tree, the study of the menu when he always chose the same thing. In that moment she knew it to be true, that the breathless, ephemeral glimpse of something—something else—out there, full of possibility—limitless and uncontained—was gone. And the world closed in again.

He was right. The café was almost completely full—it was always the most popular one although there was another right next to it, the chairs and tables side by side, only the painted colors and different tablecloths making the demarcation. But John, assured of getting what he wanted, led the way and sure enough, there was one table as there often was in a good position beside the white-washed wall splashed with brilliant scarlet bougainvillea.

“Good here” he said and she pulled up the opposite chair and sat. She knew, instinctively, although it happened often in these circumstances, that he had been recognized. She knew because she knew him and recognized the signs. There was an exaggerated ease about the way he moved between the tables, he pulled himself up—she had noticed recently that when they were alone, he had begun to slouch as age made itself felt—and he adopted a certain expression, a kind of benign acceptance of being known, of receiving what was his due. It was only a matter of time, and he knew it.

Marian watched as the blonde Dutch owner, her tanned face reflecting summer on the island, moved among the tables. She had learned there were several like her—restaurant and café owners, villas and B&Bs, who had come to the islands as young travellers, met and married a Greek, probably a waiter, and now years later, had these thriving businesses. She also knew from past conversations these owners did not stay in the islands out-of-season but took the ferries back to Athens where they had permanent homes. She and John had not been to the islands out-of-season, although John had often spoken of his wish to do so.

“What are you having?” John looked up from the menu, and she saw the quick dart of his gaze around the customers under the leaves. Whoever recognized him was obviously still there.

They chose the same thing they always did; the café, although popular and always busy, had a small menu whose ‘Specials’ board did not change.

“Do you want a beer?” She said yes, she preferred the Greek beers to ouzo which she found too intense, especially at this time of day. She looked around and saw a number of the French people who favoured this particular island in the Cyclades. The women were stylish in the way of their reputation; many of them were smoking. She also noticed that several had tattoos—inscriptions rather than illustrations, and she thought they looked very cool. It all seemed such a long way from her now. Before, pre-John, she might have considered doing the same, seeing them displayed like this, the women so confident and self-assured in that European way. She imagined now that she would have done something like that. But not now. She knew she had what many would consider all the luxuries—regular hair appointments for color and styling, sessions at beauty spas, the gym and Pilates, as well as the clothes from London designer shops. She knew John liked to give her these things, and at first she had accepted them on those terms; he spoiled her, and she had enjoyed them along with the restaurant tables, the first nights and the premieres, and the appearances at public events. But now she knew his generosity was ambivalent—he wanted her to look good because she was his.

Sitting back now with his ouzo, she studied him from behind her sunglasses. He was a handsome man, sure of himself and his achievements, and of her. But now the interruption she knew he had been anticipating all along was happening.

A woman of middle-age appeared beside their table having woven her way from behind.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help… My husband and I…,” turning back towards where her husband sat, smiling sheepishly but encouragingly, “…we recognized you at once!” John nodded graciously in assent.

“We so admire your work. We have all your books, and we were at your lecture in Oxford last year.” Her expression was apologetic but determined—she had her chance and would make the most of it. And so, Marian knew, would John.

“Of course,” he was saying as she produced a loose-leaf diary. Taking out the pen he always carried, he wrote with a flourish, smiling up at her. “What name shall I say?”

Then it was done and she, flushed with achievement, was making her way back to her husband. Marian could feel their subdued excitement and whispered conversation.

Because it was always like this.

Afterwards they took the usual walk through the white winding streets lined with small fashionable shops, Marian lifting the floaty scarves in the boutiques and trying on a pair of local leather sandals, the Greek shoemaker sitting inside in the cool interior with his lathe. They stopped to look at a shop selling locally produced silver jewelry. Some of the French women from the café wandered along too, in and out of the shops and in their way just as free and unhampered as the young tourists on the bus.

John liked to take a certain route, away from the smart boutiques in the cobbled streets, and into the area on the outskirts of the town where the buildings were houses, not shops, where the plaster flaked and the turquoise doors were faded and sun-worn. He liked to see the lines of washing and the local people sitting outside in the shade, the women chatting, the men smoking, quieter, looking on. Marian liked this part too—there was a calm about these Greeks in the island which was very attractive. They were both affected by the atmosphere and emerged onto the seafront more at one with each other than almost anywhere else they found themselves these days.

They took the bus back to the harbour, and John decided they would have supper at one of the waterfront cafes. The harbour was always inviting—it’s liveliness appealing to both of them, busy with people looking at timetables, filling the cafes as they waited for their ferry, the ferries themselves with their deep horns announcing arrival and departure. She had always felt a romantic urge to take one of these ships at night, slipping over the sloping seas to… there was never any particular destination.

As the sun went down, the restaurant staff moved amongst the tables lighting candles on the tables. John was as relaxed as she’d ever seen him; he even seemed not to notice the inevitable, when two women looked across at them, the usual recognition. It was a pleasant occasion, and it was easy to forget for a while that the café, the route of the walk, the stop for supper, the choice of menu—was John’s and John’s alone.

As they left to make their way back to the cottage along the seafront the moon was rising and a silver path appeared on the dark, lapping waves. Marian loved to see it, the curve of the bay holding the scene—water, land, moon—but again it came, striking through a pleasant wine-dulled haze, that hopeless sense of the utter limit of her life. She saw it stretching away—not like the moon’s path but dull, tight, predictable and contained. She felt the familiar tug of what felt almost like despair.

* * *

It was the moon again, shining through the window into the room that woke her.

‘It must be full moon to be so bright’ she thought, and lifting the single sheet covering them, she slipped out of bed and went to the window. John slept heavily, the same regular intake and outtake of breath—not quite snoring, something he would never have admitted anyway.

She stood at the window. There was the sea—‘wine-dark sea’—who had said that about the Aegean? One of the poets. She should know. It was thrown into dramatic relief against the brightness of the moon. And the silver path was stronger and more enticing than ever. In the distance, some lights came into view around the headland. One of the night ferries sliding silently towards the harbour. She felt riveted by the scene. She had no idea how long she stood there, gazing, her hands on the cool plaster of the windowsill.

And the idea came. She could go. She could just leave and find that silver path to another life. The thoughts came rushing in, and her heart beat furiously. Her whole being flooded with euphoria. She could, so easily—they always brought only cabin luggage—“No need for anything more than a few clothes,” John said, and he was right. Just the few necessities needed for an island holiday.

She could take her things out of the cupboard in the other small bedroom; she wouldn’t even disturb him, her few clothes, her bag and purse, and she could go. Retrace their steps back to the harbour and wait for a ferry to Athens. She knew there was one at midnight—she looked at her watch—it was 11:10; she would have to hurry.

So she walked as softly as possible out of the room, seeing that John had not stirred, and slipping out of the old t-shirt she wore in bed, she picked up the clothes she had worn that day from the narrow iron bedstead and put them back on. Slipping her feet into her sandals and grabbing a few toiletries from the bathroom, she was ready.

Was she really doing this? She hadn’t thought of anything beyond this moment. There was no sense of what would follow—just to board the ferry and away over the turquoise turned dark by the night. Her heart steadied and she felt almost calm.

The door, left slightly open—the owner had told them more than once there was no crime on the island—creaked slightly, and she stood silently for a moment. But there was no sound from the room above.

She stepped out on the stones of the path, now cool in the evening moonlight.

She made her way slowly—suddenly the enormity of what she was doing struck her vividly.

What would he do? He was a prominent person, a public figure—what would her desertion mean to him? She felt a pang of guilt—his career? But her determination was stronger and she saw him jovial, self-deprecating in the way he had, chatting in a tv interview about the situation. After all, in his world, their world, didn’t this kind of thing happen fairly often? Older, powerful men and younger, trophy wives? She had never thought of herself in that way before. There were a number of them; he could join their club, go on self-commiserating programmes with others like himself, maybe it would even enhance his status—no publicity is bad publicity after all, she thought and incongruously felt a small sour smile tweak at the sides of her mouth.

But she had not been quick enough. From behind came a voice, one so hoarse and cracked she literally did not recognize it as his, and her body started in fright.

“What are you doing?” It was almost a croak. But he knew exactly what she was doing.

“Don’t,” he said, and now his voice was broken. “Don’t leave me.”

In the moonlight, Marian turned to look at him. He had pulled one of the small towels around his waist—he always slept in the nude here. The harsh blue-white moonlight exposed the loose skin of his body, and his face was haggard. The public John, the carefully-maintained John was gone, and in his place was a broken man.

She faltered as she stood there, case in hand. What could she say? Her mind raced—she could still go—there would still be time, even if she missed the midnight ferry, there would be another in a couple of hours. So many at this time of year, travelling between the islands. The cafes close to the waterfront stayed open until the early hours and the last one had docked and gone away again. She could turn and run—her whole being poised itself for flight.

He started down the path towards her, his balance unsteady on the stones, the towel slipping from his hips. Automatically, he pulled it up, all the while never taking his eyes off her. And so she put down her case. He reached her. “Don’t go,” he said again, “Please.”

She looked down at his hand—the stark moonlight exposing before the blue veins, the knotting beginning in the joints. “I…” she began, but he moved without seeing and fell on the uneven stones onto his knees. From there he gazed up at Marian, and her world slid back into focus.

She couldn’t leave him, could she? This John she had never seen, beseeched and implored her. The comfortable image of the compliant husband ruefully accepting her departure and his fate vanished. The man before her was not the one she had known. And now it was too late. She had waited too long. From the distant lights in the harbour came three blasts from the ferry as it slipped away into the night.

* * *

Next year, they were there again. The silver moonlight path, the endless blue, the fleeting fish, the midnight ferry—all were there again. But now they ceased to beckon, the faint whisper of their siren song was all but extinguished. John Scott and his wife Marian, the famous couple, holidaying in the Cyclades as they always did.


Barbara van Schaik, born in London, England, has lived and worked in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. Her novel set in Bhutan, The Cloud Garden, is available on Amazon worldwide. A long-established interest in Tibetan Medicine led to the publication of The Nature of Life: the Tibetan Approach to Health & Wellbeing, a re-interpretation of traditional teaching. Her new novel based in Cairo is in development.

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