When life came back to love me

I met her when I was twenty-two, a time when my life felt it was disintegrating. My father had died three months earlier, I’d flunked my degree at uni, my mother and I fought all the time when we should have been a comfort to each other, and I couldn’t seem to get a fix on my future. To try to shake up my malaise, I’d taken off on a short holiday on my own, touring the Greek Cycladic islands. One day, shortly after arriving on Santorini, while searching for a restaurant I’d been recommended called Rastoni, I saw her walking up the sandy track that led away from the car park where I’d left my dusty old motorbike. She wore frayed jeans, a white T-shirt, and had long black hair that hung down to below her shoulders. She seemed deep in thought and didn’t notice me. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, and she stopped. Her eyes were brown and large, her face freckly, her smile warm. I asked her if she knew the way to the restaurant.  

Her smile broadened. ‘Oh, it’s just around the corner. Let me show you. I’m going that way.’

We walked together around a small bay where cafés, bars, and pastel-painted houses looked onto the blue Aegean Sea, and bright-blue, green, and red fishing boats bobbed up and down with the gentle waves. We talked like old friends about each other and our time in Santorini. Her name was Arianne, and she told me she was French, staying on the island for the summer at the house of a local family she knew. I liked being with her and hoped it would take some while to reach the taverna.

‘There it is, by those three olive trees. That little white-washed building with the terracotta-tiled roof and the blue, wooden door.’

‘It looks delightful,’ I said and turned to face her, disappointed that my short time with her had come to an end.

‘It is.’ Her face shone, and she smiled like before. ‘I’ve eaten there many times. You’ll have a great meal.’ Her expression changed, seeming a little serious. ‘Are you on your own?’

‘Yes, why? Is that a problem?’

She laughed. ‘No, of course not. Just that I’m at a loose end…,’ she paused, ‘and I wondered if I could join you? Don’t worry, I’ll pay. I’m not trying to get a free meal.’

We sat under an olive tree, watching the sunset. To begin, we shared a meze of garlic flatbread, taramasalata – so fresh and pale I almost didn’t recognise it – newly harvested green olives, and fried calamari with thick quarters of lemon to squeeze over. We followed with an enormous sea bass, chunky chips, and a Greek salad. We talked and joked and laughed all evening, helped on by a large carafe of Greek wine. She was fun, full of energy, and infectious, and I adored her. I hoped she felt the same about me.

At midnight the owner of the restaurant brought us the bill. ‘Mr and Lady,’ he said, and smiled, his big bushy moustache drooping down the sides of his mouth. ‘I must not disturb. You both look big happy, but I have to sleep. I get up early tomorrow to go to market, buy fresh fish.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t notice the time,’ I said, and pulled out my wallet and placed eighty euros on top of the plate with the bill.

‘No problem.’ He took what was needed from the pile of notes and left the rest. ‘I bring you bottle of brandy, and you stay as you like. But I lock restaurant.’ He looked at us both and smiled again, and flung his arms open in an embracing gesture. ‘It’s good? Yes?’

‘It’s good,’ I said and gave him a thumbs-up with both my hands.

He walked away then returned after a few minutes with the brandy and a couple of clean glasses. He shut up the restaurant and left us to it. We had a large glass each, left the bottle and a tip by the restaurant’s side door, and walked toward the beach, where we sat and talked for an hour or more until we ran out of things to say, and listened to the sea as it lapped against the water’s edge while we drew shapes with our bare feet in the sand.

‘I must go,’ Arianne said after a while. Her voice sounding different.

‘I suppose so,’ I said, nodding, regretting our time together had come to an end. I turned to face her and was taken aback. She’d been crying. There were tears in her eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ I put my hand on her shoulder.

‘Nothing.’ She jumped up and rubbed her tears away with her hand. I stood up and faced her.

‘Thanks for making me so happy,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an evening as much as I have tonight. Here, have this for the meal.’ She thrust some money into my hand, turned, and started to walk away.

‘Hey, Arianne, wait. Let me walk with you to wherever you’re staying.’

‘No, Max, please. You can’t. It’s not possible. It’s been good. I’ve had a wonderful evening. Let me go now, please.’ She waved, turned, and ran away into the night.

Nineteen years went by before I saw her again. It was in a coffee shop in London. She was in the queue in front of me. I didn’t know it was her until she turned around, holding her coffee, looking for a seat, and standing still, staring at me. At first, I didn’t recognise her, and then she spoke. ‘Max? What are you doing here?’

I couldn’t reply. I was speechless, unable to mutter her name. She looked older, with signs of strain on her face, but still as beautiful as before.

‘Emm,’ I managed after a bit. ‘Well, I err… live here. What are you doing here?’ Both stunned and motionless, we were blocking the area around the counter, making people start to mutter and complain.

‘Let’s find a seat,’ I said.

She moved away, letting others pass by, and looked around the crowded café. She shook her head and said, ‘My story’s not good. I can’t tell you here. Is there somewhere else we could go?’

Something traumatic, I thought, but she seems to want to tell me about it. ‘We could go to my place. It’s not far.’

The route to my small flat took about five minutes most days. On this occasion we did it in three and a half; Arianne walking briskly, faster than I do normally, and giving me the impression that she wanted to get there and talk. I lived in a one-bedroomed apartment on the fourth floor of an old shabby-looking terraced house in Brixton with a gloomy staircase, in need of painting. Arianne didn’t seem to notice the scruffy decor, intent on reaching my home. 

‘This’s nice,’ she said, once I closed the door. I thanked her for the compliment but could tell she was anxious and asked her if she’d like a glass of wine.  

‘I would, thank you,’ she said, her face expressionless.

‘Make yourself comfortable,’ I said, gesturing toward the seats. ‘Be back in a minute.’

 I poured the two glasses as fast as I could and returned, eager to hear her story. She was sitting on the sofa; upright, quite still, and staring ahead. 

‘Thanks,’ she said, reaching for the glass I held for her and taking a small sip. I sat opposite in the battered leather armchair I’d picked up from a charity shop. 

Looking at me, her face pale, she reached forward to place her glass down on the old rattan table next to her seat. Our eyes met and she said without flinching, ‘I killed my husband and went to prison for fifteen years in France.’ She took another sip of wine and looked up. ‘I was married to him when we met in Santorini. He used to beat and rape me.’

I breathed in, sat back, and swallowed. No doubt with a startled expression. ‘Oh my,’ I said feebly, suspecting my face must have turned as white as hers. I guess my inability to say anything worthwhile spurred her to continue.   

‘I’d gone to Greece to get away from him, but he came after me, after I’d met you, taking me back to France, threatening to kill me if I tried to escape.’ Her lips quivered; her eyes were moist. She put a hand up to cover her mouth. 

I stood up and reached for her shoulder. She placed her hand on top of mine. ‘Thanks,’ she said, looking up at me. She bit on her lower lip. ‘Thanks for listening. Please. Sit and listen to the rest. I need to get it all out.’

I nodded. ‘Sure.’ Still at a loss to say anything meaningful.

‘Once we got back home to France, he beat me so much I could hardly move. I managed to crawl into bed, crying and in pain.’ She looked at me, no doubt checking my reaction. I reached forward and took her hand. She seemed not to notice and sat back with a determined expression that seemed to say, hear me out.

‘Go on,’ I said, looking at her strained face – but so resolute.   

‘Then, when my agony had given way to sleep, I was woken to the sound of the front door being slammed closed. Terrified, I heard his crashing steps as he rushed up the stairs to the bedroom that I’d hidden in. I’d locked the door, but he smashed it open, charged in, spewed out a torrent of obscenities, and then raped me.’

She stopped, took another sip of wine, and turned to face me. ‘That night, when I heard him snoring, I crept to the kitchen, grabbed a kitchen knife, returned to the bedroom and stabbed him several times until I was sure he was dead.’ She brushed her hand through her hair, drained her glass, fixed her gaze on me again, and said, ‘I called the police and told them what I’d done.’

It’s almost impossible to recall my feelings at that moment: a mixture of profound shock, hatred and disgust for her dead husband, unfettered sympathy and respect for Arianne, sadness, and other emotions and reactions, all of which left me so screwed up I did the only thing I could think of – stand up to fetch the wine bottle to refill our glasses. But I didn’t go. Arianne stopped me, looking ashen and close to tears. She sniffled a few times, then said, ‘I’d like another glass of wine, but just let me finish. I’ve never been able to say this much to anyone. My friends and family disowned me and were never willing to listen as you have.’  

I said nothing and sat down. She fumbled around in her backpack and withdrew an A4 acetate folder, pulling out two newspaper cuttings. One was from Le Monde and written in French, the other was from The Times. ‘Hear, read these, in case you don’t believe me.’

I picked up the one from The Times.

French woman admits to killing her husband and is given a life sentence.

Arianne Agard, the wife of the deceased Henri Agard, aged twenty-four, pleaded guilty today in a Paris court of murdering him. She put up no defence and was given a life sentence with a minimum term of fifteen years… 

The rest of the report was as she’d told me. Although confused, I had never doubted her. I laid the cutting down and looked at her. Her eyes were moist. Her face a ghastly grey, but she managed a wee smile. ‘I’ll have that glass of wine now, please.’

I touched her shoulder as I made my way to the kitchen. She didn’t resist. 

 My admiration was beyond measure. I didn’t attempt to rationalise or judge her actions and wouldn’t for the moment. She’d been through hell on earth and deserved all the respect I could summon.

With both our glasses full, I sat cross-legged on the floor beside her. She looked down at me. ‘So that’s me done. What about you?’ she said with a broad smile.

I figured she was telling me she’d said enough about her ordeal, and my questions could come later.   

I sipped on my drink, then looked up at her. ‘Mine’s been pretty bad as well – a failed marriage, a couple of bad relationships, I’ve been bankrupt, and had cancer.’ I paused and looked into her eyes. ‘That’s all.’

She reached out and took my hand. ‘Max. Are you with anyone at the moment?’

‘What, you mean – like in a relationship?’

‘Yes.’

‘No, I’m not. How about you?’

She smiled again and shook her head slowly. ‘No.’

In Santorini, high on a hillside above the village of Oia, sits a small, blue-domed Anastasi Greek Orthodox church. Hexagonal in shape with a small white cross on top of the dome and white painted walls, inside and out. On a sunny day, the church’s beauty and simplicity are magnified by the shimmering blue Aegean Sea in the distance. It was one such day that Arianne and I were married – a year after we’d been reunited in London and twenty years after we’d first met on the island. She wore a long, straight, sleeveless navy-blue dress with a small silver necklace and three thin silver bracelets around her left wrist, her dark hair falling on her bare shoulders. I wore a silver-grey suit and a white shirt. My brother, his wife, a couple of Arianne’s friends, and the priest made up our small wedding party. We’d invited Arianne’s mother, wanting to heal the rift between them, but she hadn’t replied. 

The interior of the church was small with only six pews. The priest had taken out four of the pews, spacing out the two remaining to fill the void and make it intimate. A few icons of Christ and his apostles hung from the white walls. Glass vases filled with red and white roses and mixed with tall wispy ornamental grasses stood in the window recesses. Arianne and I stood to make our vows in front of a large, old, oblong stone slab, supporting an impressive silver cross, that was the altar. 

After the service, we all went back to Rastoni. Theo, the owner, who’d been so kind to us twenty years earlier, now in his eighties, was still there, his moustache even more magnificent. He’d given us the same table under the same olive tree that Arianne and I had sat under years earlier. Helped by his son, he served us a splendid dinner of grilled chilli prawns and Rastoni’s speciality aioli, barbecued octopus, and revani, a classic Greek dessert made from semolina, sugar, flour, and vanilla. We drank champagne and white wine. Later, Theo led his waiters in a display of traditional Greek dancing where they smashed white plates on the ground. The plates, I’m told, are made especially for the event, a performance done mainly for tourists. Later, all of us joined in, including the priest, still dressed in his full clerical regalia.    

One Saturday morning, six months after our wedding, a small parcel wrapped in used brown paper turned up, addressed to Arianne. It came from France. She looked at it, turned it over a few times, and gave it to me, asking me to open it. ‘I don’t know what it is,’ she said with a concerned expression. ‘But it’s from the prison.’ I took her to mean the prison in which she’d served her sentence, and I started to unravel it. A battered paperback and a scruffy note emerged. I passed them to Arianne. She read the note in one hand while holding the book in the other. I could see it was a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. She smiled a little and passed me the note. It was written in French, I asked her to translate. 

I’m so sorry I didn’t return this book to you before you left prison. I just forgot. I’m being released in two weeks and found it when I was sorting out my belongings. Luckily, I remembered you’d sent me your address when you told me you were married. Thanks so much for being my friend. Our talks helped me immensely. I’m very happy for you. Let’s keep in touch. When I’ve found somewhere to live, I’ll send my address.

Much love, 

Anna. XXX

She looked out of the kitchen window for a moment with a vague, far-away expression. We hadn’t talked about her case and imprisonment since she’d first told me. I guess, at that moment, her painful memories had all returned.  She turned to look at me, the note still in her hand, tears in her eyes. ‘She’s lovely. I want to keep in touch with her. She helped me so much.’ She looked away again. ‘You know,’ she said when she turned back. ‘She was close to suicide when we first met up.’ She narrowed her eyes. A small tear ran down one cheek. She wiped it away, shrugged, and said, ‘Another miscarriage of justice. Her husband used to tie her up, beat her, and then force her to have sex with him. Once, when she refused, he beat her up so badly, she nearly died. It went on for years, but because they had small children, she didn’t do anything about it. Then, one day, like me, when the children were away, she killed him.’ Arianne glanced away for a few seconds. ‘And like me, she was sent to prison.’

Leaving her staring out of the window, I went to make her a coffee. When I returned, I asked her why she hadn’t put up any defence to her charges. ‘You surely had the best defence in the world. Your husband beat and raped you. He was guilty, not you. You going to prison was wrong, unjust, should never have happened,’ I’d said.

She shook her head, dragged both her hands through her hair, and faced me with an earnest expression. ‘I killed a man, Max. It was a deliberate, pre-mediated act. I was guilty of murder. There is no defence.’ She paused, looking into my eyes. ‘I wanted him dead. If I’d run away, he would have come and found me, as he did in Santorini. For me, killing him was the only way to find safety and sanity.’ She turned away for a second. ‘I wanted to go to prison, to find peace, and I did.’ She picked up her coffee cup, saw it was empty and put it down again. ‘No, stay’ she said as I stood up and reached for her cup. ‘I’ve more to say.’  She took my hand and looked at me. 

‘You knew I was a murderer, Max, but you took me at face value and have never doubted me, and for that I love you.’ 

‘I love you,’ I said, reaching to take her other hand. Neither of us spoke for a second or two, both gripping the other, neither wanting to let go, our eyes locked together. 

And then Arianne’s lips moved a little. She smiled and shifted in her seat. Her smile broadened, and she said, ‘Anyway, I’ve got you now. The scars have healed, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’ She leaned over and kissed me. ‘Think of this. We might not have met again if my life had taken a different route.’

I thought about those last words of hers for a moment, and then went to make more coffee.

“`

My latest book, Otto and Frankie, is available in all formats. It’s different from anything else I’ve written and took almost three years in the making. 

It’s about a dying man’s fight against injustice, his wife’s unusual affair, and the love from his long-lost daughter. 

I’m told it’s a compelling read.

amazon.co.uk. amazon.com.

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