I was thirteen at the time. Mum was hesitant at first. “It’s all the way across the Aegean,” she said.
“But you know Lorenzo’s family,” I said.
“I know, you are safe with them; safer with them than anybody else, except for me.”
Traffic was terrible on the way to the airport, but neither of us were concerned. Not making it, I’d be spared the anxiety of the flight, and for mum it meant no more restless nights pondering the fate of her child as a cast away across the Aegean.
I sat next to Lorenzo in the plane. He gripped the armrests, as if afraid we might all tumble out of the sky.
“But you aren’t afraid of jumping off high rocks,” I said.
“No, because water is a pleasure for me,” he said, “And I would rather live underground than above the clouds, wouldn’t you?”
I didn’t respond, as I was always happiest sprawled out in the gardens of Villa Borghese, rooted to the earth.
Mykonos was alive with tourists hustling for seafood on the pier and carrying armfuls of well-ripened fruits and vegetables back to their holiday homes. I lodged with Lorenzo’s family of aunts and uncles in a cubic house, walls of white and azure, nestled on a hill a five minute walk from the clear, lukewarm waters.
Lorenzo’s mum covered my back and arms in thick suncream, then reminded me to send my mother a message and tell her the island is majestic and that her son is protected from the hot sun as well as her own.
I texted mum: It’s hotter than Rome, much hotter. But the sea is warm. Why don’t you come with us next time?
A minute later, she responded: I don’t swim with Jellyfish! And no diving! Send me photos of the villa xx
I didn’t swim with any jellyfish. I snorkelled around the headland with Lorenzo, and his father picked us up in the neighbouring bay, impressed. “You did well to keep up with Lorenzo. He’s a good swimmer. ”
I slept for twelve hours and woke up itching my shins. Bites. Lorenzo had already been running on the beach, and the car was packed for a trip across the island to the ‘jumping rocks’.
“You can do it,” Lorenzo’s parents told me, as I peered over the sharpened edge to the cerulean depths thirty feet below.
I couldn’t do it. I swam in the shallow waters, balancing on the ripples of small waves, watching my friend screaming as he flew over the cliff-face multiple times and plunged to the seabed for five long seconds before ecstatically resurfacing and crying out with joy.
We ate lunch. Potato chips, steak, salad, and a medley of crispy seafood, including octopus and jellyfish, all spindly like gothic church ornamentation.
A friend of the family, Eleni, joined our table. She was Greek, and either a hundred or merely seventy; her light-hearted spirit coupled with a raspy voice and wrinkles deeper than the rockpools made it hard to tell. She whispered to me, “Tell me how you are, Luca? I know it can’t be easy.”
It then occurred to me that Eleni was dad’s reclusive grandmother; the Greek line. I was too preoccupied with the strangeness of life away from mum to spare a thought for dad.
Eleni just kept on staring at me. And at last, I responded, “I’m okay. Wasn’t this dad’s favourite restaurant?”
“He ate here every day. He brought your mum here, and he told her how much he loved her, at this table, watching the sunset. He loved it here. It was a place to feel alive.”
Dad had mentioned Myokos to me only a few times. But mum didn’t travel, or she wouldn’t allow it. I don’t know why. And now she’d sent me in her place.
Lorenzo’s mum asked me if I’d like another orangeade before we head back to the beach for more fun. I smiled, which was always enough.
Eleni held my wrist and spoke ‘softly’, “Take the leap,” she said, and looked over to where the precipice glistened like a giant. “It takes a big leap to discover your soul.”
I watched her as she ambled back to her table and her guitar. She rested the instrument in her arms and plucked a lullaby with fingers nimble as a child’s.
It was my turn. There was no turning back.
“Hold your nose!” Lorenzo shouted.
But as I plummeted downwards my arms shot uncontrollably outwards, and on impact the water crucifying lashed my hands and feet. I came up and gasped at the air not for joy but horror, as the saltwater clogged my nose and throat and pricked at my eyes like onions.
Lorenzo’s family cheered me. “Again!” they cried. “Isn’t it amazing?”
One more leap, and that was final.
We drove back across the rocky hills, the sun set red like ripe sliced tomatoes over the horizon. Lorenzo displayed his tanned torso out of the car window, refreshing himself off in the breeze. We played backgammon that evening until the orange juice carton was empty and our minds no longer recalled what to do but drift into a slumber. The mosquito net in the bedroom reminded me of a cradle, and I almost felt comforted, as when mum had laid me down in the cot.
“Did you enjoy today, Luca?” Lorenzo’s mum had asked me as I put the plates away.
“Yes,” I smiled.
“Well done,” she said. “You can tell your mum how brave you are. And reassure her that I’ll return you without a single burn.”
I imagined my parents sharing a glass of wine on the kitchen counter where she stood, and that night I dreamed of dad’s funeral, and recalled mum uttering afterwards as if to thin strands of melancholic air: “She didn’t come.”
I wondered if mum would come to Greece next year?