The Road To Port Haven
Kara Savalas knew that her father’s men would come for her one day and she had long prepared for the moment. She kept the few belongings she would need near at hand always, even when she went to her job at the London docks, and always she was watchful for any sign of her countrymen, whom she could easily identify by their hand-gestures, subtleties in their movements, the way they dressed and walked and carried themselves. A Greek man in a London dockside fish market stood out like a kipper in a basket of cockles.
Her few friends, most of them genuine Cockney girls who had lived for generations within the sound of London’s Bow Bells, had from the beginning known that she was in some sort of trouble, but hadn’t the slightest grasp of the extent until one of them spotted the two men walking past the rows of girls cleaning fish, scrutinizing every face. Maggie Finch, the closest thing Kara had to a friend, wiped her hands on her bloody apron and nudged elbows with the Greek girl to discreetly get her attention.
‘Here now, will you have a look at those two! They’re up to no good if you ask me.’
Kara had though herself prepared for this moment, but the reality left her feeling leaden and cold inside. ‘I- I think I’ll just step out for a moment-’
Maggie gave her a measured, unsurprised look, as though she, too, had suspected in advance that this moment would come. ‘You know those men, don’t you.’ It was a statement.
Trying not to lose her composure, Kara said, ‘They were sent here by my- a very bad man. They want to kidnap me and take me back to Athens.’
‘Well, that’s not going to happen today, luv, now is it! Here, you just be ready to make your exit. I’ll take care of these two.’
Kara stared aghast as the brawny Maggie Finch, with a florid complexion like red brick and forearms like a butcher’s, rolled up her sleeves and went to meet the threat of the two men in black Greek fisherman’s garb.
‘Here you! What do the pair of you think you’re about, gawking at us poor girls like that? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves-’
Kara didn’t wait around to see the outcome, but picked up her carpetbag from where it lay underneath the table and fled to the diminishing sound of Maggie Finch’s brassy voice.
Only minutes later, dressed in clothing suitable for a cold, wet spring day in London, 1929, Kara appeared in a narrow cobblestone street overshadowed by dirty brick warehouses, walking quickly down the two short blocks that led to the waterfront docks. She had sold her soul for this moment- had sold her few precious belongings and the jewelry foisted upon her by a former unwanted suitor- she had even parted with a tiny gold locket left to her by her great-grandmother; and now, with the impoverished remnants of her life clutched in her bag, she fled to the piers where those iron-hulled leviathans, the trans-Atlantic steamships, were berthed.
But luck was not on her side. None seemed to be leaving on that day, nor even that week. And with every delay her fear grew, until by late afternoon she was consumed with mounting panic. At last, when she’d exhausted her last hope, a smallish vessel that, though converted to steam, retained its twin masts from the final days of sail, a porter touched her arm as she walked past him, despondent.
‘‘Scuse me, Miss, but I couldn’t help overhearing that you wanted on a ship quick as possible. There’s a passenger-freighter leaving in twenty minutes if you make haste.’
Kara thanked the elderly gentleman profusely, pressed a coin into his hand, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and left at a run.
This was the worst thing she could have done. Two men, their eyes drawn by her quick movement through the throngs of people crowded on the docks, spotted her immediately and began giving chase.
Several times Kara almost stumbled and fell headlong as she ran along the slippery wooden bird-dropping-spattered docks littered with greasy, untidily coiled hawsers, tools, cargo and refuse. The ship was not far away- but the porter’s estimate had been wrong! The first lines had already been cast off and the crew was preparing to haul in the gangplank!
The few passengers on board the vessel, peering down from a tiny side platform by the small crew’s and passenger’s quarters, spotted the running girl and began cheering her on.
‘Hold the gangplank! There’s one more coming if she can make it!’
‘Come on! The ship’s already moving! Run for it, lass! Don’t mind your bonnet- you can buy another when you get to the Americas!’
Running pell-mell, almost tripping over her own shoes which were not made for running, clutching her hat with one hand and the carpetbag to her chest with the other, Kara ran for all she was worth. As she drew near, part of her registered the widening gap between gangplank and dock as the cheers and encouragement turned to warnings and dismay. Staring whitely at the open expanse of water opening before her, something in her decided to trust her lot to fate- she mustered one last burst of speed, closed her eyes and jumped.
Had the sailors standing with outstretched arms at the bottom of the gangplank been inexperienced or taken wholly unawares, they wouldn’t have expected this final act of desperation. But these were able-bodied men who’d spent their entire lives at sea, and had been witness to all manner of the emotional extremes wrought by the need to escape the clutches of the Old World. Though Kara had fallen short and seemed destined for a plunge into the murky blue-green water, two separate outstretched hands deftly caught her even as she lost her hat and fell, the men hanging from the bottom-most ropes of the gangplank. As they stood upright, with the rescued Kara steadied between them, still clutching her carpetbag, they acknowledged with world-weary good nature the cheer that went up from the watching passengers high above.
Unnoticed, two dark figures came skidding to a halt and watched the departing ship in stony silence.
The first officer, a retired British naval man, regarded Kara and her few belongings with wry amusement as one of the deck hands brought her up to the wheelhouse.
‘I hope you have money enough to pay for this trip,’ he told her. ‘Otherwise you may find yourself working your way across the Atlantic.’
‘I do have money,’ Kara told him hopefully in her best broken English, ‘but I don’t mind working, it that’s possible.’
‘Oh, it’s possible,’ he told her. ‘Inevitable, judging by your dearth of visible assets. So tell me, are you running away from someone or something, or are you yet another young hopeful on her way to New York?’
‘We are going to New York?’ she asked aghast, prompting chuckles from the bridge crew. ‘But- I thought we were going to the Americas!’
‘They are one and the same, young lady,’ the officer told her with some asperity. ‘I take it you didn’t exactly plan this trip.’
‘Oh, I planned it very well,’ Kara said, ‘only just the part where I get out of England. But- I was told that I needed to get on your ship if I wanted to get to the Caribbean.’
‘The Caribbean?’ The officer raised an eyebrow. ‘Why on earth do you want to go there? Do you have family or friends living there? Or a job waiting for you? A husband?’
‘I am told it has a climate like Greece,’ she told him. ‘It will be like home to me.’
The officer looked dubious. ‘Young lady, the Caribbean is not the sort of place for a young girl your age! And don’t give me that hurt look! You’ll go straight to New York and catch yourself a husband if you know what’s good for you! Now, go talk to Mr Hill, that charming young fellow who is about to wipe the smirk off his face, and he will get you settled. After that, go to the galley and present yourself to the cook. Tell him I sent you. I hope for your sake you don’t mind cleaning fish.’
Groaning as she left for her quarters with Mr Hill, Kara muttered,‘Fish again! I could tell you all there is to know about cleaning fish!’
The trip across the Atlantic was not without small compensations. The people working in the galley were a fun-loving, lighthearted bunch, and they often stayed up late playing cards, drinking tea, cocoa, rum and whiskey, and filling the galley with cigarette smoke and singing and concertina music.
The passengers she saw very little of: they were a rather self-involved bunch who seemed to think little of the crew of a mere passenger-freighter. But there was one man, a hard-bitten fellow Kara didn’t particularly like the look of, who apparently had a broad knowledge of travel by sea. After seeming to consider what sort of place she said that she was hoping to find, he told Kara of an ideal location in the Spanish Caribbean called Secret Island. All she had to do was take a ship from New York to the Bahamas, and from there could purchase a plane ticket and be flown to Secret Island, an exotic tropical island paradise like no other. He told her that he was willing to travel with her all the way there, but something about the manner of his attentions and his looks made her cool towards him, and she assured the fellow that she was going to stay in New York for a time with relatives until she’d made her mind up about any future plans.
She kept this knowledge about Secret Island to herself, however, and decided, based upon the name alone, that she would go there, and hopefully be and remain safely out of reach of her father.
Kara Savalas was born in Athens, Greece, in the spring of 1910, and spoke the English language with an accent that from the beginning had made life difficult. The move to England had been an attempt to get away from the meddling ways of her family. Ever since then she’d had the unwanted attention of strangers attracted by her looks and by the way she spoke, which in its way was just as bad. So far she’d fled the arranged marriage by her father to a rich man old enough to be her grandfather; her subsequent life forced to live in a convent to scotch her family’s shame at her refusal to marry against her wishes; her homeland when her family came looking for her, thinking to break her . . . and now she was on the run yet again.
She was nineteen years of age and felt as though she’d spent an entire tired and empty lifetime on the run from people that had some use for her or other, regardless of her own wants, needs or desires. ‘My own wants,’ she mused after waking and going out on the small deck of the ship and staring at the darkling sky, the stars appearing at once as glittering and false as the façade she showed the world. ‘What is it that I want? I’ve spent so much time trying to get out from under the thumb of life that I’ve not been able to discover if there is any more to it. Wouldn’t that be a cruel irony! To discover that living under the thumb is what life is really all about!’ She took a deep breath and tried to calm her rattled nerves. And chuckled to herself without humour. ‘And once again, despite the fact that I’m away and on the run once more, I feel trapped!’ Ired, she turned her thoughts once more to Secret Island and the Caribbean, and felt something like hope.
Going back to her tiny quarters, she fell quickly asleep as the ship ploughed its way through the waters of the Atlantic under sullen skies. She looked a small, vulnerable figure with round features and long, dark brown hair that was very nearly black in the dim light. Her eyes, which were not entirely closed, were a deep liquid black like night itself, in which the same cold stars shone; they were agitated, as though she were searching desperately for something, though she knew neither that she was searching nor what she was searching for.
In the year 1929, it can truly be said that one has never really got the full effect of arriving at New York who has not gone through its harbour and seen the Statue of Liberty and the outline of the city beyond, for New York is first and foremost a port city, a city of docks and warehouses and steamships, of throngs of hopeful immigrants arriving from the Old World to stand on the threshold of the New, bringing with them their hopes and dreams of a new life, however unrealistic.
Among them stood young Kara Savalas, who a few short years before had been astounded by the sights and sounds and smells of the Port of London. There was an excitement in the air she was not immune to, but it was blunted and sobered by the knowledge that her father’s reach extended even to this place, and for Kara his shadow seemed to cast a pall over everything about her. She decided immediately to put New York and the North American continent behind her.
That evening found her on a tiny freighter bound for the Bahamas, from where she hoped to catch a plane to Secret Island. Thankfully there was no sign of the man she’d met on the boat, but still she found herself unable to relax as the little freighter chugged through the night.
‘We are here, Miss!’
Blinking sleep out of her eyes, Kara grabbed her carpetbag and made her way to where a few other passengers were waiting on the low deck. It was early, the second day since her departure from New York, the day already promising to be warm.
When she asked about air travel, a crewman directed her to a floating dock off the end of the pier where Kara could see the tops of the wings of several aquatic aircraft that rocked and nodded, disturbed by tugs churning up the water as they nosed the small freighter into its place at the dock. She gazed hopefully at a pair of brand-new Catalinas, sturdy passenger flying-boats with lines of round passenger windows reminiscent of portholes. Perhaps one of these would take her to Secret Island?
To her disappointment, the first man she approached, an American pilot, shook his head emphatically “No!” at the mere mention of Secret Island. ‘Not for one lone passenger, Miss. It’s a fair ways out. You should’ve taken the missionary boat this morning when you had the chance.’
‘I’ve only just arrived here, and didn’t have the chance,’ she told him, feeling despondent.
‘That’s tough, I’m afraid. The missionary boat won’t be back until next week.’
Kara felt like crying as she found a place to sit, clutching her bag. Her money had almost run out. How on earth was she going to get by here for a whole entire week?
At that moment she was approached by a tall, thin, nervous-looking young man in a once-white cloth suit, clutching a soiled wide-brimmed white hat, who said in a quiet, somehow evasive voice, ‘Excuse me, Señorita, but I understand that you are looking for a plane to take you to Secret Island.’
‘If I can afford it,’ she said without much hope, knowing that she would probably be the only passenger, and would therefore have to pay dearly for the expense.
The young man smiled, showing large yellowed-ivory teeth. ‘How much money do you have?’
She almost balked when she spied the rickety twin-engine bi-plane listing on its battered pontoons. ‘Isn’t that plane a bit . . . well . . . decrepit?’
The young man laughed out loud as he relieved her of her carpetbag. ‘What, Dura ? She is not so old- maybe ten years.’
‘I don’t know,’ Kara said with doubtful apprehension. ‘Perhaps I should just take the other pilot’s advice and wait for the boat.’
‘A boat, Señorita? A boat would get you there, surely, but you would have to be a bird to ascend the high cliffs of Secret Island.’
Kara took a deep breath and gave herself into the hands of Fate once more. ‘Well, if there is no other way. Lead on.’
The moment the Dura’s twin engines stuttered and vibrated into life in a cacophony of backfiring and oily blue smoke, Kara’s resolve suddenly deserted her. She left her seat and tried to navigate her way towards the pilot, but the buck and heave of the plane as it rolled with the chop of the water threw her off-balance from side to side, turning the aisle into an obstacle course of seat backs.
‘Stop! Stop the plane! Please . . . let me off this death-trap . . .’
But her cries were drowned out as the engines’ noise crescendoed to a deafening roar, and she could feel through the soles of her feet the rush and acceleration of the plane, until at once the floating sensation dropped away altogether and the old aeroplane took to the wing with all the grace of a Sopwith Camel hauling a shifting load of anvils.
Wide-eyed with fear and dishevelled, Kara stumbled into the nearest seat to watch the ensuing journey with her heart in her mouth. This was not at all how she had imagined her first flight would be! Clutching the armrests with both hands, she closed her eyes, small frame stiff with fear, and muttered over and over to herself, ‘I’ll never fly again! So help me, so long as I live, I’ll never fly again!’
Half an hour had gone by when Secret Island loomed off the right wing as the aeroplane banked to make its approach. It was a large island, green and lush and shaped like a mountain with steep, sheer sides and a flattened top that appeared a convolution of hills. As they drew near, Kara spotted a lake shaped like a spear point whose tip plunged deep into a mountainous valley, and as they descended it became apparent that this was to be their landing point.
Rather than land on the open water, the aeroplane flew deep into the valley until they came in sight of something that made Kara catch her breath. At the head of the spear point was an open area of fields, farmland, orchards and meadow, and at the lake’s edge resided a huge stone chateau. As the aeroplane finally lost momentum and dropped towards the water’s surface, Kara caught a glimpse beyond the chateau of rising hills covered in dense forest, terraced farmland and grassland bordered on all sides by forest. ‘No roads, no cars, no traffic,’ she mused absently. ‘And clean air. Perhaps this place won’t be so bad.’
Upon reaching the dock and securing the plane with it’s engines still idling, the skinny young man removed Kara’s carpetbag to a nearby bench. ‘Someone will come for you soon,’ he smiled, casting a nervous glance in the direction of the chateau. ‘You’d best wait here.’ With that he hastily untied and reboarded the plane, which, coughing and smoking like an affront to the pristine beauty of its surroundings, turned and began making its way to rejoin the smoke and factories of civilization.
After waiting for over an hour, Kara belatedly realised that no one was coming to get her and decided that she might as well carry her own luggage up to the chateau. In the meantime, some warning sense made her check the wallet she kept in her carpetbag.
It was empty.
‘That- that miserable thief!’
Crying angry tears of frustration, she began walking towards the chateau. But when she finally gained the front doors, she discovered neither bell nor knocker. She tried knocking on the massive wooden doors but they proved so thick and dense that they absorbed her futile attempts to make her presence known. With a sigh, she was just about to leave her luggage and try for a back entrance when she noticed a rope dangling to her left. A bell rope, perhaps? She tried it, felt through its tautness that it was connected to some heavy and ungainly mechanism, and pulled. In response, from within the house came a satisfyingly loud and musical chiming. Momentarily, an harassed-looking woman dressed in black maid’s attire answered and began speaking to Kara is rapid Spanish. Belatedly noting the girl’s incomprehension, she slowed her stream of words to a comprehensible trickle.
‘You are the young horticulturalist, si? Please, come this way. We weren’t expecting you for another two weeks-’
Kara stared. ‘A horticulturalist? Me? There must be some misunderstanding. I’ve just been dropped off by a man in a plane, and I’ve been robbed!’
It was the maid’s turn to stare at her uncomprehendingly, glancing vainly towards the water for the nonexistent aeroplane. ‘A man in a plane robbed you? But . . . I do not understand. Who are you? Are you are related to the Castellans?’
The maid indicated the mansion around them. ‘The Castellans, the owners of this Casa. You are a relative? A guest?’
Flushing with embarrassment, sensing that she was the victim of a criminal’s hoax, Kara said, ‘The man who brought me here by plane said he was taking me to a place called Secret Island-’
‘Dios!’ the woman muttered, her features darkening with anger. ‘He was a young man, si ? Tall and skinny, with big yellow teeth? And an old plane that should not still be flying?’ Noting Kara’s assent, she cursed under her breath. ‘That- that dirty little criminal! He has done this before! Taken the money of unsuspecting turistas and flown them only Dios knows where! I suppose I shall have to take you to the Señora, so that she may decide what is to be done with you. Come, and leave your bag where it is. At least there are no thieves around here!’
She led Kara down a long corridor and up three flights of stairs, until they came at last to a door that was partially open that led to a study. Within sat a classically elegant figure who was absorbed with an assortment of tiny objects which she viewed under a large mounted adjustable lens. ‘Yes, Maria,’ she said without looking up.
‘Your pardon, Señora Castellan, but Ricardo Galiano has stranded and robbed yet another turista and left her on your premises.’
The woman grimaced. ‘Only one this time?’ She straightened in her chair, which in her was a truly formidable gesture, and gave Kara an unsettlingly gauging look. ‘What is your name, girl?’
Though she’d done nothing wrong, Kara felt humiliated and vulnerable, sensing the woman before her to be a figure of some authority. Trying not to stutter, she said, ‘I’m . . . my name is Kara . . . Kara Savalas.’ Instinctively, she curtsied, nervously.
‘You’ve come all the way from Greece? Athens, by the sound of your accent.’
‘Actually, no . . . I was living in England, but I’m from Athens originally-’ She flinched as the woman looked her up and down once more, reassessing.
‘I see. And you were trying to get to the Mission on Secret Island. You do not look like one of the Sisterhood. Are you a teacher?’
Kara stared. ‘I do not know of any Mission. I was hoping to find work there, and a place to live.’ For a moment she wondered if the woman would or could set things right. Her heart sank, however, when the Señora raised an eyebrow and spoke again.
‘Well, I am afraid that you’re stranded here for two weeks, at the very least. There won’t be another ship or plane until one arrives bearing my horticulturalist. In the meantime . . . I don’t suppose you know anything about horticulture?’
Feeling crushed, used, her gaze dropping, Kara shook her head.
‘Well-’ the woman began and sighed. ‘This is not a resort, Señorita, nor is it the sort of place where a young woman would normally come seeking employment. This is my home, and I expect people to do their fair share of work around here. Have you any skills? What were you doing for a living in England?’ When Kara began telling her about her work in the fish market, the Señora shook her head impatiently. ‘I’m afraid that your skills, such as they are, will avail you nothing.’ She paused for a long moment to take in Kara’s bedraggled, defeated visage, and in a quieter, kinder tone, she said, ‘So tell me, young traveller, what is it that attracted a young hopeful like yourself to such a place as Secret Island? There is nothing much there, you know; at least nothing worth a journey half way around the world. It is a poor, isolated place, full of poverty-stricken villagers and their malnourished children. There are no amenities or jobs there fit for a young girl like yourself. Didn’t you know that?’
Fighting back tears, Kara muttered, ‘But . . . the man on the boat to the Americas . . . he told me . . . he even showed me pictures-’
The Señora shook her head and sighed, sympathetically. ‘Little fool,’ she said gently. ‘It seems that you were taken by an enticing-sounding name and a tall story told to you by a man who no doubt had questionable motives- tell me, was he a rather sallow-faced fellow with bad teeth and sly-looking, heavily lidded eyes?’
‘You know him?’Kara blurted in surprise.
‘I know of him. He is an acquaintance of Ricardo’s. Well, well, so Ricardo has found a way to drum up a little extra business.’
Kara turned away, gritting her teeth with the effort of maintaining her composure.
The woman dismissed the maid with a gesture of her head, went to Kara, led her to a bench and seated both of them. ‘What’s this, then? You look positively ill, child! Are you unwell?’ She smiled sardonically. ‘Running away from a bad relationship, perhaps?’
Stung, Kara blurted, without meaning to, ‘I have never had a relationship, Señora! I’ve spent too much time trying to get away . . .’
The woman’s gaze narrowed. ‘Get away? Get away from what? Are you in some sort of trouble? Not with the law, I hope.’
At this, Kara gave a miserable little laugh and shook her head. ‘No, it’s just that . . . first, my parents tried to force me to marry this disgusting old man . . . and then, when I wouldn’t give in, they put me in a convent, thinking the worst of me. Then I ran away to England and got a job . . . but the people were strange there, and no one would leave me alone, and the young men, they weren’t to be trusted . . . and then some men came, sent by my father-’
Seemingly oblivious to this last remark, the Señora chuckled. ‘I see. You don’t like the lecherous sort, young or old, eh? Well, perhaps we have a few things in common.’
‘You mentioned a boat,’ Kara said doubtfully. ‘The man in the plane told me that no boats come to this island-’
‘No doubt the wily Ricardo approached the island from the northwest,’ Señora Castellan told her. ‘If you had approached from the other direction then you would have seen Port Haven in all its glory. And, yes, you heard me correctly. It is a port, full of sea-going vessels of all descriptions, including two or three small passenger-freighters.’
Kara took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly. ‘What am I to do? What will happen to me in the meantime?’
Señora Castellan shrugged. ‘I suppose that I shall have to tell Maria that you are to be our guest, and for your part you will have to find some way to amuse yourself until I decide what to do with you.’ She smiled thoughtfully. ‘I daresay you’ve come to the right place if you were seeking isolation! But I think you’ll find this a place of . . . various solitudes . . . and that solitude is the furthest thing from that soul-sickness called loneliness. You may even learn about shared solitude here. But there- compose yourself and go and find Maria, and tell her that you are to be placed in a guest room.’ The woman regarded Kara wryly. ‘You should bathe yourself and change into a light dress more suited to our climate. You must be very hot in that heavy dress. When you are done it will be time for our mid-day meal. We generally take breakfast, lunch and in-between meals in what in this household is referred to as the glass room, that glassed-in structure you may have noticed on what for you would have been the far left side of the Casa. It is cool and pleasant there, shaded by great trees and with a wonderful view of the lake and the valley. Now go, child. I am a busy woman and have work to do.’
Kara discovered that a bath and a change of clothes did much to revitalise her mood. Once she was done, she actually felt cleaner that she had for a long time- cleaner than on just the surface. As was her wont in her native Greece at the estate her family lived in near Athens, she wore a simple peasant dress with nothing underneath that was deliciously cool and free from constraint. She would have liked to go barefoot but decided upon a pair of light leather sandals that matched her dress.
As she entered the glass room Señora Castellan looked up from her lunch and raised an eyebrow. ‘I scarcely recognised you, child! It seems that you somehow remained fresh and unspoiled beneath that false citified exterior, though you have a . . . a wounded look about you. Well, don’t just stand there, girl- sit down and join me! How on earth did a shy girl like yourself ever manage to travel half way around the world on her own?’
‘How, indeed,’ Kara mused to herself. ‘Well,’ she admitted slowly, ‘it’s something like you said, about my exterior being false. It’s a bit like wearing a mask at a ball: the mask gives you a confidence you wouldn’t normally have, but you daren’t ever remove it, because the act of wearing a mask means that you’re concealing things about yourself- things that can in some cases prove very . . . painful . . . if ever you’re found out. Some of them are lies; some are mistakes others make about you that prove useful; some are assumptions without any sort of foundation, some of which create problems and some of which have their uses; I guess some of it has to do with making life glamourous, but in certain circles it is a tool of survival . . . except that, as you say, it’s all false.’
Señora Castellan gave her a bemused look. ‘You do not sound at all like a girl born to work in a fish market. Your people must have been well-off, eh?’
Kara wrinkled her nose and accepted a stuffed croissant from Maria. ‘Anachronistically so- Maria! This is fabulous!’
Maria, who appeared formidably dark and severe, allowed a ghost of a smile to touch her otherwise hard features as she finished setting up their luncheon and left the two alone. As they ate together in silence, Señora Castellan referring often to a sheaf of paperwork, Kara turned her attention to the view. The valley at the lakehead was green, lush and tranquil, never looking twice the same as the sun passed overhead, continually changing the arrangement of light and shade. This was, Kara decided, because of the particular alignment of the valley, which ran from east to west. The deep valley of her ancestral home in Greece ran north to south, and consequently the days were comparatively short and cool in the early mornings and late evenings. It too was subject to great variation in all its facets over the course of the day. ‘Who would have thought,’ she mused, ‘that there were so many different types of valleys in the world. I’d always assumed they were all pretty much the same.’
‘Perhaps you’d like to go exploring,’ the Señora suggested with a smile, startling Kara out of her reverie. ‘You’d best use one of the back entrances this time; that way you may let yourself in and out without making Maria drop whatever she’s doing at the time. But don’t you go traipsing through my gardens! If you feel you must look at them, stay to the footpaths. I daresay they’re clearly enough marked.’
Kara didn’t need to be prompted twice. She took her dirty dishes into the kitchen and washed them, found a back door through a utility room beyond the kitchen, navigated her way through a back utility shed full of tools, cleaning implements, unused kitchen and food preserving equipment and firewood, and then found herself standing on a narrow side path in the midst of the most bewitching back garden she had ever laid eyes on.
The place had an exotic, wild look, every flower, tree and shrub appearing to be native to the island. It was more like stepping into a sort of floral jungle than a garden: she felt dwarfed by enormous broad-leafed plants and tall brakes of fern, by flowering shrubs high as small trees, by clumps of towering palm trees that leaned like watchful sentinels. Everywhere there grew a silent cacophony of brilliant flowers, some of them too enormous to be believed- but something of their colour and their brilliance soon got to be overpowering, sending Kara moving on in search of a setting more suited to her present mood.
Within moments she was out of the garden and onto a grassy lea with a number of small sheds and glass greenhouses, and she followed a well-used footpath that brought her eventually to a field and another footpath that wended its way down toward the lake, to a more subdued place of grassy knolls dotted with small white flowers and low marshland with tall blowing grasses. Tiny brown birds occasionally and noisily betrayed their presence in the grasses, chirping busily and chasing one another about, occasionally stopping to cling to a tall grass or marsh plant.
Kara found a knoll that seemed sunlit and inviting and lay herself down so that she could watch the clouds roll slowly on by- something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl. At once, her heart seemed to swell from within her- and then, for no reason she could have put into words, a profound grief stole over her, and she hugged herself, fighting back tears, trying to contain a hurt so intense that it made her breath short.
‘Is the Isla Fiero such a terrible place that it makes you weep?’
Kara gasped, rolled over and sat up feeling like a fool, hastily wiping tears from her eyes. ‘What? What are you talking about? Who are you? You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that!’ A man like none she had ever seen stood before her. He appeared at once very strong and stern, tall and with an air of command that made her instinctively afraid of him. Yet there was something, a sort of humane compassion about his mien that took the edge off her fear. Some distance behind him a black horse cropped the grass: evidently she’d not heard him approach and dismount only a short distance away.
‘Did not my mother, the Señora Castellan, inform you about me, her only son, Señorita? No? Well, then let me introduce myself. I am called Roman, and it may well be said of me that I am truly the castellan of this island, Isla Fiero.’
‘This seems rather a peaceful place to be called Savage Island,’ Kara said as though fending off the implications of the word that under the circumstances seemed somehow provocatively connected to him.
‘Savage does not only mean base and primitive, Señorita,’ Roman told her. ‘The base and the primitive may be found in all societies and in all cultures, no matter how technologically advanced. The term can also refer to the wild and menacing behaviour of a creature or place that by its nature will not endure the taming hand of what many miscall “civilization.”’
Kara was only half-listening, however, and physically and emotionally withdrew into herself as he spoke. Seeing this, he stopped speaking to consider her.
At last, he said quietly, ‘So it’s true then. Ricardo has misappropriated your money and abandoned you here. That’s very odd . . . that he would risk coming here after I’d put him in fear of his life. Would you like me to fetch him back here and have him set things to rights?’
Kara listened in silence until Roman mentioned Ricardo’s return. ‘Set things to rights? How do you mean?’
‘I mean,’ Roman told her, ‘that I will compel him to return your money and take you back to the Bahamas, where you can catch a ship back to New York.’
Kara writhed, faced with such a prospect. ‘I’ll take the money back, Señor Castellan, but I will not go back to New York, nor will I set foot on that death trap of a plane! I’d sooner swim or paddle a dory! Would there be work for me in the Bahamas, do you think?’
Roman raised an eyebrow at this and was silent for a long moment, considering. At last, he said, ‘I suppose, but not for a single young girl travelling alone. Regardless, Ricardo is not to be trusted, and my mother would be unduly concerned, should you have any further unsupervised contact with him. No, now that I consider the matter further, I think it best that you remain here as our guest for the time being. As my mother says, this is not a resort, but, well . . .’ he chuckled, withdrew a small black case from his breast pocket, took out a small cheroot and lighted it. ‘This island holds many quaint fascinations which may amuse you, Port Haven being not the least of them. And both Mother and Maria have told me that they enjoy your company. In my entire lifetime they have agreed upon very little, so with your leave I would like to keep you here a while yet.’
‘Are there jobs in Port Haven?’ Kara found herself asking hopefully.
Again, Roman raised an eyebrow. ‘You might find a job on the docks cleaning fish or sorting shellfish, or at one of the plantations picking coffee beans,’ he told her, studying her reaction carefully. ‘You might even find work on a fishing vessel or a farm or orchard. But it’s hard work and long hours you’d be looking at-’
‘I am well used to hard work, Señor,’ Kara muttered distractedly, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. ‘As a child I’d always dreamed of working outside, doing something truly useful, something that wasn’t fake, like adorning an estate house! No one thought I’d last a week on my own when I left home, but I did more than merely survive- I thrived! I was dirt poor of course, but that was a small price to pay for being left alone . . . I’ve always wanted just to be left alone . . . to be free of the unreasonable demands of tyrants.’
‘You don’t see poverty as a sort of tyranny?’ he asked her sardonically.
She shrugged. ‘At least it’s a tyrant I can meet on my own terms, Señor.’
He seemed to take a fresh look at her at that.‘True. What about the belongings you left behind in England?’
Avoiding his eye, she said, ‘I sold everything of value I owned. I no longer own anything of value, sentimental or otherwise.’
‘You would simply pick up and start a new life here- is that it?’
‘Yes . . . here, or wherever else I end up.’
He considered her in silence a long moment. At last, he said evenly, ‘Take a few weeks here, first, before making up your mind. Then, after two weeks, let me know what you wish to do with your life. Is it a deal?’
She looked up and, catching the amused glint in his eye, gave him an unwilling, small, wan smile in return. ‘All right, Señor Castellan. It’s a deal.’
She spent the rest of the day wandering the lands about the Casa and along the lakeshore, feeling curiously detached. By evening she was very tired and went to bed early, and then she slept soundly and deeply for the first time in as long as she could remember.
Breakfast, Señorita! Kara stirred, wondering if she’d actually heard those words or if they were part of the wonderful but elusive dream she’d been having. Then she heard Maria throw open the curtains to allow in the light of day, a soft grey light that was soothing, comforting, that made no demands. With a thankful sigh, Kara release the pillow she’d clutched to her chest for most of the night and sat up, looking vulnerable and dishevelled. ‘Maria! You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble over me!’
‘And why not?’ the maid demanded, severely. ‘Has no one ever made a fuss over you, I wonder? We all of us need to feel cared for now and then.’
‘Well I hope someone takes good care of you- Maria, this is astonishing! Is this crab in the omelette? What sort of sauce is this? Is it hard to make?’
‘I,’ Maria told her as she went about straightening up the room, ‘am married to the most wonderful man in the world, Señorita, and he treats me like a queen.’ She cocked her head thoughtfully in a curiously Latin way, adding, ‘To eyes such as yours he would not be much to look at, I suppose, but there is about him a love for all things good that is returned one-hundredfold. We live in Port Haven, and he is the owner of a shop on the esplanade above the docks that sells tackle and other necessities to the fishing boats. Our sons and daughters live in Port Haven too. The youngest two still live at home and work with their father.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather be working alongside your husband than here?’ Kara asked her innocently. ‘It must be hard living apart.’
Maria’s face crinkled into a rare smile. ‘What, and spoil the mystique I have gained by working for the Señora Castellan? Not for all the wine in Spain, my girl! I am held in high esteem in the village simply because I am employed here. And it makes my husband very proud as well! Now, out of bed and off with you! You compromise my dignity by amusing me!’
There was one structure that utterly fascinated Kara that lay high on a hill above the Casa- what appeared to be a genuine working windmill, constructed of mortared stone and wood. The building looked to be very old and probably was. Certainly it was very old-fashioned, which in itself greatly intrigued her. Dressed now in a similar peasant dress to the one she’d worn the day before, she removed her sandals and opted to walk barefoot up the grassy slope.
As she neared the structure with its slowly turning sails, a faint sound of groaning machinery came to her ears from within. There seemed to be no one about, so she went to a door at the front of the mill, lifted the heavy wooden bar that kept it closed, heaved the door open and stepped inside into surprisingly cool darkness. Once her eyes adjusted to the inner gloom, she could make out crude machinery like a giant clockwork standing before her. To one side a great belt moved, attached to a vertical spindle from which seemed to emanated a wet swishing sound. Moving closer to investigate this phenomenon, she discovered that the spindle was the uppermost part of a pumping mechanism that lay beneath the ground at the bottom of a sort of well, and she could see water churning in its depths. The water appeared to be flowing into a subterranean culvert, which led away from the mill. Curious, she went back outside and, following the direction the culvert had taken, spotted a squat mortared-stone structure built directly into the hillside. The structure had only one entrance, a heavy iron-bound oak door that was slightly ajar. From within came the sound of a deep voice. Someone was singing, absently. Presently, a middle-aged man with unruly grey moustache, work clothes and a dishevelled appearance, emerged, spotted Kara, and smiled.
‘You must be Kara, the Señora’s young guest,’ he said in heavily accented English that carried Italian overtones. ‘I am Guiseppe, the caretaker. Exploring, are you?’ He closed the heavy door behind him with a thud and padlocked it as he said this.
‘Is that some sort of reservoir?’ Kara asked him.
The man raised an eyebrow, humorously. ‘There is another kind that I am not aware of? But yes, this is the reservoir which provides running water to the Casa, and also water for irrigation. The mill pumps water from the lake up the hill into the reservoir, and the water runs downhill once more whenever the lines are opened.’ He paused to give her a speculative look. ‘You are going to stay, eh? Or are you going soon to Port Haven?’
Kara made a face and shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I won’t know anything about Port Haven until I actually see it.’
Guiseppe raised an eyebrow. ‘Why haven’t you gone to have a look?’
‘Have a look?’ Kara echoed, looking about doubtfully.
‘Come,’ Guiseppe gestured, ‘I will turn off the pump and show you.’
He led her to a narrow trail that cut close between the mill and dense bush that grew behind, and up a steep, winding path that meandered its way through successive knees of rock and stands of trees, until it ended at a flat space that was deeply wooded at first, then thinned out gradually until Kara found herself standing at the top of only one of a series of green hills that seemed terraced from top to bottom except for swaths of trees and shrubs which had been planted to prevent erosion. The hillsides drew together at the bottom, where lay a rocky bay full of boat-filled marinas and ramshackle buildings, that was centred by a smaller cove which was surrounded by houses.
For a long moment Kara seemingly had forgotten to breathe, and didn’t need to be told that she was gazing from afar upon the little tropical town of Port Haven. At last she took a shuddering breath and couldn’t shake a feeling that seemed deep-rooted in her bones that she knew this island, that, though she had never been here before in her life, she was nevertheless looking at a place that evoked a single word in the sudden stillness of her heart: home.
‘You like, eh?’
‘Like? Guiseppe, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful! But- how on earth does one get there from here?’
Guiseppe gave her a wry look. ‘On an island, Señorita, there is here. But if you mean, “How does one get to Port Haven?”, then I would say, “Ask the Señor.” I believe it may be his intent to provide you with the means to get there from here, but do not attempt to get there yourself before learning something of this island and its ways. It is easy to become lost here. And getting lost can be dangerous because some areas of the island can be wild and unpredictable.’
Kara looked to the panorama stretched out below, frowning. ‘It doesn’t look wild or unpredictable. If anything, it looks rather peaceful and safe.’
‘So may the wide seas on a calm day,’ he rejoined. ‘The journey is much farther than it seems because the roads wend their way through the hills and forests for some distance before you reach the port. You cannot tell from here, but the roads in those woods are a maze, and if you lose your sense of direction, you might find yourself in the wild parts of the island.’
Kara gave him a look. ‘But there’s no chance of getting lost if one keeps to the main road, now is there.’
‘Señorita,’ Guiseppe explained patiently, ‘there is no main road. And of the many roads on this island, one looks much like another.’
‘But their must be a main road,’ Kara protested. ‘It doesn’t make sense not to have one.’
‘Are you arguing with me, Señorita?’
Thinking that he wasn’t serious, Kara smiled impishly. ‘What if I were to say yes?’
‘Then I would say that I would put you over my knee and smack your bottom, just as I do with my daughters when they don’t listen to me,’ he replied, in such a way that left Kara in no doubt that he was indeed serious.
‘I think that I will be going now, Señor Guiseppe!’ she said, backing away from him and retreating with alacrity towards the Casa.
The caretaker watched her go for some time, chuckling softly to himself before going back to his chores.
Instead of going directly back to the Casa, Kara chose a meandering path that took her past several of the farm buildings. All the while, the allure of Port Haven was foremost in her mind, and as though guided by Fate she came upon an open tool shed near the back garden of the Casa and spied something hanging from the back wall behind an old trap piled high with boxes and other junk- an old girl’s bicycle with a metal basket affixed to the handlebars. Pleased with this discovery, Kara sidled her way in behind the trap until she reach the bicycle, lifted it from the hooks that secured it to the wall, set it on its wheels and rolled it to an open area, then leaned her weight on it to see if the tyres were still good.
Elated, she walked the bicycle to the top of the hill, mindful of the watching eyes of old Guiseppe as she did so, and soon reached the path that led downwards to where, in the distance, there seemed to be a road.
Not much used to bicycles, she inexpertly began coasting downhill, keeping her speed down should she go for a toss. There was a moist, cool breeze now, and tall white clouds towered overhead. ‘Perhaps I should have brought a sweater,’ she mused when the sun was lost momentarily behind a cloud and the air grew chilly. But it soon returned, bringing its warmth and a peculiar washed-out brilliance, and she was soon coasting down the hill once more, her confidence renewed.
The road, when she reached it, turned out not to be a road at all. Instead, it was a bleached-looking, flattened, crumbling rib of rock that stretched for some distance in either direction. What she had assumed to be cultivated land on either side of this she discovered were swaths of tall wild shrubs, and looking about found her view obscured; the descending series of valleys was no longer to be seen.
‘I know there is a road around here somewhere,’ she told herself determinedly. ‘It must be lower down. I shall just have to keep on until I find it.’
She followed the rib of rock to the left where the ground continued to be fairly level. Eventually the rib met a spine of rock running straight down the steepening hill. Momentarily laying the bike down, Kara climbed to the top of a ridge where rib and spine met, and her eyes were met with a steep grassy slope studded with boulders and broken white stone that stuck out of the uneven ground like broken teeth.
But there was more level ground to the left leading to deep forest, so she decided to try this direction instead. As she pushed the bicycle along, she muttered, ‘Trust me to bring a bicycle along on a hiking expedition! Well, Kara, the road can’t be far now.’
She soon found herself at the edge of a deep forest, and the ground seemed unobstructed and level; the skies were becoming very dark in places, but enough blue still showed that Kara took little notice. Taking to the bicycle once more, she traced what she thought to be an arcing course that should eventually lead her back to an open hillside she had seen some distance away. It was very dark and cool in the forest, uncomfortably so, raising goosebumps on her bare arms, so that she began picking up her pace. From her vantage at the top of the slope, the patches of forest had seemed very small. She assumed that they would soon come to an end.
The slope soon became a steepening hill, and she continued down this until she noticed, too late, an obstacle that lay across her path: the ground suddenly became flat stone that was wet, slimy and slick with trickling water. Instinctively backpedalling to engage the brake, she felt a sickening loss of control as the back tyre began sliding, slewing the bicycle sideways. She twisted her body to compensate as she was thrown and landed awkwardly on her chest, leaving her retching for breath and seeing stars. At the same moment, as she struggled to her knees, trying to get her wind back and assess the damage, the forest suddenly got as dark as night . . . and then it began to rain.
Seeing stars, still whooping, trying to draw breath, clutching her sore belly, she crawled to the downwind side of the bole of a great tree and huddled in a leafy crack, hoping to wait out the storm. As the pain in her belly subsided to a dull ebbing, she thought that she was going to remain relatively dry, but the rain, which was becoming a storm, only continued, and soon the floor of her little sanctuary was flooded with little rivulets of water, leaving her wet, shivering and cold.
Hugging herself for warmth, leaning as far into the crumbling wood as possible, she spent the entire day in sodden misery, and by late afternoon decided that, wet and dirty or not, bruised and battered and disgraced as she was, that she’d better own up and return to the Casa.
Retracing her steps was an ordeal in itself. Though the bicycle was undamaged, still it was very heavy and awkward to manage over the rugged terrain. She arrived at the Casa with the last light of dusk, replaced the bicycle in the tool shed as she’d found it, and fumbled her way in the dark through the back way. The door to the house opened a little before she reached it, and Roman stood there framed in the light, looking stern.
‘Stay where you are.’
Kara’s heart sank down to the soles of her bare feet as he left her and went back inside. Moments later he returned with a pair of towels.
‘Take off that wet dress. Don’t argue! Turn your back to me if you’re so modest!’
Numbly, Kara obeyed. No sooner was she out of her sodden dress than he wrapped the towel about her and scooped her up in his arms. As he carried her upstairs, she was dimly aware of the terse orders he gave, that she was to be given a hot bath and put directly to bed. Somewhere along the way Kara did something she’d never done before in her life- she fainted.
She awoke to the smell of food and an overpowering hunger that gnawed at her stomach. Opening her eyes took a physical effort as she struggled to sit up in bed. A low chuckle greeted her as she tried to discern where the wonderful aroma was coming from.
‘So that’s what it takes to rouse you: food! Here, sit still. I’ll place the tray over your lap.’
And then she remembered the events of the day before. Writhing with shame, she said, ‘You must be so angry with me.’
‘Oh, I think that you’ve been punished enough,’ he rejoined, placing a fork in her hand when she showed guilty reticence about accepting his hospitality. ‘Eat!’ He chuckled softly as she obeyed. ‘I hope you’ve learned your lesson. May I have your word that you won’t go off exploring again without a guide?’
‘I borrowed the bicycle without asking,’ she admitted, deciding that she owed it to Roman to be completely forthright.
‘May I ask why?’
Polishing off a bowl of chicken salad and washing it down with a glass of milk, she muttered, ‘I’d somehow got it into my head that I just had to get to Port Haven any way I could. I don’t know why, or the reason I acted to impulsively. The urge just . . . seemed to take over somehow.’
Watching her carefully, he said, ‘Could you put a name to that urge?’
Avoiding his eyes, she replied, ‘It was like I needed to get home, right away, which is an odd thing because I’ve never really felt that I had a real home before.’
His gaze narrowed, and he said sceptically, ‘And you felt that your home was in Port Haven?’
‘Not exactly,’ she said slowly. ‘I just felt that it was someplace close at hand . . . somewhere on the island. I don’t know exactly.’ She sighed. ‘I’ve been so strung-up for such a long time . . . I suppose my own feelings are playing tricks on me.’
Later that day, experiencing a curiously detached sort of emptiness and hollow, bleak sense of resignation, she was nevertheless propelled by hunger to wrap herself in her housecoat and stumble in the general direction of the glass room on unsteady legs. To her surprise, the Señora Castellan was already there drinking tea and nibbling on toast and marmalade.
‘I take it you didn’t find your way to Port Haven,’ she said with a small smile when she noticed Kara, ‘and that you were so desperate to get there that you appropriated my old bicycle. I hope you gave it a little oil, first: it has been hanging on that wall in the shed for a very long time.’
Kara found herself staring, unable to imagine the prim and proper Señora Castellan doing something as girlish as letting her hair down and riding a bicycle.
The Señora must have understood Kara’s look, for she chuckled and said, ‘Oh, yes, I was quite the wild one in my younger days. My late husband thought I was the most exciting, most exotic creature he’d ever laid eyes on. You’d never think, to lay eyes on me, that I was the little country girl from Menerbes he fell in love with so many years ago. Do you know Menerbes?’
Kara shook her head.
‘Well, let me tell you something of it. Menerbes is a small town in the south of France, very near the Spanish border. Like all border regions in Europe, the people there are multilingual, and are of two heads, two hearts and two cultures. Menerbes has the look of an old Latin town. Some of its houses have thick walls of adobe, tiled roofs, old-fashioned hearths that are still used in the old-fashioned way for cooking and heating- the hearth in the house I was born in was very much the heart and soul of the place.
‘My father owned several orchards, and my job was to ride that bicycle along the unpaved country lanes to where the men were working and take them their meals, which were made by Maman and their wives.
‘There was a young man, a Spaniard from a very old family, who lived in a castillo high up on a hill above the orchards. I thought him very cold and aloof, and he all-too-obviously found me very young, undisciplined and uncultured. Or so I thought.
‘But one day I found myself caught in the most ferocious rainstorm, and there was me, too proud to admit that I had foolishly ignored the signs in the weather, and therefore too proud to ask for anyone’s help as I struggled all the way home.
‘Ramone, for that was his name, Dios rest his soul, came by driving this big, fancy trap, and I heard it approaching from behind me. I pulled off the road to let him pass, and as he did so he slowed the horse to keep pace with me. As though speaking to a child, he said, “Enough of this foolishness! Get in the wagon. I am taking you home.”
‘Well, I thought nothing of it as he took me and my bicycle home, but my parents, being very old-fashioned, were absolutely scandalized. To everyone’s astonishment, Ramone, as though he had planned the moment, informed my parents that he and I would be married at their earliest possible convenience.
‘And the rest, as they say, is history. Ramone brought me here, we had a fine son and three beautiful daughters, and for long we had what many would call an idyllic life.’
Surprised, Kara said, ‘Three daughters? Where are they now?’
‘Long since married and living far away,’ the Señora said with a note of regret in her voice. ‘One lives in Spain, another in New Mexico in the United States, and the youngest in Menerbes where I was born. All three have good husbands and lots of children, but we hear from them seldom, and see them even less.
‘Tell me,’ she said unexpectedly, giving Kara a speculative look, ‘would you ever consider living . . . in a place like this?’
Kara’s mind seemed to go blank as she considered. In the meantime, Maria came from the kitchen and, with one of her small, fond smiles she seemed to have only for Kara, laid out her luncheon- small browned fish cakes with bearnaise sauce, scallop stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, and a large glass of milk.
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The year is 1929. It is the eve of the Great Depression, and young Kara Savalas is on her way to the New World, hoping to make a new life for herself. Instead, she is delivered to the front door of a Casa in the Spanish Caribbean where she meets Roman, the castellan of Isla Fiero. The way back to New York is by way of the elusive road to Port Haven and its shipping traffic. But over time she becomes entangled in island life, and as she learns the way to Port Haven, she is torn between her desire to complete her journey to New York harbour or to stay.