FICTION: THE CURIOUS MEETING OF MINDS ON PHRAXOS
I had spent several uneventful days on the island before our meeting. I was down by the shoreline contemplating a swim when I first met him. Appearing wraithlike through a grove of trees I was at first quite startled due to my meditative mood when he first came into view.
The sun had been a constant friend in those initial few days as I wandered the island, the change from a dark and stormy Europe at that time of year could not have been more stark.
He presented a rather taciturn look to me as we first met and I formed the impression that he would have much rather have been alone, undisturbed by the intrusion of myself. I had clearly disturbed his reverie. But soon his demeanour changed, perhaps some remnants of a previous social mental machinery took over, preventing his inclination which was clearly a diversion onto any track leading away from where we now stood.
“Good day to you.”
“And to you. Are you English?”
“For my sins. Yes.”
There followed an awkward silence of a few seconds before he offered a few more words.
“Are you enjoying the island?”
“Very much so, yes.”
“It’s very quiet at this time of year. How long is your stay?”
“Yes, I love it. I’ll be staying for several weeks. Are you also visiting?”
“No, I stay here. Up there.”
He pointed away from the water up into the woodland.
“I see. That must be lovely… to be staying nearby this tranquil spot. I’m sorry if I am intruding.”
He mumbled some negative response to my proposed apology.
“That’s quite alright. In fact, I could use some company. Would you care to come up for some tea?”
“How very kind of you. Yes, I would be delighted.”
With him taking the lead we wandered up through the wood until we came upon a narrow path leading upward on a slight incline. Shortly we arrived at a clearing in which stood an old but extremely elegant-looking house.
“Please, take a seat.”
He pointed to a table with two seats drawn up to it. We were standing on a long veranda overlooking the woodland below having just climbed a staircase of some ten or so steps. The breeze wafted coolly here, raised as we were by the elevation of the house which I now turned to with a view to assessing its overall look. I very much liked what I saw. It was of a low and somewhat colonial design with several doors leading to what appeared to be quite large rooms fronting the long veranda. An upper storey appeared to contain more rooms than the lower and of smaller size.
While I gazed around me he disappeared inside, emerging a few minutes later with a tray containing a teapot, two cups and a plate of small conical cakes.
As we sat in that very pleasant ambience with the warm sun and cool breeze upon us sipping a very fragrant and tasteful jasmine tea I began to feel a very special atmosphere descend upon me. I attempted some conversation as I could feel a silence descending upon us that if continued a few seconds more could well feel quite awkward.
“I like your house… it’s very attractive and in such a wonderful location too.”
“It’s quite old now. Built in 1929.”
“And so private… with no one else nearby.”
“Yes, the land all around belongs to the house.”
“I see. Wonderful to have such a haven in a world that is now so turbulent.”
“Please, let us not talk of the world if you please. The here and now is enough for me if that is amenable to you too?”
“Oh yes. I would much prefer that.”
And so it went on that first occasion. We existed in the moment. Slowly silence became more friend than enemy. After some thirty minutes I took my leave but not before being asked to return the next day. Not having anything planned in advance I readily agreed.
I wandered back down the path to the sea and it was then I decided I would after all venture to swim.
The water was warm enough that day and I swam quite far out. Looking back to the shore I suddenly thought I glimpsed a figure moving slowly between the pines not far from the beach. It was not him as this figure appeared to be all in white in some sort of flowing gown. It was only for an instant I had this impression as if figure it was it disappeared as quickly as it had shown itself.
That night, as I lay in my bed back in my room in town I thought back over my day and these two strange occurrences that to me portended some event which for the moment I could only very dimly perceive.
“The man who owned this house before me was a conjurer of minds.”
We were sitting once again on the veranda, once again sipping tea, the weather much the same as the day before.
This remark, coming as it did out of the blue somewhat unsettled me.”
“You don’t say. How so?”
“He arranged experiments here involving play actors and guests. Psychological experiments.”
“He created an ambience where the limits of human emotions were tested using a variety of means. He was master of ceremonies of course and always in control of the ever-shifting scenery of the theatre of the mind he created here.”
“Fascinating. You spoke of play-actors?”
“Yes, there were several and extremely adept at playing their roles.”
On saying this he rose from the table and invited me to come with him to view the house interior. We stepped through into a large room that was completely bare of ornamentation or furniture.
“This is just as the previous owner left it.”
On the walls there were several areas of discolouration where it was clear large frames had hung.
“He was very rich and had many valuable works of art in his possession.”
“Does he live still? If I may ask, why did he leave this wonderful spot?”
“He lives still I have no doubt. But his whereabouts and why he left here I do not know.”
“What plans do you have for the room?”
“None at all. I will leave it exactly as you see it now.”
This seemed very strange to me however I did not feel it entirely polite to enquire further.
We traversed through each room on the ground floor one by one. Each was in a similar condition. Upstairs however the rooms did have some rudimentary items of furniture such as wardrobes, beds, sideboards and beds. But no other personal features were in evidence, not a book, not a candlestick, no artwork or personal touch of any kind.
Back downstairs he showed me into the kitchen where a kettle stood from which he had boiled water for our tea. A wooden stand-alone cupboard in turquoise blue stood at our left, a large square ceramic sink lay under the latticed window to our right. Otherwise, this room too was completely bare.
We took our places at the table on the veranda once more.
“Thank you for showing me around.”
“As you can see, the house is a mere shell now. It stands as it does due to my memory of it as it once was.”
“Ah. You were here when the experiments took place.”
“I was the object of one experiment, yes.”
I was unsure how to respond to this surprising turn in our conversation but managed to somehow get a few words out.
“You were? How interesting.”
“It was long ago and in a very different time from now but the memory of those days still lives with me and those I interacted with in that living theatre.”
He paused for a few seconds.
“One of those, in particular, I have found it impossible to forget.”
Another momentary pause.
“Her name within the play we all performed in at that time was Lily though her real name was Julie Holmes.”
I looked at the man before me now. He appeared transfixed, for all his desire to be in the here and now he gave every impression of being more than half locked in the past.
“I went through a transfiguring experience here. I have not been the same since that time, some thirty-five years ago now, more than half my life I have struggled with the ultimate meaning of my experience.”
I was rapidly becoming aware of my status as a sounding board, a listening post, observer, and perhaps even psychologist for this man, so distracted by these past events that I now struggled to imagine.
“They put me through a psychological wringer you see. My own fascination and curiosity about existence and the frustrations of youth I then had were used as fodder for the magical circus of consciousness they played out here each year.”
“I was drawn into things by my own volition and search for meaning. At that time, all those years ago I was in a kind of despair very common among those of certain sensitivity. I saw no meaning in my life. Those who created the experiment here found me an excellent ‘seeker’ as they termed those who were woven into the plot.”
“Will you come again tomorrow? Perhaps in the early afternoon? We could swim.”
“I would be glad to.”
Back in my room, I pondered the relationship that was developing between me and the strange, lonely man on the other side of the island. I realised that I must be approximately the age he was when the experiment he talked of was conducted with him as the main protagonist or victim or candidate… whatever the correct term was. And some of the preoccupations which burdened his mind burdened mine also.
The next day we met down by the small rocky bay where we had first become acquainted. Undressing to our bathing trunks we slowly waded out into the welcoming waters. We said very little, only making a brief greeting to one another before readying ourselves for our swim. Soon we were bobbing near to one another quite some way out. We both faced the shore rising and falling as the current took us.
Suddenly I became aware of the same white shape I had seen two days before. I looked toward him. He was staring in the same direction as I was but showed no sign of surprise.
“Lily” was the one mournful word that then escaped his lips.
We soon were back onshore and having wrapped ourselves in the towels we had brought with us traversed the path up to the house.
“I could not escape and the reason was I was a willing participant. I needed to change myself, to find myself, to understand better who I was and what destiny if any lay before me. The greatest mistake I made in that time was in falling in love with Lily. From that I have never recovered.”
At this point, his eyes dropped down to the table between us and he grew silent for several seconds.
“Would you stay here tonight and share a meal with me?”
I was doubtful whether any of the rooms I had seen would be comfortable and had grave doubts also about the capacity of the place to provide a meal but I agreed and so spent my first night at Bourani with the man who I knew now as Nicholas Urfe.
Sitting on the veranda again with the stars magnificent above us and a balmy little breeze blowing I almost felt I could detect the trace of a certain magic still lingering in the presence of the house where I was to spend the night.
“I left here for England after the charade was over, searching for any trace of those who had brought me through my dark night of the soul and in particular for Lily of course. And later for Alison who had once been my lover before my enchantment by Lily. Ultimately I discovered that I had only one viable option if I was to save my life at all, to find Alison and begin a new life with her somehow. I did find her eventually and we tried to create an existence together. But the presence of Lily always hung over us, hung over me. It destroyed us. It destroyed Alison who had loved me throughout this whole sorry episode. So much so she took her life.”
“I left England once again, bereft, again desperately lonely and without hope. I had no idea what I should do with my life at that point, even less than I had forty-five years previously. So I came here and found this house as you see it now and its owner, Maurice Conchis, gone. Only ghosts of the past remained. I came to join them and am now as one of them.”
I could see why this man had needed to talk. I feared there was a melancholy far too deep inside him for any words of consolation to help or for any outpourings of memories from himself to diminish them. I felt for him keenly but was all too aware that I was utterly incapable of assisting the poor man.
We retired for the evening. The meal that evening had been poor but sufficient. Some bread and cheese, a bottle of wine, nothing more. He showed me to my room, one of the very barely furnished rooms I had seen a few days before. He bid me a good night and left with no further word.
I looked around but found very little more than I had seen on the previous occasion. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a scrap of paper lying in one corner. I picked it up and read the words upon it.
Night water. You were sweet.
I must finish.
I love you. your Julie
I slept fitfully that night, awaking just as dawn broke. Through the window, I could hear a wind soughing through the nearby pines. I slowly dressed then wandered down the wooden stairs and out onto the veranda. On the table were the remains of a bottle of retsina we had drunk a few glasses from the night before and under it a small scrap of paper.
‘Thank you for your patient attention. Do not be further concerned for me.
On reading this note I will at last have achieved the peace I have sought for so long. Don’t trouble to arrange a search for me, I will not be found.
I do hope my troubles will not spoil the remaining time you have left on the island. I am afraid I needed your company to attempt a final laying of certain ghosts to rest.
Now it is time for this ghost to finally find his own rest.
I thank you once more. Please avail yourself of the retsina and the remaining bread and cheese before finally leaving this troubled place.
I wish you every good fortune.
I left the bottle, bread and cheese untouched and walked quickly down the steps then down the path to Moutsa, the bay where we had first met, before walking swiftly and with melancholy mind back to my room in town.
This is my homage to ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles, a book which has haunted me since first reading it in the late Sixties. For a magnificent audible version of the book (which can be obtained free as your first credit at Audible.com) via the link below.