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Dougie McHale

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The Flight of the Dragonfly

The Past

 

The Beginning

 

She slipped through my fingers. I lost my child and there was nothing I could do about it, but that’s not how it began.

 

I loved the way he looked at me, his smile could melt the coldest heart. There was a definite feeling that we belonged together, our friends named us the soul mates. Sometimes, it uneased me that I could feel such a bond with another. I wasn’t mesmerised by him, that’s not the word, it implies we weren’t equal. We were connected, physically and emotionally, that’s what it was. I was the hand that fitted his glove.

We met at a party. I hadn’t been invited to it, but my friend, Jasmin had, and she didn’t want to go on her own, so she asked me to go with her. I wasn’t exactly dragged along. I quite liked the idea of going out and the chances were, I’d probably know someone there anyway. It was at a house in Corstorphine, a nice house, in a nice suburban area. I remember walking along a wide street with mature trees on each side. It must have been autumn because golden and cooper leaves littered the pavement. It had been raining and they stuck to the soles of our shoes. The front door was painted black with a large cooper knocker. It’s funny how we remember certain details and others are obscured by time. I can’t recall the hosts name, but I’ve never forgotten him, after all, it was he who introduced me to Jamie that night.

My first impression of Jamie was, he was shy, not painfully shy where he struggled to make conversation, but reserved, I suppose that’s a better word. Yes, that’s a better description. He asked me my name, and when I said, Grace, his eyes lit up, it had been his grandmother’s name. Then, he refilled my glass and enquired about what I did for a living. He seemed interested in my work, either that, or he was good at pretending to listen. I know now, it was a bit of both.

I was a researcher at Edinburgh University, and we had just started a major project on the effects of plastics polluting the sea and its catastrophic effect on sea life. Looking back, now, I probably did speak a lot about it. I was brimming with enthusiasm about the prospect of getting my academic teeth into it. Jamie asked all the right questions and smiled a lot. I remember he smiled.

I did eventually enquire about his job. He said it wasn’t as interesting or globally effective as researching the environment, but he enjoyed it. He was a policy adviser for the Scottish National Party at Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament. He must have seen something in the look on my face as he almost apologised by saying it wasn’t as grandiose as it sounded.

 ‘So, you’re one of them?’ I asked.

‘One of who?’ he grinned.

‘You know, a tartan warrior in a kilt who hates anything to do with the English, anything British.’

He looked at me with his piercing eyes and as he took a drink he said, ‘Not really.’

‘I’m sorry.’ It was my turn to apologise.

‘What for?’

‘Judging you. I didn’t mean to generalise.’

‘Don’t worry. I don’t have the legs for a kilt.’

I laughed then. We both did. In a way, it broke the ice between us. I asked where he lived. He told me he had just bought a house in St Johns Terrace. He asked me if I knew it and when I said I didn’t, he told me it was a nice unassuming cull de sac not far from where we were.

I lived in a flat in Lonsdale Terrace, opposite The Meadows, it was handy for walking to work and nowhere near Corstorphine, where Jamie lived.

‘So, I can assume you’re not a fan of Nichola?’

‘Nichola?’ Should I know this Nichola, I thought, and then it came to me. ‘Oh. You mean Nichola Sturgeon. Your boss.’

‘Who else.’

‘Let’s just say, I respect her because she’s a woman in a man’s world and doing well. In fact, she’s doing much more than that, she’s widening the parameter’s, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her. I much prefer Ruth Davidson, she’s a more likeable character, but I don’t agree with her politics.’

‘That’s a relief. I never had you down as a Tory, anyway.’

‘Why? Do they have a certain look?’

‘No.’ He smiled. ‘Although they are irritating.’

‘I’m glad you don’t think I am, then.’

‘Are you interested in politics?’

‘I wouldn’t call it an interest, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lib Dems.’

He pulled a face and rolled his eyes.

‘I know. I know. But in their defence, their public image is improving.’

‘It can’t get any worse.’

I combed my hand through my hair.

‘Are you hungry?’ he asked.

That smile again.

‘I saw when we came in, they’ve got a little buffet set up in the dining room.’

‘There is, but I’d like to take you out, for dinner.’

‘When?’ I could feel my heart beating in the back of my throat.

He leaned forward. ‘Now.’

 

The Present

 

Lesvos, Greece

 

Grace is looking at a mannequin in a shop window. It is wearing a dress she has admired for over a week now. Each morning, she stops and admires the cut of the dress, and the way in which the fabric hugs the curves of the mannequin. It’s a statement. Yes, that’s what it is. Waring such a dress, Grace thinks, is a measure of one’s own confidence in who one is, it defines who you are.

She is not ready to be clothed in such refinery. It is too soon. There was a time, she would have bought the dress the minute she laid eyes on it, but not now. Back then, she was indomitable: fiercely independent, driven and resourceful. She had a propense determination to be optimistic, positive… she turns away from the shop window and sighs under her breath.

‘Grace, I thought it was you.’

Grace spins around. ‘Oh. Hello, Monica.’

Monica touches Grace’s arm. ‘Have you got time for a coffee?’

Grace checks her watch. ‘I suppose so.’

‘Good. I’m glad I bumped into you.’

Monica is in her late fifties and well presented. Her face is taught, and her skin has a polished sheen to it, a waxed complexion that reminds Grace, Monica is not averse to the surgeon’s knife. They sit outside under the shade of a parasol. The café is popular with the locals which means that the beverages and food are of a good quality.

‘Have you settled in now?’ Monica asks as she takes her smartphone from her bag and lays it on the table. She looks at it and frowns. ‘I’m expecting a call… you don’t mind I hope?’

‘Grace shakes her head. ‘No. Not at all.’

‘So, the apartment is up to scratch?’

‘Yes, I’m so lucky. There’s a few bits and bobs that need my attention, but apart from that it’s perfect.’

‘I’m glad. There’s nothing worse than moving to a place you haven’t seen. I know it’s just brick and mortar, but it’s more than that, don’t you think? It’s important to feel a sense of belonging, I feel.’

‘Yes, you’re absolutely right.  I feel an attached to it already, even though it’s just been a few weeks.’

‘Time flies, don’t you think?’

‘This past year has, that’s for sure.’

‘At least you’re rid of him.’ Monica smiles and then looks embarrassed. She glances at her phone.

Grace wonders if she is willing it to ring.  ‘Oh! thanks for the kettle.’

‘You’re welcome. I was glad to get rid of it. It was just taking up room. I had two sitting in the cupboard. God knows how I managed to acquire all those kettles. You don’t want another one, do you?’ Monica laughs.

A waiter approaches them, and they order two coffees.

‘Would you like a cake or a pastry?’ Monika asks as she scans the menu.

‘I wouldn’t know what to get. Why don’t you order for the both of us?’

Monica sets her mouth. ‘Mm… I think we’ll have a slice of Melopita and let me see… a Baklava.’

The waiter nods his head in approval before leaving them.

You’re not on a diet, I hope?’

Grace smiles. ‘Not this week, anyway. What did you just order?’

‘The Melopita is part custard, part cheesecake, it’s a Honey Pie, you’ll love it. Now, the Baklava is a classic. It’s basically Greek pastry made with flaky dough and layered with a cinnamon-spiced nut filling and sweet syrup. It’s very decadent, but it tastes like heaven. You’ll love that too. We’ll have half of each.’

Once the coffee and cakes arrive, Monica cuts the cakes into four pieces.

‘Oh my God, that’s delicious.’ Grace dabs the side of her mouth with a napkin.

‘Better than an orgasm?’

‘What is that?’

‘Has it been that long?’

Grace suddenly feels guarded, but she can tell she has caught Monica’s curiosity. She hesitates before nodding.

Monica sighs. ‘And is it important?’

‘I’m enjoying my own company. I’m comfortable with how things are.’

Monica looks at her, as if weighing up the implications of Grace’s words, then, after a pause, Monica smiles and lifts her cup to her mouth. ‘Then that’s all that matters.’ There is an awkward silence. ‘So… you’ve settled in then, that’s good.’

‘I have. I’ve surprised myself.’

‘It took me awhile. I thought I’d never be happy here. The biggest mistake of my life, I kept telling myself. Eventually, I stopped missing London. I’d never go back now. This is home. It’s been eight years now.’

‘I didn’t realise it was as long as that.’

‘Yes. Arthur’s been dead three years now, but as you know, I’m not on my own. Georgios and I are… very fond of each other.’

Grace thinks it is quite an old-fashioned word for someone like Monica to use, especially when referring to Georgios.

‘I’ll need to ask you over for dinner, Georgios as well, of course.’

‘I’d like that.’

‘Me too.’ Monica’s presence has been a comfort to Grace, in fact, she doesn’t know how she would have coped if it hadn’t been for Monica’s continued support. ‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am.’

‘We stick together. Especially in times of crisis. We muck in. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

‘You’ve been a great support, Monica. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes here if it wasn’t for you.’

‘Nonsense, you don’t give yourself credit enough. I’ve watched you change. You’re not the woman you were when you first came here.’

‘I suppose not,’ Grace muses. She takes a sip of her coffee. ‘But there’s days when I just don’t want to get out of bed. The thought of facing another day… it’s like… well, it’s hard, you know.’

Monica takes Grace’s hand and locks her eyes on her.

‘You’re doing just fine, believe me. I could never have done what you have. I don’t think I’ve got the courage.’

‘I just don’t feel the person you’re describing.’

‘And that’s why you need to start having a higher opinion of yourself, Grace. Stop bringing yourself down all the time. You were like that as a child.’

‘I can’t help it. It’s in my DNA, I think.’ It is a statement that is instinctive, it is her default, but all the same, the familiarity sits uncomfortable on her tongue.

Monica rolls her eyes. ‘Well, that needs to change.’

     

 

 

The Present

 

Something of Worth

 

The sun trickles through the shutters as Grace rises towards the surface of sleep, and just for a moment, she is in her bedroom in Edinburgh. Her heart pounds in her chest and she turns to see if he is really there, lying beside her. She can feel the cold dampness of sweat run in the dip between her breasts.

She remembers his eyes, piercing her resolve and staring down at her. He holds a knife in his hand. She tries to scream, but he has silenced her voice. He grabs a handful of her hair and hacks at it, viciously.

She closes her eyes. It was a dream, just a dream. The terror does not leave her. It fills the room. She does not want the memory of it to stain this new day, this new beginning, this new place.

 

After a shower, Grace makes a breakfast of toast and black coffee and sits outside on the balcony, just big enough for a chair and table. She watches, as small groups of children, with sports bags strapped to their backs make their way to the local primary school. It is a building she came across the other day. At the time, she wondered how many classes it had, as like most of the buildings, it was small and only two storeys. At the rear was a basketball court which surprised her, and she remembers thinking if basketball was popular in Greece.

The children smile and laugh, they are always talking amongst each other, it is uplifting to see children this happy, such innocence stirs fond images of her own childhood and a convivial warmth spread through her.

A father, she assumes, passes below her, with a girl sitting on his shoulders. She has long dark hair that bobs with each step. Unlike the others, the girls face is set, almost determined, Grace thinks. Her face has the look of natural beauty, like the young girls often portrayed in television adverts and magazines. The father looks up, more by chance than any interest in Grace and to her surprise smiles a reserved, hello. Grace returns the gesture. She resists an urge to raise her hand, her modesty restricts this, and she straightens up and pulls the soft collar of her dressing gown around her neck.

She presses her back against the chair and watches as they continue down the street. Grace releases her hold on the dressing gown and absently fiddles with the cord tied around her waist, as the man and child turn down a small lane that Grace knows will take them to the school gates.

It is already warm, and she can feel her shins tingle from the sun’s glare. This morning, they look a bright red, burnt from yesterdays over exposure. She won’t forget to cover them in sun crème today.

It has always been one of surprise and wonderment when, every morning, Grace gazes over the terracotta roofs towards a sensuous sea, cerulean blue, constantly amending and sprinkling diamonds like shattered glass. Her heart is embellished by the dazzling brightness and decorated surfaces of colour that adorns each archway, house and structure in luminous blue, alluring mauve, and brilliant white.

The baker’s shop is only a few feet away and she smells the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread, pastries and cakes that transform the air into a riotous bouquet that the ovens have fired. Each morning, her senses are illuminated with smells, tastes, sights and sounds that are becoming familiar, but always experienced new and unique to this space and time.

She decides that this morning, she will buy a loaf of freshly baked bread and then some jam from Sofia’s Delicatessen.

 

She steps from the shade of the doorway and immediately feels the heat of the morning sun upon her shoulders. She crosses the street where it is sheltered, checks her bag for her purse and then ambles at a slow pace. She turns a corner that takes her down a steep hill where in front of her she can see tall masts and a myriad of boats, all shapes and sizes, hugging the harbour wall. She has forgotten the surreality of her dream and its residual impact, and now, amongst the sea air, she feels revitalised. Amongst the palm trees, traffic and pedestrians the sun gleams off the pavements. She puts on her sun glasses and pulls her bag further up her shoulder. In places, weeds appear between the paving slabs, and skeletal cats lounge in the shade of doorways and under tables, where people sip coffee, and tea, and eat English breakfasts with chips, a peculiarity she can’t get her head around.

She smooths her hair and readjusts the clasp that keeps it in place. She enters the delicatessen and slips her sunglasses onto her head. She takes a moment to adjust her eyes. Sofia is a slim woman, with dark wavy hair. She wears her make up discreetly and it compliments her features. Grace would place her in her forties. She knows she has a daughter, Grace has seen them together.

Sofia is reaching into her display and rearranging pastries and cakes when she looks up and smiles. ‘Good morning.’

‘Kalimera,’ Grace replies.

Sofia’s smile widens. ‘You’re learning Greek?’

‘I’m trying. I can only say a few words.’

‘It takes time and practise. I admire that, learning to speak the language.’

‘Your English is excellent. Where did you learn?’

‘I went to university in London in my twenties. I was able to improve my English every day, just like you will.’

‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak Greek like you speak English.’

‘I thought that too. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll learn. You’ll pick up new words every day.’

‘I hope so.’

‘What can I get you?’

‘I was hoping you had jam.’

‘I do. My friend makes it. She has her own business.’

Sofia points to a shelf full of jars, each with the same logo emblazoned on the front. ‘It’s just over there. You’ll find quite a variety.’

‘Oh, I’m not that adventurous. I’m looking for raspberry.’

Grace picks up a jar. ‘The jars are quaint all by themselves. It would be a shame to throw them out. I think I’ll take two.’

‘You haven’t tried it, yet.’

‘I don’t need to, it’s worth it just for the jars.’

Sofia takes the jars from Grace with a confident half smile. ‘I’m sure you’ll like the jam. I love it myself.’

‘Well, that’s all I need to know,’ Grace says, unzipping her bag and taking out her purse.

‘That’s six euros. Do you want a bag?’

‘Yes, please. I’m going to the bakers I’ll use it for that also.’

‘Very environmentally friendly.’

‘It was my job.’

‘Really, what did you do?’

‘I was a sustainability researcher at Edinburgh University.’

‘Wow! How interesting.’

‘Really? I don’t normally get that kind of reaction.’

‘It’s a passion of mine. In fact, if you’re interested, there’s a group of us who clean the beach of plastics and rubbish every week. You’re welcome to come along, if you want?’

Grace’s eyes light up. ‘I’d love too. When it is?’

‘Tomorrow, in fact. We meet at the beach in the morning, around nine.’

‘Perfect. I’ll be there.’

Sofia hands Grace the plastic bag. ‘This will be one of the last plastic bags I give out.’

‘Oh! Why is that?’

‘I’m changing to paper and encouraging customers to bring their own bag.’

Grace nods in approval. ‘That’s a great idea. The supermarkets back home have been doing it for some time now. If you want a bag you must pay for one. It encourages people to use the same bag each time.’

‘That’s what I’m hoping to achieve.’

‘Well, good luck. And I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Until tomorrow. Enjoy the jam.’

‘Oh, I’m sure I will.’

When Grace leaves the shop, she feels uplifted. She thinks she will like living in Molyvos. She attributes this to having a purpose again, she is not just going to be engaged in the small things in life, she has found something of worth, something she believes in.   

 

 

The Present

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