Read an Extract from Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop

Read an Extract from Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop

They arrived dog-eared, always torn, often almost illegible, as though carried across Europe in a back pocket. Once or twice the ink looked as if it had been washed away by rain, wine or even tears. Sometimes they were bleached by sunshine, and the faded postmarks showed that their journey had often taken many weeks.

The first of these postcards had appeared at the end of December, and after that they came with increasing regularity. Ellie Thomas began to look forward to their arrival. If she did not receive one for a week or more, she would sift twice through the mail, just in case. The content of her pigeonhole, one of twelve in the large communal hallway, was mostly bills (or reminders of unpaid bills) and junk mail for junk food. Much of it was addressed to previous tenants who had long since gone, and she assumed that the intended reader of these postcards, S. Ibbotson, was one of these.

Apart from the colourful images, always of Greece, she tossed the stray mail into the postbox on the corner of her street with the words ‘Return to Sender’ scrawled across the top. They were probably binned by the post office.

The postcards could not be returned to sender. The sender was unknown, always signed off simply with an ‘A’. ‘A’ for ‘anonymous’. And whoever S. Ibbotson was, nothing else had come for her (or possibly him) in the three years Ellie had been living in the gloomy Kensal Rise flat. It seemed a waste to throw them away.

On a large corkboard, for which she had no use except the occasional shopping list, and a scrap of paper with her National Insurance number, she began to pin the cards. As the weeks went by, they formed a colourful mosaic of mostly blue and white (skies, sea, boats and whitewashed buildings with blue shutters). Even the flag that appeared on some of them was in the same pure colours.

The postcards had become an obsession. The idealised images that she was gathering were becoming more and more important to her.

. . . Methoni, Mystras, Monemvasia, Nafpaktos, Nafplio, Olympia, Sparta . . .

There was a touch of alchemy in their names, and she allowed them to cast their spell. She longed to be in the places they depicted. They spun around in her mind, like any foreign words with musical sounds but unknown meanings: Kalamata, Kalavrita, Kosmas. On and on they went.

The tableau of images brightened up the basement flat, putting colour into her otherwise dreary home, something her Habitat throws had failed to achieve.

In neat, slightly ‘arty’ (if occasionally illegible) script, the writer conveyed little information but plenty of enthusiasm.

From Nafplio: It has something special about it.

From Kalamata: It has such a warm atmosphere.

From Olympia: This picture gives you just a glimpse.

Ellie began to let herself imagine she was ‘S’, to dream of the places that this ‘A’ seemed to be calling her to.

The sender often gave insights into a way of life she had never imagined.

It seems that people here don’t understand solitude. Even while I was writing this postcard someone came up and asked me where I was from and what I was doing here. It was not easy to explain.

For the Greeks, the worst thing in the world is to be alone, so someone always comes to talk to me, to ask me or tell me something.

They invite me to their homes, to panegyris, even to baptisms. I have never encountered such hospitality. I am a total stranger, but they treat me like a long-lost friend.

Sometimes they might invite me to share their table in a café and, invariably, they have a story to tell. I listen and write it all down. You know how old people can be. Memory can make truth a bit soft around the edges. But never mind about that. I want to share these stories with you.

But they all ended sadly:

Without you this place is nothing. I wish you were here. A.

The sign-off was simple, sincere and sorrowful. ‘S’ would never know how much the anonymous writer wanted them to be there, together.

One day in April, three cards arrived all at once. Ellie found her old atlas and began to locate the places. She tore the page out and pinned it next to the cards on the corkboard, marking all the places and tracking the writer’s journey. Arta, Preveza, Meteora. All of them magical and unfamiliar names.

This country that she had never visited was becoming part of her life. As the writer was keen to point out, the pictures could not convey the scents or the sounds of Greece. They merely afforded a snapshot, a glimpse. Nevertheless, she was falling in love with it.

Week by week, and with each carte postale, Ellie’s desire to see Greece for herself increased. She longed for the luminous colours and sunshine the postcards seemed to promise. Throughout the winter, she had left for work before dawn and got home at seven, so the curtains had remained permanently closed. Even when spring arrived, it made no difference. The sun could not find a way in. It did not seem much of a life, certainly not what she had expected when she had moved here from Cardiff. The lights she had hoped for in London seemed far from bright. Only the cards were able to cheer her: Kalambaka, Karditsa, Katerini were added to the montage as soon as they arrived.

Her job selling ad space in a trade magazine had not thrilled her, even from the first day, but she had been persuaded by a recruitment agency that it was a way into publishing. The route must be a very indirect one, she had realised. Clients seemed susceptible to her sonorous Welsh voice, and she easily met the targets set her by the Head of Telesales. This left her a few hours a day when she could earn extra commission or, as she was now doing, while away the time on the internet, looking at images and information on Greece. Among the ranks of other people in their late twenties doing the same job, many of them were ‘resting’ actors or singers, wanting to be somewhere other than where they were. For most of those in the anonymous rows close by, the dream was to be on stage. For Ellie, it was to be somewhere much further away than the West End.

The postcards had become an obsession. The idealised images that she was gathering were becoming more and more important to her. With the summer came postcards from islands. They were impossibly beautiful images, with shimmering blue seas and skies: Andros, Ikaria. Were these places real? Had the pictures been airbrushed?

A few weeks passed, and no postcard arrived. Each morning throughout August, she checked her pigeonhole and, when she saw that none had arrived, she felt a stab of disappointment. Every fruitless search was a dashed hope, but she could not stop herself. For the bank-holiday weekend, she went to see her parents in Cardiff and spent the Saturday night visiting old haunts with old schoolfriends. They were all now married and beginning to have children. One of them, to whom she had been a bridesmaid, had asked her to be a godmother. She felt obliged to accept but, at the same time, was mildly disconcerted by her sense of separation from her peers.

For them, it was the end of a long evening but, for Ellie, the beginning of a new day. She sprang out of bed and, without showering, pulled on yesterday’s clothes. After a last-minute check of locks and lights, she let herself out of the flat.

Wales had been cold, but London looked greyer than ever as the train drew into Paddington. On the Underground back to Kensal Rise, her mind strayed to the postcards. Would there be one waiting? As soon as she was in the hallway, the vacant pigeonhole gave her the answer. She calculated that it was more than a month since the one from Ikaria.

Back inside the flat, she realised that the cards had begun to curl on the pinboard, though their colours remained as vibrant as ever. They tormented her a little. Was it finally time to see if the blue skies they depicted were real? To see if the light was as translucent as it appeared? Were postcards always an exaggeration? Or did they have an element of reality?

She checked her passport (last used two years ago for a hen weekend in Spain) and found a flight to Athens that cost less than the cheap boots she had just bought in Cardiff. She was not an adventurous traveller. In her entire life, she had been four times to Spain, twice to Portugal and a handful of times to France (on childhood camping holidays). It was coming to the end of the season, so it was not hard to find a reasonable hotel. She researched on a few sites and finally clicked on a name she recognised. Nafplio. A week’s halfboard in a nearby beach resort would cost one hundred and twenty pounds. At least she would see one of the places that A had visited, and perhaps some more, if she had time. The decision was utterly spontaneous, and yet she felt that the idea had been planted months before.

The following week flew by. When she told her smoothtalking boss that she would like to take ten days’ holiday, he seemed unconcerned. ‘Get in touch on your return,’ he said. It was an ambiguous response and left her wondering if she had been fired.

Even as the printer clattered out her boarding pass, she was thinking that she would not miss the windowless room with its banks of telephones.

She couldn’t wait to get away from the half-hearted warmth of an English summer that would soon seamlessly elide into autumn. The last postcard A had sent was of a beautiful harbour with pretty houses and boats. She could almost hear the water lapping against them. It looked peaceful and, most of all, inviting.

Ikaria: It’s from another age.

It was high time to see this new country, and to see if what A said was true. Did people talk to strangers? Invite them to places? She had lived in London for three years and had never received an invitation from anyone she worked with, and certainly not from a stranger in a café. All these things she wanted to experience.

The night before her journey, she was almost sleepless with excitement. Then she slept through her alarm, and only the sound of some drunks in the street woke her. For them, it was the end of a long evening but, for Ellie, the beginning of a new day. She sprang out of bed and, without showering, pulled on yesterday’s clothes. After a last-minute check of locks and lights, she let herself out of the flat.

Wheeling her case towards the outer door, she noticed something sticking out of her pigeonhole. Even though she was an hour later than she had intended, she felt compelled to retrieve it. The package had more than a dozen stamps stuck on it at different angles and was the size of a hardback. The name had been obliterated by the franking machine, but the address was legible enough. She recognised the writing straightaway and her heart beat a little faster.

There was no time to open it so she unzipped her handbag and stuffed it inside. For the next two hours she thought of nothing but catching her plane. She had a twenty-minute walk to a night bus (ten minutes at jogging pace) that would drop her at the coach station for Stansted. The rush hour had not yet begun. Most of the people travelling were on their way to work at the airport.

The woman at the check-in was brusque.

‘Only just in time,’ she said. ‘Your flight is about to close.’

Ellie grabbed her boarding pass back and ran. She was the last to get on the plane, and sank into her seat, hot, stressed, exhausted and already regretting that she was wearing her winter coat. It had been lying on her chair at home and, at four o’clock in the morning, she had not had time to think clearly about what she would need on her travels. It was too late now. She struggled out of the bright red duffel, rolled it up and stuffed it under her seat. The steward was already checking that seatbelts were safely fastened, and the plane was rolling away from its stand.

Even before take-off, Ellie was asleep. She woke three hours later with a stiff neck and a raging thirst. She had not had time to buy even a bottle of water and hoped that the trolley would come by soon. Glancing out of the window, she immediately realised this was unlikely. They were already in the final stages of descent. She caught a glimpse of sea and hills, rectangular fields, rows of trees, houses and some larger buildings, even the familiar Ikea logo. In Athens? Just as she was taking this in, the wheels hit the runway hard. A few people applauded the landing, which seemed strange to Ellie. She had always thought it was the pilot’s job to get his passengers safely to their destination.

As she settled into a seat by the window, looking out at the teeming confusion of the bus station, she already knew that A was right about one thing. People here did not like silence.

The moment the doors opened, a warm breeze entered the cabin and a new smell that she could not identify. Perhaps it was a mixture of pollution and thyme, but she found herself inhaling it with pleasure.

When she reached into her bag for her passport, the first thing she found was the package. The queue at border control was slow, so she had time to tear off a corner of the brown paper and peek inside. It was a notebook with a blue leather cover, and she could see that the edges of the pages were slightly yellowed. She put it back in her bag.

A coach from the airport took her to KTEL, the central bus station. It was busy and confusing, with the roar of engines and the shouts of the drivers announcing departures above the noise of passengers, who were coming and going by the thousand, dragging bags and cases. Ellie almost choked on the pungent smell of diesel.

Eventually, she found the right ticket booth for her destination, handed over fifteen euros and, with a minute to go, managed to buy a cold drink and some biscuits before boarding.

As she settled into a seat by the window, looking out at the teeming confusion of the bus station, she already knew that A was right about one thing. People here did not like silence. The woman next to her didn’t speak a word of English but, in spite of this, they communicated for at least an hour, before the old lady dozed off. In that time, Ellie learned about her children, what they all did and where they lived, and had eaten two stuffed vine leaves and a piece of fresh orange cake (a second slice lay on top of her shoulder bag, wrapped in a napkin). She caught a glimpse of the parcel nestling beneath her cardigan. She had planned to look at the notebook on the journey, but the warmth of the sun coming through the window and the steady rumble of the bus lulled her to sleep.

It was only when the bus reached Nafplio nearly three hours later that she noticed she did not have her coat. It must still be on the plane. As she waited in the sunshine for her case to be offloaded from the belly of the bus, her annoyance with herself began to evaporate. With the heat on her back, she realised that heavy clothing would be an encumbrance here. She felt like a snake that had shed its skin.

There was a row of taxis at the bus station, and her guidebook suggested that she needed to take one of these to reach her hotel in Tolon. Before doing so, she was impatient to see a little of Nafplio. Wheeling her small suitcase behind her, she set out towards the old town, following signposts which were, helpfully, written in English.

She was soon in the main square, which she recognised immediately from the postcard. The sense of déjà vu made her smile.

Well used to being alone, Ellie did not feel self-conscious as she took a seat in the first café she came to. She was served quickly and her cappuccino arrived promptly, along with a glass of iced water and two small, warm walnut biscuits. For the second time in a few hours, she experienced the Greek hospitality that A had mentioned so many times.

As she sipped her coffee, she looked around her. It was a Friday, early evening. The square was thronging with people of every age, pushing buggies, riding bicycles, showing off on rollerblades, or just strolling, some arm in arm, older ones relying on sticks. The dozen or so cafés around the perimeter were all full. The mid-September evening was balmy.

The package lay on the table in front of her. Putting her finger into the slit she had made earlier, she made a tear right across the top and pulled out the notebook. Stuffing the brown paper into the side pocket of her handbag, she turned it over in her hands. Postcards were somehow public, on show to anyone that picked them up, but a notebook? Was it like reading someone’s diary? Was it an invasion of privacy? It certainly felt like it as she nervously opened the cover. Flicking through, she saw that every page of the book was filled with the familiar black ink of A’s meticulous but sometimes indecipherable handwriting.

With her forefinger, she absent-mindedly traced an S in the biscuit crumbs on her plate and gazed out across the square. The addressee was never going to have a chance to read any of this and so, with burning curiosity and only a little guilt, she turned to the first page.

After the first few words she stopped, realising that it would be better to wait until she reached the hotel. Clutching the notebook to her chest, she got up and walked to the taxi rank. ‘Tolon,’ she said, uncertainly. ‘Hotel Marina.’

Later that evening, on the small balcony outside her bedroom, she began once again.