The meaning of life

Today’s story is an excerpt from the draft of my novel “Mrs Nightingale’s Song”, slightly edited to ensure that it makes a standalone short story. It’s about 2,000 words, and takes about 15 minutes to read. I would be very grateful for any comments! (PS please don’t think the novel is about religion, because it isn’t!)

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The Meaning of Life

The church was gothic, not unpleasing in silhouette, the tower thrusting heavenwards above the town. Immediately inside the gate a notice board proclaimed that this was the Parish Church of St Luke, Rector Reverend James Malton (Cantab.).

As she entered the churchyard, Liz Nightingale noted approvingly that the board gleamed with freshly renewed paint, that the grass was neat and properly edged, and that the path to the south door was free of moss and weeds. Her spirits rose further as she heard cheerful, if amateurish, music from inside the building. She didn’t recognize the melody – it was one of those new pop hymns with guitars – but the enthusiasm of the singers struck a chord in her.

The misgivings she had felt about coming to church receded. She wasn’t going to have to defend her stance as a non-believer (well, that had been her position since she was a teenager, hadn’t it?). She was here to discover whether the teachings of the church could shed any light on the mystery of her life and death (‘because I am going to die soon,’ she reminded herself, and that in turn reminded her that the mystery was not so much her imminent end as the astonishing fact that she was alive and suddenly, desperately, wanted to understand why). She pulled off her gloves decisively, put them into her shoulder bag, and walked through the porch into the back of the church.

The woman who greeted her was charmingly plump, and in her forties. Liz noted that she wore a warm smile, a neat knitted top with a plain skirt, and flip-flops on her feet, and was immediately disposed to like her.

“Good morning. Welcome to St Luke’s. I’m Sue. This is your first time here, I think?”

Liz smiled back. “It’s certainly a long time since I last came. The Reverend Overbeck was the Vicar. It must be, oh, fifteen years ago, I suppose.”

“We’ve changed quite a lot since then. I hope you like it?”

Mrs Nightingale looked approvingly down the nave. “It’s the chairs,” she said. “They’re so much better than those old, dark pews. It looks much lighter – and more friendly.”

Sue looked pleased. “I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine, so you’ve got someone to sit next to,” she said. And so Liz spent the service sitting next to Diane, Sue’s friend. Liz had taught Diane’s children it turned out, and she listened with interest to their progress. She was particularly pleased to hear that Matthew, whom she remembered as diligent but uninspired, was now leading a project team at CERN. Her congratulations and good wishes were heartfelt.

The Rector was a big man (a rugby player surmised Liz, correctly as it happened), and there was something quiet about him – not the furtive, faint shuffle of stealth, but a peaceful sense of being (like a great tree, she imagined). His speaking voice was beautiful. The church had a sound system, but he didn’t need it; his resonant baritone was clear in the furthest corners of the building. When he mounted the steps of the pulpit, Mrs Nightingale settled herself comfortably. ‘Even if the sermon is tosh, the sound of that voice will be a treat,’ she thought, and then admonished herself. How could she expect to make sense of the sermon, much less her life’s purpose, if she was just going to wallow in sensation?

And, in fact, the sermon was an excellent exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, each facet in turn being gently burnished and then illuminated for the congregation. The Pharisee was presented as a man whose sense of vocation to a high calling blinded him to the urgent needs of the world. The Levite was a man who couldn’t see the moral imperative to help an injured man because of the blinkers of human convention. “How understandable,” said the Rector, of both men. “How human. How forgivable. And yet, here they are, held up to us as a warning – almost an eternal ‘naming and shaming’. Our sins of omission have consequences not just for those around us, but for us too.”

He moved on to consider the innkeeper, the ‘forgotten character’ as he described him. “When he left, the Samaritan paid some money to the innkeeper, not just for the care already given to the injured man, but for care into the future. And with it, he gave a promise that if the bill came to more than he had left, he would settle it on his return. It’s clear that we are meant to understand that the innkeeper was prepared to accept this – an open-ended commitment to take care of the victim. And that says two things. Firstly, the innkeeper was trusting, he had faith, and because of that he was prepared to take on a task that he probably wouldn’t otherwise have tackled. And secondly, the Samaritan was trustworthy; his words, actions and demeanour had convinced the innkeeper that any debt would be honoured.

Well, as we all know, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan; and I propose to you that we can all play the part of the innkeeper. By trusting in Jesus we are empowered to do good, that is to say, we can do something to heal the hurts of those around us. We don’t need to feel a vocation; that can even get in the way, as it did for the Pharisee. We don’t need book-learning and consecration like the Levite; again, that may sometimes be an obstacle. All we need is trust, and the willingness to care for those who come to us in our normal, everyday, humdrum lives.”

Mrs Nightingale looked narrowly at the Reverend James Malton MA (Cantab.). Did he find simplicity elusive, she wondered? Did he fear that his knowledge of theology made him less able to help others? Maybe not. It had been a simple message, simply delivered. But what did it say about her own efforts? Were they any less valid for her lack of faith, indeed, her active opposition to everything superstitious? Why was she now looking to religion for answers? Was she subconsciously hoping to be reassured of life after death? ‘Bunkum!’ she thought, but immediately the contradiction came that, whether or not organized religion was bunkum, the Christian tradition represented two thousand years of largely humane thought, and might reasonably be expected to shed some light on the mystery of life. “You’re just a woolly liberal, Liz,” she muttered to herself, as she rose to keep silence while the rest of the congregation recited the creed.

“I wonder whether I could come and ask your advice about something, Rector?” enquired Liz Nightingale, as she shook hands after the service.

“I’d be pleased to see you; although I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you advice about anything.” The little smile accompanying the words gave them a humorous emphasis, but Liz sensed that, actually, he was in earnest. She appreciated, too, that he had been tactful enough not to suggest a home visit, thereby patronising her as elderly. “Is it an urgent matter, or will it wait until Wednesday? – if that suits you, of course.”

Liz calculated quickly. The cycles of weakness that seemed to characterize her condition came about every ten days, and lasted for about two days, so her next bout was due on – let me see – Friday. “Thank you, Rector, that’s most kind of you.”

Concerned. “I could talk to you sooner, if that would help?”

“No, Wednesday will be fine. I appreciate your seeing me so quickly.”

“Shall we say two o’clock, then?”

Mrs Nightingale nodded firmly. “Two o’clock will be ideal. Thank you.” She made her escape quickly. Making the appointment to discuss her mortality had been a little like arranging to talk to Death himself. ‘I hope that I’ll be brave enough to examine everything that’s troubling me when Wednesday comes,’ she thought.

*       *       *       *       *

Just before two o’clock on Wednesday, Liz Nightingale hesitated on the Vicarage doorstep. She felt – frightened. Of course, as soon as she realized this she shook herself mentally. “This will never do!” she exclaimed, and rang the bell firmly.

She accepted coffee and a biscuit and made small talk as she gathered her courage. James Malton smiled, nodded, and sipped at his own drink, watching her gradually relax.

“Your grandson, Oliver, sounds great fun. He must be quite significant in your life?”

If fifty years of amateur dramatics had taught Liz anything, it was how to pick up a cue.

“Ah, yes, well, significance. How astute of you, Rector.” Liz was silent a moment. “You see,” she said, “I’m not a believer – quite the reverse – but I felt that two thousand years of Christian thinking probably had some profound things to say about the human condition. And I’m puzzled, Rector. You see, my doctor tells me I shall die quite soon. Now, I’m not puzzled that I’m going to die – that seems entirely natural. Everything wears out, so why should I be any different? No, what puzzles me is why I’m alive. It just seems so unlikely, somehow, that I can consciously appreciate my own existence. The world is such a beautiful place.”

The rector paused for a moment, and then asked, “I suppose, as you’re an avowed non-believer, that neither the beauty of the world nor the unlikelihood of your conscious existence, persuade you of the existence of a creator God?”

“I don’t see how a creator answers the question. If he exists, where did he come from? If the answer is just that he exists, then why shouldn’t the universe just exist?”

“I could suggest that He might explain consciousness in a way that the physical universe doesn’t appear to, but I don’t think you’d accept that. Besides, it wouldn’t be very honest of me, as I’m aware of work being done to explore possible physical causes of consciousness.”

The rector smiled at Mrs Nightingale. “You’ve asked a big question, but is it the right question? To put it bluntly, do you have the time to even begin to make a small contribution towards its solution?”

Liz stared rather blankly at him. He waited, silent, still, alive. Then she laughed. “I’m trying to duck the issue, aren’t I? I don’t want to lose the world. I don’t want extinction – but as I can’t avoid it, I’d like to find some sort of assurance that my life has had some sort of meaning.”

“Now that’s a question which does fall within my sphere of professional competence. I’ll tell you what my faith teaches me, and you can see whether you think it helps.

Our physical universe was created by an intelligence that we call God. Part of His plan in creating the universe was that self-contained, self-aware intelligences should come into being – and, theologically speaking, evolution is a perfectly respectable way for that to happen. These intelligences would share something of His nature, and, ultimately, be able to share in His joy in His creation. He communicated with them, teaching them as much as they could accept at the time, and eventually He caused a great mystery to happen. He, Himself, came to live with His created beings in the form of the man whom we call Jesus Christ.”

Liz, listened in silence, struggling to keep an open mind – but it’s hard to quieten the scepticism of more than sixty years.

The rector continued quietly. “Jesus showed us that it is possible to lead a joyful and fulfilled life no matter what obstacles we face. He participated fully in every aspect of human life, including birth and death.”

Mrs Nightingale couldn’t resist the opportunity. “And sex?” she queried.

The rector laughed out loud with delight. “The bible is silent on that point. Church tradition inclines to celibacy but, you know, that would have been very unusual for a rabbi in first century Judea. Anyway, the bible makes it plain that He knew what human love was like by telling us about His close friendships with people, both men and women.

But I need to come to the point. The key fact of the life of Jesus was that it showed that God wants His creation to be perfected by the actions of his created beings as they follow the example of Jesus.

So our lives have a meaning in that we can align ourselves with the Creator’s purpose.”

“You put it very clearly, rector. Thank you. Unfortunately, the significance hangs on the premise of the omnipotent creator.”

“It does.”

The rector waited for Mrs Nightingale to express even the slightest interest in discovering the truth of his faith. She sat there, thinking, then “What a pity,” she said.

The Reverend James Malton (Cantab.) hid his disappointment as he said farewell to Liz Nightingale; and then wondered whether he was right to have done so.

That special place

Jim and Liz Nightingale, have just become ‘empty nesters’. This gives them more freedom, of course, but how do they want to use that freedom? Will they enjoy it together, or will they drift apart? And then they holiday together in Greece, in the small city of Nafplio. They bring turbulent emotions to that special place. What will they take away?

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On their first evening in Nafplio, Liz and Jim Nightingale entered Plateia Syntagma, Constitution Square, from the passage beside the archaeological museum. They walked under the majestic plane tree at the entrance to the square, and looked along the row of cafes and shops that stretch the entire length of the north side.

Children played in the square, chasing footballs, riding bicycles and launching ingenious flying toys, whose coloured lights, red, green, and blue, flashed in the dark and silken sky.

The cafes were packed.

A couple stood up to vacate a table right under the plane tree.

“Quick, Jim,” said Liz, nudging him in the direction of the empty seats. Jim resisted.

“Hadn’t we better check out the other cafes before making up our minds?”

Liz pushed past him and sat down firmly. She smiled at him and said, “Nothing could be nicer than this, Jim.”

As the waiter wiped the table, Jim sat down grudgingly in the seat opposite Liz.  She ordered two coffees, in Greek. The waiter smiled and asked, in Greek, whether they would like anything to eat, ice-cream or fruit salad perhaps? Liz declined.

“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the dinner very much, Liz.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, Jim. I was tempted because the taverna seemed much less crowded than the others. I suppose that should have been a giveaway really. But fancy that waiter lecturing you because you didn’t finish your meal, as though you were a naughty child! I admired your restraint!”

Jim slapped at his arm.

“Bother these mosquitoes.”

“Just ignore them, Jim. Have you been bitten yet?”

Jim unbuttoned his sleeve and inspected his forearm.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Good. I shouldn’t like to think we’d put up with the smell of that awful repellent for nothing.” She stretched back against the cushion on the wicker chair. “Isn’t it blissful to sit here warm and comfortable at half past ten in the evening?”

Jim grunted. His shirt was dark with sweat under the armpits.

The following morning, Liz woke early, as usual. She slipped out of bed quietly, not wanting to wake Jim. She looked at him with tender concern. He worked so hard during term-time, and was tired out by the time of the holidays. And now that he was nearing fifty it took him longer to recover.

She dressed, and went lightly out into the sunshine. Her brightly patterned sun-dress fluttered in the breeze.

Now, where was the minimarket? Down this street? And then left. Yes. She bought bread, butter, milk, croissants and oranges. That should do. If Jim fancied a fry-up they could go to one of the cafes later.

As she walked, she thought about the argument she’d had with him a few days earlier, when he’d told her that he wanted to try for a post as deputy head-teacher. ‘What a mess!’ she said to herself. ‘I wish Jim didn’t want this job up in Macclesfield! I’m desperately worried for him. He’s so conscientious, and I’ve seen what the strain of being a head of department has done to his health. But I daren’t tell him that, or he’ll go for the job just to prove that he has the strength for it.”

As they sat eating breakfast, Liz said, “I went into the bus station. There’s a bus to Mycenae at ten o’clock. Shall we visit the archaeological site today, do you think? It was one of the places you particularly wanted to see.”

Jim smiled at her. “Organising me again? You really enjoy finding your way round new places, don’t you?” Liz bit her tongue and said nothing. If she didn’t arrange trips when they were overseas, they wouldn’t do anything at all; and she’d told Jim so only a few days before the holiday.

“Yes, let’s go to Mycenae then.” Jim hesitated a moment, then added, “I do appreciate you doing the planning, you know.”

Jim made an excellent companion for a visit to the antiquities. He was a history teacher with a gift for bringing the past to life. As they strode up the ramp to the Lion Gate his words clattered like armour, and tramped like foot soldiers marching behind their gold-encrusted king. Liz listened intently; she was very aware that the roots of her own discipline of mathematics were largely based on the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers. It was such a pity, she thought, that so much of history was about rulers, wars and battles rather than ideas.

That evening they dined at a taverna away from the seafront. The tables lined a passage between two buildings, and were covered by awnings. Bougainvillea spilled from balconies, making the walls gay with their blooms. Jim seemed preoccupied, then, while they were sharing a Greek salad, he suddenly said, “Can we talk about that possible new job without getting angry, Liz?”

“I’m sure I can. I’m not sure you can, Jim.”

Jim laid his hands on the table, palms down, fingers spread, and looked fixedly at them.

“You see, Liz, when I was passed over for the deputy headship last year I felt hurt, badly hurt.”

Liz laid the fingers of her right hand lightly on Jim’s left hand. “I know, Jim. I know you were.”

“I felt resentful that somebody younger should be given the post, after all the work I’d done for the school. This opportunity that I’ve been told about gives me a chance to put that right.”

“But it’s up north, Jim. I don’t want to leave Sussex, I don’t want to leave our beautiful home, and I don’t want to give up my job. I know I’m only a class teacher, but I love what I do. I turned down an offer of promotion when you were a new head of department so that I could support you. Don’t you think my professional career deserves consideration too?”

The waiter appeared with their main course. Jim was silent. Liz thanked the waiter in Greek, smiling. He smiled back. “You speak good Greek!”

“Just a few words. I’m looking forward to enjoying my meal!”

They ate in silence for a few minutes.

“This is so much better than yesterday’s food,” exclaimed Liz.

“Yes it is, isn’t it? You know, Liz, I really want this job. It’s the best opportunity I’m ever likely to have. It would give me the chance to put some of my ideas into practice instead of just proposing them in staff meetings and having them rejected. Do you grudge me that?”

“Of course not, Jim. But I’m just saying that when we make a decision about it, we must consider everything. It’s not just your job, it’s our lives. There’s the house, and our friends, and the things we do. Don’t these matter to you at all?”

Jim laid down his cutlery.

“Well, of course they matter, but the job is so important, Liz. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that my work is what gives meaning to my life.”

There was silence. The waiter, from his station by the door, looked to see whether they were ready for him to clear the main course.

Liz spoke quietly. “So what meaning do I have in your life, Jim? What about Clive and Susan our children?”

Jim gestured impatiently. “You know I didn’t mean that, Liz!”

“Clive is newly married. Sue is expecting her first baby – our first grandchild, Jim – and you sit there and tell me that your work is what gives meaning to your life. I’m astonished. I’m astonished and deeply disappointed.”

The waiter approached. “Have you finished. Didn’t you like the food?”

“I’m sorry. The food was very good, but we’re – thinking of other things, I’m afraid. Jim, have you had enough?”

Jim waved away the plate.

”Well, I want a coffee. How about you?”

“I suppose so. Yes. Thank you.”

“Two coffees, please. No sugar.”

“So what do you want, Liz? If you don’t want me to try for promotion?”

“I just want to see more of you, Jim. Let’s have some fun in the evenings. Play bridge with friends. Go to the pub.”

“And when would we do that, Liz? You’re always with that chap Frank, fund raising for your precious operatic society.”

“I’d be happy to do less of that if I could see more of you, you know. And I’ve been trying to persuade you to find a date for a romantic dinner ever since you cancelled our anniversary dinner!”

“You’re still holding that against me?”

“I’m not holding anything against you. I’m just pointing out that I’m trying to see more of you. I would prefer you to be giving less time to your work rather than more. And a new job would demand more of your time for years. What’s in it for me, Jim?”

“You were very attracted to Frank once, weren’t you? And he moved down south a few years after we did. Don’t tell me he didn’t choose where to live with no thought of you!”

Liz went white.

“How dare you. How dare you! I have never been unfaithful to you. Never! Now go away. And don’t imagine you’re sharing my bed tonight. You can sleep in the spare room. That should suit you; you can have the air-conditioning on all night and bolt and bar the windows against those mosquitoes who terrify you so much!”

Jim stood up.

“You’ve got the cash to settle up?”

Liz nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

Jim gave her one final look, and pushed his way between the other tables. Liz sat still. The waiter came over to collect the cups.

“I’d like another coffee, please.”

“Straightaway.”

A little away from her, the staff had arranged tables to accommodate a party. It looked like four generations of a family; a young couple with a toddler and a babe in arms; four adults in middle life, and an old lady, dressed in black, but laughing heartily, and downing glassfuls of retsina in a single draught.

‘Why can’t our life be like that?’ wondered Liz. She shook her head.

She wandered to the seafront, sat down at the cafe ‘Napoli di Romania’, and ordered an ouzo, without ice. The small boats rocked and bumped against the harbour wall, bouncing on the waves. It was breezy and some of the locals were wearing cardigans, but Liz didn’t feel cold. She looked across at the Bourzi, the island fort, illuminated by floodlights. She looked beyond, and saw the lights of shops and houses and cars a few miles away on the far side of the Gulf of Argos.

She took a large swallow of ouzo. The taste and the warmth filled her mouth and spread down into her stomach. Had she been rather hasty in assuming Jim was accusing her of infidelity?

“Oh, bother the man!” she said.

The couple on the next table looked round, and she realised she’d spoken out loud. She didn’t know whether to feel irritated, embarrassed or amused; so she took another gulp of ouzo.

It occurred to her that there were things she’d never done on holiday, feeling herself constrained by Jim’s preferences.

‘Stuff him!’ she thought, being very careful not to open her mouth this time. Even so, she glanced at the couple next to her as if they could somehow have overheard.

The cocktail bar on the main street was packed with youngsters, young men in tee shirts and dark, tight jeans; young women dressed as though for carnival. Liz, using a blend of tenacity and charm, found herself a seat and ordered a Manhattan.

About one-thirty in the morning the music became more rhythmic and louder. Liz had nearly finished her third Manhattan, and was chatting in Greek to a man in his mid-forties.

“Come on,” he said, suddenly rising to his feet, “Let’s dance!”

Liz looked up at him, startled, then she smiled and stood up.

She was a good dancer; and so, she realised, was he. Deducing that some of his steps were from traditional dance, she copied him. Some of the young folk started to cheer and clap. She suddenly understood that some of his steps were meant for the man, and looked at him for a cue as to what she should do. With hand gestures, he indicated appropriate movements. She attempted them, laughing out loud with delight.

People stopped in the street to watch. The bar staff joined in with the clapping. Onlookers took up the dance.

The music stopped. The crowd applauded. Liz’s partner seized her round the waist and held her tightly against him. His face pressed against hers, as he sought her mouth with his.

Liz was very tempted. Her body throbbed. Excitement filled her in a way she’d completely forgotten. Nevertheless, “No,” she said. The man looked at her in surprise and disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” said Liz. “I don’t want anything more than the dancing.” She looked him very directly in the eye, and hoped that her ability to maintain discipline in the classroom would be sufficient to keep him at arm’s length. For a few seconds longer he held her, then released his grip.

He bowed.

“Then I must respect your wish, madam. You are an excellent dancer; thank you! And you are very beautiful.” He sounded wistful.

He strolled away. Liz watched his trim figure become lost in the throng.

‘Liz Nightingale, you are a little drunk. It’s time to go home.’

Despite the neatness with which she had danced, Liz found it difficult to walk steadily. The streets became narrower and darker. Liz was not a nervous person, but it crossed her mind that walking alone in the back streets of a foreign city at two in the morning was possibly not the wisest thing she had ever done.

The steps up to the apartment were steep and uneven. She stumbled and bruised her shin.

“Ow! Ouch! Bugger!” The exclamations were (more or less) sotto voce. Then she giggled, and sat on the step rubbing her leg until the pain eased.

She fumbled with the key as she tried to insert it in the dark. “Don’t drop it, Liz,” she muttered. Even when she finally had it in the lock, it didn’t want to turn. “If Jim’s locked the door, I’m going to make a lot of noise!” Then she remembered that she had the key to the side door, not the front door. She was giggling again as she sneaked in.

The door to the second bedroom was closed, and she could hear the air conditioning running. She went into the main bedroom and switched on the light. The empty bed was a melancholy sight, with her half-unpacked suitcase sitting on it. Jim’s suitcase had gone. Liz looked into the wardrobe. His clothes weren’t there. “Sulking. How childish.” She enunciated the words very clearly, but they still sounded slurred. She moved her suitcase onto his side of the bed, pulled off her clothes and lay on the bed. She was asleep within seconds.

“Jim. Make me a coffee, love, would you…” She opened her eyes. Jim wasn’t there. She was curled up next to her own untidy suitcase. It was hot, the sun outside was brilliant. Her mouth was dry and sticky, with an unpleasant taste. Her head throbbed. She fumbled in the case for her dressing gown.

As she ran herself a glass of water she noticed that the door to the second bedroom was ajar, and the air conditioning wasn’t running. Jim had gone out.

She was on her second coffee and third glass of water, just beginning to feel that some dry toast might stay in her stomach, when Jim returned. He looked at her, slumped dishevelled and pasty-faced at the dining table.

“I packed some Alka-Seltzer. Would you like some?”

“Mmm. Horrid taste, but yes, it would probably be a good idea.”

As she sipped the Alka-Seltzer, Jim said, “Can I make you some toast? Perhaps with a little honey?”

“No honey in the cupboard.” She massaged her throbbing temples.

“I’ve bought some. And some peaches.”

Liz looked up. Peaches were her favourite. Jim held one out for her to inspect. It looked delicious, and felt perfectly ripe. She took the fruit and bit into it. The sweet juice dribbled down her chin; the perfume of the fruit filled her mouth and nose.

“I’ll make the toast,” said Jim, handing Liz a tissue, and laying a plate on the table in front of her.

“There’s a bus to Argos every half hour,” he said. “It goes from outside the booking office. I thought we might go there today, if you’re feeling up to it?”

Liz wiped her mouth.

“Jim,” she said, “We’ve got to talk. We can’t just pretend yesterday didn’t happen.”

“Do you feel well enough for that?”

Liz recognised the concern in his voice.

“I dare say I’ll cope somehow.”

“Liz, I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean to imply that there was anything – improper – between you and Frank. But I dislike the man, and, well, I’m a bloke and I get jealous. You’re very precious to me, Liz.”

Liz folded her arms, and sat in silence. The noise of cicadas clattered in through the open window.

“That’s not actually enough, Jim,” she said at last. “You as good as accused me of being unfaithful to you. In my book that’s the worst insult of all. I try to live a life of integrity, and you tell me that you think I may have cheated you in the most profound way possible. Don’t you understand at all who I am?”

Jim sank onto one of the chairs. He looked out of the window, his gaze fixed far beyond the trees that bordered the terrace. He thought back over their life together. He couldn’t remember a single occasion when Liz had acted without integrity. And he’d only half-noticed. How could he have taken her so much for granted?

He cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry, Liz. I know there’s nothing between you and Frank, and that you’ve never been unfaithful. I should never have said what I did. Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true.”

They sat in silence a while longer, and then Jim said, “I heard you come in last night. I was concerned about you. I crept into the bedroom. You’d left the curtains open, and the moon was shining brightly. You were asleep, and you looked so beautiful. I’d been feeling angry, but when I saw you, and realised again how much I love you…” He stopped to steady his voice.

“Come here, Jim,” said Liz softly. She held him gently and waited for the pain to ease.

“I got very drunk last night, Jim. I went to the cocktail bar and made an exhibition of myself dancing in the street. And the Greek who’d been dancing with me tried to kiss me. Luckily for me he understood that no means no. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have done that.”

Jim nodded. “It certainly wasn’t sensible. It could all have got out of hand.”

“Yes, I know. Still, I’m paying for it now; at least for the drunk bit. Why are hangovers so much worse when you’re older? Let’s give Argos a miss today; I don’t fancy too much bright sunlight for a while. Perhaps we could visit the archaeological museum today?”

“Sounds good. I hope you’ll be fit by tomorrow, though.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I bought tickets for ‘Antigone’ at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.”

“Oh, Jim, that’s fantastic! Thank you! Oh, wow!”

Jim grinned. “I hoped that would please you!”

They spent a quiet day. Pizza for lunch at Café Kentrikon, a visit to the museum, a siesta. In the evening they crossed the peninsular and then strolled under the pine trees, with their heavy, resinous scent, around the promontory, and out along the breakwater. As they walked back along the harbour front, they mingled with smart Greeks wearing their best summer outfits, and with cheerful Dutch families, and chic French couples. Liz led Jim to ‘Napoli di Romania’.

“Here’s where I started my binge,” she confessed cheerfully.

“I expect you’d prefer a soft drink tonight. A fresh orange juice, perhaps?”

“Actually, Jim, I would prefer an ouzo. I can drink orange juice anytime, but I don’t have many opportunities to enjoy ouzo by the wine-dark sea. Ouzo, please.”

As they sipped their drinks, and nibbled the peanuts that had come with the ouzo, the sun sank towards the mountains in a blaze of rose-gold glory. The sea was completely calm, stretching before them like turquoise-grey lacquer, highlighted with gilding.

“You know, Jim, we’re going to have to sort out this business of the job. I don’t want to stop you applying. If you decide to try for it and succeed, I will go with you and support you. But I think we should be very careful in weighing up the pros and cons. And, in all fairness, I think we should consider my career as well as yours.”

They looked at the people walking along the promenade, showing off to each other.

“Thank you, Liz. I appreciate the support. Having thought about it last night, I agree that we need to take everything into consideration.”

They reached simultaneously for the nuts, and then both laughed.

“After you,” said Jim.

“No, go on Jim. They’re more your thing than mine.”

Jim helped himself.

In front of them, the strolling crowds played out in miniature the pageant of life in all its diversity, joy and angst. Pride, love, self-regard were all there.

“I haven’t given you all my reasons for being wary of this job, Jim.” Liz took a deep breath. This was a gamble, she felt, but one that in the present circumstances was worth taking. “I think that you would make an excellent head-teacher. I admire your ideas, and I admire the heck out of your ability to inspire people. The thing is…”

She paused. The last sliver of the sun slipped below the mountain peak; the western sky glowed even as the sky above them darkened. Jim waited quietly.

“The thing is, Jim, I’m afraid of what the effort would do to you physically. Being head of department affected you badly, and I fear this would be even worse.”

Jim put his hands behind his head, and reclined in the rattan chair.

“I hate to admit it,” he said, “But I think you’re probably right. It was my only concern about the post.”

The waiters were lowering the awnings, and Jim had to bend his head to avoid the canvas.

“Liz? You won’t think I’m a…failure, if I don’t try for this post? I feel it would somehow be letting you down.”

“A failure, Jim? I would never feel you were a failure! Your example has inspired me throughout my career, not to mention our marriage. And, Jim. I want to say I’m sorry. I was horrid to you last night. I said some nasty, vicious things. I’m really sorry.”

They clasped hands. The last light faded in the west; but the whole evening stretched before them.

 

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