Ava Lancet peered through the unrelenting night as she fought down a growing sense of panic. Darkness had fallen twenty minutes ago and she had no idea where she was—or where she was meant to go.
She glanced at the map crumpled on the passenger seat of her rental car, wishing that the agent had provided a GPS instead of the seemingly obsolete, old-fashioned fold-out map that he’d assured her would help her drive from Athens to the tiny village of Iousidous. And perhaps it would have if she could have made any sense of the wiggly lines and incomprehensible Greek names. Not that reading Greek even mattered now, because as darkness had fallen she could barely make out the road signs on Greece’s National Highway.
She’d been in this country for just a few hours and already she was completely lost, both literally and figuratively. Spiritually, emotionally, hopelessly lost. A fortnight ago, escaping a cold, wet spring in England had seemed like a wonderful idea, a desperate lifeline, since her own life—and marriage—had been put on hold. That’s how Ava liked to think of it anyway, because to consider anything else was too final. Too much of a failure.
She drew a deep breath, her fingers clenched around the steering wheel, her knuckles whitening, and she craned her head forward in an attempt to read one of the road signs that loomed out of the darkness. At first the Greek letters looked like so much nonsense, squiggly hieroglyphics, despite her crash course in Greek—ten hours’ worth of audio CDs, and countless more hours poring over textbooks. Yet as she continued to squint hopefully through the darkness, she saw the Roman alphabet printed underneath and felt a wave of relief. Lousidous. It would be her home for the foreseeable future.
Muttering a prayer of heartfelt thanks, Ava flipped on her signal and turned off the highway. The narrow road that now led through the scrubby hills of central Greece was even darker and more alarmingly strange than the far wider highway she’d just left. According to the map, Iousidous was only three kilometers from the National Highway.
The road wound its way through the hills, the steeply rising mountains just jagged black shapes in the darkness. The only turnings were dirt or pebbly tracks that looked as if they led straight into the densely forested heights, and so Ava kept on the little road, praying that it would lead, if not to Iousidous, then at least to somewhere.
Three kilometers, she decided, was an unbearably long distance when you were driving through the dark. It was certainly long enough to question whether you were on the right road at all, or even in the right country. It gave her ample time to wonder why she’d decided to leave her life in England and come to Greece—move to Greece—where she didn’t know a single soul and all she had was a set of keys to a farmhouse no one had lived in over fifty years.
“Right,” Ava said aloud, the sound of her own voice seeming lonely and yet oddly reassuring in the confines of the car. “If I don’t see something in the next thirty seconds, I’m turning round and going back to Athens.” The thought of driving several hours back to the city was a most unappealing prospect, but at this moment, so was continuing on. She glanced at the clock, knowing a full minute had passed and yet still reluctant to turn around. Besides, there was no easy place to turn the car round on this narrow, twisting road.
Then she came round a rather sharp bend and suddenly, stretched out before her on several terraced hills, she saw a village, or at least the lights of a village. A small white sign with black letters standing crookedly by the side of the road told her she was indeed approaching Iousidous.
Ava breathed a sigh of relief that came halfway to a shudder. She was here. She’d made it. Sort of. Now she just had to find her grandmother’s house.
The high street of Iousidous, if it could even be called a high street, was lined with low stone houses with tiled roofs, their painted shutters tightly closed for the night. The place looked nearly abandoned, Ava thought as she parked the car along the side of the street. The village seemed much smaller than she’d anticipated, just a few narrow streets of houses huddled on a hillside. And she was supposed to live here indefinitely? What on earth had she been thinking?
She hadn’t been thinking, not really. She’d been reacting to the dissolution of both her hopes and her marriage. Too much loss. Escaping had felt like the only option, the only way to stay sane.
And it wasn’t as if there had been anything to stay in England for anymore.
Forcing such thoughts away, and the accompanying savage twist of pain inside, Ava got out of the car. The air was colder and clearer than in Athens, and it smelled sharp with pine resin. She stretched, glancing around, imagining that her arrival in such a sleepy place would cause something of a stir. The only movement was by a rail-thin cat perched on a stone wall; the animal glared at her before stalking away, tail high in the air.
Ava blinked, trying to get used to the darkness relieved only by the light of the moon and the occasional lamp winking from one of the houses on the street, its glow filtering between the cracks in the shutters. It was eight o’clock at night, yet the place seemed utterly still, strangely devoid of life, the only sound the wind rustling high in the pines. Standing there, realizing she didn’t even know which house had belonged to her grandmother, Ava wondered just how crazy and desperate she’d been to come all this way with no hope and little plan.
The solicitor in Leeds who had handled her grandmother’s estate had possessed only one photograph of the house, taken decades ago. Ava hadn’t even known that her grandmother had had a house until the will had been read; Sophia had lived in Leeds since the Second World War. Yet gazing at that grainy photo, Ava had been intrigued, almost transfixed, even though she recognized that the solicitor’s words, “charming and rustic,” really meant antiquated and falling down. Still, she’d admired the house’s tiled roof and painted door, the small, overgrown garden, the darkness of the mountains in the background, looking like a smudge of ink.
“Has anyone been living there?” she asked, and the solicitor had shrugged.
“Not for many years. The house came into your grandmother’s possession after the war. She had an estate agent from a nearby town handle sublets for about ten years. Apparently the area experienced a great deal of emigration, and there was no interest in letting the house after that period, although your grandmother continued to have the minimum amount of maintenance done to keep the place in repair, and pay the property taxes, of course.”
Ava shook her head slowly, trying to take it all in. A house… a house in a village in Greece, sitting there empty and even cared for—sort of—all that time, and no one had ever even known. “And she never went back?”
“Apparently not.” Clearly he had not been her grandmother’s confidant. Ava wondered whether anyone had. Why had her grandmother never mentioned a house? Why hadn’t she sold it or gone back? And why, Ava couldn’t help but wonder, had her grandmother given it to her?
Her mother, Susan, had been pragmatic. “I’m not surprised she didn’t sell it. Who would buy a place like that? It’s in the middle of nowhere, isn’t it?”
“Still, a farmhouse—in a village—”
“It’s not Provence or even Italy,” her mother reminded her. “You’re bound to romanticize it, I know, but it’s Greece, rural Greece, and that’s very different. Very old world.”
“And you know this how?” Ava asked with a little smile.
“I backpacked through Europe in the early seventies, before you were born.”
She vaguely remembered her mother mentioning such a trip, irrelevant to her teenage self. “You went to rural Greece?”
“Not Iousidous, because your grandmother would never even say the name of the place. But I’m half Greek, Ava, and I wanted to see my own country. I traveled through a few places and, trust me, it was like stepping back into time. In the mountains whole villages didn’t have electricity.”
“But that was forty years ago, and this isn’t really in the mountains.”
“Even so, not much has changed. And the house certainly hasn’t, if it hasn’t been lived in for that long. Are you sure you want to go?”
“I don’t know if I want to,” Ava said, her throat turning tight, “but I need to.”
Her mother nodded, her gaze turning tender and all too knowing. “It’s been a hard year, Ava, for both you and Simon. It might be good for you to get away, find a little distance.”
Ava looked away, felt a lump forming in her throat. Nearly a year on and she still wasn’t coping. That much was obvious to her mother, to Simon, to everyone. Even her supervisor at the primary school where she worked as an art teacher had mentioned it. Maybe the budget cuts are a good thing for you, Ava. You could get some rest.
As if resting would help. It would just give her more time to think. And as for finding distance … how could you find distance from something that still felt so enmeshed in your very soul, if you even wanted to? Ava wasn’t sure she did. If she let go of the grief, she might lose herself as well. There might be nothing left at all.
“I still don’t know why she left it to me,” she said to her mother, determined to keep the conversation about the house. Her grandmother had five grandchildren besides Ava: her cousins were spread all over the globe, two in England, two in Australia, and one in the States. “She could have left it to anyone.”
“She always favored you, I think,” her mother said. “She used to say you were like her.”
Ava thought of the austere-looking woman holding court from the plastic-swathed three-piece suit in the front room of her semidetached house in Leeds. She’d visited her grandmother a few times a year as a child and had accepted boiled sweets and a rather firm pat on the cheek, and not much else. When her grandmother had died six months ago, she’d felt sad but not devastated. She’d been dealing with a deeper, more raw grief, and Sophia Matthews had been in her nineties, had lived in a care facility for several years already. In some ways it had been a relief, the gentle slip into death rather than the brutal tearing away.
“How am I like her?” Ava asked, and Susan smiled sadly.
“She told me once you reminded her of herself, back when she lived in Greece. Strong, she said. Stronger than you think.”
“Stronger than I think? Or stronger than she thought?”
“Does it matter?” Susan asked with a smile. “Strong, in any case.”
But Ava didn’t feel strong. She felt weak, horribly, pathetically weak, like some spineless, slithery creature, shell-less and exposed, which could not even care for itself. A stronger woman would move on after the loss of her child. A stronger woman would want to.
“In any case,” Susan said, “she didn’t speak any more of it. You know she never talked about her time in Greece.” She sighed, shaking her head, and Ava thought of her mother traveling through Greece back in the seventies, young and hopeful and yet still somehow lost, trying to rediscover part of her forgotten heritage. Had her mother found any answers on that trip? Would she?
Ava had never even really considered herself Greek at all; her grandmother had been so determinedly English. As far as Sophia Matthews had been concerned, her life had begun in England, in 1946, when she was twenty-six and married to an Englishman, Ava’s grandfather Edward, who had worked in a bank and died before she was born. Sophia had worked hard at making her children appear completely English, learning the language herself and refusing to speak Greek. As Sophia came from a country with a fierce national pride, this decision made so many years ago now added to the sense of loss. Had Sophia missed the land of her birth, or her family? Ava felt a prickling of shame that such thoughts had never crossed her mind before.
“I doubt there’s anyone alive in the village who remembers the war,” she told her mother. “They’d have to be ninety at least.”
“Probably not. But if you’re really interested, you could do some digging at a local library or historical society.”
“I don’t read Greek, or speak it beyond a few key phrases.”
“True.” Her mother smiled and patted her hand. “Perhaps it’s best to let it lie, then. Your grandmother must have had a reason not to talk about it, and regardless of who lived in the house before, at least it’s a place for you to stay. Rest.” Her eyebrows drew together. “Regain yourself.”
“I’m not lost,” Ava said, half joking, half warning. She couldn’t take any more pity, not from her mother anyway. Simon certainly hadn’t shown her any; one of their last fights had started because he’d told her to stop moping.
Moping, as if she were a sulky child. The implication had so obviously been that he’d moved on from the death of their daughter—why couldn’t she? As if it were a choice she was too stubborn to make. Resentment had burned in Ava’s chest and churned in her gut even then, when she was talking to her mother a month later.
Now, standing in the village, the night crisp and quiet and so very dark, Ava swallowed down the anger, knowing there was no point to it now. She and Simon had surely said all they could say to each other, which in the end hadn’t been very much. Taking a deep breath, she started down the street.
In the darkness every house looked the same: whitewashed stone, tiled roof, painted door. Small gardens shrouded in darkness released the dry, dusty scents of rosemary and lavender, sage and thyme. The narrow street hugged the hillside, then curved sharply upwards, presumably to a street much like it farther up the hill, and perhaps another one after that. How on earth could she find her grandmother’s house? Ava possessed an old-fashioned iron key but no address beyond the name of the village. Presumably her grandmother’s house was the one most in disrepair, but she couldn’t make them out well enough to know. She stopped in the middle of the street, and listened to a cat—perhaps the thin one on the fence—yowl in the distance. A light switched off, casting the little street into deeper darkness. Ava fought the urge to cry.
It was typical of her that she’d rushed into this whole adventure without properly thinking it through. Simon had always accused her of rushing into things, of being too hasty and emotional. She’d brought home a dog without consulting him; she’d thrown away her birth control pills with blithe thoughtlessness. The dog had died years ago, and the pills hadn’t mattered in the end, but still.
They were a sorry pair, Ava thought sadly, with her own volatile emotions and Simon’s refusal to be even remotely ruffled. It had been his unending, stony silence in the face of their shared loss that had led her to ask for a separation, and then this move to Greece. Simon might have considered it foolhardy, but Ava had known instinctively that she needed a change, a new start, at least for a little while. Life had simply become too bleak to face.
Gazing around at the darkened, empty street, she decided this was certainly a new start, yet she wasn’t sure how to begin.
The squeaky sound of a shutter opening had her turning around. A face poked out of a window in the house opposite, hair swathed in a head scarf, eyes narrowed in suspicion and lost in wrinkles.
“Pos se lene? Stamata!” the woman demanded. She issued a series of barked commands that had every Greek phrase flying out of Ava’s head.
“Den katalaveno,” she finally managed. I don’t understand. Perhaps the most important words to speak in a foreign language.
The woman’s frown grew even more ferocious. She started to say something Ava knew she wouldn’t understand, then stopped. “Anglika?” she asked, and Ava nodded in relief.
“Yes… I mean ne… Anglika. I’m English. Do you speak English? Anglika?”
The woman shrugged. “Some.”
Better than nothing, Ava thought with both gratitude and desperation. She stepped towards the woman, who was now leaning out of the window, her elbows on the stone sill. She looked to be in her mid-sixties, about thirty years older than Ava. “I’ve come to stay in a house here,” Ava explained hesitantly. “It belonged to Sophia…” She realized that in her panic and dismay she’d forgotten her grandmother’s maiden name. Helplessly she fished the key, heavy and antiquated, from her pocket and showed it to the woman who gave it no more than a cursory glance.
“Ne, ne. You must be the one who bought the Paranoussis place.”
Paranoussis! Yes. Ava remembered, and she nodded almost frantically. “Yes. That’s right. Sophia Paranoussis is—was—my grandmother. Do you know where it is?’
The woman nodded, alert now. “Your grandmother, ne? One moment.” She closed the shutters and emerged a few seconds later in the doorway of her house, a sweater now draped over her rounded shoulders. She called back into the house to someone in Greek and then turned to Ava. “I am Eleni.”
“I’m Ava.” She reached out to shake Eleni’s hand. “Ava Lancet.”
“And your grandmother, she lived in Iousidous?”
Ava nodded. “A long time ago. She left right after the war.”
“As did most the village’s young,” Eleni said with a sigh, though if she’d been alive then, she would have only just been born. “Come.”
Ava followed the older woman down the darkened street past half a dozen shuttered houses. It was hard to tell whether they were lived in or not, although Ava saw a few cars parked on the street. She strained to hear something other than the rustle of the wind in the trees and the crunch of pebbles under their feet, but there was nothing. All around them the village was dark, silent and still.
They walked quietly for just a few minutes before Eleni stopped in front of a house perched in the sharp curve of the street that twisted up farther into the hills and the darkness. Even without the benefit of street lamps, Ava could tell that this house was clearly a bit more dilapidated than the rest. One peeling shutter hung askew and the lightless windows and weedy garden gave every indication that no one lived there, or had lived there for a very long time.
“Here it is,” Eleni said, and Ava stepped forward.
“Wonderful, thank you,” she murmured. She fit the old key into the lock as Eleni watched, clearly curious about the Anglika who appeared to have come to live in a falling-down farmhouse sight unseen. The key stuck, and Ava jiggled it for a few alarmed seconds before it finally turned. With a creaky sigh of surrender the door opened, and she stepped into her grandmother’s house.
End of Excerpt