Island Fragments by Andy Murdoch

I

“It’s the one thing we’ve always said about you,” my mother told me over the phone the afternoon before I flew to Greece by myself. “You’ve always been happy with your own company.”

There was a period in primary school – maybe a few months, maybe closer to a year – where I had a lunchtime routine. I would eat the sandwiches my mother had packed for me that morning, sitting by myself behind the shelter sheds, and then I would go to the toilet, and then I would walk. From the toilet block I would walk past the basketball court to the northern end of the oval. I would walk around the oval and then, from the other end of the school, at the southern end of the oval, I would skirt the handball courts behind the oldest school building and walk between the newer buildings, past the speech therapy unit that had cured my lisp and the art building where the teacher would mock my efforts with what I guess she thought was affection. I would walk to the end of the school and then circle around the playground area until I found myself back at the toilet block.

And then I would do it again.

Eventually a teacher on yard duty realised what I was doing, day after day, week after week. “What are you up to, mate?” he asked me one day.

“Just walking,” I said. “Am I in trouble?”

“Of course not,” he said. “Why aren’t you playing with your friends?”

“I don’t have any friends,” I said. It was really quite straightforward.

My teacher stared at me, horrified.

“That’s true,” I told my mother. “I am pretty happy with my own company. That’s true.”

II

“I don’t like the giant teddy bear, mummy,” the little boy says. He’s drinking something. Hot chocolate, I guess.

“It’s just a teddy, sweetheart.” She has a slight accent – not Middle Eastern, there’s a twinge of posh London to it, her and the kid. Not strong though. “It’s just a big teddy, it’s even got fur and everything!”

“It’s creepy,” the little boy says. “It’s got some great big – thing hanging over its head. And I bet it’s not real fur. I bet it’s fake.”

The woman sighs. “Even real teddy bears have fake fur these days, you know.”

If it’s possible for a little boy – five? six? – to sneer, the little boy sneers. “Don’t be so silly, mummy.”

She doesn’t pick up on this insolence. She drinks her coffee, and I drink mine, and the little boy licks the chocolate foam out of his paper cup.

“Darling, don’t be disgusting.”

“It’s yummy,” he says, a dark moustache of milky foam glistening on his upper lip. She doesn’t pick up on that, either.

We’re nowhere near the giant teddy bear sculpture that sits at the centre of the airport. We’re at a cheap coffee place – not Starbucks, the other one – at the end of one of the airport’s concourses. The coffee’s not bad. I don’t know where mummy and her little boy are going. I don’t know if there’s a daddy somewhere – somewhere in the airport, somewhere else. I don’t know where they’re going, but I’m flying to Greece, and I need to be at the other end of the airport soon.

I check the giant teddy’s fur on the way through. I thought it was ceramic the first time I was here, but now I’m not sure.

III

I was sitting on my hotel balcony looking at the five identical balconies next to mine along the side of my hotel, and a voice behind me said, “You can choose who comes out of the balcony doors. All five of them. But there are rules.”

“This is absurd,” I said. “I’m just on holiday.”

“Rule number one,” the voice behind me said.

“Is there a reason you sound like Ian MacKellen?” A fair question, I thought.

“Rule number one,” the voice said. “You cannot request the appearance of anyone you want to have sex with.”

I wanted to turn around and sneer at him, but I couldn’t. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said. “What’s the point of a fantasy game if that’s rule number one?” Again, a fair question, I thought, but he didn’t respond. “So what’s rule number two?”

He paused. “Actually there isn’t a rule number two,” the voice said. “It’s been a while since I’ve played this game. There’s only rule number one, I forgot about that. So who comes out of the first balcony door?”

“You’re not a very competent fantasy game host, are you, Sir Ian?” Sir Ian ignored this.

“A prince and a princess,” I said, because why the fuck not. “Just after they’ve married.”

“You might want to have sex with the prince,” the voice said rather sternly.

“I don’t do hetties,” I said. “Or bi guys. Or closet cases. And if he’s married …”

“That’s really quite judgmental, you know,” the voice said. “But … very well.” And just like that a prince and a princess stepped out onto the balcony next to mine, as pretty and well-dressed and bland as you’d expect. The prince was quite hot; if he’d been gay I’d have shagged him. “Next,” said the voice.

“Mum and dad,” I said.

“Your father’s dead.” Exasperation, was that?

“It’s a fantasy game. How can death be a problem?”

A pause, and then a grudging “Yes, yes,” and then there they were, just beyond the prince and princess. Northern Ireland vintage, I’d have said. Younger than I was on my balcony. That was a shock. Dad looked a bit confused.

“My ex,” I said, not waiting for the prompt.

“That’s against …”

“– It’s not,” and I nearly looked over my shoulder again. “Trust me. It really isn’t.”

And there he was. The day he’d told me. And I didn’t. I really didn’t.

“Two left,” the voice said.

“A fat man,” I said. “A grossly, obscenely, morbidly obese fat man.”

“Obese and fat are tautological and there are those who find the larger frame sexually arousing.”

“Not me.”

Gandalf sighed. “Dear me, you really are a most judgmental young man.”

“I’m not young.”

But there he was, on the balcony one down from my ex. He was very, very fat, the fat man.

“Last but not least,” the voice behind my shoulder said.

“A Greek Adonis,” I said. “The most stunningly beautiful Adonis in all of the Greek islands.”

“But that’s against …”

“– I won’t be able to see him.” I smiled at my ex. It wasn’t a pleasant smile, and he didn’t smile back. “He’ll be behind the fat man, and the fat man’s very fat, and I can barely see the fat man anyway behind the rest of them. And if I can’t see him I can’t want to have sex with him, can I?

“Hmm,” rumbled the voice. “There are those who’d disagree.”

“Oh fuck off, Gandalf,” I said.

“You could call him. What about phone sex? Sex chat lines?”

“Never done them,” I lied. “I’m a very visual person.”

“Hmm.” But I knew I’d won.

“Oh, very well …”

And behind the fat man I saw what might have been the flicker of a balcony door open, the merest patch of what might have been golden skin. And then nothing.

“Well then,” the voice said. “Satisfied?”

“No,” I said. “Of course not. How could anybody be satisfied with that? What a stupid game. Are you? Are you satisfied?”

But there was no response.

IV

There was a cat on the island of Kimilos who was different to all the other cats. He looked like all the other cats – he was skinny and usually sick and he walked with a limp and one of his eyes had been scratched out in a fight with three other cats over a plate of leftover moussaka the cook from one of the beach restaurants had thrown out the back. He looked like all the other cats on Kimilos. But he was different.

He was a magical cat.

The cooks on Kimilos didn’t usually throw out plates of moussaka. They didn’t usually throw out lamb kleftiko, or rabbit stifado, or soukoukazia. They usually threw out the chips and egg stupid English tourists ordered for their dinner because they didn’t like all that foreign stuff. They’d eat half a plate of chips and egg, the tourists, and leave the rest, because the island cooks didn’t know how to cook bangers and mash, and the cooks of Kimilos would chuck the leftovers out the back – leftover cheese omelettes, and lambs fry with bacon – and the cats of Kimilos would eat the leftovers.

And when the magical cat ate these things he wasn’t really eating them. It looked like he was eating them, like all the other cats, but the magical cat was really eating duck a l’orange, and steak tartare, and chicken cacciatore. These are strange things for a magical cat to eat on an island in Greece, because they’re not very Greek, and not very good for a cat. But this was a magical cat, and this is what he ate.

And then one night the cook at the beach restaurant threw out half a plate of leftover chips and egg and found the magical cat dead. Earlier the cook had thrown out half a plate of leftover moussaka, and the magical cat had fought over it again, and this time he lost more than an eye.

The cook didn’t know the dead cat was a magical cat, but he was. He had been. It’s the moussaka that gets them, every time.

V

At the top of the hill there was a rock, and on top of the rock sat a goblin. “You have three choices,” the goblin said.

“For fuck’s sake,” I said. “I think I’ve been here already.”

“Not here,” said the goblin. “Not here geographically, and not here metaphysically, either. Gandalf was different.”

“Jesus, even the fucking goblins call him Gandalf.” I’d quite enjoyed the hike to the top of the hill. There’d been a cave with a sacred fresco and some disintegrating statuary and a lovely view across the sea to Turkey. I wasn’t enjoying goblin.

The goblin blinked. “His name’s Gandalf,” the goblin said. “And I’m not a goblin. I’m a frog. I’m a frog that’s been turned into a goblin. By a wicked wizard. That’s where your choices come in.”

It was my turn to blink. “This is fucking insane,” I said. “What the fuck is a frog that’s been turned into a goblin by a wicked fucking wizard doing sitting on top of a rock on top of a hill on a Greek fucking island?”

The goblin blinked again. “You swear a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I swear a lot. I swear a fucking shitload.” My ex had said that about me, too. The goblin looked a bit like my ex, I thought unkindly. “So what are my choices?”

Unkind, and untrue.

“Right,” said the goblin. “So you can choose to turn me back into a frog. Or you can choose to leave me as I am. Or … ” The goblin blinked again. And cleared its throat.

I waited. “Or?”

“Or,” said the goblin, and cleared its throat again, “or, you can choose to turn me into a prince.”

Again, my turn to blink. “A prince.”

“A prince.” The goblin shrugged . “Call it poetic justice.”

“And what if I choose not to choose?” I was pretty sure I had him there. “What if I choose to just turn around and walk back down the hill?”

“Well, fairly obviously,” the goblin said, “that would be choosing to leave me as I am.”

“Ah. Yes. Okay.” I thought about that for a few seconds. “What if I choose to turn you into a prince and I find the prince sexually attractive? Despite knowing that the prince had previously been a goblin that had previously been a frog?” It wouldn’t have turned me off, to be honest. “What happens then?”

“That’s against the rules,” said a voice behind my shoulder.

VI

“Slightly peculiar, heartbroken, criminally unpublished middle-aged writer lives out his years alone in a windmill on a hillside,” my friend said. “There’s a book in that, don’t you think?”

“Do you think I’m slightly peculiar?” I looked at her. “I don’t think I’m remotely peculiar. Most of my friends back home think I’m the blandest person they know.”

“Your boyfriend of sixteen years dumps you and three weeks later you’re on a remote Greek island thinking about buying a windmill to live in,” my friend said. “That seems slightly peculiar to me.”

She wasn’t really my friend. She was an English tourist staying at my hotel, and on my first night we’d had a drink and started talking. I did more of the talking than she did.

“It’s a bit of a dump,” I said, to change the subject.

We were standing outside a windmill on a hillside on a Greek island. It was for sale. I’d found it on a Greek real-estate website.

“I think it’s kind of cool,” she said. “The pictures are, anyway. It’s a bit more … dilapidated than I expected.”

“It doesn’t have a roof,” I said.

I don’t know why I’d searched Greek real-estate websites. When I found the windmill I’d shown it to her, and the website had a map, and it had been her idea to hike up the hill and find it. There was a for-sale sign out the front. I assume it was a for-sale sign. It was in Greek.

“It’s got a roof,” she said. “There are just a few holes in it. I’m sure there’s some strapping young tradesman in town who’d fix that for you in a jiffy.”

I wasn’t really thinking about buying a windmill on a Greek island. I don’t think I was.

I walked across to the windmill and tried to look in through the window, but I couldn’t see a thing.

VII

He looked at the watch. He looked at the sea.

The ferry chugged its way towards Piraeus. He had a cabin for the night, and it was already dark. He was standing at the back of the ferry. The sea was black, the churn phosphorescent.

He looked at the watch.

He’d been given the watch, a gift from his boyfriend their first Christmas together.

No. Ex-boyfriend. That’s why he was in Greece.

There was an engraving on the back of the watch. “Mister Magoo, 2002”. That’s what his ex-boyfriend called him, because he was bald, and his eyesight was awful. Mister Magoo.

No. His ex-boyfriend didn’t call him that. His boyfriend called him that. His ex-boyfriend didn’t call him anything.

He looked at the sea. So much water, so far from home. He smiled. He’d tried to write while he’d been away. He’d failed. He’d failed. You’re not running away, his friends had told him before he flew out. You’re giving yourself space. But he had run away. And he’d achieved nothing. He’d spent two months on the islands, expecting to write, expecting a text, an email. I’ve fucked up. Please come home.

No text. No email.

No writing.

Sixteen years, and then: someone else.

He looked at the engraving. He turned the watch over.

He looked at the sea.

He was contemplating a Titanic moment. Camp, he knew. Open his hand, turn it, let the watch fall into the water. The blackness. The churn. The phosphorescence. Go back to his cabin, open a bottle of wine, drink the lot, go to sleep, wake up, get off the ferry at Piraeus, catch the metro to Athens airport, fly home.

Watch at the bottom of the sea.

He stood at the back of a Greek ferry on its way back to Piraeus.

He looked at the watch. He looked at the sea.

Bio:

Andy Murdoch is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. His short fiction has appeared in a few places, including The Big Issue and Going Down Swinging. He is currently enrolled in a PhD in creative writing at La Trobe University.

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