Andrea Gillies

Nina Excerpt


Chapter One - the beginning:

When the minibus came round the sharpest bend of the descent, trundling along on the stony dirt road, Andros crouching and peering through the windscreen in the poor light, he didn’t at first see the woman standing taking photographs.

Afterwards, Nina surprised people by insisting on taking all the blame for the accident; she was the fool who’d stood in the middle of the hill road at dusk, pale-haired in grey clothes and very nearly invisible. It was all her fault, she said, all of it, not just this but everything, though down in the village not everybody thought the situation had been that cut and dried. She’d heard that Andros had been given a hard time by his wife and by his neighbours; poor Andros had been bombarded with questions. Why was he driving without lights? Had he been driving too fast? Why wasn’t he wearing his glasses? Why had he reacted the way he’d reacted and put seven people’s lives at risk?

It wasn’t just the facts that mattered, but the sequence. This was something Nina had thought about a lot, by the time it came to leave the island hospital: chains of events and how they could take people in unexpected directions. On her final day she’d gone around taking last pictures of things and putting her hands on them – plants, inanimate objects, the seat outside where she’d spent so many hours – imprinting them with touch in her memory. It had become important to her, this place, not least for its beauty. There could have been nowhere more ideal for recovering from trauma. The building had been designed by an architect with a taste for the cleanly modern, a one-storey arrangement of ten white rooms that formed three sides of a square. Its wide internal corridor looked out through floor-to-ceiling windows over a courtyard garden of rocks and herbs, from which a short flight of wooden steps led down to a pebble beach.

The hospital stay had begun three weeks before. During the first 48 hours Nina revisited the collision every time she gave in to sleep, re-experiencing its shocking suddenness. Over and over she stood on the road and turned to see the boxy white vehicle bearing down on her. She hadn’t seen it coming, nor heard its approach; her mind had been elsewhere. She’d been singing a song, “Cucurrucucu Paloma”, one she’d listened to so often that she found she could sing it herself, even though she had no Spanish. She was enjoying that aspect, in fact: how the words had become music, like an incantation, like art in her mouth that she was making and delivering to the valley. She’d looked up the English translation before coming to Greece and had written it out in the back of her notebook.
They say that at night he spent the dark hours crying; they say that he wasn’t eating, that he had lost all appetite. They swear that the sky itself trembled in sympathy with his weeping, how he was suffering for her. Even when he was dying, he called out for her…

It was a song that was meaningful to her and to her situation. It wasn’t about her ex-husband, who’d reacted stoically to the news that she wanted a divorce, but about her ex-husband’s brother, a man who had loved her and whom she had loved.

It wasn’t only that she was singing. Her camera was up at her eye, being turned from landscape to portrait and back again, so as to capture silhouettes of the nestled and darkening settlement lying below, set against the metal glow of the sea. The sun went down fast on the island, and its setting was brief and fatal. Magic might become manifest here, if a person could only be alert to it she’d said, in the postcard that she’d written a few minutes before. She’d been profoundly unwell by then. An island is a world she wrote, though this is an untypically perfect one; this world is a family and even its housing’s democratic. She’d wanted to read The Tempest; earlier that day she’d rummaged through the books on the English stall at the market, wondering if the universe might provide, but nobody takes Shakespeare on holiday. “The isle is full of noises,” she’d said, on first arriving at the viewpoint, having walked the long, slow incline from the harbourside. There were swallows, bats, the occasional flying insect blundering about; human voices rising up and magnified; a tiny scooter making its bee hum on the coast road. The teenage boys liked to circumnavigate at this time of day, a journey that took less than an hour, their white lights tracking and overtaking one another. She’d taken out her camera. She’d begun to sing the song.

So, Nina wasn’t paying attention to the possibility of the bus, but nor was Andros paying attention to the possibility of Nina. He was looking for goats. They could be hard to see on this, the last journey of the day down from the upper village, especially if he was running half an hour late (as he was today for trivial reasons), and he’d tried in the past to abolish this last run, but the women who tended the gardens – most assertively, his wife Olympia – had protested. After the accident, when Andros lost his nerve, they had to make the argument again. They needed to go up to the allotments, they said, and needed to get home again, and it was ludicrous to make them use their cars. Not all of them even had cars. What, were they going to have to take their cars up there and leave them in the sun all afternoon? It didn’t make sense. He was just going to have to grit his teeth and carry on.

Andros was almost on top of the goat when he realised it was there, a big brown billy-goat with a defiant goat expression, rotating its jaw in chewing. An immediate decision needed to be made: there wasn’t quite enough room to pass on the left – if he went that way he’d scrape along the hillside wall – but there was plenty of space at the other side, without having to venture too near to the edge and its sheer drop. He veered to the right, and that’s when he saw Nina.

Unaware of the goat’s role, it was hard for Nina to make sense of what was happening. The minibus was coming right at her, but in a pause that might have been catastrophic she saw Andros realise she was standing there, his eyes widening and mouth mutely cursing. Luckily they had compatible instincts: she threw herself backwards to his left as Andros veered further to the right, though their actions weren’t quite enough for them to avoid one another, and so as her legs rose into the air the bus clipped her hard between knee and ankle. She felt it break, her right leg, heard the snap, the impact travelling through her cells, passing the bad news through her nervous system. Her head bounced against the road and then her back, and her vision pulsed and darkened, narrowing rapidly inside a dark border line. There was a rumble that she heard through her spine, a bang, a pause, a series of thumps and then far-off-sounding shouts. Puzzled goat faces peered down as blackness eliminated the sky, and she was unconscious until, unquantifiable minutes later, she half opened her eyes and saw Andros looking down at her, and ambulance personnel preparing to lift her, saying her name, and there was pain that returned like a whip.

Because the island’s own facility had no surgical wing, Nina was taken across the bay on the boat, to Main Island and to the ugly 1970s-built hospital in the town. By the time the long, hearse-like vehicle got her over the water – by special arrangement with the ferry, which had been tied up for the day, and round winding roads to A&E, she’d begun to hallucinate. She imagined that Paolo, her husband, was there in the back of the car with her, and felt urgently that she had to explain things to him, recent events and their autobiographical origins. He didn’t respond, adopting an apparent deafness and blindness, which as she’d say later was pretty typical and meant that she kept on talking. Administered drugs began to kick in, and so by the time the hospital staff got Nina onto the examination couch she’d forgotten about the encounter with a man who shouldn’t have been there.

“I don’t want Paolo to know,” she kept saying. “You won’t tell him, will you? He’s already so disappointed in me.”

A second shot of morphine was offered, but Nina wanted fiercely to remain aware, to make decisions and exert control. She wanted information but recoiled from some of it. The leg was snapped jaggedly between ankle and knee like an object, though she couldn’t look at it and was advised not to. She’d always thought of her bones as enmeshed, wrapped, integrated things. What had happened to her muscles, her veins? Was she at risk of bleeding to death? She vomited with fear that the surgeon would amputate, her voice full of pleading. An English-speaking doctor, worryingly young-looking, said, “If they offer you more anaesthetic in there, take it, because it can get quite…” he paused, looking for the word, “…noisy.”
“Noisy?” she queried. “Noisy?”
Another face appeared, a tired thin-faced nurse, and a form was presented and Nina signed it, her signature unlike anything it had ever been before, big and looping and going off the edge of the page. “Please take the morphine,” the young doctor said. “She will get into trouble if you don’t take it.” Nina consented, and just as the senior man appeared, an emperor surrounded by courtiers, felt the warm rush of it flooding her, and her eyes rolled back in her head and the pain and the fear stabilised. Things became not just manageable, but amusing. She was able to laugh at the serious things the consultant had to say about pins and screws and bones and stitches. He took her flippancy in his stride.

Two days after the operation Nina was returned to Small Island, a place that the guidebook referred to as the calf to Main Island’s cow, but in terms of scale was more like the rabbit to Main Island’s elephant. By now she had crutches and was expected to begin to move about, though no contact was to be made between the damaged leg and the ground; not yet. It was disconcerting not to have a cast on it.
“Why don’t I have a plaster-cast?” she’d asked Dr Christos on her second day back, ensconced in her room in the cottage hospital. She’d wondered, as a tourist, what the building was for. She’d walked past it along the shore and had mistaken it for an art gallery.
“A cast is to keep things in place,” he told her. “You don’t need that because they’ve put pins inside the bone.”
“Inside, inside the bone? I thought they were alongside.”
“They’re inside, and they keep things straight. But I can see why people would prefer a cast. It feels like a protective shell.”
“Exactly. It feels wrong just to have bandages, when what’s underneath…” Nina couldn’t finish the thought. It was disturbing, the idea of inner scaffolding. Someone had been inside her leg, while she lay with her self in dormancy, inert and gaping and absent, and they’d pushed metal into the meat. She looked down at her leg, laid on the top sheet of the bed – it was too hot to stay under it, with this stiflingly hot limb swaddled tightly in crepe – and saw faint watery outlines of bloodstains. Dr Christos looked too.
“We’ll need to change the dressing,” he said.
“Can I have more morphine for that?” She was only half joking. She was beset by imaginings. But the unwrapping ritual didn’t reveal the scene of carnage that she’d feared. It was clean and ordinary: ordinary, that is, aside from the long and fairly neat cut and the Frankenstein’s-monster stitches. “When will I be walking?”
“Not for a while, but we need to get you mobile. It’ll be difficult, exhausting, but we need to get you moving on the crutches. Little expeditions at first. We’ll start with the bathroom.”
“How long do you think I’ll be here?”
“Depends. Once you’re whizzing about confidently and we’re happy with the general state of your health you can go home.”
“Right.” Her spirits dipped at the prospect of returning to face the music, the explanations.
“How’s the head today?”
“Still a bit nauseous, still tired, but better than it was.” She sank deeper into the pillow and closed her eyes.
“Then you should sleep. Your biggest fan is coming to see you later, by the way. The island priest. Brace yourself: there’s been a lot of church-going and candle-lighting. You know they’ve put up a shrine at the scene of the drama?” The picture on his phone showed a small stone niche, about eighteen inches high, inscribed inside with the date of the accident and fitted with a painted plaster crucifix, pink and blue, one that had been finished with gold leaf. “This has been a big event for the island,” he added.

Dr Christos had been there the first morning, sitting beside her bed doing paperwork. When she’d opened her eyes in the white cube of her room, its whiteness relieved only by pale-blue stripes on the windowblind, the palest possible green of the metal bed, the dark blue of the bedside chair. she saw that the chair was occupied by a man busy writing with a fountain pen, a man who hadn’t yet noticed that she’d woken. The doctor had coughed and she’d stepped out of the past, scooped from a conversation with Luca, her husband’s brother. They’d sat side by side in an armchair that was upholstered in pink velvet, one only just big enough for two skinny children. On his lap there’d been a vast book with a dusty green cover and gold lettering, a world atlas, and he’d had the page open at Italy, showing her where his grandfather came from. She was ten years old and felt sick with happiness; her heartbeat had drummed through her hip bone. It was bewildering to be bounced from this dream, one that felt nothing like a dream but like life lived over again, and into this alternative and dreamlike reality: the white room, the blue chair and the stranger. He was about her own age, this stranger, mid-forties at a guess, with shoulder-length black hair, some of it twisted almost into ringlets, and, when he glanced up towards the wall, tapping the pen thoughtfully against his upper lip, the kind of face that seems immediately trustworthy, though not handsome as such: his chin was small, his eyebrows outlandish and his nose had broken once. His wide mouth pressed wider into concentration as he returned to write on – whatever it was he was writing on – a piece of paper at the top of others in a file, which he’d balanced against the thigh of his raised leg, his ankle resting over his other knee. He was on the sturdy side of averagely built, wearing a faded red collarless shirt, frayed jeans and black cotton shoes that were rope-soled and flattened at the back.

He’d introduced himself as Dr Christos – his English accent was part southern British, part North American – and had gone to get coffee. “It’s no trouble; I have a machine in my office. They are painting my office.” He made a face. “But I prefer to sit with patients during the day, anyway. If I’m at my desk inevitably the phone rings or I’m interrupted. I look less available here.” The coffee was dense and oily and she’d made an appreciative noise. “You like it?” He looked pleased, settling himself again in the blue chair, for a hospital an unusually soft and comfortable-looking chair, apparently leaving the conversation at that.
After a short while Nina said, “It looks as if you have a lot of – what are they, patient notes?”
“All the many items of paperwork that pass through the hospital. We are having a financial crisis here; you’ve probably heard. We no longer have a manager, so all of this joy has devolved to me.”
“You speak very good English.”
The compliment might have been patronising but he didn’t seem to mind. “Thank you; in fact most of my life has been English-speaking. I left here as a student and spent some years in Baltimore and then Boston, in London and then the States again, and never meant to return, other than for… I forget how it goes, births and marriages and deaths; something to do with hatches.”
“Hatches, matches, despatches.”
“Yes! I must write that down before I forget it again.” He stared at her, an intensity about him, a deliberateness of focus, something fearlessly direct, so that she found it hard to look at him.
“Your notes tell me you’re from Edinburgh. I haven’t been but hear it’s beautiful. You don’t sound very Scottish.”
“My father was – is – but my mother wasn’t. She was Norwegian. My accent is kind of nowhere.”
“And you have an Italian name.”
She lifted her wrist with its hospital tag. “I noticed that I’m Nina Romano here.”
“It was the name in your passport.”
“I’m Nina Findlay, but my husband’s name is Romano.”
“I don’t think I’ve met any Norwegians. We get a lot of Dutch and Germans who bring their tents and caravans and even their own bread and like to walk around naked.”
“Dutch and German people have tried to talk to me in their own languages on the beach.”
“I should have stayed in the US. I came back because my father died and my mother was ill and the years have gone by. My mother died two years ago, and I still seem to be here.” He checked his phone for messages and was silent for a minute. “Also, I should warn you that they’re preoccupied, the locals, about how lucky it was. The accident. There’s lots of talk about whether it was luck or divine intervention.”
“Lucky how?”
“They had a narrow escape.”

This was undoubtedly true. It was lucky that the incident took place just at that part of the hillside in which there was a broad ledge jutting out beneath the road. That’s where the minibus landed when it disappeared over the edge, having blown its front right tyre on a small pointed rock, one that afterwards would have a set of rosary beads, a komboskini, drapedover it. Having veered away from Nina, the bus had been bumping along in loose stones just inches from the drop, and may have avoided going over the side or may not have, but the blown tyre shunted it decisively to the right, whereupon it tipped away, tilting and hesitating and then flipping over in a graceful full circle before coming to rest once more on its wheels, bouncing on its suspension and stopping dead, a mere seven feet from the precipice. After a short silence came the realisation that they were saved. Andros put his head onto the steering wheel and was sick, and the women in the back were screaming.

A church service of thanksgiving was held, its invitation ringing out from the chapel at the top of the hill, a white-painted blue-domed building with a panoramic outlook, sitting on the island’s highest point as if announcing its ocean governance, while at the same time conceding its powerlessness, marking its losses with bell-ringing. Dr Christos took a note that Nina had written, and translated it in reading it out, and returned with pictures on his camera, and pointed out the people who’d been passengers.
“So they’re okay, they’re really all okay?”
“Scratches only and bruises. They were brought here to be checked over; nobody had to go across the water. Four stitches was the most, and nowhere near an eye.” He went to the window and moved the vertical blind aside and opened the French doors, revealing a world outside that was vividly coloured: a stripe of sea, a vast zone of sky, the creams and greys of the garden, their cacti and agave and tropicals offset by the dotted colours of flowering herbs. The hot air that drifted in smelled first of rosemary and thyme, and then of warmed lavender. “We don’t want you doing this kind of thing while balancing on one leg. Let Nurse Yannis do it for you.”
“She does, she has – she’s very kind.”
“Windows open in the morning when the sun is round the back; closed and darkened for siesta in the afternoon; everything opened again until it starts to get dark. Or closed if you’d prefer it; if you’d prefer to be alone.” He turned to her. “Would you? Prefer to be alone?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He raised the striped blind, a roller blind, from the smaller second window. “There’s a mosquito net on this one, so it’s the one to keep open at night. Ventilation without bugs.” He took his phone out of his pocket and looked at it. “I have to go, but before I do, I meant it about working out of my office. I tend to circulate around the patients and spend time working in their company, so I’ll come and do admin here for a bit of each day, unless you’d rather not. I sit with the ones who don’t get visitors. Whole families troop through here for some of them, with bagfuls of food, hot lunches, bigger televisions, but some other people don’t have anyone. I assume you won’t be visited, unless your husband is on the way.”
“Ex-husband. Soon to be ex-husband. I disgraced myself and moved out.”
“Disgrace. There’s something delicious about the word disgrace.”
“He sent a text today, wanting to escort me home when I’m ready to go, but I told him not to. We … we parted on bad terms.”
“Evidently he’s forgiven you, if he wants to come to you here. What was it, this disgrace?”
“He will never forgive me. He’s not the forgiving kind. No, that’s wrong. He is the forgiving kind. He’s just not the forgetting kind. And we’ve agreed that it’s over.” Dr Christos waited. “I was an idiot. In short. For a long time quite stupid, and then for a brief time, unhinged.”

Nina Findlay front cover