‘I wish I could stay. I’m sorry’. Albert walked along the old quay and climbed into the waiting seaplane. Vilana turned away, her face stained with tears, and returned along the winding path to her home on the Greek island of Ithaca.
Galen Braithwaite looked out of the control tower at the Airforce Base, just outside of his home town Enid, Oklahoma. His father Patrick had earned his Pilot Wings at the airbase in 1955. In his mind’s eye Galen could see photographs of his father, seated in the cockpit of a B52 bomber. It was too late now for Galen to ask his father about ‘nam, too late for Galen to know if such a thing as a ‘hero’ of war could exist, let alone if that could be his father.
His father’s funeral had taken place three days before and he was relieved to be back at work today at the base. The pressure of helping his mother to bear her grief since his father’s death had been enormous. At 60 she was too young to be a widow. She and his father had so many plans for the future, so many hopes and dreams.
Galen’s grandfather had died when Galen was still a toddler, but the conversations between his parents about Granddad Braithwaite had continued over the years. Patrick had been determined that one day he would retrace his father’s footsteps on the seemingly idyllic Greek isle of Ithaca. Galen had seen his Grandfather’s papers, and knew was that some of them concerned water wells Granddad Braithwaite had gone to Ithaca to drill. Galen’s parents talked endlessly of their dream holiday to Europe, hopping around the Greek Isles, Ithaca being the highlight. All they were waiting for was Patrick’s 65th birthday and his retirement. Patrick’s sudden death came two years too soon
‘Kathleen!’ called Albert.
‘Here, in the garden’ answered his wife, secateurs in her hand, a pile of dead rose heads in her basket.
‘I’ve got the go ahead! I’m off to Greece!’ said Albert, sweeping Kathleen up in his arms and spilling the flower heads over the lawn. Kathleen didn’t look too pleased. She liked their easy life in downtown Enid. Their only son Patrick was doing well at college and she was worried the boy might go off the rails without his father’s influence.
She knew, however, that Albert’s peers recognized him as a pioneering engineer. It was well known that oil drilling equipment designed by him contributed much of the wealth to the town of Enid. The golden age came to a standstill with the advent of war in the 1942. But Albert had invented a portable drilling rig, as ideal for reaching water as it was oil, and it was now much in demand by the Hydrological section of the Greek Ministry of Agriculture.
‘But why do you have to go?’
‘Because the rig’s complicated, I need to teach their engineers how to use it. You do understand how important this is don’t you? So many of the Islands are in such terrible disrepair after the German and Italian occupations. They can’t get enough fresh water up for themselves to drink, let alone for crops and livestock.’
Galen sat in his father’s favourite chair at his parents’ home. Resting on his lap was a photo of his father Patrick, and his grandfather Albert. Galen could see where his father had got his thick black hair from. Albert held Galen in his arms.
‘How old was I in this photo mum?’ he called out. His mother came in from the kitchen.
‘Ooh, you must have been at least two. Your grandparents were so proud of you. Your grandma Kathleen wanted another child so much, a brother or sister for your dad so that he wasn’t the only child. That’s why you were extra special to them, another baby for them to nurture. Such a pity Albert never got to see you get your Wings, God rest him..’ Her voice broke and she turned away. Galen put his arms protectively around his mother.
‘Mum, I’ve been thinking, sometime in the future, when or if you are ever ready, you and I could do the trip; the trip you and Dad had your heart set on.’
‘Galen, I’m afraid your father and I could never have afforded that trip! Her voice quavered. ‘We had savings, there were over twenty thousand dollars in the account – our holiday savings account. But your father emptied it just recently. Took everything out in cash. And I don’t know why’. She broke down in tears again.
‘You want to dance? Come, dance with me’. Her olive skin glistened in the half light. The night was warm and the air was laden with the scent of wild thyme. Sounds of The Benny Goodman Orchestra came from a gramaphone behind the bar of the Jasmine Taverna. She held out her left hand to him and he noticed no ring. For a second he hesitated, but then, influenced no doubt by wine from the island’s native robola grape, he took her hand. He forgot about Kathleen. He forgot about Patrick. He forgot about the Agricultural Board and the drilling programme. He held her close, breathed in her perfume, and he was intoxicated.
‘My name is Vilana’ she told him as she led him away from the music and out onto the veranda of the Jasmine. She leaned against a railing and looked out over a calm sea, towards magical lights on the nearby island of Zakynthos.
‘Mine is Albert’, he spoke quietly, staring at her perfect profile. He looked down at her bare feet, and back up at the white daisies woven into her jet black hair. And then he remembered Kathleen.
‘You are beautiful Vilana, but I’m a married man, I think I should leave now, but thankyou, thankyou for the dance.’ She caught hold of both his hands, drew him towards her, and kissed him; a light butterfly kiss which brushed his lips and took his breath away.
‘Mr Jackson will see you now Mr Braithwaite.’ A secretary ushered Galen in to the office of the manager of the Garfield County Bank in Enid.
‘It would help my mother to know the truth’ he explained. ‘My parents were saving the money for a trip of a lifetime. Can you shed any light at all on what my father wanted so much cash for?’ The manager shook his head.
‘I’m sorry Mr Braithwaite. I did question your father over such a large cash withdrawal. He told me something important had come up. That was all. So you have no idea what he wanted it for or where it is now?’
‘None at all’ answered Galen.
‘Oh yes I’m delighted with the success of the project here, utterly delighted’ said Albert to the Island’s newly and independently elected mayor. ‘Your engineers are more than capable in using the drills. All I need is your signature on the paperwork, the drills are here on permanent loan from the US Government, and I’m leaving in the morning, back to the States.’
It had been obvious to Albert, that in the three years since Britain had liberated Ithaca, the island had continued to suffer painfully from the lack of available fresh water during the long, hot dry summers. But things were changing. The island’s heart was beating once again to the rhythm of the drills and pumps which brought relief for the present and promise for the future.
‘We hope you will come back again Mr Albert. We cannot thankyou enough for your help.’ Albert stood quite rigid as the mayor kissed him on both cheeks; it wasn’t a custom which had caught on yet in the county of Garfield, Oklahoma. Yet some things were the same the world over, especially in troubled times, when young and idealistic women saw visiting strangers as a possible ticket to a better life.
‘My Papa made the island green again’ said Diantha to her friends as she danced in front of the plaque dedicated to Albert Braithwaite, situated on the water well in the main square of Vathy town on Ithaca. The plaque, made of bronze, read ‘The people of Ithaca are indebted to the US Government and Albert Braithwaite, member of the American mission for aid to Greece, Agricultural Division. September 1947.’ Diantha’s mother Vilana, had never kept her daughter’s parentage from her, and she had grown up, in no doubt that her father was the celebrated engineer Albert Braithwaite. She believed her mother when she told her that the seaplane he was travelling in, on his return from a business trip to the USA, had crashed somewhere in the Ionian Sea. His body had never been recovered.
Patrick Braithwaite, at home in Enid, looked at the Greek postmark on the hand written envelope addressed to him, turned it over a few times, before opening it carefully and curiously. ‘Dear Patrick’ read the letter. ‘My name is Diantha and research strongly suggests to me that you are my half brother. Is your father the same Albert Braithwaite who came to Ithaca in 1947 to drill the water wells? I’m sorry we lost our father in the tragic plane accident, but if I have a brother I would very much like to meet him….’ Patrick sunk into his armchair, his face ashen.
‘So, I have a little sister after all’ whispered Patrick to himself, reflecting on all the years, all the heartache – hidden badly from him by his mother – over the fact that he had remained an only child. Patrick didn’t want to believe that his father had kept Diantha a secret from him and his mother. But then, how could Albert have told the truth, even if he’d known it? It might have meant the ruin of his marriage, the loss of Kathleen’s love, the loss of his son’s respect, the loss of his standing in the community.
Suddenly Patrick stared straight ahead, and made up his mind that he had to do whatever it took to keep this from his frail Mother. Now in her eighties, she didn’t need to know this, she mustn’t know this. His wife was out when the postman had delivered the letter from Greece. Nobody but him need ever know about it. He looked at the photocopies of the pictures Diantha had sent; one of his father with her mother Vilana, and one of Diantha as she was now. There was no doubting the resemblance to himself and his father. He read the copy of a letter, in his father’s handwriting, to Vilana. Patrick’s calm turned to anger with his father. The letter proved Albert knew he had a child on Ithaca.
Galen jumped off the inter island ferry and made his way along the harbour wall. ‘Welcome to Ithaca’ read a large white sign. It was old and battered, with a few air rifle shot holes scattered over one corner. Galen wondered if his Grandfather might have been greeted by the same sign back in 1948. He had been disappointed that his mother had chosen not to accompany him, but not surprised. He spotted the Jasmine Taverna on the other side of the small harbour, and headed towards it. The clear blue water lapped right up to the terrace. Inside, on the walls, he looked at photos dating from the forties – wonderful pictures of girls in crisp white cotton blouses and flowing skirts, dancing with pencil-moustached men, their hair black and slicked. He looked at the date, 1948. No wonder these people looked so happy, he thought, after so many years of depression and suppression. Swallowing the last of his ice cold beer, he headed towards the central square of Vathy. He felt excitement in the pit of his stomach. He was here, on a pilgrimage for his parents as well as himself, to see what they had both wanted to see so keenly. Amongst his Grandfather’s possessions were black and white photographs of Albert shaking the mayor’s hand in front of the well in Vathy’s central square, and a close up of the plaque on the well. His father never would see it for himself, but his mother could, through Galen’s eyes. And for Galen, it was like visiting a memorial to his Grandfather.
Inside the Tourist Information Centre Galen laid out photocopies of the old black and white pictures. ‘Have you any idea what happened to the well?’ Galen asked the assistant. ‘Ah yes,’ she answered. ‘These pictures were taken prior to 1954, before the earthquake which destroyed most of the buildings on Ithaca. Maybe the well collapsed too.’ She saw the look of disappointment on Galen’s face. ‘I’m sorry’ she said softly.
Galen decided to catch the next ferry off the island and headed back to the harbour. He had wanted to walk on Ithaca, eat in its tavernas, watch the sunsets and sunrises his Grandfather had written about in his journal. He had wanted to smell the lavender and the herbs, hear the bells around the necks of the goats, and taste the island wine. But his disappointment over the well drained his enthusiasm. He just wanted to get back to Zakynthos. Two hours to wait, he read on the ferry timetable. To pass some time he wandered back through Vathy and followed a sign to ‘Oldest Olive Tree in the Ionians.’ On his way, he was stopped in his tracks. There, displayed on the outside wall of a small, whitewashed single story house, was the brass plaque bearing his grandfather’s name.
The door of the house was open. Tentatively he called out.
‘I’m sorry, excuse me’ he said to the olive skinned woman who greeted him. ‘Sorry to trouble you, but the plaque’ he gestured towards it. ‘Albert Braithwaite was my grandfather.’
Diantha stared at Galen momentarily, then suggested they sit down under the shade of a tree in her garden. They talked for a long time, Galen’s ferry forgotten. She disappeared into the house and came back out carrying a small cardboard box. Inside, were old letters, and photos. One photo in particular removed any doubt Galen may have had over this woman’s claims that she was Albert’s daughter, and therefore Galen’s Aunt. There was his grandfather, smiling into the camera, his arm around a beautiful woman; Vilana, Diantha’s mother. Anyway, just to look at Diantha he could see the resemblance to his grandfather, particularly in the way she smiled. Diantha told him she had tried to contact Albert’s family. Her mother had passed away last year, and going through her papers, she found an old letter from Albert, postmarked ‘Enid, Oklahoma’ and that’s where she had begun her search.
‘I wonder if my father ever got your letter, if he knew he had a sister. You did send it to the right address, but nothing was ever mentioned about it back home.’
‘I don’t know Galen, I never heard back, I assumed I’d been wrong. Accepted I might never know if I had family in the US. But you know, there is a memorial to your grandfather on the island, in a way. Come, I’ll show you.’
Together they walked towards the island’s school less than half a kilometre from the centre of Vathy. Galen was still reeling from the information he was trying to process, part of him ecstatic to have found Diantha. As they approached the school he could hear children laughing and shrieking with delight. Around a dozen children were playing in the pavement water fountains, jumping here and there amongst water shooting metres into the air. Diantha explained;
‘I’m one of the school governors. Last year a package arrived, addressed to me at the school, and inside was $20,000 from an anonymous donor. I persuaded the board to spend half of it on this fabulous water feature. Don’t you love it? The kids call it the magic fountains. In my mind it’s a testament to Albert. He bought water to the islanders when we needed it to survive. Now we’re ok, and I thought he’d like to see water used just for the sheer joy of it.’
‘I think he would’ Galen said, taking hold of his Aunt’s hand, and he was not sure if his face felt damp from the water of the magic fountains, or because this day had turned out as he could never have imagined.
(C) 2013 Jacqueline Long