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1945

 

Louisa gripped the handrail tightly, swaying with the motion of the ferry as it rocked over the waves.  Her eyes strained for the first glimpse of the familiar rocky coastline. She felt she could see it, a slight smudge of brown, far in the distance, where the blue of the water met the blue of the sky.  The sun was deliciously hot and as she lifted her head to inhale the sea air she was suddenly transported to ten years prior, a different ferry, a different day, but so similar. She looked behind her at the rows of benches, able to imagine her children as they slumbered,  impatient to end the long weeks of travel. She sighed. Those children were grown now. They had lives of their own and no desire to return with her to Corfu. In fact, they had tried to discourage her, reminding her repeatedly that the island would not be the same after the war.  Nothing was, really. But she would not be put off.

She squinted at the horizon and saw that, yes, that was definitely Corfu in sight!  Laying her hand on the shoulder of her small travelling companion, she pointed to the distant island.

“There it is, Darling,” she exclaimed, “Corfu!”  

Her son grinned up at her and her heart ached with love for the child.  No one had been more surprised than she when she realized the fatigue and illness she had dealt with after leaving Corfu weren't entirely due to heartbreak.  Never had it crossed her mind that that her time with Spiro would result in a pregnancy, especially at her age! When she announced the news to her children, Margo and Leslie had acted, predictably, bewildered.  They rarely wasted energy contemplating the lives and goings on of other people, especially their mother, so were somewhat befuddled at how she found herself in that state. Gerry, well versed in biology with his study of animals, looked mildly disgusted, but shrugged it off and quickly warmed up to the idea of a younger sibling.  Larry, she shook her head and smiled at the memory, he had smirked knowingly and commented that he would have thought his mature mother would have taken precautions in mind before succumbing to the throes of passion.  None of them had ever questioned who the father was. Not that they could have had any doubt when their brother arrived.

Louisa recalled the night he was born. The lusty cry announcing his entrance into the world cut straight through the fog she had lived in since leaving the island and she felt she had truly awakened for the first time in months.  Later, refusing to relinquish him to the pushy midwife, she had carefully unwrapped him from his swaddles and examined every inch of his tiny body in the dim light of the room. She thought, maybe, the slope of his toes could be traced to her lineage, but everything else, from the generous thatch of downy black hair covering his head, to his beautiful olive skin, to his aquiline nose and strong features, everything came straight from his father.  She had clutched him to her and wept with love and loss and longing.  And in the solitude of the early morning, as she held him in her arms and took comfort in the solid weight of his body, the tangible proof of their love, she promised him that someday, somehow, she would return with him to Corfu, to his father.

She decided to name him Leo, hoping the name would inspire courage, something she knew he would desperately need growing up the young son of a long widowed woman.  As it turned out, though, he didn’t need it after all. Leo had inherited Spiro’s charisma and charming personality. From infancy people were drawn to him, and he revelled in their attention.  His siblings adored him, and though he had a temper, it rarely flared to life. Louisa had never met a happier child. He was a gift.

When he was very young she knew he just assumed that the father his older brothers and sister spoke of was his own, though it was a subject they rarely spoke of.  It hurt Louisa to know Leo had a living, breathing father out there, but there was a war going on, and she didn’t think her heart could take his questions. Then one day they were walking back from the market and Leo stopped to watch two children gleefully hang off the arms of a man in uniform.  Leo sadly said he wished his father could come home, too. And that was when she knew: it was time.

The world, by that time, had settled into a shaky, uneasy truce, and mail could once again be counted on.  She sent a letter to Florence and was thrilled to receive one in return.  Florence reported that after many difficult years the German occupation of the island was over and they were slowly reclaiming their lives.  Her husband had been injured in the war but was still able to practice medicine. Adonis remained an only child and Louisa couldn’t read through the lines to decide if Florence was sad or relieved about that.  She included updates on the various people who had been a part of their lives in Corfu, and, though Louisa had not asked about him, Florence had added a note at the end of the letter that caused Louisa to gasp; Spiro was still there, though he had suffered greatly at the death of both his wife and oldest son to an epidemic several years before and hadn’t been the same since.  Her heart broke for both Spiro and his surviving son.

After reading the letter she had sat Leo on her bed and retrieved the picture of Spiro she kept hidden in a drawer.  She sat beside him and held it for him to see. “This is your father, Leo,” she told the boy. “He lives far away and we couldn’t get back to him because of the war.  Now we can. Would you like to meet him?” Leo nodded, lightly stroking the photo with one small finger reverently. “We left before I knew about you. He will be very surprised to meet you.”  

The child looked up at her with dark, serious eyes, a look she recalled seeing on his father’s face many times in her last few weeks on Corfu.  “Will he like me?” his voice was troubled.

“He will love you,” she assured him.  Leo had nodded, returning his gaze to the photograph.

The next day she had taken the train to London.  Theo, who remained a dear family friend, had an office set up in the city.  Throughout the war she had also grown close to his wife Mary and their daughter Alexia, only weeks younger than Leo, who had stayed with them in Bournemouth to escape the bombings of London.  Theo greeted her warmly, leading them into his office where he set Leo up with paper and crayons. Louisa wasted no time, “I’m going back to Corfu,” she announced.

Theo didn’t look surprised, “It is about time,” he smiled at her.

She tilted her head, eyebrows drawn together. “You….you know, don’t you?”

Theo nodded slowly, his guilt obvious.

“And you didn’t tell me,” she couldn’t prevent the hurt from showing.

Sighing, he perched on the corner of his desk and removed his glasses.  He gestured to the chair in front of him and she sank into it, confused.  “I heard about his wife and son shortly after they passed,” he confessed. “I thought about telling you, but,” he hesitated, “I was afraid you would try to run off to Greece, without thought of the war going on around you.”

She looked at her hands.  He was right, of course.

“You would have risked your life, and Leo’s,” he continued. “And…” he took a deep breath, his voice softening, “you know Spiro and I were never close enough that he would consider me a confidant, but I heard through other people on the island that he and his wife grew closer after you left.  They settled into a happy marriage, for what little time they had left together,” his eyes watched her carefully. “You showing up...and with a child Spiro doesn’t even know he has when he is in deep mourning…” he shook his head. “That would not have been fair to him or his other child.”

Louisa nodded. “You are right,” she felt suddenly unsure and looked up at him. “Do you think he’ll forgive me for…” she nodded her head towards Leo.

Theo smiled gently. “Have you ever heard the story of my first encounter with Spiro?”

Louisa shook her head, “I don’t believe I have.”

“As you know, I was born in India and spent much of my childhood there.  My family returned to Corfu when I was 11, about the same age as Gerry when you arrived.”  He smiled at the memory. “Unfortunately, like Gerry, I did not fit in well with the other boys.  My Greek was different...my idea of fun was different,” he paused. “Children do not always appreciate differences.  I found I was often the target of boys who would torment me if they caught me alone.”

“Bullies,” Louisa said savagely.

“Yes, bullies,” he agreed.  “One boy in particular, though maybe I should say young man, because to me at the time he certainly seemed full grown, delighted in making me fear for my life, often I would run home in tears..” he cleared his throat.  

Louisa could tell that even now, decades later, the memories caused him distress.

“One day he and his friends caught me by surprise when I was absorbed in watching a school of minnows in a pond.  They…” he cleared his throat again with a suddenly nervous expression. “They thought it was great fun hold me underwater.”

“Oh Theo, those...those bastards. ” Louisa fumed.

Theo sent her a wan smile. “I would like to think they didn’t mean any serious harm, but I’ve no doubt what would have happened had Spiro not shown up.  I was almost passed out from lack of oxygen and suddenly I found myself floating free in the water while a boy I had never seen before took on several boys older and larger than himself.  He ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye.” He winked at her. “Much worse than the one you gave him, if I recall correctly.”

Louisa breathed a laugh at that memory, then grew serious again.

He sobered, too. “He most likely received bruised, if not broken ribs as well.  I remember he pulled me up, told me his name and then just limped away while I stood there, soaking wet and mouth hanging open, stunned at what had just happened.  Those boys never bothered me again.” He turned his glasses over in his hands, pretending to study them closely while he composed himself. “My point is,” he looked over at Leo and then to her, “Spiro has always stood up for what he believes is right, even at his own personal cost." He gestured toward the boy. "He is easy to love, and with one glance he could not question his parentage!  Just give Spiro time to adjust.  I am absolutely certain he will not hold this against you.”

Louisa, relieved, stood and hugged him, drawing back to look at him fondly.  “Thank you, Theo. And will you tell Mary and Alexia we send our love?”

“We will see you on Corfu, I am sure.  I can’t stay away forever,” he assured her, guiding her to the door.

“Don’t let Gerry know I asked, but do look out for him.  He acts far more mature than his age suggests, but I still worry.”

Theo smiled. “Of course.”  

With that she gathered Leo and headed back to the rail station to catch a train to Bournemouth.

Louisa’s plans quickly fell into place and before the month was out she responded to Florence, letting her know she would be in Corfu soon.  She purposely never mentioned Leo, not wanting any word to get to Spiro ahead of her. She did, however, wire a message to her when they had a date of arrival.  She didn’t ask what she desperately wanted to, but she hoped Florence just knew .

“Mummy, I see it!” Leo’s excited voice cut through her thoughts.  

She knelt in front of the boy and smoothed his jacket, brushing his hair back into place.  His dark eyes danced with excitement.

Before she was ready, the ferry had docked and the workers prepared to let the passengers disembark.  She scanned the shoreline, breath catching when she recognized the taxi parked on the cliff above the dock.  He was here! She searched the waiting crowds, her eyes landing on him at the exact moment he spotted her. He pulled his hat off and held it over his heart, not letting her out of his sight.  

“Come on, Darling,” she took Leo’s hand, knowing the child would not be visible over the high railing.  She let the throng of people pass in front of her and followed their exodus from the ship. What felt like an eternity after their feet hit land the crowd suddenly split and there, not ten feet in front of her, he stood waiting.

As if in slow motion she forced her feet to propel her closer, studying him.  He was thinner than she remembered, his hair was now streaked with gray and when she was close enough she saw that grief had etched lines into his face.  But he was still beautiful.

He blinked back tears. “Louisa,” he choked out.  His eyes slid from hers, trailed down her arm and landed on the small boy.  She held her breath as the confusion, realization, and shock settled over his features as he took in the face that was a miniature copy of his own.  His eyes widened, darting from the child to her.

She nodded and swallowed back tears, “Spiro,” she said quietly, “meet our son.”

Spiro fell to one knee in front of Leo.  He moved his arms as if to grab him in a hug and then seemed to think better of it and instead held his hand out solemnly, “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, shaking the little hand.  “What is your name?”

Leo looked up at Louisa.  She smiled encouragement and he turned his attention back to Spiro. “I’m Leo,” he said in his little boy voice as he studied Spiro. “Are you my father?” he asked, tilting his head to the side, his brow furrowed in concentration as he struggled to compare the man in front of him to the one from the photograph he had taken up studying at every opportunity.

Spiro wiped away the tears that had spilled down his cheek.  He placed a hand on Leo’s shoulder and smiled. “I am.” Leo gave him a matching smile in return.

Louisa released the breath she had been holding.  She had no doubts he would grow to love Leo, but she was less confident in his initial reaction.  Spiro stood and reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips. As he studied her a smile stretched across his face. “I always knew you would come back to me,” he told her, then looked down at their son, shook his head and laughed in wonder. “But I never expected this one!”  Leo stared at him with a mixture of awe and excitement, giggling when Spiro flopped his oversized hat on the boy's head. He then held his arms out for Leo and hoisted up the gleeful boy, holding him on one arm before wrapping the other around Louisa in a tight hug. “Welcome home,” he said, and she knew she was.

 

~*~*~ The End ~*~*~