It is the summer of 1975. As dawn breaks on a small private island off the Mediterranean coast, Marco Timoleon, an aging tycoon, wakes up to see the final preparations for his troubled daughter's twenty-fifth birthday party. Having found out that she is pregnant by a man he doesn't approve of, he secretly intends to persuade her to terminate the pregnancy: the family doctor stands by to perform the operation on the spot. But as the day unfolds, his plan is put to the test and comes to an unexpected conclusion.
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Panos Karnezis was born in Greece in 1967 and came to England in 1992. He studied engineering at Oxford and worked in industry before starting to write in English. He studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first book, Little Infamies (2002) is a collection of connected short stories set in a nameless Greek village, and his second book, The Maze (2004) is a novel set in Anatolia in 1922. It was shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread First Novel Award. Panos Karnezis lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The previous night he had gone to bed with the windows open after the doctor had said at dinner that at his age even a minor infection could kill him. In the morning he woke up with the flutter of the curtains and the cool breeze blowing in through the french windows that faced the sea and discovered that he was still alive. He pushed the blanket aside and sat up naked in bed, contemplating the clouds with arms folded behind his head and thinking about his dream. He had managed four hours of sleep, a rare achievement for an insomniac like himself, whose nights were a torment without reprieve, but the sleep had done him no good. He had dreamed that he was a boy in Izmir and was seeing a dead man for the first time, a steward from a steamship knifed through the heart during an argument, floating face up among the filth of the harbour. In his dream Marco Timoleon was standing on the promenade, dressed in striped pyjamas, and was watching as the current pushed the sailor out into the sea where the fish waited to peck at his eyes. The curious thing was that the dead man was waving at him.
He believed in dreams and other omens with a deep faith, and although he believed in God too, he obeyed Him with less enthusiasm. He consulted astrologers, palmists and mediums on a regular basis, a secret he kept from rivals and most of his friends, thinking of his premonitions as one of the last uncharted sciences — like weather forecasts. He signed no contracts on the thirteenth of the month, banned cats from his houses with the excuse that he was allergic to them and threw salt over his shoulder to fend off the Devil. He was also afraid of being buried alive; he had read about it in Plutarch, who described the execution of vestal virgins breaking their vows of chastity in Roman times, and had come across it again in an article about Thomas à Kempis.
The interesting thing was that Marco Timoleon had never before dreamed either of death or water: until then his dreams were uncomplicated memories from his life. He had a good memory, especially for trivia. When he dreamed about women, he was able to recall the colour of their hair, their birthmarks, the smell of their perfume. When he dreamed about cars, he could remember their registration numbers. When he dreamed about a place he had visited over fifty years earlier, he could describe it down to the last detail. Furthermore: no matter how deeply he slept, he could wake himself up at will, a trick he used when he had to escape a dream that was sad or frightening. Yet the night before, he had slept through the whole thing because the sight of a dead man waving at him had neither frightened nor saddened him. It had intrigued him. Marco Timoleon tried to interpret his strange dream without success. In the end he dismissed the greater horrors suggested by his imagination, admitting that the doctor had been right: he should not have slept with the windows open.
He was much shorter than one who had only seen him in photographs would expect. His skin was not simply tanned but bruised from the sun and covered with small liver marks that resembled lichen. He was a good swimmer, and despite being old and a little overweight, his skin was tight like a corset. When he had turned seventy, he had stopped dyeing his hair, a habit he always thought a little undignified but at the same time necessary. His most distinctive feature these days was the loose flesh under his eyes that gave him the permanent expression of one about to burst into tears.
He had been born under the sign of Leo seventy-two years earlier but was still in command of his faculties and in good health, apart from a persistent cough caused by smoking and his recent sexual dysfunction. For the latter he had tried homoeopathic medicines, acupuncture and hypnosis, but neither the human nor the vegetable magic had helped. He had slowly come to terms with the end of a lifelong habit that had started at the age of fourteen in the brothels of Izmir and continued until he could claim with pride that he had sampled everything that life and imagination had to offer — among them having slept with a man, an act he could not simply attribute to the curiosity of youth because he had slept with him more than once.
It was the end of August. He had arrived on his private island, eleven nautical miles from the Mediterranean coast, a week earlier after a short voyage from Monte Carlo on his luxury yacht. Normally he could stand the rough sea, but this time he had been sick. His pride forbidding him from taking any pills, he had tried to recover by pacing the deck despite the bad weather until the captain banned him from coming up for fear he might be swallowed by the waves. He had protested but in the end had given in and passed the rest of the journey between his stateroom and the bar where he had tried to shake off the haunting shadow that had settled over his mood with alcohol.
Marco Timoleon thought about the hours ahead without enthusiasm. He had arranged every detail of the party as if his daughter’s birthday were indeed the true reason for the celebration. Today Sofia was turning twenty-five. He had long ago stopped celebrating his own birthday or attending those of his children and wife in order to save himself the embarrassment of having to grow old in public, but tonight he was making an exception, throwing a big party on his private island.
His villa, a three-storey house with a tiled roof, peach stucco walls and wide balconies, stood among the trees on a steep slope above a cove with shallow green waters. There were eleven bedrooms on the upper two floors, several sitting rooms and a dining room, and on the lowermost floor a vast ballroom with a black lacquered grand piano and three Venetian chandeliers. The master bedroom was on the top floor and decorated without regard for either cost or taste. Its centrepiece was a marble fireplace, and in the room were several armchairs, coffee tables and china vases filled with freshly cut roses. The walls were hung with mirrors, crimson drapes and original paintings in gilded frames. What saved the room were the four glass doors through which Marco Timoleon could watch the Mediterranean sunrise from his bed as soon as he opened his eyes. A balcony outside allowed an uninterrupted view of the sea.
His wish had been to have on his island every kind of tree mentioned in the Bible, and his gardeners had followed his instructions to the letter: there were almond and olive trees, cedars, pines, chestnut, fig and bay trees, cypresses, oaks, palms, poplars, acacias, tamarisks and willows, as well as a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rising above the orchards, on the top of a hill, was a small stone church with a blue dome. The church was dedicated to Saint Mark of the Cypresses, and on a plot behind it were three graves with simple marble crosses. One read: Daniel Timoleon, 1954—1974. In his will the ageing tycoon specified that he wanted to be buried next to it, leaving the details of his funeral to his executor.
He left his bed, walked out on to the balcony and leaned naked against the marble balustrade. The cool breeze began to resurrect his body. Watching the faint outline of the distant shore, he felt a hint of doubt about his plan. There was a knock on the door, and a young man dressed in a white uniform walked in, carrying a pack of sheets and towels that smelt of lavender. After a quick search around the room and the en suite bathroom, the servant found him on the balcony. He was not surprised to see him naked; it was a habit his employer had got into in recent years. The smell of lavender was enough to bring Marco Timoleon back from his contemplation, and he told his servant, in his terse tobacco voice that tolerated no delay, to run him a bath. The young man went inside to carry out his wish before making the bed and cleaning the room. When he could bear the morning wind no longer, Marco Timoleon went to the bathroom, sank into the hot water and called his servant to come and rub his back with a brush.
The preparations for the party had begun long before his arrival on the island with a close attention to detail that was intended to thwart suspicions. Invitations had been printed and posted from his Paris office to guests all over the world, a three-tiered birthday cake had been ordered from Demel
in Vienna, and the twenty-one-piece orchestra of Maxim’s, the Parisian restaurant, had been booked at astronomical cost.
When his servant finished rubbing his back, Marco Timoleon stood up and showered with scalding water, enduring the high temperature with a sense of self-punishment. He used to be able to wash and dress in ten minutes, a habit that had grown out of an old eagerness to accept every invitation, but success and age had long taught him how to say no. He turned off the water, dried himself with a towel embroidered with his initials and sat on the toilet seat to catch his breath. Then he overwhelmed his servant with a series of questions, fired in quick succession, about the preparations for the birthday party. He listened to the answers with suspicion, challenging every one of them with yet more questions and a stern look, finding fault where there was none, changing his mind about orders he had given only the day before. He ended his interrogation with a harsh warning: ‘Don’t lie to me.’
His servant nodded and reassured him once again that everything was ready for that evening. Marco Timoleon was not satisfied. He wanted to know whether the orchestra was on its way and whether the bus that would be picking them up was at the airport. He said: ‘Make sure they come straight to the island. They need to practise.’ His servant had already made the necessary phone calls but said he would call the airport at once.
‘They don’t have to go through customs,’ said Marco Timoleon. ‘Tell whoever’s in charge they’re my personal guests.’
He had an army of servants, maids and cooks, who saw to his every need with a co...
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