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       The Thread, p.1

           Victoria Hislop
 
The Thread


  Copyright © 2011 Victoria Hislop

  The right of Victoria Hislop to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

  First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2011

  All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

  eISBN : 9780755377770

  HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP

  An Hachette UK Company

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  www.headline.co.uk

  www.hachette.co.uk

  Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  About the Author

  Also by Victoria Hislop

  Dedication

  Praise

  Acknowledgment

  Maps

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Epilogue

  Victoria Hislop read English at Oxford, and worked in publishing, PR and as a journalist before becoming a novelist. She is married with two children. Her first novel, The Island, held the number one slot in the Sunday Times paperback chart for eight consecutive weeks and has sold over two million copies worldwide. Victoria was the Newcomer of the Year at the Galaxy British Book Awards 2007 and won the Richard & Judy Summer Read competition. Her second novel, The Return, was also a Sunday Times number one bestseller, and her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Her short story collection, One Cretan Evening, is available as an ebook.

  To find out more, visit www.victoriahislop.com.

  By Victoria Hislop

  The Island

  The Return

  The Thread

  One Cretan Evening and Other Stories (ebook)

  For Thomas Vogiatzis, my friend and daskalos

  Praise for The Island:

  ‘A page-turning tale that reminds us that love and life continue in even the most extraordinary of circumstances’ Sunday Express

  ‘This is a vivid, moving and absorbing tale, with its sensitive, realistic engagement with all the consequences of, and stigma attached to leprosy’ Observer

  ‘Passionately engaged with its subject…the author has meticulously researched her fascinating background and medical facts’ The Sunday Times

  ‘The story of life on Spinalonga, the lepers’ island, is gripping and carries real emotional impact. Victoria Hislop…brings dignity and tenderness to her novel about lives blighted by leprosy’ Telegraph

  ‘Hislop’s deep research, imagination and patent love of Crete creates a convincing portrait of times on the island… Moving and absorbing’ Evening Standard

  ‘A beautiful tale of enduring love and unthinking prejudice’ Daily Express

  Praise for The Return:

  ‘Powerful stuff’ Daily Mail

  ‘Aims to open the eyes and tug the heartstrings… Hislop deserves a medal for opening a breach into the holiday beach bag’ Independent

  ‘A vivid portrait of a country in upheaval… Sibling rivalry, thwarted love and an exotic Mediterranean setting’ Tatler

  ‘What sets Hislop apart is her ability to put a human face on the shocking civil conflict… Stirring stuff’ Time Out

  ‘Brilliantly recreates the passion that flows through the Andalusian dancers and the dark creative force of duende’ Scotland on Sunday

  ‘This atmospheric novel beautifully evokes the minutiae of traditional Spanish life’ Psychologies

  With special thanks to:

  Ian, Emily and Will Hislop

  My aunt, Margaret Thomas (1923–2011), for her bountiful love and encouragement

  David Miller

  Flora Rees

  Konstantinos Papadopoulos

  Evripidis Konstantinidis

  Minos Matsas for his inspiring music and for permission to quote from To Minore tis Avgis.

  The cast and crew of To Nisi/The Island for everything they taught me.

  The Benaki Museum Photographic Archive, Athens.

  The Hellenic Centre, London.

  The London Library for providing the tranquil surroundings in which to write this book and to all my silent companions therein.

  This story is about Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city. In 1917, the population comprised an even mixture of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Within three decades, only Christians remained.

  The Thread is the tale of two people who lived through the most turbulent period of the city’s history, when it was battered almost beyond recognition by a sequence of political and human catastrophes.

  The characters and many of the streets and places they inhabit are entirely fictional, but the historical events all took place. Greece still carries their legacy today.

  Greece & Asia Minor

  Thessaloniki

  ‘What I would like you to do, my dear, is to imagine you are a child again. I hope it won’t be difficult, but you need to get the style right. I want you to embroider one picture that says “Kalimera” in big letters – you know the sort of thing, with the sun rising and a bird or a butterfly or some such creature in the sky. And then, a second one with “Kalispera”.’

  ‘With the moon and the stars?’

  ‘Yes! Exactly that. But don’t make them look like the work of a clumsy-fingered child,’ she said smilingly. ‘I’ve got to live with them on my walls!’

  Katerina had done very similar pictures many years ago, under her mother’s instruction, and the memory came back sharply.

  Her Kalimera was filled in with big loopy stitches, in a glossy, yellow thread, and Kalispera was in midnight blue. She enjoyed the simplicity of the task and smiled at the result. No one would be suspicious of something that was found on the wall of every Greek home. Even if they got stripped out of the frame, the precious pages they had to conceal would be encased inside a calico backing. It was normal to hide the untidy mess on the reverse side of the stitching.

  Although there were a dozen people in this small house, there was uncanny silence. Their concentration was absolute, their clandestine activity urgent. They were saving the treasures that connected them with their past.

  Prologue

  May 2007

  IT WAS SEVEN thirty in the morning. The city was never more tranquil than at this hour. Over the bay hung a silvery mist and the water beneath it, as opaque as mercury, lapped quietly against the sea wall. There was no colour in the sky and t
he atmosphere was thick with salt. For some, it was the tail end of the night before, for others it was a new day. Bedraggled students were taking a last coffee and cigarette alongside neatly dressed, elderly couples who had come out for their early morning constitutional.

  With the lifting haze, Mount Olympus gradually emerged far away across the Thermaic Gulf and the restful blues of sea and sky shrugged off their pale shroud. Idle tankers lay like basking sharks offshore, their dark shapes silhouetted against the sky. One or two smaller boats moved across the horizon.

  Along the marble-paved promenade, which followed the huge curve of the bay, there was a constant stream of ladies with lap dogs, youths with mongrels, joggers, rollerbladers, cyclists and mothers with prams. Between the sea, the esplanade and the row of cafés, cars moved at a crawl to get into the city, and drivers, inscrutable behind their shades, mouthed the words of the latest hits.

  Holding a slow but steady path along the water’s edge after a late night of dancing and drinking, a slim, silky-haired boy in expensively frayed jeans ambled along. His tanned face was stubbled from two days without shaving, but his chocolate eyes were bright and youthful. His relaxed gait was of someone at ease with himself and the world, and he hummed quietly as he walked.

  On the opposite side of the road, in the narrow space between the little table and the kerb, an elderly couple walked slowly to their usual café. The man set the pace with his careful steps, leaning heavily on his stick. Perhaps in their nineties, and both no more than five foot four, they were tidily dressed, he in a crisply ironed, short-sleeved shirt and pale slacks, she in a simple floral cotton frock with buttons from neck to hem, and a belt around her middle, a style of dress that she had worn for perhaps five decades.

  All the seats in every café that lined the promenade on Niki Street faced out towards the sea so that customers could sit and watch the constantly animated landscape of people and cars and the ships that glided noiselessly in and out of the dockyard.

  Dimitri and Katerina Komninos were greeted by the owner of the Assos café and they exchanged a few words concerning the day’s general strike. With a huge percentage of the working population effectively having a day’s holiday, the café would have more business so the owner was not complaining. Industrial action was something they were all used to.

  There was no need for them to order. They always drank their coffee in the same way and sipped at the sweetened, muddy-textured liquid with a triangle of sweet pastry, kataifi, between them.

  The old man was deep into his perusal of the day’s newspaper headlines when his wife patted him urgently on the arm.

  ‘Look – look, agapi mou! There’s Dimitri!’

  ‘Where, my sweet?’

  ‘Mitsos! Mitsos!’ she called out, using the diminutive of the name shared by her husband and their grandson, but the boy could not hear above the trumpeting horns of impatient cars and revving engines as they roared away from the traffic lights.

  Mitsos chose that moment to look up from his reverie and glimpsed the frantic waves of his grandmother through the traffic. He darted between moving cars to reach her.

  ‘Yiayia!’ he said, throwing his arms around her, before taking his grandfather’s extended hand and planting a kiss on his forehead. ‘How are you? What a nice surprise . . . I was coming to see you today!’

  His grandmother’s face broke into a broad smile. Both she and her husband adored their only grandson with passion, and he in turn bathed in their affection.

  ‘Let’s order you something!’ said his grandmother with excitement.

  ‘Really, no, I’m fine. I don’t need anything.’

  ‘You must need something – have a coffee, an ice cream . . .’

  ‘Katerina, I’m sure he doesn’t want an ice cream!’

  The waiter had reappeared.

  ‘I’ll just have a glass of water, please.’

  ‘Is that all? Are you sure?’ fussed his grandmother. ‘What about breakfast?’

  The waiter had already moved away. The old man leaned forward and touched his grandson’s arm.

  ‘So, no lectures again today, I suppose?’ he said.

  ‘Sadly not,’ responded Mitsos. ‘I’m used to that now.’

  The young man was spending a year at Thessaloniki University, studying for an MA, but the lecturers were on strike that day, along with every other civil servant in the country, so for Mitsos it was a holiday of sorts. After a long night in the bars on Proxenou Koromila, he was making his way home to sleep.

  He had grown up in London but every summer Mitsos had visited his paternal grandparents in Greece, and each Saturday, from the age of five, he had attended Greek school. His year in the university was almost at an end now and though strikes had often meant missed lectures, he was totally fluent in what he thought of as his ‘father’ tongue.

  In spite of his grandparents’ pressing invitation, Mitsos was living in student accommodation, but made regular weekend visits to their apartment close to the sea where they almost overwhelmed his with the fierce devotion that is the duty of the Greek grandparent.

  ‘There’s been more industrial action than ever this year,’ said his grandfather. ‘We just have to put up with it though, Mitsos. And hope that things get better.’

  As well as the teachers and the doctors, the garbage men were striking and, as usual, there was no public transport. The holes in the roads and cracks in the pavement would remain unrepaired for many months more. Life at the best of times was tough for the old couple and Mitsos was suddenly aware of their frailty as he glimpsed his grandmother’s badly scarred arm and his grandfather’s twisted, arthritic hands.

  At the same moment he noticed a man making his way along the pavement towards them, tapping a white stick in front of him. His route was an obstacle course: cars illegally parked half on the pavement, uneven verges, random bollards and café tables, all of which needed to be negotiated. Mitsos leaped to his feet as he saw the man hesitate, finally baffled by a café sign that had been planted right in the centre of the pavement.

  ‘Let me help you,’ he said. ‘Where is it that you want to go?’

  He looked into a face that was younger than his own and with almost translucent sightless eyes. The skin was pale, and across one eyelid zigzagged a clumsily sewn scar.

  The blind man smiled in Mitsos’ direction.

  ‘I’m OK,’ he replied. ‘I come this way every day. But there’s always something new to deal with . . .’

  Cars thundered past on the brief stretch of road that took them to the next set of lights, almost drowning out Mitsos’ next words.

  ‘Well, let me take you across the road at least.’

  He took the blind man’s arm and they walked together to the other side, though Mitsos could feel his confidence and determination, and was almost embarrassed to have helped him.

  As they stepped onto the pavement opposite, he loosened his hold on the man’s arm. Now their eyes seemed to meet.

  ‘Thank you.’

  Mitsos realised there was a new danger for the blind man on this side of the road. Close by was a sheer drop into the sea.

  ‘You know the sea is right there, don’t you?’

  ‘Of course I do. I walk here every day.

  Promenaders seemed lost inside their own worlds, or immersed in their privately pounding music, and were oblivious to the man’s vulnerability. Several times his white stick caught their eye in the fraction of a second before a potential collision.

  ‘Wouldn’t it be safer, less crowded, to go elsewhere?’ Mitsos asked him.

  ‘It would, but then I’d be missing all of this . . .’ he replied.

  He indicated with a sweep of his arm the sea around him and the curving bay that stretched in a satisfying semicircle before them, and then pointed dead ahead, to the snow-capped mountains that lay a hundred kilometres away across the sea.

  ‘Mount Olympus. This ever-changing sea. The tankers. The fishing vessels. I know you think I can’t see t
hem, but I could once. I know they are there, I still have them in my mind’s eye, and I always will have. And it’s not just what you are looking at, is it? Just close your eyes.’

  The young man took Mitsos’ hand and held on to it. Mitsos was surprised by the smooth, marble coolness of his fine fingers and was grateful for the physical reassurance that he was not alone. He realised what it would be like to be standing there in the dark, a solitary, vulnerable figure on this busy esplanade.

  And in that moment, as his world went black, Mitsos felt his senses heighten. Noises that were loud became a deafening roar, and the heat of the sun on his head almost made him swoon.

  ‘Stay like this,’ urged the blind man as Mitsos felt a momentary withdrawal from his grip. ‘Just for a few minutes more.’

  ‘Of course,’ he replied, ‘it’s shocking how intense everything feels. I’m just trying to get used to it. I feel so exposed in this crowded place.’

  Without opening his eyes, Mitsos could tell from the tone of the response that the man was smiling.

  ‘Just another moment. And then you will feel so much more . . .’

  He was right.

  The strong smell of the sea, the dampness of the air on his skin, the rhythmic lap of the waves against the sea wall were all magnified.

  ‘And you realise it’s different every day? Every . . . single . . . day. In the summer the air is so still, and the water so flat – like oil, and I know the mountains disappear in the haze. The heat bounces off these stones and I feel it through the soles of my shoes.’

  Both men stood facing out to sea. It could not be described as a typical Thessaloniki morning. As the man had said, no two days were ever the same, but there was one constant in the sweeping view laid out in front of them: a sense of both history and timelessness.

  ‘I feel people around me. Not just people like you who are in the present, but others too. This place is crowded with the past, teeming with people – and they are as real as you. I can see them neither more nor less clearly. Does that make sense?’

 
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