Kay was like a pill that seized your insides. She was older than the rest of us. She’d been around, a citizen of the world, she said, in her Kay voice, like waving a flag. New Zealand was one place she’d been. When her plane was landing, the pilot announced, “We’re now arriving in New Zealand. Put your clocks back thirty years.”
She told us this anecdote more than once, over several weeks, each time with the same, marvelling laugh. I don’t know if she listened to herself.
Kay was English. We met at the university in Salonica, on the housewives’ course, as someone put it, Joy, I think. It was Greek conversation – how to go shopping, travel, entertain – the sort of thing, when you think about it, that Kay excelled in. You felt the real learning went on elsewhere. The only housewife was Kay.
Citizen of the world, perhaps, but she did all her travelling on her husband’s back – Ulrich or something, a jovial German who worked for his national airline, in offices, not cockpits, and got shifted from country to country. Every time they moved, she learnt the new language. She had hours to fill, remember.
“Kay’s quite a linguist,” Ulrich said. “When we lived in Kathmandu, she spoke Nepali with the local children.”
When he said that, I wondered – I couldn’t help it – what the local grown-ups were doing.
Near the start of our course, we visited the ethnological museum – more housewife stuff – on Vasilissis Olgas, a main street in the centre. It’s an elegant, old building in the Greek tradition, with a tiled roof and shutters, but crowded now by grey apartment blocks, as though someone left it there, forgot about it, and never came back; the kind of building you see in the islands, a whole row along the waterfront.
Another warm day, but in the museum it was cool and dark – like a building in the islands, add some traffic noise. One room was set up as a kitchen from the past. Everything looked heavy and hard to use. A guide explained in Greek. Kay kept nodding as if she understood, but she couldn’t have. Not so much. We didn’t know the language well enough. And she didn’t just nod. She also asked questions in Greek, or tried to. The guide didn’t understand, and replied in English, but Kay shook her finger. She pushed her lips out elastically, like massaging the air, and went on making phrases. If I’m exaggerating, so was Kay.
“Ocky, ocky!” she said, looking agitated, when she couldn’t express herself. No. It’s a popular word in Greece, like tomorrow. She couldn’t do the guttural middle sound, but she wouldn’t have done it even if she could. She wasn’t going to clear her throat in public.
At last, she stopped trying. She pushed her lips out one more time, gently, like sucking something in through a straw. The tour moved on. In the next room, Joy said: “I find Kay quite alarming.”
Jade never criticised Kay, not in front of me, unless I’ve forgotten. This happened a long time ago. I think she admired Kay, and saw a version of herself, the way she’d like to be around the age of forty, a woman of the world. Like most girls, Jade approved of freedom, spontaneity, or what looked like freedom, or she thought she did. With a glass of gin beside her, she approved even more.
A few weeks ago, I saw Jade’s photo on the internet. She’s older now than Kay was then, quite a lot older. Put your clock back thirty years. I don’t know what Jade remembers.