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‘Siren Vase’: red-figured stamnos, Attica, 480-470BC

At the beginning of April, Lucas said, ‘We’re running out of money.’

Penny was alarmed, although she knew she needn’t be. They’d always had a plan.

‘It’s no big deal,’ he said. ‘I’ll go home and work for a couple of months, like we agreed. That should see us through til next year.’

‘Do you have to go?’ Penny asked.

‘You’ll be fine. The Nicholsons will keep an eye on you.’

‘Paul wants to fuck me.’

‘Well that’s cool, that’s cool baby. You can do what you like. We’re all free here, you do what feels good.’

‘It doesn’t feel good.’

*

He left a week later, and they all came down to the harbour to see him off. Paul and Juliet Nicholson; Bram Lockhart and his writer girl-friend; George Katz with his guitar over his shoulder. The pram was impossible to manoeuvre down the steep and narrow alleys, so Penny carried Khalil on her hip. When they rose at four he had already been standing up in his cot gnawing on the bars, his nappy sagging down to his dimpled knees. He had been delighted to be taken on this adventure, but now his delight was wearing thin: he clung to the folds of Penny’s shirt and squinted sulkily at the peachy dawn sky.

‘Give Daddy kiss,’ she coaxed, ‘say bye-bye,’ but Khalil grumbled and brought his fists up to his eyes. Everybody laughed. Katz chucked the baby under his creamy jowls.

The tiny mainland ferry was approaching, its motor grunting and spluttering. They had arrived on that very boat back in June and now, as it carved its way through the pink water, Penny saw her past self returning to her. A pale girl, very young, hunched under a second-hand cream mac with her suitcase between her feet. Khalil had been curled against her breast, only eight weeks old. He liked to crunch himself up back then, frog-like, as if he had not forgotten the womb.

Back home they’d wanted her to give him up. You won’t cope, they’d said, and they’d been right: in Parson’s Green, she wouldn’t have. Back then she hadn’t even known how really drear London was, how damp and cramped and full of judgement. She’d never lived anywhere else. All she’d known was that she needed a change, and that twenty-one was as good an age as any to have a baby, and that Lucas was crazy about her, so when he started talking about Hydra she’d said, ‘let’s go’.

It was just meant to be.

She and Khalil had been borne together over the heaving pink water, and Hydra had appeared before them like a dream, with its little scramble of whitewashed houses, scaly mountains up above and dolphins skipping in the harbour. That first night she had sat with Lucas’s friends outside a taverna, the air as warm as bathwater. They drank and played the guitar, and congratulated her on her choice, and she had bitten her nails and clung to her baby.

*

Lucas jumped down into the boat. He tipped his face up to Penny.

‘I’ll be back in July, baby. You’ll be OK?’

Khalil was slipping. She hoiked him more securely onto her hip and pressed her cheek against his feathery-pale hair.

She felt as if she had just been introduced to herself. Penny: a tanned and barelegged woman with a man’s shirt knotted around her waist and a lilac-eyed son investigating her wristful of bangles.

‘Sure,’ she said. She was surprised. ‘I’ll be fine.’

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