The afternoon sun hit the terrace at a one hundred and thirty-five-degree angle. The shadow cast on the wall by a figure about halfway through a yoga routine suddenly straightened up and stood motionless, silently observing. The figure continued with its routine, oblivious, until, reaching the floor sequence, it abruptly stopped mid-pose and turned its head to the left to look at the wall. It turned its head to the right to look at the position of the sun, then back to the wall.
‘Hmm.’ The figure expressed puzzlement.
The shadow placed two shadowy arms on a pair of svelte hips and pushed its head forward.
‘“Hmm” is the best you’ve got? After all these years, just “hmm”?’
The man who had just been addressed by his own shadow, the man whose figure had, up until recently, quite properly cast a shadow on the wall behind him when the sun was angled right, was obviously at a loss.
The shadow was clearly unimpressed.
‘How long have we been together? Can you tell me that?’ The question was evidently rhetorical, for the shadow continued, ‘Forty years, that’s what. Just to think, I’ve stood by you, behind you, in front of you, beside you, implicit within you – when it was night or the light was wrong – for forty years, through good and bad, and you’re so used to me that you simply assume I’ll continue to be there for you. Just tagging along.’
The man made a mumble of protest, but the shadow wasn’t having any of it.
‘Twenty minutes it’s taken you to realise something was up. For those twenty minutes you blithely went about your own business without a care. Inhuman, I call it.’ The shadow sniffed. ‘Really, I might as well not be here.’
The shadow stood undecided. Probably it was hoping for a response that would put everything right.
‘I’m sorry. I had no idea—’
The shadow interrupted: ‘Exactly. That’s the problem.’
And with that the shadow made its way along the wall and out of his life.
‘I’m telling you this exactly as John told it to me. No word of a lie. To tell you the truth, I had a hard time believing him. I remember the occasion well. In fact, we were sitting at this very taverna, having met for a late lunch. It was beautiful weather, sunny with a slight breeze. The fish soup was excellent, as always. It was all lost on John, though. He was in a terrible state. There had been an incident on the way here, you see. A passing priest, he said, had noticed his lack of shadow in the afternoon sunlight and had made a gesture as if to ward off the evil eye, hurrying past with his face averted. The problem had now taken on a metaphysical dimension that John was none too comfortable with. He kept mentioning those old stories of the devil taking the shadow of those who’d been foolhardy enough to enter into a pact with the infernal powers. Not that he was especially religious. But he didn’t want to be too definitive either. I remember him saying how if the balloon went up and if all that is said in the Bible should turn out to be true, he didn’t much fancy being wrongly cast into perdition when push came to shove. Quite distraught, he was. Something in my eyes must have told him I still didn’t believe him, and I watched as he looked up in despair, searching the skies. In my defence, the whole thing was pretty far-fetched. He must have been gauging the angle of the sun, for he made me get up and follow him to a whitewashed wall at one end of the terrace.’ Henry turned around in his chair and pointed. ‘That one, just over there.’
I dutifully looked.
‘Anyway, there we were by the wall when he suddenly got this furtive look in his eyes and stepped into a ray of sunlight which was slanting through the trellis of vine. And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right: no shadow. Just to be sure it wasn’t some optical trick, I motioned to him to get out of the sun and then tried it myself. Sure enough, there was my shadow all present and correct against the wall.
‘I don’t mind telling you the thing gave me quite a shock. I made him go over his story again, making sure to give him my undivided attention this time in an attempt to throw some light on it. No use. I was stumped. Things dragged a little after that. I tried to cheer him up, but nothing doing. He was unreachable. Like someone recently bereaved. We sat there drinking wine until the sun went down. I remember he made a point of blowing out the candle that the waiter had placed on the table. Said it made him feel self-conscious. Shortly afterwards he got up, thanked me for lunch, and left.’
The waiter brought some more wine and Henry paused until he had gone.
‘It wasn’t until September that I saw him next. He looked a bit happier. A month of sunshine and sand on one of the islands – I forget which – had done him good. He’d tried to avoid the beach in the late afternoon for obvious reasons, as a consequence of which he’d picked up a pretty respectable tan, mostly being out and about at noon when he didn’t have to worry about the angles.’
I must have looked a bit lost.
‘Think of a sundial. It helps,’ he suggested.
I caught his meaning and nodded.
Henry continued. ‘He was also trying to work things out with the shadow. He told me he’d seen it twice since he’d got back to Athens. The first meeting had been acrimonious and had broken up in mutual recriminations. In the second, however, he had glimpsed a ray of hope.’
Henry paused to take a sip of wine. As he said, we were, by chance, in the very taverna in Kaisariani where John had told him the story. It was also a favourite of mine. The fish soup was, as usual, excellent. I watched as Henry mopped up the remnants with a piece of bread and then took another sip of wine. He dabbed at his mouth with his napkin and continued.
‘Sure, at first the shadow had enjoyed its freedom. As you know, Athens is a city that comes into its own at night. So the shadow found it easy to blend into the tenebrous interiors of the bars and restaurants, the clubs and theatres; it was in its element, so to speak. But on the occasion of that second meeting, John sensed that the joy of liberation had paled somewhat. Feelings of loneliness had crept in. The shadow had apparently taken to frequenting some of their old haunts: the rooftop bar at the Hilton, the pavement souvlaki place on Patriarchou Joachim, the restaurant in that little plateia off Xenokratous.’
The late afternoon sun was slanting through the vines. In a sudden panic, I looked to the ground behind us; yes, the shadow cast by the combination of our figures and the table strewn with the remains of a late lunch was reassuringly present. I turned back sheepishly.
‘So what happened?’
‘Do you know the restaurant, the one just off Xenokratous? Not the French one, the other?’
‘Well, as I am sure you will agree, it’s a romantic sort of place; flattering lighting, discreet service, exquisite food. One evening, the shadow, no doubt in a nostalgic mood, had decided to look in for dinner, unobtrusively joining a couple at a corner table.’ A thought struck him: ‘Actually, you’ve probably seen them – the couple, I mean. They’re always around Kolonaki. Tall, striking woman with the shortish dark-haired chap. She’s an astrologer, of all things; he’s in finance.’ He smiled, going off on a tangent. ‘An unlikely match. They say he—’ But then he thought better of whatever it was he had been going to say.
To bring him back on topic, I said that I remembered seeing the couple in question a few times having coffee at Da Segno in Kolonaki square.
‘Yes, that will be right. Anyway, that night at the restaurant. It was apparently some sort of anniversary. They were making an occasion of it and had ordered the tasting menu. Five courses with wine pairings. The shadow held out until the third course, then fled the restaurant in a real state. It later admitted to John that it had been reminded of all the times they’d eaten there together. Couldn’t bear the contrast.’
‘And what happened then?’
Henry poured more wine for us both.
‘I heard from John just the other day, actually. His instincts were right: the shadow is having second thoughts. Truth be told, the feeling is mutual. John says it’s just not the same, going around without his “better half”, as he likes to call it. Says he feels sort of flat. Empty. So they’re taking it easy, meeting up a couple of times a week. Nothing serious. No pressure. A dinner, a drink, a movie. He doesn’t want to rush it.’
‘Will they, erm, get back together, do you think?’
Henry took another sip of wine.
‘Difficult to say. Nobody likes to be taken for granted. But John says it’s the real thing. Thinks they’re made for each other.’ He poured more wine. ‘Always difficult to know what to say in these situations.’
I nodded and raised the glass to my lips, the cool evening breeze brushing my face like the wing of a sylph.
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