‘Gina, wait up, I …’ came the deep familiar voice behind the swinging doors that Georgina let shut. She had hoped to feign partial hearing, but trainered feet were at her heels and she came to a halt.

    ‘Jake, hi…’ I was hoping to avoid seeing you, was what she wanted to say  – but instead she choked out, ‘I didn’t expect to see you so early.’ Georgina willed her burning cheeks not to match the pink lycra top she was wearing.

    It was four-thirty – he should not be here! She had left work at the end of the school day and even Bill, the caretaker, had commented on her early departure. ‘Ain’t like you to be leaving this early. Up to anything exciting?’ Georgina had replied that she had nothing special planned, but there had still been a glint in Bill’s eyes, matching the sparkle of his gold front tooth.

    Georgina struggled to regain her composure as her eyes travelled over the trained physique of Jake O’Sullivan; why did she suddenly have to feel so aware of him? She felt her blood bubbling like an underwater spring and was convinced that her cheeks now matched her top.

     ‘Did you take the day off work?’

     ‘I had some time owing and decided to take a couple of days off,’ Jake said as he raked one hand through his hair and fixed her with a stare that she found unnerving. Was he going to ask where she was on Friday?

     Meeting his gaze, Georgina realised with a racing of her pulse that the longer he looked at her, the darker the shade of blue his eyes became. The temperature seemed to be rising as though a fire was burning and crackling between them. Georgina felt simultaneously excited and unnerved; she had never experienced anything as powerful before. It was too much, so out of a sense of self-preservation she squared her shoulders and crossed her arms.

     She could have sworn that a questioning look flickered in his eyes as if he was asking why she was putting up barriers between them, but instead he said, ‘How’s work?’

    Relieved that she was given respite, she answered, ‘Not too bad. What about you? How are things going with Jeffrey Plonker?’

    His mouth twisted into a cynical smile. ‘He’s watching his step a bit more. I’ve had a word with him. Aren’t you off next week for half-term?’

    ‘Yes, I can’t wait. Things have been piling up lately – marking and then an international evening taking place.’

    ‘International evening?’ Jake dropped his large gym bag to the ground. Unless you were a body builder, Georgina doubted you could lift it. He held on to the straps to ensure it did not topple over her feet and she stole a surreptitious look at his hands, wondering what his touch would feel like 

    Snapping back to the question, she threw herself into an explanation, ‘It’s the first time we are holding one at the school. It’s all about celebrating cultural diversity – pupils bring in different things from their country of ethnic origin. Oh, and we’ll also be using the event for fundraising by charging an entrance fee though–’ and that was as far as she got before she was greeted with a hug and a kiss-in-the-air from her gym friend.

    ‘Gina, darling, glad to catch you. I left a message on your mobile to tell you that we have all bought our tickets for the karaoke evening on Saturday – and to make sure that you are coming too.’ Lara’s super slim body stood poised like an athlete about to sprint. ‘Are you joining the body pump class? We can chat then.’

    ‘No, I’m doing the dance class.’ Georgina felt guilty that she had not returned Lara’s call: she was not sure about the karaoke evening. ‘I’ve seen the poster, but I haven’t bought a ticket.’

    ‘Well, you just have to, darling. We had such fun last time – and without you we will be squawking like crows. You are the nightingale amongst us,’ Lara remonstrated in her boarding school drawl, which made Georgina feel she was in the company of someone who lived on a country estate and dressed for dinner. ‘You should hear Gina sing,’ she pronounced before turning towards Jake.

    Oh, she had spotted him; Georgina braced herself as Lara cocked her head confidently, running her gaze from the crown of Jake’s head to the tip of his trainered feet – taking longer to assess certain areas. Zac, her husband, was a tolerant and indulgent man from what Georgina had gathered over the years.

    ‘And you must join us too. Any friend of Gina’s is most welcome,’ Lara enunciated, drawing out every syllable longer than the average person would. 

    ‘I’d love to,’ Jake stated, with amusement in his deep blue eyes. Georgina observed the smile hover over his lips. 

    ‘Lara, I don’t even know if I’m free on Saturday. There is so much going on at school at the moment. I need to spend time on …’

    ‘Oh, teedle-e-winks. You work far too hard as it is. Is that why you weren’t at Friday’s class?’ It almost sounded like a reprimand. ‘I’m going to trust your friend here to escort you to reception – otherwise, I will do it at the end of the dance class. Oh, my body pump class is first, I have to run.’ Before darting off, she pinned Georgina with a solemn expression. ‘No excuses, darling, nobody works on a Saturday.’ With a waft of expensive perfume, Lara was gone. Even in a rush she was able to move with poise, her tied-back golden mane swirling from side to side as she galloped to the studio.

    ‘Are you going to come quietly, or am I going to carry you to reception?’ asked Jake in a Hollywood-gangster tone of voice.

    Georgina looked at him wide-eyed and flushed before bursting into laughter as she realised he was joking. Lara had put her on the spot and she didn’t know how to get out of the predicament she was in. Should she spend another evening in Jake’s company and risk the consequences if her family found out she was interested in a man who did not have a drop of Greek blood in his heritage? Then she listened to her inner voice – it reminded her of being alive but not living.

    ‘Let’s go then, but no turning back when you meet the rest of the group on Saturday.’ He doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for, Georgina mused wryly as they made their way to reception. Lara, Belle and Celia could be a handful. They were like colours on a Picasso painting, screaming out from the canvas.

    ‘I don’t scare that easily, Georgina Andreou.’

    She turned and raised her brows, thinking of how he would respond if Mario confronted him.

    ‘Not even from your cousin.’

    ‘How did you know that was what I was thinking?’ she exclaimed, her mouth agape.

    He reached out and let his hand touch her cheek, resting his thumb just below her lower lip. ‘Does it surprise you that I know you? I’ve held back all these years because you weren’t ready – not because Mario wanted to keep me at a distance, because you did.’ He smiled with a tenderness that broke down her barriers and all she could do was struggle to regain her composure as he slid his fingers to cup her chin, before releasing it. She must have been holding her breath because she inhaled deeply, drawing in much needed oxygen and wondering what he would have done if they had not been standing in the middle of the corridor.

    ‘Let’s go and get our tickets. I’m under strict instructions from your friend,’ he said, lightening the atmosphere. 

    Jake had just changed the rules of the game – a game she had never played before and wasn’t sure how to play. The ‘b’ word she was facing was not broxenia, but boyfriend.

 

‘Olives, Christina,’ her father said, breaking a large chunk of bread from the sesame-seeded Greek loaf.

    As expected her mother rose, brushing off breadcrumbs from the folds of a burgundy summer skirt as she went over to fetch the small dish of Greek, black olives. She handed the dish over and Georgina’s father scooped half a dozen on to the rim of his plate, alongside the string beans and lamb. His head was bent purposefully over his food as he filled his fork and ate silently. He rarely communicated at the dinner table and was often the first to finish.

    Georgina understood that her father wanted nothing more than to come home and relax after a long, busy day at the garage. He was the owner of ‘J Andreou Motor Repairs’; it was an established garage in the community and her father took pride that he could repair any vehicle. Long hours and commitment to the business had resulted in enough income to support the family, and money saved to pay for her wedding and those of her sisters. Certain traditions had stood the test of time whereas others, to Georgina’s relief, had changed over the years. Dowries were no longer required, but it was generally known if a girl had a house, or at least the deposit for a house. The stakes were often raised if money was on the table and a plain-looking girl seemed a lot more attractive if the parents were wealthy. Her parents had often referred to money as an international language, and many ordinary girls received attention and publicity when there was money to inherit – the Onassis family was their favourite example.

    With the exception of Sophia, who was working late at the salon, the rest of the family were sitting around the pine kitchen table. The door to the garden was open and the barking of the neighbours’ Airedale Terrier tore through the air. Her mother responded with a characteristic, ‘Eh,’ to the irritating din.

    ‘That dog’s not been trained properly. Lizzy’s parents have got an Airedale Terrier and it’s nothing like the Bennetts’ dog.’ Dimitri got up with his jeans hanging low and a white vest clinging to his pumped-up body.

    ‘We should buy a cock and let it crow at dawn, see how they like it.’ Georgina bit into a pickled cucumber and swirled some string beans on to her fork. ‘I remember how much the crows used to annoy me when we stayed at Yiayia’s village.’

    ‘Who is Lizzy?’ Georgina noted the way her mother pursed her lips with concern.

    ‘Just a friend from uni.’

    ‘So many friends you have – I canno remember all names.’

    ‘Don’t worry, Mum, when an important one comes along, I’ll make sure you remember her.’

    ‘A good Greek girl, Dimitri,’ she asserted with a shake of her head. ‘We find a nice girl for you when you ready.’

    ‘I know, Mum. But I can find one myself. I know what I want.’

    ‘I know too. A girl who look after you, take care of you. Be a good wife and mother.’

    ‘There you go. Someone just like Mum. To run around after you, revolve her life around you because she won’t have a life of her own, or ambitions. Her sole purpose in life will be to satisfy you.’ Georgina could not contain her disapproval.

    ‘Got it in one, Sis.’

    ‘You no hungry, Katherina?’

    ‘I think I’m coming down with something. I have a splitting headache – and I’m not hungry.’ Georgina took in the purple shadows smearing the skin under Katherina’s eyes and wondered what lay behind the lack of appetite and probably lack of sleep.

    ‘Ah, no. Hope you don get sick now when you gonna meet Paul.’ That was all her mother needed to hear – Katherina unwell.

    Georgina poured some pineapple juice into her tumbler, ignoring the tension moving over the dinner table like a black cloud. Her father had had a bitter argument with Katherina upon returning home from Uncle Kyriaco’s party. He had accused her of behaving badly by turning up so late and of being inconsiderate. Katherina had argued back that if the Christofous were put off that easily, then they weren’t worth seeing.

    ‘Where are you meeting him?’ quizzed Dimitri.

    ‘In Hampstead. Saturday evening.’ Katherina kept her head bent down as if it was too heavy to move.

    Georgina wanted to comfort her sister, but knew it best to avoid entering into a discussion in front of their parents about Paul Christofou. She was not convinced by Katherina’s account of the conversation she had had with Paul.

    ‘Gina, he sounded really nice. I know you can’t tell a lot about a person until you actually meet them, but he was pleasant and surprisingly easy to talk to.’

    ‘I’m pleased if that is what you really want,’ Georgina had commented with reservation.

    ‘Of course it is, otherwise I wouldn’t be going. Would I?’

    ‘I don’t know. Just make sure it is what you want – and not what you think you ought to want.’ She had left it at that. At the end of the day her sister had to decide for herself what was right for her. Georgina was beginning to believe there wasn’t one right path; it was all about choices and being happy with the choices you made – and not having decisions made for you.

    ‘Gina, pass the olives.’ Georgina stretched across the table and handed the dish to Dimitri to the sound of the front door slamming shut.

    ‘Don slam the door, Sophia!’ bellowed her mother irritably.

    ‘Sorry, must have been the wind,’ Sophia said, while they heard her racing up the stairs. Her mother tutted.

     It was a lovely evening and not a single leaf swayed on the branches. Glancing out of the kitchen window, Georgina noticed Mr Macaroni hanging over the fence with a shoot in his hand. Georgina smiled as her mother bounced up from her seat, having seen him too.

    ‘Ah, must be the marrow he wanna give me to plant,’ she said with enthusiasm as she escaped to the garden to meet him.

    ‘Better keep an eye on him, Dad. First he wants to give her marrows – and before you know it, he’ll want to show her his cucumbers.’

    Their father snorted dismissively, while Georgina and Katherina chuckled as they peered into the garden from their seats. They watched their mother return with a satisfied smile on her face.

    ‘Just don’t go showing him your melons, Mum.’

    Georgina and Katherina burst into peals of laughter and their mother stared at them completely baffled by the remark.

    ‘I no grow melons. What you talking about, Dimitri?’

    ‘Dimitri,’ growled his father.

    Georgina helped her mother clear the table while Katherina remained in her seat. Sophia then came bursting into the kitchen with an air of isn’t-life-great, and both Georgina and Katherina settled their gaze on her for a moment...

 

Extract from

My Big Greek Family

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