Letters to Strabo — Sirens, Scylla, Sappho and Helen of Troy.


After his narrow escape with Galatea in Ischia, Finn seeks to leave the island as a crew member on a chartered yacht.

The yacht was privately owned by an Austrian family who had chartered a crew from the marina. They’d brought their own cook but needed an assistant for general kitchen and cleaning duties. Even better, I wouldn’t even need to clear exit formalities. I wanted to call Eve to tell her, but didn’t dare. I just hoped she’d understand when I explained to her later, as I surely must and she surely would.

Before I accepted, I enquired a bit more about the Austrians. They were wealthy: a doctor, Herr Josef Preindlsberger, a man in his fifties, with a younger wife. They had three daughters along with them, plain and slightly plump in their late teens. We were to sail at first light. It all seemed great.

But even before we’d left port, I realized the girls were gonna be trouble. They were clearly sex-crazed and tried their best to get me interested right from the start; but after my recent experience I was determined I wasn’t going there. They could have tied me naked to the mast and tempted me with all the pleasures they wanted, but my ears were full of beeswax and there was no way I was getting involved with another member of the female race. Not after such a narrow escape. Absolutely no way!


Temporary relief, of sorts, came when we stopped off at Messina. It was another Homeric location. I’d heard, of course, the legend of the rocks, of the perilous Scylla and Charybdis. On the Calabrian shore lived the Scylla, a water nymph transformed into a six-headed monster by a jealous sea god; on the opposite side lay the whirlpool of Charybdis, which ate unwary ships’ crews alive.

According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose between losing six crewmen to the Scylla and risking his whole ship in the Charybdis. The enchantress Circe warned him about this and advised him in advance to choose the former. Wisely he did.

Messina was my last stop in Italy. That evening was therefore my last chance to come clean. We were due to leave the harbor around midnight, tracking the ferry Edra bound for Reggio di Calabria. The currents were already running and we’d soon be setting out across the deep wine-sea to Greece, the ferry’s lights winking in expectation of our departure

As I reflected again on my own personal dilemma and our conspiracy to fake that robbery, I began to question my own motives. Was I really protecting Galatea or was I just scared for my own skin? If I had any conscience shouldn’t I confess to the police? Or was I just best to stick to the story we’d hurriedly agreed out of loyalty to Galatea? The whole thing was really screwing with my mind. And it wasn’t as if I could talk to anybody about it. 


We reached Lefkas around lunchtime the day after. It held one, and only one, attraction to our party: the towering white cliffs from which the violet-haired poetess Sappho had, by legend, made her final desperate leap into the deep, dark waters below. Six hundred years after her death, Strabo described her as: “a marvellous creature… in all recorded history I know of no woman who even came close to rivalling her as a poet.” Her motive for that suicidal leap will never be known, I guess, but there were tales about her infatuation with a local ferry-man called Phaon; was she driven by frantic longing or the search for some personal epiphany, maybe? But I suppose even love can’t defy the laws of gravity.


Once landed on Greece, Finn abandons the boat crew after an altercation in a bar and meets up with a young shepherd called Pelis, who takes him to the home of an Irish writer called Mani.

Pelis and I got back on his old Triumph and sped along the mountain roads heading south-east. We soon reached Kalamata, a large town known for its olive oil, and then rode due south. We followed the turquoise coastline past endless groves of walnuts, sagebrush and burnt-out pastures. I wasn’t used to riding pillion and my butt was getting real sore. My goggles were also plastered with bugs, so it was hard to see. Just after we passed a quaint fishing village with a fine old church, we turned off down a rough dirt track towards a low pan-tiled stone house perched on a crag above the sea. It was a beautiful location. We got off the bike, my head throbbing, and passed through the open front gate, down a cobbled path that led to the villa and into a sort of arcaded loggia.

Pelis called out and then knocked on the door. After a wait of a few minutes, we were greeted by a female voice and then a north-European-looking woman opened the door. I judged she was in her sixties, but still very fair with attractive sea-blue eyes and graceful but slightly wrinkled features. It was as if her youthful face had been only slightly aged by the unremitting local sun; in fact, she was really quite extraordinarily beautiful. She was wearing a man’s shirt and riding breeches.


‘Of course, Aileen is my very own Helen and she’s quite as beautiful,’ Mani her husband said at that point, squeezing her hand lovingly. She blushed. Mani pointed out examples of her work as a photographer and painter around the walls; ‘she’s a devilishly good chess player too,’ he added. To which she blushed again…

Letters to Strabo