Penny George and Rainer Brecht, unknown to each other are re visiting the island of Crete in 2001 for the first time since the war. Both of them , once on opposite sides, are viewing a popular tourist spot through eyes honed to their past experience.
It was a glorious sunset on Galatas beach, the sun sliding down
into the sea like a ball of ﬂ ame. We parked on the busy main
road from Chania, walking down steps past a littletaverna and
onto the sand. I’d forgotten where the turning was into the old
hospital barracks, but there was now a campsite in the trees, and
far in the distance a small white chapel. Perhaps it had always
been there and I had forgotten. The caves were exactly as I
recalled them and just as uninviting.
Lois wanted Alex to take photos, but I was reluctant to be a
tourist here. How could I explain that you don’t takesnap-
shots in a cemetery. I wanted to remember it as it once was.
Now it was just a sandy beach like many other suntraps. The
view to Theodori island was unchanged and there were no
reminders left now of how this place had once been, only the
I’d been dreading this return and wanted to get it over with
so we could enjoy the rest of the holiday without sombre
reminders. It was throwing up images and ﬂashbacks of scenes
I’d tried to keep buried all of my life.
It was a vision of hell in those ﬁ nal days. That terrible unex-
pected encounter in the street . . . I could feel my pulse racing.
‘I need a stiff drink,’ I announced, but Lois ignored my plea,
taking my hand.
‘Just come over here and see the carpet of ﬂowers clinging to the rocks, all the colours of the rainbow. You’ll know their
names; I’m hopeless.’
There were ﬂowers and poppies of every hue, white
mallows, silver stachys, yellow euphorbias, purple sea holly
and tiny rock roses. How strange that so many of my own
herbaceous perennials from the garden at Stokencourt were
growing wild, unfettered, on this very spot, and I’d never
known they were here. Who had time to notice such things in
an air raid?
The sea was the colour of expensive jade, the mountains still
snow-capped, even at the end of May.
‘Just give me a minute, ’ I said, walking away from them for
Alex was bored. There was nothing for him on this deserted
beach. He couldn’t see what I was seeing: those German troops
laying posts and ﬁxing wire, turning my hospital into one vast
cage for the captured soldiers brought in after the surrender in
Chania. There were guard towers just like the ones you see in
war ﬁlms. It was a camp with few facilities left standing, a few
tattered tents and marquees, poor latrines and slit trenches,
battered chairs and utensils scattered on the sand. How many
wounded soldiers lost the will to live corralled into this bug-
ridden space already full of dirt and disease?
Deserting my patients was one of the bleakest moments of
my life. Other, far worse, things happened later but never did
I feel so alone. Now I was reliving the anguish of having to
relinquish my post, leaving the weakened men to the tender
mercies of an indifferent army bent on revenge for their own
losses. I had my own problems. There were decisions to make
about my own future and pressure was coming from an
I thought again of the ofﬁcer, my German patient, my rescuer
– how that time haunts my mind like old wartime music. It was
here I thought to give him the slip, but he had other ideas.
The Limani Ouzeria was a good spot for watching the world go
by. It was early Friday night and families were out, enjoying a
stroll round the harbour. One by one the lights ﬂickered on in
the cafés and restaurants, and the touts were out with their
menus, trying to attract tourists inside with their smooth patter.
This place suited Rainer well, overlooking the old Firkas
Turkish fortress, now the Naval Museum. A place he had no
desire to revisit.
Most of the old harbour houses had been rebuilt over the
years. There were bars and gift shops. One or two were still
crumbling ruins in need of repair, like bad teeth in need of ﬁlling, but that somehow added to the charm and character. He’d
just browsed in the harbour bookshop, which had a good selec-
tion of novels and maps in English, German and French, and
bought a detailed map of northwest Crete to refresh his memory
and plan his next trip out into the mountains. His memory for
place names often failed him these days, but there were one or
two here that were etched into his brain: Kondomari,Kandanos,
Alikianos. Who could ever forget what had gone on there?
He sipped his ouzo, watching the water clouding into the
spirit, tasting a plate of meze: squid, tiropita, sausage, cheese balls.
Chania was now a bustling tourist destination, a vibrant city
full of life. The local families walking past him were well dressed,
pushing prams, old yiayias clustered round tables in their
widow’s weeds, hair dyed all hues, laughing and shouting as
only the Greeks can.
He had chosen this place for old times’ sake, and as he turned
to look into the dark recesses of the tavern, ancient men were
busy playing backgammon, smoking, arguing, entirely unaware
of him. How many of these old men had fought and suffered in
the old days? How many would shake his hand now if they
The swift-ﬁlled sky was noisy with their screeching as dark-
ness descended and the young of all nations came out in their
ﬁnery: African students, lean-limbed, selling fake CDs; Asian
girls with trays of trinkets; Roma children pushing roses onto
the unwary; American military from the NATO base, out on
the town in baggy shorts and baseball caps. There were Scandi-
navian girls of such beauty, white-haired and leggy in sundresses,
and his fellow countrymen with cameras and portly wives. How
different it all was from the last time he was here, this pulsating
mass of humanity smelling of aftersun, all mixed together.
None of these revellers would be reminiscing about such
dark days of the past. He was sober and silent, solitary and in
need of company, but there was no one of his age or nationality
sitting close by. The memories kept ﬂooding into his mind of
the ﬁrst time he had sat in almost this very spot, and all he could
feel was the pain of being young and overwhelmed by respon-
sibility. Why must duty always clash with personal desire in a
About Leah Fleming
After careers in teaching, catering, running a market stall, stress management
courses in the NHS as well as being a mother of four, Leah Fleming found
her true calling as a storyteller. She lives in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales but
spends part of the year marinating her next tale from an olive grove on her
favourite island of Crete.
She was short listed for the Romantic Novel of the
Year in 1998 and for The People's Choice Pure Passion Award 2010 for
Remembrance Day. She won
Her epic tales cover centuries and many generations with a strong sense of place and time.
include The Captain's Daughter, a Titanic drama and Orphans of War, and her work has been translated
into five languages. She has also had many stories published in national newspapers and magazines. The
Girl Under the Olive Tree is her eighth novel. For more information please go to www.leahfleming.co.uk.
I'll be bringing you a review of the novel very soon, but until then, you can get your own copy by clicking here.