When my uncle died he left me a two hundred year old house and a twenty year old Greek.
His death was less surprising that the legacy. My mother knew he was dying and insinuated that I should visit him before it was too late.
'It could be to your advantage Tom,' she said. 'You may not know him but he... knows you. You were always his favourite.'
She did not need to explain why. Since my father's death fifty percent of the remaining family was gay; Uncle James and me. As far as I knew he, like me, had never found anyone to settle down with. I, like him, would probably die an embittered old queen, cynical, unloved and alone. At least we had that in common, that and nothing else. Or so I thought at the time.
I had not seen him for ten years and, at the age of twenty-six, I could not bring myself to fly to the deathbed of a distant man with whom I had only exchanged Christmas cards and with whom I shared nothing but a common sexuality. It smacked of gold digging.
Uncle James had been rich, we all knew that. With no wife or children to soak up his income he had been free to indulge his three passions; Greece, jewellery and religion. These were his family, a family that he had never introduced to the rest of us. I learned of his life from a distance. His annual Christmas card always and only contained three succinct sentences, written in his perfectly scripted handwriting.
'The year on the island was uplifting. I have invested in a new tourmaline ring of the rarest beauty. I am to become a Catholic; I can not condone female priests.'
I remember this one from ten years ago. I was sixteen and had seen him briefly during that summer when he had been in England for a day.
He had summoned my mother, sister and I to London for lunch at a grand hotel. It was the day that my exam results had arrived and I opened the letter as we travelled up from the coast by train. My mother was nervous the whole way, constantly checking her make up and my sister's hands.
'Your uncle will expect you to be presentable,' she explained to the fourteen year old tom-boy who passed for my sister. 'He is treating you to lunch at a very expensive restaurant. Remember your manners and he will remember you.'
My sister chewed gum, slouched and rubbed her hands over the grimy seat defiantly. I squinted through the muck on the window trying to see into the houses that flashed past and hoped that no one asked about my grades.
Unfortunately it was the first thing Uncle James did ask when we were seated at his table. I saw him watching me as we weaved our way through the archipelago of dining tables, tacking across the room like three amateur sailors lost in a sea of linen and sparkling crystal. He didn't rise but let the self assured waiter seat us, a confident harbourmaster guiding us safely into port. And then he spoke.
'Which did you fail, Peter?'
He was the only person ever to use my real name, everyone else called me Tom, my second name. Legend had it that it was Uncle James who insisted I be christened Peter, after the founder of the Christian Church and not Thomas, the name my parents had chosen. Thomas, after all, was known for his doubt.
'Only German,' I replied as proudly as I could.
He studied me closely and I saw our family resemblance in his round face for the first time. We shared similar green eyes, a mouth that suggested a permanent smile and blonde hair.
'That is excusable,' He actually smiled. 'But Ellenika?'
'I got an A in Greek, Uncle.'
'Bravo Peter. To speak Greek is an honour. You will be rewarded.'
Those were the last words he said to me. After that he spoke only to my mother. During lunch I was distracted by a good looking lad around my age at the next table. I am sure Uncle James noticed too. He winked at me over his coffee and nodded knowingly.
Ten years later my exam results had done me no good. I was unemployed and living of the state. I had not decided what to do with my life. At Christmas my mother read Uncle James' message just after the other Queen's speech as she always did:
'Greece remains addictive. I have sold the tourmaline ring. God expects me soon.'
We suspected that it was to be his last communication but he proved us wrong. The following September, a week after his death, two letters arrived; one from a solicitor and one from Uncle James. Both were addressed to me. My mother had been wandering through the house making a list of what she would replace when his will was finalised. She was in a state of complex anxiety, trying to reconcile her vague grief against her high hopes for financial salvation. Her face was pale when she handed me the letters and, when I realised who they were from, I blanched too.
And further still when a solicitor I had never met told me that I had inherited not only Uncle James' villa in Greece but also everything in it. There was, however, one condition; I had to live in the house for five consecutive years before I could sell it.
The second letter was addressed to me in my uncle's handwriting and had been posted the day before he died. I banished my mother to another room to recover from the shock of my inheritance and read it alone. The usual three sentences on his favourite subjects were written in Greek. I translated:
'You are to come to the villa immediately (direction enclosed). My treasure is yours. Alex will explain as I will be with God.'
I packed immediately.
The southern islands of Greece, in September, are hot. The sea is as blue as it is omnipresent. Looking down from the window of the plane as I flew over it I could not imagine that anything could live on the grey barren humps of rock that drowned in that limitless ocean below. On the ground, of course, it was a different story.
As per the directions I took a taxi from heaving airport to the harbour and, from there, a ferry across to the smaller island of Kalados. The island took me by surprise. From the air it had appeared desolate; burnt out by its history under the relentless sun. As I approached the port by boat, however, I saw it rise from the water proud and undaunted. Houses crowded the small harbour, a mass of colour, their tall windows glinting in the setting sun. These were not the white cubes I had expected from Greece, these buildings were regal, neo-classical, a lasting testament to a wealthy island.
But the harbour was a facade. As the taxi drove towards the mountain we passed through a ruined village. At every turn of the road we came across shells of deserted houses, piles of grey rock that had once been homes. Fig trees grew wild and huge from inside roofless structures and the few people I saw shuffled, bent and weary.
We left the village and entered an even more desolate landscape. My spirits were low. Tired from the journey and depressed by the desolation of the scenery my thoughts turned to the villa, a dead man's house. What was I being called there for? What had Uncle James, from his lofty throne somewhere in the afterlife, designed for me? And who was Alex?
By the time we reached the villa daylight was all but gone. The driver pointed me towards a high iron gate. Beyond it and around me I could see only trees. The forest had been unexpected. It overwhelmed me with life amid the dead landscape at dusk. We had driven through it for a good ten minutes before reaching the villa but finally here I was, rucksack in hand about to enter the world of Uncle James. I took a deep breath, pushed open the gate and followed the path.
The villa was below me on the side of the hill. I approached it from the back and around the side, descending the steps carefully and looking for signs of life. But the house was in darkness. The path led me to a terrace at the front and I put down my rucksack there. I looked about me into the night. There was nothing but the forest on either side, the dark house behind me and, as far as I could see, the hillside continuing down towards the edge of a cliff. Beyond this the sea was a black backdrop with occasional specks of light; ships passing out there in the nothingness.
The voice came from somewhere in the darkness nearby, startling me.
I heard a wicker chair creak. A figure stood at the far end of the terrace.
'I am Alex, I belong to the house,' he said in heavily accented English.
He walked towards me, nothing more than a shadow among shadows, until he stood a few feet away.
'I love the darkness,' he said and I gained the impression that he had turned to look out towards the sea. I looked that way too and saw only stars. 'Your uncle and I would sit here at night, talk abut you and watch the heavens.' He spoke reverently. 'He never allowed electricity at night. He said that only hours of blindness can show us where we are going.'
I could think of nothing appropriate to say and so, rather lamely I thought, asked what was to happen next.
'I am to look after you.'
'But in time. First I have something for you. Your uncle asked that I pass this on.'
I sensed the figure move closer to me until I could make out his shape. There was no light and yet I could distinguish one shadow from another. I knew that he was the same height as me. From his voice I could somehow tell that he was younger, his voice was light and clear, not yet wearied by experience. I caught his scent on a slight breeze that came and went; he had recently washed with a perfumed soap, something exotic and unknown to me. I felt the gentle touch of a hand on my shoulder.
And then I felt the warmth of a smooth cheek against my own, hair brushing against mine. He kissed me on both cheeks and stood back.
'Welcome home,' he whispered.
As he backed away into the darkness I was sure I had felt more than his kiss. Our chests had touched lightly and I felt the gentle press of his thighs against mine.
I stood confused and yet excited by the strange greeting until I heard a movement within the house. Slowly the windows along the terrace began to glow. The light within leaped excitedly as though it was keen to welcome me and I realised that Alex was lighting oil lamps.
'Come inside my friend, everything is prepared for you.'
I turned to the figure that now stood behind a screened door. A ghostly figure distorted by the gauze and flickering light. He smiled through to me like a long lost friend who had missed me and pushed open the door. I hesitated on the threshold and looked at him. His invitation was innocent and yet I held back. He wore only a pair of jeans, cut off at the knees and fraying. My eyes fell to the floor as though I were ashamed to look on him. His bare feet were dark and dusty. The brief glimpse of this near naked boy had turned my mind to thoughts inappropriate to my situation. I was aware that we could be alone until morning.
'Why do you wait?'
Slowly I looked up to his face. His legs were a fleece of dark hair but his chest was smooth. He looked like some mythological creature, Pan without his pipes, an animal below, a youth above. His short, curly hair sparkled in places as the lamplight caught it from behind, and from within the shadows that shifted across his face two soft dark eyes studied me. He was smiling, amused at my uncertainty.
'Come,' he encouraged. 'I have my instructions and yours are waiting for you upstairs. Come.'
I stepped over the threshold and entered the mystery that my uncle had bequeathed me. The villa and everything in it was mine. Including him.
He led me through the house with a hurricane lamp held aloft. Stone stairs curved upwards to a wide landing and I followed the silhouette of his narrow waist up and back towards the front of the house. The light did not spill far enough for me to see how my uncle had lived but I sensed wealth and comfort around me. We walked into a large room, the lamplight dying at the edges of my vision before it fell upon the walls. Alex put down the lamp and opened two tall windows. The night air drifted in inquisitively, pine and heat. As I stood, trying once again to adjust my eyes, he lit more lamps until the room shimmered in their glow.
'First we must talk,' he said. 'Afterwards you can eat, or sleep, whatever you wish. It is my job to care for you.'
'To care for me?'
'Whatever you ask me I will do.'
My heart sprinted and I tried to banish the thoughts that had set it off. I pictured this youth groaning in pleasure beneath me, my arms wrapped around his slim body, sweat lubricating my chest on his back as I slid myself deep within him.
'Please sit, this will not take long.'
He had pulled two chairs to face each other across a low table. On it I saw an envelope and recognised my uncle's handwriting. I shook myself and tried to focus. I looked at his hands, his short nails glowed white against the deep tan of his long fingers. As we sat he picked up the envelope.
I suddenly became aware of how tired I was. I had no idea of the time by then but I could tell that sleep would soon be inevitable, my eyes were stinging and my body ached from the journey. Alex was looking across at me from under his dark eyebrows. He seemed to sense how I was feeling. He yielded a sympathetic smile.
'Soon,' he said. 'Your uncle left instructions. You are to open this now. Trust me and trust your uncle. You will not be disappointed. I am not.'
I looked beyond the envelope to his flat stomach. The light beside him shone down and lit the front of his jeans. The flesh that they concealed was compacted by the tight material, tantalisingly undefined but plentiful.