The plane took off again, lifting up over sleeping Africa. For a short time the River Nile looked silver in the moonlight, until it was lost in the darkness. We went on climbing alone into the milky sky. The passengers started preparing themselves for sleep. Ekaterina turned towards the window, and I lay back in my seat, horribly uncomfortable.
About half an hour later I woke up. Like a newborn animal, Ekaterina had moved as close as possible to me. One arm was round my neck, and her face was half hidden in my shoulder. She smelt sweet and warm, like wild flowers or deep, newly turned soil. She was asleep, and in her dreams she had returned to Vari, to a street of quiet little houses, to a single room full of sisters and brothers, with animals to take care of, perhaps. Had she ever slept alone? Who was I in her sleep, who was held in her poor arms? A little brother who was always crying, a sister restless with hunger? How could her family have sold this lovely child to an unknown husband? Perhaps he was an honest man who had earned his place in South Africa. And now he was looking back into the past, to take a wife of his own country, of the blood of Greece. I only hoped he was good enough for her. I tried to tell myself, 'She's nothing to me. What does it matter who she marries?' But it wasn't easy to say that, when she was actually asleep and warm and living against my body.
I slept a little, and when I woke up, Ekaterina had not moved. But she was now awake, and her large eyes were fixed darkly on me. How long had she stared at me like that?
'Hello, Ekaterina,' I said.
'Hello.' She closed her eyes, preparing for sleep again.
'Ekaterina, I'm talking to you.'
A little movement of her head showed that she was awake.
'Listen, it may be a good thing that you don't understand. Listen, Ekaterina, you shouldn't be here. Go back, take the first chance to go back. This marriage may work, but it may not. It's all wrong. You're not a thing for a man to buy, you're not a prisoner. It's so important to be free. Go back and learn to be free. They've taken the past from you and you're throwing away the future. Ekaterina, it's always better to die fighting - you must know that.'
I was talking almost to myself. She could not understand a word, but something in my voice frightened her. She began to cry. The great plane went on into the silken blackness. Under us lay Africa, sleeping in the long night wind.
She cried quietly, but not for long. I think she was used to having sadness in her life. She took my hand and kissed it before I could stop her - a little show of grateful feeling which I found very moving. Then she dried her eyes, and talked brightly for a few minutes like a playful child. Soon she fell asleep, and her arms reached out again towards me, in that instinctively loving way of hers.
We came in over South Africa before daylight. People began to wake up. I went to have a wash, and when I got back, I found Ekaterina very unhappy. She and the air hostess were looking everywhere for something. The Italian was there too, down on his hands and knees to help with the search.
'What are you looking for?' I asked him.
He stood up, looking angrily at me. 'The girl's miserable. What have you done to her?'
'You haven't slept well, I suppose?'
'Slept! I never sleep well on a plane.'
'You should find another way of travelling.'
He went crossly back to his seat. Ekaterina asked me to help, but I had no idea what was missing. Had it disappeared at Khartoum?
'Khartoum!' She threw up her hands in the air. Yes, perhaps the people at Khartoum had robbed her. Then suddenly a passenger a few seats away held up a packet of newspapers. Ah, that was it - yesterday's Greek papers, for the good Savvas to read. The evening news from Athena arriving in Yoannisburg the next morning. Lucky man.
I helped Ekaterina off the plane with her bags and packets. The air was cold, and she looked around her, frightened. I lost her in the crowd at the passport desks, and did not see her again until we were in the main hall of the airport building. There she was in a group of four or five people. Her head was low and her face was hidden in her hands. I could not see which was Savvas; there was nobody who looked like the man in her photograph.
She lifted her head and stared around. Then she saw me and came running down the hall. She put her head, like a child, on my shoulder, crying miserably. The little group of strangers watched from a distance. Now I saw that Savvas, the new husband himself, was there. It was certainly the man from the photograph, but he was bald and old, and very short and fat. I had half expected it.
'Ekaterina, I'll help you get back if you wish, to Athena, to Vari...'
I gave her my business card, with my address and phone number, and she stared at it through tearful eyes. She took my hand and held it for a moment. Then she dried her eyes and walked slowly back to the waiting group, her head held high.
My son and his wife, Loraine, found me standing there. I had not moved, and was staring after Ekaterina.
'Who's that beautiful little thing?' Loraine asked.
'Is it a love story?'
'I don't know. I think it's more like an unhappy ending.'
They were amused, and laughed about it while we had breakfast in the airport's large, cheerful restaurant.
'It's possible you've got it all wrong,' said Loraine. 'Remember, you couldn't understand what she was saying.'
'My instinct tells me I'm right.'
'Your instinct! Only a woman can be sure of her instinct.'
Why didn't I speak to Savvas Athanassiades at the airport? I do not know where to find him. His name is not in the phone book. I have waited to hear from Ekaterina, but nothing, not a word. Where is she? I remember how she walked calmly away, with her head up. Her dark shining hair, the yellow of her suit... Choosing to go, walking freely into a darkened future... But after all, perhaps Loraine is right.
I have heard nothing, and it is now four days.
- THE END -