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The Strawberry-Pink Villa

The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination . . .

Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy-green, cracked and bubbled in places. The garden, surrounded by tall fuchsia hedges, had the flowerbeds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake’s head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shape of stars, half-moons, triangles and circles, all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild. Roses dropped petals that seemed as big and smooth as saucers, flame red, moon-white, glossy and unwrinkled; marigolds like broods of shaggy suns stood watching their parent’s progress through the sky. In the low growth the pansies pushed their velvety, innocent faces through the leaves, and the violets drooped sorrowfully under their heartshaped leaves. The bougainvillaea that sprawled luxuriously over the tiny front balcony was hung as though for a carnival, with its lantern-shaped magenta flowers. In the darkness of the fuchsia hedge a thousand ballerina-like blooms quivered expectantly. The warm air was thick with the scent of a hundred dying flowers, and full of the gentle, soothing whisper and murmur of insects. As soon as we saw it, we wanted to live there – it was as though the villa had been standing there waiting for our arrival. We felt we had come home.

Having lumbered so unexpectedly into our lives, Spiro now took over complete control of our affairs. It was better, he explained, for him to do things, as everyone knew him, and he would make sure we were not swindled. ‘Don’ts you worrys yourselfs about anythings, Mrs Durrells,’ he had scowled, ‘leaves everythings to me.’

So he would take us shopping, and after an hour’s sweating and roaring he would get the price of an article reduced by perhaps two drachmas. This was approximately a penny; it was not the cash, but the principle of the thing, he explained. The fact that he was Greek and adored bargaining was, of course, another reason. It was Spiro who, on discovering that our money had not yet arrived from England, subsidized us, and took it upon himself to go and speak severely to the bank manager about his lack of organization. That it was not the poor manager’s fault did not deter him in the least. It was Spiro who paid our hotel bill, who organized a cart to carry our luggage to the villa, and who drove us out there himself, his car piled high with groceries that he had purchased for us.

That he knew everyone on the island, and that they all knew him, we soon discovered was no idle boast. Wherever his car stopped, half a dozen voices would shout out his name, and hands would beckon him to sit at the little tables under the trees and drink coffee. Policemen, peasants and priests waved and smiled as he passed, fishermen, grocers and café-owners greeted him like a brother. ‘Ah, Spiro!’ they would say, and smile at him affectionately as though he was a naughty but lovable child. They respected his honesty, his belligerence, and above all they adored his typically Greek scorn and fearlessness when dealing with any form of Governmental red tape. On arrival, two of our cases containing linen and other things had been confiscated by the Customs on the curious grounds that they were merchandise. So, when we moved out to the strawberry-pink villa and the problem of bedlinen arose, Mother told Spiro about our cases languishing in the Customs, and asked his advice.

‘Gollys, Mrs Durrells,’ he bellowed, his huge face flushing red with wrath, ‘whys you never tells me befores? Thems bastards in the Customs. I’ll take you down theres tomorrows and fix thems: I knows thems alls, and they knows me. Leaves everythings to me – I’ll fix thems.’

The following morning he drove Mother down to the Customs-shed. We all accompanied them, for we did not want to miss the fun. Spiro rolled into the Customs-house like an angry bear.

‘Wheres these people’s things?’ he inquired of the plump little Customs man.

‘You mean their boxes of merchandise?’ asked the Customs official in his best English.

‘Whats you thinks I means?’

‘They are here,’ admitted the official cautiously.

‘We’ve comes to takes thems,’ scowled Spiro; ‘gets thems ready.’

He turned and stalked out of the shed to find someone to help carry the luggage, and when he returned he saw that the Customs man had taken the keys from Mother and was just lifting the lid of one of the cases. Spiro, with a grunt of wrath, surged forward and slammed the lid down on the unfortunate
man’s fingers.

‘Whats fors you open it, you sonofabitch?’ he asked, glaring. The Customs official, waving his pinched hand about, protested wildly that it was his duty to examine the contents.

‘Dutys?’ said Spiro with fine scorn. ‘Whats you means, dutys? Is it your dutys to attacks innocent foreigners, eh? Treats thems like smugglers, eh? That’s whats yous calls dutys?’

Spiro paused for a moment, breathing deeply, then he picked up a large suitcase in each great hand and walked towards the door. He paused and turned to fire his parting shot.

‘I knows you, Christaki, sos don’ts you go talkings about dutys to me. I remembers when you was fined twelve thousand drachmas for dynamitings fish. I won’t have any criminal talkings to me abouts dutys.’

We rode back from the Customs in triumph, all our luggage intact and unexamined . . .

Extract from My Family & Other Animals, Chapter 2 © The Estate of Gerald Durrell 1956

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