On the 12th July 2018, at five o’clock in the evening, I wrote in my journal:
“I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a book set in the Greek resistance during WWII & our trip to Greece next year seems like a good chance to research it … today, looking for something else, I stumbled upon this amazing photo of women resistance fighters – it could be mother and daughter – & now I’m all excited about the idea! The girl looks so young – the mother so sorrowful.”
For the next few weeks, I read up about Australian soldiers in Greece during the early years of the war. The ANZACs were on the front line, trying to hold back the Nazi invasion in April 1941. They were defeated, and had to retreat in desperate haste to Crete. The Nazis then invaded Crete, thousands of paratroopers dropping from the sky in a bold and unconventional blitzkrieg. For eleven days, the ANZACs and the local Cretans fought a series of bloody battles, but once again the Germans prevailed. The Allied soldiers had to be evacuated in what has been called a second Dunkirk. More than 57,000 soldiers escaped, but 7,000 were captured and became prisoners-of-war.
One of my great-uncles fought in Greece and Crete, and so I have a very personal connection to this harrowing tale of defiance and defeat.
I have also had a long obsession with labyrinths. Crete is, of course, the home of the world’s first and most famous labyrinth, built as a prison for the Minotaur. Half-man, half-bull, the minotaur was a ferocious beast that – every year – devoured seven men and seven maidens sent as sacrifices to the Palace of Knossos. A young prince named Theseus set out to defeat the monster, and was aided in his quest by the princess Ariadne, who gave him a ball of crimson thread so that he could find his way free of the labyrinth.
By the 8th August 2018, I had a strong sense of what kind of story I might tell, but then followed months and months of reading, research, pondering, planning. I filled a notebook with story ideas, brainstormings, timelines, character sketches, and photographs of Cretan resistance fighters.
I cannot start writing a book until I have my first line, and this eluded me for a very long time. I tried out different ideas, but nothing felt right. Then one day I went back and read through my very first thoughts and notes, and found what I needed, written in red so I would know it was important.
At once I had my first line, and that led swiftly and easily to my first page:
‘Red thread bound, in the spinning wheel round, kick the wheel and let it spin, so the tale can begin.’ My grandmother chanted these words to me and my sister Zoey every night as she told us a story, sewing as she spoke, each stitch so even and tiny it looked as if it had been set by a machine. Or a fairy.
My Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun the blood-red thread of life. Her stories were not like the pretty Ladybird tales my school-friends read. For example, her Cinderella was named Little Saddleslut. Her sisters decided to kill and eat whoever’s spindle fell to the ground first. Their mother’s spindle fell, and so the eldest daughters struck her dead and ate her. Little Saddleslut buried her mother’s bones and wept over them. When she was in need, she found three gowns buried in the grave, one embroidered with all the stars of heaven, one embroidered with all the flowers of spring, and the last as bright and blue as the sea with all its waves.
I remember being enchanted with the description of these gowns and imagining what they might look like, while Zoey kept asking, ‘but why, Yia-Yia, why did they kill their mummy? Why did they eat her?’
‘It’s just an old story,’ our grandmother comforted her. ‘The mother’s bones are magical and bring the little girl her heart’s desire.’
‘But it is true, Yia-Yia?’ Zoey’s blue eyes were even bigger and rounder than usual.
My grandmother smiled, sighed, shrugged. ‘Lies and truths, this is how tales are, my angel. Now close your eyes and go to sleep.’
I tell you this story about my grandmother, because it all began with her. ‘Find out the truth,’ she begged me, and bound my wrist with red thread to keep me safe, and sent me off to the other side of the world, into unimaginable danger.
How was I to find the truth when I did not know who to trust?
I began writing on the night of the new moon, 24th March 2020, and now one month later I have written almost 20,000 words. It is as if the story is unspooling out of me, urgent to be told.
The narrative will have two strands. The first is the modern-day quest of a young Australian woman to discover the truth of her great-grandparents’ lives on Crete during the Nazi occupation. The second is their story of resistance, which has a bitter betrayal at its heart.
I am only at the beginning at what I know will be a long and challenging journey, but I’m tremendously excited about this book. I’m finding it hard to focus on anything else!
Let the tale begin …