Eventually, with daylight showing beyond the large round windows, the time came to say goodbye to Santa and to all my other friends at Bozi – which couldn’t at that point have numbered more than five or six hardy revellers, including Mr and Mrs Bozi – and wend my weary way home. As usual, I intended to walk, reasoning, possibly illogically, that since I never experienced any problems walking the ten kilometres back to Agios Antonios under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t experience any now.
To my delight Santa agreed, merely telling me to look after myself, as well as reminding me about the party at Bozi on New Year’s Eve.
‘I’ll be waiting for you,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye, as we shook hands.
Mr Bozi, by contrast, was not quite so sanguine about my plans. After nearly choking on his Amstel, he immediately began casting around for someone to drive me home. At that hour of the morning it was a herculean task, owing to the limited cast of characters at his disposal; inevitably perhaps, his gaze ultimately fell on Yianni, Tilos’s genial, if occasionally elusive, Go-to man for telephone and internet problems. Yianni lived at Megalo Horio, which made him the obvious candidate. Yet I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched him wave a lit cigarette before the increasingly bewildered eyes of Mario the DJ, that possibly he wasn’t quite the right man for the job; clearly he’d consumed at least as many drinks as I had in the last twenty-four hours and possibly more.
Besides which, I was determined to walk, feeling full of beans, as the saying is, and eager to see what adventures the morning held. In order not to give offence, therefore, I explained as tactfully as I could that I intended to go via Lethra, adding that I needed some exercise and fresh air.
The idea had popped into my addled consciousness out of nowhere, and even as I gave it utterance I didn’t know whether I would follow through with it, but it had the intended effect. All talk of finding me a lift disappeared, now that I obviously knew what I was doing, into thin air.
‘Bravo, file,’ said Mr Bozi, as he delivered one final and very enthusiastic high-five, while Yianni draped an arm over my shoulder and slurred, ‘You know, Yianni, Tilos I think is the most beautiful island and the best thing you can do is walk around it. Kali volta, Yianni…’
Shouts of ‘kali volta’, ‘good walk’, followed me to the door. Upon wrenching it open I received a minor setback when a blast of wind caught me head-on, stopping me dead in my tracks. Instinctively I reached for the door handle and braced my legs. At the same time my eyes blinked furiously as they sought to adapt from the crepuscular dimness of Bozi to the bright daylight outside. To my astonishment, the sun had risen. Its piercing light gleamed on the rumpled skin of a midnight blue sea, grooved into white-tufted furrows, that lurched and lumbered towards the shore in a northerly gale. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I found the sudden onslaught of noise and light and bitter cold profoundly disturbing. My initial impulse was to return to the bar and order another drink.
I was saved by a deeply buried and sadly under-utilised instinct for self-preservation, which asserted itself at the last moment. With head bent, therefore, against the turbulence and my hands bunched into fists in the pockets of my trousers, I turned my back on sinfulness and sallied forth over the threshold. My momentum carried over a little bridge that spanned a decorative pond, empty but for several inches of murky rainwater in which a can of Red Bull lay half-submerged, and onto the waterfront. There I found myself, buffeted by wind and mildly delusional due to alcohol and lack of sleep, weaving along the promenade past glittering white buildings that were closed for the winter, their locked doors and shuttered windows secured against the elements by lengths of plastic sheeting held down by miniature boulders plundered from the beach.
Everywhere I turned, pandemonium reigned. Thick-trunked tamarisk trees ranged along the rear of the beach, slaves to the tempest, shook and spun and twisted as if in protest at their rough handling. Gleaming waves erupted out of petulant blue-green shallows; they collapsed with a roar on a slant of smooth grey and white pebbles that clattered and complained as they were dragged up the beach, then sucked back down again. Crows flapped ragged and windblown above lush green fields, or else perched unsteadily on swaying electricity wires or in the branches of fig and turpentine trees stripped bare by the winter. At ground level, goats shivered and looked forlorn. As I strode along, mumbling to myself about rash decisions, it seemed that the only things not moving were the ground beneath my feet and the mountains beyond the fields. The latter were formidable in their beauty, their rough, scrub-clogged slopes, tinted green-gold by the tremulous morning sunlight, climbing to limestone peaks and ridges whose ragged crenulations were etched with steel-nib precision against a flawless cobalt sky.
The wind, meanwhile, had scoured the air to a pin-bright clarity. In this rarefied atmosphere the world seemed jumbled and confused to my bleary gaze; everything appeared larger than life somehow and rather too close for comfort. In the distance the Turkish mountains soared above the sea, as clear and perfect as an apparition. Closer to hand proceedings assumed a faintly surreal touch as I passed the harbour, where a handful of runabouts and caiques sheltered behind the breakwater, and ascended the lower slopes of the mountain that enclosed this end of the bay. Slowly and not without effort I threaded my way upwards between the outlying houses of the town, which were uniformly silent and deserted, the air suddenly eerily still in the lee of the slope. Shadows thickened around damp white walls and cats lurked around every second corner…
Paving had given way to bare earth and the houses had begun to thin out when, towards the top of the lane, I met an elderly woman sweeping her terrace. She was stout and affable-looking, her round brown face enfolded by a floral headscarf. Her eyes lit up with pleasure when she saw me. She was, tellingly, the first person I had sighted since leaving Bozi.
‘Pou pas, paidi mou?’ she asked, her voice thin and faintly teasing. Where are you going, my child?
I smiled, pulling up before her gate. The truth was, I saw this lady nearly every time I walked this way and could virtually predict the conversation we were about to have.
‘Sto horio,’ I replied. To the village.
‘Po, po, po, makria einai.’ It’s far away.
‘Kai krio,’ said the woman, pretending to hug herself against an imaginary wind. And cold.
‘Poly krio,’ I agreed. Very cold.
The woman paused and, her lovely old face assuming a puzzled expression, asked me why I was going to Lethra. In reply I said the first thing that came into my mind – to wit, that I had no idea. She laughed and so did I, and then, too dazed to say more, I made my farewells and got underway, smiling to myself at the cries of ‘Sto kalo, sto kalo…’ that followed me up the lane.
I climbed the mountainside in a kind of trance, waltzing blithely through a wire gate and along a lovely old path above cliffs that plunged with appalling abruptness into the roiling sea. I stepped lightly around ‘Suicide Corner’, where landfalls and erosion had reduced the path to a thread of dusty red earth barely two feet wide. Higher up, I entered a world of airy space, blue and limitless. Sunlight poured down, lifting the colours around me: the Pompeian red of earth, the crinkly golds and russets and washed out khakis of the phrygana on the terraces, the grey and pink of limestone and the rich deep green of the euphorbia that decked the mountainside as it climbed to remote and dizzy heights. Livadia lay far behind me now, sprawled whitely around its turbulent bay. Beyond, the view extended past the hilltop chapel of Agios Yiannis all the way to Gera and the great limestone crag of Koutsoumbas which soared above it, both still swamped in cold blue shadow. An eagle appeared overhead, hovered momentarily, its mighty wings quivering in the gale, then wheeled backwards and seemed to be swept away over the top of the ridge. Then the path turned and I was blasted again by a gale that blew, with a buffeting howl, off a white-capped strait on the other side of which the Turkish mountains reared upwards, dreamlike and serene looking.
Stumbling on I passed above alluring coves with red sand beaches washed by limpid turquoise shallows, the surface of the sea swept and combed by the wind into elegant traceries. Lethra duly appeared, its pebble beach backed by bucolic meadows hemmed by trees – olive and carob and winter-bare almonds and turpentines and figs. As I looked down I thought of my friends at Bozi: if only they could see me now. Part of me longed to follow the path down and, like a shepherd of yore, lay my weary head under an olive and fall asleep to the tinkle of goat bells and the roar of the wind in the trees. The way I was feeling, I’d be easy pickings for any malicious wood nymph that happened to be lurking. I might, for all I knew, end up in fairyland and no-one would ever see me again.
Fortunately perhaps I quickly saw the folly in this – what if I awoke, hours hence, hungry and thirsty and far from home? – so I turned inland at the first opportunity upon another fine path that led along the terraces above a ravine clogged with trees, just the tops of them visible, opposite a vast crag that I had climbed several times over the years but never, I recalled, with much pleasure. I pushed on and soon found myself, after a little up and downing, in a secluded and very pretty glen enfolded by terraced slopes thick with silvery-green olive trees; water seeped out of the ground amid swathes of rose-tinged cyclamen and poplars turned glittering above broad, fanlike terraces of rich green grass. A spring gurgled away and there, amidst the lush fanfare of flowers and greenery, was the track that would lead me back to the road. Suddenly I was feeling very tired.