A Letter I once wrote

Just a quick note to let you know that Vangelis died last Wednesday. As you know, he’s been sick for awhile and lately hadn’t been looking too good. The funeral was held next day in Livadia at the big white church. At Agios Antonios there was the usual last minute kerfuffle, but finally S, B and I piled into the little purple Polo and, with my two companions arguing between themselves as to who exactly was responsible for us being so late, sped off across the island. Miraculously we arrived just as the service began.

Assuming you were unfortunate enough to die, it actually wasn’t a bad day on which to go out. We had been experiencing a good deal of rain, but by mid-morning the clouds had cleared and watery sunlight beamed down for the duration of proceedings. As the church was full, we listened to the service from outside in the courtyard. That was crowded too, mind you, with what looked like the entire population of Tilos standing around with heads bowed and hands crossed before them. Eventually the chanting coming from inside the church stopped and, moments later, the open coffin was carried out and, with Vangelis’ face peeking peacefully out from a swathe of decorative flowers, loaded into the back of his son-in-law’s dilapidated red pickup for the short haul to the cemetery. Following directly behind came Vangelis’ mother, a bent old woman in black who, supported on the arms of relatives, wailed ‘Vangeli mou’ in a thin tired voice over and over. Vangelis was apparently the third of her children that she saw buried, which must be a terrible thing for a mother. She was put into a car and people began singing as the pickup began moving and a mournful procession followed behind. We tagged on towards the end and wended our way slowly up past the butcher’s shop and the Elidi hotel and then out through fields which, covered in wildflowers, glistened wetly in the sunlight.

By the graveside Papa Thanasis ordered the coffin to be covered and a typical Greek argument erupted among the pallbearers as to the best way to lower it into the ground. ‘Put the feet first,’ someone was shouting, as they lowered it slowly on ropes to the sound of the priest’s talismanic chanting. Vangelis’ mother continued to wail, upheld by relatives. Her cries were echoed by Vangelis’ daughter Martina, who stood at the end of the grave wailing ‘patera mou, patera mou,’ while giving the impression that it was only the restraining arms of the two women on either side of her that prevented her from launching herself into the hole on top of the coffin. Outside this circle most of the women mourners, and not a few of the men, were unashamedly crying as the chanting continued and people began picking up clods of the damp red earth and throwing them down onto the lid of the coffin where they landed with a thud. ‘Kalo Taxidi, Vangeli,’ Good journey, someone said and there were nods and murmurs of approbation all around. Then suddenly the prayers stopped and Papa Thanasis raised his eyes to the heavens and closed his book. Moments later the Albania gravediggers moved in and, as the crowd moved off, began shovelling in the earth.

After we’d offered our condolences to Nikos and Martina, I decided to go for a walk. I headed up past your way, not knowing whether Keith was here or not (though I figured he would have been at the funeral if he was). Sad to say my appearances this winter in Livadia have been few and far between. It’s been a poor performance, I admit, but in my defence I can point to the weather which has been a touch on the extreme side this year and, even in its better moments, hardly conducive to cross-island jaunts on foot. Not real keen on the idea of being turned into a walking icicle, I have instead stuck to my side of the limestone, freezing my bum off in places like Skafi and the monastery and on the wind blasted slopes of Mt Profitis Ilias. A lot of my time, too, has been spent cutting wood for the stove in an ongoing effort to keep the house warm. In other words, I’ve been a slack friend but I’ve got some excuses.

Now I was here, however, I thought I’d check things out. The situation didn’t look too encouraging as I crossed the wasteland out front. Nobody moved in any of the houses. The windows all looked uniformly blank. Then suddenly a door slammed somewhere and, moments later, Georgia appeared round the side of the building, her baby in her arms, and came striding along the pavement. We exchanged greetings and I asked about Keith’s whereabouts. Georgia’s pretty chin went up as she replied, no, ‘To Cowboy’ had left for Scotland two or three weeks ago. She added that she thought he might return in March, though she said she wasn’t sure.

With my hopes of a cold Amstel dashed, I bid Georgia farewell and continued on my way. The sky had clouded over again and the afternoon looked gloomy. However I found the cold clear air invigorating and there was a perceptible spring in my step as I out along the waterfront in the general direction of Pharos. I still hadn’t decided where exactly I was going, but then the sinuous curves of the terraces overhead caught my eye and, on an impulse, I left the road and headed upwards through woody sage and all manner of fleshy green plants and stubborn cushions of prickly genista. My boots sunk into the damp, red clay earth and my breath came in spurts. Spurred on by the cold, I gained height quickly and was soon able to look down on Livadia bay between its high, chiselled, buff-coloured headlands and across the sea to the shadowy, but clearly defined, mountains of the Turkish coast. Livadia was badly fucked up and getting more fucked up by the day, but I had to admit the view was beautiful. The most encouraging thing was the fact that I couldn’t hear a single jackhammer. For some reason the workers went quiet in winter. An odd feeling of elation set in that steadily became more pronounced as I climbed higher and higher.

My jaunt wasn’t entirely aimless. At the back of my mind was the idea that I might stumble upon some orchids. It was still early in the season, I knew, but my interest had been piqued a few days previously when, in the hills just above our house, I had stumbled upon a flowering specimen. Before this I had seen heaps of the boring-as-batshit hill orchids and quite a fair number of the equally dull fusca ophrys, but this flower was neither. It was a bit like others I’ve seen – though never so early – with bold pink stamens and petals and a delicately lobed flower with a brown and orange blaze. This description, I realise, tells you absolutely nothing, and what’s more is not at all scientific, so I will attach a photo. Maybe you could have a shot at identifying it and tell me your findings.

But to cut a long story short, I didn’t see any. Indeed on this particular mountain I failed even to locate many leaves, which was a tad discouraging and I walked along shaking my head. I climbed up to just beneath the ridgeline where there is a derelict house, with an extremely sophisticated bread oven, standing in a small meadow with several fig trees, mere grey skeletons at this time of year, then headed inland along a very faint path. As I walked, I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance and see a grey pall of rain approaching from the south. My ears felt frozen in the wind and I was beginning to question the sanity of my decision to venture up here when I came to the spring beneath the trees at Roukouni and rain suddenly began to fall. Of course I was unprepared, sans rain jacket, and the situation was looking grim as I had a quick drink of water and then set out towards the castle, which had disappeared in the deluge. Fortunately the path was clearer in these parts and I made good progress, head bent against the downpour, although the wind blew icily through my jumper and I was unsuccessful in my attempts to find a cave. My only hope was the chapel of Petros and Pavlos, still some 15 minutes distant. I hurried towards it, but then the rain began to ease and, by the time I was in hailing distance, it had ceased completely and the sky was beginning to clear.

I realise that this is hardly cutting things short, and I apologise – I will finish promptly, I promise. What happened was this. The break in the rain meant that I decided to continue walking. It was a pure stroke of genius that afforded me the inestimable pleasure of crossing terraces strewn with brightly coloured plastic bags, blown there from the rubbish tip up above, and led me to become drenched all over again when the clouds regathered and more rain bucketed down. By now I wasn’t having much fun, I can tell you, especially as I had begun to feel hungry and sensed my energy flagging, while the wind swirled madly around me, chilling me in my sodden clothes. On the plus side, there were swathes of flowers by the path side: great masses of cyclamen, and chamomile and anemones pushing up among the sage and the drab grey-green thyme. This spurred me on and I continued to the bottom of the path, where I was further heartened by the sight of three brand new road signs, like the type you see on highways, strategically placed on each side of that horrid crossroads.

Each sign was virtually identical and gave much the same information, to wit, the direction of and distance to Livadia, Agia Anna and the Monastery of Politissa. Wet to the skin by this stage, I gazed upon these grandiose dispensers of indispensible information in wonder and, as I gazed, it occurred to me that one sign would have been enough, indeed more than enough – they are rather large – but no, alas, that wouldn’t be progress.

Ah, the vanity of human ways.

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