We had intended to use the barbeque. For the last couple of months it had been standing in the corner of the courtyard, half a hot water tank equipped with three legs of reinforced steel that gave it a queer, tripod-like appearance, unused and looking increasingly forlorn beneath a creeping patina of bright orange rust.
That morning S drove over to Livadia. She returned with half a kilo of sausages, as well as a bag of potatoes and a couple of large clumps of broccoli. The broccoli was a real find, fresh off the boat. According to S, Yiannis was immensely proud of it. It was lunchtime by then and things were looking good, but later that afternoon the wind got up from the north, as tends to happen, and the mercury plummeted. I was out walking, so thought nothing of it. But when I returned home at dusk, windblown and happy (and, what’s more, ready for a drink), I found S and B comfortably ensconced in the living room of B’s house, with the heaters on, watching Casanova on DVD. The barbeque idea, it turned out, was no longer on the table.
‘Couldn’t we cook the sausages in the kitchen and just pretend?’ asked S, glancing away from the screen, on which Heath Ledger was seducing yet another saucy young maiden, to look vaguely in my direction.
‘No,’ I said, disappointed and indignant, the chill of the wind still in me. ‘Of course we can’t pretend.’
Grumbling to myself I stalked outside and dragged the barbeque into the middle of the courtyard. The wind was howling but the house in front provided an adequate windbreak. It was also cold, but I liked the cold, particularly after a good walk, so I was feeling pretty good about everything and optimistic about the night ahead. Taking a lump of thyme bush that I’d uprooted from the field behind the house, I placed it at the bottom of the rusty old heater. Around it I arranged olive wood kindling and a few larger pieces of olive wood that I’d collected up on the mountainside a couple of days earlier. A pair of young kittens hovered nervously on the wall, on the lookout for food. As soon as everything was ready, I rolled up a sheet of newspaper, lit it with a match and, saying ‘here goes’, applied it to the thyme. To my delight it ignited with an almighty ‘whoosh’, crackling like the proverbial house on fire as it was engulfed by madly writhing orange and blue flames that shot vertically into the air, lighting up the dusky courtyard and casting leaping shadows on the whitewashed wall of the house.
To celebrate, I went and poured myself a glass of ouzo. I drank it standing by the fire watching the first stars appear in a wild sky that still glowed thinly with the last traces of daylight. The mountains jutted against it like solid black cut-outs. The air was big and blustery with the sea’s roaring. A fizzing mist of spindrift, driven by the gale, floated over the roof of the house and across the courtyard into the fields beyond. I sipped the ouzo, relishing the aniseed flavour and the chill of the ice in my mouth. If a better post-walk drink existed, I hadn’t yet found it. When the glass was empty, I went inside and poured myself another one.
Gradually the fire began to settle, the olive wood burning down to bed of glowing red coals, its peppery aroma tinting the air. I returned to the kitchen and took the sausages from the fridge. From the living room came the sound of laughter – Casanova again, creating merry hell. Sausages in hand I returned to the courtyard just in time to see a yellow slab of moon detach itself from the mountain behind the house. It lingered for a moment, haloing the broken stub of castle on top in an aureole of gorgeous buttery light. Then it sailed slowly and magnificently into the inky field of sky, gradually turning from yellow to white as it imbedded itself in its own hazy nimbus.
With a second ouzo on the go, the situation was improving by the minute. The rich smell of the burning olive wood swirled around me. I didn’t mind being left alone courtyard with two young kittens. Good things were happening all over the place. It was almost time to throw the sausages on the fire. On top of this, I still felt energised and excited by my afternoon’s walk.
It had started out modestly enough, just a casual jaunt up through the village and down to a chapel dedicated to Agia Paraskevi. This was a little white barrel-roofed building which sat prettily among the terraces against a backdrop of two great spreading pines. Sage and thyme grew all around it. It was one of those places that just felt right. The path that led to it was monumentally walled and, in November, lushly grassed. I followed it down past the chapel into a cutting where it joined the track that leads to the beach at Skafi. My plan was to walk to Skafi and swim, but then, quite suddenly, I experienced an urge to do something different with my afternoon. Following this impulse I left the track and climbed up over the terraces and through a gap in the low cliffs of powdery Pompeian red rock that rose on the other side.
The detour brought me, puffing but happy, onto a barren expanse of ground opposite the village. Dense clumps of khaki-coloured scrub lay over crumbly red-ochre earth shored up behind low terrace walls of flinty grey limestone. A handful of thinly spread olive trees swirled silvery green in the wind. Scattered among them were the charred skeletons of several very old trees that had been struck by lightning and now stood like monuments to their own toughness, ruined but enduring. Zipping up my jacket, I set a course over the terraces and began climbing the mountainside. The wind swirled around me. The dry scrub crunched under my boots. In the thin bright afternoon sunlight the golds and greens and greys and earth tones of my surroundings appeared with a primary brilliance beneath a sky of flawless cobalt.
At some point I stopped and turned to the south. There, extraordinarily distinctly upon the metallic horizon, stood the high mound of Karpathos. The island of Saria rose up before it. A little to one side was a second and slightly less vivid silhouette which I knew must have been Kassos. It was unusual to be able to see these islands so clearly. Often enough, you saw nothing at all, just a blank horizon whitened with haze. Encouraged by the sight, I quickened my pace and was soon quite high, forging my way over collapsed terraces, detouring around abrupt and unwelcome limestone salients that I was unable to scale.
The wind dropped as I moved up into the body of the mountain. The sun beat hard on my back and reflected off the stones and earth. With sweat running down my face and my heart thudding in my chest, I paused several more times to gaze back down at the way I had come – Agia Paraskevi looked tiny – and across at the village standing white and serene on its ruin-strewn mountainside. The euphoria that comes from gaining altitude quickly was upon me and I laughed with pleasure – up there on the mountain, all alone – as my eyes swept the heights, taking in Profitis Ilias, Paleiokastro, the towers at Amali and, far in the distance, the old communications station on the mighty peak of Koutsoumbas. Everything looked bright as a pin, the details exquisite. Continuing upwards, I was soon in striking distance of the ridge – a long, crenulated line of limestone that ascended to a gruff little peak, tucked away beneath which stood the old Italian heliograph station.
It didn’t take me long to reach the top. The ground dipped and tipped and I scrambled up, over a slope of dark red earth, to find myself standing on an open plateau covered by thorny phrygana. It was a bleak and empty place and the wind howled unimpeded, a noisy living presence. I staggered into it, surprised by its virulence. The sweat on my face seemed to dry in an instant. Zipping my jacket I thought with excitement of how the north wind was still called Voreias – the same name that the ancients gave to this all-powerful entity, which in one of the early creation myths formed itself into a serpent and fertilised the cosmic egg. Today its effect on the world was no less startling: looking out over the steep and lonely east side of the island, I beheld a racing sea furrowed by whitecaps and a vision of islands and mainland that had been stripped bare and brought into stunning focus.
With some wonder I gazed out across the sea at the neighbouring island of Nissyros, which looked within swimming distance. The corrugations in the steep brown cliffs that climbed out of the sea were perfectly delineated. I could see the trees and phrygana spread across its tan-coloured uplands and the village of Nikia, high on its shoulder, glittering like a little white sugar-cube. To the right of Nissyros, the long line of Kos reclined upon the sea like an old god, craggy but enduring, with the lofty southern end of Kalymnos rising above and beyond its midriff; while between the jutting tip of Turkish Dacta with its little white lighthouse and military outpost and the eastern tip of Kos floated the khaki-tinted fairy-tale mountains of the Bodrum peninsula. I could see all of Dacta, in perfect detail, as it soared high and wild and thickly forested above the sea, curving back towards the main body of Asia Minor and cuddling the island of Symi, all buff-coloured rock patched with the dark green of pine forest, with the tip of Rhodes edging into the picture from the west. Beyond Symi the mountainous coast of Anatolia floated away in a vision of snow-covered mountains. They were, I realised with a thrill, the western end of the Taurus massif, in which I had walked earlier in the year. Never would I have dreamed that I would be able to see so far.
Once again the sense of euphoria that I’d felt on the way up kicked in, though with redoubled force. The vision was mind-numbing. I couldn’t help thinking, as I drank it in, that this was the same world that men like Pericles and Alexander had looked upon. I also felt amazed and grateful that I was here, in November, walking alone on an island that had been my home for less than a year but which had already become integral to my being. The wind howled and I laughed straight back at it. It felt too good. Finally I turned and, still smiling, headed along the crumpled and craggy ridge to the Italian House.
The rest of the story is quickly told. The barbeque went smoothly. I managed not to burn the sausages, despite having become quite jolly with the ouzo, and we ate in the kitchen, with Bach’s Brandenburg concertos on the stereo vying with the wind outside and much lively talk of Casanova, Baron Pucci, Paprizzio and Giovanni Bruni. The night went on a bit, as they often did at Agios Antonios; but then finally we said goodnight to B and, replete with food and music and conversion and plenty of cheap red wine, ambled off to bed. On the way I checked the thermometer in the courtyard. It read a chilly eleven degrees.
It was even colder early next morning when I got out of bed and, quite naked, raced outside to visit the bathroom. Stars glittered high overhead. The wind was still roaring. On the way back I went and stood at the courtyard gate and saw the moon, a dark and portentous reddish-orange colour now, hanging above the darkness of Plaka. The noise was enormous and a crumpled band of golden light angled towards me across the stormy black sea.