Probably I should have listened to Charlie. At least that’s what I was thinking as I crouched in the ruined chapel of Panagia, gazing out through the jagged hole in the apse as the mother of all thunderstorms crashed over the valley. Rain fell in a torrent, obscuring the mountaintops. Rolling peals of thunder, breaking directly overhead, were preceded by sudden flashes of lightning that revealed my surrounds in an eerily luminous violet exposure. I had seen some storms during my years on Tilos, and this was up with the best of them. The only question was, when was it going to let up so that I could get out of here. Although dry and, presumably, safe for the time being, the derelict chapel wasn’t the most salubrious bolthole. Water dripped from several places in its cracked barrel roof and the earthen floor was covered in goat pellets and liberally scattered with the bones of deceased animals. It also smelled pretty bad.
But back to Charlie. We’d had a beer together at Omoneia two days earlier, not long after I’d disembarked from the Diagoras. Seated in the pleasant shade of the ficus tree Charlie had filled me in on the local news and gossip, a lot of which seemed to be bad. Worse was to come, however, when he got onto the weather forecast: this jolly little prophecy promised terrible thunderstorms and unrelenting rain until at least the end of the week (and it was only Sunday!). It was the last thing I wanted to hear, having just begun a much-longed-for six-week holiday in Greece, but according to Charlie there was no doubt about it. He smiled as he said this and in his voice I thought I detected a note of pleasure at being able to deliver the grim tidings. To put the issue beyond doubt he took out his phone and showed me the forecast. There it was, plain as day: a row of billowing clouds, pierced by jagged bolts of lightning and unleashing clusters of little dashes which were meant to signify rain. On the brightly glowing screen it looked pleasantly abstract and, therefore, harmless, but not to Charlie.
‘I’d think twice about walking in the mountains if I were you,’ he concluded, tucking his phone back into his pocket and looking perfectly content. ‘I’d hate to hear about some mad Australian being drowned on Tilos.’
Probably I should have listened. But you always think with Charlie, ‘ah, it couldn’t be that bad,’ and usually, I must say, it wasn’t. I was thinking something along those lines last night as I sat at Kastro, finishing my wine and listening to the first tentative shower peppering the aluminium terrace roof. I’d had a good walk that day, over to the beach at Luboudi and then 450-odd metres up to the mountaintop where the old Italian heliograph station was perched. I’d also eaten a wonderful, wine-soaked lunch with my friend Menelaus, which had helped put me in the mood to start with. I should have been content, in other words, but for some reason I was restless, unable to sit still and eager for more. Maybe it was the excellent dinner I’d eaten: scrumptiously moist and flavoursome revithokeftedes and a clay pot full of hearty lamb giovetsi, plus a deliciously cold FIX beer and another half-litre of red wine. Or maybe it was just being back on Tilos after all that time away.
Part of it was, I still had to find somewhere to sleep. Upon arrival I hadn’t bothered looking for accommodation, my plan being to simply wander around the island and sleep wherever I ended up. The prospect of rain didn’t really impinge on this, although it did mean I would have to think things through, which wasn’t a process I was overly familiar with. I knuckled down now, however, devoting my last thimble-full of wine to the effort. And before too long I arrived at what I thought was a splendid plan: I would walk up to the Monastery of Agios Panteleimon, which stood dramatically at the end of a winding and occasionally perilous mountain road on the slopes of Profitis Ilias, and lay my weary head down there.
At the time it seemed like a reasonable option. Indeed during my years of living on Tilos I had always wanted to spend a night or two at the monastery, especially in winter, but for one reason or another had never got around to it – now was my chance. In the past, the keys had always been left in the doors of the cells, but even if that was no longer the case, I knew I could always sleep on one of the covered balconies. As I finished my wine, I recalled the many times I had sheltered there from winter storms, racing down off the mountainside as thunder cracked and lightning flashed all around me, then filling in my time chinning myself on the rafters and talking to the resident cats while I waited for things to calm down. Strange, I thought, but the idea of doing such things in Australia had never crossed my mind. I was badly in need of an adventure… I called Rob over and asked for the bill.
The air had been subtly changing, growing increasingly damp and fragrant, as I had sat over my meal. The first light shower had released the familiar smell of sun-warmed concrete suddenly cooling, together with a very faint aroma of wet grass that wafted up from the fields. Now, as I left the village behind and headed down past the old monastery, I was suddenly embowered in a lush, humid and extremely pungent miasma of aromas, which the first touch of rain had unleashed from earth and plants whose individual essences had been baked in and concentrated by months of unrelenting summer sun. My head spun a bit as I breathed in deeply, recognising the familiar fragrances of spice and incense. Though I hate to sound like a wanker, it was a bit like Proust with his madeleine cake – the tiniest whiff of burnt up thyme and oregano and sage unlocked countless chapters of memory. I drank it in as I walked along, in a bit of a dream, listening vaguely to the pitter-patter of the rain and feeling grateful for its cool touch on my skin. Nothing else moved and there was no other sound apart from this slow and gentle nocturnal whispering. Clouds hung over Profitis Ilias, veiling the summit and a good deal of the ridge. On the mountaintop above the village, the lights of the castle glowed weirdly through a gathering haze of mist.
The walk up to the monastery proved uneventful. The night was warm and humid, the earth cossetted and muffled by low, fluffy grey cloud and the slow, even drizzle. All was quiet at Agios Antonios, the windows of the houses dark. As I followed the road up past the mill, a dog barked among the bushes a little way off, but then went silent. Mingling now with the all-enveloping scent of wet earth and herbs I could smell a faint odour of salt coming up off the sea, which barely moved against the shore and unravelled like a swathe of black velvet across the broad curl of the bay. In the distance I could just make out the cone of Nissyros blacked out against the gloom, with the lights of Nikia glittering palely high up on its shoulder. Sweat prickled my face and my boots thudded dully on the tarmac as the road began to climb and wind around the sinuous flank of the mountain, which climbed darkly overhead in invisible ranks of terraces to a high and jagged limestone ridge. As it I walked I reminded myself that for eight years this had once been once of my favourite outings, something I did often and usually with great pleasure.
Above Plaka the road turned and steepened and the air freshened marginally as the island fell away behind me and I found myself gazing out across a dark emptiness of sea. Now the cliffs climbed directly overhead, shadows gathering dark and mysterious in the crevices and holes that pitted the lofty paleness of limestone. Further up the road steepened again and it was a bit of a strain on the poor old legs, relatively fresh off the aeroplane and it had been a big day. Rain continued to fall and far below the sea lay motionless and silent, just the faintest lacing of foam clinging white around the rocky perimeter of the island. I pushed on and soon rounded a last corner and, with a high wall of cliffs rising directly before me, marched up to the monastery gates.
I was surprised to see that lights were on. The inner courtyard, which contained the chapel and cloisters, was brightly illuminated. I hadn’t expected this and I felt a trifle put out as I opened the metal gate, carefully because I didn’t want to disturb anyone, and crept into the enclosure. I could hear the water gushing from the monastery spring, loud in the warm dripping silence. And a little way ahead of me I saw a car parked under the vast, low hanging branches of enormous old plane trees that sheltered the outer area. I knew at once that it was Papa Manolis’ 4X4, which surprised me because he’d given up living here years ago due to his heart problems.
A moment later a savage barking cracked the silence wide open and I turned to see Pirat, the little white dog that lived at the monastery, charging towards me. On the way in I had wondered vaguely whether my old friend was still around, and although on one hand I was very pleased to see him, on the other I found the racket he was making rather unsettling. If he kept going like this, I thought, he was going to bring Papa Manolis and whoever else was in residence right down on top of me. Clearly nothing had changed with this singular creature, who had always welcomed me in the same endearing, if noisy, manner.
‘Pirat,’ I hissed, ‘Will you please shut up. You’re going to wake the neighbourhood.’
This had little effect, so I walked towards him, going ‘Shhhhhhh…’ Pirat retreated in turn, taking a couple of paces backwards. He barked some more, his teeth bared, his pointed, floppy-eared head with the one black eye-patch tilted defiantly upwards, then growled uncertainly and finally, unbelievably, fell silent. This was more like it, I thought, and to show my appreciation, as well as to discourage him from barking again, I bent down and swept him up into my arms, holding his fluffy little body close against me and saying ‘Ela, Pirat, good doggie’ in as sweet and conciliatory tone as I could manage. I then sat down on the bench under a plane tree, opposite the roaring spring. Pirat relished the attention, wagging his little stub of tail and burying his nose in my armpit. It was just like old times.