Watching the storm engulf the valley from the confines of the smelly old chapel proved an entertaining experience. However it was also one of those spectacles where a little tends to go a long way and my enforced confinement soon began to chafe. As soon as the rain lightened off, therefore, and a glimmer of light returned to the sky, I didn’t think twice before clambering back out through the hole in the apse and setting off across the wet dripping landscape. Lightning continued to flicker and thunder rumbled; but everything seemed distant now and, as misty clouds drifted like battle smoke around the mountaintops, there was a perceptible feeling of momentary detente. The air felt cool and freshly washed after the rain and the post-storm silence that had set in was so complete and perfect that when a goat suddenly bleated high up under the cliffs, the sound carried down to me with an almost heartrending clarity.
From the chapel I followed the path across the watercourse and then up around the mountainside, gradually gaining height as I traversed rough, stony ground thinly quilted in an assortment of prickly phrygana which offered little in the way of visual diversion. Overhead the limestone piled up in complex grey tiers, its gruff and torturous contortions rendering it all but inaccessible to anything less nimble than a goat; below the land fell away in uneven skirts of barely discernible terraces to the mottled blue-grey gulf of Limenari bay. The terraces were evidence that men had maintained a presence here once, but clearly it was a long time ago and, observing the steep and inhospitable terrain, I found it hard to believe that it was anything more than a grudging, hard-fought acquaintance. I had walked in this part of the island more times than I cared to remember but, with the exception of the magnificent beach at Limenari, I had never found it attractive, being drawn to it rather by its otherworldly sense of isolation and the challenges it posed to my fitness.
I was approaching the ridgetop when the sky darkened over and rain began to fall. Once again everything happened quickly. In the flicker of an eye the first tentative drops became a deluge and a sudden luminous flash heralded a massive volley of thunder, causing me to duck instinctively as I hurried across the high exposed ground, eager to put it behind me and get down off the mountain. Even on good days the descent was long and painstaking; under these conditions it was a gruelling test of both stamina and concentration, the main challenge being to remain on my feet as I raced downhill over a path of slippery red-clay earth punctuated by awkward outcrops of treacherously wet limestone and strewn with loose rocks that displayed an alarming tendency to go wandering out from under the soles of my boots. Far below Eristos lay like a dim memory, vaguely glimpsed through a dense pall of rain. I can’t pretend that I managed things graciously – with my feet sloshing about in water-logged boots and my sodden clothes hanging heavily, I cursed loud and long and, at one point, challenged whoever or whatever it was that was tormenting me to strike me down with a thunderbolt and put an end to things once and for all. Clearly I was getting worked up about things and, what’s more, no longer possessed my old resilience, but in any event the sight of yet another twisted prong of electricity ricocheting from rock to rock at no great distance prompted me to withdraw my challenge. It was, after all, only my fourth day back in Greece after a nineteen month absence – far better, in other words, to live to fight another day.
I don’t know how long it took me but eventually I crossed a last small gully and descended to the rough shepherds’ track that led back to Eristos, where I became diverted by the sight of an old field house standing on a flat patch of ground overlooking the path to Agios Petros bay. Formerly this building had served as a storehouse; bales of dry grass, fodder for the goats when times were lean, were stacked to the roof behind a padlocked door of wooden planks. Now, however, the door lay discarded and broken on the ground and I found the house empty apart from the mandatory carpet of goat pellets, a handful of rusty tin cans, some bits of old timber and, huddled in the corner, a quartet of woebegone goats who obligingly leapt through the window the moment I appeared. They left behind them a pungent aroma of wet hair, together with several mounds of fresh droppings and an almost palpable air of resentment at being dispossessed.
Upon taking up residence I immediately realised why the building no longer served as a storehouse. Roughly halfway across one of the massive timber beams that supported the roof had cracked and now sagged alarmingly under its weight of compacted earth, pebbles and leaves, the roofing components of choice in old Dodecanese houses. Furthermore an iron girder that had been slung lengthwise across the beam to provide additional support had snapped also and rainwater poured uninhibitedly from the broken joint. In other circumstances I might have been troubled. After all, you didn’t have to be Archimedes to realise that the roof stood a good chance of collapsing as the soil soaked up more water and became increasingly heavy, but given the day I was having I found it hard to get too excited, more or less thinking that what will be will be. Having reached this conclusion I literally turned my back on the problem, standing in the doorway watching the rain bucket down on the bleak hillside opposite and several walled fields of dark chunky earth that months of summer sun had denuded of virtually every trace of vegetation.
At some stage, however, the thought of the roof got the better of me and I moved away from the doorway and went and stood in the far corner of the gloomy little house, adjacent to the window from which the goats had effected their escape and within view of Agios Petros – if, that is, Agios Petros had been visible but it wasn’t, having vanished behind the dark squalls of rain sweeping in off the sea. Rainwater dripped from the roof in four separate places and looking out through the window I occasionally saw one of the displaced goats stick its head out from under a nearby rock overhang, bleat complainingly in my direction and then disappear again. Suck eggs, keratades…
Shortly after making this adjustment I fell into a black depression. I went to the dark side, as Jack warns Miles not to do in a poignantly funny moment from the film Sideways. It wasn’t just being stuck in the middle of a storm seemingly without end that killed my mood – I had been caught in plenty of storms in the past and it had never bothered me. In fact I had usually relished the experience.
The problem, rather, was that my return to Tilos was proving difficult, chiefly by confronting me with all the things I had given away since returning to Australia to look after my mother. As the grim thoughts multiplied I tried hard not to feel sorry for myself; but standing in the fetid semi-darkness, water dripping all around me and rain pouring down outside, I couldn’t help grieving for my old life, the girlfriend whom I loved, even the dimly remembered feeling of waking up each morning with the sense that life was an adventure. I told myself that these things happened, that situations got tough sometimes and that I would claw my way back again – the return to Greece was a start – but in that particular moment the sense of loss was overwhelming and the storm that refused to let up and had trapped me in this ruined house seemed like another insult, a final kick in the guts delivered by the powers of outrageous fortune. I guess you could say I wasn’t having a very good day. I felt like shit, to be honest.
Just then I heard I heard a crack and, turning, leapt back into the corner as the roof fell in. It was just like in the movies. A number of large and phenomenally heavy timber beans swung downward towards me. Before I’d even grasped what was happening they’d planted their shattered ends in the ground a metre or so from my feet. Several tons of earth came down with them and, as debris flew everywhere, I was comprehensively splattered. It was all over in seconds and then everything was still again, the world unchanged except now the house had hardly any roof to shelter under, and the rain poured cheerfully down.