I followed the track up between a fold in the hills. The wind ploughed through the olive trees on the terraces, setting their leaves flashing silvery-green. In the brittle sunlight, everything glittered and shone, but the truth be told, I was beginning to fade. My legs felt like lead as I plodded uphill. I began to regret refusing that lift (Where was Yianni now? I wondered). It was discouraging, therefore, to find my progress impeded, towards the top of the slope, by an unwieldy steel gate secured with three separate lengths of rope, each of which some mindless zealot had tied in a knot of diabolical complexity. I could have screamed, except I was too weary. As it was, it took me ten minutes and a lot of cursing before I had worked my way free and was able to continue. Beneath the blank gaze of the abandoned houses of Micro Horio, which spilled down the mountainside opposite, I arrived at the main road in a poor state, discomfited in body and mind and, what’s more, in absolutely no mood for walking. I was just in time to hear the two-stroke whine of a bike approaching from the direction of Livadia.
I paused and watched as the bike came into view around a bend in the road. Seated upon it I recognised Vince, the young and obliging Bulgarian stepson of Pantelis from Dream Taverna. He pulled up when he saw me and, a broad grin splitting his fresh-featured face, asked in a husky voice, ‘Pou pas?’ Where are you going?
‘Sto horio,’ I replied. To the village.
‘Ela, na se paro,’ he said. Come on, I’ll take you, and as he spoke he slid forward on the seat to make room for me to get on.
I didn’t normally take lifts, out of pride mostly, but this seemed like a special occasion. I had just spent the night drinking with Santa Claus, after all. There weren’t too many people who could honestly say that. I was also exhausted, as I have already mentioned. Sure, I could have made it if I’d had to, but Vince’s offer seemed to present an opportunity, the chance to do something different for a change, and something inside me leapt at it. Feeling suddenly drunk again, I climbed aboard and, placing my hands lightly on Vince’s waist, shouted into his right ear, ‘Pame!’
Vince duly opened the throttle and we got underway, tentatively at first. I laughed and shouted ‘Opa!’ as the bike wobbled precariously across the road. A hairy old billygoat, standing nearby, imperiously snorted. Seconds later Vince gave the machine more gas and we began to move, regaining a straight trajectory as the bike picked up speed, zipping along the bottom of the valley that bisected the island. The wind blew straight into our faces, cold and exhilarating. On either side of us craggy mountains soared against the sky. Steely shadows blanketed the slope nearer the sea. The other, climbing towards the centre of the island, lay awash with sunlight that lit the grey terrace walls and the rust-red earth and the wiry, winter-green phrygana in a bold golden glow. After a hesitant start, I began to gain confidence. Soon, as the joy of movement took over, I removed my hands from Vince’s waist and held them by my sides like I’d seen the locals do. We were really moving now, the grey tarmac slipping away beneath my feet and trees and mountainsides flashing by.
At one point the road dipped into the long stretch of shadow and the temperature plummeted. I laughed with the thrill of it, feeling my bones start to rattle. The roar of the engine was loud in my ears. It blended with the buffeting wind that blew into my face. Soon the road climbed again, back into sunlight, and as the warmth of it swept over me I saw, ahead in the distance, the whitewashed houses of Megalo Horio strewn across the flank of a lofty crag crowned by a ruined castle. Sunlight edged among the houses, infiltrating the shadows. In its gentle emergence the village looked magical and not quite real, like something out of a storybook, a fantasy city in a faraway land. Peering over Vince’s shoulder, I drank in the vision and felt at once exhilarated and moved beyond words. At the same time almost, the mountains parted to the left of the road revealing the lush greenery of the Eristos plain and, beyond it, brushed flat by the wind, the blue Aegean stretching towards an empty horizon.
At that point, motivated by I know not what impulse, I lifted my arms until they were horizontal to the road, just like Jack Nicholson did in the 1969 cult classic, Easy Rider. Under the circumstances, the action seemed perfect. It honestly felt like the best thing I could do. I laughed with the thrill of it, crazily, and shouted, ‘Ela, Vince… Pameeee…’ Then, the next I knew, I was singing, shouting into the wind the hypnotic and nonsensical refrain of Dirlada, an old Greek song which I barely knew apart this mad syncopation: ‘la la dir la da da… la la dir la da da…’
I gave it the works, arms extended, as we raced along. I sang it over and over, ‘la la dir la da da, la la dir la da da… la la dir la da da’ swooping downhill between rows of eucalypt trees, the leaves shaking and shimmering in the noisy turbulence. Golden shafts of light angled down over the ridge to the east, parting the shadows to alight on scrubby fields. In the wind-bright morning, the island looked more vibrant and beautiful than I had ever seen it. We zoomed past the helipad and a whitewashed chapel. I think I saw donkeys standing in a field. Further on, dirt tracks forked off on both sides of the road, winding away under the bare branches of turpentine trees whose thick grizzly trunks were mottled with mustard-coloured lichen. ‘La la dir la da da, la la dir la da da …’ I bellowed, at the top of my lungs, as the road climbed again and we turned towards the village, which was directly overhead now, the individual houses clearly visible in the broadening sunlight. Cypress trees appeared, darkly elegant, by the roadside and I looked out at ruined buildings and long green grass and sheep and goats happily grazing. ‘La la dir la da da, La la dir la da da…’ The sun poured down on the fields and everything glittered in the clean cold air. I can’t describe how truly and deeply alive I felt.
I must have quietened down as we entered the village. I hope I did. Vince eased off the gas after we’d turned into the main street and I lowered my arms as we coasted down past the supermarket and under the pergola which took a battering that winter. Outside the KEP office, Vince pulled up and I dismounted and, laughing, slapped him the back. ‘Okay?’ he said, in English, and looked at me, I thought, somewhat doubtfully, the grin on his face lacking its usual conviction.
‘Kala eimai,’ I said, I’m fine, and then I thanked him for the lift and watched as, raising a valedictory hand, he rolled off down the road and disappeared around the corner. As the whine of the reignited engine carried back to me, I turned and, hankering for a strong Greek coffee, headed up the lane towards the kafeneion, taking the steps two at a time.