Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

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I just posted this on Facebook and I thought I should share it here. It’s one of my favourite poems and contains the line after which my blog is named.

From Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke…

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

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With a Song in My Heart

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!

Let’s go!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beers with Santa on Tilos Part 2

Eventually, with daylight showing beyond the large round windows, the time came to say goodbye to Santa and to all my other friends at Bozi – which couldn’t at that point have numbered more than five or six hardy revellers, including Mr and Mrs Bozi – and wend my weary way home. As usual, I intended to walk, reasoning, possibly illogically, that since I never experienced any problems walking the ten kilometres back to Agios Antonios under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t experience any now.

To my delight Santa agreed, merely telling me to look after myself, as well as reminding me about the party at Bozi on New Year’s Eve.

‘I’ll be waiting for you,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye, as we shook hands.

Mr Bozi, by contrast, was not quite so sanguine about my plans. After nearly choking on his Amstel, he immediately began casting around for someone to drive me home. At that hour of the morning it was a herculean task, owing to the limited cast of characters at his disposal; inevitably perhaps, his gaze ultimately fell on Yianni, Tilos’s genial, if occasionally elusive, Go-to man for telephone and internet problems. Yianni lived at Megalo Horio, which made him the obvious candidate. Yet I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched him wave a lit cigarette before the increasingly bewildered eyes of Mario the DJ, that possibly he wasn’t quite the right man for the job; clearly he’d consumed at least as many drinks as I had in the last twenty-four hours and possibly more.

Besides which, I was determined to walk, feeling full of beans, as the saying is, and eager to see what adventures the morning held. In order not to give offence, therefore, I explained as tactfully as I could that I intended to go via Lethra, adding that I needed some exercise and fresh air.

The idea had popped into my addled consciousness out of nowhere, and even as I gave it utterance I didn’t know whether I would follow through with it, but it had the intended effect. All talk of finding me a lift disappeared, now that I obviously knew what I was doing, into thin air.

Bravo, file,’ said Mr Bozi, as he delivered one final and very enthusiastic high-five, while Yianni draped an arm over my shoulder and slurred, ‘You know, Yianni, Tilos I think is the most beautiful island and the best thing you can do is walk around it. Kali volta, Yianni…’

Shouts of ‘kali volta’, ‘good walk’, followed me to the door. Upon wrenching it open I received a minor setback when a blast of wind caught me head-on, stopping me dead in my tracks. Instinctively I reached for the door handle and braced my legs. At the same time my eyes blinked furiously as they sought to adapt from the crepuscular dimness of Bozi to the bright daylight outside. To my astonishment, the sun had risen. Its piercing light gleamed on the rumpled skin of a midnight blue sea, grooved into white-tufted furrows, that lurched and lumbered towards the shore in a northerly gale. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I found the sudden onslaught of noise and light and bitter cold profoundly disturbing. My initial impulse was to return to the bar and order another drink.

I was saved by a deeply buried and sadly under-utilised instinct for self-preservation, which asserted itself at the last moment. With head bent, therefore, against the turbulence and my hands bunched into fists in the pockets of my trousers, I turned my back on sinfulness and sallied forth over the threshold. My momentum carried over a little bridge that spanned a decorative pond, empty but for several inches of murky rainwater in which a can of Red Bull lay half-submerged, and onto the waterfront. There I found myself, buffeted by wind and mildly delusional due to alcohol and lack of sleep, weaving along the promenade past glittering white buildings that were closed for the winter, their locked doors and shuttered windows secured against the elements by lengths of plastic sheeting held down by miniature boulders plundered from the beach.

Everywhere I turned, pandemonium reigned. Thick-trunked tamarisk trees ranged along the rear of the beach, slaves to the tempest, shook and spun and twisted as if in protest at their rough handling. Gleaming waves erupted out of petulant blue-green shallows; they collapsed with a roar on a slant of smooth grey and white pebbles that clattered and complained as they were dragged up the beach, then sucked back down again. Crows flapped ragged and windblown above lush green fields, or else perched unsteadily on swaying electricity wires or in the branches of fig and turpentine trees stripped bare by the winter. At ground level, goats shivered and looked forlorn. As I strode along, mumbling to myself about rash decisions, it seemed that the only things not moving were the ground beneath my feet and the mountains beyond the fields. The latter were formidable in their beauty, their rough, scrub-clogged slopes, tinted green-gold by the tremulous morning sunlight, climbing to limestone peaks and ridges whose ragged crenulations were etched with steel-nib precision against a flawless cobalt sky.

The wind, meanwhile, had scoured the air to a pin-bright clarity. In this rarefied atmosphere the world seemed jumbled and confused to my bleary gaze; everything appeared larger than life somehow and rather too close for comfort. In the distance the Turkish mountains soared above the sea, as clear and perfect as an apparition. Closer to hand proceedings assumed a faintly surreal touch as I passed the harbour, where a handful of runabouts and caiques sheltered behind the breakwater, and ascended the lower slopes of the mountain that enclosed this end of the bay. Slowly and not without effort I threaded my way upwards between the outlying houses of the town, which were uniformly silent and deserted, the air suddenly eerily still in the lee of the slope. Shadows thickened around damp white walls and cats lurked around every second corner…

Paving had given way to bare earth and the houses had begun to thin out when, towards the top of the lane, I met an elderly woman sweeping her terrace. She was stout and affable-looking, her round brown face enfolded by a floral headscarf. Her eyes lit up with pleasure when she saw me. She was, tellingly, the first person I had sighted since leaving Bozi.

Pou pas, paidi mou?’ she asked, her voice thin and faintly teasing. Where are you going, my child?

I smiled, pulling up before her gate. The truth was, I saw this lady nearly every time I walked this way and could virtually predict the conversation we were about to have.

Sto horio,’ I replied. To the village.

Po, po, po, makria einai.’ It’s far away.

I nodded.

Kai krio,’ said the woman, pretending to hug herself against an imaginary wind. And cold.

Poly krio,’ I agreed. Very cold.

The woman paused and, her lovely old face assuming a puzzled expression, asked me why I was going to Lethra. In reply I said the first thing that came into my mind – to wit, that I had no idea. She laughed and so did I, and then, too dazed to say more, I made my farewells and got underway, smiling to myself at the cries of ‘Sto kalo, sto kalo…’ that followed me up the lane.

I climbed the mountainside in a kind of trance, waltzing blithely through a wire gate and along a lovely old path above cliffs that plunged with appalling abruptness into the roiling sea. I stepped lightly around ‘Suicide Corner’, where landfalls and erosion had reduced the path to a thread of dusty red earth barely two feet wide. Higher up, I entered a world of airy space, blue and limitless. Sunlight poured down, lifting the colours around me: the Pompeian red of earth, the crinkly golds and russets and washed out khakis of the phrygana on the terraces, the grey and pink of limestone and the rich deep green of the euphorbia that decked the mountainside as it climbed to remote and dizzy heights. Livadia lay far behind me now, sprawled whitely around its turbulent bay. Beyond, the view extended past the hilltop chapel of Agios Yiannis all the way to Gera and the great limestone crag of Koutsoumbas which soared above it, both still swamped in cold blue shadow. An eagle appeared overhead, hovered momentarily, its mighty wings quivering in the gale, then wheeled backwards and seemed to be swept away over the top of the ridge. Then the path turned and I was blasted again by a gale that blew, with a buffeting howl, off a white-capped strait on the other side of which the Turkish mountains reared upwards, dreamlike and serene looking.

Stumbling on I passed above alluring coves with red sand beaches washed by limpid turquoise shallows, the surface of the sea swept and combed by the wind into elegant traceries. Lethra duly appeared, its pebble beach backed by bucolic meadows hemmed by trees – olive and carob and winter-bare almonds and turpentines and figs. As I looked down I thought of my friends at Bozi: if only they could see me now. Part of me longed to follow the path down and, like a shepherd of yore, lay my weary head under an olive and fall asleep to the tinkle of goat bells and the roar of the wind in the trees. The way I was feeling, I’d be easy pickings for any malicious wood nymph that happened to be lurking. I might, for all I knew, end up in fairyland and no-one would ever see me again.

Fortunately perhaps I quickly saw the folly in this – what if I awoke, hours hence, hungry and thirsty and far from home? – so I turned inland at the first opportunity upon another fine path that led along the terraces above a ravine clogged with trees, just the tops of them visible, opposite a vast crag that I had climbed several times over the years but never, I recalled, with much pleasure. I pushed on and soon found myself, after a little up and downing, in a secluded and very pretty glen enfolded by terraced slopes thick with silvery-green olive trees; water seeped out of the ground amid swathes of rose-tinged cyclamen and poplars turned glittering above broad, fanlike terraces of rich green grass. A spring gurgled away and there, amidst the lush fanfare of flowers and greenery, was the track that would lead me back to the road. Suddenly I was feeling very tired.

 

The Day the Roof Fell In Part 3

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.

The Day the Roof Fell In Part 2

Eventually, having pacified my little friend, I returned him to ground level and then went and washed my face at the spring and drank some water. By the time I had turned around again Pirat had disappeared. Grateful for this piece of good fortune I grabbed my rucksack and hurried through the pitch-black tunnel of the magnificent stone gatehouse, emerging into the small inner courtyard to find it – with its lovely black-and-white pebble hoklaki paving and pretty red-roofed church – lit up like a prison. Apart from the gushing and gurgling of the spring, the place was eerily quiet; I felt like an intruder as I crept across the yard and climbed to the upper gallery, pausing halfway up the concrete stairs to look out over the valley at the dark, moody sea. Overhead the mountains girdled the head of the valley in an amphitheatre-like formation, the folds and crevices in the limestone etched with shadow and the peaks disappearing into a froth of dirty grey cloud. Everything was exactly as I remembered, right down to the faint aroma of incense that lingered on the air.

Upon gaining the top gallery I soon saw that the keys were no longer kept in the doors of the cells. This wouldn’t have been a problem in any case because I had my mat, but I was nonetheless gratified to find a mattress leaning against the wall towards the end. I placed this flat on the ground and, sitting upon it, removed my boots and socks,  then took my sleeping bag from my rucksack, unpacked it and lay down with it slung over me like a quilt. Everything felt very cosy and as I closed my eyes I congratulated myself on the sanguinity of my new bolthole, although I would have given anything to have been able to extinguish the light.

Lulled by the drizzling rain I passed a restless, but not unpleasant night. I woke on several occasions but not fully and never for long. Then, just before dawn, I was roused by the ominous rumble of thunder far off in the distance and vaguely thought, ‘Oh well, here it comes,’ before slipping back into dreamland. Waking some time later I was surprised to find that the rain had stopped and so had the thunder, although the sky remained overcast, with a queer pearly sheen, and I suspected that the reprieve wouldn’t last long. Just then a toilet flushed downstairs and suddenly I heard voices, the gruff familiar tones of Papa Manolis and that of a woman I didn’t know. As I listened to their dialogue I became increasingly self-conscious about my presence, almost as if I felt that I shouldn’t be there (a consequence, perhaps, of sneaking in like a thief late at night), and so rather than go down and say hello I waited until they’d descended to the lower courtyard before hurriedly packing away my gear and making my escape. Along the way I stopped to fill my water bottle at the spring, grateful that there was no sign of Pirat who almost certainly would have given away my presence with his barking.

Once out the gate I turned instinctively towards Eristos, climbing up behind the monastery and following the old path that wound around the stony flank of the valley before ascending towards the craggy grey wall that enfolded it. In many ways it was a beautiful morning; the air smelled fresh and clean after the rain, infused by the giddy aromas of the desiccated plants that lined the path of Venetian red earth and whose brittle leaves – a gorgeous spectrum of burned golds and greens and greys and russets – glittered with a patina of tear-like raindrops. Dark clouds hung over the sea, whose surface of hammered indigo was ruffled in places by imperceptible currents of air, and once again the thunder had resumed, a low and sporadic growling as if a wild beast were lying in wait somewhere over the hills. Clearly a major storm was brewing, which prompted me to reflect, as I came up under the cliffs, that if I possessed an ounce of sense I would turn around now and retrace my steps to the monastery. Of course, I failed to do this – not, I’d like to think, because I didn’t possess any sense, but rather upon consideration of the fact that I had never let anything so insignificant as a thunderstorm stop me in the past and I wasn’t about to let it stop me now. We live and learn, as they say.

So up I went, revelling in the speed of my ascent, my boots clattering as I crossed a patch of scree, then climbed up out of the valley over a low col. In an instant the monastery vanished from sight in my rear; up ahead a chilling view opened of enormous storm clouds, dark as ink, bundled across the sky. Draperies of rain hung suspended over the sea and the thunder was louder and more immediate, each mighty peal, heralded by brief flash of lightning, reverberating overhead like a drumroll. I marched on, in thrall to the drama that was unfolding and awed alike by the black sky and the wind that seemed to come out of nowhere, chilling me in my t-shirt, as well as by the lurid tones of the landscape in the gloaming light. The path looped over a series of gentle depressions, with mountains rising on one side and the land falling steeply into the sea on the other; then, just beyond the headland of Kephala it suddenly plunged downwards, rough and stony, into a momentous valley that was bleak in its emptiness. Even on sunny days this part of the island can be forbidding, the high crags and the rough and treeless ravine – devoid of manmade features apart from the ruined chapel of the Panagia, a scattering of disused animal pens and the spring of Vathia Pigi – inducing a feeling of isolation and solitude that at times can be almost overwhelming. Today, shrouded in an unearthly darkness, the first drops of rain spitting out of an angry sky, it formed a grim picture indeed.

Suddenly the rain came on in earnest, an utter deluge, and within minutes I was soaked to the skin, water cascading from the brim of my hat as I raced downhill, my boots slipping and sliding on the loose rocks strewn over the path. Thunder cracked directly overhead, frightening in its intensity, and when the lightning flashed it was all around me, jagged prongs of electricity unleashing sheets of violet phosphorescence that lifted rocks and shrubs and the pale thread of path out of the gloom in a brutal snapshot. In no time at all, it seemed, I had reached the bottom of the descent and was passing the stone-walled enclosure of Vathia Pigi, ‘Deep Spring’, which I was astonished to see was vigorously running, water gushing in a torrent from the battered marble spout. It was the first time I had ever seen this happen in September and, although perverse under the circumstances, I was so amazed that I briefly considered stopping to take a photograph. Only briefly, mind you.

Beyond the spring the path becomes tricky, winding around and over blades and knobs of limestone – tough enough to negotiate when dry but now, gleaming with rainwater, treacherously slippery. I ploughed on regardless, taking my chances, all thoughts focused now on the lonely chapel at the bottom of the valley. After a last desperate scramble over some inconvenient outcrops of rock, the path turned and suddenly it came into view –  a battered little outpost standing in a sea of faded Jerusalem sage, adjacent to a watercourse of smooth white boulders that unwound between low eroded cliffs to the sea at Limenari. At this point, miraculously, the rain eased off and the thunder began to recede into the distance as the clouds thinned out and a pale seeping light returned to the world; with mist swirling like battle-smoke around the mountaintops I paused to take in my surroundings, noting the milky blue colour of the sea off the beach at Limenari and also, curiously, a large expanse of pale, denuded ground high on the opposite ridge beneath the dramatic outcrop of Patela which, like the headland at Luboudi, had obviously been cleared by fire. I knew that refugees had come in at Limenari – I had encountered burnt patches of scrub and food containers with Turkish labels on the surrounding slopes during my last winter on Tilos, in 2013 – but no reports of fires in the area had ever reached me back in Australia.

A violent flash, followed by a mighty peal of thunder, signalled a resumption of hostilities and drove all thoughts from my mind as I raced towards the chapel, approaching it through a mass of Jerusalem sage whose tough, woody branches clawed at my legs. The shrub grew thick around the low doorway, which was further obstructed by rubble – there was no alternative but to go to the rear of the chapel and climbed in through the gaping hole that had been torn in the apse. It was not a moment too soon as the next thing I knew the sky blackened again and rain began to fall in a torrent. It was about that time, standing there among the bones and the goat shit in my wet clothes, gazing out at the cataclysm overtaking the valley, that I thought to myself that perhaps I should have listened to Charlie.

The Day the Roof Fell In Part 1

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From a Writer’s Notebook: Wednesday 8 November 2006

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.

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.

After Lunch

Eventually I left Menelaus and set off down the valley. I needed to get a move on – I wanted to walk to Luboudi and swim and afterwards, if possible, climb up to the Italian House. Fortunately  lunch was beginning to kick in, raising my energy levels, to say nothing of the half-litre or so of wine I’d drunk with it. The phrase ‘wings on one’s feet’ is overused and hackneyed, but that’s how it felt as I raced down the valley, my rucksack on my back, beneath a mottled grey sky whose gloomy appearance looked ready to confirm the forecast of rain at any moment.

Conditions, meanwhile, was uncannily still. Not a breath of wind stirred the air, which felt close and warm. The only movement that took place was up on the mountainside where miniature convoys of goats, spooked by my presence, staged subtle retreats. Visually, the valley was everything that I remembered and I feasted with hungry eyes upon familiar features – the meadows with the ruined buildings on the opposite slope, the oleander-choked watercourse that meandered along the bottom of the valley between high walls composed of solid blocks of grey limestone, the two huge eucalypt trees that marked a reliable spring, to name just a few.

Beyond the eucalypts the path dipped and narrowed. The stony ochre-coloured earth had been baked hard by months of unrelenting summer sun. It unfolded between a dense quilting of blue-green thyme, leathery sage and thorny genista that had been similarly burned and leached of body and colour. As I descended I was progressively able to see more of the beach below, the view opening with each rapid step that I took, until soon the whole length of it was visible and both headlands – each a stony prong of land, its steep flanks etched with the inevitable terraces, that rose to a bleak and stony peak before tapering gradually downwards to a narrow tip that shelved gracefully into the grey gelid sea. Looking out across the strait I could see no sign of Turkish Dacta, only a pall of misty white haze where I knew mountains and forest to be. Towards the bottom of the valley, adjacent to some walled fields overgrown with the all-encompassing phrygana, the path levelled out and turned to fine grey sand that yielded, squeaking, beneath my boots as it passed through a growth of shrubs with thin leaves of a dull green colour and tiny white flowers that exuded a cloying, honey-like aroma. Once, I remembered, I had asked Menelaus what these plants were called and he’d replied, ‘ylastros’, which sounded uncannily similar to the word for flower-pot, ‘ylastra’. I had to admit, I didn’t know what to make of that.

Moments later I was on the beach. For those who don’t know, Skafi is a gently curving expanse of red-ochre earth and white and grey pebbles. It is washed by reliably pellucid shallows which today were tinted iron-grey and dark turquoise and barely moved over its floor of variously-coloured pebbles. An assortment of sea wrack littered the tideline. Along with the inevitable silvery grey driftwood, there was an impressive trove of plastic containers which, to judge by the labels, seemed to have been washed up from all corners of the eastern Mediterranean – suntan lotion from Israel,  shampoo bottles from Croatia, yogurt containers washed over from Turkey, a haloumi cheese packet from Cyprus – as well as bits of foam and plastic toys and many, many shoes of all shapes and sizes. At the end of the beach I came upon a couple of intricate shelters assembled by summer revellers from driftwood and faded lengths of fabric, now woebegone ruins as long forgotten as the summer itself. Further on the ghost of a path climbed over a low spur of land to another, smaller cove, with a red sand beach, tucked into the corner of the headland and backed by gently rising slopes. The sea here was, if anything, even more beguiling, although the sea wrack was formidable, the collection including even more shoes as well as a couple of car tyres lying half-sunk among the wooden debris collected at the bottom a watercourse that cut back into the mountainside.

It remained a wonderful place to swim, and I would have done so if I hadn’t had my heart set on Luboudi. I didn’t hang around, therefore, but crossed the beach and climbed up over the rocks at the far end, eventually gaining a faint path that ran, on and off, diagonally up the headland. It was a bit of a grind, the scrub thick at times, but in what seemed like no time at all I was at the top, gazing back down at the way I’d come, then out across the sea where the island of Nissyros was a ghostly presence veiled by a thin screen of haze. The sweat poured off me, drenching my shirt and soaking down into my trousers. Ah, now, this was the life.

Down the other side I went, following another very faint trail that doubled back down the headland. The way was steep and stony underfoot. It was not the kind of place to take your mind off things, but even so I couldn’t help looking down at Luboudi, the pale shingle beach cosseted by mountains which reared up behind it, giving way to a terrific view down the wild and precipitous east coast of the island. The opposite headland had been ravaged by fire the previous year – it climbed bald and exposed from the midnight blue sea, a discouraging blend of grey and red-ochre earth and rocks, devoid of any trace of green. By a happy contrast, the sea directly below me was a gorgeous spectrum of cool blues and greens, the colour of the water changing with the depth and according to whether it flowed over rocks or sand – both of which were thrillingly visible.

Encouraged by the sight I sped downwards, my boot-soles trampling bushes and clattering over stones. It felt amazing to be moving so well and quickly, to feel so gloriously free, and no doubt because of this I ignored the little voice in my head that whispered that I was going too fast and it might be wise to slow down. Pride comes before the fall, they say, and the fall, when at last it came, was sobering. It happened as it always did – my boot striking a stone that happened to be loose and which slid out from beneath me, sending me flying backwards, with little to think anything more than ‘Oh shit’ before I landed with a thud on my arse, quite unhurt except for a hand full of thorns courtesy of a genista bush that I had managed to locate in trying to break my fall. Climbing to my feet I dusted myself off, looked ruefully at my grazed and prickled palm and, feeling incredibly grateful that there was nobody around to witness my humiliation, laughed out loud.

Moments later I was on the beach, my boot-soles crunching on the shingles. All around me the slopes climbed upwards beneath an etching of terraces. It was like a rustic amphitheatre, with a little stage of beach that invariably felt delightfully private and secluded. Three-quarters of the way across the beach I stopped, threw down my rucksack and, stripping off, plunged into the sea and struck out towards the centre of the bay. The water felt glorious, cool and refreshing after the cloying heat. Revelling in my nakedness, I behaved like a seal, diving into the alluring turquoise depths, resurfacing, then diving again – all the while thanking my stars that I was back here in this sea. Now and then between dives I paused  and looked up at the mountains, which stood high and impressive against a sky that was growing increasingly dark and portentous. I thought again about rain and considered that if I wanted to get to the Italian House I had better hurry, but did nothing about it, deciding it could wait. I dived again and resurfaced and it was then that a strange thing happened – suddenly tears were pouring down my cheeks, tasty hot and salty when I licked them from my lips. I was laughing at the same time, a little crazily, aware of how odd it was to be in the sea, at Luboudi, and crying like a child. So then I swam some more and the crying stopped, leaving the tiniest residue of sadness that persisted long after I had left the sea and was climbing upwards over the bare burned headland, moving quickly, winding my way between jutting lumps and blades of pale grey limestone.

Here and there the twisted roots of bushes, charred black by fire, protruded from the ground. I also saw, miraculously, tentative green shoots – the vanguard of a process of regrowth that would take years to complete. After a couple of hundred metres or so, the phrygana resumed suddenly and the ascent began in earnest as the ground tipped upwards towards the distant and lofty ridge. In this part of the island there was no set course. Old paths did exist, fragile and overgrown – but they ran horizontally, following the line of the terraces around the bulging flanks of the mountains. Vertically there was nothing, which meant charting the best possible course through thick scrub and over crumbling terrace walls. It was hard work and the sweat was soon running again. To keep myself going I sang some old revolutionary songs from Crete that not only bolstered my resolve but had a startling effect on the handful of wild goats I encountered up towards the ridge.

I also exulted in the view, which was magnificent. While Luboudi receded away to the north, I was now directly above the smaller, neighbouring bay of Angistro, able to look down over cascading ranks of terraces at the little square of white sand, still littered with the shattered remains of a Turkish gulet – one of the first people smugglers’ boats to arrive on Tilos, which  had been scuttled there some years before. Terraces coiled away in every direction, epic in the gloaming light. As I climbed higher, clambering over the jutting bastions of limestone that guarded the ridge, the view opened further to the north enabling me to gaze down into the Skafi valley with the mountains rising beyond. Tilos looked like a different island from up here, higher, wilder, with the shattered stub of the castle above Megalo Horio appearing like something out of a fairy tale, romantic and remote, and the chiselled iron-grey bulk of the Profitis Ilias massif beyond it assuming an otherworldly cast. Shadows lay thick in its folds and ravines, while the limestone peaks, cut loose of the lowlands that would have given them perspective, loomed huge and severe against the ominous sky. Then, gradually, the lowlands came into view, and seeing the village of Megalo Horio, its houses spilling whitely down the mountainside, and the verdant expanse of the Eristos plain leading to the sea, reality kicked back in. I was on my way to the Italian House.

Christmas 2007, Agios Antonios

The ropes have broken; only the grooves on the well’s lip 

remind us of our past happiness:

the fingers on the rim, as the poet put it. 

George Seferis

Strange waking up all alone at Xmas. It is especially so in an outpost like Agios Antonios, where in winter most of the surrounding houses are empty. Briefly, as I lay in bed gazing at the blue sky beyond the door and listening to the faint susurration of the sea against the beach, I remembered Xmas the previous year with S and B. It was not calm like this, but cold and windy. We had had two electric heaters going all day and our little white house was prettily lit up with fairy lights bought from the Chinese peddler. I lay in bed all afternoon, reading To the Holy Mountain while the sea roared outside and the coloured lights flickered. S cooked stifado but then, around 6 p.m., she and her mother inexplicably went to bed and neither of them woke up until almost ten, by which time I had got myself drunk on Greek champagne and was ambling up and down the courtyard, beneath a sky full of quick-silver, reciting obscure poems to the windy darkness. Dinner, when it finally came, was one bridge too far.

This year there are no lights and no heat, but I’m happy with the Spartan arrangement. It is the end of my second year on Tilos and I shall take things more quietly. I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

My plan is to write this morning and afterwards celebrate with a short walk, followed by lentil soup for dinner with a loaf of fresh bread that I have yet to bake and several buckets of cheap red wine. Of course I will think with envy of S and B in Germany, celebrating without me. A few years ago we spent a lovely Xmas together there in the little village where B lived. Candles burned throughout the house. Wine flowed with heady abundance as one fantastic meal after another emerged from the kitchen and music by people like Bach, Mozart, Albinoni and Pachelbel played without end on the stereo. Outside snow fell day and night and, each afternoon, the sun set as round and red as a blood orange through draperies of mist suspended above frosty fields and naked birch forest. It was exactly how I had always imagined a northern hemisphere Xmas would be.

I enjoyed a wonderful walk yesterday. The weather was perfect, sunny and mild. Were these the halcyon days of the ancients, I wondered? I rather think they are supposed to arrive in January, fourteen days of perfectly serene, windless weather. I remembered my excitement in November when I had looked out the window and seen a kingfisher, a tiny, boldly turquoise-coloured bird, flittering around the rock wall above the sea. Somehow during these quiet, unremarked days the old myths seem powerful and immediate. Who was the poet from Lesbos who wrote of winter: Now is the time to heap logs on the fire and drink…? During a thunderstorm last week I remembered how I had read that in ancient times people would say that thunder was caused by Zeus moving his wine barrels about.

Beneath a thin blue sky, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, I walked to the elephant cave and then climbed over the mountain to Micro Horio. I had found the path the previous year. It was a meagre thread of ochre-coloured earth, half overgrown by thyme and genista and hardy wild olive, that climbed over a barren plateau before skirting the side of a ridge high above the great blue bowl of Eristos Bay. I loved the way that, after turning your back on Eristos, you walked over a col and suddenly found yourself looking down on the broken rooftops of Micro Horio with Livadia Bay and the mountains that enfolded it visible in the background. Somehow it always felt like an act of magic, the sudden and unexpected transition from one side of the island to the other.

Another half-path climbs from the abandoned village to the OTE towers at Amali. From there I took the road that winds down the rear of the mountain, which was thrillingly empty, bleak but beautiful. Halfway down, at a turning, I left the road and set out through the phrygana. The way is trackless but, I found, not difficult. Soon I had arrived at yet another of the castles built by the Knights of St John – this one a small and rudimentary structure, barely large enough, I’d think, to house a garrison of a dozen men, but stunningly located above the Bay of Stavros and affording wonderful views down the long gently tapering peninsula and south across the Aegean. The island of Karpathos hovered on the horizon, while the piteous bleating of new-born goats drifted, with a haunting clarity, on the limpid air. I could also hear the sea, very faintly, whispering against the rocks below.

From the castle I headed down the mountainside, zigzagging over the terraces to deal with the killing gradient. My goal was the beach but before I reached it I became waylaid exploring some caves and, as the sun was setting fast, I missed a swim. The landscape glowed magically in the last golden light. The air was fresh and beautifully scented and I felt incredibly pleased with myself as I raced back up the slope, via the path, then hurried home along the road across an island that was as silent and empty as the land before time began. I arrived in the dark, exhilarated, to find the sea lying calm beneath a yellow wedge of moon and a dozen cats camped around the courtyard, hungry and impatient. I gave them their food and then cooked for myself, spaghetti with sardines and garlic in a rich tomato sauce flavoured with oregano I’d picked on my walk.  I ate sitting in the courtyard under the stars, thinking, ‘By what lucky stroke of fate have I ended up in this place?’

At some point S rang and shouted ‘Khronia polla’ down the phone. We enjoyed a nice long chat while the cats made themselves at home in the kitchen, four of them in the potato basket and another four huddled beneath the table on a single chair. They scattered like lightning when, putting down the phone, I yelled: ‘Bah!’