goat boiled and other soups

 

scattered notes from the sporadic islands

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hadn’t got any work so I decided I should go away, since it wouldn’t cost much more and I could find some fruit that hadn’t been ripened in a freezer in the hold of a ship somewhere in deep space in transit from another planet and tomatoes that tasted of something and were not filled with watery jam. I spent some time telling people I was going to go and then, when they began to look at me as though they didn’t believe it, I suddenly booked it and went. Well, I booked the flight to Athens (return) and a one-way ticket to Skiathos. I changed all my cash into Euros at the bank and Louise volunteered to give me a lift to the airport. So a week after I met Sarah and Julian on the beach at Tide Mills and he said he could have spent four weeks in Greece for what he spent going to Cornwall for a week I was already going.

 

I sent e-mails to some hotels I found on the net, and booked the first one that replied. I wanted the first night on Skiathos sorted out because I would be tired, arriving late at the airport, out of town, and anyway I can’t walk carrying anything. I booked it and asked whether there would be taxis at the airport. Of course there would be taxis at the airport. Where else would they be?

 

*

 

The first thing that happened was that I felt really sick and needed the toilet. I could scarcely get out of the car, and I felt sure I would soil myself. I managed to find a trolley and pushed it uphill against its clockwise bias. The disabled toilet was big enough for both of us, to my considerable relief, since I didn’t want my rucksack stolen before I’d even started. Those of you who don’t know me should come to understand now that I am not so good at walking as I used to be, not since I broke my back by posting myself through a hedge. The second thing that happened was that I discovered I’d lost my glasses. I was already through customs/security checks by then, having set off the gate alarm and had my jacket removed. I might have lost them in the disabled toilet, for example, I was pretty sure I’d had them in my pocket when I left the house. I asked at the desk, twice, and they checked the property trays the irradiated luggage items drop into, but they didn’t have them. So, no glasses. I’ve only had them a fortnight, and I need them to read anything smaller than shouting. I could have lost them anywhere, I’m not used to having them, I might not even have brought them with me.

 

It was about 20 miles down prefabricated corridors to the departure lounge, carrying my rucksack, which I cannot do. My right leg stopped working. I arrived at a shabby, gloomy rotunda with a few dispirited-looking shops in the centre, most of which were closed and which I did not wish to visit in any case.

 

Tax free shopping at the airport. What a pity I don’t smoke - think of all the money I could save.

 

 

A scattering of other bored, tired-looking persons in casual clothing occupied maroon flock seating under a bamboozle of announcements. We were all grey. There were sections missing from the false ceiling and the gum-spattered floor was held together with gaffa tape.

 

A man with a goat’s beard stared at the ceiling with a crystalline grin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

T-shirt slogan :

 

middle skool

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

in the aeroplane

 

 

We board through an extendible extrusion, a sort of ovipositor. An imaginary corridor. I have to be pointed to my seat by a steward, so vague and bewildered have I become. I suppose this is the first time I have ever flown alone.

 

We dribbled along for a time over a surface of uneven concrete and tarmac to reach the end of the runway, and there we parked for a while as a queue of planes pulled up into the sky. Then, with suddenly appreciable power, we pushed down the runway and left below us, suddenly loose, above, angling up over appliqué-work golf courses and into a white envelopment which resembled snow fields as we climbed outside. Sometimes this dropped through with a giddy rush, pulling the eye to a new green and brown, road incised landscape.

 

The channel appeared hallucinatory, blue, green, silvered with a pale bronze sunshine, seemingly entirely still, and ruched into symmetrical folds by the assumed passage of stick-like ships.

 

*

 

We cross Belgium, or some dispiriting part of France, perhaps Germany, then Alps.

 

Web or network of the gleaming roads which threads the world up.

 

 

*

 

I feel the thrust reversing and the plane slides in on tiptoe. Over the tiny detailed red brown fields. And thundering the earth sucks us backwards.

 

*

 

It is not usual in the current political climate to praise America, but I at least have never personally plunged flaming earthward from the sky in a Boeing.

 

*

 

Books at the airport:

 

Hairy Pooter and the Rivers of Sick

 

Hairy Pooter and the Blindingly Obvious

 

Hairy Pooter and the Piles of Cash

 

Hairy Pooter and the Envious Carping.

 

 

*

 

I walked around with my heavy rucksack in the marble emptinesses of Athens airport. I had Greek coffee at a tiny artificial café. I went outside and stood in the sudden heat and glare. My rucksack was heavy. I had waited for my rucksack at the special, exciting airport roundabout they never let the children play on with some other people I recognised from the plane. Fat Englishman. Thin (slim) dried up (tanned) women past middle age with sharp faces and European haircuts. Everyone knew more than I did. I only knew I was tired enough to die and that I couldn’t walk with a rucksack. They were superior to me in every way. They knew where they were going and how to make phone calls and some of them were actually Greek but spoke English better than ourselves. They had friends here, they had people meeting them, places to visit, things to do, something to accomplish, something purposeful. They were self-possessed, polite, infinitely distant, better than me in every way. They were real people and myself is someone who has never met.

 

Such things in the world.

 

 

*

 

I was astonished to see on a magazine rack a porno/glamour mag for the Greek market entitled ‘KAIK’. The thing about that name is that many years ago when my parents took me to Corfu there was a small dusty shop that proudly displayed a notice proclaiming ‘KAIK’, something which (we presumed) stray Britishers had pronounced hopefully on entering the premises over the years. Anyway, the word has spread, as they say.

 

 

*

 

I went back in I had to wait hours even to check in. I was outside I didn’t want more coffee I was sitting on a bench as the sun angled low across the plain into the west. I suppose we were quite high up above the city, because of all the aeroplanes affecting the gravity.

 

An Australian Greek woman came over and sat beside me and she started talking. You look lonely she said. She talked to me about Olympic. She said they’re losing money she said I said the Olympics always lose money she said no, not the Olympics the Olympics always lose money that’s not why they do them the Airline is losing money she said you see it’s they have all these people they don’t know what to do with them, because it is like a bureaucracy. She said they’re going bust and the government is pouring money into it and the E.U. don’t like it. They’re all going bust I said two American Airlines went bust. I don’t know which ones. American Airlines, probably, and Northwestern, or something I don’t know the details. There are too many airlines. Swissair went bust. It’s Ryanair and Easyjet you can get to Prague for a fiver. They must make their money somewhere else. Olympic, she said, it’s a scandal, they don’t know what they’re doing they think they’re the national carrier it was set up by Aristotle Onassis, he was a businessman, he knew what he was doing, then the government take it over and look at it now.

 

I don’t know, I said, I hadn’t heard.

 

You OUGHT to know she says, it’s YOUR Europe, jabbing a finger.

 

Her flight is delayed, of course, and she is furious, soon after when I see her again inside. They have these marvellous phone cards in Europe she says we don’t have them, you buy one and you can talk for ages, to Australia, yes we talk for hours my daughter and I I am seeing her and the Grandchildren, for a week, and then I don’t know what I am doing, I am moving about I have many relatives in the Old Country, but first I must fly to Crete.

 

Or perhaps it was Rhodes.

 

The sun went lower and lower.

 

It was very bright and it was difficult to see. Cars came up and people came out of busses and taxis with suitcases full of desperation and longing, ritual and superstition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

skiathos

 

 

 

I haven’t been on a turboprop aeroplane since I was about 7 or 12 and then my head exploded and my ears bled and hot pokers were discovered inside my brain.

 

While they were winding the elastic band a man went and checked the wing with a torch.

 

He seemed to think it was still there, and a long conversation ensued between pilot and tower which we could overhear as the pilot kept the cockpit door open.

 

The right engine starts first and the lights dim. The blades on the huge fan are facing (oddly) forward. It is not until they have been whirling round for some time that they orient themselves sideways and we are provided with thrust. Or pull, I suppose. The single attendant has to do all the announcements and traditional life-jacket performance in 2 languages. We must have gone half the way to Skiathos on land, accompanied by a deep thrumming until we passed a flaccid windsock and turned toward the moon and the carpet of lights stretched out in front of us. I think they keep the propeller planes away from the jets for fear of bullying. You know what chickens are like. It would be horrible to see little bald turbo-props being chased about the runways by the cruel beaks of jets.

 

Ascent was quick and noisy. I could immediately feel the pressure in my ears. This plane felt much smaller and lighter than the last, felt more as though it was flying. Athens was a crawling Christmas display in white and gold below us, we headed out to sea and circled round to fly over the city again, which crawled and winked like anatomy. So pretty!  So expensive!  Our culture is insane, don’t you think?

 

The pale gold moon is part deflated and we bank and thrash, humming into darkness. There is lightning in the distance to our left which illuminates a ragged wall of clouds as we edge over a fine gold tracery. It looks clear above, but then there are clouds between us and the ground and just as I am given orange juice we hit turbulence which nearly spills it all. The lightning is still on our left but I begin to wonder if it’s ahead of us as well. But that doesn’t matter as it turns out since we manoeuvre with inevitable slowness, turning into the storm. The stewardess makes an announcement, but I can hear nothing. We descend, accompanied by a newly intensified rattle and drone. Either we are there or we are going to crash. Or both. We fly low over the harbour and suddenly hit, wheels on the runway.

 

 

*

 

I arrived and got into Stavros’ taxi. It was a Mercedes, slightly larger than the island. He took me to the Pension I had already booked (like a trick in a novel, over the internet in an exchange of e-mails, earlier, privately, unseen) saying “I know where it is, it’s just how to get there”. “I believe you.” I said, feelingly. He gave me his card. “How long are you staying?” (Four weeks I said, Four weeks? here (he fumbles among the parentheses (which obviously means ‘the ideas of parents’ in Greek) in the glove locker or map pocket near the gear lever between the front seats here’s my card we have a room, a nice room just got ready if you want somewhere to stay thank-you I say I will need somewhere on the way back, but tonight I’m booked at the Pension Lais, and then I will go on to Skopelos)

“Four weeks.”

“Here’s my card, you come back you ring me, I pick you up at the ferry I take you to the room, if you don’t like, you don’t have.”

“O.k., good.”

 

We drive the wrong way against traffic down tiny walled streets paved with cobbles and chicaned with parked vehicles, occasional tables, piles of boxes, drain covers, watercourses herringboned into them, give way to another Mercedes coming uphill towards us on the footpath. We stop, tuck closer to the wall, flash our eyes like a coy minx, a cheap Diana, and the other taxi barrels through past a moped with a huge box a gleam on its windscreen in the strange urban darkness. And we are going where it came from down the tiny funnelling of Skiathos streets against the signs which mean no entry in any language there it is, he said, stopping quickly.

 

“There it is.” Pension Lais.

 

He pointed across the car, to a wall, to a doorway where I saw now a notice painted blue I think painted above it or projecting from the front above the arch. The door opened onto a lobby. I opened the door and dragged my bag in.

 

 

 

*

 

I got in I rang the bell I rang the bell the man came he laughed we laughed everyone laughed we shook hands we said hello in any language he got the key I got into the room he took my passport.

 

I took off my shoes and I opened the balcony door and I lay down on the bed and I put my rucksack down and I closed the door behind me and I washed my face and I switched on the television and I looked at the fridge and I stood on the balcony in my underpants and shirt and looked down and across over the ugly backs of nowhere and the other concrete pole-railed balconies further down the teeming hill across a backyard area with some trees, some vegetables, some corrugated iron, some washing lines.

I lay on the bed and listened to Greek darkness.

 

 

*

 

 

I was hungry so I levered myself off the bed and walked down a steep street like an enlarged gutter and found the shops. I tried to remember the way I was going so I could get back. I looked at a couple of small supermarkets, walking round and seeing if they had what I wanted and how much it was. I wanted bread, feta, olives, peach juice. I walked along the street as far as the police station and then back. I saw the sandals. They were the right sandals with thin straps.

 

“You want sandals?”

“Yes.”

“You buy sandals now?”

“Tomorrow.”

“You English, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow,’ - tomorrow will be too late. Why waste time?”

“Tomorrow I will be ready.”

“You see the lightning on the mountain? Tomorrow it will snow.”

“If it snows tomorrow I will not need sandals.”

“Tomorrow there may be no sandals.”

“Tonight I may die. Tomorrow, I will be ready.”

 

I bought some postcards and went back to the second supermarket. 100% peach juice in a carton. I needed the rest of it from behind the counter.

“Can I have one of those loaves?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“And some black olives.”

“How many? This much?”

“Yes. Thank-you. Do you have fresh feta?”

“Of course. My father doesn’t speak English.”

“Why should he? Thank-you, that much.”

“The best meal in the world. What you need is a tomato.”

“Yes, you’re right, I need a tomato.”

 

I went with my purchases to the harbour and sat and watched lightning inch across the sky, biting from one thing and then another, tearing the bread open and pushing the cheese in, swigging from the carton.

 

It suddenly seemed to me that I was happy.

 

 

 

 

 

skiathos harbour

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

Everyone kept telling me the weather would get better soon, but it was already fine by me. I checked out of the Pension, paying, collecting my passport, saying goodbye to the man’s wife, waving to their baby. I felt like I was carrying a tower-block.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

*

skopelos

 

 

 

I came from Skiathos on a ferry which lurched and banged over the iron/slate Aegean like a corrugated iron roller coaster. It was rather like the turboprop I flew to Skiathos in from Athens, making a full range of hummings and whinings and a number of aeolian whistlings. So hard did we bang onto the concrete sea at some points that the passengers in the body of the boat behind me burst into a laughter of relief upon discovering that they had not died.

 

When we pulled up at the wharf and were to disembark, a Frenchman opened the door that faced the open sea and seemed about to step out before his wife indicated the correct exit.

 

 

*

 

 

As I walked from the ferry out of the car-park past the customs house and approached the road along the front a tall man with a desperate beard accosted me.

 

“You need room?”

“Yes.” I replied.

 

He introduced me to a plump man of about 30, shorter than myself, whose name was Manos. Manos and I walked to his green van and he drove me away from town to the Manos Apartments and showed me a double apartment with a shower/toilet and a small kitchen area.

 

“How long you want to stay?”

“3 weeks.”

 

Manos looked surprised. It seemed that he would let me stay in these rooms until the people at the front of the building left, and then I would move in there. They had a balcony which faced the town. We negotiated a price, which seemed fair at 20 euros a night. It was clear though that 3 weeks was a bit longer than Manos had been expecting. Whether this was good or bad I couldn’t tell. Anyway, I was tired, and the rooms were spacious and comfortable enough, and not too far out of town. Being a bit out of town would be o.k., it would make me walk. Manos and I shook hands on the deal and arranged that I should pay on Monday. Skopelos Town itself has a beach of sorts but is not much suited to swimming, being a port, principally. Not that I was planning on a beach holiday, exactly. I would need some form of transport in order to explore the island, and if I was only paying 20 euros for accommodation then I could probably afford something.

 

 

*

 

 

It has not been hot yet, which is perfect for me travelling, but I do hope that it warms up later. Through an elaborate pantomime and recourse to writing I have negotiated the hire of a small car from Spiro for 18 euros a day, which seems cheap but will add up. Hertz wanted 25 euros. I wanted a moped, but courage failed me. Manos told me I could get a moped cheap from his place down the road. I tried Magic first, that is to say I didn’t try magic but I tried the car and scooter hire firm called ‘Magic’. The man there told me in perfect English not to hire a moped, he said he could hire me a car for 20 euros.

 

“It’s not much more.” he said.

“It’s not much more but it’s twice as much.” I said.

“When did you last ride a scooter? Are you familiar with the controls?” he asked.

 

I thought about that. The last time I rode a motor bike of any sort was 20 years ago and I fell off twice.

 

“Your advice is good.” I conceded, and went somewhere else.

 

I hired my tiny yellow Korean car from the old buffer in a mix of grunts and gestures.

 

It’s cloudy now, as it was this morning on Skiathos, but in between it has been intermittently sunny with a gentle blue sky.

 

I keep making myself Greek coffee in containers far too large for it which nevertheless sends me to sleep. Perhaps I shall have better luck with olives.

 

 

*

 

 

I have noticed that I do not feel sick and that every so often I realise that I am here. I think ‘I did it, I got here all by myself, just like a grown-up. and no-one knows I am not allowed.’ Mind you, to say I got here all by myself is not even slightly true, when one considers (for example) the pilots of 2 aircraft and the men who made the runways and the shipyard that built the ferry and the invention of the sea.

 

 

*

 

I cannot move for beauty.

Each roof piled up is grown beneath each over other roof.

 

 

 

*

 

A series of unlikely and dangerous loads leaves the port: a small flat-bed truck with its tailgate down carrying a stack of planks which projects nearly half its length from the back. A pickup with hay bales strapped in it to twice the height of the cab. I hope they don’t have to go uphill or round corners! In order to avoid hills and corners it would be best to find a different island to drive on.

 

 

*

 

Thunder again in the night. It seems unable to rain here without making an announcement. None of that discreet drizzle England specialises in. At first I was disappointed, but seeing the cloud rise up in fragments off the piney mountain I thought it looked more beautiful than ever. It smells wonderful too, the resinous smells of Mediterranean hillsides lubricated.

 

 

*

 

A white goat looks suspiciously out of its corrugated shelter.

 

 

*

 

The goat and I stare at each other from our hutches.

 

 

*

 

Ah well, I have reverted to type: indigestion and bad, anxious dreams. These involved trying to get to an extension of a University called MSLU or MLU which was somewhere underground in London. I lost 2 cars and an army of fellow students, rushed around above and below ground where there was a big theatre and classrooms and I think an area of nightclubs.

 

I have been there before.

 

At one point I was listening to a woman who mentioned her chambers, whereupon I walked off, saying I couldn’t stand Barristers. At another point a young Frenchman in a suit and I hid in a concrete corner area (all triangular) with 2 triangular window-holes (no glass) and I wanted to get out and then found a third person, a blonde middle-aged woman in there too. Claustrophobic. I tried to escape, but had to negotiate a complex manoeuvre with the other occupants to allow me access to the window. In the end I was cycling around in grotty parts of East London. I think I was an undergraduate.

 

 

*

 

Normal and peculiar both live in the same house.

 

 

*

 

I went up the hairpin bends on the coast road out of town. The sign-post indicates only monasteries and the road doesn’t lead anywhere or connect to anything. After several hairpins and deciding that a Skopelitan car needs only 2 gears (3 at a pinch) I saw a side turning even less made up than the road and headed slowly along it towards the cliff. I began to assume that it led to a villa and anyway decided to turn the car because the road is very rough indeed with big loose stones and the insurance ‘does not cover caused by rough roads or damage caused to the underside of the car’.

 

I park up facing out again, leaving room for a vehicle to pass and walk on down the track. At its lowest point there is soft mud showing only one bicycle tread and one smeared footprint. I smear a footprint there myself. At the end of the track there is a tiny church with a little domed roof and a one-room extension for living in. The extension has a hole in the roof, two glassless windows, a fireplace; there is a living platform reached by five wide wooden steps and under this a storage area where livestock might have slept. I immediately wanted to move in, and climbed the steps cautiously. Looking out of the window I could see, or rather not see the mountain above Skopelos Town covered in rain. There were cyclamen growing through the stones outside. I needed a shit, but felt unhappy about crapping this near a church.

 

I went back out and looked in the church, the door of which was latched with a hook and eye. Inside, it was furnished with 2 ikons, a cigarette lighter, tapers, kitchen roll, bottles of oil, a red cloth with a gold cross on it, some other smaller religious pictures. It began to rain hard. I tried to take a photo of the ikon of Christ, (more of a judge than a redeemer, I felt) in insufficient light. I stuck some kitchen roll down my trousers and waited for the rain to subside.

 

 

*

 

Manos’ mother gave me 3 apples and 2 figs.

“My trees, all natural.” she said.

I made a large round gesture with both hands. “Huge.” I said.

“No spray, no......” she pointed at the ground “All natural.”

We smiled and nodded. Last night she gave me 2 pieces of what must be cheese flan, but I’m not sure I dare eat them. I’m all showered now and equipped with a change of clothes. I think I may brave the Skopelitan roads again in my custard yellow Korean tin.

 

 

*

 

If this is printed it will be published as a hatchback.

 

 

*

 

I drove a lot yesterday, at least 3 times on the wrong side of the road, much to the alarm and annoyance of law-abiding locals. On the 3rd occasion I cursed myself in something like despair ‘I don’t deserve a car’ I proclaimed ‘I am a fool’ but I carried on driving, anyway, since I was a long way from home. I think it’s Sunday today, though it’s difficult to tell.

 

I was caught in a tremendous rainstorm yesterday morning and had to change all my clothes, but I was swimming in the afternoon with the facemask and snorkel I bought from a tiny shop. The snorkel seems to leak and tried to drown me, and I swallowed half a sea and was sick. It has a valve in the crook of its elbow which is designed to stop you choking, I suppose, but probably lets water in to the opposite effect. Either that or I am just hopeless. However, the mask is interesting, the first time I put it on I came face to face with an octopus, quite a big one, carefully camouflaged to the pebbly sea-bottom, staring at me with one suspicious eye. It was probably a squid. We were each equally surprised, I think. Without the mask I wouldn’t have seen it at all, it was invisible through the sea’s hard reflective glossy mirror-finished easy-clean lens surface.

 

I’m taking photo’s of wayside shrines, of which there are an uncountable number, nearly all equipped with a lighted lamp, a bottle of oil, a picture of Mary. They range from post-box, bird-table structures made of metal, mounted on a pole to complete houses, stone-built with ostentatious mortar and stained glass windows. I saw one that was a complete, pre-fabricated replica church on a stick. There is neither film nor time to take photo’s of them all.

 

At Stafylos there was a collection, an array, of straw sunshades for tables stacked up at one end of the car-park, perhaps the captured shields of a defeated army of giants. The beach was picturesque and featured a flooded motor boat, but I didn’t stay, I drove on hunting wayside shrines. We never used to have these things in England, but now there are floral tributes to the careless dead at the sides of every roadway. It makes me almost glad I didn’t die. Limmonari beach was pretty too, in a rounded bay and virtually deserted, but I didn’t stay there either. I drove on through Ditropos and Loutsa and stopped at Panormos where a sign wanted to charge me for parking. I pulled in after the village at a Taverna where a young man was practising the Bouzouki. I listened for a bit and then another custard yellow Hyundai and yet another arrived disgorging Germans. I had never seen such a car in such a colour before, I swear, and now here were 3 like a swarm of wasps all parked in a row. ‘BOK BOM BOY’ said our number plates. There were real wasps combing the beach for scraps of kalamari and fruit cocktail.

 

Elios/Neo Klima was a most depressing place, hugely built up recently and still under construction, they seemed to be erecting pre-deserted ruins in a postmodern sort of way. I wouldn’t want to go on holiday there. I drove down to the beach on the first road past new closed-up apartment buildings – hutches for foreign livestock. There was a construction with a huge bare concrete arched front of noble proportions that contained nothing except two abandoned motorboats.

 

The sky was dark and desolation reigned.

 

As I was leaving, a fire-engine slowly approached, coming down the narrow road on the same side as me. I realised suddenly that that was due to the fact that I was driving on the wrong side of the road. I stopped and took a photo of a tethered donkey, calling out nonsense in a vain effort to attract its attention. When I got back in my box and clashed the gears it glanced up.

 

Now you look at me.” I said.

 

 

*

 

I drove mad roads today. They were not even C roads or D roads, they were beneath notice. I saw cyclamen and some huge crocuses. The roads were made of stones and led round the central mountain of the island. I reached a monastery, all new and shinily refurbished like an ocean liner or a hotel complex or an office block, seemingly deserted. It was quiet there, but for the buzzing of the carpet of wasps which seems universal on the island at the moment. It must be a rich Church to maintain so many buildings doing so little. I drove by the edges of cliffs, through mud and over rocks. Once I stopped exhausted and the road seemed to flow back away from me I had been staring at it rolling into and under me so intensely for so long. I met 2 dogs. The first barked wildly and ran to the car and attacked it. I raised my hand to the man in the pickup truck who accompanied it and carried on driving. I drove miles from any habitation. Steep, pine wooded hillside all around me, falling to the sea. It smelled wonderful. The second dog appeared when, having not seen anything but trees and tracks and cyclamen for kilometres I suddenly drove into a clearing full of goats feeding on hay in iron stalls.

A man watched from a shed on the other side of the track. Some of the goats had bells which made a lovely random music. Their chomping was louder. It’s amazing how much noise a lot of goats make eating hay. There must have been 100 of them, small brown smooth-skinned goats. Only one looked male. As I watched them the dog came up, very timid and friendly, as anxious to be liked as the last had been to show aggression. I petted the dog, opening the car door to do so, but didn’t get out of the car, perhaps afraid of disturbing the goats. After a while I waved to the goatherd across the track – I suppose that’s what he was – shooed the dog away and drove on.

 

I found a beautiful, deserted ruin, and I stopped and ate my vegetable pie accompanied by a deep silence and the ground-level scoutings of a myriad of wasps. As I headed down to the coast on a narrow, winding road made of compacted shingle I came across a strange place where there were stored several wrecked vehicles and something that might have been a carnival float, not far from a lot of beehives.

 

Eventually I emerged from the woods just above Neo Klima, my least favourite place on the island. I had been driving for about 4 hours and seen 2 people.

 

 

*

 

I remember a third dog now, somewhere between Ditropon and Aliakis (I think) on the main road on the way back. This one was upside down across the shoulder of one of two laughing men walking at the side of the road. I presume that he was restraining it from contact with my vehicle.

 

 

*

 

Crossing the road a pickup truck suddenly announces something through its megaphone. An old man pushes a huge bamboo pole on a 3-wheeled cart. This morning a bald man cursed at the goats he had turned out in the olive grove. They tinkled and ran lightly around. Everywhere they went was wrong.

 

 

*

 

In the secret pines I hide my can. One minute later the same car drives past.

 

 

Travelling up a tiny road on the edge of Skopelos Town I see an old man in a red jacket putting his trousers on in an olive grove. The end of this track is merely a turkey farm. As I return the man and I nod to each other.

 

 

*

 

There is a whore who looks like a gipsy, or more likely a gipsy who looks like a whore who seems to live in a truck by the industrial loading area of the port. She is tall and dresses in tight clothing, very dramatic long skirts with slits at the side, high heels. She laughs a lot. I first saw her crossing the road by the bakery and carrying back a big container of water with another woman, tottering on dangerous footwear, talking loudly, laughing, using the wrong hand. Of course, I have no truck with her, even though it is a Mercedes. Perhaps that is her name. Suitably...... racy.

 

 

*

 

 

Manos has gone, taking his mother with him and leaving me alone in the building in a new apartment facing the town. Just before he left I heard his van and went down to ask him if he had the key to the old apartment since I’d left my shampoo in there. He was surprised (and so was I because I’d checked the bathroom twice) and said ‘Now is very difficult, the boat is in 10 minutes.’ I looked at the door and saw that they had sealed it with plastic sheeting held on by drawing pins. ‘I think I will buy some more.’ I said. Manos went to his van and came back with his own shampoo and gave it to me. Only then did we arrange what to do with the key when I left. I’m to be here on my own for more than 2 weeks.

 

That seems fairly trusting.

 

*

 

 

 

Down to Glisteri through the olive groves. Tinny goats bleat from the steep valley sides. Workmen are uprooting old trees and planting saplings. At the beach with many-coloured stones the wasps cruise and there are two tavernas, one deserted, one still open.

 

Glisteri glimmers with her narrow neck.

 

 

*

 

A shoal, a swarm, a flock of Germans reached the sunbeds on the beach this afternoon. But I was there first, with a vegetable pie. I swam several times and dozed foolishly on my towel. Part of the beach at Milia is made of concrete. It shelves steeply which enables ancient fools like me to get in the water fast. When the sun isn’t shining the water is as warm as the air. Opposite the Milia turn-off there is a track leading precipitously up into the wooded mountains. The track is lined with beehives, and down by the main road there is a fire-hydrant that is thick with bees. Either it leaks honey or the bees like what it does leak. I suppose bees get thirsty, like the rest of us. There is a heavily wooded island just off shore which must be nearly worn away by people taking photographs of it. I have noticed that people take photographs of their wives/girlfriends in front of anything scenic like the poor island in question. Why is that? You get neither a photograph of a view or of a woman. It is either merely to prove that you have been there, to drive your future victims into a jealous rage, or an imitation of photo-shoots in fashion magazines which needlessly waste money by employing exotic locations as a backdrop.

 

Incidentally, the idea of taking photographs of improbably skinny models with expensive hair in exotic locations to sell clothes to normal women is in itself fundamentally preposterous. Still, this is the world. Did I expect it to make sense?

 

 

*

 

 

I dreamed again last night, I seem to be dreaming a lot, perhaps I am becoming alive. Of course I dreamed about her, not that I always do, but of course. For some reason she gave me a lift to her town (not like her town in my dream, of course) early in the morning. I went into a Hospital and when trying to leave I got mixed up with a large group of patients with mental disabilities who were dressed for a ‘fun run’ or something and a few nurses/nuns and doctors who were in charge of them. ‘Jesus Christ’ I sighed. ‘Amen.’ replied a doctor, rather aggressively. I then got to a bus stop where there was a public telephone just as the shops were opening. I wanted to phone her and put in 20p but instead of dialling her number (which I remembered clearly even in my dream) I went through the elaborate displacement of pressing certain pebbles in a pile of sand, or numbers scratched on a board before pushing the numbers on the phone. Big shiny busses kept screeching up and I wondered if I should get on one. Some were marked ‘Lewes’. I was worried in case her man answered but I thought I would just say ‘Oh sorry, wrong number’ in a high-pitched voice. I can’t remember how it ended. I should add that last time I saw her she was plainly troubled. I’d like to write to her, but I can’t think what I would say. I’ve been worried about her ever since I met her about 8 years ago.

 

 

*

 

I saw a truck full of bees the other day. Two men were unloading hives and placing them on the edges of the mountain tracks. Skopelos honey is very piney, unsurprisingly. There are a lot of hives all over the place. Square wooden boxes often painted blue with a contrasting stripe.

 

Today I saw a woodpecker, or that’s what I thought it was, with a strange pointy crest and white bars on its wings. I also happened upon a conference among goatherds. Not only a huge herd of goats but also a small herd of goatherds accompanying it. I took a photo of their goats and manoeuvred around the vehicles they had left scattered over the track. Later I came nose-to-nose with a jeep and had to reverse to the edge of a cliff to let them past. We were all very jolly about it, tourists of course, having an adventure. The last thing was when I overtook a woman dressed in traditional black carrying a bag of bread. She waved her stick at me and I raised my hand, but then thinking better of it I stopped and reversed back down the road to her. I pointed at the seat and raised my eyebrows and she opened the door, talking to me. I understood not a word she said but gave her a lift up the road until she asked me to stop which was almost a place. She seemed very grateful and had nice gold teeth. I was very pleased to be useful for a change. I also caught a glimpse of two beekeepers in those amazing masks they wear, who must have been lifting honey, I suppose.

 

 

*

 

They don’t have magpies on Skopelos, which is entirely a good thing. Instead, they have a crow with black wings and a grey body which emits a harsh croak. I call it the dismal crow. Apart from the dismal crow I have seen sparrows, or a close imitation, and a flock of finches eating thistle seeds. They had yellow on their wings. I also disturbed a fairly large bird of prey, somewhere up in the cloud on the mountain. Yesterday I saw lizards. And when walking into Skopelos I saw a pickup carrying a goat tethered by its horns to the back of the cab and then, going the other way, a VW Passat estate with a large sheep in the back.

 

 

*

 

I have established a sort of pattern of behaviour, and most days I wake up and make coffee and get back into bed and write this rubbish and then put on my clothes and walk or sometimes drive into the town down the driveway between the olive groves to the main road opposite the football stadium and then along the road past the goats and the yard that has marble stacked in it and the little restaurant that advertises ‘goat boiled and other soups’ ‘lamp chop’ and ‘chicken spit’ among its delicacies and the first garage and two hotel places and a building site and the mad aggressive dog on the roof of a house and the lighting emporium and the other garage and the restaurant on the corner and I turn right at the shrine beside the dried up stream and pass the supermarkets and the fruiterers and the car rental places and then I reach the bakery with the awning with retractable transparent plastic sides and I buy bread and an apple croissant, if they have one, and order coffee.

 

Greek, with sugar.

 

I am usually served by a moderately grumpy woman with a beautiful mouth, and sometimes by a bald man, or perhaps a rather older fat woman. If it’s the fat woman I take my tray back to the counter myself. In fact, over the weeks I wait for my coffee to be made and collect the tray and take it outside myself, and then take it back when I have finished. It seems only polite. From the awning I can look at the road and the deserted bay and the more industrial of the port’s loading areas. After coffee I walk further into town and usually I visit the Pie Shop where there is a friendly plump girl and a fine selection of pies. My major social events of the day involve these casual contacts in pursuance of commercial exchanges. I depend on them for my emotional as well as physical sustenance.

 

If I did not turn right at the shrine by the lighting shop by the bridge over the dried-up river I would pass Manos’ moped hire shop and approach the health centre and the fire station, or I could turn right just before the photography centre (which is closed, of course) and I would be at the end of the road with the post-office on it.

 

 

The supermarket I use most often is run by a heavy man with stubble. His wife serves me feta by gesture. I buy almonds, peach juice, fresh peaches, sheep’s milk yoghurt, tomatoes, each in tiny quantities. The man seems cross and is usually on the phone. His wife is unhappy.

 

 

*

 

Rain from a clear sky. A faint rainbow over Skopelos.

 

 

*

 

I found a glorious and incredibly remote beach which I travelled miles through the pine woods on a savage track to reach. Naturally, in the car-park there were 2 custard yellow Hyundais, and on the tiny, abrasive pebbles, 4 naked Germans. I once walked what seemed a considerable distance in Spain near Cadaques onto a remote headland and was confronted by naked Germans lying on the rocks. There is no remote spot in southern Europe not currently occupied by at least one naked German.

 

The other Hyundais had come by a different route (I expostulate in my defence) which was sensible of their drivers, but meant they missed several beautiful things to which I hope to return today with my camera loaded. God, I hope the thing’s working! I have my doubts. I shall probably cry, or at least shout and kick if not, and the depression will be a cold sweat that returns throughout my life like childhood embarrassments, not one of which do I seem to have got over.

 

 

*

 

 

At the baker’s:

 

Now I know how many Skopelitans it takes to change a light bulb.

Two.

One to change the light bulb and one to walk to and fro carrying it.

 

 

*

 

 

Holding a styrofoam cup with a straw in it and a blue-handled screwdriver in his left hand he mounts his moped and rides down the pavement under the trees.

 

 

*

 

 

Whilst on Skopelos I saw a dog carried in the shopping basket attached to the handlebars of a moped. I regularly saw children being carried on the seat in front of the rider, sometimes two of them. I saw men smoking and talking on mobile phones. Nobody wore a helmet, and everybody rode up the middle of the narrow streets. There were little cement ramps in the centres of the steps to enable their passage. Steepness and narrowness were no obstacle to them. Their ingenuity and determination were monumental. I saw a man riding along the bypass carrying a door, a full-sized house door on one shoulder. Then a man leading two donkeys, one stacked with wood.

 

 

*

 

 

In the piney hills: a donkey in a lonely churchyard full of yellow crocuses. By the roadside, cyclamen. An almond tree. Magnificent sweet chestnuts.

 

 

 

*

 

 

Every olive tree on Skopelos, and by extension every olive tree in Greece, and presumably the world, deserves its own full-colour portrait. Each is a distinct and individual figure frozen in a posture reminiscent of dance. As though until one looked at them they had been moving freely and every tree was engaged in playing a sort of Grandmother’s footsteps with us all. their knotted, fissured, self-entwining trunks and their shower of fluttering bi-coloured leaves.

 

Things of beauty.

 

And more than simply beauty: character.

 

 

*

 

 

I’ve managed to get quite sunburned on my mangled and shattered back. I feel unreasonably proud, as though this were an achievement. Mind you, it hurts this morning, both inside (as usual) and out. I suppose I’ve been very reluctant to expose my back so far since I broke it. I think I shall drive into town this morning as a concession to my advancing age and continuing physical incompetence. The day before yesterday I almost ran 5 or 6 steps with a sort of shuffling motion. If it were not so pathetic one might call it progress.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

I gave the can back, all dusty and with red mud and pine needles in the wheel arches. Still, I did wash the figs off the bonnet, and they were horrible. I drove the can over the mad stones and up to Glossa where I took too many photo’s of doors. I stopped at a new beach and collected too many multi-coloured stones, and had a little swim and ate my vegetable pie. The pie-shop woman wasn’t so friendly today which was a disappointment. I think she had been too friendly yesterday. Or maybe she was..... Christ! Could it possibly matter? I drove down from Glossa to the port of Loutraki and had an ice cream and then drove to a church built on a rock in the sea down a road that looped the loop but was at least paved with tarmac. There was some art on the way, strange figures standing on the hillside. There had been art on the road to Glossa too, primitive/religious rather solemn, memorial art, faces painted on rocks. Very striking.

 

Anyway, I climbed the 6,000,000 steps up to this mad church and went in and signed the book. I was scared, climbing up, despite handrails and everything. I’m full of admiration for the people who built it and the people who made the steps. There were a few olive trees up there at the top and a gate out of the wall at the back that led out to nowhere. I tried to walk down there to a rock, but became so frightened I more or less crawled back to the gate. A seagull flew past underneath me. God, what a place. The church has a little residence shed beside it, and is stocked with ikons and a big golden thing for tapers. There is a walled enclosure for it all, with a latrine hut at the edge, and the iron-work gate I mentioned before. An incredible effort, to have built it, it was bad enough just climbing up to it.

 

Driving back I gave a lift to an old man who was going to Glossa. We needed a glossary, of course. He asked where I was from. ‘England.’ I said. He seemed to think I might be Italian ‘Bella.’ I was wearing a yellow shirt, I suppose. ‘Scotia? Walesh?’ he asked. ‘England.’ I repeated, with a vague wave of the hand. I wanted to ask lots of things but anyway I had to concentrate on keeping on the road, which was a series of convoluted madnesses conducted by reference to hairpins. He asked me where I was staying ‘Klima?’ ‘Skopelos.’ ‘Bagno?’ he asked, but although I had been swimming that was earlier, I had been visiting the church and taking photographs, all of which were later shown to be entirely black. I wanted to know what he had been doing, he couldn’t have been swimming, surely, but he might have been fishing, if he’d had any fish about him, or working the land. Anyway I lacked the means to ask. His hand, I discovered when we shook farewell was rough and had plasters over the fingers. Rowing might have accounted for that, but more likely agricultural work. There were olive terraces all over the hills, well, cliffs, really. His face was weathered and lined. When we got to the end of the road he said ‘Thank-you. Goodbye.’ repeatedly, justly proud of his few phrases of English. He was better than me, anyway, I couldn’t even say ‘That’s o.k., goodbye.’ in awful Greek by way of reply.

 

Earlier, at the beach, I saw a cormorant. At least, that’s what I think it was. It appeared, black and slim on the water, and dived in a sinuous curve, disappearing for longer than possible and then popping up again. I reached for my camera as it dived again and waited and trained my lens on the area for ages and ages until eventually I gave up altogether. Some time later I saw it at the other side of the bay, where it must have swum underwater.

 

There are cyclamen everywhere, by the roadside, growing from rock faces, on ledges, under the olive trees, little purple-pink flags, inside out, hardly a leaf in sight, no visible means of support.

 

 

 

*

 

The sea flicks its scales.

 

 

*

 

Rain poured fiercely in the night, and the dismal crows croaked complaints about it. The cockerels started too, but it was pitch black and they gave up. It’s going to be sunny now, light is reflecting off windows high up above Skopelos and the sky is a pale blue. I’ve no car though, and I’m going to take it easy today, I promised in the night. I drove about 300km in the can, perhaps just under, mostly on violent roads made of rubble, many with direct access to the infinite by means of the naked air. That has been truly lovely. The deep pines. The sudden tinkling goats. The cyclamen. The dizzy cliffs. Skopelos is not a very big island, but it is complicated and steep. I think it’s probably always sunny somewhere on the island at any given time, on the other side of the mountain, or in the north, or somewhere.

 

 

*

 

I brought a little radio with me, and I can get the World Service on short wave, though the reception is bad. I think I’ve been here a week now, though I can’t say what day it is for the life of me, because I heard Charlie Gillet last night, and I had heard him before, I think, in Skiathos. It’s a good show, what we call in our absurd way ‘World Music’, which means everything produced outside the North American/North European popular music traditions. Usually in a foreign language, often with folk roots. I like to hear this stuff.

 

Thunder suddenly rumbles. The sky is still pale blue with mottlings of cloud above Skopelos Town. Rain in the mountains, then?

 

World Service happens twice a day, it seems, for a couple of hours each time. It’s been very good, but the news is surprisingly brief. I heard Feargal Keane, god help me, do a follow-up to his glutinous ‘Letter to Daniel’, a piece which has damaged news radio, or at least marks an extreme point between reportage and autobiography. This one was less glutinous but equally trite. Deplorable. Bring back Lord Reith. Mind you, I did hear a very good radio piece by the former Brussels correspondent once about going back to England after his postings overseas. Somehow he was personal without excess, and his piece was charming and intimate without added glycerine.

 

 

*

 

I’ve showered and brushed my teeth but not dressed or shaved. The balcony doors are open and the chickens and ducks are shouting and laughing as usual. It’s neither quite sunny nor actually raining. A new pot of coffee grumbles on the stove. I shall get up soon and sweep the floor and walk into town. I will, I will, I promise!

 

But for now I shall sit here in bed and listen to the chickens argue with the ducks. I have to buy bread, and perhaps a pie.

 

 

*

 

 

It’s warming up today. I walked to the pie shop where the girl was staring at the wall and picking her teeth. I pointed at a new tray of pies.

 

“Vegetable Pie?” I asked.

“Yes, but you will have to be careful, it is very hot.”

“They look hot.”

 

At the bakery, an aged fisherman with a thick bamboo pole hunched round his croissant. His yellow waterproof was torn and stitched. He ate and then shambled away, head down. I went to get my coffee myself, since the woman with the beautiful mouth was in a worse mood than usual.

 

Good coffee though, and a good croissant.

 

The onion seller has the most battered pickup in town, possibly on the island, which is quite an accolade. It squeaks joyfully as it celebrates the bumps in the road. On the back window of his cab he has pictures of Christ and the Virgin, and projecting forwards is a megaphone speaker, so it is he that I hear yelling distortions periodically.

 

A herd of Germans passes in a miasma of fresh sun cream, wearing brightly coloured rucksacks and then congregates, strangely, in the middle of the road. I am beginning to feel happy again. For some reason, it was a punishing night. Perhaps the error is in ever getting used to anything.

 

 

*

 

 

The pie shop is a magnificent institution. It’s just near a brown stone church with plates set in it on the same road as the Post Office and the Internet Cafe, but nearer the harbour than either, past the agricultural co-operative warehouse, or whatever it is, that acts as a sort of car-park and walkway from the front to the town. Not only does the pie shop serve pies (which are very much like pasties in design): cheese, vegetable, cheese and spinach, chicken, almost certainly others which I have forgotten because as a vegetarian they are of no use to me, some with a double crust for durability, but also a sort of apple cake (too sweet, I thought) and a marvellous soft chocolate cake which is delicious despite a complete lack of icing. Besides all of which there is the lovely young woman who serves the pies, who is friendly and speaks very good English. No-one who could speak any foreign language as well as that would be serving pies in a shop in England, surely.

 

She is rather plump, this pie-shop woman, with sleek black hair pulled back from her face. She smiles when she sees me. Usually. I try to give her the right change, because sometimes it is difficult to change a note in the morning. I try to be polite and to say ‘thank-you’ nicely in Greek, which is something like ‘Ekferistow’, but a mumbled ‘feristo’ will normally do. Most people look quite pleased when I try, but probably only because my accent is so awful. I have become very fond of her in the course of a fortnight, and am disappointed if she is not there. On at least one occasion I have been served by an older woman who probably actually bakes the pies, since she wears an overall and emerges from the back room.

 

 

 

*

 

A solemn bald man with a white moustache and only one arm pushes a baby in a pushchair. A middle-aged woman wheels her husband in a wheelchair.

 

 

*

 

A young couple on a motorbike smile as they pull a dog along on a lead. A bus heads out on the island road with people standing, hanging off the straps. Five minutes later, another, completely empty.

 

 

*

 

On the promenade a Greek turns three times to look at the huge, taut, exposed, distended belly of a vile Englishman.

 

*

 

 

There’s lots of building work going on, or not going on but ‘in progress’.

 

By which I mean not in progress, of course.

 

There are building sites and there are major renovations, building from scratch mostly taking place on the outskirts or in particular areas like Neo Klima. Rich rural/suburban villas are going up all over the place, and tourist accommodation also. Despite renovations there are still many tumbledown houses in the towns, some of them perhaps too small for contemporary requirements. The large numbers of empty tourist dwellings give parts of places a strange desolate air which is somehow less attractive than that of traditional houses in disrepair.

 

 

*

 

I’ve talked to two English people so far, or one person and a couple. In Skopelos Town I came across a man older than myself. We expressed incoherent astonishment at the beauty of the place.

 

“I left my wife downstairs somewhere.” he said.

“I hope you find her again.”

 

In Glossa I saw a couple toiling up the hill. If they’d come all the way from Loutraki I’m not surprised they looked tired.

 

“Steep, isn’t it?” I said.

“And how do you know when you’re there?” asked the woman.

“Well, there isn’t really a ‘there’,” I said, but when you get to the top of this staircase that’s the main street, such as it is. But everything’s closed.”

“We knew that.” he said “We picked the time to visit.”

“Well, there is a restaurant.” I pointed. “And I got a cup of coffee. It was good.”

“Thanks for that.” she said, “We said we’d go no further than the church.”

“Ah, well that’s a bit further.”

She was glad, I think, to have a chance to stop and talk. We parted and I carried on taking interminable strings of photographs of doorways and shuttered windows. Glossa is precipitous and complicated and beautiful, with wonderful views out to Skiathos across the sea, but my photographs of it don’t do it justice, something went wrong with them all, somehow, even the cat on a motorbike didn’t come out clearly. I suppose there’s a couple of good doors. But of course I didn’t know this until later, after I’d got back and had them developed at great expense.

 

Reactions to me in Glossa were mixed. I was greeted warmly by a hippy and by a man with a ponytail who didn’t seem to be quite a hippy, but the old ladies at whom I nodded regarded me with suspicion and did not return my nods. A priest smiled at me out of beard, wrapped up in his black pepperpot. It occurs to me now that I should have taken photographs of the people to whom I gave lifts. I am so reluctant to take photo’s of people, but they wouldn’t have minded, it would have been an exchange.

 

 

*

 

 

The ferries come into Skopelos harbour erect on insect legs and then drop to their hulls at the breakwater, transformed into boats.

 

 

*

 

I walked up the track beside the football ground. After a while there were some sheep, proper woolly sheep anyone could have distinguished from goats, only wearing heavy kohl, and even some in black lipstick. After a bit further I came across a man leading a donkey loaded with wood and greeted him, to his surprise, it seemed. Then I reached the back gate of a monastery, which wasn’t locked, and walked up the drive. There were renovations taking place, and air-conditioning had been fitted. I imagined the conversations ‘It’s what the young people expect these days, how else are we to attract novitiates in these materialistic times?’

 

Around the other side of the monastery, past the digger and the concrete mixer and the wheelbarrows a doorway in the wall was open to the courtyard. I thought of entering, and stood uncertainly by the threshold, but heard movement and suddenly a monk went past. I walked in the grounds for a bit and came back out. There was a sort of village below the monastery that I shall walk to soon.

 

On the way back I saw a child’s metal bedstead abandoned in an olive grove. I took a photo of a tree shaped like a barrel, but that set a dangerous precedent, since all olive trees are amazing individuals, some of which are made of melted wax, and others composed of a conflux of vines. The ginger cat was howling at the entrance to the football stadium (a very green pitch clearly visible from the monastery grounds), hiding by some brambles and seemingly (justly) frightened of the road. I told it off. I said ‘You shouldn’t have come.’ and picked it up by the scruff of its neck and carried it across the road. Kittens freeze when you pick them up like that, it’s what their mothers do, only with their teeth. We walked back together.

 

“I’m only bringing you back because you got lost. That’s all it is.” I said.

 

 

*

 

I walked back into town again, but there was no slide film. Perhaps tomorrow. He had told me definitely today, that he would get it by courier, that the shop would close in ten days. I walked back again. I only walked all that way because I told him I would because he told me the film would be there. Lights on the harbour. The heavy jumping of a grasshopper. Cicada noises. I had a bad night full of anxieties. Boats to Alonnysos. Lugging luggage. Places to stay. Busses. My head is a basket of snakes.

 

The air is damp this morning, but the world smells good. Moody clouds over the mountains, a gentle sunlight on Skoplelos Town. I hope my head clears soon.... The night before last I was visited by three beautiful students. There was nothing lewd about it, but it was nice to remember.

 

There is a great twittering among birds. A flock of something small. I was wondering about birds, I’ve seen some interesting ones, but I was thinking I’d not heard much birdsong. Perhaps England specialises in birdsong, it wouldn’t surprise me, somehow, there must be something good that happens there.

 

 

*

 

A long walk past the monastery and into the hinterland behind the new port. A wonderful hidden rural building up a gorge. Then the wilderness of closed-down holiday villas. Only the pomegranates are ripe. The only ripe oranges I have seen are on neglected trees, and ripe and rotted fruit lies on the ground. Is there a moral in this? Only if you wish to invent one.

 

 

*

 

 

Such was my anxiety level I made myself a calendar in order to organise my thoughts about time, money and the other dimensions (space, love, energy, imagination). I think it will help. It turns out I have nearly a fortnight left here and then a week of uncertainty which includes a night in Athens. I knew all this, of course.

 

But now I have it written down.

 

I have never before in my life felt the need of a plan, I’m sure. Well, nearly sure. Think of it as a map, Peter. In which case it is no more accurate than the utterly confusing maps of Skopelos I tried to find my way down the twisty dirt with. Now of course I may not be very good at reading maps, but the two I have disagree with one another, let alone the world, and don’t seem to feature various roads I actually drove down. But then perhaps they weren’t roads, but cracks in the forest. No. They were roads, just not very good ones. I have driven down other roads which more nearly resembled dried up river beds than these.

 

 

*

 

The cafés on the seafront have tented roofs outside on the patios which in turn have transparent walls which can be rolled down with a handle in bad weather, thereby constructing greenhouses to grow customers in.

 

 

*

 

There was a loud click and a chirp and a small bird fluttered out of the bathroom window.

 

 

*

 

I went to Alonnysos on a day trip. It turned out that I had been there before. I sat and stood and walked around for ages trying to decide whether to go or not. In the end I found the ticket office and waited a bit longer to see what I felt like. I’m going on the ferry, I get 3 hours in Alonnysos for 15 euros. That’s about a tenner to you. I hope I’m in the right place. I’m surrounded by loud, posh English voices, but there are Greeks too, one of whom is doing a crossword. That seems a really severe form of cruelty in Greek. The English voices almost convince me I must be going the wrong way, they should be going home, via Skiathos.

 

*

 

Either he is here, or it is his brother, or at least the brother of his pickup. It too is red and battered and full of onions, only this has one side light hanging out on its wire and part of the right front wing flapping loosely. Also it spews oily smoke when starting, but it’s a fair bet that the Skopelitan version does that too. I don’t think this one has a megaphone, though. Perhaps onions are not subject to popular ballot on Alonnysos, or perhaps it’s not election time yet. I wonder, if onions were not elected, what was? Zucchini? Leeks? Aubergines?

 

 

*

 

The port, Patitiri, is probably not the best place to judge it by, although it has its attractive points including pine trees growing directly out of the sheer rock face, one defiantly upside down. It is a real fishing port, and the small beach has wonderful stones of various colours and patterns – I could have filled a rucksack. I walked up a steep track towards the old village, but I never got there. I didn’t expect or intend to, but I had to do something. I saw: olive trees, old barrels, lizards, olive trees, sheep, stones, stones, olive trees, chickens, a stainless steel hot food counter, villas made of concrete, small, elegant birds with long tails and yellow markings, lizards, thistles, stones, olive trees, butterflies and stones. I also saw some orange trees with green oranges in. Can one have green oranges? It seems somewhat paradoxical.

 

I probably saw some other things too, but no monasteries, and no attractive buildings. The port has a selection of restaurants and is visited by cruising ships and ferries, the customers of which go into the restaurants. I did this and had fresh fruit juice. Orange juice, since you ask. The ferry was entirely enclosed and the windows were slightly fogged by spray. It was impossible to escape the Greek soap opera being relayed by x number of televisions all over the place, but you could look out of the window, anyway. On the way there I snuck upstairs, where I was one of only 3. On the way back I was prevented from doing even this, but I was tired by then, and didn’t care.

 

I saw a large number of a thoroughly extraordinary mode of transport which I’d forgotten about. This is, or seems to be, a rotovator with a trailer attached. It’s a mechanical donkey, or a tractor-in-waiting, I suppose. We have nothing like this in England. I also saw a wickerwork motorcycle, but that was on Skopelos, and presumably doesn’t work.

 

I’d loaded a new film on Alonnysos and it hadn’t wound on properly, so there are some pictures I shall have to try to take again.

 

 

*

 

I dreamed all night (it seemed) of strange things: one; a small group of youth cultists who mimicked the equipment and attitudes of the U.S. armed forces, only with weird hairstyles. Two, I went to some event in London with her, we were ‘going out’ and talked about sex. We got on well and I think she even laughed at my joke when I argued with someone who trod on my bag. She asked if we could not be sexy and I agreed happily because of course I’m worried about that. Then she snuggled me and I held her under her vest. She asked me whether I thought it did her harm to have such opposed views about sex. In all truth I think it does her harm not to try to integrate her views on everything, and sex is perhaps the primary case. (This would please Freud, but not her.) I’m sorry I dreamed about her, I would be better off if I didn’t, but I love her, don’t I? It’s not good.

 

 

*

 

It absolutely pelted with rain late yesterday afternoon, it might even have been hail. Today, this morning, it is bright and clear and cool and a bit windy, the sky a beautiful pale blue, and big clouds ranged out over the bay. It’s Sunday, and, periodically, bells ring.

 

 

*

 

 

The apple stalks, but not like a cat.

 

 

*

 

 

It’s a cliché endlessly repeated, of course, but the English language is impossible. Try explaining the distinction between ‘fine food’ and ‘fine foods’ for example, or explain why we say ‘how much?’ and not ‘what much?’.

 

 

*

 

Phew! I made it back. I’m tired after yesterday’s excursion. I told myself I was only going to walk to buy breakfast and feta, but ended up climbing Skopelos Town again and taking loads of photo’s and climbing onto the roof of a deserted house and ringing England from a terrace overlooking the bay. I’d rather be alone here, I think, though I’d like company sometimes. Being alone I connect more directly with place and people, I’m not distracted, and I have to do my own work and make my own connections. It is better for me.

 

Such beautiful light today. It was fresh earlier this morning so I put clothes on, but I should have gone naked: it got hot. Anyway, it is beautiful, I’m sure you can see to the end of the world. Which is Tuesday, probably, the way things are going. Still, seeing to Tuesday isn’t bad, it means Monday is transparent.

 

 

*

 

I must write down before I forget the frequent sighting of a concrete mixer truck called ‘Wopfinger’.

 

*

 

People fish in the harbour. Boys mostly. They stand on the wall and fish with poles. The fish swim unselfconsciously round the fishing boats and are attracted with bread. All along the harbour road are cafes with awnings, and every since I have arrived they are gradually shrinking and clearing out and packing away their tables and wicker furniture. Soon there will be nothing left except me and the bakery and the fishing boats and the sea.

 

*

 

I had my regular coffee and apple croissant at the baker’s, the woman with the beautiful mouth startling me awake from my dream.

 

“Kalimera.”

 

The Car Ferry came in. Huge. It must be like driving an office block across ice. I went to look, there being nothing else to see. It seemed disproportionate in the old harbour, but it fitted up against the quay and lowered a fat ramp. Off came the onion-seller’s pickup, which explains its appearance in Alonnysos, and it did indeed have one flapping wing and a sidelight hanging down like an eyeball from its socket. I t was loaded, piled up high with scrap metal, which explains the squeaks, I suppose. Onions out, metal in, what a resourceful import/export business this well worn vehicle supports. A donkey for the modern age.

 

The neighbour people (not the goats, the other side) are picking their apples. Earlier I saw a woman gathering walnuts that had been brought down by the rain.

 

I climbed up Skopelos in a smaller, tighter loop than before, encountering the crocodile of tourists from the ‘one day cruise’ being told things about churches. Of which, I might add, there are incredible numbers. Indeed, on my last walk in the hills it seemed to me that it was almost as popular to build a tiny chapel in your garden as to have an open sided pavilion for barbecues. In one tiny area of Skopelos Town there were 6 chapels, and in one part by the main church with its multi-tiered bell tower 2 of its immediate neighbours are also churches. There can’t be priests enough, let alone parishioners for all this whitewashed architectural piety.

 

 

*

 

Last night the duck-geese set up a staccato honking of such ferocity and duration it made me take notice, and eventually laugh out loud. It sounded like a traffic jam or a piece of systems music, Very late there was a strange song played loudly but far away in Skopelos. It sounded North African, Berber perhaps. I went out onto the balcony and listened under the countless stars. I dreamed a ruthless parody of Louis de Bernieres, and was tempted to write it down when I woke up in the night, but then it was only a parody of Louis de Bernieres. Apart from the honking of the duck-geese (which is currently replaced by a harsh derisive laughter) the cockerels, I should note, have among their number the only 2 harmony-crowers I have ever heard. Quite frequently they will call exactly together, with identical phrasing and compatible pitch. Hatched from the same egg? Some sort of yolk? I shall have to visit the internet cafe today, and talk to England. And I should ring my Parents.

 

 

*

 

The dismal crow, the dismal crow,

it doesn’t know where it should go,

it’s cry is hoarse,

its flapping slow,

what use it is I do not know.

 

 

*

 

Neat brown birds like well dressed sparrows.

 

 

*

 

Rain this morning. The air is still warm and smells of the sea. The rain has quelled the stupid barking of the dog which aggravated the morning with its echo, and even the harmony of the choral cockerels. The goats have retreated to their shed, and I lie hear listening to the rain with the balcony doors open. One dismal crow. A local quacking from a goosey duck. I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and even about being in hospital, so my ragged history has caught up with me. I still don’t feel that I’m reconciled to it. That’s the trouble with running: you’re still with you when you get off the plane.

 

 

*

 

The air’s too fat to drink with autumn bloom.

 

 

*

 

Mysterious things creak and slam in the wind. I have a headache, I could not sleep and then I slept too long. I am plagued by women who are not here and who occupy only my mind with illusions about their attributes. I will feel better soon, after coffee, a shower, a lobotomy. I tried opening the front door when I got up and was assaulted by a squeaking of small cat.

 

 

*

 

I have lost the will, or the desire (which for me is the same thing) to do anything, and I lie in bed and read. I feel obscurely guilty about this even though this is my holiday and I’m meant to be allowed to rest if I want to, surely?

 

The sky is grey and my heart is the same colour and there is a persistent wind from the bay, but the clouds are thin, and occasional footprints of sunlight fall on the hillside opposite, and I am sure it is not cold out there. I felt a bit like this yesterday, but yesterday was better: for example, I took a photo of a goat standing in mid air.

 

 

*

 

It’s windy. I wanted to go on the last dolphin excursion today, but it’s so windy, I don’t know if I dare. I don’t think I’d enjoy it. I got up and closed the shutters in the night. Skopelos was strung with little white stars as usual, and it was still warm. But windy. It sounded like most of the world was blowing away or banging itself to pieces.

 

 

*

 

I feel a bit better, perhaps for having gone somewhere and done something (although not far and very little) but it’s safe to say I’m having trouble with my head, or with the contents thereof and with the neck that holds it on. It was windy in town, down at the breakwater I could hardly stand but the position of Skopelos Town itself – the old part, that is – makes perfect sense to me now, sheltered as it is behind a shoulder of rock, and the tiny streets and tall building kept the wind away when I walked up it again.

 

I wanted to get to a terrace I found the other day but I couldn’t track it down, in fact I’ve only found the same place on purpose in Skopelos Town on 2 or 3 occasions. Some places are easy, of course, and wouldn’t prove too much of a problem. By the way, I think I said earlier that the main church had 2 other chapels as immediate neighbours but today I think I counted 4. Perhaps they have bred in my absence, but they certainly don’t look new.

 

Yesterday I happened upon a man riding a brown horse side-saddle, very upright and correct and smart and well-groomed they both were, he with a stick and a moustache. I was up a private sort of track, lurking about, but I didn’t feel guilty, and we stared at each other and nodded and moved on. Skopelos’s little suburban tracks offer surprising riches. I came across a huge castle structure that I’d driven past and never noticed and which I couldn’t get a proper photo of as it was either too close or hidden from view. It looks as though it was a monastery, but seems to be a private house now with a huge, high-walled garden. Lucky someone.

 

A bit further on a half-finished house had a horse tethered in the back and a storey above at the front 2 carriages tucked into archways. Today I surprised an old lady in black who saw me suddenly and smiled. I am less threatening than usual then, at least.

 

On the way back I passed the world’s fattest turkey. It was so fat that it could hardly walk. Turkeys are quite absurd, with those wiggly things coming out of their faces, I don’t know how they have survived. Should they allow turkeys in Greece? I went into a strange new shop to buy some yoghurt, but the young man was on the phone for ages, and I had to calm myself. When eventually he served me he gave me a little ice-cream spoon to eat it with.

 

I have found what I believe to be a Turkish music station on the radio. I think it’s Turkish, it doesn’t seem Greek, nor yet quite Arabic, and the spoken bits are in a language I don’t recognise at all. Greek sounds like Russian, I’ve decided, but sometimes it just sounds perfectly normal, as though it were English. I haven’t managed to find the station that played Rembetika to me on Skiathos (or if I have it’s playing something else), if indeed it was Rembetika. The Greek music on telly has been appalling, but then think of the music on telly in England (or, even worse, Scotland). ‘Family entertainment’, you’d have to call it, meaning that nobody likes it.

 

 

*

 

Windy again. I hired a Panda and went hunting (for bamboo, presumably). First I went to fill up with petrol, and that cost 35 euros which was more than I had on me, so I left the car there in the petrol station and walked back to the apartment to get more money. All the time the petrol was going in I was thinking ‘stop’, but it didn’t stop, and then it was too late. Of course, you can’t fill your own tank on Skopelos, there is an attendant to do it, in this case an old man who sat in the glass office with his wife. The apartment is only a few hundred metres away from the petrol station I had chosen, so I was very quick, and we were all very surprised and friendly. The petrol station man and his wife asked where I came from and that sort of thing, and I apologised and they said ‘not at all, not at all’ and none of us could understand a thing the other was saying. I didn’t feel embarrassed, which was odd. Then I drove off.

 

The Panda says ‘young’ on the back but neither it nor I are so young anymore. I hired it from a different place because Spiros had nailed wood over his windows and vanished. I went without a map because I forgot to go back to the apartment and then I couldn’t be bothered. So I drove down some more preposterous roads, this time with even less idea of which ones I thought they were.

 

The Panda has spongy brakes and smells of petrol and the exhaust leaks and the handle for the rear part of the sunroof has come off and is suspended on a piece of string and bangs on the window when you turn sharply. Altogether more my sort of car, then, and it has better ground clearance, too. I ended up climbing tracks which even I thought difficult, where speeds of 10 kph seemed excessive and 2 butterflies constituted heavy traffic. Nevertheless I once met someone coming the other way and backed up into a field to let them past.

 

I went out again in the afternoon and followed virtually the same route, this time with the map, past the rubbish dump at which point the tarmac ends and out to Kalogeropetra. I kept making the same decisions as in the morning and thus ending up in the same places, but eventually doubled back and chose a different road which turned into a cliff of scree. I stopped going forward at all and tried to change gear and the Panda cut out and I rolled backwards to a slightly less precipitous spot and tried to start again in first. Not that easy, since the hand-brake doesn’t work hardly at all but I did get the car started despite it seeming not to want to and then a great rattling and banging took place as the road surface proceeded downwards around the car faster than we ascended it. There was no room to turn round though, and it would have been merely foolhardy to try reversing down the hill. The car and I went as much sideways as forwards, but by virtue of slipping the clutch and keeping the revs as low as possible we got past the worst bit and up onto something more like a track. There was an interesting church-place at the top, almost obscured by the grey concrete thing in front of it, and the huge jutting rock people had been using as a fireplace next to it. A little further on I rejoined the route I had travelled in the morning, so the precipice was hardly necessary, but hell, I got up it anyway.

 

All signposts in this area point to Sentouria, which I must have passed 20 times and never seen, unless it should happen to be a village (for which read 3 dwellings). I think it’s meant to be an archaeological site, but there is no signpost which tells you that you have actually got to it, only directions towards it from other places. Anyway, I found myself at a familiar crossroads having passed through the goatherd’s encampment for the 2nd time that day and for the 2nd time that day been chased by loudly barking dogs. Well, one dog this time, 2 dogs in the morning. Quite scary, really, even though, of course, I was in a car. I just kept driving at the same speed and hoped I didn’t run it over. It must have chased me for ½ a kilometre. Eventually I reached the donkey church, though Saint Donkey was not in residence, only his crocuses, and a little further on, on tarmac by now, I was flagged down by a lady standing at the roadside. She asked me in broken English whether I was going to Skopelos, and whether I would take her, to both of which questions I replied ‘yes’. So she got various bulging carrier bags and climbed into the car.

 

On the way down the unfamiliar road from Pirgos she crossed herself at every church and told me the names of the villages. We could not talk much, because I had to look at the road, and we had few words in common – all of them hers. We came across a herd of goats in the road. She decried October, and said it was cold, and that she had only swum twice this year because she’d been so busy. When I got into Skopelos she told me where to stop and let her out and thanked me and gave me some cyclamen, a crocus and some grapes from one of her bags. The flowers are in a glass of water over by the sink now. And I must have a shower and use some of this petrol.

 

 

*

 

 

Well, that was complicated, and I don’t suppose I can write even a fraction of it down, but having settled on the unrealistic notion of driving every road, cart-track, rubble-heap, footpath and dried-up river bed on the island I set off and found a new route over the top of Skopelos Town and back across opposite the sign for the helicopter port. There’s no sign of a helicopter port down there, by the way, but there are sometimes a lot of goats. I found out why the camera was flashing at me at some point too, I had knocked a dial to a position marked ½ x, so all the shots for 2 days will be wrongly exposed. I’ve got my doubts about it anyway, and I keep getting little images of pictures I took which probably no longer exist or never existed: that lizard hanging out of a rock by its tail; the horns on that goat; that roof; those boats from the terrace (etc etc). My life’s a nightmare of failure and anxiety, of course.

 

After that I managed to buy some more film in Skopelos, which has emptied the island of slide film, I think. My credit card bill increases. I then found a new and stunningly precipitous exit from Skopelos which was mostly concreted, thank heavens. Quite a road, that, out of town about ½ way along the ring road. There’s a little church with a drinking trough at the bottom and then it sets off vertically up the cliff between ramshackle smallholdings until it levels off through some olive trees, past another collection of corrugated iron and goats and connects up to the top road above Skopelos. I headed north, and found myself passing a number of ancient looking plane trees, and then there was the inevitable church, this one with yellow details and surrounded by cyclamen. Oh dear, one becomes quite blasé. I drove to Glossa on the main road when I rejoined it, although I stopped at Panormos because I wanted a coffee, but everywhere was shut. I walked around in Glossa again – what a town! It is insanely steep and intricate, made of narrow, cobbled winding alleys and staircases, old buildings with whitewashed plaster and shuttered windows, and projecting wooden balconies with toilet cubicles. But no coffee. Some builders were working on a roof and had a sort of bridge across the path/street from a flat roof up to their own. They stared at me and I stared back, a bit intimidated but not revealing it, I hope. I surveyed Glossa from above the church (is that cafe ever open?) and I could see my little Panda, the steps, the huge sweep of hill down to Loutraki, the distant islands illuminated by the sun (which seemed to be shining on Skiathos).

 

Oh! and in the morning I had found the old road to Stafilos, which was much more populated by dwellings than the new. I think I’ll go that way again. I had spent ages looking for it, it was marked on the map but not (of course) where it actually was, and I prowled up and down the road, eventually disappearing up someone’s private drive and ending up at a house and having to come back again before I did find it, when it revealed a splendid concrete mixer and deposited me back on the main road just near the turn off for Manos’ Apartments.

 

I had to go under the builders’ bridge in the end, and climbed down some steps and some more steps, and further steps, my leg beginning to give out by now. You couldn’t afford to fall down here; you’d not stop falling till you hit the sea. I saw a kitten on a motorbike. I saw a house for sale which seemed to be a ruin. I eventually found coffee at a posh new bar with a balcony terrace overlooking the sea and the view towards Skiathos where I was regaled by a loud wiry Greek in an Australian cowboy bush hat. He made a gesture linking his hands in front of him, indicating togetherness. He praised the view, which is stunning, of course. He said he had many English friends, which is because he acts as an agent in property sales. I don’t suppose you could trust him an inch, but I rather warmed to him anyway. He was ebullient. It was good coffee, and I changed the film in my camera and drove north. I want to reach the cape, but I only reached a radr station or something, and then disappeared down a dirt track which ended at two farm houses. I shall have to try again. On the way back I got stuck behind one of those rotovators with a trailer which stank of oil and went at about 4 kph. There was a woman sitting in the covered wagon with her face veiled, I think against the exhaust, not for religious reasons.

 

Two more things I’ve remembered: I went round one corner and a brown dog in the road barked at me, so I was going quite slowly when I came across 2 horsemen, one old man on a white horse directly in front of me on my side of the road. I managed to stop, and we all smiled broadly at each other. The old man, who had a luxuriant grey moustache held his hand over his heart and said something which I assume indicated that I had nearly given him a heart attack. A bit further on there was a man standing by the roadside. He managed to convey that he wanted to go to Skopelos, but I was heading north, and I couldn’t go all the way back then.

 

Concrete mixers have a resonant similarity in shape with amphoras. This probably explains the frequency of their inclusion in the design of Greek gardens.

 

 

*

 

If Skopelos is steep and absurdly picturesque, Glossa is twice so. Almost all the vertical streets are not so much paths as staircases. Right at the steepling top is a house with a large collection decorated tins and flattened cigarette packets, beer bottles, canisters, painted stones arranged on patterns in the path and on poles and shelves.

 

 

*

 

 

These photographs I could not take:

the liquid woven by a thin black snake,

the shorn-off olive grove beset by celandines,

the green pine set against the slaty sea,

the black winged hawk that shimmered from a pole,

the run of wooded cliffs off to the cape,

the white shack underneath the looming pine,

the smell of resin and the whir of bees;

I have to use my memory for these.

 

 

*

 

Back to Glossa and beyond, into the fearsome wilds and the very end of the world. I was trying to get to the lighthouse at Cape Gourouni, solely on the grounds that you couldn’t get any further once you had. I drove past Glossa therefore, and on to Perivoli, the beach of the naked Germans. I was getting far too close for my liking and began to think that I must have missed the road somehow when I saw below and in front of me down round another hairpin a dirt road leading away into the woods. ‘That might be it.’ I said to myself, (there being no-one else available), and when I reached the beginning of it, already in sight of the car-park for Perivoli, I turned left onto it.

 

It is a long way to the end of the world.

 

I nearly broke my back twice by lunging down suddenly into gullies worn by water running across the road, but the Panda and I survived and reached an area occupied by a number of goats and chickens. I stopped and talked to the goats, but our conversation was somewhat one-sided.

 

‘Splendid goats,’ I said ‘how intelligent and beautiful you are.’

 

The goats did not return my compliments. The area around Cape Gourouni is covered in heather, now flowering in profuse purple. If I had beehives, this is where I would put them. There were not enough beehives out there for my liking. Bees would love it. That’s after you get out of the pine woods, of course, that the heather starts. It’s all very Scottish, apart from the goats, and the weather. The lighthouse is just like a lighthouse. There is a notice on the gate  which would say ‘Keep Out’ in any language. I took a photo of it anyway, turned the Panda round on the narrow track and ate the vegetable pie i had bought from my favourite woman in the morning. Incidentally, I missed a trick here, when buying my pie. I asked for a vegetable pie and she said ‘So that is your favourite.’ Now, at this juncture I should have replied ‘No, you are my favourite.’ But of course I didn’t, I said something foolish and largely incomprehensible about cheese pie and left. I can believe how stupid I am, but only because I have long experience of myself. I am nearly always this stupid, so I have become used to it. I watched the car ferry go past, and then I drove back. It was on the ferry to Skopelos that I had first seen the lighthouse, of course, a white finger at the tip of the island.

 

After the end of the world I went back to Glossa and had a coffee where I’d had one yesterday. I needed it. After that I drove out to see what else there was, finding a church of St George with a beautiful floor. I met an English couple.

 

“It’s St George.” I said, smiling.

“I know.” said the plump, bearded one.

“Complete with dragon.” I said.

 

They looked doubtfully at the building, which was small and had one typically rounded end, and dated from the 1980’s, I think.

 

“I’d go in.” I said. “It smells wonderful.” (As indeed it did, there had been incense burning in there recently.)

 

I struggled back up the scree-slope road to the turn-off by the church with the railings.

 

 

*

 

I propose a new substance to be called Pragma.

 

 

 

*

 

Excitement at the bakers’. A rough type drinks beer at an an inside table of which there are now several. Some youngish men come in and buy pastries. The Motor Tours man tries to extract a plastic spoon from a dispenser and is surrounded by a dry autumnal clattering as a dozen or more fall to the floor around him. A man’s mobile phone rings with the cry of a cat and he hisses at it before answering. I am invited to sit inside by the fat woman, which I do for the first time.

 

 

*

 

Among others, a perfectly horrible image where I was watching an animated (cartoon) flower singing about its feelings. It sang

 

“I like that position, it’s so individual, so you: ‘You must be beautiful inside’.” (that last bit being a quote from a Disney/soft soul ballad).

 

Some high degree of emotional pretension being parodied here. Also, I tried to take a wheelbarrow to Safeways, but they were digging up the roads. “It’s like they’ve made a moat.” I said to someone.

 

Then again I was in a place full of drunk sunbathers and was trying to drink hot chocolate. One bloke begged a sip from me, I told him it wasn’t a good idea, but he said “That hits the spot.” Then he lurched, and in trying to avoid him I spilt some on another bloke’s back. I had to apologise, but said it was the first man’s fault, which he denied. I expected violence to result, but everything was fine.

 

Then again, lots of us were refugees on a big estate, perhaps in Scotland. A newcomer to the group was riding a lawnmower down some steps, and I had to ask him to stop, or he would break it.

 

It was so windy in the night! I had to close the shutters. The chair on the balcony migrated from one end to the other. The bathroom window blew open. I’ve done the washing, and now I shall try to find out if the free map’s right about the metalled road across the island from Skopelos to Neo-Klima/Elios. And do some shopping. Bread. Pie? Cake?

 

*

 

I drove out of Skopelos Town on the steepling road at the far end of town again and bravely stopped at the Skopelos Institute for the Arts. A dog barked at me. I bravely walked down a steep concrete drive and bravely knocked on the door. Equally bravely no-one was in.

 

I drove to Ananias on the road marked as metalled, but tarmac ceased where I had expected, just past the church of St Donkey. I drove on to find Sendoukia (whatever that is), beloved of signposts, and went as far as the encampment of vicious dogs and a little further and then back through the encampment of vicious dogs again (fortunately only barking resulted) until I located the beginning of a footpath, which I started to walk up.

 

No breakfast yet, mind you. The path had several autumn crocuses of a delicate lilac or pale mauve growing from between its rocks, and became stonier and stonier and more bare as I progressed up it. Estonia? There was a good deal of goat poo, but no goats. There were large numbers of cyclamen. There was a lot of bare, whitish rock. There was, in fact, a great absence of things. If Sendoukia is a place it is a place defined almost exclusively by its lack of content, a negative space from which other things can be seen. Most of the major peaks of the island Several other islands. The sea in four directions. Sky. Pine trees. An ideal place for a beacon, perhaps. Very bare. Quite windy on such a windy morning.

 

I walked a long way over bare rock to the edge of the summit. Sea. Sky. Dismal crows. (To be fair, they didn’t seem so dismal up here in the bare sky with its scouring wind. They hurtled across, looking like they were having fun.) Little scrubby bushes. Rocks, some with holes in.

I saw what might have been the footprint of a god, which sank at least nine inches into solid rock, properly foot-shaped. I saw a fenced enclosure in a sheltered hollow. I walked back.

 

I was pleased to see the car, and I drove it back to Skopelos, where the pie shop was shut. I knew I should have gone on the way. The bakery had moved itself indoors, the tented area outside deserted now and the tables set up indoors on the shop floor between the door and the counters. The television was on. I came back to the apartment and fell asleep, woke up, went out again, this time back down the old Stafilos road, only now in the reverse direction.

 

I started up it, and it passes by a large garage with what seemed American adverts, even though the road is not metalled. Somehow it was less clear going this way which was the proper route, and at one point I found myself hurdling up a mountain in first to arrive at a the end of the road in a farmyard with a huge pine tree. I could see pine-covered peaks all around me, and 2 small dogs, which barked a lot, but I largely disregarded. Under the pine tree was a table with a watering-can on it, and there was the usual collection of tin sheds. I stood admiring this delight of tranquillity for a while, and then a man appeared with a stick in his pyjamas. The stick wasn’t in his pyjamas, he was in his pyjamas, but walking with a stick. I smiled broadly and explained in incomprehensible terms that I had come the wrong way and would leave soon, and that his farmyard was beautiful. He made me free of the area with expansive gestures and words which I could not understand. We smiled more and left it at that, he limping off with his entourage of little dogs. I felt really happy. He was so nice to me. I drove back down the mountain and took a photo of a concrete mixer.

 

After Stafilos appeared I drove to Agnondas, or almost there, first heading off past a compound ‘for sale’ which contained only a weird, broken machine and to a cliff edge with a goat encampment and a fenced-off shrine. Then the loop not marked as connected up on the boughtmap which led to the coastal cliffs above the bay through the pines. So beautiful. I felt pleased to be alive, and what’s more I noticed that I felt pleased to be allive, and that I was alive. So that’s one up for living, I suppose. In Agnondas it started to rain. There were ducks on the beach. 3 hawks flew overhead. I had a coffee and came back here.

 

 

*

 

Little drivings, largely inconclusive. Did I say I met 3 packhorses and got blocked off by a concrete mixer truck?

I took it well, just turned round and drove up the road and waited. I tried to find a road from Panormos which led back on itself. It was marked on the map, but not apparently, on the face of the world. I took a road up from Milia that led past a million beehives. This road is marked by a fire hydrant that is itself always clustered thickly with bees. Either it leaks honey or the bees like what it does leak. I went down the heliport road too, to see if I could find the goats, but although some goats were there so was a man with a handkerchief on his head, and he put me off. I drove on to a lawn full of chickens and then back again when the road became too impassable even for me. As one last thing I drove east of Skopelos Town, past the little church I saw first, and past loads of monasteries, right to the end of the road, which turned out to be 2 big radio masts you can see from everywhere. It’s a long way. I met some goats and tried to reach a pair of churches down a steep path but had to give up, in any case becoming exhausted and barely getting back before dark.

 

I have to leave today, it’s raining, and I have nowhere to stay.

 

 

*

 

 

*

I tried ringing ahead to Alonnysos and booking somewhere, but anywhere that answered the phone was closed for the winter. It had taken some time to find out how to ring Alonnysos at all, I had to ask in a motorbike hire shop what part of the code you should use. However, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be somewhere to stay.

 

 

*

 

I’m sitting on a bench under an awning at the dockside in Skopelos. I have my ticket and a few hours before the ferry. It’s raining. I left my bags here and went and bought the ticket and had a coffee, and when I came back someone had moved my bags out of the rain and onto a bench under the shelter. That was lovely, but on the other hand I was appalled at the behaviour of some of the English tourists, for example the man who abused his wife for worrying about what would happen to her bags if the bags next to them were moved. I’m sure I’m as appallingly irritable as that when in company. It’s a relief that I have no-one to insult and harass. I had to leave some books and Manos’ shampoo at the apartment – no room in my rucksack for them. I returned the car in plenty of time with the right amount of petrol in it and no noticeable damage. I’m very happy, but it’s quite cold. It was very cosy this morning in bed and I didn’t want to get up. Cosy is a combination of comfortable and lazy. It depends on contrast, on the outside alternative being comparatively bleak. Which it is, comparatively for Skopelos, that is.

 

There are very few gulls round here. The coast in Britain is under constant siege by them. There are gull culls, and tales of tourists mugged and (I should think) raped and murdered for an ice cream cone or a packet of chips. I am alerted to their absence by the exception to the rule: one lone gull floating in the harbour along with the various tiny fishing boats, motor launches, pleasure craft and so-on and a scum of flotsam gathered up in one corner by the persistent wind. It must be nearly time for the first ferry, but I’m not getting that. It’s not so windy, now, anyway, so the passage should be quite smooth. I can make out only 5 churches in Skopelos Town from where I am sitting.

 

 

*

 

 

The passage of the ferry, crumpling up, smoothing out and wrinkling the fabric of the port has disturbed the flotsam but failed to sink the green plastic bucket which floats at an angle out past the end of the quay accompanied by a flotilla of empty water bottles. It’s raining quite hard but the sky is lightening up, I think. The crewmen on the ferry looked disgusted with the rain, taking it as a personal affront.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

alonnysos

 

 

 

 

I saw Truly Beautiful driving a van, and I looked, because you don’t often see Truly Beautiful. She drove past me as I was taking a photo of the upside down tree. I also noticed her boarding the Flying Dolphin and leaving the island about ½ an hour later.

 

 

*

 

I like it that you can leave your bags anywhere and they are there when you get back.

 

*

 

I found a room by asking on the quay. First I met an ancient English lady who told me that she was staying up over the bay and it was lovely but it was out of season now and she thought perhaps they were closing down and would be glad to get rid of her. The busses had stopped for the winter, she said, and even the taxi rank was empty, now you had to ring for a taxi. She was leaving on the ferry I’d arrived on. An Irish bloke called Rodney and his Belinda helped me out, they rang a woman they knew and asked if she was still letting rooms. It’s o.k., up a hill, I can see a bit of the bay from the balcony at the back. I was pleasantly floaty all morning, I don’t know why. Now I’m hungry but all the shops are shut. I’ve found Radio Ankara and spread all sorts of stuff across the spare bed. They want 35 euros a day for a car at the Alkyon, which is a hotel and also a ticket office and booking agent for the ferries and also a car hire place and also a cafe, so it’s probably walk or sit. I’m here for four nights, anyway. I saw a kingfisher on the quay. Lovely, just a brief flash of blue, and then it was perched on a rope 20 metres away. The sun nearly came out, but has retired again. Exhausted, I should think.

 

 

The crossing was fairly calm. I’ve seen someone driving one of those rotovators. And someone else cleaning a squid. He left its ink sac on the quay side, and the wasps were interested, but the cats ignored it. I have only honey, brandy and coffee, except for those nuts I bought to take home. Oh, and some chocolate I brought with me, so perhaps I’ll eat some of that. There’s no soap here, either. I’m sure that’s a legal requirement, isn’t it? There’s some lovely clarinet music seeping from my radio. Perhaps this isn’t Ankara after all. Bulgarians play the clarinet. But perhaps Greeks do too.

 

 

*

 

I went shopping and I bought..... some rancid goats’ cheese, a loaf of bad white bread coated with something vile, and, with astonishing appropriacy, a packet of Pick Crackers.

 

This has often been said, or at least thought, but here is objective proof.

 

I also bought two highly aesthetic fruits, a pear and a peach, each more beautiful than the other.

 

It’s sunny this morning. I was not woken by the harmony crowing champions of Skopelos from my noxious slumbers on the concrete mattress. I don’t mind the concrete mattress so much as the two foot tall tyre rubber pillow. I also bought some chocolate biscuits, made in facsimile of Bahlsen by Popodopolous, and which are good, and pleasing to the populace.

 

 

*

 

By dint (and by no other means than dint) of walking around a lot and asking people I have obtained the hire of a car for 2 days at 25 e per day, which is 10 e cheaper than I was first offered, and found out that there are no more daily flights now from Skiathos to Athens, so it’s a good job I asked. I’ve therefore booked a ferry for Wednesday from here to a ferry port on the mainland, and a coach from there to Athens. God knows what I do then, but now I have to arrange more accommodation in Alonnysos, because there’s no point in leaving, and besides, it’s lovely.

 

I went into the office. There was no-one there. I stood for a couple of minutes expecting someone to appear. No-one did. I looked at photographs and adverts for various exhibitions and excursions.

 

“Hello.” I called.

“Hello.” came an Englishman’s voice from upstairs.

 

I expected something to result from this exchange, and continued to stand, waiting. I walked to the doorway and stood in the sun. No-one came. No-one said anything. I walked back to the staircase and looked up. I could see nothing, no-one.

 

“Hello.” I said again. “Shall I come up?”

“Hello.” came the reply “There’s no-one in the office at the moment.”

“I can tell.”

“I don’t know where he is. He’s probably outside drinking coffee.”

“What does he look like?”

“He has black hair and a beard.”

“Him and a thousand others.”

 

I found him, though, almost at once. He was outside drinking coffee, with his back to the door. He was very helpful, but I forgot to ask him several things, and now he will be closed.

 

 

*

 

I’m perched on the balcony above Patitiri being positively regaled by drills, small dogs and diesel engines as the sun plays dodgems with flabby clouds. I was nearly happy back there for a moment when I couldn’t get a car or get to Athens, and now I am nearly happy again because I can. I love a challenge, obviously, but in fact everything’s been easily managed.

 

Such a rude woman in the Supermarket! She said she couldn’t cut me 2eu worth of feta because it was too small, which is something the people of Skiathos were doing without demur for three weeks and the fat youth up the road did yesterday. Two weird Englanders at the cafe playing their own muzak on a portable radio – bloody bashi-bazoukis – and losing their envelopes. They were papery and flaky with age, and seemed unlikely to survive the night. However, I expect they are Old Hands and know what is going on better than me.

 

It’s now raining but also sunny. What they call ‘watery sunshine’ I suppose.

 

 

*

 

I can’t remember properly, of course, but I was in a band with C.J.Harris and we were playing live and had not rehearsed. The song was by the Velvet Underground and involved eating cake with a knife and fork to provide the music. Although we didn’t know it, people still listened.

 

 

*

 

 

There is a notice blu-tacked to this cupboard:

 

‘Please do not throw heavy or hard objects on the floor as it will result in the breakage of tiles.’

 

No weddings or arguments here, then.

 

 

*

 

Well, what a lovely day I had of it. I picked up a Punto and drove immediately to the ‘Old Village’ where I wandered happily about taking photo’s and watching lizards. I had never realised that lizards chased each other, I had somehow thought them outside the territorial. But anyway. I then had a coffee at a place which had just opened one eye at about 12, where a woman called Maria (of course... all the girls are called Maria, all their fathers hold them dear, and their Mothers live in fear, of them doing something queer) served me, and I forgot to check her hands for bloodstains, warts or wedding bands. I expect I have fallen in love with her, since I don’t know anything about her and have only seen her once. She sought eye contact when I left, and smiled. I sat at a table outside the front door to the bar and a group of four youth sat further into the courtyard in front of the little church. One of them proved to be the owner of a superb, ancient BMW motorcycle. Another was American. They spoke of the beach at Copacabana. One of the many cats caught a lizard, and Maria released it and tried to shoo it away, but it was too dazed. She hid it under a plant-pot holder. The cats got it out again and caught it. Maria came out and saw it and said ‘She is going to die, I think.’ ‘I’m afraid so.’ I said. Eventually one of them bit it efficiently enough for its tail to come off, which lay there and writhed all on its own, like a worm. I thought this was rather horrible (but interesting. I didn’t know tails did that.) Perhaps it might distract a predator from the main lizard. Not this one, however, who ate the lizard and then the tail and went indoors. Two of the other cats kept peering under the plant-pot holder to see if anything else entertaining might be under there.

 

So starved am I for company that I entered into a conversation with a parrot, which we conducted by means of whistles and clicks. It turns out I’m quite clever, and the parrot might even teach me to speak, given enough time.

 

I made up several foolish songs both then and later which I cannot now recall, on account of not taking pen and paper with me.

 

After coming back and eating yoghurt I went to the beach at Milia. Not the beach at Milia where the bees are clustered thick on the fire-hydrant though, since that is on Skopelos. This was literally a deserted beach with literally clear water and lovely pebbles, and even a bit of sand which I found later. I swam for a bit and collected stones and took some photo’s and met some fish.

 

There I was:

1) swimming in October

2)completely alone on a beautiful Mediterranean beach.

 

I then drove to Chrissy Miller, who I’m sure I knew at school. She was sandy, and also beautiful, and also completely deserted, but I wasn’t going to go swimming again, it had got just a bit cold, and I was more or less dry. So I decided I might go back there tomorrow and I drove to the ‘safe harbour’ of Steni Valla which was also beautiful and approached down a steep and tortuous road, and had geese and, in the front garden of a restaurant with tables under an awning it had a Grandmother person in charge of three little girls. The restaurant was called the Ikion and was inhabited by a clan of divers, led by a Greek with a thick black beard. I ate a Greek salad and an Alonnysos cheese pie which was a spiral like a Skopelos cheese pie, and also deep fried, again like a Skopelos cheese pie, but covered in batter, not pastry, unlike a Skopelos cheese pie. It was delicious, like fish and chips only with cheese instead of fish. And no chips. Oh god, you know what I mean. It was big, and I couldn’t finish it all, but I ate my salad like a good boy, and I had a beer and a coffee. That stopped me feeling cold, and I walked around a little bit and went back. I saw a proper sheepy goat on the way back. Or a goaty sheep, possibly. It was eating at the side of the road, and I slowed down in case it did something unusually stupid, but it was intent on its own magnificent greed. The gnarled old shepherd with a stick and a flat cap I had seen on the way sitting on a wall gave me an almost imperceptible nod as he went to herd it somewhere, I suppose in acknowledgement of my care.

 

There were big black fish and little black fish in the water at Steni Valla. At Milia I had seen those thin translucent fish with an iridescent stripe down the spine.

 

 

*

 

I saw a snake that had been run over on the road above Steni Valla. It was quite a big snake, upside down and coiled up, well over a foot long if straight, I would have thought. It had a yellow underbelly. I felt sorry for it, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have felt sorry for me.

 

 

*

 

 

That slight light-headedness that comes with inadequate sleep and Greek coffee. Underneath the floatiness is a vein of twitchy ill-temper. They’re giving me looks in the cafés and streets. I am the Last Tourist, the sole remaining holidaymaker in captivity. My world is beautiful but grey. Too mean to buy a whole bottle of shampoo I have been washing my hair with soap, and it sticks out in all directions.

 

In the port of Patitiri they drive past on their rotovators. One carries in its trailer a wheelchair and a petrol strimmer.

 

Has it foaled?

 

*

 

I gave the Ancient Britons a lift from the Old Village (which is also called ‘Chora’, meaning (I think) ‘tower’. There is a tower. I took a photo of it.) where I had gone solely in the hope of buying more coffee from Maria (She was closed. Somehow ‘of course’ seems appropriate here.) and on the way I passed through a wedding. Well, I suppose the crowd of guests that had attended a wedding would be more accurate. The aroma of perfume was overpowering, as a horde of immaculately-dressed Alonnysians milled about in the road. Old ladies, tiny children, Elvis impersonators; everyone. I proceeded with extreme caution, as running over a Greek or two, even at a wedding, might be considered ill-mannered. The Ancient Britons were standing at the exit from Old Village looking vague and decrepit. They told me they had been invited to the wedding reception at Steni Valli, but didn’t know how they were going to get there.

 

 

I had previously driven all the way to the northern tip of the island, to the research station at Girakas Bay, where they must be researching plastic bags, by the look of the shoreline. It rained on the way there, and I got sidetracked by (yet another) notice advertising a church which of course I never reached. But I did meet some goats, and while I was out of the car addressing the goats and taking photographs a pickup truck appeared and I had to start up and move on. I got to the end of the track, where there was a circle marked out in stones, and ate my apple pie.

 

Cape Girakas specialises in stones with holes in, too. While I was there the sun came out, and then it was nice all afternoon. I met more goats on the road, twice in fact, and praised them loudly and asked about their munching. They rang their bells in delicious harmonies, but did not otherwise reply. When I got to the Steni Valla turn off I turned off and went right past Steni Valla to the end of the road. On the way there (which is particularly twisty, at least as far as Steni Valla) I saw a piece of land with many boats on it and a few wrecked vehicles, including a Unimog. Of course I had to take photo’s of them and of bits of stray tackle and oil cans. I suppose this is my conception of the picturesque. I saw some almond trees blossoming. I saw cyclamen, and the beginnings of hyacinths. I saw two cormorants in the bay at Patitiri. I saw wagtails. I saw two hawks circling over Steni Valla and a hawk hovering on the updraught from a cliff at Chora.

 

I visited an ‘Archaeological Site’, somewhere west of the main road. It’s amazing how empty the north of the island is, there’s nothing there except little scrubby bushes, no villages, not even houses really, and no pine forest. On the way to the site I was sidetracked by a signpost to a church. God, you wouldn’t believe I’d still fall for that. Anyway, I drove down this track and walked down this path and it wasn’t all that far and I got there. Miles up on a piney cliff. A bell with pictures cast in it. I thought my guidebook would include the instruction ‘It is traditional for a traveller to vigorously ring the bell of any church he comes across, as a mark of respect for the Saint.’ Along with ‘It is considered good manners to flick any remaining souvlaki at the waiter from the end of the skewer before ordering dessert.’

 

At the Archaeological Site there was a bay with big waves crashing against the shore, the nearest thing to surf I have seen in the Mediterranean. There was a renovated, or more likely brand new traditional-style windmill with its sails wrapped round the spokes. There were fences, and I noticed that the last bit of the road I had driven down was composed largely of broken earthenware. I pulled several sections of pot handle from the road and put them in my pocket. (I have them here at home now, on the floor. They resemble, rather discomfortingly, severed penises.) The most touching thing about them is the mark of the potter’s thumb where he pushed the handle onto the body of the pot, some long when, in a different world.

 

 

*

 

 

I went to the Hotel to book myself a room. The boss was not there. I walked around and looked at the lights on the water. My neck felt cold. My feet hurt. I went and bought a postcard. I tried to phone my daughter but I could not remember the code. I walked around and looked at the lights on the water. A man with the voice of a goatherd was speaking into a mobile phone. some people were trying to park their yacht so that it didn’t rock so much in the swell. A Nigerian was talking loudly from a call box. The lights winked red, green, red, green. I went back to the counter. The boss was not there. Two people waited in the office. The lights were on. The door was open. I went and sat on a bench and looked at the lights on the water. My neck felt cold.

 

Someone touched me on the shoulder.

 

“Sorry.” she said.

“O.k.?” I asked, getting up and following her. He was there, unblocking the photocopier.

 

“You want something?”

“I want to book a room for tomorrow, for 3 nights.”

“For 3 nights? Your name is?”

“My name is Pick.  P.I.C.K.”

“PISK.” he wrote.

“Shall I pay you now?”

“Why?”

“I can’t think why not.”

 

I gave him the money. He handed me the change. I went and drank a beer. The beer made me feel better. I have just given a man 90 euros to mis-spell my name on a piece of paper.

 

Well, take a Pisk. Why not?

 

 

Bad mood! Some crazed roads helped.... I drove to the Old Village this morning, oh, but first to Votsi, which was lovely. The warning light on the breakwater is leaning over sideways, there are caves and a pillar of rock. Lots of fishing boats and some ducks. Then I took some photo’s in the Old Village and found a clutch of goats at the viewpoint past it. They scattered down the cliff. Tomorrow is my last day in the Sporadic Islands. I can’t believe it.

 

*

 

A bird I’ve never seen before – a yellow wagtail? stands at the kerb moving its tail up and down, flies off, bouncing over the water.

 

 

*

 

I saw a vividly yellow butterfly. It was two yellows. The top pair of its wings were dark yellow, almost an ochre, and the bottom pair paler. It was very active, and only settled momentarily, on a bright red geranium. Butterflies eat colour. I was down the bottom of an unlikely track below the Old Village where there was a pavement in the water and a shut-down beach bar where someone was doing some maintenance. There were several vehicles, and I offered some people who were looking at a car a lift, only they didn’t need one.

 

*

 

I was woken as usual by the international nose-blowing champion as he practised his repertoire of hoots, snorts and hawks. Then the workmen began rehearsals of their concerto for mallet instruments, but scarcely managed to progress beyond repetitions of the first four bars.

 

*

 

I have taken many goatographs. Also boatographs.

 

 

*

 

I went out to eat and sat under one of those evil Narnia lamp posts that burn gas and are designed to contribute to global warming in the most direct way possible. Short of putting radiators in the garden, I suppose. I was glad of it. I’d smoke a cigarette now, if I smoked cigarettes. Everyone in Greece does. They must teach it at school.

 

 

*

 

Beautiful day. I visited Chrissy Milla in the morning and swam and sunbathed on her deserted beach. It was as idyllic as an idle ideal. I was bitten by idyllic flies and hurt my foot on the idyllic rocks. Chrissy is sandy, though, remember that, and has only a limited submerged-olive-leaf-problem. I’m on the balcony of my new room at the Alkyon Pension writing this, overlooking the bay, directly above it, that is, on the waterfront. I am regaled by the idyllic sound and smell of 2 stroke motors with inadequate exhaust systems. It’s quite busy this morning. I showered (no shampoo) and staggered downstairs to drink coffee and the place was full of ancient Greeks. Not Ancient Greeks, you understand. Elderly Greeks. All men, of course, turfed out by their wives onto the unforgiving cobbles. The mean streets of Patitiri. There is a man with Downs Syndrome who walks around talking to himself all day. He seems generally humoured, even embraced.

 

Apart from swimming idyllically I attempted one of the longer complexes of unmade roads marked on the map. Missed it at first, and then found an unpromising turn-off which I took. On the way North I had passed Michael Howard driving a Landrover with another bald man in the front and two women in keffiyahs perched sideways in the back. Very rugged. G.B. sticker on the back. We passed each other in opposite directions before I turned around and turned off. I headed up the typically rugged red rock road in my Fiat Punto, and having got past the first steep bit it was mild compared to some of the things I’ve done of late. Emerging from a turn off and deciding that I wanted to turn right I saw Michael Howard and entourage appear again and waved them through, since I didn’t much want them to follow me. This was bad, because it meant I ended up following them for miles, and they went much more slowly than I wanted, but it was good, because when they came to the huge metal gates leading to a brand new ugly villa right at the end of the road and went in I wasn’t in their way and could reverse, turn round at the entrance to the previous big new ugly villa (there were only two down this otherwise deserted track) and go back up the hill to where we’d last turned off. I didn’t bother with the beach, I was too furious, thinking about them seeking out a totally unspoilt place at the end of a winding dirt road and then spoiling it.

 

I drove to the end of the main track, where of course there was a big new ugly villa under construction. When I drove back to the Old Village I noticed it, perched there incongruously by the naked cliff. I had to go through a goat gate tied with string to get there. Stunning views of neighbouring islands. Driving back I took the Michael Howard route, which was of course more or less flat. Very rugged, just what you need your Landrover for. At least driving down it in a Rolls would show class. Michael’s route ended up behind a builders’ supplies yard at the side of the main road. Just as I approached it I came across a sort of agricultural compound full of battered tin drums and plastic bags tied onto trees. Of course, I love that stuff, and stopped to take pictures. Two men turned up quickly on mopeds, one of them the owner. I showed him my camera and pretended to be harmless. He snorted and jerked his head. He explained that the cans were used to collect pine resin. I had been seeing pines with cuts in their bark and little metal troughs fixed to them. I asked what it was used for.

 

“Plastics.” said the other man.

“No.” growled the owner. “No plastics. Paint, many things; I do it for an American, to give some voom.”

 

He whistled a couple of times, but nothing happened. I wondered if he was calling a dog. I hoped goats would appear, there was clearly an enclosure for goats there behind the cans and the broken-down VW van. The two men talked for a while, and then we all left. I had wanted to take some more photo’s, but thought it best not to.

 

Oh! Here comes the car ferry! It’s huge! I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before. It drops an anchor and rotates outside the harbour so that it can come backwards up to the quay, but it doesn’t actually come into port. And there goes a fighter plane. Let’s hope it’s not Turks.

 

There’s a tremendous squeaking going on, like somebody sawing a long piece of plate metal, or desperate fucking on an iron bedstead. Then a blue-shirted figure reaches over the screen into my portion of the balcony. He intends to turn a squeaky crank in order to retract the awning above me. We look surprise at each other.

 

“O.K.?” he asks.

“Yes.” I say.

 

*

 

In a bad mood, I went to see Chrissy Miller again. I’m sure she wasn’t this idyllic when we were at school. It was too windy to swim, but I couldn’t resist collecting more pebbles. I now have several beaches and will exceed all baggage regulations. I have packed them in plastic tubs that once contained salted almonds. They’d probably be better off loose, wouldn’t they? I have thought of selling them in little individual containers called ‘Pebblebox’, but I couldn’t bear to part with them. I would charge very large amounts of money for them and each one would have a certificate of authenticity.

 

I tried to drive to Steni Valla by an alternative route, and was twice frustrated by a campaign of signposting which pointed determinedly in the wrong direction at every junction. I halted at one bifurcation which was unsigned and thought I recognised the church at the end of the Steni Valla peninsular as sticking out beyond the headland ahead of and below me. There was a pine tree surrounded by cyclamen and some old sandstones walls that I wanted to photograph, and I staggered around a bit trying to frame it up without ever really succeeding. A Fiat Panda appeared and parked carefully in contrast to my mere abandonment of my vehicle. A woman got out.

 

“I thought so too.” I said.

“Thought what?”

 

I showed her my camera. She was carrying a camera too.

 

“Ah, yes.”

“Can I get to Steni Valla down that road?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. I think I tried that road once. If you go back that way you get back to the main road.”

“If I turn right? If I turned left I would go through Isomata.”

“You can get to the main road without bothering with Isomata.”

 

She pronounced Isomata entirely differently from me, and I presume therefore correctly. I thanked her and drove on. She was right, of course, where the signs had been determinedly misleading. Earlier, one had directed me confidently into an olive grove, and I had felt in danger of breaking an axle on the rocks.

 

At Steni Valla the geese were gathering on the quay, and the diverse divers gathered outside the Ikion, which however, was shut.

 

“You can come and wait with us.” responded the bearded master to my enquiring gesture.

“Is it open?” I asked

“Yes, usually.” he replied.

I laughed: “But not now.”

“We think someone will come.”

 

The divers gathered around an American diving magazine dressed in their wetsuits and discussed diving in Greek. They seemed a rather admirably concentrated little cult.

 

I sat at a table and changed my film, and then walked off to take photo’s into the water, which was as clear as light. When I came back the cafe door was open and someone was serving, and I ordered a Greek coffee, medium.

 

*

 

I’ve seen a lot of those hummingbird moths. The sun’s closed down over the cliff on my last night in Alonnysos. It will be sad to lose this view over the harbour. Skopelos looks like clouds on the horizon. The striated sandstone cliffs opposite me arch and bank. Pines spurt and stagger from the rock. Ankara Radio swoops and sobs with the impossible ululations of Turkish music. This has been a wonderful time. I wonder if I’ll get back? My rucksack is full of stones and weighs a ton. It’s far heavier than on my outward journey, I’m sure, and I could hardly walk today, even without it.

 

There was great excitement attending the visit of the Skiathos Express, the Hellenic Seaways car ferry to Volos. It was huge, and nearly as wide as long. Very impressive. Great queues formed at the Alkyon ticket bureau and sat around in the cafe, and millings of insane traffic occurred, augmented by the Greek habit of stopping in the middle of the road for a chat. For a little while Patitiri hummed with excitement, and then the ferry went, taking all manner of folk and their vehicles and freight, including a horrible English thug with a crew cut and a cut round his left ear. I also saw a hairy young man with bad tattoos and winklepickers handed a 500 eu note on the pavement.

 

“Thank-you very much.” he said. So he should.

 

 

 

*

 

airport

 

 

 

 

 

Settling in for some concentrated - or perhaps that should be extended - hell in Athens airport. I’ve been shopping, anyway, and probably bought bad things. I went to the cd shop and bought a cut price cd of rerecordings of rembetika tunes. This sounds like a really bad idea, the height of kitsch and inauthenticity, now I think about it. I also bought Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, which I’ve heard tell is good. It has all sorts of good people on it[1]. There is a tiny blonde toddler doing a stiff-legged walk over the shiny marble compound tiles while her mother in a backless top tries to eat and her father reads a newspaper.

 

Question: do you know how much the cheapest room at the Sofitel Athens International Hotel is for one night?

Answer: 213 euros.

 

No! That is the wrong answer!

 

It may be true, but the right answer is ‘No’, so that I can shriek ‘213 euros’ in a tone of outraged incredulity whilst jabbing an accusing finger at you and discharging gobs of spittle in your direction.

 

I walked all the way over to the Sofitel Athens International Hotel with my absurdly heavy rucksack, which has resulted in only one of my legs working, so that I could hardly walk down the concrete steps to the right level for the entrance lobby. I should have walked that bit further and gone down in the lift, but it looked like such a long way. Things do look a long way when only one of your legs works. I went and asked at the plushly accoutred, lushly bemuzacked reception of the Sofitel Athens International Hotel only when I felt I couldn’t hold out any longer, being too tired and uncomfortable to survive in an environment as uniquely hostile to life as an airport departure lounge in my weakened state. That was when I had a bout 13 hours until departure, so call that 11 hours to check-in. That means I am being paid roughly 20 euros an hour by myself to not book into the Sofitel Athens International Hotel, which is not a bad rate, even for Hell. Or look at it another way, the fucking hotel wants to charge me 20 fucking euros a fucking hour to breathe their recycled fucking air and walk on their mass-produced fucking carpet.

 

Mother and child play monster chase. This could lead anywhere, not all of which is a good place. Oh. There goes mother, pushing a 3-wheeled buggy at speed and looking around anxiously.

 

 

*

 

 

I really should try to recount the whole day, but I fear that would prove impossible, even though I have plenty of time to do sit in, because I already feel the gritty mad eyes and vague disconnectedness that presages a dreadful hallucinatory tiredness.

 

Of course, I got up early, woken, I think by an industrial-sized fishing boat leaving Patitiri. I thought it was too early, had a wee, couldn’t get back to sleep, it was pitch black, but I could hear engines. I had ordered an early morning call from the Hotel/Booking Office and this should have reduced my anxiety but it merely transferred it back a step to wondering whether they would remember. Anyway, I woke up all by myself just like I usually do when required, had a wee, looked out of the window, put some clothes on, hobbled downstairs and checked the time on a phonebox. (Greek public phones tell you the time, you see – useful that.) It was 20 past 6. Perfect. I went back to my room, brushed my teeth, packed my remaining belongings and the morning call came.

 

“Yes. Thank-you.”

 

I was ready. I picked up the bags and hobbled painfully down three flights of stairs again. I thanked the boss in the office from the pavement and went and sat on a bench near the boat. Flying Dolphin 23, my favourite number. Truly Beautiful was in charge, I noticed. Perfect. She could administer me some of her disdain. An ochre sandstone dawn was shambling up over the sea. People began to mill around the gangway, Germans, mostly, it seemed. I decided it was time to find my ticket, and looked in my wallet. I could see lots of credit card receipts. I could see bank machine slips. I couldn’t see anything that resembled the ticket, which I knew was a shiny computer-printed sticker affair in several serrated sections. I took my bags to the gangway and asked how long until the boat would leave.

 

“10 minutes.”

 

I had checked my wallet, my pockets and my airline ticket folder with no success, so I decided I had to go back to the ticket office and get him to print me another ticket, if he would. There should be a record of me on the computer. I walked back to the Hotel as quickly as my uncertain legs would allow.

 

“Excuse me.” I said, “I’m supposed to be getting on the ferry and I can’t find my ticket. I bought it from here, and you should have a record.”

“What boat?” asked the grey-haired boss.

“Agios Christianou.” I said, “7 o’clock.” hoping that was right.

“With coach ticket?” he asked.

“Yes.” I said, looking in my wallet and pulling out the large pale yellow paper coach ticket. Realisation was beginning to dawn on me. I handed it to him and he unfolded it.

“But here is the ticket, the ticket you say you cannot find.” he said, looking at the shiny computer printed sticker affair in three serrated sections.

“Yes, yes, you have reminded me, thank-you.” I said, reaching out for it, turning, heading back to the ferry.

 

The ticket I had been looking for had been had been stapled to and folded inside the large unfamiliar coach ticket. I wasn’t as embarrassed as I should have been, really, at least I was leaving the island, and I went and took my place in the rear cabin, which Truly Beautiful made sure she told me my seat was in. I hadn’t known there was such a place, on the journey to Alonnysos I had ignored any seat numbering entirely and sat in the front cabin. The rear cabin had a door to the outside at the back, so I went and sat out there on a box and watched the dawn. It wasn’t long before the boat started, reversing out of the harbour, and then it realised it was going backwards and turned, giving a sudden burst of speed and lifting up onto its skis, churning the lead sheet of the sea white and plaiting it into an Arran sweater. It soon got too cold and wet out there for me, but getting back into the cabin proved more difficult than I had imagined as the boat was lurching around, and the door opened sharply and latched onto a bulkhead behind me and I was stuck straddling the raised lip of the doorway and had to go back out and unlatch the door and keep hold of it while I manoeuvred one incompetent leg after the other into the cabin and shut it behind me. I went and sat down in some relief.

 

There was a bloke with a big nose in a black and white tracksuit arrangement standing in the cabin holding onto the backs of two seats. Truly B. came in at some point and stared intently at the screen of a laptop behind a counter. The moon, which was almost but just past full shone brightly as the sun began to illuminate directly the highest points of the Old Village and we left Alonnysos behind. The sun was shining on Skopelos by the time we reached it, but instead of going to Skopelos Town we berthed briefly at Agnondas, which scarcely exists, and passed up that side of the island to Loutraki below Glossa. I think this was because the sea was quite rough, as we found on the way between Skopelos and Skiathos, when the boat banged alarmingly, but this did not distract Truly B. from her contemplation by so much as one crinkle which was comforting, in a way. Her disdain extended infinitely, encompassing not only indigent male tourists but also weather and sea conditions, and was imperturbable, magnificent.

 

Skiathos was almost all sunlit by the time we reached the coast, and the town looks lovely from the sea, as does Skopelos, of course. There was a windmill up on the hill, which I had never seen from the land. By the time we left the islands behind us the moon was being obscured by a thickening haze, no longer a bright lamp, but a misty gesture, uncanny, no more than a symbol. We passed between tiers of mountains, and on one occasion I counted nine degrees of distance, nine separately shaded horizons in the view as the mountain silhouettes receded into grey blankness without ever becoming indistinct. The light was somehow dispersed throughout the air rather than shining all in a straight line. We passed and passed through these distances.

 

Until eventually we reached Agios Konstanidianos and got on a coach. I sat next to a Greek of about 70 who had no interest in me at all. Behind me was an English fool with a beard as round as a dinner plate who might have been an academic, and who uttered the most dismally trivial, commonplace and tiresome remarks on everything in a mixture of English and German to his female companion.

 

 

*

 

I wasn’t expecting a two-hour coach journey, but that is at least how long it was. I was interested in the industrial buildings on the way which ranged from excursions into big shed theory in dilapidated concrete through late 20th Century modern to brand new shiny. Loads of olive groves and loads of irrigation, either through arcs and plumes of sprinkler systems or networks of pipes actually suspended in the fruit trees. In Alonnysos I had seen buckets of olives soaking in the courtyards of houses, so the olive harvest had started in a small way, but I saw little evidence of it having happened or happening around Athens.

 

At a pitstop on the dual carriageway everyone pays for what they want before getting it, but I don’t know that and besides, I don’t know what they have, so I confuse myself and others and have to double back to pay, but in any case I get a Greek coffee and an apple pie and I am delighted. Everyone stands around and smokes, waiting for the coach driver to return. Then we all file back on board and resume our seats.

 

The whittering beard and I watched the world slide past.

 

“I suppose this is Athens.”

“No, is 25 kilometres.”

“That’s a very dirty car.”

 

The built-up area took a very long time, stopping and starting in queues of battered traffic. The very occasional small hose in the traditional style, even on the outskirts, looked like an affectation. Lots of signs, lots of billboards and posters for television shows.

 

At one point the bus stops at the side of the dual carriageway with another road parallel and let out the big-nosed youth who had been standing in the rear cabin of Flying Dolphin 23 this morning, and who now disappears into the wilderness of roadways. Again, later, the bus stops at some unmarked place known to itself and lets off someone who is replaced by two louts who stand in the walkway, one leaning his bum against the seat back in front of me. This is occupied by the blonde head of a woman who clearly objects to having a bum projected into her at head level. So do I. But it’s his arse and he will do what he wants with it. She manages to get a message through to him via his companion, and without the slightest apology or hint of acknowledgement he moves more upright. Eventually arse, lout, blonde head, indifferent neighbour, the whittering beard and I are all deposited without fanfare at a bus stop outside the Ministry of Development.

 

 

*

 

 

I’m in danger of feeling happy again, having got off the coach at last and sat outside in the sun with the pigeons outside the Ministry of Development for a while. I managed to remember what the airport was called and work out what it looked like written down so that I could find the right bus, but my bags are still too heavy to carry. I’ve got a huge Greek coffee that’s going to blow my head off.

 

The Ministry of Development: ‘Building a competitive Greece’ has been attacked with red paint bombs. I’m amazed by the way the Greek men hit on the women, staring openly as if at a lost friend, oozing up and talking to them. An African carries around carvings of giraffes and elephants, trying to sell them to café sitters and passers-by.

 

*

 

I thought I’d worked out that busses for the airport would be going the other way, but this being a one way area I couldn’t work out where the other way was. I asked in the coffee bar and one of them said

 

“Cinema Square.” and gestured.

“Up there?”

“Just up there?”

“Yes.”

“Ek feristoh.” I said and stumbled off under my snail.

 

I walked up and along and across. Traffic was end to end and continuous. I eventually saw a 129 which had origin and destination reversed, and went to the stop it had just passed and waited. There was a youth sitting on a step. He looked at my bags and I looked at him and did not like him. We both got on the 129 and sat on the back seat. Neither of us paid, and I for one didn’t know how. The bus left the centre of Athens and climbed up the hill to cooler and less frantic regions. I enjoyed the journey, and when the bus stopped at a lay-by the youth got off, giving me a look. I realised that we had got there. It didn’t look like an airport, and certainly wasn’t Eleftherios Venezelos which I would have recognised. Instead, it was a residential street on the outskirts of Athens. I walked to the bus stop going the other way, back into town. I checked the route map and I was definitely at the right end of the journey, so there was no point in getting back on a bus. I asked a woman standing there if she spoke English, but she did not. The next one did, fortunately, and she told me to go to a big church down the road and ask again, but to ask for the Metro, because that was the easiest way of reaching the airport.

 

“I cannot tell you the whole way now.” she said.

 

I shouldered my bags and walked off in the direction indicated. When I reached the big church I was already tired and put my bags on a bench and took off my shirt and t-shirt and put my shirt back on. That was difficult enough. I sat on a bench and looked at the road. A taxi went past three times. Nobody walked along the pavement. There was a carpet shop opposite and a little park running down a steep hill behind me. I tried to work out a strategy and decided that if I kept asking ‘Paracallo? Metro?’ of those I came across that would probably work. I seemed to think that ‘Paracallo’ meant ‘excuse me’, or something similar. I had used it to attract attention in the Ikios women’s co-operative traditional products emporium in Patitiri, where I had stood around for ages as the women talked behind a partition and I looked at jars and bottles of inexplicable substances with indecipherable labels (although some were marked in English and described as ‘strawberry marmalade’ for example, or ‘mallow’). So ‘paracallo’ was my best bet, I thought.

 

It worked quite well, whatever it means. The first man I came across corrected my pronunciation “Metró” he said, and directed me along, left and downhill in a stream of Greek with useful hand gestures. The hand gestures at least I had some chance of deciphering. I think people were pleased to be addressed in Greek, and I gradually steered my way down the hill towards more populated areas. One kindly lady dressed in black stood at the corner of the road and directed me with hand signals till I disappeared from sight. Eventually I saw a sign, I think a green M in a circle, and pointed at it, asking the smartly dressed young man at the kerb next to me “Metro?”

“Yes,” he replied “but you can also reach it down there through the subway.”

 

 

So much for my bus theory. I really couldn’t have coped with much more Athens. I sat in the cool marble of the spacious underground and waited for a train. When it came it took a long time to reach the airport miles out of town. The passengers’ tickets were checked by two burly policemen with guns, so I was glad I had one.                                                    

 

Then fourteen hours in the airport. I found a set of seats with no armrests dividing them on which I could lie down. Apart from the departure announcements and calls for missing passengers the speakers in the ceiling relayed a selection of the worst, most overwrought power ballads in the lexicon of American song, and 3 general announcements, one telling us not to leave our bags unattended, one saying that luggage trolleys were not allowed on the escalators which said ‘it would like to remind us’, and made me wonder why it didn’t just get on with it and remind us then and there, and a third which informed us that parking was not allowed outside the terminal building, where in fact there was a whole line of cars and some double-parking. I did see an Audi get lifted onto the back of a truck by a crane arm like a gigantic praying mantis. These punctuated our fitful slumbers. Flights which were leaving after mine began to show gate information and departure times on the television screens scattered around the place. After a while I began to get worried. When I got round to queuing at the Olympic check in I was told that my flight had been cancelled.

 

“Your travel agent should have told you.” said the girl at the desk.

“But I was here, there was no way to tell me.” I replied. “Can you alter my ticket now?”

 

This she did, booking me on the next flight, which was two hours later than mine and going to Heathrow instead of Gatwick, thereby adding 40 miles and many Pounds and some hours to my journey. I was too battered to complain, and anyway there was nothing to be done about it. It did occur to me that I had lost my glasses at Gatwick, but at least I hadn’t parked a car there. So. I went back and waited again.

 

*

 

Time sludged past in the airport like glue trickling from a sock. I went through the gate to departures and looked at the shops which sold identical selections of useless futility. I bought some olives and some olive oil both in tins, but the only tequila they had wore a sombrero, and was therefore impossible to purchase. I watched a man unpack everything from several shopping bags and thrust it into suitcases not large enough to contain it. I asked another what the time was and he showed me his watch which was enormous and complicated by an excess of dials and numbers.

 

“But that’s a chronometer.” I said. “Can you interpret it for me?”

 

I saw priests with full black beards and long black dresses marching confidently through modernity like travellers from the Middle Ages accompanied by tiny aged women who pushed their shopping trolleys and pulled their suitcases.

 

I sat in anonymous vestibules with crowds of strangers.

 

Now I am on the wrong aeroplane and my feet smell, but it’s o.k., it’s o.k..

 

Not only is it the wrong aeroplane but it is going to the wrong airport, but it’s o.k., honestly, it will be fine.

 

The man who sat next to me spilt coke down his shirt, but that’s o.k. too.

 

I am phasing in and out of an hallucinatory state from what is now a chronic lack of sleep, but it’s o.k.. I’m even lucky because I found somewhere to lie down and stayed there, whereas other people wandered around in the night and looked unhappy and envious. A German slept near me propped between his suitcase and a seat like a saggy flesh bridge, snoring horribly. It all reminded me of hospital. I didn’t feel sick for ages, and then I did, and then I waited more and longer and then I was on an aeroplane and it was the wrong aeroplane going to the wrong airport, but it was an airport nearer my house than Athens is, so it’s o.k..

 

 

*

 

I got on the dirty tube at Heathrow and had to change somewhere. I looked at the people in the carriage with something like affection, thinking ‘I could talk to you, and you’d probably understand what I said.’ This was like a blessing from God. I had to pay an incredible amount for a single from Victoria back to Lewes, I couldn’t believe it was that much. When I got to the station I took a taxi to my house because my ankle hurt like bugger and my neck and shoulders and back and legs and eyes and brain hurt too. There was a lot of boring post on the floor and I hadn’t been burgled.

 

 

And it’s o.k., it’s o.k., really it is. It’s even good.

 

 

***

 

 



[1] The first one turns out to be good, I think, it’s called REBETIKO, 18 Classic Tunes, on the AERAKISKME label and track 4 sounds like Beefheart. Somethin’ Else is something else, as they say, is dominated by Miles Davis (my hero!) and sounds like an alternative version of Kind of Blue. So I was lucky. Must go back to that shop...