This story was first published in Island Magazine #116, Autumn 2009, then republished on Tragicocomedia in 2011. I am re-posting it as the title wasn’t included in the URL and it wasn’t coming up in searches.
Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print
“We haven’t had an argument in months,” said Sarah.
“I know,” said Paul. “It’s great. I hate arguing.”
“Really? You always seem to like arguments.”
“Not exactly. I just don’t like letting things go. It’s not about winning, or being right, it’s about clarifying.”
“Maybe,” said Sarah, “but only if it’s something you want to clarify. Not always with things that I want clarified.”
Paul shrugged and Sarah fell silent. It was Christmas day and they both knew the danger, so they turned their eyes back to the water. The little humps of brine shone white against the inky dimples.
They were sitting in the Venetian harbour of Chanea, Crete. Across the water, to their right, lay the long arm of the harbour wall with its lighthouse. Behind them was the white dome of the Mosque of the Janissaries; supported by four curving buttresses and situated behind four smaller domes above the façade, it looked like an octopus squatting on eggs.
“I do feel more at ease,” said Paul. “Like we’re friends again.”
Sarah took hold of Paul’s upper arm with both her hands and pulled him closer.
“It has been very peaceful.”
Paul continued to look ahead into the water; kicking his feet idly.
“Anyway,” said Sarah, “you don’t try to run away now when I kiss you.”
“No,” said Paul.
She kissed him. He smiled.
The awnings of the buildings around the harbour hung like droopy eyelids. They left Sarah feeling sleepy. Behind them was the gradual, yet dramatic rise of the White Mountains; dusted with snow from the peaks to the hills behind the town. It was blinding, inspiring, exhausting.
“I’m glad you like me again,” said Sarah. “It’s easier to believe you still love me.”
“Of course I still love you. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much noise in my head I can’t separate it. You know what I’m like. Gus reckons I have Aspergers. I sort of one-track everything and the confusion of all the rest, well, I hate it. It makes me uptight. Being on the road is different. I don’t feel petty. I feel mature.”
“You certainly act more mature.”
“Then I guess it’s true. Really, what it is,” said Paul, “I feel so uprooted. All the accretions of stagnation, the quotidian, all the bullshit, it’s gone. Gone in the drift of things. I mean, how long ago does work seem? Or even England, or Spain? We’ve been away four months now. It’s like an eternity.”
“Working was horrible. All that effort just to get here nearly wrecked everything. With us, I mean.”
Paul locked his gaze more firmly on the water.
“Well,” he said, “after we moved apart I didn’t go out much. There was all that tension.”
Sarah seemed to be looking down his line of sight. Perhaps she could see something of what he was thinking in what he was seeing.
“I guess it did sort of wreck everything,” said Paul, “But, then — ”
“Anyway,” said Sarah, holding tighter to his upper arm. “I hated working. I don’t ever want to have a job again.”
“No,” said Paul. “Neither do I.”
“We needed to get away.”
“We need to stay away.”
Later they walked past the mosque in the brilliant sun. The stones and pavement reflected clean, dry light. They had noticed, since arriving in Greece, how familiar the light seemed. Not softened by haze, or yellowed as it was in the angled north, the light in Greece was white and reminded them of Australia. The air was still.
Just past the mosque lay a row of Venetian storehouses. The long sandstone wall fronting onto the docks was capped by five triangular peaks that followed the shape of the roofs. It looked like a parapet. Standing out the front of this was an ancient, grey-haired man in the fisherman’s caps so common around the Aegean islands. He wore tightly pressed trousers, a white shirt, cream sports coat and polished brown shoes. He seemed both peasant and aristocrat in one. He was portly and dignified and toying with a set of amber beads.
The old man watched as Paul and Sarah approached, then began to walk towards them. After a few steps he held up his hand in greeting and said “Hello,” in English.
“Hello,” said Sarah, smiling.
Paul nodded. He did not feel like talking to strangers.
Reaching them where they had stopped, the old man held out his hand.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” said Sarah. She took his hand and shook it.
“You are travelling?” asked the old man.
“We’re from Australia,” said Paul.
“Australia? I have a grandson in Australia.”
“Oh, right,” said Paul. He had heard it all before; it was a common enough story in Greece. So common that he didn’t any longer believe it.
“How do you like Crete?” the old man asked.
“I love it,” said Paul. It’s a beautiful place.”
“And today is a beautiful day. In Germany now it is snowing. But here, Zeus is happy.”
He beamed, flashing a fine set of false teeth and suddenly Sarah and Paul were glad he had approached them.
“Yes, he’s been happy for days,” said Sarah, and they all chuckled diplomatically.
“You are walking to the harbour? To the lighthouse?”
“Maybe,” said Paul. “We walked to the lighthouse yesterday. We were just taking a stroll before lunch.”
“My mother is buying us lunch!” said Sarah, gleefully.
“Your mother is here too?”
“No, but she sent us some money.”
“For Christmas?” asked the old man.
“Yes, to buy us Christmas dinner.”
“That is nice.”
“I like to walk to the lighthouse,” he said. “Can I walk with you?”
“Yes,” said Paul, who hadn’t exactly said he was going there, “if you like.”
They resumed their walk along the waterfront. It was not at all busy, with only a few families and three or four other tourists. The old harbour of Chanea was larger than those of Rethymnon and Iraklion, also built by the Venetians. Here the sea entered deeper into the town, which hugged it like a lake. It was still and flat, with the water slightly latticed by the faint, occasional breeze. Just a week before, while Paul and Sarah were in Iraklion, a great storm had struck right across the Aegean. Watching at dawn, they had seen the ocean heave and seethe. Outside of the harbour wall was a leaping mass of water, yet behind it, on the inside, was complete calm. The yachts gently bobbed and swayed, but the violence stopped abruptly at the wall. Never before had the utility of a harbour been so apparent.
Since Iraklion the weather had remained fine. Just last night they had witnessed a wide, red sunset; the water ripening to deep aubergine. Sarah thought of fishermen, while Paul made an ineffectual sketch. They had hardly spoken; the long weeks of space had rebuilt the comfort of mutual silence.
“What do you call the beads you have?” asked Sarah of the old man. “All the men seem to have them.”
“Yes,” he replied. “They are Komboloi, worry beads. All the men have them.”
All the old men, thought Paul.
“Here, you try.”
He handed the beads straight to Paul, who was taken by surprise and took them reverently, as cautious as if handed a child.
“Komboloi?” he asked, handling the smooth, thick amber. The old man said nothing, he just smiled at the beads in Paul’s hands. They tapered in size and were strung on a yellow cord, ending in a soft tassel. Paul wanted to hand them to Sarah, but perhaps they were only for men. Sarah feared the same and looked closely as Paul spread them across his open palms.
“These are beautiful,” said Paul. “I can see how they might be calming.”
He was used to choosing his words carefully now; trying to limit his vocabulary to the basics. It was, in its way, exhausting. He wondered if “calming” was simple enough, wondered about the conditional, the subjunctive. Still, the old man’s English was unexpectedly good. He handed back the Komboloi.
They walked around the turn at the narrow elbow of the harbour. The old man remained silent and, after a minute or so, Sarah and Paul began to feel the choke on their conversation. No longer free to be at ease with saying nothing, they could think of nothing to say. They had explained themselves so many hundreds of times in the preceding months; where they came from, what it was like, what they did, who they were and why, that apart from beginning to wonder at the truth of it all, they were frankly quite sick of it and no longer wished to volunteer the information. In other towns they had met with many travellers, which they had appreciated, but here in Chanea, the last two days had been a pleasant void.
Half way along the harbour wall they stopped to look out to sea. Paul had a sensation he’d not had in years, of being chaperoned by a boring grandparent. Watching the seagulls in silence, however, he soon ceased to care. As the minutes ticked by, smoothed by the wash of the waves and the odd resounding echo of the town, any sense of concrete understanding vanished altogether. Sarah felt it too. An air of dissipation hung over everything, as though purposelessness were slowly lessening the gravity that held all the atoms together. Then she remembered lunch. It was something to hang on to, something to steer by.
It was at this point that the old man surprised Paul by touching him on the shoulder and saying, “Can I kiss her?”
“What?” said Paul, more abruptly than he would have liked.
“A kiss?” said the old man. “Can I kiss her?”
“Well,” said Paul, “you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask Sarah.”
“A kiss?” said the old man, turning to Sarah. “For Christmas.”
Sarah was as surprised and bewildered as Paul. The man seemed so old to her, even beyond grandfatherly. She had almost forgotten about him entirely.
“Well,” she said, reddening, “I don’t see why not.”
Sarah turned her face sideways and offered him her cheek. The old man was slow in his movements, but determined. His wrinkled neck strained and quivered as he leaned slowly into the kiss. He closed his eyes and puckered his mouth into a beak, while his liver-spotted hands reached out with the rigor mortis of a golem. He clumsily took hold of her shoulders and brought his face close to hers. Paul watched all this in profile; saw his girlfriend being taken in the arms of a mummy.
Sarah knew instantly what the old man was about and was having none of it. He had taken too long in crossing the distance. She was gorgeous and voluptuous, wearing a knee-length skirt. It was all so clear to her now. When he placed one of his dry, papery hands to her cheek and tried to turn her face towards him, her charity vanished. His stiff upper body was craning like a tortoise. He came in close, his nose brushing hers, but she snapped her head back in time and shook it from side to side, emitting a weak “no” in protest, ducking from his grip.
“Hey,” said Paul, reaching forward limply. He was paralysed by the man’s age, and, rather than reaching for him, he reached for Sarah, to help extract her. Yet she had, by then, extracted herself, stepping back several paces.
“No, not like that,” she said, out of breath with fright and embarrassment.
“What do you think—” said Paul, but something stuck in him; something about himself.
The old man was entirely unmoved. He stood in the end point of his manoeuvre as though nothing was amiss. He remained silent and lowered his arms; recomposed himself.
Sarah and Paul began to walk slowly; away from the man, away from the lighthouse, back towards the town. They stepped deliberately, as though tied in some way to the location of the incident. It was courtesy that kept them from running; courtesy, embarrassment and the length of the stretch, for the harbour wall ran for another hundred feet, open, exposed. They were trapped in the aftermath.
Sarah was inwardly fuming. It was the assumption that angered her so much. That man, that ancient, rubbery brothel-creeper with his revolting, antiquated misconceptions.
“Why didn’t you do something?” she said, thirty feet on.
“Do what?” hissed Paul “Do what?”
“I don’t know. Just make sure it never got to that.”
“But, but it all just sort of happened.”
Sarah was looking at her feet. She was ashamed and angry that she should feel something so contrary to her role in the matter.
“It’s easy for you,” she said, “you’re always kissing other people. I don’t… It’s horrible.”
“Don’t start that again,” said Paul.
“Why can’t I start that? I never get to start anything.”
It was all back in her, all the burning ‘errors’ she’d forgiven. She knew this wasn’t his fault, but it was just the sort of thing that happened to them now, and only because of him. Must everything always fall so short of what she hoped for with Paul? She allowed herself to believe his assurances, unable to see how far his bleakness and sabotage went, but her belief was no longer tempered by trust. It was simply that when he was on her side she felt stronger, safer. He was a useful ally. She hated that her love for him had deteriorated into something so utilitarian. He was as cold as a stone buttress.
“Just…. not now,” said Paul. “Not today. It’s fucking Christmas. Let’s just forget it. The whole thing was an innocent, silly mix-up. I thought he was going to kiss you on the cheek.”
“So did I.”
Sarah looked at Paul. Paul opened his mouth but said nothing. He was always in the wrong, and quite genuinely. If he hadn’t learned to avoid being in the wrong, he at least knew it wasn’t in his interest to start discussing why he was in the wrong. He had only learned this recently. Naively, he had always primed excuses and deployed them pre-emptively. He was good at excuses, but Sarah was better at truth and the one always countered the other.
His eyes relaxed. Her eyes relaxed. They both began to smile. They had reached the end of the harbour wall and turned around its hairpin to the stretch beside the storehouses.
“I’m not,” said Paul, “saying anything.”
“Let’s just say nothing,” said Sarah.
Paul looked behind him. The old man was ambling along, about twenty metres behind, toying with his beads.
“Fuck that old goat,” said Paul, “what’s his game anyway? Let’s make a run for it. Come on!”
He grabbed Sarah’s hand and broke into a run, pulling her with him. She skipped and hopped and then she was running as well, running with a widening smile. They ran until they came to a junction beside the weathered Venetian warehouses.
“This way!” shouted Paul, growing hysterical with mischief, turning away from the harbour. They came to a half-collapsed and roofless building. There was a boarded-up entrance that had been pried open, kicked in. Sun was streaming through the open top and the inside space was light and warm.
“Come on,” said Paul, “let’s hide in here.”
They stepped through the opening and placed their backs against the wall beside the doorway. Now they really started laughing, big gulping laughs and exhalations. They looked about. The ground was covered in rubble and overgrown with tall weeds. Half-broken planks hung from the wrecked floor above. It seemed a beautiful, happy ruin.
“Let’s go up the stairs and hide properly,” said Paul. “Just for the hell of it.”
“Is it safe?”
“I don’t know. The stairs look sturdy enough.”
They climbed up the stairs to the landing and stepped along the remaining edge of the floor, where a few beams protruded. Here they stopped, still breathing out the flurry of excitement.
“Seems pretty solid.”
The post-holes in the walls shuffled with nervous pigeons; seagulls cried overhead like polished glass. The sandstone was pocked and crumbly; honey-combed like frail conglomerate. Paul was drawn to its wear, to its ruin. He fingered the loose fragments of wall; it was bound here and there with dusty web. Sarah peered over the wreck of a window ledge to the street below. She sought the old man, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was likely still meandering by the harbour; likely still feeling the brush of her nose, the softness of her shoulder. She shuddered.
Paul sat down on the stairs. He was calm again now, overlooking the warm ruins. He had come to Europe to look at ruins; come to see the relics. He felt right at home with ruins. For one thing, they were never pressing, having lost all their urgency. He kicked his foot against a pebble on the stairs. It skipped down into the matted, weedy rubble.
Sarah watched the pebble bounce. How good it had felt when they ran together! It was so long since they had been in such unison. Ever since she had read his diary, when the dust finally settled, everything had been so cautious, so careful. She longed to be free of this deliberateness. Her eyes moistened and she fastened her grip on the weathered window sill. She was always waiting for Paul now. It wasn’t fair, but she could not face leaving him. Just now, she could not face him.
Paul began to think about lunch. He was a man of strong appetites, even at his most apathetic. How he loved the novelty of foreign menus.
“What do you want to eat?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Sarah. “We can have a look in town. You decide.”
She held tight to the sill, wanting to place herself back in the happiness of running. It had flushed her like a sugar high, and now she was coming down. How like Paul to have moved on already; to be thinking about something else. Slowly, silently, she began to cry; saddened by her weakness.
Paul failed to notice. He was thinking about pork chops; staring ahead into rubble.