Dirk watched the foam churning round the propellers. It washed to and fro from the wharf. He watched the people milling on the docks; smoking and waving. There were no familiar faces. He toyed with a cigarette before lighting it. The ferry bobbed in its turbulence, roaring and vibrating. Then the ropes came in and they were off; away from Samothraki.
Dirk stayed on the rear of the upper deck to watch the island shrink. It soon fit within his field of vision, fading to a ghost in the late haze. He stayed and watched as it sank beneath the curve of the earth. Then it was gone altogether and he had only the dust on his sandals and dirt beneath his nails. He shivered. The breeze was beginning to go through him.
The sun set and it grew colder still. Dirk wandered outside along the decks, before heading into the cafeteria. It was full of people, standing and sitting, craning to watch a big screen. He looked around for any pretty girls. There were too many men. The film Gladiator was showing; English with Greek subtitles. The name Maximus appeared at the bottom of the screen. Μαξιμος. It looked like the parallel translations he often read in ancient works. It seemed somehow more authentic. The Roman army was gearing up for war. “On my command, unleash hell.” Dirk smiled. The accent was familiar. He too was Australian.
Dirk went for a walk. He needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. Deck class was no misnomer. He’d been out there in a storm before, out with the banshee wails and the rain devils. The evening was clear. He had a sleeping bag. He bought a toasted cheese sandwich and a carton of milk, then went back out on the deck.
Dirk poked around until he saw a space under a lifeboat. It was out of the way; no one would disturb him. He unfurled his sleeping bag, unzipping it from end to end. He laid the sleeping bag under the boat and slipped himself onto it. There was only two feet of space beneath the boat, but it was shelter and seclusion. He got in and pulled the sleeping bag together, zipping it up halfway. He lay staring up at the base of the boat, thinking about the last five days on Samothraki. He weighed up the mix of loss and relief. It was a good basis for a sort of happiness; fulfilment and expectation, the end and the beginning, though it wasn’t exactly happiness. He soon fell asleep.
Dirk woke up at three thirty. He wasn’t sure if he’d slept, but could not account for the hours. He was still tired; warm and tired. The breeze was thin and chill and he did not want to get up. Getting up would be like being born all over again. People walked past him on the deck, talking loudly. He leaned out from under the lifeboat to see what was happening. Across the deck towards the prow were the lights of the shore, of a harbour, a mere hundred metres away.
“Lavrio,” he said. “It must be Lavrio.”
Dirk lay back down and stretched and yawned. The deep horn of the vessel sounded right through his body. He smiled and rubbed his face then ran his hands through his hair. He recalled how one cold morning before a camping trip he and his brother and his friend Gus had lain in their beds, reluctant to get out from under the covers. Then, of a sudden, his brother had hurled back the blankets and leapt out of bed, defying the cold. Dirk tightened himself, unzipping the bag. He too could call on that same spirit. It was just like diving into the surf first time in summer.
He washed up in the bathroom, working cold water into his eyes. He took off his shirt and rubbed himself down with the damp corner of his towel, getting the stickiness out of his shoulders and off his forearms; the dried sweat, the clamminess of sea salt. Dirk slicked his hair back and cleaned behind his ears. He felt proud of his efficiency. He thought of himself as a seasoned traveller.
Dirk stepped slowly down the gangway. He was in no hurry. The sun would not be up for another three hours and, the longer things took, the better. He walked along the concrete wharf and stopped in the wide car park. It was full of cars with their lights on, waiting for friends and relatives.
Dirk was glad to be walking. He watched people standing around and getting into cars. He looked closely, counting the passengers, but no one had a spare space. While he was sleeping, others had made their advances. He was uncertain. Despite the freshening up and the cool air, he still felt trapped in the timidity of tiredness. It was a while since he’d spoken and he did not trust the sound of his voice. On Samothraki he had asked some Greeks if he could puff on their joint and they had told him no. It was the first time it had ever happened to him. In every other way, Greek hospitality had been unparalleled, yet since then he had had second thoughts about asking for anything.
Still he hung around. Maybe some cute girl would take pity on him. He might get to lie on a couch for two hours, then take the metro to Piraeus. He might even get a blow-job! He might fall in love. He laughed. He waited and watched until there were only a few left. No girls approached him. No one approached him. He recognised one couple from the ferry. The young man was noticeably tall, almost six and a half feet. He looked awkward, but friendly. Dirk could not hear their voices but he was sure they must be English speakers. He could see it in their mouths. He watched them as they drifted on the edge of the docks, near the roadway. They too must have no rides.
Dirk stayed a while more. He no longer knew what he was waiting for. He guessed that there must be no buses until later in the morning, but he felt a creeping stubbornness. He was determined to be the last to leave. That way he would know he had not missed any opportunity.
At four-thirty Dirk walked over to the road. The couple he had spotted earlier were there, sitting on one of the barriers. He nodded to them and they nodded back. They avoided eye-contact. He looked down the length of the road. Some of the last few passengers from the ferry were still walking away from the docks. They were moving slowly, as though resigned. He wondered if they really knew where they were going.
The couple were sitting and talking just out of earshot. Dirk was sure they were waiting to get into Athens just like him. He watched them out of the corner of his eye, then looked back up the road at the other disappearing passengers. He knew he should go and talk to the couple. It was easier not to have to do things by yourself. Some things, that is. It took courage to ask questions in a foreign country and if he teamed up with others, they would have the courage of numbers. Then they could laugh when their words fell on deaf ears; they could joke instead of curse in the face of intransigence. He looked back along the street at the last of the passengers. Athens seemed a long way off. He shrugged and set off after them.
After checking the timetable, Dirk walked to the middle of the square. He had an hour to kill before the first bus. It was cold and he was tired. The lights were filtered by the feathery branches of the trees. The remaining passengers were resting around the periphery; sitting and lying on benches. Dirk did the circuit, keeping his distance from anyone. He felt shy. He felt reluctant. He did not want to impose.
The square spilled into a pedestrian mall. There were more benches along its length. Dirk put down his pack and took off his fleece. He put on another tee shirt then replaced his top. He stretched out with the sleeping bag for a pillow and set the alarm on his mobile phone. He placed his beach towel over himself like a blanket, then hooked his arm through the strap of his bag. There were two other guys with backpacks only fifteen feet away. Safety in numbers. He had never considered other travellers a threat. Same species.
Dirk closed his eyes for a while. The light was too bright, but he did not want to cover his face. He preferred to appear more alert. He heard footsteps in front of him and opened his eyes. The couple he had seen by the road were walking past. They moved on to the next bench and sat down. Dirk watched them. They were watching him. He smiled at them and they smiled back. No one spoke.
Dirk was awake when his alarm went off. It was five thirty. The bus was at a quarter to six. He switched off the alarm and looked across the square. There were people standing down at the bus stop but no sign of the bus. Dirk pulled his smokes out of his bag and stuck one in his mouth. He felt in the pocket of his jeans for his lighter then decided he wanted to use a match. He got the matches from his bag, took one out and, leaning up on one elbow, stabbed the match against the rough. He smelled of dog. He smelled of a campfire. He liked who he was and what he was doing. He felt cool lighting his cigarette this way. He was an adventurer. He was beat. He lay back and smoked up the early purple light.
The couple from the next bench walked past him. The young man was speaking loudly. He was speaking English with a South African accent. Dirk smiled. He’d just spent five days with a bunch of South Africans. Couldn’t he bump into someone else for once? Perhaps they were Zimbos. Dirk took a drink from his water bottle and stood up. He gathered himself quickly and picked up his pack. He felt a compulsion to hurry after them.
At the bus stop Dirk put his back against a tree. He stood with his knees locked, tilting like a buttress. He watched the twenty-odd people there a while, then closed his eyes and chewed his cheeks. He was worrying now about making it to Piraeus in time. He knew it was a long ride, but he didn’t know just how long. There was also the metro to take. He couldn’t afford to miss the ferry, if there even was one.
The bus was right on time. Dirk let the others get on first then paid his fare and walked down the aisle towards the back. The South African couple were also sitting towards the rear. He passed them on the way down and nodded. They both smiled at him and he smiled back. Dirk tore his eyes away quickly, settling them on where he was going. He had a practical excuse, but he wondered why he was such a nervous character at times. He missed having comrades on the road.
It was a dirty dawn through the unwashed bus windows; pale grey sky above pale blue smog, backlit by seeping orange. Dirk had his head against the window, enjoying the little bangs and bumps of the road. He thought of the buses in Sydney, how they rattled when they were idle. There he liked to press his head as hard against the perspex as possible, giving his teeth a good shake-up.
Dirk felt tired and oily. He wanted a hot shower and a sleep. An orange, an apple, a banana and a bottle of Coke. He watched the couple in the seat in front. They spoke quietly and he only heard one word in three. Nothing made sense. They were talking about relatives. After forty minutes, the tall man leaned across the aisle and addressed another young man sitting opposite.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you know where this bus stops?”
“I don’t know,” said the young man. “I only know it goes into Athens.”
“Do you know how long takes?”
“I think it is one hour and a half. I don’t know.”
Dirk watched them with a nervous apprehension. He had left it so late to make contact, despite the numerous chances.
“Syntagma,” said Dirk. “I think the bus goes to Syntagma.”
The couple turned around. The man across the aisle nodded, but turned away.
“Or Monastiraki,” said Dirk. “Both are central.”
“It goes where?”
“To Syntagma,” said Dirk. “It’s a square in the middle of Athens. Do you know Athens at all?”
“No, not at all.”
“Where are you heading? Are you staying in Athens?”
“No,” said the man, “we’re heading out into the islands. To the Cyclades.”
“So am I,” said Dirk. “I’m trying to get to Mykonos.”
“Excellent,” said the girl. “We were thinking about going to Mykonos.”
“I’m Dirk, by the way.”
“Gerard, bru, and this is Melita.”
“Cool. Do you know what boat you’re taking?” asked Dirk.
“No,” said Gerard, “we’re not even sure which island we’re going to. We were just going to head down to Piraeus and check out what’s on offer.”
“Did you know that all the ferries leave really early? At eight o’clock in the morning?”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“Some even go at seven. I’m heading straight there now. To get a boat.”
He looked at his watch.
“Put it this way – you better head straight down there unless you want to wait until tomorrow.” He sounded too dramatic. It was his exhaustion amplifying the emotion.
“Really?” said Gerard.
“Trust me,” said Dirk. “I’ve been there a good few times and almost all the ferries go by eight o’clock. I can take you,” he added. “I know the way.”
“That’d be cool,” said Melita.
“Ya, please,” said Gerard.
Dirk was wide awake now. He was full of purpose. The consequences of failure had just become greater, though the consequences of success troubled him too. He was not sure he wanted to take them to Piraeus if they wound up on the same ferry. He wanted to be alone on the ferry so he could listen to music. He wanted to stare into the Aegean and think about Homer and Thucydides; think about the Peloponnesian war.
The bus went carelessly fast. It dipped and bobbed at the corners, the standing passengers swayed and swung. They were tearing into Athens; ripping through the morning.
“You were on Samothraki as well, were you?” asked Dirk.
“Yeah,” said Gerard. “It was top notch, eh?”
“It sure was. I had a great time.”
Suddenly Dirk missed his friends so greatly that his head swam. He had not been alone for five days; five days surrounded by people and then the lonely bosom of the ferry. It was good to have companions. Until the ferry. Then he would need loneliness again, to sadden himself into an epic.
They stepped out in Syntagma. It was just after seven and the sun was still full of dew. It was damp in the shadow of the buildings; cold blue light below the spreading yellow sky.
“Have you got all your kit?” asked Dirk.
Gerard and Melita nodded. They had humped their packs on board.
Dirk clapped his hands loudly.
“Right!” he said. “Follow me.”
He led them down the paving towards the metro. He had a view of himself, rushing in his mind; a view from outside of himself. If they were slow he would want to leave them behind, so he must not let them be slow. It was his role now to be urgent; he must be entirely in character.
“There should be plenty of ferries going,” said Dirk, “but likely only one on each route. If you want a particular island, you might only get one chance.”
He didn’t have much of a contingency plan. He was thinking aloud; building up pressure to make their Piraeus decisions quick. Gerard and Melita were smiling in pursuit. He was doing them a favour; already he had saved them from uncertainty and given them direction; he might yet save them from disappointment; launching them into the sea.
Dirk stepped up the pace. He indicated the entrance to the metro and jogged towards the steps. He would get them tickets, for he knew how. He ran down the stairs to the machine; liquid with excitement. He could not work fast enough through the checklist. He pumped in the euro coins. He missed the old Drachma; Pericles, Alexander, Athena, the Olympic flame. Now they were modern heroes.
Gerard and Melita puffed down the stairs. They were fit, but tired; bemused but urgent. Dirk waved the tickets.
“Come on,” he said, “we have to change at Monastiraki.”
At Monastiraki they walked fast along the edge of the crowd. On the second train they tucked themselves into a corner. The carriage was full. All they saw were close-packed heads and up-thrust arms – tired and sleepy Greeks; sombre, but free of scowls. Dirk ticked off the stations; Thissio, Petralona, Tavros, Kalithea, Moschato, Faliro. He was burning for Piraeus, restless by the orange sliding doors.
Dirk had been to Piraeus five or six times, but had never really seen the place. He was always caught up in a hurry or a set back. Once it had stormed so hard they closed the sea. He was only thinking about the ferries now. He liked Gerard and Melita, and sometimes it was easier to travel with others, yet really it was faster alone. It just took courage. He needed one ticket and one ticket only; not three; not information on more than one ferry; not multiple timetables and options. It was all about Mykonos. Dirk rehearsed his questions. Kalimera, do you speak English? Mykonos, Mykonos, any ferries to Mykonos? And what if it was just the one ferry? They would ride with him.
They were one stop from Piraeus. Gerard and Melita were talking and had been for some time. They were talking about islands.
“Where are you going, do you think?” asked Dirk.
“I’m not sure,” said Gerard. “It depends.”
“I want to go to Samos,” said Melita. “Or over to the Dodecanese. We think the Cyclades might be too touristy.”
Dirk nodded. “They probably are,” he said. “But I want to see Delos. It’s a really important ancient site.”
In truth he didn’t care a fig if it was touristy. After camping on Samothraki, he could use some touristy places. Hot, stupid women; hot, stupid men. He wanted to sit in bars and chat up girls; he wanted creamy cocktails and brazen beers, cold, in sweating bottles. He wanted to eat fatty meat. He wanted to slump and pout and scan the scene. After five days with a bunch of hippy ravers, he longed for neon decadence; the best and the worst of civilisation; debauchery in the sluice of the temples.
The metro pulled in with a soft squeal. The sun shone straight through the dirty glass of the narrow station. It was a quarter to eight; the ferries would be warming up their engines, churning their propellers. Dirk was ready to go. His pack was on, Gerard and Melita had their packs on. If need be, Dirk would leave them behind. He had already helped these people enough.
“There are offices all around,” he said, stepping quickly off the train. “Over here.” He pointed outside to the sunlit pavement.
“I’ve got to run,” he called, “I don’t want to miss out.” But he was running already; quick walk, slow jog, and running through the station exit. Melita and Gerard followed in a skip.
Dirk ran across the road to a window in a wall of signage. Ferry boats, tickets, passage. “Passage!” he shouted, surprising himself. The man at the window was ready. At a quarter to eight, the customers always ran.
“Kalimera, kalimera, do you speak English?”
The old man at the counter nodded. “Yes,” he said deeply.
“When is the next boat to Mykonos?” asked Dirk.
“The boat goes now. At eight.”
“One ticket please, thank you. Deck class, efharisto.”
Melita and Gerard pulled up behind him, scanning the lists of departures.
Dirk handed over the money. The man moved slowly but surely. He printed and stamped the ticket.
“I’m going to Mykonos,” said Dirk. “I have to run as soon as he hands me the ticket.”
“That’s cool, bru,” said Gerard. “If you gotta go…”
“I gotta go.”
“Best say goodbye now then,” said Melita.
“Sure,” said Dirk. “Where are you going?”
“To Samos, then on to the Dodecanese.”
“Thank you,” said the man behind the counter. He handed Dirk the ticket.
“That’s it, gotta split. Goes at eight.”
“No sweat, bru. Thanks for helping us.”
Melita was already at the counter while Dirk shook Gerard’s hand. She ordered their tickets then turned back to Dirk.
“Really gotta go,” said Dirk.
“Go then,” she laughed. He thrust his hand at her and she took it firmly.
“Right then,” he said, and began to run.
“Hey,” Gerard called, “we might be on the same ferry. But don’t wait up, bru, just get on board!”
Dirk ran backwards, he nodded, waved his ticket in the air, and then he turned and fled. Different island, same ferry. It hadn’t ever occurred to him. He ran and ran along the docks. The big ferries stood many storeys tall, with a long, hammock slouch from bow to stern. The sun was bright and he was on his way, alone enough for now. He would get up onto that deck and sleep in the sun. He had a good book, good music and plenty to think on. He came to the dock where his ferry was waiting. He walked down to the edge of the wharf where the cars were being driven up its belly. There was no queue at all. Dirk looked down as he stepped aboard the boat. He watched the foam churning round the propellers. It washed to and fro from the wharf.