This piece describes events which took place back in 1996, during a five and a half month trip across Europe. It began as a long poem, then, thinking it too prosaic and feeling it was far better suited to a short story, I expanded it a few years ago. After a number of more recent revisions and rewrites, here it is.
I first saw Mikhailis on the wide balcony of a hostel in Rethymnon. He sat in the corner on a plastic chair, beneath a mop of tufted, wiry hair. He did not look like a traveller and surveyed the space darkly, with the eyes of a bandit reproached.
Kirstin and I had arrived from two damp and cloudy days in Iraklion; a city that seemed to disappoint us the more we sought its merits. Until, that is, on our final evening, when we visited the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis. From there, high up by the fortifications, late sun broke through the storm clouds to jewel the clutching trees in amber light.
Rethymnon’s appeal was immediate. It was the colour of palm trees, petunias and sandstone; tawny, olive, red, purple and pink. The weightless blue sky made these colours sing. We entered the town on foot through the Venetian Great Gate. Though unimpressive in scale and divorced from its once bold walls, this structure aroused in me a strong sympathy for the parochial sentimentality with which it must have been named.
Our guidebook recommended a hostel that was promisingly cheap. It was a warm eighteen degrees and we took our time finding it. The hostel owner, (a Londoner, I guessed) who looked like Andrew Lloyd Webber, introduced himself as Nick.
“I’ve got plenty of room,” he said. “For you and anyone else you can find. Stay as long as you like.”
“And breakfast?” I asked.
“Not included, but cheap and cheerful. Fried eggs, omelettes, toast, cereal, bacon, whatever.”
He was effusive and gentle. He showed us to our room. There were no double rooms to be had, but, a mere eight days before Christmas, business was quiet and he gave us a dorm to ourselves. It was a basic place; the room as narrow as a corridor. We dumped our bags under the battered wooden bunks and Nick, having taken our passports and handed over the keys, made his way back downstairs.
“This’ll be fine,” said Kirstin.
We had been on the road for four months. Having worked our way over land and sea from Britain, we were used to welcoming necessities as luxuries. After the desolate, dusty, cold-water hostel in Iraklion, this at least felt more like a school holiday camp than a prison. Perhaps it was simply that the sun was shining, or the ramshackle charm of the panelled wooden walls, but Rethymnon had lifted us. Already I was fond of its ancient streets.
We showered, changed our clothes and toured the hostel. There was a spacious balcony at the back overlooking a sunny, paved courtyard. A weathered sandstone minaret stood tall across gardens bright with bougainvillea. It was here that I first spotted the mop-topped, bearded man in the corner. He was looking at us intently. I nodded to him and he nodded back. I looked away quickly and turned my eyes to the English newspaper on the table. It was over a week old and I knew all the headlines.
“I’m hungry,” said Kirstin. “Maybe they’re still serving food.”
“I’ll find out,” I replied.
I went inside. It was just after lunch and I wanted more eggs. Money went a lot further at this end of the Mediterranean. The cruel austerity of my travel budget was finally paying dividends. After four weeks of tinned sardines in Italy, I was beginning to put back some weight.
Nick gave me the thumbs up and I ordered two helpings of fried eggs.
When I came back outside, the bearded man in the corner was still studying us. Though his eyes were kept low, he was not making any effort to conceal his interest. I detected a hunger in his brooding curiosity, inviting us to lift him from the torpor of his sulk. It was then that I remembered the boldness I’d acquired through months of strangers and, offering a little wave, I said, “Kalimera!”
“Yiassou,” he said, gruffly, if not rudely. He did not smile.
I turned my eyes back to the newspaper. I could sense that he was still looking at us and guessed it was Kirstin who drew his attention. She had been sized up by many local men over the last few months; her disappointment at this being roughly commensurate with the keenness of their interest. Still, if occasionally the cause of unwanted attention, I guess it was her good fortune as well as mine that she was such a beauty.
Turning my eyes to the minaret, smiling into the wide sky, I felt the gravity of the bandit’s stare – so I had come to think of him – and, looking his way our eyes met again. This time his face spread with a cunning smile.
“You play chess?” he asked, with a strong accent.
“Yes,” I replied. “I love chess.”
“Good,” he said, standing up. “We will play chess.”
I stood up too and a moment later, Kirstin also stood up. It was as though some forgotten formality was hurriedly being addressed.
“I am Mikhailas,” said the bandit, walking over and offering me his hand. “I am from here. From Kriti.”
“I am Ben,” I said, “and I am from Australia.”
We shook hands.
“I am Kirstin, also from Australia.”
“Hello,” said Kirstin, skipping around to stand beside me.
“You are Australian?” said Mikhailas. “Then you like to drink.”
“Ummm, yes, yes we do,” I said, laughing. “Day and night, you can count on us.”
“We love to drink,” said Kirstin.
“Good,” said Mikhailas, looking squarely at me. “Later we play chess, and drink raki.”
“Sounds good to me.”
He offered me his hand again.
Kirstin and I spent the afternoon walking around the Venetian fortress, soaking up the sun. The sea was Irish moss, the sand a mustard yellow, polka-dotted with smooth white and grey stones. The fortress was an ancient seabed, chiselled into jutting chins over which the guns once poked. Inside was dry and grassy, yet the stems were vivid green. One tall palm presided.
As winter progressed in Europe we had moved gradually east and south and thus avoided the onset of the cold. After a quick swim and double helpings of pork yeeros, we returned to the hostel with two bottles of wine.
I found Mikhailas drinking in the common room. The chessboard was already set up and he was waiting for someone to play him. The only others present were two couples, one Dutch and one French, who were, for the moment, keeping to themselves. No one had given him satisfaction.
“Ah,” he said when he saw us come in. “You play chess now?”
“Definitely,” I said.
I had never been much good at chess until this trip. Kirstin’s foresight in bringing a portable set had provided us with hours of enjoyment and allowed me to hone my skills. Most hostels have a functioning chess set and, where possible, we played on larger boards. In Athens, at the Thisseos Inn, it so happened that the manager had once held a world ranking. When I’d asked him whether or not the hostel had a chess set, he’d replied “no, we don’t. But do you play blind?”
“Yes, you know, without the board. You say the moves and remember where the pieces are.”
“No, I’m not. It is common for professional chess players.”
“Jesus. Well, I’m no pro.”
In the end, we played four games; my heart beating furiously and my hand trembling over the tiny board. Of course I did not win, but my chess fitness served me well enough to avoid humiliation, even allowing me to salvage a draw from an exhausting stalemate. Such was the state of my chess when I sat down opposite Mikhailas.
Mikhailas had a satchel beside him from which he produced a bag of olives and feta cheese. He placed these on the table with a quiet gesture of offering.
“Have you had raki?” he asked. “Proper raki?”
I shook my head. “Not that I know of.”
“Then you must have raki.”
He produced an old plastic water bottle and nodded to my glass of wine. I picked it up and drank it down, then placed the glass on the table in readiness.
Mikhailas poured a small amount of raki into the glass and I swished it around until the wine had blended, then tipped it quickly back. It was sharp and acrid, though it flowed more like a breath than a draught. I placed the glass back on the table. It was quickly filled by Mikhailas who then filled his own. He raised the glass and I raised mine, and then he simply said “raki”, and down they went. It was liquid fire, like loza or grappa, but it was pure and brought with its fumes an instant high. On its reaching my stomach I felt such an surge of energy that I sat up straight in my chair.
Kirstin watched all this with a bemused smirk. Mikhailas had not offered her raki and I wondered if it was supposed to be a drink for men only. Yet, when, a moment later, she asked if she too could have one, Mikhailas raised no objection. She gulped it down without blinking and Mikhailas grinned.
“Ha, you like raki too?”
“Yes,” said Kirstin. “It’s good and strong.”
“Good. Yes. And now,” said Mikhailas, withdrawing his hungry eyes from her breasts and sicking them on the board, “we play chess.” He clapped his hands together in an assertion of readiness then picked up two pieces. I drew white and the game was on.
For the first few moves my glowering opponent proved little different from others I had played in my travels. He spoke little, kept his focus and maintained an air of reverence for the game. Yet, it was not long before he showed his true colours. When capturing his first piece, one of my pawns, he swept it from the board and onto the floor with the heavy base of his knight. I chuckled nervously and looked up to see his vicious smile. Yes, Mikhailas was a fighting man and right away I knew he liked to fire a gun.
“Your move,” was all he said, as I bent to pick the pawn up off the floor.
Clearly this was a contest between “men”. With the stakes tacitly raised to a test of masculinity, I felt a rush of strength from the presence of my well-endowed girlfriend and placed my hand on her knee. If she wasn’t considered proof enough, I would have no choice but to dash his king to the floor before the game was out.
The match continued for forty minutes. At one stage I captured Mikhailas’ queen, which he disputed on the grounds that a queen should be treated like a king in check and that a warning was required. I’d never heard of such a rule and though it frustrated me greatly, I accepted it for the sake of diplomacy, figuring that what goes around comes around.
Immediately after this, Mikhailas poured me another raki, perhaps feeling guilty about my disappointment and embarrassed by his indignation. From here the shots of raki came regularly and he was generous with his feta and olives. The alcohol was raw and exhilarating and, with the olives, it cut through the cloying paste of the cheese. I wondered if he was trying to addle or distract me, but my concentration was intense and I sweated not to let it waver.
In the end I had his measure and was secretly delighted to have beaten him. Mikhailas was too proud not to show his dissatisfaction, though he refrained from being churlish just as I refrained from gloating. After all, we were men, weren’t we? I sat back in my chair and looked around. We had become the centre of attention; the couples were watching from their tables and a blond, long-haired Englishman, whom I had spotted earlier sweeping the stairs, took advantage of the break to greet Mikhailas and join us at the table. He introduced himself as Simon and I soon found out he was both living in and working at the hostel.
Mikhailas suggested another game. I wanted to walk away from the tension of it all, but could not refuse him a return match.
“Raki?” he asked us quietly, and we were quick to answer yes.
The second game did not go well for me. I blew it from the start with an overambitious attack. I should have known better, having always been a defensive player in strategy games, but the raki and masculine intensity of Mikhailas drew me out. I felt stung by the loss, especially now that I had an audience, but I was also becoming increasingly drunk. Mikhailas was smiling now, a true bandit grin across his curly chops. With the atmosphere growing boisterous around us, I knew I would not retain my focus in a third game, but accepted the challenge nonetheless.
Despite doing my utmost to play a safe hand, I found it harder and harder to think ahead and calculate the consequences of moves. When I realised my game had gone to the dogs, the only recourse was to pretend indifference. I laughed as the tragedy entered its final act. Mikhailas, having trapped my king in a corner, slew me with his trademark flourish by clubbing the piece to the floor.
The end of the contest came as a great relief, for my head was reeling with booze. As my king fell the volume of the voices shot up. I sat back and stretched and the conversation expanded across the room.
Kirstin called for more beers, while I, sweaty and thinking of other refreshments, suggested we all go swimming the following day. Simon, who had shown himself to be both affable and amusing, with occasional asides throughout, agreed to come.
“I’ll be well up for a swim,” he said. “Weather permitting of course.”
“Swim?” said Mikhailas. “In winter? You are mad.”
“But it’s not even cold. And the water is warm.”
“For Crete it is cold. Too cold for Crete. And the water is not warm. It is cold.”
“Huh!” I said, with a light-heartedly cruel smile. “Real men don’t feel the cold, Mikhailas.”
The following day began slowly. We ate a big breakfast and talked to Simon on the balcony. The sun was blazing. An old, white-haired Australian veteran who looked uncannily like a Koala wandered into the hostel and spoke with us at length. I soon learned that he was a regular feature here, having retired to Rethymnon several years ago. He told us he had been captured on Crete during the war and taken into the heart of Germany as a POW. He was charming and entertaining until he began telling us about his plans to bottle and sell the water flowing from the thaws in the White Mountains.
“It’s a travesty,” he shouted. “They just let it run into the sea! All that water going to waste.”
Despite its initial novelty this conversation was destined to grow tedious, so I brought forward our own appointment with the ocean.
Simon led us to a beach a mile and a half out of town. It was rough sand adrift with stones, but the water was not as cold as I feared. I relished the horizontal pleasure of leisurely swimming and emerged feeling clean and salt-stung.
Upon returning to the hostel we found Mikhailas in the common room. He was having an afternoon beer, waiting for something to happen.
“Look,” he said, leading me over to a wall-map of the Aegean.
“What is it?”
“Look,” he said again.
“I’m going upstairs,” said Kirstin, and left me alone with our bandit friend.
“Here,” said Mikhailas. “Look.”
Urging me closer with rough gestures, he planted his forefinger firmly on the Bosphorus.
“Constantinopolis,” he said, his voice becoming more guttural. “Constantinopolis belong to Greek people. To Greeks.”
His features were weighty and serious, yet there was an energy in him that seemed almost playful; a cutthroat joviality.
He fingered Istanbul again and murmured with gruff affection. “Constantinopolis belong to Greek people. Not to Turks. All over Greece, we are ready. There are men waiting to take it back, all across the islands.”
“Well,” I said, not really sure where to take things, “I’ve always felt it was a bit of a pity that the Turks took it. I mean, if the Byzantines had hung around for another five hundred years there’d still be a Roman Emperor, I guess.”
“Constantinopolis does not belong to the Turks,” said Mikhailas. “How can it be Turkish, it was built by Greeks?”
I began to wonder if he was trying to sign me up to something. Of a sudden he had become so fierce, so Cretan, so tribal, that I pictured him now in traditional costume; the vraka – baggy bloomers; yileki – a shortened waistcoat; zounari – the binding sash; stivalia – high, traditional boots, and the basilis – a Cretan knife – tucked into his belt. He was just like a character from a Kazantzakis novel; from Freedom and Death.
“One day, Constantinopolis will be Greek again,” said Mikhailas.
I was still standing in front of the map when Kirstin came back into the room.
“We’re talking about Constantinople,” I said. “Planning a reconquest.”
Mikhailas stood staring at Kirstin.
“Constantinopolis should be Greek,” he said. “One day, it will be Greek again.”
“Well,” she said, “let’s hope so.”
Mikhailas stepped away from the map. Perhaps this plotting was men’s business and he did not feel comfortable invoking such subjects before her. As if to confirm this, he switched tack altogether.
“Why are you not married?” he said to Kirstin. “A girl like you? Here you would be married.”
“But I’m not from here, am I? I’m only visiting.”
“Still, you are ready now. Look at you, you should be married.”
I leaned against Europe, my shoulder on the Mediterranean. I knew Kirstin would be offended by these queries, but as a counter to the presumption of his masculine narrative, she must answer Mikhailas herself.
“I’m not ready to be married,” said Kirstin, “I’m only twenty-four. I don’t want to be married yet.”
“But what about children? It is not good for a woman to leave this too late.”
“Nor is it smart for a woman to burden herself with children too soon.”
Now Mikhailas looked at me. “Why don’t you marry her? Do you want her to get away?”
I exhaled a short laugh; more amused than derisive.
“I don’t see how marriage would change that. If she wants to leave, she’ll leave. Anyway,” I said, with deliberate finality, “we’re too young to be married.” Things were more complicated than that, but for the moment our travels had, through the need to co-operate, held our problems at bay.
“You play chess again tonight?” asked Mikhailas.
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll happily play chess tonight.”
“Then it is fixed,” he replied.
That evening, with more onlookers than the previous night, over beers, olives, feta and raki, in a reversal of form, I lost the first game and won the final two. The scores were now level and I determined not to play him again; content at least with having had the final word.
The following afternoon, having taken the bus to the beach at Georgioupoli to swim in the mouths of three rivers, we returned to the hostel for beers. On the way through we collected Simon, who bought a beer and joined us. As we walked onto the balcony a tanned, dark-haired man stood up and addressed us. “Simon!” he said, “who are your friends today?”
“‘Allo, Kostas,” said Simon. “Alright? These are two Australians who are staying here, Ben and Kirstin.”
“Hello,” we said in unison.
“Ah,” said Kostas. “Then these are the Australians I have heard about from Mikhailas.”
“Yeah,” said Kirstin, with a chuckle, “that’s us.”
“And you are having a drink now?” asked Kostas.
“Yes, yes, we are.”
“Yes, yes, good,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I will drink with you too.”
“Of course not,” I said. “Join us!”
Kostas bought a beer and sat with us. His hair was unkempt and his face unshaven, but he had about him the confident air of an operator. Less sullen and brooding, he seemed a more charismatic bandit than Mikhailas.
“I am from Cyprus, originally,” he said. “Though I have lived here now for many years. I came here to escape all the troubles in Cyprus. You could say I am a sort of refugee.”
He did not, for the moment, explain further. I wondered if he was in some way political. It was difficult to determine his age, which might have been anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five.
“I have a flat here in town,” he said. “But I often stay with Mikhailas in the village.”
Ever since reading a Hemingway short story in which he derided the practice as condescending, I’d been wary of speaking too slowly to non-native English speakers. The fearsome weight of Hemingway’s opinion had gradually dissipated in the face of many travelling miscommunications and, with Mikhailas, I’d been speaking like an elocution teacher. This was not necessary with Kostas, for his English was considerably better than that of Mikhailas; it was refreshing to return to speaking at my natural pace.
I felt an instant liking for Kostas on account of his vibrant spirit. My first impression was of a hearty and generous person unable to restrain his passion and excitement. There was something enchanting and unpretentious in his obvious, trusting delight at having company, and, over months of sudden alliances, I had come to like the readiest people best of all. He poured out good cheer and, thus warmed, we poured it back in equal measure.
Two hours later we were still sitting and chatting on the wide balcony; sun streaming through. It was four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and Kostas was in the mood for some fun.
“Have you eaten?” he asked. “I am starving. Why don’t we all have a feast?”
“Where? How?” asked Kirstin.
“Why, at my place of course. I have plenty of food: Olives, cheese, wine, chicken. If you can get some potatoes and bread, then I can make a great meal for us all.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, if you’re sure it’s alright.”
“Of course it’s alright. I am the host!” He tipped his head back and laughed aloud, dispelling all questions of propriety.
“Okay,” said Simon, “count me in.”
“And me,” said Kirstin.
“So,” said Kostas, “we will go now and feast, for I am hungry and it will be some time cooking. You,” he said, pointing to Kirstin and I, “go buy bread and potatoes. And get some beer, or some wine, though already I have plenty. I have raki from the mountains, wine from the village, plenty of wine from the village.”
He stood up from his chair and clapped his hands together loudly. “I will try to find Mikhailas. We meet here in twenty minutes.”
Half an hour later, Kostas let us into his flat. He had been unable to find Mikhailas and we’d decided to go ahead without him. The flat was small and tiled, with a narrow kitchen. It was cluttered but negotiable, its walls and tiles reflecting a pale, grey-blue light. Outside was a wrap-around balcony and a hint of a view between the unit blocks.
“Sit down, sit down!” said Kostas, indicating the large, laminated dining table. “I’ll start the food.”
The beers were cold so we shared these around and put the rest on ice. Curious, we all stayed on our feet. Kostas carried the groceries through to the kitchen, calling to us: “Make yourselves at home. Relax! There will be enough food for everyone.”
He returned from the kitchen clutching jars and crockery. He set a deep bowl on the table and tipped in a great splash of Kalamata olives; the loaves he placed on a board. My mouth was watering at the sight of it all. Simple, peasant meals have always stirred my emotions and, since coming to Greece, they felt all the more poignant as a connection with the ancient world. There was a long knife to cut the bread and a decanter of olive oil; salt and pepper, fresh basil from a pot at his window, and Kostas, smiling benevolently.
“I am hungry, hungry,” he said, clapping his hands together. He liked to punctuate with bold gestures. “Now we must have our first raki!”
Simon, Kirstin and I all stood back while Kostas plunged about, stretching and reaching. He ducked down and picked up a tall plastic bottle; the bootleg appearance made the raki seem all the more exciting. Next he produced four sturdy tumblers and banged these on the table. “First we have a raki, then maybe another raki, and then, we think about another one while we are cooking.”
“This raki is come from the villages,” he said as he poured. “Everything I have comes from the village. Up there in the hills there is good soil and plenty of rain; good sunshine in spring and summer; the land is rich and the produce is good. You can feel it swelling inside you; you can taste the village. Here,” he said, distributing the half-full glasses. “A toast to the village.”
We raised our glasses and Simon said, “Alright then, to the village.”
“To the village!” replied Kostas, and all of us drank.
“What is raki made from?” asked Kirstin, once the glasses were back on the table.
“Aha,” smiled Kostas. “Raki is made from the fire of dragons, from the breath of the mountains, from the sting of the sea.” He laughed as he spoke, making it up as he went along.
“No, truly, it is made from the grapes left over from the pressing. Everything not going in the wine is pressed again, harder, like they want the blood from a stone. That is where raki comes from.”
We resumed our beers and Kostas went through to the kitchen. Kirstin and Simon wandered onto the balcony to lean on the railing. I followed Kostas and found him once again in a flurry of organisation. He was cleaning off surfaces, moving pots, pans and plates. He lay down a board and produced the potatoes for peeling.
“What are we eating?” I asked.
“You will see, you will see. It will be a great feast.”
He peeled the potatoes and put them aside, then lined up the tomatoes and three large onions. Once all these were chopped into rings, he opened his freezer and, with some wrestling, pulled out a great cairn of frozen chicken pieces. It was a ghastly sight – wings, thighs and legs, iced awkwardly together like a pile of corpses. He placed it on the bench and began to pull them apart. As the pieces came free he flung them into a huge oven pan, eventually giving up on the frozen core and placing it whole in the middle. Around the chicken he arranged the potatoes, onions and tomatoes, throwing in whole cloves of garlic and olives, then sprinkling the lot with herbs. Once this was done he took a great tin of olive oil and drowned the lot.
Kirstin and Simon had also come to stand in the doorway and watch proceedings. When Kostas was done and the food was in the oven, he ushered us out and made straight for the raki.
“The feast is on,” he said. “In an hour or two we can eat. Now, of course, it’s raki time!”
He picked up the bottle and poured another raki for us all.
“This time we should toast Kostas,” said Kirstin. “For his hospitality.”
“Yes, here’s to Kostas!”
“Here’s then to me,” said Kostas.
Once again we all drank.
“And now another,” said Kostas, “because I cannot really drink to myself.”
He poured another measure and before anyone else could claim the toast, I cried, “Here’s to Greece!”
“Here’s to Greece!” and we all drank again.
Two in a row went straight to our heads and the conversation turned boisterous. We sat at the table, speaking of home and of travels. I had a cassette with me of traditional Greek music from the islands – tales of villages and the sea; ancient laments and dirges – which I had been carrying about all trip. Handing this to Kostas, he put it on. From here the conversation was interspersed with bursts of singing from Kostas when he encountered a familiar dance or dirge. I added my deep and tuneless voice in a phonetic attempt to sing along.
Kostas found one song particularly enjoyable. In Greek the name is Τσιβαέρι and, despite my knowing nothing of the words or their meaning, the slow, mournful chorus of “sigonah, sigonah” had long held me in its thrall. It was a tearful, seaside melancholy. Arm in arm, Kostas and I sang along to this, me rather more fraudulently, and I liked him all the more for so gladly relishing sadness. More rakis ensued. Within an hour, as Kostas checked on the food and the scent flooded through from the opened oven, we were all quite drunk. I was stuffing myself with olives and bread doused in olive oil, to keep from swooning with the booze.
“Now,” said Kostas, clapping with his trademark showmanship, “we will try a village wine. You will find this tastes especially of Crete.”
He plucked a four-litre plastic bottle from the floor, half filled with an umber liquid. From this he poured four measures, straight into the raki tumblers. The wine was thick and syrupy with a sweet and nutty nose. I raised my glass and held it against my upper lip. I was certainly no connoisseur, being the cheapest of the cheap, but was curious to inhale this local vintage. It smelled wonderful – of almonds and chestnuts – and when I tasted it the flavour lay halfway between oak and walnut.
“This wine is delicious,” said Kirstin. “I want to buy a whole barrel.”
We were all in agreement. We drank two glasses while Kostas looked on, beaming with satisfaction.
“Yes, you like it, don’t you?” he said.
My initial impression of Mikhailas had been of one of Nikos Kazantzakis’ characters, and so it was with Kostas. He was as lively and visceral as the author’s robust prose, and equally capable of an uncanny, spiritual subtlety. He would smirk and pout his sweetly curled lips, narrow them in a cunning grin, then fling them wide in a toothy smile. He created a mood of joyous conspiracy.
“Now,” said Kostas, clapping once more, “the food will be ready. At last we can eat!”
Despite all the bread and olives I was ravenous. We all were; hungry with drunken desperation. I felt a vast, leering and lascivious appetite, and as Kostas carried the sizzling, steaming tray through, with its hot wafts of mouth-watering meat scent, we clapped and cheered then stood with our ovation. As it came to rest on the table and I saw the roasted chicken, the oil and fat-stewed potatoes and tomatoes, I felt a surge of love for life.
“And now we feast!” said Kostas.
What followed was a free-for-all of duelling, cautious fingers; plucking the burning chicken from the tray. With a plastic spatula, Kostas dished out the oily slices of potato, the shrivelled, browned, crisp tomato and the softened garlic cloves. Not wishing to miss the rich and boiling stock, we dipped our bread in the base of the pan to soak up this greasy mana.
There was more than enough food and, after the initial orgy of feasting we slowed our pace. Ahead lay the long, slow satisfaction of smoking, drinking and picking our teeth. Having finished the village wine, Kostas poured more measures of raki. Kirstin was tottering on the brink of a very great drunkenness and waved her glass away. Then she drank it anyway, and sank down in her chair looking woozy.
Over the next half hour we talked almost exclusively of food. Kostas, having detected the reticence of the others to drink more, began nudging me under the table. “Secret raki,” he whispered in my ear. He seemed to be implying a certain duty; that to protect the others from harm, us men had best drink up the booze. Kostas did not offer any more raki to Simon, and I felt guilty about this favouritism. All the same, feeling gung-ho and bullet proof, I drank all three of his “secret rakis” while Kirstin and Simon chatted away oblivious.
Then of a sudden Kirstin stood up. The moment I caught her eyes I knew she was in trouble. They were slacked with a haze of worry; sliding about in search of focus. Her face had grown white and pasty, while a thin sweat pricked her forehead. She held the back of her chair, unable to stand unassisted, and we all stood with her.
“I’m going to be sick,” was all she managed, before making her way to the bathroom. I waved back the others and ran in her tottering wake. She had caught herself just early enough and made the toilet in time. There, sure enough, she emptied the contents of her stomach.
“Is she alright?” asked Simon and Kostas, when I emerged five minutes later.
“Yes, yes, she will be fine,” I said. I based my judgement on the understanding that there are two basic ways in which one is sick. The first is the worst, the long night of constant retching; the second is the easiest by far; a quick and complete evacuation, then a restful aftermath of shock.
Kirstin was sick for ten minutes, after which she began to feel safe. She washed her face and cooled her forehead then emerged from the bathroom. “I need fresh air,” she said, so we made our way to the balcony. Kostas put down a thin, rubber mat and gave her a pillow and a glass of water. Kirstin was certainly no lightweight, and I knew she would pull through soon enough. The whole episode had left me worrying about exactly how much I had drunk.
And yet, Kostas persisted with his secret rakis. He was now fabulously drunk; waving his arms and singing and dancing. He stood on his chair and balanced on one leg, jumped to the floor and clapped his hands. He spread his arms wide as though, having performed some famous trick, he expected applause. I stood and danced with him in incoherent steps. Simon was a more phlegmatic character and sat back chuckling and smiling. Not an actor but a theatre-goer, he was content to let others do the work. He sipped his way through a last bottle of beer.
“Crete is my home now,” shouted Kostas, before bursting into strains of a chorus. Finished with singing, he continued, as though never having dropped his thread. “But I will never forget my true home. My true home is Cyprus – wrecked by the fucking Turks. Cyprus has been raped by everyone! They should have joined with Greece – Enosis – the joining together of the Greeks. Then the Turks would not have dared with their sacrilege and filth. They would never have dared to take on Greece in a war.”
Once again, as with Mikhailas, I found myself not knowing how to behave in the face this passionate nationalism. Afraid of saying anything fickle or falsely sentimental, I said.
“Yes, I hope all Cyprus’s problems can be resolved one day.”
“The only way to resolve it now,” said Kostas, “is to get rid of all the Turks. They should not be there, they must not be there. They are a cancer on the island and they have ruined Cyrus. Ruined it!”
I should have said nothing. What Kostas had begun he now felt he had a right to continue, in order to explain himself properly.
“The Cypriot Greeks won’t take it much longer, but it is not them who should have to fix it. It is not because of the Greeks that Cyprus is like it is. It is the fucking English who are responsible. It is the English who ruined Cyprus. It is because of them that Cyprus did not join Greece in the first place. It was because they listened too much to the Turks. It is because of them that Cyprus is now on its knees.”
He had become very suddenly enraged; red-faced and brimming with fierceness. He was shaking his fists and marching up and down the room.
“Yes, Simon,” he said, turning on Simon who had remained completely silent in the face of these last remarks, “It is the English whose fault is Cyprus. It is the fault of the English alone.”
Simon, with his easy-going, quiet nature, spread his arms in disassociation.
“I know nothing about it, mate. I wouldn’t have a clue.”
“But you are still responsible! How could you not know about it? A disgrace like that?”
“I dunno, man. I don’t know anything much about politics. It’s nothing to do with me.”
“But you are English. It is to do with you.”
“Come on, Kostas,” I said. “It’s no point having a go at Simon. Maybe the English were responsible, but not…”
“The English are responsible!” he shouted. “There is no doubt!”
“Yes but Simon is not responsible. It’s got nothing to do with him.”
“All the English are responsible. You cannot deny responsibility. If you are English, then that is enough. What difference does it make?”
It was only now that I realised we had a real situation on our hands. When Kostas had so suddenly began his tirade, I figured he would drop it just as quickly.
“It’s no good yelling at me, mate,” said Simon. “Come on Kostas, you know me. I don’t have a thing against Cyprus. I didn’t even know you were from Cyprus until today. I thought you were from Crete.”
“What difference does it make where I am from? It’s you who are English!”
Kirstin, who had come back to life at the sound of the heated voices, walked back through from the balcony just as Kostas struck a new peak.
“Do you want to make me a terrorist?” he screamed. “Do you want me to get a machinegun and kill people? Bombs and grenades, is that what you want? Do you want to make me a terrorist?”
He hurled his tumbler to the floor with such force that, striking the ground on the side of its base, it leapt back into the air and bounced away across the linoleum. It was a comic emasculation of his anger and the situation ought to have dissolved into laughter, yet it only fuelled Kostas the more.
“It is the English who ruined Cyprus, the English! You!” he shouted, pointing at Simon. “You! How can you not know that?”
“I don’t know anything about Cyprus, mate,” said Simon.
I couldn’t work out where all this had come from. Did Kostas have something against Simon that he had been holding back? Was he so drunk that he did not know what he was saying, could not see how unreasonable he was being? Hardly knowing him at all made it difficult to judge. It must be frustration, I thought, an immense and dreadful frustration born of his years in exile. Strange how often it is those no longer at the front lines who bear the most malice. I was open to being sympathetic and would have tolerated him venting his anger were it not directed so cruelly at one of our party.
“Do you want me to fight?” he asked. “To become a terrorist? Is that it?”
“No, Kostas, no,” I said. “Why would we want that?”
Simon just shook his head again.
“Come on, Kostas,” said Kirstin, “leave Simon out of it. He is here as your guest.”
Then Kostas exploded once more, this time with a piercing scream.
“Do you want me to be a terrorist!” he shouted.
He mimicked firing a machine gun and throwing a grenade. It was vivid play-acting, done with all the craft and zest of a child who believes he has nailed the repeating bat of a gun, only Kostas looked positively murderous.
“Kostas,” said Kirstin, “we came here to have a good time and for you to have a good time as well. Even after just today we’ve come to think of you as a friend because you have been so hospitable. We would happily listen and learn about Cyprus, but none of us knows anything about it.”
“How can you not know? How can you turn a blind eye? Ah, but I am not angry with you, I am angry with everyone. With everyone and the English! They let Cyprus down when it should have been Greek. They laid the plans for the future and the future is war. If Cyprus was Greek as it should be, then I could live in my home.”
He poured himself another raki and despite it clearly not being a good idea, no one was about to stop him drinking it. I did not feel physically threatened by Kostas – his eyes were hot and lurching and his sharper gestures were softened into arcs as he swayed – yet I was also terribly drunk and fed up with his ranting. It was no way to spend an evening.
“Just give Simon a break, man,” I said. “Can’t you see that he’s not directly responsible just because he’s English. He doesn’t even know the first thing about it.”
“It doesn’t matter! It is the English – you,” he said pointing at Simon, “Your people who are responsible for all the troubles of Cyprus.”
He had gone on for far, far too long, yet the heated conversation was not to stop for another hour. Kirstin lacked the energy after having been ill and Simon seemed only to infuriate Kostas every time he tried to placate him, so in the end it was left to me to drag him from his mood. I tried every trick in the book – I humoured, flattered, begged and prayed, persuaded, cajoled and insisted and, just when I was moving into my second phase of despairing that nothing could salvage the evening, Kostas suddenly fell silent. He sat down in his chair and his shoulders slumped. Having bashed his head against the wall so hard and for so long, he was at last ready to sink in an interminable sulk.
In the quiet, Simon and Kirstin stood up. “I think I’d better go home,” said Kirstin. “I’m still not feeling great.” She looked much recovered; the slack and puffy pallor that hung like a mask on her beauty had passed. The colour was back in her cheeks, yet I could see she was exhausted. Simon too was exhausted and, I guessed, upset. I felt very sorry for him, particularly since he and Kostas appeared to have previously been friends.
“Kostas,” said Simon, “I’m off, mate. Thanks for the feed.”
I looked at Kostas with his head sunk onto his chest. He had pursed his lips and was nodding a path through his thoughts.
“Kostas,” I said, “say goodnight and then let’s go out for a beer.”
Recalling some of his previous energy, Kostas sprang to his feet and rubbed his chin with his hand. He snapped his hands to his side and wiped them on his jeans, then thrust one out and offered it to Simon. There was no shift of reconciliation in his face; no smile or softening of sympathy, but rather a drunken preoccupation as though all his thought and energy had gone into these simple and exaggerated movements.
“Good night,” he said, with all the zest of a man who was already dead, but yet to stop moving.
Twenty minutes and two more secret rakis later, Kostas and I left his flat. We walked arm in arm, singing “sigonah, sigonah” in a low and mournful moan, bound for a bar called The Lemon Tree; one of only a few in the old quarter of Rethymnon. I was seriously intoxicated but my mind felt clear and sharp after negotiating such a heavy dialogue. Friends had told me that I became more eloquent the more I drank, though I often had occasion to wonder if the contrast was caused by them growing increasingly less so.
Walking down the flowering white street, I recognised Mikhailas immediately. He was leaning against the wall of the taverna, one foot planted on the front step. It was a tough-guy stance, casually angled; puffs of smoke rolled from his short-bearded lips. Kostas opened his arms as he approached, in greeting and announcement, and Mikhailas, strong and silent, merely nodded.
“Mikhailas,” said Kostas. “At last I have found you.”
“You were looking?” said Mikhailas.
“Of course. We had a feast. You missed the food.”
“I have been drinking.” He looked at me. “No chess tonight.”
“No, I guess not.”
We went inside to buy beers. Kostas and Mikhailas walked to the end of the bar and stood. I pulled up a stool and planted my elbows on the counter. I had no intention of moving for a while. I felt that I was back in charge of my evening at last.
The barman was a middle-aged Englishman, thin and greying. He looked askance at my Cretan companions and served me with a raised eyebrow. “What did you have bring them here for?” he asked.
“They brought me.”
Beside me sat an Australian and an American. I had seen them arrive at the hostel that afternoon and turned to them now in the hope of some lighter relief. I introduced myself and we struck up a conversation. Within a couple of minutes of arriving it seemed I had lost Kostas and Mikhailas to themselves. I heard them speaking in Greek. I was happy to let Mikhailas take up Kostas’ reins, for I was tired of worrying about him; tired of the required concentration. Talking easily with the American and Australian, I realised just how much energy I’d put into bringing Kostas out of his rant.
It was half an hour before we spoke again, and then only because Mikhailas was leaving. He was tired and drunk, though he did not let it show. I looked at my watch – it was just after ten. I suddenly felt completely fed up with both of them and wished they would leave altogether so I could lose myself in thought. The Australian and the American were boring me – the sort of people who find common ground by talking about sport or asserting national stereotypes. The barman, who had a sharp, sarcastic tongue, scowled at me as I ordered my third beer. I was feeling fed up with everything; everything except sitting and drinking.
I knew that if Mikhailas went I’d be stuck with looking after Kostas again; an idea that I did not at all relish.
Mikhailas offered his hand around and said a simple “goodnight.” Then he left, and, sure enough, I was stuck with Kostas.
He had at least risen to a different, more buoyant drunk and for a while he became entertaining. In a loud and singsong manner he tried to engage the American and Australian beside me. They found him amusing at first, but soon showed their true colours and rejected him with unsubtle body language as an undesirable local. My heart went out once more to Kostas. It was just he and I – a pair of ranting drunks – and the world was ranged against us.
The Australian and the American now left. The barman looked at me and shook his head. “See, I told you, you’re driving away my customers.”
“Rubbish,” I said. “And anyway, they were boring.”
“I like boring customers,” he replied. “They keep their mouths shut and drink.”
“Another beer, Kostas?” I asked, keeping my eyes locked with the barman’s.
“Please, my friend, yes.”
“I better have another myself. To make up for the shortfall.”
I bought two beers. The barman smiled. He was a tough nut, but he seemed alright to me. We now we had an understanding, based on mutual displeasure.
“All we need is the women,” said Kostas, slurring.
“You may recall that I already have a woman.”
“Yes, yes, you have a beautiful woman,” said Kostas. “I, myself, have no woman.”
“Well, don’t feel too bad about it. Right now, I don’t want a damn thing.”
Kostas’ hung his head low, saddened to remember his loneliness, and I wondered if the real reason he was so angry was because he wasn’t getting any. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the reason he wasn’t getting any was likely because he was so angry.
“I am tired,” he said; a rich note of despair in his voice. A second later all the strength had gone from him and he slumped onto the bar. “I am very tired.”
Mikhailas would never have shown such a sign of weakness, which was perhaps why he left when he did. They both differed greatly in their wildness; Kostas spent himself like a wastrel, Mikhailas waited like a snake.
It was midnight when Kostas finally left. He had stayed with me the whole time, leaning closer and closer to the counter til he could drift no more. For a while we had spoken of simple things, but it was only when he finally left that I realised how little I knew of him; neither what he did nor what he hoped to do, how old he was or where he was headed with his life.
There was a lot to digest and I stayed behind at the bar, swapping insults with the barman. Once Kostas was gone his sarcasm rose to a new level. I was blessed that night with unerring stamina and stepped up to this new challenge. Here was a man with whom I could quip; a man after my own heart – a little too bitter, a little too lippy, jaded and probably a prick. It was just how I saw myself turning out. We went on like this for hours, and I was still there at three o’clock when he told me he was closing up.
“I guess I’d better go then,” I said.
“Yeah, and not a moment too soon. You sure cleared the place out.”
“I did nothing of the sort.”
“Whatever you reckon,” he said, squinting at me whilst polishing a glass. “Well, thanks for coming, Bruce, now clear off home.”
I’m not sure exactly what it was that set me off. Perhaps it was inevitable with the cumulative insult-swapping, the boiling mire of secret rakis, the sweet, nutty syrup of the wooded local wine, the shortened fuses and the countless beers since arriving here. Our edgy banter had indeed been a risky thing and, without even seeing it coming myself, I suddenly blew my top.
“Fuck you!” I shouted, banging my fist on the bar as I stood from my stool. “I’m sick of your shit – you’ve been at me all night, for nothing!”
“Go on, get out,” he said, pointing to the door.
I picked up a glass and hurled it to the floor. “Do you want to make me a terrorist?” I screamed. Unbelievably, just as had happened with Kostas, the glass bounced, and, just as had happened with Kostas, it only helped to fuel my anger.
“Screw you all,” I shouted. “I hope you all goddamned well die,” and, a moment later, I stumbled out onto the street.
I stormed off around the streets of Rethymnon, so enraged that I did not know where I was going. I stormed up and stormed down, around the Venetian harbour, under the Great Gate, cursing and frothing, shaking my fists. The old quarter was, however, mercifully small, and as soon as I turned my mind to it, I found my way to the hostel.
Once inside, I woke up Kirstin. I was in a rage and needed an audience. I swore through spittle that I was going to go and kill the barman, that I would find some way to revenge myself upon him. I don’t know what made her choose that moment to tell me, but just as I was beginning to slow down in my violence, she told me that when had returned to the hostel, the Dutch man had propositioned her out on the patio. She should never have mentioned it. My rage boiled up again, greater than before.
“I’ll fucking kill him as well, then!” I shouted.
“Shssh, shssh,” urged Kirstin.
“No, fuck it, I’ll kill everyone!”
Now I knew just exactly how drunk I was, but I was fired up and didn’t care a hoot. The world was juddering with my drunkenness; spots floated before my hot eyes.
“You can’t do that,” said Kirstin, “just come to bed now.”
I stormed up and down the room; stormed to the bathroom and plunged my face under the cold tap. I looked up and tried to focus on myself in the mirror.
What was in me? A great, seething, bellowing, boiling madness. Me, a liar and a cheat; me who had betrayed Kirstin before and was destined to do so again, fuming and kicking against the pricks. I knew there and then that really it was me I was kicking against; the me I saw in everyone that I did not like; the me I saw in all life’s frustrations; the me I kept trying so hard to forgive.
The following evening we returned to Kostas’ flat. He had invited us to join him and Mikhailas to smoke some hashish, and, unwilling to appear discourteous, on we went; weary and wary, hungover and low on juice. It was a maudlin night that ended early. Kostas and Mikhailas were in ebullient moods. They sat on the floor in bandannas, pretending to shoot things with imaginary guns.
“When the Greeks throw the Turks out of Cyprus, there will be bloodshed!” yelled Kostas, smiling and firing.
“When all the Greeks rise up and take back what’s theirs, then we can live without humiliation.”
Neither Kirstin nor I were in the mood for this bullshit. It was a tired and dull act, the high point of which had been the ping of a rebounding tumbler. I only wanted to get stoned, but the hashish had next to no effect on me. As soon as it was clear that this hope would not be realised, I grew doubly bored with our hosts.
There was something distinctly perverse in Kostas’ mood that evening. Perhaps he felt that in re-iterating his national passion he would show how committed he was and thus cast his prior performance in a more sincere light. Either way, neither Kirstin nor I were buying it. Kostas and Mikhailas were kidding themselves about Cyprus and Constantinopolis. Frustrated with a historical reality that had long gone beyond any chance of such a violent and comprehensive resolution, they clung to naïve and childish dreams. It was only lunatics who wanted a war with Turkey, for, apart from the awful consequences of such a conflict, surely Greece would lose.
I looked at Kirstin and her eyes said it all: once was enough, please can we go.
“I’m afraid I’ve had it,” I said. “I’m going to have to go back and get some sleep.”
“But you will still be here tomorrow?” they asked.
“Yes, we should still be in town tomorrow.”
“Good,” said Mikhailas. “We can finish the chess. To see who is the winner.”
“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps tomorrow night we can play chess again.”
“Then we will say goodnight for now.”
“Okay then. Kostas, Mikhailas. Good night.”
When we checked out and left town the following morning at six thirty, it was with a mixture of guilt and relief. We had told Simon we would take an early bus and he got up to see us off.
“Do you know what the funny thing is?” he said, as we stood out the front shaking hands. “I mean with Kostas blowing off like that the other night. The funny thing is that my dad was in the R.A.F. and he was based in Cyprus after the war. But he never told me nothing about Cyprus, and I swear I never told Kostas he was there either.”
“Fancy that,” said Kirstin. “Goodness me.”
“God, that really is a gem,” I said.
“So you are responsible after all,” said Kirstin, giggling.
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Simon with a smile. “Me and me dad fucked over Cyprus.”
In Istanbul several weeks later, in the new year of 1997, speaking with a young English pastor’s son whose precocious wisdom impressed me greatly, I described to him Kostas’ treatment of Simon.
The young man said:
“It’s typical of people who believe strongly in nationalism. They can’t divorce themselves from a national identity, or the state itself, and they are unforgiving in judging people as guilty by association. It is precisely why nationalism of any kind is so dangerous and such a liability for people who have no interest in reducing their identity to a set of conventions and symbols. Like a flag, for instance.”
He was absolutely right. That afternoon, I tore the Australian flag from where it was stitched on my backpack. I have been unable to bear the sight of it, or any other nation’s flag, ever since.