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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Just prior to going to India last December, I moved into an inner city suburb of Sydney called Camperdown. It’s very close to where I was living previously in Glebe, on the other side of that great dividing road, Parramatta. The nice side, in my opinion, for Glebe runs down to the inner harbour and is by far the prettier of the two suburbs. Camperdown, however, has many attractions, one of which, technically, is the University of Sydney.

Parramatta Rd, into the west

Campus aside, Camperdown is a curious mix of old light industrial – factories, warehouses and workshops, and residential – of the bungalow, flat and terrace kind. Indeed, like so much of Sydney, Camperdown has swathes of Victorian and Edwardian terraces and semi-detached Federation (turn of the 20th century) houses.

The ubiquitous Sydney terraces

The area was first named by Governor Bligh (1806-08) after the Battle of Camperdown between the English and Dutch in 1797. Bligh received a 240 acre grant of land, which also included parts of neighbouring Newtown. Early in the 19th century, Camperdown was established as a residential and farming area. Lying just four kilometres west of the city centre, it was only a matter of time before it became swallowed by the city.

Australia Street

Camperdown is a small suburb, though this is in part an imposition of its division down the middle by Parramatta Road. It is a very built area, with a few good parks and small reserves, but nothing especially large – again, not including campus. Most of the houses are, however, one or two storeys, and, apart from the hospital, few of the reclaimed and gentrified warehouses and factories are especially tall. With streets and gardens full of trees and vegetation, it thus retains an old-town feel which adds to its appeal.

Camperdown

The Dutch houses

Denison street

We are fortunate to live in a tree-heavy cul de sac which fronts onto Camperdown oval. Our apartment block is a creaky old firetrap, which, from the back lane, looks awfully un-inspiring, but from the front seems well-disposed.

Cricket poetry

Penalty shot

Camperdown oval

Inside, the place takes on the curiously nostalgic complexion of an old, wide-corridored hotel in the Blue Mountains. The flats themselves have a pleasant vintage character to them and certainly scrub up nicely, with redundant fireplaces and tile features. It is hardly baroque, but rather an elegant sufficiency.

Rooftop garden, dying

Mantlepiece

Downstairs, in the base of the apartment block’s front are two cafés, Gather on the Green and Store, both of which are perfectly okay – the former good for coffee, the latter for food. Because of their proximity to the park and the dead-end nature of the street, customers regularly take their orders on the grass beside the oval. With the prevalence of youngish professional couples round these parts, the park and cafés are usually full of young families with a good number of children running about. This creates what my friend Paul calls a certain “prambience.”

The cafes downstairs

Foggy morning

Camperdown always struck me as an in-between sort of place. It is stuck between Parramatta Road and King Street in Newtown – then stuck between the university and hospital. In a sense, it just peters out into the west, hemmed in on the other sides. For this reason, I never felt comfortable about moving here, knowing that I was, to some degree, cut off from the water. To compensate for this I have extended my run considerably and now I cross Parramatta Road and follow the canal down to the water.

Wet Parramatta road

Glebe point sunset 2

Glebe, Rozelle Bay

It’s a lovely run once on the other side – under the aqueduct, through the canal-side parks, under the great curve of the Glebe railway viaduct, then along the promenade in Bicentennial Park. After cheering on the wind-turbine, I swing past views of the Glebe Island Bridge (now sadly renamed Anzac) and Sydney Harbour Bridge. My long ago established love for the Glebe area is such a powerful thing that I feel uplifted just running through it, but the sight of the water and bridges from the park takes things up another notch.

Glebe Island bridge

Glebe afternoon

Back to Camperdown, the land of the in-between. It is a very handy place to live, pure and simple: King Street with all its attractions is a ten minute walk away and, most Saturdays, we head up to the markets at the old Eveleigh rail-yards.

Eveleigh markets

Carriageworks

The beautiful campus of Sydney University – V’s workplace – is just ten minutes walk to the east. Public transport is plentifully available for the price of a short walk – to Parramatta Rd for buses, King Street for trains – and it takes me fifteen to twenty minutes to get downtown.

Parramatta Rd

King street crossing

When we have access to a car, it takes us roughly twenty-five minutes to drive to Bronte Beach – every Saturday and Sunday – which is not such a big imposition. Camperdown also meets one of my toughest conditions when it comes to choosing a house – being within walking distance of an art-house cinema. It also helps that the locals all seem to be friendly, harmless, open-minded lefties and that rare breed of unpretentious hipsters. It all feels perfectly safe.

Camperdown

Amor Laura

There are, inevitably, a couple of drawbacks: despite being mostly quiet, Camperdown is often the victim of flight path diversions and there are some eyesores. The huge slab of old hospital near the modernising Royal Prince Alfred is particularly unattractive. Surrounded by chain fence and barbed wire, it has a post-holocaust hollowness to it that is chilling and disquieting.

Dead hospital

Dead hospital

It is a monolith of arrant functionalism, yet, despite its ugliness, it often inspires enjoyably melancholic thoughts of the end of civilization. Now overgrown and toweringly glum, it invites one in with its brooding lassitude and I long to break in and explore the corridors. It is probably riddled with asbestos.

Parramatta Road doesn’t exactly leave a lot to be desired and I suppose there isn’t actually anything to do in Camperdown itself. Apart from a few dumpy sports pubs on the main road, there aren’t really any bars or cafés. This really ads to its in-between feel, because in order to do anything it is necessary either to walk to Newtown or Glebe, or bus and train the hell out of dodge. Still, nothing is really out of reach, so being sleepily stuck in the middle isn’t such a bad thing after all. Either way, it certainly has grown on me over the last few months.

Autumn, Camperdown

Camperdown

Victory

Australia street

Chesty Bonds

Glebe, rope ladder

Wet Pavilion, Camperdown

Camperdown tree shadow

Biblical Sky, Camperdown

Missenden rd

 

 

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That same afternoon on which V and I witnessed the tragic death of a dog on Sidemen Road, we sat on our hotel balcony, drinking beer. The image of the terrible accident was still fresh in our minds, but with some hours now having passed, a storm having come and gone, and several glasses of beer having passed our lips, the tension and horror had retreated somewhat. I still felt the occasional shudder when, inevitably, the image popped into my head, or I conjured it up in the perverse way one smells a bad smell again to see if it really is that bad. Yet, on the whole, we felt very calm and relaxed.

The surroundings certainly helped. Below us the pool and the maze of garden paths were empty – indeed, there seemed to be no other guests in our hotel. The hotel itself was a network of bungalows and two-story villas, terraced onto a gentle slope that steepened and dropped away into rainforest. Behind the lush trees in the mid-ground was a backdrop of wooded hills with rice paddies occupying their lower slopes. A few scattered clouds still lingered in the sky – the dark, bruised colour of storms – and the air had cooled significantly from the sticky heights of midday.

Sidemen hotel view

Both of us agreed that this place was heart-achingly beautiful, and more than that, it was serene. One might think such a place would cost an arm and a leg, yet in Bali luxury is very cheap. Our hotel cost a mere thirty-five Australian dollars a night, an astonishing bargain, but one that was repeated across the whole island, outside of the excesses of Seminyak and Kuta.

Breakfast table view

Not only is luxury cheap in Bali, it is, almost universally, surprisingly tasteful. Most “resorts” have achieved a harmonious balance of local architectural styles, modern amenities and lovely gardens. Having only spent a total of eleven days in Bali in two stints, I can hardly say my experience is comprehensive, yet judging from what I have seen, both on the ground and on the net, there is a surfeit of genuinely beautiful accommodation on the island.

Ubud hotel

Ubud resort

Self portrait by shrine in hotel grounds, Ubud - somewhat ironic as an atheist

Breakfast at Ubud

The “resorts” often mirror the arrangements of a local family compound, but on a grander scale. Behind the decorated stone and brick walls lies a cleverly landscaped mix of flourishing, immaculate gardens, pools and water features and traditional stone and brick-built bungalows and standalone two-story villas, often with high, thatched roofs.

Sidemen Road

The buildings are rarely dull and blocky as so many hotels can be, but rather they have an elegant simplicity or sport the intricate busy-ness so apparent in Balinese religious architecture. This baroque, Hindu-influenced style combines the humble commonsense of the village house with the strident decadence of a palace and blends marvellously with the colourful gardens. Even where the adornments have been stripped back to a more minimalist presentation, the effect is still a pleasing marriage of the humble and palatial.

Hotel, near Seminyak

I don’t generally like overly busy architectural or decorative styles – take the Corinthian bombast of the later Antonine Pax Romana or the garish flounce of the Rococo, or, for that matter, the overwhelming intricacy of Hindu temples – but in Bali the rendering is apposite. It has an organic, natural quality, especially in its unpainted masonry, which, whilst texturally in contrast with the limpid green of the vegetation, rises from it like a finely crafted termite mound. This organic quality is also ever-present in the woodwork and thatching.

Door, near Ubud

The floral and bestial carvings in the stone and wood – intertwined curlicues – run the eye gently round in the mesmerising manner of a celtic manuscript illustration, or indeed, an overgrowth of creepers. Inside, more often than not, the rooms lack ceilings and, rising above the high walls, the tall, pointed thatched roofs lend the rooms a sense of immense space, as well as keeping them cool in the tropical conditions.

Bedroom, Ubud 40 bucks a night

For someone who prides himself as a lefty with strong socialist tendencies (though I don’t pretend not to be a bloody hypocrite at times), such luxury usually comes with the added moral and ethical price of guilt. It is a price all people with a social conscience pay when they travel in the “developing” parts of Asia, or indeed, any country where the locals earn considerably less money and have fewer opportunities. Yet, sitting there on the balcony that evening, drinking beer and watching the sunset sky, V and I both expressed the same conclusion – that in Bali, this feeling did not take hold as it did elsewhere. What seemed different about Bali, in comparison to, say, Cambodia, Vietnam or India, was that the locals seemed far more content and most people appeared to live well. The power relationship, so often dictated by money, was still to my advantage, yet I didn’t detect the same degree of envy, jealousy or desperation in exploiting the fact that I had money to spend.

I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people in Bali who are struggling to make ends meet, nor that there aren’t people out to make a buck from the tourists, for there certainly are, yet the living standards and way of life seem adequate to allow for contentment and harmony. I come to this question from a completely amateur sociological / anthropological perspective, yet my encounters and observations suggest that generally people are happy in Bali. This might be a consequence of their religion, rituals, close family relationships and their solid, largely village-based social framework, yet I suspect it is also on account of the beauty of the place and the constant climate. That both V and I had arrived at the same conclusion independently could purely be a misleading coincidence, but it gave me some confidence that there might be at least some truth in this.

Temple guardian

When I travelled in India for the first time in 2010, I also encountered many people who seemed content in getting on with their lives. Yet there was the unmistakeable feeling of being constantly pursued and receiving constant attention. It is understandable in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is so much greater than in Bali, and where the sheer size of the population dramatically increases the competition for resources, but the end result is that simply by being there, I felt I had in some way destroyed the equilibrium of the place. Poverty is very relative and people don’t want things if they don’t know about them. They are also less likely to feel jealous or in anyway inferior or inadequate if not exposed to the wealth of others. Yet, even when travelling on the cheap with a day-pack and a pair of thongs in India the amount of money I had to spend on luxuries and services far exceeded the capacity of most of the locals and I was constantly aware of this fact. Without trying to cut too many corners, nor deny myself too much, and yet, trying to stick to a pretty decent budget, I would end up spending around twenty dollars a day – a thousand rupees then, and now almost 1200. Consider, however, that those lucky enough to get the minimum wage receive roughly 160 rupees a day for skilled labour and a mere 100 for unskilled labour, and you get some idea of the vastness of the chasm between even a poor tourist like myself and the local people.

India – hard slog for peanuts

On this note, I once had a conversation with a man in India where I tried to explain that although I came from one of the richest countries in the world and was far wealthier than he was in real and relative terms, back in Australia my income placed me in the bottom fifteen percent of the population and I could afford neither a house nor a car. It took some time to get the message across, but we got there in the end. Even bearing this in mind, however, which, for simple practical reasons, meant I couldn’t afford everything India had to offer, it never stopped me feeling guilty about how much easier life was for me.

In Bali, however, despite a relatively similar disparity in spending power, I never felt the divide as greatly. Again, I must reiterate, this is not because there are not poor or desperate people in Bali, there certainly are, yet their lives don’t seem anything like so harassed and stressful as the lives of poor people in India.

One thing V and I had noticed was the apparent contentment of the rural population. Despite rural areas often being poorer in real terms, in Bali the rural population appeared mostly happy. The locals certainly worked hard in the fields and in many and various other manual tasks, yet the villages were clean and organised, with good housing, nice gardens, easy access to running water etc.

Sideman Rd area

On the first trip I took to Bali with my brother, we drove through countless villages as we cruised across the island, and we were constantly impressed with the quality of the houses and how attractive these small urban environments were. So much so that I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to live in such a house for some time and write a novel.

Sideman Rd area

Ubud

This was in contrast to the experiences I’ve had elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, about the difference between rural and urban areas in poorer or developing countries, is that whilst in cities people will offer services simply because they can, in rural areas, they are more inclined to ask directly for money. I first noticed this in Turkey back in the nineties, where, outside of the cities, children would often approach me and asked for what sounded like “Boom boom”, whilst rubbing the forefinger against the thumb. The expression itself might be misconstrued! though there was no mistaking the gesture. Some children actually used the word “money”, saying nothing else. “Money?” “Money?” This was repeated in Cambodia and India on many occasions, but only very rarely in Bali. It could simply be a consequence of greater comparative wealth, in which case, I’m not entirely sure what my point is, but either way, the absence of this direct appeal for money help to ease any possible sensation of guilt.

Doing alright

This was the subject of our conversation, sitting there watching the sunset. It wasn’t the most impressive of sunsets, but the beauty and serenity of our surroundings hardly needed the help of an elaborate lightshow on the horizon. It is worth pointing out that V’s observations and opinion on this front were founded on greater travel experience than my own. Having been to South and Central America five times, often for lengthy periods, having travelled extensively in Asia, India, the Middle East and the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, I trust her opinion and judgement. She had also spent more time in Bali than I had, visiting the place, as I had, just a few of years before. The people of Bali, we both agreed, had a softness, warmth and generosity of spirit that stood out.

Ubud

Cycling boy, Ubud

Another difference we noticed in Bali was the high quality of customer service. Certainly at times things are a bit ad hoc – which is fine with me as I don’t like formality and fawning attention – yet nearly everyone in Bali that we had any dealings with – drivers, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff, shop assistants, ticket vendors, you name it – were polite and attentive and professional, or enthusiastically and charmingly amateurish. This seemed to be the case even when there was no direct incentive to be so – no commission, expectation of a tip, etc. One thing I was later to notice when we arrived in India was that the service varied wildly, and often veered into total rudeness and indifference, depending on the degree to which the person with whom we were interacting was to benefit from it. In the first six outlets of Café Coffee Day which we were to visit in India – so desperate were we for espresso coffee that we kept going back – the staff practically ignored us completely, even when standing at the counter, and then were surly, unfriendly and not especially professional. It must be said that we were to have a very different experience in Kolkata, where we found very lovely people who were totally on the ball, yet by this stage the damage was already done. I’m not sure what it was, but despite our cheery hellos and attempts to be friendly and engaging ourselves, the staff were almost universally indifferent and acted as though they had been massively put out by our coming into the café in the first place.

Bali Kopi, Ubud

Customer service is not the most important thing in the world by any means, and while it is unreasonable to expect a certain standard of professionalism, friendliness and politeness leave a lasting impression and have a universal appeal. The way one is treated by people makes a huge difference to how the experience is remembered; rudeness and negativity can sour the memory of a place. If there is one thing that seems to truly stand out about Bali, it’s how bloody nice everybody is when they don’t need to be. This friendliness goes a long way towards creating a much more equal relationship, rather than one that is all about extracting money, which is too often the case elsewhere and which creates a very uncomfortable situation. Some of the few other places in developing countries where I’ve had such a sense was Darjeeling in northern West Bengal and in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Worshipper, Pura Besakih

Temple statue, Sideman Rd area

Offerings aplenty, Ubud

Was it culture? Was it religion? Was it the environment? Or were their lives simply full enough and rich enough not to need much more than what they could afford and had available to them already? In these places I didn’t feel the resentment and envy that tourists in poorer countries will almost inevitably attract.

I don’t doubt that people will have had very different experiences and I repeat that these are just casual observations that are in no way scientific. It also must be said that in and around Denpasar, as in many big cities, the pace of life is faster and business a little more cut-throat, so here one might find a very different vibe.

Night markets, Denpasar

Shop sign, Sanur

It is also necessary to point out that when we went to the temple complex at Pura Besakih the day after having had this conversation, we had a pretty unpleasant experience. The Lonely Planet had forewarned us that the hawkers here were most aggressive and that tourists were often subjected to scams wherein local men would tell them that they were not allowed into the site without a guide, despite having already bought a ticket.

Cranky hustler, Pura Besakih

It seemed as though this might be quite easily gotten around, but when we arrived at the place we were not only lied to by a number of people at the entrance, but they were very aggressive about it and even tried to block our path. When we decided to ignore them and push on through they still didn’t drop the ruse, but continued to shout rudely at us. This might have been amusing if their tone wasn’t so ugly and aggressive and instead it made me so angry that it spoiled the experience of the place, which was pretty unfortunate. Though, to be honest, so far as temple complexes go, it’s not that much to write home about.

6999 Watching the ladies, Pura Besakih

6926 Pura Besakih

7080 Pura Besakih

7059 Pura Besakih

This negative experience, however, was an isolated one. During both of my visits to Bali I have found the people to be very friendly indeed, as has V on both of her trips. It is a gross generalisation, but I was left with the impression that people live happy lives and they are mostly content just to get on with things. Whilst going there in the first place is a somewhat disruptive thing in itself, so far as local balance is concerned, the overall feeling we had was not one of guilty privilege and yawning disparity, but one of more equal interactions. All of which makes travelling there more relaxing and fulfilling.

We finished our beers as the light vanished from the sky and the mosquitoes began to close in. Below, under a thatched canopy, on a beautiful deck beside a patch of jungle, calmed by the trickle of a fountain, the smiling staff were waiting to serve us, the only guests. It all seemed so utterly decadent and quite ridiculous for the price, but at least we didn’t feel guilty in allowing ourselves this indulgence. And, as is so often the case in Bali, precisely because there was no pressure to do so, we were happy to leave a generous tip.

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My first trip to Bali was with my brother in 2009. Apart from family trips as children and my visits to him in Brisbane and vice versa here in Sydney, it was the first dedicated holiday we’d taken together and the first time we’d hung out overseas. I was piggybacking this trip on top of five days in the Northern Territory with my then girlfriend and met my brother at Darwin airport late one afternoon.

To say we enjoyed those next five days in Bali would be a massive understatement. It was not only a great pleasure to have such an excellent trip, but also something of a surprise. Both of us had been deeply suspicious of Bali on account of its being the destination of choice for hordes of pissed-up Australians – people we snobbishly call “Bogans” and try to avoid. Once we’d booked the tickets, however, and I began to do my research, including some lengthy sessions on Google Earth, I was very excited about seeing this island.

Bali occupies quite a unique place in the region for being predominantly Hindu. Buddhism and Hinduism both took root here, most especially during the 9th and 10th centuries, with increased traffic from Javanese and subcontinental traders. The culture that developed from this period onwards is a mix of traditional Balinese culture and a local interpretation of Javanese and Hindu influences.

Ceremony

Ceremonial box

The structure and rhythms of this lifestyle have proven very enduring. Bali is a very religious island, yet the religion, despite its occasional ostentation, is a friendly and private affair. The observance of often quite simple religious ceremonies and practices is so intrinsic that people simply go to it with hardly a mention. All of which makes Bali stand out distinctly from the Islamic Republic of Indonesia of which it is a part.

Thus, by the time we met in the airport in Darwin, the two of us were very excited. I was especially enthusiastic about getting some good shots as I’d just been trying out my new L series 70-200mm lens in NT and was loving it.

Green-Bottomed Ant

Florence Falls

Near Nourlangie

We arrived in Denpasar quite late, got a cab straight to our hotel and went out looking for a restaurant. My brother had actually booked us into Seminyak, right in the heart of the scene, but it was a Tuesday night and not especially busy. We found a nice place on the beach front, ate fresh fish, and that was that. The only incident of note was when my brother was approached by a very large and masculine transvestite who said “Mmmm, you big strong man,” in a trés seductive voice.

The following morning we hired a car and set off relatively early, keen to get out into the countryside and see more of the landscape. That first day was largely spent getting completely lost in the warren of lanes and villages that are woven into the rice-fields. We were attempting to reach a famous seaside temple, Pura Tanah Lot, then to find the town of Ubud itself. We found the temple after many picturesque wrong turns, but when we set off to reach Ubud, we really took getting lost to a whole new level. My brother, who was driving like an absolute champion, weaving in and out of the scooter-traffic, was struggling to retain his equilibrium as we repeatedly failed to orient. The lack of signage, the apparent sameness of so many villages, the absence of vantage points from which to make sense of the landscape, all meant it was almost stupidly difficult to be sure where we were. What made it all still a bloody great drive, however, was that everywhere we went was either fascinating or astonishingly beautiful.

I was struck most of all by the lushness of the place and the wonderful traditional architecture. On that first day alone we must have passed through thirty-odd little villages, most of which consisted of a main street lined with elaborately-carved stone-fronted houses and temples, bristling with flowers and trees. The amount of quality masonry and the quaint, cosy beauty of the houses – which was almost universal – fascinated me, partly because they reminded me of the streets of stone houses I’d seen in Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum. I wondered how long these villages had looked like this – and felt I was visiting a living, ancient form of urbanisation.

Balinese lane

Architectural detail 2

Over the next five days my brother and I made our way north, first to Ubud, where we spent a couple of nights, and then on into the mountains around Munduk with its amazing views across to the volcano, Gunung Raung, on the island of Java. Every day brought new surprises and pleasures. The food we ate was almost universally excellent; the people were outrageously nice; the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. We drove high up into the misty hills, through foggy, wet farms of hydrangeas; looked down on wide, splendid vistas, visited waterfalls and lake-side temples, rode elephants through the jungle, and finally reached the north coast around Singaraja.

Men at Ceremony

Into the mountains

West Bali at sunset

Macaques!

Temple truck

Temple drummer

Solid gold elephants

Lovina Beach boats

Munduk Waterfall

West Bali, Java Sunset

It was just a pity we did it all in a Suzuki Katana. This vehicle must have been named ironically on account of the great contrast with the refined workmanship of its Japanese sword namesake. It was a cramped and rattly piece of junk, with ill-fitting doors, ass-breaking seats and a dashboard that looked like it was a mock-up for kids to play at driving. The air-con was an epic fail and the leg-room negligible, so we sweated it out somewhat crampedly, the windows right down and the breeze blowing in more of the sticky air. Still, at a meagre cost of $92 for five days, it was indeed a bargain.

Katana at Singaraja

Without wishing to provide an exact chronology of our journey, two incidents stand out. After buying a proper Bali road map in Ubud, Matthew and I thought all our navigational troubles were behind us. Yet, as we tried to leave Ubud and make our way to an elephant sanctuary somewhere to the north, we struggled to find the road which we had decided was most appropriate on the map. The problem was that it simply wasn’t there, though at first we thought it was our mistake and that perhaps we needed to re-examine our expectations of what this road should look like. The nearest thing we found was a drive-way that ran past a boutique hotel and plunged sharply towards a gully. I became enthusiastic when we saw that it seemed to continue into the forest and urged my brother to drive down the steep hill. He did, and soon we found ourselves at a dead end on a little square terrace overlooking a steep drop into a river.

Ubud action

This might not have been such a problem if a) there had been enough room to turn the vehicle around and b) the Suzuki Katana had enough power to reverse up the hill. There wasn’t and it didn’t. Despite several attempts at backing up the very steep incline, the car just wouldn’t go. Not only was the engine pissweak, but there was no space for a run-up.

In a very short time, I was blanching with guilt and my brother was seething with frustration and rage. Feeling responsible, I looked desperately around for a solution. If we could create more turning space – perhaps by placing logs and stones along one edge of the little terrace, then we might just be able to swing the vehicle around and punch on up the hill. I set off into the forest and climbed down to the riverbank, yet there simply wasn’t the right sort of material to pull it off.

My brother tried reversing a few more times, but there was no room. He was convinced we had no choice but to get on the phone and organise a tow, which was likely going to be a lengthy and expensive process. It was at this point that I came up with the crazy idea of us pooling our strength and lifting the car to turn it. After all, we are both pretty big blokes and such a flimsy excuse for a tin biscuit box couldn’t possibly weigh that much. Matthew was keen to give it a go, and sure enough, when we braced and heaved a moment later, we got the back end off the ground and swung it around about a foot before having to drop it. A good start indeed.

It was as we heaved the thing up the second time that we heard the excited shouts from the road. Looking around, we saw three young Balinese guys running towards us waving excitedly. They had seen we were in trouble and come to offer help in that wonderful, eternally hospitable manner of seemingly all Balinese.

Friendly local chap

We laughed and shook hands and opened our arms and joked about the situation in gestures and broken English. Then the young men joined us in the heave and again we lifted and swung the vehicle. This time it turned around just enough to make the rest of the manoeuvre. Keen as ever to help, one of the men now jumped in the front and made this very tight turn, with barely an inch to spare. As soon as the car was facing the slope, he revved the engine and charged off with a screech and whiff of burning rubber. The Katana hit the hill at speed and shot on up the slope like an excited pup. After driving in the thing for a couple of days, we hadn’t exactly been confident. There was a great flood of relief as it zoomed back up the hill.

Afterwards we both felt a mix of thankfulness and embarrassment, so, unsure what to do, I pulled all the money out of my pocket and gave it to the guy who drove the car. I think he was quite surprised. As we drove off along the main road we’d hoped to avoid, we really had a very good laugh about it all.

The second incident I mention was of a less salutary nature, though with a similarly happy conclusion. Driving just north of Ubud, we passed a view of bright green rice terraces stacked across the other side of a valley. In the foreground were a few pockets of jungle with tall palm tree sentinels through which the wide curving decks of rice could be seen. The land sank deeply away from the road which lent our vantage point a taller scope. Both my brother and I had been eager to see and photograph such a picturesque scene and this stood out like a postcard.

Rice terraces

We cruised slowly until we found a wide gap and a place to pull over, then prepared to get out of the Katana. There were a few hawkers around along the roadside, and we figured it must be a popular viewing spot. One woman waved to us from the other side of the road, offering a large bunch of small, sugar bananas.

“Might get some bananas,” said Matthew, feeling peckish. Still sitting behind the wheel, he made a gesture and nodded to the woman, and she began to approach the car. As soon as she reached the window, the other hawkers, who seemed suddenly to have multiplied, made straight for the vehicle at pace. The speed with which they surrounded us was astonishing. I was still in the front passenger seat changing camera lenses when the wave struck.

In total, there must have been nine or ten people around us, roughly five on either side. The window was down and through this portal a flurry of hands was now thrust, offering a variety of artefacts. To say that these men were like seagulls fighting over chips seems undignified, and yet so it was – much pushing, shoving and shouting accompanied this keen offering of goods. A number of carved wooden objects were dropped in my lap as prices were yelled into my ear. Overwhelmed and amused, and yet slightly alarmed by this invasion of our space, I slapped the door lock and stuffed my camera into my bag at my feet.

On the other side, my brother now sat with a whole bunch of bananas in his lap and a porcupine of hands reaching in through his window. Both of us were too busy fending off the vendors to give each other much attention. Feeling the pressure and concerned that things might suddenly go very badly, I picked up one of the objects in my lap, one half of a set of carved wooden bookends, and said “Okay, okay, how much?”

The price was negligible – around five dollars – and I hoped that as soon as I’d given the guy the money I could justify closing the window and saying enough was enough. Yet, just as my brother’s interest in the bananas had sparked the initial frenzy, my apparent interest only intensified the efforts of the others and the pushing and shoving reached a new crescendo. I bent forward, feeling increasingly less comfortable with the whole business. I got the money for the bookends out of my wallet and pushed my bag as far under the seat as it would go. When I held up the notes they were promptly whisked from my hand. I smiled at the people who were all pressing in, smiling at me too, but with an odd sort of mania.

My brother, having finished his banana purchase and being similarly assaulted, turned to me and said, “Fuck it! Let’s roll.” He put his foot to the pedal and let the car jolt forward, just enough to get the message across. There was a collective gasp of alarm and a new flurry of activity as the hands collected the things they’d dumped in our laps. They were all very fast and accurate. My brother pressed the pedal again lightly, just enough for a quick lurch. Our assailants finally backed off.

“Let’s go!” I said, excited that we were all clear to make our getaway. Slowly at first, my brother got us going and the Katana, now our protector, rolled forward onto the road. A moment later we were sailing away from the scene.

It took about thirty seconds for the laughter to begin. At first it came on a great wave of relief, for both of us had felt slightly threatened by the insistent nature of the hawkers. But in a moment the sheer ridiculousness of it all became apparent as we looked to our laps and saw the big bunch of bananas and the wooden bookends. This set us off into fits of hysterics and we laughed until our eyes were flooded with tears. We laughed so hard we could barely breathe and my brother had to pull the car over again and stop a while.

I hadn’t laughed that hard in years and I haven’t laughed so hard since. It was intense, even painful – the gasping for air, the clench in the stomach – and every time I saw the bookends in my lap I just laughed harder and harder. We must have sat there for five minutes. The doors locked, the windows rolled up, emitting little gasps and piping hoots through the tears and spittle. Even once we’d finally gotten control of ourselves and started driving again, we continued to laugh. It just kept coming, bursts of laughter, eruptions of cackling, even further fits of hysterics. By the time we made it back to Ubud we were completely exhausted.

In a way these two incidents seemed to sum up the conflicting elements of Balinese life. Most people seemed relaxed and content with their lives, pleased with its rhythms and generally in good spirits. They were friendly, accommodating, polite and helpful. Yet that there were also people who were genuinely desperate was apparent, along with people who, perhaps inevitably, saw the wealth disparity between tourists and themselves and sought to tap it. It made me feel guilty that I might be a cause for envy or resentment, that perhaps in coming here at all we were destroying the balance. As it was, there was much to ponder on returning from this most excellent jaunt. And indeed, much to ponder when I returned to Bali three years later.

HatGirl, Seminyak

Temple

West Bali, Java Sunset 2

Man at Ceremony

Man at Ceremony

Self portrait, lost somewhere...

Ceremony

West Bali, Java Sunset

Tourist

Banana ladies

Ubud, ricefields

Balinese splendour!

Ubud outdoor shower

Misty Mountain Hop

Scarecrow, Ubud

Macaques! 2

Breakfast flower arrangement

Farmer 1

Traffic between Lovina & Singaraja

Chilling on the balcony, Ubud

Kuta action

Legian Beach

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The sombre mood began with the dog. V and I were on Sideman Road in Bali, eating and taking a break from an afternoon rain shower in a roadside shop. Ever adventurous on the food front and keen to try some of the truly local offerings, V had asked the lady for “a bit of everything” in the small cabinet. We finished up this hot and sour mix of rice, vegetables, nuts and chicken, licked our fingers clean and stepped back out onto the road.

There, to the left, were the dogs. And there, bearing down on them with unstoppable momentum, was one of the many trucks that plied this narrow but busy highway. Bright yellow, yet with an almost apologetically sad face, the truck came on and the dogs began their dance. One, a matted grey-haired bitsa, made the right call immediately and sprang from the truck’s path with a deft leap. The other dog, a youngish, clean-looking, tan-coloured beauty, panicked and skipped not away from the truck to the pavement, but away from one wheel towards the centre of the road. There was a collective gasp in that long second as the truck passed directly over the dog and the dog, terrified yet unscathed, made its second mistake. Having landed on a diagonal with its back towards the rear of the truck, the dog failed to notice the approaching rear wheels and stepped directly into their path.

Tough guy

The small body of the dog, crushed under the great bulk of the truck, sprang up from the wet bitumen, impossibly contorted, emitting a series of heartrending yelps. On went the truck, seemingly unawares. I turned away in a flinch, grabbing the shocked and tearful V by the arm and pulling her with me. To look at the dog was unbearable, that it lived at all seemed both incredible and cruel. It had staggered into a sort of bent crouch, as though its body were frozen in the midst of a drying shake.

I had to get V away from the sound of it, and I had to get away myself. The image of the double wheels rolling over the dog had already fixed itself firmly, like sunglare. The temptation to look again, as if some new information might counter my worst thoughts, was too great.

We hurried up the side street, not sure where we were going, only knowing that it was away from the awful yelping.

“Someone has to kill it, they have to kill it now,” I said, wondering who might do this or just how exactly. Both of us were crying now and so was the sky. The rain began again, harder than before, hard as it can in the tropics. Fifty metres down the street we paused, the cries still audible, the rumble of passing trucks a brutal reminder.

There was nowhere to go. We were at a dead-end and on the wrong side of the road from our hotel. I didn’t know what to do, only that getting back to the hotel now seemed the only goal. We hugged, huddling under my umbrella.

“We have to go back.”

“I know. I know.”

“Quickly.”

We hurried down the lane, the dog’s cries now quieter, less frequent. How was such a tight little body, however lithe and resilient, supposed to contend with such a blow? Was anyone doing anything at all? I did not know and nor could I look as we stepped back out onto Sideman Road. We ushered each other across and into a small lane opposite. Our own turn-off was too close to the dog to risk, so we blundered on through the pouring rain, thankful of the sound on the umbrella that masked everything else.

Soon we were lost in a warren of narrow lanes. The paving was slippery with mud and moss. We rounded a corner and found a village temple. The courtyard was full of ducks. We took refuge under the gate’s stone lintel and held each other. The ducks approached making curious quacks and now, we both really started to cry.

“I hope it’s dead, I just hope it’s dead.”

“Would someone kill it?” asked V.

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

“But what would they use?”

“God knows. A knife, a sickle. A club.”

I shuddered as these images were conjured up, but they could only briefly trump the vision of the dog bending under the wheel. In fact, I could not stop thinking about it. It wasn’t merely involuntary. I had to picture it to make sense of it. Had it really happened? Did the dog really have no chance? It still seemed that perhaps if I looked hard enough at the replay in my head I’d see the dog move differently; step the other way and emerge alive and well with its little heart pounding.

When the rain eased a little we stepped our way through muddy paths and bamboo groves along the edge of the rice-fields. Sideman is a largely agricultural area; farms, hills, forests, ducks, cattle, temples and the ubiquitous resorts amidst the abundance. All around was lush green life and a scattering of roosters and dogs. We stepped cautiously down the slippery road, trying to shake off the feeling of horror, trying to comfort each other. It was nigh impossible not to talk about it, yet without much to say beyond simple, shocked expressions.

“I still can’t believe it happened.”

I felt an urgent need to pat a dog. I wanted to find one of the many strays and give it some comfort; show warmth and kindness to dog-kind as a whole, reassure one of the poor wandering beasts that it needn’t face the same fate. Each dog we passed seemed more fragile and vulnerable than before. Against a truck, what chance did they have but for their wits and dexterity? Yet, cunning as they were, the dogs took so many risks; dancing across the traffic, sleeping on the bitumen’s edge. Here at least, on this rural side road away from the main thoroughfare, there were no cars.

Soon a woman came chugging along on a scooter. Behind her skipped an eager young whelp, happy for the game of chase and the exercise. Its joyous, panting face reassured me that other dogs were still okay. I realised it wasn’t the dogs I was worried about so much as myself. I wondered if I would ever be able to remove that image from my mind. The big wheels, the great weight, the little body.

We were saved by the volcano. Passing a field of chilli and tapioca, V paused a moment to take a drink of water and turned to look behind her. There, massive against the horizon, was Mount Agung, finally visible through the cloud and mist. Since arriving the day before, we hadn’t even realised it was there at all, so muggy was the atmosphere. The heavy rain had cleaned the sky and left just a few clumps of cloud floating near the mountain’s peak. At just over three thousand metres, it hardly rivalled the world’s tallest, yet still it was epic in presiding over the landscape. Both of us are very fond of mountains and we stood watching it for some time, only turning away when the horizon began to cloud over. The sight of it lifted our spirits.

Mount Agung

Later that afternoon, having swum in the pool and cooled several beers in the fridge, we sat on our balcony talking. Though I couldn’t quite stop my thoughts returning to the image of the dog and shuddering, both of us felt greatly relieved. The beer certainly helped to cushion the blow and it finally loosened our tongues. Yet it wasn’t the day’s events of which we spoke, but rather the bigger picture. Bali itself, the place, the people, and how exactly we felt about being there at all. The rawness of the dark event had opened our emotional vents, and there was much to discuss…

Scooterists

Local soccer, Sideman Rd area

Sideman Rd

Sideman Rd area

Tile factory, Sideman Rd area

Bali

Loom

Pineapple

V, Sideman Rd area

Sweeping

Tile factory, Sideman Rd area

Drying rice

Coconuts

Bali

Two women

V on the bridge

Man on roof, Sideman road area

Mount Agung

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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?”

“Blind?”

“Yes, you know, without the board. You say the moves and remember where the pieces are.”

“You’re joking?”

“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.

“First, wash.”

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.

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Back to the front

This piece was written just prior to my arrival in India on December 24, 2012, but remained incomplete. After a quick edit and polish, I present it here in its original tense, despite just having returned from India.

I got the shakes just before leaving Singapore. It was two and a half years since my last visit to India and I had forgotten how hardcore it can be. On the whole, India is a pretty safe place to travel – it’s not exactly a warzone and whilst violence and crime certainly occur, most foreigners get away with being ripped off a few times and suffering some health issues. Yet, travelling in India takes a lot of effort and can be at times quite harrowing. It is not, despite its reputation as a centre for meditation and religious retreat, a very relaxing country.

Jodphur B&W

I’ve written several stories about my first trip to India and some of the various experiences I had there. Some fictionalised, others as memoir, and it is not an easy place to which to do justice. It can be breathtaking and amazing, restful and beautiful, yet it can also be utterly exhausting and very frustrating. It also has its attendant, inherent difficulties – such as the heat and dust, the discomfort, the chaos, the noise, the touts, the lying and cheating that goes hand in hand with incredible hospitality, and the inconvenience of not being able to drink the tap water in a country that is often unrelentingly hot and humid.

Taj from Agra Fort

In my first few days in India in March 2010 I struggled to make sense of the place and learn to negotiate it. Rather like being thrown in at the deep end, I learned to swim soon enough, yet not before having a number of difficult and challenging experiences and getting sick. The illness in itself wasn’t so bad – stomach cramps and diarrhoea – but after a few days it made me feel very weak. For two days in Pushkar I did almost nothing but lie in my hotel room and read, with occasional ventures outside.

Bikaner

After four days, travelling further into Rajasthan, I arrived in Udaipur dehydrated and exhausted. The weakness of not eating much for three days made me paranoid and, sitting alone in my hotel room watching the cricket that night I got the crazy idea that I might genuinely die. I force-fed myself a vegetable biriani and fruit salad and the following morning went straight to the chemist to get some antibiotics. Within twelve hours of taking them, the illness vanished and I cursed myself for not having done so sooner. Take my advice – most gastric illness in India is bacterial and over-the-counter antibiotics are readily available at any medical shop.

Udaipur

As soon as I got better, that first trip in India really got underway. With my strength returned, I was able to put in the hard yards and see and do the things I wanted to. The more I saw of India, the more I loved it – but this love came with serious reservations about why I felt the way I did. It was all very well to see charm and romance and the exotic, yet alongside that was terrible poverty, failing infrastructure, appalling hygiene in public places, rubbish dumped and burned everywhere on the streets, including plastics and excrement, and such a harrowing welter of noise pollution, overcrowding and almost non-stop inquisitions from people I passed that it was equally depressing and demoralising. It was, of course, a photographers’ paradise, but my joy at the subject matter was tainted by a feeling of intrusion and exploitation and terms like “poverty porn” lingered in my mind. I tried very hard on that trip to remain friendly and positive. For the first few weeks I answered every query, shook hands with a hundred strangers and stopped for the ubiquitous “just one photo, sir”, but after a time India’s constant assault forced me to retreat inside myself. I turned to my headphones and sunglasses and started ignoring people.

Onkar!

A better solution, however, came when I arrived in Darjeeling. Perhaps it was the prevalence of Buddhism, the cool calm of the mountains or just the friendly, peaceful nature of the Ghorka people, but in Darjeeling people left me alone. When people did greet me or make an inquiry, it was not merely preliminary to an attempted transaction.

Darjeeling

In the rest of India there seems to be an automatic reflex whereupon, seeing a tourist, if staring is insufficient, then belting out the question “which country?” is the next step. This was sometimes done in the nicest possible way, but often it was thrown at me with such urgency that it felt impolite. What really surprised me was how often the inquirers accepted the answer without further ado, at times seeming almost uninterested, which left me wondering why they had needed to ask in the first place. It was like being a display, which, to be fair, was probably not much different from how people felt when I was photographing them – though I do try to shoot as surreptitiously as possible.

The solution, it seemed, to avoiding the hustle of India, was to be in the mountains, which wasn’t exactly India after all. Once I’d discovered the relative calm of the mountains, I did my best to stay there.

Amritsar

From Darjeeling I flew across to Amritsar where I lasted one day before taking a bus across Punjab into the mountains around Dharamsala.

Vashisht

I was so reluctant to return to the heat, dust and general hubbub hat I stayed another three weeks in Himachal Pradesh before finally venturing down again via Shimla.

McLeod Ganj

By the end of that journey, just shy of two months, I felt like an old veteran after a long campaign. Yet my energy was also pretty well spent and I had fallen into a state of relative dissipation. Tired and world-weary, I wandered around Varanasi in a daze, wiped out by heat and hash. I made sure I took the photographs I wanted to get, yet the subject that had so fascinated me for the first two months – namely India – had become a little less appealing.

Varanasi

I could no longer stomach the scent of excrement, urine and decomposition. I had no more patience for beggars, priests, touts or even genuinely curious Indians. I literally just wanted to shoot the place and avoid any interactions. When anyone spoke to me I shook my head, pointed to the headphones, raised my hands as though to say, “Sorry, dude, I can’t hear you,” and walked away. It was not how I wanted to be at all, and I hid out in my hotel room at times, simply indulging in privacy and regretting the feelings of displeasure I had with the world at large. I guess introverts should travel in Scandinavia instead.

Varanasi

It was for these reasons that, just prior to my flight into Thiruvananthapuram for a second visit to India, I started to have reservations about where I was going. I should be looking forward to the challenge, but perhaps I am too effete and western for the grit and grime of it all.  Still, despite the above introduction, my last trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I came away from it feeling very inspired. This time is also bound to be different for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ll be starting in the south instead of the north and travelling in regions I’ve not visited before. Secondly, I’m not travelling alone this time around. V is coming with me, or I with her if you will, and the dynamic will be very different indeed. It will certainly be a lot easier with someone to share the highs and lows, and I hope it will be more enjoyable as a consequence. Hopefully I will come away both appreciating what I have discovered anew and having been reminded of what is important and good in life. I also hope to shoot a hell of a lot of good photographs. Wish me luck.

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“Get out, get out!”

Michelle was awake in an instant.

“What? What?”

“Get it out!”

Seth was sitting upright in the bed, hands over his ears.

“Get the damn thing out!” he shouted.

He shook his head madly, clutching at his ear. The whole bed shook and Michelle bobbed up and down.

“What is it, Seth? What is it?”

“Jesus Christ, get out!”

“What, what?”

“There’s something in my ear. Something’s crawled in my ear.”

“Oh my god! Here, let me see.”

Michelle turned on the light. Seth swung his legs over and sat on the side of the bed. He stuck his pinkie inside his ear and dug around, hoping to catch it under his nail.

“It’s right inside my head! I can’t get at it.”

Michelle touched him on the shoulder.

“Seth, quick, come here, lie under the light.”

“Holy shit,” said Seth, “it’s burrowing. It’s burrowing into my ear!”

“Seth!” Michelle shouted. “Come here under the light.”

Seth stood up, shaking his hands on either side of his head; theatrical panic and indecision.

“Get some water, anything. Flush the bastard out!”

Michelle jumped from the bed, naked. She picked up a towel and threw it over her shoulder, then ran to the kitchen. How could this happen? How could she be so unlucky?

Seth paced up and down at the foot of the bed. He could feel the bug clawing away at his ear-drum, scraping away and making one hell of a racket. Damn he could hear it close – it was right there, banging on his goddamned drum. It was probably eating his wax!

Michelle rushed back with a glass of water, she had wrapped herself in the towel.

“Seth,” she said sternly, a schoolteacher through and through. “Lie on the bed and let me look in your ear.”

“Flush the bastard out,” said Seth. “Get him!”

He was not at all calm, but he came to the bed all the same. He lay down and Michelle bent the lamp over.

“Can you see it?” asked Seth. “I’m not bullshitting, it’s in there. Some big, fuck-off bug.”

Michelle strained and squinted. She brought her eyes right up close and tried to see something. It was dark in there; perhaps it was the angle.

“It’s in there, I’m telling you!” He lay on his side, squirming and kicking his feet.

“Stay still,” said Michelle. “Stop moving.”

Seth looked across at the clock radio. It was four seventeen. He tried to focus on the light but his whole being was agitated. Once, when he was six, the doctor told him to look at the tennis balls on the shelf while he gave him an injection. He spent weeks wondering what it was he was supposed to have seen in the tennis balls. Then, one rainy day, years later, he sussed that it was just a ploy.

Michelle shifted her head and tried another angle. She picked the lamp up and held it right over Seth’s ear. She noticed his temples were greying. How thick and black his sideburns were. He had a strong profile and the way he was lying emphasised his high cheekbones.

“Is it there?”

“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Maybe it’s gone in too far.”

“It’s bloody big, I’m telling you. It’s huge. I can feel it.”

“Maybe it just feels big. I guess it might.”

“No way,” said Seth. “This thing’s big, I’m telling you.”

“Aahh!” he cried.

“What is it?”

“Sonofabitch! It’s started burrowing again. It’s clawing right up against my eardrum.”

He held both hands to his head, shaking and squeezing it.

“It’s driving me insane!”

He shot her a bolt of panic. His eyes were wide and manic, then clamped and red and pained.

“Flush it out!” he shouted. “Flush the bloody thing out.”

“Okay,” said Michelle. “Calm down.”

She stood by the bed in growing horror. Despite the excitement, she felt deflated now that she had woken up; deflated with impotence, in being so isolated from the trauma. How could this happen on their first night together? In her own home? She wished he would stop shouting at her.

“Lie still, Seth,” said Michelle. “Lie still and I’ll pour in the water.”

Then she remembered a film, Mountains of the Moon which she saw as a teenager. In it, one of the explorers, the blonde one, got a beetle in his ear and went wild with panic. He poured in hot wax, then tried to stab it out with a letter opener and wrecked his ear for good. She quivered, imagining a bug in her ear.

Seth lay stock still, his face screwed up tight. Michelle tipped the water in, slowly at first, then, raising her hand, she increased the force of it. Seth clutched the edge of the mattress; he pulled at the sheets. The water tickled and ran down his cheek, snaking along the back of his neck. He shivered, picturing the bug floating up like a cork in a glass. He saw it bobbing, rising with the tide, bursting from his ear on the top of a geyser.

“Has anything happened?” asked Seth.

“No,” said Michelle. “Nothing’s come up.”

Seth lay quietly, waiting. The bug had stopped moving. He’d seen flies drown before, but this didn’t feel like a fly. If it was a cockroach, then nothing would stop it, not even nukes.

“Anything at all? Pour in some more,” he said.

Michelle tipped more water into his ear. Again she raised the height from which she poured, hoping to flush the bug out. What was it? An earwig? Is that why they called them earwigs? Seth kicked and squirmed again as the water leapt around in his ear. The bug wasn’t moving, but he knew it hadn’t drowned. The water soothed him, though it blocked his hearing like it did in the surf.

“Nothing’s coming out,” said Michelle. “Is it still moving?”

“It’s stopped for now,” said Seth. “Maybe the water freaked him out.”

Michelle wanted to cry. It wasn’t like her place was dirty. Seth himself must be able to see that. Every old terrace in Sydney had cockroaches, it was hardly a revelation. You just couldn’t beat them, try as you might. Put the food away, wipe down the benches, disinfect, polish, scrub; they still managed to breed, living off flakes of dead skin, off dust mites and minuscule crumbs, lurking until dark behind the drainage pipes under the kitchen sink. Those sly bastards would eat anything. Hell, even earwax.

“I’ve got to get it out,” said Seth. “It might do some serious damage. What if it gets into my head, or wrecks my hearing? I’ve got to get the bastard out.”

“Maybe if I poured some hotter water in,” said Michelle. “Not too hot, just lukewarm.”

“No, no,” said Seth. “Those mongrels can handle nukes.”

“Well I don’t know,” said Michelle. “I’ve never had to deal with this before.”

Seth sat up, then got to his feet. He felt dizzy, off balance.

“Okay, sorry, I’m sorry. I’m freaking out. But this is hectic. I’ll have to go somewhere. It’s got to come out.”

“The hospital’s only five minutes walk from here. We could go there.”

“That’s it! The hospital! I didn’t even think of that. They’ll be open for sure.”

Six minutes later they were dressed and in Michelle’s car. She drove in a state of self-imposed disgrace. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t her fault. She knew she wasn’t the best catch in the world, though she was a pretty fine one at that, and if Seth went away with a complex about sleeping over, if every time he saw her he thought of cockroaches, dirty, invasive bugs – by the gods were they going to cop it; spray, bombs, exterminators, the bloody lot – then how on earth were things supposed to work out?

It was just two blocks to the hospital. Seth expected it to be busy on a Saturday night, but when he bustled through the door, emergency was empty.

“I’ve got something in my ear,” he shouted. “An insect crawled in my ear, I need help.”

“What is it, exactly?” asked the man behind the counter. “In your ear?”

“I don’t fucking know! It crawled in while I was sleeping.”

Then the man woke up and came to life.

“Righty-o. Easy, tiger,” he said. “Let’s check it out.”

Michelle came in after parking. A nurse had Seth by the arm and was marching him through to the ward, curious doctor on hand.

“I’m not smoking crack here,” Seth was saying. “I’m not tripping or peaking or anything. I was asleep, and now there’s a cockroach the size of a small dog in my ear and it’s clawing away at my eardrum. It’s killing me – it’s driving me nuts!”

He turned around.

“This is my, ah, girlfriend,” he said. “She’s with me.”

“Come through.”

But? She wondered.

The commotion had already caused a stir. It being a quiet night, the staff began to drift in to have a look. Patients sat up and watched. How could they miss this?

They led Seth to a bed and lay him down. He lay on his side and clutched the edge of the mattress with both hands. The doctor leaned over Seth’s ear and began his inspection. He brought up a pair of tweezers and carefully lowered them into Seth’s ear.

“Aha!”

The doctor held up his tweezers. On the end was a long insect leg.

“Got it!”

“Where?” said Seth, sitting up and staring. “Bullshit!” he cried. “That’s just its leg.”

How could they be so stupid? A doctor for Christ’s sake?

“Keep going. It’s still in there.”

“Okay, okay, let me try again.”

The doctor leaned over again and reached in deep with the tweezers. Seth had mastered himself now. He lay as straight as an arrow, neck held thick like a bull’s.

The crowd was still growing. There were ten people watching now. One of the staff went outside to tell the paramedics who were smoking on the sly.

“You gotta see this,” said the nurse. “There’s a bloke inside who’s either nuts or a huge bug crawled in his ear. They’re trying to fish it out.”

The paramedics came in. The cleaners gathered round. The nurses came from across the ward to watch the struggle of man against insect.

“There!” shouted the doctor. “Got it!”

He held up the prize on the end of his tweezers. All could see that it was a large insect, doubtless a young cockroach, but not, perhaps, as large as it ought to be.

“That’s just the back half!” shouted Seth, who was now sure he was the only sane person in the room. “They don’t even need half their shit, they just keep going. Keep looking!”

Michelle wished she had brought her camera with her. At the extreme end of her embarrassment was a liberating sense of what it means to be alive. She wanted to take a video, talk over it, make a little documentary. She wanted to get that cockroach and have it mounted.

Everyone was leaning in; sweat on brows, eyes strained. Seth’s distress was so assertive they were all infused with urgency, as though the cockroach really might kill him if left unchecked.

“That’s it, that’s it!” cried the doctor, and this time he was right.

On the end of his tweezers was the front half of a German cockroach, clawing away at the air in some discomfort, as one might be inclined to do when cut in two. A great cheer went up around the bed; eruptions of laughter and spontaneous clapping. Michelle was clapping too; relief like a shot of soft emotion; the flushing, the draining of the poison mood.

Seth was on his feet. He grabbed the hand that held the tweezers and looked the bug in the eye. It was reaching out towards him, motoring away like the stripped-down Terminator with itslegs blown off.

“You dirty son of a bitch,” said Seth. “Next time you try going up my arse and I’ll show you who’s boss.”

Michelle started crying, and she wasn’t entirely sure why.

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Hot and Bothered

The following is a short story set in Varanasi and written roughly a year ago, with various edits and updates since. As I shall be returning to India for five weeks in December and January, I figured I ought to get closure on the last trip and get this short story out there.

Varanasi

The hustle was more than enough to keep him in the hotel room. If it wasn’t a boat ride on the Ganges, then a head massage or a fortune told; future mapped and past explained. There was much on offer: spiritual comfort, physical relief, food, drink, trinkets, baubles, ornaments, silk, hashish, charras and flowers for Puja. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t always so hot; if they weren’t always so insistent. Dirk was having none of it – with the exception of the hashish and charras.

The heat was everywhere; in the air and in the stones; even it seemed, in the river. It hung in the atmosphere like grease; textured by the dry dust of the north Indian plains. It coated everything in a thin film; hair, clothes, skin, eyes, camera lenses and sunglasses. Dirk could take all kinds of privation, but humidity was his kryptonite. It made him irritable and short-tempered; enough so at times to act with a rare lack of courtesy. It had wiped him out in Vietnam, where, having been cheated, his anger had risen in a volcanic surge. With that incident in mind, he worked hard to maintain his equilibrium. Yet, for the first time the evening before, after two months of diplomacy, Dirk had lost his cool and called a man a “slack-jawed cunt.”

He had taken his first shower at 0615. It was the time to get things done, for by midday the air would be porridge. He sat on the end of the bed, rolling a joint.

“Buy a pipe today, Dog.”

He mostly spoke just to hear the sound of his voice, and had taken to addressing himself as “Dog.” Travelling solo, it was in part to prevent himself going mad, though he now wondered if that was precisely how people went mad; by becoming accustomed to it. Outside of his own company, most of his utterances took the form of polite refusals. He was not unsympathetic to the countless poor traders, shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers, but nor was he inclined to accept their constant overtures just to please them.

“You should have stayed in the mountains, Dog. You ran away like a coward.”

Dirk licked the paper and sealed the roll. He twisted one end, then picked up a match and tamped down the contents of the other. He tore off a length of slim cardboard from the cigarette papers, rolled it and slid it in for a filter. Working it with the match, he made the filter fit snugly and tightly inside the joint. He was both proud and fatigued by this meticulousness. These small things, these necessities, he could manage quite well, though the effort left him work-shy.

Dirk stood up and listened at the door. He heard only the rushing of the fan outside, blowing hot air up the suffocating staircase. Lately, Dirk had retreated from the expansive, affable mood in which his holiday began. Perhaps he had smoked too much; become isolated, paranoid. He had, in various locations, often felt he was playing cat and mouse with the hotel staff; that they knew somehow of his furtive joints, but hadn’t caught him yet. Perhaps they didn’t care, but he couldn’t take the risk. He remained bluff, assertive, yet could not meet their eyes; not without sunglasses. He always wore sunglasses, cleaning the lenses obsessively.

Dirk moved to the squat balcony door. It was firmly shut, as was the patterned window beside it. The glass was green in some places and gold in others; a blended reflection of painted walls. The wooden frame had been sloppily coated and thick dark brush-strokes marred the regal pattern on the glass. From outside, red and ochre light crept through, and the room was in earthy semi-dark.

Dirk lit his joint. He sat back on the bed and smoked. He lay back and smoked. He savoured it, holding it in for greater effect. First of the day would send him straight to the toilet, but he lay a while, blowing it up to the ceiling. All this time and now more than ever habituated to dissipation, to aimlessness. He was a tourist, he wanted to see things – he saw things. He was a traveller, he wanted to go places – he went places. He was on holiday, he wanted to holiday – he didn’t have to do a single goddamned thing if he didn’t want to.

Dirk struggled to sit up. He was tired already from thinking about how much he could do. He could leave his room and walk around for hours taking photographs, or, he could fall back on the bed and stay there, day-dreaming. Time had slunk off after the first month, taking much significance and purpose with it. The hungry search for “gold”, for photographs he deemed to be of quality, still niggled him. It was his purpose, and the inspiration on which it was contingent was ever-present if he could tap it just right. The joints helped him get started, but later he would slow to a crawl.

Dirk stood up, buzzing with the creeping stone. He had eaten breakfast in his room; banana pancake with honey, a bowl of fresh curd and a pot of heavy-duty filter coffee. He still had some coffee left. He reached over and took a slug; all this, and only now did he feel ready; ready for another shower.

The sun hit hard. At eight o’clock the shade was still cool, but not for long. The jagged steps of the staggered Ghats swung down the river facing fully into the light. Dirk retreated to the small laneway outside the Ganpati Guesthouse where he was staying. A goat had climbed onto the protruding foundations of the wall opposite and stood there staring at a dog. Dirk stood and stared and thought about a photograph. Already he’d taken twelve thousand shots. Did he need one of a goat looking at a dog? He stood watching; a dog looking at a goat looking at a dog. That settled it. He took the photo.

“Hello sir, good morning!”

A young local man approached him.

“Which country sir? Which country?”

“Umm. Australia.”

“Australia, very nice. You like cricket?”

“I guess, sure.”

The young man had a killer tan and wore western garb. He was handsome, but his eyes were milky and red.

“Listen my friend, how can I help you? Anything you need, I can get for you. Hashish, marijuana. Best hashish, pure and soft. So good.”

“I have some thanks. I’m okay.”

“What have you got? Where from?”

“Actually, it comes from Varanasi. But I got it in McLeod Ganj.”

“From Varanasi? My friend, it won’t be like this stuff. I have the best. You want, you come with me.”

“Look, not now. I’m going for a walk. Maybe later.”

“Anything you need my friend. I am here all day. Here, around, on the ghats. You will see me. I will see you.”

Dirk laughed. “Yeah, I bet you will. Everyone sees me.”

“Because we have what you want,” said the young man, smiling.

Dirk was impressed that he got it.

“Okay, maybe later.”

“Later then, my friend.”

Dirk set off with more purpose, full of confidence from his first refusal. He had never liked talking to people in the morning and tried to avoid all contact. He adjusted his sunglasses, ran his hand through his hair and walked down closer to the river. It was a blinding expanse. The Ganges was low, but still wide and glittering and, across the water, the bright flatness continued in a dry floodplain.

Dirk took note of those who would approach him. He had come with an innate sense of how close he could get to a hawker before they would attempt to ensnare him, like attracting the aggro in a computer game. Yet, since arriving in India, this sense had been blown away, for here there seemed to be no limit to the ground they were willing to cross to offer him something he invariably did not want. In Varanasi, it was always boat rides and head massages.

“Boat, sir,” called a man, from twenty metres away. He was moving purposefully towards Dirk, and Dirk, having seen him, was shaking his head. The man grew closer, but Dirk paid him no further attention. “Don’t look back,” his mother had always told him with stray dogs and cats. “They will follow you.” Dirk fiddled with his headphones, which hung from inside his tee-shirt.

“Boat, sir! I take you across, see ghats.” The man was now only a few feet away and Dirk had begun to shift. He didn’t feel it was necessary to say no twice, but as the man hadn’t accepted his first indication, he now turned his face to him.

“No thanks,” he said firmly.

“Very cheap,” said the man. “Good price.”

“No,” said Dirk.

“Maybe later?”

“Maybe later, but I don’t think so.”

“Okay, okay,” said the man. “Later it is! I will be here.”

Dirk nodded, putting the headphones in his ears. He didn’t like to be rude to people, but he also didn’t like it that people continued to address him despite wearing sunglasses and headphones. If he wanted something, he would ask for it, not otherwise. He wanted a tee-shirt with “Do Not Disturb” written on it, though he doubted it would make a difference. The man was still lingering, so Dirk walked away, not looking back. He made a point of casting his eyes across the river, away from the boatman, and then, following his gaze, moved quickly down the steps towards the water.

There were many small boats moored in the fetid shallows; some with tall wooden prows, others low and flat. A short, black-tanned, wiry man, with muscles hard as nails, glutes like iron muffin-tops, scrubbed the underside of a propped boat. To Dirk’s right, the river curved in a long, slow arc, and down its length lay the curious geometry of the unevenly stepped banks, the stacked hotels and temples. It was yellow, red and purple, green where the trees protruded, and already it was shimmering in haze.

Another man approached him. Dirk kept his eyes facing forward with even greater purpose, refusing to make eye contact. He was determined not to say anything, especially now the music was in his ears. The man arrived beside him, asking him if he wanted a boat. Dirk could hear him, but he pretended he did not. He pointed to his headphones and, opening his arms in a gesture of helplessness, said “sorry, I can’t hear you.” Didn’t they get it? He didn’t want a fucking boat.

The man repeated his offer and Dirk ambled forward a few steps to indicate that he was not listening. What annoyed him was that he was listening. He was listening intently, watching from the corner of his eye, waiting for the man to leave. How was he supposed to enjoy this morning, this wonderful, hammering stone that he had achieved, when people must interrupt him? Could he ever be alone in India?

He wandered a few steps further towards the water. More men had noticed him now and he could feel their hands tingling with the desire to massage his head. Maybe a head massage would be nice now that he was baked. He was standing very close to the water and took a closer look at it. It was poo-brown in colour, tinged green near the bank with the algae that grew from the stones. The water, so polluted in some places as to be septic, had undergone a transformative journey from the fresh thaws of the Himalaya. Just a month ago Dirk had watched it, rushing through Rishikesh, clean as a whistle; so clean he could swim in it. From there it had passed through more than a hundred towns and cities, collecting their poisonous run-off.

The man beside him shook his head and walked off in a huff. Huh! So it was Dirk who was rude. This mutual distaste was not his idea of a cultural exchange. He stepped back from the water and continued down the ghats. It was still relatively quiet, unlike the middle of the day when so many tourists arrived to suffer in the heat. Further along, men and women stood in the shallows beating clothes upon stones. The vigour of their work churned the water, giving it oxygen and life. To his amazement, the clothes came out stunningly clean. Dirk stopped to take photographs. He shifted every time someone took an interest; like a magnet repelled by the same polarity.

A bearded man in white robes stood with two goats on a leash. Beside him, dressed in black robes, another bearded man held his own goat on a rope. They looked like themed chess pieces. Dirk shot them without restraint. The river backdrop snaked lazily away through the heat haze; the foreground’s tail. Just beyond the goat men, he watched a man pulling on his trousers; as immaculate as most Indians; poor but bleached and starched. He was selling fake bags; the Reebok label poorly rendered. Dirk walked past him and clambered atop an octagonal parapet. From there he could see further down to another distant parapet, whereon a red-robed, bearded mystic sat cross-legged with a cup of tea. His face was black, yet his hands were white; the pigment lost in some genetic mishap. It was a common problem in India. In a country with so many skin-whitening products for sale, Dirk wondered if such was considered a blessing or a curse. He photographed the man indiscriminately.

Three hours later Dirk sat on a step in a cool lane near his hotel. He had just finished e-mailing his family; updating Facebook and tweeting: I said to the man are you trying to tempt me? Because I come from the land of plenty. He smiled at the conceit of this quotation. The contact had brought him back to earth; he felt the tug of Australia, and the impending sense of his holiday’s end. Already he knew he was in the coda and had few expectations of further beauty. Since leaving the mountains of Himachal Pradesh he had been sad; despite the energetic chaos and colour of the north Indian plains, or, indeed, because of it. The people of the mountains were less pushy; Buddhists mostly, they were quieter, less wanting. The mountains were clean and quiet; the air thin and brisk. The high rise of the peaks, the towering cedars, the crashing cascades had left Dirk tilting and small. He had lost himself in the scale, reduced to the smallest unit in a cool, epic landscape. The rough spines of the Himalayas had a stark and beautiful brutality; unaffected by people, without their complications.

Here, in Varanasi, Dirk carried his body like a burden. He could feel the weight of his limbs at all times, as though he had just stepped out of water.

He put his head in his hands. It was approaching midday and already he was spent. He had smoked another joint on the ghats and, once the high had passed, his lids and frame had grown heavier.

“Hello, sir!”

Dirk looked up, for the voice was familiar. So was the face. The young man he had met that morning approached him on the step.

“Hi there,” said Dirk. He felt strangely pleased to see the young man, and realised only then that he was lonely.

“How are you? Is there anything you need, sir?”

“Dirk,” he said. “You can call me Dirk.”

“Dirk!” said the young man, flourishing it like the shiny dagger of its namesake.

“I am Manoj. Like the cricketer!”

“Manoj Prabharkar?”

“Yes! See, I can talk to Australians. They know.”

The young man stood beside Dirk, leaning over him. He leaned in closer.

“Do you want some hashish, some marijuana? I have the finest hashish, not far to go.”

“How much?” asked Dirk.

“How much do you want?”

“No more than one thousand rupees. I’m running out of money.”

“One thousand rupees, no problem. But for one thousand five hundred, you can have the best quality.”

“Maybe,” said Dirk. “But that’s more than I want to spend.”

“You can spend what you like. First, I show you.”

Dirk shrugged. Again he noted Manoj’s milky, red eyes, and Dirk was sure that he must be a heavy smoker himself. In Darjeeling the local dealers, the pony-handlers, had eyes like piss-holes in the snow; their gaze always disquietingly unfocussed.

“Fuck  it.” he said. “Come on, show me. Is it far?”

“Not far, very close.”

Dirk stood up and swung his pack over both shoulders. The small bag, his only luggage, never left his sight, nor was it ever out of reach when not in his hotel room. The young man waited for him to be ready then set off keenly down the lane.

Manoj led Dirk through a network of alleys. Dirk wasn’t especially worried about becoming lost, for despite the confusion of streets, he only needed to find his way back to the river to orient, and the Ganges was hard to miss. The city stopped dead at its banks, with no bridges across, nor settlement on the other side. Instead it spread in a white blaze of heat towards a wobbling horizon; the flood plain of a river not now swollen.

The back lanes were full of small businesses; hole-in-the-wall shops, barbers, kitchens, spice-traders, grocers. Since he first began exploring Asia, Dirk had finally come to understand what the cities of the Roman Empire, which he had spent much time studying, must have been like. The eateries, with their counters sunk with vessels, stoves and ovens, fronting straight onto the street, were practically the same design. These huddled buildings would leave similar ruins. Here too was a polytheistic society. Manoj led Dirk through a great crowd milling about a Brahmin-blue temple entrance.

Five minutes of walking through the winding streets, brought them to a white-washed wooden door. Manoj pushed it open and walked straight through. Dirk followed cautiously, whilst Manoj waited inside for him then closed the door behind.

Manoj called something which Dirk did not catch, then beckoned him to follow. They were in a dark corridor that led into a small room at the base of a stairwell. Sitting on the floor was another young man. He smiled up at Dirk with the same milky red eyes.

“Hello,” he said. “I am Sanjay.”

“This is my brother,” said Manoj. “He will show you what you want.”

“Hi,” said Dirk. “Thanks.”

“Sit down,” said Manoj. “Take off your bag.”

Dirk sat down as instructed, though he did not remove his bag from his shoulders. There was something strange about the way Sanjay was sitting, and a moment later, as Sanjay shuffled on his hands across to an old wooden cupboard, Dirk noticed the horrible marks on his right leg. Almost the entire leg was covered with large, lumpy scabs; dark brown masses surrounded by yellow skin. Dirk shuddered at the colour and scale of it, and felt a wave of revulsion. What on earth could have caused such a thing? Was it a skin disease, or a horrible accident? It looked so unnatural, like burned foam. He caught himself staring as Sanjay, still resting on his haunches, pulled two large bricks of hashish from the cupboard. He crawled back across towards Dirk and placed these bricks on the floor. Wrapped in cling-film, they must have weighed a kilogram each at least.

“I have two varieties, as you can see,” said Sanjay.

Dirk nodded.

“This is the local stuff. From here in Varanasi. I don’t think it is the best. It is harder, less soft. Not so strong.”

“And the other?”

“From Punjab, very special. Very nice. Softer, stronger. You can smell it, please.”

He leaned forward awkwardly, across his wounded leg which was stretched in Dirk’s direction. Dirk took the heavy brick in two hands and tested the weight. It was a hefty block, and when he brought it up under his nose, he caught a strong, nutty scent; pungent and oily, with a dusky sweetness, like cloves.

“It smells good,” he said.

In truth, he had no idea of how good hashish should smell. It had long since vanished from the market in Australia, and the last time he’d seen it with any regularity was eight years ago in Rome.

Dirk handed the brick back to Sanjay. Despite a growing discomfort at the sight of the man’s wounds, his eyes could not help but be drawn to them. He looked around to see Manoj standing behind him and suddenly he felt very uncomfortable. He wanted his back against the wall, did not want anyone between him and the door. Dirk was an experienced traveller who didn’t like to put himself into situations from which he could not easily run, yet here he had done precisely that. He was large and strong, and didn’t doubt he could overpower both of these men, yet what secrets lay within this house of theirs? Other accomplices, a cloth full of chloroform, guns? Perhaps it was just paranoia, but such was his disposition, and anxiety had long been selected for genetically, precisely because the wary stayed alive.

Sanjay was talking to him.

“How much do you want? I can do you any deal you like. Big, small. You want a lot, I make it cheaper.”

“I’m a tourist,” Dirk said. “I just want a little.”

Manoj now spoke from behind him.

“One thousand five hundred. One thousand five hundred for the good stuff.”

Dirk had a feeling of growing sickness in his stomach. He couldn’t stop looking at Sanjay’s leg. Perhaps it was the heat and the sun; perhaps it was the air. There was something vile about the air in Varanasi. The back lanes were full of rubbish and dung, malnourished rag-doll animals skulking half dead among the refuse. From the river came the cloying humidity; full of the ash of funeral pyres, burning plastic and septic, stagnant water. Dirk could only guess in horror at what manner of bacteria must have crept into his lungs. The wounds on Sanjay’s leg seemed to herald some tropical corruption; some grotesque, mutilating virus unheard of outside these swollen latitudes. Dirk felt himself reeling. His mouth went dry then quickly flushed with saliva. He was not about to be sick, yet fear had risen swiftly in him and he felt an urgent panic. He swallowed nervously.

Sanjay was talking, but Dirk, tired, stoned and dizzy, was not listening.

“I only want to spend one thousand,” he interrupted. “Can you just give me less? Really, I don’t care. Just give me less.”

“This is one thousand,” said Sanjay. “This one thousand five hundred.”

“I don’t mind,” said Dirk. “One thousand, please.”

“You don’t want the good stuff?”

“No. I mean, yes. But not so much. Can you just give me less?”

“Sure. But it won’t be so much.”

“Any is plenty. I don’t care.”

Sanjay watched him closely. His smile made Dirk feel even more nervous.

“You are wondering about my leg?” said Sanjay. “You are wondering what happened?”

“Umm, sure. What happened?”

“I was catching a train,” he said. “The train was leaving and I had to run to catch it. I tried to climb in, but fell and got caught on the step. The train dragged me for a very long way. My leg was skinned. My whole leg. Look, you can see. All the way.”

Dirk did not want to look, but something compelled him to do so. The yellow skin around the dreadful scabs seemed worse than the wounds themselves. What had made it that putrid, mustard colour? Was it the bruising? It seemed artificial, like the stains of mercurochrome. Dirk felt a new wave of sickness coming over him, and again he flushed with panic.

“I was selling hashish. I sold two kilos. I had two thousand dollars in a bag. Two thousand dollars and another kilogram of hashish. I dropped it on the train tracks. There was no chance to go back. All was lost.”

All was lost indeed, thought Dirk. This guy was the real deal; a proper dealer. A criminal. What was Dirk doing here, in this strange man’s house? With a drug dealer who dealt in kilogram blocks? Coming here was a bad call; it was too big for him. Sure, he wanted some hashish, but he didn’t like to be so close to the source. Inside this house, in a corrupt foreign country, anything might happen. He should have kept all such business to the streets; where he could run, where he could lose himself. Was the front door locked? Would he be able to escape if they tried to take him down? It was all taking too long and Manoj was still standing behind him, making him feel even more nervous. He hadn’t come here to be social; he had come here to score some goddamned hashish and didn’t want to be kept waiting; not when he was hot, not when he was scared, not when he was paranoid. He stood to his feet, clearing his throat in an exaggerated manner.

“I need to spit. I feel a bit sick.” He summoned up all he could in the hope of maintaining the ruse, despite his mouth having gone dry again after swallowing. Manoj stepped aside and watched him; the path was clear to the door! He stepped around the corner into the corridor; only metres from the street and from freedom. He hurried along, his bag still on his back. The door was not locked. Indeed, it was slightly ajar. If he needed to make a break for it, he could go right now, leave them wondering. He cleared his throat again, pushed open the door and stepped into the street.

Outside the sunlight was blinding. Thank god he still had his sunglasses on. He rolled his shoulders and opened his lungs. He spat what little he could manage. They must not suspect that he feared they wished him ill. Perhaps they would take offence, and rob him. He looked up and down the street. It was bright with the overhead sun; quiet in the midday heat. He took deep breaths and ran his hands through his hair.

“It’s okay,” he muttered to himself. “It’s okay, dog, relax.”

A moment later the tension seemed to go. They were waiting for him patiently. It was just a simple drug deal after all.

Dirk turned back inside, leaving the door slightly open. In the corridor, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing the small wad of notes he kept there to avoid fishing his wallet out in public. He peeled two five-hundred rupee notes off the roll, and returned to where he had been sitting on the floor. This time, however, he remained standing. The two young men smiled at him.

“All good,” said Dirk, handing out the money.

Sanjay reached up from the floor, handing him a fat little ball of hash.

“I think you will like it,” said Sanjay.

Dirk took the hash and placed it in the pocket of his tired, dirty shorts. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders and made a snorting laugh of release. The men chuckled with him; business done and everybody friends now.

Nothing, after all, was amiss.

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One Year On

It’s now more than a year since I moved to my lovely place of residence, a sunny little studio in Glebe – the aptly named Cornieworld 2. I should start by pointing out that there was, as implied, a Cornieworld 1. This was my previous apartment in Glebe, which I inhabited for roughly one year, between 2005 and 2006. This place, which was also lovely and sunny, and, it must be said, considerably larger than its sequel, was dubbed Cornieworld by my former partner in crime, “Pockets”, on account of my surname – not actually Rollmops, incidentally.

Cornieworld 2 is really very close to Cornieworld 1 geographically – so much so, that if I stick my head out the back window, I can see the balcony of Cornieworld 1 across the backyards and through the trees. It is not more than eighty metres from where I now lie on my beloved bed, writing this piece of fluff. I remain as deeply attached nostalgically to Cornieworld 1 as I have to many other favourite places of residence, and, indeed, to this one, in anticipation of the fact that I shall have to leave here at some point in the not too distant future.

So, one year on, my place has changed very little, physically. I’ve kept the same arrangement of furnishings, have not changed the decorations, and have kept it clean and orderly by regular vacuuming, dusting, polishing and the like. Consequently, it actually looks identical to how it looked once I’d completed my initial wave of home-making, which is nice, because I like to think I nailed it first up.

Having now experienced all four seasons in my studio, I can safely say that it’s a lovely place to be, come rain hail or shine. It did get a bit stuffy in summer and my failure to buy a larger fan was a regrettable oversight, yet it was rarely, if ever, unbearable and the amount of light and space I felt inside, despite its small size, was always refreshing. I’m also very partial to the blue-green end of the spectrum when it comes to living spaces. Without blues and greens I feel oppressed and desolate, and need these colours to comfort me. Too much red and brown leaves me very sad indeed, both impatient and harassed, and the colour scheme here has always been much to my taste. I can’t claim credit for the pale blue-grey of the walls, yet I do like to think I have balanced this nicely with the various pictures I’ve put up. Now, with the trees and grape vines on the trellis blooming fully again with fresh, spring greens the atmosphere is, more than ever, one of refreshing and beautiful calm.

When I wrote about moving here back in August last year, I titled the piece Sleeping with a Fridge. The reason for this was that, inevitably, in a studio, without a separate kitchen, there is little choice but to share the space with a fridge, and we all know that fridges have a habit of rumbling and grunting in their own sweet way. Having moved in, I was very soon reassured that my fridge would not be keeping me up at night or distracting me, and this has, fortunately, continued to be the case. The only times I notice the little guy is when he stops his quiet churning – an event punctuated by a brief stumbling as the parts cease to move. On such occasions I am assailed by such a sense of peaceful stillness that I am forced, every time, to remark at how I hadn’t realised the fridge was running until it stopped. And so, on that score, I can safely say that the fridge has proven to be a good housemate, and I’d quite happily share with him again.

My studio has one rather odd feature about it. The ceiling slopes down from one end to the other, so that above the door and the compact, yet spacious bathroom, there is a space which begins at roughly two feet in height, and reaches a height of three feet at the point where the ceiling meets with the wall. This space is the depth of the bathroom, about four and a half feet, and thus, above the bathroom and door, there is a sort of miniature loft. When I first moved in here, I wondered if it would be at all possible to make use of this space – perhaps getting a ladder to make it accessible – and for months used to joke about installing a Korean student and subletting for a hundred dollars a week. Well, I never did buy a ladder nor make any use of the space, and, for the sake of my peace and well-being, and, indeed, my sex life and privacy, I’m pleased that ultimately no Koreans were installed.

When I first moved into this place, I was riding high on a wave of personal revolution. Emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of a devastating break-up, I was full of an almost unbearable, restless energy and threw myself at everything I did with a vengeance – be it writing, photography, running, weightlifting and, indeed, dating. In this intense state of being I also found myself assailed by memories of the intense work ethic and level of output I’d had during my last time in Glebe, where I’d not only taken a lot of photographs and written a lot of prose, but spent much of my time agonisingly crafting poetry.

Thus, shortly after returning to this neck of the woods, inspired by the sheer compact brilliance of my studio, and totally in love with life in a new and profound way, I found myself writing a lot of poetry again. I do think some good material came out of this, but the new wave of enthusiasm for writing poetry soon petered out and has now evaporated.

This is unfortunate in that writing poetry is very much a craft and the less I do it, the less well I do it. Back in 2004 when I first began my Creative Writing Masters, I had a very excellent mentor in the form of Robert Gray, who was teaching poetry at UTS. I’d dabbled in the stuff before, but it was mostly pretty trite and unpolished and lacked any real technical sense. After being in the presence of this most erudite and kind man, who seemed not only to know everything it was possible to know about poetry, but also to be gifted with the wisdom of the ages, I was so inspired that my first poetry submission to Meanjin was successful. As soon as I was given such a sense of credibility, I was overwhelmed with a sense of destiny and, after an initial celebration in the form of a long, hard run where I pumped my fists a lot and shouted “I’m a fucking poet!” I kept it up and, for the next four years I diligently worked on my poems.

It seems strange in retrospect, having always considered myself a prose writer and having turned almost entirely to prose in recent years, that for a while there it was the poetry and not the novels or short stories that came out most completely. Much of the best material was written during my time in Cornieworld 1 and my second stint in Cambridge. Yet, when I returned to Australia in 2008, I ran out of steam and stopped working on poetry altogether.

It was nice therefore, albeit briefly, to find joy once again in crafting poems. I do hope this desire comes back, but for now it is the photography that has taken over as my preferred form of expression. Again, however, on this front, I have my return to Glebe to thank for this. As I’ve written elsewhere, I long ago grew tired of Sydney as a photographic subject, but over the last year, I have come to love shooting the place again. Photography too is very much a craft and whilst it might not be the same for everyone, I find that the more I do it, the more my eye is “in form”. Thus, much of my time here has been spent on editing photographs and putting together collections to publish on this very blog. It’s something I’m very pleased about, as I feared that only the stimulus of a foreign country was sufficient to get me out of my shell have take photos. I now never leave home without my camera, except when going running, and thus am well placed to catch those unexpected and ephemeral compositions that life throws up.

And so, the next phase of life approaches. Having been very fortunate in finding love in the last year, I shall be packing up this little haven in the next couple of months. It will be very sad to leave, but it has served me so amazingly well that I wouldn’t want to stress the relationship I have with the place and grow stagnant. For now, however, Cornieworld 2 lives on, and I shall make the most of its glorious last days.

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Turning 40

Well, I just turned forty. More than a week ago in fact, which is probably just enough time for the new reality to sink in. It was easy to be honest, all I had to do was stay alive and sure enough the day came along as so many others have done: roughly 14, 610 to be precise. But seriously, despite some inevitable reflection and re-assessment of my circumstances, I didn’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it. Indeed, I surprised myself by being relatively philosophical about the whole thing.

They say that forty is the new thirty, which is nice considering the old thirty was the new twenty, which makes me feel almost half my age. These days, with the cost of living in Australia being what it is, they say the fifty is the new twenty, and I can only hope this also applies to age, when that more ominous fifth decade begins.

Turning forty is one of life’s many arbitrary milestones. As with so many “significant” numbers – like the millennium or our birth dates – it has no actual importance and is merely a human conceit for the sake of record keeping and measurement. The number itself is meaningless, yet this will not stop people from weighing it down with vast amounts of baggage as it does, inarguably, represent a sort of rough half-way mark. There is a certain weightiness to the idea that as much as half of one’s life might already be over.

A quick scan of the accumulated ‘wisdom’ on the internet offers many different perspectives on turning forty. Some say it is a time when people begin to enjoy the hard work of their twenties and thirties, which is all very well if you actually bothered to work hard in your twenties and thirties. Others say that it is a time when men go off the rails with a mid-life crisis in an attempt to recapture lost youth. Again, that’s all very well if you let your youth go earlier and lived a responsible hard-working life to this point. It’s also said that most people have already come to accept responsibilities by this age: family, children, mortgage – what Zorba the Greek called “The full catastrophe!” – and have thus achieved a certain emotional and psychological stability. Again, “the full catastrophe” is something which has eluded me, along with learning to drive, superannuation and most forms of appreciable work experience. Still, after years of constant philosophising and, more recently, head-shrinking, I do feel more in control of my emotions and psychology, particularly in how I relate to people.

I’ve approached forty with the outlook that most people sport around thirty – namely that it’s time to “get serious”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’ve put off “getting serious” as long as possible, partly because it seemed so utterly undesirable, but mostly because there were other more fun things to do first. I’ve never had much interest in being responsible for other people, and only marginally more interest in being responsible for myself. Indeed, life, until now, with the exception of various bursts of zeal for some sort of stability and career, has been about maximising pleasure and experience. Ironically, however, outside the bouts of travel, study, freedom and self-indulgence, the status quo has mostly been a lot of unpaid hard work and agonising.

Throughout my late thirties, I often wondered what it would be like to turn forty. Indeed, I wondered about it so much that it almost felt as though I were hanging around waiting for it to happen. I put life on hold, lost myself in computer games and travel, indulged in writing and photography as hobbies rather than commercial ventures, worked part time and lazed my way along. I needed a deadline of sorts, or rather, a starting line, beyond which point I must work hard to secure the future I wanted to have. But what was that?

Having dreaded the idea of turning forty for so long, when the approaching reality finally began to loom, I switched tack and started to see things more positively. Quite simply, it was a decision I made, having grown tired of carrying around a gloomy outlook. Where, I ask, does that get you? There’s nothing wrong with a little righteous indignation about the world, but who wants to go through life whining and complaining, especially about one’s personal state of affairs, when a little positive thinking can make life far more pleasurable? “You always take the weather with you,” and whilst I’ll always love the rain, of late I’ve been toting sunshine.

I’ve never really wanted to be rich, but then I’ve never really wanted to be poor. When I turned forty I knew I must begin to say yes to settling down, partly because the old paradigm of freedom wasn’t working so well any more. Despite my love of restless roaming through life, the lack of grounding has taken its toll in constant exposure to the anxiety of uncertainty. Whilst in many ways it is easier to remain aloof in life, it requires a singular energy and confidence to do so. Consequently, while many at this age are rebelling against their early establishment of security, I have gradually been developing a longing for its sense of permanence.

This longing for permanence has finally begun to take shape. I knew something was changing in me when I began to answer the question of children with “well, I don’t want not to have them,” instead of the requisite “screw that.” This change has occurred in the last eighteen months – indeed, as recently as February 2011 I reaffirmed my desire not to have children in the only piece I’ve ever pulled from this blog. It was written in response to the news that the partners of two of my oldest friends were newly pregnant, which caused me to take a good long look at where I stood in the world. I had meant the article to be light-hearted and entertaining, but when I re-read it some months later, it came across as awfully mean-spirited and so I pulled it.

My principal concern then was the loss of freedom:

Would I ever see a film at the cinema again? Could I ever just clear off to India for two months as I did last year? Would I ever sleep again? I plan to cling to my bachelor existence as long as humanly possible. If that means for the rest of my life, then so be it and here’s to me. Let’s face it, someone’s got to do it.

 

It’s a very reasonable concern given the way in which the lives of my friends with children have been transformed. Yet of course, on another level, it also reflects a rather trivial shallowness. Selfishness I can accept as a motivation, but the conclusion that life is only meaningful or satisfying when free of responsibility is not self-evident.

So, turning forty was, in the end, absolutely necessary and couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Indeed, it was a relief. I have had difficulty throughout life in understanding what age I actually was at the time and knowing what was expected of me at that age. This is largely because I long remained infuriatingly childish and didn’t give a rat’s arse about what was expected of me, and indeed, resented anyone who had the audacity to expect anything from me, but also because I spent fifteen years at university. The world of work and careers and suits and responsibility may have its merits, but it seemed far more interesting to stay in school indefinitely having wonderful romances, challenging conversations and intellectually decadent junkets. For my twenties and thirties, the motto was always “when in doubt, do a degree.” And I can say this much – I fucking loved it.

Spending so much time at university left me at odds with the professional world. My peers were always students – aspiring writers, academics, scientists and historians – and so I was largely insulated from the working world and found it all rather distastefully vulgar. The apparent drudgery of a stressful Monday to Friday job compared to sitting on the banks of the Cam drinking Pimms and talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, was so gut-wrenchingly unappealing that I vowed to do everything I could to avoid it for as long as possible.

Yet of course, this was a vow made with a different energy and a different psychology. Things changed, in part, when my age caught up with me at last. When I was thirty-five, everyone looked at me and thought I was thirty. When I turned thirty-seven, everyone thought I was… thirty-seven. I took a look at myself in the mirror and saw that despite running regularly, doing weights and paying at least some attention to my diet, sufficient to keep my body in shape and my face lean, the wrinkles of worry and anxiety had gradually accumulated around my eyes. My hair was peppered with grey at the temples and my eyebrows had a certain mature bushiness. I took this template of selfhood with me and held it up against the men on the street. My gods, I thought, when I realised who my peers were. They look like the dads in mortgage commercials, and so the fuck do I.

At least I still have my hair, and a wonderfully thick and full-bodied covering to boot. And while I am slowly but surely revealing my deep and abiding vanity here, I might as well go on to say that I have always equated hair with youth. If I ever lose it, I will go straight to Advanced Hair and pay whatever it takes to get it back. Baldness is not an option and I dearly hope to be sporting a Bob Hawke silver bodgie when I reach the dear old age of one hundred and twenty. So, from a purely physical point of view, having reached forty, I look just how I always wanted to look at forty. That’s quite a relief.

Having said all this, I still feel largely out of place in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that people I went to school with have serious jobs, own houses and cars, and heaven forbid, have children as old as ten. How on earth did they manage it all, and why did they want to do so?

A week before my birthday, whilst walking to a restaurant with my father, he displayed his special brand of tiresomely contrived surprise when, in response to his question, I told him I was turning forty.

“Forty! Forty! Mate, you can’t be turning forty.”

“Do the maths.”

“Forty! Jesus, mate, when I was forty I’d already had three sons and two marriages. I was a top journo at the Australian.”

“Well, I’ve got three degrees including a PhD from Cambridge.”

“Stuff that mate, they’re just pieces of paper.”

“Fuck you.”

“Mate, I was just joking.”

But of course he wasn’t, and of course, I didn’t give a rat’s arse either. I’m pleased to have found my own way to forty, and whilst the next decade might prove to be ostensibly more conventional, I can assure you I shall be doing it in my own idiom.

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