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Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

This story was first published in Island Magazine #116, Autumn 2009, then republished on Tragicocomedia in 2011. I am re-posting it as the title wasn’t included in the URL and it wasn’t coming up in searches.

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Tortoise Kiss

“We haven’t had an argument in months,” said Sarah.

“I know,” said Paul. “It’s great. I hate arguing.”

“Really? You always seem to like arguments.”

“Not exactly. I just don’t like letting things go. It’s not about winning, or being right, it’s about clarifying.”

“Maybe,” said Sarah, “but only if it’s something you want to clarify. Not always with things that I want clarified.”

Paul shrugged and Sarah fell silent. It was Christmas day and they both knew the danger, so they turned their eyes back to the water. The little humps of brine shone white against the inky dimples.

They were sitting in the Venetian harbour of Chanea, Crete. Across the water, to their right, lay the long arm of the harbour wall with its lighthouse. Behind them was the white dome of the Mosque of the Janissaries; supported by four curving buttresses and situated behind four smaller domes above the façade, it looked like an octopus squatting on eggs.

“I do feel more at ease,” said Paul. “Like we’re friends again.”

Sarah took hold of Paul’s upper arm with both her hands and pulled him closer.

“It has been very peaceful.”

Paul continued to look ahead into the water; kicking his feet idly.

“Anyway,” said Sarah, “you don’t try to run away now when I kiss you.”

“No,” said Paul.

She kissed him. He smiled.

The awnings of the buildings around the harbour hung like droopy eyelids. They left Sarah feeling sleepy. Behind them was the gradual, yet dramatic rise of the White Mountains; dusted with snow from the peaks to the hills behind the town. It was blinding, inspiring, exhausting.

“I’m glad you like me again,” said Sarah. “It’s easier to believe you still love me.”

Paul grunted.

“Of course I still love you. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much noise in my head I can’t separate it. You know what I’m like. Gus reckons I have Aspergers. I sort of one-track everything and the confusion of all the rest, well, I hate it. It makes me uptight. Being on the road is different. I don’t feel petty. I feel mature.”

“You certainly act more mature.”

“Then I guess it’s true. Really, what it is,” said Paul, “I feel so uprooted. All the accretions of stagnation, the quotidian, all the bullshit, it’s gone. Gone in the drift of things. I mean, how long ago does work seem? Or even England, or Spain? We’ve been away four months now. It’s like an eternity.”

“Working was horrible. All that effort just to get here nearly wrecked everything. With us, I mean.”

Paul locked his gaze more firmly on the water.

“Well,” he said, “after we moved apart I didn’t go out much. There was all that tension.”

Sarah seemed to be looking down his line of sight. Perhaps she could see something of what he was thinking in what he was seeing.

“I guess it did sort of wreck everything,” said Paul, “But, then — ”

“Anyway,” said Sarah, holding tighter to his upper arm. “I hated working. I don’t ever want to have a job again.”

“No,” said Paul. “Neither do I.”

“We needed to get away.”

“We need to stay away.”

Later they walked past the mosque in the brilliant sun. The stones and pavement reflected clean, dry light. They had noticed, since arriving in Greece, how familiar the light seemed. Not softened by haze, or yellowed as it was in the angled north, the light in Greece was white and reminded them of Australia. The air was still.

Just past the mosque lay a row of Venetian storehouses. The long sandstone wall fronting onto the docks was capped by five triangular peaks that followed the shape of the roofs. It looked like a parapet. Standing out the front of this was an ancient, grey-haired man in the fisherman’s caps so common around the Aegean islands. He wore tightly pressed trousers, a white shirt, cream sports coat and polished brown shoes. He seemed both peasant and aristocrat in one. He was portly and dignified and toying with a set of amber beads.

The old man watched as Paul and Sarah approached, then began to walk towards them. After a few steps he held up his hand in greeting and said “Hello,” in English.

“Hello,” said Sarah, smiling.

Paul nodded. He did not feel like talking to strangers.

Reaching them where they had stopped, the old man held out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” said Sarah. She took his hand and shook it.

“You are travelling?” asked the old man.

“We’re from Australia,” said Paul.

“Australia? I have a grandson in Australia.”

“Oh, right,” said Paul. He had heard it all before; it was a common enough story in Greece. So common that he didn’t any longer believe it.

“How do you like Crete?” the old man asked.

“I love it,” said Paul. It’s a beautiful place.”

“And today is a beautiful day. In Germany now it is snowing. But here, Zeus is happy.”

He beamed, flashing a fine set of false teeth and suddenly Sarah and Paul were glad he had approached them.

“Yes, he’s been happy for days,” said Sarah, and they all chuckled diplomatically.

“You are walking to the harbour? To the lighthouse?”

“Maybe,” said Paul. “We walked to the lighthouse yesterday. We were just taking a stroll before lunch.”

“My mother is buying us lunch!” said Sarah, gleefully.

“Your mother is here too?”

“No, but she sent us some money.”

“For Christmas?” asked the old man.

“Yes, to buy us Christmas dinner.”

“That is nice.”

“I like to walk to the lighthouse,” he said. “Can I walk with you?”

“Yes,” said Paul, who hadn’t exactly said he was going there, “if you like.”

They resumed their walk along the waterfront. It was not at all busy, with only a few families and three or four other tourists. The old harbour of Chanea was larger than those of Rethymnon and Iraklion, also built by the Venetians. Here the sea entered deeper into the town, which hugged it like a lake. It was still and flat, with the water slightly latticed by the faint, occasional breeze. Just a week before, while Paul and Sarah were in Iraklion, a great storm had struck right across the Aegean. Watching at dawn, they had seen the ocean heave and seethe. Outside of the harbour wall was a leaping mass of water, yet behind it, on the inside, was complete calm. The yachts gently bobbed and swayed, but the violence stopped abruptly at the wall. Never before had the utility of a harbour been so apparent.

Since Iraklion the weather had remained fine. Just last night they had witnessed a wide, red sunset; the water ripening to deep aubergine. Sarah thought of fishermen, while Paul made an ineffectual sketch. They had hardly spoken; the long weeks of space had rebuilt the comfort of mutual silence.

“What do you call the beads you have?” asked Sarah of the old man. “All the men seem to have them.”

“Yes,” he replied. “They are Komboloi, worry beads. All the men have them.”

All the old men, thought Paul.

“Here, you try.”

He handed the beads straight to Paul, who was taken by surprise and took them reverently, as cautious as if handed a child.

“Komboloi?” he asked, handling the smooth, thick amber. The old man said nothing, he just smiled at the beads in Paul’s hands. They tapered in size and were strung on a yellow cord, ending in a soft tassel. Paul wanted to hand them to Sarah, but perhaps they were only for men. Sarah feared the same and looked closely as Paul spread them across his open palms.

“These are beautiful,” said Paul. “I can see how they might be calming.”

He was used to choosing his words carefully now; trying to limit his vocabulary to the basics. It was, in its way, exhausting. He wondered if “calming” was simple enough, wondered about the conditional, the subjunctive. Still, the old man’s English was unexpectedly good. He handed back the Komboloi.

They walked around the turn at the narrow elbow of the harbour. The old man remained silent and, after a minute or so, Sarah and Paul began to feel the choke on their conversation. No longer free to be at ease with saying nothing, they could think of nothing to say. They had explained themselves so many hundreds of times in the preceding months; where they came from, what it was like, what they did, who they were and why, that apart from beginning to wonder at the truth of it all, they were frankly quite sick of it and no longer wished to volunteer the information. In other towns they had met with many travellers, which they had appreciated, but here in Chanea, the last two days had been a pleasant void.

Half way along the harbour wall they stopped to look out to sea. Paul had a sensation he’d not had in years, of being chaperoned by a boring grandparent. Watching the seagulls in silence, however, he soon ceased to care. As the minutes ticked by, smoothed by the wash of the waves and the odd resounding echo of the town, any sense of concrete understanding vanished altogether. Sarah felt it too. An air of dissipation hung over everything, as though purposelessness were slowly lessening the gravity that held all the atoms together. Then she remembered lunch. It was something to hang on to, something to steer by.

It was at this point that the old man surprised Paul by touching him on the shoulder and saying, “Can I kiss her?”

“What?” said Paul, more abruptly than he would have liked.

“A kiss?” said the old man. “Can I kiss her?”

“Well,” said Paul, “you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask Sarah.”

“A kiss?” said the old man, turning to Sarah. “For Christmas.”

Sarah was as surprised and bewildered as Paul. The man seemed so old to her, even beyond grandfatherly. She had almost forgotten about him entirely.

“Well,” she said, reddening, “I don’t see why not.”

Sarah turned her face sideways and offered him her cheek. The old man was slow in his movements, but determined. His wrinkled neck strained and quivered as he leaned slowly into the kiss. He closed his eyes and puckered his mouth into a beak, while his liver-spotted hands reached out with the rigor mortis of a golem. He clumsily took hold of her shoulders and brought his face close to hers. Paul watched all this in profile; saw his girlfriend being taken in the arms of a mummy.

Sarah knew instantly what the old man was about and was having none of it. He had taken too long in crossing the distance. She was gorgeous and voluptuous, wearing a knee-length skirt. It was all so clear to her now. When he placed one of his dry, papery hands to her cheek and tried to turn her face towards him, her charity vanished. His stiff upper body was craning like a tortoise. He came in close, his nose brushing hers, but she snapped her head back in time and shook it from side to side, emitting a weak “no” in protest, ducking from his grip.

“Hey,” said Paul, reaching forward limply. He was paralysed by the man’s age, and, rather than reaching for him, he reached for Sarah, to help extract her. Yet she had, by then, extracted herself, stepping back several paces.

“No, not like that,” she said, out of breath with fright and embarrassment.

“What do you think—” said Paul, but something stuck in him; something about himself.

The old man was entirely unmoved. He stood in the end point of his manoeuvre as though nothing was amiss. He remained silent and lowered his arms; recomposed himself.

Sarah and Paul began to walk slowly; away from the man, away from the lighthouse, back towards the town. They stepped deliberately, as though tied in some way to the location of the incident. It was courtesy that kept them from running; courtesy, embarrassment and the length of the stretch, for the harbour wall ran for another hundred feet, open, exposed. They were trapped in the aftermath.

Sarah was inwardly fuming. It was the assumption that angered her so much. That man, that ancient, rubbery brothel-creeper with his revolting, antiquated misconceptions.

“Why didn’t you do something?” she said, thirty feet on.

“Do what?” hissed Paul “Do what?”

“I don’t know. Just make sure it never got to that.”

“But, but it all just sort of happened.”

Sarah was looking at her feet. She was ashamed and angry that she should feel something so contrary to her role in the matter.

“It’s easy for you,” she said, “you’re always kissing other people. I don’t… It’s horrible.”

“Don’t start that again,” said Paul.

“Why can’t I start that? I never get to start anything.”

It was all back in her, all the burning ‘errors’ she’d forgiven. She knew this wasn’t his fault, but it was just the sort of thing that happened to them now, and only because of him. Must everything always fall so short of what she hoped for with Paul? She allowed herself to believe his assurances, unable to see how far his bleakness and sabotage went, but her belief was no longer tempered by trust. It was simply that when he was on her side she felt stronger, safer. He was a useful ally. She hated that her love for him had deteriorated into something so utilitarian. He was as cold as a stone buttress.

“Just…. not now,” said Paul. “Not today. It’s fucking Christmas. Let’s just forget it. The whole thing was an innocent, silly mix-up. I thought he was going to kiss you on the cheek.”

“So did I.”

Sarah looked at Paul. Paul opened his mouth but said nothing. He was always in the wrong, and quite genuinely. If he hadn’t learned to avoid being in the wrong, he at least knew it wasn’t in his interest to start discussing why he was in the wrong. He had only learned this recently. Naively, he had always primed excuses and deployed them pre-emptively. He was good at excuses, but Sarah was better at truth and the one always countered the other.

His eyes relaxed. Her eyes relaxed. They both began to smile. They had reached the end of the harbour wall and turned around its hairpin to the stretch beside the storehouses.

“I’m not,” said Paul, “saying anything.”

“Let’s just say nothing,” said Sarah.

Paul looked behind him. The old man was ambling along, about twenty metres behind, toying with his beads.

“Fuck that old goat,” said Paul, “what’s his game anyway? Let’s make a run for it. Come on!”

He grabbed Sarah’s hand and broke into a run, pulling her with him. She skipped and hopped and then she was running as well, running with a widening smile. They ran until they came to a junction beside the weathered Venetian warehouses.

“This way!” shouted Paul, growing hysterical with mischief, turning away from the harbour. They came to a half-collapsed and roofless building. There was a boarded-up entrance that had been pried open, kicked in. Sun was streaming through the open top and the inside space was light and warm.

“Come on,” said Paul, “let’s hide in here.”

They stepped through the opening and placed their backs against the wall beside the doorway. Now they really started laughing, big gulping laughs and exhalations. They looked about. The ground was covered in rubble and overgrown with tall weeds. Half-broken planks hung from the wrecked floor above. It seemed a beautiful, happy ruin.

“Let’s go up the stairs and hide properly,” said Paul. “Just for the hell of it.”

“Is it safe?”

“I don’t know. The stairs look sturdy enough.”

They climbed up the stairs to the landing and stepped along the remaining edge of the floor, where a few beams protruded. Here they stopped, still breathing out the flurry of excitement.

“Seems pretty solid.”

The post-holes in the walls shuffled with nervous pigeons; seagulls cried overhead like polished glass. The sandstone was pocked and crumbly; honey-combed like frail conglomerate. Paul was drawn to its wear, to its ruin. He fingered the loose fragments of wall; it was bound here and there with dusty web. Sarah peered over the wreck of a window ledge to the street below. She sought the old man, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was likely still meandering by the harbour; likely still feeling the brush of her nose, the softness of her shoulder. She shuddered.

Paul sat down on the stairs. He was calm again now, overlooking the warm ruins. He had come to Europe to look at ruins; come to see the relics. He felt right at home with ruins. For one thing, they were never pressing, having lost all their urgency. He kicked his foot against a pebble on the stairs. It skipped down into the matted, weedy rubble.

Sarah watched the pebble bounce. How good it had felt when they ran together! It was so long since they had been in such unison. Ever since she had read his diary, when the dust finally settled, everything had been so cautious, so careful. She longed to be free of this deliberateness. Her eyes moistened and she fastened her grip on the weathered window sill. She was always waiting for Paul now. It wasn’t fair, but she could not face leaving him. Just now, she could not face him.

Paul began to think about lunch. He was a man of strong appetites, even at his most apathetic. How he loved the novelty of foreign menus.

“What do you want to eat?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Sarah. “We can have a look in town. You decide.”

She held tight to the sill, wanting to place herself back in the happiness of running. It had flushed her like a sugar high, and now she was coming down. How like Paul to have moved on already; to be thinking about something else. Slowly, silently, she began to cry; saddened by her weakness.

Paul failed to notice. He was thinking about pork chops; staring ahead into rubble.

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This short story was begun as long ago as 1998 and has since been through many revisions, rejections and further revisions, including changing its name three times. Apart from a quick run through before publishing it here, this draft dates from around July 2011. I’m unlikely to work on it again and don’t believe in it strongly enough to continue submitting it, plus, it rather fits the bill of tragicomedy, so here it is! 

 

Lady of Shallot - Waterhouse

 

For the Love of Seneca

“I have a bath again now,” said Oliver, sitting in his mother’s kitchen on a grey Sunday afternoon.

“Well, you know what I’ve always said?”

“Yes, I know. And if you say it again, I’ll come round next time you’re in the bath and throw the bloody hairdryer in.”

“Charming.”

Oliver’s mother, Janet was making pastry for a peach pie.

“It’s true,” she said. “Hot baths are very good for you.”

“I know, I know.”

“So how is Rachel?”

“She’s fine I guess.”

“Don’t you know? The last time I saw her she complained she never sees you.”

Oliver sipped from his cup of tea.

“I’m busy, mum. Anyway, she’s just being melodramatic. She’s got a thesis to write and if she made better use of the time I give her then she wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

“You give her!”

Oliver smirked.

“Well, whatever. I just don’t see why she can’t amuse herself.”

“Don’t you want to see her?”

“She’s hard to entertain. I’m tired of going out. The only thing I like is the cinema.”

“Haven’t you got anything in common any more?”

Oliver shrugged. He was tired and wanted to get home to indulge his lethargy.

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You seem to know about everything else. I hope you’re not misleading her. After four years, I’d like to think she could expect some honesty.”

Oliver shrugged again. Janet’s eyes widened.

“You little rat.”

_________________________________________________

When Oliver arrived home that evening there was a message from Rachel on his answering machine. The daily phone-call; it was as ubiquitous as it was dreary. Did she really need to hear his voice?

He sighed and phoned her nonetheless. She was in a good mood and he hoped it wasn’t his fault. It seemed so simplistic, this happiness she got from him. She wanted him to do Latin American dancing with her.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

“But you said you’d take dancing lessons with me.”

“I said I was willing to do ballroom dancing, not Latin American dancing. Anyway, I don’t have the right sort of shoes.”

“What sort of shoes?”

“Plus I haven’t got the right clothes. Whatever the case, I can’t go tonight. I’ve got half a book to read.”

“But you promised you’d go with me. Who cares about the shoes or clothes? Just wear anything. And this is ballroom dancing. I don’t see what the difference is.”

“There’s a big difference. Anyway, I couldn’t stand all that fickle, jaunty music. You know I only promised after you hassled me about it, and to tell the truth I’m annoyed with myself for showing such a complete lack of spine.”

“Don’t be so full of shit, Oliver. It’s not fair. You said you would go. Emily’s going and Johannes is going and I said I’d go and now I don’t have a partner.”

“You’re an attractive girl. I don’t think you’ll be a wallflower for long.”

“God, you can be a real prick. If you’re not coming just say so without being nasty.”

“I’ve already said I’m not coming. How many times do you want me to say it? I can’t tonight, I’ve got stuff lined up.”

“Well you obviously don’t need a girlfriend then do you?”

“If it’s a choice between sanity and Latin dancing, then you’re probably right.”

_________________________________________________

Oliver worked weekends and his Monday mornings were the height of liberty. It was then that he could shine and feel the world to be wide and glorious. This Monday morning was no exception. With so much possible he could afford a brief rest and chose to lie in bed with his face in the sunlight. He imagined basking in a rowboat, drifting from a bank of arching reeds. Further up the idling river he conjured another such boat carrying another such sunlit dreamer. There she lay, drifting towards him, a living Ophelia or Lady of Shallot, soft and quenching as a Waterhouse. If only their hulls might collide.

When he opened his eyes he was back in his room with its brown carpet and walls stained by the rotting wood of the window pane. Still there was every reason for hope, for today was all his and he might just run into her.

It had, after all, happened before; this longed-for extra-curricular encounter with Lucinda. Exactly a week ago, after a class, he had found her in the library, full of speculation. In her merry, assured voice, with its strong hint of English aristocracy, she explained how Walter Scott was to blame for the American Civil War; that Emma Bovary deserved respect for striving for titillation amidst a sea of mediocrities; how Levin in Anna Karenina was merely a self-portrait of Leo Tolstoy, and finally about St Anselm’s spurious proof of the existence of God. If Oliver had been in deep before, last Monday was the final straw.

Dared by her intellectual openness, he had mentioned his love of Seneca, unveiling his innermost vice. What raptures had filled him with her wide-eyed response.

“Oh I love Seneca,” she had said in his wake. “He’s such a tragic figure and so marvellously brave. There was such nobility in the way he took his own life. I do so admire the Stoics.”

Was it to be believed, that he should meet a woman, indeed a girl, so fond of someone as crustily wonderful as Seneca? He had to face the facts; he was hopelessly in love with Lucinda and he came away waving his arms close to his chest. These restrained gesticulations accompanied a revisitation of her words, for he smarted long after with her brilliance and reworked his way through her expositions. How she outshone everyone and everything that had existed anywhere – ever!

So it was that a week later, after a morning of writing and study, Oliver set off with a will to be lucky. On campus anything could happen; he would patrol the library and the cafés and hope that he might intercept her. If he could not find her on campus, then perhaps he might see her on the streets of Glebe. After all, she only lived a few blocks away and so long as he was out of doors and in their locale, there was a chance he and she might meet.

Once in the library, having collected a pile of books, he photocopied with vigour. He thought he looked very strong in a tee-shirt and positioned himself to be seen in profile by any who should enter the copy room. She did not come. Later, he wandered through all the levels of the library tower, walking up and down the aisles and formulating excuses for being where he did not need to be. Much to his disappointment, however, these jovial musings were never required to be uttered.

After two coffees at the one café she had told him she frequented, he resigned himself to defeat and set off to dawdle home. Along Glebe Point Road his eyes were hawkish and he ventured into all the book shops, yet failed to catch a glimpse of her.

As his door closed behind him and all possibility died, his mood sank quickly and he walked to his bed for a mope.

_________________________________________________

“You’re not seeing someone else are you?”

“No, mum, I’m not seeing someone else. What makes you think that?”

“Everything.”

“Well, I suppose, technically speaking, I have seen someone else.”

“Bloody men.” She looked at him fiercely. “I hope you were discrete this time.”

“I haven’t done anything! I’ve just had my eye on someone. A girl from my history class. Nothing’s happened and it probably never will.”

“Why won’t anything happen?”

“I don’t know. It’s like she’s out of my league. I’ve never met anyone so interesting or intelligent, and we’ve got so much in common, down to the most trivial things. Though, with her, nothing seems trivial.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Probably nothing. I’m too much of a coward to corner her.”

“Well if you really think she’s so special, why not ask her out? And while you’re at it, why keep Rachel hanging on? You’re hedging your bets. If Rachel finds out you’ve got a crush on another girl it’ll be awful for her.”

Oliver shook his head. Why did Sunday dinner so often turn into an interrogation? It was his business after all.

“I’m too jealous to break up with Rachel. She’s so attractive, she’ll find some other bloke in no time. That would be a real blow.”

“God, Oliver, you’re as self-centred as your father. And what about this other girl?”

“Lucinda.”

“If you really have everything in common, then she must know it as well.”

“Maybe she sees things differently.”

“Well, why don’t you find out? If it’s over with Rachel then end it and ask this girl out.”

“It’s not that simple, mum. If she’s not interested, then it’ll be bloody embarrassing being in the same classroom. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

“Maybe you need to think about being fair to Rachel first. Why not take a long hot bath, and think about what’s right, hmmm?”

_________________________________________________

Oliver worked hard over the next few weeks during which time he found little solace. Though he visited the library daily and patrolled the locale in spare moments, his hopes of running into Lucinda proved fruitless. When he did see her in class on Wednesdays he lacked the nerve to attempt to command her attention. This was usually directed to another chap called Cain with whom she already had a strong rapport. Oliver did not feel comfortable trying to insinuate himself into their chats and could barely find the courage even to hover by the notice board after class in the hope of being addressed. He would, more often than not, slink off with a honking, nasal farewell. The bravado that had netted him indiscretions in the past was merely the drunken scion of intense shyness.

One day, as he was playing tennis, Oliver saw Lucinda walking up the hill towards the library, bustling with her usual energy. He was turning to collect a ball by the wire fence and was so shocked to see her that he almost did something daring and cried out. Having intercepted his first would-be shout, he began to consider his appearance, which, sweaty and unsophisticated, lacked the stage management that went into his classroom attendances. Before long she had turned the corner and vanished from reasonable earshot. Her admirer remained staring a while, gripping his racquet impotently tight, ready to serve a fiery fault.

Oliver felt this missed opportunity to be a terrible blow and it sank his spirits further. His growing determination to pursue Lucinda added a marked surliness in his dealings with Rachel and he saw her even less than before. It would be just his luck that Lucinda should see him on the street with his girlfriend and that would be the end of that. The difficulties were great enough as it was, but to be revealed as a dud option was out of the question.

All the same, his surliness did not emerge free of guilt. Often he found his own obstinacy to be unpleasant and was afraid that he had hardened his heart too much. It was the sound of his own voice that most disturbed him. He found it difficult to like himself when he spoke to Rachel, but something inexorable prevented him from behaving charitably. He feared that he was really punishing himself and his regret stemmed not so much from an unrealised desire to please Rachel, but rather from the suspicion that a more active social life and less time in “the monastery” might be invigorating.

He had long ago identified the real problem in his attitude to Rachel. It lay in his resentment of her happiness, and that principally because he was the source of it. It struck him as pathetic how happy his mere presence could make her and insulting to him that she expected him to derive the same pleasure from her. No one should be entirely responsible for someone’s happiness, he mused. It was an unreasonable burden, an impossible burden and he wanted none of it.

What he resented most of all was that he had spent so long searching for “the formula” and he feared that Rachel had found it. Well, if she believed him to be the answer, then he would have no choice but to prove how flawed this idea of hers was.

“Why is she not plagued by philosophical questions day and night?” he asked himself. “Why does she not sweat as I do over the insoluble? How can anyone rightly be comfortable in this world?”

Despite being aware of the pretentiousness of his angst, he indulged in it, all the while telling himself that he longed to be more like Seneca; dour and joyous in his sobriety, heroically useful in his reasoned application. As yet, the only thing he had managed to put aside was his lust and physical passion, but he could not achieve a level temperament. He was all angles and jarrings, the mere elbows and knees of a personality. At best he was awkward and stiff, while at worst he was cranky and mean spirited. He felt at times that his selfishness knew no bounds. Worst of all, however, at the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy, was Oliver’s fear that he too had found the formula, only for him, the answer was the unattainable Lucinda.

Rachel continued to phone him every day to see how he was, understanding his outward moroseness to be the result of plunging himself into so much work. She was upset and worried at the absence of his old optimism. He was more ambition now than hope, and the one was a good deal more curt than the other. He was thirsty and faithless and sought too many memories to whisper subversively about the stale present. When the sun set, he fell into his soul and he saw the heavens and the claws. The morning would return to give him the confidence to forfeit his life to work and an uncertain chance. It was a hollow security, staid and forced; with little chance for air.

_________________________________________________

“I’ve half a mind to tell her what you think myself,” said Oliver’s mother one evening. “I just don’t understand why you refuse to do the decent thing. I thought all these philosophers you’re so fond of wrote about ethics and morality and personal decency. Hasn’t any of that rubbed off?”

“I’ve adopted the work ethic…”

“Well, that’s a start.”

“I can’t help myself, mum. I’m completely hooked. I don’t know what to do, but I feel I have to do something.”

“You can’t just keep Rachel hanging on. She’s going to find out the hard way and you’ll be in a right pickle when she decides to leave you for neglecting her.”

“Oh, she won’t leave me. I know that for certain. She loves me far too much.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”

“She’s told me so herself. She couldn’t leave if she tried. It would break her heart. Irreparably.”

_________________________________________________

One Wednesday afternoon Oliver arrived at class to find no one present. He sat in a chair in the vestibule where he often sat when he was early. It must be a coincidence, he thought, that everyone is late this week. A further five minutes went by, the clock passed two and still no one arrived at the classroom. Then he remembered and leapt from the chair.

“Fuck, shit, shit,” he spat, marching to the notice board. He scanned and flipped the hanging sheets, but he could not see what he was looking for. He pulled his course outline from his bag. It confirmed his worst suspicions. Their trip to St Mary’s Cathedral for a lecture on the Gothic architectural style was this week, not next week as he had somehow mistakenly recalled. How on earth could he have made such a monumental error?

He pictured his fellow students, joyous and smiling and Lucinda most of all, delighting in the upper galleries. They were probably touring the vault first, damn them – and he would miss the chance to see her moist with excitement and to charm her with his remarks, delivered on foot with a chance for theatre. The knowledge, the experience, the bonding would all be missed, and the week following he would seem out of touch; an outsider, and the rest all just a little closer.

He cursed again and moved to the stairs. If he took the bus and ran across town he would be almost forty minutes late. He would have to take a taxi and even then he would be at least twenty minutes late, probably twenty-five. But what if the tour was for one hour only? He would arrive flustered, be forced to talk to priests and be led like a lost lamb to his tutorial group, out of sorts and bumbling excuses. He would look a desperate fool, and his every effort would be sunk. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had decided that it was already too late. He marched off in the direction of his flat; frowning, sulkily barbaric.

Once at home, Oliver paced up and down his flat, regretting his decision not to go. Eventually he took himself to his desk to try to write, but he found it impossible to concentrate and decided to take a walk instead. He had a shower first, changed his clothes and set off for the park at Glebe Point with his camera, a blanket and a book. If he could not write, then so be it, but were he to take a good photograph, the afternoon would not feel so lost.

The sun was warm and a light wind flecked the water with a broken glare. The air was touched with damp scents from the fig trees. The grass was springy and welcomingly soft.

Oliver lay his blanket down and rested on an elbow. He lay like this for an hour, reading about the fall of Berlin, then sank on his back and placed the book over his eyes. He dozed off quickly with his camera stuck in his armpit. Over the next hour he drifted in and out of sleep. He felt serene lying as he was and for a time he lost his tension as the world retreated behind a few snap dreams.

It was five o’clock when he sat up in the lower sunlight. Straight ahead, across the water, stood two old power station chimneys. Before them was docked a jumble of half-scrapped ships. The fading green and yellow paint of an old harbour ferry had blistered with rust like red moss.

Across the face of this setting stepped Lucinda and Cain, strolling slowly beside the water. Oliver’s breath caught as he heard the sound of her voice.

“Oh and I just love what Suger has to say about vaulting. Isn’t it splendid that such books exist?”

Oliver did not move a muscle. Even when Cain, nodding, touched her upper fore-arm and directed her gaze to the boats opposite, he remained perfectly still. The moment their backs were turned he rubbed his eyes and adjusted his hair, then straightened up his clothes. His mouth opened and closed as the decision to speak was revoked. He could not be seen like this. His eyes were too puffy and his face un-alert from sleep. His throat needed clearing and the salt of dried sweat to be washed from his park-lawn limbs. He watched with horror and fascination as Cain and Lucinda stood pointing across the water.

“Look,” she said, “they’ve started removing the panels from the hull.”

“Yes, I saw that yesterday,” said Cain. “My favourite thing is that crane over there,” and he pointed to the horizon.

“Yes,” said Lucinda, “it’s a splendid crane.”

Then, as Cain stood admiring the scene, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Cain looked surprised.

“I thought you said not in public.”

“Well,” said Lucinda, “mostly. Just not on campus, that’s for sure.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and kissed her back.

Oliver lay straight back down on the grass. He picked up his book and held it in front of himself, blocking the view of his face with its open cover; ruins and a Russian tank.

_________________________________________________

Oliver lay in the bath, steaming. It was pleasant enough in itself to give him second thoughts, but on this matter he was quite resolved. Things had really taken a turn for the worse in the last three months. The decisions he made had left him disgusted with himself and there was little of which to be proud. Pulling out of his thesis was a tragic error, but when Rachel left him for Johannes, the floor had fallen rapidly away.

Despite what he had witnessed between her and Cain, Oliver’s desire for Lucinda would not let him rest. He stepped up his efforts, trying to drive himself like a wedge between the two of them. Oddly, like a man engaging in an undeclared duel, he targeted Cain. He played Cain at tennis and lost. He played him at chess and lost. He played him at Trivial Pursuit and lost as well. Nor could he equal him in a philosophical discourse; the way he was shown up for a fraud on Aristotle was quite the final straw. Lucinda still shone like a beacon, but Lucinda was gone; taken in hand by a lover with glowing credentials. Perhaps, had he not left his trying so late, he might have stolen a march. How different things might have been had he not hedged his bets! Compromise had stifled him and Stoicism had failed him, but this time, he would not fail Stoicism.

“No one else shall have the choice to kill me nor spare me.”

He wanted to laugh at himself for speaking such portentous mimicry, but he had lost his humour a month ago.

“Fortitude, constancy and self-reliance, versus avarice, greed and time-wasting.  Bugger.”

With the weighty results of his disappointment, his fortitude was failing. His constancy was long since tried and proven to be hollow. His self-reliance was exhausted if unflinching, yet he was tired of having to do everything for himself. Avarice, yes, in the desires of the heart; Greed yes, in the form of his lust; and time-wasting in the drinking brought on by his depression.

It is a terrible thing to forget to be nice to the right people.

He took the razor and held it to his left wrist.

In the pointed style, but again he was too heavy to find it amusing.

He squinted and clenched and drew it towards him, running smoothly with a bitter sting.

The red line rising in the wake of its passage took its time to flourish, yet from this deceptive innocence a gushing flow soon sprang.

Oliver blanched at the sight of his own blood and closed his eyes in horror.

“What have I done?”

He felt sick enough to vomit, though he merely gagged and tautened. He peered through his lashes and felt a strange tickle, but could not bear the sight of his wound. There was so much blood! When Seneca took his life he’d had to cut his wrists, then ankles, then the backs of his knees and he still did not bleed fast enough. Indeed from here, in what had been such an apposite and inspirational gesture for Oliver, Seneca was then thrust into a warm bath to accelerate the flow after a walloping dose of Hemlock. Yet, neither poison nor the hot waters were sufficient to break his constitution, so he was finally rendered unto Caesar via a suffocating steam bath. Such heroic misery was not forecast by Oliver and, in his case, as he now acknowledged with his slitted, frightened eyes, the hot bath was working all too well.

He took another look at his wrist; all scarlet and curlicued on the drop-studded armrest; it was scathing beauty, so perfectly bright. The wound pulsed and surged and he flinched from its slow throb. He turned it upside down then thrust it away from himself.

“Holy fuck, holy shit,” there was panic upon him, but with his eyes locked shut and his stinging wrist resting now cold and downturned on the bathside, he felt a certain calm regained through the warmth and faintness prevailing.

He sunk his head back and tried to think clearly, for he had indeed predicted that the action itself would unseat him. He inhaled deeply and felt his shoulders bristle with cooling sweat. He slid down further so the bath might cover him and turned his head upward so that when he opened his eyes, they would not behold a vision of horror.

There was no hope now of going through with his other wrist, for he could not look down at all. Surely it would not be necessary. If he lay still enough he would drift into cloudiness, then fade away for good. He had to overcome the immediate panic and consider his decision with the reasoning that had led him to this bath. And what was that reason, he asked of himself – an absence of hope?

The sting was growing and brought its own inevitable caveat. Yet, just as he had predicted, once the first step was taken, the consequences of living with the psychological ripples from a failed attempt would make his life all the more unbearable in any possible aftermath.

With his eyes still closed and the back of his head tingling with watery nerves, he forced himself instead to think of his philosopher heroes. When Thrasea took his life his friends gathered round as they had with Socrates, to watch and assist in ending his days. Likewise with Seneca. And these were the most educated men of their times. Even if branded traitors and told that they ought to kill themselves, or, like Socrates, sentenced unfairly to death, still they went ahead with it, with friends about and in good humour. And still, such a thing was acceptable, even honourable, even for young men.

How different the world was today, in which so few respected the decision to end one’s life! Certainly Oliver respected it – at least for himself – though perhaps not for everyone.

“And how might that be justified?” he asked, trying to regain some mental equilibrium. “If such a course is suitable for me, surely it is suitable for everyone. But what of those who are not ready? Perhaps they should only allow suicide for those who have a thorough philosophical education.”

He became quite resolved on this point and, momentarily, cheered by it. It would have been splendid if someone were sitting next to him and he could have sought a second opinion. Oddly enough, the most appropriate candidate was Cain – quite the sharpest mind he knew when it came to philosophical dialogues. And Lucinda, of course. She might have smoothed his brow with a cool washer and, if she were made of sterner stuff than he, which he didn’t doubt for a moment, then perhaps she could have assisted him by slashing his other wrist.

He liked this way of thinking, as the steam and heat began to ripple his skin. Lucinda would at least understand the bravery in all this. And she loved Tacitus as well, and Tacitus, after all, had told the best stories about suicides ever recounted. At least in ancient literature, and there wasn’t too much to be had from the moderns on the topic. Or so Oliver thought, for whom such certitude from a position of relative ignorance was not atypical.

Oliver was still too terrified to look to his wrist. He had not moved it since he had lain it along the bath’s edge, cut facing downwards. From those opened veins he could feel a vibrant pulse. His life! The blackness was still at a significant remove. There was as yet little of the static with which his eyes were flooded when he had fainted in the past. Perhaps because he was reclining, perhaps because his head was supported against the back of the tub – either way, he was not dizzy. Indeed, he felt particularly energetic, something he had not felt for some time. There had been the throes of bingeing to carry him briefly, but on the whole his spirit had been lacklustre and weighty.

Unsurprising that it should come back to him now, but he recalled a conversation in which he denounced suicide as pathetic; a spineless, selfish course of action. Had he not once declared that before taking such a measure one should try every chance at happiness? Had he not then said that should the sorrows grow so great, he would rob a bank, fly to Venezuela and burn his passport? Anything, however extreme – a chance must surely be better than no chance. He felt himself to be, to some degree, a hypocrite.

He had been right, he decided, but the words were spoken with energy and passion and not from a body that had become lethargic and moribund. He lacked the energy to rob a bank. Indeed, it was precisely that sort of effort that shamed him now. If he had the urge to get up and get on with things, then he would not have taken this course in the first place.

Oliver edged himself up in the bath with his feet. Perhaps he was now feeling dizzy. The corners of his vision were tingling with flickers of black, creeping like noise into a photograph. He was on the brink of wondering where he stood on all these matters, but a mild panic now arrested him. He felt too hot and prickled and, not wanting to fade in discomfort, he reached out carefully, without catching sight of his bleeding arm, to turn on the cold tap.

Socrates.

He had had something to say about suicide.

“Tell me then, Socrates,” said Cebes, “what are your grounds for saying that suicide is not legitimate?”

“No doubt you will feel it strange,” said Socrates, after a fashion, “that this should be the one question that has an unqualified answer.”

Oliver had been reading the Phaedo only that afternoon and found himself questioning the merits of the dialogues.

Socrates said: “I want to explain to you how it seems natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished.”

“But you weren’t an atheist!”, Oliver protested. “For all your quarrelsomeness, you thought you were going somewhere better. And if you weren’t, then hell, you were an old man. You had lived!”

Oliver took his hand from the cold tap and shook it in the ugly, leering face of Socrates.

“You claimed that a philosopher spends his life preparing for death, denying the visceral in favour of the intellectual and spiritual.”

The static was building behind his eyelids, accompanied by a mild and sweet nausea. The water was cooling quickly and his body temperature was spiking between heat and chills.

“You spent your life trying to divorce your soul from your body,” continued Oliver, reassuring himself not with his words, but the sound of his voice, “but I’ve spent my life improving myself for this world, not the next. As an atheist, how can I even fathom the end of myself, let alone sanction it?”

The cold flow was snaking across the surface water.

Wincing now against sharpening discomfort, he thought more on the matter. For all his qualities as a disputant, Socrates’ arguments seemed poorly structured and full of non sequiturs. He was like a television journalist who loves tearing people apart but never really asks the right questions.

“You were surrounded by sycophants! All your bum-chums loved rolling over and pissing on their bellies. They loved wriggling around in your spurious horseshit.”

Oliver began to giggle at the vehemence of these words. This was a man he had always admired! He was being so unfair that he was sure he must be getting delirious. Often, when overtired he found himself able to laugh or cry at the drop of a pin and just now he was shaking his head.

This was a time both for laughing and crying.

He was getting off track too, thinking about anything and everything. He needed to bring it on home.

“What would Thrasea have to say and do?” he asked. “Old Thrasea just went right on and topped himself. It was like he couldn’t wait, like he’d been itching all along to have a slash at his veins.”

Thrasea had gathered his friends around and called on the sharpness of a philosopher friend in the form of Demetrius, yet no one knows what the two men said. Unbelievably, in perhaps the greatest cliff-hanger in the entire history of western literature, the manuscript of Tacitus breaks off with the line: “then, as his lingering death was very painful, he turned to Demetrius…”

“What did he say?” asked Oliver.

Oliver had a friend called Demitri, perhaps he should call him up and say nothing? But seriously, what might Thrasea have said? Probably something dull, but profound. Then again, knowing Tacitus, some immensely subtle and scathing indictment of the emperor that would only stink of dissidence to those who could do cryptic crosswords.

Oliver’s wrist was killing him now. The sting was sickening and a dull ache had spread all the way up his arm and into his biceps, through his shoulder and along into his neck. This secondary agony, this sympathetic warning…

Christ, he thought. If I was Thrasea, I would have hot-footed it out of there. Perhaps what he really said was “get me the hell out of here. Bind my wrists, grab me a toga, get me some wine, roll me up in a carpet and smuggle me the fuck to Egypt, you doddering homo!”

Oliver laughed again, this time in a hiss of piping giggles. He hadn’t felt such levity in months! He lifted his head forward from the back of the bath and felt its weight on his neck; it lolled and his eyes rolled and he put it straight back down; fearful now of losing consciousness. He was closing in on dissent against himself and could not afford to lose the chance.

The more he thought about it, the more Demitri seemed an ideal candidate for someone to have by his side. Demitri always cut through his pretensions like a knife. Whenever Oliver got worked up about something, Demitri would call him “poofter”. It had been going on since high school and perversely, it gave him great pleasure. Indeed, so run of the mill had it become that whenever he phoned Demitri now, Demitri would answer “is that you, poof?”

How he relished it! Maybe he wasn’t a poof, but a fool, yes, indeed – for why was he now thinking he wanted Demitri beside him? To cut through what? His other wrist, or his immense stupidity? Had he not told himself that his sentencing must be carried out beyond the shadow of a doubt? There could be no doubt at all, either reasonable or unreasonable, and from the moment his wrist had begun to spill he had questioned both his motive and goal. He couldn’t even hold a decent philosophical discourse with himself without piddling about in childish tangents.

He reached out and placed his hand under the cold tap which was still running. He cupped the cold and threw water across his eyes. He repeated this several times before reaching for a face washer lying on the bath’s edge. Folding it into a triangle with one hand, he raised his bleeding arm and shook with the image it brought him. He did not hesitate and nor did he flinch as he slapped the washer hard against it, wrapping it tight and binding it into a knot with his teeth. The water in the bath was colder now and he was starting to shiver. His eyes were holding out just fine, but he was fighting strong against the swoon.

With his foot he worked out the plug. He heard the lurching gurgle as the pipes took the flood, then reached for his mobile phone. He had left it on the bath-side stand and knew exactly what had to be done. It was there should he need it and he had hoped he would not, only why was it there were it not for his habitual failure of nerve? Bah! he was no Stoic, he was all cry for help.

Then, as he lingered in the bath with the water draining about him and his body growing heavier each moment, he hit Demitri’s number.

“Is that you, poof?” asked Demitri.

Oliver did not laugh this time, but rather, he explained himself by saying the following…

Seneca

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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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“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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This is a rather ribald and naughty short story I wrote in 2006, shortly after moving back to Cambridge. The title is a play on the famous post-coital quote from Balzac “There goes another novel”, indicative of how sexual satisfaction can sap creative energy. It contains adult themes and sexual references, so you have been warned. I’ve edited and re-edited this over the years, including just now, but its length has been prohibitive in submitting it to journals which almost universally have a 5000 word cap on short fiction. It is deliberately “overwritten” in deference to the style of the Baroque Minstrel, a nickname I acquired on account of my excitable and exclamatory conversational style. Having said that, this is merely a lurid fantasy, and not to be considered autobiographical!

A note for non-Australian readers:

Root (noun) (verb,  transitive / intransitive) – A synonym for “fuck” in almost all its uses. “Did you root her?”; “This thing is rooted.”; “I need a root.” and so on…

 

Here Comes Another Novel…

My thoughts had long been emerging stillborn. I couldn’t shake the tendency towards irony, which is really a despicable tone in which to write. It was nothing less than a thin disguise for a bitter indictment of the human condition. I was, admittedly, appalled by the state of affairs around me and had good reason to distrust my fellow men and women, yet the results were more the bile of perforated arrogance than the sweet renderings of the high and mighty distaste I longed to cultivate.

And then, after months in the doldrums, wondering what on earth should be the subject of my next novel, I started having all my best ideas during sex.

The recovery began one autumn Tuesday. I attended an exhibition opening in Paddington in the hope of free booze and totty. The theme was the Romanian harvest and the paintings were so surprisingly good that I was swept into a mood of delicious exposition. I clung to the few people I recognised and smoked everything they had on them; snaking glass after glass of wine and sinking against the wall with milky eyes. Outside was a long, lurid sunset, deepening to royal blue. Honestly, the last thing I expected was to strike it lucky.

I was riding a conversation about Harry Tangiers’ latest stage incarnation as a highwayman when this cracking girl called Charlotte joined in. She had long, wavy, dark brown hair, fine full eyes, pale skin and thin lips. She struck me somehow as Czech. So far as looks were concerned, there were few boxes left un-ticked, so I did what I always did on such occasions – raised my voice slightly and tried to sound more emphatically intelligent.

The conversation wended its way down a jauntily colourful path; art, books, politics, booze, the need to engineer a virus that killed only fuckwits, and slowly but surely the comings and goings saw Charlotte standing next to me. Being close to the wall and awfully drunk, I leaned back and propped myself up, hoping to draw her in with a relentless stream of words. When the rest of the talkers began to drift off, probably sick of the sound of my voice, I at last secured her exclusive attention.

“Goodness,” I said, after trying in fifteen minutes to divulge all my positives without looking like the incurable egotist I know myself to be, “everyone’s gone.”

“They are closing now,” she said, peering inside the gallery. “Looks like it’s all over.”

“No more booze then.” I moaned.

“I guess not.”

“Dear, oh dear.”

“You may not be aware of this,” she said, “but there are places called pubs and bars where they sell drinks. You have to pay, but they rarely ever run out.”

“Crikey, you must be an angel.”

It seemed we’d tacitly turned this into a date. I found the prospect both brilliant and terrifying for I could not bear the thought of letting her get away, but to go further into the night and maintain the energy required to charm and woo seemed such a challenge that I longed to be cowardly. The uncertainty of it all, the hoping against all the doubts and questions, the looming and potentially devastating revelation of her marital status… I was still hanging in there with a bawdy, roiling wit, but on the brink of uncontrollable sloppiness.

Fortunately the alcohol had not only robbed me of patience, it had also left me disinhibited. Before I could believe I was doing it and reel myself in, I took the bold step of seeking certain assurances.

“If we do go for a drink,” I said, pressing keenly against the wall to sustain my leaky stance. “What are my chances?”

Charlotte smirked and raised a hand to her mouth. She laughed with her eyes and exhaled through her nose. Her fringe fell crossways and blinked away an eye, and then she laughed out loud.

“Excuse me?” she said. “What exactly are you implying?” It was playful and uncompromised, though her tone betrayed at least a hint of shock.

“I mean,” I said, “that it’s been a long day.”

“Cryptic.”

“And if I’m going to spend my precious inner reserves of will to power another drinking session, I’d like to know now, for instance, that you don’t have a boyfriend and you’re not a lesbian and you don’t have children. Because, if we do keep drinking I’ll just get to like you more than I do already and then it’ll be a blow to me when I find out the truth.”

I struggle to make eye contact at the best of times, so I followed her mouth instead as it poised and twitched, curled and pursed, decoding my words for any measure of insult. I was pushing my luck, but you don’t get a damned thing if you don’t ask for it. Or worse, you get everything you never wanted, twenty-four seven.

“You’re very calculating,” she said. “Christ, and I thought Romance was dead.”

“Romance doesn’t have to be subtle. It’s the stuff of foundations, the root of myth, the mythology of rooting, if you will.”

I was pleased when she laughed at this, and I even laughed myself. It was a while since I had felt so lyrically lucid and I could see this Charlotte might just be the muse for whom I’d been searching.

“There’s no reason why a drunken lurch cannot be construed as romantic,” I added.

“Do you mean by way of a lunge? And what if you were to miss?”

“Or, if the target fended me off with what they call, in Rugby League speak, a ‘don’t argue’? Well, even then the humbling failure might become the keystone of a later, ennobling victory.”

She put her hands on her hips and frowned and smiled.

“So, then, are you going to make a lunge or not?”

“Are you going to fend me off?”

“Only one way to find out.”

“Hang about,” I said. But I didn’t hang about. Courage comes rarely and hence I’ve learned not to forsake it. I was on a slope, steep if short, and to lean away from the wall was a significant risk after all the wines and joints. Still, her words were the nearest thing I’d had to an invitation in a while and I longed to sink my hands into her hair.

Off I went. I launched myself with searching hands, hoping by a combination of balance and weighting to step neatly into her space. Her curls hung heavy and rich, tumbling down upon breasts so pert that they seemed to be craning upwards. I tilted towards this vision of loveliness, leaning across the chasm with the grace of a leading man; natural, gliding, firm and sure, and for about three eighths of a second I was on track. Feeling ahead with my right foot, however, committed to the step that would bring me into her ambit, I came down hard on the edge of the narrow, back-lane pavement and went shooting off sideways in a ghastly flail of word and limb.

“Fuck me dead!” I cried, striking the bitumen hard.

In she came, after me like a comet tail; long legs folding, calves tucking, heels pointing and hair spilling as her white blouse erupted with taut frontage.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “That really fucking hurt.”

“Here, let me help you,” she said.

And thus, as I had so unwittingly predicted, did the mythology of our rooting begin.

______________________________________

 

Three weeks is a very long time when starting anew. It is also the best of times; fulfilment has not yet compromised the sweetness of desire and many questions remain unanswered. It took a week for our sexual rhythms to synch and after three weeks we were both champions of each other’s pleasure. Our conversations rushed with agreement, our passions found their fellows, and in each other’s space we became completely comfortable. Were I younger and more foolish I might have declared myself to be in love, but I have long since learned to wait and see. Love, lust, in love and loving – who can fathom these subtleties when they are completely and utterly cunt-struck?

And, sure enough, after three weeks, I was cunt-struck. Charlotte was marvellous – she had a high school debating prize, she wrote film reviews and book reviews, she’d studied fine arts and knew her way around an auction house – and she’d even read my first novel. I was enchanted and flattered, fulfilled and yet craving more and more. Best of all, however, my mood was lifting and the barriers were falling away – I could feel another novel coming on.

I once used to prefer to have people come to my place to be in control of the environment, the music, the atmosphere. As I got older I came to realise that it was better to pay visits in order to be in control of the coming and going. I also wanted to get out of my Glebe flat, which was beginning to feel tired, as was Glebe, and Charlotte had a wonderful, run down old art deco apartment in Kings Cross. The whole area was a thrill to walk through. I like to be titillated; hookers, lingerie, dance-clubs, tough guys and junkies; neon, trash, vomit and class. Walking past the pros and cons was a buzz.

Charlotte and I soon fell into a routine of spending time at hers. This way we both had the upper hand we liked best. Our shared vices ensured all was well; good wines, good food, marijuana, films, occasional cigarettes, coffee and of course, plenty of generous sexual intercourse.

So, one Saturday night, about three and a half weeks in, when our sexual familiarity had shifted up another gear, on the wings of two bottles of wine, having just finished a savage joint, we fell to dizzy fondling. I felt sloppy and submissive and was positively aching for a noisome wallow.

“Bedroom,” said Charlotte in caveman-like contrast to her recent discourse on Scandinavian cinema.

“Get yer kit off,” I said, standing from the couch like Superman in a mobile strip.

We made straight for the bed and feasted on what was revealed. My head was spinning in the wake of the last few tokes, yet salvation came in the form of utter commitment to pleasure, freeing my mind from all fear of nausea.

Ten minutes later I was on my knees, thrusting like a demon. Charlotte’s hair clung sticky to her back and I watched closely as the skin slid palely across her bone and muscle. Her shoulders were hypnotic; thin yet unyielding, feminine but by no means frail. The narrow isthmus from her hips to her ribs became the playground for my hungry eyes. There was grunting and sighing and no hint of holding back. I was thrilling now in all forms of sensual pleasure; muscles and joints, warm with exercise, hard as a rock, and shoulders prickling with sweat. The droplets gathered on my forehead and chest and my hands became slippery with rivulets of humidity.

Then, it happened.

I began lifting from the scene, entranced by the rhythm. The more I shovelled, the more I sweated, the more I became detached from what I was doing. My brain had been running with a sexual discourse – give it to her, thrust you ape, you barbarian, you baboon, shove and push and yes, that’s the way – the dirty talk of the lustful mind on the job in a post-porn world; only now a new voice began to emerge as I forgot somehow what I was doing and focussed instead on the motion alone in which I was caught. Soon, through its aerobic continuity, through its meditative intensity, through the driving, cardiovascular mesmerism, I lifted away altogether and began giggling inaudibly. A gate had opened and in rushed a thousand thoughts.

Fast upon the heels of a blinding flash of butterscotch came a Shakespearian figure gesticulating wildly, like a man in a blender trying to get out. Now he was happy and declaiming how so. He was chuckling and robust; a young and trim Falstaff in belching pantaloons; poignard and rapier slung from his gyrating hips. About him cowered all the trivialities; sun and moon and stars, diminished by his cheerful bombast; about his feet, the faces of a sunken audience; admiring, worshipping. As musical notes flowed physical from his lips, it soon became clear that these were the hopeful delusions of the man himself. Yet, who was he?

Before me the isthmus, the skin sliding upon bone and meat and cartilage; the silk screen for these vibrant scenes. And in my mind still far from the geography before me, this Bardic gent stood proffering his baroque exhortations and entertainments. Now he was on a street corner, unleashing his smiling rhetoric against some wrong-doers in a window opposite above a convenience store; making bold and heroic a petty disagreement. Now he was on the steps of the town hall, addressing a protest, rousing a hundred thousand cries against injustice.

Who was this jester, this troubadour, this raconteur? Who was this thespian, this demagogue, this chanteur? Who was this baroque minstrel?

I pondered these matters; thrusting, dripping, adjusting my grip; smirking, then broadly smiling. I began to giggle again, only this time there was no restraint. My amusement had been steadily growing and now ripened with hilarity. Who was this baroque minstrel? A vision of him quaffing a tankard and leering through a hundred songs of mirth destroyed my equilibrium. I erupted with laughter, spittle flying towards the wall, slumping forward, arms weakening, staggered in rhythm, divorced from sensuality by this intense distraction from what had begun as engulfing indulgence.

“What?” said Charlotte, turning in an attempt to look at me.

“Sorry, sorry,” I gasped, out of breath.

The beat was lost, but so used to the motion had I become that I did not stop altogether.

I laughed again.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Nothing, honestly. I was just enjoying myself so much it seemed almost ridiculous.”

I let my weight go fully forward and kissed her perspiring shoulders. We collapsed loosely to the mattress. I still did not wish to stop and continued with a few slow pushes. Charlotte pressed against me eagerly, yet we had come down several gears.

“Go on, then, what were you laughing at?” she asked.

“I don’t even know, honestly. It was just random. This pot is quite out there, I have to say. Maybe that was it. Either way, sorry. I felt so good it made me laugh.”

“It’s just a bit disconcerting when the person rogering you starts laughing to themselves behind your back,” she said.

“Sure, sure, I can imagine,” I said, still slowly grinding away. “I know it’s a bit ludicrous. But it had nothing to do with you.”

“Well I hope no one else was involved.”

“Ha! Touché. No, no, there was no one else involved.”

“Just a few clowns by the sound of it… Good then,” she added. “Just keep your mind on the job in future, eh?”

I smiled at her playful reproach and picked up the pace again; needing to prove now that I was serious about the task at hand. And believe me I was, for sex with Charlotte was no mere thrust and bust fest, but rather a sensual hip-dance of a thoughtful and measured nature. It was energetic, but delicately nuanced; total, but not undiscriminating. We were, after all, just getting started.

That said, despite my genuine enthusiasm, after being so merrily off with the planets I had to find my way back to Charlotte through concentrated effort. I was afraid of laughing again. For all my off-hand dismissiveness, it had been deeply embarrassing. What was foremost on my mind, however, was the revelation of this new character and a new novel. Already I could see how to use him, and already I could see the title that would focus my mental keywords.

The Baroque Minstrel!

A Novel by

The Baroque Minstrel!

I needed to come quickly so I could go and make some notes.

______________________________________

 

The following day I was home by eleven and writing like a king. My mind felt slow and cloudy, yet a clear stream ran through to my fingers. I was banging out chapter one of The Baroque Minstrel! by The Baroque Minstrel!

It was a struggle at first to recall all my ideas and shape the burgeoning outline, but once underway I was mapping like Mercator.

It was Sunday and I had nothing to do other than my own work until Wednesday. So, when five o’clock came around and I had three thousand words and a brutaliste chapter outline, I phoned Charlotte to confirm prior plans for me to visit.

I bought the wine and while Charlotte cooked I rambled for an hour about The Baroque Minstrel. We talked over character, plot, subplot, voice, length, structure. My excitement had me on my feet the whole time, pacing the kitchen, waving my hands about in a manner not entirely unlike that of the Baroque Minstrel himself.

“If you want to make him a boastful, but lovably misunderstood genius, caught up in violent times,” said Charlotte, “Benvenuto Cellini is the first thing that comes to mind. Why not model him on that?”

“Zounds!” I cried, in the idiom of my new-found late Renaissance / early Baroque mindset. “What a brilliant idea.”

And it was a brilliant idea. I had spotted Charlotte for a potential muse the moment we first began talking, which had encouraged my initially outrageous boldness. Now I could see how it was paying off.

I took her hips in my hands and kissed her neck.

“You know you are truly wonderful, don’t you?” I said.

“Of course.”

An hour after dinner, we were in bed. We’d smoked a joint with dessert and had both been in the thick of it for some time, lacking any narrative cohesion. Yet, by the time we hit the sack, things were clearing up a tad.

As was the case the night before, we soon slid into the rhythms of pleasure and found a narrative in its vital, instinctive continuity. We flicked between foreplay and fullplay, our bodies soon wriggling with the grace of well-lubricated machines, and sure enough, as had happened the night previous, my mind set off elsewhere, beckoned by a certain antique proponent of unabashed minstrelsy.

The timing was very different. I was going down on Charlotte and working busily away. I’d learned by now that despite my every trick it took at least seven minutes to get her there, and after the first few minutes, when my tongue hit autopilot and my ears became focussed utterly on the notes of her breathing, hot blood pooling in my head, it was then that I entered the realm of the baroque.

Was this wrong, I wondered, to be off away with these thoughts? Why should I not combine work with pleasure? I had not slipped a moment in doing what I loved so much to do; playing her sighs like a bagpipe. This moment really is for her gratification, more so than mine, so why should my mind not be free to outline and to plot?

Having decided that The Baroque Minstrel was to be a retro-futuristic tragi-comedy with a touch of steam-punk, I needed to make people laugh as well as cry, and that meant conjuring funny scenes, a risky prospect considering my recent misdemeanour. Already, were they not otherwise engaged, there would have been a smile on my lips. So enamoured was I with my new creation that the very thought of the Baroque Minstrel tickled my fancy.

Just don’t laugh, I told myself, recalling those high school moments of being disciplined by a teacher and, in a fit of nervous panic, pissing myself to the worst possible effect.

And then, without any warning, I was off. I choked, I spluttered, and I came up laughing aloud. Straightaway the music died.

“Oh, Christ,” said Charlotte. “I was so fucking close!”

She sounded more exasperated than angry.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said.

“Why are you fucking laughing?”

“God knows, I just-”

“What’s with all the laughing all of a sudden?” She was up on her elbows, staring at me through a tangle.

“Hell knows. Perhaps it’s the pot. I dunno. I just started laughing.”

“You must have some idea why.”

“Not really,” I lied. “Maybe it’s just being down there, you know, there’s something intrinsically funny about it all.”

“Gee, that’s a relief. I thought it was pretty serious business myself. Next you’ll be telling me there’s something fishy going on.”

This really had me in stitches and I had to sit up fully to let the laughs out. Charlotte started chuckling too and then we both had a good old belly laugh at her prime piece of wit.

Yet, the interruption had occurred all the same, and when we finally got back to things I had to finish her off with my fingers, biting the pillow.

If only these thoughts would come to me in the daytime! I’d rarely had such clarity in conjuring scenes and characters. There sure was something fishy going on, but it was proving damned profitable for my work. The Baroque Minstrel’s revelations might be ill-timed, but they were pure gold. The major concern was of course, that if it went on much longer, it was going to throw a bloody great spanner into our love life.

______________________________________

 

By Tuesday I’d hit the wall with Chapter four and wondered where to go next. Nothing was coming and I needed my muse. Charlotte was busy with work and parental catch ups and I would not be able to see her until the following night. I wanted to run a few things by her and get her opinions, but it had to wait. Plus I hoped that if the circumstances were right, the Baroque Minstrel would reveal more of his secrets.

When Wednesday came around I was feeling desperate and dry. Nothing I wrote had any merit whatsoever and when I looked at the unfinished paragraph in front of me, it was lifeless and bloated; effete and unworthy. The motor was starting to stutter…

Come Wednesday evening I was over at her place in a flash. It was my turn to cook dinner and as we chopped and boiled and fried and drank in the kitchen, I let Charlotte in on my concerns about the overall structure. I didn’t want to get too far into the novel before realising I had to rework everything. Reworking was inevitable, but it would be nice to avoid a complete overhaul.

“I’m not sure what you should do,” said Charlotte. “Perhaps you should start with his childhood after all. Or, maybe with him looking back. With the final scene.”

“Mmmm, you see how I’m torn? It’s supposed to be an autobiography, but that would bug me since he’s going to die at the end. I need to know what I’m working towards.”

“I’m sure something will come to you.”

“I hope so. It’s stopped me dead in my tracks.”

Yet, as I had so slyly hoped, salvation was just around the corner. Sure enough, with uncanny timing, after dinner, going vigorously at it, the Baroque Minstrel appeared to me as we approached a much needed mutual climax.

This time, however, there was a different interruption.

“You’re not about to start laughing again, are you?” breathed Charlotte.

“No, no,” I pushed. “Not this time.”

Though my train of thought was broken, it proved a timely intervention. She had brought me back from an epic poem of the worst kind, which was just about to get uproariously funny. It was the way the Baroque Minstrel bunched up his cheeks and broadened his smile as he geared for his whimsical punchlines. I might well have laughed my guts out, but instead I drove on. My questions about the Baroque Minstrel had been answered, and I had gotten away with it.

For the rest of the week I was writing like a madman; five chapters, six chapters… Two weeks later I was pushing on into chapter nine.

It seemed I had mustered sufficient self control to stop myself laughing and was able now to enjoy the fruits of my labours. And there was a great abundance, let me tell you. The best ideas were bursting forth during our hypnotic couplings. It was a mantra, a meditation, freeing the mind from the present by making the present so heavenly it was not to be believed. Out it all came: plot, structure, dialogue, nuances, idioms, colours, tones…

Then one evening, four weeks after I’d first erupted with baroque chortling, with my head tipped back and my hands on Charlotte’s hips, working away like a piston as the Baroque Minstrel wound up a ribald song about politicians in the context of a Milesian farce, Charlotte caught my distant eye and her features grew perplexed.

She turned back to the bed-head and we pressed on regardless, yet I feared that questions were waiting the other side of climax.

Sure enough, returning from the bathroom and standing in the doorway with a cigarette, Charlotte turned serious.

“You seem very detached of late whenever we make love. Just before, when I looked at you, it seemed as if you were elsewhere.”

“Perhaps I was in Nirvana.”

I smiled with innocent mischief.

“Yes, well you didn’t seem to be in this room, that’s for sure.”

“Well then, I demand to know the name of that man you were just fucking.”

“Ha ha, very funny. No, I mean your face. You just looked… not vacant, but somewhere else.”

“God, I hate to think what sort of face I wear when I’m going hard at it.”

“You looked like you were engaged in some private joke. I thought you were going to burst out laughing again.”

“No, no. None of that.”

It was then that I made what was likely a dreadful mistake. Feeling relaxed and tired in the aftermath, I had dropped my guard and was not forecasting; not thinking six moves ahead.

“Actually, truth be told,” I said. “I was thinking about my novel.”

“Oh, were you just?”

“Yes. I often think about it during sex.”

God knows what was going through my mind, but in that moment of light-hearted naivety it struck me that sharing my secret might somehow alleviate the nagging guilt I felt at rejoicing so often in my mind’s absence from our copulation.

“How much? Like what sort of things?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes I just solve problems. I used to do it when I went running.”

She stood naked and beautifully sinuous; one arm folded across her breast, resting in the elbow of her smoking hand.

“When you went running? So hang on, remind me what we were just doing again? This isn’t Fitness First, you know.”

I laughed to bring things back to levity. I was too tired for an argument and wanted to avoid lengthy explanations at all costs.

“No, obviously, it’s different. But sometimes I guess I think about other things. Because it’s so pleasurable, I think.”

“That doesn’t make sense.’

“Doesn’t it? Crap.”

“But what sorts of things? I mean, god, are you thinking about… I don’t even know where to start.”

“No, it’s often surreal things, like images, broader ideas, funny things.”

“Why aren’t you thinking about me?”

“Of course I’m thinking about you, my lovely. You know how much I like you. But we all multitask these days. Give me a cigarette and come here for a cuddle.”

I managed to wriggle away from these questions by trivialising their import; but Charlotte was too prone to analysis to let it go altogether. We lay and smoked and I asked her about her work in more detail to keep the subject elsewhere.

The following evening, however, with her on top of me, she held down my shoulders, paused and asked me what I was thinking.

“I was thinking about you, and how attractive you are.”

“Good answer, but way too crawly to be true.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“What else were you thinking about? Mmm? Were you multitasking?”

“Umm, no, not at all.”

“Yes you were. I can just tell by the way your eyes were halfway between me and the ceiling.”

“Oh that’s just because I always stare over people’s shoulders during sex to avoid feeling self-conscious.”

She giggled at this.

“You’re so full of shit. Go on then, tell me what you were thinking or I’m going on strike.”

“Oh, god. Okay, I was, admittedly, also thinking about my novel. But it’s like that with novels. You could work on them twenty-four hours a day so you always feel like you should be writing them. Sometimes, you end up working all day, without even being near the computer.”

“Well, at least that’s closer to the truth. So tell me what you were thinking about. Exactly, I’m curious.”

Then she added hastily, “I promise I won’t be cross.”

“And then can we go back to fucking?”

“You mean, then can you go back to work? I suppose so.”

So I told her, what the hell, I told her every stupid thing that had been going through my head for the first hundred and one thrusts…

I finished up and we got back into the swing of it, but my concentration was broken on both things. I had to change position to avoid her gaze. I felt I had revealed too much.

For weeks I had been slipping away after sex to the bathroom, taking notes on the sly as I sat waiting to urinate, jotting down the ideas that had come to mind in hasty keywords on a notepad I would stash upon arrival behind the cistern.

This time, however, I gave up on any pretence of secrecy, took my notebook from the bathroom, lay down on the bed and began to take notes. I felt curiously annoyed at her inquisition. What did it matter if sometimes my mind was elsewhere? Was I not allowed to think freely? I didn’t ask her what she was thinking. Didn’t everyone’s mind wander during sex? I was annoyed because I loved her so much. That was it. It was only six weeks in, but we’d seen each other practically every day and there was no doubting the strength of feeling. This was the only thing so far that had caused me any annoyance, and it wasn’t even really her doing. Perhaps it was for that reason that I was so annoyed.

As I sat jotting down my notes, she looked at me with unsettling blankness. She was difficult to read, which made her so much more interesting. But right now I would have given everything to know what she was thinking, only, it seemed somehow rude to ask.

______________________________________

 

Oddly enough, thus began a brief period of bliss. Charlotte’s curiosity was engaged and there were no longer any secrets. She wanted me to share my thoughts with her – she wanted to be there, riding the wave I was on, hearing about the Sun Machine and the Purple Band, the Garfish, the Golden Pantaloons and the “Magic Poignard”, the forming of the Order of the Quills, the ghastly elephantiasis afflicting his noble sidekick…

It was a time of rare glory, which, like all golden ages, seems to last forever, but is over in a flash. I’d be giving it my all, really giving her one, and then I’d hit what I’d begun to consider the creative equivalent of “the pump” – an appropriately named phenomenon experienced by body-builders which is akin to an adrenaline and endorphin orgasm – and I’d start calling out the visions like a greyhound commentator.

“I can see the Baroque Minstrel! He’s in a hot air balloon with some minor royalty. He’s dumping sandbags, but instead of just chucking them, he’s upending them, full of lollies and cash! Now he’s holding a scroll, a tapering scroll unfurling as he embarks upon another epic!”

My eyes would roam all about, up and down her spine, focussing at length on her buttocks, drifting out the window to the red Cadillac which never moved, across the harbour where at dawn the haze of gold dust hung across the echoing quiet.

Then it just became too damned strange. I felt weird and, I can assure you, Charlotte felt even weirder. The increasing need for sensationalism was undermining the clarity of my vision and preventing me from working through the more mundane problems. My writing was becoming more colourful than I wanted. Tangents were creeping in and bloating the text. Unnecessary layers were thickening the book and for all its growing scope, it began to feel claustrophobic. It also irked me that I was dominating our encounters and the only fair response would have been to allow Charlotte equal scope for fantasy. Yet where would that leave the Baroque Minstrel? I wanted to keep the product of “the pump” all to myself.

So, after a couple of weeks I brought these baroque declamations to an abrupt halt. I pared back the story, scrapped a nascent subplot, cut out a few all too keen passages and more or less got back to basics. I hoped our fucking would somehow become less complicated as well, but in the weeks that followed, there came a new snag. Charlotte began to be suspicious of what was going through my mind. Why exactly was I now disguising my thoughts? Had they become unsavoury or in some way disloyal?

I decided then and there to play a wholly new card. I lied blatantly and told her that I had stopped thinking about the novel altogether during sex; that instead I was again relishing her pert bosom as it skipped around her ribs and glorying once more in moulding her buttocks with my greedy, grasping hands.

She wasn’t convinced by this explanation and began to press me in our extra-coital conversations with questions about the novel, just to see if she could in some way catch me out. In order to up the ante and prove I was back on track, I took a new approach and began muttering long streams of dirty thoughts. Out came all the porn monologues that had once flowed so freely through my rutting mind.

Under such circumstances I was hard pressed to retain my focus. I began to anticipate my looming expressions of detachment whenever a good idea was forming fully and to head it off with showpiece passion and theatrical grunting, culminating in an endless torrent of filth. It was cogitus interruptus of the worst kind. I was making no headway and found myself choking when I sat down to write. The ideas were forming on the crest of “the pump” but they nosedived into a sandbar of porn. I needed to find a solution.

I tried everything that came to mind. I began fantasising about other women in the hope that the synchronicity between act and fantasy would link the two more firmly so I might go back to fantasising about other things without looking as if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was perverse logic, but I was desperate to make progress.

I conjured up old favourites; a girl I’d worked with twelve years ago in a deli, who one day had a tandoori handprint on her backside where she’d wiped herself on her white smock; a girl called Lauren in the first jazz mag I’d ever bought, pouting all frisky and Germanic; a woman I met at a bus-stop once who had liked the hat I was wearing. I fucked them all about town, no holes barred.

For a brief while I relished this wicked indulgence. Yet, apart from the crippling fact that I was still making no headway, I felt like a cheat. It was playing havoc with my conscience. I might look alright on the surface, but I was dirty inside. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just focus on Charlotte. Christ, I loved her, and god, was she ever tasty, but it had all become so complicated.

So my novel hit the wall and my agent was pissed. Charlotte was pissed because of the doubts underlying our sex-life; it had come to act misleadingly as a metaphor for our entire relationship. It might well seem as though our sexual relations were out of proportion to everything else, and they were, though they need not have been. I’m thirty seven and these days the sex usually just falls away in most relationships until it reaches an unexceptional frequency. As much as I love it, I can get by without it – without good conversation, the sex is never enough. The problem with Charlotte and I was that our sex had acquired baggage it should never have acquired; it had become a cause for suspicion and distrust. What seemed most ironic was that it was the best sex I’d had in a good many years – so good in fact that it induced hallucinations – whereas previously it had only been an issue when it was either alarmingly poor or bafflingly rare. In this case I both loved the sex and needed it for my work. I also felt an increasing need to make love to Charlotte as much as possible to prove to her that my mind was not elsewhere, all the while hoping I could get away with my mind being elsewhere. Dilemma, dilemma, dilemma. It was all the fault of the fucking Baroque Minstrel. No wonder he was laughing so much, he had the best view in the house. I looked eagerly forward to his demise.

______________________________________

 

“I’m sorry,” said Charlotte. “I just can’t. It might be ridiculous but that’s how it is.”

She wouldn’t look at me. She lay with her arms folded staring straight ahead.

“Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but it is fucking ridiculous.”

I got out of bed and stormed off to the kitchen. It was fucking ridiculous, even though I was acutely aware of exactly how much it was my fault.

This time it started with nothing. Or was it with everything? We were in good moods, Charlotte was tickling my cheek with her shrimp-sifting, platypus kisses and rodentine nibbles and things were about to get underway.

“So, another threesome then?” she asked.

“Hmmm?” I inquired, not entirely paying attention.

“Is the Baroque Minstrel coming as well?”

“Oh, I suspect so,” I said, with a jolt to my heart. It had become such dangerous territory.

“You know, you could bring someone else along,” I said.

“Oh, really? Male or female.”

“Well, it’s really up to you.”

“Should I be alarmed at your not being discriminating in this matter?”

“I don’t see why.”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you for the last few days. I’ve had an idea for a novel that I wanted to run by you.”

“Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, maybe not now. But, you see, believe it or not, I started writing a novel last year and then put it aside. Since then I’ve felt sort of awkward about it – I guess because you’re a writer and if I was crap then it might make things difficult.”

“Maybe it’d actually be worse if it was really good. I don’t know if I could handle the competition.” I tickled her as I said this to indicate I wasn’t serious, though perhaps on a certain level I was.

“What do you mean?” she said, sounding fierce. “You’d prefer it if I was crap so you could feel superior all the time? Why does that not surprise me?”

“No, no, really I was just kidding.”

“No you weren’t. All your jokes are just thinly disguised criticisms. It’s when you’re so-called joking that I take you most seriously…”

Thus began the new ice age a few fringe scientists had so long been predicting. It was one of those terrible times in relationships when sourness colours everything rightly or wrongly. Charlotte’s criticisms were genuine and based to some degree in truth, while my defensive barbs were equally well founded. Yet, whereas we might well have joked about our differences or our areas of selfishness, few though they were, and gotten on with celebrating the many more things we had in common, indeed the many things which had caused us to declare at last that we were in love, these few negatives had blown clean out of proportion and come to dominate everything. Charlotte was overreacting, yet at the same time I kept saying things that could be construed as provocative; misconstrued, in my mind.

I went into enforced hibernation as the winter crept dryly in. We avoided all dialogue about the state of affairs and this allowed things to proceed with civility and tact at the very least. Yet, it appeared as though the damage might well be permanent and I despaired to think that a relationship, which, I hoped, had the potential for permanence, might collapse after only six months. I needed to clear my head and think more carefully about everything that had passed between us. Without wishing to ask for or genuinely believing in the benefits of a negotiated period of separation, I pleaded the encroaching end of the Baroque Minstrel and the need to knuckle down in order to buy some time.

On the subject of the Baroque Minstrel, fortunately, the rotten mongrel bastard was about to be polished off. For, despite all the mental anguish, mind games and fantasies, I had at last seen my way clear to the end of the novel.

Charlotte seemed happy to have some space as well. I hardly saw her for the last two weeks of May during which time I cancelled everything else and wrote all day. My discipline was back and I locked out the booze and the smoke to maintain my terminal charge.

And then, one Tuesday afternoon in early June, I put the Baroque Minstrel out of his misery. Down he went, fleeing from overwhelming numbers, caught by a backstab in a final drunken hoorah with neither his ego nor chivalrous bravery diminished one wit. The last sound to echo from the pages was the resonant clatter and hum of his lute as it banged to a wooden floor.

I phoned Charlotte immediately and told her that the Baroque Minstrel was done for. She sounded much more pleased to hear from me than she had when we spoke two nights previous. I was overjoyed at her cheery tone. I went straight over and she met me in the doorway in a shift. She looked as languid and sexy as ever; physically at ease and without the underlying tenseness of our last few encounters.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said, kissing me and making me so pleased that I blushed. “It’s been a lot of hard work.”

“It sure has.”

“I’ve been working on my own novel as well, you know, these last few days.”

“That’s marvellous!” I said. And so it was.

We moved inside and did not fuck around. We smoked a fat joint, went straight to bed and got right into things.

I couldn’t have been more pleased with the way things were turning out. Everything seemed just as it was at the start; both of us hungry and shameless. It had been at the back of my mind that completing my novel might bring about a change, but this was far better than I had hoped; with the Baroque Minstrel wrapped up, all the baggage was falling away. It made me realise just how insidious was his presence in Charlotte’s mind; having come to symbolise all her misplaced feelings of jealousy or inadequacy, just as he had come to embody my frustration and selfishness. I believed it was now possible for a full love renaissance to bloom; stripped of the distrust that had plagued us.

My eyes roved across the sheer delight of Charlotte. Not only did I love her, but I was free, at least for the moment, from the pressing worry about work. Our nascent romance had spawned the Baroque Minstrel and then been inextricably caught up with him. At last, cut loose, it was ecstatic in its own right.

I stepped up the pace and clutched the bed-head for extra strength and depth. Charlotte urged me on and my face stretched into a rictus of pleasure. I ploughed on; pelvis arching and sinking; my left hand clasping and my right propping her legs apart, her left leg hanging like a coat across my forearm. It was a magic fuck, hitting its strides and both of us gulping for breath.

Then, sweating and relishing the clench and strain in my tummy, my body turned liquid as I burst into “the pump”. My eyes were closed and our stomachs slid smoothly through our sweat, I was locked into the pace now, thrusting like a hydraulic engine, rocking back and forth like a feeding pigeon, and yet, as had happened so often in the past during “the pump”, my concentration was suddenly broken. For, with no apparent provocation, Charlotte began to giggle.

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Falconettied

This short story is based on an anecdote from an old friend. The story intrigued me when I first heard it, and I have since found it popping back into my head at the oddest of times. The natural response, as with recurring dreams, was to write it down, as I both remembered and imagined it…

 

Simon woke up in the dark. He couldn’t see anything at all. He was lying face down and he felt awful; dry mouth, headache, nicotine skin, half drunk and desperate to urinate. He raised his head and blinked twice. He still couldn’t see a thing, yet he could sense somebody nearby. He rolled onto his back and felt about on either side. To the left was the edge of a thin mattress, carpet, the leg of a chair. To the right he felt something warm; a back, another person.

“What?” said a voice. “Simon?”

“Yeah. Who’s that?”

“It’s me.”

“Who? Dom?”

“Yeah, it’s Dom.”

“Where are we?”

“I dunno, man. I can’t remember.”

Simon rubbed his eyes and tried to swallow.

“Do you know where the dunny is?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s down at the end of the hall. There’s like a glass door.”

“Sweet.”

Simon was lying under a sleeping bag, burning hot. The bag was designed for more capricious climes, but this was summer in Sydney. He peeled it back and stumbled up to his feet.

“I’m going for a piss,” he said.

“Yeah?” said Dominic. “I’m going back to sleep.”

Once on his feet, Simon looked about for the door. He could still only make out the barest outlines of shapes that remained indistinct. On the far side of Dominic he detected a thin slice of pale grey light. He figured it was the window, so the door was likely behind him.

He struck out his arms and began to feel his way forward. His leg bumped against a chair. He took hold of it and steadied himself, then stepped carefully around it. His bladder was bursting and his head was pounding. He felt drunk. He reached out again and felt a smooth, plaster wall. He slid his hand along it to the left until he struck a perpendicular ridge of wood. A doorjamb. Continuing over the ridge, his fingers found the stiles, panels and mullion of a wooden door. He moved his hand down to the lock rail and swept for the handle. Aha! There it was.

“This is tough,” he whispered.

Simon opened the door and entered the corridor. It was even darker than the room. There was nothing but static and fuzz before his eyes. So close was the blackness that he felt removed from himself; as if the dark had crept inside and pushed him out. It was dizzying, confusing. He leaned against the wall and felt suddenly very ill. He took slow, deep breaths until the nausea passed. Where the hell was he? Where on earth had he been?

He began to feel his way down the corridor, bumping a hung picture at his first attempt. He moved his hands lower, leaned on the wall and reached out a foot with precarious curiosity. He was barefoot. The floor was covered in rattan matting. He could even smell it through the sweat of beer and heavy reek of smoke in his stale nostrils.

He took another step forward, then another; using the wall as a guide to keep him going straight. The blackness was rearing and enveloping. The fluid shifting across his eyes sent ripples through the inky continuum. He felt a pearl of fear forming inside him that soon dissolved into frustration and anger. How had he wound up here? What was the last thing he remembered?

Simon stopped and patted himself down for a moment. He was wearing his jeans and a tee shirt; his wallet and soft-pack of cigarettes were still in his back pockets. What shoes had he been wearing? He was sure it was a pair of thongs. Then he remembered: sitting on a swing, kicking out his feet with his thongs dangling from between his toes. So he had been in the park. Only what park, where?

He pushed on down the corridor. His eyes were not adjusting as there was no light by which to adjust. The rattan massaged his feet. It was a pleasant, dry and soft sensation, but the occasional tickle of an upright thread gave him fright. He had trodden on Lego enough times to know the true meaning of pain.

Feeling ahead, he felt sure that he was approaching something, or was something approaching him? He stopped, afraid, sure there was something there. What was it that made him know? Did his eyes see something his mind could not process? Was it some sixth sense that blind people had mastered, a combination of hearing, touch and scent? Perhaps a sense of the movement of the air around objects? Was he merely being paranoid?

He took another step, sure there was something in front of him. Then he felt it – a glass door! A glass door with a thin, fine wooden frame. He stopped and ran his hands across the cool, smooth panels, finding his way to a handle. It was a curiously thin and narrow door, an odd choice for a toilet. When he found a second handle it all made sense; it was a double door, two tall, narrow doors opening outwards.

Simon pulled on both of the small knobs, opened the doors and took a tentative step forward. Bang! Rattle! His knee struck something hard and the world shook with the clink of crockery. An object slid along a wooden surface and landed, rolling and ringing. It was a plate settling on a shelf. He had walked into a china cabinet.

“Fuck,” said Simon. “This is bullshit.”

Nothing fell to the floor. What a fright it had given him! Simon exhaled at length and took a deep breath. His heart was racing and he flushed freshly with sweat. He closed the doors and reached around the cupboard, finding his way back to the wall. He was at the end of the corridor where it seemed to take a small turn across an open doorway. Through the opening he detected pale moonlight falling across a table. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it must be the kitchen. If it was the kitchen, then perhaps he could take a piss in the sink. He gave this idea some thought, but, standing there on the threshold, he smelled the bathroom to his right. It was the coolness of the air and a mild whiff of Harpic loo cleaner; a faint hint of Pine-o-clean. It reminded him of the retsina he’d drunk at his Greek mate’s birthday.

He felt ahead, sure now that he could see something at last. Before him were two tall, oblong panels of frosted glass, grey-lit with pale, filtered moonlight. How could this place be so dark? Were they living in a burrow? Were they hobbits? He inched forward, felt for the handle, opened the door, reached forward with his foot and felt cold tiles beneath his feet. At last he had found the bathroom. A moment later he found the light and, closing his eyelids against the expected, punishing glare, flicked it on.

Five minutes later, relieved, watered, blinded and with a throbbing head, leaving the bathroom light on to show him the way, Simon retraced his steps and went back to sleep on the floor beside Dominic.

___________________________________________

“Si, wake up, man. Wake up.”

Dominic was leaning over him, shaking him by the shoulder.

“What is it?” asked Simon. He was startled. He looked up, unwillingly alert, his mouth uncertain. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, man. It’s just morning. We should get out of here. I don’t even know where I am.”

Simon relaxed, flopped back to the mattress.

“Jesus. I feel like shit.”

“Yeah, I feel pretty special as well,” said Dominic. He stepped back and Simon lifted up his head again. It was heavy, woozy.

“So where the hell are we? Can’t you remember getting here?”

“Man, I can’t remember a thing,” said Dominic. Then he laughed. “Pretty classic, huh?”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

Simon sat up, resting on his hands. He rubbed his face and knuckled his eyes.

“So what is the last thing you remember?”

“I remember being in Centennial Park,” said Dominic. “Then we went off with William, but I can’t remember where. Like a bar or something. I remember being in a taxi, but I don’t remember getting into it, or where I got into it.”

“Man, that’s more than I can remember,” said Simon. “The last thing I remember is sitting on a swing. It must have been Centennial Park.”

He laughed in recollection. “Hang on, that’s right. I remember Luke having a full-on spew. He was going for a massive chuns between his legs. That’s fully the last thing I remember.”

“It’s weird.” said Dominic. “Did we meet some other dudes or something? Some chicks? I reckon I’d remember if we met some chicks.”

“Yeah, me too. But then, you’d reckon you’d remember whose joint you were staying at.”

“Wherever we are,” said Dominic, “let’s get out of here.”

“Have you got all your stuff?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Simon stood up and looked about him. Dominic had lifted the dark blinds and indirect sunlight flooded the room. They were in a lounge room, not a bedroom. A thin double mattress had been placed on the chunky, fluffy carpet. There was a television, lounge-setting, coffee table, magazines, a cabinet. It looked like a family home.

“Must be someone’s parents’ place, I guess.”

“Yeah, but hell knows who.”

They looked at each other, laughed, groaned, shook their heads.

“Well, let’s make a bale then,” said Simon.

“For sure.”

Simon and Dominic stepped out into the corridor. It was windowless, with a heavy wooden door at the end. Curious, they walked in the other direction, towards the china cabinet and the bathroom. They could smell breakfast cooking and hear the sound of a radio. It was Sunday morning and Australia All Over was on the ABC. They smelled bacon, eggs, toast and grilled tomato. Simon’s mouth watered and his stomach yawned. He could almost taste the orange juice.

At the end of the corridor an arched opening led into a spacious kitchen. Simon and Dominic shuffled nervously under the arch to survey the scene. There before them, sitting on a beanbag by a long, low wooden table, was an enormously fat man. Opposite him, standing by a stove, was a gigantically fat woman working a frying pan. Beyond them lay an open door and overgrown backyard. They did not recognise these people at all.

“Good morning,” said the man and woman. “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks,” said Simon.

“Just fine,” said Dominic.

“You’re just in time for breakfast,” said the lady at the stove. “Can I tempt you with bacon and eggs?”

Simon and Dominic both looked to each other, each expecting his friend to make a decision. They frowned and aspirated, cheeks bunching, eyes opening, but found no answers. Then Simon spoke:

“Nah,” he said. “I think I’m alright.”

Despite his rapacious hunger, he felt an urge to get away. He was only seventeen and was not completely comfortable sitting down to eat with strange adults.

“Yeah,” said Dominic. “Me too, I guess. I better get on home.”

“There’s plenty there if you want it,” said the man on the beanbag. “Baked beans, eggs, bacon, the lot. Even some saussies if you like.”

“Nah,” said Simon, “thanks very much for the offer, but I better get on home to mum.”

“Alright then. You don’t mind if I don’t get up, do you? The front door’s just at the end of the hall.”

“Yeah, we can find it alright,” said Dominic. “Thanks for putting us up.”

“No trouble at all,” said the man.

The lady by the stove was smiling at them.

“Look after yourselves,” she said, waving with the spatula.

“Yeah, thanks,” said Simon. “Right then, see you later.”

Mr and Mrs… ? In his quick scan of the kitchen he had not seen anything to make plain whose parents these people were. No family photos on the fridge, no framed family portraits. Were they even someone’s parents? They hadn’t mentioned a son or daughter when they might have done. Simon felt too embarrassed now to ask, and despite the burning curiosity, he had already excused himself and wanted to be out in the open air. With a final nod and a wave, they turned and walked to the front door.

___________________________________________

Simon and Dominic stepped out into a long, treed street. It looked like somewhere in the eastern suburbs, though they did not recognise exactly where. They glanced about, stared at the front of the house, walked to the middle of the street and stood staring down it. Most of the houses were terraces, but there were also bungalows and unit blocks. Moreton Bay figs lined the street, their branches reaching from one pavement to the next and forming a continuous canopy. It might have been Bondi, Bronte, Woollahra, Paddington, Coogee. Neither Simon nor Dominic could quite tell which, if any.

There was hardly any traffic so they walked along the middle of the road. It was a warm summer morning; the temperature already up in the mid twenties. Simon looked at his watch. It was just after nine o’clock.

“Where are we?” mused Dominic. “Bellevue Hill?”

“Nah, I know it too well,” said Simon. “I reckon it could be Vaucluse, or Rose Bay. Actually, screw it, I wouldn’t have the faintest.”

“It’s gotta be the eastern suburbs for sure,” said Dominic.

Simon pulled a bent cigarette from his battered packet. He offered one to Dominic.

“Have a smoke, to make the bus come.”

They both lit up and kept walking in the warm, patchy sunshine. Before they had reached the next intersection, only half way through their cigarettes, a vacant taxi turned into the street. Dominic spotted it first and hailed it.

“Where you boys going?” asked the driver, pulling up.

“To Bondi Junction, I guess,” said Simon, looking at Dominic.

“Yeah,” said Dominic, “I can get home from there.”

Sitting in the back of the cab, the two young men turned their attention to piecing the evening back together. Starting with a rendezvous at the Paddington Green hotel, they recalled moving on to the RSL, to the Imperial Hotel and, finally, up to Centennial Park. Beyond that, however, they could make no further headway.

“There might have even been a couple of other stops in between,” said Simon.

“It’s a fair way to walk without a pit-stop. We’ll have to ask Luke and Willie.”

With their attention focussed on the task of reconstruction, Simon and Dominic failed to note the streets through which they were driving. When, after ten minutes, the taxi emerged onto New South Head Road, they were so relieved to be in familiar territory that they forgot to ask from where they’d come. Three minutes later they paid the driver and stepped out into Bondi Junction.

They were both exhausted and sat down on the pavement to bask in the sun.

“Why didn’t we ask the bloody driver?” said Simon, lighting up another desultory cigarette. “About where we were.”

“I dunno, mate,” said Dominic. “My brain just isn’t working.”

“Geez,” said Simon, rubbing his temples, “I’ve got such a savage hangover. What a shocker.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. We must have been completely smashed last night.”

“I was a total goner,” said Simon. “Judging by the damage report, I must have been fully falconettied. Done like an Italian vendetta.”

“Falconettied, aye?” said Dominic. “That’s one of William’s isn’t?”

“Yeah,” said Simon, “it’s a gem of a word. I reckon it sums things up pretty good.”

“I reckon,” said Dominic, reaching out for a drag of Simon’s cigarette. “There’s no two ways about it; we must have been seriously falconettied.”

In the days that followed, despite questioning everyone they could recall taking part in the events of that evening and following all leads there from, Simon and Dominic were unable to determine where they had stayed. The query burned brightest in Simon, who continued to look for answers in the months that followed. Though he eventually gave up asking, he never gave up hoping that the mystery might one day be solved in a chance encounter or remark. That was twenty-two years ago, and often, walking through the eastern suburbs of Sydney, with their broad, tree-lined streets, he still wonders at the provenance of his hosts.

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Dirk watched the foam churning round the propellers. It washed to and fro from the wharf. He watched the people milling on the docks; smoking and waving. There were no familiar faces. He toyed with a cigarette before lighting it. The ferry bobbed in its turbulence, roaring and vibrating. Then the ropes came in and they were off; away from Samothraki.

Dirk stayed on the rear of the upper deck to watch the island shrink. It soon fit within his field of vision, fading to a ghost in the late haze. He stayed and watched as it sank beneath the curve of the earth. Then it was gone altogether and he had only the dust on his sandals and dirt beneath his nails. He shivered. The breeze was beginning to go through him.

The sun set and it grew colder still. Dirk wandered outside along the decks, before heading into the cafeteria. It was full of people, standing and sitting, craning to watch a big screen. He looked around for any pretty girls. There were too many men. The film Gladiator was showing; English with Greek subtitles. The name Maximus appeared at the bottom of the screen. Μαξιμος. It looked like the parallel translations he often read in ancient works. It seemed somehow more authentic. The Roman army was gearing up for war. “On my command, unleash hell.” Dirk smiled. The accent was familiar. He too was Australian.

Dirk went for a walk. He needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. Deck class was no misnomer. He’d been out there in a storm before, out with the banshee wails and the rain devils. The evening was clear. He had a sleeping bag. He bought a toasted cheese sandwich and a carton of milk, then went back out on the deck.

Dirk poked around until he saw a space under a lifeboat. It was out of the way; no one would disturb him. He unfurled his sleeping bag, unzipping it from end to end. He laid the sleeping bag under the boat and slipped himself onto it. There was only two feet of space beneath the boat, but it was shelter and seclusion. He got in and pulled the sleeping bag together, zipping it up halfway. He lay staring up at the base of the boat, thinking about the last five days on Samothraki. He weighed up the mix of loss and relief. It was a good basis for a sort of happiness; fulfilment and expectation, the end and the beginning, though it wasn’t exactly happiness. He soon fell asleep.

_______________________________________________

 

Dirk woke up at three thirty. He wasn’t sure if he’d slept, but could not account for the hours. He was still tired; warm and tired. The breeze was thin and chill and he did not want to get up. Getting up would be like being born all over again. People walked past him on the deck, talking loudly. He leaned out from under the lifeboat to see what was happening. Across the deck towards the prow were the lights of the shore, of a harbour, a mere hundred metres away.

“Lavrio,” he said. “It must be Lavrio.”

Dirk lay back down and stretched and yawned. The deep horn of the vessel sounded right through his body. He smiled and rubbed his face then ran his hands through his hair. He recalled how one cold morning before a camping trip he and his brother and his friend Gus had lain in their beds, reluctant to get out from under the covers. Then, of a sudden, his brother had hurled back the blankets and leapt out of bed, defying the cold. Dirk tightened himself, unzipping the bag. He too could call on that same spirit. It was just like diving into the surf first time in summer.

He washed up in the bathroom, working cold water into his eyes. He took off his shirt and rubbed himself down with the damp corner of his towel, getting the stickiness out of his shoulders and off his forearms; the dried sweat, the clamminess of sea salt. Dirk slicked his hair back and cleaned behind his ears. He felt proud of his efficiency. He thought of himself as a seasoned traveller.

_______________________________________________

 

Dirk stepped slowly down the gangway. He was in no hurry. The sun would not be up for another three hours and, the longer things took, the better. He walked along the concrete wharf and stopped in the wide car park. It was full of cars with their lights on, waiting for friends and relatives.

Dirk was glad to be walking. He watched people standing around and getting into cars. He looked closely, counting the passengers, but no one had a spare space. While he was sleeping, others had made their advances. He was uncertain. Despite the freshening up and the cool air, he still felt trapped in the timidity of tiredness. It was a while since he’d spoken and he did not trust the sound of his voice. On Samothraki he had asked some Greeks if he could puff on their joint and they had told him no. It was the first time it had ever happened to him. In every other way, Greek hospitality had been unparalleled, yet since then he had had second thoughts about asking for anything.

Still he hung around. Maybe some cute girl would take pity on him. He might get to lie on a couch for two hours, then take the metro to Piraeus. He might even get a blow-job! He might fall in love. He laughed. He waited and watched until there were only a few left. No girls approached him. No one approached him. He recognised one couple from the ferry. The young man was noticeably tall, almost six and a half feet. He looked awkward, but friendly. Dirk could not hear their voices but he was sure they must be English speakers. He could see it in their mouths. He watched them as they drifted on the edge of the docks, near the roadway. They too must have no rides.

Dirk stayed a while more. He no longer knew what he was waiting for. He guessed that there must be no buses until later in the morning, but he felt a creeping stubbornness. He was determined to be the last to leave. That way he would know he had not missed any opportunity.

_______________________________________________

 

At four-thirty Dirk walked over to the road. The couple he had spotted earlier were there, sitting on one of the barriers. He nodded to them and they nodded back. They avoided eye-contact. He looked down the length of the road. Some of the last few passengers from the ferry were still walking away from the docks. They were moving slowly, as though resigned. He wondered if they really knew where they were going.

The couple were sitting and talking just out of earshot. Dirk was sure they were waiting to get into Athens just like him. He watched them out of the corner of his eye, then looked back up the road at the other disappearing passengers. He knew he should go and talk to the couple. It was easier not to have to do things by yourself. Some things, that is. It took courage to ask questions in a foreign country and if he teamed up with others, they would have the courage of numbers. Then they could laugh when their words fell on deaf ears; they could joke instead of curse in the face of intransigence. He looked back along the street at the last of the passengers. Athens seemed a long way off. He shrugged and set off after them.

_______________________________________________

 

After checking the timetable, Dirk walked to the middle of the square. He had an hour to kill before the first bus. It was cold and he was tired. The lights were filtered by the feathery branches of the trees. The remaining passengers were resting around the periphery; sitting and lying on benches. Dirk did the circuit, keeping his distance from anyone. He felt shy. He felt reluctant. He did not want to impose.

The square spilled into a pedestrian mall. There were more benches along its length. Dirk put down his pack and took off his fleece. He put on another tee shirt then replaced his top. He stretched out with the sleeping bag for a pillow and set the alarm on his mobile phone. He placed his beach towel over himself like a blanket, then hooked his arm through the strap of his bag. There were two other guys with backpacks only fifteen feet away. Safety in numbers. He had never considered other travellers a threat. Same species.

Dirk closed his eyes for a while. The light was too bright, but he did not want to cover his face. He preferred to appear more alert. He heard footsteps in front of him and opened his eyes. The couple he had seen by the road were walking past. They moved on to the next bench and sat down. Dirk watched them. They were watching him. He smiled at them and they smiled back. No one spoke.

_______________________________________________

 

Dirk was awake when his alarm went off. It was five thirty. The bus was at a quarter to six. He switched off the alarm and looked across the square. There were people standing down at the bus stop but no sign of the bus. Dirk pulled his smokes out of his bag and stuck one in his mouth. He felt in the pocket of his jeans for his lighter then decided he wanted to use a match. He got the matches from his bag, took one out and, leaning up on one elbow, stabbed the match against the rough. He smelled of dog. He smelled of a campfire. He liked who he was and what he was doing. He felt cool lighting his cigarette this way. He was an adventurer. He was beat. He lay back and smoked up the early purple light.

The couple from the next bench walked past him. The young man was speaking loudly. He was speaking English with a South African accent. Dirk smiled. He’d just spent five days with a bunch of South Africans. Couldn’t he bump into someone else for once? Perhaps they were Zimbos. Dirk took a drink from his water bottle and stood up. He gathered himself quickly and picked up his pack. He felt a compulsion to hurry after them.

At the bus stop Dirk put his back against a tree. He stood with his knees locked, tilting like a buttress. He watched the twenty-odd people there a while, then closed his eyes and chewed his cheeks. He was worrying now about making it to Piraeus in time. He knew it was a long ride, but he didn’t know just how long. There was also the metro to take. He couldn’t afford to miss the ferry, if there even was one.

The bus was right on time. Dirk let the others get on first then paid his fare and walked down the aisle towards the back. The South African couple were also sitting towards the rear. He passed them on the way down and nodded. They both smiled at him and he smiled back. Dirk tore his eyes away quickly, settling them on where he was going. He had a practical excuse, but he wondered why he was such a nervous character at times. He missed having comrades on the road.

_______________________________________________

 

It was a dirty dawn through the unwashed bus windows; pale grey sky above pale blue smog, backlit by seeping orange. Dirk had his head against the window, enjoying the little bangs and bumps of the road. He thought of the buses in Sydney, how they rattled when they were idle. There he liked to press his head as hard against the perspex as possible, giving his teeth a good shake-up.

Dirk felt tired and oily. He wanted a hot shower and a sleep. An orange, an apple, a banana and a bottle of Coke. He watched the couple in the seat in front. They spoke quietly and he only heard one word in three. Nothing made sense. They were talking about relatives. After forty minutes, the tall man leaned across the aisle and addressed another young man sitting opposite.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you know where this bus stops?”

“I don’t know,” said the young man. “I only know it goes into Athens.”

“Do you know how long takes?”

“I think it is one hour and a half. I don’t know.”

Dirk watched them with a nervous apprehension. He had left it so late to make contact, despite the numerous chances.

“Syntagma,” said Dirk. “I think the bus goes to Syntagma.”

The couple turned around. The man across the aisle nodded, but turned away.

“Or Monastiraki,” said Dirk. “Both are central.”

“It goes where?”

“To Syntagma,” said Dirk. “It’s a square in the middle of Athens. Do you know Athens at all?”

“No, not at all.”

“Where are you heading? Are you staying in Athens?”

“No,” said the man, “we’re heading out into the islands. To the Cyclades.”

“So am I,” said Dirk. “I’m trying to get to Mykonos.”

“Excellent,” said the girl. “We were thinking about going to Mykonos.”

“I’m Dirk, by the way.”

“Gerard, bru, and this is Melita.”

“Cool. Do you know what boat you’re taking?” asked Dirk.

“No,” said Gerard, “we’re not even sure which island we’re going to. We were just going to head down to Piraeus and check out what’s on offer.”

“Did you know that all the ferries leave really early? At eight o’clock in the morning?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Some even go at seven. I’m heading straight there now. To get a boat.”

He looked at his watch.

“Put it this way – you better head straight down there unless you want to wait until tomorrow.” He sounded too dramatic. It was his exhaustion amplifying the emotion.

“Really?” said Gerard.

“Trust me,” said Dirk. “I’ve been there a good few times and almost all the ferries go by eight o’clock. I can take you,” he added. “I know the way.”

“That’d be cool,” said Melita.

“Ya, please,” said Gerard.

Dirk was wide awake now. He was full of purpose. The consequences of failure had just become greater, though the consequences of success troubled him too. He was not sure he wanted to take them to Piraeus if they wound up on the same ferry. He wanted to be alone on the ferry so he could listen to music. He wanted to stare into the Aegean and think about Homer and Thucydides; think about the Peloponnesian war.

The bus went carelessly fast. It dipped and bobbed at the corners, the standing passengers swayed and swung. They were tearing into Athens; ripping through the morning.

“You were on Samothraki as well, were you?” asked Dirk.

“Yeah,” said Gerard. “It was top notch, eh?”

“It sure was. I had a great time.”

Suddenly Dirk missed his friends so greatly that his head swam. He had not been alone for five days; five days surrounded by people and then the lonely bosom of the ferry. It was good to have companions. Until the ferry. Then he would need loneliness again, to sadden himself into an epic.

_______________________________________________

 

They stepped out in Syntagma. It was just after seven and the sun was still full of dew. It was damp in the shadow of the buildings; cold blue light below the spreading yellow sky.

“Have you got all your kit?” asked Dirk.

Gerard and Melita nodded. They had humped their packs on board.

Dirk clapped his hands loudly.

“Right!” he said. “Follow me.”

He led them down the paving towards the metro. He had a view of himself, rushing in his mind; a view from outside of himself. If they were slow he would want to leave them behind, so he must not let them be slow. It was his role now to be urgent; he must be entirely in character.

“There should be plenty of ferries going,” said Dirk, “but likely only one on each route. If you want a particular island, you might only get one chance.”

He didn’t have much of a contingency plan. He was thinking aloud; building up pressure to make their Piraeus decisions quick. Gerard and Melita were smiling in pursuit. He was doing them a favour; already he had saved them from uncertainty and given them direction; he might yet save them from disappointment; launching them into the sea.

Dirk stepped up the pace. He indicated the entrance to the metro and jogged towards the steps. He would get them tickets, for he knew how. He ran down the stairs to the machine; liquid with excitement. He could not work fast enough through the checklist. He pumped in the euro coins. He missed the old Drachma; Pericles, Alexander, Athena, the Olympic flame. Now they were modern heroes.

Gerard and Melita puffed down the stairs. They were fit, but tired; bemused but urgent. Dirk waved the tickets.

“Come on,” he said, “we have to change at Monastiraki.”

_______________________________________________

 

At Monastiraki they walked fast along the edge of the crowd. On the second train they tucked themselves into a corner. The carriage was full. All they saw were close-packed heads and up-thrust arms – tired and sleepy Greeks; sombre, but free of scowls. Dirk ticked off the stations; Thissio, Petralona, Tavros, Kalithea, Moschato, Faliro. He was burning for Piraeus, restless by the orange sliding doors.

Dirk had been to Piraeus five or six times, but had never really seen the place. He was always caught up in a hurry or a set back. Once it had stormed so hard they closed the sea. He was only thinking about the ferries now. He liked Gerard and Melita, and sometimes it was easier to travel with others, yet really it was faster alone. It just took courage. He needed one ticket and one ticket only; not three; not information on more than one ferry; not multiple timetables and options. It was all about Mykonos. Dirk rehearsed his questions. Kalimera, do you speak English? Mykonos, Mykonos, any ferries to Mykonos? And what if it was just the one ferry? They would ride with him.

They were one stop from Piraeus. Gerard and Melita were talking and had been for some time. They were talking about islands.

“Where are you going, do you think?” asked Dirk.

“I’m not sure,” said Gerard. “It depends.”

“I want to go to Samos,” said Melita. “Or over to the Dodecanese. We think the Cyclades might be too touristy.”

Dirk nodded. “They probably are,” he said. “But I want to see Delos. It’s a really important ancient site.”

In truth he didn’t care a fig if it was touristy. After camping on Samothraki, he could use some touristy places. Hot, stupid women; hot, stupid men. He wanted to sit in bars and chat up girls; he wanted creamy cocktails and brazen beers, cold, in sweating bottles. He wanted to eat fatty meat. He wanted to slump and pout and scan the scene. After five days with a bunch of hippy ravers, he longed for neon decadence; the best and the worst of civilisation; debauchery in the sluice of the temples.

The metro pulled in with a soft squeal. The sun shone straight through the dirty glass of the narrow station. It was a quarter to eight; the ferries would be warming up their engines, churning their propellers. Dirk was ready to go. His pack was on, Gerard and Melita had their packs on. If need be, Dirk would leave them behind. He had already helped these people enough.

“There are offices all around,” he said, stepping quickly off the train. “Over here.” He pointed outside to the sunlit pavement.

“I’ve got to run,” he called, “I don’t want to miss out.” But he was running already; quick walk, slow jog, and running through the station exit. Melita and Gerard followed in a skip.

Dirk ran across the road to a window in a wall of signage. Ferry boats, tickets, passage. “Passage!” he shouted, surprising himself. The man at the window was ready. At a quarter to eight, the customers always ran.

“Kalimera, kalimera, do you speak English?”

The old man at the counter nodded. “Yes,” he said deeply.

“When is the next boat to Mykonos?” asked Dirk.

“The boat goes now. At eight.”

“One ticket please, thank you. Deck class, efharisto.”

Melita and Gerard pulled up behind him, scanning the lists of departures.

Dirk handed over the money. The man moved slowly but surely. He printed and stamped the ticket.

“I’m going to Mykonos,” said Dirk. “I have to run as soon as he hands me the ticket.”

“That’s cool, bru,” said Gerard. “If you gotta go…”

“I gotta go.”

“Best say goodbye now then,” said Melita.

“Sure,” said Dirk. “Where are you going?”

“To Samos, then on to the Dodecanese.”

“Thank you,” said the man behind the counter. He handed Dirk the ticket.

“That’s it, gotta split. Goes at eight.”

“No sweat, bru. Thanks for helping us.”

Melita was already at the counter while Dirk shook Gerard’s hand. She ordered their tickets then turned back to Dirk.

“Really gotta go,” said Dirk.

“Go then,” she laughed. He thrust his hand at her and she took it firmly.

“Right then,” he said, and began to run.

“Hey,” Gerard called, “we might be on the same ferry. But don’t wait up, bru, just get on board!”

Dirk ran backwards, he nodded, waved his ticket in the air, and then he turned and fled. Different island, same ferry. It hadn’t ever occurred to him. He ran and ran along the docks. The big ferries stood many storeys tall, with a long, hammock slouch from bow to stern. The sun was bright and he was on his way, alone enough for now. He would get up onto that deck and sleep in the sun. He had a good book, good music and plenty to think on. He came to the dock where his ferry was waiting. He walked down to the edge of the wharf where the cars were being driven up its belly. There was no queue at all. Dirk looked down as he stepped aboard the boat. He watched the foam churning round the propellers. It washed to and fro from the wharf.

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I’ve been working on this piece on and off for years, not entirely sure where to go with it. Too long for a short story, too short for a novella. I could develop the characters further and intensify the drama, but I rather like it as it stands, not too deep, not too shallow… Anyways, here it is after a final buff and polish, enjoy!

 

Dirk slumped in the early morning. So he had come to Rafina for nothing. There was no ferry today or tomorrow and he was dog tired. The sky was lightening up mauve and the orange street lights coloured everything sickly. It didn’t look real, like blue screen in a film. But it was real – an hour out of Athens at the wrong port and no ferries.

He put his pack down and leaned his back against a wall. If he was going to make a decision, he figured he’d better rest first. He watched the seagulls and the men. They all had a role, even the ones doing nothing. Some made scraps and some cleaned them up. There were guys hauling on ropes, guys smoking cigarettes, guys drinking coffee. All the shutters were down. It looked like a big, noisy fraud. There were clanks and thumps and hisses and men raised their voices, but for all that, nothing was happening. They were just shifting stuff about.

Dirk got fed up pretty fast. He was supposed to be in Samothraki that day; miles north, off the coast of Alexandropouli, and he hadn’t even left Athens. He hadn’t even been to Athens. It was a bum steer. He hauled himself up like a big old sack, shouldered his pack and made for the bus stop. He was too tired to deal with foreignness and a language he did not speak. He pulled himself together and read the timetables calmly. He figured correctly. Money talks: when the bus showed up and he held out the cash, it was obvious enough what he wanted.

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From a distance Athens looked like a dirty, smoggy pile of old white Lego. It was stinking hot at nine in the morning and Dirk’s eyes stung from the fumes. The sunlight was tungsten and sepia, and it was hot, damn hot. He was sweating as he reached the train station. There weren’t many trains in Greece, but there was a line heading north and that’s all he cared about. The train station was dismal. Birds shat through the heat wobbles on the burning lime of the tracks. He felt it all in his skin, like a car had been blowing exhaust on him for half an hour.

“No tickets here,” said the lady at the window. “No sell tickets.”

“This is the train station?” asked Dirk. “But you don’t sell tickets?”

“No sell tickets. Ticket office in town.” Dirk thought he was in town. She waved her hand several times back the way he had come. If she’d waved it only once he might have thought it was just around the corner, but it was like she was counting off the blocks.

Dirk couldn’t believe it. The heat was driving him nuts. His flight had been at four in the morning and he hadn’t slept a wink. It was a hell of a time for a flight. He got out his guidebook and tried to work things out. There was a place that sold train and bus tickets about six blocks away.

He followed the map and crossed the road. He walked up a long, wide street. There were cross-streets heading off all black and bronze in the sunlight. The air was thick and hazy. People were rushing about and the cars were noisy. All the horns sounded high pitched, like they’d been knackered. Dirk didn’t know what he was looking for. He just stumbled on, feeling more out of the loop than ever. He was so tired that every time he was checked he felt desperate, but he was too tired to panic so he just kept going.

Dirk walked six blocks and found the place. They sold tickets for everything; trains, ferries, buses; a state enterprise of some kind. He walked down the granite steps. It was dark. The lights must be real dim, he thought, or he’d been blinded outside. His eyes began to adjust. The only light came through the back windows, bounced from a dirty, pipe-veined wall behind. It was all dark wood and thick, old glass. It was dusty and the floor a scudded, maroon linoleum. It had “communism” written all over it. He walked up to one of the counters where an old man was sitting.

“Do you speak English?”

The man shook his head.

“Train?” said Dirk.

“No light,” the man said.

He made a gesture, moving his hand up and down like he was holding something, then shrugged.

“Huh?”

“No light,” said the man, making the gesture again, this time accompanied by a clicking sound.

Dirk stared dumbly, like a dog shown a card-trick.

“No light,” the man said once more, but by now Dirk had understood. He was mimicking flicking a switch. There was a power failure.

Dirk walked over to the worn, studded, leather-bound benches across the room and took off his pack. It was ten o’clock now and he was truly beat. It was only half as hot as the outside inside, but still a good deal cooler. He sat down a while, then shrugged and pulled up his feet. He stretched out in the dark corner and closed his eyes. Two minutes later he was asleep.

_______________________________________________

Dirk woke up drooling. He wiped off his mouth and looked around. The lights were still out. He looked at his watch. Midday. He stood up and walked over to the counter again. It was the same old man. Same old game.

“Train?” he said to the man.

“No lights,” the man replied.

Dirk walked away. He was fed up already and he’d just woken up. He took out his guidebook and looked through it again. Athens – Getting Around. He sure was getting around. There was another ticket office eight blocks east. He could take the subway. It was nearby.

He bought a Coke in the subway and gulped it down. He was sticky as hell with humidity and dirty air. He rode down the line and came out in a square he liked the look of. There were palm trees and neo-classical buildings; museums, galleries. Across the square he found the ticket office. The lights were on; it was air conditioned; the place was modern; the staff were young.

The Coke was dragging him up and pulling him through. He waited in the line. The girl spoke English; she was cute, black hair with a square fringe. Dirk fell in love with her in about two seconds, he was that stretched. She sold him a ticket all the way to Thessaloniki. From there, if he couldn’t get a ferry, he could take a bus to Kavala or Alexandropouli. The train didn’t leave for another hour. He would have time to get back to the train station. He walked out of the office, smiling for the first time all day; smiling, just like she loved him too.

He looked around the square, took a bunch of photos, then realised he didn’t have his guide-book. He ran back to the office, burst through the doors and shoved his way through to snatch it off the counter.

“Fuck it,” he said, when he received a few rude looks. He’d never see any of them again anyway.

_______________________________________________

From the subway Dirk walked to the station. His pack was settling in now. It was carry-on sized; a glorified day-pack. A couple of changes of clothes, a pair of flip flops, a Latin dictionary, some translations he had to make, his diary and The Golden Ass, by Apuleis. He travelled light and washed things as he went. That was the way he liked doing it.

At the station it was hotter than ever. He saw a sign saying thirty-nine degrees. Crikey. The air was acrid, unpleasant; a flatulent pall. Dirk went into the washrooms and cleaned himself up. He washed his face and slicked his hair. He wet his arms and legs and worked all the sweat and fuel and dust off. He dried himself with his beach towel and went back outside to wait. He felt good now. He bought two Cokes, three bread rolls, two apples, a block of chocolate and a packet of smokes from the station shop. He sat on a bench and smoked. The cigarette gave him head-spins, but it tasted great. He noticed people were buying tickets from the ticket office. The shock left him briefly unseated, but he soon ceased to care.

The train was only ten minutes late – one thirty-five. There weren’t many people at the station, but the carriages were near full. It was an old train and smelled of old train; soot and diesel and hot, greased metal. Dirk climbed up and walked by the compartments. They all looked full. He kept searching for an empty one. He didn’t want any conversation, just to smoke and look and put some music in his ears. He found one with just two people in – a pair of young Greek blokes. They looked hip and Dirk wondered if they were going where he was going, all the way to Samothraki. They were sitting by the door, not the window. Dirk went through and took the view. He was stoked to get the window.

_______________________________________________

Four hours later they were high up in a rocky land and everyone in Dirk’s compartment was asleep. It was full now and the guy sitting opposite had slumped like a dead man. He was covered in sweat; completely drenched with it. Dirk had never seen a bloke sweat so much in his life and it made him uncomfortable just looking at him. His clothes were dark with it, dripping.

Dirk got up with his walkman, his smokes and a Coke and went into the corridor. There were guys leaning out the windows down its length and Dirk pulled down one of the long, rectangular windows. He lit up a cigarette and leaned his elbows on the frame. It was just the right height. The wind blew in his hair and he rested his eyes across Thessaly. Dirk had been around Greece before, but never up through Thessaly or Thrace. He was excited about the terrain and thought a lot about hoplites and partisans. He also thought a lot about donkeys.

They passed over a gorge on an iron bridge. The soil was white and orange and the rocks white and orange too. The trees were spindly; hardy and evergreen. There were clumps and spills of shrubs and bushes, with the white rock and soil in between like bald patches. The land rose and fell with this forest and scrub and rock and Dirk caught glimpses of distant, cultivated plains through the gorges.

He watched the train ahead as they took the turns. Rafina was another day, another life. When he looked back on the dawn’s disappointment, it wasn’t real after all. He smoked his cigarette and a guy up the front looking back gave a wave. Dirk brought his hand up in a salute. Hey, they were all comrades here. Everyone on the same trip. The camaraderie of the road. Dirk was smiling now. He lit up another cigarette and put on his walkman. Dark Side of the Moon. He wanted something epic; something to reflect the day’s quiet desperation. There was still a long way to go. He would eat some chocolate now.

_______________________________________________

At Thessaloniki Dirk took a hotel right by the train station. He was all washed up and wanted an easy finish and an easy start. The town was boiling hot. The concrete and bitumen and stone still poured out the day’s heat. The air was thick with pollution. Unlike the acid sting of Athens, it was a roiling, eggy flatulence. Dirk took a shower and lay down in his towel for five minutes. He stared at the ceiling blinking.

Though it was dark, Dirk hauled himself up and went out to see some Roman remains. The Arch and Rotunda of Galerius were a good leg from his hotel. He was pleased not to have to carry his pack. He followed his map along the main drags and took a couple of detours to look into the harbour. It wasn’t so neat, he thought, but the air was cooler. There were palm trees. He always liked palm trees.

Dirk stopped by the clumsy, weathered reliefs on the arch and smoked cigarettes. He hated the late third-century style. It was too thickset and graceless. It wasn’t just the way the stylization robbed the figures of detail, but the compositions were poor; cluttered and syncopated. Dirk smoked and thought about rhythm. He never liked Galerius anyway. “You were a bit of a cock, Galerius,” he said. Then he went back to his hotel and went straight to sleep.

In the morning Dirk rose early. He felt travel-fit after a day of errors. He was rested and sharp. “On the ball,” was about the only thing he said all morning. He took a walk through town to look at the churches and see the Roman structures in the daylight. The rotunda was closed this early so he missed the mosaics. He found a fifth-century church that had been so rebuilt and renovated, it might as well have been late medieval. He gave up and went to a café. He ate eggs, toast, coffee and fried potatoes. He mopped up the grease with heavily buttered bread. He drank a second coffee and smoked two cigarettes. This morning was cooler, clearer. It felt like he’d pulled all the stuffing out of his lungs. He walked down to the harbour and asked about ferries. There were no ferries to Samothraki. He would have to try Kavala or Alexandropouli. He’d figured on that anyway and left town.

_______________________________________________

Dirk reached Kavala at noon. It was the prettiest place he’d stopped so far. There were a lot more older-style houses. Up on a hill, on the northern side of the harbour, was a fortress, with pre-gunpowder battlements and crenulations. The sun shone clear, without haze. The air was fresh. There were palm trees amongst the red roofs. He liked the colours. The sun on his face made him smile.

Dirk walked around all the ticket offices and asked about ferries. There were two ferries a week to Samothraki and the next one was two days away. He asked about a boat to Alexandropouli. It would be nicer than the bus, but didn’t go for three hours. He was getting impatient again. He didn’t want to get to Samothraki and find all the good stuff was gone. It might take him a day just to find his friends. Hopefully they would have the right gear.

He boarded the bus and sat by the window. There were others milling about outside, finishing cigarettes, saying farewells. Dirk noticed one bloke in particular. His hair was closely cropped and he was wearing an orange and red tie-dyed tee shirt and cargo pants, carrying a large pack. He looked a couple of years older than Dirk – about thirty. He looked like a raver. He was talking to a couple of young girls in an animated, friendly manner. Something about him made Dirk think he was a good bloke.

The bloke boarded the bus with the two girls and two other guys in tow. He was still talking and spoke in English English. They sat down just in front of Dirk and kept up the conversation. The two girls sounded French. Dirk figured they’d not all known each other that long, that they’d met on the road. He liked the look of the two French girls. One of them reminded him of a girl named Juliet he’d had a crush on years ago. The other one just looked French, in a good way. He was certain they were all going to Samothraki. He decided to wait until he was sure.

After five minutes he still wasn’t sure, but he wanted to talk to someone.

“Excuse me,” said Dirk, leaning forward. “Are you going to Samothraki? To Solar Lunar?”

“Yeah,” said the Englishman.

“Yes,” said the girl who looked like Juliet.

“Cool, me too. Do you know about the ferries? I was hoping to get a boat at Alexandropouli.”

“Hope being the operative word,” said the Englishman. “You can definitely get the ferry there, but it’ll be busy.”

“That figures. I don’t suppose you know the times?”

“I don’t. But there’s a few each day. They’ve put on extra.”

“Oh, good, good. That’s relief. I’m Dirk, by the way.”

“I’m Sean.”

“I’m Annette,” said the girl who looked like Juliet, “and this is Milene.”

Dirk smiled. He waved around and through the seat backs. Across the aisle, in front of Sean the heads of the two other guys popped up. “Hello,” they said.

“That’s Numa and Tom,” said Sean. They smiled and sat back down.

“Are you travelling solo?” asked Sean.

“Yeah. I’m meeting up with some friends on Samothraki. I just have to hope I’ll find them.”

“You ought to stick with us. We could use an Australian. I’m sure it’ll all work out.”

“Cheers,” said Dirk. “I feel like I’m finally getting there.”

_______________________________________________

They arrived in Alexandropouli around four. Dirk and Sean talked the whole way. They got off the bus and went straight across the square to a café. They ordered Nescafé frappes.

“I’ve only been in Greece two days,” said Sean “but I can tell you that this is all they drink.”

“So much for Greek coffee.”

Numa and Annette were an item. Numa was from Marseilles. He was thin and darkly tanned, with long black hair tied back. He looked like a pearl diver; pointy, like a spear gun. Annette was thin and pale and from Orleans. She too was thin, sinewy, but when she smiled she fleshed out with the softening. Dirk liked the way her hair fell. Milene was Annette’s best friend, also from Orleans. She didn’t speak much English and acted like a sidekick. Dirk’s French was poor. He knew he had some work to do, but he wanted to do it. She wasn’t wearing a bra. He could tell she was nice.

Tom was from Hamburg. He was quiet and kept his eyes down. He wasn’t so trusting, but he was learning to be. Dirk figured he fancied Milene as well. Fair enough. She might well sting them all. Sean was from Sheffield. He was an ex-army private; a mechanic; a writer. He D.J.ed in clubs in Liverpool and Manchester. He knew what he was doing and was organising the others. He and Tom had been travelling alone. They’d all met in Kavala. They finished their drinks and hit town.

At the ferry ticket office, the queue was out the door and down the street. It was a real bustle. They drank tinned beers and everyone checked each other out. They got tickets at sunset with the lights on in a hot press: two PM the next day. Dirk looked about for his friend Julian and his brother Jason, but couldn’t find them. He thought about a hotel room. He didn’t have a sleeping bag. It was a hot August. He’d been promised a tent berth on Samothraki. He figured he could pull through till then. He chose to save money and sleep rough with the others.

They bought supplies and walked to the harbour beach. It was thick sand and scrubby clumps. They laid out groundsheets and foam rolls and sleeping bags. Dirk lay down nothing. He put on two tee-shirts and a jumper. He figured he’d be fine if it stayed warm. They talked about life and work. Dirk liked them all and they seemed to like him. They got half drunk then called it quits.

At ten o’clock the sun was gone and with it went the heat. The moon was thereabouts full and lights shone bright from a shipyard further down the beach. Dirk took a walk to look at the yard. There were hungry dogs barking all around, but they always sounded far off. He came to a wide wire-mesh gate in a tall, shabby iron fence. The light was orange and yellow and leeched the colour from everything. The only colour he could see was rust; rust and dirty sand; rust and dead yellow grass. There was a great pile of iron and chain and junk. Scrap. He stared into it and listened to the junkyard dogs. He took a piss on the fence and walked back.

That night he shivered like hell on the sand. He put on another shirt and borrowed a sleeping bag cover for a cap. He lay in the light breeze, thinking how he’d done this twice before, in Turkey, in Sardinia, and both times it was stupid without a sleeping bag. Then Sean pulled him in and said, “get under here, you dill, and don’t get any ideas.” Backs together under a plastic sheet, heads on a pillow of sand, Dirk slept.

_______________________________________________

Seagulls skimmed the flecked wake of water, hunting the fish chased up in the foam. The day was bright and everyone felt happy. Sean was at his best, cheery and jibing. Dirk was smiling, but thinly spread, too much so to chase Milene. He leaned on the rails and stared at the sea, throwing in his odd two cents worth. He’d spent the morning baking and thawing in the sun. Now the sea was clearing out the drowse. He was thinking about Julian. How would he find his friend? Soon Samothraki’s tall Mount Fengari arose from the haze with its forested crest.

Kamariotissa spread with the wash of arrivals. They gushed out into the car park and broke against the shops. Dirk and the others flowed with them, down to the main promenade.

“The shopkeepers can’t believe their luck,” said Sean. “Two and a half thousand people on the whole island, and bang, seven thousand customers arrive in a couple of days.”

“They probably hate us,” said Dirk.

“Only the spoilsports.”

The buses were ready and waiting. It was a few miles to the campsite and the fare was next to nothing. The bus was jam-packed full of ravers; a mess of colour and language and accents. It took just twenty minutes. The land was olive green and ochre, with yellow and pink-red flowers. The sea was both blinding and dark. Where it did not foam or glint, it was deep bruise blue – how it should look in its belly; how it would look to the drowned. It flashed through the trees as they sped.

They got off at a dirt road that led into a forest. There were rainbow banners and police out the front. Through the gate and down the road was an open space swarming with people. There were low concrete buildings and dust in the air. The ground was rocky, clay, dirt. There was hot food and cold snacks, hot drinks and booze, massages and aromatherapy, candles, tarot, first aid, come down, pick up, meditation and left luggage.

“It’s all happening,” said Dirk.

They looked at the message board by the cafeteria and found nothing. They walked into the forest, down towards the beach.

“If I don’t find my friends today,” said Dirk, “can I crash with you guys somewhere?”

“I have a space in my tent,” said Tom. “You can stay with me.”

“Thanks a lot, man. That’d be great.” Dirk had bought a cheap sleeping bag that morning.

They walked for a mile through the forest. Tents were pitched everywhere; hammocks, lean-tos, wigwams, tarps; there were hardly any gaps between the trees. It was a new settlement, the largest on the island, more populous than the main town. They soon came to one of the two main stages. There was just a small clearing before it, and the trees formed a swaying canopy overhead. There was music playing, but things were still being set up and only one lone tripper was dancing. The party was to begin that evening.

They continued through the forest until they came to a much larger clearing, almost a hundred and fifty metres wide. Here the main stage had been set up, roughly a hundred metres from the water. Tall, triangular sails formed a clever and colourful roof above the speakers and equipment. Flags fluttered from the tops of poles, and, behind it all, rose the forested crest of Mount Fengari.

They finally found a spot between the two stages and began to set up camp. It was dark and surrounded by trees; just enough room for two tents. Sean planned on sleeping in the open. In fact, he didn’t intend to sleep at night at all. None of them really did.

_______________________________________________

It was dusk when Dirk spotted Julian. He was walking to the beach, coming up a rise from a grassy dip before the shoreline.

“Hey Julian!” he shouted.

“Dirk,” called Julian, “I thought you’d never make it!”

“Here I am.”

They walked over and embraced. Julian wore red and black board shorts, a black tee shirt. He was dark-haired and tanned. His face was slim, though his frame was built and full.

“Well done, man,” he said.

“Well done yourself,” said Dirk.

“Where you at?”

“I met a bunch of cool people on the road and pitched in with them. Not too far from here. Over that way. Where’s your lot?”

“Over that way. We’ve got a top spot, bru. You should move on over.”

“So there’s room?”

“Of course, bru. We’ve been expecting you.”

“Excellent. I might get my stuff right now. It’s not far.”

“For sure. I’ll come with you. I was on my way to get Jase, but he’ll be cool.”

“Okay, let’s do it now then.”

“It’s good to see you, bru!” said Julian. He slapped Dirk on the back.

“It’s a hell of a relief to find you. It’s been a bit of a mission so far.”

“You love missions, don’t you?”

“There’s nothing else.”

Julian laughed.

“Let’s get your stuff.”

They set off back to where Tom and Numa had pitched their tents.

“Have we got, you know, the wherewithal?” asked Dirk. “Are you equipped, with the goods?”

“No problems there, bru. We’ve got the lot. Liquid acid, ecstasy, hash, Ketamine, mushrooms.”

“Wicked. How did you pull that off?”

“Friends in low places.”

“Top notch.”

“It’s all back at the camp. Just sorted today. I’m holding off for tomorrow though. I’d like to start fresh in the morning. We’ll talk about it later.”

They found Tom alone, organising his tent. Dirk introduced Julian and explained that he was moving.

“Sorry, man, I feel like I’m abandoning you,” he said, pulling his bag from inside the tent.

“It’s no problem,” said Tom. “I’ll come with you. Show me where you’ll be.”

“Yes, make sure to tell the others.”

They set off through the forest.

_______________________________________________

“This is the laager,” said Julian.

“Cool spot.”

They were just a few hundred metres from Stage One. There were five tents, all facing into a circle; a hammock, a clothes line, a stone fire circle and some wide, woven dog blankets. There were also three men and a dog.

“This is Ian, Andrew and Pieter,” said Julian, “and this is Dirk and Tom.”

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

Everyone smiled. It was genuine.

“And that, my friends,” said Julian, “is Brutus the dog. He likes a bit of hard trance, but mostly he likes sleeping. Speaking of dogs, my brother should be along sometime soon. You know Jase, Dirk. There’s some other people staying here too, you’ll meet them soon enough. We all got here yesterday morning. Prime real estate.”

“It sure is.”

They talked for a few minutes and shared their adventures so far. It was almost dark, so Tom stayed just a short while before excusing himself.

“I’ll tell the others where you are,” he said as he left.

“Make sure you do.”

“So,” asked Dirk, once Tom had left, “is anyone here not South African?”

“Brutus,” said Julian. “And Hilda, who owns him. She’s Dutch.”

“That’s pretty close.”

“Don’t worry,” said Andrew, with a sinister lisp, “we’re non-discriminating.”

“Et tu, Brute? Non yarpie est?” asked Dirk, sitting down with Brutus. He was a big, piebald mutt with a thick skull and slow manner. Dirk took an instant liking to him and patted him a good deal. Brutus put his head in his lap and Dirk lay down on the blanket. He was feeling beat again and decided not to go anywhere or do anything for a while.

“So you’re from Cambridge too?” asked Ian.

“Yeah, same college as J. Where are you guys all from?”

“In England?” said Pieter. “We’re all from London.”

“In our own way,” added Andrew.

“Different parts,” said Ian.

“Otherwise, Capetown or Durban.”

Everyone had their shirts off and were tanned. They were all good-looking men; handsome, fit and toned. Dirk could tell just looking at them that they were capable. It was a good tribe to join and he was happy right where he was. He felt safe. The trance music pumped across the Stage One clearing and through the trees. The music would never stop. How would they ever sleep? Right now he was so tired he figured he’d drop off anyway. He closed his eyes.

“You off to sleep already, boet?” asked Julian.

“Looks like it,” said Dirk. “Just give me a bit. I’m spent.”

“Sure thing. There’s plenty of days ahead. I’ll wake you in a bit.”

“Do that.”

“You want some of this?” asked Ian.

“What’s that?”

“Hashish. The world’s best painkiller, bru.”

“Sure, thanks, man.”

Dirk sat up and leaned over. He took a few pulls on the joint and handed it back. He lay down again.

“Say, it’s damn nice here. I might just sleep out with Brutus tonight. It’s lovely.”

“Go for your life,” said Julian.

Dirk felt the hash come on like a massage. Up through the trees he could see the stars emerging. The sun had dipped below the fading, orange horizon. There was no breeze and the earth was dry and warm. There were soft needles on the sandy forest floor. He reached out a hand and ran it through them. He was on a nice flat stretch. Brutus nestled in with a meaty grunt. He’s a first-rate dog, thought Dirk. My new best buddy.

The stars grew brighter. Dirk closed his eyes and listened to the voices about him. Julian was off to find Jason. Andrew and Pieter sounded gay. Ian was smoking a cigarette. Was it just ravers, he wondered, or had some great good fortune thrust him in amongst the nicest, most welcoming, friendly and easy-going people on the planet? And dogs, he thought. Easy-going dogs. He emitted a high little giggle and fell asleep.

_______________________________________________

It was Jason who woke Dirk. “Laka, bru, it’s good to see you,” he said, pulling him from his slumber to his feet. They had met previously in the thick of some hard-core nights and had the bond of having seen in dawns together. They were both younger brothers and knew just what this meant.

“It sure is good to see you, Jason.”

Once he was up, Dirk decided he had better find Sean and co. He walked the twenty metres to the beach, washed his face and hands, walked back, changed clothes, then led Julian, Jason and Ian to find his other friends. It was Tom who sent them on to the cafeteria, by the entrance to the site.

Dirk did the introductions, then sat at the head of the table and watched everyone mingle. He smiled at the way Sean and Julian singled each other out. They were similar beings. It was animal; both of them leaders. One ex-army, the other ex-Olympics. It was not in any way macho, but diplomatic. They both held assurance and wisdom; could sense the other’s inner disciplines. Instead of boasting or posturing, they praised. Dirk admired them both. He tried to admire all the people he liked and felt he could learn from. He watched as these people enmeshed. It was he who had brought them together. Perhaps he too was a leader.

Milene sat at the other end of the table with Annette; still the sidekick. They were like Ernie and Bert in their stripes. Dirk watched them as he spoke to Ian and Numa. He felt further away than ever from Milene. Across the table, across the language. He had thought about her a lot because he knew the advantage of introductions. Proven safety; vouchsafed goodness. She had already seen that he was at least okay; a good person.

Dirk took up his camera to take a photograph of the group. He wanted to record this coming together. It meant a lot to him. He saw Milene watching him. He saw her looking into the camera when he peered through the viewfinder. He saw how she was the only one who had noticed. He saw how she smiled at him. He took the photo and roused everyone with the flash. Milene continued to smile and he smiled back. She really was sweet. It was her manner. Her eyes. That’s where you look for intelligence, for kindness. He wished to god his French was better. His moves were all conversation. Without the words, she was totally out of reach. He’d never been with a girl without a spoken understanding. He put away the camera. He knew he’d already given up. He knew that he would not dance with her, in case it came down to it. He could not be so mute and then physical in love.

_______________________________________________

The water was still. Dirk and Julian were sweaty from dancing. To their hot bodies, the sea was a lukewarm bath. They swam beyond their depth and back, scoured clean with salt. The full moon hung over Mount Fengari. It was so bright and the sea so still they could see the rocks underwater for thirty metres. The air was warm, much more so than the previous night. They sat on the round rocks dripping.

“I want to go up to the mountain tomorrow,” said Julian. “We should get up early, bru, go for a swim, take some acid and walk into the mountains.”

“Have you been up there yet?”

“Not yet. But I spoke to people who went up there today. There’s cool mountain pools up there. Streams and pools called ‘Vathres’. There’s ancient trees and goats, man. Goats.”

“Excellent. I love goats.”

“This is ancient Greece, bru. Up there it hasn’t changed. Just set your mind back.”

“I already have. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ancient world since I got off the plane.”

“Tomorrow we’re going back in time. We’ll go into the mountains and look for the past. Not in monuments, but in nature. The one thing from the ancient world that is exactly as it was. At least here, anyway. This used to be the home of the ancient gods, bru. There is a shrine to the old gods on this island.”

“I know, I know. The Shrine of the Great Gods. But it’s miles away from here.”

“It wouldn’t be the same anyway. Just a ruin. The Greek gods came from the landscape, from the mountains, from the forest. From nature. That’s no ruin, let me tell you. Tomorrow we’ll go in search of the ancient world, bru. The landscapes of Heroes and gods.”

“On acid,” said Dirk.

“On acid.”

Dirk rubbed his hands together. He was excited. He shivered.

“We’d better get some kip then,” he said.

_______________________________________________

Dirk woke at six thirty, at sunrise. The beats were pounding out as hard as ever. No one else was up; not even Brutus. He smelled curiously fresh, like a warm bread roll. Dirk smoothed the dog’s ears and gave him a kiss on the forehead. He slid from his sleeping bag. He picked up his towel and walked down to the beach. He was still in his board shorts.

He walked down into the water and lowered himself in its coolness. He lay on his back to float and look up at Mount Fengari. There was a thin mist around it so the top was a ghostly outline. He could just make out the textured layers of forest. Beneath it all, right before him, was Stage One with its kites and sails canopy. In front of that was the hoard of non-stop dancers.

Dirk looked along the beach. There were three huts constructed from branches and fronds. They had a feathery look, like crouching beasts. Scattered people sat and smoked or swam. Many still slept.

Dirk looked again up to the mountain.

“See you soon,” he said, then swam back to the shore.

He walked back into the laager to find Julian and Jason were up.

“Morning, sport,” said Julian. “I was just heading down myself.”

“It’s beautiful. Today is going to be a scorcher.”

“Come have another swim, bru,” said Jason. “Then we’ll get some breakfast.”

“And after breakfast,” said Julian, “we can begin our initiation into the mysteries.”

Julian smiled a luscious, suggestive smile, replete with the prospect of physical and intellectual decadence.

“What the hell,” said Dirk. “Another swim can’t hurt.”

_______________________________________________

They came off the burning bitumen into the shade of the sycamores. There was a trail through the dry scrub leading to a riverbed. The hot air followed them in. They were five: Jason, Julian, Ian, Andrew and Dirk.

Dirk breathed in all the crackles and clicks. The sandy soil turned to gravel as they stepped into the dip of the river. There was no water at all, yet once in the bed itself the space was cool. It came not from the shade but from the blue-grey boulders. They were soft in the mottled light; as soft as blu-tack. The riverbed was thick with roots that clasped these rounded lumps.

“Awesome,” said Jason. “These boulders, eh?”

“Yeah,” said Dirk. “The place is strewn.”

The acid was climbing in all of them. Ian, who had chased his drops with mushrooms, was coming on quicker than the others. Dirk, who had taken ecstasy as well, felt a nervous, fervid ripening. All their eyes were widening, their perspectives shortening. Time was slowing down; the world was tinged with a lush desperation. It was accruing a tantalising intensity.

Andrew was soon engrossed in his own game. It was his birthday and he wore a purple shirt. All morning they had called him Augustus, yet now he was crouching and slithering, hands spanned. As they drifted silently up the gully, he prowled and hissed amongst the rocks. It’s Gollum, though Dirk, not the emperor. Gollum looking for his precious.

Dirk came to a ten foot high rock about which the river had split. To the top of it clung a tree; a crooked, gnarled sycamore. Nursed in its thick clutching roots, heaved above the dry river, was another of the blue-grey boulders. Unlike ancient cities where the layers accumulate, here the ground had been lowered, eaten by the river. Dirk stood before it in awe. It was natural history. The tree coiled upwards like smoke, roots spreading in ringlets. He had never seen such curly trees; the gnarls were like twists of bread, the boulder a set gem. The roundness of both; river-smoothed rock, weather-rounded tree. Already he was thinking too much. He was moving forward, slowly, across the mottled light, descriptive words unfolding in his mind; the dappled light, the ochre leaves. The words had a tangibility. Of course they did, the things they described were actual. Dirk had never seen a place so dappled. “So dappled,” he sang. Sunlight lay like dropped gold coins.

They walked on up the riverbed, beneath the spotted canopy. The acid was powerful; the ecstasy and mushrooms were powerful, were growing more powerful. The men were all engrossed and hardly spoke. When they did it was exclamations, exhortations to come see what they had just seen; were seeing. This tree. This rock. “Look at this. At this!” They all looked. They were all in agreement. It was all incredible.

They soon spread out; walking at their own pace. Gollum stayed back. He was taking his time. His birthday. He stopped and went even lower to the ground. He lay down, gathered up leaves and pulled them over himself like a blanket. He found the earth so close and wonderful. It was an embrace, a burial, a return. The others soon lost sight of him.

Dirk forged on ahead. For him it was everything; the trees, the leaves, the light, the blue-grey rocks. His hearing grew more acute as his eyes rolled. He was breathing in colour, inhaling the things that he saw, hearing the colours, each had a different hum, smelling the colours, tied to times and scents. His nerves were crossing over into the bliss. The transition had passed, the come-up, the rise. His body had ridden the shock of the drugs. He was starting to soar. He was blissing out. He was peaking.

Dirk came to a large pool of water. At the other side of it the gorge rose up sharply in sheer rock walls. The cover of the trees ended. The pool could only be crossed on foot. At the other side they would have to begin climbing up the rock through the path of a stream. Dirk took off his sandals and put his feet in the water. It was silken, thrilling. He shivered as his body pulsed and rushed. He sat down to wait for the others. He wanted a cigarette, yet it was complicated. He took off his shirt and put it in the small satchel he was carrying. He wet his hands and washed his face, ran water through his hair.

Julian caught him up. “Where’s Andrew?”

“I don’t know,” said Dirk. “Last I saw he was hissing about the rocks.” He laughed nervously. The thought of it, the sight of it, was so ridiculous. Just what was Andrew playing at?

Ian was beaming, rubbing his hands together. He’s elsewhere, thought Dirk, but he knows to stick with those who have a purpose.

“Let’s go on,” said Jason. “Keep climbing. Follow the stream. There are more pools up ahead.”

He pulled off his trainers and plunged straight into the pool.

“Come on, you oaks,” he said.

Julian followed, Dirk and Ian followed. The bottom of the pool was smooth mud and rock. They came out between narrow walls of rock. A tumble of boulders led up through the gorge and without stopping, led by Jason, they began to clamber up the rocks.

They came to a tall slope of granite. Water rushed by its foot. They walked crab-like up and along it to emerge at its rounded top. On the other side the blue-grey rock sloped down in smoothed humps and ridges to a pool.

“Jesus,” said Ian. “Look at that.”

There was a small waterfall spilling into the pool. Dirk shook his head in wonder. He felt tearful. It was so beautiful. And then they heard it, the sound of a light bell clanging. Dirk looked to his right and there, just fifteen feet above the pool, on a narrow ridge running along the side of the gorge, were three goats.

“Goats!” shouted Dirk. “Look, Julian, goats!”

“Goats!” shouted Julian.

“Goats!” shouted Jason.

Dirk was near hysterical with excitement. The goats were plodding along, not minding at all being spotted. Their shaggy coats hung down between their legs in brushes, their ears bounced and flopped; their narrow faces soft as felt. One of them stopped and sniffed the air. Then it began to descend the slope, towards them. It was not afraid. It angled away, aiming for a place a mere ten feet from them. There they saw an orange lying on the rock. Someone must have dropped it. The goat went to it and sniffed. It began to jaw away at it; lips rippling in a curious, rolling motion.

“I love goats,” said Dirk. “They’re just so classic.”

Julian erupted in a great laugh. Once he was started, he was off; laughing loud and long. He laughed so hard he was clutching his belly. Ian and Jason began to laugh too, though they did not know at what.

“Classic?” said Julian. “Of course – classic! They’re the most classic thing here!”

“Oh my god,” said Dirk. “Of course!”

“This is it, bru,” said Julian. He sent an arm flying out and slapped Dirk heartily in the chest. “We’ve made it. We’re in ancient Greece!”

“Fucking brilliant!”

“We just need a goatherd or two,” said Julian. “And an eclogue. You can’t have an eclogue without goatherds.”

“What about a parable?”

“The parable of the goats?”

“It could work,” said Dirk. He was snorting and giggling, hysterical little laughs. It was all too much.

They fell silent, watching the goat again. The goat was well into the orange. It was lapping up the sweet juice, gnawing through the rind.

Jason, meanwhile, put down his shoes. He shed his satchel and moved to the water’s edge, then hopped in.

“Woooo!” he shouted. “Check it out.”

He was up to his neck in the water. It was deep and pure. He swam over to the waterfall and let it spill down on his head.

“Paradise,” he said, “it’s perfect.”

The others were very quick to follow. They soon forgot all about the goat.

“This is paradise, alright,” said Ian, once they were all in the water.

“It sure is,” said Dirk, emerging, head dripping from a plunge.

“Though I have to say, it’s a bit nippy in paradise.”

_______________________________________________

They reached the top of their climb. They could go no further without more equipment or daring. The rock they were climbing poked out like a triangle, above a deep pool, forty feet below. On either side the walls were sheer. Across the other side of the pool was another sheer wall. Walking along its edge was a stunning blonde in a yellow bikini. She was tall, lithe, busty. Dirk was astonished. They were all astonished; reduced to an awed snickering.

“Jesus Christ,” said Julian. “I can’t believe it.”

“Is she really that beautiful?” asked Dirk.

“I think she is.”

She moved about playfully, unafraid of tripping or falling. They had passed other people in the last stages of their climb; a man, meditating furiously, cross legged on a ledge; another tanned and soft where he lay, asleep. They had stopped and watched and people caught them up.

“She must be a nymph,” said Julian. “Look at how well she walks along the rocks. She’s so natural.”

“But in a yellow bikini!” said Dirk. “Gods, man, it’s killing me. I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone that beautiful in my life.”

“She looks Greek,” said Jason. “She’s just glowing. Check her out, bru. She’s really, seriously fucking good.”

“Nymphs,” said Julian. “Nymphs!”

The nymph in yellow sat on the edge of the cliff, beaming. She looked across to the men and smiled. Her eyes were shining; her face shifted blissfully about. The men looked on in admiration. It was lust, but it was also art. The rocks, the trees, the pools, the sky, nothing came close to the nymph.

Julian began to pace.

“I’ve got to get over there,” he said.

“What are you going to do?” asked Dirk.

“I just want to…”

“It’s madness,” said Dirk. “Madness!”

“Look at her!”

“I know, I know,” said Dirk. He wanted to cry.

Julian moved to the edge of the drop. He looked over, looked down at the lowest point above the pool.

“I want to touch her,” he said. He started laughing, a giggly, fragile laugh. “I want to roll around with her.”

“Oh, god man, so do I,” said Dirk. “But it’s madness!”

Ian, who had been smiling and picking dirt from beneath his nails, burst out laughing. Dirk began to laugh too, and Julian, who was already snickering, began to bellow. Big, gulping, laughs. Dirk rubbed his face with his hands. He squeezed his eyes. Was this a sort of torment – the world of myth, yet they could only look?

“I’ve got to look away,” said Dirk. “I can’t stand it any longer.”

He turned and walked back down the slope. He sat on the rock and watched the man who was meditating. He looked cranky. Other people were coming up from behind him, talking loudly. Why shouldn’t they? Who was this prick who thought he was so superior? Dirk was soon joined by the others. They could not stand it either.

They had come as far as they could. What now?

_______________________________________________

Dirk and Julian were in front as they began the descent; both of them caught up in longing. They passed a group of people; more shirtless men. A middle-aged Greek in sandals stood aside to let them through where the passage narrowed. “Yiassou,” he said.

“Yiassou,” said Dirk and Julian.

“Pleasure is art,” said the man, smiling, as he stepped down and walked on.

Julian and Dirk were agog. Had they heard right?

“Did you hear that?” asked Julian, walking on.

“Did he say what I think he did?”

“Pleasure is art. My god.”

“I know. I mean, what a thing to say.”

“What a genius thing to say. How Greek of him!”

“You’re right,” said Dirk. “Think about it. It’s incredible. It’s like some carry-over, some cultural embedding of the ancient philosophies in the people. The man must be an Epicurean!”

“We have to think this through.”

They continued talking along the stream-eked course. They climbed down rocks, swung around tree branches, swam again through pools, talking. Twenty minutes later, as they reached the first pool they had crossed, Dirk grabbed Julian by the arm.

“Hell, man, it just hit me. What if we misheard him? What if he actually said, ‘pleasure is arse’?”

Julian laughed so hard he nearly fell over. He wheezed, barely able to breathe, doubled up, heaving out bellows. His face went red and his eyes were wild and wet.

“Brilliant,” was all he could manage. “Brilliant!” Then his eyes narrowed, his mouth straightened, his face fell cold with realisation.

“Bru, bru – what if what he actually said was ‘pleasure is ars’ – ars, ars, the Latin for art.”

“My god, Julian. That would be about the most perfect Epicurean double entendre in history!”

They shook with the ideas, their hands dancing in gestures.

“What is Greek for art?” said Julian. “Christ, how could I not know?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” said Dirk.

“Fuck it, bru,” said Julian. “But we’re going to find out.”

But it was all around them.

_______________________________________________

The canopy thinned and the air grew drier. Before them, over a rise, was a bitumen road. They had emerged from the forest.

They started out down the road. They were in the open air, under the shadow of the mountain. The sun was low and close to setting. It was still warm.

There was a taverna just a hundred metres away. It was built above the road with a wide patio. They walked up the stairs and sat down at a table. The waiter came over.

“Should we put our shirts on?” said Dirk.

“Women wear very little at trance parties,” said Julian, “so why not the men?”

“Can I help you?”

“A bottle of wine, please sir. Red. Anything,” said Dirk.

“Red wine,” said the man then walked away.

“I hope it’s rough. I want something rustic.”

The waiter was back in a flash with the wine and four tumblers. He put the bottle on the table.

“This feels like the end,” said Dirk. “The sun is setting.”

“It’s only because we’re in the shadow,” said Jason.

Ian just kept smiling.

Dirk filled the glasses.

“We’ll drink this and split. Straightaway. Come on, drink!”

They picked up the glasses and tipped the wine straight down. Dirk poured another shot. “Drink this and let’s leave. It’s too dark here, it feels like the end of everything.”

“What’s the rush, bru?” said Julian.

“I just don’t want to sit somewhere dark. Look, across that way, you can still be in the sun there.”

“Okay.”

They drank the wine straight down and Dirk rushed over to pay.

“Let’s move,” he said. “There’s the little village down the road. We’ll get a drink there. This is dead. No nymphs.”

“No nymphs,” giggled Ian.

“No nymphs,” said Julian.

They walked for a kilometre, away from the base of the mountain and onto the plain. The low sun was lighting up the houses and shops. They reached a taverna, white and blue and covered with vines. It was a rustic Greece postcard. They went inside and smiled and smiled. The wine had warmed them. They had the taste for it now. The waiter led them to the yard. There were trellises overhead, coiled with grapevines. They sat down, shirts off. Julian took charge and ordered two bottles. “The best wine,” he said, “I’ll pay,” he reassured the table. “I’ve just got more funding.”

When the wine came it was the lady of the house that brought it. She spoke better English and recommended the lamb.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Dirk.

“I’m not vegetarian today,” said Julian. “Not in ancient Greece.”

“Lamb,” said Ian.

“Lamb,” said Jason.

“Four lambs,” said Julian.

Dirk laughed. Four lambs indeed.

“Salad,” said Julian. “Tabouli, humus, taramasalata, olives.”

“Haloumi,” said Dirk, “fried Haloumi.”

The lady smiled as she wrote it all down. The four men smiled back at her; tanned and southern, fit and smiling men.

“We don’t have any cutlery,” said Dirk, when the food arrived.

“You’re supposed to eat without it,” said Julian.

“No you’re not. They’ll think we’re barbarians.”

“We are barbarians. Dionysian barbarians.”

“They have cutlery,” said Dirk, pointing to another table where a family of four ate cautiously, eyeing them.

“They’re old fashioned,” said Julian.

They ate with their fingers. Lamb, yoghurt, potatoes, olives, dolmades, and great gulps of wine. Their appetites were furious. They laughed, they roared. The place filled up and hid them better, but not quite well enough. The sun went down and the vines lit up with fairy lights. They were hot and tipsy, full and blessed.

“How can this day ever end?” asked Dirk. “It’s my favourite so far. I mean, ever.”

“Well,” said Julian, “I have one or two suggestions. We take some more acid drops, smoke some hash, pop a couple of pills, go to the world’s best trance party on the beach, and dance in the sea.”

“That’ll do nicely.”

_______________________________________________

Dirk shook and stamped, entranced, in a scuffle of dust. He could not dance hard enough, though he sure was trying. It was a form of fury, a dance of artful dodging. His arms pumped to counterbalance the bouncing of his feet. He was ducking, switching, jinking; with his elbows out he imagined himself describing a hexagon. All about him bodies heaved and leapt. Dirk saw thighs and calves and feet that caught the light. They loomed close then trailed across his eyes.

Dirk was right at the front and had been for hours. It was partly that he wanted the volume; partly that he felt it was heroic, but mostly because it was where the few lights were shining. He had a point of reference for the swimming visuals behind his eyes; the shimmering rainbow Mandelbrot sets tossed up by the acid. The music came in snapping, neon colours. Driving it all was the constant beat; a mosquito hardened into a bounce. “Dugga da dug, dugga da dug, dugga da dug,” it had been at him all night beneath the trumpeting of elephants and roaring of tigers; animal trance.

Dirk turned to look behind him and gasped. It was getting light. Low, just above the horizon, pale peach and orange bled into wan turquoise. It went on, right up into the stars. Dawn had arrived. Awareness of time came flooding back. The short, full moon night; that manic, heaving, tribal episode was coming to a close.

Dirk was still as high as a kite. His energy had not diminished. When he saw the sky his mouth hung open. He stepped forward, walking awkwardly, like he might after a long bicycle ride. He soon gathered pace and weaved through the dancers. Animal sounds ripped into the dawn; squawks and shrieks in shades from the towered stacks.

“Dirk, Dirk!”

A shape loomed before him, an orange man in a yellow and purple hat.

“Sean!” shouted Dirk, “Sean!”

They walked into an embrace and bear-hugged each other.

“How you going, man?” asked Sean, stepping back. “Big night?”

“Yeah, man, yeah,” said Dirk. “Mate,” he added. “Truly, man, this is the best day of my life, ever. I really mean ever! Give us another hug, man, this is a day of miracles.”

They embraced again.

“This is the best day, man, the very best day!”

“That’s a big claim,” said Sean, smiling. “What the hell are you on?”

“Oh, man, everything. Bloody everything.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Where are the others?” asked Dirk. “Annette and Numa and Milene and…” he knew there was someone else, but the name had gone.

“They’re switching to day shifts,” said Sean. “They got real messed up last night.”

“Classic.”

“Dirk, over here!” Dirk turned left then right, seeing no one he recognised.

“Dirk, over here.”

This time he pinpointed the voice. It was Julian calling him, waving to him, standing on the rise just before the water.

“Julian, Julian!”

Dirk threw his arms wide and stamped ahead through the dusty grass. Sean followed in his stumbling wake.

“Where have you been?” asked Julian.

“Right up there, man, right at the front.”

“Hey, man,” said Sean, catching up.

“Sean, classic,” said Julian.

Dirk grabbed the two of them by the arms.

“Come on,” he said. “Look – sunrise.”

He walked over the small rise and onto the stones of the beach. They shifted beneath his sandals with a ceramic clink.

“Look at this,” said Dirk. “Look at this!” He spread his arms wide and presented the dawn to them. He was getting a big rise from the light and space.

“This is perfect, perfect.”

The beach ran straight for miles on either side, a diminishing line of stone; behind it the forest, pine, cypress and sycamore, rising into the mountain. In front of Dirk stretched the still and filmy sea. The water was pale lilac and mauve; closer to the shore a blue rinse filtered the stones, as weightless as spirit.

Dirk walked on to the water’s edge. He sat down on the rocks, feeling a great stiffness in the back of his legs. It was chilly, but he was sweating. He shifted until his bottom was comfortable on the stones, then he looked at his feet.

“Jesus,” said Dirk. “Sweet Jesus.”

His feet were bleeding and covered in dust. Both of his big toes had worn themselves raw; the blisters having popped long before. Several smaller toes were also blistered and bloody. He had felt no pain at all.

The stones clinked behind him.

“Wow, bru, look at your feet,” said Julian.

He and Sean sat down either side of Dirk. Dirk undid his sandals and pulled his feet free. Now that he had noticed them, they felt very tender. He stretched and placed his feet in the water. It was cool and thrilling. The heat in the raw patches diminished with a sting. He leaned forward to rub free the dirt and expose the wounds. How had they gotten like that without him noticing?

“The salt water will be good for them,” said Sean. “Give them a good soak.”

Dirk looked beyond his feet to the horizon. He had watched the sun rise on beaches before, but this had a different character. He had never seen the sea so still and softly coloured. A dog ran into the water to his left. It swam out twenty metres then turned and swam back. Dirk’s blisters rippled through the mauve. How could he have not known? God, he had wrecked himself. Really wrecked himself. It would be a hell of a comedown and no peace to be found. Buy now, pay later.

Sean produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them around. They all took one and began to smoke. Behind them the music was soaring. Then Julian spoke.

“Many don’t realise that Zeus had a father,” he said. “Before Mount Olympos he lived on this rock. This is the home of the first pantheon, of the sanctuary of the great gods. In that place the stones remember what the poets glossed over. The beginnings of time.”

Dirk rubbed his feet. How white they looked now that the skin was beginning to prune.

“There’s not a lot left from those times,” said Julian. “Just enough to be tantalising. It’s all bound up, into myth. Bound into myths, in an overgrown glade.”

Dirk nodded along with Julian’s words. He was sure he was right, that here was the ancient world, all bound up in the stones and the trees. He looked back to his feet. It was shocking. Stiffness was spreading up his legs as his muscles cooled, finally allowed to rest. How much he had asked of his body!

Dirk looked at Julian, about to say something. He stopped himself and his mouth grew slack. Instead he looked back out to sea, where the dog was once again swimming through the filmy water. Before the orange core of the sunrise drifted a cabin cruiser. It looked like a holiday poster. Dirk turned to Julian again, once more hoping to say something. He longed to think about the ancient world, but his feet were shouting about the present. Still, he wanted to press on. He brought his hand up to emphasise his point, then realised he had forgotten it. He looked back to his feet. They pulled him up short. Despite the obvious magnitude of everything they had discussed, it was all so bloody unimportant. The final truth resided in his blisters.

“I’m lost,” said Dirk. “Lost forever after this. That was the highpoint of life.”

He lay on his back like a ship-wrecked Odysseus, bracing himself for the future.

_______________________________________________

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Dirk stepped out onto the broken street. The hotel was a furnace, and for once the air outside seemed cooler. Beneath his feet, the road surface had been stripped; a jumble of steel and plastic pipes ran along the narrow passage between the stacked hotels. The concrete buildings formed a canopy over the lane. The bright lights of shop-fronts, the signage and hanging bulbs, lit the place up like a bombed-out shopping mall.

Dirk turned left and stepped along the pipes onto Main Bazar, the central street of Paharganj. Here too the road was being re-surfaced, and even now, at eight in the evening, they were concreting a section of it just twenty metres away. All about was busy with human traffic; Indians mostly, but tourists as well, traipsing up and down through the open ground, pitted and full of mud.

Dirk had come to India with just a pair of thongs and he stepped carefully amidst the slush. The caps of manholes, sumps and drains protruded here and there as islands in the muck. Dirk stepped up onto a manhole and surveyed the scene. Just ten feet away was a man with a camp-stove and small wok; a pile of eggs beside him and a taper burning beside some loaves of bread.

He walked over to the man, who was dressed in a white smock with a round, peak-less white cap.

“Hello, sir! Omelette for you?”

“Yes, please,” said Dirk.

“How many eggs? One, two…?

“Two eggs, please.”

“No problem, sir. You want bread? Like sandwich?”

“Sure,” said Dirk. “Sounds great.”

“Chilli?”

“Sure.”

The man cracked two eggs into the wok, then threw in some chopped green chillies. Dirk stood waiting for the conversation that seemed inevitable, but, to his surprise, the man busied himself in the rising steam and said nothing. Thus freed, he turned back to the street and watched the scene. There was mayhem around a choke point, where rough barricades had been erected to block the traffic. In the lightning flash of welding sparks, a man was trying to squeeze his motorbike past a camel-cart, which had paused on the other side, unable to pass. The camel-driver backed the animal up, which coughed its displeasure and, after a couple of feet, stopped and stood working its jaws. Once the motorbike was through, the shadows shifted and people emerged from the pools of darkness about the shabby shopfronts, flowing through the gap. In their wake came a line of bicycles, the riders seated and stepping along the puddled road.

“Drink, sir? Lemonade, cola?”

The man had finished cooking and placed the omelette on a slice of white sandwich bread on a white, disposable plastic plate. The bread had been lightly fried. He covered it with another slice.

“Sure. I’ll take a Thumbs Up,” said Dirk. He had grown rather fond of India’s answer to Coke.

“Thirty rupees.”

Dirk took the money from his pocket and paid the man. His dinner cost less than a dollar. If he was still hungry, he’d buy another one later.

Dirk strode across to an empty doorway and stood on the step. With his back to the door, he ate and watched the procession of people along the street. The bread tasted lightly of smoke and charcoal, and the chillies were hot and flavoursome. He had arrived at his hotel only half an hour before and had not eaten since breakfast, yet the heat left him with only half an appetite.

Dirk finished his omelette and wiped his hands on his dirty shorts. Everything he wore had been repeatedly hand-washed with soap and shampoo in showers and sinks. Despite his best efforts, his tan shorts were stained with ingrained dirt and grease.

Dirk waited until the path was clear then walked past the road-block behind which men were toiling with shovels and mattocks. On the other side, the street opened out and was soon met by a cross-road. Coming towards him was a teenage boy pushing an iron-banded wooden cart, covered in what looked like biscuits. Dirk stepped one way, trying to get around him and the boy turned his cart in the same direction, accidentally blocking his path. They both laughed and Dirk stepped the other way, just as the boy swung the cart in the same direction, blocking him again. Now they both laughed aloud, and the boy said:

“Try my biscuits!”

“Maybe. What are they?”

The boy stopped and walked around to the side of his cart.

“Butter, nuts, very nice. It’s the local recipe!”

What nuts? wondered Dirk, but he wasn’t too fussed. The biscuits looked excellent; like rough-cut, round shortbreads, crumbly and greasy. His mouth watered as he thought of how buttery they looked.

“You like? Fifty rupees, one bag.”

“Okay, go on then.” The price seemed rather high for India, but it was still just over a dollar.

“You will love these biscuits very much, sir,” said the boy, who can’t have been much more than fourteen. He picked up a bunch with a wooden scoop and tipped them into a paper cone. Dirk got the money out and paid as soon as the bag was offered. The boy smiled so broadly that Dirk wondered what the regular price was. Still, at such prices, it was a win for them both.

A minute later, Dirk stood leaning against a telegraph pole, eating the biscuits. They were indeed good and he relished the buttery, nutty flavour. It tasted like macadamia, but he wasn’t sure whether macadamias were available in India. Eating the biscuits was as enjoyable as buying them had been. How often these things happened to him in India! He was less than a hundred metres from his hotel and already he’d been fed twice.

Further down, the street was lit by lights festooned with power cables, hanging at various heights. Everything seemed so slapdash and unfinished; beneath the wires and lights surged a crowd of the urgent and enterprising poor. Dirk stood and marvelled, until a young man walked directly towards him, raising his index finger to get Dirk’s attention.

“Hello sir, how are you?”

He didn’t wait for Dirk to answer.

“Can I help you? I can get you hashish, marijuana. You want to smoke charras? I can help you.”

“Maybe,” said Dirk. “What exactly have you got?”

The young man looked different to most of the locals. His features were more Asiatic, like the people Dirk had seen in the foot hills of the Himalayas. He was dressed in jeans, overly busy with buttons and embroidery, and a simple black tee-shirt. He didn’t look dirt poor, but nor did he seem exactly wealthy.

“Which do you prefer? Marijuana or hashish?”

“I’d prefer marijuana,” said Dirk. He liked the way this man was straight down to business. “If you have it.”

“I have it!” said the man, excited.

“I want only five hundred rupees.”

“Okay, okay. You get what you pay, no problem sir. You want more, pay more, want less, pay less. Which country, sir?”

“I’m from Australia. Where are you from?”

“India, of course!”

“But where in India? You’re not from Delhi, are you?”

“No, I’m from West Bengal. From the north, in the mountains. Near Darjeeling.”

“Darjeeling!” said Dirk. “My favourite place!”

“Yes? You like Darjeeling?”

The young man was clearly excited.

“Yes, I’ve just come from there. I stayed ten days.”

“That is great, sir, great.”

Dirk stuffed the bag of biscuits into the thigh pocket on his shorts and adjusted the camera on his shoulder. The young man read the signs and motioned for Dirk to follow him.

“Come with me. Here, sir, this way.”

Dirk followed the young man into a narrow back lane. He was wary of what might happen once he got there, but he also knew such deals could not be done on the busy street. He was a strong man with a large upper body, and he made sure his arms were ready, like a probing wrestler. So far he had managed to avoid any genuine hassle on his travels, and he liked to think this was in part because he looked capable of handling himself. He was certainly better built than most of the locals, though he didn’t doubt their wiry strength. He had once worked in a pub with a man much thinner than he, who could lift a full keg to chest height.

“Here, take this,” said the young man, holding out a bony hand. Dirk opened his palm and a cluster of tightly-compressed, dry buds were placed into it.

“Thank you.”

“No problem, sir. You will enjoy it! Very nice smoke, very sweet high.”

“Excellent.”

Dirk closed his hand tightly then reached into his pocket to produce the five hundred rupees. He passed the note to the young man, then took another note from his pocket and wrapped the marijuana in it. Another day in India, another deal. He began to laugh and the young man gave him a curious look, standing there amidst the trash and dinginess.

“Good joke, eh?” the young man asked.

“No. Yes. It’s just India,” said Dirk.

“You like India?”

“Man, I love India. But it’s crazy.”

He reached into his pocket again. “Here,” he said. “Take this.” He took out a one hundred rupee note and handed it to the young man. “Thanks for your help.”

“Thank you very much, sir! Thank you.”

“No worries. You’re a champion.”

They walked back out onto Main Bazar, both of them smiling. Dirk wondered as he did about everyone he met in India, how this young man’s life would turn out. Would it be ceaseless toil and poverty, would he wind up in prison, or would he get a lucky start and crack into the new middle class? It seemed unlikely somehow, but then, what did Dirk know of this man’s abilities? Perhaps he already was middle class.

“Good luck,” said the young man, as they reached the milling chaos of the busy road.

“You too,” said Dirk. “Take care.”

They shook hands, beaming at each other. Just now, things were going well for the both of them.

“See you later!”

The young man walked off into the crowd and was soon gone from sight. Dirk stepped across the mud to another manhole island in the stripped, dirt road. He surveyed the scene a while, then took his camera from his shoulder and began to line up shots. Part of him was inclined to return to the hotel and get baked, but he also knew that this street was a potential goldmine with its characters and curiosities. A long continuity of heads and shoulders bobbed beneath the dark mess of wires and dim street lights. The low light made it difficult to capture anything in a brief exposure, and Dirk struggled to hold the camera firm and steady, opening it up for a second or more each shot.

He stepped off the manhole and slowly walked further down the street. He soon reached another crossroad, on the other side of which the street was paved and busy with traffic. Dirk stepped up onto the pavement and leaned against a pole. He placed his camera against the metal and pressed hard to stabilise it. The people, auto-rickshaws, cars, carts, cows and camels that filled the long, wider street before him, offered a shifting collection of silhouettes.

Dirk became so engrossed in concentrating on his photographs that he didn’t at first notice the high, thin voice that was attempting to address him.

“Hello, sir. Hello, sir.”

Dirk heard the voice now and inwardly groaned. He had barely made it two hundred metres down the street and it had taken him forty minutes. Now another person wanted his attention. Despite the pleasure of his last three encounters, he wanted to focus on photographs. Would he ever be left alone? He was determined to see this one off as quickly as possible.

“Hello, sir, can you help me?”

Dirk lowered his camera and turned to his right. Standing before him, with a look of anxious concern on his face, was a terrifically thin young man. Dirk was so astonished by his appearance that he blinked and looked again. The young man was mere skin stretched taut over a skeleton. He was dark-skinned, yet somehow pale, almost white, his arms and legs covered with dry dust. His clothes were threadbare, but clean, and hung from him like they might from a clothes-horse.

“Can you help me, sir? Can you buy me some food?”

“Sure,” said Dirk. “Here,” he reached into his pocket to take some money out, and the young man began shaking his head.

“No, please, sir. No money, no money. Please come with me, please can you buy me the food?”

“You don’t want money?”

“No, no money, thank you. Please, it’s not far.”

Dirk had encountered this before in McLeod Ganj, when a young boy had become enraged after he handed him 100 rupees, a decent sum. At that time Dirk had been hurrying back to his hotel and needed the toilet. He was surprised and annoyed by the boy’s reaction, though he was equally mystified and by no means unsympathetic. Why didn’t they want the money? Would the shopkeepers not sell to them? Would no one sell to them? Was it a caste taboo? Could every shopkeeper be intimately aware of the caste of every urchin in the town? There must have been somewhere for them to go. He thought again. How else would caste work if people didn’t make it their business to know what caste other people were? It still seemed incomprehensible to him; the scale of it, the antiquity of it. Was caste still so prevalent in modern India, in Delhi? It struck him how hopelessly ignorant he was of all this.

Shocked by the emaciated appearance of the young man, and not wanting to disappoint him, Dirk was determined to help. He felt a very sudden and overwhelming sense of responsibility and wanted to do more than just buy him some food, yet he had no idea where to start. His thinness was alarming, like the wrecked bodies of the holocaust; huge sorrowful eyes, peering from an oversized head atop a tiny neck. He had an almost alien air, like those depictions of visitors from other worlds.

The young man began to walk and Dirk walked with him.

“It’s not far, sir, not far.”

“It’s okay,” said Dirk. “I’ll buy you some food, no worries.” He could see how anxious the young man was that he not change his mind, and Dirk wanted to reassure him. Indeed, he could feel the horror of anxiety that filled this boy’s whole life. If he could, just for a moment, save him from this draining, sapping worry, he would be doing something real, something substantial.

“Not much,” said the boy. “Just some chapati, some dahl, some lassi. Please, sir, also one lassi for my brother.”

“Of course,” said Dirk. “Of course. Just tell me what you want, you can have it.”

They stepped along the broken street, over the puddles and mounds of mud and gravel, heading in the direction of Dirk’s hotel. They walked around the barriers where the men were concreting, ducking under the hanging wires of the arc-lights. The young man walked with the lanky gait of a spider. His stick-thin legs stretched ahead like feelers, and his body seemed to pitch forward, as though his upper body had its own momentum. He glanced continually at Dirk, eyes full of guidance, like a man leading an animal or a child, making sure it did not stray.

Dirk was brimming with questions. He wanted to ask about the boy’s life, to know about his circumstances, his privations, yet he had no idea where to start. He remembered hearing a prostitute complain about how men always asked why they did what they did; showing a pathetic sympathy, which perhaps disguised a lurid curiosity. “I hate it when they ask,” she had said. “Are they trying to make me feel ashamed? Are they trying to make me feel like a victim?” Dirk wondered if they boy wanted to tell his story; he also wondered if the boy would tell the truth. He wanted to know the truth, but how could he ever be sure? Even if the boy lied to him, was there any doubting his thinness, his horrid emaciation? What could have made him so thin? Was it simply hunger, or was there something worse, something terminal? He pondered all this, half losing himself in the careful placement of his feet.

“Here,” said the boy, as they arrived at a counter selling hot foodstuffs. “This place.”

“What do you want?” asked Dirk.

The man standing behind the blackened bricks and boiling pots of the roadside kitchen smiled at Dirk, and before Dirk could say hello, the boy began to rattle off his order.

“Four chapatti, dahl, two lassi.”

Dirk, watched him smiling. “Whatever you want, just order.”

But the boy’s order remained modest.

“It’s enough, for me and my brother.”

Dirk thought of his own brother; how they loved and hated and loved each other as children. He felt a great welling of emotion in his heart at this boy’s fraternal care. On very few occasions had he or his brother ever found themselves wanting; not for anything they needed; food, shelter, love, warmth. When his older brother had stood up for him as a child, Dirk had felt a loving admiration and deep trust that only family could engender. It was sweet that this boy cared so much for his brother, but Dirk wanted them to have plenty.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything else? You can order, go ahead. It’s no problem.”

“No, it is enough. Thank you.”

“What about some money? Would some money help? You could buy something for your brother. Really, it’s nothing to me.”

“No, thank you,” said the boy. “No money.”

The man behind the pots handed over the food. The lassi were in clear plastic bags, like prize goldfish. The young man took the food and smiled at Dirk.

“Thank you again,” he said. “You are very kind.”

“Okay, sure,” said Dirk. “But won’t you take some money?”

The young man shook his head and began to walk off. He was smiling and, apparently, greatly relieved. The relief in his face choked Dirk right up.

“Thank you, and good luck,” he said, rather quietly, his voice catching. The young man turned and his pale face flashed a moment in the crowd, like one of Caravaggio’s urchins. Then he was gone.

Dirk felt as though he had dropped a coin into a well, not for luck, but in the hope of one day filling it. His heart was fit to burst with the hunger to help; an appetite for altruism that surprised him. Perhaps, however, one must be very select in this business; unable to give to everyone, it made more sense to give something significant to one person.

This young man had indeed moved him. He stood on the pavement on tiptoe and looked through the crowd, trying to catch another glimpse of him. He was tempted to try to follow the boy, as much out of curiosity as anything else. Perhaps he could do something, if there was an address, a family, he might be able to help them further; even once back in Australia. Yet, the boy had vanished into the stream of people on the dark street and his fate was entirely his own.

Dirk turned back towards his hotel, eager to photograph and remember, to smoke and, perhaps, to forget.

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