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Archive for the ‘Dirk’ Category

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

_______________________________________________

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.

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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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Paddington, 1983

Pug, the bull-terrier, cattle-dog cross, was straining at the leash, half-strangling himself in the process. I had often asked why we didn’t get him a harness, instead of the leather collar he wore, so that he wouldn’t choke himself all the time, but my father argued that it would only maximise his strength and give him more pulling power. It didn’t seem entirely logical to me, being far more concerned with the dog’s comfort. What I really wanted to know was why Pug insisted on pulling at the lead perpetually; he certainly did not seem concerned about his own comfort. Perhaps he liked the pain.

Poppy, on the other hand, border collie, mother of eight, was on a choke chain, and she too was no stranger to self-strangulation. On several occasions she had lunged forward so suddenly as to snap her chain and break free, almost invariably incensed by a motorbike or lawnmower. Indeed, anything with a two-stroke motor was sufficient to get her riled. For me, aged eleven, holding Poppy and pug was a tough assignment, not unlike having a Wookie try to pull both your arms out of their sockets.

We approached the house on Moore Park Road. My father had come to pick me up from school and as ever, brought the dogs. My older brother, who had recently started high school at Sydney Boys High, insisted on walking home by himself now that he was relatively grown up and, since my father couldn’t pick us both up, only I received the privilege of the canine escort.

As we reached the front fence, I looked up and saw a youngish, fair-haired man with a blow-wave and mullet, skip lithely down the steps of our house with a hessian bag over his shoulder. I had no idea what to make of this, expecting he had made a delivery of some kind, and stood dumbly watching him. My father, preoccupied with hooking the dog leads onto the fence so he could fish the keys out of his pocket, had failed to notice him altogether.

Then, my father looked up and saw the man walk straight out the gate. Instantly suspicious, he looked to the front door and noticed it was ajar. My father exploded into action.

“Stop!” he shouted, as the man broke into a sprint. My father threw the dog leads from his hands, shouting, “Benny, take the dogs!” and ran like hell after the man. Pug and Poppy yelped and barked at this sudden activity, and I had a right job getting control of them. I grabbed their collars and held them as tightly as I could manage, just catching a glimpse of the burglar disappearing around the corner, past the Olympic Hotel and into Regent Street, with my father in hot pursuit. My father had recently taken up running marathons and he was as fit as a fiddle. He was also a hard man who had been in several warzones. I figured that if my father caught him, the burglar was, to put it mildly, fucked.

I struggled to get the dogs inside the gate and through the front door, but once inside the house they seemed to forget all the excitement and run off in search of food. There, in the hallway, sat one of our suitcases. I tested the weight to find it very heavy, and rightly guessed that the recently acquired and, then, very valuable, video recorder was inside. Clearly we had arrived just in time. I tried to spring the sliding button locks on the case, yet they wouldn’t open. For some reason, getting the suitcase open struck me as a matter of the greatest urgency.

I ran upstairs to my bedroom to fetch the Swiss army knife my mother had brought back from Switzerland the year before. Taking out the awl, I plunged it into one of the locks on the suitcase, trying to prise it open. I worked it as best as I could, yet the mechanism still would not shift. I applied more strength, working the awl under the sliding button of the lock in an attempt to gain extra leverage. I tried as hard as I could until, suddenly, the awl snapped. I was terribly upset by this, and somewhat disillusioned with my prized tool. I gave up, called Pug to join me, and went to my room to sulk.

Fifteen minutes later my father returned home.

“Benny,” he shouted? “Are you alright?”

“Yes. What happened?”

“I chased the bastard all the way to the town hall, but he was fast as lightning. Then I got worried about you, so I gave up. I thought there might have been another bloke.”

“No,” I said. The idea had never occurred to me.

I pointed to the suitcase. “He was trying to steal the video. I can’t open the suitcase.”

“Son of a bitch,” said my father. “Anyway, everyone’s all right, that’s what’s important. Is Matthew home?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s good, I suppose, that he didn’t come home sooner.”

I hung around and helped my father set up the video again, something he did not, in fact, know how to do himself. The whole incident had seemed very exciting, and when my brother returned home half an hour later, it became briefly exciting again. I took great pleasure in recounting the incident, after which we soon forgot about it altogether and went upstairs to play Dungeons & Dragons.

It was not until my mother arrived home from work, however, that the burglary assumed new and greater proportions. The upstairs bedroom had been, to a degree, ransacked in the search for jewellery and valuables, and the thought of it upset her enormously. It was not, initially, the loss of any valuables that made her so distressed, as the invasion of privacy. The idea of some total stranger going through her things left her shuddering with a deep sense of violation. Then, when she discovered that an old jewelled watch of her grandmother’s had been stolen, she became quite distraught.

“Oh, Benjamin,” she lamented. “I’ve been meaning to have that watch fixed for years and now I never shall.” She burst into tears, and, being only eleven and a mere pinch or punch away from tears at the best of times, I joined her in weeping for this loss.

My mother spent the rest of the evening going through her drawers to see what else might have been taken. I hung around and mapped the highs and lows as she discovered things she thought might have been taken, and realised what was missing. My father, though not unsympathetic, was more inclined to manifest a “what the hell, nobody died” mindset, and he was principally annoyed that he hadn’t caught the burglar and sorted him out. “Fucking junkies,” he muttered over dinner.

In the days that followed, I found myself wondering what I should do in future should I again encounter a burglar. I spent a whole week of afternoons in the backyard, diligently practicing archery with my home-made, high-tension bamboo longbow. After nailing countless cardboard boxes on which I had drawn the faces of Orcs, I felt my aim was sufficient to take out anyone who came through the front door from the top of the stairs. This knowledge was enough to arm me mentally, and, over time, I began to long for the opportunity…

____________________________________________________________

Glebe, 1998

Edward heard the doorbell ring and paused a moment in his typing. He wasn’t expecting anyone and didn’t particularly want to be interrupted, so he shrugged and sipped his tea. It was probably his landlady who ran the video store a couple of doors down the road. She often dropped by to make a spurious announcement of some kind or another. Perhaps he was due for another rent increase.

Edward tapped a few keys noncommittally. It was two weeks since he had seen his supervisor, and having knuckled down and made some good progress after their last conversation, he found himself coming up against another barrier; he had only a vague idea of what it was he was trying to say. Nothing felt right. “Always stick with your gut instinct,” his father had told him. “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” Great advice, but while it was a good start knowing what was not right, knowing what was right was another thing altogether.

The doorbell rang again, and Edward shrugged again. It definitely wasn’t Pandora, for he knew all too well the way she knocked or rang his bell and Rickets the cat knew her footsteps. Rickets remained impassive at his feet. Edward looked back to the screen. Fifteen minutes ago he had given up on his thesis and turned his attention to his novel, Mr Tracey, Grocer. He had since written nothing but nonsense.

 “A double Jack Daniels thanks, mate,” he demanded politely of the bartender.

“Ice?”

“Yep.” Mr Tracey grabbed the drink, took a strong sniff of it and, clenching a fist, he sipped it.

“Nah, there’s no reason to be angry,” he mumbled, smiling wryly and taking another sniff of his drink. “What’s it to be cross? What boots it to maunder?”

“What’s up, mate?” asked the bartender.

“No point worrying about things, mine honest tapster.” said Mr Tracey. “All’s well in love and war.”

The doorbell rang again. Edward’s attention was hanging by a thread. He could feel his mind drifting into the opiated visions of his daydreams, suckling from the fecund nipples that had nurtured his first novel, Moscow Gherkin on the Rocks. The doorbell rang twice more and he ignored it with new fervour. He had sworn he would write until midday at least and nothing was to get in the way. He paged up and down rapidly, watching the words leap into streaks, spotting vocabulary like fleeting fauna. Then he heard a banging sound that seemed to be coming from the kitchen. He paused and listened, feeling sure that someone had entered the house. The sounds were muffled and indistinct, for, being the first cold day in autumn, he had closed all his internal doors to keep warm.

The banging continued and Edward grew certain that it was coming from the kitchen. Then he remembered: the landlady’s brother, Ali, was coming over to fix the tap sometime this week. It had an annoying leak and he wanted it seen to. Edward really wasn’t in the mood to talk to Ali. The last time they met Ali had enthused interminably about what a visionary Muhammad was for predicting the invention of the aeroplane in the Koran. It was alright when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking, at least he could challenge them on their historical knowledge of the rise of Christianity and the textual validity of the New Testament. With his landlady’s brother, a modicum of diplomacy was required to ensure that he didn’t end up out on his ear for being an evangelising atheist.

The banging continued; a dull, soft, reverberating thud. He’s probably hammering away at the sink, thought Edward, with the Koran stretched out beside him, open to the plumbing section; a vision of the Arab armies at the battle of the Yarmuk coursing through his mind…

Then there came a loud smash – quite clearly that of breaking glass. Alert at once, Edward kicked the cat off his foot and stood quickly. It was close to ten in the morning and he had not bothered dressing yet, being attired only in a knee-length flannel night-shirt his mother had bought him. He opened his bedroom door and walked through to the kitchen. Seeing no one there, he walked on into the front room, where he was greeted by a most unexpected sight, almost amusing for its absurdity. A man, possibly in his forties, was trying to squeeze himself through the tiny rectangular window above the door. In doing so, he had pushed it inward as far as it could go so that it pressed against the decorative flange on the top of the stately, built-in cupboard. The pressure on the frame had bent the window and caused the glass to break, which now lay in shards on the carpet. So intent was this man on gaining access, that he neither saw nor heard Edward approach.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Edward.

“Er, what?” said the man, startled. He stared at Edward fixedly a moment, and paused, his shoulders still half through the gap.

“I said what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Er,” said the man, trying to climb down, “I thought this was my friend Mick’s place.”

Edward advanced right to the door, and opened it as far as the chain-lock allowed, the man scrambling onto the landing.

“What?” he demanded through the gap.

“Yeah, I thought this was my friend Mick’s place.”

“That’s bullshit!” Edward was quite definitely incensed now. This was, after all, a terrific imposition on his time. He took the chain off the door and opened it more fully.

“Nah,” continued the grey-haired man, who seemed surprisingly well-dressed for a burglar, “I honestly thought this was my friend’s place.”

“Rubbish!” Edward shouted again. “That’s a lie. You’re a fucking burglar, that’s what. Go on, fuck off!”

And the man turned and ran as fast as he could.

Edward stood shaking with fear and anger as he looked at the broken glass beside his bare feet.

“What a bullshit artist,” he said, closing the door.

He walked back into the kitchen and put the kettle on, more out of habit than anything else. A moment later he remembered he had a cup of tea beside his computer, so he went and sat down to continue writing, shaking his head in disgust. It wasn’t long before he knew he would never regain his concentration that morning. He dressed, put on some shoes, and went to see his landlady at the store next door.

____________________________________________________________

Cambridge, UK,  2001

Dirk was woken by a loud bang. It was followed by the clink of dragging metal. He turned his head to the French doors and was surprised to see one of them wide open, its latch scraping on the gravel path outside. Seconds later, he was very surprised indeed and sat bolt upright in his bed. There was simply no way the door could be open.

What time was it? He looked to the stereo; 0634. Too early for bedders, cleaners or porters to come around; it could only be a practical joke or something more sinister. Dirk threw off the covers and stood quickly. It was a cool morning at the end of April, and the night before he had returned from Turkey with a head-cold. His ears were blocked and he shook his head to try to clear it.

He moved to the door to inspect it; somehow it had come off the latch and swung wide open in the wind. Only a person, or a monkey, could have done such a thing, surely. The snout of a dog? A wild pig? A curious cat? A squirrel? There were often deer in his front garden, though they were so timid as to never approach the house. Dirk made straight for his desk to look for his wallet. It should have been there, yet it was not. He cast his eyes about the room; it was not on top of the television, not beside his bed, not on the floor, not on the chair. He looked for his shoulder bag and it too seemed to be missing.

“Christ,” he whispered, realising he had been burgled. Someone must have snuck into his room while he was asleep. The thought was so awful that he shuddered in fear of his life. He might have been murdered! His blood ran cold with an intense feeling of violation, before flushing hot with the adrenalin of a dawning crisis. Then he heard a footstep outside on the gravel. Then another. Someone was standing very nearby, just around the corner out of view.

Without thinking further on the matter, wearing just a small pair of shorts, Dirk walked straight out the open French door and stepped barefoot onto the gravel. He marched with purpose, unblinking, determined. He was not afraid and asked of himself no questions. He was going to retrieve his wallet – it was as simple as that.

Dirk rounded the corner of the house and there, standing under the bike shelter, going though the contents of his shoulder bag, was a pale, blonde-haired man in a dark green army jacket. Dirk could not see his face clearly, as he was staring downward, intently looking through Dirk’s shoulder bag. Dirk walked steadily towards the man, who was so preoccupied that he neither saw nor heard Dirk’s inexorable approach. Dirk picked up the pace, closing the distance in a matter of seconds. He had only sufficient time to think “fuck you, arsehole” before punching the man as hard as possible in the guts.

The rogue had the wind knocked out of him and doubled over with a strangled cry of pain. Dirk didn’t hesitate to take him in a headlock with his left arm. With the bandit thus accosted, struggling and kicking, Dirk used his right arm to deliver repeated punches to his stomach, hoping to stop the felon from recovering his composure altogether. The man stank of neat vodka and cigarettes; he was of similar size to Dirk, though clearly lacked the tone and strength to throw him off. The two stood there a moment in an awkward embrace; the burglar struggling to free himself, to protect his stomach from the incoming buffets, and Dirk working hard to subdue him.

Only now did Dirk have time to think. Engaged thus in a struggle, with no one about at such an early hour, he had no choice but to win. It was an ancient and grim contest and losing was not something he could allow. The gravel cut into Dirk’s bare feet and the pain gave him a new lease of strength. He heaved with all his might and hurled the burglar into the wall. He was still putting up a strong resistance, and Dirk knew he had to get him down and pin him. He swung the man out from the wall, and swung him back in, slamming his body hard up against the plaster. The burglar shuddered with the impact and some things spilled from his pockets; a long screw-driver, Dirk’s passport. Dirk slammed him into the wall again. There was no talk, no swearing, no shouting, no cries of pain. Dirk only had one thought in mind, “I must monster him and never let him gain the advantage.” But then what? Hold him until security arrives? Shout for help and hope the police come quickly? He tried to wrestle  him to the ground, yet the burglar kept his feet.

Then, without quite knowing why, Dirk released him. He let go his hold, stepped back, and put his fists up. The burglar stumbled forward, sped away from the wall, and began to run on the gravel. Dirk stood watching, wondering why he had let him go and what he should do next. The burglar kept running until he was twenty metres away, then he turned and looked at Dirk over his shoulder. That look was, without a doubt, the greatest look of terror Dirk had ever seen. The man’s pale face, framed by lank blonde hair, was twisted in shock and fear. Dirk stood watching; the burglar reached into his army jacket and pulled out a large bottle of vodka, which he then hurled into the bushes before fleeing towards a purple bicycle leaning against the hedge.

Dirk picked up his passport, he picked up the screwdriver, then ran around the corner to where the bag had been dropped. He expected that he would find his wallet here, but within seconds of picking up the bag realised that it must still be with the burglar.

He ran inside and tossed the things on the bed.  He picked up his keys, ran back outside and, still wearing only a pair of shorts, unlocked his bicycle and ran with it out onto the driveway. The house, one of many fine properties owned by St John’s College, Cambridge, was surrounded by other college houses with spacious, attractive grounds. He wasn’t sure which direction the burglar had gone in, and there were many in which he could go; through the gardens, cutting through hedges, down the drive, out the back fence into the tennis courts of St Edmunds College. The purple bicycle was gone, so Dirk felt certain he must have ridden out onto the street.

Dirk hopped on his bike and rode out onto Madingley Road. Like a goalie in a penalty shoot out, he had to make a call. Left or right, yet there were still other possibilities. Dirk chose right and pedalled furiously down the pavement. The cool autumn air was freezing on his fingers and his cut and bleeding feet stung on the rough pedals. He swung around the corner and rode down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of his quarry. Yet, the burglar was nowhere to be seen.

Dirk made several circuits of the neighbourhood over the next half hour. He hoped he might find something discarded, something tossed aside and abandoned. After all, what could the chap do with his Australian bankcards? He rode in all directions, even out into the wheat fields of the farms that ringed the town. Soon, however, the cold got the better of him, dressed as he was in just a pair of shorts, and it being a cold April morning in East Anglia. He took a last look across the rising heads of wheat, then rode home to contact the college and the police. On the way home, he began to wonder if he shouldn’t have just demanded the return of his wallet from that beggardly scoundrel…

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Dirk thanked the man for the soup. He picked up the spoon, stirred the soup, then took a sip. It was hot, it was sour. It tasted like a real hot and sour soup.

Loud voices came from across to Dirk’s right. There was a table of five young locals, slightly obscured in a back corner of the restaurant. All Dirk could see was the backs of two men. They sounded drunk, but seemed to be having a good time. Fair enough, he thought. The people around here worked very hard. He was glad they got a chance to unwind.

Dirk stirred the soup and let go the spoon. It was very hot, so he turned his attention to his chai. He’d been spoiled for chai in Darjeeling, and this one was OK, but nothing special. There was too much milk and it tasted disappointingly bland. The chai in Darjeeling, along with the street food, had been the best he’d found in India. He picked up the soup spoon again. The dumplings hadn’t arrived yet. All in good time.

Outside the rapid sunset was in its final phase. The touristy streets of McLeod Ganj were already a good deal colder. The day had been quite remarkable; a blazing morning then an afternoon sun-shower, followed by a double rainbow from the valley to the snowcaps. Once the rainbows had gone, Dirk had stayed to watch the play of light and dark clouds, stretched across the rocky peaks. The altitude of the view, the contrast of the green grassed hills before the grey, snow-dusted strata of the peaks had erased his inner disquiet. Before such natural drama he could not but feel reassuringly small. He had come here to work on his patience; to get back his concentration. Not one for meditation or yoga, he was teaching himself to sit and watch.

Dirk sat and watched the drunk Tibetans. In India, people always stared at him and often approached him, but he was inclined to watch much more cautiously; sidelong glances, subtle flicks. Apart from wanting to avoid attracting attention, he was wary of offending anyone.

Two more customers entered the restaurant; a pair of Tibetan monks. They wore the deep maroon robes so prevalent in this home away from home for the Dalai Lama. Dirk felt reassured about his choice of restaurant. The new arrivals stayed in the front entrance area, near the counter, with two small wooden tables. The wooden chairs honked on the tiles as they sat down. Dirk watched them surreptitiously. He was fascinated by the local people; Tibetans, Nepalese and Ghorkas, Indians of the Himachal region, darker skinned migrants from the great Gangetic plain, all here, in the cool, clean mountains. How vast and diverse India was!

The voices of the drunken group grew louder. One of the men was clearly angry about something and banged his fist on the table, rattling the plates. They were more drunk than Dirk had originally suspected. Something was up with someone, and their mood had an urgent air.

Dirk turned away, took a sip of his soup and heard a great shout, accompanied by a crash. One of the young men was on his feet, swinging wildly, and suddenly all the others were engaged. The angry man’s chair flew back on the floor as he lunged across the table at his companions. A glass hit the deck and smashed across the tiles. The table jostled as the men all surged to defend themselves.

The angry young man – the most handsome of the bunch – tall, black-haired and with fine features now distorted by rage, threw a wild punch across the table that was dodged by his would-be victim. Another man grabbed the lunging arm and held it firm, helped a moment later by the target. The angry man was shouting loudly now; a drunken voice full of wild, impassioned rage. He was livid and convulsed with violence. The two other men got hold of his other arm, and, resisting, he thrashed about in their midst, held awkwardly across the table.

The salt cellar now hit the floor and smashed, and a moment later, another glass. The restaurant owners rushed around the corner, having been slow to react at the first crash. They saw as clearly as Dirk did how dangerous the situation was, and did not venture in, but stood watching. Dirk stood up in his chair and moved closer to the wall. He pulled the chair across in front of him and placed his back against the cold plaster. He picked up his soup and continued to sip it, watching the struggle unfold.

All the men were shouting, insisting that the man stop fighting. For a moment it seemed he might do so, and slackened slightly in their grip. Then, after a few seconds’ pause, he erupted again, thrashing his body to break free. It was a clumsy situation, with two men on one side of the table holding his right arm, and two men opposite holding his left. The angry man bent his body forward and rammed his head into the table in protest. Sweeping it from side to side, he managed not only to cut himself, but to send the remaining condiments to the floor.

Slicked now as it was with soy sauce, his feet slid on the tiles and he went down kicking, held up by the other four men. The restaurant owners were saying nothing. They must have seen how little could be done. It was simply a matter of getting the man outside without further harm to the restaurant. Yet, he was strong as an ox, and even with four men holding him, the slippery floor, the table and chairs all about made him difficult to control. They tried now to drag him towards the door, moving thus in Dirk’s direction. Dirk put his soup down and placed his hands firmly on the chair in front of him. If trouble should come his way, he wanted to be ready to defend himself. He tried to keep his face as impassive as possible; looking neither shocked nor curious. The last thing he wanted was to provoke this fellow in anyway.

Again the man tried to thrash his way out of the grasp of the four men. His eyes were red with anger and alcohol, his mouth contorted and chin hung with spittle, blood lined the crease of his frowns. He went down again, sliding to his knees, and this time took one of his minders with him. Another chair went down, and the table next to where they had been seated took a hit, sending another glass soy-sauce container to the floor. It too smashed, adding to the shards and the slipperiness. The man who had fallen cut himself on the glass and shouted angrily. He picked himself up and looked at his hand, then slammed his shoulder into the source of his woes.

The wild-man took the hit in the ribs and seemed to lose his wind momentarily. The other men holding him were talking all the while; angry and soothing, panicked and surprised. Clearly nothing they said was working, for his anger did not diminish.

They now had a good hold of him again, and were keeping him on his feet. They shifted him forward, legs kicking out at the tables. Soon they were onto dry floor, away from the tangle of chairs and tables. The angry man looked ahead at Dirk, whom he was now approaching. He stared straight into his eyes, his rage seemingly magnified, and shouted:

“Foreign devil!”

Dirk stood flat and square against the wall and let no emotion cross his face. He did not want eye-contact with the man, but he needed to know exactly what he was doing and was compelled to watch him closely. Finally his captors got him past Dirk’s table and into the entrance area. The Tibetan monks had vanished; having slipped out whilst Dirk’s eyes were elsewhere. The owners of the restaurant, three local men, stood calmly shaking their heads. They seemed more disappointed than anything else; clearly they were wise to human nature.

The group of drunken men now spilled out onto the street. The shouts continued for a moment longer, accompanied by scuffles, then vanished into the quickly cooling night. Perhaps the air would work to heal their tempers. Dirk wondered about the offence and scale of regret.

He looked at the owners and shrugged. He felt sorry for them and had a strange desire to apologise, but merely smiled in sympathy, shaking his head. The demon drink, he thought. The demon drink. He had witnessed such rages before, and had some years ago given up on alcohol as the source of too many woes. Having worked for several years as a barman, he had seen too much folly and bravado to have any time for alcoholics.

The owners moved in to begin the clean up. They worked slowly, almost timidly, still shaken by the incident. No one returned to offer recompense, nor assist with the mess. Dirk stepped forward to offer his help, but one of the men waved him back to his chair.

“Your soup is cold,” was all he said. “This is our problem.”

Dirk hovered a moment, then bent to pick up a chair and straighten a table. The man smiled at him and shook his head, before another man appeared with his dumplings.

“Eat,” said the man. “Eat.”

Cold air blew in from the doorway as the Tibetan monks returned. Dirk felt the wind go right through him, to the sadness he had been trying to fill with majesty. In the night, with the view now invisible, he must instead fill the hole with food.

He sat down and began once more to eat.

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