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Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

One constantly hears the word “Chaos” associated with Greece. Anyone reading or watching the news is presented with a pretty clear narrative of economic chaos, civil disorder, strikes, protests, the rise of ultra rightwing political parties, mass unemployment, increasing socio-economic division and ugly violence.

Greece riot 5

Consider the following report, which typifies the language and tone in which Greece is spoken about:

Evidence of a state tottering on the edge of complete dysfunction is apparent everywhere in Athens,” says a report by The Economic Times (ET). “Traffic signals work sporadically; a sign giving the shortened hours of one of the world’s great museums, the National Archaeological Museum, is haphazardly taped to the door; police officers in riot gear patrol the perimeters of the universities, where a growing population of anarchists, disaffected young people and drug addicts congregate in communal hopelessness.

Yet our image of the state of affairs in Greece is significantly distorted by these messages, which fail to report that most of the time life goes on in Greece, with much of the country retaining its functionality and most citizens obeying the law. Let me be perfectly clear from the start here, I am neither questioning nor denying the scale of Greece’s economic and social problems, which are quite extraordinary, rather I’m calling into question the image that is being painted of Greece by the media, which may ultimately make matters worse for a country so heavily dependent on tourism. During a recent visit to Greece, albeit for a mere ten days, I was continually surprised by how little “chaos” was evident. I don’t pretend to have sufficient knowledge or experience of what is happening across the country, but only wish to explore this whole question in the light of my limited experiences.

To begin with, I spent most of the time I was there on the islands, travelling from Rhodos, to Santorini, then onto Mykonos via Paros and Naxos. In none of these places was there any evidence of economic downturn. The islands, in fact, were booming with tourists.

1476 Rhodos

In the last two weeks of September, Rhodos was drowning in Russians, to the point that at times the streets were packed to a degree for which Venice is famous. Our hotel owner in Fira, on Santorini, told us that this year was the busiest he had ever seen, with the season seemingly extending its high point into early October.

Fira, Santorini, B & W

There was no evidence of disorder, poverty, homelessness, nor shut-down businesses on either Paros or Naxos, and Mykonos was as busy as ever, if not more so than usual. The people I spoke with gave no sense of any crisis taking place. Indeed, the only crisis they seemed to be facing was meeting demand.

It goes without saying that, economically, the islands are very different to the mainland and, in many cases, attract more tourism. They are far less reliant on industrial production and are largely comprised of small businesses, rather than large-scale corporations. The islands are also diverse enough that each faces its own particular set of circumstances, and there are likely worse sets of circumstances in some of the less heavily-touristed places. Crete, though also a popular tourist destination, has been home to political protest and unrest.

We must also consider that the ability of the islands to weather this kind of severe economic downtown is largely built into their seasonal business model. If you run a business that shuts down during the off-season, you likely have measures in place to survive through extended periods without income from that business. Of course, one high season with few customers could make it impossible to survive through to the next high season, yet most businesses do appear to have survived through this period, and some have thrived. And, so far as I could tell, the ferries still run on time.

2773 Naxos

2713 Ferry to Naxos

Again, this might simply be a consequence of the fact that tourist numbers have not significantly diminished on the islands, in some cases, quite the opposite. Anyone who is considering visiting the Greek islands as a tourist should have no concerns beyond finding cheap accommodation. The islands are as calm, fun and beautiful as ever.

3011 Venice of Mykonos

3163 Delos

3057 Mykonos

Athens, on the other hand, was a different affair. It was clearly evident that a large number of businesses had shut down across the city centre, which was now more covered in graffiti than ever. Slogans of protest very prominent among the tags and murals, but mostly the graffiti seemed to be just the kicking out of frustrated, unemployed youths. There were a lot more street buskers and musical troupes plying the restaurant scene than I recall, but no sense of systemic collapse or dysfunction. Sure, on the evening we arrived in Athens, via the port of Piraeus, two of the metro stations were shut down – including Syntagma – on account of a protest taking place outside parliament. This, however, was merely a large-scale, non-violent protest which caused a brief disruption to the service. Otherwise the metro ran perfectly smoothly. The mood of the people seemed more positive than I expected, though perhaps this is simply because, in the centre of Athens, there was, as on the islands, no shortage of tourists.

3914 Acropolis from the Areopagus

Of course, this is a first impression and inevitably an oversimplification. The problems of reduced pay, loss of savings and earnings, stress, struggling businesses and, indeed, homelessness, might not be immediately apparent to the outsider who doesn’t have to rely on Greek public services nor pay the bills with a significantly reduced pay-packet. I am not for a second suggesting these things aren’t happening – indeed, they are happening on a dramatic scale. But they are happening in a way that, despite the narrative generated by the media with its constant negative reporting on Greece, has not sent the country into outright lawlessness, nor made it an unworkably dangerous place to visit. Before going to Athens, I read the following:

Long prided as one of Europe’s safest capitals, this ancient metropolis is cowering in the shadow of harrowing crimes and lawless rampages.

Written in the wake of the brutal stabbing murder of the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn political party earlier this year, such a statement would be enough to put anyone off going to Athens. The aftermath of this incident did indeed cause a fresh outbreak of violent clashes in several cities; Patras, Thessaloniki, Xanthi, Larissa and in Chania on Crete. In Athens, two days after the murder of Fyssas, mobs of ultranationalist youths ran through the centre of Athens attacking illegal immigrants.

GREECE-UNREST-PROTEST-POLICE-EXTREMISM

Many of the huge demonstrations that have taken place across the country have resulted in violent clashes. When the Greek parliament voted for austerity measures allowing them to access a 130 billion euro bailout, the parliament building was ring-fenced by roughly 4,000 police officers. In the riots that followed, the city’s best-known cinema was burned to the ground, along with nine other national-heritage sites. That protests should turn violent and destructive is always a concern, yet, as with the London riots, this phenomenon is sporadic and linked with political decisions. It is by no means an everyday occurrence.

Greece Shooting Anniversary

Violent crime has indeed increased significantly in Athens since the debt crisis struck, and there are legitimate fears that it might get worse before it gets better. Armed robberies were at historic lows in the capital in 2007, but the figure had more than doubled in 2009, the onset of the financial crisis, according to police data. Thefts and break-ins jumped from 26,872 recorded cases in 2007 to 47,607 two years later; homicides likewise nearly doubled in the period. Cuts to government budgets have left the police unable to pay for equipment maintenance and replacement, resulting in, for example, only a third of cars and motorcycles being available for patrols. Still, as alarming as a doubling of the crime rate is in any society, it does not constitute the complete breakdown of law and order.

Greece riot 6

The rise of ultra-rightwing parties has, quite naturally, alarmed both Greeks and international observers. Golden Dawn, whose senior members have expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler whilst denying that they are in fact a Neo-Nazi group, won nearly 7% of the vote in the general election last year.

Golden dawn

More recent polling indicates support as high as 12%. Members of the party and their supporters, often dressed in black shirts and combat pants, have been responsible for a large number of attacks – beatings and stabbings – across Greece, many directed at darker-skinned migrants. Again, however, we must put this into context. Those figures likely represent a proportion of the population who would normally hold more strong, rightwing views – but circumstances have encouraged them to voice sentiments they might otherwise keep to themselves in more moderate times. Let’s not forget that in the presidential elections in France, in 2002, 17.79% of the people voted for the ultra-rightwing National Front president Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose views on the holocaust, Islam, race and AIDS have been highly controversial. In 2007, he received 10.4% of the vote; still a strong level of support, but diminished in better economic circumstances. The popularity of extreme political positions has long been tied to the economy and Greece is no different in this regard.

The seeds for all this were sewn long ago. The origins of the European debt crisis go back as far as 2002, in the immediate wake of monetary union. Low interest rates and a booming housing market in Spain and Ireland led to exorbitant, unaffordable borrowing, which brought significant instability to the banking system. Greece, from the start, lied to the European Union about its level of debt in order to conform to the strict rules of the monetary union. A misdiagnosis of Greece’s problem only exacerbated the situation. Initially, Greece was thought to be suffering from a liquidity problem which could be solved with large loans. Greece was advised to balance its budget, increase taxation and reduce spending, yet the real problem lay in a lack of economic growth, in part a consequence of policies which, in effect, discouraged private enterprise. Indeed, at the start of the crisis, Greece ranked 100th on the World Bank’s ease of doing business list – behind Yemen. By 2012 this position had advanced to 89th, and in 2013, to 72nd, a significant improvement.

The strategy of implementing vast cuts in one of the most comprehensive austerity programs in economic history, ultimately backfired by further reducing economic growth and causing unacceptable levels of public suffering and systemic dysfunction through reduction in services. According to an IMF study, the increase in the share of the population living at “risk of poverty or social exclusion” was not significant during the first 2 years of the crisis: the figure was at 27.6% in 2009 and 27.7% in 2010 (and only slightly worse than the EU27-average at 23.4%). In 2011, however, the estimated figure rose sharply above 33%.

One of the principal goals of the austerity measures was the restructuring of Greek debt – to reduce the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio to roughly 160% of GDP from a forecast high of 198%.

Greek debt

This figure, as its name suggests, measures the ratio between a country’s national debt and its annual gross domestic product. A low debt-to-GDP ratio indicates an economy that produces and sells goods and services sufficient to pay back debts without incurring further debt. Governments aim for low debt-to-GDP ratios, and whilst some countries maintain ratios higher than this – Japan current sits at roughly 204% – in Greece, the figure was unsustainable. In other words, they were unable to service their debt and thus avoid its continued escalation. The strategy employed by Greece is based on the principle that lower interest payments in subsequent years, combined with fiscal consolidation of the public budget and significant financial funding from a privatisation program, should ultimately bring the debt-to-GDP ratio down 120.5% of GDP by 2020.

3711 Graffito, Athens

It doesn’t help that since the crisis began, Greece’s GDP has continued to decline. Since 2008, real GDP has fallen by more than 17%, and some forecast this figure to bottom out at 25% before it turns around. Greek GDP suffered its worst decline in 2011 when it clocked negative growth of −6.9%. In that same year, Greece’s industrial output declined 28.4% and 111,000 Greek companies went bankrupt (27% higher than in 2010).

Of course, the numbers say nothing of the pain and suffering involved in this process. Unemployment has grown from 7.5% in September 2008 to a then record high of 23.1% in May 2012, while the youth unemployment rate during the same time rose from 22.0% to 54.9%. This roughly mirrors the decline in employment in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In mid 2013, youth unemployment reached almost 65%. An estimated 800,000 people, in a population of just 11 million, were without unemployment benefits or health cover.

4109 Meat market, Athens

On top of this, Greece now has an estimated 1,000,000 workers who regularly go unpaid, and yet who remain employed and continue going to work for fear of losing any chance of being paid altogether. With the banks unable or unwilling to lend money to businesses, one of the few means they have of freeing up capital is to hold onto money earmarked for wages and salaries.

The social effects of these austerity measures have been savage to say the least. Some Greek citizens have resorted to seeking help from NGOs to replace cancelled government welfare services, others have put their children up for adoption. The suicide rate, once the lowest in Europe, has risen by 40%. Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old pensioner, shot himself outside the Greek parliament in April because the austerity measures had “annihilated all chances for my survival.” Patients with chronic conditions receiving treatment at state hospitals in Athens have been told to bring their own prescription drugs. An estimated 20,000 Greeks were made homeless during 2011, whilst almost 20% of shops in Athens were shut down. In 2012, statistics indicated that 1 in 11 Athenians – roughly 400,000 people, were visiting soup kitchens daily.

There has, of late, been some faintly hopeful news for the state of the economy. On Monday, Moody’s announced that it was upgrading Greece’s credit rating from C to Caa3, a two step jump up from the bottom of the ladder. Moody’s further estimated that Greece will in effect have balanced its budget by the end of 2013 and move into surplus in 2014. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced they were expecting economic growth of 0.6% during 2014. “The sacrifices of the Greek people are paying off,” said the deputy finance minister, Christos Staikouras. Yet all would agree that the scale of that sacrifice has been far too great.

3618 Lady with broom

One of the biggest problems Greece faces is the old bugbear of tax evasion and corruption. Each year government revenues have been considerably lower than expected, with tax evasion estimated to cost Greece almost $20 billion a year. It’s easy enough to conclude from this that all Greeks must bear responsibility for the crisis – but ultimately the responsibility must rest with the government who are in a position to allow or put a stop to tax avoidance through legal action and legislation. All governments know that their citizens will try to avoid paying tax, the question is how effectively they prevent them from getting away with it.

There is much more that could be said here – the whole debate around the pros and cons of a Grexit – Greek exit from the Euro; the fundamentals of the Greek economy – which boasts the largest shipping industry in the world (yes, that is correct), and further exploration of the political and social conditions across the country.

4122 Stay or go

Yet, the point I am making here is that despite these seemingly insurmountable and crippling problems, Greece retains a great degree of social cohesion and order. It has not, in fact, collapsed into chaos and lawlessness as some reports seem to suggest. Indeed, I would argue that Greeks have shown a quiet restraint and, comparative to the scale of the economic crisis they are facing, an appropriate level of righteous indignation. Who wouldn’t be up in arms if corruption and poor economic management, as well as lax oversight of taxation had practically bankrupted not merely the present, but also the future? That the Greeks have not yet had a revolution and overthrown their government is a testament to the high levels of education, community responsibility and general good-naturedness amongst Greek people. How long this can go on for, how much Greeks can learn to live with any further entrenchment of these conditions in the long term, is yet to be seen. But, it is irresponsible to give the impression of the country being in a state of chaos, especially when they so desperately need our tourist dollars more than ever.

Parthenon

All this is very tragic indeed. In the long and remarkable narrative that is the history of Greece, the turn of the twenty-first century likely marked the country’s economic highpoint since the Byzantine era. That they should fall so hard after just a few minutes of economic sunshine is indeed unfortunate – a fate no one could wish upon them. How long it will take to turn this around and what it will ultimately cost is uncertain, but we certainly can help by going there. The fact that tourist numbers seem as strong as ever, may make this whole discussion redundant. Yet Greece has a hell of a long climb to get out of the hole into which it has fallen and needs all the help it can get. So, go to Greece I say, and not only will you have a wonderful time, but you’ll be helping the cradle of democracy and western philosophical inquiry get back on its feet. If you think about it, the debt we owe Greece is far greater than the debt they owe to their financiers. After all, it’s only fucken money.

2692 Ferry to Naxos

 

Disclaimer: All of the photos of the riots were sourced from various news sources on the net, whilst the graph hails from wikipedia – the rest of the images are my own.

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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.

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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.

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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.

_______________________________________________

 

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you speak English?”

The man shook his head.

“Train?” said Dirk.

“No light,” the man said.

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

“Train?” he said to the man.

“No lights,” the man replied.

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” said the Englishman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Sean.”

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

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

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

“Are you travelling solo?” asked Sean.

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

“So much for Greek coffee.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

“They probably hate us,” said Dirk.

“Only the spoilsports.”

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

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

“It’s all happening,” said Dirk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

“Hey Julian!” he shouted.

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

“Here I am.”

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

“Well done, man,” he said.

“Well done yourself,” said Dirk.

“Where you at?”

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

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

“So there’s room?”

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

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

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

“Okay, let’s do it now then.”

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

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

“You love missions, don’t you?”

“There’s nothing else.”

Julian laughed.

“Let’s get your stuff.”

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

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

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

“Wicked. How did you pull that off?”

“Friends in low places.”

“Top notch.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, make sure to tell the others.”

They set off through the forest.

_______________________________________________

“This is the laager,” said Julian.

“Cool spot.”

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

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

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

Everyone smiled. It was genuine.

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

“It sure is.”

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

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

“Make sure you do.”

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

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

“That’s pretty close.”

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

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

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

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

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

“In our own way,” added Andrew.

“Different parts,” said Ian.

“Otherwise, Capetown or Durban.”

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

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

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

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

“Do that.”

“You want some of this?” asked Ian.

“What’s that?”

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

“Sure, thanks, man.”

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

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

“Go for your life,” said Julian.

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

“It sure is good to see you, Jason.”

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

“Have you been up there yet?”

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

“Excellent. I love goats.”

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

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

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

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

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

“On acid,” said Dirk.

“On acid.”

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

Dirk looked again up to the mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, you oaks,” he said.

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

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

“Jesus,” said Ian. “Look at that.”

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

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

“Goats!” shouted Julian.

“Goats!” shouted Jason.

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” said Dirk. “Of course!”

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

“Fucking brilliant!”

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

“What about a parable?”

“The parable of the goats?”

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

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

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

“Woooo!” he shouted. “Check it out.”

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

“Paradise,” he said, “it’s perfect.”

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

“Is she really that beautiful?” asked Dirk.

“I think she is.”

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

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

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

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

“Nymphs,” said Julian. “Nymphs!”

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

Julian began to pace.

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

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

“I just want to…”

“It’s madness,” said Dirk. “Madness!”

“Look at her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

“Yiassou,” said Dirk and Julian.

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

Julian and Dirk were agog. Had they heard right?

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

“Did he say what I think he did?”

“Pleasure is art. My god.”

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

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

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

“We have to think this through.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was all around them.

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian just kept smiling.

Dirk filled the glasses.

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

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

“What’s the rush, bru?” said Julian.

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

“Okay.”

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

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

“No nymphs,” giggled Ian.

“No nymphs,” said Julian.

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

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

“My thoughts exactly,” said Dirk.

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

“Lamb,” said Ian.

“Lamb,” said Jason.

“Four lambs,” said Julian.

Dirk laughed. Four lambs indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are barbarians. Dionysian barbarians.”

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

“They’re old fashioned,” said Julian.

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

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

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

“That’ll do nicely.”

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

“Dirk, Dirk!”

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

“Sean!” shouted Dirk, “Sean!”

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

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

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

They embraced again.

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

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

“Oh, man, everything. Bloody everything.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Where are the others?” asked Dirk. “Annette and Numa and Milene and…” he knew there was someone else, but the name had gone.

“They’re switching to day shifts,” said Sean. “They got real messed up last night.”

“Classic.”

“Dirk, over here!” Dirk turned left then right, seeing no one he recognised.

“Dirk, over here.”

This time he pinpointed the voice. It was Julian calling him, waving to him, standing on the rise just before the water.

“Julian, Julian!”

Dirk threw his arms wide and stamped ahead through the dusty grass. Sean followed in his stumbling wake.

“Where have you been?” asked Julian.

“Right up there, man, right at the front.”

“Hey, man,” said Sean, catching up.

“Sean, classic,” said Julian.

Dirk grabbed the two of them by the arms.

“Come on,” he said. “Look – sunrise.”

He walked over the small rise and onto the stones of the beach. They shifted beneath his sandals with a ceramic clink.

“Look at this,” said Dirk. “Look at this!” He spread his arms wide and presented the dawn to them. He was getting a big rise from the light and space.

“This is perfect, perfect.”

The beach ran straight for miles on either side, a diminishing line of stone; behind it the forest, pine, cypress and sycamore, rising into the mountain. In front of Dirk stretched the still and filmy sea. The water was pale lilac and mauve; closer to the shore a blue rinse filtered the stones, as weightless as spirit.

Dirk walked on to the water’s edge. He sat down on the rocks, feeling a great stiffness in the back of his legs. It was chilly, but he was sweating. He shifted until his bottom was comfortable on the stones, then he looked at his feet.

“Jesus,” said Dirk. “Sweet Jesus.”

His feet were bleeding and covered in dust. Both of his big toes had worn themselves raw; the blisters having popped long before. Several smaller toes were also blistered and bloody. He had felt no pain at all.

The stones clinked behind him.

“Wow, bru, look at your feet,” said Julian.

He and Sean sat down either side of Dirk. Dirk undid his sandals and pulled his feet free. Now that he had noticed them, they felt very tender. He stretched and placed his feet in the water. It was cool and thrilling. The heat in the raw patches diminished with a sting. He leaned forward to rub free the dirt and expose the wounds. How had they gotten like that without him noticing?

“The salt water will be good for them,” said Sean. “Give them a good soak.”

Dirk looked beyond his feet to the horizon. He had watched the sun rise on beaches before, but this had a different character. He had never seen the sea so still and softly coloured. A dog ran into the water to his left. It swam out twenty metres then turned and swam back. Dirk’s blisters rippled through the mauve. How could he have not known? God, he had wrecked himself. Really wrecked himself. It would be a hell of a comedown and no peace to be found. Buy now, pay later.

Sean produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them around. They all took one and began to smoke. Behind them the music was soaring. Then Julian spoke.

“Many don’t realise that Zeus had a father,” he said. “Before Mount Olympos he lived on this rock. This is the home of the first pantheon, of the sanctuary of the great gods. In that place the stones remember what the poets glossed over. The beginnings of time.”

Dirk rubbed his feet. How white they looked now that the skin was beginning to prune.

“There’s not a lot left from those times,” said Julian. “Just enough to be tantalising. It’s all bound up, into myth. Bound into myths, in an overgrown glade.”

Dirk nodded along with Julian’s words. He was sure he was right, that here was the ancient world, all bound up in the stones and the trees. He looked back to his feet. It was shocking. Stiffness was spreading up his legs as his muscles cooled, finally allowed to rest. How much he had asked of his body!

Dirk looked at Julian, about to say something. He stopped himself and his mouth grew slack. Instead he looked back out to sea, where the dog was once again swimming through the filmy water. Before the orange core of the sunrise drifted a cabin cruiser. It looked like a holiday poster. Dirk turned to Julian again, once more hoping to say something. He longed to think about the ancient world, but his feet were shouting about the present. Still, he wanted to press on. He brought his hand up to emphasise his point, then realised he had forgotten it. He looked back to his feet. They pulled him up short. Despite the obvious magnitude of everything they had discussed, it was all so bloody unimportant. The final truth resided in his blisters.

“I’m lost,” said Dirk. “Lost forever after this. That was the highpoint of life.”

He lay on his back like a ship-wrecked Odysseus, bracing himself for the future.

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