Repairing Mules

Repairing Mules
to be included in ‘Memoirs of Hydra’, due in 2017

Ydra port looking eastward

Don’t tell anyone I said this but policemen do sometimes have their uses. Though probably not very often when they’re lying flat on their backs in the early hours of the morning, unconscious and in full uniform, which is how I found him. And before anyone suggests I was acting out of character in the small alley which leads away from the port towards what was once the only bakery in town, I can reasonably justify my efforts as good Samaritan. In that claustrophobically narrow passage, in permanent shade between those high, windowless walls, ‘walking by on the other side’ simply wasn’t an option.

What never occurred to me, as I struggled to wake him and persuade him to stay conscious through the pervasive stench of alcohol, and to half-carry and half prop him up as we staggered a few more steps along the substantial distance towards his front door, before he slumped back down, forcing us to come to an abrupt stop again; what I didn’t foresee, because in the hours afterwards I didn’t really think any more of it, was that there could be a lasting and positive reaction to the eventual success of our belaboured journey. A more welcoming attitude blossomed towards my presence on the port, from some of the respected members of the Ydriot community. Their new awareness would lead me to being lifted over barely discernible boundaries and eventually, to me climbing many paved and convoluted steps upwards and above the town; a journey that would end up changing almost everything.

This was in the late summer of ’82 and I was just a port-rat. When I wasn’t washing, drying and resupplying trays of glasses to yelling waiters or making myself scarce whenever Spiros the manager warned me of another police inspection, then my daily view of the ‘crazy island’ was from the steps of an unused niche under the dark green awnings of Danny’s cafe, right beside that area of the harbour where the cruise ships docked.

You would probably have to be in the business to know this; throughout the tourist season those cafes and restaurants closest to the port head-hunted and bartered for waiters and staff the same way sports teams buy and sell players. Danny and Spiros had a hand-picked team of young, smart-looking guys that included Jimmy, a colourful local personality who had come to Ydra via a contrived, tortuous route all the way from Ethiopia. He owned an arsenal of sunglasses that were all designed to mesmerize incoming tourists while he instinctively picked out where each of them hailed from, then chose greetings to welcome them from a vocabulary he’d created out of more than a dozen languages. Once they were under his spell and he’d led them to empty chairs then the back-up waiters took over and quickly sold them as many refreshments as possible. These, incidentally, were pre-arranged slightly cheaper than the ones they could purchase on the vessels they had just disembarked from.

After the beverages were served but still only half-imbibed then the actions of waiters collecting glasses would effectively persuade these now ex-customers to move on, so our team could hastily repair the trap for whichever tourists Jimmy brought in next. Danny’s cafe was the busiest too, because we had the advantage of being the first pavement cafe the tourists ran into whilst attempting to visit the famous Ydra gold shops further round the port. Looking back at all of that now, I realise how much I learned about tourists and tourism from my niche on Danny’s steps that summer, and simultaneously, how misguided I had been, thinking that I’d learnt a thing or two about Ydra as well.

The first change in the Ydriot demeanour was fairly conspicuous. A couple of days after I rescued the policeman Danny and Spiros both questioned me about what happened. I have no idea how they found out about it but after the interview I was never told to disappear during inspections again. Quid pro quo. The inspecting policemen, including the guy I had helped, would glare at me as they walked through, but Spiros winked and told me that was okay and not to over-react to stares. Sometimes their behaviour really felt like provocation but even when they walked right into my back room washing-up area, frowning, they still never spoke to me directly. This strange state of affairs was more than it might seem because my fellow rats, just going about their daily chores, were hassled on a regular basis. Greece wasn’t yet a member of what was still called the Common Market, and so my friends from Chichester and the Germans and Dutch and Danish people I knew who changed sheets or mopped out bar floors around the port weren’t supposed to be caught working. We were not home-owners hiring local services and labourers, nor were we tourists spending money on hotels and restaurants and gold-shops; we were just port-rats. None of us had permission to be in the country for more than ninety days anyway and our fears of these policemen were by no means unfounded. Based upon the beach raids and the passport checks, the occasional unlooked-for disappearance and the rumours about evictions that we quietly passed on to each other, we all had grounds for concern.

That change in attitudes towards me had more gradual effects as well. It took me a while to recognise that Danny wasn’t just protecting me, increasingly he was taking me under his wing. At the height of the summer we had paid as much attention to each other as befitted the significant difference in our rank. The simple exchanges between us, limited to the times Spiros asked him to pay me directly from his pocket, were short and friendly, often involving new and different ways of labelling money; cash, bread, green, words that Danny would then translate into Greek, for my benefit. Ironically, it wasn’t until the tourist season began to wane that I recognised how well he spoke my native tongue.

Those late summer evenings, at the end of the working day when there really was nothing left to do, the staff would congregate around the bar and usually they would talk about going home. Day by day, I watched and waved as my fellow rats began going by with their backpacks too, boarding the mail-steamer that was on it’s way back to Piraeus. All around the tourist trap waiters and bar staff were leaving the island but up till then I really had no idea they weren’t all natives of Ydra. It turned out Spiros had come for the summer from distant Thessaloniki, Theophannes would be returning to his wife and children in Larissa. As our team from the summer sequentially dwindled to less than a handful the thing that struck me most was never hearing a word being spoken about next season; there were no last hailed greetings of ‘see you next year’. When I asked Danny if Spiros would be coming back he shrugged and told me he was closing the cafe anyway, but that wasn’t the reason our team wouldn’t be returning. Over the coming years I witnessed the start of Greece’s tourist season many times, when men migrated from towns and villages all over the country, to wherever the seasonal industry had vacancies they could fill.

After the tourists left and the port began to close down, hiding in plain sight by sleeping on the beach with backpackers was no longer a viable option. I spent a couple of days clambering around the hillside above the coast-road between Ydra and Kamini, trying to find a place where I could unobtrusively embed myself and my few belongings. The weather was still holding relatively well and all I needed was temporary shelter. My plan was to move on to Lesbos because someone had told me you could pick olives there from late October onward. At the top of the hill I came across a high wall enclosing what looked like a large rock-strewn area that no-one would call a garden. In the middle was an old, twin-storey house, standing square and upright like a fortress amidst this unsettled sea of enormous stones. I followed the wall eastward then south, to painted and peeling double doors which had been hinged into an arched entrance. They were chained but the lock had obviously been forced and there was enough space to squeeze myself and my backpack through. It was quite clear the place was deserted and I climbed maybe ten steps up to the entrance that was set back into a large porch which also served as a roof for the cistern below. In the far corner was the top of the well. The front door was locked but that was none of my affair. I had trespassed quite as far as I needed.

No electric light after the sun went down restricted my reading and writing, which was a nuisance. But in exchange for Nature now dictating my regimen, I was given seclusion and privacy behind a high perimeter, three walls and a stair and a roof for a raised bedchamber, and an open view looking eastward, to the top of the steep hillsides on the opposite side of the port. In the evenings I’d climb the alleyways upward then squeeze through the broken entrance to my mansion, to watch the sun descending the wide sky over that tranquil sea around Whale Island. I was pretty much alone in heaven, with my pens and my school exercise notebooks and the paperback classics that I managed to scrounge from wherever I could; completely oblivious to the world and the island beyond my high wall, needing nothing more than that space and that unforgettable view which spread out westward.

whale islandThe view westward, over Dokos (Whale Island)

In the meantime my days were spent dismantling the cafe whilst Danny came and went. It was just us two now and one day he asked me if I could paint and whether I was willing to tackle the high ceiling, supported by exposed beams that rested on one massive trunk which stretched the length of the building. We agreed this would be a good way to secure my passage and some money for board on arrival in Lesbos. Eventually I was given a key to the cafe as well.
“You can make yourself a coffee,” Danny instructed me, “but you can’t sleep here.”
Somehow, again, he knew what I hadn’t told him.

There were days I couldn’t work because we’d be ‘waiting’, a word you learn quickly in Greece and a pastime you would do well to carry out with patience. Danny would come to the cafe and tell me to accompany him as though we had something important to do. We would wander around the market and the town on missions that, at first, seemed to me fairly aimless. However, the more we went on walkabout the more I realised that Ydriots were slowly connecting me to Danny and they’d begun treating me differently, regardless of whether I was with him or not. While we walked he would hardly say a word to me directly, though he was happy enough to joke about me to others within my hearing. He was a very clever man and I began to really respect the way he went about making me part of that community. He always seemed to me to be a step up from most of the people around him; they deferred to him in some way. It felt as though his actions towards me whilst in their gaze bestowed upon me a similar level to everyone else; I was an ‘out of season’ foreigner but my presence wasn’t threatening anyone.

There were two or three regulars we would call upon more privately where my ‘not speaking directly’ status didn’t exist. By far my favourite of these was Vangelis the chemist, who was usually to be found behind his marble counter in the beautiful pharmacy towards the back of the main square, still furnished inside in the original style his ancestors had built. He always had a knowing smile and a teasing gleam in his eye for all of his customers. He spoke English quite as well as Danny and when they had finished passing time or discussing local politics they would switch to my native tongue and make me the target of their conversation. I could never give quite as good as I got because they were clearly my hosts and benefactors, but I stood my ground and I would question them about the Greek I’d heard them use & we would all laugh together as I soaked up every bit of knowledge that I could. They were both intelligent and informed and they were happy to answer and were always gentlemen throughout; for all their banter about me being nationless and without friends or family they never once asked where I was staying or mentioned the possibility that I was living rough.

PharmacyRaphaliasVangelis’ pharmacy

Whether working or waiting, together or on my own, every afternoon around two o’clock I would end up at Danny’s home for lunch. His beautiful wife Fofo really is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. The food was always ready and delicious and though she would not usually eat she would always sit with us, occasionally with something to tell her husband, when she would speak Greek, but more often than not just to listen to him talking to me. From all of these morning meetings it was becoming obvious that I was the miscreant who was clearly lacking a Greek education, and when the talk was ours then Fofo would speak English as well and gently smile her encouragement and occasionally wink at me as her husband put my world to rights. He lectured me that everything in our human lives is political, which I scoffed at then; and when I asked him to teach me backgammon he scoffed in return and told me I wasn’t good enough to learn! I finally gave up offering to do the dishes at the end of lunch, because both of them were adamant that such chores were not done by men. I never brought up the hundreds and probably thousands of glasses and plates that I’d washed for Danny over the summer. As I thanked them and said goodbye Fofo would be absolutely insistent that I must return the following day. I’m fairly sure they both knew my square meal was the one they were putting in front of me.

Everyone that I met in that time was very generous towards me, both in spirit and in practical terms as well. I really felt I was blessed, being the recipient of all that good humour and kindness. By my own choice I had deliberately burned my bridges so that this was to be my first winter out in the world, away from England. For all the mishaps that might have befallen me on my journey, I had arrived in a place and amongst people who seemed to accept without too much question the strange choice I had made, not to go home. Now that the summer and the tourist madness was over the actual reality of my self-imposed exile was slowly dawning on me; I was in a strange land in an uncertain time and amongst people I hardly knew. But in truth, for all that incertitude, I really could not have been more content with my lot. And in my head, over and over like a mantra, I could hear myself repeating the sermon for myself in my mansion on the mountain, ‘Seek ye the kingdom and everything that you need will be provided’. I had successfully escaped whatever I was running from and now I was quietly exploring a new-found aloneness that I was certain I wanted, but which I nevertheless faced every day with some trepidation.

Those were the slow and gentle days and the peaceful weather, still gradually subsiding from summer, prolonged their duration. In the early mornings the cooler atmosphere was becoming clearer; the landscape above the port and beyond the town, even the distant hills of the mainland across that tranquil channel of the Saronic, everywhere was more visibly three-dimensional and sharply defined. Looking back, it’s so much easier to recognise that this was also the lull before the change; an interlude, not between chapters but in outlooks and methods. Mid-afternoons, when my duties for Danny were done, I would walk along the coast road before finding a path or exploring new alleys and stairs that climbed the hill to my mansion. Gazing out along the curving distance to Kamini or peering over the low wall, down onto the empty concrete shelves that served as a beach; either remembering friends I had made and moments we had shared that summer, or sometimes, I admit it, simply in search of a stranger who I might give greeting to.

In those first steps of freedom, on that edge of boundless possibility, when there is no-one left around you for dialogue you must learn to examine yourself. But, for all that profundity, once in a while I was thankful for an occasional distraction the coast road might offer me. And it did. I cannot remember any of the names of the people who became more than just a friendly smile from a passer-by. I doubt they remember mine either, though some of them I ended up spending time with across several days. Breaking bread and sharing salad and a carafe or two of retsina, arranging to meet later at tavernas or bars after discussing which ones were still open. Swapping stories and books, sometimes even hugs and kisses, before they gathered up their belongings and caught the mail-steamer and moved on. It was easy to sense that they were different from the summer’s tourists but in my inexperience of all these things I had yet to fully understand they were just travellers, like me. Many of them still belonged to homes and backgrounds they might return to, but all we really had was what we were carrying and sometimes sharing from our memories and experiences, plus a few necessary items on our backs. In those days most of these itinerants were a little older than me, and they were my first inkling I would never ever be completely alone in this limbo. I was nomad, and from all locations and throughout my whole life these strangers were the closest I would ever feel to being part of a tribe. Amongst them I remember a lady with long, naturally blonde hair blowing about her as she sat practising yoga on the low wall bordering the cliffs, all dressed in shades of purple. She was such an inspiring sight, intoning a chant of some kind as well; to just walk past would almost have been disrespectful, so I sat and waited for her to complete the meditation. She told me about her continuing journey from ashram to ashram and the next time we met she gave me a book, saying that it was meant for me and I should read it. Gurdjieff, whom I had never heard of before; Meetings With Remarkable Men.

Eventually even the autumn was over. At first it wasn’t the rain but the wind and the increasingly early darkness that were most inconvenient. My porch was becoming an uninhabitable wind-trap and because torch batteries were so expensive I could no longer carry out the reading and writing that were as important as food and drink. As each day went by the conditions deteriorated and steadily forced me to face the cold certainty of a fast approaching winter. By then the port was deserted after dark; often the only light was the one I had on in Danny’s cafe before I extinguished it and obeyed his instruction not to sleep inside.

It was under these inclement circumstances that I met Jane. She disembarked from the forward wing of a Flying Dolphin hydrofoil that was struggling to maintain a safe connection with the harbour while she manoeuvred two large suitcases port-side. As I looked out the cafe window it was clear that the wind was gaining and there was a persistent heavy drizzle that had already soaked the paving stones on the harbour’s edge and the main thoroughfare. There was no way I could justify turning my back on whom I wrongly assumed was another traveller, standing alone in the darkness outside. I must say, she took my sudden appearance in her stride and in the laid back minimalist way of speaking I would get to know better in the coming weeks she told me she was looking for a donkey-man to take the cases to her house. So, she had a home and an Ydriot background as well. But for all that, there was still absolutely no chance of any donkey-men appearing, so I volunteered to lock one suitcase inside the cafe and walk the other one to her door.
“I live a long way up the hill,” she warned me, several times.
“I’m infantry trained,” I replied proudly.

Anyone who knows where Jane lived will understand the relatively long journey we then embarked upon in the rain. For anyone else, I used to tell people that Jane’s house was the top one drawn on the somewhat inaccurate artist’s depiction of the port on the old thousand drachmae banknote. As we walked all the way up Kaloi Pigadia, and still upwards even after leaving the road, onwards and above, past Agios Nikolaos, Jane explained she was a painter; returning, if I recall, from visiting her mother in America. Anyway the long and the short of it was that I afterward decided I couldn’t really leave the other suitcase for Danny to find on the morrow, so despite the rain I carried that one up the hill as well and Jane, this time clearly surprised by my second, thoroughly rain-soaked appearance, insisted on cooking me dinner the following day.

I loved Jane’s house and was overjoyed at discovering amongst her small collection of musical instruments a Yamaha acoustic guitar. She lived and painted and partied in her large bedroom upstairs, where double doors led out to the balcony above her kitchen and to a view that encompassed everything westward which I had seen from my mansion when the weather had been kinder, and which, like all of us, I now missed.

1000drWithText1000 drachmae banknote & the house I told people was Jane’s

Inside, the view was entirely taken up by Jane’s paintings. They were almost the size of the bedroom walls; sunsets as large as the sky, iridescent with the soft, paling colours she would have undoubtedly witnessed nearly every day. Wherever there weren’t sunsets there were brightly coloured mandalas; large on canvas, small and delicate in watercolours and gouaches on card, embroidered on cushions that had little mirrors carefully sewn into the patterns and must have taken hours of dedication to complete. She had an antiquated stereo system with wooden-framed speakers connected to a record and cassette player and downstairs there was a radio tuned to whichever Greek station was playing the best jazz or classical music at the time it was turned on. The space that Jane had created was quite literally an artist’s haven, a beautiful, home-made home.

And books! There were shelves of books upstairs and downstairs in the dining room as well. The dining table was a long A-frame bench that Rick had built and Jane called his writing desk. It was set at the top of the split-level ground floor where the steps ran up from the kitchen, along the side of the large cistern that the rest of the house had seemingly been built around. To round off this closed in space there was a raised open-hearth fireplace, built to the corner in an arc and canopied by a cone-shaped chimney and mantelpiece. Upstairs both floor and ceiling were built from pine, the latter in the traditional Ydra pattern, where the gaps between planks are covered by running beads of wood bevelled and styled in various ways. Downstairs the ceiling was made up of layers of olive-branches laid out over exposed beams, from which, Jane warned me, the occasional tarantula would suddenly fall.

Despite my best attempts I cannot recall if there was a window on the back wall in this dining and hearth-space. I loved that house and spent considerable time being highly productive inside those walls, but I’m still not sure whether my memory of sunlight inside space is actually from there, or whether it has become confused by the kitchen window where Derek and I spent one summer, way back at at the beginning of our years of Many Homes. Perhaps the sunlight over the table I remember was at the other space I felt so much at peace in, which Roger and Marios built together, on the land they shared with Marios’ brother above Galatas.

A person could count themselves lucky to know Jane. She was wise and she was quiet as well. Not that quietness should fool you. She recounted small vignettes of her life experiences with a Rhode Island accent and a minimalist style. She had a very sharp eye and an acerbic wit, including a talent for creating names for people that defined them very succinctly. She made us laugh even at ourselves, and all of it always seemed to be done with that flavour of understatement and warmth. She listened to my sketchy plans about leaving and moving on to Lesbos for the olive harvest and offered help in that direction because she had contacts there. However, after a couple more visits and dinners, and helping her out in the garden, she almost floored me one evening by asking if I would like to house-sit while she was away in Goa for three or four months. In return I should look after Bentley her cat and repaint the kitchen floor before she returned. We had just cleared the dishes from supper and returned to Rick’s table and I sat on the opposite side from Jane, speechless at her quiet offer and completely over the moon. I had no idea how I was going to survive without work but there was no way I was going to turn down such a wonderful opportunity in such a magic space. She told me not to worry about working or wages.
“You’re full of energy and you’re good with your hands. The work will come, you’ll see.”
So I wouldn’t be going to Lesbos after all, I’d be wintering on Ydra and writing at the table at which we now sat. With wonder I digested this next large step in my new circumstances while Jane gave me more details that I should know about her house

Some days later I found Jane on her way down the hill one evening, going to a shop at the Four Corners. She was struggling with an empty butane ‘gas-bomb’ and she greeted me saying she was glad I’d come because it would be a long walk up the hill with the heavier full one. She laughed as she reminded me I was an ‘infantryman’ and told me she had guests coming to dinner that evening and that I would be very welcome to stay. Eventually people, including Christina, arrived, as well as Jane’s new Canadian neighbour, Adam, who painted and played the flute. Finally we were about six or seven sitting on flokati rugs or chairs and cushions around Jane’s low, round, wooden table upstairs. We were drinking Kourtaki, a bottled retsina that was Jane’s usual beverage. And we were smoking as well, whilst the joss-sticks added their own harmonious flavour to that flourishing atmosphere. At one point the conversation found its way onto the subject of the ‘generation gap’ and stayed there a while. A man called George was talking about the ever increasing acceleration of change between each successive human generation. I told him how I’d managed a punk band in England and how, when I was twenty three they’d dropped me because my ideas were too old. Amidst the hubbub of cross conversations and laughter I distinctly remember a comment from Christina reaching my ear, on its way to Jane on the other side of the table.
“It’s my daughter that I’m worried about,” she told her.

Gradually people drifted away downstairs, to cook and help cook or to find another bottle of wine. Christina and I ended up alone, and she, like me, was sitting on the flokati. I picked up Jane’s Yamaha and tuned and strummed as Christina was finishing off a cigarette. I asked her how old her daughter was; the one she was worried about.
“She’ll be eleven in January.”
“You shouldn’t worry too much about her.” I ventured.

She didn’t understand why I would say that so I reminded her she’d told Jane she was worried about her daughter growing up in this accelerating world.
“Well, I am happy that Emily has had her childhood on Ydra. The pace is so much slower here. Life is more in tune with Nature.”
“All the same, you still shouldn’t worry,” I persisted, probably trying to impress, sounding more knowledgeable than I actually am.
“I’ve come to see that each new generation seems to be born with a built-in ability to match the speed of the new world around them.”
I must have sounded like an idiot. Computers were still a decade away from becoming retail items and the web not yet a gleam in the eye of its inventor.
Christina regarded me somewhat sceptically. “I don’t know about that,” she answered.

What happened next? I really can’t recall. You can get caught up in quiet events like that evening, and though time has transpired every moment has passed through your memory without being consciously recorded. What happened specifically to mark it; what was so special that any of the guests that night might remember? It was a long time ago, of course, and each of us only harbours our own version of events anyway. Somehow Christina and I managed to lose over an hour because the next thing I recollect is Sally putting her head around Jane’s bedroom door.
“Are you two joining us this evening?” she asked.

That night Chris and I were the last to leave. Though I might not recall what took place at Jane’s I can easily relive almost every moment of our journey down the hill. I agreed to escort her back to her house because it was on my way to the port so far below us. But at the first intersection of stairs below Jane’s she asked me whether I’d like to go and see something. I must admit I was more interested in getting home, especially as I would have to go back to Danny’s cafe to pick up my sleeping bag. She promised me it wouldn’t take a minute then she headed off into the darkness and so I followed. We walked down a path to a tiny chapel that hung on the edge of a cliff. We sat outside on a stone bench, facing over the port and listening to the night sounds below us drifting upwards from a small enclave at the back of the town. Then in that relative silence Chris stood up and, facing towards the precipice, she put her hands to her mouth and imitated a dog barking, very deeply and very loudly. Immediately all hell broke loose below us as an entire neighbourhood’s dogs took up the cry. A wave of canine uproar rolled outwards across the whole town, from an epicentre where she was still barking and I was stood speechless!
“Come on,” Christina giggled, turning to me. “We should go.”
We walked back up the path to the top road, talking about animals and impersonations. You might say any remaining ice had been broken in that moment, and as things turned out, it wasn’t the only uproar we made on the island.

Just as we reached the road again I heard a faintly insistent noise behind, getting ominously louder and catching us up.
“It’s going to rain,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. And the downpour promptly began.
“Here. Under here,” she called out.
‘Here’ was a fig-tree growing out of the wall, under one of Hydra’s lonely street-lamps. We both stood under it while Chris teased me.
“You brought that on,” she laughed.
“I heard it coming,” I corrected, somewhat aloofly.
“Well fig trees make good shelter in this kind of storm,” she assured me, with perhaps the same knowledgeable tone I’d used on her earlier at Jane’s.
It was more her island than mine, I reasoned. And the fig tree did have broad leaves that certainly looked capable of providing shelter. After a while however, I could feel the water running down my neck and reaching the small of my back. There was no sign of the rain ending and I finally decided I’d be a lot better off in my porch.
“I think we should go,” I said.

We splashed our way through the darkness until we were about to pass some kind of alcove. It was a slightly darker patch in the surrounding blackness and the rain was still coming down hard.
“Quick, in here!” she called out suddenly.
What on earth were we doing?! ‘In here’ was about half the height of an English telephone kiosk, and about half the floor space as well. We crouched in this hole facing each other, not that we could see anything. Outside the noise of the rain was very loud but further into our shelter and below, there was an immense sound of rushing water. I had visions of falling off this tiny perch of ours and being swept away into that darkness, drowned in the roaring noise and tumult.
“Is your house very far from here?” I called through that racket.
“Not far,” the void in front of me called back.
“Don’t you think we’d be better off there?”

Ten minutes later there was a fire was lit in Christina’s tiny kitchen hearth, and I was changing into Anthony’s clothes. I was soaked to the skin and really had no option. We drank something hot which apparently was the the last of something re-heated. I know there wasn’t much of it because we shared the same cup, and Chris hung my clothes around the fire to dry.
She asked me if I liked Leonard Cohen. I confessed that I hadn’t heard any of his music, but I had read his poetry and that had put me off his music work. If I need a defence for Cohen fans I can say I was much younger and far more uncompromising back then, and that ever after Ydra there have been Cohen songs which meant much.

‘And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say okay, the bridge or some place, later’

“He has a house here,” Christina said.
“I know.” _  Oh God, I thought.
Despite my dismissive tone Christina put his record on anyway, and when the complete side was finished she asked me what I thought of it. I remained true to my cause and perhaps even a little more adamant because I felt I was being forced to listen. I confessed I was not impressed. Unperturbed, Chris picked the record up and turned it onto the other side to play that as well. By the time it too was over my adamancy had jaded somewhat; she was the hostess, after all. I made a couple of strained ‘intelligent compliments’ about one or two of the songs.
“I guess it’s just not my kind of music,” I apologised.
“What about this?” she asked, producing another LP. More songs by Leonard Cohen.

By the end of the third album I was listening in silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say without being rude. I always insisted afterwards that she played me six Cohen albums, back to back, side over side that night. Christina maintained it was only five.
“Won’t all this music wake your daughter up,” I ventured at some point, hopefully.
“She’s at my mother’s.”
Your mothers!?” I was incredulous.
“Your mother lives on this island as well?”

Chris kept me going all night, with tales of Ydra and the ex-pats and the Ydriot pirates, with the songs of Leonard Cohen to keep us company. In the morning she made a soupy tea from three small potatoes and some cabbage leaves. There was nothing else in the house.
“I can take you to an exclusive port-side cafeteria, if you like.” I offered. “Anyway, I can make us some coffee.”
Once I’d dressed back into my own clothes, apart from a pair of thick woollen socks she insisted I keep, we made our way down to the port through the dawn light and the rain. Chris was carrying her daughter’s bright red, Disney umbrella. It was ridiculously small and she kept trying to put it over my head as well. When she realised I was being stuffy about it she did it even more. It was still so early as I unlocked that there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere on the port. I let Chris go by me then I looked around one more time before closing the door and locking us in.

A quarter of the hour past eleven it was still raining and we had been in each other’s company for more than twelve hours. The windows of the cafe had all steamed over and Chris wiped one of them down with her sleeve so she could watch the mail-steamer arriving from Athens.
I watched her from my work space at the top of the ladder as I tried to do a bit more painting between the high beams. For some reason, maybe the rain, I was remembering a scene from Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, at the start where the writer meets Zorba for the first time and Zorba is staring in through the window of the Piraeus cafenion where all the passengers for Crete were waiting for the storm to pass. The writer is locked into his intellectual world and his books, and Zorba, appears from outside to stare through the steamed up window at him, to introduce himself and infatuate him, finally to share with this well-ordered Englishman the actual reality and the intrinsic harmony in Life’s truest and most total anarchy.
“Take me with you,” Zorba asks him, and before the writer can rally a proper reply, he persists. “Can a man do something without having a reason why?”

“Do you know what today reminds me of?” Chris suddenly asked from below me.
I looked at her from the top of my ladder, just about ready to tell her some elements of what I’d just been thinking of. She turned away from the steamed up windows to look up at me.
“Have you read Zorba the Greek?” she asked.

The winter came and Jane went to Goa and we settled in. Adam’s house had no fire-place or chimney so we shared wood scavenging missions and the fire in my hearth as well. For much of the following few months that downstairs area doubled as my bedroom and our living space. We were both musicians and artists and we played music together and taught each other a lot about philosophy and science in those months. We were chalk and cheese on so many things yet I still like to think our relationship as neighbouring artists worked well. In truth I had no previous experience to compare it with, but the breadth and depth of intellectual and spiritual exploration I made was greatly assisted by Adam’s own introspection and counter-balance. Every time the weather allowed and we were free of other responsibilities we would walk. We had long discussions as we traversed the hillsides, especially in the evening as the planets became visible in the clear Mediterranean sky. We would wave our hands about as we explained to each other the position and direction that we and those celestial objects were collectively travelling, all as part of our solar system. Any Greeks who saw us must have seriously wondered about our sanity. Of the many things Adam taught me I remember best that the concept of Eternity logically stretches backwards as well as forwards. In return, out walking on another evening, I got him to come to a stop as he realised that north on our planet was not necessarily ‘up’. I watched him develop his painting and he patiently listened to me read my work. We played music for many hours. We held small dinner parties and invited guests who brought wine and were treated to food that was at least edible, and to musical interludes they frequently took part in as well.

All through that time Chris would join us whenever she could. Whatever garb she’d chosen for her visit she usually decorated with a silk scarf and she displayed her passion for hats by topping herself off with a black beret. Most of the time she wore her beloved bespoke knee-length boots as well. They were made in Piraeus she told me, and they were so comfortable she had them repaired several times rather than buy new. With her feet up on the hearth as she listened to us talking and reading, I told her she looked for all the world like a beat poet, or maybe a beat poet’s moll.

There was an evening when Adam turned up with a comedy play his brother had written, centred around Moses and Joshua going up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. Adam’s brother was an absolute genius and though I only remember one line, still thirty years later I laugh at our helpless mirth while we tried to read the whole play out loud. Chris took the role of ‘Princess’ who was Joshua’s girlfriend. Adam played Moses and the Stonecutter’s Assistant, whilst I was Joshua and the Stonecutter himself. Both he and I became increasingly incapable of reading our parts because we were laughing so hard at what we had to say next. Adam was wiping his eyes from his laughter. Meanwhile Princess quietly stuck to her lines. Her delivery and her devotion to Joshua was impeccable throughout. She so quickly latched on, (dare I say it?) the way only women can do, to things I enjoyed or felt were important. Looking at our interactions back then I recognise how she accepted I wasn’t interested in ex-pats. It was the summer port and its people who I had learned about before climbing up the hill with Jane. It was the Greek community in winter I still wanted to see and try to understand.

Christina was well-known locally because she’d tutored English for many years and her Emily was still attending the junior school. Adam and I were allowed into the inner sanctum of the monastery of Prophet Elias at the top of the hill because the monk had been one of Chris’ English pupils. She was the ideal teacher for the things I wanted to learn and she showed me and she taught me. When she heard Ydriots speaking Greek words and idioms that no-one else knew and few foreigners understood she would repeat them for me and explain them. She took me to local ‘events’ she’d learned about on the grapevine so I could mix with the locals again. We arrived in Vlicho one day when every available hand was needed to haul a large fishing boat high onto the beach and secure it steady and upright for repairs and repainting. I could hardly understand a word of the quick-fire instructions being yelled to everyone by everyone else. Chris was right there beside me, translating as we manhandled this huge boat onto its moorings and made it safe. The docking took a couple of hours to complete and afterwards there was a large spread laid on; oven-sautéed potatoes and tomato salad, lamb chops, feta and wine, all of which added at least another hour to the whole project. As we collectively celebrated our work-day achievement with this feast Maria the proprietor asked Christina if I could put up a ceiling with the un-planed wood they had stacked outside. Chris translated the question and knowing how desperate I was to find work she finished what Maria had asked, adding “at this point it’s okay to say yes”.

There were so many walks to unusual places. So many trips we made off the beaten track. As we journeyed I learned about the romantic history of Ydra pirates and the reason so many mansions and high walls were built in that small community. And wherever we went Christina’s lazy eye would be watching like a magpie along the paths that we trod, spotting tiny fragments of willow-pattern which, strangely enough, seemed to be everywhere. They were like the scattered pieces of numerous similar jigsaws, all come from the crockery and plate plundered from merchant vessels by Ydriot pirates, for use at their own tables. If stolen fruit is sweet then how much sweeter if eaten off stolen china! Collecting the broken evidence of those bygone glory days was somehow like claiming a share of the Ydriot pirate booty. So said Chris anyway, as she plucked up another piece and examined it then passed it over to be mutually admired, then stashed it away to be added to her hoard of willow-pattern remnants!

And perhaps not as fast or unwavering as my determined track, but in her knee-length boots Christina could go pretty much anywhere. I suspect the young chauvinist in me sometimes felt challenged but we also shared methods of traversing steep descents and open ground. She had skied and I had soldiered. More than once her sudden changes of direction behind me threw me completely and it took me longer than one winter to learn how to backtrack and follow without too much protest. There were some dead ends but nearly always there was a reason and something special or unusual in some way, another part of Ydra she made me witness to. The town had been much bigger a century before we were exploring it. There were clues of that larger size everywhere. It wasn’t just the uncovered foundations of buildings or the crumbling walls that we climbed over, there were broken lines of paving between them that had once been alleyways or the steps ancestors had once climbed and where we could follow.

We trekked all over the island, sometimes with Adam or others. One day in the early spring we went all the way along the coast road to Palemidas then up into the hills to Episkopi where we visited Magda. And from thence onwards, trekking west and south to where the road eventually became indistinguishable from its surroundings and further progress was next to impossible; just to see the lie of the land and the steep slopes on the leeward side of Dokos which from our position, no longer looked like a whale.
Epi skopos: the view over the top.

Though our return was mostly downhill and we could see where we were heading far below us, it still felt like a longer walk all the way back to town. Ah but we weren’t yet done, were we Chris? Back at Vlicho we turned onto the top road that would take us above Kamini and the last leg of our journey. Just as we entered the outlying edge of the town she pointed to an open double door below the road that she said was a home for pensioners, and then she disappeared through it! The old residents knew her and greeted her the same way Ydriots always did. But we had just returned from quite a journey, so I have no idea what we must have looked like as Christina tried to explain to them the purpose behind our wandering in, uninvited. Even with my lack of the language it was plain from their questions they were as mystified as I was by our impromptu visit. The house we were standing in was similar in size and style to the mansion where I had lived in the porch. On the spur of the moment Chris wanted me to see what the rooms inside these huge houses looked like.

Mule repairs didn’t happen until some months later, when we were well into the following spring. And they began, as such things often seem to, after a simple accident and a happy coincidence. However in retrospect, though naturally occurring sequences like that might often be referred to as simply being in the right place at the right time, it’s not just about the random structure of chance spontaneously conjuring up good luck or bad and a set of circumstances for it all to unfold in. Right place, right time, involves the agency of a conscious will working as well. If Fate is the cards you are dealt then Destiny is how well you play them.

Maynard had come back to the island from Chichester a little earlier that spring. It was good to see him and catch up and by now I’d earned a reputation as a handyman of sorts and there was plenty of paid work available. A lot of it would be white-washing ex-pats houses but we couldn’t get started straight away because the rains still hadn’t passed. At that time of the year warm air currents gather up the red dust of Libya into rain clouds that are heading northwards. Whitewash too early and a short while later the outcome of your efforts will likely disappear under grimy off-brown stains created by billions of falling raindrops.

It was sunny and warm the morning that Maynard and I were walking eastward along the top road, heading towards a house where an Ydra ceiling needed the faded blue paint sanding down and prepared for painting. Suddenly in front of us we saw fresh blood dog-prints and as we tracked them further along the thoroughfare I told Jock how I’d once belonged to a British Army unit in Northern Ireland that wore a tiny ‘red paw’ badge in their headgear alongside each individual’s regimental insignia. Most people who saw it thought it was some sort of play on the Red Hand of Ulster but it was actually symbolic of the wounds received by dogs during riots, when glass was thrown and broken onto the streets against them. I had been trained as a military Veterinary Assistant. I use that adjective because our skill-set was comprised of substantially more practically applied knowledge than any civilian counterpart. I don’t know about nowadays but back then the army ethos was all about getting something done and doing it quickly; no civil law or requisite qualification stood in the way of that. When people or animals were down then you’d best not be waiting too long for someone else to arrive. The environment I had worked in lacerated dog paws were almost as common as multiple bruisings and ringing ears and pounding headaches.

In front of us, on that warm spring morning, the blood track led straight to a door I already knew well. It belonged to another Christina who lived with her family just below Jane’s house whence we had greeted each other many times as neighbours. She was also the concierge of Agios Nikolaos, the large church in that little parish above the wells of Kalo Pigadia. As with most of the matriarchal neighbourhoods and throughout the whole town the steps and the street that passed by Christina’s front door were maintained immaculately. The layers of whitewash on the edge of each step and along every side weren’t allowed to fade or crumble and old square oil cans with the tops cut off had been painted the same colour as the building’s woodwork and filled with earth and usually geraniums for decoration, and to mark domain. On warmer days Christina and her mother would be sitting outside, sometimes with her children as well, preparing food for cooking or crocheting as they talked. When the weather was bad or darkness had fallen the front door might still be open and the family inside would call a greeting as we went past.

As soon as we arrived and I explained why I had come we were ushered inside that door for the first time ever. There was blood on the painted floor and the young dog, with a cloth round his injured leg, was being cuddled by Christina’s frantic daughter. Everyone who had gathered was clearly at a loss as to how to stop the bleeding. I asked Christina for a bowl and water and any old sheet she could tear up. At the same time I was explaining in English to Maynard how I needed him to hold the dog so that it stayed still while I examined the cut and cleaned it. It was a fairly large tear but didn’t take long to patch up and I explained as well as I could that cuts on paws heal very quickly on the single condition they’re kept clean. For the next few hours, at least, the family must try their best to keep the bandage on the puppy’s foot, and I would return later. When I looked up from tying the bandage off every person in the room was looking at me differently. Christina broke the silence by thanking me over and over, followed by her daughter who quickly took the bandaged puppy back into her arms. She promised to keep it in place and not let go and the way that she held him I didn’t doubt her. They sat us outside and brought us coffee which we would not have refused out of politeness and custom. All the while they were cleaning the floor they didn’t stop thanking me.

So much for continuing our interrupted journey to work on that Ydra ceiling. I don’t remember what Maynard did after, perhaps he even came with me, but now my first task was to head down the hill to Vangelis’ pharmacy. I needed to purchase antiseptic cream and probably some gauzes and a proper bandage so I could dress the wound properly, in a way we could be more certain of it staying on the paw. I didn’t know enough Greek to describe these necessities to Christina so she could send someone or get them herself. I don’t remember if this was the time I chose to tell Vangelis why I needed first aid items, or whether that came later, but I recall as though it was yesterday his look of astonishment as he reacted to my explanation. And then, of course we both laughed, the way we had done before. For all the teasing and banter we had in the past, about having no roots or prospects, no-one had foreseen this change of circumstances.

pharmacyInside Vangelis pharmacy with Vangelis behind the counter and Adam wearing cap

News travels fast in a close community. Within two days of repairing the puppy and going back twice for a check up and a change of dressing, I began getting requests to see other animals. I was staying with Chris and Emily by then and Anthony had gone to England to paint a mural in someone’s club or bar. Anyway people were either knocking at the door, or if they weren’t sure exactly which house I lived in they were leaving messages at Costas Gavrilis’ store, just above the school in the square behind where we lived, or at Marigoula’s slightly higher up the hill. The first few times Chris came with me and sometimes even she didn’t know the way to get there. We would end up knocking on the doors of strangers who either welcomed us in or re-directed us to the house where the animal was.

A veterinary officer I was posted with once told me that in most circumstances dealing with a sick animal was 70% about dealing with its owner. I don’t think any of us know why such snippets of wisdom stick to us, except that they conveniently reappear at the most opportune moments. I had to be honest with cat-owners; I really had no knowledge to impart or share, nor any idea how I might acquire the ability to help their pets. Other times it was clear to me what remedy an animal needed and I could accurately tell them what they should ask a professional on the mainland for; but I had no access to pharmaceuticals, and more to the point I had no reference books either. Where to get hold of a Black’s Veterinary Dictionary when you needed one? Without Christina’s translating skills or indeed her tact I could not have conveyed the little advice I was able to offer. There were often times we could actually do some good and we always did whatever we were able to, but in truth there were just as many veterinary visits that we walked away from feeling only empty-handed. Our successes or failures didn’t seem to matter to anyone else though, people still kept asking for help.

There was also the question of cost. I was grateful to Vangelis for his enquiries about who was actually paying for the creams and dressings I was purchasing. It meant that he cared and that later gave me an opening. He dealt with mild medical complaints on a daily basis as well, so more or less we were in the same business. My philosophical approach was that doing this work was like paying taxes. I was putting something back into a community which, in the space of less than one year, had given me a completely new start in life. I acquired a few rudimentary tools and basic first aid equipment from ex-pats. Scissors, tweezers, even needles and thread. After a prolonged discussion I finally persuaded Vangelis to give me any useful medications which had passed their run-out dates. I understood his reticence and the serious points he was making, by giving them to me after the expiry date he was breaking the law and putting his professional existence at risk. I reminisced to him that in Long Kesh we would preserve some of our lamentably meagre veterinary budget by scrounging out-dated pharmaceuticals from the medic station, and Vangelis conceded that the printed date on the packet was really only a guideline anyway. Used within reason these medications were still effective, and more to the point, if he gave them to me, they would also be free. But he made it clear that beyond himself and me and Christina, no-one must ever know about this arrangement. From that day until the moment of writing these words, I never told anyone.

Meanwhile, and not through any conscious effort on my part, the somewhat exaggerated news of a ‘vet’ living on the island continued to spread and generate reaction, and there was more than one incident which proved this. Early one morning I was just above the port, using a very long-handled brush to whitewash the front of an Austrian man’s house before direct sunlight began to quickly warm the wall and made completing the painting impossible. Working was still illegal and doing so this far down the hillside and close to the authorities was risky. I was trying to complete and in a race against time for more than one reason. In my haste I was more than usually covered in lime paint myself and dragging sheets of transparent nylon along the thoroughfare as I worked so that no drops of whitewash soaked into the stone outside the Austrian’s front door. I was entirely focused on this mission, needing to be done and out of there. I looked up from dragging the plastic sheeting and there were the same two policeman who had eye-balled me in Danny’s cafe.
“Ti kaneis, Maik,” the one I had rescued asked me.

In everyday parlance ‘Ti kaneis’ means ‘How are you’, but literally translated it is ‘What are you doing?’. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, and in light of the immediate circumstance we now found ourselves in, I chose to answer the everyday version. Despite being covered in whitewash I was fine and I thanked him for asking. Neither of them said another word. They stepped over my nylon sheeting which they could hardly avoid, and they went on their way. As soon as they were out of sight it took me about three minutes to pack up my sheets and brushes and disappear as well. I had no idea whether they’d change their attitude just around the corner and I wasn’t going to wait for them to come back. It was only later, in the ensuing discussion with Chris, we recognised the possibility that my veterinary role on the island was affecting more than just the discernible aspects of me outstaying my legal welcome in Greece. For all that, I have to confess, I’m not sure I ever went back to complete the job.

Around that time the first mule in need of repair was brought to our attention. I think the owner’s name was Nectarios. He was a loud man, much like most of the muleteers, though that wasn’t his chosen profession. Nor did he ask that we visit him, instead he brought his unannounced mule right up to Christina’s front door. Mules can be surprisingly large beasts, and if you haven’t been around them for a while they can take a little getting used to, especially if, when you open your door, the mule is the only thing you can see. In no uncertain terms we informed Nectarios his mule was definitely not welcome in the yard and we would examine the brute on the square behind the house; so take it there straight away and we would join him presently.

For all of his size the mule was actually very docile. His left eye was half-covered over by some sort of growth originating from inside the lower eyelid. Apparently it had been growing for months. The only possible way something that size could be dealt with would be to remove it using a scalpel. And that would only be the preliminary operation, allowing me to assess what was causing the growth and what could be done to prevent it returning. I asked Christina to take a close look as well so I could show her what the issues were and she could translate for Nectarios. For a moment she just stood there, quietly aghast, while I told her what I would have to do, then together we explained to Nectarios, again in no uncertain terms, that what he was asking for was by no means simple. He accepted that and he also accepted that the mule might lose the sight in its left eye; and further and with a handshake, that I would not be responsible if the operation went wrong or wasn’t successful.
“It’s losing the sight in its eye anyway,” Nectarios said, matter of factly.
“I need special equipment,” I told Chris to explain to him, “and right now, as we stand here, I have no idea where I’m going to get hold of what I will need.”
We parted company and agreed to stay in contact. On the way back to the house I told Chris not to be too concerned. The logical outcomes and mathematical chances of us being able to create or arrange all of the required circumstances in confluence, in order to repair the mule’s eye, were absolutely minimal.

Seek ye the kingdom. Everything that you need will be provided.

About ten days after Nectarios’ visit I got a message that I was wanted at Vangelis’ pharmacy. Though this hadn’t happened before it was fairly obvious why my presence was being requested. I walked down to the pharmacy alone because Vangelis could easily cover any language gap. When I arrived he greeted me formally which also never happened before, but he was in the company of two nuns. The younger one said nothing but the older one spoke so quickly I could hardly understand a word she said. She didn’t seem to be in a very good mood but it was clear that she was being respectful towards me, and in my ignorance of any Orthodox customs all I could really do was stick to a ritual of quiet politeness. Vangelis, translating, explained that a real veterinary surgeon had come to the island two days before for the sole purpose of visiting their nunnery to attend a lame mule. He had recommended a two week course of daily injections and the long and the short of it was that he was himself unwilling to travel back and forth, and there was no-one on hand who could administer these doses.
Did I know how to give a mule an injection? I did.
Would I be willing to go to the nunnery every day for two weeks? I would, though so far no-one had mentioned where the nunnery was located.
For all my apparent willingness the older nun still required me to speak directly to the vet, which, having already been arranged, would happen by phone in Vangelis pharmacy later that afternoon. If everything was agreeable then I should attend the nunnery as soon as the medicine and equipment arrived, not before two in the afternoon and not after four. Both nuns then spoke to Vangelis for a little before making their goodbyes to us both.
“How much of that did you understand?” Vangelis asked.
“Very little,” I admitted.
“They called you ‘Iatre’. Do you know what that means?”
I confessed that I didn’t.
“It means ‘doctor’,” Vangelis said. He seemed to wait for my reaction but I really didn’t know what to say to that.
“The others call you Iatre as well,” he added.
He explained that the older nun was in charge, so the younger one wouldn’t speak to me directly, except to say goodbye. He also told me her bad mood was directed at the vet, who was based on the mainland in Ermioni, and whom she felt had let her down. I grabbed this rare opportunity to teach Vangelis an English word.
“Abbess. An abbess is in charge of a nunnery.”
“Only when there’s twelve nuns,” he replied, “but there aren’t.”
“You must go to the nunnery between two and four when only one nun will be available.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by that but I didn’t bother asking. In truth, I was much more interested in the coming phone call. I explained to Vangelis about Nectarios’ mule and the equipment I probably needed. If he was right about the nun’s bad mood then it seemed to me the vet would end up indebted to me. Vangelis laughed, shaking his head, presumably at my audacity. He told me to grab the chance, why not

I think the phone call with the vet went on far longer than he had intended. He began by asking about my credentials and I told him about my military training and the extended experience that had given me. Nevertheless he still made me go through the steps of giving an intramuscular injection to a large animal. The last thing he probably wanted was someone else to make a hash of what he was supposed to be doing himself. He seemed satisfied with the conversation and was about to finalise arrangements for delivery of the medicine and syringes when I interrupted him.
“I have another mule that needs urgent treatment.”
Our conversation resumed. I described as closely as I could everything I had seen, including colouration and texture, and he agreed with my diagnosis that I couldn’t proceed unless I removed the growth surgically. He told me that if it was benign then all I would have to do after would be chemically cauterize the wound, maybe three or four times. Everything would then depend upon monitoring the wound for a period, to ensure it wasn’t growing back. If the growth re-emerged then it wasn’t benign and no-one could help the mule. Finally he told me the list of equipment and medicants he was prepared to send me in exchange for my daily journeys to the nunnery, on his behalf; a scalpel and blades, gloves to protect my fingers from the silver nitrate sticks I would have to use, instructions on how to cauterise the wound I would make with the cut and scrape. I asked him for swabs and a clamp for the eyelid but he told me I could make swabs out of anything clean and he wasn’t sure the mule wouldn’t kick out if I tried to apply a clamp near it’s eye. I asked him whether an anaesthetic wouldn’t take care of pain from the clamp but that’s when he balked. He acquiesced on providing a clamp but he refused to send me any kind of local anaesthetic; that was strictly against the law. Everything else he would send by hydrofoil on the morrow and he would telephone the pharmacy to confirm its despatch.

After the call I told Vangelis the vet had given me everything I needed to carry out a surgical operation inside the mule’s eyelid, except the ability to keep it’s head still while I used a scalpel less than two millimetres from it’s eyeball. One involuntary jerk of the mule’s head and the scalpel blade might snap and end up anywhere. Frankly, I didn’t see how I could possibly do the op and I was now as annoyed with the vet as the nun had been earlier. I don’t remember what Vangelis replied, or if he said anything at all after my rant. All in all, it had been an extraordinary day for both of us.

It was two days before all the veterinary equipment and the medicines arrived at the pharmacy. Now it was time to find out where the nunnery was located.
“The name is Agias Triados,” Vangelis told me. “It’s out of town past the cemetery.”
From all of our walks in the winter I could recall a couple of churches where I had seen gravestones but I had to concede, at least to myself, I wasn’t sure which cemetery Vangelis was describing.
“How much further past the cemetery, is Agias Triados?”
“About two kilometres. Maybe not so much.”
“Two kilometres?” I repeated, trying not to sound surprised, or concerned.
He made me repeat the name of the nunnery quite a few times.
“If you get lost you ask,” he said.
I don’t think it occurred to him that between the hours of two and four there would be very few people about who could give me directions.

There would have been good reason why Chris didn’t come with me that first time, I just can’t remember what it was. She reminded me of the large graveyard we had walked up to, past the football yard. We had never explored above the cemetery, she made it as clear to me as she could where I had to go, but by now it was becoming obvious this wasn’t going to be a saunter. In late spring most days are sunny and becoming a lot warmer as well. I didn’t make things any easier by forgetting my water bottle that first day.

At last, on the zigzag road leading up to the cemetery, I saw a rider going slowly along on his mule and being followed by three or four untethered goats that all scattered in front of him as I ran to catch up. He didn’t seem very concerned about the disappearing livestock, for which I tried to apologise. In truth, he looked half asleep, or perhaps he’d had a glass or two of retsina more than he should. But by now it was well into a warm afternoon and rather than judge his condition I counted myself fortunate to have found anyone on the road at all.
“Agias Triados,” I told him.
I repeated it several times, applying a few variations to my pronunciation. From his lack of response I concluded it was possible I’d forgotten how to say it correctly. Unfortunately, all my attempts received the same, somnolent gaze in reply. Finally he gestured to follow him. When we got to one of the top turns in the zigzag he stopped and told me to stand at a particular point, just off the edge of the road. He pointed eastward across the hills, towards a group of tiny white buildings, minisculed by their distance.
“Can you see those?” he asked.
“They’re not it.”
I looked up at him, waiting for a moment, in case he might add something useful.
“Pera Pera,” he said, pushing his arm upwards and outwards, as though he was throwing a ball. “Pera Pera.”
So, beyond those white buildings, he seemed to be telling me.
“Pera Pera,” I replied, throwing my own imaginary ball to show him that I understood. “Euxaristo poli.”
He looked at me as though I ought to be made allowance for.
“Den kanei tipota,” he replied lazily, before making me jump by suddenly steering his mule off the zigzag corner, and onto a precipitous path I hadn’t even seen, which led down into the deep gulley beside the road. Presumably, his goats had already gone that way. I might add, there’s a world of difference between a polite ‘tipota’, meaning it’s nothing, and ‘den kanei tipota’. The latter has all the nuance of ‘Have a Nice Day’.

Agias Triados was a little below and just a bit further than the white buildings. The path to the nunnery led off the main track to large double doors made from sheet metal. I rang the bell and eventually the young nun whom I had met at the pharmacy opened the door. She hardly spoke and she quickly walked me all the way around the main buildings to the walled garden area at the back. The mule was tied to the wall. She was clearly confident around the animal so I asked her to walk him up the length of the yard and back so I could understand its lameness. What became clear was that we hardly had any language ability between us. It was interesting trying to negotiate about a sick animal in such circumstances. She was watching me very carefully as I prepared the syringe by drawing from two bottles, then I handed it to her without the needle which I placed carefully between my fingers before approaching the mule. I patted him normally but fairly hard on the neck several times, the needle pointing away. Then in the middle of the pats I swung my hand round so that the next hard pat, with the back of my hand, inserted the needle without either mule or the nun realising what I had done. She gasped when I walked over to take the syringe and she saw the needle sticking out of the mule’s neck, awaiting my return. Once we had finished she took the mule away while I packed up my syringe and bottles. When she returned she didn’t stop talking but she was speaking so quickly I could hardly understand a word. She indicated I should go around the building to the front, the way we’d come in, then she went inside. A few minutes later she came out with a sweetmeat for me and a glass of water, which by now I was very grateful for. I took the sweetmeat as well though I really didn’t want it. I wrapped it in the napkin she provided, indicating I would eat it on the way home. We parted company bidding each other, ‘Tomorrow’.

agios triadosAgias Triados

The next day I took water with me and though I tried several times to politely refuse the sweetmeat I always ended up having to take it with me. I never ate it but I didn’t throw it away till I was back in the town. I didn’t want one of the nuns finding it somewhere along the road up to Agias Triados. Each day of that first week she walked the mule for me and every day, to reduce the chance of it becoming overly sensitive, I chose a different part of its body to pat down. The nun seemed constantly amazed every time the needle suddenly appeared in the mule, we even laughed about it a couple of times. We weren’t in each other’s company for longer than twenty minutes and in all the days we were together it never occurred to me for a moment that anything was wrong. I knew that once the mule was put away the nun probably wouldn’t stop talking and gradually I thought I understood what she was trying to tell me.

Christina walked up with me to Agias Triados on one of the days. I told her that I wasn’t certain but I thought the nun was trying to convert me. She wanted me to be baptised into Orthodox Christianity. After we’d finished and we were on our way back Chris confirmed what I’d already surmised.
“She said that you’re such a good man that you should be baptised Greek Orthodox,” she began.
There was a pause then she added, warning, “You do need to be a bit careful, Maik. I think she’s a little gone on you.”

On the following visit it was the older nun I’d met who came down the path to open the door. I was sent around to the back alone and I untied the mule and walked him by myself, which made it more difficult to check on its lameness. I gave it the jab and left it tied up and when I got round to the front the sweetmeat and the glass of water had been left on a tray outside the door. I took them and let myself out and the following days we went through the same routine. I told Chris what had happened and she elaborated a little more about how the younger nun had seemed overly enthusiastic about my visits. I was sad the project ended like that, I really hadn’t done anything more than I’d been asked and definitely with no bad intention. The mule was fine at the end and on my last visit the older nun came out and handed me the sweetmeat and thanked me. I was relieved and thankful she did that and her kindness in recognising my concern about the sudden change also helped me to consider the type of life these women had chosen to live, and to rationalise, as I made my way back to town, that our separate worlds had brushed past each other out of necessity, and they had connected momentarily out of friendship between people who were curing a sick animal; no-one was to blame for anything. A few months later I saw both the nuns riding their mules, heading back towards Agias Triados from the port. The older nun acknowledged me with just a nod but the younger turned her head away.

Nectarios’ mule had a great name; it was a classic which, sadly, and though I have tried, I can’t remember with any certainty. Based upon the length of time that has passed since then, it’s probable I’m the only participant in its story who is left to tell anything about it; so its name is lost. But I can still see him in my mind’s eye, and am able to accurately report that he was a good mule, and though quite big as mules go, he was friendly and trusting as well. By and large they’re intelligent animals; he knew it was me who fixed his eye. After the operation he always stood upright and perfectly still when Chris and I visited him to carry out the follow-up inspections and treatments. Though now, in the act of remembering him I’m getting ahead of myself. Just for this moment that’s okay, because he wasn’t the only participant in his story.

My biggest concern was how to keep the mule’s head still while I operated. Only two things really mattered; the people holding the mule had to maintain their grip until I told them it was okay to let go, and I had to prioritize speed over accuracy when carrying out my own task. Everything depended on everyone being confident and certain enough to play their part. But in hazardous moments or conditions nervousness can become infectious enough to be epidemic. I could see in Christina’s eyes how apprehensive I was about doing this and though it took us days to get the whole operation organised that look didn’t go away or even fade.

I’m disappointed in myself for all the detail I’ve managed to forget. I can’t remember exactly where Nectarios lived, but his mule was based somewhere in the beautiful valley, sheltered from the salt of the sea, which stretches from above and behind Kamini, all the way down to Vlicho. Narrow tracts of farmland mount the back of the coastal hills like steps, dug out many years before for the purpose of growing crops. Some were still ploughed and used for their proper function but whether they were used or not, in the spring the entire area was a background of bright yellows and greens, with vibrant pinks and purples and whites scattered across everything like thousands of randomised Impressionist dots. Just outside the last habitations of the town were small plots of land where many of the mules were kept. And the alonia must still be out there as well; stone-paved circles that were threshing floors, once carefully maintained and used to harvest grain. Every part of those fields had decades of unwritten history etched into their boundaries and shapes and even the position of the trees. This was another of Christina’s favourite spots. Truly breathtaking to look upon and meditate how much and how many had once been living and working there.

The fields above Kamini

We both went out there to visit Nectarios a couple of times before the operation. Firstly, to tell him both the good news and the bad; I’d got hold of most of the equipment that we needed, but no chance of any kind of anaesthetic. At the same time I wanted to have another look at that eye. It had been several weeks since I’d seen it last and the glad tidings there was the growth hadn’t become noticeably larger. Nevertheless, Chris and I tried to convey to Nectarios that I was nervous about doing the op. The only way I could be surer of keeping the head still would be to lie the patient down. Nectarios didn’t wave us off, he listened to our concerns and suggested practical measures we could use to minimise risk. The mule would be quieter in himself at the end of the day and Nectarios had arranged with a friend for the threshing floor as our operating table and a quieter space than his own for the days of recovery after. Thankfully, he already knew how to hobble the mule and he had organised two other men to join us. Clearly, he hadn’t been idle since our first meeting, even though we’d told him getting the necessary equipment would be next to impossible. I think his confidence that everything would work out fine buoyed us both!

On the day of the operation, even though it wouldn’t be carried out until evening, I still didn’t go to work. In truth I couldn’t think straight from all the visions I had of things going wrong. I went over the instructions for applying silver nitrate cauterization more times than I needed to, and weighing pros and cons in the balance I decided against using the clamp. We boiled a couple of pints of water and poured it into a bottle Chris had already sterilised. And somewhen during those preparations I broke the news to her that once the mule was hobbled and down on the floor I would very likely need her to sit on its neck. We both knew that it had to be her so that I could tell her what to do if the animal’s head began to move. As I write these words I can still see the fearful look in her eye but she didn’t balk at my request, at all. If courage is about overcoming your fears then, for my sake and for the mule, Chris was being immensely brave.

It was late afternoon when we headed out, along the top road above Kamini. We passed the old people’s home and turned onto a track that led between the little fields towards the threshing floor where we could see Nectarios and his helpers already waiting. We went over everything that was supposed to happen, and I briefly explained what we should do if things went wrong. Finally there was nothing left to say or do or make further preparation. When Chris poured out a little water and I washed my hands we all knew it was time to start.

Everyone played their role as needed and everything happened like clockwork. Pushed gently backward the hobbled mule fell just where we wanted him and Nectarios was at the front pulling forward on his jaw and muzzle the way I had demonstrated he must. The other men held the mule’s feet after we’d helped position Chris to comfortably sit exactly where I wanted her on the mule’s neck. She still looked very scared but she knew I needed her there and she gave me a silent nod when I asked if she was okay. I had no time to give her more assurance. Instead I knelt to my task, pulled the eyelid back away from the eye and the scalpel work took less than thirty seconds. As soon as it was done I offered Chris my hand and pulled her upwards from the mule. We cleared the space and allowed the animal to stand back up in it’s own time. Nectarios looked a little pale at the sight of his mule bleeding, but he confirmed he was able to continue. I cleaned the wound off and inspected it, then showed him ‘thumbs up’. I was very happy with the outcome and turning to Chris I confessed I couldn’t have asked better, though I reckoned it was more from luck than judgement. When everyone was calmer I reminded them of the second part. Nectarios held the mule’s head and I wet the silver nitrate stick then, holding back the eyelid again, I applied it along the wound and at the little part of the growth tissue I had missed. I held the eyelid away while the chemical burned and stung and shortly after I washed the eye one last time and we were finished. By then everyone was talking at the same time and patting and praising the mule. I don’t recall anyone actually thanking us but we were all congratulating each other on a job well done.

Over the next few days, whatever else we were doing, we made a point of walking out to the Kamini threshing floor together. After the second day Nectarios wasn’t there to greet us, and the mule with his two good eyes, was our last veterinary case on the island. Roving Ydra and helping the locals and their animals had been a welcome distraction from everything else that was happening around us. It was something we had which was ours and we both recognised that our greatest success was also the most bittersweet, because now it was over. That was a part of why we walked out there hand in hand once we were beyond the gaze of onlookers. Time and the inevitability of change were ticking onward for us and by then the summer was well under way. All of the upheavals which had once just been ideas and proposals and possibilities were fast becoming our next reality. By September we would all be gone.