‘Don’t expect too much,’ Joanna urges. ‘It’s what? Thirty years? It can’t be the same.’
‘I won’t,’ I say, but my excitement rises with every kilometre that takes us closer to the white house beneath the lemon tree.
I had been walking and hitching across Crete in late summer, living mainly on bread and fruit. One evening as dusk was slipping through the mountains, I came to a track leading off the main road and down towards the sea.
The prospect of soaking my feet in the sea was irresistible.
The track led through terraced olive groves, their glossy leaves and knotted boughs sapped of colour in the twilight. By the time I reached the shore, the cicadas had fallen silent. There was no moon and I decided it was too dark to risk bathing among the jagged rocks. I sat down and ate the last wedge of bread, drank sparingly from my water-bottle, rolled myself in my blanket beneath a tree, and slept.
Twice I woke and looked through the curtain of branch and leaf to stars crowding above the horizon, no sound but the quiet breathing of the sea.
My third wakening would be a little after dawn.
‘It’s somewhere around here,’ I say, measuring bay and headland against distant recollection. Suddenly there it is, a meagre scrape of dust and pebbles curling down through olive groves walled with slate-blue, pitted stone.
‘We’ll need to walk,’ I say, hoping this will be permitted. ‘It’s a mile or so – remember when we would do seven miles before lunch?’
‘That was before your leg started acting up again,’ Joanna places a restraining hand briefly on my arm, ‘and it was aching this morning – don’t shake your head, I heard you groaning in the bathroom, trying to get it moving.’
‘It’ll hold up. It’s as keen as I am.’
‘Try and be sensible, would you?’
‘Please nurse, the doc says exercise is good for it.’
‘The doc meant physio, as well you know.’
I sigh and look miserable, which often works and does so again today.
‘Oh, for God’s sake – but if it seizes up… Hat and stick, then. And slowly.’
To a rasping chorus of cicadas, we start down the track towards the sea.
The red dawn picked out the outline of a man. The light behind him, and my eyes dazed with sleep, at first I could see neither his face nor expression, though he could see the both of mine as, startled, I stared back at him.
‘Theos!’ He was just as alarmed, hand rising in the Orthodox signing of the Cross.
Then, he paused, bent and peered beneath the tree at me for long seconds; his hand fell away, his voice softened, quietened.
‘Ochi. Ochi.’ He stepped back.
‘Kalamera,’ I said hastily, wishing I had more Greek, wondering if this was trouble. ‘My name’s Neil. From Skotia.’
‘Neil,’ the man repeated, quietly, shook his head slowly, as if clearing away the last of some waking dream, spoke in good English with an American accent. ‘Gave me a shock, pal, asleep there, beneath my tree. Stand up, let’s have a proper look at you.’
The early light showed his lean, lined face, sharply curving nose and heavy greying moustache – nothing else he could be but Cretan, Yankee voice or not.
He offered his hand with a smile.
‘I am Yannis, and you are welcome.’
His hand was rough, scarred, as I would soon learn, by years of hauling on salt-soaked rope and nets. I don’t know quite what he made of me in worn jeans and grubby shirt, but he could see what I needed.
‘My land, my guest,’ he nodded along the shore path. ‘C’mon. Wash up and eat.’
As I tugged on my boots, Yannis looked back into the grove, crossed himself once more and murmured something quietly, perhaps a saint’s name.
A few dozen steps away, so close I could hardly believe I had seen and heard nothing of it even at night, a small house stood some metres higher than winter storms could throw their angriest waves. With white walls, blue door and window frames it was no different from a hundred others I had passed on my journey, except that over its flat roof a lemon tree spread a sheltering cloud of green leaf and yellow fruit. I washed in aching cold water, spring snowmelt collected in the mountain aquifer and stinging my head beneath the pump’s spout.
‘Omelette,’ Yannis called me indoors. ‘Not good as you’d eat in a New York diner, I guess, but not too bad.’
Best food I’d eaten for days.
The track seems hardly used anymore, grown with summer-dried weed, pressed in by blue-spiked thistle and dried poppy-heads nodding on brittle stems. Olive trees are ragged and untended, leafy green creepers wreathing fissured trunks, branches twisting unpruned, the ground below thick with brush and weed.
And then, a wall. A high, breeze-block wall, streaked with slapdash mortar, stretching clear along the hillside to block the old track. We stand before this ugly intrusion, look both left and right where it frowns over neglected groves and dead trees lying ripped and crumbling among their living kin.
‘We’ll have to go back.’ Joanna tries to pre-empt what she knows from experience is in my head, but I say it anyway.
‘We can make our way round, I think.’ Instincts in charge, I peer into the grove’s shadowy seclusion, where a thinning of brush stretches like a ship’s wake.
‘You’d better take very good care where you step,’ Joanna says. ‘I can’t drag you back through that.’
The canopied shade alone is worth the effort. As we thread between the stubborn branches our feet catch on tatters of rotted netting splashed black with unharvested olives left to shrink and decay.
‘This is so, so bad,’ I complain. ‘They love these trees. It’s almost religious.’
‘Atheists around here, obviously,’ Joanna agrees.
A familiar sharp pain stabs its warning into my leg.
‘You sleep beneath bare sky, like a shepherd?’
‘Now and again – not every night.’
Amused, Yannis shook his head, began to fill his pipe. We were seated over emptied plates in the subdued light admitted by the small windows. I looked around, saw the silver-mounted icon of the Madonna and infant Christ, faces stylised to give the child a precocious gravity, his mother a profound solemnity. It is as if they already saw the road to Golgotha. On the further wall, a portrait of an old bearded gentleman in black frockcoat and wing collar whom I would learn to recognise as Venizelos, below him a shelf holding a dozen ageing books and a parade of polished wooden frames with sepia and black and white photographs of people mostly in stiff, self-conscious poses.
‘Three generations,’ Yannis said proudly. ‘Grandparents in the old costume, father and mother in best clothes, 1920s styles. Me, my young brother Manolis, before the war came here.’
A young man and a teenage boy, relaxed with arms around each others’ shoulders, smiling into the camera, this earlier Yannis with a hint of reserve, his brother eager and open, guileless.
‘You have a look of the island,’ Yannis lit his pipe, pointed the spent match towards me. ‘I saw that beneath the tree, even in the dark. Not too tall, black hair, good nose.’
‘Big nose, you mean.’
‘Everyone here has a good nose, unless they’ve blown in from Athens or wherever,’ he surveyed me benevolently. ‘Give it a few years, grow a moustache, you’ll pass for a cousin down from the hills.’
‘Where’s Manolis now?’ I looked again at the boy’s unaffected smile. ‘Did he go to America with you?’
Yannis paused, sucked on the pipe, blew out grey smoke.
‘Who knows where he is. Only God knows everything.’
An awkward silence as Yannis too gazed at the photograph, then he grunted and
shook his head as if to clear his mind.
‘I feel like company, talk and company. Tell you what – stay here some days, help me with the fishing, eat good food, drink wine, fill your belly. You’ll be stronger for your journey, and I’ll have used English properly the first time in years.’
And so I had stayed three days in the white house beneath the lemon tree.
The raw breezeblock wall is suddenly lined in carefully joined limestone ashlar. We come out of the trees into the swollen heat where a slew of smooth tarmac hosts rows of smart cars broken by groups of slender white poles carrying the national flags of Europe and the Americas. A man sits on a bench in the narrow slice of shade afforded by an arched gateway, the white logo of his tan uniform announcing him a retainer of ‘RESORT ZEUS’. Beyond him we catch glimpses of fountains, palm trees and clumps of oleanders, elegant buildings of limestone, shining glass, marble and porphyry.
‘Looks like money,’ Joanna observes. ‘Not your sort of thing at all.’
A little past the olive trees where I had slept that first night, Yannis’s small boat – which I think he called a ‘varkey’ – lay tied alone in the lee of a reef extended by a curl of heavy rocks to form a small, rounded harbour with room for maybe three of those small boats in its sheltered water.
‘My grandfather’s work,’ Yannis said proudly, patted one of those red boulders I knew I could never lift, not even were there two of me. ‘They were men in those days.’
Not a good sailor, I stepped awkwardly into the boat to sit uncertainly on the middle bench while Yannis stowed nets alongside the engine housing. He smiled at my knuckles clutching tight and pale, paused.
‘You can wait on shore, if you want. Weed the lettuce patch, okay?’
But I had said I would fish, and nervous or not, I was going with him.
And once used to this little craft, dusk on that sea was unforgettable as the sun sank across blue water, a slight wind raising just enough of a wave to slap gently at the wooden hull, the smell of salt water mixing with Yannis’s tobacco smoke. Even the whiff of engine fumes could not spoil it. When we’d hauled in the net and had our slippery catch in a couple of pails, we turned out of the dark towards the town’s string of lights and people waiting by the quay for the scatter of little boats bringing in their fish.
Cretans are great talkers, full of courtesy and passion, but Yannis kept his exchanges brief, did not join the good-humoured chaffing I guessed was about where the worst and best hauls had been that night, how this or that fisherman had known where the bream and mullet would be waiting to throw themselves into his net.
A man around Yannis’s age came up and spoke to him in a quiet voice, seeming, from his accompanying gestures, to be inviting us to come and eat at a bright-lit taverna facing the harbour. The little crowd had turned to watch, faces silently expectant as a Greek chorus waiting on the play’s denouement, but Yannis only looked around in disdain, cast off the bowline and took us back to the night sea. I said nothing, of course, but later, as he waited on the wood fire to burn down to hot embers for grilling a couple of bream, Yannis took a pull of his harsh red wine and began to talk.
‘I don’t like them, in that town,’ he said broodingly. ‘I thought, when I came back
from America, maybe I would forgive, but when I see their faces, it’s impossible. Because of them, I lost Manolis.’
‘The war. Not the one against the Germans. The war afterwards, against ourselves.’
He appraised his glass, emptied it on the ground.
‘These memories need better than wine.’
Potentially clients, we are allowed into the complex. I have to admit it’s impressive.
‘You see,’ the assistant manager is from Athens, speaks excellent English, as befits one who took his doctorate in business management at UCLA, ‘this is six-star accommodation. If you bought one of our few, very few remaining timeshare units, this luxury standard would be yours to enjoy for as long as you wished.’
He sweeps an earnest hand across the spacious plazas and gardens, shining palaces and finally an Olympic-sized swimming-pool towards whose further end a small white-walled house once stood beneath a lemon-tree.
‘And the shore?’ I ask. ‘When I was here before, it was all rocks, with a little harbour over that way.’
‘We dug out the rocks,’ he beams. ‘Sand now, perfect sand – thousands of truckloads. We offer the best beach on Crete – see?’
The red rocky shore has given way to a silver expanse studded with reed sunshades and wooden loungers. I stand on the boardwalk edging the glaring sands. The old pain is tightening its grip.
‘I suppose you ripped out the harbour as well?’
‘No, no.’ The young man is used to awkward customers. ‘It’s still there. Quite a feature.’
Yannis brought out a bottle of pale raki, poured a shot for himself and one for me, each four fingers deep, offered no water.
‘The town was strong for the Communists. Manolis was idealistic and they worked on that, with all their talk of brotherhood and equality. I tried to persuade him not to go with them and join their militia. We fell out. He called me a fascist – me, who had fought the Italians and the Germans!’
Yannis took a long pull of the raki, stared into the night.
‘I forgot he was my brother. I…struck him.’
The bream lay forgotten. Yannis dropped his gaze, to the fire’s red embers.
‘What happened?’ I prompted. ‘What did Manolis do?’
Yannis lifted the bottle and walk unsteadily along the path towards the harbour.
The harbour is changed. The rocks are still there, but overlaid with a walkway with a brass railing. No trim little varkey with fishing nets. Instead, a gleaming powerboat which has leaked fuel and stained the water shabby rainbow. I look beyond the limestone facing of the boundary wall to where the hillside trees slowly forget the hand of man.
‘It’s a pity about the olive-groves,’ I say. ‘I’d never have thought Cretans would let
them go wild like that.’
‘We can’t find anyone to work them.’ The assistant manager seems hesitant. ‘The locals, they don’t care for this hillside.’
‘Maybe they don’t like the development,’ Joanna suggests disingenuously.
‘No, no, the truth is, they think the hill is unlucky, some sort of superstitious nonsense.’
He sees our exchange of glances.
‘When we were clearing the trees, just there,’ he points a few metres along the sweep of sand, ‘the diggers uncovered the bones of a man. That’s what started it all.’
I take a deep breath. My leg begins to shake as the pain bites deeper.
‘Nobody would tell us anything – very suspicious of outsiders,’ the assistant manager shrugs. ‘You were here before – did anyone say anything to you then about a young man going missing?’
The sweat pools around my eyes as I gaze one last time at the harbour. In my mind’s eye, I can see Yannis drinking raki as he stares melancholic into the dying fire.
We go back along the shore. Where once grew olive trees, I pause, rest on my stick, bow my head, murmur a name. And then another.
© Keith Aitchison 2009