the island

My guidebook includes a map of the island, with a road climbing across the centre, through scrubland, round mountains, and a dormant volcano.  It recommends a trip that takes in the Temple of Hera, Pythagoras’s cave, where he spoke of geometry, celibacy and fava beans, and ends in a woodland glade, and so while my boyfriend prepares Greek phrases useful in emergency situations, I plan our route on the map for the next day. 

‘My wife/girlfriend drives in a strange direction…’

I can almost smell the hot resins of pine, rigani and clump figs as I plot our course across contour lines.  The afternoon sun will build to its full heat as the Fiat Panda struggles with the climb… 

‘My car… he is a tragedy… ‘ 

I can already imagine the woodland glade, slipping off my sandals, feeling the cool river water splashing round my feet.  Every year I buy a pair of holiday sandals, to wear until they fall apart.  At two weeks, they outlast most of my relationships. As we pack the car for our trip, the hotel owner agrees that I have plotted an excellent route, but tells me our island map includes not only the roads actually built but also those they started to build at either end, but which fade to nothing.  There are also roads which all agree are a good idea, but never developed beyond the concept stage.  I have planned an excellent journey… for next year… the year after… for the future…

‘This woman is crazy…  Please summon help.’

He shares a smile with my boyfriend, and they laugh at my imagining I could plan a viable route.  Then they drink beer together and smoke Camel cigarettes. 

We spend a very pleasant day on the beach instead. 

My sandals are rubbing now and a blister has reached my two smallest toes.  In the evening, I plan our climb for the next day, up the dormant volcano, into which my guidebook tells me the philosopher Empedoceles leapt, leaving behind only his sandals, slightly singed, and a verse explaining he intended this to demonstrate his immortality.  Our trip, nearly three thousand years later, proves his point.  A climb high in the bleak landscape, to stand on the scorched earth, will be an important moment in our relationship.  With the comforts and distractions of home stripped away, we will stand exhausted on the hillside in the baking sunshine, and face what is left.  Just the two of us.  As I pack our sandwiches and water, I tell the hotel owner of our intention.  He tells me the volcano in this side of the island is much more beautiful; and still glows with molten lava.  He says only a crazy person would attempt the climb in sandals such as mine, and the truth is that no-one really knows which volcano Empedocoles jumped into, or if indeed, he jumped into a volcano at all.

My boyfriend shrugs. 

We spend another pleasant day on the beach, and afterwards he and the hotel owner drink Metaxa and smokes cigars. I practice my Greek.  ‘The extreme heat causes pain.

‘ Give me medicine now.’  

The red coating on my sandals is starting to crack. I plan a trip to nearby waters, where the traces of a lost civilisation lie just beneath the surface; a submerged city preserved by the water.  The hotel owner surprises me with his enthusiasm.  A fine place to visit.  He packs up a lunch for us, cheese made from his own goats’ milk, a loaf of his wife’s bread; and olives the size of plums.   He tells me islanders believe this subterranean town to be the lost city of Atlantis and our only danger is that, once we have glimpsed this paradise, we cannot emerge unchanged.  To seal the deal, he pours glasses of ouzo which he and my boyfriend accompany with strips of preserved octopus with a fizzy quality that smacks of danger.

‘My stomach is disturbed.  Can you help?’ 

At last we find the beach, and eat our lunch on silken sand while giant ants scurry around, clearing away debris.  My boyfriend sleeps with his phrasebook open on his face, and then we swim in that clear water, round the relics of temples and palaces.  We float over pathways lined by anemones and urchins; cavities sheltering crab and octopus.  Shoals of fish surround us, as if proud to show us the empire which is now their domain.   We swim, never wanting to stop, and when we finally have to emerge, we hold each other, overcome by the experience we have shared. Then my boyfriend pulls away, kicks my sandals off his towel, and sits down to smoke.    Now the beach around us looks shabby and a man in rags lies uncomfortably close.  A family peer suspiciously at us from their palm leaf hut; Cigarette ends surround us, and a mange- ridden dog sniffs my clothes.  We argue about who has the keys, why I chose that hotel, and this island.

‘With love, we see love.  With strife, we see strife.  Like by like.  Forever.’

The strap on my sandals snaps as I pull them on, and I march off alone, and leave them, broken on the beach. 

As I sit in the bar by myself later, I wonder if someone will find my sandals on the beach and think I have leapt into the water to swim round that lost city and, on finding it so perfect alone in the water, I decided to stay there, never to return

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Reading in Lewes, 10th October, at the John Harvey Tavern from 7.45