TRAVELS IN ELYSIUM
‘Beyond the Pillars of Hercules, there lay an island among islands,
whose people had the means to cross one to the other…’
— Plato, Timaeus
Shall I whisper its fate through the raging clouds, this mountain island with a heart of fire?
Then listen well, Stranger, for memories like us who travel dreams are but time-straying ghosts who neither know nor care that they are dead.
Summer was in the making. Catching the west wind we roamed the high bluff, lay upon the pillows of the tufted grass, infinity flooding our eyes. If ever we knew and feared this day would come, surely it could never be on a day like this, a lark’s song painting the blue above our heads. People returning from the saffron fields with sunburnt faces. Drifting asleep in their gardens to the hum of the bees and the chimes of the water. A few hours in which dreams bring on the coolness of the star sown night.
I felt the tremor through the soles of my feet, so tentative at first I confused it with my own pulse. It grew stronger. I glanced across at you, wondering what kind of love could electrify the heart like that, whispering across the skin, crackling through the mind like a summer storm that will drench us in some almighty collision of fire and rain.
Then before we knew it, the ground was buckling under our feet, fissures cracking the earth, their monstrous jaws devouring anything in sight, a farmhouse, a meadow, trees torn from the soil like weeds.
Through a blizzard of petals, I caught the nose-stripping stench of sulphur, as if some malevolent daemon were now stalking the Earth. My eyes darted to the mountain heights to find liquid fire spilling between the rocks, torching the sacred trees. Then to the wide coastal plain, where among the orchards and fields of spice the waterways were bursting open; farmhouses, temples, carts, horses, boats with tattered sails, swept away on the flood wave. Villages we once knew, as puny as a child’s plaything.
There was no time to think. No time to run. It was as much as we could do to stay on our feet. At the island’s brink, the high cliffs were crumbling, streets, schools, workshops, temples, a thousand summers, lost to the blink of an eye.
Families still fast asleep in their beds, husbands, wives, children, lovers just like us, hushed by the sweet lullaby of the mountain’s ancient sleep.
Amid a cloud of dust and rubble, they free-fall through the bloodstained dusk, eyes jarring open to find all those life-defining things that once inspired love or indifference, sublime, ridiculous, a mattress-flying child, the statue of a god, pots and pans, a tumbling donkey, a squealing pig, a flock of hens startled by their own flight.
There were numb white bodies in the water, with wide staring eyes and fronds of seaweed hair. Looming shadows through the deep cast by a sky on fire
I awoke with a start, still blinking back silhouettes, trying to remember who or where I was, the hypnotic clatter of the rails in my ears, the train carving its way towards Dover through the sleet, the ferry pitching across the puke-green Channel, the rippling walls of the
station waiting room suddenly remembering they’re made of solid stone. That’s right. I remember now. February the 29th. Day two on my four-day travel plan. Brig, a bustling little town under the Simplon, its high pass lost to the snow. Waiting for my next connection heading south. My guidebook to Greece lying on the chequered floor, where it must have slipped from my sleeping fingers. Still open at the same page, that fire-breathing island in the Aegean sea: Thera, Santorini, Celeste, and whatever other names it has gone by in its tempestuous acquaintance with time.
Out onto the platform for a shot of frozen air, lugging my cases behind me, ticket between my teeth.
I glanced down at my watch as the train came thundering in on its own blizzard of snow and electric sparks. It might even have been a trick of the light, I suppose, snow falling against the sunset of a cracked sky, that lent that moment its peculiar magnification.
Time seems to quiver, then billow, a fraction of a second somehow orphaned from its own past. My father’s old silver Omega, a present for my 21st; it even crosses my mind that I must have forgotten to wind it.
The second hand seems to falter, then hesitate over the XII before taking its plunge over the luminous radium dial. I blink, put it down to the eerie light, the stress, the sleepless nights that have landed me here.
No, I was dead on my feet, that’s all, and with another sixteen hundred miles still to go.
The train comes sweeping in on a draught of fractured light, snow and seething sparks. Carriage doors swing open, people in woollen hats, overcoats and scarves descend onto the platform, leaning forward against the cold.
Doors slam. The guard’s whistle blows. The carriage jolts forward. I slip into the nearest seat, the window still all steamed up from the passengers who were sitting here before. Slide my cases between the wooden benches where they meet back-to-back, casting an eye over the open carriage, and the handful of people going on to the next stations along the line. Absently, I wind my watch, lift it to my ear, just to check it’s still ticking as it should.
Moments like this, bursting with repressed chaos, that yet seem no more consequential than any other in the hours, days and weeks that have led you here.
As innocuous, perhaps, as the moment your eye caught the advertisement in The Times of London and you applied for the job, just on the off-chance, knowing you weren’t really qualified. As routine as the call that summoned you to the interview in Cambridge, butterflies in your stomach, the dryness on your tongue sometimes making you trip over your own words, your palms all sweaty even in the cold.
As fake innocent even, as that lucky morning when the postman arrived with a registered letter all the way from Greece, the brusque scrawl less an invitation than a summons but still, it’s the chance of a lifetime isn’t it, a job half your college classmates would have gladly died for.
Apprentice to the archaeologist M. J. Huxley, no less, his excavations in the southern Aegean already raising a lost city, 3,500 years old, from Thera’s volcanic ash.
Thera, Santorini, the southernmost of the Cyclades. An island of thousand-foot cliffs, bubbling fumaroles and black volcanic sands.
I admit, that’s about as much as I knew, but it was enough for me.
From one moment to the next, everything had changed. The gravestone sky no longer had the power to entomb me. In my mind’s eye, I could already see it, already feel it, summer, the curve of a blue horizon, the scattering of islands.
Moments engineered by scheming minds, by chance or serendipity, by some force greater than ourselves, who can tell?
Maybe there are even people out there who can predict them in the making, I don’t know, catching the telltale movement at the corner of their eye or something, the tingle down their spine. Not me, that’s for sure, making my oblivious way south, just trying to keep to the impossible timetable set by my new employers, just trying to stay awake in case I miss the next connection.
Never guessing for a moment that someone might be interested enough to record my progress, maybe that scruffy student with the goatee under the toothpowder advertisement in the Paris metro; that busker in the Gare de Lyon with the broken guitar string; that impeccably dressed valet boarding the first class carriage in Dijon with his master’s cases.
No. If moments of any description entered my muddled head through the blur of the landscape or the clackety-clack of the rails, they were of the past, snatches of time just lived, that’s all. Ghosts of moments, that now seemed to be struggling to keep up, flickering through me as we hurtled into the darkness of a tunnel, or emerged into bright snow-swollen light.
My final days at home, minutes, seconds, melting away with the fury of a candle left in a draught.
Eighteen hours to go and I’m racing the clock, wondering how the hell I’ll ever get everything organised in time. Tossing stuff into trunks and cases, then hurling pieces out at random when the lids won’t shut; cycling down to the high street for the traveller’s cheques, quitting my stupid dead-end job, and I don’t know, a million other things.
The great day dawns, the sun struggling through spitting clouds.
Mum’s fussing over the porridge, the poached eggs, the toast, the coffee percolating on the stove. I know what she’s doing; keeping busy, so she won’t have to think about me leaving home; worse, leaving the country, who knows, maybe for good.
Sleepy faced, jet black hair tumbling into her eyes, Sofi gives me a playful push just at the thought of it. ‘Little Brother’ off to Greece; the great big brilliant adventure waiting for me at the front door. She’s always been like that, ever since we were kids, visualising things abstract to the rest of us.
Have you got your passport? Have you got the tickets? Have you got the itinerary they sent you? You don’t want to miss a connection, not if you can help it.
She throws me a serious look, lowers her voice so Mum won’t hear: Don’t forget, Nico. It is a military junta, whatever they say in the holiday brochures. It’s a police state. Just look after yourself won’t you.
There’s not enough time.
There are too many things left unsaid.
Don’t forget to write!
Mum’s at the rain-splashed window, smiling, waving, trying not to cry till we turn the corner. Sofi at her elbow, eyes on fire, waving madly now as the taxicab sets off down the driveway.
Try to visit!
Maybe in the summer!
And the next thing I know, I’m wading through the crowds at King’s Cross. I’ll never make it in time, I’m thinking. Never. They haven’t given me enough time to change trains, change stations.
I should have been paying more attention, that’s what I’m saying, even then on the journey down, long before I ever set eyes on Marcus James Huxley.
I shouldn’t have needed instruction for something as basic as this, even if I was still wet behind the ears, even if my teachers were as ignorant as I. I mean the warning was there from the start, wasn’t it, long before he thrust it into my reeling senses with a vehemence that almost blew me off my feet. Take nothing at face value. Read between the lines. Trust neither what your eyes tell you, nor the words people speak. Expect the unexpected.
The train thunders over frost-encrusted fields in the ice-light moon, spins a vortex of snow as it crosses a viaduct built in the sky, utters a piercing shriek as it plunges into a mountain tunnel.
The carriage windows throw our reflections back in our faces and, just for an instant, just for a heartbeat, you have to wonder — who is that, is that really me? Nicholas Pedrosa, 22 years old, bags packed, leaving home.
Snow flakes hit us in a sudden blizzard, the line snaking the contours of the granite mountain walls, the snow valley and the river catching moonlight a breathtaking leap below.
We seem to be descending now, and on a long improbable corkscrew through the mountain itself.
Then just when you’re thinking the tunnel will never end, out we break into the southern Alps, the air limpid, the sky a mass of crystal splintered stars.
Domodossola, all change! People hurry along the platform, all wrapped up against the cold, blowing steam. People like me, who have no idea what’s awaiting them around the next corner, much less the next horizon. All change!
When finally I set eyes on her, I assumed I was still in the wrong place, some graveyard for ships. The Pegasus, read the name on the prow, each letter with its trickling stain of rust. A Piraeus tramp steamer if ever there was one, her glory days beyond all recollection of the living.
Propellers frothing the putrid water, she was already getting up steam, deckhands loosening the algae-slick hawsers. There was no telling when she would be back. I ran.
A battered old Land Rover was being winched onto the aft deck in a rope sling. A few late passengers were still scurrying up the gangway, the escaping street hawkers barging past them with their trays of sesame rings and loukoumi, that gummy sweet the rest of us know as Turkish Delight. In a cacophony of yells, bleating, and jangling of bells, a flock of goats was being chased up the ramp and into the hold. The Captain glared down at us from the bridge. Any moment now, his patience would buckle and he would lift the gangway whoever ended up in the drink.
Dragging my stuff behind me I dashed after the goats, and had hardly stepped on deck when there was a shrill whistle from the bridge, and the funnel began panting and billowing steam.
Still winching in the hawsers, we moved across the fetid harbour, the factories on the other side belching black smoke. Past the listing and abandoned ships tied up among the graveyard quays, out past the harbour walls and then, all of a sudden, when I looked again, the whole world had turned blue.
The blue of the winter Aegean. Sea, sky, reflecting one another into infinity.
If only they could see me now, I thought, my friends, my former work mates in that dead-end job of mine. My life was just beginning.
Every so often I’d cast an eye over my fellow passengers, just to pass the time. Farmers and fishermen in Sunday-best suits two sizes too small; trouser cuffs over their ankles, spit-and-polish shoes that probably pinched the toes. A young soldier with his rifle between his knees. A gaggle of students on some class expedition to the islands. A plump man in a straw boater at the railings, round tortoiseshell glasses lending him the appearance of a pompous owl. Folded in his hands an Athens newspaper, its headline proclaiming new finds at the Theran dig. Archaeologists Unearth Mystery Hieroglyphs. I squinted hard. Temple inscriptions in the extinct script Cretan Hieroglyphic, probably more than 5,000 years old. Would they ever be deciphered?
Just how long that reptilian stare had been boring into the back of my head I had no idea, but I was aware of it now.
I shifted sideways on the bench, stealing a glance over my shoulder. So it wasn’t my imagination after all. He had been staring at me the whole time, and continued to do so even now, sour, unflinching eyes in a speckled parchment face.
A gaunt man in a white suit and Panama hat, striking an imperious pose on the First Class deck, 80 years old if he was a day. Sitting in the wind shadow of the ship’s funnel, a bronze-headed walking cane clasped tightly between bony fists and knees.
After resisting that mouldy gaze for another ten minutes or so, I gave up, retreating to the other side of the ship.
Nearing the Cyclades, we ran into a sudden gale. Demented gusts and spitting rain struck us broadside from the east and went shrieking through the wires on the upper deck. Through the doorway to the bridge, I saw the look of consternation flicker over the helmsman’s face as he fought the wheel to keep us on course, the Captain at his shoulder, scanning the bruise-black horizon that seemed on the verge of swallowing us whole.
The ship pitched and rolled, the sheer force of the waves juddering through its iron hull. In the dining room, bottles, glasses and plates skated back and forth across the tables, then crashed to the floor. Passengers stumbled about as if drunk, barging into one another, collapsing into chairs. Peasant women from the islands lay supine on the floor, moaning, their olive complexions now wan and ghostly.
Others took their seasickness to the lavatories, leaving the floors and basins awash, the sight and stench so contagious there was no escaping it, stem to stern. Craving air I stumbled out onto the deck, gripping the railings with white-knuckled fists, retching over the side, knees buckling as the Pegasus seesawed through the waves.
A rocky island appeared off the port bow, silhouetted against the raging silver sea. Listing in the wind, the ship limped along in its cliff-bound shadow, at times so treacherously close I was certain we would be dashed against the rocks.
Smoke belching from the funnel, engines shuddering, we plunged into a maelstrom of white water, spray cascading over the decks. I saw the helmsman spin the wheel hard to port, and just as it occurred to me that he had doomed us all, we went steaming between the splintered rocks into an implausibly narrow channel.
To my untrained eye it seemed as if we had barely escaped with our lives, but at least we had reached calmer waters, a sheltered bay ringed by parched, rounded hillsides. Strung along a narrow pebble beach, a few poor fishermen’s houses, bright yellow nets hanging in the sun. Above, a little village of white cubic houses nestled on the ridge of a pointed mountain.
With a clanking of chain we dropped anchor, engines hushing. Despite the enduring silence from the bridge, what with the bulk of the crew now in their bunks, it seemed safe to assume we were seeking refuge from the worst of the storm.
Through the deck railings separating First Class from steerage, I heard a man’s brusque, impatient shout.
The voice rose in volume.
‘You, boy!’ he was yelling, as though summoning some Athens shoeshine, or the servant he normally kept below stairs.
My eyes flickered towards him in irritation — only to discover that those sunken-cheeks and thin bloodless lips were actually scowling at me.
I should have known. The ancient creature in the white suit and panama hat, now striking the railings with his skull-headed cane.
I remarked it even then. His posture. Almost Napoleonic in a gaunt, moth-eaten kind of way, nose tilted several degrees above the horizon.
‘On which godforsaken island are we now?’ More demand than question, as though I should be any better acquainted with the Captain’s charts than he. ‘We are already twelve hours behind schedule, twelve hours!’
‘One of the Cyclades, I suppose. Maybe Naxos. Maybe Paros. Maybe —’
‘These Greeks!’ he cried in exasperation, and now I could definitely hear the French lilt to his voice. ‘It is as if their incompetence were deliberate rather than congenital.’
‘You can hardly blame them for the weather.’
‘The weather!’ he sneered. ‘There was a time, young man, when no challenge was insurmountable to the warriors and visionaries of this land, philosophers who would hurl imponderable questions beyond the stars; golden heroes who would challenge even the King of Death himself. Why? Because the challenge exists and they had the soul to seek it, the resolve to demand it.’ Casting a jaundiced eye over the shuffling deck hands on the lower deck, he added: ‘Now, apparently, the insurmountable challenge is walking upright.’
‘But we almost sank! We almost drowned!’
‘If so, that would be testament to the captain’s incompetence, hardly the severity of the storm. I have been through far worse in any sea you care to name.’
‘At this rate,’ he fumed, leaning heavily on his cane, ‘we shall be days behind schedule, not hours. Are you not even vaguely curious as to the Captain’s intentions?’
‘Of course. I have people waiting for me on Santorini, but —’
‘Then kindly spare me the trouble of negotiating those treacherous, brine-slick stairways. Go below deck and interrogate the Purser.’
Swearing, I did just that, finding the man one deck down at the reception, eating loukoumi and smoking cigarettes, his uniform powdered with ash and sugar dust. ‘When will we get underway again, do you know? Yes, but what’s our estimated time of arrival? Is it still far?’
Questions to which our Purser replied with accomplished indifference, eyebrows arching up, mouth arching down, right hand swivelling round, fingers splaying out to reveal an open palm. From what I had already learnt in evening class, this was a common expression among the Greeks, and roughly translated meant ‘Who knows? Who cares? Fate alone will decide.’
Munching and smoking, his eyes drifted bleakly to the porthole at his side, and a distant patch of angry sky; conversation over.
When I reported back to the Frenchman in First Class, I expected him to rant and rave, but he merely scowled, demanding to know where I was going, who was waiting for me, and what conceivable benefit a youth could bring to something so ancient, so sacred. I made my escape.
When at last the storm blew itself out, we got underway again, pounding through the swell it had left in its wake.
I went down to my cabin, crawled onto the bunk, tried to sleep, couldn’t.
Even now I could hardly believe my luck. It kept turning round and round in my head, the impression I must have made on Professor Huxley’s agent at the interview, and what she had seen in me that I couldn’t quite see in myself. Apart from my mediocre Greek and a four week stint at archaeological field camp on the Peloponnese when I was 19; apart from my half-completed classics course at college, what else was there?
That made me worry even more. What if there had been some kind of mistake? What if I wasn’t up to the job? Maybe the obnoxious Frenchman had a point.
As interviews go, mine had been a rough ride, almost as rough as the weather out there, dashing the porthole in wind and spray.
Professor Huxley’s agent turned out to be a Russian of indeterminate age, with ice blond hair, ice blue eyes and an almost translucent complexion. Aside from the flowery silk scarf bringing a splash of colour to her neck, Svetlana Bé, as she purported to be called, was dressed in black from head to foot.
Cold, yet as elegant as a fresh snow drift. You could almost imagine the ice crystals forming in the prisms of her eyes, feel the touch of the lips that would numb your skin. Fear for the cheek bones that might shatter in the event of a smile.
Nothing to do with idle vanity, this kind of elegance, but something far more purposeful. You could feel the static charge from her sheer silk stockings as she crossed her legs. See thin air make way for relentless confidence as she incised her way across the street in her stiletto heels.
As per her written instructions, we met at the old Garden House Hotel in Cambridge, overlooking the river, an incongruous setting given the barrage of questions she was about to unleash. Genteel Cambridge wives sitting down to their afternoon teas and cream cakes, all hushed voices, salmon-pink curtains, tablecloths and doilies. Beyond the French windows, a boat would sometimes glide silently through the mist, a solitary figure punting from the stern.
Svetlana Bé opened a black foolscap notebook, propping it up against the table edge so as to conceal its contents. The waitress appeared with our order. Hers, Himalayan Darjeeling with a slice of lemon. Mine, plain old tea with milk. A plate of fresh scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream was placed between us, and I could see it in her eyes, just daring me to take one.
I was aware of permed heads inclining towards us, all the better to eavesdrop on the muffled yet strangely dashing words that passed between us. I, in my mother-pressed shirt and interview tie, trying to impress or at least look the part. Grasping, fumbling for the slippery, unsettling questions being hurled at me.
Questions on my ties to England. Questions about my relationship to my family, friends and teachers. Questions on my emotional attachments, or lack thereof. At times they seemed as darkly suggestive as black chocolate. At others, as subtle as a cricket bat.
Ambition, honour, duty, love, which is more important to you? Your sexual awakening, Nicholas Pedrosa, characterise it for me. Describe your first erotic encounter; in the woods, behind the bicycle sheds, in class itself, perhaps, under the teacher’s very eye, fumbling under the desk? You pleasure yourself, of course, all boys do — how many times a day?
I have to admit, it wasn’t what I’d been expecting, and at first I must have looked like a stunned deer or something, caught in the headlights.
I know: that must have been the intention all along. I glanced apprehensively at the tables across the aisle, thinking how thrilled to bits the genteel ladies would be in their ‘well I never!’ kind of way.
For a moment, ticking off the reaction boxes on her list and scribbling her observations, Svetlana Bé seemed satisfied, then pounced.
‘How is it that a young man like you has no friends to speak of? I would consider that strange. Would you not consider that strange?’
‘No, I wouldn’t, not at all!’ I protested, a fraction of a second off the beat. ‘I only came home from college in summer —’
‘Ah, yes, Aberdeen!’ she said, scanning her notes. ‘Such a long way from home. But why? Why a college closer to the Arctic Circle than your own home? Your dinky little village in the Cotswolds, Moreton-in-the-Marsh.’
‘Because of the course,’ I said, holding my breath. ‘The syllabus.’
‘You were not homesick?’
‘Not once? Of course, I forget. You have no attachments. No love. No friends. No passion.’ If not for the midwinter frost that gripped them, the words might even have sounded sarcastic.
‘Twenty-four and still living with his mother and sister.’
‘Twenty-two,’ I corrected her. Things were going badly.
‘Where is your father? Did he desert you, you, your mother, your sister? Is that it? Is that why you ran home from college? Is that why you tore up your education, threw away your own future?’
I wondered if she could hear the pounding in my chest. ‘Yes.’
The second I saw the look thrown back at me across the table, I knew she knew she’d finally caught me in a lie.
‘Professor Huxley demands the loyalty of his apprentices,’ she went on, the ice crystals dancing sardonically in her eye. ‘Boy that you are, doubtless you would expect to run home on leave every other week, back to mama, homesick, frightened, disrupting the work plan, inconveniencing everybody in sight.’
Still stumbling over the boot camp metaphor, I just managed to protest, ‘No, I can go and not look back. I can.’
The pencil line eyebrows arched sceptically.
‘Then what is it that attracts you most to this job that you have applied for, Nicholas Pedrosa?’ A question tinged with accusation, and probably the hardest one of all to answer. In the end, thinking the job already lost, I just blurted out the first thing that came into my head.
‘To know the ancient island and what it might have been.’
A hesitation. A skipped beat. The first and only one. A scrutinising look across the table, the biologist sizing up a curious bug.
‘I think you cannot imagine what Greece is like,’ she said in parting. ‘Its identity smudged between the fog of mythology and logic as lucid as a winter sky... But look, look who I am talking to… a child.’
She took my CV and references without comment, stuffing them carelessly into her bag.
In the gathering dusk I returned home, gloomy and demoralised. Crumpling into bed that night, the encounter wouldn’t leave me alone, questions, answers, bouncing around my head. What I should have said, and hadn’t. The words I should have spoken, but couldn’t find. There would never be a chance like this again, I knew that. Never.
The days oozed by, congealing into weeks, and I heard nothing more. I returned to my dead-end job on the high street. Junior Sales trainee at Randoor & Heaven, Estate Agents of Distinction. Mr Percival Heaven, the roly-poly Principal, his pinstripe suit so habitual he might even have slept in it for all we knew, folds of flesh sagging over his shirt collar.
If I put my mind to it, kept my nose to the grindstone, I might even make Assistant Sales Negotiator by the time I was 35. Only another 13 years to go.
‘We have Rolls-Royces drawing up outside,’ spluttered Mr Heaven, indignant that I had let hair, and not fat, grow over my collar. My first warning.
Second warning, late for work, an hour docked from my pay.
Third warning, unprofessionalism, blabbing to some prospective buyer that the cellar of his dream house floods in stormy weather. A bawling out from Heaven. Half a day docked from my pay.
First snows. Drifting on the hills. Christmas at home, as difficult as ever, never mind the presents under the tree, the children’s carols at the door, the lights in the snow. Habit, I suppose, setting that place for him at the head of table, his favourite glass for his favourite wine. You even catch yourself looking for careless footprints in the snow. Down to the Bell Inn with the younger office staff, drinking far more than I should, who cares. It’s fucking amazing to think that, of all the people you have come to know since leaving college, you have absolutely nothing in common with any of them. Nothing at all.
Monday morning. First thaw, muddy sludge along the lanes, the countryside bleak and misty.
About to bike off to work, I almost collided with the postman at the front door. A registered letter, postmark Athens. Well that’s it, I thought, with a wince. This is your formal rejection. Some other lucky applicant’s already heading south to the job of a lifetime.
Anxious about being late for work again, and resenting myself for it, I tore open the envelope, almost ripping its contents in the process.
When finally the swimming words began to make sense, I could hardly believe my own eyes; I had to read the letter again and again just to make it sink in. Secreted in the bulky envelope, not the booby prize brochure on the dig I had been expecting, but tickets, itineraries, everything. Boat train to Calais, then on to Paris, Dijon, Milano, Brindisi.
Within the space of that infinitesimal moment, everything had changed. Everything. Life was no longer the poison we are required to drink until it kills us. I would say goodbye to the yellowing walls that absorbed our childhood memories like blotting paper, weeping their mildewed ghosts.
Now wherever I looked, 360 degrees around my own life, I saw only one thing: horizon.
I admit, I drew some perverse pleasure in announcing my departure, effective immediately, to Heaven himself.
‘Don’t imagine for a second you’ll be getting your last pay packet,’ he blustered, the absurd originality of the moment spinning him like a top. No one had ever done anything like this before, not in all his born days. ‘After all we’ve taught you. After all the time we’ve invested in you.’
‘Yes. I’m leaving for Greece. I’m leaving for the islands. This time tomorrow I’ll already be in Dover.’
Impressed they were not. Despite the odd envious glance from the other trainees, the smug consensus was that I had obviously taken leave of my senses. Abandoning one’s career like that, without so much as a day to weigh the consequences; running off to an island you’ve never set foot on before, to a job you know next to nothing about, to people you’ve never even set eyes on before.
You’ll come unstuck, my lad, you just see if you don’t!
They had a point, I know, but I didn’t care.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I was free.
Thirty-six hours behind schedule, its crescent moon outline appeared on the southern horizon. Thera. Santorini.
I hurried back to the cabin and its cubicle-like washroom, thinking, you have to make yourself look at least vaguely presentable to your new employer. Except, peering into the dimly-lit mirror, I could hardly find myself, the silver so thin it was in danger of losing its reflection altogether. I splashed water onto my face, ran fingers through my hair but still ended up looking like someone who had been sleeping rough for a week.
By the time I’d dragged my belongings to the reception area we were already reaching the northern, pincer-like tip of the island. I rushed up to the top deck to take in the sights.
At first, it was the light, not the island, that snatched my breath away. Its intensity. Its clarity. Its improbability. I squinted, shielding my eyes. It glanced off the water, off the white bridge where the helmsman stood, off the windows of the saloon in which I and my fellow deck passengers had now become silhouettes against a streaming silver sea.
And then there was the island itself, looming up at us like some eighth wonder of the world.
Long ago, it would have dominated the southern Aegean, a mountain volcano piercing the sky, its peak all snow and ice even in spring. But then, some 3,500 years ago, it went off like a Roman candle, raining fire, blowing apart, the sea flooding into its molten heart. And this was all that was left of it: a crescent shaped crater rim formed by towering, rust-red cliffs. Soon, they were dwarfing the ship.
Off the starboard bow, the Burnt Islands came into view, charred islets of solidified lava like great heaps of coal, strange obsidian sculptures and the occasional plume of drowsy, sulphurous smoke. Beyond, Thirassia, a smaller remnant of the ancient volcanic cone, a curving lava wall rising defiantly out of the sea.
With two blasts of the klaxon we hailed the inhabitants of Oia, a shabby little village of white cubic houses, domes and bell towers strung across the cliff top.
Coming from rural England, it was hard to imagine people living like this anywhere, on the brink of a thousand-foot precipice, on the lips of a volcano not dead, just sleeping.
Maybe that explained the dark superstitions that were said to infest the village streets, and why there were more churches on the island than houses. Tempting fate like that, it might have been the sensible thing to do.
Then I realised. Those grey rock caves, that appeared to honeycomb the higher reaches of the cliff face at Oia — they weren’t caves at all, but the shells of ruined houses. Victims of rock slides, tremors and earthquakes that would strike inevitably sooner or later, a day, a year, a century from now.
Something was different about the sea here within the caldera. Off the Burnt Islands, it was almost as if its deeper luminosity carried an electric charge, making it hiss against the hull.
Soon we were approaching Phíra, its barrel-vaulted houses and domed churches rising over the crater wall, windows catching the winter sun.
Even here, at the main town, there was no harbour as such, just a small cement quay at the foot of the cliffs, where fishermen laid out their nets to dry. Carved out of the rust red lava, a steep pathway serpentined its way up the rock face. Squinting up, I could see, as if in miniature, a mule train being driven down to the wharf, loaded with passengers, luggage, even packing crates.
The ship edged closer until the death-defying houses were almost overhead. Then, with a clanking roar off the crater wall, we dropped anchor, probably using every link of chain to reach the seabed.
A flotilla of boats put out from the jetty. Of the smallest vessels, several looked in danger of capsizing altogether under the weight or sheer dimensions of their cargo.
I caught sight of the Frenchman whacking his way impatiently through the crowd, his luggage being towed behind him by his very own flunkey. As his head turned, I caught his profile, and the memory splashed into my head like a reluctant drip from a tap — wait, wasn’t that the valet I had seen on the platform at Dijon, stowing aboard his master’s suitcases, tall, self-assured, despite his apparent bondage? There was no time to dwell on it.
From the cargo hatch, crewmen were tossing suitcases, boxes and sacks onto the boats flocking below, a mess of flapping sprit rig sails, frothing propellers, colliding oars, yells and curses.
Then it was every man for himself, passengers from the flotilla leaping aboard ship with an energy and determination that defied age, weight or infirmity, passengers from the Pegasus shoving their way towards the boats. And somewhere in the stumbling mass, me, jumping onto the nearest caïque and almost ending up in the drink, a huge calloused hand just catching me by the wrist.
As my trunk and cases were tossed carelessly onto another boat, I wondered if I would ever see them again.
And all of a sudden, after a week on the road, there I was. Climbing out onto the dock, hands and feet meeting island for the very first time.
My eyes swept up and down the length of it, searching faces. Fishermen mending their nets, the mesh between their toes, the hemp twine between their teeth. The muleteers, fiddling with reins and saddles. The new arrivals thronging the quayside, jabbering at family, friends, lovers, whoever had braved the cliff face steps to greet them.
I suppose I had been expecting some kind of welcome as well. If not Professor Huxley himself, then at least some messenger holding up a sign with my name on it. There was no one.
Against my better judgement I joined the mule train, about to make its precipitous ascent up the serpentines. While my luggage was strapped onto the pack animal next in line, I hoisted myself up onto the crude wooden saddle. Then amid a volley of yells and lashes against hide, we were off.
For the next thousand steps up the cliff face, we clung to our lurching beasts of burden as if our lives depended on it.
At every other hairpin on the path I’d find myself teetering over the abyss, staring into thin air. When hooves lost grip, skating over the slick volcanic stones, it seemed that luck, nothing more, had saved us. Cries of dismay up and down the mule train provided little in the way of comfort.
At the summit, we entered a little square formed by an intersection of paths, and suddenly it was mob chaos again, mules snorting, bags, boxes and trunks dragged left and right, men yelling, women shrieking.
Hoping my employer might have remembered me, I scanned the faces in the crowd. In vain. As the agitated swarm abruptly dispersed, I found myself standing there alone in the middle of the pebble-dashed street, my trunk and cases in a heap beside me.
My attention was drawn to a wiry little man standing in the arched doorway of a kafeneion across the way, staring at me with quizzical bird-like eyes.
‘Tea? Coffee?’ he demanded impishly, rattling the loose change in his pocket, moustache twitching expectantly.
I stared at the heap of luggage at my feet. I could store it all inside, I thought. The little man would be sure to let me. Then scout about town for my new employer or, failing that, at least my lodgings, probably at some house without a number in some street without a name.
I wandered inside, the little man scurrying after me. It was grubby, deserted, and about as warm as a fridge. I studied the chalkboard menu on the wall, if that’s the right word for a something that basically consisted of muddy Greek coffee, mountain tea, gazoza lemonade, and use of the tavli boards.
Feeling obliged to order something as I stacked my stuff in a corner, I settled on a glass of raki, some local firewater that would at least kill off any germs lurking on the grease-stained glass.
I moved towards the windows, where the afternoon light was streaming in. My heart seemed to swell over an unseen wave. Beyond the flimsy glass there was blue ethereal sky and a thousand foot drop to the caldera, that’s all. I stepped back, not quite used to walking on thin air.
I found myself in a warren of little streets, scarcely wide enough for two mules with laden panniers to pass. They rose and fell in slopes and steps, sometimes running through archways or tunnels formed by streets and houses above.
Shrines, chapels, churches. They were everywhere you looked. Like this one, perched on a narrow ledge of rock, seemingly levitating over the precipice, the folly already apparent in the jagged crack running through its dome.
When next I looked back, it was from the heights of the town and I could see it rising across the hollow in the crater wall like an amphitheatre — barrel-vaulted roofs, domes, bell towers, cubic houses. All gaining silhouette now against the sunken crater far below, and a sea turning molten bronze in the late sun.
Just as the last of the houses gave way to barren fields, something in the distance caught my eye. A procession or something, making its way over the gashed volcanic cliffs. Twenty people, maybe more, the pathway lending them the sinuous motion of a snake.
By the time I caught up, the serpent’s tail was already entering a walled field, curling under a white stucco arch.
Impulsively, I stepped through, and just as abruptly found myself wishing I hadn’t.
A burial. I had blundered right into the middle of it. Silhouettes dressed in mourning, suddenly gaining flushed tearful faces. Tombs and headstones, some bearing sepia pictures of the dead. A tiny barrel-vaulted chapel, illuminated from within by a blaze of candles. The elderly Papás, with his flowing silver beard, chimney-pot hat and billowing skirts. And from afar, what had once resembled the serpent’s angular head: six strong men, locals by the look of them, their stout shoulders bearing the crude pine coffin.
I swallowed hard. The wine coloured light, suffusing everything now, had found another angle, and with it, the profile of the face in the lidless casket.
The body, whoever it had once belonged to, wasn’t Greek. Not with that straw blond hair, those finely chiselled features. A young man, hardly older than I.
Shielded by the cemetery wall, I studied the mourners one by one, thinking, who are they? Standing out from the rest, a young woman, far too elegant for this rough and ready place, foreign too, judging from the fair complexion and the flaxen, bun-coiled hair.
A woman in grief, yet not one whose disposition would have her keening over the grave, much less tearing her hair out by the roots. At a guess, family of the deceased, probably the young man’s sister, maybe his wife. And angry, that much obvious enough from the smouldering look that swept towards me, stopping short only as it found its true mark among the mourners filing in behind her.
A shadow, eternal, passed over the dead man’s face as the coffin lid was nailed shut.
A hurried ceremony got underway over the freshly dug grave, the priest delivering his singsong incantation as the coffin was lowered jerkily into the ground, a sprinkling of holy water drumming over the wood like reluctant rain.
No sooner had he recited the blessing than the bereaved woman broke away, angrily shaking off the hands that sought to comfort her. Seconds later she was marching for the gate, the sunset no match for her blazing eyes.
I heard English being spoken, and several colliding voices trying to soothe or reason.
She spun around, incensed. ‘No, no! It is unforgivable! Who put the silver drachma in his mouth? Who? Who gave you the right? I should have taken his body home with me, I should never have agreed to leave him here with you godless people, never!’
‘It is ancient custom, that’s all. Benja loved the island, and everything about it, you know that.’
‘The island! The island killed him! You killed him!’
And with that, the young woman fled along the path, choking back anger and finding tears, choking back tears and finding an anger too scalding to touch.
Call it premonition, but at that moment I knew it with utter certainty. The target of her wrath, I mean. He was the imposing, no, the almost imperious figure now blocking the gate, each calloused hand the size of a bear’s paw. If youth should take a guess at age, somewhere in his early fifties. The broad shoulders telling everyone that here was a man who wouldn’t flinch from swinging a pickaxe with his own hand should the mood take him. A shock of dark unkempt hair, dashed with silver at the temples. A face that has known too much dust and sun, too many sleepless nights. Marcus James Huxley.
A man for whom even the solemnity of an occasion like this warrants no particular deference to custom, at least to judge from the dusty boots and the donkey jacket. He stepped heavily out of the gate, casting a grim look at the receding figure who had just hurled that shocking accusation at him.
At his shoulder, other faces, unmistakeable, even if I had never set eyes on them before. My future colleagues. Archaeologists and other members of the team, handpicked by the great man himself.
I flinched as Huxley’s eyes caught mine in their relentless gravitational field. For a few excruciating seconds, I don’t know why, I found myself struggling to hold on to my own sense of self, as though my identity were slipping away from me.
Luckily, I was saved by the priest, who chose that moment to appear at the gates, breaking his stare. What with the grim disapproval of one and the sardonic grimace of the other, the animosity between the two almost made the air crackle.
The object of Huxley’s scorn hesitated, turned.
‘It is unusual to see you at any religious service, Professor. Even those laying the dead to rest.’
‘Is that what you have achieved with your Christian ritual, Papás?’ replied Huxley with casual contempt.
‘You still have the disease of youth, Huxley, thinking you will live forever. But remember this, even you will one day meet God or the Devil through the same hole in the ground.’
A moment later I felt his penetrating eyes on me again, and had to use all my will just to meet them.
The sardonic look was still there, and for a moment I had to wonder who, exactly, it was aimed at — the Papás, me, or the whole world.
He thrust out his hand at me, no doubt recognising my face from the mug shot stapled to my job application.
‘Mr Pedrosa, I presume.’ The words so dry, a careless breeze might have blown them away.
A flinch of a smile, one that did nothing to dispel that air of resentful impatience about him, as if every moment here was a moment squandered on irrelevance.
His hand took mine in a powerful yet curiously sensitive grip, the mark, perhaps, of a man whose arrogance knew no bounds, yet who was accustomed to handling artefacts as delicate as eggshell.
As for idle pleasantries, there were none. The word ‘welcome’ passed his lips just once and with that, I was introduced to the others one by one.
Anna Trevisi, a long way from Piacenza, the charcoal scarf tied under her chin accentuating the winter paleness of her face. Henna red hair, filaments of copper where it struck grey. Emerald eyes like tropical sea anticipating the rain. Here to bury a friend, not quite ready to cry, even I could tell that; the tears held back by something, something in turmoil, something in conflict, but what?
Nestor Louganis, Huxley’s right-hand man and site foreman, so tall he has to stoop as he passes under the cemetery archway. Nestled at his side, his fiancée Maria, an island beauty if ever there was one. High cheekbones, wide almond eyes, and a smile that on better days might have rivalled the dawning sun. But not today. Not with that swollen redness about them. She had been crying long and hard.
‘Sam,’ muttered Anna, with a vexed glance over her shoulder.
Samuel Gascon. Last known abode some attic apartment in the Paris student quarter, Saint-Michel. Half a dozen years older than me, if that. Typical Latin looks, at least if you could forget even for an instant those eyes, inherited from God knows where, a shocking blue that drew the stares, just as they drew mine now; how could they not? There was a brooding, even resentful, air about him, and he wasn’t hiding it either, a bored who cares? curl to his lips as he slouched against the cemetery wall, rolling a cigarette.
A pudgy hand thrust its way between the milling bodies. Dr Adrian Hunt, thinning hair, waddling gait, and that pink English skin that the sun refuses to bronze even in summer. He stood there like a plump, startled bird, peering out through round tortoiseshell glasses, probably still wondering at the back of his mind why he had deserted the gothic spires of Oxford for this godforsaken place. Then it struck me, as we shook hands. This man I had seen before, on the upper deck of the Pegasus, his newspaper announcing those stunning hieroglyphic finds at the dig. There was a fidgety apprehension about him that somehow even this outlandish moment couldn’t quite explain.
Catching a movement along the pathway I realised we were being watched by two policemen, one as round as a barrel, the other as tall and thin as a beanpole.
The moment had me in its grip. I had to say something.
‘Who is it?’ I asked Huxley. ‘Who has died?’
His hesitation barely measured a skipped heartbeat.
‘Your predecessor, Mr Pedrosa. Benjamin Randal. He has lost his life. I trust you will be more careful with yours.’
* * *
You have reached the end of this free sample of Travels in Elysium by William Azuski.