Return to the Island
This is a follow on from my short story ‘The Old Men’.
Return to the Island
The change in engine noise alerted us, our arrival was imminent. The seat belt sign came on, followed shortly by the judder of wheels locking into position for landing. A ripple of excitement passed through the plane. Eager faces pressed against the windows.
The sight of the landing strip brought them up short with a gasp…. it’s a short runway. The plane dipped, shuddered, waggled a bit, then touch down… followed by an enormous judder as the breaks went full on, we were there.
It’s been twenty years since my last visit, as I stood in the queue for arrivals, it all came back.
Skiathos airport had changed, upgraded out of necessity from the huts and assorted buildings I met on my first visit some thirty years earlier. The filming of Mama Mia on a neighbouring Island had brought the media spotlight onto the Island group. Change was inevitable, I just wondered how much.
Life on the Islands in the seventies and early eighties was still run at a simple pace, mass tourism hadn’t reached out this far, and I was glad for that. I returned now in different times, with a different wife, somewhat older and a little unsure of my feelings.
We caught the shuttle bus to the port, packed with expectant families; their laughter and excitement irresistible…we joined in. Most had come as a package option. At the port, they were drafted into groups, ready for transfer to their destinations.
We made our way across the front of the harbour to check out the ferry times. Much had changed here; it had a bustle about it. Shops and bars, Tavernas, ticket touts selling boat trips and cheap rooms. It’s called progress I suppose.
We had just over an hour before the next ferry, I caught Lesley’s hand and led her back to a Taverna, we needed coffee and food. She was wide eyed, her first trip to the Islands. I quickly found a table complete with umbrella; the heat was beating us into submission. I ordered two Giros’ and a couple of beers in Greek. As always the waiter spoke the order back to me in perfect English, I fucking hate that, my Greek isn’t that bad in restaurants.
The decision to come here had been difficult for me, after all, there were a lot of memories; all of them good. At that time the rot hadn’t set in on my previous relationship.
Lesley and I had discussed it at length, in the end it was her decision, and she booked a Hotel. Unknowingly for both of us, it was the same Hotel I’d stayed in all those years before…
We caught a Flying Dolphin to the Island, stopping at Skopelos on the way. It’s a great way to travel between Islands; once they get up on plane they’re like a giant speed boat. It takes about an hour, then you round a headland and the harbour at Patitiri is in front of you; it was like a punch in the chest for me. I had to look away; a tear came unbidden to my eyes.
The harbour area was much the same, a collection of the usual bars and Tavernas, fronted by a small beach. I could see the harbour wall had been extended, along with some new Hotels and apartments on the cliff overlooking the bay. As we docked, the same old shouting and bustling took place, before we knew it the ferry was on its way; it was all so familiar.
Thirty odd years ago I had stood here with a back-pack and nowhere to stay, this time I had a new wife and two suitcases.
They say life is full of surprises, I was about to get one. A guy stood on the dock with a board up, our names were on it. After a brief introduction, he tossed the cases into the van and we were off. It all seemed very familiar. As we rounded the top of the cliff road I started to think the unthinkable, could it be…it could and it was.
Time I told Lesley, just in case someone remembered me, unlikely as it had been a long time…but.
We stood at the entrance as the guy took the bags on through. It was posher, more rooms had been added over to one side on block. I could see an updated pool area, complete with bar. With my heart in my mouth we walked down towards the main entrance, Maria came out from the door to greet us, I recognised her at once. I could see her looking at me, then the light came on.
“Michalis…is it really you?”
“Hello Maria, yes it’s me” I said… laughing as I said it.
“It’s been so long….please come and sit down, Christos will want to see you”
We walked around to the rear outdoor kitchen area. Sat in his usual chair, cigarette in his mouth was Christos. He must be 150 years old by now. He looked up at me, it took a moment, then the smile spread across his face.
The last time I’d been here (some twenty years ago) we had a leaving party the night before my ferry back to Skiathos. Christos and I were Greek dancing very drunkenly while everyone sang and laughed till the early hours.
The rest of the family gathered around us, we hugged, sat and talked for a while, he was looking at Lesley; they all were.
“Not the same wife I think”
“No, not the same….just better” I replied.
More laughter ensued, as I introduced Lesley formally to the family that had meant so much to me back then.
It turned out Maria was on her own now, she ran the hotel with her brother; Christos Junior. They continued to upgrade over the years and had survived and prospered.
Much had changed on the Island, as you would expect. There were good and bad things to report, mostly related to Greece joining the EU. All the little boats that had delivered us to the beaches up and down the coast had been suspended. The boatmen could neither read nor write, so were deemed unable to operate within the rules laid down in a distant rule book.
The fact that they had been sailing these waters all their lives seemed to count for nothing. They now sat around the harbour, like the Old Men in my previous short story, playing chequers and drinking coffee.
New roads had been built, and old ones upgraded to get around the Island. Car and bike hire were now big business. I wanted none of it…bring back the boats.
Maria told us there’d been much building across the Island, to cope with the influx of tourists. It was carefully controlled to preserve the ecology and nature of the Island; she said it still had a certain charm…she was right.
After a good night’s sleep we joined others for breakfast under a canopy of bougainvillea overlooking the pool. It was the usual fare, boiled eggs, ham, olives, yogurt, bread and honey; along with endless coffee or tea. There were other things on offer… I think. Talk turned to the day ahead. Lesley told me to take her to my favourite places. “That may take longer than a day” I replied…laughing as I said it.
I decided to take the cliff walk to a beach I knew, it was steep going at first, but worth it for the views. Picking up the obligatory bottles of water we set out traveling around the harbour and found the path I was looking for. I must be getting old, by the time we reached the top of the path I was knackered. We stopped to get our breath and look back over Patitiri; the view was stunning in the morning light.
The track from there led along the cliff and was bordered by Scots Pine and chestnut trees giving plenty of shade; just as well in the heat. We walked on, marvelling at the beauty all around us. The views out over the sea towards Skopolos were stunning, shimmering sea dotted with distant sails.
The walk seemed to go on for longer than I remembered, I was a little concerned I had it wrong; after all it had been a long time. Eventually the path started down and I could see a cove through the trees; it looked as I remembered.
We arrived at the beach exhausted but happy. There was a small Taverna set back from the sand behind a small stone wall. I had known the owner quite well back in the day. The counter was set outside with a bell to attract attention, steps led up to the main building. A guy was sat in the shade under a tree and rose to greet us.
After the usual greeting I ordered a bottle of water and a beer, they arrived, as I was paying he said “you have been here before” I was a little taken aback, after all this was twenty years after my last visit. The man in front of me could only be maybe thirty.
“Well yes I have, but a long time ago”
“I know he said, maybe twenty years? You used to go fishing with my father with nets, swimming with a mask for the small fish”
I was stunned, he and I used to mess about together, he would throw small stones at me while I was snorkelling, I would chase him up the beach to the Taverna. His Mother and Father were very kind to me, they used to bring me fruit and beer for lunch…along with the fresh whitebait we caught with the nets; I had to force money on them, it was never enough.
He disappeared up the steps re appearing with his Mother and Father; we all ended up with tears in our eyes. After a hug and a kiss Mama went back up and brought apricots and watermelon for us, it was just like old times. Lesley couldn’t believe it, after all that time they all still remembered me. This was going to be some holiday.