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Exotic Excursions

by Anthony Nanson

SAMPLE (from 'The Sun Cafe')

Sadly I never made it to Mount Olympus. I came down with a cold the day I flew into Athens. And then my first glimpse of the mountain from the bus revealed a mantle of white extending half the way down from the clouds hiding the summit. I hadn’t counted on such freak early snow. This decided the matter. There was no hope I could climb Olympus now, no way I could enter whatever presence lingered there of the ancient gods. It was so galling, to fail before I’d even begun.

        From Volos I took a boat to one of the remoter islands of the Sporades. All I wanted now was a relaxing spot where I could convalesce.

        I alighted from the island bus at a stop where you could see down over the pines to a glittering blue-green bay. The woods that cloaked the surrounding hills were broken here and there by patches of golden meadow and a few limestone crags. These hills were not very high. Even with a cold I should be able to climb one of them and find a vantage point from which I could see the summit of Olympus. If its cloud cap ever cleared.

        Toiling under the weight of my backpack, I followed a path down through the pines. Footprints in the sand warned that others had preceded me. I emerged from the trees on to a crescent of beach that tapered to a line of cliffs along the western headland and towards a lush green islet on the opposite side of the bay. A sibilant rhythm of ripples breaking on the shore lulled the brown figures laid out on the sand. Turquoise shallows shaded into the deep blue of the open sea. The line between sea and sky shimmered in the ethereal Aegean light, that incredible light like a salient of the spiritual into the mundane world, which makes sand, sea, rocks like the scenery of a dream.

        At the focus of the bay and the encircling hills was a single whitewashed building, partly obscured by a row of palms. Everything was very still. No pop music blaring from badly tuned radios. No games on the beach. Just the tranquillizing heat of late afternoon. A bare-chested man came slowly down the steps from the building, a bottle in his hand, and returned to his place on the beach. Behind the cafe was an olive orchard, where bunches of drupes hung heavy and dark. From high up the wooded slope beyond came a faint quavering song. A bird, or perhaps someone playing a flute.

        Though still hot and bright, the September sun would soon be setting. It seemed best to enquire at the cafe before I pitched my tent anywhere. Weary from my cold and the ferry, the bus, the heat, I trudged along the top of the beach, giving a wide berth to the oiled bodies offered to the sun. All so brown, as if they’d always been so. With my rucksack, hiking boots, and travel-stained clothes, I felt like an intruder. It was such a beautiful place. I wished I could be alone.

        The name ‘The Sun Cafe’ was painted in English above the cafe door in mock Greek letters, the e’s like epsilons. The walls were built of hand-laid stones smoothed over with countless layers of whitewash. Vines wove their way around the windows from roots in a pair of amphorae that, bonded to the wall by the whitewash, might have stood there for millennia.

        It was cool inside. Tables along the walls enclosed a central marble-floored space. A solitary customer sat just inside the line of columns opening to the seaward veranda. She looked through me, exuding the don’t-even-think-of-speaking-to-me demeanour of a young woman tough enough to travel alone. Probably Australian. Even in the shade her eyes had that desert squint.

        The bartender glanced up from his newspaper. ‘Oriste?’

        I told him I was looking for somewhere to camp. ‘Would it be okay if I find a spot in the woods?’

        The man pushed forward his lower lip and made a kind of thrusting nod whose precise meaning eluded me. ‘I think you will camp in the orchard.’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘You must ask the Patronne. You will find her at the end of the beach.’

        I’d have preferred to camp not quite so close, but now that I’d asked I had to cooperate. I left my backpack by the bar and tramped along the eastward part of the beach. More sunbathers to get past: glistening, oil scented, some of them naked. On this side of the bay they’d catch the last sunshine as the shadow of the hills crept along the beach. Further on, the shore became rocky. I’d evidently passed all the sunbathers. Might the Patronne have been one of them? How was I supposed to recognise her?

        Best try a bit further. I clambered over barnacle-encrusted rocks, glad of the secure grip of my boots. I was getting close to the little islet. It was so overgrown that you could imagine no one had ever been there. I felt a mad impulse to swim across. But the sea was not always so calm as it was right now. It had worn smooth, deep concavities into the limestone bedrock.

        A swan had appeared on the water a short way offshore. Distracted by this incongruous sight, I scrabbled clumsily over a boss of rock. And then I saw the Patronne.

        She was sitting in a sun trap, a hollow of bare rock that focused the sun’s heat upon her. Her face was tilted up to the sun, her eyes closed. She was middle-aged, I suppose; it was hard to judge how old. She wore a strip of blue silk round her hips and that was all. Her skin was mahogany and gleamed like the membrane of some amphibious beast.

        She opened her eyes, seemed unperturbed to see me. She had to be German, I thought; a German nature freak. But when she spoke – ‘Do you like this time of the day?’ – her accent revealed her to be Greek. It must have been obvious from my pallid complexion that I was not.

        ‘Er, yes … it’s lovely.’ I focused my eyes on her forehead to keep them from straying to the expansively haloed teats that stared back at me from her long, heavy breasts.

        ‘The hour when the sun comes down to the earth.’ The flesh of her bosom and belly juddered as she lifted her hands expressively, and then settled as she brought the hands back down.

        ‘Yes, you can sleep in the orchard,’ she said when I asked about camping. ‘You don’t need a tent. The nights are so warm.’

        She smiled as if to dismiss the matter, and her attention shifted over my shoulder. Turning, I saw that the swan had sailed into the little embayment below us. The sun was touching the hills that rose from the far headland; shards of its reflected light sparkled across the water. I stood back warily as the swan clambered on to the rocks and advanced towards us, making a trail of wet prints. The woman whispered and beckoned and the bird came right up to her.

        She petted the white down on its breast, saying, ‘She feels sad sometimes … when she sees the sunfire on the sea. But mostly she is happy just to be a swan.’ I noticed then a sadness in the woman’s voice and etched around her eyes.

        A wind began to rise. Outside the shelter of the bay, the sea grew rougher. The sun was already half consumed by the hills. The new coolness raised goosepimples on the Patronne’s skin. She did not seem to mind, just carried on stroking the swan.

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