Two blind sisters sitting on a train carriage wearing matching mirror shades stop him in his tracks. An inexplicable fear grips him.
He misses the Gatwick train. It’s early rush hour on a Monday morning in London. The city’s awake and in full swing. The suburbs pile into the metropolis and the trains run on time.
Someone’s stepped on his grave. A shiver runs through him.
Athens airport, waiting for a cheap charter flight that will bring him home to London and from there to Dublin. He’s not sure when everything began to unravel.
His friends on the beach in Naxos give him a send off fuelled by sex, drugs and cheap retsina. The night’s sand strewn revelries are as redolent as the smell of the beach party bonfire on his clothes as he stuffs his sparse belongings into a bag. He catches the island bus from their beach at dawn to catch the first ferry from the islands to Piraeus, the port of Athens.
The bus arrives in Naxos as the last passengers scurry aboard. He has time to grab a bottle of water, a carton of goat’s yoghurt, two oranges and a portion container of sweet mountain honey before he scrambles past the last sailor with his ticket in his mouth, his rucksack on his back and his purchases, struggling to break free from his shaky grip.
The early morning mid summer sun has already begun to scorch the ferry deck before she leaves the port of Naxos on her twelve hour, island hopping journey. With no berths and an economy deck ticket, he seeks out a suitable pitch among the tourists, the fruit and vegetable traders, the families travelling to weddings and funerals and baptisms on neighbouring islands and the farmers, herding kid goats for market.
He pitches up astern, delighted with his luck to find an unoccupied, sun bleached bench. The boat travels north east, there’s no hope of shade so best to make do with what’s to be got. The locals, wise in the ways of the Adriatic sun, snag the best shaded spots.
There is no rush although the ferry’s already fifteen minutes late. The sea is calm: up close it reflects the cloudless blue sky while remaining translucent, on the horizon it sparkles playfully between jade and aquamarine. They would make up time between the islands.
The sun would blaze as the day awoke. People would stretch and drink sweet mint tea and strong coffee. The old men would sip Ouzo and iced water. Children would play and the women would find time to prepare noon day snacks of homemade tsatziki made with fresh yoghurt and cucumber, chick pea hummus drenched in their own olive oil, big red tomatoes and dry, salty feta cheese with pitta bread and succulent green olives.
After two months living cheap and free as a naked, hippy, beach bum he grew used to a pace of life when there was a time for everything and everything happened in its own time.
Now he’s travelling with a purpose and a destination, home. He has little money. Perhaps enough to get him home. For the moment he forgets his purpose and gives in to the exhaustion creeping over him since he set foot aboard the northbound ferry.
He stretches out on the bench and lays his head on his rucksack as a pillow. He can feel the sun’s heat already bouncing off the ferry deck. He stretches a cotton poncho over his head for protection as the boat’s lazy progress out of Naxos lulls him to sleep.
Two hours later he’s jostled awake by an old Greek woman covered in a black shawl who pushes his legs from the bench to gain a seat. He blinks himself awake in the dazzling bright heat but concedes little more space to this grumpy siren.
Slowly, he sits up and nudges his legs along the bench so he can grip his knees and examine his tormentor. Her skin is as brown as bark. She examines him in turn with her coal black almond eyes half shut. Then she smiles a toothless gash and they laugh as she babbles something incoherent in Greek.
Another Greek moment, he thinks, as he curls up again into his waking daytime slumber. ‘Must be Santorini,’ is his last thought.
He awakes again when the sweet, pungent smell of freshly chopped mint invades his nostrils. The bark brown lady has spread a linen cloth on the bench between them and is busy setting out her mezes, producing everything from the recesses of her heavy black shawl: bread, olives, mint, cheese and a bag of cold koftas, minced lamb and rice meatballs reeking of mint and cumin spice.
He can feel his stomach lurch as salivary juices swamp his hangover parched throat. He sits up and shakes his head into wakefulness. The ferry’s moving at a fast clip. The wind has got up. The big boat heaves and barges its way over the Adriatic swell. The wind burns his skin already tanned to a hazelnut consistency.
He pulls out his small bag of rations. The yoghurt is no longer cold but it has the thick consistency of the best of the island yoghurts. He fishes in a side pocket of his rucksack for a spoon which he uses to stir the honey into the pot of thick, creamy yoghurt. Then he peels one of the oranges he has bought and slowly drops the segments into the mixture, stirring all the time. Although it looks like lumpy sludge, it is the midday meal that had sustained him for months.
Bark brown lady watches him with amusement and grins with approving delight when their eyes meet. She spoons tsatziki and hummus alternately into her own mouth with a curled up chunk of flat bread. She holds the minty bag of kofta up and waves it by way of an offering to him. He takes one, smiling politely. Then he gets up and ducks inside the ship’s wheelhouse, emerging with two paper cups filled with water. They are happy. They are at peace .
For the next five hours he drifts in and out of sleep roused only by the comings and goings on the boat deck as the ferry docks at island after island, Paros, Mykinos and all the others, picking up and setting down passengers and cargo. Only the heat remains constant until in the last hour of the journey when, as Piraeus hoves into view, the evening light fades and night’s shroud of bath house humidity descends.
The pulse of the city beats faster than the island’s. Everyone disembarking had a purpose and a new urgency in their movements. He feels as though the pier itself is moving when he alights gingerly, planting both feet firmly before hauling his rucksack onto his back and looking around to get his bearings.
He spots the airport bus among the bustling rows of waiting buses, engines revving impatiently. Passengers and drivers move hither and thither. The airport bus is packed when he scrambles aboard. He is hungry, tired and oppressed by the Athens’ night’s sweaty, choking heat.
The half hour journey to the airport terminal goes on forever. The driver finds every roundabout on the way and every stop light finds the bus. His arms ache from keeping himself upright as the unventilated bus swings around and round, occasionally lurching forward on a straight stretch with a jolt of acceleration. By the time it reaches the terminal it is close to midnight. He slumps off, relieved and giddy.
His plane is delayed for two hours and won’t leave until after 2am at the earliest. Everything is closed in the airport apart from one coffee stall selling espresso size cups of Greek coffee, as turgid and pungent as its Turkish counterpart. He hasn’t eaten for more than twelve hours since the honey yoghurt and oranges and Brown bark lady’s delicious kofta.
Shoulders aching with fatigue, weak from hunger and the clammy heat, he finds a seat near the check in desk and falls asleep.
The flight home is worse than the cliff road bus ride he took the previous morning across Naxos. Then he could see where he was going even though that meant the occasional gaze into oblivion. Now the small charter plane trip to London is like a four hour rollercoaster ride. At least he has a row of three seats to himself so he stretches out and prays that he won’t retch because he has nothing to disgorge.
In London he learns his flight to Dublin doesn’t leave until the following day so he breaks out his emergency supply of sterling, a crumpled twenty pound note and buys a return ticket to London’s Victoria station. At least in London he can get a drink and some food, rest in a park before making his way back to Gatwick.
Naxos is on another planet. The train journey is a nightmare of heaving bodies rushing, pushing, talking aloud. Music blaring, fast food sizzling, tickets clicking, trains speeding, ‘PASSENGERS FOR THE 10.30 TO LIVERPOOL PLEASE GO TO PLATFORM NINE…outside newspapers, union jacks and Big Boobs and Booty magazines, black taxis, red buses, swooping pigeons, crowding commuters bumping each other impatiently.
He finds a Lebanese kebab shop near the station and sits down with a and a glass of milk. He closes his eyes, eats and drinks. After he orders mint tea he counts his remaining coins while he waits. He has seven pounds left to get him through the day and the night to follow. He finds a park outside and a bench to sit and shiver on.
The howl of the morning commuter traffic in the station is louder than the day before. Of course, he thinks, it’s Monday now. Yesterday was a quiet Sunday prelude.
‘Where’s the Gatwick train?’ he asks the harassed British Rail porter.
‘Platform ….’teen’, he shouted, waving his arm at somewhere behind him while checking tickets from passengers scurrying by to catch their own train. He loses the first half of the platform number in the station clamour.
He spots a sign ‘airport’ with an arrow pointing at platform sixteen. Carriage doors are slamming all round and a porter waving a red flag is blowing a whistle. Two trains on platform fifteen and sixteen and chuffing and puffing and ready to depart.
‘Which one goes to Gatwick?’ he asks the harried porter who waves a shrug in his direction. He makes a choice and gets on the Platform sixteen train, tossing his bag inside and getting his foot off the platform as the train starts to move.
He moves along the carriage into a narrow corridor. And there they were. Two blind sisters. Must be twins, he thought, dressed alike and staring, blindly, through their mirror shades. He feels disjointed, interrupted, disturbed. He’s confused.
He finds a seat in the next carriage. He wonders where he’s seen them before, those two ladies in their matching box tweed overcoats and mirror shades. He wonders why his mind is full of that old ditty, ‘oh, I do like to be beside the seaside, oh I do like to be beside the sea…’ He shivers.
The train picks up speed as it rushes through the suburban stations without stopping. A conductor appears and he proffers his ticket.
‘Are you going to Gatwick airport? The conductor asks, ‘You’re on the wrong train.’
He’s not surprised. He hears himself asking when the train will stop so he can get back to the airport but he knows the answer already so he doesn’t hear the reply.
He gathers his bag and prepares to leave the train as it makes its first stop somewhere in the Essex countryside. The fog that had enveloped him since his arrival in London was lifting. He steps off the train and turns left, walking jauntily to the steps to crossover to the opposite platform. He passes the two blind sisters and sees himself waving at them through the reflection in their sunglasses.
Now every sense bristles and tingles. He can smell diesel with the summer ripe bouquet of the station’s flower beds. He can hear the approaching train that will take him back to Gatwick. He can see the other passengers waiting, standing about on the platform. He knows which one to look for. He walks straight upto her.
‘Excuse me, please don’t think I’m crazy…’ he says. She looks up from the magazine she’s reading and smiles, quizzically. ‘This may sound like the strangest thing you’ve ever heard but do you live in a cottage in the Cotswolds and you’ve just been home to see your mum because she’s ill?’
The train pulls into the station. Neither of them pays any attention. The moment is suspended in time. ‘Yes,’ she answers, smiling, puzzled, ‘how did you know?’
He doesn’t answer immediately. He can see everything clearly now. He knows where he is…and when.