THE LAST TWO ON EARTH
I have seen some exceedingly strange things in my 64 years, but few as unlikely and unheralded as what happened yesterday…
My guest A. and I were at Livadhakia, one of the remotest and loneliest bays on Kythnos, on a warm but windy January day. Livadhakia, way up north, is below Loutra and Agia Irini, the latter a tiny perfect jewel of a bay, with a fish taverna so exquisite, sometimes Greek celebrities decide to marry in the tiny church adjacent, and hold their lavish not to say televised wedding breakfasts at the beautiful Arias Yeusis. Agia Irini has for long had a good if narrow asphalt road, but Livadhakia hasn’t even a dirt road, nor even a monopati footpath. Of course it must have a monopati of some kind, or how else could its only inhabitants, a couple of elderly goat farmers, Manolis and Sotiria, get down there from the Hora capital with their shopping? The answer is that when gentle Manolis was younger, he would do almost everything by rowing boat, and nearly all his shopping at Loutra. He sold goat cheeses by the cart load, and until last year when he was 84, he could be seen most days in a little boat laden with sacks of feta, skiffing his careful way towards the venerable spa village and honorary capital of the far north of Cycladean Kythnos.
Sotiria is one of the shyest women in the world. She is 74, hence eleven years his junior. She is thin but rugged, and invariably wears one of Manolis’s cast off caps, always the same one which is a dull green. She does all the goat herding, as Manolis is now very weak on his legs. The goat herding and less frequent milking, probably happen four or five times a day, but seem continual, a kind of conveyor belt husbandry, as she moves the herd from field to field, accompanied by an entirely ornamental Alsatian ‘goat-dog’. The dog looks terrifying, but is as daft as a brush, an absolute gannet when it comes to begging food, and prone to take adoring flying leaps at you by way of sending you flying arse up. They have about fifteen cats of all sizes and ages, which cluster outside their compact green and white smallholding. The cats have a special bucolic mellowness, a tender furry appearance, which is a function of being safe, well-fed, even loved after a grudging Greek fashion, and left to their own devices when it comes to where they sit or squat or run or snooze. Some have narrow and delicate Sino-Tibetan eyes, and you expect them to murmur to you in sibilant Chinese, should they ever deign to go beyond yawning and luxuriating, in their idle stretching and lunatic racing and demented tumble play with their silky companions.
The farm is rickety and handsome at the same time. The Livadhakia couple have three strapping sons in their fifties, all from the port, who get here by motorboat and do renovation and repair jobs from time to time. The house has an inside toilet and a shower and every other convenience, TV included, which made it all the more surprising when A. and I suddenly spotted Manolis in a familiar crouching position, about 200 yards from the deserted beach where we were picnicking on spanakopitta and sipping Cretan wine.
His dusty grey cap was visible as he bent down not very discreetly with one of the cats attending his master’s private, so to speak, ‘doings’.
I said to A., “Look at old Manolis. He’s taking a bloody crap behind that bush.”
My guest nodded judicially. A. is neither Greek nor English and lives a very long way from Kythnos. She murmured, “Very good. Yes. It is very healthy. In fact, Kyrio John, it is impressively poetic.”
I swigged the Cretan wine. We had forgotten to bring plastic cups, so had to quaff alternately from the bottle. Most of us can probably confirm it always tastes far better that way.
I handed her the bottle and asked, “ Shitting in the open air is impressively poetic? Mm. But they have a nice modern flush toilet over there in the farmhouse. Mano is 85 and very arthritic, but he’s stooped down there to crap, as if he’s as lithe as a fifty year-old. I think I see a worrying dynamical problem connected to force vectors, rotational torques and so on. Once he’s finished his al fresco log-laying, he needs to get upright, and with his severe arthritis, he will need to find some support. The ear of that little cat that is chaperoning him, will not suffice, will it A.?”
She chuckled and asked what I meant by ‘log-laying’ and I quoted my source, a joiner friend from Bermondsey relocated to Cumbria, who never used any other term for defecating. The same man had his own special vocabulary which included ‘king’ for ‘good’, ‘jowl’ for ‘bad’, ‘a jowling bowler’ for ‘someone who is a notable pain in the arse’…and ‘bail’ and ‘bailed out’, for, you’ve guessed it, ‘hashish’ and ‘stoned’.
After a couple of hours sunbathing, we walked the four kilometres back up to the Hora by the endless tangled scrub. The Greek word for sunbathing is iliotherapeia, which is a very wise use of allusive language, and altogether more poetic than Manolis’s ad hoc fertiliser treatment of his remote estate. We were stout walkers who were both clad in shorts, and our ankles and lower legs were soon scratched and bloody. In vain, we looked for any sudden excrescence of a helpful monopati, but there was nothing other than meandering goat tracks, all of them absolutely useless, going-nowhere tracks at that. Tell me, I ask you as sincere writer to sincere reader, would you follow the ambulatory instinct of a goat, much less a kid, if you wanted to make any cogent progress in any possible endeavour of life? The only occasion you might, is if like Sotiria, you were a Kythniot goatherdess. And believe me, there is such a word, I am not making it up. In this connection, vide also the gopis who dance round the Hindu deity Krishna, those who, as in the Gitagovinda, are usually translated as ‘cowherdesses’.
But of lanky, moustachioed flat-capped Sotiria and the mysterious instincts of her goats, we will say something altogether profound before very long.
As for the thorns and the scratched and bleeding legs, we genuinely couldn’t give a damn. It was as if life in every aspect, was suddenly copiously rich and tenderly raw, in all its remotest island reaches. As in a novel or story by Jean Giono or Giovanni Verga or Panos Karnezis or Vangelis Xatziyannidis, you felt the true tang and savour of this gift called life, as if you had been fiercely touched to the quick, by the scent and timbre and rhythm of all that this single and ineffable existence on earth can possibly offer us.
I doubt whether Sotiria or even gentle and pacific Manolis ever saw it that way. As if to confirm it, suddenly there was a hell of a shriek behind us, and we turned to observe Sotiria pacing both sides of the valley as she ascended and descended the barren but sun-graced hills through we had just made our bloody defile. She was a long way off, so I could make no sense of her Greek, which echoed the length of the valley in a confusing stereophony. I didn’t know the words, but right enough I could easily construe the obvious sense. This might have been the remote Cyclades in January 2015, but just as easily it could have been the pages of Homer, assuming Sotiria had been ready to renounce her second hand flat cap which looked no more than a meagre forty or fifty years old.
Sotiria was reading the riot act to a devious and antisocial goat, let us call him for convenience sake Stamatis. She was pacing angrily, indeed terrifyingly towards him, yet with Karl the Alsatian in cheery attendance. Sotiria sounded close to a nervous breakdown because of errant, straying Stamatis, but Karl was, to adopt a vivid West Cumbrianism, ‘grinning like a bag of chips’. The sum of Sotiria’s imprecations, as she by turns cursed and beseeched Stami for his inexcusable conduct, was that he had been granted prefect status as head of his little sub-herd. This post of great dignity and distinction had been endowed by Sotiria herself, on the candid understanding that Stamatis would lead the nannys and kids where they were supposed to go. Not, Sotiria, rantingly qualified in an ascending and vertiginous rage, not so that the malaka, the egregious wanker Kyrio Malaka Malaka Malaka Stamatis!, should turn anarchist and decide to fuck off (the very words she used) up the other side of the hill and desert his charges. It would appear that my fine gentleman Stami was seeking a little heritable portion of the choicest eesikhia, meaning that ineffable and transcendent rustic peacefulness, especially as found on the islands.
Even Stami, though not beaming Karl, could see that eesikhia was not what the herd prefect was going be basking in now. Instead, Sotiria grabbed him by the horns and started to beat him very hard on the flank with her large and heavy hand. As she beat Stamatis, she gave forth a truly Homeric and very harrowing lament. What she said precisely I could not make out, but any fool could hear the sob of grief in her voice, the sense of absolute betrayal, the edge of panicking hysteria, the sheer rawness of her sense of caprine and no doubt allied human perfidity.
My guest and I both asked ourselves the same question. This hymn of grief to the goat Stamatis, was it just about a betrayed woman and a wicked goat, and the anarchic volta on the latter’s part that had cost her perhaps ten minutes rather than the ten years’ suffering she seemed to be descanting about? Instead, it sounded in its hoarse desolation, like every accumulated sorrow in her life, from the famine privations in infancy of the Nazi-occupied Forties, all through the desolate years of her comically inadequate and highly miscellaneous Hora schooling (Sotiria knew the names of three Ottoman sultans who had reigned during the Turkish occupation, but she didn’t know what an equation was or where Thessalonika was to be found on the map). Then followed the early marriage, the difficult pregnancies, the two miscarriages, the two stillbirths, and latterly, fast forward half a century, and the fact that in 2015 her beloved husband was closer to 90 than she was to 80. Manolis could hardly bend or stoop or stand, and his chest was very bad. He might drop down dead at any minute and then where would she be?
Answer rebounded along the deserted hills that shielded the loneliest if sun-drenched bay on the loneliest if most hallowed and authentic of Greek islands.
She would be in bloody Livadhakia. No tarmacked road. No dirt road. No monopati, but only hard scrub that rips your legs to a patterned spider’s web. Electricity only since 2002, and they had had to pay a fortune and several backhanders to get it brought down here. An extortionate phone landline, because of course kinito cellphones did not work down here. There was, she had dimly heard, something called the internet connected with kafeneion idiots playing with their kinitos 24/7, one of her beefy sons included, but why should the goatherdess Sotiria give a damn about that? There was more chance of Stamatis the unloving and inconsiderate goat, or Karl the canine ever-optimist, going online, than of Sotiria ever clicking a bloody mouse or surfing a blasted web.
“Isn’t that true? “she bawled at Stami, with one long last buffet on his uncomplaining flank. He hadn’t made a squeak so far, and I doubted that he was any kind of hero, mythological or otherwise. It could only be that his hide was so hard he could not really feel it. For that she would have needed a stick, and there wasn’t one handy, alas. Karl meanwhile looked on seraphically as he if he had a mobile phone of his own stashed away somewhere, and could order e-baskets of tasty snacks any time that he wanted to.
“Isn’t that true” Sotiria repeated wildly, and that edge of raw grief in her voice could not be destroyed or discounted, not even by the dizzying valley echo nor the language gap that included the dialect and the phonetic distortions. A. herself remarked on it. Grief. The one thing we all claim to know how to handle.