NIGHTS OF RHODES
It’s a tired old lover is the ferry to Rhodes. It curves inside the harbour’s mouth, trickles its load of army trucks, tourists, turns on its side, snores home through the night; tomorrow returning, pumping its passion like an old closet to the gents at midnight.
It was late autumn when he arrived. He flumped down on the pier, exhausted, as if he’d paddled his own way from Piraeus. Sleeping bag, towel, dirty change of underwear; he sat there inspecting the jeeps and the single smart coupé that trailed off the boat. But there was nothing of interest, or at least no one took any interest in him, so he picked up his all and strode to the blue unknown: Rhodes town. He had ten hundred drax to his name, which is to say, the creature was stranded.
Of course it was bad those first weeks in Rhodes. There’s no work there, no industry, nothing at all once the tourists have gone. And already the aeroplanes had gathered in their silvery flocks, migrated back north for the winter. The evenings grew shorter, colder stars pierced the night, it was the ghost of the year. Rhodes heaved a sigh of relief, drew the shutters and its chair to the fire.
He slept on the beach the first few nights, snatching a coffee where he could, living off cheap biscuits and cigarettes. The cafés looked like furniture stores, their summer tables piled inside. You can picture him sidling along till he finds one open. Maybe in Mandraki, the new town, where the markets are. He sits behind a squabbling family, sips his judicious cup. Soon as the Greeks have waddled away, he grabs their seats, devours their leftovers. In their corner by the till the waiters jeer till a nod from the owner sends one of them over. Outside the market he sat and begged, outholding his precatory hand. But it’s a miserable place is Rhodes, take any resort out of season. A finger and thumb scraped skinless together.
By night he wandered the old town that cosied inside the castle walls. The signs remained saying bistro or nightclub, but their darkened steps might delve to dungeons. Mannequins in boutiques gleamed like armour under the moon. Daylight made a filmset of the place. The film was over budget. Now they must wait till spring to resume. Except in the Turkish quarter, down Socrates Street, where the cafés filtered on for waiters who didn’t ski in Switzerland, didn’t visit in turns their Scandinavian girlfriends. Clickety-click went their backgammon pieces. Clickety-clack went their coins.
Down these alleys and cobbled streets he walked, begging a cigarette then a light, with four three two hundred drax in his pocket. A poor disciple he must have presented. Sand in his hair, in his clothes; a snowy dust of salt on his skin that fell like dandruff when he scratched. No doubt he stank, unwashed body and dirty clothes, and his sleeping bag trailing behind him. Every evening he went down the harbour and watched the ferry depart. I think he hated Rhodes.
He wanted to go home. He wanted to go back home to Dublin. Saturday nights he’d play guitar in his bedroom. He’d wash his father’s car on Sunday. Take a course in electronics. Please people.
But he hadn’t the fare. And there was no way you could jump that ferry, he could tell that just watching. The ferrymen saw him coming, even smiled hello, some of them. But they had eyes like dogs, guarding their vacant salons, hoarded treasure of an empty hold, their winter due.
By now the police had hunted him off the beach. He’d found this tiny park just off Mandraki, near the Amboise Gate to the old town, where the lamps were smashed and the thick growth of bushes gave cover. And he’d lie there in the dead of night, not listening but hearing the footsteps and muttering, coming and going till the blue hours of morning.
Who knows if he wondered, if he allowed himself to wonder, about those slow slow footsteps, that low low muttering, the shuffling so quiet, the rustling? And the gasp of breath quickening and the long sigh following and footfalls retreating in the dark.
And one morning when he’d spent the last of his drax on a final pack of Karelia and the veteran in the park gate kiosk had winked his usual knowing wink; and his stomach was sick to retching of cigarettes and biscuits and thick sweet coffee, sick to death of his own smell: this morning he gave in. That is to say he surrendered his fear. First open hotel he came to, he walked straight in. ‘Got a room?’ He tried to sound American, to lounge against the counter, like a wire from pop awaited his pleasure at American Express.
He must have convinced them, or he was wrong about charity, because the man at the desk gave him a key no questions asked. He locked his door and fell on the bed.
He took a shower, washed out his clothes, showered again, whistled out the veranda. He came down for dinner. Of course he’d chosen the wrong hotel. No dining-room, just breakfast. ‘What’s breakfast?’ Biscuits, coffee. Hungry still but all spruced up, he hit the town.
What did he expect? Did he really think he could wait in those derelict cafés, the telly blaring in a corner, and have all the Greeks queuing to feast him? All those old men, unshaven and grey, a word every half-hour, forever shuffling the cards for poker, and the women in a back room knitting in the dark and their cic-cic-cicada whispers, and where the young men crowded the jumping crickety backgammon moons. Did he really think he’d be the darling of Rhodes?
The creature, he was dying for a smoke, only dying. Maybe he said to himself, What the fuck am I going to do? Maybe in the Hospitallers’ church he blurted a prayer to St Christopher. Maybe he composed a letter starting Dear Mammy and Daddy and had reached paragraph three before he screwed it up, choked it down a drain.
He left the old town, strayed by the sea to Mandraki. But he couldn’t face the market again, nor his hotel room. He just walked. And even when he realised he was walking to the park, through the gates, through the bushes, up to the feculent pisser above, he didn’t stop himself, didn’t laugh and say, Don’t be so bloody stupid.
Very well, it was dark in the park, no moon and the lamps all smashed, he had to pick his way like a blind man, feeling for the path and the sudden steps and his sneakers on the gravel crushing the night. And when he caught the luminous whiteness in front, when the whiteness ponderously wheeled, he wanted to run. He thought it was a ghost. Christ, it’s a ghost. But the man, only a man, with a white shirt and white cardigan cloaked over his shoulders, he approached with those slow steps and muttering lowly said only, ‘Hello.’
‘English?’ asked the man.
A moment, then: ‘I like the Irish. They are pretty, yes?’
Suddenly the man darted his hand, grabbed his chin, peered from dark dots in his halo face. His breath smelt of dinner, food and wine. ‘You stay at hotel.’
‘No,’ he answered; but he knew the man then. Charitable Greek who’d given him a key no questions asked.
The man laughed, a single ejaculated breath. ‘How old you are?’
He shrugged his shoulders and the gentling hand released him.
‘You are pretty, yes?’
‘I want cigarettes.’
‘You want cigarette?’
‘Marlboro. Not Greek shit.’
‘Okay. Marlboro. Come.’ He walked a little. ‘You come. Now.’
And he followed, the creature, like a newborn lamb.
At the park gates the man hesitated, searched the street. ‘You stay at hotel,’ he repeated.
Again he said no and again the man laughed.
‘Here is for you,’ he said, handing a note. ‘You buy Marlboro. I wait. You go now. Buy Marlboro. After I wait for you.’ The man spread his hands, disseminating indifference. ‘Here or in hotel I find you. Yes?’
He went, flying down the hill, clutching the hundred drax like a love note to his heart. In the market he ordered Nescafé with milk and a plate of chips which he wolfed down. He bought twenty Marlboro and smoked himself to death. He was too excited to plan anything. Too excited to think. But he knew he would survive.
When the café closed he skirted Mandraki back to the park. That park where he had learned the phases of the moon. The hotel awaited him but he wanted to see. From across the street he peered through the gates. He could make out nothing. The path led in from the streetlights, falling darker and narrower, crowded in by the pressure of shrubs, trees overlapping overhead, like a tunnel, pressing down like a tunnel, almost, very almost, a fissure in the night.
© Jamie O’Neill.top