REPORT A PROBLEM
I needed August off. Everything was just getting too bleak, and in spite of my best efforts to write about something other than the wide-ranging bleaknesses, I wasn’t doing well, and the daily hundred started to feel like a compounding rather than a catharsis. I notice that I missed last July too, but the reasons for that were far more personal and internal. It is a sign of how much worse things are now that I would go back thirteen months in a heartbeat. Last year’s problems could be fixed. I am far from sure our current ones can.
I have started having anxiety dreams again. An interesting change has occurred. One of my most frequent anxiety dreams involved sitting exams, usually my degree-level ones, and knowing, even before I went in, that I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, and feeling terrible guilt for not having revised. Now, these have been replaced by dreams in which I am somehow back in an office job, and assigned to a project, and expected to deliver results for tasks that I know I do not have the ability to perform. These are horrible flashbacks as much as they are dreams.
Someone at work has taken against me. Someone who had always been friendly to me, and to whom I had always been friendly in return. Yet he insulted my character, on the work Facebook page, without provocation. A union rep told him to delete the comment but I’d seen it; the damage was done. I tried to discuss it with him on Messenger and he doubled down and insulted me some more. I am used to being insulted by strangers and it doesn’t bother me at all, but this feels like being back at school. I admit I am rattled.
I have been thinking about yesterday’s incident, and remembering that right through my school years I felt something of a pariah. I suppose all bullied kids feel this way. We are made painfully aware that something about us... looks, personality, mannerisms... annoys many of our fellows, or causes feelings of bloodlust and mischief in them. At school I was frequently called a prat (or variations thereof), and it got so that I could even see what they meant. I coped by developing a thick hide comprising equal parts bluster and scar tissue. It cracked and bled a little bit yesterday.
I had a powerful urge to go horse riding, today. I haven’t ridden in twenty years, and I was never a frequent rider. As a child, I only did it at all because of my sister, who would persuade me to keep her company on rides along the long, wide beach of our home town. I enjoyed it, but not enough to make it a hobby. And now I recall that I used to describe life using that very phrase. People would smile, but there was a grain of truth there. Perhaps I am missing even that level of enjoyment.
It is disgustingly, distressingly hot, but I won’t do my usual whine about how much I detest summer, and the sweating, and the glare, and the lack of sleep, and the flies, and my need for daily cold immersion, and... sorry, sorry. Instead I shall grouch about the fact that these days it is deemed necessary that we should be told, via public announcement, to carry water and stay hydrated. Everywhere we go it’s the same. If you see something, say something. Stand behind the yellow line. Hold the handrail. Mind the gap. No wonder we have a snowflake generation.
It has taken six months but I am finally starting to feel stress about the situation. It has probably helped that I did not have to stop working, but my ongoing health issues and - much more significantly - my enforced separation from her, are really starting to wear me down. Lately, both my conscious thoughts and the unconscious language of my dreams have been whispering words of mortality, of time running out. I feel I must do something, but I don’t know what. I am living the dream: the one where you are chased but cannot run; attacked but cannot fight.
Ah, greetings, fly on my bathroom wall! I see you there, being entirely unwelcome. Know, fly, that I hate you. Know also that I, being a superior human creature, am fully aware that this hatred is as biologically-driven and irrelevant as your indifference to me, and your unconsidered urge to buzz around and feed on my stuff by vomiting your nasty fly juice on it so that you might dissolve and ingest it. And I think “All things bright and beautiful”.
I am going to kill you now, fly. Such is the way of things in this godless universe.
Toenail fungus. That’s right, I said “toenail fungus”. Apologies if you are eating breakfast but that is today’s topic whether it puts you off your mushroom omelette or not. Anyway, it seems I have a minor case of it on one big toe. Apparently this is something that happens to old people, along with the other myriad body horrors of age. Yet another intimate intimation of mortality. Fungus thrives on dead or dying organic material, and now it is trying to get a literal toehold on me, making me feel like a rotting alder as well as a rotten elder.
I decide it is just, barely, light enough to take the short cut through the little patch of woodland on my way to the bus stop. I am less than twenty yards in before I realise this may not have been the smartest decision. This is no Sherwood Forest, but the trees have not yet shed their summer clothes, and it is dark enough that I extend a hand in front of my face to fend off a possible twig in the eye. But I still blunder through invisible spider strands like a winner in the 500 metre zombie race.
No mask: scumbag. Mask worn as chin strap: louse. Mask worn over mouth but nose left uncovered: moron.
These people are the new pariahs. These people have the new scarlet letter, and that letter is “S” for “selfish”, “smug”, “stupid” and “swine”.
Once upon a time there were maybe a couple of reasons to be concerned about the efficacy of masks in significantly reducing the risk of transmission. Those days are long gone. The science is now clear; the evidence is even clearer: widespread and correct use of proper masks is highly effective.
Treat these new pariahs as exactly that.
I dreamed I was in a pub with Christopher Hitchens. My friend Martin was there. Hitch bought him a gin and tonic and said that it was dedicated to Hitler’s mother. He drank half of it before giving it to Martin. Hitch was thin, looking unwell, sweating copiously. I asked him if he was okay. “Not really”, he replied. “But that’s cancer for you.” He started gagging. I noticed his daughter was with us. She told him to do it outside. He sprinted for the door. I heard crashing sounds, then the sound of him throwing up. I felt sad.
We all have a story. So many stories to be told or, more likely, not told. Fractured details, shared and unshared moments, remembered by a few, for a little while, then lost forever. It is probably best this way. To dwell on these countless dispersed vapours has a tendency to induce melancholy. We can still smell their drifting, sometimes acrid, sometimes sweet scents, if we happen to live at a time when we breathe the same air that bears them. They are part of your story, and you, theirs. Inhale, deeply. Then let them dissipate forever. You will soon follow.
When I really think honestly about it, there is not much I would change about the path of my ordinary, unremarkable little life. It’s easy to look back and think, “Could have done this, should have done that, wish I hadn’t done that”, but... what I did and did not do derived the unique formula of my life. And like most lives it was filled with sadness, joy, love, hate, frustration, disappointment, relief, pleasure... so much life. It is too easy to torment ourselves with what-ifs and if-onlys. Which achieves nothing. What was and what is, is enough.
I have been thinking about where my capacity for red rage comes from. I believe it is borne of both a genetic disposition (my mother also had a rabid pitbull temper) and the condition of being small, weak and bullied as a child. Couple those things with my absolute loathing for anything that smacks of injustice and there you have it: my fulminating fury. I suppose it is, in a sense, a form of overcompensation. If I feel unjustly treated or pushed around I will push back the only way I can: by unleashing my angry, vicious, bloody-fanged words.
You know, the truth is that for all the whining and raging I do about life, the world, humanity, Brexiters, Trumpers, Tories, god-botherers, conspiracy theorists, fascists, regressives, snowflakes, censorious suppressors, language abusers, reality deniers, punk illiterates, pavement cyclists, mask dodgers, television, country music and jazz... sometimes I do just sit in silence (probably with a drink, I admit) and just... try to be. Try to let the screaming runaway madness of modern times just wash over, around and through me. And then something pisses me right off again and I stop kidding myself I’m some sort of fucking Buddhist.
The flat refurb project has been on hold for over a year now. There are both good and bad excuses for this. Six months of Covid has been a good one, but the more-than-six months before that can’t be excused so justifiably. The emotional upheavals certainly played their part, but really I should have made at least some progress and I did not.
Today was busy. Strim the grass; cut the roses back. Wash up, basic tidy, get my shit together for tomorrow. Afternoon nap, because there was no time for a normal night’s sleep. Let’s do this.
I am doing it again. My annual near-three-week summer leave started two days ago and I had been hoping, with rapidly fading strength as the time approached, to spend it in New York. It became abundantly, depressingly clear about a couple of weeks ago that thanks to Trump and Johnson this was not going to happen. So today, at 2:00 AM, I took a cab to Gatwick North and headed east instead of west. And hello again Athens, old friend. I said I wouldn’t leave it as long next time, and I have kept my word. Let’s go.
I hit Monastiraki metro for the forty minute ride to the airport for my flight to Naxos. And then the promised “Medicane” hit, hard. I have never seen rain like it in Greece, and few other places. The flight was delayed. And delayed. And I started to resign myself to missing the boat to Amorgos. But then, just like that, they called us and hustled us onto the plane, and 25 minutes later we were aloft. I was in Naxos town in time to snatch a slightly hurried breakfast, then on the Sea Jet to Katapola only ten minutes late.
Last night I ate at the Mouragio taverna, which has become an Amorgos first night tradition, if three trips is enough to start a tradition. I rented a car for five days and headed up to Chora where I wandered those now familiar, magical little whitewashed streets for a while before heading west for some time on Mouros beach. I was strangely disappointed that the rough and ankle-threatening descent to the beach had been replaced by newly-built stone steps, but I got over it once I sank into the beautiful cool blue and mingled with the life there.
Today began as my Greek days usually do: with omelette and coffee. Then I spent the day on the three “local” beaches to the north of Aegiali bay, and in the evening I dined in a lovely place called “Youkali”, still over on the north side. As I watched the setting sun paint the horizon I had feelings of happiness to be doing this again, to be here again, and... a sense of impulsive madness that was not entirely pleasant. I’m feeling a bit fragile. But overriding all was a gentle sense of nostalgia for the not so long ago.
Farewell, Katapola. Everything packed and into the little red car, then up the winding road to Chora, down the other side at Agia Anna, with its still awe-inspiring views of the rugged, beetling undulations of the south eastern coastline; all steep looming cliffs and clefts; sand-coloured in sun, grey in the shade; a ragged row of giant sea monster mouths, stubbled with scrubby plants; the tiny but vivid white tooth of the ...... monastery high up there, incongruous yet beautiful in its perfect placement. A naked swim from a deserted beach. Iced coffee and lemonade. Onward to Aegiali.
My apartment in Aegiali is lovely but... Greece strikes! My planned three nights here will have to be shortened to one and a half. I had intended to take the ferry to Astypalaea on Friday but the man in the ticket office grumpily told me I had the choice between Thursday and Monday, both ferries leaving in the early hours of the morning. So be it then. I should have known better than to plan too far ahead. I will have only one full night here, then a long night tomorrow, then two extra days in Astypalaea. I can cope.
A beautiful day sunning and swimming on the three fine beaches accessible from Aegiali via rough, vertiginous tracks through dust and dry gorse. The furthest of the three was deserted, so I stripped off, and remembered how good that feels. Later, a strange, long and lovely evening. Lingering over a beer in the cool, shady Acropolis bar, then a second fine meal in Korali. Another slow beer in a bar that remained open far later than I expected. The Blue Star Naxos docked at 2:15 AM, fifty minutes late. But that was tomorrow, not today. So more about that then.
An eerie, near-silent journey. There were perhaps a dozen passengers, and this on a very large ferry. We all still wore our masks, like we were told to. The arrival at Astypalea’s strange little port was even weirder than last year, although at least this time I knew what to expect. A couple of first-timers looked absolutely shocked, so I reassured them that a few kilometres down the road was a beautiful town, and that they were going to have a lovely time once night was through and they could get their first glimpse of radiant white Chora.
After the wonderful day, a hellish night featuring my first true screaming nightmare in many months. One of the many sad things about life without a partner is that if you suffer, as I do, from terrible nightmares, there is no loving person to wake you and release you from the terror. Blank-looking but indescribably menacing two-dimensional figures slowly detached themselves from the walls and advanced on me. I knew they had dreadful intent. I screamed, hopelessly, in the familiar way that I know translates to actual screams in reality. And no one woke me. It seemed endless.
It’s getting quieter here on Astypalea by the day. This being Sunday, I am wondering if some of these sleepy restaurants, cafes, shops and apartments will be making this their last day for the season. We shall see. I, too, feel very “end of season” in more ways than the obvious, literal one, but I don’t want to talk about that because today was still a nice, restful day, involving little more than a short drive to find the steeply-descending track to cute, quiet Tzanakia beach where I swam a little, sunbathed a little, and little else until evening.
I am glad I decided to take this holiday, but I have to be honest: it is being tarnished by the depressing fact that a health issue I have been trying to play down for a couple of months or so has really come home to roost while I’ve been out here. I can’t ignore it any more because the symptoms are really not good, and getting worse. I have a call with my doctor tomorrow, and I need to push hard for an examination as soon as possible; privately if necessary, and hang the expense. So tired of this.
Enough about the health scare. I have always been a worrier, and it always tires and bores me. I talked to the doctor, wheels are in motion; I can do no more. So I will enjoy this beer, alone in a harbourside cafe; dry fallen leaves skittering around in gentle gusts of sea breeze, healthy-looking cats slinking around. I like to imagine they are gearing themselves up for their nightly panhandling at the few tavernas that remain open. I love cats so much. They do not worry about their health, or their future. They just live until they die.
Last day in Astypalaea, and it began with a lovely, silent, solitary stroll up to the Kastro which, happily, was open. I explored the very ruined interior entirely undisturbed by anyone except for some cute, sleepy cats sunning themselves on the ancient stones, or staying cool in their shade. I took far too many photographs of varying quality and worth. Then breakfast, then a final sun and swim on beautiful, sandy, shallow Steno beach - again, alone. Tonight, I shall have fish, look back on a very worthwhile if personally troubled holiday, and brace myself, once again, for an uncertain future.
The Tip Jar