We were met in the car park at the back of the village by the owner of the apartment we’d booked, George Karaslanis. He was a young man, in his 30’s, and, like many Greek men, even in this heat he wore long trousers and a collared shirt. Polite, with good English, he helped to carry our little bags up the back way, into the village towards the Ancient Amphitheatre. Going up we passed the house of an old friend. A light was on in what had been my room, when I stayed there one winter. I wondered who was living there now, behind the courtyard door. George started telling us about the apartment when Jenny interrupted.
“I know the house, your grandfather used to live there.” That stopped him in his tracks.
“You knew my grandfather?” he asked.
“I did, I used to clean his house, once a week. It was when I worked for your father,” answered Jenny, ”I looked after his villas in Pefkos and did his cleaning and ironing. Tried to make me darn his socks once but I threw them in the bin and made him buy new ones! How is he?”
George laughed, “Ha, the same”.
Jen carried on, “I never got to meet you. You used to live in Athens, with your mother”. George nodded. “When you came to visit, I would get your room ready, iron your little trousers for you, and lay everything out on the bed”. I swear he nearly burst into tears.
Summer ’92 – Jack’s Rentabike
Jack’s Rentabike lay on the dry, dusty, main road, running through Pefkos village. Gleaming rows of two wheeled transport stood on the forecourt of a compact, whitewashed building, sitting on a triangular piece of land, with a canopy of shady vines. I’d never ridden a motorbike on the public highway. Growing up we’d bounced around the local coal bing on battered mopeds and scooters, and my car licence was a provisional up to 250cc; I was looking forward to having a blast.
Sitting in the shade was an old man with a white, bushy beard and a kind face. He smiled and nodded as I made my way in.
I said “Hi”. The bikes were gleaming and looked in good condition; not that I’d be able to tell. Mooching round, in the dappled light, I soon found what I was looking for, a dual sport bike with big knobbly tyres. It would get me to Rhodes and back in no time, and, maybe, I’d have some fun in the hills. Turning to the old man, I pointed and asked “This one?” Looking up he cocked his head and shouted something Greek. After a few moments a large, stubbly, smiling, bear of a man, in blue bibbed overalls, emerged from a small workshop area, carefully wiping his oily hands with a rag. This must be Jack.
Telling him I’d be living and working in Lindos for the summer, I needed to be in Rhodes the next morning, to get my medical card. The bus wouldn’t get me there in time, so I wanted to rent the bike for the day. Pointing to the bike, I asked "How much?” On the wall, behind the old man, whom I took to be his father, was a list of motorbikes and prices.
Jack motioned with his arm, “These are the prices”.
I explained to Jack I’d be working for his cousin this summer, looking between him and the price list a couple of times, hoping for a discount. He was tall, about the same height as me, with a big frame, a few years older than me I guessed. His eyes twinkled as he half laughed before motioning with his arm again.
“These are the prices”.
I’ve never been good at haggling but gave it another go. “Discount for cash?” I asked. The smile went; I could tell from his eyes what was coming. Holding my look, his arm began to rise. “These are the prices” I said, beating him to it.
Smiling again, he asked, “You ride motorbike?” I nodded. “You have licence?”
As I rooted around in my bumbag, Jack meticulously washed the oil from his hands, under a standpipe in the corner of the yard, squirting liquid from a washing up bottle. Drying them thoroughly on a clean rag, he took my licence, examining it closely before returning it.
“One minute” he said, disappearing behind the corner. Edging into the shade, beside the old man, I waited. A minute later my heart sank as Jack came back, wheeling a Chappy.
A Yamaha Chappy is a distinctive red, and white, little bike with tiny wheels, I doubt they could go more than 30 miles an hour with a tail wind. This one had a white wire shopping basket fixed to the front. Putting the stand down, Jack flourished, as if he were presenting the original Easy Rider hot-rod. Funny guy.
“No”, I said, going over to the bike I wanted, patting the petrol tank a couple of times. “This one”. Jack shook his head, looked down and nodded towards the Chappy. Seriously, how would that get me to Rhodes? “My licence is up to 250cc” I pleaded. Jack, saving energy, merely turned his open palms upwards, imperceptibly shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips.
We did the paperwork and as I parted with more notes from my slowly dwindling stash, Jack said, “You come tomorrow at 9, to collect motorbike. Must be back 5 o’clock.” This was no good; I needed to be on the road before 7am, maybe earlier on this motorised shopping trolley. I explained this to him, and he explained this to me, “You take the bike two days; you pay two days.”
I’d had enough cash for a holiday, but now, there for the summer and a month’s rent down, I needed to be careful. “I’m not taking it anywhere today; I just need to have it first thing in the morning.” I looked at Jack as I weighed my options.
He pondered for a few seconds, then to my surprise, said, “Take the bike. You are going straight to Lindos; you park the bike on the car park, no driving the bike, not even touching the bike. Not until the morning. Back here before 5.” Somewhere beneath that oily blue bib, there was indeed, a beating heart.
Dawn saw me wobble off into a magnificent sunrise, my white beanbag helmet pulled down on my head. The air was much cooler, roads quiet and empty. Whining and groaning up hills, I stuck to the main road hoping to get there in time. After the heat of the village and the stuffiness of the room, putting along on the Chappy, with the fresh morning air sweeping my face, flowing over my arms and legs, I was driving into paradise. Have you ever watched a car drive by with a dog poking his head out the window, tongue hanging out in rapture? Today I was that dog.
The orange glow over the horizon brightened the dark sky behind me. Making out the silhouette of the Turkish mountains across the sea, passing olive trees and citrus groves, barren scrub land and dried up riverbeds, I was an explorer, discovering new lands. Occasionally I’d pass a roadside memorial, a little, painted, steel box with windows. Each contained an icon, some had flowers, maybe the stub of a candle or two, stuck in some sand; sobering reminders of a journey's end.
Traffic grew heavier. Now and again a car would sound its horn before pulling out wide to overtake. These weren’t aggressive “Get Out The Way” toots, more a gentle notice, a car was behind me, about to overtake. In a land where almost everyone grows up on two wheels, motorists are so much more careful, and considerate, to riders.
After what felt like hours I arrived in Rhodes Town. Parking in the centre, I peeled myself off the Chappy, stretching like a post nap cat, and followed Polly’s directions. Coffee shops and bakeries were open and I was hungry, but hurried on, not wanting to be late. The New Town in Rhodes was easy to navigate, built on a grid system, office buildings stood next to apartments and hotels. At street level were various outlets, record stores, hardware and household goods, boutiques and, oddly I thought, shops full of umbrellas, of all shapes and sizes. Bin men were busy in their dustcarts and pavements were being hosed down. Rounding a corner, I spied the row of palm trees I’d been told to look out for. I needn’t have worried about finding where to go, a queue of up to maybe fifty or sixty were outside. Instantly identifiable, fresh faced, excited, happy, sharing the adventure of summer dreams. I could have turned up an hour later and still joined the queue; but that would not have been nearly as interesting. We chatted, where we would work, where we were from. Students on gap years, admin staff, office workers, rich kids, there was even an ex-screw dodging burnout, and I’m sure more than one or two were on their toes, running from one thing or another. Through the summer this rag-tag platoon would become a cohort of cocktail shakers, waiters and washer uppers, water skiers, meeters and greeters. Despite the varied backgrounds and motivations there was a common aim, to escape and have fun.
Shuffling forward, as the sun rose I was grateful for the breeze swaying through the trees. Ellie was an art student from Bolton, going to work in a ceramic pottery and shop near Faliraki. “I don’t want to work in a bar or club” she told me, she wanted to work during the day and have the evenings to herself. “You work at night, what you do in the daytime? Sit on the beach? That’s gonna get boring.”
Once inside we were seen quickly, lurid tales of x-rays and un-specified vaccinations, aids tests and internal examinations were, as I had guessed, just that. Blood pressure taken and chests listened to, our health cards were stamped with an official looking seal. They love a bit of bureaucratic stamping in Greece.
Ellie and I left together, walking back through the town, chatting. We neared my little Chappy and I asked if she fancied a coffee, or food. “It’s alright” she smiled “I’ve got a lift”. “I could give you a lift” I said, hopefully, motioning toward the bike. She looked at it, sitting there on its little stand, shopping basket on the front, one helmet between us. “Nah, you’re alright” she laughed, “The guy I’m working for is picking me up”. “That’s Ok”, I lied, “Look me up if you make it to Lindos”. “Sure” she said, well what else would you say? Smiling, she began to turn to go, then suddenly spun back, gave me a peck on the check, turned again and went. Suddenly the prospect of a two-hour ride in the blistering mid-day sun seemed like nothing. I even forgot I was hungry.
Riding back was a reverse of my journey that morning. The sun beat stronger, the traffic was heavier; lorries, coaches, buses, streams of cars, all overtaking me as I rode close to the side of the road. Ellie had also left me with some reflecting to do. Would I really enjoy working as a waiter, every night? Truthfully, in the short time I’d been here, I’d had a lot more fun going to the bars and clubs, in the evenings, than sitting on the beach. Being on my feet for hours, being nice to people, might not be great either. Perhaps I’d been too hasty?
Just after noon, getting closer to Lindos, I had a few hours before returning the Chappy. At the bottom of a long steep stretch of road was a left turn, in the direction of the sea, a sign pointed to Haraki. I could do with a rest, my hunger reminded me it hadn’t gone, and I was curious. It turned out to be a long, straight road that seemed to go on and on. I passed a complex of abandoned greenhouses, panes cracked and broken on the ground. Someone’s dream, shattered in the dust.
More olive groves and lonely buildings went by, until, coming up on an old Greek lady dressed in black, sitting at a stall selling water melons and oranges, I pulled into the shade. Fancying a melon but with nothing to slice it, I settled for half a dozen, fat, gnarled oranges. Putting them in the little shopping basket on the handlebars I set off once again. The road was long and boring, and I started pratting around on the bike, weaving from side to side, seeing if I could pull a wheelie. Ha, no way. What happened next was neither chance nor bad luck, but a consequence of being an ass. Catching a pothole I should have seen, I tipped into a bush, the bike into another and the oranges flew everywhere. Fortunately I wasn’t going any speed, and apart from a grazed knee and some thorns, the only damage done was to my pride. After checking over the bike, which was unmarked, I hunted down my bounty from the fruit stall. Putting the huge oranges back in the basket, I tore back the skin from one and pulled it apart, biting into the segments, releasing the sweet, sticky juice which ran down my chin and covered my hands. It tasted like no orange I’d had before; the warmth and intensity of flavour making me feel much better about being half way down a road to nowhere, picking prickles out my arm. The relentless sun burnt into my shoulders as crickets chirped and some loose rocks bounced to the road as a couple of goats foraged and bleat. I looked up to see a raptor, a buzzard of some sort, circling on the thermals, looking for prey. Perhaps I should be getting home. Wiping my face and hands on my tee shirt I turned the bike around and set off back. Waving as I passed the orange seller, I wondered if I’d ever get to see Haraki.
On arrival the old man was sitting in the same place, in the shade. I sounded the horn before putting the remaining oranges on the little table, indicating they were for him. Taking a clasp knife out of his pocket he slowly, and deliberately, cut one in half, and half again. After handing me a quartered piece, he began to chew on one himself.
Jack appeared. “Everything good?” he asked, smiling. “yup, all done” I replied. After cleaning his hands, Jack went to push the bike. Grabbing the handlebars, he recoiled and looked down at his open palms. Shit. Sticky orange juice. The old man and I both offered Jack a piece of Orange, by way of explanation, laughing. Jack muttered some Greek and slowly shook his prematurely balding head. Checking the bike out, from under the mudguard at the front, he pulled a piece of twig. Then some grass from between the rear chain sprocket. Time to change the subject. Quickly. “Must be a good business you have here, on the corner, are you busy?” Asking the first thing that came into my head. “This business?” he looked at me, “Fucking business.” Then he carried on checking the bike. Oops, I thought, now I’ve upset him. Carrying on silently, until satisfied there was no damage, he turned and looked me in the eyes.
Greek people seem more open about speaking emotionally, or personally, even with people they don’t know so well, or even strangers, which can catch you off guard sometimes, like when an old woman on the bus starts asking about your private life.
“This fucking business. I finish this fucking business”. I asked if he didn’t get enough customers, or had trouble with them pinching his bikes. “No” he answered. “They died.” I could see pain in his face. “They come in the morning, they say bye bye, happy, smiling. Bang. They died. Fucking business.”
I walked back to Lindos, wanting to stretch my legs, reflecting on my day; The sunrise, the girl, the oranges. I thought about Jack and the reality versus the dream. I imagine he would never have considered dealing with death as he set up his stall. In my pocket was my spanking new medical card. I should have gone to see Rip about starting at the restaurant, however second thoughts had already begun.