A Day Trip to Mytilene

I cannot remember why we needed to go to Mytilene. I suspect it may have been for saxophone reeds, but I could be mistaken. I do remember that we didn’t have anything heavy with us, so we can’t have been selling cheese for Markos. Maybe we just wanted to get out of town for a day, who knows. It was a long trip to take for the fun of it but stranger things have happened. I do remember that it was late spring, the lambs out in the fields in a constant cacophany of baaing and a furious ecstasy of sproinging with delight. Flowers peeped out here and there and some of the olives had new growth, shy and reluctant but visible if you squinted against the already fierce sun and the glittering blue of the water.

We didn’t have a car, so we set off at a walk, confident that someone would pick us up, and indeed we had barely passed the kafenia when someone mentioned that someone else was going to Mytilene ‘or therabouts’ and if we hurried, we could catch him. We sat perched in the back of his open truck and watched the white dust from the road kick up behind us while we hung on for dear life, trying to avoid the sacks in the back of the truck when they slid across with each curve. The engine grumbled merrily to itself and the people in the cab chattered and my father rolled a cigarette and pulled at it thoughtfully while Molybos receded in the background.

The car crept past Petra and we must have stopped somewhere for lunch, because I remember sitting on the verge to eat bread and oil with olives and tangy cheese. To go by car to Mytilene today is perhaps not such an adventure, but then it was, and everyone needed to take a breather after rutting over poor roads and gesticulating too violently in the cab. Some goats wandered over to watch us, I remember, because one of them stole my bread and munched it thoughtfully while we all laughed and my father tore off another hunk and warned me to keep a tighter grip this time.

When we piled back into the truck and the driver went to start the engine, it coughed politely to itself and then died off almost immediately, as though offended at the very suggestion that it should run. The driver turned the key a few more times to put up a token effort before flipping the hood up and diving beneath with a stream of invective directed at cars in general and this one in particular, while we took advantage of the unexpectedly long break to sprawl out and have a snooze, shadows of the goats fluttering beyond our eyelids. The heat of the day began to be oppressive and even in the insects had given up by the time the driver was forced into the shade by the sheer heat of the metal, which shimmered ominously and creaked irritably in the hot, still air.

He slumped himself down at the roadside with the rest of us and stared moodily at the sacks in the back while we waited for someone else to come along, which of course no one did, because any self-respecting person was deep in the cool of the indoors, sleeping off the heat of the day and waiting for the sun to retreat enough to make the outdoors bearable again. We could see houses scattered here and there but they were all just far enough that none of us wanted to walk, and, anyway, eventually someone would be along, we reassured ourselves, settling back for more bread and scuttling to take advantage of the limited shade.

After the worst of the heat had passed, someone indeed did come along, a goatherd. First we heard the bells and the irritable muttering of the goats and then he rounded the corner, slowly, staff clacking in the dust and shoes dragging. The goats milled around the truck and investigated the sacks while the driver swatted them away and the goatherd surveyed us with a bemused expression for a moment before tendering the suggestion that perhaps we were taking a rest, to enjoy the beautiful view, which we all duly turned around to admire again, even though we’d admired it amply over the last few hours.

That nicety over with, the driver shook his head and gestured to the engine, explaining our plight, and the goatherd nodded thoughtfully and stuck his head under the hood as well. He suggested that the driver try to start it again and with a filthy look the driver climbed into the cab, still scorchingly hot because it had been sitting under the sun, still, for hours, and demonstrated that no matter how hard he turned the key, the engine wouldn’t turn over. The goatherd admitted that perhaps, yes, he was right, and promised to mention it to someone along the way, unless we wanted to come along. We didn’t, said the driver, speaking for the rest of us and eying his sacks, and we shrugged in helpless agreement when the goatherd turned to us with a raised eyebrow.

We subsided back to the roadside again and waited until the cool hours of the evening, when someone finally straggled over the hill with a truck and a container of petrol. His expression was dismayed when the driver sneered and said that we had plenty, thank you, and then both heads were bent under the hood to examine the depths of the engine. Periodic popping and tutting noises floated over to us and the new arrival declared the engine perfectly passable, was the driver absolutely sure that he had put petrol in the tank, as that sort of thing does slip your mind, sometimes, when you are leaving on a day trip to Mytilene, you know, and the driver glared but the farmer popped off the cap anyway, just to have a look, you see, and poured in a thin trickle, just enough to whet the whistle, so to speak.

The driver stood sourly by, arms crossed, and refused to have any more to do with this state of affairs, so it was my father who was pressed into service to try the engine again. It, of course, turned over promptly and hummed for a moment before sputtering out of petrol again, and the farmer nodded knowingly and waved his tank in the air, while the passenger gave thanks that, at last, we would be on our way, until the driver nodded his head fiercely and we all turned to him in concern and

Ai gamisou,’ he said. ‘How are we supposed to get to Mytilene in the dark with no headlights?’