Issue 174, Summer 2005
It happens like this. He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown to him and soon he leaves the little town behind. In an hour or so he is among low hills covered by olive trees and grey stones, from which there is a view out over a plain that gradually descends to the sea. He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.
As the road rises and falls there are moments when he can see far ahead and other moments when he can see nothing at all. He keeps looking out for other people, but the huge landscape seems to be completely deserted. The only sign of human beings is the occasional house, tiny and distant, and the fact of the road itself.
Then at some point, as he comes to the crest of a hill, he becomes aware of another figure far away. It could be male or female, it could be any age, it could be traveling in either direction, towards him or away. He watches until the road dips out of sight, and when he comes to the top of the next rise the figure is clearer, coming towards him. Now they are watching each other, while pretending they are not.
When they draw even they stop. The figure is a man about his own age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his backpack is black. What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.
They nod hello, they smile.
Where have you come from.
Mycenae. He points back over his shoulder. And you.
The man in black also points, vaguely, into the distance behind him. And where are you going to. He has an accent the first man cannot place, Scandinavian maybe, or German.
To the ruins.
I thought the ruins were that way.
Yes. Not those ruins, I’ve seen them.
There are other ruins.
I think ten kilometers. That’s what I was told.
He nods. He has a sullen sort of beauty, with long silky hair that falls around his shoulders. He is smiling, though there is nothing to smile at. And where do you come from.
South Africa. And you.
I am from Germany. Where are you staying in Mycenae.
At the youth hostel.
There are a lot of people.
I’m the only one there. Are you staying.
He shakes his head, the long tresses lift and float. I am taking the train tonight. To Athens.
They have conducted this conversation with a curious formality, the width of the road between them, and yet there is something in the way they relate that is not quite intimate, but familiar. As if they have met somewhere before, long ago. But they have not.
Enjoy the ruins, the German man smiles. The South African says that he will. Then they part again with a nod and draw slowly away from each other on the narrow white road, looking back now and then, until they are two tiny and separate points again, rising and falling with the undulations of the land.
He gets to the ruins in the middle of the afternoon. I can’t even remember now what they are, the remains of some big but obscure building, there was a fence that had to be climbed, there was a fear of dogs but no dogs appeared, he stumbles around among rocks and pillars and ledges, he tries to imagine how it was but history resists imagining. He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.
By the time he comes to himself again, the sun is already low in the sky, the shadows of the mountains are stretched out across the plain. He walks back slowly in the blue coolness. The stars are seeding themselves in bright beds overhead, the earth is huge and old and black. It’s long past suppertime when he arrives at the edge of the little village and goes up the deserted main street, the shops and restaurants shuttered and barred, all the windows unlit, through the open front door of the hostel, up the stairs, through passages, past rooms filled with row after row of unoccupied bunk beds, all dark and cold, nobody visiting at this time of year, to the last and highest room, in the middle of the roof, a white cube fixed to a plane. He is very tired now, and hungry, and wants to sleep.
But inside the room the German is waiting. He is sitting on one of the beds, his hands between his knees, smiling.
He goes in and closes the door behind him. What are you doing here.
I missed the train tonight. There is another one in the morning. I decided to wait until then. I asked him to put me in your room.
You don’t mind.
I’m just surprised, I wasn’t expecting, no, no I don’t mind.
He doesn’t mind, but he is also uneasy. He knows that the other man has delayed his journey not because of the train but because of him, because of the conversation they had in the road.
He sits down on his own bed. They smile at each other again.
How long are you here for.
I’m also going in the morning.
Are you going to Athens.
No. The other way. To Sparta.
So you’ve seen Mycenae already.
I’ve been here two days.
There is a silence now in which neither of them moves.
I might stay another day. I’m not in a rush. I like this place.
The German considers. I thought I might also. I haven’t seen Mycenae.
You should see it.
So you are staying.
Yes. Then I am staying also. For a day.
It feels as if they’ve agreed to something more than this practical arrangement, but what exactly isn’t clear. It is late and cold and the little room is raw and ugly in the fluorescent light. In a short while the South African gets into his sleeping bag. He is shy and though he would normally undress he doesn’t do so tonight. He takes off his shoes and his watch and his two copper bracelets and gets in and lies on his back. He can see the metal slats of the bunk above him and disconnected images from the day come back to him, the ruins, the road, the gnarled shapes of the olive trees.
The German also readies himself for bed. He lays out his sleeping bag on the bunk he’s sitting on. Of course his sleeping bag is black. He unlaces his boots and takes them off, setting them side by side on the floor. Perhaps he, too, would normally undress but he doesn’t tonight, there is no way to know what he would normally do. He doesn’t wear a watch. In his black socks he goes to the door to switch off the light, then goes softly back to his bed and climbs in. He takes a few moments to settle.
The South African says something.
I can’t hear you.
What is your name.
Reiner. And you.
Damon. Good night.
Good night, Reiner.
When he wakes up the next day the other bed is empty and the hissing of water comes from the shower next door. He gets up and goes outside, onto the roof. The air is freezing and brilliant and clear. He crosses to the edge and sits down on the parapet, with all the other roofs in the town below him, the main street running from west to east, the tiny shapes of horses in a field. He is very far away from home.
Reiner comes out onto the roof, drying his long hair with a towel. He is wearing the same black pants from yesterday, but no shirt, his body is brown and hard, perfectly proportioned. He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly. He stands in the sun, drying himself, and then also crosses over to sit on the parapet. The towel is slung around his neck, his skin is full of goose bumps from the cold, beads of water shine like metal in the coarse hair on his chest.
What do you want to do today.
What about these ruins.
They go to the ruins. He has already seen them, he spent several hours there yesterday, but now he looks at the thick walls and foundations and fortifications and tall tombs through the eyes of Reiner, whose expression doesn’t change as he walks around from one level to the next at the same unvarying pace, his long body perfectly upright, no expression on his face. He sits on a rock to wait and Reiner comes to crouch down nearby. Tell me about this place, he says.
I don’t know much about the facts, I’m mostly interested in the mythology.
Tell me that then.
He tells what he remembers, how the lonely woman waited for her husband to return from the long war at Troy, incubating revenge out of grief over her murdered daughter, nothing fuels revenge as grief does, a lesson history teaches over and over, joining her rage with that of her lover who has his own griefs to avenge, till the day that Agamemnon comes back, bringing with him his captive concubine, the prophetess, who sees what the future holds but can do nothing to prevent it. He walks in over the bright tapestries that his wife has spread before him, dragging ten years of siege behind him in his wake, Cassandra follows, both of them are slaughtered inside, he is struck down in his bath. For some reason this single image is the one that stays most vivid and real, the huge man felled by axes, spouting blood, collapsing naked into the scarlet water, why is violence always so easy to imagine but tenderness stays locked in words for me. Already in the ending of this story the next cycle of grief and revenge is inevitable, that is to say the following story must begin. And is this true, Reiner says. What do you mean by that. I mean did it happen. No, no, this is the myth, but myth always has some fact in it. And what is the fact here. I don’t know, this place exists, for a long time people thought it didn’t, that’s a fact to start with. I’m not much interested in myths, Reiner says, let’s climb up there.
He means the mountain behind the ruins.
Because, he says. He is smiling again, there is a peculiar glint in his eye, some kind of challenge has been issued that it would be failure to refuse.
They start to climb. On the lower slope there is a plowed field they walk carefully around, then the mountain goes up steeply, they pick their way through undergrowth and pull themselves through branches. The higher they go the more jumbled and dangerous the rocks become. After an hour or so they have come out on a lower shoulder of the mountain with its tall peak looming overhead, but he doesn’t want to go further than this. Here, he says. Here, Reiner says, looking up, have you had enough. Yes. There is a moment before the answer comes, okay, and when they settle themselves on a rock the German has a strange sardonic look on his face.
Now the ruins are far below and the two or three other people in them are as tiny as toys. The sun is already high and despite the time of year the day is warm. Reiner takes his shirt off and bares again that flat belly with its gunpowder trail of dark hair leading down, down. What are you doing in Greece, he says.
Me. Just traveling around. Just looking.
Looking at what.
I don’t know.
How long have you been traveling for.
A few months.
Where have you been.
I started in England. France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, now I’m back in Greece. I don’t know where I’m going from here.
There is a silence while the German studies him and he looks away, down into the valley, out across the plain to the distant blue mountains, there is a question behind these questions that he doesn’t want to answer. All day he has felt somehow boring and dull in Reiner’s company, but now that he senses his interest he can only be silent.
I have come here to think.
Yes, I have a problem at home. I wanted to come and walk for a few weeks and think.
Reiner says this and then closes his eyes. He will not speak either, but in him silence is power. Unlike me, unlike me. I also take my shirt off, to bask in the warm sun. Then, he doesn’t know why, he doesn’t stop, he takes his shoes and socks off, his pants, he is in his underpants on the rock, the air is not warm anymore. Both of them understand that he is in some way offering himself, thin and pale and edible on the grey stone. He also closes his eyes.
When he opens them again Reiner is busy putting on his shirt. His expression remains unchanged, he gives nothing away. It’s lunchtime, he says, I want to go down.
The next memory that comes is of evening and somehow it’s an inversion of that morning, he is sitting on the parapet again while the last light is fading from the sky, Reiner is in the shower again, the noise of the water carries. Then it stops. A little later he comes out, shirtless again, the towel around his neck, and crosses to sit beside him on the low wall. There is silence for a while and then, as if answering a question that has just been put to him, Reiner says softly that he has come here to think about a woman.
The sun has gone now, the first stars are showing through.
Yes. There is this woman in Berlin. She wants to marry me. I don’t want to get married, but she won’t see me anymore if I don’t marry her.
This is your problem.
And have you decided.
Not yet. But I don’t think I will get married.
The town is built on a slope that continues gently downward for a kilometer or two and then flattens into the plain that runs on to the sea. Where the plain begins is the railway line that brought him here and that will take him away tomorrow and on which, at this moment, a train is distantly passing, its carriages lit from inside by a yellow glow. He watches the train pass. I’m also here because of someone else, he says. But I’m not trying to decide, just to forget.
I thought so.
This person is not a woman.
Reiner makes a gesture on the air, as if he is throwing something away. A man or a woman, he says, it makes no difference to me.
This seems to mean one thing, but may mean another. Later that night in the little room, when they are preparing for bed, he strips down to his underpants, as he did earlier in the day on the rock, then rolls quickly into his sleeping bag. It is very cold tonight. Reiner takes a long time to get ready, folding up his shirt and socks and putting them into his bag. Then he takes off his pants. He does this with a certain sense of ceremony, standing in the center of the room, folding the pants. Then in his underwear, which isn’t black, he crosses to the other bed, the one on which I am lying, and sits down on the edge. Would you like some, he says, holding out an apple, I found this in my bag. The two of them pass it between them, solemnly biting and chewing, the one lying propped up on an elbow, the other sitting with his knees drawn up, all it will take is a tiny movement from one of them, a hand extended, or the edge of the sleeping bag lifted, would you like to get in, but neither makes the move, one is too scared and the other too proud, then the apple is finished, the moment is past, Reiner gets up, rubbing his shoulders, it’s cold in here, he goes back to his own bed.
The light is still on. After a moment he gets up to put it off. Then he crosses the dark room to the other bed and sits down next to Reiner. He doesn’t have an apple to offer and both of them wait in silence, breathing, for the gesture that neither of them will make, then he gets up and goes back to his own bed. He finds that he is trembling.
In the morning they are formal and correct with each other again. They pack their bags. Would you like my address, Reiner says, maybe you will come to Germany one day. He writes it into the little book himself, the tight letters precisely inscribed, then asks, could I have your address, too. I don’t have an address, I don’t have a place, but I’ll give you the name of a friend, this he writes down for the other man, then the exchange is complete. They walk together along the main street out of town, down the long slope to the railway station. Their trains are leaving minutes apart, going in different directions. The railway station is a single room and a concrete platform at the edge of the endless green plain, they are the only passengers waiting, a single official behind a dirty window sells them tickets and then comes out himself when the first train appears, to blow his whistle. The South African gets on and goes to the window. Good-bye, he says, I’m glad I met you.
Why do you always wear black.
The German smiles. Because I like it, he says.
The train starts to move.
I will see you again, Reiner says and raises a hand, and then he is disappearing slowly into distance, the solid landscape turning liquid as it pours.
He goes to sparta, he goes to Pylos. A few days after he leaves Mycenae he is passing through a public square in a town when he sees images of bombs and burning on a television in a café. He goes closer. What is this, he asks some of the people sitting watching. One of them who can speak English tells him that it’s war in the Gulf. Everybody has been waiting and waiting for it, now it’s happening, it’s happening in two places, halfway around the planet and at the same time on the television set.
He watches and watches, but what he sees isn’t real to him. Too much traveling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through. Maybe horror is felt more easily from home. This is both a redemption and an affliction, he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.
The truth is that he is not a traveler by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.
Twenty years before this, for different reasons, something similar had come over his grandfather. Rooted and sedentary for most of his long life, when his wife died something inside the old man broke irrevocably and he took to the road. He traveled all around the world, to the most distant and unlikely places, fueled not by wonder or curiosity but grief. Postcards and letters with peculiar stamps and markings arrived in the mailbox at home. Sometimes he would phone and his voice would come up, it sounded, from the bottom of the sea, hoarse with the longing to be back again. But he didn’t come back. Only much later, when he was very old and exhausted, did he finally return for good, living out his last years in a flat in the back garden behind the house. He wandered around between the flowerbeds, wearing pajamas at midday, his hair wild and unwashed. By then his mind was going. He couldn’t remember where he’d been. All the images and impressions and countries and continents he’d visited had been erased. What you don’t remember never happened. As far as he was concerned, he had never traveled anywhere beyond the edges of the lawn. Irascible and mean for much of his life, he was mostly docile now, but still capable of irrational rage. What are you talking about, he screamed at me once, I’ve never been to Peru, I don’t know anything about it, don’t talk rubbish to me about Peru.
He leaves Greece two weeks later. He moves around from place to place for a year and a half and then he goes back to South Africa. Nobody knows that he’s arrived. He rides in from the airport on the bus, carrying his bag on his knees, looking through the tinted windows at the city he’s come back to live in, and there is no way to say how he feels.
Everything has changed while he was away. The white government has capitulated, power has succumbed and altered shape. But at the level on which life is lived nothing looks very different. He gets out at the station and stands in the middle of the moving crowds and tries to think, I am home now, I have come home. But he feels that he is only passing through.
He catches a taxi to the house of a friend, who has got married in his absence. She is happy to see him, but even in her first embrace he senses how much of a stranger he’s become. To her, and to himself. He’s never been to this house before and he wanders through it, looking at furniture and ornaments and pictures that feel intolerably heavy to him. Then he goes out into the garden and stands in the sun.
His friend comes out to find him. There you are, she says, it’s such a coincidence you arrived today, this was in the mailbox for you this morning. She gives him a letter that might have fallen from the sky. It comes from Reiner.
They start writing to each other. Every two or three weeks the letters go back and forth. The German is dry and factual, he talks about events in his life from the outside. He went back to Berlin. He didn’t get married. He started studying at university, but changed his mind and dropped out. Later he went to Canada, which is where his letters are coming from now, he is on some forestry project somewhere, planting trees.
He tries to imagine him, the dour figure in black with his long silky hair, putting saplings into the ground and tamping down the soil. He can’t remember him very well, not the way he looked, what he retains is the feeling that Reiner stirred in him, a sense of uneasiness and excitement. But he wouldn’t dare to express this, he senses a reluctance in the other man to talk openly about emotions, to do so is somehow a weakness. But however forthright Reiner seems to be about facts, there are still many details missing in his account of himself, with whom did he live in Berlin, who pays for him to go traveling everywhere, what brought him to Canada to plant trees. Somehow, even when these questions are put to him directly, Reiner manages not to answer.
For his part, he has never withheld emotions, if anything he vents them too freely, at least in letters. Because words are unattached to the world. So it is easy to write to Reiner about how hard he finds it to be back. He can’t seem to settle anywhere. He stays with his friend and her husband for a while, but he is an intrusion, an imposition, he knows he has to move on. He takes a room in a house with a student, but he is miserable there, the place is dirty and full of fleas, he doesn’t fit in, after a month or two he moves again. He looks after peoples’ houses while they are away, he beds down in spare rooms. Then he moves into a flat owned by an ex-landlady of his, who occupies the three rooms adjacent and below. But this is a mistake. The landlady comes into his flat at all hours, her yapping poodle follows at her heels, she is going through a bad time, she needs to talk, he tries to listen but he is full of unhappiness of his own. He wants to be alone but she won’t leave him in peace, the dog sheds hair and hysteria all over his floor. At some point he writes to Reiner, I wish you would come here and take me on a long walk somewhere. A letter comes back, thank you for your invitation, I will be there in December.
Don’t meet me at the airport, Reiner tells him, I will find you, there is no need. But he phones the airline to find out the flight, he borrows a car from friends and is in the arrivals hall an hour before the time. He feels a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. It is two years since they saw each other, he doesn’t know how things will be.
When Reiner comes through the door he isn’t expecting anybody and so he isn’t looking around. I stand a little way back to observe him. His appearance is the same. The glossy brown hair hangs down around his shoulders, he is dressed in black from head to foot, he carries the same black backpack. With a severe expression on his face he goes over immediately to a row of plastic chairs to rearrange his bag.
He watches for a minute or two, then tries to look casual as he strolls over and stands beside him.
Reiner looks up. The dark face clears for a moment, then closes over again. Why are you here. I said you should not.
I know. But I wanted to come.
They are unsure of how to greet each other. He opens his arms and the other man accepts the embrace. But not entirely.
Do you not trust me to find my way.
I just wanted to welcome you, that’s all. Can I help you with your stuff.
I have just the one bag. I prefer to carry it myself.
He drives Reiner to his place. As they go up the stairs, the landlady, who is no longer on speaking terms with him, watches through her half-opened door. His flat is almost bare and empty, his few possessions packed into boxes, he will be leaving here at the end of the month. They go out to sit on the balcony, looking down on green trees, the Cape Flats spreading away to the mountains. For the first time he falls silent.
So, Reiner says.
I am here.
They look at each other, both smiling. Till now the fact of Reiner’s arrival was unreal, he didn’t quite believe it would happen, but now they are both in the same place again. They sit out on the balcony, talking. At first they are nervous and awkward with each other, the words don’t come easily and are charged with tension when they do. But after only a short while conversation starts to flow, they relax a little, they discover to their relief that they get on well, that they share a certain humor related to an alienation from things. This helps them like each other again, even if the liking is based on nothing solid as yet, only a vague sense of affinity. It is almost enough.
There is only one bed in his flat, which they have to share. But that night, when the time comes to sleep, Reiner says he doesn’t need a mattress.
What do you mean.
He watches while Reiner goes out onto the balcony and starts unpacking his bag. People need too many things, he explains, taking out a sleeping bag and a thin mat. People want to make themselves comfortable. It is not necessary. He unrolls the mat on the balcony and spreads his sleeping bag on top of it. This is all that is necessary. I prefer it. He takes off his shoes and gets into the sleeping bag and zips it up. He lies there, looking at his companion through the dark. It’s impossible to see any expression on his face. Perfect, he says.