Alan leapt out of bed. It was a quarter to seven and he had missed the boat. He had packed his bags and dressed for the trip the night before, and though it was May he’d even put on his Burberry raincoat so as to be completely ready. Then he sat on his bed smoking and drinking coffee, listening to the church bells marking the hours, counting them as they passed, holding his watch up to his ear to make sure it hadn’t stopped. He saw the whole night pass before his window, heard the first owl of the year, and talked to himself for hours on end, which made him laugh, because in his novel he was trying to write an interior monologue, and though he knew the mechanics of it and had studied lots of other writers to see how and when they used it, he just couldn’t make it work. As soon as the main character started in, he seemed like the waiter at Antonio’s café yelling, “Ice cream! Ice cream!” to the Japanese tourists as they climbed down the gangway of the cruise ship. “And now look,” he said, “here I am, alone in the night, creating an interior monologue I’ll never be able to write.”
Alan drank coffee and smoked, stared out the window and said, “Dear darling island, how I hate you, you’re a prison smothered in flowers, I’ve never been more eager to leave a place. I can’t stand this enchantment anymore, I can’t stand being bewitched in this way—when I look at you, my gaze turns to nothing but a mirror of light, I’ll be staring at you for ages, hypnotized, and when I stop seeing you I’ll feel you, and when I stop feeling you I’ll die. How I long for ugliness and filth, cities, streets, cars, I want to wake up in the morning and wait at a red light to cross the street, I want to wait and watch busses pass by, faces peering at me through the glass, then the light will turn green and I’ll walk across the road in the pedestrian crosswalk. By this time tomorrow I’ll be walking in some city. I’ll have been saved.”
At around five he lay down for a minute and fell asleep. The next thing he knew, he heard Heracles shouting “Flying Dolphin!” and looked out the window and saw the first hydrofoil glide into the harbor and then leave again right away, lifting its wings like some enormous metal insect and disappearing around the cape. He was gripped by such panic that as he grabbed his suitcases and ran for the door, he picked up the coffee pot, too, and when he reached the café on the waterfront he set it down on the table, still full, the coffee still hot. It was five past seven. Heracles was on the wharf, talking to the port officer. Alan called them over to his table and offered them coffee. “French roast,” he told them, wanting to butter them up, especially Heracles, who for Alan had become the God of the Flying Dolphins, shouting “Flying Dolphin!” in a playful, melodic voice, as if he were in a one-man show on Broadway.
The port officer took two paper cups from a trash can attached to a utility pole. The can had Rubishes written on the side.
“They’re clean,” he said. “I put them there at night after they empty the trash, so in the morning I can have my coffee or orange juice whenever I like.”
They sat down, poured themselves some coffee, lit cigarettes. They were alone on the waterfront; all the cafés were closed, and the sun was still hidden behind the mountain.
“You brought the coffee, we’ve got the cups—that’s what I call organization,” Heracles said gravely, then fell silent.
I better watch it or I’ll go mad, or die laughing, Alan thought, then asked what time the next boat left.
“Is your hair naturally blond or do you bleach it?” Heracles asked. “I ask because my wife’s hair is sort of blond and one day she put bleach on it and sat in the sun and ended up looking like a carrot.”
“It’s natural,” said Alan.
“My wife’s an idiot,” Heracles said and fell silent. Then he remembered Alan’s question and exchanged a glance with the port officer. They pulled some papers from their pockets and spread them out on the table.
“May second,” the port officer answered.
Heracles looked at his sheet.
“The middle season ends in May but it doesn’t say which day.”
The port officer looked at his.
“No. High season starts in May, so by the second we should already be in high season, in which case the schedule changes. Sorry, Mr. Alan, but today is a little difficult, as far as the times are concerned. At any rate, I’m sure we’re in high season by now.”
Annoyed, Heracles rustled his papers and underlined something with a red marker.
“No. High season starts sometime in May, but we don’t know which day, we’re still in middle season but it’s almost over, we’re heading towards high season—see, Mr. Alan, look for yourself, to me it’s perfectly clear, there’s no question about it.”
Alan saw the sun emerging from behind the mountain. He was sweating and his hands were trembling, though he hadn’t had a thing to drink.
“What time is the next boat? I demand to know what time the next boat leaves.”
“No way to tell,” Heracles said, “since we don’t know if we’re—”
“Yes,” said Alan. “Yes, Heracles, I understood, you don’t need to go through it again—but goddammit, when’s the next boat?”
“No way to tell, Mr. Alan, and don’t curse so early in the morning, is it our fault if we don’t know whether—”
“Oh, shut up!” Alan said, in English, his voice echoing loudly over the deserted waterfront. Then he said, “Excuse me,” still in English.
“Never mind,” Heracles replied. They were the only words of English he knew, and it always made him happy when he got a chance to use them. He nodded to the port officer and they rose.
“Bon voyage,” the port officer said to Alan. He’d learned that from a Japanese girl he had gotten alone in an alleyway the whole time her boat was docked there. Afterwards she took a picture of him from the deck and shouted, “Bon voyage!”
“What does that mean?” he’d asked a mule driver.
“Have a nice trip.”
“She’s the one leaving, so why is she telling me èBon voyage’?”
“Who cares?” the mule driver had said. “You screwed her, right? Just shout èBon voyage’ back and be done with it.”
Heracles and the port officer left.
Day was breaking over the empty waterfront. Alan sat waiting with his bags clenched tightly between his legs, his raincoat buttoned up to his neck, his belt tight around his waist. The coffee in the pot on the table was still hot and the sea was deserted, not even a caique passed by, and the sun lit up the hills, which were covered with daisies and poppies, and Alan remembered that it was spring and for a moment he felt that love again, that desire for the island, the same love that had smothered him back home in Australia whenever he remembered some street, some smell.
“At least you were spared the low-season schedule.”
Someone laughed behind him. He turned his head and saw Manolis, impeccable in his uniform, looking at him conspiratorially, ready to burst out laughing again—and he had such a good-natured look in his eyes that Alan turned back around and started to laugh, too, uncontrollably, the laugh he’d been holding in for so long, until both of them were silently shaking. “Bon voyage,” Alan said in his Australian accent and they laughed even harder. Then Alan took off his raincoat and tossed it down on top of his bags.
“Speaking of high season,” he said, “why don’t we go for a highball at the bar?”
“The bar is closed. But Antonio should be opening soon, we can go there for a brandy,” Manolis said.
“What’s wrong with me today? It’s as if I’ve already left and have forgotten everything about this place. I’ve been opening the bar at noon every day for months. I’m Bill’s partner now, I bought Stefanos’s share when he went for detox. You didn’t know I was part owner? I don’t want brandy, I want for the boat to come and for me to leave.”
“You’ll leave. There are Flying Dolphins all the time, we just don’t know when. Why don’t we sit here and relax and as soon as we see it…” Manolis pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and read, in English, “off you go!”
Alan laughed again.
“Where’d you learn that?”
“At the station. From you guys. Aren’t I always having to deal with foreigners? So I wrote it all down on a sheet of paper. I learned the slang too, listen: èwhat the fuck,’ èscrew you bastard,’ èmother fucker,’ èfaggot,’ that’s better than èqueer,’ or at least that’s what one guy told me, this black guy with orange hair, this six-foot faggot who tried to strangle me one night at the station—which do you like better, èfag,’ or èfaggot,’ or the French èpédé’?”
“You’re right. It’s more respectful.” Manolis winked at him. “But then you’re quite a lady’s man yourself, three marriages, and I’ve met all your wives, cute girls, blonde and Nordic, my taste exactly—and I’ve seen you with other women, too, you put all the others to shame. Do you take them to your place after the bar?”
“Of course. Where else would I take them?”
“It’s just that a few times you seemed to be saying goodnight to them at the door. Could happen. Anyhow, I always say you’re a lady’s man, let the construction workers and mule-drivers say what they like, as far as they’re concerned all foreigners are faggots because they’re polite and have manners, but I always say you may be Australian, but you’re a lady’s man, and a writer too, just like…” Manolis pulled out his slip of paper again. “Hemingway, writer and journalist, just like you. Nobel Prize. Shot his brains out with a rifle at his house in the country. He had a beard.”
Manolis put the paper back in his pocket. They smoked in silence. It was five past eight.
“This island is full of writers,” Manolis suddenly continued, as if it was something that had been on his mind. “They all come here and torture themselves, this one can’t write, that one can’t stop, they all end up going nuts. If you asked me to make you a story, to sit for hours writing it down on paper with all those details, how this guy smokes, how that guy dresses, and then of course what he’s feeling—there’s no way I could do it. How can anyone write down what they feel? Even in real life we don’t know, moods change from second to second—by the time I’ve finished a cigarette, I can’t even remember what I was thinking when I lit it—and all you writers try to get all that down on a piece of paper, and then to top it all off you want it to make sense. Really, why do you torture yourselves like that? That’s why the whole lot of you are always drunk, and one guy goes and kills himself like Mr. Ernest Nobel Hemingway, and you’re always trying to leave—why don’t you guys just write letters or something if you need to let off some steam? The island is a great place for writing letters. Me, I write my reports with nice colored pens, put in a little emotion, sit back and relax.”
“Where did you learn all that?”
Manolis’s face grew soft, changed, his mouth shaping itself into an unfamiliar curve.
He has the face of an intellectual, Alan thought, so surprised that he didn’t even hear Manolis’s answer: