A black-and-white cat munches purposefully, if a little sloppily, on a fish. She is sitting on a little fishing boat, which is anchored at a quay in Donousa - a tiny island in the Western Aegean. Her fur is matted, and in the fading Greek sunlight, nestled against the stark yellow fishing nets that surround her, she looks strikingly like a character from a Rembrandt scene. She glances up from her meal to look around, mouth bloodied and sopping wet, her eye glued half shut from some unknown ailment, her face grizzled and stoic. She looks towards her ginger-brown friend who sits nearby, and studies her for a moment, before returning to her task and continuing to munch. The ginger-brown cat hesitates, before joining her on the boat.
They’d seized their chance at about 6pm - the fishermen who owned the little boat had left their nets unguarded. This being 6pm, they’d gone for a long overdue ‘Greek breakfast’ (cigarettes and coffee), and so the two mogs had duly chewed through a fishing net and taken their pick. The nonchalance with which both the fishermen had abandoned their post, and the ease with which the cats had invaded it, suggested to me that this was a pretty usual occurrence - that the situation was more careful symbiosis than protection-racket. The two friends continue to munch, somehow both very deliberately and very messily, heads diving into the nets for a second or two, before emerging, rather proud of themselves, chewing and licking their lips. So engrossed in their task, that they were utterly unaware of one of the grizzled fisherman, whose cigarette(s) had run down, and whose coffee had been drunk, and was walking down the quay towards his boat.
He stopped briefly to watch a little girl with pigtails: she was sitting on a big red motorbike, one that had clearly been lovingly polished and repaired, raging against the inevitable difficulties of living on an island with 150 inhabitants, most of whom would presumably be more adept at fixing hulls and anchor chains than bikes. None of these practical concerns seemed to bother the little girl, whose two messy brown pigtails flailed as she bounced up and down excitedly on the leather seat. Her mother stood by her, the serious facade of a cautious hand behind a bouncing back, and a few stern words of warning, being utterly undermined by an unsuppressable smile. The wrinkled, grey-haired owner of the bike, almost certainly a friend or relative (see: 150 inhabitants), was also struggling to hide a smile. In a moment of genius, he reached over and carefully showed the little girl how to honk the horn, to feigned, halfhearted protestations from the mother. He grinned at the the latter and winked at the former, who giggled explosively and proceeded to honk the horn a dozen or so times. The owner then left the mother desperately trying to slow the rate of honks down, and turned to finish loading fish into a large blue bucket, some 2-feet in diameter.
The grizzled fisherman smiled briefly at the scene, and walked on, now to the soundtrack of frantic honking and bursts of giggling. He walked past Tomas without stopping. Tomas was sitting moodily on a bench at the edge of the quay, and he was nursing a cigarette. He was our skipper for the week, and at thirty-eight, had lived a frenetic life. He had previously been (in no particular order), a squatter in London, an architecture student in Germany (he dropped out when he ‘didn’t like the vibe’ - of two different universities), a successful movie and television actor, one part of an “unconventional loving relationship” (done, I surmised, partly to spite his parents, partly to spite Athenian expectations of marriage), a father, and a very successful lover. This last point was unsurprising - he is a beautiful man, very articulate and well-read (especially on Marxism and Eastern spirituality) and oozed a confident Mediterranean energy from an easygoing smile that was at once intimidating in its perfection and welcoming in its demureness. While an Englishman would readily sunbathe around a lamp-post, Tomas looked as though the sun coyly asked permission before softly kissing his skin.
Beneath this suave exterior is, however, a deep-set insecurity. The inevitable by-product of leaving an intense and interesting life in search of the open sea, it seems, is that your life becomes less intense and interesting. Calm and reflective, yes, but it felt as though more than a small part of Tomas lived actively through his past. His pensive wisdom and gentle confidence came from a wealth of life experience that occasionally popped up and hovered around him like a fly - one he didn’t even pretend to swat away. One such fly popped up earlier that day. We had sailed from the south side of Donousa, and had anchored in a small cove along the way. Claustrophobia from the cramped boat, combined with beautiful weather, had made me restless, and Tomas advised me to go for a hike around the cliffs. He duly described a route, and as he helped me unceremoniously clamber into the dinghy to paddle towards the beach, he made sure to catch my ear: ‘Luke, a favour please’. He told me about a stone that he’d painted with a lover many years before, and had placed behind a stone wall near the beach. He gave me strict instructions. ‘Find it and take a picture for me’. I couldn’t tell if the urgency in his voice was put-on or genuine (an unintended side-effect of Tomas’ London-learnt sarcasm translated through Greek intonation), but I planned on granting his wish nevertheless. So off I went, slowly ‘rowing’ in the most undignified manner away from the skipper, who lit a cigarette in salute of my mission.
I found it. Well, I found a painted rock. And then another. And then another. All in all, I found about seven, in different stages of weathering - spirals and dots and rainbows, one stark yellow-blue Hindu ‘Aum’, one simply painted a dull red. A few were clearly new, bright and defiant; others were faded like a modern scar of some Paleolithic muse. I went on my hike, and an hour or so later returned to Tomas. He heard my flailing/paddling and stood on the stern of the boat waiting for me. Another (I assume different) cigarette was in hand. ‘Any stone?’ he said immediately. I nodded: ‘loads actually, which one is yours?’. He furrowed his brow: ‘no no, we only painted one…’ He trailed off as he started flicking through the pictures on my phone. I smiled and told him that clearly he had inspired a trend. Tomas didn’t respond. His neglected cigarette, down by his side, extinguished in the breeze. His eyes were squinted in confusion, lips pursed. After what felt like an age, he looked up at me. In a quiet mumble, the softest his voice had been on the trip, he simply said: ‘I don’t know which one is mine’. A long pause. ‘I can’t remember what we painted’. He handed back my phone, and turned quickly back to the helm.
Now, Tomas sits sullenly on a bench at the edge of the quay, and takes a long drag of his cigarette. Pondering, no doubt, the painted stones and the forgotten lovers of the past and the fragility of art and the transience of memory. He did not flinch at the little girl honking her motorbike horn giddily one last time (before protesting at being lifted off her new favourite toy). He did not look up as the fisherman returned to his boat to loudly shoo away the two cats munching on his fish. Tomas simply sat and pondered.
A few things then happened in quick succession. On the now cat-less fishing boat, the disgruntled fisherman surveyed two half-eaten fish, and another perfectly healthy one who had, like an action movie, received its very own Deus Ex Machina moments before the jaws of death. This was short-lived however - the fisherman threw the two half-fish into the sea, before stomping suddenly and violently on the head of the healthy one, whose hapless flopping ceased rather abruptly, and promptly followed his two brothers back into the ocean. From their watch-point on the quay, a few metres from the boat, the black-and-white cat stared silently, defiantly, intently at this warning, while the ginger-brown cat visibly jumped a metre or so and scooted further down the quay. Meanwhile, the little girl watched as the motorbike’s owner straddled the seat, popped the large bucket of fish on his shoulder, and set off. A second later, tires squealed, a few choice words in Greek were heard, and the man came tumbling off the bike, fish and bucket going flying. The girl, who had been watching intently and waving him goodbye, screamed and burst into tears, immediately inconsolable in a way that only a toddler can be.
This personal Hindenburg was, in the grand scheme of things, over pretty quickly - the man jumped up and brushed himself off (conscious of the fisherman on the boat sniggering), and immediately began to throw the fish back in the capsized bucket. Moments later, he was smiling and honking the horn again, desperately trying to show the little girl with pigtails that everything was okay. It wasn’t - not to her at least. She remained sniffly and tearful, hiding behind her mother’s legs. The honking merged with another sound - a techno version of ‘Lord of the Dance’ which pinged from the fisherman’s pocketed Nokia flip-phone. He sighed, wiped his hands on a net, and clambered out of the boat to answer it, making sure to wipe his boots on a bitt, leaving the remains of the fish-head in its wake. No sooner had the fisherman turned his back, than the black-and-white cat had darted back into the boat, and had proceeded to stick her head back into the fishing net. Her ginger-brown friend was having none of this, remaining sphinx-like on the quay, watching her friend tempt fate in a way that proclaimed: ‘I am surrounded by idiots’. The black-and-white puss didn’t care, and looked all the more triumphant at every munch. Another honk from the bike. The girl remained behind her mother’s legs, snivelling, determined not to be tempted by the scary red machine again.
Tomas, meanwhile, had made his way over to me - I was sitting observing all this mayhem from the deck of the boat. He had clearly finished pondering the painted stones and the forgotten lovers of the past and the fragility of art and the transience of memory - he had certainly finished his cigarette, the butt of which he held in his hand. He glanced confusedly at my notebook and camera, but this look passed quickly - he had some more important news to tell me. He smiled: ‘Luke, there is a beautiful woman sitting in that cafe over there. I think she is Italian and I think she is single. I am going to find out.’ Before I could answer, he winked, about-turned, discarded his cigarette butt into the ocean, and strode off in the direction of the cafe. Past his bench at the edge of the quay, and the little girl with the pigtails wiping away tears, and the black-and-white cat munching purposefully, if a little sloppily, on a fish.