Sunday Telegraph, October 2014
Surprisingly, there are down sides to taking a holiday to a warm Greek island in the month of October. The main one is that you return to your UK abode and find it all grey and mournful and joyless – up to its knees in fallen leaves, needing the lights on for the best part of the day, and with no view whatsoever of a wine-dark sparkling Aegean with an azure sky above. On the plus side, of course, you have cunningly extended the summer by taking such a holiday; you have sunbathed on deserted beaches; you have absorbed a lot of health-giving anti-oxidants along with the delicious fresh salad ingredients. And then on the down side again, you’ve missed the last two episodes of Bake Off, which means you’ve had to be hyper-vigilant about the news, in case the identity of the series winner (Nancy!) accidentally entered your consciousness prematurely.
The particular warm Greek island I go to is in the Dodecanese, and I’ve been going there since 2001. I have British and Greek friends who live there permanently; I also have friends who own houses there. When I first discovered this island, I would socialise with other holiday-makers, and would occasionally attempt to speak Greek. But over the years Ecalpemos (not its real name) has become a sort of second home where I can live quite cheaply, concentrate on a bit of work, and completely get away from it all. I have written radio plays there; I have written short stories. For a few years running, I rented a tiny hovel high up above the little town, with terrific air and a lofty view – and it felt so perfectly writer-in-exile to be on its shaded morning terrace in front of my laptop that I once foolishly poured myself an ouzo to complete the picture, and woke up several hours later vowing never to do that again.
But this time I saw the place in a new light. This time I made two decisions. First, that I would not write. Second, that I would invite an old friend whose holidays are usually city breaks driven by guide books and a sense of urgency. We have travelled together before, and I have certainly benefitted from her dedication to seeing the sights (“It’s the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, Lynne! How on earth can you want to sit down for a bit?”) But I felt she might like to be introduced to a different kind of holiday. “Come to the island!” I said. “Relax for once!” And of course what happened was that I saw Ecalpemos through her eyes – and it was hilarious. Because it turns out that what I really go there for is simply to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk – for hour after hour – yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. My friend kept saying, “I didn’t expect it to be like this” – and I kept saying I was sorry I hadn’t warned her, but it had never struck me before. But what a glorious thing to have a place to go where you never stop talking. Especially if (like me) you generally work on your own all day with just the doggie for company.
In no time, my friend knew everyone. Inside a day, she had an advanced understanding of the history of the tour companies serving the island (including their personnel); inside a week, she was ready to take an O Level on the seasonal anomolies of Greek ferry timetables. She even knew quite a bit about people who weren’t there. “I’m afraid you won’t meet Bob,” I said, at the beginning. “He’s coming out next week.” And she must have thought, “All right, so why mention him at all?” But then, when every social conversation included allusions to Bob as the organiser of excellent star-gazing expeditions; Bob’s house as the nicest on the island; Bob once texting me with the immortal message “AM WAVING” – it started to feel like an Alan Ayckbourn play. “You’ve probably heard about Bob?” polite people would ask her, and she’d say (laughing), “Oh yes.”
It has been weird, being back at home. For a while there, with the ungraspable and depressing horrors of the real world kept firmly at bay, conversation concerned (mainly) an expedition to a bigger island to buy a fridge for Bob’s house in his absence. “Did you get it?” we asked. “How did you get it up the steps?” It was simple, humdrum, real-life stuff, and I am going to miss it terribly.