On the Koile Road
By Joshua Barley
...and there was no more sea.
Revelation 21:1 (KJV)
Willis Thompson was moving fast, with the thrill of escape. He didn’t look back, but if he did he would just be able to make out the edge of the square he had left a few moments before. It was a typical Athenian square, with leafless, gnarled mulberry trees standing among a faded mosaic of yellow and pink. At the edge of the square, hardly noticed any more by the local residents, was the fenced pit of an ancient fountain. Willis looked into this chasm for the hundredth time as he strode past on his way to the neighbouring hill. The ground had been torn open and left like an unhealed wound, as if by exposing its insides the passerby might reach a deeper understanding of the place — get to the heart of the matter, as they say. But Willis saw only reddish rubble and incomplete arches, propped up by steel bars. He couldn’t imagine how this ruin was once a monumental structure, let alone one gushing water. All that remained where the spring had been was the unsteadiness of the earth.
Beyond the fountain, Willis slipped between two bulging apartment blocks and turned a corner beside an overflowing skip. The road led past a church. He looked up and read, in geometric, gold lettering,
ΙΕΡΟΣ ΝΑΟΣ ΜΕΤΑΜΟΡΦΩΣΕΩΣ ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ
He was pleased that the letters were no longer simply abstract shapes, but decipherable forms. After two months in Athens his Greek was improving apace. The Holy Church of the Metamorphosis of the Saviour. This could only be a good omen, he thought, for today he was changing himself. Today he too was becoming a decipherable form. Today, he was sure, he was becoming new.
Back in the square, Henry would still be drinking with the group of expats. Willis thought of his old school friend and the others, reclining under the mulberry trees. He was glad he had got up and left. He imagined them looking at his empty chair in perplexity, at the dregs of his cocktail fattening with melting ice. Yes, they would be missing him. They would probably be talking about him. He knew the impression he had made on them ever since he arrived, with his aristocratic looks, the wild stories of his youth, the thunderous success of his early painting career, the background that none of them shared. He liked to think they talked about him a lot. They were eagerly awaiting his new painting of Athens, he was certain. And he had heard the whispers that circulated about him — a family tragedy, a broken engagement, a lost inheritance, many other things. He didn’t care to settle their curiosity. Well, it didn’t matter anymore. Especially today, it didn’t matter. The air was bringing life to his cheeks and the March sun poured into him, filling him up like a glass of wine. Athens was good for him, he knew it.
The road made a right angle around the church and passed under a bridge. Willis was striding jauntily, instinctively clutching his portfolio to his side. Inside, coyly hidden from the others in the square, was his ‘Athens picture’. That very morning he had finished it and he was feeling triumphant. He marched through the underpass like a general entering a fallen city, then emerged on the bright hill.
Out in the open, Willis let all the colours and shapes become part of him. The grass was a vibrant, almost alien green — brighter, but much shorter-lived than its English equivalent. The Scots pines, too, which flecked the hillside, shimmered in clouds of electrifying green. The carob trees’ green was duskier, darker, and the olives fluttered in silver ribbons. The sun needled down on everything, picking out edges and cracks — as if it were the sun itself that had lasered the fissures into the rocks. It was a grotto-landscape, snatched out of a fairytale, and the strange polygons of stone looked unreal, as if they were made of paper. Everything was still almost-new to him and he liked that. It was a language for him to learn. In time it would all come under his brush, he thought smugly.
He looked again at the rocks. Among the grass, on both sides of the path, they bore the signs of human activity. Some had evidently been cut into stairs, others showed signs of a levelling that implied floors or walls. Henry had alerted him to this feature of the hill, which must have been densely settled in ancient times. Willis hadn’t noticed it much when he first came, but now he couldn’t fail to notice it. Yes, every single rock had been touched, conditioned in some way. It made him feel almost claustrophobic, as if he were trespassing. He imagined himself moving through a sitting room, now a kitchen, now a bedroom, a whole throng of faint people crowding around him.
A whisper of annoyance came into his mind when he thought of Henry lecturing him — that self-assuredness he had when he spoke of ancient things, running his hands through his floppy hair. Why couldn’t he leave him alone, let him walk without infecting him with thoughts? He had Henry to thank for being in Athens, he knew that, but now he disliked their closeness. Henry knew too much about him — knew him in England, knew his house, his family, had been by his side for the final weeks before he left England. But now his presence was stifling. Willis pushed his friend from his mind. What mattered now was real and unquestionably alive, and it was waiting for him — he was sure — at the top of the hill.
‘Look out for strange men up there,’ Henry had warned him the first time he had gone. How wrong, how utterly wrong he had been.
Willis moved along the path with all the certainty of a stylus in the groove of a record. He knew the route well, had walked it countless times for his painting — the painting that was swinging at his side. But there was a different reason now, more vital and pressing. Every day for the last fifteen days he had walked up the hill at this time, as if he might recreate what had happened on that evening two weeks before — as if his very walk, carried out at the same time, would set off the same chain of events. He remembered the scene impressionistically — the lights of the city that sparked into life, the wind on his face off the sea, the shadow next to him, the eyes that he caught and, somehow, knew just what they meant... the strong arms on him... the pleasure...
Shy of the memory, he stopped his thoughts: if he remembered it too keenly, it might not happen again. In the wake of the excitement came the accustomed guilt, like a coppery taste into his mouth. He thought of his mother, alone in the big house. She probably had a drink in her hand now, was probably watching the television in the kitchen, or looking out at the garden in the gloom. She didn’t have many evenings left in that place. He wanted to get rid of the taste. He turned and spat, imagining his mother’s disapproval, and the gob landed in a groove carved into the rock below the path — one of the old cart tracks on the road to Piraeus. Henry was tormenting him again. He felt disgruntled at this groove, this mark of the eternal repetition of vehicles on the road, this one-time thoroughfare. It seemed that he was stepping into a millennia-old groove, rather than his own, and there was something depressingly inevitable about his path. He followed the groove around a corner, out of the sun, and came in front of one of the many caves that dot the hill. The fissured rock breathed like a cold stream.
He had now reached a cobbled road that ran along the first lip of the hill. He heard the low nasal tones of a cantor and saw the church nestled among the pines, built so cleverly with fragments of old marble. The cantor’s melody wound into his mind like a piece of string, imprinting itself. It was the time of Vespers, and many people were walking on the road outside the church – a motley collection of tourists, dog-walkers and well-to-do Athenians on their evening stroll. It was as though the time of day itself and the season were acting upon them, and Willis felt the same sinking sense of inevitability. On any other day, he thought, under the same conditions, a different, yet indistinguishable crowd would be taking the same walk, as certain as Vespers. You could set your clock by it. Perhaps someone else like him, another foreign run-away, was walking this hill every day, too, trying to change themselves. Perhaps they had done for centuries.
Willis bit his lip and moved upwards, clambering through the rubble of huge stone blocks beside the road. The terrain became steeper, and he had to dally behind a family of tourists who were pausing for breath. A jumble of languages clattered down from above. Higher up, out in the sun again, his skin pricked beneath his fur-lined coat. He remembered the rash on his lower back, which seemed to be spreading. It itched, but he would not take his coat off. It made him feel grander, more noble. He had bought it in Paris with his mother, shortly after his father died. The coppery taste came into his mouth again. He didn’t spit this time but lifted his head and looked around. The sun wasn’t quite setting, and the landscape was brought into final, glorious focus. In the plain of Athens, houses were coming into view, apartment blocks bristling with aerials. He had grown used to these buildings now, almost loved them. His was somewhere among that great anonymous white blanket — his bare few rooms, still undecorated since he’d moved in, but completely his own. The arena for his new life. He thought of his road, he could almost see it down there, his sweet, shady road with its shops and its life, the garish palette of graffiti, the bar that stayed open until the last person left, who was often Willis himself, carrying on his conversation with the barman, who knew nothing about him and had no interest in his past or his future.
At the monument on the summit of the hill he paused and let his eyes follow the line of all the phones, glued inextricably on the Acropolis. The crowned rock rose from the plain like a thrusting fist. He didn’t linger long. In the opposite direction, a ridge swept downwards, flattening into a steep-sided plateau. Willis turned and struck out along it, pleased to be going against the crowd at last.
Two lovers were sitting on a bench where lovers always sat. They were rolling cigarettes, looking towards the sun. Otherwise Willis was alone. He tripped easily down the earth-fashioned steps onto the plateau, his portfolio swinging at his side. From this platform above the world he looked across hazy air to a sea that was as heavy and veined as a block of marble. He felt giddy and light, as if with a running jump he might soar all the way to the surf.
He was nearing the precipice now. Up here the wild oats, warmed by the sun, smelled like an English summer. There were poppies, too, and on one side of the path a swathe of grape hyacinths was painting the slope blue, as if someone had toppled a bucket of them off the top. At the edge of the cliff was a bush of Spanish broom, whose flaming flowers had lost their colour in the twilight. Behind this bush, concealed from the rest of the place, was a small patch of land. This was Willis’ corner. With a thrill he saw that the grass was still flattened — unmistakable evidence of human presence, he thought with a smile, but his presence this time. His and another’s. Their history. He sat upon it again and looked over the edge.
Eternal fissuring, that was the phrase Henry had used about this landscape. He was loathe to think about his friend again, but he was right, the bastard. All across the view before him, the land was studded with naked outcrops of rock, protruding out of the ground like teeth. The hill he was on now was one such protrusion, and it offered a drop as precipitous as any. Willis looked down it, following the jagged cliff to the bottom, where a makeshift theatre had been built into its face.
Henry had a well-developed theory about this landscape: the dearth of good soil, the fragmented, tectonic rock, begetting springs, earthquakes, marble, grass of electric green, carpets of grape hyacinths, orchids, all kinds of revelations and resurrections, born of this landscape with its sharp edges and its precipitous drops.
‘This is the place to change yourself,’ he remembered Henry saying.
As he looked at the view he thought of the painting, sitting in its case at his side. He pulled it out. Following Henry’s advice, he had executed it from almost exactly this spot on the hill. He remembered his friend telling him that from here he would be able to see all the layers of Athenian history, the one written on the other ‘like a palimpsest’. Willis disliked these words now. What he saw — what he thought he saw — was not layers of the past, but a landscape brimming with potential, on the point of being transformed.
He held the painting up against the view, already knowing what was coming. It was sick-making. Even now, in the fading light, he understood its irrelevance. It was, he couldn’t quite explain it, old. The colours and shapes were all wrong — they bore no resemblance to what he saw before him. The sea was simply the sea, no veined marble. The grass was just grass, no shimmering cloud of green. The sun was the sun. Nothing had been transformed.
He knew what to do. With a flick of his wrist the painting was over the edge, soaring into the hazy air beneath him, fluttering back and forth like the insignificant, lifeless object it was, before soundlessly landing in the earth below. Perhaps Henry would find it, he thought, or one of the artists on their morning jog around the hill. They would be shocked, he was sure. In the square they would talk endlessly about a lost masterpiece. Although, something told him, even that seemed doubtful now. At the very least, they would worry about him. Yes, if they cared at all, they would worry about him...
A change in the light ended his thoughts abruptly: at that moment, the last rays of day caught all of the solar panels of Athens at once. As if taking a signal from above, channelling a supernatural message, the whole city sparked alight — a million reflecting materials on a million indistinct apartment blocks. This was the moment that Willis had been waiting for, the moment he remembered with awe.
A change came over the place, barely perceptible yet catholic. The clouds took on rings of light, like in an eclipse. The sea gleamed like polished metal. Somewhere a church bell clanged. The wind blew off the sea. And all of a sudden Willis was back in England, a child clambering onto the roof of his family home when he should have been going to bed: out of the bathroom skylight and onto the flat ledge from where he could look out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight. That was what he saw as he looked out across the Saronic Gulf towards the silhouette of Aegina. A sadness but a sense of balance overcame him. He thought of all the ships that had been swallowed in that sea, in those seas, and the waves of history that had passed over the place. They all collapsed into one, the layers obliterated.
The beloved figure appeared beside him, as he knew it would. He recognised the eyes and the strong frame. But there was something different this time. The same light that hit the sea and the buildings now reflected on an object in the man’s hand, something metallic and sharp. He looked for a smile in those eyes, but there was none. As the figure moved slowly towards him, with its brutal tenderness, Willis felt a fear like he had never experienced before. He slithered backwards, until the ground gave way beneath him. He tried to cling onto the Spanish broom, and when he slipped on that he made to hold the rock, but it fissured in his hand, and then the rock was moving very quickly in front of his face, and he grasped desperately for the square and the jour fixe with Henry and the artists, and when that slipped away he clung onto the image of the great house, the ancestral home that was about to be sold because he couldn’t keep it up, because he had no siblings and he wouldn’t marry, or couldn’t marry... and as the rock sped faster before his eyes, he fumbled for the garden, his bedroom, his fireplace, the look of his mother as she came in to wish him goodnight and his cheeks were still flushed from the cool twilight air of the roof and he was breathing hard and trying to hide it because he had run down when he heard her steps coming up, and hidden his little sketch under the bed, and he was — perhaps more than any other time, for he had just looked over the parapet at a world beyond, which he now knew was there but he didn’t need to go to yet — safe.
Read Joshua Barley’s prose and translations in Pericles at Play:
Cassandra, by Lena Kallergi
Trees in Sun, Cyprus
Oil paint on canvas
Framed dimensions: 815 x 935 x 95 mm