On the south coast of Crete there weren’t many good beaches.
Most of that spectacular coast consisted of rocks and mountains.
And so the beach where were staying – an ellipse of sand lapped by clear blue waters – was a rare gem.
And it wasn’t yet overdeveloped. In the nearby town, about a kilometer away, there were a few hotels and restaurants. Out at the beach, there were some small apartment complexes set back in the hinterland, amongst olive trees.
There was only one hotel on the beach front and that’s where we were staying.
It was October and we were the only people there.
The hotel was pretty basic and badly needed renovating. It had twelve rooms. The rooms were very small but they had their own cooking facilities and oddly enough, very large balconies. We were on the second story at the front. As long as the weather was sunny, the balcony was a fine place to spend time; we had a view of the beach and the ocean, and the high rocky promontories at either end of the bay.
On the beach directly in front of our hotel was an open-air snack bar under a flat, thatch roof. It had a floor of weathered planks. The snack bar itself was shuttered up. There was still a board with a price list attached to one of the support poles. The snack bar became a familiar fixture in our lives. In the evenings we sat near the end of the floorboards, where they met the sand, and looked out to sea. We had two chairs to sit on which had been left behind because they were very much worse for wear; loose, wobbly, but nevertheless with a bit of care, possible to sit on, especially if one didn’t move around too much.
After a while we got used to them.
The autumn nights on the beach were too beautiful to miss.
The sea, the sound of lapping waves, a sky dotted with stars.
And the cats.
Yes, the cats.
They were a part of our experience of that fleeting time in autumn on the south coast of Crete.
There were two of them.
Every night they appeared and came and sat next to us. Regular as clock-work.
One cat, the younger of the two, was white. Completely white.
It sat in front of Anya, slightly to her right, and next to a support pole.
The other, an older cat, was mottled green-grey on its back and head, with a white chest. It sat a little behind me and on my left.
The cats took up these positions every night.
Both cats sat in exactly the same way; upright, front paws straight, tail curled around the body, eyes directed towards the sea – like ours.
Neither cat attempted to attract any affection from us. Neither cat mewed or purred. They were like two miniature sphinxes. The four of us sat there every night, staring out to sea.
And so began the routine. Night times we would go to the snack bar and grab the chairs and sit down – and right on cue, the cats would appear and take up their respective positions.
I was amazed. Then again, I didn’t know much about cats. As a kid, I had been raised with dogs.
Anya told me that cats were enigmatic. They liked to be near humans but also liked to be by themselves. They were social but in a very different way to dogs.
Anya gave the cats names.
The white one she called ‘Alby’.
‘Short for ‘Albino’’ she explained.
‘Alby’. She pronounced it with an Australian accent.
‘Alby’ – a typical Australian shortened name. Every name gets shortened in that country.
‘Alby’ – it could have been the name of an Australian Rules football player.
‘Alby’s runnin’ into an open goal, snap’s the ball on to his left foot….’it’s a goal! You little ripper! Alby does it again!!…’
‘Alby’ – no, not an Australian Rules Football player: a cat.
The other cat, she called ‘Casey’ –
Casey? I asked
Casey the cat, she answered.’Casey the Cat.’
Oh yes, stupid of me not to have worked that out.
So there it was: Alby and Casey: the two Greek cats.
The days passed.
In the mornings: swim and breakfast on our balcony.
In the afternoons: long walks into the nearby mountains, through olive groves and passed villages.
In the evenings: dinner on our balcony and afterwards: sitting on those rickety wooden chairs under the thatch roof of the snack bar with Alby and Casey.
They and us: creatures of habit.
For a few precious weeks there on the south coast of Crete, there were times when I felt intensely at home.
For me, home is a hard place to find.
Where ever I go, I feel restless.
‘Home’: its a place in the mind and I have to struggle to find it.
Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.
Home; nights sitting next to three good friends and looking out to sea.
I wondered about Alby and Casey.
Did they have owners?
They must have had. They looked so healthy.
I’d seen plenty of stray casts elsewhere in Greece, feeding from the rubbish bins. They looked pretty scrawny. Undernourished. It was hard to look at them actually. It was like mistreatment of animals except for the fact that if it wasn’t for the rubbish bins, those scrawny cats wouldn’t have existed.
Not Alby and Casey. It was easy to look at them. They were two fine looking cats.
Still, if someone owned these cats, then he or she didn’t seem to spend much time with them.
Sometimes we saw Alby and Casey during the day, lounging around under a tree or sitting on top of the low stone wall in front of the hotel.
One person I figured who might be able to tell us something about Alby and Casey was the hotel proprietor. Usually she appeared once a day at the hotel in a small black Japanese four-wheel drive – amongst other things, to clean our room and give us fresh towels.
But we never knew when she would appear. There was never a regular time.
She lived outside the town, on a mountain side overlooking the bay. She and her husband and sons were busy picking olives. It was that time of the year. Almost everyone it seemed was out on the slopes picking olives.
They used a long pole with small nylon blades at one end and at the other, a cord leading to a petrol driven generator. They poked the blades up into the trees, the blades whirled around and flicked the olives on to the ground.
The proprietor turned up one afternoon and I got talking to her and in due course asked about Alby and Casey.
They didn’t belong anywhere those cats, she told me, they were strays.
‘If they’re strays, then they’re the two best fed strays I’ve ever seen.’
She said: ‘The cats are fed by the tourists. Tourist season is good time for them. April to September…’
So that was the score: Alby and Casey looked so healthy because they had a spring and summer behind them.
‘What about winter?’ I wondered aloud.
‘Then they go into town.’
Go into town?
Language. Her English was good, but it wasn’t fluent. The way she said ‘go into town’ it sounded like the cats went on a shopping expedition.
This is what I discovered about the cats’ journey ‘into town’: there was an old woman who fed the stray cats during the winter.
’20 cats, sometimes more….like camps for the unemployed in Athens..’
They go ‘into town’ and then come back out here in summer?
‘The first tourists come in April, then the cats return …’.
So soon they will ‘go into town’?
‘One of the days, yes, they will go …’.
Often the hotel proprietor talked about the problems: the Greek problems.
The global financial crisis, the debt, the troika, the mass unemployment. For her it was a natural comparison: the cats being fed in winter by a woman in the village, the poor in Athens being fed at mass kitchens.
Problems. It was a very Greek subject.
Though it has to be said: with the hotel and their olives, she and her husband didn’t seem to be doing too badly.
The evenings sitting under the thatch roof of that deserted snack bar and looking out to sea are still very much alive in my mind. They form a scene of tranquility, somewhere I can find inner calm.
Anya and I, stars, darkness, an inky expanse of sea – and Alby and Casey, somehow perfectly content to sit near us and share our presence.
The four of us staring into nowhere.
Sometimes I talked to them. Told them stories. Even asked them questions.
‘Alby, Casey: ‘Have you ever thought about what lies at the other end of the sea we are looking at?’
No answer. I didn’t need one.
‘Libya: that’s what lies at the other end of the sea we are looking at’.
Libya: its a bad place for cats. A bad place for humans. Civil war, guns, killing. Chaos. The normal people though, they like cats. Mohammed liked cats, I understand. No it’s terrible there now. For you and for us. Cats and people not welcome. ‘
I didn’t tell Alby and Casey about the great Western coalition which had launched a massive attack on Libya in order to remove the dictator Muamar Gaddafi and his degenerate sons. I didn’t tell them about all the Western posturing, the grand talk of liberation, the Arab Spring, and all that. I didn’t mention the awful truth; that the people of Libya were far worse off now than they had been under the dictator.
I tried to keep things simple.
I figured you had to do that when talking to cats, but then again, I was probably doing it for myself.
Keeping things simple had its attractions, especially if you wanted to spend some time at home.
“Yeah, Alby and Casey, you and us: we’re at the right end of the water. It’s safe here. The Greeks, they think they’ve got problems. They’re funny people. They think they’ve got problems but compared to the people and the cats in Libya they’ve got plenty of reasons to laugh. No war, no killing, no guns and bullets and bombs. We can sit here and wile away our time looking.
Gee you cats can certainly spend some time looking. Must be your big eyes. Plus the tourist summer behind you I guess. I wouldn’t fancy our chances over there in Libya. Sitting on a beach at night and looking: that would be a high risk activity. We’re safe here though. Time passes and we can watch it passing. You and us, we’re the souls of a peaceful place….
You and us: strays. ‘
One day, it must have some kind of premonition, Anya asked ‘have you taken any photos of Albi and Casey yet?’
It annoyed her how I generally took ‘arty’ type photos instead of ‘memory’ photos.
‘Why don’t you take some normal photos instead of all that abstract stuff…’
‘Alright, alright, ok…’
So I went out and took photos of Alby and Casey. Albi was sitting on the wall out the front of the hotel and Casey was lounging on the sand near the snack bar. Snap, snap. Couple of ‘normal photos’.
A few days later the weather changed.
Strong winds, big waves, rain. We didn’t go swimming, we went walking instead. At nights it was impossible to sit on our balcony let alone on the beach. When it was no longer possible to sit on the balcony, the room suddenly seemed impossibly small; well, not surprising, it was impossibly small.
By the time the weather got better, Alby and Casey were gone. It was dramatic. Not a sign of them. The premonition of advancing winter, carried by gale force winds, had triggered off old memories, old hungers, and they had gone into town.
The weather fined up but sitting under the thatch roof at nights had lost its allure.
Home, experienced for a couple of weeks, could no longer be found.
Alby and Casey were gone.
It was time for the two remaining strays to move on.
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