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 kilometre away, there were a few hotels and restaurants but out at the beach, 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 basic; the rooms were very small but they had their own cooking facilities – and very large balconies – the idea being that in summer, people wanted to spend most of their time outside. We were on the second story at the front and 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 with a floor of weathered planks. it was closed yet it became a familiar fixture in our lives. Late in the afternoons and 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.
The autumn nights on the beach were too beautiful to miss.
The sea, the sound of lapping waves, a sky ablaze with stars.
And 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 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, like The Sphinx. They liked to be near humans but also liked to be by themselves. They were social but in a very different way to dogs.
She gave the cats names.
The white one she called ‘Alby’.
‘Short for ‘Albino’’ she explained.
‘Alby’. She pronounced it with an Australian accent.
‘Alby’ – it could have been the name of an Australian Rules football player.
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 afterwards, breakfast on our balcony.
In the afternoons: long walks into the nearby mountains, through olive groves and passed villages.
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’: it’s a place in the mind and I have to struggle to find it. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.
Well there it was: 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.
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. That gave me an idea.
One person I thought who might be able to tell us something about Alby and Casey was the hotel proprietor. The problem was she wasn’t often there. It was out of season and she and her husband lived outside the town, on a mountain side overlooking the bay and they and their sons were busy picking olives. It was that time of the year. Almost everyone it seemed was out on the slopes picking olives.
Usually she appeared once a day at the hotel in a small black Japanese four-wheel drive – amongst other things, to give us fresh towels. But we never knew when she would appear. There was never a regular time.
But one morning she turned up just after we’d had our morning swim and seizing my chance, I asked her about the owners of Alby and Casey.
They had no owners. They were strays.
‘If they’re strays, then they’re the two best fed strays I’ve ever seen.’
I’d seen plenty of stray cats 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.
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 elderly woman who lived in the town and fed the stray cats during the winter. When the season changed, they knew how to find her.
’There’s lot of stray cats at her place in winters…sometimes 20 cats!’
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 …’.
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 tranquillity: 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.
One day, it must have some kind of premonition, Anya asked me: ‘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. At nights it was impossible to sit on our balcony let alone on the beach. Our room suddenly seemed impossibly small; well, not surprising, it was impossibly small.
By the time the weather got better, Alby and Casey were gone.
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.
It was time for the two remaining strays to move on.