Strays

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.

Cool breezes.

 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.

Picking?

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.

Owners?

They didn’t belong anywhere those cats, she told me, they were strays.

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 …’.

  

Problems.

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?’

I hadn’t.

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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Derrick

I was staying in an apartment near Pefki, a town on the northern coast of the island of Rodos.

My apartment was at the top of a small, three-story block on the edge of a small peninsula. Directly in front was a large bay. Whilst the view was spectacular, the water there was unsuitable for swimming; it was too shallow and there were too many rocks.

The best place to swim was in a bay behind my apartment, on the other side of the peninsula. Here there was a sandy beach and deep water. To get there I had to follow a narrow, well-beaten track through an empty field covered in high grass. The track was about 300 meters long.

It was a good idea to keep to the track when crossing the field, because in the nearby grass there were lots of prickles and thorns.  

Lots?

Billions, it seemed; an inexhaustible number.

 However it wasn’t often possible to keep to the track because there was a mad donkey to contend with.

 

The donkey was tethered by a rope to a stake in the ground, but the rope was several meters long, which gave the donkey enough leeway to easily reach the walking track. And for some reason, it was in the habit of charging human visitors. Many times when I followed the track to the beach – and back again – the donkey, on seeing me, raced towards me making its donkey noise – how could you describe it? Like a mixture between a wail, a scream, and a very rusty gate. It was called ‘braying’ but somehow that word didn’t seem to capture the incredible noise which this animal made.

 I never hung around long enough to see what the donkey would do when it reached me.

When an animal of that size moves towards you at such a speed and making such a noise, then discretion is definitely the better part of valour. When the donkey started running, I took to my heels and made sure I got out of its tether-range as fast as I could. This meant leaving the track and fleeing into wild grass and making a wide circle around the donkey.

After clearing the field, I had to then stop and meticulously pick out the carpet of thorns stuck to my rubber sandals.

That bloody donkey!

 

The trip to the swimming bay, often around midday, led to me becoming involved in a sort of game with the donkey. Sometimes, instead of munching grass, he (it was a he) lay down on his side and slept. Then I was very careful to creep passed him, following the track, and making sure not to make the slightest sound. It was a bit of a laugh really: an adult man tip- toeing like a kid, not daring to even breathe, for fear of waking up a mad donkey. It was worth the effort though because it saved me yet another session of having to pick the thorns out of my sandals. 

 Not long after this little game began, I gave the donkey a name: Derrick.

 ‘Derrick the donkey’.  

 

I stayed for a month. The weather was good, the swimming was excellent. It was well before the summer tourist rush began.

Every trip to and from the swimming beach involved a small drama with Derick. He began to loom large in my life. A walk of around 10 minutes seemed to become like an odyssey.

Would Derrick be asleep, or would he be feeding?

 Sometimes the owner moved the stake around after Derrick had eaten out a circle of grass, but he never moved the stake far away from the trail. It was generally speaking just a question of where, at what particular part of the track, I could expect to be charged by Derrick. 

 Still, there was no choice about going to the swimming beach. It was the highlight of my day. After a swim, everything looked different. It was easier to distance myself from the suffocating cocoon of my own habits and routines and thoughts.

 Usually my greeting to Derrick on the way to the beach was a curse – and on the way back, a compliment.

 A compliment!

 Yes, actually, I had to admit that his idiosyncratic behaviour aside, Derrick was a nice looking animal. 

And who could possibly know the reason why he charged people?

He didn’t know.

Maybe he was tired of being a donkey staked to the ground and having nothing better to do with his days than eat grass. He never asked to be a donkey anymore than I had asked to be a human being.

That’s how it panned out.  

 

One day, I looked up ‘donkeys’ on the net.  

 All the donkeys in the world I read – an estimated 40 million of them – were related to the African wild ass. These were first domesticated 4,000 years ago by the Egyptians. Most donkeys were found in underdeveloped nations where they were used – and hugely abused – as work animals. A donkey was  hardier than a horse and ate a lot less. A donkey was the ultimate beast of burden, an animal which everyday suffered the worst mistreatment imaginable. And to top it all off, the human race had somehow decided to use the donkey as an example of stupidity or obstinacy. In every language there were metaphors involving being as stupid as a donkey and so on and so forth – even though the fact was, the donkey was an intelligent animal and if treated well, also very loyal and affectionate.

 Not long afterwards, I had a conversation with the Greek owner of the apartment block where I was staying which shed some light on Derrick’s life. The owner’s name was George and he was in his fifties; he had a thick mane of silvery hair and wore a track suit and drove around in a Korean four-wheel drive. He owned a few apartment blocks in the area and also a hotel. Like many Greeks, he was very friendly and spoke good English.

 ‘During the summer, that donkey is driven to one of the big tourist resorts further along the coast…’

 I’d seen them alright, rows of high-rise luxury hotels.

 ‘He’s put in a trailer along with other donkeys and taken over there. The donkeys are used to take children on rides, also adults…’

 I could imagine that some of those adults were grossly overweight.

Then a tone of indignation came into his voice:

‘The rides are hard on the donkeys, along the beach or something like this, also up steep hills, steep hills, in the heat…it gets hot here in summers, 45 degrees…some of the owners beat the donkeys with sticks.’

 

Derrick was one of the hapless donkeys who every summer was put in the back of trailer, driven to a package tourist destination, worked almost to death and then, at the end of summer was put in a field to eat down the grass.

 It wasn’t much of a life.

 I figured that Derrick might have a damn good reason for being a bit crazy.

 I felt sorry for him, even though every time he charged me, especially on the way to the swimming beach, I swore at him. On the way back though, wet and dripping, I felt guilty and thought: ‘here I am worried about having to extract a carpet of thorns out of my sandals whilst Derrick is sentenced to a terrible donkey life. ‘

 Some days on the way back from a swim I talked to Derrick.

I let him charge at me, stood back, and when he was at the end of his tether, whereupon he usually stopped and stared, I  chatted to him.

 I was becoming as neurotic as him. 

 

 George was religious.

 So were most Greeks.

 There were two big orthodox churches in the area, one about 15 minutes’ walk away from my apartment. It was fairly new and brightly painted. It had a large dome. Once I ventured inside to take a look and the black clad priest invited me in to take a look inside a library at the back of the church. There was a painting hanging on a wall of what I suppose must have been a famous Greek Orthodox priest and it was a spitting image of a Greek friend of mine back in Australia.

 One Sunday I saw Nick and his wife and family emerging from the church, along with many others. All of them were immaculately dressed. It was strange seeing Nick in a suit.

 During our conversation about donkeys and Derrick (although I didn’t mention the name I’d given the donkey in the field), Nick said:

 ‘Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. You’d think that we Greeks would have a bit more respect for them instead of working them to death and beating them. Donkeys should be sacred to us –‘

 ‘Like cows in India’ I said.

 He looked at me, thought a while, and smiled:

 ‘Yuh….cows in India…’

 

 The image stayed with me: Jesus on a donkey, on a Derrick, entering Jerusalem. I’m not a Christian, but I seemed to recall from my days of attending church (my parents forced me) that this Jesus on the donkey image belonged to Palm Sunday.  Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey knowing that he would be betrayed and crucified. Even as a kid I found it hard to believe that Jesus could have known his fate beforehand (‘predestination’). As an adult man, I couldn’t see the point. To me, the story of preacher of non-violence, tolerance, forgiveness and love being put to death by a caste of temple priests concerned to maintain their privileged position was perfectly true to life – and had all the moral power that any story needed to have. No need for all that medieval monkish magic, that predestination stuff. 

( Woody Guthrie’s eerily beautiful song about what would happen to Jesus if he was alive in modern times said it all.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ARDj0NYolo)

 And another thing: the image of Jesus on the back of a Derrick really quite appealed to me. Jesus wasn’t dressed in fine robes, wasn’t leading an army of conquest, wasn’t dressed in armour or a richly decorated steed. He was on a humble donkey; it was an image of humility, of unpretentiousness, of selflessness; like Gautama Budda, a former prince, wandering across Northern India as a beggar.

 Like Mahatma Ghandi or the Dalai Lama.

 

  At some point a middle-aged English couple moved into the apartment next to mine.  They rented a car and went out a fair bit of the time so I didn’t see a lot of them, just said hello and exchanged a few words in passing. A couple of weeks passed and then 2 days before they were due to fly home, they stayed put and didn’t drive anywhere.

 One afternoon I got talking to them at length. By and by, we got on to the subject of the donkey. I had noticed that they also went to bay behind the apartments and crossed the same field, usually in the late afternoon after they’d got back.

I said ‘have you noticed the donkey?’

 They laughed.

Noticed? Noticed?!

I’ll say we have!

The man said: ‘He’s right loopy that one!

His wife disagreed and she was passionate:

 ‘No he’s not!  I’ve lived in Africa, I know about donkeys. All he wants is a pat on the head. When he charges at you, all you have to do is stand still. He’ll stop at the last minute and put his head down…’

Her husband quipped:

 ‘Yeah ok luv, you’re spot on there, ‘e just wants a lovely pat… ‘e’s a nice animal alright but I don’t want pat the blighter, cor blimey he smells…’ 

 A thought ran through my mind: Derrick didn’t charge people in order to hurt them or bunt them; all he wanted was a bit of attention: a pat on the head. All those trips across the field and I’d run away from him.

 The English couple then added: ‘we’ve even given him a name’

 I said:  ‘yeah, so have I’

‘We call him Wonky… Wonky Donkey’

I returned:  ‘I call him Derrick, Derrick the Donkey’

The man pulled a long face whilst his wife laughed uncontrollably, tears coursing down her face. The man said:

‘Ere…my name’s Derrick’

 

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View from my apartment, Pefki, Rodos

 

 

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The thorn laded field I had to cross to get to the swimming beach.

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Derrick the crazy donkey! 

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The swimming beach

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