I stopped being a writer during my holiday in Greece. It’s harder to do than you might think.
I used to think that being a writer was all about writing, simple as that: I write, therefore I am a writer. Provided, of course, that you’ve also fought and won the battle with yourself which makes you comfortable with describing yourself as a writer, but let’s not talk about that now. No, it’s all about putting in the hours physically writing - the “sit at a typewriter and bleed” school of thought popular with so many who are bleeding useless. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that I thought that way too, back before I started writing myself.
What I didn’t learn until much later on is that writing is just as much about what you do when you aren’t scratching at a notepad or scratching your head in front of a blank screen, if not more so. It’s also about how you look at the world, what you notice and how you try and connect it up to something, anything, everything else. It’s about having a sticky mind; the kind that images and ideas snag on to and can’t be shaken from.
If you start to look at the world like that, and think that way, the world is a very different place. It can be exhausting, hyperactive. Painful too, sometimes: every encounter, every conversation, every passing stranger gets appraised against the constant background noise of questions. What do I think of that? What do I really think? Can I use this? How will I describe it? When your attempts to live in the present are hijacked by thoughts of how you might package up events in the future, it’s a hard carousel to step off. So, for a week in Greece, I tried to give it up. I put down my pen, and I picked up my camera instead. I read words by other people, rather than turning over in my mind how I was going to choose my own. I lay on a sun lounger, only slightly uncomfortable on several levels, wrestling with the sort of thick, crowd-pleasing paperback I would never have considered at home. If you saw me in passing, you might have been fooled into thinking that I fitted in.
It was a partial success. What it means is that my memories of Parga - a beautiful, quiet, well-mannered harbour town - are a jumble of disjointed images, photographs rather than paragraphs. Lemons on the tree by the dusty roadside, seemingly the size of footballs. A field of long grass filled with abandoned pedaloes, once bright primary colours now faded and forlorn, haunted by the fun people stopped having in them. The fractal coil of grilled octopus on a plate, the slightly blackened outside giving way to the firm white core. The crackling dance of fireflies, seen through a wire fence on a dark walk home.
There are dozens more. The rain - on the solitary afternoon when it rained - pricking the glassy surface of the sea like goose pimples, as we all cowered under umbrellas which were meant for a different, happier purpose. The obscenely fat woman on an adjacent lounger, her lower back shaped like a fougasse, lifting a fold and picking something unmentionable out of it. The cocktail swizzle sticks at the Blue Bar - a naked nymph for me, a Greek god for Kelly, in brutally vivid colours. But when I think of all these things, there seems to be nothing to connect them and join up all the dots. The writer in me, the me that was missing, would have been able to do it, but I left him at home.
I say it was a partial success because one image snagged on my mind and I couldn’t shake it off, that of the woman on the steps.
We would see her as we climbed up the perilous road that took you from the glittering lights of the harbour to the castle that was the best place to view it from. There was a chair outside every house on that road, and each would be occupied come nightfall by a local taking in the evening air and watching the parade of out of breath tourists heading for the summit. I never worked out whether they liked or resented us. As you went past you could see, through open front doors, real life going on in the living rooms beyond; a family eating round a table, a man in a vest hunched over a bowl of something, bathed in the light of a television transmitting something incomprehensible. And halfway up the hill was the old woman in black.
She was there every night, and although it’s hard to describe her properly I suppose the right word might be grotesque. She looked hunched, for instance, though I never saw her standing up. She was always alone, and her door was closed so I had no idea whether there was any company for her beyond it or whether her days of company were far behind her. Maybe it was the latter, because in all the nights we walked past her I never saw her with a friend or caught her speaking to the others outside. I couldn’t have even guessed at her age, but there were plenty of lines on her face and hundreds of memories traced there. But what really made her hard to look at was the rug of thick grey hairs on her chin. I suppose I would call it a beard, though I would stop short of calling her bearded. For some reason, that seemed to be an important distinction.
The other thing was her eyes. They were cold, clear and mournful, and she peered at you as you went past in a way that wasn’t pleasant. I had a feeling that if I looked in those eyes for long enough I might have understood all her sadness and all her losses, and I didn’t want that. But when you climb up a steep set of steps and go past a woman with a beard and the saddest eyes you have seen, it’s difficult to know where to look instead.
On the first night, Kelly and I both seized the nettle, saying kalispera to her. She said it back, but I couldn’t decipher her expression; it could have been amusement, bemusement or the complete absence of understanding. There was something about her that made me feel uncomfortable, and I hoped that she wouldn’t be there the following night - but she was, of course, and we had to walk in front of her unnerving gaze again. It was impossible even to tell whether she recognised us, but there was a silent nod on the evenings when either of us greeted her.
Greece seems to specialise in mournful widows, because we saw a lot of them during our week in Parga - big, solid, black-clad woman, usually alone but sometimes in pairs, always looking as if they were waiting for their lives to end. Being just the right side of middle age, walking side by side with a woman who makes me feel like my life has only just started, they were a side of the coin I didn’t want to see. The woman on the steps seemed to be the embodiment of that; I hated seeing her, but I was ashamed of my reaction, too. On our final night I was relieved, as we went down the steps to the waterfront, full from dinner, to see that her chair was empty.
Out on the harbour, the night was still warm. Every restaurant was showing the football, tourists and locals angling their seats round the tables so they had a good view of a wide screen, united by the sport which succeeded where Esperanto had failed. There were cushions on the harbour wall and the teenagers sat there drinking and smoking and chatting in a buzz of syllables I couldn’t understand. The girls - all huge hair, makeup and cigarettes - were dressed like hookers, with their arms round what I suppose were their latest boyfriends. Their eyes didn’t hold even the slightest flicker of doubt or unhappiness.
As we walked past them, I thought about how these things really work. They seemed so impossibly young, and I wondered whether one day they would turn into widows on steps somewhere, or whether that generation had escaped that cycle and would turn into something different. At that age, nobody would have been able to explain half of this stuff to me, because I was so convinced that I already understood everything. I thought about how the thirty-seven year old me might seem to the me of twenty-one years ago, and I found I had more in common with the woman on the steps than I wanted to admit. So I thought for a second about what I had turned into, and what I might turn into one day, and then I stopped myself and it was time to go. But in the back of my mind, if I'm honest, I was also thinking about writing this.