Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Strange Journey - Chapter 15


Et In Argolis Ego

Lotte was enjoying her time in the Peloponnese. Nafplio had indeed turned out to be a pretty little town with picturesque narrow streets, old buildings, and a fortress on a hill towering above it atmospherically. It was very quiet when she arrived in the afternoon, to such an extent that the place had that slightly eerie feel of a holiday town out of season, but in the evening the streets and tavernas were thronged with people. She wondered where they all went during the day. There was probably a beach somewhere.

From Nafplio she had taken the bus to visit Epidauros and Mycenae. Epidauros had the famous theatre and then beside that the precincts of the ancient cult of Asclepius, the God of healing. The clean lines of the theatre were very impressive and she could see how it had proved influential on many subsequent architects (including some associated with less savoury episodes in her own country's history). The acoustics also lived up to their reputation. While sitting at the back she was indeed being possible to hear someone in the centre of the theatre jangling keys and rustling plastic bags. It also seemed to be possible to hear every stupid conversation people were having throughout the theatre. What was most amusing was when people at the centre of the theatre burst into song, their voices carrying magically and their efforts always generating a round of applause from the various visitors present. The precincts of the cult were basically various pieces of picturesque rubble, with signs and her guidebook telling her that this piece of rubble used to be part of a hospital area while that used to be the corner of a temple. The site was an enjoyable one to just wander around in, particularly as it was far quieter than the temple. It was a hot day and she moved from shade to shade.

Mycenae was of course the incredibly ancient city of fabled Agamemnon. City was a bit of an exaggeration, as it was really a ruined palace on top of a hill with various other bits of rubble around it that had once been various kinds of out-building. As with a lot of very old things, the palace itself was not impressive, until you considered how old it was. But the setting was stunning, with the palace hill nestling in front of two great hulking mountains. Lotte imagined dwarfs or trolls living in the mountains and accepted that she was promiscuously mixing Germanic and Greek mythologies.

With both classical sites she found herself thinking that it would be nice to wander around them with someone rather than on her own. She did not regret her self-containment or decision to holiday in Greece alone, but she did think that it would here have been nice to have someone with her to point things out to. And so in both places she found herself thinking of Chris, whom she had actually invited to accompany her down to Greece. She was mildly irritated that he had not followed her down or got in touch with her. It was not that she had fallen in love with him like some silly teenager or felt any sense of ownership towards him, but she had developed a certain fondness for him in the brief time they had known each other. His company was congenial and she would have liked to enjoy some more of it. But since they parted she had heard nothing from him, apart from one text message later on the night they parted. That had been so garbled that she reckoned the phone must have sent the message by accident as a result of buttons bumping against things in his pocket. He had not responded when she replied with her own text message that simply said "????"

After that she had nothing at all from him. She had texted him once asking whether he would be following her to Nafplio, receiving no reply. She texted again the next day, still no response. She did not try to contact him again as that would make her look desperate. She had her pride. And she did not really care, apart from a mild sense of annoyance. They were both adults and she had no hold on him, but it was irritating to think that he did not have the good manners to let her know that he would not be joining her. It made her feel like perhaps to him she was just some cheap bit of holiday totty with whom he had enjoyed a bit of dehumanising rebound sex. Such is the sophisticated approach to such things of the male of the species.

Lotte did remember Chris's talk about the mysterious business he had that was keeping him in Athens. She wondered whether this too was some kind of polite fiction, a way of brushing off her suggestion that he travel with her without having to say that he did not want to. Lotte was used to such things with English and Irish people, they were unable to say what they really thought and hid their feelings in a mask of endlessly irritating obfuscation. But she knew enough of the behaviour of British Isles Anglophones to have some sense of when they were telling the truth and when they were lying. Chris seemed to be on the level when he mentioned having business in Athens to which he must attend. Even though he had revealed nothing of the nature of this business, Lotte was pretty certain that there was something that he had to do in Athens that was keeping him there. She did find herself wondering what that something might be. It was hard to think of it as proper "business" in the normal sense of the word. Chris was Beamter, so what kind of business transaction could he have in Athens? If he had to meet some of his civil service colleagues then surely he would not have been so evasive about it all.

She wondered if perhaps the real business was that he was going to have another go at getting back together with his wife. Marital reconciliation was after all his reason for coming to Greece so it would not be entirely incredible to imagine him giving it another go. Yet it would be strange for someone who was seriously trying to save his marriage to spend a night making love to some other woman he had met only a few days previously. Unless there was some kind of weird spousal dynamics going on - perhaps his wife had had an affair and he needed to have one too so that he could negotiate with her from a position of equality. Lotte hoped that this was not what was going on as she really did not want to think of herself as a pawn in some creepy love game.

Lotte was finding speculating about Chris's mysterious business so fascinating and all engrossing that she was tempted to ring him and beg him to tell her what it all was, just so that she would know and be able to stop thinking about it. While she was wandering about in Mycenae a further possibility occurred to her - perhaps Chris was involved in some kind of illegal business activity. That would explain the evasiveness and his evident concern when she joked about following him to see where he went to. There were all kinds of illegal business activities, but the obvious one to Lotte was drug smuggling. Greece had got a bit freewheeling about narcotics since the economic crash, so it would be a good place for someone to pick up something they could then sell for much more at home. Chris did not seem the type to be involved in transnational drug transactions, but everyone was familiar with white collar drug mules as a concept, and he would not be the first person to supplement a meagre salary with a little drug dealing. It seemed somewhat outlandish but it was at least possible.

Or maybe the whole civil servant meeting estranged wife thing was a carefully constructed lie, and Chris was actually an assassin in Athens to murder someone. This was possible too, though he did not come across like the kind of person who would kill someone without a thought. But they never do.

As the bus brought her back to Nafplio from Mycenae she resolved to put these thoughts out of her mind. This speculation was leading nowhere and she would never know the truth, so why waste her time thinking about it? There were so many other more fruitful lines of inquiry.

Once in Nafplio she looked up at the castle on the mountain above the town and decided on a whim that she was now going to climb up to it. Some said there were a thousand steps up to the fortress. She was not going to count them, but she would climb them. She bought a new bottle of water from a kiosk and went to where the steps started and began her ascent. The stairwell zigzagged back and forth as she climbed ever upwards. Before too long she was looking down at the town, sticking out like a thumb into the sea, but there was still much further to climb up. Except it was hard to tell how far further there was to climb, as the castle was hidden behind overhanging rock. It would have been easy to sink into a weird Zen state of seeing the climb as something that had gone on forever and would go one forever, once she reached a point where both the bottom of the steps and the castle were hidden from view. But she was saved from that kind of enlightenment by numbers written in the steps showing how far she was from the top and bottom. The top numbers declined, the bottom numbers grew. They crossed over at what must have been the half way point. The top numbers declined still further, giving her the energy to keep climbing and deterring her from turning back now that the end was if not in sight at least ever closer. And then she was walking through the gate of the castle.

The castle (or fortress, or whatever it was) was a strange place. In some ways it was the usual thing you got with this kind of old military architecture - walls and gates and peepholes for shooting out at people and so on. What made this different was the uneven ground on which the castle was set and the strange layout of the building itself. This made it very hard to get from any one point in the complex to another. What seemed like the most direct route would lead to somewhere else entirely, while walking directly away from where you wanted to go would often see you appearing there. Lotte was reminded of nothing so much as one of those recursive Escher prints or an episode of some old British science fiction TV programme she had seen once, where people kept going out one place and showing up back where they had started. She wondered if any other features of Escher's illustrations would manifest here - would there be armies of angels and demons intermeshed, or fish jumping out of the sea to turn into birds?

She did not see any of these things. She did see people wandering around, amusing themselves as they lost all sense of direction in the complex's non-Euclidean geometry. She also saw some people walking along walls with precipitous drops on either side, including parents followed by their children. Perhaps they came from a country that laughed at death, or maybe the strange lay out of the buildings made them abandon normal caution. Lotte had heard of such things.

Of the other people wandering around the castle there was one woman she kept seeing. Her odd appearance made her easily noticeable. The face and hair were the most striking features. Her hair was dark and bobbed, but it was clearly not her hair but a wig. Her face bore extreme makeup in the form of bright red lipstick, somewhat smeared, and heavy black eye-liner that made her eyes reminiscent of those of a panda. She seemed to be wearing white makeup elsewhere, but in the heat and the sweat of her exertions the makeup and eyeliner were running. The effect was a most striking one, yet it was also one that obscured her true face to the extent that Lotte reckoned she would not recognise the woman if she saw her without makeup. The woman was also wearing a white jumpsuit, but after the face and hair this looked far from odd.

Lotte was not in any sense following this woman, but she kept seeing her. She idly thought that they must both be following a natural route through the castle, but then she registered that she was not continuously seeing other visitors of the castle. The thought came to Lotte that the other woman might be following her. Being followed was not something of which she had no experience, but usually it was creepy men doing the following, not women who looked like they had escaped from an 80s music video. Perhaps she was imagining it. Or perhaps not. But why was the woman following her? She approached the matter with curiosity rather than fear - the idea that the woman might be a threat never even occurred to her. She considered it most likely that it was some kind of game.

She stopped at the top of one tower of the castle and waited for the woman, genuinely curious as to what she would do. Soon the woman appeared on the steps up, looking surprised to see Lotte just waiting there. Although Lotte was in a very vague sense pretending to admire the sea view, it would have been obvious to her follower that she was actually waiting for her. The follower climbed up beside Lotte and also pretended to enjoy the view (though admittedly it was quite a nice view and it was not to difficult to pretend to enjoy it).

And then, while still looking out to sea, so without making eye contact, she spoke to Lotte, in English.

"Your name is Lotte? Lotte Meyer?"

"Yes," she answered. "Have we met before?"


"How do you know my name?"

"It is my business to know these things. You are friends with Chris?"

"Chris?" she said guardedly. "There are many people called Chris."

"Chris McCarthy. From Ireland." The woman turned to face Lotte for the first time. "Your lover in Athens."

"OK, what is this about?"

"Chris is in trouble. He needs your help."




The story continues

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