A piece of short fiction by Clare.
Rachael knew that being an Australian gave her many privileges, but some she only recognised when travelling in other countries. Take camping. Nowhere in Australia had Rachael ever been refused entry to a camping ground just because she didn’t have a tent. Sure it’s a good thing to have! But sometimes the open air and swag are all that you need. With only a few days to explore Crete, Rachael, Stella and Annie thought they’d avoid the busy backpacker hostels and head for the beaches that were home to many camping grounds. Their romantic idea of sleeping under the stars in the safety of a camping ground, which also, hopefully, would provide a shower and cooking facilities, was not to be for the weary travellers. It was 40 degrees in the shade and they had been on a ferry all night and on the road all day. They trudged from bus stop to camping ground and back to the bus and onto the next town. No tent, no stay!
By 3.30 the message had sunk in. Annie suggested they find a beach and risk it there for the night. However, trying to find a beach that offered the option to not be noticed by any officials was a big ask. It was peak season. The Greek police were always on high alert for trouble from backpackers. As with every Mediterranean destination the Northern Europeans had taken over the beaches. Not the backpacking variety though. On no, these were serious ‘I’ve got 2 weeks to bake in the sun, drink excessively and get laid’ types. En masse! So when three girls with backpacks bulging from their rears appear on a beach looking every bit of a couple of days without a proper wash, attention is drawn. But Annie’s instincts in this instance were good. The beach stretched quite a way and the path had led them to a cove. The rest of the beach was littered with bodies, but where they stood was slightly shadowed by the cliff face, and therefore of no interest to any of the sunbathers. They had a quick discussion as to spot’s suitability, and made their way back up the steep path. There was a taverna at the top of the cliff and there the girls sat, biding their time, waiting for relief from the heat that sunset would bring.
Luckily Rachel, Stella and Annie were the types of backpacker who rationalised. If they didn’t have to pay for accommodation, they could afford more beer! And it had been a long hot day. Stella had gone in search of a toilet, which hopefully would also provide a hand basin with a tap. The girls hadn’t been able to have a wash for a few days. There was something ironic about the scene. There they were on the other side of the world, sheltering from the hot sun and yet surrounded by people who just couldn’t get enough of it. From the taverna they looked out over a stunning beach that was ringed by high-rise apartment buildings. These apartments temporarily housed the masses of mainly Scandinavian holidaymakers presently lying naked under the Mediterranean sun. And the Australian girls’ only priority? A tap with running water. Oh and access to alcohol!
For a time the girls were the taverna’s only customers. As they did at most places they visited, the girls always made an effort to befriend the locals. The barman was young, very tanned, and his English was good. Annie flirted big time with him. Rachael was in awe of her two travelling companions’ prowess with men and flirting. Unfortunately she suffered from recent Catholicism so was still building her confidence with the male species.
Drinking in the afternoon sun had gone straight to Rachel’s head. To sober up she decided to wash. She left Annie and Stella to the barman’s charms and headed to the bathroom. Feeling clean and refreshed, and only slightly tipsy, she rejoined the others. Two guys were sitting with them. Annie introduced them. Mikey and Johnny. They were Irish, Northern, like Rachael’s mum. Being a complete sucker for an accent she was in, hook, line and sinker. The barman, George, pumped up the terrible pirate version of a Kylie song and came over with a round of drinks on the house and sat next to Rachel. Rachael began to think that maybe she was in with a chance after all when she saw a vision. He was smiling and walking towards their table. Rachael’s heart skipped a beat. She returned his smile. Mikey grabbed his arm, pulled him to the table and announced that this was Joe, their other mate. Rachael wanted that moment to freeze. But before she could say, ‘Hi, my names Rachael’, Annie had moved on in. She had to hand it to Annie, she hedged her bets that one. Rachael really didn’t care. She was on a beach in Crete watching the sunset with some great company and the prospect of sleeping bag dancing!
One of the guys asked where they were staying? The three girls shared a look. Was it safe to tell these guys? Stella took the lead. She started explaining their dilemma about not having a tent etc. Rachael was secretly hoping that maybe the guys would invite the girls to stay with them. To her horror Annie began telling them that the beach below was their room for the night. What if these guys turned out to be serial rapists or something? Rachael’s mind was working overtime. But to her surprise the boys explained that that was where they had been sleeping the past three nights. George the barman laughed and suggested he should also sleep on the beach.
As the taverna had begun to fill with hungry and thirsty patrons, the group decided to head to the beach and organise a meal with whatever food they could throw together. They grabbed a couple of bottles of retsina. Rachael was almost beside herself when Joe offered her his hand so she didn’t topple over on the way down. What did this mean? Should she assume anything? As soon as they hit the sand he dropped her hand and ran ahead to catch up with his friends.
Conversation was easy. They shared travel horror stories. The guys were particularly impressed by Rachael’s African adventures. Sure she’d embellished the bit about the gorilla attack in Uganda, but all in a good cause! As the night air began to cool down the group decided to head back to George and the warmth of the taverna. The place was alive with music and laughter. They made themselves comfortable at the bar. The girls were keen to keep George in the picture. He and Stella had hit it off and Rachael had noticed that Annie seemed rather put out. Did this mean she would make a move on Joe? Rachael was beginning to think that Annie only wanted a guy that someone else liked.
The taverna had a great mix of locals and tourists. From a travellers’ perspective that was usually a good sign that the prices would be reasonable. It was not uncommon to find one price for travellers, and one for the locals, but George, their new best friend was giving them a discount anyway. As Rachael listened to Annie go on about her experiences in the bush as a jillaroo she convinced herself that Annie was far more experienced at this mating game. Although, Rachael wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
The taverna was emptying out. Although it was not late the tourists were early risers, not wanting to miss a minute of the sun. George and his boss Stavros joined the table. This wasn’t the girls’ first Greek island, but so far it had definitely been the stand-out for friendliness and hospitality. Stavros explained that it went back to the war when Australian and Greek soldiers had fought side by side to defend the island. The Cretans were grateful to Australia for the safety and protection of its’ people. Stavros had everyone mesmerised with some of the stories his father had shared with him about Australian heroism, and ties that would never be broken.
Rachel was trying not to be obvious with Joe. But every time she stole a look, he was looking back at her smiling. Invariably, where there is alcohol and Irish people, songs will be sung. With contributions from the Greek and Australian contingent it turned into a Eurovision Song Contest. Rachael took the opportunity to share her prowess with Irish tunes. She was hoping to impress Joe with her passion for all things Irish. The coolness of the night was settling in, even in the warmth of the taverna, so they decided to adjourn to the beach. Somehow they ended up minus Joe and George who had stayed behind. The singing continued, as did the drinking. Confused by Joe’s absence Rachael was desperate for the night to keep going. Stella was close to flaking it and had slipped into her sleeping bag. Drunk as Rachael was she had enough nouse to place herself where there was every chance Joe would sit on his return.
She heard Joe and George coming down the steps. Joe was whistling an Irish freedom song. Johnny had shone the torch so they could find their way. Joe found his way to Rachael. He explained that George and he had shared a joint and had got caught up in a conversation. He unrolled his sleeping bag and helped Rachael with hers. She let Joe continue talking, his voice was beautiful, and the accent, well how could she resist! Then his hands were cradling her face, she wondered if he could feel her trembling. Rachael was struck by the taste of his lips, a mix of alcohol and the sea air, soft and sensuous as he explored her neck, her face, her lips. They spent what felt like an eternity exploring each other’s bodies, only too aware of the closeness of their sleeping friends.
Rachael awoke to the heat and glare of the sun, Joe’s arms lying across her. Joe awoke and without so much as a kiss he was up out of his sleeping bag and running into the water. Rachael didn’t know what to do. She was embarrassed so she headed up to the taverna to the toilet. In the mirror she noticed the love-bites on her neck. No chance of wearing a polo neck to hide these ones!
The guys had asked the girls to look after their belongings for the day while they hired mopeds. The deal was that the boys would take the girls for a ride at the end of the day. And after the big night the girls were keen to do nothing except relax in the sun and swim in the clear Mediterranean water. The girls farewelled them and proceeded to dissect the previous evenings events. Stella had managed to get a bit of action with George the barman, but Annie was unusually quiet. Rachael couldn’t help but wonder if Annie did really fancy Joe. Did she know about them? She put her hand to the damp scarf she had casually draped around her neck. Annie and Stella didn’t say anything about the love-bites, so Rachael didn’t say anything either. Then Stella giggled, pulled something from her bag and threw it at Rachael. It was a tube of toothpaste. Annie cracked a smile and said that it was probably too late for that! Rachael was embarrassed. It was as if Annie knew all her weak spots.
The girls talked about their plan to move on the next day. Both Rachael and Stella expressed a desire to stay at least one more night. Annie was keen to move on to the next island. They had arranged to meet up with some guys they had previously met in Italy. Rachael wasn’t really fussed about any of the Italian guys and didn’t see that one more day on Crete would mean missing the Italians altogether. Rachael looked at Stella, urging her to argue the point, but Stella was too hung over to really be bothered. They settled into their own space. Rachael with her music, Stella lavished the coconut oil on, and Annie wrote postcards.
By midday the sun was killing Rachael. She cooled off in the water and sought refuge in the taverna for some shade and a big cold glass of George’s mum’s home made lemonade. George was hard at work and happy for some company. Eventually the other girls joined her. Rachael was curious as to how Stella would be with George. They just smiled at each other. He brought over a drink for her, gave her a kiss and went back about his work. Why hadn’t it been that easy with her and Joe?
The hours passed and Rachael had planned a thousand ways to deal with her insecurity over Joe. Soon enough the boys were back regaling the girls with the adventures of the day. George offered to mind the backpacks while the guys whisked the girls away on the mopeds. Before Rachael knew what was happening Annie had manoeuvred her way onto the bike with Joe! She turned to find Mikey patting the seat behind him. Was this a plan amongst the guys? Maybe Joe had said he didn’t want to be with her on the bike? Maybe he was embarrassed about the love-bites, which she thought she had cleverly disguised with her rather smart scarf al la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Rachael was determined not to let anything spoil the day, so she jumped on and grabbed Mikey around the waist. They wound their way around the hills of Crete, stopping along the way to take photos and admire the views.
Rachael contemplated playing Annie at her own game and jumping on Joe’s bike at the next stop, but her courage deserted her. And Mikey was good company. Two hours later as the sun was beginning to set they made their way back to the taverna. George had promised a special feast on the girls’ last night. The boys had another week on Crete before heading back to Belfast. Rachael was now contemplating the possibility of staying longer on Crete without her friends. They weren’t on a schedule as such and she could always catch up with them in a few days on Santorini.
Rachael talked with Joe about taking a trip to see relatives in Belfast before returning to Australia and the fact that she really had no plans past the trip in Europe. When no offer of an address or phone number was forthcoming Rachael let the topic drop. Should she ask about a girlfriend back in Ireland? Joe and Rachael spent the night talking. About their dreams, their aspirations, and the more Rachael learned about Joe, the more she liked. The night was coming to an end and Rachael was becoming drunker and very melancholy. Photos were taken but still no exchange of addresses.
All Rachael could think about on the way down to the beach was how to manoeuver into the spot next to Joe. Someone was smiling down because as they reached the sand Joe turned and grabbed her hand. Rachael was beginning to feel so emotional she thought she would lose it completely. All she could do was grin wide-eyed at Joe. The night was still warm and Johnny dared everyone to go in the water. Rachael hung back, waiting to see what Joe would do, and as he started to strip down to his bathers she followed. The water felt fantastic, but suddenly Rachael was conscious of the amount they had all had to drink. She stayed close to Joe and smiled and felt safe as he slipped his arms around her waist. They kissed and Rachael was grateful for the water that would hide the tears welling up.
This felt like goodbye. Rachel felt a chill up her back. She could hear the girls calling her from the shore. She hadn’t realised how long they had been in the water. Johnny had lit a small fire. More stories were told and more songs were shared as they sat around the fire. Rachael fell asleep wrapped up in Joe’s sleeping bag with his arms cradling her and his hand stroking her hair. The next morning she awoke to find him already up. The chance of a last kiss gone forever? Stella and Annie were also up and packing their things. Everyone adjourned to the taverna for morning coffee. Stavros had put a food parcel together for the girls as a doting father would for his daughters. George and Stella were sharing their last moments together.
Joe reached for Rachael’s hand, kissed her passionately and then walked back to his friends. With that the girls were on their way to the bus stop. The guys saw them off with their own crude version of Waltzing Matilda. Rachael put her sunglasses on as the tears began to roll down her face. Rachael contemplated telling the girls that she was going to stay and would meet them at a later date. But the idea that anything would come of an island holiday romance seemed so far fetched that she banished it from her mind.
As the bus pulled away Rachael looked back. She saw Joe. He smiled his big smile and blew her a kiss. Rachael felt like her heart was about to break. But she adjusted the scarf and turned her attention to the road ahead.
This week’s tale may or may not be based on fact. It may well have been just a crazy dream the author had.
Anyone else’s crazy dreams or real life holiday adventures would be welcome on Style Takes A Holiday.