My front gate has a little voice. ‘Hrndt-D!’ it says. ‘Hrvndd’. It’s like a soft whine, like it’s having a gentle moan about some chronic complaint; nothing too acute, and nothing it’s prepared to do much about, but annoying, nonetheless. It scared the shit out of me this morning when I first heard it, and it continued scaring the shit out of me until I located its source, scouting the front yard with my heart pumping against my teeth. It only speaks in a certain wind, you see. An autumn wind, that I’ve never been here to experience before.
Or maybe it’s the quiet. It’s very quiet here. So quiet that you can hear a beetle shuffling about in the caper bush at the other end of the garden. A donkey chewing on a mouthful of grass in the neighbour’s field. A cat sneezing. The front gate speaking in its whiny little voice. Or nothing; sometimes, absolutely nothing at all. It’s incredibly peaceful and totally nerve racking in equal measures. This is island life in late September.
It’s the newness of familiar things that surprises me, how they keep behaving in unexpected ways. How they’re not just fixtures, the static background of my holidays, but living things, changing all the time. I’ve spent most of my summers on this island; twenty of them in this house itself. I thought I knew what it was all about. I thought I knew about the quiet; it’s quiet enough, in July and August, when you’re coming from London, or Athens, or any other city in the world. But it’s a different quality of quiet now. Now is a different place altogether; I thought I knew Sifnos, but this is not the Sifnos I know.
Eleni and I went to the beach today; we both had headaches and stiff backs, and decided a quick swim might sort us out. It was warm, but the sunshine was patchy; there is an air of autumn that pervades even the most summery scenes. We went to the beach in Kamares, the port of Sifnos, where up to a couple of weeks ago the beach bars and restaurants were teeming with the tanned and the sunburnt, and you had to reserve a sun lounger in advance, and five ferries daily spilt tourists out onto the narrow quay, tourists laden with backpacks and suitcases and expectations for the start of their holiday, asking for directions to their hotels and stopping to point at things and blocking the road, and you had to fight for a seat on the bus.
Now a single ferry calls the island every day, and the frequency of buses has been cut down to half, but you can always get a seat. And the Old Captain Bar, which, earlier this month, had been taken over by twenty of my friends and family smothering each other in sun lotion and reading magazines, has but a single customer, a deeply tanned man in his sixties, pink sarong tied around his waist and flapping in the breeze, sipping a pint of beer and gazing contentedly at the mountains that frame the bay.
There are still tourists, but they are few and scattered and, no matter how far along their holiday they might be, there is a sense of wrapping up in everything they do. This is not a time of beginnings, not here, with the summer dying on the cooling sand.
‘Let’s get away from the old people,’ Eleni says, as we search for a patch of sand to spread our towels on the near-abandoned beach. We look around.
‘It’s all old people,’ I observe, not unfairly. ‘Everyone else has gone back to work. It’s just pensioners, and the rich, and (adding myself to the equation) the unemployed’.
Eleni gives a little nod but carries on along the beach, regardless, until we find a young couple that represents the under-30s population of Kamares on this day, and plonk ourselves a few feet away from them. The sand is cooling but it’s still hot enough and it feels good against my skin. I lie back and stare up at the sky; the clouds drifting past the sun mean that I don’t have to shade my eyes. It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s nice.
The end of summer has always terrified me. It almost makes me angry every time I hear people wishing each other “a good winter” as they part at the port. What’s the rush? I want to scream. It isn’t winter yet. And perhaps I thought, by staying here, in the land of summer, I might hold onto it for a little while longer. But you can’t stop the seasons from changing. And this isn’t the land of summer; it’s just an island, and autumn has come. Summer is a time, not a place, and this place is moving on. And I can choose to stand still, obstinate and shivering in my bikini among the pensioners and the rich, or I can put some clothes on, exchange my flip flops for shoes, and follow Sifnos to wherever it might take me.
I wonder if the quiet will grow deeper as the days grow shorter, and I make my way, slowly, towards an island winter. I wonder how much darker the sky can get, and if new stars will appear. I wonder if the wind will blow from new directions, if its howls will have a different timbre, and if more inanimate objects will introduce themselves to me in voices I’ve never heard before. I wonder how many more familiar things will turn out strange, and if I’ll get used to this happening, or if it’ll keep taking me by surprise.
It isn’t winter yet, but it is autumn. And I'm no longer on holiday, but I’m still here, the same but also different, behaving, like my surroundings, in new and unexpected ways. Not fixed, but changing; turning out a little strange. And I wonder how I missed it: that this is a beginning. I wonder how many more things I’ve missed, and what they’ll teach me, when I finally see them for what they are.
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