True Love Story
The first small lie is not my fault. The setting is important in love stories. Greece is the perfect place for romance, with its whitewashed villages and sunwashed beaches. In your local bookstore, every third novel on the romance shelves is set in Greece, and the bronzed heroine always wins the stony-hearted hero, who melts like a marshmallow in the Mediterranean sun.
Camp Arkrotiri was not like that. There were several things wrong with it, from a romantic point of view. The looming presence of the Omnitek chemical factory was the most obvious. The black and unlovely structures threw out a fog of poisonous yellow smoke, and a steady hissing sound. The smoke drifted over the camp, together with the noise of sirens, bells, and amplified announcements in Greek over the PA system. The Omnitek factory operated twenty-four hours and seven days a week, so as to maximize the gross national pollution product. Camping a hundred feet away from it was a Greek experience, but not one that would have appealed to Hector or Achilles.
Nevertheless, Camp Akrotiri was packed in July and August. There were almost no other campsites so close to Athens, and the prices were cheap. The proprietor of the camp, generally known as Mr. Stavros (although his real name was Mr. Phaedron Hadjiconstantinou), would bribe tour leaders like me to patronize his diabolical establishment. Sometimes he would offer money, which I refused out of obscure British Grammar School principles. Sometimes he would offer supplies of a revolting fizzy Greek wine called Exos -- known to the British contingent as"Brand Xos" -- which I always accepted. In the slow season he would offer one or both of his two daughters. These I never accepted, but not out of any exaggerated prudery. Life in the shadow of the Omnitek factory had not been kind to Helen and Ariadne (you can guess that these names are made up, even though almost everything else is true). Helen and Ariadne were young, but looked old. They were women, but they looked like specimens from a pathology lab. Stavros's wine, though incredibly bad, was more seductive than his daughters. It pains me to say so, as a born-again male feminist, but truth must be told. This is only another small lie.
Camp Akrotiri had a beach. It was blackish yellow from chemical fallout, and the Aegean beyond sea was wine-dark, as Homer described it, with unmentionable effluents. But when the temperature is a hundred, you don't fuss about the relative purity of sea water. Only the Americans and the Australians were shocked; but then, in Greece, shock was their normal state. Most of us spent every spare minute up to our necks in the biological soup of the Aegean. I think it explains a lot about what happened next.
I came around to Camp Akrotiri about every six weeks on the regular Athens run. But this one was different. Some hatred or jealousy in the back rooms of Minitrek Expeditions had landed me with a special tour, through Greece and Turkey in the footsteps of Saint Paul, for a school party from Saint Saviour's. This seedy establishment was a boys' public (a.k.a. private) school of the third rank, in south London. My party consisted of twelve boys, aged thirteen to fifteen, and two masters. One of the masters was an Anglican priest. Both were ravingly gay (or, as we used to say then, as queer as two clockwork oranges).
A love story is no place for such things. We lived through scenes that no romantic could endure, and we endured for endless kilometers in the hot bus, from one Paulian site to the next, from one homosexual crisis to the next. We endured until Camp Akrotiri.
There we met the other tour: Minitrek 113, five days out of London.
She caught my eye at once. To be honest, almost anything recognizably female would have grabbed my attention at that point. But she was tall, with long blonde hair and dark eyes. Soon I would learn that, in James Bond's immortal words, the collar and cuffs did not match. But the blonde suited her, framing a sharp intelligent face and topping a long, slender body. I remember the moment when she came toward me as I slumped in the shadow of the bus with a bottle of Exos. She was wearing a loose shirt with nothing under it, and very short shorts shrunk so tight that they seemed biologically grown in place. Her legs were interminably long and smooth. From that angle, the whole picture was like a 5 ml shot of Sodium Pentathol. She made me happy at once, and for a while after.
"Are you the tour leader for this lot?" A warm, dark, cultured voice.
"I suppose so."
"This is the worst dump I've ever seen. Do you always camp here? What happened to the romance of Athens? Where is Athens?"
"Your own heroic tour leader will find it for you," I said encouragingly.
"Our heroic leader can't read a map. He's permanently drunk. I doubt that he's ever been here before." This was a familiar complaint. Tour leaders didn't last long with this company.
"Have some Brand Xos," I said. And so our love story was launched. When the sun went down I abandoned my twelve boys and two masters and took Ann on a personal tour of Athens. Back at the camp, very late, a nightmare frustration threatened. All our tents were shared, and all had their quota of snoring bodies. With the energy of desire, I dragged out a spare tent and put it up in a far corner of the camp in about two minutes.
She was, I must say even after all these years and all those scars, worth the effort. The sprayed on shorts were, mysteriously, detachable. What I remember best about that first night is running a finger up and down her long, slender back and over her neat bum and back again, after we were both too knackered for anything else. Every time my fingers reached her bum, she quivered. Krishnamurti said that truth is a liquid, not a solid; Ann was all liquid, she flowed. This is one of the half-truths.
Greece, of course, is the home of nemesis. In the murky dawn hour, our half-collapsed, vibrating tent was as conspicuous as a nude sunbather in Saudi Arabia. Twelve adolescent and forcibly celibate public school boys can smell sex ten kilometers away. They didn't have to smell it, they could hear it. An air mattress makes the most amazingly pornographic sounds. When we crawled out into the morning sun, they were all waiting and watching. A lesser woman would have fled, but Ann faced them down, and even began learning their names. She was planning to join the tour.
Everyone who looks back on their life must come upon those moments:"I can't believe I did that." Twenty years later, I still can't believe that I imported a highly nubile young woman into an all male school party following in the footsteps of Saint Paul. I can't believe it, but I have a picture taken at Ephesus in Turkey, showing the gangling group with Ann smiling in their midst, like beauty marooned in the bestiary.
A lead curtain should be drawn over the details of that tour. The masters were scandalized, and sent telegrams to an indifferent head office in London. The boys were so excited and titillated that the group suffered an explosion of homosexual behavior, even beyond the norm for British public school boys. They were driven to distraction by the sight of her black underwear drying on the tent lines. This is a piece of imaginative invention.
What I remember second best is the curious mixed scent of sex and sand and polluted seawater and hot canvas and steaming rubber air mattresses. The smell is quite beyond verbal description, but it's lodged in some dark corner of my mind like the memory of my own birth. Ann did the impossible for a while: she made me forget myself. This, perhaps, is another bit of imaginative invention. But that's what makes it a love story.
Oh yes, we did have interests in common: other interests. We both like impressionism and irony and anti-authoritarianism and waterfowl and good French cooking. We found one another very funny and somehow familiar, as if we had once been old friends. If I had figured this out at the time, much aggravation would have been saved. But this is a love story, not a diagnosis.
The tour where all this happened did not end in the ordinary way. When we were back in Athens after the swing through Turkey, and ready to start the long drag back home to London, I was reassigned to a tour starting from Heraklion in Crete. Somebody else drove the tumescent schoolboys and their shocked masters back to Victoria Station. Ann abandoned her tour and her job, and came with me to Heraklion.
We picked up the new tour group and carried on as before, although perhaps a bit more uninhibitedly. We made love on the beach, in the showers, in the Gorge of Samaria, in a small fishing boat, and endlessly in the tent. Once we were making love on the big roof rack on top of the bus, in the middle of the night, when some jealous spoilsport laid a trail of honey right from the ground up to our sleeping bags. The honey trail was quickly found and followed by about a million red ants. But nothing could stop us. We were beyond sense, and even beyond sensitivity.
The company stopped sending money. Our credit ran out, and it seemed that our ferry tickets back to Athens were no good. I wasted hours in the telegraph office, and eventually got the news that the Minitrek company was bankrupt, and we were stuck on Crete, perhaps forever. Ann and I were delighted, the passengers were hysterical.
In the end, the tourists were airlifted back to London, courtesy of the official receiver, while we lovers stayed to guard the bus and equipment, marooned like latter-day Crusoes on the remote beach campsite at the far western tip of Crete. Meanwhile, my wife in London took the thoughtful precaution of meeting the plane with the returning passengers, and asking them about the condition of her husband, the tour leader. Thus the sex turned into romance and, a year later, into marriage. So it goes.
Coda to the coda
Four years after Camp Akrotiri I said goodbye to Ann in a gay bar on Polk Street in San Francisco. It was a carefully controlled ending, and nicely symmetrical. Nobody was around to pick up the wreckage. This is a final, smallish lie.
In love, all the best lies are half-truths.
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