Later that evening, Costas returned and saw that indeed I had sold some tickets. Now, before we closed the shop, we had to telex the information to the companies involved. Costas showed me exactly how to to do this. I had to make a tape, a long piece of paper that the telex punched, which contained all the information about the tickets. When the journey would take place, who was the ticket holder, what was the class of ticket and so on. When that was complete, we dialled the numbers involved on the dial on the telex machine and when it answered, we fed in the punched tape which transmitted all the details for us as fast as possible.
‘Now’ he said, ‘I understand you have been talking to Vassilis from the cigarette shop. He is also a singer at the Ariadne, did he tell you that?’
‘Yes’ I said, ‘he told me.’
‘Well, now that I have had my long sleep today, thanks to you being in the shop, we can go to the Ariadne this evening. Vassilis is on tonight and I will also ask Niki and her husband who introduced you to me, to thank them.’
‘That will be excellent,’ I said, and I meant it.
‘I will see you there at ten o’clock then,’ he said.
‘Er, where exactly is the Ariadne Taverna,’ I asked him?
‘You know when you go home to Aghia Irini, well just before Knossos on the left is a big wall with a door. That is the Ariadne. Don’t be late.’ With that he was gone. I closed up the shop just after eight o’clock and made my way back to Aghia Irini. Just before Knossos I saw the wall and the door that Costas had described. The Ariadne Taverna.
I had no idea what to wear. In fact I had no idea about anything really. Last time I had been in Crete I had been to several meals where people danced but only in small villages, the clothes I wore were what I carried in a rucksack. But this was Iraklion. This was a big city, by Cretan standards anyway. I knew that Niki and her husband might be there, and also Vassilis, but who else might I meet?
In the end I wore a sports jacket, casual trousers and I also put on a tie. I carefully shaved although I had already done so that morning. I looked in the mirror and I looked pretty good, I thought. I knew my heart was beating harder than I cared to admit because other than getting dressed to go to a taverna, I had no idea what food I might eat or what wine might be chosen or any of the countless politenesses I might need to know. This was a very different culture to Britain where in the sixties no-one seemed to care what you wore or what you ate and drank. No, here it mattered, I told myself. I must not talk about politics or the colonels and just be nice to everyone.
At five to ten I was parking my car near the Ariadne. I was trying hard because there seemed to be about two hundred cars parked in the area but I managed. I walked up to the door in the wall and went in. There were many people sitting at huge tables across the terrace which has a ceiling but no walls. The noise was pretty loud. I looked as hard as I could to see Costas but there was no sign of him. I wandered through all of the people past the tables looking for someone – anyone – that I knew and just as I thought that I knew no-one, I could hear a voice screaming ‘Raymond – ella’.
I turned, and there near the stage was a large table with Niki standing up screaming at me. I waved and walked over to her and while I was standing she introduced her husband to me. She said that his name was Stelios and he quietly shook my hand, asked how I was doing and I replied that all was good with me, but what about him? ‘We are good too’ he said and sat down again next to Niki. ‘Come here, Ray, this is my mother Eleni’. Again I shook hands with Eleni and wished all the best and she did the same with me. I was learning fast that Cretans are very polite people and each time you meet you have to go through all the polite rigmarole, particularly with older people to whom all show great respect.
‘Cats Ray’ said Niki. She was telling me to sit down, not describing the fauna of Crete. ‘Cats, cats.’
I sat down and asked where Costas was, it must have been about quarter past ten by now and he had asked me not to be late. Had I missed him? ‘Missed him? You must be joking, Ray’ said Niki. ‘We’ll be lucky if he is here in the next hour, he is crazy, maybe he won’t come at all. Who can tell? What can we do? Costas is Costas, he comes when he feels like it. Don’t worry’.
Stelios, Niki’s husband was a very quiet man who hardly spoke. I guess that in some ways Niki spoke enough for two, but I liked him. His handshake was very firm and the few things he did say seemed to matter. He had organised the building of the house in which they lived, but what I didn’t realise at that moment was that he was very senior at the National Bank of Greece in Iraklion. In fact he was the manager of that bank and a really nice person to boot. Niki explained all of this as she fussed over her mother sitting next to her. ‘Don’t worry’ she told her ‘the goats will be fine as long as their babysitter is there, don’t worry.’
Apparently whenever they went out with their mother, which was often and quite normal, they had to employ a small cousin or somesuch to look after the goats. The goats were kept as pets and as the herd grew they took up more space, which was why Niki had to move out and build her house, I suspected, but dare not ask.
Just then, at half past ten, Costas arrived with a couple more men with him. Again we went through the whole greeting thing as I was introduced to two of Costas very good friends. One was a doctor and the other a taxi driver.
‘Now what do we want’ asked Costas? This started a long conversation about what food was good at the moment and what wine we would drink. In between this conversation, Costas shouted for the waiter and said hello to several more friends that had dropped by. Soon our table was full and it was only to decide what horta was being picked that week or something similar when the waiter turned up with his pad.
Again this was complicated conversation with everyone, except me, joining in to ask what they had, what was best and whatever else Cretans ask waiters in their favourite tavernas? In the end it seemed that we asked for everything from fried cheese to bowls of barbecued lamb, mezes to meals. But all that arrived instantly were several litres of wine and many loaves of bread. Yet it was good just sitting there drinking wine. The noise in the taverna grew and drowned out the music they were playing on the loudspeakers, and that was pretty loud. But it was canned music, the band hadn’t started yet. The wine was also very good, but it came in jugs, not bottles. I just listened. It was all completely new to me. Kids running around, waiters with full trays avoiding them. Chaos, but good chaos, excellent chaos that worked perfectly. This was a new world that I was rapidly becoming a part of.
Then the food came perhaps twenty minutes later. Three waiters with huge trays just laid the food all over the table. There was tons of it. We all had plates given to us and we were wished good appetite. All the wine glasses were refilled and Costas stood up and wished us a toast: ‘ to Ray, may he be happy here and have health and who knows, maybe he will become an English Cretan’. I was astonished that he cared so much for me and everyone clinked my glass so much that I had to refill it. Then everyone dug into the food. So did I. I ate fried cheese which I loved with potatoes roasted in olive oil, some pieces of lamb, some salad and some pork chop. The food was amazingly tasty. Even the tomatoes tasted as if they had just been picked. I tried some chicken and it was equally delicious. The food tasted better than at home. It couldn’t be true. But it was.
While we were eating and talking, the band came out onto the stage and sat down. There were six of them. Two bouzouki players, a cretan lyre player, a guitarist, a guy with what looked like a small lute and a guy with a big drum like a tom-tom. I honestly cannot remember if the noise in the taverna hushed a little or not, but when this band started to play they were loud. They played a piece that was very slow but rhythmic. They had no music to read but just played beautifully. The first tune lasted more than ten minutes and then they went into the second, a much faster piece that began to get people up and dancing on the stage in front of them. There were women dancing with their arms on each others shoulders, round and round they went as I ate another piece of fried cheese.
These tunes went on for a while, forty or fifty minutes with the women dancing then the mood changed and the next tune was much slower but more majestic. Four men stepped up onto the stage to dance and I was amazed to see that one of these men was the chief of police who had given me my work permit. He was not in uniform now, of course. The law laid down by the new military junta did not allow more than about five or six people to be together in a public place, but this is Crete, of course, here there were nearly five hundred people all enjoying themselves and not giving a damn about the government. Not least the chief of police. I smiled, what could I say. He certainly knew how to dance.
A bit later Vassilis came out to sing. He actually waved at me and I waved back. He sang song after song. Songs about the sadness of a country when freedom has gone. Songs even about the death of a dream. Most of this was high treason in Athens, but they loved their singers in Crete. He sang mantinades about the wars with the turks and the germans. And he sang songs of love and of pain. All the time he was applauded. He was a star. And I had been chatting to him that very afternoon when he was a guy with a cigarette shop telling me about the Big Idea and the Catastrophe.
All this time people were buying piles of plates from the waiters and smashing them on the floor in front of Vassilis. Then they would be swept away and then more plates would be smashed. More drinks were ordered, mostly Greek brandy and Scottish whisky – Metaxa and Johnny Walker. I was given a whisky which I kept for later. Right now I was enjoying the wine, the music, the songs and the smashing of plates.
Just then, the quiet man, Niki’s husband, Stelios, stood up and climbed onto the stage. Vassilis was singing a slow and beautiful Rembetika song and the stage was taken by Stelios. He danced like a god. Costas and one of his friends also got onto the stage but only to just kneel and clap him through his dancing moves. Stelios would go down onto a knee and then up like a swan, spin and kneel with arms outspread, up again and dance on and on until the song was finished. People all over the room stood up and applauded and from everywhere came more plates. Stelios simply nodded his head and went back to sit with Niki. It is amazing what you can get from the National Bank of Greece.
Vassilis took a break for about ten or fifteen minutes but the musicians never stopped and more men came up and danced to the music that went on forever. Vassilis returned and the songs just got better. I couldn’t understand all that he was singing but that never mattered. The music was incredible and the songs even more so. People now were dancing across the room, not just on the front of the stage. Whole families danced where they could and most of them danced very well, even expertly. This was an island that loved music and could dance to it as well. It was a bit like finding myself in heaven, but to these hundreds of Cretans, this was normal, just a night out of which they had many.
I looked at my watch and it was nearly four am. I had no idea the time had passed so quickly. I hadn’t slept that afternoon but I knew that I had to learn to do that from now on. Gradually the music came to an end after many encores and people drifted home. On our table Costas paid the bill, he insisted although people argued, but no, Costas paid. We all said our goodbyes around four thirty and wandered back to our cars. Costas put his arm around my shoulders and said ‘welcome to Crete, I hope you enjoyed your first night here.’ It was close enough and I thanked him and asked if he wanted a lift to his house. ‘No’ he said, ‘don’t be silly, I’ll see you tomorrow’. Then he was gone.
When I got back to my little house I stared for a long while across the vinyard trying to settle my thoughts. I was so glad that I had come to Crete and I found it hard to believe how lucky I was. The sky was full of stars and my heart was full of hope. I set my alarm clock for seven and in the two hours I had left to sleep I felt that I had found something very special.