The Old Man Knows
Philip Turner
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I suppose it creeps up on everyone at one time or another - an overwhelming urge to drop everything and get away for a while; to escape from the pressures of work, work-day journeys, the same old people in the same old surroundings, and the unchanging daily routines, which we build to smooth our lives. Usually, you have to grit your teeth and soldier on. Holidays, the traditional release, tend not to come at the right times. And they usually require plenty of preparation. That's why it came as such a complete shock when I found myself able to throw a few essentials into a bag and travel.
   We had just come to the end of a contract. The team of myself, Albert and Stan had been working to all hours to satisfy what we had voted the company's Awkward Customer of all Time. Keeping up with our client's demands had reduced us to red-eyed zombies. Everything revolved around the job. Albert was even complaining that it followed him into his dreams. And when it was over, we were lost. We felt as though our purpose in life had been taken away from us.
   The boss knew what to do. He had been through it all himself. At the end of the week, when we had satisfied ourselves that we had completed every last scrap of paperwork, he paraded us in his office. Struck dumb, we just sat there and listened to him telling us that we were getting a bonus and a holiday. We still hadn't found our tongues properly by the time he was showing us to the door and telling us to get lost for a fortnight.
   The first thing that caught my eye and held my attention when I got home was the postcard. My neighbour on the right had sent it to me the previous year. I had wedged it in one of the supporting clips for the mirror over the fire and I had never bothered to take it down. My neighbour had delivered glowing reports about his fortnight on that Greek island, The climate was perfect and the natives friendly on the rocky pencil in the Mirtoon Sea.
   Out of curiosity, I consulted my atlas. On page thirty-nine, I located a yellow blob about fifty miles south-west of Athens. Next, I took a trip next door to refresh my memory. The impulse traveller didn't need a visa, and there were no special vaccination requirements. And the larger banks on the mainland would cash ordinary cheques backed up by a Euro-cheque card.
   I returned home to consult my phone book. I'm not noted for snap decisions, and I found it quite a novelty to be hurrying through all the preparations for a trip abroad. I heard someone with my voice speaking to a British Airways booking clerk. There was room on a flight to Athens the following morning, and it would be perfectly in order for me to pay for the ticket when I arrived at the airport.
   After that, there was surprisingly little to do. I had to pack for two informal weeks, stop the milk and the papers, and remember my passport, chequebook and cheque card. And that was about it.

In the morning, I remembered to ask my neighbour to look in every other day to water my plants. Then I left for the airport, certain that there was something I hadn't done or I had forgotten to pack. But that's the way I always feel when I have a plane to catch.
   As I was travelling about a month before the start of the tourist season, nobody had decided to go on nuisance strike. My flight left on time. Three and a half hours later, I stepped onto Greek soil; or rather, Greek concrete. Athens was hot and sunny, and looked much more Greek than I had thought possible of a modern major city.
   I made a phone call to a chap called Arri on the island, dropping the name of my neighbour as a reference. Although the connection made him sound as though he was at the bottom of the sea and using an electric toothbrush, I gathered that Arri would be delighted to put up an off-season guest. He promised to have everything ready for me by the following day, I said my goodbyes to the pressure cooker of civilization as I left my three-star hotel the next morning. A spectacular train ride of seventy miles brought me to Argos. Then I entered the dark ages of transport.
   A stocky, deeply tanned chap with tightly curled, jet-black hair and a ready smile met me at the station. He was dressed in a navy blue jersey, shapeless dark grey trousers, and wellingtons with the tops turned down. He smelled of strong tobacco, not fish. Arri had had no trouble spotting me. As he explained on the way to his car, he had just looked for someone pale and English with plenty of luggage.
   His car turned out to be a Jeep that looked like a left-over from the war. The next stage of my journey was a thirty-five mile drive to the southern coast of the little toe of the Pelepponese peninsula. I had been expecting a heart-stopping charge along, narrow, twisting roads carved into the flanks of vertical mountains. Arri could certainly move his ancient and battered jeep, but he did so in a totally non-heroic fashion. I felt as safe with him as I had on the train.
   It took us just under an hour to reach the coast. We transferred to a very fishy boat and chugged for half an hour over smooth, painfully blue water. The combination of sea and brilliant sky made me glad that I had invested in a pair of extra-dark sunglasses. None of the crew seemed unduly troubled by the glare, but that was to be expected. The melanin in Mediterranean brown eyes allows them to tolerate higher light levels than northern blue, or so I had read somewhere.
   I had travelled one hundred and twelve miles to cover a straight line distance of forty-nine, but the island made it all worth while. It looked like something out of a guide book. Clear, blue water lapped the shore. Whitewashed walls echoed the harsh, white limestone of the cliffs. Beyond the dark orange tiles of the village, the bulk of the island rose up and up into a cloudless sky. The scene glowed with light that seemed to possess an almost overpowering vitality. The contrast with wet, grey-skied London could not have been more complete.

I spent my first week lounging on a beach of pure white sand or wandering about the island, exploring it in easy stages. It seemed a rather unpromising place to live, but the natives had things well under control. If the tourist industry was their jam, their bread and butter came from fishing. They also grew grapes for sultanas as well as the inevitable wine, figs, citrus fruit, and a few other odds and sods. Chickens, goats, a few sheep and the occasional cow completed the agricultural side of life on the island.
   As advertised, the human inhabitants were friendly. I also struck up a nodding acquaintance with a chubby, marmalade cat, who limped on his left hind leg. Quite a few of the people spoke a little English and they were prepared to chat to the novelty of an out-of-season visitor. I found myself both repelled and fascinated by one character, however, even though we never acknowledged each other's existence openly.
   He was enormous. His sheer size made it impossible to guess his age accurately, but white hair and a salt and pepper beard suggested sixty-plus. His huge, pendular jowls resembled a flesh-coloured surgical collar. He seemed to be wearing a tractor tyre around his middle. The belt at the junction of his collarless shirt, which was always blue, and his dark grey trousers had to be a full two yards long.
   I never tired of watching that mountain of a man when he was making his daily pilgrimages to and from his house and a sort of café-pub. His bloated, diamond-shaped framed seemed to ripple and surge with independent life as he planted sandal-shod, perfectly normal feet on the cobbles. It seemed strange that someone so vast should have quite ordinary feet.
   The Old Man ruled the island community. He would take up his position in a sturdy, wooden armchair on the seaward verandah of the café at about ten every morning. There he would remain, apart from a break for an afternoon siesta, until about six in the evening, receiving clients and working his way through several bottles of red wine.
   He was the island's oracle. As far as I could gather, he combined the roles of doctor, vet, local arbitration and conciliation service, weather forecaster - the list was endless. Anyone with a problem consulted the Old Man.
   Fishermen asked him where to trail their nets. Couples intending marriage sought his blessing. Even Arri, who seemed to be a very intelligent sort of bloke, ran to the Old Man whenever he had to make a decision.
   'The Old Man knows' was the creed of the islanders. They revered him. It was an adoration that I was unable to share. All I saw when I passed the café was a fat parasite. I think he must have sensed my disapproval. We never spoke, an interpreter would have been needed for his English was as deficient as my Greek, but he watched me as I watched him.
   Part of my disapproval stemmed from his ridiculous size. I found it vaguely obscene that anyone would allow himself to put on so much surplus weight. There was also an element of jealousy. While I had been putting in eighteen-hour days, he had been sitting in his massive chair, swilling wine. The rest was a reaction to the respect shown him by the islanders. Perhaps some of his advice was sound, but I couldn't believe that any one person could achieve the Old Man's reputed god-like infallibility.
   To me, he was a confidence trickster, preying on simple people and binding the more worldly ones like Arri with a force akin to superstition.

It must have been a reaction to the Old Man's daily inactivity, but at the end of a lazy week, I felt a sudden urge to get out and do something. Arri had mentioned casually that I was welcome to come along as a passenger on one of his fishing trips. I decided to take him up on the offer.
   The morning air was even fresher and cleaner than usual after a thunderstorm in the night - one that the Old Man had predicted with the same accuracy as the weather forecast on the radio. I was looking forward to a day at sea as I strolled the half mile from my villa to the main centre of population. But when I reached the landing stage, I realized that something unusual was happening.
   Goats and sheep were bleating in improvised pens. A couple of old boys were trying to persuade a reluctant cow to board one of the fishing boats. The entire population of the island had gathered with their livestock and their most treasured possessions. And he was there, of course, sitting in his chair on the barnacled landing stage, directing operations like a ring master.
   I hung about on the fringes of the crowd, unwilling to risk being trampled to death in the bustling mob. Nobody had any time for me and I was unable to make any sense of the constant chatter. And then Arri's boat chugged up to the landing stage. I forced a passage through the excited throng and managed to corner him as he was refreshing himself with a glass of wine.
   The island was being evacuated. The Old Man had crawled out of bed at the unprecedented hour of six o'clock that morning to spread a premonition of disaster. Arri was unable to tell me any more. Like the rest of the population, he was prepared to accept the word of their prophet without question. The Old Man knew what was good for them. If he said flee from some nameless peril, then they would gather up their portable possessions and head for the mainland.
   It was a challenge that I felt bound to accept. A battle between a modern, scientifically trained man and primitive superstition. I had to stay on the island. Arri tried to persuade me to change my mind, but I was adamant. I had come for a fortnight, and I intended to spend two full weeks on the island.
   The Old Man was the last to leave. Three men heaved him onto the last boat and helped him to his chair. He sat facing the island. I watched the performance from one of the rope-smoothed bollards. The captain of the fishing boat turned to me to give me a last chance to change my mind. I slid the loop of the mooring rope from the bollard and threw it to one of the crewmen. I responded to the mockery in the Old Man's piggy eyes with a smile and a saluting wave.
   Just you wait and see! The same unspoken message passed between us as the fishing boat began its five mile journey.

Most of the afternoon had flown. I returned to my modest villa to get something to eat. It felt strange to be king of the island. In fact, it was difficult to believe that I was alone. Birds were chirping outside my kitchen window. Only the sound of human voices was missing from the usual background.
   After my meal, I wrote a few postcards, read for a while, then went out for a walk. I strolled down to the village as the sun was setting at my back. I sat for a while on the verandah of the café. It looked very empty now that the Old Man's chair had gone. Surprisingly, the general stillness had no effect on me.
   I was totally convinced that nothing terrible was going to happen. Perhaps there would be another storm. Perhaps a giant boulder would be dislodged from its mountain perch and come crashing down to smash a path of destruction through the village. If so, I felt sure that it would miss me by a good half mile.

Sometime during the night, I emerged from sleep convinced that someone was knocking on my door. Then I remembered that there was no one else on the island. I lay awake for a while, then I dismissed the knocking as part of a dream. I woke up again an hour or so later. This time, I heard quite distinctly three taps on my door.
   They're back! was my immediate reaction. The Old Man has changed his mind, or told them the danger has passed, and they've all come back. That's probably Arri checking I'm still alive.
   I clicked the light on and strolled casually to the door. There were two more taps just before I opened it - onto an empty street. Baffled and suddenly a little afraid, I peered out into the lifting pre-dawn gloom.
   With a plaintive yowl, a tubby shape began to limp towards the fan of light on the cobbles. I was no longer alone. My friend the marmalade cat had managed to get himself left behind.
   Drinking coffee fortified with a dash of whisky, I watched my ally slurp up a saucer of warm milk then finish the tin of sardines that I had opened for my supper. Satisfied, the cat curled upon a chair to sleep off his meal. I went back to bed.
   After dozing for an hour, I realized that the coffee wasn't going to let me sleep properly. I decided on an expedition to look for signs of disaster. A couple of hours' uphill walking and a little scrambling would take me to a saddle in the island's spine. I would have a view of both coasts from there.
   The marmalade cat came with me. We climbed into a deathly stillness. It took me about half an hour to realize that I couldn't hear any birds. They were usually screaming their heads off at that hour of the morning.
   When we reached our vantage point, the cat sat down to have a wash but his heart wasn't in it. His tail kept flicking restlessly and his large, green eyes kept looking for mine.
   I scanned as much as I could see of the island's north and south coasts. Everything seemed to be in its place. About the only thing that struck me as odd was the sight of an awful lot of beach. The Mediterranean does have tides, but only of about a foot - certainly not enough to uncover that much of the sea bed.
   The cat began to yowl piteously. When I tried to stroke him, he backed away and took a half-hearted snap at my hand. Then the ground shivered; very gently at first. A trickle of small stones cascaded down to our level.
   The cat leapt at me as the mountain heaved again. I sat down before I could fall. I found myself on a trampoline, bouncing up and down and holding a cat who was digging his claws through my clothing and into my flesh. Agony pushed away all realization of danger.
   At last, I persuaded the cat to let go. The earthquake was over, but I hadn't noticed the end of the shocks. We had travelled about twenty feet, the cat and I. The seat of my corduroy jeans had developed a set of interesting bald patches. I was bruised, clawed and shaken up. But I was still in one piece. And I had survived the Old Man's disaster.
   A haze of dust misted the air. The island's tree population had taken a fair battering. Most of the houses on the seaward side of the village were just rubble. But the café had survived. With a laugh, I told myself that the islanders would attribute that to divine intervention by the Old Man.
   Then I noticed the cat. He was looking the other way, towards the south, ears flattened against his skull. The Old Man hadn't finished with me yet.
   I moved back to my original position on the very crest of the saddle and looked down. The missing tide was coming in - not gradually, but all at once. As it approached the shore, the wave just climbed up and up and up. It roared inland like a liquid battering ram, smashing and swallowing, hurling itself at the island in an all-out effort to sweep it away.
   We were a good six hundred feet up, the cat and I, but salt droplets sprayed us and spattered into the dust around us, Then a shrieking wind battered us to the ground. I collected a few more bruises. The cat just picked himself up and began to wash himself, stopping to pull a face every so often. He didn't seem to like the taste of salt.

We remained on our perch until about noon, until flocks of assorted birds returned to the island. The ground remained still, apart from the odd trickle when the wind nudged loose fragments to a lower level. My marmalade friend seemed quite willing to return to the villa for lunch when I started down. I found it quite ironic that the modern, scientifically trained man, who had scoffed at the Old Man's premonition, was now trusting the instinct of a lame cat.
   Washed and changed, I was sitting on one of the bollards of the landing stage, stroking the cat, when the boats returned later in the afternoon. The Old Man was first ashore, treading carefully as though testing the landing stage to determine whether it could still support his weight. I gave him a big smile and wished him a nonchalant good afternoon. He beamed at me and returned the greeting in his own tongue.
   Events had justified his decision to evacuate the island. My conviction that I could remain and survive had been equally valid. In our own ways, we had both won a victory over a common enemy. And out the battle had come a mutual respect - mine for his ability to predict an earthquake and his for the foolhardy courage of a man who was prepared to face a natural catastrophe for the sake of his beliefs. ■

An edited version of this story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 10:45 hours on Thursday, January 24th, 1981.

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to top of pageCreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story Philip Turner, 1980. This version Philip Turner, 2002