He was nineteen and she was twenty and they’d ‘met’ ten minutes earlier, seated opposite each other on the Patras-Athens train which was taking passengers such as themselves just off the Brindisi ferry. If they’d seen each other on the boat, they hadn’t realised it — it had been a rough passage from Italy and people were either vomiting over the side, ensconced in a self-induced darkness below, or putting on a stoical face and shutting everything out of their peripheral vision. It was a full and sickly train wherein every rock on the rails brought back the horror of the crossing. It wasn’t due to get into Athens until 11.30pm, and though it was April and the days longer, few looked at the scenery.
He had not been sea sick, but had been under the weather with booze. He was booze-sick though waking up and trying to take in the weird light clasping stunted trees and vaguely familiar geology. Where in Australia did it remind him of — somewhere, he was sure?
She was American and her jacket said so. A college girl — Pomona. He’d noticed it straight away, lugging his backpack down the aisle behind her, and then, seeing that seating opportunities were narrowing rapidly, swinging the backpack up onto the rack above the seat she’d just walked past. He then slotted himself into the seat and stared out the window trying not to attract attention, to not offer a warm eye to anyone. He was not particularly sociable. As George Thorogood sang, I drink alone…
But she’d turned around to see what the noise was as the backpack was launched upwards, and one of its straps had gently caught her arm, and she looked at him slide into the seat and sized up the seat opposite and thought, or just about thought, because the decision was quicker than thought, too fast for full processing, that this boy looks safe and marginally interesting but not too interesting, mild but not anodyne. And so she swung her own pack up, even more skilfully than he, not being ‘under the weather’ in any way, and took a seat.
And as the train filled, they both stared out the window at the platform and all that informed it, and neither studied the other. They hoped that the seats beside them would be taken to dilute the intensity, but they weren’t. There exuded something between them that kept everyone else away, for every other seat was filled. She imagined that the other passengers could see something in the boy opposite that she couldn’t — something off- putting, if not threatening. Without looking over at him, as the train pulled out of the station, she reconfigured the glimpse of his face she’d had, she reconstituted him against the window, against the scenery behind, slipping like damaged film.
She saw him as a poor fit with the rest of the world, a scruff who was barely conscious of the way he looked to others, but still a bit conscious, just a bit, and this bit was pivotal. He was dark and sullen and skinny. Very skinny, she thought, beneath that army surplus jacket with its ‘No Nukes in Fremantle’ patch across the sleeve facing the aisle. He hadn’t removed his jacket and she knew he wouldn’t.
He broke first and stared longer than was polite before returning to the blank of his window. This first encounter with Greece, a country he’d obsessed over for years. The country of the Spartans and the Athenians, and Thucydides. The train would cross the Corinth Canal! He was looking for answers but hadn’t fully formulated the questions and he knew this was appropriate. A cliché he was okay with. He just wanted to be there. Back to the roots of Western oppression, he suddenly said aloud — it had escaped.
What? she asked, surprised but keen.
Sorry? he half asked, with a touch of sarcasm, attempting to mask his own embarrassment.
She knew this, but continued; to kickstart a conversation because she was lonely and bored and sick of travelling, especially since her college friends had dumped her for acting ‘weird’ and hanging out with some ‘reds’ in Italy who quickly left her behind once their ‘leader’ had managed to sleep with her… You said something?
He fidgeted and shuffled and said into his hand, Sorry, I was thinking aloud.
Oh, she said, straight away knowing he was relatively inexperienced with girls, and was uneasy about his masculinity and the impression he might or might not make, though he wasn’t fully aware of this… Oh, sorry. You’re going all the way to Athens?
Yes. Yes, I am. And you?
Yes. And then she let the rocking of the train and the fading light and the strangeness of the unfamiliar with its even stranger silhouettes, invest the silence with foreboding and potential and nothingness. She thought, I am the more experienced here, and I need to take control.
But then he started to talk, and spoke in a stream, directing the speech at his reflection which was intensifying in the hazy glass of the window, its silvery foil reply to his moving lips, a thin growth of stubble parodying their movement. He said, I started drinking when I was fifteen but I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t like drinking, but drink. I guess that’s a warning sign. I went to a country school and the other students would steal and damage my books, scribbling over the pages of The Symposium. At university I studied ancient history in first year and archaeology in second but left at the end of last year because it’s all a load of shit. I want to go to the Acropolis and meld into the columns, I want to go to Mycenae and become part of the Lion’s Gate, I want to climb Mount Olympus and I want to consult with the oracle at Delphi. I don’t want to go home, even when my money is gone. I earned my money driving grain trucks during harvest. My father was a truck driver and he taught me to drive and I got my HC class license when I was eighteen — that’s so I could drive a semi — and then my father goes and fucking dies in a smash out near Balladonia at three in the morning. I hate the state, I hate society. I am a nihilist. So that’s that. End of conversation.
She felt old listening to this and almost wanted to mother him, but she was careful. She paused just long enough not to provoke him, sensing his anxiety and intense regret at his own display of immaturity. This substitutes for sexual confidence, she knew. She paused, and then said, At the risk of sounding like a talking head replying to another talking head, I think you’re right to hate the state and society. I hate my college to start with though my parents have given their lives to send me there and the college does all it can to sell itself as more that a rite de passage. It offers to improve the soul, to make a better America. I hate that Americans like me use Europe to confirm their whiteness, to fill in the gaps of their elusive heritage. The West is rotting and here I am confirming it for myself while having a good time. A good time — I can say that with the venom of a Medusa.
At this stage she wanted to risk saying, Look at me, you won’t turn to stone, but she thought, even realised, he probably would. Or would react with a deluded hero’s over-the-top action which could lead to some kind of physical or psychic damage to either one or both of them. So she added, So here we are, heading to Athens. And then she got up, arched back to reach into her backpack, and pulled out a couple of red apples. He allowed himself to watch her, loading his peripheral vision as her sky-blue top rode up and revealed a concave stomach contorting into something ideal then reshaping itself into something too enticing for him to contemplate. He mildly salivated then felt that guilt that ruled his life and made him a decent person despite his nihilism, that made him safe for girls to be around but also an object of gentle ridicule after a girl had brushed up against him then gone on to friends to talk about what a strange and unsatisfying experience it had been, they thought, he thought, sort of. She placed one of the apples in her mouth, punctured and gripped it with her teeth, and passed him the other, which he took, carefully, to avoid her fingers with their short, chewed nails and no adornment.
She slipped back into her seat, flicked her shoulder-length hair from across her left eye back into place, and munched with pleasure. He tried to do the same, but nibbled and felt nauseous. Why was he eating this apple? This poisoned apple? Back into the mirror of himself, complete darkness outside showing him a Greece that was almost half the truth. Darkness is myth, he told himself, and continued nibbling, knowing she watched him openly now.
It was a long, slow journey, but they gradually deleted the time, or at least fell into mythical time such as they might both expect when faced with material realities neither was able to cope with. They talked of radical action, they talked of their lack of friends, they talked of nineteenth-century European politics, they talked of Byron and Greek nationalism, and they talked of the Generals and fascism. They talked, in bits, with silences, to the darkness, with she looking at him more than he at her, but with him having butterflies in the stomach that were well beyond booze or seasickness but were erupting from anticipation and fear. Anxiety gnawed at him and he knew he could do no better than he was doing now, beguiling and repellent in his conversation. This was his trick, it’s what he knew how to do, and it left him unsatisfied and frighteningly lonely, and marooned and angry and, maybe, in a way he wasn’t sure of or couldn’t identify, dangerous.
She enjoyed their conversation more than she had anything else during her time ‘on the Continent’. She enjoyed it so much she didn’t want to share it with anyone else. Normally, she’d confide in someone, anyone, even if they didn’t like her, but she knew she’d keep the dynamics of this journey to herself. She mapped it as she went. She thought, There’s something to learn here that will be useful for me, will help me get away from the shit I’ve entrenched myself in. A middle-class white American feminist who serves sisters of my choosing whilst being in the service of the patriarchy. She actually thought precisely this; it’s not words into her mouth, or her mind, it’s what she literally thought. The words are still there, written into the memory cells. She was young, very young, and he was even younger. Things can happen like this — it’s easy to judge from a distance, the vast gulf of experience that alienates the moment and makes those memories something else. Trying to make sense of it from afar.
And so they arrived in Athens, having barely noticed the passengers leaving or boarding at various stops on the way, the ‘colour’ of the ‘local’ as inflected through each shift in geography and culturality from station to station, the interweaving of identities to make or be forced into nation. They missed the loss of light, the arrival of an overwhelming moonless darkness. Maybe they half-noticed, and would think it over later, decades later, but barely then, wrapped up in themselves being wrapped up in each other but with different if equally pressing anxieties.
Yes, she was anxious now. They were stepping off the train at 12.15am
— late — into the half-light of the platform, and a fading bustle. And then with their backpacks to the front of the station and the street, streets, and a couple of taxis and a language neither could understand. She walked as close to him as she dared. She was tall, but he was taller. We look like a couple, she thought.
One of the taxi drivers made an inappropriate suggestion with his hands towards her and the boy seemed to barely notice. She had not said to him, or admitted to herself because it went against her politics of the local, of not being the imperialist American, that she’d been warned ‘Greek men are worse than Italian men and you can’t travel there as a young female alone’. This warning had made her want to travel to Greece more than anything, but then, she had attached herself to this boy, to this strange weird unusual predictable-unpredictable boy from a rural Australia she had no idea about whatsoever but equated to coming out of Kansas. And here they were, a couple on the edge of a darkening street, in Athens, after midnight, and aloneness was out there.
Do you speak any Greek? she asked.
A few words — I did a little Ancient Greek but that’s different from Modern Greek but I might have enough to get around.
I don’t have any, but I have some French. She added the French bit to reassure herself, really.
He was staring into the darkness. She ventured, Do you have somewhere to stay?
He tripped over his words and the butterflies that had abated in the stream of talk — of bullshit — came back, and saliva filled his mouth and he wanted a drink (he’d forgotten, how had he forgotten?), There’s a place I’ve been told about by a relative, a two star place that’s clean and cheap down near the Plaka… I thought I might go there. I have a map in my guidebook.
She wanted to ask if he’d like to share a room, but stood still with her hands locked together in front of her as he took out his guidebook and studied the map in the poor light. The taxi driver touched her shoulder then her ass. Fuck off! she said and the driver laughed and backed off and went to smoke with his mate as they made lewd motions and the whole time the boy just kept his eyes on the map. Well, he said suddenly, I’ve got to go… was nice meeting you. I hope they’ll let me in this late.
She was confused. She touched his arm, the NO NUKES patch bumpy beneath her fingers. She hadn’t chewed her nails for hours but withdrew her hand and started chewing, speaking through nails and skin, I hope so, too.
And hitching his backpack with a shrug, as it was weighing heavy, he turned to her and noticed her backpack was also weighing heavy and reached behind taking some of the weight temporarily. You’ll need to adjust your shoulder straps or it will bugger your shoulders bad. It was cold, and her jacket was open and her thin blue top was twisted and out of kilter — the sky blue had become deepsea blue under the streetlights, in the nightlight. He tried not to notice her breasts beneath, prominent between the shoulder straps of her pack, and felt agitated that it made his groin electric. He suppressed the feeling. He was learning to do this. Thanks, she said, I think it’s right now. Well, seeya, he said, as light as he could muster and turned away and started walking into the darkness.
She watched him; she looked back and saw the taxi drivers watching, and she followed the boy at a distance, their laughter in her ears. He rounded a corner and she rounded it a short way behind him. His pace quickened and he didn’t look back. The taxi drivers couldn’t see her now. She stopped dead still and in the darkness dappled with smudged lights from houses and the odd street light on the other side of the road, she watched his silhouette become part of heroic Athens, mythical Greece. She felt the pollution of the West all around her, buzzing electric in the aboveground afterlife, the Hades of the surface.
John Kinsella’s most recent book of poetry is Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016). His most recent book of short stories is Crow’s Breath from the Australian publisher Transit Lounge (2015). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Pro- fessor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University, Western Australia.