We arrived at Herakleion in a bleak, wet dawn. A damp wind gusted from the north and gloomy underworld light blotched the eastern sky as we crept into the harbour past the crumbling Venetian breakwater, the engines droning a low persistent note and waves slapping audibly against the hull. I followed our progress from the railing on the upper deck, hugging myself against the cold while peering out over the drab concrete crenulations of the Cretan capital in search of familiar landmarks.
To the west a barrage of inky cloud had blotted Psiloritis, the ‘roof of Crete’, from the landscape. To the south, however, I could make out the distinctive bulk of Juktas – sacred mountain of the ancient Minoans of Knossos – looming out of the murk. As I gazed I recalled its lovely pine-and-cypress-clad slopes and thought with happy anticipation of Archanes, spilling, amidst vines and olive trees, down a hillside beneath it. For some years now the lively working village had been home to S and, as such, was my current destination. After a couple of long journeys interspersed with some low-level roistering, I was looking forward to putting my feet up.
Then the ferry launched into a slow and ponderous half-turn on the leaden waters of the harbour and I held on to the rail as deck shuddered beneath me. Far below on the dock a small crowd waited, tense and expectant among an assortment of vehicles, eyes riveted on the ferry. The shaking continued sporadically as the vessel reversed towards them and the large metal ramp at the back went down, its descent accompanied by a strange electronic beeping. I watched with the usual pleasure as two crew members in khaki overalls stepped out upon it, as though on to a stage, each holding a coil of rope in his hands. These they cast in long looping arcs out over the water, landing them with practised ease on opposite sides of the dock where they were chased down by a pair of men who, hauling furiously, pulled up thick plaited hawsers which they looped, heavy and dripping with seawater, over rusty iron bollards. The hawsers pulled taut as the vessel’s screws churned the water white and the ramp swayed, despite best efforts to restrain it, back and forth along the dock. At this point pandemonium erupted among those waiting, with engines igniting one after another and people charging forward, only to be checked by a contingent of harbour policemen in dark navy uniforms who blew shrilly on whistles and gesticulated frantically with their arms.
This was the signal to return below, where I joined the rest of the passengers waiting in the foyer. Ten long minutes passed before the doors finally opened and we were let loose. I sped down the stairs, charged through the clanging, crowded, evil-smelling garage and, with an inner cheer, took my first step on to Cretan soil over a ramp that shifted disconcertingly beneath my feet. The policemen were still blowing on their whistles and all around me people were shouting. It was the inimitable, and quite delightful, pantomime of a Greek island arrival, its addictive energy undiminished even in the depths of winter. A lorry rumbled past, swaying under its load and belching clouds of acrid smoke; while I staggered towards the exit, bent beneath the weight of my three rucksacks. Emerging into the carpark a small red car caught my eye and, climbing from it, I saw a familiar figure. ‘Welcome to Crete,’ said S, grinning broadly and obliviously enjoying the surprise she’d sprung on me by managing to get out of bed in time to meet the boat. We had initially arranged that I would catch the bus to Archanes, but this was much better. I threw myself with gusto into my old girlfriend’s embrace.
My enthusiasm waned somewhat when, upon seating ourselves in the car, S turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. ‘Uh-oh,’ she said, before admitting to having waited for the ferry in the car with both the heating and the radio switched on. This was probably a bad idea, she said, given that she had recently been experiencing problems with the battery. I had to agree, although I did so in an undertone.
Just then a contingent of harbour police and army recruits, the latter in full regalia, caught S’s eye. She was out of the car in a flash, but her attempt to enlist their aid came to nothing. ‘They’re busy looking for illegal immigrants,’ S reported, as she climbed, shivering, back into the car.
I then bowed to the inevitable and offered to push. It was a rash idea but I rather enjoyed the experience as, beneath a lightening sky, in gusting wind and spitting rain, I cast off jet and ship lag to propel the vehicle, at a pedestrian rate, from one end to the other of what seemed to me an extremely long car park. Yet despite my efforts the engine refused to respond and we sat for some minutes, despondently idle, in a lonely corner before S came up with Plan B. This entailed phoning her road service provider and asking for assistance.
She took out her iPhone and as I listened to her explain our predicament, in flawless Greek, to the man on the other end – who barked back a series of questions – while gusts of wind shook the car and raindrops trickled down the windscreen, I thought to myself what a wonderful thing travel was, so full of surprises, a sure-fire bringer of joy and wonder and, overall, a mighty enhancer of life. S, meanwhile, had good news: the road assistance people were on their way.
Barely a couple of minutes later, a large and brightly gleaming black 4X4, with dark-tinted windows, pulled up in front us with a dramatic flourish and slamming of brakes. The flashy manoeuvre bore a striking resemblance to the sort of thing one saw on television police shows. Road assistance, clearly, had come a long way on Crete. S was equally impressed, remarking that her outfit had arrived more promptly than she had expected and adding that the tinted windows were a good look. The words were no sooner out of her mouth than all four doors of the vehicle sprung open and out leapt the boys from the army in their camouflage gear, one of them clasping a set of jumper leads in his hand and all of them grinning crazily, as if at the start of a jolly game. The harbour police arrived, in no less impressive a manner, in their big white car, a moment or two later – and while the combined forces went to work, the commander took the opportunity to chat S up.
He was still at it long after the job had been completed and the engine was smoothly purring, which I thought was overdoing it a little. But eventually he desisted and we got on our way.