I was so mad I could have Riverdanced on the spot in sheer temper. To make matters worse I was minding my own business at the time. Before she delivered the blow I could honestly say that not only was I happy I was at peace with the world – but let me rewind to my arrival on Patmos.
All I carried was a large rucksack and an anchor-weight Nikon SLR dangling from a strap round my neck, so that it threatened curvature of the spine. I’d flown originally to the Greek island of Kos from Manchester in the north of England and found it easy enough to hop by ferry from one island to another within the Dodecanese group.
A dusty hilly pony track saw me sweating and panting from the port of Skala to the Cave of the Apocalypse. In a long-sleeved blouse and floor length skirt that I threw over my shorts and sun top I eventually made my way into the darkness which was punctured by many candles. There in the roof was the crack through which God is believed to have dictated the Book of Revelations to St John the Divine, whose scribe had written it down for posterity. It was an impressive little place, a holy niche on an island that is holier than thou, and it says much for the island’s bewitchment that even atheists and agnostics feel the utter calm.
After viewing the treasures, votive offerings, and the icons I stepped outside into the blazing Greek sun. The extraneous clothing got stuffed into my rucksack and I slapped on large dollops of factor 30 sun block over every inch of anaemic-looking skin before climbing up to the village, with a raging thirst spurring me on.
The taverna, with its shaded outdoor extension, was perched on the edge of Chora – a quaint cluster of properties much loved by Athenians and dominated by the massive and awesome Monastery of St John. With its bewildering network of narrow alleyways, whose solid walls hid private courtyards, I couldn’t be sure if Chora wanted to be Hampton Court Maze or the location for another Bond movie. Not surprisingly, to own a property in this village, is to have arrived.
From the taverna’s perch I had a bird’s eye view of the terminally-blue ocean and the eastern reaches of the island. A cold freshly-squeezed orange drink was going down without touching the sides, pushing my tranquillity into overdrive: and then she went and spoilt it.
The place was full of Greek people on Easter holiday and opposite was a lone sandy-haired old woman. I hadn’t actually made eye contact, but I’d seen her out of the side of mine, and it was from that strange angle that she got nearer and nearer until I could smell her halitosis getting right up my nose. She was wearing an old-fashioned red and white candy-striped frock, the type folk used to call clean looking. From the short sleeves dangled liver-spotted hands and arms, the skin of which resembled a plucked chicken.. But why single out the arms?
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she said, in a strong English Midlands accent through a mouth whose edges appeared to have been crocheted.
“Who, me?” I ventured, casting a glance over my shoulder in case she was speaking to someone else.
“You are an insult to the people of Patmos,” she yelled. “No, you are worse than that, you are an insult to the entire Greek nation and a disgrace to England.”
“I beg your pardon but………….” She was on full throttle now and in delivering her well-rehearsed diatribe, to which she was warming by the second, she was spraying me with unwelcome saliva. There was no stopping the old crone who was being spurred on by the whimsical attention of the clientêle of the taverna, which had now come to a standstill for the show, at my expense.
“This is a holy island, and it is Easter. People have come from all over Greece to pay their respects, and what have we here, in Chora of all places: a woman half naked.”
I fished the clothing out of my rucksack to show her that I’d worn appropriate covering in the cave, which I would have thought sufficient, but she would have none of it. Her lecture had been constructed and memorised with malice aforethought and nothing was going to stop her.
The unjustness of it began to penetrate. Maybe she had a point; one which she could have made tactfully and quietly and with a lot less offence. Instead she had chosen to dole out the humiliation in public in order to display her superior knowledge of Greek culture by emphasising my own inadequacies in that department, and in a way that showed she thought of herself as a perfect being.
As her tirade was drawing to a close I lost my temper and stood up to retaliate but since she had finished orating and didn’t intend to hang around for Act 2 she had already set off at a speed that was not in keeping with her years; one that would cause her grief within a few seconds.
As she came to the taverna entrance she misjudged the step and fell headlong onto the stony path, clearly hurting herself into the bargain and letting out a long wolf-like howl that would have been even more blood curdling had their been a full moon in the background. A mixture of oohs, ahs, and sniggers ran through the diners, but before anyone had the chance to move I headed after her.
I was sorely tempted to gloat over her prostrate body. Instead I thought of my mother, who had a wonderful back catalogue of profound adages for every occasion. This happened to be a perfect one, so instead of wallowing in her downfall I merely bent down and offered my hand to the bitter old woman. And as I heard murmurs of approval from the diners I let my mother’s favourite words of wisdom, coined by Abraham Lincoln, run quietly past her:
It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.
Runner up – Originally submitted to a competition by a US e zine Travelers Tales
Featured Image: Entrance to the Cave of St John