The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 8 December 2018

A consul in Salonica

I decided to go to Mt Athos. You need a special permit, a diamonitirion. Nowadays, they’re granted by the Pilgrims’ Office in Salonica. Back then, you had to arrange it through a consulate. There was no Australian consulate in Salonica, so I used the British one. I was lucky. It meant meeting Terry. I’ll call him that, but it’s not his real name.

He was sitting at a vast, wooden desk on a great armchair, as befits Her Majesty’s Consul. Terry had delicate skin, which gleamed slightly – and oddly, as he must have been sixty. Perhaps he was sweating, although it wasn’t hot. It was March, but his face was sun-burnt already. He had wispy blonde hair, not balding, and blue eyes that shone like his skin, weakly. I could see some excess flesh. He wore a tie and a bulky shirt with blue and white stripes. All he needed was a cap, and you’d have a British schoolboy, a big, old-fashioned one. More than anything, I was struck by his gentleness. This, too, may have been excessive.

I introduced myself. The first thing he did was call the British embassy in Athens. I didn’t understand. The phone call wasn't about me. Nor was he posing. A consul doesn’t have to. In fact, when he spoke, he was self-effacing, even with me, and especially on the phone to the embassy. At first, he didn’t give his name – no rank-pulling from Terry – and when he did, he muttered it, just the surname, apologetically, like a schoolboy owning up.

He was dealing with a drugs arrest. A real boy had been really naughty, an eighteen-year-old, Terry said, when his phone call was finished.

“He claimed he hitched a lift and the driver raped him. It was hard to believe. I said, ‘You would have fought him off; a strong lad like you.’”

Terry fell silent and gazed before him, as if he was looking at the boy. The anecdote surprised me. It was consular business, no names, but I wondered why he’d told me. There was something intimate about it. I’d only known him for a few minutes. He also had a habit of repeating the last words you spoke, in a pensive tone, to show he valued them. I didn’t like it, but I liked Terry.

He described some of the drawbacks of visiting Mt Athos: poor transport, no women or meat; I said it didn’t matter about the meat; I was vegetarian.

“Do you ever eat it?”

“No, I couldn’t keep it down.”

“Couldn’t keep it down.”

He nodded while he said it, like a man learning. As for the lack of women, he quipped that it didn’t matter either. He said they were jealous because they couldn’t go, and took revenge by hiring boats, then lounging naked in front of the monasteries. He chuckled, but it was true.

He was planning a trip himself in his role as consul. He asked if I wanted to join the official party.

“We’ll get to use the jeep.”

It was the sort of thing a small boy would say. I liked him even more. I said yes. There was an ex-pat called Bryan who had also agreed to go. Terry was after one more person (“to make up a decent party”); two pairs, so no one felt ignored on the narrow paths. He asked me if I knew anyone. I thought of Manur. He was still in Salonica. In some ways, he was perfect: male, unassuming (on the surface) and unattached – there’d be no cross women at home, not in Greece, anyway – and he fancied himself as a traveller. He’d flown from India, for a start. We’d also spent a weekend at the Metéora. That’s monasteries. He appeared to enjoy himself. The next time I saw him, I asked if he’d like to go to Athos. He said he would.

We discussed what to take. I pulled out my travel stuff. I had two maps of the world, not much use on Athos, and I didn’t need both. I offered one to Manur. Stupidly, I let him choose. He opened out the maps side by side, compared them with great concentration for a long while, then took the better, more expensive one.