We’re play-fighting in the sea, me versus Chloe and Rose, and their five year old cousin, Scarlett. Sharks versus Pirates. Unfortunately, when Scarlett lunges forward to escape, she back-heels Rose in the mouth with her flipper, knocking one of her baby-teeth back at a slant. Rose cries with the pain of it, but when we gently probe the tooth it doesn’t seem quite ready to come out. It’s fixed there, slanting back, like a – well, like a shark’s tooth.
‘Work at it with your tongue a bit,’ we tell her. ‘It’ll soon be out.’
Later that evening we’re sitting down for supper at a taverna in the old part of town. A mulberry tree in the middle of a courtyard, gnarled old trunk painted white, branches hanging low over a spread of tables. An old man plucking a Bouzouki, a thin ginger cat prowling the gaps between the diners. Poor Rose is miserable because she wants to tuck into the basket of bread but her tooth won’t let her. I take another look. It’s still pretty firm. ‘Keep working it,’ I say.
Melita, the woman who runs the place, comes over.
‘Come on. Let me see.’ She has a feel.
‘You need piece of string, like this.’ She mimes a hideous yanking movement. Rose shrinks back in the chair. ‘S’okay,’ says Melita. ‘Don’ worry. And when tooth is out, pah! You throw it up on roof, and the fairy she come down, you get two euros. Two! You believe?’
She cups Rose’s face in both hands, then goes away again, whether to get some string or to take some food orders, we’re not sure. Just in case it is for string, I have one last feel of the tooth. I can handle most things, but it has to be said I’m pretty squeamish about pulling teeth. But the urgency of the situation – and the whisky I’ve just drunk – makes me bold. I give the tooth a good downward twist, and out it comes. Rose’s shock quickly blossoms into triumphant relief. After everyone’s had a good look at the little tooth, I gauge the distance from the table up to the nearest roof. I decide not to throw it because we’re all worried it’ll just bounce back and land in someone’s moussaka. Instead I tuck it safely away in my pocket to put under Rose’s pillow later on. When Melita comes back she’s particularly pleased. She applauds the cute gap, and promises to send her out a special chocolate mousse at the end of the meal. Even the old Bouzouki player celebrates the pulling of the tooth. He strolls over, and lets Rose strum a few chords.
‘Ómorfi kopéla’ he says, playing a D.
The girl outside the Attikon open air movie theatre is chewing up a smile. She’s trying to be enthusiastic, but I get the feeling her scooter key is tingling in her pocket, and anyway, the prospect of hearing the Mamma Mia soundtrack one more time is gathering darkly in her eyes. I’m sympathetic, but it’s not so bad for me. I love this theatre and I’d happily watch anything. The Attikon looks like a converted fruit warehouse, its roof lifted off, holes knocked in the back wall for a projector, a whitewashed concrete screen up on the stage where the melons were probably loaded onto trucks. The auditorium is a spread of canvas director’s chairs, each one slightly tipped back on wooden wedges and screwed into the ground. There’s even a bar at the back for Mythos and water, birds ghosting overhead through the pale reaches of the cinema lights.
All in all it’s pretty comfortable. At one point I must have dozed. I open my eyes and sit up. Pierce Brosnan is wandering around in pressed white trousers, killing a song with the same look of refined cruelty he used when he was James Bond. I take another sip of beer. The film sails on. At one point, a whole crowd of people driven crazy by Dancing Queen follow Meryl Streep’s example and throw themselves off a jetty into the sea. Here in the cinema, suddenly half the audience jump up onto the stage, all dressed in board shorts, snorkels and flippers, dancing around, which helps.
There’s still a big Mamma Mia presence in Skiathos, even though the film’s been out a while. A small armada of boats heads out to the locations every morning, most of them starting from the Old Port, where the film begins. Alicia has seen some of these places. That church on top of the hill, for example. Not so long ago she took a ride out there, to Skopelos, a neighbouring island, bigger, but no airport.
‘The church is beautiful, but nothing like the film’ she says. ‘More like a shrine, really. After you’ve slogged all the way up the steps, you can barely fit your head round the door, let alone Colin Firth.’
One thing the film does capture is the sea, though. A rich cobalt blue, enfolding the island, and such a heat lying across it all, bright and dry, thrumming with crickets. We spend most of our time in the sea. I feel like a guest in some vast and brilliant aquarium, whilst a cast of fish busily fan burrows in the soft sand, or flash past in silver shoals, or swim up to investigate your toes. It’s handy that the apartment is right on the beach. Out of the front door, two flights of cool white marble steps, along a grey flagstone path with lizards skittering across the walls and spiked red flowers lolling overhead, a blaze of garden, rough grass, the slatted shade of a palm, a battered wooden fence and suddenly you’re on the sand, you’ve dropped your towel, the chill shock of the water.
I’ve never swum so much in my life. The girls have practically grown tails. We swim out to explore the coast. We laze on our backs in the shallows, make faces underwater. The girls practise elaborate routines with their lilos, synchronised falling off, climbing on, swimming under, tipping up. We sit on the beach and give marks out of ten, until the heat becomes too much and we’re driven back in again.
My back browns first because I spend so much time scooting around, duck-diving, hunting for shells amongst the coral and rocks. A swimmer’s tan.
On the way back in on the second day, Pippa, one of the kids from the apartment opposite, asks me what I’ve found. I empty my pockets - some sea urchin shells, a couple of delicately banded cockles, a gastropod as whirly as soft ice cream.
‘Yeah. Loads of them,’ she says with a sigh, squinting past me out to sea. ‘My Daddy takes me in the boat to this place where the fishermen empty their nets. You can get any kind of shell you want. Too many to carry, really. Bye.’
The sea’s so flat calm it’s easy to swim distance. When the water gets really deep, the sunlight starts to ray up in spokes. It’s all so clear, warm, encouraging. I start to find my way as much by underwater markers as anything above the surface. A sunken dinghy, a submerged buoy, the dark fold in the floor of the bay where the sand gives out and the rocks begin.
I swim out at night beneath a full moon, and each time I turn my head to the side to breath the water flows over my mouth like liquid silver.
We go up to the Monastery of Evangelistria, in the mountains north of Skiathos town. I follow the rental car on a battered 80cc moped where the throttle grip keeps slipping off and the clutch needs adjusting. But at least the brakes work. Chloe has let me borrow her tiny clip-on digital camera to film the ride. It should be great - a series of sharp bends, cypress trees, sheer rock faces, sudden vistas of blue. I forget all about the camera on the journey up, because at several places on the road there are spills of sandy rocks, and I have to concentrate to stay on. When we reach the monastery car park, I switch the camera off and think how great the film will look. A biker’s eye view of a steep ascent. Fantastic.
The monastery is a tranquil place.
We wander round, hats off, admiring the ancient slate roof, the beams and buttresses, olive presses, pots of hyacinths, the shade of the lime trees. Scarlett runs about, exploring. We calm her down for a look inside the chapel; when we come out again she frowns, jams her hat back on her head and says ‘Why was that chipmunk sitting in there not saying anything?’ She gets cross when we laugh.
Later in the morning, we’re up at the monastery cafe, eating toasted cheese sandwiches, taking in the view. Scarlett is jumping round, chasing crickets, being a cricket, until she spots Marta, the monastery bull terrier, lazing under a cart. She immediately switches tack and spends the next few minutes trying to catch Marta and snatch the Frisbee out of her mouth. Suddenly, one of the senior monks steps out onto the veranda, a man as darkly impressive as his beard. Scarlett immediately forgets Marta. She runs straight up to the monk, pushes the hair out of her eyes, and looking up the sheer vertical face of him shouts: ‘I am five years old.’ The monk smiles, puts his hand out, rests it on her forehead. Suddenly a mobile phone rings, cutting across the moment. The monk sighs, takes his hand away, reaches into his cassock, pulls out the phone, starts talking.
I make sure I have the digital camera pegged to my shirt front again for the ride back. It should be an even better view: the downward-curving road, the mountain forests, the blue sea – spectacular. I want to get it all.
When I pull up outside the cafe in town, I park the bike, switch off the camera and put it in my pocket. Back at the apartment I plug the camera into the laptop and download the film. It quickly becomes apparent that my shirt front had sagged, so all you can see either up the mountain or down is my sandals on the running board, an occasional flash of tarmac, the mad sound of a 80cc engine buzzing in the background.
‘Never mind, darling. The main thing is you saw it,’ says Jenny.
The night before we’re due to fly back we all decide to have a meal at the taverna in the bay just round the headland. Jenny and I decide to swim there; Alicia will take the girls in the car and meet us on the beach with some dry clothes. It’s a beautiful swim, even more so because it’s just the two of us, cutting through the water, breaking the surface and breathing in unison. We’re like a couple of dolphins. The sea is where we live; it’s how we get about. Admittedly the feeling gives way to something a little less euphoric when we reach the choppier waters round the point of the headland, but we’re fine, we make it through, and soon find ourselves approaching Vromolinos bay. In contrast to the wild feel of the swim we’ve just done, the beach is packed with people playing in the early evening sun, bat and ball, splashing around, parading up and down the beach or standing in the shallows with their hands on their hips looking out to sea. We can’t see Alicia and the others yet. We tread water and catch our breath for a while.
Supper at the taverna is fantastic. We stuff ourselves: calamari, sardines, fried potatoes, fried cheese, Greek salad, roast courgettes... an endless procession of dishes, toasting each other with coke zero, rose wine, vodka tonic. The sun goes down. The beach empties. Ice cream, coffee. It’s our last day, the big splurge. When we’ve got the bill it occurs to me I can swim back – how often do you get to swim home from a night out? Once I’ve had the thought it feels impossible to go back on the idea, even though I can tell it makes everyone uneasy, even though truth be told it makes me a little uneasy, too. But it has to be done.
I take off my shirt, pick up my goggles.
‘See you back at the apartment,’ I say, and jump down onto the beach.
All the sun loungers are empty. The blue of the sea has given way to an inky heaviness. When I wade in, it’s a different feeling, not a home to playful dolphins, but creatures I wouldn’t recognise, that wouldn’t recognise me.
I dive in and start swimming.
Because it’s darker I find it more difficult to keep to a line. That happy feeling of having someone with me has utterly gone; now I plough through the water with purposeful strokes, trying to leave in my wake the fuzz of all the alcohol and food. And the sea absorbs it all, the noise of my breathing, the splash of my arms, the kick of my legs. It takes it, endlessly folding itself around my bravura plans, my heat.
A few lights on the horizon. A yacht, a ferry.
I remember a story I heard about a swimmer who was hit by a speedboat. He’d been swimming across a bay at night when a boat piloted by a couple of drunk guys ran him down. The propeller cut him badly and he would certainly have drowned, but if it was bad luck to have been hit by a boat, it was good luck that the pilot was a doctor. They fished him out, spun the boat round and headed back to the hospital whilst the doctor staunched the blood flow and kept him alive.
I think I hear something.
I stop and tread water.
Nothing. No drunken doctors roaring down on me.
I swim on.
Round the headland. I take a wide berth, because it’s impossible to see the rocks. The water is even rougher now that the sun has gone down and the wind picked up, but I make progress. When the water calms down again I pause to get my bearings. In the distance, beyond all the boats moored in the bay, I can make out the apartment lights, and those of the taverna next door. I carry on. Breast stroke, because I want to keep an eye on where I’m going. I pass a brightly illuminated yacht. There are people moving about below deck laughing, shouting, holding drinks. I slip by like some kind of amateur commando. Dinghies, rowboats. The splash and swish of my progress through the black water. But the margins of panic I felt earlier have retreated, and I feel safer.
Twenty minutes more and I make the shore. I put my feet down and walk out of the sea, across the sand, through the gate, across the rough grass to the flagstone alley, up the marble steps. Take the key from under the mat, let myself into the apartment. Hang my goggles on the hook by the door. I feel light-headed, dizzy. I stand there dripping, like a ghost who doesn’t yet know he’s a ghost. But when I go into the shower the beads of warm water fall on me beautiful and fresh, and I feel better.
I hear the door open, the glorious fuss of everyone coming in.Hey! We’re home!