That’s the thing about islands

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 16 December 2018

‘Do you think it’s much further?’ said my uncle. He was starting to struggle.

‘I’m sure we’re nearly there,’ I said, but secretly I was worried. It was hard walking on the beach sand, even though we were following a path that had been compacted by many feet before us. It was hard going for me, and I am nearly half a century younger than he is.

I don’t see my uncle very often. He lives in Spain in an old farmhouse in Andalucia with his partner of 50years. I had been having difficulties in my marriage and I was living on a small Greek island called Symi, and my uncle was too frail to visit me there. It required a long sea crossing on a bouncing ferry, and many steep stone steps up to my house, so we had agreed to meet on the nearest large island, which is Rhodes. I was moved that he had come all the way to Rhodes to see me. I wanted to show him something special, besides the beautiful old town and the Avenue of the Knights and the grand old harbour where once the great bronze Colossus of Rhodes stood, its legs bestriding this narrow world.

I hired a car and we drove down to the southern tip of the island, to Prasonisi, where the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean meet. I wanted to take him to the very edge of it, to show him the beginning of one and the end of the other, the dividing line between this and that.
When you park at Prasonisi there’s a long isthmus of beach, maybe 50 metres wide, that leads to the sandy ridge at the headland. On the left was the calm blue Med with sedate swells and windsurfers and people swimming. On the right was the choppy, green, empty Aegean with small, rude, whitecapped waves.
‘I think the tip is just over that ridge,’ I said to my uncle.
‘Let’s go,’ he said.
I expected us to walk along the beach and climb the first ridge and stand there like a pair of Colossuses, or maybe Colossi, with one foot in each ocean, young and old, north and south, straddling the dividing line. But we reached the top of the first ridge and the path kept going to a second ridge, and then a third, and the further we walked, and the more tired we became, the more difficult it was to turn back. We had come so far, surely the tip was just over there, just a few more minutes. I wanted to go to that place with him, to complete something, to have a memory of having been somewhere meaningful together.

‘You know something I’ve learnt,’ said my uncle, as we paused for breath in the shade of a gummy pine.
‘What’s that?’ I said.

‘One thing I’ve learnt is that nothing ever ends, not even if you want it to. It just changes and the change is never absolute. There aren’t any clean lines, the one thing mixes with the other.’

At first I thought he was talking about the sea, but then I realised he was talking about my life. And I thought about that as we sat there. The Aegean and the Mediterranean are just words on a map. It’s not real: one doesn’t end and the other doesn’t begin – it’s all just the sea. It’s all just life. ‘What do you think?’ I said. ‘Do we need to go to the tip? Should we turn back?’

‘Let’s do that,’ he said. ‘Let’s go get a beer.’ That’s the good thing about being on an island, I thought, as we turned back and he put his arm around my shoulders. When you’re on an island the sea is all around. Everywhere is the tip.

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