How many gay men does it take to change an island?

James Davidson

I am sitting in the front row of a café on the harbour drinking a beer and eating an octopus. It’s late in the afternoon and there’s an air of expectation. Three women in slacks, fifty or sixty years old, are clutching their cameras, sitting next to me. I wonder if these are the friends of the woman who cleans the apartment for us, the ones she said she’d send here. I can’t remember if we got here early to get good seats or if we left the beach to save our skins and happened to be here by accident. It’s quite possible we’ve been sitting here for hours, reading.

There’s a fanfare and a short speech from the town square, a few hundred yards away. People clap a bit and whoop. We can see a small group leave the square and turn left towards us, preceded by two photographers walking backwards, whirring and clicking. It’s not long before the procession comes into view. ‘He’s very handsome,’ says B. of the almost naked man on horseback. ‘Do you think he’s a model?’ Behind him six young men from the beach are carrying an image of Iris the Rainbow. It has letters stuck onto it which read ‘Twelve Gods Party’. ‘Must be.’ All the members of the entourage have been chosen for their physique and walk behind the horse in swimming-trunks. As even decent bodies do out of context, they look a bit ridiculous. The French guy called Vincent is one of the chosen. He catches us watching and rolls his eyes heavenwards. The women next to us take photographs.

The man on horseback is Apollo, despite his black hair and physical overdevelopment. ‘What happened to the rest of them?’ I can hear myself saying. ‘There were only seven and only one of them was a “god”,’ but B. thinks it was good fun. ‘Did you see that French guy we met? He looked embarrassed.’ We hang around a bit longer in case something else happens, then make our way back to the apartment.

The ancient Greeks had beauty competitions for men. The winners danced in the first line of choruses or led processions. Even old men might be selected or deselected, depending on their looks. It was another part of the splendour that proclaimed a city’s superiority, especially at the international festivals, like the one at Delos: expensive gifts, the best poetry, the best singers, the most gold, the finest costumes, perfect dancers and a wealth of handsome faces drawn from the city’s gene-pool. B. is reading his beloved Beryl Bainbridge on the patio. I interrupt him to impart this interesting information. He says: ‘You’re like an open book.’

Next day the woman who cleans wants to know what the procession was like. I say I was disappointed. It was a man on a horse from an agency and six boys from the beach with a flag. She’s also disappointed. She’s from Derbyshire and introduced herself as ‘strong in th’ arm, thick in th’ head’, which I had to explain to B. She’s lived here for ages, and has a son who’s half-Greek, somewhere at university. Our description of the procession provokes an observation. ‘The Greeks,’ she says, ‘don’t know how to have a good time. No really, they’re very boring.’ I think back to a few Greeks I have known and see sometimes what she means, but one of them had to be the most beautiful (no really) man I ever met, and kind, the sort of man who would have been first choice to lead the chorus. He hated the Oxford climate and always said Japan with a stress on the first syllable.

We wonder which beach we are going to go to today. There turn out to be only three choices. Superparadise is the most extraordinary, a bay slung between two promontories. The sea is green, like a swimming-pool, which is a compliment for a stretch of open water, equivalent to saying a landscape is ‘picturesque’, or, as B. says, confusingly, ‘pinteresque’. The most peculiar thing about the beach is the feeling it has of an enormous outside room. More remote and spacious is Elea. On the other side of the island is Ayios Sostes, which I translate, hopefully, as ‘San Salvador’. There are several other beaches, of course, but gay people don’t go there much and we have disdained them.

The route to Superparadise runs past the runway. A little off the end of it you come to a turning and have to choose between right and left. Left will take you to the straight side of the beach and right to the gay. It used to be all gay, apparently, but by now the straight people have taken over about four-fifths of it, although there is a big overlapping area where there is some integration. Some gay people who have been coming here for years are disconsolate about this development and fear for the future. The road alternates mere track with pot-holed tarmac. Eventually, you see the sea, then the bay, then the beach and realise you are on one edge of a shallowly pouring valley, a strange valley littered with giant boulders which look like polystyrene painted.

Ten minutes after we get there I see someone walking down the beach towards us. He’s an air steward B. met the first night we arrived, with his friend who works in the City. They were on the same flight as us from Gatwick. B. says he noticed them in the waiting lounge because one of them had stuffed a huge bag of Ecstasy tablets very obviously, like frogspawn, in his underpants. Since drugs are illegal I’d better not give them their names, although that unnecessarily criminalises them. The one coming towards us now will be Muppet, because of the way he opens his mouth and leaves it open. His friend who is nowhere to be seen will have to be Tuppet because he’s interested in just one thing and, by all accounts, very successful at getting it.

Muppet, at any rate, is coming in our direction, but laughing so much at what he is going to tell us that he has to keep stopping to recover his balance. A group of Dutchmen in front of us look at him as if he were a lunatic. By the time he is sitting on our towels he needs a minute or two to get his breath back, still bursting with laughter, anticipating ours.

He was fast asleep but was woken at three in the morning. Tuppet was shaking him frantically. They had to go out to the washing line and remove their towels. He was ordered to go and fetch their mopeds off the road and find somewhere to hide them round the back. He fixes me now, with a suddenly serious, wide-eyed expression – ‘Come on! Come on! You don’t understand! It’s very important! Hurry!’ – before laughing again uncontainably and eventually resuming the narrative he was able to piece together.

His friend from the City had fallen in with some Italians. There may or may not have been an orgy but some kind of drugs were involved which gave Tuppet paranoid delusions. He had discovered a terrible secret. The Italians were mafiosi. Their bags were full of drugs and guns and now they knew he knew they were determined to get rid of him. The only chance of survival was to remove all traces of where they were staying, the mopeds on the road above the house, their distinctive towels from the balcony. He was sure he hadn’t told them which apartments they were renting.

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