Every now and then, a bus pulls up in the small, dusty town of Tympaki, on the olive-strewn Massara plain, and spits out a handful of surprised tourists on the street corner with “Change! Change here!” before rumbling off on its labyrinthine route. I wish I could say this happens every hour, on the chime of the bells in the Orthodox church, but I can’t be certain, because I am one of these tourists, blinking in the brightness of a Cretan afternoon.
Tympaki looks exactly as it did this morning and will do this evening, and in the silence, a moped whines by. In the “bus station” – a counter with a clock – a woman dressed entirely in black is lifting box after box over the counter in a harried way.
“What?” she says, looking at our timid group, all white arms and legs.
“Please…when is next bus for Agia Galini?” asks a hardy-looking German pensioner.
“Three!” says the woman in exasperation, waving at the clock. It’s ten to one – we have more than two hours to wait. The Germans shake out their maps to go walking.
I can’t imagine going walking. I can barely imagine lifting a coffee, but after two left turns and three right, there’s a taverna with cool terracotta tiles, and a promise of “real Greek food”.
I’m walking down towards the open kitchen, passing row after row of set, white, empty tables – it is the Marie Celeste of tavernas – when I hear a “Hello?” and turn.
He is following me down, youngish – about my age. It’s the eyes I see first: like melted chocolate. He stops and looks at me. There is a question mark.
“Where are you from?”
“England,” I say.
“I lived in America for years,” he says, looking at me again and tripping over a pan. I reach for a menu, but he calls out, “No! Don’t bother with that,” and I look up, astonished.
“I’ll cook you anything you want,” he says, and we stare back at each other.
“Try this,” he says, taking a lid off a pan and offering me a forkful of yellow. “Zucchini flower.”
It’s sunshine in a bite.
“And this – “ He whips off pan lids one by one: green beans, entwined like thick threads. Chicken legs, sizzling in a blood-red marinade. Artichoke hearts.
“I’ll just have a salad,” I say.
There are others now, elderly Germans with walking boots and high expectations, but he sits and shows me photos of secret beaches, drizzles of virgin sand and impossible blue. When I finally get up to leave, the sun is holding its breath.
“Give me your number,” says Georgios, but I laugh and pick my way over crates of watermelons to the bus. On the way home, I realize my mistake.
The next morning, I catch the bus to the hippie colony of Matala, but the driver shouts, “Change! Change here!”
In the bus station, the woman in black is on the phone.
“ – Ten minutes!” she snaps, so I weave through the web of streets to where Georgios is standing unloading crates.
“…hey!” he says, mid-lift. “You’re back?”
“I forgot to give you this,” I tell him.
Later, we meet on the white steps that serve as streets in Agia Galini, the Libyan Sea a slice of indigo behind us. There are unearthly magenta blossoms trailing down as if thrown from the windows. Pink petals are caught in the wheel of his moped.
We take off, on the bike, into the hills. There is nobody around, just the curve of the road, the olive trees, and the smell of herbs. I hold on to him as we go higher, among lemon villas and terracotta slates. The road turns into gravel (“here’s where they stopped paying their taxes”) and we bounce down to an empty, secret beach. The sea is gleaming green, salted with rocks in the shapes of animals. He takes off over the stones, diving into the warm water, but I take baby steps until he splashes me.
“A salad?” he says, “I offer you zucchini flowers and you ask for a salad??”
I splash him back: “Next time. I promise!”
We ride back, salt drying on skin. Round the bend of a cliff we scatter a herd of goats, bells ringing, and we pull up on the edge, in buttery evening sun, for another kiss, until he says, suddenly, “I can’t – I can’t do this…”
“I’m really sorry. I should have told you right away – I have a wife…”
Of course. Of course he does. And a child, as it turns out. And a life.
We sit apart, looking out over the soundless, sparkling sea. Then he talks and I listen, until the sun has slid into the indigo, and then he’s gone.
The next morning, I pack my case and catch the bus back to Heraklion. The bus winds its way over the roads, saying nothing.
We pull up underneath the dome of the Orthodox church, engine running. I go down to the driver, who looks like Dionysus, all tumbling black curls and belly.
“No!” he says, in answer to my question. “Not stop today!”
“Two minutes? Please?”
He looks at me.
“One minute,” he says, and I jump off the bus and start to run, through the maze of Minoan alleys, until I find him, cooking something yellow on a grill.
“I have one minute,” I say to him.
“Thank you,” he says, and gives me a zucchini flower.
“I did promise,” I tell him, and then I turn and run back to the bus.
Back home, I look everywhere for zucchini flowers, but they seem elusive – legendary, even. All I find are recipes, which generally agree that “these flowers are highly-prized Mediterranean summer delicacies, beautiful to look at, bittersweet in taste, and, unfortunately, extremely perishable.”
© Joanna Rubery 2017