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The Camp Site at the End of the World
Eve didn't feel at ease about it. She knew me well enough to know I prefer the most unlikely places, but this time the prospect of a possibly very primitive and hostile camp site "at the end of the world" filled her with an undefinable aversion. However, I was rejoicing in the idea of spending our holidays in a completely untouched spot, some new Garden of Eden.
We had taken a plane via Athens, took a ship to Volos and kept our fingers crossed. The boat was crammed with Greeks and we noticed few tourists on board, but as far as I was concerned, that didn't matter.
At S., the only town on the island with the same name, we found out that one of the two camp sites had been closed to the public.The other was twenty miles out of town. That much we got from a smelly local, sitting behind the empty desk of the Tourist Bureau.
"Camping P. is very quiet," the clerk assured us... and so was the town, as a little walk showed us.
An almost empty bus with a shaky driver took us to the camp site, situated near a small hamlet. The site, close to the sea, was covered with cypresses and pine trees. It looked like a large forest in which a few tents were slumbering in the sun. A rectangular white building contained the reception and sanitary facilities, a shop and some sort of a restaurant. Starting from there, a dusty path twisted and turned around the site. We set up our tent at the side that looked out over the sea.
The owner of the place was in his fifties and very friendly. In his chequered trousers and sloppy shirt he made me think of a lost Briton. He was assisted by his two sons - the older running the restaurant, the younger the shop - and a sluttish old woman, accompanied by her robust but equally filthy husband. Thery were in charge of the maintenance of the place.
Our nearest neighbours were a young German couple and the - invisible - owners of a large blue tent. The other inhabitants - I counted no more than twenty tents - seemed strangely in need of sleep, lost in a muggy lethargy, as if they had to carry the burden of an almost unbearable fatigue. I attributed this to the quivering heat; you couldn't even enjoy a cool breeze coming in from the sea.
I cannot remember when I began to feel there was something wrong with the site and its inhabitants. The terrain seemed situated in a vacuum which no sounds could penetrate, except the soft ebb and flow of the sea, the chirping of the crickets and the buzzing of the bees. At first I even enjoyed the almost perfect silence, but later on I came to find it strange. Standing on a rocky hill on the other side of the camping, you could see a narrow, asphalt road far below, which wound down to the hamlet of P. - and sometimes a car passed by, but the sound of the engine was never heard. Nor did any sound of the hamlet or the boats, which passed close to the coast, penetrate to where we were.
And then there was this almost unreal silence in which the site itself was plunged. People spoke in an undertone, as if they were in church, or as if they were hiding from somebody or something. Even the few children about never played noisy games, but busied themselves quietly. And the two babies we sometimes saw never cried. Never.
It was unnatural. It created a hard-to-define, languid, even morbid atmosphere. This complete silence radiated a hypnotizing influence, a certain pressure which made everybody change to a slower rhythm. Time stood still; or to be more precise: what we use to call "time" no longer existed. This endless stream of events and non-events, of spoken and unspoken words, of deeds and thoughts had stopped... at last.
Maybe it was due to the weariness after that long and dusty voyage, or maybe it was this completely altered way of life that already held us in its power, but we slept far into the morning when we arrived. We decided to eat in the restaurant; an exotic but tasty meal, consisting of ingredients which we couldn't place at all.
At our own astonishment we slept until after noon the next day. We set the alarm and firmly decided to go shopping at the hamlet the next morning. This time we rose early - the site was still plunged in a deep sleep.
At the reception, the owner of the camping made us stop and asked friendly in that charming broken English of his where we were going.
"To the village," I said, "to do some shopping."
He shook his head. "I'm terribly sorry, mister... Today is Sunday, and there's no bus before five o'clock."
That was the day I decided that people here looked like zombies.
"Nonsense!" Eve said, but I noticed her voice was trembling.
We slept away the best part of the next day. Eve had forgotten to set the alarm. The owner assured us the next bus was leaving in only two hours' time, and I didn't want to walk for an hour through this heat along a shadeless road. Luckily we found almost everything we needed in the shop; moreover I didn't see any use any longer in going to the village.
The stifling atmosphere of the camp site now began to hold us in its power too... We sat or lay in front of our tent, enjoyed a cool beer, and felt constantly tired... but in a pleasant way, as if we had been working all day. We no longer wondered if it was necessary to do this or that, we just lay there, accepting each hour as it came. Every effort seemed useless; it just didn't matter anymore. We grew more apathetic as time went by, paralysed by a sweet softness, captured in a slow-motion movie.
We were living as under a glass bell. Yet the knowledge that something was wrong with us and this extraordinary site and its inhabitants, which were sealed off almost hermetically from the outer world, was never really far off.
I cannot recall how many days slipped by in this splendid isolation, this twilight zone on the edge of sleeping and waking. Something had to happen, but we lacked the power to get up and leave. The idea of staying here for the rest of our days filled us with panic one moment and with perfect bliss the next.
One morning I suddenly awoke, troubled by a nightmare in which I was walking endlessly along a dusty road. Eve was watching me with eyes bemused with sleep, and said: "Have you noticed that nobody ever leaves this place?"
I thought of the blue tent which had been left abandoned for a couple of days, and had been taken away. This happened also to some other tents. We had seen the owners; it remained unresolved where they had gone.
"We've got to get out of here," Eve said. "Or one morning they'll take away our tent too."
"How long have we been here?"
"I don't know. I haven't counted the days."
"Neither have I."
"We've got to get back."
"Yes, we have to go... Now!"
The efforts it took to clear up our things and get them in our sucksacks were incredibly heavy. I suffered from a piercing headache, my legs were like lead. Yet we managed to get our packs on our shoulders.
The camp site was still asleep, peacefully - and yet filled with an inexplicable threat. Silently we sneaked past the white cabin, afraid someone would suddenly appear on the treshold to stop us. We knew one word would do, because we had already reached the limits of our endurance. Something softly urged us back to the place we had left...
And then there was this long, hot and dusty road. Luckily a car pulled up half an hour's walk from the camping. The driver took us all the way to the town. No conversation was possible, since he didn't understand nor speak a word of English, French or German. But what brought us to that road he didn't seem to understand at all.
At S., nobody could grasp the situation either. A young man, who had taken the place of the smelly clerk, assured us there had never been a camp site called P. on the island, although he agreed there once was a hamlet of that name.
"But it was burned to the ground during the Second World War," he said, "and all people living there were murdered by the Germans."
When we told him his predecessor had given us the information about the place, he looked quite astonished.
"There has never been a predecessor, Sir. This Tourist Office has just opened, this week. Before that there was only a Travellers Aid Society."
At our repeated request, he took us - somewhat annoyed - to the camp site. There we could see with our own eyes there were no tents... and there propably never had been tents where we had stayed. There was only this small, white building, lost in the middle of the forest. And an aged gentleman, who was watching us from his rocking-chair.
"That's M.," the young man said, "and it's true, he is a peculiar character. A local celebrity too. In the village the story goes he's a saint, and people believe he has visions of an other world."
I looked at the man more carefully. He was wearing ragged, worn-out chequered trousers and resembled the owner of the camping.
"An other world? What other world?"
The young man looked at me, somewhat pale. "Can't tell that, Sir. You'll have to find that out for yourself. I'm sorry."
It struck to me our guide now seemed really nervous. I realised he had tried to make us feel at ease, but was himself balancing on the edge of panic.
"He's feared over here," the young man muttered, "because the story goes that what he dreams becomes real, and when someone gets captured in his dreams, he can never return to the real world..."