where the management takes a personal interest in your journey
by Morrelle Smith
Some dreams glow with a numinous energy. These are the ones that get me crossing my fingers, touching wood, making offerings of fallen oranges – for only their perfect ripeness is suitable for the gods. How after all do we make gestures of gratitude to the gods in the modern world? No it’s not something we do too often, is it? So I revert to more ancient ways of giving thanks, because they feel authentic to me, though I draw the line at sacrificing a cockerel to Asklepios, the god of healing dreams. Somehow I cannot quite believe that any god would wish for the death of another living creature. Besides, I don’t want blood on my hands.
Other dreams often deal with the go-betweens, the ones that transport or accompany us, from the waking to the dream or mythic realms – and back again – the guides, the ones that know the paths or straits that link the worlds. And, although we have to trust them, we also know there may be negotiations, deals, and bargaining. Charon is not the only ferryman who needs a coin.
In my dream last night, the bus driver turns on the charm, is almost flirtatious in that way, you know, where they’re being helpful and accommodating, then put a slab of icing on top, or extra cream in your coffee, it’s that rolling of the eyes, that – what wouldn’t I do for you, lovely lady – kind of attitude. It’s one I respond to with a smile and an inclination of the head at the same time both acknowledging the compliment and letting it run past me like water, not holding on to it, not taking it up like the end of a rope and winding it in. I’m nudged into a role I don’t really want to play but feel it would be churlish to refuse outright.
When I was very young I used to take this kind of compliment quite seriously. It was the way I met my first husband, he was selling tickets at an open air event I went to. I was meeting up with friends inside the grounds, but I arrived on my own. The ticket-seller, a good-looking young man, said to me – I’ll see you after the show. It was a simple compliment, a throwaway remark, but I believed both in the sentiment expressed and the power of words. I went up to him afterwards. It’s possible that he didn’t even remember making that remark, never mind intending it to have consequences. Well, it did. My first husband’s shyness was masked by a show of bravado which I took to be his authentic nature. What else could he have done, on seeing this young woman coming up to him after the show, except continue where his throwaway remark left off, and arrange a date with me?
In those days, banks – he worked in a bank – were bastions of tradition and security and upheld the status quo. Short hair was obligatory for male employees. He wore his hair as long as he could, with a thick fringe flopping over his eyes.
A bit like the bus driver’s, come to think of it. After marrying someone as a direct result of an admiring but light-hearted comment, I’d been dismayed to discover the deep perturbations and the murky water underneath the sunlit surface. I don’t mean that he was malicious, no, he was incapable of holding grudges, but he was deeply confused and this confusion tended to spill over into intimate areas of our contact, leading to a detachment which he did not mean as coldness but which was felt by me as a lack of interest. I much preferred it when the more sunny and light-hearted side of his nature reappeared – the side that had first attracted me to him. He was kind and self-absorbed. I too was self-absorbed. He talked about his career, where he wanted to go. When I thought of mine and the direction that it would take me in, it was clear that our paths would have to diverge. His job took him to a small town in the north of Scotland. I returned to my home town, to study at university. He stayed on in the cultural desert – as I saw it – where the newspaper he worked for catered to more traditional, straightforward prejudices.
This left me with a deep-seated suspicion of casual compliments and a belief that they covered over personal doubts that the speaker wished only to avoid. My other reason for wanting to sidestep the implied invitation of the bus driver is that I very much wanted to get on that bus. His invitation had been to do with the future – if you can’t get a seat on this bus, then I’ll personally drive another one for you, take you where you want to go – as soon as I can. But he knows it’s this bus I need to get – I’ve already bought a ticket, so there has to be a seat for me. I have a connection to make – perhaps a flight home, I’m not sure, but whatever it is, this is the bus I need to take. I’ve no interest in ‘some other time’ just as I have no interest in personal favours, however well meant.
All these years ago, the remark thrown out by the young man with the floppy hair at the ticket desk took me away from my intended course – I’d been planning to go to university in a few months time. Instead, we headed for a shared life in a tiny flat, taking whatever jobs we could get – for what did that matter, as long as it paid the rent and we could be together? In those days – ah those days! – it was possible to get jobs, rents were low and we earned enough to pay the bills. We lived in a lovely part of town with Georgian architecture and leafy gardens in the centre of curved circuses and cobbled avenues.
We enjoyed each other’s company or so I remember. Having a companion distracted me from the boredom of my job and my lack of interest in the office topics of conversation. But I still had a nagging doubt that something important was being sidelined and neglected. It was not until his job relocation, when we had to leave the leafy grandeur and the Georgian architecture, that it came home to me that this was not, absolutely not, where I wanted to be in my life.
I realised I had to get out fast and I reapplied to university. I’d made a lucky escape. I had nearly sleep-walked into a life that would have been no kind of life at all. For your life needs to engage you, demand things of you, require that you face challenges and work with them, doesn’t it?
We rely on bus drivers, train drivers, ferrymen and pilots, to get us where we want to go. They are all Hermes’ helpers and they have very differing personalities, perhaps reflecting Hermes’ quicksilver and ever-changing nature. Here in Greece, in the land of the gods, these mercurial assistants can be friendly and helpful, as well as curt or impatient with someone who does not speak their language and finds it difficult to convey where it is she wants to go. And sometimes this is because I hardly know myself. Would this be a good place or would that destination be better? When one is exploring, it’s often hard to be decisive, with clear goals in mind. There are as many imponderables as there are possible routes to take. But that’s not for Hermes to decide. The drivers simply want to know where you are going. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly, despite uncertainty.
Last night’s bus driver offered the possibility of a distraction from the route. Not from maliciousness or desire to lead me down a false path but from – as far as I could see – the very nature of the flighty god with winged sandals on his feet. His embrace of yes and no, his delight in crossroads, in quick decisions, never seen as irreversible, the separations in his nature are not of life or death quality, they are made lightly, in the knowledge that backtracking is always possible, that taking yet another turning may seem like going back and yet can still be going on and that sometimes going on will lead you precisely to the place you thought you’d left behind. For he is also the god of backroads and alleyways, of narrow entrances and unexpected turnings. He might ruffle the sea surface, giving a sly prod to one vessel, while holding back another, but he is not the ruler of the ocean’s depths, he is not Poseidon, who knows currents and underwater waves and deep-sea monsters. Hermes plays with surfaces, he trails fingers in the water, and above all he loves movement. He is the master of the liminal realm where elements and textures, moods and relationships overlap and merge.
Last night’s bus driver made a charming gesture – but only because there seemed to be a doubt that there was a place for me, on the bus. In my experience, doubt is a reliable companion. All is going well – you have your ticket, you’re about to get on board – and then there is some unexpected hitch that you did not foresee. How many times has this happened? To someone as maladroit as myself, when it comes to life’s practicalities, whether wrestling with a door handle, trying to find my way from one place to another in unfamiliar streets, particularly when you do not know the language, it’s so frequent an occurrence as to be customary, even comical.
So I am well acquainted with the hand of doubt slipping into mine. For Hermes has as much allegiance with no as yes, he has no prejudice, to tilt scales in one direction or another. But he spied division in me and exploited it. Then he saw that this time I was clear – this time, I knew where I was headed. This time, the enticements of dark hair and a sunny, appreciative comment, they were not the road itself. All these fascinating characters you may spend time with, they are not the roads you travel on. Even if you sometimes think – ah, here is a harbour in the sunlight, I could stay here, make a life here – you will always – at some point – have to raise the anchor and set off. Don’t ask me why. That’s simply how it is.
I’m not saying that there is no Ithaca. But it may not be as you remember it. After all these journeys made with Ithaca in mind, with Ithaca as your goal – when you arrive it confronts you with itself and you realise that places too, are on a journey.
There’s controversy over the precise location of the real Ithaca, the home and starting-point and destination of Odysseus. This seems fitting to me for surely mythic contours have to be a little imprecise?
But when we leave this ‘once upon a time’ and return to clocks and Everyday – as it seems we always do – won’t some other dark-haired ticket-seller catch our eye one day, won’t we strike a deal with some dream bus driver, board another ferry, cross another wine-dark sea?
Morelle Smith studied English and French at Edinburgh University and currently lives near Edinburgh. She has won prizes for her poetry and fiction, and also writes essays and travel articles.