(This story first appeared in the magazine Interzone, issue 108, dated June 1996.)

Platonic Solid

by Phil Masters

At eight o'clock in the morning, I left Jane sleeping and walked down to the outer harbour. We needed permits to travel on to the mountain country, and I still had to sort out which government department was responsible for issuing them. This looked like as good an excuse as any to explore the centre of the city - the old government area.

The guide books - from the modern Michelin guide I'd picked up in my home-town Smith's to the nineteenth-century Baedecker I'd found in an antiquarian bookshop - all agreed that the best way to cross the harbour was on a hire-boat. What none of them told you was how to attract the attention of the boatmen at eight-fifteen on an autumn morning - or how to negotiate a fare when you finally had the chance. I'd spent some time with a phrase-book, but the local language - which is, apparently, unrelated to any other living tongue, except possibly Basque - is a minefield for the amateur. However, after much waving and monosyllabic explanation and pointing - followed by even more confused haggling, mostly conducted in sign language, punctuated with shrugs that would have made an Italian jealous - I had myself a ride.

The sun was just coming up over the coastal area of the city as we pushed away from the quay, and it was soon illuminating the outer city wall. According to the stories, that would once have glittered, as it was originally entirely covered with sheets of bronze, and strangely enough, there is plenty of evidence that this may be true; there are even some scraps of verdigris-encrusted metal held on to the stonework by corroded bolts, high on the less accessible parts of the masonry.

Mostly, though, the light showed the wall to be crumbling and ill-maintained, with great swathes of moss down near the waterfront, where there was more moisture in the air and the heat of the day never quite reached.

It was certainly cool on the water that morning. I huddled inside my jacket, and looked at the buildings of the commercial quarter receding behind us.

Despite my first impressions of the night before, I decided that they weren't all on the verge of collapse. Ever since the great days of their empire, the people of the city have regarded the commercial district as less sacred than most of their God-given capital - so once in a while, they've actually built something new there, and even, sometimes, torn down the odd block to replace it with something more solid. Because they had so much space to play with beyond the circular "harbours", they rarely re-built an area more than once, so the place is a hotchpotch of building styles. They traded, at least a little, with Alexander's empire, Rome, and the Arabs, as well as with Europe and now America, and they stole architectural ideas shamelessly from everyone. So you've got badly-proportioned classical villas, occupied by half-a-dozen dirt-poor families, next to branches of Macdonalds in buildings that might once have resembled the Alhambra (but without the plaster-work or the fountains), and grimy Victorian warehouses rubbing shoulders with the occasional North African-style flat-roofed house - although considering their geographical location, the craftsmen of the city have always drawn remarkably little on African building techniques. I suspect that it's something to do with pride and ex-imperial attitudes.

So although the buildings behind the boat were certainly pretty shabby in places, they were nothing like as far gone as the ones in front. Later, when I reached the citadel, and saw the temple supposedly erected by the founder-god himself, I was to come to the conclusion that no-one had done a serious job of maintenance on it since the place was founded.

Perhaps, to Europeans or Americans, it seems strange of me to talk like this; no-one would suggest bringing the builders in to patch up the ruins of Ancient Rome, say, or the Acropolis. But then, the Romans and Greeks aren't trying to run a country out of their ancient remains.

The boatman pulled us round the harbour until we came in sight of the great canal, which leads seventeen miles down to the sea, and shortly after that, I spotted the first covered channel on the other bank of the harbour. This leads through to the second harbour, it's as old as the city, and remarkably enough, it's still usable. I suppose that it's just too important for the regular running of the place for them to let it go - so it's dredged out intermittently, and the masonry in the walls is checked at least once a century.

All of which has kept it a lot more intact than the great bridges that once spanned each of the harbours. These too date back to the glory days of the empire, and they must have been astonishing in their time - up to six hundred yards long, broad enough for three or four carts to pass abreast (or, more importantly, for the empire's tribute processions), and with spans wide and high enough for the ocean-going ships of the time to pass underneath.

They're gone now. As the boatman pulled us towards the channel, I saw the remains of the one that used to cross the outer harbour. On the outermost side, three complete arches are still standing, and the road-way is solid enough, almost to the very brink, for locals to have built themselves wattle-and-daub hovels on it. I saw a couple of thin, rag-clad children - presumably inhabitants of those slums - sitting with their legs dangling a hundred feet above the harbour. The inner end of the same bridge has suffered worse, for some reason - only two spans survive, and those in such a bad state that nobody has co-opted them for living space. The story is that the bridges decayed and collapsed while the Black Death was sweeping the country in the Middle Ages, although modern historians think that things were fairly far gone long before then.

(Supposedly, the bridges also used to carry fresh water from lush springs in the citadel to the rest of the city. That healthy idea went to Hell in the Middle Ages.)

Anyway, it was the covered channels that I had to think about right then. It is said that they were originally designed to allow passage to full-size classical triremes under oars; a few scholars, who think that triremes were bigger than the consensus version, have disputed the truth of that, but most of the books I'd read accepted it. The channels are certainly large enough for the traffic they get nowadays; small rowboats and the occasional flatulent diesel-powered barge.

Baedecker had also warned me of one thing that proved, remarkably, still to be true; each boatman is limited, by general agreement, to one harbour and half the length of the linking channels. So, after three hundred yards, my hired craft pulled up to a ramshackle jetty under feeble electric lights, half of them not working, and I had to go through the whole dumb-show haggling procedure again.

As we pulled out into the middle harbour, I caught sight of the middle wall, which was supposedly once plated with tin. Of course, there's no way of testing the truth of that; there are a few bolts and fittings, but metal that precious could never have lasted the centuries. If it was ever there, it's long been scavenged away. As for the innermost, citadel wall - that was supposedly covered in the ancient empire's long-lost wonder metal. Make of that what you want; historians and archaeologists certainly do.

I had to commission three boatmen in all, for decreasing distances - but even the last had to carry me two hundred yards along the second tunnel and another two hundred across the inner moat. This last fellow - a middle-aged, scowling character who charged me markedly more than his two colleagues for the shorter journey - seemed to know a few words of English, but he refused to indulge in anything as frivolous as conversation, preferring to hum some droning, unrecognisable tune as he pulled on the oars.

He dropped me on one of the narrow stone quays in the shade of the citadel wall, and I climbed up a narrow stairway with a single rope "handrail" to reach the streets of the government district. This circular island is a thousand yards in diameter; the buildings, which must be on average the oldest in the city, supposedly once dazzled the eye with their red, white, and black stonework. Nowadays, it's all just grey. However, the six-hundred-foot-long temple at the very centre is still discernibly white marble. I passed it that morning, but I didn't have time to investigate whether any of the golden statues mentioned in the oldest account still exist.

I started my quest for a travel permit with the Ministry of the Interior, where a shabby, brusque clerk with a few words of English spent ten minutes examining my passport, then informed me that "permits are tourism".

"Yes," I said, "I'm a tourist and I'm trying to obtain a permit."

"Tourism" he repeated flatly, then returned to shuffling papers on his desk.

"But where do I get one?"

He looked up again, his minimal courtesy visibly evaporating, and stabbed with a crumbling disposable biro at the map of the city that hung on the office wall. I tried to follow the gesture, and guessed that he was indicating the maze of assorted government buildings in the very centre of the city. Deciding that I'd gain little more here, I ventured out to explore further.

Half an hour later, I finally stumbled across a deep-pitted marble facade with a verdigris-coated plate proclaiming it - in three European languages as well as the local tongue - to be the Ministry of Tourism - an institution of which no travel agent or guidebook I'd consulted had ever heard. I ventured inside, and found a single, completely clear desk manned by a tall, austerely handsome individual in a pin-stripe three-piece suit.

"Good morning" I ventured.

The official stared back at me impassively. "Pardon, m'sieur?" he said.

"Uh," I said. "Je suis Anglais. Je desire une," oh damn it, what was the word? - "permit - une carte - que me donne permission. Je veux venir aux l'interieur. Aux les montagnes."

The official gazed at me, apparently digesting my pidgin. "Pardon, m'sieur?" he said.

And so we went on. It rapidly emerged that his French was even worse than mine, but it was the nearest thing we had to a common language. After maybe half an hour, he had determined enough to make a suggestion.

And so, with only a little trouble, I found myself at the local Ministry of Police. The sign here didn't indulge itself in any foreign languages, but the doors were guarded by a couple of plump, unshaven characters in green-and-blue uniforms, with night-sticks and revolvers on their belts, and I was reasonably confident of my urban geography by now. The door of the place was open, and the guards watched me impassively as I walked through it.

Inside, a thin youth was manning a reception desk. I approached him uncertainly, and tried the phrase-books' "Good Morning". He looked at me coolly.

"English?" he asked.

His grasp of the language was small, but he knew his limits, and he tried hard. Within a few minutes, he had passed me on to a middle-aged, middle-ranking official who spoke my language almost fluently.

I couldn't quite decide what to think about a country where the best educated and briskest bureaucrats were, it seemed, all employed by the police. On the other hand, at that precise moment, I was unreasonably grateful to find somebody who clearly had both the inclination and the authority to help me.

Once again, I explained that I wanted a permit for two people to travel outside the capital. The official nodded, and asked my companion's name. I told him.

"Your wife?" he asked.

"No" I said.

"Your girlfriend?" he asked, leering disapprovingly. In my time in the country, I discovered that, for a people who pay bare lip-service to a seriously moribund state religion, the locals had an impressively puritanical streak - although it seems to be mixed in with a lot of lurid and lecherous presuppositions about other people, especially foreigners.

"No," I said "Jane is merely travelling with me."

"Jane" he said, drawing the name out as though it proved my complete moral degradation.

Eventually, I persuaded him to issue me with a rather tatty document with a huge, simple seal at the top, which he claimed would allow us unrestricted travel in the rural and mountain areas. I took it with some qualms, not having the faintest idea what it said in the local language; for all I knew, it could have instructed any and every local official to arrest us instantly. However, I couldn't see myself doing any better, so I left the ramshackle ministry building and emerged blinking in the sub-tropical sun, which by now was building up its full daytime heat.

An elderly local came hobbling up to me, and placed himself firmly in my path. As I paused, wondering what to do, he stared hard at my European garb for five full seconds. Eventually, he spoke.

"Grik?" he barked.

"Pardon?" I said. He repeated his question.

"Oh, no," I said, shaking my head. "Not Greek. English."

He scowled at me, then turned on his heel and marched away without another word. I was left with the sense that it was just as well that I wasn't Greek, and I was obscurely impressed. Some nations have a truly awesome ability to bear grudges from old wars.

My taste for government buildings, however ancient and impressive, had been seriously diminished by my experience of the interiors of three of them, and anyway, I knew that Jane would want to hear about my success, so I found my way back to the inner harbour and began the thrice-repeated process of negotiation that would get me back to the outermost, commercial district. The sun was well up in the sky now, which might have made the rides across the three harbours into pleasant opportunities for basking - except that the heat was beginning to bring out the worst aspects of a static body of water. Apparently, it's a minor mystery of hydraulic engineering how the harbours manage to remain at all tolerable, given that the tidal flow through the canals can hardly be enough to flush them out; the locals credit divine providence. They may be right, but in that case, their god did a less than perfect job. I began to feel nervous about the age of the decaying boats; I had no desire for any closer contact with the murky waters.

When I got back to the hotel, Jane told me that there'd been a 'phone call for me, from England.

"How on Earth did anybody know where to get hold of me?" I said. Jane pointed out, in her best tone of sweet reason, that we'd actually booked the hotel in advance, through a bureau, and their brochure had given its address.

"Anyway," she added, "it wasn't anybody. It was Elaine."

I muttered some thanks, picked up the room 'phone, and started dialling.

I got through to London on the third attempt - which is good going for a third-world 'phone system, in my experience. Elaine was indeed waiting for my call.

"So," she said, "you made it."

"Pardon?" I said.

"Beyond the fields we know."

"Nothing that melodramatic. It's just a big island in the Atlantic."

There was silence in London.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Fine," said Elaine, "Keeping busy."

We chatted for a few more minutes, and I tried to describe the city, but I got the feeling that I wasn't conveying the nature of the place very well. "Look," I said, "it's... Like every city you've ever known. But it's not like it's an imitation. It's more as if this is the original, and everywhere else is the copy. But it isn't pure and perfect. It's been going to Hell for longer than anywhere else, too."

"It sounds amazing" she said.

"It is" I said. "Plato got it wrong, I think. The archetype isn't perfect. It couldn't be. Nothing ever is."

"I know" Elaine agreed. "How's Jane?"

"Fine" I said. We traded a few more social niceties for a few minutes, but there really wasn't much more to say. Eventually, Elaine wished me well, and rang off.

I went back to Jane and showed her the travel permit, and we pulled the timetables out of our luggage and began discussing arrangements.

The bus we selected - and succeeded in catching - left from a terminus building, a mile or so from our hotel, the next morning, which gave us time to see some of the sights - but the heat made us into inefficient tourists. We caught a hire-boat to the first, outermost, area of the old city, and spent most of the day strolling inconsequentially around the remains of the ancient horse-track the runs around its entire circumference. Once, there were gardens and gymnasia alongside the track, but in the last thousand years or so, the area has been encroached on by habitation, which is now partly impoverished, and partly, simply, collapsed. We took the advice of our guide-books and avoided the areas that are downright dangerous, which still left us with acres of ancient ruins to explore.

The next day, we opted for caution, and arrived an hour early for our bus. This would have been very foolish, given that the bus left an hour late, except that it took us forty-five minutes to buy our tickets. However, in time we found ourselves on our way.

If the original Greek account were true in every detail, we'd have had a twenty-mile ride before we reached the city's ancient outer wall, and then six or seven hundred miles to go before we reached the edge of the irrigated agricultural plain and began the ascent into the mountains. But reality can only be stretched so far. I'd just become acclimatised to the vehicle's grumbling engine note and juddering ride when I spotted a twisted and irregular line of stone - the city's ancient defences. And by the end of that first day, we were well over half way from the city to the mountains.

We spent the night in a taverna in a farming village, where we also managed to obtain a basic dinner of olives, unleavened bread, and rough wine. No-one there spoke any European language, and Jane and I were automatically put in one room, with a bed that would qualify as a generous single at home. I volunteered to sleep on the floor. After an hour, I was woken by Jane, who declared that the broken springs and wildlife made the bed unusable, as she claimed her own patch of floor.

The next day, we found that the same bus - with, it seemed, a very similar contingent of peasants and shady-looking peddlers - was scheduled to carry us on to the foothills. But the ride was, in other respects, very different, at least for me; the further we travelled from the capital, the thinner the veneer of modern life and modern assumptions coating the ancient land came to look. The people I saw were dressed more simply; I glimpsed Hellenic-style tunics and sandals, and amphorae in the courtyards of the adobe houses. The people also seemed taller and more dignified, the pride in their bearing more personal and decreasingly like the surly chauvinism of the urban population.

But it was still a desperately poor country. I knew that the farmers had always been exploited by their theocratic rulers, and the lack of modernity in what I saw reflected that.

According to very early accounts, the island was once the home of small but thriving herds of wild elephants, and some Victorian scholars liked to believe that this might have been where Hannibal acquired the trained beasts that he took across the Alps. But in fact, those seem to have been obtained from East Africa. Still, there is an alternate theory that a tameable sub-species once existed in North Africa - perhaps in the Atlas Mountains - in which case, they may have been related to the supposed herds on the island. If reliable archaeological (or biological) research were possible in this place, the results might be interesting. Today, however, with a land exhausted by thousands of years of farming, I don't think that anything larger than a cow could survive anywhere in the lowlands - and the few cows we saw were desperately thin and enfeebled.

In a small town on the edge of the plain, we found a station where it seemed that we could catch another bus into and over the mountains. We had to wait half a day for it, and we killed the time in the shade of a clump of trees. I was working through a Penguin translation of Herodotus, but I soon found the stories told by the supposed Father of History tiresome. There was nothing for it but to try to doze until the rather dated French-built vehicle arrived, loaded up with peasants and their baskets of fruit, trussed-up chickens and assorted random baggage, took us on board, then set out.

About half way up the mountain, the bus began to slow down, and soon, it lurched to a halt in the middle of the road - which hardly mattered, given the lack of any other traffic. The driver spent several minutes wrenching at the ignition key while the engine roared feebly and choked rather more convincingly, but eventually, even he had to admit that we had broken down. A half-hearted argument broke out between him and a couple of the more lively locals; eventually, several of the disputants got out and continued the row with their heads half under the open bonnet, but with few other signs of trying to fix whatever the problem was.

Few other passengers showed any inclination to move, but Jane and I decided that the bus clearly wasn't going anywhere immediately, so we might as well take advantage of the situation.

We got out and walked a little way down the road to a place where we had a panoramic view over the agricultural plain and the grey smudge of the city at its centre. By straining my eyes, I could just make out the central hill, and the pale stone of the citadel and temple.

"Look," said Jane, and I raised my gaze a little, out towards the sea.

A great wave - a vast wall of water - was sweeping across the coastal suburbs. At this distance, the effect was no more dramatic than an ordinary wave washing up a smooth, sandy beach, but I could imagine the terror and devastation as slums and tourist hotels alike were annihilated. Within seconds, the onrush broke against the citadel, and for a brief, emotionless second I thought about the undertow, cleaning out the stench from the three circular harbours as it passed. But the wave wasn't finished; it swept over the heart of the city, wiping away the immeasurably ancient citadel, before continuing across the inland suburbs and the agricultural plain.

The mass of water was a thin, pale grey, almost lost in the dust and heat haze rising from the land. In fact, the harder I looked, the less certain I was that I could distinguish between grey water, grey stone buildings, and grey farmland mud.

The citadel was surely completely covered, but when I looked again, I thought I could make out the white of ancient marble. Could the buildings still be standing, despite the onslaught of water?

I shook my head, screwing up my eyes, and the vision vanished.

"You know," I said to Jane, "Aristotle thought that Plato's story of Atlantis was a complete fantasy. 'The man who dreamed it up made it vanish.' It was only a few second-string philosophers who believed that the story might be literally true. One of them actually sent to Egypt to find out if the texts that Plato talked about still existed. Of course, the Egyptian priests reassured him they did."

Jane smiled thinly. "You're supposed to be the seasoned traveller," she said. "At least, that was the story that persuaded me to come on this trip with you. You should know that locals always tell visitors what they want to hear. If the locals think the visitors are worth cultivating, anyway."

"That reminds me," I said, "I've never got it entirely clear - why did you come on this trip?"

"Because I wanted to see new places."

I laughed at that, but Jane barely cracked a smile. "I'm serious," she said. "I want to see different countries - meet different people."

"But here? I argued. (The heat, and boredom after the slow bus trip, was making me argumentative.) "I mean, it's not like it's..."

My voice trailed off. "Real?" Jane finished for me. "You agree with Aristotle, then?"

I laughed, and kicked a large, heavy stone by the side of the road. It didn't shift an inch. "Come on," I said, "the bus looks like it's going to move again soon, with any luck.

Eventually, the bus did move. In time, it reached the first village in the mountains, where it stopped for the day, and we heard unlikely rumours of disaster in the lowlands. We found a room in a shabby inn with twin single beds, where I sat up late, reading my guidebooks by torch-light and listening to the very distant sounds of the sea.



// END //


(Copyright Phil Masters, 1996.)


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