It was a hot July day and Alexandra and I were driving through the Peloponnesus. We had the windows open and were enjoying the breeze as the car hugged the side of the mountain on the narrow, winding road. To our left, broken crash barriers reminded us of the very real dangers. Miniature glass churches filled with plastic flowers and oil burners dotted the roadside, shrines to the many less careful motorists who’d veered off the tarmac and plummeted to their end thousands of metres down, into the abyss.
The smell of fresh mountain herbs wafted through the open windows; oregano and sage baked in the hot sunshine, releasing their fragrant oils in a bouquet of warm, sweet Greek air. The constant chatter of crickets drowned out the thrum of the engine as we began our descent towards the sea. The route became less serpentine and although we were still high in the mountains, we could now make out olive groves far below us. We were on the way down at last. As I navigated a long bend, the road ahead straightened out and allowed me to pick up speed.
Suddenly and without warning, the car launched into a spin. I stamped on the brake, but to no avail. We were out of control. I had already been nursing my complaining twenty-year-old Citroen. It did not like the heat and struggled to climb even the smallest of hills in the city without belching black smoke and making worrying grinding noises. Chugging up this thousand-metre mountain had almost been the end of it, so when we’d finally crested the summit, I was relieved. If it did give up now, I thought, we might at least be able to coast down to the next village. No such luck.
With my foot jammed down on the brake pedal, we’d come out of the spin but were now skidding sideways towards a large oak tree.”
Until this point, I’d been happy. I was in a beautiful country with a wonderful person beside me. I’d started a new life and having recently turned forty, I had everything to live for. But now all my hopes and dreams were about to be snuffed out. We were going to crash.
The spinning and braking had no effect; we were hurtling towards the tree at a horrifying speed. Then everything went into slow motion. I spotted a small dirt track beside the fast-approaching oak. Would this be our route to a miraculous escape or a one-way ticket off the deadly cliff edge and into the ravine? I had an instant to decide which would be less lethal. If we hit the tree, we were unlikely to survive, so the dirt track seemed the only option. I held my breath, took my foot off the brake and regained the steering. In a microsecond I steered towards the track, aimed for the tiny gap and stared straight ahead. It took us into an olive grove on a steep slope. We were still travelling fast, but I somehow steered around the trees without too much pressure on the brake in case we skidded again. At last we came to a stop, just metres from the cliff edge.
“Everything was quiet. Even the crickets had ceased their chatter in the expectation of watching another tourist fall off the mountain, no doubt looking forward to having one more shrine on which to perch and soak up the sunshine.
I glanced to my right to see my fiancée with a frozen expression on her face. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked softly.
She nodded, then fixed her eyes on mine. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered.
‘Don’t be silly. It’s not your fault.’
She stared down at the floor. ‘But it is. I pulled the handbrake.’ Lifting her head, she added hesitantly, ‘It was only a joke.’
While I was trying to absorb this information, I heard applause coming from the top of the olive grove. Half a dozen motorists had left their cars and were standing on the ridge, clapping and cheering with shouts of ‘Well done!’ and ‘You’re a jackal!’. They’d been following close behind us when the car had gone into its spin. They’d had ringside views and had enjoyed the performance.
Although Alex and I had yet to be married at this point, we had our lives together all planned out. Or so I thought. I’d been spending more and more time with her in her native Greece so that we could get to know each other. Our cultural differences were bridged with humour, and we passed most of our time laughing as our two worlds slowly merged. Looking back on her handbrake stunt, I think she may have been testing me; she wanted to ensure I was a survivor before making the ultimate commitment. Just as in ancient Greece, where young men would be sent into the mountains to hunt and kill a bear armed only with a sharp stick before they could be accepted as true warriors, so I was tested on a mountain road in the Peloponnesus. Before I was permitted to join the Greek culture, I had to show my worth.
If only Alex had consulted me first, I’m sure we could have found another way, preferably at sea level. But Alex is not one of those fireworks that just sizzle. She’s the sort that goes bang and shakes windows and makes the earth tremble. She is loving to her family and friends. But you need to get your facts right, otherwise you’ll be found wanting once the forensic examination begins. If you are her friend, it’s for life. Upset her, and you pay with blood.
She spits on me when I look well – the ‘ftou, ftou, ftou’ spitting sound being a way of warding off the evil eye. She has the face of an angel and a smile that will draw you in, but her mind is like a scalpel; she will dissect any idiotic statement, put it under the microscope and ensure the full examination of every syllable uttered before allowing further discussion.
I do not suffer fools, but in my private life, I don’t get to meet many. This is because they don’t get past Alex. Before they get to me, they have been fact-checked and sent back to school for a year before being permitted to try again.
When Greek philosophers would rather drink hemlock than bend to public opinion, you know you are dealing with a stubborn race: they asked Socrates what his punishment should be for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and not believing in the gods of the state. He suggested a good meal. His accusers turned down this request and gave him the choice of exile or hemlock. He chose the latter.