I closed my eyes as another cast of spray came in from the North, slicing across the right side of my body like a barbed tentacle. I spluttered, the taste of salt hot upon my tongue. The plastic deck chair, which until this point had been giving valiant effort, now began to wane, groaning and grumbling as gravity did its best to dislodge me from my spot. I pressed my feet into the railings in front, hard.
I’d always envisioned having a somewhat colourful demise. A rare, tropical disease, perhaps. Finding myself in the path of an over-zealous elephant – unlikely, but possible. Never had I imagined myself catapulted into the depths of the Ionian Sea, and yet, here I was, close enough to shake hands with Poseidon himself.
“I’m too young to die!” I cried, as the boat lurched violently to the right, bringing my face parallel to the surface of the water.
Needless to say, my day was not going well.
It began with a rude awakening – a shrill, unrelenting reminder from my alarm clock that I had slept in. As was so often the case, I could only blame my stupor on one thing; wine, and far too much of it.
It was my second week on the Greek island of Corfu. So far, I had found the locals to be rather hospitable – if a little over-generous in their servings – and I was fairly paying for it on this, the morning of my sailing excursion to the smaller islands of Paxos and Antipaxos.
With all the grace of a new-born goat – and perhaps the appearance of one too – I stumbled out of bed and wobbled, jelly-legged, around the room as I tried in vain to make myself human again. A day-bag sat smugly by the door of my hotel room, packed – presumably – the evening before. ”Well done, Sober Me”, I thought, as Hungover Me shuddered in pain.
I had seven minutes to get from my hotel to the pick-up point, down by the town’s beach. It was a feat which could be achieved, but only at a sprint, and with my insides currently swirling around like the inside of a washing machine, I was unsure whether it would be safer to walk or run. Settling for something in-between, I made my way down the steep hill to Ipsos, all the while chastising myself for my folly, and also for forgetting the suncream.
I glowered at the sun above. It had barely shown itself at all over the last seven days; now, it shone with gusto.
Despite the heat, it was still early in the morning. The town would have been completely void of life, had it not been for a group of stray dogs which lingered by the boat sheds. I eyed them cautiously. I had watched these dogs over the last few days, and though friendly, they had a certain persistence about them which left me on edge. They were used to the townspeople feeding them scraps of food, and I had nothing to offer. Sensing my unease, the joined me at the bus stop and for the next half an hour circled like sharks around my feet.
My bus, of course, was late.
Eventually, though, it came, and after an hour of winding around the curves of the island’s northern coast, we made it to the marina in Old Kerkyra. I watched as our boat swayed mischieviously by the dock. I had been so rushed, so preoccupied with the regret of the previous night’s antics, that I had barely allowed myself the chance to explore what had really been worrying me this morning. Now there was no escape.
The truth is, as much I love to travel, I’m also a terrible traveller. I get sick on just about anything, but boats especially seem to bring out my inner chunderer. You’d think that growing up on an island and making several trips a year to the Scottish mainland would have hardened me over time, and that I’d have developed a fine pair of sea legs during my youth. Sadly, that was not the case. The only thing it left me with was a string of unfortunate nicknames, and a reputation which meant friends and family would go to great lengths never to be seated next to me on long journeys. Things were so bad that I even came close to causing a road accident aged sixteen, when a particularly loud retch caused my mother – who was driving at the time – to take a wrong turn at a roundabout. The result was a thirty minute detour and an earful of insults about my inability to ‘hold it in like a normal person’, as she so lovingly put it.
Naturally, I was feeling a little cautious. Although this day had all the pretentions of great weather I was well aware that appearances could be deceptive. The day before had been stormy and there were high winds. If my experience as an anxious sailor has taught me anything it’s that storms create swells, and swells mean sickness. As I positioned myself in the cabin – a room which smelled like stale smoke and suspiciously overwashed carpets – I could only hope that the thought of an afternoon spent exploring the heartland of Greek mythology would override the feeling of nausea brewing inside my body. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the blue caves of Antipaxos, I was less focused on their turqoise splendour and more so on becoming acquainted with the silver lining of my sick bag. By the time we reached the larger island of Paxos, an hour later, I had lost my breakfast, my lunch and very nearly the will to live.
Still, we had made it to dry land, and at least there was solace in that. As I walked down the jetty, taking in the town of Gaois, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, it had all been worth it.
The town itself was small, with a smattering of brightly colored townhouses nestled into the feet of steep green hills. The smell of cyprus trees drifted down from the woods above, and filled the cobbled streets with sweet perfume. The village square bustled with life, as tavernas spilled out onto the streets, and children played in the shade of the nearby monastery.
I sat by the water’s edge, gathering strength as fish cut through the glass-like water and yachts came and went quietly with the breeze. I sipped gingerbeer, fresh from an old stone cask. I wandered lazily through the narrow closes, passing by shops which sold carvings from olive wood, kumquat liquor and hot, sticky baklava. With every corner I turned, I became more and more enchanted with the town, and slowly but surely, I felt the sickness begin to fade away.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a shop selling handmade jewellery, and found myself drawn to a bracelet which bore the matiasma symbol. The matiasma, the shopkeeper told me, is sometimes referred to as the Evil Eye. The Ancient Greeks believed that merely giving someone the ‘evil eye’, or a dirty enough look, could place a curse upon them, and so matiasma jewellery is often worn to ward off evil. Essentially, she smiled, it should bring me luck.
Now I’m not usually the superstitious type, but I was also very aware of the fact that in less than an hour I would have to rejoin my group and make the long journey back to Corfu. If ever there was a time for luck, this was it, and so I pulled out my purse.
It was at this point that things got a little strange.
As I handed over my money, the shopkeeper fell silent. Without breaking eye contact, her expression changed, her wrinkles forming themselves into an angry V which spanned the width of her forehead.
“They poisoned my dog, you know,” she said, without blinking.
I paused, uncertain of what I had just heard.
“I’m sorry…” I choked, looking around me. “What?”
Again, she repeated the words;
“They poisoned my dog.”
I stared at the elderly woman, incredulous. I had no idea who they were or why they would do such a thing, and yet from the sharpness of her tone, I got the distinct impression that I should.
“Who poisoned your dog? Why?”
Her bosom heaved.
“I don’t know. They fed it poison, and now it is in hospital and will probably die.”
“But why would somebody poison your dog?” I gasped, still trying to work out how what had previously been quite a pleasant conversation had changed so rapidly in such a short space of time.
“You tell me!” She snapped, splaying her arms like a Russian squat-dancer. “We are good people on this island and then they come. They come, and they bring poison, and they kill our dogs!”
By now I was aware that her gaze extended beyond my shoulder and out onto the village square behind.
“They think it is funny,” she hissed, her words laced with venom.
Her look was fixed solidly on the groups of tourists who sat around the cafes eating seafood and drinking ouzo in the sun. They were daytrippers, visiting from the Corfiot mainland. Daytrippers like myself. I felt a chill slide down the length of my spine, and quickly took my change whilst mumbling apologetically. I couldn’t help but feel as though somewhere along the way, I had accepted responsibility for what had happened to her pet. I had entered the shop looking for souveneirs, and had left a dog murderer.
“Good luck,” she called, as I scurried out onto the street. “You will need it!”
I couldn’t help but worry that she might be right, and so without hesitation, I headed straight back to the boat, determined to get off the island as soon as possible. Unable to bare the stench of the cabin any more, I decided to sit outside for the journey home, finding a seat on the narrow side-deck.
Perhaps the fresh air will do me good…I thought, as we steered out from the harbour. I slipped the bracelet around my wrist, the cold of the matiasma pressing against my skin. And perhaps this thing will keep me safe.
How wrong I was.
Fast forward two hours, and here I was, poised on the brink of a very watery death. Somewhere in the open stretch of sea that separated Paxos from Corfu, a swell had indeed formed, and it did so with a vengeance. I longed to return to the boat’s cabin, to seek shelter in its warmth despite its pokey interior, but things had become so precarious that it was now unsafe to move. Those who attempted the walk between our seating and the cabin door had found themselves within inches of falling overboard, and knowing my dyspraxic tendencies, I could only imagine the consequences of trying.
And so I was stuck, balancing awkwardly between the railings in front and the wall behind, which seemed to shake and tremble with every wave. My feet ached, I was soaked to the bone, and salt had begun to crystalize in my hair. With every lurch and roll that the boat took bringing me closer and closer to the swirling sea, I couldn’t help but think back to the elderly shopkeeper and her evil stare. I wondered if she had placed a curse upon us all, and whether she would be cackling into her moussaka at that very moment…but then again, maybe that’s just the superstition talking…