A Greek Tragedy

We bade farewell to our conference colleagues and set off for the harbourside apartment we’d rented for the following two weeks. For seven years, Philippa and I had worked long hours to build up our Cotswold dental practice and now, at last, we’d managed to organise our first proper holiday since the wedding.

Crete turned out to be perfect and Phillipa, with her usual thoroughness, had found us a characterful, romantic hideaway.

I turned the key, swung open the heavy oak door and stepped inside. As I felt along the wall for the switch, I sensed something wasn’t right. A smell? The rustle of clothing? The door suddenly slammed shut behind us and the light went on. Framed in the doorway to the bedroom was a tall figure clad in denim shorts and orange T-shirt, clutching in one hand my iPad and in the other, Philippa’s jewellery bag, his head covered by a black hood. Philippa screamed from behind me as an arm jerked tight around my neck and a thin steel blade appeared across the bridge of my nose. Neither man spoke. The man I had first seen tossed our possessions onto the sofa and strode towards us.

What I had to witness over the next few seconds will be burned on my memory for ever. I watched in horror as Phillipa, now too traumatised to even call out, was dragged by her hair to the bedroom. My own assailant started jabbing the knife towards my eye, spitting unintelligible threats. I could feel rapid breathing, smell a smoker’s stench. I had to act, had to do something. Who knows how they might react when faced with something so awful?

I had never tried martial arts, never had a serious fight since my teens. Yet here I was, an overweight, 34-year-old dentist, in a situation that demanded great violence, and immediately.

I believed then that we were about to die.

Where it came from I have no idea, but without thought I swung my right elbow back into his solar plexus with as much force as I could. The effect was instant. His body doubled over and his arm loosened enough for me to spin around and face him. He was still bent over, coughing hard and I realised that this would be my only chance.

There was a single, frantic howl from the bedroom.

I took a step back and aimed the dropkick of my life, up and under his chin. I would later thank God that I’d been wearing size 12 Barkers for my final presentation, and not the sandals of the previous day.

The balaclava’d head rolled back and rivulets of blood poured from beneath onto his shirt. He spat out a name,’Stav! Stav!’ and stumbled past me, upending a coffee table before lurching out through the open patio door.

‘Stav’ appeared from the bedroom, belt and zip undone. I scooped the knife from the floor and held it at arm’s length, heart pounding. All I could manage to scream was ‘Get out! Get out!’

And he did. Gathering up his trousers, he skirted the wall, a grotesque, memorable hand held out towards me in pathetic defence, a hand that bore only three fingers. Then he was gone.

I rushed to the bedroom to find Philippa sprawled on the tiles, sobbing uncontrollably, knees to her chest in a foetal curl, her dress hoisted around her waist, torn knickers around her ankles.’ Oh my god Philippa, did he, did he …?’

She took her hands from her face and looked up, the face of a terrified child. ‘No, no, he didn’t’ she wept. ‘Oh Martin!’

We clung tight to each other, there on the floor. Emotions of anger, relief and fear tumbled from us. And we cried.

With the immediate threat over, we started to gather our wits. I called the police while Philippa changed into a clean dress and, at my suggestion, did not shower. I marvelled at the dignity and self-control she maintained throughout the hours that followed. The police were quick to respond, sympathetic too, but hardly rigorous. The apartment was soon flooded with detectives, photographers, journalists, even the local letting agent we’d booked with. Then the trip to the hospital, a silent hour’s drive and the elderly, disinterested doctor, called in from his weekend off.

Had there been penetration? Was there semen? Where? Show me. Under the cruel glare of the examination room, Philippa’s naked body was probed, inspected and swabbed. Unbelievably, her trauma was worsened by the presence of two uniformed policeman throughout the whole process. I demanded they leave but to no avail.

Our strength came from Philippa who looked up into my face from the table and said calmly ‘The worst is over – this is nothing, sweetheart. We’re alive and I’m okay.’ Tears streamed, mine not hers, as I hugged her before the unsmiling trio.

Next morning we returned to the apartment, Phillipa insisting that we not be defeated to find that the agent had already organised the repair of the patio door and, belatedly, the installation of a burglar alarm. The police were back too, this time with a decent interpreter. It was an increasingly common crime, they said, the third this month but no, they had no real clues, no suspects. We told them all we could, every vivid, awful moment recalled and painstakingly noted. Heights, clothes, smells, names, everything. I asked about fingerprints on the iPad and the knife but they didn’t seem interested. Most crucially, I had a name,’Stav’, and the fact that this man, this animal, who had been within seconds of violating the woman I cherish, lacked both a thumb and a forefinger.

By mid-afternoon, they’d finished with us and for the first time since the attack, we were alone. I was all for cutting short the holiday but Phillipa was adamant. ‘I’m OK Martin, really’ adding, ‘Besides, my mother just called – she’s flying out tonight.’ The news was a huge relief as I’d felt increasingly inadequate at providing Philippa with the emotional support she clearly needed, in spite of her tough demeanour.

‘That’s great news,’ I said, ‘Really good of her too.’

Her mother’s presence did help her cope over the coming fortnight and a kind of normality began to return. Before leaving the UK we’d booked a skippered boat trip for our last Friday to a tiny, uninhabited island about 12 miles from Crete. This speck of land, no more than a mile wide, was reportedly the breeding ground for some interesting birds, in particular the bearded vulture. I was about to call the agent to cancel when Phillipa stopped me.

‘Martin, you go. I’ll be fine, anyway Mum and I are going to the market.’ In the end, I agreed, packing my faithful Nikon and a couple of decent lenses.

I followed the agent’s instructions and just before 7.30 the following morning found my way to a small jetty at the Western end of the harbour, where a group of men stood smoking and chatting above a half dozen open motorboats. An older, leather-skinned fisherman, propped against a pile of oily nets, looked my way and called to one of the others. I held up the card given to me by the agent with the island name and instructions in Greek. A young fellow grinned, flicked a fag butt into the water and jumped into a boat. I clambered in after him, tucked my gear under the seat at the bow and waited while he yanked the frayed rope until the outboard spluttered to life.

He cast off and headed for the open sea, towards an empty horizon under a cloudless, azure sky. For two hours we motored, exchanging barely a glance, he motionless at the stern, Aviator shades and baseball cap, me deep in thought under the bleached canvas canopy, watching the battered bow cutting through crystal water.

Eventually a small dot appeared dead ahead, to grow steadily into a baron, rocky outcrop of an island. This man knows his navigation, I thought, and felt a twinge of admiration for such skill. He throttled the outboard down to a tick-over as we glided towards the beach, backing off with a few metres to go. With a rope over his shoulder, he lowered himself over the side and walked the length of the boat waist-deep towards me, guiding the vessel in. As he reached the bow he put a hand over the gunwhale to pull the bow around.

My heart gave a huge thud as I looked down at the weathered hand and its three stubby fingers grasping the woodwork. He was peering down into the water, checking for rocks and hadn’t seen the blood drain from my face. In another intuitive action, for which I took no conscious decision, I dived to the stern, grabbed the throttle and twisted it wide open. The boat leapt forward, knocking him off balance and ripping the rope from his hands. Shouts, then vicious screams followed as I steered a wide arc back out to sea, leaving him thrashing in the water.

I had made up my mind. I wouldn’t try to apprehend him, after all, what could I have done? By far the best option I decided, was to leave him safely incarcerated on his island prison and when I got back to let the authorities know.

We’d headed due West when we left and, with my mobile and a deal of luck, found the Cretan coast and chugged slowly back into the harbour. I left the boat at a secluded mooring, away from the other hire boats, tied up and set off for the apartment.

We had a Gatwick flight to catch that night with a hectic week ahead and the last thing I wanted was for the police to launch another tedious and stressful round of interviews. I had their man, that was all there was to say, so I fired off a text to the local villa agent, telling them exactly where the police would find him. After a day in the sun, I figured he’d be grateful, if not pleased, to see them.

We were so relieved to be back in England that Philippa actually bent and kissed the Tarmac. When I’d told her about the trip and how I‘d come face-to-face with her attacker, she immediately agreed that I’d acted wisely. We waited for weeks, expecting a call from the police requesting our presence to identify him. But no call came.

It was at a dinner party four months later that we met a newly-wed couple who told us they’d just returned from Crete, in fact, staying in the same town as us. They were still glowing with enthusiasm for the resort and we didn’t mention the attack.

‘It was absolutely gorgeous!’ giggled the tanned girl. ‘Everything we’d dreamed of … wonderful food, warm sea, romantic evenings at the tavernas …’

Her partner interrupted. ‘Bit sad that last day though.’

Philippa lowered her glass. ‘Oh, why?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘They found the remains of some poor holidaymaker, bird watcher probably, on the beach of a little island miles away.’

I choked on my Pimms before managing to respond. ‘Oh, that’s terrible. Do they have any idea who he is, I mean, was?’

‘Not that we heard, no, although a weird thing about him, according to the gossip in the bar.’

Phillipa hesitated before asking ‘What weird thing Alan?’

‘Well, his right hand … it only had three fingers.’

We left the party soon after, neither of us speaking until inside the car. Philippa rounded hysterically on me. ‘Martin! Jesus Christ! I thought you’d told them where you left him. You killed him!’

‘I did tell them! I texted the agent. Look – it’ll be on my phone.’ I pulled the mobile from my pocket and went back through dozens of messages, finally finding the one I’d sent. I held it up. ‘See – all the details, everything they needed.’

She took the phone and examined the text, scrolling up and down as she did so. She was silent.

‘Well?’ I asked, ‘Why don’t you believe me?’

She handed it back. ‘Oh, I believed you, Martin, of course I did. But look at your message. Look!’

I read the message once more, with its comprehensive instructions, the name of the island and where I thought it lay, at my name, my address, phone number, e-mail. It was all there.

Then I saw them. Immediately below and to the right of my last line were two words:

Message failed.’

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