Holy Mountain

By Annabel Dover

Pushing my paper-filled case up the hill past still-open shops, I see a woman on a stretcher having CPR. I realise this is Evangelismos Hospital, where one of the people injured in the 1973 Athens Polytechnic Uprising later died. I push the case on past, and up a cool, dark street with a homeless person’s empty bed and packet of biscuits.


Opposite a vast, Palladian building I finally find the American School entrance and the guards let me in. They take my case until I explain I’m looking for the British not the American School. They drop my bags instantly and point at a neo-classical house.


A tall thin scholar called Hugh lets me in, and I empty my case on the marble floor of the hallway next to a dinner party hosted by — I later discover — the director of the School and his wife. The Director comes out and offers to help. A magenta-coloured pencil rolls out of my bag and towards the skirting board and my knickers are strewn on the floor. It’s an art performance piece, I say. He laughs.


My first walk to Syntagma Square is at night and along a busy road. I see the Evzones parading with their heavy leather clogs, clip-clopping past the florists. 


I missed the message from Gian Piero, Lucy, and Tom that they had climbed Lycabettus hill to see the fireworks. And that Gian Piero had bought me a pink candle.


I put on sandals and walked fast out onto the streets. Everyone I saw seemed to be walking towards me with children and candles. People said happy Easter in the way people say happy Christmas on a Boxing Day walk on Hampstead Heath.


I bought a funicular ticket from the pregnant woman in the shop and got in the silent ski lift with a German family. At the top there was a chichi restaurant and the crowd was hot and close. An immaculate man dressed in Ralph Lauren with a cashmere sweater knotted over his shoulders came so close to me I could smell his cigar breath. I was breathing in the Elnett hairspray of the woman in front and a Louis Vuitton bag stabbed me in the breasts. I’d reached the top and felt huge acrylic heat all around me. The view reminded me of the lights you see from the Eiffel Tower. I had tears of sweat on my cheeks and palms and my dress was wet and sealed to my back.


I nudged my hands through the people, and a blind man behind me put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Endaxi’, I said: one of my few Greek words. He laughed.


Later I ran down the hill on my own, stopping when a car approached so I didn’t look odd or desperate.


I saw a dog under a tree. He was standing obediently beside a couple having sex against a cypress.


I reached the bottom and asked a group of Americans on their spring break for directions. They asked me to guess their star signs.


‘Scorpio,’ I said.


‘Oh yes! You guessed it! The evil, sexy sign.’ I thought of my ex-boyfriend; a Scorpio. I thanked them.


‘You’re welcome,’ they said in an upbeat chorus.


I found a huge 1930s warehouse and a quiet street of small Art Deco flats. I saw a woman breastfeeding by the TV in a darkened room, and a dog like a bottle brush wedged in the gutter.


I heard on the radio that chaffinches stick to their own kind and have quite distinct neighbourhoods: the jocks and the nerds. Everyone at the British School is a nerd, which is nice. Occasionally on Sundays the students from the American School live up to stereotype and play vigorous tennis. They even did it the day we were advised to stay inside because all of the trees were being sprayed with insecticide. I could hear the shouts and the racket thwacks.


As dusk approaches a liquid sound can be heard from the attic: the sound of a pebble being dropped into a well. It fades only at dawn. Many archeological finds are found in wells and tombs.


Listening to Radio 4 again I heard that there is a dusk chorus as well as a dawn chorus and this has led researchers to believe that it is a sign of strength to sing on an empty stomach after just waking up. This reminded me of an ex-boyfriend’s morning press ups. The pebble-dropping-into-a-well sound started again at dusk. Emailing my sister, I call it the Doorbell Booby. I imagine an Edward Lear gangly stork-type bird, with a mournful expression.


I discover what makes the sound, and it isn’t a Doorbell Booby. Lots of people had their own ideas as to what it was: a car alarm, a distant sonar, children making a sound with a toy, something to do with the nearby hospital. It’s a scops owl. I saw a group of these once in Suffolk at an owl sanctuary. They elongate their faces when scared and look like cartoon ghosts. I had picked up a tawny owl which had hit a car and driven it the 30 miles to the sanctuary. It was put in a warm box and then as I was talking to the woman in charge who had a lit Berkley menthol in her mouth she put her hands into the box and wrung its neck.


‘Never would have survived,’ she said.


The scops owl is back again. According to the RSPB reference recordings it’s a male, looking for a female.


I went to a fascinating talk about the Festival of Arkteia at the site of Vravrona. It posited the idea that there was a festival where girls approaching the menarche gathered together naked and wore bear masks.


The lovely paintings in the drawing room are revealed to be by Edward Lear. Several of Crete hang in steps above the wall. Stephen talks about living in Crete with his wife, now gone, and how they walked home over a hill that looked very like the one in the painting.


“He hasn’t captured Crete at all in that one.”


“It’s Egypt, that one,” says the Director’s wife.


Poor Edward Lear, what a very hidden life he must have led. Epileptic and he never told anyone, and homosexual. He thought the two were linked. He thought that he harboured inner demonic forces.

Illustration by Annabel Dover