This story is by David Palmer and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Alpujarra is a mountainous region in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Southern Spain. The small, whitewashed villages that dot the region, and the roads that join them, seem to cling to the mountainsides, the way a Gecko clings to a bedroom wall.
In February last year, a local plasterer was renovating an old house in a village. Xavier was forty-three, a hard worker with dry, leathery hands and a face that looked as if someone had owned it before. A very obliging person, Xavier found it difficult to say no. Some of his clients knew this and would pressure him to work longer hours than he would have liked. Xavier lived alone and though the village was only thirty minutes’ drive from his home, the thought of going back to a cold empty house made him feel miserable.
As he walked to his car, tired and aching after a long day of plastering, he heard raucous laughter coming from the bar down the street. Xavier easily convinced himself that he deserved a drink, just one; the bar would be nice and warm, there would be company and good food. He could order a large plate of something and would go home with a full belly, get a good night’s sleep and be back, refreshed, for more work in the morning.
As Xavier entered the bar, he was hit by a blast of warm air reeking of stale beer, wine, and fried food. In the dimly lit room, he could see three people sitting at a table. He nodded a greeting, walked over to the bar and recognised the lone guy sitting there.
Juan was a year or two older than Xavier and had spent some years away from the village, working as a waiter in the Balearics. Xavier pulled up a bar stool next to Juan, ordered a beer and some food and settled down to pass what he thought would be a pleasant hour, eating, drinking and chatting.
Juan regaled Xavier with colourful tales of sex, drugs and parties in one of the most popular holiday destinations in Spain. Xavier ate his food, drank a few more beers and before he knew it they had passed three hours, reminiscing, telling tall tales and laughing at each other’s jokes.
Time came for Xavier to say farewell and head for home. He picked up his keys and was about to leave when Juan said “One for the road, my friend.”
Reluctantly, Xavier agreed to have a small shot of brandy. “Just the one,” he said. “Unlike you, I have to work tomorrow.”
A toast to old times and down the hatch it went. “Just one more,” insisted Juan, “it’s cold outside, this’ll keep you warm on your journey home.” Outside, the street was covered in a light dusting of snow. Xavier felt good and anyway, one more small brandy couldn’t hurt. One more was followed by another, then another. Before long, the two men had finished off a whole bottle. They both laughed when Juan remarked that the ‘one for the road’ referred to one drink, not one bottle.
“That’s OK. My old Jeep knows these roads. She can find her way home without my help.” Said Xavier.
Once again Xavier picked up his keys and staggered towards the door, cursing that he had to be up at six and needed to get some sleep. With a backward wave of his hand, he stepped out from the warmth of the bar and into the cold, early morning air.
The fifty meters Xavier had to walk back to his car, over the icy ground, took him twice as long and twice as far, as he zig-zagged from one side of the street to the other, bouncing off the walls and swearing under his breath. When he finally reached his car, it took him several minutes to find the key and unlock the door. Once inside he started the car, patted the dash and said affectionately, “Take me home, baby.”
The roads in the Alpujarra twist and turn as they cut across ravines and dry river valleys. With very few straight sections it can be extremely tricky, even at the best of times, navigating from village to village. Take a road surface covered by snow and ice; add several beers mixed with half a bottle of brandy, at 2am on a winter’s night and you have a recipe for disaster.
So it was. How Xavier managed to stay on the road for the three kilometres from the village, to the series of sharp bends where his “old lady” finally gave up trying to find her way home, is impossible to say. The car breezed through the decrepit stone and mortar crash barrier, like a hand through a spider’s web, and plummeted down a steep drop of seventy meters to land on its roof. Xavier was killed instantly. The car was found the next morning; the body was recovered; the wreck taken away, and Xavier became another statistic in the annals of the Alpujarra.
Just after the accident, people commented on how unfortunate Xavier had been. A few meters before he had left the road, there was a new steel crash barrier. Had he hit it, he would have ground to a halt with nothing more than a smashed front to his car. Or, if he had managed to drive on past the spot where he crashed, he would have bounced and bumped his way down a gentle slope and come to a grinding halt, perhaps shaken, but very much still alive.
“Such bad luck.” Some said.
“Not at all.” Said others.
“It was meant to happen, exactly the way it happened, when your time is up. It’s up. Adios.”
Fate? Perhaps. But many people blamed Juan for Xavier’s death. If he hadn’t bought him so many drinks, so many “one for the road” brandies, Xavier would not have been so drunk, would not have driven off the road, and would, in all probability, be alive today.
In the Alpujarra, anyone that is unemployed is required to do ten days’ work for the local community, at least once a year. It might involve helping out in a village construction project, or simply cleaning the communal parts of the town.
In Juan’s case, he was required to help cut and clear firebreaks through the high mountain pines. On the last day of Juan’s first week, he went with the rest of the team to a remote area. They had to leave the Land Rovers on the mountain track and go on foot to the zone that was marked for clearing, a walk that took them over an hour. The idea was to work their way slowly back towards the vehicles.
Around 10am they stopped for their customary twenty minutes’ breakfast. Most of the guys brought meat filled rolls, hot drinks, yoghurts, or fruit, and spent the next twenty minutes eating and talking, until it was time to continue the work.
Juan had been still the whole time. He’d eaten nothing, just sat, staring into the distance or twiddling with his cigarette and mumbling to himself inaudibly. When the time came to return to work, he called the foreman and said he didn’t feel too good. The foreman asked if he wanted to walk back to the vehicle, to sit down and rest. Juan said that might be a good idea, stood up and promptly collapsed.
Juan had suffered a massive heart attack but was still breathing. There was no mobile phone cover, so calling for an ambulance was out of the question. The only option was to walk back to the vehicles at least forty minutes away.
A stretcher was hastily made, with narrow pine trunks stuffed into the sleeves of two jackets. Rope was slung loosely between the two poles for extra body support. Another rope, looped from one pole to the other, served as a shoulder harness. The guys took it in turns to carry the overweight and unconscious Juan back to the Land Rover.
Thirty minutes of hard slog, with lots of cursing about the weight, and they were back at the vehicles. The driver went as fast as he could along the rough track to where the signal was strong enough to call the emergency services. A helicopter was dispatched from Granada hospital and arrived within fifteen minutes.
Unfortunately, it was too late; Juan had passed away. All attempts at resuscitation failed. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Juan was forty-five years old.
Some people said it was his excessive alcohol consumption that caused the heart attack. Some people said it was his drug abuse, others, that it was a combination of both.
Could it be there was something else in play? You see, Juan died EXACTLY ONE YEAR TO THE DAY, that Xavier died. Destiny? Coincidence? Karma?
As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”