“Were you in love?”
“I was in love with love at that age.”
They suddenly share intimacies in a large room.
“But it was broxenia. Arranged.” she adds just in case her friend does not understand the Greek word. But she had. “He had come to ask for me. You know what love is like in those days. He said he couldn’t sleep at nights thinking of me. I was so delighted to hear that a young man couldn’t sleep at nights thinking of me! I was so flattered to think that a young boy was thinking only of me. Now I sleep very easily at nights. I have no problems with my sleep”
She laughs a raucous, deep laugh hiding the blush of the sixteen year old creeping under the skin of forty-one years and moisture in her eyes. Her friend joins in flippantly, “Especially if he is handsome and looks like some film star. Nothing else mattered, did it? As long as a young handsome man couldn’t sleep at nights for you, paraded up and down the street in front of the house… you felt you had something special.”
“He was killed at eighteen. My daughter Maroulla was fourteen months old.”
She stops talking. Looks at her intensely through her shiny brown small eyes slightly drawn at the corners. Dipping into her memory. Her straw colour curls, tinted, presenting her face as though in a bed of lettuce. Her wheat coloured smooth skin stretches over her broad cheekbones.
They stay silent looking at each other. She takes her eyes away and continues, “It was the second mobilization. In 1965. The first had passed. They took lots of young men from the villages. After a while they came back and took away the second batch. And he was amongst them. He had two months to go before he finished his military service.”
After an imperceptible silence she asks, “When did you leave Cyprus, Pembe?” as though trying to place both of them in their individual histories within the one history which unites and at the same time separates them.
“Summer of 1963.”
“Yes it was after that. After the first conflict. I wanted to go on and finish the gymnasio and then go on to Athens, to university. I really wanted to go on to higher education so much. But I knew my parents wouldn’t let me. They didn’t see me as a university graduate. Although I wanted to go desperately, I knew in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t let me. So I agreed. I agreed!” She emphasises the I… almost to confirm that she was responsible for whatever happened to her all her life! “But they had ways of getting you to agree. Yes… it was ultimately my decision to get married…”
“How did you cope with his death?” Pembe asks.
She pauses before she answers. Curls her legs under her on the settee against the huge window framing the violet early evening sky. She wraps her arms around her legs.
“You do. You don’t think, you just do it. You move about, you are so resilient. You just live the most unliveable situations and you keep going. You don’t think about it. As though it was natural to keep going to survive!”
Pembe wants to tell her friend that the full moon is rising amongst the arms of the apple tree. A silver haze casting speckles over it. A November moon in London. She keeps watching it emerge waiting for a gap in the conversation to say, “Just look at the moon! So beautiful!” She listens as her eyes catch secret glimpses away from Maria’s eyes to the hazy silver moon hiding amongst the dark autumn leaves. Momentarily disappearing behind clouds then emerging as though it was playing a game or giving her a respite from trying to catch an opportune moment, a gap in the conversation to tell Maria. She catches a pause.
“What did you do… when you were left on your own?” The moon had no place in the conversation, only in stolen glances.
“I wasn’t on my own. I had my parents. We grew up in a loving environment. I’d always felt that security and in a sense maybe that helped. My mother helped a lot.”
“But what about men? You were young barely eighteen and a widow, they must have…”
“They tried to take advantage of me,” she interjects, “but I wasn’t stupid. I was young but not stupid!”
My God my Saviour my Lord Almighty Master the most powerful most merciful how could you do this to me? WHY? What did I do to you for you to punish me so? What did I do to deserve such punishment such fate? Left on my own with a young baby in my arms. If you wanted to punish me- do it. I can accept that, but what did my innocent daughter do to deserve such horror? With what wisdom did you decide you needed to punish an innocent baby? Oh where is the magnanimity in that? What sort of justice is that? What a warped sense of justice you must have the most powerful the most just my Lord my Master…
” ‘Come to my office tomorrow. I will help you. I’ve got a job for you. You start at 8.00. Don’t worry my dear, you are like a daughter to me, I’ll look after you. Just come my dear…’
He was my father’s friend, he was so kind. My mother encouraged me to go.”
Why was it so important for you men to try to take advantage of me? WHY? Why was it so important to posses me conquer my body tell your lies flatter me get between my legs? WHY? Why did I have to belong to one of you if not to all of you at once? WHY? Why could you not let me be? Why could you not leave me alone? Why did you not treat me as a human being in need of support, encouragement, advice, friends? Why was it important for you to chase me to try to push me down on my back? What twisted satisfaction did you get out of that?
Sooner or later she’ll need a man sooner or later she’ll get an itch between her legs sooner or later she’ll want it once a woman tastes it she can’t do without it she needs it it’s only natural she’s young full-blooded passionate she has fire in her still young huge fires of desire burn in her breast between her legs.
So what? What’s so wrong if we try? She needs it anyway doesn’t she? She is only human. What are you telling me that she is different? She is just like any young passionate woman and on top of it all she has already tasted it. It’s beautiful- of course she would want it… sooner or later. So what? It’s only natural that a man is going to try and get in there first. Only natural. If I don’t get in there some other bastard is going to get between those lovely legs those lily-white breasts. So it might as well be me. What difference does it make anyway, whether it’s me or someone else?
Come on my darling, come on… stop playing hard to get. You want it you want it don’t you I’ll give it to you I’ll give it to you deep and juicy you’ll love it better than your old man who didn’t have the sense not to get killed and left you in the middle of no where much much better than him I’ve experience I know how to love a woman I’ll love you slowly slowly slowly you haven’t tasted anything like me yet my beauty you’ll ask for more you’ll see…
Fuck off… fuck off… fuck off… F-U-C-K–O-F-F! Leave me alone! Imbeciles! I wouldn’t lie under you if you were the last man on earth!
“And I couldn’t tell anyone about it. Telling would have meant I was inviting it. I was the one who was lose chasing a bit of prick. After all decent women don’t get chased after or bothered. It’s your fault if men are chasing you. And aren’t you ashamed to stand there and listen to all this? It just proves you’re inviting it, you’re at fault you shameless hussy was the reaction and all I wanted to do was to go to the gymnasio and then to university but no one wanted me to no one would let me go…” she pushes her hair away from her face remembering the desperation and frustration of the eighteen year old trying all possible avenues of reaching her goal.
“I even took my mother to see Makarios…” she continues.
“Why?”, Pembe asks puzzled.
“I had asked to see him and as I was a widow… a war widow… a widow of a soldier… he agreed to see me. So I took her and my child along. He did see us. I asked him to make a special dispensation to enable me to sit my exams in the gymnasio, graduate and then go to university. By then my dreams of university had re-awakened. But he told me he couldn’t do it. He didn’t have the power to do so!”
“So you were finished educationally at the age of eighteen?”
“Yes, that was it! But you know what he said, `As you are a dead soldier’s wife, I can offer you something else. I do have the power to do that. I could appoint you as…’ and you know in those days they were appointing policewomen, they were not what they were like today. He told me he could offer me a job as a policewoman in Famagusta.”
“Yes!” she emphasises the words shifting her body and rearranging her legs. “A policewoman!”
The Greek barricade on the Famagusta road. Two corrugated iron huts by the side of the road serve as the searching rooms. Tall eucalyptus trees line the road encircling the dried up moat of the Venetian walls of Nicosia. One hut is for the women the other for the men. All cars, taxis, lorries and coaches going into the Turkish enclave of Nicosia are searched. All coming out are searched. What are they looking for? Would anyone be so stupid as to try and smuggle guns, bombs, leaflets? What? No one seems to know what constitutes a forbidden object. “They took all my husband’s photographs. All of them!” she meekly objects. Why? What did they want with the photographs of this woman’s husband in her 30s?
“He was wearing the uniform of the Mucahits! And they questioned me for hours. What could I tell them? I am bringing some of my husband’s photographs from Limassol to Nicosia. He can’t go anywhere. He can’t do anything. He is dead. He is dead…” she wipes the corners of her eyes with her trembling fingertips.
“The men can’t travel anyway. They have to stay in the enclaves otherwise the Greeks pick them up and they go missing. They never come back. And do you know they didn’t believe me when I said he was dead. And they tormented me and they tormented me and made rude suggestions and gestures… such humiliation! But what could I do? What can anyone of us do? Here we are at the mercy of the Greeks, we are in their hands. You just bear it. We can at least travel and see our loved ones.”
She is searched by the young woman in the police uniform. She had entered the tin hut shown and faced her. She was wearing the brown khakis of the colonial times, redesigned for the birth of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960 which split open at the seams in 1963. The fateful days of 1963. She heard about the war in her country while away on a year’s scholarship in the USA. She was walking down the corridor in school when the tannoy system tuned in to the radio announced, “As a result of the death of a Turkish Cypriot two Greek Cypriot policemen have been attacked in Nicosia. Mass demonstrations… street battles… in Nicosia. Law and order… has broken down.”
The 1963 war had begun. She remembers walking slowly down the corridor with her head lowered finding it hard to swallow when her American friends of sixteen with cheery smiles shouted, “Hey Pembe did you hear that? That’s your country! It’s on the news! Hey, did’ya hear, there’s a war on out there! Hey, where’s it anyway?” She had no answers. She nursed an invisible twist in her belly.
She heard the same radio again the same year. “The President of the United States of America, J.F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas today. He is dead.” Sobs had broken out in the classrooms in the corridors. Students were told to go home and mass grief was allowed. She had noticed that the sixteen-year-old Democrat students were crying, the Republican eyes were dry. Did you not cry for a human being if he was not from your party? Was the value of a human life only determined by their political affiliation? She had wondered.
Did anyone think she was not a human being because she was a Cypriotturkish of eighteen returning home, being searched by the young Cypriotgreek policewoman? She looked at the neatly combed back hair wrapped up into a bun, at the clean neat expressionless face of the policewoman and smiled at her. She smiled back. So they were both still able to respond to a smile in this war-torn country of theirs.
The policewoman’s hands touched her shoulders, her fingers went through her curly black shoulder length hair. Moved under her arms, touched her breasts. She shrunk back. No one had touched her breasts… ever! These non-caring, matter-of-fact hands without hesitation had brushed harshly over them, squeezed them slightly. The policewoman looked at the offended eyes with half amusement on her lips. Pembe said nothing but her eyes were angry, annoyed, disbelieving. A wave of humiliation spread all over her and oozed out of her body. She had not even touched her own breasts how could this total stranger do it without any feeling? Had she no shame?
The hands moved down her waist, over her belly and before she knew what had happened dived between her legs. She clasped them as an automatic reaction, a reflex, momentarily trapping the policewoman’s hand. The hand stayed in place while the eyes met Pembe’s. The legs relaxed. The policewoman felt the hard object between her legs. The eyes met inside a moment’s silence. The policewoman withdrew her hand.
“It’s my monthly illness.” Pembe offered with embarrassment undetected in a controlled voice.
“That’s not an illness!” the policewoman responded and smiled. They had spoken in Greek. “OK you can go! Have a good journey and be careful!”
She walked out of the tin hut slightly bigger than the space occupied by the two bodies. The space for unwanted intimacies. The warm air hit her face. She took a deep breath and waited outside between the huts for the men and other women to be searched. A young soldier walked up to her. She searched herself for traces of fear, she had none. She had regained her composure, she raised her head, body erect. Fear will not settle anywhere. “I will not allow it,” she whispered, an almost undetectable smile on her lips as she looked up at him.
“Open your bag!” An order maybe a request she thought he could probably never put to his mother when he was fascinated with what she had in her bag. A bag he could never go near, forbidden, hit on the hands if he reached out to explore as a child. All those intricate little boxes, tubes, bottles, matches, handkerchiefs, mirrors, combs, all those interesting colourful things. A treasure trove. And the heady unforgettable perfume in the little blue bottle with the Eiffel Tower and the single word Paris, which lingered in the bag and escaped as though from Aladdin’s lamp when the bag was opened…
He now could rummage through women’s handbags, inspect, smell, empty them on tables, without fear, without reprimand and without excitement. He no longer felt that secret sensation, that slight dizzying perfume as when he used to sneak open his mother’s handbag. She opened it. The usual things, lipstick, compact-case, pen, passport, book, note pad, a thick purse. He opened it and looked through. Full of photographs. Photographs of American young people. All healthy, content in life, perfect teeth almost identically posed smiles.
A smile breaks on his lips. “Who are they?” He speaks to her in English? She looks into his face much more carefully.
“My friends from the USA.” The questioning in his eyes continues so she explains who they are, how she knew them, when, their names.
“Can I have this one? I can write to her. Can I have it?”
Suddenly she becomes apprehensive. “No! She’s my friend. She gave me this picture. Look she’s written a special message on it! I couldn’t give it to you! I could give you…” She notices the driver of the taxi frantically signalling to her not to argue and to let him have the photograph. What’s in a photograph – your life is at stake. Are you totally stupid?
He interrupts her, “No! No! It’s OK Here… she’s your friend. She’s nice.” The last words were said gently. He handed back the photograph. The driver breathed a sigh of relief but was later to accuse her of ignorance and risking the lives of others by her stubbornness. Give him the Damned thing, what the Hell is it anyway just a photograph who the Hell do you think you are to challenge them just shut your mouth and do what ever they say always say yes. But uncle driver I was always taught to say no and tell the truth…
She had often thought about him. The young Cypriotgreek soldier on the Famagusta road under the eucalyptus trees. Brown eyes brown hair smooth face with high cheekbones and soft smile. Was he the one who didn’t shoot her brother? Was he the one on guard when a seventeen-year-old walked through the Cypriotturkish barricade, with easy calm steps, not looking back at the Cypriotturkish soldier who just followed him with his eyes holding his gun tightly in his hand? He could have shot him. In the back. It would have been over in a second. No mess no fuss very neat. He was trying to escape General, Sir! He was walking into the other side into enemy territory! I had to stop him! He could have shot me but he didn’t. Why? Why didn’t he? Was I doing something he wasn’t bravecrazy enough to do? Did he come with me by allowing me to live, to walk through the barricade? Did he leave with me, walk with me out of that prison, out of that enclave, out of that suffocating inferno? The young Cypriotturkish soldier in 1967 on the Famagusta road as I walked out of my prison into the unknown… who were you? Who were you granting me an extension to this life? You could have ended it without much fuss. At seventeen. And the young Cypriotgreek soldier as scared as trembling as I was, walking towards you. Not knowing if you will shoot me. Not sure if I was armed if I was going to shoot you if I was going to throw a grenade at you… A body, a young man, walking alone on the Famagusta road. Watched from behind by the young Cypriotturkish soldier whose spirit I was taking with me out of a prison, the young Cypriotgreek soldier frightened to death trembling watching the approaching lonely figure on the sizzling asphalt on the Famagusta road.
Young Cypriotgreek soldier were you waiting for my brother under the eucalyptus trees on the Famagusta road in 1967? I am glad you didn’t shoot him. He has a son now. His son won’t be shooting yours. He is blind.
“What did you do?” asks Pembe.
“I didn’t even have a chance to say anything. My mother butted in and said to Makarios, `A policewoman! Never! Never! I am not having my daughter become a policewoman!’ That was that! I didn’t become a policewoman.”
© AYDIN MEHMET ALI