For the weekend link-up, Write On Edge has asked for a favourite piece of writing. I wrote this last autumn in response to the prompt of 'A scary phone text message'. It describes the possible impact of the beginning of another Turkish invasion of Cyprus on our family and friends. At 3000 words, it's long. I have tried to pare it down as much as possible, but retain crucial details and relationships. I would be grateful for any comments, criticism, or feedback -- to know if, and how, it works. Thanks for reading, and please follow the link to read what other WOE writers came up with this weekend!
I turned off the hoses and straightened to look around. Not a garden.... Gardens are neat with grass and flowers; this is a patch of land with olives with the vegetable beds that feed my family, manure piles, and the decaying straw bales for mulch. As I surveyed it, I mentally collated the jobs that needed doing: organise a picking crew for the olives, make pepper spray to deter whatever is eating the chard, pick beans, pick tomatoes; manure and mulch the young walnut and avocado trees... My in-laws were in Nicosia, and I made another mental note: to pick some pomegranates from their tree for juicing.
I loved these autumn mornings: not hot, not cold, the air clear enough to find details in the mountains and the sea; a light breeze from the west. Everyone but Xenia, studying for her GCSE's at home, had left for school by 7.15, and I would go through my exercise routine then do an hour's yard work before a shower, breakfast, and housework. These were days of bright blue sky, full of the sound and the circling of birds and the unobtrusive companionship of our doting dog and crippled cat, overseers of my outside work.
I went downstairs to put on a wash, looking in on Xenia as she worked her correspondence classes, neat brown head bent over her notebook. ‘Such dedication,’ I thought. ‘Making a timetable for her eight subjects and sticking to it five days a week, month in, month out’ But she was determined to go to one of England’s better boarding schools for her A-Levels, and the entrance exams were a week away.
“When I make breakfast, do you want a cup of tea?” She nodded and replaced her headphones. Half a dozen helicopter gunships clattered overhead, a common sound at this time when they practiced formation flying from the military base that shared runways with Paphos International Airport, three miles to the west.
I heard the phone ring three times and then stop. 'Must be Dinos,' I thought. 'His morning call from the office.' I dressed and was about to call him back when the airport sirens began to wail. “Strange” I thought, searching my mind for an autumn commemoration. Then my mobile buzzed and jangled.
'New message', the screen told me. 'From Dinos.' I pressed 'View'.
‘Air strikes on L/sol port and L/ca port and airport. Paphos next? Tanks moving to encircle N/sia. I am recalled to my unit. Do as we discussed. Do NOT wait. Do NOT try to call me. I will be busy & will call when I can. Love always. XXX'
Was he kidding? 'What we discussed...' That meant gather the children and our American passports and head for the British Sovereign Airbase at Akrotiri hoping to be allowed to shelter or evacuate with British nationals. My husband would stay “to fight a war I'm too old to fight, if the worst comes to the worst,” he had said when we had long ago talked about what our roles would be, should war ever again erupt in our perennially unstable corner of the world. “For the first few days I would be doing my old job, making sure the young ones get the fuel and parts they need. But if the front crumbled I would have to fight as well.”
I keyed in his number, but it rang once before the nasal tone of the recording began 'The number you have dialled cannot be reached...' I took a breath to clear my mind and focus, not on my rising fear, but on what to do in order to carry out my husband's unequivocal instructions. My in-laws were away ‘Oh God,’ I thought. ‘In Nicosia... Push that away, Catherine,’ my brain insisted. ‘There’s nothing that you can do for them from here.'
I opened the office door. “Switch off,” I said to my daughter, gesturing at the computer. “And come here.” When she did, I put my hands on her shoulders and looked hard into her eyes. “Pack it up. We have to leave.” She shook her head in incomprehension. “The Turks are invading and we have to get to Akrotiri.” I kept my hands on her shoulders and my eyes locked on hers and spoke slowly and very calmly, as much for me as for her: “You cannot think about anything right now except for what we have to do. We don't have decisions, just steps to follow. We don't screw up, and we might all get out. We can think about the other stuff later, but first we have to concentrate on simple things, one at a time.” When I paused for breath, she blinked, and I could see the thoughts churning in her mind, but ploughed on. “I have to collect Christos and the Littles. You must pack – a carry-on for each of us with warm clothes. Bring the lap-top, the Mac external hard drive, and the plastic box that I will put on my bed. Get some books – we might be doing a lot of waiting. And photo albums – one in each bag...” I had run through this list many times in my head, but Xenia was cutting me off with waving hands.
“Wait a minute. How do you know?”
“Daddy texted,” I answered. “There have been airstrikes on the ports and airports...” The rest of my words were drowned by the growing crescendo of jets heading toward the airport. The windows shuddered, pictures trembled, and as the anti-aircraft defenses opened up, the deep staccato rattle made speech almost impossible. “And find Mary and Mrs. Jolley,” I shouted. “Tell them we're heading for Akrotiri and ask what their plans are...” My phone shrilled, the glowing screen read 'Sarah'.
“Jimmy just called,” she said, Yorkshire voice taut, as soon as I opened the line. “He's been called up and says we're to go to the base. What are your plans and can we join forces to collect children?” Her daughter went to school with my two youngest at the village Elementary, her older son was at the Academy with Christos.
“You get the Littles and we’ll meet me at my place,” I yelled over another jet's scream. “I'll pick up Jack with Christos. Tell him to wait at the bus stop.”
No sooner had I closed the phone than it shrilled again. My son was on the line. “What's going on?” he shouted. “They said 'there's an emergency and you've all got to go home'? We can see and hear the planes...”
“Find Jack,” I said in a blessed lull. “And get to the bus stop. I'll pick you up as soon as I can get there.”
“Oscar Mike!” answered my eldest son. Just like him to treat an invasion like another computer game or movie.
“Remember,” I said to Xenia. “Warm clothes, toiletries, laptop, cables, and chargers. Mac drive, box on my bed, albums, Mary and Mrs. J. And grab the big first aid kit from the top of the dresser.” She nodded as I ran into my room for the box with the passports and other vital documents, a stash of gold coins, and my wallet. I hit speed dial on the mobile and connected with the school, telling the secretary that I would be collecting my son and Sarah's at the bus stop within fifteen minutes. “Thank-you Mrs. A,” her voice was calm over the rising babble in the background. “That would be fine.”
“I'm off,” I told Xenia's back. “Sarah should be here soon, I might be longer: if they’ve hit the airport, things could get bad on the road.” On cue, the siren wailed again and the scream of jet engines tore the air. Whose? Theirs? Had the Greeks come already to help? The Israelis? Who knew? Did it matter? The airport, equidistant between my house and the school, was far enough from the main road that passing it shouldn't be too much of a problem, one small beige family Toyota not too much of a target.
I drove down the hill and turned onto the main road. I tried the radio, but the local stations were in chaos and the signal from British Forces Radio didn't reach Paphos. Except for some military trucks heading for the base at Anarita, traffic was light – although the petrol station was doing brisk business. In fifteen minutes I reached the school to find Christos and Jack with several other senior pupils at the bus stop.
They threw their bags into the car. “Are we mobilising, Mum,” Christos asked. “Has Dad gone?” His lips tightened. Never one to show his emotions, like his father Christos could be almost impossible to read.
As we passed the turn-off to Mandria, the airport sirens wailed again and a handful of jets streaked past 300 yards to our right. “Jesus they’re low!” cried Christos, his voice drowning in the roar and the car rocking in the shockwave of an explosion than sent smoke boiling into the air. “That was the airport! Where are Uncle Pavlos and the cousins?” They worked at the airport.
Sarah was in the yard, her wide-eyed daughter still in the car. She hugged Jack: “In the car, lad!” and turned to me. “Yours are getting changed. Shall we head out together?” but Xenia appeared, bags in hand and said “Mary asked us to hang on. Mrs. J and her mum are on some kind of expat bus heading for the airport – the High Commission has said there's a plane there to get English out --”
“If there's a runway left,” I interrupted. “That last lot just hit the airport!”
“-- well Plan B was for the coach to go to Akrotiri, so she's sorted. Hubby's staying of course.”
Andreas and Antonis, eleven and eight, ran out of the front door. “The Turks are coming!” they shouted together. “The teachers said that we must be brave and might have to fight! We saw the planes!”
“Will Daddy get his gun back?” asked Andreas, bright-eyed, recalling the rifle that had spent years on our top shelf, returned to the armoury when Dinos signed off the ready reserve at the age of forty. ‘Another one thinking in terms of video games and action movies,’ I thought, wondering if the fear of understanding reality was any better.
“You go.” I urged Sarah, gesturing to the capering boys to get into the car and stop making shooting gestures into the now-empty sky. “Don't wait for us – I don't even know if they'll let us in the gate. We're not Brits, remember.”
She gave me a quick hug and settled behind the wheel of the natty little Mazda. “Keep in touch, love,” she said her accent broader with every syllable. “We'll be laughing about this next week, you'll see.” But her smile was strained, and the fingers that brushed back the fine brown hair fluttered. “See you when we see you, and take care...” She gunned the engine, put the car into gear, and sped away.
Christos came out just as a police SUV drove into the yard and my brother-in-law, head of airport police security, jumped out in military fatigues and flak jacket.
“You're going now?” he said to me. “Dinos said for me to check. We're tasked to hold the airport in case there's a landing.”
“Is there any news?” I asked. “Negotiations? Allies? Where are Lia and the kids?” His wife worked in town, his adult son and daughter at the airport.
“Nothing yet,” he answered. “Lia’s staying put – it’s unlikely that the Turks will risk bombing a big town. Andreas has gone to his unit, Rafaella’s at the airport. The runway is damaged but can still be used by C-130s. Maybe the Greeks can come that way. Otherwise it's up to us. I'm off. You go. Now.”
“I'm coming,” Christos said, swinging his six-foot frame into the police car's passenger seat.
“No, Christo,” I said. “Daddy was clear. I'm to take you, too.”
But “With all due respect, Mum, Dad can shove his instructions. I can't run while my family and all my friends are fighting – some maybe dead already on the Line! How will I live with myself?” Pavlos's eyes met mine, and we knew that there was little I could say. At 18, Christos was the only one of his kindergarten group still out of the army – his English-language education mandated another year and a half in school. But he was right: all his friends and relatives were either fighting already or about to start. Keeping him with me was not my decision any more.
“I’ll look after him,” Pavlos said. And “Don’t take the motorway – they’ve hit the HaPotami bridge.” Then he was gone.
I turned to face Xenia's tear-filled eyes and the jagged line of her mouth. “I knew he’d go...” she started, but I cut her off with “What's happening with Mary?” Then noticed Deepah, my in-law's Sri Lankan house-help beside the car, a small bag in her hand.
“Madame please,” she said. “You go, I come!” She had stayed home and with my parents-in-law caught in Nicosia and her consulate probably in ruins, I could not leave her. “You have your papers?” I asked. But “No, Papa have...” my father-in-law kept them locked in a safe. “Please Madame. I come...” She began to sob and Xenia put her arm around her tiny shoulders and, as I nodded, led her to the Land Rover and helped her climb in.
“The dog, mum,” Xenia began. But at that moment, Mary's battered white mini-bus pulled up in a swirl of gravel. Leaving the engine running, my best friend of sixteen years flung open the door and jumped out, words tumbling over each other. “I can't find Anita! She went on a class trip to the Field School at Terra, and I can't reach her or any of the teachers on the mobile.” She yanked open the sliding door and I saw her three youngest children in the back. Martha, aged nine, sat against the far side, lips compressed to a thin line, palms pressed flat between her knees. Annie, two years older, sobbed noisily. Seven-year-old Joey smiled. “We saw 'planes, Catherine! Loud ones! And Mummy drove really really fast down the motorway!”
“Come on,” said Mary. “Bags! Out now!” She kissed the three in turn as they clambered down and helped them into the Land Rover beside Deepah, then turned to me. “You'll take them with you, won't you? They’ve got their passports. Takis has been called up and I can’t reach him. Andreas went with Panicos to Kissonerga, and Petros too.” Andreas, her eldest, had just finished his military service. Trained as naval infantry, his mission would have been to defend the Exocet missiles in Kissonerga – the same job that Panicos, his younger brother, was now doing. Petros, a week shy of his sixteenth birthday, had probably felt much like Christos. But Anita, thirteen, was away in the hills somewhere and “I can't leave her...”
“I will take them, of course,” I told Mary. “But I might not get in. Should I keep them with me, or let them in if they're allowed?”
“You'll have to decide that when the time comes,” she said, pushing a piece of paper into my hand. “This is my dad's number in London. If they get on a plane, call him and he'll meet them wherever they land. Try and let me know what happens, too. If I find Anita, I'm not sure what we'll do. Takis told me to leave, but... Where's Christos?”
“Gone with Pavlos to the airport,” I said. “I couldn't keep him.”
She winced. “Gotta go,” Then: “I'm heading home, if there's no sign there, then to the school, if
nothing there, up to Terra. At least it's probably pretty safe in the hills – nothing military,
only a few villages. They're probably sheltering there; I just can't understand why she hasn't called
or answered her phone... There should be a signal...” her voice tailed off before she focused again.
“But you'd best be off. See you when we see you!” Echoing Sarah she added: “We'll probably be laughing about this, same time next week!” And we embraced quickly before she got behind the wheel and headed down the road.
“Mum the dogs,” said Xenia. “And what about Stumpy?” My mother-in-laws Alsatian cross was barking in her pen, excited by the noise and the comings and goings. And Sputnik, our golden mutt, was sniffing at Annie and Joey, perplexed at their refusal to get down and play. Our three-legged cat was nowhere to be seen.
“Christ, Xenia, we can't take the animals!” I spoke more harshly than I meant and saw her flinch but realise the pointlessness of argument. “Let Lucky out of her cage – she'll have something of a chance that way – but we'll have to leave them. Fill the water containers, and we'll leave food out... But there's nothing we can do, Xenia, I'm sorry. They'll never let us take them out on a plane with us, and maybe not even on to the base. I'd rather leave them here at home than dump them there...”
My reasoning sounded pathetic, a cop out, even to me. People had stayed with their pets through Hurricane Katrina, through the Lebanon War. But we weren't to stay. I had my explicit instructions – to get myself and my children to safety. To leave everything but essentials behind. I shoved sentimentality away. The cat, I knew would be fine. The dogs would have to find their own way.
I went into the house for a last check: everything off, windows that could not be shuttered left open on the off chance that they would not be shattered by blast. I grabbed my cameras and shoved them into a bag with some notebooks, pens and pencils, and picked up three old journals from the shelf above my desk.
It was time to go. Time to leave the fields we had worked, the house we had built, the antique furniture that had belonged to my mother. I wondered if I'd see it again. Last time, in 1974, people had fled their homes sure that they'd be back in days or weeks: they had been away decades, and were still unable to return for good. Like us they had left with little more than what they stood up in, leaving their orchards and fields, their animals, and their men behind fighting.
What about other friends? Angela was either on the bus with the other Brits or would stay to face the Turkish Army with her dog. My Russian cleaning lady and her family would stay in town, and I prayed that Pavlos was right and that there would be no airstrikes on residential areas.
I pushed those worries away as more jets screamed toward the airport and the anti-aircraft guns opened up with their thumping staccato. I thought about Christos, man-child, behind the guns, under the bombs, and hoped that he'd stay safe. And as I closed the door of the house, I allowed my hand to touch Sputnik's anxious head for the last time.
Behind the wheel of the Land Rover, I thought of my husband, arranging supplies for the young soldiers already streaming north. I knew that he was safe for now, and would contact me as soon as he could. 'Stay alive,' I prayed. 'Be here for us to come back to!' The drive to Akrotiri was only forty kilometers, but although I knew the road like the back of my hand, I had no idea what lay ahead.
I handed my phone to Xenia. “Text Daddy,” I said. “Tell him we're off.”