Helena Sage and her entire family were trapped in Cyprus in the 1974 Turkish invasion.
I was woken by my mother who was shaking me in a gentle but firm way and repeating my name over and over. I sat upright and she shoved some flip-flops in my hands. The house was a whirlwind of hushed activity, the adults were looking sombre and all around gunfire and shells were whizzing in the heated sky above us. In a single silent file adults and children left via the front door. Except my aunty who would not leave my bed-ridden grandmother and Yiayia Florence. She would not hear of it. My devoted aunt was prepared to sacrifice herself for the two elderly ladies and no one could persuade her otherwise.
There had been word of an advance of Turkish troops in the centre of Nicosia by the walls and we could already hear a fierce battle in the distance and it seemed to be coming insidiously closer. We silently walked earnestly through the dark streets with no street lights as the bullets and mortar fire cracked and screeched intermittently above us. The adults were at either end of the human chain. Every so often when the firing was intense we would be told to stop and crouch by a young soldier that appeared from nowhere to guide us. Eventually we ended up with other local families in the basement of a large block of flats. The young soldier left us and told us to stay until he came back and gave the all-clear.
Remarkably, once I had made myself comfortable in an old deckchair, I slept. There was no noise down where we had hidden and it was remarkably cool. I was woken next morning and told we were to walk back. There was a strange atmosphere of tragedy and grief, my mother had swollen eyes as if she had not only, not slept but had been crying. I was hungry, I hoped there was food at home. There was a sombre, quiet atmosphere back at the old house. My aunty ran to greet us at the door. She looked upset and I wondered if yiayia was ok. She hustled us out into the courtyard and brought bread, olives, tomato, eggs and halloumi, coffee for the adults and milk with chocolate malt for us. The atmosphere was subdued and I ate quickly and left the table. Went to the back of the house where it was cool to read. My sisters came with me and they amused themselves by feeding a stray kitten that they had adopted with lountsa that they had taken from the kitchen.
After siesta my aunty came and told me we were going to Church and that I was to brush my hair and tidy myself up. I was confused, why were we going to church on a weekday.
It’s a ‘kitheia – a funeral,‘ my aunty said. ‘Mickey’s son was killed last night.’
“But why am I going?” I protested “I don’t even know him.”
“He was here the other day, the blond boy. His mother is German, that why he is so fair. But Mickey and your dad go back a long time. We must pay respects.”
With those words my aunty started crying and it seemed to me she never stopped until we returned later that day.
It was a life-changing day for me; more influential than anything that had occurred to me thus far. It is not just because it was the first funeral that I had ever been to but because I had in truth never really seen emotion in my life. Happiness is easy when you are a child but most other emotions are absent from a child’s life. Anger is usually present when you have been naughty but no more. My sisters and I had been subjected to our father’s natural melancholy and depression but that was a quiet emotion. The grief I witnessed that day was gut-wrenching and raw.
I stood with my aunt and parents at the side of the church in Pallouriotissa. In front of the alter lay the body of the young soldier that had come to the house. In an open casket in his uniform I could see his face. It was grey and his lips a charcoal blue. All about his satin-lined box were flowers and the incense swirled about the church like a demon. The heat was insufferable and among all the black-clad mourners stood a tall blond woman with a face that was on the verge of collapse. She was Nordic looking and her bloodshot yet dry eyes stared straight ahead of her as if she had been placed there and had no association with her surroundings. Her hands were gripped around the pew in front of her as if it was keeping her propped up and standing next to her was a short, substantially-built man with very little hair and a spectacular moustache. He looked as if he had been stripped of the air within his body as he gulped down his sobs and dried his face with a handkerchief. There were soldiers in the rear of the church, including officers. The boy’s mother looked at her son as he lay ahead of her and it was obvious that her life had been sucked out of her too. I was convinced any moment she would dissolve like a pillar of salt in the hot air, her grief would engulf her and she would disappear into the ether with the incense and cease to be. She was icy still as if she was dead too. The burial was a chaotic distressing affair, noisy and dramatic. I was relieved when it was over.
He was 19 and I was 12 and every year for many years I would think to myself – he would have been 20 now 21, 22 and so on. I think I stopped counting when I was 25 and he would have been 32. My yiayia was buried not too far away from him a few months later. I visit them both whenever I can. I lived, he did not, but I always think of him and his handsome friends full of swagger and life in the hallway of the old house.
The radio requested that some semblance of normality be restored to the city. Shops were asked to re-open. My father opened the shop, my older sister went back to work at Woolworths in the town centre. Every so often we spent nights in the basement, it was tedious but necessary. My Father had a brilliant idea. He told my mother to take me and my two younger sisters to stay at her parents. My other yiayia and pappou lived in Xero near Morphou in an old miner’s house in a eucalyptus forest, right on the beach.
‘You will be safe’ there my father said ’I will sort things out here and we will make plans to leave.’
My ears pricked up!
‘I want to go back to England,‘ my mother said with a steeliness in her voice that I rarely heard.
‘Yes, yes but I need to sort the money out and the stuff at the house, to your mother’s until I fetch you!’
Two days later we arrived at the lovely little house with the barn door that smelt of halloumi, onions and lountsa.
I looked at the jewelled, turquoise, sparkling sea that was the back garden of the tiny miner’s cottage and thought that if I was going back to London, I really would miss the sea, the mesmerising Mediterranean sea.