A historical fiction novel based around the EOKA period of conflict and unrest in a politically unstable Cyprus in the 1950s under British rule. This chapter introduces one of the main characters in the book, Elena, and her life in the quiet mountain village of Kato Lefkara in 1953, pre EOKA.
Elena kicked off the threadbare sheet she was entangled in with her tanned, slender legs. She tried to spread her arms out to cool herself but her brother’s chubby body, curled into a tight ball, took up all the space next to her on the mattress they shared, leaving the entire left-hand side of the bed empty. She let out a deep sigh, threw her slim arms above her head instead and held onto the solid bars of the iron bedstead. Elena relished the relief of the cool metal in her small fists. She shifted onto her side and let one of her arms hang over the edge of the bed, almost touching the floor.
A stream of sun bounced off the roughly plastered walls highlighting the dust motes dancing around the small bedroom. The walls were bare other than an icon of the Virgin Mary, holding a baby Jesus in her arms, which hung by the shuttered windows. Below the religious artefact stood a dark oak chest of drawers, which held a small silver hairbrush and mirror set, a sepia photograph of her and her brother at about aged two, her mother, father and grandmother. Elena’s only doll with the porcelain face and floppy legs was lying down next to the photograph, a gift from her aunt in America. Next to the drawers, a pile of school books and two pencils were arranged neatly on a footstool. Two pairs of black shoes were lined up on the floor; both with laces which had seen better days.
Elena strained her ears. The familiar squabbling and scratching of the hens in the neighbour’s yard and the braying of the donkey in the scrap of land opposite carried faintly in the air. She picked out the sound of heavy steps as her mother moved around the inner courtyard of their stone-built house in the mountain-side village of Kato Lefkara. The other sound, more cheery, was that of starlings chittering away in the stunted silvery olive trees, pomegranate and orange trees that crowded the outside space. She imagined the protruding roots pushing through the dry, cracking soil as they cooked in the day-long angry sun, desperate for water. The roots always reminded her of the bumpy veins on her yiayia’s translucent hands speckled with purple age spots. A small smile crossed Elena’s face as she thought of her maternal grandmother, whom she was named after. This quickly gave way to a wide yawn and she tried again to push her brother away from her with her leg. She suddenly felt claustrophobic; the June heat, too voluminous, swaddled her like a woollen blanket. She sprung to her feet. As she whooshed past the wash stand she picked up the framed picture and kissed the fading image of her father. She had no memory of him. This, and his worry beads which adorned the end of the bedstead, were the last tiny fragments she had of him.
‘Kalimera mama,’ she said, scrunching her hazel eyes against the blue brightness. The sweet smell of honeysuckle kissed her nose and her sweaty bare feet left little ghost footprints across the still cool slabs of the courtyard as she skipped over to her mother. She knew too well that before long, as the sun came over the slate roof of the house, the garden pavers would be as scalding as a clay oven. Elena delighted in the early morning when she was able to wander around without her heavy-soled leather shoes which weighed her down.
‘Kalimera agabi mou,’ her mother said as she tucked Elena’s long hair behind her ears before bending down to give her two kisses, one on each cheek. ‘Ela, psomi, halloumi, tomates…’ she said, pointing to the freshly baked bread, thick slices already arranged in the bread basket, and the fresh Cypriot cheese and bright red juicy tomatoes. The wooden table was ancient, the paint blistered by the burning sun flaked off the legs in fragments leaving what looked like a shower of blue confetti on the slabs. It was bowered by a tangle of vines, hanging low with the weight of bunches of green and purple grapes.
‘Where’s Andreas?’ asked her mother, Evangelia. Elena pointed towards the bedroom, pulling her dark straight hair into a high ponytail and securing it with a black hairband.
‘He’s still sleeping,’ Elena said and she made a loud snoring noise. Her mother laughed.
‘It’s not funny mama,’complained Elena, ‘he snores all the time and he takes up all the
Elena dragged one of the wooden chairs with the raffia-woven seats over to the table. She reached for a chunk of bread and took a bite out of a tomato, its warm juice running down her chin. She wiped it with the back of her hand.
‘Manoli came to me this morning, bless him. God answered my prayers. He saved me the
trouble of going. That rocky stretch is too much. I didn’t have the energy today. He’s a good man looking out for us,’ said her mother.
Elena’s mind drifted to Manoli and his brown hair and matching dark brown eyes, his face pocked with chicken pox scars. He was one of the younger village shepherds, and herded his father’s tattered flock of sheep and sprightly goats across the rock-strewn mountainside. She often saw him in the distance, on her way to school. He would wave frantically and make her laugh. He spent his days wandering across the ridges, the goats’ bells jingling merrily ahead of him as the animals climbed across the bumpy terrain and meandered through the dusty olive trees and dry earth. At the end of the day, when the sun was dipping behind the rough peaks, Elena sometimes caught another a glimpse of his shadowy figure making his way back to the patch of land his father owned on the edge of the village, a straggling line of sheep and goats ahead of him.
‘Here, have some milk. It’s still warm.’ Her mother poured her a glass of goats’ milk from the battered metal container which she usually kept in the dark coolness of the larder. Elena broke out of her reverie and chatted away while her mother, tall and slim, her light brown hair catching the rays of the quickly rising sun, reached up to hang the washing on the line. The straggly fisherman’s rope was stretched from one olive tree to another, and then secured to a rusty nail which protruded from the outside wall of her mother’s and yiayia’s shared bedroom, directly next to Elena and Andreas’ bedroom. The only other rooms were a kitchen not much bigger than a scullery and a tiny square sitting room with an open fire.
The laundry was a daily chore as they did not have other clothes to wear while the washing was being done. Hence Elena’s mother, woke early and washed the clothes by hand in the dark stone drinking trough which had been used for watering the donkeys by her grandparents and their parents before them. She hung them and dried them in the warmth of the rising sun ready for Elena and Andreas to wear to school every day. Most clothes were hand-me-downs from other families in the village.
Elena didn’t like it even though many of the children in her class also wore hand-me downs.
‘Clothing is passed back and forth between families in the village,’ one of the teachers said to her when Elena complained about her tight skirt. ‘It’s a way of helping each other.’
Elena was aware that some items were handed down to the point that even her mother, one of the neatest, most experienced seamstresses in the village, according to the women who sewed with her, could not patch the thinning, holey fabrics anymore. And that’s what life had been like since Elena’s father had left. At least that’s what her mother kept saying but never to her. She would never admit that to her. But Elena would hear her talking in hushed tones with the neighbours; Margarida and Athenoulla and Demitra and sometimes with the priest, Pater Vassilios.
Elena wolfed down her breakfast, not waiting for Andreas to join her, and ran over to the outdoor bathing area. She washed herself in a colossal stone basin, in the furthest corner of the garden, balanced on top of two rocks. She splashed herself with the lukewarm water which had been heated by the sun as she tugged impatiently at the disused table cloth pegged between two canes, which screened the wash area from the rest of the courtyard. Two more rusty nails hammered deep into the side of a silvery, bent olive tree, held two threadbare towels. An olive-infused bar of soap sat in a jar on the floor.
She dried herself roughly and dropped the towel to the floor. She slipped on her pants and reached across to take her blouse and skirt for school. A magenta pink fabric caught her eye.
‘What’s this?’ asked Elena as she shook out a dazzling pink garment which lay folded on a bench too rickety to sit on.
‘A dress for you…and trousers for Andreas,’ her mother called over from where she was taking down some of the clothes already dry from the washing line.
‘Mama! It’s so pretty. I’m going to wear it today.’
‘Don’t be silly Elena mou. The dress is for going to church on Sundays and to wear on Saint Days...special occasions.’
‘I said no. That’s enough of your answering back.’ Then more calmly she said, ‘You can wear it on Sunday to the panigiri. The whole village will be celebrating the beautiful British Queen’s coronation with a street party. I have heard your school will be handing out special mugs to each of you too, with a picture of the Queen on it.’
‘I love it,’ said Elena holding it against herself and swaying back and forth, then pirouetting on the spot.
‘One of aunt Margarida’s cousins passed it on.’
‘I will be the prettiest girl at the festival on Sunday!’
‘Stop with your vanity, girl.’ Elena ignored her mother and went on twirling around with the dress in her arms, only in her underwear, casting dancing shadows across the uneven slabs.
The next hour passed quickly and Elena had to pull her brother by the legs to wake him. They couldn’t be late. They had another eight days of rising early before school closed for the summer. It took Elena three vicious tugs before Andreas finally got up.
Elena dragged him by the arm along the narrow cobbled streets. Her shoes, two sizes too big for her, flip-flopped loudly as the sound bounced off the stone walls of the village houses along the way. Andreas crunched on a fat bread stick sprinkled with sesame seeds, oblivious to the noise they were both making. She thought about the smack of the ruler on their palms, their certain punishment for being tardy, and taking long purposeful strides she tugged more forcefully at Andreas’ arm, pulling him along the winding street.
Elena heard the sound of an engine then saw the car come down the hill at speed towards them. She just managed to dodge it. She pulled Andreas back against the wall, as the car swerved, dangerously close to them. She let go of the school books she was carrying. She heard the screeching brakes and let out a cry of horror as the car ran over the books, leaving a shower of white pages flying in the air like hungry seagulls. Elena looked at the tail lights disappear round the bend as the car zoomed down the main road out of the village. One by one she saw the villagers come to their doors.
‘What’s happened?’ called one.
‘Goodness! Whatever was that noise?’ shouted an old lady.
‘Elena! Andreas! Are you hurt?’ asked the priest’s wife.
Elena huffed and puffed, gesturing after the car, now long gone, in an exaggerated manner, her heart beating so hard it was going to jump out of her tiny chest. A few minutes passed. Once the shock had worn off and she found her voice, she told the gathered crowd that all was fine. Elena could hear them sighing with relief. She saw one of them cross herself in thanks to God for keeping them safe from harm.
‘I’ll let your mother know that all is well,’ said one and assured that the children were unharmed the neighbours went back to whatever they had been doing before the commotion. Andreas and Elena looked at each other and then both children broke down laughing. Andreas, she saw, had tears rolling down his pudgy cheeks as he chewed on a finger nail nervously. In the kerfuffle Andreas managed to wriggle his hand free of Elena’s loosening grasp. He stopped and bent over, tugging at the laces on his shoes, his bottom pushed back against the bumpy stone wall of the kafeneion, which wasempty and still. It was far too early in the day for the older men of the village to descend upon it.
‘Mama’s tied these too tight. They huuuurt,’ he whined. Elena saw him scrunch up his eyes in an effort to hold back his tears. ‘My feet are screaming.’
He jumped over the low wall and sat on one of the coffee shop chairs, knocking over one of the glasses left there from the night before. Water filled the open tavli board and the backgammon counters sat drowning.
‘Well I can’t hear them,’ said Elena, ‘and they’d be screaming even more if they’d got run over. They’re just hot and sweaty.’ She jumped over the wall to collect what was left of their school books. They were ruined. The pencils were shattered.
‘No they’re not! The shoes are too small.’
‘Well at least they’re not too big like mine!’ she said, looking down at the ‘boats’ on her slender feet. ‘That other girlhas worn these until her big toes almost pushed through the tips,’ she said, pointing to the hated hand-me-downs. But Andreas wasn’t listening.
‘Ela, Yioli! Ela, Niko!’Andreas called as he tried to race towards two friends strolling past the kafeneion. ‘Did you see that car? It ran me over…ouch…’ Ignoring Andreas’complaintsElena’s sinewy armpulled him harder than she knew was necessary while she tightened her free arm as she desperately clung onto their dishevelled books, almost pageless.
‘Come on shortie! Stop exaggerating,’ she said as he quickly fellin behind her, his legs dragging.
‘Be quiet!’ Andreas sulked as Elena, tall and willowy in contrast, towered over him.
They caught up with Yioli and Niko who both wanted to know what had happened. As they walked through the iron gates leading into the yard of their school, Elena breathlessly filled them in with the confusion of what she and Andreas had experienced.
Some boys kicked a semi-deflated ball around the yard, while others huddled in small groups in the shade of the makeshift canvas awning playing lingri. Elena watched on as the boys played. Zacharias carefully balanced a piece of wood across two bricks on the ground. Rico then used a twiggy branch to flick the piece of wood as far away as possible. Savva, the marker, marked the spot where Rico’s wood had landed and so the boys continued to flick the wood as far away as possible. They took it in turn, whooping and teasing each other, until a winner was announced by Thomas who measured the distance the wood had travelled each time. Some girls were perched on the stone steps in the shadow of the school building, talking and laughing, as they watched two of the younger girls playing vasilea.
‘One, two hop…three four scotch…’ sang Stella at the top of her voice, like a cockerel at dawn.
‘Five, six hop…seven, eight scotch,’ repeated Mirianthi as she threw her stone further along the chalked hop scotch ladder. Her curls bounced around, appeared golden in the sun. Elena looked at Mirianthi’s blue school shoes with the pretty buckle and how her butterfly print skirt fluttered around her legs as she hopped.
Elena didn’t have the energy to play today. The hop-scotch game was too exerting and the morning was quickly becoming hotter. She was flustered after the near run-in with the car. Elena felt irritated and she still had to explain to their teacher what had happened to their books and why they didn’t have their pencils.
Their three teachers, Kiria Maria, Kiria Eva and Kiria Anna appeared from inside the building and took their positions. The children slowly began to wait in line for the Principal to ring the school bell at 7.30. Elena noticed it was Kiria Anna holding the brass bell with the smooth wooden handle.
‘Can I ring the bell?’ asked Elena boldly with a sudden burst of enthusiasm.
‘Why yes. Thank you,’ said Kiria Anna.
‘Where’s the Principal?’ asked Yioli.
Kiria Anna hesitated, ‘He won’t be in today,’ said Kiria Maria.
Elena wondered why. The Principal had never had a day off school.
Elena rang the hand bell. Its loud clang chimed across the school playground.
Sitting in rows behind wooden desks the fourteen children in Elena’s class, aged from seven to even as old as ten, copied what Kiria Maria carefully chalked on the rickety blackboard at the front of the room in large, rounded, even spaced letters. Elena sat in the back row; a head taller than the others even though she was a month shy of her ninth birthday. She smiled, relieved that her teacher had replaced the pencils and note books for each of them with no charge. Elena knew her mother couldn’t afford to pay for new ones.
I gata troei psari, The cat eats fish
O skilos bezi me to tobi, The dog plays with the ball
To helithoni betaei, The swallow flies
In turn the children read the sentences out loud as Kiria Maria pointed to each word with a long cane and commended them for their clear pronunciation.
The lesson was interrupted by Elena and Andreas’ mother who knocked before entering the classroom. She stood respectfully to one side until Kiria Maria approached her. Elena got up and walked towards the front of the classroom when she saw her mother. She stopped by the second row of desks when her teacher motioned for her to wait. Elena listened intently to the conversation.
‘There was an incident this morning, Kiria Maria. I just wanted to check Elena and Andreas were not hurt. My neighbour came to tell me.’
‘They are perfectly fine as you can see,’ she said, nodding in Elena’s direction and then to Andreas’ who was still seated. ‘I’ve given them a new exercise book and pencil each.’
‘I’m so relieved. Thank you. You’re very kind.’ Evangelia gave the children a smile and mouthed that she would see them at home and she left.
Kiria Maria continued with the lesson. Elena went back to her desk.
‘Bravo Niko, bravo Yioli, bravo Petro, bravo Sofia…Andreas?’ Andreasclearly hadn’t been following. Elena knew he couldn’t concentrate in class and wondered whether he’d been thinking about the car. Shee wondered who it could have been driving so quickly out of the village. She didn’t recognise the car.
Andreas struggled to read any of the sentences his teacher pointed at. His face was becoming flushed as his nerves got the better of him. Elena could see he was unable to concentrate on what Kiria Maria was saying to him. Andreas looked out of the window, he avoided looking at Kiria Maria, shying away from her piercing stare; a sheen of sweat coated his forehead as he sank deeper into his chair, his sagging posture shrinking him further.
‘Ade Andreas,’ she persevered calmly, her fat upper arms shaking as she tapped the words with her stick. ‘Come on, Andreas.’
But after two more failed attempts, her impatience got the better of her and she snapped, her pink rosebud lips opening wide to reveal rows of white pearly teeth squashed into her small mouth. The scrape of the metal chair across the floor punctuated the silence as Andreas stood up. He burst into tears, his face congested with embarrassment as he stumbled out of the classroom. Niko shoved his hand, palm facing out, into the general direction of his shamed classmate.
‘Na,’he said out loud. Elena could see that the gesture mirrored the thoughts in the majority of pupils’ heads. ‘He’s so stupid.’
The other pupils, some of whom had been sucking in their cheeks with repressed laughter and others who had been whispering to each other, now roared out loud. Elena hesitated for a split second, gave him a condescending shrug of her shoulders and then chased after her twin.
But by the time she had got to the main school doors Andreas was already charging through the school gates and then she lost sight of him as he disappeared down the road that curved round behind the village church. Elena slapped the heel of her hand to her forehead. She walked back to the class, out of breath and mouthed an apology to Kiria Maria who nodded discreetly in acknowledgement. The rest of the day’s lessons continued without any further disruptions. Kiria Maria kept control with her solemn stare.
Later that evening at home, Elena straddled an old empty keg and read her spellings out loud. Intermittently she stopped and questioned her mother about the car.
‘Apparently it was the Principal,’ said her mother eventually.
‘Why was he driving so fast? Where was he going?’ asked Elena, her eyes wide with surprise.
‘I rang the school bell because he wasn’t there,’ said Elena proudly.
Elena enjoyed school and was more excited than usual about the next day when Kiria Nitsa, a teacher from Larnaca, a main coastal town, was coming to do art with her class. Kiria Nitsa visited once a month bringing with her an array of paper and coloured pencils and crayons. Art was Elena’s favourite subject. She often imagined herself sketching and colouring all day but knew she couldn’t waste her one pencil on drawing. She would spend hours day-dreaming about the drawings she would sketch one day, when she had a pencil in every colour of the rainbow.
As the sun dipped down behind the uneven rooftop the family sat to have their dinner in the shady canopy of vines, their branches and boughs intertwined and twisted around the makeshift arbour above them. Yiayia Elena was there too; her maternal grandmother and Elena moved her chair closer to her so that she could smell her familiar sweet aroma of rose water. Her yiayia squeezed her hand, ‘You’re a good girl,’ she said to Elena. Elena beamed from ear to ear. She loved it when her grandmother told her she was a good girl.
Her mother brought out a round metal pot with a lid and put it in the middle of the table, resting it on a wooden board, heavily scarred with knife marks. Elena knew it would be beans or lentils. They rarely had money for meat which she didn’t mind, but she knew that Andreas loved meat more than anything. The bread basket was already filled.One by one her mother served the louvi and kolokithaki with a slatted spoon to drain the boiled salted water. The little black-eyed beans and thick slices of courgette sat in a heap on the plates while yiayia drizzled generous amounts of olive oil over them. Elena squeezed fresh lemon over them spraying Andreas who was sat opposite her in the process.
‘Sorry,’ she giggled, as the zest tickled her nose.
‘No you’re not.’ Andreas pulled a face.
‘No arguing and say your prayers,’ admonished Evangelia, tucking a loose strand of light, chestnut wavy hair behind her ear. They did swiftly and crossed themselves before they tucked in, soaking up the olive oil and lemon dressing with their bread. They ate their meal in silence, their heads lowered over their bowls. The quiet of the evening was intermittently punctuated by the overpowering hum from the cicadas, hidden in the trees. The sky was streaked orange and pink and purple as the sun set low above them and Elena wondered whether everyone in the whole wide world could see the same multi-coloured sky as her. She wished she could paint a sky like that. She thought about her father. She often thought about him. She often had little conversations with him in her head even though she didn’t know him.
Andreas didn’t say anything the entire time they ate, which was unusual, because normally he would natter away and be told off for talking with his mouth full.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Elena said to him later on as she got changed for bed. She didn’t want him to worry about not being able to read yet.
‘It does matter,’ he said, a tremor in his voice as the welling tears threatened to choke him. Even though they were twins, and he was an hour and a few minutes older than her, she was protective of him. Elena knew he was upset and could see him frowning in an effort not to cry. She leant over and ruffled his thick dark curls but he didn’t look up from his daily evening chore. He scrubbed at their school shoes, even though they looked clean, before placing them neatly next to each other by the footstool. She waited for him to climb onto the tall bed and then she reached over and pulled the pale blue painted shutters of their bedroom closed before getting in next to him. They said their prayers together and crossed themselves. Elena pulled the sheet over them both making sure her brother was covered. She knew their mother would come in later to check on them both. She would hear the creak of the door as she pushed it open, her leather-soled slippers, scraped across the concrete floor, the thin rug slightly muffling the echo of her steps.
Walking home at the end of school the next day, lunch time, Elena ran to her mother and gave her a big hug proffering her picture of green pastures and lush trees against an azure sky and scattered clouds.
‘That’s lovely, Elena mou,’her mother said, barely looking away from her embroidery. Elena noticed her mother’s eyes were red and sore, as were her fingers from the lace-making she’d been bent over that morning.
‘Have you been crying?’ Elena asked.
‘Why are your eyes so red?’
‘I’m just tired agabi mou. It’s been a long morning. This sewing seems more arduous than ever today.’
‘But you’re always sewing. Why is it so much harder today?’
‘The Principle’s wife went into early labour. No wonder he was driving like a lunatic the other day,’ said aunt Athenoulla who was sitting next to her. ‘Apparently she was lying down in the back of the car. Poor woman. Doesn’t bear thinking about.’
‘She’s had the baby?’
‘We’ve not heard any news,’ said her mother.
‘And you work too hard Evangelia,’ said aunt Athenoulla.
‘She does,’ chipped in her auntMargarida, who was pulling her thread through the embroidered table runner she was working on a few feet from her. Elena looked at her mother. Her mother sat there all day, her chair leaning against the front of their house, looking out onto the narrow street, sewing continuously.
‘I know, mama,’she said. And she knew exactly how tiring it was because she felt it too when she sat there the whole day, listening to the idle chatter between the women that broke the otherwise mundane quiet. Elena often sat and listened to how the women called out to each other and took turns to make the strong Greek coffee, served in demi-tasse cups, and pass round short glasses of water to each other to stay hydrated.
The lace making was a historical tradition of the village; mothers of mothers and then generations before them passed on the delicate craft of the embroidery sewn onto the natural linen using white or brown thread. This is how Evangelia, and the majority of women in Kato Lefkara, earned a living and it took hours and hours of delicate hand stitching and pulling to produce a runner or a place mat. She knew that she would sew for a living one day too just as Evangelia had taken the place of her mother now that yiayia was too old and her sight failing. It was an inevitable fate. Not that she was complaining. She knew that’s how it would be. She didn’t expect anything different unless they went to England.
‘Is it because of Andreas?’ Elena prompted, not convinced with her mother’s answer about the Principal’s wife.
‘Andreas? He’s always causing mischief. If I cried every time he misbehaved we would be drowning in salt water.’ True, thought Elena. It was not the first time that Andreas had run out of school and it wouldn’t be the last.
The village celebrations of the Queen’s coronation, a few days later, were full of cheer. The courtyard of the church was decorated with bunting and the usual stall holders added extra decorative trims to their tables and awnings in blue, white and red. Stall holders organised themselves in rows, back to back, along the front of the church entrance and spilled out along the main winding streets which led to the church. The tall wooden flag pole flew the Cyprus and British flags. Both fluttered in the summer breeze, side by side. A flight of swallows passed through the blue sky effortlessly, their long pointed wings spread wide and their deep forked tails like streamers.
Tables for eating and drinking were arranged around two sides of the courtyard with people crammed in around them. The whole village was celebrating. The priest sat amongst them, the Sunday service concluded, his glass of zivania, a colourless alcoholic drink made from grapes and pomace, topped up by the men sitting at the same table. People dragged and carried chairs from home too when there wasn’t enough seating for everyone. They sat haphazardly in the shade of the tall firs around the perimeter of the church wall. They ate from plates of food on their laps, glasses balanced on upturned crates and empty boxes. The noise was a loud hum of talking and singing. Elena’s mother was smiling and Elena was glad to see her happy amongst her aunts, cousins and neighbours.
Tables staggered under the weight of all the food, crammed with homemade trays of food from oven macaroni to stuffed vine leaves. Colourful bowls of salad swimming in olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon were passed back and forth as people filled their plates, black olives looking out like dark beady eyes at them. Portions of sweets and delicacies and pastries bought from the many stalls were shared amongst everyone generously. Bowls of fresh figs and huge slices of honey melon and water melon brightened the table with purples, yellows and reds.
The villagers, wearing their best outfits, shared what food they had with their neighbours and friends, passing plates back and forth. Stray cats and kittens meowed for scraps of food and children sneakily fed them under the table. The zivania and red wine flowed, empty bottles stacked under the tables. The village folk were jubilant. Amongst the plates of food the coronation mugs handed out to the school children by the Principal, at the end of the morning church service, sat on the table where parents looked after them for their children. The Principal had not stayed very long making his excuses to get back to his wife who had given birth to twins.
Elena and Andreas mingled amongst the throng, visiting the stalls with their school friends. Evangelia gave them a pennyeach to buy a treat. Niko, Stella, Yioli and Zacharias each had a leather pouch with coins in it to spend on whatever they liked and Elena was a bit envious. They bought whatever they laid their eyes on, without thinking but Elena had to think carefully. She couldn’t choose between a portion of pastelaki and a portion of bourekia. She liked both equally.
The pastelaki was a sticky concoction of sesame seeds, almonds and pistachios bound together with honey and cut into bite size chunks. The bourekia were little parcels of deep fried pastry filled with a creamy cinnamon sweetened cheese and sprinkled with icing sugar. Finally, she chose the pastelaki; these would last longer and her money, she observed, would buy her seven pieces. In the end Elena ate two bourekia too which Yioli’s mum offered her when they saw her by a stall selling pretty head scarves.
‘Ela, Elena, bourekia,’Yioli’s mum offered as she took one herself.
Elena was delighted and tucked in, relishing the sweet aroma of the cinnamon.
‘What a pretty dress,’ Yioli’s mum said, running her tongue over her lips.
‘I saved it especially for today.’
‘Well today is definitely special.’
Elena wandered off for a while on her own, drawn to the painting stall. Fascinated by a painting of green hills dotted with sheep, she stood staring at the picture in the centre of the ‘Larnaca Art Gallery’ stand draped in a British flag and shielded by a red, white and blue striped awning. A brown tabby cat, skinny and scraggy, lay under the table in the cool shade.
‘Do you like this?’ asked the lady manning the stall as she tucked an errant strand of dark hair under her head scarf. Elena looked at her long almond-shaped fingernails painted a bright cherry and her lips to match.
‘It’s very green,’ said Elena, stroking the soft folds of her colourful pink dress.
‘Painted by an English woman,’ she told Elena as she re-arranged three smaller paintings of the ocean at the front of the table.
‘And they’re very blue,’ said Elena feeling the layers of paint making up the sea.
‘She sells the paintings so she can carry on living here. She has no husband.’
‘Why doesn’t she want to go back to England?’
‘She likes the sun too much,’ laughed the lady, the whites of her bulging eyes staring at Elena like ping-pong balls.
‘England…’ Elena said dreamily thinking of her father.
By late afternoon some families had eaten and gone home. Others tarried, immersed in their drinking and chatting. A neighbour kindly offered to walk Elena’s yiayia home. This meant that Evangelia could stay longer and the children could also enjoy the rest of the celebrations.
A group of musicians, from the village, arranged themselves in the far corner of the church yard, adjacent to the church ground’s gated entrance. The music started up and the village audience clapped and cheered.
One man settled on a wooden chair and played the bouzouki, its flat front decorated with mother-of-pearl shining softly in the dipping afternoon sunlight. His fingers moved deftly across the strings as he nodded his head in time with the music, smiling across at the gathering. A young boy drew his bow at right angles across his violin as he tucked it under his chin. An old man, a brown cap tilted across his head at an angle, stood leaning against the back of a chair. He sang out in a croaky voice; traditional words of love, lost and found, happiness and sadness, wars and victories.
Three men jumped from their seats. They cleared a space and danced while those watching crouched down on bended knees and clapped in time with the low metallic sound of the bouzouki and the higher pitch of the violin notes. The men danced with light steps and springs in their knees. They lent forward and down.
‘Opas! Opas!’ they cried.
Their arms waved and swung low as they touched the ground with their hands and clicked their fingers to the beat. Everyone cheered as the three men took it in turns to bounce up and down on bended legs, the older man dancing with slower dignified steps. The other two kicked their legs out high in front of them, turning and slapping their thighs as they continued to move in time to the music.
One of the young boys watching from the sidelines whistled with his fingers. Elena watched as he made the perfect whistle-hole with his mouth and the shrill cut across the hub-bub of the panigiri and the entertainment.
Another member of the band, maybe as old twenty, thought Elena, played a wooden flute, the high pitched clear sound exquisite. The notes of a traditional women’s dance tune struck out on the violin as a fifth musician tapped a metronome on his toumbeleki, a hand drum.The intense sound sent goose bumps over Elena’s arms and the back of her neck.
A number of women, maybe ten or twelve, moved to the space that had now been marked out as the dance area. A lady started singing, her voice flowing like a gentle river. The women stood in a circle and took the hand of the woman standing either side of them. They each held hands at shoulder height between them. In time with the music, they danced gracefully making steps from left to right, crossing their feet at intervals. They let go of each other’s hands and turned, facing inwards again, before taking the hand of the person on each side of them. They continued, some singing the words of the song as they danced, others smiling at each other as they whirled round the dance area. More women joined in and as the circle tightened it created a spiral of women dancing around those now in the inner circles. Elena joined in taking her mother’s hand. Yioli and Stella tried to break into the circle and Mirianthi took Stella’s hand but Mirianthi couldn’t keep up with the steps and eventually let go, standing to the side to clap as her friends danced on smiling.
The singing and dancing continued. Evangelia, now exhausted from the dancing and the ferocity of the sun beating down all day, persuaded Elena to go home with her at around nine o’clock. Andreas had fallen asleep across two chairs pushed together, curled like a foetus, holding onto a wooden top he bought from one of the stalls. Two women went round the tables lighting candles and the glow of the flames sent orangey shadows bouncing off the church walls as the sky darkened.
Tables were left in disarray and tacky with rose water cordial spills and empty glasses, splattered with dribbles and food congealed in its oily juices. The women promised to return in the morning and tidy properly. Elena looked across at the stray cats as they lounged round the edge of the church courtyard purring contentedly, fat and swollen with the abundance of food they’d eaten.
‘I’ve had a lovely time,’ said Elena, as she danced down the street, her pink dress a bright patch in the otherwise dark, twisting road. She held tightly onto the two coronation mugs and the paper bag with her five remaining pieces of pastelaki. ‘The best time ever,’ she said, as she looked at the faded moonlight and hummed a tune to herself. ‘And I will treasure my mug forever,’ she sighed, as she stifled a yawn.
‘We’re all ready for sleep,’ said her mum, wheezing slightly, as she stumbled carrying the sleeping Andreas home in her arms. ‘But it was a lovely day,’ she said as she hoisted Andreas further up her hips.
That night Elena fell asleep and she dreamt of green fields and big black and white cows. She saw a grey sky and she was standing in the cold rain. She was looking for the sun. When she looked more carefully, through the fat raindrops, she could see a round face with blue eyes looking down at her. She woke, her hands frantically wiping the rain from her face and her slender body.
‘So what do you think my dream means?’ asked Elena after recounting her dream in as much detail as she could to Athenoulla after school the next day.
‘I don’t know,’ her aunt replied, folding and unfolding her apron in her hands as she tried to avoid Elena’s intense stare.
‘But you know everything about dreams. I’ve heard you talking about dreams and…and…their meanings…with other people…everyone comes to you.’
‘Well, that’s different, Elena.’ She ushered her away. ‘I haven’t the time for your silly nonsense. Now get off home. Your mother will be wondering where you’ve got to.’
She tried to broach the subject with her mother too but her mother had no time for her. ‘Questions, questions. Dreams are just muddled pictures of books you read. It’s your
mind putting the words into pictures as you sleep. The dreams mean nothing.’
But Elena hadn’t read any books with green fields in them or pictures of cows. She remembered the painting she had seen at the panigiri and thought that’s where the image had sprung from. Then she remembered her own picture at the bottom of her wardrobe and how Kiria Nitsa from Larnaca had commented she had seen just the exact same fields when she visited England many years before.
‘But it could mean we’re going to England. To be with father.’
‘Your imagination is running away with you. Enough.’
The dream ‘of England’ continued to enter her sleeping thoughts and filled her waking moments. On her last day of school she asked Kiria Maria. ‘Does Paphos or Limassol have green fields with cows?’
But she was met with a curious little look and dismissed with an impatient wave of her teacher’s hand. This confirmed that her dream must be ‘of England’ and she was comforted by the thought that England was close to her. But she didn’t say this to her mother. She kept it hidden deep in her heart. It was her happy secret.
School closed from the middle of June and Elena worked hard over the summer holidays to contribute to the household’s income. She pulled out the rickety chair from under the kitchen table and positioned it under the mass of magenta flowers creeping in abundance across the upper part of the outer wall and facing into the street, where she would sit all day. She didn’t stop until she had completed nine arms’ lengths of gazi, a simple embroidery stitch, which she would then get paid a shilling for by the lady in Pano Lefkara who exported the lace to Europe.Elena mostly enjoyed the peace and quiet and although her friends would sometimes pass by and have a natter with her, she secretly wanted them to leave her alone so that she could finish her nine arms’ lengths as quickly as possible. Her mother had promised her a bar of soap if she earned a shilling every day of the holidays. She was fast and her neat stitches could not be differentiated from that of the other women who had been lace-making for fifteen, twenty and thirty years.
‘I’m so proud of you,’ her yiayia would say every evening at dinner. ‘God will reward you one day. He will bring love and joy into your life.’
‘Thank you, yiayia.’
‘Stop it mother,’ Evangelia scolded one evening, her almond shaped eyes dull, dark circles taking the shine out of them. ‘Life isn’t made of dreams. Life is real. Life is hard. The sooner she knows that the better.’
‘Nothing wrong with a little dreaming,’ the old lady retorted, pulling her black scarf over her hoary strands of hair, smiling at Elena, her crooked teeth filling her mouth.
It was almost the end of August and Elena had worked almost every day not once complaining that her brother was out with his friends most days; playing football in the school yard, collecting prickly pears from the mountainsides, collecting ‘magic’ rocks which shone with special powers and generally larked around keeping the old men of the village, who sat in the kafeneion daily, amused with the boys’ gambolling.
The women in the village were bred to be passive and accepting of their role in life and that meant marrying well, being respectful wives and loving mothers and not being feisty. So Elena was happy with her life in the village. She didn’t complain openly too often. She had her dreams but she kept them in her head and in her heart.