‘Sea of Words’, International Short story Competition Winner, July 2008, Barcelona
I remind myself to change the water in the vase and cut about 1 inch off the stems. Roses can live 4-5 days this way. Maybe even longer.
After doing this, I reach into my pocket and unfold a piece of paper. It’s dirty and soft. I hold it in my hand as I stoop down and take another whiff of the flowers in the vase. Glossy, romantic, and red, they stand there as though uncut.
I focus on the paper.
It’s not a flattering pose. I almost can’t recognize me. My new SM58 mic is balanced by my right hand against my open mouth. My back is erect, my black turtleneck, straight hair, brown, shining in red hues when it clashed with the white flash of the clicking cameras, my shoulders tense.
Maybe I’d known what would follow. Like that time I needed to show my passport to cross over. A formality, they said. Of course. I tested them. Gave them the old Greek Cypriot ID. They couldn’t understand it. Asked for my passport or a new ID. I explained that there was nothing else to show. Jerome was nervous. I remember feeling irritated at that. Why wasn’t he curious? Serhan and Tolga were waiting by the opening. We had to be in Kerynia at 10.30pm for sound check. It was ten past 10.
The woman officer at the checkpoint stared at me. She said something in Turkish. In dilemma, she’d seemed. They’d told me that they’d placed women officers there to show they meant peace. To show it was all a formality. I remember them telling me this. It was during one of those discussions surrounding the Annan Plan result. They were the ones who’d voted ‘yes’. Their faces are a grey blur.
I looked straight at her. She continued staring. After a long pause she said something to the male officer outside who stood next to her little white box, at the open door. He glanced at me. He gestured. I must have appeared harmless. She let us through. I smiled. In me something was lifted. We began to cross the threshold and I looked back only once, compelled. Worry in her eyes as she watched us move.
In the car, all the way there, I clutched my handbag and visualized my passport inside: safe, unseen.
I remember the New York Times article I read two days ago. In it a Greek Cypriot explained how every time I cross the border from the South to the North, and I sign the ‘Visa’ entry document, I am acknowledging the Northern State as Turkish. I am a traitor, in effect.
But it had meant something, that day. Passing through like that had meant something.
The photograph is on the front page, on the lower left hand side. The box it is framed by is of a light yellow background. But it isn’t a gleaming yellow. It is almost transparent. Next to the headline, in black bold letters, announcing the cross over, my face has been magnified. They weren’t so close. I remember. But he’d spoken to me. My fringe doesn’t hide my eyes. They are wide, looking at nothing, at no one. I look as though I’m screaming. Not singing. My mouth is open, but there is no sound. No one can hear my voice.
The announcement refers the article to page 15. I turn the pages, sluggishly. The subtitle reads SHE SINGS AT A NIGHTCLUB IN KERYNIA. The title spells, ‘Beautiful Heleni’ at ‘Tounel’. I don’t recognize the reporter’s name. But why should I take it personally? This is politics.
The article on page 15 talks about me as though I have crossed over for good. There is no acknowledgement of the Turkish Cypriot band, and the Greek Cypriot Jerome singing next to me in the photograph which is small, clearly a cut-out. At the bottom my name is highlighted with the statement: ‘Heleni having fun.’ The article talks of Turkish and illegal migrants supporting me. It mentions that the news has been tagged from Turkish Cypriot newspaper, Kipris. It justifies. It implies. It explains that Heleni is not the only one currently employed in the occupied area. It talks of casinos and bartending. It talks of 2-3 women from Nicosia and Limassol coming and going, from the ‘false-state’ during the evening and early morning hours. It talks about music and theatre. Singers and Actors who have crossed over. And then it’s me at the forefront again. I am talked of as ‘beautiful’ again. Just in case anyone who reads this misses the symbolic parallel to ‘Helen of Troy’. They know nothing much about me. Only that I’ve been singing for the past two weeks at the ‘Old Tunnel Rock Bar’ in ‘occupied Kerynia’. The last line mentions Jerome, and that he resides in the free South.
29,000 Turkish troops in northern Cyprus. 40% of the island is occupied, roughly, I am reminded.
Two nations. A green line between two people different in religion, nationality, culture.
I finally purchase the newspaper and go back to my office. I sit at my desk quietly. The girl opposite me is on leave. Good. There is a knock on the door and one of the two girls in the next office comes in. She looks worried. I say nothing, just hand her the newspaper. She reads. Her dark eyebrows twitch closely. ‘What will you do about it?’ she asks.
My mobile starts to ring. What an ugly ringtone, I think. I must change it. I click open its fancy grey lid and hear another familiar voice. He wants to talk about the article.
I remember the way he nudged my shoulder as I stood staring at the stage, waiting for my turn to climb it. I looked at him surprised when he asked, plainly enough:
Who are you?
The simple question struck me as bizarre. I answered with my name. But that wasn’t the answer to his question. He’d stared at me with his mouth half open, his eyes measuring the distance between our faces.
I had all these little plans. I wanted to go abroad again. I wanted to try my luck abroad. This was a place everyone called the dead end.
I remember how the lights had glared at me even though they weren’t as strong as all that. My pupils must have shrunk. My face must have gleamed, grotesquely virginal, despite everything. I was immersed in the light of their faces. Cameras clicked. About three. One was his. I remember flinching and shrugged it off as stage fright.
They watched me and they clapped and my voice dripped. I felt like a superhero, the female kind. I wanted to quench the soil. But still they were divided by barbed words and checkpoints.
I bowed and let my hair swing haughtily in all directions when the song spilled out. I watched them gape. Click click click, my body quaked.
I Google ‘Personal Injury’, ‘Slander’, ‘Libel’. I read from the screen as my eyes squint from the light that unnerves me:
Slander is a spoken defamation. Defamation or “defamation of character,” is spoken or written words that falsely and negatively reflect on a living person’s reputation.
I wonder what damages I can seek. I can picture my father sitting in his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as they bring him his newspaper and strong black coffee. He unfolds it without noticing the front page, moves straight to its core and starts to read. Then he notices the picture. The ostensible fringe. He can’t believe it. It must be some kind of cruel joke. It’s not her, he’s thinking. Can’t be her.
I call the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. It takes a few phone line diverts to get to him. I balance the receiver between my shoulder and my head, pressing it hard on my left ear with my sweaty hand. He talks politely. I answer matter of fact.
My mother calls. Her voice is tremulous and slightly screechy bordering on hysteria. I try to calm her by explaining that I have already taken measures against them. I tell her about the damages. She says, I can’t be serious. I must be in LaLaLa dreamland. I must be mad. I did. I shouldn’t have. I was never. I am always. She is worried.
Greek-Cypriot with the name of Heleni has been singing every Friday, in a rock bar, in occupied Kerynia.
The news reached me by phone at 8.45am. I’d just come to the office, switched on the computer and was going through my e-mails. Maria called and asked me simply, ‘Do you sing in Kerynia every Friday?’ I was silent for about 5 seconds. She asked if I was there. I asked her how she knew about it. She said she’d heard it on the radio. It was front page news in one of the daily newspapers.
I remember trying to think. I couldn’t think. She was concerned. She said it had sounded negative. Of course. I thanked her for telling me and decided to go to the kiosk to get the newspaper. Find out which one it was. I put down the receiver, after hearing my voice say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I can’t believe this.’
The girls in the office next to me were typing on their keyboards, drinking hot coffee from their mugs. They looked surprised when I told them what had happened. I descended the stairs to the parking lot, got into my car and drove slowly to the Kiosk nearby. The air was thick. My heartbeat was loud but I found it difficult to move fast. Some cars beeped their horns at me, but I never saw them, only heard them, vaguely. The newspapers were stacked on the rusty white stand. Carefully, I took one by one and searched through them: Fileleutheros, Politis, Cyprus Weekly, Cyprus Mail, Simerini. Finally I bought it.
She was stupid.
Why did she have to go there?
Couldn’t she sing over here?
Wasn’t it enough for her to sing over here?
She was entertaining Turks.
Over there. I can’t believe she went over there.
She let herself be photographed.
Look at her.
So many traitors like her.
Doesn’t she understand the situation?
Must have voted ‘yes’.
No one will employ her now.
I heard her Dad’s a diplomat.
Poor girl. She should have thought about it first.
Didn’t she see it coming?
She said she never got any money.
Her reputation is ruined.
Who’d want her to sing here now?
Who’d marry her now?
What did she expect?
My daughter would not have even crossed to buy orange juice!
She must have thought she could get away with it.
I don’t think. I just move my fingertip softly over the scar on the left side of my mouth. It’s a crooked line. It looks like a dimple if I smile. I’ve been smiling quite often lately. There’s nothing to smile about, really, but I hate the scar. I hate feeling it over with my fingertip exactly as I am doing now, but I can’t help it. It’s compulsive. I remember. The skin converges into tiny cracks. It’s uneven. The stitches give it a rough terrain of a few inches. It’s puffed out and a little red, still. The doctors said it will stay, unless I want aesthetic surgery.
The Turkish flag on the Pentadaktylos mountain range stares at me, every time I drive to work in the morning, smiling, aesthetically. The flag lights up at night, with myriad Christmassy light bulbs. I watch it as it disappears. I smile. Do I even know what it’s called in Turkish? Beşparmaklar. The word tingles my tongue as it forces its way out of my mouth. I remember your gobsmacked expression when I spoke that word to you. You claimed to be impressed. Asked me what I knew of the Cyprus problem, the division. Pretended to be neutral.
I wanted to find you and punish you for ruining everything. Your clicking camera. Your clicking mouth as you talked. As you kissed me. As you pushed me.
I move my fingertip away and urge my body up from its stupor, towards the bathroom. It’s my bathroom. My parents want nothing to do with me. At least for 3 months now, we haven’t spoken. I pass by the house and see the lights switched on and smile. The dimple is cute from the rear view mirror. It doesn’t even look like a scar when my lips stretch like that.
I switch on the light in my bathroom and I stare at the mirror. My right eye is bloodshot, still. The blood still clots where you hit me. But it shouldn’t for long. It was right before you pushed me, seconds before I fell. You pushed me in a garden filled with shrubs. What a place to push someone, unless you’re about to make love. The prickly rose stem that punctured my skin remained.
What else can you do with red roses?
Blood gushed and covered my chin and neck. It matted my hair and soaked my blouse, which was white, but it was dark, so you only saw black. I saw fear in your eyes. You didn’t even help me pull the stem out. You just left it lodged there. I heard your footsteps on the ground, rushing away. Coward.
I wonder if anything will grow where you cut me.
The cut capital of Europe. The earth oozes. My voice is now soundless. The tattered article is in my pocket. Doesn’t matter how many times I change my trousers. It’s in my pocket. My thumbs are blackened every time I take it out and read, and look at it. Then I fold it carefully and settle it back where it was again. I touch my line. My cut. My skin bears the smudge of my fingertip. But I smell roses.
‘Sea of Words’, International Short story Competition Winner, July 2008, Barcelona
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