An Occurrence on the Beach at Varosha
The evening’s last light has drained out of the sky behind the procession of dead hotels lining the beach. Up to twenty storeys high, they were built so close together that now, their facades darkening, they merge into a single jagged silhouette, like the remains of an immense seawall or ancient coastal fortification. You can barely make out the rusted fence topped with barbed wire that separates the beach from the hotels and the ghost city behind them.
In his current state, Elias can’t begin to imagine the optimism and entrepreneurial hustle it must have taken to plan, rapidly construct, and operate this riviera. Somehow people go on doing such things—building cities, waging wars, growing and cutting down forests, organizing international movements, training as bodybuilders or concert violinists. He can only look on in wonder at such committed vim, like the paralyzed casualty of a roadside bombing watching a frantic sprint relay race on television.
The hoteliers’ optimism turned out to be misplaced. Elias’s aunt and uncle—now living not far from here, in Larnaca, on the Greek Cypriot side of the Green Line—were among the first to build and, they insist, among the last to flee. Their hotel, the Aphrodite, was a small one, just three storeys and twenty-four rooms, at least half an hour’s walk south of here along the beach. Elias had meant to head down there before sunset, after swallowing his meds and the usual quantity of contraindicated drinks. But in the bar of the Palm Beach—the lone working hotel on the strip, reopened in the late nineties under Turkish management—he met a woman, and now they’re walking into the dark along the seafront in the still-warm sand. The lights of the Palm Beach fade behind them. Their fingers brush and link and now their hands clinch and hold firm.
Last night in Larnaca his aunt and uncle asked him to report back on the condition of their hotel. As the holder of a foreign passport, Elias can cross the Green Line without trouble, drive the short distance to the dead city and walk the perimeter, including the palm-lined beach, which is open, though seemingly unused. From the beach side of the fence, he meant to grab a few prohibited shots of the Aphrodite with the cellphone now hibernating in his shirt pocket. Technically, his aunt and uncle too can now cross the Green Line, but as exiled Varoshiotes they refuse on principle to go anywhere near the city, not until it is returned to them. They know about the bigger hotels’ hopelessly degraded state—in the Greek Cypriot media, they have seen furtively snapped photographs in which the beachfront looks as if it just sustained a shelling by Turkish warships—but they still dare to hope that the Aphrodite has fared better. Built with comparative care before the full construction frenzy began, it might still be salvaged, they feel, if peace should ever come to the island, if Varosha, God willing, should ever revert to the Greeks.
His aunt and uncle (they’re actually distant cousins but referred to as theia and theios in the Greek manner) are in their late seventies. Their unshakable hope—at their age, and almost four decades after a violent dispossession that impoverished them for years—strikes him as another example of an optimism he can no longer imagine. He feels as gutted as any of these ruined establishments. His silences distressed his theia and theios, who did their utmost to distract him with wine, the bittersweet local liqueurs, and his theia’s ardently oversalted cuisine. Though Elias ate and drank in a dazed, almost catatonic way, he did in fact eat and drink a great deal, which visibly reassured his relatives, as did his promise to check on their property before returning to Paphos on the far side of the island. He called the hospital in Paphos a training centre and said nothing about the military shrinks. He ducked or deflected their questions about the war, sometimes falling back on his rusty Greek to pretend he didn’t understand. He assured them he was simply tired—tired in a way he could never have imagined before the army—and this much, at least, was no lie.
The beach is deserted. Neither he nor the woman says a thing, but with the synchronized instinct of two strangers gripped by the same desire, they stop and sit down in the fine-grained sand. Tropically tepid shallows lap the beach twenty steps from their feet. She lights a Turkish cigarette. Above the fenceline behind them, the ghosts of Varosha—the elite of Europe, playboys and divas, film stars, professional gamblers, trust-fund rogues, crime bosses and heads of state—lounge on their high hotel balconies (the balconies have all collapsed), sipping Campari and soda or whisky sours and watching the constellations fizz up out of the sea like bubbles from sparkling wine.
“Do you recall how you pronounce my name?”
“Ey-lool. Over the u there is an umlaut.”
“It means December,” he says with confidence.
“Already you’ve forgot—Eylül is September.”
“It was loud in there.”
“It was deafening.”
“You were born in September, then?”
“I hope you’re not going to ask me how old I am.”
He chuckles, a sound lately unfamiliar to him. “You should call me Trif. It’s from Trifannis.”
“Your family name?”
He nods, not saying that it’s pretty much all that remains of his family.
She is a journalist from Istanbul, tall, aristocratically slim, with modish red-framed glasses behind which her dark eyes sometimes flash with startling vehemence—that hair-trigger moodiness he now associates with this part of the world. He likes and somewhat envies the undisguised intelligence of her talk; he himself is in flight from thinking and has been since boyhood. Her bobbed hair is dyed blond, setting off tanned olive skin and black, solid eyebrows. When she speaks—enunciating with a finishing-school English accent—her hand gestures are lively yet measured. He guesses she’s in her mid-thirties, a few years older than he is.
In the bar, a small clutch of soldiers and two older Turkish Cypriots monitored them, initially with the frank curiosity of regulars and then—as things progressed, she punctuating a remark with a tap on his wrist; slipping off her glasses; turning off her cellphone—conspicuous disapproval. The place was almost empty, the dance floor a desert. Visibly bored, the young DJ kept turning up the music. He was skinny, had a soul patch and, like the waiter and bartender, wore an oversized fez, which he was trying to hipsterize by tilting at a lazy angle. The bass line’s concussive thumping . . . Elias knew it would trigger flashback panic in most of his fellow patients, but lately he welcomed any noise that helped offset his tranquilizers enough to hold off sleep and dreams.
As he and Eylül struggled to speak over the Turkish hip hop, their lips came within inches of each other’s ears. Her ear was small, sunburned, surprisingly unpierced. Like her cheek, it gave off heat. The bar was empty now except for the watching men. He felt sure they had decided, more or less correctly, that he was Greek by blood. They would be using that ancient faculty of minute discernment found in any region where ethnic groups collide, where the borders are disputed, where the grievances have grown roots. (Elias knows of that ability but doesn’t share it; he thought the glaring men looked pretty much like him.) Certainly they knew she was Turkish—she was ordering the drinks in Turkish—but probably they could deduce a lot more: that she was from Istanbul, educated, modern, a secular sophisticate.
She told Elias she didn’t give a toss for such men. At any rate, these soldiers ought not to be in Cyprus. The island should reunify and the Greek and Turkish Cypriots share power. She was writing a major article—she smiled, finger-quoting “major,” an irony that seemed at odds with the fervent way she was talking about her work—and was impatient to finish her research in this angry, backward outpost and fly back to Istanbul.
A month ago, Elias would have been sweatingly conscious of the men, his whole being limbering up for some inevitable friction. Now it seems he can’t even acknowledge the possibility of conflict. Conflict exists only in the flow of time, and Elias—sedated and drunk since they flew him into Cyprus two weeks ago—has come to inhabit a blurred, dreamy present, night and day.
She glanced back over her shoulder as they left the bar.
Now, as he takes a drag on one of her cigarettes (there’s no sort of drug he would decline right now), she asks, “What would your Larnaca relatives think of you—your fraternizing with a Turkish?”
His ears still throb from the hip hop. The ringing seems to amplify the unearthly silence welling from the dead zone behind where they’re sitting.
“I know what my aunt’s mother would say. She’s almost a hundred. She’s got what we call Greek Alzheimer’s. You forget everything but the grudges.”
“If only,” she says, “that were only Greek.”
“Anyway, I’m Canadian. And my father was born in New York. My mother was half-Mexican, which means part Spanish, part Indian. My stepmother is Pakistani. I don’t even speak Greek properly.”
“Canadian men are very polite.”
He feels his mouth stretch, as if in a smile. “More so when we’re at home, I think. With neighbours around, and cops.”
“If only that were only Canadian.”
“You’ve been a perfect gentleman,” she says, as though to reassure him. “But I know something upsets you.”
Taurus is rearing star by star out of the sea. He cranes his head way back. The firmament whirls. Usually it’s on standing up that you notice how drunk you are, but now it hits him: he’s deeply, comprehensively drunk. All right. He wants to be nowhere now but in his floating body. He wants to do nothing anymore but tender, gentle things, except for those moments when he wants to do nothing but savage things—to lunge and slash at the face of an attacker, an accuser, in a heart-stalling dream.
“At what point can I start being less of a gentleman?”
She pulls her hand free of his and, while lifting her bare knees, reaches her hands down, slips off her black flats and sets them beside her in the sand—almost the same devastating sequence of motions she might use to peel off underwear. She takes his hand again. His whole arm hums, from the marrow out.
“Now,” she says, and her face turns up toward his. Her breath has the pleasant tartness of white wine, the faint scorch of Scotch and tobacco. In her perfume, a lemony sweetness, like the scent of water lilies in summer lakes. You would tread water to smell them, or lean over a canoe’s cedar gunwale. God, another life! Her lips open for the kiss but she withholds her tongue and for him that absence brings on a sort of vertigo, as if he’s tumbling forward into an abyss when he expected solidity, resistance.
A breeze flows up the beach and cools his damp face as the kiss deepens.
Sometime later, he asks if he is too heavy, the sand too hard.
“You could be heavier,” she says. “It’s very good.”
“You mean, heavier would be—”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
She laughs. “Like this? So gentle?”
His torpor and sedation do slow him down—he’s not very hard, either—so he and Eylül seem to float on and on in a languid, suspended, narcotic rhythm. “Hush,” she says again. “It’s good.” Beneath him she keeps her eyes shut tight, as if striving to remember some crucial thing. She’s far quieter than he would have expected. He grates his hips side to side as well as thrusting, very slowly. On and on in this stoned reverie until some impulse makes him speed up, push into her with a new urgency, and finally she tenses and sinks him deeper in, her hands clutching his hips, her sharp-boned ankles and calves gritty with sand. A quiet, mild crescendo of sighs. She lifts her face to his and now he tastes her thrusting tongue.
Her spasms, which he can feel, tip him over at last. His climax is muted and yet oddly prolonged, and when finally it starts to subside, along with his wounded moaning and panting, he’s conscious of a faint, dispersed rustling in the sand. He looks up and around. In their density the stars, like bioluminescence in a calm sea, give actual light. Everything wheels around him: somehow the beach is moving, landsliding slowly past them toward the waterline, or else he and Eylül are gliding up the beach toward the chain-link fence, the barbed wire and the ruins. It’s his head spinning with drink, he guesses—then realizes that hundreds of small creatures, solidly covering the beach to his left, are crawling past. He squints, recoils: tarantulas scuttling seaward like a mass of tiny battle tanks. His eyes adjust. They’re sea-turtle hatchlings, the starlight dim on their camouflage-pattern shells, scrabbling flippers, bobbing heads, a mob of them spilling out of the darkness up by the fence. Somehow their arrival triggers in him a surge of tenderness toward Eylül. His throat aches. For some moments he watches them. Again her face looms up. She bites him on his turned cheek.
He says, “Look,” but she is already looking.
“Goodness!”—he has never heard a woman of her age say this word—“They frightened me.”
“Must have just hatched,” he says.
“Of course they have.”
As he closes her eyes with a kiss, she whispers, “Arkadash.”
“What does that mean?”
Faint splashes of light appear among the turtles—some dozen last stragglers with impassive, prehistoric little faces, flippers spastically rowing in the sand. The light shifts. Elias stares stupidly. Heat lightning? He looks over his right shoulder, northward up the beach. A flashlight, sweeping from side to side, is bearing down on them.
“I see it. Get off me.”
She hisses something in Turkish, yet he seems to hear the word in clear English, Hurry. Hurrying seems beyond him, but his body, a step ahead, lifts and pulls out of her, the uncoupling even more of a shock than usual. She’s muttering in Turkish, sitting up, scrambling in a darkness now strobed by the approaching flashlight. She seems to be crossing herself—a Christian?—then he sees: she’s pulling closed and buttoning the lime silk blouse she never fully removed. He is on his feet, hiking up his black jeans, buckling his belt, looking for his shoes, remembering he tossed them under a lamppost hours ago in the sand outside the bar. She stands and slips something into her handbag, smoothes down her skirt. From up the beach a squabble of voices conferring, then a hoarse voice projecting—words cutting out of the dark toward them like shrapnel. The light beam freezes her, blanching her face—her mouth a tight, stricken line—though now, with what seems an almost casual calmness, she fits her stylish glasses back on.
“Should we run?” he asks, and the light swings toward him.
“Don’t move. Let me answer them.”
The flashlight stops about ten paces away and he senses more than sees the figures bunching up behind it. Four, maybe five. There’s something haphazard, unofficial about the party: their lone flashlight, disordered voices, the way they’ve faltered and stopped short of the couple, who now stand a few metres apart, like two strangers out walking the beach who’ve been surprised in accidental proximity. The men behind the flashlight are drunk, he hears it in their voices. “It’s the guys from the bar,” he says, but she’s speaking over him, addressing the men in a thin tremolo that sounds scornful, indignant, and scared. A beat of silence, then the men jabber back. Along the edge of the flashlight beam an arm extends, pointing at Elias. He doesn’t know whether to move toward Eylül or away from her.
The Cyclopean eye of the flashlight focuses on her but keeps flitting over to Elias’s face, as if the men think he means to bolt. He would love to bolt. Despite his sedation, he could run full out, he thinks, the blood sluicing inside him, his heart punching up against his palate. These men—off-duty, some of them maybe not even soldiers—might be unarmed. Likely unarmed. He’s about to tell Eylül that he and she can run from this posse of drunkards when one of them shouts something and Eylül flinches as if struck—and this flinch, this tiny retreat, is decisive. The men smell blood. The light surges forward, the dim figures bunched behind it. Numbly, Elias steps sideways toward her into the circle of light, trying to make himself look big. He’s bigger than these yammering silhouettes. You are a big guy. He coaches himself bigger, the way he used to before rugby scrums, nothing serious at stake. A hand shoves the flashlight under their noses and Elias raises a hand to parry it, blocking out the beam. Unblinded momentarily, he makes out four men—three clustered close around the flashlight bearer, who grips a pistol in his other hand, holding it beside his cheek, aiming the barrel straight upward. The men’s fatigues show a camouflage motif. Their faces, except for the flashlight man’s, look young.
Retreating from them while also moving away from him, Eylül says something that sounds urgently appeasing. Her hands fan open in front of her. A man advances into the circle of light and then clumsily springs forward. Elias sees it in stop-start, a sequence of vivid stills—Eylül stepping back, the man extending his arms and hands toward her like a sleepwalker. “Stop!” Elias orders, the word plosive and louder than any utterance so far, but no one turns toward him. He has become inaudible, invisible; they have forgotten him; he could still escape.
She flails her handbag and it thuds into the side of the first man’s head. Two of the men join the attack while the one with the pistol aims the light. Elias grabs the arm holding the flashlight and pushes it up, sending the beam skyward. The man swings the pistol but Elias intercepts the blow and thrusts that hand upward too, then slips his calf behind the man’s leg and with his whole body, much larger than the Turk’s, topples him backward and pins him. The man keeps the small pistol in his grip but the flashlight falls loose, so now the scene is dimly underlit by the red glow of a lens half-buried in sand. Eylül is down on the beach a few steps away, struggling. For the second time tonight, Elias lies on top of a stranger, this one smaller than Eylül but wiry, furiously strong, silent as though holding his breath while he fights.
A flash and sharp popping as the gun in the soldier’s pinned hand fires. Butting the man in the face conclusively, Elias lifts and smashes down the hand and the pistol flips loose into the dark. He can’t see it. He reels to his feet and moves toward the struggle a few metres off, all in the embering glow of the half-buried flashlight, and brushes past a man hurrying in the other direction—to help the officer Elias just took down? He and this man could be commuters almost colliding on a sidewalk. He drags one soldier off Eylül, she lashing and scratching at the other, who now turns his head up toward Elias, the face a blur in the faint light. Elias shoves the heel of his palm into the face. He reaches down to Eylül but she’s already up. She takes his hand and they’re running, a slow-motion scramble, feet sinking in, no traction. Every few strides a cry is wrung out of her, as if his body is on top of hers again and pushing down hard and fast.
Suddenly their shadows appear, stretched thin, flailing ahead of them up the beach. “The fence,” he says, and they’re angling toward it. The light reveals a helix of barbed wire on top of the fence, rusted, sagging. A shot follows the light beam and the sound ricochets off the facades of the hotels.
Somehow he has been transported back to where he was two weeks ago, a place he thought he’d escaped, at least physically. More gunfire. He looks for a breach, wills a breach in the wire or the fence below it. Despite or because of intoxication, the shooter is squeezing off shots with robotic regularity, five, ten. Eylül slows for a moment, seeming to miss a step as if skipping, then runs on beside Elias. No more shots. A small opening appears where the bottom of the fence warps upward, clear of the sand. “Here. Get down.” They kneel and he reaches to push her flat but she’s already there. He heaves up on the rusted fence, widening the gap. “Go through. Crawl through.” In the wavering light, the flashlight juddering toward them, she lies on her front, her face twisted sideways in the sand, looking up at him. “Eylül,” he says.
Her glasses are gone, her eyes unblinking. A stain opens at the small of her back. He presses his palm into the side of her neck, his fingers over the ear he spoke into, almost kissed, in the bar a few hours ago. He’s not so much checking for a pulse—hauled back into hell, he’s sure there will be none—as feeling the warmth of that sunburned ear and cheek. He sags onto his back beside her, as if giving up. Then, both hands pressing upward on the loose chain links, he wriggles through the gap into the dead zone.
This appeared in the January/February 2017 issue.
Adapted from Steven Heighton’s forthcoming novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, which will be published by Hamish Hamilton in March 2017.