Tilly stepped off the plane into bright sunshine at Nicosia Airport. She bumped baby Beth higher on her hip and grabbed Anne’s hand before descending the steps. She felt comical, snugged into a fur coat in the mild afternoon sun. It had snowed that morning in England.
“Looking for me, love?” Bill’s familiar voice called. Her husband looked tanned and muscular, his face crinkled in an easy smile. He moved away from the other RAF Regiment men, stamped out his cigarette and gestured for her to follow the fence around to where he could meet her.
“Come on then, my ducks,” she murmured to her daughters, determined not to let her apprehensiveness show. “Let’s go find your Dad.”
That evening Tilly sat on the settee in the flat Bill had rented. The girls were fast asleep and Bill’s strong arm was flung around her shoulder. She took a sip of the sweet red wine that was a local specialty and tried to reconcile the animated man in front of her with the quiet soldier who had left England over a year ago.
“The beaches, Tilly! You have never seen water so clear, so warm. Beautiful.” Bill lit her cigarette and began rolling one for himself. “Me and the fellows will get a bus together and take you and the other wives and kiddies to Famagusta. It’s a lovely place.”
“Will it be safe for the girls, Bill? Mum told me vehicles get attacked all the time. You know Carol Braithwaite, next door? Her son is stationed down at Limassol.”
“Tommy Braithwaite?” snorted Bill, “What does that bloody Nasho know? He’s just a puppy.”
Tilly rolled her eyes. After thirteen years in the regiment Bill was dismissive of the conscripted men. “Tom’s been here for two years, he’s due to finish National Service in April. His lorry was ambushed on the way through the mountains a few months back. Their driver was shot and Carol told Mum that Tom is lucky to be alive now.” Words tumbled out of Tilly, all the worries that had been growing in the month since she learned she was to join him in Cyprus in the midst of a state of emergency. The news and gossip she had pieced together painted a frightening picture of an island menaced by terrorists that was completely at odds with Bill’s cheerful welcome. She took a deep drag on her cigarette. “Mum says I was stupid for coming here at all. Says she’ll see me come home in a box.”
“Aye, I won’t lie to you lass, they’re a nasty lot those EOKA sods. They want the British out, you see, they want Cyprus to join with Mother Greece. Damn sneaky way of fighting, ambushes and booby-traps, but that’s the way they operate. Don’t you worry love, us Rock Apes will look after you. We’ll take you to Famagusta on a bus with wire netting on the windows, armed guards front and back.” He put a warm hand on her knee. “Stick with us and you’ll be safe as houses.”
“Hello? Mrs. Wilson?”
Tilly froze and Beth wailed louder, outraged that her mother had stopped pacing the hall. Tilly carefully positioned herself to the right of the door so her silhouette could not be seen through the filigree screen.
“Who is it?”
“Maria. I come to collect the rent.” Tilly opened the door to a short woman with a mass of curly hair. A little girl stood at her side with a baking dish in her arms.
After months of tripping over each other and the children in the tiny flat Tilly had finally convinced Bill that they needed a bigger place. Her friend Lottie had referred them to Maria, a Greek-Cypriot whose house in the heart of Nicosia had recently been vacated by another English family. With its thick mud brick walls and soaring ceilings, the spacious home was a welcome sanctuary from the fierce summer heat.
“This is my daughter, Helena,” said Maria, “and this is my prawns, special recipe. Save you cooking.” The older woman smiled at Tilly and scooped Beth from her arms. “Beautiful baby girl!” Beth stop crying, grabbed a handful of Maria’s shawl and started to chew. Helena offered the baking dish to Tilly with a shy smile.
“Thank you.” Tilly met Maria’s eyes and found nothing but friendliness there. “Please, call me Tilly. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Tea is okay, but coffee is better,” Maria replied with a laugh, leading the way to the kitchen. She plopped the baby into Helena’s arms, who held her with a practiced ease. Maria rummaged in one of the cupboards and found a long handled coffee pot, which she called a briki. She showed Tilly how to make strong Greek coffee on the stovetop and Tilly poured lemonade for the girls. The little group took their cups out to the courtyard at the center of the house and settled under the shade of a lemon tree.
“I teach Helena everything I know,” Maria told Tilly. “Next year we will go to my mother’s village for the olive harvest and she will watch the women make haloumi, dolmades, trahana, all the traditional things. I love my wild boys, but my daughter is my baby. I know I must get her ready to be a wife and mother but I hate the thought of her leaving my home.”
“I know how you feel. Sometimes I wish that my girls would stay babies forever” Tilly said.
The women fell silent watching their daughters play under the potted citrus trees. Anne held Beth’s hands and Helena clapped as Beth took wobbly steps towards her sister.
“Ah!” said Maria, “but our girls, they grow up, find husbands, have babies. And then, we have grand babies! All the blessing and none of the, how do you say, the shit!”
The profanity hung in the air between them for a moment before both women set off in gales of laughter.
The next morning Tilly walked the short distance to the utilities office, enjoying the hot summer air on her face and the bustle of the street around her. The pram she pushed was more than spacious enough for both girls to lounge in comfortably. Cooking smells spilled from balconies and local women paused in their shopping to smile at Beth and tousle Anne’s golden hair.
On the way home, Tilly picked up a paper from a fluttering mass on the street. The cheaply printed leaflet showed a leering ogre with a union jack on his hat. He held fat bags of pounds while thin figures hung from gallows in the distance. Next to this squat giant stood a proud soldier with a machine gun in his arms. Tilly stared at the signature: EOKA. The ruthless group was known for attacking British servicemen and their families, Turkish-Cypriots and even those Greek-Cypriots they considered traitors to their cause.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
Tilly looked up to find a soldier scowling at her. He looked around exaggeratedly as if expecting to see someone else just behind her. “Yes?”
“Ma’am… what exactly do you think you are doing?”
“I’ve just had my electricity connected. We’ve moved house, you see, and as it’s just down the street I thought—”
“Ma’am, you are aware that this is Ledra Street? More commonly known as Murder Mile? And you are an unarmed woman? Alone? With children?” he asked each rhetorical question as if it were more preposterous than the last before declaring, “I cannot allow you to proceed unaccompanied. I will escort you home.”
He continued to berate her all the way to her front door. He didn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know. After she had gotten off the plane she had been issued with a red card outlining the rules for her life in Cyprus. Useless to explain to the stiff-necked young man how stifling she found them. He waited until she had unlocked the door and wrestled the pram back inside.
“Mum? Are you in trouble with the man?” asked Anne in a shaking voice.
“No, don’t worry love, this nice gent just wanted to see us home,” said Tilly.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” the soldier lowered his voice. “But please, you must be more careful. Only a couple of weeks ago a sergeant was killed in town. He was off duty, buying an ice cream for his little boy. This is a dangerous place.”
Tilly shut the door on the cheerful afternoon. The dim interior of her home no longer felt cool and shady, but shadowy and oppressive. She scooped Beth out of the pram and gave Anne a hand to hop down.
“Well, my ducks,” she tried to inject a jolly tone back into her voice and banish the dread that had crept up her back. “What shall we do until Dad comes home?”
Something was going on. The sirens that signaled a curfew had sung out hours ago, followed by shouting and the sound of shattering glass. Tilly was sure she had heard the crack of gunshots. Bill was late home. She had stayed up for hours keeping a worried vigil before giving up and crawling into bed. She hadn’t slept. She finally heard his step in the hall and tucked Beth in next to Anne. She found him in the kitchen, his face lit by the glow of the cigarette dangling from his fingers.
“Alright love?” she asked, flicking on the light. “Has something happened?”
Bill looked at her sadly. “Aye, lass.”
Tilly placed a dish in front of her husband. “You need to eat,” she told him. “Maria brought this, it’s delicious. The fish tastes a bit like herring, and there’s some eggplant and—”
Bill pushed the plate away forcefully and it shattered on the stone floor with a crash.
“Not tonight, Tilly. I won’t eat any bloody Greek muck tonight. I just want simple English food. You spend too much time with that damned woman.”
“Maria is my friend, Bill!” Tilly fetched the broom and started sweeping the broken crockery angrily. “She’s all I have here. The other wives, they live on base, they can meet for coffee, they play cards. I’m just stuck at home all day, I can’t even let the girls play outside—”
“Two English women were shot today.” Bill interrupted hoarsely. “Shopping for a wedding dress in town. Shot by an EOKA terrorist. Service wives. One dead, the other in hospital. Shot in the back, four times she was. Right in front of her daughter, four other kiddies at home…” Bill’s voice trailed off. He looked into Tilly’s stricken face. “It could have been you, lass. Could have been our Annie sitting by your side. Your mum was right. How could I bring you here?”
“It’s a bad business, Tilly,” sighed Maria the following week. The women sipped their coffees and watched the rain drip softly from the citrus trees. “The ladies are shot and the British are in a fury. So they round up the Greek men. My son came home with his head in a bandage. The other is still under arrest. Such violence!” she shook her head and her dark curls bounced. “Such violence on all sides. My sons are not bad boys, but they are young and their hearts are won by ideas. I tell them, English people rent our house, put food on the table. My husband is gone for years! He does not put money in my pocket. The British do! But they tell me I must not buy British goods. Passive resistance. Fuh! Where will I be without you living in my house? They do not have an answer to that; they only want enosis, union with Greece. I had a job, cleaning at the army club,”
“The NAAFI?” asked Tilly in surprise. Two of Bill’s squadron had been among the injured when a bomb had detonated in the jukebox at the NAAFI club. Two airmen were killed in the incident.
“NAAFI, yes. After the bomb, all the Greek workers are fired. This way leads to poverty! My boys do not understand, they only care about the great liberation struggle.”
Tilly looked at her friend. New lines had appeared around her mouth.
“You’re worried,” Tilly said quietly.
Maria met her eyes. “I come to collect rent, but no one knows I stay to teach you how to cook or that my Helena is learning her better English from your Anne. Even so it is too dangerous. EOKA is a dog that will bite its own tail. And my boys…” Maria’s voice trailed off. “Better you send the rent in the post from now on.” She handed Tilly a slip of paper with an address written on it in careful blockish letters. “Be careful of yourself, Tilly. Be careful of your family.”
“Mrs. Wilson?” an English voice called.
“Who is it?” asked Tilly from her position to the right of the door.
“Sergeant Watkins, ma’am.”
Tilly opened the door, holding on to the edge to keep herself upright. In her mind she was already returning to England with two orphaned girls. The sergeant stood on the step with a young gunner at his side.
“Corporal Wilson is fine, ma’am. Can we come in?”
Relief rushed through her, followed by bewilderment. She gestured them through to the kitchen and frowned when they veered off into the living room. Watkins tapped the floor carefully with a walking stick. He looked up at her. “Ma’am, have you met your landlord since moving into this house?”
“I don’t have a landlord, I have a landlady. She comes by once a week to collect the rent. Well, that is, she did, but—”
“Just here,” said Watkins absently, indicating a place on the floor. He turned to Tilly. “Ma’am we are moving you onto base. It’s a matter of security I’m afraid. A lorry will arrive this evening to collect you and your things. I advise you to get your affairs in order this afternoon. I will leave LAC Peters here with you, if you need to go to town just let him know. Corporal Wilson will meet you at the base.”
Before Tilly could frame a reply he was striding out of the door. She turned to Peters in shock.
“What on earth is going on?” she asked him.
“Your landlord is EOKA,” he told her quietly. “They reckon there’s a whole lot of guns and explosives under the floor here. We have to clear it out. Bloody clever, renting the place out to English families. It’s never been searched.”
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of activity. Tilly’s face ached from pretending to the girls that the sudden move was a grand adventure. By the time the lorry arrived she felt drained. She shut the filigree screen door for the last time and thought of her friend. Did Maria know there was weaponry stashed under the floor of her home? Had it been put there by her absent husband or her sons? Useless to wonder. Still, she had slipped the address Maria had given her into her Bible. She doubted she would ever work up the courage to write. Tilly ushered Anne into the waiting lorry and settled Beth on her knee.
“Well, and where are we off to now, my ducks?” she asked them brightly.
Image by Neil Thomas