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A Layer of Sand

Translated by Yannis Goumas

On my Easter or Christmas holidays I’d often go to Famagusta, to my uncle Mitsos’ house. Mitsos was my father’s youngest brother who, on my grandfather’s insistence, had taken over the family timber business. Actually, Mitsos had never intended to become a merchant; his dream was to read philology in Paris or Athens; but grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. The quarrel between the two came to an end when my father, a third year medical student in Vienna, intervened, threatening to give up his studies and take over the timber business himself, seeing that Mitsos wanted to follow his bent. This, it seems, sobered down Mitsos, for he decided to enroll in the Graduate Business School in Paris. Once there, by engaging in literary conversations and visiting second-hand bookshops, he did his best to overcome the boredom he felt for accountancy and economics. When he received his degree, he returned to Cyprus, took charge of the business, became town councilor, and married aunt Beba, a Greek girl from Port Said in Egypt.

Their house was among the first to be built along the Famagusta seafront, together with Evangelos Louizos’ shanty, the Marine Club, the British Club, and grandfather’s seaside abode which later became a gambling place and was named “White Tower”. In those days when the coast was not full of hotels and bars and juke-boxes, theirs was a huge house with a large verandah and white colonnades that went as far as the sea, and where on Sundays, in summer, we lunched off chicken with seasoned rice, roast, and salads topped by a tomato peeled in the shape of a rose; or again in winter, in the dining room with the azure walls and the paintings of Paul Georgiou with shades of blue and ochre. It was these paintings that I studied at night when there was no one at home, the watercolours and old gravures along the corridors that my uncle had bought in antique shops in Paris and Alexandria, where two or three times a year he religiously invested the timber business profits; or I would go into his bedroom, which was full of books and magazines, with a small lamp on the bedside table, so placed as to shine upon the pages of a book right beside the bed, which was plain and narrow and covered with a brown blanket, whereas my aunt’s was a wide feather bed with lace trimmings. Other times, in the evening or in the morning when my aunt was still asleep or out shopping, I’d go into the library, where Mitsos had gathered all his yearning for literature.

The library was oak-panelled, with heavy orange-coloured silk curtains, through which the light filtered; it contained a collection of historical books and other literary works, especially stories of travellers to the Holy Land, Lebanon and Cyprus, some on parchments and others dating way back. I had learnt to read the Roman symbols, “1687 Venice”, these old manuscripts had a very distinct smell. Many of these books he would send to Athens for restoration and binding, and they would be returned with patterns on the leather cover and gold letters on the spine.

One day, as I was leafing through some books, I came across one with small blue and tile-coloured sketches, palm trees, fretwork and balconies, which illustrated some rather odd poems. I had just entered high school, and felt a secret satisfaction reading them; so much so, that I fell into the habit of going down into the library when there was no one about and read these and only these. I took to copying the poems into a notebook; at first I copied them down as they were; then I started making modifications, and these modifications I regarded as original work. This is how I began writing. A few years later, Mitsos made me a present of Cavafy’s poems, it was the first edition issued in 1935 with sketches by Takis Kalmouhos. This was the only book that was rescued from the library when the Turkish army occupied Famagusta in 1974. We’ve heard nothing more since, neither about the house nor the books; the only thing we know is that the area remains uninhabited; for sure the verandah will have run to weeds by now, and the books, if they are still there, covered with a layer of sand.

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