Alex Christofi

The Taste of Copper

The widow made her way down Ledra Street, soaking up the energy of the sun, past plastic green mermaids and a giant M made of potato chips. Tour groups stopped to take photos, bless them, while the young people chatted at tables with their frappés. On one wall, someone had graffitied a tick of the kind associated with Nike, goddess of victory, with RIOT written above it. She kept on down, past cool balconies where shadows cursed the heat. She passed old men on benches worrying their beads, a plaster statue of a mouflon, racks of postcards and evil eyes, imitation terracotta pots, backgammon sets, Mickey Mouse balloons. She saw what she wanted, now, down at the end of the street.

Next to a line of plant pots and a low coffee table with pamphlets and maps, there was a sign in Greek, Turkish and English warning that visitors must apply to immigration control. She followed a line of retractable queuing belts along to a little booth, as if she were buying a ticket to the cinema, and handed over the passport, on which it said she was exactly   a hundred years old. The people who had given it to her had no idea, of course – no one did, because no one interviewing her was older than she was. They had started off with the blindingly obvious: did she remember the division of the island? Did she remember the independent republic before that? They had kept going further back: did she remember when the island became British? Did she remember Ottoman rule? They had laughed when she said she did, and tried a different tack. When did she go to school? Well, she didn’t. Did she remember the year she was married? Now that was a sensible question. She didn’t think it could have been after 1936, since Stavros was already grown up by independence. That decided it; one hundred was a nice round figure. She didn’t mind at all. On the contrary, she had always felt young for her age.

The young man at the desk was quite beautiful. He was trying his best with the hard official stare, but none of that worked on her. She could see he wanted to say something.

‘What is it?’ she asked him in Turkish. ‘You can tell me.’

He had started to look nervous, as if she was going to get him into trouble.

‘Be careful, grandma,’ he said, nodding in the direction of the north. ‘It’s, you know – it’s a hot day, and you’re wearing black.’

She smiled at him and took the passport gently out of his hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I live off the sun.’

She continued on through the de-militarised zone to the north, or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or the occupied region, or whatever you wanted to call it. As soon as she was out of the line of sight, she liberated a cold can of Guinness from her bag and pulled on the ringpull with a satisfying hiss. What a little miracle; she remembered having to do it with a knife.

Stepping into Northern Nicosia was like stepping back through time. The roads were sparsely gravelled, the buildings of thick, cool, rough stone. Some of them were skulls of homes, their windows and doors now cavities. But there was life here, you could feel it panting in the shade. There was more graffiti here than in the south. Draining her Guinness, she passed a taxi parked in front of a building that had recently been whitewashed. In the square, old men were sat on plastic chairs, leaning on walking sticks, talking. Siestas weren’t for them any more; they didn’t feel like having sex, and sleep reminded them of what they had coming. They ruffled their feathers as she approached.

‘Good afternoon,’ she said. ‘Does one of you own that taxi?’ The one with the dyed black hair responded.

‘Where do you need to go? My nephew will drive you.’ ‘East.’

‘Where east?’

She gave him what she liked to think was a mysterious smile. ‘East.’

He appraised her and nodded. Raising his hand, he caught the attention of a young man playing on his phone in an empty café across the square, and beckoned him over.

‘Savaş will take you anywhere you want to go for a hundred lira.’ The widow took out her purse as Savaş ambled up.

‘I’ll give you ninety.’

The man’s stony expression cracked and he burst out laughing. ‘Ninety is fine. Live long, madam!’

‘What, longer?’

He shrugged amiably and waved her off. The widow got in the front passenger seat and put her bag between her legs. It was a relief  to put it down; it was so heavy with the bolt-cutters. They started off towards Kolpos Amohostos. Amohostos, buried in the sand. That word, kolpos, it was a beautiful word in Greek, an ancient word. A bay, a hollow between the waves, a bosom, a womb. The chamber of a heart.

‘Are you from the north?’ he asked her. ‘I’m from all over.’

‘You speak very good Turkish.’ ‘So do you.’

It was late afternoon now, and she felt sluggish; a combination of the heat and the stout. The radio was set to Bayrak International, and they rode out of the city for a few minutes with air rushing in through the open windows, a pop song issuing fuzzily from the speakers.

‘What’s this?’ she asked. Savaş glanced across at her.


Buy Oct/Nov 2020 to read in full


Alex Christofi
is a writer and editor living in London. Aside from books, he writes essays, reviews, pieces about publishing. His latest book, Dostoevsky in Love, is published by Bloomsbury (2021).

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