‘Deserted’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
In a matter of hours, the city bled them all out. All of them: the grocers, the teachers, the restauranteurs, and the shop-owners; the hoteliers, the garbage collectors, the housewives, the bank clerks, and the civil servants. The tourists got up from their sunbeds — pink skin glazed with coconut sun-tan oil — and went back home, over the sea, to safety. Foreign government officials and expatriates fled days before, when no one suspected; when no one had put two and two together. Someone must have whispered in their ears that, soon, paratroopers would hang from the bluest summer sky. Who would have thought?
Even though there was no official call for evacuation, Varosi was draining. Dusty saloons with pyramids, made of suitcases and bundles, fastened on their roofs, jammed the city’s roads. Sweaty armpits, hands, heads, and elbows hang from their windows. Fitful honking pierced the hot air—thick with rapid breathing and whispers. They all drove off reassuring themselves they’d be back soon. Door keys were slipped under flower pots, back doors were left ajar, lights on the front verandas were forgotten, switched on.
Anna’s mind was made up. Eighty full years she’d lived in Varosi. She wasn’t going anywhere. Let everybody leave. And let whoever is coming, come. She’d be ready for them. She sat calmly—hands on her knees—and watched her daughter stuffing a bag with an extra change of clothes for her and the child, clean towels, soap, a kilo of rice, tins of Zwan and condensed milk, photo-albums.
Through the clutter of preparations came the voice of her granddaughter.
‘Yiayia, please come,’ the child said, the corners of her mouth bending, a nylon bag hanging by her small thigh. Bunny ears, and goggly teddy-bear eyes peered from inside it. She was wearing her blue velvet coat even though temperature had hit forty degrees.
‘You don’t need a coat,’ her mother said sharply.
‘What if it’s cold where we’re going?’ she protested, her voice high-pitched, on the verge of becoming shrill.
‘Stop whining,’ her mother raised her voice. ‘It’s midsummer! Take it off! We’ll be back before you know it.’
The girl, cowed, picked up a scrunched candy-wrapper from the kitchen table. She looked at it for a moment and stuffed it too, as an afterthought, into the nylon bag. Then, she looked at her grandmother again. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘Come, come, come!’ She stomped her feet on the tile floor until her mother shook her.
Anna pulled the child to her. ‘I am an old woman. Weak and sick. I’d better stay at home,’ she said, running thick-skinned fingers over the child’s face—hot and damp with tears and mucus. ‘You will be back on Sunday for lunch,’ she continued. ‘As always.’ She forced a smile. Lips shut. A curved line. Sagging skin made it seem wider, truer than it really was. She kissed the tip of the child’s nose and then her swollen eyelids.
‘There is no harm, really…me staying home, that is. Really…no harm.’
‘Have you gone mad?’ her daughter said.
She was standing in the middle of the room holding the stainless steel casserole by the handles. As it was still warm she had it wrapped in a checked towel—thumbs pressing on the lid as she held it. Her elbows extended from her sides like a migratory bird’s wings during flight. Her cheekbones protruded awkwardly. ‘We’ll be back in a couple of days. What do you want me to do? Beg you to come?’
Anna stood up and fumbled aimlessly around the kitchen—as though she’d lost something but couldn’t remember what. Suddenly, all the right reasons for staying popped into her head. ‘Who’s going to pull out the weeds from your father’s grave? Have you not thought of that? Of course you haven’t. Who’s going to take care of the house? Eh? Who’s going to water the rose-bushes and geraniums. You’ve forgotten it’s summer? Who’s going to take care of the orchard? My lemon trees will dry up and die. And what about the chickens and the pigeons? Who’s going to feed the chickens and the pigeons?’ she said, pointing at the two-by-two enclosure in the yard where chickens and pigeons bobbed their heads in agreement, from behind the wire.
‘So be it, then,’ said the daughter. ‘But you have to promise me to take your pills,’ she added, one leg in the yellow Ford and the other placed firmly on the ground.
‘I’ll take my pills.’
‘You’re so forgetful lately,’ the daughter said, but not loud enough for her mother to hear. ‘You promise me, now,’ she repeated, her intonation highlighting ‘promise.’ ‘The bottle is right next to the cabinet in the bathroom…in the yellow basket where you keep your toiletries,’ the daughter said.
‘I know where the damn bottle is,’ Anna said to herself, waving them off.
Explosions were heard in the distance causing a surge of helpless screams from the crammed streets. People got out of their cars and started running for shelter. Car doors agape, and engines left running.
From behind the wheel of her car—casserole still in her hands—the daughter looked up to the roof. Her pupils shifted fast, from one corner to the other. The child clasped her mother’s thighs and pressed her head against her belly. The daughter lifted the pot high, to make space.
‘You’ll be here for lunch on Sunday,’ the old woman said stoically, stealing glances at the sky. ‘I’ll make roast lamb with potatoes.’
‘You have one week’s worth of pills in the bottle. We’ll be back before you know it.’
The tires spat gravel as the car sped away. The granddaughter—head tilted to the side—looked at her from the rear window, right before the car vanished behind its cloud of white dust.
Never in her life had she seen dust so ghostly.
She raised her hand but didn’t wave. Two fingers twitched. She looked at those fingers angrily, thinking that this body of hers had gotten a mind of its own. ‘I’ll bake bread,’ she thought. ‘I’ll knead the dough and make bread for Sunday. You’ll see.’
Her gaze wandered to where the end of the road had swallowed the car. There was an eerie silence, now, as though war had gone to sleep. It was a silence so thick that if it lasted longer she’d be convinced she’d lost her hearing. But, a sudden gust of wind stirred the tree tops and banged the window shutters against the walls. Sparrows darted into the sky.
Her front yard, which had always granted her with a panoramic view of Varosi, was proving, now, miserably inadequate. The city was there, but at the same time it wasn’t. The tall apartment buildings and the hotels stood muted against the pink afternoon backdrop—empty seashells on her beloved beach.
With hands on her waist she pondered on the absurdity of it all. She found it difficult to digest how a whole city could be deserted in just a few hours. The grand betrayal. How did they do it? How did they leave their homes behind without a second thought? Their flowers, their animals, their dead to the mercy of whoever was coming from where the sounds of war were heard. Absurd. She sucked her teeth making those ts-ts-ts sounds that annoyed her daughter. But she wasn’t there to be annoyed.
‘I’m not dying a refugee in some other place,’ she said.
With her hand on her forehead to cut off the blinding light, she watched the sun go down and she knew in her gut that she’d made the right decision. ‘They’ll be back,’ she said slapping the air in front of her.
She trotted into the house, only to return moments later with her late husband’s Beretta. Yiannis loved that rifle. How many times had she sat across from him at the kitchen table and watched him clean it with a twinkle in his eye? He had gentle brown eyes with slightly drooping eyelids. She kissed those eyelids jokingly one time and then picked up the habit—first a soft kiss on the tip of his nose, then another on the right eyelid, and another on the left.
Now, her memory traced the diligent movements of his fingers over the metallic parts. She took it apart with the ease of an expert. With a soft kitchen towel she cleaned it inside and out, until a toothless smile materialized on the surface of the long barrel when she lifted it, shoulder high, to admire her work.
She kept guard, next to the sleepy chickens and the cooing pigeons, with the rifle on her chest. A little bit after midnight her head started to dangle. Her snoring was interrupted by wisps of bad dreams, and then it resumed again. She was woken up in the early hours of the next day by the cold breeze against her skin and a nibbling sound coming from behind the basil. The plant stirred. There was an intermittent glimmer in the scant morning light. Without a second thought she lifted the rifle, aimed, and shot. The gunfire bounced against the buildings, the clouds of humidity, the tarmac. It multiplied. With her cheek pressing hard against the stock, she moved close, bent over, dipped her arm into the greenery and fumbled about.
‘A rat,’ she said, disgusted. ‘Bloody rats.’
She held it up by the tail and scrutinized the pulverized head. The rodent’s lifeless body jerked and after a while it was dead beyond doubt.
The Beretta made it easier. It gave her confidence. If the enemy came she wouldn’t go down easy. On the other hand, she would think, ‘Who would harm an old woman who’s going to die tomorrow if she forgets to take her pills?’
Thinking that, she went into the bathroom and popped a miniscule red pellet into her mouth. She rehearsed what she’d say, when the enemy came. She picked her words out carefully. She made a conscious decision about the tone of her voice. She practiced the rhythm and intonation. ‘I am an old woman,’ she said to the mirror, palms clenching the lip of the wash-basin. ‘I could be your grandmother. Are you going to kill your grandmother? Eh? You will be forever cursed if you kill your grandmother.’
But the sun had run another full circle and no one had come—neither the enemy nor the people of the city.
On Sunday, she stood up to the challenge and baked the bread in spite of her twitching fingers and stiff muscles. She roasted the lamb and the potatoes. She set the table. She sat and waited but nobody came besides a striped cat who winced at her from the doorstep.
She started to eat.
A sound heard in the distance forced the clinking silverware to a halt. It wasn’t the subtle hum of the Ford, though. She dropped her fork on the floor and grabbed the rifle. She could have sworn it sounded like a military Land Rover.
She could hear it accelerating in the distance. The engine’s rattle was muffled as the vehicle wove through the buildings. It moved fast. And after a few seconds the sound languished. And it was like it never existed. Or that it existed only in her imagination.
The cat meowed. She instinctively turned and aimed. She was amused at the newly found reflex. That last bite was still in her mouth. She chewed in slow motion as she looked at the cat through one half-closed eye. The cat winced again, ignorant of its possible fate. She stomped her foot on the floor. The cat turned around, making a half circle around itself and retreated to the yard, still meowing and begging for food.
Rifle clenched in her palm, she looked at her city. ‘They are here,’ she said to confirm it. But besides some seagulls perching on TV antennas, and the cat now nudging her shin, there was no other living creature in view.
She had to stock up. Condensed milk, rice, spaghetti, lentils, beans, canned food. The neighborhood grocer always left the back door open at day time. That’s where the suppliers always dropped off the merchandise. That door only closed at night. And that wasn’t always the case.
She proved herself right. The door creaked on its hinges when she pushed it open. A high pitched moan reverberated in the openness of the room. Then it was all silent again, except for the humming of the refrigerators. The fluorescent light blinked when she flipped the switch on.
She pulled the shopping list from her pocket, got everything she needed from the shelves and headed for the till. She checked the price on every item and added it up with a calculator she’d found on the counter. Lips compressed and calculator in her extended arms, she summed the total and left the exact amount in the cashbox. She walked to the exit and flipped the switch back off.
On the way home palpitations crept from her chest up her throat. She thwacked her open palm on her chest repeatedly, like she would the side of a blinking television to set it straight.
She was going to die. She was going to die in an empty city. On an empty street. All alone on the hot asphalt. Her old body surrounded by bags of spaghetti, and tins of luncheon meat. She lay in the street and breathed slowly. She let her gaze wander to the sky where small dots lit up as day receded.
Yiannis was leaning against the wall, looking at her. He beckoned her to follow him.
‘No! You come,’ she said.
But he merged into the darkening landscape.
‘My number is not up yet,’ she said.
At that moment she thought she heard it again—the roaring of the jeep’s engine.
When she reached home, it was already night. The cat was waiting for her on the doorstep. She turned around and looked at her city. Glowing garlands of streetlights weaved and stretched in the distance like every other night. Traffic lights changed colors so persistently, it was pitiful. She sighed a deep sigh. And as she exhaled the lights went out and the city was immersed into darkness.
Two days’ worth of pills left in the bottle. She placed the tablets in her palm and looked at them in the scant light of the candle flame, as one would consider fake diamonds. Tremors came over her heart. ‘I’m going to die in here. My skull will be crushed hitting the lip of the toilet-bowl on my way down. My body’s going to disintegrate on the bathroom tiles.’
She dug herself a grave just in case. It was shallow, but she didn’t mind. It was right at her home, in her garden, underneath her rose-bushes. She got in to try it—as one would try on a shirt. She needed to be comfortable. This was eternity. It was no joke. As she lay in the shallow pit, she crossed her hands over her belly. She even closed her eyes. The cat neared her and smelled her cheek—its nose felt sandpapery. And then it hit her. There would be no one to actually bury her. Her body would just lay there—dead—at the mercy of all sorts of rodents and wild carnivorous birds. Yiannis would be shaking his head if he saw her.
Why so much worry over a body which had betrayed her in the worst possible way? As it aged, it became her enemy. Drooping and gelatinous. Always going against her will.
‘I want to swim.’
‘No, you won’t’
‘I want to run.’
‘No, you can’t.’
‘I want to make love.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
She got up from her grave and dusted herself off. She softly pushed the cat away with the side of her foot. She went into the bathroom, swallowed the last pill with a gulp of water and decided to go to the pharmacy.
When she got there, the door was, of course, locked. Without further ado she picked up a stone from the ground, looked right and left and smashed the pane. She passed her hand through the broken glass and unlocked it. Easy as pie.
She ran her fingers over the cold metallic apothecary cabinets. She examined their contents without touching at first. She carefully read the labels—her lips moving slightly to the shapes of the foreign sounds of each patented drug. Despair clogged her throat when she realized her own medicine was nowhere to be found—not where the pharmacist used to produce a fresh bottle from each time, not in the cupboards, not in the fridge, not behind the box-files, not under the ornamental teapot.
A paper bag on the counter caught her eye. ‘Special order’ was scribbled with elongated cursive letters on the flap. The bag was taped shut with Speed-Fix. She tore it open. Her eyes widened at the sight of a pink juicy heart on the label. The lovers’ kind of heart. Not the veiny jumble of meat kind of heart that beats or refuses to beat properly in human chests. She pocketed the bottle without a second thought and headed for the door where she froze as the military Land Rover sped by. The flimsy window panes vibrated.
He saw her.
She replayed the scene in her head in slow motion as she hurried home—the young soldier looking at her through the corner of his eye. Particles of dust hung in the sunbeams. There was no indication of the slightest reaction. Palm tree fronds flowed like seaweed. Only a faint smile. Absolute soundlessness. Their eyes met briefly; brown gentle eyes with slightly drooping eyelids. He made a wordless promise not to tell. They made a secret pact.
She carried her weight with small hasty steps. Gasping. Her muscles rigid and uncooperative. Her tongue numb. Her mouth dry. Thick saliva, gooey on her lips.
During the days that followed she kept a watchful eye for the Land Rover, took her new pills diligently every day after lunch, shot rats and snakes which now roamed the empty streets, and paid visits to Yiannis at the cemetery to light the votive lamp.
‘I don’t want to go. Not yet. You hear me?’ she’d say.
Her limbs felt strangely invigorated and a newly found power was mesmerizing her body and mind. Her hair gradually regained the natural hues of her youth. Her body had straightened and her bones no longer hurt at her every move. Now she was able to walk farther without fatigue constricting her lungs and making her heart pump blood faster than it should. She decided to go to the beach.
She hadn’t been there since she had turned fifty. That is, when her body was still her ally in life. That is, before it had started to give way. Thirty full years on she looked at the sea from afar.
She dipped her feet into the sand. The big toe wiggled. Warm grains glided over her skin.
‘Damn!’ she said. She was all alone on the beach. She was all alone on the beach and she could say ‘Damn’ as much as she pleased. She could scream ‘Damn’ at the top of her lungs and be naked if she wanted.
She unbuttoned her robe dress, slipped her knickers off, and unclipped her bra—its coned-shaped cups released her breasts to their true undetermined silhouette. She shyly concealed her groin—sparse grey hair tingled her palm. She waded into the cool water. Cuffs, blubbery knees, waxen thighs, rolling buttocks, broad waist; until her breasts floated lightly from her ribcage.
When she was neck-deep in the water she turned to the coast. She realized that her head was the only indication of human life in view. She laughed at the thought.
Her gaze shifted to the façades of the luxurious hotels. They soared up into the sunlit sky. Their emptiness was disturbed only by a pack of dogs who wandered the banquet rooms sniffing human absence in the air, and a few sleepy cats on the sun-loungers by the pool who couldn’t care less. Crows, in pairs, balanced on the rails.
She submerged her head into the silent blueness. Fish observed her curiously. Rays of light cut through the surface, drawing golden zigzags on the sandy seabed. ‘This would be the best place to die,’ she thought. ‘Inside this blue bliss.’
When she surfaced again she saw him sitting in the distance, unaware of her presence. She was certain it was him—the soldier with the gentle eyes and drooping eyelids, who looked so much like Yiannis—now she realized. He was throwing pebbles in the water. Circular ripples emerged from where the pebbles disappeared under the water. They encircled her, sending shivers up the bumps of her spine. They felt like kisses on the tip of her nose, then another on the right eyelid and one on the left.
Time, which had stood still since the day everyone had gone, was now moving backwards. It was moving backwards, fast.
She felt her muscles tightening around her bones, absorbing the layers of fat until there wasn’t any left. Her hair thickened and cascaded down her waist. Her breasts shrunk to their past size and shape.
She, now, ran through the streets of the deserted city. The wind brushing the sides of her body. She flung herself over abandoned cars and trashcans. Her brand new, youthful, body defying the laws of gravity.
Perched on the roofs of the tall buildings, she watched the Land Rover as it cruised leisurely down the road. The two soldiers scanned the area. Their fingers rapping their thighs to the rhythm of the music blasting from the radio. She spied on them when they bathed in the sea. Broad backs and strong arms. Their napes flushed by the sun, inviting a soft caress. She considered their long legs and firm buttocks as they walked. She shamelessly pondered on their virility.
One day he waved at her. And his movements were slow and silent as though underwater. ‘Yeia sou, Anna.’
But maybe it was just her imagination.
She launched from the ground only to swing for a moment on the electricity cables. She swayed back and forth to gain momentum and slung herself to the nearest balcony. She grabbed onto the side of the building and like a gecko, made it to the top.
Within seconds she was at home. In her yard. Under the vine trellis. The cat rubbed against her shin. It hoisted its front paws in the air momentarily.
‘Ma’am,’ said the soldier with the gentle brown eyes. He extended his arm toward her and patted the air as though to reassure her that he posed no threat.
Anna read ‘UNFICYP’ on his blue armband. But her lips did not move to the shapes of the foreign sounds.
The cat hissed at him—its body crouched and ears flattened.
‘Kyria…ma’am,’ the soldier repeated, signalling simultaneously to his comrade to come closer.
He handed him something like a bedsheet or a blanket. She couldn’t tell for sure.
There was silence inside her chest. Unnerving quietness.
Old wrinkles gashed around her mouth and down her neck. Her arms and thighs melted. Her bones became porous. Her old mutinous body overtook her.
‘I want to run.’
‘No, you can’t.’
‘I want to swim.’
‘No, you won’t.’
‘I want to fly.’
She could feel nothing but his warm fingertips on her eyelids—first on the right and then on the left. His palm brushed her nose accidentally.
He used the bedsheet to cover her up. She wondered why. Was it cold where they were going? Doesn’t he realize it’s midsummer?
She rose with the bedsheet wrapped around her. Strangely enough, she didn’t feel embarrassed. She held it in place like an ancient robe. Its folds and fissures oscillating to the rhythm of her steps. He didn’t move one bit. He stayed kneeling down next to the chair under the vine trellis. He looked sincerely sad.
She walked around memorizing the walls, the furniture, the pictures in their frames, the pots in the kitchen, the grapes collecting dust on the vine.
The cat followed her around keeping a watchful eye on the newcomers.
She’d already changed into a robe-dress and turned the bedsheet into a bundle where she’d stuffed an extra change of clothes, one kilo of flour, tins of luncheon meat, and a half-eaten chocolate bar.
She opened the door of the bird enclosure. Chickens walked out reluctantly. The pigeons, unaware of their capability to fly, merely batted their wings—their scaly feet stubbornly stuck to the ground.
Then, she stood perfectly still and her eyes narrowed as her gaze travelled along the coastline.
She wondered if there were any remnants of her youth lurking inside her.
The cat hopped onto the chair under the trellis and licked its paw. The soldier was still kneeling down. Right next to her shallow grave there was an enormous lump covered with a military blanket. From underneath it, two fingers twitched.