By Lizzy Ioannidou
Anna’s toes dug into the earth of the dead zone, her ankles trespassing into the no man’s land snaking across the island from east to west. Her breasts, that lay safely within government-controlled territory, were cushioned by the gentle slopes of dry weeds collapsing onto the torrid landscape. Her cheek pushed down into her hands, which in turn rested on Constantina’s thigh. They squinted in the direction of the falling sun to observe a UN helicopter conducting its routine patrol to ensure the dead zone remained so. Instinctively, Anna freed her toes of the forbidden dirt, sliding her legs into the nest of her body.
They were sprawled across a slope looking over into the north of the island. The galloping peaks of the Kyrenia Mountains cut across the spiralling barbed wire fence that marked the reality of the internal border, which was in other areas for the most part communicated through sporadic signage and a generalised idea of where to draw the line.
“So, have you made up your mind yet?” Constantina said with closed eyes, her dark unruly hair offering a second layer of shelter.
“Hmm? Erm, yeah.” The perishing sun refused to give in without a final foray into its subjects’ ability to compose a coherent thought. “Literature,” Anna said, hesitating.
“Really!” Constantina exclaimed, her eyes springing open. She sought Anna’s expression, hoisting herself upwards with her elbows. “My godparents are going to love that.”
“Yeah, well, we can’t all be hotshot lawyers,” Anna snapped. “There always has be someone to butcher at the Christmas table for not living up to their impossible expectations. I’m volunteering, I guess.”
They knew each other long enough to know that another word on the subject, by either of them, would leave them both in furious tears. Betrayal rumbled in Constantina’s chest. They had talked about going to study Law together since they were children. They had even picked out their favourite pieces of furniture and art from each other’s homes and spent days figuring out where everything would go in their imaginary apartment in London.
“Hey, do you feel that?” Anna asked, grabbing hold of the ground, as if in an attempt to hold the earth steady.
“Yeah… It can’t be an earthquake, right? It’s too… rhythmical.”
They fumbled for their sandals and rummaged through the dirt and dry leaves for the source of the vibrations. They slipped in and out of the dead zone as they traced the vibrations getting stronger, their rhythm at times more erratic. Anna came to an abrupt halt after a patch of what seemed like dirt and leaves refused to budge. Her hand ran over a solid, circular object that was incompatible with the rough fragments that made up the earth.
“Con! There’s some sort of handle! Look!”
Anna hoisted it into the air, with the handle taking with it a large chunk of earth that was secured onto the wooden panels guarding the opening that lay before them. They stared at the trap door for a long, silent moment. The last light of the day highlighted the edges of what seemed like stairs descending underground.
“Should we go in?” Anna asked, almost pleading, her eyes bright with lust.
“I… I don’t know.”
Constantina took out her phone, activating its flashlight with agitated fingers. They hovered over the opening to inspect the dusty stairway going deep into the ground beneath the no man’s land. The vibrations now rose up in deep groans, embellished with softer but equally indecipherable notes.
“Let’s just take a look. Please? Just one look, and if there’s anything creepy we’ll be out of there before you know it.”
Constantina struggled to produce a nod. Strangling her phone, she shone the flashlight down the stairs with a feigned resolve. Constantina took the first step and Anna followed, latching onto the dirt-ridden walls and protruding roots. Keeping their eyes locked on their feet as they sunk deeper underground, they balanced their steps by sliding their hands along the rough edges of the descending tunnel. Anna noticed her fingers slipping into sharp recesses engraved into the walls, which were however shielded from her rushed attempts to investigate by the shifting shadows formed by Constantina’s flashlight. The groans now shook the walls with a regular cadence, pacing their measured steps and cursing their pulse into overdrive.
Yellow light and a faint murmur of soft conversation infused with weak drum beats seeped through the borders of a swinging door at the bottom of the stairs. A last long look confirmed the initial plan remained unchanged. Constantina gave the door an insecure push, her body closely following her hands, and Anna’s followed suit.
Washed in a gentle yellow light, they stared unmoving at what appeared to be a bar. The room itself looked like an old underground wine cellar or a strip of a closed-off tunnel. The flesh of the earth encircled the space. The epicentre of the paralysis that had seized their knees as soon as they had swung through the door quickly shifted onto the roughly fifteen mouths and eyes that fixated on their arrival. Oblivious to the intrusion, mellow trip hop beats and the mechanical whirring of what they now realised was a ventilation system cushioned the silence, allowing for a hesitant restoration of movement and conversation.
Keeping to the texture of the wall, they made their way past the curious glances of people scattered across a seating area made up of makeshift wooden pallets and thin cushions. Through the corners of her eyes, Anna saw the markings that spotted the walls, noticing that some were tallies and others sporadic letters or unfinished words. She sensed an aura of pain being exuded by the walls, responses to violence and horrors of decades long gone.
“New faces,” declared a twenty-something man standing behind the bar as they sat on two stools at the very end, comforted by the proximity to the exit.
“Yeah, we sort of found it accidentally,” Anna replied with an apologetic tone.
“As did we all,” the barman offered.
“Is it okay that we’re here? This isn’t some kind of super secret cult that sacrifices innocents in the name of some obscure deity, right?”
“If it were, I don’t really think you’d be let in on it, but no, it’s fine. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Um, okay. I’ll have a beer. Con?”
“Huh? Erh, yeah, me too. Hey, do you have a lighter?” she asked the barman, visibly uneasy, only to receive a sorry shake of the head. “I’ll be right back.”
Anna subtly took in the room: Its hot, heavy air, its aroma of cigarette smoke, sweat, and a faint hint of humidity, its flurry of conversation, some of which was in tongues unfamiliar to her. Some, she thought, emblazoned the walls and begged to be deciphered. Her gravitation into the riddle posed by the markings was cut short by a clank announcing the arrival of their beers.
“So what sort of place is this? Are we still in the south?” Anna probed.
“Well, what do you see?”
She scrunched her forehead, her eyes in a desperate pursuit. “A sort of cave?”
“Well, people? C’mon, just tell me.”
“And?” The barman was having his fun, she felt.
“Ghosts?” She muttered the word just above a whisper, unsure of herself, hoping it would be overshadowed by the music and murmur of talk. The barman looked at her pensively, curling the edges of his lips.
“Enjoy your beer. Let me know if you need anything else.” He walked to the other end of the bar to rejoin a spirited conversation with a group blending hints of Turkish with English.
The dropping of the trap door let out a distant thud. Anna turned to see a woman sliding through the swinging door carrying a dozen grocery bags. She waved to the barman, who greeted her by her name, Abidemi, and asked that she give his regards to her husband. She gave an animated smile and nod, before walking across the room to what Anna now saw was another door, that opened into an identical staircase leading into the north.
Constantina returned to find Anna wearing a pensive face, playing with the loose skin around her fingernails.
“That’s yours,” Anna gestured, pointing to Constantina’s beer that was sweating onto the wooden bar top.
“Cheers. So this place is super weird. Some girls over there were telling me about it. Apparently it was built by the British during the second World War in case the Germans raided Cyprus, but then after independence it was forgotten because it was only kept in military records that just the National Guard has access to. And then it was found by Greek Cypriot paramilitaries and was used to stash Turkish Cypriot prisoners during the troubles in the 60s.”
“The ghosts…” Anna shivered.
“What? Well, anyway, and then apparently the Greek Cypriot intelligence service used it to send spies into the north undetected after the invasion in ’74. And now they think it’s been destroyed because a mine field went off somewhere around here in the ’90s. It’s all on Google, they told me to check it out. Bunker 241.”
“Woah… Weird that it’s a casual bar now.”
The trap door in the north smashed shut and Abidemi’s cries for help flooded the space. She crashed into the swinging door. Her hands, now free of bags, took turns juggling the tasks of pointing to the top of the stairs and steadying her heaving chest.
“George! There’s… Just… Come! Quick! Come!”
The bartender shot out from behind the bar and flew up the stairs. Almost all followed, leaving Anna and Constantina with a couple of others to stare at each other in confused terror. Some minutes later, people started trickling back in with a horrified charge, and began moving all the furniture to the sides of the room, making space in the centre. Some rushed to cabinets tucked in corners, pulling out blankets and pillows that were then laid across the floor. Another turned off the music.
George came stumbling down the stairs holding a semi-conscious man leaving trails of blood that seemed to flow out of the entire length of his body. A train of people followed, carrying another heavily injured man and an unconscious woman. George gently placed the man he was carrying onto the blankets and sprinted past Constantina and Anna, swinging himself to the other side of the bar to retrieve a first aid kit. He ran back to the centre of the room and began tending to one of the men who was howling with pain.
“New faces! Get some water over here from behind the bar,” George shouted while his hands worked in a frenzy to disinfect the deep gashes that ran across the man’s body. Anna sprung off her stool and rummaged in the fridge, pulling out bottles of water. Rushing back, she crashed into Constantina’s body.
“What are you doing? Get out of my way!”
“I’ve got to get out of here, I can’t be a part of whatever this is. Aren’t you coming with me?”
“Can’t you see what’s going on? Go if you want to, just get out of my way!”
Anna pushed past Constantina and her bitter glare. She heard the swinging door whistle as she distributed the bottles. Abidemi was desperately trying to decipher the whispers of the man falling in and out of consciousness. No police, no hospital, she translated for George. They had a baby with them too. It died along the way. They buried it in a field. The mother fainted before they reached the barbed wire. Their smugglers abandoned them in the middle of nowhere. They took everything. They’ve been travelling on foot for days to reach the south. Europe.
There was no way of knowing how much of that George took in. For what seemed like hours, he sutured wounds in silence. The room had steadily emptied out as people realised there was nothing more they could do to help, with all promising to be back in the morning. Anna stayed; in shock, perhaps.
“You should go too, Abidemi. To Tobe. He’ll be worried,” George breathed.
“No, I’ll go tomorrow. They have to eat something. I have bread and cheese. Oh!” Abidemi threw her palm onto her forehead, as if trying to keep what just flashed into her head from escaping. “The food! It must be everywhere! I just threw it all down when I heard them trying to cross the fence!”
As she ran up the stairs to retrieve her groceries, George crashed onto the ground, his golden hair lightly brushing Anna’s knee as she tended to the pillow under the woman’s head. An exhausted silence filled the room.
“You did well, for a rookie,” George smiled. His greenblue eyes rolled backwards to look at her.
“Good to know, old timer.”
“So where’s your friend?”
“Oh, she had to go.”
“You know, you didn’t have to stay.” He paused, processing the quiet. “Stuff like this has been happening pretty regularly since they put that fucking fence there. It’s like they prefer to have blood on their hands than actually deal with asylum applications that they end up rejecting anyway.”
“It’s just so different, seeing the people behind the numbers thrown around all the time. I just… I couldn’t leave.”
“Yeah, well, this place has seen pretty much everything,” George said, scanning the room.
“I’ve heard. Although the walls and I had a small chat too,” she grinned.
He returned the smile as Abidemi was coming back down the stairs, getting straight to work on the sandwiches. She was laying the ingredients out on the bar when a pounding sound was heard coming from the trap door in the south. A male voice blasted through a megaphone announced the arrival of police. The area was surrounded, it declared. Steer away from the entrance, it warned. The trap door was flung open, letting in a wave of teargas.
“Fuck! Don’t rub your eyes!” George screamed as he tried to wake up the migrants, making them an impossible promise that it was going to be okay.
Anna felt her heart wanting to escape through her eyes. Her legs failed her. Her hearing faltered. She couldn’t help but wonder if Constantina had anything to do with this, via her prominent lawyer parents. She shook the thought away, feeling as if her face was beginning to disintegrate under invisible flames, her lungs burning with deprivation as the gas ate up the room.
Black monstrous shadows barged into the room. She struggled to trace George’s figure resisting their claws, shielding the migrants who were too weak to respond to the havoc. His muddied image folded and shrunk as he bellowed in agony. The ball that remained of his body was dragged out of the bunker. In a disoriented daze, Anna cried out as shadows violently lifted the migrants off the ground.
More malicious spirits glided towards her, grabbing her limp body and hoisting it up into the air. Her attempts to scream only led to a release of precious air. Her hands pushed against the body armour as she wrestled against the tight grips restricting her arms and legs. Her hands searched for anything to latch on to. She reached out towards the walls, her nails digging into the surface, marking her own trauma above that of others, birthing palimpsests of ghosts.
Photo: Lizzy Ioannidou