Visiting death

I live just across the road from death. For the past 18 months – day or night – I have gazed across at the view from our house, where apart from a few palm trees and a scattering of houses, the Cypriot Greek Orthodox cemetery is the main feature. Last night when I looked over in that direction, before letting myself in through the front door, there were pinpricks of light speckled across the patch of land where the cemetery lies. The dozens of tiny candles or lanterns positioned on graves made an ethereal sight. I have seen this before, but with a pale white full moon, peeping out from behind the clouds, it was even more eerie and a little mysterious. I’ve been wondering about how the candles spring to light as soon as darkness falls or perhaps they are always lit and only visible in the darkness?

This question on my mind, I resolved to go and investigate, sensitively – but not at night. I decided to wander across and take a look when the sky was blue and the sun is shining, which in theory should make it much more commonplace.

So the other day I overcame my reservations and took an afternoon stroll to the cemetery. Beyond the white washed walls, black and white marble and dozens of flowers of every colour adorned the graves. Unlike an English graveyard, it seemed to be a place of regular activity. Newly placed flowers, mainly silk, lay on each grave and massively ornate headstones, many with roofs overhead, like mini shrines formed a place of tribute for loved ones. Photographs were in abundance too. As a foreign stranger it was interesting to see the faces of the dead, some young, some old, some with wives and some with children buried alongside them. There were recent dates and some that dated back from the island’s troubled past in the 60s and 70s. There were young soldiers too, pictured in uniforms with proud inscriptions.

The mystery of the lights soon became clear as I looked more carefully at the dozens of little oil lamps placed on each grave and in between them, I could see many were alight, with flickering yellow flames only just visible in the sunshine. There was a strong smell of paraffin and wax, a bit like the inside of the chapels and churches we’ve visited on the island. It seemed amazing that all these graves had people who came to tend them regularly, replacing flowers, planting flowers and bushes and replenishing the oils. Far from being a place that is rarely visited, the cemetery is quite often a hive of activity with dozens of cars lining the road and along the banks, as families and friends gather. And this isn’t just for funerals, there are also many memorial days for those who have died when special celebrations of their lives are held on six month and annual anniversaries. It’s clear the dead are very much alive in the hearts of Cypriots and they aren’t afraid to remember them.

Death visits us all in different ways. For me, it was almost 33 years ago this month that it visited our home when my mother died suddenly, while I was at university. Walking around the cemetery last week, I thought about her own grave, now also shared by my father. It is a village graveyard with a view across a rolling field where we used to go sledging as children. I like its simplicity and its rural outlook. But I also like the idea of the lanterns on the graves here and that someone goes there regularly to keep the oil topped up so the dead are never forgotten. For me, the idea of lights burning despite the darkness of a graveyard signals our hope of a life to come.

It’s a long time since I’ve visited the graveyard in Kent – but perhaps it’s time to go back and light a lantern there?













‘floody hell’ and mad pets

Dear Agony Aunt – my cat loves cleaning, should I be worried?

We have a cat we call Simba. He arrived uninvited over a year ago and seems to have employed us as his hotel staff. We provide simple B&B – food and water and a warm bed for the night – he pays us… nothing. But today he did stand by me in a mini crisis.

Many of our visiting guests have found his strange ways amusing – one describing him as ‘more dog than cat’ and others have been surprised, almost choking on their drinks, when he pokes his head through a flap in the top of the gazebo, which he illegally uses as a hammock in the summer.

Last night he excelled himself by waking me up in the early hours. I ignored him at first, but eventually gave in by about 6am. Padding in to put the kettle on and cat food out, I realised my feet were wet. There was a flood in the kitchen and it might have been what all the crying was about. Hearing the wind outside I assumed water had blown in under the back door and so I spent some time laying out newspapers to soak it up. Strangely, when I looked outside the terrace wasn’t very wet at all, but I carried on with the newspapers, still half asleep, thinking the wind must have dried up the rain!

I didn’t think cats were supposed to like water – but Simba seems to break all the rules. In fact he loves to sit or lie in it and get his tail wet. Rather than drink out of his water bowl sedately, he climbs into an old bucket partly filled with rainwater to drink, or dips his paws into the swimming pool. His favourite games are flicking the water from the water hose or sitting on the laundry basket to push open the doors of the shower when it’s running. If you are in the shower it’s an annoying game. Oh, and another watery pastime is trying to catch the mop when anyone is cleaning the floor.

Back to the flood. The more newspaper went down, the more water appeared. Eventually I thought, I’ll have to get the mop out. Opening the cupboard door I was greeted by a mini tsunami, as water was pouring from the boiler into an empty cat litter tray and flowing over onto the floor. So not rain after all. Before I could get the mop out, Simba was in the cupboard, paddling in the water, shaking his paws and then swiping anything that moved. There were quite of a lot of soaked objects to be removed and as I went to pick up a drenched half empty bag of cat litter, it split, spewing the contents into the floor. Unlike the more expensive brands, it’s main ingredient turns out to be mud. There was now a lovely slippery mud bath in the entrance to the cupboard. Never fear, Simba was there skidding around in the brown gunge and as fast as I tried to scoop it up with a cloth, he was catching the cloth in his claws and spaying the mud even further. At 6.30am I was struggling to see the funny side of this, being slightly concerned about the boiler and the amount of water everywhere. Words like ‘floody hell’ or worse were being muttered frequently. Still, on my morning of mopping I was never alone and at least there was someone else to laugh at. My feline helper was always by my side, trying to catch the mop, trying his hand/paw with a cloth or simply running in and out across the wet floor, back legs skidding out behind him – a soft landing guaranteed on his enormous fluffy tale.

By the time an electrician, two plumbers and a boiler technician (significant Cypriot labour forces) had arrived, the two of us had attempted to hang wet materials outside or upstairs and most of the mud had been cleaned away, bar a few paw prints here and there.

Come to think of it, Simba isn’t the only eccentric pet we’ve had… I once had a cat that turned a bit mad when I moved him to live in a flat in the East End of London from rural Kent. He used the back of our toilet as a urinal and had a habit of smacking people that he didn’t like. An ex-boyfriend, who will remain anonymous, was sitting on the carpet one evening by the slightly ajar lounge door, having just made an uncharitable remark about the absent cat. A second later a black and white paw shot round the edge of the door and dealt him a punishing swipe. Our first dog, a golden retriever, was a canine Houdini. He used to escape through the cat flap to go begging scraps at the local abattoir. Our second dog, Copper …where do I start? Because that requires a whole new post!

If you can’t beat them – join them

Cypriot drivers probably don’t study the highway code. In fact I don’t think they know any code, even if it was the ‘rough track code’. They either drive at a snails pace on single track roads, or pull out in front of you without warning. Traffic lights are pretty much decoration and overtaking happens when you feel like it, even if it’s a blind bend or the brow of a hill.

The trouble is this kind of attitude rubs off after a while. We have a set of traffic lights for some road works which are gradually migrating up the road towards us. I’ve sighed and muttered as I’ve watch a series of local drivers totally ignore the red light and drive ahead, only to come face to face with the oncoming traffic whose lights are on green. The cars mount the pavement or pull into people’s drive to try and pass, but all seems normal, no-one is shouting, “didn’t you see the red light?”

Earlier today I approached the lights and realised they weren’t working – no lights at all. I hesitated but decided to carry on and hope no one was coming. Further on two cars were heading straight for me at a fairly slow speed – “oops”, I thought, as one of them kindly pulled over for me to pass, while the other motioned for me to slow. I was expecting him to wind the window down or ask me to reverse, but no, he simply  pulled across in front of a shop entrance to let me through. The queue at the other end was quite long but they all seemed chilled. So far so good. Returning by the same route later in the dark, there was a red light showing…but I had a suspicion the lights at the other end might still be broken…so I just drove through. A few cars on side roads waited for me to pass and when I reached the other end I glanced back at the lights which were green as a car approached from the other direction. Lucky break. But I didn’t think much about it, except, “what a waste of time those lights are.”

It’s happening. I am becoming a Cypriot driver – with no respect for traffic lights! Whatever next? I won’t be bothering to indicate when I turn off or decide to suddenly come to a halt up on a pavement. Next week I’ll be stopping in the middle of the road to chat to my mates in another truck while a queue of cars waits behind me.

Well, I suppose the best advice is – if you can’t beat them – join them.