Burned into the memory

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Island-hopping Janni Howker remembers Cyprus.

Nicosia, July 6, 1957. The temperature is more than 100F in the shade. My labouring mother watches the Turkish doctor take to his heels as she finally produces a baby as red as a boiled lobster. Throughout the hospital the medical staff are on the run. A truckload of British soldiers has been blown up by Cypriot freedom fighters. The bloody survivors are being brought in and the dead taken to the morgue.

My mother wonders if my father is among them - he is an RAF officer stationed here since 1955 when the revolt against the British occupation began. But he is safe, and the first 18 months of my life will be spent on Cyprus. Not long enough for a place to have a lasting influence, you would think. Wrong!

The middle child, the dark, small one with the exotic nickname, Janni (given to me by the mispronunciation of my Greek nanny), I was wedged between two big blonde sisters. They had the very English names of Carole and Katherine and the very English birthplaces of Preston and Nottingham.

Some children have imaginary pets for company. I had an entire island! Whenever we squabbled, whenever we were put to bed for being naughty and decided we were really all adopted, I cherished my difference. I was an islander who could choose dual nationality if I so wanted and, in effect, already had.

My only genuine childhood memories of Cyprus are of huge marble steps so hot they scalded my hands and knees. The unfailing ability of the quaveringly beautiful Muslim call to prayer to move me to tears is tied to a subliminal memory of being nursed to that potent lullaby as it rang out from the nearby mosque.

But I can never remember a time when I did not count Richard the Lionheart and Berengaria as kin, the Knights Templar as specially related (despite the fact that they sold the island to Guy de Lusig) and Aphrodite and Dionysus as my very own patron saints. Oh yes, my dull English sisters, see what company I keep!

It wasn't until I returned to Nicosia for the first time last year that the full brutal history of that flayed island hit me forcibly - including the British part in it. My dual heart was almost broken by the sight of drunken British Marines mooning at disgusted Cypriot natives, and the shock of seeing the huge Turkish flag tattooed on the mountains behind the barbed wire and barricades which divide the real Cyprus.

Janni Howker's novels for children are published by Walker and Red Fox

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