The Gardens of Irini were until last year not just the home of my old friend Deirdre Guthrie, flamenco dancer and bon viveur, but her business, too. You could rent a room overlooking the romantic ruins of Bellapais Abbey, have lunch in the garden accompanied by numerous dogs and cats or Deirdre would even come to you to cook a dinner party (at which she was always also a guest – no party without Deirdre). A year ago, she decided to retire and, while doing the inevitable sort out, she came across a manuscript.
It was a memoir of Cyprus village life dating from when John and Vivian Guthrie, Deirdre's parents, bought the original house – at the time a total ruin – in 1951 and rebuilt it over the years until they came to live here as artists, he a composer, she a painter. At the time, there was no running water (just a communal well) and no electricity. Things changed over the next 30 years – there was even a brief tourist problem (too many of the pesky creatures). The memoir leads up to the point when the island split and, over the course of the next two years, the entire village of Greek Cypriots left for the South and were replaced by the inhabitants of a village in the south of Turkish Cypriots. The tourists, of course, vanished overnight. Long before all that, however, John needed to move his prize possession to his new home. His grand piano.
So, reading A Bell in Bellapais I realised that nothing had changed in 70 years. When I moved my piano out three years ago, the movers packed it beautifully in London. When we arrived in Cyprus all ready to unpack it, along with lots of books and pictures, this end of the removal company, Dolphin, simply said: What piano? The removal men cleared off. We ended up with friends and neighbours taking the poor, fragile object down the steps into its new home wrapped in blankets and supported on old mattresses and the cushions off the loungers. A pretty precarious proceeding.
John Guthrie, like me, was halfway up a mountain. There were problems – narrowness of streets, horsepower (in his case actually donkey power) and absolutely no one who knew what they were doing. So like us, he improvised and, strangely, it seemed to work. In John's case, there were 20 men (they were going uphill, after all) all plied with beer and all enthusiastic. They worked out if they put the thing on its side, there was room to get it down streets and steps – just as we did. As John said: "The case was quickly stripped away, later to be claimed by Andreas for a chicken house. The naked piano was now a very awkwardly shaped load. There was hardly room for twenty pairs of hands to find firm grips. The possibility of disaster was all too obvious. But the men refreshed and cheerful were undaunted. Swigging the last of their beer and promised more, they took up their positions and awaited their instructions. A few feet staggered but no hand slipped as the piano came to rest with a resounding thump upon the mattresses."
70 years? No change there then.
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