The touching story of a teenager who struggles with the eternal problems of adolescence, Betwixt & Between is a coming of age historical novel set on the politically divided island of Cyprus, circa 1955.
Author: Miltiades B. Hatzopoulos more info
Translator: Irene Noel-Baker more info
The touching story of a teenager who struggles with the eternal problems of adolescence, Betwixt & Between is a coming of age historical novel set in a politically divided country.
While the era of British colonialism in Cyprus is coming to a violent end, Dimitri tries to come to terms with the consequences of the political turmoil on his own life. Strengthened by his passion for medieval poetry and his love for the history of his island, he sets out to balance the Cypriot and English elements in his daily life. His quest for answers is complicated by romantic love for his British friend Anne and his physical attraction to his father’s maid Phrossou. Balancing between different identities, religion and communities, his personal search becomes symbolic of his country’s turbulent political situation.
A nostalgic story about family, love and friendship, Betwixt & Between is a powerful novel about the psychology of an adolescent torn between different worlds, and about the complexities of life and love in the social and historical mosaic of 1950’s colonial Cyprus. It is a beautifully-observed, historically-informed novel by the celebrated Greek historian and novelist.
Short-listed for the 2014 London Hellenic Prize
Perhaps one of the most tender stories written about the years ’55-’59, seen through the eyes of a youth who wavers between spirituality and patriotism, between his admiration for T.S. Eliot and the sacrifice of Karaolis, a young resistance fighter. The end of the novel is remarkable, unexpected and fatefully ironic.
Anna Marangou – Politis Newspaper – April 26 2009
The scientific community recognises the long-standing devotion of Miltiades Hatzopoulos to science and research. He is a historian and fellow of the French Academy, director of the Research Centre for Greek and Roman Antiquity and vice president of the National Research Foundation. He has astounded everyone, however, by his involvement with literature and his first novel, has charmed readers both in Greece and in Cyprus, where the novel takes place a little before and a little after the beginning of the liberation struggle in 1955.
Olga Sella – Kathimerini Newspaper – 3 May 2009
His astonishing descriptions of the topography, particularly of Nicosia but also of the mediaeval monuments of Kyrenia and Famagusta, reveal the author’s deep knowledge and love for the island and its people.
Vassiliki Christi – Diavaseme.gr (the Greek literary website “Read Me”) – 15 June 2009
You see before you the entire social mosaic of Cyprus in the ‘50s. And also the political life and the character of the people, Greeks, Turks and British. As far as the style is concerned, it is one of the best novels that I have read lately.
Apostolos Diamantis – Eleftherotypia Sunday supplement – 6 June 2009
This is a novel to be read in one go. A charming narrative, coherent in its construction, with a well finished depiction of character and a plot which takes unexpected turns. It keeps the reader in constant suspense.
Georgos Georgis – Diavazo (monthly literary review) – September 2009
——–Read an Excerpt
Chapter 2 • Vita Nuova
Dimitri was an admirer of Cavafy. But he was not particularly inspired by the poet’s dictum in the poem, “Do What You Can”, during that particular summer. Since he could not live his life as he wished, what did it matter if he cheapened it by “too much contact with the crowd, too much posturing and idle chatter”. It was not that he had given in to his father, at least not in the beginning. As far as he was concerned, he would do anything but give in. But since he was not naturally violent or rebellious, he had adopted a method of passive resistance.
Dimitri had not the strength openly to contest the parameters that his father set him. But without stepping beyond them, he could interpret the rules that had been imposed upon him in his own way. His father could marry Jenny as much as he liked, but Dimitri would never think of her as his mother. His heart was full of memories of Eleni, and a longing for Maria. He would spend time with Johnny and Laeta, but only to make use of their social circle so as not to feel a stranger when he went to the English School. His real friends would always be Paris, Iason and Nikos, Evdoxia, Aspasia, Christina, and even little Fanny – whether he was able to see them or not – and never ever Johnny and Laeta with their pretentious Cypriot friends. He would go to the English School, but his school would always be the Pancypriot. Dimitri kept these and other similar decisions well hidden. His real thoughts and real loves he would keep to himself.
That summer, a party of young English people, a rare exception to the relics of the British Empire residing there, had sought refuge at The Dome from the furnace which was the capital in summer; meanwhile their parents worked on in their various government offices or businesses in Nicosia. Almost all the young people had come on holiday from England, where they were boarders in private schools. Only one of them went to the English School in Nicosia, in the class below Johnny. Since Dimitri was condemned to associate with anyone other than his real friends, he preferred the genuine British article to its Cypriot replica. But unfortunately he would still have to make use of the children of the Cypriot contractor in order to gain an entrée to the English at the hotel.
Dimitri’s earlier dealings with English people of his own age had not left him with a good impression. He had been just four or five years old, it had been during the war, and they were waiting for the house they had bought to be refurbished. His parents had temporarily rented the basement of a large villa, in the neighbourhood of Ayios Andreas. An English major with his wife and son lived on the floor above them. Dimitri was full of admiration for the black nameplate on the door, with a royal British crest and the name of its distinguished tenant fixed onto the garden gate. The major wore brown polished boots, a thin blond moustache, and carried a stick under his arm: all equally impressive to Dimitri.
However well-cut his own father’s suit may have been, and however spotless the white handkerchief in his breast pocket, however elegant the half-open rosebud in the buttonhole of his lapel, none of these things could compare, in Dimitri’s eyes, with the austere elegance of the khaki uniform. His playmate, Tim, had toys which came, together with all his parents’ household possessions, directly from England. They looked incomparably more solid than Dimitri’s toys, which had been made exclusively on the island, at a time when the war had limited its imported goods to absolute essentials. Dimitri was not jealous, but he couldn’t help admiring the clockwork cars, the electric train, the swords and guns made of solid wood and metal belonging to his young neighbour. They all looked strikingly real next to his own, which might have been bought at a panegyri, a local fair. When Tim’s mother invited him to play with her son upstairs, it had come as a true revelation. Dimitri would never forget the mysterious smell of the food and drink, of their wooden and leather furniture, and especially the sight of stuffed trophies: stags’, gazelles’ and wild goats’ heads, ranged along the walls of the drawing room. It had nothing in common with his own family’s saloni. Even the silver on the low tables was different: severe geometric designs and uniform sleek metal, instead of the intricate arabesques of their own local silverware.
Dimitri sailed along ecstatically in the blissful environment of Tim’s house. He felt that he would rather consent to any sacrifice than have to be removed from such a fascinating, exotic world. By the time he had to leave, reluctantly, with his mother, who had come to collect him in time for his evening bath, Dimitri had determined to work out a way of obtaining permanent access to the earthly paradise upstairs. In his little four- or five-year-old head, he conceived the notion that he might suggest a mutual exchange of language lessons. He could teach Tim Greek and Tim could teach him English. He was so persistent that on the following day, his mother, despite her reservations as to how it would be received, agreed to communicate the idea to Tim.
“Why should I want to learn Greek?” was the spontaneous – and to Dimitri extremely traumatic – response. He became aware for the first time that relations between the English and the Cypriots on the island were essentially unequal. The Cypriots might admire, they might want to imitate and often even to love their rulers; for the English a reciprocal attitude to the Cypriots was simply inconceivable. And yet the Major and his wife were obviously the best sort of people, polite to Dimitri’s parents and commendable, if just for the fact that they had invited him to play with their son. It had only been a few years since the wife of a higher colonial official had vouchsafed the remark that in the fourteen years she had lived in Cyprus, no ‘native’ had ever set foot in her house. An impenetrable wall had continued to separate the two nations.
Since then, for more than ten years, Dimitri had taken his lesson to heart. He had protected himself from a repetition of that unbearably humiliating experience and avoided every kind of association with the English. Now, however, he was in a mood to put the question of his inequality to the test, to go and mingle as an equal with the new young representatives of the Herrenvolk at the hotel.
As a first step, he condescended to keep company with the young Neophytou. Since he was intrinsically honest with himself, he was secretly forced to admit that despite their snobbery and bad taste, evident in their adopting, without question, anything that was English and more generally foreign, they weren’t bad children. Johnny was cheerful and good-natured. He had no interests beyond sporting prowess and dancing, the mastery of which he skilfully pursued, in order more easily to approach members of the opposite sex. But Laeta, beneath her superficial vanity, concealed a genuine interest in literature, and this formed a point of contact with Dimitri.
The three of them were sitting on the veranda of the hotel one Saturday evening and Dimitri was questioning his cosmopolitan companions about Alexandria, the city of his beloved Cavafy. Just then the young English party appeared, on their way back from the beach. Johnny waved them over, and they took chairs from nearby tables and came to sit for a while, and have a drink before going up to change in their rooms. Laeta made the necessary introductions.
The English party consisted of Sarah Wilson, a girl of about twenty, with brown hair, and Andrew, her twelve-year-old brother; two strikingly beautiful blonde girls the same age as Dimitri, Joan Beresforth and Ellie Huntington, and Anthony McBaine, a red-haired boy also his own age. Dimitri learnt later that Anthony was at the English school. The others were all at boarding schools in England, except for Sarah, who had finished school, and then spent two years in Kenya. She was about to go to university.
The conversation turned to plans for the evening’s entertainment: Johnny suggested that they go to the Country Club. The latest hit singles had arrived there, apparently, and they would be able to dance. Everyone agreed immediately, except for Dimitri, who was always careful to ask his father’s permission first.
Mr Dorides was of course thrilled that Dimitri had at last decided to abandon his self-inflicted isolation, and join the very social milieu that he was, quite properly, destined to inhabit. Not only did his father give permission, he gave him extra monetary reinforcement as well, in the shape of five shillings; or rather 250 mils – the new name of the freshly minted coinage, strangely decorated with boats and grapes, which was replacing Richard I’s familiar lions.
As the last rays of sun vanished from above the battlements of the castle, the warm evening transformed itself little by little to a magical August night. The young party followed the road along the seafront to the harbour. To the left stood the castle and the police station, where the recent bomb attacks meant that an armed guard now stood sentry behind sacks of sand. They carried on past the guard, and walked towards the club.
There were seven of them – Sarah’s little brother had gone back to the villa Oleanders, where his family were staying. They sat at two tables joined together, away from the dance floor, and talked, stopping only to listen to the music and comment on whichever latest hit blared out of the loudspeakers into the summer night. The new musical discovery of the summer was Fats Domino. As the first chords of “Blueberry Hill” struck up, Johnny took Sarah’s hand and led her onto the little dance floor. The others followed his lead. Dimitri watched Sarah’s shapely calves and thighs beneath the fine fabric of her skirt, swaying and clinging to Johnny’s body, while her dark head nestled into the boy’s shoulder. He thought of how his senses had leapt to life when Aspasia had dropped into his arms in Maria’s room. Following the older boy’s example, he got up and danced with all the girls, one after the other; but he waited for Fats Domino to be played again before asking Joan. It was the first time he had ever seen close up – and even more, been able to touch – such a graceful figure: narrow hips, long legs, skin with so fair a complexion, a fine featured face, and blue eyes the colour of forget-me-nots. Her blond hair fell untidily, half covering her earlobes, which were pierced with fine gold rings. Dimitri danced with her – but didn’t dare to press her close to him – while the August moon played hide and seek with the mountain ranges of the Pentadaktylos.
It was nearly midnight when they left to go home. Johnny escorted Sarah to the Oleanders, almost half a mile beyond the club, and the other children went back to the hotel along narrow lanes flooded with the scent of lemon trees, fig and jasmine from the gardens. Dimitri had not expected such a happy evening. His first contact with the female of the British species had been encouraging. He hoped that he would come to know them better.
On the following morning, Dimitri rose, early as usual, and had breakfast with his father on the veranda of the hotel. At the next-door table, the Neophytou family – all except Johnny and Jenny – were finishing their breakfast and getting ready to go to church. The Dorides’s early rising had nothing to do with being devout; Dimitri’s father cherished strictly anticlerical feelings and in general professed a mild agnosticism. The morning routine had more to do with Mr Dorides’s views as to what constitutes a healthy way of life, especially for young people, than anything holy. As Dimitri was in a good mood, he offered to go down to the harbour to buy his father a Sunday paper, the Cyprus Mail. He came back to find Jenny ordering her breakfast, having taken his seat. Johnny was eating alone at the Neophytou table, which had been recently abandoned by the rest of the family, and so without a moment’s hesitation Dimitri delivered the newspaper to his father, addressed a brief good morning to his breakfast companion and went and sat down with Johnny.
“Why so late?” he asked Johnny. “Your family have already gone to church.”
“Don’t ask. I couldn’t begin to tell you”, answered Johnny, clearly still half asleep. “I got back to the hotel after three. Luckily no one noticed.”
“And what were you doing till then? Admiring the setting moon?” asked Dimitri ironically and with a touch of envy.
“You guessed it, Dimitri. The moon might have set, but I was gazing at Sarah’s twin moons, which rose just for me.”
Dimitri, dragged roughly from the enchanted world of poesie, grasped Johnny’s crude metaphor, and was momentarily floored. According to the strict rules of bourgeois Cypriot society at that time, such a relationship with girls of his class and social circle would be unthinkable. But he wasn’t sure whether the young Englishwomen he was meeting were in the same category.
As if in answer to his thoughts, just then Joan and Ellie came down from their rooms and joined them at the table. Dimitri now looked rather differently at their suntanned limbs, scantily clad as they were in very short and narrow white shorts, with shirts open at the neck, and the sleeves rolled up. When they sat down, with their sun-bleached hair identically brushed, their identical blue eyes, and both of them wearing fine gold rings in their ears, you could easily have mistaken them for twin sisters. But the likeness they deliberately seemed to be adopting disappeared as soon as they stood up. Joan was taller, and Ellie had more feminine hips.
Dimitri pulled the canvas deckchair over to where Joan was sitting, and tried to interest her in the Gothic monuments of the region, a subject on which he was without rival. Joan listened to him politely for a few minutes, and then turned back to Ellie, to carry on the conversation, which Dimitri had apparently interrupted. It was obvious that he would have to change tactic. As further proof that his earlier observations were correct, Sarah now arrived, accompanied by her younger brother, and wearing a pair of minute shorts and a see-through blouse tied together in a knot at the front so as to reveal part of her belly. After hurriedly greeting the assembled company, she went off to fetch an armchair, so that she could sit next to Johnny. A few moments later, she was holding his hand under the table. When Dimitri looked again, the young Cypriot’s hand was resting on the young Englishwoman’s naked thigh. Clearly this was a game of which Dimitri had yet to learn the rules.
The circle widened with the arrival of the redhead Anthony McBaine, Johnny’s schoolmate, who left his bicycle next to the veranda steps, and came to join them round the table, hot from his ride in the August sun. It wasn’t long before the vital and overriding theme of the holidays was broached: how would they spend their day?
Anthony suggested that they all take their bicycles – whoever didn’t have one could rent one – and go swimming from his beach house at Glykiotissa. His parents were away that weekend, and so they wouldn’t be bothering anyone. And for lunch they could ask the cook at the hotel to prepare them picnic hampers.
The idea of having Anthony’s house to themselves without any adults about seemed a good one. They had only to persuade their parents, or as many of them as were there. Dimitri’s father seemed relieved that his son was being assimilated into his new environment, and perhaps he was also looking forward to a peaceful day with Jenny. Mr Neophytou was just back with his wife and daughter from church. He agreed when Laeta, who was the eldest and just eighteen, and whom he trusted, promised to take responsibility for them all, and to keep an eye on her younger and rather unpredictable brother.
The house that the McBaines were renting was built on a low hill, practically on the beach, which took its name, like the little island opposite, after the Panagia Glykiotissa. The front of the house opened onto a covered veranda with a view of the sea. The house inside was spacious but simple. Bare whitewashed walls and minimal furnishings gave an air of deliberate simplicity. The dining room consisted of a table and six chairs at one end of the main room, with a sofa, two armchairs and two stools making a sitting room at the opposite end. Each of the four bedrooms was furnished with two camp beds and a bedside table. A narrow path paved with stone slabs led to the beach.
The young people leant their bicycles up against the wall of the house and went in to leave their picnic hampers, shorts and blouses in piles at the four corners of the main room. Then they ran yelling into the water, and swam out as far as the island opposite. They stayed there, playing in the sea, until late in the afternoon. Back at the house, hungry from bicycling and swimming, they pulled chairs and picnic baskets out onto the veranda and sat down to eat, wet and covered in salt as they were.
While they had been in the sea, and during their picnic, Dimitri had tried unsuccessfully to attract Joan’s attention. She responded to his long-winded utterances politely, but in monosyllables, and what they said to each other never quite came together enough to create a conversation. In the end, Dimitri lost heart. He left her in peace to continue her interminable chattering with Ellie, and went to sit down next to Laeta.
After lunch, feeling heavy and weary with the heat, Dimitri and Laeta went inside with Anthony and Sarah’s younger brother Andrew, to sit around the dining room table and play Canasta. An hour or so later, Dimitri got up to take a glass of water from the kitchen. He looked for his other friends and couldn’t see anyone on the veranda. Inside the house, two of the bedrooms were empty, but the other two doors were shut. Girlish laughter came from the one, and from the other nothing. He felt something akin to depression. These people were strangers to him. An insurmountable wall separated him from young English people of his age. It was impossible for him to establish an immediate rapport with them, as he had with Evdoxia, Aspasia and their classmates from the Pancyprian: to understand what they were thinking, what they felt. Their faces seemed to him smooth and opaque. With Johnny Neophytou of course it wasn’t that, but the opposite problem. His face wasn’t hiding anything, but what it revealed seemed to Dimitri to be hopelessly vulgar. Laeta was the only one with whom he felt he could communicate.
When he came pensively back to the table, he found Laeta sitting there alone. Young Andrew was bored and had gone to play on the beach. Anthony had sat down a little apart to smoke and leaf through a magazine. Little as he wanted to admit it, the scene made Dimitri uncomfortable and he felt the need to share his thoughts with Laeta. She was after all two years older and seemed to him at eighteen to be mature, and able to comprehend him.
“I don’t understand them”, he said. “They behave like adults, but they have the minds of children.”
“It’s true”, said Laeta, abandoning her habitually ironical stance. “There is no correlation between their spiritual development and the entitlements they lay claim to and wrongly assume.”
“In one room, Sarah is behaving like an inmate of ‘La Maison Tellier’,” said Dimitri, demonstrating his progress in French literature, “and in the other, Joan and Ellie are giggling like children playing doctors.”
“Tu ne crois pas si bien dire”, muttered Laeta under her breath. She had learnt to speak French with great ease during her frequent visits to Alexandria.
“I didn’t quite hear. What did you say?” Dimitri asked her.
“Nothing. Let’s go and walk along the beach.”
Outside, the sun had started to decline towards the west. The light breeze of that morning had dropped, and the sea was calm. Dimitri and Laeta, when they arrived at the end of the path, turned to the left and walked barefoot in the sand. Now and then Dimitri stopped, picked a flat pebble from the shore, and sent it skipping across the smooth surface of the water.
“However pleasant it may be, this life seems empty to me”, he turned and said to Laeta during one of these stops. “It reminds me”, he continued, “of a poem by T.S. Eliot, which one of our English teachers read out to us during a lecture at the Pancyprian – Mr Durrell, who has left now. It made such an impression on me that later I bought Eliot’s collected poems: ‘We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men’ and further on ‘In this last of meeting places we grope together and avoid speech. Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.’ Here we are gathered on this beach and what have we got to say? Nothing. Or worse still, empty nonsense. You see, we are the dead men, the stuffed men…”
“Don’t you think you take life a bit too seriously, Dimitri?” said Laeta, interrupting him and reverting to her habitually ironic tone. “Come on, it’s time to go back. Let’s go and muster the others, since not all the bikes have headlamps and the grown-ups will be worried if we don’t get back before dark.”
“How beautifully she uses the language”, said Dimitri inwardly, “Who would have thought to use that Homeric verb, which nevertheless describes so exactly what we are about to do?” Maybe the mania for foreign things, and the affectation of putting foreign quotes into her speech, was just a mask to hide her shyness about her true inclinations. His instincts had not deceived him, he thought. Of course it would be worthwhile to get to know Laeta better. If only she wouldn’t so often retreat into defensive sarcasm, especially when it was at his expense.
When they got back to Anthony’s house, they found him playing dominoes with young Andrew; the other four seemed still to be shut up in their rooms. Just as Laeta, accompanied by the three boys, was about to burst into the room where her brother Johnny was sleeping, the door opened to reveal him and Sarah half-naked and dishevelled like a pair of shipwrecked sailors who had just survived a storm. Startled by the unexpected presence of a reception committee, they sought salvation in flight, ran down the beach and flung themselves into the sea. Without further restraint, Laeta opened the door of the girls’ bedroom. Ellie and Joan, still wearing their minute bikinis, were asleep, clasped together in an embryonic position on the one bed, while on the other their shorts and blouses were piled in a heap. A grimace from Laeta did not escape Dimitri’s attention.
“Get up, it’s time to go”, she said in their language, but somewhat abruptly.
The girls turned onto their backs and stretched.
“But we’ve only just gone to sleep”, they protested and then burst out laughing.
Laeta made a sudden turn and went out of the room, pushing Dimitri before her.
“I can’t bear juvenile behaviour”, she said.
Dimitri left the scene unwillingly. He was transfixed by their blonde hair, faces glowing with sleep, blue eyes and sunburnt skin, and the golden down on their thighs and calves.
“Pull yourself together”, said Laeta to him, looking heavenwards. “My God, you boys have brains the size of a pea. Or at any rate, you don’t use your heads to think with.”
Under Laeta’s direction, the children collected their things and helped Anthony to tidy the house. Then they got onto their bikes and set off for the hotel in the early evening light, with the last rays of the sun lengthening the shadows cast by the cyclists and bicycles on the tarmac before them.
That weekend proved decisive in determining the subsequent evolution of the group. It gave it a foundation, and consolidated the chosen alliances between its members: Johnny was in love with Sarah; Dimitri was friends with Laeta; Joan, ambiguously close to Ellie; and Anthony, philosophically alone.
For the whole of the following week, they went for morning swims at Glykiotissa, or the beach to the eastern end of the small harbour, which the Royal Air Force had given over to the Club. In the afternoon, they raced Fireflies and in the evening, there were epic games of ping-pong at the Club, accompanied by the music of “Blueberry Hill”. The almost deserted road along the seafront seemed to be inviting them to take longer and longer bicycle rides. They cycled towards Karavas, to the Panagia Acheiropoietos at the ancient site of Lampousa, and to the Springs of Lapithos. They even organised a day-long outing to Vavylas, ten miles further, and swam in its transparent waters.
One day, they decided to explore along the coastline to the east of Kyrenia. Their bicycles were not up to taking them any further than Ayios Epiktitos. They managed to get a lift on a rented bus carrying pilgrims to Akanthou for the feast of Chrysosotiras. They explored the beach as far as Neraides, and then went to the site of the ancient sanctuary of Aphrodite.
Crowds of people had flooded in for the panegyri from the provinces of Kyrenia and Famagusta. Eventually Dimitri and Laeta, who had been idly perusing the stalls in the market, decided to escape from the bustle and dust raised by the thousands of feet of men and beasts, and took themselves off towards the hills to the north of the town. As they followed the pathway beyond the cemetery, a couple appeared from behind a clump of bushes: a thin man of about thirty, with black hair and a thick moustache, and a young brunette, of medium stature, with fine features. The two of them were so engrossed in one another that they didn’t notice Dimitri and Laeta. They had stopped short at the edge of the pathway and then, as if they were Adam and Eve, as if there were nobody else but them on earth, after looking into each other’s eyes for endless seconds, they embraced. Their kiss took Dimitri and Laeta’s breath away. The public expression of intimate feelings was totally alien to the customs of Cyprus at that time. Afterwards, the man left hurriedly in the direction of the mountain, and the young girl stood looking after him. The two friends, in order not to embarrass her, turned back and went down towards the fair.
“That unexpected encounter reminds me of a poem by Seferis”, said Laeta. “But their words were weightless and their glances, interwoven and immobile, left their eyes blind. I shall always think of them, because they are the only people I have seen in my life with neither the grabbing, nor the hunted air which I have come to know in everyone else.”
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