I was 3 when I started living with my dad’s parents at the top of one of the two hills that made up our village in Cyprus. My parents were working in London.
I remember being stood on my grandfather’s belly reaching up for his binoculars hanging from a nail in the white wall. He was the source of a lot of laughter for me, singing my pains away when I fell and grazed my knee or getting me to walk on his back, calling it a massage. These fond memories were later tainted by my mother’s accounts of how controlling he was of her, spying on her house at the top of the other hill to see what visitors she had with his binoculars. He would then ban certain visitors.
I remember the smell of pan-toasted bread in the background as my grandmother washed me and my little sister in a tin in the middle of the huge kitchen with water heated on the fireplace. I wasn’t old enough to realise the simplicity of our lives and I was living moment to moment- something I haven’t been able to do since my early childhood; now I’m too often stuck in circles of memories.
I remember the day my older sister arrived from London a few months after us. My parents had decided that they couldn’t work or save money with any of us still with them in London. We were all now to be under our grandparents’ care.
My older sister’s arrival was an exciting day. I can still see her skipping towards me with a huge smile. I then moved to my other grandparents’ house with her and would daily visit my little sister. My grandmother, who lived in the sandy valley was too old to walk up that hill with me every time and my older sis wasn’t interested in us little ones much. I guess the age gap was too big then. I was 4 by now and she going on 7. I honestly can’t remember a single conversation or game with her in Cyprus after her arrival. Little did I know she was facing troubles no little girl should.
My grandmother – being the pragmatic woman who she was- convinced the village school to take me on a year early. She needed some rest between looking after us and my grandfather who soon became completely bed-bound. She was such a tough woman, but always gave me little speeches to tell me that she believed I could be something.
I only remember disobeying my gran once. I don’t remember the spanking. Just her anger. I had quickly nipped out to accompany the neighbour’s daughter to pick up something from her uncle’s house ten minutes’ walk away. I had gone to a stranger’s house without telling her.
I cried myself to sleep that afternoon and woke up to overhearing her explain herself to the neighbour, telling her how she had gone crazy looking for me in the whole neighbourhood. It wasn’t until I learned of the dark things that happened in that village that I truly appreciated her fear.
And so months turned to years, and we would be parentless until I was 7.
I wrote this just before starting this blog last year…
As depression threatened to debilitate me chronically again, yesterday morning I fought it and got my bike out. After weeks of anxiety building up (I naively stopped taking my antidepressants before I was assigned a new psychotherapist) and feeling worthless and hopeless again, the fighter in me resurfaced. I decided to give the finger to all the voices in my head and do something that has always proven to make me feel good about myself: cycle til I could no more.
When I got back home, as predicted, I was energised to do my chores and much more willing to let bad thoughts go. Still, when I sat to write the next bit of my story here, I could only think about what cycling meant to me as a child, even though we are not yet chronologically there yet. I was stuck, so I didn’t write. Having slept on it, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that I can’t tell you this in chronological order when I am living a present constantly interrupted by the past (compliments of PTSD).
So, although I will come back to where I left off in my story, I will now jump forward a few years to 1993. At age 7 I was newly and permanently back in grey London and the main feeling that plagued me was longing for the freedom I had in my Cypriot village. After being free to roam the village unattended and playing amongst trees and crops, being stuck to the confines of a semi-detached house was so frustrating.
On a sunny September day my younger sister had asked for a bike for her birthday and was crying having been told it was too expensive. A visiting uncle took pity on her and ordered one for her. When it arrived, the true reason behind my parents not wanting to buy the bike emerged. My dad sat us down and told us that bikes weren’t really for girls because it could “spoil” their virginity. Until I actually understood what virginity meant later in my teens, this fear nagged at the back of my head. I didn’t understand how or what would happen, but he made it clear it would be the most shameful thing that could happen to a girl.
You see, in London, thousands of miles away from our village mosque (only really used during funerals and Eid) Dad had found Islam. Well, at least he thought he did. Having been kicked out of my mum’s by police following yet more violence in 1991, he made friends with some practising Muslims. In his most needy time, having lost his wife and home, they picked him up, helped him and told him about their version of Islam, which he then combined with his existing thoughts.
Well, Dad worked long hours, and Mum wasn’t bothered about bikes. The bike was too big for my little sis and she got bored of it soon. I kept falling but I learned to ride it. I would use the downhill alley running down the side of our garden as a starter and ride down and up that cul-de-sac, dreaming of being able to actually go somewhere. It was the first tool that enabled the daydream world I would later create to help me escape the reality of my childhood.
So for me, cycling is escapism. Not ignorism. It keeps me sane and calms me so I can go back to concentrating on the main plan. When I was a child, the main plan was running away physically. Despite all the odds being stacked against me, I eventually did that.
Eventually I realised, I can’t run away from my thoughts…