(This story is published on the Horla website and won
First prize in The President's Award for Short Story 2017)
THE OPEN WINDOW
It is a large, two storey Venetian-built house with tall ceilings and graceful shuttered windows. It stands in a plateia facing the sea, only a small palm-lined park between the house and the glorious ocean.
My teenage daughter and I live in the whole of the first floor. On every windowsill and on the small balcony I have pots and pots of geraniums in all colours from pale salmon to vibrant reds and deep pink, some trailing down from the windowsills. People passing through the plateia stop to enjoy the riot of colour.
It is while watering the plants one day that I notice the sky has become as black as ink as if someone has switched off a light. It is only mid-afternoon. I step out onto the tiny balcony with its wrought iron table and chair where I drink my morning coffee.
Today is different, there is something strange and unreal about the light; apocalyptic comes to mind. I hear a deep rumbling which seems to shake the earth. The sea has drawn back like a dog’s lips in a snarl. The ocean bed has become visible. There is a profound silence and in an instant I realise what is about to happen. Then a roar as the sea rushes forward to devour everything in its path, the wave rearing its head like a hound from hell, baying and ready to attack.
In the kitchen, at the back of the house, is a flight of rickety wooden stairs leading into a huge attic. As I rush from the balcony this afternoon, I scream to my daughter to come and I go up the steps to the trap door to hoist it open. The five cats all come running when my daughter shakes the box of biscuits to entice them through. The dog waddles in to see what spilt food he can find, and I close the kitchen door firmly. My daughter screams at me to hurry up. The tsunami has crashed and is filling the houses all around with water. It is impossible to get the fat dog up the narrow stairs, so I hold onto his collar as the water comes higher and higher and eventually he swims towards the trap door and we hoist him in, shutting the door behind us and pull boxes and trunks onto its cover.
I have no idea if the water will consume us in the attic so I climb a stepladder to the rafters and start pulling tiles off the roof. This isn’t difficult as the whole roof is sagging and I have been nagging the landlady for months to repair it, but she wouldn’t. I am grateful for that now. I make a hole big enough for us to escape onto the roof if it becomes necessary. I can see out towards the sea now, the first huge wave has withdrawn taking with it boats and park benches and unsuspecting people. But it has only drawn back to gather its strength and momentum and I know that there will be a second huge surge. I can see neighbours up on their high balconies and some gripping onto their roofs. From the side window I can see my friend Iorgos on his roof garden with his dogs. Our cats can get up on the roof, so can my daughter and I if necessary, precarious as it might be, but the dog won’t make it.
Everything has the texture of a dreamscape. Outside the side window, the water goes rushing by. We had closed it, but now, as we can see people caught up in the wave, hurtling past our eyes, we open it as the water is a little lower than the window. A surfer is riding the wave in glee. He shouts it is the best wave ever. There is debris of all kinds. Pots of geraniums – probably some of mine, a dog kennel, an empty bird cage, my balcony chair and table bouncing and knocking against the wall, a road sign, plastic toys, one which makes my daughter scream that there is a baby there, but it is a doll, her wide blue eyes open as if in despair. It is a narrow alleyway and we can see people rolling by. Kyria Maria Armeniakou, the concert pianist, is playing a dirge on her piano as she whizzes past, it is the fastest dirge I’ve ever heard though the music is barely audible over the screams and shouts and roar of water. A man waves at us from his bicycle, balancing on the top of the water, manoeuvring around the debris and people. Eric, the white dog I feed every morning in the park, who has more scars than face, swims past, doing an excellent doggy paddle. A family in a rowing boat rides the surge of water, but they are pushing people off who are trying to climb in as any more in the boat and it will sink. The alley has become a veritable watery highway. I look around the attic and find some poles and rope in the corner so we start trying to drag people in from the rushing water. First a man I recognise from the house round the corner. I grab his sodden jacket and hoist him over the sill and he falls heavily onto the floor, shivering and shaking. I have a box of old towels stashed away in the attic. My daughter wraps the man in towels while I go back to the window, leaning out to look for the next person I can hoist through. Kyria Evangelia is bobbing around like a walrus in the froth. I shout to her and she lifts her head slightly, tries feebly to wave but is gone past before she can be pulled in. Her husband, a weedy man, grabs onto the pole, and with my daughter’s help we start to pull him in, but he is hanging on for dear life to his wife’s ankle and won’t let go of her so we fail to save them. Iorgos shouts and gesticulates from his roof terrace. He is OK for now, it is the same level as our attic, but if the water rises anymore he will need to get higher and have to abandon his dogs to their fate. He is pushing a long plank of wood across to our windowsill, then a second, to make a bridge.
In the meantime my daughter has alerted me to the fact that water is swishing up through the trap door, which is bulging as if a herd of elephants is leaning against it. Alerted isn’t really the right word. She is screaming in terror. I know that if we have a third wave, it is the roof for us. Now neither of us like heights, so that is going to be a challenge. I tie ropes around our waists in case we have to hang on to the roof and each other. I stop for a moment to visualise that scenario and it is nearly the undoing of me. My daughter says she is already amazed at how calm I am but I can’t show her the terror I am feeling. I need to be strong for her.
The cats have already escaped onto the roof and are mewing at us from the tiles. I hope they won’t be stupid enough to try and pounce on the rows of pigeons sitting on the apex, or they might find themselves sliding off. We leave the window for the time being to try to organise some height for the dog by building stepping stones with items stored in the attic. My defunct aerobics step, next to a couple of tea chests and blanket chests we drag across to the wall. He won’t go up there now, but at least when the time comes he could gain some height. We return to the window, slightly ashamed to have been thinking of the dog instead of the people we can save. We have only saved one, so we start pulling them in as fast as we can, and like a fisherman having a great day with his catch, the people come falling onto our floor, gasping and spluttering and shivering and soon we run out of towels so I search around for blankets in the chests and find a few dusty ones, but it is better than nothing. Other people are grabbing onto the plank bridge and more are saved as they inch across the plank on all fours, some come tumbling into the attic or onto Iorgos’ roof garden depending on which side of the alley is nearest.
I look down into my neighbours’ window opposite and can see Kyria Maria and her husband, whose name I don’t know, clutching each other, as they become submerged in their sitting room. They have given up hope. I take one of the tiles and lob it down and across the alleyway at their window. It takes me three attempts before they look up in surprise to see us at our side window. I scream at them to get out and they float up towards us, the water has stilled by now, and we hoist them in as well. A fat woman floats past on her back a beatific smile on her face. As we pull in our twentieth person I notice the water subsiding. I can’t reach down any further, but hope that this is the end of it. The last woman we save is clutching a cat basket, the cat looks dead, its fur flattened against its skin, pathetic looking, but it opens an eye and I tell my daughter to dry it. One man, Euripides, my poet neighbour, is clutching an armful of sodden books. Another man, one I don’t know, is carrying a frying pan. I never did find out why.
I climb the ladder to look out through the hole in the roof and scan the seascape. The palm trees, those that are still standing, have their heads bent as if in prayer. I can see people clutching to the topmost branches, hanging on for dear life. Oleander bushes lie flat, laid back on the ground as if smashed with a pestle and mortar. What grass can be seen is marbled with mud. Most of the buildings are intact; they have been built solidly to withstand earthquakes. Debris, including my precious car, flounces around in the water, a lot of it pulped to mush.
Although thick grey clouds are still edging across the sky, patches of blue are showing here and there. The sea looks normal again, save for the amount of flotsam on the waves, which are still high, but nothing like the two big tsunami waves. There is an eerie silence. Will there be a third?
The rescued people in my attic all push and shove to look out, almost pushing me off the ladder to see if their houses are still standing. Some have lost loved ones and want to see if they can be seen hanging on to trees or on roof tops. It has become bedlam up there in the attic.
Then screams as the people can see a third wave approaching. I try to organise them, asking them to use the poles to rescue people as they have been rescued, but their screams die away and they step back to the floor in silence. I rush up the ladder again and what I see through the hole in the roof is incredible. The third wave has come leaping up to the shore, hovers as if it is unsure what to do next and, as if it has run out of energy, goes whimpering back to the sea from where it has emerged, like a disobedient dog eventually listening to its master, returning with its tail between its legs.