Strangers in a foreign land, but it’s a friendship that endured

A chance encounter eight years ago many miles from home led to an unlikely friendship for TREVOR LAFFAN
Strangers in a foreign land, but it’s a friendship that endured

‘The Little Mermaid’ in Copenhagen. Trevor’s friend, Tove, was from Denmark but hated the statue!

IN November, 2013, I arrived in Cyprus for a 12-month stint with the United Nations.

I rented an apartment in a small complex and from the balcony I had an unrestricted view of the Buffer Zone - the strip of no man’s land that separates the northern part of the island from the south.

They say men died there during the invasion of 1974, and people, including me, have told of strange happenings in the area. I was convinced I saw a man standing at my bedroom door in the middle of the night, but when I jumped out of bed, the apartment was locked and there was nobody there except me - but that’s for another day.

I had only been living there for a short while when, one evening, I heard a loud crash coming from the apartment next door. It sounded to me like a kitchen unit loaded with pots and pans had fallen off the wall and clattered to the floor.

My first thought was that maybe someone was hurt. I knew two ladies lived in that apartment and one of them had a walking aid, so I was a little concerned.

I went out and rang their doorbell. The door opened slightly and cautiously to reveal two heads peeping out at me. They had a surprised look on their faces. I introduced myself and told them I heard a noise, and I was just checking to make sure they were OK.

They were amazed. They couldn’t believe that a stranger would take the time to check on their welfare. They invited me in and sat me at the table.

We chatted for a bit, and it wasn’t long before they produced a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin and that was the start of it. We sat there for hours, and I knew straight away we were going to be friends.

They were widows and had been friends for over 40 years. They were characters and well able to speak their minds. English wasn’t their first language, but if they had something to say, they said it, and the conversation was regularly punctuated with expletives when they felt it necessary, which was very often.

We shared many drinks during the year, and we always had fun when we got together. I would come home after a day’s work and flop into a sun lounger by the pool and tell them how exhausted I was after spending the day ducking bombs and bullets and risking my life to keep them safe. They knew that was rubbish of course and they referred to me as Mr Bond and would regularly ask how many people I had killed that day.

I loved the fact that you could say anything to these two. There were no rules, and it was easy to be in their company. Ulla hailed from Sweden and Tove was Danish and while they both had very good English, conversations often got complicated, but never dull.

One day I came home to find Tove, who was in her seventies, standing by the pool looking into the Buffer Zone. She was leaning on her walker and had the back of her dress tucked into her knickers.

Without turning around, she heard me coming and told me not to be frightened, that she was just getting some sun on her legs.

I asked her one day about the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. That’s the bronze sculpture displayed sitting on a rock in the promenade that you often see on tourist promotional material. Tove hated it and went into a long rant that would not be suitable for young ears. If I ever wanted to get her going, all I had to do was mention the statue.

Before I finished my time in Cyprus, Tove became ill and had to return home to Denmark, but she regularly sent me Jacqui Lawson cards by email on special occasions. These are animated musical cards delivered via the internet with dancing animated characters set to music.

These days, when I go to Cyprus, I always pay a visit to Ulla and it was on one of these occasions, a few years ago, that, as soon as I met her, I knew something was wrong. I could see it in her face and as we hugged each other, she told me that Tove had died.

That news came as a shock to me, and her death saddened me more than I had anticipated. We weren’t related and didn’t even know each other that well, but for a short time in our lives, the three of us came together from different parts of the world and connected. Became friends. We had a few things in common, I suppose, in so far as we shared a good sense of humour, and we were in a strange country, away from home. We got on well together and shared some fun and laughter along the way and a year later, went our separate ways again.

It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed since I first met those two ladies. Ulla and I still keep in touch and, while in Cyprus a few weeks ago, I called to her again. We went out for a meal and caught up on the various happenings in our lives and talked about the old times.

It was sad that Tove couldn’t be with us, and Ulla misses her terribly. Her anniversary occurs around this time, and we remembered her fondly and laughed as we recalled some of the things she said and did.

Meeting those two characters made my time in Cyprus all the more enjoyable, and it all started with a noise in their apartment. We never found out what caused it though.

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