A Waste of Time

 

On the Hazards of Daylight Savings Time

 

He could feel the sweat clinging to his armpits as he made his way to the checkpoint. His watch said it was already 3:55 pm, so he picked up the pace. He regretted having worn a shirt and blazer. The weather was much less chilly than his weather app had led him to believe and he knew he would not escape the embarrassment of sweat patches under his arms and probably on his chest too. 

Ledra Street was unusually quiet. It was early on a Tuesday afternoon and most people hadn't left work yet. The cafes he passed  were almost all empty, with the exception of a group of teenagers huddled around a table at a Starbucks, smoking.

He was already late. They had set the meeting for 4:00pm. He left the office early, right after lunch, claiming he wasn't feeling well and needed to go to the doctor. The truth was that he had felt so nervous all morning he hadn't done much work anyway. He went home, took a quick shower and spent a good part of an hour trying to decide what to wear.

He had never thought of himself as an adventurous person. He always assumed that his personal life would follow a predictable path, much like his career. He had studied Business Management at Leeds, then worked for four years at an audit firm in London where he had become a chartered accountant. He had returned to Cyprus three years ago, and had worked at his uncle's accounting firm since. 

When he first met Neşe he didn't know her name. His cousin - his uncle’s daughter, who was being groomed to be his boss - had dragged him to a beginners' tango class. He tried telling her that he didn't look like a person who danced tango - he was on the short side, slightly balding, and the most fashionable item he owned was a brown leather sling-over briefcase he had bought with his loyalty points from Marks & Spencer's –but his cousin brushed him off.

She insisted they had to go to support Natalie, their high school friend who had just returned from Buenos Aires with a tango teaching qualification. He went because he had nothing better to do and because he didn't want to say no to his cousin. He knew better than to do anything that would put him in her bad graces. 

Neşe came to the tango class with two other women. She towered above them, her long black hair tied in a thick ponytail behind her back. Every time she said ‘I’m sorry’ to each of her dance partners she let out a soft chuckle that tickled his ears. When the dancers rotated enough times for them to finally dance together, they were both too intent on looking at their feet to introduce themselves. 

'Can you believe those three girls were Turkish Cypriot?' said his cousin early the following day. 

He still hadn't taken the first sip of his morning coffee. 

'Not that I care or anything. I just wish I knew because I haven't met a Turkish Cypriot before.'

That first sip went a long way. He couldn’t face his cousin’s daily gossip rant without it.

'Which girls?'

'The tall one, with the other two.'

He immediately realized who his cousin was talking about.

'Apparently her name's Neşe. Neşe! That's cool, right? She's friends with Natalie.'

Later that afternoon he went onto the tango school's Facebook page and started searching for her. She was easy to find. Her profile picture showed a big, thick braid running down the middle of her back. He couldn't bear the thought of messaging her directly so he scanned the page for a comment she might have made, or a picture she was tagged in.

He found one of her and Natalie from 2014 at the tango school's entrance. 'Can't get this one to start dancing!' said the caption. He couldn't comment on that; it would make him look like a stalker. Instead he liked the tango school’s page and logged out of Facebook. He decided that learning to dance wasn’t such a bad idea.

When he went to class the following week, Neşe wasn't there. He left the studio as soon as the class was over, ignoring Natalie's invitation to go out for drinks with the rest of the group. 

At home, he fell on the couch, took his shoes off and started downloading the latest Liam Neeson movie. His phone pinged.

'Natalie says ur a really bad student for not coming out with us!' 

He squinted to make out the thumbnail. It was Neşe. He sat up, his laptop falling to the floor. He typed and erased more than three different responses before settling on the least risky.

'Hey! wasnt feeling very well... U having fun?'

'Yes, its OK. See u next week then!'

Fuck. His jaw clenched and he started grinding his teeth. He should've said something witty about her being the bad student for not showing up. Or something self-deprecating. He went to the kitchen, opened the fridge and grabbed three slices of cheddar cheese, putting all of them in his mouth at once. When he was done he went back to the couch and picked up his phone, mortified.

'See ya.'

The Liam Neeson movie was pretty shit. As the credits were rolling, his phone pinged again.

'Unless u want to have a coffee tmrw? Its my day off.'

They set a meeting point under the clocks in the north part of Nicosia, close to the Ledra checkpoint. He had never been there before, but he didn't tell her that. He planned on getting there fifteen minutes earlier, just in case he got lost and needed the extra time to find the place. 

Instead he was late. It was already 4:00 pm and he had only just reached the checkpoint. He had spent too long in the shower, too long shaving, and too long picking out his outfit, which would almost certainly not make the impression he had hoped for since he’d sweated so much he looked like he'd been wearing the same clothes for days.

At the checkpoint he waited for ten whole minutes in the wrong queue. He followed a group of German tourists who were crossing from the north to the south and their excitement was causing a delay. He caught himself grinding his teeth again. This was not a good way to start a first date.

When he finally got to the window of the police cubicle, the Greek Cypriot policeman laughed at him and pointed to another set of cubicles further along in the buffer zone. As a Greek Cypriot he didn’t need to be checked by his side’s officials.

'What, you haven't been here before? Go over there. And relax.'

He gave his ID card to a Turkish Cypriot policewoman down the road and looked at his watch: 4:15pm. The policewoman tapped a number on the keyboard in front of her and returned the ID. It was that simple. From then on he followed Neşe’s instructions. They gave him a sense of purpose, hiding the fact that he had no idea where he was, even if this side of the checkpoint didn't seem all that different to the side he had just come from.

Only a few meters away from him was a small square, with a circle of benches around a post with many signs on it. They all pointed in different directions, leading to places he didn't know. The only place name he recognized was that of Büyük Han. 

Above the benches he saw the outlines of three big clocks. He assumed this was the right place and immediately started looking around for Neşe. She wasn't sitting on any of the benches. She wasn't looking at things to buy at the nearby merchant stalls. She wasn't standing in line for a coffee at any of the many coffee shops in the square.

She had probably left. Fifteen minutes is a long time to wait for someone you hardly know. Or perhaps she was late also. He knew from experience that punctuality was relative in this country. He sat on the bench closest to him, facing a narrow street lined with tables of tacky souvenirs. He brought his palms to the sides of his face, trying to relax his jaw by massaging the joints under his ears with his fingers. He looked at his watch. 4:23pm. He opened the Messenger app on his phone, and started typing: 'Hey, I was late...Sorry if I missed u. I'm here now if ur around.' He decided not to send it. 

He would wait until 5:00pm. Perhaps something unexpected had happened to her, which would also explain why she hadn’t sent him a message. She could’ve also changed her mind at the last minute. This whole story had been too good to have happened to him anyway. He should've known that it wouldn't work out. He was average, plain, not particularly adventurous… He just hadn't expected it to end this quickly. He bent his head forward and then back, trying to ease the tension in his neck. Two bean-shaped sweat patches had formed on his chest, one on each side. 

At 4:55pm he stood up to leave. He looked around one last time. He dragged his feet to the checkpoint on the opposite side of the street and gave the Turkish Cypriot officials his ID card.

He didn’t notice that the clocks in the square read 5:55pm. 

© Argyro Nicolaou, forthcoming in Writing...Nicosia