May 14, 2020 § 14 Comments
A story, or part of one, I wrote a few years ago…
I tie my basket to the length of rope and lower it over the rail of the veranda. It swings down like a slow pendulum and dangles above the busy pavement waiting for the Armenian. His name is Ishkhan and he keeps the shop on the ground floor of my apartment building, but he doesn’t come; instead, one of his boys, the one with the ragged T-shirt and improbably white Reeboks, reaches into the basket for my shopping list, looks up and waves.
I’m glad it’s not Ishkhan, he always asks too many questions. Why are you living alone? Where is your husband? Why do you never leave the apartment?’ As he raises his voice above the noise of the traffic I want to shrink back to the solitary comfort of my cool, dark room – but he is insistent. ‘You must be lonely. You should come and drink tea with my wife.’ I try to explain that I won’t come out until I’ve finished writing the book, but Ishkhan never listens, never hears; he seems incapable of understanding what he calls the strangeness of the English woman.
His boy stands on the crowded pavement, pulls gently on the rope and makes a sign with his hands to tell me I will have to wait. I never allow myself to watch the city as it distracts me from the task I have set myself, but today, after covering my head and shoulders with the black silk shawl Adam bought me in London, I pour a glass of iced tea and sit.
It has been over twenty years since I visited this place. I was with Adam then and it was the final year we lived together. The city looks the same, yet I know it is not. It is liquid: sometimes its surface is calm and benign, and then, with no warning, a rolling turbulence surges deep from its heart and unnerves me. I know it must change or it will die, but I have to protect myself from its moods.
I close my eyes, and at that moment of blindness, the muezzins, calling the faithful to prayer, isolate themselves from the other sounds of the city. Their amplified voices, as always, are everywhere, but today they fill my ears colliding with one another in the hot, thick air. The Turkish call is louder, the Egyptian more insistent – as if they are competing with one another, each believing they are right.
Different tongues rise from the babble of the city: some I don’t recognize without a face to help me place the language. Many Armenians, Jews and Greeks lived here before we came, but most left during the national uprising. After that, sexual minorities moved into this street – I remember them – gays, grotesque yet somehow beautiful transvestites, but they too are gone – and each has left his imprint, his memories behind.
With my eyes still closed, the smells of the city begin to separate. There is always the odour of stale cooking oil. I remember the young man who sold deep fried mussels on the corner next to the mosque where McDonalds is now, and the white haired grizzled Arab who pitched next to the young man, grilling lamb intestines over charcoal which he chopped with a frightening Berber knife and made into sandwiches. Both are now gone, but the delicious smell remains.
Today the wind blows off the Bosphorus. I can’t see the water, but my nose tells me it is close. I smell salt, diesel, and perhaps fish because I expect it to be there. Adam and I had taken an apartment overlooking the water, and we would slip through the ancient arched door of the walled yard to watch the men waiting patiently with their fishing rods, and the ferries sailing between the European and Asian parts of the city. When a strong wind comes from the sea it brings forgotten objects. Many people flock to the shore. The women say that inside these objects there are secrets to be found, and they believe it will bring good luck if they decorate their houses with them. The secrets they say, will be safe with them. But the men don’t care about such things, collecting anything that might be of value in old plastic bags to sell at the bazaar.
I can’t remember as much as I would like, and wished I had kept a diary; but it is easier and kinder to forget, and I have not yet arranged my memories in the right order. I feel so like this city, with a history so complex, so multi-layered – and yet, because so little is committed to paper, much appears to be lost forever.
The Persian with the tabla arrives as usual. It is lunchtime. He sits close to the old men playing backgammon outside Ishkhan’s shop. He begins to play, and soon Ishkhan, as he always does, will bring him coffee in a small glass cup with a gold pattern around the rim.
I open my eyes and lean over the railings. The boy reappears, loads my basket, and almost manages a smile…