Ryan has always been curious – attentive to the buzz and flash in the world around him. Writing has always been his chosen form of expression. He grew up in South Africa; taught English in Italy and now lives in London. The world he writes about is created when he reads, travels, takes photographs, dreams. He writes stories to open up real life, to view the uncanny nature inside of it.
ALL SHE REMEMBERED
That summer Evelyn discovered her body. Before it had been just something that happened around her, an awkward changing thing she’d no control over, that never warned her of what it was about to do. She’d always been taller than the other girls, which, when she was younger, had been a peculiarity rather than a quality. But now she was sixteen and in the habit of locking herself in the bathroom while bathing.
She stood naked in front of the ornate Cheval mirror. What she saw was the body of a woman not unlike the women she admired in the fashion magazines modelling lingerie, or the older university girls she saw walking in town, going in and out of boutiques. Her legs were long, her breasts firm and shapely, and her face, with her round brown eyes, was more than pretty. But her hair, she thought, was her best quality, and many said so. It was long and black and curly. When wet, her hair reached just below her breasts. She ran her fingers through it, twirling the end of each strand then pulling gently down so that the curls would tighten, and then spring playfully up when she let go. As she combed it, the water dripped out, running down the front of her, and she shivered.
In the afternoon, now that it was summer, everybody went down to the lake. Some of the boys liked to make an early start of it, out at sunrise, because the fishing was good, but they’d be on the other bank, where an old tree grew over the lake. The older boys liked to climb the tree, swinging from it before jumping into the water. The girls took their time coming down, arriving in small groups, when they knew most of the boys would be watching.
Evelyn came alone and lay on her towel at the end of the pier. Daniel would be coming soon. They’d been going together for three months already. He was a year older, and also her first real boyfriend. But she’d never let him know that. She would always get to the lake before him. The best sun was around two o’clock and she didn’t like to miss it. Daniel’s skin was fair and he couldn’t take too much of it. Instead, he would come down on his red scooter and mess around with his friends or play football on the pebbled beach. Later, they would probably go for an ice-cream or he’d take her for a ride on his scooter. He had become very serious lately, and he’d even asked her to go steady. She liked having fun with him, but didn’t want him to be too sure of himself. She said that she’d think about it.
Evelyn was happiest in the sun. She wore her favourite pair of sunglasses and her new white, two-piece bathing suit. Last summer she preferred to lie on the soft grass with the other girls. But she felt differently now. Being alone on the pier, away from everybody, made her feel as though she were on a rowing boat, drifting and out of reach.
She sat up, making sure her back was straight, and looked out across the lake. A motorboat went by sending waves across the smooth surface. She stood up and walked over to the edge of the pier. Resting her hands on the curve of her lower back, she saw the sun above reflected in the water below. She heard the laughter of children playing and the guffaws of boys showing off on the beach. She stretched her hands up and raised herself up on to the tips of her toes. Turning towards the beach, she slipped a red elastic band from her wrist and tied up her hair. A few ringlets fell loose upon her neck. She walked over to the side of the pier, like a trapeze artist balancing high above a gazing crowd, and slowly slid down a wooden ladder and into the cold water, bit by bit. She did not swim, but held on to the ladder, her body immersed beneath the water, only her head above it, her curls protected.
After a moment, her skin cool, she climbed out again, looking down at her body as she rose up the ladder. The distinct sound of a boy laughing caused her to look towards the beach. She let down her hair again before lying on her back, her knees slightly raised, and then gave herself to the warm touch of the sun.
Daniel came towards her. She didn’t need to look. She knew him by the rhythm of his footfalls on the pier. His happy, bouncing gait. He stood over her; his shadow taking away her sun. She pretended not to know he was there. He knelt down beside her and rested his head on her wet belly.
What are you doing?
He kissed her just below her navel.
Stop that, she said. You’re in my sun.
Daniel shook his head and stood up again. He stepped over her and looked across the lake where the boys were fishing. He smiled and took off his shirt. Evelyn lowered her sunglasses and watched him. She liked his body. Though skinny, he was strong, and his muscles were well-defined.
How about coming for a swim with me? he asked.
I was just in.
I mean a real swim.
No, I’d rather just lie here.
Come on, it’ll be fun, he said. We’ll swim over to the other side.
Are you crazy?
Come on, Evelyn.
I don’t want to get my hair wet. I washed it this morning.
Your hair wet? You really are something.
Listen, when you have hair like mine then you can talk.
Swim with me, just this once.
Daniel, you’re wasting your time.
You can be such a capricious brat sometimes. It must be those precious curls of yours. He threw his shirt at her and jumped into the water, splashing her as he did so.
Get lost, she said, taking his shirt and chucking it down by her feet. She watched as he swam. He was not a great swimmer and switched from one style to another. But he made it to the other side and she lay down. She didn’t like to argue with him, but he had a lot to learn about girls. She kicked his shirt a little further away and closed her eyes.
A cloud covered the sun and Evelyn stirred. She’d fallen asleep and sat up now feeling dazed. Rain clouds were moving down from the mountains towards the lake. There were less people on the beach now. Most families were packing up. A little girl was crying because she had to leave the water. On the path that led to the street some of Daniel’s friends stood around their motorbikes, smoking cigarettes. His red scooter was there, too. She noticed Daniel’s shirt. She reached for it and looked out across the water. The surface of the lake was still. Nobody was swimming.
She could see over to the other side. Beside the tree a crowd of boys had gathered. Their fishing rods up in the air like spears. Someone must have caught something. Evelyn felt the cool air and put on Daniel’s shirt. She would have liked to have an ice-cream now, and then go home. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin upon them. Then the boys across the lake threw down their rods. A motorboat was coming towards them. They started to shout and wave their arms in the air. Evelyn stood up and wrapped the towel around her waist. The boat came to the bank and the boys crowded around it. Other people noticed the commotion and came on to the pier to get a better look. His friends where there, too.
Where’s Daniel? one of them asked her.
He went swimming, she said, pointing to the other side.
His friend looked at her and then jumped into the water.
What are you doing?
She watched as he swam across the lake. He was a good swimmer. The rain started before he reached the other side and she lost sight of him in amongst the boys. Then she saw him again, sitting inside the motorboat, his head in his hands. The boys stood standing around, a few gathered up their rods. The crowd gathered on the pier did not worry about the rain as they watched the motorboat leaving the bank. Someone said then that a boy had drowned.
Evelyn did not remember the church service. And that it was on a Friday. She did remember the black dress with the white lace collar she wore. And she did not remember which of his friends had sat next to her. Or how none of them could look her in the eyes. She could not remember the words Daniel’s father had spoken. How his mother had looked so old and small, covering her face with clenched fists. She did not remember how the priest had said her name or whose hand had touched her shoulder when he did. She didn’t remember how she had felt, or even if she had cried. She did not remember how long she had stayed locked in her room afterwards. She did not remember sleeping in his shirt each night. She did not remember that it was more than a year before she returned to the lake. And that the first boy she slept with was afraid of water and could not swim at all. All Evelyn remembered about that day, and the days that followed, was standing in her bedroom, in front of the Cheval mirror, brush in hand, straightening her precious curls.
THE LOST AND THE FOUND
On the evening the Academic arrived at Atatűrk airport, Istanbul seemed to be on the defensive, and that defence came in the form of attack. On the metro, people jostled him with an evident dislike for his large suitcase as they squeezed into the train, some, worn out in face and attire, heading for home, and others to work or perhaps, cloaked in strong cologne, ready for a night out.
From his back pocket he took the notebook in which he had written the address of the Magic Otel, a conspicuous sounding pension in the Beyoğlu district, found hastily online when told that he was to represent the foundation at the Modern Sanat Műzesi.
The passage to exit Şişhane station seemed endless, a series of high escalators rising infinitely, and he had the impression of being like one of the figures on a staircase in the lithograph by Escher.
It was dark when he emerged on to Istiklal Caddesi. He inquired directions from a man in uniform, indicating the page in his notebook. The man pointed up the street, saying, Git! Git!
The street was crowded but festive and the warm summer’s evening cheered the Academic somewhat as he continued his search.
However, on reaching Galatasaray High School, a new onslaught was sprung. Red flags waved in support of an unseen speaker, whose voice was amplified by a megaphone. The Academic again asked directions, this time from a man selling corn on the cob. The vender seemed less certain than the last man and yet, waving the Academic on, the reply was the same: Git! Git! He looked towards the mass of assembled protestors, heard the commanding voice, but there was no option but to proceed.
Dragging his suitcase, he moved slowly along the edges of the crowd. Men and women, young and old, stood listening, their faces worried, as if what was being said disturbed them deeply. A woman wearing a red scarf looked at him with what he understood to be amused sympathy and he raised his notebook towards her. She took it and turned to a man beside her. They discussed it, and a small disagreement ensued between them, before the man finally said in English, I know this place, but it’s in the other direction. The Academic looked despondently back the way he had come. The woman returned his notebook and was about to say something when a series of lights and loud explosions filled the air like fireworks.
A wall of riot police behind shields and gasmasks moved in on the people. While some scattered in retreat, many retaliated, shouting with raised fists as they charged the police. The couple looked at the Academic with concern, the woman taking her companion by the hand as he said, You can’t stay here.
There were more explosions then and the air thickened with a dirty yellow gas out of which the police advanced, breaking through the human shield gathered around the speaker. Flags fell, and blotches of red paint stained the streets with the footprints of the police and protestors alike.
The man said a quick word to the woman and she left them, holding the scarf over her mouth. The police, their masked faces like robotic black ants, emerged from the yellow cloud, and, forcing back the last of the protestors, were almost upon them.
The man took up the Academic’s suitcase and shouted, Come with me. The Academic followed and they moved swiftly, his eyes burning.
They went downhill, past the high school, off the main street, down one road, and then another. The city changed as they fled into a series of side streets and finally descended into a narrow alley of steps, where they passed, on either side, lounges and bars, whose closeness held the intimacy of a moonlit harem; musicians played pipes and long necked lutes and sang, and men and women sat together eating and drinking, the smoke about them now sweet and rich, rising from a number of hookahs. A realm inhabited, also, by cats.
Further down, another man wearing a rimless cap of a bellboy ascended to meet them.
There was a quick exchange of words, before the man said, He is from the pension.
The Academic thanked the man, who made his way back the way they’d come.
Welcome to Istanbul, said the bellboy, now carrying his suitcase, and gestured for the Academic to follow him.
Soon they stood outside the Magic Otel, a garish place with purple cushions and fake flowers stuck to the stone walls around trickling water features. The owner of the pension, a middle aged man with a stern expression, sat at a table near the entrance smoking a cigarette and drinking tea. He acknowledged the Academic’s arrival by raising his hand slightly from the rim of his glass.
As the bellboy proceeded into the reception, the Academic, still disorientated from the gas, hesitated. At the table across from the owner sat a girl reading from a large book with a red cover. Her hair was black, cut short and modern, and a rose red blanket covering her shoulders gave her both a royal and rebellious appearance. And when his name was called from inside, he saw the girl’s ink black eyes look up from her book, and her expression, one of minor curiosity, was the final attack, quick to his heart.
The young woman rode the bus down from Çanakkale and boarded the ferry to the island of Bozcaada. She’d read about it in the Sunday Times’ travel section where it was described as picturesque with its Byzantine fortress, beaches and vineyards. But, because it was what she needed, her mind had been decided by a single phrase she’d read in innumerable travel brochures. The island was a hidden getaway.
On the ferry she sat with her legs raised above her small valise and watched as the mainland drifted further away; seagulls hovered above the ship’s funnel, and small fish swam beside them.
Around her, young couples and families with children, drank Turkish tea from tiny vase-shaped glasses on saucers with small silver spoons. On her short stay in Turkey so far, she’d noticed how popular it was for the people here of all ages to drink tea in this fashion. And as they approached the island, it appeared, judging by how many drank tea and how little she understood of the language spoken around her, that most of the passengers were Turkish. Once not being able to communicate or understand might have been cause for anxiety, but now she delighted by the notion that in this aspect, too, she could be hidden, cut off from what she’d left behind.
As the ferry tucked into the small harbour there was renewed movement as the passengers returned their tea glasses to the refreshment counter and prepared to disembark.
In the morning, after a restless sleep brought on by an unfamiliar bed and the noise from the street outside his window, the Academic went down for breakfast. The late July sun was hot, but it was early and the outside tables were in the shade. The stern-faced man sat smoking and drinking tea at the same table as the previous night. The Academic greeted him, and the man replied with a practised amiability and uttered a command in Turkish. A woman appeared from behind a curtain, which she clipped to one side revealing a passage to the kitchen. The Academic sat at one of the tables, distancing himself from the man’s smoke.
The woman set down cutlery on his table. Tea or coffee? she said.
Waiting for his breakfast, he studied the features of the owner as he appeared to make notes in a ledger. He found him now to be rather handsome and not unlike the man Atatürk, whose image he’d seen at the airport. The distinct features of magnanimous leader, but also those of a film star – the Marlon Brando of Turkey.
The woman returned with his breakfast: a plate of sweet cheese, tomatoes, olives and sausage. A grey cat, straggly and thin, pressed against his trouser leg, but the woman got rid of it with a stamp of her heel, then hurried away to fetch his coffee.
Just then the girl appeared. Her black hair stood on end at the crown of her head and there was a lithe laziness about her, as if she had just woken up. She approached the owner and kissed him on his forehead, and he tapped her hand and spoke a few soft words to her. She turned in the Academic’s direction and he glanced up at her, half smiling, but she didn’t seem to see him as she made her way towards the kitchen. He watched her go: her hands down beside her hips, swaggering catlike, yet bouncing slightly, so that her walk was sexy and playful.
She returned wearing a set of headphones, carrying a mug, the large red book tucked under her arm. She sat down at the table opposite her father with her back leant against the wall, connected the headphones to her mobile phone and began to read.
The Academic watched her furtively, keeping one eye on her father, and tried to make out the author of the book. But she held it in such a way that it was impossible.
He finished his breakfast and took his time over his coffee before ordering another. The girl read, lifting her head only once with a smile, but although she looked his way her mind was clearly on something she had read, some phrase, some idea that pleased her. He wished he knew. He looked at his watch and realised that it was time for his appointment at the museum. He thanked the woman as she cleared away his dishes, and he stood up and stepped towards the entrance. It was here that the bellboy arrived and greeted him.
How did you sleep?
He happened to be standing between the girl and her father and the Academic saw his chance. He moved his body so that his back faced the owner so the bellboy was forced to stand with his back to the girl, allowing him to face her. He proceeded to ask some simple questions about the exact whereabouts of the museum, and in this way he was able to discover the author’s name, and also catch her as she looked up distracted, and seemed to study him more closely, if only for an instant, before she returned her attention to her reading.
On the island the young woman quickly found the pension where she was to stay, set in amongst the small cottages of the town centre. She checked in, left her suitcase unpacked and, because there was still at least an hour of sunlight, inquired about a means of getting to the beach.
A shuttle bus carried her to the popular Ayazma Plaji, with its small family run restaurants, bars and kiosks. The beach itself was still relatively busy with what seemed to be local boys whom perhaps, having finished their day’s work, had come down to swim.
She walked further along a coastal path until she came to Sulubahçe Plaji. The beach, but for a single fisherman, was deserted. She removed her sandals, held them in her hand, and walked down to the water. At first the sand and water seemed dirty with what looked like large tufts of grass, but as she continued along it all became clear and she could make out beneath the calm surface the stop and dash of tiny fish and a scattering of large white stones on the seabed.
Though she had told herself not to, she began to think of him, and what he might do when he discovered that she had left. He always had a temper, which he liked to call his Sicilian blood, as if it excused him or was to be considered a commendable vein of passion. She had loved him, and it was not too long ago that she clung to him, with a fear of being alone, of not having someone. But she laid waste to herself, giving in to him, pushing more of herself out to accommodate his sulky, selfish bulk. His possession of her had been almost total. But she saw it, had always seen it, and the weight of him and the skin and bone person she’d become had sucked out the fear like marrow. She was famished, and wanted herself back. And here she was now, a thousand miles away, a full continent away, gone away, come away. But she felt him, inside her still, a swollen tick beneath her skin.
The sun set in the distance, and she looked back to see the fisherman walking up the beach, done for the day, caught his fill. And she was alone. Though she smiled at first, and stepped into the water, felt how cold it was, that loneliness that had never been far from her crept slowly back. Around her it was darker now, and it was in the dark that she had always needed someone most, someone like him, even someone like him. And she wondered, Was this island far enough? She began to run, run not to be left alone, but also to get away from him, from whoever she may have encountered in that dark.
It was only when she stopped running, once she had again reached the beach of Ayazma, with its kiosks and bars and restaurants, with its people, only then did she realise that she’d lost one of her sandals.
But it was too dark to find it, to find anything.
The Academic attended the conference at Istanbul Modern. But all through the presentations his mind held to the girl, and the author of the book. The name Oğuz Atay was unfamiliar to him, and it added to the mystery and allure to this girl from the Magic Otel. When the time came for him to deliver his own paper, the Academic no longer felt nervous as he often did when standing before an audience. He swept through the slides of his PowerPoint display demonstrating the series of lithographs that the foundation in London hoped to bring to Istanbul.
The interpreter at one point asked him kindly to slow down. The Academic obliged, slowing his pace but cutting some of the slides that he felt were of no importance, and soon it was over. There was applause and handshakes, and the Academic was directed to the buffet lunch that had been set up on the terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, but he excused himself and made his way to the exit.
He caught a taxi back to the Beyoğlu district, to Istiklal Caddesi, where the evening before, amongst the protestors and red flags he had noticed a large bookstore. Once there he began his search. Assuming Oğuz Atay to be Turkish, he strode directly to the national literature section. It did not take long to find it. The large red book. He drew it down from the shelf and immediately sensed that he’d created some connection with the girl, as if holding the book she held made them alike.
He saw that the book was the first in a series written by the author, numbering up to seven, each book with the author’s picture on the cover. A choice, the Academic guessed, which meant the author was dead. It frustrated him that he neither knew anything about this Oğuz Atay nor was able to read his work.
He approached one of the staff, a young man with a pointy little beard, and, showing him the book, asked if the store happened to sell an English translation. The young man shook his head.
I see, said the Academic. Then can you tell me something about the author?
Atay? He was the greatest Turkish writer. He is great, the bookseller continued, like Proust is great.
The Academic returned to the shelf, his mind made up. He searched amongst the volumes, paging through each of the seven books carefully until he found volume four and what appeared to be a collection of Atay’s short stories.
He paid for the book and asked if they would be able to gift wrap it. The woman at the counter slipped the book into a thick brown paper envelope with the store’s name on it, and then began searching through a box of coloured flowers of ribbon.
Do you have white? the Academic said.
In the early morning, Ibrahim liked to walk along the beach. In the summer, sunrise was his favourite time of day. If not for the few fishermen or brave swimmers, the beach was deserted.
He walked on the cool sand, avoiding the water as it came to spread itself along the shore. He spoke to a young fisherman whose father he’d known for years.
You’ve taken your father’s place.
He is sick. Mother doesn’t let him fish anymore. He hasn’t the strength. But he still comes down to watch. The young man pointed up behind them to an old overturned yellow boat, beside which sat the old fisherman on a foldout camping chair. Ibrahim waved and the old man raised his hand.
The young man drew back his rod, retracted the line, and cast out again. My father loves the sea. He believes it will make him well again.
Inşallah, said Ibrahim.
Yes, the boy said, his eyes downcast.
Further up the beach, Ibrahim found a sandal. It was made of leather, an elegant cut belonging to a woman. He poked at it with his big toe. He often found sandals along the beach and amongst the rocks, but also other shoes too: smart shoes, work boots and high heels. But the pair was never complete. A single shoe. As if the nature of lostness would not allow a pair.
The sandal looked new, yet unmarked by the elements of sea and sand and sun. He looked ahead of him and then back down the beach, but there was nobody but the two fishermen. He wondered about its owner, about all the owners of lost shoes, and all the possible events that led to the loss of them. His own imagination preferred the occurrence of the romantic rather than the macabre. He glanced back down at the sandal, and at his own bare feet. Then he raised his right foot and placed it into the sandal, but it did not fit. He smiled at how ridiculous he must seem. He once more nudged the sandal with his toe, scattering it with sand, and continued up the beach.
The Academic was due to fly out of Istanbul the next day on a return flight to London. The idea of not seeing her again before he left was no less torturous than that of returning to the pension to find her sitting under the watchful eye of her father and having to sit around in the heat thinking up some pretence for giving her his gift. He decided to pass the rest of the afternoon exploring the hidden side streets of Istanbul and return closer to evening. He wandered about the spice market, the Galata Tower and the old record shops and second-hand stores along the Tűnel Galipede Caddesi.
When he began to tire, he ventured into a small bar, ordered a beer and sat listening to the music. Perhaps it was because he was alone, or because of his pale English complexion, but two women drinking at the next table started a conversation with him.
Are you a diplomat? one of them asked.
Don’t be silly, said the other. Would an official be drinking beer alone in a place like this? You are certainly a writer.
The Academic, flattered by both proposals, began to play the parts of both writer and diplomat, and denying neither offered to buy them drinks. The women were quick to introduce themselves and move across to his table.
Is it your first time in Istanbul? said Yelda.
Oh it must be, said Senem.
Then we must drink raki, said Yelda.
But he can’t drink it without food. It isn’t done.
Senem called the waiter over and began excitedly to order a number of dishes, and a bottle of raki. The waiter went away, and the women pressed in closer.
The table was soon filled with dishes of melon, olives, sweet breads, and mussels served in their shells with rice and lemon. The waiter poured the raki into glasses and added water, turning the clear liquid a milky white. The Academic raised his glass and all three of them drank. It tasted sweet, like anise, and strong. They began to eat and drink. The women made jokes amongst themselves.
What do you think of Turkish women, Mister Diplomat? said Yelda.
Well, said the Academic, leaning back with his drink, they’re certainly amicable.
That they are, said Senem, touching his knee. And what does Mister Writer make of them?
At heart, he said after some thought, they’re terribly enigmatic. And the women laughed, and they all filled their glasses.
It was late evening when the bottle was finished and Senem and Yelda urged him up from the cushions. Let’s go dancing, said Senem.
Yes, we know a rooftop place near here. You can see all of Istanbul.
It was then that he pressed his hand down on a cushion beside him and felt the package beneath. The book. He remembered vividly the girl, and the thought of missing her caused a sobering jolt. What time is it?
It’s almost ten, Yelda said. If we leave now we’ll catch the best deejays.
No, he said, rising with his package. I must go. He called the waiter over.
No, no, said Yelda, you are our guest. We’ll pay, Mister Diplomat.
But only if you come dancing with us, said Senem. Please, don’t say no, Mister Writer.
The Academic downed what was left in his glass and staggered to the bar where he emptied his wallet of all his remaining lira. Will this do? he asked the waiter.
The waiter gathered up the money and returned to him a single ten lira note.
Thank you, ladies, said the Academic.
No, don’t leave us, said Yelda. You are a lousy, no good diplomat.
And a boring, old writer! said Senem.
My apologies, he said. He held the package close to his chest and retreated towards the entrance.
Look at him go, said Senem.
He must be a postman, said Yelda.
And the Academic pushed through the doors, and ran with the women’s giddy laughter following him out into the street.
Ibrahim sat at the kőfte shack. He had just finished his sandwich and was waiting for his tea when a young woman rode up on a bicycle. Her delicate skin looked newly burned and her unruly hair was like the dry brush of the island. She held a small note which she referred to with an expression that brought lines to her forehead, as if attempting to decipher the indecipherable, looking back and forth between her note and the signboard nailed above the shack window, which read: Kőfteci Lutfu Usta. When she seemed sure to have the right place she sat down at one of the small wooden tables and chairs under the chestnut trees that had yet to bear fruit.
To one side of the shack there was a fenced field where boys played football whilst on the other side stood the garden of the neighbouring teahouse, where people sat under the trees at tables in the quiet of the shade drinking tea and playing tavla.
The old man, whom the islanders knew only as Lutfu Usta, the master chef, came out of the shack and cried out to the boys from the teahouse to bring Ibrahim his tea. He saw the young woman and returned to his kitchen.
She tried to fix her hair, gathering it behind her, but she didn’t seem to have anything to tie it with so she let it go and it sprang up again like a surprised wild animal.
She turned to Ibrahim.
Excuse me, do I need to go to him or will he bring me a menu?
Ibrahim smiled and leaned forward. There is only kőfte. That’s all the old man serves.
I see, she said, seeming uneasy.
Don’t worry. He has seen you. And his kőfte are the best in all of Bozcaada.
Just then the old man appeared at the shack window and spoke to the young woman with the familiarity he used with all his customers.
Ibrahim explained to him that the woman didn’t understand Turkish.
He wants to know what you’d like to drink.
Ayran, if he has it.
The old man understood, and from the fridge placed the ayran on the windowsill.
The woman fetched her drink along with a straw with the promptness of a waitress and returned to her table.
Do you like ayran? said Ibrahim.
Very much, she said, shaking the container.
Do you know it is our national drink? A boy came across with a tray and set Ibrahim’s tea down and dashed away again.
And tea, too? I gather, she said.
Yes, that must be obvious to you.
You speak English very well.
Thank you. I’m a winemaker. It’s useful when trying to convince people to buy my wine.
Do you get many English speaking tourists here? I seem to be the only one.
Very few. Bozcaada is not well-known, but perhaps one day my wine will change that, he said, stirring sugar into his tea.
The old man appeared and called to the woman, waving his hands.
He wants you to go to him.
She rose slowly and ambled to the shack, like a schoolgirl summoned to the blackboard to solve a problem she didn’t understand.
You need to dress your sandwich, said Ibrahim. As you like.
Inside the shack, the old man handed her a sandwich filled with kőfte and pointed out the aluminium trays of sliced tomato, green pepper, onions, and tubs of mixed spices.
The old man took her by the shoulder and reassured her with a smile and hurried from the shack across to the teahouse.
The Academic, running back through the streets of Istanbul, felt fearless, felt none of the anxiety he had on his arrival an evening ago. Whether emboldened by passion, or the warmth felt in the company of the two women, or the raki, or the sum of all these parts, what he felt was that Istanbul had taken possession of him, and now he hurried down the streets, amidst the people, not away from them, but towards them, as if he too belonged there.
He reached the Magic Otel with the expectation of a boy and a light sweat on his forehead. Outside her father sat at his table as usual with a burning cigarette and cup of tea, as if these two things were an extension of himself – necessary emblems of his small empire. But across from him, the table that had been her place, at her father’s right hand, was empty. Catching his breath and wiping away the sweat with his forearm, the Academic stood with his disappointment weighed down by the resurgence of the alcohol in his blood.
Your daughter, Sir, where is she?
My daughter, the man said, lowering his cigarette to an ashtray, has gone away.
Away? For the evening, you mean?
Her father’s expression, until now held stern, relaxed. Please, have a seat, he said, gesturing to the empty chair at his table.
The Academic sat, placing the gift before him.
My daughter has gone on holiday, to stay with her mother in Izmir. We are divorced.
So she will not be back tonight, the Academic said, thinking aloud. But her father, perhaps out of pity, replied anyway.
No, she will not return tonight. In the summer, she prefers the Aegean Sea.
The Academic nodded, and toyed with the white ribbon.
This is for her, your daughter, Sir.
Her father took up his cigarette again and turned the glass around on the saucer. She will be grateful, he said. Please, return one day. You will find our little place much changed.
The Academic rose from the table and shook the owner’s hand. Then he turned away, walking again out into the night.
He wandered down towards the Kabataş district, to the banks of the Bosphorus. Walking along the promenade towards Karakőy, he watched as the last of the evening ferries came into port. In a dark, unlit place, he stopped to sit on a bench and looked out across the water towards the Asian side of the strait and the far distant tower in the middle of the sea, the tower the Turks called Kiz Kulesi, the Maiden’s Tower.
The Academic wondered if the girl’s father had told him the truth. Perhaps he, like the emperor in the famous legend, had hidden his daughter in the tower to protect her. He hung his head in his hands and laughed at himself. Then, as he was about to go, he noticed beside him on the bench a small doll, seated, comically, much like he was. The doll’s hair was dark and plaited and she wore traditional Turkish dress.
It reminded him of The Captain’s Doll, the story by D.H. Lawrence, and he found himself searching the doll’s features for a likeness to the girl from the Magic Otel. But for the darkness of the hair and eyes there was nothing modern about it. He thought of taking it, as a keepsake, but then rebuked himself for his stupid sentimentality. Besides, he thought, if something worth keeping is lost then the owner will surely come in search of it.
It was this idea that led the Academic to reflect that although both loss and discovery are equal to change they did not amount to the same thing, for the weight of one was far greater.
Ibrahim sat in the shade drinking wine while his daughter, Ecrin, played on the rusted shell of an old World War I motorcycle that stood out in the garden. While the hard work of picking the grapes and making wine came in the autumn, in the summer the success of the grape depended on the weather, and apart from the clearing away of leaves, the trimming of the stems, irrigation and spraying for pests, the fate of the grape, and so his livelihood, was out of his hands.
Having lunched in the town, he saw to the selling of wine, and to the care of Ecrin, who was four and, with the schools closed, happy to stay with him in the afternoons while her mother cooked in her family’s restaurant opposite Ayazma beach. Some afternoons Ibrahim took Ecrin down to swim and visit her mother. Everybody in the restaurant adored her, that soft brown face of mischief peering out from beneath a stack of dark curls, and she was spoilt with watermelon or, when they thought her father was not looking, a soda. But otherwise they stayed close to home and the vineyard, where he had set up a small stall visible from the road that lead to the cliffs so that passers-by could taste his wine, or even buy a bottle to drink while watching the sunset from the belvedere beside the lighthouse.
It was the second time that day that he had seen the young woman. He watched as she cycled by, and then turned back round.
I thought I recognised you, she said. Is this where you live?
Live and work, he said.
Of course. You’re a winemaker.
Would you like to try some? You could keep me company, he said, holding the stem of the glass before him.
Why not? It might be just the stamina booster I need to get up these hills.
What would you like? I’m drinking Kuntra.
I like red, but perhaps you have something cool.
I have rosé or even sparkling wine.
A rosé, she said. Thank you.
He left the table and went to fetch her wine. As he felt the temperature of the bottle, uncorked it and poured her a glass, he watched her. She seemed happier than earlier that day, but even in her smile there was still something melancholic. He had never known any single Turkish women to travel alone – not because they could not, but because the bonds between women were strong. The foreign women he met travelling alone had often had something terrible happen to them, or simply felt lost.
Your wine, he said, handing her the glass of cool rosé. Then he sat and raised his own glass. Şerefe.
Cheers, she said. I’m afraid my Turkish isn’t very good. I’d hoped to learn more by now.
How long have you been in Turkey?
Only a few days. I was in Istanbul for a week or so.
And what did you think of the city?
She was quiet, sipped her wine and then raised her hand, her eyes up cast. I’m sorry, she finally said, I don’t want to say the usual things, so I’m stuck how to describe it. Istanbul, it will stay with me. Can I say that? Do you understand?
Ibrahim laughed. You can say that, and I understand you. Not even the people of Istanbul are able to find the words to describe their city. But I think you have succeeded.
Just then Ecrin appeared from behind the motorcycle, having watched with ferocious curiosity the arrival of the woman. She came up to them and held on to her father’s arm while looking at the visitor.
Merhaba bebegim, Ibrahim said. Meet my daughter, Ecrin.
Hello, how do you do? said the woman, in a voice, it pleased Ibrahim to hear, no different to the voice she used when speaking to him.
Ecrin is my little helper, Ibrahim said. She has many talents, don’t you, canim kazim? Here she attracts the tourists to taste her baba’s wine, and out in the field she is my little scarecrow.
Ecrin hit her father on the upper arm.
She understands you?
Yes, her English is very good, even if she is shy when it suits her.
How old are you? My guess is three. Am I right?
Ecrin held up four fingers and smiled.
Of course, you must be four to have so many responsibilities.
The child nodded and turned to whisper in Ibrahim’s ear before running off again to play beneath the fig trees that grew beside the house.
My daughter has invited you to stay with us for dinner.
The woman smiled, but the sadness was still there as she looked after his daughter, who could now be heard addressing the trees, reprimanding them on the matter of their fallen fruit.
You must love her very much.
Ibrahim looked at his daughter intently and filled his glass.
I’m sorry, the woman said, that’s an obvious thing to say.
In your days in Istanbul, Ibrahim said, did you happen to travel across to Űskűdar? There is a tower in the middle of the Bosphorus.
Yes, I think so. The Maiden’s Tower, it’s called.
Yes, Kiz Kulesi. The legend says that there lived an emperor who loved his daughter more than anything, but one day the Oracle prophesied that before her eighteenth birthday she would be bitten by a poisonous snake and die. So the emperor, in order to keep his beloved daughter away from the land, built a tower in the middle of the sea, where she would live protected. As the years passed, the emperor visited his daughter frequently. Until the day of her eighteenth birthday. He arrived with a sumptuous basket of fruit to celebrate her birthday, and rejoice having prevented the fulfilment of the prophecy. But as his daughter reached into the basket she was bitten by an asp hidden amongst the fruit, and so died in her father’s arms, just as the Oracle had prophesied.
The woman clung to her glass, held to her lips, but she did not drink.
I tell you this story because you are right. Yes, I love my daughter very much, so much that sometimes it’s hard for me not to lock her away in a tower. But just look at her – she would never let me. So all I can do is love her.
The woman laughed, and finished her wine.
So would you join us for dinner? My wife would be pleased to have someone with whom to practise her English. We are a family of anglophiles.
The woman looked again at Ecrin, dancing now, perhaps to soothe the trees she had just rebuked.
Yes, she said. I’d like that very much.
Photo by Tomek Dzido
Lying in bed, Eva Summer heard the familiar sounds: the scuttling across the wooden floors, that faint scratching against the skirting boards, a squeak, and then another, prolonged – like a scream. But she could see nothing.
There had been a reprieve in the relentless Milan rain and now in the dark these sounds were all there was. Then a moment of silence, and she imagined the tiny grey mouse beneath the bedcovers, its long, translucent tail, twitching on her crisp, white sheets.
She drew up her legs, turned on the bedside lamp, and threw off the bedcovers. Across the white expanse of her sheets there was nothing mouse-like, but to be sure she reached for her glasses from on top of the book left on the pillow beside her. She listened for it, but now, with the room partly lit, the sounds seemed to have retreated to the darker spaces.
This was not something that she should have to deal with. In the morning she would call the landlady, Mrs. Pudzianowski.
Leaving the light on, Eva removed her glasses and lay down. If Martino were here he’d have done something.
It’s only a mouse, Eva.
She remembered the last time the mouse came. Martino looked so boyish in his striped pyjamas, down on all fours, teasing the creature out of its hiding place with scraps from the kitchen. To her surprise the mouse emerged, trusting of the gentle giant. Then he caught it inside a shoebox and took it outside. Martino had been good that way.
The rain started up again, softly at first, and then it really came down. No one told her the Milan winters were so much like home: long, grey and wet. Her agent in London often texted her, How’s life in sunny Italy? Inserting one of those awful smiley-faced suns. But her life in Italy was not at all like La Dolce Vita. Of course, it was good for her career, working with a language she loved, but the city and the people were not what she expected. Perhaps she’d come in the wrong season.
It’d been raining since last Tuesday, a week since her breakup with Martino. And she felt it would never let up. They met – in Palazzo Sormani at the public library, which she took as a good omen – and it was good until she started falling behind in her work, and then she noticed his annoying habit of agreeing with everything she said and his neurotic, constant use of the superlative; and so it all came undone – subitissimo. She said it was over and he left and that, she thought, would be the end of it. But he called that same evening and the calls had come every day since. When she told him not to call, because she would not answer, she found him waiting outside. From the window, she saw him standing across the street, looking up, his blue umbrella open but held so far back that he got drenched anyway. She resisted the urge to shout down to him, to tell him to be sensible, to go home. A part of her wanted to let him in, take off his wet clothes, run a hot bath. Together maybe. But then she remembered the rain, and how much they were alike – comforting when gentle on an afternoon, but oppressive when incessant. No, it never would let up.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the rain and tried not to think about him or the mouse. The phone had not rung that evening, and that was a good sign.
In the morning she rang up Mrs. Pudzianowski. The old woman of Polish descent lived in an apartment near the Chinese quarter and seldom left home, where she seemed to pass her time reading Tarot cards over the phone for a closed circle of clients, and watching telefilms. She was often short tempered on the phone, complaining that she needed to keep the line free for her trade. When Eva first moved into the apartment three months ago, Mrs Pudzianowski said she’d call her up for a free Tarot reading. She had yet to do so.
Yes, what is it?
This is Eva Summer. Sorry to disturb you like this but, well, there’s a mouse.
A mouse? She huffed into the phone.
Yes, like before, only this time…
Have you actually seen this mouse?
Yes, of course, Eva lied.
It’s all this rain. They’ve nowhere to go. You need to get a trap.
You know, a mousetrap, to kill the little beast.
Well, yes, but I was hoping that you could…
I must go now, Miss Summer. I’m expecting a call, you understand.
Eva could think of nothing worse than going out in the rain. And, of course, there was the possibility that she might run into Martino. She moved her fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp. She was not going to stand around thinking any more. Thinking about what had been decided. About what she’d done. She needed to work on her translations. The ordeal with Martino had already taken away so much of her time. She had deadlines and her agent was losing his patience. She had to keep things clear in her mind. There would be no going back. But, first, there was a mouse to get rid of.
She went to the window to see how the sky was holding up. She drew the curtains aside. A sombre light came down with a light rain, tapping at the window, one drop after another. Holding the curtain against her cheek, she looked down across the street. An old man, like a character out of an Antonioni film, dressed in a grey trench coat, stood sheltering himself under a newspaper. But that was all.
She dressed quickly in stockings, skirt and her yellow raincoat and left the apartment. Although the rain was light and the fresh air would have done her good, she caught a taxi to the hardware store three blocks away.
A small elderly man with tiny, close-set eyes and a pointy nose stood at the counter.
I need a mousetrap, please.
At her request the man’s eyes seemed to grow even smaller and he disappeared into the back without a word. Eva was left alone at the counter. She wondered if she had displeased the man in some way. How odd Italians could be. Another customer, a tall heavyset man, came into the store. She could feel his eyes on her legs, stretching out from beneath her skirt, hidden, she realized, by her raincoat. She rang the small bell on the counter. A different man came out from the back. Although younger, he resembled closely the man who, it seemed, she’d frightened away. He held in his hands a small, slim box.
Is that for me?
It’s a mousetrap, but it’s not your conventional guillotine. Those days are over, I’m afraid. You see, the mice have gotten smarter.
Will it, you know, do the job?
Oh, yes. Maybe not as quickly, but it’s definitely effective. Let me show you how it works.
The heavyset man had moved up beside her and stood there waiting with a large pair of shears – the new, sharp blades shining, caught by the stark store lights.
That’s OK. I’m sure I’ll work it out for myself. Thank you.
When the taxi pulled up outside her apartment, there was still no sign of Martino. Finally, he’s come to his senses, she thought, taking money from her purse. Standing in the rain like that, he’d have caught a death of a cold. She paid the driver, fastened her raincoat and dashed from the taxi.
In her apartment, she changed out of her clothes and into her nightgown. She went downstairs to the kitchen where she made herself a cup of tea. She removed the trap from its packaging and held the square piece of sticky card in her hand. It looked like nothing more than a cutoff of sandpaper. It was meant to be simple: the victim would scurry across the card, get stuck in the glue and that would be it. She set the single piece down beside the door of her pantry. The most likely place to trap a mouse.
She cleared the kitchen table, put on her glasses and opened her books. Translating could be tiresome, but for someone as meticulous as Eva it was a challenge. She set herself high standards and for this reason she was good at her work. Her clients had become more established over the years. The latest was the best yet: Giulio Einaudi, a famous Italian publisher. A new, long awaited book on the work and life of Caravaggio by a renowned biographer was already on the shelves in Italy and selling like tartufi. Its publication in English was a much anticipated event, and she would be a part of it.
She reread the text she’d been working on for the last few days. But it took more effort than it should have. She couldn’t make sense of it. The meanings of the two languages seemed to be evading one another like opposing magnets.
She looked at the phone on the counter. He had not called her today, and she hadn’t seen or heard from him at all yesterday. When they were together she felt that his constant presence left no space for what was important to her, and then when she told him to go he still continued to intrude in her life. Now he was intruding with his absence. Damn him. She needed to push him aside. She began to read aloud.
La condanna a morte di Caravaggio poteva esser eseguita da chiunque lo avesse riconosciuto per la strada.
She pronounced each word slowly, stringing them out, like pegged photographs on a wire. The words appeared before her, but were soon lost again, somewhere between the rain and the constant folding back of her thoughts, to him and the day she ended it. The look in his eyes had caused an unexpected, unwanted reaction in her. She lunged for his thick wrist across the table, but her hand was small and did not close the whole way around. His hand eased her grip with a slow but immediate sliding, and her fleeting hand slipped down to the other in her lap, where they lay like two fallen feathers. He stared up and she stared down and the only thing left to do had just been done.
She shut the book and ran her fingers through her hair. It was no use. He was in every word, rising up, woven into the frayed linings of her memories. She pushed the book aside and threw down her glasses. She stared hard at the phone. Where the hell was he?
She got up and strode into the other room. She yanked back the curtains and flung open the window. The wind and the rain swept against her as she stood looking down at the street. She could not make out the shapes moving below, but she continued to look, and the rain fell harder, but still she leant out further, holding on to the window ledge, going as far as she could, until completely wet, she rid herself of her nightgown, and fell on to the divan, exhausted.
She awoke the next morning with the sun on her. She lay there hypnotised by the shapes the sunlight etched along her lounge wall from outside the window. She imagined him beside her, a shimmering memory lagging behind warmly. She turned, this way and that, stretched – her back an arch, her belly a bridge, screamed a yawn.
She stood up, dressed only in a light slip, the sun’s warmth on her body, but the air cold and she walked to the window and shut it without looking out. The rain had finally stopped. Her nightgown a damp heap on the floor.
Then walking into the kitchen, she heard it – the single distinctive squeak. She felt cold and stepped towards the pantry door. With her arms around herself, she bent down slowly. Without her glasses she could just make out the soft, grey features of the mouse struggling to free itself. The sound was the worst thing. Kneeling beside it, she held her hand over her mouth as she began to sob uncontrollably. It was then that the phone began to ring. And Eva Summer let it ring, until it was all over.
On returning to his mother’s home in the Bo-Kaap, Nasaar heard that Aisha Booley was visiting from London. He knew that it was not the first time that she’d come home, but since his move to Prince Albert, they had not seen each other in more than ten years. Nasaar was sitting at the kitchen table after a dish of lamb bobotie, when his mother mentioned, and probably not by chance, that the grocer’s daughter had arrived a week ago from England. Hearing her name, he suddenly had no appetite for the slice of sweet melktert his mother set before him. He felt his insides catch alight as if the sparks of his own welder’s torch had sprung his heart from a fine casing of iron.
When he called Aisha’s house after lunch, her mother answered, surprising Nasaar with an agreeability that was unlike her. Is that you, Nasaar? I saw the gate you made for Kashief. We are thinking of putting up a new one ourselves. Security, you understand. But something with taste.
Perhaps I could show you some designs, he said, although he was not convinced of her sincerity.
Yes, do. I’ll get Aisha. Send my greetings to your mother.
The voice that arrived soon enough on the other end was unmistakably Aisha – hesitant when speaking as if the words at her disposal were too many to choose from – and yet she seemed distant, resigned to the formalities so often expected of her in the presence of her father. With the businesslike manner that he used with his clients, Nasaar proposed that they meet. And when she agreed without hesitation to see him that very afternoon at the Tana Baru, he felt the shavings of iron rise and cling to his tongue so that he fell to stammering and ended the conversation.
Later that afternoon, Nasaar changed his clothes, putting on a green shirt, a colour she once liked, and walked up the hill. They’d agreed to meet at five, when the late summer sun would have settled into a dark orange ball quivering as it began its descent into the deep-blue Atlantic.
Tana Baru was deeply soldered in the history of the Cape Malay people. As children, Nasaar and Aisha were allowed to go no further than the Muslim burial ground, beyond which the cobbled stones disappeared beneath the wild bokbaardgrasof Signal Hill. They played about the white wall, climbing through the acute-arched window, kicking up the red dust and chasing each other with long strands of grass with little more than fledgling curiosity for the Muslim ancestors buried beneath the mound of red earth on which the wall had been built.
Of course, they grew older and their respect for the hallowed ground grew with them, and the wall was changed from a playground to a quieter place, a place where Aisha read the books her brother Kashief gave her – always, he was adamant, to be read in secret – and a place where Nasaar could sketch, because the light was good, and his favourite subject was still and as seemingly unaware of his gaze as the Tana Baru itself.
Arriving before her, Nasaar leant against the wall, closed his eyes, and felt good in the warm sun. There had been a time, just months before she was sent to England, when Aisha had been forbidden to see him. Her father was a severe man, and a strict Muslim and he would not have his only daughter hanging around with an apprentice welder, a boy who spent too much time alone and skipped Mosque on Fridays. And it was then, on those afternoons, despite the sun, the allure of the surrounding mountains, the endless ocean, despite the hope that she might still come, that without her, Tana Baru was the coldest, loneliest place in the world.
Have you been here long? she said, her voice coming to him as if raised on the echo of the waves, the lament of seagulls, and the hum of cars strung along the beaches below. He opened his eyes.
She smiled at him and, but for the few tiny wrinkles at the corners of her large green eyes, she was as beautiful as she had been when she was twenty.
He shook his head. You look great, he said. London climes have been good to you.
Nothing like this, she said, turning towards the sea. I miss this city so much, don’t you?
Prince Albert is not far.
And what took you to the middle of nowhere?
He shrugged, and she looked at him, as if contemplating his presence against the wall, perhaps saddened, as he was, that in some way he had outgrown its magic.
Is it the silence that suits you? Are you still so quiet?
You forget the noise I make when I work.
She laughed, hitting him playfully on the chest. You were always a contradiction to yourself. Even as a kid – how could a boy make so much noise and yet say so little? I heard you’re doing well.
I have done a lot in Bo-Kaap, window frames and decorative gates mostly. People are keen to make up for those long years of austerity.
It’s good to see the houses are being painted again. Some garishly bright, but to each his own. I’ve seen some of your furniture too.
Do you remember making an ornate iron table with a glass top?
Yes, Asad ordered that, said it was a gift for his friend.
My father and Asad are old friends. It’s in my parents’ kitchen. They would send me back to London tonight if they knew I’d told you. Anyway, I’m proud of you, Nasaar.
He looked down at his feet while the iron inside him split a thousand times in to tiny particles that bristled electric in the pores of his skin. Thank you, Aisha, he said. But look at you, a doctor, in London. Reading all those books did you good after all.
I am not exactly a doctor, she said.
You help sick people, don’t you?
I’m a speech therapist.
Details, remove those, and you’re a doctor.
But I like those details, she said. We want to be specific about who we are, don’t we? What about you? You fuse metals, but that doesn’t mean you’re just a welder, Nasaar. It’s the details that make you.
I guess you’re right.
Really? You’re not just conceding the argument? You were always good at that.
I’ve changed. I am made of harder stuff these days.
You had to be, she said. We all did. She hung her head, and wrapped her arms around herself. Then she stood beside him, and leant against the wall. In silence, they both looked out towards the sea where the sun began to unravel a broad path of pale yellow light out towards the shore.
Without looking at him she said, Nasaar, I didn’t want to leave. You understand that.
I didn’t at first. I blamed your father, and even your brother.
Crazy, right? I thought if the police hadn’t raided your home that night, then just maybe your father wouldn’t have sent you away.
It was just a matter of time.
I know that now, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand then.
Despite the past, Kashief admires you.
When he returned from Robben Island he came to visit me. I was ashamed, after all he did, all he’d been through – I felt like a coward for not doing more.
Kashief was always the rebel, Nasaar. He was born fighting. This world needs people like him, and people like you.
People like me?
The dreamers, so when the war is won there is someone to build on the rubble.
You sound like your brother.
He taught me a lot, she says.
I remember those books he used to give you. It was not until after he was imprisoned that I realized they were banned. I was so oblivious, and then realized that there was a whole other side to you. But by then, you were gone.
Those books, at the time at least, did nothing but set me up for a fall.
What do you mean?
I thought it would be different in London, I thought that I’d go there and my skin wouldn’t matter.
And did it?
It always matters, Nasaar. Perhaps not as much as it did here at the time, but it matters. I was able to get an education, but it wasn’t easy. And these days being Muslim doesn’t help either. The looks I get from people in the street, the feeling you’re not wanted there.
That’s not something that happens here. Not in Prince Albert anyway.
It just seems that we’re always going to be up against something.
Nasaar reached for her hand. And you’re always going to be up for the fight.
She looked at him, and she was crying.
Funny, isn’t it? she said, brushing her eyes with her palm. Here we are, back where we started, Tana Baru, on the graves of ancestors who died two-hundred years ago fighting for the same reasons. I guess some things never change.
Nasaar was quiet. The sinking sun cast Aisha’s face in a warm orange light. He squeezed her hand. Come with me, he said. I have something I want to show you.
Come, quickly, before the sun sets.
They ran down the hill towards his house.
Inside, it was quiet, and he led her to his room. The room was dark. He closed the door behind them and let go of her hand.
Nasaar, what are you doing?
He stood by the window, and slowly drew the curtain.
Set in the window frame, crafted out of the finest lines of iron, was Aisha’s portrait. The sun coming through the window just at that moment imbued the dark lined features with a purple hued light and a second image was depicted in shadows on the white wall behind her. Aisha raised her hands against her chest, and tears glimmered in her eyes.
I drew you so often over the years, he said. And continued to do so even though you were gone. I worked on it constantly, kept fighting to do the impossible – to shape my dreams with iron, when iron has a will of its own. Do you understand?
Still standing in the place he’d left her, she said, Nasaar, it’s beautiful.
You’re right, he said, coming to her, wiping the tears from her eyes. Some things don’t change.
It is a joy to hide but a tragedy not to be found. These were the words of Clara’s dementia-ridden grandpa, uttered from his armchair with a sense of foreboding each time she went out to play hide-and-seek with the neighbourhood children. In the park nearby, she knew the best places to hide, but she never knew when to come out and the others would often be gone by the time she did. Back then she’d never given much thought to the sayings of the muddled old man, but she understood them now. He had forewarned her.
Clara had left her husband and daughter and come to stay with her sister in Venice not – she was adamant – to hide, but to find herself. To see if she had it in her to return. It was carnival weekend, a time of year when it was not uncommon for her to visit alone and so her sister suspected nothing out of the ordinary when Clara arrived just before dinner.
She awoke early the next day, made her bed in the guest room and then slipped out, taking care not to wake her sister. At that hour the streets were empty and although the sun was out, the air was cold. She drew a shawl over her head and shoulders and made her way through the labyrinthine streets in search of the Rialto market. She loved markets. She found the gathering of inquisitive crowds moving amongst the different stalls, the assembled sellers, everybody looking out for their own special need, resembled an entire pattern of life.
She came to the Rialto Bridge without too much effort, crossed over and went towards the market. Some vendors were still setting up their stalls, chatting amongst each other. She understood little of the Venetian dialect, but it sounded good-humoured. Close to the water’s edge, a man and a boy unloaded fish in wicker baskets from a skiff. The man then gutted the fish while the boy packed ice into large flat wooden crates, raised and secured on top of steel poles. The boy was strong with taut muscles, his skin dark. She lowered her shawl and felt the sun on her face; closing her eyes, she listened to the sounds of the sea lapping against the banks, the light rumbling of distant tug boats and the cries of seagulls that swept down to eat the innards of the fish that the man threw to the ground.
But as the morning went by, the market grew crowded. She could not find what she needed and decided to turn back. Pushed about, she wandered through the crowd, searching for a way back to the bridge.
She came to a stall selling fruit and vegetables. The grocer, a large man with hairy arms, was helped by a young girl, whose resemblance to the grocer was seen in her dark, lively eyes. Clara was reminded of her own family and could not help staring at them. From a nearby cart, the man carried baskets of apples, sacks of potatoes and crates of other vegetables, which he left for the girl to arrange. She was only about sixteen, but she set about her work with an industriousness that belied her age. The produce was placed on large wooden trays with nimble quickness and grace, as if her composition of ripe tomatoes set against the heads of light green cabbage was a work of art. Their effort was constant, weighing the fruit and veg, bagging it and working the till, whilst listening to the friendly gossip of regular customers. Clara wondered about the girl’s mother. The grocer’s wife.
She decided to buy something, some fruit for her sister perhaps.
A half kilo of persimmons, Clara said when her turn came. As the girl put the fruit in a paper bag and weighed it, the grocer approached. He leant across the display, directly in front of Clara, so close that she could smell the sweetish scent of onions in his sweat, and inexplicably she found herself trying to entice him with her eyes, inviting him into some game of seduction. But it was all too obvious. In the excitement, her heart beat faster, and she had no choice but to gasp for breath. The girl and her father exchanged smiles and he shrugged and emptied a sack of potatoes into one of the wooden trays and spread them with his thick hairy hands. Clara felt the sting of shame prick the back of her neck and cheeks. The girl held out the bag of fruit. That’s four euros, she said with a curious smile.
Clara quickly paid the girl with a note and, without waiting for her change, slipped into the crowd, her head down, the bag of persimmons held against her chest.
She felt foolish, like some desperate schoolgirl. And worst of all, she had unwittingly placed herself in the very situation she had come to get away from. The grocer and his daughter were so much like them – them so at ease in each other’s company, so alike in temperament, their sensitivities. So like them. Her husband and her daughter. The professor and his student. How they mocked her. Cut her from their talk at the dinner table. Do you remember the story of Aida and Radamès? he would ask. Do you think Orpheus really loved Eurydice? What did she know of anything? It is natural for a daughter to adore her father. The mother is the despot. The burdensome wife.
She felt the wet bag of squashed persimmons in her hands, the sticky juice dripping down her fingers, and she dropped it to the ground. She was alone. A narrow street extended ahead of her with red brick walls on either side. She did not know how she’d come this way or for how long she’d been walking.
She heard the laughter of a young girl and turned to see a lithe, blonde figure running towards her, chased by a boy wearing tennis shoes and a devil mask. The boy wasn’t laughing. Clara stepped aside as they ran past, first the girl and then the boy. They did not seem to see her. As they got further away, the girl’s laughter grew more pressing: that urgent laughter of one out of breath, that forced laughter when it’s no fun playing anymore. She watched them disappear at the end of the street, listening until eventually the laughter died.
Determined to find her way again, she continued walking. She came to a canal where a man sat begging near a small bridge. His clothes were filthy and his unruly hair and beard hid his face. She felt in her pockets and dropped a couple of coins in the hat at his feet. The man looked up, and for a moment, in his reproachful eyes, she saw an older version of her husband. She hurried up the stairs of the bridge and looked back to ensure that he was not pursuing her. But the man had not moved. He smoked and tipped the coins from his hat into his pocket without counting them. He took no notice of her. In fact, he no longer seemed to see her.
She covered her head once more with the shawl and crossed the bridge. There’s no turning back, she thought. She had nothing, and even if she did, it still wouldn’t be enough to go elsewhere.
Venice was the city for the lost to be lost in.
The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?
– because one did survive the wreck.
The Whale, Herman Melville
But for a sharp line of first light where the drawn curtains meet, the room is dark. Ishmael stands at the window, his hand raised to the light. He watches it glimmer across his palm. His wife, Rachel, kneels beside a white fleece where their baby lies asleep.
I feel like you’ve tricked me, she says.
It’s been there all along.
It hasn’t come up since.
Why does it have to be said?
Please, lower your voice.
There is a ship leaving in three weeks.
You’ll be needed here. They like you, everybody says so.
He shakes his head, and closes his hand into a fist. The light escapes his grasp.
Planting will begin in the spring, she says. There is no reason why they won’t hire you.
It isn’t about the work.
Why else would you want to go?
I’m dying for it, he says, sotto voce. He turns towards her. She is dressed in her light green frock, the one she wears to town. He turns away and takes hold of the curtains.
Don’t, she says, the light will wake her.
A couple of months, six at most.
And then what? You’ll return happy?
I’ll send money. You won’t need to worry about that.
But it will start all over again. You know it.
If I can just get out there. It will do me good.
She looks away, covers her eyes with her hands. You said you were done with that life.
It’s always been there.
You tricked me, she says. The baby stirs at the sound of her voice.
I tried, you can’t say otherwise.
He moves around the room, looking for something that needs to be done, but there is nothing. He sits on the bed and brushes his hand across the polished bedside table. There is not a speck of dust anywhere. There are no rugs, and the furniture is sparse: a bed, the cot and his wooden chest – salvaged from the Pequod – now full of toys. He opens the bedside drawer and reaches for the Bible, to read, as he often does, of his namesake, son of Abraham, banished into the desert to wander the wilderness. Opening the book, red rose petals fall to the moquette carpet. He stares down at the dry, pressed petals, once blood red, he remembers, but now dark crimson.
You kept them, he says.
It wasn’t too long ago. You didn’t need me to convince you then, remember?
He nods, turning the pages slowly, back and forth. She rises, goes to the washbasin and strips down to her waist. He pretends to read, but watches her as she washes her face, her neck, her breasts, and he remembers. After years at sea, he hadn’t the courage to leave the harbour, not in either direction. Occasionally he did odd jobs for food, but otherwise he sat each day on the wooden chest, filled with clothes and keepsakes, his only possessions. She came one morning to sell her roses. She smiled at him, a bright scarf wrapped around her head, strands of dark hair about her face, warmed by the sun. She sold very few roses that day and in the evening a lorry came by to pick her up. She loaded her roses and climbed up with the other sellers. Looking back at him, she dropped a rose, and waved. The next day she returned, and the day after that. And each day she came a little closer. He wanted to make a show of his affection but he hadn’t a penny, and even if he had what would a girl with all the roses in the world possibly want? Then one morning, when the lorry came he was waiting. He spoke to the driver while she arranged her roses, sending him furtive, questioning glances. The driver told him to be quick and so he loaded his chest and the lorry took him away. They made love that very night, in her room, his hands, still rough from the sea, cut from a day’s work in the rose fields. Her cries were deep like distant gales and when she was quiet he held the rose above her, stripped the petals, and laid them in a path between her breasts, down to her soft white belly.
He sets the Bible down and goes to her, rests his one hand on her bare shoulder and the other on the small of her back.
The baby cries. She moves away and covers herself.
She kneels on the fleece and picks up the child, but the crying does not stop.
Take her, Please.
He holds the baby against his chest, and she quietens. His hands are cool. She told him once that all those years at sea had cooled his blood. She seemed to understand then.
She folds the fleece, stands and places it in the cot. She says, She’ll grow up. In six months she’ll be different and you won’t be here.
I am not here now, he murmurs, his lips vibrating on the soft hair on the baby’s head. When I come back I’ll be happier, for all of us.
What about me? My happiness? Us?
I make you miserable. You’ve said so.
The baby has fallen asleep. He listens to the gentle breathing of the tiny creature.
What kind of man leaves his wife and child?
Six months, he says, placing the baby in the cot. Everything will be fine.
She stands over the cot opposite him. He reaches for her hand, their baby girl between them. She smiles at him, challenging him to hold her gaze, but he cannot. She slips her hand from under his and goes to the bed. She stands with her back to him, her shoulders taut, the tendons in her neck pulsating. Careful not to tread on the petals about her feet, she neatens the bed. Then she picks up the Bible and pages through it.
Is it the whale? You know nobody has come close. You said so yourself.
I still believe that.
Then why be a fool?
He wants to say something about purpose, that it is his calling, but she has heard it all before, and thrown it back at him. What right did he have to follow her?
Leaving the petals on the floor, she returns the Bible to the drawer. She puts on her coat and wraps her hair in a scarf.
If I had kept that rose? she says. If I had not let it fall from the lorry, would you have made the same choice?
Rachel, I don’t love you any less.
But not more, she says. You don’t love us more. She steps to the cot and lifts the sleeping child, and, covering her in the fleece, she leaves the room.
Her steps can be heard on the stairs, and on the stones on the path outside the house. He kneels beside the bed and sweeps the petals into his hand. He expects them to be soft, but not so brittle. He returns them to the Bible pages.
Outside the lorry’s engine rattles and the sellers collect their buckets and chat demurely. Her voice is not among them. He picks up a toy ship from the chest at the foot of the bed and sails it through the air. In his hands he feels the coarse wood of the ship, which dips towards the cool morning light, stark and white, like the belly of a whale.
Photo by Tomek Dzido
SOME OTHER WEDDING
The wedding venue, a large thatched house built beside a small lake, was out in the wilderness, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Eliot sipped champagne and looked around the room: the white fairy lights hanging from the domed ceiling; the tables, decorated with sunflowers and small wooden elephants; trunks raised.
As their wedding song came to an end, his sister squeezed Martin’s hand, and the guests were invited to join the newlyweds on the dance floor. Eliot’s parents went first – they’d always been great dancers; then his elder brother, still with a drink in hand, was pulled up by his wife. They’d had their troubles lately, but seemed past all that now, swaying close together, laughing.
Soon, Eliot was the only one left sitting at the table. He was happy to sit alone, to drink and watch, but seeing his cousin Jane in the middle of the dance floor, her tanned, athletic body conspicuous in a light yellow bridesmaid’s dress, her eyes fixed on him with intention, he quickly rose and strode out to the balcony.
Ah, look who’s here. Eliot my boy, said his Uncle Charles, smoking a cigar, drinking his usual, rum and coke. Doesn’t your sister look beautiful?
So there’s just you. When’s it going to be?
Who knows? he said, switching his drink from one hand to the other.
You’d do well marrying someone from home. Stop your shenanigans with those senoritas, such volatile types.
Eliot shrugged, and drank. He’d forgotten how much the pirate his uncle could be after a few rum and cokes – bushveld cappuccinos, his uncle called them, because he drank them daily and usually before lunch.
Still teaching in Spain?
Eliot nodded, aware of what his uncle would say next.
We have schools here, too, you know. You should come home. Sure, this country has its problems, but where don’t they?
I’ve been away too long…
What kind of talk is that?
Eliot prepared himself for another onslaught of his uncle’s barroom wisdom when he felt his hand being taken from behind.
Come on you, said his cousin Jane. You need to dance. Here Dad, take his drink.
She took the glass from Eliot’s hand, gave it to her father and pulled Eliot back inside.
Wait, I really would prefer…
Oh come on, it’s a slow one. You don’t have to move much.
She led him to the middle of the dance floor. Her yellow dress could barely contain her body – her breasts pushing down and her toned thighs pressing up – and the other guests yielded to staring at her as if her presence had a cosmic effect, a sun pulling all things towards it. She held him close and put her cheek against his. He felt his legs turn to wood, and his head began to swell.
Relax will you.
I’ll try, he said. Not sure where to focus his eyes, he closed them. He remembered how they danced as kids. He liked to be watched back then.
Look at them, said Jane, her breath hot in his ear.
He opened his eyes. His parents danced nearby, sharing hearty asides with old friends, happy that the wedding had gone to plan. Proud of their daughter. His mother, her lips glossy and red from a fresh application of lipstick, looked directly at him and smiled.
You should dance with her, said Jane. She hasn’t seen you in so long.
He looked away, his eyes moving down, but seeing her breasts, he looked up again, and remained staring, just above her head, at the white lights, which caused the room to blur.
There’ll be time enough after the wedding, he said.
Come on, just do as I say. We’ll dance over to them and make a swop. Besides, your dad’s a much better dancer, she said, kissing Eliot on the cheek.
But as they began to move towards his parents the song ended and another, more upbeat song began. People cheered and sang along to an old favourite. Eliot broke away from Jane.
I guess I’ll wait for the next one.
Where’s my old Eliot gone? Just promise me you’ll dance with her before the end of the night.
He grabbed a bottle of champagne and a glass from the table and headed for the back of the room. People at other tables were talking and laughing. They all seemed to be reminiscing or making plans for the next big occasion. Some of his sister’s friends called out to him. He had not seen them since school; dressed in suits and low cut dresses, they all seemed like unsuccessful film stars reduced now to acting out real life.
How are you?
Fine, I’m well. How are you?
Great. How many years has it been?
Too many. Good to see you.
You’re looking well.
Thanks, you too.
See you later, maybe.
Yes, we must catch up.
He noticed a door hidden in the shadows behind the bar and, making sure not to be seen, opened it.
He found himself outside alone in a small courtyard. In the centre stood a gazebo. He opened the champagne and poured himself a glass. The sky was clear and full of stars. The constellations of the southern hemisphere seemed like strangers to him, but finding the Southern Cross he was immediately placed in the nights of his youth. He was seldom alone on those nights, yet since then, like the sky, his point-of-view had shifted.
He heard the distant music coming from the party and every now and then the shout of someone toasting to the health of the newlyweds. He looked up at the gazebo, decorated with pink ribbons, tied at every corner from top to bottom. This gazebo, he thought, forgotten here, the remains of some other wedding. He stood under it. Though its wooden structure was sturdy, the paint was weathered and white flakes lay on the ground. He imagined how the couple must have stood beneath it, making their vows before a priest, and, perhaps, these stars. He held up his glass to them, wishing them well, and sipped his champagne. This forgotten wedding, under a gazebo, a thousand witnesses light-years away. He put down his glass and untied one of the ribbons and put it in the breast pocket of his suit. Then raising the bottle, he began slowly to dance.
Later, when Eliot walked back through the door, the shadows had spread, the room had become darker, the white fairy lights spent, and the tables stripped. The music was hard and red strobe lights flickered on the sweaty faces of people moving, packed together, as if coiled about some unknown centre. There was no sign of the bride and the groom; neither his cousin Jane nor his uncle Charles. His parents, too, must have gone to bed. Eliot remembered then. He would have to dance with his mother some other time, at some other wedding.
THE LITTLE SOLDIER
Daddy left the Christmas they lived by the sea. The small rented flat on the beach road had dirty white walls and a shiny red patio that smelt of cherries. The summer was hot and the holidays seemed to roll up into one everlasting day. Rebecca did not go to the beach. Instead, she moved between the kitchenette, where Mother drank tea, and the balcony, where she sat watching the neighbourhood boys float paper boats in the gutters. But most of the time she stayed in the main bedroom, where Daddy worked on the puppet that he said was his last, his most special. Daddy smelt of wood varnish, warm cigarettes and Old Spice. He shaved each morning now, which Rebecca thought was a good idea because it was too hot for the full beard he used to wear.
Wooden puppets filled the rooms of their home until the day Mother packed them all into boxes. The puppets were modelled on the very characters that Rebecca found in her storybooks. There were knights in armour, witches with warts, bears with hard, jagged fur, and a wolf, too. The same day a man in white overalls arrived in a van to take them all away. The arms and legs of the puppets dangled from the sides of the boxes as the man carried them outside. When they were all gone, he signed a piece of paper and gave it to Mother. The man looked briskly around the room and then closed the door behind him.
That evening Mother decided to cook stew for dinner. The butcher down the street, with his lamb chop sideburns and bloody apron, offered Mother the marrow bones that she usually took to make the soup that Daddy loved. But Mother said that she wanted stewing meat instead.
When Daddy arrived home from the fairground, tired yet jovial, he found the kitchen filled with the rich smells from the stove. He smiled as he went over to the pot and lifted the lid. Then he turned to Mother with a baffled look on his face.
Rebecca, go read in the living room, darling, said Mother. On the sofa, Rebecca crossed her legs beneath her, and opened her book to the story about the Tin Soldier, which she knew by heart.
Where are they? Daddy’s voice rose, loud and harsh, like a giant. It did not sound like Daddy at all. He pushed his way into the living room with hard steps. Mother followed him, but went no further than the kitchen door. He stood in front of the empty cabinet and held it, pressing his weight against it as if to wrestle it to the floor.
John, said Mother in a quiet voice. Be reasonable.
But Daddy did not look at her. The cabinet began to shake because Daddy was shaking. Rebecca opened her book as wide as it would go until the spine began to bend and crack. On the page, in an illustration, the little black goblin leapt from a snuffbox. Her parents did not look at her. The strong smell of stew drifted into the room. What about those upstairs?
Please, said Mother. We can’t go on like this.
Daddy pushed himself back from the cabinet and bounded up the staircase.
John, said Mother. Please, think of your daughter.
Rebecca sat at the table alone that night. She moved the potatoes around on her plate until they were cold. She did not touch the pieces of meat. Mother drank cups of tea and read through the newspaper, circling ads with a red crayon that she took from Rebecca’s schoolbag. Daddy stayed upstairs. The air of his cigarettes settled on every room like a moth-eaten old blanket. The next morning, when he came downstairs, he wore a grey suit, and his face was clean shaven.
Once he was gone the sea air grew cooler. The neighbourhood boys still played with paper boats in the gutters in the street below. Rebecca dangled her new puppet from above. A one-legged soldier made of wood. His last, and most special. She thought about the ballerina, loved by a soldier made of tin, and how, against all odds, he had made his way back. Rebecca knew little of love, but she let the puppet go.
My hands are strong, big hands. Hands that can wrestle a bear. I work a full day at the mill. Work that kills my back and breaks my spirit. My wife, Lorain, says shifting logs has made my hands rough and ugly. She can’t stand to look at them. I don’t ask about touching her.
Before heading home, I drive to the bar just off the highway. I order whisky. A woman sits across from me. She drinks gin and eats constantly from the bowl of salty knick-knacks, and she can’t keep from looking at my hands. I raise my glass to my lips then bring it down again and all the while she stares, her eyes fixed on them. I know that there are women who read hands like cards. To tell your future. And I want none of it. I shoot down my whisky and go. A single whisky, that’s it. I haven’t drunk that little in a long while. First time any woman’s done that trick.
I drive home. Sure Lorain will be happy to see me early. The house is quiet, and dark. I switch on the kitchen light, take some lamb chops out the freezer and go upstairs. She lies asleep with the television on and the sound down. The television flickers, giving the room a ghostly light. I remove my jacket and sit beside her. The bed squeaks as I lean over to kiss her. She wakes up, jerks back, with her hands raised. It scares her somehow seeing me there. She looks confused. I smile and try brush her cheek with my hand, but she moves away, sitting up, and adjusts her gown to cover her breasts. She is wearing her old dressing gown, the same one she’s worn since before we were married. I stop smiling and let her be. It wasn’t a good idea to wake her like that, but why does she have to be so damn upset? I find the remote beside her pillow and switch off the television. She turns on the bedside lamp and runs her hands through her hair.
What are you doing home? she says.
I skipped out early, I say, bending to remove my boots.
Please not in the bedroom? she says. She gets up, flaring her arms, knocking the shade from the lamp.
Take it easy. I try to get her to sit back down. But she won’t.
Just look at you, she says, fastening her gown.
What’s the matter?
Oh hell, what’s the matter? she asks, striding over to a corner of the room.
You don’t listen to me. I’ve asked you not to come up in your muddy boots, she says, the palms of her hands pressing against her temples.
I stand up and move towards her. Come on, Lorain, take it easy.
She pushes past me and goes to the door.
Before I can say anything, she leaves the room.
I feel better now that she’s gone. Sure, she’s spoken to me about my boots, but I take care of the mud and that’s all it is. I hear noises coming from the kitchen. Angry noises. Cupboards being opened and shut. She is talking and talking, her voice rising. Yelling at me from downstairs. I catch everything she says, mostly because she keeps repeating it. I sit down at her dressing table and unlace my boots. Her anger goes on. I sit there listening, looking at myself in the mirror. The mirror is large and I can see almost the whole room reflected in it. I see things differently: the queen-sized bed, the wardrobe, the curtains of lace, and myself, sitting there, in that room, alone, in my work clothes, wearing my boots. I put my hands on the whitewashed dressing table and spread my fingers, there on the smooth white wood together with her hairbrush, lipstick, blush, and her open jewellery box: sparkling chains spilling out like worms. My hands close into fists.
She stops talking then and it’s quiet for a while. But it isn’t peaceful. It’s that silence that comes at night, the kind you can’t sleep in. Then she starts up again, only gentler now. She isn’t speaking to me.
Carol, she says. She is on the phone to an old friend of ours. I think about Carol and her husband Jack, my old fishing buddy. It’s been a while since we’ve seen them. Lorain is asking how everybody is back home. Listening to her voice now, she sounds different. She sounds how she used to. I look at the bed, at the two pillows set apart on either side, with the remote lying in the space between them. I listen to her talking to our friend, so far away, and she does sound so much like the girl I married, not so long ago.
I turn away from the mirror and lace up my boots. I get up, put my jacket on, close the bedroom door behind me and go downstairs. In the living room, on the sofa, Lorain tells Carol how things on our side are, how life outside the city is suiting us. Her voice sounds singsong, and light, like it will float away. But as I stand in the hall, looking at her, seeing her look back at me, I find myself hiding my hands behind my back. And I realise that she isn’t the same girl any more. Her face is long and heavy, her mouth turned down at the edges. But the worst of it is what I have to hide.
I drive back to the bar. The place is full now. Some people are having their dinners, but mostly people just sit there drinking. I find an empty seat at the end of the bar and ask for a whisky. The woman is still there, drinking gin, staring into her glass. The bowl of bar snacks is empty. She doesn’t seem drunk. She’s full of tricks. I hold my whisky out in front of me, up towards the light, turning the glass, and place my other hand on the bar. She looks towards me. I look back. She smiles. But then she flinches and her eyes shut as if she’s just remembered something painful. She looks up at the wall clock, pulls a few banknotes from her purse and leaves them under her glass.
By the time she gets to the door he is there. A guy wearing a leather jacket and cowboy boots. She steps back, steadies herself, holding her hair back from her eyes, and then walks out, past him, without saying a word. He follows her.
I finish my drink and go outside.
They stand by a black Datsun with its headlights on. He holds her purse and is yelling. She looks away, her arms folded. As I come towards them she looks at me. He looks, too. And that’s when he hits her, across the face with her purse. She falls in front of the car. He throws the purse down, and glares at me, first at my boots and then up at my hands. She sits up, huddling into herself, at the wheel of the car, hiding her face against her knees.
The guy takes a step towards me and before I know it my hands are around his neck. I squeeze. He gets hold of my wrists and tries to scream. He reminds me of a fish I caught once: his mouth gaping, his eyes small, black pearls. When he is down on his knees, I stop. I pick him up like a log into the air, and throw him down in front of the car, the headlights catching the dust. He stays there, gasping and clutching his throat, but he doesn’t get up.
I go slowly to her. She looks up at me, and then at him, belly down in the dirt. I touch the top of her head, and then step away. She picks herself up and comes over to me. She doesn’t say anything, and neither do I.
We go back inside. I sit down and she sits next to me. I order us some drinks and then I put both my hands on the bar. Her eyes are on them and I turn them over, let her get a good look. Someone goes over to the jukebox and puts on a record. We both know the song. It is a good song. She puts her hand on mine and holds it to her cheek.
SEND HER AWAY
Karl, still wearing his stained overalls and grimy boots, stepped into Liberty department store just before closing time. He lifted the white coat off the rack and ran his hand down the front, admiring the row of dark wooden buttons. The wool was soft, lamb’s wool, nothing fake about it. Beth noticed that kind of thing. He dug the price tag out from the broad lapel. It would cost him a week’s wages. He’d do it though, and make Beth happy. He called her earlier to see if she was free that evening. She said yes, and that it would be good to talk.
Last Saturday morning, walking through Borough Market, they’d met Ed and his Italian wife, Irene. Ed, Beth’s colleague from work, said that he’d heard much about Karl and shook his hand with a firm grip. Beth was quiet. Karl noticed how she kept staring at Ed’s wife’s coat. It was white and looked soft, cashmere perhaps, probably Italian; its cut was slim, ending just above the knee. It was a fine coat. They stood in a close circle and spoke about the weather: how strange it was to still enjoy the sun so late in October; and the market, the good food, the rise of the independent coffee shops; Ed’s preference for herbal tea. When they said goodbye, Irene kissed them both on the cheek – Karl feeling the softness of her coat against his cheek as he embraced her awkwardly. Ed stood aside, close to Beth. Then he shook Karl’s hand once more before taking his wife by the arm and slipping away into the crowd.
At the cash desk a sales assistant with big arms folded the coat into a bundle and stuffed it in a red plastic bag. Karl counted out the money from a brown envelope and paid. Then he tucked the envelope back into his back pocket. With the few pounds remaining, he’d have enough to buy them dinner. Sure he’d be broke for the rest of the week, but he’d take it easy – stay at home for a change instead of going down to the pub with the guys from the site.
He left the department store and sauntered down the main street, the big red shopping bag swinging with the bounce of his gait. People stared at him, but he didn’t let it get to him. He felt good and looked forward to seeing Beth. She was going to love it. He quickened his step. Instead of taking the bus, he decided to walk. But he’d not gone far when dark clouds crept in low across the sky. He crossed the street and started to cut across the park.
Then he stopped.
On a bench at the far end of the park sat Beth and, beside her, Ed. At first, Karl thought of calling out to them, but then he saw how she laid her head on his shoulder and how Ed’s hand moved down to her knee. Karl tightened his grip on the bag and ran towards a row of trees. They stayed like that for a while, holding each other, till it began to rain. Then Ed raised his umbrella, and the two of them fled as the rain fell harder.
Upstairs, in his room, Karl sat on the end of his bed staring at the coat hung over the back of a chair in the corner beneath an old lampstand. His muddy boots left dark stains on the carpet and his wet clothes stuck to his skin. The radiator began to wheeze and hum. It would be a while before any heat filled the room. He heard the buzz at the front door. A minute later his landlady knocked at his door. Your girlfriend’s downstairs.
Just a minute, he said. He pulled off his boots and pushed them under the bed.
His landlady opened the door. You shouldn’t keep a woman waiting, she said.
I’m not quite ready.
She switched on the light. You don’t look well at all.
Got caught in the rain.
I see that, she said. God, you look pale.
It’s nothing, he said, reaching for a towel.
Maybe I should send her away.
Karl thought for a moment. He dried his hair and stared at the coat.
No, he said. Send her up.
As his landlady heavily descended the steep staircase, he closed the door behind her and switched off the light, casting the coat once more beneath the penumbral glow of the lamp. He undressed and quickly put on clean clothes and then listened to the soft steps rising up the stairs. He opened the door before she could knock and stood behind her as she entered the room. He closed the door and placed his hands on her shoulders, positioning her in front of the chair.
It’s yours, he said.
What is? What’s going on?
The coat. It’s for you. A gift.
Beth tried to turn towards him, but he held her, forcing her forward, closer to the chair.
Take it, he said. Feel how soft it is.
What’s this for? she said. It looks expensive.
Won’t you put it on?
She twisted out of his grip, and turned towards him. Karl I want us to talk, she said.
And we will. I’m taking you out – my treat, he said.
Can’t we just stay here?
He advanced towards her till she had no choice but to sit in the chair.
Put it on, he said. He raised the coat and set it on her shoulders.
Karl please, I can’t, she said. It’s beautiful, but I can’t.
Wear it, he said, moving closer. I picked it just for you.
You’re scaring me a little, she said.
Wear it, he said. Wear it and we’ll talk.
I can’t, why are you making me? I just can’t. She began to sob, but slowly slipped her arms into the coat. Karl watched her in silence. When it was on, he raised her from the chair. He fastened the buttons down the front, from top to bottom, and adjusted the collar. Beth’s sobs became incessant. He ran his hands down the length of the coat and then held her to him, pushing her head down to his shoulder, caressing her hair, damp from the rain.
There, he said. Now, let’s talk.
Below is a short chapter from his upcoming crime novel; The Watchmaker
The watchmaker sleeps at his desk, slumped back in his chair, his hands hanging by his sides. He snores heavily. His chest rises as he breathes out, his knuckles drag against the floor. At exactly midnight, he is awoken by the simultaneous chiming of the numerous clocks that hang on the four walls of his small store. He jolts forward, grabbing the arms of his chair. But for the illuminated ring of tiny alabaster stones on the face of the handcrafted Egyptian clock above the door, the store is dark. He rests his elbows on his desk and holds his head that aches from the effect of the heavy malt wine that he’s been drinking all evening in a nearby tavern. One by one, the clocks quieten, but he cannot distinguish the difference between the chimes that continue and the dwindling echoes of those that do not. During the day the clocks do not seem so loud, he thinks. There are those hours when he is so lost in his work that he does not seem to hear them at all.
Wishing to shake off the stupor the wine has caused and the sluggishness settled about him like a bout of the flu, he kneads his temples with his fists. The wind from earlier, which, at its maddest, bawls down the narrow alley, has died. This alley of red brick wall and garbage has not been good for his trade. He rises from the chair only to feel the knots in his aging back tighten. The oldest of his clocks, out of sync with the rest, begins to ring – mechanically dire. He is about to switch on his desk lamp when he hears voices coming from the street. Out of curiosity, he sits down again on the edge of his chair. His hand lingers on the light switch. From what he can make out there are two men. One is loud, drunk, unrestrained; the other can barely be heard. The watchmaker makes little of their conversation.
The best performance of my career, says the one.
You don’t say, says the other.
How much further now?
They are right outside his shop when it happens. In the dark the two figures are more like shadows. One of them begins to twist, raises an arm and reaches back with the other; he yells out. Then the voice is gone, like the sudden dying of the wind. The remaining shadow turns to face the storefront window. The watchmaker, hidden by the darkness of his store, and his hand poised above the light switch, does not move, but stares at the figure that looms directly opposite him. Leaning against the window, the shadow, as if having slowly filled with blood, has become a weight against the glass, yet with the now recognisable features of a man. For a moment, the eyes of this man, like the shiny stones of the Egyptian clock, seem to penetrate the darkness of the watchmaker’s store, searching the blackness beyond for signs of life. The watchmaker, aware of his hand above the lamp that could at any moment spark light between himself and the man – this his equivocal nemesis – watches and waits as if in a standoff with Death himself. But in an instant the light in those eyes is spent, and the man, as if the sudden weight has dragged him into himself like mass consumed by a black hole, is once more reduced to shadow, and disappears into the night.
The watchmaker, left staring at nothing, slowly removes his hand from the light switch and places his head against the solid surface of his oak desk.