Dinner is nearly ready, Madam,” I said. “Please come to the table.”
She said nothing, just stood there, planted on her cane. I went over, took her by the arm, and brought her to the table. She just muttered a little. I went down to the kitchen, got her tray, and put it in front of her. She looked at it but didn’t touch the food. I got out her napkin, stretched it out under her huge ears, and knotted it.
“Well, what did you make tonight?” she said. “Let’s see what you put together.”
“Baked eggplant,” I said. “You requested it yesterday, right?”
She looked at me.
I slid the plate in front of her. She pushed the food around with her fork, complaining to herself. After picking at it a little, she began to eat. “Madam, don’t forget your salad,” I said before going inside and sitting down to my own eggplant.
A little later, she called out, “Salt. Recep, where’s the salt?” I went back out and saw it was right in front of her.
“Here it is!”
“Well, this is a new one,” she said. “Why do you go inside when I’m eating?”
I didn’t answer.
“They’re coming tomorrow, aren’t they?”
“They’re coming, Madam, they’re coming,” I said. “Weren’t you going to put some salt on that?”
“You mind your own business!” she said. “Are they coming?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “They called, you know.”
“What else have you got?”
I took the uneaten eggplant back, ladled a good portion of beans onto a fresh plate, and brought it out to her. When she’d lost interest in the beans and started stirring them around, I returned to the kitchen and sat down to resume my supper. A little later she called out again, this time for pepper, but I pretended not to hear her. When she cried Fruit! I went in and pushed the fruit bowl in front of her.
Her thin, bony hand began to wander over the fruit like a drowsy spider. Finally it stopped.
“All rotten! Where’d you find these? Lying on the ground under the trees?”
“They’re not rotten, Madam,” I said. “They’re just ripe. These are the best peaches. I got them from the fruit seller. You know there are no peach trees around here anymore.”
Pretending she hadn’t heard me she chose one of the peaches.
I went inside and was just finishing my beans when she shouted, “Untie me! Recep, where are you? Let me out of this!”
I ran in and as I undid her napkin I saw that she had left half the peach.
“Let me at least give you some apricots, Madam. Otherwise you’ll wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me you’re hungry.”
“I’ve never been so hungry that I’ve had to eat things that have fallen off the trees, thank you.”
As she wiped her mouth she wrinkled her face, then pretended to pray for a while before getting up.
“Take me upstairs!”
She leaned on me and we made our way, stopping on the ninth step to catch our breath.
“Have you made up their rooms?” she said, gasping.
“I made them up.”
“Okay, then let’s go,” she said, leaning on me all the more.
We continued to the top step. “Eighteen, nineteen, thank God,” she said, and went into her room.
“Let’s turn on your light,” I said. “I am going to be at the movies.”
“The movies!” she said. “A grown man. Well, don’t stay out late.”
I went down, finished my beans, and washed the dishes. I already had my tie on under my apron. So I had only to get my jacket, check for my wallet, and be gone.
The wind blew cool from the sea, and it was pleasant. The leaves of the fig tree were rustling. I shut the garden gate and walked down toward the beach. Where our garden wall ended, the pavement and the new concrete houses began. They were on their balconies, in their little narrow gardens, watching, families listening to the news on TV, the women at their charcoal grills. They didn’t see me. Meat on the grills and smoke. Families, lives; I wonder what it’s like. When winter comes, though, there’ll be nobody around. Then I’ll be frightened just to hear my own footsteps in the empty streets. I felt myself shivering and put on my jacket and turned the corner.
It was funny to think how they all sat down to eat their dinner and watch TV at the same time! As I was walking around in the back streets, a car pulled up at the end of one of those that opened onto the square, and a tired husband back from Istanbul got out. He went into the house with his bag, looking upset to be getting home so late for his dinner in front of the television. When I got down to the shore again, I heard Ismail’s voice: “National lottery, six days left!”
He didn’t see me; I didn’t say anything either. He was bobbing up and down as he walked among the tables in the restaurant. One table called him over, and he went, bending down to present a fistful of lottery tickets to a girl in a white dress with a ribbon in her hair. The girl picked carefully as her mother and father smiled with pleasure. I turned away, saying I was not going to look anymore. If I had called out, if Ismail had seen me, he would have quickly limped over to me.
He would have said, Brother, why don’t you ever stop by? Your house is so far away, Ismail, I would have said, and it’s up high on the hill.
Yes, you’re right, he would have said. When Dogan Bey gave us that money, brother, if I had bought property here instead of on the hill, oh Recep, if I had bought on the shore instead of up there because it was near the train station, I’d be a millionaire, he would have said, always in those words. His pretty wife would say nothing, only look at you. Why should I go? True, sometimes I want to, sometimes on winter nights when I have no one to talk to, I feel the urge and I do go, but it’s always the same words.
The casinos on the shore were empty. The televisions were on. The tea men had lined up hundreds of empty tea glasses in rows; they all sparkled nice and clean under the powerful lights. They were waiting for the news to finish and the crowds to pour out into the streets. The cats were crouched under the empty chairs. I walked on.
Rowboats were pulled up close to the wall on the other side of the breakwater. There was nobody on the dirty little beach. Seaweed that had landed on the shore and dried out, bottles, pieces of plastic.... They said they were going to knock down Ibrahim the coffee man’s house, the coffeehouses, too. I suddenly got excited when I saw the light in the windows of the coffeehouse. Maybe there’d be somebody there. Somebody who didn’t play cards—we’d talk. He’d ask, How are you. I’d tell him, he’d listen, and How are you; he’d tell and I’d listen. Raising our voices to be heard above the television and the general din. Friendship. Maybe we’d even go to the movies together.
But as soon as I walked into the coffeehouse I lost my good spirits, because those two punks were there again. They were glad when they saw me, and they looked at each other and laughed. But I don’t see you, I’m looking at my watch. I’m looking for a friend. Nevzat was sitting over there on the left, watching the card players. I got a chair and joined him. I was happy.
“So,” I said. “How are you?”
He didn’t say anything.
I looked at the television a little bit; it was the end of the news.
I looked at the cards being passed around and at Nevzat looking at them. I wanted them all to finish their hand, and they did, but still they didn’t talk to me; they just talked and laughed among themselves.
Then they resumed their game and got wrapped up in it before stopping again. Finally, as they were dealing out the cards for another hand, I figured I’d better say something.
“Nevzat, that milk you gave us this morning was very good.”
He nodded without turning his head from the cards.
“Plenty of fat in it; it’s good.”
He nodded again. I looked at my watch. It was five to nine. I looked at the television and lost track of things; much later I realised that the young men were snickering. When I saw the newspaper in their hands, I thought in fear, Oh God, not another picture. Because they kept looking at me and then the newspaper, laughing in a nasty way. Pay no attention, Recep! But I thought about it anyway: sometimes they put a picture in the papers, they have no feelings. They write something terrible underneath, just as when they print a picture of a naked lady or a bear giving birth in the zoo. In a panic, I turned to Nevzat and said, without thinking:
“How are you?”
He turned to me for a second, muttering something, but I couldn’t think of anything more to say because my mind was on the picture.
So I gave up and began to watch the two young guys on the sly.
When we came eye to eye, they began to smirk even more. I turned away. A king fell on the table. The players all cursed, some of them happy and some of them disappointed. Then a new game began; the cards and the good mood changed hands. Was there a face card? I had a sudden thought.
“Cemil,” I called out. “A tea over here!”
So I had found something to keep me busy for a little while, but it didn’t last very long. I kept thinking about what the young men were laughing about in the newspaper. When I looked again, they had given it to Cemil and were pointing out the picture. When Cemil saw my discomfort, he let them have it: “Hoodlums!”
Well, everything was out in the open. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t noticed anymore. I should have left a long time ago. The young guys were laughing openly.
“What is going on, Cemil?” I said. “What is in that paper?”
“Nothing!” he said.
I tried to hold myself back, but I didn’t have the strength because I was overwhelmed with curiosity. I got up from the chair like someone in a trance, took a few slow steps over to Cemil, passing the young men who had fallen silent.
“Give me that paper!”
He made as if to withhold the paper as he spoke softly. “Who knows if it’s even real? I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Then staring fiercely at the young men, he said, “Shameless!” before finally surrendering the newspaper.
Like a hungry wolf I grabbed it from his hand and opened it, my heart was pounding as I looked at the page he had pointed to, but there was no picture.
“Down there!” said Cemil, growing nervous.
My eyes moved quickly over the ‘History Corner’.
“‘Uskudar’s historical treasures’,” I began to read aloud, “‘Yahya Kemal, the poet, and Uskudar...’” Then below headlines “General Mehmet”... “the Greek Mosque”... “Semsi Pasha Mosque and Library”... Finally I followed Cemil’s fingertip down to the bottom and I saw: “The Dwarves’ House in Uskudar!”
I felt the blood rush to my face as I read the item in one breath.
“‘Along with these, there was at one time a dwarves’ house in Uskudar. This house, which was built for dwarves, not for ordinary people, was perfectly complete. Except its rooms, doors, windows and stairs were made for dwarves, and a regular person had to bend himself in half to get in. According to research done by the art historian Dr Suheyl Enver, this house was built by Handan Sultan, spouse of Sultan Mehmet III, and mother of Sultan Ahmet I. This lady loved her dwarves so much, this excessive affection occupies a special place in the history of the Harem. Handan Sultan wanted her dear friends to live together undisturbed in peace after she died, so she put the palace carpenter Ramazan Usta to work. It is said that the perfection of the ironwork and woodwork made this little house a work of art. However, we must admit that we do not know for certain whether such a strange and interesting building actually existed, as it is not mentioned by the historian Evliya Celebi, who wandered through Uskudar in the same years. Even if there had really been such a place, this curious house must have disappeared in the famous fire that terrorised Uskudar in 1642.’”
“Just forget it, Recep,” Cemil said as I stood there trembling. “Why do you pay attention to these punks?”
I had a terrible compulsion to read the newspaper again, but I didn’t have the strength. Drenched in sweat, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. The paper slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor.
“Have a seat,” said Cemil. “Take it easy. You’re upset, don’t overreact.”
Then he said again, “Punks!” talking to the young men who were watching with malicious interest as I swayed on my feet.
“Yes,” I said, “I am upset.” I was quiet for a minute and collected myself and then, mustering all my strength, I spoke again. “Not because I’m a dwarf am I upset,” I said. “What’s really upsetting is that people can be nasty enough to make fun of a 55-year-old dwarf.”