In those days there was still a stream running below Bomonti… If you looked straight across from it, you’d see the yellow building of the Bomonti Beer Factory. You could walk from our house to my mother’s house in fifteen minutes; then you’d go up three sloping streets, one of which was really steep. My mother and the rest of the family lived on the second floor of a medium-sized apartment block that had a non-Muslim name. We were on the second floor of our block too.
My late Uncle Hasan, who worked as a watchman at the Social Security offices had built that apartment block by the sweat of his own brow. Opposite us stood two buildings that were at first, for whatever reason, quite separate and had then been made into one. Each building had its own entrance but the upper floors were joined. In between the two entrance doors was a flight of narrow concrete steps. The first three or four steps of these stairs were in the daylight but then they descended into the darkness.
I always used to wonder where that concrete corridor led to. Did the houses at the end of the corridor get good light? Was their view of the sky a blue space like ours or was it just red roof tiles? But I never let Bedir know that I was curious; he was still at the stage where he liked to go out to play in the street… I was worried that if I told him, he might get lost in a corridor that led to knows where.
One day, Bedir was playing outside again, and I saw the he had a kid next to him, a bit bigger than him… a rather odd boy… people in our neighbourhood called him Mıstık. When Mıstık came out of that dark corridor and into the light, the whole neighbourhood watched him; if he went to the grocers, that too was talked about; when Mıstık disappeared, dragging the backs of his flip-flops, into the pitch black corridor, various neighbours would ball up their fist and rap a few times on the windowsills. Mıstık, with his bony frame and small body would go into a yellow room; his uncle would smile. Mıstık would press down his toes to make his flip-flops drag along with a slap and his uncle, with his Bryl-creamed hair, thought he was a dark actor in a dark film: ‘The beers are here, now the only thing missing is a youngin to mess around with. Oh yes, that’s what I call livin’ it up!’
Mıstık was the kind of kid one avoided. And my Bedir was a lonesome little boy. Throughout the ages they’ve always found each other, the lonely and the distant ones. This wasn’t some lesson I’d always known, but more the essence of a story that my father told me in secret from my mother: ‘You know that pale, faraway land that your mother keeps telling you about… where your grandmother, with skin the colour of marble is buried on the right-hand side of your copper-skinned grandfather – where cold water flows and turns into tiny little ice cubes; and where in every season underground springs well up and gush forth sweet water… your mother was brought up in a Turkish bath, my child.
Her mother and father were the tenants of a bathhouse with grey walls, where there lived an old lady with a filthy mouth. The place your mother called home were the grey walls that had turned to brown stone just to spite their greyness. But they still carried the sound of the gentle splashing of the bathhouse. I had gone to visit my aunt who lived on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. My aunt had made haricot bean soup for me. I’ll never forget the taste of that wonderful soup. Your mother was fourteen; I was twenty-one. She was sitting at the door of the bathhouse, all alone. I looked at her skin, her body was white here and there; she’d just come out of the bath, and the dust of the baths was still on her. And the foam… white soapy suds… the moment I saw that coffee-coloured marble covered in dirt and suds, my child, I forgot all about my fiancée on the European side of Istanbul (not that she had such a hold on me anyway). I said to myself, she lives in a public bath and I go to the baths myself at every opportunity.
When her father died she took her mother with her, saying that she wouldn’t go without her. The old bath owner had taken them under her wing… When I got closer I noticed that your mother was like a beautiful weed. You had to think very carefully about how to hold her, where to latch on.
She’d lived beneath a dome, albeit it a small one, for many long years. The daylight had never really fallen on her. The bathhouse had been the warm, half-lit soil for this weed. I didn’t want her to die as I tried to transplant her from her former home so I showed her the dome that was the roof of my mouth and with my tongue touching the walls of this dome I was able to sing to your mother; it made her happy.
Then one day, she wondered if she too could make this sound and she touched the dome inside my mouth. From that day forth, my girl, your mother and I have shared with each other our loneliness and the feeling that we’re set apart from the world. Whenever we fall on troubled times we sing songs under our small but spectacular dome.’
© Sema Aslan, İletişim Publishing, İstanbul
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© translation Caroline Stockford email@example.com