4 Mar 2013

Fact or Fiction? Two Tales of Turkey, by Muriel Higgins


It is true that we lived in Turkey for three years in the 1970s, but did the events related in Thanks But No Thanks and Hot Baby really happen?   Perhaps everything’s fact, or is it all fantasy?  Or can it be that one story is true and the other is made up?  Please read and comment.

Note: Words in Turkish have been written on a standard UK keyboard, so they lack the diacritics etc. of the Turkish alphabet.

Thanks But No Thanks 

South coast of Turkey, midsummer, a hot and scratchy time.  Our  campsite was near the shore between the sea and the highway on land which must once have been sea, and we swam and stayed in the shade till it was pleasant to move around.  The sea had receded here, while in other places by quirks of tide and current it had encroached.  We’d seen tumbled piles of masonry lapped by clear water, remains of ancient settlements, footprints of earlier visitors.

That was how we thought of ourselves too, visitors, not tourists.  Of course in those days anyone who reached Turkey by car was a traveller rather than a tourist, and many of our fellows seemed to have come to enjoy history-based exploration. We knew this from the scribbled recommendations for walks in the campsite office, and that was what set us off inland one  afternoon, the ground still hot underfoot and warmth radiating from the rocks.  We crossed the highway to the old road, centuries ago almost certainly hard by the shore.  Along this still discernible way would have passed Alexander and his Macedonians, later legions of Romans, St Paul on his journeys … same sunshine, same scrub either side of the track, same mountain scenery to the north.  Who knew what small finds there might be, come to the surface, disturbed by animals, missed by other hunters?

The dry smell of heat mingled with a sour waft of air from the thin sheep beyond a fallen wall.  Their bleats punctuated the chirps of crickets and the odd tiny clatter as a lizard scattered some pebbles. You might have imagined you were in another century.  Then, as often happens in a deserted spot, we suddenly weren’t alone: a small group of children came round a bend towards us.

Merhaba,’ we greeted them, ‘nasilsiniz?’  Hello, how are you?

One of the bigger boys was carrying a bag, and he pulled out a dusty bottle before observing ‘You’re not Turkish.  But you speak Turkish.’

‘No, we’re English,’ we said, ‘and we only speak a bit of Turkish, biraz yalniz.’  This was true, but we were up to most ordinary exchanges, and generally such conversations ran along predictable lines, which made it easy.

‘How come you speak Turkish?’

‘We’ve been living in Istanbul, we’re teachers.’  Distant sophisticated Istanbul, teachers.  The boy had nothing further to ask.  He waved the bottle in our direction: ‘You would like a drink of spring water, very cold, good?’  Yes, we would have, but everything we knew stopped us.  In a gentle version of the gesture common to the area we raised our eyes skyward, in this case meaning Thanks, but no thanks.

He dived into the bottom of the bag and pulled out what we saw was a handful of coins as he opened his fist.  ‘Eski, cok eski’ - old, very old.  Perhaps, we thought, and perhaps - and more probably - not.  Again from us that gesture, immediately understood. ‘No, we’re not buying, istemiyoruz, we don’t want them, thanks.’  Resigned, he dropped the coins into the bag, and gathering his followers around him turned and made to continue along the track.

We didn’t want to offend him, or any of them.  ‘Allahaismarladik,’ we called, in the correct farewell of those leaving.  The automatic response of those in situ came in a chorus:  ‘Gule, gule.’  These kids were the ones who belonged here, to whom this landscape and this track belonged.

A right turn would lead us back to the highway and the campsite.  Hot and thirsty, we picked our way along.  Fantasies make miles pass faster, so I hazarded: ‘What would you like most at this moment?  A glass of water would do me.’

‘How about a chocolate ├ęclair?’  It wasn’t what I expected, but - yes, I thought.  And now we were at the edge of the highway, and one car was coming.  We waited till it passed, and saw a package flying through the air, landing by the edge of the road at the far side.  ‘What’s that?’

‘OK, let’s go and see.’

Yes and yes and yes.  We recognised it as a box from a pastahane, a cake-shop.  These weren’t bakeries for bread, but specialised in fancy sweetmeats: baklava, kadaif, seker pare, lokum - how the mouth waters.  One would choose or order by weight, then purchases were lowered into a box, dripping with syrup and nuts; this was wrapped in paper and secured with a flourish of synthetic ribbon - which was exactly what we could see.  ‘Got to open it, this is just weird.’

It was. We did.  Yes, believe it or not, chocolate ├ęclairs.  Pastahanes did foreign delights too, and easily mastered choux pastry with chantilly cream topped by glace icing.

‘Maybe they were having a fight: someone was making a point.’

‘Or a child chucked it out in a tantrum, or just a fit of mischief.’

‘Or they’d been left in the car since yesterday and went off?’

‘We don’t want other people’s leavings, do we?’

‘They might come back for them anyway.’

‘Pity, but we’d better not eat them …’

‘Just leave it here then.’

The ping-pong debate reached a standstill.  We closed the box, pulled the wrappings together and retied the bow, placing it visible at the roadside, looking, I now realise, like one of those sad memorials to an accident.

That evening we ate apricots with sheep’s yogurt that came in a bulbous pottery jar with a handle.  And here it is, to show you that this really happened.


Hot Baby

The baby was all scream and heavy clothes.  A woollen bonnet pulled well down in front almost covered its face, but what you could see was a furious red.  It looked feverish and overheated, and I felt I wanted to loosen the clothes, untie the bonnet, give it some water and cool its brow.  The group of peasants to whom it presumably belonged took no notice of the bawling, the men smoking and laughing, the women, including the one holding it, staring into space.  You wouldn’t have known we were all on a Bosphorus ferry, one of the many which plied from Istanbul up towards the Black Sea.

Our two daughters saw me looking at the baby, thought I might be going to start talking, and edged away.  With fair complexions and blue-green eyes, they knew what might follow: chucks under the chin and a pinch of the cheeks.  In skimpy dresses and sandals they couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the peasants and their baby.

‘Sicaktir, degil mi,’ I said, hot, isn’t it.  I made a wide gesture to include the weather and the surroundings, and the baby: they could understand what they liked.  No response.  I looked at the baby and made some sweeping movements towards my ears and up over my brow, trying to suggest that it was too hot.  No, the mother wasn’t going to pay me any attention, foreigners didn’t speak Turkish.  But I heard the men say Not German, and knew they were referring to us.  Many Turks had worked in Germany, and they’d have recognised the language.  Ingiliz, Amerikan they were saying now.  I smiled and said ‘Ingiliz.’ This exchange went no further, and from then until they got off on the Anatolian side I stole looks at the baby, afraid it might cry itself into convulsions.

A few days later my husband came home from the office looking worried. ‘Something’s up’ he said, ‘but I’m not sure what it can be.  The Consul General wants to see us, both of us.’

Richard Moxon ushered us courteously into his very grand office, part of the impressive building which had been built as an Embassy but turned into a consulate when Ankara replaced Istanbul as the Turkish capital.  The Consul General was a generation older than we were, and headmasterly in manner.  He wasted no time: ‘We have a bit of a problem on our hands, but - ’ he smiled, ‘ - nothing that can’t be taken care of.  You were on a Bosphorus ferry at the weekend?’

We agreed we had been, and he produced a scruffy photograph: ‘That’s you, and your family, yes?’  It was.  Again we agreed.  What was this? Who’d taken the picture?

Fact is,’ he hesitated, ‘you talked to some Turkish people.  Yesterday someone blew in with this picture and what we think is a cock and bull story about a baby.’  We nodded; who could forget that baby? ‘Seems the baby, um, well, has died, that’s what we were told.’ He was watching me. ‘He died of pneumonia, they say.’

‘That’s terrible,’ I said, ‘but what’s that got to do with us?’

‘They say,’ he cleared his throat, ‘you tried to get them to undress him, and when they didn’t you put the evil eye on him.  Also, you insulted the mother by calling one of your children mother.’

‘It’s preposterous … completely … of course I didn’t.’  But at least I could explain the ‘insult’.  The Turkish word for mother is anne. ‘Our elder daughter is called Anna, and this is always happening - we call her, and people think we’re saying mother.  Our Turkish friends laugh a lot about it.’

Moxon unbent a mere trifle, and smiled.  ‘That’s that, anyway.  And of course the evil eye story’s a put-up job, I understand that.’

‘And anyway I didn’t try to - all I said to them was it was very hot.’  John came in: ‘It’s a scam then, isn’t it? A try-on?  But why?’

‘Afraid so.  They want compensation, that’s why.  They’ve asked for -’  he named a sum in Turkish liras that was the best part of a hundred pounds.  ‘Rather amateur, if it was a son and it did die, that’s not enough, really.’

‘Surely nobody’s going to fall for the story and pay?’ I asked. ‘Can’t we get a lawyer and …’

‘Now, can anyone prove that something didn’t happen?  Prove you didn’t put the evil eye on the baby?  I’m afraid not, and it’s not worth trying, really.’

‘So what’s going to happen?  Don’t want to pay, do we?  It’s a swindle.  Can we just let it go and hope for the best?’

‘No, I assure you, that won’t work, lead to more trouble.  What we must do is settle out of court, there’s no point in anything else. In these cases we usually find - ’

John interrupted, quickly on to usually: ‘We’re not the first, then? There’ve been others?’  Moxon nodded.

‘We’re going to pay them? That’s outrageous.’ I couldn’t believe what he was saying.

‘Perhaps.’  He was very calm. ‘We have a charity fund here, ours to hand out, no questions asked, not from H.E. in Ankara, not from our masters in King Charles Street: it’ll come from there.’

‘But -’

He cut in: ‘You wouldn’t want to embarrass HMG, would you? Cause trouble?’

I couldn’t say a thing, I was too busy thinking that Her Majesty’s Government operated a slush fund, it paid out for … it was hush money, that’s what it was.

Moxon laid a finger on the Daily Express which was on top of The Times in front of him.  ‘Britons in … um … Baby Death Probe,’ he said in capital letters with distaste. ‘Wouldn’t do, would it? Local English language press too, they’d be on to it fast enough.’

I thought He had that prepared, he’s manipulating the two of us, just like that bunch of peasants is manipulating the lot of us.  ‘The baby didn’t die,’ I said defiantly. I felt like a fish on a hook. 

‘Come, come, papers don’t care about what’s true or not if they want a juicy headline. And you can’t prove it, now can you.’  The consul’s tone changed.  ‘Now I’ve got something else to say to you.  In these situations it’s usually the more prudent course, the most expeditious - ’ he enunciated the syllables with emphasis ‘ - to take out the officer and his family and ask for an immediate posting.’  He smiled wryly. ‘As far away as possible.’

‘But - ’ now it was John who sounded uneasy.  He was cut off: ‘You’re thinking about your career.  Don’t worry.  You’ll find I’m sure that London is most understanding, no blot on your record, no, nothing like that.  He wagged a finger and looked each of us in turn straight in the eye: ‘You’ll keep this to yourselves.’  It was a statement. It was an order, giving meaning to the sinister nothing like that.  John kept to the present: ‘One thing then, what about … how do we … a cheque?’

Now the difficult business was over, Moxon, suave as you like, said ‘No need.’ I could swear he wanted to add dear boy.  He made a note on a pad.  ‘I’ll minute Pay and Records, and they’ll look after that for you.  Your share of the er disbursement will appear on your next salary slip as “voluntary charity donation”, right?  They’re used to that.’

He must have read my sceptical expression and turned to me: ‘Oh yes, it is a charity.’  Avuncular, in tone my dear if not in words, patronising old git.  ‘We make charitable distributions, we support DBSs, a number of them in this city.’

Distressed British Subjects, that was, yes, people marooned by circumstances, mostly old and needy.

‘Heating, telephone, doctors’ bills, shoes, things like that.  It’s a good cause.’

And no need for any secrecy about that, I thought.  Unlike us. 

How had he put it?  You’ll keep this to yourselves. I can still hear Moxon’s words and picture him in his fancy office, tap on the nose, Official Secrets Act, big stick.  And that’s what we’ve done, kept quiet about it, for more than thirty years.  But now, thanks to the Statute of Limitations and its thirty-year rule at last we’re free to recount this tale of trickery and collusion, condoned at a high level and played out in the grandeur of the British Consulate in Istanbul. Makes you think about hostages and ransoms, doesn’t it?

1 comment:

  1. Great stories Muriel, the weight of the eclair coincidence is almost enough for me to call bunkum on it and the hot baby seems plausible. But I don't trust my instincts so I'm saying the eclairs happened and the baby is balderdash.

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