‘Back Seat’

EVER SINCE we left Yeşilköy, Baba and Murat have been bickering.
    ‘Why complicate things?’ Baba asks. ‘We want to travel west to east and here’s a road that goes west to east.’
    ‘But the other road’s better,’ Murat says, ‘we’ll get there quicker.’ Baba takes his eyes off the road and jabs at the map, which is spread over the dashboard, half-covering the steering wheel. ‘Look… we’re here and we want to go there.’  He traces the brown line along the coast, almost to the Syrian border. ‘We just have to keep driving.’
    Murat sighs. ‘But look at the map key: your road’s a “panoramic route”. Mine’s a proper highway.’
    ‘But we’re already on my road.’
    I fold my jacket into a pillow and lie down. My road, your road… they’re as obstinate as each other. Like father, like son.  
    After the cramped bus journey from Izmir, it’s good to stretch out on the back seat of Baba’s Mercedes and watch the treetops pass in a blur against a clear, cloudless sky. It was raining when I left the city last night and the first pinch of autumn was in the air, but it still feels like summer here in the south. I didn’t really want to come, but Rifat persuaded me, reminding me I hadn’t seen my family for six months. Besides, he said, Baba and Murat can hardly turn up alone on the doorstep of a widow and her young daughter. Rifat even offered to drive me down, but I knew he had a full schedule the next day and we had tickets for the opera that night, so I said I’d take the night bus so he could get some sleep.
    Murat couldn’t stop laughing when I mentioned the opera. ‘Your poor husband,’ he said. ‘The things you make him do…’
    He’s not laughing now, though. Now he’s silently seething, because he didn’t get his own way about the road. Baba is stroking my face. ‘Kızım, wake up.’
    I sit up and look around. ‘Where are we?’
    ‘Why have we stopped so soon?’
    ‘Murat was hungry.’
    And then I notice the sign outside the café: İşkembe Salonu. ‘I suppose this was his idea.’ 
    ‘Would you prefer something else?’ Baba asks.
    Obviously, I would prefer anything else, but I won’t play Murat’s game. ‘This’ll be fine,’ I say, following him up the path to the café.  
    The stink of cheap cigarettes, grease and boiling offal hits me as soon as Baba pushes the door open. Murat is already sitting at a paper-covered table alongside a group of men in overalls – builders perhaps – a waiter hovering at his side. 
    My brother watches my face as he orders the house special. ‘Three bowls of tripe soup.’ 
    ‘Two will be enough,’ I tell the waiter. ‘I’ll just have a glass of ayran.’
    ‘Not hungry?’ Baba asks.
    ‘Not especially.’
    ‘Your mother made excellent tripe soup,’ Baba says, when the food arrives.  ‘Do you remember?’
    Murat dips a hunk of bread into the lumpy grey-brown liquid. ‘I think Ebru has more refined tastes now.’
    ‘Stop it,’ Baba orders. ‘Both of you.’

We’ve barely left Fethiye when we get stuck behind an overladen truck with mattresses piled high in its open back and lashed to its sides. One of them is adrift, slipping slowly from its ropes. 
    ‘Overtake,’ Murat says. 
    Baba glares at him. He’s tried more than once, edging his way slowly alongside the truck only to be faced with another vehicle careering towards us.
    ‘Just put your foot down.’ 
    ‘Why don’t you keep quiet?’ I say. ‘You can’t see anything from where you’re sitting.’
    It’s not until we descend the hill that the road widens and Baba can accelerate past.
    ‘Allah şukur,’ Murat says, ‘twenty minutes you were stuck behind that truck.’
    ‘And what of it?’ Baba says.
    Murat sighs, but the tension in the car has decreased now the obstruction is behind us.  He rummages through the glove box and pulls out a Sezen Aksu cassette – an early album, old and familiar – and soon, despite ourselves, we are singing along.   When he was a boy, I wonder if Baba ever dreamed that one day he’d have an air-conditioned Mercedes. No-one had a car then, not in Yeşilköy, where even the Mukhtar undertook his official duties on a moped. I remember Baba’s first vehicle: a green tractor, bought from Hikmet Bey’s widow when I was nine years old. Sometimes, if he was driving out to his sesame fields, he’d give me a ride to school, picking up one or two other children on the way. I remember the mixture of pride and fear I felt, gripping the sides of the trailer while the massive wheels threw up clods of earth.   
    It’s hard to believe there were once sesame fields where Baba’s hotel stands, or that cotton grew on the land where he built his villas. Whenever I go back, there’s something different, something that didn’t exist the year before. It saddens me, but Baba doesn’t see it like that. He says the memory of children with no shoes on their feet and people half-starving because floods washed away their crops are what make him sad, not a few new buildings.     
    Sometimes I contemplate how different my life would have been if I’d grown up as a farmer’s daughter. It’s a game I play with myself. What if Baba hadn’t got rich, what if I’d never gone to university, what if I hadn’t married Rifat? What if, what if?
    What if I hadn’t overheard Rifat’s auntie at our wedding? She was in the cloakroom, talking to her sister-in-law, unaware that I was in one of the cubicles trying to untangle the silk and tulle layers of my dress. 
    ‘Such a pity,’ Auntie Dilek said.  ‘He’s much too good for her.’   ‘Still, you can’t accuse her of gold-digging. Money practically oozes from her father’s pores.’
    ‘Oh, yes,’ she sniggered, ‘the father... That ginger-coloured suit.’ ‘The white shoes!’
    I heard the door close behind them, their voices tailing off. It was weeks before I could bring myself to tell Rifat what I’d overheard.
    ‘Forget it,’ he advised. ‘Who cares what they think?’
    He’s right.  I should just forget about it. But I can’t.
    We pass a road sign. One hundred and thirty kilometres to Antalya, where Baba plans to stop for lunch... two hours if we don’t get stuck behind another truck.

I dream that my mother and I are making soup in my kitchen in Izmir. Not tripe soup, but ezo gelin. We’re laughing as we chop tomatoes and mint, but something’s bothering me, some physical discomfort. I’m standing too near the stove and it’s burning my arm and face. I step back, but the heat follows me. I wake to discover my cheek being roasted by the sun, its intensity magnified by the glass in the car window. I try to retrieve my dream – to see what we were laughing about – but it’s gone. The car is stationary, the air conditioning off, the seat sticky with the heat of my body.  I uncurl myself, slide over to the door and step out.
    Murat is leaning against the car bonnet, smoking. ‘You were fast asleep,’ he says. ‘We didn’t want to wake you.’
    ‘Where’s Baba?’
    He points into the distance.
    ‘Up there.’  
    I can just about see him, half-hidden in the shadow of a tree.  
    ‘Where are we?’ I ask.
    ‘Almost at Kemer.’
    I cross the road to look at the view. Murat follows me and together we stare down at the thick forest of pines clinging to the slopes, the turquoise sea dotted with small brown islands. 
    ‘So,’ Murat says, ‘how’s city life?’
    ‘It’s great.’
    ‘And how’s work?’  There’s a slight sneer in his voice.
    ‘It’s good. You should try it.’
    ‘At least I earn my own money.’
    ‘Are you suggesting I don’t?’
    ‘You think Baba would employ you if you weren’t his son? You don’t get out of bed until lunchtime. You think he’d pay anyone else all that money to do what you do?’
    ‘I’m one of the main attractions. Why do you imagine those pallid English women and red-faced Fraus come back every year?’ He smiles at me, displaying his straight teeth, green eyes and long eyelashes.
    ‘And that’s enough for you? You don’t want more out of life?’
    He shrugs. ‘It’ll do for now.’
    Baba is making his way slowly back down the hill.
    ‘So,’ I say to Murat, ‘what’s the deal with this trip?  Why are we traipsing halfway across the country to visit Ali’s widow?’
    ‘Duty, I suppose. Duty and guilt. I think Baba regrets the way their friendship lapsed over the years; perhaps it’s his way of making amends. Besides, there are no male relatives; who else will look out for her?’
    ‘Ali was young, wasn’t he?’
    ‘What exactly happened? How did he die?’
    Murat lets out an exasperated sigh. ‘What is he doing?’
    Baba is marching towards us, lifting his knees high and swinging his arms. ‘You should stretch your legs,’ he shouts, ‘take some exercise while you have the chance.’

In Antalya we find a fish restaurant in the old harbour. Baba complains about the slow service, but seems reluctant to leave, drawing out the meal with ice creams and coffees, until Murat grows bored and insists we get back on the road. We continue our journey, clinging to the coast road, passing one resort after another.  
    Baba tells us he came down this way after finishing his military service in nineteen seventy-two.  ‘There was nothing here then,’ he says. ‘Nothing at all.’  
    And then his eye is caught by an enormous billboard advertising a casino. ‘You think we’ll ever have a casino in Yeşilköy?’ he asks, before lapsing into a long silence which is probably being filled with speculation about possible sites and the viability of such a venture.
    As the sun fades, Baba pulls over and tells Murat to drive. 
    ‘I can take over when you’ve had enough,’ I say to Murat.
    ‘I’ll be rested by then,’ Baba says.
    ‘I am capable you know.’
    ‘I daresay.’ 

Night is approaching by the time we reach Anamur and stop for dinner – a simple meal of lahmacun, salad and fruit.  Afterwards, Murat climbs into the back to get some sleep and Baba takes the wheel. He drives even more slowly than before, leaning forward, his face almost touching the windscreen, the steering wheel almost grazing his chin. He stares into the darkness with intense concentration and I keep watch with him, not speaking in case I distract him.  
    It’s not until dawn breaks over Mersin that he finally relaxes, leans back in his seat and says, ‘Nearly there.’     We arrive in Belen just before nine. Baba swings off the road, parking the car on the forecourt of a tea-kiosk tucked below an overhang of rock.
    ‘Aren’t we going straight there?’ I ask.
    ‘No,’ he says.  ‘I thought we’d have tea and simit first.’
    Belen tumbles below us, ramshackle shops lining the edges of its main street, minarets spiking the townscape. We decline the owner’s invitation to sit in the cramped, steamy interior, explaining how far we’ve come, how long we’ve been cooped up.  
    While Murat paces about, smoking a cigarette and trying to get a signal on his phone, I sip tea and watch my warm breath merge with the mist that curls down the slopes of the Nur Mountains. Baba chats with the owner. He’s collecting facts, starting – as usual – by asking what crops grow locally, and then enquiring about the size of the population and the town’s altitude. 
    ‘Maşallah!’ he says, looking impressed. ‘Five hundred metres! No wonder your air is so pure!’
    The tea-house owner looks flattered.  
    ‘Marvellous,’ says Baba, placing a hand on his diaphragm and breathing in deeply.  ‘Marvellous!’
    ‘So,’ I say, after the owner returns to his kiosk, ‘why did Ayşe and Yasemin move so far from home?’
    ‘There’s a distant aunt here, I believe, and Ayşe wishes to be close to family.’
    ‘Wouldn’t they have been better off staying somewhere familiar? I know things won’t be easy without Ali, but they still have the olive grove and Yasemin might’ve found work in Yeşilköy in the summer.’
    ‘It’s not that simple…’
    ‘Couldn’t you have given her a job?’ 
    Baba’s hand shakes slightly as he brings the tea glass up to his mouth. He sees me looking, puts the glass down and thrusts his hands into his pockets.
    ‘Listen, kızım, it’s not just financial circumstances that brought them here; if that was the case, I could have helped. They had to leave.’
    ‘Had to?’
    ‘It was the disgrace. Ali’s death… well, it was suicide.’
    ‘Suicide?’  I turn to Murat, who has just re-joined us. ‘Did you know about this?’  He stands there, dragging the toe of his trainer from side to side, making an arc in the dirt, not answering.
    ‘Why didn’t either of you tell me?’  
    ‘I didn’t want to give you bad news on the phone,’ says Baba.  
    ‘We’ve been in the car for twenty-six hours! Couldn’t you find an opportunity then? Is there anything else I should know before we get to their house?’
    Baba looks down the hill towards the quiet little town. ‘Such an insignificant-looking place,’ he says.  ‘It’s hard to believe it’s been the main route from Syria for centuries, isn’t it?  The tea-seller told me that; he said it was crucial to the defence of the Ottoman Empire. Can you imagine how many tens of thousands of lives have been lost defending this pass…’
    ‘Just tell her,’ Murat says.  
    Baba takes my arm and walks me away from the kiosk, as if he doesn’t want the owner to overhear. ‘There is something else. It’s about Yasemin. She’s… well, she was injured.’
    ‘Crippled. Ali lost his temper, you see.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘Yasemin got married five or six months ago. The groom was an older man – forty-five, perhaps fifty – a widower from Köyceğız: rather wealthy by their standards. He owned some land over by Güzelpinar which he’d offered to Ali. Good land. Perfect for cotton. Things hadn’t been going so well for Ali…’ 
    ‘So why is she here? Why isn’t she with this new husband of hers?’
    ‘Because… something happened. Yasemin brought dishonour to the family.’ 
    Murat takes up the story. ‘The groom returned her the day after the wedding – chucked her off his truck like garbage. All the neighbours saw it. Ali lost his temper with her… got carried away.’
    ‘They sent a boy to fetch me,’ Baba says.  ‘It was clear Yasemin was beyond the help of the clinic, so I drove her up to Muğla, to the hospital.  It was almost night by the time I got back. Ali was completely drunk by then. Mustafa Bey said he’d been drinking rakı since morning, raging about shame and dishonour. He was down near the jetty, waving his gun around, threatening anyone who came near. I tried to approach him, but suddenly – with no warning at all – he turned his weapon on himself.’ Baba’s face is ashen. 
    ‘Poor Ali,’ Murat shakes his head. ‘He was a good man.’
    ‘Poor Ali?’ I say.  ‘What about Yasemin? What about Ayşe?’
    Baba wipes his nose with the back of his hand. ‘Ali did what he thought was right. Things were bad enough for him already. How could he let Yasemin back into his family with the neighbours laughing at him?’ ‘They doubted her virginity?’
    Baba flinches. ‘The groom said no blood was shed. It made him mad. You can’t blame him really. It’s a matter of honour.’
    ‘You do know that women don’t necessarily bleed the first time, don’t you?’
    ‘Of course,’ he snaps, ‘although most do.’  
    ‘And you,’ I turn to my brother, ‘do you really think honour is something kept between the legs of a woman?’
    ‘There’s no need to talk like that,’ he says.
    ‘And where’s the honour in giving a seventeen year old girl to a forty-five year old man in exchange for a bit of land?’ 
    ‘Please try to calm down. You’re becoming shrill.’
    ‘But –’
    ‘Look,’ Baba shouts, ‘He was under pressure! The groom’s family were mocking him. Everybody was talking behind him.’
    ‘Please,’ I say, ‘don’t tell me you think this is right.’
    Neither of them speaks.

Ayşe weeps when she sees us at her door, but Yasemin barely acknowledges us. Instead, she remains sitting by the window, staring at a quince tree growing up against the shutters, as if she’s never seen one before. A pair of crutches is propped against the wall alongside her.
    ‘Please excuse her,’ Ayşe says. ‘She doesn’t mean to be rude.’
    ‘Fark etmez,’ Baba says.  ‘Leave her be.’ 
    ‘Oh, Toprak Abi, if I’d known you were coming I would have prepared something.  And Ebru… look at you! How many years has it been?’ She weeps again when Baba hands over the crate of lemons and oranges he’s brought from Yeşilköy, saying how the smell reminds her of home and the little garden they had there, and weeps once more when she says she still feels the loss of my mother, even now, two years after she died. Nobody mentions Ali.

The afternoon is filled with stretches of uncomfortable silence, which Murat and Baba escape by going outside for a cigarette every hour or so, and later, after watching the evening news, they start yawning and talking about bed, claiming exhaustion from the journey. I’m to share the only bedroom with Ayşe and Yasemin, and Baba and Murat will sleep head to toe on the couch in the salon.  
    After helping Yasemin into her nightclothes, Ayşe leaves the room. I can hear her in the salon, talking to Baba about blankets and pillows. For the first time since we arrived, I am alone with Yasemin.  
    ‘Would you like me to brush your hair?’ I ask.
    She nods.
    While I brush, I try to remember when I last saw her and then it comes to me: it was the last day of the season, seven years ago – just before I went to university. It was something of a tradition, once the last tourists had departed, for Baba to open the swimming pool to the staff and their families, to throw a small party before closing for winter. An image of Yasemin flashes into my mind: a little girl – rather small for her age – hurling herself off the side of the pool into the arms of her adoring father, who waits in the water with outstretched arms. 
    ‘Are you in pain?’ As soon as the words are out of my mouth I want to take them back. 
    ‘Only when I walk,’ she says finally.
    Ayşe pushes the two single beds together and squeezes in between me and Yasemin. I lie awake most of the night listening to their snores and sighs, feeling oppressed by the intimacy and over-burdened by good fortune. I want to go home, to be with Rifat, and feel ashamed for wanting it so badly.

Murat is already outside when I get up the next morning; I can see him through the window, standing alongside the car, smoking a cigarette. I slip on my shoes and join him. I notice his unshaven chin has a sprinkling of white bristles and that the creases around his eyes are deeper than I remember. I push my arm through his and lean into him. ‘You look tired.’ 
    ‘I am. I wanted to sleep in the car last night, but Baba forbade it, gave me a lecture about accepting hospitality graciously. I know he’s right, but…’
    I squeeze his arm.  ‘Come inside.  I’ll make some tea.’
    ‘In a minute,’ he says. ‘I want to show you something first.’ He pulls the car key from his pocket and points it at the Mercedes, unlocking it with a click. He lifts the boot lid and pushes aside an old blanket. Underneath it, folded up, is a wheelchair.
    I stare at the steep track that leads from the house to the main road – a lane so steep and narrow that Baba could barely get the car up it yesterday.  
    I can’t help laughing. ‘He really doesn’t think sometimes…’
    ‘He wants to help. You know how he is.’ Murat laughs too, but stops abruptly, slinging the blanket over the wheelchair and slamming the boot. Baba is walking towards us in his pyjamas. His bare feet are shoved into his expensive, leather shoes, his heels treading down their backs. ‘What’s funny?’ he asks.
    ‘Nothing, Baba.’  
    ‘Ayşe’s making breakfast. You should go and help.’
    I hesitate. ‘You’re not going to give that thing to them, are you?’
    He looks down the track and shakes his head. ‘What a place. Even a goat would struggle.’
    I rest my hand on his arm. It feels thinner and bonier than it used to.
    ‘She’s in a bad way, isn’t she?’ he says. ‘Worse than I thought.’

Yasemin is at the table, spooning honey and tahini into small glass bowls and arranging them alongside dishes of white cheese and olives. I sit beside her, trying not to look at the crutches leaning against the stone sink.  
    ‘Do you need anything?’ I ask. ‘Is there anything we can do for you before we go?’  
    She shakes her head.
    ‘Don’t worry about us,’ Ayşe says. ‘We’re managing. Adjusting. Allah has a purpose for everything, even when we don’t understand it.’  
    She fusses around while we eat, boiling eggs, refreshing the teapot, filling carrier bags with jars of pickled aubergines and strings of dried chillies for Baba to take home.  
    We try to leave straight after breakfast, but Ayşe insists we have a coffee and sit a while longer. When we finish drinking, she turns the cups upside down, lines them up on the table and waits for the grounds to grow cold. She pours the dregs into the saucer and reads the cups, predicting a journey for me and a new business opportunity for Baba. Murat, she says, will marry soon. 
    She takes Yasemin’s cup and cradles it in her palm, points to a fractured brown line clinging to its side. ‘Look,’ she says, ‘a bird.’ Her voice is tremulous: ‘A sign of happiness ahead.’  
    Yasemin looks into the cup. ‘İnşallah,’ she says dully.       We leave an hour later, driving cautiously down the lane, the car rocking from side to side, stones hitting its undercarriage. Baba pulls into a petrol station on Belen’s main road and gets out of the car. He waits for a boy to fill the tank and stands watching while he cleans the dirt off the Mercedes with a soapy broom. I watch Baba disappear behind the foam, following the tips of the bristles as they work the dirt off the windows, turning the suds grey.  
    Murat starts talking about what he’s going to do when he gets home, the visit to Ayşe and Yasemin already in his past.
    ‘Apparently,’ I say, interrupting him, ‘the groom was incapable.
    ‘Groom?’ Murat asks, vaguely.
    ‘That old man Yasemin was sacrificed to. He couldn’t do it.’
    ‘Everyone said his first wife was barren, but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Maybe he thought a teenage bride would invigorate him.’
    Outside, the boy hoses suds off the car and wipes a rubber blade over the glass, making Baba reappear.  
    ‘Did she really say that? That he couldn’t get it up?’
    ‘Would it make any difference?’
    He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again.
    Baba presses a banknote into the boy’s hand and walks back to the car. He opens the passenger door and gives me the keys. ‘Why don’t you drive for a while?’ he says.
    He passes the map to Murat and gets into the back seat, and as we leave Belen behind and head towards the highway he lies down and closes his eyes.