by Denise O’Hagan
Ankara, Turkey, 1957
The young man leaned out of his hotel window, and frowned at the silence. It was, he realised, more than the usual midday calm that descended on the town, forcing its inhabitants to seek refuge from the sun, which enveloped their homes in a translucent film of shimmering heat and light.
He swore at his boss, who had insisted that he come in person to negotiate an agreement with the Turkish ministries for their company to export a minimum annual quota of their products into the country for a fixed term. Although what use this particular harsh, poverty-stricken town, embedded between the folds of the hills like one of the rocks themselves, would make of their pharmaceutical equipment, he thought wryly, was hard to imagine.
He wondered what he would be doing if he were back home. Probably driving his wife and young daughter to the beach, threading his impatient way through the busy Neapolitan traffic. He dwelt for a moment on his wife; he fancied he could glimpse her profile as she sat beside him: classical, elegant and restrained, her fine Scandinavian hair swept back by the wind. Only he, who knew her so well, could recognise the strain behind those familiar features — the tautness around the mouth, the pallor underneath the tan, and the sharpness which edged her naturally gentle manner.
He shrank from these involuntary thoughts, reflecting that a few infidelities were no cause for a woman to get overly upset. Elsa would, he told himself, recover from her unreasonable sensitivity, and become again that vivacious person he had pursued and, to his family’s surprise, won.
The young man surveyed again, with more favour this time, the burnished scene spread out before him: the sturdy stone houses, their bright curtains a frivolous challenge to the unadorned surroundings; the white, glinting rocks studding the brown slopes of the mountain rising steeply in the background. After all, he pondered, he only had a few more days in this town — he really should make the most of it.
Outside, the heat seemed, if possible, even more intense — an invisible wall that rose up at every step. The young man paused in an arched doorway to light a cigarette, then walked on, his steps echoing in the deserted streets, while his foreshortened shadow accompanied him jerkily across the cobblestones, puppet-like.
On the corner stood the local bar where he had stopped for breakfast several times: yoghurt with cheese and olives, and rough pieces of bread dipped into thick, sweet coffee. Here also, after gruelling meetings with government officials, he had stopped on his way back to the hotel for a glass of raki, that colourless liquor which shot the day’s events into immediate, fiery perspective. The bar, like every other building at this hour, had shut its blinds to the world and its inhabitants withdrawn.
All, that is, except for the old woman dozing in the courtyard. The locals said that she had lost her senses many years before, and was prone to occasional outbursts — for was she not, as the manager’s wife had stated matter-of-factly, ‘touched by the hand of God’?
He nodded to her, hoping that she would not have one of her ‘moments’ now. As if reading his mind, the old lady stood up with disconcerting agility, raising her walking stick. Her words were unintelligible, but their urgency was not; the young man had no choice but to stop. Her eyes were bright and olive-coloured, pitifully anxious to communicate — what? She must have been beautiful once, he thought.
He would have to stem her gibberish or risk standing here all day. He felt the dampness on his shirt spreading. Gently he took her hands in his own — how small and papery they were in his strong, tanned ones! To his horror, the old lady’s voice rose to a level of hysteria as she grasped his hands. He stood, rooted to the spot by a sense of his own inadequacy. As he stared at her, she quietened and placed her hands around her neck. Her eyes widened, and she vwung her head first to one side, then to the other. She let her hands fall and turned to sink back in her wooden chair, breathing heavily.
By now he was sweating profusely. He turned away and quickened his pace, trying to rid his mind of the grotesque mime he had just witnessed. Approaching the town square, the sound of distant voices came as a relief.
A movement caught his eye and he saw a dog, ribs visible under its patchy skin, start at his approach. Caught between the hope of a morsel of food and a deep-seated fear of humans, the animal eyed him briefly before slinking down an alleyway. The young man sighed; he had no fondness for dogs and, used to the sorry creatures roaming the suburbs of Naples, he was surprised at his own distress. What was this town doing to him, playing with his emotions, forcing upon him an awareness of things only dimly felt before?
From a distance it seemed as if a dark substance was spreading, like ink, from an unseen source. As he neared the square, he realised that a crowd was pouring into it, oozing from the surrounding streets, pushing and jostling forwards. Men walked passed him, talking excitedly, and he fell into step behind them.
The crowd was made up almost entirely of men, as swarthy as he was, but of stockier build who, despite the searing heat, were dressed mostly in dark clothing, suits and ragged jackets side by side. A few wore recently pressed shirts of glaring white, a stark formality against their rough, working-class faces.
He pressed forwards, sensing the urgency of the mob. He felt himself swayed along, buoyed by the surrounding bodies and infected by their excitement. His eyes followed theirs, roving the sea of shoulders and dark heads, and he took in, for the first time, the square in which he found himself.
The lower half was obscured by the sprawling, thickening crowd; above it sat the sloping roofs of solid government buildings, imposing in grey stone. Through a momentary jagged slit in the crowd, the young man glimpsed uniformed soldiers lolling guard outside them. The sun was high, obliterating all shadows. At the end of the square, where the rooftops were etched against the pale sky, he thought he caught a movement, and turned to the person on his left.
‘Excuse me,’ he said in carefully researched words. ‘Could you please tell me what is happening?’ The other man turned and faced him. ‘A hanging,’ he replied simply. ‘A man is going to be hanged in a few minutes.’
Of course. Comprehension washed over the young man, dulling a thrill of horror. He fumbled for a cigarette and concentrated for a long moment on lighting it, closing his eyes as he drew his first breath. The air of expectancy was palpable; the veneer of civilisation was giving way to unchecked curiosity. The mob pressed in closer, propelling the young man forwards. The uneven asphalt and cobblestones lurched him into a hollow.
He strained upwards, smelling the sweat on the peasant in front of him, aware of the heaviness of the bodies around him. He listened to the stillness, and studied the torn seam of the peasant — darned at least once, he guessed — and the purple growth on the neck of a man to his right.
His thoughts floated easily over past and present, and the tangled pattern of his life faded into irrelevance within this arena where a far more basic drama was being enacted. He felt, rather than saw, a ripple of movement snaking its way through the crowd. A slow, collective sigh went through the assembly, as if breaths that had been held were simultaneously released.
The young man also sighed — he was at one with the crowd, his mood mirrored in theirs. His own muddy emotions, held in check for so long, welled up with a new simplicity and clarity, released by this single brutal act of man against man. Elsa! And their beloved little daughter! The full force of his love for them shook him as it had not done for years. What have I been doing with myself? he thought.
The crowd was dispersing, its interest in the event snuffed out. Every muscle in his body was taut, and perspiration had wreaked havoc with the design on his shirt. Elation dripped away and, despite the heat, he shivered. The walk across the square seemed interminable, the cobblestones hostile. He passed a fountain, its bubbling loud in the emptying square.
As he turned off into the street, he approached the sounds of human bustle and gaiety. He lifted his head in surprise. Windows were opening up above him; in doorways people stood and chatted. His heart was light, lighter than it had been since his arrival in this country. He laughed aloud at the prospect of his daughter’s sparkling eyes when he gave her a prettily packaged box of Turkish Delight. As he opened the door to his hotel, he looked forward to his evening meal of thick soup, and veal or lamb with rice and salad, washed down with rough red wine.
‘Excuse me, sir!’ The concierge’s voice cut though his thoughts. ‘You have a message to ring your family. Here, please use this phone.’
Aware that he was being observed, he dialed home. ‘Hello?’
‘George, is that you?’ His brother’s voice was muffled. ‘Listen, you have to come back immediately. Marie’s with us, but—’
‘Where’s Elsa? Has there been an accident?’
‘We’re so sorry. She was found hanging an hour ago.’
Copyright © 2018 by Denise O’Hagan