On one of my recent blogs I mentioned schools in residential areas and how they were different from the area I work in now, they have a communal vibe that you quickly learn to love and feel a part of. In my little are you can hear the kids scream for miles, the roads are full of women walking back home from the Friday market or the supermarket, there are prisoners that get taken to the court house behind the school in military prisoner transfer vehicles, the odd delivery van and the odd parent that brings their late kids to school.
Right by the entrance of the school there were two little teahouse/café type places for the locals and teachers, where one was only open during term time the other was open all year round. It was the best place to sit down, have a cup tea and enjoy a cigarette, you were out of the school mayhem zone yet close enough to hear the bell. And on sunny spring days the place was considered gold as you would actually stop thinking about work for ten minutes.
Right between teahouse number one and the school entrance there was an empty shop; the shop was converted into a lounge by an old but vibrant resident of the building. He was a polite old man with white hair, his face creased but smiling. Even though I had seen I only meet him formerly during a conversation with someone else, he added his insight into the topic. From there on we greeted each other every morning and every afternoon.
As I would run out to have/drag a cigarette I would often bump into him, thirsty for stories, I would ask him questions about the changes in the area as he had grown up there and had seen it all. He would sit there and tell me random stories of people I never knew and never would know. Later, it turned out that he known one of my uncles who had owned a little electrical store on the corner of that very street in the late 70’s.
This reminded me of London’s old East End boys, not of the immature and youthful ones that claim to own streets, but the East End oldies with balls who had bulldogs tattooed on their arms, greyed hair, a cockney accent, with ethics and rationality.
When the East End oldies spoke to tell you a story, they spoke with energy and never regretted what they had done or said. ‘I slit his face because he called my wife with a prostitute…’ one had told me back when I used to studying in East London. Tough men that could scare strangers with an awkward glance would actually give me confidence, call me a psychopath but it’s true. The Kray’s Twins for instance were two men that came out East London, both cockney, cocky and vicious. For me they would have only been a familiar stereotypical man that I would have loved to have had a drink in the pub with.
So while having tea with this old man in Istanbul, it felt like a fusion of East London, Istanbul, our pasts and presents that were weirdly connected. This old man from Istanbul knew someone from my past and present regardless of the age difference and different generations, he has the image of a typical man I knew and would respect from my past, his stories of the past taught me things about the present and all of this was in front of the school I worked in.
This man was strong, physically strong. He was in his mid-70’s and didn’t look frail, he sat up straight and held a manly and youthful but stern and powerful essence. I have had more interesting conversations with this man then anyone in the whole of that school put together.
One day I asked about his deceased wife, who she was, where she was from and how she died. And this is what he told me; ‘She was my queen,’ he said. ‘God should have taken me before He took her, she was the meaning of my life. She was the salt of my life… I was a difficult man, I would not let her walk the street on her own as she was too beautiful yet she greeted me at the door every day with a smile on her face no matter what I had said or done.’ Unlike himself he paused as he spoke on this occasion, then slowly taking out a picture of her from inside his wallet and showed me a picture of her. ‘It was hard to iron cloths in those yet she would never make me a wear a shirt a twice, she would say’ he said ‘… “What kind of a woman would people think I am,” and when I objected she would tell me it was her job and would tell me I had better stay out of it too.’ He looked old for a moment; he looked like a child who had lost his favourite toy.
He then told me about how he set up his weekly routine after he had lost her, how he tried to get some meaning out of life while he waited to die and join her. All very mundane stuff except for Friday, on Friday after the communal prayer at the local mosque he would buy fresh flowers and visit her grave. He would clean the marble dirty from its one weeks’ worth of rain, dust and mud. Talk to her about his week and then walk back to his lounge in the empty shop by the school.
We spoke of her frequently afterwards, short stories of their lives together. But now I wonder if that week after our long and musical conversation if he ever mentioned me to her on his weekly visit. I do hope he did because from all the stories I have heard about her over time she sounded like a marvellous woman.