Thursday, April 15, 2021

Yogurt Man Street by J. Anthony Hartley

Back then, Istanbul in the summer months was a place of sounds and smells. It had colour, but it was the colour of cut watermelons and the flash of silver fish in the garbage-strewn water of the Bosporus. Water is a funny thing there. Like everything else, it lasts for only so long. We were told not to drink it straight from the faucet, so we purchased huge thick glass bottles in old wicker baskets. In the summer, it would be barely days before the green moss would start growing on the insides of the glass. We wondered why we bothered. Our rented apartment sat at the top of a hill, at the end of Yogurt Man Street. The place was full of names like that. We were renting from the man who lived in the penthouse apartment, a Turk with ice-blue eyes, Selim Bey. He had a doughy face, always covered with a slight sweat sheen. The smell of lemon cologne wafted after him like a cloud. Colours and smells. We were good enough for him to take our foreign money if nothing else.
The cobbles of Yogurt Man Street ended at the hard-packed earth of our yard, dry and brown. Tomato plants and chilies grew against stakes along the centre. I often thought about an actual yogurt seller walking up Yogurt Man Street, his flat metal pans dangling from the yoke across his shoulders, and swaying slightly back and forth as he walked, his flat cloth cap pulled down on top of his head as a statement to Ataturk's changes. But it rarely happened. The hill was steep, and we bought our supplies from foreign shops or had them come in trucks from the Netherlands.
At one end of the yard sat the apartment block, tall, white, and new. Directly opposite, at the other end, sat the old house, behind a wall of oleander bushes. The place had been abandoned for years. Vast, wooden, and mysterious, it sat at the end of the yard and threatened with what it might hold. At one time, a section had projected into the yard -- a back room of some sort -- but the wooden parts had long gone. We used to pick away at the surrounding foundation bricks with sticks, searching for the shiny black scorpions hidden between the cracks. It was a thrill and a dare, all at once. The scorpion is like a spider, fascinating with the risk it holds, just like the house at the bottom of the yard.
I remember standing at the base of the hill on a winter's night, the wind whipping shadows from the branches and the single street lamp at the top. I stood frozen, watching the old empty house, its bulk leaning perilous and dark over the narrow, cobbled street. I stood there for what seemed an eternity, until finally I closed my eyes and ran.
An English family lived in the apartment next to ours -- the Watsons. They had two boys and a girl. It was the older boy, a year my senior, who taught me how to catch scorpions and keep them in a matchbox, and it was he who first dared me to go into the old house. He dared me although our parents had warned us away from the place.
"It's dangerous," they would say. "Just stay right away from it." Which only gave it that extra tinge of excitement for a growing boy. Who knew what treasures we might find lurking within its cracked and faded boards? Each day after school, we would slip inside, the three of us, and search for riches hidden within the walls. We picked away at the plaster with sticks and fingers, searching for the hidden spaces behind. When we found nothing, we started on the floorboards.
We improvised, using whatever we could lay to hand: lengths of timber, a garden rake. And we pried and worried those floorboards until one by one they yielded. Holes began to appear between the floors, and we had to pick our way treacherously over gaping traps. The floor became less, and our confidence grew as the old house submitted to our will. There was still no treasure. When finally there was hardly any flooring left, we started demolishing the walls, taking swinging strikes at the plaster, and leaping back as huge lumps fell and puffed up clouds of dust that sparkled in the shafts of sunlight lancing through the walls. We struck at the plaster-daubed slats with enthusiasm, revelling in every thump and crash.
One day, I was on the upper floor, in the section that leaned perilously out over Yogurt Man Street's cobbles, when Mark called out from below.
"Come and look at this."
I peered out of the upper story window, or what was left of it, but could see nothing that would attract his excitement. He must have found some treasure within!
I raced down the rickety staircase to the room below. He was standing, his face pressed up against a hole in the outer wall. Then he giggled. I pressed myself into the space beside him.
Across from the derelict house, high above the street sat another -- old wooden boards and balconies and windows -- but people still lived over there. I couldn't see what was so funny.
"Over there. Look at that window. Do you see her?" He giggled again.
I looked to where he was pointing, and I saw. Behind a dirt-filmed window stood a girl. She was much older than we were. She wore a creamy yellow sweater and a black skirt. Long black hair fell around a plump pale face. And then she waved and smiled. I pulled back from the hole in the wall, flustered and feeling guilty.
"Come back," said Mark. "Look!"
She was still there. And then she started to dance -- a belly dance -- and she was dancing just for us.
We must have stood there for over half an hour, until she finally looked over her shoulder, smiled and waved, then disappeared from view. After a time, we dragged ourselves away from the hole, flushed and excited. She had danced there in that window, just for us.
A week passed before we had the chance to enter the old house again, but though we kept returning to the hole in the wall, the grime-streaked window across the street remained blank. The next day we were disappointed yet again.
Two days later, in the early morning, a combination of age, the elements and our ministrations proved too much for the old house. A mighty crash from outside the apartment building reverberated through the neighbourhood. The noise dragged us all from breakfast and we leapt up and raced outside to see. Whether it would have happened anyway, or whether the amount of floor and wall material we had removed over the months finally tipped the balance, we will never know. The old house had given up the ghost, and had fallen, a pile of timber, tiles, and plaster, down into Yogurt Man Street below. As we stood there speechless with the enormity of what had happened, the dust cloud slowly settled above the brown and orange pile.
We could have been in it when it went. We could have been crushed beneath the tumble of wood and nails and clay. But we weren't. Mark and I looked at each other with wide-eyed expressions. We weren't thinking about the danger we had escaped.
And though I didn't know it then, I know it now. In that brief time, the old house had revealed to us its treasure; an ephemeral treasure that now lay buried and hidden beneath the rubble on Yogurt Man Street never to be seen again, but one that will last forever.


© J. Anthony Hartley

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