Extract from Fat Man’s Shadow (1988)
This is from Chapter 25 of my first novel. The setting for this part of the story is a real place, a house in Istanbul in which I myself lived for a year in 1977-8. It was the Priest’s House – the “Papa Ev” – which stood inside the walled compound of Christ Church, an Anglican church in the heart of the Beyoglu district. The church, a characteristic piece of English Victorian neo-gothic, was completely anomalous in this setting. It was mothballed when I knew it and in the story I had it leased for criminal purposes by an ambitious American crook, who has installed his Turkish servant Yakup to look after the place. On this particular day, unknown to anybody, the church is under the surveillance of a different criminal group, who follow Yakup in his visit to the Kerhane, a street of brothels. This may seem a lurid location, but it is quite accurately described.
Yakup yawned mucously, reached under the sheet and scratched his belly. Then he rolled over and tugged the pillow to his face, wishing it was his darling Gül’s body. Boss had made him send Gül away to their village for a week or two, with the boy. Yakup had enjoyed having the priest’s house to himself at first, but he was already getting tired of eating in sandwich bars, and he was missing the sex.
Maybe he should suggest to Boss that they go down to the kerhane tonight and have some women. Boss liked Yakup to go with him when he went there. And, as he paid for the two of them, Yakup was very happy to oblige. But then he remembered, Boss was down at Polonozköy today, not to be disturbed. Tomorrow was the big day, and Boss was resting up.
Yakup looked at his watch, and yawned again. Nearly five o’clock, and the afternoon was gone. Maybe he’d go down to the whorehouses himself later and, just for once, spend his own money. Boss said he’d get a big present after tomorrow, so why not? He rolled out of bed, pulled his trousers on, pushed his feet into some slippers and wandered outside.
The puppy greeted him with an exaggerated display of falling around. Normally Yakup kicked the creature but today he felt tenderly towards it. It was all he had left of his family for now and he crouched to fondle its ears for a few moments, before ambling over to open the church.
He entered the gloomy place. It was not, to Yakup’s mind, a place in which to worship Allah. The stone walls were clothed neither with tiles nor even plaster, the floor was cold and lacked carpets. The mosque, now, was warm and homelike; even the grand ones like the Suleymaniye had a welcoming feeling. Perhaps that is why the Christians no longer used their church. Perhaps, he thought with a shiver, it was inhabited by a djinee.
Nervously he approached the big yellow bell-like thing, which stood in the middle of the church, and put his palm flat against the side of it. It seemed to radiate a slight heat. Yakup fancied there was something alive in there. He hardly dared wonder what it might be like in detail, but he had a vague notion of some jelly-like spawn of indefinite malignancy. He shuddered. When it was exposed to the air, what would it grow into?
Though he did quite a lot of Blanchard’s driving, delivering people and packages to the airport, collecting them, Yakup could never form a clear picture of Boss’s affairs. The flask, he had been told, contained some stuff for use in a weapon and was very secret. Some men were competing to buy it. Yakup could see the round, lead plugs where special equipment had been used to drill into the side of the flask. The material was so vile you couldn’t just open the lid and scoop some of it out to check the quality.
Tomorrow Boss would learn which of the men he’d invited to come to Istanbul was ready to pay the highest price. Yakup grabbed a broom, did his sweeping up, then found some chairs and arranged them in the way Boss wanted, in front of the altar. He also found a small table, which he placed in the centre of the circle of chairs. His finishing touch was a personal one. He ran into the house and doubled back with a bunch of chrysanthemums in a glass vase, bought that morning at the Balιk Pasarι. He placed the flowers carefully in the centre of the table, then locked the great oak door and returned to the house.
He sat down, flipped on the television and lit a cigarette. It was American comedy. There was a talking horse, and Yakup watched for three or four minutes. Then he switched it off and stared at the wall.
He glanced at his watch, in a decisive manner. He washed at the sink, put on a shirt over his vest, wet his hair and ran a comb through it. With his appearance put to rights he secured the iron gate of the Church compound, and set off around the side of the steep hill towards the Yüksek Kaldιrιm, off which ran the street of whorehouses. He did not notice the two young men who stepped from a doorway as he passed and sauntered along in his wake.
When Yakup had first arrived here from his village, before he’d even sent for Gül to follow him, he had found the street of whorehouses the most amazing of all the wonders in this wonderful city. Yes, the interiors of the great mosques were staggering in their size and beauty. But he could imagine a great mosque in his mind. The cars, the crowds of people, the glass buildings had all been imaginable. Only this had been unimaginable.
His knowledge of females, after all, had been confined to his mother and sisters, and to sweet little Gül – all good Turkish women and wives. True, there had been fat Yäsemin, who for a few lira would agree to go behind the village granary and let you play with her titties while she pulled you off. But how can you compare with a single turnip with a truck-load of melons?
Yakup walked through the iron gates of the closed, cobbled street. It sloped gently down ahead of him for about a hundred metres before reaching a dead end. Along its whole length a crowd of men milled, their heads swiveling this way and that as they appraised the whores on view. On their faces played all the variations between jaw-hanging lechery and prurient disgust.
Yakup always walked slowly down one side, looking with care into each of the plate-glass window. Behind these, under flaring neon lights, was the incomparable display of fruits. Every type of flesh was here. There was the white and the muddy, the black and the blonde. There were the hairy and the shaved, the fat-thighed and the bony-shinned. There were some whose breasts showed up delicate as peeled grapes and others with bubs like puddings.
They wore incredible, provocative underwear and they made kissing movements with their lips at him as he passed. Even an old hand like Yakup would find himself reaching the bottom of the street in a ferment of confused, drunken desire. He had to restrain himself then, because he must still trek back up the other side before he allowed himself to choose. He was meticulous about this, viewing all the available goods before he would buy.
He found himself first attracted by a thin little girl, dark and sad-looking. She wore black lace panties, and a brassiere that was a size too big for her pinched and tender breasts. She looked up at him with a yearning that was almost irresistible. The poor little soul seemed quite miserable, and Yakup wanted to cheer her up. Perhaps she hadn’t had a client all day. It would make Yakup feel good to be her first.
But then, in a house a little further along, his eyes fell on a well-filled blonde in a fancy corset. She had vivid red lips that glistened passionately, and a great wobbly bottom. This she showed to him by deliberately bending over, and then peeping around the side so he didn’t miss her heavily kohled and rolling eyes. He almost barged in through the door there and then. But he forced himself to stick to his custom of rigorous window-shopping before making his decision. By the time Yakup stood again at the top of the street, it was a straight choice between the two girls – the little waif or the big bum. He hesitated, pondering the dilemma. Now that he’d controlled the first rush of lust it was such a pleasant luxury, this sensuous debate. He didn’t mind if it went on for a little while longer.
But Yakup’s mind was destined never to be made up. The pair of young men who had shadowed him all the way from the church now stepped in. One stood in front of him, obstructing his view of the street. He asked politely for a light and, as Yakup was pulling the matchbox from his shirt pocket, the other slapped him with a black-jack between shoulder and neck so hard that he staggered sideways, unable to help himself. His eyes fogged and, barely conscious of anything but the throbbing pain, he was hustled back to the street and into a taxi.
The milling crowds had not even noticed. They came and went, just as they always they did, with eyes only for the purchasable women.
© Robin Blake 1988
As a footnote to the above, last time I was in Istanbul I found that Christ Church – also known as The Crimean Memorial Church – had re-opened for Anglican worship. It dates from 1868, was designed by G.E. Street, and is well worth a visit.
Fat Man’s Shadow was published originally by Viking and Penguin Books. It is currently out of print.