Feryal Tilmac

Short story: Fig Seed
The Body - © Nurdan Hatipoğlu
Translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

After many months, we are finally in the house where I was born and brought up. This view I looked at for so many years, seems different today. The sun paints fiery streaks on the water, on the windows of Silver Water Apartments. The opposite shore… The other side. The Maiden’s Tower1 that seems to have leapt out of legends. The unfortunate princess, bitten by a snake gliding out of a basket of figs… All around is unusually silent, even the gulls that fly from roof to roof. Perhaps it was still too soon for us to come here. But here we are. I know that when everyone assembles it’s not going to be at all easy. I knew it right from the start. Everyone has unavoidable moments, meetings in their life… But no, I don’t have to apologise to anyone. If there’s anyone that deserves an apology, it’s me. I shall just say, “Well, here I am; I’ve come.” But what if I find myself frozen to the spot, my stomach contracting, my head throbbing… It will all pass. I’ll wake up in my own house again and everything will go on just as before. I smoke a cigarette patiently with my back to them. They approach. Neriman nervously replaces my ashtray and disappears. Gently, I reach out for Asım’s hand. His fingers are unwilling. And so our hands touch and separate.
“Müge, how nice to see you.”

My mother is perfectly contained as usual. Her hair is immaculate, as if she has just come out of a hair salon. Her make-up is the same. As always when she wants to appear young, she is wearing jeans. On top she has a smart white shirt, on her feet a pair of black stilettos. I approach her apprehensively. She offers me her cheek.
“Hello, Mother.”

I take Asım gently by the arm and try to push him forward. His feet seem to be embedded in concrete! I hope he doesn’t make things difficult.
“This is my husband, Asım.”
“Do sit down.”

My father mutters something. This isn’t talking. He too is in jeans. They’re definitely making a point. OK, we know you’re still young! He wears a checked shirt and has a cigar in his hand. Neriman places an ashtray near where he sits. Crossing his legs, he lounges back. He tries to give the impression that, despite his youthful looks, he is master of this house. If only they would speak openly, so that we could all feel more at ease. Oh daddy, I can hardly stop myself from throwing my arms round your neck and kissing you, but I am so mad at you. This time you went too far.
“Hello Müge, lovely to see you.”

Burak is totally indifferent as usual. He comes and shakes Asım’s hand. Deep in his eyes there is a devilish smile. He never allows anything to get to him. Once again, he is wisely refusing to get involved. He sprawls out on the sofa in front of the television and reaches for the remote control. Ignoring my mother’s glare, he turns the television on, finds a documentary and starts watching it. Apparently some fossilised remains of a half-man, half-ape creature have been found in Africa. The top half is ape, the lower human, or the other way round. I catch snatches of the commentary. People think these remains belong to a three-year-old. He watches with total concentration, letting out cries of amazement. As if nothing had happened. As if everything were just fine and we were paying an ordinary family visit. He must find the theory of evolution more interesting than family matters. I don’t blame him. If only we could get this over and done with! If only we could all get on with our own lives.
“Hi Müge, good to see you, and you sir.”

Grandma enters the sitting room. My father pulls himself together. Uncrossing his legs, he straightens up in his chair. Cheers for Grandma! She leans towards me and holds out her hand. I’m supposed to kiss it. Nedret Hanım2 seems determined to show Asım just who we are. She wears a cashmere shawl over her shoulders and silk stockings on her arthritic legs. This play-acting has to stop. She’s the only one I thought might back me up. I kiss her hand. The Dutch diamond on her finger touches my chin, then my forehead, pricking me like a thorn. There’s no way out, we’ll have to show Asım who we are!

“Asım darling, this is my Grandmother, Nedret Hanım.”
“How are you, Hanımefendi3?”
Asım reaches out and kisses her hand lightly. Asım, don’t put her hand to your forehead. You’ll ruin it all – the whole sack of figs! He doesn’t. My grandmother smiles. But it is a flirtatious smile – most inappropriate. I feel embarrassed at what my husband must be thinking. I know what he thinks of large mansions, luxury lifestyles, so-called aristocrats. But he seems happy to have found a potential ally. Neriman must have been waiting for the moment of my grandmother’s introduction. She appears with a silver tray laden with a set of coloured crystal liqueur glasses. Crème de Figue, served with some chilled fresh almonds at the side. Hospitality never varies at our house. Suddenly, I realise how much I’ve actually missed it all.
Burak seems to have lost interest in the apes; he is blatantly analysing Asım. I fear he might delay the speech I’ve been waiting to make all this time, by going on about some rubbish. Once he gets going – “What interesting bone structure you have. There seems to be a trace of Slav, especially in the shape of your forehead and nose…” – then congratulations to anyone who can stop him. As if she can see it coming, my mother takes over.
“Müge says you’re a doctor.”
Grandma and Burak jump in simultaneously.
“An obstetrician.”
“A gynaecologist.”
“Yes. I specialise in maternal medicine.”

Asım stirs uneasily. My father must have been waiting for this very moment; I could swear he had prepared his next sentence beforehand.
“You are undoubtedly an expert on young ladies.”
Got you, daddy! You fell right into it! Thank you. I rest my case.
“Daddy, your photo in the paper was great, you looked very handsome.”
He blushes. It’s hardly enough. If only he knew how much he hurt me! I want to forget that day. We are at the breakfast table; Asım is reading the paper and I am reading the Saturday supplement. After a while, I realise that he has not eaten a thing, not even touched his tea, and I ask what’s the matter. His face has turned pale. Looking confused, he tries to hide the newspaper but, unable to hold out against my insistence, he hands it over…

“Businessman Osman Saran has announced that as far as he is concerned his daughter Müge Saran died when, without his permission, she married Doctor Asım Tezan, 25 years her senior. Special prayers were said for his daughter’s soul at Teşvikiye Mosque. The ceremony was held in the presence of friends and loved ones, well-known figures from business and social circles, and curious passers-by. After the ceremony, the grieving father held a press conference at which he stated, ‘Doctor Asım is even older than I am; he should not expect any understanding from me. From now on, I have no such daughter, these prayers are the lament of a grieving father.’ It was noted that, while Osman Saran had a red carnation and a photograph of his daughter attached to his jacket collar, the young lady’s mother, Gülin Saran, did not attend the ceremony. This has been cause for some speculation. After the ceremony, all the guests were presented with a packet of dried figs instead of the traditional sweets.”

At first all I can think is that everyone, everyone will have read this! If only the earth would open and swallow me up, if only I could disappear, become a particle of dust and just vanish into the city air… As I recall reading that news a shell cracks open inside me. The larva squirms about freely. The monster of reckoning hungrily awaits my next words, the fodder upon which it thrives.

“Handing out dried figs to your guests was a very nice gesture. But you put the photo taken for my high school entrance exam on your collar. Couldn’t you find a more recent photograph, for heavens sake?”
The redness that started from your ears has already covered your face and is advancing rapidly towards your neck. So, you wore a red carnation in your buttonhole, did you? Well daddy, how am I supposed to look my friends in the face? Did you ever stop to think about that? Did you put Asım down as a paedophile? You are lucky that he is mature enough to come to your house. It shows there’s something good to be said for older son-in-laws. Burak laughs. My father slowly turns to face him and is just about to explode with anger when my mother comes to the rescue.
“Asım Bey4, Osman is devoted to Müge and it’s been traumatic for him. Please don’t take it personally. You know how precious daughters are to their fathers.”

In my mother’s eyes, Asım’s career clearly compensates for his age. Her tone of voice indicates that she is genuinely no longer upset. For the first time, I appreciate her worldly attitude. She changes the subject masterfully.
“You’re living in Nişantaşı5, aren’t you?”
“Yes mum, we are living in Asım’s house. There was no point moving somewhere else just for the sake of it.”

My father pulls himself together. He offers Asım a cigar. Asım doesn’t smoke cigars. He doesn't smoke cigarettes either. Caption: This man takes care of himself. Relax. See, he looks younger than either of you. The passage of time doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Each person has their individual life cycle. When are you going to understand that? My father does not look in my direction at all. If only he would say he was sorry and shouldn’t have done it. Then, I’d be prepared to forget all about it. But he continues to fire questions at my husband as if it wasn’t him who brought all this humiliation on us in the first place.
“Is Müge going to continue her education? I’m sure you have no objection to her studying. She has two more years to go. Afterwards, I was thinking of sending her to France. If you like, she could still…”
Grandma does not miss the opportunity.
“Oh, my Osman is really keen on education, always has been. He was a wonderful student; never gave us cause for worry. If only her dear grandfather were alive, how proud he would be... It runs in the family. You see, our family –”
“Yes, I see. Müge will carry on and finish college if she wants to. She would have my support if that’s what she decides to do.”

Asım politely silences my grandmother. And he is good at it. Once she gets started on the family tree, there is no stopping her.
“Daddy, I’m going to finish college, but you can forget about France. Would you like it if Mother went off to study abroad? I’m a married woman, and I have responsibilities. Asım works extremely hard, so I have to take care of everything at home.”
For the first time, he looks very sad. As if he might burst into tears at any moment. It really is as if I had died. My anger subsides. Despite myself, it simply melts away. When I have children of my own, I’ll understand. In ten years or so perhaps. Could Asım wait that long? The pregnant me walks through the middle of the room. Even my grandmother isn’t as fat as me. I’m wearing a robe with a smocked yoke, like the dresses Neriman wears. My abdomen is swollen, my ankles puffy. Holding my stomach, I rush out to the toilet to be sick.

My mother’s voice brings me to my senses. She says I look quite yellow. I don’t feel well and want to go home. I just want to put on my pyjamas, sit on Asım’s knee, and drink the milk he warms up for me. I want him tell me funny stories about his patients while I lean against his chest. I want him to stroke my hair while I fall asleep. It doesn’t happen. As the afternoon draws out, it gradually seems to engulf the whole of our lives and turn into one never-ending moment.

My father and Asım start a rambling conversation about politics. Burak whispers something to my grandmother, covers his mouth with his hand and laughs. My mother goes to the kitchen. Probably to ask Neriman to make some coffee. How at ease they all are. My insides heave, subside and once again… Oh God! Nobody takes any notice. I want to exclaim, “Hey look, I’ve been planning this meeting for months, moment by moment, word by word. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Not so quick and easy, not so superficial!” My father asks Asım if he enjoys playing bridge. This is driving me crazy. Stand up for yourself Asım. He humiliated you in the eyes of your patients. Don’t forget that! My mother appears, followed by Neriman carrying a tray of coffee. Neriman refills everyone’s liqueur glasses, starting with my grandmother’s. Burak’s mobile rings and he leaves the room to talk in peace. I take a sip of coffee and light a cigarette.

“Müge darling, your skin will age prematurely. Look, your husband doesn’t smoke.”
With everything that is going on, my mother has to go fussing about the fact that I smoke. And as if that isn’t enough, she uses Asım as an example. I inhale deeply, pout my lips, and blow smoke out in front of me. A tiny cloud of smoke hovers above the central coffee table. Like a jellyfish disintegrating into the ether. This amuses me and, as soon as it disappears, I exhale again. My mother’s eyes and eyebrows implore me to stop. Grandma intervenes.
“She’s been like this since she was a child! Never say ‘don’t’ to her Gülin, it just makes her obstinate. Leave her alone. She takes after my late mother-in-law, Atike Hanım. She was just the same...”

I stub out my cigarette and get up.
“Can I have a look in my room?”
Finally, I succeed in getting everyone’s attention. My father and husband stop their conversation and look at me as if I've asked for something unfathomable. Nobody makes a sound. Mother looks out towards the sea, and Grandma rearranges her shawl. They’re uneasy. I take no notice. I want to go to my room. For months, I have been dreaming about it. When I wake up in the middle of the night and realise I’m in a different room…. My bedroom door is shut; I open it slowly. My heart pounds. As always, it smells of pine and Rive Gauche. Nothing appears to have been touched. I lie down on my bed. My books, computer, photographs, globe, stereo and CDs… Everything is in its place. So, the only thing they emptied was my wardrobe. How I cried the day Neriman came to the house in Nişantaşı bringing the suitcases she had so carefully packed with my clothes. I asked her to come in for coffee, but she said the driver was waiting outside and rushed away. When Asım arrived, my eyes were all red from crying. Someone knocks at my door. Good! They haven’t forgotten my rules. Neriman enters cautiously.
“Don’t pay any attention to them, sweetheart. You’re the lady of your own house now, just do your best. It’s alright. There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Marry a young man and he’ll break your heart. Marry an old man and he’ll treat you like a princess.’ My late husband was twice my age. And we got on just fine. I mean, we struggled to make ends meet, like everyone else, but he always treated me good. What more can you ask for? He is your father, he’ll come round. Just play along. And don’t stay away so long again. Your grandma, she’s really missed you too. You know how we've always thought she only has eyes for Burak, well, she wouldn't stop talking about you. She kept going on and on at your father. Osman Bey was really angry, otherwise …”
“Thanks Neriman. No reason to get upset, we'll come by more often from now on. My mother’s calling. You go, or they’ll start wondering.”

Now I’m all alone, I ponder on what Neriman said. She says she was happy. Yet I know how difficult her life really was. Her husband was ill in bed for years. She married off her daughter, but her son-in-law's been sponging off of them for as long as I can remember. Her son didn’t go to school. It means that happiness between man and wife must be something else. So, am I happy? Every so often this question comes to mind, but I brush it away. Asım does all he can. He smothers me with presents. We go wherever I want to go. No need to ask permission, no need for explanations. I’m free. We reserve tables and dine at the clubs where my friends go to drink and dance. Sometimes we meet them and stand around talking. They are always dying to meet Asım and are fascinated by us, by our marriage. I feel somehow different, important. I want to maintain the respect I have gained in their eyes by standing up to my family. I feign reluctance when they ask to meet up. After all, I’m a married woman now. I like this game, or rather, I used to like it until we came here. They’re confusing me. The way they accept Asım so quickly makes everything I’ve done seem so ordinary. I feel sick and tired. I want to sleep in my own room tonight. Someone knocks at the door again. This time, Neriman doesn’t come in but just pokes her head through the door.
“Gülin Hanım is asking for you Müge. They’re wondering if you’re still in your room. Apparently you’re staying for dinner. The food’s all ready. I made pastries this morning, spinach, your favourite, since I knew you were coming. If there’s anything else you want, tell me now so I can have it ready in time for dinner.”
“No Neriman, I don’t want anything. What’s Asım doing?”
“The Doctor is playing chess with your father.”
“Fine, tell them I’ll be down soon.”

I don’t want to go. I just want to sleep. A deep, deep sleep. When I wake, I want to get up, ask for a milky coffee in my room, start up my computer, chat to my friends on MSN, plan my day, decide what I’m going to wear and rush out of the house, mingle with life, become Müge again, and sense the relief inside me with every breath. I throw off my shoes and get into bed. I put my hand under the pillow. In that coolness, I feel for the lavender sachet. My fingers find it. Right where it has always been. I inhale the scent of my pillow. My head becomes heavy. My thoughts become cloudy. It won’t hurt anyone if I sleep until dinnertime.

1. Kızkulesi: in the Bosphorus, near Kadiköy on the Anatolian shore of İstanbul.
2. Hanım: a respectful term of address used after a woman’s first name.
3. Hanımefendi: a respectful way of addressing a woman without using her first name.
4. Bey: a respectful term of address used after a man’s first name.
5. Nişantaşı: a district of Istanbul on the European side of the Bosphorus

Originally published in Turkish as Incir Cekirdegi
by Feryal Tilmac
OkuyanUs, 2009.

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