Songs on the streets of memory
NIGHT had settled in over the place where the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Marmara all meet. The men in the bar had turned back to their respective conversations and left Baba and me to our backgammon game. We had finished our plate of meze and my suitcase was still under the table between us.
''It's getting late and I'm exhausted. Can't we go?''
He'd been studying his hands intently and looked up now.
''Yeah. OK. We go. Got your things?''
I grabbed my suitcase, knocking the table as I did so.
Baba caught a glass before it fell and the waiter ran over.
''Tesekkur ederim.'' I thanked him and as Baba paid I lugged my little case out the door. Galata Bridge was whipped with wind. The fishermen still hadn't retired for the night and their weighted wires dangled down into the water. As I stood there with my case I noticed every so often one being reeled up, strung with two, four even six hamsi. Anadolu was lit up like a fairy song, as was Rumeli. The six minarets of Sultan Ahmet were illuminated like lavender fingers, as were the four of Yeni Cami. The ferries still came and went and smaller boats cut across the water here and there. I thought Baba must have gone to the bathroom and I blew on my hands to keep them warm. As I stood there waiting, I tried to count the minarets and I tried to count the flags. I heard the tinkle of bells. A warm gust of air and the door opened and he stood beside me on the bridge. We looked out across the water for a while, at the silhouetted birds and the little wooden boats with names like Mustafa Kaptan or Kaptan Bey and were about to start walking when a young woman with an accordion came past. I noticed it was held together in places with tape. She had strapped it around her front and ambled out a melody now as she walked along the bridge. Baba elbowed me gently in the ribs, ''Now this is Istanbul, Ali! See?'' And coughing politely he stepped forward as she approached and said, ''Ya hanim please, one song. It is haram to walk past like this without playing for us.''
She didn't falter, didn't blush but just made as if to keep on walking.
''Afedersiniz. Excuse me, but what would you like to drink?''
At this she paused and smiled, ''One glass arak agabey.''
''We have no arak but we have raki, Tekirdag. Best in the world.''
''Oo-oof!'' And she laughed as I pulled out a seat for her at the outside table.
Baba went back inside and ordered us a round of drinks and she looked at me steadily.
''From where you are?'' And her black eyes flashed at me.
''Australia,'' I answered holding her gaze.
She shook her head, a little question, and pouted her dark lips. ''Ç¸ok uzak.'' So far.
''Ah.'' Something about this caught her. ''Bende.'' Me too.
She pointed to her heart, ''Annem Bucharest, Babam buralı.'' My mother Bucharest, my father from here.
I pointed to my heart also, ''Ah! Annem Australia, Babam Turkiye!''
And we laughed at what we shared as Baba returned with his hands full of glasses.
''What's so funny?'' he said as he put the glasses down and pulled up a rickety chair.
''Her dad's from here and you're -''
But she cut in and said, firmly, proudly, ''Ben Roma.''
And Baba handed us our glasses and said excitedly as if he had just discovered something, ''Ali, these are our people! Ç¸ingene! This is our nation!'' And picking up his glass he clinked ours with joy and we all threw back our heads and drank. Only she and I didn't take our eyes off each other. We drained our glasses as Baba poured us all another. Then she began to play for us on her battered accordion, which she told us afterwards, the zabita, the police had kicked out. She sang songs that Baba knew and tears rolled down his cheeks. And when she looked at me, I was sure we were locked in a private passion. The bridge was deserted, our bodies slaked with salt.
When I was a teenager Baba and I used to play the streets of Melbourne together. Fitzroy, Brunswick, Collingwood. Sometimes even the city. He would have a guitar or a violin or a darbuka and I would have a flute or an accordion. I remember once when we were busking he advised me to speak in halting English. He'd laughed, ''I tell them we here playing on the strit because we just get off tha boat. OK, Ali Shali?''
''OK, boss.'' And I saluted a hand to my temple.
And off we'd go to a corner or an outdoor dining area or a street festival and play. We'd mix Blues with Eastern scales and pick up musicians here and there. When we felt like finishing we'd buy some wine and food and sit on the street and celebrate.
The only time I ever lived with him was around this time. He found a place late one night after I'd left him at a club in Collingwood. He rang me the next day at Mac's. ''Ali, I found the perfect place! All musos and artists!''
It was close by so I went to check it out straight away. He had set himself up under the staircase and I was to have the back shed. The neighbours on one side were a big Maori family who ran cocaine.
Extract from The Memory of Salt by Alice Melike Ulgezer, published by Giramondo.
This book is one of 10 Victorian titles included in the State Library's Summer Read program. Visit a participating public library and recommend one of the books for your chance to win a prize.