Translation Catherine Venner
Two standing boards decorated with ivy leaves.
White plastic furniture on a green carpet.
A cup of hot tea under the chestnut tree.
What more could you possibly want?
Serdar is sitting at a table outside the Anayurt cafe with his legs stretched out. So this is where he has wound up. Here of all places! Within spitting distance of the corner shop, at the Turkish cafe on Bellermannplatz, after all that wandering around. And now Serdar hasn’t got a clue how or why. What is he supposed to do here anyway among all the old men with shapeless caps and heavy moustaches, drinking chai tea from tiny glasses, chain smoking and playing cards or backgammon?
But fine, he’s here now.
And when it comes down to it, here is just as good as anywhere else.
His tea arrives. After the first drink, he realises he hasn’t eaten since the morning. He takes small sips, notices the two small green beans swimming on the surface and feels the hot sweet liquid in his stomach.
Serdar leans back and shuts his eyes.
He sees her in front of him.
The child’s large, shining eyes.
The eyes of the little girl who he’d seen at the traffic lights remind him of something. But he can’t quite put his finger on it. He just can’t.
Serdar thinks about the girl and about everything else. He feels the tea in his empty stomach and hears the old men murmuring and rattling their counters in the wooden boxes. They’ve already done it, thinks Serdar. They’re seeing out the end of their days.
For a while, Serdar listens to the sounds; the quiet voices and the rustling of the leaves in the tree. For the first time in this insane week, his head is empty and Serdar can feel the sweetened tea in his stomach. He feels as if he and his plastic chair have been elevated a couple of centimetres off the ground and are hovering just above the green carpet. His eyes are closed and everything sounds fuzzy. And then he becomes aware of another sound. It’s slowing penetrating his thoughts: an unclear and slightly brittle voice, the croaky voice of a man, and it’s saying something in Turkish. A cough, and then it says the same thing again.
Serdar opens his eyes.
A old man is standing next to the table.
A small, old man with deep lines on his face, a grey stubbly beard and in his hand a well-worn leather suitcase, from which a shirt tail is poking out.
“Merhaba, Torun,” the old man asks, “taken?”
He points at the plastic chair opposite Serdar.
“Taken?” the old man asks again and looks searchingly at Serdar. Serdar nods while the old man pulls the chair from under the table and suppresses a sigh as he sits on it. He puts the suitcase on the floor, takes his cap off his head and wipes the sweat from his forehead with a grey handkerchief. White hairs cling to his temples and the back of his head.
My God, Serdar thinks, what kind of trip is he coming down from?
The old man sit motionless in his chair with his arms lying limply on the rests. When the waiter comes, he orders some tea and couple of sesame rings.
“Hot day,” say the old man, “just like back then.”
Serdar looks at him baffled.
Serdar doesn’t speak Turkish, just a couple of phrases. Anyway how could he, when the guy who gave him his Turkish name could only hold out a few months with him and his mother? He knows a couple of numbers, one or two expressions and all manner of swear words that you pick up anyway if you grow up in this district of Berlin, no matter whether your name is Martin Müller, Ivo Andric or Serdar Schröder.
“Hot day,” the old man repeats and folds up his wet handkerchief. “Just as hot as back then. Oh Torun, I still remember it well.”
And it’s strange that the old man is speaking a weird gobbledygook, mainly Turkish but mixed up with some broken German, yet Serdar understands everything he says right from the very first word. And he has no idea how, but maybe the language doesn’t matter if the story is right for you.
“Very, very hot” says the old man, “just as hot as on that last day.”
Serdar sips his tea and waits.
“It was very, very hot, the day that our pride and joy left us,” says the old man. “He took the bus, down the village street. You know Torun, people always run away on hot days, who knows why?”
The old man wipes his forehead with his palm.
“I don’t know either,” the old man continues. “Maybe they’re afraid. Afraid that their brains will melt if they don’t cool them down in the headwind. Or worse, they’ve already melted. I really don’t know.”
Serdar looks around. The other men are engrossed in their games. Nobody is taking any notice of them.
“His arm,” says the old man, “the last thing that we saw of him was his arm in the bus window, and he waved. I can still see it, he’d pushed his sleeves up, in his best shirt. And we watched, me too, and off he went, our son. He took our hopes and our joy with him. And he must have lost it, somewhere along the way it fell out of the bus or it just flew through the open windows, who knows, who knows.”
The old man gets his tea and sesame rings. He nods in thanks to the waiter and pours sugar into his glass. He slowly stirs it and shakes his head very slightly.
“I tried everything, Torun, everything, believe me. What do you want over there? What? I asked him. What is waiting for you there, when your life, your family and your joy are here? But he didn’t want to hear it, not at all. He didn’t listen to me at all, do you understand Torun? He had just one word in his head, Almanya, Almanya, only that. That is what he always said to us. The future is there, Baba, he said, my future is there, yours too, all of ours. That’s how he spoke, he didn’t want to hear anything else. I might as well have just gone behind the house and talked to the goats.”
The old man breaks off a piece of a sesame ring, dunks it into his tea and chews hurriedly.
“Almanya, Almanya. The future. All very well, but what do you want with tomorrow when you already have a today?”
Serdar watches the old man eat. He takes a drink of his tea and waits until the old man has devoured his next mouthful.
“A couple of notes,” says the only man and washes some tea down, “a couple of crisp banknotes every month. Do you think that’s all that a family needs? Well?”
The old man shakes his head.
“A couple of notes, a couple of banknotes and every month a letter saying, I’m fine, thanks, thinking of you. That was it. And it was us who looked after them – his family, his wife and two children, a son and then a daughter who was born when he was already gone. Far, far away in grey, cold, bloody Almanya, and who knows what he was doing on the day she was born. I don’t, Torun. I don’t know, I can’t tell you.”
The old man chews his soggy simit and looks around out of his small dark eyes. A few sesame seeds float in his tea.
“Two years,” says the old man, “two years is a long time. And we saw everything. WE were the ones who were there. When the little one stopped drinking milk, we saw how she stood up and took her first steps. We heard her first words. And do you know what her first word was? Dede. Grandad.”
The old man laughs bitterly.
“No, no,” he says, “two summers, two full summers and two winters on top of that. And every couple of weeks a few lines, thanks, work is going well, the people are nice here, I’ve bought myself a warm coat.”
Serdar looks at the old man. He asks himself where this story is going. Why is he telling him all this? Has he got him mixed up with someone else? With some Torun or other? Or why is he calling him that all the time?
But the old man is already speaking again.
“That’s what happened, Torun, month after month. And the third summer had almost begun and his son was almost ready to start school, when he came back for the first time. I’m coming to visit at the start of August, he wrote. To visit, as if he was already a stranger, do you understand? And at first, we didn’t even recognise him, his pale face and long hair down to his shoulders. Oh, what have they done to you? I asked him, when he got off the bus, and what have you become, a woman with long hair? And he just shook his head and said, no, that is the fashion in Almanya now. Can you believe it?”
The old man finishes his tea and motions to the waiter. He orders another tea.
“On the second day,” he says, “Yes, on the second or the third day, it must have been.”
Serdar looks at the old man. He sees his wrinkles. How many are there? Hundreds, thousands? He see the black eyes of the old man and it seems to him that they just turned a little darker.
“Everything was almost as before,” says the old man. “His children were happy to have their father back, and he also looked happy. Just that he was quieter than before and smoked all the time. He must have started that over there. It was a nice day. I was home alone with him, the women had gone to the market and he said, Baba, I have to talk to you. And I said, ok, then sit down and we’ll talk. But he said, no, not here, let’s go out, the sun is shining and we can walk up the hill. And so we went.”
The old man looks away from Serdar. He looks down at his plate and stares at the sesame seeds as if he could read something in them. Serdar feels his own impatience, the old man isn’t speaking quickly enough for him. He takes lengthy pauses to think or remember before he finally continues speaking in his strange slow singsong.
“On the way to the top,” says the old man and looks at Serdar with his dark, dewy eyes, “that’s where he told me.”
“It just happened, Baba, he said, just like that. I was lonely and it happened, and now it’s nearly time, just a couple of weeks left and I don’t know what to do, tell me. How am I supposed to live with two families, one here and one there? How will that work? Tell me and I’ll submit to your advice.”
“And I remember, how I stopped still, oh Torun, I remember it exactly. I couldn’t take another step, not another step with him. And I felt the anger, the anger inside me and the fevered shaking. We hadn’t got far when I stood still. We were hardly halfway up the hill, as I seized him and yelled at him, right in the face.”
“Who are you? I yelled at him. Who do you think you are to bring this shame on us? I yelled, how dare you disgrace our family? I gripped him firmly and looked into his eyes. I saw his tears and I heard him say, Baba, I am so sorry, please forgive me, please. But I only felt the shame in me, nothing else, his shame and ours. And it left no place for anything else.”
The old man is now sitting crumpled in his chair with his hands in his lap. It looks as if he is shaking. He stares at the table in front of him.
“How often, Torun, how often have I thought about these minutes since then? Have I thought of my words, my yelling and his eyes? But that is how it is. What happened was meant to happen, and that is how I pushed him away from me, spat in the dust in front of me and said, go, you are no longer my son, you have to go away, today, go away and don’t come back, and I wish you had never been born.”
The old man jerks his head up and looks at him. Serdar sees the wrinkles in the old man’s face, he sees the white hair and the deep, sad eyes and he looks away. He can’t bear to look at him.
“And I saw him,” says the old man, “I watched him as he staggered down the slope, down to the house and I stayed where I was, half-way up the hill. I sat on a stone and stayed there until it was dark and they came looking for me. And I didn’t tell them anything, not a word and I still haven’t. Not even, when two days later we got the news and everybody cried and my heart wanted to break. But it didn’t break and I kept my mouth shut.”
Serdar looks at the old man, who is now sitting there in silence and gripping his glass of tea. The old man slowly moves his jaw as if he were chewing something but his plate is clean with the exception of a few sesame seeds.
“It was his bus,” says the old man, “it was the bus he was travelling on. Without a doubt, they knew it was him because they’d found his passport. They gave it to me and I looked at it. The edges were black and his photo was half melted. He was barely recognisable.”
“And that was the end” the old man continues. “The result. Two women without a husband, three children without a father, and believe me, Torun, there isn’t a day in which I do not feel the guilt. It is like a stone, a stone hanging around my neck and I carry it from one day to the next, from year to year. And it’s too late, now it’s too late. But what the heck, I’m here, and I don’t even know why. Maybe I’m still looking for him.”
Serdar hears the old man’s words and he looks over at the old wooden partition wall that hides the corner shop two blocks down the road. He stares at the weathered slats and the ivy leaves, and his head is no longer empty as before, now his head is full, fuller than it has ever been. After the old man’s story, it feels as if his head will burst at any moment. The old man’s words echo in his ears. This strange story that seems to come from another world and has jolted his head to life, just like a direct hit in the ring, and he has no idea why.
Serdar looks at the ivy wall for a while longer, and when he finally turns his head back, the old man is no longer there.
Just a plate and an empty tea glass with a couple of sesame seeds remain on the plastic table, and Serdar isn’t in the least surprised.
Serdar stays seated for a while longer and then he gets the bill. He pays and stands up ready to leave, when he turns back to the waiter.
“You’re Turkish, aren’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” says the waiter, “why?”
“Torun,” asks Serdar, “Well, I mean the name, Torun, does that have some kind of meaning?”
“Torun,” answers the waiter and starts to wipe the table, “Torun means grandson in Turkish, why?”
From Großer Bruder Zorn. Eichborn Verlag, 2016.