For a second he’d be distracted and the salami slicer would cut right through his thumb, I imagined. His calm exterior would disappear under blood and jarring physical pain. It’d serve him right. But he wasn’t there and the salami slicer remained perfectly still next to the big red man behind the counter.
I expected rage, but disappointment showed up instead. I quietly stepped up and the big red man handed me a package wrapped in brown butcher paper. I stood staring at the package. Disappointment was starting to ebb into relief and I let out an audible sigh.
“Anything else, love?” The butcher asked. He was smiling and his eyebrows were still raised as he nodded towards the package I had been staring at. I shook my head, muttered a bunch of thank yous and good days and left.
Eight months earlier I had noticed how there were always tomatoes. Deep red with golden spots where the sun caught them. There were those savoy cabbages too, with mysterious patterns tattooed on their bottle-green skins. On Mondays in winter, there were oranges, and in summers plump, multi-hued mangoes, so sour they’d make you suck in your cheeks. On some days, there were avocados too. Other days, oranges. And they all shone bright under the red awning.
The Akdeniz Market was definitely not the only one on the street. It stood next to a Co-op. In fact, for the first six months of living in the council house off the main street, I shopped only at the Co-op, regularly walking past the displays of seasonal bounty of the Akdeniz Market. I was addicted to the Co-op’s factory-made coconut macaroons. I loved its pre-marinated chicken thighs and tins of processed ham bathed in salty gelatin. I doubted whether the market stocked anything close to those metallic-smelling macaroons, so sweet that they made the hairs on my chin stand with every bite. But even while I walked to the Co-op, I’d notice the tomatoes. And the cabbages.
On weekends, I’d make my way to the microscopic Subway shop across the street from the market for lunch. Not because I love sloppy service and day-old lettuce, but mostly to get away from my housemates, who were all east European men, who, in their charming ways gave me tireless reminders that I was the only girl in the entire household. And in their irrefutable logic that should have been reason enough for me to start dating one of them. Sometimes, while I cooked, one of them would breathe down my neck pretending to be fascinated with spatulas. Other times, they’d place soft knocks on my door late at night while asking, “I come in?” My landlady, a single mother of two, who always had a perpetual aura of exhaustion about her, would drive down the next day and give the men a stern lecture on harassment, the effects of which would wear down in a couple of days. On my part, I planned to aim for a promotion at work that would allow me to burn down the house along with its occupants, and move to a better locale.
I gradually stopped cooking. My shelf in the refrigerator was all heat-n-eat, shovel-n-swallow. Even though I’d crave the odd kedgeree now and then, I didn’t mind. It was convenient and infinitely peaceful to take a short walk to Subway and munch on lunch while admiring tomatoes from across the street. On a wet day in July, I leaned against the table, topped with apples for the day. It rained right outside of the awning. I wasn’t carrying an umbrella. The cashier peered out at me through the glass wall behind the table of apples and frowned. His frown was not unkind, only drenched in hopeful determination. He wanted me to either scurry away in embarrassment, or enter the store out of obligation. I was using his awning, hence, I had to buy something from his store. So I entered.
It all looked very like the Co-op. Stepped rows of vegetables and fruits in the front. Edible bunches of leaves in various stages of droop. A fridge in the center teeming with tubs of ice-cream. And aisles heaving with spices, canned food and quick fixes for the tired and lazy. I found myself feeling disappointed with its ordinariness. Conversation was filtering in from the back of the store. The kind, drawling voice of an older woman and a voice of a man who was speaking English in broken sentences. I walked towards the voices. She, after all, did sound like a very happy customer. The man at the counter was in a pristine white butcher’s coat and a dark apron. He handed a brown paper package tied with a butcher’s string to the lady, who then thanked him.
“I’ll see you next week,” he replied. His voice sounded like molten dark chocolate rolling at the back of the throat. When the lady wheeled her cart away from the counter, he turned back and busied himself with a salami machine. The display case was solitary, stuffed with an impressive collection of meat. Broiler chickens tied in neat rows, a mountainous dump of chicken wings, duck breasts trimmed and lying skin-side up. There were gorgeous racks of beasts dressed and propped up on their sides, skinned rabbits stretched from nose to tail laid like sleeping babes, pork medallions, pork chops, pork bellies, and cubes of goat for curry. I stood eyeing the display and the cold air that swirled like smoke inside.
The wall behind the counter had an opening which, presumably, led to a storage behind the shop. For a second I wanted to call out to the man whose back was now turned towards me. I wanted to see the eyes that went with the voice. He worked in a quiet rhythm, a powerful right arm, bent at the elbow, pushing the machine to and fro. In my slowness I found I had nothing worthy to say to him. I wanted to reach out and touch his elbow instead.
“Need help wiv summin’, love?” A gruff voice broke out. I snapped out of my thoughts and noticed a rather large, red-faced man carrying ribs on S-hooks who had appeared at the doorway of the storage. He smiled at me and placed his load on the counter. The silent salami-slicer had also heard his voice and glanced at me for a quick second. He now switched his slicer off, and straightened himself. He had mile-long lips like Martin Landau. His eyebrows, like his hair and eyes, were jet black. They almost touched and called a lot of attention to an unwavering stare, much much colder than that deep voice I’d heard a moment ago.
“Oh, uh no…thanks…I was just…,” I trailed off, as my lack of a viable excuse shone bright, like those tomatoes outside. The big red man nodded kindly as I pointed to a random corner in the front of the store and bustled away. Those black eyes singed my back.
A week later, I stood outside the Subway shop and watched a few shoppers roll in and out of the market. I wanted to go in. I had spent the whole of last week wanting to go in. I had also spent the same week taking a different, longer route to Walthamstow Central. On the way to work. So I wouldn’t want to go into the market, with its boring vegetables and mono-browed butchers. What would I say to him? Will he recognize me as the girl with non-existent verbal skills? Will his stare burn my face like it burned my back? Will the big red man be there to help me?
“Yeah…I hope he is,” I said loudly to myself and looked both ways to cross the street.
The ice-cream cabinet was half-empty and hadn’t been replenished. I walked towards the meat. The salami slicer was on again. There was the pristine white shirt, and the black apron, and there was the fix-eyed man, his right elbow heaving to and fro, in step with the quiet whirr of the machine.
“Hello,” I called out.
He stopped working and turned around to face me. Then with the slightest of hesitation, he replied, “Hello.” The sound came from deep beneath the trenches and echoed around the aisles. I asked for a kilo of chicken wings.
Without another word he handed me my brown package and with it, attached a “Come again.” He was smiling, but it sounded more like an order. By the time the month got over, I had bought lamb chops, whole chickens, cut chickens, skinned chickens and a monster pork belly I wasn’t brave enough to cook. I had been smiled at twice by the cashier, whose name was Mir. I had commented on the gorgeousness of their fresh produce. I had nodded at the owner on numerous occasions. I had learnt that black-eyed butcher’s name was Emir, short for Emirhan.
“What you do?” He had asked me on the second day. He had lowered his voice, as if he wanted my answer to be a secret between ourselves.
“I’m an architect.”
“Design.” I was already smiling and his eyes widened.
“Not really…,” I wasn’t sure. Architecture, for the most part, was all I knew at that point.
“Do you like it?” His long deft fingers worked with precision on another brown paper bag.
“Yes.” I added a firmer nod, afraid that he might see through my uncertainty.
He mirrored my nod with one of his own. His lips pressed together in triumph, as if impressed to have found someone who likes their job.
“If you like, then it’s not difficult,” he said. “Never difficult.”
His eyes hadn’t left mine throughout the conversation. And he held his gaze while holding out the paper bag, but like someone who didn’t want the conversation to end, he held on to it fast when I tried to take it from him.
“Coffee.” Intonation was obviously lost on him. So I nodded in agreement, rather than in answer.
Emirhan Polat, as named by his father under the Atatürk, was from Turkey. A fact that he was proud of and ashamed of at steady intervals. He’d talk in excitement about his grandfather, his dede, who allowed him to watch the local mutton butchers of Ankara in action. The next moment he’d fall silent and stiffen up, like a child questioned about stolen sweets.
“What does he do? Your dede?” I had asked.
“He was…accounts?” He wiggled his fingers in air mimicking typing at a calculator, “You know? Accounts?”
“He’s dead.” The declaration was curt and made in finality.
His eyes would twinkle and his smile would widen as I talked about being a fish-hogging, Celine Dion fan girl, growing up in West Bengal. The next moment, he’d fix his gaze at the base of my neck and not say another word till it was time to go home. I liked that Emir was not a native English speaker. Our conversations started abruptly in the middle and ended abruptly at the start. Sentences trailed off and expressions left open to interpretation. He was confident in using phrases he had learnt at work, greetings and welcomes and those said to regular customers. The big red man, who I learned was called David Barley, had taught him.
Back at the council house, my housemates did not hide their disdain. Days spent breathing down the Indian girl’s neck had turned into days staring daggers at the Turk with eyes that didn’t blink. Emir was not the warmest in bed. In the beginning, he wasn’t cruel either. He oscillated between kind and unkind, like his elbows did at the salami slicer. But lack of kindness brought different pleasures in its wake. And even though there were times when I wanted to scream in refusal, I found calm in giving myself up. Wholly, completely. Between painful spasms, I’d glance at the bottom of the door of my bedroom and see feet shuffling on the other side. In the light of the hallway they looked like shadows dancing on the surface of a swimming pool. I would get distracted by the feet and stop holding my breath and my stomach would rise up, free of strain, wobbling in all its flabby glory. I hard slap across my face would bring my attention back up to his eyes. His gaze was always greedy. He’d dig his spindly fingers into my breast with the same leer as he did when cutting into a leg of raw lamb. Like every woman before and after me, I chalked it up to love. And like every man before and after him, it wasn’t.
During the weekends we’d throw the main door open and sit on the steps waiting for the ice-cream man. Our London summer had reached heat-wave territory and he sat shirtless while I observed the freckles on his shoulders roll down his back. We talked of lunch. Then we talked of supper. He taught me how to run my fingers over the joints of a duck before lowering the cleaver with all my might. I taught him important differences between Rotring and Staedtler. I’d let him play his games inside the bedroom, and he’d let me cook khichdi for him. I rubbed soap over the purple spots on my thighs while showering under miserably faulty piping of the house.
I imagined introducing him to my colleagues.
Amanda would gush. “How exotic!” She’d say. Dev, the only other Indian in the office, would make a funny face and roll his eyes. It would be what I had wanted all my life, up to that point.
Back then, I had a habit of asking people, women especially, whether they had imagined ending up where they were. Did they think that they’d end up marrying a lawyer, or musician, or an Estonian businessman? Their answers fascinated me. Also, bored me at times. A scientifically inaccurate study in what women expect out of their lives. I’d imagine that years later someone would ask me a similar question. “Did you ever think that you’d end up marrying a Turkish butcher?” And as a response, I’d plunge into sweet nostalgia.
We wish you all the best!
I read the last sentence of the email three times. We wish you all the best. The stand-in for Here’s a fatter paycheck and a fancier job title, now fucking work yourself to the ground. James, a tall white man with flaming red hair, who sat next to me in our cubicle of five, gave me a quick pat on my back and shook my hand. A couple of colleagues exclaimed niceties at me and after work we went for beers at the The Slaughtered Lamb. During the ride back home I wanted to stop at the market, walk up the stairs behind it to the dank two-room above, and break the news to Emir. But I didn’t.
It had been about seven months since Emirhan Polat had spent the first night in my bedroom. We didn’t meet at the market anymore. He didn’t want to have to explain my appearances to David Barley. Our cafe dates had become rare and his grips had become harder. But I had enjoyed it, hadn’t I? Even when I hated how much it hurt to take a basic shower, to discover a new bruise, I had enjoyed reciting my love story to Amanda and Dev and James. Every time I talked about us, I’d feel a small thrill. The stories were true and dripping with oratory richness. I talked about his skills in butchery and about our happy future in shared household chores. I spoke of his eyes and his passion and I spoke of foreverness. And my colleagues indulged me with their side-eyed smiles, the kind you affectionately produce for a friend who wouldn’t shut up about her boyfriend.
I never talked of the purple marks. Some had recently appeared on my shoulders and on the side of breasts. The thought of the marks stalled my imagination. It made me doubt our happiness. The marks made me ask questions, the hard kind I found easy to suffocate with the happy stories. With his visits came tension and at times, fear. The conversation had dwindled, broken sentences came punctuated with hair pulls and back-hand slaps. This is not what it’s going to be like in future, I told myself. We were happy, I still told myself, and for the first five months I believed it. Until I didn’t.
I wanted to start looking for a new house-share without delay. Maybe Islington, I thought. It’d be close to the office. I could afford it now. It could be a 1 BHK near a Subway shop. There could be a local market a couple of blocks away. It’d be nice to get meat and sandwiches and ice-cream tubs and walk back to my apartment, chilly and a little out of breath. My apartment, the thought made me smile. I’d be free from a ton of things. Free from creepy eastern Europeans. From faulty showers. And far away from Emir, at the least. It was a half-formed idea, soft behind the ears. I’m not going to change my mind when I see him, I told myself, knowing well that I might just.
There was no one at the butcher’s counter when I walked towards it the same evening of the email. I stood and waited and hopped a little on my heels. The news bubbled up inside of me and I almost yelled it out at the middle-aged man ahead of me, who was also waiting for service. David came in from the back, smiled and moved to help the gentleman. I mentioned Emir, trying to sound casual. At my mention, David frowned and his mouth parted a bit like he was about to answer. But instead, he continued hauling out pieces of meat.
“He’s gone back,” he said, abrupt in his answer, as soon as the middle-aged gentleman turned to leave.
“Oh,” my head shook a bit. “Like, back to…”
“Well, back home, love. He’s from some town in Turkey y’know.”
Ankara. Where dedes take their grandsons from butcher shop to butcher shop on Sundays.
David’s shrug was slow and weak but he peered at me. He knew I had already guessed the answer.
“Gone for good, that boy. He got family to take care of, dun he. His grandfather I fink…,” he ended on another indifferent shrug.
His dead grandfather. I stood quietly watching the cold air that swirled like smoke inside the display counter.
Out of all the sweat-ridden summer afternoons and sleepless winter nights trying not think about how close I had just come to being choked to death, I think I wanted Emir to fit into my story. He had the eyes, the eyebrows, the gaze, the intensity, the arms and the fierceness to hold attention. The sharp differences between our backgrounds – a displaced Indian with British roots and a Turkish immigrant. We were ethnic, but not the same. We had loving families – his was broken, mine indifferent. We wanted things, but not the same things. And all that made up parts of a story that was one-of-a-kind and mine, only mine, to tell. It had made me feel like I had contributed to this world’s stockpile of human experiences. I obviously had a unique story to tell, different from any story anyone has ever had to tell.
The story. The story keeps us awake at night. The story makes us take the hard blows. What we want our story to be is how we act. More than the person we love, we want to add our love stories to be added to the record.
I glanced at the salami slicer and imagined Emir’s olive skinned arm swathed in a white sleeve working at it. The disappointment of not being able to reject him settled with a thud inside me. I had wanted to hear myself break-up with him. I had wanted to assure myself that I was brave enough to choose more than just a story.
“D’ya want his number…Mir has one,” David said, his big smile was back on him. He nodded towards the cash counter and waited.
“No, that’s OK,” I smiled back. Then I stepped up and ordered a kilo of chicken wings.
“Anything else, love?” David asked as I stood staring at the package he had just handed to me. I shook my head.
“Oh…erm, no. Ta Dave. Have a good day,” I muttered and walked out of the market.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Alan Dayley