My short story, The Promise of Heaven, has received an ‘honourable mention‘ in Glimmer Train’s ‘New Writer’s Short Story Competition’. It was originally published here. If you missed the story first time round, here it is again:
There is a little boat in Istanbul that chucks across the Bosphorus from east to west, west to east, like a metronome set by some absent pianist – and somehow my brother has ended up the captain of it.
Nine months ago we moved here from Ankara, where my brother Amir, my parents, and I had spent our entire lives. It had begun to feel like a warzone already, just, no one was entirely sure who we were at war with, or why. There were bombings almost every month at that point, now it’s almost every week. Sometimes these would be carried out by fundamentalists, but more often than not the boys blowing themselves up had only come into contact with the Quran six months before and were so blissed-out on poppy compounds from the Kush they didn’t know what they were doing. No one knew what they were doing. No one could understand the point. Everything remains the same, just more people have a sick feeling at the core of their heart where once a love had been.
In response to the danger my brother and my father became more conservative; my brother especially, which meant he wanted me to become more conservative, and I’m about as conservative as anyone need be. Fortunately, after the move, it became clear that my father had held on to his already-engrained ideals of equality, and therefore, his sanity; but I feel I’m watching my brother turn into the thing he fears, for fear of it.
My parents had already been talking of moving for a while, my father had been speaking to an engineering company 20 miles from here, where he now works, though nothing was actually in place when the decision was made for us – not by another suicide bomb, but when my uncle murdered a man, our cousin’s husband.
Before he went to jail my uncle had been a professor at Ankara University, but he always insisted he was primarily a poet – so he was already unpopular with the authorities. Our cousin had been the aspirational woman of the family; she’d shrugged off Aunty Nilay’s fatal fall from the bathroom window, worked hard, studied law and become a solicitor. By 28 she owned her own flat in the center of Ankara, and had a white BMW (on finance) that looked like a washing machine. My mother was always proud to have just come off the phone to Ela. “Ela’s meeting with a diplomat … Ela says we must eat more fish … Ela’s going to to Paris …”
Ela did meet with a diplomat, though she didn’t end up telling mum the full story. She only told me. She picked him up – he wasn’t actually a diplomat but a general, and all the company wanted her to do in the end was take him to the airport – he tried to grab her while she was driving, she started screaming, so he took his gun out. She stopped screaming, and the big, white washing machine pulled over.
Omur, our late cousin-in-law, owned an expensive restaurant frequented by politicians, lawyers, celebrities, and occasionally, solicitors. He had been given the restaurant by his father, and beyond the veneer of stainless steel and cods roe, he had little to offer the world. She had married him for no other reason than that she loved him, and maybe more than that, she pitied him – and he didn’t like that. There was never anything stopping her from leaving, from making him look like a fool: she just had to pick up her keys. One night she tried to do that. He beat her unconscious.
I read in one of my mother’s magazines once that when Ava Gardner swam naked in Ernest Hemmingway’s pool, he wouldn’t let the pool-boy clean it out, because she had been in there. The water still held her memory. I want a love like that.
When we were young, on one of our first and last family holidays, Ela and I found a pair of twigs that looked like dolphins. Hers looked better than mine, it even had a stubbed branch that looked like a dorsal fin; but when we threw them into the sea, while mine bobbed bravely out into the big blue of the beyond, hers tipped on it’s side and swung, to shore and away, to shore and away. As lifeless as a dead branch.
It looked like she was going to be ok at first; blood and saline were pouring into her, she opened her eyes a few times and looked around, “she survived a heart transplant” we joked; she had, when she was 8. But she couldn’t survive him. She died at 4.47am, alone, and unable to witness the 9th of January and all the strange horror it would bring.
I woke up early to help mum make breakfast for dad and my brother (Amir moved out when we moved to Istanbul, but he still comes round for most meals). It was around 6am, and we were making ourselves some tea when the phone rang. It was Uncle Kamur; he was at the hospital and the police were there now, a little late we all agreed. He was so consumed by grief and anger that my mother could barely understand him. She woke my father and told him we’d both be going to the hospital, and that there were pastries from yesterday in the fridge for breakfast. When we got there, Uncle Kamur had already left. The doctors said he’d had a pain in his chest and had been having trouble breathing; they took an ECG, and the read-out seemed fine. Uncle Kamur asked if he could see the read-out; the nurse tore off the page and handed it to him. He got up, clutching the reading in his hand, pushed her aside, and left.
We asked if we could see Ela, but apparently because of the circumstances we would need either my uncle’s or the police’s permission; my mother couldn’t get hold of Kamur, and “didn’t want to bother” the police. She went back home to wait for Uncle Kamur to call, and I went off to my shift at the café. I don’t think I said anything to anyone during that shift. I nodded a lot. I still couldn’t quite understand that Ela was gone. She wasn’t supposed to go, she was supposed to be taking me to Paris in July.
Amir used to be happy, he used to want to make things better. Back in 2013, he’d come with me and a few other friends to Istanbul for the uprising. Our parents told us it was too dangerous, but, as he said, “this is history”. Only it wasn’t. For all the people, the chanting, the plastic bullets, the tear gas, the bruises, the blood, the energy, the hope, slowly normal life drummed us back to sleep, for now, and nothing changed. We went back to Ankara, and Amir started hanging out with a few drug dealers he said were “honest men” who had been forced into the ‘profession’. He somehow overlooked that in this profession the men were extremely dangerous. The dealers all had hidden wives, but they also had prostitutes. Amir saw what they did to the prostitutes, and he knew they would do it to me. But he was lonely, and they told him promises of heaven, sweeter than life itself. They mingled in the orchards of the deep web and cherry-picked its most abhorrent fruits. They were the ones who hooked Amir up with his job on the boat, and the two-day training. I told him I’d tell mum and dad, he told me the dealers would kill me if he had to quit the job, and I believed him. So I’ve kept my mouth shut. But I know it’s not tourists on that boat in the dim hours.
At 11.40pm, having heard nothing from Uncle Kamur all day, we received a phone call from the police informing us he was in custody. He had killed Omur. My mother ran to the toilet and was sick, I picked up the phone and asked what had happened. They asked if my father was home, I told them he wasn’t around. Apparently Omur, defiant in his deed, had stayed at the house he and Ela had shared. Uncle Kamur had gone round, and, upon Omur opening the door, fired a shotgun at his chest. He left Omur there, the door wide open; stuffed in Omur’s belt was the read-out of Uncle Kamur’s heartbeat just after he’d been told his daughter had died.
It was grizzly, and not as poetic as I think Uncle Kamur thought it would be in the moment. The police found him the by sitting at the water fountain in Kizlilay Square; he was still holding the shotgun, so it didn’t take them long. It meant Uncle Kamur couldn’t go to his daughter’s funeral and I wonder if it was worth it, what would Ela have preferred. But I can’t say she didn’t want the man who killed her dead.
You kill mine, I kill yours. You kill me, I kill you.
In some respects, Uncle Kamur was lucky; he got a reduced sentence, 6 years; he’s been in there for 10 months, but we’re not sure he’ll ever come out. My father’s started to notice something’s up with Amir, he talks of nothing but what we should be doing, what other people will think of us for not, what they might do. I think of leaving here sometimes but I can’t. There’s something that pulls here; a strange wind, like there’s been a black hole smuggled into some back alley, and it’s slowly sucking us back into a past we were never meant live, but now we must live out. And judging by the way my brother turns his head to it and sails along regardless, it requires as many of us as possible to stick around.