Love Thy Neighbour
This is a preview to the chapter Love Thy Neighbour from the book Perking the Pansies by Jack Scott.
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Vadim and Beril ran into the garden like playground kids and surveyed the outside space. Within no time they were sitting round our table, tucking into a plate of olives, cheese and pastries. Vadim was a stout man with a well-nourished belly and a trustworthy face. We placed him in his mid-fifties. He played Turkish bongos and was once featured on national TV. Beril was a little package of infectious giggles with dark round eyes, a petite figure and a mass of wild black hair. They hardly spoke a word of English and our grasp of Turkish had remained lamentably poor. After some pointing and demented waving of hands, Liam retreated to the house and re-appeared with a bottle of rakı and an English/Turkish dictionary. The evening descended into an improvised game of rakı-fuelled word exchanges as our new friends attempted to explain their lot. Vadim was on his second relationship and had a son in Austria. He and Beril were unmarried and moved to Bodrum to escape the prying eyes and tut-tutting of their home town. Beril shrieked and chuckled throughout, miming everything we didn’t understand. When she dashed around the garden like a woman possessed, flapping her arms and shouting at the ground, Liam became a little concerned.
“What is she doing?”
“Absolutely no idea, love.”
“Is she drunk?”
“I certainly hope so.”
If we had to have neighbours, any neighbours, Beril and Vadim were the best we could expect. We took an instant like to the liberal arty types from Ankara and our first meeting lasted well into the wee small hours.
Life in Bodrum suited us down to the ground and we soon became minor celebrities in the Türkkuyusu Ward. The strange unmarried yabancılar became the talk of the town and a string of visitors brought round all manner of delicacies for us to savour. The locals were not afraid to ask questions; indeed, it would have been rude not to. We were quizzed about our age, our relationship, our bank balance, our families, the Queen, our attitude to Kurds, our taste in clothes and the reason we were in Turkey (“What do you mean you don’t work?”). Hanife, our tiny but formidable landlady and the matriarch of an old moneyed Bodrum family, often dropped by with produce from her prodigious garden. She taught us an old and noble Turkish tradition; something along the lines of one good turn deserves another. When presented with a plate of food from a neighbour, the good deed should always be reciprocated.
“Never,” she said, “never return a plate empty. It is most rude.”
We got the point and returned her dishes with the monthly rent money; it was easier than cooking and she didn’t seem to mind. Liam was usually nominated to pop round with the rent plate and he rather enjoyed it. Every month, Hanife would invite him into her mandarin grove and offer Turkish coffee and kek. Liam would attempt to impress with his growing Turkish vocabulary, but as an ex-teacher and a woman with fiercely high standards she was extremely hard to please.
“What is the use,” she would say “of knowing the word for egg or sky if you can’t construct a sentence? I’ll tell you what use. No use.”
Always up for a challenge, Liam would rehearse some awfully clever sentences and toddle back to the garden each month with renewed confidence. “My, your mandarins are magnificent,” he would say, or “how nice to meet your cousin.”
She was never much impressed. “My dear, for an educated man from London, you have a very small brain. You should eat more fish.”
Hanife was impressed with our garden. The small plot put in a fine appearance and wouldn’t have disgraced the Chelsea Flower Show. We were fortunate that Vadim was a keen gardener who loved to poke, prod and prune. He was nonetheless as confused as we were about the complex water situation. The rusting garden tap was connected to a second which poked through the stone wall onto the street beyond. We assumed they were both drawn from an ancient natural aquifer, lodged deep underground. Very convenient for free ritual ablutions and perking the pansies, we thought. We were as wrong as wrong could be. Despite appearances, both taps ran from the mains and anyone could come along and use the tap on the road to fill a bucket or two at our expense. They often did.
While Vadim perfected the garden, Beril shopped, cooked and encouraged feral cats to take up residence by scattering kitchen scraps around the courtyard. It wasn’t long before a scrawny tabby accepted Beril’s hospitality and moved into a hollow at the base of a fig tree. By day, Tabitha spent her time basking in the dappled shade of the broad leaves, only stirring when the sun was at its height to resume her cat nap under the shadow of a stone plinth. By night, the randy queen, preened, washed and energised, slinked into the neighbourhood for a bit of the other. It was breeding season and the little scrubber was ready for action. Every night we were serenaded by a cat’s chorus of ear-splitting decibels as Tabitha and her feline harem indulged in orgies of Roman proportions. Judging by her dishevelled morning demeanour, Tabitha was the local bike ridden by every Tom in town. We were terribly proud.
Encouraged by Charlotte and Beril, Liam had become quite the Mrs Beaton and turned his hand to making cakes, pastries, biscuits and jam. He and Beril exchanged oven-fresh delicacies and the continuous trading of gastronomic delights added inches to our waistlines, replacing the pounds we’d dropped in Yalıkavak.
Beril was buried in a book in the courtyard and Liam was busy stirring something in a gigantic pot.
“Stew?” I asked.
“Spaghetti Bolognaise. And no wisecracks.”
“Shut it, Jack. We can’t eat börek and köfte every bloody day.”
“I’ll have you wrapped in a headscarf before you know it.”
Liam had heard it all before. “Yeah, and you’ll be off down the tea house with the boys.”
“Might be. May even take a lover in the afternoon.”
“Fine with me, it’s the Turkish way.” He plopped his spatula in the pot and took out a bunch of half-cooked spaghetti.
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