Book Extracts
  • Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol
  • Baksheesh |  Esmahan Aykol
Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol


“I’ll get the Chinese mafia to bump them off,” she said, stirring her barley cappuccino with an elegance that was totally at odds with her even thinking about doing away with somebody.  

“The local mafia are cheap and do a clean job. Why the Chinese?” 

“If only they were both still here in Istanbul. But they’re not, sweetie. Çetin’s gone back to New York to get a divorce, and his mother’s gone too, with her darling son, her precious little lamb,” she said. “The New York Chinese would take care of them,” she added, sternly. 

With my index and middle fingers, I was massaging the skin beneath my chin where it had started to sag slightly – a habit I’d recently developed. 

“So, men are right to fear female vengeance. You’re thinking of killing off the poor man and his mother,” I said. 

“Actually, it’s the other way round. The mother-in-law is my real target, not my ex.” 

Involuntarily, I pulled a face. 

“I know you think it’s just normal rivalry between wife and mother-in-law. But believe me, it’s not,” she said, putting her hand over my right hand. The left was still busy working on the massage. 

Over the next half-hour, I had plenty of time to practise my chin massage as I listened to Özlem talking about her relationship with her estranged husband and mother-in-law.  

Actually, I was in no fit state to be bothering about my friends’ problems at that time. I had plenty of my own, and they were increasing daily. The discovery that my chin had begun to sag was the least of them. 

So think how bad the others were. 

Approaching her mid-forties, but looking no more than thirtyfive, with a great job… Or put another way: what could be missing in the life of a woman who loves reading detective stories and has a shop specializing in crime fiction that provides her with enough to live on, who lives in a city she adores and has a lover she finds attractive, despite his slight paunch – in fact, precisely because of that slight paunch? I kept asking myself this, but each time I ended up feeling worse than ever. As Fatma Hanım would say: only in Turkey! 

If you were wondering what that means, dear reader, you don’t know enough about Turkey. Actually, having trekked around a number of different countries, I no longer think so badly of people who know nothing about places outside the country they live in. In fact, I can’t bear to spend more than five minutes reading about events in the country I live in, let alone the town. Anyway, you’ve already met the person best placed to explain the meaning of “only in Turkey”. 

“Only in Turkey”, where rents were paid in US dollars or euros, where becoming a tenant entailed providing the owner with an “undertaking to vacate” document that had been certified by a notary. With this document, as its name indicates, you guaranteed that after a certain period of time you would vacate the apartment you were about to inhabit as a tenant. On the day of departure – and even having a lawyer as a lover could not spare you this – you had to leave the home where you had spent bittersweet days, crying, laughing and making love. 

Actually, there was another option, which was to pay the rent increase demanded by the landlord. This at least meant getting out of having to move and leaving behind memories of morning coffees on the balcony, the flush that didn’t work properly, the chipped enamel on the kitchen sink, and the doors in the sitting room that didn’t shut completely. Most importantly, it avoided being thrown out into the unknown. 

If you, dear reader, had a childhood anything like mine, spent moving from city to city and country to country, then you will know very well what I mean. You know deep down that the cost of moving cannot be counted in financial terms. You understand that no one chooses to move for the sake of a couple of euros.  

But that was the problem. It wasn’t just a couple of euros. My poverty-stricken, dried-up old bag of a landlady suddenly wanted an increase of 150 euros. Can you imagine what that meant for this honest, hard-working proprietor of a small bookshop? It meant a lot of money. 

Anyway, the long and the short of it was that I either had to give in and pay the extra 150 euros, or find somewhere else to live. I decided to find somewhere else – if I could, of course. 

I couldn’t do anything until Özlem had finished explaining her monstrous plans, so I used up three precious hours on matters quite unrelated to house-hunting. However, before paying the bill, I used my mobile phone to call an estate agent in Akarsu Road. 

You may have noticed in that previous sentence – because I know you’re very smart, dear readers – that I, too, now had a mobile phone. I’d given in about six months before. It wasn’t a new or expensive model, and it was pay-as-you-go. People looked disparagingly at me when I gave them my number or if they saw me talking on my mobile, because Turks in my circle were always exchanging their mobiles and cars for new models. But as you know, I’m not the sort of woman who bothers about that sort of thing. And that’s fine with me. 

Before you read any further, I should tell you about something else that was new in my life: I’d dyed my hair. It was previously deep auburn, but for the last ten days it had been orange. I’m not exaggerating – really orange. 

Selim, Lale and Yılmaz loved the new colour, and I couldn’t have cared less whether Fofo liked it or not. Anyway, he hadn’t seen it – neither me nor my new hair. 

For anyone interested who has not read the previous book, I should explain that Fofo was my housemate and even my closest friend, until he found a lover and left me. He’s a Spaniard who left his partner, friends and city to chase after a few men. His real name is Juan Antonio. Is any of this important? Maybe not. But it just goes to show that novelties in my life amounted to no more than a mobile phone and a new hair colour. As for disasters – they were all related to house-hunting. 

I loathed the high heels that had been all the rage since spring. I mean the contorted, shapeless ones. It was already far from easy walking along the uneven streets of Istanbul, but it had become sheer torture because of these weird heels. However, I was never one to make concessions when it came to keeping up with new fashions, so, despite looking like a lame duck, I wore them to make the arduous walk around Taksim Square, down Sıraselviler Road to Cihangir, where I called in at Rüstem Real Estate, 26 Akarsu Road.  

By then, the mere words “real estate” or “estate agent” made me shudder. For two weeks I’d been trailing around from dawn to dusk, as if on overtime shifts. No wonder I’d dyed my hair! Every woman going through a crisis changes either the style or colour of her hair, doesn’t she? Don’t turn your nose up at clichés – they are only reflections of the truth. No one knows better than I do that we Germans are stingy, tiresome and prescriptive, with a reverence for authority and hostility towards anyone different from ourselves. 

Rüstem, the estate agent, sprang to his feet as soon as I entered, which was only natural given that, if I were to rent any of the dilapidated apartments he’d shown me, he would get a handsome twelve-per-cent commission. You’re no doubt expecting me to rant about people taking commission for real estate or about parasites making money from doing sweet nothing, but I’d said all I had to say about this to my lover and friends, so now I’ll just say that I was feeling on edge. 

I left the shop with Rüstem’s assistant, Musa, who was to show me a two-bedroomed apartment in Özoğul Street. 

“It has a marvellous view, madam, but needs a bit of work,” he said. I nodded in reply.  

I wasn’t afraid of a bit of DIY. Despite fourteen years of living and even going native in Istanbul, I was still German enough to cut costs by doing my own decorating. The fact that this apartment was much smaller than where I was currently living was no problem. I would just chuck stuff out. 

What did worry me was the reputation that Özoğul Street had acquired in Cihangir. It was a cul-de-sac with a good view, linked by steps down to Fındıklı at sea level. However, its reputation was not for the view, but for the frequent muggings that happened there. For years, I’d heard stories of women being dragged along the ground when they fought back against muggers stealing their bags. I knew that women couldn’t walk home alone there at night and that taxi drivers were reluctant to go down it because it was a cul-de-sac. 

So you see, the fact that I knew Cihangir inside out, to the extent that I had an almost physical connection with it, was a hindrance rather than a help in finding an apartment. Had I been living in one of the matchbox apartments in those horrid bourgeois blocks on the Asian side, where your head practically touches the ceiling when you stand up, I would probably have fallen for Özoğul Street the moment I set foot in it. Not probably, definitely. However, the moment we entered the street, I found myself looking around anxiously, imagining how muggers would use the steps down to Fındıklı as a getaway route. 

I returned to Kuledibi and my beloved shop deep in thought. My friends and Selim had been trying to convince me that there were other areas of Istanbul apart from Cihangir, and that I needed to broaden my horizons. But the one thing I was absolutely adamant about was the district I lived in. If I’d been in Berlin instead of Istanbul I wouldn’t have lived in the smart, leafy district of Zehlendorf or fashionable Prenzlauer Berg. I’d have been very happy living in Kreuzberg, mingling in the side streets with the heavy-browed Turkish adolescents who pull faces and spit on the ground from their fashionable cars. 

I didn’t live in Cihangir because everything about it was wonderful. What did it have that was so special anyway? Members of the Turkish intelligentsia boasting about being Bach lovers? Why would anyone with no links to Christianity endure the public self-punishment of sitting on a wooden bench in a Protestant church listening to music, when they could be reclining on a comfortable sofa in a sitting room overlooking the Bosphorus without a care in the world? If they were indeed really listening and enjoying a bit of discomfort, was that anything to boast about? Listening to Bach? Taking pleasure from the pain, despite not being Protestant? 

The truth was that I had no alternative but to live in Cihangir. Where else could I live? Nişantaşı – where women with blonde-streaked hair trailed around the streets all day shopping? Moda – said to be the first place an earthquake would strike? The Bosphorus waterfront – beyond my wildest dreams on my small budget? Also, I needed to be near my shop. I was no longer a fit young thing, so the more time I spent walking instead of driving in the mornings the better. Furthermore, scientists were claiming that walking on an empty stomach in the mornings helped to burn off free fatty acids. 

As I said, I returned to the shop deep in thought at the disappointing prospect of never again finding a place to live where I’d feel happy. Pelin, my assistant, was sitting at her desk as usual. She’d had a sullen look on her face for three days, ever since a big row with her boyfriend that had involved some hurling of dishes. Whatever I did seemed to infuriate her, so I said nothing, to avoid upsetting her.  

I made some herbal tea. We both thought it smelled disgusting. The idea that aroma matters less than colour simply isn’t true. Never mind, herbal tea is good for you. 

I sat down in the rocking chair with my cup of tea, rocking back and forth, my eyes fixed on a point above the shop window. Rocking back and forth and drinking tea, while Pelin sat at her desk, also drinking tea. 

That was the situation at the shop when she appeared in the doorway. 

She was wearing black trousers, a T-shirt and a pair of very smart thick-heeled shoes. They were undoubtedly very easy to walk in, unlike the shoes in fashion that year. When she turned around, I noticed she had “young at heart” written on the back of her T-shirt.

  • BaksheeshEsmahan Aykol