by Peter Byrne
A Short Story
(Swans - September 11, 2006) With Istanbul around them, the old couple could only have been tourists. But they didn't make it easy to sum up tourists in a word or two. No cameras or cell phones clung to their persons, though the woman wore one of those pouch-like purses on her lower abdomen. The man was tall and wide across, but hollowed out by age. His big flat shoes hit the pavement as if pulled down by suction. The wispy gray hair of his short partner barely reached the middle button of his jacket. They both wore familiar international leisurewear. His hung from him like a curtain while hers wrapped her body in the way of a badly made parcel.
They walked side by side in the Istiklal, the city's busy pedestrian way. The pace there was always brisk, but the reason why wasn't clear. The little tram that ran down the center of the street may have had something to do with it. The driver never stopped clanging walkers out of his way. A few minutes on foot joined Taxim Square to the top of the funicular railway called, against all logic and spelling norms, the "Tunel." It went up and down to the Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn. The walkers may have felt called upon to reach machine standards and form a rapid human link between Taxim's metro, buses and dolmushes, and the funicular's rail cars. It would be like a dash from one doorway to another in a rainstorm. Istanbul walkers, though, were not given to dashing, rain or no rain. Mindful of the weight of life, they moved with heavy-footed thoughtfulness -- except, that is, on the Istiklal.
Advancing to their own rhythm in the two-way current, the old couple stood out -- but not like a sore thumb. There was stateliness in the man's measured gait, and the woman's waddle, less eye-catching, still boasted a style of its own. They were more like a middle finger and a pinkie on a cramped hand, combined against all odds in a novel harmony.
After several days of inactivity on the cruise ship, their limbs ached for movement. The group leader had shepherded the tourists with their overnight bags into the minibus at the dock. He let flow his affable spiel as they jerked through traffic. They were to settle into the hotel and then profit from a period of free time to shop in designated stores. Individual initiative ended at dinnertime when they were to report back.
While another couple went on loudly about the hotel's lack of éclat, the old couple exchanged a shy smile. They left their bags unopened in their room and went out quickly to consume the time that was all their own. Wandering for a spell, they ended up in the Istiklal, an easy thing to do, considering the funnel effect it exerted on the neighborhood. They didn't do any shopping, or make any stops at all. But as they moved along serenely, they noted the window displays of clothing stores and middle-range eateries. Over the lively colors of the clothes and prepared food set out in ranks, the occasional long pale face of a merchant or white-capped cook would appear.
The two of them, while unperturbed, were lost. The storefronts that kept interest alive on their faces all looked the same. The steady stream of walkers going one way seemed the same as that going the other. The old couple weren't sure whether they had reversed direction or were still heading the way they'd set out.
The woman knew better than to consult the sheet of paper with a street plan she'd been given by the group leader. The print was too small for her to read. What's more, she'd never cared much for maps, finding they left out everything she liked.
The man knew that to get back to the hotel they had to make a sharp turn off into a lane that ran down out of the Istiklal. There had been a curio shop halfway along it, and he thought he saw a window of that shop now. Without saying a word they made a dignified turn and went down the lane.
Because the grade descended too quickly, he realized it was the wrong lane. But the two of them continued regardless. The patchy stonewalls and slope made going ahead too good to miss. There was a false end to the lane before the entry of an old apartment block. They spied a continuation around its side, took that in their stride, and continued downhill.
The couple's progress since leaving the hotel had been uninterrupted in spite of the novelty and diversity of what they'd seen. It ended when the woman was hit hard from behind by a running figure that began to tear at the pouch on the belt around her waist. She tottered under the impact, struggling to keep her balance, eyes clamped on the stranger's face. He was the first inhabitant of Turkey she'd ever looked in the eye. He stared back, teeth clenched, terror stricken but relentless, tugging.
Her partner, whose hands were as long and wide as his feet, worked his fingers -- rather stiffly -- at the back of her belt. It opened and the young thief pressed the pouch, belt ends trailing, to his chest as if in gratitude. The man observed him run down the hill, and marveled at the detonations of his footfalls on the paving stones. He was the first Turk the old man had been able to watch closely since his arrival.
As they stood gazing downhill in the direction their Turkish acquaintance had run, a wizened woman appeared at their backs. She made chirping sounds and pointed to an open window high in an adjoining house. Her meaning seemed to be that from up there she'd seen everything. She said a word like "police" and bent her head to chirp into an imaginary telephone in her left hand.
This second inhabitant of Turkey seen at close range made the couple uncomfortable. They thought she fell short of Turkish standards. Now she stepped back as if to occupy a stage for the length of a speech and, having spoken, came forward again to fuss with the wife's jacket that had been pulled awry in the struggle. When the man took his partner's arm to continue downhill, the chirping woman followed for a dozen steps apparently angry.
To remain poised and steady going down the increasing steep incline wasn't easy. But the couple, in the circumstances, did a pretty good job. They hadn't forgotten they'd taken the wrong lane and were going in the wrong direction. But to continue felt like the preferable course. The woman still held the map, scrunched up now in her fist. The man knew that in the end they'd have to go back to the busy pedestrian way. They'd also have to consider the missing contents of the purse. But that could wait. Still walking, they gave each other a sly smile. They were making the most of their free time.
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