Masallah! The strains of relentless arabesque and the smell of tobacco came drifting from the cab. The throb of the engine choked into silence.
Masallah! Came the single points of orange light from the tips of their cigarettes.
Masallah! Came the sounds of spoken Turkish that could just be heard in the hum of the London night.
Masallah! Read the beads that dangled from the rear-view mirror.
Masallah! Said the writing on the sun-visor and the decoration on the engine cowl.
Masallah! Echoed back the voices from the cab.
And then the night returned to grab the last two hours of sleep.
By the time Halil appeared next morning to unlock the grill over his shop windows, an army of supermarket trolleys had gathered at the back of the trailer and children were giving rides to each other across the broken slabs of paving outside the efendi’s shop. The lorry caused comment in the bus-queue and turned the heads of people hurrying to work. Buses were pulling round it into the oncoming traffic and the stream of cars behind had almost been brought to a halt.
Selim slept on and no-one seemed anxious to wake him. Mehmet appeared with a brush and began to sweep the pavement, then disappeared and returned a moment later with a bucket of water. The bus queue got shorter, the flow of customers to Halil efendi’s shop increased and the children outside became expectant, then impatient and then expectant again.
It was ten o’clock before the door of Selim’s cab swung open and a thin, swarthy man climbed out. He checked the strength of his legs on the ground beneath him and then crossed over to the shop and disappeared inside. He appeared again an hour later with Halil efendi and Mehmet at the entrance to the shop.
’Health to my truck! How many melons she carries! There is no truck in Turkey that travels so safely as her. How many miles from Istanbul to London and my arse is as sore as a leper’s but my truck stays fresh as the rain! Health to my truck and health to the roads she has travelled!
They walked over to the back of the trailer where the children had begun to amuse themselves with using their trolleys as ladders to scale Selim’s truck. Talip, until now unwoken by these games, had slept on, stretched across the front seats of the cab. Now he appeared and came to join the others who were watching Selim unfasten the ropes on the tarpaulin.
Seeing the first slack of rope, two of the children snatched at a corner of the sheet and were rolling it back before Halil could restrain their excitement with a cuff. Talip struggled to deter another of them from cutting the ropes with a knife, but the truth was that everybody was eager to inspect the melons, water-melons that only a few days before had been growing on the narrow strip of land which surrounds the old city walls of Istanbul. So famous is this strip of fertile soil that everybody in Istanbul can tell a fruit that’s grown there, and its fame for enormous vegetables is known through all of Turkey. And Halil was eager to test once more the reputation of the melons he had eaten as a boy.
Selim climbed on top of his load and threw one down to Halil who cut into it with a knife. Slice after slice he cut, drawing the eyes from the sockets of the children who grabbed greedily at them. Then, biting into the enormous grin-shaped slices they lapsed into satisfaction and for a short time the only sound above the noise of the traffic was the crunching of melon and the cutting of a knife. Then the spitting of pips; Tth! Tth! Tth! and the hands reached out once more.
Selim had rolled back the tarpaulin. Everyone knows how difficult it is to transport melons. How few drivers can carry their melons safely! Ah, but Selim’s melons! Not one bruise anywhere! Not a single bruise you will find on Selim’s lovely melons! What fine melons your old Selim can transport! Masallah! Selim’s melons travel well, Selim’s the man to transport melons!
’Health to your hands!’
’These melons are as bright and as beautiful as Turkey!’
’And health to old Selim Bey, that Allah may grant him the life to bring us many more melons like these!’
Their praise was written in their dripping smiles and on the sticky fingers which they wiped on each others’ backs. Selim had indeed bought them some fine melons. Quite the juiciest melons that had ever been tasted in London.
’Praise to Selim and praise to the fertile land beside the walls of old Istanbul!’
Halil had walked over to the store beside his shop and was unlocking it while the children began to gather around the trailer with cradled arms and waiting trolleys. Thwack! came the first melon, heavier than expected. Then Thwack! Thwack! as the children caught hold of the melons and began bundling them into the trolleys. Once filled they were pushed across the pavement into the store where Halil and Mehmet were already up to their knees in melons. Thwack! the melons kept coming and the sound of busy trolley wheels on the broken concrete whirred like flies through the heat of the summer morning.
Selim was keeping them busy, allowing no rest as he continued to hurl melons from the back of his truck to the children loading the trolleys. He began to sing. Turkish songs. Songs he knew so well from the videos he loved to spend money on. Beautiful Turkish music! The strumming of a saz which kept him from loneliness on those long Anatolian highways! Praise be to Allah for the saz! These melons were making him happy. How large they were and how beautifully firm. These were melons worth singing about. Not like the melons that would arrive on the boats from Italy. How could you sing about them?
Halil efendi was grinning too. Grinning at the space in his store slowly being taken by melons. This summer he would make money. This summer all the other shopkeepers on Green Lanes would be buying their melons from him and then everyone in the neighbourhood would be eating Halil efendi’s melons. Halil efendi would become known for his melons and everyone would agree they were the tastiest to be had. They would be flocking to the efendi’s shop and the efendi would sell them more of his lovely groceries. Halil efendi was going to make money this summer and the days when he could afford to retire to the shores of the Bosphorous were getting nearer with every melon. Every lovely melon. He raised one up and kissed it.
Trolley wheels humming, the young boys dashed back and forth with their loads. The brighter Selim sang, the faster he threw them melons and the more the efendi grinned, the quicker the boys loaded their trolleys. They knew that Halil was pleased and they could see their rewards grow bigger with the size of the efendi’s grin.
Talip had sloped round to the front of the truck where he leaned against the bonnet smoking. These children can’t have seen such melons before, that is why they work so hard. Melons are a pleasure in themselves. But the rewards of carrying melons like these! Even Talip agreed that these were the finest water-melons he had ever set his eyes on.
Tth! Tth! Tth! Against the orange glow of a London night. And only the occasional car.
Tth! Tth! Tth! The sound of the spitting of pips and a truck emptied of melons. Swept clean of its load, with only a black tarpaulin left heaped in the back of the trailer.
Tth! Tth! Tth! The sound of the spitting of pips against the planking in Selim’s truck. And the empty skin of a melon pushed out from under the tarpaulin. Toothmarks on an empty skin.
Tth! Tth! Tth! And the sound of bones coming back to life. Bones that were crushed by the weight of melons, and had travelled in a tangled mass. Every hole in the road from Asia to Europe had shaken this pile of bones. Bones that had rubbed together like sticks and smouldered away in pain.
But Allah has carried these bones in safety and Allah can work wonders in London. He who has lived off sand will live like a Sultan in London. And he who has lived off nothing but water-melon in the five day journey from Istanbul is likely to live like a prophet. Allah will see he survives. Allah is mending his bones right now, he can feel his life returning.
But so little sleep in the last five days lying on a mattress of skins. Eating melon for days on end becomes like eating air: there’s a dying to digest meat. And the bowels! The cursed bowels! The bowels and the bones. If only it wasn’t for the bowels and the bones!
But Allah is returning the strength to this body. Soon it will be fit to live. The cool air of the London night is already taking effect. London, where the air is clean and the exhausts are fitted with filters! The London that takes only five days to reach from Istanbul, but has taken five years to persuade Selim Bey to stash him away beneath a cargo of melons. The London where jobs can be found and everyone has work to awake to.
Still all that could be heard from the back of the truck was the sound of the spitting of pips, but around the edge of the tarpaulin the discarded skins of melons began to show, pushed out from under the sheet. The tarpaulin was changing its shape and even tried sitting upright for a while before it collapsed back into a corpse. Several times it did this, each time it managed a little longer but always it ended up sprawled in its original heap.
The smell of smoke from the kebab take-away had gone from the night air and the interval between buses had stretched to at least half an hour. This was the time of night! There was a cough from beneath the tarpaulin. The confident cough of a smoker. Then the tarpaulin swung upright and fell from the figure who with the same movement struck up a match and brought it to his face. A thick, black moustache, beautifully barbered, came into sight for an instant and then as the figure shook out the match, it vanished again to leave just the thin orange point of light from the tip of his cigarette. A beautiful black moustache and eyes to match, Hacivat looked at the night lit up by the street lamps and blessed his good fortune.
Melons, lovely melons! Melons enough to hide a man. Nobody suspects a cargo of melons. How easy it is to hide beneath their weight! How he had cursed the melon harvest in Turkey. The days he spent breaking his back in the fields. But now, how thankful he was for the melons which had carried him safely to London. How easy it is for a man to get to London hidden in a cargo of melons. How stupid are all the other Turks who cannot think up such an obvious plan. Of course nobody would expect a man to be hidden in a lorry of melons!
Hacivat was sitting smoking in the back of Selim’s truck, feeling his aching limbs.
It was two days later that the police turned up at Halil efendi’s and demanded to cut open some of the melons. Three days before, a young Turk in Manchester had been arrested on suspicion of illegal drug trafficking. There were rumours that the police suspected a link.
“But oh! How stupid!”
Halil efendi threw up his hands in horror.
“Aren’t my melons the shiniest melons in London? Who would want to stash them with drugs? Don’t you just get high on the smell, the sight, the taste, of old Halil’s most beautiful melons? And Halil doesn’t need to sell drugs to get rich; he’s going to get rich selling melons!”
“And what are they doing, searching my melons? Any such contraband that might have come with them would’ve been packed off oh! long ago – off to the towns in the Midlands!”
“But fifty melons you come and cut open! Fifty of Halil efendi’s lovely melons! Fifty of my lovely melons! And what can I do with them afterwards? No-one wants to buy water-melon examined by the police! Only Allah would know what terrible tools the police might use to cut open a water-melon!”
The whole store-room, as big as a shop, with nothing in it but water-melon stacked from the floor to the ceiling and from wall to wall and from front to back they searched; cutting melons open at random.
“Aha! And what should they find? Nothing, of course! But pips and the juice of the most juicy of juiciest water-melons! Didn’t I just tell you so? And look how it runs down your wrists, making your forearm sticky and staining you official white police shirt pink! And look how it drops off your elbows!”
“The juice of Halil efendi’s melons which drips from the elbows of constables! And not a single ounce of cocaine to bring fruit to your search. Aren’t you just ashamed at the waste?”
But Halil efendi’s rage had put an idea up his sleeve. As fast as the inspector cut open the melons, Halil efendi was carrying them over to the front of the shop and handing them out free to passers-by.
“Come and taste slices of Halil’s good nature! Slices of water-melon. Never again will you taste such beautiful melon!”
A gathering formed on the pavement as people came over to taste the melon and curiosity turned to a smacking of lips, the wiping of hands on sleeves and the sound of the spitting of pips.
“Praise to old Halil efendi! And health to his hands! For really these are the most delicious of melons.” And once again, Halil efendi was hearing his name sung in praises.
It was then that he conjured up the plan of bringing some crates of beer from the back of his shop and selling them off at cheapo prices to anyone who tasted his melons. He knew they would come back the following day and Halil efendi would once more gain their custom. Just from handing out melons.
And so the police, who had come to search for drugs, ended up causing a street-party and the man they had wished to shame, they had made the happiest man in the neighbourhood.
Praise to Halil efendi! And a cheer for the police for starting a street-party that went on all night! And no drugs either! And they hadn’t even found the old trickster who had hidden in a lorry of melons and travelled to London all the way from Istanbul. Who at this very moment was sitting in the back of the shop, smoking.
Damian Croft, London Oct. 1996