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“Take care of you, baby.”
I wonder how Albin came up with this ridiculous expression. It seems highly unlikely that he could have actually heard it. Maybe if there had been a very strong offshore wind, but not otherwise. Under ordinary circumstances, if you're here, you can't hear anything that's being said over there; the Otelo Sultan and the Duke's Palace are much too far apart. And besides, it should be, "Take care of yourself, baby."
Later, when Livia and I were alone, she described what happened, but she didn’t say anything about wind. It was a cold morning, she said. The yellow sun was shining through dark, lowering clouds, and there was no way of telling what the weather would be like. Maybe the day will turn out fine, she thought, or maybe it’ll rain again, like yesterday and the day before that. The morning light was quite pleasant—filtered, but still bright. Although they hadn’t quarreled, Albin remained silent. He looked pale as he sat there, mechanically chewing a sesame ring and drinking pots of coffee. A beautiful man, Livia thought, in spite of everything; beautiful like a chalk cliff. She’d woken up hungry and loaded her plate at the buffet with olives, sheep’s milk cheese, sausage, ham, and eggs, the kind of breakfast Albin always found nauseating. On this occasion, however, he diverged from his usual practice and kept his opinions to himself. They’d known each other long enough to be untroubled by silence, so Livia saw no reason to break it, either. Nevertheless, it was a silence that Albin had clearly started, all on his own. For her part, Livia would have been glad to discuss their plans for the day, analyze the puzzling acne epidemic among the waiters, or speculate about Miller’s business deals. After a while, for no discernible reason and with his mouth full, Albin said, “The minarets stick up into the sky like acupuncture needles, diverting energy into the right channels.”
He did not, however, expect a reply. The image appealed to her. Lost in thought, still warm from sleep, she turned in her chair, shifting her eyes from the view she was facing—narrow, sloping streets, and beyond them the sea—to share Albin’s view: the city, with its countless mosques and its covered Grand Bazaar. And then, suddenly, there was this ship. She hadn’t noticed it earlier—maybe Albin’s remark made her look more closely—but there on the horizon, which seemed to have slid strangely to the left and moved much closer, she suddenly saw a burning ship. It was already listing badly, about to sink into the water at any moment. Thin black plumes of smoke drifted away toward the southwest. She was expecting a soundless explosion or, at the very least, a flare–up, an eruption of flames. The thought that people might be in danger, or even that there were people on the ship, never occurred to her, nor did she feel any impulse to point out the sinking vessel to Albin. For a few moments, she considered going inside and getting her camera out of their room, but not because disasters are always big sellers and the burning ship offered the prospect of some highly marketable shots. No, Livia wanted her camera because—and here she stopped, shrugged her shoulders, and lit a cigarette—because something was bothering her, something didn’t seem right. At the time she was telling me this, she still didn’t know what exactly it was that had caused her uneasiness, but in any case the camera stayed in the room, because after a few minutes, she realized she wasn’t looking at the horizon at all, nor was there any blazing ship, just an immensely long harbor warehouse that kept appearing between blocks of houses. It was venting ordinary smoke from its heating system through a red-and-white striped chimney. Livia laughed—or rather, she tried to laugh—but found she couldn't and shook her head. Discovering the true nature of her vision had done nothing to alleviate her discomfort; on the contrary, she was left with a sinking, anchorless feeling, as if she’d stopped being able to read her watch all of a sudden or had accidentally tried to unlock some stranger’s door.
After Albin had eaten three quarters of his sesame ring, he went out onto the roof terrace to throw the rest to the hotel’s two resident seagulls. He knew they’d fight over the bread. As soon as the crumbs hit the tiles, the birds would spread their wings and start hopping around each other, making evil hissing sounds and flashing their narrow tongues like little knives. From where she was sitting, Livia had a good view of this scene, but then Albin disappeared in the direction of the artificial sunbathing lawn, probably because he was hoping to peer through the windows across the way and catch a glimpse of something interesting, a woman getting dressed, say, or a father striking his daughter. Up to this point, Livia said, she hadn’t noticed anything unusual about Albin; she was certainly accustomed to his silences.
For this time period, Livia’s account is all I have to rely on, because at that moment the rest of us were on an InterCity train, the Markgrafler Land, somewhere between Mannheim and Frankfurt. Mona was sitting at my side. For the last ten minutes, she’d been holding a sharpened pencil in one hand and staring at her brand–new Istanbul city map, searching in vain for the street where our hotel was supposed to be. According to the index, the Duke’s Palace Hotel was to be found in quadrant F5, but Tiyatro Caddesi, the street the hotel was on, wasn't marked on the map. The Ramada, the Baron, the Prestige, and the Sultan were also allegedly in F5. However, there were only four blue H’s in this square, all of them so haphazardly placed that they could have been on any one of two or three different streets. With the help of a list of addresses, she’d managed to identify the Ramada, the Baron, and the Prestige, but she still had to choose between one of the remaining two hotels.
“I really want to know where we’re going to spend the next ten days,” Mona said.
“Forget about it,” I said. “They can't be more than fifty meters apart, so it doesn’t matter.”
“All the same, I want to know.”
“As soon as we’re on the street—”
“I want to know now, Olaf, not later!”
Although Istanbul lies on practically the same latitude as Naples, cold air sweeping in from Siberia had already made the temperature quite chilly. Albin was shivering as he leaned over the balustrade. Because the Duke’s Palace stands farther down the slope (which of course Mona had no way of knowing about, as her map didn't show topography), the Otelo Sultan towered above Albin. He noticed that two of the Sultan’s guests, Mr. Miller and his girlfriend, Ireen, were finishing their breakfast, which had been served not in the designated breakfast room but in their suite, with champagne as well as coffee, and ham and eggs freshly cooked in a skillet instead of warmed in a metal steam tray. Albin watched Miller light a long cigarillo. The blue smoke hovered festively over the remains of the meal, and while Mona was sitting in the train, penciling a circle around the last H without knowing that it actually stood for the Duke’s Palace, Livia went back to the hotel room to take a shower. Ireen leaned away from the table, binding her hair in a loose knot. In a room on the floor below, the wrinkled back of an older woman emerged from the darkness as she awkwardly tried to fasten her brassiere. Albin grimaced, first in disparagement of aging flesh, second because he found his interest in other people’s lives banal, and third because he had heartburn. The seagulls perched on the railing and ogled the guests in their rooms. Later, Mona tried to draw the gulls, even going so far as to get special permission from the hotel to stay on the terrace after breakfast was over, but at about ten–thirty, when the buffet was being cleared away, the birds sprang into the air and glided toward the harbor. It didn’t matter, because she could never have captured the suspicion in their eyes. Mona’s drawing skills are limited; that’s why she’s in such demand as a model.
It was very quiet on the terrace, Albin told me, so he went out there for half an hour every morning after breakfast. According to him, Istanbul consists of pure cacophony, and that terrace was the only quiet place he ever found. He thought of the endless tumult as the binding material that held the city together: if the noise stopped, the whole place would fly apart. This last observation was an example of Albin's fondness for dramatic phrases. However, as far as the quiet on the roof terrace of the Duke’s Palace Hotel is concerned, he was right. The all–enveloping uproar—the noise of engines, horns, fan belts, brakes; the shouts of infuriated drivers, eager tradesmen, worried mothers, ill–bred children—stops halfway up the facade of the building. Up there, on the terrace, all you can hear is a distant murmuring, scarcely louder than the sea, and now and then the howl of a ship’s siren.
Albin said that Miller’s balcony door was wide open. He heard Ireen laughing, a long, melodious laugh, slightly forced, and then Miller leaned over her and whispered something. He spoke too softly for Albin to hear, but Ireen suddenly looked terrified, and then—Albin said he didn't care whether I believed this or not—Miller said, “Take care of you, baby.” This sentence struck Albin as rather fatuous, even coming from an American, but a split second later a sound sizzled over the rooftops, a short, sharp sound like rubber bursting or the cork coming out of a wine bottle, and Miller fell forward, still holding the cigarillo pressed between his lips. He didn't writhe, nor did any look of pain distort his face. His forehead struck his plate first, and then the glass tabletop. Miller was a giant, at least six foot three and well over three hundred pounds. With his puffy eyes and slicked–down hair, Albin said, Miller looked like Marlon Brando in old age.
Now that it’s dark, you can really hear how old the engines sound. I’d have to shout over them if I wanted anyone to understand me. From time to time they perform a brief variation, three or four beats in another key, marginally quieter. Actually, the volume is of secondary importance. Any noise that goes on long enough and keeps to a primitive rhythm generates silence. Conversely, in a soundproof room the rustling of your own shirt can frighten you, and a fair amount of time will pass before fear relaxes its grip on your chest. There’s a mild breeze.
With this burning cigarette in my mouth, I’d make a good target.
Snatches of American hit tunes filter through the swinging doors. Their glass panes are etched with strange decorations: cables, propellers, anchors, exotic flowers, and leafy branches coiling through a traditional network of rays. If there’s a system to all this, it's not readily apparent. At home, we call all passenger ships Dampfer, “steamers.” If I should lean farther out over the railing, I’d lose my balance, or at the very least I’d be in danger. My disappearance wouldn't be noticed before we docked—unless Livia should suddenly decide there's something she absolutely must tell me. But that doesn’t seem likely.
Meanwhile, the Bosporus is black and viscous and reacts fairly sluggishly to the movement of the ship. Maybe it just seems sluggish because you can't hear the waves striking the hull—in fact, you can’t hear them at all. It’s as if we were floating on a sea of oil. Early this morning, the water was a shimmering blue, like scratched steel, and the sunlight was refracted in the scratches. The last clouds were moving out, headed west. They didn't look like rain, they looked like ornaments.
There’s no moon. It rises around midnight, wanders around until late morning, and then falls apart. Not counting the crew, there are maybe thirty people on board. That’s why they haven’t even switched on the string lights.
Pain again. Somewhat worse than usual at the moment, but not too bad. It could be in the stomach, the gallbladder, the intestine, the liver. It hurts more since we've been here, but the anxiety’s gone.
The reflections of the shore lights are cut into narrow yellow strips. The yellowing photographs that show passengers how to put on a life jacket are hard to see now. Professor Nager’s lying below the photographs, sleeping off this afternoon's mild carouse. He’s a fairly well known sculptor in his mid–forties. In the light of the neon tubes, his face looks like it belongs to an unembellished corpse. The dead man plainly had too much to drink. Rust spots discolor the planks here and there. The wooden benches are worn smooth and covered with a mix of messages from the last several decades. Turkish words with exclamation points. A phallus spraying out “Fuck the U.S.” “Jon was here 7/3/71.” Not many little hearts. Miller’s name was Jon, too, Jonathan, to be exact, but Ireen called him Jon. I don’t know when he came to Istanbul for the first time, but I doubt that he cut his name into a bench. I think about this other Jon for a while, so his carving was not in vain.
In the summer of ’71, my father bought the vacation home, a thatched–roof cottage near Marienhafe. I collected crabs and starfish and put them in plastic bowls, where they died within a few hours. Sundays were car–free days, even though we had enough money to pay any price for gasoline. Xaver had to repeat a school year, and Mother cried a lot, but not because of that. Claes tried to operate on Charlotte, his guinea pig.
The pain goes away, dully, without any peaks; it belongs to someone else. It’s as though an ichneumon wasp injected an egg into my bloodstream. Years ago, maybe. The larva found me a rich source of nourishment, and now it’s a fat, slime-secreting worm, working itself around my vital organs with great care as well as an instinctive knowledge of human anatomy. I can’t die, however, not yet; until the pupation process is over, I can’t die. But now, the end is approaching, the signs are multiplying: sweating episodes, racing pulse. Street dogs scent something, draw in their tails, and give me a wide berth. At night, as sleep flees away, I lie on my back, able to distinguish clearly between my own heartbeat and the pounding of the alien blood. The air conditioner hums along monotonously; there’s no gurgling or bubbling, not even the flapping of a rope in the ventilation shaft. Livia lies next to me. Her breathing seems a touch too quick.
Now Nager and I are the only two still out here. His girls got cold and withdrew belowdecks. Livia did the same. A brief interval ensued, and then the boys followed, slowly, one at a time, so it wouldn't seem as though they were chasing after the ladies. Jan went first, and now he's sitting up with her, I’d bet on it. Livia's talking and snapping pictures. I wonder what she sees in him. Then Hagen left, followed by Scherf, ostensibly to get some beers. That was half an hour ago, and the bar’s about twenty meters away. A little later, Fritz suddenly discovered that he was cold, too. No one likes to sleep alone. Next went Olaf Rademacher, mumbling a few words that included “sketch something.” I believe he's the only one who wasn't making up an excuse. His nostrils twitched as though he'd picked up a scent. Now he’s perched somewhere out of the way, drawing cubes on graph paper.
Livia wanted to go to Istanbul, although or because she’d heard a thousand cliches about the city. Now she’s decided to photograph these art students, who are as clueless about why they're here as we are. I can’t imagine any magazine would be interested in such shots, but that’s her affair.