30th October 2020
‘It’s too early.’ Cem groaned. He buried his face deeper into the white pillow.
‘Yes, it is.’ Demir reached towards Cem’s shoulder, lightly traced the outline of muscle and scapula beneath his waxed skin.
‘Come back to bed?’
Demir was dressed and ready to leave. ‘You know I can’t.’
Cem turned over, raising himself onto an elbow. He ran his palm across his morning stubble, like a man in a razor ad. Looking straight into Demir’s eyes, he grinned. ‘You’re sure?’
‘I’ll see you later then,’ Demir tapped Cem’s sternum twice. ‘Eight o’clock.’ Cem worked as a trainer in the gym that was part of the apartment complex. That was how they’d met, how this had started.
Ready to sleep another hour at least, Cem rolled over again.
Demir pulled the apartment door shut behind him. He glanced back, murmuring ‘I love you.’ He wished he could say it to Cem’s face, to his family, to the world. But how could he? Just the thought of the consequences for them all made him reel.
He slipped a mask over his face then pressed the elevator button with his elbow.
As the pre-dawn reminder ‘prayer is better than sleep’ echoed around the city, Cem slept.
Ten minutes’ walk away, in an area developed thirty years earlier than the luxury modern towers closer to the sea, Yasemin awoke. She felt a rush of relief to see the slight rise and fall of her husband’s chest, and her heart lightened at the thought of one more day together.
Mustafa’s life was confined to a bed in a room with a small window allowing a partial view of the trunk of a palm tree, a shop sign, and a patch of sky. Although he couldn’t talk, he still managed a crooked smile for her.
Yasemin slipped out, heading for the corner shop to pick up the daily order of bread and newspapers to leave at the doors of other families in their block. It was a task her husband had done, along with throwing out rubbish and cleaning the shared spaces, in exchange for the use of a small flat on the ground floor of the building. The property owner still didn’t know about Mustafa’s stroke, or that she’d taken over his chores.
Theirs had been a happy home. Cem had brought them joy and she was glad that even now he was twenty-eight, he had still not moved out. The nights he didn’t come back though, she worried about him. A handsome boy, her Cem, just like his dad.
Zeynep let herself into the spacious apartment she was booked to clean. She didn’t bother knocking as she didn’t expect Demir Bey to be there. What a waste, she thought, to leave such a beautiful place empty. Well, mostly empty. She had a pretty good idea why he kept it that way.
Just inside the door she took off her shoes and headed for the spare room to change into her work clothes.
Cem woke, startled by the sound of someone moving around. He knew it couldn’t be Demir. By now he’d be back home with his wife.
Grabbing his shorts and jeans off the floor, Cem scrambled into them, wondering how he’d slip out unnoticed. He buttoned his shirt and picked up his gym bag from the corner of the bedroom.
As he padded barefoot towards the main door, Cem saw the silhouette of a slight woman wearing a pink hoodie mopping the granite floor of the living room. Behind her the city stretched around the bay, the mountains beyond barely visible in the morning haze.
Zeynep turned, stifled her surprise, and called ‘Good morning.’
Caught out, Cem nodded a greeting and smiled.
‘Sweetheart, I’m here,’ Demir called from his study when he heard his wife. She was heading for the kitchen, so he followed her.
‘Welcome home,’ Leyla said. ‘How was Istanbul?’ She placed her hand on his arm, kissed him just to the side of his mouth.
‘Sorry, I left late. Even on the new motorway, the drive took longer than I thought. I didn’t want to disturb you.’
‘You wouldn’t have disturbed me,’ Leyla said. ‘There’s no need for you to sleep in your study, especially when you look so tired.’
‘You know business is tough at the moment,’ Demir said. ‘But at least I can work from home today.’
‘I’ll be back this afternoon,’ Leyla said. ‘Is Alev up yet?’
‘Yes, I am,’ Alev shouted down the stairs.
‘Well, you’d better hurry up,’ Leyla said. ‘Aren’t you giving a maths lesson to someone’s child at ten?’
‘Daddy darling!’ Alev jumped down the last two steps and threw herself into the kitchen at her father. ‘You’re home at last!’
Demir scooped his daughter up as though she was six, not twenty, and kissed her cheeks. ‘It was only two nights and I bet I missed you more.’
‘You two! I can’t wait, so maybe you can drop her off?’ Leyla was already in the hall, picking up her keys from the console table.
‘Sure, of course I will,’ Demir said. He shared a conspiratorial glance with Alev. They both knew he’d call her a taxi and give her the return fare too. He wanted her to be independent, within limits.
‘Great.’ Leyla glanced at her phone. ‘I’m off then. Patients to see.’ With a quick flash of her neat, bright teeth, she headed out to her car.
In less than an hour, Leyla was in her scrubs, dental mirror and probe in hand.
Leyla recognised her new patient. She’d seen him often, coming and going out of the building but she’d never spoken to him. His mother was the caretaker’s wife, a nice woman who had done a good job of bringing up her son, apart from giving him too much sugar.
He had a cavity, not a bad one, but left it would only get worse. So just a quick drill with high suction to limit aerosol would be enough. With every patient there was a risk, but she needed to do it.
Leyla directed the nurse, ‘Prep for a filling please.’
Turning to her patient Leyla said, ‘Cem Bey, no need for anaesthetic. This’ll be over before you know it.’
‘You, you’re too comfortable,’ Alev said, lifting her head a little from Ahmet’s chest. ‘But I’ve gotta go!’
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘I need to get back.’ Alev didn’t dare raise her eyes to Ahmet’s, afraid to signal her desire to stay.
‘Have you got something better to do?’
She couldn’t tell him she’d told her mum and dad she was giving a maths lesson to a kid. That when her dad worked from home it was hard for her to be away for long. Ahmet seemed so independent, even though he was nearly a year younger than her.
‘Stuff to do, you know.’
‘It can wait.’ Ahmet stroked her hair. ‘You can’t just use me for sex then run off.’
Alev giggled. He really was comfortable.
‘Stay?’ He liked her. So much, he thought, he’d be happy if she stayed forever, but it was a bit too soon to tell her that. So Ahmet went for the short-term, ‘We could try having lunch together.’
‘I can’t. Really.’
‘Stay,’ Ahmet said, ‘you need to eat.’ He ran a finger down her arm to the inside of her wrist. ‘Say you will?’ He reached across the bed for his cell-phone to book a delivery. ‘Pizza okay?’
Mustafa heard Yasemin singing softly as she washed her hands after her deliveries and morning chores. As he lay there trapped in bed by his traitorous body, he listened to everything. Every click of the front door, every footfall from the apartment above, every stray dog that barked in the park, marked the passage of his days. He wanted to call her name. A groan escaped instead.
‘Darling, I’ve brought you tea. You need to drink, the doctor says.’
Yasemin leaned forward, brushing his cheek with gentle lips. ‘Cem called. He said he’d be round after he’s been to the dentist. Now, let’s get you a bit more upright.’ She manoeuvred pillows behind him. ‘Comfy now?’ After helping him drink, Yasemin busied herself putting up the ironing board.
Five neatly folded sheets later, she heard Cem.
‘Mum,’ he called. ‘You here?’
Yasemin gave a small cry of joy as she ran into the hall to embrace her son.
Cem stepped back and raised his hands. ‘Hey mum, wait. Better not come too close, you know. With Dad and all, we’d best be careful.
Yasemin blew kisses in his direction instead, then wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed, smiling at Cem all the time.
‘Two nights, my love. I know I shouldn’t worry but I wish you’d called sooner.’
‘Sorry, mum, you know how it is.’ Cem shrugged and ran a hand across his jaw. His tooth didn’t hurt anymore.
‘You can take a break now,’ Leyla told the nurse.
Leyla tried calling Alev, but her phone just rang. Probably on silent, Leyla thought, as she was teaching.
Then she spoke to Demir. ‘How was Alev, darling? Did she go to that lesson? Did she take her hand sanitiser? Did you drop her?’
‘Alev was fine. She left in plenty of time and didn’t want any help from me. She says they’re a nice, professional couple struggling to work from home while their kid’s doing online classes. I expect she’ll be back before long, though she said she might stop by the university library.’
Alev had left home with a hug, and blown kisses from the back seat of the taxi. To Demir, Alev always looked beautiful so he hadn’t thought to mention her make-up to his wife.
From the privacy of his own bedroom, Cem checked his phone. He had three missed calls from Demir.
Cem messaged: Sorry. Good time to call now?
Immediately his phone vibrated. Because Demir would see him surrounded by old posters of his favourite team draped with red and yellow pennants, Cem rang back without video.
‘Hey,’ he said softly so his mother wouldn’t hear, ‘missed me?’
‘Yes. I need to see you, Cem. Not later at the gym with everyone around.’
‘This morning a woman came in,’ Cem said. ‘She saw me.’
‘That’s Zeynep. She’ll be okay, don’t worry.’
‘I hope so, or I could lose my job.’
’That’s why we need to talk,’ Demir said. ‘To fix things. This afternoon if you can.'
‘I’ll go into work, then see if I can swap my shift with someone. Okay?’
‘Let me know.’
‘I can’t go on like this.’
‘No,’ Cem said, ‘but what can we do?’
Mustafa heard the tremors first, rumbling towards him like a growling dog emerging from its subterranean burrow. He lay helpless as the vibrations amplified through the iron bars of his bed. Yasemin threw herself across his body, pressing her face into his neck, cradling his head in her arms, pulling her scarf across them both as dust began to shower down, and their world fell in.
Cem had left the flat just five minutes earlier. He was out on the street heading for the gym when the ground began to ripple beneath his feet. Windows rattled and overhead a rusty bracket supporting an air conditioner snapped so the unit fell with a crash. He moved instinctively away from the buildings towards the grassy strip dividing the traffic lanes. Then he froze as he heard the terrifying thunder of buildings collapsing and watched speechless as the air above his neighbourhood thickened with rising dust.
On the higher ground of the city outskirts as soon as he felt the first tremor Demir stepped through the French doors of his study onto the terrace. Looking up as he grasped the railing for stability, he could see the walls of his villa undulate. Then there was a pause as if the earth gasped for breath before it shook again. Somewhere, he knew, this earthquake brought death. Where were the people he loved while he stood safe but alone?
Alev still lay on the floor where Ahmet had pushed her as soon as he realised what was happening. He had tried to follow her down into the safer space under the bed but a slab of concrete and metal rebars fell, trapping his legs. After his one piercing cry, Alev lost count of his gentle moans. She couldn’t leave him. How could she leave him?
Conscious she wore nothing but his Dark Side of the MoonT-shirt, she tried to remember where she’d left her clothes, her trainers? Where was the door even? She could see nothing but the outline of her fingers. She licked them hoping for the sweet comfort of tomato ketchup. Instead, there was blood and dust.
Her hands explored the floor. She stretched further, trying to find her phone, desperate to call for help if she could.
She wanted to tell her mum where she really was. Just a few floors above her clinic, in the flattened bedroom of a guy she hardly knew but loved already.
Another hour passed.
The pace of the search and rescue teams was relentless. Each minute made the difference between survival and death.
Cem was one of the network of volunteers in high-visibility vests shifting rubble, wrestling furniture aside. He had helped clear a way down to reach a young woman. Now he gripped her elbow as she scrambled out, cut, bruised and bare-footed.
‘Thank you.’ Alev blinked in the light, and tears streaked her make-up.
‘Ahmet?’ she asked. ‘Is he badly hurt?’
‘We’ll know more soon,’ Cem said. He’d seen how much blood her friend had lost. He was breathing though so as soon as they got him out, he’d be stretchered to an ambulance. ‘We’d never have found him without you.’
Cem passed Alev over to waiting hands to be checked and monitored by the on-site medics.
Then he returned to his team to continue clearing the debris where he knew other people were buried, fearing for them. For his parents.
Leyla needed to sit down for a few minutes. Along with her nurse, she’d escaped before the floors above collapsed. For three hours they’d been working with first aiders, staunching blood and checking for injuries. For three long hours she’d worked mechanically, thinking only of her daughter.
She perched on an upholstered chair placed incongruously on the pavement.
A volunteer from the Red Crescent rested a hand on her shoulder.
‘I’m Zeynep,’ she said.
Leyla took in Zeynep’s slight figure, her mask, and kind eyes framed by a pink hood.
‘Is your daughter’s name Alev?’ Zeynep asked. ‘They’ve just brought her over here to my meeting point.
Leyla’s energy flooded back. ‘Alev!’ She jumped up and hugged Zeynep tight.
‘She’ll be okay.’ Zeynep said. ‘She needs her mum though.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Come with me.’
Demir had given up waiting and tried driving into town, but the roads were chaotic so he walked. He kept phoning too but couldn’t get through as everyone was trying to call someone, and then his battery went.
Before he’d left the house, he’d seen the breaking news, watched eye-witness videos showing Leyla’s building come down and prayed she’d already left work. As he drew closer to the area, he was overwhelmed by the number of people, the vehicles, the activity, the scale of the rescue operation, and the devastation.
He kept going, pushing through, searching. Demir focused on finding three people. Just three in thousands.
Cem was shifting rubble with grim determination when his team-leader ordered him to take a break. Scanning the scene from above, Cem somehow saw Demir crossing the road and jumped down the collapsed storeys to reach him. They collided into each other’s arms.
Breathless, Cem said ‘My mum, my dad, we still can’t get to them.
‘They’re in there?’
Cem nodded and Demir held him tighter.
Leyla, helped by Zeynep, was still treating minor cuts. Both kept a careful eye on Alev who sat quiet and still on a park bench wearing Zeynep’s pink hoodie.
When she looked up, across the street Leyla saw Demir. She watched him run his thumb gently across another man’s cheekbone, as though wiping away a tear. Although she couldn’t hear what Demir whispered to him, she knew. And she knew how much she had always known.
Zeynep turned to Leyla, ‘Are you okay?’
Meeting Zeynep’s reassuring gaze, Leyla said, ‘Yes, I am.’ When she looked over at Demir again, he was standing alone staring at the ruins.
Leyla took Alev’s hand and together they walked between the tight groups of people towards Demir. She knew everything could have been so much worse.
Time passed as dusk faded into night. People crowded into open spaces away from the treacherous buildings. They talked in hushed voices, clinging together with every aftershock.
And then the rain began to fall.
* * * * * * *
The Izmir earthquake is a tragedy that happened. Buildings collapsed, taking lives, destroying families and homes.
Out of respect for the victims and survivors, all the locations are representational, not specific; the characters, their roles and their actions are fictional.
Deepest appreciation to emergency service personnel, search and rescue teams, and volunteers for their dedication in the aftermath of natural disasters around the world.
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About the author
Born in the United Kingdom and a long time resident of Turkey, Vanessa divides her time between her two "homes". As an international teacher and educator, Vanessa's life has been enriched by encounters with children and adults from very different backgrounds. For the past three years, she has focused her career on freelance online health-related writing. She loves the freedom of being able to work from anywhere.
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