The Siege

AJ Kirby

AJ Kirby

Dad can’t sit still. He’s been round checking the windows and doors at least three times already. Now he’s going round with a cloth, buffing up the plastic tables, straightening the menus, giving the salt shakers a cursory shake. I don’t know why he’s bothering. He’s already made it plain there’s no chance we’re opening tonight.

‘What time is it?’ he asks.

‘About thirty seconds since you asked me the last time,’ I sigh.

‘Yes… yes,’ he says absently. He runs his fingers along his handlebar moustache. It’s what he always does when he’s thinking. He’ll be trying to work out how long we’ve got ‘til it’s dark. Right now, we’re all nervous about it going dark. It is a primitive fear, a memory of an older fear which seems to reverberate outwards from the marrow of our bones.

He shuffles over to the entrance again and creaks down onto his knees, groaning as he does so. Then he bends his neck into an unlikely position as he tries to peer out onto the street through the letterbox, the only opening in the big metal shutters we’ve got up, our first line of defense. ‘Where is he?’ he demands, of the shutter, or of the street he sees, or of me, I’m not sure. I’m not even sure who he’s talking about, whether it’s my brother or his brother.

My brother Umit is out on the streets. I’m following him – sort of – on my Blackberry. Last I heard he’s with the others on the corner of Queen Anne where it intersects with Grange Road. Three blocks from us. They’re waiting for darkness, too. When it comes they’ll pull up their hoods, slip scarves around their noses and mouths, and they’ll start to play.

***

Night finally comes, bringing with it Dad’s brother, Erhan. He gives us a shock when he bashes on the metal shutters to announce his arrival, and for a moment, the way the sounds carry through to us, it feels as though there is more than one man outside. But then he shouts something so typically Erhan, something in Turkish about Galatasaray football club and a goat, a joke which rather loses something in translation, and, once I’d managed to explain it, you’d hardly think it worth the build up I’d given it. Still, as it is Erhan, he delivers it lustily, and even manages to tickle a smile out of Dad’s worried features. For a moment. Once Dad rolls up the shutters enough to let him in, he’s got his serious mask on again.

Erhan limbos in and, when the door’s safely bolted behind him again, he says, ‘Never fear, Erhan is here.’ When he says Erhan, he gives it a one-two tune, like Rawhide. He looks my dad up and down, then apparently displeased with the lack of fanfare for his arrival, mischievously grabs him by the cheek, and shouts, ‘Little brother, the cavalry is here!’

My dad shoves him off and shakes his head. ‘I don’t remember calling for an emergency comedian.’

Erhan grins. ‘Nevertheless, I am here.’

My mum shouts down from the flat upstairs. ‘Is that Erhan? Ask him where he’s parked. Tell him you can’t be too careful where you leave your car round here.’

None of us know who mum is addressing, and so Erhan shrugs, decides to answer for himself. ‘My chariot tonight is Shanks Pony. I took the tube and then walked.’

Mum doesn’t respond, so we all take it she’s satisfied with his answer. Erhan tries to engage my dad in some of their usual banter regarding their respective football teams. Erhan thinks his team, Besiktas, has a good shot at the title this year, that Galatasaray has a bunch of dogs playing for them. Dad simply tuts.

Erhan, getting no change from Dad, spots his next target: Me. I’m at the table at the back of the shop, hunched into my coat. The table is pock-marked with black-edged burns from a million pre- and post-ban cigarettes. Erhan comes over and ruffles my hair and I act all uppity like I’m too old for a hair scruff from my uncle. He says pretty much the same and then pulls a face, trying to make me laugh, but the time for joking is over. Now it’s quiet, we start to hear the warlike chants and roars from outside. The warped whoops of emergency vehicles, the slow thud-thud-thud of many rotor blades. There are police and media helicopters out there. With a bird’s-eye view of the pitched battle which is going on.

***

There is a small TV in a bracket above the counter. Dad tried to move it earlier but had no joy. He said the heads of all the screws had corroded, most likely from all the grease of years, decades, of fast food cooking; nothing short of a sledgehammer would get the thing down. I told him nobody in their right mind would want to loot that old thing, not when the road which runs parallel to this has a couple of high-end electrical stores where they can go get a proper wide screen.

Now bored, Erhan wants to see the riots outside in glorious technicolour, or so he says, and he’s standing on the counter, approaching the TV as though he’s stalking prey. He holds one hairy arm aloft, as though ready to swat a fly. And he waits. And finally, as though he feels that the TV has finally been lured into a false enough sense of security, he strikes it sharply on its side. The bracket rattles violently. The image on the screen veers wildly between what looks like the contents of one of our famous Galata Tower Kebabs and then chips fuzzing in a fryer, and then finally settles on an image.

The screen is dominated by a widescreen shot of a huge fire. A building engulfed by flames. And the flames are redder than I’d imagined. I’d always thought of fire as orangey, but this fire is blood red. This is a night made up of simple, primary colours.

And then, as though the view of the collapsing, fire-warped building is not enough to shock us, the twenty-four hour news channel’s yellow ticker-tape inches across the screen and tells us the exact location of the building. It’s local. Spitting distance. I can almost feel my feet heating up with the realisation. I want to remove my coat at last.

I know that even though I’m not out there with Umit and the rest, this fire is partly my fault. Dad pays me to deliver the takeaway menus all over the estate and up into the next borough, even. On my last couple of rounds, I found a neat way of getting rid of the flyers so I didn’t have to traipse halfway across London, getting ragged-on by other kids all the way. Instead, I shoved the whole batch through the letterbox of the abandoned furniture store on the corner of Marybell Road, which was craftier than simply dumping them in a wheelie bin or a dumpster because if I did that, lots of people know my dad and might bring them back to him and he’d know I hadn’t done my job.

But now, I watch in horror as the camera keeps panning in on that very same store, now licked with flames. If it wasn’t for me lazily dropping all that paper through, maybe whatever flaming thing was shoved through the letterbox wouldn’t have taken hold so quickly.

***

Dad and Erhan sit down at one of the tables and smile silently at each other. There’s something unspoken going on between them and I feel excluded from it in a way that I always used to when Mum and Dad talked in their machine-gun Turkish in the house and I couldn’t keep up. Finally they break their stare and Erhan fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a lamp-post long Dorchester and Gray from that familiar red packet, wedges it between his lips and reaches for a box of matches. I think Dad’s going to wrench the cigarette away from his brother’s lips, point to the numerous no smoking signs which pockmark the walls, but he doesn’t. In fact, he makes this beckoning gesture with his hand and Erhan tosses one over. And this, I think, is when I realise how bad it really is. Dad’s been so anti-smoking for so long and now he’s thrown all caution to the wind.

Erhan strikes the match against the side of the box with the extravagance of a conductor making his first sweeping instruction to an invisible orchestra. Light fizzes, he touches the end to his cigarette and all is well in his world again. He offers the lit match to Dad, and Dad accepts, closing his eyes in appreciation of his first hit of nicotine in my lifetime (least as far as I know).

***

Dad blames Umit for the violence outside, at least in part. I can see it in the way he stares so fiercely at my Blackberry. He doesn’t understand such devices but he does know that Umit is always on his, texting, tweeting, IMing.

‘Have you tried to contact your brother?’

I shake my head.

‘Do you know where he is?’

I shake my head again. I can’t even meet his eyes now. And I know Dad thinks it is because I’m covering for Umit, but it’s not. If I truly knew that Umit would answer his phone if I called him now, I would call him. So it’s not that which makes me hang my head. It’s the leaflets I failed to deliver.

‘Perhaps he’s trying to stop them all,’ says Erhan, quietly.

Dad rolls his eyes. ‘I didn’t ask for a comedian and I certainly didn’t ask for someone who butters my roll.’

Butters my roll is another term which, when translated from Turkish, loses much of its value. Apparently Dad and Erhan’s father used to say this phrase a lot. Again, the brothers meet each other’s eyes. They’ve suffered a lot, these men, and yet, in their eyes, I see this night is amongst the worst.

Suddenly, Dad climbs to his feet. For a beat or two, he seems a little unsteady, but he stretches out an arm and supports himself on the yellow table. ‘What are we doing, hiding away in here? Like children?’ He gestures frantically at the metal shutters, beyond them. ‘We should be out there, defending our territory. Nobody will defend it for us.’

***

Dad and Erhan are standing in front of the door. The metal shutter is three-quarters open, and through it, I can see them, standing back-to-back, watching each end of the street. Dad has hair going right down his back and I’m sure it is standing on end. I can see how his hand shakes with the cleaver in it. Uncle Erhan looks older, much older than he did even an hour ago. If this is their last stand, it’s rather a geriatric one.

I go to the door. Shuffle in next to them. We can hear the mob. It sounds as though they are drawing closer, though that might be some audio trick brought on by the mass of concrete.

We stand, a visual echo of the dark, crowding buildings which hang their heads in silent disapproval. The moon hides her face behind a cloud, angered, not wanting to look.

Dad says, ‘I’m glad you stayed out of trouble. I’m glad you’re here.’

And I gulp. I don’t know what to say. I have to make amends for the menus somehow. A window smashes on Corporation Street and I know they are close. This night will last forever, I think.

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