Evil Eye by Veronica Di Grigoli: Read the opening pages online

Celeste Hamilton stood on the corner of Europe, looking at Asia. The rippling water of the Bosphorus reflected so many dancing shafts of sunlight into her eyes that she was dazzled, and screwed up her eyes until the speckles faded away.

It struck her that this spot, the district of Bebek in Istanbul, may be the best place in the world to stand on one continent and watch another. Istanbul must be the only city where you can live in Asia and commute to Europe every day. Living in a city torn between two continents and two cultures felt right to Celeste, torn as she was between her duties and yearnings. Yet in Istanbul the two continents push so hard to meet each other that they are only a mile apart and the seawater of the Bosphorus has to fight its way between them, squeezing through the narrow channel left for it in a perpetual tumult of rage. Most days it just washes aggressively between streets of houses and mosques and shops, but sometimes it has become so furious that it has taken revenge on the innocent and thirstily sucked in whole ships full of men, drinking them down into its turbulent depths.

Celeste glanced back at the row of slatted wooden mansions behind her, painted in pastel colours gleaming in the sunlight. She was in Bebek to see a room to let in one of these houses, but it was still far too early for her appointment so she decided to stroll along the seafront to pass the time. Beyond the luxury yachts which thronged the seafront and the weather-beaten fishing boats further out in the water, Celeste picked out the hazy silhouettes of several mosques along the skyline on the opposite shore. She slowly made her way towards a fish stall, where a man with a drooping black moustache bought live fish from a boat moored in the water below and threw them into buckets of water. His partner killed them by beating them over the head with a wooden mallet, gutting and frying them as fast as he could, and sold them on toasted bread, wrapped in paper. Some of the fish twitched and flipped over in the hot oil of the frying pan.

Celeste waited by the stall, watching curiously.

“Why don’t you try some?” suggested an old woman beside the fishmonger, probably his mother. Celeste was excited that she had understood the woman’s Turkish easily, especially as she lisped through several missing teeth. She wore a headscarf in blue with white flowers, so large it encircled her rounded shoulders as well as her head.

“How much is it?” asked Celeste.

“Come here,” said the woman, and took hold of Celeste’s hand.

Celeste was surprised how firmly the woman grasped her with her cold, bony fingers, twisted with arthritis. She pulled Celeste’s hand open and looked at the palm.

“Foreign girl, I see you’ve come here to find a lost person,” she said slowly.

Celeste laughed.

“Actually, I’ve come here to teach English.”

“They may not be lost yet,” she woman interrupted her sharply. “The next year will be the most important year of your life. The heart of a daughter will grow into the heart of a mother.”

Celeste glanced at the men running the fish stall hoping to appeal for help. This woman might keep her here for hours talking nonsense.

“That will heal your wound. Your mother’s death wounded your heart. It will start healing soon.”

Celeste gasped, and tried to pull her hand away, but the woman tightened her grip and stepped closer. How could she have known about Celeste’s mother dying? Surely it was just an unnerving coincidence.

Celeste looked at the woman’s beak of a nose and a few downy white moustache hairs catching the light. She scrutinised Celeste’s palm again and then looked up at her pityingly. She was so close now that Celeste felt her breath on her face as she spoke.

“But I see death peering over your shoulder. He has cast his shadow on you.”

The words made Celeste feel a plunging sensation in her chest as if her heart were being pulled out of her, and then a rush of palpitations.

“Think very carefully about any choices you make.”

Celeste was about to shout at the woman to get away from her, that she was a horrible old witch, but the woman suddenly put a blue glass drop-shaped amulet in the palm of Celeste’s hand. There was a white circle at its centre and a smaller black dot within that, to represent an eye. Celeste already knew what it was; a nazar boncuğu, protection against the evil eye.

“You’ll need this,” the woman said. “Wear it always. Remember, the sum of all your choices make up the person you are. You can go now. I know you want to get away from me. ”

Celeste turned and half walked, half ran, still holding the amulet in her trembling hand. When she glanced back towards the fish stall, there was no sign of the old woman, so she stopped to sit on a bench and look out at the sea. Celeste had only just arrived in turkey but she noticed these evil eye talismans everywhere, small ones worn as pendants and larger ones hung at entrances to buildings. They were supposed to protect against the wasting illnesses and death which people believed were provoked by the glance of an envious person. She took a few deep breaths and shaded her eyes with her hand to stare out at the fishing boats.

What should Celeste do with this amulet? She briefly considered throwing it into the Bosphorus. She looked at it in the palm of her hand and turned it this way and that. The glass was bluer than the sea and the sky, and it glowed so radiantly in the sunlight that she decided to keep it.

Celeste realised it was time for her appointment so, still feeling her heart palpitating, she crossed the road and hurried back along the pavement. She tried to distract herself by admiring the beautiful houses as she walked along, and striving to peer nosily through their ground floor windows. When she rang the doorbell of number forty-two it sounded like a church organ chiming inside the house. She hoped, with a lump in her throat, that the room here would be all right. Otherwise she would have to give up her teaching job and go home with her tail between her legs. She had exactly enough money for one more night in a hotel and a flight home, and no more.

She looked up at the three-storey mansion. The blue, wood-slatted façade was embellished with intricately carved eaves and gables, hanging down to shade the windows like lacy white pelmets. Standing between a smaller house in rose pink and another villa in creamy yellow, it looked truly beautiful. Celeste realised she was crossing her fingers inside her pocket when the front door was flung open by a short, chubby woman wearing orange lipstick and a shiny, electric-blue blouse. A blaze of gold buttons and jewellery flashed in the early afternoon sunlight as the heady smell of perfume wafted toward Celeste. Celeste glanced at the woman’s bobbed hair, jet black but with half an inch of grey roots, and concluded she must be in her fifties.

“Welcome,” she announced in heavily accented English. “You are Celeste and I am Leman. Come with me.”

Her melodious voice seemed at odds with the crudely dyed hair and garish make up. Despite her towering heels, Celeste stood head and shoulders above her and had to break her stride several times as Leman’s hurried little steps led her through the grand entrance hall into the living room. The house smelled of beeswax polish and cigarette smoke with, of course, heavy overtones of musky perfume.

“I saw your advertisement for a room to let on the English school notice board, in the staffroom,” Celeste blurted out nervously.

“You have tell me on the phone,” responded Leman. “In this house is living my husband Ferhat and my son Levent,” she explained as she waved her scarlet fingernails vaguely in the air, perhaps inviting Celeste to gaze around the vast room of which she was clearly so proud. Leman’s choice of furnishings featured heavy gilding and velvet drapery. She picked up a silver framed photograph from a console table, and handed it to Celeste.

“This my husband, Ferhat,” she said.

Celeste duly studied the picture. Ferhat was a handsome man, but his white hair and ivory skin made his large, black eyes stand out startlingly from his face. They struck Celeste as the eyes of someone who had been worn down, and had given up.

“You pretty young girl,” commented Leman, suddenly. “Very blue eyes, but brown hairs unusual for English girls, isn’t it? Most English girls got blonde hairs?”

“Well, not really,” answered Celeste. “I think brown hair like mine is more usual.”

“I see,” said Leman, sounding unconvinced. She plucked the photograph of Ferhat from Celeste’s hand as if she were a teacher confiscating it. “I am offering low rent for this room I am renting, because I want to improve my English and so does need my son, Levent. He is university student. I want him to get best degree. I don’t need money, I need English. So we are all speaking English which is good for you, yes?”

“Yes, no problem,” agreed Celeste.

“Now you can sit on this,” instructed Leman, indicating a large armchair, “and tell me about you.”

“Well, I’m twenty-three years old. I come from London, and I’ve just finished a degree in the History of Art.”

“Oh art, my husband loves art and antiques stuff very much. Look all these things that he buys.” Leman indicated several valuable-looking antiques, including Persian carpets made from silk and spectacular Iznik ceramics glazed in coral red, turquoise and royal blue. “You can talk art to him. He will be a lot happy.”

“Yes, I noticed you have some lovely pieces,” began Celeste.

“Tell me, why you decide working in Turkey?” Leman cut in.

“I took a course in teaching English as a foreign language. At the end of the training they offered a few jobs in Turkey, so I decided to accept one. It was quite spontaneous. A bit random, really.”

“You done something shameful at home you running away from?” asked Leman.

“No,” said Celeste, too startled to feel indignant.

“Why you leave home?” Leman persisted.

“After Mum died, I stayed at home looking after my little brothers. I did it for two years. It wasn’t easy pretending to be a mother.” Celeste thought of what the old woman on the seafront had said, and realised she was still clutching the nazar boncuğu in her sweaty hand. “I need to live my own life for a while now.”

“How many brothers?” asked Leman.

“Three. I love my family, but I needed a change of air,” said Celeste. “I’m very keen to learn about Turkish culture, and I’ve been studying the language for a few months as well.”

“Hmm, I see,” said Leman.

Leman offered to show Celeste the rest of the house. The piles of newspapers stacked in the corners of the living room and even the hallway and stair-landings jarred oddly with the neatness and grandeur. The more Celeste looked, the more incongruity and discord she noticed. Ferhat had bought a Wedgwood vase on his last business trip to England, but it clashed unnervingly amid the garish gilding on his wife’s imitation Louis XV cocktail cabinet.

“I’ve been to the factory in Stoke, where they make this china,” Celeste tried to tell Leman. “It was fascinating.”

“You tell to my husband that stuff,” responded Leman over her shoulder as she stomped towards the stairs. “Come this way.”

Celeste squeezed past a large stack of newspapers on the landing and, when they reached the third floor, Leman showed Celeste the bedroom which was offered to let. It was furnished with just a simple bed and wardrobe, and a large desk below the huge window. The panorama across the cobalt blue sea made Celeste’s heart almost skip a beat.

“You like this view?” asked Leman. “That is the sea, you know, it isn’t river.”

“Yes, I know. And I like this room very much.”

“It’s get cleaned every day. We got cleaning woman.”

“That’s good,” said Celeste. “I’m very fussy about cleanliness.”

“If you like cleanness, you made mistake coming to Turkey!” laughed Leman. “Now you can look the rest of the house.”

As they talked on the landing bathed in sunlight, Celeste took the chance to peer nosily through the doorway of Levent’s bedroom. One wall was lined with bookshelves, with a few pencil sketches propped up against the books. Despite the vast array of computer equipment and the clothes strewn across the floor, the thing which caught her attention was a large glass bowl full of water beside the bed, with a white chicken’s egg floating on the water. The bowl rested on a lace doily as if it were a permanent feature of the room. She must have stared too obviously, as Leman hastily closed the bedroom door.

“My son’s room private. You don’t go in there,” she snapped. “You don’t think about his things.”

Now she had been told not to think about it, Celeste could not get that egg out of her mind.

“Do you like Turkish coffee?” asked Leman, heading towards the stairs.

Celeste sat at the kitchen table, feeling sweaty as the sun blazed in through the window. The red and white gingham tablecloth was crowded with boxes of herbal tea bags, many of them unopened. Leman put equal amounts of coarsely ground coffee and sugar into a tiny copper jug with a long handle, which she topped up with water and whipped off the hotplate the moment the coffee bubbled up to the brim. She shovelled the boxes of herbal tea aside disdainfully to make space for the coffee cups and a plate of Turkish delight, smothered in drifts of sugar. When she opened the fridge to take out a bottle of mineral water, Celeste noticed a heavy glass jar in the door, full of water and with a narrow strip of paper like a piece of till-roll curled up inside it. As the paper bobbed up and down Celeste made out lines of Arabic writing covering both sides. In a second the door was closed again and Leman was sitting opposite Celeste, urging her to eat a piece of Turkish delight.

“What was that jar with paper in the fridge?” Celeste asked, innocently.

“Oh, that’s just for good luck,” said Leman. “It’s nothing. Nothing at all. Drink coffee before it’s cold.”

“I see you like herbal tea,” Celeste observed, just to make conversation.

“I hate this tea rubbish. This was all left behind by woman living here before us. Me and Levent, we move back here three months ago, before that in our house was living for two years another woman, and she left many rubbish here. She was dirty and untidy. She was orospu.”

“What does orospu mean?” asked Celeste.

“I don’t know in English, but she much orospu,” repeated Leman, looking Celeste intensely in the eye.

“Was she renting the house?”

“Not exactly,” answered Leman vaguely, as she picked up one of the boxes of tea.

“Did you say just you and Levent moved back here recently?” asked Celeste. “What about your husband?”

Leman ignored the question. Celeste eyed the tea boxes as a way of avoiding Leman’s gaze.

“I want to know what is these things,” said Leman. “I have a friend who speak French. Later she is coming and she tell me what is these teas.”

“I can tell you if you like,” offered Celeste, picking out one of the boxes. “I did a year of French and Italian for my degree. This one’s strawberry. This means mint. And this one…”

“My friend speak really French,” Leman cut in condescendingly, “better she tell me what they is.”

Celeste was so taken aback by Leman’s reaction that she did not say a word, but she made a mental note to look up the word orospu later.

“You want living here?” asked Leman abruptly. “You moving today if want. We are ready.”

Celeste hesitated. This place was far better than the flat where an aged lecher had tried to touch her chest and told her, with unshakeable conviction, that English girls are passionate but never wash. It was nicer beyond comparison with the house where she had been bitten by one of the three resident dogs. Frankly it was a world apart from the various bedsits she had viewed, all so dirty she could not discern the original colour of the walls. Nevertheless this beautiful mansion seemed to be harbouring shameful secrets. Celeste felt apprehensive, yet what alternative did she have? It was this house, or nothing.

“Thank you. I’d like to move in.”

“That is good,” said Leman, smiling with satisfaction. “You like Lokum? You like Turkish delight? We Turkish people think it is good luck to eat something sweet together, to make a new relationship start sweet.”

Celeste popped a cube of Turkish delight into her mouth. The moment she bit down on it, she felt a stabbing pain in a molar in her lower left jaw. She had meant to have her teeth checked before leaving England as she already suspected she may need a new filling. It was an ominous start to the new relationship.

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