One man and his truck

I looked at Daphne who was looking at me, a sweaty string of black hair clinging to her forehead. She fingered it, trying to shovel it back under her headscarf. Her face was strained with the anxiety that had taken a hold on both of us during the last ride. What we had thought would be a journey of two hours had become a gruelling half day of car confinement tied up in regrettable company. I was aware that the sight of me could not have soothed the doubts she had maintained since before our departure: eyelids swollen with sunlight and stress, eyeballs retreating ever further into them, a gaze scolded red by heat and dust.  I scratched my forehead along the line where the hem of my headscarf rubbed against it and inspected the gathered grime and dead skin under the fingernail. There was an overruling silence until one of us said, Where the fuck are we?

We knew very well that we were half way across central Turkey, miles from any human settlement and still four hours from our intended destination, where a kindly couchsurfing host awaited. Immediately before and behind us stretched the deserted highway, cutting through arid mountain ranges and wheat plains, a crumpled village visible a long way off. Our will to endeavour was in shatters and our patience with one another hanging on fine threads. Our only other company was a hushed wind and our shadows. These lingered before us like two unwelcome giants flaunting long spindly legs, indicating the imminent approach of nightfall.

Daphne’s eyes surveyed the scene and then turned on me again. They had the heavy, liquid black of lakes under a night sky, glinting depths into which many did plunge. I had spent the past months navigating through their jet tides to eventually discover the being that lay beneath their enchanting surfaces. At the bottom of those lakes was harboured the elixir of youth: a little girl’s unbreakable naivety. Over the course of the months I had observed how Daphne clung to her inner child’s naivety, depended on it for protection as one would a talisman. She would conjure it in order to affront life’s tribulations, whether these were rooted in love, finance or family. She raised it before the acknowledgement of her own mistakes, using it to shield herself from self-blame: I was so naïve. Naivety attracted her most painful encounters then anaesthetised her wounds in the aftermath. It justified her going back for more. I guess I’m just too naïve. Daphne’s life was a perpetual cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies founded on that unbreakable, unshakeable naivety. In preserving youth, it worked as well on the skin as it did on the psyche; at thirty, she barely passed for eighteen, despite a twenty-a-day smoking habit and regular bouts of sorrow-drowning in vodka.

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As she assessed the event that had left us stranded, the naivety was flashing in her gaze, confronting the fear that accompanied total comprehension. “You really surprised me just then. I had no idea you were going to react like that. I mean, you were so passive all the way and then…” Tailing off, she adjusted her headscarf. “We’ll have to hitch it. Or you have the tent? We’ll try hitching. But I don’t want to do it in the dark.” Practical Daphne was as indecisive as ever, but she was right. If there was anything either of us wanted to do less then get into another stranger’s car, it was to lie down in the wheat fields; we’d had enough of Turkish men but we had no options of avoiding them. Either we cosied down in the car of one who we felt to trust on impulse (we hadn’t yet encountered a female driver), or we abandoned ourselves to the lonely night and anyone who came across us in its course. A car appeared – the first in twenty minutes – and Daphne opted for impulse and raised her thumb. The car stopped and two bemused faces looked out from the shadows, one of them a woman’s. She wasn’t driving but it was the first car with a female passenger to have stopped for us. Relieved, we directed our question, simply the name of our destination said with a questioning air, at her rather than him. Sivas?

In forty eight hours in Turkey we had found four words in the native tongue to be useful above all others:

Hello

No

Stop

Thank you

These we had employed in response to the only two English words that it seemed most of our male hosts used to communicate with us: ‘No problem’ and ‘normal’.

The woman’s face, with a pitying smile, shook from side to side. No, they were not going to Sivas. The car drove away taking its female passenger and empty back seats with it. Resignation and silence resumed; we sat on our rucksacks. Daphne picked up her loosening braid and examined her split ends, I turned back to scraping out the grime from under my nails and all the while the sun’s rays became ever lower, ever more orange, and the legs of our shadows lengthened until they stretched to the other side of the road.

Two headlights broke through the dusk. We could see from a distance they belonged to a truck, a red Mercedes. Decision time – we’d already turned down three cars with too many men in them – now it was either this truck or the roadside.  “I promised myself I wouldn’t take a ride with any trucks,” said Daphne, “but it’s up to you”. I stuck out my thumb. The truck slowed and pulled up in front of us. “If he’s alone, let’s take it. Go with our instincts,” I resolved. From on high the door opened.

In unison, we said the word. Sivas?

The weathered male face nodded. Sivas.

Here we go Daphne, last ride to Sivas.

The step up was enormous and we struggled to heave our baggage onto the passenger seat. The old-looking middle-aged man indicated that we place it behind the seats where a sunken makeshift bed was lain out with a flattened grey pillow and rotten foam mattress. A thousand sweaty sleeps had deposited their salty stench above the mass of greyed fabric. I stifled a gag. Daphne lifted her nose to the air and snapped her head to the window. There was scant space for the two of us in the passenger seat so eventually I arranged myself cross-legged on the mattress. Soon enough the stench became level with my senses and I stopped taking in breaths through the mouth. The man took out a fresh packet of sunflower seeds and the three of us snaffled them, filling his glass ashtray with the empty husks until they were spilling out and into the crevices of the seats.

‘Friend Sivas?’ he tried.

‘Yes friend Sivas,’ I replied.

‘Girl boy?’

‘Girl,’ I lied. I didn’t think we would get far trying to explain the cultural acceptance of staying with an unknown boy we met through a travellers’ social network. Then I thought, for some reason, I should make my Turkish girl friend plausible by giving her a name. I didn’t know any Turkish girls’ names until I remembered a Turkish au pair I’d once had. She had constantly reprimanded my mother that my sister and I were too skinny, that in her country children were fat and that was good because it meant they weren’t poor. Subsequently, to our delight she began to buy us one pack of Maryland cookies a day; we were not long in her care. She went by the name of Erdenay. ‘Friend name Erdenay’. The man nodded – he didn’t care – and we settled down in the smelly red Mercedes truck to a musical medley of sharp quarter notes and nostalgia whilst plucking at the sunflower seeds. A pair of furry dice swung to and fro before the windscreen, linking and unlinking the red mounted Islamic crescent moon and star of Turkey’s flag and the staring blue of the evil eye.

Daphne had long withdrawn behind a wall of stony exhaustion and continued to stare daggers at the road. I was trying, through little smiles and conversational snippets, to express an appreciation towards our driver, who I had concluded was a kindly and caring man, but I was struggling also with the exhaustion of nine hours in strangers’ cars. The sky was deepening into darker shades of greens and blues as we wound westwards chasing the sun’s descent. The road ribboned around bulks of desolate rock face and across the browned heathers of Turkey’s highlands. I was using the last of my mental strength to keep my eyelids pried, to take in this vista and keep alert to the road ahead. I bulked as a woman, covered head to foot in a black burqa, dashed across the road in front of us, but before I had time to let out a shout we had driven straight over her without incident. I said nothing as I sat back against the wall, absorbing the shock of believing we had been on the verge of killing a person, before discovering that I had seen no more than a sweeping shadow made human by my fraught imagination.

We pulled up at a desolate corrugated industrial block, from where a man waved towards our driver, who parked up between the building and a large dumping of stone shrapnel. Here he got out, gesturing us to stay put, and greeted the other man like an old friend. They disappeared walking around the building. We waited obediently for five, ten, fifteen minutes before they reappeared, casually wielding shovels. I giggled and put my hand over my thumping heart. “Daphne, why are they coming towards us with shovels?” Daphne, whose mood had relaxed between a silent resolve to never hitchhike again and acquiescence to the fact that she had to be in this stinking truck for the next four hours, shrugged her shoulders and put her sunglasses on to keep off the final throes of sun. “Probably not for us. Probably for whatever this truck’s carrying in the back.” I couldn’t help but think of corpses. The two men walked past the door and around to the back of the truck, oblivious to the fear they’d instilled in its two passengers.

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Sivas appeared as a spattering of tiny lights in the silhouetted landscape. My paranoia had diffused since leaving the industrial sight in one piece and I had sunk into the rotten little bed of the red Mercedes truck feeling at ease with the journey and a little guilt at having doubted the man’s integrity. So courteous had been this gentle lone ranger in assuming responsibility of his foreign cargo that I now drew comfort from the stench of the mattress, associating it with his down-to-earth generosity. The rasp of his voice broke through the haze of passing thoughts. “Phone friend. Where you go in Sivas?” Of course, he would have to take directions from my friend Erdenay, who was actually a boy with a boy’s name and not really my friend at all. I began to spin a web. “Erdenay’s brother phone.” He dialled the number and I prayed that he wouldn’t ask the brother after his phantom sister Erdenay. After a loud conference, he put down the phone and said, ‘good boy’. I sat back, relieved that our host-to-be had won the good man’s approval and that no sister had been mentioned, or so it seemed, though I could fathom nothing from the variety of consonants exchanged between the two men. I guessed that the nice man had probably put two and two together but didn’t have the inclination or the language to mention it. I like to think he understood my little dilemma.

We trundled into the small town of Sivas just before midnight, almost six hours after our uncertain departure from the roadside where we had prepared to pack in the day, each other and our trip. We were delivered directly to Erdenay’s brother, who awaited us by some traffic lights in the town centre. From his bum-sunken, cigarette-stained throne on high our driver told us to be careful and urged Erdenay’s brother to look after us. The door made a hollow slam before the red Mercedes truck lurched toward the green light. Our driver was headed to the city outskirts where he would park up for the night, lay down his head, smoke a cigarette, letting the fumes enshroud the seats, the flattened pillow and the two furry dice, before turning his side upon the filthy mattress and bashing one off, solitary, in darkness, a generous and gentle, old-looking middle-aged man on the long and lonely road.

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