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Sport 9: Spring 1992

♣ Michael Hulse — Nobody Buys a Turkish Straw Hat

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Michael Hulse

Nobody Buys a Turkish Straw Hat

You've clipped in the wide-angle and found the shot you want but you're out of film, so you're slotting in a new roll when you realise the woman in the khaki skirt is staring at you. She pushes back her hat and places three fingers against her right temple and goes on staring. Maybe she knows you. You wonder where you might have met her.

'Hi,' she says.

You snap the shutter twice as you wind in the new roll and throw her a smile that is supposed to offer acknowledgement but not seem too familiar, because the fact of it is that you really don't think you know her.

'Excuse me,' she says, 'is that slide film you're using?'

'Fujichrome,' you tell her.

'That's fine, Fujichrome is just fine. Look, I hope you don't think this is very pushy, but you could really do me a big favour if you wanted. We could walk round the site together and if there's anything I want a picture of that you don't seem to be taking I'll tell you. You can get duplicates made and send them to me. I'll pay you, that's okay, you don't have to worry about that.'

'Have we met?'

She folds her arms to place her hands up on her collarbones and rests her chin in the V where the wrists cross over.

'I knew you would think it was pushy. I'm sorry.'

'It's not that I object.' You feel wrong-footed.

'I can explain,' she says. 'They stole my camera. I rode a dolmus to Priene and the camera was on the seat with my bag and when we reached Priene it was gone. We stopped a couple of times, someone could have lifted it out the window when I was looking the other way.'

'Did you tell the police?' You feel reticent about taking your photograph till this conversation's been resolved.

She runs her right hand inside her shirt and rests it on her breast, and pauses as if concentrating on her heartbeat.

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'The police? Yes, I was there for two hours. They took the details three times. They were very friendly but my passport disappeared and I couldn't see where it had gone. A man brought me tea and asked if he could look at my shoes. They're Ferragamo shoes and he wanted me to mail him a pair for his wife but he couldn't afford the price. He rubbed my left earlobe between his thumb and forefinger as if he was feeling cloth and I began to get frightened. You don't have to think I get frightened easily, but I figured it was time I had my passport back. I don't expect I'll see the camera again.'

Inside her shirt she is gently massaging her left breast as she talks.

'Too bad,' you say. 'I don't expect you will.'

'You don't think you should climb to the top for this shot? This is row nineteen.'

'You counted?'

'It must go up about fifty rows. This is a big theatre. The book says that in the Roman period it reached a capacity of twenty-five thousand, the second century AD.'

'What else does it say?' you ask, turning to look up the tiers of the cavea.

'There are reliefs that show Eros bunting. That's a misprint for hunting. Oh, I'm Anthea. I forgot to tell you that.'

'Luke.'

'Luke, I bet when you were a boy you looked like Caravaggio's Bacchus. Did anyone tell you that?'

'Not that I can recall, offhand.'

The man's shirt she's wearing is a pale grey-green the colour of dusty olive leaves, and her eyes are the same pale grey-green only they glisten as if the leaves had been oiled. Now that the idea has been put into your head you want to rub her earlobe between your thumb and forefinger

'You have to imagine that two thousand years ago there was sea out back of the stage building.' She angles her head so the brim of her hat shades her eyes. 'That was the harbour. Where the rubble is and the parking lot and cafés. This is all alluvial. Just filled up.'

You look out over the theatre into the glare of a sun directly above the horseshoe mouth, and try to see the light glinting off the waters of Miletus harbour.

'Things are always happening to me,' says Anthea, taking a bottle from her bag and beginning to oil her legs. 'Like, I was in Lima last year. The man

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I was with had stormed out and I sat there miserably drinking his whisky and the doorbell rang. I know you don't just open the door in Lima. We were living by a square where the dope changed hands, one side of us was the regimiento and the other was the drug squad HQ, any time of the day or night you'd be hearing gunfire. But I thought it was Garth and opened up. They sprayed something in my face and before I passed out I remember thinking: I hope this isn't acid. Next thing I knew I woke up twelve hours later, the middle of the night, lying on the floor.They'd stripped the place. I mean everything. Not just hi-fi and video and jewellery. The furniture, appliances, the lot. You know? None of it belonged to me except my clothing but the shock was devastating. The place was bare walls. I rang our neighbour and it seemed she had watched the whole lot carried out. There was a truck labelled Mudanzas, with a company address and phone number, she thought we were moving, or preferred to. It turned out I still had the car keys and some small change in the pocket of my dungarees so I got into the car and started driving. At a red light I wound down the window and a guy pulled a gun and said get out, I need your car. So I got out and the light turned green and he drove off. I sat down at the streetside and started to cry, and then I started to laugh because it had really looked as if this guy had waited for the light to turn green before he drove off.'

You walk slowly down the slope behind the theatre, raising lazy dust. Blocks of Ionian and Roman masonry are scattered as if a child had grown impatient. Bullocks are grazing in what was the north agora, pulling the heads off dry thistles. They chew without enjoyment. A Turkish boy in boots and jacket is shouting at the bullocks and drilling the end of a stick into the dust.

'Photograph the boy, will you,' says Anthea. You photograph the boy.

She stands with her shoulderblades to you, staring north across what was the second harbour mouth in ancient Miletus. You look at the sheen on her oiled calves. She is staring so intently that it's as if she were acting intentness. Her flesh and her attention look wealthy and sluttish.

'You always do what beautiful women tell you, don't you? I could tell.'

'How could you tell? I'm not saying you're right.'

You walk past a wall and archway where the boy has left his water bottle in the shade.

'My husband was like that. Oh, I'm a widow. I forgot to tell you that.

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Don't you think widow is a funny word? It's funny if you're twenty-nine because it sounds as if you should be eighty-nine. Jack always did what I told him and believed what I told him, mostly, and worked his frustrations off hunting. He had a very good aim. After Andrew he drank a lot and got violent and threw me out, so I went back with Roxanne, that's my sister, I went back to get some things and he threatened us with a rifle. Just sat us down and when Roxanne tried to move he blew a hole in the calendar behind her. He knew exactly what he was doing. I mean, he knew he wouldn't hit Roxanne, Jack was always very sweet to Roxanne and he had a very good aim. He was enjoying himself being sadistic. So after an hour or so he let Roxanne go, and it seems she fetched the highway patrol and they surrounded the house, and by then Jack had tied me to a chair, it was this big old beautiful grandfather chair with gryphon claw feet, and the rope was hurting my wrists. He just wanted to give me shit about Andrew. Jack could never accept that a woman has to have a life of her own.'

She walks in under the archway of the baths and stops to kick her toecap into a blue and white mosaic exposed under the dirt. Tiny white tiles come loose like broken teeth.

'They really ought to do something about this,' she informs you, sitting on a wall and hitching up her skirt. 'To protect it. I mean, anyone can walk in here and kick this thing to pieces.' She gives the mosaic a contemptuous look.

'What happened with Jack?' you ask.

She leans forward, placing the palms of her hands on the inside of her thighs and rocking gently, hanging her head. The hat falls into the dust and she lets it lie. You look down in the nape of her neck and see her shoulderblades working under the shirt as she rocks.

'They told him to come out and nothing would happen, but they didn't know Jack. He let me leave and then he put a pistol in his mouth and squeezed. It's kind of funny because he had a very good aim but he didn't manage to kill himself, he took off the back of his head but he wasn't dead. They kept him alive for weeks. He looked like a lifesize replica of himself. It wasn't really Jack. I couldn't get through to him. The instruments hardly registered a thing and the doctors said he'd stay that way. So I said if they wanted to pull the plug on him they could go ahead. He died ten days later but I never knew if they'd switched him off, that's not the kind of thing they tell you, right? And I guess I didn't really want to know.'

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She looks up with an expression that challenges you to doubt her and says: 'Luke, I've always been a nice girl. I mean, I'm from Montreal. I'm a beautiful woman and I'm intelligent and I'm fun to be with. Since Jack died I've been rich as well.' She picks up the hat. 'This is Italian. Look at the styling. Nobody buys a Turkish straw hat.'

She says would you photograph the mosaic. You ask her where she lived with Jack and she says Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh isn't the filthy city it used to be. Back in the 40s and 50s it was still all steelworks and black hills. The city was just dirt in those days, you walked the street you needed a bath. But that's changed. There was a poll a year or so back and Pittsburgh was voted the best-kept city in the USA.

'Jack's father was in steel.'

You are wondering if she will run her hand inside her shirt again.

'Jack too?'

'Jack? He just let the money work. He was good at that. Letting money work. I have people do that for me now. After Jack died I gave up my job. You don't have to think I had to work. Jack always said relax, take it easy. But I mean, I'm the work ethic in the flesh, you know?'

Maybe she has only paused because she wants you to ask what job she did.

'I can't figure this map out,' she announces. 'Luke, can you tell me if that up ahead's the Temple of Demeter? I mean, it looks like a cow byre. You needn't take it. Shit. Will you look at the way I'm spending my time? Ruins and dust, ruins and dust. This is my life. Ticking away. You know, I had the strangest dream last night. I've just got to tell you this: you won't believe it. I was in this deserted building in Montreal, Jesus I was a tease in those days, and I'd gone there because someone had told me my brother was being executed. They were going to shoot him. I don't have a brother, just my sister Roxanne, that's Roxanne that I was telling you about. But I was in this building looking for my brother, and there was blood on the walls, and dead bodies, so I knew I was too late. Then I heard these voices, men's voices, and I thought: the only thing I can do is play dead, then they won't find me. So I'm slumped in a corner in a heap and these men come in and start looking for something, I don't know what they're looking for, and then one of them says: give it a rest. And he starts to dance with his friend, the two of them holding each other like a man and woman dancing, finger-tip control and

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shirtfronts brushing, you know, I can see them through my lashes but I daren't open my eyes because I'm sure that if they realise I'm alive they'll kill me. I kind of want them to find me and do something terrible to me,' she tells you, slipping her hand in her shirt again, 'but I daren't do anything that'll make them see me because I'm so shit scared. I mean, I want it but I'm so shit scared it feels as if I've got to pee. Then one of the other guys who's walking around the room comes over to me and puts his face down to mine and I open my eyes, I just open them not thinking of anything any more, and he starts to scream, at first I think it's me screaming but no, it's him, he just screams and screams and the others stop dancing and everyone's waiting for something to happen.'