A girl stands by her parents’ car at the gates to the air base. They’re all looking for someone. The air is hot and smells of dust and pine needles. The road is lined with shops selling brass and carpets and souvenirs for the US airmen posted overseas. When this family return home, they will bring with them a carpet too big for any of the rooms in their house, a lantern and several dolls in traditional dress.
They flew into Turkey six months ago, just the girl, her sister and her mother, following her father. At first, they lived in a flat in a tower block. On each floor, the balconies were dark brown, curving out from the main tower. If you lay on the floor, there was a gap of about an inch. The girl would lie there until she felt dizzy, watching the busy traffic.
Recently, they moved to a village by a lake. There’s a swimming pool which sometimes has frogs in it, and a cluster of Americans down the road who will teach the girls about trick or treating and which candies are best. An older girl, Deniz, looks after half a dozen of the smaller children at the weekends, and they run from garden to garden collecting fruit and flowers and making feasts for themselves.
The family are not American. They are English. The school on the air base is the only English-speaking school in the area. As the girl had already started school before they left, her parents want her to continue to learn in English now that she’s old enough for first grade. Her younger sister goes to a Turkish kindergarten closer to home, speaks Turkish with the other children but pretends not to understand if she’s asked what they’re talking about.
The women in their village love children, will pinch their cheeks till they burn and coo “Güzel, güzel – beautiful, beautiful.” Thirty-five years later, the older girl will learn Turkish on a language learning app and will be amazed at how much of it comes back her. It’s mostly the words of affection and command – beautiful, come, go, thank you, goodbye.
Looking back, she also remembers the journey to school lasting for ever. Still half asleep, she goes into the city in her father’s car, looking out at the tombstones that line the road outside the village. She catches the yellow schoolbus with her friend Peter, so she’s dropped off at his first. Peter has an Apple Mac and blond hair, and likes football, not soccer. Again, the bus journey lasts for miles and miles. She looked it up on a map once. The airbase was in a suburb on the other side of the city from her home.
She lives in three cultures. The American kids proudly show her their British chips, crinkle-cut crisps in familiar packets. She learns to call jugs pitchers, to shout “Occupied” if someone knocks on the toilet door and to celebrate even the tiniest holiday with gifts and made up names. It’s a very military culture, too. Because of a war she doesn’t really know exists, bomb threats are often made against the base. The children are locked in their classrooms for the day, taught how to hide under their desks and encouraged to make a picnic of lunch to make up for not being allowed to the dining hall.
Her mum’s friends are mainly Turkish women from the houses around the one allocated to the family. They have a maid and a gardener (who gives the girls a tortoise as a pet) and make frequent trips into the mountains and to the sea. Turkish food will always loop around her heart and pull her back to her childhood. Marinated chicken wings. Meat wrapped around cheese. Russian salad and fried cheese sandwiches. She starts to learn to cook by making sigara böreği, cylinders of feta and parsley wrapped in filo and fried. She dips her finger in finished-with coffee cups in restaurants, grimacing at the bitterness of the dregs, but as an adult she will walk for miles for a proper Turkish coffee without sugar.
The girl stands by her parents’ car, still looking. She spots a jeep coming out of the base, pulling up at the roadside, and she waves. Her parents get out and so do the couple in the car, and their daughter. Both sets of parents make polite conversation, then her father checks she has her pass, kisses her goodbye. She gets into the car with the other family and they drive into the base for her play date.
The girl is six years old. She will only go through this gate with her parents four times in the next two years. They are rarely granted a pass to enter the base. Her whole life is a secret from them.