As we sped along through the forest in the grey light of early morning, the professor took out an old map and began examining it. Then he turned to me and said,
“Could we slow down a bit?”
I told Süleyman, and he slowed down. Then the professor said we needed to stop and back up a little. So we backed up about 500 feet until we reached a narrow dirt road that branched off to the left.
“OK, this is it. Tell him we need to go down this road.”
So I told Süleyman, and I saw him raise his eyebrows slightly in the mirror.
“Where are we going, professor?”
He gave me a blank look and just said that there was something of a personal nature he had to take care of. I began to feel decidedly uneasy. As we bumped along, the professor kept peering out the window as if he was looking for something. Or someone.
After a while the woods thinned out, then ended, and we were climbing a barren slope of sandy, pebbly soil. The track we were driving along deteriorated and we could only inch along.
“If the car gets stuck in this sand we’ll never get out of here.”
I didn’t say anything, and neither did Professor Wagner. Then, at the top of the slope, the sea opened out before us, dark, stormy and forbidding, with huge waves crashing against the rocks, sending up plumes of spray and receding in cascades of foam. Black clouds raced in off the sea like invading horsemen. Here we felt the full force of the wind, and the car seemed to shudder. Süleyman stopped the car, but the professor motioned for him to keep driving, so we began inching forward again until the track petered out altogether about twenty yards from the sea.
“This is as far as we can go.”
I didn’t bother to translate this for the professor. I don’t know if he would have heard me anyway, he was looking around in an almost agitated manner, as if he was trying to find something. There was nothing at all on the beach except an abandoned building back up on the ridge a little to the left. It was either in ruins or unfinished, with a small, glassed-in porch in front. A large, rusting sign announced it to be the Black Sea Motel. There was another smaller shack behind it with a tin roof that had been partly blown off. The professor picked up his violin and the wreath and for a moment seemed at a loss for what to do. Then he looked out the rear window and said,
“Can we back up a bit, up to the top of that ridge?”
Süleyman muttered to himself and put the car in reverse. He put his arm on the passenger seat and turned to look out the rear window, but just as he started to reverse the engine stalled. He tried to start it again several times, but it didn’t respond at all. Then finally it turned and sputtered and we began to reverse slowly.
About halfway back up the ridge the professor asked us to stop again. Süleyman looked at him with a mixture of irritation and puzzlement. The professor took a deep breath, gave me a look that seemed almost fearful, but also somehow resigned and deeply sad.
“Forgive me, but I must ask you to leave me alone here for a little while. If you could continue on back over the ridge and wait for me there, I’ll come join you when I’m done.”
“And then?” I asked.
“Then…well…Then we’ll probably go back.”
When he opened the door, a gust of cold wind blew in. He climbed out slowly with the wreath and the violin, closed the door, and then stood there waiting for us to leave. Süleyman gunned the engine, either out of impatience or to keep the car from stalling, and the car lurched back. As we reversed, I watched the professor walk towards the sea, struggling against the wind, until we were over the top of the ridge and I could no longer see him.
As soon as the car stopped I got out and walked to the top of the ridge. Then, shivering in the cold, I watched the professor walk towards the sea, to the point where the highest waves washed onto the beach. Then he put down his violin, took a few more steps forward and tossed the wreath into the waves. He stood there for a few moments with his hands clasped in front of him, then turned and started back. When he looked up and saw me he seemed annoyed, so I went back towards the car.
Süleyman was leaning against the hood, smoking a cigarette. I held my hands over the hood to get some of the warmth from the engine.
“What’s he doing?” he asked irritably.
I just shrugged my shoulders. We stood there in silence for a while, and then, just as I was about to get back in the car, Süleyman flicked his cigarette away and started striding up to the ridge. I followed, worried about what he might do.
When Süleyman reached the top of the ridge he stopped and turned to me with an expression of disbelief. I joined him and looked down at the beach. There, in front of the crashing waves, his black coat flapping in the wind, the professor was playing his violin as he looked out to sea.
Süleyman shook his head and started back towards the car, and I began slowly making my way down to the sea. When I was about halfway to the sea I could hear the music intermittently, and it grew stronger the closer I got. I stopped when I was just close enough to hear it clearly. The professor was playing an exquisite, lyrical melody that reminded me a little of Schubert’s Serenade.
As I stood there, at the same time entranced and not quite believing what I was seeing, I heard the car drive up behind me and stop. Then I heard the engine sputter and die. I turned around just as Süleyman was getting out of the car.
“Why did you turn the engine off?”
“I didn’t turn it off, it just stalled,” he answered irritably. “There’s no point in trying to start it when it’s this hot. I’ll try in a little while.”
Just then the music stopped. The professor hesitantly played a few more notes, then stopped again.
Süleyman swore under his breath, got back into the car and slammed the door. The professor started playing again, but when he reached a certain point he faltered. Again and again he started from the beginning and played until he reached that passage, but somehow couldn’t get past it.
I decided to get out of the wind, and as I sat shivering in the back seat of the car I saw that the sky was getting progressively darker. A few snowflakes began to drift down, then more and more, until snow began to stick to the windshield.
I got out of the car, wrapped my scarf round my head and began to struggle across the sand. Why the hell had I worn high-heels? But how could I have known that we’d be on a deserted beach in a snowstorm?
When I reached the professor I became alarmed. His face was completely drained of color and looked almost deathlike. Snow had begun to settle on his hat and his shoulders.
“Professor,” I shouted. He didn’t hear me.
“Professor, professor, hey, Mr. Wagner! Please come back to the car.”
I began to shake him by the arm. “Hey, professor!” The breaking waves crashed onto the beach, and I could see the white flowers from the professor’s wreath bobbing and swirling in the foam.
I tried to take his violin, but couldn’t pry in from his frozen fingers. Then I started trying to drag him towards the car. It took all my strength to pull him along a few steps, but he kept turning to look back out to sea. As if he was searching for something out there among the heaving waves. Then, suddenly, he pulled his arm free and started rushing towards the water and I almost had to tackle him to get him to stop and turn around. Süleyman finally came out to help me, and each taking an arm we were able to march him along step by step. As we pulled him along he kept muttering something, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was. Something about a storm, about a storm arriving and then leaving. At one point he turned to me with a wild, desperate look in his eyes and said something in German. The he tried with all his strength to break free and rush back towards the waves. If Süleyman hadn’t been there I don’t know if I would have been able to hold him. Then he seemed to lose his will altogether. He went limp, and we almost had to carry him the rest of the way. We managed to get him into the back seat, and I climbed in beside him while Süleyman rushed around and got behind the wheel. But when he turned the key in the ignition, the engine wouldn’t start. It just made a kind of whirring noise and then stopped.
Meanwhile, the professor had started to tremble. He’d gone completely pale and his breathing was very shallow and I was afraid he would die at any moment.
“Come on Süleyman, do something, the man’s dying!” I shouted.
He kept trying, but the engine wouldn’t respond. We were out of the wind, but it was very cold in the car and the snow was getting heavier.
“OK,” I said, “I don’t think he’s going to make it unless we can get him somewhere warm. I’ll need your help, let’s try to get him up to that building.”
It wasn’t easy getting him out of the car and putting his arms around our shoulders so we could drag him along. He was completely limp, a dead weight, and much heavier than I would have thought. The Black Sea Motel was farther than it had seemed and the ground was rough and my high heels made the going even more difficult. But we finally got him up the steps to the glassed-in porch and got the door open. There were a few battered tables and some plastic chairs, and a primitive seascape was painted on the back wall. We sat the professor in one of the chairs and I went and banged on the inner door.
“Hello! Is anyone there?”
I heard a shuffling sound inside, then a key turning in the lock, then the door opened and a scrawny boy in a heavy, hooded overcoat peered out. There was something strange about his face, his very angular features. He looked both old and young, sinister and innocent.
“Listen, we need your help. I think this man is dying. We need to get him warm.”
He gave me a baffled look and said,
“We’re closed. We’re closed for the winter. This place is only open in summer.”
“We just need to keep him warm until we get our car going.”
“Well, there’s no heat here.”
“What do you mean there’s no heat?”
“I mean there’s no heat. This place is only open in summer.”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I’m the caretaker. I stay here to keep an eye on the place.”
“Well, how do you keep warm, you must at least have some kind of stove.”
“I have a little electric heater, but it broke last night. I have to bring it in to Şile to get it repaired, but the bus doesn’t start running for another hour or so.”
“Can we at least put him in one of the rooms? We can lie him down on a bed and cover him with blankets.”
“I don’t know about that…Abdullah might get angry.”
“He’s the owner.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s in Istanbul; he only comes out in the summer.”
“Well, don’t worry about Abdullah. Let’s get him into a room.”
The boy hesitated, then went over to a small desk, opened the drawer and took out a key. Süleyman and I got the professor to his feet, dragged him inside, struggled up the stairs with him, got him into what had to be the most depressing room I’d ever seen, laid him on the bed and covered him with a rough woolen blanket.
“Is there any chance of getting the car started?” I asked Süleyman.
“Not without a mechanic. It might even need to be towed. The only thing I can think of is to walk up to the main road and try to hitch a ride into town.”
“That will take hours. What if I called someone out from Istanbul?”
“That will take hours too. I think our best bet is for me to get into Şile.”
“I’ll go with you,” the boy said, “I have to go in anyway.”
After they’d gone I went to see how the professor was doing. He didn’t look at all well and he was still shivering. The blanket wasn’t going to be enough, I had to get him warm somehow. But how? Then an idea occurred to me. I took the blanket off, then took off his shoes, his wet coat, his trousers and sweater and shirt, turned him on his side and bent his knees, then stripped to my underwear, lay beside him and drew the blanket up over us and put my arms around him. At first I felt so cold that my chest tightened and my teeth started chattering, but slowly I began to feel a little warmer. But the professor’s thin, bony body was still cold. He wasn’t showing any signs of coming around, either, and I began to worry. I turned him around and switched positions to warm the front of his body, then continued to switch positions every half hour or so.
I must have dozed off at one point, because the next thing I knew I heard the door open and someone walk in. I opened my eyes and looked up, and there was Süleyman, looking at us with an expression of disgust on his face.
“What the hell is going on here!?”
And with that he turned and stormed out of the room. I called out after him but he didn’t answer.
A few minutes later I heard the sound of the Mercedes driving off. The sound gradually faded and then died away. Now we were stuck here in the cold in the middle of nowhere. And on top of that, Süleyman was going to tell everyone at the university that he’d caught me in bed with the elderly professor.
[. . .]
I shook him gently and called,
“Professor, how are you doing? Do you think you can get up?”
He opened his eyes briefly, then shut them again, reached for my hand and began murmuring again, something about the storm, and Nadia. No, he wasn’t saying storm, he was saying something that sounded like sutuma, whatever that was. Nadia was on the sutuma.
“She was so close but I couldn’t reach her. There were moments I was sure I could see her. There was nothing I could do, there was nothing I could do.”
“Professor, can you hear me? Can you try to get up?”
He kept murmuring to himself, “It’s all my fault. Nadia, forgive me, forgive me.”
He was choking on the words, his voice raspy; and, a few times, I heard him whimper. Small, silent whimpers. He kept begging, “Mein Schatz, forgive me!”
He opened his eyes again and looked around in bewilderment.
“Where are we?”
“We’re still on the beach, or rather at the motel on the beach. You fainted from the cold so I brought you here. Someone’s coming to get us. Please get dressed, professor.”
Only then did he realize he was naked, and he didn’t understand why. As he slowly got dressed he kept giving me puzzled glances.
“Yes, professor, I undressed you and put you to bed,” I said. “I thought you were dying and I had to do something to save your life.”
“What kind of thing?” And then without waiting for an answer, he added, “Thank you.”
I helped him get dressed and then helped him down the stairs. The boy who’d let us in had lit a small fire just outside the door to the glassed-in porch, and was warming his hands over it. He stood when he saw us, but just then a large black car drove up. A man got out and called,
“Your brother sent us to get you.”
Meanwhile the driver had got out as well.
“How quick!” I said. “I thought it would take you at least two hours to get here from Istanbul.”
“But we didn’t come from Istanbul,” the driver said. “We weren’t very far away and we got going as soon as the colonel called us.”
I thanked them, and they helped me get the professor into the car.
“Who are these people?” asked the professor.
“They’re going to take us back to Istanbul.”
“What happened to the Mercedes?”
“It broke down, professor. That’s why these men came to get us”
We were just about to move off, when I asked them to wait a moment while I went and gave the boy some money. Then I got back in the car and we drove off. The professor dozed off again, and I gazed out the window feeling glad to be warm again.