In 1970 an Earthquake killed my colleagues. I have since become something of an expert in all things seismic. The story of my last day of sourcing exports in a foreign country has stuck to the wall of my heart for 40 years now. It is time for me to unburden that story.
Before I start I want to introduce you to the term ‘Rubble in Waiting’. It is a term used by many seismologists and one that was attributed to the office building I once worked in. A building is labelled with those ominous words when, as you’ve probably guessed, it is at high risk of being floored by a seismic event.
At the time we were there 1 million people lived in Istanbul. Now, 50 years later, 10 million people inhabit that crowded city. This massive surge of people led to lots of tall buildings being built very quickly and with little in the way of inspection or care. Nowadays most of those new building have been labelled with those pregnant words; Rubble in Waiting. I write this, I guess, as a cautionary tale. In the 70s those words were already being used to mark some of the taller office blocks. The building we were in was one such building. There were many fewer people back then. For the people who live there now that whole city must feel like a ticking time bomb.
Myself, and a small group of fellow Brits, were based in an office block called (translated roughly into English) Sand Fortress. Our reason for being there bears no relevance to the story but, for your own curiosity and my own nostalgia, we were there to establish an import business. As a result our office was full of samples; rows of rolled up rugs, olives, tobacco, cotton, leather jackets, anything we could get our hands on. It needn’t be said that our business would become a non-starter. There were four of us in that little office. I was the only survivor.
As all the most vivid memories are inevitably seen, I will describe the event in the third person. I’ll meet you in the rubble afterwards.
It was 1970. Sebastinella was one of two women in the Great Sand Fortress, as its inhabitants had charmingly named it, her colleagues called her Seb for short. She was wearing a white blouse that clung to her body with perspiration. Her dark hair was in a ponytail, wet at the tips from where she had poured water over her head not ten minutes before. Her skin was darkly tan and her eyes had taken on the resolute determination of someone who knows the quicker the job is done the quicker a cold British cottage awaits her. Some cold rain would be bliss.
She sat at an old wooden desk in a cluttered open-plan office. The furniture was old and falling apart. All the samples in the room gave the illusion of being in a Turkish street market. In actual fact she was way up on the ninth floor, the top floor (which was high for its time).
Charlie came in through the only door, his heavy boots clomping on the floor, carrying a rolled up dusty rug on his shoulder. Seb looked up from her paperwork.
‘Seb! Look what I got for you!’
‘Ooh, yay. Another rug.’
Charlie dropped it on the floor causing a sand-coloured cloud to bellow up from it. He stood there with his hands on his hips, looking skyward like a useless superhero, while the cloud of dust slowly engulfed him. He had thick blonde hair that always looked good.
She stifled a laugh and got up from her desk.
‘Seriously, Charlie, we have enough rugs.’
‘This one’s the best,’ he said, still striking his absurd pose.
She picked it up and leant it against the wall with the other rugs. Charlie relaxed and looked around at the various boxes of samples. It smelled like his mother’s attic had smelled when she had some new fibreglass insulation put in at the heat of summer; a combination of new building work, dust, and old books. Except here was the additional smell of fresh olives and old sweat.
Derek and Donna entered the room together to see the new product but were quickly disappointed to see it was just another rug. Derek had dark hair and had grown a big moustache and affected curls at the tips just for their stay in Istanbul. He had the same deep tan as Seb and side-by-side they could have been brother and sister if not for his blue eyes. Donna was fair skinned with strawberry hair. They all tried their best to keep Donna in the shade to keep her from turning bright pink. Her skin was incapable of tanning.
Derek stepped forward and twirled the ends of his moustache, ‘Everyone, I have a gift for the whole family.’
‘Aww, he called us a family. How cute,’ said Charlie.
Seb slapped him on the arm playfully. Derek went back into the hall and poked his head in the room, ‘are you ready?’
Charlie and Seb shared a weary look. Derek’s head disappeared to be replaced by his bottom.
‘Wow, I love this gift,’ said Charlie.
‘My bottom isn’t the gift. Hold on.’
Derek started to drag something into the room.
‘Need a hand?’ said Donna.
‘I’ve got it.’
Derek got his momentum and dragged a large cream-coloured fan into the room.
‘Ta-Da!’ he exclaimed with a flourish of his arms.
‘A fan!’ shouted Seb.
She ran over and embraced Derek, kissing him profusely on the cheeks.
‘I love you, I love you, I love you!’
‘Enough of that,’ said Charlie.
She let go of him and went around to the back of the machine. ‘Where’s the plug? Oh, it’s ok, I’ve got it.’
She unwound the plug from the back of the enormous machine and plugged it in to the wall socket.
‘Isn’t it a bit big?’ said Charlie.
Derek knelt down and switched it to the lowest setting just in case.
The blades started turning and sped up quickly. A cool breeze began to move around the room as the fan oscillated back and forth. Seb knelt in front of it and let it blow air from one side of her face to the other, and then waited as it moved away as it oscillated to the left and blew air on Derek’s bare legs, making his khaki shorts momentarily bellow, and back again to blow her hair the other way.
‘Why did you get such a big one?’
‘If I had planned to get one I might have searched for a smaller one. A builder stopped me in the street and convinced me to swap it for a rug.’
‘Excellent deal,’ said Seb, the cool air still blowing over her, causing her blouse to flap. ‘We don’t need any more rugs.’
‘That’s not all we got,’ said Donna, going out into the hall. She came back into the room holding a glass bottle with clear liquid inside, ‘Raki!’
‘Splendid!’ said Charlie, ‘I’ll get the glasses.’
The fan had been put in the corner of the room and turned slowly. The whir of its blades was surprisingly quiet considering the industrious look of the thing. They all sat in a circle on handmade cushions and were using a Backgammon board (which seemed to be a popular game in Turkey at the time) as a rudimentary table. A few candles were lit and a fresh incense stick burned silently on Seb’s desk letting out a smell of burned lavender.
‘Ok,’ started Derek, ‘Raki is supposed to be drank “sec” which means straight, with some cool water on the side. We don’t have any cool water, but I’m sure we can manage. If you do add water to it it apparently turns white as milk.’
‘How do you know all this crap?’ said Charlie.
Derek tapped a small book that he kept in his shirt pocket. Ah yes, remembered Charlie rolling his eyes, your Little Turkey Guide Book.
Derek filled four shot glasses and put the bottle down. Derek, Donna, Charlie, and Seb, picked up their glasses and raised them in salute. All four said, ‘Şerefe!’ and followed up with the British, ‘Cheers!’
They downed their Raki and Derek poured another round.
The incense stick burned out. It glowed red at the bottom and then darkened releasing a final plume of smoke that seemed to move faster than the smoke that preceded it. Seb was at the stage of drunkenness that made her lean back when she laughed and place friendly hands on people around her. On this day that person was Charlie and he, like most before, mistook it for flirting. He put his own hand softly on hers. She pulled hers away with a quick glance of “what are you doing?” and then carried on with her accidental flirting.
The bottle of Raki was almost empty and Derek, with excessive concentration, managed to pour another round only spilling a drop when the final shot overflowed.
‘Şerefe!’ said Derek, downing his before the others had a chance to pick theirs up.
The other’s “Şerefe’d” back, picking up their shots and downing them. For Donna shots didn’t get easier to drink the drunker she got, she still pulled a face after each one, ‘delicious,’ she said, running the back of her hand across her lips to wipe away the sticky residue.
Seb leaned forward to speak drunken conspiratorial nonsense to Donna and Charlie, who sat to her left. Charlie let his eyes fall on her figure. Derek noticed and gave an encouraging nod.
‘More wine!’ said Charlie.
‘Raki,’ said Derek, leaning forward to take Charlie’s glass. He filled his and Charlie’s and said, ‘Cheers.’
‘Cheers,’ said Charlie back, raising his glass forward so they could tap them together in the time honoured way all drunk men do.
‘Hey what about us?’ said Seb.
Donna raised her eyebrows, to help emphasize Seb’s words.
‘Your turn to pour,’ said Derek, passing the bottle to Donna.
Donna poured shots for her and Seb. Charlie looked Seb up and down again and took a breath. Confidence became him. He shifted closer to her so their bodies were touching. Donna turned her head with a quizzical move of the brow. Charlie put a hand on Seb’s leg and leaned in to kiss her.
‘Whoa there Charlie boy!’ she said, putting a hand on his cheek and pushing him away, ‘You have had way too much young man.’
Charlie had to stop himself tumbling backwards off his cushion and shuffled back a few inches, ‘Young man? We’re the same age.’
‘What are you doing trying to kiss me?’
Donna and Derek shared a glance. It was a glance that asked if it was ok to burst into laughter. They kept their cool but laughter hid beneath a single breath.
‘Oh, come on, you know we’ve got a thing? Let’s be adults here, huh? Me and you? Why not?’
‘Because Charlie, I don’t mix business with sex.’
‘Then I quit,’ he said.
‘Are you that desperate for sex?’ said Seb. Charlie stared at her, swaying slightly from the alcohol. ‘You need to go home and sleep it off,’ she said.
Charlie looked over at Derek for some backup. Derek shrugged in agreement with Seb, ‘You should go sleep it off Charlie.’
Charlie’s face fell glum. It’s a face only truly drunk people can pull off well.
‘Go on, mate, I’ll join you in a bit,’ said Derek.
Charlie nodded and made a show of getting up and left the office with a final wave of his hand as he disappeared into the hall.
There was a sound like a door slamming and the room shook. Two of the shot glasses toppled over, spilling Raki over the Backgammon board.
‘Charlie!’ shouted Seb, quickly picking up the glasses, annoyed that he had slammed the door.
There was another rumble, but no slam to accompany it this time, just a low purr. The glasses fell over again and the bottle jiggled across the board.
‘I don’t think that was Charlie,’ said Derek.
Suddenly the whole room seemed to jump two feet in the air and land again with a jolt that landed Seb on her tail bone and slid Donna off of her pillow. The fan crashed sideways and the cage protecting the blades dented inwards, causing the blades to drum against it and then clunk to a stop. The motor burned out and grey smoke poured from it. Derek held himself low to the ground.
‘Seb, you ok?’
‘I think I hurt my back.’
A hard vibration tore through the room and the window smashed inwards. A thick scream soared from Donna’s throat and bricks and dust collapsed from the ceiling above her. The desk slid left and then slammed violently right into the wall. Derek tried to stand and suddenly became aware of the deafening sound of the building. It seemed as if some giant hand had grabbed the building from the top and was twisting it. The walls strained and the steel in the building screeched with aching ferocity. He held his arms over his head and ran over to Donna.
Seb had collapsed backwards, struck on the head by a wooden crate of olives. Nine of the fourteen rugs had fallen on her and only a foot could be seen protruding.
Outside, Charlie steadied himself on the rumbling floor and looked up over his shoulder behind him. At once all the windows exploded and sand-coloured clouds of debris and glass bellowed out from them. The top floor collapsed into itself amidst a shower of falling rubble. A long cement girder fell from the sky and struck Charlie on the back of the neck, driving him into the ground.
At this point I must return to telling this story in the first person. The true horror of Charlie’s injuries are beyond what I am emotionally able to describe, he died instantly. My other two colleagues were crushed when the ceiling collapsed. By luck, if you can call it that, only the top floor collapsed leaving the rest of the building standing. There were fourteen other people in the floors below us who would certainly have perished had the whole Sand Fortress gone down. If it had happened during the day when the market outside was still the moving river of man and barter that it was when the sun was out, many more would have been killed or injured.
When I came to the first thing I saw was Charlie’s new rug. That rug, and eight others, had protected me from the crush from above.
The feeling I have held deep in my heart over the years wasn’t grief (although grief was my companion for many years after) it was something they used to call Survivors Syndrome, but is now more commonly known as Survivors Guilt. My hope in writing this story is to try and come to terms with some of that guilt. The thing that sticks with me most is the thought that if Charlie had stayed sitting next to me we would both have been saved by the rugs.
Before I sign off there’s something the Fireman told me about Donna and Derek that I want to share with you. It confirmed a feeling I had had for a while that they were secretly in love. It’s a tragic ending to their love but has a kind of unspoken beauty to it. When Donna and Derek’s bodies were cleared from the rubble they were discovered to be holding hands.
Donna, Derek, and Charlie, I miss you all dearly.
– Sebastinella Deavon
March 2013, Bournemouth.