The reek of donkey jackets, damp lanolin overlaid with fish from the wharf-side, jostles me as I push through the warehouse crowd.
I edge to the front of the semi-circle of men and scan their faces, searching for the nod. Dampness creeps through the corduroy as I kneel, scraping the dice into my palm, and reach into my pocket for a coin. I throw a pound into the middle of the semi-circle of grey concrete and a waterfall of clinks follows as coins rain down, metal upon metal, from the players.
I fiddle nervously with the dice, rolling them through my fingers, feeling dark indentations on cold plastic surfaces. My heart begins to race and a faint trace of sweat forms on my upper lip. An odd mix of fear and hope surges through my veins.
Gripping the dice hard I take myself to the place. Blacking out the crowd I fly to the top of the hill and look down on the city spread out in a net of glittering lights over the darkened land. A gentle breeze ruffles the ends of my hair, calming nerves with the warm, earthy scent of damp soil.
It is time. I open my eyes and regard the shabby coats, the brick wall and the towering piles of wooden crates. Someone coughs – a harsh, racking from a work-ruined chest. I blow on the dice and let hot cider-laced fumes slow time and motion, allowing me to watch my own hand sweep forward through the treacle air.
The dice fly in a straight line, with no wobble. They bounce together, clattering, and glance lightly off the wall. They are cast and I can do no more.
I scramble amid the crush of locals to get my foot on the step of the dolmuş. Hauling myself onto this cross between a mini-bus, a taxi and a ramshackle delivery van I see that it lives up to its name and the whole spectrum of society is stuffed inside.
Ignoring the olfactory assault of ripe goat, fermenting raki and lemon cologne, I squeeze between the sticky, plastic upholstery and ram myself into a sweaty gap in the rear of the bus, grateful at least of obtaining a window seat.
I share the back bench with a family of four. Next to me sits father, plainly dressed in a black suit, with white shirt primly buttoned tight at the throat. Sun-aged skin hangs in leathery folds beneath sunken eyes hidden by caterpillar eyebrows. His nose twitches above a full moustache, sniffing out the lie of the land as we avoid eye-contact. His wife is suitably veiled in a vibrant clash of florals, topped with a home knitted cardigan, unsuitable, to my mind, in such heat. Small children, one of each, finish the group, in grubby blue school smocks, back buttoned, with sleeves outgrown to reveal bony wrists.
Something alerts me, cries ‘creep’, and I edge further into my corner, holding my legs away from his in calf-cramping torture. The pot-holed road allows him to bump closer until we press knees in fetid confinement. The heat of his hand passes through my linen trousers and I am frozen in surprise. Shock initially brings out the Brit in me and I ignore him, shake my leg, then tut with sharp teeth-sucking clicks. When his clammy palm lays claim to my inner thigh I am galvanised. “Shameful”, I shout, sending a skin tearing stamp down his shin, and leave his wife to finish him off.
I can find no foothold in virtue. It is smooth-faced and unclimbable. My body flattens on its polished marble surface as my fingers seek out a crevice which I can utilise in my desire to reach the holy summit.
Endless cold seeps into my bones igniting a small hope that the pride and anger and jealousy that holds me back will be frozen out, no longer to keep me immersed in my own milk-curdling odour of self-preservation.
Onwards, upwards, slow stealth wins out and virtue sits above, within my reach. Imagining her to be tall and beautiful, white robes flowing behind her and eyes shining like the constellations peeping through a veil of the blackest night, I am shocked by what is before me. With pale pinched flesh, adorned in rough squalor, she stoops to lend an aged hand. I let myself slide backwards, unsure now that the dizzying heights are what I really want if the cost is to be worn out from toil, residing shoeless and bedraggled on this barren pinnacle.
Another wave of smoked mackerel washes over me as I lean forward, wincing at the gritty pain in my knees, to rub linseed oil into the ochre and red triangles of floor tiles. With long, curved strokes I inch my way down the hall, bent over, crawling like a supplicant ready to prostrate myself before the altar of restoration.
The soft rustle of velvet passes close by and hurried footsteps intrude upon the silence, hussling down the hall. I gasp, sit back on my haunches and swing my head towards the diminishing sound. Nothing is there. I stare, cloth in hand, unable to rise. A sense of dread, accompanied by the tingle of electric ice, assaults me. I am jolted by a silky caress on my cheek, both delicate and repulsive – the touch of spiders’ webs – which disappears in an instant to leave behind a faint scent of lavender leaking into the empty hall.