‘Hamilton Park’ was shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Award in 2013, and first published in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing 11:3 (April 2014). and now appears in Prayer at the End: Twenty-Three Stories.
For twenty years the shop on Hamilton Park had been run by a Turkish Cypriot and his wife. Ahmet Gül sold papers and lottery tickets during the morning and evening rush hours, tobacco and alcohol into the night. When he went to the wholesaler’s to re-stock or the bank to deposit their takings, Emine would come down from the flat upstairs to sell bread and apples and Swiss rolls to the mothers with small children. So like the woman and man in a Bavarian weather clock, Emine was seen in fair conditions, Ahmet in foul.
They had a grown-up son, but Fazil had no time for his parents. Ahmet’s interests outside the shop included the lottery ticket he bought surreptitiously every week, and the occasional glass of wine he drank with a friend from the Turkish restaurant; Emine’s included prayers and lessons at the mosque and matinées at the cinema, where she watched the films of the Hollywood Golden Age, the films she loved, time and again. On sunny Friday afternoons they would pull down the shutters and stroll through the Mermaid Quay, sedately pacing the waterfront and flattering themselves that they were old. Soon she would begin to tut-tut at the godless atmosphere of the place (the drinking they saw in the restaurants, the immodesty of the women’s clothes) and he would know it was time they went home. Emine would take a nap before prayers, and Ahmet would settle down in the shop to read the Olay Gazette or the Western Mail, or to stand at the window fingering his prayer beads and watching the goings-on in Hamilton Park.
The park was an empty lot on the other side of the one-end street, cleared of bomb damage after the war and planted with flowerbeds and a sycamore. At some point the flowerbeds had been paved over, but the name had stayed, and the park had become a meeting point for teenagers after school. There was a sign saying ‘No Ball Games,’ but they would bring a ball for show, rolling it between their feet as they sat on one of the benches, eating the chocolate bars and crisps that one of them always bought from the shop. They had learnt not to ask for goods not intended for minors, but Ahmet was careful to cultivate their custom, always adding an item or two to any group purchase they made.
Jessica was the youngest of the group at fifteen; John her brother was a year older and preparing to study computers at college. Terry, between the two in age, seemed the least worried about his career, more interested in hunting for kingfishers along the Taff than in making decisions about the future. At seventeen, Cameron was starting to spend less time in Hamilton Park. He had set his sights on a degree in Law, and the young people seemed uneasily aware that their life together was ending.
Over the winter a Tesco Metro was built a few streets away from Hamilton Park. Spring passed, and as his business declined, Ahmet found himself taking more interest in the young people. Wrapping a bottle in tissue paper for one of his few remaining drinkers, he would glance through the window to see what they were doing; if Emine brought him a glass of tea at eight or nine he would cross the road to say goodnight, a hint that they should be heading indoors. He was keeping the shop open longer in the hope of picking up late trade, and he had begun to dispense with bread and fresh fruit to make room for higher-value goods, especially alcohol. Meanwhile the young people’s habits were changing. John began to take an interest in writing about computer games for the press; he asked Ahmet to subscribe to various gaming magazines, and Ahmet felt that the world they described was not wholesome for young people. One afternoon Jess came into the shop to ask if Ahmet could give her a paper round or Saturday work behind the counter. He had to explain that this was not possible.
‘I’m sorry.’ She turned away from the counter, but stopped, and clearly there were things beside money on her mind. ‘Mr Gül, what do you do if a thing feels right and wrong at the same time? How do you know your conscience is right when your head says something’s okay?’
Ahmet looked up and considered her carefully. She had always been a neat-looking child, modestly dressed, but now he noticed the clumsy addition of eyeliner and blush. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘a thing feels right because we’re listening to the wrong people. And it feels wrong because we know it will make us unhappy in the end.’
‘I know,’ said Jess, ‘I suppose you’re right. It’s just so hard when you do something to make one person happy and somebody else gets mad at you.’
She was turning to leave, but Ahmet stopped her. ‘Do you ever talk to your parents or teachers when you need advice, Jessica?’
‘Maybe I should,’ said Jess; ‘it doesn’t seem fair to chew your ear off with my problems. And maybe being a Muslim makes it hard for you to understand.’
Ahmet smiled a little as he escorted her to the shop door. ‘I don’t know why that should be, Jessica.’
He watched the young people more closely after this. He saw that Jess was caught between John’s jealousy and Cameron’s growing lust, and that Terry felt bewildered and sidelined by these rivalries among his friends. On days when Cameron was at home revising, John and Terry talked about computers or cars, pointedly ignoring Jess; alone together the two boys sat in silence, and their glances met in the pain of betrayal that they had so little in common. The exam season came, and Ahmet was busy winding down his business. Posters in the window advertised his final sale, and an estate agent’s sign was nailed to the corner. His last evening in the shop was a hot, fagged Friday in Ramadan, and Ahmet looked up to the sound of laughter in Hamilton Park. The young people were gathered around the park bench, and John seemed somehow to be goading Cameron. They both kept glancing across the road in a way that made Ahmet uneasy, and after a few minutes Cameron got up and slouched towards the shop.
A bluebottle buzzed in the dirty window. Ahmet stayed in his chair and fingered his prayer beads as his customer drifted towards the alcohol shelves. Cameron put three plastic bottles of cider on the counter and rubbed the shine on his forehead.
The prayer beads clicked in Ahmet’s hand. The light jumped as someone opened a car door. ‘Are you trying to buy alcohol from me, Cameron?’
‘What if I am?’ said Cameron. He loomed over Ahmet in his small chair. His face was flushed, and the smell of sweat was as thick as a young girl’s perfume.
Ahmet turned one of the labels towards him. He moved with precise and quiet gestures as though he was afraid. ‘It’s a celebration, perhaps,’ he said. ‘For passing your exams and going to university to study Law. A small party with a few friends.’
‘I’m eighteen,’ said Cameron. His voice was thick and he swallowed after speaking. It did not seem that exam results were what he celebrated.
‘And those friends of yours sitting across the road. Are they eighteen as well?’
Cameron glanced over his shoulder. He glared down at Ahmet, aware that he had betrayed himself. ‘What the fuck does it matter?’ he said. ‘You won’t even be here tomorrow.’
Ahmet’s chair creaked. His lungs seemed to snag on his breath. ‘Go to the soft drinks section. Take what you want, as much as you want, and then go.’
Cameron leaned forward, almost touching him. The smell of sweat and alcohol was revolting to Ahmet’s hunger. ‘I’m eighteen,’ he said. ‘It’s your last day in the shop. Just sell me the fucking drink.’ And with a slam he brought down his fist on the counter.
But Ahmet picked up the bottles and stowed them beside his seat. ‘I’m a Muslim,’ he said; ‘this is Ramadan. I will not sell you alcohol tonight.’
He had almost expected a blow. But there was only a muffled curse, an almost inaudible racial slur, and dust tumbling in the sun as the shop door slammed shut.
Ahmet rose a little stiffly to his feet and began to sweep the floor. But all was not well in the park. Cameron took Jessica’s shoulders and kissed, but something about it was not to her liking, for after a moment of limpness she pulled away, fending him off with weak blows of her fists, and turned and ran to her brother. Nobody moved. Cameron stared at his former friends, glanced at the shop, and spat. He turned, shambling off towards the end of the street, and was gone.
Ahmet released the latch on the door and turned the sign to ‘Closed.’ He moved the lottery stand into the store room and started to empty the last of the shelves. He was sorting the contents of the till into bags when Jess tapped on his window.
There was evidence of tears, but she had a brave face for Ahmet. ‘I know Cameron behaved badly,’ she said. ‘I wanted to say sorry.’
Ahmet said nothing. ‘He is eighteen,’ Jessica continued; ‘they’ve been serving him in the pubs for weeks. He’s been trying to prove himself since he failed his exams, and when John dared him to come in here and buy alcohol he fell for it. You didn’t see either of them at their best today.’
‘The boy was drunk. He was drunk when he came in.’
It was not Ahmet she was trying to convince. There were rings on her right thumb and her first two fingers, and a bracelet with a teddy-bear charm dangled from her wrist. He looked at her hand resting on the latch of the door, and his anger left him drained and alone. ‘Thank you for coming to see me, Jessica,’ he said. ‘Work hard at your schooling and you’ll be happy some day.’ His voice sounded lifeless to him. But some depth in him seemed to touch Jess’s feelings, because she reached up and kissed him on the cheek before she left.
Ahmet pulled the shutters down and went upstairs to the flat. Much that they owned had already been packed, but Emine was sitting on the sofa watching a black and white film on TV. He sank down beside her.
‘The young people in the park tried to buy alcohol.’
Emine stirred slowly. She reached to the table to pour him tea. ‘You spoil them. All those sweets you’ve fed them over the years. You spoil them the way you spoiled Fazil.’
Ahmet grunted. Emine went to the kitchen to begin their meal, and Ahmet stood at the window overlooking the empty park. The end of a drinks can caught the sun, and a cat making its way along the back of the bench stopped and sniffed at the place where Cameron had been sitting. It was the last time he would see the park. They would sleep the next night in a smaller flat, and Ahmet would be at the till of a supermarket the next morning. Perhaps he would remain in the young people’s memories, a fading impression of a man behind a counter, moving quaint and stiff like a figure in a clock until some hidden part is broken and it stops.
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