THE UMBRELLA MAN
“Good morning, Shems!” The customary greeting, as if today were exactly like any other.
They call me Shems. Yes, that’s right. The same as the poet Mevlana’s mentor. Not that I’m especially wise. It’s short for “shemsiyeci”: the seller, maker, or repairer of umbrellas. In short, I’m the umbrella man. I fix them. That’s what I know about. I could go on about umbrellas for hours. I could tell you, for instance, that the Turkish word “shemsiye”, umbrella, comes from “sems” – the Arabic for “sun.” And in all the ancient engravings that’s what the umbrella was used for – to shield the regal, feminine or sensitive from its rays. I’ve often wondered when it occurred to someone that the same item could equally function in the rain. I hope they patented the idea and profited from it, whoever it was.
“How are you doing?” Hasan, the man who makes the tea for all the tradespeople near my workshop, twirls his empty tray as if he belonged to a circus act. He wears a boyish grin under a middle-aged moustache. “How does it feel to be retiring at last?”
I incline my head thoughtfully and try to compose a suitable response. Before I do, Hasan provides another teasing question for me to ponder: “Do you ever want to see another umbrella again?”
“Just bring me a tea, will you?” I say, pretending to snap in annoyance as I unlock the door to the workshop.
I call it a workshop, but it’s no larger than a cupboard really. The size of a cupboard under the stairs, and in fact that’s what it is. A wedge-shaped space under a flight of steps leading up to another gallery of shops in one of the old bazaar districts of Istanbul. Nothing as grand as the Grand Bazaar, you understand. Not picturesque enough to attract tourists. That’s why, when I leave at the end of the day, there’ll be no replacement. No new umbrella man in this cubby-hole. The whole area has been designated for “retail redevelopment”.
The stone steps that dictate the shape of my workshop look centuries old but probably aren’t. It’s hard to know exactly, and nobody has been interested enough to pursue a study of their history. Every tread dips in the middle, like the cushion on a sofa moulded after someone has been sitting there for hours. The dip is the result of wear from generations of feet: those of customers, pickpockets, robbers, porters, men like Hasan serving tea and coffee, men like me going to and from their place of work, day after day, week after week, year after year. After these steps are demolished, will there be another flight to replace them? Maybe some structure of chrome and glass which will be scratched and chipped in twenty years and probably need replacing again. It's the way of things. And a design that certainly won’t accommodate a man who repairs umbrellas in the recess beneath. The world doesn’t need people like me anymore. That’s the way of things too. Throw away, get a new one. Everything has such a short shelf life these days.
“Here’s your tea, Shems,” says Hasan with a slightly apologetic air.
I look up at him. “Lost,” I conclude. “I feel a bit lost really. I just want to treat today as any other and finish what I have to do for my last customers. And what are you going to do, Hasan? When this redevelopment happens?”
“Ah!” Hasan pats his paunch prosperously, as if he’s a man of immense means which he has been hiding from me all along. “They’ll always need tea and coffee, whatever’s built here.”
“Even if a branch of Starbucks opens up the road?”
He grimaces and leaves me by wishing me ease in the tasks ahead of me, as he always does: “Kolay gelsin!”
I settle myself behind the work-worn counter, as my father did when he was an umbrella man too. In the days when everyone had umbrellas repaired, when buying a new one was too great an expense not to. I turn on the angle-poise lamp as I prepare to start work and incline it over the counter. Even on a sunny day, natural light barely penetrates the passage in this part of the bazaar.
“People will always need to get their umbrellas mended, son,” my father told me confidently after recruiting me as inheritor of the business. “They can’t just throw them away every time one blows inside out in the wind. You learn the trade properly, and people get to know that you do a good job, you’ll never go hungry!”
To illustrate his point, he gestured towards the umbrellas at the other end of the counter, each awaiting his attention, stacked as meticulously as scrolls in an ancient archive and tagged with the customer’s name. In those days, like cars were once upon a time, nearly every umbrella was black and needed to be distinguished somehow.
The two external walls, facing the narrow alleyway, are glazed, and dangling from the frame of the front window, there’s a signboard – a survivor from my father’s tenure. It bears the word “shemsiyeci” in watery blue script on a once-red, but now dull pink background. And a hastily daubed umbrella – just a black lozenge with a brown hook at one end, as if the signwriter had either had a sudden burst of creativity or remembered that not everyone was literate at that time. Now the wooden panel is just about legible, faded and flaking as the spine of an old library book.
Behind the counter are the tools of my trade. Replacement ribs and stretchers are lined on a shelf. Pliers, wire cutters, scissors of assorted sizes – all hang from nails across the back wall, looking like hieroglyphs carved into the walls of a pharaoh’s tomb. There are toy-sized chests of drawers too, housing needles, thread, coils of wire. Some of these items are part of my father’s legacy.
“If they still work, don’t replace them. New ones are never the same,” I remember him observing sagely about a rusted-looking pair of pliers that he brandished. “They may not look pretty, but they work just fine.”
Draining my glass of tea, I look across at the last few umbrellas that demand my surgical skill. They lie as prone as patients on whom only I can bestow a new lease of life.
“Morning Shems!” Murat the jeweller from opposite has arrived and pokes his head into my workshop. “How does it feel? Your last day and all that.”
“Just treating it as any other,” I reply breezily, deciding that this will forthwith be my stock answer.
I turn to my first job, reconnecting a rib of a lady’s umbrella to one of its fabric panels. A simple enough task for me, rudimentary as sewing a button onto a shirt for a tailor. Just a matter of aligning the rib to where it detached from the fabric, pulling a needle and knotted thread through. Then I poke the needle through the underside of the canopy on the opposite side of the rib and pull the thread through again. Next, I wrap the thread around the rib. Just to secure it, I insert the needle and pull the thread through a couple more times. When I’ve finished, I tie the loose end of the string to the other end with the knot.
Once complete, the most satisfying moment arrives. I open the umbrella, rotating it to check that its canopy is restored to a perfect hemisphere, a stable and symmetrical piece of engineering. Yes, it’s fine.
I remember when I was a child, it struck me how closely the dome of a mosque resembled an opened umbrella, with its ribbed canopy and instead of a ferrule at its apex, a pinnacle with a crescent. I remember my delight at sharing this revelation with my father, who laughed and exclaimed: “You’re right! Well, both of them are works of God I guess, son!”
These days, of course, divine design or not, umbrellas all too often end up being discarded. In the aftermath of a storm, they choke the gutters like mangled road-kill. Not worth retrieving, cheaper to buy a new one. Throw away, get a new one, throw away, get a new one. That’s the way of things.
The morning passes quickly as I’m busy with my last few jobs. A stretcher needs to be re-connected to one of the ribs of a gentleman’s umbrella. It’s a particularly fine one, with an elegantly-shaped crook handle that looks as if it’s made of maple wood. A discerning owner, I think. Yes, I remember him. He had the air of a retired bank manager and handed it over to me reluctantly, as you would a family heirloom that you’ve been forced to sell. After my attention, the canopy opens with the natural geometry of a black rose whose petals respond to being watered. Yes, baba, a work of God.
My mobile telephone rings. It’s my daughter, Hatice.
“How are you, baba? How does it feel? Your last day and all that.”
“I’m trying to treat it like any other,” I reply, and am aware that the response is beginning to sound a little pat, like a waiter wishing you a good day as you leave a cafe. “And how are you, my dear?”
“Oh, I’m OK. Don’t worry about me. Mehmet and I will sort things out between us. I mean, neither of us wants one of those messy divorces when you’re squabbling about everything down to the last teaspoon, do we? We don’t want to upset the children any more than necessary. They’re both doing so well at school.”
“I don’t understand,” I shake my head with the telephone still fixed to my ear. “I mean, it’s not as if either of you has anyone else. Won’t you just consider…”
“Giving it another try, baba?” Hatice cuts in peevishly. “We’ve talked about this before. I can’t spend the rest of my life with someone I feel nothing for. If we split up now, while I’m still young…. Well, maybe I’ll find someone else. Not straight away, of course. There are the children to think about.”
“But your mother and I had our ups and downs,” I counter, “and we got through them. Every couple does.”
“Baba!” Hatice exclaims, and I can almost hear her voice hissing through clenched teeth. “Not everything can be fixed with pliers and some wire! Some things… just can’t be mended! You have to let them go!”
Even relationships have a shorter shelf life these days, I think to myself gloomily.
“Anyway, baba,” says Hatice, “I didn’t mean to get angry with you. I’ll see you later. Just think – you’ll never have to look at an umbrella ever again. Unless it’s a wet day, of course. Isn’t that something to look forward to?”
“Of course it is. See you later.”
“See you later! Kolay gelsin, baba!”
After putting down the phone, I gaze briefly out of my window and an unexpected shard of sunlight shows up a film of dust on the pane in front of me. Not worth cleaning now, I decide. There was one time, I think, when this part of the bazaar was filled with small workshops like mine containing men who repaired things: watches, TVs, radios, shoes, clothes, pans, kettles, reading glasses. From early in the morning until the evening call to prayer, there was a constant clamour of things being restored to usefulness, of things having their shelf life extended. But these workshops have slowly disappeared. Not all at once, not even so that the average passer-by would really notice until they needed that very thing to be repaired. It’s like when an old building is demolished and there is just a rubble-strewn gap in the street left behind. Few passers-by will even be able to remember what once occupied it. Especially when its sleek new replacement appears on the site.
I turn to the next umbrella that I need to mend. I think about its owner, and the next time they have a broken umbrella, but either don’t have enough time or skill to fix it themselves. So, like everyone else, they’ll end up throwing it away and buying a replacement. That’s the way of things. Or it will be from tomorrow, when the umbrella man has gone.