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Excerpt from No Room For Watermelons

When I looked up, the delinquents were sprinting back across the field. I’d been right. They were bored and had decided to head home. I sighed with relief and returned to stowing my gear in the tent.

But, an hour later they were back, this time with a scrawny friend in tow. All wore shabby trousers and frayed open-neck shirts; their bare feet were cracked and grimy. The leader’s intense dark eyes, bony features and shock of unruly black hair were discomforting. So too was the shotgun slung over his shoulder. Although there was no meanness about his looks, I felt a gnawing sense of foreboding. Was the gun a display of machismo or were the boys simply on their way to hunt local game?

The new sidekick’s boyish face disguised a sly, tough interior. He stared at me intently and spoke in a low tone. With my command of the Turkish language limited to only a few words, making conversion was virtually impossible. But, when I thought I heard the word, para (money) mentioned, I realised their objective: it wasn’t rabbits they were after.

The older boy moved deliberately, his weapon conspicuous. As he drew a bead on this and that, I tried to appear nonchalant, but a hamster was spinning around inside my ribcage.

The youngest, and most affable of the trio — seemingly uninterested in his friend’s activities — flopped on the grass alongside me, doing his damnedest to hold a conversation.

Maybe he was trying to explain that I was on private property and couldn’t spend the night there, or was he was prattling on about me being a crazy old git who deserved to be robbed?

The newcomer sat nearby, flicking a cigarette lighter, and trying to ignite small tufts of grass. The sparks flared, chasing one another momentarily before fizzling out. Thank God. I didn’t need a bloody grass fire with two cans of petrol within spitting distance. The reckless act didn’t go unnoticed.

‘ARHHHH!’ The arsonist cowered, one arm raised to shield himself from the ringleader’s fist. The pair no doubt shared a troubled history. I averted my eyes, trying to focus on what I should do. Perhaps now was a good time to abandon the campsite before anything more dangerous occurred. My mouth was dry, and I begged the pounding in my head to stop.

My water bottle lay inches away, but before I could reach for it, a flash caught my peripheral vision, and I looked up. An icy shiver trickled down my spine. One minute the bully was threatening his friend; the next he stood pointing the shotgun at my temple.

‘PARA,’ my assailant spat. ‘PARA, PARA.’ His finger teased the trigger.

‘Nothing, I’ve got nothing,’ I insisted, ‘No money … see.’

I patted my pockets, trusting that the pouch around my neck stayed hidden. Memories of the robbery in Iran came flooding back. I should have anticipated this and had a small amount of cash at the ready. But it was too late now for that. The boy tossed me a look of contempt.

Goading him didn’t seem wise, but showing signs of vulnerability wouldn’t earn me brownie points either. I tried to remain calm, testing his mettle against mine. The pressure of the barrels tattooed their mark, like the keen eyes of an owl, on my forehead.

There was no epiphany, no lightbulb moment when my life flashed before me. My view on death had always been pragmatic — but I’d never faced a situation like this before. An ache in my groin intensified. I wanted to raise my arm and ask to be excused. Instead, my hands stayed clenched, palms moist.

Nothing moved. Even the wind held its breath.

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