Alone in the dark Pete felt like he was waking from a bad dream, his mind working furiously to shake off the disorientation. He told himself to calm down. For a moment he would just breathe and wait for his brain to deliver an explanation; where was he and what the fuck was going on? Did he have his wallet at least? Feeling the reassuring bulge, he reached for his phone – nothing. He rolled carefully onto his side, and remembering his Law and Order, tried to mentally record his surroundings. The room was dark and a bit stinky, sparsely furnished. He shook his head to clear the cotton wool, but the ricochet in his skull sent his stomach lurching into his mouth. As he lay back again, he finally remembered the two men, getting dragged from the urinal, piss everywhere. That explained the stink; it wasn’t the room, it was him.
Outside the room Esme stood listening for sounds of life. She’d been tipped generously but she wasn’t happy. Her house, and a few others like it, was the only places in the city that provided protection for girls like her. They might even earn a decent living, but only as long as everything was kept discrete. She didn’t need trouble and having an unconscious yabancı in one of her rooms was trouble any way she looked at it. At least he wasn’t really hurt; with a bit of extra persuasion she could manage the police, after all, what did she pay them for? But she didn’t like what those boys had done. Yabancı couldn’t be expected to understand; poor things, all their women were whores. She scratched her balls and wandered off to check on her girls.
He spent his days teaching at the Istanbul English Centre, but Hamish also had a second job – bed and breakfast for long lost mates, previously estranged relatives and friends of friends, lured by the prospect of free accommodation. The constant stream of houseguests drained his energy and his wallet, but despite the fantasy of a quiet night lounging on the sofa in his underpants, he rarely said no. He loved showing off his adopted city and to see it all again through fresh eyes reminded him why he’d moved so far from home. Unfortunately it was a reminder he often needed. Istanbul was tougher than he’d expected; the work was hard and terribly paid, the cost of his flat was crazy and the Turks were contradictory. With visitors in tow, he could forget all that. One of his favourite stops was HiLif, a Taksim nightclub, where a Romani band played traditional music. It attracted a local crowd and visitors loved it, so when his friend Andy came over from London for a few days, bringing a mate, Hamish suggested they head to his favourite venue.
“Oh my God, man, these chicks are fantastic” Pete was mesmerised by a group of young girls, all legs, prancing down Taksim’s famous Istiklal Caddesi in audacious platform stilettos. “I thought Muslims got arrested for wearing shit like that.”
Andy agreed. “They should definitely be arrested, I’d frisk them”
Hamish noted a disturbing lack of response from his groin. Turkish girls looked delicious, but his few relationships had been disasters; demands, tantrums, constant texts demanding an account of every minute. There was always some game to be played and frankly, he couldn’t be bothered. He refused to be one of the many couples publicly screaming, wailing and claiming heartbreak. He was English and he’d take his emotions just how he liked them, repressed.
But this being Istanbul, for everything he thought he knew, there existed an equal and opposite truth.
After he abandoned attempts to form a meaningful relationship, Hamish had discovered the local girls who sought out foreigners, safe from the prying eyes of friends and families. Funnily enough, porn was common, but in their crowded living conditions, under the frowning parental gaze, there was little or no opportunity for practical experience. Some girls were understandably keen to experience the pleasure portrayed with such enthusiasm. In the early days he’d enjoyed these secret porn stars, but devoid of emotional connection it wasn’t much more than nude athletics and the hypocrisy irritated him. She’d get married, pretending to be chaste, probably never sharing her desires with her husband.
From the top of a ramshackle building full of restaurants and bars, HiLif stared out across the Golden Horn. The boys joined the crowd outside smoking and flashing their gadgets while they tossed up the dilapidated three person elevator, or the scramble up six flights of rickety stairs. The scramble won and as they reached the top, the pulsing music drew them in. They gathered their breath, admiring the lights of Sultanahmet; from the peninsula of Topkapi Palace, along the clusters of brilliant minarets extending north across the inlet, creating one of the world’s most incredible skylines.
The band was in full swing led by stunning violin and clarinet. The whirling beat gathered speed as alone on the floor, a man danced. With glistening leather embracing his legs and a billowing white shirt open to the waste, he moved proudly, his outstretched arms commanding the space. Pete had never seen anything like it. “Jeez, could you imagine that down the pub?”
Andy gave him a playful shove. “Why don’t you ask for a few tips to take home?”
“It’s traditional gypsy dancing. I don’t know if he’s professional, but he comes here a lot and he sure can dance. His friends too.” Hamish gestured at a group sitting near to the band. The music was too loud for talking, so nursing pints of the watery local brew they settled down to watch. From time to time, the dancer’s friends joined him; the men strutting in solidarity, the women swaying with provocative hips.
Pete was impressed and not only by the display on the floor. He had his eye on a table of hot young things enjoying the dancer’s fine moves, obviously winding up for a big night. He pointed them out to Hamish. “What d’ya reckon, shall we go have a chat?” he asked.
Hamish shook his head “Nah, not a good idea. They won’t appreciate it, neither will the guys here.”
Pete was sceptical. “They look up for it, let’s buy them a round and introduce ourselves.”
“Mate, look around you. People come for the band and to socialise with their friends. They sit at their tables and don’t usually mix. If you want to meet a girl, you need to be introduced. Try chatting to one of her male friends, but getting an introduction could take a while and half the time it’s her brother so good luck with that.”
“So we just look at each other ‘til it’s time to go home?”
“Mate, if a girl is looking at you here, it’s because she feels safe – the guys will step in if they think you’re out of line.”
“That’s fucked up.” Pete didn’t look happy at all.
The band was taking a break and it was Hamish’s round. As he approached the bar the manager, Onur nodded in recognition; a good customer by his standards; coming regularly, never making a problem and tipping for drinks. He even spoke decent Turkish, if you ignored the terrible accent. As the big Turk pulled the beers a top 40’s pop mix filled the gap left by the band, encouraging some of the crowd to get up to dance. Placing the last pint of Efes on the counter Onur nodded over Hamish’s shoulder. “Watch out for your friend.”
Hamish spun around. Out on the floor Pete was performing his own dance spectacular for the benefit of the hotties. To be fair, they seemed to be enjoying it. Hamish’s first instinct was to laugh but he knew it wouldn’t go down well; Onur didn’t find it funny in the slightest. “If he creates a problem, I’ll have to sort it out. It’s not good for us.”
Hamish took the beers, “He’s just having a dance, but I’ll keep an eye on him.”
When he returned to their table, Andy was in hysterics “Look at that idiot, would you?”
“I told him not to bother those girls, he’d better settle down or he’ll get himself into trouble.”
“They’re OK; he’s just a bit pissed…” but before Andy could finish his sentence, Hamish was halfway across the dance floor. Aware of Onur’s eyes upon him, he grabbed Pete by the arm and steered him reluctantly back to the table. “Beer’s up, have a cold one.”
“Mate, that was not cool,” Pete protested. There was one girl with amazing smoky eyes who was definitely into him. He’d swear she’d deliberately turned to him, to display that triangle of mesmerising shadow, where the top of her thighs met her skirt. His mouth was suddenly dry as he followed an alluring train of thought.
“I thought you understood about not hitting on those girls,” Hamish said. “It wasn’t a joke.”
“I was just having a dance. Now I can’t even dance?” Pete asked. Hamish was starting to piss him off.
Andy knew that Pete considered himself raw talent with the ladies and played the numbers game at home with surprisingly high statistics. It went against his very nature to ignore the opposite sex. Normally Andy couldn’t see the harm, but he’d noticed the Turks’ scowls and he recognised that they might have to curb their enthusiasm. He slapped Pete on the back and said, “None of those girls are going home with you, so why piss off the natives? Let’s just enjoy the music yeah?”
Pete raised his hands in capitulation, but waved away the beer. He needed a therapeutic slash and five minutes away from Hamish would do him good. He finally found the bathrooms downstairs, but had no idea of the local lingo for ‘male’ and ‘female’. Heaven forbid he cause another fucking stir, he’d wait in the hall and see who came out of where. Fate of course decided that hovering like a lecher outside the toilets was the perfect moment to encounter his object of lust. She brushed past him, a little too firmly, before entering ‘Kadın’. He stormed into ‘Erkek’, took the quickest piss of his life and was back standing in the hall. Just as he was wondering if he’d missed her she reappeared; big brown eyes, fresh red lips and a cloud of scent.
“Hi?” At the last minute he wondered if she spoke English, but she smiled. “Hi.”
It was quieter here, he didn’t have to shout, but he leaned closer anyway. “What’s your name?”
She leaned into him as well. “I’m Sila, and you?”
“Pete.” He knew they wouldn’t be alone for long, so he decided to be direct. “My friend says I shouldn’t talk to girls. He says it’ll get me into trouble.”
“He’s right. You’re in the wrong place. You should go to the big Bosphorus clubs like Raina. You have to have the right clothes and drive your fancy car up to the valet, but the crowd there has a modern attitude; you can do whatever you like. The girls might even go home with someone. Maybe even you.”
As Pete was trying to work out whether she was flirting or warning him off, she darted forward and kissed him on the mouth, hard and fast. He tried to hold her but she pulled back. “Not tonight, I’m here with my friends, but I go to Raina on Thursdays.”
“But I leave on Monday!” he called after her.
The writhing clarinet coaxed intricate harmonies from the other musicians, and the dancer stepped expertly back and forth, following the difficult 9/8 rhythm of the Romani music. Ebru joined him, moving in synchronicity, her hips marking the beat.
She knew he was barely aware of her, even as they wove around each other. It was always the same, Ahmet barely aware of her, dancing or not. More so tonight; she could tell he was distracted by the yabancı paying too much attention to his cousin and her friends. The man was attractive and the girls were playing up to him a little, but there’d be no real harm done. But Ebru knew Ahmet, and he was never reasonable where Sila was concerned.
Ebru and Ahmet were from the same neighbourhood, had danced together all their lives and she’d adored him since she could remember. With a child’s innocence, she’d assumed when she was old enough, they’d marry. To her dismay, he’d shown not the slightest interest; he was already enamoured of his beautiful, aloof cousin. It was impossible of course; both families would forbid it. Sila’s parents considered themselves progressive Turks. After studying in Germany, her father restyled himself as a ‘modern man’, rejected his parents’ proffered virgins and married a woman who did not even cover herself. On the other hand, Ahmet’s family were still very conservative; they considered secular Turks an abomination. There was now a permanent rift between the families.
But even if this was not the case, Sila herself showed no regard for Ahmet beyond that of cousin. She never rewarded his affection, never sought him out. If Allah was really watching, why would he give Sila such an undeserved gift, leaving Ebru nothing but dreams? Why didn’t he point Ahmet toward the woman who loved him?
As the music paused, she looked at Ahmet, to share the pleasure of their dance but again, he was watching his cousin. How much more of this was she supposed to endure? She followed his gaze and smiled. “That yabancı is going to disgrace your precious Sila.”
From the other side of the room, Andy was also worried about the Turkish girl. The last thing he wanted was to sour his relationship with either of his friends, but Pete was stubborn when he got an idea in his head and their brilliant idea for a weekend trip was precariously close to becoming a shambles. He was relieved when Pete returned to the table in a better mood. Girls weren’t mentioned again and as the night went on, the boys started enjoying themselves again. The energy of the music had everyone dancing, swaying or tapping along; they talked nonsense, made much of the terrible beer and with Hamish’s encouragement, switched to rakı, the local spirit.
Hamish was happy things were back on track. He hated coming down so hard on Pete, who he’d only just met. Andy must think he’d turned into a complete tool. He hadn’t seen him for years, not since they’d flatted together in London where they’d cut loose so hard and so often it was a wonder that either of them had survived. And now look at them, Hamish responsible for educating children and Andy handling piles of other people’s money. He’d been looking forward to reliving old times and there was no better place than Istanbul for a big night, but there were very clear boundaries. Hamish had never been involved himself, but he’d heard plenty of stories of guys getting into real trouble. This whole damn city just sent too many mixed signals.
The boys hit the dance floor. There were a few western girls, the remnants of a tour group and a couple of local girls, teachers that Hamish recognised. They made their way over and spent a few minutes screaming introductions into each other’s ears.
With everyone up and dancing Pete decided to seize the moment, He grabbed Andy’s arm. “I’m going to ask the Turkish girl to dance.”
Andy looked around for Hamish, “Are you serious? Can’t you leave it alone?”
Hamish bounced over, but his smile soon disappeared “Let me introduce you to my friends instead, you can have plenty of fun with them. Her, you’re asking for trouble.”
But Pete had done his bit for male bonding, consumed the requisite level of booze, and was not about to be cock blocked. “I talked to her downstairs. It’s cool man.”
Hamish’s eyebrows crashed together, was he really going to have to go through this again? It was screamingly loud, Pete was drunk and if he didn’t get it before, he wasn’t going to now. He decided to throw down the gauntlet instead. “Fine. But you gotta know, I was asked by the manager to tell you to back off and I did. I love this place; I don’t want to get banned, so if you going to take them on, I’m off”
“For fuck’s sake Hamish, you can’t just bugger off, how do we get home?” Andy wasn’t sure who he was more annoyed with.
“Come with me, we’ll get a drink somewhere else, see a bit more of Taksim,” Hamish said.
Pete was unmoved. “Fuck off then mate, I’ve got my Amex. I’ll be fine.”
If Hamish had hoped for backup from Andy, it wasn’t forthcoming. Andy shook his head. Pete wasn’t going anywhere and he was bound to stick by his friend. Hamish couldn’t believe it had come to this, over some girl they’d never see again. He didn’t really want to leave them, but he wasn’t prepared to back down.
Ahmet had stormed off in a rage and Ebru cursed herself for drawing attention to Sila’s stupid flirtation. She worried that he’d do something stupid, but here he was again. He looked much calmer, although when she suggested they dance he tossed his head and dismissed it with a click of the tongue.
She watched the stranger arguing with his friends. He was drunk, like most of the tourists that came here; ridiculous, swaying and throwing their arms around, acting like animals. She looked across at Sila. She was watching him too.
She wondered what it felt like, to have Sila’s power over men. Surely they were not so different? If her eyes did not deceive her, her reflection showed an attractive young woman with long glossy hair and elegant features. Ebru also refused to wear the scarf; she went out with her friends, danced in public. But whatever she did, it wasn’t enough.
Ahmed called to her, interrupting her reflection. He held her hands while he explained that the yabancı needed to be taught a lesson. All she had to do was drop a little pill in his drink. She looked at the small white pill he’d given her. She didn’t want to get into trouble, but Ahmed promised that it wouldn’t hurt him. Her eyes flew back to Sila. Maybe it would be more rewarding to wait and see what happened?
It was only a moment’s hesitation. She could feel Ahmet’s eyes on her, the warmth of his hands, now on her shoulders. Now that she finally had his attention, she wasn’t about to let him down.
After Hamish had left, Andy gave it one last try. He pulled his friend into the relative quiet of the stairwell.
“Look mate, there’s something wrong here. Hamish is a good guy, he’s being a bit uptight but he knows the place, maybe you should lay off.”
Pete put his arm around his friend. “I love you brother, but Hamish doesn’t know what’s going on. She kissed me. She’s given me the go ahead.”
Andy was flabbergasted. “When was that?’
Downstairs, when I went for a piss. Mate, she leapt on me. I kid you not, if I can get her alone again, I’m in.” He ginned, slapped Andy on the back. “One last drink, for luck?”
Andy didn’t know what to think. The only thing he was certain of, was that the boys’ night was officially a disaster. Pete wouldn’t focus on anything except the seduction, wouldn’t see that they were about to become extremely unpopular with the local lads. It was wilful blindness and any satisfaction Andy had felt from doing the right thing and sticking with his friend was wearing off rapidly.
When Andy joined him, Pete was chatting to a guy from the tour group. Once they had their drinks, the three men propped up the bar and compared notes on places they’d visited. None of them noticed the slim young woman who pushed in behind them and then just as quickly, disappeared.
Contemplating the last of his pint, Pete decided it was time to make his move. He shouldered his way through the crowd, until he reached the girls’ table.
“Hey beautiful.” He put his glass down on the table. Sila looked up at him from beneath dark eyelashes, saying nothing. He suddenly felt nervous. “No harm is there? I just want to chat. Might not see you again.”
One of the girls had edged away and he grabbed a nearby chair to pull into the opening she created. Before he could sit, he was hit by a wave of nausea. He steadied himself against the back of the seat.
“You’re going to make trouble for me.” Sila said. She sounded serious, but she was smiling. He wanted to say something funny, but the thought stalled in his brain. He shook his head.
“I’ll be back,” he managed. “Better visit the boy’s room.”
Hamish arrived within ten minutes. His conscience hadn’t let him run far, about as far as another bar down the street. He’d been watching the band and after a couple of hours had decided that he should go back to check on the boys when Andy’s call pre-empted him.
“He’s not anywhere in the building?”
Andy shook his head. In all the scenarios he’d imagined, he’d seen a bit of yelling and shoving, maybe a punch thrown and finally, inevitably, getting kicked out. He could’ve handled any or all that, but this, the complete and utter disappearance of his friend, freaked him out.
“When did you last see him?”
“Maybe an hour ago, but I wasn’t paying attention. He took off to talk to the girl and I just left him to it.”
Hamish looked around the rapidly thinning crowd. “What happened with her?” he asked.
“Nah, they’re not together. She left a little while ago with her friends. She had a fight with that guy, the one who was dancing and then took off. It was a huge drama, I don’t know if it was to do with Pete or not, but he’s gone too. I think we should call the police, Ham, I’m dead worried now.”
Hamish tended to agree. He checked in with Onur and believed the man when he said none of his boys had been involved. Onur looked concerned, he would have taken care of it in his own way, the last thing he needed was the stench of a disappearing tourist hanging over the club. He promised to make a few calls, see what he could find out.
“OK mate,” he said to Andy, “Let’s call the police.”
There was definitely something a bit dodgy about this old bird, with her bright blue eye shadow and matt pink lips, but Pete clung gratefully to her heavy frame as she helped him sit up. He had questions but the effort was beyond him, the cotton wool still packed tight. She patted him on the shoulder “Don’t worry, you’ll go home soon and I can clean your stink from the room.”
The Turkish was complete gibberish to Pete, but her tone was kind. He nodded, wondering if he’d be able to stand. Struggling with the back pocket of her skinny jeans, Esme finally revealed his phone and placed it on the chair, indicating with the universal gesture that he could make a call. She watched him for a few minutes, hands on hips. In the same caring tone she said, “I hope it was worth it you dumb son of a whore. Next time, show some respect.”
Still smiling broadly she gave him her best flounce and left, leaving the door open.
The hall glowed with natural light and he realised it must be morning. He still wasn’t sure what had happened; after the bathroom and the men, there was nothing. How long had he been out? He took a few tentative steps around the room. He was still feeling damn rough and suffering one hell of a headache, but to his surprise he was only a bit bruised and, thank God, nothing stolen, not even his cash. He looked at the phone still on the chair. He should call Andy but wasn’t sure he could manage a conversation. A wave of humiliation hit him; he’d been a bit of a cocky arsehole. First, he decided, he’d get the hell out of there. As he stepped out into a narrow corridor, he surprised a short hairy man pawing at a young girl. Or was she? In the morning light the garish paint job couldn’t quite hide the shadow on her chin. As he realised where he was, he almost admired his abductors’ sense of humour.
If he’d seen Esme, he might have offered her some money, but she’d disappeared. He followed the corridor until he found a door that led to alcove with an elevator. He got in and hit ground. As he stumbled from the building, the harsh morning glare hit him like a hammer. He picked up the phone and dialled.
The boys literally ran down Istiklal to the Starbucks where Pete said he’d wait. He was still a bit disoriented, the drug not entirely out of his system, but the terror of coming to alone in the dark was dimmed and any humiliation he’d felt about his behaviour was forgotten. He was full of the adventure, the tale and the escape. He couldn’t understand the serious mood around him. He didn’t appreciate how frightened the boys had been, that he’d ruined Hamish’s standing with Onur, who the police questioned for hours, insinuating his involvement. And when the police finally arrived to take his statement, he had nothing to tell them. He couldn’t describe what had happened, nor remember exactly where he’d come to, except that he had wandered out into the street and eventually spotted the Starbucks.
His friends insisted that he go to the hospital to be checked over, but there was nothing Pete needed except water and rest. They spent the rest of the morning lazing over breakfast.
“Love this bal kaymak stuff” Pete said spooning the honey and clotted cream mixture onto his bread. “Turkish breakfasts man, terrific.”
He grinned at his friends, but now the drama was over, they were feeling the effects of the long, sleepless night. Pete gave Andy a playful shove. “Stop stressing mate, I’m fine” he said. “Great idea to come over, what an adventure.”
The woman behind the counter watched their table with curiosity. The hand of Allah must have sent these men to her restaurant to relieve her conscience. He was alive and well, just as Ahmet had promised. She carefully poured fresh tea into tiny tulip glasses and summoned a waiter to deliver them to the table. She would make sure they had the most delicious of her tomatoes and cheeses; a silent apology, and a thank you.
The previous night had not ended well for Ahmet. Overwhelmed by jealous agony, he had finally declared himself to his cousin. Of course Sila rejected him, but worse, she had laughed. Humiliated, he had turned to faithful Ebru for comfort. Her joy was momentous, but she was careful and withheld just enough; she had learned something from Sila after all. She would show Ahmet her love, but all in good time, now that things were as they should be.