Blondes in Istanbul
written by: Shirley Goodrum
I swallow my rising vomit and sit astride my Cellini suitcase, out of the way of the Istanbul airport crowd, and lean my head against the wall. My friend, Inis, spots a man holding our hotel’s notification board with our names written on it. He’s wearing a short-sleeved white shirt tucked into black trousers that fall and wrinkle on his polished shoes. His stillness is at odds with the hustle and bustle of the airport, and she walks over to him and points to her chest.
“I’m Inis,” she says, holding out her hand.
He shakes it. “Hatjis,” he says. “Bavul?”
“Sorry, I don’t understand Turkish,” Inis hooks her arms through the straps of her backpack, shrugs it on and smiles at him and he, like anyone who sees Inis smile, is smitten. He grins and points to a passer-by’s luggage, pretends he’s lifting it and holds up one, two, three fingers. “Bavul?”
“Ahh, suitcases,” Inis translates his actions. “Yes, we have two. My friend over there is sitting on hers and this is mine.” She nudges it with her foot, indicates it’s heavy and that we need a trolley. Hatjis looks at her small, wheel-less hardtop and shrugs, shaking his head at her mimed request. His ego and chivalry step forward. He gives the handle a hefty pull and manages to lift the case a few inches off the ground. His feet slide as he drops it, and his eyebrows shoot to his receding hairline.
“I did warn you,” says Inis, her eyes twinkle as she wags her finger at him. They laugh, then he signs us to stay here and darts off. I hug my tummy.
“Still feeling sick?” she asks.
“I think I’ve picked up a bug on the flight.”
She pats my arm. “I’ve got something to fix that.”
“It’s ok, I’ll be fine,” I say, but clothes spill onto the floor as she pops the lid of her case and, from its depths, unearths a can of Coke, a sugar sachet, and a packet of biscuits. She zips open the Coke, adds sugar to kill the gas and hands it to me along with three, dry Pro Vitas. My stomach heaves.
“Really, I’m fine.”
She gives me a look. “Before our husbands rushed off, with the rest of the South African team to Ankara, I told yours I’d keep an eye on you for the next four days.”
I give her a weak smile. “I told yours too,” I say.
“Do you know where they are staying, or how to get hold of them?”
I shake my head. “I just know they’re picking us up at Ankara airport.”
“Well, as they’re here to compete in Turkey’s 1997 World Air Games, I’m sure I can contact the organisers and get a phone number to contact them. How bad do you feel?”
“Not bad enough for you to do that.”
“Are you sure? Have you got your medical insurance with you?”
“Yes, no need to panic, Inis,” I say, making my smile brighter. “I’ve survived many tummy bugs; I’ll survive this one.”
Hatjis reappears pushing a squealing trolley. We load up and follow him outside to his passenger van and, under Inis’ watchful eye, I nibble and sip as we travel from the airport to our three-star hotel. The rising sun is burning the morning fog off the city, and we glimpse its domes emerging from the vapour as we leave the open road and hit the city streets.
“It looks just like the guidebooks said it would,” says Inis. Traffic dictates the number of lanes to drive in. Cars, buses, trucks, anything on wheels, hoots, and squeezes in, so near I can almost touch them.
Inis taps Hatjis on his shoulder. “Are we near to our hotel?”
“No English,” he smiles.
Inis points at her watch. “Hotel, time?’
He nods and takes his hands off the steering wheel and indicates eight-thirty on his watch. I break into a sweat. “Oh God, we’re going to hit something.”
Inis pats my arm. “Relax,” she says, and turns back to Hatjis. “Five minutes?” He nods.
“Teşekkür ederim,” Inis catches his eyes in the rear-view mirror, gives him the thumbs up sign, and he glows. I wish my friend were not so charming and pretty and that my stomach would calm down. I flop back against my seat. My hands clutch the sides as the road becomes narrow. Every driver, including Hatjis, hoots and shouts, the area around us deteriorates and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I pray and curse our travel agent. We’d asked for something in an historical area, but this unsavoury street is not what we had in mind. My stomach tightens. Inis’ biscuits threaten to find their way out of my body; I gulp and hold them in. Giddiness washes over me. I no longer curse the agent, my prayer for a clean toilet bowl is urgent.
We turn a corner and Hatjis puts the van into second gear. Mountains of sealed white bales hide the pavements and spill into the road. Men in stained, sleeveless vests shout above the traffic cacophony. Their muscles bulge and sweat drips from their bodies as they heave the bales, throw them into gaping lorry doors and stack them inside, floor to ceiling.
Hatjis sniffs. “Russians,” he says. He weaves the van through a gap in the bales and parks outside an enormous wooden door. Two urns stand tall and proud on both sides. I recognise the name of our hotel on the highly polished brass plaque and jump out, my hand covering my mouth, run up the stone steps and into an airconditioned lobby. Thick marbled walls shut out the incessant street noise. My legs sink beneath me, my head is spinning, and I grab the nearest chair. A young man helps me into the seat. The name of the hotel is embroidered on his blazer. “Okay? English not good. Water?” he asks, tipping his head back and drinking from an imaginary glass.
He brings a tray and pours from a jug of water. My thanks are a whisper.
Inis rushes in wheeling my case, and Hatjis stumbles in with her hard-top. She flashes him another dazzling smile along with a “Teşekkür ederim” His smile is wide.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
Hatjis bows, says something in Turkish to the concierge and leaves.
“Give me your passport and sit still while I book us in,” says Inis. I follow her instruction.
“Concierge?” she asks the man who gave me water. “Speak German?” He nods. Inis switches to German and whatever she says to him makes him laugh. He records our passports and locks them in the safe and they chat. I don’t understand a word. My head begins to clear but not the nausea. Does she have to be so social? I butt in.
“Please, can we have our room key?” He hands Inis key number 325.
Like Hatjis, he’s taken with her. He stays her hand. “Moment, please. Important,” he says. “Outside was safe before but not safe now. Outside is Russian. Twelve million Turkey people live in Istanbul, but Russian take our streets. We not know Russian. They buy everything Turkey. Take home. You both blonde, Russian like that. Turkish too, but Turkish okay. You not go outside only one. You only go outside together. Yes?”
“Yes, yes,” I say.
Inside room 325 I rush to the bathroom and empty my stomach of Inis’ biscuits and coke into a pristine toilet. Inis rinses out a face cloth and presses its wetness on my face. She flushes away my vomit, guides me to one of the single beds and scrambles in her backpack.
“Here, take this Valoid and have a lie down.”
“No, we’ve only got four days here. I’m fine.”
“Hush, swallow the pill and we’ll talk after I shower.”
I rub my eyes and squint at my wristwatch. I’ve slept for two hours. The clamour of Istanbul rushes through an open window and a cool cotton pillowcase touches my cheek. Inis and I have plans for this city. She’s learnt some Turkish and her Teşekkür ederim has won over Hatjis and the concierge. For weeks we’ve poured over brochures and we’re here to explore mosques, palaces, shops in bazaars and markets and, without our husbands to hurry us along, to savour Istanbul’s full plate of exotic offerings. I am wasting tourist time. I must get off the bed and get moving. I sit up. Inis’ Valoid holds my nausea at a distance and I stand and shove my feet into my shoes. The bathroom door is ajar.
“Inis.” I call out. “Let’s book that tour of the Bosphorous.”
I tap on the bathroom door. “Inis?” There’s no reply and I walk in.
She’s not there but her toiletries are packed out on the skinny shelf above the basin.
Back in the bedroom, I open the cupboard door, her clothes hang on wooden hangers, and she’s used two of the four shelves for underwear and T-shirts. I look under the beds and see her suitcase. I search for her backpack but can’t find it. From the open window I look down at an inner courtyard. The Russians, their lorries, and huge bales, block the entrance. I turn around and freeze. Fresh fruit, bottled water and a till slip sit on the dresser next to the TV. They weren’t there before I fell asleep. They are not gifts from the hotel. Inis must have bought them. Dammit. She went out ‘only one,’ just as the concierge told us not to. Where is she now?
I grab my bag, leave the room, locking the door. The light on the elevator shows ‘G.’ Dear God, we’re on the fifth floor, I can’t wait for it to get up here. I take the stairs two at a time down to the lobby.
“Have you seen my friend?” I ask the concierge. “She spoke to you in German?”
“Ahh, yes. Blonde, spiky hair, very friendly. She go next door…buy food.”
“Alone? You let her go alone?”
“Next door shop safe. She come back already.”
“I know she did, she’s left food in the room. But she’s not there now. Did you see her go out again?”
“Sorry, very busy, no see.”
“But the Russians…”
“Very sorry,” he says and my daughter’s farewell warning screams inside my head.
“Be careful, Ma, they abduct women, especially blondes, in that part of the world.”
I’d laughed at her. “I’m too old to be snatched,” I’d said as I’d kissed and hugged her goodbye.
But Inis is younger than me. She is friendly, fun, charming. She’s ripe for abduction. Panic shoots me out the door. The Russians’ bales block the pavement. I run around them into the street and oncoming traffic. A taxi driver hoots and gives me the finger. I fire one back at him. I run into the ‘safe’ shop next to our hotel. It’s the size of a double bed and the walls and floor are stacked with toiletries, toys, fruit, vegetables, clothes, electrical goods, material, firewood. There’s no sign of Inis. My hands, arms and face ask the shopkeeper if he has seen her, he nods, points to my hair, signs that hers is the same colour, but that she’s taller than me, that she spoke and smiled at him, bought water, bananas, and grapes. He taps his watch, shows me 9.15. Almost three hours ago. No, he says, he has not seen her since.
Back on the street, the Russians are everywhere. They wolf whistle and jostle me. I avoid eye contact, hug my bag close and force myself not to break into a run. I smell my fear, it runs down my back, and under my arms, sucks the saliva from my mouth. I dive in and out of tiny, crowded shops. My sign language of Inis becomes frantic as each shopkeeper shakes their head. Rushing out of the shops, I push aside tea sellers with their trays of tulip shaped glasses filled with brown Cay. Soon I am lost. Did I pass that shop? Have I been down this street? Were corn cobs sold on the corner near the hotel? My mind whirls. I can’t remember, but I must. I must find Inis. Dear God, I pray, please, please help me.
I don’t see the dog. It leaps at me, I stumble, and a hand grabs my elbow. I scream, raise my hand, my fingers bent ready to scratch. My nails will leave a scar. I twist to strike.
“Sorry,” says the boy. He’s about fifteen and he pulls the dog back on its leash.
“English? Can you speak English?” I ask. I drop my hand as he nods and keeps the dog at his side. My heart slows a little.
“Have you seen a woman, about my size, but younger, about twenty-five, blonde, spiky hair, green eyes, big smile?”
Relief washes over me.
“Can you tell me where?”
He nods and lays a hand on his chest. “Me Turkish. Not safe here with Russian. I take you,” he says. He pats the dog, and it trots beside us, snarling at the muscled foreigners packing the lorries. The Russians sneer, but give way and the boy pushes through, with me on his heels. My mouth is dry, and I am trembling. We walk the stone streets, up one alley, down another. Distrust creeps in. What if he’s not telling the truth? What if he never saw Inis and is leading me into an abduction mob who like older, blonde women? The concierge did say ‘Turkish is okay.’ But how do I know what nationality this boy is? I’m forced to stay with him. My chances of finding the hotel on my own are zero and the dog’s growls keep a distance between us and the Russians.
We turn the corner and I recognise the street. A few steps further and we’ll be at the wooden door of our hotel. I could kiss the boy. He stops at the ‘safe shop.’
“I see her here,” he says.
“Oh no, that’s too early.” My tears run and embarrass him. He pulls the lead and runs off with his dog.
My shoulders sag and my heart pounds. Inis is missing. She vanished while I slept. I run inside to the concierge. I need his help. Somehow, I must contact her husband and the police.
He smiles at me, points to a thick column and indicates that I walk around it. “Your friend here all the time after safe shop. I no see her. Sorry.”
I’m giddy with relief.
Behind the column Inis sits in a wingback chair, a cup of apple tea on the table next to her. She sees me and her face lights up.
“Feeling better?” she asks.
I nod. I can’t speak. I’m ready to cry, laugh, and smack her.
She slips on her backpack and gives me a hug. “Good. I’ve been waiting for you for ages.”
My hysteria erupts. I splutter through my giggles. “We go outside, the two of us together. Yes?”
‘You’re mad,” laughs Inis. “Yes, we go outside, the two of us together.”
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Born of memoir, Blondes In Istanbul, is the story of friendship, the excitement of travel and the dangers thereof.
- Blondes in Istanbul - July 2, 2022