Madeleine James (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
Caroline had bought the journal on a whim at the airport. She wrote the date in the top left corner of the first page and, directly underneath, she printed in neat capitals – DAY ONE. She wanted to describe the sound of the call to prayer at dawn and how she felt as she watched the city come to life but, thirty minutes later, she had a garden of flowers in the margin but no stories on the page. The waiter brought her a plate of breakfast. Diced cucumber and tomato were arranged around a boiled egg. He returned a minute later with a small cup of black coffee. Caroline closed her journal and clipped the pen back into her handbag. She pecked at the salad. The coffee was an odd combination of sweet and bitter; it tasted almost a little dirty if truth be told.
‘All is good, madam?’
She nodded enthusiastically, drained her coffee cup and was horrified to feel her mouth fill with a cloud of runny mud. The grit coated her tongue and she nearly gagged. She might have considered spitting the mess back into her cup, if it weren’t for the presence of the waiter.
‘You need more?’
She smiled with pursed lips and shook her head.
‘Darling! I slept like an angel,’ Hetty declared as she billowed into the breakfast room. ‘Oh, Turkish coffee, isn’t it fantastic? Can I eat this egg?’
Hetty had swanned in two weeks earlier, dressed in a purple kaftan and dragging a battered suitcase, just as the new chaplain was sitting down for tea. With a cry of ‘oh darling Caroline, I’m just famished’, she cut a piece of the carrot cake cooling on the table, dropped crumbs through her fingers and trod them into the carpet.
‘It must be a comfort to have your sister arrive at such a time,’ the new chaplain said to Caroline.
‘She was my mother too,’ Hetty reminded him.
Caroline’s right hand fluttered to her neck. She played with her snowflake necklace and exchanged a look with the chaplain.
‘Yes, of course, I am sorry for your loss. You must agree it is a marvellous idea for Caroline to go on this holiday of hers.’
‘What holiday, Caro? When were you going to tell me?’
She rushed to deny any plans. She really wasn’t in a state to go abroad. It had been a passing thought following the Chaplain’s fascinating sermon on the ancient capital of Byzantium. She had no intention of following through with it.
‘What a positively brilliant idea,’ Hetty announced. ‘I love Istanbul. I know a cheap hotel we can stay in. It’s very central.’
And so, two weeks later, following an early morning flight from Luton, they checked into a hotel three blocks from the Hagia Sofia. Hetty had wanted to share a room — ‘just like when we were young, remember?’ — but Caroline had reminded her of their very different sleeping habits. Would she really want to be woken at six when she had in all likelihood only just gone to bed?
At dawn on the first morning, Caroline was eased out of her dreams by the call to prayer. Its haunting notes called through her window on the sea breeze. Before the loudspeakers crackled to life the following dawn, she was dressed and starting her morning walk. Minarets pointed out the remaining stars.
The holiday very quickly settled into a routine. While Caroline walked, Hetty slept. She came alive for their lunchtime kebab on the hotel’s rooftop balcony, during which she talked about the peyote rituals in Mexico and spoke of her time at the ashram in India. If only Caroline had travelled, Hetty noted, she could have shared some stories too. In the afternoons they went to the market and Caroline was encouraged to buy things she didn’t need. At dusk, Hetty would flounce over to bars on the other side of the city to meet up with friends. Caroline, who needed her rest, spent the evening reading her guidebook.
Each morning she awoke with the call and ventured further from the hotel. Her guidebook had only the main streets labelled so she oriented herself by the increasingly familiar minarets and domes of the mosques. In the narrow lanes of residential areas, washing lines seemed to hold the apartment buildings together. On one morning ramble, she watched a middle aged woman lean out a fifth floor window and clip underpants and bras to the line. Caroline noticed the woman’s headscarf and wondered, not for the first time, whether it was worn out of choice. The woman looked down and called out something in Turkish and, as Caroline raised her arm to return the wave, a voice sang out from behind her. A young boy ran across the road, still yelling up to the woman in the window. Caroline brushed her hand through her short hair and continued on her way.
By the time she reached the shorefront that midday, her feet were aching. She looked down at her new sandals, and had she been a different sort of woman, she might have cursed. Hetty had found them in one of the lanes of the market and described them as ‘positively adorable.’ The embroidery on the toe was very pretty, she agreed, and they were unlike anything sold in Marks & Spencers. They were not, however, suitable shoes for walking. The soles were paper-thin and they soaked up every bit of the grime the city had to offer.
Caroline leant against the railing of the bridge that spanned the Bosporus. The harbour sparkled in the sunshine and she watched big-bellied men cooking fish on braziers by the ferry wharf. The smell of the frying fish made her deliberate for a moment. She was quite hungry and the queue of people was encouraging. It had been many months since she’d eaten fish without feeling queasy, however, and she didn’t feel comfortable that it had been caught in such a busy harbour. All the grease and fuel of the ferries was surely not healthy. She turned from the railing and stepped straight into the path of a burly fisherman. She was half his size and unsteady on her feet and as he swung out his arms to hold her, his slop bucket splashed all over her legs. She was awash with brine.
It was in the midst of being told this story, complete with the requisite handwringing, that Hetty hit upon her wonderful plan. And so it was that, ten minutes later, Caroline found herself standing outside a nondescript building in a side street in Sultanhamet.
‘You have no idea how free you’ll feel afterwards. I really mean it, you feel,’ Hetty searched for a word and, finding it, spread her arms out wide, ‘expansive. You feel liberated, Caro. Can you even imagine?’
‘I wanted to go to the catacombs this afternoon,’ Caroline answered and her hand fluttered to her ear. She had the manner of someone used to much longer hair.
‘It’s on me, Caro, so if it’s money you’re worried about…’
‘We inherited the same amount, I can pay for myself. I would prefer to visit the catacombs. There’s also a tour of the Topkapi Palace at five. And besides,’ she added, ‘I don’t have my swimming costume with me.’
Hetty pointed to the sign hanging above the door. Ladies Only.
‘Take your sandals off,’ she ordered. ‘Lucky you don’t have those awful boots on.’
‘I can’t walk barefoot, really, my feet are filthy.’
‘All the more reason to go inside.’
Caroline slipped out of her sandals. She gathered Hetty’s leather flip-flops from where they had been kicked off and tucked the two pairs neatly against the wall. She paused for a moment in the doorway. The flagstone was worn so low, her bare foot appeared to be cradled.
The room she stepped into was cavernous and warm. The ceiling was at least three stories high. A mezzanine ran around the middle and the railing was an intricate filigree of wrought metal. The vaulted dome was covered in mosaics and she lost herself for a moment in the patterns.
‘It’s like the Blue Mosque, Hetty, only secret,’ she whispered, in deference to something she couldn’t quite name.
Hetty was already leaping up the stairwell to the mezzanine. She looked over her shoulder and waved a chequered towel at Caroline. ‘Come on,’ she laughed, ‘time to get naked.’
‘I think I should stay in this room. It’s so beautiful.’ Caroline walked towards the centre of the room and perched on the large divan. ‘I’ll just wait for you here.’
‘I don’t want you to miss out.’
‘Thank you, but I’m perfectly happy waiting here. I’ll read about the mosaics.’
‘Caroline,’ Hetty groaned, dragging out the vowels. ‘Stop being so bloody English.’
‘And how am I supposed to stop being English?’
‘You could experience, for the first time in your life, what it feels like to be free.’
‘Hetty,’ Caroline retorted, ‘I live with freedoms in England that other women in the world can only dream about.’
‘That’s not what I mean. Get your nose out of this theoretical crap, for starters. You need to feel alive!’ With one of her more dramatic flourishes, Hetty grabbed for the guidebook but Caroline was holding on with such tenacity that the cover ripped along the spine.
‘That’s a library book, Henrietta,’ she hissed through her teeth. She stowed the dismembered guidebook in her handbag.
Even in games they played as children, it was never Caroline, the older sister, who would take the lead. It was Hetty who crept out at night, long before she even considered breaking the rules. It was Hetty who had left.
‘I’ll buy the library a new book,’ she promised. ‘Come on, please.’
Around the wall of the mezzanine there were a series of doors. Hetty chose two open ones next to each other and threw the towels inside. Rather than being merely a changing cubicle as expected, each room contained a single bed. A lamp shone warmly on the bedside table. There was a lock on the inside of the door.
Ever since Hetty had announced her idea, Caroline had been dreading this moment. Their separate hotel rooms, and the very different patterns of their days, had so far kept her secret for her and now, in this tiny cubicle, sitting alone on the edge of the bed, she allowed herself to relax slightly.
‘I think they gave me a handkerchief not a towel. Are you ready?’ Hetty’s voice sang out. ‘Caro? Have you locked your door?’
‘Am I not staying in here?’ Caroline called back.
The small hope that had lifted her spirits sank with Hetty’s exasperated reply.
She unzipped her trousers and lent back on the bed to take them off. She undid the buttons on her shirt and slipped her arms free. She stood up, folded her shirt and trousers and piled them in a neat square on the end of the bed. She unclasped her necklace, the snowflake her mother had always worn, and looped it through a buttonhole on her shirt. She stepped out of her underpants and stood naked save for her bra. Thank goodness they hadn’t hung a mirror in this small room.
Hetty’s voice came through the door, impatiently. ‘We can’t wait all day.’
Caroline wrapped the chequered towel around herself, so tightly it pinched at the skin under her arms. She slid back the lock and faced her sister.
‘I don’t quite know how, Hetty, but before we go downstairs – ’
‘Jesus, stop phaffing. You take longer to get ready than Mum did.’
The anger she had been swallowing since Hetty’s arrival boiled up Caroline’s throat. She felt like ripping Hetty’s towel from her and whipping her with it. What did she know of their mother? Was she there with a bucket of water when a tea towel was left on the stove? Was she the one trying to keep up conversations, night after night, with a 77 year old who thought she was 27? Where was she when there was dribble to be wiped and soiled nappies to be changed? Caroline could have used an extra pair of hands to rearrange their mother in bed so she didn’t rot into the sheets. Where was Hetty for the last twenty years?
‘I must tell you, Hetty – ’
But she was talking to an empty mezzanine. Her sister was already on her way down the stairs.
Caroline gripped the balcony rail and drew a deep breath into her lungs. Behind her in the cubicle were her clothes and a nice soft bed she could sleep on. Around the corner was the catacomb she wanted to visit. She could join the afternoon tour of the Topkapi Palace. As she stood on the balcony, wavering with her decision, a door opened a few cubicles away. A woman stepped out, fully clothed, and noticed Caroline’s posture. She drawled in a warm American accent, ‘this your first time?’
Caroline nodded in assent and folded her arms across her chest.
Her companion chuckled and unravelled the towel from her wet hair. ‘This is my twelfth, I’ve only been in Istanbul a week so go figure.’
Caroline smiled politely as the woman walked past.
‘Oh my god, you’re in for a treat,’ she said and squeezed Caroline’s shoulder. ‘You’ll come out a whole new woman.’
From her vantage point on the mezzanine, Caroline watched Hetty walk across the room below. As she opened the arched door leading to the Hammam, she turned and looked up at Caroline. They locked eyes and Hetty dropped her towel. She stepped out of the folds at her ankles and went through the door. Caroline bristled. Some poor Turkish woman would have to clean up after her and she didn’t even care. She hated Hetty’s selfishness. She hated the snowflake tattoo on her left shoulder blade. She hated the photo that their mother had kept on the mantelpiece all those years, all those years when Hetty didn’t come home and help. She would go downstairs, if only to pick up Hetty’s towel. That’s what she’d do. She’d go into the Hammam and give Hetty her towel and remind her she wasn’t the only person in the world. And then she would leave; she’d get dressed and ring the airline and catch the first flight home.
She marched down the stairs, liberated with her decision, and practically ran across the room. The door opened with a cloud of heat. It misted her eyes and caught in her throat and she had to pause for breath. The room was built with the same dimensions as the waiting room. There was no mezzanine like the other room though and no mosaics; the arching walls and roof were a smooth, pure white. The floor was paved with marble. Water tumbled into semi-circular basins on the walls and overflowed onto the floor. The air itself appeared to be perspiring in the heat. All around the room, women washed themselves with buckets of suds. Some lay down with their eyes closed, others sat upright. No one was in a hurry. In the centre of the room, there was a marble platform upon which the female staff of the Hammam were washing naked women.
In seeking out Hetty, Caroline’s eyes traced over fleshy bulges and taut muscles. One woman had a stomach that hung like a protective pillow over her pubic hair. A young woman next to her had hipbones that jutted out like holsters. There were nipples like fried eggs and nipples like pinpricks. Pubic hair that covered the thighs like old-fashioned bloomers lounged next to waxed and plucked skin. Caroline was in a Turkish bazaar of soapy bubbles and bodies; skin spilling water spilling skin. Tan lines, birthmarks, stretch marks. Scars.
She caught Hetty rolling her eyes from the other side of the room and at that moment, in this secret room full of bare women, with her younger sister’s eyes mocking her fear, Caroline amended her initial decision. She let her own towel fall to the floor. She would be a naked body among naked bodies. She would be exposed.
And there it was. Or there it wasn’t, depending on your viewpoint. She was like any naked middle aged woman, thinner than average around the legs and arms, and thickset in the middle. But for the scar, she could have been anyone.
The scar ripped from her sternum all the way across to her armpit. It cut across the space where her left breast should have been.
Hetty gasped and in her attempt to stand up, she slipped on the wet marble. Cursing, she righted herself but couldn’t take her eyes from Caroline – her cropped hair, her thin cheeks, her scar.
Without looking down, without crossing her arms, Caroline walked with careful steps to the slab in the centre of the room. She lay down on the wet marble and felt her right breast flop down her side. A woman in a loose fitting black swimming costume came over. The enormous folds of her body were covered in suds. She patted Caroline’s leg and said in a thick Turkish accent, ‘My name is Defne. First, I clean me, then you, okay?’ As she bent over a bucket to rinse herself, the strap of her swimming costume fell from her shoulder. The mass of her left breast flopped free from the lycra and Caroline averted her eyes from its pendulous release. She turned her attention to the vaulted roof; five chinks in the centre were cut away and steam billowed in the fingers of light.
Defne threw a pailful of water over Caroline’s body and she felt her one nipple pucker with the shock. As Defne scrubbed at her, she was horrified to see the amount of grime her skin contained. It looked like her body was covered in black worms. The bitterness she felt towards her sister washed off in a flurry of suds. The years spent caring for her mother were scrubbed from her skin. The loneliness of her single sheets splashed down the marble slab. The chemo and the pain trickled in rivulets from her chest. Running her soapy hands all over Caroline’s body, Defne caught her eye and smiled. She rubbed the palm of her right hand across the scar. Caroline was rubbed raw. She felt like she was glowing. She went to stand up, slipped on the soapy marble and Defne helped her balance by pulling her into a hug. She whispered in broken English, ‘better now, no dirt, you better.’ Caroline laughed. She stood up straighter than she had in months, shoulders back, chest out. Later, in her journal, she would fill page after page in wonderment. How many naked bodies had lain there before hers? How many lengths and breadths of age and size? How many scars?
Hetty was tucked in a ball by the wall, her knees bunched protectively against her chest. It was hard to tell in all that water and sweat, but it did seem as if tears were running down her face.
Caroline filled a bucket with warm water and sat down next to her.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Hetty gulped.
‘I didn’t realise,’ Caroline said as she poured water over her sister’s back, ‘that I could.’
On good days, Madeleine can be found selling books. On better days, she tucks herself in a sunny spot and reads them. She is currently studying postgraduate writing at UTS.