By Merve Pehlivan
She had run barefoot on the marble floors of the Ka’ba when her baby scuttled away behind the columns in the blink of an eye. She left home barefoot again on a mild evening in April. Streets jammed with green bulbs pregnant with tulips, streets that were her own for the better part of her life, were useless strangers. Cigarette butts, wilted cabbage leaves and soapy water kept her soles alive. She passed by clock makers, people with uniform gazes leaving a cinema, young workers of a bakery hoisting a wedding cake into a van, a man on the back of a truck peeling artichokes and tossing the bottoms into a bucket. Men stared and wondered, women whispered to each other while her eyes remained aimless and unaware. Towards midnight, Alpay found her hunched over her husband’s grave, splinters and dried blood on her feet, her white overcoat and untied scarf mired in sludge.
Behind the cypresses, the sea had weaved in with the sky, an unbroken fog turning plane trees into venous silhouettes. She pulled the curtains apart; she always loved the marble sunshine on generous days when flurries of snow eventually settled. One reason she never moved out of the apartment after Arif’s death was that her sea view had the safest future, the cemetery right across forever left alone by contractors. At one point, she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be that close to him anymore, but having him ahead of the window was convenient. The first few months after he died, she had read Ya-seen by his tomb every Friday, but then she figured that if she faced the qibla, reading on the balcony would do. She also liked tending to the chrysanthemums outside the bayram season, the only time in the year when graves were visited by flowers and family.
Snow had muted most sounds of Vişne Street, save a few snowballing kids soon to be snatched away by their parents. A youthful boza man looking less clothed than he should be was the only street seller that braved the cold. He was trudging on with his copper vessel on one shoulder, cups and chickpeas on his waist. His song, an only word fading in and out of thick air, rose like a slender, persistent smoke among the buildings. Mualla turned away from the window, nestled her head back on the sofa, prayer beads in her hand loosened open on her lap. She faded into half sleep while the boza man passed and vanished in the other direction, his voice a descending tune in her mind. She dreamed of her daughter. The girl was standing at Mualla’s knee-level, her ponytail held up like a fountain on her head. She held her mother’s open thumb with her whole hand, clasped it tight, and then released. With a slight twitch Mualla roused and started rolling her beads. Her eyes darted in the room as if she was remembering something.
She rummaged through the dressers. She had a separate room for storing bed-linen, excess footwear and some of Arif’s clothes. In one of the drawers was an old phone book, a glossy hardcover bulging with recipes and homemade facial clippings. One flip-side was quoting a model who compared a computer without internet to lovemaking without kissing. The photograph she found was creased and torn in one corner but not too damaged. In it Mualla is thirty, her hands clutched under two small armpits in front of her. She is holding a wobbly toddler in an embroidered velvet dress, agitated, puckering her lips, a tuft of her slim hair in her grip. On the table are two tea glasses half full and a small bowl of yoghurt and bananas. Mualla remembered stains around Betül’s mouth and her dress, swallowed by the grainy picture in her hands now.
She couldn’t be that far. She had never promised her youth any privileges, but allowed it a tamed presence within, like an old friend she no longer needed but remained faithful to. She softly pressed on the glass surface in the frame. Flattened, the torn corner of the photo hidden beneath a silver calla lily.
The beans were foaming again; she’d almost forgotten them. She hurried to the kitchen, turned off the heat and sifted the tender kidney beans under running water. The wheat, soaked and chewy, was ready for a second boil. The chickpeas only needed thawing, Mualla regularly cooked and deep-froze them in separate amounts. She deseeded the pomegranate, reached out for cinnamon but stopped. No cinnamon topping for ashure this time, she thought. The raisins were soaked overnight, but she had forgotten about the other fruits. A quick boil would plump them up. She left the figs simmering on low heat and made herself sugarless coffee.
She smoked on rare occasions, mostly in an undefined protest, half-copying the casual confidence of women smokers she’d seen in Europe years ago. In times like these, coffee and a few long drags on a cigarette gave her a semblance of ease, a respite from the comings of the day. Outside on the windowsill was a small wooden box that kept her copper kohl bottle, a few safety pins, cigarettes and a lighter. One of the many small redundancies that crowded her home. She always needed this lived-in feel, coats slung on the backs of chairs, the innards of her purse spilled out on the table, hills of sunflower husks in porcelain bowls. Arif used to buy mainstream papers fat with extras each day to follow the latest news in real estate or the automotive industry, neither of which of any interest to Mualla. For that reason only, she carried on buying the paper and everything that came with it, to secure some feeling of presence at home.
With breath and smoke out of her chest, silence fell upon her, softly, unthreatening like the heavenly grace of Allah outside her window. At first, for about half a year when she was still in Istanbul, Betül had called her regularly. She didn’t outright refuse to meet with her mother, showing kindness enough each time to fabricate some unsubtle affair that kept her at home -how easy she made it sound –home- some alien, dreadful place she had chosen over her- early meeting the day after, something broken like the boiler or the internet box that needed to be fixed. So she is living alone, shouldering everything by herself? Not sinning with a man? Neither of them believed in what sometimes were sheer lies, but they made no fuss. Silence came quickly between them, becoming Mualla’s only guard whenever she talked with her child. She was always good, thankfully, while Betül overcompensated with benign details from her life, as if what was just a wordier small talk would relieve her of filial duties. Both were carefully hiding themselves from each other, Betül with jabbering, Mualla with barely talking. Now, a few hours before Betül’s arrival, Mualla was succumbing into that wearisome silence again, one of more defeat than defence perhaps, she didn’t know.
She went back to figs in the kitchen, soft and pulpy by now. She mixed beans and chickpeas in the boiling wheat. She had an hour before leaving it to cool to room temperature, another hour of waiting for something other than her mind to be ready.
Apart from road signs and every word she heard suddenly clear like running water, the two minarets of a small mosque on the Bosphorus soaring through the mist of snow gave Betül her first real awareness of Istanbul. She craned her head back to get a better view as the taxi moved away in the other direction of the bridge, the snowcapped dome blending in with the fog. She remembered her favourite mosques in the city. As a university student, she would often find a quiet shelter in Nusretiye Camii hidden by hookah shops, a more conspicuous Sinan further down the street and the modern art museum that invariably stole most attention. She would sometimes go all the way to Pertevniyal Valide Camii, which on the outside with its neo-gothic features looked like more church than mosque, a discomfort she’d fought within but dismissed fast. Mosques were where you prayed in and she did, feeling wrapped by the ornate exterior she adored secretly. She avoided Friday noontime when the congregation was crushingly male. After a while, when she’d discovered the quietest hours inside, she would slip out of the women’s gallery where she hardly felt any sense of belonging, perch somewhere behind a column near the central nave. Nobody bothered her, she knew when to disappear again.
“On my way, main roads are clear, hope it’s not too bad over there.” she texted Mualla. At first, she had decided against telling her about the trip. Why give her a reason to prepare for anything? But there was always the risk of not finding her at home only to end up idling about the street drawing old gazes on her, so she had to let her know. Betül never really had to deal with the neighbours. She couldn’t leave a phone booth with superpowers, getting rid of her many layers like peeled cabbage and be invisible to dangerous eyes, but maintained her secrecy quite well. Except when Meltem, that snoopy little rat, saw her near a bus stop one day. Betül was heading for a coffee shop with a friend when she caught a familiar face staring in her direction. She maintained her poise and even forced a smile, more begging than smiling, while Meltem’s eyes bulged and froze on her bare legs. Betül clutched her friend by the arm and walked away in quick steps. “What made you leave your mother?” Alpay had asked her several months ago. “A pair of eyes.” she’d said.
It was her sixth month in London. Absolutely knackered after her third overtime at work that week, a surprise birthday reception where she had helped the head waiter, she would have missed him. Alpay noticed her when she spoke to the bartender in Turkish. At first she was confused, unable to recognize this man with a grizzly beard and a healthy amount of hair for his age, clad in a suit and tie, too neat for the usual pub crowd she had come to know. As the man gave her images from her past, her favorite spotted duck on the carousel, the ice cream days, seagulls and the ferry- a filmstrip started moving in her head. “Alpay amca!” she said with a jump in her voice, like the girl she was when she had last seen him.
He was a visiting lecturer at LSE and had come over to Wood Green to see his high school friend Ali, who smiled at her with a slow nod. Against their insistence, Betül thought it wiser to leave the old classmates alone. They exchanged numbers and agreed to meet later.
A month and a half passed and Alpay made a reservation at a brasserie in Marylebone. In his leather briefcase was something he had kept for twenty-three years, recently brought in from Istanbul, but he waited. He asked Betül about her studies, why she had left her career as interior architect, what she thought of the immigrant situation in London. Then he mentioned Mualla as if she were a common acquaintance long absent from their lives, as if he had not seen her at the cemetery two years ago. Betül was agitated like the day she had walked out on the street with shorts and a sleeveless top for the first time. He said that Mualla had abruptly cut all contact with her friends from the neighbourhood years ago, including him. Marriage came with the erasing of differences between husband and wife, naturally, who was he to judge her? She later took up marbling and Arabic courses at a community centre, but later lost interest in both. She had changed, of course, she had changed a lot. And I was a little too straightforward with her about it, which I think upset her deeply. “How do you know so much about my mother?” Betül asked. He tapped his fingertips on the table, took out a blue cashmere shawl wrapped inside a gauzy cloth, and told her who he was.
“The building in front of the cemetery.” Betül clarified to the driver. She removed the shawl from her neck, neatly folded and placed it deep inside her handbag before they took a left turn to the street. Tugging at her suitcase, she raised her head up to her former apartment, a habit she had thought had died out. Her mother adjusted her scarf and opened the window. Walking would buy her time, but she didn’t want to pass by the second floor where Meltem lived. She took the elevator. When Betül rested the suitcase before the doorsill, not a suddenly aged face appeared in front of her, save crow’s feet gone deeper into her mother’s temples as if pegging down her eyelids.
“Welcome, my daughter.” Mualla said, taking Betül in her embrace, feeling her heart beat against her chest. The suitcase occupied less than half of the newspaper sheets she had spread out on the foyer to keep her newly-wiped floors clean. It was light also. Mualla said: “You must be starving. I made broccoli soup. Then mantı afterwards. The ashure is cooling now.”
“Oh that sounds good. I’d love some mantı, yes. Then perhaps ashure, but not immediately.” Betül replied, freeing herself from her reefer jacket.
The first thing she noticed in the living room were the pictures. There were eight frames on the console table, silver and gilded in different sizes. A thirteen-year-old Betül with her mother on Ponte Vecchio, the matching florid Valentino scarves they’d just bought from the shop across the river heaving in the wind. In another one they were both clad in loose tunics, standing at the foot of Mount Uhud. Betül sitting cross-legged on the campus lawn, Betül laughing on a boat, Betül grinning at a wedding. “Mom, get over it.” she whispered to herself, choking back her irritation. Why on earth was she holding a dogged, foolish hope after all these years? All but one of the frames were turned towards the window, the cemetery. The odd one, older than the others and whitened with some creases, she was not familiar with. But she remembered a fight over a photograph –she always remembered fights- her dad grabbing it from mom’s hand and balling it behind his back, shouting with splutter. It might have been taken on one of those days Alpay was talking about. On the coffee table were a pile of childish drawings and a fat, glittering pencil case.
“Have you started painting, mom? Superb works of art, these pieces.” she said teasingly.
“Ayşenur stays with me on some days of the week.” Mualla replied from the kitchen, frying butter and cayenne pepper.
“Hasan has been bedridden with a broken femur for about six months now. He fell from the scaffolding at the construction site of this fake island in Pendik. For a while they subsisted on the money the contractors had paid them to keep mum about the incident, but Meltem wanted to work. She thought it wiser to save the rest of the money for Ayşenur’s education. I think she plans to send her to a summer school or something.” Laying the cutlery, Betül noticed crayon stains on the tablecloth like a splintered rainbow. She rubbed away eraser crumbs with her hand.
“Hasan couldn’t stomach the idea of Meltem working while he lied down at home like an ox. But he finally gave in and she started working at this bakery. It was good for her, giving her some headspace.”
“So you were saying that the girl stays with you. Why?” said Betül, sitting and watching her mom.
“There was this incident at the bakery. Apparently customers started complaining about finding hair in bread. Not once or twice, all these women in the neighbourhood, spearheaded by Leyla Hanım of course, came in brandishing half a loaf with strands of hair sticking out. It wasn’t by accident, it turned out. Meltem was caught tugging on loose hair and mixing it with the dough. She told me that she was harassed by the son of the owner. So she wanted to settle accounts with him like that, idiot. It became the talk of the town. Hasan was livid of course, they started fighting day and night. I wanted to keep Ayşenur out of it, offered to help with her lessons and she started coming regularly.”
Mualla poured the sizzling butter and cayenne pepper over the mantı and sat down in front of her, unlike in the old days when they usually ate side by side, with and then later without Arif across the table. She paused for a few seconds to seek Betül’s eyes.
“They still talk. People never forget. Give them a sliver of a reason for gossip, they chew on it forever. They never let you get away with it, not in a million years.”
“I know they won’t.” Betül said, gobbling a relish that she didn’t know she had missed. She no longer even hated them for that. Little brains, petty worries. It wasn’t like she was going to parade down the town square to remind everyone of how she had changed. In a few days she would leave her old home again like a thief.
A few hours later, Betül wanted to sleep, but she couldn’t. She probed her drawers and found Disney pyjamas and watercolour paint boxes in some of them, the rest occupied by her mother’s t-shirts and socks. Her Barbie dolls were arranged in a single file on top of her desk next to a new one with sparkly fairy wings.
To hell with cinnamon, she muttered, slightly beating herself up. Her mother had added no spice to the ashure like every time she made it specifically for Betül. She had given into that old urge again, seizing onto a topic completely insignificant to her but one of the very few remaining areas of discussion between the two of them. She’d eagerly started talking at length on how she’d recently acquired a taste for cinnamon with chai lattes and cinnamon buns in England. She had told her mother the best coffee shops and bakeries to get them from, showed pictures on her phone, gave recipes – “Made with ground ginger, it’s perfect for winter, mom”, “See, the buns look like our poppy seed bread roll, but this one’s sweet with cream cheese glaze.” Like cinnamon alone could prove that she was still normal, that she still wasn’t someone like the celebrity trash her mother saw in newspapers with bloodshot eyes and smeared makeup leaving a sordid club at three am in the morning.
Did she have to come all the way home after all? Back in London she only needed to keep the shawl within her eyeshot, touch its feminine softness, inhale the fabric to find hidden smells and think of her mother with compassion.
The snow disappeared lazily in the next few days, footsteps and tires carving slushy trails on the street. They wanted to visit Arif’s grave but waited until the air cleared further and the snowmelt largely drained away. They decided to go on the third day after Betül’s arrival. It didn’t last too long, but Betül’s legs loosened like falling cloth when she saw her father’s name on the tombstone for the first time in three years. She propped herself on the white marble. How cold did human flesh go until soil received it? She recited the sura Fatiha seven times, moving her lips to let her mother see.
On their way out, Mualla stopped by another tomb. Nezahat Özdemir. 1938-2013. A year before her father’s death. Here she is, Betül thought. Alpay was visiting his mother’s grave the day Betül left home without notice, the day he found his old lover crying over her husband’s grave.
“Mother of a friend.” Mualla said, finishing her prayer, wiping both hands over her face. “Gülseren’s mother. I think you never met her.” she added, her back against her daughter.
After dinner, Betül reorganized her Barbie dolls in their original places, scattered around the furniture in various poses like they were frozen in a movie set. She also found in one of the closets her bedside lamp, a guitar-playing frog sat on a water lily, a gift her father had brought from one of his trips to an auto show.
I didn’t want to destroy her marriage, so I scoffed at her newly prudish ways, trying to please your father and his family. She was hurt terribly and refused to see me again. Can you see what you did to your mother when you abandoned her too? It wasn’t when you moved out of home. You left her when you left the headscarf. You abandoned her for the life she couldn’t live, the life she had compromised when she married your father. You ran away, no strings attached. Does she have anywhere else to go?
Unable to distract herself from the conversation in Marylebone, she tiptoed into the hall. Light was pouring out of her mother’s bedroom under the door. The prayer rug was in the living room laid on the floor, half folded up, ready for the dawn prayer in a few hours. She took the old picture, the only one that was not facing the cemetery. She is a toddler and her mother thirty years old. Her hair blown dry and side-parted, legs crossed in a long, tiered skirt. A calculated smile towards the camera, a subtle rose on her cheekbones. When Alpay had revealed that he wasn’t some random “uncle”, an old friend of her mother’s Betül had known him to be, but her mother’s ex-fiancé, a bitter sadness had cut through her. Perhaps it was the alcohol or her father being dead. She had been downing her third glass of wine when Alpay told her that in the brasserie. Everyone deserves a breath of fresh air, she thought in the days following that lunch, joys of privacy revisited, the thrill of secrecy. It was nobody else’s business.
What did she expect now? “It’s OK, mom, you have sinned, I have sinned, let’s now relax.” Feeling resentful was easier than feeling sorry for your mother. The former gave reason to escape, the latter bound you back to where it all began. She was leaving the day after.
Lights had dimmed in her mother’s room. She walked out in the balcony, put the picture frame on the windowsill and opened the wooden box. She lit a cigarette and rubbed her hands against her arms. The air softened by snow in the last couple of days had hardened into a dry chill.
Mualla left her room to defrost filo pastries on the countertop. She saw Betül out on the balcony in nothing but pajamas, shivering. Reckless like always, she thought.
“You’re cold, aren’t you cold? Take this.” she said in a voice ringing with urgency, opening, like wings, the wool sweater she kept handy in the living room.
“No, mom, I like it like that. I like the cold.” Wind, silver sharp, crept under her sleeves, down her clavicles and on her breasts, rousing her skin like morning glories. On every goose bump, she felt alive. Mualla was agitated but she didn’t argue. She felt cold on her behalf and tightened her nightgown. Betül looked at the picture in her hands.
“You know what, mom, you’ve changed so little over the years. I hope I will age with grace like you do. I know smoking doesn’t help with that, but perhaps genetics will win over. I mean, inshallah.”
Her mother’s face retained the radiance of her younger years. She had no blemishes or wrinkles, save a few grooves around her eyes. Three abandonments in less than three decades had not withered her. Her amber eyes were glinting like candle flames under thick, brown eyebrows, un-plucked.
“I’m old, my daughter. I have but a few streaks of grey on my head, but I feel wearied like I have been trudging on wet asphalt for so long. Every step is heavy, every step sticky.”
Betül crushed the cigarette butt on the ashtray and moved inside with the picture. She reached for the sweater and buttoned herself into it.
“Who took this photo mom?” She didn’t mean to be so abrupt, but no time was the right time between them, the first nick would never be easy.
“Do you remember uncle Alpay?” her mother said, staring at the heap of newspapers on the coffee table.
“Alpay Özdemir. Yes, I do.”
Mualla, embarrassed, had an instant craving for a smoke, but she resisted.
“Yes, it was him. My old friend from the neighborhood. He liked taking you out to parks. You loved riding the spotted duck in the carrousel, remember? He didn’t have children himself then. So he liked to play uncle for you.” she said, gripping on the edge of the sofa with both hands, eyes on her feet.
“I do mom. I remember everything about him.”
Mualla didn’t raise her head, trying to hide herself from what her daughter was going to say next. Betül sat next to her, held her mother’s thumb, and wrapped her arm around the tense warmth of her back.
“I’ve brought you something.” she whispered.
She left for her room to take out a checkered, cashmere shawl from her handbag and flattened the creases at the folds. It was lined in various shades of blue, now paled and blending into each other, but the fabric was otherwise almost pristine, having lost nothing of its mellow touch. On her last rendezvous with Alpay years ago, when Betül was still a toddler, Mualla had to rush back home to arrive earlier than her husband. She made time only to collect her daughter’s several layers of vests and a hoodie, the cabbage patch doll she never let go of. Alpay treasured the shawl like a relic, believing for years that she had left it to him unconsciously, a memento belying the commands of her reasoning mind, her broken heart.
Merve Pehlivan is a writer and an interpreter based in Istanbul.