Sport 3: Spring 1989
Sandra Arnold — Gul
People see me as an aloof sort of person, I suppose, with no interest in anything except my work. But it isn't so.
I went to Vienna on holiday especially to see Wittgenstein's house. It was mentioned in the tourist brochures. When I got there, the place was full of workmen and they wouldn't let me in. They said it was being turned into a consulate. I was so upset I wrote to the Minister of Tourism, expressing my disappointment. To my surprise, he sent me a letter by special dispatch, apologising for the inconvenience and even offering to take me on a guided tour of the place when it was finished.
In Vienna I discovered the music of Mahler and the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Since then, one of my greatest pleasures has been to develop my knowledge of these subjects. Now, I have a fine collection of books, records and pictures, but unfortunately they are scattered, some with my brother in London, my mother in Istanbul, friends in the USA.
People think I have no interest in women. But that isn't true either. Perhaps they think that no woman could be attracted to someone like me, because I am short and losing my hair now. I used to be conscious of my lack of height and wished I was tall and strong, but I came to accept it and it really doesn't concern me at all. My best feature has always been my eyes, for they are dark and very striking. So I am not ugly. Anyway, I have learned not to care what people think. In the end, my greatest work will be myself and I will go on cutting and trimming and altering the pattern until I achieve perfection.
My father's youngest sister, Lale, came to live with us. Her name means tulip. Her husband had died in a sanatorium. He had TB. She was nineteen, five years older than I. And she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. A city lady. She wore European dresses, high- page 90heeled shoes and silk stockings. She smelt of talcum powder.
My mother tried to insist that she keep to the women's part of the house when my father had visitors, but Lale only laughed at her. She laughed a lot and that seemed to upset my mother as much as the way she behaved and dressed.
Lale treated me as though we were equals. In fact she sought my company. She always had to be doing something, going somewhere. She said she hated staying in the house, it made her feel closed in. So that summer we walked all over the city. When the days were hot and dusty we walked by the Bosphorus to watch the fishing boats. She let me go swimming and sometimes, even if there were people about, she swam herself. I never told my mother that.
We walked to the Old City and explored the mosques and museums and palaces and she told me tales of the Ottoman Sultans that she had learned from her husband. He had been a teacher and twenty years older than Lale. She said she hadn't loved him but had respected him for his intelligence and kindness.
I especially liked the story about Mehmet the Conqueror. Lale told me he had been a small man but because of his military brilliance he had been able to capture Constantinople from the Christians and make it part of the Turkish Empire. When we went to look at the Byzantine mosaics in Santa Sophia, she said it was only because of Mehmet's tolerance of other religions that they had been preserved.
Once, we went to the Covered Bazaar. There were so many people and the sunlight shone through the glass roof and onto the brass plates and jugs in the dusty little shops, making them sparkle like gold. Each shop smelt old and full of treasures. But the heat was intense and my feet must have been dragging at last because she said, 'Just around the corner, then — a surprise.'
One minute we were part of the surging crowd and the next we were in a tiny courtyard with a big shady tree growing in the centre. An oasis of peace and quiet. I couldn't believe it and stared at her. Her eyes shone with laughter.
When we walked past the fancy European shops of Istiklal Cad, and the restaurants, theatres and hotels of Taksim, she said, 'One day, Celik, you'll be rich enough to go in those places.'
People often ask me why I'm not married. A beautiful woman across the dinner table: 'Why aren't you married, Celik?'
I reply, 'Why? Do you find me attractive?' This makes everyone page 91laugh.
Or curious colleagues: 'How come you never got married, Celik?' (Meaning, you're not gay, are you?)
I reply, 'Are you kidding? How many systems analysts do you know who're not divorced or alcoholic? Or both!' And they laugh again and nod.
There are variations, according to the mood and scene.
'I'm married to my job.'
'At least a computer will do as it's told!'
'I like being free to travel to different countries.'
'What woman would trust me in my way of life?'
This last one is most useful with my mother on my trips back to Turkey.
Only Gul never asked the question.
I met her when I was giving a course on computer programming and she was a student in my class. Her parents belonged to Istanbul's High Society and Gul had never had to struggle for anything in her life. She'd been educated at private schools and had gone to Warwick University in England for three years to study maths. She'd hated it. She described it as 'working class'.
Gul always said exactly what she thought and she didn't give a damn what people said about her. I admired this very much but the other students disliked her and she knew it. This made me feel sorry, so I made a point of including her in the conversation or I thought of something to say to make her laugh. She appreciated it I think, and we became friends. Occasionally I invited her to dinner. She always chose the most expensive restaurants. But I didn't mind. It felt good being seen in those places with such a woman. And I loved the way she drew attention to herself by her conversation and manner but seemed oblivious of the way people stared at her.
The leaves turned crimson and gold and gusts of wind tore them off the trees, scattering them through grey streets. Lale and I ran into the leaves, crunching them under our feet and throwing them high in the air and laughing. She noticed my ears were blue with the cold so she took my scarf and wound it around my head like a turban, letting one end dangle over my ears. I protested that I looked ridiculous. She said, 'No! You look like a Pasha!'
So I assumed the role. We were approaching a soldier on guard at Topkapi Palace and I saw him stare at me with a slight smile. page 92Lale saw it too and she took my arm and as we passed by she stared back at him, as bold as a gypsy. His smile disappeared and he looked straight ahead. As soon as we were out of sight I doubled up. She started laughing too and I said, when I was finally in control again, 'Lale, you are amazing.'
We went inside the palace, which had been a museum since 1923 when the Republic was founded, and stared at the jewelled thrones of the Sultans and the gold cradles of their princes. At rubies and emeralds as big as ostrich eggs and diamond encrusted swords. At the tiled rooms in the harem, which had once been the most mysterious and carefully guarded place on earth. We stood in the gateway where the Sultans had departed on their campaigns to bring victory and glory to the Empire. As we emerged fr6m the palace and walked. to Sultan Ahmed Square I was lost in daydreams. I was Mehmet or Bayazid, or Selim or Sulieman about to set forth to put things in order in barbarous Europe.
A group of tourists stopped in front of us to take photographs of the mosque. They were English girls about the same age as Lale. She touched my elbow and pointed to their shoes. They had very high thin heels. I had not seen such shoes before.
One of the girls said, 'That mosque looks as though it's floating in the air.'
I looked at it and saw she was right. I had never noticed the delicacy of its proportions before.
Then another girl replied, 'It amazes me that in those barbarous times they were able to produce such beautiful architecture. All the bath houses, schools and hospitals built around the mosques. Incredible town planning.'
'Mmm. All the more incredible when you see the concrete crap they've produced since the Republic.'
They turned round and walked past us. One of them, a tall girl with blue eyes and blonde hair looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and found myself going crimson. Lale saw my expression and laughed. We started walking to the bus stop and watched the English I girls till they hailed a taxi and were driven away.
Sometimes Gul came to the office and invited me to lunch. Then everyone's eyes would open and the whispers would start.
And afterwards, 'Celik Bey, I saw you go to lunch with a beautiful lady?'page 93
'Well,' I would reply, 'sometimes I have my lunch with a friend.' And that really drove them crazy!
When she wanted to talk to me in private, she just turned up at my flat. I always worried that someone would find out, but Gul didn't care. After a meal she would lie stretched out on the sofa, her hands behind her head and her long, black hair falling over the cushions. She told me about her current problems and I listened sympathetically but never offered any advice unless she asked for it.
Generally she did not ask me questions, but once, after my return from Malawi, she looked at me curiously and said, 'Celik, have you ever made love to a woman?'
'Of course,' I replied. I didn't tell her it was with a black woman in Malawi. I don't know why I didn't want her to know that. Naturally I was aware that those services existed in some hotels, but what was the point? Without any attachment? There are other ways to get that sort of satisfaction.
Gul went to England for a year to study for her master's degree. I missed her. People at the office kept asking me when we were going to get engaged.
I said, 'Look! Just because I sometimes take a lady out for a meal, it doesn't mean I intend to marry her.'
But they were shocked by that and didn't understand. Anyway, I wrote a long letter to Gul, bringing her up to date with the news and including those comments from the people at the office, thinking she would enjoy the joke. I also told her how much I missed her company and her beauty and personality.
There was a long silence. When she did reply she said she didn't quite know how to put this as she valued me very much as a friend, but those stupid people at the office who made such idiotic remarks, if it wasn't so embarrassingly annoying, it would be laughable etc.
I didn't answer for several weeks and then I composed a careful letter. I wrote it many times before I was satisfied I had achieved the right degree of detachment. I told her I had never asked her to marry me. I had never made any demands on her at all. I had asked for nothing more than her friendship.
There was no reply till she came back to Istanbul. Then she rang me and said she had waited till we could see each other so that there would be no more misunderstandings. She invited me to her parents' house where she cooked a lovely dinner for us. And there she apologised for her misinterpretation of my letter. We spent a wonderful evening page 94together and after that became closer friends than ever.
When the days grew colder Lale and I bought salep from street stalls. We sprinkled cinnamon on top, sniffing the spicy aroma before we let our frozen lips taste the delicious hot liquid. At home, on the evenings when my father was at the mosque and my mother out visiting relatives, my brothers and I pulled the mangal into the middle of the living room and filled it with charcoal from the stove. Lale roasted chestnuts on top and we all ate and talked until we were hot and full and sleepy. We curled up on cushions on the floor like fat lazy cats and gazed at the glowing charcoal in the darkening room, enjoying the heat on our faces and the comfortable silence.
Gul invited me to her wedding a couple of years later. That didn't last long, as I predicted. Her husband had no understanding of her personality. When she told him she wanted to go to France for a year to study the language, he said he wouldn't let her. Wouldn't let her! I roared with laughter when she told me this.
And once, when I was working in Ankara for six months and feeling lonely, I rang her at midnight as I'd often done before her marriage. Her husband answered the phone and used the most abusive language to me. I didn't understand and I thought, 'You stupid bastard, do you think I am going to screw her from here? It isn't that long!' But I used courteous words with him and controlled the situation.
Gul sent me a photograph of herself in a swimsuit on the beach. It was beautiful and I kept it in a frame by my bed. However, she then wrote and said her husband had found out that she had sent it to me and insisted that I return it. She asked me, as a special favour to her to send it back, so I did.
She was fed up with him after that and said she was going to France whether he liked it or not. He said he would divorce her if she did. She said okay! He didn't expect that and was sorry. But Gul wouldn't change her mind.
In the winter, Lale developed a cough. At first it was not particularly noticeable but it was persistent. By the following spring, I had become aware, in the way that I was able to put things into separate categories, that she stayed in her room a lot. Nobody mentioned it and I ignored it too. We still walked everywhere together but she had to keep stopping for rests. Gradually our walks became shorter and fewer. And she page 95sometimes seemed to be preoccupied because when I spoke to her she just looked at me without replying.
One evening we walked over Galata Bridge because Lale wanted to watch the sun set over the mosques. I sat on the wall and Lale leaned over it, staring at the water. The sounds of the city surrounded us. Homegoing crowds jostled for space with honking traffic and shouting street pedlars. The constant booming of ships echoed in the Golden Horn with the sirens of the packed ferry boats crossing to the Asian side. Fishing boats unloaded their catches on the dock I watched by waiting shoppers. And the smell of fish and exhaust fumes soaked the evening air.
After a long silence, Lale turned me and said, 'Celik, what are you afraid of most?'
I was surprised and didn't know how to answer. Then I said, 'I'm afraid of not making it to university.'
She looked at me, smiling. 'The tanneries?'
I shook my head. 'If I don't go to university, I won't be an Officer when I do my Military Service. My worst nightmare is that I find myself in the army as a Private. Then I wake up covered in sweat and crying.' I looked away, embarrassed by my revelation. I had told it to no one before.
She touched my cheek. 'Your worst nightmare? Poor Celik.'
Her coughing got worse and she spent most of her time in her room. My father grew silent. When he heard Lale coughing he would glance at my mother but she always looked away.
I was walking back from school one day when an American tourist asked me to direct him to the Castle of the Seven Towers. It was near our house and therefore easier for me to take him than to try to explain where it was in my halting English. He was very pleased and gave me one hundred lira. I did not want to accept it but he insisted. On the way home I passed a flower shop with jugs of tulips crowded together on the pavement. I stopped to admire them, such a splash of red and yellow on the drab grey stone. Then, with the American's money, I bought a big bunch to give to Lale.
I hurried home but when I got there, I felt awkward and stood in the kitchen not knowing what to do next. Then I heard her coming slowly down the stairs. She walked into the room and immediately saw me standing there, holding the flowers. Her eyes opened wide and she smiled when she realised my confusion. She took the tulips from me saying quietly, 'Thank you, Celik. No one has ever given page 96me flowers before.' Then she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. I smelt her soft skin and felt the warmth of her lips. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, I saw my mother standing in the doorway, watching us. She didn't say a word. She turned and went out of the room before Lale even realised she was there.
Gul's father bought her an apartment in Rumeli, one of the best parts of the city, overlooking the Bosphorus, when she came back from France. Then she got a job teaching in the American University which was close by.
Shortly afterwards, I was promoted to World Headquarters in the USA with the Middle East/Africa Region. We kept in touch. She wasn't a good letter writer but she always remembered to send me a card on my birthday with a little gift.
I travelled all over the world on different assignments. My salary went straight into the bank and because I did not live more than a few months in each country, I didn't pay any tax. All my expenses were paid by the company and I stayed in the best hotels. In return, of course, I was very useful to the company and was always willing to go where they wanted to send me, even at short notice. Some people called this selling your soul to the company, but it suited me.
Wherever I went, I chose beautiful, original gifts to take back home to my mother, sister and brothers. But the best ones were for Gul. She loved French perfumes, silk scarves and fine jewellery. And I enjoyed her pleasure when I gave her these things. When she decided to go to London for a holiday I asked her how much money she had saved to take with her. When she told me, I gave her an equivalent amount in addition.
Once, I couldn't resist buying her a magnificent white silk nightgown which I'd seen in a shop window in Zurich. When I got it back to the hotel I spread it out carefully on my bed and gazed at it in admiration. The material was so fine that it was almost transparent. I imagined how Gul would look inside it, her breasts and thighs touching the exquisite softness of the silk.
After much thought, I decided it would be inappropriate to give it to her. So I kept it. And sometimes I would sprinkle it lightly with talcum powder and hold it against my face in bed, breathing in its cleanness and coolness while I masturbated.page 97
After the flowers incident, my mother kept trying to occupy me with jobs away from the house. One day, she gave me a picnic lunch and told me to take my brothers to the city walls and not return before evening because she wanted to clean the house. I trailed reluctantly behind them as they ran off to look for cannonball marks. For a long time I sat on my own while they rushed about exploring, but then they were bored and begged me to play with them. So I was Sultan Mehmet riding on his white horse, telling the Byzantines (my brothers) not to fear, for although I had captured their city, they would find me a kind and just ruler.
And so the day passed. And strangely, I enjoyed myself. Until the gradual awareness of hunger reminded us it was time to go home.
Osman and Mehmed took the quickest way back, through the thistle fields. But I wanted to be alone so I chose a longer route. I reached the end of our street. Dinner smells drifted on the air. Not many people were about, a few men digging in their allotments, the occasional horse and cart hurrying homeward, mothers calling their children in from the streets. Lost in daydreams, I almost fell down a manhole. I looked around for something to cover it and saw stones and rubble from a nearby demolished house. As I dragged these over, a man stepped from the shadows and said, 'May Allah be pleased with you. I covered it myself this morning but someone kicked away the stones.'
Pleased by his praise, I ran the rest of the way home, arriving at the door just as the call to prayer filled the evening quiet.
There was no one in the kitchen, but the smell of dinner cooking made me realise how hungry I was, so I took a dolma from a plate on the table. I heard raised voices from the living room so I went out into the garden and glanced in the window. My mother and Lale. I couldn't hear what they were saying but they both looked angry. Lale turned and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind her. My mother stood staring at the door for a moment, than covering her face with her hands, she began to cry.
After one absence of two years I visited Istanbul on my way to Libya, where I was going to work on an eight months contract. I had negotiated an excellent salary because the company could not find anyone else who was prepared to work there. It was early summer and the city was gay and alive with flowers. The first thing I did when I arrived at the hotel was to ring Gul and arrange to meet page 98her in Yildiz Park next day. It had always been one of my favourite places in summer, the gardens being full of roses and the outdoor cafe serving the best tea and chocolate cake in Istanbul. I could hardly sleep that night. I left the presents I had brought Gul at the hotel because I was determined to ask her to come back with me and I would give them to her then.
When I got to the park next afternoon, she was already there. I saw her sitting at a table sipping tea. I waved and she jumped up and ran to meet me. I stretched out my hand to shake hers and she laughed out loud, 'So you've gone European at last, have you?' And brushing away my hand, she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me on both cheeks. Trying to ignore the stares from people sitting nearby, I led her back to the table.
We ordered tea and chocolate cake. I gazed at her face to discover whether there had been any changes in my absence. There was a little scar on her right cheek. I reached forward and touched it. She brushed my hand away impatiently.
'What happened?' I persisted.
She shrugged, 'This time it was my fault. I was driving too fast.'
'You mean there were other times?'
'Minor ones. Not worth mentioning.'
I didn't pursue the matter but kissed my fingertips and stroked her scarred cheek. She relaxed and smiled at me. Without any need for adjustment we were completely in tune again.
I returned to the kitchen and crept quietly upstairs. Lale was coughing very badly in her room. I slid into my own room, wondering what to do. Then I began moving things about noisily so she would hear me and know I was there. After a minute, her door opened and she called, 'Celik, come here, I have something to give you.'
I jumped up and ran into her room. She was standing with her back to the window so I couldn't see her face clearly. Then I noticed she was holding a dish of something in her hands. Something red and yellow. Sweets? Fruit? My mouth watered in anticipation.
Then, in that direct way of hers, Gul said, 'Celik, I'm getting married again.'
After only a second's pause I said, 'So?'
She laughed. Then: 'He's a Christian. Greek.'
I raised my eyebrows. 'So that's why you've taken to sending page 99Christmas cards? What does your family say?'
She ignored that and said, 'He's very old. To remind him how old he is I tease him by pinching his wrinkled arm. And he can see how smooth my skin is in comparison.'
She waited for my reaction but I made sure my expression didn't change. She went on. 'I met him on holiday in Bodrum last year. He picked me up in a bar. He's very rich and he knows how to treat women. Sometimes the wrinkles bother me, but. . .' She shrugged.
Still I didn't comment and after glancing at my face several times, she changed the subject. We talked for a while longer, about her job, about my job. Then she had to leave. She promised she would write. I said I would contact her next time I was in Istanbul. She kissed me again. Then she was gone.
'Take this to your mother,' said Lale.
'Show it to your mother.'
I took the dish and glanced at the contents. For a moment — utter disbelief. Then the bile rose from my stomach and the blood drained from my head.
I turned and went downstairs to the living room, pausing outside the door. My mother was kneeling on the floor and I couldn't see her face as it was covered with the white veil she wore during prayer. Closing the door I went out into the garden and buried the dish in the soil.
Then I ran back to my room and locked the door. I threw myself into bed, curling up into a tight ball with the blankets over my head.
I finished drinking my tea. A warm breeze carried the scent of roses and stirred some crumpled papers on the marble floor near my table. Waiters glided silently through the murmuring groups. Birds sang in the trees. In the distance, the faint rumbling of the city.
Next day, Lale called me to her room again. Her face was white though her cheeks were flushed. 'You didn't give that dish to your mother, did you?'
I looked at my feet.
'What did you do with it?'
'Get it and bring it to me.'page 100
I dug it up and returned it to her without speaking. She snatched the dish from me, hissing, 'Idiot child!'
I stared at her but she had already turned away.
A mangy white cat with half an ear and only one eye jumped up on the empty chair beside me and started to lick the remains of my chocolate cake.
'Hey,' I said, 'cats do not eat chocolate cake.'
In reply it leaped onto the table and started rubbing itself against me, purring loudly
'Look,' I said, 'I don't like cats.'
It continued licking the cake, purring all the time.
I said, 'Okay. Let me cut a piece off for myself, then I will leave the rest to you.'
After that I didn't see Lale again because she was taken to the sanatorium. A short time later, she died there. Everyone said I took the news very bravely. But they kept watching me to catch me off guard.
I looked up to see a waiter glancing at me.
I said to him, 'This cat thinks it's a palace cat. Perhaps its ancestors belonged to the Sultans.'
He laughed and nodded and repeated what I said to another waiter. People at the nearby tables heard him and enjoyed the joke too.
I ordered a taxi to take me back to my hotel. Then when it came, I dismissed it and started walking.