Clara’s Mattress

Sometimes, it's best not to ignore the writing on the wall – or the window in it.

It was the year a Turkish aircraft was hijacked to Lebanon. The same year of the Taksim Square massacres on Labour Day. The year of the post-modern coup. Two years after Billy Hayes took his midnight express from Imrali prison. Fifty-four years after the republic was formed. The four young adults, in the full bloom of raging hormones and thirst for enjoyment, were blissfully unaware of it all, heading to Turkey for what they hoped would be a memorable holiday. They were in lust, on a shoestring budget and curious to discover the land that so many hippies crossed on their way to Kathmandu.

As it happened, Hashem’s origins were Turkish. Slim, with ocean-green eyes that complemented straw-coloured hair, he was bright, with a cocky assertiveness, but also the fragility of those who sit astride two cultures, never truly belonging to either. He had fallen in love with Bridget, a tall, muscular Valkyrie who smiled at (almost) anything and everything, her intelligence hidden behind sparkling blue eyes. Red-haired Clara, with her perfect amphora figure, created waves of desire in her wake, wafting like a delicate scent. And Giorghios, a raven-haired Apollo with charcoal-black eyes who adored redheads: he could only focus his thoughts on when they would next have sex, in between working out mathematical equations.

The friends had decided to celebrate their newly established maturity by travelling eastwards, tempted by the promise of lokum, sultry nights, and a city that was rich in tradition and complex in its ever-evolving history. The sprawling metropolis, which had been at various times the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, straddled two continents and hosted many cultures. Their mixed group would fit in just fine. Now even Turkey had not escaped bell-bottoms and scarf-free heads, women walking freely in the street and men letting their hair grow fashionably long. Cihangir was to be their first playground, where artists and intellectuals congregated; they would sip çay in the local tea garden and kiss under the bridges spanning the Bosphorus.

They arrived in the early evening and turned off Istiklal Caddesi into Sıraselviler Caddesi. A few more changes of direction and they were in one of the typically dark and narrow streets that were both Istanbul’s charm and its hidden threat. It was easy to imagine murders and abductions: the girls moved closer to their respective men. While the four sought out their room for the night, the local boys looked the two young women up and down, enjoying the sight.

Mehmet Hostel was filthy

Mehmet Hostel was filthy. Dead cockroaches littered the corners of the rooms. Its management consisted of two swarthy men with full sensuous lips and rotund bellies: these were covered by greasy shorts that gaped open at their buttons and were pulled so tight that they allowed for no creases. Their stay had been booked in advance from a student’s guide to Istanbul.

Hashem and Bridget were given a small room overlooking a little courtyard, where several mangy cats stalked the garbage bins. Clara and Giorghios were guided to a room with a slim double mattress pushed against an inner wall, a wall in which sat a large glass window. Whatever lay behind was obscured by the lining of a curtain drawn across on its other side. With no other windows, the room Clara immediately felt oppressed and claustrophobic.

“The city’s name, İstanbul, is a shortened version of the Medieval Greek phrase ‘εἰς τὴν Πόλιν’, meaning ‘into the city’. They added a Turkish character and used it as the name instead of Constantinople from 1928 onwards,” said Giorghios. Though a man of few words, he could come out with some astoundingly inconsequential facts. Their randomness sometimes annoyed Clara.

Instead of paying attention to what Giorghios was saying, Clara was gazing with increasing dismay at the glass pane, which she now realised was an internal window giving onto another space inside the hostel.

“What is behind the glass?” Clara asked the hotelier, who was lingering behind the couple.

He clearly did not understand. She pointed to the glass pane and shrugged her shoulders askance.

He waved his hands, and in turn mimed drawing a curtain over the glass. Clara shook her head.

“Not good enough.”

Using her best sign language, she asked to see the other side of the window.

After much protesting, he took her out of the room and into the next, where it was apparent that the hoteliers slept. The ashtrays were full of cigarette butts and the mattresses had filthy sheets with suspect stains on them. There was a small safe where, presumably, they kept the little cash they made. The hotelier gestured to the glass pane in front of which a heavy dark blue curtain hung. He pulled it across and grinned. Clara stepped back and frowned. She did not believe in the man’s integrity for a single second. Even so, she stepped out of the room to join the others; Bridget and Hashem were already waiting to go out. It was time to explore the city. She realised that she would just have to deal with it.

After snacking at the various stands peddling delicious street food and strolling through the neighbourhood’s lively thoroughfares, the group had decided that they would stay only one night in Mehmet’s hostel. They had found another, cleaner, place to stay for the next evening. They wanted to enjoy Sultan Ahmet, Hagia Sophia, the water cisterns, the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi, before moving to the white shorelines of Bodrum and Marmaris, where the wealthy Turks congregated on luxurious yachts and the discotheques thumped and vibrated until the dawn. The more permissive flavour of the seaside resorts would allow them to indulge in more ‘creative’ sex: they wanted to do it in a rowing boat; have a quick screw behind a rock or a more leisurely one on the beach. Or try some different, even bolder, locations.

When they returned to the hostel, neither of the two hoteliers could be seen. The four had decided that Bridget would announce the news of their change of plans the next day. Because she towered over the men they hoped that she would intimidate them. Back in her room, Clara checked that the curtains were drawn and lowered herself into Giorghios’ waiting arms. Exhausted by the travel and dismayed at the filth of the room, she quickly fell asleep.

She was woken up by Giorghios’ warm mouth pulling on her nipple

She was woken up by Giorghios’ warm mouth pulling on her nipple, while his hand stroked between her legs. She turned into his embrace and reached down to feel his hardness. The night was humid, and she could hear the rustling of cockroaches on the floor. Giorghios kissed her deeply, moving on top of her. With a quick thrust, he was inside her. Wet and willing, she tightened around him and they began to move rhythmically together. As their cadence and mutual excitement increased, Clara began to moan, breaking off the kiss and thrashing her head from side to side.

She caught her breath. Two red glows burned in the dark behind the glass pane.  The curtain was no longer drawn and, with dawning anger, she realised that the two hostel owners were watching every second of their activity from the neighbouring room. She pushed Giorghios off and shouted at the voyeurs, waving her fist. The men leaned forward and grinned, making a rude gesture to indicate their enjoyment. Then the curtain was hastily drawn back across the glass.

The rest of the night Clara spent fuming. Giorghios vainly tried to brush off the episode. “They are just two horny old men. Let them enjoy it,” he said. Clara glowered.

“Did you know that the first tulips bulbs were sent from the Ottoman Empire to Vienna in 1554?  From there they were distributed to Augsburg, Antwerp and Amsterdam. It was only afterwards that the Dutch became famous for tulips.”

“Tulips my arse. These guys are unscrupulous perverts,” she burst out. “It’s filthy. They are dishonest. They are voyeurs.” Giorghis didn’t bother replying and started packing his few things to keep himself busy. Sex was clearly doomed for that morning. It would take Clara a while to calm down.

Dawn seemed to take a long time to arrive. When the little group were ready to leave, the owners were nowhere in sight.

“Wait a second,” Clara told the others. “I just need to check something.”

She went back to her room. She took the French switchblade out of her rucksack and jabbed at the sheets. In a frenzy of anger, she cut the sheets and the mattress to ribbons and strewed them all over the floor. She stood back to admire her handiwork, then, smiling to herself, she walked out and announced cheerfully to the others, “OK – let’s go.”




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