That was when she noticed a tramp walking down the middle of the road. Tall and gangly with an angular face, he was thin as a whisper, his forehead creased beyond his years, his chin covered in a rash and his hands in weeping patches of eczema. One of the millions of Syrian refugees who had fled the only life they knew, she first thought – though there was an equal chance that he was a local Turk or a Kurd or a Gypsy or a bit of everything. How many people in this land of endless migrations and transformations could say with certitude that they were of one pure ethnicity, unless they were lying to themselves – and to their children? But, then again, Istanbul amassed deceptions galore.
The man’s feet were caked with dried mud, and he wore a ragged coat with the collar turned up, so dirty that it was almost black. Having found her lipstick-smudged cigarette, he was smoking it nonchalantly. Peri’s gaze travelled from his mouth to his eyes, surprised to see that he had been watching her with an amused expression. There was a swagger in his manner, a challenge almost; he seemed not so much a tramp as an actor playing the part of a tramp and, confident of his performance, he was waiting for applause.
Having now three men to avoid, the two in the car plus the tramp, Peri turned aside brusquely, forgetting that there was a coffee cup there. The frappuccino tipped over, sending its frothy contents into her lap.
Something inside, an animal instinct for all she knew, assured her that if she could find them she would get back what rightly belonged to her.
‘Argh, no!’ Peri shrieked as she gaped in horror at the dark stain spreading on her expensive dress.
Her daughter whistled, clearly enjoying the disaster. ‘You can say it’s a piece by a new crazy designer.’
Ignoring the remark and cursing herself, Peri blindly grabbed her handbag – a lavender ostrich Birkin, perfect in every detail other than the misplaced accent on the word ‘Hermès’, for there was nothing the city’s bootleggers couldn’t counterfeit except proper spelling – which she had tucked between her legs. She took out a packet of tissues, even though she knew, or a part of her knew, that wiping would only worsen the stain. In her distraction, she made a mistake no veteran driver in Istanbul ever would: she tossed her handbag into the back seat – and the doors unlocked.
She could see something fluttering out of the corner of her eye. A beggar girl, no older than twelve, was coming towards them, pleading for coins. Her clothes flapping about her skinny frame, her palm extended forward, she walked without moving her body from the waist up, as if through water. She stayed in front of each car for about ten seconds before proceeding to the next. Perhaps, Peri thought, she had figured out that if one could not inspire mercy in that brief amount of time, one would never do so. Compassion never came as an afterthought: it was either spontaneous or absent entirely.
When the girl reached the Range Rover, both Peri and Deniz automatically glanced in the opposite direction, pretending not to have seen her. But the beggars of Istanbul were used to being invisible to others and came well prepared. Exactly in the spot where mother and daughter had turned their heads stood another child of around the same age, waiting with an open palm.
To Peri’s immense relief the light turned green and the traffic shot forward like water out of a garden hose. She was about to put her foot on the accelerator when she heard the back door open and close, as fast as a switchblade. In the mirror she saw her handbag being scooped out of the car.
‘Thieves!’ Her voice hoarse from the effort, Peri screamed. ‘Help, they stole my bag. Thieves!’
The cars behind her honked frantically, oblivious to what had happened, eager to go. It was obvious nobody was going to help. Peri hesitated, but only for a moment. With a dexterous spin of the steering wheel, she swerved the car to the kerb and left her emergency lights flashing.
‘Mum, what are you doing?’
Peri didn’t respond. There was no time. She had seen the direction in which the children had scampered off, and she needed to follow them at once; something inside, an animal instinct for all she knew, assured her that if she could find them she would get back what rightly belonged to her.
‘Mum, let it go. It’s just a bag – and fake!’
‘I’ve got money and credit cards in there. And my phone!’
But her daughter was worried, embarrassed even. Deniz did not like to attract attention, only wanted to blend in, a drop of grey in a sea of grey. All her rebelliousness seemed to be saved for her mother.
‘Stay here, lock the doors, wait for me,’ Peri said. ‘For once, do as I say. Please!’
‘But, Mum . . .’
Without thinking, not thinking at all, Peri dashed out of the car, forgetting for an instant that she was wearing high heels. She took off her shoes, her bare feet hitting the asphalt heavily. From inside the car, her daughter gaped at her, eyes wide with astonishment and mortification.
Peri ran. In her purple dress, carrying the weight of her years, her cheeks aflame, the wife-housewife-mother of three, in front of dozens of eyes, was painfully aware that her breasts were hopping frantically and she was unable to do anything about it. Even so, tast- ing a strange sense of freedom, trespassing in a forbidden zone she could not name, she sprinted across the road towards the inner streets, while drivers laughed and seagulls swirled above her head. If she hesitated, if she so much as slowed for a second, she would have been horrified at what she was doing. The possibility of stepping on rusty nails, broken beer bottles or rat urine would have terrified her. Instead she charged ahead. Her legs, almost independently, as if with a memory of their own, kept going faster and faster, remembering the time long ago at Oxford when she would jog three to four miles every day, rain or shine.
Peri used to love running. Like other joys in her life, that, too, was no more.