It was the red umbrella I saw first. On the pavement of the busy dual carriageway, through the heavy rain and overwhelming greyness of the day, it flamed like a beacon. I didn’t notice her copper hair, her face, or her smile, not then. I just saw her umbrella, and I saw her waving for a taxi, my taxi. So I asked the driver to stop.
She tumbled into the back seat, somehow furling her umbrella behind her.
‘Brilliant, thank you so much! This rain!’ As she settled beside me, raindrops scattered. ‘Impossible to find a taxi in Istanbul when it’s like this. Well, anywhere probably, but here it’s like, I don’t know what it’s like but… anyway, thank you so much for stopping.’ She paused for a moment, assessing me. ‘So, where are we going?’ she asked. ‘I don’t mind, I just need to get somewhere off this street, out of this rain. And I’ve got some time to kill anyway.’
My new travelling companion was possibly Australian, about my age, and captivating. Unsure which of her many remarks I should respond to, I announced our destination:
‘That’s great, so convenient. My flat’s near there. I rented one, just for the week. So much better than some rubbish hotel.’ She smoothed back her hair. ‘I’m Katie, by the way.’ She extended a damp hand across the space between us.
‘Evren,’ I said. ‘And I’m staying in a hotel.’
Oh, right,’ she said. ‘Of course you are.’
I released her hand. ‘It’s not too shabby.’
She changed the subject
‘Yes, but I’ve lived in Ottawa since I was three. I’m a lawyer there now. It’s only my second trip to Istanbul.’ This was already more information than necessary. It was a shared taxi ride, I reminded myself, not a date.
‘That’s one more trip than me then,’ Katie said. ‘I’ve just finished two years teaching in London, so I planned a break here on the way home. My flight’s tomorrow morning, early, as tickets are a lot cheaper on New Year’s Day when everyone else is still partying. I loved being overseas. But it’ll be good to get back to New Zealand.’
While she was talking, I felt my phone buzz. It was my sister. Not able to ignore her message, I tapped out a short reply.
Katie threw out some more questions, ‘Are you here for work? Family?’
‘Nothing bad, I hope?’
‘It was going to be good.’ I glanced at Katie, registered her concern yet hoped she wouldn’t press me further. ‘The situation changed, that’s all.’
Katie turned her attention to the passing scenes of life in Istanbul beyond the taxi window: the pedestrians, street traders, traffic, and shopfronts. I listened to her, glad to be distracted from my day. When the taxi pulled up, she reached into her bag.
‘I’ll get it,’ I said.
Standing on the kerbside of the square, watching the old-fashioned tram wind around its circuit to head off back along the main street of Beyoğlu, Katie opened her umbrella. The rain had turned to a light drizzle.
‘Do you have to be somewhere now?’ she asked.
Did I? Although I knew I should get back to the hotel to be with my sister, I was drawn to the idea of spending more time with Katie.
‘Can I get you a coffee to thank you for the taxi ride?” she asked.
‘There’s no need.’
‘You’d be doing me another favour. Like I said, I’ve got time on my hands.’
Katie set off with a destination in mind. I only knew the topography of the area — that we were on a promontory surrounded by Istanbul’s famous waterways, and the roads arched downhill, like ribs away from the spine of the most famous street in the city, Istiklal Caddesi. So I followed her between the high buildings, along narrow streets, until we halted at a doorway beneath a neon arrow pointing up to the Top Floor Bar and Restaurant.
Squashed together in a narrow, dimly lit and rather old lift, I felt the slight resistance of her arm against the fabric of my coat. She fell silent and fidgeted with the tie on her umbrella.
Then a final flight of wrought-iron spiral steps, and we were out onto the welcome breadth of a roof terrace.
The rain was holding off, the gas burners were keeping the outside space warm, and in the late afternoon light the silver strand of the Bosphorus glistened.
‘Isn’t this fabulous?’ she asked.
I had to stop gazing at her.
‘Yes. Great view.’
‘Excuse me, do you have a reservation?’ a waiter asked.
I looked around. Only one table had anyone sitting at it.
‘We won’t be here long,’ I said. ‘We’re just having coffee, or maybe a drink.’
‘Please, one hour only. We’re booked.’ The waiter showed us to a table. ‘New Year,’ he reminded us. ‘People come to watch fireworks.’
To the north, I could see the first of the suspension bridges that spanned the Bosphorus, and the mosque beside it.
‘My not-so-shabby hotel is right there,’ I pointed, ‘nearly under the bridge. Nice as it is, it’s a relief to be out for a while.’
A bottle of rosé in an ice-bucket beside us, I swirled wine around my glass, considering. ‘Shall I tell you why I’m here?’ Then my phone rang.
‘Take it,’ she said. ‘It’s fine.’
It was my sister again.
‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured her. ‘I cancelled that too. Just do your best to relax and put it all out of your mind if you can.’ My eyes met Katie’s as I shut down the call. I shrugged, tried to smile but bit my lower lip instead. ‘I came over for my sister’s wedding.’ I took a deep breath. ‘That was her — Ayda. Her wedding was meant to be tonight. At a venue up near the second bridge, on the Anatolian side.’
‘It was called off?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘There was a row, a very public one. About money. My father and his brothers. All the groom’s family. A fight that got us thrown out of the restaurant. It was ugly.’
‘And your sister? Ayda?’
‘There was nothing she could do but watch her future slip away. She cried on my shoulder for hours.’
‘Do you think it can be mended?’ Katie asked.
I shook my head.
‘Relationships usually are.’ Katie said. ‘Us here, for example.’
I looked up, surprised by the turn in the conversation.
‘What I meant was,’ Katie laughed a moment to ease the tension, ‘look at where we are. Here, in a city built on two continents. It’s not easy to cross from one to the other, but the bridges help.’
‘They should talk, of course they should. But it won’t happen.’
‘You know, I did a boat tour the other day. The guide said the Bosphorus looks like it’s flowing one way but there’s a strong undercurrent going in the opposite direction. It makes it hard to navigate.’
‘I expect you know all that,’ Katie said. ‘Anyway, my point is, people do find their way.’
‘But only if it’s meant to be. Some things just aren’t supposed to happen, even if we want them to.’
I emptied my glass then refilled both.
‘Do you believe in that?’ Katie asked. ‘Everything planned? Fixed?’
‘Today,’ I looked at her, ‘I think perhaps I do.’
We clinked glasses. Katie reached her hand across the table to take hold of my fingers. I felt my focus change, the tension of the last few days ease. I was sure she too felt our connection, a future even, if only brief and fragile.
Lights were coming on across the city as evening drew in.
‘We’ve been here more than an hour,’ she said. ‘Come and help me finish packing? We can pick up more wine on the way and call for a takeaway.’
It was after midnight when we left Katie’s Airbnb. As she dropped the keys into the letterbox, I placed a kiss on the back of her neck. ‘I’ll always remember this.’
Too soon, we headed up the steep cobbled road towards Istiklal Caddesi on foot. Katie had already bought a ticket for the airport shuttle bus. Even on the quieter backstreets people were out celebrating, enjoying the night.
Taksim Square was joyous. Young people wearing hats and face paint raised a cacophony of voices, cell-phone music, drums, and party clappers. Watching the festivities from the shadows, armed police stood alert, backed by the looming white forms of mobile water cannons.
Katie stepped out into the road to cross to the bus stop.
Quick as I could, I grabbed her back. A yellow taxi passed a hair’s breadth away from her, the driver’s hand on the horn adding to the confusion of sound.
I wrapped her to my chest.
‘It’s not your fate to die tonight,’ I said. ‘I knew I met you for a reason. Look left first. Remember? There’s only a few crazy countries in the world that drive on the wrong side of the road. And you’ve spent too much time in both of them.’
Katie shuddered. She couldn’t quite bring herself to laugh.
I waited with Katie, even watching her through the window until the bus drew away into the night. Not feeling up to the challenge of finding a taxi, I set off down towards the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Bosphorus, even though I knew it would take about an hour to walk back.
The first ambulances flashed past, sirens sounding. Then more kept coming, police and security vehicles too. As I approached the waterfront, the road towards my hotel was already barricaded. I waited in a queue kept orderly by officers with guns, listened to people nearby murmuring, saw the shock on their faces.
Allowed through, I headed straight up to Ayda’s room. I sat with her and her friends, watching the breaking news coverage of the shooting less than ten minutes away.
Thirty-nine people died that night, murdered by a gunman who opened fire in the Reina nightclub while Katie was safely on the airport bus.
I messaged Katie to check she was okay, then lay down but hardly slept. As the first dawn of 2017 lightened the night sky, I stood in front of the huge glass windows of my room, watching the grey waters of the Bosphorus eddy under the bridge and swirl away.
I felt gutted.
On the bus, I learned about the shooting. It was terrible. Senseless. While I was queuing to board the plane, a message from Evren came up, a general one he must have sent to all his contacts to say he was safe. Relief flooded through me.
Yet during the long hours of my flight back, my remembered joy dissipated, broken up by waves of loss.
I sent Evren a message to say I’d arrived home safely. He told me when he was back in Canada.
We’d travelled alone, in different directions, to opposite hemispheres.
I started a new teaching job which kept me busy. I tried not to think of Evren. It was a chance meeting, great while it happened, but over.
In late January, when I heard about the mosque shooting in Quebec, I messaged, ‘Please tell me you’re in Ottawa.’
Evren wrote he was safe and in Vancouver.
I didn’t ask what he was doing there, or who he was with.
As the months passed, we continued to message. Careful updates of our everyday lives were overshadowed by our responses to global terror. Tragedies stretched out our fragile connection.
Watching people flee from Westminster Bridge, I cried. When I was in London, I’d walked along that pavement myself, paused to gaze down into the Thames.
In May, while I was in my first lesson of the day with Year 9, Evren texted: ‘How many more?’ as children staggered out of the Manchester Arena after the concert.
By the end of December, I could barely comprehend the number of stolen lives I’d counted as acts of violence continued around the world.
I ended the year with a mixture of family and friends, drinking beer and watching the fireworks on television. I wrote Evren two messages, trying to recapture the happiness we’d shared, but deleted them both, afraid to say the wrong thing and snap the remaining threads between us. Instead I sent, ‘I’ll always remember our New Year’s Eve together.’
His reply came a couple of hours later, while I was sleeping, perhaps while he was eating his breakfast. ‘You’re a year ahead of me. Hope it’s a happy one.’ That was all.
During 2018, our messages continued. Who texted the news first depended on the time zone. Where once there had been smiles and hearts, our emojis now were sad faces or candles.
Whether it was another school shooting in the United States, an Embassy attack in Ouagadougou, ambushes in Myanmar or Iraq, suicide bombings near Lahore, a rocket strike in Damascus or grenades hurled in Yemen — throughout the year there was always terror somewhere.
On December 31st, I was getting dressed up to go out. A colleague had invited me to a party. She hinted there’d be a mining engineer visiting from Dunedin. She said I’d like him. Actually she said he was single and hot. That we should meet and let the sparks fly. And I knew I couldn’t keep returning to dwell on one night from my past, that I had to move on.
Then Evren’s message arrived: ‘Every day for two years I have tried to forget you. I can’t. May I visit you?’
My reply read: ‘How soon can you get here?’
Of course, we had to wait. It wasn’t as simple as just hopping on a plane. I was about to sign the contract on my first ever house and then there was school. But I was impatient, hopeful. Honestly, the anticipation of seeing Evren again occupied nearly every waking thought I had. Quite a few dreams too.
Evren couldn’t just drop his work either, as he had court sessions booked. Instead, he cancelled his ski holiday in Whistler during March.
At last we were video calling, talking about a future where we could be together. It was good. He was no longer a memory but real, this man with his dark ponytail, strong arms, and surprising blue eyes. And he would visit me, just as soon as he could.
Texting and chatting, January and February passed more quickly than I’d expected.
I knew Evren’s travel plans by heart. He’d booked a room at The George, opposite Hagley Park, as he landed in the early hours of the morning. He’d chosen to sleep, relax and recover from the flight before we met in the hotel bistro for a late afternoon bottle of rosé. I’d go there straight after school.
Instead, the police explained what happened.
On Friday 15th March, Evren left Christchurch airport by taxi. He checked into his hotel room around 02:25. At 09:45 his alarm went off, he ate a light breakfast, caught up with some work e-mails and then headed off for a run in the park.
While a man in a white estate car, armed with multiple weapons, headed away from the Al Noor Mosque towards the Linwood Islamic Centre intent on more carnage, Evren jogged beside the Avon River back towards the hotel.
Perhaps he heard the report of gunfire or the sirens and was distracted.
Evren stepped off the kerb to cross the road.
He wouldn’t have seen the red Toyota that hit him, they said, because he was looking in the wrong direction.
So he never read the last message I sent him — the one hoping he was still in his hotel, safe from the terrorist attack unfolding in my city. The one that ended, ‘I’ll see you very soon XXX’
The terrorist who planned and executed the attack on worshippers at two mosques was sentenced in Christchurch on August 27th, 2020.
Eleven days later, on September 7th, the terrorist who shot a police officer and opened fire in a nightclub was sentenced in Istanbul.
The two men are condemned to life in prison for multiple murders and attempted murders.
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