Sunday 8 October 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver and Other Stories by Sally Zigmond, sparkling water, SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

 If only she’d arrived by sea, hauled her boat up on the silver sands and walked barefoot into the city, bringing nothing with her but the pearls of sea-water dripping from her toes.

            If only her first view of the shore had been a violet smudge in the blue, the crown of slender white minarets circling the city like birthday candles, her own music would have chimed with the melody this city had sung forever. Then, she would have left her world behind and sailed across the seas, allowing her body to tune to another beat, to tie a stone to her guilt and hurl it into the silver waters.

            Instead, she caught a flight from Gatwick and landed at the airport, was whisked along traffic-choked roads in an air-conditioned coach that roared through Constantine’s walls and dropped her at a hotel, where everyone spoke English and the wine was French.

She was shown to her room. She kicked off her shoes. Pressing her cheek against the cool glass she watched a flaming red sky fade behind the forest of silhouetted minarets to mauve, then grey. The call to prayer mocked her in its intensity. She showered and slipped into bed, where she slept only fitfully. The bed was too large.


The following day she felt she had to explore the city she didn’t want to see. Jack was like a tooth that continued to ache long after it had been removed; his absence a hollow her tongue had to probe, again and again until her gum was sore. He was with her in the Grand Bazaar where, had he been alive, he would have pointed out the sacks of saffron, cinnamon and a hundred spices she couldn’t name.  He would have laughed at the couple who bought a plastic camel made in Taiwan. He would have known where to buy cheap tickets to cruise the Bosphorus, not the tourist package she found. She knew, that by handing over a pile of notes she couldn’t be bothered to count to the men on the dockside, she had been foolish. She could feel their scorn burning her back as she crossed the fragile plank between shore and ship wishing she could run away, catch the next flight home, knowing she couldn’t.

            It was almost midday and the sun a high lantern before the boat swung away from the crowded quay and headed off into the steamy haze. In the diamond dazzle of the sun on the water distant ships moved like black paper cut-outs against a backdrop of tin-foil. She left the huddled knot around their guide and went to the other side of the boat and leaned over the rail, tasting salt and oil in the spray.

            What would Jack have done? He wouldn’t, like the man next to her in a Hawaiian shirt, have listed aloud the ‘must-see’ site and counted the red stars, too intent on the page to see and feel them. His arm resting gently on her shoulder, he would have told her tales about Jason and his brave Argonauts and their heroic quest to bring back the Golden Fleece. He would have explained that the route from Thessaly to Colchis would have brought them through these very waters. He would have filled her with wonder and magic. And then, she would not have seen the rusted hulks of Russian tankers plodding back and forth to the Black Sea, but heard Orpheus’s sweet voice urging the men forward, their oars flinging up glittering necklaces of water with every stroke.

            The boat chugged on, churning up scum and twenty-first century flotsam, trailing a greasy wake along the shore before tying up alongside a group of weather-boarded houses. She vaguely remembered the ‘Fine Feast included in Price’ and found herself at the tail of an obedient gaggle filing into a garish Arabesque establishment, its menu splashed in every language except Turkish.  They were immediately accosted by a barrage of hawkers pressing on all sides. Children scampered around them like eager puppies, thrusting roses and fans of postcards into their faces, rattling fabric birds on wooden sticks.

            A small boy tugged her sleeve. She looked down into a pair of enormous sable eyes and a shy grin. She fumbled in her bag. The man with the guide-book forced his way between them and, grabbing her shoulders, pushed her into the restaurant where the party was being squeezed onto wooden benches and offered a choice of Coca-Cola or Seven-Up. ‘Don't you dare give those little money-grubbers any cash. You've got to show them who's boss or they'll walk all over you.’

            She tightened her lips. ‘Please excuse me,’ she said and dived into the Ladies.

            She splashed her blazing face in water. She raged with impotent anger. Not at the interfering man who had meant well. The cooling water replaced her hot anger with memories that made her shiver. As a young widow, her position at the usual obsequies was assured. People wrote her letters edged in black about sorrow and loss. People she didn’t know turned to her with appropriately mournful faces when she entered the chapel where Jack lay in a box smothered in white lilies.

Her face was a perfect mask and everyone nodded and touched her shoulder.  She had taken her place in the front pew, dry eyed and composed and remained still as the curtains had closed and the recorded organ piped out a piece of Bach that Jack had always hated. She almost smiled—Jack’s lips would have twitched wickedly—but knew that if she had done so, she would have begun to laugh and never stop.

The day of Jack’s funeral had been hideous from beginning to end. Jack’s mother embraced her when she left, enveloping her in lavender and saintliness. ‘The tears will come,’ she said, ‘when you least expect them. Don’t waste the tickets. Take that holiday and think of Jack.’

It was hard not to.

He’d brought the tickets home the same day she’d found a grubby lace handkerchief in his pocket. It was the corniest scenario ever. She had been emptying the pockets of one of his work jackets. They needed frequent cleaning. From the amount of chalk ground into the seams, she used to tease, anyone would think he used them as blackboard dusters.

            She should have tackled him the moment he came home. But he was too excited about his long-dreamed visit to Istanbul. Had she done so, he would have squashed her accusations with a laugh, pulled her to him and kissed away her anger. The truth was as simple as a child’s story. An evening spent with a female colleague had been exactly what he said it was; a chance to plan next term's timetable away from the distractions of the staff-room. The woman, a cart-horse of un-coordination had knocked over a mug of tea and pulled out her handkerchief to mop it up. When the meeting was over, Jack had swept it up absent-mindedly.

The woman came to the funeral. Miss Nugent, head of the History department and old enough to be Jack’s mother bore down on her, a glass of sweet sherry in her hand and after the usual ‘such a waste of a promising young teacher, so tragic etc’ she added, ‘I hope you didn’t mind me taking up so much of his time last month, picking his brain over timetabling. He was so good at that sort of thing. I’m hopeless,’ she had added, waving her arms about, sherry droplets flying through the air. ‘Disorganized,’ she laughed, ‘and clumsy,’ she added, knocking over a chair as she backed away.

So simple. So idiotically banal. How could she have concocted a sordid tale of adultery out of that? It was laughable. But she hadn’t laughed then. She’d given Jack the silent treatment, turned her back in bed, gritted her teeth as he talked dreamily of Istanbul and its layer upon layer of history. ‘Did you know,’ he said one night, ‘that the horses of Saint Marks were stolen from Constantinople as trophies of war?’

‘Amazing,’ she said, leafing the pages of her magazine, letting jealousy eat away her flesh and scrape her bones. He looked at her. She looked away.

Following an exchange of angry words at breakfast over nothing Jack had slammed out of the house only to be run over by a speeding taxi on his way to school, his inattention no doubt due to his distraction.

What a mess. And here she was, where she didn’t want to be as it was his dream, adding her guilt and her shame to the layers of this city. Constantinople, Byzantium, Istanbul.

How many shattered dreams lay crumbled in its dust?


The street was quiet as she slipped out of the restaurant; the children had gone to sell their trinkets elsewhere. Small birds fluted from the almond trees. She turned her face to the sparkling waters criss-crossed by tacking yachts and there, amongst them she thought she caught a glimpse of the Argo and its crew pulling on the ropes, their sun-blackened faces glistening with sweat. And was that Heracles scanning the shore and Orpheus strumming his lyre as the waters lilted past and fishes leapt to the beat of the drum that set the stroke of the oars? A tanker crossed her eye line, booming on its way to the Black Sea, dimming the sun.

            She trailed along the street, hugging the shade, turned one corner, then another, not caring where she was headed. Ahead of her was an old crumbling mosque. Trees rooted in the arches; weeds climbed the walls. She wanted to know why it had been abandoned but there was no-one to ask. Jack would have known. Jack would have eased her into this city, so that she would have slipped into its time and moved through it. Nothing made sense. Old men shuffled past, their faces as wizened as walnuts, their backs doubled under huge bales of fabric. Where were they going and why? Handcarts piled high with shirts wobbled in and out of the crowds. Men sat in doorways, playing cards, drinking apple tea, smoking thin cigarettes. What did they talk about?  On she trudged, wishing she'd had the sense not to wear silly strappy sandals. She climbed endless flights of stone stairs, tripped over broken paving slabs until she was hot, dizzy and totally lost. She had been stupid to leave the restaurant without eating something. She had been stupid to even think of taking Jack’s holiday alone. She sank onto a stone wall and took off a sandal, rubbed her heel. A blister had formed, red and hot, soft as jelly to her probing fingers. Stupid. Stupid.

            She looked up to find she had become an object of intrigue. Men had stopped and were eyeing her curiously as if she was a kingfisher who had landed in a flock of starlings. Keep calm. Keep calm. What was it Jack used to say? If you don't know where you are, fix your eyes on a familiar landmark and walk towards it in as straight a line as possible.

            She remembered that her hotel faced two of the most famous buildings in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia, once a Christian Church, then a mosque and now a museum, and the emblematic Blue Mosque faced each other across fountain-splashed gardens. She scanned the skyline and eventually saw their smoky shapes swimming on the horizon, took a deep breath and walked on. An hour or so later she arrived at the entrance to the Blue Mosque. She slipped off her sandals, set them on the rack and wound a scarf about her head. Lifting the heavy green curtain, she entered.

            She had visited many great buildings with Jack. She had often been bored, although she’d never told him. She had trudged around them all: stately homes, castles, cathedrals, art-galleries, museums, until her body and her mind ached. They had ill-prepared her for this. She was overwhelmed, not merely by the coolness that fell around her. All large old buildings were cool. It wasn’t that. No, it was the absolute sense of space. No pillars or chunks of masonry, no sombre tombs, no anguished statues, paintings or other representations of human agony; only light and lightness. All around her, she was conscious of the shimmer of the sea rippling in the blue-glassed windows. In the centre, beneath the gilded dome, a few men knelt, bowed, stood up and bowed again in prayer. Their faith was understated and therefore tangible, a soundless tableau. Man may have designed and constructed it but it transcended humanity. .

Her eyes filled. She let the tears fall unchecked and cried until she was empty of pain and the light at the high windows had faded.  

She stepped outside and put her shoes on again.  The evening call to prayer burst across the evening sky. Seagulls rose in clouds from the minarets and wheeled about the golden cupolas, flashing silver. And the Argo slipped its mooring; its sails filled, rich and round, and sped away across the moonlit, glittering sea.


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