The airline's advertising banners are lying when they say, “You are only half an hour away from Istanbul!” It will take at least five hours to get there — until they invent the teleportation machine. Of course, it’s a trifle compared to three days by train to Omsk or seven (!) days to Vladivostok, but comfort has a remarkable property; once you try something best, yesterday’s “good” turns into today’s “bearable.”
The trip from Krasnodar to Istanbul begins with the way to the airport. There are no traffic jams at night, and it’s a huge plus. However, there is also a minus — the fact that taxi drivers don’t care about speed limits.
At the airport, standard procedures — such as checking luggage, going through the security check, and passport control — will take about 40 minutes. Naturally, there are queues everywhere, and you don’t enjoy the process in its entirety without them. Then you hang around a little at the lounge, have your passport and boarding pass checked yet again, suffer heat at the bus, get mad at the passengers who are late, and mentally beg the frugal driver to turn on the air conditioner. In the plane, you will first hover about in the aisle when looking for your seat, and then finally make yourself comfortable in your seat by the window.
Then you count down half an hour, 50 minutes of which will be spent on takeoff, climbing, descending, and landing. And then it goes again — passport control, baggage claim, waiting here and there...
If all of it had happened during the day, Nika would have found good things in each stage; she would have watched the airplanes on the runway through the panoramic windows, enjoyed the pleasant coolness of the air conditioners, smiled at the funny accent of the visa officer who said hello in Russian. But at 4:00 a.m. all she wanted was to lay her head on the pillow in the pre-booked hotel as soon as possible and get some sleep, at least for a while.
After her third attempt to make out what the officer was asking her (English with a Turkish accent sounds like gibberish), Nika gave him a guilty smile and pushed away her hair, showing her hearing aid.
The officer put his palms to his chest in a sorry gesture.
“My bad, I didn’t notice!”
Nika easily understood this phrase and smiled knowingly. Clearly, he did not notice, as her big hair fulfilled its mission. Over the past year, the curls had grown enough to hide the small device behind her ears. The brown color of her hearing aid was as close to her hair color as possible. If she had decided to disguise it, she was going to disguise it completely.
After getting a visa stamp in her passport, she followed the signs to the conveyor belt, picked up her suitcase, grabbed her laptop bag, crossed the green customs corridor, and smiled contentedly. Well, hello there, Istanbul, a city that previously served only as a transit and in which she had to improve her marketing skills the following two weeks to please her boss with an international certificate and herself with a long-awaited promotion to the head of the department.
But it would happen tomorrow; her task for the day was to get to the hotel and get at least some sleep. She had watched some videos on YouTube and read bloggers’ advice; she knew she would need cash, so she withdrew three hundred liras from the nearest ATM and confidently walked out of the airport building.
After the air-conditioned coolness, the polluted parking lot seemed especially stifling. Loud car noises were coming from around; yellow taxi cabs followed one another, blinding with their headlights and honking their horns, calling to order drivers who stopped in the middle of the road. Interestingly, once a violator was gone, his place was immediately taken by another — the one who had been beeping the most vigorously.
Pedestrians laden with suitcases scurried back and forth, boarding cabs and crossing the road; greeters with signs in their hands looked for their guests in the crowd. The noise, the commotion, the hustle, and bustle — all in the middle of the night. What chaos it was during the day?
Nika crossed the road and headed to the bus stop, which, according to the advisers on the Internet, was a little further away. Of course, the easiest way to get downtown was to take a cab, but first, it was more expensive, and second, when she had a choice, Nika preferred public transportation.
The weird thing was that she was not scared by buses, but every car ride was a challenge. The accident more than a year ago was to blame; the fear had smoothed out, and it was no longer paralyzing and panic-inducing, but Nika had never been able to get rid of it completely.
Even now, she shuddered to think that, after the bus ride, she would still take a cab; otherwise, she would have to look for a hotel herself, and it was not such an easy task at night in an unfamiliar city. But it was one thing to drive around the center for twenty minutes and quite another to drive along the highway for an hour and a half.
Nika saw the right bus with the name Havabus on it from afar. She paid the driver 20 liras, put her suitcase in the luggage compartment and her bag with a laptop on the top shelf, and then took a seat almost at the very end of the salon. The air conditioner was blowing so hard that her hair was fluttering, so she had to close the shutter.
“Is this seat taken?” A slim brunette in short denim shorts with a large backpack on her back stopped in the aisle.
She was speaking Russian, which was not surprising, as Turkey was a favorite destination among tourists from the former CIS countries.
The brunette squeezed her backpack onto the top shelf, sat down next to her, and smiled.
“You’re going to Eichel too, right? To take the Creative World courses?” she asked.
“How do you…”
“I saw your picture on the web. You are a marketing analyst, right? And this event is a real match.”
There was no need to ask any more questions. Nika wondered if it would ever end. It had been more than a year since she had hit rock bottom, but it seemed like the aftermath of that accident would haunt her forever.
“I recognized you on the street, but I stopped to buy some water. It's good that we met. Now, I won't get lost, and...” The brunette raised her eyebrows meaningfully and lowered her voice, “Those Turkish men, you know. It’s kind of scary to be alone here.”
Nika thought it was scary even to move around with her looks. This pretty girl could use a couple of amble guards or at least pepper spray. Her figure was trim, her face was doll-like — huge eyes, long eyelashes, puffy lips, and a neat nose. Her hair seemed to be the usual square cut, but hair to hair, the strands were straight and perfectly smooth and shiny. And this was all after an overnight flight!
“Let me get it!”
The brunette got up, peeked at the top shelf, and rummaged through the bags.
“There you go,” she handed Nika the bottle and sat down next to her again. “You have to drink a lot after the plane. And in general drinkigsbeneficial for your health; otherwise, the metabolism will break down, and you won't notice how you will gain weight. They made me throw away the water before the flight, but I know water is free on the plane. Aunt Lisa had warned me. So I called the flight attendant teeimes, and she, as if on purpose, brought me these tiny cups! I told her to pour it right into the bottle, so I didn’t have to bother her again. But she said she wasn't supposed to. So, it was kind of awkward toalleragain, but what could I do? I had to drink.”
The brunette ranted in the same breath, demonstrating the size of the cups, which, by all appearances, were no bigger than a shot glass, and the imaginary sides that would grow if the metabolism breaks down.
“My name’s Sveta, by the way. It’s nitomeeyou.”
Nika was happy she understood almost everything, and what she didn't she could make out from the context. The progress was obvious; first of all, the new hearing aid worked much better than the previous one; not perfectly, one hundred percent sound was possible only in advertising brochures, but at least now she could understand speech even in noisy surroundings. Second, her daily lip-reading lessons had not been in vain. Six months ago, a conversation with a stranger would have been torture; now, with proper concentration, she could communicate more or less comfortably. One problem was that she constantly had to watch the lips of her interlocutor; otherwise, speech intelligibility declined.
“I’m Nika. It’s nice to meet you too.”
Soon the driver closed the door, and the bus pulled gently out of the parking lot. The air conditioning kicked in even harder, and Nika had to turn it off.
“It’s extremely chilly in here.” Sveta shivered and turned off the air conditioner, too.
The lights of the lampposts and the headlights of oncoming cars flashed outside the window. Nika leaned her head against the window. She was very sleepy but had to be patient; otherwise, she would miss her stop, and then how would she know her way around?
“I hadaccint once, you know.”
It took Nika a few seconds to figure out Sveta was telling her something.
“I’m sorry, come again?”
“Oh, I must be speaking too fast.”
“Yes, I would say so.”
“You’re right, my Aunt Anzhela keesongumbling that I’m a chatterbox. But I’ll try to speak slower. And maybe a bit louder?”
“No, you don’t have to. I’ll tell you if something’s not right.”
Over the last half a year, Nika got used to such questions. Many interlocutors failed to notice her peculiarity immediately, as the hearing aids were hidden under her hair, but Sveta clearly knew about her hearing loss, and probably read it on the Internet. Thanks to journalists, who did not hesitate to pry into Nika’s personal life and put it on public display just as unashamedly.
“I mean, I had an accident once, too. Then I didn't drive foamonth, as I was scared. But they only barlygazedme, and I got off with a fright. And you had it so bad, I can't even imagine.”
Nika gritted her teeth; the last thing she wanted was a heart-to-heart talk. She came to Istanbul, where no one reads Krasnodar websites. And here she was, the first person she met already knew more about her than she would have liked.
“Did they ever find the murderer?” Sveta kept asking.
“They didn’t,” Nika mumbled, turning to the window.
A year ago, she had been blamed for the surgeon's death, and Nika had only managed to defend her innocence thanks to her father and his vast legal experience. Then the hype subsided, and Nika came to her senses. She got back on her feet, but the nightmare that had receded caught up with her and struck again. Journalists somehow found out that the investigator re-opened the case, suspecting murder. Only this time, no one accused Nika of anything.
The version that the surgeon swallowed pills and fell under the wheels of her car in a semi-lunacy was left in the past. Now the investigator believed the surgeon had been poisoned. Barely thinking, the unfortunate man rushed home and happened to be on Nika’s way as she was driving.
The label “negligent homicide” was replaced by the label “victim.” The press once again hounded the case. But this time, everyone knew what the accident had done to Nika, and they knew the bastard responsible for her mutilation was on the loose.
“Don’t worry, it’s not like I foowedyou or something,” Sveta mumbled. “I’ve read something somewhere.”
“I thought so.”
Perhaps, the phrase fourth-degree hearing loss appeared in the articles even more often than the name of the deceased surgeon. As a consequence, messages, words of sympathy, and encouraging emoticons flooded in.
Even Nika’s former boss, who had fired her when she was suspected of manslaughter, sent a message and invited her to a meeting. She’d been up all night, wondering what to say in case she was asked to return to the ad agency.
Nika missed the creative tasks, the professional colleagues with whom to discuss those tasks, and a decent wage. But she already had a job. Roman, her current boss, supported her when her world collapsed overnight. No one wanted to hire a tone-deaf marketer with a high-profile story. Only the director of Tsar’s Meal offered her a position. Nika was ready to move mountains for the sake of this company. She was nervous before the meeting with her former boss, wondering if she would be able to combine the two jobs.
It turned out she didn’t have to worry at all.
The head of Tarantula apologized for firing her, justifying himself by saying he did not know about her hearing loss; otherwise, he would never have done that. Then he explained that he couldn't invite her back because her previous position had been taken and there were no new openings. However, he said that he really wanted to support Nika and therefore offered her a mutually beneficial deal, according to which she would bring Tsar’s Meal to his agency, and he transferred “a nice bonus” in gratitude.
And then everything fell into place. Previously, Tsar’s Meal cooperated with Tarantula and provided good budgets. So, the former boss decided to take advantage of his acquaintance with Nika to win back a big client. How considerate of him, he offered a “nice bonus! Nika was disgusted at the mere thought of such a deal.
She turned down the offer, but the director of Tarantula wouldn't back down, insisting that Tsar’s Meal still needed to find an advertising agency, that an in-house marketer was great, but that she couldn't do it all by herself. Nika didn't argue because she knew it too. She worked as five people and did not have time. But the truth was also that the director of Tsar’s Meal would never work with Tarantula. Roman had firm principles about this; he did not want to give a second chance to a performer who had failed in the past. Tarantula had exhausted the limit of trust by setting up Tsar’s Meal during an exhibition in Barcelona, and Roman forever crossed the advertising agency off his list of potential contractors.
Nika refused the offer and was about to leave when her former boss said in a fit of anger that revenge would come back to her. In the advertising business, everyone knows each other, and he said he would make sure no agency accepted Nika.
It turned out that, all this time, he thought Nika had deliberately stolen Tsar’s Meal from him, thus avenging her dismissal. Frankly, a couple of times she thought it would be a good idea to screw him but had neither the strength nor time to carry out such an undertaking. There was no place for revenge when all her thoughts were occupied with finding a job and paying the next mortgage payment!
Anyway, they parted not as friends. Nika was upset, but not because of threats or misunderstandings, and she was already coping with a damaged reputation. It was something else. For a moment, she imagined that she would work at an advertising agency again, and the thought was a great encouragement. As it turned out, she had encouraged herself for nothing. It was time to kick the stupid habit of dreaming. After all, with her disability, having some kind of job was already a joy!
There were dozens of stories about fellow people with disabilities living for years on welfare alone. For years! And she, with a steady paycheck, dreamed of something more. That day, Nika was determined to accept her situation and make do with what she had. It was better to clutch a bird in the hand than to admire the two in the bush.
As it turned out, this decision was one hundred percent correct. After the New Year holidays, her boss told her that the company would restructure: launch retail sales, expand production, and, most importantly, create its marketing department!
“Veronika, dear, it’s clear that you must head the entire department. I do not doubt you are a great marketing analyst, but a refresher course wouldn't hurt. I've picked up some interesting courses...”
That was how Nika enrolled in the marketing course by Creative World. Tsar’s Meal paid all the expenses. All Nika had to do was study. There were five months of theory, constant lack of sleep, and homework ahead of her. She had to combine marketing courses with foreign language courses because Creative World’s lectures were in English. There were subtitles, but it was still quite difficult.
Nika watched videos, read the theory, looked for more information on the Internet, and finally came to the final point: two weeks of practice in Istanbul, passing the exam, and receiving the long-awaited certificate. It was scary as hell. Nika was afraid she would fail, since she did not always understand Russian, and now the lectures and practice were in English. There were no subtitles, and you couldn't pause it.
If she succeeded, the boss would promote her to department head and give her the green light to form her own team.
Just thinking about it sent shivers down her spine. What if the boss overestimated her? Yes, she was doing a pretty good job as a marketer, not that the bar was that high. Now she had to run a whole department! It's not just working with the staff; it means there would be meetings with contractors and business trips; was it all possible with hearing aids? Could she handle that kind of workload?
Nika knew one thing for sure — no one passes up such an opportunity. The main thing was to finish her education and bring the boss a certificate, then she would see.
“I read somewhere that Creative World has a rigorous selection process.” Sveta distracted her from her train of thought. “It doesn't matter that wehavaready put a lot of money into this. We still need to prove our qualifications. So, there’ll still be a lot of work. My mom keeps complaining that I’m nogoodtanythin...”
The rest of the tirade was an indecipherable mess — Sveta was on her phone, so Nika couldn't follow her lips. Something about mom and dad and Aunt Angela. Either someone fought with someone, or, on the contrary, made peace. But it didn't really matter, so Nika nodded politely, pretending to understand.
She, too, had read about the rigid selection process and how Creative World didn't just give away certificates. In any case, the completion of the course was practically a guarantee of employment in major international companies; Creative World’s mark of quality was valued by the international community. Sveta was right, it would be hard work, but Nika had no plans to relax.
“Their lectures are pretty tough,” Sveta finally put her phone aside and looked at Nika. Her chatter has become more legible. “Frankly, I didn’t make it through theory during my studies, so maybe now I will. Dad is counting on me to come back and organize some cool publicity for him.”
“You work for your father?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. I guess I do.”
Nika snorted incredulously. Her companion was clearly hiding something. You either work somewhere or you don’t; it’s weird not to know whether you do or not.
“He hasn’t decided yet,” Sveta yawned. “First, he made me study programming. I spent five years at the university and got a diploma, but I’m no pogammer. Dad said that it was still worth theexerience. He got me a job in the IT department, gave me a ompuer, and told me to work. So I did. I spent half a year there, but it made no difference. I learned how to re-install Windows and connect printers.”
“So he made you a marketing analyst?”
“I wish! He sent me to a university, again. It was a tourism institute. He said I would work at his hotel as an administrator. So I studied. I completed the course and got my dadanotheriploma. At that time, it was an economics degree. Then it turedout that he had decided to build a waterpark near Sochi. I’m from Sochi, by the way. And you’re from Krasnodar, right?”
“So he was builingthewaerark and told me to try myself at marketing, and I had read about this course in Lady Catherine’s blog.”
“Who is that?”
“Well, Catherine, a blogger. Her Instagram nickname is Lady Catherine. You don’t know her?”
Nika shook her head. Even though she worked in marketing, she didn't have time to keep up with the bloggers — there were several dozen more of them every day.
“Aren’t you something!” Sveta got her cell phone and scrolled through. “ Lady Catherine, there are more thanamiion subscribers on her Instagram account, and more than two million on her YouTube channel. Look.”
She held out her phone to Nika. There was a redheaded beauty, who was looking quite spectacular in the Instagram pictures.
“She's so cool. I've been to three of her marathons. Two on the flawless figure, one on promotion on Instagram. Although I’ve stopped updating myrofile, that's okay. I'll be back when I have time. So, Catherine told me about these courses back in winter, and my dad decided to send me to study advertising. And it all clicked!”
“Wait,” Nika gave Sveta her phone. “What do you mean in winter? A prerequisite for the courses was at least four years’ experience in marketing.”
Sveta winked at her.
“Well, I have four years of experience. I worked at my dad’s hotel.”
Creative World trained marketing executives and only allowed experienced professionals to study, but it turns out that any rules can be circumvented if you want.
The bus pulled onto a brightly lit bridge. The sky was already brightening, and the lights of ships and ferries were flickering below. The Asian part of Istanbul was behind, and the European part glowed with the turrets of the minarets.
“Wow, what a beautiful city,” Sveta sighed. “Have you been here before?”
Nika shook her head, and Sveta began to tell her that this was also her first time in Istanbul, although she vacationed in a Turkish resort every year. What food they have! What coffee! The sea, the water parks, the service — everything’s perfect if you don't go outside the hotel, she said. But her father would not let her go alone, only with her mother or Aunt Angela, because of “the Turks, you know.”
Nika could guess what Sveta meant by that phrase, but she did not share Sveta’s fears. In the old days, when she did not have to live from paycheck to paycheck, Nika also liked to go to Antalya or Kemer, frequently went on excursions, and quietly walked around the neighborhood. There were no problems. Why should there be? It's hard to find such responsive and hospitable people as the Turks. They always give directions, ask how she is, and offer tea or coffee.
Sveta was chatting about the delicious Turkish oranges and pomegranates, which are no match for the Sochi ones, when the bus stopped at Taksim Square.
“Oh, are we already there?” Sveta was surprised.
“Yes, we are.”
They got off the bus. A pleasant breeze was blowing, there were hardly any passersby, and the predawn sky was rosy, sizzling the night and welcoming the morning. Yellow cabs lined the sidewalk.
Nika took a small line at the luggage compartment, and Sveta, wearing her backpack, went to the cab drivers to find out how much the trip to Aishel Hostel cost.
“One said he would give us a ride for thirty lire,” she reported when she returned. Nika had just picked up her suitcase. “But the other driver agreed to do it for twenty. Shall we go?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
The smiling driver helped them load their bags into the trunk and then opened the back door in a friendly manner. Nika peeked into the cabin and gritted her teeth.
“It's okay,” she thought. “The driver is experienced, the car is good, and it's not a long drive.” It had long ago become her calming mantra. Without it, Nika would have stood still, hesitating even to approach the car. Sveta walked around her and squeezed into the cabin. Nika swallowed and took her seat.
It seemed okay. There was no dizziness, no darkness in the eyes. It’s true that her legs were shaking, but it was the same when she had gone to the airport from home earlier that day. It's no big deal. Shaky knees are no big deal.
The cab driver pulled out of the parking lot and smiled in the rearview mirror.
“Welcome to Istan…” He faltered when he saw Nika fasten her seat belt, and then repeated, less happily. “Welcome to Istanbul.”
Why do drivers take such basic precautions personally? The guy who had driven Nika from home to the airport also got upset when she buckled up. Then he said it was safer in the city without a seat belt. He gave some examples of accidents where people survived because they hadn't buckled up. Nika then imperceptibly turned off her hearing aids and concentrated on her mantra: “Everything is fine. The driver is experienced, the car is good, and it's not a long drive.” What was the point of explaining to the cab driver that he was only making things worse by talking like that?
She could have given an example herself. A single one but one that she had experienced the hard way. That accident had taken too much from her, and there was no telling what more she would have lost if she hadn't worn her seat belt.
She ignored the Turkish cab driver's disgruntled stare, too, and he turned his attention to Sveta, who was talking a mile a minute in English. He nodded and answered, gesticulating wildly, which made the steering wheel go uncontrolled every now and then.
Nika wasn't listening. Yes, she had been diligently alternating between English and lip-reading lessons for the past six months, and she was pretty good at both. If she tried, she could make out what Sveta was talking about, but, frankly, she wasn't up to it now. All her energy was spent on trying not to panic, and so time after time, she kept saying to herself: “Everything is fine. The driver is experienced, the car is good, and it's not a long drive. Everything is fine...”
It was extremely cool in the cabin — the air conditioner seemed to be working at full. Too bad Nika’s jacket was left in her suitcase. Soon the cab pulled into the narrow streets of the historic center. The driver rolled down the windows, and along with the warm air, the aroma of fresh bread wafted into the cabin. The smell made Nika dizzy.
“I’m so hungry,” Sveta signed.
The road went downhill, with the occasional passerby strolling down the narrow sidewalks. Seagulls circled over the rooftops, windows and doors swung open, café owners set up tables and chairs, and workers carried boxes into stores.
At last, the car stopped in front of a tall white building. No sooner had the driver shut off the engine than a black and white cat jumped on the hood and began licking its paw as if nothing had happened.
“What a pretty boy!” Sveta smiled.
Nika couldn't help smiling, either. Cats are amazing creatures; they manage to be both cheeky and sweet at the same time.
The driver muttered something with feigned anger, got out of the car, scratched the cat behind the ear, and then gently took it in his arms and carried it to the steps near the building. The cat flicked its tail a couple of times disgruntledly, watching the driver with a glance.
Nika and Sveta, chuckling, got out of the cab. They took the luggage, said goodbye to the driver, and, stepping over its majestic cat, Sveta said, “Hello, fluffy!” and went up the stairs. A young guy in a snow-white shirt opened the door.
“Welcome!” he said with his head slightly bowed.
Nika and Sveta smiled and headed for the reception desk, where another guy was waiting, also in a white shirt.
“It’s cold in here, too,” Sveta shuddered.
It was really cool in the lobby, not as much as in the car, but Nika wanted to wrap herself in a blanket. The sun had not yet reached the panoramic windows, and the overhead lights were not on, so they had to fill out check-in forms in semi-darkness.
The smiling receptionist asked Sveta and Nika for their passports, made copies, tapped the keys, and put two plastic cards with the hostel’s logo on the counter.
“Room 204, second floor.”
“It looks like we’ll live together,” Sveta whispered.
Nika nodded. She didn’t mind it.
“Welcome!” the porter's voice came from the front door.
A short, bald man with a neat black beard wheeled the suitcase into the lobby. Nika froze, unable to believe her eyes. She blinked, hoping she was imagining things, but the vision didn't go away. What the hell was he doing in Istanbul?
“Hey there, girls!”
“Oh, hi!” Sveta was not confused by the fact that the newcomer addressed them in Russian.
He walked to the counter, handed the receptionist his passport, and looked at Nika with a grin. Sveta still didn't notice the temperature in the room had dropped drastically.
“You're here for the courses, too?” she asked.
“This is not happening!” Nika thought to herself. “Let’s hope he’s just passing through!”
But the answer from her old mate stunned her even more.
“In a way, yes. I am your teacher. I will judge who is worthy of a certificate and who needs to study some more.”
A teacher?! How was that possible?
“Wow, that’s great! I’m Sveta, and this is Nika. The first lecture is tomorrow, right? Will there be more students from Russia?”
The new teacher ignored the questions. He looked solely at Nika. He had a sneer on his face.
“Remember I warned you that everybody knows each other in marketing?”
Nika didn't answer. She remembered. He was very angry, thinking she'd stolen a key client from him.
“Do you know each other?” Sveta asked.
Nika nodded, and the former boss continued to glare at her with a mocking look.
“Oh, yes, we do. It's a small world, isn't it, Veronika? But I won’t keep you any longer. Go and sleep it off. The next two weeks will be very busy.”