Vahide was so lost in her thoughts - about the letter, about Bora, about Henry - that she hadn’t noticed the ticket collector opening the door. As a result, she jumped badly when he spoke and almost tore the letter in her hands in two.
You must be more vigilant, girl. Your life depends on it now. What if that had been Bora slipping through the door?
She continued to silently berate herself as she held out her ticket for the man to read with his handheld machine. The momentary wait for the soft beep confirming its validity felt elongated and awkward as she kept her eyes on the floor, her hair carefully hanging in such a way that kept her bruised jaw hidden.
“And your husband?” the man asked as he returned the ticket.
“My… oh, he is in the dining car. He has his ticket with him.”
“Is that right?” Something in his tone raised the hairs on the back of her neck. It wasn’t quite like he was mocking her, but it was close. Bora loved to ridicule her. “Then I shall wait with you until he returns, to ensure your safety.” He sat down across from her and rested an ankle on his opposite knee. Vahide turned to look out the window, keeping her jaw safely out of sight. “You can never be too careful in these parts, you know. Roving bandits and all.”
“I can take care of myself, but thank you for your kindness.” If only you knew. She suddenly became all too aware that her robes concealed no weapons. She made a mental note to correct that failing as soon as possible.
“No, I insist! I would never forgive myself if I left you here unattended and later learned some ill fate had befallen you. I’m sure he won’t be too long at any rate.”
“He… only just left,” Vahide said, her mouth going dry. She had to get rid of him quickly; his presence was claustrophobic. It felt like her guilt was seeping out of every pore for him to smell at any moment. What will I say if he sees the bruise? “And he’s a very slow eater. I would hate to keep you from your duties - you could get in trouble.”
“With Abdullah? Ha!” His laugh, sudden and loud, startled her and she turned to look at him before bringing her gaze back to the window. “That old fool probably doesn’t even remember I’m working today.” He paused to laugh again and Vahide took advantage of the opportunity to look at him again.
He was young, a year or two older than her at most. Short black hair, a flat face split in two by a wide nose. An easy smile that reached his eyes. Cute in his railway uniform.
Vahide turned back to the passing countryside before he could notice her examination.
“I am really so ugly that you must look at your own reflection instead of me when we talk?” He sighed heavily while she sat in panicked silence. “Not that I can blame you. If I had such a pretty face I’d carry a mirror with me at all times.”
“That is no way to talk to a married woman,” she whispered feebly. “If my husband were to--”
“Ah yes, your mysterious husband.” There was that tone again. “Well, let me share some observations I’ve made with you. One: you wear no ring. Two: you’ve been trying to hide that bruise from the moment I arrived. Three: you’re holding on to that letter as though it is the most important thing in this world.”
Vahide’s eyes darted to the paper in her lap. Had he read it while she was distracted? She stuffed it into her pocket as nonchalantly as she could manage with her trembling fingers.
“And, finally… four: the dining car is closed.” Vahide stared at him in shock. He knew I was lying from the start. “The chef called in sick this morning. So, if I may be so bold, shall I bring my observations to the only conclusion I can see?”
“Would it matter if I said no?” Vahide asked, her voice struggling to reach his ears.
“Of course, but you won’t.” He smiled, a bit sadly. “This is what I think: your husband, if he exists, beat you and left you. Probably with that letter, telling you to never show your face in his house again, or some nonsense like that. So now you’re travelling on your own, with a healthy fear of the male species, and suddenly you’re stuck in a compartment with me. Harmless as a fly, I promise, but cursed with all the parts required to be a man.”
“And if my husband doesn’t exist?”
“It doesn’t matter, I suppose. All I know for sure is that you didn’t do that to yourself.” He leaned forward and waited until her gaze met his. “My name is Ege. May I have the honour of knowing your name?”
For the first time in her life, Vahide was at a complete loss as to what to call herself. Her real name still seemed unsafe, but lying to this young man seemed unacceptable for a reason she couldn’t explain. And this train was not her brothel, so none of those names would do either…
“Perhaps at a later time then,” Ege said with a shrug as he rose to his full height. Moving to the door, he slid it open and turned to face her from the hallway. “It is still a few hours to Istanbul. I will check in on you to make sure no one is bothering you. If that is okay?”
No. Absolutely not.
“Yes, thank you.”
Ege smiled again, relief pushing his lips to new heights, and slid the door closed. Vahide stared at the door for several seconds before closing her eyes and swearing softly.
“Foolish girl,“ she muttered, shaking her head. “This will only lead to trouble. And I have plenty enough of that already.”