I love Turkish.
The food, I mean. It’s the perfect takeaway – not full of sugar like Chinese or greasy like pizza. Yet, it’s always tasty, unlike those spiritually aware bowls of sprouts.
“Thank you!” I grinned from ear to ear as the stocky middle-aged Turk handed me my trusted chicken kebab.
Kerim smiled back, a glimpse of his handsome youth showing through the cracks.
“How do you say delicious?”
“Lezzetli.” He drew out each syllable with passion.
I repeated the word, and he insisted on high fiving me.
“You have a good ear! And you’re very beautiful today.”
I chuckled. He told me that every time, and every time, I instinctively glanced at my outfit. This time, I’d tucked a loose T-shirt into denim shorts and was using my ballet flats as slip-ons, completely destroying their structural integrity. They had some sparkle, though. I’m not a cavewoman.
“You laugh. I’m serious.” Kerim threw up his hands, mock offended. “You remind me of a movie star. I’m not remembering the name…” He tapped his forehead in frustration. “It will come later. Old age.”
My long, dark hair had always been shiny and thick, which usually saved me from looking like I’d slept in a car, even if I lacked in every other aspect of put-togetherness. I smiled obligingly at Kerim’s praise, my mood elevating with each word. Getting my lunch with an ego boost was definitely one of the upsides of being back in my old hometown. That, and not having to worry about appearances.
I inhaled the rich scent of frying meat and spices. Since moving back to Napier a couple of months ago, I’d already decided that Kerim’s Kebab deserved to become a famous movie location. A place where every traveler had to stop and photograph themselves next to those pretentious, airbrushed actor headshots adorning the walls.
I would make that happen, I promised myself. After all, it was my job to attract international film productions and channel money into the region; a brand-new job I was still figuring out, but figure it out I would, because it was a real job with a real salary, not a pipe dream. I was done with those.
Someone tapped their foot behind me, and I moved along, waving my foil-covered roll in goodbye. In December, the seasonal tourist activity had already started, limiting our lunch and dinner chats. Still, everything in Napier happened at a leisurely pace.
With the burn of midday sun on my skin, I strolled down the street toward my car, browsing the cream, pale pink and minty green stucco buildings with golden zigzags and sunbursts, proud and polished like artisan cakes. Hailed as the Art Deco capital of New Zealand, residents of Napier had discovered gold paint and geometric detailing in the 1930s while rebuilding after an earthquake. I found it unsettling that it had taken total destruction to birth something so beautiful and unique.
What had once been fashionable was now historical, a money pit of constant restoration. Still, nowhere else in New Zealand could you time travel to the 1930s like in Napier. That was one of the lines I now recited, a friendly smile splitting my face, as I spent my time selling the town and its surroundings to discerning location scouts, directors and producers.
I reached my car, a cheap hybrid in an unassuming grey I’d bought based on the specs and nothing else. The vehicle was part of my new life plan of lowered expectations and practicality. It added little to my personality but did its job and didn’t leave me on the side of the road.
I’d get used to this new version of me, I promised myself. The always-broke dreamer I’d been in my twenties would soon be an anecdote I told witty, wildly exaggerated stories about at parties. That was one part of me I couldn’t shut down. I’d always be the inappropriate one with stupid jokes.
My phone rang. I knew it was Mom before I even found the device in my pocket. Ever since I’d moved back, she’d taken it on herself to fill my calendar with family obligations, possibly to distract me from the fact that I had nothing else going on. Also, nobody else I knew used their phone as a phone.
“Are you free for dinner on Thursday?” Mom chirped. “We’re having fajitas to thank Felix for his help with the lawns and the pergola.”
My stomach tightened. Felix, my old friend who now lived next door to my parents, ran a one-person carpet cleaning business and clearly looked after my parents better than I did. I should have been grateful, and I was, but he was also the reason I couldn’t move back into my old bedroom in my parents' house, not even in the short term. Living next door to a guy your parents were eyeing up as a future son-in-law would have taken the small-town suffocation to a whole new level.
To make matters worse, I really liked Felix as a friend. We’d always had an easy-going relationship that included the occasional poking-fun-of and laughing-until-our-lungs-hurt, but never the wonder-what-he-thinks-of me or other weird crap. I’d carefully avoided giving out any ‘I want to be Mrs. Carpet Blast’ vibes, hoping I didn’t lose his friendship. The only friend I had in this town, apart from my colleagues.
“Um… I don’t know. I haven’t really been part of this.”
By this, I meant the garden makeover my parents had orchestrated with the help of Felix, the world’s best neighbor.
“Maybe you can think of yourself as part of this family as we show gratitude to an exceptionally helpful neighbor.” Mom’s voice had a tired edge.
I swallowed. “Yeah, of course. He’s been amazing.”
“Maybe Felix can help you feel more at home. He loves Napier, and he’s well connected.”
God, she was good. So diplomatic. I had no reason to diss my only friend, even if this fajitas gathering sounded an awful lot like a chaperoned dinner date.
When I thought about my newfound realism, I had to admit Mom was right about Felix. He wasn’t a looker, but definitely husband material. Dependable, helpful, always around. Absolutely the kind of guy I should go for. See, I didn’t say ‘settle’. The trick to settling is that you should never call it that, because in the end, it’s realism. The necessary process of giving up flighty dreams and facing the real world, something I was definitely working on – even if I wasn’t ready for that next step. That lanky, baseball-cap wearing, carpet-cleaning step.
The phone line crackled. “Are you still on lunch break? I told Felix he might find you in town around this time, getting your kebab.”
As if on cue, I heard an engine and Felix’s trusty van pulled up behind me. Of course. Mom was working on all fronts. Lunch, dinner… what else had she planned? Moonlight walks?
“He’s here,” I muttered into the phone and ended the call, resigning myself to my fate.
Felix tumbled out of his van like an elk in loose denim, a faint chemical smell in his wake. “Hi there! How’re you doing?”
He was so skinny. The poor guy couldn’t stand solidly on two feet. He always swayed a little, like a young tree in a moderate breeze.
I cursed my mother’s meddling. Before all the dating hints, I’d thought of Felix as a friend and never judged him like this.
“I’m good.” I tried to smile, lifting my kebab. “I grabbed a quick lunch, but now I have to get back to the office.”
“Will you get fired if you sit down for one coffee? There’s a new place that opened and I swear they do triple shots without you asking. Gave me double vision.” He crossed his eyes for emphasis.
Felix knew I liked my coffee strong.
“Let’s go another time? I promise.” I tightened my fingers around the car door handle, desperate to get away.
His face lit up. “Great! I’ll text you.”
I gave him a quick smile, slid behind the wheel and pulled into the traffic, mindlessly following a silver taxi as it circled the Masonic Hotel.
Guilty and confused, I unwrapped the kebab with my teeth and filled my senses with its spicy flavor. Surely, being more realistic didn’t mean I had to date someone I didn’t find attractive? I was allowed to have some dreams, I told myself. Small, doable, passable dreams. Like finding a man with an ounce of charisma. Or failing that, some amazing movie locations.
I loved gorgeous buildings, imagining the secrets, drama and love affairs they’d witnessed over the years. Entering a house that wasn’t built for utmost functionality instantly elevated my spirit. The opulent, decorative, even the odd and visually disturbing, connected you to those who’d dared to live more courageously. Or rather, who could afford to live more courageously, chasing their dreams in a way that wasn’t accessible to me. The lucky ones.
I drove mindlessly around town, eating my kebab. I didn’t need to go back to the office, but I didn’t want to risk running into Felix again.
My mind still on dreamy architecture, I swerved onto the beach road, away from the town center. I wanted to see the old hotel. The pink Art Deco building was one of my favorite pieces of architecture in Napier, and according to Trade Me, currently for sale.
Not that I had money to buy a house, let alone a hotel. I could barely cover the rent of my one-room apartment above the laundromat, but I’d heard my boss Janie talking to an American film producer who was looking for an Art Deco hotel. It might be a long shot, but I hadn’t done any of these matchmaking deals yet and itched to get my hands dirty. If my favorite building got chosen because of me, I could say I’d brought business to my hometown, to Kerim’s kebab shop and to countless others. I’d prove my worth at the film office.
I parked on the street outside the pale pink stucco facade, admiring the maroon detailing above the entrance. As I got out to investigate closer, I spotted a white van in the driveway. A stocky, greying man in a T-shirt and baseball cap stepped out of the side door with a cardboard box. I waved at him, stepping into his line of sight. “Hey! I’m looking for the owner—”
“I’m only here for maintenance,” the guy grumbled, pushing past me. “It’s for sale. Look it up on Trade Me.”
“Yes, I know.” I followed him to his dirty van. “I was hoping to find out what’s happening in the meantime. Is it still working as a hotel, are they renovating…?”
The man opened his side door and slid the cardboard box between toolboxes. “I’m just here to change the lightbulbs.” He turned around to face me, lips puckered.
I offered my full wattage smile. “I’m with the film office and this is such a beautiful location that I wanted to find out a bit more.”
He seemed to assess my trustworthiness, his expression thawing a bit. “My wife’s coming to prep the rooms later today. She’s been cleaning here for the past six months, and this is the first time they only want two rooms done. Sounds like the whole place is booked for a very small group.” He leaned in, lowering his voice. “I reckon it’s someone pretty… um, precious. They asked me to change all those fine led lights to these…” He opened the box and held out an empty packet, squinting at it, “‘rose-tinted’ ones.” His voice oozed contempt.
My curiosity climbed up several notches. “Is there anything else?”
“That’s all I know, and I’m in a bit of a hurry, so if you’ll excuse me…”
He disappeared around the vehicle, getting behind the wheel.
I waited for him to leave, then snapped a couple of photos of the exterior. A shiver of excitement ran up my spine. So, someone had booked out the entire hotel and requested new lightbulbs. Something was going on.
I was used to seeing my name on various boards, magazine covers, and of course, in massive letters on the big screen. I’d never seen it scribbled with a magic marker on a handmade cardboard sign, misspelled so grossly I dismissed it until me and the young man were the only people left in the small airport lounge. A shock of blond hair hung on his forehead and an oversized T-shirt on his slight frame.
Sam Larkham, the sign said.
“Cem Erkam,” I said, pointing at the cardboard.
A relieved smile lit up the man’s face.
I shook my head in disbelief and followed him out the double doors, into a small, mostly empty car park. No people? This place was already making me nervous. Not that I intended to stay long, if I could help it.
I’d suffered the eternal series of flights in relative silence, alone in my corner of first class. My brother Emir had abandoned me moments before my departure but assured me he’d join me later. When, he hadn’t said.
They’d sure been in a hurry to get rid of me, sending me as far away as humanly possible. Emir insisted he’d chosen the location carefully, but I was fairly sure he’d called our cousins who lived in New Zealand and outsourced the entire job to them. I could imagine the assignment: Find an obscure small town where nobody will know a Turkish celebrity. Their answer: Napier.
I got into the silver Toyota Prius, which at least had working air-con, and tried to revive my phone. The driver chatted about something in a weird nasal accent I couldn’t make much sense of.
In my twenties, I’d spent a couple of years in Los Angeles and was fluent in English, or so I thought. Based on this first encounter, New Zealand didn’t speak the same English as the rest of the world.
My phone still searched for a network as we took a narrow, two-lane road through an endless display of rolling hills. I closed my eyes against the green brightness invading my vision. It seemed I’d landed on a completely uninhabited island, apart from sheep, but I knew better. I’d been promised a hotel to myself, with room service.
I know most people don’t get a hotel to themselves. Back in Turkey, I didn’t either, but I was here to hide, and they’d gotten a good deal, apparently.
I peeled off my designer jacket and folded it haphazardly over my satchel bag, which held the basics – toiletries and a change of underwear. I didn’t enjoy dragging bags on airplanes. That’s what the cargo hold was for.
I couldn’t wait to get changed into something more comfortable. A couple of fashion houses had a vested interest in me, so I never ran out of designer gear. Thankfully, one of them also made fitness clothes. For the next couple of weeks, I would lounge in my gym clothes and train. Hopefully by then everyone would have forgotten about my blunder, and I’d be ready for the lead role in Ottoman Games, a new series by Epic Studios with all-star cast and international distribution.
To get ready, I needed to get back to my exercise regime. I’d been between jobs and cutting myself a bit of slack lately. Emir had given me a serious speech outside the airport about getting my act together. If I lost this next role, my career might never recover. Yada, yada. Something about being selfish and lazy and only thinking of myself. The economy was crashing and the whole family depended on my income. I felt a weight sitting on my chest just thinking about it.
I’d made a weak argument about wanting to stretch myself artistically. That maybe I didn’t want to play another syrupy romantic lead. Maybe I was tired of gazing deep into the eyes of some pretty girl, thinking of kissing them, but nine times out of ten not actually kissing to appease the conservative viewer base. Each time, I perpetuated a myth, branding myself as the romantic hero I knew I wasn’t.
But Emir was right about one thing, Ottoman Games was my only shot at real money.
I settled into the seat, watching the foreign, yet somehow familiar, sight of those green hills, a bit like driving to the mountains in my home country.
I tried to breathe against the tightness in my chest. I only had to make it through a couple of weeks, three at most. I’d secure that role and I’d nail it. Maybe then I’d be free.
The car came to a halt, and I opened my eyes. We’d stopped in front of a pink, plastered building with curved corners and geometrical detailing. Art Deco, maybe. Despite its off-the-map location, I immediately liked the house. It had character.
“This is it,” the driver confirmed.
He didn’t move, so I got out of the car. “Can you get my bags?”
“What bags?” he asked, his forearm hanging out of the open window, his gaze flicking at my shoulder bag.
“My luggage.” I raised my brow, counting to ten in my mind. I’d come across some dim-witted staff during my career, but I prided myself on always controlling my temper. The day I took my frustration out on a servant, I’d become my own worst nightmare – the entitled asshole.
I was lucky, far luckier than most, and worked hard to keep that in mind.
The driver shook his head, his eyes widening almost comically. “I asked if you were ready to go and you nodded.”
I must have nodded twenty times when he first spoke to me. I’d spent hours wandering through hallways and passport checks at airports, dogs sniffing me for drugs and apples, filling out forms about my stay using the one brief email from my brother. I’d done my part and assumed everything else was taken care of. That’s how it usually worked.
Was I supposed to have done it myself? I hadn’t been near a baggage carousel in years. An uneasy feeling turned my stomach. Did this mean that I was an entitled asshole?
I forced my face to neutral. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how things work around here. Can you go back and pick them up?”
He winced. “I would, but I have another job. Sorry, mate.”
He continued with a detailed explanation I couldn’t quite follow. Something about a film shoot, drinks and ice creams.
The sound of the front door of the hotel opening cut him off. The hinges cried out as a rotund female appeared on the steps, waving madly at us. “Welcome, welcome!”
Her voice bellowed across the sidewalk and distracted me from the fact that my driver was getting away, speeding down the deserted road. Were there any other people, anywhere? Across the street, a vast view of grass, sand and ocean greeted me with desert island vibes. Empty and quiet.
I shook my head in disbelief, mentally preparing myself for whatever was coming. Taking my satchel and jacket, I approached my new residence. The lady held the door for me, sucking in her stomach to let me pass. She smelled of sweat and disinfectant but smiled enthusiastically.
“You must be Sam. You’ve had a long journey! Let’s get you settled.” She herded me into a worn-out, empty reception with an uneven wood floor.
I didn’t even have the energy to correct my name. I followed her up a curved, wooden staircase and along a carpeted hallway. The top note of the citrusy disinfectant emanating from both her and the house didn’t fully cover the musty smell of abandonment.
“Has this place been empty for a long time?” I asked as she guided me into a room with a king-sized bed.
She shrugged noncommittally. “It’s not peak season yet.”
I took a tentative step forward, surveying the state of the room. It had been cleaned, but no cleaning could fix the bald spots on the carpet, or the peeling floral wallpaper. Dear God.
“There’s some food in the kitchen for tonight, help yourself. I’ll come around later in the week to restock. There’s no microwave. It got rusted through and we had to toss it, but the oven works.”
My jet-lagged brain tried to catch up with the situation, like an engine revving in neutral. “You’re leaving? I’ll be… alone?” I wish my voice hadn’t wobbled in a very unmanly way.
“Bar the ghosts, I suppose.” She cackled.
With that, she shuffled away, leaving me standing in the middle of the room, my heart racing.
I’m not a spoilt brat, I told myself. I don’t need room service.
Emir had a lot to answer for, though.
The bang of the front door reverberated through the building, making the upturned glasses on the chrome-and-glass sideboard clatter. The sound woke me from my momentary paralysis. I sprinted down the stairs, desperate to catch her before she left, my mind forming questions I needed answers to.
Where was the nearest shop?
What was the wi-fi password?
How could I order a bottle of whiskey?
But as I reached the door, she was gone. I didn’t even hear the sound of a car. How had she arrived and where had she gone? I closed the door, backing away into the room until my back hit the reception desk. Maybe she was the ghost. A cold sensation crept up my spine, and I shook myself to dispel the creepy vibe. Standing in a deserted hotel reception didn’t help. It must have been late in the afternoon as the sun streamed in through the two small windows, exposing pillars of actively churning dust.
Chill, I told myself. Everything is fine.
Looking for a wi-fi password, I spotted something on the reception desk; a flyer featuring a heavily airbrushed shot of the hotel exterior. Price by negotiation. Was the building for sale? I pocketed the evidence. I’d definitely question Emir about his choice of accommodation.
I checked my phone again, but it kept complaining about not having a network connection.
I crossed the reception, which opened onto a musty sitting room with velvety, seashell-shaped chairs and heavy curtains in dirty shades of pink. What a time capsule.
On the other side of it, I spied a glimpse of stainless steel through an open doorway and stepped into a commercial kitchen with a wide island. I rummaged through the fridge and found a couple of trays of something baked, possibly lasagna. There was also milk and juice, soft drinks, butter and cheese. After ten minutes of searching, I had to conclude the room wasn’t hiding even an ounce of whiskey.
I settled for a soft drink. I knew I needed sleep, but I felt too wired. With no alcohol available, there was only one way to settle my nerves – a workout. I didn’t have any exercise clothes, but since there was nobody around, it probably didn’t matter. I unbuttoned my shirt and flung it on top of the reception desk, eyeing the floor area. I could modify my usual routine to fit the space.
After a moment’s hesitation, I took off my pants. Suits had no give and the pants would rip during the first squat. The irony of getting undressed in a hotel reception didn’t escape me. It was basically how I’d ended up here. But as long as I didn’t get photographed, nobody had a reason to get upset with me. That’s why I’d been sent so far away from the civilization, so I couldn’t possibly cause any more scandals.
A bit chilly in my boxer shorts, I hobbled upstairs to grab the wireless headphones out of my bag. With my phone connected to an offline playlist of rage-y old-school rock, I felt some energy return to my core.
On the way back down, I checked the other rooms – all either smaller or identical to mine – and concluded the reception was the only one with enough floor space for burpees and mountain climbers. I would work up a good sweat, shower, sleep, and then figure out the rest.