Some of us Fine Art students had a chance to go to Istanbul for a few days, in late January, as it was cheap. I hesitated. Our holidays were always in January, when it was cold. The photographers could go around the city taking pictures but I drew so slowly. What would I draw? What if I was kidnapped?
On our first morning in Istanbul, I waited with the other students, stupefied from lack of sleep. Three of us were sharing a room for the next five nights. The third artist had set up his camera in our window, in order to photograph the view across the rooftops. It was a time-lapse camera. After a minute the camera would click, and after another minute it would click again. And so on. But this morning, the whole group was going to the Blue Mosque. At the entrance was a box for our shoes. I knew I wouldn't be able to find mine again and carried them into the mosque in a plastic bag.
Afterwards one of us wanted to go back to the courtyard outside the Blue Mosque because it was so peaceful there. I realised they had the right idea. So, the next morning, I went to the courtyard on my own, laid out my supplies on the stone step next to me, and started to draw with a brush, slowly. It was freezing. I ate my tangerine. A guard came up to me, looking stern. I calculated the odds that I'd be told off - I wouldn't move unless he asked me. He said that the cold surface was bad for me and I should sit on something. Then he introduced me to a younger man, who started to talk about Turkish carpets. He could show me a very good place for that.
He was there every day but seemed young to be a tourist guide - when I asked him if he was, he said, “Not exactly.” “Why are you drawing?” he wanted to know. I explained that I'd sold a few drawings but that wasn't the point. “Then what is?” he asked. He talked about his plans and his interest in languages. I must have looked bored, as he suddenly stormed off.
Another day he introduced me to an artist friend of his, who glanced at my drawing of the fountain in the courtyard then got out his camera and showed me his own work. There was a lot, and it was all abstract. Later, the tour guide asked "How old are you?" I had to think - “Forty...er, two.” He wasn't surprised. Why wasn't I married? So I asked if he had any marriage plans. He said yes, to a girl he'd met in Wales. He liked English girls, they were tough. Turkish girls didn't do anything. He was getting married this summer, but didn't want his life to become boring. He had two or three dates that night – he went over to talk to a girl, who looked thrilled.
Several Turkish people asked my age and if I was married. I got more reticent. A pretty girl accompanied by two handsome young men, all at university, found my muted answers (“London. England.”) hilarious. She stopped to answer her phone, talked animatedly, then told me that her father said to give me a big kiss from him. “I can't wait, bring him here now,” I thought rather than said.
I avoided listening to my MP3 player as I drew, and felt virtuous. Sometimes I heard the call to prayer, looked up and saw crowds. I drew another side of the courtyard. I noticed all around were women kneeling in prayer. Also, I was freezing.
In the hotel room, I looked at the drawings. The first one was best, pale and tentative-looking. A few were very shadowy but the drawing was bad. The courtyard was empty in all of them. I stood them in a row, changed the order around, and turned them upside down. I took some out, studied the remaining few, and put them all away. Then I took them out and looked at them again. Arranged in a certain way, the shadows got longer, time seemed to be passing. I did this in England, drawing in a quiet place, and going back to it again and again. When one of the tutors pointed out that the light changed in there all the time, I had to admit that I hadn't thought about it.
Another day in a different part of the courtyard, two small boys sat next to me. “Beautiful, beautiful,” they said, then ran off, shouting with laughter. “Children love me,” I thought complacently. The girls in their shawls studied me from a distance. One, with a radiant smile, offered me a chocolate – instinctively I refused. She looked wounded, then, with that same smile, held them out to her friends. I wished I could change my mind.