Wry Society: The Turkish hammam

The massage tables are turned when a godmother takes her bohemian BFF’s teen daughter under her wing. Words by Pamela Goodman. Illustration by Phil Disley

Image: Phil Disley

On the whole, Miranda had been good to her four godchildren, dutifully off-loading expensive gifts and the odd £50 note at birthdays and Christmas and trying to get to know each one personally. Emily, her first, had been in all ways a dream; silent, grungy Arthur had been a little more challenging, but had mercifully followed his heart to Australia; and beautiful Ben, her favourite, whom she’d come to adore almost as much as she had once adored his father. Which just left Alice. 

Back in the day, Alice’s mum, Susie, had been Miranda’s best friend. They had Pony Clubbed together, schooled together and gap-yeared together – joined at the hip until Jeremy had swept Miranda off her feet and into the bosom of Middle England. Susie, meanwhile, had drifted from one ocean to the next, until finally, aged 43, she’d hatched Alice in a bedsit in Brighton. Of course she’d be Alice’s godmother, Miranda had proclaimed down the phone to an exhausted Susie. Of course she’d act as Alice’s moral compass, she had added, draining her third gin and tonic of the evening. 

And that, more or less, was the last proper conversation they’d had until, 18 years later, Miranda had learnt, through the crackle of an indistinct mobile reception, that while Alice had bumbled her way through the English boarding school system, Susie’s itinerant lifestyle had at last come to rest in Gozo with Baz, her shaman, her lover and her yogi.

Aghast, Miranda had sprung into action. Time, she had said to Jeremy, for her to take Alice under her wing and become the guiding force she’d promised to be. With that she had booked a short break to Istanbul, insisting that Alice join her. There’d be something for both of them: culture and luxury – Four Seasons luxury, of course – and enough bohemian exoticism to endear her to her undoubtedly exotic, bohemian goddaughter. 

And thus the pair found themselves on the hotel rooftop in Sultanahmet, the Hagia Sophia framed perfectly behind them, one immaculately coiffed, drinking gin, the other plaited and make-up free, drinking fresh pomegranate juice. Alice, it transpired, was a plain, rather quiet girl, not at all the pierced, tattooed public-school rebel Miranda had envisaged. 

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They had already spent the best part of two days sightseeing and had a morning left to kill. Miranda had wondered about a bit of haggling in the Grand Bazaar, but suppressed the urge, reflecting that Alice wasn’t the sort who’d hanker after a faux-Hermès handbag. In the end they’d settled on a traditional Turkish bath, Miranda conjuring images of lounging around in a mosaic-tiled steam room plunging elegantly in and out of the pool.

What fun she thought as she whipped out her bathing suit at the reception of Kilic Ali Pasa hammam, only to be confronted by the woman behind the desk declaring, to Miranda’s alarm, “panties only”. Ten minutes later, hardly daring to contemplate the embarrassment of her own exposed form, let alone Alice’s next to her, Miranda found herself flat on her back on a hot marble slab, naked to the tips of her toes aside from a small pair of white, lacy briefs. 

But the humiliation of the naked sweat was nothing compared to what came next, as two stout Turkish matrons, wearing hefty sports bras and expressions of grim-faced indifference, proceeded to throw bucketfuls of hot water over Miranda and Alice’s already-dripping bodies. Then came the scrub – every inch of her skin, every nook and cranny sandpapered to seeming oblivion by the dextrous, mittened hand of her matron. Her wet, soapy hair was glued like damp paste to her head, her mascara ran in black streaks down her face and her lace pants were now completely transparent. 

What modesty Miranda might have maintained was gone with the swoosh of a final bucket – this time of ice-cold water. There she was, as good as stark naked, rubbed raw to an unflattering shade of pink, bedraggled and belittled in front of a goddaughter she barely knew. What, she wondered, must Alice be thinking

Back in the relaxation room, before Miranda could stutter an apology for their ordeal, Alice enveloped her godmother in a sodden hug. “Wasn’t that wonderful,” she said. “The best I’ve had. And you’re a revelation, Miranda. I’d never have guessed that would be your thing. Mum said I’d find you ever so square…”

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