Last night she had left her fingerprints on a whisky glass, and a trace of her perfume – Paloma Picasso, a birthday present from her friends – on the silk scarf she had tossed aside on the bed of a stranger, in the top-floor suite of a luxury hotel. In the sky high above, a sliver of yesterday’s moon was visible, bright and unreachable, like the vestige of a happy memory.

She was still part of this world, and there was still life inside her, so how could she be gone?

How could she be no more, as though she were a dream that fades at the first hint of daylight? Only a few hours ago she was singing, smoking, swearing, thinking...well, even now she was thinking. It was remarkable that her mind was working at full tilt – though who knew for how long. She wished she could go back and tell everyone that the dead did not die instantly, that they could, in fact, continue to reflect on things, including their own demise. People would be scared if they learned this, she reckoned. She certainly would have been when she was alive. But she felt it was important that they knew.

It seemed to Leila that human beings exhibited a profound impatience with the milestones of their existence. For one thing, they assumed that you automatically became a wife or a husband the moment you said, “I do!” But the truth was, it took years to learn how to be married. Similarly, society expected maternal – or paternal – instincts to kick in as soon as one had a child. In fact, it could take quite a while to figure out how to be a parent – or a grandparent, for that matter. Ditto with retirement and old age.

How could you possibly change gears the moment you walked out of an office where you had spent half your life and squandered most of your dreams? Not that easy. Leila had known retired teachers who woke up at seven, showered and dressed neatly, just to slump at the breakfast table, only then remembering they no longer had a job. They were still adjusting.

Perhaps it was not that different when it came to death. People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath. But things were not clear-cut like that. Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called “eternal rest”. If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of After-life, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.

She was waiting for the sun to rise. Surely then someone would find her and get her out of this filthy bin.

She did not expect the authorities to take long to figure out who she was. All they had to do was locate her file. Throughout the years, she had been searched, photographed, fingerprinted and kept in custody more often than she cared to admit.

Those back-street police stations, they had a distinctive smell to them: ashtrays piled high with yesterday’s cigarette butts, dregs of coffee in chipped cups, sour breath, wet rags, and a sharp stench from the urinals that no amount of bleach could ever suppress. Officers and offenders shared cramped rooms. Leila had always found it fascinating that the cops and the criminals shed their dead skin cells on the same floor, and the same dust mites gobbled them up, without favour or partiality. At some level invisible to the human eye, opposites blended in the most unexpected ways.

Once the authorities had identified her, she supposed they would inform her family. Her parents lived in the historic city of Van – a thousand miles away. But she did not expect them to come and fetch her dead body, considering they had rejected her long ago.
You’ve brought us shame. Everyone is talking behind our backs.

So the police would have to go to her friends instead. The five of them: Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra.

Tequila Leila had no doubt that her friends would come as fast as they could. She could almost see them sprinting towards her, their footsteps hurried and yet hesitant, their eyes wide with shock and a sorrow still incipient, a raw grief that had not sunk in, not just yet. She felt awful for having to put them through what was clearly going to be a painful ordeal.

But it was a relief to know that they would give her a brilliant funeral. Camphor and frankincense. Music and flowers – particularly, roses. Burning red, bright yellow, deep burgundy...Classic, timeless, unbeatable. Tulips were too imperial, daffodils too delicate, and lilies made her sneeze, but roses were perfect, a mixture of sultry glamour and sharp thorns.

Slowly, dawn was breaking. Streaks of colour – peach bellinis, orange martinis, strawberry margaritas, frozen negronis – streamed above the horizon, east to west. Within a matter of seconds, calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques reverberated around her, none of them synchronised.

Far in the distance, the Bosphorus, waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force. A fishing boat headed back to port, its engine coughing smoke. A heavy swell rolled languidly towards the waterfront. The area had once been graced with olive groves and fig orchards, all of which were bulldozed to make way for more buildings and car parks.

Somewhere in the semi-darkness a dog was barking, more out of a sense of duty than excitement. Nearby a bird chirped, bold and loud, and another one trilled in return, though not as jovially. A dawn chorus. Leila could now hear a delivery truck rumble on the pockmarked road, hitting one pothole after another. Soon the hum of early morning traffic would become deafening. Life at full blast.

Excerpted with permission from 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books.