She doesn’t leave me alone, this woman, plausibly because she’s so womanly. With a regrettable paucity of experience, I retain an abstract notion at best of what Woman is. Or Man, coming to think of it. In all likelihood and compared to most, I retain a largely abstract notion of what anyone is. Are we human? Or are we dancer.
I imagine her on a mountain of cushions, brushing her hair. A dwarf eunuch wafting air upon her with a Pergamon fan. As I enter the room – is it a hall, a tent, a boudoir? – she looks up at me with an aloofness that is both superior and benign. She doesn’t know who I am, and neither do I, although she has spoken to me already, in mysterious ways.
Woven into the pillows are the sorrows and tears of the virgins that were slaughtered in vain, and the hopes and aspirations of their betrothed princes, kept and murdered as slaves. I hear the din of the bazar and I smell its scents which are, as expected, exotic, and I hear the muezzin’s adhan. This call I heed, though I am not a believer, and leave her waiting, once more. She knows, and stifles a yawn, but inwardly she delights.
It occurs to me that it does not matter. It matters not why The Sultaness has taken up residence in my mind any more than it matters why I have come to Istanbul to encounter my thirty-years younger self. It matters not that I make no sense to myself at the moment and it matters not that looking at George here who is me at the age of about twenty, I can’t be in Kingston-upon-Thames at the same time, and it never ever mattered what I was going to go there for in the first place; or second, or third.
What matters is just that I don’t get these next fifty seconds wrong. If I don’t come up with a question that has at least some weight, some inquisitive purpose to it, he’ll not only think me lame but he’ll be bound to query my motives. And although I know and remember myself as someone who will for as long as possible give anyone the benefit of the doubt, I also know that once that bond of trust is broken it cannot be repaired, not easily; maybe never. I don’t want to let myself down.
And so asking him how he is doing, or where he is from, or what he makes of this city, or where he is headed next, or how he enjoys his mojito, none of these will do (although I am in fact interested to know how his Interrail trip ended up landing him here on the outside edge of Europe, and what might have happened to his friend, and which friend it was, since I clearly would know him; but that also holds me at bay: I should not enquire about our mutual friend, as that mutuality, once established, would very obviously demand some explanation). Nor do I want to ask him some random question, such as what is the meaning of life, or pretend that there is some information he has that I need, or anything utilitarian, like where is a good place to eat. (Besides, we are at a good place to eat already, and I know we are both creatures of habit, so unnecessarily asking for a different place to eat would make me sound either disingenuous or stupid.)
I wait until he has taken another sip from his cocktail—only now does it really occur to me that that’s what we are doing: drinking cocktails—and ask him, ‘where do you imagine yourself in, say, 30 years from today.’
No sooner have I spoken these words than I realise just how absurd this is: thirty years from now I’ll be eighty and he will be fifty; what is he supposed to answer? Will thirty years from now be thirty years down his timeline, or mine? And won’t that depend on how the next fifty seconds, and then fifty minutes and maybe then fifty hours pan out?
I sense that my reality is about to implode, when he does something unexpected. Having been him, it shouldn’t come so unexpected to me; having been him I should have seen this coming – in a more normal situation perhaps even remembered – but he nevertheless catches me out and fairly floors me:
‘In a place like this,’ he says, laconic and calm, with his innocence and nascent wisdom and a curious sparkle in his eye, ‘talking to someone like you…’
I noticed I was dead when I saw myself lying dead in my bed, looking down on myself from a great height: there I was. Gone. A lifelong flirtation with significance, over. And nothing dreadful in consequence. No pain, no loss, no uncertainty. Just the remorseless ease of an expired existence. Of almost failure. Of having nearly been. Something or other. Someone? Then I woke up and realised that it had been a dream. I don’t like to say ‘only’, but it had been ‘only’ a dream. I had dreamt my self dead. What new joys. Wait on me.
It’s hard now to say what perplexed me more. Being dead (in my dream), or being alive (after all). But finding myself thus among the quick in a hitherto slow existence, I believed I had heard, and was minded to heed, a call for action: I got out of bed and made coffee.
Mug in hand I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, naked. I do that a lot these days, I examine my body. I marvel at it, not admiringly: bemused. I don’t look for blemishes or signs of decay, I look for signs of familiarity; for something that says: this is you. I don’t find it. The person standing naked in the mirror in front of me could be anybody. It’s not that I’m alien to myself or strange, just: unfamiliar. I’m roughly fifty and not beautiful. What I marvel at is not beauty. What I marvel at is the fact that I don’t recognise myself in the shape I’ve become. I’m not even unattractive. In fact, I may be more attractive now than I’ve ever been. And I’m not even sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not sure it’s a thing. Any more. ‘Attractive’. To what and to whom and to what end. Nevertheless, I’m a little alarmed because it seems late in the day to suddenly start feeling attractive. Alarmed but a little reassured too, because perhaps it just means I’m not over the hill. What is the hill? Going down is supposed to be easier than going up. What ride am I in for? Now?
Mug in hand I stand in front of the mirror naked, looking for signs of familiarity. The eyes maybe. Or the nose. Maybe the lips. I’m stubbly, and I like it. There. That’s something to hold on to: seeing as it is that I’m alive, there’s one thing that I’m happy with and that’s worth holding on to: my stubble.
I remind myself I am sitting opposite my young self and I had promised my young self—not so much promised, perhaps, as enticed him over by means of the prospect of—a question. My mind goes blank. The memory of imagining my own death, even just as a dream, and the image of my standing in front of the mirror naked, mug in hand and content that I have inexplicably become ‘attractive’, possibly owing to stubble (which has since grown somewhat into a near-mature beard), sends a shudder down my spine, and I put down my mojito too firmly.
‘George,’ I say, sensing that something—anything—is required from me at this point, ‘what are you doing in Istanbul?’
This is not, obviously, the question I’d had in mind for him, but then I can’t begin to conceive of what question I might have had in mind for him, and since it’s a question that is playing on my mind about myself (what am I doing in Istanbul?) I feel it is pertinent, or if not pertinent then perhaps justified, or if not justified then at least maybe useful, useful in as much at least as it might open the conversation; and at this point in the proceedings (are these ‘proceedings’, and if so what are they?) I yearn for a touch of conversation.
I startle myself at realising I also yearn for a touch, his touch, any touch, some contact beyond verbal, visual, aural, and I want to place my hand over his in a fatherly gesture. I don’t. But there are now two versions of us sitting at this table in the garden of the Limonlu Bahçe: one, the ‘real’ one, in which he still holds his glass in both his hands and has his eyes not exactly fixed but nevertheless on it, whereas I look at him in my ongoing state of bewilderment, and one, the ‘imagined’ one in my mind, where he has put down his glass and I have cupped my left hand over both his hands and I look him in the eyes and he looks back into mine.
‘Not exactly sure,’ he says—in one version examining the glass in his hands and twisting it slightly, in the other holding my gaze with a blend of confidence and the uncertainty his words imply—’I was doing Interrail with a friend, I had no intention of coming here really, but maybe circumstances conspired…’
I know at once that they did, even though I still don’t remember this scene from my past, and I am immeasurably relieved; he is, although he doesn’t know it, similarly displaced from his own reality: we are on the same page, more or less.
I imagine squeezing his hand and cupping my right hand around his neck and pulling him close so he can rest his head for a while on my shoulder, but instead I pick up my glass and lift it up to him and say, as if I had any authority to do so: ‘welcome to Istanbul,’ to which, in both versions, he too raises his glass and clinks it with mine and, once again gamely, says: ‘welcome to Istanbul.’
He wanders over, languid, slow, and sits down at my table, at a right angle from me, with a tentative smile: it’s most familiar this, this almost smile, this nearly-a-smile-but-not-quite, with an almost glint in his eye, but also a question.
He is frank but not so frank as to be forward, his mind is open, just as mine was when I was him, but also naturally cautious. I don’t remember this scene, this encounter from my youth at all, which makes me think that maybe this is a complete stranger and I’m projecting onto him my own invention of a version of my youth; and, seeing that I’ve lost my grip on continuity and the concordance of time and space with no possible explanation for how it is that I’m in Istanbul, none of this would surprise me.
‘Hello…’ – he looks at me as if he registered something from his own future or his own past (though that, too, may well just be in my mind), but he doesn’t recognise me, I’m glad: it was brazen of me to ask him over; I could ruin everything. What, though, is ‘everything’?—‘…I’m George.’
I want to say: ‘I know,’ but that would be certain to confuse him.
‘Good to meet you George, my name is Sebastian.’
He gives me another frank look with an almost-smile that this time round might just tip over into a grin, a benign one, but it doesn’t; instead his face settles into a look that says: you interest me and that alone is worth something, go on then.
I’m in. I don’t know what I’m in, or in for, but I can tell from his unjaded eyes that he likes the curiosity of this situation. He likes curiosity, and he’s not scared. He never was scared, I think, as I watch him look up at Ahmed who returns with our mojitos. He likes Ahmed, he finds him attractive. Can you blame him. Ahmed thinks nothing of it and smiles at us both, in almost equal measure, though I sense a nod more towards me than my younger self George, but maybe I flatter myself thinking so, and also I know what I was like then, I was incapable of flirtation. Nowadays I just surrender.
How to proceed? Am I going to tell George: look at me, I am what will become of you. That would be insane. And horrendously cruel, surely: what if he doesn’t want to look his self-to-be in they eye, at this particular juncture, right here and now and without warning or opportunity to think about it, what if he just wants to have a mojito with an oddly familiar seeming stranger twice his age, and maybe hear something about the world that nobody’s ever told him?
Nor, clearly, am I going to tell George my life story, the twenty-eight years or so that will constitute the distance between him and me. That would be simply unfair, and take forever.
So what am I going to tell him? Ask him? Want of him? For a brief but potentially panic-inducing moment it occurs to me that if we were to get on so well as to decide, maybe after a few cocktails or so, to go for a walk and then maybe dinner and then his hotel (seeing that I haven’t got one), I could end up quite conceivably in an intimate encounter with myself, in the most unorthodox way. That would be taking things way too far, I decide, and resolve to not let it come to this under any circumstances: this one mojito, that’s it. (What are our circumstances, I continue to wonder…) He raises his glass and offers me cheers. I let that thought go and return the compliment.
The mojito—much as the Bloody Mary had been—is near perfect with an appreciable kick to it, and I further resolve not to resolve anything more for the time-being and instead allow myself simply to be there in that moment and see what next might unfold…
Linearity, unhinged. The flashforwards keep coming: not premonitions. Memories of things that haven’t yet happened. I have no explanation other than that I’ve stepped outwith the continuum, I know not how. Time and space disjointed. Perhaps that’s what comes from not taking either too seriously, ever.
I walk through the snow in Kensington Gardens: about three inches of a softish sluggish powdery white that has its own decorative whimsy, now that it is sodden and trodden through. People have spent the weekend rolling snow balls and leaving them dotted around the park. Plus the occasional snowman. Mostly though only accumulations of snow the approximate size of an average snowman’s rump.
I wander and ponder my diagonal position in life. I use too many words, I am told. Frequently. All the time. Words words words words words words words. I use seven when one would do. But would one do? Would one word, would one word do? Would it now. And would it do what? And for whom? And says who? Rhythms and patterns. And repetitions. Nobody likes them as much as I do, it seems. Relishing words, for the love of words, words in their own right, to no end and no purpose, propelling no plot, describing no thing, put there for their very own sake. Superfluousness:
Words for what they are, not what they’re worth. A picture paints a thousand words; a word, when pictures in their thousands fail, may say it all. Nobody gets that. It follows that nobody gets me: I am my words, that’s what I am, they are me.
I’m little else, nothing. Else. Really. I am obviously not my body. The ways in which I neglect my body are subtle, I don’t actively abuse it. I don’t damage it, or only slightly, sometimes, and not wantonly. I’m not vain, though I am, I perceive, as I tangent the bedecked lawn with its broad traces of snowballing on it, a tad narcissistic. I don’t want to be, but I am a little in love with myself. Damn, another unwelcome insight. But I have to be a little in love with myself: I’m single and somewhat singular. If I don’t love me at least a little then nobody loves me at all and that would be heartbreaking, sad. The differential between lone and lonesome; lonely, alone. Now that I know I am troubled, troubled I see that nobody knows the trouble I see. In all likelihood it is true: I do have a bit of a Messiah complex as well, but then so did Jesus.
I remember walking through the snow in Kensington Gardens once before, though there wasn’t as much then, snow. There was ice, however, on the Round Pond, and my girlfriend—my girl friend, then girlfriend—and I came up towards it in deep conversation, and we liked the idea of walking on ice, it was a London park in January thing to do, and I was new to London in January and she was visiting me and we tested the ice just a bit and found it sufficiently strong and so we started crossing the pond. There was magic abroad in the air, or would have been, had I felt towards her quite as she did towards me.
She was, I believe, in love with me, deeply. I liked her. And found her likeable and attractive as a human being, but I wasn’t ‘attracted’ to her. We came to the middle of the pond and looked around and enjoyed the ducks and the geese being clumsy, and then we walked on, and shortly before we reached the other side we happened upon a sign that said “DANGER THIN ICE” and we laughed and we came off the ice and continued our walk, talking.
That’s how young we were, how unencumbered. I’m a little in love with that boy, that lad, that young man. I was never really a lad, I don’t think, I was hardly ever a boy, I was a very young man though. I certainly was never a guy or a geezer. I was earnest and a little pretentious, in fairness; maybe a lot. And possibly just on the borderline end of marginally autistic; maybe just eligible, by today’s standards, for on-the-scale Asperger’s, though of that I can’t now be sure.
And now I know that within seconds I’ll be sitting opposite him, that exact young man, of exactly that age, who still, I imagine, thinks of that girl as his girlfriend, even though he already knows he can’t love her, not in the way she loves him. Shall I tell him? And if I tell him, shall I tell him also not to walk on the ice, as it’s nowhere near thick enough and he and his girl friend might die? That would be the responsible thing to do, surely, to warn him. After all, this isn’t just about me any more, this is also about her! Imagine how I would feel today if we’d crashed into the water in Kensington Gardens and both of us had drowned. Or worse still, if I had survived, so I could feel something, anything at all, today, but she had drowned, and try as I might I could not save her?
My heart feels a jolt of guilt and remorse at not having saved her, though sincerely I tried, when I remember that we walked off that ice and laughed. And that laughter I remember completely. That is a memory of the past. It is real and proper and warm and good. We were a little in love with each other, perhaps, after all. That laughter, that unencumberedness. That not looking back on the ice in horror to check how thin was it really, that just walking on. Hand in hand. Laughing. I love him for that, I love her for it too.
What kind of a consciousness is it that knows itself to exist but doesn’t know why? In what way does that make sense? In what way does it not?
The longing to learn.
The yearning for answers.
The learning to yield. If only my brain were better at retaining information. What is ‘information’? And when it is not ‘information’, what is it then, that we get, if we get it, at all? What, if anything, can be known, can be felt, can be appreciated, understood, can be experienced or imagined, or both? And is there, but is there a difference?
Remembrance of things past and future. The energy stream, and the particles. Obviously, the waves. The idiosyncrasies. Material flaws. Cracks that let the light shine through. Nonuniform irregularities.
We’re into weird territory now, and I’m a little excited. My hold on reality—loose as it’s been (so as not to say non-existent) since early this morning—has just undergone one more lateral nudge. Whatever I’m clasping at now is clearly not what I’m used to. I can’t blame the Bloody Mary: it may have been perfect, but it was not nearly so strong as to give me hallucinations. Do Bloody Marys ever? Is seeing yourself as a youthful rendering in your current day environment a hallucination? Then again, is a somewhat trendy garden bar cafe restaurant in the currently fashionable part of Istanbul ‘my environment’? And what are they thinking of me in Kingston, Surrey, right now? Should I care?
I resolve, for the first time really today, to ‘deal’ with the situation. Right up until now, I have been essentially bewildered and in no small measure bemused by my overall predicament, but now it transpires there’s something I must do. This fills me with gloom quite as much as it stirs me. Ideally, I would do nothing. I would sit here and wait for it all—whatever ‘it’ is—to just go away. But conditions are no longer ideal. Whereas until a few minutes ago I was maybe disorientated but principally happy to just exist in a reality that didn’t quite make sense but that would probably, I surmised, explain itself to me in one way or another sooner or later, I am now deeply discomfited. And as the extraordinariness of my state begins to dawn on me, it also begins to impose itself on me with a meaning, a forceful declamation of purpose: it seems to be saying you are here precisely to confront your own younger self. And that is plainly absurd.
The angular waitress is nowhere to be seen and so I halfheartedly wave at a sweet looking colleague of hers who is and has been all smiles. He looks about twenty-seven-and-three-and-a-half-months and wears one discreet earring and a handsome tattoo that encircles his arm below a deliberately high-rolled shirt sleeve. He likes me, I think, but then at the moment I am quite likeable, and quite helpless, as I glance up at him and ask him what it was that the young man over there had eaten, offering him an innocent smile: before you interfere with your reality, check it.
He glances halfway over his shoulder and furrows his brow for an instant or two, and my heart sinks. There’s nobody there. I’m imagining him, I am losing control. Hah, losing control, I’ve lost it several hours ago, possibly several decades…
He slowly turns back to me and declares: ‘Kebab. Mixed kebab and salad. Are you still hungry?’ – ‘No,’ I reply, only now aware of how odd a question that must have seemed, ‘no, not at all, I was just wondering; it looked nice.’ This satisfies him, and from his expectant look I deduce that he thinks I will want to order something anyway, maybe another coffee? I pause for a moment and then say, as if that was the most natural thing in the world: ‘do you think he would mind if I asked him a question?’
Ahmed—I later find out is his name—cocks his head a bit as if to say ‘are you serious?’ but instead, with a still growing smile says: ‘There is no harm in asking a question.’ I am relieved, but not sure that he’s right, necessarily. Would that not depend on the question?
I feel I have caught myself on the hop and I order, somewhat on a whim, a mojito this time round and—sensing my window of opportunity close and the boldness in my adrenalin-fuelled heart wane—ask Ahmed to ask young me (without referring to him as young me, for obvious reasons) if he would join me for one, as I would like to, there being no harm in asking a question, ask him a question.
Ahmed seems to enjoy this task, one he has never, I fancy, been given before, and brazenly marches up to young me and asks me if I would care to join the gentleman over there for a mojito. To my unending surprise I say yes. But then I have always been good for a new conversation, even back then, when I was, or believe to remember being, naturally disposed towards caution.
As I sit there watching myself saunter over to me, I sense an overpowering surge of affection and care. God, I think to myself, if only I knew…
Being invisible to the naked eye has the advantage that you can watch and learn.
I sit on a tube train wearing a hat, and I examine the people sitting across from me. Nobody notices, nobody minds. I love looking at people. I love people. I love. I’ve put half a century on the clock and not ever experienced ‘love’, not love in return, not ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you too’ love. I feel love all the time, I gush all aglow at the slightest appearance of beauty or kindness or both or even just quirky adorableness, and I forever fascinate at the troubled soul. But never has anyone whom I felt myself as ‘in love with’ felt that way about me. Or vice versa. That is strange. As it so seems the norm. Then again, I’ve never subscribed to ‘the norm’.
Back at the Limonlu Bahçe, the boy’s sun bleached hair is lighter blond than it would be had he not spent some time on the beach, I assume. I feel like talking to him, but I don’t know what to say. And I don’t want to scare him; I remember what I was like when I was that age, and although I was fiercely independent and unselfconsciously ‘cool’, I was also wary of men of the age I am now. They were ancient. And really what was their point.
I put myself in his place and imagine myself looking at me from where he’s sitting, still held in a momentary trance, and I find it surprisingly easy to see what he sees and feel what he feels and know what he knows and be what he is and it hits me: I’m he.
Not metaphorically speaking in a similarity kind of way vaguely so, but for real. No wonder he looks so familiar. And so abjectly alien too. I have manoeuvred myself into a space-time-convolution in which for reasons I cannot begin to imagine I am sitting twelve feet away from myself, some twenty-eight years removed. Holy cow.