2 The Sultaness

Shaped like a pear, she sits on the bed, doing make-up. Her skin is coffee-coloured soft, her eyes smile with secret knowledge, ancient and wise. She is twenty. Unrushed and unhurried she dabs the powder brush to her cheek; her legs folded. Her voluptuousness is contagious. In her lower lip a golden ring. She looks like a goddess and when she gets up, her vast midriff and buttocks bounce to the stoic rhythm of her stately gait. Gracious and large, she beams life into whatever sphere encompasses her. Gorgeous is she.

I remember her, as I look up at the waitress who is taking my order, who by contrast is gamine and lean and angular too. I appreciate her angularity more than I like it but then angular, so am I: assembled in the right way we two could make quite a pattern. But I am seated at a table on my own, still puzzled as to why I am here, and she with her dark brown eyes and dark brown hair makes me feel I belong here. (I have pale blue eyes and no hair to speak of, except in places where it flummoxes now and perturbs me.) I order a Turkish coffee and fresh lemon juice, and I’m given a moment to look at the menu and decide what to eat. I am ravenous which makes me think I maybe haven’t eaten in a while. How long does it take to get from Clapham Junction to Beyoğlu? I suppose it depends on the route.

My rational mind tells me there can be no Sultaness. Then again, my rational mind tells me I am in Kingston, Surrey. Upon the old river Thames. (It pleases me to call it ‘the old river’, though in truth it is unlikely to be older than most.) My rational mind is being irrelevant, I decide, and I order a hamburger with chips, because I am hungry and I don’t remember being a vegetarian, though it wouldn’t surprise me to find that I was. The Sultaness speaks to me now in perfectly formed elliptical syllables, and she says: ‘Nearly time to make our grand entrance.’ I understand her not.

I’m trying to remember the night before in the hope that this would lead somewhere: ideally some sort of solution, or if not that then perhaps just a shimmer of clarity. The night before is a blur. I’d come back from Ibiza. I’d been playing water polo at three in the morning with some hearty Scandinavians in the pool. That much is certain. From then on in, nothing much is. I wonder where I’ll be staying tonight but my burger arrives and puts on hold questions and queries alike.

“Our grand entrance,” she’d said. Are we in this together? I wonder have I still got my phone and I feel for it in my pocket, and there it is, no missed calls. No voicemail. No text. None new, that is, I’m not friendless. Friends! I could phone up a friend, I could call Michael or Richard or David or Sam and say: hey how is it going, what are you up to, have you any idea what I might be doing in Istanbul? My rational mind says that that’s the way forward but having relegated my rational mind just a moment ago I feel sheepish putting it back in charge so inelegantly so soon, and I ask for some mustard instead. The agency hasn’t rung to find out where I am. Maybe they sent me here? Unlikely, and also: what for. The fact that the agency hasn’t rung to ask how long I’d be before pitching up, allowing, one imagines, a note of disapproval in their voice at having to chase me rather than me informing them of my delay due to a detour via, erm, Turkey, bodes well and ill simultaneously and in measure that broadly compares.

If they don’t miss me then I’m not in trouble for not showing up. On the other hand, if they don’t miss me, perhaps I have ceased to exist? Maybe I have never existed at all and am no more and no less than a figment of my imagination. I like the word figment and decide to use it again soon, but unpaired from ‘imagination’ to make it thus more particular, to me. The agency hasn’t phoned and it’s now what, coming up to eleven, but Turkey is two hours ahead, so that could mean that they might phone any moment; maybe I should call them right now. Or would that be overhasty, even drastic. Maybe the agency too has ceased to exist, or has never existed at all and is in fact no more and no less than a figment of its own imagination. (Ah yes, I fell right into that one.)

I notice that I have not run out of cigarettes and decide to allow myself one now, as the circumstances are clearly extenuating. The ritual of lighting it, the sensation of pulling in the warm air. The exhaling, with a lower jaw jutted out just ever so slightly. What obfuscates the atmosphere may yet purge the mind. My headache has gone, that’s a relief.

. . .

The Sultaness was first published in LASSO 5 – The Blackout Issue

Indiscretion

The man who runs the studio in East London where we’re filming has everything he needs to be happy today. A smoothie, the sun, and a freshly cleaned lounger. His is an oasis of rare and extraordinary freedom, and encroaching on it, from all sides, are the capital, the development, the oppressive tentacles of material wealth, and he reckons the days of his haven of creativity are certainly numbered.

‘Do you live here?’ I ask him.

‘Yes,’ he says. And then, after a moment’s reflection: ‘You know, if you’re an artist, you have to live differently; otherwise I’d be working for some client now in some graphic design studio.’

He reminds me of me when I was young, just as young as I was when I was sitting across from me at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul. Except he’s nowhere near as young. He’s maybe in his late thirties? The studio at the back of which he has made his home looks and feels like—and most likely is—the kind of place that is about to fall victim to the machine that is stirring right outside the ramshackle rust-eaten gate: the ever-encroaching, cold-commercial boomtown that is spreading out from the City of London, past Liverpool Street now, into Shoreditch and beyond.

He keeps the gate locked with a fat chain and a padlock, ‘because it’s market today,’ and all manner of people might be wandering in, some simply curious, some with ill intent. At lunchtime, as we’re having a break, he unlocks it so those of us who want to can leave; and in fact the others all do, while I’m enjoying my moment of peace and quiet in the little courtyard, in the shade. The gate now is shut, but not locked.

A young man with an oddly styled haircut confidently opens the gate, closes it behind himself, and confidently crosses the yard. He has the knack: he has done this before. Confidently, a little cocky, perhaps, he strides to the staircase that’s right next to the door that we use for our studio, leading up to the first floor.

Earlier on, our host had shown us a picture of the series he was in the process of taking this afternoon, in his part of the building, at the back. It presented a man completely encased in light beige latex. Not wearing some latex suit or fetish costume, but enclosed in a frame that was covered in latex, from underneath which all the air had been drawn. The man was at the mercy of our host and photographer, completely.

‘I could kill him,’ he’d said, signalling no intention of doing so. ‘It’s incredible, the amount of trust.’ And it is incredible, the amount of trust that had been placed in his hands by a man who was willing to be trapped in a wrap that could kill him. We’d chatted for quite a while about this and that and the other, when he’d said, ‘I better get back, I’ve left him in there, he’s waiting now.’ 

That was earlier on. Right now, nobody is waiting, but the noticeably confident young man has stridden past me, and our host looks troubled. ‘That’s not a good sign,’ he says, this time only to me, because everybody else has gone out to lunch.

We’d already been made aware that we needed to treat the ‘issue’ of ‘upstairs’ with some degree of diligence. ‘If there’s any issue,’ we’d been instructed, ‘tell me, and I will go and talk to him,’ not specifying who the ‘him’ in question was.

By that time, I’d only met one person, briefly, and he was sweetness personified: I had just arrived and was not quite yet in the process of setting up, when the door at the top of a short flight of steps inside the building opened, and down came a young man who looked not unlike how you’d imagine Harry Potter, aged 23, minus the scar.

‘Do you have a safety pin?’ he asked me, which I counted as one of the less conventional opening gambits, but absolutely not without charm. He then proceeded to explain to me in terms almost apologetic that the top button of his shorts had come off, though I didn’t quite catch the actual circumstance of this minor calamity. I could not, regrettably, help him with his request, but suggested that our host might have a safety pin for him, with which the young man concurred wholeheartedly, before he disappeared.

The next thing I heard from our host was that there was always the possibility of something of an ‘issue’ with ‘upstairs’, and I naturally assumed that this must entail some ogre, some burly old man, some exceptionally unreasonable or borderline violent landlord; and so I was not a little surprised to learn that the ‘issue upstairs’ concerned none other than this young, tall and a little gawky guy.

By now I had met him a second time and enquired after his shorts, which he was pleased to inform me had since been mended. Again, I somehow did not quite catch everything that he said; so just how or by whom or when precisely the button had been decalamitised I still didn’t know, but I had other things on my mind—such as our impending shoot—and I fancied the delightful chap’s shorts were not a matter of sufficient import as to warrant my further attention.

Now, with the arrival of confident lad who had crossed my metaphorical path in a striding fashion, a new layer of possible meanings settled on the situation. He had responded to my ‘hello’ with a curiously curtailed, so as not to say curt, ‘hello’, in which I’d detected neither curiosity nor friendliness, but a perfunctory and, it seemed to me, utilitarian tone that suggested the greeting was there purely because by convention it needed to be, while he, in his stride, cared neither for me nor for the convention. I’d thought not much more of it at that particular moment, because there is only so much significance you assign to a greeting, the greeter’s stride not so withstanding, but it had registered as slightly odd—slightly off, to be more precise—and so now it did perturb me just a little that our host so quickly assumed an expression of quite so much concern. ‘That is not a good sign,’ he said, and I could tell from the way his eyes glanced t’ward the windows upstairs that he meant it. Still I envisioned the ogre, a hideous mountain troll, not the gentle creature with his loose-buttoned shorts, and fully assumed there must therefore be somebody else up there to contend with.

‘Why,’ I asked, doing my best to sound light of heart, ‘is this not a good sign?’

‘He’s a pusher,’ our host explained unequivocally. This meant nothing to me, which must have shown on my expression, as it stayed involuntarily blank.

‘Do you know what a pusher is?’

‘No.’

‘He sells drugs.’

My brain now was trying to process the to me causally unrelated facts that a) there is an ogre, a cataclysmic Beast of Doom, living upstairs, who, at any moment, might turn into an ‘issue’, and b) there is a ‘pusher’, somebody who sells drugs, with a strident gait, who has, for reasons of his own, now gone up there to that Thing of Terror and must somehow surely either overcome or appease it, or succumb to its wrath.

At the same time I was wondering why our host was calling him a ‘pusher’ and not simply a ‘dealer’. To me somebody who comes to your house, or your place of work or leisure, delivering drugs would be either a dealer, or somebody acting on behalf of the dealer, such as a courier or delivery person. I had no experience of anyone ever coming around to my house or place of work or leisure delivering drugs, and so I could not be entirely certain, but ‘pusher’ was a term I would have reserved for somebody who hangs around school yards, for example, and ‘pushes’ drugs on kids who would not otherwise want them.

But this—the fact that strident fellow was a ‘pusher’, whom I would have thought of more as a ‘dealer’, was as much of an explanation as was currently forthcoming for the perception, on the part of our host, that the circumstantiality of our shoot at his studio had just acquired an unwelcome layer of anticipated complication, and he said: ‘I’ll give them half an hour, until quarter past three, and if they’re still here then, I’ll go and have a word.’

More than anything, what struck me was the grave worry that was written on his face and the sincerity of his concern for our work being able to proceed at all. What there was that might be said to the ogre, who surely by then would have devoured stride-boy, high on the drugs he himself had just delivered, I could not imagine. Certainly, there was nothing I felt I could do, as I had vividly etched on my mind the serious counsel we had been given that we were not to—under any circumstances, as was implied—approach the upstairs den and who or whatever dwelt in it ourselves, but must leave it to our host to deal with any ‘issue’ that might thence materialise.

My job here today was to direct a delicate scene study, and I had no intention, in any case, to risk life and limb intervening in whatever potential horror might be unfolding upstairs, seeing that it clearly was a situation of its own making. Some people have themselves wrapped in latex and left at the mercy of their kindly and concerned photographer-cum-studio-landlord, others obviously deliver (push?) drugs to a mythical menace upstairs from said studio: that’s all just Shoreditch on a Sunday in June.

At one point a little later, newly-buttoned-shorts man and the unlikely though strideous ‘pusher’, together with somebody I hadn’t yet seen or met, but who also didn’t strike me as particularly threatening, left the building, the delivery boy—to my mind incongruously—holding two cardboard boxes of a smallish-to-medium size, one under each arm. He looked every bit now the delivery boy, and whatever was in those boxes, I thought, if that’s drugs, then you three are going to have yourselves one hell of an afternoon…

Next time I caught the attention of our host, I told him the good news that the ‘issue’ had, as it appeared, left the building:

‘I’ve seen three of them leave, I think they’ve locked up.’ They had taken pains to put the chain and the lock on the gate upon leaving, which I thought was conscientious and considerate of them. Our host was neither impressed nor convinced. With that ominous glance of his t’ward upstairs, worry weighing on his voice, he said:

‘They haven’t. They’ll have to come back.’

By now, I had me a regular mystery. Since mysteries, regular or not, can only be entertained for so long before curiosity gets the better of their recipient, I now asked him outright what the ‘issue’ was, with ‘upstairs’. Young shorts man, to me, I volunteered, seemed like a thoroughly harmless chap.

‘Oh he, is; he’s all right. The problem is just that he likes to get high and then get fucked over his desk.’ I now had an image in my mind that I was pretty sure didn’t belong there and felt that I’d been given more information than strictly I needed to know to continue with this afternoon’s proceedings. Then again, I had asked…

It still took me another moment or so to compute why a delightful young man with moderately problematic shorts and a predilection for sex on drugs at his office should be an ‘issue’ for us, even if it were to happen this afternoon, until the penny dropped, and I realised that the ‘issue’ in question was simply one of sound intrusion. And maybe a little bit of dust too, because the floor boards of the ‘upstairs’, which were old and creaky, were also our ceiling, and we were shooting a dialogue scene of quiet intensity.

They didn’t come back. Or maybe they came back later, after we’d already wrapped and gone home. Our sweet-shorted friend may or may not have had his desires met, but there was no ‘issue’, that Sunday, for us, from ‘upstairs’ or elsewhere.


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2 The Sultaness

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