The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away.
I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own kind and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane.
I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks—the drinks were never really ‘free’, they were included and obviously accounted for in the airfare—and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for every last peanut off it.
In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21, the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.
There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps, and porridges seemed like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the fact that by the time they got to me in row 21, they were not only out of time, they also had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.
But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-pleasure’ operators run by crude Irishmen, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.
I so fondly remember a flight to Nice—not that long ago—where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the film festival in Cannes, and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too.
We naturally got talking, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew, who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one, which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary, I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then (in the most agreeable way), and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.
And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was doing in Cannes. We didn’t even exchange details. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA.
But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the film festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train to Leeds. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than you would if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.
And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water was subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane? And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it?
That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come—I daresay it has most certainly occurred many times before—when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.
I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA—just as flying BA—feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else.
It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. On reflection, it turns out to be far from trivial, after all…
The young man I’m on a date with is really unbearably cute. ‘You’re really unbearably cute,’ I tell him. ‘I know,’ he says, with the smile of someone who really does, and an involuntary shrug: ‘I try. I succeed.’
It’s happy hour at the Troubadour, my favourite haunt and quasi home from home, and so I look forward to an early evening mojito. This, here at the Troubadour, is contingent upon the other person also wanting a mojito. Or at any rate the same cocktail: you get two for one, but only as long as they’re the same drink. Why, is a mystery to me, but not one that has ever bothered me enough to prompt me to enquire about its reason: it’s rarely a problem, since I’ve come across few people in my life who don’t like a mojito, and for those who don’t, there’s always the option of a Bloody Mary. Or any other standard you’d expect on a short, traditional menu. I worry not.
Robert, the friendly and forever charming and helpful waiter, appears, and as I propose this to start the evening by way of an almost foregone conclusion, my young and very new friend throws an unexpected spanner in the works: ‘I don’t drink alcohol.’
‘What, not at all?’
‘No, I used to, but I didn’t really like it, and I got too drunk a couple of times, so I’ve stopped altogether, but you go ahead.’
‘Are you sure?’
This is dodgy territory. If I drink and he doesn’t, doesn’t this unbalance our universe—in which, at least for the next few hours, we are meant and agreed to proceed together—and not necessarily in anyone’s favour? I’m concerned now that this date may not go so well after all…
‘Yes absolutely, I really don’t mind. Seriously.’
His smile remains confident and sincere, and so I turn to Robert who is waiting on us, patient and knowing, while this short negotiation takes place, and I order the mojito nonetheless. Robert, bless him, reads the situation just fine and innocently asks if I want the happy hour anyway. I’m stumped once again, but before I can say anything more my young friend says, ‘sure, go ahead;’ and so it comes to pass that I’m on a date with an unbearably cute young man who doesn’t drink at all, while I’m being brought two mojitos by Robert, who does not bat an eyelid.
They look incongruous on the table in front of me, these mojitos, next to his elderflower cordial, but just for about the first five minutes or so. Soon I ease into the conversation, and I bask in the glow of a man who is so comfortable with everything and with himself that I feel this is perfectly all right, I can enjoy this, I can relax…
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 the 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…
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 peers 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…
The Sultaness sleeps like a Matisse Nude, a duvet draped over one leg only, casually veiling the sanctity of her majestic vagina. Her arm stretched out over the edge of the mattress, her head inclined tward the window whence barely a breeze now teases the heat of the afternoon, not quite away.
I marvel at her voluminous undulations. How did she get here? Into the imaginarium of my mind, into my brainspace, my own private place of precious wonder?
My Bloody Mary arrives from the creature who reminds me of her as well as of me, and I confer upon myself the privilege of some measured doubt. I could be dreaming: I could be asleep still on the train to Kingston-upon-Thames and wake up any moment now, quite possibly with a hard on. I am not normally given to arousal by women, round-shaped or angular, but hey, if this is a dream then anything might happen. Might it not.
The thought of quite possibly still being asleep reassures me for the time-being, as does the Mary which is Bloody and perfect and has enough of a kick to it to feel real: I begin to relax.
In the great scheme of things—and I like the expression ‘great scheme of things’: it suggests both that there is a scheme to begin with, and that it is great—my disorientation of this Tuesday morning is not grave. It is still Tuesday, I assume, though I haven’t checked, but there is no reason to believe that it isn’t, except perhaps for the time-space discontinuation that my being here at the Limonlu Bahçe now implies, if in fact Tuesday it still is.
I boarded a train at Clapham Junction 08:26 and it is now roughly half past eleven. The burger, as expected, was delicious. I don’t suffer from amnesia, at least not as far as I can remember. Ker-ching.
One word paragraphs. Short sentences, more so still long.
What confounds me is a memory of the future; I’m aware it’s a memory because that’s what it feels like and it’s how it constructs itself, in layers, like a relief or part of a sculpture that has age-old dust cautiously blown or brushed off it, and I’m certain it’s of the future because I have no recollection of it in the past, and since I’m not suffering from amnesia I would know if I had.
There’s a leak making itself known in my neighbour’s ceiling which has not been explained. It’s been there for a week now and it first showed itself last Sunday when I wasn’t even at home, I was in Cornwall. I received a message from my neighbour who lives in the flat below me, saying there is a leak, could I check; I texted back, saying I’m on the road right now but if it’s urgent, he should let himself in (providence: I’d pressed a set of keys to my flat into his hand the first time I met him, in case of emergency). He texted me back once again, saying that this was not an emergency and it could wait until I got back, since the stain on his ceiling was quite small and not growing bigger.
Three days later, on Wednesday, Peppe the builder who’s from near Pompeii (where, he tells me, the Mafia is) comes in and has a look around and is hardly perturbed. It’s not, he assures me, coming from my shower, and not from my sink. It might be coming from some old pipe between my floor and my neighbour’s ceiling, but it could also be from an unproof spot in the wall, possibly where there’s a ledge. The building is a hundred years old, after all: we should wait and see. Another three days pass (plus the Wednesday, makes seven in total so far), and again on a Sunday, my neighbour phones me up to tell me the stain has now grown, quite a bit. There has been no rain. I have not been doing anything untoward or unusual since last night, at least not that I can recall, and my recall of events, as has been established, remains intact.
I say intact. I have a terrible memory, if truth be told, and truth be told. What’s the point of telling anything, if it isn’t, essentially, true. Both the leak and the young man who’s been to Eton have not yet occurred, at least not to me, but I remember them clearly, I remember the leak more clearly than I remember the young man, because he appeared after several drinks at a bar and he sounded unfeasibly posh. He said so himself: “I just sound unfeasibly posh,” is what he said. And he did sound unfeasibly posh, it was most incongruous. He was wearing a hoodie-kind top, though it may or may not have actually had a hood, and he was worried about losing his hair. His hair looked fine to me, but then I lost mine at his age, so perhaps I’m just used to the concept of early onset alopecia; apparently it’s genetic.
He fretted about sounding too posh to get girls and professed that he much preferred the company of gay men because they were funnier, he thought, than straight people in general, and he was losing hair over losing his hair—which to me seemed unfortunate as well as unnecessary—and he was dressing down so as to mask the unfeasible poshness of his voice. I liked him immediately, but he got into an argument with my friend whom I was out with that night, even though I told them both to be nice to each other, and later on they did the same thing again. That was a curious evening. I’d already been chatted up thrice by three women, four times if you count the one who came up to me twice. That doesn’t usually happen: I must have signalled approachability.
The young man who’d been to Eton had a gay dad and a gay godfather. And he was rather too fond, I got the impression, of coke. He offered me a tiny bit from a practically empty sachet that he took from his wallet, scooped up onto the rounded corner of his payment card, which means I must have read his name, but that didn’t register. The instant dislike that my friend had taken to him was now getting stronger.
The young Etonian whose name I may have read but which did not lodge itself in my mind, at least not consciously, asked if I wanted to get some more and I said I wouldn’t know where or how but in essence why not (I’d had rather more than one or two drinks…) and he said he could get some straight away, but we couldn’t, for reasons I didn’t quite understand, go to his place for this, even though it was just round the corner. I didn’t think it wise or even just comfortable to stay where we were and do Class A drugs right under the noses of the bouncers, literally on the pavement, and also I didn’t have, nor did I want to spend, any money.
We left it at that and at one point the bouncers ushered us inside (it was coming up three in the morning) and the young man came back and asked us for a pound to get home but I genuinely didn’t have a pound on me, I had been paying by card all night long, and my friend didn’t like him, so he didn’t give him a pound, and then the young man showed his edge a bit and started abusing my friend, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying because the music in there was too loud, and my friend looked perturbed but took it all in calm resignation, as if that were just the kind of thing that normally happens at the end of an evening, unpleasant though it may be; and that, I thought, was that.
Except once we were outside, the Edgy Etonian suddenly materialised again and I asked him what he’d said to my friend and he apologised, saying he’d got carried away a bit, or words to that effect, and my friend left and I said goodbye to the stranger who had nearly been pleasant enough a random encounter to become a friend too, but had now rather spoilt it, and I worried about my friend because he’d looked so dejected and also he had to get back to Earlsfield, which is right in the middle of technically nowhere, especially if you’re travelling after three in the morning.
None of this particularly fits anywhere, I realise, but I remember it as I sit here in this garden of civilised repose, in one of the trendier portions of Istanbul. Except none of it has yet occurred, it was all yet to come.
I check my phone. No, it is still Tuesday, coming up noon. High time, I sense, although with a crushing vagueness as to what this might mean, to ‘get going’. I order a Bloody Mary.
This post has moved. You can now find it here.
EDEN was originally published in random order. Starting 1st August 2018 it is being reposted in sequence. To follow it, choose from the subscribe options in the lefthand panel (from a laptop) or in the drop-down menu (from a mobile device).
If you are the owner of the link that brought you here, please update it; or if you know them, then please do let them know.
Thanks & enjoy.