Earth

‘There has to come a point when it stops being about anything, when it just is,’ George tells me, as we climb up the steep, picturesque Yeni Çarşı Caddesi towards the main drag that leads from Galatasaray to Taksim Square, ‘when it’s not about the numbers and not about the acknowledgments and not about the recognition and not about the rewards and not about the money. It’s never been nor can it ever be about the money.’ I’m a little impressed with this insight – not that it’s not about the money, that’s just stating the obvious – but that there has to come a point when it stops being about anything, ‘when it just is.’ I don’t remember having that insight then, but clearly I did. How and when and why did I lose it, ever? What loss. What rediscovery.

I marvel at the people around us and, as I always do, I feel a profound love for them all. I wish I could tell them, or, if not tell them, make them sense it, let them know that they are loved, all of them, but I don’t know how, and I realise it doesn’t matter. I’ve left my Eden. I have done so alone. I am in the world. George walks next to me up the hill in silence, and I wonder how far can I take him with me now. Does he still belong here, by my side, or do I have to let him go. His place may be taken by somebody else some day, but I don’t know who and I certainly don’t know how. Having left my Eden, I realise for the first time that I had an Eden. A garden of peace. Of innocence. Of everything being possible and nothing yet being done or undone. The Serene Confidence of the Now. I left it and searched for the Thrill of the When only to be reunited with the Certainty of the Then. Is there a Certainty? Is there a Then? The expanse of time is funnelling not to the future but to the present. That’s what so reassures me. And so excites me too: has leaving Eden landed me on a planet that is but a springboard to a place where all possible consciousnesses collide?

I want to hold George by the hand to signal: I can guide you. But I can’t guide him. I know what he’s about to embark on, and I want to tell him that he’s going to be fine. But he’s not going to be fine. He’s going to be in pain and in love and in anguish and in joy and in despair and in awe and in uncertainty and in these moments of bliss that seem to make it worthwhile and in the turmoil and in the quiet and in the other and in the self. Does it need to be worthwhile? What worth, what while?

As we reach the top of the hill and turn right to immerse ourselves in the current of the city, I put my arm around George’s shoulder, and we walk the now even street, still in silence. He knows who I am, I am sure. He won’t remember when he is me to have met me, but he’ll sense my presence, and that’s enough. He knows that he’s not alone. I want to hug him to my chest and I feel my arm pull him into me just a little harder to reassure him, but he is too sure of himself now to notice. I like that about George, though it also scares me a little. I take my arm back, but I glance across to him: you are not alone in this world, I want to say to him, but you’re choosing a lonely path. They won’t get you, most of the time, they won’t join you, or walk by your side; they will see you wander and think: there goes George. And that is all right. Because after all, that’s the only path you can go that takes you to where the universe needs you. If the universe needs you. And if it doesn’t, it is still the only path you can go that you recognise as your own. It will lead you here, to me, caring deeply about you, much more than you do, but who knows whence from now: maybe the person who knows is the us in his eighties, sitting on a bench or in a café or in a bar, waiting for us to join him, in thirty years’ time…

We walk on a bit through the throng and suddenly I stand still and my heart jumps: have I lost him already? That quick? So accidental? Ah no. I sigh with relief, he’s just paused to give someone a light. The young man, a little older than he, cups his hand around George’s as George holds his lighter up towards his face, and he looks George in the eye and gives him a smile. George is oblivious to anything this might mean, wanly smiles back and, to the young man’s flirtatious ‘thank you’, not unfriendly but factually replies: ‘you are welcome.’ Oh George…

No Compromise

When I look at pictures of myself of the time when I was as old as I am now that I am sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe I don’t recognise myself any more or any better than when I listen to my voice on the tape from the same era.

It feels like an era because it is so remote in the past, so distant, that it might as well be an epoch. Thirty years, thereabouts. Just over a generation. I now could easily, comfortably, be my own father then. That messes with my mind a bit, but it literally figures: I left home, aged twenty-one, ten days before my mother’s fiftieth birthday. It never once occurred to me, then, that it would perhaps be a good idea to stay for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and then leave home, as the last of her children to do so. My mind simply did not entertain that notion. It was not callousness or insensitivity, as such, it was a complete unawareness that that would even be a reasonable thing to do. I did get my wonderful friend Asta to pick up a thin golden ring that I had bought from the jeweller’s, on the inside of which I’d had the words engraved: In Gratitude. Asta picked up the ring with some flowers, for which I presumably had given her the money, and took it to my mother on her birthday. That to me seemed reasonable then. My mother still wears the ring, of course. And while I can’t to this day explain my behaviour to her, I can see that the memento means something to her and it means something to me that it does.

Now, as I’m sitting opposite myself at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul with a sense of wonder, I no longer in that other sense, wonder. This really has changed. For so long I simply wondered, at everything about all things, all of the time. I used to wonder what the future might hold, I used to wonder how things were in the present, I used to wonder what I was and what I was to become, I used to wonder, naturally, why? Why everything, why anything, really, and I used to wonder how I could come back to this place and do it for real.

This used to be a pervading sensation of mine: I must come back to this place and do it for real. It was almost like I was on a recce, accumulating intelligence, information on how to do this when it counted, when it was real. It was never real. Now – now ironically being the time and the age and the era when I do a good solid part of my living virtually – it’s beginning to be real. And I am immensely relieved. A little bit scared, perhaps, yes, but in a good way, the way that you get stage fright before you go on in a play or do a gig.

I thought at first, as I first was beginning to realise who that is, having a mojito with me, that I would want to ask myself innumerable questions. And now I realise, they don’t matter now. Now that they could be asked, they evaporate. Could it be I’m beginning to accept myself just as I am. Love myself, even? Is that conceivable, still? It’s a big word. Love.

I don’t think I ever hated myself, I’ve hardly ever hated anything or let alone anyone, but I also don’t think I’ve ever been able to love myself. I’ve overestimated myself, bemused myself, irritated myself, entertained myself, and imagined myself somehow exalted, but loved myself? I don’t know what that would feel like, so I don’t think I have.

I want to have a conversation with myself about something that isn’t me, and I ask young George how he’s been spending his time travelling across Europe. The details he tells me neither surprise nor remind me: they sound like the indifferent anecdotes of a young man who’s been travelling across Europe. The stories he’s telling me are intimate, even provocative. In a nonchalant way. I had forgotten that aspect of me: I used to be quite provocative, in a nonchalant way. I used to be rebellious, certainly, and deliberately daring. Never quite as daring as deep inside I thought I ought to be though; this too, I seemed to conduct almost as a rehearsal: my daring. George speaks in a measured, quiet tone, not dissimilar to the tone I hear on the tape. I’m beginning to wonder whether I have already listened to the tape and this is essentially a memory constructed from the tape, so as not to call it a ‘dream’, or whether I’m yet to find the tape, but then the chronology, in a situation where I’m sitting opposite my thirty years younger self in a delightful garden cafe in Istanbul, having mojitos and talking about travels and Europe and daring and art does not particularly seem to matter.

‘I cannot bear a compromise, in art,’ I hear myself tell myself, and young me, George, looks up and smiles that nearly-smile that I’m beginning to recognise, even like. ‘I find it abhorrent. Compromise is something, perhaps, for politics, perhaps for a relationship, I don’t know; but for art: no.’ I agree with myself on this, emphatically. ‘Yes,’ George says, ‘I agree with you. Do you smoke?’ And we finally have our first cigarette together.

The silence is soothing and reassuring and I’m reminded of a teacher at school whose name I can’t now remember who taught us clay modelling. At the school I went to, this was one of the things we did and I enjoyed it, in principle, but I was going through a crisis. We were modelling heads, near life-size (about two thirds or three quarter) and, having finished one of a girl, quite generic, which I thought looked all right but which didn’t excite me, I had started a second one, this time of an African boy. And I couldn’t get his features right. I was getting frustrated and I must have expressed this somehow, though I don’t remember the how, and our teacher, a German woman in her maybe forties who to me then seemed neither ancient nor young but really curiously both at the same time, and whom I didn’t know well enough to like or dislike but was able, for her empathy and her concern for my work to respect, looked at my head and at me and then said: ‘Ein Kunstwerk muss durch den Tod gehen.’ A work of art has to go through death. I instinctively knew what she meant, and although I couldn’t entirely comprehend it, I liked the fact that she had used the words ‘work of art’ and ‘death’ in one sentence and combined them so that one was to conquer the other, and I thought nothing of the fact that she seemed to refer to my high school project as a work of art, and she did two or three things to my head that took all of about ninety seconds, and the way was paved for me to finish my project.

I completed the head and it spent the next two or three years in pride of place in my bedroom on a black cloth with a round badge pinned to it on which the words “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” were printed in small yellow letters on a black background, and when I left my parents’ home, I left it behind, and since then it has been living on top of a large commode in the living room of my parents’ holiday flat in the mountains, and I see it there often and while I’m not sure it is quite a work of art, I certainly know it had to go through a death before it turned into something that still, after all this time, is in its own right, quite beautiful.

We finish our cigarettes and I ask George if he would care to go for a walk and he says: ‘why not?’

{Preamble}

breakfast mojito

i had never had

a mojito

before but: why not?

i was on my last twenty pounds of which i’d just spent fourteen on breakfast, so 

a cocktail at noon

seemed 

apt

i’d got to istanbul on my own after christoph and i parted ways

back in budapest: he’d had enough and wanted to go home, i

wanted to see

amsterdam.

how i ended up in istanbul i’m not sure, i

suppose

i must have got on the wrong train

different train: what can be

wrong

about a train that takes you to istanbul, a train that takes you somewhere

anywhere

you’ve not been before –

he’d sent over the waiter. that

in itself

was

brazen

i thought. he looked maybe forty, thirty-eight, forty?

i later find out he was pushing fifty; i wasn’t meaning to flatter him though

i went across to his table and all the while he was looking at me the way your uncle who hasn’t seen you in years or a friend of your mum’s who remembers you as a baby might look at you: a familiarity that says, you don’t know who i am but i changed your nappies when you were little.

maybe

that’s why i accepted his invitation to

mojito

in the first place: he felt harmless. forlorn, perhaps, and a bit quizzical, but nonetheless harmless.

i sat down and he said: ‘don’t tell me: it’s george.’ and that made me wonder.

‘isn’t it?’

‘yes.’

‘good to meet you george, my name is sebastian.’

i’d always liked

sebastian

as a name.

he looked at me with his nearly-a-stare that spoke of

curiosity, even

wonder

i asked him: what are you doing in

istanbul?

if only i knew, he laughed, and there was a silence

how about you?

soon

the waiter

ahmed

arrived

with mojitos

{Displacement}

As I sit watching George sip his mojito, slowly, deliberately, the memories of the past and the memories of the future congeal to form a broth into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. Only the right one, as my head is somewhat rightward inclined. I was, I was beautiful. I never once thought so then and I most certainly don’t think me so now. But looking at myself then I cannot escape this devastating realisation: I was really beautiful.

My friend Michael once asked, when looking at a picture of me from my teens, ‘how did this’ – he points at the picture – ‘turn into this?’: he gestures at me. Between George and me lie three decades of the unknown.

Must it, though, must it be so unknown. If I’d known then what I know now would I not have avoided so many mistakes? Would these regrets, three or four only, maybe, but two or three of them profound, not simply have turned into gorgeous memories of ever fulfilling wistfully relivable ecstasy? Unaided?

Soon, I want to say to myself, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy so roundly adorable, so sunny, so sweet, so entirely lovely, that you’ll feel in a trance for six days around him. He will call you, on your answerphone and say: hello, it’s Stefan here, I’m a friend of Soandso who’s a friend of Beatrice. She said I could give you a call and maybe stay with you for a few days in London? Once you live in London, George, you will have friends and friends of friends and of course family and friends of family come to visit: you will not want for guests!

On this particular occasion though you may not be so keen, you may only just have arrived in your first flat share and not know the others too well, but in particular also your best friend from school, Peggy, may be staying with you, for six weeks as it happens. How you ever got that past your still new flatmates whom you don’t really know will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me, but be that as is may, you will think, and Peggy will agree, and you both will be pretty much of a mind, that the last thing you need, or want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the friend of a friend of really in all seriousness an ex-girlfriend of yours to come and spoil your quality time together for you. You’ve never been one to say no, though, so you say yes, but you don’t want to change your plans and your plans for the night he arrives are to go out with Peggy and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody home: they’ll let you in while we’re out, but you can sleep on the sofa, just make yourself at home.

So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time – you see something or other at the theatre – and then you get back home and on the sofa there lies this unbearably cute little face, tucked into a sleeping bag, happy as peaches in lala-land, and you know you’re already a little in love. And you both look at him in unabashed wonder and you decide to let him sleep and when you all wake up in the morning you all feel like you’ve always been friends, and from then on you do practically everything together: you go out together, you drink together, you dance together and at one point, and you don’t quite know how, probably because Peggy happens to be at school, she is, after all, here to learn English, you find yourselves sitting next to each other on your slim single bed, and he’s wearing his funky skintight jeans and no top and you are wearing whatever it is you are wearing at the time, probably black, and you nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh and you bask in his presence and you cannot get over how beautiful is his torso, and how charming his smile and how big his blond hair, and you don’t know how you do it but somehow you let the moment pass and nothing happens at all and you won’t ever quite understand how you let that happen, because soon after he leaves you write to each other once or twice and he says something along the lines of he liked you too and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that way, that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never quite be able to believe, you will forever know, deep at heart, that kissing him, holding him, caressing him, touching him, being with him would not have spoilt anything, it would simply have made those six days complete.

There’ll be that, I want to say to myself: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him thinking you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may be painful and cruel but so is this, so it knowing you didn’t grasp the moment, knowing you lived one afternoon less than you should have done. Precious, precious days, while you’re young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and since late slightly freckled hand upon his. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ What is the point at which you simply don’t care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could they not make the first move, say the first word, be the first to break the glass that divides you?

And then it hits you: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why don’t you respond, and you wonder how can they not know that you’re surrounded by a bell made of glass: the sounds are muffled, the scent is dead, the gestures distorted, the temperature inside is always too high. The effort it takes you to break through to them is gargantuan. They just smile and think it strange that you barely smile back; the way that you read them would to them be entirely unintelligible. Suddenly it hits you. You’re under a bell, George, you don’t even know it.

I reach out to myself but not to my hand, I put my hand on my shoulder instead. That seems to be more in tune with the overall situation. Oddly, this doesn’t surprise young me. I look across to myself, half-knowing, half expectant, a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: your dad is a good man. Being suddenly cast in the role of my mother’s mother startles me and I withdraw my hand, almost too quickly. I need to think of a reason for having put it on my shoulder in the first place and so I say: ‘If you ever come to London, you have to get in touch.’ He nods gravely. It hasn’t quite done the trick, I’m convinced, but George here seems to be un-further-perturbed. ‘This is nice,’ he says, in the involuntary generic understatement of the youth who hasn’t quite mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead ask him if he wants another. Knowing now who I’m with it doesn’t surprise me that he says ‘sure?’ with an upward inflexion that suggests question where there aught to be assertion. The young. If only I could make it lighter for you, thinner, the bell, more penetrable, the fortress of isolation around you. You will find a way. You will find a way. I have found a way, so will you.

Advice time. I’m about to say something along the lines of: just do what you want to do your way, or, it’s not going to be so easy, you know, but you’ll somehow muddle through, or, deep in your heart you know that no matter what the ups and the downs, you’re on a fairly stable track, like a roller coaster. And then it strikes me how ridiculous that is. You’re not on a track at all, you’re in free flow. You have no way of knowing what’s right or wrong for you, you have to find out step by perilous step. Sometimes it will feel ridiculously easy and other times it will feel impossible. They will not understand you. Seriously. They will smile, but they will think: what the fuck? You have the right to be whoever, whatever you want to be, everybody else has the right to think what the fuck. At times you will feel: nobody gets me. At all. You will be so alone in the world that you will want to sit in a corner and cry, and you will sit in the corner and cry. You will need to be stronger than you ever thought you could be, because sometimes they will not just think what the fuck, they will hate you and say so. And you will wonder what have I ever done to you that you hate me, I have written some words. I have thought some thoughts. I have put them out there. Ah, I have trodden on your reality by putting them out there. And then you have to say to yourself: I have the right to write words and think thoughts and to put them out there, they have the right to hate me for it. It is not wise nor generous, nor humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do. Forgive them for being human. Forgive yourself.

Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up and wave gently to Ahmed who takes my order for two more mojitos. ‘These are nice,’ I say to Ahmed, unnecessarily, ‘could we have two more, please.’ I wonder should I ask him if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, and then I realise what this might look to him like, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone and I ask George here where I am staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief I don’t ask me where I’m staying in return. I realise what a potential trap I’ve set myself, when it occurs to me that I have a discontinuity here. At the time when I’m my age as George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, future me is in my world, not I in the world of past me. But my world at this point ought to be Kingston-upon-fucking-Thames, not the Limonlu Bahçe, Istanbul. Practical questions and logic have both been rendered imponderable.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask myself and I notice I’m not saying this out loud and so I can’t tell whether this is Now Me asking Young Me or Young Me asking Now Me or Now Me asking Now Me or Young Me asking Young Me or all of Me at the same time.

Sundown. I shall wait until sundown. I shall hold out as long as George here holds out. I shall, I shall stay with Me until sundown.

10 Secrets, No Lies

Everything can be true, to a greater or lesser extent.

Is what I imagine any less real than what I say before I do it, and when I do it is it then real or could I forget it and make it undone, or could I apologise for my faults, of which there are many, to myself, even, and having done so be forgiven, even by myself, or could I be better or worse than I am and still be the same, or is what’s in my mind any different to what’s on the screen black on white, and should I edit. And prune. And emend. The bit of me that thinks I have no chance of survival outwith the trappings of civilisation knows that even this is as much true and as much false as I want it to be. Must everything be known, and to whom? Even my deepest inadequacies?

I stood in his bathroom, for no reason other than that I was round his house because he was helping me out by doing a piece of work for me that I couldn’t then do myself. The first time I saw him I was sitting at a desk in a large open room where maybe a dozen or so other people sat at or by desks, and we were all working on a project that was very exciting. It was exciting not because it had any meaning but because the task was formidable, the challenge demanding, the technology thrilling and the people assembled were good: they had crest-of-the-wave, or, as one of them liked to put it, ‘bleeding edge’ competence. There was no more point to any of this than there ever was to any other of these corporate projects, beyond making a big brand look like what its executives could be coaxed into thinking was ‘cool’, and apart from one product that this particular project now helped this particular brand launch that was pretty crap on the inside but won hands down on design, the world would not have been any worse a place without any of what we were doing being done, but as I was sitting at my desk, making up inane scenarios of attractive young people using phones, in walked the most attractive young person I thought I had ever seen. (If you imagine this as a film, here is where the music swells and – depending on genre and era – we may just go into slow motion.)

Since then, and several years of sporadically working together later, we had settled into a comfortable arrangement whereby I adored him and he let me do so. I once drunkenly at a party told him that I would never do anything to jeopardise our friendship and he, similarly drunkenly had shrugged his shoulders and said something along the lines of ‘that’s good to know’, I can’t quite remember. Whenever we went out as a group, which we did now and then before he got married, I completely failed to disguise being smitten, which, after a while, became something of a running gag in said group: I adored him, he let me. There was nothing more to it. Now I’d asked him for a favour and he’d graciously said yes. And I went round his house to help him do the work he was helping me out with and I went to the bathroom and there hung two of his shirts.

Maybe not everything needs to be told. Maybe some things are best left unsaid. Imaginations run wild. I stood close to his shirts that hung from a hook or a line on two hangers and guided one to my face and inhaled. Or did I think I would like to but couldn’t. It was as if he were in the room: for a moment I felt, this is you. Two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, five. That’s enough. You don’t cling on to that which undoes you. Or maybe you do, in your mind.

This is and remains my unending flaw (I want to say ‘tragic’ but ‘farcical’ would be more true): the realities of my heart are unhinged. I meet somebody, I fall for them, I imagine the world adjusted and changed and project onto them my idea of perfection and see a settled ideal that requires no more explanation. The other person, more likely than not, is oblivious to any of this and if I make the mistake to make them aware, they annihilate me with bewildered indifference, not unkind but bemused.

George has been looking at me as if he were studying me and I wonder does he know who I am. Not ‘know’ as in possess factual evidence, of which none can exist, but know as in sense, as in experience that profound certainty – inaccurate though it may be – that you have when you are in a reality that compels. Ahmed arrives with our second mojito, or is it our third, and I think there would be something tremendously entertaining about getting drunk with myself. That would undoubtedly loosen things up, if we both simply got plastered. Then again, it’s still only about two, two thirty in the afternoon, I still don’t know why I’m here at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul and I can’t begin to think where I’ll be spending the night, but then there is really no hurry and it occurs to me we could go for a walk, but that would entail leaving this delectable oasis, it would mean dodging traffic and weaving through throngs of people and it would mean being reminded that there is a world out there that is simply there and cannot, in essence, be argued with, whereas here, in the speckled shade of the trees, and with Ahmed and his angular colleague our waiters, and with the mojitos softening the edges of perception, and with George in clearly no more of a hurry than I am, I feel safe and, more than comfortable, content. Content just to be and to be for a little while longer. I look at him and think: you’re going to be just fine. Just don’t make all the mistakes I’ve made and keep making, right to this day. I can be so very inept, sometimes. He looks back at me and I think he knows what I mean. And I say: ‘I do not understand my heart at all.’ And I don’t.

12 The Sultaness (Revisited)

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 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 to know, 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 both are creatures of habit, so unnecessarily asking for a different one 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’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 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:

‘Here,’ he says, laconic and calm, with his innocence and nascent wisdom and a curious sparkle in his eye, ‘talking to you.’

11 Death (Imagined)

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.’