Read by Sebastian Michael
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 slush into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. 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 best friend in London, 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 me and George 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 my young self, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy who is 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 flatshare 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 yet will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me. But be that as it 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 even want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the 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 to the theatre with Peggy, and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody around to let you in while we’re out; you can sleep on the sofa, make yourself at home.
So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time, and then you get back home, and on the sofa there is this unbearably cute little face, tucked into a sleeping bag, happy as peaches in dreamland, 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 will nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh or his hand 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, and you write to each other once or twice only and he says something along the lines of he liked you and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never be quite able to believe, you will forever know, deep in your 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 tell my young self: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him saying you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may feel painful and cruel if he rejects you, but so is this, so is knowing you didn’t seize that day, that half day even, so is knowing you lived one afternoon less than you could have, as it turns out should have done. One afternoon? An early lifetime. Precious, precious days, while you are young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and of late slightly freckled hand upon George’s. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ At what point will you simply not care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could not they make the first move, or say the first word; be first to break the glass that divides you?
And then it hits you, out of the blue: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why you don’t 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 strikes you: you’re under a bell, George, and 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. George looks back at me, half-knowing, half expectant; a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: you’re an intelligent boy.
Being thus inadvertently cast in the role of my dad’s father or my mum’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 must get in touch.’ It sounds like a disingenuous offer, saying this to my younger self, but with anyone else in a comparable case it would be perfectly genuine, and pure of intent, too.
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 yet mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead I 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 ought 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 ludicrous 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 really humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do so. Forgive them for being human.
Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up 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 at the same time if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, but then I realise what this might sound like to him, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone, and I ask George here where he is staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief George doesn’t ask me where I’m staying: I just 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 George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, past 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. Practical considerations and logic have both been rendered imponderable, by what I know not.
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 will I will just stay with me until sundown.
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…’
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.
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 to something: ideally some sort of explanation, 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 walked 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
The sound of the wheels has me mesmerised. Decrescending upbeats as the trains slow da-down da-down to a halt, and doors open following an interminable, inexplicable, insistent though surely unnecessary delay during which everybody waits, and the impatient poke at unilluminated buttons.
A woman with a violent birds’ nest for hair waddles past me wafting a scent of female exuberance right up my nostrils. Reluctant, I inhale. A humming headache from the night before sharpens into a short sting of pain; doors close, the carriage yields to a lethargic tug of tucked-away engines. Impertinent red: this train is altogether too colourful for this time of morning.
I have new hairs on my belly. Whatever for. Hairs on my ears too, and unruly nostrils. My body makes a mockery of me. The train now approaching platform eleven is the 08:16 South Western service to Guildford, calling at. From neighbouring platforms their own litanies of suburbia. Commuters a-coming to town to town. My eyes defocus midway round the Clapham Junction sign. I do not want to be here. The sign cares nought; it stands, proclaiming: interchange.
All passengers should change here, ideally, that would be fun. If every train that stopped here all passengers got off from and boarded another train, any other train, bound for a random destination, their daily chug would instantly cheer. Wonder whither will I today? Uckfield? Delightful.
The new hairs are an issue. As are the clusters of cells causing the skin to bump now, in places. My doctor reassures me they’re harmless. Just keep an eye out. But these notwithstanding, and disregarding the hum in the head, which has since pitched down to an almost agreeable rumble, I feel surprisingly gruntled.
Another train, another gorge of goers to work.
I can’t take my eyes off the eyes of a man hanging over a low standing station sign, talking on his mobile. Four tracks and three platforms separate us, and his hanging is most unusual: as if the sign were the stocks and he the miscreant, but nothing there to hold him firm in his trap, safe gravity, our perpetual friend. He looks straight at me but I don’t think he sees me, I think he sees a giraffe or a marmot. Perhaps more likely a kangaroo. I have never been mistaken for any of these but kangaroo likes me most, it being so resoundingly antipodean. (Which, just for clarification, I’m not.)
To my right, in the polite English morning light, a man in his twenties, in shiny grey suit trousers, jacket off, and a shirt as blue and clean as the sky. I feel like standing next to him and, putting my hand on his shoulder, inclining my head toward his collar and breathing in the warmth of his neck where his hair is tapered; folding my arm then around him and laying my hand on his chest just there by the mound of his major pectoral. But I don’t, lest he take umbrage.
The 08:26 South Western service to Shepperton, calling at Earlsfield, Raynes Park, New Malden, Norbiton, Kingston, Hampton Wick, Teddington, Fulwell, Hampton, Kempton Park, Sunbury, Upper Halliford and Shepperton. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. As the laggards alighting dissemble, I ease myself off my own sign post that I’ve been leaning against and, catching blueshirtman in profile, features untroubled by worry or strife—a young man’s face of little care and littler consequence still—I board that train, godforsaken though it may be.
My destination, supposedly, on this journey, is Kingston. Not Kingston, Jamaica, but Kingston, Surrey. Upon-Thames. It is pretty in a Home Counties kind of way that elevates ordinary to a virtue and says it’s all right as long as it’s nice. Kingston is nice. And since Pat Val has branched out there, it’s also in one pocket scrumptious. Not to mention the seven brothers from Afghanistan who set up shop here as purveyors of superfine wraps. But they didn’t last long, more’s the pity. After ten in the evening, in an attempt at making things just ever so slightly more cumbersome than strictly required, the station master shuts the entrance, and you have to go looking for a side door, hidden some twenty yards down the road. There’s a market in the morning, and the flatspoken barista girl at Costa aims to bewilder with an unreasonable array of options for your morning coffee, and fairly succeeds. Nay, Kingston is not unusual.
The fact that I fall asleep on the train can easily be explained. The fact that I wake up on the Bosporus maybe less so. But you breakfast where you rise, and it is not for me at this moment to challenge that principle any more than to question the logic that claims to govern geometry or time, so I follow my instinct down a steep alley not far from the Swedish and French embassies, retracing my steps as best I can to an oasis of friendship I remember, as in a dream, the Limonlu Bahçe, a garden of peace.