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 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’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 me…’

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.’

3 Memories of the Future: A Leak and the Edgy Etonian

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 now it is roughly half past eleven. The burger was, as expected, delicious. I don’t suffer from amnesia, at least not as far as I can remember. Ka-ching.

Italicising.

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.

1 Onomatopoeia

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 geography 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.

Euphoria

I look at myself. Not in the mirror, not as a person with a yen for profundity and meaning, but in a picture. I find the picture among my belongings as I clear out my flat because it’s being renovated: for the first time in decades I go through every object I own and therefore am owned by and decide whether to keep it, or whether to part. Keep it or part. Keep? Or part: divest, my mind mostly suggests, and my heart, in most cases, though not quite all, affirms, yes divest!

I am unambitious but consistent in the pursuit of my task, as I progress through each item one by one. I look at every photograph, and every photograph looks at me. I don’t notice me at first, not in an ‘oh, here I am, look at me!’ kind of way. I just know I’m there. In the picture. As anyone ever photographed by necessity is. In this particular stack, I am part of a collection of early black and white ten by eights that I must have had done when I first decided to be an actor. This dates them in the mid to late nineteen-eighties and me at about twenty-two, twenty-three. I don’t notice me, not this time round. I’m simply there.

The second time round I notice myself. I have been away for seven weeks, nearly eight, and I’ve come back into my flat, which is all new and fresh and still so familiar and more home now than ever, and as I unpack the boxes I once again go through almost every thing I own and am therefore owned by, only this time I do so not one by one but in batches, just to make sure. And this time round I jump out at myself: I am beautiful. I wish I’d known that. I wish I’d known then that I was beautiful, but I didn’t. I still don’t. But I was. And I am. Only I can’t feel it now, I can’t even see it. I couldn’t then. But I can now see it then. I can now see that then I am beautiful. I have a gentle face and searching eyes, and an almost translucent skin; I have my life in front of me; not my childhood, not my youth, but my whole adult existence. I am overcome with compassion. How brave I was, and needed to be. How unencumbered I was. How I looked forward, unafraid. How strong. How fragile. How soft, how resilient; how steadfast. How honest. How vulnerable. How resolute not to hurt, not to fail, or if to hurt then not to cry, not to grumble, and not to succumb; yet to prevail…

I sense the time has come. I trust it now, much more, the sense. All the things I know and all the things I don’t know are the same: they all abide by and reside in me. No words of wisdom, no advice. Let me make my own mistakes. Let sorrow, loss and lingering despair crush me to tears. I won’t protect me from myself: that would be crueller still.

Across from me, at the Limonlu Bahçe, Istanbul: George. I lean forward a little, my chair creaks, he looks up at me, curious, askance. Unimpressed. Unruffled. Unspoilt. Unused. Undamaged. Unfathomable, even to me. I know how you feel, I’ve been there, believe me, I’ve been you, but no, I don’t know you at all. I know you no more than I know any boy your age. Man! You never liked being a boy, much, a youth, maybe, yes; do you like being a man? I hear myself think the question and in a flicker of recognition—probably imagined, only by me—he says: ‘Do you relish being a man?’ (‘Relish.’ That’s better. ‘Like’ is so lightweight, it’s neither here nor there. He could have said ‘enjoy’ but that, too, has long since been eroded, diminished to some middling marketed meaninglessness.)

‘I do.’ I say: ‘I will. If I haven’t till now, then henceforth I shall.’

‘Henceforth?’ He gives me that smile, that bemused, too knowing, wry play on his lips, a light in his eye.

I don’t want to burden myself with the responsibility of having interfered with my own life. Not here, not now. I used to be troubled. Then charming. Then enigmatic. I’m still working on wise.

‘Be generous, be kind.’ (I thought I was not going to give me advice. Is it that hard to refrain?) ‘Forgive. Live and let live, and trust the universe is on your side.’ He looks at me, unsmiling, unconcerned, frank. He knows all this already, everyone does. ‘Felicity, fortune and favour all balance out, over time. Take your time. Let not there ever be any hurry. Go you about with a heart that beats warm, and a mind that keeps open and a soul that is free, and your path will lead you where you need to be.’ (That’s done it: I’ve lost him.) His eyes linger long and soft, not hard, then, inscrutable now, he nods. ‘Just remember…’ (Stop it! Stop it now! No counsel, no words, no well-intentioned guidance from yonder!) ‘…if you want a squirt of milk in your pail you have to squeeze the odd teat now and then.’

I get up; the temptation to ruffle his hair proves almost too much, but I know I used to hate this and so I desist.

‘Fare well.’ I say, in two words. He looks up at me and, unsmiling still, but gamely returns: ‘Fare thee well.’

And then I remember and I turn around to him before I leave and I stand at the bottom of the steps that lead up through the house, from the garden, onto the street, and the garden is busy again now, and buzzing, and I see myself sitting there, alone but not lonely, quiet, composed, a little aloof, just the way I was in that photograph, just the way I now feel, and I spread my arms to this Garden of Eden afore me and I demand, at the top of my voice, of it all: BE MAGNIFICENT!

And, having said what I needed to say now, I leave myself to myself: my adventure, my journey, my love.

And here I was and I will be, but mostly now, here I am.

(And the good thing about fiction? I unimagine it, and it’s gone…)

Istanbul

We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.

George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.

Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…

I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.

Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.

We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.

There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.

We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?

I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.

George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.

I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?

We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.

Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.

I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.

But now. And here. We are.


< {Memories of the Past}



Read Istanbul in Paperback or as eBook:

EDEN miniatures

 

Towards Italy

Tuesday I travel on, taking an early morning train that departs at 7:21, towards Italy. The journey, The Tape tells me, is “fairly pleasant,” with the exception of one incident. This sits ingrained on my brain, and whilst most of the other experiences of that August are a haze with only the occasional moment or image in any kind of focus, this one is sharp and clear, and it still makes me squirm, to this day.

I was tired. I had slept for two hours, again… – Monday night we’d decided to go to the cinema: Anne and some of her friends had gone to see some American movie I evidently did not rate or care about, and I had gone to see Le Grand Bleu: “one of the most stunningly beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” I now hear myself rave, and I remember that vividly too, though not only from this screening, but from another, much more thrilling one, later, in Paris. Jean-Marc Barr. “He is fantastic; he’s certainly a name to remember.” After the cinema, a crepe, and then to bed really late.

So, with very little sleep, I’m on a train that is completely full, though I do have a seat, by the window, near the end of the carriage. I mostly daydream and possibly doze off a bit now and then, and everything is going fine until the train stops at a spot where there seems to be nothing at all. It’s not a town, it’s not a village. It’s barely a hamlet. There’s a platform and a small building, and there are some signs that to me in my state, which is not comatose but not alert either, are meaningless.

On board come two customs officers. I see them appear at the other end of the carriage, quite far away from where I am, and as I look up at them, I semi-consciously give a sigh of profoundest ennui, just exactly at the moment that one of them catches my eye.

I think nothing more of this for the next five minutes or so and continue gazing out of the window, thinking my nondescript thoughts. My sigh and my facial expression had lasted for maybe a second. But I do remember distinctly allowing that gut response to just come out: an aversion to officialdom. Almost, but almost not quite, wanting to show them I held them in a sizeable degree of post-juvenile contempt, not as human beings, of course, but as uniforms holding up the train’s so effortless glide through the artificially delineate countryside.

The two officials make their way through the carriage, checking passports, not hassling anyone. They work quite fast, and I’m almost beginning to like them for being so efficient and quick about their monotonous task. Then they get to me. I am sitting by my window, resting my head on my hand, and I look up at them, extremely tired and bored. I am wearing all black. I am twenty-four, with peroxide dyed hair. I had reacted to spotting them from a distance with a look on my face and body language that to them must have signalled not so much ennui as ‘trouble.’ I am their prime suspect. Certainly of the carriage, probably of the train. Possibly of the day, maybe the month.

Granted, it could have been worse. They could have taken me off the train and subjected me to a strip search. They didn’t. They went through everything I had on me. They opened my luggage (I seem to recall this being a big holdall bag), searched through my clothes, opened my toiletry bag.

They found a tiny tube of something and demanded to know what it was. It was a cream for mosquito bites. They thought that hard to believe, which was ridiculous, because it was clearly labelled, smelt like medicine, and we were on the border to Italy, in the summer. My brain was not willing to argue. My Italian register brought forth: zanzare. 

It took about twenty minutes, it felt like two hours. It was not even humiliating so much as it was unnecessary and, I felt, vindictive. This, I now know, is what profiling feels like, if you match the profile. This is what being exposed to low-level authority feels like if it turns against you. Today, I understand people who complain about stop-and-search policies, or who are tired of being the ones picked out at airport entry points because of their skin tone or what they are wearing. It was, by comparison, harmless, and yet I wanted it just to end. I felt exposed and hard done by. And I was.

Still. I had never in my life purchased or carried any illegal substance, and so I had nothing on me, and they did not find anything. They left, we departed, I arrived in Milan, where I did something really stupid.

I got off the train and went into the station to look at the board where all the trains were displayed. Vicenza, this told me, would next be up at 2pm. It was now getting towards half one, but, for some to me now unfathomable reason not trusting that intelligence, I decided to go to the information desk to make sure. There was only one window open: ‘Money Exchange & Information.’ After queueing for half an hour, I arrived at said window, only to find that this was the wrong one. Nonetheless, they asked me what I wanted to know, and I told them I wanted to know when the next train would leave for Vicenza. At 2pm they said, glancing idly at a timetable. I ran, as best I could with my bag, to the platform, where I saw the train pull out of the station. What, I wonder, was that all about? Sometimes I just didn’t trust myself. At all.

I phoned my friend Stefano in Vicenza from a public phone box, which cost me 600 lire, I record, to tell him I’d be arriving one hour later. Stefano, once I’d got there and had settled, took me to the beautiful piazza in the town centre, where we also met up with our mutual friend Giovanni.

Thus begins about a week in Vicenza, and at the hands of Stefano’s mum, I tell The Tape, I’m being fed to the point of bursting.

I spend one day in Venice, mostly at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and, passing one of the many small shops, I see a leather jacket I particularly like the look of. I go inside and casually ask the shop assistant how much it costs (there being no price tag). Five million lire, she tells me, which at the time is about two thousand pounds. ‘I see,’ I say, as matter of factly (or so I think) as I can, and I do this unnecessary thing of looking at it in a little more detail to signal that I’m really not perturbed at all by the price. I’m really perturbed by the price. Then I do that even more unnecessary thing of looking around the shop a bit further before I leave, just to make sure the middle-aged woman whom I will never meet again in my life, and who has long since sussed that I’m in the wrong shop, understands that the prices here are really no big deal for me, at all. They’re a really big deal for me…

Vicenza, I tell my self of the future, is incredibly quiet, but I like the Teatro Olympico, calling it “stunning.” Built like a Greek arena, but all indoors, I describe it as “absolutely beautiful” and venture that it may be the only one of its kind in Italy (though where I get that from, or whether it is true, I don’t know).

At one point we go to a party together, which I confide to The Tape reminds me of the time when we, I and my gschpänlis from the Gymnasium Münchenstein, had our parties: the ease, the freedom. I feel charmed, I put on record, and delighted by the friendliness of these people.

I also go back to Venice on “various occasions” (there can’t have been many, considering how long I was in Vicenza for), and on one of these get to see a Pier Paolo Pasolini film at the festival, apparently as a matter of extreme luck: “How I managed to get there and get there on time, I will never know, but it worked, and it worked to the minute.” I seem to have walked into some post office (presumably having got to the Lido first), and asked where the auditorium was that I needed to get to, only to find that it just so happened to be that particular building, where the film was about to start. What exactly the film was I don’t put on record…

There are two more moments that stick in my memory from Vicenza, and although I don’t talk about them on The Tape, I am as certain as I can be that they belong to that same trip. (I’ve since been back to Vicenza a number of times, and there was most likely at least one more visit within the next year or two, but the way things fit together—especially with the amount of time I seem to have on my own whilst staying with Stefano and his family, who are presumably out working—makes me think that this is all one occasion.)

The first one involved me attempting to make coffee with one of these typical two-part Italian coffee jugs. I took the thing, which I myself had just used and which was still hot, off the hob and, wearing oven gloves, unscrewed the top from the bottom. At that point there was an almighty bang, and ground coffee splattered all over the immaculately clean small town kitchen, covering every available surface in fine specks of wet brown sediment. Stefano was grace personified and just helped me clean up before his mum got back home…

The other one takes place in Vicenza town. I go up to a small church that is either closed or about to close and there’s a young, good-looking guard at the gate. This makes me think it might have been a small museum or some other historic site, since churches didn’t usually have guards, as far as I can remember. He wears a uniform of the nondescript charcoal or dark grey variety, and to my surprise he opens the door for me and shows me around.

We get to the end of a short tour at the lowest part of the building, a crypt or a vault, of which I do not recall what it contained, and there is this moment that stays in my mind. This moment when something is meant to happen. And nothing happens. I wasn’t sure then what it was that was meant to happen, and I’m not even entirely sure today.

Looking back I wonder: was he about to make a move on me? If so, why didn’t he? I was, then, I now see, quite attractive, though I didn’t think so then. We were alone. He had keys to the building, he had, most probably, locked the front door. I liked him. I think I would have wanted him to make a move. I certainly wouldn’t have made a move first, though. I was on foreign territory, I was far too shy and too gauche, and also nowhere near conceited enough: I never assumed people fancied me enough to want to make a move on me; sometimes until long after they did. Maybe I was too aloof too.

With hindsight maybe I understand why he might not have made a move, even if he had wanted to and had felt that I possibly wanted him to, and the conditions were well nigh perfect for, well, at least a kiss, just to see how that would feel and where it would lead. I had a barrier up, then, practically always; I was not just aloof, but also distant, remote. What a pity…

The moment lasted—not very long—until it was over, and he led me back upstairs into the Italian sunshine. I thanked him, I said goodbye. And I wondered: what was that? Did I miss something here? This feeling, this question: did I just miss something here, that was happening, or should have been happening, or could have been happening, if only I’d been alert to it, perhaps less naive, perhaps less insecure, perhaps more attuned: it followed me for years, for decades even. Until recently. It doesn’t do so much any more: I miss things occasionally, still, but not quite so much as a rule. And I make mistakes, of course, who doesn’t. And sometimes I’m just not brave enough. In fact, I often, I think, am probably just not quite brave enough.

And then on the way onwards, in Milan, I actually went to some nondescript building in the outskirts of somewhere and tried to talk to somebody from the Italian TV network Reteitalia. What on earth about, I have no idea….


< Songs & Charades       Helvetia >


Read The Tape in Paperback or as eBook