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 1988 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. 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 so 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 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 with 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 with an extremely tired and bored look on my face. I am wearing all black. I am twenty-three, 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 ‘I’m in trouble’. I am their prime suspect. Certainly of the carriage, probably of the train. Possibly of the day.

Granted, it could have been worse. They could have taken me off the train and subjected me to a strip search. Which 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 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 today, 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. 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 maybe 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 concourse 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, 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 luggage, 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’ll be arriving one hour later. Stefano, once I’d arrived and had settled, took me to the beautiful piazza in the town centre, where we also met up with 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, 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 at the price. I’m really perturbed at 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 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, unless I stayed there for much longer than I recall), 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 ever 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 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 – make 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 maker 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 a loud bang and ground coffee splattered all over the immaculately clean small town kitchen. 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 which 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 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 probably 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. Looking at me now, sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe, I think 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 and where that would go. I was quite aloof, quite distant, remote. Is this a double tautology?

The moment lasted – not very long – until it was over and he led me back upstairs into the Italian sunlight. 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 had only I 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 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…

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 Reteitalia. What on earth about, I have no idea…

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?’

{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.

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 memory 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 noted, 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 was 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 past 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. 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.

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 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 French and Swedish 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.