Paris

For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to the tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening of Thursday 18th August, from London. In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning – aflush, aglow and awonder – from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to wonder whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh”, and I note on the tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good if not quite a lot better can be done, actually.” The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. I now, listening to myself then, sense I can maybe today do a little what I never could then, although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though it came incredibly easy to me: indulge myself, just a little. Now, I feel a warmth to me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…

I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988’, and try as I might I could not find a train listed to Grenoble anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness all that surprising that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my European mind was entirely reasonable then.) So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office to start over again, and here I fared a little better because while I still was profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.

I must have already had a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which looked plausible. It was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give this much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains and so I was maybe just a tad tired.

Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased and the lights went off. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station – all dark, all empty – obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night. Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacker rucksacks, and I felt laconic and unperturbed, as far as I can recall.

Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside, and while some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping a few feet next to him on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night’, I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again and those of us who had or thought we had trains to catch were let back inside. Now, what on the tape in my still a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep) I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at trying to find out how to get to Grenoble from Paris.

I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon. To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so after asking a few more people I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle. By this time I can barely keep my eyes open and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours rest on the pavement outside and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag, and I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed and asks me if I’m lost. ‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes’, I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of it may be, but the price flashes up on the machine and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. But before I can really explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.

I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they’d had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, coming up three decades later. And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man – with a smile, two minutes of his time and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money – has made the world a much, much better place. Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…

52 The Silk Route

How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis?

If so it is mild in the extreme. Contradiction in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself and so I feel and so I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here. . .

The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to Kindergarten and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.

(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)

The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here’, the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, geography matters less and less, I am at home in London, but I can be and be happy almost anywhere, as long as I have my laptop and a decent WiFi connection.

I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current’. It strikes me that this is maybe a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another soon. I am fine with that too.

It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and know, the trip alone that truly matters.

As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now and in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work to do, lies just ahead.

We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling, that counts.

I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because if you watch a wall of paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.

‘Look at me now and here I am’, I say to myself, in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I  sense it, for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

18c Entreatment

I see my Science Communicator Friend next at a party I drag him along to where we have a long and involved conversation and where I introduce him to the hosts and to some other people and it is so easy to talk to him and so comfortable, and he’s so easy and comfortable with talking to other people while I’m distracted, that I begin to formulate in my mind a fantasy that features him and me together. This, I think, is what I would want in a ‘boyfriend’: somebody I could be so comfortable, so perfectly at ease with, who could hold his own but when he didn’t need to would find me interesting enough to converse with me and would be interesting enough to be conversed with himself and who had enough going on in his life and thoughts to think and friendships to maintain to be effectively self-sufficient, most of the time.

In retrospect this fantasy grows stronger, not weaker. For a good long while I forget about it, not least because Christmas comes around and I go to Switzerland, while he has his brother staying over from Greece. Then we see each other once or twice briefly and then not again because he’s off to Greece himself. This may or may not have been Easter. By the time he comes back he has brought me a tea that he has made himself. It’s a jar of leaves and it’s my favourite infusion straight away, not just because it’s from him, but because it has sage in it and I love sage. It has one or two other ingredients, maybe three, but I don’t now remember what they were. I am touched that he thought of me while away, not least because we’re not actually ‘together’ in any way, we don’t even really have sex. One of the first things he’d said, after a bit of what could easily have turned into sex, was: ‘let’s not get onto sex, it just ruins everything’.

I found that interesting, but also perhaps true. Although sex does not, in my experience, have to ruin everything, it certainly is a complicating factor. And many people I’m still excellent friends with I don’t think I would still be excellent friends with if we were still having sex.

We then don’t see each other again for a while, this time because I’m away from London for two months while my flat is being renovated and he’s traipsing around Europe, I believe.

By the time we’re both back in London, he is enrolled for his MA, and I am not because I had failed to sufficiently toe the line or impress the course convenor at King’s College, London, or both. I am not unhappy about this, though I am of course marginally peeved, but I’ve since been told, by my Philosopher Friend that this is not in the least bit surprising since what interests me in philosophy does not, apparently interest philosophical academia, in fact ‘they resent it’, she tells me. I feel reassured by that. The branch of philosophy that interests me doesn’t yet exist, and although I made that clear in my ‘submission’ to King’s (I don’t so much like the idea of ‘submitting’ my work or my thinking to start with, I would consider it more a ‘putting it out there’, or ‘on the table’), they still did not think that either they could offer me anything or I them; this peeved me, just a tad, absolutely, but it did not surprise, nor really in all seriousness did it irk, me.

The fact that my Greek Science Communicator Friend is now doing his MA is neither good news nor bad news as far as I am concerned, it just means he’s now back in London, and so am I. I am reminded of him, partly because he gets back in touch and proposes a catchup, and partly because I am reading a book which Stevie, my first ex and still very good friend, has given to me. It’s called Becoming a Londoner – a Diary and it’s written in an easy-going, relaxed, near conversational prose by David Plante, who had come to London from the United States in his twenties during the early sixties and quickly started a live-in relationship with Nikos, a sophisticated Greek man of a similar age, whom he nevertheless appeared to somewhat look up to, if nothing else intellectually. The diary is rich in anecdotes about the London literary and art world of the day and although I came to London nearly twenty years later, much of what he writes about and much of the way he writes about it resonates with me strongly. Also, he visits places that I have been to, in some cases frequently, such as Lucca, or Paris.

The insights into the lives of people like Francis Bacon and, most particularly, Stephen Spender, with whom both he and Nikos had a close friendship, makes Becoming a Londoner not only an enjoyable read but possibly also an invaluable historical document.

I read this book – as I read most books – in the bath, because only in the bath do I really have the peace of mind and composure to sit down with a book while also being awake enough not to fall asleep over it. And each time I read in this book I am a little reminded of my Greek friend and my fantasy of being together with him. Today, I was hoping to see him for an event at Lights of Soho, which I’ve recently become a member of. I’d suggested to him that we go there and he’d said, in his usual, non-committal way ‘this sounds interesting’, but already flagged up the fact that he normally had a seminar at college on a Tuesday and he didn’t know when this would end. I’d parked the idea more or less assuming he wouldn’t come out with me Tuesday, and indeed, when I sent him a message on Tuesday, he declined, saying he couldn’t get away. I was a little deflated but also quite relieved, since by then I had decided that unless he were to come along, I myself wouldn’t go either and had started to hope, almost, that my assumption would prove correct and he wouldn’t come out, so I didn’t have to go either.

Instead, I had a bath and read in my book, which reminded me of him, and then sat down in my white towelling dressing gown which I hardly ever wear and when I do then only ever after I’ve had a bath, and poured myself a glass of white wine and put on an old vinyl record with Eugen Bochum conducting Mozart and realised that I am very content, almost happy. I discover a message from him, in response to mine saying not to worry as I was getting too comfortable on my sofa and might not go out myself, in which he says: “Yeah, you should be one with the sofa.” And I agree, I am fairly much one with the sofa, right now.

The funniest line so far that I’ve read in David Plante’s book is about Auden, staying with the Spenders: “Stephen said that once, when Auden was staying at Loudon Road, Natasha rang him up to say she would be late, and would he put the chicken in the oven? Auden did – he simply put it in the oven, didn’t put it in a pan, didn’t put the heat on.”

I so relate to Auden.

And I adore Stephen Spender who at this point “is teaching at the university, but feels he is doing so badly he wants to go into the loos and write on the walls SPENDER MUST GO!”

Origin

I was born in Manchester in June 1964 into a Swiss family, and I have never been in any doubt that both these facts are of defining significance. Had I been born in Manchester into an English family, I would most likely have grown up either in Manchester or if not there then somewhere else in Britain, and if not that then at any rate in an English-speaking household. Had I been born in Switzerland or anywhere else, I might never have developed my powerful affinity to England, Britain and the English language.

As it was, I grew up as the ‘English Boy’ in a Swiss Family in Switzerland, because soon after my birth – a mere six weeks – I was carried aboard a plane in a red wicker basket and flown, together with my brother and two sisters, to Basel, where my arrival was greeted with jolly brass bands and a splendid fireworks display. It would please me to think that the good people of Basel were thus celebrating my homecoming, but it just happened to be Swiss National Day, 1st August; and also it wasn’t in that sense a homecoming.

Because although I was a fiercely patriotic child, my loyalties then were always almost evenly divided between Switzerland and England, with Switzerland slightly having the edge, and as I grew into my teenage years the balance began to tip in favour of England. But more important than that – and also perhaps more curious – although I had really done all my growing up (bar the first six weeks) in Arlesheim, a beautiful, picturesque and particularly peaceful and well cared-for village outside Basel, and in Basel itself, where I went to school, I never actually really felt ‘at home’ there.

I felt at home in London the moment I set foot in it when my parents took me and the younger of my two sisters, Christine, there, for the first time. This, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on I returned to London every year at least once, often twice, at first staying with a friend of the family, then with friends I made there over my visits, or at a hostel or a cheap hotel, and from as early as sixteen I started talking about moving to London.

I finished school, spent a year (two semesters) enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red, none with castors, then; and I’d wanted to buy a one-way ticket to London. The slightly bored – too bored, I thought: I’m moving to London! That’s exciting! – travel agent laconically told me she could sell me a one-way ticket, but that it would be more expensive than buying a return and simply not coming back. It irked me, but I was twenty-one and I had to make the money I’d earned as a security guard over the previous few months last a bit, so I opted for the more economical offer and bought a return, the outbound on the 1st August: Swiss National Day, precisely 21 years after I’d arrived in Switzerland. Of course, I didn’t use the return leg, I let it lapse: I did not go back. Not, it seems, until now, three years later, when my ‘Europe Tour 1988’ took me, after Edinburgh, from Grenoble to Vicenza back to Chur and then Basel, where I saw first my sister, then my parents, my brother Andreas and his two sons Alban and Benjamin (Benjamin my godson), my other sister, Katherine, and many friends from the then recent past. The way I talk about it all on the tape does not feel ‘recent’ though, I talk about having lived in London now for three years as a big chunk of my life, and it is a big chunk: it’s all of my adult life so far.

My delivery on the tape is measured, often very quiet (mostly out of consideration: I seem to be recording the majority of my entries very late at night; that’s one thing that hasn’t changed, my being a night owl…) and I choose my words carefully, though not always correctly. I refer, for example, to a part of the trip as being ‘exhaustive’ when I mean ‘exhausting’ and I keep calling things ‘well done’ when I mean they are either well made or simply good. I sound a bit bemused and a bit blasé, absolutely, and also a little in awe; I marvel but I don’t gush, I describe things as ‘fantastic’ but say the word as you would say the word ‘nice’, and often qualify things towards moderation. I sound to me now almost like someone who’s rediscovering his language, who’s searching hard, and sometimes finding, sometimes just missing, the right expression, who’s grappling, without really knowing it, for a lost code, but enjoying the process of slow rediscovery.

There is good evidence now that you pick up a great deal as an unborn child in your mother’s womb; you make out sounds and noises and you start recognising them and responding to them long before you are able to make any sense of them as a child. I always loved English as a child, and as a young teenager I became very ‘good’ at it. Though I also wildly overestimated my abilities. Perhaps – and I do mean this ‘perhaps’, it’s not here merely for a rhetorical purpose – the familiarity that nine months as a growing foetus and then six weeks as a newborn baby in an English-speaking environment provided had already firmly, irreversibly planted its seed. You have to, as an artist, aim higher than you can reach: that way you may in time extend your reach and eventually reach further than you thought you could aim. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without fear; that way you may in time overcome your fear of becoming yourself.

As I listen to myself on the tape, I realise I’m listening to a young human who has fearlessly – much more fearlessly than I would ever have imagined I would dare – stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly beginning, to formulate in it a role for himself. And it fills me with a new sense of wonder…

∞ Pyromania

What little George needed to know about incendiary devices he learnt very quickly, and Andy turned out to be an ideal accomplice. While George was methodical, wily and determined, Andy was swift, small and silent, and quite original in his thinking.

The biggest challenge, George surmised, would be to procure a large number of detonators and wiring without raising suspicion, let alone alarm. But in actual fact, this proved a lot easier than he anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George reckoned that with a few items of very ordinary household goods and some basic physics, he could most likely create simultaneous sparks, and if he could do that he could ignite simultaneous boxes of matches and if he could do that he could not, perhaps, cause simultaneous bangs, but the random series that would result in different huts exploding at slightly different times would lend the spectacle its own satisfying symphonic quality.

Conscious of the ‘one chance to get this right’ aspect to his endeavour, combined with a patent inability to do a test run, even on a model or an isolated, remote specimen, George felt there was a lot at stake and a lot that could go wrong. He confined this worry, such as it was, in passing to Andy. Andy was unperturbed:

‘Yeah you can run a test.’

‘Where would I run a test?’

‘There are beach huts on every other beach in the country: just go to a beach and do just the one, nobody will think it’s a test, they’ll just think: fuck, the hut blew up. Bummer.’

That made sense. It would be no more difficult than travelling to another beach, remote enough so as not to draw attention to Boscombe and Bournemouth and close enough so as not to take more than an hour’s travel or so, and a field test could be run on just one, perhaps slightly isolated beach hut that looked like it might recently have been in use and that fulfilled the principal criteria set by his actual target huts for reference.

‘Brighton.’ Andy did not need to think about this.

‘Brighton is miles away. And it’s extremely busy.’

‘Exactly. It’s miles away and nobody there would think anybody from Bournemouth would be stupid enough to go there just to blow up a beach hut. Plus there are any number of people off their heads enough there to accidentally set fire to one of their huts.’

The reasoning was flawless. It was risky, George thought, but on balance, and thinking about it a bit further, longer and more thoroughly, not as risky, most likely, as going to a remote beach where two teenagers, one lanky and tall, the other tiny and cute, would be instantly memorable. In Brighton, nobody would bat an eyelid. All they had to do was go there, find the right hut, maybe somewhat to the end of the beach, and run their test without getting caught. It would be like a rehearsal. It would be indispensable, George suddenly realised. Of course they had to run a test.

Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising suspicion, or let alone alarm…

‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.

‘Great, where does he live?’

‘In London, of course.’

‘Of course.’

George told his dad, Andy his mother, they would spend a weekend in London with Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward was asked and readily agreed, he was looking forward to seeing them. Once in London, they would simply go out, as you do of a Saturday night, and return very late or early next morning. Uncle Edward would not ask them where they had been, or if he did, he would do so in the way uncles do: all right boys, have you had a good time last night? Yeah. Where did you go? Oh we went out. Great. Help yourselves to juice in the fridge and whatever there is to eat.

There wouldn’t be much to eat in the fridge, and the juice would be something like ‘Açaí Berry’ or ‘Radiant Beetroot’, but no further questions would be asked. The thought that the boys might have taken a train down to Brighton would not occur to Uncle Edward, and if it did he’d think that was a splendid idea. But they wouldn’t tell him, just in case by some freakish coincidence the ‘news’ of a beach hut in Brighton having blown up might reach London. They thought that was extremely unlikely, it would be more likely – though still wildly improbable – to reach Bournemouth, in a ‘typical: someone in Brighton blew up their hut…’ kind of way.

Bank Holiday was to be avoided, because of everything, there was just too much of a muchness about it, but Uncle Edward was around the following week and nobody minded.

The weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.

{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.

4 Maxl (Still Here)

I wake up to a horrible dream. It’s so horrible I don’t want to think about it, it could well be the second most horrible dream I’ve ever had, and I take issue with horribleness, so I go back to sleep once again and I don’t continue to dream, which I’m glad on.

Maxl knocks on the door and wakes me up; I’m already half awake but that means I’m also half asleep and I’m hugging a cushion for comfort. He asks if I’m all right; I am puzzled: he’s never been this concerned about me before. He says he’s concerned about me.

Maybe I made horrible noises in my horrible dream, it’s possible. I blink at him and say ‘yes’ and I’m about to go back to sleep once again; he says ‘it’s nearly half two’, which in German means half one but means nothing to me at the moment because they’ve put the clocks forward last night and I don’t do mornings at the best of times.

Maxl rustles about in my room while I drift back off to sleep. He keeps much of his stuff in my room, so it’s a bit like having a live-in partner, without the partner, it’s a bit like a lose-lose situation: the worst of both worlds. The good thing I suppose: we don’t argue. Though he moans at me.

Maxl moans at me about England.

Every day he comes back from college or from the bank or from the tube or from the post office or from the supermarket or from the park or from the cafe or from the pub or from the pavement, moaning at me. Every day.

He is German so he’s used to hyper-efficiency; he also lives in Berlin when he’s not here, so he’s used to an agreeable level of anarchic socialism. Objectively, I agree with most of what he complains about but the complaining itself bugs me, every day, about everything.

That and the fact that he moans at me in German: he makes it sound as if I were responsible. Maybe I am responsible. Maybe my quiet acquiescence to all things British, to all things English, to all things London, has made me complicit in bringing about a college that charges an arm and a leg but that has embarrassingly poor facilities and a bunch of students who, instead of standing up for their ideas and their rights and their freedoms, do everything they’re told, as they’re told, and for a bank that charges an arm and a leg in fees and makes opening a bank account as much of a deal as if you were asking the Emperor of China for a slice of Tibet, and a tube that charges you an arm and a leg but shuts down for weekends at a time and that runs late because one of their drivers has a bout of the sniffles and that goes on strike at the whiff of a comma in a staff manual being changed and that stops running at midnight when half the population is still about town enjoying themselves, and for a post office that I can’t think of what they might be doing wrong off the top of my head but I can easily imagine that in Germany they run their post offices in a way that is altogether more, well, German, and for a supermarket that installs machines that talk at you instead of employing people who serve you, and for a park that is actually pretty much perfect if you ask me but that if you’re German you’ll probably nevertheless find something to moan about, and for the cafe that I can’t I’m losing my will to live…

The pubs close too early I know and the trains are a nightmare, get over it, it’s London, this, innit.

I can’t be doing with this much moaning and I realise that much as I love him, if Maxl were my husband I would have to ask him for a divorce now. That would be terrible. Fortunately he’s only a very good friend and I can love him even though he moans at me because I know I don’t have to own any of this beyond the level to which I just have to own my share of this culture that so irks him. Better still, much as I love Berlin – and I love Berlin, and I always, always still keep a metaphorical suitcase there – I don’t have to move to Berlin with him just because he doesn’t like London. I actually think he quite likes London, which makes me also think that maybe he moans about Berlin! At his girlfriend! (Phew!) I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate because I’m troubled by my horrible dream which I don’t want to think about and I also don’t want to seem ungrateful or ungracious or ungenerous. I don’t want to seem or to feel un-anyhing. I love Maxl [I’ve changed his name here, by the way, because I don’t want to get him into trouble nor do I want him to think that I don’t love him just because he moaned at me] and I am grateful to him for being a good, loyal friend, and I graciously accept the gift of insight that even someone you love can get on your nerves to the point where you are quite prepared to wrestle them to the ground and slap them with a very wet fish, and I want to retain and hold on to the generosity of spirit that says live and let live, love and let love, be and let be. And I realise I am actually moaning about somebody moaning at me. Which is a little ironic. And I like little ironies. Though I still don’t like moaning. Which I suppose makes it doubly ironic… And the whole experience reminds me acutely why I so much enjoy being single. 

I feel tempted to tell George about this, but obviously I don’t because I don’t want to prejudice him against Maxl or against me. And I certainly don’t want to tell him about the horrible dream, which he’d be bound to want to know more about.