The young man I’m on a date with is really unbearably cute. ‘You’re really unbearably cute,’ I tell him. ‘I know,’ he says, with the smile of someone who really does, and an involuntary shrug: ‘I try. I succeed.’
It’s happy hour at the Troubadour, my favourite haunt and quasi home from home, and so I look forward to an early evening mojito. This, here at the Troubadour, is contingent upon the other person also wanting a mojito. Or at any rate the same cocktail: you get two for one, but only as long as they’re the same drink. Why, is a mystery to me, but not one that has ever bothered me enough to prompt me to enquire about its reason: it’s rarely a problem, since I’ve come across few people in my life who don’t like a mojito, and for those who don’t, there’s always the option of a Bloody Mary. Or any other standard you’d expect on a short, traditional menu. I worry not.
Robert, the friendly and forever charming and helpful waiter, appears, and as I propose this to start the evening by way of an almost foregone conclusion, my young and very new friend throws an unexpected spanner in the works: ‘I don’t drink alcohol.’
‘What, not at all?’
‘No, I used to, but I didn’t really like it, and I got too drunk a couple of times, so I’ve stopped altogether, but you go ahead.’
‘Are you sure?’
This is dodgy territory. If I drink and he doesn’t, doesn’t this unbalance our universe—in which, at least for the next few hours, we are meant and agreed to proceed together—and not necessarily in anyone’s favour? I’m concerned now that this date may not go so well after all…
‘Yes absolutely, I really don’t mind. Seriously.’
His smile remains confident and sincere, and so I turn to Robert who is waiting on us, patient and knowing, while this short negotiation takes place, and I order the mojito nonetheless. Robert, bless him, reads the situation just fine and innocently asks if I want the happy hour anyway. I’m stumped once again, but before I can say anything more my young friend says, ‘sure, go ahead;’ and so it comes to pass that I’m on a date with an unbearably cute young man who doesn’t drink at all, while I’m being brought two mojitos by Robert, who does not bat an eyelid.
They look incongruous on the table in front of me, these mojitos, next to his elderflower cordial, but just for about the first five minutes or so. Soon I ease into the conversation, and I bask in the glow of a man who is so comfortable with everything and with himself that I feel this is perfectly all right, I can enjoy this, I can relax…
We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.
George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.
Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…
I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.
Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.
We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.
There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.
We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?
I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.
George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.
I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?
We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.
Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.
I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.
But now. And here. We are.
i had never had
before but: why not?
i was on my last twenty pounds of which i’d just spent fourteen on breakfast, so
a cocktail at noon
i got to istanbul on my own after christoph and i parted ways back in budapest: he’d had enough and wanted to go home, i
wanted to see
how i ended up in istanbul i’m not sure, i
i must have got on the wrong train –
different train: what can be
about a train that takes you
where you’ve not been before
he’d sent over the waiter. that
i thought. he looked maybe forty, thirty-eight? forty?
(i later find out he was pushing fifty; i wasn’t meaning to flatter him though)
i went across to his table, and all the while he was looking at me the way your uncle who hasn’t seen you in years looks at you, or a friend of your mum’s who remembers you as a baby: a familiarity that says, you don’t know who i am, but i changed your nappies when you were little.
maybe that’s why i accepted his invitation to
in the first place: he felt harmless. forlorn, perhaps, and a bit quizzical maybe, but benign
i sat down and he said, ‘don’t tell me: it’s george.’ and that made me wonder.
‘good to meet you george, my name is sebastian.’
i’d always liked
as a name
he looked at me with his nearly-a-stare that spoke of
i asked him: ‘what are you doing in
‘if only i knew,’ he laughed, and there was a silence.
‘how about you?’
As I sit watching George sip his mojito, slowly, deliberately, the memories of the past and the memories of the future congeal to form a slush into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. The right one, as my head is somewhat rightward inclined.
I was, I was beautiful. I never once thought so then, and I most certainly don’t think me so now, but looking at myself then I cannot escape this devastating realisation: I was really beautiful.
My best friend in London, Michael, once asked, when looking at a picture of me from my teens, ‘how did this’—he points at the picture—‘turn into this’: he gestures at me. Between me and George lie three decades of the unknown.
Must it, though, must it be so unknown. If I’d known then what I know now would I not have avoided so many mistakes? Would these regrets, three or four only, maybe, but two or three of them profound, not simply have turned into gorgeous memories of ever fulfilling wistfully relivable ecstasy? Unaided?
Soon, I want to say to my young self, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy who is so roundly adorable, so sunny, so sweet, so entirely lovely, that you’ll feel in a trance for six days around him. He will call you, on your answerphone, and say: ‘Hello, it’s Stefan here, I’m a friend of Soandso who’s a friend of Beatrice. She said I could give you a call and maybe stay with you for a few days in London?’ Once you live in London, George, you will have friends and friends of friends, and of course family and friends of family come to visit: you will not want for guests!
On this particular occasion though you may not be so keen, you may only just have arrived in your first flatshare and not know the others too well, but in particular also your best friend from school, Peggy, may be staying with you, for six weeks as it happens. How you ever got that past your still new flatmates whom you don’t really know yet will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me. But be that as it may, you will think—and Peggy will agree—and you both will be pretty much of a mind, that the last thing you need, or even want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the friend of really in all seriousness an ex-girlfriend of yours to come and spoil your quality time together for you. You’ve never been one to say no, though, so you say yes, but you don’t want to change your plans, and your plans for the night he arrives are to go to the theatre with Peggy, and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody around to let you in while we’re out; you can sleep on the sofa, make yourself at home.
So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time, and then you get back home, and on the sofa there is this unbearably cute little face, tucked into a sleeping bag, happy as peaches in 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 will nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh or his hand and you bask in his presence and you cannot get over how beautiful is his torso, and how charming his smile and how big his blond hair, and you don’t know how you do it but somehow you let the moment pass and nothing happens at all and you won’t ever quite understand how you let that happen, because soon after he leaves and you write to each other once or twice only and he says something along the lines of he liked you and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never be quite able to believe, you will forever know, deep 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 tell my young self: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him saying you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may feel painful and cruel if he rejects you, but so is this, so is knowing you didn’t seize that day, that half day even, so is knowing you lived one afternoon less than you could have, as it turns out should have done. One afternoon? An early lifetime. Precious, precious days, while you are young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and since late slightly freckled hand upon George’s. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ At what point will you simply not care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could not they make the first move, or say the first word; be first to break the glass that divides you?
And then it hits you, out of the blue: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why you don’t respond, and you wonder how can they not know that you’re surrounded by a bell made of glass: the sounds are muffled, the scent is dead, the gestures distorted, the temperature inside is always too high. The effort it takes you to break through to them is gargantuan. They just smile and think it strange that you barely smile back; the way that you read them would to them be entirely unintelligible. Suddenly it strikes you: you’re under a bell, George, and you don’t even know it.
I reach out to myself, but not to my hand, I put my hand on my shoulder instead. That seems to be more in tune with the overall situation. Oddly, this doesn’t surprise young me. George looks back at me, half-knowing, half expectant; a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: you’re an intelligent boy.
Being thus indavertently cast in the role of my dad’s father or my mum’s mother startles me and I withdraw my hand, almost too quickly. I need to think of a reason for having put it on my shoulder in the first place and so I say: ‘If you ever come to London, you must get in touch.’ It sounds like a disingenuous offer, saying this to my younger self, but with anyone else in a comparable case it would be perfectly genuine, and pure of intent, too.
He nods gravely. It hasn’t quite done the trick, I’m convinced, but George here seems to be un-further-perturbed. ‘This is nice,’ he says, in the involuntary generic understatement of the youth who hasn’t yet mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead I ask him if he wants another. Knowing now who I’m with, it doesn’t surprise me that he says ‘sure?’ with an upward inflexion that suggests question where there ought to be assertion. The young. If only I could make it lighter for you, thinner, the bell, more penetrable, the fortress of isolation around you. You will find a way. You will find a way: I have found a way, so will you.
Advice time. I’m about to say something along the lines of: just do what you want to do your way, or, it’s not going to be so easy, you know, but you’ll somehow muddle through, or, deep in your heart you know that no matter what the ups and the downs, you’re on a fairly stable track, like a roller coaster. And then it strikes me how ludicrous that is.
You’re not on a track at all, you’re in free flow. You have no way of knowing what’s right or wrong for you, you have to find out step by perilous step. Sometimes it will feel ridiculously easy and other times it will feel impossible. They will not understand you. Seriously. They will smile, but they will think: what the fuck? You have the right to be whoever, whatever you want to be, everybody else has the right to think what the fuck. At times you will feel: nobody gets me. At all. You will be so alone in the world that you will want to sit in a corner and cry, and you will sit in the corner and cry. You will need to be stronger than you ever thought you could be, because sometimes they will not just think what the fuck, they will hate you and say so. And you will wonder what have I ever done to you that you hate me, I have written some words. I have thought some thoughts. I have put them out there. Ah, I have trodden on your reality by putting them out there. And then you have to say to yourself: I have the right to write words and think thoughts and to put them out there, they have the right to hate me for it. It is not wise nor generous, nor really humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do so. Forgive them for being human.
Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up to Ahmed who takes my order for two more mojitos. ‘These are nice,’ I say to Ahmed, unnecessarily, ‘could we have two more, please.’ I wonder should I ask him at the same time if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, but then I realise what this might sound like to him, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone, and I ask George here where he is staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief George doesn’t ask me where I’m staying: I just realise what a potential trap I’ve set myself, when it occurs to me that I have a discontinuity here. At the time when I’m George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, past me is in my world, not I in the world of past me. But my world at this point ought to be Kingston-upon-fucking-Thames. Practical considerations and logic have both been rendered imponderable, by what I know not.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask myself and I notice I’m not saying this out loud and so I can’t tell whether this is Now Me asking Young Me or Young Me asking Now Me or Now Me asking Now Me or Young Me asking Young Me or all of Me at the same time.
Sundown. I shall wait until sundown. I shall hold out as long as George here holds out. I will I will just stay with me until sundown.
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’ competencies. (I’m not sure I like the word ‘competencies’, but still; that’s the kind of context we are talking about…) There was no more of a point to any of it than there ever was to any 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 handsets, 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. 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 accurate): 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 draw their attention to it and make them aware, they annihilate me with bewildered indifference, not unkind but bemused, not intentional, but lethal.
George has been looking at me as if he were studying me, and I still 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, and I think there would be something tremendously entertaining about getting drunk with myself. That would undoubtedly loosen things up, I fancy, 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 about any of this, 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.
Maxl has left and I go over the flat with the Dyson and some degree of resentment, directed not at Maxl, though clearly over the six months or so that he’s been here he never once did the same, and neither did I over the six months or so that he’s been here, because let’s face it: he’s the houseguest, does he expect me to go around and clean up after him? Then again, he’s the houseguest, so do I expect him to go round and clean up after me? Clearly not. And since neither of us found it necessary to go round the flat with the Dyson for the six months or so that we’ve been here together, to clean up after each other or let alone after ourselves, there is now a considerable amount of dust about the place.
I end up cleaning up after him because he leaves with a hug and a, ‘so this I suppose is goodbye,’ which it is only in as much as he’s not staying here any longer, he’s moving across town to North London and we’ll be seeing each other by the end of the week.
And so, no, my resentment is not of Maxl, whom I love and continue to love even though I’m seriously glad he’s moved out now, my resentment is of the dust. Dust in itself to me is objectionable to the point of being offensive. Why make people dusty? Isn’t that just adding insult to injury? I pause and reflect: what injury? The dust twirls around in the Dyson and I look at it this way instead: the good thing about leaving a little dust to accumulate in the flat is that when then you go round it with a Dyson you really notice the difference. Both in the flat, which suddenly seems altogether less, erm, dusty, but also in the little Dyson which visibly fills up, and you think most of this is just dead skin cells: I litter my space with this; how many Dysons have I filled since, well, ever?…
I look at George and I notice we haven’t said anything for a while now and that has not felt strange, it has felt comfortable. As comfortable as it should when you are sitting opposite yourself—even your much younger self—and you are actually quite happy to be there: with you, but not you. That was now, and this is then. I opt not to ask him any more questions for at least another such moment, and he looks at me and seems content. The moment is so comfortable that I try to remember it from his perspective, and it feels like I can, though it’s much more likely that I can’t and that I’m just constructing that memory in my mind even as I reflect on it, like a seven-dimensional puzzle. We’re coming to the end of our mojitos and I catch Ahmed’s eye.
This makes me wonder what, in a multiverse of all possible universes, my life is like right now in the world where Benjamin and I are together.
So often have I tried to find him in others—repeatedly have I attempted to find him himself—that I’ve lost all concept of what the reality would be of us actually having done what other people do. Do other people do this? It’s certainly the impression I get: other people I know meet someone, fall in love, have some ups and downs, decide to give it a go, give it a go, stick together, or sometimes not, and if they don’t then most likely they have a break and then either give it another go, or do so with somebody else. I have good examples at close range of things working out well between people, all around me. My family, especially, are exemplary. So it shouldn’t be difficult.
Still, it mystifies me.
Benjamin has fallen out with his father, this much I know. I know this much because the last number I find in my old address book for him is his old home number, and at one point, while I’m in the country, I phone that number and I get his dad on the phone who tells me that he doesn’t know where his son is. Nor how to contact him. He says this quite categorically, and I’m surprised, of course, and a bit stunned, and about to end the conversation, but before I do I ask whether anybody else might know how to contact him, and he says, yes, his mother might know. Ah, I say, and would he happen to still have a number for his mother. I sense I need to tread carefully as I don’t want to upset or offend him, and I feel sorry that they’re no longer together, but at least that offers a plausible explanation as to why his father does not know where he is or how to contact him: his parents must have separated many years ago, maybe on bad terms. But: ‘this number here,’ he says; ‘she’ll be back later, she’s at work now.’
This now saddens more than it puzzles me, and it puzzles me a lot: clearly Benjamin’s mother and father are still together, still living in the same house where I once or twice came to see him, where I met both of them, once or twice; where in fact I interviewed his dad for my final school project, which I wrote on racism; but while his mother ‘may know’ how to get in touch with him, the father not only doesn’t know, he obviously doesn’t want to know either. His son is dead to him. A wave of abject sadness washes over me. He is, has always been, so alive to me.
Should it surprise that your first love is your strongest, your most intensely felt, most devastating and also most exulted? To this day I remember getting drunk on coffee with him on the sofa. That seems surreal now, but we drank so much coffee over so many hours all through the night until it was getting light outside, I started feeling high. Caffeine and adrenaline and serotonin. And that other thing. Is there that other thing, that indescribable thing, that thing we sing songs about and write poems over and feel we could die for?
I phoned up again a day or two later (or maybe it was later that day) and spoke to the mother who remembered me and may have remembered me fondly, she certainly sounded warm and kind, and she said, yes, if I were to write him a letter she would forward it onto him, that might work.
I wrote him a letter, and she forwarded it onto him and nothing happened for a very long time; and I remembered—as I spoke to his mother and before I wrote the letter—the birthday for which I had sent him a flower. He lived outside Zürich then, I outside Basel; his birthday was and still is six days before mine, and because I couldn’t see him on his birthday, I went out and bought him a flower—I can’t be sure now what kind of flower it was, but I like to think and am fairly certain it was a yellow rose—and I asked the florist for one of these small vials that would keep the flower fresh for a while, and I sealed this around the stem of the flower and wrapped it in tissues in case it should leak and sealed that in foil, I believe, and then put the flower into a long box, and I must have used some padding, and then I posted it to him, with my birthday wishes. I didn’t wonder then but I wondered now what his mother made of this at the time.
I wrote him a letter and sent it to his mother, and she forwarded it to him and nothing happened for a very long time until one Sunday the phone rang and it was Benjamin. Out of the blue, except for the letter of course. He’d received it and now he was living in Guggisberg. He’d moved to Guggisberg because of the song, did I know it? I didn’t, but I know it now.
We talked for maybe four or five hours. I don’t remember what we talked about, but then that was that kind of connection: where you can talk for four or five hours and not remember what you talked about, nor really care. For those four or five hours it was as if he were there.
And all of a sudden I can feel it ease, the pain of not knowing what had become of Benjamin. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through addiction and rehab and back, and other things. He lives with his partner, who isn’t the mother of his son.
‘You’ve done a good thing here,’ he said, meaning my writing to him, and after the afternoon had passed with us talking, he said, ‘and now I’m going to get drunk.’ We were a bit drunk already, again, both of us, this time on the beers we each started to open, he in Guggisberg, I in Earl’s Court. ‘And I’m going to hear Jane Birkin in concert,’ I said, and it was true. He wasn’t online but he would write back to me now, he said; but I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t.
After a few months or so, maybe a year, I thought I’d just write to him one more time, although I was myself no longer sure of the wisdom of doing so, and I sent another letter, this time directly to him, at the address he’d given me, on the Guggisberg. It came back as not delivered: the addressee has moved away. But now I don’t mind. My heart is light and free. I hope before either of us dies I’ll see him again, maybe when we’re quite old. Maybe when we’re quite old we can sit together on a bench or in a lakeside cafe and spend a whole day talking, maybe getting drunk a little. On whatever.
I look at George looking at me, and I remember I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, I’ve always had George, but George has been very much on his own at times; he has chosen a lone path, and I can’t blame him for that. ‘Tell me about Benjamin,’ I want to say, but I now know everything I need to know about him, and I know that George knows much less now than I.
I walk into a room full of people. It’s the Christmas Bazar at the Steiner School in Zürich. I’ve gone there with a friend from Basel, to visit a couple of people we’d met at a Whitsun Camp earlier in the year and stayed in touch with. I don’t remember anything else about the day, not how we arranged to meet, or who else was there. Most likely we’d just arrived, and most likely we’d said: in the cafe, around then. The cafe is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a small hall. I remember the feel of a converted class room. The room is full, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. To the others, we introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: ‘Ich bi dr Benjamin.’ My world has never been the same again.
‘Tell me, George,’ I finally say, the mojito giving me licence to talk: ‘what do you make of the heart?’
She doesn’t leave me alone, this woman, plausibly because she’s so womanly. With a regrettable paucity of experience, I retain an abstract notion at best of what Woman is. Or Man, coming to think of it. In all likelihood and compared to most, I retain a largely abstract notion of what anyone is. Are we human? Or are we dancer.
I imagine her on a mountain of cushions, brushing her hair. A dwarf eunuch wafting air upon her with a Pergamon fan. As I enter the room – is it a hall, a tent, a boudoir? – she looks up at me with an aloofness that is both superior and benign. She doesn’t know who I am, and neither do I, although she has spoken to me already, in mysterious ways.
Woven into the pillows are the sorrows and tears of the virgins that were slaughtered in vain, and the hopes and aspirations of their betrothed princes, kept and murdered as slaves. I hear the din of the bazar and I smell its scents which are, as expected, exotic, and I hear the muezzin’s adhan. This call I heed, though I am not a believer, and leave her waiting, once more. She knows, and stifles a yawn, but inwardly she delights.
It occurs to me that it does not matter. It matters not why The Sultaness has taken up residence in my mind any more than it matters why I have come to Istanbul to encounter my thirty-years younger self. It matters not that I make no sense to myself at the moment and it matters not that looking at George here who is me at the age of about twenty, I can’t be in Kingston-upon-Thames at the same time, and it never ever mattered what I was going to go there for in the first place; or second, or third.
What matters is just that I don’t get these next fifty seconds wrong. If I don’t come up with a question that has at least some weight, some inquisitive purpose to it, he’ll not only think me lame but he’ll be bound to query my motives. And although I know and remember myself as someone who will for as long as possible give anyone the benefit of the doubt, I also know that once that bond of trust is broken it cannot be repaired, not easily; maybe never. I don’t want to let myself down.
And so asking him how he is doing, or where he is from, or what he makes of this city, or where he is headed next, or how he enjoys his mojito, none of these will do (although I am in fact interested to know how his Interrail trip ended up landing him here on the outside edge of Europe, and what might have happened to his friend, and which friend it was, since I clearly would know him; but that also holds me at bay: I should not enquire about our mutual friend, as that mutuality, once established, would very obviously demand some explanation). Nor do I want to ask him some random question, such as what is the meaning of life, or pretend that there is some information he has that I need, or anything utilitarian, like where is a good place to eat. (Besides, we are at a good place to eat already, and I know we are both creatures of habit, so unnecessarily asking for a different place to eat would make me sound either disingenuous or stupid.)
I wait until he has taken another sip from his cocktail—only now does it really occur to me that that’s what we are doing: drinking cocktails—and ask him, ‘where do you imagine yourself in, say, 30 years from today.’
No sooner have I spoken these words than I realise just how absurd this is: thirty years from now I’ll be eighty and he will be fifty; what is he supposed to answer? Will thirty years from now be thirty years down his timeline, or mine? And won’t that depend on how the next fifty seconds, and then fifty minutes and maybe then fifty hours pan out?
I sense that my reality is about to implode, when he does something unexpected. Having been him, it shouldn’t come so unexpected to me; having been him I should have seen this coming – in a more normal situation perhaps even remembered – but he nevertheless catches me out and fairly floors me:
‘In a place like this,’ he says, laconic and calm, with his innocence and nascent wisdom and a curious sparkle in his eye, ‘talking to someone like you…’