Monday, 9 September 2013

Diogenes the Cynic - a short story

Diogenes the Cynic
Richard Craven

Very late when we check in. Place itself looks fine, I mean maybe I'm a little indifferent. All the same: marble floors, kitchenette, flush toilet and powershower; double bed, lounge, balcony with a view of the bay, which at that late hour consists only of a dark gulf bitten out of earth by sky. I can see a few streetlights glittering at the edge of Turunç town, most of which is obscured by the boxish back of the neighbouring apartment block. Lulled by low-fi aircon whitenoise I sleep soundly, only getting up once in the night to piss, and to drink some of the Turkish Evian in the fridge.

After breakfasting on the complementary hamper of bread and jam, and some Turkish coffee ordered from room service, I spend the first morning quietly poolside basting myself with factor eight and checking through my page proofs. It is very hot.

The other hotel guests are all British. It surprises me that they're so nice, that they comport themselves with such dignity and restraint. I mean it's out of character, not what one's led to expect in these dog days of blah blah, what about the leering coarseness, the habitual drunken violence? I drink a beer, and then another, and am disposed to look very favourably indeed upon the company: the men and women lounging round the pool playing backgammon or reading their Captain Corelli's and their Bravo 2 Zero's, and the teenage girls demurely chatting up the waiters, and the small children in the pool cavorting cheerfully with their waterwings and inflatable sharks under a totally cloudless sky.

It makes me glad I gave Turkey a second chance. I mean that first time, the week in Marmaris two years ago, it was like, it was mayhem, fights, puke, pillheads, happy hour, happy handbag hits, girls stripping off in clubs, it was an event cliché. I was with my Mum and Dad, he was spending all his funny money he'd laundered into lira. Marmaris was shocking, times I didn't know where to look. All one's deepest prejudices rise to the surface is how my Dad put it. Wonder I ever came back to Turkey at all, never mind somewhere only half an hour up the road from Marmaris. I mean, way here last night the bus from Dalaman International actually taken us through Marmaris, right along the corniche, same bars pumping out Radio Stupid and all showing Premier League on Sky, and I remember eyeing the mobs on the pavement, and the faces hadn't changed either: same overweight monolingual Cockney thugs in Man U shirts, same braying drunken underdressed harpies, same Turkish hustlers and door operatives, and I just thought oh bugger here we go again.

I guess if you have to go into or out of Turunç Bay that's the only road. Later, of course, I discover it's the same with the boats, I mean you could go in the other direction, you could head further up the coast to Amos or Kümlubük, but it feels more like the end of the line up there. Amos has an excellent restaurant at the end of the universe. Anywhere else, you go via Marmaris.

At noon I avail myself of a delightful fish mezze, then trudge through torpid heat down a dusty road to the beach, a narrow strip of gritty grey shale, seeringly hot underfoot. Thereon, hundreds of sunloungers are deployed in neat mathematical rows in front of the tavernas lining the boardwalk. I stop and lay my towel down on the first unoccupied sunlounger I find outside the first taverna I come to. I drink beer, water, apple tea, Turkish coffee. I eat vanilla ice cream with a crisp multi-layered wafer forming a very precise representation of the right-angled segment of a circle. I chat to the Kurdish waiters, I stroll down the boardwalk past all the tavernas, as far as a jetty signposted 'Turunç Boat Taxi Cooperative'. I return to my portion of the beach and grab my snorkel and visor, I strike out through crystal clear water, warm currents wash lazily over me, small schools and shoals of small fish fan out over rocks and large pebbles. I swim out to a gulet moored in the stillness like a photograph. I breaststroke back to the beach, and recline Teutonically on my sunlounger and go through my page proofs and chat to the Kurdish waiters again. They are interested in my book. But I mean, you try explaining the semantic properties of sentences containing modal operators, to someone with a limited grasp of your own language. We give up, and they bring me more beer and apple tea and a Vodka Redbull and some nasty cigarettes in which I take a great delight.

The other tourists are almost all English or German or Turkish. Maybe there's a few French or Benelux. Families splash in the surf, or are at rest in the shade cast by the wooden parasols. For a while I try to concentrate on my page proofs. The Turkish women look good, they are wearing fashionable high-cut bikinis. Now and then a mobile phone chirrups, and some statuesque topless aspirational Knutsford stunna languidly uncurls and passes the baby to her tattooed husband.

In the evening, having showered shat shaved and thoroughly masturbated, I array myself gorgeously in cream chinos, an Haiwaiian shirt notably violent upon the senses, and black lace-ups. I discover Turunç's main street running behind the beach tavernas. At one of these I dine deliciously on a sea bass washed down with a bottle of perfectly respectable white wine, followed by a Turkish coffee over which I linger for a time, before moving on to one or two bars. There are no cars in the street, just people out enjoying themselves. I drink another Vodka Redbull, then a local brandy. At the next establishment I drink two Jack Daniels's and play pool with an Essexgirl beautician. I try to explain my book but am a bit too pissed.

Later, I find an internet bar, and email my Mum in Catford and my Dad in Ford Open, and my girlfriend in Girton. I am also pleased to discover latent within me a cocoon of sobriety such that my inebriation prevents me in no wise from dispatching a message each to my editor and my old doctoral supervisor with changes to my page proofs detailed in file attachments. Afterwards, I stagger back up the hill to my hotel and fall into bed.

This kind of sets the pattern for the next few days. Mornings by the pool, afternoons at the beach, slap-up feed in the evening, ending up in some bar getting pleasantly pissed in time for bed, and what more could you ask for than that. Once or twice I break the routine with a taxiboat trip up to Amos Bay or Kümlubük. I never go near Marmaris or, consequently, anywhere else. I'm developing a social life by now, very nice, very easy, cocktails and conversazione by the pool, all manner of people, guests, waiters, holiday reps, local shop and bar keepers. I pass my days at the beach prostrated in total langour. There are pool competitions in the bars in the evening. I even find an hour here and there to check through my page proofs. Most of all I like to sit outside the AK47 Bar and watch the little white dog who belongs to the owners of the supermarket across the road and likes to chase all the joggers and cyclists.

It's the last day of the first week, it's the same Saturday the lifeboat gets called out to some swimmers in distress off the rocks next to the four star hotel the far side of the bay, only when they get there it's not drowning swimmers it's seals which is apparently somewhat anomalous in terms of natural science. Easy mistake to make. Also there's the faintest wisp of cloud for the first time since I arrived.

It's down at the beach when I first notice. I'm going through my page proofs probably. I mean normally relations between the waiters and the tourists on the sunloungers are relaxed and informal. But this afternoon the atmosphere feels somehow slightly thicker. Five or six strangely unsmiling Turks have requisitioned a row of sunloungers. They're in their late twenties mainly. They order tea and strip down to their trunks and smoke terrible cigarillos. They seem watchful and suspicious. The Kurdish waiters are suddenly reserved. I can't help noticing how the tourists on the sunloungers in the immediate vicinity become silent and apprehensive without really being aware of why.

That evening I stay at the hotel bar until quite late. The barman is some crewcut kid from the Black Sea putting in time before he does his national service.
-Kurds, he says, if they don't like Turkey they should get out of Turkey. They are Turks, we call them...
-I know...
-...Mountain Turks. We had Kurdish Prime Minister, Ozal...
-What, Turgut Ozal was Kurdish?
-Yes, we had Kurdish Prime Minister, Ozal, Kurdish people should be happy.
-So in Britain people from Wales should be happy because they had Lloyd George eighty ...
-Wales people hate the English people. Last Summer I work in bar in Marmaris. They always fight, the Wales people with the English people.

I'm already slightly pissed by the time I make it down to the beach the next afternoon. There's a few more clouds, today, but it's still very hot. The strange Turks are there again. Their sleek little mobiles don't play Mozart or Eric Clapton or Like a Virgin when they ring, they just ring, and one or another of the strange Turks engages in tersely quiet interchanges with the invisible third party. Mostly the interlopers are silent. The Kurdish waiters seem to shy away from them slightly. I'm sure that they're charging them lower prices for their cokes and ice-creams and small mezzes. Finally the sun and the alcohol get the better of me, and when Suleiman appears with my bottle of water, I find myself asking
-What is it about them guys?
Suleiman scowls at me, and looks away.
-Sorry, I say hiccupping slightly, keep schtum.
-You want large beer.

That evening, having dined delectably on sea bream with a green salad washed down by an ordinary and unpresumptuous little bottle of white Kavak, I venture forth in search of such random felicities as might fall in the path of a person of favourable disposition. Whilst waiting for service in the AK47 bar, I look around the place to see if there's anyone I know. All the men are wearing chinos and Hawaiian shirts as epically immoderate as my own, or else locally bootlegged polo shirts. A middle-aged man sitting with his broad back to me looks familiar, though I can't place him, and it nags at me slightly, but then I see Clare Korsgaard waving at me from the other end of the bar.
-Big ruck down the beach today, she says.
-What, I say listening to myself sneering, in Marmaris was it.
-No, she says, here, down the beach.
-What, daytrip dickheads from Marmaris.
-Nah, Turks.
-Turks? I thought they had more class.
-Bit scary, actually, apparently, she says shivering slightly, knives 'n’ bottles 'n'stuff.
-Didn't hear any sirens?
-I didn't hear any sirens, been in Marmaris all day innit, heard about it when I come back.

Fugger in his hideous bermudas is beckoning me to the pool table. We play a couple of frames. Fugger has some kind of business in Reigate to do with leasing, he's explained it to me on a number of occasions. I look up, and notice that Clare's seemingly buggered off. The bar is almost full. I notice with a sudden flush of glandular paranoia that flint-eyed psychopaths constitute a disturbingly large proportion of the clientele. Men with hard faces chomping away with their coked-up mandibles. Fugger's noticed too, because I hear him say
-My imagination, or this place suddenly gone a bit rough.
-Pissed, I mumble, need some fresh air.

The place is uncomfortably crowded now, and it takes us several minutes to smuggle ourselves outside whilst assiduously avoiding the inadvertent occasion of offence. I thought Fugger would be right behind me, but when I finally squeeze myself out into the warm night air he's still extricating himself from the press.

He's strangely silent as we make our way to the next bar. Here it's not crowded; and there's no music, just Al Jazeera on a TV mounted in the corner under a low ceiling. There's a lengthy piece about Iraq. It’s about sanctions and oil exports, down a pipe to some port on the Turkish Mediterranean called Yemurtalik. Kurdish separatists've leaned on the dockers at Yemurtalik, many of whom are Kurdish anyway and not unsympathetic to the cause. There were riots a few days last week, and acts of sabotage. They wanted the Turks to release the PKK pasha, Abdullah Oçalan. The customs house burnt down. Four or five people got asphyxiated in a toxic spillage from some big drums which got knocked over in the disturbances. Their bodies are in the police station.
-You're going to think I'm fucking mad, says Fugger.
-Of course.
-AK47 Bar, right?
-Reckon I saw Saddam fucking Hussein.
I open my mouth to speak, and yet feel oddly dissociated from the words I hear myself say.
-Sitting at a table, wearing a totally grossout Hawaiian shirt.

As I say this I am gazing at the TV, which chooses this precise moment to stop showing sports utility vehicle adverts and launch into a newscast featuring Himself. The hair rises on the back of my neck. It's the health problems afflicting Iraq's first family: first, it's Saddam's search for foreign proctologists with the competence to treat his prostate cancer. Next up, his son Uday's still not recovering properly from an attempted assassination, and is back in a wheelchair. Also, there's some material about a dissident faction within the ruling Baath Party apparatus who have their power base in Tikrit, which is also Saddam's home town.
-It was him wasn't it, Fugger says quietly.

Fugger says he's going back to the hotel. I understand how he feels. I look out into the street and watch him, evidently just as drunk as I am, weaving up the hill. Somebody mutes the volume on the TV and put on a drum 'n' bass CD from five years ago. Further down the street people are shouting. I hear glasses being smashed. On CNN Tarik Aziz mugs mutely to the bar. Then somebody switches CD's and in my drunkenness it looks to me very much as though Tarik Aziz is lip-syncing Lauryn Hill.

I leave the bar and walk down the street. I look in the window as I pass the AK47 Bar. The fresh air makes me feel sick. Saddam's still sitting at his table surrounded by his minders, the rest of the bar packed out with what now looks to my admittedly untutored eye like the spook scum of a dozen nations, but maybe I'm just being paranoid. Saddam's wearing a light blue linen Miami Vice kind of a jacket now over his grotesque Hawaiian shirt, and a cowboy hat that looks unnervingly convincing.

I ooze back up the eternal hill to my hotel and throw myself into bed. By bedside light I wade drunkenly through my Lonely Planet seeking out references to Yemurtalik, but there's nothing. I imagine Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler caught up haplessly in some vast conspiracy prescribing all mention of Turkey's industrial infrastructure. I briefly toil with my pageproofs, but the symbols, the "$’s and "’s and à's and p's and q's and semantic turnstiles and F's and y's swim before my eyes, so I heave to in readiness for a protracted bout of roomspin.

A late morning when I eventually arise. My sleep was plagued with weird and terrible traums of powertool torture and syntactic soundness and asphyxiation and scope distinctions. The surreal events of the previous evening merge with these latter presentiments, and my disturbed sleep lends that day a detached, dreamlike quality.

It is an overcast morning. White lies taut over the mountainside. The air is thick and stifling, the TV just inside the bar says it was raining in Istanbul earlier. It makes me think of home, big hard stair rods plashing down and turning Istanbul grimy and cold. Just like when it rains in London, and all those pasteurized American holidayheads come out and glow unnaturally in their orange and cherry seethru plastic macs.

Breakfast is quieter than usual. Perhaps it's the weather, or perhaps it's the middle-aged man with the moustache in the polo shirt and chinos sitting with a pair of human rottweilers at one of the tables up against the wall. I look away quickly. I find a table over by the bar. The crewcut kid from the Black Sea is leaning over the bar top. I go to get a light, and say as casually as is feasible in the circumstances:
-New guest here then.
-He is Araby man, from Genève.
-Holiday is it.
-His name Al Tikriti. Why you ask questions about him?

I ingest white bread with honey, and peaches and bananas and two Turkish coffees. From time to time I am hotly aware of being given an extended once over by the estimable Mr Al Tikriti of Geneva. At one point the crewcut barman glides across to his table on some pretext, and I see out of the corner of my eye some conversazione which, clearly and alarmingly, features myself. My inner wanker wants to march over and say wot you farkin' lookin' at, but wiser instincts prevail.

Sam and Zoe Weller've invited me on a shopping 'n' lager frenzy in Marmaris for the day, and despite having sworn off Marmaris for the duration I was tempted because, because the sun wasn't shining, but in the end I've decided to hang loose in Turunç. I've started to feel guilty about how little work's getting done on my book, and I'm thinking maybe if I stay in Turunç without going to the beach this might prompt me into the way of righteousness.

On my way to the internet cafe I find Fugger in the gelato bar glumly sipping an iced coffee.
-You know last night, he says as I slide into the chair across the table, last night that never happened because it never could happen, well it did fucking happen
-I know, I say, I went back after you gone and checked and it was definitely him.
-Well, says Fugger, I don't want to be around him.
-No no, I say, well, it's probably just some internationally renowned genito-urologist got a holiday home here or something. Having treatment for prostate cancer. On the news last night. You were there.
-Makes you think, agrees Fugger wanly, I mean imagine being a top urology cunt and having to stick your pinkie up Saddam's bumhole.
-Probly have you strangled once you'd effectuated a cure, I say, he wouldn't be able to live with the shame. Honour thing.

Fugger doesn't want to stay in Turunç Bay today. I don't blame him, I mean his reasoning is sound it has to be said. I leave Fugger at his table and wander down the street to the internet bar. I wonder why I don't just get out of Turunç for the day like Fugger. There're several emails from my Mum and my Dad and my girlfriend and my editor and my old doctoral supervisor. They're all asking me to do these different things. I get confused because of my hangover, and don't manage to answer any of them.

I'm too scared to stay long at the beach, I'm only there about twenty minutes. Right along its length, it's buzzing with bad vibes. It's less crowded than usual. Secret police in swimming trunks, and diplomatic minders, and assortments of steroid-enhanced Levantine and pan-Arabist beefcake manoeuvre across the strand in misconceived feint, tactical blunder and overelaborate triple hoax. Right in the middle of it all, Saddam, surrounded by a caucus of twitchy-looking minders, blithely vacations with his family and cowed retinue. There's two or three sullen-looking dragon ladies of surgically reduced vintage sitting on their sunloungers dressed to the nines in full Bond Street trash, some bored twenty year old supermodel-types in uncannily 70's retro St Tropez string bikinis. Some lonely fat kids, and moustachioed scared men of various ages. The patriarch has dispensed with his Hawaiian shirt and chinos of last night, and today disports himself in some repulsively skimpy speedos. Apart from that of the old brute himself, the only face I recognize is Uday's. Partly it's the closely cropped beard, mostly it's the wheelchair standing sentinel next to him where he lies in his joke hardporn bermudas.

What strikes me about Saddam's happy domestic scene is how each individual member has a look about them, even at that distance, of unutterable solitude. It's like they're all individually vacuum-packed. I think Uday's probably checking out the beach totty. I wonder whether he can still get it up. His old man's at it too, anyway, suggestively rubbing his balls now and then. Christ knows what's going through the minds of the female contingent, they're completely inscrutable.

It strikes me that if I pay too much heed to Saddam's littoral pastorale, then his minders may be minded to pay too much heed to me; so although the prospect of watching him being buried up to the neck in sand by one of the lonely fat boys is exceedingly enticing, I manage somehow to drag myself away.

A thoroughly unpleasant surprise awaits me on my return to the hotel later that afternoon. Opening the door to my apartment, I am greeted by a scene of desolation. My possessions are strewn all over the place. Wine bottles, crockery, Hawaiian shirts, upended furniture, ripped chinos, de-soled deck shoes, it's a veritable miasma. Fighting the growing and no doubt entirely rational impulse to order a taxi for the airport, I tiptoe through the carnage. Everything is so jumbled up that at first I can't tell whether they've taken anything. I keep finding pairs of my pants here and there, turned inside out and plumped up somehow, as though whatever sweaty secret policeman is responsible for this latest outrage has been obtaining cheap butch thrills at my expense. The discovery of my bed sheets crumpled on the table in the lounge disposes me to wonder whether my malefactors have been investigating my nocturnal propensities.

Quite suddenly my mouth goes dry and a pulse in my head starts thumping. It's as though I realize it physiologically before I process it intellectually: my page proofs are missing. I mean it wouldn't exactly be four years work down the drain, my editor and my doctoral supervisor both have earlier versions, but it would still be an organizational nightmare. I think about all those days and nights I spent sorting out the page references from hoary old back numbers of Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society and Philosophical Review and Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, and wonder how I could possibly have the stomach to go over it all again. Then it occurs to me to wonder what in the bejasus the world of shadows could possibly want with the rough copy of a desiccated little tome of modal logic. I mean I'm missing out on something? Like, what with nuclear non-proliferation treaties proliferating all over the place, the intelligence agencies of developing nations are now seeking to close the modal logic gap between themselves and the Anglo-Saxon intelligence community?

Then I'm at the hotel reception desk with absolutely no recollection of deciding either to go there or what I was going to do when I arrived. However, for a tourist to present himself at hotel reception after being burgled seems by current standards to be an action relatively proximate to the quotidian, so I go with the flow.

But instead of announcing the crime as expected, I find myself requesting my passport, credit cards and travellers cheques from the safe. The girl at the desk seems to stiffen. I ask if there's a problem.
-I don't think so, she says, can you tell me what you want again.
-Passport, I say, plastic, travellers cheques. Normal stuff. Usual.
-Moment, please. I ask.
-Ask who? I say hotly, surely it's all very simple.
-Moment please, she says retreating into the back office.
I hear hushed conversazione, then all goes quiet After a seeming eternity, it's not the girl who emerges but the crewcut barman.
-I can help you?
-Yeah I'd like all my stuff from the safe thanks.
-We cash traveller cheque here.
-Maybe I can get a better rate in town.
-That is not true, why you say that?
-Well I'd just like my stuff thanks.
-It's mine and I want it.
-Sorry, please you come back twenty moment.

As I stumble down the hill my heart is thumping so hard in the heat I think I'm going to faint. I realize that in all the excitement I've forgotten to have any lunch. There're coaches outside the other hotels. They're packed to the gunwhales with worried-looking tourists. I walk up to a group of drivers who're standing around smoking cigarettes, and ask one of them where everyone is going.
-Iropot. Flughafen.
-All of them? I come too?
He smiles.
-Das kann nichts sein. 'S tut mir leid.

The taxi stand next to the mosque is deserted. The old man in the office smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
-Iropot. Viele turist nach Bonn und Wien.

I grab a quick vanilla milkshake from the gelato bar and trudge back up the hill. My heart is still thumping away nineteen to the dozen. In my consternation I convince myself that I am in the throes of a myocardial infarction. By the time I regain the precincts of the hotel I am completely breathless.

There's noone at reception. I hear voices in the backroom, which stop abruptly when I ring the bell. The receptionist emerges, gingerly shutting the door behind her and smiling brightly at me.
-Hello yes?
-I was here before, I say.
-You wanted?
-Yes, I say, my passport and credit cards and travellers cheques. Right now, please.
-We cash travellers cheques here for you, she says, very chip.
-Ok, I reply, fine, whatever, I'll cash the lot, and I'd like my passport and my credit cards, er, because I might want to go to the shops in, in Marmaris.
-You go to Marmaris.
-Haven't decided.
-Moment, she says, disappearing into the backroom again.
-No, I say, feeling my voice rising, no moment, fuck is this.

I am walking down the road to the beach again. They gave me my passport and my travellers' cheques and my credit card. I didn't tell them about my room. Why tell them something they probably got first-hand knowledge of. My stomach is doing backflips. I am hot and then cold and then hot again. I realize that I need to throw up. I stop and bend at the waist, propping my hands on my knees like a Tyburn gibbet, and try to vomit into the storm gully running down the hill alongside the pavement. It is a scatological puke, coming out wondrously solid and tapered, like sausage meat being extruded from a mincer. I wonder why this has come up instead of a half-digested gelato. My mouth is full of it, I can't breathe, I have to shake my head from side to side to break the vomit off so that I can stand up again, and when I do so there is a microsecond's pause and then it thuds onto the concrete of the gully.

I feel very ill now, I need to sit down urgently. I bethink myself that I might visit the Garden Bar, I can relax there, I can think, I can gargle some beer, I can maybe wait until the first taxi returns from Dalaman airport. But instead I catch sight of Mr Al Tikriti of Geneva. He is sixty yards ahead of me, ambling down the hill in his kind of padded Swiss banker suit. I hate to think where he might be headed. At severe peril of toppling unconscious into the road, I pluck up my severely diminished resolve and follow him. It's probably suicide, I tell myself; on the other hand reality has to reintrude at some point, I consider myself a guest of the heroically secularist Turkish state, weird shit cannot be allowed to happen to me on Turkish soil. It's my holiday.

But weird shit has been delivered and is even now being dug into the loam. At a distance I follow Mr Al Tikriti down towards the beach. I am beginning to feel a little better now. Seeing Mr Al Tikriti discreetly duck into the one of the jewellers, I take the opportunity to stop at a shop and make hasty purchases of two bottles of Carling and one of Turkish Evian, and some delightfully unpleasant cigarettes. Emerging, I catch sight of Mr Al Tikriti scuttling down the alley between the mosque and the Kebabarama restaurant. He is still carrying his briefcase, still wearing his Swiss banker suit, why wouldn't he be, I saunter as casually as I can past the alley, I glance down the other end, but I can't see Mr Al Tikriti, only a narrow vista of blue sky and grey shale.

I daren't turn down the alley to the beach, I never won my Famous Fucking Five badge. I stumble down the street, past all the sunglasses racks and the tubs of souvenir fezzes, past the barbershops, past the AK47 Bar and the two poloshirt shops. The shopkeepers and bar owners are all standing out in the road in groups of three or four. They're worried, business is slack, most of the tourists have got away to Marmaris for the day, most of the remainder have cut their losses and run for the iropot. I understand this, right now I would like nothing better than to return home to my cold flat, to raining rip-off Britain, to my parents and my thinly intense blue-stocking girlfriend and my ill-paid postdoc.

I find myself turning left automatically towards the Turunç boat taxi coop, but there's no boats, the shrugging Turk in the ticket booth gives me to understand that German tourists have migrated to Marmaris en masse, and the boat owners have unserendipitously reminded themselves of a number of items of business liable to detain them there for several hours hereafter.

Hardly any tourists on the beach now. If anything, the interplay of competing security and intelligence services has scaled new heights or plumbed new depths of absurdity. From where I stand at the end of the strand, it has a crazy kind of beauty, it's smoke and mirrors and shadows, it's headache ballet, it's ritalin kabuki, it's noh, it's wayang kulit on acid.

This watching the spooks, it's making me light-headed, what I ought to do is I should go and lie doggo for a bit in some out of the way bar, until I can cab it out to the iropot. Instead I do a very stupid thing, because this is Turkey and here Saddam's writ runneth not, and I want my page proofs back. I strip off my shorts, I'm wearing my swimming trunks underneath. I leave my beer and water and cigarettes with my shorts on the beach, my passport and credit cards and cash and apartment key are all in the pockets, but it doesn't matter, crime is non-existent here, the locals are very honest.

I strike out through clear warm waters. There are no waves, the sea is totally becalmed today, I think there might be a storm later. I turn left about ten yards out, and breaststroke parallel to the shore. Somewhere deep inside me a little voice of reason cautions me that this is madness but I can't help myself. I am a fairly strong swimmer. I pull myself through the water. I become aware that further along the beach the phony cold war becomes even more intense. The mysterious Mr Al Tikriti is nowhere to be seen. However, it becomes rapidly apparent that I am being watched. As I churn through the limpid briny, heads swivel and dead eyes monitor my progress.

The Hussains are once more at the epicentre of the fuss. I assimilate the data in a series of surreptitious glances. The dragon ladies, the lonely fat boys, the retro supermodels and the moustachioed and frightened men are all there again. Perhaps odder is the deportment of Saddam and Uday Hussein. Next to his wheelchair Uday is sunbathing nude, shrivelled meat 'n' two veg cantilevered between etiolated, pock-marked thighs. He catches me looking inadvertently at his penis and glares at me truculently. The unbidden and in the context scandalous notion presents itself, fleetingly, before I can suppress it, that Uday may have been reading official Baathist disability empowerment leaflets. Of course this scares me witless. And then, horrifyingly, I realize that Saddam, who is lying on his front and has chosen to protect his modesty with the most microscopic of g-strings, is trying to read my page proofs. I am by now the sole object of attention of a significant number of no doubt highly disturbed and well-armed people.
-No papparazzi! shouts one of the moustachioed scared men reaching inside his shirt for the ill-concealed lump in his armpit.

I have, to put it mildly, a problem. If I am going to pass myself off as just another tourist inadvertently passing within the ambit of the Hussein family hols, then I have to act as though casually nonplussed by this display of coarseness and vulgarity, I must raise my eyebrows in a show of sleek well-heeled firstworld europuzzlement, but I can sustain this fragile fictive cultural iconography only insofar as my doing so does not provoke the Husseins into grosser infarctions of the moral code, especially ones involving me. To aboutface in the water and return whence I came will be no doubt to invite the notion that I swam out here expressly in order to have a good gander at Uday's dick. I don't want Saddam and Uday thinking that, I don't want them to think about me at all.

So what I do is I swim right past. I swim all the way to the other end of the beach. I get out behind some rocks, where I can rest unobserved by the licensed psychopaths of the Baathist apparatus. Just when I am about to congratulate myself on my successful evasion of the immediate peril, it occurs to me that in casting myself ashore on this rocky place I have left all my money, and everything that identifies me with civilization and its values, three hundred yards down the beach the wrong side of two of the epoch's most atavistic monsters.

The plan (plan? plan??), the plan is I retrieve my belongings from the other end of the beach, without running the gauntlet of the acid Baath party, by means of a nonchalant stroll down the main street behind the beach. In only swimming trunks I mount the steps cut into the rockface. The path leads up the side of a restaurant bar whose denizens openly gawk at my déshabille. Sharp shards of slate cut into my bare cheesers. There is some detached, analytical, superegotistical section of my cerebellum, some still small voice of irrational calm noting blithely that I have become an intriguing and perhaps unique nexus of pain, embarrassment and pure fear.

I am in the street. Occasionally in the street you may happen upon a bare-chested tourist, but it's a rarity, I mean Turkey has a secular constitution, all the same you don't want to offend local proprieties. Certainly you'll never encounter anyone wandering around barefoot, except me now. I stumble wincingly through knots of idly curious Turks. I feel achingly conspicuous. The little white terrier from the supermarket opposite the AK47 Bar trots up to me and tries to bite my ankles. I tell it to fuck off. I think about my Mum and Dad and my girlfriend. I'm almost in tears.

Just as I pass the mosque, what I fear most happens. Mr Al Tikriti looms smilingly out of the late afternoon shadows darkening the alley. I would imagine he was waiting for me, he sees that I've seen him. There's nowhere to run; there's no way to run, to run would be to contravene the rules of this game I find myself in, and which at some precognitive level I instinctively understand. Maybe Saddam and Uday can get away with it on the beach, but my street nudity is already against the spirit if not the unwritten letter of the game, which is all about polished surfaces, about masques of civitation figleafing the real nittygritty of screaming torture in soundproofed vaults.

Mr Al Tikriti approaches me directly, in person. As he opens his mouth to speak, a part of me, the absurd part of me which deals in propriety and etiquette, is indignant at his approach: it's not the done thing, it animadverts too closely to the physicality of axed limbs and hot irons up the arse, it's, it's wrong. Right now he should be making a show of tying a shoelace, or he could suddenly become lost in excessive contemplation of one of the chunky signet rings mounted in the display cabinet in the window of the jewellers.
-They tell me, he says in arrestingly well-modulated English, that one of the attributes of perfection is necessary existence.
I am flabbergasted. I am once again on the point of cardiac arrest.
-Necessary existence is an attribute of perfection, Mr Al Tikriti insists, so they tell me.
-...W, Why ask me? I manage to stammer.
-Because, says Mr Al Tikriti easily, you have the air of a truly reflective person caring little for conventional niceties. Like who it was who live in the bath...
For the briefest of instants I try to make sense of Mr Al Tikriti as referring to the Baath Party.
-I'm terribly sorry, I say at last, I misunderstood you for a moment, it was, it was Diogenes the Cynic.
Mr Al Tikriti smiles and cocks a manicured eyebrow.
-You see? You are a philosopher. I knew you were a man to interrogate. They tell me that this august individual was visit, in his Baath, by Alexander the Great who conquer the Iranis. So, do you say that perfection implies necessary existence?
Aware that I am beginning to hyperventilate, I am trying to breathe deeply.
-Ok, I gabble between suspirations, ok I get it, you're talking about St A...St Anselm, the, the his Ontological Proof.
Mr Al Tikriti smiles and takes me by the elbow and pulls me down the alley.
-There is somebody I would like you to meet.
-I don't want...
-He is another great man who conquer the Iranis.

Well look at you in your smart casuals, you're glossy and sleek and permatanned and fed from arse to tit on exactly predetermined hydrogenated mini-ag-approved sustenance modules. Who'd of thought that half a century ago Gramps was manning his ack-ack gun in Grimsby, before weaving home through the rubble to a tiffin of powdered egg and bromide? Who'd think of all those poor cunts dying on the merchant ships or the death railway? Looking at you now, somehow I don't see Aunt Jean and Uncle Lenny, stickthin, shagging for victory out back of the bomb factory in Isleworth. Or those poor Russian cunts dying in the slave labour camp on Alderney. We won the war ok, and maybe we lost the peace, but we grew very fucking fat on it, fat and smug and liberal democratic, and underneath it all fascinated by the protean savagery we left behind.

Out there in the old world, in the cradle of civilization, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, used to be places like Babylon and Persepolis and Ur, Kirk Douglas places. The rulers of these places, your Cyrus's and Nebuchadnezzars and Mithridates's: history's funny about them, with respect to them history performs value contortions, moral backflips. History sees something noble in the conquest of territory and population, but only when it concerns far off times and places. Up close and personal it's just ugly slaughter, it's hundreds of thousands of flesh and bone uncles and grandpas with quaint worsted sepia names fed through Douglas Haig's mincer, it's General Westmoreland getting caught with his pants round his ankles at Mai Lai, it's Ratko Mladic at Srebrenica, it's ogres like Pol Pot and Hitler, it's Saddam versus the mullahs reenacting the Somme along the Shatt-al-Arab.

I'm not going to tell you what he said to me, because I can't, I was bricking it, it went straight through me. Most of it was probably lost in translation, anyway, I had the distinct impression that Mr Al Tikriti as court eunuch was winnowing out some of his master's more transparent absurdities. All the time Uday looked at me and smiled his cripple smile. When his old man had spoken his fill I gabbled the first specious hippy nonsense that came into my head about shadows and light, and presently he stood up, and I can't remember whether he was tall or short but I can remember that he was still wearing his g-string and I was trying to ignore the stray pubes escaping from his pouch. He came right up to me, then, and I found myself wrapped in a nearly naked bearhug with the Butcher of Bagdad.

My clothes were where I'd left them on the beach. Somebody'd taken the alcohol and the horrible cigarettes. Standards were slipping. People had lost their sense of proportion. Since the vast majority of the tourists were either in Marmaris or winging it out from Dalaman, I was inclined to blame the secret police. At least they'd had the decency to leave me my cash and my plastic and my passport and all the other appurtenances of membership of a civil society. As I dressed myself I noticed a vessel docking at the boat taxi coop.

Surprizingly, I slept on the boat. In Marmaris, things were uncannily normal. I steadied my nerves with a couple of brandies in a couple of bars on the corniche, listened for a while to the vapid chatter extruded by Radio Stupid, found a taxi rank and cabbed it out to the iropot.

It feels like it's rained every single fucking day since I got back. I went to see my publishers the first chance I had. I told them I'd lost my page proofs in a fire in my hotel room. I didn't care when they didn't believe me. I've changed. I've made one or two decisions. My heart's no longer in it, but I'm going to make an honest stab at reconstructing my book, and then probably quit academia. My girlfriend has been strangely distant for several weeks now, I don't know whether she senses the waning of my ambition, or whether she has her eye on some other young Turk about Cambridge, but I suspect the latter. My Dad's been paroled now, and wants ideally to move back in with my Mum in Catford and go straight, but if things don't work out for us he says there's no reason why we shouldn't debase the coinage together.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Soft Cartel published my short story

My thanks to Soft Cartel, who have seen fit to publish my short story Contracts for the Design of Certain Vulgar Necessities . It's a ve...