All masked up, Liam and I jumped on the bus to Norwich to take a gander at In Memoriam by artist Luke Jerram, flapping about in Chapelfield Gardens. The installation premiered in Belgium and is now on tour across Europe. Made up of bed sheets arranged in the form of a red cross, In Memoriam is a tribute to all those health and care workers who risk their own lives caring for the sick during the COVID-19 pandemic. We meandered through the forest of sheets in grateful silence. Lest we forget.
We wear face masks when required – on public transport and elsewhere – not because we want to. No one wants to. We wear them because it helps protect us and those around us. That’s the socially responsible thing to do, the civilised thing to do. We don’t think wearing them is any more of an infringement of our civil liberties than, say, wearing a seat belt or stopping at a red light. So my message to those ignorant refuseniks who think they’re striking a blow for freedom, don’t be a twat, wear a bloody mask.
The tail end of August saw us in old London Town to commemorate what would have been the 59th birthday of an old friend who died unexpectedly in January this year. It was our first trip to the Smoke since lockdown and we were understandably anxious. It’s only about 100 miles from here to there but it might as well be another country.
The shiny new train wasn’t busy. We almost had the carriage to ourselves and most passengers complied with the ‘new normal’ – face mask-wise. Booking into a hotel for a couple of nights gave us the chance to test the waters. We rode the Tube and drank in familiar Soho haunts. It was fine.
The early August heatwave gave us hope that we might have a picnic in St James’s Park – a fun and fabulous tradition developed over many years – but, alas, the weather turned blustery so we made do with a restaurant as ‘Storm Clive’ passed overhead. We came together under the shadow of Eros on Piccadilly Circus – except of course, it’s actually a statue of Eros’ less well-known sibling, Anteros, but everyone calls it Eros anyway.
I can’t share any images of the actual birthday bash. Some of the assembled are social media shy and don’t want their images online. And who can blame them? Suffice it to say it was a joyous occasion – old friends talking old times through a jolly, drunken haze. And Clive was there in spirit.
I’m all for people stepping out of their cars and getting on their bikes. It’s good for the body, good for the soul and even better for the environment. And pedal-power has gone into overdrive since the pandemic. With quieter roads and cleaner air, people are turning and returning to cycling in their droves. New bike sales are up and old bikes are getting a makeover after years of rusting away at the back of a shed.
The flatlands of Norfolk provide an easy ride for cyclists and there are few better places to pedal push than the highways and byways hereabouts. On sunny days, it can be the Tour de Loddon along the high street with riders top to toe in fancy kit dismounting for coffee and cake. It ain’t always pretty. Okay, we can’t all look like six-times Olympic champion Chris Hoy with his thunder thighs and buns you could butter. But if all your spare tyres are wrapped round your waist, it’s best to go easy on the lycra. It’s enough to turn the milk in my flat white.
Having escaped the unwanted attention of the men in black, John and I found ourselves lost and hopeless by the side of a dusty lane. What happened next?
We trekked along the road for about fifteen minutes, not really knowing whether we were heading towards or away from home. By early afternoon, the heat was suffocating, relieved only by the dappled shade of an occasional pine tree. Our ankles throbbed – our fashionable flip-flops had long since lost their allure.
Suddenly, we heard rumble, rumble, crack, crack, vroom from behind us. A car was looming towards us at full speed, engine roaring, trailing a smoky flume. We screamed like girls and threw ourselves at the kerb, John stumbling into the baked-mud gutter and snapping the thong of his flip-flop.
I shouted across to John as the car sped past. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah yeah, I’m fine. Wish I could say the same for these crappy flip-flops.’ He slotted the thong back into its socket.
Meanwhile, the car skidded to an abrupt halt just ahead, cloaking it – and us – in a cloud of petrol-smelling dust. Out leapt a slightly-built, middle-aged man in baggy suit and cloth cap, an unlit cigarette drooping from his mouth.
‘That’s it,’ said John. ‘We’re done for now. We’ll be kidnapped and sold into white slavery.’
‘John,’ I said. ‘This isn’t the Barbary Coast.’
The driver beckoned us and we took a few steps forward. ‘Where you go?’ he said.
I hesitated. ‘Turkuaz Villas.’
‘Come! Come!’ he said, masterfully. ‘We go.’
‘See, John. Nothing to worry about. Your taxi awaits,’ I said, giving an exaggerated sweep of the hand as we approached the car. We peered into the muddied old Fiat. It was rammed with a multi-generational clan – grandma in the front, three kids and mum clutching an infant in the back – all staring back at the curious yabancılar.
‘We go where, exactly?’ said John. ‘The glove compartment?’
‘What glove compartment?’ I said, looking at the twisted wires dangling from beneath the dashboard.
And that’s when poor grandma, dressed in traditional weaves – floral headscarf, crocheted cardigan, clashing pantaloons and socked clogs – was bundled out of the car. No dignity was spared.
‘So where’s she going?’ said John. ‘The roof rack?’
Grandma just smiled and squeezed into the back, the driver shoving her in from behind. Grunts and giggles ensued as the occupants resettled like loose vegetables in a shopping bag.
‘Come! Come!’ the driver said again pointing at the front passenger seat. We obeyed. John climbed in first. I followed.
‘Watch that gear stick,’ I said to John. ‘Don’t want to lose your virtue, eh?’
Tightly wedged against the door, legs plaited with John’s, I fumbled behind for a seat belt. There wasn’t one. Our cabbie jumped in, lit his cigarette, pressed his nose up to the soil-streaked windscreen, started the car and sped off, heading God knows where.
John kept his eyes firmly shut as we tore along the pot-holed road, flying over bumps and speeding into hard bends. It was like a scene from Wacky Races as our crazy driver swerved round a leisurely tractor, waving at the toothless farmhand at the wheel and barely missing a startled goat, which darted into the scrub with a pissed-off bleat. It was at that point I decided to take off my glasses; at least then I wouldn’t see the Grim Reaper coming. Meanwhile, our fellow passengers partied in the back, talking across one another and sniggering – at our expense, I suspected – along the lines of these stupid Eeenglish. I could see the joke. They’d found us stranded in the middle of nowhere frying under the midday sun in fancy flip-flops – Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all that, as famously penned by that grand old queen Noël Coward. Yep, stupid English was about right. Our driver threw himself enthusiastically into the jolly banter, looking back so many times and for so long, I nearly found Jesus.
A few minutes later we were deposited at Turkuaz Villas and rolled out, shaken and stirred but otherwise undamaged. I pulled out a wad of cash from the side pocket of my cargo shorts and examined the zillions of lira, placing my thumb over the last three zeros to get a vague sense of its worth. I held out some notes to our hero as payment for saving us (from ourselves). He just shrugged and brushed his fare aside. Then, with a parting wave, he leapt back into the car and motored off into the distance with grandma and four little faces waving back at us through the rear window.
We should have been in Spain in June – visiting old friends in pretty Sitges and a few days in gorgeous Girona. The pandemic put paid to that, of course. And, since foreign travel is probably off the agenda this year, I thought I’d raid the archives to find something about a holiday many, many years ago in a land far, far away.
For John Garner (1967-2003)
I was a Turkey virgin. It was 1997, my first time. John and I had booked a holiday with an old mucker and his latest squeeze. We were thirty-something boys-about-town desperate for a little respite from fast living and the daily grind. The glossy brochure promised tranquil simplicity and that’s what we got. Our digs were a modest whitewashed villa nestled on a craggy headland on the north side of the Datça Peninsula. The lushness of our rural idyll was totally unexpected – so much richer than the dry bush of Andalucia and the Greek islands I’d been used to. And the silent sunsets were life-affirming – spiritual, almost.
We were a week in. The hairdryer heat of a blistering August had us limp and reclining. Lazy days were spent lounging round the trickling pool – G&T in one hand, chick-lit in the other, swallows ducking and diving overhead and the deafening chorus of randy cicadas. Sultry nights brought lively conversation to a score of Holst and Madonna, and tumblers of chilled plonk on the empty beach, counting shooting stars as the lights of Bodrum flickered on the horizon. It was sublime.
But John wanted more.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said, peering over the top of a Jackie Collins.
‘What?’ I said. ‘In this heat?’
‘You can’t lie on your back with your legs up all the time,’ he said. ‘Mehmet’s getting the wrong idea.’
Mehmet, resident bottle-washer and dogsbody – and a dead ringer for Danny Kaye – showed a persistent interest, clipping bushes around us and throwing that all-too-familiar knowing look as he lit the candles each time the power was cut – a regular event most evenings. The lightless nights switched on the stars.
‘I think Mehmet’s got our number, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Look, the boys need a little privacy, you know, to get better acquainted,’ said John. ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink.’
I laughed. ‘They don’t need any encouragement. They’ve been at it like rabbits since we landed.’ I nodded at the two of them canoodling like horny otters in the pool. ‘Thank God I packed the earplugs.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said John. ‘Let’s go explore.’
Leaving behind our holiday companions to their splashing foreplay, we strolled through the ramshackle hamlet of Taşbükü and down to the sand and shingle beach. I was moist. I lifted my tee-shirt to dab my forehead and dry my specs. In the distance I could see Cleopatra Island, a verdant rock in the Gulf of Gökova. It shimmered, mirage-like.
‘Did you know,’ I said, pointing over with my glasses, ‘legend has it that Cleo snogged Mark Antony on the beach of Cleopatra Island?’
‘Oh,’ said John. ‘How very Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Wonder where he put his helmet?’
‘Where we all do, I imagine. So, where are we going?’
‘Over there, let’s go over there.’ John gestured to a long line of buildings at the far end of the bay.
‘Why?’ I said, unimpressed.
‘Because it’s there, stupid.’
Like intrepid explorers of old, we set about our quest with vigour, flip-flops in hand, splashing through the wash, joking and laughing along the way. It took about an hour to reach our destination – an assortment of identikit cubes toppling down the hill to the beach. We climbed the crazy paving steps through a rusting iron gate.
‘Oh, it’s just another holiday resort,’ John said, all drop-lipped.
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a gander anyway. Could do with a drink. Spot of lunch, maybe?’
John agreed. ‘Yeah. A cheesy pide and a glass of Efes.’
We wandered along the winding leaf-littered paths, past locked-up houses with empty terraces dripping in twisted bougainvillea. It was desolate, all waterless pools and shuttered cafés.
‘Where is everybody?’ I said.
Where indeed. It was a ghost town – soul-less apart from a street dog nodding off in the shade and a few mangy cats bickering about the bins. There were no over-wrought toddlers splashing about, no tanked-up dads propping up the bar, no mums leathering-up under the sun, no courting couples getting hot under the collar in the sweltering heat. It was eerie and unsettling. Like walking through the abandoned set of Eldorado.
‘We’re being watched,’ John whispered.
‘What do you mean we’re being watched?’
‘Over there. There’s some bloke hiding behind that bush.’
I grinned. ‘Trust you to notice a man hanging round a bush.’ But John was right. A dusky face with a handlebar moustache was poking out between the branches of a pink oleander, mumbling into a walkie-talkie. We could just hear the screechy static.
‘Now what do we do?’ I said.
Our pace quickened. Moustache man didn’t follow.
But all of a sudden, a hook-nosed apparition in black appeared from the shadows – more screechy static.
‘Okay, that’s it,’ I said. ‘Best get out of here – sharpish. Let’s head back.’
‘We can’t go back,’ said John, starting to panic. ‘The black shirts are waiting for us.’
‘To do what, exactly?’ I said.
‘Haven’t you seen Midnight Express?’
‘Get a grip, John.’
We fast flop-stepped up the hill to the entrance of the development. Hook Nose stalked us all the way, keeping a wary distance. As we neared a boom gate at the top, a pretty boy with messy hair and a grin wider than his waist emerged from a sentry box and waved us through to the open road with his walkie-talkie.
Crisis over, we stood by the side of a dusty track gathering our thoughts.
‘Bloody hell,’ said John. ‘That was close. Thought we were gonna get strip-searched.’