Jack and Liam move to Bodrum
The sequel to ‘Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey’
First Published in Great Britain 2015 by Springtime Books
© Copyright Jack Scott
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
This book is based on actual events. To protect the privacy of the persons involved, and in the interest of narrative clarity, some names, characterisations, locations, conversations and timescales have been changed.
For Doreen and Agnes
And for Mark
On no account learn the language: the more English you sound, the more likely you are to be believed.’
Postcard from the Ege
In the autumn of 2009, Jack and Liam, a work-weary middle-aged gay couple, fled the Smoke and dropped into Bodrum to claim their place in the sun. Turkey had become a destination of choice for thousands of desperados leaving behind the daily grind or snapping up a cheap bolthole for the summer sabbatical. Like Jack and Liam, most clung to the narrow strip running along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, the part of Turkey best suited to Western sensibilities. The country’s burgeoning popularity had transformed large swathes of the chiselled coastline beyond recognition. Just as Spanish-style costas spread like a virus, conurbations of anonymous boxy resorts marched relentlessly up hill and down dale. The Land of the Sunrise gave up her Tiffany Blue waters and pine smothered mountains for the single-minded pursuit of jam today.
While Jack and Liam were pitching their tent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, was taking his seat at the G20 Summit of the World’s major economies in Pittsburgh. Erdoğan could be forgiven for looking a little smug. The great, the good and the baffled were scratching their heads trying to respond to the biggest financial crisis since the Great Crash of 1929. Yet Turkey was weathering the storm remarkably well and had just entered the top flight, the ultimate validation of Erdoğan’s stewardship of the Turkish economy. A few years earlier, it had been all so different. Following decades of endemic financial instability, chronic inflation, wild runs on the currency and international bailouts, the Turkish banking system had finally snapped, suffering its own meltdown long before the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States set off a train of events that brought global capitalism teetering over the edge. Turkey may have been NATO’s eastern anchor with its second largest army, but it was the IMF calling the shots. The Government of the day acted quickly and decisively, reforming the banking sector and restructuring public debt. Little good it did them. A few months on, Erdoğan’s AK Party swept to power on a high tide of expectation. The new Islamic-leaning Government jump-started the economy with tax reforms and a round of Thatcherite privatisations. In just seven years, Turkey recorded the kind of spectacular growth the West could only fantasise about. With a competitive, robust and well capitalised financial sector and money worth the paper it was printed on, Erdoğan could afford to cock a snook at the flatlining European Union and drag his feet on Turkey’s application to join the club. For the first time since the fall of the Ottomans, Turkey had a seat at the top table rather than standing at the end of it begging for a hand-out. Yes, Prime Minister Erdoğan had good reason to be smug.
He wasn’t the only one. More by luck than judgement, Jack and Liam had stumbled into Yalıkavak, a former sponge diving village neatly tucked away behind a mountain pass twenty kilometres from Bodrum. Quickly ensconced in an oversized villa, three loos for two, gin clear skies and a supercharged view of the Aegean, it was all a perfect antidote to the no-time-to-talk, coffee-on-the-go culture of metropolitan London. But within weeks, a glorious autumn of sunset cocktails and moonstruck nights was sullied by an expat rat pack and drenched by the wettest winter Asia Minor had seen since Noah. Winter thundered violently ashore – all crash, bang and wallop – and as brutal winds battered the dream, al fresco hedonism gave way to herringbone slippers and sheepskin muffs. Warmed by logs, layers and vats of local plonk, they sidestepped the living dead in Primark fleeces and battened down the hatches. When a perfidious landlord tried to sell their home from under them, Jack and Liam knew the game was up. They repacked their saddle bags, abandoned swivel-eyed suburbia and rode to Bodrum Town for Earthly Paradise Number Two.
Welcome to the sequel of Jack Scott’s award winning debut book, ‘Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey.’ Act Two brings their Anatolian affair, twisting and turning, to its surprising finale.
For non-British readers who may be stumped (itself a cricketing term) by some of Jack’s racy idioms and cultural references, you will find A Word or Two in British at the end of the book. Likewise, readers who are unfamiliar with the language of the sultans will find A Word or Two in Turkish bringing up the rear. Jack likes to be educational as well as decorative.
The Garden of Sin
A small stone house in the heart of Bodrum Town sat prettily in a secret garden littered with cracked antiquities and dominated by a double-trunked olive tree older than God. It was the original homestead of Turkish gentry, but when the family grew in wealth and status they moved to grander pastures, leaving the estate to fade into quaint dilapidation. As time rolled by, marauding grapevines sunk their tendrils into the mud-mortared walls and wild flowers blanketed the courtyard in a twist of camomile and hollyhocks. For years, the tumbledown house remained hidden behind its sturdy garden walls, until, that is, the elders spotted a business opportunity targeted at a mushrooming community of expats. Selling off the family silver was decidedly un-Turkish, but renting it out to the moneyed infidels was an altogether different proposition: some yabancılar were more than happy to pay top dollar for a generous slice of authenticity. After months of wrangles with town planners and a spot of palm greasing on the side, the clan renovated their ancestral seat and on the same plot, built a larger reproduction cottage in reclaimed stone where a derelict barn had once stood. The two toffee coloured houses stood out from the whitewashed norm, happy snapper delights peering over the garden wall at the hurly burly of a town on the march.
The varnish was barely dry when the spruced up manor attracted the attention of two evicted Brits looking for somewhere new to lay their hats.
‘This is it,’ I had said as we explored the renovated house. ‘The real deal.’
The original family home had an unconventional higgledy-piggledy open plan charm and came with working fireplaces and a converted basement once used to corral livestock, the kind of place you’d imagine the Madonna pitching up to on Christmas Eve, heavy with the Messiah and looking for a budget manger.
Liam wasn’t entirely convinced. ‘Do I look like an ass?’
We tried the house next door. The larger and perfectly formed replica had been constructed in traditional Aegean style – thick stone walls, flat roof and exposed wooden beams – and came with newfangled luxuries like rooms and doors.
‘Is special wood,’ said our potential landlady, pointing down at the oak floor as we toured the mezzanine bedroom. ‘From special forest.’
The special wood from the special forest came at a special price but as Bodrum had always provided refuge to the exiled and the unorthodox, we gambled on getting the going rate for ‘theatrical’ types. Supplemented by Liam’s feeble but endearing attempts at Turkish, the gamble paid off and Hanife the Magnificent, the undisputed matriarch of an old Bodrum family, accepted us and our pink pounds with open hands. We paid our rent and two weeks later, moved into Stone Cottage No. 2 on the corner of Sentry Lane and Turkey Street. And so it came to pass that by happy coincidence we found ourselves living on the same road as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
‘I think,’ Liam had said at the time, ‘you would call that a result.’
Our new landlady was a tiny but formidable ex-teacher, a gutsy pensioner with a shock of silver running through a neat black bob. Hanife lived with her doting husband in a three-storey townhouse on the opposite side of Turkey Street, a nondescript concrete block with a side yard of rapacious chickens. She may have been pleased with her colourful new tenants and happy to put up with their aberrant ways, but Hanife was fiercely proud of her heritage and took every opportunity to educate her stooges in the ways of Turkish sensibilities.
‘Londra?’ she had announced as we handed over an envelope stuffed with fifty lira notes. ‘Ha! You run like stupid rats in tunnels of metro. Is no life! In Turkey, we live!’
If Hanife appeared unruffled by our exotic union then she was equally nonplussed by the arrival, a few weeks later, of Beril and Vadim, a maverick and unwed Turkish couple who had escaped the conformity of Ankara to take possession of Stone House No. 1 and join us in the garden of sin. Vadim was a retired rock and roller, a portly, rosy-cheeked percussionist in his late fifties, obsessed with drums and wedded to his collection of Turkish darbukas.
‘What’s the big deal?’ said Liam after the first deafening assault on our eardrums. ‘They’re only bongos.’
Over time, we had both acquired a reverential respect for Vadim’s musical bent and would occasionally spy him and Beril through an open window reclining Ottoman style on carpet-covered floor cushions, calves entwined, staring at the low Biblical beams and marvelling at the intricacies of a Hendrix wah-wah. It was Woodstock all over again – all that was missing were the joss sticks, doped up beatniks and Joni Mitchell in a kaftan.
Beril was a good decade younger than her rhythm and blues man and bore more than a passing resemblance to Kate Bush in her Home Counties years. She tolerated Vadim’s banging with good grace but preferred the gloomy Gallic romanticism of Charles Aznavour to the guitar riffs of Eric Clapton. She also had a volcanic temper and a fuse the length of a Swan Vesta. Beril’s capricious tendencies resulted in regular breaches of the peace, her full throttle explosions always directed at Vadim and always without warning. She may have been small but Beril had the operatic lungs of a Wagnerian Brünnhilde and didn’t seem the least bit concerned that we could hear every high octave salvo. Vadim took his punishment like a man and rarely responded in kind. It was clear that he adored his little firecracker and when the rows spilled out into the courtyard, he would lean up against the old tree and simply say, ‘Evet, aşkım, yes, my love.’ When the volleys subsided, as they always did, he would smile and say sorry for something he hadn’t done, and that was that. We were yet to discover the source of Beril’s wrath. Our efforts to learn Turkish had just about reached the ‘mine’s a large one’ stage and their grasp of English was rudimentary at best. Besides, we were generally content not knowing what all the fuss was about. In many ways, our ignorance helped us cope with the intimacy of our cheek by jowl existence.
‘It could be worse,’ I had said when Beril and Vadim ran into the garden for the first time and hugged us like long-lost friends. ‘We could have been lumbered with a couple of old stick-in-the-muds rolling out the prayer mats. Those two are as damned as we are.’
Our first Bodrum summer passed in a hot flash. Days, weeks and months raced by as we set up home, lolled our way through the hairdryer heat, explored the narrow network of lanes branching out like veins from the harbour or caught the breeze on our large first floor balcony. Liam took every opportunity to improve his pidgin Turkish, pouncing on unsuspecting Bodrumites as they sipped their çay in the municipal tea house. It met with limited success. Nearly all of them wanted to practice their English, not listen to their mother tongue being savaged by a stuttering heretic.
Most evenings, Liam would fire up the lanterns swinging from the branches of the old olive tree, Vadim would crack open the rakı and the stage would be set for our regular Bacchanalia. We would dine to an eclectic soundtrack of Dylan, Santana and Sing it Again Rod courtesy of our newly acquired communards, sometimes sharing our al fresco tables, sometimes nesting on our side of the garden screened by a dusty clump of pink oleanders. Occasionally, Liam and his MP3 player would treat the neighbourhood to a sprinkling of Dusty, a medley from Glee or if they were really unlucky, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel warbling through Stranger in Paradise in crackled mono. We communicated with our new neighbours through a none too effective combination of grunts, mimes and dog-eared dictionaries or by taking advantage of one of the bilingual guests Beril and Vadim would occasionally invite along to the party.
Mini dishes of Turkish tasters flew out from Beril’s kitchen as she launched her mission to spice up our bland English palates, something she approached with the unrestrained fervour of a TV evangelist. Like her parents before her, Beril had never ventured into Europe beyond the city limits of old Istanbul but had heard terrible tales about British cuisine, a culinary travesty, all fish ‘n’ chips, pork scratchings, over-boiled carrots, scurvy and mad cow disease.
‘Eat!’ she would scream, sliding another exotic sample onto our table. ‘Is good. Eat!’
We would comply like scolded children, tucking into her braised artichoke hearts, garlic-roasted aubergines, sautéed spinach or white bean goo, salivating even before the first mouthful.
‘Süper!’ we would shout over to Beril as she puffed on a Black Russian Sobranie, looking on and waiting for every last scrap to be devoured. ‘Le-zz-et-li! De-li-cious!’
Now and then, our no-nonsense landlady would pop by with something to challenge the gag reflex – her speciality tripe soup, a lethal mixture of cow’s stomach and mutton cheeks served with a tongue-stripping spoonful of garlic and vinegar sauce. We later discovered that Hanife’s regular deliveries of işkembe çorbası said more about our drinking habits than her generosity. It was the local cure for hurricane hangovers.
‘You stupid Engleesh,’ she would bark at Liam when he clattered through the twisted gate of her urban farm to pay the rent. ‘Şarap, şarap! Is always wine! Drink our Turkish water!’
It was sage advice. Bodrum’s south facing aspect and natural amphitheatre of low hills pushed summer temperatures up to the mid-forties and when the onslaught continued, we wilted like parched pansies.
Autumn came as a merciful relief. Nights cooled, fans were packed away and we reacquainted ourselves with the inside of the house, lounging on the sofa, ploughing through our secret stash of chick lit or screaming at Liam’s Turkish for Idiots CD as it confirmed and reconfirmed that our foreign language skills were close to tragic. Liam’s assertion that Turkish was phonetic and mostly regular fell on deaf ears; my love affair with the language of the sultans was cooling as quickly as the weather. For his irritating party trick, Liam would belt out an absurd example of Turkish agglutination, revelling in its complexity as if he had suddenly discovered the secret to eternal youth.
‘Avustralyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınızcasına!’ he would bellow, pausing only to gauge my reaction before continuing with his equally irritating translation.
‘As if you were one of those whom we could not make resemble the Australian people!’ he would say, all wide-eyed and gushy. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’
‘Yeah, amazing,’ I would reply. ‘So what’s Turkish for As if you were one of those whom we could not stop annoying the fuck out of your long suffering husband? Give it rest, Liam, and pass the şarap.’
From time to time we would venture out from the comfort of our Sentry Lane haven and meander into town for an autumn mingle. As luck would have it, we accidently gate-crashed the infamous Ladies Lunch at the Marina, an annual handbag and shoes fest, top billing on the emigrey social almanac. Everyone who was anyone was there with their tits and teeth out on display. It was at the Ladies Lunch that we encountered a select group of Bodrum vetpats, a trio of irresistible women with irrepressible courage under fire. Through a drunken haze of vodka and pomegranate schnapps, they force-fed us chocolate torte and extracted our story. Tiffin and tittle-tattle with the three Bodrum Belles would become a regular feature of our Turkish days. When we weren’t gossiping with the Belles, we would ride out to the Peninsula, lunching by the water’s edge or taking front row seats for the bittersweet Charlotte and Alan show as the turbulence of an adoption gone wrong swirled around them.
When the dial of the garden thermometer started its inevitable dip towards the low teens, Beril and Vadim gradually disappeared from view, abandoning outdoor life for the cosiness of their old stone house. Like all our neighbours, they were preparing for the big change, knowing all too well that autumn was on the wane. But nothing, not even the threat of Wuthering Lows blowing down from the Russian Steppes could upset the equilibrium of Jack Scott and Liam Brennan.
It was still dark when Liam boarded the early morning bus to Bodrum Airport. Barely awake, he slumped into a window seat and adjusted his eyes to the cold light of the Havaş coach. A restless night of thunder and hard rain had left him dull-minded and he struggled to focus through the misted window. Outside, the storm had calmed to a penetrating drizzle as the wind squeezed the last drops of water from the clouds. Shopkeepers and bus drivers huddled together under the bulging awning of a small kafe, sipping steaming tea and swapping hearsay before another day of hard bargaining and short hops.
Liam spotted me in the small crowd of well-wishers and launched into a passable Mary Pickford, sobbing melodramatically and pressing his lips to the coach window.
You’re an idiot, I mouthed. A complete idiot.
The driver turned the ignition and slowly reversed the bus from the bay, swinging round towards the otogar exit. Liam dashed to the opposite window and traced a sad face in the condensation. For the second time in a month, he was jetting off to deal with a family crisis and I waved goodbye as the airport express disappeared into the narrow streets of Bodrum. He may have been an idiot, but Liam was my idiot and I hated to see him go.
Tired and dripping, I waded past rows of sleeping dolmuş minibuses – ‘dollies,’ as Liam called them – and splashed home along Turkey Street. Twenty-three centuries earlier, Alexander the Great had marched along the very same road to wrest old Halicarnassus from the doughty Persians, just before he went on to conquer half the known world. My ambitions were rather more modest: to survive the short stroll in one piece and jump back under the duck down duvet. Like many old Anatolian thoroughfares, Turkey Street was just wide enough for two emaciated camels to pass each other unhindered. This constraint never seemed to trouble the locals but for us, motorcades of Nissan tanks flanked by Vespas on amphetamines made for a testing pedestrian experience. Aided by the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t pavements, death or permanent disability lurked at every twist and turn of the perilous road.
At the first blind bend I was greeted by our neighbourhood berber, a man who crimped for a pittance six days a week and seemed as happy as a ringtone doing precisely that. In fact, we had never seen Ali without his unnerving perma-grin.
‘Maybe he’s just happy,’ I had said to Liam.
‘All of the time? And what’s with the Ali Berber thing? Honestly…’
Despite the frozen smile, or maybe because of it, we became regulars at Ali’s shabby but squeaky-clean barber shop, paying over the odds for our two minute crops. Through a mixture of Turklish and creative hand signalling, we would chat about the rising price of meat, the cycle of the seasons or the latest Government diktat.
Ali was sweeping out a paddling pool from the front of his shop. An obligatory picture of Atatürk was nailed above a cracked sink and the morning news blared from an old TV set hanging off the wall. I waved.
‘Yağmur… rain!’ he announced as I passed, his eyes raised to the heavens. ‘Allah Allah!’
I stumbled on a pothole outside the artists’ café and cursed. The place was boarded up for winter and judging by the bowed and broken terracotta roof, the esoteric canvases hanging inside were unlikely to survive the monsoon unscathed. The tiny shoe shop opposite was never open at any time of year. A permanent display of shoe boxes was stacked high against one side of the plate glass window and a solitary pair of red Mary Janes sat gathering dust on the other.
A sharp shower quickened my pace and powered me past Spring Lane and on to Halfway Square, a low-rise quadrangle with a rundown children’s playground at its centre. On the corner, a miniature mosque was part buried in tarmac. Turkey Street had built up around it, year on year, layer by layer. Its single mini minaret scored the rolling blanket of low cloud.
I checked my phone.
‘Jack, there’s a man on the coach with come to bed eyes and a one way ticket to Kurdistan. I’ve decided to follow him and breed goats on the Iraqi border. See Ya. Liam.’
I hurried across the street to a small cluster of shops – a ladies kuaför with a trio of bonnet-hood hair dryers, a tatty laundrette with plastic chairs, a small market shop and the Stone Oven bakery – and sheltered under a wooden canopy. My stumpy thumbs struggled to reply to Liam’s text. A young bread maker in a nylon hairnet, checked trousers and blue latex gloves took a break from his kneading, retrieved a cigarette from the flap of his flour-dusted apron and lit up next to me. He was soon joined by the owner of the market, a balding hippy, his side strands pulled back and fashioned into a pony tail. Marketman accepted a light from Breadmaker and they both nodded in my direction. We huddled in silent communion, together but quite separate.
‘You’d look like an old drag queen mucking out goats as wife no. 3. Besides, your arse is way too skinny for saggy pantaloons. Back to Plan A.’ Send.
Our attention was diverted by the rattling of a wooden cart steered by a humpbacked rag and bone man, his dusty brown suit two-toned by the rain. A frayed collar poked out of a patchwork cardigan, and an embroidered pillbox hat was balanced precariously on the side of his head. The old man stopped at a row of overflowing communal bins and saw off a cluster of alley cats with a brusque side swipe.
A quick filter through the castoffs produced a battered coffee maker and he examined it forensically, rubbing it clean with the cuff of his jacket. He placed the swag into his cart and shuffled off to his next scavenge, whistling as he went.
Just get on with it, Jack. It could be worse. You could be working for a living.
By the time I had opened our wood panelled gate at Sentry Lane, the rain had petered out and a reticent sun was peeking through a small crack in the clouds. I pulled up the sodden bath towel draped across the bottom of the front door and wrung it out into a flower bed. Bitter experience and floating rugs had taught us that Mad Mother Nature, or at least Turkey’s madder twin sister, could douse the house like a crazy car wash, pumping water under every sill and transforming Turkey Street into a raging torrent. Sometimes, without hint or warning, blue sky dreams turned to black, and sometimes Liam would leave me to stoke the embers and wring out the sodding sodden towels.
Liam called in the small hours.
‘Who else would it be? What’s up?’
‘Are you crying, Liam?’
‘Where are you?’
‘On the Iraqi border?’
‘North Finchley. I might be longer than I thought.’
‘Is that a good Oh or a bad Oh?’
‘Take as long as you like, Liam.’
‘I miss you.’
‘It’s only been a few hours.’
‘I guess that means something, Jack.’
‘You married me, didn’t you?’
‘I was drunk.’
I turned on the bedside lamp and sat up in bed.
‘Call every day or I’ll take up with Ali Berber.’
‘The wife may have something to say about that.’
‘As long as she gets the housekeeping, she won’t care. Get some sleep, Liam.’
‘I just wanted to say goodnight, that’s all.’
‘Who’s stopping you?’
‘You say it first.’
‘Liam, just put the bloody phone down.’
‘Eat, eat!’ insisted Beril, pointing at a dish of spinach and eggs. ‘Eat!’
My fiery courtyard companion was determined to keep my pecker up. With Liam a continent away and Vadim buying more bongos in Ankara, she doubled my rations. The offerings were left on our patio table, freshly cooked, spooned into earthenware bowls and artfully decorated with dill, parsley or chives. It was like meals on wheels for the lost and lonely and it became a daily donation. As promised, Liam called every day, assuring me that all would be well even though neither of us thought it would be. He nagged me to steer clear of Marketman’s corked wine (‘It’ll give you gut rot’), take regular walks by the Aegean (‘Sea air wards off dementia, I read it in Marie Claire’), and keep away from the boys at the pazar (‘You’ll only pick up a nasty discharge’). He also reminded me to switch the hot water supply. With winter lurking on the horizon and the first fat rains already upon us, it was time to shut off the solar panels and fire up the winter boiler.
When it came to the biannual flat roof shuffle, Liam had unilaterally decided that my nimble limbs were better suited for buildering up the side of the house without the aid of a safety rope.
‘Look, Jack,’ he had said, ‘just climb onto the kitchen roof, shimmy under the canopy of the olive tree, leap across to Beril and Vadim’s house and the stopcock’s right there under your nose. It’s not difficult. You know how to shimmy, don’t you?’
When I asked Hanife about the hot water arrangement, she shrugged her shoulders and presented me with a crock of her tripe soup by way of compensation. Somehow, it didn’t feel like a fair exchange for risking a broken neck. The unconventional set-up was one of life’s great mysteries, like trigonometry, the Immaculate Conception and Donald Trump’s comb over.
I retrieved the rotting ladder from the corner of the garden – a death trap held together by rusting nails – and dragged it across to the house. Beril dashed out to help with the climb, her screeches of encouragement only serving to scare off Bianca, her demented kitten, a ball of white fur riddled with neuroses and imaginary fleas. As my backside edged over the parapet, an olive branch snagged the waistband of my sweatpants and tugged them down to reveal the velvety cleavage of my milky white buttocks. I rolled my eyes, instantly regretting my decision to go commando. Beril gasped and shielded her eyes as I moondanced free from the offending branch. Eventually, it lashed back, horsewhipping my behind and cluster-bombing adolescent olives over me, the roof and the entire courtyard. Beril regained her composure with alarming speed, gathering up handfuls of olives and cackling wildly as she hurled them back at me.
‘Yes, Beril,’ I yelled down. ‘Funny. Very funny.’
By the time I was back on terra firma and struggling to recover what was left of my dignity, Beril had prepared my reward: boiling hot şekerli kahve and a side order of mini Turkish delights. I had never quite developed a taste for sweet and gritty Turkish coffee, but it would have been churlish to refuse and besides, Beril was sitting opposite watching every teeth-rotting sip.
‘So?’ I said. ‘What’s with the look?’
‘So?’ she replied, mimicking me but doing her best not to smirk. ‘Is good?’
I popped a Turkish delight in my mouth. ‘Yes. Is very good. Thank you, Beril.’
‘No problem. Ark-a-daş-lar,’ she said slowly, offering her hand across the table. ‘Friends. Yes?’
‘Yes,’ I answered, cupping her hand, suddenly touched by her warmth, not to mention her improving English. ‘Friends. Has a nice ring to it.’
She took out a small package wrapped in an old cover of Turkish Hello from a bag by her side.
‘And now… gift,’ she said quietly. ‘For you.’
‘Why thank you, Beril. That’s very kind.’
‘And for Liam.’
‘He’s back tonight, Liam.’
‘Oh yes, Beril, is very good.’
Beril beamed and with job done leapt up from the table to gather up the empties.
‘So,’ she announced, ‘I telefon Vadim. Ankara. Okay?’
‘Of course’ I said. ‘Say hello.’
‘Tamam. Say hello. Okay.’
Within minutes, the sound of shrieking slammed through Beril’s open door. Arsegate was out.
Liam arrived home just as the sun was setting. The dining table was dressed to perfection for his return. Long-stemmed candles cast shadows on the desert-coloured walls and an open bottle of red sat begging to be drunk.
‘So?’ I asked. ‘How was it?’
‘Oh, you know.’
Liam gazed over at the dining table.
‘Quite a spread. Expecting royalty?’
‘Just some sad old queen I know.’
A spicy aroma seeped from the kitchen.
‘And you’ve cooked?’
‘Not unless you call throwing a few chicken thighs into the oven “cooking,” no.’
My culinary skills left a great deal to be desired, but even this ham-fisted line cook could rustle up a one pot wonder without sparking an international incident. My signature dish was a random medley of vegetables, spices and wine, flung into a Pyrex dish.
‘And the excitement doesn’t end there,’ I said as we took our seats at the table.
I pointed to a dish of oily green gloop glistening in the candlelight.
‘What is it?’ asked Liam.
‘Hanife made it.’
‘That was nice of her. Is it edible?’
‘Why don’t you try?’
‘So, has Jack been a good boy while Daddy’s been away?’
‘Actually, Jack’s started a blog.’
Liam looked up from his supper.
‘Yes, Liam. A blog… about us.’
‘Who the hell would want to read a blog about us?’
‘No one apparently. Not yet anyway.’
Liam dipped a teaspoon into Hanife’s goo and yawned.
‘Long week, Jack.’
‘So? How was it? You’ve hardly said a word.’
‘It all went according to plan,’ said Liam, screwing up his face as a layer of green gunk stuck to the roof of his mouth. ‘Dad went in for his knee op and I stepped into the breach.’
‘You know you can fly home whenever you need to.’
‘Sure. At a cost.’
‘Look, Liam. Some things are more important than money.’
Liam gave up on Hanife’s gruel and heaped a pile of rice onto his plate.
‘I do love you, Jack.’
‘That, my husband, is the right answer.’
After dinner, we plumped up the scatter cushions and curled up on the sofa for a night at the movies, courtesy of Beril and her mystery package, an American import DVD. Under the Tuscan Sun was a touching tale of a Yankee lass whose marriage collapsed around her when she wasn’t paying attention. She emerged from the wreckage to carve out a new life in Tuscany, all quite by chance. It was a ridiculous, sentimental, sugar-coated yarn about life regained in Expatland. We devoured it and cried like babies. It was ‘boo’ to the bastard who dumped her and ‘hoorah’ for the cast of colourful characters who picked her up, dusted her down and helped her start all over again. In real life, of course, not everyone was quite so nice. In our experience, the overeager Shirley Valentines, who washed up like driftwood on Turkey’s shores, were often on a hiding to nothing. Plucked, banged then blown out when the cash dried up, the orchestra of ladies kept on coming anyway, scouting Turkey’s resorts for love and orgasms. Hope over experience usually prevailed. But Beril’s gift contained an altogether different kind of message. When the saccharin heroine first arrived in Italy, she found herself swept up in the middle of a gay coach tour, surrounded by a botoxed crew of clichéd clones with shiny veneers and Touche Éclat’d cheeks. Beril had picked up the subplot and was telling us something she had found difficult to say directly. I know about you two. And it’s cool.
Liam retired as soon as the closing credits started to roll, flopping into bed and leaving a familiar stack of clothes piled on the floor, rising up like a Cappadocian cave house. At best, Liam’s approach to domestic order had always been laissez-faire. During our salad days, I would return from work to find a shoe on the mantelpiece or a freshly laundered jock strap in the fridge next to the crème fraîche. It was his way of telling me to lighten up. Eventually, I took the hint and as the years passed, Liam raised his game and I lowered mine. Now, when he cooked, it no longer resembled Sarajevo during the Balkan conflict and with my OCD seriously reined in, we had arrived at a contented compromise. Apart from one small thing. When Liam retired for the night, he would slip out of his clothes and leave them in a concertinaed heap. Shoes poked out from under crumpled jeans that sat untidily beneath a half unbuttoned shirt. It was as if he had disappeared through a trap door with David Blaine and a puff of white smoke.
I crept upstairs, stepped around the floordrobe, folded my clothes on the tub chair and slipped under the matrimonial covers. For a moment, Liam gripped me like a vice then turned over and dropped into a deep sleep. I stayed awake, staring at his shrouded outline and listening to the dull hum of Turkey Street.
In the Bleak Midwinter
As Christmas approached, night time temperatures plummeted to zero and we exiled ourselves to a corner of the sofa in front of an infrared heater. Our faces tanned while our backsides froze. Liam extracted his Dennis the Menace jimjams from the bottom of the wardrobe, unrolled the woolly socks, recommissioned the hot water bottle and upped the tog on the duvet. In bed, we weaved together, drawn to each other’s body heat, our limbs knotted like a plaited loaf at the bottom of a tepid oven. Daytime activities were stretched to fill the time and chilly evenings kept us under wraps as we exhausted our extensive DVD library with regular showings of classics from good times past: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Beautiful Thing, Love Actually, The Holiday, Calendar Girls, Postcards from the Edge, Golden Girls (Series 1-4), Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (Series 1-3) and a host of other manly favourites.
The Siberian cold front continued unabated and a viral dark fungus spread faster than the Black Death in the dank corners of our stone house. Cutting edge building technology – air bricks and cavity walls – had yet to catch on in Turkey, and Liam advised me to stop breathing and so prevent the evil spores from damaging my ageing lungs. His attempts at hitting back with a Domestos-filled water cannon met with limited success, and in the end we adopted the Turkish approach: utter resignation. We would let the place rot over winter and make good when we eventually came out of mothballs. Turkey being Turkey, sun and storms played good cop, bad cop and as the meteorological drama continued, it wreaked havoc on our power supply. Liam suspected water damage and when he threw open the door of the fuse box, a flimsy container inexplicably set into an outside wall, his worst fears were realised: lines of rainwater were dribbling down the live wires. Vadim rode to the rescue and attached Beril’s Babyliss to an extension lead but after an hour blowing hot air at the saturated wires, he retreated to his bongos a defeated man.
We summoned the Royal Marines in the form of our indomitable landlady. Hanife the Resourceful swung into action and dispatched her half pint distant cousin, the youngest and tiniest electrician that side of the Aegean. No more than four and a half feet in his socks and with the hands of a foundling, the acne-faced sparky could only reach the fuse box by standing on a folding garden chair. We watched from the wings as he tiptoed precariously on the edge. Liam checked our liability insurance and I went for a lie down in a darkened room. Progress was slow but studious. Acneface fiddled with the fuses for hours, oozing confidence and reknitting the mass of wires like a seasoned village weaver. At last, his work was done and when he flicked on the kitchen light and the infrared heater fired up, young Faraday smiled a satisfied smile. His excitement reached disco pitch when the air-conditioning unit powered up as Liam switched on the kettle. Finally, through a tortuous process of trial and error, he concluded that the root of the problem was an unexplained surge in one of the ring circuits. To test his theory, he plugged in the Wi-Fi modem. Bang went the modem. He plugged in the TV. Bang went the surge protector. He plugged in the water heater. Bang went the circuit board. As a flume of smoke filled the house, bang went our tempers and we threw Acneface out onto the street.
Hanife and her charge returned early the next morning.
‘He is cousin,’ she said. ‘But he is fool. I have extracted confession.’
‘Extracted?’ asked Liam.
‘Yes. He will pay.’
‘Thank you, but there was no need to waterboard the poor boy on our account.’
Hanife handed Liam a small dish containing an oblong of milky chicken jelly.
‘Is gift. I make.’
‘I’m sure Jack will love it.’
‘So,’ said Hanife. ‘My cousin, not electrician.’
‘Yok. No. Is water technician.’
‘You mean he’s a plumber?’
‘Yes, plumber. He make electrics when we make house.’
‘But he’s a just boy.’
‘Fifteen now, a man.’ Hanife reconsidered her answer. ‘Then, fourteen.’
Liam placed the pungent jelly onto the patio table and looked over at the boy.
‘A fourteen year old plumber installed the electrics in this house? The house we’re living in?’
‘Evet. Yes. Is very dangerous. You must be careful when choosing house. Is not England.’
I stepped through the French doors to see what all the fuss was about.
‘Ah, Jack. Look what Hanife’s brought you.’
‘Is it for the cat?’
‘Just look pleased and thank the nice old lady. And, Jack…’
‘This house is a death trap and I hold you entirely responsible. Just so we’re clear.’
As it turned out, temperamental electrics were the least of our worries. The following morning, Liam tuned the radio to TRT Türkü, cracked some eggs into a pan and it came to him, just in the nick of time. We had forgotten to renew our residence permits.
‘Before we know it, we’ll be clapped in irons and carted off in the back of a paddy wagon,’ he said, plonking a flaccid omelette in front of me. ‘Imagine that. We’ve got a fortnight and then… it’s curtains.’
From the previous year’s merry-go-round, we knew that obtaining the elusive blue book would be a bureaucratic whirl. Still, as it was impossible for most Turks to enter Britain at all, even for a holiday, the powers that be were quite forgiving, considering. That year, the bean counters in Ankara had upped the ante. As well as doubling the fee, presumably to raise a few extra bob for the national debt, they now required applicants to prove they were fit and proper persons who wouldn’t offend the morals of the nation. We would have to make ourselves known to our local Muhtar and be subject to a cross-examination by an officer of the constabulary. Given our growing infamy, we thought the morality test might be a bit of a stretch.
‘Let’s face it,’ I said as we sat at the dining table to fill out the applications, ‘the game’s up. They’ll take one look at you and we’ll be shoved on the first plane back to Sodom.’
‘Have faith, my little pervert. This is Bodrum. It’s got form. We just need to woo the local bigwig.’
‘Ah, maybe not us,’ said Liam, grabbing his house keys and flouncing off into the garden. ‘Wait here. I’ve got an idea.’
A woman on a mission led us in single file along the edge of Turkey Street.
‘Come!’ Hanife commanded. ‘Come!’
Passers-by waved to our redoubtable landlady as she weaved us through the stop-start traffic, and washer women hollered merhaba as they hung out their laundry in the winter sunshine. No knickers, of course. That would have offended the morals of the nation, even in Bodrum. When we reached Halfway Square, Hanife took a moment to pass the time of day with Marketman, thanked him for an impromptu gift of dried carob pods and nattered with Ali Berber when he emerged from the Stone Oven bakery clasping his sticky lunch. More locals emerged from the backstreets and mobbed our stately patron. It was like escorting the Queen on a walkabout and we kicked our heels until Her Maj was ready for the off.
When she was done, Hanife took a sharp right and frogmarched us along Spring Lane, stopping at a narrow shop unit set back from the street.
‘In, in!’ she barked, bundling us through the paint-chipped doorway. ‘Muhtar! Is Muhtar!’
The small den reeked of testosterone, sweat and ashtrays, and a thick fog of cigarette smoke hung in the air. The shabby rectangular room was dominated by a large desk and behind it sat the head man. He was no oil painting. Drooping cauliflower ears were stuck awkwardly to the side of his head and a bulbous nose was underlined by a Stalinesque moustache. The Muhtar was surrounded by courtiers lining the walls like a Papal conclave, each one a facsimile of their illustrious leader. Hanife cut through the smoke and the Muhtar jumped to his feet. When he flustered, fawned and flattered, we knew we were standing in the shadow of Bodrum royalty and looked on admiringly as Hanife pointed back at her new tenants and handed over our forms. With barely a cursory glance, our paperwork was officially stamped with the official stamp of the official stamper and our sponsor shooed us back out into the street. It was all done in an instant and, mission accomplished, Hanife trooped us back home and deposited us at the junction of Sentry Lane.
‘Is done,’ she said. ‘Now Bodrum is home. Go!’
We filed into our courtyard. Voices murmured from the garden as we closed the gate behind us. Vadim was seated at our patio table, deep in conversation with a policeman and Beril was buzzing round them, uncharacteristically compliant, smiling sweetly and serving tea like the good housewife she wasn’t. The copper, a strapping lad with deadly good looks and a deadly weapon stuffed into his holster, stood up and offered us his hand. Vadim beckoned us to join the table and Beril served more tea before retreating to her kitchen.
A protracted Turkish conversation ensued, obviously about us but not actually including us. We sat back, wrists rigid, feigning comprehension and nodding manly nods when it seemed appropriate to do so. We caught the odd word – kardeşler, para, iyi, İngilizce for brothers, money, good and English – but as the two men rabbited on at breakneck speed, there was little more we could do other than keep up our macho disguise. Our inquisitor appeared inquisitive rather than inquisitorial, curious rather than officious, occasionally glancing at the unlikely ‘brothers’ in amusement. At the end of the interrogation, he rose from his seat, shook us by the hand and swaggered off into Turkey Street. Somehow or other, Vadim had thrown the dashing bloodhound off the scent, presumably by passing us off as harmless lovey types with a few quid in the bank. Two weeks later, we laid our offending gay hands on our little blue residence permits, thin and flimsy things that looked like they had been run off on a Hewlett Packard and bound together with Pritt Stick. Just in time for Christmas. Glory be to God. Amen.
A Christmas Carol
We breezed past the hoi polloi like minor celebs and fast-tracked into the business class lounge of Bodrum Airport. Liam was less than impressed. It was the last few days of Advent and he was longing for Hark the Herald and a dressed Norwegian spruce straddled by a startled fairy. Our upgrade had come courtesy of Air Miles and our elevation to posh had raised Liam’s expectations beyond all reason. The place looked like it had been styled by World of Leather and the much anticipated complimentary fodder turned out to be a narrow selection of local spirits and a bucket of dry croissants. We opted instead for coffee on tap and a two-man white leather pouffe. Liam looked around for a dollop of celebrity. Clare Balding would have done. The funny looking one from Little Mix, even. He took a sip from a chipped porcelain cup and spat it out.
‘So this is it. Luxury. Vile coffee and nobody famous. Things can only get better.’
Things got marginally worse on the short hop to Istanbul, a frenetic hour that passed in a flash with a rushed slurp of flat bubbly, microwaved snacks and an assortment of fixed grin waitresses. Still, the brief stopover at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport offered a visual feast of pick ‘n’ mix travellers, a heady blend of shiny business suits and ethno-religious finery.
Liam fixed his gaze on a troupe of silver-bearded oddballs wrapped in glo-white togas, milling around like extras from The Ten Commandments.
‘Oh, Moses, Moses! Why of all men did I fall in love with the prince of fools?’
‘That’s a question I ask myself every single day of my life, Liam. Cut the biblical shit, you’re no Nefrertiri.’
‘And you’re no Charlton Heston, more’s the pity.’
‘They’re not even Jewish.’
‘Look at the beards, look at the sandals. Think plagues of Egypt, think murderous asps.’
‘The asp was Cleopatra, Liam.’
‘But I am the Pharaoh’s daughter and this is my son!’
‘Just to be clear, Liam, when we get Christmas out of the way, you’re dumped.’
Istanbul’s faux Ottoman business lounge was up a notch or two from Bodrum but the leather luxury was more Las Vegas than Topkapı Palace. Disappointingly, the coffee was still vile and the limitless booze still limited. Liam passed the time by constructing a baby Jesus from pieces of cinnamon swirls while I dipped into a selection of international newspapers. The British choice was confined to The Times and the Daily Mail. Clearly, only Middle England travelled Club Class. Once on board, Turkish Airlines pulled out all the stops, delivering us to cattle class seats and disguising the gruel by slopping it into miniature china crockery. Liam took a shine to the toytown cutlery and contemplated sliding it into his man bag. When his spoon failed to puncture the nuked plum sponge and bent in half, he quickly thought better of it. The much vaunted entertainment selection was an obscure disaster movie that may as well have been subtitled Bad Acting on a Runaway Train, Everyone Dies Except Denzel Washington and when everyone started to die except Denzel Washington, we considered pulling the emergency cord.
‘Ding Dong Merrily on High,’ muttered Liam.
‘Oh, come on, we’ve got the high,’ I said, grabbing champagne from a disapproving trolley dolly. ‘Let’s work on the merry.’
The flight to Heathrow was our last chance to grab time together before the Christmas offensive and we made the most of it. Liam ordered Jägerbombs to accompany the fizz and by the time the Boeing had touched down, we were sated, horizontal and ready for the Queen’s Speech.
‘This is it, then,’ I said to Liam at the Paddington Station taxi rank. ‘Time for you to leave me. Again.’
‘Don’t be such a drama queen. It’s just a few days.’
‘And time for me to start my grand tour of the Capital relying on the kindness of strangers.’
‘You’re staying with your sister in Tooting, Jack.’
Behind us, a Sally Army band launched into Good King Wenceslas and above the taxi rank, the station tannoy blasted out a hissing version of Little Donkey. I groaned. I’d had a guts-full already. ‘If I hear one more sodding carol…’
A plump, warm-faced woman passed by swathed in Horn of Africa robes, her lurid outfit puncturing the drabness. A young boy skipped next to her humming Jingle Bells over and over. Liam caught me crack a smile.
‘So, Jack Scott does festive. Gawd bless yer, Mr Scrooge, gawd bless yer.’
‘Liam, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a smug do-gooder with a Tiny Tim story. Here’s your taxi, say goodbye and sod off.’
We hugged hard and I disappeared into the crowd, ignoring the commuters and dragging my case through the mass of late Christmas shoppers and pissed up suits. Within minutes, I morphed into one of them, joining the cast of thousands in a recreation of the Blitz. Stoic Londoners pickled by corporate booze and emptied of Christmas cheer, descended into the Stygian gloom of the Underground like miserable lemmings. Stiff upper lips prayed to the baby Jesus for Armageddon, anything to get them through Judgement Day, soaring suicide rates and the hell that was about to pass. Christmas had barely begun, but I was already longing for the sound of Vadim’s bongos.
An arctic snap promised snow but didn’t deliver. In a North Finchley kitchen, Fairytale of New York piped out from an old radio as Liam fussed over the festive lunch. A small turkey lay resting on a serving plate, covered in foil. He opened the oven door to a swirl of hot smoke and the kitchen window steamed up spontaneously, masking the view of a frosted suburban lawn. He muttered to himself as he shook the Maris Pipers for the umpteenth time, slipping a tray of parsnips onto the top rack and transferring the hot muffin tin to a trivet by the side of the sink. What a faff. Saint Delia said Teutonic timing was the key to a slap-up Christmas lunch, but Liam reckoned his efforts were more British Rail than Deutsche Bahn. With the prepping done and the Yorkshires rising, he poured himself a beer and joined the others in the front room. Liam Senior was still cranky from the discomfort of his knee operation and grunted from behind The Irish Times. His wife sat opposite, giggling enthusiastically as an old video of Mr Bean jumped from one farcical scene to another. Cathleen had finally let the dye grow out of her hair and newly acquired silver curls swept down across her forehead. Liam’s younger brother, Sean, was supported by a pillow in his high back chair, his wheelchair folded away in the corner of the room. He grinned at Liam and went back to flicking through the old photos and postcards he always kept by his side in a dented old biscuit tin. Liam took a seat at the dining table and played with the place settings. All was calm. Earlier in the day, Cathleen’s attempt to coax Sean down from the bathroom had almost seen them both in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.
Cathleen looked up from the screen. ‘It’s about time you moved out, son. You can’t stay here forever.’
‘I haven’t lived at home since my teens, Mum. I live in Turkey now, with Jack.’
‘Course you do,’ she said, picking up the remote control and turning up the volume as Mr Bean lost his wristwatch up the rear end of a large Norfolk Black. ‘Jack. We like Jack.’
The oven pinged. Liam went back into the kitchen and strained the gravy. The prodigal son had returned, albeit briefly, to mop brows, smooth the edges and cook the perfect Christmas dinner.
Turkey with All the Trimmings
Heavy skies hung over Turkey Street. A bare larder and a drained wine cellar forced us out into the cold and as we darted past Halfway Square, the stress of a London Christmas evaporated into the damp morning air. Locals crammed into the Stone Oven for their morning loaves, stubbly husbands queued for a chance appointment with Ali Berber’s cut-throat razor and a racketeer set out his stall of fake Diesel tee shirts at the entrance to the otogar, praying not be moved on by the Jandarma. It was good to be home.
At the Tansaş supermarket, jabbering bands of last-minute shoppers shoved their way through the packed aisles to pick up their Milli Piyango lottery tickets and grab essential New Year supplies – chestnuts, baklava and lucky red knickers. At the front of the store, a small group had gathered to rummage through the discounted odds and sods of what appeared to be a Christmas trinket gondola. Not to miss a trick, Turks had appropriated the traditions of Yuletide and grafted them onto New Year. Baubles, fairy lights, soft toy Noel Baba Santas, tinselled trees, they were all there at the seasonal stall, piled high like the secret stash of a magpie with a glitter fetish.
‘It’s all down to the Chinese,’ said Liam, delving through the glitzy paraphernalia. ‘This little lot was manufactured in Hong Kong.’
He was right. The enterprising Chinese had flooded the Turkish market and judging by the way the festive tat was flying off the shelves, they were onto a sure fire winner.
‘Let’s buy a wee tree,’ said Liam. ‘A Sino-Turkish tree.’
‘And why would we do that? It’s New Year.’
‘To celebrate our own little Christmas. We’ve never had Christmas on our own. Ever.’
‘That’s hardly my fault, Liam.’
Liam ran his hand through a box of tinsel. ‘Et tu, Brute?’
‘Christ. No idea where that came from. Sorry.’
Liam grinned and picked up a six-inch artificial tree. ‘So? How about this one?’
‘It’s still a no.’
Liam removed the Christmas tree from its tiny cardboard box, set it down on the dining table and stared at the instruction leaflet. It was in Chinese. When he picked up his tweezers and began the painstaking task of placing each of the tiny baubles onto the pipe cleaner branches, I lost the will to live and went in search of Beril and Vadim. The soggy courtyard was strewn with broken branches and leaf litter. The winds had picked up and the mother of all storms was brewing out at sea. Bianca was the only sign of life inside Beril and Vadim’s house, curled up on the kitchen windowsill, a single eye flashing open at the sound my footsteps. On our patio table, a handwritten note poked out from under a wrought iron candle holder.
‘So? What does it say?’ asked Liam as he put the finishing touches to his miniature fake fir.
‘We’re to meet them in the Nazik Ana Restaurant just after midnight.’
‘And written in perfect English.’
‘Nothing about those two will ever surprise me… Ta dah! Tree’s up.’
‘It’s bent, Liam.’
‘And your point is?’
‘And half your balls are missing.’
The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived. The New Year’s Eve parade was set fair and Bodrum was draped in a sea of red ribbons. Bubble-wrapped captains and their shivering passengers huddled together on deck to babble and booze by candlelight, restaurants poured out onto the pavements and tinny music blared from the municipal speakers. Harbour Square, the town’s beating heart, was thumping hard, illuminated by a large virgin-white Christmas tree fashioned from plastic and aluminium. The crowd was a microcosm of Turkish society – mobs of shifty-looking likely lads leering at everything that moved, pantalooned grannies with their infant charges, trendy young things glued to their smart phones and teenage girls variously sporting elaborate headscarves or Santa hats. The Castle of St Peter, Bodrum’s Crusader heirloom, kept watch over the festivities.
Liam downed a can of Efes, grabbed my arm and dragged me through the crowds to the heaving upper terrace of a harbourside bar. It was the perfect place to catch the headliner at the free concert, an energetic Turkish diva slapped up in enough war paint to scare off General Custer. Naturally, we had no idea who she was but the jostlers gave her an ecstatic welcome. She wailed her way through her back catalogue and with each song the volume increased, the lighting became more theatrical and the applause more frenzied. New Year beckoned and she pleaded with the audience to settle for a message straight from her Anatolian heart. Lights dimmed, the crowd hushed and a lone guitarist joined her centre stage to strum an intro, spot-lit by a large super trouper.
Nasıl anlatsam? she sang.
How can I explain?
Where do I start?
Feeling, a little feeling,
All I wanted was this,
Some sea, some sleep.
Once upon a time I was in love
But now, I forget, what was her name?
The famous ballad hypnotised the home team from the first note. They swayed in unison, chanting ‘Bodrum, Bodrum,’ transfixed by the electricity of the moment and interlocking arms as emotions soared. Liam looked about the crowd and his eyes flooded. At the stroke of midnight, we hugged and kissed, masked by the crush as an explosive pyrotechnic bonanza lit up the night sky and a thousand mutlu yıllar reverberated around the harbour.
With gunpowder spent and low smoky clouds hanging in the air, we edged our way into Nazik Ana for our rendezvous with the neighbours. A petite figure emerged through the giddy revellers, propped up by a forty-something heavyweight, a wide shouldered bouncer-type with a thick handlebar moustache and an oily black wig nesting on his head.
‘My darling boys, you came!’
‘Sophia?’ said Liam. ‘It was you who left the note?’
‘Now, my year is complete,’ slurred Sophia. ‘Now, my restless heart can sleep.’
Sophia was our eccentric part-time neighbour on Sentry Lane, an aristocratic Turk with RADA-trained English and pretentions to match. As a ravishing young thing in Swinging Sixties London, the would-be starlet had courted fame and fortune but never quite made the grade. When the penny finally dropped that she was destined for the cutting room floor, a determined Sophia leapt up from the casting couch straight into the arms of a dashing Turkish diplomat twenty years her senior. For years, Sophia had travelled the world, living the cossetted life of an ambassador’s consort until one day the man who ‘worshiped’ her met his untimely end at a bridge party in Milan.
‘It was a dreadful and merciless stroke,’ Sophia had explained. ‘I have no doubt that Allah had his reasons but he failed to communicate them to me. Me, the grieving wife!’
A decade on, Sophia had remained resolutely single, a well-appointed Turkish widow with dazzling white hair fashioned into a bun and a ‘heart in a million pieces’. In winter she would decamp to Istanbul for a warm slice of urban living and underfloor heating, abandoning her draughty Aegean cottage until the warmth of spring lured her back to the coast.
‘What an unexpected pleasure,’ I said. ‘Happy New Year, Sophia.’
‘The pleasure is all mine, my darling. Embrace me!’
A long line of spit dribbled down Sophia’s chin and splattered onto her companion’s shoes.
‘Off her tits,’ whispered Liam.
I held out my arms. ‘Back for good, Sophia?’
‘Alas, no. One night only. How could I resist this night of nights? Turkey embraces you, Jack, Bodrum embraces you and I embrace you!’
Sophia’s embrace missed its target.
‘My country adores people like you,’ she muttered, anchored to her mysterious friend as he gathered her up from the restaurant floor. ‘Different people… it is our tradition.’
‘And your friend?’ I asked.
‘Ah! My Onur!’ said Sophia, staring into the eyes of her guardian. ‘He is a marvel, an absolute marvel.’
‘With an iron grip,’ I said as my fingers recovered from a crushing handshake.
‘Oh yes. My Atlas… he helps me with business. Just business, you understand.’
‘You look radiant, Sophia,’ I said provocatively, staring at her flawless complexion. This was not the sixty-five-year-old face I remembered from our last encounter. ‘How do you do it?’
‘Do it? Genes, dear. And a soupçon of Clarins. My mother was the same. I am blessed.’
Onur stroked Sophia’s cheek and whispered into her ear. She shuddered in pleasure and drifted off, slobbering like an infant, relaxed in the grip of her companion, her shoulders dipped and her lips curled. As they swayed together, their hips gently rocking, tutting waiters rushed past and partying diners took photos for Facebook.
Liam coughed. ‘You still with us, Sophia?’
‘Yes, dear,’ she replied, trance-like, her body limp in the arms of Onur. ‘Still here, dear.’ Her eyes sneaked open. ‘But now I must leave. I must sleep. We shall meet again. In the Bodrum spring.’
She cupped her hand and attempted a royal wave.
‘Goodnight, darlings. And remember. The darkest hour is just before the dawn… just before the dawn.’
Onur dragged sleeping beauty out to the street to be swallowed up by the milling crowd and Sophia’s first performance of the year faded into the night.
We headed east into Tavern Alley, a narrow lane off the pazar and home to a collection of small crush bars. The place was packed and the mood was bawdy. A sequined rah-rah skirt twerked on a table top and packs of wolf whistling boys looked on as she swung her booty and her sisters downed the booze. If alcohol consumption, particularly by women, was frowned upon in wider Turkish society, there was little evidence of it among the tequila slammers of Tavern Alley.
‘So,’ said Liam as we snaked around a busking band of minstrels, ‘what do you make of Sophia?’
I laughed. ‘A nip and tuck.’
‘Peggy Lee, more like. That face has been stretched tighter than one of Vadim’s bongos.’
We settled at a bench table and ordered beers from one of the harassed waiters circulating through the commotion. Our neighbour on the congested bench was instantly smitten with Liam.
‘I run man’s club,’ said the admirer, a fifty-something sot in a wide-lapelled cream suit.
‘That’s nice,’ said Liam, heaving at his aniseed breath.
‘For man, you understand?’
‘Like the Masons, you mean?’
Liam stared at the man and considered basic fashion tips. The greasy shoulder-length hair, open-necked shirt and chunky gold medallion dangling below the sweep of his vest screamed cartoon mafia.
‘Tonight, you come,’ he said, tonguing his finger suggestively. ‘Yes, you come with me. We drink, we eat.’ He smirked. ‘You like shish?’
Defeated by the cold night air and in need of bladder relief, we abandoned the Loony Tunes lothario and ventured inside the bar opposite, only to be pinned up against the wall by a swirling maelstrom of grungy hipsters with messy shag cuts. The music was refreshingly unsophisticated and the anti-fashionistas whirled around just as enthusiastically to Depeche Mode dirge as they did to disco Kylie. When they whooped at the intro to It’s Raining Men, Liam reached spiritual enlightenment and jumped into the mêlée to join them.
‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do!’ he screamed from the dance floor. ‘Picture it, Jack. New Year’s Eve. Turkey. Two old fairies, a bunch of pogoing mop heads and the biggest gay anthem ever written. I love this place.’
Maybe this wasn’t Turkey, not really, but it was one small slice and like me, Liam had fallen under its spell. As an arm appeared from within the writhing scrum and pulled Liam further into the fray, I took a seat at the bar and prayed the spell would last.
If you’d like to read more of Jack and Liam’s extraordinary adventures along Turkey Street, the book is available to buy on all good on-line bookshops. Click here for more information.