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Returning

 

1

It was many years ago when I first took a holiday in Turkey with my then girlfriend, and where we travelled along the west Mediterranean coast. It had been for a great number of years afterwards an idyllic memory, and perhaps had been even an idyllic trip as we travelled for a month, moving slowly from Antalya, which we flew into, to Dalaman, where we flew out from. We spent roughly a week in each place we visited; determined not to move on until we sensed we knew something of the town, village or resort even if a number of these elements – like the pollution in Antalya – was not always to our liking. From Antalya we moved west and spent more than ten days at the beach, first at the rather well-known Olympos, home of the ancient city but, in more recent times, a backpacker retreat nestled amongst the mountains behind the short beach. After a few days and several bad bowel problems, as well as numerous mosquito bites, we moved east by a few hundred yards and found ourselves a cosy bungalow in a place called Çirali, where there were a couple of nice wholefood restaurants, and locals who regarded us as a bit of a novelty: as backpackers who were eschewing the bacchanalian delights and poverty row living of the Olympos campsite.

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In the years after I had first visited Çirali, it had always been much more present in my mind than Olympos, but over the last few months that has been reversed, and details that I had all but forgotten about Olympos keep coming back, a conscious, low-key nightmare. I remember now the spiders that were crawling all over the floor of the first tree-house we stayed in, that once when we flushed the toilet, somebody else’s waste came to the surface of the water in the bowl. I remember also just the smell of some of the people – backpackers who had travelled perhaps for days before finally arriving at the isolated seaside retreat and who were maybe so excited by it that they hadn’t prioritised a shower.

But what changed, what allowed warm memories of Çirali to be eclipsed by acrid thoughts of Olympos? If I had written this some years ago it would have been a happy reflection but now it is a reflection shifting uneasily between two pasts, two pasts in the sense that before I had one set of memories that positively recalled Çirali, another less cheerfully remembering Olympos, but they were placed so comfortably in my thoughts that they somehow felt like one memory. Now, with an event, a real-life peripety, an unequivocal reversal, there are two memories emotionally at odds.

What has changed recently is my relationship with my long-term lover, Anne, whom I never married and with whom I never wanted to have children. But I still seemed to expect that we would never part, that our meeting each other when we were both thirty five, five years ago, when we both wanted stability meant I had met the right person. Maybe the timing was so perfect that I thought the person happened to be also: that because we were both over thirty and looking to commit ourselves to someone, I felt that Anne was more right than she was – but that could of course simply be my bitterness coming through. I remember explaining to friends shortly after we met that Anne and I both shared a similar perspective on the world. Not quite the same tastes – we argued about certain writers and certain painters – but our approach was similar. When she insisted that she had no time for Francis Bacon I understood the place where she was coming from without agreeing with her, and knew my own position on Bacon would be subtly altered by her observations.

I defined it, over the next few years, as my consolidating relationship, the lover with whom almost no time was wasted, where each day was filled with things to do, and people to see, and work to be done. We made love with regularity, but almost always in the evening and often half exhausted – though, it always seemed, with just enough energy to satisfy each other before then falling asleep in each other’s arms, gently moving apart as the night progressed, finding ourselves comfortably on separate sides of the bed by the morning. During most of these years I lived at her place, a roomy two-bedroom flat in Edinburgh that she had bought with the aid of her parents when she was still a student, and where she had continued to pay the small mortgage and I had paid the council tax and the bills. It always felt like our flat and I saw no reason why that should change, and neither, I really believed, did she.

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It was I would often think the second idyllic relationship of my life, the first the one already half disclosed and that was consolidated by that initial trip across Southern Turkey. That trip with Marie was our first anywhere, and came several months after we had started going out together. She was working in a bookshop after dropping out of college a couple of years before and had worked for a few months and then travelled, worked for a few months and travelled again. Through that previous summer, though,  the summer before she’d met me, she’d saved only a small amount of money and took off nevertheless, finding a job in a lovely garden café in Kas which played live blues several evenings a week, and had a broad selection of teas, cakes, whole-foods and fruit wines. I knew she was very keen to show me where she had worked the summer before, but she was also ambivalent: Marie admitted she’d had a brief but very tender affair with one of the staff in the café, and it had ended when she returned to Scotland. She’d left her phone number, her address and her e-mail when she left, but he never wrote or phoned, and so she assumed it was a summer fling and nothing more. But what if he were still working there? So I said to her I would love to see where she worked, would love to travel along that coastline that she made sound so wonderful (she’d spent the first couple of weeks travelling around before taking the job),  and it seemed absurd for me not to see where she had been working. Surely if the barman still possessed strong feelings for her he would have written. She wasn’t so sure.

We nevertheless visited the town and we stayed there for a few days, though we popped into the Hideaway café on only a couple of occasions. On the first of these her ex-lover was not around, but she asked behind the bar whether he was still working there. Marie was told that he was – he had just taken a couple of days off, and was scuba diving. He would be back on Thursday. The work colleague looked at me in such a way (a way that implied Marie’s ex wouldn’t be happy that she had returned with another man) that I thought the next time, when her ex-lover would be there, I wouldn’t be. Obviously when she said she would like to see him when he returned back at work I was mildly uneasy, yet I was also intrigued, and said I would leave them to talk for an hour, but I would like to meet him afterwards. She said that would be fine. When she arranged to meet him I wandered off on my own, seeing but not really observing anything in the town centre as I went along  to the west and up by the ruined amphitheatre which looked across the sweep of the bay, dotted with islands. I could see across to the small Greek Island of Meis. A different world and a different language, I thought, and yet only four kilometres away. But wasn’t Marie at that moment in a different world and a different language closer by; for she would be speaking Turkish which she learnt a little of whilst working in the bar; her ex spoke only a few words of English. I made my way back down from the amphitheatre and walked along the short alley that led into the café garden. I saw Marie and her ex in the far corner talking. He looked confused, despondent and was taking deep puffs of a cigarette. Marie had her back to me and so I decided to return outside and along the street, turning off and up to the end of the next street. I took a strong Turkish coffee in Café Merhaba and sat there half reading an English newspaper. I had said if I hadn’t arrived by the time she had finished talking, she would find me there.

It was an hour and a half after I had briefly watched them talk that I saw her pass the window and come into the café. I had just finished my second cup of coffee and was feeling very agitated. I asked why she had been away for so long. Why didn’t you come and get me, I recall her saying. It was the closest we came to an argument during that trip, and we quickly recovered from it.

I explained that I had looked into the café but her ex seemed so perturbed that I thought I should not join them, and since she hadn’t seen me, I sneaked back out quietly and came to the Merhaba instead. Kissing me lightly she said it was very nice of me to do that. Yes, her ex was very hurt; and explained that he didn’t write to her because his English was so bad, and that since the tourist season had started he was trying to speak as much English as possible so that he could write her a letter expressing exactly how he felt, however belated the letter would have been. And why didn’t she write to him in Turkish, he had asked, since she could speak and write it. She said she tried to explain that she wanted to move on; that what they had was very beautiful but not what she wanted from life. He asked if there was someone else and she said that yes there was, and that she was travelling with him. Were they in love, he had asked. Yes, she said, she thought they were. At this point she kissed me again, but again lightly.

We decided to book out of the hostel that afternoon, paying a small surcharge, and then spent the remainder of our holiday at Oludeniz before flying back to Edinburgh. Throughout the trip and for many years afterwards I gave very little thought to Mehmet, for that was his name, for my own happiness with Marie eclipsed any sympathy I might have had for him.

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Anne had never been to Turkey before; and I hadn’t returned since that trip. I would always talk fondly of it without ever suggesting that the fondness was connected to still having strong feelings for Marie. Those feelings had faded away after a couple of years of being together, and we had parted amicably all those years ago and moved onto other lovers, other relationships. We made very little effort to keep in touch, and when she moved away to Barcelona, and then on to New York, we steadily, completely lost contact.  So there was no sense of Marie being in my life, so no reason why Anne wouldn’t suggest that I go along that Southern coast again, this time with her. Didn’t I say it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to, she said?

This time though I thought it might be a good idea to fly into Istanbul, stay for a few days in a city neither of us knew, and then fly south. We stayed in an old wood built pension up a side street near the mosques in Sultanahmet.  Neither of us were really given to tourist activities and so we never went into the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya opposite, but on a couple of occasions in the evening we would sit and look at these apparently antagonistic but actually curiously serene complementary fortress-like buildings, and almost wonder if they weren’t built simultaneously and deliberately. In fact Aya Sofya was built at the end of the Roman Empire; the Blue Mosque ten centuries later, and in a gesture of antagonism: Sultan Ahmet I wanted to build a monument that would surpass the original. Now they looked like carefully poised and positioned companions, awaiting admiring glances. Yet I didn’t think Anne and I were especially admiring – or perhaps we admired more than we gawped. We took no pictures, and waited to look at them late in the evening when there were only a few people mulling around outside. What we were looking to see was not their largeness, I suggested, but our own smallness – as in the way we would look at the stars at night. Perhaps this was why we felt no desire to go into the buildings themselves.

I offer a few words about our visit to Istanbul and Sultanahmet to give some sense of our shared comprehension of certain things: I believed we both respected smallness. To be and remain small, a writer once said, but I didn’t think there was really anything neurotic about this. Yes we were vegetarian, liked early nights, and worked without being overly ambitious. I owned a second-hand book shop, Anne taught English at a secondary school in Edinburgh. But we did both believe in accumulating meaning in our lives. Perhaps Anne less than I had made attempts at largeness: when I was younger a series of my affairs were intensely passionate, like my relationship with Marie, relationships where we would make great plans and then just as readily act upon them. Once I took off to Mexico for three months with an Afghan girlfriend, having met her only a week before. I wanted to live the most passionate life I could, and always felt the world was smaller than I was: the world as the oyster. I also wanted to own, by the time I was thirty, not only a second-hand book store, but also an affiliated cinema, café/restaurant and small publishing firm. These dreams dwindled, or simply became more focused, for my book shop is seen as one of the best in Edinburgh and I suppose I’m very selective about the books I buy: the philosophy section takes up a whole wall with over two thousand titles; most other book shops have at best a couple of hundred.  Small then, but large within that: this had become my aim, and in that sense I thought I managed to fulfil my purpose; looking not to expand but constantly to consolidate.

Anne and the shop were the meaningful elements – we had of course no children, and with Anne over forty it was very unlikely. Maybe my expectation was to have no expectations, but this didn’t seem a bad thing; at a certain age our lack of expectations are no longer framed as a negative but as a positive: we offer them the word consolidation. Thus this second trip to Turkey was very different from the first; and this time Anne and I had a clear itinerary where before Marie and I had bought a single ticket to get us out there and bought a return a month later when we arrived in Dalaman. On this second occasion the journey was mapped out, and doubly so since we intended to go to most of the destinations I’d travelled to many years before.

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The first two and a half weeks our trip in the south went well; we spent several nights in Antalya and then a couple of nights at a camping sight which had a few bungalows to rent and an organic restaurant we could eat in, and then ten days at Çirali, where we swam each early afternoon against the advice of our pension owner, and turned a light, rusty brown after a couple of days looking a pinkish red. As we would compare our tans at night, we said to each other it was almost as if we were touching another’s skin. We joked that it was like committing adultery.

It was after Çirali that we went to Kas, and stayed in a lovely cheap pension called the White House, ate in various very tasty restaurants, and went on several occasions to The Hideaway café. On the second of these visits we arrived at half three in the afternoon, and the place was almost empty. I noticed at the bar somebody who looked a lot like Marie’s ex. His hair was the same length, almost down to his shoulders, but greyer, and his face was well-lined. He came over and took our order, and asked us a few questions about ourselves. When we said we were from Scotland, he laughed and said that he had lived for a couple of years in Scotland some years ago. Anne asked what made him go to Scotland. He said that would take some explaining and that maybe, if we were still there after he sorted out the bar area, he would tell us. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay and hear him talk about his love for presumably my own ex-lover, but the atmosphere in the café was mellow, the music good and the wine better than usual in Turkey. And Anne definitely wanted to hear his story. An hour later he came over and asked if he could sit down and he started to tell us about his past. He said he went to Scotland because he had fallen in love with a Scottish girl, that they’d had a short relationship in Turkey when she was working in this very bar, and that a year or so after that, still unable to forget her, he went over to live in Scotland. He never did see her again, but he always hoped, when he was working as a waiter in a particular restaurant in Edinburgh, which Anne and I both knew, or in various other cafes and restaurants, that she would come in and he would see her. Frequently he would walk the streets of Edinburgh hoping to catch sight of her. He spoke in a mellifluous, almost fluent English.

He returned to Turkey believing he had tried but it wasn’t to be. He had got married shortly after returning and now had two children. However his heart always yearned for that Scottish woman from many years before, and he and his wife had parted two years ago, he said. As he told this story Anne possessed a look of yearning on her face too. She of course had no idea that this was Marie’s ex lover. I had never told her the story of this ex boyfriend of my own ex-girlfriend – why would I? He had so little place in my memory.

He asked if we would like to come to the bar later that evening. They were playing live music and he would be one of the musicians – he was a blues guitarist. Anne immediately said yes, she would like that very much, and answered perhaps as much for me as herself – she knew I liked blues. We returned later that evening, and entered the enchanted garden, replete with lovely lantern lights hanging from the branches of the many trees that shaded the garden during the day, and now lent it an atmosphere of intense intimacy. Adding to it were the three musicians in the corner, one playing sax, another drums and Mehmet playing guitar and singing in English. Mehmet played very well and with much meaning, and I of course knew by the end of the evening that Anne was slipping away from me. It was as though all the yearning, all the exciting relationships she never had in her twenties, came suddenly to the surface. Before meeting me she’d had a couple of predictable boyfriends who wanted to marry her and have kids with her, but at that time she had wanted to read books and exercise and live simply.  When she met me she said she thought I was the ideal man; the man with whom she could live alone and yet with another. But perhaps, I’ve recently mused, we all have a desire for at least one great passion in our life, and the longer we leave it the more it accumulates, the more we can be caught by coup de foudre.

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I know now this is an exaggeration; that Anne hadn’t fallen in love at first sight, but I still believe the speed with which she felt such strong feelings for this good-looking, tender and touchingly sad man of about her own age was the way he contained within him all that Anne might have desired but that she had never really rationalized. I knew her rational life wanted to be with me; I really believed that is what both of us had spent over five years working towards. But there were other Annes, just as there had been another Anne whose skin had browned and become silkier to the touch. We do indeed contain multitudes.

Anne insisted she wanted to stay on for a couple more days in Kas, and I decided I would backtrack and stay for a couple of nights in Olympos. There was, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, very little for us to talk about. I knew she was falling in love with this man whose heart I had been partially responsible for breaking many years previously, and who perhaps out of that brokenness had become the very pensive, caring figure that Anne had so quickly fallen in love with. About all I could say the next morning, when Anne suggested she wanted to stay longer, was: have you fallen in love with another man? Perhaps, she said, looking away, before starting to cry. She said she at least needed to find out. I said I would meet her in a few days at Dalaman airport. I spent those few remaining days feeling too old and too tired for the nightlife and general exuberance of Olympos, and found the bungalow I was staying in cramped and smelly. The toilet sometimes didn’t flush properly, and I wasn’t sure whether the food felt slightly nauseating because it was bad, or because I myself felt nauseous. I knew I could not go back to Kas, could not see Anne with another man, and assumed that they had of course become close. I did not think however it was irrevocably over until, as I waited at the airport, and the time passed, I realised she was not coming. As I boarded the plane alone I knew I would start to pack as soon as I returned to Edinburgh and would start looking for a place for myself. Where that would be at that moment I didn’t know. I felt a chasmic sense of not knowing my future; and yet without the passion that, when we’re with another, can cover that abyss with the excitement of life still to be lived. I felt, and still feel, some months later, that I have very little to consolidate, and nothing to look forward to. Mehmet, who barely came to my mind in all those years when Marie was undeniably in his, I now conjure up often, but curiously not as I recall last seeing him, playing music in the café not so very long ago, but from many years earlier, as he beseechingly told Marie how much he loved her as I looked on from the café entrance.

 

©Tony McKibbin