“Another glass of tea for you, my friend?”
My Turkish companion’s syllables ooze through a syrupy wall of fragrant smoke to reach my ears. I burble a positive response somewhere in his direction. My nargile pipe is loaded with sweet pear tobacco; his is stuffed with something absurd like Old Spice or mahogany. I feel intoxicated yet have no alcohol in my system, utterly relaxed yet on the verge of an epic saga; details of which are adrift on the synapse sea. I draw and inhale deeply. Surely this can’t be as bad for me as smoking cigarettes. I quit two years ago, so I’ll allow myself this one little treat.
Suzi has brought me to a genuine backstreet nargile house; nargile being the Turkish word for that iconic water pipe, ubiquitous in the Middle East. This neighborhood joint is buried deep in the map of Istanbul’s Asian side, a choppy ferry ride across the Bosporus strait. It’s a long way, both physically and metaphorically, from the beach in Thailand where we first met. I carried him home along the sand, heaving him onto his bed and into the recovery position. The walk felt like miles that night, although distances seem further when you’re carrying the weight of another, and that other won’t stop vomiting down their shirt. ‘What happens in this life is between Allah and me. No one else. Especially not my father’, he said the next day. Yes, Suzi, whatever you say, you naughty Muslim.
“My friend, you should not inhale. The smoke is wet, so the tar sticks to your lungs easily.”
Damn, I knew it felt too good not to be horrendous for you. I’ve been sitting here for forty minutes, gasping it down like it was sweet alpine air.
“That must be balls. I mean, I accept that moist tar is stickier, but surely the idea is to inhale. I mean logically, ethically, morally you should not, but people definitely do. It’s the inherent nature of vice. No?”
No. I’ve lost him. Suzi doesn’t respond to what has become my monologue. Instead, his eyes have rolled up inside his head; mouth curled up into a simpleton’s grin. It’s a multiple lobotomy patient’s orgasm face. I close my eyes too. I may as well follow his lead and drift to an alternate plane of consciousness. Swirls that are perfectly in focus dance on the canvas of my eyelids. Perhaps it’s the lack of oxygen in this poorly ventilated loft that sends a euphoric wave to pull me under. With no lifeguard in sight, I succumb to the swell.
How did I wind up here? I was in Malaysia only the other day, stalking the streets of Georgetown in search of Tandoori chicken. I found some at a cheap corner place, one populated with locals queuing and salivating; the sign of a fine eatery if ever there was one. The bright orange, charred hunks of bird get slammed down on the table in front of me and I eat with my hands, letting out long, multi-pitch moans akin to Barry White getting freaky with a Japanese (woman of legal age dressed as a) school girl. If I heard the same notes escaping the mouth of another, I’d be tempted to hurl an ashtray at their head but I really don’t care. It’s just the best thing I’ve ever ea…- altering hallucination trajectory – …on a night bus heading for Singapore. Clean, orderly, Hainanese chicken rice, testicles sweating inside sack and Little India seems like a beautiful haven of organized chaos in this immaculate metropolis of sin taxes and ludicrous (chewing gum?) bans. Out of the corner of my eye there’s a Bangalore Mafia drunk inviting me and a token Dutch sidekick to suck on a Tiger. I believe he means the local beer. ‘Sit down, sit down my friends! Where are you from?’ A tack which changes mid-beer to ‘Let’s go, I take you to have suits made. No? Then to a strip club it is! I know a good one. Young girls, juicy titties, let’s go! No? No?’ No. Mister South Asia doesn’t like that answer. I’m not sure which part offended him, the N or the O, but now the tack changes to a threatening tone so it’s time to ru… – unexpected hallucinatory fast-forward – …to Kuala Lumpur. Hot, green paradise of a city where I meet my cousin who just got engaged to Dez in Indonesia at the summit of an active volcano, spewing lava, very romantic she assures me. Another Little India is located and Muslim buffet found. Mel falls off her chair, her legs and the chair’s splayed in the air. Funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks but I can’t stay for long, not no… – whiiiizzzz – …’m on a flight to Istanbul, then at last, I do something that I’ve rarely had a chance to do during fourteen months in the far-east. I relax. It happens as I sit on the metro from Ataturk airport to the city’s European side and watch men and women with mustaches carry loaves of bread. What vision or notion in these dancing swirls approaches next? I’m feeling slightly nauseous, so whatever it is, do come soon. Here I stand, swaying queasily on the edge of a frontier. I’m not flying home to London for months. That’s right, I’m heading back East. Eastwards again, from whence I came! Goodbye swirls, you’ve assisted me well, albeit in a lengthy, mystical, peyote-like manner. I open my eyes and find all five of my wrists to be without a timepiece. Suzi appears to have a clock strapped to his naked thigh. Yes, I mean the one that’s coming out of his stomach, not that one up there.
“Open your eyes. Suzi!”
“What is it, Ben?”
“The time. What is it?”
“Shit! Let’s pay and go. 23:35 my friend, you’re going to miss your train.”
To Be Continued
All Photographs Copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010