After Syria, I crossed into Turkey and came back west, taking buses for the 750-mile journey along the wild Mediterranean coast from Antakya to Izmir. It was November and winter was hurrying in. I looked forward to the luxury of conversation with people whose first language was English. They were old friends of an old friend’s older brother, long settled in a village not far from Izmir, and yes of course I could stay a few days.
I took a taxi from Izmir centre to a dolmus terminus on the far edge of town. In a surprising extremity of murk, so near to the bright, palm-boulevarded city, people tired at the end of the working day crept quietly on board a dolmus that switched off its lights for a snooze.
Most of its passengers disappeared long before the town at the end of the route, from which a tiny second bus took me on down the hill to the little fishing village of Sigacuk (pronounced Sigh-chk). I arrived at 8.30, apprehensive about inconveniencing my hosts.
I asked for them at the bus-stop kiosk. A young man led me across the street to a small bungalow, unreachable above and beyond a high stone wall. The back gate down a dark lane was locked. Back on the quayside I phoned. “We’ll come and fetch you,” a small voice said. I waited. At last two stooped, grey-haired figures emerged, with painful slowness, out of the darkness. They were dressed in thick coats, scarves, gloves, fleecy-lined boots and big woolly hats, and stepped towards me as if from across the North Pole.
“Oh! Oh!” declared a drained, flagging woman, tentatively extending a drooping glove and pouring a tragic look over me. “Mm. Hullo,” gasped the wheezing, twitching man beside her, looking away at once.
“It took us a while,” said Betty gravely, “because we had to put warm clothes on.” They hovered, Bill all for drifting off into the night, away from the pain of contact.
“Oh,” said Betty sadly, “you’ve a lot of luggage.” She shook her careworn face at the holdall into which I had managed to pack two months’ worth of barest essentials. “Oh dear. You can’t stay with us: our place is too small. It’s quite a walk to the house where you’re... We were expecting you in October.”
Bill, rising to meet these difficulties as if with his last breath, suggested we could take the taxi not a yard away.
“I haven’t any money,” said Betty.
“No, I haven’t,” said Bill.
“I have,” I said, handing my difficult luggage to the driver.
“Oh, yes, let’s go ahead!” Bill said, as if Devil-May-Care were now his faintly-remembered middle name.
We drove around the three short sides of the quay. A dark old house could be made out up a flight of stone steps. Bill spoke in shy Turkish to the driver.
“You needn’t ask him to wait, dear,” said Betty, torn between Bill’s acute need to be rid of me and her suspicion that a moment or two more of putting a guest at ease might be the done thing first. She unlocked the door of this long-unlived-in house.
Inside, Bill slid around the walls into patches of unlit room as Betty switched on lights. In the kitchen and the bathroom, she fumbled with cupboards and told me where the torch was (“in case there’s an earthquake”) and how difficult the doors were and how the electric fire didn’t work. “There’s an old gas fire somewhere - but it’s best not to leave it on,” she added.
“It reminds me of being a student,” I said.
“Oh dear,” said Betty.
Bill had vanished. “He’s probably gone back,” said Betty.
“Well,” I said, since I can take a hint, “I hope I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yes.” A worried pause. “But I suppose you haven’t eaten.”
“I suppose you have.”
Bill was outside at the bottom of the steps, rocking from foot to foot. We walked back around the quayside.
“I should eat here,” said Bill, pointing at one of two near-identical cafés. “The other one’s expensive and not very good.”
“Won’t you come in and have a drink?” I asked.
“No thanks,” said Bill. “I’ve got half a drink waiting at home.” Betty agreed to join me for a glass of water. “If I have tea I shan’t sleep.”
Inside, she insisted on helping me to peer at the usual unremarkable chill-cabinet entrées. “I gave up cooking a couple of years ago,” she said. “I just couldn’t cope with food in my kitchen. So now Bill has to cook for himself if he wants to eat.” I ordered and we sat down, Betty finally taking off her hat.
“It’s always cold here,” she said after a pause. “Sailing people say it’s one of the places the wind always touches down.”
“No, this village.” She ran a thin hand up and down the sides of her glass.
“What made you settle here?”
“Bill used to work nearby, and when he first saw it it was just a poor fishing village surrounded by swamp. Bill thought it would make a fine tourist resort. But the sea is always cold here too. Even in August. In fact it’s just warming up by late October, and then the weather...”
My meal arrived, a plate piled high with dark mushrooms and glistening meat. Betty looked appalled.
“You don’t want to watch me eat this,” I said.
“I would like to get back.”
I rose. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said. “But how will I attract your attention?”
“Oh.” A pause. Brightening: “The second gate down the alley.”
“Yes, but it’s locked, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s only locked when we’re out - no, no, it’s the other way round. It’s only locked when we’re at home, because we don’t like people to call.”
“I could leave it unlocked in the morning...”
I ate, and drank beer and a warming raki. At the far end of the large room, two men sat smoking over bottles of beer. The chef talked to me in atrocious English. I grunted non-commitally. He presented me with another beer. “I give you just one beer,” he said shyly.
Back in the lonely, bone-chilling house, I lit the little wallflower-headed gas fire in the bedroom and climbed between the sheets.
I woke at eight after a bad dream of being back in England struggling with horses on a housing estate, dressed, and enjoyed five minutes of wan sunshine on the porch before cloud blocked it out. In driving rain I walked round the forlorn harbour, pushed open the gate down the alley and stepped into a tiny courtyard.
“Oh!” came a querulous voice from a window. “I was wondering what happened to you.”
“Oh! You look wet!” A pause. “You’d better come in.”
Inside their very small house, every dark surface was covered in rugs, scarves, books, plastic bags and photographs. Doors pressed for hallway space to open into. Each was ajar, clothes drooping from the top. There were seven cats. I'm allergic to cats. They tend to stop me breathing.
“Do come in!” said Bill, from the tiny dining/sitting-room. I stood filling the space between its sofa and the bookshelf on the opposite wall, against which Bill was pressed nervously. Betty added my raincoat to one of the doortops and left the room. I pulled out my inhaler.
“Ah!” cried Bill, delighted. “You have an inhaler. Like me! I discovered I was an asthmatic when we lived in Crete. Something in the air. And then again in Holland. And now here. I have to use my inhaler every two hours during the night.”
“Are you sure you’re not allergic to cats?” I asked, as several bounded on and off bookshelves.
“Oh I don’t want to even think about that one!” said Bill, glancing around wistfully for a moment at an imaginary cat-free version of his domain. Betty came back with an extra cat in one hand and a plate of biscuits in the other. She put both on the table.
“Won’t you have coffee?” The effort of asking, and the infinity of difficulties it opened up, seemed almost too awful for her to bear.
“Thank you,” I said. “That would be nice.”
“I think,” said Bill, “I’ll have, um, something else. I’ve had my three cups of coffee for today. I wouldn’t even be awake yet without it. I’m a night person.”
He produced an interesting-looking yellow bottle.
“Won’t you join me?”
“Certainly,” I said.
With some village tolum cheese, Bill and I drank three glasses each of this cinnamon-spiked, schnitzloid drink, while Betty sat nursing one huge brown cat and cooing at another, and drifted in and out of the conversation. Just when you thought she was with you, you’d look round and she’d be pulling baby faces at a cat, or staring at it with her tragic eyes.
When I left, to explore the town at the top of the hill, Betty came with me to do some shopping. The rain had stopped. It was an opulent little market-town full of moustachioed farmers striding around in big boots.
“Oh dear,” said Betty, “I’ve forgotten what I came for. Still, I don’t think it can be Altzheimer’s because I know I’ve forgotten something.”
“Good Lord, you don’t want to worry about that,” I said, still unused to being the happy-go-lucky one of the party. She looked at me with mute wonder. “If you want to get back,” I told her, “I can see the town by myself. You don’t have to chaperone me.”
“Oh,” she said, “well I am nursing a poor little constipated kitten.”
“Of course you are.”
I lingered in town all day before catching the dolmus back. A young woman with beautiful hands scooped up her shopping to make room for me.
It was bitterly cold down in the village. At the house I found a woollen bedspread and bedsocks. Dressing á la Betty (bedspread rolled into a huge sausage and wrapped around my neck, bedsocks worn as gloves) I walked up the rise beyond the house, to see the beach over the far side of the hill.
A short climb brought me to one of Turkey’s scenic triumphs - a vast and shining sea, walled in by soaring hills and distant mountains, and, like a photographer’s cliché, a lone rowing-boat’s tiny silhouette poignantly crossing this hugeness under a flaming sky.
Clearly obliged to give my hosts a guest-free evening, I walked back to one of the cafés a few yards from their door, drinking Turkish coffee and lingering over a beer. At ten o’clock I stepped into the freezing waterside wind, and went to bed with the book I found on top of a cupboard: Robert J. Willix Jnr. MD’s “You Can Feel Good All The Time”.
I spent next day at Ephesus. Afterwards, in the unbelievable cold, I caught a bus back to the town at the top of the hill and was there by dusk. The Efes Pide Salonu was open and made me welcome, supplied me with meatballs and added in a free plate of oranges.
Not having seen my hosts since the previous morning, and with a yearning for a whisky and soda, I caught the dolmus down the hill to call on night-person Bill. The house was dark. I knocked. A window opened.
“Oh!” said a quavering voice. “Hello dear. We’ve gone to bed.”
“Ah. Well I leave for Izmir in the morning. I hope to see you before I go. Sorry to have disturbed you now.”
“Never mind. Come for breakfast, any time after nine.”
I went across the road to the nearest café, to huddle round its wood-burning stove. It was 8pm.
Next morning I cleared up, packed, escaped from the house and walked round to Bill and Betty’s. She let me in. Bill called out from his room that he’d be getting up as soon as he could face the cold. Betty put some food on the table and retreated to the kitchen. I sat alone, eating a little fruit salad, two fried eggs and some bread, while three feet away a white cat with black and orange spatter-marks on its fur made retching, choking noises.
“Honey,” murmured Bill from the other room, “Princess is terrorising our guest.” Betty hurried in to see if there were any justice in this slur. The cat shut up. Exit Betty, cuing resumption of cat retch repertoire.
“I’m getting up now!” Bill called, and then, more circumspectly: “It’s always a puzzle how you can take your clothes off at night and they’re not there in the morning.”
Betty returned. “Coffee,” she said. “The milk boiled over again.” She stared into the mug of curds she held out.
“Morning!” said Bill, emerging as I had to rush out for the bus.
“Bye dear,” said Betty, extending her cheek at mine and so stuffing an armful of cat into my chest.
“Nice to meet you,” said Bill.
“Kheueueueuhhukh!” said the cat.