Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam move to Turkey by Jack Scott
Just imagine the absurdity of two openly gay, recently ‘married’ middle aged, middle class men escaping the liberal sanctuary of anonymous London to relocate to a Muslim country.
Jack and Liam, fed up with kiss-my-arse bosses and nose-to-nipple commutes, chuck in the towel and move to a small town in Turkey. Join the culture-curious gay couple on their bumpy rite of passage. Meet the oddballs, VOMITs, vetpats, emigreys, semigreys, randy waiters and middle England miseries. When prejudice and ignorance emerge from the crude underbelly of Turkey’s expat life, Jack and Liam waver. Determined to stay the course, the happy hedonistas hitch up their skirts, flee to laissez-faire Bodrum and fall under the spell of their intoxicating foster land. Enter Jack’s irreverent world for a right royal dose of misery and joy, bigotry and enlightenment, betrayal and loyalty, friendship, love, earthquakes, birth, adoption and murder. Suburban life was never this eventful. You couldn’t make it up.
A bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple living in a Muslim land.
Asia Minor, A Continent in Miniature
Just imagine the absurdity of two openly gay, recently married, middle-aged, middle class men escaping the liberal sanctuary of anonymous London to relocate to a Muslim country. The country in question is not Iran (we had no desire to be lynched from the nearest olive tree by the Revolutionary Guard) but neighbouring Turkey, a secular nation practising a moderate and state-supervised form of Islam. Even so, Turkey provides a challenge to the free-spirited wishing to live unconventionally. Openly gay Turks in visible same-sex relationships are as rare as ginger imams.
There are more parallels between Britain and Turkey than many realise. Both are historic nations once united under Ancient Rome, fiercely independent and suspicious of a new pan-European empire formed by a Treaty in modern Rome. Both are anchored to the edge of Europe but chained to it economically. Both have a political and cultural heritage so immense that they transformed the world. Both have emerged from the long shadow of an empire destroyed by world wars and both are trying to forge a modern role in a rapidly changing world.
Türkiye means ‘land of the strong’, an old Turkic/Arabic compound. Anatolia translates as ‘sunrise’ from ancient Greek. Both poetic epitaphs are fitting depictions of a vast land blessed with striking physical beauty, wrought by the brutal force of Mother Nature, and fought over, won and lost by invaders across all of recorded time. Turkey is a nation familiar to many Brits: the beer-swigging tattooed tourist seeking cheap fun in the sun with chips on the side, and those of a more scholarly hue who wonder at the unparalleled scale and depth of Anatolian culture and history. Traditional Turkey is the true crossroad of civilisations, the evidence of which lies casually underfoot, and a land where kinship and community reign supreme. New Turkey is a reinvigorated, rising, regional power, the ephemeral playground of pallid-skinned, sun-starved Northern Europeans gorging themselves on expensive imported bacon, cheap local plonk and one-upmanship. Islamic majesty sits uncomfortably alongside bargain bucket tourism. It was precisely this compelling contradiction of the captivating and the comical that lured two culture-curious gay boys out from under the cosy duvet of laissez-faire London life.
This book began life as a monthly email commentary of our experiences in our foster land and the extraordinary people – the sad, the mad, the bad and the glad – we encountered along the way. I called my dispatches ‘witterings’ and shared them with my wish-you-were-here’s. As the witterings grew, high and low drama unfolded around us. So began a rollercoaster ride that amused, moved, surprised and ultimately changed us forever.
In The Beginning
In the beginning there was work, and work was God. After thirty-five years in the business, the endless predictability made me question the Faith. Liam, on the other hand, was neither bored nor unchallenged but routinely subjected to the demands of a feckless boss, a soft and warm Christmas tree fairy with a soul of granite, Lucifer in lace. He feared for his tenure. I feared for his mental health.
“Happy Birthday, Liam.”
Our favourite Soho brasserie was illuminated by flickering antique oil lamps and the occasional beam of light from the kitchen. The restaurant was swollen with rowdy after-hours workers, swapping gossip and feasting on hearsay. We had squeezed into a small recess by the window, dribbles of condensation trickling down the glass and obscuring the view to the street beyond.
Liam ripped off his Armani tie and draped it across the back of his chair.
“Thanks, Jack. Forty-six and fully-functioning tackle.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
Our waiter intruded. “Have you decided?”
“Yes, Cato,” I said. “We’ll both have the special.”
The cute Colombian turned on his heels and sashayed off towards the kitchen. Liam retrieved his tie and rolled it absently around his fingers.
“You do know that’s Italian silk?”
“It’s just a shackle. An over-priced, over-hyped, ridiculous little shackle.” He closed his eyes and massaged his forehead with the tips of his fingers.
“Good day at the office, darling?”
“Just pour the wine, Jack.”
Liam folded his tie, placed it neatly on the table and stared into my eyes with unusual intensity.
“Jack, you know I love you, don’t you?”
“Sure I do.”
In the three years we had been together, Liam had been irrepressibly affectionate. We had recently married, an affirming fanfare of family and friends crowned by two glorious weeks in Turkey. I had never felt more loved.
“Look,” said Liam. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
Cato returned and fussed over the table setting for what seemed like an age, adjusting the condiments like chess pieces to make room for the oversized plates. He placed the white linen napkins on our laps and started to fret over my cutlery.
“That’s fine, Cato!”
Liam shuffled uncomfortably, and Cato and his impossibly thin waist minced back to the kitchen.
“I thought you liked this place?” I said. “I thought you were happy?”
“I do. I am.” He forced a smile.
“This is you looking happy?”
Our food arrived along with a fresh bottle of wine and a sulking waiter.
“It’s the job,” said Liam. “It’s driving me insane.” He took a fortifying swig of wine. “I told that bitch of a boss where to stick her profit margins. I’ve done it. I’ve quit.”
Liam had spent the last two years working for a cut-and-thrust, slash-and-burn private sector company, vainly trying to coax the unemployable into work. He sought stimulation and challenge and got both in spades, along with a gruelling twelve hour day. I reached over the table and held his hand.
“Jumping ship’s fine, love. As long as it’s onto dry land.”
“But, you’re my dry land, aren’t you?”
Cato returned every now and then to check on my mood and replenish our glasses, his distracting buns quivering like two piglets in a sack. As Liam and I chatted, the windows started to de-mist and we caught glimpses of the drab winter coats and scarves scurrying along the icy street outside.
“The worker bees of London,” said Liam. “Just look at them.”
I got the point. I’d worked in social care for thirty years, gently ascending a career ladder to middle management, middle income and a middling suburban terrace; comfortable, secure and passionately dissatisfying. We talked with growing animation through the starter, main course and deliciously calorific death by chocolate dessert, about the evils of work, and how our jobs were ruining our health.
“What the hell are we doing?” said Liam.
“The same as everyone else love, treading water.”
“That’s it? Thrashing about in the shallows?”
“Better than drowning.”
“I’d rather take my chances.”
Jacques Brel belted out Jackie through the restaurant speakers and Liam considered his next move.
“We’re stuck in a rut, Jack, a big fat suburban rut. There’s more to life than matching bathrobes and strategically placed scatter cushions.”
“As a skunk.”
“So what would you have us do? Sell the semi?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Because it’s our home, that’s why not. What would we do? Walk the streets and queue at the soup kitchen? Live in a cardboard box and wait for Godot?”
“Now who’s drunk? Let’s just do it.”
“For fuck’s sake, Liam, do what?”
“Something different. Somewhere else.” He paused. “More than tread water.”
I peered at Liam through my wine glass, his face distorted like a reflection in a hall of mirrors. The booze was coursing through my veins and I was feeling more receptive by the bottle. Cato appeared through the crowd carrying a tiny birthday cake lit by a single pink candle. A perfectly formed forty-six was neatly iced onto the delicate vanilla sponge.
“Happy Birthday, Señor Liam. Feliz Día from the House.” The pre-occupied diners around us gave Liam a half-baked hand. We laughed and I thanked Cato for his thoughtfulness.
“Perfect timing, my little camarero. Another bottle and make it quick.”
We awoke to the sound of heavy rain pounding against the rattling sash windows. The radio was blaring and the central heating was firing on full. Liam leaped out of bed, returning with a pot of freshly brewed French roast and a jug of water. He was annoyingly bright.
I mumbled into the pillow. “Leave the packet.”
He perched on the side of the bed and stroked the back of my neck.
“If that’s a prelude to anything requiring movement, forget it.”
“Look. I’ve been awake half the night thinking.”
Liam began to recall our wine-fuelled debate in remarkable detail. “What if we actually do it?” he said. “What if we sell up and head for heat and hedonism?”
I rubbed my eyes and reached for my glasses.
“Well?” said Liam.
“It has its attractions.”
“That’s it? It has its attractions? Wake up, Jack. Let’s bugger off to Nirvana.”
My brain struggled to find first gear and slipped back into neutral. A squad of sadistic dwarfs was pick-axing the inside of my head.
“It’s not that simple, Liam. If it was, everyone would do it.”
“Repeat after me, Jack: work is the root of all evil. Imagine life without the turgid meetings, kiss-my-arse bosses and nose-to-nipple commutes.”
“Imagine life without money, Liam. Poverty is the root of all evil.”
I took a pill and downed another glass of water.
“We’ve equity in the houses,” said Liam.
“Not enough. It wouldn’t last.”
“Oh come on, nothing lasts.”
Liam leapt up and pulled open the curtains. The rain had petered out and winter sunshine streaked through the windows. He was resolute.
“We could rent.”
“Yes, rent. A bargain basement by the sea.”
“A beach hut in Bognor? I don’t think so.”
“Even if we had more time together?”
“Especially if we had more time together.”
“And more sex.”
“God, it gets worse.”
“I’m serious, Jack. If….”
I cupped my hand over Liam’s mouth. “Pour me that cup of coffee and let me think.”
Later in the day, revived by full-fat croissants and intravenous caffeine, we lay next to each other on the super-sized bed, staring at the ceiling and calmly hatching our audacious plot to step off the treadmill and migrate to the sun. Liam convinced me that anything was possible; all we had to do was decide where. He fancied France but I was less than keen. I once stayed at a rancid carbuncle in a godforsaken village in the middle of the Dordogne. The only other hotel guest was a dead rat floating in the kidney-shaped cesspit they called a pool. When I checked out the next morning, the propriétaire and his finger-sucking sister offered me an extended stay in return for a ménage à trois. I politely declined their kind offer. As I left the foyer, a pack of rabid dogs launched an unprovoked offensive on my suitcase, presumably attempting to retrieve the warm saucisse I’d purloined from the hotel breakfast table. One of them, clearly starved of accouplement, decided to mount the case and squirt his jus d’amour over my Samsonite.
On a visit to Normandy, I had a life-changing incident in a roadside convenience, an experience that rotted my espadrilles and permanently damaged my sense of smell. The revolting hole in the ground was overflowing with an aromatic pee soup, liberally spiced with putrid garlic, topped with stool croutons and bubbling up like a witch’s cauldron. It had clearly been used by every Tom, Dick and Norman in town, more than once. A brisk wind up the English Channel would have carried the offending stench to Sweden and given surströmming a run for its money.
“You know what they say, Liam. The French have clean kitchens and dirty toilets. The English have clean toilets and dirty kitchens. I know which I’d prefer.”
I had a soft spot for Spain but the place was already teeming with Brits on the run and anyway, Liam had a principled aversion to bull fighting. Gran Canaria – Spain with a gin twist – was little more than a duty-free brothel in the Atlantic and was overrun with naked Germans waving Teutonic tackle around the X-rated sand dunes. Italy was home to the Vicar of Bigots and sleazy politicians, Portugal had fado but precious little else, and Greece was an economic basket case on the verge of civil implosion. As we dismissed each country with outrageous prejudice, we knew that anywhere in the Eurozone was probably beyond our means. The pound was poorly and the ailing patient was getting weaker by the day. Everything pointed in one direction, and it was Liam who finally voiced our biased decision.
“You get a lot of bang for your bucks in Turkey.”
We had just returned from Bodrum, a chic and cosmopolitan kind of place attracting serious Turkish cash, social nonconformists and relatively few discount tourists. Liam loved it and after many years visiting the western shores of Anatolia, I needed no convincing. We were agreed. It was Turkey or nowhere.
Several hours of feverish planning passed. Scribbled Post-it notes and an annotated map of south western Turkey guided us through a long and impassioned debate. We briefly entertained the notion of living in Kaş on the Turkuaz Coast. We had honeymooned there and fallen under its captivating spell. The sparkling Bohemian jewel was surrounded by a pristine hinterland and had mercifully been spared the worst excesses of mass tourism. Its glorious isolation was also its downfall. The resort was a wilting two-hour drive from the nearest international airport, was effectively closed out of season and lacked those dull but essential full-time services we all need in the real world: banks, supermarkets and an upmarket drag bar. We cast our eyes along the map. The coast running south-east of Kaş had been colonised by Germans and Russians and the string of concrete resorts running north – Fethiye, Marmaris, Altınkum and Kuşadası – attracted legions of beer-soaked karaoke Brits. Bodrum, the bookmaker’s favourite, won by a mile.
At this point, we got stuck – hopelessly stuck – in the quicksand of reality. Planning the fantasy was thrilling and cathartic but ultimately hopeless. Despite our best efforts to make all the pieces fit, practicalities and a whole range of insoluble conundrums got in the way. Liam called them technical hitches and doggedly refused to concede defeat. I admired his pluck to bet against the odds. All I had to do was sell my East London house, just as prices were in free fall. All he had to do was agree a financial settlement with his ex on their jointly-owned property in Kent. Thus far, that particular knotty problem had proved more difficult to resolve than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I’ll speak to Robbie,” said Liam. “You never know.”
I did know. Robbie wouldn’t give an inch.
It fell to me to end the delusional pipedream.
“It’s not just about us, love.”
Liam collapsed on to the bed and buried his face in the crumpled map of Turkey.
“Your mother,” he mumbled.
“I know, I know, they need us.”
“And we need them.”
We lay on the bed in silence, running through the endless permutations in our heads. After a while we fell soundly asleep, wrapped around each other and dreaming of the impossible.
There was a persistent and impatient rap at the door. I had just stepped out of the shower. Dressed in a slack cerise dressing gown and Mickey Mouse slippers, I shuffled down the hallway, praying that Liam had mislaid his keys again.
“Oh. Colin. What’s up?”
“You didn’t tell me you were selling your house.”
“Is there a problem?”
“You are then?”
Colin twitched and looked me up and down.
“Am I interrupting something, Jack?”
“That’s generally what happens when you take a shower.”
He gawked at my slippers.
“You like?” I said. “Look, would you like to come in?”
Colin was an easy neighbour but had perfected the art of calling at the most inconvenient times. As usual he was neatly dressed in Marks and Sparks knitwear, brown corduroy trousers and tan Hush Puppies. Horn-rimmed spectacles perched precariously on the end of a lumpy nose, and he was clutching a bulging continental purse. I was fluffy-robed, knicker-less and vulnerable.
“I’ll just make myself decent.”
“No need, I’ll be quick.” Colin swept into the dining room, sat cross-legged at the table and adjusted his hearing-aid.
“Look, Jack, I’ll come straight to the point. How much do you want for the house?”
“You want to buy my house?”
“Yes. In cash.”
“In cash? You want to buy my house in cash? I’ll make some tea.”
I beat a retreat to the kitchen. I needed thinking time. Had this upstanding, tee-total, retired accountant finally lost his immaculately arranged marbles and hit the sauce? Why did he want this house so badly? I re-tied the sash around my robe; this was no time for a Basic Instinct moment. This was time for a big bucks moment. Be calm, Jack. Be civilised. Be mercenary.
“Fine. Look Jack, let’s get this sorted.”
Then it happened, the first phase of an unstoppable chain reaction. Following a ridiculously brief, matter of fact but amicable negotiation, we agreed a price for the house. Colin didn’t want a survey and wasn’t prepared to waste money on a solicitor either. He was a loony buyer and I really didn’t care why. He unzipped his purse and retrieved a monogrammed cheque book holder and inset fountain pen.
“I’ll give you a deposit now.”
“It’s fine, Colin, I trust you. We’re agreed. The house is yours.”
Colin returned his neatly pressed cheque book to its place of safety and we shook hands to seal the contract.
“Done,” he said.
“Done,” I said. It didn’t feel legally binding in Disney slippers but a deal was a deal.
“So where are you off to?” asked Colin.
“Good God, Jack, Turkey? You’re a homosexual. There aren’t any homosexuals in Turkey.”
“My dear Colin, there are homosexuals everywhere. We’re like the Irish.”
Colin sipped his tea for inspiration. “You do know that Turkey’s a Muslim country?”
His brain clanked and whirred like a Babbage prototype, spitting out a chain of increasingly infuriating questions, each designed to challenge our toxic choice of destination.
“What’s wrong with Spain?” he said.
“What’s wrong with Turkey?” I said.
Colin was unyielding. I tried my well-rehearsed I love Turkey because homily. He listened impassively. It was a lost cause.
“You know what, Jack?”
“It’s your funeral.”
“Well thanks for the vote of confidence.”
He smiled. “You can rent the house until you leave.”
There we had it. Mad Colin was definitely on something. Someone had popped a pill in his Lapsang Souchong.
“Say that again, Colin.”
“And I’m the one with the hearing aid.”
“I could kiss you.”
“Please don’t. I vote Conservative.”
We sipped our tea and sat in uneasy silence. Colin’s eyes darted about to survey his new kingdom. He was off with the covetous fairies, muttering incoherently like a novice Buddhist at an inaugural Puja. Christ, the old boy was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I could have my throat garrotted at any moment.
He broke the peace. “I like your furniture.”
“It likes you, too.”
“I’ll buy it.”
With that, my very own fairy godfather made his excuses and scampered off into the cold East End air. Business was concluded. House and contents sold. I poured a stiff gin and tonic, floated in to the lounge, collapsed onto the sofa and fiddled with my mobile phone. I should ring Liam. “Hello, hub. I’ve just sold the house to our psychotic neighbour. No, it’s fine, he paid in cash. Contract? Don’t be silly. Yes, you’re right; our world has just changed on the turn of an indecently short conversation with a lunatic.”
I decided against the call.
The house was perfectly still apart from the persistent clicking of a carriage clock on the mantelpiece. I looked around the room and said my goodbyes to the sofa and the sideboard, bequeathing them to Colin in my head. I guessed he wouldn’t want the signed picture of Tammy Wynette. I willed Liam home and befriended the Bombay Sapphire while I waited. Four glasses of mother’s ruin later, I snapped out of my trance and rushed to the phone to ring the estate agent. “Hi. It’s Jack Scott. I’ve decided not to sell. Sorry.”
Liam shimmied into the lounge.
“You’ve had the chop and changed your name to Bunty.”
“Robbie’s agreed a deal on the house.”
Liam threw off his jacket and sat down beside me. “Who needs the UN, eh? Eighteen months of arguments and recriminations, all settled with a quick phone call. He just caved in. Karma’s on our side, husband. Get your glad-drags on, we’re celebrating.”
A drop of gin dribbled down my chin and gave the game away.
“Oh my God, you’re shit-faced.”
“Shut up, Liam. I’ve got something important to tell you.”
“Don’t tell me, you’re pregnant.”
Colin’s moment of madness changed everything. We were moving to Turkey. Our astonishing run of good luck convinced us that someone was looking kindly down upon us. I sensed it was John, my very own guardian angel. Lapsed Catholic Liam attributed it to the Virgin Mary. “She always comes good in the end. We’re that close.”
Weeks passed by with terrifying haste. Liam took up position as unpaid planning guru, devouring every relocation book on the market and organising our journey into the Byzantine world of Turkish red tape. He concocted a bells-and-whistles financial model and called it Bill. On the day he was born, Bill forecast a life of unfettered luxury and we toasted to our future with gay abandon. A week later, Bill convinced Liam that we were heading for certain penury. Bill, it seemed, was a fickle queen. Eventually, Liam and Bill came to grips with the vagaries of investments and currency exchange, and things started to look up. Turkish interest rates had soared to twenty per cent, providing an effortless, ready-made income.
“We can definitely manage,” said Liam confidently, “and your redundancy payment makes all the difference to Bill’s bottom line.”
“I don’t trust Bill’s bottom.”
“He doesn’t like the look of yours much, either.”
“So we’ll be okay?”
“Are you sure this time?”
My financial guru closed his laptop and squeezed my hand. “You okay with this Jack? You’re a big cheese. You’ll miss the kudos.”
“Mild middling cheddar, and I won’t. Can’t believe they paid me off though.”
“They couldn’t wait to get rid of you. You’ve been a liability for years.”
In truth, the speed at which everything happened did throw me off balance. I had worked since the age of eighteen, dodging further education by careering into my first full-time job as a shop boy on Chelsea’s trendy King’s Road. It was an easy way to earn an honest crust and pick up tricks on the side. Days on the tills and nights on the tiles were the best probation for a young gay man about town. After two carefree years, I swapped sales for security and got a proper job in local government with a pension attached. There was the rub: I was used to the filthy lucre. Jumping from cosy financial certainty to a life based on long term unemployment scared me half to death.
I wasn’t the only one with doubts. Our plan attracted its fair share of dissenters, not least because of the Islamic angle. Most Muslim countries didn’t exactly have a commendable history of tolerance, and since I dropped out of the womb waving my jazz hands and screaming I Am What I Am, I could well be asking for trouble.
“Well, I have no intention of stepping back into the closet,” I protested to the great, the good and the idle at my leaving do. They had gathered in a pretentious little Kensington wine bar to wave me off. The venue was the very latest place to see and be seen with hard perspex chairs, fake Rothko oils and stratospheric drink prices.
“God knows why two openly gay men would want to live in a Muslim country,” I announced, “Particularly one with an unenviable reputation for military coups. There’s nothing for it. I shall insist that Liam wear a head scarf and walk three paces behind me at all times.”
Enjoying the giggles from the attentive assembly, I launched into a self-indulgent, innuendo-laden, gay-man-abroad patter, concluding with “the Queen wears a head scarf and she’s not Muslim.”
Later, as the crowd began to thin, I found a machine-aged brown Chesterfield sofa tucked away near the coat check and rang Liam. My swansong was done, my farewells said, and a thirty year career was over in an instant. As I waited for Liam, the slippery nipples hit their mark and I began to lose it. You total tosser, Jack. Jettisoned the job? Genius. Now what? The archetypal male mid-life crisis? A stunning bestseller? How to end up in the gutter in three short months, by Jack the fucking pratt?
Sozzled stragglers stumbled over for final goodbyes.
“We’ll keep in touch,” they lied. “That was some speech; we’ll miss you, Jack; good luck with the Arabs; lucky bastard; think of us back at the coal face.” Yeah, right. Alcohol and anxiety made uncomfortable bedfellows, and I was desperate for Liam to rescue me from the doldrums.
Right on cue, the indomitable optimist strolled into the bar, pecked me on the cheek and picked up my bags. “You’d better sober up quickly, Jack. We’re booked on a morning flight to Bodrum.”
In 2010, Jack started an irreverent narrative about his new life and Perking the Pansies quickly became one of the most popular English language blogs in Turkey. Within a year, he had been featured in the Turkish national press, had published numerous essays and articles in expat and travel magazines and had contributed to the Huffington Post Union of Bloggers. As the blog developed a head of steam, a growing worldwide audience clamoured for a book. Jack duly obliged and his hilarious (well, he thinks so) memoir, Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey was released through Summertime Publishing in 2011.
Receiving critical acclaim, Jack’s debut book won a Rainbow Book Award in two categories, made the top ten for the prestigious Polari First Book Prize and featured in a double page spread in Time Out, Istanbul. The book’s success opened up a whole new career for Jack as an author. Jack and Liam ended their Anatolian affair and paddled back to Britain on the evening tide. They currently live in Norwich, a weird and wonderful cathedral city in eastern England.
Jack hasn’t rested on his laurels. He’s been busy writing the sequel to tie up the fraying loose ends and bring Jack and Liam’s story crashing to its surprising conclusion. Turkey Street, Jack and Liam’s Bodrum Tales is scheduled for publication in 2014.
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