James Tressler / Sunday, June 18 @ 6:45 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: On Board the SAPTIRMA
Istanbul. Ramazan and the arrival of fasting meant that the great
city was quiet. The cafes at lunchtime were mostly empty, and in the
offices of the high buildings the work was desultory, indifferent.
This year Ramazan arrived in June, the longest days of the year, but
fortunately it was not hot, and it rained on many afternoons, as if
divinity had sent the cool weather as a measure of grace to the
starving, thirsty faithful.
Not that any of this meant much to Davenport. An Irishman (his roots were Irish, despite the surname and the fact that he grew up in London) in his early fifties, Davenport had seen much of the world. His teaching career had taken him on stints to Asia, Africa, South America, and of course, the Middle East. He’d just wrapped up his first year in the city by the Bosphorus. His attitude toward the holy month and fasting was one of cultivated indifference, by which he would translate as, “It’s not my lookout, old boy.”
So it didn’t bother him to sit outside at the cafes and bars in Istanbul, nursing a pint of Guinness (bloody expensive in this city) and a plate of chips. These days, like most other teachers, his work had crawled to a halt. All of the students, or nearly all, had taken the month off. They would resume their studies after the bayram, or even in the fall.
So Davenport had plenty of time on his hands. Of course, there were his online students (private, on the side). Online teaching paid fairly well, and most of the time it just involved an hour or so of chit-chat – easy money. Davenport found he could set himself up with his laptop, headset, and a pint or two, and pick up as much work as he needed. All of the money from these courses was paid via PayPal, which he then transferred to his London account.
It was a bore most of the time, chatting with Asian execs about their work, their hobbies, their wives, their mistresses – most of the online work was from Asia. But again, easy money, lad!
Anyway, the excess of free time, and the long days, were adding up, paralyzing, stultifying. Davenport was not particularly interested in women, or else lacked the energy to pursue the plenty to be had, especially in the Taksim bars where he spent a lot of his time – young women who enjoyed the company of yabancilar, who liked to practice their English, who didn’t mind having someone buy them a drink. He had an ex-wife with whom he’d had three children, all grown now. The oldest son was in business, the younger son just finished grad school, and the daughter had already married and was well set up.
The ex-wife he had no use for; the children he heard from occasionally – whenever they needed money. Once or twice a year, he’d fly to London, and over to Cork for a few days. He’d have dinner with the kids – and usually end up paying for the meal.
This year, Davenport had decided against flying back – hell, if the kids wanted to see him, they could bloody well afford to come to Turkey. Marmaris, Bodrum, Fehtiye – these cool, relaxing spots on the Mediterranean beckoned. He saw himself lying on the beach, with a steady supply of beer, and a sturdy pile of books (he was especially fond of the classics), occasionally taking dips in the turquoise-colored sea.
And yet, MacGyver’s offer was there, still on the table. The offer bewildered, intrigued him, set his imagination in motion – which was a wonderful divertissement during the long summer afternoons.
MacGyver – that’s not his real name, of course. They each had christened him with this name, owing to his sort of cavalier resourcefulness. Davenport had met this MacGyver character – real name, Scott Something – during one of his many nights the James Joyce Irish Pub in Taksim.
The James Joyce Pub offered the rugby and football matches on a TV upstairs, where patrons were also free to smoke and carry on pretty much as they damn well pleased. One night, this MacGyver character presented himself. Davenport surveyed him casually – they were about the same age, and of similar character. That is, they both liked to consume copious amounts of alcohol, watch the sport, “take the piss” and even come to blows with each other every once in a while.
MacGyver was a Scotsman, and as Davenport soon discovered, enormously and mysteriously wealthy. That first night, the Scot encouraged his new pub buddy to order whatever he wished – it was all on him. Beer, shots, food, whatever. They got absolutely red-assed until dawn, as Davenport put it, and found themselves to be on equal, sympathetic terms.
After that night, the two friends hung out regularly. They’d start at an Italian restaurant in the Zorlu Center – two bottles of expensive red wine, pasta, pizza, whatever – Davenport didn’t even bother looking at the prices, he just randomly pointed something out to the waiter. It didn’t matter – it was all on the Scotsman.
After this “warm up,” they’d head to the James Joyce pub, put away pints and shots, and then sometime after midnight, crawl around to some of the other nearby places – clubs, discos, after-hours joints. God knows how much they drank! How much they spent!
Davenport soon discovered that MacGyver chose not to talk about himself very much, or the source of his mysterious wealth. He seemed in need of a caretaker, especially after he’d had too much to drink. (There were several places where he’d been 86’d for various forms of rowdiness, indecency, and it was Davenport who’d been called upon to plead with the bartenders on MacGyver’s behalf; usually they relented – if anything, they liked the money that was spent. MacGyver mentioned about some mining interests in the south of Turkey, – they were either in the south, or had “gone south,” Davenport couldn’t be sure (one of the hazards of a drinking buddy relationship is that one often gets fuzzy on such details).
And it wasn’t just food and drinks. There were times when the Scotsman would literally thrust cash into Davenport’s lap. One time he gave Davenport 1,000 lira just to assist with a project – which turned out to be some kind of new app MacGyver supposedly was working on. The work was never done, and Davenport deduced that this app, whatever it was, likely existed solely in the Scotman’s drunken imagination. Another time, having lost his iPhone in one of the bars, MacGyver bought a new one, but then while he was at it, purchased one for Davenport as well.
Again, all of this generosity Davenport accepted with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. Some of his colleagues at the school listened to the tales of MacGyver’s latest extravagances with curiosity and envy.
“I wish I had a friend like that!” they said.
“Next time you see your Scottish buddy tell him I need 50,000 lira for a down payment on an apartment. I mean, since he seems so happy to give his money away!”
At any rate, MacGyver of late had talked of buying a yacht – yes, a yacht. The reason why he wanted to buy a yacht, Davenport surmised, was because he apparently could not fly out of the country. Couldn’t, or wouldn’t. This detail had already raised Davenport’s eyebrows. I mean, he thought, here’s a guy with all this cash – more than he knows what to do with – and he’s just sitting here, soaking in Istanbul bars. Why, he could do anything, go anywhere! I would, he thought.
MacGyver didn’t offer any details on this account, thus leaving Davenport to conclude that his friend had been involved in something shady , and was in some way wanted by the authorities back home. Maybe he feared being arrested if he passed through the airports. Naturally, he was too tactful to make direct inquiries.
All this talk about buying a yacht Davenport had at first dismissed as more of his friend’s pub talk – like the bit about the nonexistent app he was developing. But then came the text message one evening in late June to meet him down at the iskele in Besiktas. When Davenport arrived, he found MacGyver leading him to a splendid, gleaming white, 30-foot vessel. The name SAPTIRMA (the Turkish word for “diversion”) was painted boldly on the stern. The Scot had evidently wrapped up the transaction a few days before, with a retired Turkish builder who had also gratefully taken care of all the bureaucratic formalities. The yacht was in MacGyver’s hands, and he was free to lift anchor and set off.
They stepped aboard and took a tour. There was a terrace on top of the pilot’s cabin, and below decks a kitchen, several berths for sleeping, a dining area and bar, and even a small disco, complete with strobe lights and a DJ’s turntable. They investigated the bar, and finding it fully stocked, poured themselves glasses of whiskey topped with ice.
Next came the offer, the one that had been on Davenport’s mind ever since. Why not take a trip, old boy? Set sail, lad.
“You’re not doing anything much these days,” MacGyver said. “You’ve been talking about a holiday. I’ve been thinking about it myself, right? So what’s stopping us?”
The plan was to go to Canada. Canada. No shit. Not straightaway – they could sort of test the waters first. MacGyver was thinking they could sort of sail around the Med, the Aegean, the Adriatic – meander along the Balkans, then Greece, then Italy. “We could have a lot of fun, son!” he said, his drink-red Scottish face bursting with enthusiasm, and he swayed back and forth as he took another sliver of whiskey. “Whaddya say, lad? Oh, don’t worry about a pilot, mate. That’s already sorted. We’ll have ourselves a proper captain.”
“When are you thinking of going?” Davenport asked, as his friend refreshed their empty glasses.
The plan – if you can call it that – was to depart first of July, which coincided with Davenport’s scheduled annual leave. He’d planned to take July off, but now, with this offer on the table, considered taking the whole month of August off as well. The school was pretty dead all summer anyway, what with the students taking their holidays. He considered: he could take July paid leave, and August unpaid. Fair enough. His oldest son still owed him 5,000 pounds. Now might be a good time to collect on it, or at least get some of the money back. He could use that money to pay the rent on his flat though to September.
All of this, Davenport surmised, could be taken care of rather easily. As noted, he already had planned to take holiday. Now, with the offer, he had more than that. He had an adventure!
The thing was – was he really planning to go through with it? Could he really trust this guy MacGyver?
“I don’t know,” his colleagues said, teasing him. “It’s just the two of you? Are you sure this guy isn’t planning to – I don’t know – make sex tapes with kiddies or something?” Mercilessly, mischievously, they crooned “Just The Two Of Us,” seductively in Davenport’s ear.
They imagined endless varieties of perversion, debauchery. Or else, they touched on this MacGyver’s mysterious circumstances. How could Davenport be sure that some night in, say, Rome or Thessaloniki or Rhodos, might not, after too much to drink, simply vanish? Davenport could wake up hungover in some hotel room, left with only the bill. He’d rush down to the dock and find the yacht gone.
Or, if this guy was somehow wanted by the authorities, what would happen if they got detained. Would Davenport be held as an accessory? One never knew in these untried circumstances.
Davenport bore well, with his Irish fortitude, the teasing and taunting of his colleagues. They were boring, he fired back. They had no lives. They didn’t understand the meaning of the word “adventure.” He would be sailing the sea onboard the SAPTIRMA while they sat around in Istanbul with their dreary, uneventful lives.
As for his relationship with MacGyver, well, that seemed clear as Cristal champagne. They were drinking buddies, is all. His services, as comrade and caretaker, were in demand. His job, as Davenport saw it, was merely to look after his friend, to keep him out of trouble, to sort out bartenders, waiters, hotel staff, and anyone else who might occasionally be put off by his friend’s frequent excesses. And what did he get out of it? Well, if nothing else, a free trip around the Med. If, at the end the Canada thing never materialized, or if the drinking buddy thing turned sour, he could always step off the yacht at some port or another, fly back home for a few days or return to Turkey and pick up his laid-aside south coast rendezvous. At any rate, he was in the clear.
If this all sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Most things are, especially when they involve lonely, mysteriously rich guys wallowing in the bars of foreign cities, ready to piss their fortunes away. The capitals of great cities, from New York to Prague, Istanbul to Bangkok, are filled with such stories; sodden princes going to seed. ‘Tis an ancient story, and one that seldom ends well.
In fact, in the days prior to departure, Davenport read in the news of a massive heroin shipment bound for Turkey that had been seized in the Suez Canal. According to the report, Coast Guard authorities got wind of the Congolese vessel, and arrested seven Turkish nationals on board. More than 1 ton of heroin was confiscated.
Of course, the idea that this MacGyver could be involved in such a sinister, fantastic operation had crossed his mind more than once. He even joked aloud to colleagues that he might find himself aboard the SAPTIRMA some morning rifling through cabinets, looking for the aspirin, and unwittingly stumble across some secret compartment loaded with guns bound for Syria; underage Asian girls bound for the sex trade, or drugs on their way to the streets of Montreal, Toronto .
These apprehensions he brushed off. Judging from MacGyver’s behavior in the pubs, Davenport felt safe to conclude that his friend was far too reckless – or is it, feckless? – to possess the kind of shrewdness, discretion – such operations would require. If his friend was some kind of international smuggler, be it weapons, drugs, girls, secret Death Star plans, whatever, wouldn’t he be a bit more careful? One would think.
Most of this story happens to be true. It was told to me recently by an associate who works with our Davenport. For obvious reasons, I have changed names, details, circumstances, and certain bits of the story I’ve had to fill in with my imagination, not having all of the information at hand.
I was drawn to this story because it is full of so many diffuse elements – intrigue, wealth, danger. I see it almost as a 1940s John Huston film. Of course, Huston would insist on Bogart playing the MacGyver character, and there would be no doubt as to him being a smuggler. Joseph Cotton could play Davenport, and we would probably have to flesh out the ex-wife, as she would have to appear at some point. Finally, we would need a love interest, as well, a femme fatale, who is cooly scheming to separate MacGyver from his money.
What matters here is that one is again reminded that in the great port cities like Istanbul – walking along in Taksim, or down by the iskele, looking out at the ships passing in the choppy Bosphorus, such stories are lurking everywhere. The world in all its curiosity, its sinister and enchanting beauty, rolls past on those ships. And I like that the story begins in summer, on one of those long days where the great city feels empty, quiet, where the usual clamor of life seems to be missing. In this respect, it seems almost inevitable – a moral imperative even – that if one is offered such a kind, mysterious offer such as that given to this Davenport, one should seriously consider, if not rush to accept.
What will happen come July, August, when the two of them, Davenport, MacGyver, set off on their great quest? Who knows, really? We’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll try and follow up, depending of course if and when the two adventurers ever turn up again. You’d be surprised what goes on in this part of the world.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.