slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation…”
Exodus Ch 20 V 2-17
“I have a plastic arm!”
He undid his cuff and rolled up his jacket sleeve. Sure enough there was a white plastic prosthesis, its injection-moulded musculature gleaming dimly in the low lighting. There was a pause while I attempted to formulate the correct response. Truth be told, by this time I was so confused already I wasn’t that surprised. I can’t remember what I actually thought – it was 20 years ago after all – but it would have been something along the lines of ‘why not?’, a frank admission of ignorance as we exploded through space on a piece of molten rubble until the end of time. My next move in this 3-D non sequitur remained forever theoretical when Yukio registered in my peripheral vision and gently tugged the sleeve of my Paul Smith jacket. She wanted a line of the uncut rock of cocaine in my pocket.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I said already tacking gratefully across the crowded sitting room that was serving as a dance floor. I had first arrived in Hong Kong the year before and this glossy, upper Mid-Levels party represented the height of my social climbing. Colonial Hong Kong’s caste system was roughly analogous to its topography. The Peak was the upscale residential area straddling the summit of Hong Kong Island’s snake-infested, rocky spine where the rich lived in high-walled discretion; Swire princelings, the diplo kids, the bankers. Central, Wan Chai, Sheung Wan, where I lived, and the other neighbourhoods clinging precariously to often reclaimed land at its foot, were bustling islands of grimy brownstone walk-ups marooned amid soaring canyons of ruthlessly modern skyscrapers threaded with spirals of motorway flyover DNA; all lapped by a tide of rickshaws, buses, taxis, antique trams and thronging pavements. Mid-Levels…well you get the picture.
Yukio was part of my modest rise in this rigidly hierarchical world. Along with two other ex-pat friends Fat Paul and Yogi, I had launched a club night which was now enjoying a certain notoriety. The silver jump-suited Yukio and her disco hippy boyfriend had landed at my club the night before from Tokyo with a halting yet charming line of trippy chat and a big bag of Es. It seemed that she enjoyed an open relationship with her bf and I was happy to oblige. We had ridden The Escalator – a giant shopping centre-style deal with stations like a railway or underground that scaled the steep hillside between Central and Mid-Levels – doing bumps until we arrived at the party ready to face the music like David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death. The apartment was huge by HK standards with vast prairie expanses of parquet floor extending to double front French windows with a tennis court-sized balcony and twinkling panoramic view. Groups of fashionably-dressed partygoers staffed a dogs-leg area with deep sofas and an actual conversation pit. The rest danced, lost in the familiar four bar thump of house music. I palmed a drink, content to stand back and make the scene. I hadn’t noticed the man before he appeared at my elbow and, in calm contrast to the self-conscious animation around us, almost absent-mindedly struck up my acquaintance.
“Hello there,” he greeted me with a vague air of resignation, his tone even and friendly. He was somewhere in his late twenties, with short dark hair, medium height and tastefully dressed down – unremarkable, purposely diffident even. Indeed, in my state of accelerated narcissism I might have dismissed him, the discarded remainder of some spurious social equation. However, the stillness surrounding him was a compelling counterpoint to my frozen mental dials numbly spinning in an attempt to calibrate my potential cool.
“Yeah hi,” I countered. “How’s it going?”
“Good, I just arrived tonight. I’m on my way round the world.”
“In eighty days?” I deadpanned. Almost every westerner I met was a tourist or business traveller of some kind. Even the ex-pats I did meet were only temporary residents and planned to go home just as soon as they had clocked up enough experience or dollars, especially as the ‘Handover’ loomed. Practically no-one actually lived here and if they did they were ‘old China hands’ and therefore dying of late stage alcoholism. Hong Kong’s transience was compounded by the claustrophobic overcrowds of Chinese everywhere, urgently doing things you didn’t understand. The effect of such cosmopolitan isolation was a queer feeling of bored excitement: as if alienation were a new adventure sport that you trained for in London or New York ahead of a world series of culture shock in the Far East.
“No, I’m going to take my time. I don’t know how long I’ll be away,” he said, acknowledging my cokey repartee with the faint smile of an indulgent aunt to a precocious and overtired nephew. He added that he wasn’t planning on staying in Hong Kong long, just a week or so. He was going to Tokyo next.
“How about you?” he asked. “What are you doing?”
I began to make Hong Kong small talk with enough autobiography to avoid discourtesy; the copywriting job, trips to Shang Hai, Macau and further afield to Manila and Tokyo, the inevitable post-Handover plans. He supplied reassuring non-verbal cues as I warmed to my theme, nodding and smiling without obvious resort to the annoying how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people text book antics supposedly designed to build rapport. There was no rictus grimace of the professional auto-smile that bares its teeth at inappropriate moments, no dumb echo of speech patterns, lexis or posture, so popular with HK’s psycho-babble shadow economy of personal trainers, effectiveness seminars and Est and NLP courses. He was just easy to talk to. We stood surveying the scenery, the sense of kindred spirits unmistakeable.
“But you still haven’t got over Laney yet,” he said quietly, turning to face me for the first time. The physical emphasis underlined the startling implications of his statement, possibilities fanning out through my thoughts like search parties for an escaped convict. Only a brief flicker of amusement in his eyes betrayed expectation that his psychic legerdemain would puncture my brittle poise. I must have gaped slightly, my carefully rehearsed attitude splintering into a spider’s web of broken reflections. He was some kind of charlatan, his apparently miraculous knowledge glommed from clandestine research, I reasoned. But his downbeat manner was not that of the showman. If he was a magician’s stooge planted in the audience, they weren’t applauding. He knew no-one here that I knew, of that I was fairly certain. Besides, Laney was private, not a topic I discussed with anyone these days. The whole Less Than Zero-schtick of my existence was hopelessly mired in its denial. It was true, I hadn’t.
Laney was Katherine Julia Lane, Laney to her friends, Laney to her boyfriends, Laney to me but not Laney to anyone here at this Hong Kong party where I knew almost no-one and those that I did were in a different compartment on a train going the other way. Laney and I had met almost a decade before in my hometown of Edinburgh. She was 19 like me, a beautiful, strawberry blonde Australian, glowing with talent, vitality and adventure. We began an intense affair, young love hothoused in a heady atmosphere of new ideas, travel and shared artistic ambition. After my first year at Glasgow University, she returned home to Sydney and art school. I took a year out and we reunited in Australia. Half-baked plans to continue my degree there were shelved when a secret marriage of convenience failed to provide the necessary fees. We had dropped ecstasy before going to the registry office, I remember someone throwing M&Ms in the air outside and the brightly coloured sweets bouncing off our hands and laughing faces. Predictably, we soon learned that this did not make me automatically eligible for free tuition. However, Laney was a North Shore heiress. She switched to the art school in Glasgow while I, to the amazement of my tutors, returned to my alma mater. But the dynamics of our relationship had changed. No longer a gap year visitor, she missed home. Her mother discovered photos of our wedding hidden under her old mattress. It all became too much and by the end of our respective courses we both felt trapped by the pressures of a now public marriage. Tit-for-tat infidelities ensued and we split bitterly. I still yearned for her, three years later, treating my heartbreak with sex, drugs and insincere nihilism.
“How do you know about her,” I managed at last, still attempting to dissemble. He ignored my question. “Nothing will go right for you, not until you get over Laney,” he prophesised, with some credibility. Strangely, I didn’t pursue the point. After my initial surprise, a sense of acceptance stole over me like a drowning man who takes his first gulp of water and likes the taste. He explained that he was escaping from some vague catastrophe or spiritual lacuna, an existential crisis that he only hinted at darkly but stopped short of actually specifying. He came from Brighton where his father was an underworld figure. He had worked for him. Here perhaps was the source of his moral exhaustion, he suggested. Now he just wanted to travel, see the world in slow motion after so much fast forward.
“Sins of the fathers huh,” I ad-libbed. Just one more throwaway remark to add to my landfill of throwaway remarks, playing for time to rewire my short-circuiting belief system. His demeanour changed abruptly. “I can’t believe it! I can’t BELIEVE you just said that!” he exclaimed, grabbing my bicep, his eyes wide with genuine amazement.
I led Yukio to one of the bedrooms in a daze. She sat on my knee while I racked out lines on a dresser. I rolled a $50 note and she inhaled. We began to kiss, manoeuvring to a bed piled with jackets. When I returned to the party half an hour later, he was gone. Enquiries were met with blank stares, no-one remembered him, let alone knew where he’d gone. I felt mechanical, impermanent. Figures stood in outline like cardboard cut-outs, the walls of the apartment seemed poised to be wheeled away like scenery to reveal the true relation of things. I danced. I drank. I paid tribute to my gods. I never did get his name.