slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
“Death is always on the way but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
Sebastian believed in the future. Not as a utopian ideal but as good design, as if lives were mapped out in neat diagrams like his favourite Dorling Kindersley reference books. Which they kind of are, but not in the way he meant. Sebastian was my boss, the marketing director of an adventure sports equipment manufacturer. “The future is all we have. The past is just a dream, it’s gone, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he explained to me once. “And the present? What is the present? Is it now? Is it now?” he asked rhetorically, karate-chopping the air in a deliberately doomed attempt to pinpoint the elusive nature of our temporal condition, the here-and-now reduced to spiritual sashimi. “No, the future is the only thing we can do anything about.” It was a characteristically bullish statement from him. Not so much in its apparently no-nonsense, go-getting attitude to life, which he certainly possessed: he had been an entrepreneur in London and Hong Kong before landing a job in a top ad shop, finally being hired away by the sports company. Although this was an appearance that concealed a more complex world view. Rather, it revealed confidence in his innate perfectability and the eventual rightness of things, an understated arrogance bred on the playing fields of an English public school.
Sebastian was elegant. His father had been an officer in the Coldstream Guards. He was a compact, dapper man fond of Savile Row tailoring, Jermyn Street shirts and bench-made Chelsea boots: all twills, tweeds and other climatically unsuitable establishment fabrics. He wrote long hand in fine leather-bound jotters, perfect copper plate flowing from Mont Blanc fountain pens. He was a talented photographer, a shrewd conveyor of character with an eye for stop motion beauty which translated happily into sumptuous product shots and unexpectedly intimate portraits of poker faced athletes. And yet, despite his grooming and accomplishments, there was something childish about him, an inability to accept his own and everyone else’s limitations. Of course, all this effortless superiority stuff is an upper-middle class cliché but Sebastian wasn’t a snob. It was more the faintly neurotic air of suppressed hysteria that develops as you tick off the disappointments like a cancer victim with a bucket list.
I’m guessing it was this frustration combined with an unhappy love affair that had led him to join a cult in London. Not a traditionally apocalyptic, millenarian deal where everyone commits suicide in a star-shape. I’m not sure whether it was Scientology or something more obscure: perhaps the telephone sales cult a friend-of-a-friend had become involved in where members sang a special telephone song every morning before beginning an unpaid ten-hour shift tele-selling timeshares. It was definitely one of the more commercially orientated outfits which, back in those aspirational Eighties days, were fashionable; pitched like a self-help group but actually designed to do the opposite with an innocuous, academic-sounding name like the Institute for Human Relations or the Social Research Centre.
“You’re squandering your potential,” Sebastian lectured one day as I pondered a particularly rigorous hangover. “It’s just a question of being clear…” he paused significantly. “About what you want.” Maybe it was Scientology, I thought miserably. Senior executives at Wind Star were always accusing each other of lacking clarity, the killer put-down in the frequent spats about product lines, strategy and branding that betrayed its superficially easygoing but ultimately dysfunctional corporate culture. He was taking me for lunch as a passive aggressive pretext for a bollocking. “You allow your emotions to dictate your behaviour. You’re living in a bad dream,” he inventorised hypocritically as we descended the dirty concrete firestairs from our shabby offices. He was right though. I had realised it was going to be a bad day when I woke up, a cell-drunk lifer readying himself for another day stitching mail bags under the evil eye of society’s panopticon. An admittedly chemically-biased pessimism that was reinforced by surprising Sandy, our departmental secretary, when I arrived early that morning as she was furtively scooping dead ornamental carp from the huge aquarium in reception. Feng Shui prescribed fish tanks to soak up bad vibes. “My life hasn’t always been on track,” he said striking a more conciliatory note as I flinched into my crumpled linen jacket, visions of one-armed men piloting mini-subs swimming before my minds-eye. “Since I started going to see Diane, my life coach, things have really turned around. I think you’d really benefit from talking to her,” he bombshelled, spooning sticky rice out of a pineapple. “OK, I’ll give it a go,” I agreed with a clarity I didn’t feel. By the end of lunch, I had made an appointment to meet Diane at The Peninsula Hotel the following week.
Things started to crystallise sooner than that however. The marketing department had been expanding steadily under Sebastian’s empire-building zeal and now housed a whole studio of Mac-hunched creatives churning out brochures, ads and hang-tags. Among the new hirings was a young designer from Derbyshire named Greg. He was rangy with a blonde crop and played rugby but there was nothing clean-cut about him: the dark rings around his hollow stare were unsettling, sinister even. A few weeks before I had seen him at work with Gary wearing a neoprene wetsuit hood and leaning back into a windsurfing harness which he had hooked onto a workbench. The beery Northerners had twinned the product samples as a ‘drinking hood and harness’. If it had been anyone else, it probably would have been funny but when Greg peeled the hood off, his expression curdled any humour quick as sour milk in a microwave. He looked like Rutger Hauer delivering his ‘tears in the rain’ speech in Blade Runner. Fortunately, our mutual incomprehension was camouflaged by his monosyllabic persona. He barely responded to my professional communications, maintaining an otherwise flatlining Bell Curve of effectively autistic interaction. Despite having to work the next morning, I headed straight to the Tuen Mun ferry pier as my drug-fucked mood swung to the feckless optimism of the dedicated oblivion enthusiast. My plan was simple: score some coke, get to Le Jardin in Lan Kwai Fong and talk to Miriam, an attractive columnist for one of the English language newspapers.
As I waited for the little hover ferry to HK proper, I spotted Greg near the front of the queue. He looked despondent, a deep gloom radiating from his downcast figure. Suddenly I understood. My antipathy neutralised in a redemptive surge of empathy: this was a fellow animal, a human being, my colleague, in acute emotional pain. I sat down next to him on the ripped plastic seats as the ferry ricocheted over the chop towards our destination. We had never socialised together before but as we neared the Star Ferry Terminal, I asked him if he wanted to go and get a drink. He agreed and we exited the clanging steel cages of the passenger terminal, up and across the pedestrian flyover to Lan Kwai Fong: a narrow street climbing steeply from Central to Mid-Levels lined with trendy Western-style bars. We picked a vodka bar called Yeltsin and sat down to drink. It’s not as if Greg suddenly opened up like a desert orchid, he was still reserved but we chatted cordially enough about the job, people we knew in common, Hong Kong: neutral tropes signifying well disposed workmates. But underneath it all, his sense of despair was almost palpable. I can’t now remember exactly what prompted me to offer up my three golden rules, a private design for living that I had formulated as a two-fingered distillation of my moral anarchy which even then I knew to be an hopelessly inadequate pose if not outright stupid. It was just a combination of the growing warmth from the booze and a natural impulse to encourage someone who was so clearly depressed.
“I have three rules,” I summarised. “Just three. One, never cop. Never admit to anything. Two, always look people in the eye. Three, never give up. Never give up,” I concluded emphatically, looking him straight in the eye. He smiled, perhaps the first time I had ever seen him smile, and put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re alright, you know,” he said. “You’re really alright.” We downed our drinks soon after and went our separate ways. I was the last person apart from the receptionist at a cheap hotel to speak to him alive. He had checked into the hotel and slashed both his wrists, not badly enough to kill himself but leaving the bed and bathroom covered in his blood when he left. He was found dead in his flat the next day, having finished the job with the hose from the gas cooker.