slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
“I may be wrong but my deodorant seems to be running out.”
Rio D’Angelo, Heaven’s Gate Individual Needs log
I heard about Greg’s suicide on Monday, sitting in my goldfish bowl at work. I had recently made the mistake of complaining about noise in the studio, a fogeyish gambit intended to preempt any criticism of my dwindling productivity and maybe even parley my own office into the bargain. Instead, Sebastian had a glass cubicle constructed around my desk. Now I could get on with writing without being distracted by the stereo and still feel included, he explained. It was hard not to feel like an exhibit. Scrutiny made me feel self-conscious as it was but this was excruciating. Sebastian had magnified my alienation and slapped me down at a single manipulative stroke. As management goes, it was typical of him. When he wasn’t taking me on photo shoots to Hawaii or to meetings in the CEO’s office, he was taking his gold Dunhill to copy drafts in front of a roomful of sniggering colleagues.
“Greg killed himself,” said Gary sticking his head round the ‘bowl, forgoing his usual Marcel-Marceau-trapped-in-a-box routine. “What? Shit. What happened? Fuck…” I said out loud. The depressing scene on Friday made sense now. That could have been me, I realised in a jittery rush of morbid introspection. I was secretly terrified of mortality especially my own. “I’m sorry,” I regrouped. Gary had been friends with Greg. He just shrugged. “Sebastian wants to see everyone,” he said. I got up and followed him. “Did you hear?” someone else gossiped as we crowded into his office. “Sit down, please. I have some bad news,” announced Sebastian. There were only three chairs. “Tragically, Greg took his own life at the weekend… His parents are flying out today but the funeral will be in the UK. However, I understand his friends at the rugby club will be organising a memorial service here, I’ll let you all know.” We went back to work. I got the rest of the grim story from Gary at lunch, what there was of it. He didn’t say why Greg had done it. I didn’t ask – my discretion the product of my existential squeamishness plus a natural distaste at ghoulish rubbernecking, rather than indifference. I was genuinely shocked. The office was quiet too; no-one said ‘should we start a remembrance book like Diana’s?’ Apparently Greg hadn’t been a princess-type of guy.
Sebastian took me to meet life coach Diane a few days later at the Peninsula Hotel. We sank into ox-blood Chesterfields in a gentleman’s club-style bar, the trappings globalised even if the wealth was not. A waiter brought us whisky in tumblers that looked like they’d been pickaxed from volcanic glass. Diane arrived shortly after. She was stunning. Somewhere in her thirties, she walked like a ballerina and talked like a Swiss finishing school. Expensive gold curls framed a green-purple gaze of disconcerting directness. Her legs were fantastic. It wasn’t just her looks though. Diane vibed sex, a fuck-me-if-you-dare charisma pulsing waves of not quite unattainable intimacy. Introductions over, Sebastian alluded to me only once in an otherwise exclusive conversation. I needed help to fulfil my potential apparently. I didn’t mind being ignored, I just tried not to stare. It was like watching the beginning of a pornographic corporate video.
Over the next few months, Diane ‘coached’ me. We met once a week, always at the Peninsula. We discussed my career which felt like a verb to me but she advised was not. I played along, I wanted to keep my job. We drew up lists and plans, devised tactics. I bought a diary and a wall planner. We talked about ambition and goals. She asked me where I wanted to be in five years time. I improvised: I had no idea but admitting it seemed tactless. She charged $100 an hour. Despite my redactive approach to our meetings, I felt exposed but enjoyed the sensation. There was something compulsive about it, like a killer returning to the scene of a crime and watching the detectives or a heretic taking confession with their fingers crossed while the Inquisition pitchforked witches onto bonfires outside. She wanted to know about my lifestyle, why my work was suffering. I told her that I sometimes found it hard to get to sleep. She recommended a carefully non-narcotic medication. Around the time I heard that the melatonin, though effective, was allegedly made from monkey’s pineal gland, she called a halt. “Perhaps we could try something else,” Diane responded to a query about hormonal secretions. “This must be expensive for you and I think we could work together… without the meter running. I’ve some friends from Tokyo staying at the moment. I’d like you to meet them.” She wrote down an address and tore the page out of her Filofax. “Come and visit this weekend, you’ll find it interesting.”
I agreed, I was curious. Her mentions of ‘work’ and ‘friends’ were intriguing; I had once lived in an esoteric commune in Hampstead for six months in an effort to ‘self-remember’. We attended lectures, meditated and performed evermore demanding physical exercises such as freezing stock-still at the sound of a bell, wherever we were in the house, like an occult children’s party game. By the end of my stay there, I wasn’t enlightened but my posture was pretty good. This interest in metaphysics was a logical outrider to my druggy (mis)adventure, a dilettante’s rejection of the mundane. Now Diane promised to decode a Gematria I intuited behind everything bar shopping lists, maybe even those. That she was beautiful only sharpened my anticipation. That’s not to say I was utterly credulous, it was more ambiguous than that. I had been immersed in agnosticism from an early age by my scientist parents, which had the accidental effect of subverting my instinctive mysticism into reckless indifference. It might be fun, I thought.
Diane lived in Pok Fu Lam near the University. As the taxi vipered up the switchback flyovers round the Island, I felt detached, as if someone else was paying the fare. The address was a large villa in a modern, gated development above an old Hakka village marooned in a steep-sided ravine below. I was buzzed in wordlessly, a closed circuit camera tracking my progress. The door to the apartment was open and I found myself in a large room giving out to a courtyard beyond. Abstract art, thick carpets and expensive-looking furniture enveloped the space in a tasteful hush, broken only by a bulky middle-aged figure sitting in the far corner. He was Japanese, thickly bearded with long hair in two braids down to his waist. Barefoot, he was dressed in what looked like martial arts robes.There was something wrong with his eyes, one had the milky opalescence of the blind or partially sighted. The man stood and held out his arms in greeting. “I wanted to meet you, I am Sonshi. Diane has told me much about you,” he said in heavily accented English. “That was good of Diane…” I pointed out. “Where is she?” Sonshi motioned for me to sit down next to him. “She will be joining us soon and we shall work together… First let us you and I talk.”
He asked me about my childhood. He wanted to know about my drug use. There was no cosmic pep talk; Sonshi mostly listened, squinting at me as he probed for detail about how I felt or what I saw at a particular time. Despite my scepticism, I found myself disclosing more than I intended. There was no overt pressure, but his bizarre appearance and vivid concentration gave him an undeniably powerful presence. It was like being observed secretly, as if I were staring at myself through a two-way mirror. I felt naked. “Do you know what is ‘shaktipat’?” he asked finally. “Can’t say that I know the term,” I admitted. “It is the transference of power from one person to another. You have studied Yoga?” he suggested. “No, not really,” I said and described my experiences in the commune. How I had begun to feel something but wasn’t sure what. Sonshi shook his head dismissively. “There are many… wrong beliefs… about this world. You tried something, it did not work. Now you will see, now you will ‘wake up’.” On cue, Diane entered the room carrying a bamboo mat. She smiled and told me to lie down on my back. “Close your eyes. You may find yourself crying out or shaking. Don’t worry, don’t be embarrassed. It’s normal,” she soothed, kneeling at my shoulder. Sonshi squatted behind me. “Now breathe,” he commanded. “Breathe as deeply as you can. Breathe to here,” he said touching my forehead with his fingers. For the next half an hour, I hyperventilated to Sonshi’s instruction, Diane urging me on while Sonshi massaged my forehead between the eyes, muttering to himself. After a few minutes of panting, tremors began to run through my limbs, my joints crackling as random scenes from my past projected onto my mind’s-eye. I may have yelled an obscenity. If Laney could see me now, I imagined watching her watching me, my humiliation complete. Afterwards, Sonshi asked me to visit him again soon. The base of my spine throbbed. At the door, Diane pressed hot lips to my cheek, her skin moist with perspiration. It felt post-coital.