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I would say that threat and upheaval are the difference between leaving and fleeing. I was somewhere in between; restless and quiet at the same time. It had been this way for months. Noise helped. The conversations of the city outside would probably be described as incessant by some; a hellish living arrangement in which fast life disturbed slumber and each rushing car eroded peace of mind. You could say I had befriended chaos – adopted it as a second sibling perhaps. There was not a decibel that was uncomfortably out of place here anymore, it had been a long time since my return.
It was one of those mornings that happen twice. You wake, realise there’s not much to wake for and go back to sleep. In between rests I thought about what I might do to make this Saturday more productive than the last but failed to convince myself of anything. The banal disappointment was interrupted by a flash from my phone. I saw the message: ‘dinner at wan chai – 8 pm?’ This was rather unexpected. I wondered why she was back in Hong Kong. And Wan Chai? She really was living that life. Lucky for me I barely had one so had some spare cash. We hadn’t spoken in months, our messages began to feel forced, like each person straining themselves to drain one more drop out of the wet towel that had become our friendship. I will admit, I had initially wanted more than just friendship, but the desire faded quickly as the reality of who we were becoming settled into a painful permanence. I still maintain she had been lying to herself or rather had imbibed the lies of her peers, those vacuous well-to-do peers who knew nothing and looked like they felt nothing. I should have known how to be around them given my historical proximity but I wear my sustained aversion as a badge of honour.
One of the reasons Steph stood out was how she made fun of their superficiality one of the first times we met and spoke. Her cool demeanour and quick, dry humour kept many conversations alive, so much so that I always questioned why she gave me the time of day, even as a friend. This was all beside the point; she was for whatever reason back home and had asked me to dinner. I was no longer a romantic so had no cloudy ideas forming in my head, I was then a self-professed realist. I was just happy it gave my day some structure and purpose. I had a reason to make an effort with my appearance, although this didn’t mean I’d wear an actual shirt. I realised a few months earlier how uncomfortable shirts were. Perhaps it was my awkward physique coupled with off-the-shelf sizes, but I had happily given most of my shirts away. No bother, I had other Wan-Chai-worthy clothes, though the idea of dressing a certain way because of the location and flashy interior of a restaurant made me slightly nauseous.
Evening drew nearer and my mother asked, with no hope in her low voice, whether I’d changed the bulbs in my sister’s room, and when I confirmed her suspicions she shook her head. I told her I’d be seeing a friend for dinner. She asked if it was a girl and told me to dress properly for once. My parents always wanted me to dress ‘well’, which is more often than not a code word for boring or for posh – it was both. I think they wanted me to change more than just my dress sense and I knew why. It hurt them in some way to see me so aloof. Their lives had been so rigid and well planned, they valued security more than freedom; the volatility of searching for something was beyond their scope of understanding. They had sent me to Southampton and then London to get some of that famed English education, to have some papers to my name that might grant me, even more, security than they had. I returned to Hong Kong to a life that I almost forgot existed. I had forgotten I had so many relatives – family dinner after family dinner quickly became difficult to take. It was then I began to find some solace in my window and treasured the confinement of my room. Solitude, to my parents, was a strange thing. I lost count of how many times we had argued about my self-exile in our crowded apartment.
Almost my entire formative years had been spent in a foreign country, all of them spent in academic institutions that seemed less focused on a harmful form of competition that I’d seen at home. Looking back I think my foreignness probably had much to do with that perception. I spent many of my moments in quiet observation; I didn’t feel connected to the white kids, but this was an agreeable distancing in which I was happy to watch and learn their differences from kids back home. School was just school – I was a smart kid, always doing either well or well enough to progress. When progress meant university and a move to Southampton, my curiosity found a new canvas to sit in front of. The university was the most diverse institution I’d been in and much like my A-Levels I spent the early months in observation. I admit I was not the most confident of students, but my penchant for English movies had given me a useful inventory of conversation starters to choose from and I made a few scattered friends. Scattered is fitting because they had no real correlation to each other at all, they ranged from Pakistani poets to Irish violinists. I preferred it that way; I always found the concept of a fixed group of friends so restrictive, as if each person in the group was at some point living a lie, saying yes when they meant no, quietly condoning things they had no belief in.
Of course, I got to know some students from Hong Kong; it was how I’d meet Steph. We weren’t from the same part of home, she was from the glades. I used to go and walk there sometimes and still do, since childhood I’ve had a peculiar fascination with the life of the rich. Their lives were so sterile looking but at times undeniably beautiful. The most interesting thing to me was the sheer difference in lifestyle, in concerns. It all sounds obvious enough but it’s something I still think about. We did okay, great even, in global standards but the guys who lived in Stanley, the Stephs of this world, were something else. Their lives were like a painting I didn’t ever understand no matter how long I sat in front of them on a backless bench; perhaps one I was never meant to. I had another showing at the gallery to go to that evening. It’s a little crude to refer to it that way, I did after all say that Steph was different and that was true. She was different enough – maybe I was the same to her.
The magpie in me was momentarily in awe of the way the light was hitting the crockery and the beams in the restaurant. I’d never been before and for the length of my walk up to the roof terrace, I imagined I was in a video game of my youth, walking around rich neighbourhoods and I’d just levelled up and found a way inside one of the homes. My fantasy was broken abruptly but with the well-trained sincerity of a waiter requesting that I take a seat. I sent a text to Steph saying I was upstairs but she should take her time. She replied quickly saying she would take her time, and that I’d probably prefer looking out at the city imagining something than talk to her anyway. She was good – she managed to extract a real laugh out of me after weeks. As she arrived I quickly realised why I once wanted more than friendship; this felt more like a cheat-code section of the video game. As ever we didn’t spend too much time exchanging pleasantries and almost picked up where we had left off, wherever or whenever that had been. She really was a pleasure to talk to. Each story she told felt like a welcome weight off my chest that I didn’t know I had, which sounds completely misplaced as a feeling but it was true. It had been so long since I’d been involved in a conversation that was neither entirely predictable nor centred around money or food. She riffed on everything from Wong Kar-Wai to the discrimination faced by the Rohingya like a seasoned podcaster. This was always where she confused me – a stranger might never believe she was a banker in London who had her own apartment.
On reflection, her stories and takes on politics were always on areas distant enough to avoid too much introspection. I felt she had the heart of a revolutionary somewhere beneath that Hermes scarf. This was something I never questioned her directly about as I was happy to just listen to her. I was in no position to moralise either – any rigorous questioning of my own decisions with respect to my politics would leave me looking far from perfect. I had no material reason to complain the way I did at all, and I think we both knew that. But we also knew that material reasoning was not the only valid one, and we both saw a purple discontentment in one another that for the brief periods we were in conversation felt more like kinship than sadness. Conversation did eventually end up at work, and for the first time stayed there longer than usual and it was this that gave me an idea of why we faded so quickly and became such pathetic friends to one another.
I had friends in the kind of business world Steph was in, but none who I really listened to or had actual friendship with. It had turned out that the life she was carving for herself through the corporate structure was taking a real toll on her – the kind of toll that had stolen some of the brightness in her eyes and for the first time that evening I genuinely felt sorry for her, and angry at myself for ever thinking she was purposefully removing herself from my life. I was no romantic but at that point, I really wanted to hold her hand but feared the consequences. Somewhat like that scene in Before Sunset when Jesse and Celine are in the back of the car and she toys with the idea of touching his face while his back is turned. I think that’s how it goes. It was one of the first films we bonded over. Love was a topic that seemed so distant from both of our lives at the time that we discussed it very openly and frequently for two people who were just friends. She began to delve into the details of what her life had become as of the last year and I couldn’t help but think of why she persisted with this lifestyle. It was not a line of inquiry I left completely untouched but the few times I’d asked before let me know that I would be left with an answer I wouldn’t know what to do with. She always felt she had to, that there was no other way to live and the negatives didn’t outweigh the positives but I knew there was something more to this – especially this time.
Her eyes began to wander in a way they never did. She paused and looked over at the city in a way that I would, her confidence melting away into the warm air as she caught herself and grasped for words. I have to carry on. My tone took a sharp departure from its norm as I told her she didn’t have to with a conviction I never had with Steph. Our conversations were always peppered with I thinks and maybes and never stepped into the territory of imperatives or solid advice. You think you do but you don’t, you’ve been doing this for so long it’s turning you into your friends. You’re tired, I can see it. You probably came so you could feel the old you again, knowing I might remind you of it. She was stunned at my confidence and initially, I couldn’t tell whether she was impressed or annoyed at me. I felt proud for speaking up, but guilty about my tone again. I knew she wasn’t doing well and I should’ve been more tactful. I think I went overboard.
What do you mean I’m becoming my friends, what does that even mean? Everyone has a hard time in my line of work, it’s part of the job but the rewards are there, I have my independence and a comfortable life. I looked accusingly at that last phrase and she knew I’d caught the lie. It might not be comfortable now but it will pass. It has to. How’s the bohemian life treating you anyway? Have you implemented any ideas or just had them recently? Like always – head in the clouds and no clue of what it takes to live life out there. I felt attacked but knew there was truth in what she said. I know she was deflecting from before but it was just a matter of time until we had this conversation, it was long overdue. I always thought she would one day realise that she wasn’t right for that life and would come over to the light side. And do what? Pontificate with me?
We spent the next hour justifying ourselves to each other over small, flavoursome portions. My respect for her grew. I had no real idea of the kind of pressure she was under at home; she always mentioned it passingly and then moved on to Basquiat or some other impressive thing she knew much about. Then there was not only home but her immediate environment. The constant pressure in London to look a certain way, to be in certain places, was something I faintly remember. I realised that without noticing she’d become engrossed in a life that wasn’t of her choice but the choice of everyone else. Her social life influenced her work life to a nauseating degree and the calculations she had to make on a daily basis, as this stranger and a woman were frightening. She was always good at reminding me of the number of things I didn’t have to worry about as a man. I would always forget. In that way she made me a better human. It was my shortcomings that meant I wasn’t more sympathetic to her situation but still couldn’t help but wish she’d leave it all. I was selfish and needed a friend, yes, but I genuinely felt for her. She was by far the most intelligent person I knew, more cultured and sophisticated than any chancer in Shoreditch and had the potential for so much more than a shiny bank.
She’d been right about me and ideas, I had so many but had achieved so little with all my time. We were laughing again soon enough, and in the time that had passed, we began to believe each other’s criticisms. She toyed with the idea of coming home more permanently, and she turned a half-formed idea of mine into a non-profit pitch with remarkable speed. She reminded me that though she mocked me earlier out of self-defence, there was real value in thinking of a third way. I was privileged to even entertain those thoughts besides my window.
I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I always did believe you when you told me it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have the courage to do anything else. I envied you but found a strange, addictive solace in the measured, numeric success of work.
Is the solace wearing thin?
You deserve more, Steph. You’re too brilliant for it.
She smiled as if to thank me for the compliment and beckoned another well-trained waiter. I asked when she had to go back; knowing it was at some point tonight and her second smile was so perfect it floored me.
My flight, she paused, is in an hour.