Trading places

news: Trading places

THE HOLIDAYS from hell are over and paradise has been restored. I am sitting on my balcony counting the stars and listening to the sea. The early September air is mellow and caressing. I am having a bachelor’s picnic: assorted crisps, extravagant chilled cans of San Miguel, an almost virginal packet of SG Gigante and Bob Seger’s Against the Wind is on the CD player. I am expecting a telephone call, but more of that another time.

Can you picture me? Now transport me back to my previous life – pinstripe suit, a shirt bought at Marks & Spencer that morning for lack of time to wash or iron, pins still lacerating my flesh reminiscent of Jesus nailed to the cross, a beautifully bound, multi-coloured tie making breathing difficult as soon as I attempt to fight my way onto the underground. All that is missing to make my epic journey to work each day even more automated is the Japanese practice of employing bulky men wearing white gloves. Their job is to cram even more commuters into already overcrowded trains using force. Even Portugal, at the height of the summer, does not (yet) resort to such extreme measures.

When I did eventually arrive at the office, out of breath and patience, normally shortly after seven, the phones, as if attuned to my presence, immediately started ringing, only to cease when I left at six to terrorise clients in the remote outer suburbia of Greater London.

Many a night, the cabbie had to wake me as he pulled up in front of my most desirable of desirable abodes way past the witching hour. Bank managers loved me as my soul slowly but surely wasted away. I was never able to enjoy the Turner view by daylight, which reputedly added another couple of hundred thousand to the value of my luxury pad. Girlfriends came and went, initially attracted by the abundance of meaningless cash, only to keenly feel the permanent lack of a human presence.

Life in London turned into a vicious circle, money for money’s sake, the God. Holidays were long weekends in Portugal, France or some other easily accessible place, pre-empted by calls from the office, even before arrival. Two or three times, the ideal of a lifetime was within reach, the completion of which would have seen me flee south sooner rather than later, but millions are always elusive unless you are prepared to sell your soul to the devil. I never was.

Eventually, I escaped to Berlin – Ladbrokes were kind enough to pay me a fortune to go there – and I relearned humility, got drunk a lot, thankfully lost my job and became human again. It was a long and painful process that had me teetering on the edge of mortality and sanity on several occasions, but I survived to rejoin the real world. As I picked myself off the floor, I discovered what it really means to live, to love and to be here in this paradise (or hell) of our own making. Do you still picture me sitting here on my balcony, gazing out beyond the horizon?

Through some mysterious combination of chemical elements, we have been given a life to live, a limited number of years to spend as we see fit. Take it, accept it and embrace it! I wasted 10 precious years, almost 15 per cent of my presently conscious existence, playing a game of crap (American dice game). They may well have been Russian roulette orgies. I am not alone here in the promised land. There are thousands of us, souls in need of redemption. And we have, by and large, found it.

You know you cannot see any but the brightest of stars in the big city – similar to the city itself – because of all the light illuminating the night sky. This false dawn, stage lighting, does not spoil our view here. Life is still what you make it, but its determining values are clear, true and of permanency.

If you are reading this, there are bound to be a few of you sniggering by now. Fool, I hear you say, but I’d rather be a happy fool true to myself, the self I was in the process of losing, than a callous warrior, trampling over those not equipped to defend themselves, in the pursuit of something so shallow and unsatisfying that it has sent billionaires to their graves in remorseful tears. Money does not make you happy (but it helps).

My next CD is Take It Easy, and I am. It would be so easy to stay here till the end of my days. I met a face from my past the other day, he looks stressed, even the deep tan unable to disguise his worries. We used to work together in London. He still does. He seems to have another mouth to feed every time he returns to the Algarve. This time he brought me a photograph of times gone by.

We flank Jimmy Hill at some promotional do or other. I am smiling and look like I should still be in sixth form rather than in that dog-eat-dog jungle out there. But the hollow set of my eye sockets and the wan pallor of my face betray an empty existence devoid of joy. I am glad I am he no longer. I can laugh without worrying how many noughts such an emotion will knock off my next pay cheque.

Another friend, Edu, returned from Holland yesterday. He has been living here as long as I have, a lovely man full of vitality. He is dying. I cried for him, not for me. He is gathering some belongings before submitting himself to chemotherapy and all that goes with it. I fear I will not see him again. It was that look in his eyes as we said goodbye.

Which brings me back to Carpe Diem, seize the day. Do, while you can, change what you know ought to be changed. Make your life as fulfilling and enjoyable as you can – NOW. Who knows what tomorrow will bring and yesterday will never bring back.

Me? I think I am finally doing that. Yet, there is one thing which will make me leave my Garden of Eden, because one vital ingredient is missing – love.

Love can strike at any time, anywhere, however unprepared or unwilling to be overcome by it you are. Should this love prove to be more than a brief infatuation, a lust satiated within days or weeks, it is the most powerful emotion in the world. It will drag you to the ends of the earth. If reciprocated, turn you into a glowing entity willing to make any sacrifice in the pursuit of permanent ecstasy. You will have finally reached the top of the stairway to heaven.