11/5/97 In the end, it is all just a matter of time
|Sunday, May 11,1997
The Sunday Times, Page 4
In the end, it is all just a matter of time
"It makes you constipated," he told me.
He was then working in one of the top advertising agencies here as a copywriter, taking home about $4,000 a month, which 20 years ago, was a Big Deal. But he was restless, he had always been. He did not stay long in any one job, and was always looking for something, I do not know what.
As he got deeper into the dope, he found a new group of friends and I saw him less. Before long, he was picked up by officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau when he went to score for the drug at Sungei Road. He was thrown into a drug rehabilitation centre.
When he came out, he did freelance copywriting work, but he was as restless as ever. I could never tell if he was off the dope. He developed or could not shake off the tics of an addictñ the involuntary twitching of the shoulders the blinking, the yawning.
"Richard," he said to me once, "you'll never know the kind of peace that smack gives."
He met a Canadian woman, who had come here to teach English at a polytechnic, after having spent three years in Papua New Guinea as a volunteer teacher. He was very much taken up by her. So was I, when he introduced us, and soon I was seeing a lot of her, and less of him. He must have been hurt, but he never showed it.
Over the years, I would bump into him now and then. He got married, had a kid, and then he was divorced. He flirted with the idea of becoming a monk, went to Johor for long retreats, but in the end, he became a tourist guide.
The last time I met him, it was at the Delifrance in Tanglin Mall some time last year. I was having my breakfast by the glass wall when I saw him walking by outside. He was in his usual wrinkled shirt and pair of trousers.
I ran out to greet him. He was going for a course at the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board in the next building, but he joined me for a cup of coffee. I told him he would make a great guide. He read a fair bit, and he could tell stories that were very funny. His loud cackles when he laughed were infectious.
He told me he was learning Mandarin, and he had vague plans to buy a home in Suzhou and to live there.
A few weeks ago, I saw his face in the obituary page of The Straits Times. He was only 51.
I went to his wake, and sat with a group of old friends, a couple of whom I had not seen for a long time.
"So how's Fann Wong?" one of them asked. He had read my interview with the television actress.
When we hung out 20 years ago, we all secretly liked the singer Tracy Huang, but none of us would admit to that, because she was Chinese pop, and later when we finally owned up to it, we had a gdod laugh.
We had some laughs at the wake, exchanged bits about our mutual friends, and then I said I had to "split''. That was the word we used in the old days.
"Have you got some bread?" was another common expression, I remember, when someone needed money to buy beer, or a bottle of Blue Nun and some cheese, or cigarettes.
The addicts didn't ask for bread. A straw of smack cost 30 bucks, and we didn't have that kind of money. Some of them stole. An acquaintance was caught in a department store after he had gone in wearing a baggy pair of jeans, and was just leaving the shop with two pairs of new Levi's wrapped and bound tightly around his calves.
This acquaintance tried to give up heroin when he was picked as band leader to back a famous singer who was then touring the region. But he was putting rolled opium balls in his coffee instead.
One day, he just "split". He went on a one-way trip to Kathmandu, knocked on the doors of the monasteries in Bornath, the Tibetan settlement just outside the city, and was accepted by a lama. He was a priest for seven years, during which time he also learnt to speak Tibetan.
When I met him six years ago in Thamel, the backpackers' colony in Kathmandu he had been disrobed. He had helped out a German woman who was making a documentary on Bornath, had scored the sound-track for her, and afterwards had become her lover.
He became a resident character in Thamel, very much liked by the long stayers who would pay for his meals just to listen to his stories. He was also coaching a group of Tibetan boys who harboured hopes of becoming a rock group and play at the Dalai Lama's gatherings in Dharamsala, India.
In the mornings when we had breakfast out in the terrace of the Pumpernickel, where the bread came hot off the ovens, I would notice his sunken cheeks and his ashen-grey face in the clear sunlight- he had hepatitis, among other ailments that those years of drug-taking had brought about- and once I blurted out, "Have you ever thought about death? Aren't you afraid of dying here?"
"But here's home," he said.
At it turned out, home has I become Germany, where he went a few years later to join the documentary film-maker, who had borne his child.
About the time of my friend's death, a colleague who had worked closely with me for two years in the early '90s, also died. She was still young.
We did not part in the most amicable of ways but when I first knew of her illness, I had tried to talk to her. She refused to share her burden with me, which I accepted, but several months afterwards, she made her peace by e-mailing me a message to thank me for those two years, and for having introduced her to the American short-story writer Raymond Carver. I could not bring myself to go to her wake. I was too disturbed.
RECENTLY, when I was laid low by the flu and had to stay in bed, I reflected on their deaths and my own fears of the day when my picture would be in the obituary page, and friends write boohoo-hoo sentimental pieces, about what a good man I was.
I used to get fretful whenever I had the flu, but this time round, I just drove to the petrol kiosk shop and bought a loaf of bread and a half dozen cans of Yeo's barley drink and settled back in bed.
In The Red Queen, by British science writer Matt Ridley, I found out that the immune system consists of white blood cells which come in about 10 million different types. Each type has a protein lock on it called an antibody, which corresponds to a key carried by a bacterium or a virus called an antigen.
If a key enters that lock, the white cells start multiplying furiously so as to produce an army of white cells to gobble up the key-invader.
The body has no room to keep armies of the million types of white cells, but can, keep only copies of each. As soon as one type of white cell meets the antigen that fits its lock, it begins multiplying. Hence, the delay between the onset of flu and the immune .' response that cures one.
And so I lay in bed and reflected on my fears as 1 waited for the white cells to multiply.
"Your synapses just stop firing," was the curt answer a practical friend gave me when I asked him once, "What happens when one dies?" Ask a silly question...
But we are all dying. We are, each of us, long-term terminal patients.
As the Harvard professor Melvin Konner points out in his wonderful, wonderful book, The Tangled Wing- The Biological Constraints On The Human Spirit, which I have just re-read for the second time, "we all have to deal with grief somehow. Because we are not only dealing with all the losses, large and small, of the normal course of life- we are also, being conscious creatures, dealing with the loss of ourselves, of our own lives, gradually but inevitably".
And grieving is part of what makes life precious. We would not love life nearly so well without it.
In bed, I banished my fears, and urged myself to see each new day as a gift. Work must necessarily take on a greater urgency, but there must be time taken out, too, for others. And the innocent young who think they will live forever, who shove and push and hurt one on their impatient way to success, they will grow up and confront their own demons in their own time.
There just isn't enough time to dwell on them.