06 October 2013

Pall Mall Cigarettes

Seated in a smoky corner of the Royal Commonwealth Society, sometime after midnight, but before one thirty when I left, a package of Pall Mall cigarettes found their way in front of me. I'm not sure whose they were, in retrospect, but at the moment I saw them, I wasn't concerned with ownership. I had lost at billiards and was drinking fine twelve year scotch whisky between glasses of Carlsburg, and as the early morning showed no signs of slowing, I pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and smoked, satisfied and drugged by the warmth of the night. How, the question keeps coming up, had I gotten here.

In the simplest terms, I had gotten there by following a series of choices that began with agreeing to discuss functional grammar with colleagues in the Nottingham campus building downtown. The meeting ended up being just a few of us, my boss and one of his PhD students, a third year language student I taught last year, and my part-time boss from the school of education piped in via Skype. Systemic functional linguistics and grammar are not things that excite normal people, but if they excite you and you find three or four other people who are also excited by them, two hours of discussing transitivity and mood blocks can pass in a blink of an eye. That was great: let's go drinking.

And then a tree -- there is a tree behind the campus building in KL, an incredible one. One like I have never seen before. Much older than all of us and one that you have to stop and look up at. And in looking up at it, the story somehow slips into the present tense.

At a Chinese restaurant on the street, beer, and a fight breaking out between lovers. A waiter is kicked and bitten and he shows us his cut. The tourists (there are tourists everywhere) sit uncomfortably, while our table looks on like social anthropologists, discussing culture, our responsibility or ability to try to stop it. A fat Malay police officer finally arrives, with an automatic weapon strung nonchalantly and resting on his belly.

At some point in the night, I lose my voice.

People dance, and I dance too. I line dance to achy breaky heart sung by a man and woman with a guitar and backing tracks on Macbooks. I request, and they play 'Over the Rainbow', the song that reminds me of everything good in my life. There's more excellent whisky and I think of the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turns water to wine. The master of the banquet comments, 'Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.' (John 2:10) There's a metaphor here, I think, something about my life lived to this moment: the whisky made by a miracle, the best of all.

In the loss of faith, the five years I have been completely free and clear of Christianity, I have only grown happier and more content with how, rather than where, life has taken me. This is true for me: it doesn't need to be true for you. While the former version of me wrung his hands and worried (surrounded by others wringing their hands and worrying), I feel more and more like I am simply riding on the planet, on the top of the globe at any moment, hurtling forward into space. No one is watching. Let the others worry: I have worried enough for a thirty-one year old.

When the taxi stops in front of the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang, Mia is awake again, as she is most nights, busy running the sort of errands two year olds run well after midnight. I sit up a bit, Yoko sleeping on the floor and the heat of the house slowly seeping out into the night. Hurtling forward, yes. Best to just let go.
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