‘It would be better if there were nothing. Since there is more pain than pleasure on earth, every satisfaction is only transitory, creating new desires and new distresses, and the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer.’
— Arthur Schopenhauer
One cold Wednesday afternoon Harry stood up and said, ‘Fuck this, I need to detoxify. Coming?’
Harry Szabó didn’t talk like most people I knew. But it gave him a unique charm. And I couldn’t help liking him. Detoxification for Harry meant drinking himself into oblivion. ‘Purification through alcohol cleanses the toxins of working life,’ he said.
I guess Harry was what you’d call the nouveau riche. His family was Hungarian or something and his uncle had died leaving him a fortune. But he wasn’t exactly subtle or wise about it if you asked me; he would often turn up in new designer suits, sports cars, and latest gadgets; but the most perplexing thing was his decision to keep working. It’s not like the civil service is the most exciting of careers. Most days, working in local government is like sitting and watching a reel of endless red tape unravel slowly.
‘Why are you still working?’ I asked him over beer that evening. ‘I mean, with all that money, you could retire. Go on a permanent holiday.’
‘Without the flagellation of employment, the absolution and purification is less satisfying,’ he said. ‘Besides, I’d miss my buddies.’
‘Well, I can’t say I’d be so willing to put myself through much more flagellation if I was in your position.’ I took another swig of beer. The alcohol was getting to my head. ‘I would tell them to stuff their job up their arses and say, “fuck you all!”‘
Harry laughed and called me a crazy drunk who couldn’t hold his drink. ‘You’re so desperate for approbation to define you,’ he said, ‘your desperation is like isinglass, transparent and glinting, it’s quite charming in a way.’ There he went again with his fancy words. I didn’t know what isinglass was — sometimes I wondered whether he understood half the things he said.
Harry didn’t turn up for work the next day. I caught up with Wendy at lunchtime. Wendy worked in finance, and was another reason I was in awe of Harry. It was no secret they had an on-off relationship. Wendy and I had reached that stage of familiar friendship where anything intimate was forbidden by an unspoken law. I was a shoulder to cry on, an ear to complain to. I would spend hours listening, wishing we were lovers, while she complained how Harry didn’t love her. Although I remember Harry once telling me about the ‘potent, interminable passions she aroused within every sense and feeling’ of his being. I guess that was his way of saying he loved her.
Wendy said she hadn’t seen him.
I tried calling Harry, but got straight through to his answer message, and hung up. I missed his strange charm and fancy words. I wanted to learn from him. Although, I wouldn’t admit it then, I wanted to be him — be him, so I could be with Wendy.
My phone buzzed. It was a voice message from Harry. ‘Hey you,’ he said. ‘Hope I’m not discommoding you. Sincere apologies for the protracted silence, unfortunately the privations of life were in some desperate need of redress, hence the absence today. Listen, I need to discuss something with you surreptitiously. Meet me at Duke’s in an hour. Hope to see you then.’
Duke’s was a jazz bar near Embankment that Harry often frequented. He enjoyed jazz because, ‘the disarrangement invigorated and enlivened the soul, it helped to assemble the disparate facets of being, it fashioned inexplicable splendour from chaos and nothingness,’ he had a habit of telling me. It was a busy night. The live band almost drowned out by chatter and laughter. I found Harry in the corner with Wendy. She looked beautiful, and radiated even without make up. I wondered if she and Harry had been together that evening. I imagined them together in bed, and cast a nervous glance at Wendy as I sat next to her.
‘Hey man’ said Harry, ‘glad you could join us. I was worried that you would forsake me. I am cognisant of the short notice, for which I apologise, but it’s a rather grave matter, I’m afraid.’ He said without taking his eye off the band. ‘That’s why I requested you both to come down. Naturally, you should be disposed to the entire truth, but certain protocols and discretion need to be considered. Let me get you a drink, and then we’ll go for a walk.’
‘I’m good.’ Curiosity had quenched my thirst, and the noise of the bar was making me nauseous. ‘Some fresh air would be nice though,’ I said.
‘Well, I won’t remonstrate,’ said Harry, flicking his immaculately pomaded hair. ‘Let’s make haste. The agitation is perturbing’.
It was just before midnight, and I remember, it was unusually quiet for a Friday night. In the distance there were voices, half shouting, half singing as we walked across Waterloo Bridge. We rested in the middle looking out across the black, gleaming river towards St. Paul’s. Harry found some stones, and skimmed them with ease. I wanted to do the same, but had a feeling mine would sink. Wendy wrapped her arms around herself; I stood close so our elbows touched, and breathed in her perfume in the breeze.
‘It’s difficult to know where to start,’ said Harry. He turned around and faced us with his arms outspread, elbows resting on the bridge. ‘You see, something of controversy has arisen. A matter that calls into question my very existence. I told you that my recent fortune had been the result of an uncle who had passed away. That isn’t entirely true. It wasn’t my uncle. It was my father.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said instinctively.
Harry ignored my comment. ‘And I’m afraid it’s all rather catching up on me now. A bit of an inconvenience really. You see, he didn’t just pass away. He was murdered.’
‘Murdered? How?’ I said.
‘Shot. In his bed. Police said it was a break in, but there was no sign of a struggle, and recent events suggest otherwise.’
‘What recent events? What’s happening Harry?’
His face had a worried expression I had never seen before. ‘I’ve become the recipient of some rather threatening communications. Letters through the door, mainly. Each describing horrific ways I could perish. And I’m afraid it’s gotten to the point where I can no longer disregard them.’
‘That’s awful, Harry,’ said Wendy. ‘Have you been to the police?’
‘Oh, they are of no assistant at present. So I had the compulsion to divulge my secrets, before it’s too late.’ And then he turned around and faced the river. Started saying things like, ‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song’, which I later learned was from a T. S. Eliot poem. And strange things like how hypnotic the wide, expansive nothingness of the river was; of how it was like brittle glass. ‘Feels like you could walk on it,’ he said, ‘and be caught precariously between two things, drowning and existing.’
Dreams arrived in fitful spurts that night, in them Wendy and I made love. In my dreams I was inside her. And yet she remained distant, ‘like an enigma, waiting to be deciphered’ as Harry often said. And then I dreamed of Harry, we were driving in his Porsche. The sun was shining, John Coltrane was playing on the stereo. I was telling him how great sex was with Wendy. He said he was happy for me. Then we were being pursued by these dark vans. I jolted awake, sheets drenched with sweat, around 06:30 — too early to get up, too late to go back to sleep. I thought about Harry’s revelation, about his murdered father, and the death threats; and then about Wendy again, caught between images of sex and death when the phone rang.
‘It’s Harry,’ said Wendy. ‘He’s gone.’
To be continued…