68. The Damned

I WAS BOARDING A plane bound for Shanghai when I ran into B, an old friend from high school settling into his seat in the business class section. There was no mistaking him. I recognised him straight away: he had the same likeable face he’d had in high school. Hello, I said, are you B? Yes, he said, it’s A isn’t it? Yes, I said, we went to school together, so you remember me? Of course I do, said B, I mean, I recognised you right away. I wanted to stop to talk to him but I was holding up a line of boarding passengers who would brook not even a few seconds delay. Thankfully B recognised the problem as soon as I did. You go find your seat, he said, I’ll go back there later and find you and we’ll talk properly – what seat are you in? I told him. Okay, he said, good to see you, A. We’ll talk later, I said. As I took my seat and the crew began preparations for take-off, I couldn’t help but wonder at the mysterious ways life works. I hadn’t seen B in – how many years? It must have been 12 years. I mean, I was almost 30 now, and I hadn’t seen him since high school. My career was doing okay – I work as a graphic designer, and I was off to Shanghai for a series of business meetings with clients – but my friend B seemed to be doing better than just okay with himself, sitting up there in business class. He was dressed in a suit, an expensive one, too. But B wore it casually, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, with an open-necked white shirt, made of thick cotton, the kind you don’t find very easily anymore. I noticed all this in the blink of an eye – I’m a visual person, and I like clothes – my grandfather was a tailor, and he taught me about suits and shirts. Thankfully I don’t have to wear a suit for my job. I can get around in a nice shirt and pants. I can even wear sneakers if I want. It’s one of the perks of the job. On the other hand, it isn’t super well-paid or anything. Creative jobs don’t pay well unless you become a business person and start your own firm. I’ve thought about going into business, but I’m afraid that I might not have the killer instinct to be a good businessman. In high school B and I didn’t mix in the same circles, but he was one of those guys who was friendly with everyone, and never lost his temper. He and I listened to punk music, and sometimes we would get together and swap CDs and talk about our favourite bands. Those CDs – bands like the Stooges and MC5 and Siouxsie and the Banshees – they were hard to get in those days. There was a comic book store in our neighbourhood that sold CDs on the side, so I always had the latest music. With some of the kids at high school, you could tell they were trying hard to be cool, but B was different. He was just who he was. He didn’t speak much about himself – he preferred to talk about how you were doing, what you were up to, what you were listening to, how you were doing on the girl front. He was popular with girls, whereas I had terrible acne, and they avoided me. He was always giving me advice about how to approach them, but it never made much of a difference. Then, once we’d swapped CDs, I wouldn’t hear from him for another few weeks. The last time I saw him was about halfway into the final year of high school. As you can imagine, we were all busy studying. I saw B in a hallway between classes one morning and he told me to meet him outside the canteen at lunchtime. When I saw him, he told me he was dropping out. He said he was probably not going to pass his exams, and he wasn’t academic enough to study at university, so he’d decided to take up a job instead. What job, I asked. Import and export, he said, with his uncle’s firm. Before we parted, he gave me one last CD. It was the Damned’s first album from 1977, the seminal Damned Damned Damned, the first punk album released in the UK, and the first album released by Stiff Records. Sorry, I said, I don’t have any CDs to swap it with. Don’t worry about it, it’s a gift, he said, seeing as we probably won’t see each other again. Okay, I said, well, good luck. Good luck to you too, he said, and remember, girls like confidence – not arrogance, but confidence. Thanks, I said. I was still reminiscing about B when the fasten seat belt sign was turned off. Sure enough, half a minute later, B appeared from behind the curtain separating economy class from business class. The seat beside me was free, and he sat down. How are you?, we said together. Good, good, we replied together, and we laughed. What are you doing with your life?, he said. I’m a graphic designer, I said, I work for an advertising agency – and you? Well, he said, looking down at his hands, you won’t believe it if I tell you, even if I swear it’s the truth. I told I would believe him. Well, he said, I don’t want to lie to you, A. I’m going to tell you what I do, but I can’t tell you anything more than that, okay? Okay, I said. Leaning his head towards mine and lowering his voice so no one could hear us, he said, I’m a contract killer, a freelance assassin, if you like. I’m on my way now to Shanghai to kill a businessman on behalf of some other businesspeople. I don’t know why I’m killing him, I just do what I’m told. He tilted his head back and looked me directly in the eye. So what do you think of that? Our gazes met like that for a second or two, and then we both started laughing at the same time. We laughed, and the fact that we were laughing made us laugh more, until it hurt to laugh. Then B said, And what about those girls – are they still breaking your heart? I told him I was engaged to a girl who worked in the same firm as I did. You’re lucky, he said, in my line of work it’s hard to keep the flame alive. And what about music?, he continued. Are you still in love with the Ramones? We spent the rest of the flight talking about music - where our tastes had gone since we last spoke. He was into jazz, whereas I had gone into electronica, but our tastes still converged. And what about that album I gave you?, he asked. I said it was an album I hadn't listened to for a while, then in second year of university it had been all I listened to for about a month, and for that month I'd thought about him a lot. I said I thought it was a great album, and seeing him made me want to listen to it again. The plane touched down in Shanghai and we continued to talk all the way to the baggage carousel where I had some a bag to collect, when B suddenly turned serious. He leaned closer to me and said in a low voice, You know A, I cherish the memory of our friendship in high school. You were my only true friend then, and nowadays friends are a luxury I can no longer afford. I would like to invite you to have a drink with me, or even dinner, but I fear I have already endangered you enough. You see those two guys behind me in the suits? He paused and I looked behind him and saw two men dressed in dark suits waiting for their baggage. Their suits weren't as well-cut as B's. These men, B continued, have been following me since Hong Kong. Maybe they're cops, or maybe they're working for the very businessman I have been asked to kill. As you can see, I have already put you in some danger. So let's shake hands and leave it to fate to meet again sometime. He reached out his hand to shake mine and, as we shook hands, his eyes twinkled mischievously and once again we both burst out laughing loudly at the same time, drawing the attention of those standing around us, including the two men in suits. B clapped my shoulder and said loudly, I’ll leave you to wait by the carousel in peace - I have to get going. He turned around and set off with a wave and a smile. I tried to keep an eye on the men in suits but my bag appeared on the carousel. By the time I had hauled it on to the trolley they were gone.