A distant church bell pealed as I quietly slunk out of the restaurant. Revellers thronged along the pavements. Festive cheer in the air. A homeless guy wearing a Santa costume raucously sung a Christmas carol, as he noisily relieved himself in the neighbouring doorway. ‘Tis the season.
Glancing at the time, I sighed when I saw it was only 21:30. No place to go but home, but I didn’t fancy going back there yet. Instead, I went for a walk, meandering around the capital.
I had just survived the last of the season’s parties. By the time the dessert course had concluded, my very merry colleagues teetered precariously on that narrow precipice between entertaining and obnoxious.
Decision time: double down. Commit. Settle in for the long haul. Or hit eject and escape.
The commuters had already bolted for the exits. Performing their traditional frantic dash for the last trains home. Destined for sleepy villages, and young families whom they rarely saw during waking hours.
Christmas parties, like wedding receptions and leaving drinks, were a lot more fun when I was drinking. When you’re as pissed as everyone else, you don’t tend to notice the (mostly) harmless flirting, off-colour humour, repetition, or slurred speech. Unfortunately, when you’re sober there is no avoiding it. Opportunity cost in all its glory.
It had been an eye-opening evening. The client executive hosting the party used an awkward metaphor of the team being in a skydiving plane. She would be pushing everyone out the door, ready or not, for a high-speed adrenalin-filled year ahead.
A couple of glasses of champagne later she “accidentally” let slip that she would be putting a broom through much of her organisation in the new year. The skydiving image proving to be more analogy than metaphor, as not everyone was being issued with a parachute.
The executive was planting the seed that for many it really was a case of jump or be pushed. Hoping that some would seek to control the timing of their exit, and save the firm a redundancy payout. Merry Christmas!
Several bottles of red wine into the dinner she revealed that the client would also be screwing their freelancers over the looming disguised employment tax changes. The outcome equating to a 15% cut in their after-tax revenues. Happy New Year!
By that stage, the polite small talk about families and holiday plans had degenerated into character assassination of ex-spouses and setting the world to rights.
The client propositioned me to join the firm in a permanent capacity. It was nice to see my work has been valued, but a demanding full-time role would be at odds with my semi-retired lifestyle choices.
Time to go!
There is something magical about London at this time of the year. It does Christmas well.
I wandered aimlessly through West End. Admiring the Christmas lights and window displays. Soaking up the atmosphere, as revellers and tourists mingled with last-minute shoppers.
Some passersby with the familiar accents of home caused me to reflect on how markedly different it all was from the life I had long left behind. Half a lifetime ago. Half a world away. On a continent where the average temperature currently exceeded 40 degrees celcius, and much of it was on fire.
Once the place I viewed as a certain retirement destination.
Then a fallback option.
Now as I think about it, I’m not so sure it represents either any longer. Aside from getting ever hotter, the place hasn’t really changed all that much. But I certainly have.
It is fascinating how our perspective evolves, particularly when we are not paying attention.
The end of the calendar year is often a time of such reflection.
Reimagining our desired future.
Sometimes, though seldom, taking the tangible steps required to transform a dream into a focussed plan.
Writing a blog such as this one provides a unique ability to step back in time. Revisit my past thinking and validate my premises. Armed with the certainty of hindsight and the knowledge of how things had played out.
This can be reaffirming. Or disheartening. Sometimes both. Yet always self-indulgent!
Am I where I hoped to be? Any closer to my goals? Towards converting my dreams into reality?
Or do I remain adrift? Has apathy, disinterest, and laziness conspired to consume yet another year of my life, with precious little progress to show for it?
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. There are rarely absolutes in life.
At the start of the year, I set out three tangible things I hoped to accomplish in 2019. The first two I achieved. The third I abandoned once I realised the folly in trying to solve a people problem with technology.
2 out of 3 sounds like a qualified success. Yet the year hasn’t felt like one.
I wondered why that was?
I paused as I emerged on Covent Garden. Taking a moment to identify the players in the intricate dance performed by pickpockets and undercover police, while the general public marvelled at the distractions provided by the street performers, oblivious to the silent drama unfolding in their midst.
The homeless Santa drunkenly lurched out onto the other side of the square. He was still belting out festive songs, with far more volume than ability. Bemused passers-by tossed coins at his feet, yielding a grin and an increase in enthusiasm.
As I walked past Santa, I could see that the smile didn’t reach his eyes. He was faking it like a champion. Putting on the act that he knew the outside world wanted to see. A feeling I know all too well.
An achingly trendy young man emerged from a nearby upmarket clothing store. He exchanged a few terse words with the Santa, handed him a £20 note, and gestured insistently in the general direction of Trafalgar Square.
The Santa staggered off, singing in a deep bass: “Go he told me pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. Paid to go away, why so mean?”
At the inception of this blog, one of the first things I published was a collection of vague aspirations and goals. Part bucket list. Part pipe dream. Part exploration of how the future may play out, if the gods smiled and I didn’t fuck things up.
Over the course of the year, I have managed to cross two minor things off that list. Meanwhile, I added half a dozen more. The net effect was a feeling of treading water. Time has passed, but nothing much has changed.
On the financial front, a favourable market had seen my net worth increased by an amount exceeding what any rational person might reasonably expect within a calendar year. Definitely more good luck than good management involved there. Even fools look like investing geniuses in such a strongly rising market!
Once a person passes the point of “enough” such financial measures are hollow achievements. Better than the alternative, but having no tangible impact on daily life.
My current winter working hibernation has proved to be gruelling and far more stressful than it should be. The annoying part is that the stress is almost entirely self-inflicted. The client is reasonable and pays on time. My colleagues are affable and generally nice people trying their best to do good work.
And yet I feel constantly stressed.
My inner saboteur has recently been giving voice to the thought that this should probably be the last time that I force myself to rejoin the rat race at the end of summer.
Each year I derive less fulfilment and satisfaction from doing so.
Each year I resent the opportunity cost of working full-time more, even if it is only for a few months at a time.
Each year the financial imperative that demands a topping up of the coffers lessens.
The nagging question has become: “why subject myself to it?”
In years past the immediate answer would have been: “because I must”.
Many months ago I caught up with an ex-girlfriend from a lifetime ago. She knows me better than just about anyone, and has never been shy about calling bullshit when she hears it. After catching up on each other’s lives, she called me out for still possessing a “hero complex” that seeks to rescue others.
I’d heard the argument before, and am self-aware enough to recognise there is some merit to it.
This time she went further, observing that it was impossible to save somebody from themselves.
However, attempting to do so creates a blind spot. A weakness that is easily exploited once the “rescuee” becomes aware of it. She should know, she took advantage of it herself back in the day.
The observation stung as it hit home. I conceded that it may be true, then set aside the thought and enjoyed the rest of dinner.
Over subsequent months her observation proved to be impossible to ignore. Subtly altering the lens through which I perceive the world. She had either been remarkably astute, or it was one hell of a mindfuck.
Either way, the observation caused a wry smile a number of times as events played out largely as she had suggested they might. It was as if a long missing piece of the puzzle had been revealed. Things that would previously have left me perplexed or bewildered now slotted neatly into place.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of overthinking things.
I probably wouldn’t like where revisiting past events with these fresh eyes may lead. Here there be dragons!
An inadvertent outcome of that evening out was realising that “because I must” response was a prison of my own making. A self-limiting future based upon a seemingly logical series of premises. That collectively had lead me to where I find myself today, and heavily influenced what the future may viably hold.
The problem was that at least one of those premises had proved to be flawed. Which meant that many avenues I had presumed to be closed were not necessarily so. Realising this was liberating in some ways, a reminder that we are only as trapped as we choose to be.
Too much of a good thing
An hour or so later I strolled through Soho. The restaurants were packed. Night clubs pumping. Pubs overflowed with seasonal celebrations.
In the gutter out the front of one pub sat a familiar figure, looking dishevelled and forlorn. It was the client executive from earlier in the evening.
The boozy dinner had degenerated into a pub crawl. One too many Jäger bombs had brought her evening to an abrupt and unpleasant end. Her expensive designer shoes were now decorated with the remains of her Christmas dinner.
I helped her up and poured her into the back of a black cab to take her home. Inwardly chuckling at the irony of my riding to the rescue yet again.
As the cab drove off I glanced down the street at a flashing blue light.
A gurney bearing the homeless Santa was being loaded into the back of an ambulance.
Dull eyes staring.
A complete lack of urgency from the ambulance crew.
Santa’s singing days were done.
I drifted closer, feeling saddened that the life of a man I didn’t know had come to such a lonely and meaningless end. He was surrounded by passers-by, yet invisible to all. Playing out the role of a character that existed only in their imaginations.
The ambulance driver muttered something about an overdose, as she slammed the back door closed with a jarring finality. Her colleague responded that it was possible to have too much of a good thing.
Too much seeking escape for homeless Santa.
Too much Christmas cheer for the client executive.
Too much compromise for me. Past the point of being compromised.
The ambulance rolled off and I headed home. Suddenly grateful that my biggest complaints were feeling unfulfilled and occasionally manipulated. In the scheme of things, there are worse problems to have.