Scenes from the End of the Twentieth Century
It was a beautiful Thursday morning in June and I was a happy man. More specifically, I was twenty-nine, recently promoted, single and carrying the phone number of a girl I’d met at a party the night before in my pocket.
And I didn’t even have a hangover.
In other words life was wonderful, and I was determined to share my good fortune with as many people as possible, which was why I’d decided to take the day off and was on my way to my friend Blackburn’s house.
I still lived in London back then, having found myself accidentally making a decent living for the first time in my life by getting caught up – like just about everyone else I knew – in the workings of The Fabulous New Economy.
Overnight I’d gone from low level benefit fraud to flying to high-level business meetings across Europe and talking about customer re-incentivization and disambiguation of information in conference calls. I’d bought my first ever suit, moved into my own flat and, incredibly, always seemed to have more money in my bank account at the end of the month than I did at the start. I drank in expensive bars, toasted my good fortune with my similarly blessed workmates, took up snowboarding and had five foreign holidays a year.
And I’m still not sure, even now, exactly what it was that I did for a living.
For a while at least, the only thing that mattered was that the company I worked for was a money making machine. The more money we spent, it seemed, the more money was invested in us. You burnt five hundred thousand pounds on an advertising campaign that had no impact whatsoever on your sales? Well done, here’s another two million. You expanded into five European countries rather than spending the money making sure your technology actually works? Great, have some more cash!
There was, I could only assume, some bizarre and arcane logic to all of this that was beyond my ability to understand. I never imagined for a minute that the people who ran the world might be as capable as the rest of us of fucking up, and on such an enormous scale.
Blackburn – no one ever called him by his first name – lived in up-and-coming East London, of course, and it took me about an hour, on various buses and tubes, to travel across town to his house, during which time my appreciation of the beautiful weather and the incredible city I’d found myself living in was growing exponentially. Every billboard and advert for some new, high tech consumer durable, every building site and recently opened estate agents selling executive loft living served only to reflect and increase my optimism. I fantasized about the wonderful life that I might end up sharing with the beautiful girl I’d met last night, whose name was Camilla (I know! A posh girl was interested in me! Who would have thought?) and whose job seemed to be both as exciting and as vague as my own. I pictured her in the stunning black dress that she’d wear to the cocktail parties we were sure to attend together, and I wondered what we might do on our honeymoon, and how many children we’d have. I was a man in the throes of a particularly wonderful dream, and, as I made my way through the city that sunny Saturday morning, I was sure I was never going to wake up.
It occurs to me that I refer to Blackburn as a friend, but the exact nature of the relationship between us – and probably between Blackburn and just about everyone else who knew him back then – was actually a little bit too vague to really be called a friendship. I certainly enjoyed his company, as I assume he enjoyed mine, and felt entirely at ease whenever I spent any time with him (he was, if nothing else, an expert at making people feel at ease), but we didn’t really have any sort of history between us. The fact that neither of us could remember exactly how we’d met was symptomatic of the way people tended to get pulled into Blackburn’s strange orbit in those days. One day you didn’t know him; the next, it seemed, you’d been seeing him around and having dinner at his house with all his other friends for as long as you could remember. But then, that was the other thing: if you met most of those other friends of his on the street when he wasn’t around then you wouldn’t do more than share a brief, acknowledging nod, a “hello” at the very most. Because without Blackburn sitting there at the centre of things you very quickly realised that you had absolutely nothing else in common with these people. It was only when you saw them in his company that you discovered that they were, in fact, the most entertaining bunch you could possible imagine spending time with.
That was the man’s dark genius, and three years later I still can’t work out how he did it.
Arriving at Blackburn’s imposing front door, a little sweaty and out of breath, I rang the bell a couple of times until a girl I’d never seen before opened up, squinting in surprise at the sunlight and looking at me with the expression of someone who’d found themselves in the wrong room at a party.
“Can I help you?” She said. She was wearing a t-shirt and, it appeared, nothing else.
“Can I come in?” I said.
She considered it for a couple of seconds and then, apparently deciding that I didn’t pose a significant threat, nodded and walked off down the hallway, disappearing into one of the rooms.
I followed her inside.
Blackburn’s house had, like its owner, achieved a certain level of notoriety among the people who make it their business to worry about these sorts of things. For a start it must have been hugely expensive, as it contained (at least) five floors, and more rooms than I had ever counted. There were rumours of secret passageways and hidden entrances, of an entire wing that had only been discovered during a recent renovation, and of a library lined with unbelievably rare books that was only accessible (that, indeed, might only exist) at certain hours on certain, very special days of the year. Every few months another film crew or photographer from a fashion magazine would turn up to do a feature on the place, making much of the antique furniture, the unique fusion of North African and Chinese influences which apparently ran through the décor, or the cultural and historical significance of its various drawing rooms, which had, it was said, entertained some very interesting people over the years.
And the thing was, no one had ever been able to work out how on earth Blackburn had managed to get the money to buy the place.
He didn’t, as far as anyone could tell, work for a living, but there was also nothing about him to suggest that he came from a rich family. If he did have airs and graces, he was so gleefully self-conscious about them that it was obvious they were something he was putting on, rather than something he was born to – and if the company dictated it, he could drop them instantly. The general consensus was that he’d either inherited the money from some rich, distant family member (I always liked that, it made him feel like a character in a nineteenth century novel), that he’d made a killing on the tech stock market, or that he’d invented something so incredible and dangerous to the economic status quo that he was being paid to keep quiet. Personally I’d often wondered whether or not there might be something altogether more shady to his history, but, like everybody else, I never got round to working out how to broach the subject with him. There were, in Blackburn’s company, just some things that it wasn’t polite to talk about.
Besides, nobody wants to be the first to point out that it’s late, and time we were all thinking about getting home.
So I wandered through Blackburn’s house, peering into the odd room where the Saturday morning light came in through the windows and slowly climbing higher and higher towards the sound of music that was coming from above. There was no further sign of the mysterious girl, though odd snatches of muffled conversation followed my steps now and then, like voices from strange and far away countries.
I finally found him on the roof, where he was practicing his golf swing and listening to, of all things, a Barry White record. He was unshaven and wearing a silk dressing gown over what looked like a fairly appalling pringle-sweater-and-golf-trousers combo, as if he’d decided at the last minute to try to give the sports casual look he’d chosen for the day some sort of Noel Coward-esque glamour, and he was chewing on the remains of a dead cigar as he lined up his next shot. A half full martini glass was balanced precariously on top of the basket of golf balls.
“Quiet,” he said, without looking up.
I waited while he adjusted his hips and then, with that old, always surprising grace of his – it was one of the many things you’d never have expected from a man of his size – he swung the club back and up, pausing just long enough for the iron to flash in the morning sunlight, before coming back down and launching the ball out across the unsuspecting city with a beautiful ‘thwack’, following its trajectory perfectly with the rest of his swing.
We watched the white speck until it disappeared into the blue morning sky somewhere in the direction of St Pauls, Blackburn holding his pose with all the determination and fierce intent of a man whose life depended on the shot. Then, the moment gone, he let his arm drop and turned to address me
“Collins,” he said (he always referred to me by my last name too, it was our thing), “it’s you.”
“It’s me. Good Morning.”
“Is it morning already? I was under the impression that it was still last night.” He lay the club gently against the chimney and picked up his martini. “I’ve been out here for hours.”
“You didn’t get to bed then.”
“After a while, I find, you get to a point where it hardly seems worth it. Do you want a drink? There’s another glass somewhere.”
He moved toward the steel table that he’d obviously dragged up from downstairs and on which, indeed, there were numerous other glasses, as well as a couple of cocktail shakers, an ice bucket that, by now, contained nothing but water, and five or six bottles of various expensive spirits.
“You had a party?”
“A few people came over. Nothing spectacular, of course, or I’d have called you. I think some of them may still be here,” and here he paused for effect, “somewhere in the house…”
“I might have run into one of them downstairs.”
“Good for you. Good for you. Now, what can I fix you?”
It wasn’t yet eleven, but I’d learned a long time ago that it was usually more interesting to go along with Blackburn than to argue with him, so I settled on joining him for a martini, which he set about mixing with his usual diligence.
“I’ve no ice. Do you mind? It is Bombay Saphire and Noilly after all.”
I didn’t mind. I doubted that I’d have more than a couple of sips anyway: it was, like so many things about Blackburn, the idea of having a martini for breakfast that was appealing, rather than the drink itself. Personally, martinis have always tended to make me teary and remorseful, although, thinking about it now, that may well actually be the point of them, and might go some way to explaining why Blackburn enjoyed them so much.
The appropriate preparations completed, we sat down in a couple of deckchairs to taste our drinks and consider the day before us. The view from up there was fantastic. To the west the glass and steel towers of the city glittered fabulously in the morning sun, looking for all the world like some sort of impossible fairy tale kingdom. There, it was easy to imagine, fortunes might be being won and lost before our very eyes, honorable duels might be being fought around expensive boardroom tables by desperate eyed men not that different from ourselves, beautiful young women might be swooning into their handkerchiefs at the mad romance of it all. To the southeast Canary Wharf rose out of the heat haze like an enchanted castle.
“So what do you have to say for yourself?” Said Blackburn, sipping his drink without taking his eyes off the fantastic view.
“I got promoted again.”
“That’s the second time this month isn’t it?”
“The third. Actually.”
“The third? Really?”
He was still staring out into space, and I found it hard to tell how sincere he was being. Or, more accurately, I found it hard to tell how sincere he wanted me to think he was being. The day was already getting hot, and I could tell that he was feeling it under that ill-chosen sweater. There were beads of sweat in his hairline.
“The third time. Yes.”
“Well, good for you. I’m always telling people how good you are,” he said, and then, as if reacting to some change in the atmosphere of the roof discernible only to him, he added, “Aren’t I Isabelle?”
“How good who is?”
I looked over my shoulder to see that we’d been quietly joined by the mysterious girl from downstairs, though how Blackburn had heard her arrival and I hadn’t I had no idea. Still in her t-shirt and wearing sunglasses, she was eating a piece of toast with one hand while holding a cigarette at shoulder height in the other. She was, I noticed, very tall, with that sort of bored air that only fashion models seem to be able to pull off successfully.
“How good Collins is, of course,” said Blackburn.
“Who’s Collins?” Said the girl. Said Isabelle. Said the fashion model.
“I am,” I said, getting up and, foolishly, sticking out my hand for her to shake. She looked me up and down briefly, but it quickly became clear that that was about all I was going to get from her.
“I’m going to sunbathe now,” she said. Then she put her toast and her cigarette down on the table, pulled her t-shirt over her head (crossing her arms in the way that women always do but men don’t seem to have worked out) and lay down on the roof, naked.
I stood there for a second, somewhat stunned, before I realised my manners and turned away, putting my hands in my pockets and pretending to be interested in the path of a high altitude jet that was cruising some miles overhead.
“Well then,” said Blackburn, “shall we get drunk?”
And so get drunk we did, setting out once again with that old combination of good intentions, excitement and no little apprehension that the thought of an all day drinking session always seems to carry with it. We were good at it too – we’d been doing it, it seemed, for years.
We didn’t rush things, like the amateurs who start off with tequila slammers and don’t realise their miscalculation until it’s already too late, but neither did we gingerly sip at glasses of white wine, unsure of what our limits might be. We knew exactly what our limits were, and we knew, or at least I thought we did, just how far past those limits we were willing to go. Which was why we started with beers, dispensed from a cool box that Blackburn brought up to the roof from somewhere in the house (at the same time changing his outfit for an immaculate white suit), before moving on to the hard stuff.
It was while Blackburn was downstairs that I decided that I should at least attempt to engage Isabelle the fashion model in some sort of conversation, if only to reassure her that I wasn’t about to try and take advantage of the fact that I was alone with a beautiful naked woman (a woman who, I assumed, regularly graced the catwalks of Paris, Milan and whatever other European cities had catwalks; a woman who, I imagined, must have a list as long as her arm of film stars, rock musicians and racing car drivers who wanted to make love to her)
So I made some comment about the weather. It was the best I could come up with under the circumstances.
She rolled over (I have to admit I’d started sneaking glances at her) and looked at me curiously over her sunglasses.
“You’re the internet millionaire, right?” She said.
It was then that Blackburn returned, saving me – once again – from a potentially embarrassing situation. I was certainly a long way from being a millionaire, and could only assume that she’d confused me with someone far more interesting.
“Well,” said Blackburn, hoisting the cool box full of lagers, “just look what I found.”
The truth was that Blackburn did seem to know just about everybody there was to know back then, including a few people who may well have been in the millionaire bracket. It was one of the reasons his parties were always so successful. You might find yourself talking to a soon-to-be-famous actress, or an up and coming writer, or somebody who was about to be big in the art world, before he steered them away and replaced them with someone else, always, it appeared, perfectly chosen to match your particular interests and talents. The only strange part of it was that the next day you’d wake up finding it very hard to remember just who the people who’d made such an impression on you actually were. You’d look through fashionable magazines thinking ‘do I know these people? Have I met this person?’ without ever being sure whether you actually had or hadn’t been introduced to them round at Blackburn’s house. It was just enough to keep you on your toes, to keep you interested, while ensuring that the same thoughts would remain forever lurking in the back of your mind. Why did he pick me? What have I got to offer? What more can I give?
By noon we’d had two or three beers each (Isabelle was keeping up admirably), by half past one, with the afternoon getting hotter by the minute, it was five or six, and by the time our shadows had started to switch from west to east we’d been forced to move on to wine. Isabelle had, thank god, changed into a bikini by this point, though one that covered just about as little of her body was possible. If anything this small concession to decorum had made her seem even more desirable, and not only because her swimsuit was so obviously expensive. It meant that I could look at her now without feeling entirely self-conscious, although I still had to force myself to tear my eyes away whenever I felt that my gaze had lingered too long. For her part, her initial disinterest in me having been evaporated by the booze, Isabelle had been attempting to explain the fashion business to me for the last half an hour.
“I mean,” she was saying, “when you consider the passion, and, and… the genius that’s gone into a couture dress… how could it not be worth ten thousand pounds? I mean come on.”
I was agreeing wholeheartedly, partly because I was drunk and already desperately in love with her, and partly because all of a sudden it seemed hugely important that it be true. Inspired by Isabelle’s enthusiasm, I felt myself possessed by a huge wave of love for all those designers, models, seamstresses, make up artists, photographers and magazine editors who were, even now, working so hard to make the whole thing a reality, buoyed up by their hopes and the noble desire to make the world a better looking place. That the world in question excluded about ninety five percent of humanity only seemed gloriously beside the point.
“I should open a bar,” said Blackburn. “Seriously, everyone’s opening bars. And what don’t we know about drinking?” This was one of his regular themes. Depending on his mood he also wanted to make a film, run a club night, set up a record label and maybe start an art magazine. I had no doubt that any or all of these ventures would be a roaring success. “People need bars, after all,” said Blackburn.
“I’d drink there,” I said.
“Everyone would drink there,” Isabelle corrected me.
“I always thought it would be good to have a set of siamese twins behind a bar,” said Blackburn. “You know, making cocktails. Do you know any Siamese twins?”
I had to admit that I didn’t.
“I think Siamese twins can still be beautiful,” said Isabelle. “I mean it. I know lots of girls who you wouldn’t think are beautiful, until they get spotted by the right person and they get signed up by a model agency, and taught how to walk properly and how to dress, and they just blossom into beautiful people. And it was always there, you know. It’s just that no one realized it until they were moving in the right circles.”
“Exactly,” said Blackburn.
“Was your sister beautiful?” Isabelle asked him.
This was the first time that I’d ever heard anything mentioned about Blackburn having a sister, and I looked over at him with some surprise. If he was bothered by this intrusion into his private life, he didn’t show it.
“She was as beautiful as you,” Blackburn said to Isabelle, and she positively glowed under his blessing.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” I said.
“I’m sure I must have mentioned her,” said Blackburn, getting up to retrieve another bottle of white from the cool box.
“Are you sure? How strange.”
“She disappeared,” said Isabelle, leaning over to me with a mock conspiratorial whisper. “She was a model too.”
“She disappeared? Really?”
Isabelle nodded. “She was walking to the South Pole. You know, for charity.”
“This really happened?” I asked.
“Of course it happened,” said Isabelle, as if I were an idiot for even asking.
I turned to Blackburn as he sat back down in his deckchair to open the bottle. He seemed to be considering the situation. There was absolutely no sign of his eyes behind his sunglasses.
“It was ten years ago,” he said, eventually, to nobody in particular. “She’d been modeling for a couple of years. She wasn’t, you know, huge yet or anything like that, though she probably would have been. People said so. She had a look.”
“Like me,” said Isabelle, rapt.
“Just like you,” said Blackburn, and I wondered how many times Isabelle had listened to this story. She was gazing at Blackburn like a child being read a favourite fairy tale. “Anyway, she was making a fair bit of money, she was flying to Paris or New York every other weekend, she was hanging out with all the right people. Everyone adored her, of course.”
“Of course,” Isabelle and I nodded.
“Well, if that had been all there was to it, then everything would have been fine. But, of course, being the kind of person she was, she wanted to give something back. She wanted to save the world. So her and these other super models got the idea of doing a charity walk. To the South Pole.”
He waited while we digested this.
“So the twelve of them, twelve of the most beautiful women in the world, set out from McMurdo station in US-controlled Antarctica. That’s a real place you know, you can look it up. They were aiming to make the pole in three months. But almost immediately things started going wrong. There were freak weather conditions, the worst recorded storms in fifty years, suggestions of sabotage. They managed to hold things together for the first month, but then disaster struck.”
“What happened?” said Isabelle and I.
“Nobody really knows. The ones who got away, the really famous ones, obviously, have refused to talk about it since. But what we do know is that twelve women walked on to the ice, and, a month later, only six came back. My sister was one of the ones who didn’t make it. And she was never seen again.”
We were all silent then, for a few moments. Somewhere, far above us, a jet was moving across the face of the sun. It was impossibly hot.
“Shall we have lunch?” Blackburn said.
And so went the afternoon.
There comes a point in every bender when you have to make a tough decision. Do you stop drinking, knowing that it’s still hours before bedtime, and that all you have to look forward to is trying to stumble through the rest of the day with that most unwelcome and disorienting of phenomena, the hangover that kicks in before you go to sleep? Or do you keep on going, conserving your momentum as best you can, knowing that your duty is to see things through with your friends, whatever the ultimate cost to your health, happiness and sanity?
Put that way, you might think, it sounds like a moral choice, and certainly it seemed that way to us when, around seven o’clock, we started wavering.
The sun, though still fairly high in the sky, was unarguably westerly now, and where in the morning it had been the towers of Canary Wharf to the east that seemed to be shimmering in mist, now it was the Nat West and Lloyds’ buildings in the city that were taking on a ghostly, hazy aspect as the sun sank towards them. Momentarily confused by the alcohol, it felt to me as if my fabulous, fantastical city were disappearing before my very eyes.
“It’s so sad,” Isabelle was saying, and I could only nod, silently, in agreement.
“Don’t think about it,” Blackburn was telling her, trying to be helpful.
“I just want to cry. It isn’t fair.”
It occurred to me that I’d lost track of this particular conversation some while ago, but I felt suddenly moved – and to this day I’m still not sure why – to start telling them a story from my childhood.
When I was growing up, I told them, we used to have huge fires every bonfire night. This was twenty years ago, before local councils the length and breadth of the country decided that ordinary people were far too irresponsible to be trusted with matches and petrol, even if it was only once a year, and started organizing their own, officially sponsored, municipal fires, to which thousands of people would be invited to stand in a cold muddy field, peering at a conflagration some half a mile in the distance and watching professionally handled fireworks exploding in the sky over their heads.
Back then, I told them, we were still allowed to have our own fires, and in the weeks leading up to November the fifth all the kids in my street would go out on wood collecting expeditions, eagerly hacking down trees, dismantling garden sheds and, when we could get away with it, stealing firewood collected by the children on other estates. This, to all of us, was at least as exciting as looking forward to the actual fire itself. For a few days, and with our parents’ goodwill, we were allowed to act like pirates, appointing our leaders and putting together raiding parties, arming ourselves (though our parents didn’t know this bit) with clubs, bike chains and the occasional penknife. Massed battles would be fought over particularly choice caches of flammable material, victories, ceasefires and alliances would be announced, and complicated strategies would be discussed at night by torchlight in the abandoned garages behind the local shops.
But what intrigued us most, I told Isabelle and Blackburn, was that across the valley from where we lived – and this must have been a couple of miles away, which, to us, might have been the other side of the world – there was a much richer neighbourhood than the one we lived in. And, on bonfire night, their fire was always the biggest and most impressive in town. The smoke from it seemed to go up into the sky for miles, and we used to wonder just where they got all their wood from.
Maybe, we conjectured, they had their own raiding parties made up of rich kids who had violin lessons and ponies, and who would sack, but very politely mind you, all the big houses in the area for their expensive furniture and chandeliers, grand pianos and priceless works of art, all to make their fire the biggest and brightest in the country. That was the sort of thing that rich people did, we thought, because all the while they knew that the next day they could just go out and buy everything all over again.
So every year we’d plan an expedition across the valley to conquer that other neighbourhood, that magic country, making detailed maps of what we thought our best route would be, appointing one of us to be in charge of the provisions for the trip, another to look after the weaponry and so forth. And every year bonfire night would come around before we’d set out on our epic journey, and so our invasion would be put off for another twelve months, until we were all too old to still be worrying about that sort of thing, and it was forgotten.
“But the thing is,” I told Blackburn and Isabelle, as the sun sank further in the sky, “the thing is, a few years later I actually ended up going out with a girl from that part of town. And the first time I went round to her house, I realized that I recognized all the streets.”
They both looked at me, uncomprehending, waiting for me to go on.
“So I realized that I’d been there before, and that we must have made it up there on one of those expeditions after all, and just not known it. We’d just gone walking straight through, looking for something else.”
It was clear, then, that none of what I’d just explained made any sense at all to either of them, and that what I’d thought was a shared moment between the three of us, was actually something entirely different indeed.
“The magic country!” I said, a little desperately. “It was ours all along and we just didn’t know it!”
They both thought about it for while, probably more out of politeness than understanding, before Isabelle shook her head and lay back down on the roof.
“Collins,” said Blackburn finally, “I think you may be drunk.”
I had to admit that he was right.
The sun had gone down, and the night had found us still out on Blackburn’s roof, as I opened our eighth or ninth bottle of red wine.
We’d reached that point in our binge, so familiar to us from countless other wasted days, when we knew that we weren’t going to get any more drunk than we already were, no matter how much more alcohol we imbibed. Which wasn’t to say that we weren’t trying, and quite heroically. It was just that we’d reached a plateau of lucid inebriation, and the only way now – though we were doing our best to deny it – was down.
Isabelle, still in her bikini, was tightrope walking her way around the edge of the roof, wavering occasionally but not, it seemed, in any real danger of falling off. Beyond her the nighttime city sparkled and shone like the most fabulous jewelry in the world, and she was considering it greedily, as if it had all been put there for her entertainment alone.
“I want to buy all of these houses,” she was saying, “and make everyone live in hotels!”
The sky above her seemed to be entirely filled with stars and the lights of airplanes, and I was now sure beyond all doubt that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. I was equally convinced that if she wouldn’t, at some point in the next few hours, agree to be my wife, then a lifetime of hopelessness and regret would be all that I had to look forward to. It didn’t even matter if she and Blackburn were already involved with each other (if they were they’d shown little sign of it, although all of Blackburn’s relationships tended to look that way from the outside). I knew that somehow he would understand. He was, after all, an expert at handing people to each other, softly retreating from the conversation after he was sure you were going to get along, and moving on elsewhere to make further introductions. I couldn’t imagine that his love life would be all that different.
The man himself had, by his own estimate, now been drinking for at least 48 hours straight, and for the last hour or so we’d been talking about money. More accurately, we’d been drunkenly discussing the unfortunate public perception of the former computer programmer who was, at that time, the richest man in the world.
“And can you imagine that?” Blackburn had been saying. “Can you imagine having enough money to make every dream you ever had come true?”
I’d said that, no, I couldn’t, and Blackburn had looked at me strangely for a moment then, as if he’d suddenly come across an interloper who he hadn’t invited to the party, but who had been drinking his wine, smoking his cigarettes and enjoying his hospitality all the same.
“Well, I can,” he’d said, as if it were obvious. “You know that he bought a Leonardo DaVinci to save it from falling into the wrong hands don’t you?”
I’d admitted that I’d heard something along those lines.
“It’s like the Roman Empire – or even the British Empire – before everything went wrong. When there are still a few people in power who care enough to worry about the values of civilization, or art, or… whatever. You have a responsibility to enjoy those things. What else do you think we’re doing here?”
Having never really had an idea of what we were doing there to start with, I’d said nothing, and the matter had been dropped. And yet there he was now, standing in the middle of his roof, dressed in a white suit, and sighting down the barrel of an antique German sniper rifle – he’d recently been showing it off to me – at the illuminated office windows across town.
“My god,” he was saying, “who’d even know the difference?”
Looking back, of course, what happened next seems absurd. But you have to remember that those were different times. As hard as it is to believe it now, some three years later, those were the days when even the most straight and sober friends of mine seriously thought that they’d be able to retire before the age of forty, cashing in share options that were doubling in value almost every week and spending the rest of their days traveling the world and looking at interesting and entertaining things. And nobody was arguing with them about it, because everything seemed possible. Twenty year olds were driving Porsches, and school kids were making their first million before they’d even had their first kiss. Just coming up with an idea – sometimes it was nothing more than a name – could earn you more money than you’d ever dreamed of. People were falling over each other to invest their life savings in companies that hadn’t existed a year ago, and that wouldn’t exist again two years down the road. And, week by week, we were all watching the construction of the most beautiful, delicate and terrible champagne pyramid that any of us had ever seen.
It was the future, it was the best thing that had ever happened, and it was going to last forever.
And Blackburn had just shot out one of the lights in an office block half a mile away.
The first thing that occurred to me was how much the shot sounded like one of his golf strokes, like the sharp, echo-less snap of a man hitting the perfect drive. The sort of drive, you knew, that was going to make a hole in one on a par five, even before it started dropping, and dropping, and dropping out of the perfect morning sky. I even wondered, just for a second, if he hadn’t somehow managed to put down the gun, pick up his clubs and tee up a ball, all without me noticing, despite the fact that I was looking straight at him.
But then he said, softly, “wow” – as if even he were surprised at his own monstrous audacity – and I knew in that moment that we were all doomed.
Isabelle, suddenly and horribly sober, was staring at him with her mouth open, as if finally realizing that she had absolutely no idea who the man whose roof she was standing on – in a bikini, in the middle of the night – actually was.
And I was sitting there, in a deck chair somewhere in east London, with a just opened bottle of wine in my hand, looking at a drunk man in a white suit who, as far as I knew, had just shot at somebody.
We watched him lift his eye from the telescopic site, blink a couple of times like someone waking up from a strange dream, and then look over at us, a mixture of wonder and pure surprise on his face. And then he smiled.
“Can you believe,” he said, “what I just did?”
Isabelle, feeling the cold now, was hugging herself. Half naked in the light from the city, she suddenly looked very fragile indeed.
“What did you do?” She said, very, very carefully. “What just happened?”
In retrospect, it’s always easy to point to historical inevitabilities. To say that it was obvious, from the very beginning, that the Roman Empire would collapse, that the British Empire would burn itself out, that the new economy was doomed from the outset. Even the people who’d been cheering the stock market on from the sidelines and talking about the longest boom in history, who’d insisted that, this time, things were going to be different and that we were all going to get rich, somehow managed to turn around and make out that they’d known all along that it couldn’t last, insisting ‘we told you so’ after everything had gone wrong. And, of course, they had to insist that, otherwise no one would have believed a word they said ever again.
And it’s easy too to identify, afterwards, just why things went wrong, and at what point they did so, whether it was during this or that company flotation, or whether it was down to this or that decimal point moving in exactly the wrong direction at exactly the right time, somewhere between Tokyo, New York, London and Berlin.
But few people can ever really say that they were there at the exact moment that things started to fall apart, that they knew it at the time, and that they were fully aware of how much it meant their lives were going to change.
Well, Isabelle and I can.
She didn’t marry me, as it turned out, but we did end up as friends for a while, and during that strange time before I finally left for good we talked about what had happened that night a great deal. About how he must, finally, have just got bored of everything, or about how he’d always been bored, and was just biding his time until the perfect moment came. About how neither of us had ever had any idea of who he really was or where he came from, and about how, nevertheless, he had managed to invent in us the people who he wanted us to be but never were. Isabelle, of course, wasn’t a fashion model, and had never been one. For a start she wasn’t tall enough, despite the impression that, somehow with Blackburn’s help I guess, she managed to give off. And, much to Isabelle’s disappointment, I wasn’t the internet millionaire that Blackburn had told everyone I was. Probably none of the people who were attracted by his gravitational pull for those few short months were who they were supposed to be. Certainly I’ve not seen or heard of a single one of them since.
But I still wonder whether I wasn’t happier anyway, not knowing, and still trying to pretend to be somebody that I clearly wasn’t cut out to be, as he stood on that roof in his ridiculous suit, the rifle still in his hands, and answered Isabelle’s horrified question.
“I think,” was what he said eventually, “I think that I just blew it.”
But by then we could already hear the police sirens, and the approaching thump of the helicopter.