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Time Not Spent With Others, Life Not Shared
Richard Lim

We did not know each other very well when we were colleagues some 20 years ago, and we had not seen each other since she left the job and the country, but we met for lunch recently, and on the phone tonight, she said:

"You have not come out of your shell. Youíve put on some weight, your shirt is well-pressed, and thereís a sheen on your shoes. But your eyes are the same, as I remember them. Youíre still just watching.

"Go out and live. Unleash that something within you. Youíre so inhibited. Youíve never known despair, anguish; youíve never known ecstasy. You must go out, meet some young girl who will give you the heights and," she laughs here, "bring you to the brink of disaster.

"Then youíll have known life. Then youíll have lived. And," she orders like a doctor, "you can call me then."

"Wait a minute," I said, "let me tell you about this character in Anita Brooknerís A Private View.

It is about this ageing, bland bachelor who at 65 looks back on his life of forbearance and obedience. He is filled with the sadness of loss, for his refusal of adventure, excitement, commitment.

His friendships, sentimental or carnal, with other women, have been all too anodyne.

Then he meets this capricious child-woman who affords him "a glimpse into the heart of hedonism, something ancient, pagan, selfish." To get entangled with her will mean a headlong rush, carelessness, even a fatal passion.

But it will be to know "true freedom, freedom from anotherís cares, or rather the cares that others imposed on one and which called for the exercise of forbearance, restraint, even virtue". It will be to know of no fear of damage.

"Why should life seem exciting only if there is the possibility of throwing it away? And not even for a good cause."

But at the end of the book, the poor chap realises that the life he has led has been insufficient preparation, that the passion he has always sought has become attenuated, so that now it is "an affair not only of longing, but of infinite regret."

He will return to his bland, safe life.

"I can relate to him," I told this former colleague of mine. She has packed a full life in her 20 years away. She had lived in Britain, America, Australia, Hong Kong.

"I miss the seasons," she had told me earlier.

"I miss spring and autumn, Itís just so hot here all the time."

And she had worked in glamorous jobs - couture fashion, public relations, glossy magazines. She had been among the rich and famous, had married and had children.

Now she wants a quiet life with her kids.

She reads books from the library, she smells the jasmine in her garden, she meditates on her Tarot cards, and she recalls her past, in Wales, where the waves both calmed and frightened her; in New York, with its mad energy and its mad people; in Hong Kong where her husband said: "Look, look at the next table. Li Ka-shing. Y.K. Pao."

She was attractive when she was a 20-year-old reporter. She has become beautiful as a woman, has acquired worldliness, and perhaps a certain sadness that comes with having seen and known the world too intimately.

After I had related to her the Brookner Story, she said: "See! There you go again, always quoting from books. Close your books and go out and live!"

On my deathbed, I wonít be able to say "I drank deep from the well", I told her, but I can say I sipped the water, and have savoured it. Thatís enough for me. I am a sipper, I donít take life in a gulp.

"You havenít savoured, youíve just sipped," she said. "Look at Peter Lim," she was referring to our former editor-in-chief.

"Heís sailing round the world, battling the elements."

I told her writing is an adventure too. D. H. Lawrence said so. "Yes, it is, if youíre writing your books. But youíre writing about other peopleís books. And before you write your book, you must first live."

We spoke for a long while, till past midnight. "Oh dear, Iíve missed Central Park West on TV," I said.

Before she hung up, she admonished: "Donít call me till you have lived."

If living means losing a sense of order, then it is going to be hard for me to ever hope to call her again.

I had been miserable in my 20s, had trafficked in heartaches. I may not have known dark despair, but I have known disorder. I have learnt to build some semblance of order into my life in the last 20 years, and I do not want to throw it away, even for a grand passion.

"Youíre barricading yourself behind all these books," she had said, and perhaps she was right. The books on the shelves in the living room of my small flat chart a life, justify its existence. I always feel a certain peace looking at them, and scanning the titles.

Over the years, they have taken me away to so many faraway places, and to other states of minds. They make me feel rich, privileged, for not many people have the gift to read. But the books also tell of time not spent with others, a life not shared, selfishness.

"Why arenít you married?" someone asked the other day.

Because.

The Straits Times, April 13, 1997

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