I am setting myself a new target: to write a story every day. I may not publish every one of them, but it’s a way of kick-starting myself back into the spiritual practice of writing from which I had become disconnected during a summer of divine discontent.
Here is the first story. All of them will be autobiographical, because part of my purpose is to help people understand that their story can change the world. If each of us dared to share the truth of our own struggle, our own vulnerability, then it would give others the permission to be fully human, to be flawed but beautiful. This is not all about me: it’s about you too.
A WARM GLASS OF FLAT COLA
A friend of mine once told me that coming events cast their shadow. At the time I didn’t really know what she meant; I was too busy living in a champagne bubble to care. The year was 1988, I was the editor of a pop magazine and had no boundaries in place between work and play. I did both far too hard and the notion of a holiday was alien to me.
Then the aforementioned friend invited me to accompany her on a trip to Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island that Mark Twain described as heaven on Earth. I knew nothing about the place and at first had little desire to go there but was persuaded by the lure of free accommodation.
My friend - who was in PR - had contacts within the Ministry for Tourism so all I had to do was pay for the flight. That meant my freeloading lifestyle could continue uninterrupted on the other side of the world.
In those days I had a close relationship with white wine, smoked 20 menthol cigarettes a day and rarely said no when offered a line of cocaine: a fool’s paradise. So arriving in a Garden of Eden like Mauritius was a shock to the system. The natural beauty acted like a detox that sent me running into a darkened room.
For the first few days the light was too bright but then I relaxed into it. After all, us two spoilt brats had been given our own limousine and dedicated driver to take us anywhere we fancied. But, like many paradise islands, Mauritius was a two-tier country. The rustic interior housed the workers who serviced the high-end resorts that fringed the coastline like an overpriced white-gold necklace.
By the end of the first week we had gorged ourselves on luxury. Most of the time we ignored our driver but boredom drove us to start up a conversation. He seemed strangely honoured to be our chauffeur. We asked where he lived and he told us his house was in a village well off the beaten track. Buoyed by our sudden interest, he asked if we would like to visit his home. To be polite, we said yes, we would.
He took us down roads that were no doubt left off tourist maps, into a strange and wild land without manicured lawns or regiments of beach umbrellas. This was a very different Mauritius: one that was ramshackle and make-do.
The driver pulled up outside a simple dwelling - not much more sophisticated than a two-room shack, with concrete floors. He ushered us inside to meet his wife, who greeted us like visiting royalty. She carefully proffered a warm glass of flat cola as if it were the nectar of the gods. I accepted, even though I hated cola - especially warm, flat cola.
I felt a cloud of shame descend on me as this gentle, warm-hearted woman watched me sip, eager for a sign that she had done the right thing. The look of pride on her face as I smiled cut through my seen-it-all, done-it-all London arrogance and hot tears threatened to leak on to my cheeks. I had to get out before I made a fool of myself, even though everything I was doing in my life was foolish.
We were quiet in the car on the way back to the hotel. We both knew something major had happened but didn’t know what it was or how to talk about it. Later that day, as my friend rode a horse across a white-sand beach, I witnessed a sunset so spectacular that I couldn’t stop myself crying.
I had to fly home alone, my workaholism having kicked in, leaving my friend to continue the party in Madagascar. I felt unwell, ill at ease for the entire 12-hour flight back to London - but it was more than that: a soul sickness, perhaps.
Dazed, nauseous and tearful, I somehow made my way from Heathrow to Charing Cross to get a train home. It was early on a Monday morning and my brain hadn’t managed to work out that there were no trains to my station at that time. So I sat on my suitcase at the rear of the platform and waited. Through bleary eyes I saw wave upon wave of commuters bearing down on me as if I wasn’t there. They looked dead-eyed, grey, lifeless and unhappy. Is this how I usually looked? This is madness, I thought. There must be a better way. I can’t do this any more...
Two months later, I was booked on a flight to Dublin for another freebie, to interview another no-hoper pop group. I woke up that morning but something had broken. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do this any more. I didn’t move. For two days, I didn’t move. Someone had to find me, because I sure as hell didn’t know where I was any more.
Nervous breakdown or nervous breakthrough? Who knows. But it was a turning point in my story. It didn’t take long for me to stop smoking and dabbling in drugs. It would take many years before I would wean myself off daily commuting, but I got there. It would take even longer for me to break off my relationship with white wine, but I finally emptied the last bottle.
Yes, there was a better way - and I finally found it. I still don’t like Coke but I’ll never forget that warm glass of flat cola and the life-changing tenderness of the hand that offered it to me.