He was sweating, his golf shirt buttoned to the neck, his hair brutally combed as if he had just been packed off to kindergarten for the first time.
She was tanned, barefoot, loosely wrapped in something homespun and expensive, and she looked bored. If this was a first date, it was between two profoundly mismatched people.
I had been aware of his voice for some time, but as she slumped deeper into her chair and began to shunt food around on her plate with a listless fork, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard him pause at all since I arrived. And that’s when I started listening to him, and realised this wasn’t a date. It was a consultation with a psychic warrior of light.
“The thing with fighting ninjas in other dimensions is that you can turn back time to learn their moves,” he said breathlessly. “This one time I was fighting ninjas in a far dimension, like maybe the 25th Dimension” – he moved his hands in front of him to show the sweep of a karmic samurai sword made of ectoplasm – “and I was like, ‘Whoa, these guys aren’t normal ninjas, they’re light beings!’, so I turned back time and bam!”
She looked up. “How can this happen?” Her accent was that of Europe’s trust fund babies, that transcontinental drawl that implies schooling in France, tanning in Italy and skiing in Austria. Her face was earnest. I had assumed she was bored. In fact she had been lost in contemplation.
“Oh,” he said, “it’s science. I mean not normal science. Normal science is bullshit. But they did it with quantum physics. Time reversal, astral travel, all of it.”
It seemed odd that he was appealing to an authority that he despised; that his crowning argument was that science has proved that science can’t prove anything. But this wasn’t a conversation of rational thought. He was hyper, seeming to tap dance on a thin film of sanity, and making no effort to disguise his complexes. He loved buying himself toys, he told her, because he didn’t get many as a child. Did he want children of his own? Oh God no! They suck your aura. His eyes looked incredibly sad as he said it. Childhood, it seemed, had been a wasteland where wonder had to be hoarded to protect it from being drained away.
She, too, seemed lost, her sarong and Sanskrit ankle-tattoo comprising the uniform of those who believe that they are rejecting uniformity. She was existentially bored – ennui made flesh – and she would look anywhere for a spark of meaning or excitement, even inside the neuroses of a lonely Capetonian fantasist.
The caricaturist in me wanted to gorge on the spectacle. But just then I glanced away, and realised I wasn’t the only one watching them with predatory glee: a young couple nearby – he, power-suited, she, heavily made up, both blinged up – were staring. And judging.
Suddenly, that one-way gaze felt cruel, and I was embarrassed to find myself part of a familiar conspiracy: the smug solidarity of the “normal” banding together to disdain the “freakish”. It’s a pernicious instinct because it feels like righteousness when in reality it is just the stupid xenophobia of the playground, where difference is attacked simply because it is other. And what exactly were we mocking now? Crazy beliefs? No. All that was happening here was two people searching for the same consolations we all search for; attempting to create meaning in meaninglessness.
So often “normality” encourages us to overlook just how freakish it usually is. It urges us to categorise – right, wrong, sane, mad, us, them – without ever looking back at it and recognising it as a ball of raging chaos and contradiction. Why is it, for example, that if someone talks about fighting a space ninja we want to diagnose him as mad, but if he dedicates his life to hitting a golf ball into a hole in a lawn we praise his mental strength? Most parents would tug their children away from a man talking about light-beings from other dimensions, and yet when he calls those beings “angels” and those other dimensions “heaven” and “hell”, he becomes a pillar of the community.
No, it’s all bonkers. And as I watched the cosmic warrior, I felt something like affection for him. If your soul can be filled by an iPhone or a new Lexus, that’s a pretty small soul. But if you can be nourished only by casting yourself as the hero of a pan-dimensional epic about good versus evil – if normality is too small to contain your ambition – I say to you: Good Luck, and may your energy sword always shine brightly for you, wherever you may wander.
First published in The Times and TimesLive