Everywhere was coming down with Christmas, the streets
and window displays ethereal after rain, but what was it . . .
October? Maybe it was that I’d been thinking about why I hated
Tibetan prayer flags and whether that was similar to how
I felt about Christmas: things become meaningless severed
from the body of ritual, of belief. Then I thought about
those who see kindness in my face, or see it as unusually
calm, which must have to do with that image of the Buddha
smiling. I turned off Regent Street and onto Piccadilly,
then down a side road by Costa to Jermyn Street, where
a man caught my eye as I was about to cross the road
and asked to shake my hand. You have a kind face, he said.

Really. He was wearing a diamond-checked golfer’s
jumper and said he was a holy man. As soon as he let go,
he started scribbling in a notepad, then tore out a sheet which
he scrunched into a little ball and pressed to his forehead
and the back of his neck before blowing on it—once, sharply—
and giving it to me. I see kindness in you, but also bad habits.
Am I right? Not drinking or drugs or sex, not like that, but bad
habits. 2019 will be a good year for you. Don’t cut your hair
on a Tuesday or Thursday. Have courage. He took out his
wallet and showed me a photograph of a temple, in front
of which stood a family. His, I think. A crowd of businessmen
flowed around us. Name a colour of the rainbow, he said.

Any colour, except red or orange. He was looking to my right,
at what I thought could be a rainbow—despite the sun,
a light wind blew the rain about like scattered sand—but when
I followed his gaze it seemed to be fixed on either a fish
restaurant or a suit display, or maybe backwards in time
to the memory of a rainbow. Why did he stop me? I’d been
dawdling, staring at people on business lunches. Restaurants
like high-end clinics, etherised on white wine. I must
have been the only one to catch his eye, to hold it. What
colour could I see? I tried to picture the full spectrum
arrayed in stained glass, shining sadly, and then refracted
through a single shade that appeared to me in the form

of a freshly mown lawn, a stack of banknotes, a cartoon frog,
a row of pines, an unripe mango, a septic wound. I saw
the glen beside the tall elm-tree where the sweetbriar smells
so sweet, then the lane in Devon where my dad grew up,
and the river in Riau where my mum played. It was blue
and yellow mixed, like Howard Hodgkin’s version of
a Bombay sunset, or pistachio ice cream; a jade statue of
the Buddha. I remembered being asked—forced—to give
my favourite colour by a teacher (why did it matter?),
which was the colour of my favourite Power Ranger,
of the Knight beheaded by Gawain, of the girdle given
to him by Lady Bertilak, and chose the same again.

The paper in your hand, if it is your colour, will bring you luck,
and if not . . . He trailed off. First hold it to your forehead,
then the back of your neck. Then blow. I unscrunched the ball.
Now put it here, he said, opening his wallet, and money
please. I had no cash. Nothing? He looked me in the eyes and
said (again) that he was a holy man. I felt honour-bound
to give him something. Up and down the street, men rode
to their important offices. I told him it was my favourite
colour, or had been, and as I did I saw us from a distance,
as we might seem years from now—scraps of coloured fabric
draped across a hall which, taken out of context, signified
nothing—and I flinched, waiting for the blade to fall.


New Town Blues