Having made a career and a family in Japan, teacher and art historian Catherine Kurosawa finds herself, aged fifty five, widowed and alone. No matter: for Catherine life must go on. But when her daughter Nina returns unexpectedly from her studies in Scotland, and she begins to recall the events of a summer in Edinburgh long-buried in her past, everything threatens to unravel.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead ground, mixing
memory and desire…
TS Eliot, The Wasteland
I am very lucky to live where I do, and believe me there is not a day goes by when I don’t appreciate it. That’s true all year round, but especially in the springtime, when the pale pink cherry blossoms emerge en masse from their green buds, only to cascade to the ground a few weeks later. Here in Japan they remind us that life is a fleeting, delicate thing. For me personally, they have helped to dye in a generous tint an unfortunate series of events in which I was caught up many years ago, when I was but a freshly blossomed bud myself. I say ‘unfortunate events’ and ‘caught up’, but perhaps I ought to use words like ‘tragic’, death’ and ‘responsible’. Or perhaps not, since strictly speaking, tragedy and responsibility are incompatible. No, I will stick to my euphemisms: they have their value, and a shared appreciation of them was a major part of what bonded Sarah and I so quickly that summer.
On the first of April this year, a Sunday, I joined my Canadian professor friend Michael and his wife Mariko for hanami – the ritualistic blossom-viewing – in a park near my house. We drank sake and took pictures under the laden bowers. I used the neat little Nikon Takehiro had given me for our anniversary two years earlier. The photos turned out rather well I think. I really should get round to having them printed out.
It was a warm day. Spring had come early – but later in the evening clouds rolled in off the hills to the West, the sky turned from lilac to lead and a wind whipped up. I was back home by then, thankfully, and I thought of the blossoms being borne prematurely off the branches, tossed in the air and scattered on the ground.
But I slept well enough and spent Monday morning sorting out a few edits for my book The Enigma of Fuji. In the afternoon I prepared for the last class of term in the English short story course I was teaching for mature learners at the university where Takehiro used to work. I had been unsure about my choice of story for that class. It was Joyce’s The Dead, and it went without saying that this was way beyond Mrs Inaba, who I privately called ‘The White Rabbit’. Nothing to do with Alice’s clock-carrying guide, but a character in Japanese folklore, ‘The White Rabbit of Inaba’, who ill-advisedly dances on the snouts of sharks. Not that the others in the class were sharks, in fact I was worried that it was too ambitious even for them as well.
But if the story bombed – and in the worst case scenario no one would have finished it or even got past the first page – but they wouldn’t want to admit to this – I formed a plan to make the hour pass enjoyably, or at least painlessly. I would begin by telling them about Joyce’s life. I didn’t doubt they would be interested in his elopement with the teenage Nora Barnacle, or the fact that he had worked as a teacher of English in Trieste. There was also his daughter who had become a dancer, though the part about her recurring mental illness I would leave out.
The whole afternoon I spent preparing a slideshow, scouring Google for the best images. I was pretty satisfied with the end result, but as it neared the time for me to leave, I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive. If you’ve ever taught you’ll know this feeling. Teaching a nightclass is like being writer, director and actor of a show where every performance is opening night The more tightly packed your schedule the less true this is – you simply don’t have time to worry about each class. But when you are doing just a couple a week, well then you tend to set great store by the audience reaction.
But in the end, almost always, if you have prepared well, you needn’t have worried. They had all read the story – even the White Rabbit pretended she had – and they liked Gabriel and the musical aunts. There was unanimous appreciation of the ending, the snow falling over all Ireland, ‘over all of the living and all of the dead’, which they thought was a very Japanese image. Overall, with my presentation leading into discussion of the story, I came away feeling that I really had brought the spirit of Joyce into the narrow closets of their lives.
Afterwards, as I had planned, we went to a nearby yakiniku restaurant. Well, the three women and I went. There were two retired men in the class, but both of them said they had to be going somewhere, probably drinking together in an izakaya and discussing baseball, stock prices, their wives and what a weird son of a bitch that James Joyce was. So, as often happens in Japan, the sexes separated, but in honour of Leopold Bloom, I ordered hearts, livers and those gristly little bullets of flesh, gizzards.
Soon the conversation moved naturally away from any reference to Joyce or literature, and onto the familiar ground of our lives. I enjoyed the talk and the atmosphere: the smell of grilled meat; the clatter from the kitchen; the group of salarymen wreathed in smoke at the next table, one of them quite drunk, tie off, being loud and obnoxious; and our waitress, elegant and attentive, the helmet effect of her hair making her look like the half-android heroine of some apocalyptic manga.
“One more?” Inaba-san gestured at the near empty wine bottle on the table. To keep The Rabbit comfortable, we had long since been speaking Japanese. Her sly eyes glittered pinkish. Perhaps I should mention that the original creature of myth was no shrinking violet. Inaba-san would probably have willingly jumped in the shark tank at Shinagawa aquarium to avoid returning to find her husband talking to the TV again. She had told us how much she used to prefer it when he was working and would come home so paralytic he had to be put straight to bed like a man-sized baby.
“What would Catherine-sensei like to do,” Shimizu-san smiled at me. ‘Shimizu-san is one of those Japanese women who have, with the help of money, become the very image of understated refinement. Her outfits, jewellery and English were as perfectly measured as steps in a cook book recipe. She had studied literature at the prestigious Waseda University, and for the whole ten week course I had been unsure whether she was vexed by Inaba-san’s weak English, which tended to slow the pace of the class. I suddenly felt very tired, and without having planned to, I looked at my watch and said I was sorry but really I had to be going.
Mrs Inaba looked as pained as her mythological antecedent when its skin had been ripped off by the last of the sharks following a premature celebration of crossing the strait of Shimonoseki. Kiyohara-san stepped in like the pollen the White Rabbit had then rolled in to grow her skin back.
“Sensei has her daughter’s visit to prepare for, remember.”
“Ah, yes, of course, I’m so sorry.” Inaba-san clucked at herself. “Just because I’m old, with nothing to do. I mean if my son wasn’t eating insects in Vietnam I might cook for him but…oh yes you’d better go. It’s tomorrow isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” I said, and to avoid sounding abrupt I added with a laugh: “Nina told me she put on five kilos. At least I don’t need to fatten her up any more.”
I must have drunk more wine than I thought. After that, it was inevitable the conversation would go on for another twenty minutes, about the dangers of the fatty diet of the British Isles.
The Rabbit and Shimizu-san went back in towards Tokyo; Kiyohara-san took the same train as me towards the edge of the city. There were no seats so we stood by the doors, talking in English.
“You know, Catherine-san, I’m so happy I found your class. I always wanted to read in English. But novels seemed so long. Do you know last year, I started Wuthering Heights – and I gave up after two chapters and went back to Japanese.”
I laughed. “Well I have a confession too. I have never even tried a Japanese novel. Short stories are hard enough for me.”
“Yes, short stories are very good, aren’t they. Especially when you’re not a native.”
“Yes they are. I would like to read more short stories in Japanese.”
“I can recommend some to you if you’d like.”
“Thank you so much. I would like that very much.”
“Thank you. I hope we can meet up again.”
“Of course. That would make me very glad.”
I liked Mrs Kiyohara, and I was genuinely keen to meet her and the other women again. But our conversations tended to sound a little like model dialogues from language textbooks, and I was relieved when she got off the train two stops before me and I could savour the end of the evening by myself.
The town where I live is just outside the Western limits of the Greater Tokyo metropolis, which also encompasses Yokohama, Kawasaki and other previously separate towns. A river flows through it, coming down from the forest furred hills of Kanagawa to the West. Above these, provided the weather is clear, peeks the white capped cone of Mount Fuji. As I say, I constantly feel blessed that I have the chance to live here. I know there are some long-term foreign residents of Japan, mostly men, who don’t share my feeling. They resent the fact that they can never be fully accepted as if they were Japanese, no matter how well they may have mastered the language and customs of the country. But my aim was never to become completely Japanese, and that’s probably why I have been able to live comfortably in Japan for so long.
As naturally as the river itself I flowed with the throng exiting the ticket barriers, out the north exit and past the queues waiting at bus stops. The night air, scented by the cherry blossoms, was noticably fresher compared to the metropolis, and I savoured again my fortune at living here as I passed workers returning from offices and teenagers from their evening cram schools. When you’ve been in Japan for as long as I have it’s easy to forget that this isn’t ‘normal’ by Western standards. I wonder what the reaction would be back home if high schoolers were told by their parents that they would spend their evenings boning up further on their subjects? From the sound of the ones Nina had been telling me about in her emails, the response would be even less enthusiastic than when I was young.
My daughter Nina attended international school here, but she made up her mind, quite early on, that she wanted to go to university overseas. Not long after Takehiro died she was offered a place to study psychology at the University of Edinburgh. For reasons you can well imagine, she had wavered about accepting the offer, but in the end I persuaded her that abandoning her dream was the last thing her father would have wanted, and in a way, after the initial shock, losing him might even have given her the steeliness she previously lacked. Indeed she seemed to have settled well in Edinburgh, making some good friends which I knew was the key to her enjoying university life. This is why I’ll admit I was a little suprised when, a couple of weeks earlier, she had told me she was going to return to Japan at the beginning of April, towards the end of her first year.
“Don’t you have exams coming up?” I had tentatively asked, after the initial show of delight. We were talking over skype, and her face filled most of the screen, though behind her I could see on the yellowish wall of her bedroom a poster for something called ‘2Many DJs’.
“Exams don’t start until the beginning of May,” she said. “But classes are already finished.”
When I suggested that it seemed early for classes to finish, she gave me one of her ‘Mums’. This is what she started saying when she was about fourteen, just this ‘Mum’, in a certain tone, which I suppose is meant to mean ‘we could go on having this discussion, but is there really any point?’ I used to come back against it sometimes, but now, and especially over the precarious distance of skype, where in the split second between making a cutting remark and its digitalised emergence at the other end, there is time for regret, I tend instead to smile and make my replies clear and generous to a fault.
“Okaaay.” I said. “Well it’ll be lovely to have you around. I suppose you’ll be doing revision most of the time. But what about after the exams finish? Aren’t you going to come back then?”
This, it turned out, was the thing. She was planning to stay, and ‘do a bit of travelling’. And that was when the germ of the idea planted itself in my mind. Why didn’t I go over there in summer myself? Not to check up on her – I’ve always trusted Nina to make her own decisions, and I’m not the controlling type, but just because it seemed like the right time. By June in Japan, we would be beginning to build up to that pitch of heat and humidity which by August would make it uncomfortable even to venture outside.
After that conversation, perhaps because it made me think of summer, I had ended up looking out the photos from our wedding party again. I was a June bride, which is considered a lucky thing in Japan, and Takehiro, for all his unconventionality, always liked to do things the proper way. Our ceremony had taken place in the gardens of an opulent hotel in the West of Tokyo. Takehiro was and always remained a great fan of The Godfather, and kept joking that he wanted a wedding like Michael Corleone’s, with rice thrown in the air and Sicilian dancing. His film school training kicked in and in the end he made a pretty good job of reproducing the effect. The guests were seated at tables on the lawn, in the centre of which was a bandstand with a real Italian band playing Neapolitan songs that coaxed even the most reticent guests up to dance. I looked through the photos of the dancing and of Takehiro himself taking a turn at the mic, doing a couple of finger-clicking Sinatra numbers while the band played behind him. They say Sinatra was part of the mob, don’t they. Well Takehiro and I used to joke about how he’d better not move towards a career in the yakuza as soon as the wedding was over.
There was one photo in particular that I looked at for a long time. On the surface it was a normal wedding image. Takehiro in his tuxedo and thick framed glasses, looking like a young Japanese Tom Hanks. Me in a shoulderless white dress with a crown of purple azalias, my russet hair tied up behind in an elaborate style that had taken hours to arrange. Takehiro’s hand was resting on mine as we brought the knife down together on the cake, on top of which stood miniature versions of ourselves. To the side of me – the lifesize version – was the Major, who, with his leathery skin and tinted glasses, did in fact resemble an aging mafia don. But it wasn’t Takehiro’s father whose image I focused on, but the small, birdlike woman of a smiliar age, around whose shoulder Takehiro’s arm was thrown. He was pulling my mother into the shot, and she was obviously delighted by the gesture; there was no mistaking the happiness in her face. The slightly giddy kind that made it look almost as if, in an inversion of the natural order of our ages, she were the child and we the parents. Of course she had probably had a couple of glasses of wine by that time, but I reflected that it wasn’t only tipsiness that made her look like that. It was the fact that she was in Japan and, to her surprise, she was enjoying it, both the strangeness of it all and the way everyone treated her. “I feel a bit like the Queen,” I remembered her saying to me, as Takehiro’s relatives crowded round to have their photo taken with her. But it had been Takehiro who pleased her most of all, and precisely because he didn’t treat her anything like a visiting foreign dignitary. Instead he made her laugh, and honoured her purely for the fact of being my mother, to the extent that she forgot he was Japanese. As indeed, he used to say, he sometimes did himself.
Laughter is vital I find, these days more than ever. Especially when you have a tendency or reasons not to, it’s important to seek out things that will make you laugh. I have an extensive DVD collection, and the films I keep in it are the ones guaranteed to tickle my funny bone. When you live in a foreign country you realise that comedy is a very cultural thing. Without boasting, I can say that my Japanese is good enough to understand most of what comes out of people’s mouths. But their comedy, the moments where they fall about laughing, I still don’t really get. I suppose so much of what we find funny depends on a shared knowledge that is almost ingrained. A character makes us laugh because they are like a ridiculous version of someone else, who takes themselves seriously, but if you haven’t seen the someone else then you don’t know that, do you? Or a lot of the time it’s about shared moments of awkwardness or even cruelty that can be redeemed by recasting them in the garb of the absurd. But perhaps I’m already talking mainly about British comedy, which on one level you could take as a collective effort at trauma recovery. Foreigners often talk about our humour being dry or dark, and it’s true, we do seem to be innately drawn to laugh at the awful things. If you remember a couple of years ago for example, two British comedians came under fire for joking about the true story of a Japanese man who had been in Hiroshima when the bomb fell, then travelled to Nagasaki just in time for the next one. Thanks to the wonders of the internet this clip made it round the world and caused great offence in Japan. Takehiro and I talked about it, and I tried to explain to him that they were not laughing at Japan or the victims of the bombing, but the fact that someone could take the worst piece of luck you could imagine and then double it. A kind of luck that was so ridiculously bad it was funny, but then on the other hand, because he had survived both bombs, it could be argued was ridiculously good. In other words the story satisfied many of the demands that we make on our comedy: it was pitch dark, but also, at the same time, uplifting. Had the man died in Nagasaki, I concluded, the joke would never have been told.
We had been sitting side-by-side on the sofa the living room, me working on the computer, while he was making one of the robot models which he built up from the parts they gave you in a fortnightly subscription magazine. He had listened to me patiently, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth as he engaged in a delicate piece of wiring before replying:
“Yes, but what about the people who didn’t survive?”
“I know,” I said. “But it’s a long time in the past. And the dead don’t take offence, do they.”
Takehiro was hardly ever firm with me, or shut me down and made me feel as if he was the Japanese man and I the foreign woman who didn’t really understand things. But on this particular occasion he got angry and spoke to me harshly in Japanese.
“Think about it,” he said. “Everywhere has taboos. Things that are too painful to joke about. The atomic bomb is Japan’s taboo. That’s it.” And he got up, leaving a wire dangling from a half constructed arm, went through to the kitchen and stacked the dishwasher with as much angry noise as the American punk bands whose concerts he used to attend in New York in the late 1970s; the years, he always said, that made him a man, even if they didn’t make him a film director to rival his namesake.
As I said, this happened a couple of springs ago, and the reason I remember it is because Takehiro and I so rarely had arguments. A lot of couples start narking at each other more and more as their kids grow up, and at that time it’s true Nina wasn’t around the house as much; she would study a lot round at friends’ houses, and when we had that argument I think she was actually in Singapore on a school trip. But far from being at each other’s throats we were enjoying what we told ourselves was the renaissance of our marriage, we had even started deliberately going back to places we had been in the early days of our relationship. The big one while Nina was away was Kyoto. We did the temples: Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji; but the highlight was a night-time boat trip on the river out at Arashiyama. I remember we sat at the back of the boat, next to the boatwoman who held a long pole with a flaming torch on the end of it, watching the flames’ reflection flickering across the black water; I held Takehiro’s hand and we kissed. We were acting for all the world like young lovers in the first flush of romance. The boatman then rowed us in to a riverside restaurant, where we ate skewered catfish with a white wine that we both agreed was the finest we had ever drunk and reminisced about the days of our poverty and the paint stripper we used to be satisfied with. Later that night we made love in our hotel room up on the twelfth floor with its views over Kyoto. There was an effortlessness to our movements, as if we were not merely tipsy, but dreaming participants in some faery revel. Perhaps I have read Lafacadio Hearn’s ghostly tales of old Japan too often, but I sometimes wonder if there wasn’t some weird supernatural bargain on that trip, in which we were granted four days of perfect youth, but had to pay a price in return. Certainly, it was soon after we came back – i recall it now – that we had that absurd fight over a British gameshow; and as for love making, we must have attempted the act only two or three times more in all, and never again came remotely close to that last night in Kyoto.
The day after she arrived, Nina slept late, which wasn’t like her although I put it down to delayed jetlag that can sometimes hit you flying from West to East. The previous day I had met her at the main train station in central Tokyo, where she took the train from Narita airport after her flight arrived. I had been planning to get there first, but a delay on the subway line meant that when I reached the appointed spot beneath the dome I saw my daughter already waiting, engrossed in her smartphone, a stylish wheeled suitcase at her feet. She had sensed me approaching and looked up, breaking into a smile.
“Mum,” she said, hugging me.
I withdrew slightly and looked at her. “You look so grown up with short hair”, I said, and it wasn’t a meaningless compliment, she really did. She had changed in a way that I hadn’t been able to discern across the two dimensionality of skype. But it wasn’t just the hairstyle. There was something about her manner that suggested she was no longer the girl I had seen off at the airport eight months previously.
I thought she would be exhausted and want to go straight home, but to my surprise she suggested going for a walk around the park at Ueno. We took the subway up there and left her case in a locker before going out into the busy concourse. Nina declared herself pleased to be back among the Tokyo throng as we crossed the road and entered the wide tree-lined avenues of the park. We had lunch in a little French place off one of the quieter paths, sitting at a table outside. I could feel Nina’s happiness at being back in Japan. Her eyes seemed to be drinking in the surroundings as she answered my questions about her time in Edinburgh. Indeed as I tried to talk to her about Arthur’s Seat and the Meadows, she seemed more intent on watching a pair of bearded vagabonds on a bench opposite. They both wore tatty blazers with trackuit bottoms and trainers. One was scooping handfuls of rice grains from a brown bag and tossing them onto the path for the sparrows who would hop down, first one, then another til there were a cluster of them pecking away – until a sudden movement by one of the men provoked a thurrrrock of tiny wingbeats and they all flew back en masse to the refuge of the branches. I could see Nina forming thoughts as she watched this, and it didn’t surprise me when she commented: “Even the homeless are zen masters in Japan. In Edinburgh there’re so many people who look like they’re just barely surviving one day to the next. Like they’re clinging on.”
“It’s the wind.” I said. “I don’t miss that wind at all.”
On a whim we decided to go to see the Van Gogh exhibition that was on at the national museum. I had already been but it was such a fine collection that I was happy to see it again. There was the church at Auvers; the undergrowth by the river in the grounds of the asylum; the claustrophobic gorge; and the ageing couple walking on the near side of a riverbank. Japanese prints were hung alongside these works to illustrate how Van Gogh used the high horizon of Japanese art – though for me this served more to illustrate the difference of his skies, which rather than a purifying graduation of blue to white, tend to be a solid block of garish and oppressive colour. The man in the couple by the river made me think of Takehiro at Kyoto, and again it hit me: the simple, incredible fact that I was still here but he was gone. Nina must have noticed because she reached out and held my hand as we looked at it together.
The following morning I was up early and was in the kitchen making onigiri for our picnic and listening to Perlman playing Sarasate when Nina came down. She was still fuzzy with sleep, in her pyjamas, the silk ones we had got her for her seventeenth birthday. She leaned over my shoulder and scooped the remaining rice out of the rice cooker into a bowl, topped it with some hijiki from the fridge, located her favourite set of chopsticks from the drawer, and sat in her old place at the table to eat, brushing away her fringe which flopped down over her eyes.
“You missed your Japanese breakfasts, didn’t you?”
She smiled: “There’s only so much toast a girl can take.”
I tried to get her onto the subject of her flatmate, Amy, who had short-circuited the toaster by poking a knife into it, a story I had heard on skype. But after enlightening me that ‘Amy was just Amy’, she started talking instead about Noda san, our old next door neighbour whose wife had died years ago, when Nina was just five or six. Noda-san must have died himself about ten years ago and I hadn’t given him much thought since, so I was surprised to hear Nina recall his behaviour after the death of his wife. She remembered how he had devoted ceaseless energies to tending his back yard across the fence from us, raking blossoms and leaves away as soon as they fell, but leaving the husks of dead cicadas because he thought the gradual decay of their bodies symbolised the soul making its passage up to heaven. As she was recalling all this I pressed the plunger down, squashing the dancing granules to the bottom of the cafetiere.
“I suppose you’re wondering how I’ve been keeping myself busy,” I said. “Well, you know the art book about Mount Fuji I’ve been working on for ages? Last month, just before you said you were coming back, I finally finished it. I sent away the proofs and it turns out they like it. There are just a few edits to do but they’re gong to publish. What do you think of that? Your Mum’s going to be in print again.”
I knew there was no real reason for me to be so awkward, spilling out the words as I poured the coffee into our cups. It wasn’t as if the book I had written was some erotic potboiler or bare-all memoir. Perhaps I worried she would see my being able to write it so soon after Takehiro’s death as a kind of sustained act of blanking the memory of her father. Or maybe I was simply nervous because in telling her about my work I was foregrounding the question which was troubling me: the unanswered doubt about whether her return to Japan was really as temporary as she made out. At first I wondered even if she had even taken in what I’d said. She was busy adding her usual excessive dose of milk, frowning down at the cup as if it, rather than me, had betrayed her. Finally she looked up at me and, cupping her mug in both hands, said with a peculiar strength of feeling:
“That’s wonderful, Mum, I’m really proud of you.”
We had agreed the night before that we would walk together to Takehiro’s grave, to perform the Japanese ceremony of o-hakamaeri. I had the incence sticks ready and we would stop on the way at the fruit shop to get some cherries. These were always Takehiro’s favourite fruit, and when Nina was little he used to delight her by spitting out the pips into a tissue, then giving her the carefully wrapped bundle ‘to plant’ in the garden.
It was just before eleven and warm when we stepped outside into the street. Our house looked East, towards the line of low tree-clad hills behind which lay the vast plain out of which Greater Tokyo rises like a glittering bed of needles. The town itself is built on sloping ground, rising either side of the river that cut through it. We lived south of this river and Takehiro’s family were buried on the north side, in a small cemetery near the top of the hilll which rose to a modest height above the town. It could be accessed by a small road to accommodate the needs of funeral processions and regular visits by the infirm, but there was also a path that wound its way up the steeper side of the hill. This was the route Nina and I would take, a walk we used to do frequenty as a family.
We had made it out of the fruit shop and I thought we had miraculously escaped the need for any lengthy conversations when Mr Goto, the father of one of Nina’s old classmates and a former student of mine, hailed us from the other side of the road. In the circumstances we could hardly not cross over to speak to him.
“Mrs Kurosawa,” he said. “And who is this beautiful young woman?”
Nina was obliged to smile and make the correct responses to a series of banal gambits, then listen while he filled us in on the activities of his son who had graduated from Tokyo University, been snapped up by Toyota and was working in the car maker’s head office in central Tokyo. The lad was fully expecting to be sent to America next year, ‘just like your husband, whose spirit is so sadly missed’. Indeed Mr Goto was wondering… the boy may need someone to put the finishing touches to his English. What woud I say to that? My mind was still jarring from the image of Takehiro’s corpse being wakened in the afterlife, forced back into a business suit and sent to negotiate terms on exports of medical equpment to private hospitals in Florida. I was less polite than I would normally have been.
“Perfection in a language is impossible, Mr Goto” I said in flawless Japanese. “I wouldn’t want your son to think I could help him attain it.”
This blunted the old goat’s horns, and I pressed home the victory with a couple of excessively polite greetings to his wife and ageing mother, before delivering the coup de grace: explaining that we had to be on our way to perform our devotional duties. Nina took the cue to deliver a slight bow and the formal farewell, and we continued on our way. Once we were out off sight she began to laugh. “I never knew you could handle boring old farts so well.”
“In thirty years in Japan I’ve mastered the art of the conversational corrida. Anyway I had to get us away before he’d arranged a date for you with his precious son.”
“God no! The poor guy’ll probably have a breakdown and quit Toyota in a matter of months.”
“Goto-san would probably rather he took the honorouble route and threw himself under a train.” As soon as the words escaped my lips I realised I shouldn’t have uttered them given where we were heading, but to my surprise Nina smiled in a way that suggested eight months in Edinburgh could have been enough to attune her to the blackness of British humour.
“Maybe in that case you should have agreed to teach him. Then he could escape to America.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but, encouraged by her reaction, I told Nina then about the image Goto-san’s words had conjured in my mind. To my relief she laughed and it led us into a series of reminisicences about Takehiro as we continued the walk. We crossed a bridge over a small stream that fed into the main river, then cut among the older, more rickety wooden houses until we came out onto a main road that skirted the town at the foot of the hill. We crossed the road and Nina nipped into the convenience store to buy some green tea and use the toilet. The temperature was still rising and when she emerged she had taken off her cardigan. I noticed that she was wearing a t-shirt for a band which I hadn’t heard of. As we walked single file along the fringe of the busy road, past ugly concrete warehouses, I read on the back the series of tour dates for various concerts. Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff: cities I had never visited in my life, and which there was every chance I never would.
After this unpleasant five minute section, we turned off the main road past the power station. The path used to start right at the back of it, but last year the road was extended a couple of hundred metres up the hill for the construction of a new private health treatment centre. There were rumours of plastic surgery and other more exotic procedures for celebrities from the Tokyo entertainment world. The car park was sparsely populated apart from flashy sports cars and big black BMWs or Mercedes with tinted windows. Nina had, for a time in her early teen years, been interested in Japanese celebrity culture. She had even been part of a dance group in high school and had attended some audition or other at the NHK studios in Shibuya. Thankfully this hadn’t led anywhere, and in fact it seemed the experience had turned her against the rampantly commercialised mass entertainment industry which has such a corrosive effect on Japanese culture. Certainly it was around that time that she began to listen to the type of music that, although I didn’t like, I could recognise held some of the same ideals as the stuff Takehiro grew so enamoured with in New York. It was hardly surprsing that she grew closer to her father in these years, and they would often be together conspiring in some music-related conversation.
The tree cover on the hillside is thick, every space between the larger pines and cedars clogged with bamboo. The path begins gently enough but soon steepens and narrows, criss-crossed by bulbous roots like the oedemic legs of old Edinburgh ladies. It was Nina, this time, who brought up the subject of Edinburgh as we made out way up.
“It’s kind of weird,” she said, “Quite often I didn’t actually feel like I was living in a city at all. I mean, I’d look out my window on one of those freezing November mornings and all I could see was the crags and Arthur’s Seat.” She paused . Something that sounded rather larger than a bird was disturbing the undergrowth to our right. “I mean, it felt like what I was saying yesterday, about the people clinging on. But it’s not just the people it’s the whole city. The Old Town clings to the castle rock. And because Arthur’s Seat is way bigger than any building, it feels like the city is just sort of sheltering under it. Which makes it sounds a bit m-” she hesitated and seemed to think better of whatever adjective she had intended to use. “…a bit protective. but it’s not really, it’s just a big old volcanic lump. But it can be really beautiful too. Especially when it’s covered in snow. Oh did I tell you we went sledging…”
She went on in this fashion, musing philosophically then swerving into anecdotes, and I realised as we climbed that there was substance to my impression of the day before: she had grown not just older but wiser. But far more importantly she was happy. She had a group of friends and they did all the daft and imeptuous things students are meant to do. One thing puzzled me – this being the case, I still couldn’t figure out why she had returned.
It was typical of Takehiro that he had prepared meticuolusly for the event of his death. His family are from from a town in Chiba, the prefecture north east of Tokyo. His mother, aunt, uncle and various cousins still live there, and his elder brother’s family has just recently returned. They have a family plot there, and it would have been in the natural course for him to join them in it. That would have meant me facing a three hour trip across Tokyo by train or on congested roads to attend the funeral and visit the grave. But instead he had specified that he wanted to be buried in the town where we lived. Rather than in the larger, far more accessible cemetery against the base of the hill next to the river, he insisted on the small graveyard laid out in a terraced section near the top of the hill, out of sight of the town, looking west towards the mountains of Kanagawa and Fuji’s cone beyond. As for the funeral rites, he rejected the wake that still happens in traditional Buddhist ceremonies. After a single day lying in the temple, his body was cremated. He had already spoken to the priest and selected the memorial he wanted: a modest block of grey granite, with a smaller one on top of that topped off by a slim corskscrew. The urn containing his ashes was placed inside the memorial through a hatch. After the priest chanted a few sutras I had to say some words in English. There was to be no altar in the house reminding me that I ought to be saying prayers or leaving pieces of fruit for his soul; no costly monthly house visit from the priest chanting a thousand syllablle death name to speed his passage to the next world. Just this little grave, up near the top of the hillside, where it was unlikely you would ever bump into someone else and have to make polite conversation. Takehiro had laind down all this procedure in Japanese and English. The whole aim was to make me feel that I had not lost him to the enormous weight of Japanese custom that surrounds death. As with most of the things he did, Takehiro had achieved his goal and it suited me down to the ground.
We worked side by side. I placed the candles in their holders and lit them; Nina used the flame to ignite a bunch of incense sticks and wedge them inside the metal vase on a plinth between the candles. We clapped three times, pressed our hands together and closed our eyes. Nina grew tearful and I put my arm round her and pulled her tight to my shoulder. I bent down and took away the withered cyclamens that I had put there a month ago; Nina replaced them with the fresh crocuses we had picked from the garden. We took a last look at the grave and then turned and walked away between the other memorials. A flight of stone steps took us back up beside the wooden temple. We walked up to the front of it between the statues of two ferocious stone dogs. A thick rope dangled down – like the fossilised remnant of a taurine penis – and Nina yanked on it to make the bronze bell gong. We launched some fifty yen coins – the ones with a hole in the middle – between the slats of the wooden collection box, clapped our hands and closed our eyes to pray again.
After the untamed vegetation on the way up and surrounding the cemetery, you emerge onto the crest of the hill to find it as groomed as a golfcourse fairway. A kind of pagoda-cum-pavilion sits on its summit, and there’s a long-established ritual of the children from the local elementary schools doing a walk up here, with a picnic in the pavilion their reward at the top. At night the local stargazers shuffle up the backroad in their Toyotas and Hondas, turning the place into a makeshift observatory as they extract from their boots a phlalanx of telescopes and photographic gizmos. For a while Nina and Takehiro used to join these earnest assemblies. This was in Takehiro’s home telescope buiding phase when he would spend hours sanding a glass into the perfect parabola. As we unpacked our picnic stuff I asked Nina if she remembered the homeless man who for years, unkown to anyone, had been dossing down in the pavilion. After he was disocvered by the stargazers, disagreement had rumbled about whether the practice should be allowed to continue. A group of concerned citizens – Mr Goto among them – had eventually taken their case to the town committee, arguing it was an inappropriate use of a local landmark. Takehiro had attended the public meeting and sat through most of it listening, only standing up to speak towards the end. ‘I want to talk to you,’ he said ‘about the turf wars between rival gangs of Jamaican crack dealers in the Upper East side of New York in the late 1970s.’. Having captured their attention in the manner of a gasp-inducing NHK documentary, he went on to tell the story of how, coming home late one night, he had found a black kid lying in a pool of blood in the stairwell of his apartment building. After phoning for an ambulance he used his hands in a vain effort to plug the outflow of blood. To distract the boy whose life seemed to be ebbing before his eyes, Takehiro told him about his family back in Japan, how his mother had hoped he would become a salaryman and wear a suit to go to work every day in the centre of Tokyo, but instead here he was in New York going to punk concerts and trying to become a film director. The kid listened and then what he said next Takehiro had never forgotten: ‘In America Mister, you gotta be rich or you’re a nobody’. Then the ambulance came and the kid got taken away and Takehiro never heard if he survived or not. But after he couldn’t stop thinking about that boy and what he said. That was a long time ago but tonight listening to everyone talk he had remembered it again. He always thought Japan was different from America and people here looked out for each other regardless of whether they had money or not. But he couldn’t help thinking as he listened that what was really making people upset here was not the hygiene risk or the danger that the old guy would die one night of exposure, but that he was finding a place to sleep and not paying for it.
“Was Dad a socialist?” Nina asked when I finished the story. What I had left out, by the way, were my doubts concering whether these events had actually happened. Takehiro had a lot of New York stories which I had heard him recount on different occasions over the years. As my Japanese improved I began to notice discrepancies in their telling, especially the ones involving famous people from the music world. I’m not saying they were completely made up – I’m sure for example that he did encounter the singer Lou Reed on some occasion, but did he really host the man on several occasions in his apartment? And did he guide Cyndi Lauper to a small Japanese karaoke bar where she sung Girls Just Wanna Have Fun before it was released as a single? The karaoke bar was sometimes in the upper east side, but it could equally be just off Broadway, or in Brooklyn Heights. Reed’s motivation for wanting to learn about Japanese culture varied. Sometimes it was because he had become curious about Japan after filming a commercial for Honda; in another telling Zen Buddhism had been recommended to him by David Bowie as a sure-fire way to quit heroin. Not that I had a problem with these different versions. Memories are always unreliable, and even if they did at times veer into conscious untruths, they were harmless ones and I found them endearing.
Half my riceball had just collapsed and fallen between the slats of the bench, onto the floor of the pavilion among the grit and windblown blossoms. I bent to see if it could be salvaged, but Nina stopped me: “Leave it for the ants, Mum.”
“Was your Dad a socialist?” I considered, straightening up. “By Japanese standards almost certainly. I wish he could have seen that lot get voted out last year. He was always saying how the labour laws should be reformed.”
Nina swung her feet up onto the bench, and looked out of the pavilion, south across the plain, which itself is a section of the Tokaido, the ancient post road linking Tokyo to Kyoto.
“Wanting people to work less? That doesn’t sound like Dad.”
“Well it was. Your Dad wanted fathers to spend more time with their kids. He believed that so strongly he sometimes even talked about going into politics himself.”
“He never mentioned it to me.”
She popped a pink riceball into her mouth and turned back towards the view.
I shrugged: “I don’t think he was ever serious about it. He wanted to spend time with you too much.”
“So… because he wanted to spend time with me, he couldn’t campaign for fathers to spend more time with their kids.”
“Some things require a sacrifice – that isn’t necessarily good.”
“Are you political Mum?”
I smiled at her uncharecteristic question. “Well I try to be. My vote was one of the ones that got the new government elected. And I sign the odd petition.”
“What about when you were younger?”
“In Edinburgh you mean. Well that’s different. There were always strikes. I used to go on marches with the unions. I had a -”
“I went on a march.” She paused. “I can’t remember what it was about though.”
“Don’t worry. I can’t say I didn’t do the same.”
She seemed on the verge of telling me something and then thought better of it.
“You know, one of our lecturers told us about this study… it was on the voting habits of people using anti-depressants. Apparently there’s a strong link between left wing voting and depression.”
“Hardly surprising. The Tories have always been the party of pull your socks up, stiff upper lip and don’t feel sorry for yourself. In a way a bit like Japan, even with a so-called lefty party in charge.”
“Well it works doesn’t it. Japan isn’t falling apart.”
“Do the words financial crisis not ring any bells?”
I sighed. “Come on kiddo, I’m not that out of touch?”
“It was the Labour Party that caused it.”
“I don’t think you can say that. You can blame Blair for the Iraq War but not the recklessness of greedy bankers.”
“Yes you can.“
“Well it sounds like you’re more in touch than me. Anyway I’m glad to hear you’re getting into politics. As long as you’re not going to vote Tory.”
She shook her head.
“I’m not going to vote at all.”
“You can still spoil your ballot. That’s when you -“
“I know what spoiling a ballot means. I just don’t see the point.”
“Well if you’re going to say that you could say what’s the point in anything? What was the point in us going to your Dad’s grave just now?”
“Don’t be ridicuolous. That’s totally different?”
“They’re both symbolic acts.”
“You really believe scribbling on a voting slip is the same as what we just did for Dad?”
“I believe the two things have a similar level of importance, yes.”
She stood up. I realised I had made her angry but it was too late to take back what I had said.
We made separate descents down the hill. Nina flitted in and out of sight according to the twists of the path ahead. A spring shower had begun to fall, fine as sewing needles, pitter pattering onto the leaves. I could almost feel the growth burgeoning in the soil: Tendrils of subterranean roots busily absorbing nutrients, trunks swelling into their latest ring of age. The path grew slippy and I skidded on some mulchy leaves left from last autumn, keeping upright by holding onto the wooden guard rail but at the expense of a nick from its sharp edge. Hearing me swear Nina glanced behind.
“I’m alright”, I called to her in Japanese, hoping it would serve as a reconciliation between us, but she pressed on, quickening her pace until we were almost jogging. The rucksack, nearly empty after our picnic, jounced off my back like a menopausal marsupial’s redundant pouch. At a bend in the path Nina suddenly paused. As I approached I saw she was staring up into the trees.
“What is it?”
“Shhh,” she put her finger to her lips. I halted a few feet back and followed the direction of her gaze. It took me a few seconds to spot it among the foliage but when I did my eyes widened. I had seen Japanese monkeys before, of course, but only in in the company of camera-toting tourists at designated outdoor hot springs,. There the creatures wallowed like preposterous celebrities in a new pay-per-view reality show. Aside from the fact that these hills were not known to be home to monkeys at all, this solitary sighting was entirely different. Even at a distance of ten metres or more I felt that I and not the ape was the one under scrutiny. The creature’s walnut eyes fastened onto mine, the probsocis between them hanging like a child’s toy horn waiting to be squeezed. One hand gripped the branch above; the other was poised as if frozen mid-wave. A notion hit me then which I knew at once was utterly absurd, the result of stress brought on by my argument with Nina and our uncomfortable descent. We watched in silence for a few more seconds until a black labrador came panting and snuffling up the path followed by its owner. After a last piercing glare at me, the monkey climbed langourously up into the higher canopy, out of sight.
The simian encounter made us forget our feud, and we walked the rest of the way down the hill side by side, debating whether we should call the local newspaper. As we emerged from the trees back onto the road and were passing the exclusive clinic again, my phone rang. It was Michael, who in his usual wry Canadian way, began talking about university politics and his bid for a Kuniyoshi print that had to be kept secret from Mariko. He asked if I wanted to meet for a coffee tomorrow. Conscious of Nina at my side I tried to keep my replies brief, removing any scurrilous humour I would usually have deployed. Part of me did wonder, in all honesty, if Michael’s preference for confiding in me what he couldn’t tell Mariko hinted at some desire beyond friendship. I put him off the coffee, reminding him that Nina was staying. But as soon as I ended the call Nina spoke up before I could say anything.
“Mum, I should have told you but… Miki phoned earlier.”
“We were thinking tomorrow – of doing a trip.”
“She’ll pick me up about one. We’ll stay the night in an onsen at Hakone. So you can meet Michael if you like.”
“I don’t want to meet Michael, I’d rather spend time with you.” I stopped, as a black Mercedes growled past us down the hill and turned onto the main road, surely transporting some augmented celebrity back to Shibuya.
Nina was looking at me.
“Mum,” she said.
“Is this because of what I -?”
“Because if it is -“
“I didn’t mean to be hurtful. I was just – “
“Don’t be so paranoid. She phoned this morning. I was going to tell you. It’s just this might be the only chance I get to see her.”
I nearly asked, stupidly, if she didn’t want to see more of me, but stopped myself and smiled as broadly and openly as I could.
“Well then. Of course you ought to go.
“Thanks Mum.” she reached for my hand and squeezed it. I was surprised how easily she had reconciled to me.
“How is Miki anyway? Still playing the piano?”
“Of course. She’s got a scholarship to study at the conservatoire in Paris.”
Miki is Nina’s age and has been a pianist since she was eight. I had heard her play several times, and I’m not saying she isn’t talented, I just wasn’t sure that she could summon the emotional resonance to play, say Chopin’s nocturnes. But I managed not to show my surprise, or worse, suggest that even the Paris conservatoire might be grateful for wealthy foreign students able to pay the highest international tutition fees.
“Well, you’ll be able to see her then, won’t you? When does she go?”
“She’s due to start after summer. But I’m trying to persuade her to go a bit earlier. We were thinking of travelling together.”
“Oh. I see. ”
I don’t think I betrayed too much disappointment – but I couldn’t help feeling resentment as my fantasy of Nina and I travelling together across Europe evaporated. At the same time I was conscious of feeling a simultaneous resignation and relief, the same commingling trinity of emotions I felt on receiving a rejection letter through the mail for a manuscript I once sent to a well-known publisher.
After we returned, Nina spread herself along the sofa in the lounge, her laptop on her chest. She explained that the lecturers these days put all their powerpoint slides online, where any student can access them simply by using their unique login details. Likewise the vast majority of academic journals are now available in digital form. It makes little difference for the purpose of studying for exams whether you are in Edinburgh, Tokyo or Timbuctu – as long as you have a reliable internet connection, which, we agreed, Timbuktu may not. It did enter my head to ask her why, in that case, she had chosen to come back to Japan to study, when she seemed to be settled and have made good friends in Edinburgh. Instinct warned me not to press the point, however, so I let her be. Instead I retired to my study with a pot of coffee, where I busied myself with some fresh insertions to the chapter on Van Gogh. This chapter takes as its basis an analysis of the famous ‘Self Portrait With Bandaged Head’. I became absorbed in the work and when, after several hours, I looked up from the screen, a gigantic blood moon was hanging in the night sky, pinkening Fuji’s cone as if Vincent himself had been trampling all over it fresh from his Gauguin-induced rage unbandaged and dripping.
“Mum”, Nina’s head poked around the door-frame. “Why are you in the dark? I’ve made okonomiyaki – it’s ready if you want some.”
To think she was supposed to be at risk of being fattened up by me. How the White Rabbit would have laughed.
That night I flitted in and out of sleep. Twice I had to use the bathroom. The second time, shufflling back along the hallway upstairs, passing the half open door of Nina’s room I happened to glance in and see, reflected in the mirror, the ghostly white light of a phone screen. Back in my own room again I opened the window. The moon was massive, as if it had shifted closer still to the earth. I lay down again. My hip throbbed, as it had been wont to do recently after walks – a bad sign. But somehow, between voiding my bladder and getting back into bed I had conceived an idea. Knowing I held a design to reach Nina again, I was finally able to sleep. When I woke on the morning of the fourth of April, the pain had miraculously disappeared.
Thinking back to myself as a child, I could never have imagined how my life would turn out. I was certainly never adventurous, at least not in a physical sense. My movements always had a ponderousness, accentuated by my above average size. One of my earliest memories is in the playground of my primary school. The teacher, an ex-Wren called Miss James, had us lined up in the tarmacadammed yard with her standing a short distance away. The girl or boy at the front of the line had hold of a tennis racket, and Miss James, one of those unbearable, no-nonsense sporting women, would throw the ball underarm so each of us could knock it back into her hands. Most of us were able to do this with varying degrees of accuracy, but when it came to my turn, one throw after another passed me by as I swiped at fresh air. The volume of laughter grew until finally, exasperated, Miss James instructed me to simply toss the ball up myself and hit it back. I knew before I attempted this what was going to happen, and some devil inside me decided that rather than try to subvert fate, I would embrace it. I secretly revelled in the hoots of laughter that greeted my failure as Miss James silenced the class and told me to pass the racket on to the next pupil and make my way to the back of the line. From then on I had the reputation among my classmates of being somehow deficient, despite my talents in other areas. Only I knew the truth and I jealously guarded it. To me my physical incompetence was proof of the invisible quality that marked me from the rabble: my desire for beauty, which was always there, implanted in me like a seed waiting to sprout and grow under the right conditions.
There was no Jean Brodie around, but my mother did her best in the circumstances. No matter the dreariness of our actual home, books and picture books were in constant supply, and in their pages I could disappear. I remember one Christmas she gave me an illusrated edition of Grimms Fairytales that I adored: both the stories and the grotesque line drawings that accompanied them. I copied my favourites into a notebook: the head of the horse Falada; Rumpelstiltskin plunging into a hole of his own creation. In these tales the glint of gold was ever present, bringing home to me the fact of our poverty. I began to see the pathos of mother ‘doing the books’ at the end of each week. She would sit herself down at the cheap plywood table in the living room, and painstakingly insert figures in columns in her spiral notebook. At this stage we rented a tenement off Leith Walk, near where mother cleaned and kept the books for several butchers shops. “Do I smell of meat?” she was always asking, pulling my head close into her bosom, where there was, in truth almost often, a whiff of offal clinging to her dress. But I would shake my head dutifully and say the words that always made her smile: “No Mum. You smell of flowers and meadowsweet.”
She had a weakness for Gordons. Not men of that name. The green bottle was far more alluring, and reliable, and there was always one in the house, for when she came home from a shift and needed, as she put it, ‘to soften her gills’. Gills duly softened she would cook our tea and sit with me while I did my homework. She used to marvel at my ability to construct paragraphs or race through maths problems. If this sounds like we lived an isolated, fairytale existence, it was really not the case. The radio was often on, and we had a small black and white television set. I remember watching pictures of girls little older than me, attending concerts by the Beatles and other bands, wide-eyed and screaming in disbelief that they were seeing their heroes in the flesh. I can’t remember if this is how I first became aware of the Fab Four, or if it was from the School minister, a gaunt, bug-eyed Aberdonian zealot called Mr Simpson, who went out of his way to denounce John Lennon. “When those wee loons from Liverpool are burning in the eternal flames, then let them declare themselves more popular than our Lord Jesus Christ!” When I reported these comments to mother, she seemed genuinely angry. “How dare he inflict that sort of nonsense on children,” was her reponse, or words to that effect. But I realised there was something I needed to know and so I pressed the point: “Mum, why don’t we go to church?”
As I write this, I am reliving the actual scene of that conversation. We are in the poky kitchen. It must have been evening but we always kept the lights off as long as possible, whether because we needed to save money or out of old wartime habit I’m not sure. I’m sitting at the table with an exerise book in front of me; mother’s standing at the stove frying a pound of mince that she would have received from the butcher’s that day. On the next ring the tatties are on the boil. Mum’s discarded tights hang over the back of a chair like abandoned sock puppets. She has recently had her hair done into a beehive, and keeps fiddling with it with one hand. With the other she pushes the meat around as it sizzles and pops in the pan. She turns to me. Mother, you should know, is one of these women who people would have described as ‘bonny’, if it hadn’t been for the strawberry archipelago running down one side of her face.
“If you have spent the whole week scrubbing, and Sunday is meant to be a day of rest,” she says, “why would you spend the best part of it sitting on a hard wooden bench listening to Mr Simpson ranting about the eternal flames?”
“Because God says you have to,” I suggested, contrarian that I was.
“Do you really think God would do that if he loves us?”
I was about to blurt out the obvious counter, but not wanting to provoke her, I kept silent.
So that’s mother. Progressive in her way, and her dedication and sacrifice laid the groundwork, without which the unfortunate events would not have happened, for the simple reason that I would not have been living in the same building when the Rooks moved in on the top floor. It was mother who made sure the primary school registered me for the scholarship entrance exam of a well-regarded secondary in the West End of the city. How long she had seen this as a goal for me I have no idea. But I never saw her so thrilled as when the letter arrived to offer me a place, not even six years later when a similar one arrived from Edinburgh University. I suppose she knew that this was as far as she could help, now it was down to me, and I would start to grow, inevitably, beyond her reach.
It may have helped, in the interview at the dentist’s, to be able to namedrop the school I would shortly be attending. Certainly the job was a step up, in prestige terms, from the butchers in Leith, even if she remained only the cleaner and part-time receptionist. We were moving up in the world, but, literally, down, since the position carried with it, as a major part of the remuneration, a mews flat underneath the surgery. We would have moved to Clarendon Place in the summer of 1967, when I was twelve.