The Bath Novel Award 2016 Shortlist
You’re Beautiful by Cathy Layne (Opening Chapters)
The train is crowded as usual at this time on a Friday evening but it’s easy to keep an eye on her because of her hair. Today it’s pinned up in an oversized clip at the back of her head. A few loose strands caress the nape of her neck. Every so often the train lurches to one side, displacing the commuters jammed into the aisle and revealing a glimpse of her back before the crowd congeals again. A shoulder blade outlined beneath a pink T-shirt. A high, tight buttock sheathed in denim. She clings to the strap, staring straight ahead, perhaps at her reflection in the window, as the train roars through the tunnel towards Shinagawa.
When the train stops at Shinagawa she looks around to see if any seats have become free. But none of the seated people get off and then she is submerged by the new wave of commuters that sweeps in. Only her red head is visible, bobbing on the sea of black. Although her hair is auburn really. Tobi-iro in Japanese. He’d looked it up in the dictionary. “Kite-coloured” is the literal Japanese meaning—kite as in the hawklike bird of prey. He remembers the thrill of satisfaction as he snapped the dictionary closed. He felt he had discovered an important piece of information about her.
At Yokohama the train empties slightly. She slides into the seat opposite his and he hears the tiny sigh she lets out as she sits down and he’s sure he can feel her breath grazing his cheek. Their knees are almost touching. She stares out of the window with her elbow on the windowsill and her chin propped on her fist and on the window glass the outline of her face is superimposed over speeding tower blocks and neon signs vivid in the pale blue dusk. As the train pulls into his station and he stands up, he lets his knees brush lightly against hers. Sumimasen, she mutters, shifting her legs to one side and her eyes to her lap. She doesn’t look up.
Night falls quickly here. In the ten minutes it has taken the train to travel from Yokohama to his station, the sky has gone from pale blue to navy. In front of the station crowds jostle and the neon-lit main street stretches away to infinity. He can’t see the school from the station forecourt but he knows it’s there, a four-storey sliver of dirty white concrete, about a hundred yards down on the left hand side. He doesn’t know why he’s even thinking about the place on a Friday, when he doesn’t have to go near it. And then above the black heads of the crowd he sees the sandy-haired head of a foreigner. Eric. He ducks into the 7-Eleven and watches Eric walk past from behind a comic book he’s grabbed from the rack at the window. When Eric has vanished, he looks down at the page. A huge-eyed manga girl outlined in thin black strokes on cheap pink paper. Lying with the skirt of her school uniform hitched up. Spread legs and skimpy knickers disappearing into the crack of her cheap pink crotch. He takes the comic to the counter, pays, and leaves.
Saturday night and he’s with the goons again. He supposes it’s better than sitting at home on his own trying to study the rules of Japanese grammar. Or trying to make sense of the crap that’s on the telly. Or lying on the bed staring at the ceiling while he daydreams about the new life he’ll have when he finds Shinji. And the goons never seem to sense how much he hates them and the way the Japanese girls squeal with laughter at each word that falls from their loud, obnoxious mouths because every Saturday evening, when they all trickle out of their classrooms after the last class, there’s always one of them waiting for him and it’s come on Johnny boy, we’re going for a drink, and he always ends up letting himself be led to whichever miserable, cramped little bar they’ve decided on that night, laughing along to their pathetic jokes and trying to ignore the stares of the other customers who must be wondering what a Japanese guy like him is doing with these barbarian foreigners.
But tonight is different. For a start, Eric has deigned to join them. Not only join them, he has taken charge, leading them first onto a train and then onto a bus and thirty minutes later they’re on a strip of beach sandwiched between a still inky sea and the black silhouettes of wooded hills. White plastic tables and chairs under a bamboo awning, reggae music pulsating gently in the background, the hiss of waves breaking on the sand, and he experiences a rush of wellbeing that has to do with more than the surroundings, although it’s not until he looks around the table that it hits him. No Tammy. No Tammy peering at him earnestly through her thick glasses. No Tammy making sure her chair is always the one next to his. No Tammy asking nosy questions about his life, his feelings, his thoughts. No Tammy resting her hand on his arm while she talks and talks. Resting her hand on his arm. Patting him on the knee. Squeezing his hand. Once even leaning in to remove a crumb from his lip with a proprietorial finger. No Tammy always engineering it so that the two of them are left alone together at the end of the evening when everyone else has disappeared.
Tonight it’s just the four of them. And the couple of dumb Japanese girls hanging on Eric’s every word but they don’t count. Intent on their quest for a Caucasian boyfriend, he is invisible to them and he does his best to reciprocate. So it’s just him, Eric, Michael, and Dennis. Along with Tammy, they make up the five losers who masquerade as teachers at the Happy Days School of English. He watches one of the Japanese girls gradually give up the battle for Eric and turn her attention to Dennis, that little runt with his concave chest and receding chin. A babe magnet. Makes him feel sick to look at them so he stares out at the black sea and the black sky, and miles and miles away low on the horizon on some distant island or peninsula—he has no idea where they are exactly—he can see tiny perfect circles of colour flaring briefly against the blackness, a fireworks display in some faraway seaside town, and he wonders if maybe, somewhere nearby, under this same canopy of night sky, Shinji is watching them too.
“Hey.” Dennis breaks into his reverie. “John. Lennon. Tanaka.” Dennis enunciates each word with precision. He feels his face turning red.
“What you talking ’bout, Dennis, mate?” asks Michael.
“That’s his name, innit?”
“Old Johnny boy here. John Lennon Tanaka. Ain’t that right, John?”
“Where did you get that piece of information from?”
“Jeez, John, you sound like a copper. Just pulling your plonker, mate, calm down. I was in the office today at school, needed my file for my visa paperwork, just happened to see your name on the folder next to mine in the filing cabinet—that’s your name, right?”
“So how d’you end up with a moniker like that?”
“My mum. She liked the Beatles. John Lennon was her favourite. I was born on the day he died.”
“Bloody hell, John, your old lady sounds a bit morbid. If I was you though I’d pretend I was related to John Lennon. I’d pretend John Lennon was my dad, although I guess with your face that would be hard wouldn’t it—”
“He could pretend he was related to Yoko Ono—” Michael pipes up, and the two collapse in giggles like schoolgirls.
“Who’d your mum name you after then, Michael?” says Dennis. “No, wait—I know, Michael Crawford! Ooh Betty!”
“Fuck off, Dennis, what about you then? Dennis Nilsen? No, Dennis Waterman—”
Eric and the girls watch this exchange silently. The girls look confused by this barrage of British names whose significance they do not know; Eric’s pasted-on smile is flagging, as though he is regretting having decided to spend the evening with these mockney morons. John Lennon Tanaka puts down his beer and mutters something about the toilet and he walks along the beach until the lights and the music and the sound of Dennis and Michael chanting the theme tune to The Sweeney have receded behind him. He sits on the sand in the cool darkness and he watches the distant fireworks explode silently in miniscule stars and wheels of blue and red and green and he wonders what he’s doing here. Not just here at this bar with a crowd of people he despises, but here in this country where he had thought he might feel at home for the first time in his life. He doesn’t. But he will, he tells himself, he will. Just as soon as he finds Shinji. More than three months he’s been here now and he thought once he’d got here that finding him would be simple, or if not simple then at least he’d be motivated to look for him instead of gripped by this inexplicable paralysis that has prevented him from doing anything. Now that he’s finally here, years of fantasy are coalescing into a reality too terrifying to contemplate. He scrutinises middle-aged men in the street. The filthy tramp with the matted beard. The conservative salaryman in his expensive suit. The officious station guard with his flag and whistle and robotic hand signals. The tired old man in the stained maroon overalls behind the 7-Eleven counter. The only thing he knows with any certainty is the name of the man he is looking for. Shinji. A nugget of information reluctantly divulged by his mother as the result of a tantrum when he was ten years old, when his frustrated desire to know more about him had erupted into a hyperventilating rage he knows had frightened her. The fireworks display is over. The sky is black and hopeless. His mother was right. He should never have come to Japan. He scoops a handful of sand, watches it run through his fingers. He gets up and walks slowly through the darkness towards the bar in its yellow pool of light.
The young Japanese barman standing by the table looks at him hopefully as he approaches. Dennis’ voice is loud, his hand gestures extravagant, his Japanese comically stilted. The Japanese girls glance at each other, embarrassed. Michael is busy lighting a cigarette, checking his phone; he doesn’t want any part in this. It’s Eric who comes to the rescue with a few brief words and the twinkly-eyed self-satisfied smirk that he probably practices in the mirror. John doesn’t understand why everyone is so taken in by Eric. Anyone can see that the man is a fake. The waiter smiles, relieved, makes a note on his pad, and leaves. Dennis throws a grudging “thanks mate” to Eric with a grimace that’s supposed to be a smile.
“They see a foreign face and they’ve already decided they won’t understand a word you say,” says Dennis.
His declaration is met by silence around the table.
“You hear those stories, don’t you, of foreigners who speak perfect Japanese, and they’ve had a conversation with a Jap on the phone and the Jap hasn’t even realised they’re foreign but when they meet face-to-face the Jap can’t understand what they’re saying . . . that’s happened to you, right?”
He looks round the table for support, but none is forthcoming. Michael is tapping at his phone. The girls are pretending to be deep in conversation. Eric smiles without meeting Dennis’ eyes. And John is hardly in a position to back up his theory and now Dennis needs to dig himself out of the hole he’s fallen into so he shouts “Man! I love this song!” and he’s grabbed one of the girls who’s squealing and squirming in his arms as he dances her around the table. Michael jumps up to join him, dragging the other girl to her feet. People at nearby tables stare.
“It’s about projection,” Eric says, putting his hand on John’s arm. His leathery old hippy hand. Bangles and bracelets glinting on his bony wrist. “You’re confident about what you’re saying, you open yourself to the other person, they feed the positive vibes back to you. You’re scared, unsure, defensive—well, that’s what you get in return.”
He hates to agree with the old know-it-all, but he thinks he’s probably right. He had applied himself enthusiastically to Japanese study when he first arrived, but soon lost interest when his attempts to speak the phrases he had acquired, in the shops, at the station, over the bar counter, were met with puzzlement by the person he was addressing, who couldn’t understand why this Japanese-looking person couldn’t talk properly. He has come to the conclusion that it’s better not to even try to speak Japanese, although he worries sometimes that Shinji might not be able to speak English. But surely he will, he keeps telling himself. Like his mother, he’d have been brought up on the Beatles and Western music; like his mother he’s probably an ageing muso-punk, alternative, anarchic . . . The Shinji of his imagination, with his silvery stubble and his battered jeans and his guitar and the roll-up cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, will surely have at least a little English. And maybe he’ll teach him Japanese, and he’ll be patient and understanding, and he’ll know it isn’t his fault he can’t speak his language, it’s the fault of the crazy woman who brought him up, the crazy woman Shinji had the sense to escape from.
The dancers have come back to the table. Eric stands up to leave. “Your mom sounds like a cool lady,” he says to John quietly. He raises his hand in silent farewell. John watches him stop at the counter where the barman who served them is standing with a doppelganger long-haired colleague, each of them intent on carving an ice ball, knife in one hand, ice in the other. “Beautiful,” he hears Eric say, as the barman holds up a perfect, glittering sphere.
“Where’s he going?” asks one of the Japanese girls, as Eric disappears along the beach. She looks disappointed, although it’s hard to imagine what a pretty young girl like her sees in that old hippy. He must be fifty if he’s a day.
“Home. He lives up there,” says Dennis.
Dennis waves his hand vaguely in the direction of the black hillside that looms over the beach. “He’s got a house up there.”
“A house? Up there?”
“Yeah, one of those old wooden ones, he’s lived there for years . . .”
“Babe, don’t just repeat everything I say, okay? It’s boring. Eric’s boring. Old and boring. Why are you so interested in him?”
Babe blushes and falls silent, but her friend takes up the baton. “I heard he’s lived in Japan a long time. Married a Japanese woman. He teaches part time at the school but really he’s an artist . . .”
“Artist—” Dennis snorts, and he and Michael make mocking eyes at each other over the rim of their beer glasses. The girls lapse into Japanese, under cover of which they can continue their talk of Eric. They all adore him, the girls, always a cloud of them swarming round him as he swaggers along the school corridors. John doesn’t understand it.
“No Tammy tonight then?” asks Michael, with a conspiratorial smile that hits John like a fist in the belly because it’s never occurred to him that they think Tammy is his girlfriend and now Michael and Dennis and the girls are all staring at him curiously, waiting for his reply.
“No,” he says, groping for some witty riposte that will convey his disdain for Tammy, make it clear that he is the innocent victim of some fatgirl crush, but the conversation moves on quickly and the moment is lost. He slides his phone out of his pocket and looks down at the display. There are no messages.
Steel shutters screech closed over the station entrance behind him as he heads for home. In the darkened main street, the 7-Eleven is like Hopper’s diner, light beckoning from the windows. No Tammy tonight. He’s glad, he reminds himself as he takes a greedy inventory of the shelves. A large bag of Doritos. A chocolate-covered doughnut. Make that two. A couple of cans of beer. He leaves the shop and turns into the narrow street lined with leafy gardens that leads to his apartment. He catches sight of himself eating one of the doughnuts in a traffic mirror suspended high on a lamppost, his face distorted fat and round in the convex glass and that reminds him of something Tammy said, in a half-joking way, about going on a diet together or joining a gym. As if he’s anywhere near as fat as she is.
There’s no one around. The occasional ribbon of television dialogue trails from an open window, but most of the houses are in darkness. A cat sits sphinxlike on a garden wall, watching him with a slowly swivelling head. The iron staircase clangs and trembles as he climbs to the first floor of his so-called apartment block—two flimsy storeys of one-room cells—and as he puts his key in the lock and his hand on the smooth steel of the door handle, he hears a woman’s voice behind the door and the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The voice is animated and agitated and familiar but so incongruous that he can’t place it at first, and he pushes open the door and his apartment is filled with the voice, her voice, and how could she be here and who is she talking to, and then there’s a beep and a click and the voice stops. It’s only the answering machine. He sits on the bed and he opens a can of beer. He drinks and he watches the green light on the telephone flash on and off accusingly and he thinks about pressing the delete button because he already knows what the message will say but he gets up and he presses play and the voice fills up the room again—
John hello dear it’s Mummy and I thought I would catch you now but you’re out again and I hope you’re having a good time but please ring me darling, you know I miss you and—
He presses delete. He looks at his watch. It’s ten past one. Ten past one in the morning here means ten past five in the evening there and maybe he should ring her, get it out of the way, do his duty for another week, but instead he opens the Doritos and flicks through the channels on the tiny television, settling on a panel discussion between three men in suits watched by a studio audience of young women who are all wearing bikinis. When he’s finished the Doritos and the other doughnut and the other beer he turns off the television and he turns out the light and he lies in bed and his mother’s recorded voice echoes through his head, that Japanese accent she still has, even after nearly thirty years of living in Liverpool. He thinks about the day he told her he was going to Japan. She didn’t look up from her newspaper. Why, she said, and he said, I told you—they offered me the job, and he sat down facing her on the opposite side of the kitchen table, the positions they had assumed every morning and every evening for as far back as he could remember, like two actors in a long-running stage play. You should stay here, she said, from behind the newspaper. I know you think I don’t know what’s best for you, but I’m your mother, and I do. He gave her the lofty speech he’d been rehearsing for the last few days, ever since he’d got the acceptance letter from the Happy Days School of English. He wanted to see the country of his ancestors. He wanted to learn more about the culture, to study the language. He wanted to broaden his horizons. He wanted to find his father. That was the one thing he didn’t say aloud, but he didn’t need to. She knew. She closed the newspaper. She stood up. And she gave him the look, the look that conveys more succinctly than words their roles in the drama they have made of their life together. The look that says I am the mother who has sacrificed everything for you. And you are the ungrateful son I don’t deserve.
He can’t sleep. Outside there are voices: young men shouting, probably drunk; a girl laughing hysterically. He gets out of bed, slides open the glass door at the end of the room, and steps onto the balcony. There’s just enough room to stand, between the air-conditioning unit, an ancient twin-tub washing machine made of blue plastic, and several large flowerpots housing the withered stumps of plants long dead, the legacy of the previous tenant, as were the shoddy pieces of furniture in the apartment, the hairs clogging the sink, the grime crusted between the kitchen tiles, and the smell of rancid oil. He would give the place a good clean he thought, on his first hopeful day three months ago, but he never got round to it, and now he’s used to it.
In the park below there’s the crunch of gravel, a man’s voice, low, and a brief, high-pitched giggle. But he can’t see anything. Since April, when he arrived, the foliage has thickened, concealing the pathways and the playground with its swings and slide and sandpit and wading pool, where children play during the day and teenagers congregate after school. Now he has to go down and sit in the park if he wants to see the girls. He always takes a book with him and from time to time he looks up from the page as if he’s lost in thought and he sneaks a glance in their direction. There are usually four or five of them clustered around a bench in their school blazers and their short tartan skirts and their white knee socks and they’re always engrossed in their telephones and their gossip but recently he gets the feeling they’re aware of him and that somehow they seem to know he’s not really Japanese. Haro, one of them had shouted out the other day in mocking greeting and she and her friends had burst into sly giggles. Sluts.
The voices in the park die away and back in bed his thoughts turn to the girl with the auburn hair. The first time he saw her, a few weeks ago, it was by chance. A Friday, his day off, and as usual he’d been into Tokyo to look around the shops and see some of the sights, and on the way home she got into his train carriage. Every Friday since, he’s made sure to take the same train home, the same carriage, and she always gets on at the stop after his. She hasn’t noticed him, he’s sure of that. He’s just another anonymous, dark-haired, yellow-skinned Japanese guy. He lies in bed and he tries to imagine what she looks like underneath her tight T-shirt and her tight jeans and what her skin would feel like if he touched it but he can’t imagine her writhing and panting and really enjoying it like fat, sweaty Tammy did that time—that one time and now everyone thinks they’re a couple. Makes his flesh crawl to remember how she had wanted to kiss him afterwards and lie there with her arms around him so he sits up and switches on the bedside lamp and Tammy disappears. The comic book he bought yesterday is on the floor next to the bed and he picks it up.
Dan said he’d be home at ten.
She’s had plenty of time to get ready. She’s showered, dried her hair, slipped on the short black satin dressing gown she bought on a whim that afternoon. In front of the mirror with mascara and lipstick, she is startled by the mottled pink face she sees there: the room, she now notices, is stifling. Dan had warned her about the heat and she had been silently amused—as if she’d be bothered by a bit of hot weather after all the time she’s spent in southern Europe!—but the humidity of the Tokyo summer has been a surprise. She fiddles with the remote control of the air conditioner until she finds a setting that sends cold air blasting through the room.
At the mirror, she blackens her lashes, reddens her lips, wills the ugly pink to fade. She pulls her hair away from her face and pins it up with a large clip. Regards herself for a moment, then unpins the hair, shakes it out, smoothes it down. Fluffs it up. She examines herself from the front. From the side. From the other side. From the back, looking over her shoulder. She sighs. She leaves the mirror and wanders into the living room. She sits on the edge of the sofa and lights a cigarette. Her lips stain the butt sticky red. Too much. It’s too much. She goes back into the bedroom and wipes off the red lipstick. A dab of clear lip gloss. That will be enough. Won’t it? The girl in the mirror shrugs; she is no help at all.
She turns her back on the irritating girl and returns to the living room. She picks up the cigarette left burning in the ashtray, smokes it down to the filter, stubs it out. The travel alarm clock on top of the monolithic television set says five to nine, still an hour to go, an interminable hour, and she can’t wait to see him again and she can’t imagine how she will fill the next sixty-five minutes. She picks up a book then she puts it down again. She switches on the television then she switches it off again. She lies back on the sofa, arranging her hair carefully on the cushion, and she closes her eyes.
The voice wakes her from the dream she was having, a dream of approaching footsteps and impending danger, a dream that quickly fades to nothing when she sees the face of the man she loves peering in through the sliding floor-to-ceiling window of frosted glass that opens from the living room directly onto the lane at the side of the house. Her first groggy thought is how stupid she was to leave the door unlocked—anyone could have opened it and sneaked in while she was dozing on the sofa (although she hadn’t meant to fall asleep and anyway things like that don’t happen in Japan). Dan steps up into the room, closing the window behind him, and he says wow, look at you. She remembers she’s wearing the dressing gown, and she sits up and she smoothes down the dressing gown and she smoothes down her hair and she smiles up at him. She rubs her hands across her face and she feels a deep line across one cheek, an indentation left there by the cushion while she was sleeping, and she wonders if she looks nice. He sits down next to her, nuzzles her neck, envelops her in his aroma of cigarettes and alcohol and hair gel, one hand clamped over her breast and the other sliding up her thigh, does she look alright and is her hair all messed up and why do these thoughts always crowd into her head whenever they’re together, and she tries to shut them off, these thoughts, tries to lose herself in the sensations she knows his probing fingers are supposed to produce, lets out a few encouraging sighs of pleasure, and then, over the top of his head, she sees the clock and the clock says twenty past midnight.
She lies awake in the dark while his sleeping back looms beside her like a sheer, unscalable precipice. The bedroom window is wide open: switching off the air conditioner and opening the window were the last things he did before stretching himself out on the futon and falling almost instantly asleep. He doesn’t like leaving the air conditioner on all night, it’s bad for you, he always says, but she doesn’t like leaving the ground-floor window open while they sleep although she knows nobody can see over the high wall and through the strip of thick foliage on that side of the house. And tonight there is no cooling breeze to disperse the hot, heavy stillness that hangs in the room. She gets up and goes to the window, peers through a gap in the leaves and branches at a cat sitting on the wall. Beyond the wall, she can hear someone shuffling slowly along the street. She pulls the window closed and points the remote control at the air conditioner. The device obeys her command with a high-pitched beep. She glances anxiously down at the futon but he doesn’t stir.
You said you’d be home at ten, she’d said, after he’d peeled himself off her. She’d watched him—bare buttocks peeping like two satisfied smiles from under his shirt; the concertinaed horsemen on his Ralph Lauren socks—as he padded across the living room and into the kitchen.
Can’t hear you, he’d replied, over the sound of water running. The pouring of a glass of water was the first stage in his getting-ready-for-bed ritual. What’s that, he said, wandering in from the kitchen and past her into the bedroom, glass in hand.
Ten. You said you’d be back at ten, she said, following him, pulling the black satin dressing gown closed, trying to keep her voice lighthearted, unemotional, but it was no good, she saw that expression flicker across his face, not really an expression, in fact it was the opposite of an expression—it was a blankness, a coldness in the eyes—and then he had smiled and pulled her towards him and hugged her close to his chest so she couldn’t see his face any more and he’d murmured into her ear that he was sorry, he’d gone for one quick drink after work and one thing had led to another, he hadn’t meant to stay out so late. And she should have left it there, she shouldn’t have said anything, but she couldn’t stop herself. You could have rung me, she’d heard herself say, and the arms around her had stiffened and dropped and he had moved away, busied himself with the switching off of the air conditioner and the opening of the window. She had helped him roll out the futons, pushing hers close to his, but they didn’t speak and he didn’t look at her. He lay down with his back to her and within a short space of time his breathing had taken on a rhythm that suggested deep, peaceful sleep.
She lies in the dark staring at the precipice of his back and she tells herself it’s only an argument, all couples have arguments, it’s normal, everything will be alright in the morning. She lies in the dark, staring at his back, listening to him breathe. Everything will be alright. A couple of cars speed down the street, headlights casting fleeting kaleidoscope patterns of light and dark over walls, ceiling, tatami flooring, over the two pushed-together futons where they lie, over a corner of worn carpet visible on the other side of the doorway that leads to the living room. Invisible beyond the doorway is a sofa in scuffed brown vinyl, a low coffee table in shiny pine-effect plastic, a television so old you actually have to get out of your seat and turn a dial to change channels, and a cheap wooden bookcase, home to a few paperbacks with large gold titles. He had found all the furniture thrown out in the street awaiting rubbish collection, he’d boasted when she arrived, gesturing proudly around the room, and she had given him a suitably impressed smile. He was a recruitment consultant, he’d told her when they first met, a glamorous-sounding job that had brought to her mind visions of expatriate luxury. Not this slice of an old Japanese house, one of four clumsy apartment conversions. She hasn’t said anything; it isn’t the right time yet. But everything is moving in the right direction. The few weeks she invited herself to stay for have already stretched into more than a month. Neither of them have mentioned exactly how long she’s here for or when she’ll leave. It’s only a matter of time before he asks her not to go back to England, to stay here with him. And when that happens, she will broach the subject of moving to a better place.
He turns in his sleep and flings out an arm that lands on top of her, and she holds onto the arm and wraps it around herself, nestling her back into his stomach. She closes her eyes tightly and tries to match the rhythm of her breathing to his, willing herself to fall asleep like this in his arms, but one of her own arms is trapped uncomfortably beneath her ribs and it’s hot pressed up against him and finally she lifts his arm off and in one seemingly synchronised movement they each roll away to the furthest edge of their respective futons. The few feet of rumpled bedding between them feels vaster than the distance that separated them when he returned to Japan after the intense one-week affair they’d had back in January during his visit to England. She swiftly dismisses this observation as melodramatic, with a wry smile to herself in the darkness. Everything will be alright.
Another Friday. Mariko is late again. She doesn’t blame her, she thinks, looking down at her watch, then out through the café window at the street teeming with shoppers and salarymen. She doesn’t feel that her lessons with Mariko are hitting the mark, although she’s had plenty of experience teaching students with advanced level English, and had thought, when she saw Mariko’s small ad saying she was looking for a teacher in a magazine for Tokyo expats, that this would be a perfect way for her to earn some money and relieve the boredom of long days spent waiting for Dan to come home. The problem is, she knows, not just that Mariko has nativelike English fluency and needs very little teaching, but that Mariko is far more intelligent than her: a recent graduate from some university in New York, a masters in gender and sexuality studies under her belt, she had peppered their first lesson with expectant references to the theories of Foucault and Lacan, about which, Mariko has now realised, her new English teacher knows nothing. In their second lesson she had talked of her dreams of returning to America to qualify as a psychotherapist, and then setting up her own practice in Japan, where such methods of treatment, she says, are still relatively unfamiliar. Now, their lessons have fallen into an unvarying pattern: Mariko begins by pushing aside the copy of Advanced Conversation Practice that her teacher always has ready on the table (just to prove she is making an effort to earn her three-thousand-yen fee) and then takes on the psychotherapist role, encouraging her to talk about her situation with Dan, asking her questions about her family, her childhood. She is surprised by Mariko’s blunt curiosity—she had always assumed Japanese people were shy (a racist generalisation, obviously)—but she goes along with the interrogation, relieved that the lessons have taken on their own momentum. She is flattered, too, that someone should be so interested in her, and hopeful that this frankness between them is the prelude to a close friendship. In their last lesson they had ended up talking about her affair with Fabio and the other failed relationships that litter her life like comet debris.
“There is a theory. This theory it says that falling in love with someone who is unavailable means you have a fear of commitment,” Mariko had pronounced. “It can be like a subconscious thing . . . you choose people who will never be able to re . . . reciprocate your love. And if someone did turn round and tell you they love you like crazy, you’d hate it. You’d run away as fast as you could. I don’t mean you, of course,” she said. “I mean, you know, people.”
“And I don’t fall in love with men who are unavailable,” she had asserted. “And the word is reCIprocate, not reciPROcate.”
“This Fabio, he was married, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, but he said he was going to leave his wife.”
“Well, they all say that, don’t they.” Mariko lit a cigarette, watched the smoke curl towards the ceiling.
“And Dan’s not unavailable.”
Mariko nodded, her face carefully neutral.
“And I don’t have a fear of commitment. I want to be in a loving relationship more than anything else in the world.”
Mariko nodded again, expressionless. She wanted to punch Mariko in the face.
“Those people who want it the most—they’re usually the ones who fear it the most too,” said Mariko. “It’s all to do with the mother; fear of commitment often rises . . . arises . . . if your relationship with your mother breaks down in childhood and is never mended. It’s the relationship with the mother that is the child’s first experience of an intimate relationship, you see, and this becomes the model, no, what’s the word . . . template, yes, for all the child’s intimate relationships as an adult. If the mother withholds her love for some reason, the child grows up believing this is a normal way to behave in an intimate relationship, and is attracted to people who withhold their love. And is afraid of people who show love, because that doesn’t fit the template. The feeling of yearning for a love withheld is familiar and comfortable. Yearning for love, longing for the other person to love you more is becoming normal—”
“Becomes. Not ‘is becoming’. You use the present simple to describe habitual actions and feelings, not the present continuous.” Present simple, she scribbled on a piece of paper, underlined it a few times, tapped the words with the end of her pen to drive the point home, and pushed the piece of paper across the table to Mariko. “Excuse me a moment.”
In the toilets she had dabbed at her watering eyes in front of the mirror and wondered if she should tell Mariko there was probably more to being a therapist than simply reciting chunks of textbook at people. Back in her chair, eyes dry, she had attempted to retrieve the teacherly authority she had let slip away.
“What about you then?”
“What about me?”
“We always talk about my love life but never about yours.”
“There’s nothing much to tell . . .”
“No boyfriend then?”
Mariko shook her head, stretched her lips into the shape of a smile.
“Ever been in love?”
Mariko lit another cigarette and vanished behind a cloud of smoke. “Once,” she said.
“The person I loved married someone else.”
“Do you mind if we don’t talk about it?”
“Oh. Okay.” She had fumbled for her cigarettes, feeling foolish. Foolish for asking such personal questions; foolish for having given so much of herself away to this girl she hardly knows.
But despite the challenges of her encounters with Mariko, she enjoys the structure and sense of purpose these lessons give to her life. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, she leaves the house after Dan has left for the office. She catches the train into Tokyo. She visits one or two tourist attractions selected in advance from the pages of a guidebook she has bought. She sits in a café with Mariko from five till six in the afternoon. She catches the train back to the suburbs and is home again before Dan. She is starting to master her new environment. She can manage the Tokyo subway, knows her way round a few central Tokyo neighbourhoods, has finally found the station closest to Dan’s house after getting on and off for weeks a stop too far. But her pleasure in this new routine is muted by guilt that she hasn’t told Dan she has found a job; she is waiting for the time when her permanent presence in his life is openly acknowledged between them. Mariko, she told him, is a friend of a friend in England, they sometimes meet for coffee, and he didn’t seem very interested so she hasn’t mentioned it again.
Today her excursion was to the rooftop observation deck of the Mori Tower, fifty-four floors high, from where the city was reduced to a carpet of concrete stretching to hazy infinity in every direction. She stood alone on the windy roof, while a strange, estranging jazzy soundtrack piped from a speaker strove and failed to drown out the roar of the rooftop machinery. Whether it was the artificiality of the music or the unaccustomed perspective, she had felt suddenly lonely. She was a character in a film about loneliness. A French film . . . no, Polish. Black and white. Ridiculous, she told herself in the descending lift. She had Dan now. There was no reason to feel lonely any more.
Back on ground level, she had gone to an outdoor café overlooking a small park. The other tables were all occupied by couples. A couple of old ladies, each with a dachshund. A couple of girls in short shorts and large sunglasses. A couple of foreigners, a man and a woman, Spanish or Italian perhaps—she was too far away to hear what language they were speaking—young and good looking, their silver chairs pulled close together, his hand on her knee while she fed him ice cream with a long spoon from the sundae glass in front of her. And at the table alongside hers, the most fascinating couple of all, a silvery-haired Japanese man in a neat dark suit, and a girl of about twenty who called him Papa and who chattered while he nodded and she wondered what that must be like—to have lunch in a café with your father and to chatter away as if he was a friend and have him listen indulgently as if he really cared about what you were saying. She watched the girl pat him on the arm as she talked and she remembered the soft sponginess of her own father’s arm the last time she had touched him—
“Sorry I’m late!”
Mariko has arrived, a vision in shiny pink and yellow, her shouted greeting from the doorway of the café causing all heads to turn. Those in her path mutter and frown as she and her bulky bags jostle and bump their way across the room. Despite this flamboyant entrance, once seated she seems subdued, agreeing without complaint to do the vocabulary exercise from Advanced Conversation Practice and she has a sudden premonition that this is the day Mariko is going to tell her she doesn’t want to have English lessons any more, she can feel it, and although she can’t blame her—she’s a dreadful teacher, Mariko has learned nothing new in the last few weeks, it’s a complete waste of her time and money—and although she never exactly looks forward to the teaching, she will miss this girl, who is the only person in Tokyo with whom she has established a friendship. Apart from Dan, of course. Can I meet you after work, she asks him sometimes. Can I come for a drink with you and the people in your office? You’d be bored, darling, he replies. They’re a bunch of wankers. I only go drinking with them because it’s part of the job. You’d hate them. I’ll come home early tonight, I promise. We’ll go out for a nice meal. I want to show this great bar I know.
And sometimes he does. He comes home early and they go out and they talk and laugh and hold hands. But often he comes home late, after she’s fallen asleep. Sometimes he has to work weekends. She knows there’s nothing he can do about it.
“So, Mariko,” she says, with an encouraging smile, “what have you been up to? Shopping?” She glances down at the bags at Mariko’s feet.
“What do you think?” Mariko pulls out a length of fabric in green and orange, a kind of African print.
“Mmm. Lovely.” She has no idea what the shapeless, gaudy item can be. Even for Mariko, whose dress sense is, to say the least, eccentric—she is a hippy coloured by a child whose dayglo crayons can’t stay inside the lines—it seems too much.
“It’s for my friend. I bought her these, too.” She takes a couple of chunky gold bangles from another carrier bag.
“Oh, your friend is so lucky!” she says in the unnaturally jolly voice of the professional English teacher for whom life is a path of smoothly unfolding pleasantness, and beneath her own honeyed tones she is surprised to detect a pang of something like jealousy. Mariko is her friend, her only friend, and now here she is, with other friends, who are more important than she is, worthy of this lavish bestowal of gifts. “Is it her birthday?”
Mariko appears not to hear as she stuffs the voluminous piece of clothing and the bangles back into her bags, with a great deal of rustling. A long time seems to pass before she looks up again.
“I just started a summer holiday job,” she says.
“Wow, that’s great. What is it?”
“Working in a bar. On a beach. Just outside Tokyo.”
“Oh, wonderful! Weekends?”
“Actually, from now on it’s going to be every day—”
“Every day? So—”
“Yeah, the English lessons . . . I’m sorry but I won’t be able—”
“Oh no, that’s fine, fine, honestly, don’t worry, it’s completely—”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, absolutely fine, bit smoky in here, isn’t it, gets in your eyes—”
“They’re looking for more staff,” Mariko says. “You’ve worked in a bar before, haven’t you?”
She’s worked in a bar before. She spent her entire twenties flitting round southern Europe from bar job to English-teaching job, from Italy to Spain to France, from one dramatic yet ultimately unsatisfactory love affair to the next. It’s southern Europe she loves, the beaches and the pavement cafés and the ancient buildings and the unhurried people; she has yet to discover the charms—if there are any—concealed by the concrete and the crowds of Tokyo. As she contemplates the neon landscape through the window of the train, a sudden jolt makes her aware that her straphanging stance has brought her left breast to within an inch of the bespectacled face of the suited businessman jammed in alongside her, who is doing his gallant utmost to keep his attention on the folded up newspaper he is holding in front of him. She releases her grip on the strap, brings her arm down to shield the offending breast; the press of bodies keeps her upright, and she closes her eyes, conjures up thoughts of Dan—the only reason she is here in this rush-hour train on this frantic Friday evening in a city she knows she will never have any affection for. She settles on a memory from the night they first met—shortly to become the night her father died. She recalls the shock of the sudden pressure of his hands on her hips as she stood at the kitchen window in the Liverpool home of their mutual friend Jimmy, watching clouds race over a high wintry moon. She remembers the tuneless, shouted rendition of a Bob Dylan chorus from the drunken post-pub crowd in the adjacent living room—it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a HA-AR-ARD—and then the words he whispered in her ear:
“Meeting you is the best fucking thing that’s happened since I got here.”
“Real charmers, those Australians,” her friend Helen had said, laughing, as she’d breathlessly recounted everything that she and Dan had said and done that night. “Can’t believe you fell for a line like that.” Helen, who married her childhood sweetheart, has two children, and has lived all her life in Birkenhead, can usually be relied on for surprisingly insightful and supportive commentary on the chaotic life of her globetrotting friend. The suburban standpoint. That’s what the two of them call Helen’s words of wisdom. But Helen never really understood how it was with Dan. Never picked up on the passion behind his seemingly crude words. Even told her she was making a mistake to follow him to Japan. She doesn’t bear Helen any grudges; her advice was well meaning. And everyone knows that no third party can ever comprehend the depths of feeling that exist between two people in love.
The train comes to a sudden stop for no apparent reason, and she grabs the strap to stop herself from falling. Bodies collapse against her then quickly straighten. A hand gropes at her buttock and she thinks she can feel fingers brushing lightly against her thigh in a rhythm regular and deliberate, but perhaps she’s imagining these things. At the next station when the crowd loosens, she manages to move away down the carriage, but the sensation of fingers playing on her leg persists.
What about your visa, is the first thing Dan says when she tells him about the possibility of a bar job. You’re not supposed to work on a tourist visa, you know. And doesn’t your tourist visa expire soon, anyway?
He lights a cigarette, gets up from the sofa, and stands with his back to her, looking out through the sliding window that is wide open onto the lane at the side of the house. Beyond him in the darkness she can see the old man who lives opposite squatting in a white vest and undershorts on his doorstep, and a couple of children running up and down in summer kimonos brandishing sparklers. Dan remains with his back to her, smoking and not speaking. She puts down her slice of pizza and takes a sip from her can of lager to get rid of the sudden dryness in her mouth. She goes to where he stands, slides her arms around his waist, presses the side of her face into his back. Through the smooth cotton of his shirt she feels his ribcage slowly expand and contract as he pulls on the cigarette then exhales. “It’s just for the next six weeks,” she murmurs to his back. “It’s a fun job, the bar is only open in July and August when the beach is busy, and then in September the bar will be closed and my visa will be up and then, you know . . .”
He doesn’t turn round and he doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to. This, after all, is the man who said meeting her is the best thing that has happened to him. She knows that they both know they are destined to be together, that there is an inevitability about it. He just isn’t ready to openly acknowledge it yet, and she respects that. Men are cautious when it comes to commitment; this she has learned from her past failed relationships. She won’t make the same mistakes with Dan.
She strokes his chest and his hard flat stomach through the cotton of his shirt and lets her hand slowly descend over his belt to the zip of his trousers. He throws the cigarette butt into the street, slides the window shut, and leans back against the wall with his eyes closed.
John Lennon Tanaka still doesn’t know if he imagined it, although the events of the first part of his journey back to Tokyo this evening seemed real enough: the same train; the same carriage; an aisle seat facing backwards, which he hates. But at Shimbashi when she got on, her denim leg was a centimetre away from his arm and he could brush against her, he could inhale her faint green-apple fragrance, and he remembers thinking that that was the last time he would push and shove and scramble to get a window seat; from now on he would sit here, or stand, stand next to her, let his body nudge hers, breathe in her smell—and then she disappeared. He twisted his head to see where she’d gone but his view was blocked by a wall of suits and shirts. At Kawasaki, the woman on the forward-facing seat opposite got off and he quickly changed sides. He sat craning his head like a meerkat, but he couldn’t see her.
Now comes the part he’s not sure if he imagined. When he got off the train at his station, he saw her, stepping down onto the platform from the adjacent carriage. Then, in a log-jam of commuters, she was swept across the platform, up the stairs, over the bridge, down the stairs, and through the ticket turnstiles. She was always ten or twenty people ahead of him, and by the time he’d fought his way through the log-jam, through the turnstiles, and on to the pavement in front of the station, he’d lost sight of her. And then he saw her in the distance, her red head turning into the street beyond the 7-Eleven. The street that led to his apartment block.
He must have imagined it. That’s the first thought that comes into his head when he wakes sweaty and fully clothed on the bed. Nine o’clock and pitch black outside. The heat is oppressive, the air conditioner useless, and collapsing on the bed for a few hours every time he comes home has become the norm ever since summer kicked in. Although according to his students it isn’t summer yet; it’s still the rainy season.
You imagined it, he repeats to himself, as he bends over the kitchen sink to splash cold water on his face. He’s never noticed her get off at his station before. And when he ran from the station forecourt to the corner of his street, the person he had thought was her had vanished. Wishful thinking, that’s all.
He opens the front door and the thick night air sinks over him like a blanket. He descends the clanging staircase to the street. On the pavement in front of the apartment block he pauses. Which way? Wishful thinking, but he knows he’s been lured into the street by the far-fetched hope that she might be out here somewhere. But instead of walking towards the distant lights of the shops and the station—a more logical choice of direction if he was hoping for another chance sighting of her—he turns off down the quiet side street that leads to the park. He’s never been here after dark. He’s never seen the faces of the people who inhabit the park at night, whose voices he can hear from his room. He still comes here in the afternoons with his book, but lately the schoolgirls rarely shout their snide hellos. They seem to be losing interest in him and he’s annoyed about that, although it makes it easier to watch them. He’s moved to a bench that’s a little closer to where they sit and he feels he’s getting to know them. The plump, plain one with the too-short skirt and the too-fat thighs. The coquette with the carefully arranged tresses, always inspecting her face in a hand mirror. The conventionally pretty one: slim, long hair, long legs, boring. And the one with freckles and yellowy eyes and light brown hair. He likes her the best. There’s something feral about her. Yesterday when he had made a detour that took him close to their bench on his way out of the park, she had snarled some insult at his back that had made the others cackle and the impulse to spin round and teach the little bitch a lesson had been strong, but he kept on walking and when he got home he felt—what?—not happy exactly, but satisfied, sort of. Like at primary school when Lisa Lewis and her friends used to call him names in the playground. He hated it but he liked it. It felt good to be noticed.
He walks around the periphery of the park, but tonight there are no voices, no giggles. Only silence. The silence follows him home.
“John? It’s Mayumi.”
He knew it was Mayumi as soon as the telephone began to ring, echoing through the apartment and into the tiny moulded-plastic unit bathroom where he was watching himself do up his tie in a patch of mirror wiped clean of condensation. And he knows what she’s going to say.
“Hi! Mayumi!” His voice is phony bright, an echo of hers. He pictures her sitting behind the receptionist’s desk at the fluorescent-lit fourth floor lobby of the Happy Days School of English, in front of a wall decorated with tourist board–style posters: the Canadian Rockies, Big Ben, the Sydney Opera House. Mayumi. Silver-framed glasses. Hair pulled back severely from her face. He’d like to get her alone. Watch her whip off her glasses and shake out her hair. He doubts if she entertains any fantasies about him though, since their interaction is generally limited to phone calls in which she informs him that his lessons have been cancelled.
“Um . . . Kato-san won’t be coming this morning,” she says, and his first reaction is one of relief because his weekly Tuesday morning lesson with the studious, acne-scarred nineteen-year-old girl who is preparing to spend a working holiday in Australia is his worst lesson of the week. Compared to a group lesson where six or eight pairs of eyes bore into you expectantly, the idea of a one-on-one lesson had at first been appealing, but he and Kato-san were quick to pick up on the other’s feelings of freakish inadequacy and even though they strive for an approximation of the student-teacher dynamic—the table between them stacked with textbooks, flashcards, dictionaries, her pen poised over the pristine page of her notebook, his pen tapping at his chin while he purses his lips thoughtfully—their lessons are little more than a series of uncomfortably long silences punctuated by intermittent laughter from Eric’s classroom next door.
“Oh . . . okay . . .”
“And the housewives cancelled too.”
“What? All of them?” The four middle-aged women he teaches on Tuesday afternoons always seem quite happy to yap at each other in English for an hour while he makes the occasional interjection.
“Yes. Just a coincidence, probably,” says Mayumi, sounding doubtful.
“Right, right, I see . . .”
“Mr Hasegawa would like to see you. Could you come in for a meeting at nine o’clock tomorrow morning?”
“Righty ho! Will do! See you tomorrow then!”
He puts down the phone. An electronic ping announces that his toast is ready, but his appetite has gone. He sits down on the bed and stares towards the window. A hot, grey, rainy morning in the middle of July in a nondescript suburb of Tokyo—no, not even Tokyo, a suburb of Yokohama, but that wasn’t what the ad had said. Teach in Tokyo. A small box at the back of The Times Educational Supplement. Training given, it said, and The Times Educational Supplement was a respectable paper, and Mr Hasegawa, who had interviewed him in a quiet corner of the lobby of a smart London hotel, had seemed respectable too. And not only training—Hasegawa had promised free airfare and subsidised accommodation and when he had shaken John’s hand at the end of the interview (during which John’s role had been to sit and listen while Hasegawa talked about himself) and said he looked forward to working with him at the Happy Days School of English, it was all he could do to stop himself from skipping down the street. Happy Days. The name was laughable, but to him it seemed auspicious. A sign that his life was finally heading in the right direction. Japan had always been for him a mythical country that only existed in his mother’s past, and his father a fictional character that inhabited this mythical place. Now he couldn’t understand why he had so readily consigned Japan and Shinji to the realm of the unreal. He was going to Tokyo. It was easy.
Except that when he got here, it wasn’t Tokyo but this nondescript dormitory town more than half an hour from the capital on a fast train. The “free” airfare and “subsidised” accommodation are paid for with chunks of money deducted from his salary every month. “Training” consisted of a day of following Eric around, watching him flirt with the female students in his classes. And although Mr Hasegawa had briefly mentioned in the interview that it might take some of the students a while to get used to an English teacher who doesn’t have the looks of a typical Westerner, he hadn’t bargained for the expressions of confusion and then disappointment on the faces of the students when he walks into the classroom and tries to explain that, yes, both his parents are Japanese, but he is British—born and raised in Liverpool, he will continue, and this may lead to one or two grudgingly interested comments about The Beatles or the football team, but generally an atmosphere of disenchantment has lingered, week after week, and this unexpected hurdle has badly dented any confidence he may once have had that teaching English is something he could be good at. He knows he isn’t. His lessons are boring, he can’t answer the students’ questions about the simplest points of grammar, and three months into the job, attendance is dwindling fast. And now it looks like he’s about to be sacked and he hasn’t even begun the search for Shinji.
He’ll start today.
He takes off his tie and his shirt and his suit trousers and puts on jeans and a T-shirt. He opens his desk drawer and takes out the battered white envelope. He puts it in his bag and leaves the apartment.
The coffee shop is dimly lit and empty of customers. The taciturn waiter has brought him his coffee and resumed his glass-polishing stance behind the counter. He slides a hand into his bag on the seat beside him and caresses the envelope between finger and thumb as though it’s a talisman. There’s no other reason why he should be carrying it with him like this. Every detail of the envelope is clear in his mind’s eye. The Japanese stamp. The smudged and illegible postmark. The address of the red-brick terraced house in Liverpool where he’s lived for most of his life, written in black ink with a fine calligraphy brush, and above the address, his mother’s name. Rumiko Tanaka. No Miss or Mrs or Ms. No Japanese honorific either, his mother evidently not worthy of respect whether in her native Japan or adopted England. On the back flap, the sender’s address—but no name—written in Japanese. The letter this envelope once contained, whoever wrote it and whatever their regard for or relationship with his mother, he was never able to find, despite months of careful searching after that day, almost a year ago, when he came home from the bookshop on an August evening, pink-skied and muggy, to be greeted as he came through the front door by the voices of his mother and Lily floating from the back garden, through the kitchen, and down the hall. His mother’s voice was raised in familiar indignation about something doubtlessly trivial, with Lily’s voice a tutting, sympathetic accompaniment. Upstairs, he threw up the sash window in his bedroom and let the cacophony of a summer evening wash over him: the hum of the rush-hour traffic, a pounding bass beat from a teenage bedroom, a plane descending towards the airport that now bears his name. The yells of children playing football in a garden. Roger, next door, hunched over a smoking barbecue, shouting something to someone about sausages. Roger had looked up, and John had waved. Roger had looked down again. Perhaps he hadn’t seen him. He and his mother had gone to Roger and Carol’s for a barbecue once. Carol had spoken to them very slowly, as though they didn’t understand English. Roger had introduced them to everyone as “our next-door neighbours from China.” But it was more than race, he felt, that made them different. When Carol had called round a few days later to give them a copy of a photo she had taken at the barbecue, he had seen himself and his mother as others saw them. The tiny, scowling, black-shrouded woman and her hulking giant of a currant-bun–faced son stood out amongst the wholesome, surburban neighbours like the Liverpool branch of the Adams Family.
While he was watching Roger, pondering their status as neighbourhood outcasts, he caught snatches of his mother’s voice.
. . . why on earth he would send me a bloody letter after all these years . . . want to see me after everything that happened . . . never forgive him for what he did to me . . . never want John to know—
A lawnmower struck up loudly, drowning out the rest of her words, and the chance to make sense of what he’d half heard was lost. He went noiselessly down the stairs and into the kitchen. Through the kitchen window he could see his mother and Lily sitting side by side on their usual chairs on the patio, his mother’s head bent as though she was scrutinising something held on her lap, Lily’s head tilted attentively towards her. The empty envelope was lying on the kitchen counter. He picked it up and left the room.
Outside the coffee shop rain is falling. The wet road surface gleams in the light from the storefronts as if it’s dusk, not mid-morning. He turns out of the narrow shopping street into an even narrower road that he identified on his Tokyo street atlas while he was having his coffee. It was Tammy who deciphered the address for him, the address written in Japanese characters on the back of the envelope he’d pocketed from the kitchen counter of his mother’s house on that summer evening almost a year ago. If his mother had missed it, wondered where it had gone, she had never said anything to him, despite the argument that had recurred during the days following the overheard conversation in which he was sure she had mentioned his father.
“I thought we were never to talk about him,” he had said the next morning at the breakfast table, à propos of nothing. He held a spoon laden with milk and cornflakes midway between the cereal bowl and his mouth and he watched her turn from the kitchen counter where she had been pouring water from the kettle into the teapot.
“What are you talking about?” Whaddya tarkin about. An American drawl sometimes drapes itself over her Tokyo-meets-Liverpool vowels; she must have picked it up from the television.
“I’m talking about Shinji,” he replied. He imagined she could see the minute trembling of his hand from where she stood and he replaced the spoon and its cargo of cereal in the bowl, suddenly incapable of lifting it any further. Her eyes met his for a brief instant and then she turned back to the counter, her hands clenched in fists at her sides. She was dressed that day in her usual layers of black, a fashionable witch in ankle-length skirt and flowing jacket over a modishly ruched and frilled blouse, attire mercifully more conservative than the dungarees and Doc Martens she used to wear in the days when she would collect him from school. John’s mum’s a lezzer. But she still wore heavy black boots beneath her long skirts, and her hair was still short and spiky, although greying now.
She picked up the teapot, and walked calmly over to the table.
“Yes. Shinji. My father. I heard you talking about him last night.”
He waited for her to reply, but instead she busied herself reaching for the cornflakes and letting them cascade into her bowl. Then she poured in the milk. Then she reached for the sugar bowl and sprinkled the cornflakes with sugar. Then she began to eat, her eyes on her cereal bowl. Not for the first time, he considered the incongruity of their Japanese faces hovering over the Kellogg’s cornflakes and the Marmite and the other accoutrements of a traditional English breakfast.
“I heard you say something to Lily. From my bedroom window. When you were sitting in the garden . . .”
She looked across at him, her jaw moving up and down, her mouth pursed daintily closed.
“Something about a letter. That’s what I heard you say. I heard you tell Lily the letter was from my father.” He knew he hadn’t exactly heard her say that. HeI was presenting her with an extreme storyline in the hope that this would provoke her to drop her mask, throw some crumbs his way.
She spluttered slightly as though a cornflake was stuck in her throat. “I have no idea what you are talking about. I never said any such thing.”
“I heard you.”
“From your bedroom window?”
“That’s high up, you know. Far away. I think you heard wrong.”
“So what were you talking about then?”
“Don’t remember.” Her face had that blank look that meant the subject was no longer up for discussion. It was a face he’d seen many times before. She used it every time he asked her to tell him about her family in Japan—her parents died in a car crash; there was no one else, was all she’d ever say. She’d used it to repel his argument that now he was in his late twenties it was a good idea for him to move out and get a place of his own. She’d used it when she’d refused to let him study Japanese at university. She’d used it on the day she told him for the final time that she didn’t want to hear the subject of his father mentioned again. Ever. That had been on his thirteenth birthday—another tantrum, another screaming fight. And once his eruption had subsided, he had mutely obeyed her edict, as he always did. But she couldn’t forbid him to think about Shinji. He’d dream about him sometimes too. He still does. The dream is always more or less the same. Shinji telephones. He arranges to meet him. He is filled with a joy that slowly disintegrates into panic as circumstances conspire to make him late for their rendezvous: having to root through a wardrobe of clothes for something to wear, but everything is torn and dirty; legs refusing to run for the bus about to pull away from the bus stop; unable to find his way out of a warren of unfamiliar streets. The dream ends while he’s still struggling fruitlessly to extricate himself from whichever nightmare scenario his subconscious has chosen to cast him in that night, and he always wakes with a sense of loss that is almost physically painful, like a heavy weight pressing down on his chest. But since the day he became thirteen he had never spoken to his mother about Shinji. And she had kept her part of the bargain too, although she had never said she would never mention him to anyone else and it had never occurred to him that she would ever have cause to.
But the next day, when he came home from work, he tried again. “If you got a letter from my father I’d like to see it,” he’d said. She was in a chair in the garden, a bottle of wine on the table at her side, a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
“I told you. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, without looking up from the newspaper on her lap. He waited to see if she would say anything else. She didn’t. He went back into the house.
The following evening a group of his mother’s friends came for dinner. A barbecue on the patio, the same old crowd of misfits drawing suspicious stares from the neighbours as they lurched up the street: crusty social-worker types with beards and long grey hair; emaciated punks whose wrinkled fifty-year-old faces jarred with the leather and studs and black eye liner they had been wearing since 1977. (Worse were the portly punks, whose middle-aged barrel bellies sagged over the waistbands of their ripped jeans.) That night there was a special guest star—Chris, back from London for a rare visit to his native Liverpool.
“Alright, champ,” he said, tousling John’s hair.
“How’s it going?”
“Yeah, going great. Great.”
He felt shy, although this was still the same Chris. The same Chris, with his Billy Idol hair and his leather jacket, although his face was lined now, his jowls sagging. The same Chris who used to take him fishing for tadpoles in the park. Who would spend hours kicking a football round the garden with him. Who would read him stories, play him songs on his guitar. Who was his dad, five-year-old John had announced to his fellow pupils at River Road Primary School when Chris had come to collect him one day. Who couldn’t be his dad, he realised, after much playground ridicule, because blond-haired blue-eyed men, he learned, did not father yellow-skinned, black-eyed boys. Isn’t Chris my daddy? No, my darling. Who’s my daddy? Sshh. Don’t cry—ooh, listen! I can hear the ice cream van! He learned other things, too, when he started school. He learned that no one else lived in a dilapidated, rambling Victorian house with the members of their mother’s band and all their friends. He learned that a house like this was called a squat, and that living in a squat was something to be ashamed of. Chris? Yes, champ? Who’s my dad? I’ve never met him, Johnny. He lives in Japan. He was glad when he and his mother went to live with Lily in red-brick-terraced normality, but then he learned that other children did not live with their mother and their mother’s girlfriend. Lily, do you know who my dad is? You’ll have to ask your mother, dear. Nor did other children have a mother who one week was on Top of the Pops, but by then, he was the official school weirdo and nothing could restore his reputation. Who’s my dad? No one. No one? He died before you were born. He learned that all the other children had fathers, and even if they didn’t live together, they saw them regularly.
He’s not really dead, is he, Mummy?
He’s dead to me.
Tell me about him.
There’s nothing to tell.
He’s my dad, Mummy. I want to know.
John. Come here. Give Mummy a hug. There. Now, listen. He’s someone I used to know a long time ago. I don’t want you to have any contact with him. It’s for your own good. Please, John. You’re eight years old now. You’re a big boy. You’re my beautiful boy, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Please trust me, John. I know what’s best for you. I don’t want to talk about this any more.
“So, John. How’s it going?”
The instinctive joy he felt when he first saw Chris walk into the garden had by now been replaced with a low-burning resentment. John had avoided him all evening, assuming, as was customary on these occasions, the role of his mother’s servant—fetch this, open that, get some more ice would you—but Chris had cornered him on the shadowy upstairs landing, outside the bathroom.
“Been a long time,” said Chris, looking him up and down. “How’d you get so big? You used to be knee high to a grasshopper.”
He forced a smile. When they moved out of the squat, that had been the end of Chris. He had come to the new house maybe once or twice, then he had left Liverpool. Chris hadn’t seen him for about twenty years: not surprising he’s fucking grown. And at some point over those twenty years he had come to know that Chris and his mother were once married. A marriage of convenience. A favour he did for her. So that she could stay in England. The man he adored as a child had only been nice to him as a favour to his mother.
He nods. “Bookshop.”
“Great . . . Your mum’s looking well.”
“Did she ever tell you who my father was?”
“No, champ, she didn’t. She’s never told you?”
In the dim evening light, the lines bracketing Chris’s mouth appeared etched in black, giving him a sad clown face. “I’m sorry, mate. She’s never told anyone, as far as I know. She’s probably got her reasons. She was pregnant when she came to England. That’s all I can tell you. She always wanted the best for you. She loves you, you know that don’t you? We all do.” The bathroom door closed behind him with a soft click.
That night, when the last guests had left and his mother was sipping her wine at the kitchen counter, surveying the detritus of the evening’s meal, he had tried again.
“He’s my father, Mummy. If you’ve heard from him, I need to know.” She liked him to call her Mummy, and he made his voice soft and pleading. She had cracked then, hurling her wine glass across the room where it smashed against the wall, and she had screamed, “You need to know nothing. Never, ever mention him to me again.”
As promised by the street atlas, the road he is following forks into two. He takes the right-hand fork and he’s in a residential street, similar to the one where he lives now. Detached houses sprawl in leafy gardens behind high walls. Now it’s a right turn, according to the map, into a slightly wider road. Modern houses on smaller plots of land, and apartment blocks set back from the road. A sign on a lamppost says Naka-cho 10-4. Japanese streets are numbered in blocks rather than named, in a complicated system that Tammy explained to him the day she’d translated the address. If this block was 10-4, then the next one should be 10-5. Naka-cho 10-5. That was the address written in Japanese on the back of the envelope he believed had contained a letter with some news about his father. A letter he was never able to find although he had searched the house for it. It wasn’t in the stack of bills and circulars and flyers in the letter rack on the Welsh dresser, nor hidden beneath the placemats and tablecloths in its drawers. It wasn’t in the old filing cabinet in the box room where his mother hoarded her mementoes: his primary school exercise books; birthday cards and Mother’s Day cards he had made for her; albums full of photographs from her brief career as a pop star which he would look at sometimes. His mother and another Asian woman—Wendy (from Hong Kong)—spiky-haired ninja-punks on lead vocals. A third woman, peroxide blonde, whose name he can’t remember, the drummer. A lone male, Kengo, one of a small crowd of Japanese people his mother knew in her early days in Liverpool, on guitar. Despite her nostalgia for her English past, there were no traces of her life in Japan, although this was no longer a surprise to him, for he had gone through a phase when he was younger when he had fancied himself as something of a detective and was sure he could dig up some clues as to her former life and his father’s whereabouts. No drawer or cupboard or potential hiding place had escaped his scrutiny, but he found nothing. The row that had erupted on his thirteenth birthday had begun when his mother came into her bedroom to find him kneeling on the carpet surrounded by the books and magazines and papers he had pulled from her bedside cabinet. The ensuing screaming-and-throwing match had left a trail of destruction through the house that ended when John hurled an empty wine bottle through the central panel of the large bay window in the living room. The sound of shattering glass had brought neighbours rushing out of their houses to congregate excitedly on the pavement. Fourteen years after the event, tiptoeing into his mother’s room again—tiptoeing, although he knew she was out and wouldn’t be back for hours—he was accosted by surprisingly clear memories of that day. He could remember the prickle of fear along his spine when he looked up to see her in the bedroom doorway. The explosion of red, hammering rage at her continued determination to deny him a father. The face-burning shame that they had humiliated themselves in front of the neighbours. He had to take a few deep breaths to steady himself before opening the bedside cabinet, but the letter wasn’t there, and as before, there was nothing amongst the clothes and books and toiletries in her bedroom that had any connection to her life in Japan.
Downstairs, at one side of the living room sofa, was a pile of old newspapers and magazines. He sifted through them idly, already resigned to the knowledge that the letter wouldn’t be there. It wasn’t. What did catch his eye was a yellowing local newspaper near the bottom of the pile with a headline trumpeting an increase in bus fares and, further down the page, a shorter article headed Aigburth Man Accused of Assault. He pulled it out, his hands shaking. Why had his mother kept this? Surely she couldn’t have done so on purpose? More likely the newspaper had just been thrown onto the pile, unglanced at, along with the other freesheets that were pushed through the letterbox every week. In the kitchen he dropped the newspaper into the bin, and emptied out the teapot on top of it. The small photograph on the front page was obliterated beneath a splat of cold, wet tea leaves. A corner of the picture remained visible—waves of blonde hair resting on a bare shoulder traversed by a thin lacy strap.
By the time he reaches block 10-5, the rain is heavy and thunder is rumbling far away. He has caught up with two figures that were two distant splashes of yellow when he turned the corner of the street: a mother and daughter, he decides as he passes them and they both turn identical snub-nosed faces to look at him, the mother from under her yellow umbrella, the daughter from beneath the brim of a yellow rain hat. They had been singing something as he approached, a tune he thought he recognized but couldn’t quite place in this alien context, but as he had drawn alongside them they had fallen quiet, the mother shooting him a smile that presumed his empathy, the child scowling at him. He had looked away and hurried past, embarrassed. He is not in the habit of smiling at strangers in the street.
Tammy had told him that Naka-cho 10-5 was probably the address of a house, because there was no apartment number. Just the block number, ten, and the subdivision number, five. But block 10-5 consists of a small car park, an empty plot of land, and an apartment block four or five storeys high. He walks around the perimeter of the block to make sure that that’s all there is, and when he arrives back at the front entrance of the apartment building he goes inside and studies the names on the silver mailboxes set into the wall of the lobby. He’s not sure what name he’s looking for. There’s no sender’s name on the envelope and he can’t read the names on any of the mailboxes, although he would have recognised the name Tanaka, one of the most common surnames in Japan, written with two simple Chinese characters. Tanaka, the name he and his mother use, is his mother’s maiden name, he’s sure—none of the clues he has unearthed over the years have ever suggested that she and Shinji were once married. And even if they had been, her views on women who take their husband’s name when they marry are well known to anyone who has sat with her for any length of time around a dinner table, where, after a few glasses of wine, she is prone to climb onto her feminist soapbox and start ranting about the subordination of women or the perspectives of the patriarchal society. Once, memorably, bringing Lily’s fiftieth-birthday dinner to a premature end, she had delivered a bitter monologue on the pervasive necessity of the Phallus. (Her vocabulary is admittedly impressive for someone for whom English is a second language.)
Shinji’s surname he does not know, has never known, and has always dumbly, unquestioningly, accepted this not-knowing as an immutable fact, but now, faced with these rows of gleaming sliver mailboxes that taunt him with their incomprehensible labels, in this setting both bland and exotic that has failed to deliver the over-the-rainbow promise contained in the mysterious characters of the address on the back of the envelope he has treasured for so long, he is furious. Furious with her, his mother, for imprisoning him in the state of not-knowing and furious with himself for having acquiesced to this imprisonment.
An elderly woman has appeared in the lobby and she is looking at him strangely and there is a throbbing in his foot and a black scuff mark on the white wall. She addresses him with some words whose precise meaning he doesn’t understand but which he assumes is an enquiry as to whether he is looking for someone and can she help. He shakes his head, and before she can say anything else he steps outside. The now drenching rain seems like a wry comment on the futility of this expedition. He doesn’t know who wrote the letter whose discarded envelope he has invested with such importance. He can’t even be sure that the letter has any connection to his father. Maybe his mother was telling the truth when she said she had never mentioned him that evening. He bends his head against the rain and hurries back up the road towards the station. As he passes the front gate of the large, Japanese-style house on the block that neighbours the apartment building, he sees a pair of small yellow wellingtons arranged neatly inside the open front door. Beneath the drumming of the rain he thinks he can hear a child’s voice singing inside the house, and now he recognises the song.