Ar Lan Y Mor by Sarah E. Y. Miller
West Coast Eisteddfod Online Short Story Competition 2017
updated by @americymru: 12/01/17 02:14:50AM
The bell was broken. So were the jukeboxes. Moira stared hard at the doorframe where the rusted bell used to sit chirping shrilly every time a new person came to stain the tablecloths.
The man in the duck-yellow crocheted hat said nothing, even as he watched her turn a different angle away from him.
Moira brushed off the table and each crumb fell on the linoleum.
“Why are you here?” she asked, her face blank and red.
Camron didn’t answer. He just stared at the crumbs and, after a fourteen second long silence, her grassy tennis shoes. They kept squeaking as she moved each toe separately inside of them.
Eventually she turned to look at his eyebrows. Three hairs, all in between his eyes. That was when the rag dropped.
“Christ, what is it?”
“I’ve come to talk.”
“To my shoes?”
Her eyelids were the same shade as her left iris.
“I’m at work.” She’d brought her thumb and index finger to rest right above her perfectly arched eyebrows.
“I know. That’s how I knew where to find you.”
He heard a little breath and then watched her tongue fiddle with a gold bicuspid.
“Mom misses you.” It came out in a one word mumble and the arches went flat. A ruby flashed from her thumb.
They may have shared a nose, but that didn’t stop her from bringing four knuckles squarely into it. With a small pop he joined the rag on the floor with all the other crumbs she’d dropped.
After a little lick to her fingertip to find a fresh page, Moira wrote FIX BELL in large looping script and slapped her waitress pad onto the cake counter.
Three sneaker squeaks.
“You’ve seen the door, I’m sure.”
You have always accused me of being unable to understand your art. I suspect that is, in truth, what turned us apart: I couldn't understand that you wanted your life to be your masterpiece. I felt like I was not fit to be in any painting, nor in any writing, nor in any movie... so I thought I couldn't be a part of it.
I'm doing this now just because you requested it, and I don't want to add this to the number of problems that we have together.
"After some time," you said to me. "You will become more watchful. The beauty of your art will be uncovering what is already there."
I know that you think of me as your muse, but, you will see, I am not even an interesting character.
It's been some time since you have left. I only now remember that I promised to do this. You want my report? Everything is the same. The cars' noise outside of the house, the people talking, the sound of the same steps of the same people; then some birds getting into the pile, too, along with a dog here and there… from time to time, the whistle of the wind.
"It's all music," you would have said, as always.
"It's all noise," I would reply.
But, believe me, as I stare at your empty chair, I am beginning to think that your remark was the real music.
It's been some time since I have said it's been some time, and I still have to do this stupid exercise.
Our child has said his first word, but he couldn't hear it. They told me he is deaf. I sometimes see him moving as if he was dancing. Maybe he is able to listen what no one else can.
No one else, of course, except for you.
Nothing has changed much… yes, which includes my saying that. I still hear our neighbors' fight during the night, and those two women on the street screaming at one another as if there were miles between them, and that person who would pass in front of our house and say, at the same hour, always the same phrase: "Everything is the same."
I might even try to write these reports in verse. "It's all poetry," you would say, and I wonder if, during your travels, you will finally get to publish that poetry book in which you merely catch people's spoken gibberish.
I am writing with the only pencil you would use to write a book if you ever did so. “It is magical,” I can almost hear you insist. Though I have my doubts about the part of the pencil, I know you would somehow manage to make even gibberish beautiful.
I am writing this one day after the last time I wrote. It's ironical that I wrote about poetry: I went to see the doctor today, because, as you know, our second child is old enough to be speaking, and he is not. The “seeing if it is just about some other problem” did not allow me to sleep anymore. I pushed harder for some real answers.
At the end, the doctor said he is mute.
I hear him babbling, as if trying to say something to me. I imagine what he is saying, and write it down as if they were his first words.
Maybe his art is called "You imagine it."
I know you would have smiled at the opportunity.
You still have some time left, but I am resisting the urge to go after you. We can only be thankful for our sorrows if we can make some art out of it.
I look through the window of our room, and the single tree that never gives fruits is still there. So are the rosebuds that never bloom and the bird that cannot fly.
"It's all a painting," you would have said. But, of course, I could never see the beauty in any of it.
I turn away and ask myself whether that painting is called "Us."
Now it is our first child that sees through the window. He is not actually able to, of course, but he is smiling at the "painting", like you used to do.
I resist the desire to ask him what it feels like to be blind: Not that he wouldn't give me the most detailed description of it... the true problem is, as I look deeply through the window, I realize it all seems completely grey to me.
I am still blind.
A glimpse of light gets into my eyes, however: I think the image looks like our boy seeing something there.
I must inform you that your dear pencil is coming to the end of his life.
I suspect you would never have used it anyway: "We seers are also artists," you said. "And I would rather make it my art to show people the notes and verses in their own lives."
I have been writing for a long while now. I don't know whether I am doing what you requested, and I cannot see the beauty in this, the beauty that I thought I would find.
Maybe you actually went away to do some real music, or painting, or poetry... but it will only be for the deaf that wouldn't hear anything, for the blind that would see nothing and the mute that would recite for the former and make gestures for the latter.
I don't see why you should come back, and I am sure it won't make a wonderful plot for your masterpiece...
When you do come back, I know I have to give you the other parts of this. Yet, once you get through the door, I merely leave the last writing on the table and turn away.
I wander through the house for days without speaking, without hearing, without seeing.
You have brought only three things with you, and you display every one of them when you see me finally staying somewhere: I cannot run away forever.
You first call our mute child, and you tell him that you have a poem for him to recite, the only one you have ever written and will ever write. He hasn't seen you in a long time, but he seems to recall that you took care of him perfectly. He reads the paper you give him, and I watch his lips move as if he were talking.
I find that even if there had been any sound in them, I would have been too focused on the beauty that they irradiated.
You call our blind child next, and you show him the only painting you have ever painted and will ever paint. I see the canvas is black all over.
"Is it beautiful?" Our child asks.
"Yes," you whisper in his ear. Next, he touches it and takes a deep breath, the type of breath one would take while gazing into an amazing landscape. "What is it called?" You ask him.
"It's called Trust," he says.
Finally, you call our deaf child, and you take out a stringless violin. He stares at you while you perform the only song you had ever composed and will ever compose.
Once you are done, he claps loudly and almost starts to jump around the place.
"What is it called?" You ask him with signs.
He approaches me and takes my hand. I can't do otherwise, I have to follow him. He makes more signs: He wants me to name it.
I notice how quiet the house is, as it had never been when you were here, for it wasn´t only us who had to hear our neighbors. They had to hear us, too. I just couldn't see the beauty in anything, and when you tried to do so, it seemed to me as the ugliest of things. Yet, as I am so immersed into a silence that lasts forever, I can only think you among the best of the authors... including in your masterpiece.
“So, what is the name of the song?”
"It's called Silence," I say, and I mean a silence that does not need any word…. that is art by itself.
You had said that your pencil was magical. I realize, as I give you every piece that I have written, that it was magical because it would become magical if we thought it was.
Every piece that I have written but this one, for I still have to end my own masterpiece: Seeing that maybe it actually is one.
Now that the die is cast, the tally read,
We see the perilous journey shall be made
And we must walk into the dark together.
It was a careless throw brought this together,
But now the game is over we all can read
The reckoning for the choices that were made.
We don’t know yet if we’re to be marred, or made,
By this exile we’ve just begun. Together
Or by ones, we’ll seek a new map we can read.
As you read of our fate, made together, learn.
2012: the doomsday astrologers were proving to be correct. Everything that could go wrong, or seem wrong potentially, was happening. The Middle East was in flames. Dictatorships and fundamentalist regimes were collapsing, and victims from the civil wars of these countries were being recruited by terror groups.
By the first quarter of the year, it was said that as many as eighty terror groups had surfaced and that each group was fighting for recognition, by trying to build a global reputation. Economically, too, a silent war was being played out. More than 50% of the world’s production was taking place in China.
In the second quarter of the year, China confessed to a stake in Pakistan’s nuclear program, which made the U.S. and India cry foul! But being democracies, no one took them seriously.
Around the same time, China also declared its presence in several Asian countries, in core sectors like infrastructure, education, and healthcare. Which just about had Indian politicians in a tizzy. Hurriedly they left on a junket for these countries, accompanied by wives, kids, and flunkies. Of course, the official reason was that they were on a field trip. They had to know what made the Chinese grin like schoolboys.
In the U.S., politicians attributed the economic meltdown to global warming, and global warming to the heat emanating from Iran’s nuclear program. It was all related, they said, asking other countries to freeze ties with Iran.
In India, civil society and the ruling classes were still locked in a face-off over the people-empowered Lokpal bill. Each time civil society would agree to a version, the politicians would scuttle it. After some time it became a game of musical chairs and no one took the other seriously.
The politicians were glad for the suspension of the Lokpal bill, for that gave them time to move their unaccounted wealth out of Switzerland. And by the time things came to light, it turned out that Switzerland was only a decoy destination. The real money had been invested elsewhere. In votebanks, real estate, and luxury townships.
In India, political leaders once again announced their intention to cleanse the system of its rot. “Enough is enough,” they said. “We can understand the mood of the common man, because we are pretty much from the same background.” No one believed them, though, because the state assembly elections were just around the corner and lies like these were old-fashioned propaganda.
As the elections approached, Tihar Jail – that grand old fortress which housed hundreds of political prisoners and corporate scamsters – suddenly announced its plans to open up state-wise franchises. It seemed – for a while at least – that the corruption would be checked. Quietly, and without much fuss, Tihar Jail advertised for private bids, with the promise of timeshare cells to future inmates. Slab bookings open! When do you expect to be busted? If you are going to be in a high-risk career like politics, it makes sense to get your retirement plans in place. And there’s no time like today, while you are still in power. The cells would be built according to the tastes of the inmates: Spartan cell; Premium cell; Ashram cell, for quiet reflection and study, a home away from home, your private safe, included!
When word of this leaked out, a hot debate followed on the national news channel, in which it was argued whether prisons could be accorded “industry” status in India and whether privatization of the sector was a good idea after all.
The Minister of Industries thought it to be a very bright idea. Where there was crime there’d always be growth, he said, and crime in India was certainly a sunrise sector, booming. Meanwhile, clairvoyants warned that all was not well with the cosmos. A killer planet was headed toward Earth, traveling at the speed of light. Approaching, it would explode into flood of lava and we would all be reduced to ashes. Not a bone would remain for archeological scrutiny, not a trace of DNA would survive. History itself would be history.
But three-fourth of the year went by and there was no sign of the planet. But one thing did happen. On 6 October 2012, Salman Rushdie won the Nobel Prize for literature, a decision that was to split the world in two.
Frankly, no one expected reactions to be the way they were. The media went into overdrive. “The Maestro’s Last Bow,” they said. The Guardian pronounced him “The Prince of Nobels.” The Queen drew herself up and said proudly, “England has reclaimed its lost heritage of the English language. Let us not forget we were the first to have recognized Sir Rushdie’s genius.”
And “Sir Rushdie” it was thereafter. Or “Sir Salman.” And in India it was, of course, “Salman Bhai,” with Salman Khan the actor quickly adding another “a” to his name, just to make the distinction clear. The only one miffed in all this was Naipaul. “Not only is the novel dead,” he said, “so also the Nobel.” But no one took him seriously. “Yes, dead!” repeated an Afghan overlord who heard Naipaul on the radio. “Dead. Very soon!”
On one level, there was celebration, euphoria, an upsurge in literary fiction that had publishers rejoicing. No one spoke of the world coming to an end anymore, and unpublished writers, who had locked away their manuscripts, drew them out for another look, another chance. The author himself appeared on television, looking dapper in a black Nehru jacket and steel-rimmed glasses. All the eyes of the world were on him, even while he declared with humility, “To me, the Nobel Prize is not a personal achievement, an entry into a select constellation of souls; rather it is an answer to those forces that might arise against literature, the triumph of man over his detractors.” Then quickly and cleverly he announced his next book, The Final Fatwa.
And even while he spoke, the forces that rose against him many years ago once again bared their teeth. Only this time the faces were younger, voices calmer, their ways more modern. They met not in caves but in bars, not in underground cellars but in gilded hotel rooms, not in mountains but in penthouses and air-conditioned offices.
Emails flew. Funds were released and rewards were announced. The Kaffir must fall. He must be punished. This Nobel – whatever it was – cannot be allowed to felicitate a traitor.
The task was delegated to Al-Kaput, a new terror group that prided itself on recruiting youth with an IQ of 125 and above. Many of them were scholars; they had built their lives around books. And some of them were writers, who knew there was nothing more violent than thought itself. Thought could divide, it could decimate; it could create more violence than violence itself.
So they came up with a plan, which they shared with their funding masters. There was no point targeting the writer, they said. He would only become a superhero, a martyr. Look what had happened at Jaipur. He had grown bigger than the festival, bigger than its events. No, they would go for the reader, instead, using the book as a missile. Final Fatwa, hah! It would be the death of anyone who reached for it. By God, it would!
To put their plan in action they bought up huge quantities of Triple X Anthrax, a powdery fine and deadlier version of the original, and this they arranged to have packed in small vials. Each vial was tiny enough to fit into the palm of your hand. You could take it to bookstores, reach for the book, pretend to browse through it and, snapping off the top, pour the noxious powder in between the pages. Then all you need to do is walk away - to the next bookstore, and to the next, where you’d repeat the action. This way several of the big bookstores could be targeted. Readers would drop like flies. The scholars knew that nothing killed a writer like books unsold, like books rejected and returned, and this way they’d finish off the Kaffir. They would bury him for good.
So millions and millions of tons of Triple X Anthrax were ordered, and these found their way into countries where the book would be published. And many of the new terror groups collaborated on this, thinking this was their chance to ramp up, make it to the big league of terror.
Meanwhile, physical demonstrations against the Nobel Prize continued. In more tolerant countries, the fundamentalists kicked and stomped, and they burned the books of Rushdie and lit effigies of him, and they protested before the American embassy, because all things evil were, of course, American.
Some of the more oil-impoverished countries were quick to ban the book in advance. Fundamentalist-nations added a clause to the visa application: Have you ever read a Rushdie?
Rushdie himself said that he was disappointed. He did not expect this kind of a backlash. The divisive forces were still at large, corrupting his concept of a divine unity. He maintained that democracy was dying, or there was not enough of it, and the only places it existed were in people’s minds, in their thoughts, and on the Internet, where identities could be protected.
In the months that followed, the world split itself into two factions: one that would support the book and the other that would oppose it. Either you are for the Fatwa, or against it, screamed newspaper headlines, confusing young and old, man and woman.
Governments had to take stances. Liberal or conservative, progressive or pragmatic: it was important they leaned one way or another. And everyone was curious, but no one knew what the book was about. And Rushdie was not telling either. He was tranquil, tight-lipped, smiling.
The day of the launch arrived. “Judgment Day!” shrieked the tabloids. “Will this decide Rushdie’s fate? Will the author live to survive this? Is Rushdie in for another spell of exile?” Rushdie himself was unfazed. He would occasionally be spotted at a nightclub, creasing up the tiles with a fluid bit of eye candy.
On the morning of the launch the paparazzi was in a state. They were trying to find out where the main launch was. It was rumored it would be somewhere in India, the fastest growing print market in the world, the fastest growing middle-class, too, with aspirations as big as their idols.
In every major city of India, contingents of special police were positioned outside bookstores. Each policeman had been armed with a gun and a shield. There was no telling where the magician would appear and where he’d have his launch. And what kind of violence would erupt. And yet, readers and writers were content to wait outside bookstores, wait patiently for the man who had transformed literature into a weapon, he who had split the world in two.
And then slowly and steadily it leaked out. No brick and mortar. No papyrus. No trees felled this time. No fragrance of a freshly minted book, pages inked out in artistic fonts, words that flew at you from thick, crisp pages with knife-like edges. The final fatwa had been delivered. And it told the truth as it was. The day of the paperback was over. Amazon had bought the rights. All you had to do was download the Fatwa. And decide in what font-size you wanted to read it.
I don’t know why I hated her the way I did, but I did. Maybe it was because the first time I approached her, she was feeding a cat out of her lunchbox. What was a cat doing in a bank? I wondered. And why was the lady having lunch during banking hours? All I wanted was to collect a new checkbook, and she was in charge of issuing that. But instead of attending to my request, she seemed more keen to feed the cat, who sat obediently at her feet with a bored, haughty expression. From time to time, the cat would open its mouth in a yawn, and the lady would bend down to feed it, using that same hand to scoop food out of her lunchbox and eat. God, it was disgusting! I thought, feeling the first stirrings of dislike.
The United National Bank was where I’d had an account ever since I had started working. Yes, it was ten years since I had begun my life as a content writer and seen my savings grow, diversifying into investments like fixed deposits and mutual funds. It was my grandfather who had opened the account for me, depositing a princely fifty-one rupees for good luck. “Good fortune be with you,” he had said, handing me a passbook, a checkbook, and smiling, in that knowing way of his. I was very close to my grandfather, a tall regal man of remarkable composure, who advised me to always live within my means. By minimizing his needs and keeping himself free of anger (what he called “toxic emotions”), my grandfather had lived until the age of ninety-six. So my relationship with the bank wasn’t based on commerce or on service, but more on sentiment, I should say.
There were no tangible reasons to prefer this bank over any other. It hadn’t changed its furniture in years. There was an automated teller machine that seldom worked. And the old printer squeaked plaintively while printing out passbook entries in a faint, almost unreadable type. The print quality was so poor that every year my accountant would throw up his hands in exasperation and say, “How am I to discern these entries? How am I to prepare your tax returns? How many times should I tell you this?”
I would bring this to the attention of the manager, who would be contrite and apologetic. “What to do, sir?” he would say. “ I am asking the management every time for a new printer but they say there is no budget. And I am giving them rupees sixty crore worth of deposits every year. You tell me, sir, what I am to do?” His eyes would dim with shame, and he would look at me beseechingly. Poor man, I would think. The understanding he cannot get from his management, he expects from me.
The manager’s cabin had a glass partition that was covered with posters of various financial schemes. In loud splashy colors, the posters invited customers to purchase new homes, new cars, to apply for education loans, small business loans, health insurance, and loans against shares. “The one-stop bank for all your needs,” read one poster. Another claimed: “We don’t build assets, we build relationships.” The worst thing about this bank was the queue at the cash withdrawal counter. It was long and slow moving. Punishing, you could say.
I don’t know why exactly I hated her with the intensity that I did, but I did. Maybe it was because she gave the cat priority over me, an old customer short on time, shorter still on patience. Maybe it was something about her appearance and manner: her creased sari, her languid walk, her attachment to her lunchbox, which she carried in a clingy sort of a way, her look of utter boredom when she spoke to customers, and her delight when she addressed colleagues. Still, that did not give me the right to feel the way I did.
One day I came upon her at the cash withdrawal counter and found her discussing with a colleague the events of a popular TV serial. Behind me, senior citizens and other customers languished in a long queue. There was no air-conditioning where we stood, no place to sit, either. In between chatting with her colleague and attending to customers, she would nibble at a vada dipped in thick, white chutney; then, slowly, she would wipe her chutney-stained fingers against the rim of the plate. When it was my turn to collect the cash, I saw her raise a forefinger to her tongue, wet it, and proceed to squeeze out rupee notes from a tightly-packed bundle.
That was it! I lost control.
Raising my voice, I screamed at her, “You are abusing Laxmi. You are being disrespectful to the Goddess; she who resides in these notes, she who sanctifies them!” I repeated myself twice and enjoyed seeing her discomfort. I continued to berate her until someone in the queue suggested that I should let it pass, she had learned her lesson. But I was not so sure of that. Under her lowered eyes, I saw her resentment, and knew that she could have easily wished me under a bus or a train.
This particular morning I arrive at the bank in a tearing hurry: I had to make an urgent cash withdrawal before heading to work. And, pray, what do I see?
The “deposits” and “withdrawal” counters are empty. The women are seated at their desks, their backs to the computer screens. The men are standing or leaning against their desks. In the center of the branch, in the open quadrangle, the manager is addressing his staff members, who have stopped working and are listening to him, enrapt.
The manager is all charged up. He is a short, stocky man with a delicate swell of belly. His clothes are neat; his shirtsleeves are buttoned all the way down to his wrists. His tie, a vivid orange and red, stands out like a table napkin against the white of his shirt. To his side is a tall, hefty security guard holding up a cell phone like an expert cameraman, filming the manager as he speaks.
The manager, it seems, has attended a meeting with his bosses, the details of which he is sharing with his staff. “So the Management speaks to me about customer service,” he says. “They want us to be number one. Among all banks, we should lead. And I say to them, why customer service? That is the right of every customer. The minute you become a customer, do you not automatically have a right to service? I say to them, now the time has come to talk about ‘customer delight’ and ‘customer retention.’ Because why be number one, if we are not going to stay there?” His eyes flickers over the audience and, on cue, his staff applauds.
Pleased, the manager continues: “They, the Management, tell me that they want to appoint relationship managers in every branch, and that I should decide who among you will make the best relationship manager. And I say to them, sorry, I can’t do that. Because in my branch every employee is a relationship manager. He or she knows the value of every customer. We make every customer feel special, feel at home.” Suddenly he pivots around and says to the customers present, “Come, sir, madam, tell me: am I not right? Do you not feel this is your bank? You are the owners, and we your humble servants?” The customers nod politely, and the bank manager beams proudly. At which point I look around, and that’s when I see her, the object of my aversion. She is standing a few feet away, chewing on a paratha roll. Edging closer, I whisper, “Madam, I need to make an urgent cash withdrawal. Can you please do it for me?”
She stays me with wrinkled fingers, while she finishes chewing. Then she looks at me distastefully and says, “Hush, can’t you see? Sahib is speaking. He is saying important things. We cannot interrupt him. We cannot be rude. Let him finish. Then I will help you.”
And then I knew. It was not so much her who I disliked as it was the bleak apathy that had settled into the face and body language of every person who had worked too long in a sahib-dominated culture; who took their bosses as their Gods, their customers as their burden, and their jobs as an imposition that threw up their shortcomings. It was a face I would see ever so often. At the police station where I went to report loud blaring street music and ear-shattering fireworks. At the electricity board where I went to protest illegal connections in my neighborhood or an inflated bill. At the municipality where I went to bemoan a water problem or an illegal encroachment, and where I was advised to tolerate, to adjust.
“Adjust” was a word that crept up with alarming frequency in my overpopulated country. It would forgive every aberration, soothe every inconvenience, take the conflict out of every dispute, and build bridges where none could exist.
Having understood that now, understood clearly, I nodded at the lady with conspiratorial ease. And she: she looked at me as though she was sizing me up, deciding whether I was worth her next move. Then she dipped into her lunchbox, rolled up a paratha, daubed a little pickle onto it, and held it to me, saying, “Come, have. You will like. You will enjoy. I made it myself.”
She thought for a moment, then said: “You are lucky. I can never eat bumper. Not allowed to. I have diabetes. Very high sugar. Insulin twice a day. Sometimes thrice. So I have to eat at regular intervals. Only small amounts. Every few hours.”
They had met through Marion, of course. Marion had seen Lou’s father only once (he had since gone back abroad and could not yet return for good). And she was disappointed with his stepson, who kept himself to himself. But she had taken a fancy to his daughter, and on Dannie’s arrival at Camlyn Court that Easter had introduced them to each other directly.
Dannie knew her other guests well—members of a theatrical group, which they had asked him to join. He had felt that the warmth of his welcome must be obvious to them, and they must hold him in account as having a high place in his godmother’s affections. Perhaps, once or twice, while still smiling at him, she had ceased to listen to him, but in bed later, casting back, he’d found he had, just then, been romancing. So he judged that she had helped him, as often before: to know her was to learn to know himself. Had he suspected that she aimed at influencing him he would hardly have been pleased. It was like her though, as he had been reminded during the same conversation, after telling her about the new review of which he now styled himself editor in partibus and about the money difficulties it had got him into, to show reluctance even to give advice. And he couldn’t for a moment seriously suppose she had set up for his Egeria. “Dannie will make his way in the world, he’ll forget me”, she had predicted at dinner, with a droll sigh which had provoked much amusement.
He had left Abergyffin the next day for his grandparents’ home near Auxerre, and had not returned from Oxford till the summer. But then he had not only met Lou again (thanks to Marion), he had also met her half-brother, Leo Pybus, who had struck up a conversation with him outside the Tudor Teashop a few days after she had pointed Dannie out to him from the town hall. Leo lacked the social touch, and though Dannie had murmured civilly his gaze had strayed past Leo and fastened on somebody behind him, who was entering the shop. Leo had recognized Charlotte Grant, the daughter of a friend of his stepfather’s, mumbled some excuse, and left them together.
It was a day of the first importance to Dannie, as will appear; it was also one—the latest of several such—for much of which he had merely roved the streets by himself. He was as fond of Marion as ever, and thinking of asking her for a sub. Of Lou he hadn’t yet grown as fond as Marion’s intuition had told her he would, but Marion herself, after Lou had last called on them—bringing with her a new friend, Una Bucklee—, had expressed some dissatisfaction with her. Marion had got it from Mrs Grant (to whom she owed her introduction to him) that Mr Traube, so long awaited, might be back within the month, but she had failed to draw his daughter, and had set her down as ‘close’.
To Dannie, Lou seemed as open as a child, so he had not been surprised when, after more than a week, Marion had spoken of her in the old way again. She had asked his opinion of Una, whom they had known only by sight before Lou’s visit with her (Dannie had seen her ogling him at performances by the players); she had gone on to conjecture what had become of Lou since; and “Lou’s a sweet girl,” she had let fall, “we’re sworn friends.” Then: “Una must be great fun, I suppose.”
As she had presently complained of a sick headache, Dannie had fallen back on his own society, sauntering out of the drowsy town beneath the day moon. The red horse-chestnut tree outside the presbytery—more massive even, as he fancied, than that dusty giant in the Turl—still bore its candles, amongst lush bunchy leafage. He had broken one off to smell it, smearing his fingers with a velvety dust, but it had seemed scentless. In the gateway a girl had appeared, and fixed in admiration of her face and figure he had wondered why he felt a pang. Even as she was driven away, of course, in the car that had been waiting for her, he was thinking only of how he might make her acquaintance. So he had been looking out for her each day, which is why from the moment he had set eyes on her again he had paid no more attention to Leo.
Miss Arthur’s father, having sold his newspaper, had bought Herkomer House to end his days in, and had indeed died from a seizure there six months later. She had buried her mother as many years later again, and had since shared the place with an adopted cat and her P.Gs. These fell into two groups: the holidaymakers (including for several seasons the Bucklees), and ‘her young men’, the latest of whom, recommended by Mrs Grant, she was listening for now. As it happened, the thought of what Mrs Grant had let out on the same occasion had just taken her mind back to him who had been truly her young man. His name would long since have been hers, only his turn to bleed for his country had come while they were still courting, and he had been enrolled among those other sons of Caerabersaint of whom, in words chosen by his favourite author, the memorial in the harbour square averred: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’.
After this loss, she had had recourse to mediums, but at length, unsatisfied, had taken up theosophy. The organ of the Lodge of Corresponding Fellows, whose introductory course had thrilled her, was a monthly Bulletin, which within a few years she was editing. In Gus Arthur’s daughter, though, the love of print arose from an itch for self-expression, and she had come into her own when, as his daughter, as an editress, and as secretary of a Ladies’ Guild, she was invited by the Argus’s present proprietor to take over the women’s page. This had since regularly diffused her fads and fancies, while in accordance with an evolution the reverse of her old heroine Mrs Besant’s, its general cast had grown markedly feminist.
She was in the mood now to rebuke there this Guild-sister who was also, she knew, one of her readers. Constance Grant, her good turn done, had had another call to pay, on her new neighbour Mr Traube, and after sadly mentioning his dead Lucie, had run on artlessly: “How we used to love jitterb… dancing with Americans!—before we met our spouses, that is” (flushing slightly). “Well, all my girl-friends did. Well, you never knew you wouldn’t be bombed the very same night, did you? So there was this wonderful sense of togetherness.”
Sensing now Maud’s disapproval, she had bidden her goodbye. But driving down the avenue in a fond dream of smart young servicemen, and of one in especial who had brought her candy and nail-varnish and nylon stockings, and had asked her to come home with him to Pine Bluff as his bride, she had murmured defensively: “Still they really were glamorous—like a film come to life. Such a jolly time we had!” Then loyally: “It was Ronnie Grant I wanted to marry though—a real Englishman, true blue, so gentle and nice.”
It was Connie Grant the landlady was thinking of still when she heard the stairs creak at last, and releasing a warm fishy gust into the hall surprised her new lodger at the porch door. Not going without his tea! Young people should eat regularly. How old was he? Oh, Norman’s age. Too young to remember the war, of course, hadn’t even been born. Not that some who did had truly experienced it, or knew what it had been like for those who had done their bit, even if it was only knitting socks, who’d had to make do and mend (you would have supposed Miss Arthur had had to)—for girls who hadn’t messed around (with a little snort). If she’d got any leisure, she’d used it writing to her soldier-boy—British-style: no money, no swank—, not dancing and smoking and primping… And so forth (with the kettle on the hiss and his taxi waiting) for some minutes before letting him go, she felt so strongly.
Now that the feeling had had way though, not only did she cease to think of putting that squanderbug Connie to the blush, she felt herself infused, as the tea was drawing, with a quite different feeling. Wasn’t it a satisfaction, after all, to be cosing in her kitchen a quarter of a century on? It seemed to her plain that she had been called to exercise a special talent—it was her dharma. And now, from the same starting-point as before, her piece for the Argus took a quite different course in her mind.
Thinking only, for his part, of the evening before him—of where he would soon be and with whom—, Dannie had scarcely attended to her, and now he settled in his taxi-cab the more mystified as, already knowing from her something of her interests, he had taken a closing reference to ‘the spirit of the Home Front’ in an occult sense. Apart from which he couldn’t see why she should mind not teaing him. He had yet to understand she would rather allow him any amount of bread and scrape than a reduction in rent—a thing which his predecessor at Herkomer House (Mr Bates, a young executive and the players’ treasurer, who while still lodging there had ceased eating there) had actually claimed from her. Dannie lacked experience of landladies. He himself hadn’t yet been there a week, and not three weeks earlier had still had rooms in College.
It had been only the day before the move that he had made up his mind to it. Then too he had gone out untea’d, but when he returned, there were cheese and coffee going as Marion entertained some dramatic friends who had dropped in after a rehearsal. He had returned happy indeed, yet as soon as they had gone, and even before Marion had left him to his thoughts, he had felt discontented. Her friends in general no longer seemed to him such good company. Certainly he didn’t suppose you could be good company yet never uncharitable. He though had nothing against their producer, if not that each time he had been in a room with him the other’s facetiousness had kept breaking in on his own. He was even obliged to him for having told Gerald Bates, who when he had auditioned had said he wouldn’t do, “Nonsense, he may lack the Voice Mellifluous, but he’ll be outstanding as First Citizen.” (Wasn’t that why Bates wouldn’t allow what Marion had suggested, that the producer ‘knew how to pull ‘em in’—insisting with his mouth full of cracker, “But that isn’t proven, takings are still down”?) Despite which he had associated himself with this disparagement of him by friends of Marion’s who were none of them friends of his.
And yet, he had flattered himself, companied differently he too could be different. With congenial people—with his own friends the Trusloves, say (he might think of them so again now, a long twelvemonth since Emma and he had ceased being anything more to each other than friends),—he could like himself as he liked them. The truth was, to him Marion’s friends were not congenial. And that wasn’t all. He was sensible that his failure to make them his friends, if not his failure to cultivate Lou, was straining his friendship with Marion. Even when those boardstrutters were gone she hadn’t asked him how he had spent the evening, and ‘It’s not as if I only came to her for feeding up’, he had thought now—though as to that, after waiting while they were supped, he had ended by serving himself. And then there was her evident disapproval of his new friendship.
Not only had she failed to receive Charlotte well on his return with her from the teashop; the next evening, having heard he was off for a stroll—and she must have guessed with whom—, she had virtually obliged him to take along Una, a not unexpected dropper-in, who had caught at the suggestion, and before whom he had felt unable to oppose it for long. It had been some mitigation to find that Charlotte couldn’t rightly mind, not being alone either, and before the stroll was over they had swapped explanations. But meanwhile it had been most unsatisfactory. Twisting up through rhododendron thickets, their path had never let more than two go abreast, the original division had persisted, and Una had taken advantage of it.
“This is quite fortuitous actually. You see, I’m going all out these holidays, work and play equally. Perhaps I’ll have a breakdown, and never go back to teaching! (No, I’ll have to ere long, and probably not here”—with a frown—, “that’s why I’ve kept on my flatlet in deepest Herts, also I’d just paid a quarter’s rent). Anyway, this summer I’m determined to study up my French, I’ve been meaning to for many moons, ever since we did Jean Anouilh’s The Seagull at college, and Andrew—Andrew Thwaite, much garlanded, you probably know his work?—, Andrew would say lines in French without translating them; I found that enormously flattering. Well, I knew you had the gift of tongues, as ‘twere—your name’s Polish, isn’t it, but I believe you’re half French?—, so I’d be eternally grateful for your thoughts on the best method. Only as I’m hardly ever in Abergyffin I thought I might not get to hear them.”
Even when they had come out on a knoll, with an outlook over the estuary, and sat down on open swarth for some refreshment, brought by Charlotte’s companion—the youngest of the boardstrutters, whose brother Willie had been Marion’s (and Mrs Grant’s) grocer’s roundsman—it had hardly been better. Although (through their mothers) Charlotte and Una were already acquainted, they had had nothing to say to each other, and whether Charlotte remarked Dannie’s little attentions to her had been more than he could read.
On the way down, though, Jane Price had at last found her tongue. “I suppose I may teach,” he had heard her tell Una, “if I don’t go on the stage. Because I’m not very academic, people tend to be surprised that I care passionately about the arts. I did think of being a ballet-dancer—I have a very supple body. Do you know Dick Partridge?”
“The puppets bod, who used to run our group?”
“He thinks I should try for stage school.”
“Oh, you’ve met him, that’s interesting, I hear good things of him, much missed by many. He’s rather like the actor-managers of yore, isn’t he. A friend was telling me only this afternoon—I don’t think you know Marion Lewis—he was in rep in Manchester.”
“He was in films in his time, he developed early, he was very tenacious, hailed as the Prodigal Son. I don’t think I’d film well, I’m an introvert really, though not in the perjurative sense, but he says I have a film face.”
“Give me strength,” Charlotte had prayed audibly, “I just jolly well wish she’d dry up about that Partridge, she was going to be an opera singer before she met him.”
“She seems to know you well”, Dannie had said with a touch of jealousy, though amused at her vehemence.
“Siany? she’s my best friend, I’m at her house today, sleeping over. We go bathing together, but I’d rather whack round the lanes on my horse.”
“Oh, is it yours?” Una had interrupted, “I’d have envied you once, careering about the country on horseback, but now I think Shanks’ pony’s best,” (turning back to Jane) “I love losing myself in nature and feeling insignificant.”
“I saw the Mountain Walker once” (mysteriously).
“Oh!” (after a moment) “you’ve seen a ghost? I’d probably depart this life myself if I saw one, but as a Christian I’ve never really believed in them, though some of my College friends did who were rather weird and wonderful—psychic or ‘alternative’ in some way.”
“I felt sorry for it actually, I knew it was just another being on a different level of consciousness.”
“How did you know it wasn’t a happy ghost? There’s a story by Oscar Wilde, one of my favourite authors, which I used to wish my father might read to me…”
“I don’t need a religion to help me collude with the god of my choice, but as a spiritual person I do know about other beings, and the best level of consciousness is the one ’umans are on.”
“Do you ride?” Charlotte had asked him, “I’m a sack of potatoes in the saddle.” On which hint, after accounting for his own barnacle,
“Riding is too strenuous for an unhealthy sybarite,” he had added, “but might we go walking again?”
“Tomorrow afternoon if you like. Oh no, Father Agrotis! Unless you can see me home afterwards? I’ll tell my mother not to fetch me. The bus doesn’t go all the way though. Bet you it will rain.”
In the trees’ deep gloom the four of them had rejoined the lane from where they had set off together and from where now a late bus had taken Una back to Old Dolwen. Having parted from the two friends at Jane’s gate, Dannie had climbed over a stile and struck across a rough field townwards by the light of a ginger-ale moon. He had let himself into Marion’s flat well after she had gone to bed.
Already then (and already with thoughts of his friend Marek’s charming garçonnière) he had understood that entertaining Charlotte regularly at Marion’s flat was not on. He didn’t suspect his godmother of regard for propriety; the difficulty here, he had suspected at once the previous afternoon, on bringing Charlotte back with him after Leo had made them acquainted, was that Marion had not made them acquainted (the reason for which, and for his not having known Mrs Grant’s daughter before, being that this daughter had shunned Miss Lewis as she had Miss Arthur, that other member of the Ladies’ Guild, and in her eyes probably the most decrepit—pitilessly viewing the former, despite appearances, as the latter’s coeval, and scouting any suggestion that she might ever count among ‘Marion’s friends’ herself).
Anyhow, if that afternoon he had already decided not to bring Charlotte back with him again soon, the day after their first rendezvous he was unwilling even for Marion to know he was going for another walk, so had left the flat before her return from an afternoon’s shopping. In consequence not only had he reached the presbytery too early, he had had to forego tea; and without desiring to see Mrs Price’s daughter, as he lounged again under the red chestnut-tree (not inelegantly, he hoped, in his well-pressed linen jacket), he could have done with another slice or two of her bara brith.
His desire to see Jane’s friend had brought back to his mind the image of that friend as he had seen her first which had drawn him out into the streets every day until she was before him again. He had realized with surprise that he had found entry into an existence which had seemed to him an impenetrable mystery, and had considered whether what had caused him a pang on first seeing her had been knowing he had no part in that existence.
The novel charm her person had for him had stimulated him now, when at last they were waiting together, and then in the lurching country-bus, to try to penetrate her inner life. But she had responded warily, as if she risked giving a wrong answer. The thing he was burning to ask, what she thought about their own acquaintance, he had hesitated to ask outright, and that acquaintance was not much nearer intimacy for the little more he did know before the bus had put them down.
“Didn’t I tell you? Now I’m a big girl I take Spanish lessons, but you won’t see me swirl out with a rose between my teeth. He was really sarcastic again today, I just kept looking at my watch.”
Evidently, though, his curiosity wasn’t taken amiss. Their way had wound uphill, the glimmering estuary had sunk from view. They had dawdled to a halt in a high-banked lane quite overboughed. After a silence, “I reckon”, she had suddenly brought out, “you’re a person that takes friendship very seriously—with you it’s all or nothing.”
Enchanted to hear her speak of himself, he had concurred directly—to wonder then, doubtful in his turn, whether that had been the right response. So far as he could make out her expression, in that dark cocoon the summer had woven, he had found it enigmatic. A mild rain was falling, they had gone on their way. Not until the lights of a house had shown up, through a wet weft of leaves, had he perceived that they had cut out of the lane by a shrub-lined drive. Then they were in a rusticated stone porch with the ring of the door-chime in his ears, the hall-light on Charlotte’s hair, and his name on her lips. She had been looked for sooner, and before the wedge of whisky fruitcake she had cut for him herself, he had accepted from her mother only three roast-beef sandwiches, in case her parents felt the hour was late.
Her mother though, who had invited him in, was so pleasant that by the time he had wished her good night he had forgotten how faded, beside her daughter, she had appeared to him at first. In fact, without knowing anything of that young Arkansawyer who one evening long since at the Savoy had asked for her hand, he had wondered that she had bestowed it where she had. This was being rather hard on his host (whom he had heard rasping on the telephone—“Fifteen hundred? Are you mad? I’m not running a charity!”—before seeing him). True, none of Mr Grant’s acquaintances of later years could easily have supposed him once ‘so gentle and nice’, and he had taken no such trouble that evening as, on his wife’s part, had persuaded their guest that she might in her day have been almost as pleasing as Charlotte. (It would have struck him as puppyism, Dannie felt sure, the familiarity with which Gerald had named his new business acquaintance when boasting “It’s all right now of course, the losses are factored into our business-plan, which I got forensically tested by Ronnie Grant, and he agreed we should maintain cash-flow during the plan period and be into classic profits next season.”) Still Dannie might have reflected that her mate couldn’t always have been grizzled and ungenial, with boiled eyes and the breath of a crocodile. And had he not let himself be put out by the stare to which, after splashing them each a double scotch, Mr Grant had subjected him, he might have discerned in it the very quality of shrewdness which Mr Grant’s rival had lacked, and on which his future wife, without foreseeing that Bill Brady was to die on a misty moel in nineteen forty-three, had known by instinct she might rely for her future ease and security—an instinct whose sureness was attested in her lounge by just that costly comfort which had left on Dannie an impression merely of tastelessness.
He had in truth been more self-conscious than conscious of anything else, and not only uncomfortably so, under her husband’s looking-over: her smiles had made him agreeably so, and led him to say more than he had thought of saying.
“At my godmother’s,” (in answer to an inquiry from her) “I have a standing invitation—although this summer”, he had found himself continuing, “I’m looking about for somewhere else. Marion knows so many people, I’m afraid I always have a pretext for not working. And now with the review I’m trying to bring out, a self-denying ordinance wouldn’t suffice,” (smiling back) “I need a sanctum where I can get on with the dummy undistracted.”
“A lady I know lets rooms, if you like I could speak to her for you tomorrow. Not at all, you see I know she wants a tapestry-frame, preferably upright, and Mrs Peters of Pontygower has just let me have one for our summer fair, so I shall give Maud the refusal of it. Which reminds me, dear,” (looking at her husband) “that old silver-and-leather hip-flask you said was junk—well, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, Bem said.”
“Does he want it?”
“No, dear!” (laughing) “he was talking about pictures—you remember. I thought you might let me have it for our rummage-stall.”
She had obliged Dannie further on his thanking her just before rising to go. “Ronald will run you back (won’t you, dear?). What, and let you foot it all that way in the wet?” (parting thick curtains with a pompom). “How it does come down! But that’s why the country is so green, isn’t it.”
Here he had thought her husband also would demur, and mean it, though as could be seen from an onyx-and-marble clock (with spelter nymph and fawn) when she turned on the heavy brass lamp (with a pink tulip shade) that stood on an onyx-and-gilt table beside her, by this the last bus must have gone. But then Charlotte had stated that she would come with them, and while she was fetching a sweater her father had actually spoken to him. Mrs Grant’s “You won’t drive too fast, dear?” meeting with silence, “We found on coming here we had to have a shopping car”, she had explained to him. “Well, Charlotte goes shopping all she can, and I was using our old car as often as my husband, though of course he drives when we go out together, unless he’s a little tiddly, and it’s beginning to date, he says. So now that’s mine, and Ronald has a nice new one—he is only semi-retired—, but it’s very high-powered.”
“So she won’t hold anyone up,” her husband had struck in, “that’s important!” Then, “She’s a thirsty beast”, he had conceded complacently. And now addressing Dannie directly, while re-charging his glass without waiting for a reply, “One for the road?”
Finally, in the front hall, Mrs Grant had gratified him by bidding him to dinner this evening at the Castle Hotel. But it was Charlotte—O filia pulchrior—who had made his happiness that evening complete, so that beside her again, in her father’s new saloon (“Camlyn Court, Daddy, and don’t spare the horses”), and wonderfully assured that in the hollow way his response had been the right one, he had felt he must shift his quarters without delay.
And so he would have to borrow money hand over fist. Apply to Pop? Having long since strained his credit in that quarter, he might rather have applied to his tutor, only that ‘swept in the social round’ he had visited him so much less often than was expected. As for his contemporaries, he had, also, ‘soon left Old Thursburians behind’—and got (he trusted) more friends than ever, but were any squeezable? Well, he’d settled to write to Marek. And it wasn’t without satisfaction that he had noted Marion’s surprise on informing her (with the same reasons he had given Mrs Grant) that the matter was arranged.
It would have been arranged even sooner but that, having heard from Mrs Grant about his review, Miss Arthur had delayed him with advice. Still she hadn’t proved his patience then so severely as today. And now on Gyffin bridge he was further delayed in the traffic waiting to debouch into the town through beetling East Gate. He paid off his cab under the old town wall, slipped through the postern, and leaving on his left the orielled town hall, hurried down that dogleg alley which brings you to the cobbled top of Castle Street, midway down which, its gables strung with coloured lamps, stood the hotel.
He paused. He could see a glossy motor gliding over the forecourt, the doorman moving forward—and his night drive with Charlotte and her father came vividly back to him, with the crustle of leather, the shine of her hair, and the electric touch of her hand by which this creature of his own kind, whose existence he had yet thought so remote from his, had signified she was now his friend. Then in anticipation—sharpset as he was—he was already in the crimson, galleried dining-room, thrilled again by her proximity, exchanging civilities across fine napery with her mother while deferent strangers did her father’s bidding. In this mood of his even a floppy silk tie and the scent of cologne seemed constituents of happiness. And looking down through the dusk he saw life as a box of delights, from which like Mr Grant he might help himself.
It is not the cold that makes me tremble
But the oneness.
The feeling of completion that rises up,
Stealthy as mountain ghosts,
From my mud-blacked boots
To the crown of my wind-blown head.
The waspish rain has power in it, too.
It flies at my face and stings my reddened eyes,
Forcing them half-closed, but open all the more
To the part-seen, part-sensed mountain all around.
Nothing from the everyday is here.
All clamour from the valley roads is drowned.
Ready to hear older sounds, I stand.
The wind around the finger-post of stone,
The stealthy lapwing, mewing in the sedge,
And bracken whispering like waves upon a beach.
It is a fossil from another age, this pointing stone,
A trapped reminder, held in rocks and peat,
That we are small and time is big
And wind and weather always were and are.
The sea is very beautiful, and wild,
And wave-spray fills the sky and wets our clothes.
The growling pebbles underneath our feet
Strain back and forth against the water's grip,
And we stand, arm- in-arm against the wind,
Waiting to launch the little boats we've made.
Bending together now, we brace ourselves
And gently push each boat into the sea,
Only to have them thrown back at our feet
Along with seaweed-scraps and shells and sand.
We try again, and still we fail to launch,
And have to pick our boats up from the beach.
Three more tries, and finally we see.
Our over-careful efforts will not do.
To breach the breaking waves, we must be bold
And hurl our boats from shore into the spray
And trust they find the ebbing water there.
And so we steel ourselves and draw a breath
And fling them far and trust them to the sea.
They strike and sink, and rise again, and right,
And floating, each begins to sail a course.
Still arm-in arm, we watch,
And try to track them from the shore.
We see their masts amongst the foam
And, sometimes, glimpse a hull on a wave.
Then as they travel on and farther out,
Their shapes drift out of vision, and at last
We find that we are guessing what we see.
And so we turn and leave the beach behind.
But even as we walk back from the shore,
We cannot help but cast our glances back
Into the wind, and strain our streaming eyes
To find imagined signs of three brave boats
Cutting a wake atop a restless sea.
The umbrella hangs crooked from an empty chair. With every jolt of the train tracks, I watch it swing, twitch: a pendulum in motion. The sight speaks to me– a lonely, anxious thing, forgotten in the empty train car. This day, out of all days, it feels like a sign.
“Arriving at Kyoto Park Station. Please remember to take your belongings with you. Doors will open on the right.”
Today, out of all days, I will see him again. It’s been three years, you see. Three years in which I grew three inches, gained ten pounds, cut my hair. I started wearing makeup. I started caring about myself.
I stopped caring about him.
Ironic, isn’t it: how things change in an instant? Here I am: independent, self-assured, all on my own. In only a moment’s time, I will be reduced to that little girl at sixteen, waiting anxiously by the window for my father to return home.
He will never return home.
“Miss, you forgot this.”
A delivery man, his parcels jammed under one arm, holds the battered umbrella in the other. I want to laugh, but I bow instead. The handle is cold in my hands, colder even than the rain misting on my brow. I wonder that this sad little thing would follow me out of the train, out of the terminal, out into my world. Misery likes company, after all.
“Arigato gozaimasu,” I thank the old man. He nods and scrambles off, agile for all his age. I think for a second if we swapped roles, bodies, no one would notice a thing. It is I, the nineteen-year-old, who heads down the park path as if taking part in a funeral procession. My destination looms ahead like a gravestone, and I walk slowly, each step another shovel of dirt. Breathing becomes a chore.
The Kyoto Railway Museum. It has a proud sort of bearing: high glass ceilings, shining tile floors, and of course: glossy trains, their engines curved in perpetual smiles. All of it stands frozen: part-sinister, part-glorious, like dinosaurs caught in the comet.
I understand now why he asked to meet here. It suits him– his transparent face, his glittering eyes. I used to wonder at those eyes. Wonder at when they’d reach me.
They never did.
“Good morning Miss, how many tickets would you like to purchase?”
“Just one, please,” I say, and then hesitate. I work now. I pay for my own university funds. “Or… two, maybe.”
The woman behind the kiosk holds my credit card with both hands, an egg waiting to hatch. Politely, she waits for my call.
“Sorry, could I have two please?”
And here it is, at last. My stomach plummets. My ears ring. Air whooshes out of my lungs and then back in again, all too quickly. I am under the earth or above the sky or both. The only thing that matters is that I am not here.
But I am.
“Father,” I answer, turning around. There he is. All one hundred and eighty-two centimeters of him. I waited for his height, but it never came.
I waited a lot, didn't I?
“Mariko, you’ve grown!” He takes two long strides forward, and before I can defend myself, he is patting me on the shoulder, the arm. Smiling. I cannot defend myself from his smile.
“Daughter, you look beautiful.”
I cannot defend myself from his words.
“Thank you, Father.” I bow low, despite myself. Despite the ringing in my ears.
The kiosk lady is still waiting. We turn around.
“Please sign here.” She offers me a receipt, wrapped around my card like a gift. The blank line is there, folded perfectly along the perforation, so that I can sign with ease. Some things are simple.
“Mariko, you can’t pay for the tickets. Don’t insult Father like that. I will reimburse you, and more.”
Others are not.
I mumble a reply and slide the receipt back over the counter. Finally, we are through.
“Do you want to pick up a headset?” he asks, guiding me towards the information desk. “They have Japanese and English.”
“I’m fine.” I cannot concentrate on his words and his face and his presence, and listen to an audio recording simultaneously. I cannot walk and swim and breathe at the same time.
“Suit yourself,” he replies, grabbing a headset for himself. That is like him. He will do his own thing, even if no one follows.
He will do his own thing, even if you try to follow.
The carpet muffles our footsteps as we pass through the lobby into the main atrium. Here they house the grandest trains, the ones from a hundred, two hundred years ago. Older than I will ever be, and yet the paint is shinier than my hair after a shower. These artifacts are valued, you see. Cared for. Wanted.
We trace a perimeter around one engine, like lions stalking prey. Father lifts his headset from one ear. “Did you know this 20th century train was built with the help of German engineers? They came all the way to Japan to demonstrate engine mechanisms.”
“Why is it here then,” I ask, “if it’s a German train?”
“Us Japanese didn't know how to build trains back then,” he answers vaguely, already lost in his thoughts. “This was the closest thing we had to call our own.”
The further we move into the museum, the more Father’s mood brightens. Soon, the headset is off his ears entirely, adorning his neck like a chain, or maybe a crown.
“Do you remember those train simulation games?” he asks, gesturing to the model train set before us. “You cried when you lost.”
“I’ve been here before?” I don’t remember a thing.
He nods, grinning. “I brought you here when you were six. Even then, you said you wanted to be an engineer.”
“You couldn't understand how the trains ran so fast. But still you thought Father ran faster.” He chuckles. “One day, you will build a train that will far outstrip me.”
But you are wrong, Father. Don’t you understand? In my mind, you will always be faster. You will always win.
“Do you want to play now?” he asks.
“Why not? It might be fun,” he teases, as if I am six again.
But I am not. I never will be again. “No thanks.”
He shrugs, moving on. He doesn't care enough to force the issue. He never cared enough to force anything.
We walk into a replica train car– a luxury model. Velvet plush seats, tinkling glass chandeliers. The air is stuffy, the lavish furniture cramped. I miss the simplicity of a skeletal train, stripped bare– the engines, the wheels, the gears.
“How is university?” he asks.
“I’m proud of you, daughter.”
I miss the engines, the wheels, the gears.
“I cannot believe it. My own daughter– an aspiring engineer. At work, we all joke about you. Ishiguro thinks you will never find a man. But I tell him you will not need one.”
So he talks about me then. He can find the time to talk about me, to talk around me, but never to talk to me. For three years, he has never once tried to come to the States.
“Ishiguro doesn't understand. But I tell him, America is different. In America, all the women are engineers.”
I smother a smile. He looks pleased at that– a reaction, for once. It gives him false hope, and it gives me false victory. “Your father is old. But he is trying to understand the new ways of life.”
I cannot help myself. It is like offering water to a parched tongue. “Then why don't you come to the States? You can see for yourself what it’s like.”
A beat of the pendulum. A flip of the switch. One second is all it takes for dark to take to light, light to dark. One second is all it takes for rice-paper dreams to tear.
“Father is Japanese,” he says. “I don’t belong anywhere except home.”
The paper tears. So this is home to him. A cold museum, shafts of light filtering in through glass panels, catching dust motes and turning them golden, sparkling. Like flakes of gold falling through the air, waiting for one lucky lottery winner to swoop in, snatch them all. But I cannot catch a single one.
“How is your mother in America?”
“Is she still planning to go back to school?”
“No,” I say, and that is all.
He senses the shift. Changes the subject. “Let me show you a steam locomotive,” he begins, leading me to the accompanying display. “You see here, manufactured by Kitson from the UK. It’s JGR Class 1800, built in 1881…”
And the day goes on. I see myself through his eyes, a little girl, hair in twin pigtails, eyes in twin wonder. I see myself as someone who is led on, toyed with, played like a puppet– and like a puppet, ultimately discarded.
At six, I wanted to be an engineer. I didn't know that. I wanted to be an engineer because of him. Because of trains. Because of wheels and gears and engines.
There is so much I did not know.
Here’s more: I will never be rid of him. Even when I try, when I cleanse myself, forget, fly over the sea and let the tides separate us– I will never be rid of him. He is in my hands, my eyes, in the way I start sentences. “You see…”
“I have big dreams for you, Musume. You know, your trains won’t just sit in this museum. They’ll be out there on the tracks, roaring through Kyoto and maybe even Tokyo– can you imagine that?” He laughs, delighted. It is he who is the child. “I will take your train, Musume. I will ride it all the way from end to end, back and forth.”
I will never be rid of him.
I bow. “I hope to make you proud, Otousan.”
He pats me on the shoulder. I am defenseless against his assaults. “I will ride your train from end to end, back and forth.”
He writes me a check and offers it to me. I refuse, albeit politely. He expects this. He smiles, slips it in my purse, politely. We are mirrors of each other. Of course we are. He raised me. He made me. He is my thoughts and my mouth and my words.
I will never be rid of him.
I bow low. I do not meet his gaze. I feel the weight of his check in my purse, the burden of his sleek hiragana, his thousands of yen. I want to tear the paper into shreds, but you see, the only things I break are in my mind.
The only thing that breaks is my mind.
My heart is strong. I tell myself this repeatedly as I take the train, so much so that I forget the umbrella on my seat. It is too late to go back. I turn around, watch the car whoosh out of the station. The battered umbrella waits for another lonely companion. I imagine it jumping with each jolt of the tracks: a pained, arduous dance.
I leave Kyoto. This time, I tell myself, this time will be my last. I will not return, I think.
Will I return? To be honest, I don't know. I only know that I cannot help myself. That I have no choice in the matter. You see, my thoughts are like his. My eyes are like his. Even the way I speak, my sentences, are like his. No matter where I go, I will always be riding this train– his train– from end to end, back and forth.
You see, misery likes company.