14 January 2017

Leave to remain

December Misc

When the doorbell rang on Saturday morning, before 9, before everyone had woken up, I felt the same feeling I had in my stomach on Wednesday when the doorbell rang. Then it was the postman holding a box, and I was disappointed — yes, I would be happy to give it to the neighbour, but really, it was not what I wanted. On Saturday though, I opened the door, and he had his machine out for signatures and was holding a white A4 envelope. I signed, and held it and indeed, it felt like passports settled in the bottom and the address was from Sheffield. I ripped it open and read the first line: Thank you for your application which has now been approved. The letter was repeated five times with five different Pihlaja names. I whooped, as you do, for joy and ran upstairs, having fished the passports out, holding them, showing Yoko who had just woken up. She said, in Japanese, Yokkata ne which is what you might say when your partner had found socks on sale or gotten a free coffee by chance. This was always going to happen though, wasn't it.

Three years ago, when we packed up and came back to the UK, I hadn't thought it would be like it has been. I'm not sure what I had thought. I thought it wouldn't be as hot and easier in some ways. It has been, to be fair. Naomi said last night, 'Was there a bee nest in the house in Malaysia?' and I remembered that yes, there had been. I remember that, she said. I do too, now that she says it. I remember the toilet we had out the kitchen into the back terrace. There was no water heater and it didn't really matter. I thought about that terrace, about Naomi and the cats that would come up. But then it fades away. The children need to go to things, the successes and failures are wiped out because we need to keep going. Someone needs to be somewhere, and we're late.

29 December 2016



The frost is covering Harborne in the morning. Our neighbours, one down Victoria Road towards the roundabouts at War Lane and Fellows Lane, have a skeleton of an old greenhouse, dead plants coming up through the metal and covered in crystals. The sun both comes up and goes down behind the house because it's just gone winter. You can get up at seven or seven-thirty and still not be sure if it's morning. Like when we were in Scotland, and you couldn't tell if it was actually morning or if the sun had just come up at three-thirty. Two sides of the same thing.

With Christmas passed, I am spending the week getting things done around the house. Laundry that had piled up and moving some furniture. This house is too small for the five of us, but there is no energy or impetus to move. I decided instead to just change the master and second bedroom, giving the kids more space. Yoko and I are now confined to the second room, on the second bed, but it doesn't matter.  This is the self-imposed paternal martyrdom that my parents used to practice and I used to resent. From the second bed, one can see out the back window into the garden as the sun is coming up and then going down.

When we came to this house three years ago from the heat of Malaysia, it was damp and cold, covered all over with mould. Yoko still insists there is mould everywhere, but I can't see or smell it as much: I pulled out the rotting boards in the washing cupboard and then painted over all the stains underneath the sink and resealed it. I feel a kind of warmth emanating from it at night, calling me back after I've been out drinking with a friend and I fall down Victoria Road, drunk and tired.

There was never this stasis in Malaysia or even in our first run in the UK — in my mind, I was always backed into some kind of a corner. Now, it feels like nothing will change ever again. I will get fat and old. I will think about whether or not we should buy the house or a house or some house. Can we buy it or not. I finally have the money I need, but I don't feel like I have the money I need. It's always simpler to say, I don't have the money, than I don't want to, or I can't, or I'm afraid. We didn't go home for Christmas because our passports are with the Home Office. There. Finished.

I shouldn't feel old, but I do. I looked across the street when I was at the cashpoint yesterday, and I saw my reflection too clearly in a shop. My ears are larger. They look larger. I put on the sort of jumper that my dad would wear and feel increasingly concerned about this title I'm taking on next year, that I wanted for so long: Reader. I am going to read now. In this Soseki book Yoko bought me for Christmas, a character says, 'The only thing that will satisfy you from now on is the library.' I worry that this is my future, some monasticism, with all the trappings of settling. What now, I wonder, as I set out for the high street, wanting to smoke a cigarette. What about another twenty years arguing with your wife about the dentist. What about it.

If a year of personal success feels like this, I wonder what a year of failure would be like. This year had failure too, I guess, I just haven't had time to think about it. I was on the train, or I wandered off, like at the beach in Scotland. The kids played and Yoko followed them, and I, having done whatever imaginary duty I needed to do, followed the stream back up into the hill, wondering where it came from.

02 December 2016

The secret chord

The alarm clock has been waking me up at 3:30 for the last month: baseball games, the election, trips to London, Glasgow, Bristol. Today, because it was so early, I took a taxi to the city centre. The car came early, around 4 and it was cold outside, minus two, the driver said. The streets were empty and dark and I thought about Letchu, our Malaysian taxi driver, and Genehsa on the dashboard of that car. It's been three years now. He had us to his house once, for dinner and the girls played in the park across the street.

The trains are on time or late, but it hasn't mattered actually. In London, I've sat on the 8th floor of the Institute of Education, going line-by-line through a funding bid, and taking time out here and there to go to Pret to get coffee or down past Totttenham Court Road to a pizza restuarant, where I get a slice and then stand on the road, eating it and watching the city go past. That project is done now, I think: there are five or six people left to check it and see what can be done to make sure the costs are maximised for the university. 

The visa application for 2017 has hung over my head for years, but two Monday's again, the Certficate of Sponorship came through and then on Wednesday, the day that my PhD student passed her upgrade viva, I sat in the finance office with the credit card and watched nervously as two payments went through £3000 and £3320. Five people, main applicant and four dependents. I put everything in an envelope and went to send it off. I ran into the other American on campus, Trump had won, yes, I hugged her, but this, holding the envelope, this is good news. This is the best news. Forget Trump for a moment.

I was hoping for a rush of satisfaction that never came, like after my PhD when I jut sat at home and drank whiskey for a night, angry rather than relieved. It's my fault for not putting too much importance on these things, to view my future only as various obstacles to overcome. You can't just keep flirting to pass the time, to put of the inevitable.

Nothing buys happiness though and we got the letters to go do our fingerprints and biometerics at the Post Office. I was angry with the man at the window for treating me poorly and then with the girls for dawdling, and then with myself for choosing such a difficult path. It was done and we went out into the German Market up on New Street. There was nothing left to do but wait. The money saved is just a number and there is still all the usually concerns to worry about. My salary still doesn't really cover our living expenses, isn't it, I say, and it's true and not true because I work so much on other things and there is always money coming in. It's an excuse really. I go to bed without anything to say.

06 November 2016

Time is ticking away

When I was an Evangelical, for most of my life until I was about 21, I was convinced the world was going to end imminently. I worried daily — it hummed in my subconscious like you imagine the drones in Afghanistan, just waiting to take you out. I would walk outside and project Jesus coming from the sky suddenly, and it being over like that. In everything, in the literature, the sermons, the audiobooks we listening to: a constant drumbeat of time running out; DC Talk rapped, 'Time is ticking away/ tick, tick, ticking away'. I worried that I would come up short when this happened, that I wouldn't actually have been a Christian. As I grew up, this was less of a concern, but instead I worried that Jesus would appear before I had a chance to have sex, this black hole of unknown pleasure that no one talked about. I remember seeing a naked picture of Pamela Anderson in a CD recycle shop and being burdened for months. Whom do I tell, what do I say.

The silence of the early morning brings up these thoughts. I stood twice in the cold at the bus stop this week, waiting to be taken away to work somewhere, feeling impotent and tired and fat. I wanted to smoke, like I had the week before on the back stoop of Yoko's friend's house, a guy whose kids she teaches Japanese and who is lovely. He's a psychotherapist and an immigrant like me, but older. We were smoking and listening to the M5 in the darkness and talking about how you get older and forget about everything — forget about the curiosity about doing acid, for example. It would be silly at 44, isn't it. We took long drags — the cigarettes were from Sri Lanka and we talked about vices and death and how we need to accept death. Indeed, no one wants to accept it anymore. The conversation kept falling into silence, the sound of the motorway. None of it makes sense, isn't it: how you buy a house and wonder how it was that you bought a house. You are still a kid with a backpack in some foreign country, just trying to get through the year.

I saw DC Talk in New Mexico, at the NMSU basketball arena, when I was 12 or 13, I don't remember. I saw them twice, once with my parents and sister on the Free at Last Tour, my parents insisting on sitting throughout the concert while my sister and I stood nervously. Then again, when they were touring Jesus Freak, their crossover album with the video directed by someone who had directed a Nine Inch Nails video. That time, I was with the youth group and awkward in a different way, but we jumped up and down while they played. We were close to the stage, and I remember that my calves hurt badly the next day.

I don't remember who I was worried I might not ever get a chance to have sex with, who I had a crush on then  — perhaps it was still Sarah Bush, who was several months older than me and studied Spanish with my brother at the homeschool co-op. I was in a class below them, having been born in 1982 rather than 1981 and was with my sister and some other kids I don't remember. Our teacher was a Mexican woman named Liz who would make us copy Spanish sentences into our notebooks, a mixture of a grammar-translation and audio-lingual method I can recognise now as a kind of expert in these things. There was rout memory of irregular verbs, but we never said much of anything, just repeated her for hours on end. I don't remember it now even when it might be useful like when running into our Spanish neighbour and thinking about saying good morning.

There was a mother at this homeschool co-op, a vivacious woman with two boys. She was intimidating and sexual in a way that at thirteen you can't put into words. She would hug you and speak to you directly and loudly. She was convinced suddenly one day that untucked shirts were a sign of disrespect, so we had to tuck our shirts in before we went in. I remember this so clearly, standing on the stairs of a Baptist church which was old and had a 'Fallout' Sign above it, looking back at the car as my mom watched me tuck my Looney Toons shirt into my cut-off jean shorts. The world is ending soon enough — with some luck, before it all falls apart, I will pass Sarah Bush in the corridor and perhaps she will say hello.

The things you remember when your calves hurt — I have been going to the gym again after taking the summer off and trying to be healthy but not crazy, which seems to be a kind of balance I can't manage. I can reject the existence of god, sure, but I'm still 13 and convinced that it will all come to an end. I still want to take communion. I'm 34 now, I think, looking at myself sweating in the gym mirrors and feeling 34. The world didn't end, did it. I sit back in a booth at a pub, drunk and tired, all the conversation spinning around me. The world didn't end, did it.

02 November 2016


There are Irish travellers on Selly Oak Park now — I saw them over the weekend when I took the kids to the park to play. I saw the caravans first and wasn't sure what to make of it and then it suddenly made sense. I took an Instagram photo like a tourist and the kids asked if they were camping, and I said, yes, sort of. We walked back up to the play area and the kids played on the zip line, and a white Ford Ranger with a twenty-something kid at the wheel rolled up on the grass past me. We leered at each other and I don't remember what I said, but he shouted, 'Why don't you mind your own business?' I said, This is my business, and he laughed and said something like, 'What are you going to do, four eyes?'

He started to pull out towards the main road, but he turned the car back to me, pointed it and reved the engine. I sent the kids running to the jungle gym, but then he did a donut on the grass, spinning around and around, before peeling off. The girls went back to playing and I called the police. A man was there on the playground, without any kids, in a track suit and I wondered if he was one of them too. People say you can just tell, that you just know, but I don't. The American is useless at the pub quiz, there are so many things he doesn't know.  Like the vicar at my church mentioning to me a philosopher I think I am supposed to recognise and have read. I don't. I haven't. I'm sorry.

The police operator sounded tired and bored and I suddenly had the sense we needed to run, to get away. I told the kids we had to go and they complained, but I got angry and hustled them off to the car: we'll go back up to the park by the house, where it's safer.

The Irish Travellers on Selly Oak Park are like a flash of colour in an otherwise grey autumn that's felt unseasonably warm. I watched YouTube videos of them boxing and some documentary about their history, while quizzing colleagues about them. What other things didn't I know.

My life is less interesting otherwise — we trudge up the hill on Sundays for the church service and Mei is singing in the choir, with the white collar and gown. I go when I feel like I can put my unbelief aside, but there are days that I can't and I retreat away to my work because there is always work to do. The pay slips come and now, the edge is off, like the whole plan might have worked. Now to time travel and go back to me some time in the past, the me that was riddled with anxiety and say it will be okay, yeah? You'll make it through. You're being melodramatic.

The girls have started to organise themselves. This was the promise of having three children in 2010, that September when we decided. I feel like it was something I heard while sitting on the edge of a bed. Yoko now tells me that Naomi has organised the Halloween candy they got so Mia won't eat it in the morning, which she had done even though she had promised she wouldn't. It was my fault: their father laden with an evil spirit about him, I took them out trick-or-treating. The last two Halloweens it's been foggy and brisk, and the girls were full of a kind of energy beyond them. They ran and laughed and Naomi said it was like a paradise for children. This, of course, is what makes it worthwhile. Whatever it is. People ask you how you are and you say the kids are happy. What else matters, anyway.
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