17 April 2019

Running fast

Naomi and Norte Dame

Settled for over a month, the phantom ache of impending judgment is gone, now some medical metaphor: a gap you tongue in your mouth where an abscessed tooth has been removed. I gave blood on Thursday after writing all morning and then went to look at an apartment to buy, a second property, on a whim, because I have convinced myself I need some passive income, what with the children and eventual costs of universities and travels abroad. I didn't have the money I needed, short almost the exact amount I had lost to my visa. I left the office feeling unhappy, but the sun was shining and there was nowhere to be, and I sat in Rep Theatre sending some emails and thinking about cycling home.

To run fast, you need to try to run fast. This is a tautology. If you are running, you can run faster if you just do. I realised this one year, in Kent, when I was running in the forest and I was alone and bored. I just ran as fast as I could, and I ran faster. Now, finally, after the change in the time, the sun is coming up earlier and staying out later and I can run outside again. I gave up on the shoes I bought in the autumn that had been hurting my feet and went back to the shoes I've had for 16 months now and are getting close to having two thousand kilometers on them, but they fit perfectly and I can go run my 10k as fast as I can. I say as fast as I can, but the first kilometer is still too slow. I say to myself that I won't run the first kilometer for speed, but then I do. I say I won't start sprinting at some point in the eighth kilometer, but then I do. I say I won't pay attention to my heart rate and then I do, I get it at 150 and then I just watch it for a minute or two minutes or ten. And I am back running wherever it was that I am remembering running. Finland last year, wasn't it, or Chicago or wherever.

We were in London on Monday, pin-balling over from Regent Street to Soho, so Naomi could use the Hamley's voucher she'd won in a photo contest. We had bibimbap at a Korean shop near Soho Square Gardens and then went through to some place over by Covent Garden, a shop with two white British otaku selling Japanese and Korean kitsch. The kids were overjoyed over it all, thumbing through things you could never get anywhere else and telling me how much cheaper everything was in Japan and I stood there bemused and awful, thinking about how none of this was really Japanese, was it, this false otaku national narrative about a country no one has ever been to, but I have, I've been there, I wanted to say. It's nothing like this. It's drunk salarymen, and ramen, and packed trains. And old women hunched over in rice paddies that look up when you ride your bicycle by them. No one goes to maid cafes.

There was a climate change protest that we walked through and I felt the same sort of cynicism about the hare krishnas and the hipsters and thinking that we had no chance because people who looked like my dad weren't out there yet, and then hating myself for being cynical and embarrassed by something I actually believe, particularly after the vicar for St Peters, Father Graeme had, on Sunday morning when we went from the cricket ground to the church singing some Palm Sunday Hymn, implored us to not be embarrassed. I thought to myself, what's there to be embarrassed about, this is the national religion in the most middle class of white suburbs in the city. Are we afraid of the smirking atheist, walking by and judging us. I'm right here, I wanted to say, I've given up, nothing can touch us any more.

But the girls spent their pocket money and they were buzzing and I too caught the buzz, the sort of happiness you feel when your children are happy and we made our way to the National Gallery to sprint through the way you do when you have children they have grown tired. I saw the Pissarro's 'The Boulevard Montmartre at Night' and Mei told Yoko and me about Delaroche's 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' which she knew an impressive amount about and I stood there in front of it, thinking of how much can change in just nine days, Lady Jane Grey's hand looking like it is reaching for the cutting block to stabilise her, the Lieutenant guiding her, the description says, using that verb guide.

It's like that isn't it, all the things your children come to know that you don't know. On the underground, they seemed more capable than they have in the past, but you still can see on their faces how big the city is for small people. I can now see them as they are in the future, living down there and me as their father visiting them with the phantom memories of what I thought was my present now have become my past. I used to work here, I think, it seems like last year but it was ten years ago, when climate change was happening in hundreds of years, not now. The same autumn we went to Paris the first time, and were in that Pizza Express on Quai St Michel and I was taking those pictures of Naomi. I was there with my sister then that next year, wasn't I, we had kebabs on the Seine, down on the concrete, and then with my brother this summer, when we just walked and walked and walked. I look up on the Bakerloo line and tell them, this is our stop. How do I know it is. I just do. I was here once, I think. Some memory is just on the edge.

03 April 2019

Something before nothing

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There was snow in the highlands this morning, or at least the neighbour tells us this as Yoko and I make our way up Victoria Road, back from the High Street and a failed attempt to buy a shirt. Yes, there was frost on the car, and ice patterned like spider web on everything when I had gone out this morning, barefoot, at five in the morning. Winter holds on until it doesn't — we wave goodbye and are home then, to do whatever needs to be done for the afternoon and until the children come crashing back.

After the letter last month, after the money had been spent and I had worked myself up and had my final complaints in with everyone, it was just silence. How many years had it been, I said, since I had a permanent visa — I have never had a permanent visa in the 16 I have been wandering away from home. What do you do when you get the thing you have wanted — it felt like marriage, where nothing and everything changes over night. You can't see the change.

I still can't sleep. I wake up after 90 minutes or three hours. I wander downstairs, I make breakfast, or I don't. I check my email and wonder if I should work, if I should just keep going or if I should try to sleep again. I look in the mirror. I go back to sleep. I wake up again and make coffee. Something will happen now.

18 March 2019

Feed me till I want no more

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The sun came out again this weekend. I walked up to St Peters in the morning alone, because the girls had all gone ahead for choir. For five or six days now, my thoughts have been searching for footing, like standing on solid ground after having been at sea for the day. You know now that things underneath you aren't moving, but you still project that they are, that they could be. I turn the corner and head up the hill. How have I spent so much money. Who will I direct my anger at now. I said, or have been saying, that life never presents you with a series of choices. It presents you with one choice at a time and you make that choice and then you find yourself at the accumulated end of those choices. I'm here now, in this place, but only because I didn't have a plan. This is the result of not having a plan.

It will take some time to accept, one imagines. I still can't sleep. I still wake up and eat in the middle of the night, and on Sunday too, like there's nothing coming. I want to sleep it off, whatever hangover this is. Whatever it is that I am trying to get over now, the parallel universes, all the versions of me that have proliferated like cracks on glass until they hit the edges. This is the end of what you would call my time on the road, I said a while back, and now it seems that this is indeed the case. I look around at the house and say it in my head.

Now to deal with the clutch on the car and my boots that need new soles. I ate too much again, there is nothing that can be done about that — Naomi made vegan cookies, it can't be helped. The kitchen counter needs to be redone, resealed, and I need to figure out how much money we've spent this month, although it probably matters less now that we are standing on solid ground, that the sway is imaginary. Brexit is on hold. We have the state pension and the house. I can work all the part-time work that I want now, there are no restrictions. Perhaps I can find some balance. Pull on my running shorts and head out to try again, another week. Acknowledging reality is the first part of any recovery plan. I should find the courage to climb on the scale and see the damage some time later this week. There's time to right any wrong now, don't worry.

13 March 2019

I have fought against it

Trip to Spain 2010

I was teaching when my Facebook messenger rang through, Yoko calling me in the middle of the day for some reason, and I laughed because I was talking then, just at that moment, about how social media had permeated our lives, how we were never able to get away from it. I looked down again and there was a picture of a package, a document shaped package with a return address from the Home Office, exactly eight weeks after I had sent the application in. Of course it would come today, I suddenly realised, of course today was the day.

Where does this story begin, my British story. It begins in 2002 maybe, when I was sleeping on the floor of Terminal Three in Heathrow, after I had I spent the week in Ireland with my sister and the day in London, wandering around and finally taking the underground back to the airport. I can still remember exactly where it was that I slept. Or maybe it starts in that second time we came back, when we flew in from Malaysia and there we were in queue at immigration on New Year's Eve and I wondered if the paperwork I had would be enough to get me into the country, my exhausted family behind me, another time we'd packed and sold everything. That night, when the girls and Yoko and her friend went on and I stayed back with our things, hired a car and stopped, on the way up the M1 to smoke a cigarillo at a Welcome Break. Maybe that is the beginning.

Everything is hard until it's not. I ran home from work and Yoko wasn't here and I texted and called and she came home finally with the package. Eight weeks, I told myself, and I opened it and read the first page, which said nothing, it said our Biometric Cards would come in a week. Yes, but where did it say we were successful, had we been successful. I turned the page and there, finally, was the sentence, Your application for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom has been approved. There it is, there is the sentence. I pointed to it, and we pulled out our passports and took pictures with mobiles and I read the letter again. See, it was nothing. There it is, it's all done now. You did so many things wrong, didn't work all the loopholes you could have, didn't get reimbursed like you had thought, missed the chance to apply for numerous other jobs, didn't go to Finland when you could have, but now none of that matters. We took pictures and I read the lines to the kids, and we had dinner and it was over.

Where does it begin. Yoko and I are in Shibata and we've been arguing like young married people do with the baby there, and the email came saying I had won the PhD studentship — of course we couldn't say no to that. We were on the ferry with Naomi as a baby, pulling away from the port and I was thinking that I would be back in a few years. Of course I would be back, what else would I do. Or the night we left Milton Keynes for Malaysia in a taxi, a black van, down the M1. What did we think then. It was over then, wasn't it, or did I know that it wasn't.

The house on Victoria Road fell asleep and now, just now, wakes up like any other day. Someone will be crying again, and I will try to write and make my way up to the Plough to see Yoko and then have meetings at work and run home to trade-off the kids. I will now kick myself for the mistakes I made, for the things I should have known that I didn't know, the five thousand pound loophole that I missed, and work more and harder and feel guilty that we were okay in the end when so many other people weren't. I'll realise it all doesn't matter one day, I assume, whenever I realise the thing I've been trying to get has been here all along. When the girls wake up and I hug them and they tell me whatever it is they need to tell me. When the house is quiet before it is loud again, when I meet neighbours on the High Street and greet them. We were pretending until now, you can't see it, but we aren't pretending anymore.

11 March 2019

False summer

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We had a week of unseasonably warm weather, the summer in February. Warmth like this has been a reprieve in the past, but now, with the oceans full of plastic and slowing, I walked up to the high street under the cloudless sky and thought of a world without clouds. A friend of a friend came to visit and we had cake at the Lebanese restaurant. It was sweet and vegan and the children all sat together. We walked home from there and I forgot for a moment about everything, all the existential crises piling up, the visa, and Brexit, and climate change, the perfect set of fractal problems. None of these things are in line to resolve quickly.

I keep having the intention of working early in the morning, but the plan stalls somewhere on the way to the front room and my computer screen. Today, I fell asleep on the sofa, trying to meditate and then giving up at some point. The sun is coming up earlier, and that seems to be something. I could be running, of course, I could be doing something else. Instead, the children start to knock around upstairs and I wake with a start at seven fifteen to whatever new drama is unfolding in the house for a Monday morning. All you want is quiet until you have it — this seems to be the curse of having children.

Still, things continue on like there are no problems, or that the problems can be overcome, at least here, at least in white middle-class Birmingham. Yoko and I still meet every Wednesday morning for toast and coffee at the Plough and hold court in a way, the owners coming by to chat with us, or people from church, or whoever is about. It's a small universe of things and discussions about children and whatever work is being done on the church that is more or less expensive that you think it might be. Yoko and I speak in English and then back to Japanese to our own world inside of this other one. We can shuttle in and out to greet and chat and joke, and then back to whatever dark conversation in which I have netted us. The story of a house broken into, the rising temperatures. The nice racist people that are everywhere around us.

I run off at 12:10, hating myself in this fractal world, headed to the Buddhist Centre to meditate alone with whoever else is free on a Wednesday afternoon at one — a bunch of pensioners and former convicts living a halfway house nearby. I close my eyes on the mat and pretend to ignore the coughing and snoring behind me. What does it matter. I start to fall asleep too and look up at the Buddha, hand offering something to me and remember suddenly the reclining Buddha in Thailand. The bells ring and I get up and run off in the rain. The clouds came back, thankfully, although I think any reprieve isn't good. We need to suffer, don't we, to realise what we've done. I pull up my hood and run off. It's cold but I'll be warm in a minute.

29 January 2019

The roundabouts


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There is rain and then there is snow. This is the end of January in Birmingham. I’m still running to and from work, like a breath that goes in and out. I cross the road at big roundabout by Asada and watch the cars coming round and time my run across and then I’m headed up the road, towards home. I say it all the time — this is what I will miss the most whenever I leave Newman, whenever that future finds me in years. I run to work, what better thing can be said about ones quality of life than you can run to work.

On Saturday, after days of bad news and the stress of waiting for the postman, who is actually a man, I am simmering a constant state of fear, that a letter will come through the door and say that we need to go. Or worse, that I have made an error in my application and I can reapply, but it will cost me. I want to start crying at all hours of the day — what does that mean. The paint is cracking now too on the new plaster and something about that, like a straw that broke the camel’s back made me want to just stand and beg god to take me now. I must have done something bad enough to be judged like that. Please. Do your worst.

The middle finger, in Pope Francis’ five finger prayer, is for leaders. Who is leading us, really.

22 January 2019

The word of God

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On Sunday night, the doorbell rang at ten twenty-three. A neighbour had been by earlier looking for a parcel, I thought it might be him again, although it seemed odd that he would come back this late. I turned on the front light and saw someone smaller than me through the glass of the front door. It had been cold all day, rain just barely falling until it was suddenly raining. I opened the door and there was an elderly black man, shaking, one hand full of one pound coins, and a cane in the other, and he said, please, I need help, and I, as quickly as I opened the door, shut it, walking backwards away from it. He didn't wait or protest, just turned around, I could see through the glass, and walked away.

I feel like a brain tumour has been removed and we're trying to figure out if I'll recover or not. Still waiting to hear the results of the biopsy. I had one last flourish of visa panic, the kind that is trying for everyone around me, the kind I create myself, but subsides whenever some new information comes to light and whatever it was I had worried might happen is proven to be irrational. The cold and perpetual Brexit hanging on has helped tamp everything down — everyone is depressed and moving slowly except the children who seem to be completely unaffected. One of them is crying, sure, devastated, but that's over her portion of chicken nuggets, not anything purely existential. I can laugh, it'll be okay sweetheart, do you want me to buy you some more, I can, we can do that.

The Pihlajas of Harborne all went to get our pictures and fingerprints taken at the Post Office on Saturday, the final piece in the immigration paperwork puzzle. The man with the perfect beard taking our money said, Are you really a doctor? and I said, Well, yeah, I have a PhD, yes, and he said, Oh, and I could tell that he was disappointed. We were there with another family, probably refugees because there are only visas for skilled workers and students and I couldn't tell myself a story where they were either. They had four small children and we smiled, feeling a kind of solidarity, but of course, what did we really have in common. I said to Yoko, this is just an inconvenience for us — there's no end to this story that isn't better than 98% of the people in the world. Ninety nine percent, really: we paid our ninety six pounds and left through Victoria Square up to Starbucks to get coffee. I let go of the stupid pretence I usually have about what they can and can't order — that thing parents do when they pretend spending ten pounds and making the kids get something they didn't exactly want is any different in the grand scheme of things financially than spending fifteen pounds and letting them feast. What does any of it matter.

I am eating like I do when I'm stressed, like I can't stop, like I'm drowning and eating keeps me afloat. I know I should drink more water, that I shouldn't work out as hard to compensate, I'm just making it worse. I go to bed and fall asleep almost immediately. Yoko said it's less than three minutes, but I don't remember. I heard a noise, it woke me this morning at 4:15 and I went downstairs ready to confront whatever addict had come back for our phones, or was caught in the cold and wanted something, but it was only my youngest daughter, using the toilet. I was surprised: could she get up by herself now and go downstairs? Only hours ago she was weeping about having to share a children's meal with her sister. She looked at me matter-of-factly like she was a teenager, and I felt old.

I decided not to go back to bed, started eating and meditated. I checked the bank account and did some quick maths, had another piece of toast and looked at a picture of animals suffering on the PETA Twitter feed. And then that's all. My coffee's gone cold. That man who came last night, I suddenly remember, the man with the coins that needed help and I shut the door. I imagine for a moment that he might be lying on Victoria Road, dead. Was he Jesus, did I fail my test to show compassion to the stranger. Or did I fail in opening the door and inviting the chance that he might stab me and kill my family. Did I fail in not helping him, or in thinking I could help him. I'm lukewarm, I'm waiting to be spit out. I mouthed no, as I shut the door, I remember this now. No. I'm sorry, but no.

17 January 2019

I love you, stay with me

Tower Bridge

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? -Moby Dick

Harborne High Street, the Blockbuster video that has been deserted since before we arrived now some posh shop selling a five hundred pound accent chair in the window, was grey and miserable on Monday morning, and a man in a gold Mondeo, a Ford, an American car, didn't see me running. He didn't see anyone on the pavement, but had to stop to get let in. I walked out in front of his car when he finally made eye contact and I held it as I walked by. He was incensed, slammed into the street and leaned out the passenger window, shouting at me, 'You think you own the road, you fucking wanker! I'm gonna run you over!' That first part I don't remember exactly, what word he used, but it was something about ownership or privilege and he definitely called me a fucking wanker. I stopped and looked at him and shrugged, like what did he want from me, did he want to fight me, like it was some sort of farce, some complete stereotype of the person I hate, so British, so entitled, so white, so angry. He started to pull over and then slammed on the accelerator again, swearing and speeding off. 

There is another man, or two or three of them, homeless on this same street, under sleeping bags and looking up for change, on drugs the people from church tell me, and two women who sell Big Issue in front of Waitrose and Holland & Barrett. They say, 'Big Issue, please', and I try to place their accent, the structure of that request which makes sense, but is the opposite of what it means as I think about it. I go in and pull out my self-check Waitrose scanner and check to see what vegan wines I can buy now that I'm becoming even more vegan and still want to drink wine. I want to say Traveller or Romani, but question myself without saying it aloud, or lowering my voice, because I'm not sure what word we should use. Waitrose is now full of vegan foods and wines and ways to eat with a clean conscience without thinking about how we exploit the female reproductive system in the consumption of cow milk, an argument I heard for the first time last week and seemed plausibly convincing. I bought carrots in plastic bags, feeling guilty about contributing to that part of the degreation of the world like the hypocrite I am, and then avoiding eye contact with the woman selling the magazine as I left the store — I'm sorry, I don't carry cash anyway.

I've been waiting for years to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in this country that these other people on Harborne High Street have found themselves through no fault of their own. On Tuesday I was standing in HR and they gave me the letter I needed. I read it and there were no errors. I went back to my office and double-checked my application, and found a small mistake — I had found two the night before when I checked it, and I wondered if I should check it a third time. I clicked through to the payment page, took out my debit card and entered the number. The page froze and I panicked, clicked continue and I was back to the site asking me for the payment again. I checked my account and it looked like the money had not gone out. What had happened, what happens when you make two payments for £11,940 in a row, surely the algorithm has to start blocking things. I refreshed the page and a payment screen appeared — payment successful, your application has been received, print out this form and return it with your documents. There. Done. Print these out and take them to the Post Office and have your photos and fingerprints taken. There. It's done. The money is gone, don't think about it. I went to the Post Office and mailed it all by registered post, the most secure way you can, I asked, and bought my father a birthday card and tried to write some message in it. There. Done now. 

The worry was supposed to go away with the papers, but I immediately replaced it with another series of potential problems that could happen now. I felt nothing but hate in my heart for the man in the Mondeo, for doing this to me, for making me feel so badly. For taking all this money off of me, and for not having clear instructions on the government webpage. For voting for Brexit without understanding the Northern Ireland issue, like the idiot he is, like the smouldering abusive hateful racist that he is. I want to beg him to hold me while I cry — could I just cry a bit over all of this, could you forgive me and stop hating me. I finish my run and shower and the girls come home one-by-one and I can't explain any of this, can I. I'm worrying them, I'm worrying my wife with my Google searches about qualifying periods and explaining a series of irrational fears in broken Japanese. This was supposed to end, the fear was supposed to end. So it's not okay? No, it is okay, it just doesn't feel that way. It might not be, I don't want to hear anyone else tell me it will be okay. I'll stop now, I promise. I promise I'll stop now.

08 January 2019

Fear itself

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At some point on Saturday morning, the A&E ejected most of the sinners, and what was left were the illnesses that made it through the night, but couldn't keep going. A teenager in a bathrobe and pyjamas and two-tone shoes laid on his mother's lap, his father sitting uncomfortably next to them. The father's face said something I read as scepticism or annoyance, a lack of belief, and the mother, if she felt anything other than sympathy, was not showing it. Sat on the edges of the waiting room, other miscellaneous unfortunate cases didn't seem to have as clear problems. I caught myself judging the ones that seemed to be fine, using some pious criteria for assessment to conclude they were not genuinely ill, but the sorts of people abusing the system, whose own bad choices brought them there. The sorts of people, I tell myself, who complain about the Chinese and the Poles using the NHS and don't recognise that the good will of people like me — my tax revenue and NHS surcharge — is holding this whole damn thing up. Me, at my classist-worse; me, angry and bitter, having learned all the middle-class euphemisms, the things you can say in polite company and everyone knows what you mean. An old woman came close to collapsing, and I suddenly felt a kind of claustrophobia, like I shouldn't have come there with the kids, that there was illness all around. We should leave now before we are sucked under too.

03 January 2019

Begging indifference

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And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.
The cold snap in the UK reminds us that winter is here and has been here and will be here for the foreseeable future. It's a nice distraction from Brexit at least, to read news about the failing NHS and some migrant boats we're all meant to worry about. The cold feels less oppressive than it has in the past, with the house on Victoria Road's new boiler and freshly plastered walls. The fifty-five inch LG TV glows in the dark and like how we imagine a normal British family would, the five us of sit together watching some inane American reality show. The girls and Yoko do a puzzle on the floor and look up occasionally to see if whatever inane made-up American drama around which the show revolves has been resolved or not. I'm absorbed in my phone. On New Year's Eve, Mei and I stayed up to watch the fireworks in London and counted down to 2019, the first time I had done that in years and years. Yoko and Naomi came down after midnight and we hugged and kissed and went to bed finally, with nothing to do in the morning but wake up. On New Years Day, I didn't dress until one and then finally, when the sun was setting, lumbered off to the High Street with the excuse of buying some crisps, the last day of the holiday. I wandered around Harborne, drank coffee, and ended up buying popcorn for the girls and a one hundred and eighty seven millilitre bottle of red wine for myself, that I put in my coat pocket and from which took small sips as I walked through the cricket grounds, stopping to take a photo of the sky.
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