08 October 2015

One night

Yoko and Stephen

The kids are going to school again every morning in yellow polo shirts and black jumpers — the summer rolled up like a rug you and the man with the van hoist on your shoulders. I am standing or sitting in front of a class again. After the crises of wondering what's next or why we are on the path, there is less time to reflect when you're working — you just have to go forward with all the things you need to do. It's not will or desire, although you need both will and desire, but it is habitual and ritual and seasonal.

Yoko and I have been together for ten years now. The anniversary of that night in Septemberwe agreed or decided to be a couple, walking towards the Sea of Japan, when I spoke English out of the blue to her. We sat on the beach that night and looked out into the darkness. I put my arm behind her and she rested back on it. That place where the Agano River came out into the Sea. What was this really: just two people smiling at each other and joking about my bad Japanese. This will be fun, at least for a little while. 

Then, ten years later: I am trying to iron my shirt this morning and the breaker keeps blowing. The washing machine has stopped — I know, I know, Jesus Christ. I wait outside the toilet door as Mei finishes. I rush through the shower, the baby pigeon that Yoko is nursing back to health looking at me with disdain. Naomi's Korean friend — Korean by way of Germany, —comes in the morning now and we all go to school together. It's a rush, 8:25, we have to go now, ladies, now, and I kiss Yoko and Naomi hugs and kisses Yoko and we all rush out, up the hill, towards St Peter's, politely, smiles, greeting all the women dropping off the kids.

And then it starts raining. The real autumn has come now. I'm in London again.

25 September 2015

Madness, but never real madness

Canon Hill Park

The days tick off at the same weight, 75.2 kgs. I get up every morning and get up at different times, but still I get the same number. Three in the morning or four or five, I peel off all my clothes in the dark — Yoko still doesn't want the light on in the toilet as it might wake the orphaned bird she is nursing back to health — and listen for the beeping. 75.2. Good. Good enough.

Of course, if you feel like you are unstable, you are not unstable. You are insufferable — the sort of white, middle-class, millennial navel-gazing that is the consequence of the screen and digital histories. A guy said to me today that he was getting older, and he was just in his late twenties. Yes, you are getting older. We are all getting older. Saying that to someone older than you is insufferable. There is always someone older than you until you are actually old. Then you are only as old as you feel. My grandfather takes all of his meals in his room now. He can't or doesn't want to leave the room because of the madness of all the old people in the home. He's not old, he doesn't feel it, he says. He's still 17, 18, the landing craft door slamming down and all the bloody water of Normandy.

I still feel fat, as fat as I've ever felt, until just now when I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. The number, 75.2, is accurate of course, but losing weight, after you have lost weight is hard to judge by numbers. You remember numbers, though. I was 71.5 for a long time. Even 69.9 once, one morning in 2011. That's too much for me, probably. It's hard to tell. Hard to tie whatever it is you're eating now — how you feel, how hungry you are — to that number. It's just a number.

Nietzsche is said to have gone mad seeing a horse being beaten. I'm always happy to think that this is something I won't ever see. The other day, we went to the toy shop and the children were like they had been shot up with adrenaline. This they wanted and then that and then that. I wandered around feeling a sudden rush of regret, thinking of all the boxes here and then in all the stores in the mall and then in the city and then in the country and then in the world. All these toys to be played with for a moment and then thrown away forever. I felt an odd sense of panic, one that you can't explain, but need to get away from suddenly, leave the mall, leave the city, leave it all. Mei wanted something, it was only a pound. She knows that something is good if it is cheap: who taught her that? I did, didn't I. No, no, let's go. Let's go now.

You can feel fat, but have moments of thinness. I did intervals this week, on a time preset called Tabata for some reason. You work — the euphemism for intense exercise in interval training —  for twenty seconds and have ten seconds rest. I did a bunch of different exercises, one including throwing a weighted ball at the ground as hard as you can again and again. The cut on my hand from my fall over my bicycle last week started to bleed and blood speckled the ground, a little more with each throw. The set finished and my heart was racing. I put my fingers on my pulse and took three deep breaths. My heart came back down in a moment, like it had been told to stop, like I had switched something off.

When I lie in bed, dying in 58 years like my grandfather, I hope that my children are around me like birds. And their children and their children's children, all women. I hope they haven't forsaken me like I have forsaken mine. I didn't intend to, of course, but it seems that if you follow the path too far, you can't come back. There is no way back — you just keep going forward. Whatever time you wake up, whatever that number is in the dark. You just keep going forward.

16 September 2015

Coming to port

Canon Hill Park 

The leaves change colours from the edges, but you can see the creep up and inevitably inwards. The girls started school in new uniforms, and the first day, Yoko and I took them all, walking back holding hands to the house. It's colder but not yet cold and I made a couple of fires with wood I bought from a man in Quinton. The night is coming more quickly, and you cannot sleep with the window open, under the duvet, because it is too cold now. The girls found an injured bird on the way home from school one day, and Yoko is nursing it back to health. I asked her what she wanted to do now that the kids are in school, and there was no answer. The passage of time is suddenly obvious: there are no children in the house in the morning. Just like that: a kind of empty nest.

This is the first year I have come back to the same university in the autumn to work full-time. At Middlesex, when I was working at the Trent Park campus in the middle of that forest reserve, there were two years that I went back to teach, but it was different. I rolled over all my teaching materials and instead of counting the hours that I had to teach, I felt like I wouldn't have enough time with the students. Only three hours a week for 11 weeks, less than that really. The term will be over before it begins if I'm not careful. 

I can't sleep again, getting up at three or four to tend to the part-time work that I have piled up around me suddenly. It's good work, work that doesn't take long, but is well-paid and takes the edge off the things I am afraid of, like paying whatever fees they will levy on us to stay in this country another year or two or three or twenty. I'm willing to pay, it turns out. Every little helps, the British supermarket says. I get paid to write feedback on MA essays and dissertations, something I am good at doing quickly, my only skill, I said to Yoko as a joke that wasn't really a joke. You copy this sentence here, write that there, praise this and criticise that and you're done. £45 or £35 or £100 in your pocket. The sun comes up and I run sometimes, or go to work, or the library, or stay at home. The kids go to school and come back.

The bicycle has also played a sort of soothing role in my life. After I had it fixed for £60 and bought new tyres for £20 and a kickstand for £3 and a mirror for £4, the thing rode like a dream. I float down through the university to Canon Hill Park and then up to Moseley, the whole way thinking that I would ride as slow as possible, like I was drunk. Like I was walking, or trotting along. Nothing to rush to or away from, and the boulevards, the wide ones that you find in Birmingham sometimes, lined with trees. All inviting, the leaves, like I said, with touches of red. I thought, as is a rare grace every now and then, this was what I wanted all along without knowing. The autumn in this country, on this bike. My 29 year-old body back under me, but with another four years in my head. Things only get better as you get older. At least some things. Mei and Mia hug and kiss me goodbye. I set out again: there's still more to do, of course.

08 September 2015


Stephen at the ocean

When I went to Japan as a missionary in 2003, I had a red bike. Dan and I bought one a piece, paid for by his grandfather, ten thousand yen each. The bike, I realise now, was a beach bike. It was meant for cruising up and down the boardwalk, where there was one in Fukuoka, but we used them to commute. We looked silly, I'm sure, gaijin peddling around town on the brightest red bikes, the Word of God fresh and alive in us like fish. I liked that bike and how you sat on it, not like a mountain bike, but like you were on a motorbike almost. I rode it in ways it wasn't meant to be ridden, out to the ocean and back through the mountains. I needed to get away and it took me away.

The beach bike was left in Fukuoka when I left the ministry for my job in Niigata City. My dad brought me my mountain bike from the States and I rode that for years. Then the Louis Garneau bike which I loved and rode in Shibata for miles and miles and then in Milton Keynes. It was stolen in Belgium some years later, I'm told. And then when I came back to England, another bike I bought off a man who had obviously stolen it. I felt guilty as it occurred to me that I was buying a bike taken from someone's back garden. I fell off it earlier this summer, when I was still fat, and it broke, and I disassembled it.

Now, with the autumn here and the need to get around faster than I can walk, I've needed another bike, and have been looking for one that is old and like the beach bike. With bikes, you just need to find one and commit to it, and given that I don't want to buy anything new at the moment, if I can avoid it, I looked online and found one quickly on Gumtree. £45, and I asked £40. It looked okay in the pictures. I went to pick it up and was given an address, and told to call when I arrived. I went and called and an Eastern European man, thin and old and covered in grease, appeared with the bike. He clearly did not live there, this was clearly not his bike, but it was very old and if it was stolen, it wasn't in this country or in the last ten years. I got flustered, rode it a bit and gave him the money. If you have problem, you call me, he said. I don't want to see you again, of course, but if problem, and he disappeared into the back alley.

Of course, the bike had all the potential of being a lemon, but I thought that if it was, it would serve me right: things have been going too well recently. So I rode it home, sure it would fall apart. The shifter made more noise than it should, and I was certain that the back tyre was losing air. It was fine though, and I got it home without any trouble, moving some of the parts from the old bike onto it and cleaning it up. The chain is loose and it needs to be tuned better, but I thought whatever I should have paid for it, something closer to £20 maybe, the extra money would be a kind of indulgence, given to this man or the man he stole it from or someone. 

I rode it to work and felt that same sense that I felt in Fukuoka, when you are leaned back on a bike and not pushing forward. You can go leisurely, slowly. You can wear a suit. Yoko said it was cute and when I said it made me happy, she said, It's good that there are good things, insinuating that I'm miserable all the time. 

I'm not sure how long this bike will last, but it's a sanctifying bike. One that is not quite what I want yet, but a bike that has the potential to become what I want. It's a simpler bike with fewer moving parts to go wrong. I can replace all the bits, bit by bit, so when the karma catches up with me, I can say, I assumed it was stolen, but isn't everything stolen. I did my best with it; I took care of it. Take it back now, man behind the house in the alley. It was yours all along anyway. 

06 September 2015

Making weight


The last two times I have tried to give platelets, something has gone wrong, and the return, the part of the process where they give you back your red blood cells and some anticoagulant, fails. The machine alarms in a worrying way and someone rushes, in the way nurses rush when they don't want to frighten anyone, and take you off the machine. You're bruising, they have to stop for now. Don't worry, emphasising that you shouldn't worry, making you think, perhaps there is something I should be worried about.

On Tuesday, I climbed onto the scale and there it was, the last number I had been looking for, seventy five, the real ending of my weight loss from the summer, all my sins of drinking with my father-in-law and all the bread and butter paid for. I got off the scale and didn't know what to do. What do you do. You certainly can't suddenly start eating. I checked my e-mail and ate what I would normally eat, and got back to my writing. There is a lot to write now, five things I counted, with the first two due at the end of the month. Something about metaphor.

Making weight is something that you can't explain to someone who hasn't done it before. They assume you must be happy and you are, but it's an uneasy happiness because you aren't sure what to do next, really. You certainly aren't done thinking about your weight. You certainly can't suddenly start eating all the things you have been trying to avoid. You just sit there, thin and confused, struggling to make sense of it for someone else. There is nothing worse than trying to make sense of something for someone else, when you can't even make sense of it for yourself.

But I got up and ran and then ran again this morning, and coming into Birmingham on the canal this morning, the sun shining, and I felt it: that elusive feeling that you feel when you want to run and where running makes sense and whatever reason you run for is clear, at least for a moment, when the sun, the early morning sun, hits the water and the path in front of you is straight and flat, at least for as far as you can see.

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