17 June 2019

Thirty four


Saturday, the mania high water mark finally came. I had been planning to wait until Monday to see if I had erased the visa stress eating four kilograms, the weight for which I blamed the Home Office and every unsympathetic person I have met over the last five years who didn’t know the stress their country had put my little family under. Four kilograms was nothing, not even real weight, but if we don’t have metrics, we don’t have anything. My plan to wait until Monday made sense on paper, but then it didn’t and when I got up at 2AM on Saturday, I was too tempted. I stripped down naked to climb on the scale and stop it all. And there is was, the Japanese algorithm from this scale we’ve dragged with us from country to country, telling me that I was thirty-four years old, in terms of the metrics. This doesn’t feel good, I thought, looking down at the number. It doesn’t feel like anything. I got dressed again and put the scale back and went up again to bed for another couple of hours. There it is, I guess. I guess now I can go back to being normal.

Father’s Day I got up to run, but was immediately distracted — made coffee and meditated and procrastinated. I looked online at things and scrolled endlessly until I finally realised I needed to go now, right now, or it wouldn’t happen. It had not been raining and I felt good, as good as I have anyway. My body being light and aged only thirty four years, in terms of the metrics, I put on the 180 beats per minute running track list and went to a little loop up by the hospital where you can run one kilometre, going down an incline and then up a hill. Around and around, my Garmin GPS watch buzzing off the pace on each kilometre. I went eight and then nine and then ten and thought, I should do a half marathon one of these days, now that I am thin again and eleven buzzed and then twelve and then thirteen and I kept going.

Mei and Yoko were waiting for me at the door with a handmade card, and I was drenched with sweat. The card opened with a little cut-out for me, with my beard and glasses, but smiling. Mei had written ‘Vegan’ in the corner with a slab of meat crossed out, and I thought, yes, this is what I am now, this is what everything is revolving around. I showered and Naomi and I walked to church together. We sang some hymns I didn't know, but it didn't matter and I felt ill about halfway through the service and realised my body was weaker from the run than I thought even though it only was thirty four. The service ended and we had tea then the girls and I and Yoko went to town to have coffee and celebrate.

In ten days, I will be thirty seven, but that doesn’t matter because your age is just a number. Your weight is also just a number. Everything, it turns out, is just a number. I woke up at four AM and it was just a number. I showered and put on my sport coat to go to London for the day. The sun had come up and the rain had stopped again.

14 June 2019

More than you want

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The rain keeps up for the fifth or sixth day now and I think I've finally adapted. I can't write. I can't sleep. I keep waking in ninety minute intervals, ready to eat, ready to do something, first at one and then at two thirty. I act like I don't know what it is that's keeping me up, but I do know of course; I'm not eating enough to cover my running. I'm obsessive and then eat too much and then too little and then it's high fat then it's calorie maintenance then it's something else and I can't control it. Or I can control it too much, too carefully. I wake up and look myself in the mirror, look at the beard I'm growing and tell myself to be normal, you can be normal. You'll be thirty seven in thirteen days. Be normal, stop being whatever this is.

A student, one of my favourite students from a few years ago, was in campus and we chatted about the last couple of months and what he was doing. He was eating something which he offered me, and I didn't know what to say: No, not for any number of reasons, but thank you for offering. We walked together and I gave some advice about life plans, what another degree is worth in the grand scheme of things. We said goodbye at the top of the stairs and I went on to the next meeting, but I was happy the conversation had steered clear of animals and climate change and how tired I look — good, that's not what I'm here for anyway.

In thirteen days, I will be thirty seven. Every year you live, your life expectancy increases and even though I feel old, what an insufferable kind of old thirty seven will be. I will be young again when I'm forty, but until then I will just be getting older and older. My parents sent me a tracksuit, and I grew a beard — it's incongruity all the way down. You need someone you trust and love enough to say to you, Stop. Just stop. I wake up and eat again and have more coffee and meditate until everyone wakes up and the excruciating television show of the moment is turned on and off in the other room. I let the cat out and go back to my work, these two paragraphs I'm revising that I can't quite get right about how people avoid talking about the things that matter. Stare at a map of Tokyo trying to make plans for my autumn when I'll break free again, the guilt of however many kilograms of CO2 my flight will produce hanging over me like a judgement.

Instead, I'm just running and running. Running faster than I have before, with a metronome in my ear 178 beats per minute or 184 beats per minute like the trail is a treadmill and there are not hills. I got new shoes and ran so much they don't look new after fourteen days. I have a metric for that, the app will tell me how many  kilometers they've taken me if I look: there it is, 143.3 and I'll do another seven this afternoon. The rain stopped me a day or two and I found myself wandering around the house after I had proofread the pages I needed to and stood in my pyjamas looking out at Victoria Road, the water rushing down and thinking about the impending climate disasters that we rightly hear about now. Where are my children. Are they out in this.

Of course they are. The world has not stopped spinning, has it, all the concerns about net zero emissions and at what point we say the rain has become a part of a climate crisis and not just the rain, not just another day of rain. I don't know. I bought a new phone and felt guilty. I ordered something and it came in plastic and I felt guilty. I ran home and ate beans and curry. Waited to fall asleep and then wake up again.

07 June 2019

Home


My accent can create a kind of fishing expedition, with whomever it is I’m talking to, eager to tell me something about themselves, about where they have been in the States or their aunt or cousin living in Boston. I don't have patience for this like I should — when people ask me where I'm from, I will say I have lived in the UK for ten years and when their face drops and you can see they are searching for that phrase they know they should say 'Yeah, but where are you really from' I will throw them a bone and say, ‘But I grew up in Chicago.’ This is a demonstrable lie to anyone who knows anything about me or Chicago, but it’s close enough for British ears, something that perks the asker back up, the exotic Windy City, whatever that entails for you.

For me, Chicago, or Gurnee rather, the real place I grew up in the suburbs, is sort of embarrassing. It’s a town known for a rollercoaster and mall, if I’m being honest, and if I'm really being honest, I grew up in several places, in Texas and in Minnesota, and I was actually born in North Carolina, but this sort of story loses people around Minnesota, so I try to avoid getting further into the specifics. 

And now my parents are in the process of selling our home in Gurnee. After that, I will be from nowhere. I knew this was coming and now it has come and there's a final day. I could go back, but of course now, I have my family, and the children and work and so many other things to think about. I get asked how I feel — I don't feel anything, do I. What memories come up — nothing I can say to anyone, nothing I can write about while we're all still alive. It would implicate too many people. So that's that, isn't it. I hang up the phone, one of the kids needs something, I can hear them.

I can't sleep, or rather, I can't sleep as long as I think I should. I wake up because the sun is up and I think back to last year when I was in Sweden and the sun never seemed to come down and you could sleep with the window open, waiting for some number on the digital clock so I could go out and run around the lakes, have a big breakfast and try to stay awake the rest of the day.

There's so much to be done, isn't there. I open my eyes and and it's 4:27, too early to get up, too late to go back to sleep. What does one do. I wander downstairs and stack dishes or wash them. Meditate. Turn on the computer. Burn some candles and wait for the rest of everyone to wake up.

12 May 2019

Protection

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Mei's tenth birthday party went off without a hitch, Yoko busy in the kitchen for the day and me standing around awkwardly cleaning or proofreading a chapter or staring at my phone. The girls came in like a whirlwind and ate and laughed and shouted, and I, in a lapse in judgement, told this story of a time when we, my brother and father and I and some other men, drove out on a Friday night into the New Mexican desert, towards the Florida Mountains, on the edge of Mexico, and found a place to camp at the foot of one of them. The story was about how cold it gets at night, even in the desert, but when you were packed in together, you can be warm. We slept under the stars, I said, and one of the girls piped up to ask, what if it rained and the other one said, it's the desert.

I remember this story in the way you remember weird things floating inside of your library of memories. Things you are fairly sure actually happened, but who really knows. I'm sure it did and now, looking on the Internet, I can see the names of the mountains that I didn't know and road we must have taken. I can see, although I never thought of it, that our house faced west. But I don't remember who exactly had gone. It must have been the church and Dennis Powers, the scholar in our lives, the geologist that my dad respected even though Dr Powers knew the earth was not ten thousand years old, must have brought us there. This would have been around the time of Promise Keepers. It was all men, there were no women. We ate a lot of meat, I'm sure, and pancakes in the morning, the food all packed in thick plastic Igloo coolers. Again, I don't remember this exactly. I remember sleeping under the stars and feeling safe as you do as a child, surrounded by men to protect you. Something deep in our subconscious where all embodied metaphors come from. 

The girls listened to the story and then decided they wanted to sleep outside in the tent I'd pitched earlier, which hadn't been the plan. They started shuttling things out to the garden, and I was sent out back to the tent to dissuade them, although of course at this point I couldn't. They would wear coats, they said, it would be fine. When the night came though, I suddenly thought about the time we had been broken into, and the stabbing, but as they watched Britain's Got Talent on the flat screen TV, giggling and eating popcorn on the sofa and blankets on the floor, I fell asleep watching Goodfellas in my bed. The time came for them to camp out and they stomped through the house full of giddy energy, and I went out to tell them to be quiet and sleep. I said I would sleep on the sofa, but then Yoko took the blanket and did instead, like the mother bear, the tiger with the cubs, the light on in the living room. 

At 4, I woke for the day, my own giddy energy for marking and running and writing, and sent Yoko back to bed, waiting in the grey light, trying to meditate and thinking about care. That morning in the desert, we had packed up as it got warm and I took off my hoodie and was in shirt sleeves in the sun and we drove back east to El Paso. We must have, I don't remember it. I remember those mountains, always in the distance then, when the thunderstorms would come. In the night, I stir — my daughter in the other room is screaming in her sleep like I do sometimes. I think I might wake her, but I stay in bed, waiting, wondering if it will pass.

11 May 2019

Work until you die

Nana and Stephen in Christchurch

There was a stabbing in Harborne, just on Tennal Road over the hill from the house on Victoria Road. It was a Wednesday night, and Yoko had been out walking. A neighbour dropped off Mei and we heard the sounds of the police, but didn't know what had happened. They cordoned off the road and the Birmingham Mail published pictures of women standing in the street with their faces in their hands, crying. I ran up the street the next weekend and there were balloons and pictures and flowers and I thought, yes, this is the place you would knife someone — the pavement narrows here and there's nowhere to run. The boys must have known each other and we, the British middle class say all the things we can to avoid talking about race and class. We talk about the estate over the road. We talk about how old the kid was — they were just kids. I'm not really worried, of course not, but the girls should be careful walking to and from school.

Then there was a hit and run on our street, someone plowed into a neighbour and sped off, this on a bright Sunday afternoon. Everyone stands around in disbelief, this is a thing that happens apparently, and you wonder if you should add now to that point, am I that age, the age where I talk about how things have changed and gotten worse. I blame Brexit, of course, the lack attention of the government to the things that really matter. The rich are getting richer, but so am I, that's the thing, the house values have gone up, and we don't see them going down. We all stand outside, hands on hips, shaking our heads.

I'm still just thirty-six. I went to the doctor because I hadn't been in years and having given my obsessions over to the plant-based diet, I've worried that the liars who lie to you about meat and diary might secretly be right. The GP, a woman who must have been my age, asked why I was there and I sputtered through some things, about being vegan and obsessive and having this lump on my leg. She looked at it, have negotiating my consent to touch it and then came around to getting a blood test. I had blood drawn and walked back the next Monday, worried that my B12, the dreaded B12, would be down, but it wasn't. I was in perfect health, astonishingly good cholesterol. Liver and kidney, normal. No diabetes. Blood pressure was great, pulse outstanding. Just slightly low iron stores from giving blood, but I could top those up with iron pills for a month or two. I was fine, of course, no cause for any concern.

I thanked her and left disappointed in the way you are when you think you're missing something but you aren't. Being deficient would have been convenient, wouldn't it, I could then eat something and feel better. It turns out I'm eating whatever I'm supposed to, that death is still a long way off, and I have to keep up for everyone that depends on me. That boy who was confronted by the other one with the knife, thrown over into the luminous void without a second to reflect. I've lived twice as long as he did. What do I have to show for it. Yoko says cancer is not a bad way to die. It's like going into the bath, slowly letting yourself down into the water. I think, yes, I will put on my backpack now and head out like a child to Europe to search for whatever it is I'm missing. It's not B12, apparently.

The weather changed and then changed back and I woke up this morning to put up the tent for Mei's birthday party. I did it barefoot and came inside realising my feet had gone numb in the grass. The sun is up though and it will warm over the morning. Maybe I will go for a run before the party or maybe I won't, thinking that my body is so tired still and I'm not sleeping well with all the things on my mind — sure, the stabbing, but then there is everything else, the other raft of middle class white male problems. Existential ones, but only in a metaphorical way, stupid ones. My daughters barrelling towards adulthood. A marriage that is a diary filled with things the children need to do. Reflection on life like going through things for the recycling. It's unremarkable. It all ends up in the same place, doesn't it — you wheel the rubbish bin to be picked up the next morning. You shut off the lights and go to bed.

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.
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