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.

31 December 2018

V is for plant-based


At eleven-twenty on Christmas Eve, we left the house to walk up the hill to St Peter's for midnight mass. The girls were singing in the choir for the third or fourth time in two days, and we came into the alcoves in the entryway of the church, as the community carol service was ending. I could see Father Graeme through the glass windows on the inside doors, wearing a black robe and collar and as I looked past the vergers, I could see him leaping in the middle of the sanctuary, willing the carolers with their coats on but open, to sing more loudly, more clearly. One doesn't always take one's coat off for worship at St Peter's. In practical terms, the heating may or may not be working, but in theological terms, you may also need to make a run for it. The community carolers were singing loudly, but not as loudly as they could and were looking at Graeme with a begging, collective weariness. It's eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve — surely, this level of enthusiasm is sufficient.

28 December 2018

As good a story

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Nearly five years now in Harborne have come to an end, and more years, I thought to myself as I walked back from the High Street on Boxing Day, than I ever spent anywhere else. After living here for so many years, everything seems to run together. Which year was which; was I fat or thin that December. I find myself telling the same origin stories whenever there's someone new to tell, but I've worn these stories out. Like the story which starts with Yoko and I marrying in a fever and ends with our disastrous honeymoon. Yoko said once, as I recounted with practiced precision our misery as we came by ferry into Gozo at golden hour: He likes telling that story, and I thought, it's not that I like telling this story. It's just the story that I have to tell. If I had a different story, I would tell that story.

27 December 2018

No time is wasted


From the top of the estate behind Saint Peter's, there is a steep hill leading down into the valley. The fog comes in and sits there, waiting for some change to dissipate or move it, but nothing changes. The sun comes up late and goes down early and the valley is still full of fog. It's perfect weather to run in, but I'm resting my legs. Instead, I put on my grey coat, the one my mother bought for me in two thousand and three for thirty dollars at a thrift store in Park City, before I left the States forever. I walk through the church cemetery to the other edge of Harborne, to fetch one of my daughters from an address scrawled on some scrap paper. Early afternoon now, and night is falling. 

It's been five years in the house on Victoria Road. With the work done, the new plaster and paint, the nagging inconsistencies of the white paint and the furniture we need to buy aside, things are finished for now. There are no gaping holes in the wall. I wake up and the blue-grey light comes in from three sides, like we had knocked a wall down. I make posher coffee than I have in the past and stare up and out the window as the kettle boils away. 

We watch the end of the year, the different shades of grey sat in the valley. Next year there will be more waiting, won't there. In Malaysia, the never-ending summer meant that the year went on and on without a perceivable sense of future. In the UK it's different, of course. Things stall, they don't spin out. I ask Naomi, as we look up into a tree at some birds, if she remembers the monkeys in Kajang, at the top of the hill near our house. I remember them as proboscis monkeys, but they must not have been. The mind plays a trick. 

Whatever profound thing I meant to say gets lost in the muddle of memory. I'm staring at my phone again — I'm lost in some other world. Night is falling, we need to get home before dark. 

17 December 2018

Ascetic

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I fell asleep on the sofa with my head next to the iPad I had set an alarm on — thirty six minutes to sleep after meditating and then I would run. I woke before the alarm went off and had another apple and cup of coffee before finally willing myself to put on my trainers, open the door, let my activity tracker catch the GPS and then I can start running. Just start running, nothing more. I tell myself I can stop, if I want to, but once I start and I make the first kilometer and then the second, I am on the trail and of course I am not going to stop running, what sort of dumb lie was that.

15 December 2018

Evidence

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It hasn't snowed heavily this year, but the cold has set in, the bitter 1920s cold of the house on Victoria Road that comes in through the fireplace. I don't want to ride my bike, so I have been running everywhere, changing out of my running kit into a jumper and jeans like superman when I arrive at work or the city. It's a good cold for running and feeling the inevitable mud-suck of winter removing your agency in the nights that become longer and longer until they don't. At the end of the year, everything is erased — nothing has happened. I feel it as I struggle through the paperwork of my final visa in this country, the indefinite one. I went through my calendar for the last five years, everything that had happened as entries of events and plane departure and arrival times, but I couldn't tell if they had really happened. I was in the States this year, wasn't I. I was in Japan. There was that AirBnB in Queens, and the runs around the lakes in Växjö. I'm sure they happened. I'm sure there are pictures.

04 December 2018

Indefiniteness


It's a mild heresy to start advent on the first of December — Advent begins on the first Sunday of December. The children have their advent calendars with chocolates and I considered getting a vegan one for myself, because I am a child too. I thought better of it and instead, followed my wife and daughters to the first carol service at St Peter's, to sit in the dark in my long grey coat that I've had for years now and try to clear my mind. In Japan, Japanese men are expected to avoid sweet things. 

06 November 2018

How will you know that death has occurred?


With October closed out, the last mile of the marathon is here. Three months after one hundred and eight months. Only three months more and the Pihlajas of Harborne can apply for indefinite leave to remain, long-term residency, we can be recognised on paper for whatever it is we are now. I have nervously stopped checking the Home Office site, knowing that whatever changes can occur now have passed. The new laws they will put into place after the party conference are pernicious and unfair, but not focused on us this time. We'll be okay, we think, won't we. Why wouldn't we be.

I'm tired of non-stop conflict with myself, with the institution, with the governments. Everyone wants you to fight in two thousand and eighteen. Someone came into our house the other night and took our phones and Yoko's purse. I wanted to be angry, but I never got angry.

With some luck, the next eighty four days will pass without anything else going. There's nothing else to say, is there.
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