18 September 2020

I know I said the end was near


There's been a strange kind of humidity in the air that reminds me in a way of Malaysia. In Kajang, in the kampung, it is was never cold, or even cool, but sometimes, near dawn, you could think that it was. It was always humid, so the heat seemed to suspend itself in the air, and as I said goodbye to whoever was in the house when I left on Tuesday morning, I couldn't tell if I was hot or cold. By the time I was at work and pulling my mask out of my bag, I was sweating, but once I stopped moving it settled back into that liminal space between hot and cold, where I looked out the window of my office and stopped working and just stared for a bit. 

We've had our coronavirus scares over the summer, each one seeming more unlikely in retrospect then at the moment they happened. There was one night I started coughing and couldn't stop. There was the time everyone had a slight fever in March. This week, it was Mia's sore throat that we were told required a test so she could go back to school. I spent the day trying to get through the government website and in the end just went to a testing centre on the University of Birmingham campus, walking past the school of education with Mia in her pyjamas, holding her hand. The whole experience feels like the beginning of the end of everything, where we start to realise that the systems don't work and the fires that happen every year are getting bigger and there is no one to help us. You can't say that though, can you, when you have people looking up at you, expecting you to do something. Mia's sore throat passed and she went back to school — I went on the radio to talk about it, and the DJ said the experience of trying to get her a test sounded like it had circus music in the background. It did, I said, except that if she were actually really ill, I would have been terrified, the truth being worse actually — I was terrified, I just got angry to hide it.

Our yearly anniversary of coming to the UK passed and I made a point to plan something for it, fish and chips, and Beyond Burgers for dinner, not because I'm particularly happy to mark the date anymore, but because we needed something to celebrate this year. I wanted to ask Yoko if she regretted all of this, but I knew the answer wouldn't be simple and the question itself was the sort of thing I would think about, not her. I want black and white answers — no, I would say now with everything that has happened in the last three years. Conclusively, it wasn't worth it. In Japan, I lived the consequences of my decisions — here, I've forced them on everyone around me, my partner, my family, my in-laws, my own parents. Anything that happens is the result of that choice, any difficulty — a form, or a customs fee, or a lack of good-paying jobs, or planes that won't fly — don't exist if we weren't here, if I hadn't made this choice on behalf of all these people. Here, every problem is a British one, every car driving too fast or silly law or incompetent leader or stabbing: they are all British, primarily British, occurrences. How else can you read it as a foreigner. If we weren't in Britain, it wouldn't be British.

The truth is not that simple, of course, no one ever said it was despite my urge to make a consistent narrative in this novel I've been writing about my life where I used to be the protagonist. Now, my children, who are capable conversationalists and see my weaknesses and can exploit them, are the main characters. They say things like your tattoo has faded beyond recognition, what did it even say. They say I said something and when I dispute it, it turns out I'm actually wrong. I did say the thing I said I didn't say. I've become like the father from some Russian novel who is always in another room, absent except in flourishes, a necessary plot device, but not the most interesting person most of the time. And for all the talk of coming to the UK, this is not their story — it's mine and it's a story that's run its course without an ending. It just trailed off. No one remembers Japan, the blue and white Mini-Cub I rode to and from work, or their Mum's apartment before we married, where she had her whole life together that I just crashed into, a sloppy American tourist breaking glasses by accident and sputtering out Japanese verbs and taking whatever opportunity was presented. The story they know doesn't start there; it started here, in the same country that they are in now, with no dissonance in the narrative, Japan and America, places that you can visit, or see on TV, but not real in the way they are for me, like a deep trench underneath me as I tread water on the surface. Nothing is British here, it just is the thing it is. There aren't British problems, they're just problems.

We finished our dinner and although I kept turning back to my own nostalgia, there was nothing really to say. Here we are, another day in a pandemic, something we have lived with for so long it feels normal. I slouched down in one of the chairs we bought for camping, having eaten too much, Yoko starting a fire from dried branches and wood we have leaned against the back shed. The kids playing on Tik Tok, the sun setting, and the house on Victoria Road, the thing they've only know, glowing in the late light. In another world, this wouldn't be our reality, in another world, things would have kept going like we had agreed when we first met and I was less effective in my ambition. When I ran, but I ate meat and prayed and wasn't so crazy. I'm sorry, I say at some point during the day, when something else minor, something British, has not gone right and we are on the edge of things falling apart again into bitterness and frustration, the veneer of patience and duty that can slip down suddenly and expose the rotting undergrowth of resentment. It's a tension we've lived with for years, I realise, the consequence of entering this cave, and losing our way. It's not a cave, but if it helps to say that, to conceive of it that way, I'll say it. I've never said the right thing, and now I can't even try. I'm sorry, it's my fault. I didn't know. You can say, in some other world, it wouldn't be like this. What else can you say.

11 September 2020

My money's on you



The kids are all back at school now, despite the pandemic and the concern that there will be an outbreak again and lockdowns. There are rules in place everywhere, but they are changing back and forth — the girls didn't need masks in the corridors and then they did. They are reliant though and all of the discourses of confusion, if you want to call them those, the things that older people say about not understanding what the rules are and why they are changing, don't seem to be picked up by the children in the same way. They accept it and do what they're told and like every September for the last seven years now, they leave in the morning, up the different roads to their different schools, needing less and less help every day it seems. 

My third book is finished and I've been working through the proofs while the project editor emails me like I'm a child completing a homework assignment. I've missed the deadline, but only because I put the wrong date in my diary, not because I'm trying to be obstinate. The proofs are late and I feel guilty, but am distracted by everything else. This week it was all my photo files on Flickr and the feeling that someone could have just downloaded every photo I have ever taken over the last 15 years.  The children are now not children really, and have opinions about what others can see about what their past lives. They have friends I don't know about, friends who found some embarrassing picture of them as a baby. I read back through the things I've written and feel a sense of terrible dread, that I treated them the way I promised I never would: like they were just characters in some novel about me. 

These are distracting, unuseful thoughts, the result of the same narcissism where I worry about the effect of my actions on others because of how it will make me feel if they are disappointed in me. Everything is about you, Stephen, isn't it, I hear some antagonist say, the same one that says jump when I run over a bridge in the early morning. None of this is about me anymore: the book, the family — it's about the project, the artefacts made up of all these words that come out of me when I was soothing myself and coaxing those words out by saying, Don't worry, you can fix it later, just write now, just let it happen. All I can see is the errors and clumsy sentences. I get angry with my manic self for lying to me. You said I would have time to fix this, you said I would be better in six months. The manic me borrows from the depressed me, and never pays the time back. Here, I've left you with this mess — it's not like you could have done any of this yourself.  I find a passage where I am writing confidently about Bhaktin, but I think to myself, what do I even know about Bhaktin. I wrote about him when I was doing my PhD, I had some grasp of it then, or at least I thought I did, but why do I think I still do. I reread the same sentence five times and although I know what it says, I can't tell if it makes sense.

I've been going for long walks, long for me at least, an hour or so to do a loop around the edge of Harborne, to avoid getting fat and feeling like I'm stuck in the house. I think irrationally that I should quit academia, or get a job in market research, or move back to Japan, or become a community organiser, or just take any job I can that doesn't require me to think all the time. I go to sleep and wake up in the middle of the night inexplicably, hungry. I go downstairs and eat my breakfast with the morning still hours off. I try to meditate and repeat the routine I have since 2016 when it started to get worse. I mark some essays and wait for the sun to come up. The sun is coming up, of all the things that seem to be displaced this year, at least here in Birmingham the sun is still coming up and not obscured by smoke the way it is in California now, or how it was in Malaysia when Sumatra was burning. The sun has come up and the book is still due. 

06 September 2020

Civil Twilight


The air changes in Britain around the end of July and suddenly it starts to feel like autumn, even if it's hot for days and days as it is now with climate change. I couldn't sleep for a week this year, and I felt like the summer became a liminal space, me waking with surprise to find Yoko still here and the children going about the day like all of this is normal. It was my holiday, but resting has been out of the question — this is my fault, blame me for making it harder for myself than it needs to be. I come from a lineage of men that fidget in any queue, that pace outside of public restrooms where people seem to be taking too long inside. We talk to managers, we complain about teenage staff. Of course, now, I just think it, think that I would do those sorts of things if I were in some way more unhinged than I am, but I've managed to just internalise it. Surely I've lost a year or two of life to worry and senseless passive rage.

The lockdown eased, but not entirely, we decided this was the year to go camping. We got tents and supplies and headed to the peaks to hike and look up occasionally at the clouds to tell if the rain was coming or not. Most of the time, three days out of four, it was raining, of course — this is Britain after all, and it should be expected, but we did our best, eating well and being patient with each other. We came home and unpacked our equipment to dry in the sun and there was a downpour and it got soaked again. 

Now that the summer is ending or ended, civil twilight — the proper name for dawn when the sun is six degrees below the horizon — is later than it is in June and July, but still, you can get up around five for a run starting at quarter to six and be okay. There are no cars and it seems lighter when you get outside and find your rhythm. Of course then every minute of the run it gets lighter and lighter and suddenly you wish you had your sunglasses. This morning at least, I felt that way, when I got up and set out for a twenty-mile run. At six, the canals are quiet and when I do meet runners, they're not, the sort of people running two together and not making any space, the sort of people I find myself cursing at under my breath. At six in the morning on a Sunday, it's only the people that care, that have invested something and you can ignore them, or give them a knowing wave when you pass, but they never get in your way. I found my rhythm today around the fifth mile and made my way south towards Alvechurch, so far that the towpath stopped being paved around the point I turned back. The sun came up slowly and the all of a sudden and I drank through my Camelbak and was home, peeling off my clothes in the downstairs toilet before anyone else had woken up. 

On Friday I went back to work for the first time since July and it felt eerie in the way that this is what it is now. A colleague was leaving and of course, we couldn't shake hands or hug like you normally might, but this is all fine with me because there are now clear rules about simply not touching others and you don't have to do any guesswork about what is or isn't expected of you. I had files open on my computer that I was supposed to work on, but I never got around to it seriously. There is so much bad news now that I've lost my expectation that things will be better. I said last night, to Naomi as I was talking about my run and coming home, 'I'll see you in the morning' and after a beat, we both said at the same time 'hopefully', and I immediately felt guilty for all the pessimism I've brought to the Pihlajas of Harborne over the years.

Obviously, good things can happen despite the pessimism. Everyone is healthy and happy in the house, despite death being one the edge of our experiences: terminally ill family members, or pre-cancerous blemishes, or knife attacks, or the virus, of course. This morning, at around the fourteenth mile I felt good for a moment and my pace ticked up. Nothing remarkable, but I ran one mile fifteen seconds faster than the others. It came out of the blue and I wondered why I was just suddenly energetic. What had gotten into me. It faded, of course, but having felt it, having it come up, reminds me that it is still there, ready to come out of me as long as I didn't give up.