25 March 2015

A strange light

Last week, on Friday, there was an eclipse. I didn't know one was coming and had not prepared — instead I had made my way to the barber to have my hair cut and think about some things. Dez, my barber, charges £6.50, but I always pay him at least £8 because I enjoy talking to him so much. Dez was not there when I arrived at 9, but the lights were on and I knew he would be close, so I stood outside in my shorts, thinking I would go running afterwards. Dez came around the corner eventually, holding a coffee and a newspaper and excitedly talking about the eclipse. Where had I been: how did I not know about it.

I remembered, as we stood outside, trying not to look directly at the sun, a moment in my childhood when there had been an eclipse. A full one, in Texas. I remembered that we had been sold these visors like sunglasses that allowed us to look at it, but being told again and again, 'Don't look directly at the sun.' As a child I was curious, but also terrified, both of god and my parents, so I didn't look up at it as I was told. 

With Dez, however, he implored me to look at it — 'Look at it! But just a second, like this' and he held up his hand to cover and uncover the sun briefly. I looked at it briefly as well, but felt guilty suddenly, like I had done something wrong.

Dez cut my hair and chatted on and on: this is how religion started, someone had to explain this. Look! There are two magpies outside, have you ever seen magpies in this area, even the birds know.

I had my glasses off and let Dez clip away, happily, as we talked about the sun and longboats and caravans, the things Dez and I discuss. He told me about the caravan park where his caravan is, just into Wales, where it's beautiful. He worked steadily and finished, handing me my glasses. That'll do, of course, here have £8, and Dez said, Oh are you sure: bless you, have a chocolate. 

We went outside again: Dez had said it would be pitch black, but it wasn't. It was just a strange light, like a lampshade put on. I ran home, wondering how the people in the past had seen that, before religion and god. Was it an omen or portent. What did you do when it went back to normal and never happened again: how could you explain it to others, would they believe you. One day the light went strange. I don't know what it means. 

06 March 2015


The Birmingham University Library is a kind of icon for me: a place that my whole world revolves around. I have heard they are planning to knock it down to make way for a newer, less red brick building. If there were a more insufferable metaphor, I can't think of it. I feel I can get away when I come to this University, even while being trailed by my e-mail and mobile phone. At Newman, everyone knows you and this is both an asset and a liability. On the Birmingham campus, you get the sense that you are just another electron in the humming machine of the University.

It's been a glorious day, and I have been sitting in a particular corral, working on various things and catching up on some reading. I listened to a lecture that the PVC of research gave on Wednesday night, and which I missed as I was at home with the kids. I sent a longish e-mail, and remembered to do something that I had promised to do over drinks last night and which I worried I might not remember. I did something I promised to do when I was drunk: There should be awards for this.

I have been eating bread again, which is like drinking for other addicts. When I eat bread, I can't stop: I can't have just one slice or two. I have ten. I eat Naan and bagels and cheese rolls. Today, I went to a shop, the kind of shop I would normally avoid going into, but because I am eating bread I went to it. There were Southeast Asian men calling other Southeast Asian men 'brother' when completing their order. As I was leaving, I thanked the man who gave me the naan I had ordered and the older man, the owner I would have thought, standing at the front of the shop said, 'Thank you, brother.' This felt like a small grace: I walked on in the sun, eating the bread and thinking about what I would do with the afternoon: where on campus I would sit.

I'm not sure what the bread endgame is. I don't see an ending. I had a cookie earlier. I could have another. And another. I'm depressed, sure. Perhaps if the sun comes out, if there is something to look forward to in the future. For now though, I think I'll have another coffee and think about a muffin.

01 March 2015

Seven Love Letters

I remember now suddenly August 2005 — standing outside of the door of Yoko's mansion apartment in Niigata, in a suit holding flowers. I felt the way you do when you fall in love — terrified, like I might just run away. I rang the doorbell before I could run and waited, my blue two-door Nissan Alto parked illegally for the moment.  We were going to go to a jazz concert, and I was wearing a white tie. It was inappropriate: I looked like a big dumb animal dressed for a wedding. She was the real deal though, career-minded and strong, and all I had was potential. A Canon Word Tank electronic Japanese-English dictionary in my pocket. I remember the door not opening, waiting.

Yoko's apartment in Monomiyama was closer to the city centre than mine, and is really the last vestigial memory of our lives as separate people. I remember its layout so well: I remember I broke a wine glass that was important to her, one her father had brought back from Italy. I asked her to marry me there, and in seven months time, we moved her out, into my world in Matsuhama, the old fishing village on the Agano River and whatever it was that we were before July 2006, before Naomi came into our lives two and half months later, was gone.

In Spring of that year before we married, I got two traffic tickets for running a red light on my scooter and not stopping fully at another light in my Nissan Alto. Simple mistakes, nothing serious. I learned that Japanese police officers are polite, but not interested in hearing excuses, particularly from fat white men with bad Japanese. They understand, of course, but the law is the law. So I took to riding my bicycle everywhere. 12 kms to work, and then another 6 or so into the city and then another 12 back on the Sea of Japan, under the Shinano River in a tunnel, coming out on the other side, right where Yoko lived.

I worked on Thursday nights, I remember, teaching a class of kids that I got paid 5000 yen an hour for — a crisp, perfect bill in a brown envelope at the end of the class. It always felt electric to get money like that in cash, particularly if a class had been good and I was on a teaching high anyway. One night though, there was fog on the path going down to the tunnel. I was riding slowly, but still making good time when suddenly, unexpectedly, I was lying on the ground, having been ejected off my bike. There was a barrier up to keep cars off the bike path and I had run into it, directly. I didn't have time to get my hands in front of me. After I figured out what happened, I picked myself up in the fog; the wind had been knocked out of me and I was gasping. Had I broken something. Where was my bike.

I sat on the asphalt looking around and found my bike: the chain had derailed and the frame was bent, but not seriously. I had a cut in my Dickies shorts, my hand was bleeding a bit, but I was okay. I put the chain back on, and tried to ride it again. Yes, it was going, the tyre was okay, everything was okay. I made my way down the tunnel and to Yoko's house.

When she let me in and made me instant coffee, we sat on the floor and I told her about my day. I couldn't explain the accident well enough in Japanese at the time, and suddenly, as happens in places like Japan where you are on edge all the time and weak constantly and can't fully express yourself in a language that's not your own, I lost face and started to cry. I had been scared: it was dark and foggy and late and no one would have found me if I had been seriously injured. Yoko laughed, I remember, It's okay, it's nothing to cry about, and I was suddenly a little boy, a child that needed to be patted on the head, picked up and sent on my way. It passed, of course, just a moment of weakness. We sat together and eventually, I rode home into the darkness, everything behind me.

On the Megabus on Monday night, I awoke when we got to Coventry and half the people were filing off. I thought of going back to sleep, but since the whole day had been a success and a bike ride back was ahead of me, I decided to slowly wake up, watching outside the windows as we rushed up the A45 towards the airport and then Hill Street in Birmingham City Centre.

An Asian man two rows up on the opposite side, was  sitting next to a silent woman, and arguing on an iPhone with another woman named Phyllis. Phyllis, listen to me, he kept saying, No, Phyllis no, that is not what we said in Stratford, do you remember what we said then, Phyllis? Do you remember what we said about Alihan? The conversation went on and on, painfully. He had left Phyllis for another woman when Phyllis was pregnant with Alihan, who I assumed was next to him. Alihan was living with Phyllis and the man, whose name I never heard, had not been able to pick up Alihan from school that day. Phyllis, there is no need to shout. Phyllis, I am on the bus. You are embarrassing yourself.

At one point Alihan was on the phone as well, and his father's tone changed and he referred to Alihan as baby, assuring Alihan that his father would be there soon. There was a Muslim man sat across from me with his wife, a hijabi, and we both shared a knowing glance, judging the man with the iPhone for different reasons. When we arrived at Hill St, Phyllis was still on the phone, and I got off quickly to find my bike, texted Yoko, and rode home into the night towards Victoria Road.

On Saturday, Yoko and I stood outside another door in Milton Keynes. Another doorbell I had just rung, and the same urge to run away. It's been nine years since I fell off my bike that night, and here we are on the other side of the world. The door opens and a woman smiles and invites us in. Why are we here? There's a pause, a rush of memory. We're here because we love each other, because we've always loved each other. It's a thread we've pulled through history, more than nine years now. Across the two different generations we come from, across a gap in culture and language, and three children. The thread gets tangled sometimes, and it's okay for the thread to be tangled, isn't it? I say, We just need some help to get it untangled now. We can't do it ourselves. 

It's okay to cry when you need to: to ask for help and say what needs to be said. We're entitled in spite of it all, to be happy when we can be and remember faintly, that feeling of waiting with flowers, expectant for whatever mystery love wants to reveal to us. There's no reason to hide.