29 March 2016

Let go and let god

When we bought a car in November 2008, it was kind of necessary failure. I had thought, when we packed up our things and moved from Niigata that summer, that somehow we would be okay riding the buses around the Milton Keynes roundabouts. They were so regular, the buses, almost two an hour or so and we only had to walk up out of the estate we were in to the main road and stand waiting for it. We could walk to the large Tesco too, I said, on the path which was very safe, pushing the pram, which had been the stroller in Japan, looping the bags on the handle while Naomi rode happily looking forward. It had made perfect sense.

We left Niigata in a rush: after three months of moving and building our life there, it was suddenly aborted: the letter came through that I had been accepted to the Open University, a mythical place in a mystical place, and we decided to go, just like that. It made sense: my PhD would be paid and Yoko could stay at home with Naomi, something that had been taken away from her in a rush to return to work and back to a life of smart skirts and blouses, after a year of caring only and solely for Nana.

This year marked, in many ways, the year I grew up and my time on the road, a time that I realised, as I walked to the train station in Oxford this last week, the day getting longer and starting to stretch out, was coming to an end. How this time on the road began, as I think back on it, doesn’t make any sense. We had been newly married and then had Naomi and acquired so many things. We had settled and Yoko was working and I was working, and our little three person family had, for all intents and purposes, been a success despite the surprise of Naomi coming.

And then we moved. The refrigerator and bed were sent to Yoko’s parents, we sold everything, and got on with life without thinking about it.

14 March 2016


With so much sin to account for, you struggle sometimes to know how you will fare when the judgment comes down. I have been, I said last week, insatiably angry, something I recognised when I shouted at a man with a poodle, after the poodle jumped at me. At that moment, for some reason, the dam had broken and all the fear I have been holding back broke over, or broke through. I knew, however, that the moment with the poodle was not isolated and that, because I run the same roads at the same times, I would see the man and the poodle again. I knew this the way that you know you are going to die; that is, I did not really think about it, but rather the thought of it was just below my consciousness ready to come up at the right moment.

And then it happened, only two days later. I was on the other side of California Rd and I was coming up the hill. The man and the poodle were coming down and yes, he recognised me as he moved the poodle to his right side, away from me and held the lead more tightly, with no slack. I slowed to a walk and approached him and said, I’m sorry, I shouted at you last week when your poodle jumped on me: I was surprised and scared, but I shouldn’t have shouted at you.

The man, at whom I now got a better look, was in his sixties, a pensioner and white and red the way old British people are in the cold. I saw a woman this colour one morning while running and almost shouted out, she startled me so much. The man was afraid initially, but once I said I was sorry, he softened and was nervous and said, ‘No, no, he shouldn’t have jumped up.’ I realised both of my hands were out, one toward the dog and the other towards the man, like I was going to touch them and be absolved. The American shouting and then apologising, as you would expect: we are so stereotypically open with our emotions. I apologised again and then was running back up the hill like it had never happened, towards the house, towards Yoko and the kids.

My life is filled with train tickets to different parts of the country. London and then Nottingham and then Oxford and then back to London, for meetings about different things and symposiums and talks to give. I stand on the platform in a suit, a suit I bought this weekend with a set of other suits for seven pounds each, or rather six pound and ninety-nine pence each. I look at my reflection as the train comes -- how do you describe that feeling of awkwardly wearing a new suit when you rarely wear suits. You were a teenager and you remember being that teenager who wore t-shirts from thrift shops. I’m telling everyone I see about the three suits that I got all from one man who must be dead now. Brown, blue, grey. His things were still in the pockets: handkerchiefs and medications and business cards. Two shelled peanuts. They are a conservative cut and classic, like I can wear them for years and years, until I die too, and someone finds my oddities in the pockets.

I wore the brown one yesterday to St Anne’s in Digbeth, where there was a St Patrick’s Day mass. I was overdressed and thought about asking Yoko to put on that dress we got for my sister’s wedding in 2012, when I was about to turn thirty and losing my mind with my PhD. Yoko asked me if I wanted to go a few days before, asking the question in a way I hate by adding the conditional clause, ‘If you don’t have any work to do, would you…?’ Still, I wanted to see the building, and I feel like if we attend different churches on different Sundays, we’ll be harder to track. So I said yes, and stood quietly like a trained dog as the mass began and the Irish music started for the processional. 

Digbeth, south of the city, was a centre for Irish migration I learned, and the mass was raucous. Everyone was wearing the colours of their county, and I thought of my own trip to Ireland  to see my sister in 2002. I’d gone for St Patrick’s Day and had been growing my hair out for a year. Martha, my sister, and I, have been around the world together when we were young, to Ireland, and Tokyo, and Paris. Ireland was just the first place and I remember how green everything was: the insufferable obvious thing that millennial world travellers remember about Ireland. I remember the smell of cigarettes and now, as I think back, I have a profound sense of understanding of my sister, who was living in Europe for the first time and realising all the things I would some years later, about Americans and how American Americans can be when abroad.

The mass came to an end with everyone belting out the The Valleys of Erin! and I felt the whole of the experience, my time with Martha, and then walking through the Republican side of Belfast that morning a few years ago, coming back to me. This brown suit and St Anne’s in Digbeth, the children looking on. The sun and the stained glass windows. Christ beside, Christ below me, Christ to the left of me, Christ to the right of me. There are so many things to say, so many experiences packed inside each other. CD Wright, before she died, had talked about trying to make a chain reaction as a writer. Precisely, I think: you can’t possibly say them all.

10 March 2016

You're acting all holy

When we came to the hotel in Kajang, when I took the job in Malaysia right after I finished my PhD, the Christmas tree was still up and I remember thinking, the way you do when you are in the heat and you are confronted with something like Christmas, that this was the known unknown I had been expecting. You know when you move abroad that there will be things you won’t expect, but you don’t know what those things are until they are there. You say in interviews that you know how to deal with them. You tell a story about landing in Japan and the vending machine at the crossroads of two rice paddies, in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t have expected something like that. You couldn’t have expected a Christmas tree in the hotel, not yet cleaned up from the holidays.

Our life revolves around St Peter’s church on the hill, the top of Harborne. It is surrounded by a cemetery and a school. The headstones are sinking into the ground, and yesterday, when it was raining heavily and the path was flooded, we crawled over the headstones with our children to avoid the water. We, the middle class parents who worked hard to get into the catchment area and who attend the church on Sunday to varying degrees of commitment. I recognise one of the fathers when we are sharing the sign of the peace. We are embarrassed in the way you are when confronted with a person that you have ignored consistently and systematically for the last 18 months. Peace be with you. And also with you. I think we’ve seen each other before. Have we? I think we have.

These fathers are the ones that are happy: they are only a few years older than me, but you can tell they are older because of the way they dress and how they’ve let themselves go in simple ways. I judge them viciously, and I sit in the pew, the worst sort of church-goer, the worst sort of Pharisee. I imagine them eating kebabs and chips on Fridays and then also running sometimes, some Saturday mornings. I judge them for eating meat in the first instance, and then for eating unhealthy meat on top of it. There is so much kale and butter in this country, you can get it at Waitrose, you fat slobs. I see their cubicles or offices and resent them for their happiness, like a miserable hobo who has been invited to the feast, but refuses to enter out of pride. They smile and hold their kids with a kind of peace that I never had when I held mine, like they are settled and content.

These are the lies I tell myself about them, all the narratives I come up with as I watch people go up for communion, and I hang back again because my most recent attempt at reversion won’t take. Yoko goes up with Mia, and Naomi and I and Mei stay in the pew, in our coats, because even though it is March and the sun is out, St Peter’s is remarkably damp and cold.

This community around the church and around the kids going to swimming and gymnastics: when I pull my head up from my phone I start to notice all the same faces. The community around the church is not built on faith, from what I can tell. No one is ever talking about Jesus. Instead, it’s like we are sheltering under the bones of a Leviathan that had washed up on the shore. Like the church is what’s left of a memory, a kind of skeletal social construct. The bones shield you against the climate, the constant rain and softness of the soil, which is swallowing the rest of the world around you.

The kids sing songs now, some of them that come out of my own past in the church in the States, the sort of Christianity where Americans would close their eyes and lift their hands up when they are singing, something you would never see at Saint Peter’s, regardless of how welcome it might be. I say in a lecture I’m giving, when I ramble off because I can and the students must listen to me because I have a doctorate and am paid to talk to them: I know all this because I am a good Sunday School boy. I can recite the Fruits of the Spirit, and shock my girls who are good British Sunday School girls now, too. ‘Daddy, how do you know that, are you a Christian too?’ like they keep forgetting the times I have answered that question with such an emphatic no. I am Peter at the fire while they kill Christ on the other side of town, ‘You were with Him, weren’t you?’ they ask me and I answer them with a curse: no, of course not, what are you talking about.

Yoko asks Mia if she remembers Malaysia. She responds in the way that Mia does, hamming it up and joking, but not answering the question. Mia is that girl, I realise: you won’t ever be able to get a straight answer from her. Yoko reminds her of the Aunties, and I am standing in the kitchen and feel the rush of memory of slacks and the Uniqlo shirts I would sweat through once I left for work. Mia playing in the garden in front of the house. The girls putting on their uniforms there and then here. ‘Mia, do you remember Auntie?’ and Mia smiles and laughs and doesn’t give an answer one way or another.

07 March 2016


There is an odd persistence to winter in Birmingham. After the long February, we turned the corner, I thought, and the days were noticeably longer. And then I was sitting in the cafe with a friend and I looked out at the street and it was snowing again — heavy, thick flakes. We said goodbye outside, and then it stopped and I got in the car, the heater on full and drove back home to my freezing office and the guinea pigs, waiting to be fed.

It's like that, isn't it. The snow coming back when you least expect it. I've been drinking again, when I can, despite my desire to be thin. Whisky has no carbs, I learned, triumphantly. No carbs, so you can drink it and not feel bloated like you feel bloated when you drink beer. I had two shots at the Junction on Friday and then regretted that I hadn't ordered a nicer brand because Bell's is only eighty pence less than the better stuff. I could've drunk Japanese whisky. I walked home feeling like I hadn't gotten a buzz and wondered about the effects of a high-fat diet on the absorption of alcohol. I'm eating butter straight — that can't be good for the uptake of alcohol into the bloodstream.

We went to Costco the next day and I bought a litre of Bell's, which is cheap enough and although I felt slightly guilty about the indulgence, I've given up on the guilt because it doesn't serve me in any valuable way. All my money is spent the day I make it anyway, what does it matter if I take a bit off the top to get cheap whisky. We bought everything and it came to ninety-five pounds and some odd pence, and the girls ate half of a hot dog each, before throwing away the rest. Or not throwing away: Yoko took it home wrapped in foil to sit in the refrigerator for several days, and then throw away when the plan wears off.

I had a day of eating some carbs when I went to give blood the other day. I ate an apple. Two apples. When I had my initial consultation, the woman, Anita, said my heart rate was too low. Forty eight. She had someone else come in to check. Still too low.
I'm a runner, I said, but I can bring it up if you'd like.
And Anita laughed and came across the room to put both of her hands on my cheeks: I bet you can.

Anita got her first tattoo when she turned 50, she said and then the other one when her mum died, but she didn't want it to say mum
'You know your mum's name, innit.'
I said, Of course you do, and the machine, the one I was hooked up to, separating out my platelets and counting down the time in minutes, whirled away.
And then I said, Did it hurt, Anita?
Here and here was okay, she said pointing: but here was really nasty.
I said, I've heard that, yes.
Her daughter has a tattoo on her foot and rib cage.
Nothing major.
Right, I said, of course.
Her daughter went to Wolverhampton and now teaches in Birmingham. Her father, her daughter's father, was Iraqi, but they broke up before the girl could go to King Edwards School where she was going to go. No matter, though. She's done well for herself. She's playing the violin.

Again, it was cold this morning, but the sun is coming up earlier and I can forgive the coldness. I put on my gloves and went out running, down California Road towards Newman. I worked out, lifted and kept copious notes on my phone about sets and reps and weights. I worked all day, trying to sort out seeing a counsellor, in between lecture notes and meetings. It's time again, I've thought: all my friends are breaking up or have broken up, but I keep telling everyone it's not an option for us. 'I would lose my kids,' I say, and besides I don't have the energy for a divorce. I don't have energy for anything. Sign me up to talk to whomever will listen, I say, for whatever chance of a future there might be, the chance that passion and romance are not completely out of my life at thirty-three (which is the year Jesus died).

I ran home, and on the way back up California, there was a man walking a huge poodle that he didn't have control of. I ran past and just as I came by, the poodle jumped up at me. I stopped and pulled out my headphones, shouting, 'What the fuck, man!?' And the man, who was older and surprised, first shouted at the dog and then said to me, 'You surprised him.' No shit, I said and crossed the road, trying to get my heart rate back down. I'm angry, I wanted to say, incredibly, insatiably angry and there is nothing I can do about it. I didn't, of course, say anything: I was worried about myself. Put my headphones back in and got right back up to pace in five steps. Nothing stops us unless we let it.