26 August 2017


The purchasing of the house on Victoria Road, a process that began sometime in June and continues on as various kinds of searches are undertaken and solicitors make cups of tea, has been an instructive experience. Homeownership, for whatever you can say about it, is much more important in this country than I thought. Once we said we were buying the house on Victoria Road, our neighbours spoke to us differently, and there was a sense in church that we, the Pihlajas of Harborne, might be sticking around. Yoko is the main face of the Pihlajas of Harborne, helping the elderly ascend and descend to the altar at church and chatting to everyone on the road. I appear surprisingly for the first time to these people, like we are some kind of Russian nesting doll and I'm the next layer down. The neighbour next door, an old Welsh man, was marvelling at our work together in the garden, and I thought of how marriages transform into a dull, satisfying symbiosis over time. Like two worker ants, we adapt to objects introduced to the environment. Introduce a house to the system, and the two of us tend to it, like we tended to a child when a child was introduced.

In preparation of buying the house, I was told I needed house insurance as a condition of my mortgage, and my mortgage adviser, Ian, also suggested I look at life insurance, which I've avoided getting out of a distaste for betting on my own death. However, the Pihlajas of Harborne are no longer an idea, but becoming an established entity, one that depends far too much on me staying alive. We can't allow for the possibility of my disappearance without some financial compensation for the trouble this would cause. I took a call from Ian on the day of a conference, standing in an alcove of the main hall at the University of Birmingham. Ian said he understood I was busy, and I looked around at everyone mulling around without coffee and said, well, I'm not that busy. Ian suggested a plan, one that would cover my death and any number of critical or terminal illnesses, I forget the precise terminology. He said, 'Now if you were single, I wouldn't suggest this. If you didn't have a family, you get hit by a bus, it wouldn't matter.' I stopped him there, 'It wouldn't matter, Ian?' I said, and he was apologetic, 'Sorry, I'm trying to be quick because you're busy.' The policy he suggested was more than I wanted to pay, particularly if the only silver lining would be money I would never get to enjoy. I don't want to die. Still, I begrudgingly accepted it, agreeing to reassess the situation when I returned from Sweden, provided I didn't die in an accident.

I'm thirty-five now, which is still young, but old enough to be considered middle age. What counts as middle age came up in a discussion last month, and I was assured I couldn't be considered middle-aged until I was forty. I disagree. Dying at seventy would not be tragic in any way, and given the amount of hair I've lost and the growing patches of white on the sides of my head, I'm willing to accept it. Better thirty-five more years than the fate dealt me in a dream this week, where I got brain cancer and had months to live. In my dream, I told Yoko and she laughed — I woke up unjustifiably angry, thinking I needed to call Ian before I actually got sick.

The first pile of house-buying paperwork came from the solicitor soon after we got back from Europe, and included a survey of all the kinds of hazards that had been in the area over the years, including the amusing terms 'unspecified heap' and 'unspecified pit'. I wondered what they were, but not enough to ask anyone. It's fine, all fine. There was also a note that the owner didn't want us to take the property until thirty September, which annoyed me less than it might have in July. Instead, I lingered on the planning map, which showed all the property lines on Victoria Road and highlighted the plot that I was buying. A tiny, sliver of England; mid-terrace, Edwardian and mine, all fifteen percent of it.

Part of becoming the Pihlajas of Harborne requires the belief in the short to medium term insolvency of the family and, as its basis, my marriage, something I feel like I believe, but rarely have to put into action. When pressed sometime last week, I managed to give an eloquent description of a future where Yoko and I have dogs and a cottage in a village and the girls come to visit with their friends or lovers. I could see it, almost, the Labrador Retrievers and the walls lined with books. So I am pressing on. I put up the fence and built a stand for the kids' computer I've been meaning to make for a while, but have put off, unconsciously thinking that this might all come to end, the job, the life I've built — Yoko and the girls headed back to Japan and me, rudderless and adrift. Instead, in this reality, the daylight is fading, and Naomi needs to go to swimming. My CUP book has a website now and I am established as a scholar in my field. This was the dream, I need to remember when I was singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with a classroom full of primary school students in Niigata City in 2004 when I left missionary work and had bottomed out. This is success. I pull out an electric drill to fuss with a screw I put into the desk to stabilise something. My editor e-mails, and it's the weekend now, the future here in a way.