28 December 2018

As good a story

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.

That's a lie, of course, every story you choose to tell has a reason for its telling — my whole career is based on this theory of narrative. I make the same point in academic presentations, proclaiming to the audience that you only tell the story of little Red Riding Hood if you're trying to get a point across. You're trying to scare your children, for example. I've made this analogy enough that I know where to pause, where the laugh lines are, like I'm some sort of failed stand-up comedian. The point is, I'll say, summing it up, whatever story you tell, it reveals something about you, about what you believe or don't, what you're cynical about: paternity, matrimony, fraternity. Whatever.

Stories don't have natural beginnings or endings; their meanings can change over time. Another story, one I initially told as an anecdote about trusting God, really needs to be told for that first story to make sense. This story began when I was twenty-one and left the States to be a missionary at a small church in Japan. The plan was simple enough: I would go, I thought, for a year, put the failed relationships of my late teens behind me, and then come back to the States to do a Master in Fine Arts somewhere, become a writer, or work in marketing, whatever it was. Healing by distance, by immersion — the things your therapist tells you you're not supposed to do. I'm overstating it, of course — I was young and had nothing going on, really. What's a year of your life when you're twenty, twenty-one.

I went to Japan in October of that year, after raising money from Evangelical Christians who wanted to hear my trusting God story and were just happy they themselves didn't have to trust God too. I had one thousand US dollars a month in Evangelical money, half of which was deposited in my US bank account and which I saved and half of which the church in Japan paid me in cash and which I spent on bare necessities. That year, I smoked a pipe and listened to jazz and had too much free time. I went to an empty beach all winter and tried to pray, tried to write, tried to study Japanese, tried to fall out of love. It didn't work out, but I can't explain why exactly. After the summer, and going back to Chicago for several weeks to lick my wounds, I left again, this time to teach English full-time in elementary schools in the sleepy industrial Northwest of Japan, someplace away from it all, where no one could find me.

The company that hired me, or rather the British recruiter, promised stability, but when I found myself that September in the head office in Tokyo after one day of training, I was slowly realising they were taking advantage of me. I wouldn't be paid for at least six weeks, but they were happy to lend me my first pay cheque with a marginal interest rate if I absolutely needed it. I was young and stuck and everyone seemed to know things I didn't know. When the recruiter was thumbing through my passport, he pointed out that it had only been by some miracle they'd let me back into the country when I left and came back in August — he held up the page: you didn't have a re-entry visa. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know why I didn't have a mobile phone or a bank account. I hadn't needed one, we were paid in cash. Hagino-san had taken care of us, I wanted to say. I began to doubt if the women from the church had been real. The recruiter was dumbfounded like he had discovered some Mormon who had wandered into the city looking for food after the church abandoned him.

I can't remember which ward the company's office was in. I can't remember how long I was there. I remember vague things about the building and my hotel. I remember the vending machine outside the headquarters had Dr Pepper. I remember standing on the north side of the Imperial Palace, smoking a cigarillo and looking up at the stone walls. I remember feeling panic as I realised how far from home I really was. I convinced myself that the whole mess was a punishment for doubting, for giving up on the mission. I was Jonah in the belly of the whale. I was Samson chained to the pillar.

That story doesn't have a natural ending: it ends wherever you want. With an apartment on the Agano River that had a glimpse of the Sea. With Yoko before she was my wife, kneeling seiza and reading the newspaper spread out on the tatami. With us leaving Niigata two years later on a ferry. Or with me, this last week, walking home from Sainsbury's on Boxing Day. I texted Naomi and we met up, all five of us, in the car park of St Peter's, where Mia was roller-skating and Mei and Yoko were riding the scooter around and around. I said hello and climbed up onto the brick wall and walked down it, balancing like a child and standing at the end, looking up at the church clock tower. Yoko tells me that it was completed during a plague that killed all the good artisans — the plague explains why the clock is not perfectly centred. I had never noticed it before she said something, but yes, if you look closely and don't allow your mind to adjust it, you see it's not exactly right. Of course, you can't see it unless you're looking for it. I jumped down from the wall and Yoko said to the girls, Shall we go? Dusk is falling, down the hill to Victoria Road, where our home is, like it has for years. Tracing on tracing, a dark line now, a rut, a beginning or ending of some other story.