“You bloody idiot,” I stated to the coffin, having stepped up to pay my respects as the chief mourners filed out. I agree with what you’re thinking. There was an element of disrespect in that sentence, but the whole situation was upsetting, ridiculous and uncalled-for.
Only a few weeks before, at work, my pocket had vibrated with the telltale sign that somebody was calling my mobile. Good timing, I thought. I was just leaving the floor to take a break. My happiness increased when the name of my dear, absent friend Nicky flashed on the screen. It was Nicky who had once admitted that she could see my writing becoming commercially viable only posthumously. Somehow, I never held this point-of-view against her. It merely made me smile. I appreciated our rare chats. Better to get them in before my clogs were popped.
On this memorable afternoon, we’d have an hour to exchange news, gossip, opinions and the other pieces of life’s shrapnel that had crossed our paths.
I was presented with quite the bombshell.
I never thought anyone actually used the line “…you’d better sit down, honey, I have bad news”. There it was though, a line of Hollywood scripture whispered to me from a couple o’ hundred miles north of my present location, London.
And now here I was. A couple o’ hundred miles north and a few thousand pains inside. Surrounded by the bad news.
The bombshell wore black, apart from the few children whose parents had let them off the sartorial brutality of grief. Being in the funeral home was trauma enough for them. I wasn’t sitting now, but standing in front of the last place and the last moment that I would be physically close to my friend Win. He was lying-in-wait for the flames and my only happiness came from him not knowing it. I hope he was aware of the turnout though. His wife – Cara, vivacious and loyal – had been surprised at the number. I suspect I wasn’t expected, as it had been a few years since I’d seen them both. Right now I felt utterly rotten for such a lapse.
Life really does get in the way of important friendships, when it should be the other way around. Friendships should get in the way of life; pointedly so. They should be the entirety of life. Our priorities were squiffed up and upside-down. All the money I had made recently couldn’t buy another second with Win. Not another game of Scrabble, another crossword done at the bar, another analysis of the day’s headlines.
I should have been a hippy in the ‘60s, when I reckon people had the courage to live their days playing games and crossing words.
As it was, I was a soul in transition in the twenty-tens. Sounds like a bad neighbourhood, doesn’t it?
In respect to my current situation, however, I had nothing to complain about. After all, it wasn’t my husband who had made the decision that, because he couldn’t extract the shrapnel that had crossed his path, he would extract himself instead. Cara was showing remarkable fortitude. The portrait she wore was a still-life. Any emotion you were feeling could have been transposed onto her facial expression, so nebulous was it. I was used to seeing her with mischief in her eyes and laughter under her cheek. I have an enduring memory of how much fun we used to have together. If there were any laughs forthcoming, they’d be desperate ones.
I had to leave soon, as well. My weekend was straining under the three-bus syndrome. I had been waiting for a social occasion and a trio had come along in swift succession. A couple of hours in a pub garden catching up with old faces, finding solace in embraces that were longer than the average hug and drinking enough wine to prepare me for the journey ahead, and I was gone. I had bemoaned the fact that good friends now spent most of their time being good strangers. People who had shared highs, middles and lows were lucky if they shared a Christmas drink. A funeral is nobody’s idea of a reunion. Yet there I roamed, hypocritical to my own beliefs. Choosing to send myself off halfway across the world to experience gods-only-knew-what. I saw myself as one of those little plastic men in an Airfix model kit. Crouched, chairless, ready to be placed somewhere fitting. The arm had swollen. Using that distended limb I would snap myself out of the frame.
My respects were brief, but I hope Win knows I still think about him. He was a man in love with words, but they competed against him, as opposed to playing on the same side. Win lost that one. I am still competing with words and I am determined to get the upper noun.
I absconded from the occasion feeling like a smaller man than when I’d arrived. A part of my history had been shorn, roughly too. Without permission, in a manner fitting some mock Delilah. I moved away from the grieving epicentre to dwell on my own sorrow with only motorways and flat, English arable to reflect anything back at me. Eleven hours later, and I was still in transit.
Most people rest before taking a long trip, especially if they’re moving from birthplace to a point on the other side of the globe. Most people aren’t like most other people and I was no exception.
It was the weekend prior to flying to Japan and there was that funeral in the north of England (York), a wedding in the far south (Cornwall) and a birthday in-between (London). All in the space of two days. I say space. All in the lack-of-space and time a single weekend has to offer. It would be quite nice to see my parents before I departed, too.
By the time I got to saying farewell to Mum and Dad, I would be emotionally wrung. Wrung, stretched and a little torn in the middle.
I should introduce myself properly if you’re going to stick by me for this trip. It’s not often you go to a funeral and have no idea about the person who brought you there.
I am thirty-four years of age, though quite how that happened is anybody’s guess. I have caught a terrible case of Stockholm syndrome from time. It arrests me and I will never be released. I love it, though remain captive. I am resolutely English but with a proud Irish half. A writer since before I could talk. A struggling artist, a cliche. A waiter. The only people who will be remembering me are my regular patrons. Even then, they’ll forget me when the tips are being pocketed by some other young enthusiast. Writing and writing and waiting and waiting, literally and metaphorically. On tables and on something bigger to happen.
I have no ties. I had been looking hard and fast and long for love, an adjectival combo that is entirely off-putting to any prospective suitor. Hard plus fast plus long equals desperate. And they say you can’t apply scientific rigour to the art of love?
Taking this forthcoming trip to Japan was a means of grabbing whatever horned animal came my way and riding it into a bigger, better, brighter future.
My paternal surname is Burns and indeed, I am a fire sign. That’s three decades of being aflame. I am thirty-four and I am also gay (no biggy) and HIV-positive (a little bigger), but neither figured in my decision to move to Japan. Neither factor figures in any decision I make. Naive or brave or a touching combination of both? Deep down, I think it’s my general affability that helps me survive most situations, so maybe a touch of brave naivety will help me over the hurdle, over the continents, over the sea. I am putting out good and avoiding evil. I am counting on the forces that are good in this world to put out right back at me. Those that are evil can cold-shoulder me all they like. I wouldn’t stretch myself to say I am a spiritual person. I just think it’s a matter of physics.
In that most momentous of years, I had sent out vibes, wishes, requests, letters, emails and anything that would metabolise this desire for a change quicker than my normal rate was doing. A company responded, called The Ritz. Putting out the vibes and putting on The Ritz. Doing nothing to offend them, employment contracts were duly signed, visas obtained, wells fared, byes bested and a flight boarded.
Japan, get ready.
I’ve always travelled light.
I was upping-and-atting, but I wasn’t going to struggle like some bag lady in the attempt to up-and-at. An airsteward friend of mine always told his passengers “… you pack it, you stack it.” I have taken that motto with me all through life. I was travelling to Japan after all, the land where consumerism was born, turned into a national pastime and then made into an artform.
The inventory of my luggage was small. One computer on the blink (I was certainly heading to the right place to rectify that). A minimal wardobe (Tokyo was about to begin its legendary summer). My notebooks. Some literature, both highbrow (The Complete Short Stories Of Franz Kafka) and some heavily frowning (Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives), and my very own bible, Jack Canfield’s How To Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be. My medication, tennis racquet, iPod and a few precious photographs to wake up to. Family, old friends and past destinations. The Arm Band clasped tightly around my wrist representing friends of a newer ilk. There was no Mr Me to worry about.
There was only me and Tokyo. Tokyo and I. East capital. Previously Edo, the estuarine dweller. Window on to a river. No longer pronounced Tokei, for that was an Anglicism now obsolete. The once and maybe again future king of Asian cities.
I may as well have landed on Mars, so alien did the cityscape feel. Yet, because it was a city, I also felt instantly at home. A crowd is an enervating notion, as long as its individual members have a direction to go in and aren’t just pressed in around you. The throng was now mine to be a part of. I could walk its streets and call myself a native. I could sing its morning chants and dream the same dreams that floated up from the roofs of toy apartment buildings, trackside hovels, love hotels, inner city shrines and knife-edge skyscrapers.
Here I was, standing at my hotel room window. The sun was done for the day, its power exhausted. It was slinking home to recharge for another bout of twelve-hour brilliance. My horizon was filled with a city new to me, a bewildering vision. Power switches were being turned to a resolute ‘on’. Lights moved with purpose, determined to sell their products: technology, karaoke bars, native beer, beautifying cures and a range of things I couldn’t identify. A million experiences were in the middle of being experienced.
If escaping my friend’s funeral had left me a smaller man than when I’d arrived, imagine how I felt at being stood here in Japan. I was a felt-tip pen outline on clingfilm. You could see through me to the other side. Touch me and I’d be impossible to shake off. I was sticking. All I could do was stand here constrained by a sort of paralysis, thinking of the life I had just left.
London versus Tokyo, how would they match up in the ring? Who would come out in tatters and who would be adorned with another victory-sash, to add to all its others? They were both cities that had led the world at points. London with its finance, dominance, culture and dubious history. Tokyo with its finance, technology, culture and occasional antagonism. I was still rooting for London, even though I had deracinated myself and was attempting to put down new roots here. Who knew if they’d take, but I was going to give it my best thrust.
My body, minus its clock, was in Japan. My mind had arrived before that, racing ahead at miles-a-minute. Kilometres-a-minute now, the mile being no longer useful to me. My soul was all over the shop. London still had my heart, though.
We had started to fall out about a fortnight before my departure.
The capital had been angry at my absence for a weekend. It didn’t care that I had friends being laid to rest and others announcing their vows. The wedding in Cornwall hadn’t been far from Land’s End and I think if someone had dared me to jump, I may have just done that to see what beginning followed the end of the land.
A word about the wedding. Fifi and Margate were bringing their lives together. I agree with my Dad on this one. It is possible to miss a friend’s wedding without too many repercussions, but not this one. Fifi had been the rock I’d at first swam to and then clung onto with both hands whilst living in London. She’d given me a roof over my head, money when I needed it, love when the diagnosis came, a glass of deep red when the times were not being coped with. I don’t believe in the concept of best friends, as it demeans the others, but Fifi certainly played the role of guardian angel (and at times devil) to perfection.
London couldn’t have cared less about any of this: a wedding or a funeral of a friend. Three more of the former and I had a movie on my hands. Then the city might have pricked up its concrete ears.
I may not have jumped off Land’s End, but the idea was still trampolining around. On one of my last days there, there was a passing terror as I crossed the Hungerford Bridge. The pedestrian part of this structure over the Thames is actually called the Golden Jubilee Bridges, but the name given to the railtracks’ industrial catwalk appeals to me more. Fording the hunger. I could barely do that. I’d been the owner of a hunger for as long as I could remember, but it wasn’t being sated. Getting over its structural counterpart, here on a grey, typical, misty English morning, was almost an impossibility in itself. My struggling heart was causing my nerves to quake, which were causing my skin to tighten, which in turn made every pore weep a tiny tear. I was a mess coming down and hanging over some awful precipice, even though I had no name for it. I had to run to the bridge’s other side just to make it over. It wasn’t me saying jump, jump, it would be easier, it was another. An other. And it was persistent. I had absolutely no control over this feeling and that’s what made it so horrific. I had a new job, a new life, a new land waiting expectantly for me.
Why this sudden urge to leap?
Things had reached this impasse because the escapist drinking to escape the wrench of saying goodbye had come to a head. There was a way out (East). I just had to take it before the door, and the opportunity it held beyond, closed on me. Every time I said another adios, I had a cocktail chaser to deal with it. The door was closing fast. I could feel a mind being changed and then where would I have been? Years later still in London, floating not-so-merrily down the river perhaps. Not winning.
By the time saying goodbye arrived to Maya and Sarah, two of my closest, I was an empty vessel. A sudden rip of the heartache plaster would have been better. Get it over with. All I could do was hold on to them, whilst wanting to escape at the same time. I would have made a great advertisement for Johnson & Johnsons, as there wasn’t a single tear left to make an appearance. If eyeducts had muscles, mine were pumped up and pumped out. I must have resembled a dried-up piece of fruit. An emotionally-sapped currant.
The only person I purposefully didn’t say goodbye to was Suede, who I was of course a little in love with. He was a strange mix of younger sibling and protégé. Hard to imagine me as a mentor. A laughable proposition, really. The rabbit-eyes he wore in the first few weeks of coping with the city’s lights had brought out the teacher in me. Our humurous senses had clicked and this had led to the position where I was happy to dish out advice to him. To encourage him to be anything he wanted. In getting close to him, I had unwisely fallen and didn’t want to spoil any friendship that was beginning. I had spent weeks thinking of how a letter to him would be constructed. I’d send it from the safety of Tokyo’s distance. I was obsessing over this really, so it’s true when I tell you I wasn’t on the hunt for a new love interest. The mind was preoccupied with an impossible previous candidate.
A mind that hardly noticed when I did finally slip out of London quietly.
“A clickety-clack is echoing back the blues in the night.”
Peggy Lee is singing it to me. Dirging it really, if my verbs are to be exact. They had to be exact, for I was off to teach them.
It is June 2nd. The day before the Queen’s jubilee and the blues are occurring in the bright, rainy sunshine. I sit in Marylebone station, expecting a train with its accompanying doleful click, that bluesy clack. People mill around, in a sort of slowed-down, sped-up manner. There have been all-sorts this afternoon. A Morris dancer jangled past me, closely followed by a frightening, tankard-wielding vagrant. They may have been in the same repertory. With this celebratory feel that has come over London, who knows? It is too much celebrating for the way I feel.
Two Oriental girls titter away to my left. I am trying to discern their native tongue, but Ms. Lee’s voice is too deep, too strong and too close to my eardrum. People holding flowers, fighting with the ticket-machines, evading each other whilst seeking out loved-ones. Here I sit, alone. Not lonely, as I have been saying “…see ya later!” for about a fortnight now. The exclamation mark was rarely heard.
The train moved and London, and my six years in it, crawled inexorably away from me. Home for a few days.
When it came to embracing Mum at silly o’clock on the morning of the 5th, I think I came across as somewhat unbothered. It was shellshock. She offered a quick, quiet ‘I love you’ and I was out of the door. Too sleepy to get a good look at where I’d grown up and still retreated to for safety. People say life is what happens when you’re not looking. I knew what was happening, I was just a walking golem and could barely react. Dad (“…g’luck, son…”) got a similar send-off at Birmingham International airport. All I could think of was ensconcing myself on that plane just to get some bloody sleep.
“… I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is say hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.” [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy].
That would do the trick for the next day or two. I never found the respite I was looking for on that airplane. I was occupied by sight, sound, smell and a number of other senses. Just a look out the window and there, far below me, the Swiss Alps stretched below like marble cake, until a spoilsport blanket of cloud took them away.
For now, it is I, a fluffy view, the sun’s glare and a Boeing-load of humans I am going to struggle communicating with. I said arigato to the stewardess and she smiled, nodded and replied in English. I was almost disappointed. This is not how I’m going to learn.
Half of the time I mused over the emotional, such as the letter to Suede I had mentally penned a dozen times. It was very unnatural of me, the concept of drafting a letter, but this subject warranted it. I wanted to make myself completely clear, no room for misunderstanding.
The other fifty-per-cent of my musings was with concerns far more pragmatic.
In London, the yen had been 134 to the pound. It was from page 134 of my copy of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ that I lifted the above quote. It’s always good to look out for the signs. Checking the day before my flight, it seemed there were only 122 yen now, but that’s the number of my family home, so it can pass. The numbers don’t lie. Unfortunately, they were diminishing. The exchange rate, on getting to Birmingham International, was down to 107. The yen was protecting itself. It must be preparing for my arrival, afraid of how I might burn a hole in it, or it may burn a hole in my pocket. Concentrating on practicalities took my mind off the deeper thoughts. It’s amongst the deepest thoughts and in the depths of the night that your anxieties emerge. Or when the cabin crew turn the lights down and you’re unable to sleep. A soft, persistent kick kicks-in, one that is impossible to ignore. All these people calling you brave and that you’re an inspiration. It only adds to the background feeling of what the heck am I doing?! Going with your instincts is all very well, but how do you know your instincts aren’t playing tricks on you? Were there chances in London I missed, didn’t have the balls to take, didn’t have the clarity of vision to see?
Turbulence is never welcomed, but at least it was a distraction.
I’m not religious, but at bumpy times like this I can’t help but grip onto the St Christopher’s cross my parents bought me all those years ago for my inaugural solo trip to Washington DC. The hallowed one and I will exchange words over the next few hours. I may even offer him a hymn. Talking of all things musical, I wondered how I would locate the hotel I’d booked on the other side. It’s the Sakura Hotel in Hatagaya. Only after sacrificing some of my budget for a weekend of (hoped-for) comfort, did I realise that Sakura was a traditional Japanese song I used to be able to play on the guitar at the tender age of thirteen. Forgotten now.
I am sitting in kindergarten.
Yes, I have plenty of legroom, but I have also acquired a two-year old called Amalie.
In trying to escape her sisters, she made a beeline for the pen I was writing with and then refused to give it back. I had to learn how-are-you? from her mother – o genki desu-ka? – before she gave it back. The mother was overflowing with questions.
The elderly lady next to me could only smile and watch the conversation unfold, but her smiles were warm, gracious and fascinated by the exchange going on in front of her. Both mother and child wanted to know about my treasured collection of wrist-wear. My Arm Band (more on them later, as I’m sure you’re asking questions). Amalie had her chubby infant hands all over them. They are unbreakable.
The pilot took a Northern curve over the top of Asia, trailing a crescent past Siberia and flirting with Novya Zemlya. It was a new land underneath us. I risked alienating the entire complement of the plane by opening my shutter and letting heavenly daylight flood where I was sat. It was difficult to ascertain exactly what I was looking at. There was minimal cloud cover; a few hardy clumps of dry ice. The landscape was a muted conglomeration of brown, green and blue, all similarly lacking vibrancy. It could have been forest, marsh, tundra or steppe. I simply couldn’t work it out from 35,000ft up. Great scars were rent across the landscape, in straight lines, as if the Siberians worshipped a giant feline and he wasn’t happy. They were too big to be roads or railtracks. A lighter patch of sandy beige – huge, the size of a county – appeared, looking uncannily like a ghost doing a somersault. Its mouth was a lake, and it was laughing. There was a river twirling away from a small settlement, meandering like an earthworm on ecstasy. It seemed coiled-up, a spring waiting to be sprung onto the thirsty terrain. Everything was monotonous and hypnotic.
I felt criminal pulling the blind down, but the elderly lady next to me had begun to shift in her sleep. Amalie was sat on the floor, starting to whimper. Turning my attention to the pamphlets in front of me, I stumbled across one that tickled me magenta. Is it admirable thoroughness or ludicrous absurdity that the first item on the crew’s Emergency Equipment Checklist is 1 x Emergency Equipment Checklist? There is some deep, philosophical conundrum waiting to be explored here, methinks. That, or the altitude has affected me.
Altitude. Or touched by the enormity of my approaching reality.
Creative Writer Martin P. Burns