The small station’s platform was crowded. Pigeons gathered on the beams above and one young man gaped at his watch. The people around me became anxious, coughing and shuffling their feet. Then the train was before us and the doors hissed open.
I took a seat by a window in the smoking compartment. I put my plant on the floor. A thin woman and a boy with large eyes sat down opposite me. She brushed some hair from her eyes, lit a cigarette and stared out the window. I needed to shower, or at least to wash my hands and face.
The train backed out of the station. I looked at the lines of iron and steel, at the wires in the air and the receding blocks of mortar. In my jacket pocket the slight weight against my chest reminded me that, in reality, much was wrong. We passed into a tunnel. Light streaked the wall and the boy started to whimper. The woman looked at him. Then she looked at me. She turned back to the window and drew long from the cigarette. I closed my eyes and tried to remember exactly what had happened.
When I arrived at the apartment he was marking out on the wooden floor the areas within which I could move. I stood there, watching him crawl backwards on all fours, and sensed the sun sliding down behind the mountain.
His work soon completed he raised himself slowly and hung the chalk and string on a nail inside the door. Then he joined me outside to look at the sky. He was a weary looking creature, lean and just too short to have an effect.
‘It is very beautiful,’ he said.
And indeed it was, even if I knew that from the balcony on the other side all we would see was the grey-blocked, stretching-away city.
We remained there a few minutes in silence admiring the counter-view. Soon the sun had gone away and there was that time when the mountains go black and the crest is a red line against the dark blue sky. I observed a few shots of white light moving up through the falling clouds.
‘Oh, my teeth!’ he exclaimed abruptly. ‘What confusion they have caused.’
I did not repay this outburst with the indifference it deserved.
‘What of your teeth?’ I asked.
He looked directly at me and I recognised that a blunder of some kind had been made.
‘They’re yellow,’ he replied rather sullenly, parting his lips in a grimace like an animal.
Or perhaps this was his smile. Either way, I recoiled, impulsively.
His teeth were a little yellow, it’s true, but they were aligned and well-shaped, and I had not noticed the discolouration. What was wrong with him?
‘Your teeth are fine,’ I said, and suggested that we go inside. It was, in fact, becoming a little cold.
I removed my shoes, placed them by his and stepped into the small kitchen, carrying my briefcase.
Then I studied the fine white track drawn out upon the floor. The toilet and shower, small compartments on my immediate left, were evidently for communal use, as the line commenced beyond them. Everything to the left of the line, he informed me, was mine—an arrangement denying me the fridge, cooker and one side of the kitchen table, though not the sink. From the table the line continued for five or six feet to the adjoining tatami room, which, later, would be divided by a screen. Mine, he said, was the half on the left. Later a futon would be thrown down beside a small, low-lying pouffe near the balcony window.
I understood that I had been allotted the minimum space necessary to survive. And the pouffe was a luxury that I would need to manipulate.
He offered me a drink.
In the kitchen he broke ice with a steel spike and more than ever I felt the stranger.
‘You will stay for a week,’ he said, walking into his half and sitting down in the seiza position. He was not Japanese and I found it unsettling that he chose to sit this way.
‘Ten days,’ I replied, using the briefcase on my lap as a table for my drink. I looked at him, trying to note the physical effect of my words. But his face didn’t change at all.
For a minute there was nothing except the clink-click sound of melting ice.
He enquired after my sister. I explained that I had not spoken to her in almost two years, not until that recent conversation on the phone. I said that I appreciated what he and my sister were doing for me. But the rest I had left behind a long time ago.
‘I love your sister very much,’ he said quite solemnly and staring at me, as if his eyes would explain everything.
I merely nodded, in a dumb fashion. And then I was outside myself, in a high place looking down at the other nodding like that. I could not relate to the emotions responsible for the gesture.
We sat in further silence. I on the pouffe, he on the floor.
‘Ten days can be the longest time,’ he said, after a while. I did not feel in a position to disagree, and it was true that already the minutes were slowing down. I could hear clearly the deregulated hands of a clock that I could not see. The sound reminded me of waiting in holy places or of large, empty rooms.
‘But I think that segregation will help us,’ he said, motioning towards the lined floor with a lazy hand, smiling with his lips and yellow teeth.
‘Why should we encourage the clattering together of two strangers?’
In spite of the severity of the measure I found myself agreeing with him again. Nothing seemed too ludicrous.
‘Of course, you’ve had a tiring day,’ he told me. It was best that I turn in for the night.
He pulled across the sliding door. It had a wooden frame with paper skin. On it, for decoration, a mountain landscape cast in pale green and blue and yellow colours, a few unfamiliar birds tearing off in the distance. I heard him pull up a chair and sit down at the table in the kitchen. He groaned then, and the light from the kitchen fell upon my door, making it softly glow.
At some point I had a dream.
Which I don’t recall, but when I opened my eyes breathing quickly, my T-shirt sticking to the skin beneath my arms, I saw a large rat sitting on the pouffe. It was a rat, sure enough, with a tough dark body and hard, curling tail and, of course, the eyes that shined yellow, the nose that scratched the air, the protuberant teeth. Not until I reached up and pulled the light cord did it disappear. Or rather, the absence that I had believed to be a rat revealed itself.
I saw my face reflected in the window’s black glass. It would be difficult to sleep. Then the phone rang into the stillness and I moved swiftly to turn out the light and lie down, pretending to be asleep.
Hearing him answer I immediately felt foolish.
‘That was your sister,’ he called, and then seemed to hang there, waiting for my reply. I confess I was furious that he had realised I had been awake, and resentful that he had chosen to let me know he had realised.
He was at the sink, running the tap, and I imagined him leaning over with outstretched arm, the sucked-in chest, taking care not to violate my space with his feet. Something stirred in me then, perhaps it was lunacy, spinning its round. Or perhaps it was something less spectacular. I began to imagine various complex operations involving broom handles, skewers and tape, plundering cheese and meat from the fridge without crossing the line. I laughed softly to myself, the only man who could truly understand the joke. And what an odd man he was, I thought.
What time was it? I noticed that the clock’s noise was normal again.
And I was suddenly quite angry, given the whole situation. Some time later, I understood that I had been staring at the ceiling for a length of time I could only trace back to the source of anger. Which lingered, slowly festering. The shoji had been pulled across in the Japanese manner, dividing the tatami rooms for our privacy. From the adjoining space I could hear my sleeping host. I cannot, even now, truthfully claim that he was snoring. No, his was the unmistakably wholesome respiration known only to those who forget the world when they close their eyes. The sound of a contented body labouring independently of thought.
About the point where I had been staring, a spherical radiance had illuminated itself upon the ceiling and the darkness. And for some time this illusion had been slowly pulsating and growing, regulating itself to the steady in-and-out of the other’s breathing. I began to believe that I was suffocating and found myself in reality clutching weakly at my throat.
When I sat up the light vanished and after a few moments the sound of him sleeping was precisely as before. I waited, sitting in my room, listening and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
At the kitchen sink I let the tap run slowly so that he might not hear. Beyond the mountains light was gathering in a corner of the night. I drank the water slowly and it was not cold enough. My feet were too cold, having stepped from the relative warmth of the tatami mat onto the long coolness of the kitchen floor. I left the glass on the draining board.
Then, without forethought, I took the chalk and string from the nail and held it in the palm of my hand. It was very white there. The string slipped off my palm and pointed me towards the floor. I looked around the silent, empty kitchen and promptly fell to my knees.
With a damp cloth I carefully cleaned away the white chalk markings leading to the sink. I waited a few moments, and then, when the floor had dried, I gave it a good shine with the tea-towel. I extended my allotment by a mere six or seven inches, sufficient so that he could not reach the sink at all. Then I returned to my room clutching my stomach, trying desperately not to laugh aloud.
When I lay down my heart was thumping hard. I ate the pillow until I relaxed and there wasn’t a sound in the apartment except a bird or two outside, chirping like soothing, feminine creatures. The inside of my head seemed like a part of the ocean, like a long, solitary branch in a damp, green field. I fell asleep without difficulty and did not wake until the sun was high in the sky and shedding its tepid light upon the room in fat and yellow slabs.
In the shower I reviewed what I had done the night before and the day seemed promising, although I also felt uneasy, there being the likelihood that my handiwork would be identified.
I opened my briefcase and selected a clean pair of underpants. The tag inside the waistband chaffed uncomfortably against my skin. I walked about the room, at once massaging the small square of offended skin at my lower back and trying to adjust the tag so that it might not annoy me so. The manoeuvre proved hopeless. Soon I understood that I would certainly be confronted about what I had done the night before and this sense of hazard completely overrode my previous satisfaction.
I noted with distaste the clear droplets on my white and pimpled shoulders, the clear morning light on my flesh and the pale hanging bag of my belly.
‘Would you like some eggs?’ he called loudly from the kitchen.
His voice was a shock and on impulse I protected myself directly, one arm covering the belly-bag, my knee drawn up around the groin and my other arm crooked across the chest, a claw on my shoulder.
‘Yes, yes I would like some eggs!’ I cried, my voice as fragile as the day itself. In the centre of the room I stood alone on one foot, a stork clown. Collecting myself and closing the briefcase— which made a distinct snap—I hastily dressed and strolled into the kitchen.
‘Sleep well?’ he enquired.
‘Like a baby,’ I replied.
He was cracking eggs into a large blue bowl. Bread and cheese, ham and sliced tomato were set out. Salt and pepper and herbs. The smell of coffee heating in a steel espresso maker on the stove.
‘Put a little water in this,’ he said, passing me the bowl of eggs without looking up.
I immediately understood it was a trap, and a droplet of sweat that had been clinging to my underarm detached itself and slid coolly down my side.
‘Yes, water,’ I said, taking the bowl to the sink. I resolved there and then to deny the whole affair if questioned. But just then I saw his head reflected in the shiny curved tap. It was grotesque and warped and large in the middle, his neck and crown stretched out to appalling silver lines. Seeing him like this enraged me. I was even angry with myself for having been so tense and bothered.
I turned and thrust back the bowl, perhaps too violently. Its contents splashed when I set it down upon the table.
He looked up and smiled, choosing to ignore the situation.
‘Hungry?’ he asked.
I said that I was starving.
The day passed as others. I felt myself moving nowhere in particular. I walked around the apartment block. Then straight up a narrow, dusty road and I crossed the railway line. I went along for a while by small wooden houses, up a smaller brick lane, by drink and cigarette machines hooked into the walls and a red lantern hanging outside a nondescript restaurant. I turned around and for an instant felt completely lost. The world seemed to pile in around me, buildings leaned over, the lane closed in, a furious cat appeared on a wall-top, brandishing its claws. I went straight back the way I had come and crossed the railway line and the top of the tall apartment building came into view.
After taking a second shower, I gazed at myself in the mirror without a thought in my head. He was in the kitchen, typing at his computer. He had said that he worked from home. I suspect he also thought himself a writer, but I doubted he had the bottle for it. A low-level academic at most. His fingers tapped and tapped the keys, a little man in a white cap chipping at a piece of rock.
I dried myself slowly and carefully. I sat in the pouffe by the balcony window and put my hands on my knees. I opened my briefcase and took out my book and read a few chapters at random. I put the pages back in the briefcase and then I took out my passport and looked at the photograph on the back page. I barely recognised myself in that photograph taken seven years ago, even though my appearance had not greatly changed.
I turned the pouffe to the window and across the street the playground was empty. A swing moved gently in the breeze and when I thought about it I could hear the noise that the swing was making. Below me, in the small garden patch, an old woman on her hands and knees picked stones out of the earth. It was April. The cherry blossoms were falling from the trees and the petals settled in her hair and settled pink, plum and white on the black earth. Soon the trees would be naked.
I stood up and stretched my legs. I raised up my hands and touched the ceiling. I completed twenty press-ups and twenty sit-ups without making a sound.
I sat down and closed my briefcase.
He was breaking ice in the kitchen with a steel spike.
‘My mother said it was probably all the oranges I ate when I was a child.’
He tapped a front tooth to remind me.
To me he seemed so frail, so undernourished, the essence of grey. I thought that one punch in the face would probably do it, or a foot pressed firmly upon the chest.
‘But I’m happy,’ he said, ‘by nature.’
He was the saddest man in the world.
‘There’s nothing wrong with happiness,’ I said, yawning loudly.
‘What will you do next week?’
‘When you leave?’
‘Then I will be leaving the country,’ I said. I could feel myself swell as I said it. I told him that I had been here for six months— this was, in fact, a lie—and now it was time to move on, discover a new life somewhere else.
Of course it had long ago become difficult to separate the truth from the lies, as the only person who could verify anything was myself. And sometimes everything seemed a lie and sometimes everything was the truth, and sometimes something was a lie when I believed it the truth and the truth was a lie when I meant my best.
‘How interesting,’ he said.
I understood he did not give a damn.
‘And how do you find working from home?’
‘It can be very isolating,’ he said.
‘I can imagine.’
‘But I find the rewards often outweigh this inconvenience.’
I sipped at my drink, shiro on the rocks, and I leaned back in the chair, feeling the spirit flush and warm my legs and cheeks. Down there on the floor he seemed like a small, reticent child.
‘You do not believe that I am content here, I think.’
‘I have no reason to believe otherwise,’ I replied.
‘Precisely,’ he conceded, and to me then looked devastated, as if, after expending all of his passion upon a single principle, he now realised that he had misunderstood the crucial point from the beginning, which I had made, quietly, a half hour prior, before the audience.
I felt that I would sleep well. And some time later it was I who proposed that we retire for the evening.
There were no rats or luminosities. In fact, I felt the peace that sometimes comes to me, as when the burden of illusion shatters into infinite possibility, as when the long, lined palm of the future closes into the tight and exploitable fist of the present.
I lay on my side in the darkness, looking towards the part of the sliding door where I knew the coloured birds to be, fixed in flight and space.
That night I worked steadily for about an hour, washing, shining, lining. I broadened my domain by a foot or so but my boldest move was the creation of an entirely new angle that ran from the sink to the fridge.
Down there, on the floor, I felt the architect of my life. Using the white vegetable chopping board as a ruler I carefully marked out points so that the lines would be perfectly straight. I moved forward, never moving into new territory until I had made it my own. I knew that all of this was reckless but these two nights had stirred an old zeal within me, and I wanted to send myself to the limit.
So I worked, composed and competent and never mindful of the sleeping other, until, in the height of darkness, on my knees in another man’s kitchen, I sensed the attendance of a second. I remained extremely still, initially believing that if I did not turn around the moment might not happen. My head shrivelled slowly and descended into my scorching neck. My exposed back and shoulders seemed ready to fill the room and rupture.
When I turned around there was no one there but then I blinked and he was standing at the bedroom door. From his room a little light strayed along his shoulder. And we gaped at each other like two staggered beasts in the forest.
The essential thing was to say something, anything, but this obligation thickened the air, drinking my oxygen, my words. My mouth fell uselessly open and I raised a silent hand, as if in salutation.
In response he raised his eyebrows high. Still on the floor I coughed to release myself from the paralysis of voice and legs and raised arm, but what emerged was nothing more than a painful wheeze that dispersed miserably in the air between us.
Tears of shame and frustration began to pool in my eyes.
And with this he withdrew, two small steps taken backwards, the door pulled soundlessly across.
I slumped to the floor in suffering. After everything, it was in fact I who was the wretched actor. I had given my all to the auditorium, to the point of collapsing at the remarkable culmination, only to be repaid in silence. I longed for my pillow in the room beyond, the charming tatami and the white sheet pulled over my body while the night fell in through the mosquito-mesh. But after a spell, as the coolness of the wooden floor tempered my misery, and the four humours spun once more in approximate balance, I felt a coolness within myself, and a surgical foreknowledge returned my body and mind as one.
I worked until dawn. Scrambling about the floor I claimed the stove and the kitchen chair, the shower and the bathroom for myself alone, leaving him nothing but a narrow pathway that led from his bedroom to the front door. Sometimes the fear and the fury rose together, and again I was up in the high place, looking down at the other sprawled below on the floor like a bug, and then my arms worked all the faster.
As the pale morning light climbed in the window our new home was revealed. I sat on the kitchen chair, contented, toying with a paw-marked knife.
He emerged from his room shortly before seven, like the small and nervous animal does upon the yellow plain. And he dragged his computer back into his cave without looking up.
I fixed myself eggs and cheese, while listening to the tapping of the woodpecker. The coffee was strong and taken black, and with pleasure I read a few chapters, at random, from my book.
At noon he crept alongside the wall and stood by the entrance to the bathroom.
‘I would like to have a shower,’ he said, twisting his fingers.
I regarded him indifferently, waiting a moment for the question to settle.
‘I am afraid that that is not possible today,’ I said.
Then I stood up. I remember I felt tall then, as strong as a trunk of tree.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ he cried, and just for a moment I thought that he might weep.
‘Get out, you bollocks!’ I roared, shaking my fist at both him and the door.
To my astonishment I thought I saw him smile, as if in appreciation of the spectacle.
He shot me a timid glare and hastened out the front door, closing it behind him gently.
In the kitchen I remained standing tall, the centre of a fading echo.
And then the days passed strangely. Eight days to be precise.
I soon commandeered most of his room and personal possessions. He transcribed passages from small notebooks while I wandered about the apartment. I fingered through a shoebox of old letters without finding anything of interest. It was difficult to finish anything. I listened to CDs and did my workouts. I prepared food and stood on the balcony staring out over a city that did not, any longer, appear so grey and uniform. In a sense I began to forget that he was there at all. We seldom spoke.
In this new beginning I was an awkward creature rambling mutely from room to room, almost afraid to touch and take pleasure in the objects I had won. Everything seemed an illusion. I carefully folded towels and sorted knives from forks from chopsticks. A number of times I cleaned the kitchen window with a damp rag. I regularly swept out the area for shoes by the door. And I took special care with the green potted plant, allowing what I judged to be the right amount of water and sunlight each day.
These minor triumphs improved me and I relaxed somewhat in my approach to the game. Of course, everything was a game. But I could not remember if there were rules or rights or if there was a limit. I did not know what people could accept or what I should expect of myself. The battle had been exhilarating. But now, triumphant, I couldn’t even remember what had prompted me to do anything in the first place. Sometimes I would find him staring at me from his immobile position in his room.And I began to feel sick inside, as if my soul was turning.
On the sixth morning I made breakfast. Eggs with ham and cheese and tomato. Fresh bread and coffee. I brought him a plate, which he accepted without a word.
I spent the rest of the morning cleaning away the white lines on the floor. Although the chalk had already disappeared in many places, he had never strayed beyond the border and remained reluctant to leave his room. I confined myself to my own room and the balcony for more than a day before he ventured out into the kitchen proper.
He was pale and hushed and walked slowly to the sink. He fixed himself some coffee and sat at the kitchen table with his elbows guarding the cup and his chin resting upon his coupled hands. He sat like that for some time as the steam from the coffee rose about him, staring straight ahead at a point on the naked wall. Just then I thought that he, too, understood nothing. That evening he accepted my offer to fix him a drink. I selected a triangular piece of ice and watched the spirit smooth its edges.
We still seldom spoke, and typically it was he who would address me, requesting a particular food from the market, concerned about the cleanliness of the apartment, never mentioning what had gone before. And he smiled from time to time, a gesture that never failed to lift me. We were almost a regular couple. I watched children playing in the park and I was saddened when the last pink blossom fell from the last blooming sakura.
At nightfall it became my habit to watch the sun set behind the mountain. It no longer spoke to me, calling me west, but was simply fine-looking and pure. And now and then, during the day, I would stand upon the other balcony and observe the city, watching for changes out there as the shadows fell. I believe I may have begun to understand that much was happening in the world, and that much was beyond my control.
After crossing the railway track I walked for ten minutes without noting the direction. I was wearing his casual dinner jacket, loafers, and my own tan trousers, recently pressed and cleaned. Up above, bright fat clouds hurried the sun across the sky but the day was fine and a warm and easy breeze blew through the laneways, carrying the scent of the onrushing evening.
I bought a drink at one of the machines and drank it sitting on a small stone bridge in a public garden. Around the garden, on small pedestals, were worn, stone icons of Buddhism. I noticed the black ceramic cats in bush-sheltered groves. People left change between the paws, hoping it would bring them good luck.
The long branches of two large trees stretched out and over me, holding everything together. In the clear water of the stream and garden pond, the leaves and the fallen flowers had come to each other in various clumps by the bank. Soon they would move on, washed up or taken back or torn apart. I left some coin between a cat’s legs and walked away.
In due course I found my way back to the apartment block. It stood high, rectangular and yellow, surrounded by a carpark, a playground, a house and a factory, and then everything else in its order.
After checking the mailbox I climbed the three levels of steps to apartment twenty-one. I turned the key in the lock. I removed my shoes and jacket and I stepped inside. Immediately I detected the vile smell of tobacco. Then I saw that the computer had been restored to its original place on the kitchen table. Beside it, an essay-sized manuscript. From my room I heard the sounds of urgent lovemaking. Faintly nauseated, I read the cover page of the manuscript.
My name was there, I saw this right off. It was also on the next page, and, flicking through, only my surname was mentioned. It was strangely disorientating to see my name in print. What I appeared to be holding was a detailed record of my stay in the apartment.
The bedroom door pulled across. My sister stood brazenly in the gap, a white sheet wrapped tight around her waist and shoulder, a single white breast hanging towards the floor. I noted that her nipple was still hard.
She stood there, looking evenly at me, while I tried to find my voice. But I merely found myself looking at her breast. Then he appeared behind her, wearing tight-fitting, white shorts. And he was so much bigger than I had imagined.
‘Well,’ I said, leaving the pages back on the table, ‘fancy this.’
They said nothing. I felt panic and heat behind my eyes. But not a trace of anger.
‘I’m not feeling too well,’ I said. ‘I don’t suppose we’ve any aspirin.’
My sister stepped barefoot into the kitchen, covering herself properly with the sheet. I remembered a tall woman with a fierce temper, but she did not come too close.
‘Have you had a pleasant stay?’ she asked sweetly.
As it was clear that I was struggling for an answer she motioned towards the bedroom door.
‘I hope that he has been accommodating,’ she said.
I looked at him. I thought momentarily that he might defend me but he wouldn’t even meet my eyes and suddenly I felt truly ill, sick to my stomach and light-headed. I pulled out the kitchen chair and sat down.
‘Seriously,’ I said, black spots in my field of vision, ‘just some medicine, a glass of water.’
Through the blur I saw the plant by his feet and wondered if it had been watered.
‘No,’ she said, in a considered tone of voice, ‘I think it’s best if you leave us now. As you can see, we’re busy.’
As quickly as I had become ill, I now felt partially restored. I stood up.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘of course. I wouldn’t want to intrude.’
‘And besides,’ I continued, almost as an afterthought, ‘I wouldn’t call this much of a family reunion.’
My sister shivered violently and stepped backwards into his arm.
‘You haven’t been family for a long time,’ she said, quietly. ‘You’re not family at all.’
It was quiet and I could hear my own heartbeat. My breath came short and fast and I realised that she was crying and I immediately accepted that she was speaking the truth.
‘Well, yes, of course,’ I said. ‘If you’ll just give me a moment to gather my things.’
Neither of them said a word. I stepped past them into the tatami room and saw their clothes in a heap on the yellowing mats. I felt sick again. Beside the futon my briefcase was open. I removed the passport and stared impassively at my underpants, my pages, my bits and pieces. I put the passport in my jacket pocket and left the rest behind.
They had moved to the other side of the kitchen. I had not seen my sister in two years. And the more I studied this girl now the less I seemed to recognise. I recalled that my sister’s hair was blonde, not brown. My sister would certainly never cry like that. And, in fact, my sister was slightly taller. Clearly this girl was telling the truth; she wasn’t my sister after all. I decided that we had made a mistake, and nothing more.
Just then he bent down and picked up the plant, stepped into the room and handed it to me. I thought it a fine gesture. He went back and put his arm around the girl. I picked up the pages from the kitchen table.
‘May I?’ I enquired of him.
‘It’s yours,’ he said.
I put down the plant, folded the pages and put them in my inside pocket, beside the passport.
Then I looked at them both for the last time. Her head was against his chest. It was true, we’d all of us had a shock. I thought about going across and shaking their hands. But then I thought better of it.
I put on my shoes and tied them and picked up the plant.
‘I’m sorry for all this trouble,’ I said.
One of them said something too but the door closed so quickly I couldn’t hear a word.