PART OF THE From the Shadows ISSUE
‘She wasn’t laughing. She hasn’t laughed much recently. Not much to laugh about. Even schadenfreude took a hammering this year.’
Life is Elsewhere, Burn Your Flags
By Iain Maloney
Published by Liminal Ink
Snow fell during the night, a sugar coating on the mountains. Frosted pine trees, an icy sheen on the clean, bright wood, yet even after the snow it’s all still dusty scrub. These hills – hills, not mountains, whatever the tourist info says – are never going to inspire any great poetry. No hermits ever retreated to these sandy bumps to live out their lives in quiet contemplation. Lives of quiet desperation. Not here.
These aren’t Mishima mountains where you can imagine the ill-fated world-rejected hero of a Mishima Yukio story coming to end it all, muscled torso exposed to the morning sun, a sharp blade – a meaningful blade, historical steel – cleansed and waiting, a suitable death poem on his lips. A romantic death. Meaningful death. Beautiful death.
You don’t get beautiful deaths anymore. Not in 2020. You get deaths behind closed doors. Death behind plastic sheeting and infection controls. Death by statistics. Death by policy. The plague times. The end of days. No beautiful deaths, alone in an isolation room, a voice through an intercom. We built hospitals so we could keep death from our doors. Clean, tidy, elsewhere.
Life is elsewhere. I am elsewhere. But this year death is everywhere. Death is here. On the way here I killed a snake. I saw it too late; a hosepipe stretched across the single-track road, just round the hairpin bend. My wheels were over it before I had time to register what I was seeing. Not even a dunt like in the movies, the sound of machine rolling over life, the jolt inside the car. Expensive suspension, thick tyres, a smooth ride. A shimahebi, harmless, but powerful, long. The head was moving, its back broken, flattened into the tarmac. I didn’t know what to do so I left it. Another ugly death, alone and broken. Why did the snake cross the road? To get to the other side. Shouldn’t go outside. Death is coming round every corner, silent.
I check my phone. Nothing. They said I’d get the results today. She’ll call herself, Dr Endo, to deliver the news, good news, bad news. Either way, there will be news today. April 18, 1930 there was no news on the BBC. Here’s some music instead. Music while you wait. Wait for the news. I looked on Wikipedia once about April 18, 1930. A typhoon made landfall in the Philippines, but that wasn’t news-worthy in Britain then. Or maybe they didn’t know. The news wasn’t news then, it was always already yesterday’s news. Yesterday, in the Philippines, a typhoon made landfall. We’ll tell you how many died tomorrow. Now here’s some music.
There’s a website that tracks the cases, the deaths. One page, two counters, scrolling round, scrolling up, and up, and up. News in an instant. Up and up. I don’t usually climb in silence but I can’t think of any sounds I want to hear. Nothing fits the mood but silence, the crump of my boots on the rocky path, the screech of those Chinese birds wintering here. Noisy, brightly coloured. Stereotypes abound in nature. There was one other car in the car park, a white Kei truck, a tiny pickup, almost like a toy. Some old guy fishing, his camping stove and a frying pan, a one-cup sake and the din of family safely out of earshot. No one else on the paths. I have to keep reminding myself it’s Christmas Day.
Back in Dublin, it’s still Christmas Eve. Saoirse will be wrestling the kids into bed, stockings over the – where do you hang stockings if you don’t have a fire? Off the bookcase? Stockings up, tree lights on, Santa on his way. A glass of wine, her and Gerry wrapping presents stashed on top of the wardrobe for a week at the most. Saoirse was always lastminute. Homework at school; ready for a date; driving me to the airport in March, the rush to get back to Japan before the borders closed. We only noticed as we came off the last roundabout that she still had her slippers on. You’re getting just like Ma, I said. Well don’t be telling Gerry that or he’ll be off after a younger model. Just the excuse he needs, she said. Problems there? I asked. Nothing castration wouldn’t solve, she said. And that’s where you leave it because there were bigger problems than whether Gerry had been at it.
Only just got home. Japan closed the borders in March and us lifers weren’t allowed back in until October and even then there were more hoops than at Celtic Park. Permanent residence. Contingent status. We’re here under sufferance. Thanks for the taxes but once we perfect the robots, you’ll not be needed. Right now entry to Japan is banned except for Japanese nationals. As if the virus checks your passport.
Eri picked me up, threw a mask at me, a bottle of hand gel, even though I already had both. Don’t tell anyone where you’ve been, she said. Don’t tell the neighbours you were in Europe. Should I wear a badge? I said. Tattoo something on my forehead?
She wasn’t laughing. She hasn’t laughed much recently. Not much to laugh about. Even schadenfreude took a hammering this year. Can’t laugh at the suffering of others when there’s so much of it about. Where to start? Schadenfreude, like charity, starts at home. Laugh at thyself, you fucker, if you want something to laugh at. Christmas Day and you’re on your own up in the hills. Not a present exchanged. Not even a merry or a happy. She was up late, locked in the spare room with her old boxes and that sake we got from Kochi, all of it. I could hear her snoring in there as I went downstairs and pulled my boots on.
Christmas really is fucking ridiculous when you think about it. Kids aside, of course. The niblings will be excited as anything for Santa and the works. Eighteen years in Japan and the word has lost all meaning. Grown-up adults decorating the house and putting on paper hats like they don’t all hate each other 364 days. I kick a rock and before I realise it’s gone over the edge and is tumbling down, gathering speed, gathering no moss. There’s a golf course down there somewhere. Good. A rock, like the Indiana Jones rock at the start of Raiders, battering through the twelfth green, knocking some old executive in a pink cap and one glove flying. A few Facebook Merry Christmases, a retweet of a retweet of a retweet. No news.
I stop and take a drink of water. It’s even colder than when it came out the tap. Or maybe I’m just hotter. It’s been a while since I got much above sea level. At the start of lockdown I did a bit, made myself get outside, but all the enthusiasm drained somewhere around June. Best intentions.
Every year Eri and I get in a couple of good hikes and every year one of us says, we should keep it up this year, get fitter. We should have a goal. Maybe Kiso-Komagatake in the summer. Camp on the plateau like we did back in the day. Under the stars. By February I couldn’t tell you whether the piping on my boots was red or yellow.
Shouldn’t have taken the car. It’s a faff with the trains but I hate retracing, going back. Makes the walk seem twice as long, half as interesting. Plus I could have a drink. A wee flask. A couple of cans. I know I shouldn’t but it’s Christmas. The Lord forgives a drink at Christmas. The Lord forgives but the body doesn’t. The doctors won’t.
Very, very cold water, water just above freezing, tastes of nothing, tastes of absence, tastes of the void. Swallow it inside me, swallow it down, taste the emptiness.
Hiking here is a recent import, 150 years or so. People climbed mountains, obviously, but mainly for religious reasons. Temples at the top, pilgrimages up the long and winding roads, barefoot, carrying a rock, devotional. Mental. No one did it for fun, as a hobby, as a way to fill the time while you’re waiting. Not until some mad westerners showed up with poles and tennis rackets and buggered off up these divine slopes for a laugh. They didn’t half embrace it, though, that mix of suffering and satisfaction potent, contagious and oh so human. Old women carrying enough equipment to restock basecamp for a forty-five minute round trip because you’ve gotta have the gear, and what’s a climb without a cup of ramen at the top? Without a wee flask?
I’ve always liked the haiku. It’s what brought me to Japan in the first place. Like most men I had a Beat phase. On The Road, wine and jazz, girls and drugs, cut up and the best minds. But I never had much concentration for reading. Kerouac’s haiku, that got me. That short sharp shock, the single moment, a story in a few words. Why does Tolstoy need so many when Bashō needs so few? Brevity is the soul of wit, said Shakespeare, so a haiku poet is wittier than a novelist. Joyce should’ve done Ulysses as a haiku.
On June 16th
Bloom had a shite
Stephen had a drink
Molly had a ride
Yes, they did, yes.
Not really a haiku but there you go.
Life is Elsewhere, Burn Your Flags by Iain Maloney is published by Liminal Ink, price £6.99
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