shopping

By GAVIN KRAMER

SOHO

Copyright © 1998 Gavin Kramer. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-56947-189-4



Chapter One


THIS IS WHERE WE SPRINKLE IN THEATMOSPHERE OF THE TIMES

—DAZAI OSAMU


My colleague Meadowlark was very tall and always uneasy.He never looked over his shoulder but you felt he wantedto. Though he'd done nothing wrong he had about himthe aura of a man on the run; a man who expects — at anymoment — to be found out.

    It was not an ideal trait for a lawyer. It may have been,indeed probably was, bound up with his height. In anygathering for a photograph he'd be the tallest, the othersclustered about him as if around a young, gawky oak, or atethered giraffe. He once told me, broad sombre face tilteddown to look me in the eyes, as always earnestly pushingup his spectacles as they slipped down the scarp of his nose,how he dreamed of being short. Of being absorbed, indistinguishable,back into the mass. He wanted to be overlooked.He wanted, just once, to disappear. So they senthim to Japan.

    I saw him on his second evening, having already saidgoodnight to him in the office. He was standing in thestreet, stranded, lost, too tall for that city, that country. Tokyowas in the grip of its late-evening madness, the pavementpeople-flooded, a huge unvarying flow which passed withoutcuriosity around him. In that gaudy, neon-staineddistrict strange foreigners were a familiar sight. Indeed, onthe scale of strangeness, because of his suit, his glasses, hiswell-tended hair, he barely registered, and then only becauseof his height.

    He was grateful to be rescued. I took him to a sidestreetbar. The clientele were mostly other foreigners, white menin ties. I think that helped to calm him, being back amonglumpy, Caucasian men, reassuringly uniform in their suits.

    `Sorry. I know I made a sodding fool of myself. Butsuddenly I just couldn't remember how to get home. I felt,I don't know, paralysed.' He dabbed at his face with ahandkerchief. He'd been sweating. He blinked, instinctivelypushing up his spectacles even before they'd begun to slide.`You must think I'm an utter idiot.'

    I shook my head.

    `Well they must.'

    `Who?'

    `The Japanese.'

    `No. They expect us to be helpless. Sometimes I thinkthey prefer it. Just as some of them don't like it if a foreignerspeaks perfect Japanese. It makes them sort of queasy.'

    `Well, no danger of that ever happening with me.' Heremoved a small phrase book from his inside pocket. `It'simpenetrable ... Getting through the day here. You'realways banging your head against some ruddy wall. That'sall you're doing. All the time.' He looked around. `I shouldn'thave come, but I didn't want to say no.'

    `Why not?'

    `I'm thirty-four. I'm not a partner. I thought, well, Ithought if I said yes, it would help me. You know. Spendtwo years in Tokyo. Prove myself, as part of the team. Andno distractions. I mean, there's nothing to do here apartfrom work is there?'


Essentially there are three kinds of young professionalexpatriates in Tokyo. (We had little or nothing to do withthe other types of expats — language teachers and languagestudents mostly, plus a few shaven-headed failures whofancied themselves to be Buddhists. They earned too littleto live where we lived or to go to the bars which wepatronized. Japanese good-time girls, the `Yellow Cabs', hadno interest in them. There was no cachet for a Yellow Cabto be seen with a bald — by choice — white Buddhist, withsomeone who probably recited mantras at six in the morningand lived in a block without a lift. We also, of course,had nothing to do with the most despised foreigners of all,the slight, dark-skinned men who worked on building sitesand lived maybe a dozen to a room in the backstreets ofShinjuku.) And of the three kinds of young professionalexpatriates, it was clear to which category Alistair Meadow — larkbelonged. They were here against their will, condemnedto serve in this city at this time because of the vast, unifiedeffort of one hundred and twenty-five million people — injust fifty years — to plug a once bomb-levelled country intothe very heart of the worldwide money machine, theglittering merry-go-round of bankers and brokers anddealers and lawyers, the see-saw and endless noise ofspeculation and finance. The food and the people and thecustoms and the language and the ceaseless, wearyingmovement — bodies flowing interminably into and out oftrains, into and out of buses, into and out of stations, offices,banks, department stores, across roads, across pavements,darkening and filling every space, making and selling,consuming and accumulating — that was too much for them.They worked with their heads down, somehow survivingin their airborne, air-conditioned flats, and dreamt of home.

    The second category were often graduates of this group.They were all men, for women (and white women seemedalways oddly out of place among Tokyo's neat black-hairedmillions) found no sexual edge to their lives here. Theindigenous men, though getting taller, smarter, morethoroughly label-conscious with each new generation,nevertheless did nothing for them. But for many of thewhite men in suits, the local girls, or a certain type, becametheir great solace, indeed their principal activity outsidethe office and the bar. Alistair Meadowlark, however,seemed asexual to his core. I had never once seen him evenglance with interest let alone intent at the flesh paraded soshamelessly in this district of Tokyo called Roppongi. Thiswas the domain of the Yellow Cab, as American expatssome years before had so touchingly dubbed them. Thelegs displayed were surprisingly long. Their mothers andeven more their grandmothers (from a time when thick,short, slightly bow legs were the norm) must be continuallyamazed at what they had managed to produce. Hair sometimesstraight, a dense, dark river, sometimes bobbed,sometimes piled up or frothily permed, pronounced mouthsthickly daubed, they passed with expressions of disdain andboredom (for what? for life? for their society and patrimony?for all their dull, hard-working parents?); clingingcrop tops were favoured whatever the weather, the skinexposed maddeningly golden, abbreviated skirts flickered,heels were dangerously steep — an unabashed peacockdisplay. I often wondered what middle-aged expatriatewives thought, and feared, as they moved cautiously throughthis parade of high-checked amazons.

    I, of course, was a member of the third, most select group.We knew our tanzen from our yukata, our Dazai from ourMishima, our udon from our soba noodles. We knew how tonavigate the hot spring resorts and the ryokan, the traditionalinns. We liked to be seen browsing knowledgeably in KandaBook Town. We liked to be seen in places where we werethe sole white face. For that, we felt, was the only truegauge of authenticity. The most fanatical would walk outof a restaurant if they saw even one pair of non-Japaneseeyes on entering, declaring the place immediately to be justsomewhere for tourists. We competed to augment our knowledgeof kanji, the characters which stand for whole words,and sneered together when someone like Meadowlark saidproudly, I can now recognize the signs for Shibuya. Thesecond one looks like a little Swiss chalet in the rain.

    So I wasn't at all surprised when Meadowlark said thattime I mean, there's nothing to do here apart from work. Is there?But what happened to him later, that did surprise me.


HIGH ABOVE THE NIGHTLESS CITY


Ma is the pause, the space between words, between images.It is that part of the page, of the picture, left untouched, asineffable white. In Japanese aesthetics, in any composition,whether verbal or visual, this absence is also supposed to besavoured, enjoyed in its own right.

    I'd met Meadowlark shortly after I'd first discovered thisidea and was wondering whether such notions could beapplied to a person. Could one, for example, find meaningin someone's blank spaces, in the juxtaposition between whatwas present in his character and what was quite absent?Certainly Meadowlark appeared to operate on the narrowestconceivable spectrum. A single ink squiggle in an awfullot of white space.

    It ensured a simple outlook on life but one which seemedto keep him happy. There was his career: new thinking,new developments in the practice of commercial law, faxedor e-mailed across thousands of miles by our head officeback in London, would be studied and absorbed with greatand uncritical diligence. It never once occurred to him tosay Oh fuck it, what is it this time what do we have to learn/know/do/undo/not do/omit/include/amend/redraft now. Everytwist of an unpredictable judiciary and legislature waspainstakingly mastered by him without complaint. Therewas his small family: he was an only child and a late one.He had elderly, very respectable parents living in a retirementbungalow near Bournemouth. I sometimes picturedthem as two doddery giants, balancing on sticks whichwould have reached my chin. And there was his respect fortradition: when I'd first visited his flat, a one-bedroom affairin Roppongi — we all had flats in or near Roppongi and itsneighbouring district of Minato-ku; the partners got twoor three bedrooms with better, more elevated views — I'dseen, framed on one wall, pictures of the Queen and ourlast but one prime minister.

    I would have been less taken aback if I'd found a framedstill from Deep Throat or Buttman and Robyn Do Rio, a videoone of the FX dealers I knew liked to use as backgroundfootage for his parties. I hadn't realized that anyone stillmounted photographs of the eminent and the respectedon their walls where any stranger might see, certainly notanyone under fifty.

    And I'd tried to imagine that room when I wasn't there.The Queen cool and remote; the last but one primeminister with those hooded eyes of hers that disdained likeany fully paid-up Yellow Cab; the two of them watchingin silence a half-naked Meadowlark (even Meadowlarkseventually remove their clothes) moving uneasily about hisdarkened bachelor flat.

    So there it was. Career. Family. Duty. All of which heaccepted, it seemed, without thought. It was that uncomplicatedacceptance which for me constituted his unfilled,silent space.


I'd brought him back to his flat after our drink the eveningthat I rescued him. He lived at the end of an underlitcul-de-sac without pavements, a white stripe painted alongeither side to demarcate a narrow path for pedestrians.His block was the final building, a narrow frontage, canefurniture resting on fake marble in the lobby, the structuredisproportionately tall (like Meadowlark) for its immediatesurroundings.

    A porter had nodded and called out a polite eveninggreeting as we entered. Muzak, so faint and yet so unavoidableas to induce the beginnings of nausea, accompaniedour ascent in the lift. His flat (like mine, like all the flats Iknew) had the drably toned interior of a second-rate internationalhotel. Everything in the kitchenette was extremelyshiny and very new with white, unforgiving surfaces. Thesmall living-room, just like my small living-room, wasdominated by an assembly of overblown entertainmenttechnology: a huge television screen, two waist-highspeakers, a VCR, a CD player, a sleek amp and tuner, as wellas a fax machine and telephone combined, all in matt black.The Japanese love matt black. And it's true, like no othercolour it eroticizes technology. When you're lonely, whenthe world outside is largely asleep if still full of randomlights beyond your window, you can stand and survey thoseimmaculate matt black surfaces, so perfect, so compact, andfeel a strange welling of satisfaction. I wondered whatMeadowlark did with this all-powerful array of entertainmentpossibilities. He'd never expressed any interest inmusic. I decided that CNN was probably too American forhim. And I couldn't picture him grazing with his remotecontrol through the late-night Japanese channels so rich inempty, jazzy, impenetrable talk (with the occasional bonusflash of a pair of breasts) and brash videos by local bandswith quasi-English names. On the other hand, there wereno books to be seen on the empty shelves. Perhaps he justsat and communed with his portrait of the Queen.


`Do you really admire her?' I asked, sitting on his sofa,indicating the last but one prime minister's portrait, on thatfirst occasion in his living-room.

    `Oh yes.' He nodded. `Very much.'

    `I'd have thought she was far too strident, too hectoringfor you.'

    `Well, I think she did a lot of good things, importantthings,' he demurred, somewhat doubtfully I thought. `Myparents are great admirers.' Perhaps he liked her strength ofwill. Liked to set it up — courtesy of that frame andphotograph — against his own weakness. He bent downand picked up a video.

    `I rented this. Well, Heather took me across and rented itfor me. She also signed me up ... It was very kind of her.'

    Meadowlark dipped his head and gazed for a while atthe video, using both hands to hold it as if it were somethingeasily broken. I couldn't see the title. `I've never rented avideo before.' He looked at me, I thought a little shyly.`Would you like to watch it? I've some biscuits from homein the kitchen.'

    It was Chariots of Fire. I vaguely recalled it. CambridgeUniversity. The 1920s. Loose-limbed athletes. Gentlemenand Players. The 100 yards dash. Monocles, stop-watches,very long shorts and dress shirts in the evening. Matters ofconscience. The Olympic Games. Derring do ... The musicswirled. As anticipated, men in very long shorts in duecourse ran in elegant slow motion along a beach. Theremay have been a sunset backdrop. I think the comfortingcertainties of that time appealed to Meadowlark. Besideme on the sofa his powerful jaws crunched chocolatedigestives, initially at the rate of one every ten minutes,then moving up a gear to one and a bit every five minutesas we approached the climactic final race. The abruptobliteration of each biscuit between those huge jaws wasan uncomfortable reminder of the latent strength residing,like a uranium core, in that vast, if presently placid, body.


LATER


After the video had finished, the story's strands braided in atight concluding knot, all issues resoundingly resolved, Iexcused myself for a now most pressing pee. Just like myflat, Meadowlark's lavatory boasted a toilet at the verycutting edge, all smooth ivory enamel and ergonomic curves — Iimagined how white-coated technicians, zealousresearchers, must have crouched around shiveringvolunteers naked from the waist down, prodding them andmeasuring, to reach this point — with a remote control thesize of a TV's in a holster mounted on the wall, and with asmany soft buttons, including several to programme theheated seat and one to lure out the douche which wouldsilently emerge beneath the sitter, a rigid, sinister steel snake.As it sprayed on command, one could not but pay homageto so much intelligence, so much busy white-clad imagination,invested in the disposal of simple human waste. I haveseen the future and it works. This room must have presentedthe newly landed Meadowlark with one of his sternestchallenges. I knew from experience that raw arrivals couldspend long anxious minutes in their host's home as theytried to establish, poring over the slim, many-buttonedremote, how to spirit from sight what indelibly markedthem out as perishable flesh.

    I went back into the living-room.

    Meadowlark was still sitting on his sofa, hunched forward,hands knotted between his knees. He looked up, gesturedwith his head. `That's a confusing place, isn't it?'

    `Certainly is,' I said, sitting back down in the armchair.`Nothing's simple anymore.'

    I was tired now and wanted to go, but Meadowlarkseemed anxious for me to stay longer before he wasreturned to his four walls and the legion of indifferentlights beyond his window. So out of solidarity, rememberingthat I'd once been a green newcomer myself, I accepted hisoffer of a second coffee and sat and listened to him movingclumsily about inside his cramped kitchenette. I noticed,resting flat on a shelf, a photograph album. He must havebeen a most ungainly child, growing in great irregularspurts, difficult and expensive to clothe. I wondered if hewould let me pry.

    Meadowlark reappeared, holding our mugs.

    `Cheers,' I said.

    He settled himself and blew carefully on his drink.

    `Are those photos?'

    `Mmn?' Looking up.

    `Just feeling nosy.'

    `No. Sure. If you want to.'

    `You're sure?'

    `Sure. Sure.'

    And then he rose and reached out with his great arms toremove the album from the shelf, covering me with hisshadow.

    I cradled it. The thing was heavy, solid, bound in amarbled red intended to mimic the appearance and textureof leather. I gingerly turned the endpaper. `I know Ishouldn't.'

    `No, no,' Meadowlark, who'd resumed his hunched-forwardposition on the sofa, politely urged me on toinvestigate his past; at least that was how it felt to me. Ihad — I had to recognize — an appetite for such things. Yet hedidn't seem to mind. I suppose he was lonely, and for himit was a way to make a friend. And so, as I began to turn thebig card pages, their photographs positioned in unimaginativequartets beneath the peel-back sticky plastic, he leftthe sofa to crouch beside me and explain these oblongclues to his past. I was not particularly comfortable with hiscumbersome proximity, but I could hardly, as I snooped onhis past, shoo him away.

    With Meadowlark as my guide, I examined monochromeshots of a gloomy property in a village outside Birmingham.The kind of house where long floorboards crack of theirown accord and the funereal tock tock of a grandfatherclock is always audible for want of any more cheerful soundto blanket it. There were a surprising number of these, allpeopleless, dating from the nineteen fifties. His father,Meadowlark explained, was an engineer whose fascinationfor angles and structures had always exceeded his interestin people. Then Meadowlark's debut, swaddled and round-facedin a cot. The expression, even at that age, was unmistakable.It was our Meadowlark, trapped in a very smallbody. There were several of him in his bath, a plump babyhooped and braceleted in fat, and even one of MasterMeadowlark astride his potty, grinning inordinately, inheavy training. He was an only child — and a very late oneinto the bargain — his father, he told me, was old enough tohave seen service in Normandy as a second lieutenant inthe Royal Engineers. Giant and terse, Meadowlark Seniorhad been a chilly, unapproachable presence in the mess (Idecided, as my imagination began of its own accord toembroider Meadowlark Junior's plainer account), buildingpontoon bridges (his speciality), orders always intimidatinglylaconic, adept with his hands and contemptuous of thosewho weren't. He'd come home in 1946 to court and wedwith an engineer's approach to planning and detail (thewoman selected, wooed and married in twelve weeks, ashort campaign) before joining a small Midlands engineeringcompany. Four years later he was on the board. MrsMeadowlark's principal distinguishing feature had been herheight, deterring suitors and worrying her parents. She'dbeen only too happy, therefore, to submit to SecondLieutenant Meadowlark's swift advance, hastily concurringwith his dire warnings about the implications for all ofLabour's landslide victory of 1945 so as not to appeardifficult. And in the summer of 1946 her father, a gentlemanfarmer and Justice of the Peace, escorted her to the altar ofthe village church. The vicar had insisted on telling anyonewho'd listen that she was the tallest bride he could recall inhis forty years of ministry.

    Meadowlark should, therefore, have been born in about1947. His mother then was twenty-two. But her health waspoor, she was frequently buried in her bed (they had singlebeds), and so Mr Meadowlark had had to find other thingsto occupy his mind — puzzles of engineering, companybalance sheets, the Rotary Club, his own ten-year stint as aJP. He was a pessimist by inclination, shaking his headunconvinced when told by Mr Macmillan that they'd neverhad it so good; he'd rather have heard that they'd never hadit so bad, considering as he did such politicians' declarationsboth shallow and presumptuous, mere hubris, nothing more.He was, after all, a creature of gloomy, wintry houses withgrandfather clocks whose steady, melancholic tock tockwent unchallenged by other, brighter sounds; he couldcomprehend the kind of life which such places entailed,having grown up in and then bought just such a home, andwhat he'd witnessed while assembling his pontoon bridgesfrom Normandy to the Rhine had only served to confirmhis own dim view of mankind as innately inclined to folly.He was, above all, an engineer — and non-engineers, he hadcome to conclude, were deeply illogical people seized bydeeply unreal expectations.

    So Meadowlark should have been born in 1947, butinstead his taciturn father and mild-mannered mothersettled for childlessness until, quite unexpectedly, at the ageof thirty-eight she conceived and, after eight and a bitmonths of swollen-bellied disbelief, was prematurelydelivered of a very red and solemn baby ...

    We continued.

    Now he was an uncomfortable-looking, large-formatteenager who, unlike others of his generation, could notremember exactly what he was doing when the BBC firstbanned `God Save the Queen' by the Sex Pistols. Hiswhippet-faced and far, far shorter second cousin Malcolmnow made his debut in the album. Malcolm appeared, atleast on the evidence of the photographs, to have beenMeadowlark's near-constant companion even though,Meadowlark confessed, he was never quite able to get togrips with Malcolm's embracing of the punk ideal. It was1977. Meadowlark, about to turn fifteen, was studying foreight `O' levels at a very minor public school whose headmaster'straditional relish for the cane had greatly impressedMr Meadowlark. It was a rugby-playing school andMeadowlark, prematurely gifted by his cruel genes withthe body of an adult lock forward, was kept busy — againsthis private inclination — on churned-up sports fields allover the Midlands, apologetically barging down and tramplingboys a third of his size, a ponderous battering ram, eyesgenerally screwed shut against the flying mud and spittle,driven on by the terrifying yell of the games master, hisschool's reluctant secret weapon ... Malcolm, meanwhile,had an ear pierced and experimented in Meadowlark'sbedroom (closely watched by an incredulous Meadowlark)with the mild self-mutilation by razor blade of hisforearms ... The Stranglers sang about Hanging Around andMalcolm hung around. The Sex Pistols screamed aboutAnarchy in the UK and Malcolm went optimisticallylooking for it in the village, Meadowlark (against his betterjudgement) dumbly lumbering after him. He was draggedto witness Slaughter & the Dogs, The Buzzcocks and TheDamned in raw action ('they really were awfully loud,'commented the contemporary Meadowlark) and hadstared, aghast, at a bucking sea of spiky heads while playful,subversive exchanges of spit arced between band and fans.I belong to the blank generation sang Malcolm hopefully inMeadowlark's bedroom while downstairs Mrs Meadowlarklaid a tablecloth for their tea.

    By never going out for two years, something his ageingparents had approved of, Meadowlark had done wellenough in his `A' levels to squeeze into one of Cambridge'snewer, concrete and glass colleges. Punk by now was onthe wane and it was the New Romantics — doe eyes,inexpertly scabbed with mascara, peeking out throughwaterfall fringes, much fey preening behind synthesizers — whowere taking their place. Meadowlark had avoided theirpointy-shoed acolytes among the students and also thetougher, leather-jacketed post-punks with raven haystackhair who boasted loudly in the JCR of summer holidayspassed in West Berlin and Amsterdam squats. He optedinstead for the clean labour and moral perspiration of earlymorning rowing on the Cam, placed by his admiringteammates at the very centre of the boat, its self-effacingengine-room. In retrospect, this had represented the peakof his life's graph so far, never since matched, with eventalk of a blue, though nothing in the end came of that,Meadowlark finally losing out to an even larger, cornfedAmerican. He wasn't particularly forthcoming on this point,but it was clear his failure had hurt.

    After numerous waterborn shots of Meadowlark withfellow crew members, oars proudly erect, their sleek craft,the bank beyond in full bloom, the photographs began topeter out. The last one, quite alone in the centre of thepage, showed him standing between his now retired parents,the three heads level with each other, posing in the kemptgarden of the bungalow just outside Bournemouth. Hiswhite-haired, big-boned mother still looked surprised byall that had happened since Second Lieutenant Meadowlarkstrode with all his commendable efficiency into her lifehalf a century before. He, the retired engineer, remaineddeeply forbidding, mouth grimly sealed up, clearly stillinfuriated by all the foibles and idiocies of non-engineeringmankind. Perhaps even now he regretted his failure, despiteoverseeing most closely Meadowlark's early efforts withMeccano, to make an engineer of him. And that was why (Idecided) one gimlet eye, ignoring the camera, was insteadglancing down to focus on his son's great clumsy handswhere they rested, lightly linked. And did this explain — Iwondered — my colleague's already familiar uncertain smile?


THE NIGHTLESS CITY


It was past midnight as I walked home to my own flat.Even at this time there were still salarymen leaving theiroffices, candidates for karoshi, death by overwork, squeezeddry down the years like toothpaste tubes, clumps of thembowing and separating at street level; others were makingfor their favoured bars and mama-sans, or exiting these tohead for the capsule hotels, too impregnated with spirits tocontemplate going home, or else their homes were simplytoo far away and it was better (and cheaper than a taxi) tosleep in the stacked hive of those great high-tech doss-housesfor the working man. Shoes removed and exchangedfor slippers at the long raised step in the entrance hall justas at home), they would noisily ascend by lift to their floorbefore climbing rungs and sliding into spaces little biggerthan those for a body in a mortuary. Two flushed andtottering Yellow Cabs, long hair identically permed, eachwith her own handsome African, barged across my pathfrom a side road, then zigzagged past, shrieking as theytripped or bumped something, some impediment, maybejust each other, behind me. I passed the bright red lanternand slatted sliding door with tripartite entrance flap of ayakitori-ya, its scent of grilled meats deeply beguiling, thenslipped into my shortcut, an underlit alleyway, the perspectivesuddenly altering, small, darkened, high-walled housespressing together, my route forested with flypostered telegraphpoles bearing a cat's cradle of wires. At the end of thealleyway, under a railway bridge, the last of the fortunetellers was folding up his fishing stool, about to board hisbicycle. I continued though this quiet pocket of grubbyfamily homes, then I was once more alongside a highwaystreaked by headlights, snaggle-lined by concrete buildings,the illuminated lobby of my apartment block visible ahead.Three schoolboys in their black Prussian jackets slouchedpast me, trailing satchels. Their heads were shorn to amilitary stubble, indicating they were members of thebaseball team. They would have been to school, then on tojuku, the night-time crammer, and after that would haveaimlessly drifted, dawdling in cheap cafés and games arcades,too tired to do anything so decisive as going home. I'doften watched their contemporaries, the boys with theirupright Teutonic collars, the girls in their sailor-like uniforms,sleeping, heads lolling, on late-night undergroundtrains, sleeping like old people when barely twelve, fourteenyears into their lives. There was so much to be learned,absorbed. And they'd only just begun. There were too manywords, too much information. My own head, as if insympathy, was also hurting now. As I pressed the entry keys,bathed in my building's fluorescence, I momentarily turnedmy head, trying to guess which out of a million brightlyscattered candidates might be my lonely colleague's window.