In this life
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers
Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828)
‘I understand why people do it,’ she says, crossing our small bedroom in a few high-heeled strides and sitting down beside me. She overshoots and almost ends up on the floor but recovers quickly, already fishing in her bag for cigarettes. I wonder how much she’s had to drink tonight.
‘I mean, even thinking about the families of the victims, the crippled survivors, I really, really understand why they do it.’
I’m watching the deft movements of her hands as she speaks; extracting a cigarette from the gold soft-bottomed paper packet she flips out between her third and fourth finger, arcs the lighter around her face in a halo of flame and ignites the tar in the rolled paper which begins to smoulder. She takes a deep, deep drag and it purrs. Her pupils actually dilate. It's suffocating in our tiny apartment; no place to smoke, but nonetheless, I'm hypnotised. Trust Haruko to make self-destruction into something beautiful.
‘I mean, think of the angriest you’ve ever been. The anger that makes your fists clench involuntarily. The anger that’s sort of at the government and sort of at the big multinational corporations and sort of at your parents but it’s really about the fact that you’re living a life that was never meant for a human being and you’re so wounded and humiliated by it that you just want to hit something.’
The smoke curls from her nose as though it’s explored the inside of her head and emerged, satisfied, from the labyrinth of tubes. She sucks again, a big, calming breath, and holds it for a few seconds, like the Zen monks do, before the force of her next statement fires it out again:
‘The trick is figuring out exactly what to hit.’
Haruko. Still in the smudged makeup and turquoise sequinned tube dress that constitutes her ‘uniform’ at the Kabukicho hostess club where she works nights. Speaking to me on our bed, low and urgently, her breath stinking of cheap whisky and cigarettes. It's been almost a year but I still feel a hot rush in my chest that it’s me she’s chosen: me that she’s sharing these thoughts with.
‘I met a really strange guy tonight at the club,’ she muses, idly playing with the foam bubbles in our bathtub. She's small enough to fit right inside it; I have to squat and shiver, showering my skin piece by piece as quickly as possible, trying to outrace the chill.
'He said his name was Asahara. He said he could tell I wasn’t happy.’
‘You mean he could tell that you’d been…ill? Depressed?’
‘No, I think he just meant that it was obvious that I didn't belong there, working with those rich creeps and trashy girls. He watched me drink too much and he let me tell him about everything. My parents, my half-finished biochemistry degree, the depression, the suicide attempts. He just sat and listened while I poured us sake and he sort of…looked after me.’
I feel a clammy surge of jealousy stir in my gut like a tapeworm.
‘What do you mean, looked after you?’
‘I was pretty upset; this guy had slapped me on the ass as I walked by and I’d had a few cups of sake by then so I turned around and yelled at him. Then my boss yelled at me for my bad manners and said she was going to take the money out of my tips to make up for losing his custom.’
She slips down in the tub until only her nose and eyes are above the water. It is a childish gesture that both irritates me and chokes me with tenderness.
‘Blphphllb phlb bhlb phlp blb.’
She emerges a little cleaner. The water has washed off the last of her make-up to reveal pinkish-grey pouches beneath her inkblot eyes and the ripe, blue veins encircling her temples in an electric halo. When she's wet it's like you see right through her.
‘He says I'm better than all that. He says he knows what I need to do to free myself. He gave me some pamphlets and an address and he says I should come along to one of his group’s meetings. He says they’re kind of like Buddhists; they try and figure out what’s really important in life for your spiritual merit and train you avoid the negative things. Things like drugs and crime and violence. Materialism.’
She begins to massage her round, white limbs with a sponge. I know what she's doing; I'm still angry that she's been drinking and crying with another man but watching her naked in the soap bubbles makes me lose focus; forget my thoughts. Something she knows full well.
‘You don’t need some stranger to tell you how to live your life! If you’re not happy working at the club then quit. I can make enough to support us both. You could even go back to university. Finish your degree. You’d make a very cute biochemist, Dr. Haruko.’
She splashes water at me like she's playing but the look in her eyes tells me she's not. They're hard and flat like a snake's and seeing them, my heart sinks.
‘Don’t you dare patronise me, Kenji. Besides, you know that’s not true. This place is the size of a wardrobe but it still drinks up all the money we can shovel into it. We both have to work. I’d have to move out into a student dormitory if I wanted to continue my degree.’
‘I’d rather lose you to the student life for a few years and have you make something of your life than watch you waste it in that club,’
This I blurt out without thinking. I know I've made a mistake. I go cold all over.
‘It’s not just the fucking money Kenji!’
Her unfinished degree represents every way in which she feels she's let people down these past twenty-one years, not least herself. I should know better than to bring it up.
‘I have absolutely no idea what to do with my life. I don’t know how to manage in this world. That’s why I got ill. It’s not brain chemistry or anything to do with my childhood. I’m just an animal in an alien environment; scared and frustrated and lost and so are you. So’s everyone in this city. We work so hard towards things that amount to absolutely nothing in the end. When I was small, my uncle died. Karoshi. He was only 35 years old. His heart just stopped.'
She's standing up in the bathtub, small and naked and shivering and yelling right in my face but I'm not angry. I'm just scared, sad and so very, very fucking tired of it all. Treading on eggshells, watching her bleed but above all not being able to help. Being powerless myself in the face of the traitor within, the saboteur inside her skull that paralyses her.
I don't even try and stop her when she packs a small suitcase later that night and leaves. Her sequinned, turquoise tube dress is still hanging on the door handle as it slams shut behind her.
Just seeing Haruko sitting on the bench in Yoyogi park waiting for me gives me the shakes. It’s my lunch break and I hand her a rapidly cooling coffee into which raindrops keep splashing. Today is the first time I’ve seen her since the fight and I'm a mess. I can’t handle the empty apartment so I’ve been spending more and more time at the office. Shaving in the men's toilets. Sleeping under my desk. This is terrifying for a formerly teetotal non-smoker. I've never been addicted before and I have absolutely no measures in place to deal with craving a drug. I picked up the phone and called her at her friend’s place. Begged her to come and meet me, talk to me. And here I am, and here she is and I have nothing to say. I just drink in the sight of her with my bloodshot eyes. She takes the Styrofoam cup without looking at me and says:
‘This city is a perfect example of how the jungle has evolved along with the monkey.'
I've lost half a stone despite my recently developed taste for beer in the evenings. This morning, typing up an account, I noticed blood on the keyboard from where I've gnawed my fingernails down to the quick. Her turquoise tube dress in bunched up in my jacket pocket.
'I mean, the mistake most people make is assuming we should live by different rules to animals because we're 'civilised.'
She mimes inverted commas with her pale hands.
'We're still animals, just in a different jungle. This city is the seat of modern technology, a real metropolis but I think it's the biggest beast of them all. We have to adapt to this dangerous new environment. Kill or be killed. Change or die.'
I want to tell her that these sentiments she's expressing don't sound very Buddhist but I bite my tongue. Because it’s raining, she isn't smoking. She says it confuses her. My workmates stare, puzzled, as they rush past us for the shelter of their offices clutching paper-wrapped sandwiches. The rain's really coming down.
'Raindrops scream all the way down once they see where they're about to fall: right into Tokyo 's wide open mouth. The rain can't choose where it falls any more than we can choose where we're born. It filters something pure through its system and it comes out tainted. The beast pisses into the sea and the sea throws it right back in our filthy faces. Tsunami!'
I'm slightly chilled as she makes a slow, deliberate wave motion with her perfect, white hands which gradually subsides. Her hair is drenched. Raindrops strike her china cheeks but she's hardly even blinking. She doesn't seem to notice the rain. I wonder if 'Asahara' thinks she's beautiful.
'Kenji, I've tried playing it the old way, their way, and I ended up in hospital. I'm going to try something a little different this time. But I really need you on board with it. If you are, we can move back in together, go forward together. Otherwise, we have to end this now, and forever. I need to know that you're on my side before I can trust you enough to do that.'
I'm not breathing as I listen to the price of her love. The rain on her face looks like tears carving pale, washed-out lines into her makeup but it's me who's crying. I'm stunned by what I'm prepared to do to get her back.
I'm going to look into those squid-ink pupils and say yes.
It's the poison talking but it's still my mouth, my words. It's weak and selfish and so, so stupid but I'm succumbing.
'For you. Anything.'
Rocking through the underworld in our bullet-chariot, I lower a paper mask over my face. This doesn't attract as much attention as you might think: it's normal for commuters to be cautious about pollution in Tokyo. I'm so sick and dizzy with the closeness of the human biology pumping its gases all around me, I feel like I'm about to keel over. To steel myself, I try and concentrate on how Haruko's face looked in the park that day: the terrible, dark joy that welled up in her eyes when I said yes that told me I might finally have won her back. We went back to what was once again our apartment and made love that left me shaking, slightly tearful and exhilarated beyond belief (and Haruko in a deep sleep). My head was clearer after my fix and I felt a sudden desire to take back a little control; re-engage with my situation. I wrapped myself in a bathrobe, logged on to wikipedia.org and entered the unfamiliar word into the search engine:
'SARIN is an extremely potent organophosphate compound that disrupts the nervous system by inhibiting the cholinesterase enzyme by forming a covalent bond with the site of the enzyme where acetylcholine normally undergoes hydrolysis. This allows acetylcholine to build up and continue to act so that any nerve impulses are, in effect, continually transmitted.'
A part of my mind wonders how strong the sealing is on the newspaper-wrapped packet I’m holding; whether I've already inadvertently breathed some of it in. Adjusting my heavy overcoat to disguise the action I let the deadly little bubble fall to the floor at my feet. I nudge it surreptitiously with the toe of my boot until it’s directly beneath the specially sharpened point of the umbrella I’m carrying. As I lift it I try and focus on my bone-deep devotion to Haruko; not the faces of the other passengers or the words 'coma' and 'convulsions.' I don’t believe in God but I’m begging to something as I stand there, shaking, I’m begging with my blood, my breath, my entire body that this is enough to finally satisfy Haruko; prove my loyalty, prove I'm on her side. The thought galvanises me and with the air of one diving into deep, deep water, I do what I've come down here to do. Save her. Bring her back. Every blink sets her face flickering before my mind's wide eye machine-gun staccato. I keep time with the blinks and apparitions as I puncture the bag again and again with the sharpened end of my umbrella. The smell is sweet as lilies, inhuman as clean sheets and it rises where I have disturbed it.
Haruko. According to our friends at Wikipedia, short and long term symptoms include:
· bleeding from the nose and mouth
· disturbed sleep and nightmares
· extreme sensitivity to light
· foaming at the mouth
· high fevers
· influenza-like symptoms
· loss of consciousness
· loss of memory
· nausea and vomiting
· respiratory problems
· uncontrollable trembling
· vision problems, both temporary and permanent
· getting the hell out before it's too late.
I added the last entry to the article myself in our bedroom-cum-office as she slept on the unrolled futon behind me. I thought people should be aware that someone like her existed in the world. But it was picked up by the administrators on the deletion cycle at 6am the same day and removed. When I wrote that, there must still have been a part of me uncontaminated by Haruko; a vestigial self beneath my addiction, powerless to influence things but at least still thinking clearly. It's the same part that refuses to let me believe that love is anything other than a virus we contract when we pierce the sphere of another person.
As the train a kicked can hurtles faster through the wormcast of the Tokyo underground my legs crumple underneath me and I go down hard. It feels like pure relief. A rib breaks against a bench leg as a frantic passenger kicks me hard but unintentionally as she runs by. I don't know where she thinks she's going. Her shoes are polished and she's wearing those hideous white tights that Japanese women feel represent irrefutable female propriety but I can see that underneath the clinical gauze her legs are milk-white and freckled. My strained senses pulled taut across the dome of this crisis flash to the white triangle of Haruko's face pressed against my mouth breathing into me; her spring-shoot legs curling insidiously around my torso, binding me, her arms winding around my neck. Something sweet and unwholesome is in my throat; I feel viscous wetness between my fingers and an alarm goes off behind my eyes. I open my mouth to ask for help but I’m speaking the wrong language: a sticky mounding foam that tastes like Parma violets. No-one knows I’m asking them to save me. My senses are closing off, one by one, shutting everyone else out. Inside, it's just me and the poison.
The offending shoe bears its rider away, teetering down the thrashing snake tail of train that scents the mongoose I've enraged and unleashed in its belly. I'm trying to call out to this origami swan of a woman, tell her I didn't mean for this to happen. There's just something so unbearably sad about how perfectly polished her shoes are: probably diligently done for a boss that wouldn't even have noticed them, capping those shrouded legs, neatly folded beneath her desk. I wouldn't have involved her modesty in this nightmare for all the world: pitted her against this enemy so shockingly HERE and nowhere to flee to, adrenaline spiking and spiking with no respite. I wish I could have called her this morning on her cute little cellphone and told her to walk to work, or just call in sick. But someone had to be on this train. The play with no audience:
is no play at all.
It’s been an even half-minute since I took any meaningful kind of breath. There’s a clenched fist in my chest and dark rivulets running between its fingers. I wonder if the arms I can feel pulling at me are hers. Limp and compliant as a rag doll and Haruko pulling me in yet another direction. Black.
I can't see the hospital TV screen because my pupils are still massively dilated and covered with thin bandages to protect my eyes from the glaring hospital light. I can hear the dialogue just fine though: the fear and trembling in the voice of the interviewed eyewitness as he responds to the questions fired at him by the reporter.
The reporters who arrived on the scene faster than the ambulances.
I wish they could have filmed the last thing I remember seeing before I collapsed and my vision went black: the Mexican wave of falling bodies travelling along the carriage away from the epicentre: me. I don’t need the reporter’s frantic commentary on the events on screen to see the first victim go down:
Reporter Miyata Minoru: ‘A woman falls off her seat foaming at the mouth. Her hair and scarf trail in a puddle of something clear and sticky on the floor. The man standing to her left doesn't know what to do. Leaning over to ask if she's OK he gets a noseful of a sickly sweet perfume.’
Eyewitness Akashi Tatsuo: ‘It reminded me of my dead grandmother’s bathroom’
Miyata: ‘His vision darkens and his stomach starts to cramp with intense nausea.’
Akashi: ‘I remembered the nightmares I used to have as a kid on the night of the O-bon festival. I must have been the only one in the tiny Shizuoka prefecture village I lived in before moving here to Tokyo that didn't want the souls of the dead to find their way to his house.’
Miyata: The one perpetrator that the police managed to capture unconscious at Tsukiji station is expected to be tried once his condition improves.
I feel sorry for the passengers as I listen to the sounds of them scuttling to and fro trying to outrun their unseen, unknown enemy. They have no idea what the real danger is: what's really killing them slowly with every single breath they draw. At least my disease has a name, a face, albeit a beautiful mask. I know why I'm here, lying in a hospital bed, critical but stable.
Whatever that means.
It's because I love her and consequently her fight is my fight. It's the only belief strong enough to survive the everyday; the only cause urgent and pressing enough to penetrate the greenhouse of greed and selfishness that we're all trained from birth to construct around ourselves. We all want to be able to stand back from our lives and say:
'That was me. I did that. I made an impact on the world.'
Because that's what love is, really. It's the only real thing we have left.
'People are going to remember my name for a long, long time.'
I've started saving my sleeping pills.
Glossary of Japanese terms
Kabukicho – Intended to be the site of a kabuki theatre, instead it became Tokyo’s red-light district.
Karoshi – literally ‘death by overwork’ in Japanese. Most common amongst young businessmen who suffer strokes and heart attacks from stress in the workplace.
Asahara Shoko – the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo religion in Japan. This group was responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Before the group grew to large proportions, he was known to have directly encouraged individuals to renounce their secular life and become dedicated members of the religion.
O-bon – A Buddhist festival to honour the departed souls of the ancestors. An element of the celebration involves lighting alanterns to guide the spirits from the afterlife back to their homes.