Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
At the time, the sign on the noticeboard seemed too good to be true: “Going home after twelve years in Japan. Everything free, you move. First come/First served.” Underneath was a phone number and the name “M. Catchpole.”
I’d arrived in Fukui two weeks before. I’d moved into a university apartment that contained nothing except a gas ring and light bulbs. There were no curtains, no shelves, no bed, no chairs, no heater. From a nearby Heiwado I bought a futon and quilt, and then inertia set in. When I came home after work the empty rooms yawned at me.
Next to the phone number it said “Evenings,” but I thought 4 p.m. on a Sunday gave me a good chance of reaching someone. I was in the “International Plaza,” a large, glass-walled building that now, an hour to closing, was almost empty. I’d come here to find out about Japanese lessons and afterwards, wandering through the deserted lobby, had found this noticeboard.
From a pay phone near the wide revolving door, I tried Catchpole’s number. My luck was holding — he was in. Judging by the accent I thought he was English, although it was hard to tell. It was either a very bad line, or he was holding the phone a long way from his mouth.
“What exactly are you giving away?”
“…thing free, you move.”
Could he really mean that? I wanted to check, but didn’t want to seem greedy, so instead I settled for extracting directions to his house. It wasn’t easy. His voice ebbed and flowed like a tide, the volume rising and falling. I had an idea he was waving the phone in the air as he spoke.
Outside, it was a cool autumn afternoon. I pedaled my mountain bike up the high street, parallel with the metal gleam of the tram rails, and pondered what Catchpole meant by “everything.” He couldn’t, I thought, mean it in the literal sense. It was only much later I learnt how the Japanese have a mania for what’s new; how adequately working fridges and cookers are left corroding in ditches to make way for newer models; how gaijin furnish their lives with second-hand goods and then pass them on when they leave. At the time I thought I’d stumbled on an act of extraordinary generosity. It felt like more luck than I deserved.
It was also luck, I thought, to find another gaijin. Fukui University was small, and among its staff I still hadn’t met any other non-Japanese. I liked the idea of getting inside another foreigner’s flat and seeing their life. I thought I’d find clues to my own future.
Reinforcing that idea, it turned out Catchpole lived in a building very much like mine. Backing onto paddy fields, the apartment block was the same blank rectangular slab, with the same narrow stone stairwell and the same metal doors. The only difference, was that Catchpole had a doorbell.
I rang it and waited. I began to hear muffled thumps and suddenly the door swung out and slammed against the wall.
“Ouch. There we are then. Hullo.” Catchpole was tall and thin, with unruly brown hair and someone else’s nose. Long and Roman, it dominated his narrow face and made his eyes and mouth anonymous. You felt it belonged on a bigger head.
“I phoned a bit earlier,” I said. “About your stuff.”
“Right, good. Martin,” he said, shaking hands, “Come in then.”
I gave my name to his retreating back, and after I’d kicked off my shoes, followed him into the apartment. It was slightly larger than my place, but very different. While mine still had the look of a temporary shelter, Catchpole’s was a home.
On the left as I entered, was a crowded kitchen area. Like me, Catchpole didn’t have a proper cooker, just gas rings. However, there was also a fridge covered with bright magnets, a washing machine draped with tea towels, and a battered-looking microwave. Crockery was draining in racks by the sink and on the white wall tiles behind them was a fur of yellow, curling Post-It notes. On the other side was a small pine dining table, hemmed in by ferns and bookshelves. Sliding doors beyond opened onto a compact tatami-floored room, with scattered cushions, and again random greenery in pots of various sizes.
I noted it all and wondered uneasily what I could get away with. Catchpole was standing by the sliding doors, his arms outstretched, as though for crucifixion.
“Well there we are. You’re the first, so it’s all here.”
He dropped his hands to his sides. “Didn’t take long, I must say. I’m quite impressed, Fukui being what it is.”
“How long has the notice been up there?”
Catchpole checked his watch.
“About forty minutes.”
“Wow, that was luck. And when are you heading off for England?”
Catchpole looked vaguely round the room. “Well, as soon as I shift this lot, I imagine. There’s nothing else to see to. That charcoal you can smell coming from the telephone, that’s the last of my bridges.”
“Having been burnt.”
“So what have you come with?” Catchpole asked.
“What sort of car have you got?”
“Actually, I don’t have a car,” I told him. “I came on a bicycle, and there’s this.” I held up my rucksack.
“Oh dear; well that’s not much use is it? You won’t be able to get much in that.”
He sat down at the dining table and stretched out his long legs. “Let’s have a think. What can you take?”
I took a seat opposite and Catchpole immediately leapt up. “We’ll have a beer shall we?” He charged over to the fridge and came back with two cans of Yebisu. I didn’t want to start drinking so early in the day, but then I didn’t want to seem ungrateful either.
Catchpole popped open his can and took a long swallow. I had a feeling it wasn’t the afternoon’s first.
“So what is there to take away… as such?”
“Here? You’re looking at it. As far as I’m concerned you can have the lot.” He patted the dining table, “You could have taken this, if you’d had the transport.” Catchpole peered at me from above his nose, “You’re not really prepared for this, are you? You haven’t arrived in a prepared manner.”
I couldn’t believe his offer.
“You’re giving away everything? Don’t you want to take some of this back?”
“And pay for the shipping? What’s the point. It’s a new start isn’t it? A new life.”
Even so, I thought. This flat was a home. It was complete and snug, and had all those little domestic touches that accumulate with time — the bamboo fisherman on the table, the wooden letter rack on the wall with ‘Kobe’ written on it, the triptych picture frame on a shelf: Catchpole with his arm around a Japanese girl, the two of them on skis, the two of them posing outside an Autumn temple. His invitation to dismantle it all was worrying. It was like asking me to beat him up.
Perhaps sensing my uncertainty, Catchpole said, “It doesn’t bother me, y’know. I’m not the sentimental type. Make a clean break, that’s my motto.”
He swallowed some more beer and asked, “So are you with the JET program?”
“They have jets here?”
“No, I mean J-E-T,” he said, spelling it out. “But I’ll take it you’re not. Language school then?”
I realized what he was getting at. “I don’t teach English. I’m an electrochemist. I work at the university.”
“So, you’re a science boff? That might be a good idea, it might help.”
He waved his beer can. “Life, you know. To settle.” He drummed his fingers on the table, “What does a science boff need in Japan?”
Glancing around at the embarrassment of riches, I felt I was taking advantage of him. Where could I reasonably begin?
“Here’s a thing,” said Catchpole, and loped off through the sliding doors, ducking his head as he did so. I imagined his long frame storming round this flat for twelve years, ducking under doorways and leaping over plant pots.
“Sake cups,” he said when he returned, holding them out. I didn’t know if he was offering or just showing them to me. They were very nice, I thought guiltily — blue-grey pottery with black rims and a shiny glaze.
“We’ll try some sake shall we?”
I’d hardly started on the beer.
“That would be great,” I said.
Catchpole brought over a sky-blue frosted bottle and emptied out its contents between the two cups.
“Kampai,” I said, remembering it from my welcome party.
The sake had an aniseed, vaguely medicinal taste, but with the heat of alcohol underneath it.
Now that I’d found another gaijin I didn’t really know what I wanted. Details of his life, I suppose. I wanted to hear him talk.
“Have you always lived in Fukui?” I asked.
“Microwave!” exclaimed Catchpole, rising. He yanked the plug out and then carried it back to the dinning table, where he dropped it with a bang.
“It looks a bit heavy,” I said.
“Never mind, we can get it on the back of the bike. We can tie it up, can’t we?”
Satisfied, Catchpole sank back into his chair. And then it was as though the earmarked microwave had given me permission to covet. I began to look around the room with a more predatory eye. I still wanted to hear him talk, but I also wanted his things. I noticed again Catchpole’s bookshelves. So far I’d only found one shop that stocked any English-language titles, and that was just a small collection of Clancys and Kings.
But before I could suggest the books, Catchpole said something garbled.
“You don’t speak Japanese then?”
“Not yet, but I’m going to start lessons.”
“I shouldn’t bother really. It doesn’t help.”
“But you speak it?”
“Exactly. Look at me.” He added wonderingly, “Twelve years. It doesn’t seem it you know. It feels like six. It’s like each year had a shadow year behind it. Live one get one free.” He peered at me again, “Girlfriend?”
“Not at the moment.”
“It doesn’t help.”
“Having a girlfriend?”
“Speaking Japanese. With the girlfriend.” He swirled his beer can, “Won’t help at all.”
I could see the triptych picture frame over Catchpole’s left shoulder. It sat there on the shelf like a dead relative we’d agreed not to mention. Catchpole drank some more beer. From the angle of the can you could tell it was almost empty. He gave a small, apologetic burp. Silence drifted down into the room.
I didn’t have the self-discipline and finally couldn’t keep from asking.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Catchpole made a face. “As much as to say.” He put the can down. “Says it’s too quiet here. Phones me from the station and says she wants to go back to Osaka. I said, ‘Is it me?’ She says, ‘No it’s me, I want to go back to Osaka.’ It’s not language that’s missing.” He spread out his hands, “What is there in Osaka anyway? Skyscrapers, Amerika Mura and that bloody great aquarium by the harbor. It’s not comforting to think you’ve lost your girl to an aquarium.”
There was probably a helpful reply to this, but I couldn’t think of it, so instead I said, “I wouldn’t mind some of those books, if they’re going.”
Catchpole looked up, “Right-o. Books.” Immediately he began emptying the shelf nearest to him; stacking its contents by the microwave. They were large hardback cook books and something about woodprints.
“Actually, I was thinking more of paperbacks,” I said, gesturing to the shelf near me. Leaning forwards, I could make out ‘Graham Greene’ on a couple of faded orange spines and ‘Utz’ by Bruce Chatwin. Catchpole stepped across and extracted the whole shelf’s-worth in one go. He held them perilously between his hands.
“Open her up, quick!”
I jerked open the rucksack and the books tumbled in, in a blur of titles.
“I think I’ve read The Big Sleep.”
Catchpole was rubbing his hands together. “All set then. Good.”
I could hardly lift the rucksack. Catchpole finished his can and stalked off to the fridge.
“Oh dear, we’re all out.” He closed the door, “Do you want a fridge?”
“I’d never get it back on the bike.”
Catchpole sighed and returned to his seat. I was loaded with about as much as I could carry. Even so, it didn’t seem right to just rush off with the loot. To make conversation, I asked Catchpole where he was from, and he told me Bracknell.
“You’re a bloody cockney then, aren’t you?”
That was me, The Cockney Science Boff.
“And what’s Bracknell like?” I asked, without really wanting to know.
“Technically speaking, it’s a shithole.” I waited but he didn’t have anything to add to that. It wasn’t the right note to leave on, so I tried to think of something positive to say. Meanwhile Catchpole went off into the tatami-floored room again and pulled a picture off the wall. It was a broad, orange circle painted in a single brushstroke, with four kanji in blue around it at the quarter hours. Catchpole jabbed his finger at them.
“I-know-only-contentment. From Kyoto — it’s a Zen thing. What do you think?”
“But you could take this with you,” I protested. “You can stick it in your suitcase, flat on top of the clothes.”
“But I don’t want it, do I? There’s not much point me sticking it flat on top of the clothes if I don’t want it. I told you, make a clean break, that’s the way I work.”
“I suppose so,” I said, taking the picture from his outstretched hand.
Success with the circle spurred Catchpole on to greater heights. “Futon,” he said, “Plant pot.”
I tried telling him I had as much as I could carry, but he didn’t seem to hear.
“Frying pan? Video? Two-bar electric heater?”
I had the unnerving feeling Catchpole wanted to hand me his life. To try and slow him down, I asked, “So what are your plans when you get back home — that is, you are going home?”
“To Bracknell? I suppose that’ll be one port of call. See the folks, as it were.”
Catchpole sat down again and began drumming his fingers on the empty beer can. Suddenly he asked, “And what about your parents — science boffs as well, are they?”
“I’m the only scientist in the family. Funnily enough, they’re both English teachers.”
“There you are though; they’ve got degrees haven’t they, as English teachers? Table lamp?”
“Er, I don’t think I need one.”
After a pause, he said with a sad gravity, “I am the only Catchpole to have a degree. In my immediate family that is. I daresay there’s another B.A. Catchpole out there somewhere in the world.”
“That must be nice. For your parents, I mean.”
“From observation, I think it’s very much like having a daughter with three tits.”
The conversation was drifting away from me again. I kept trying to steer it to a point where I could depart, and each time Catchpole would go rowing off into some deep, uncharted region.
“That’s me. I’m not Martin anymore, I’m Martin-with-the-degree. I’m Martin-he-works-in-Japan-don’t-you-know. I don’t think my family can think of anything more eccentric than either having a degree or working in Japan.”
“Sure, I can imagine,” I said, preparing to rise.
“Can you?” asked Catchpole, looking at me sharply. “Can you imagine it?”
He picked up the sake cup and rotated it between his slim, guitarist’s fingers.
“They’re in the same house, you know. Can you imagine that? The same place I grew up. Same flock wallpaper, I shouldn’t wonder and the same smell of boiled vegetables. Outside there’s a busy road and no front garden. The cars go right by the door. You got used to it though, you grew up with it. When I went to Sheffield Uni, at first I couldn’t sleep — there wasn’t enough car noise. I was homesick at the start and then I thought, no this is me; this is where I was supposed to be.
I don’t know when we became strangers. When I went to Uni? When I decided to do A-levels? And was it my fault? Probably. I just wanted something different. I didn’t think I was leaving them. They knew it though. Can you imagine how after I return, my father’s going to spend the whole time watching me bleakly from a distance, trying to think of something we can talk about and will eventually ask, ‘The Gunners, Martin?’ as though I might have forgotten the team I grew up supporting? And how my mum will spend dinner hovering over me, urging me to take more, because ‘it’s English food now, isn’t it.’ And how Dave the brother-in-law, will arrive at some point in time, take a look at me and announce to the room, ‘He hasn’t got slanty eyes yet.’? Because you see, somewhere in the dim recesses of Dave’s mind, this qualifies as a joke. And can you imagine how we’ll all go for a pint in the Saracen’s Head later; Dave and Lisa, and the folks, and mum’s pal Ethel, and how they’ll all sit round the table watching me for signs of incipient eccentricity, and how after I’ve gone to the toilet, it’ll be, ‘Doesn’t say much does he?’ if I haven’t said anything, or ‘Talkative isn’t he?’ if I have. And how in between the comments about hara-kiri, Dave is going to give me the full low-down on fishing at whatever man-made lake it is he goes to, and will then pat me on the back and say, ‘Your problem is, Martin, you don’t have a hobby.’ And can you imagine, do you have any conception, what the response is going to be when I tell them my hobbies are Japanese pottery and Edo-period wood prints?”
Catchpole sat back exhausted. I felt he hadn’t run out of things to say; he’d just run out of the energy to say them with. Silence came drifting into the room again; the placid, protecting silence of a small Japanese town. And then from somewhere out across the rice fields a dog barked. A sigh leaked out of Catchpole’s chest.
“Or I could stay, I suppose.”
“We’d better get these books back up,” I said and unzipped my rucksack.
hara-kiri: Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment
kanji: Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system
tatami: a traditional type of Japanese flooring
Illustration by Katherine Jones
Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London, lived in Fukui for three years, and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Zahir and GUD among others.
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