It’s the rainy season, and so I am feeling a kind of soggy melancholy , an absence of something, a general dissatisfaction. I am wondering if this is saudade, apparently a longing for someone or something that is absent.
It’s almost the end of term, an in-between time. I’ve finished teaching but still have some paperwork to do. I fly back to the UK next week, but I have a lot to do here before I leave. Sometimes I feel that I’m right here, I am completely where I stand, all of me is concentrated on being where I am, and then other times I feel that I’m not quite here, but not quite there either. Nothing completely connects. This is one of those times.
In London ten years ago, on July 7th, 2005, four suicide bombers blew themselves up and in doing so killed fifty-two people and injured over seven hundred.
In Tokyo ten years ago I spent a lovely evening with a friend; a production of The Producers and dinner, I’m not sure which came first, but I think maybe the theatre. I remember I came home feeling content and relaxed, looking forward to flying back to the UK a few days later.
At home there was a message from my father on the answerphone; a little cryptic, he sounded urgent and was trying to reassure me. He told me that my brother was OK, I wasn’t to worry, everything was fine. Having no idea what he was talking about, I called my parents back, and turned on the TV. I remember perching on the edge of the sofa, rolling my eyes, listening to the phone start to ring, and then absorbing the news from the muted BBC. Four bombs had exploded on London transport.
My father’s message made sense then. My brother was living in London at the time, commuting to work on the Tube every morning. He had been at his desk by the time of the attacks. When I checked my e-mail he had already been in touch, reassuring me that he was OK; he was at work, everything was fine. He had called our parents to tell them the same thing, just as I would do in March 2011; e-mail to him, phone call to parents; it’s OK, it was a big earthquake, the tsunami did terrible damage, but in Tokyo we’re all right. Rattled, but all right.
And then I remember having that feeling, an emotional dislocation, knowing that my country was going through something huge and I was thousands of miles away. I have spent most of my adult life in Asia, and most of that time in Japan. I have consciously removed myself from my own country, I have chosen this distance. And yet, sometimes I feel very far from the mothership. Or rather, I feel the distance between.
I spend my life being British in another country. I routinely get asked random questions about the Royal Family, the correct way to make a cup of tea, the best places to go in London and how to get around, what I think of Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, the monkey named after the baby princess. Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes I have nothing. Sometimes I want to say, don’t ask me anything after 1990. I don’t know how much a stamp costs, I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, I’m a bit of a fraud, really.
Then I go back to the UK and get all the questions in reverse about Japan. What’s the weather like, is everyone really polite, are your students silent all the time, have you ever been on one of those really crowded trains I’ve seen on YouTube? It all feels like an exercise in time and space, all designed to make me aware of the the distance in between.
I remember calling my brother a few hours later that evening. The trains and buses weren’t running yet, but he was happy to stay at work and go home later. When he had moved to London and decided where to live he had told me that he could walk home from work if he needed to, it was only four or five miles. I asked him to walk home that evening; he declined, and said he’d take a bus or the Tube later. When he got home he sent me another e-mail to tell me he had taken the bus and had seen Tony Blair getting out of a helicopter at Chelsea Barracks. I was annoyed with him for taking a risk, as I saw it, but a month later I was in London myself, and several Tube lines stopped running. I felt almost irrationally determined to get back to his flat on the Tube and when I emerged at Clapham Common I felt victorious in the most deliciously bloody-minded way. Then I understood why he hadn’t walked home that evening.