I wanted to talk a bit about a few things I learnt in Japan before I get on to my spooky story below. And I use “spooky” in a very broad sense.
Japan and Peace
While I was teaching in Japan, the Prime Minister resigned. Why? One of his election promises had been that he would remove, or at least move, the American military base from an Okinawan Japanese island to the south of Japan. The fact that his failure to do so led to his resignation says as much about honouring your word in Japanese culture and politics as it does about how important an issue this is to many people.
A lot of Japanese people dislike having an American military presence in Japan at all. I thought I understood this at first – it seemed like a hangover from the Second World War, with the Americans “keeping an eye” on them. Probably that’s how they got the land to build a base on in the first place.
But then I found out from recruitment posters in the university that Japan has no standing army as such. They have a “Self-Defense Force”, but everyone working in it is technically a civilian. 3% of the national budget goes to them. Japan, despite being a world economic power, isn’t even slightly a military power.
I promised you a short story today, and I shall not disappoint. This is a story that I’m both proud and fond of – I’ve put quite a bit of effort into it, and it’s something that, every time I come back to it, I see ways to make it a little tighter, a little better. I hope that by “publishing” it here, it doesn’t stop this move to always improve.
I’m still looking for pictures to go with this story. If you have any, send me some?
It’s No Fun, Getting Old
Ok, so. It was lunchtime, and I was just sitting on a bench in Charing Cross Station. I had just finished my lunch, I think I had a magazine, I was inside in the shade, so my chocolate bar didn’t melt onto my good skirt. I remember at the time I was all worried about why Kyle hadn’t called or left a message, and why he’d been all distant on the phone the night before. This was back when I was with Kyle, but it wasn’t a major deal, he explained it all later, but at the time I was really worried ‘cause I thought he thought I was too young for him, I’d seen a photo of his ex online, and I was nothing like her, so you know, was I even his type?
But anyway, none of that’s important, it was a little thing, it blew over in like, no time.
So I was on this bench, and I was enjoying having lunch breaks, ‘cause after years of being a student, you know, managing my own time? it was nice to have a bit of structure, you know? It was before I really knew anyone at work, so I wasn’t up for lunch with anyone, and like I said, I wanted to think about Kyle and maybe text him again.
And while I was sitting there, this old guy in a suit came over and stood really close to me. Really close, like he was in my personal space. And at first I was like, what’s with this, you know, because it wasn’t like there was a shortage of space, but you know when someone’s in your space you feel really uncomfortable? So I moved over, to give him space to sit down, and I carried on reading my magazine.
But I’d lost my focus and I was thinking about this guy, now. He didn’t move to sit down next to me, but he spoke to me, he said, “I wonder if you could help me.” He was really old, like in his seventies, and he smelt of alcohol.
And he said, “Oh, I’ve just been today to my sister’s funeral, and I was wondering if could you assist me to a taxi because I need to get over there.”
And I was like, ok, of course I can help you, but I was a bit miffed at first, because it was like – no wait, he didn’t say that at first, he just came over and said can you help me to a taxi.
And I thought, they’re just over there, they’re no distance at all, and he’s made it here from wherever, presumably a train. So why’s he come over to talk to me, you know? And afterwards, I felt really guilty for thinking this, for thinking, is this some sort of scam, is he some kind of perve, but actually, it’s natural isn’t it? To think that. Because no one comes up to you and talks to you in London, you have a kind of open privacy, where everyone can see you but no one talks to you. Everyone has this kind of personal space bubble, and when you’re in it, you don’t talk to strangers.
And I know that – I reckon I’ve got the kind of face, you know the kind of personality, that’s open and foreigners and tourists come up to me and ask me for directions. But this one old man, he smelt of booze and I thought, what’s he after?
But, then it was no distance at all, my train wasn’t for ages, and I could see everyone else rushing past not looking, and now he’d asked me, so what could I do? I couldn’t like say no once he’d asked me, I obviously had nothing better to do.
So I got up to help him, and he was pretty drunk, you know? His jacket was all crinkled, and his white shirt had this big blotchy red wine stain down it, and he stank of booze, and he was like, “I’ve got to lean on you.”
So I had his suitcase by the arm, and he told me to put my other arm round his waist, right? But I just thought, let’s get this done, and I started leading him across to the taxis, but obviously we were walking really slow, and he wants to lean on me, and I’m thinking why, and I later found out he was limping, but he was just all like “I’ve got to lean on you”, so I was being cautious.
And we stopped for a break, about half way there, and then he really announced it to me, all of a sudden; “I’ve just come from my sister’s funeral,” all clear and precise, and then he started crying.
And what do you do in that situation? I tried to be comforting, and say the right things, like “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” and then I didn’t know what to say, and he was crying.
“Where was the funeral?”
“Out in Bournemouth. I went over there last night, the funeral was this morning. She died of cancer.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, that’s awful. Was it unexpected?”
“There were a few months notice, but there was no time to do anything. She was younger than me,” he said, “she was younger, she was only 82.”
And most of the time, I didn’t say anything, he just talked and I said sympathetic things, and I started to ask him questions, thinking it might help him to talk it out. He said he lived alone, out in Shepherd’s Bush in a flat, and sometimes a neighbour comes in, but if he dies in his flat, like no one would know. He didn’t seem to have any kids, well he didn’t mention any. Some of the time I asked questions, and he just sort of stared.
At one point I realised he was leading the way, looking straight ahead, not looking at me, and he was going the wrong way, and I said “No, no, the taxis are over here,” and he said, “No, it’s this way,” but we could see the taxis by this point, so I pointed them out.
And he said “I’ve not got long now, myself,” and I thought maybe he had cancer too, but he didn’t say, but he repeated it, and, and then he thanked me for helping him. He was very polite.
And I explained slowly and politely that we were about to get to some steps, and that he should just take his time, no rush, and he, he thanked me again, and I walked at his pace down the steps, he was really leaning on me heavy, and I didn’t want him to fall and hurt himself. I was being careful of the limp, and I was encouraging him, you know, not to give up hope, you know? Trying to be cheery. And I was like “It’s no fun getting old, is it?”
And when we were halfway down, this woman and man came over and the woman asked us if we needed any help?
So I said I was taking him to a taxi, and she asked me where the taxi was to, and I said, “Oh, no, I’m not, not with him, I’m just helping out.” So the old man told her Shepherd’s Bush. She was in her thirties, and she was very helpful, she went over and got a taxi to come to the bottom of the steps, and told the driver where he was going, and to wait. And he started telling them the same story, that he was coming from his sister’s funeral in Bournemouth, and the man was really sympathetic and took the bag, and put it in the boot.
We all helped him into the taxi together, and got his legs in on the passenger seat at the back, and he pressed my hands together and it was like, like, god bless you, and he smiled at me, a kind of worn-out smile, and still crying, but he said, “you’re a Samaritan, you really are, you’re all Samaritans. Thank you. Thank you very much.” And the woman closed the door, and the taxi drove off, and she and the man left into the station.
I stood there for a minute in the heat, and thought about it, and I got all emotional and went and sat down somewhere quiet. It was a real mix of emotions, ‘cause I sort of thought, why did he come up to me, why, did he choose me? I sort of felt quite honoured.
I called up Sarah and told her, and I think I even cried a bit. ‘Cause he was such a sweet old man, and it must be horrible to have your younger sister die before you, and feel all alone.
But I’ve thought about it since, and wondered if it was all an act, a way to get help from people, but that’s a horrible thing to think, isn’t it? And then I felt bad for questioning it, you know?
I’ve been playing with writing in a different voice, and it’s actually a lot of fun to be a step further distant from the action – it means I feel more comfortable editing details, for a start, and I got to have a little go at being an unreliable narrator. Hope you like it!