Flora is very small. She only reaches the elbow of her grandmother as they stand in the old, dusty shop. A string bag dangles from her grandmother's elbow. That's what she carries her loose change around in when she's out shopping, notes and coins tinkling and fluttering on the pavement behind her like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail through the forest.
Birdie Wallace said he wanted to fight me for the hand of Ann Marie O’Hare. And it wasn’t as if her hand was mine to give. ‘He knows he won’t win me over,’ she said when I showed her the scroll. ‘But this will restore his self respect - he thinks.’ She was impressed by the trouble he had taken to write on parchment. ‘Is that blood?’ ‘Red ink.’ She said, ‘He’s humiliated that I left him, so he wants to thump the other man. It’s straightforward really.’ I had to grant her that.
The classroom is modern and large, a rectangle of concrete and smooth featureless plaster bounded on two sides by glass windows. There is a long counter along one wall with locked storage cabinets under it, and at one end a sink that is usually splashed and stained with rose madder, Payne’s grey, burnt sienna and yellow ochre; the surprising palette that when skilfully applied to paper make up a body’s flesh and heft and shadows.
Sun Dan, my oldest friend, is a reflection of the former me. She’s content to take whatever this place has to throw at her – thick clouds of smoke; a kid pissing right beside her sandaled foot; the guy at the next table sneezing into the back of her head as he turns round to spare his lunch - all without standing up and shouting: “This is not fucking good enough!” Right now, though, I need Dan to understand; I need her to see that this restaurant, these people, this city – none of them are good enough.
There was something about her that grabbed me. Actually, there were many things about her that grabbed me. One was the way she inhabited her body so easily. There were plenty of attractive women on this ferry run, but they had the pinched beauty and tight bodies of professionals. Their bodies were walking catalogues of spin classes, Pilates, and expensive moisturiser. This woman, though, walked with the rolling ease of a dancer. Her ass was high and tight and gorgeously round. I had imagined doing all sorts of things with that ass. Her face and eyes had a look that was distant and inviting and bemused all at once, as if she was remembering something sweetly sad or delicious.
We nod at some monks hanging out their laundry, the long red robes like banners against the green foliage, and go up the steps to the temple hall, spacious, calm, shabby. We kick off our shoes at the door, me thinking, these over-designed North Face clown strollers costing a year’s salary for an average Burmese.
He stands there, his knees trembling, his hand gripping onto the sink. He lets out soft moans, the occasional gasp. A vein begins to push out from his neck. His body tenses. His belt buckle rattles around his ankles and he looks up at the mirror to see himself – a thirty-two year old man, masturbating. He does it and barely hears his wife call him.
My grandfather collected Japanese prints. Not just any Japanese prints but rare and valuable ones, including the erotic and what some might regard as the downright pornographic. The risqué items were locked away. When I learned of their existence, I was led to believe that one day I would be allowed to see them. I was to exercise patience, which, my grandfather told me, was a virtue. As if to conceal further the items that would eventually be revealed, he made a great show of familiarising me with the more chaste items in his collection. Even at a young age, I could see that there was something admirable about them.
He says something about how he’s been meditating a lot lately – meditation was an activity we shared, separately – and that we need to talk. “Break,” he says at some point, and something breaks all right. It probably started a while ago, but now it feels like I’m free falling and loosing my breath. He moves out. “The breath is your anchor,” says an annoying, American voice on my mindfulness app. “And a safe harbour you can always return to.” Fuck, I think to myself, I also need somebody, another’s body as harbour. An anchor. A harbour. To be held. A ship. A body. Like all good metaphors it is true bodily and physically, first and last. I start creating a profile on Grindr, but delete it again. I call good friends and family instead. And they hold me, either physically or otherwise through their presence, often both.
We’re playing I-spy in the dark. You and me, naked, in bed, huddled on a single futon, under deadweight of blankets and quilts, fearful of exposing an inch of skin to the sub-zero pitch-black mid-winter Japanese mountain air, we play I-spy. In the dark. Me first. Eye spy with my little I something in Robbie’s deep psyche … … an ocean. “What kind of an ocean?” An opaque, grey, choppy North Sea kind of ocean, cloudy and uninviting, an ocean of destitute black seaweed and rusting hulks of wrecked tankers, their oily slickness long-forgot under the waves. “What else do you see?” A boat, a wooden raft, no, some floating debris, a man clinging, you clinging, struggling to climb out of the turgid water, no helping hand to pull you up…