Books: Brrm! Brrm! — Chapter 2 |
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Luckily it was not one of his evenings to visit Rochester-san. That was an arrangement Suzuki never disturbed if he could help it, although he might have done so in this case. He was in credit with Rochester-san, who often had to go away at short notice, In credit was the way Suzuki liked to be. Consulting his A–Z, he found that the girl had not been lying when she said she lived within walking distance. Her name was near the top of the piece of paper, printed in that sprawling way which declared that she had not been one of the lucky few among her compatriots to have been taught the cursive Italic script at school. Jane Austen. He recognised it immediately as the name of a great English writer. He had read Sense and Sensibility in the original and had answered the question about it in one of his examination papers. It must be difficult for the girl to have the same name, especially in a country where it was so uncommon for someone to be called exactly the same thing as someone else. No doubt she had to endure jokes, as he did. Perhaps that was part of the explanation for her behaviour. Suzuki walked up Aldersgate Street past the Barbican tube station and turned left at the crossroads. The address was a high-rise building in a narrow street behind City Road, next to a warehouse full of photographers’ studios. There was a scarred metal panel of entryphone buttons. He pressed the designated button and waited to hear her voice. Three quarters of an hour later he was still waiting. Then he heard it behind him.

‘Oh, it’s you, she said in the dazed manner which he had already recognised as standard. ‘Am I late? I had to go out for five minutes to get some things.’

‘I was here at the time agreed,’ said Suzuki.

‘How was I to know you’d find the place? Most people can’t. Lot of the time I can’t, as a matter of fact.’ While saying this she was trying to get her keys out of her jacket pocket without putting down two plastic carrier bags that clinked heavily. It would have been easier if she had put them down. He offered to carry both the bags, which made it much simpler when they were inside for her to press the call button for the lift. Nevertheless she almost missed the button at the first push. The button was metal, set flush with a metal plate. Suzuki was impressed that her finger was half on the button and half on the plate when she started to push, so that her effort was disproportionate, indeed mainly wasted. The resistance made her impatient. She swore at the lift in terms he found startling, not for their shock value but for the expenditure of effort. Would she have anything left to say about something serious?

When the lift door opened, the lift itself proved also to be made of metal, like the call button and its plate. The all-metal interior of the lift had a rippled surface, perhaps with the intention of frustrating vandals. If so, only a relative success had been attained. Displayed from floor to ceiling on the back wall of the lift, in acrylic black paint from which Suzuki’s fingernail was unable to flake a chip, there was an announcement, purportedly emanating from a black man, declaring what he would like to do to a white schoolgirl with his erect virile organ, whose improbable dimensions were supplied. No doubt the intention was racially inflammatory. Like all the graffiti which Suzuki had seen lavished with such insane prodigality on the helpless bare public surfaces of London, this rubric offended him less for its content than for its want of art. In New York a certain level of calligraphic skill had been achieved. During his brief, bewildered visit to that city he had seen subway cars which had delighted him with their intricately worked surfaces. But this effort conveyed nothing except a slovenly urge to self-expression trying to dignify itself as sexual psychosis.

‘Oh, yeah,’ said the girl, looking back over her shoulder. ‘That.’ Suzuki was interested in the way she used the one word ‘that’ to cover a subject that she felt not worth giving one of her usual long speeches about. Her alternative strategy, he soon discovered, was to say nothing at all. When she opened the door to her flat, a profound verbal apology for the appearance of its interior would have been appropriate, although not sufficient. It looked as if it had been ransacked by thieves who had been forced to desist only by the eventual discovery that there was nothing to steal. Although moved to sympathise. Suzuki forbore, construing her silence on the subject as confirmation that she always lived like this. Stretching his powers of detachment to the limit, Suzuki strove to imagine what it would be like to be faced with such disorder and not feel impelled to correct it. His room in Japan came into his mind, with its boxes within boxes stacked on top of the wardrobe: so much material packed into a small area that each disturbance had to be rectified immediately or it would be impossible to get through the door. This girl treated her living area as if it were the space between stars. Clothes littered the floor and the unmade bed. Further trails of discarded apparel led off into the bathroom — he could see a sweater draped over the edge of the bath — and into what looked like a kitchenette. Clearly she got dressed and undressed the way she walked, in a movement constantly modified by unexpected encounters with inanimate objects. Those belongings which were not stacked on the floor were strewn — arranged would have been too strong a word — on olive drab metal shelves which had been built out of some kind of erector set. At least half her books had been inserted into the shelves back to front. There were audio components which might once have formed a stack but were now widely spaced, joined only with wires. The portable television set belonged in a museum. At the moment it was leaning precariously at the foot of the bed. The walls featured a lot of photographs cut out of newspapers and magazines. Enough of the original wallpaper showed through to show why she might have thought it needed covering up. There were many posters, among them several for a pop group whose name he did not recognise. The best poster was in Japanese.

‘That’s my Japanese poster.’ said the girl, managing to wave at it while looking the other way. ‘It says something about lotus blossoms mingling with the ashes of the slain heroes or something. You know, something about all those blossoms they have there, and the way they, hey that’s you, isn’t it? You’d know. The way they worship the slain heroes with blossoms. That’s what it says. Japanese writing. My friend told me. He’s lived there. It says something about the ashes and the blossoms.’

‘No,’ said Suzuki kindly. ‘It says something about the Mitsui Bank’s summer art exhibition.’

‘See,’ said the girl, as if running out of patience with a slow pupil. ‘I didn’t know that. So how am I going to finish this fucking article?’

In the course of the next hour it gradually became clear that she had not started the article. After Suzuki had been given an impossibly large drink from one of the several bottles of vodka the girl took out of the heavier of her two shopping bags, he was ordered to sit down on the bed, whereupon he was supplied with copies of the magazines in which articles by Jane Austen had appeared. Apparently her real name was Jane Osmond, but she had changed it for professional purposes. Before becoming a writer she had been with a pop group, which according to her testimony had been quite famous. With it she had toured the whole world, including Japan. Some of the posters on the wall, she explained, were for that pop group. Her face appeared in only one of them, somewhere at the edge of the band, as if she were part of the décor. He suspected her of leading a marginal existence. As far as he could tell, her articles were written with inside knowledge and some fluency, but the magazines to which they had been contributed were for that pan of the youth market where titles like Face, Blitz, I.D. and Arena all covered the same few subjects at once. The only difference between those well-known publications and these that featured her articles was that these were skimpier looking and had far fewer advertisements. Since the whole point of such publications was to secure advertising, Suzuki doubted whether his new acquaintance was being paid very well, or at all. When he asked to see the manuscript of her article about Japan, so that he could comment on it, she said that so far it existed only in note form. When he asked to see the notes, they too were not forthcoming. She gave a superfluity of reasons. When the pop group broke up she had never been paid the money she was owed. The magazines paid her as little as they possibly could. It was impossible to concentrate on writing because the bank kept ringing her up about her overdraft. Also there was the constant threat of losing her flat, which belonged to the council. She owed the council some rent, although nothing like as much as the council said. There were people at the council who specialised in victimising young people. They would have her out if they could. Luckily she had a medical certificate. Suzuki asked her what kind of medical certificate it was. She said it was for mental disturbance.

When she was getting off the drugs, she explained, she had attempted suicide once or twice and they had given her a certificate for it, which she was now clinging on to for dear life, although naturally she was full of contempt for the sort of official mind which would hang a tag of mental instability on anything it couldn’t understand. Suzuki had already noticed her wrists. With her jacket removed, her body had revealed itself to be built on a substantial scale. He had been right about her breasts. They filled out her T-shirt in an impressive manner. Her wrists, however, were the focus of his eyes. On her white skin, the scars were brown, like faded ink. They reflected her character by going in six different directions. Her speech, too, he now realised, was not just random but violent. Everyone who had ever refused her was a wanker, a bastard or a cunt. Her bank manager was a wanker, a bastard and a cunt. Suzuki nodded in agreement while the tirade continued, as if he understood. Actually he was manfully striving to bring his capacity for comprehension into line with this latest, most extreme manifestation of the semantic anarchy in which people condemned to use the English language managed to convey meaning to one another without dying on the spot from shame.

In Japanese the levels of politeness were so precisely codified that one could convey an insult merely by eliding the end of a verb. But the point was that both speaker and listener knew exactly what was going on. All speech was conversation: it was communal or it was nothing. In English you could talk to yourself in the presence of other people, as if their feelings not only did not matter, but did not even exist. Suzuki found this aspect of his voluntary exile the hardest to get used to. Merely listening to people talking in the tube, he took a linguistic battering that frequently left him punch-drunk. In the street, asking someone the way to somewhere, he would receive a reply which left him no honourable alternative except to challenge his interlocutor to a duel. At the gymnasium, when he sat in one of the Nautilus machines and worked to improve a specific group of muscles, he had to field shafts of boisterous familiarity which would have been more appropriate if he were manacled to the wall and in the process of being flayed. But all these linguistic atrocities, though they had happened well-nigh continuously for more than a year, were bagatelles compared with what this girl could unleash in a few sentences. Suzuki felt a sort of relief, as if a long-threatened war had finally broken out. What was the phrase? All bets were on. No: off. All bets were off. It was too late to tell her that ‘Suzuki’ was the second most common name in Japan. She was too busy calling some editor or other a wanker. When she asked him his first name, he told her without hesitation: Akira. She greeted this intimacy with the same blank look of token curiosity which had been engendered by his family name. He had taken that non-committal glaze of feigned interest as a courtesy, but now realised that she had simply never heard of the motor-cycle. Then, with an abruptness that Suzuki had not yet learned to expect, but which he gathered he had better get used to, the girl changed tack.

‘Look,’ she said, looking away. ‘I have to go out soon.’

‘Well,’ said Suzuki, so much at a loss that he lapsed into a construction from his own language, ‘If I don’t go, it will be bad.’

‘Well,’ said the girl, looking at the Mitsui poster as if addressing it instead of him, ‘Don’t you want to kiss me?’

Suzuki, who at this point, having quit the bed during her monologue, was sitting on the only chair in the room, almost fell off it, but gathered himself sufficiently to drop gently to his knees and thus bring his face almost level with that of the girl, who was sitting on the bed with her legs to one side, for once having adopted a pose befitting a woman. As carefully as if he was still negotiating his first waltz at ballroom-dancing class, Suzuki kissed her crimson mouth. Like all Western people she smelled of butter. In her case the odour was bearable. Her eyes were shut. His, open, could detect the layer of white paint on her face. He wondered why she troubled to make up her skin. It was so white anyway, except, of course, at the wrists. One of them, the right one, the one she was not supporting herself on, he caressed with his fingertips. When he returned his eyes to hers, they were open but gone. She was looking away into the kitchen, perhaps worried that the bailiffs might arrive through the window. When he tried to kiss her again she shook her head like someone being pestered by a fly. But she agreed to meet him a few days later. Now that he knew the way, he was to call on her. It was no use trying to phone at the moment because there was some mix-up about the bill. Anyway, she had to go to Paris. But by the appointed day she would be back.