Books: Brrm! Brrm! — Chapter 4 |
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Breathing hard, Suzuki lay in the double leg-thrust Nautilus machine after completing fifteen repetitions at 285 pounds. Just because of what he had eaten and drunk in Jane’s presence, he would have been keen enough to get to the gymnasium. There was also the question of the terrible risk he was running from the medical viewpoint. Exercise might not be of much value against microbes or viruses but if a prepared body had a better chance of fighting them off then he did not intend to let the chance go. His thighs were trembling. Jane had been missing for more than a week. For all he knew she was already in hospital or dead. There was no means of contacting her. The arrangement, such as it was, was that she would show up in the bookshop when she returned from wherever it was that she had gone. Or she could telephone. The name Ron had kept recurring in her explanations of how her financial crisis was to be temporarily alleviated, prior to the permanent cure which would be effected when the Sunday newspaper’s colour magazine paid her a small fortune for her article on Japan. Suzuki was alarmed to find how thoroughly his relief that she was out of his hair was undercut by his sense of loss.

There was also the sense of panic, which an intensified programme at the gymnasium helped to keep under control. A letter from Shimura-san had arrived. While not precisely a grim warning, it reminded Suzuki, as if he needed reminding, that by contracting an intimacy with any kind of Western woman, let alone a mere girl of the demi monde like this one, he was putting his destiny into needless jeopardy. ‘Even with the benefit of all possible foresight’, wrote Shimura-san, ‘the unknown must necessarily play a leading role in human life. Judiciousness already entails risk. Actually to embrace risk is the privilege only of artistic genius.’ Shimura-san said, as he had said before, that he had high hopes of Suzuki’s literary talent. There could be no doubt that an artist must, indeed would without prompting, follow the inclinations of his desires beyond the limits dictated by what would seem immediate self-interest.

‘You have often heard me speak of Charles de Gaulle,’ — wrote Shimura-san — ‘that great figure in the history of his country’s reconstruction, and a worthy model, it has always seemed to me, for us to emulate in the reconstruction and advancement of our own. In his memoirs, which I urge you to read one day, he quotes one of his own mentors, Chamfort, to this effect: “Those who were reasonable have survived. Those who were passionate have lived.” It is a pregnant distinction, is it not? Among all the promising young men who have come my way, it is you, Suzuki Akira, who must live. But you must also survive. So pursue this relationship only so far as it opens you up to useful experience, and not a centimetre further.’

Thinking of this admonition now, Suzuki rose from the machine with a sigh, towelled down its backrest politely even though he had left scarcely a trace of sweat, and moved towards the next machine on his programme. It was a quiet time on Sunday afternoon and the gymnasium was almost empty. A beautiful honey-blonde English girl with legs longer than the Tokyo tower was running on one of the treadmills. Her name was Lilian: a very hard word for Suzuki to pronounce. An English stockbroker and amateur heavyweight boxer named Lionel — an even harder word for Suzuki to pronounce — spent some time watching her appreciatively before turning to Suzuki and addressing him with a by now shop-worn pleasantry.

‘Wotcher, Akira. How’s your endurance? Awe rye?’ Suzuki had worked out within the first week of joining the club that when the members made jokes about his endurance they were referring to the Japanese television programme of that name, extracts from which were broadcast on British television eked out with a facetious commentary by an Australian in lamentable physical condition. Though the mockery of his fellow members was hard to distinguish from racism, Suzuki did not particularly mind. His own opinion of its perpetrators could not be said to spring from feelings of racial inferiority. What bothered Suzuki about the enormous Lionel was the version of English he spoke. Only recently had Suzuki figured out that by the word ‘wotcher’ Lionel did not necessarily mean that there was some female nearby who merited being observed. He merely meant Hello. Suzuki was glad to have puzzled this out before today, when the close presence of a girl who certainly rewarded being watched would have confused the issue beyond salvation. Suzuki assured Lionel that his endurance was all right. Lionel, apparently satisfied, swaggered hugely off to where the speed ball was hanging. He tapped it with one fist so that it said rat-tat. He tapped it with both fists so that it said rattata-tattata. He took a deep breath and hit it for five minutes so that it sounded like a machine-gun. The treadmill, helplessly drawn towards the exquisite Lilian’s finely muscled advancing legs, said whump-whump-whump. Lulled by these rhythms, Suzuki moved on to the abdominal machine, selected the right weight, adjusted the seat height, settled the pads against his shoulders, took a breath, and jack-knifed forward. He had not done half a dozen repetitions before he heard Lionel’s voice behind him.

‘Gettin’ a bit of bowin’ practice in, are we, Akira?’ It was the other joke that Lionel always made. Plunging forward with his upper body, Suzuki smiled while expelling his breath. It was always a good moment when the second of Lionel’s two jokes was over. Lionel wandered off to observe Lilian as she floated above the treadmill like a sprite running on a bubble. To watch her. For the millionth time, Suzuki wondered if he would ever come to terms with the English language. He was not entirely demoralised, however. He knew for a certainty why he felt so unsure. It was because of the uncertainty which he had, of his own volition, allowed into his life. He had expected to be able to contain the disturbing element more easily, but it threatened to contaminate areas the stability of which he had taken for granted. The possibility of infection was simply a gamble, potentially as devastating as losing at Russian roulette. All he could do was keep fit and hope.

Yesterday, however, feeling hungry on the way to the tube station after work, he had found himself purchasing an English chocolate bar. The confection had been called something like a Kix or a Snax or a Drex: by now he had repressed the name. He only wished he could repress the aftertaste. Unwrapped, it had looked like a lump of excrement containing the remains of an only partly digested meal of nuts. That was what all those English sweetmeats looked like: dollops of excrement. Every newsagent had at least one wall lined with rack upon rack of brightly wrapped turds. Standing on the platform of St Paul’s station with the partly peeled object in one hand and his executive briefcase in the other, Suzuki had gazed at that hellish dark banana, whose sickly sweet tip he had just bitten off, and suddenly wondered what chain of circumstances had led him to this pass. In every sense, the thing was in bad taste. He had had an immediate, incandescent vision of the cookie shop in the Ginza district where he went every week to buy a box of biscuits for his mother. The delicate texture of the pastel-coloured wrapping paper, the flourish with which the ribbon was tied, the look of the thin cookies in their serried ranks as they leaned back in the box — it was a congeries of remembered sense impressions, a symposium of subtleties that made, by comparison, the mess in his mouth feel as if a dog had voided its bowels on his tongue.

Upon his arrival, the eating habits of the English had caused Suzuki even more psychological disturbance than the ubiquitous litter and the universally bellicose level of verbal aggression. But he had learned to accept their disgusting ways with food, in the same way that Englishmen who visited Japan had to learn to accept, so he had been told, the way that Japanese men cleared their throats of phlegm. Suzuki had found learning not to hawk and spit far easier than learning how to eat the local nutriment, but after a decent interval he had begun to take the occasional quick lunch in the health food café near the bookshop. In Tokyo Suzuki had eaten in many a Western-style restaurant and like all Japanese people of his educational level he had learned Western table manners to a degree of delicacy which most Westerners evidently found pedantic. Suzuki did not feel at a loss in a London eating establishment. He simply felt appalled. Even in the most expensive restaurants, the insolence of the service was an offence and the sloppiness of the guests an affront. The health food café was at least nominally dedicated to serving good things. Mostly Suzuki would take twenty minutes in the back of the bookshop to eat a boxed lunch sent in from the local Japanese restaurant. But when he ate in the health food café he tried to relish the experience. He would tuck into a stoneware bowl full of multi-coloured salad and feel that he was living off the land, far inside the border of a foreign culture. Such an adventurous displacement was, however, as far as he was prepared to go. To find himself purchasing a chocolate bar — to find himself actually taking a bite out of a monolith of solidified ordure — was a sign that he had submitted himself to the grip of an elemental force. When the train had pulled in, Suzuki had been holding only the briefcase. The chocolate bar, rewrapped, was in the trash bin behind him, from which, no doubt, it would later be extracted by some tramp, for whom it would furnish the roughage of an evening meal.

The treadmill whined to a stop. Lilian lightly skipped backwards out of it, waved to him in a way which acknowledged his existence while betraying no anxiety at the prospect of separating herself from it, and covered the few steps to the far door with strides that barely touched the carpet, as if her pink leotard, cut high at the sides over her pearl-grey leggings, was lifting her with a force equal to her weight, plus a few ounces. She left a void. Suzuki found himself alone in the gymnasium. Glad to be unobserved, he moved to one of the exercise mats and stood on his hands. He lifted his left hand and touched its fingertips to his left thigh while tilting his body slightly to the right. He stood there on his right hand for fifteen seconds and then changed hands. Returning to a two-hand stand, he dived slowly out of it into a forward roll which ended with his legs splayed to each side, toes pointed. With both hands he pushed the floor away so that the extended straight line of his open legs was an inch above the mat. He leaned forward and lifted himself into another handstand, from which he walked over and walked away. Nobody could have seen him. Suzuki would not have wanted to draw attention to himself in this matter. At school he had done well in gymnastics. He had made only the second team at university and had eventually decided to give it up. If he had been truly excellent he might have gone on, but gymnastics in Japan had attained such a high standard, and boasted champions in such depth, that to be less than first rate meant that there was nothing to hope for except beneficial effects to one’s personal health. Suzuki was not displeased that that part of his life was over. He had moved on. The life of the mind made demands to which the condition of his body could only be subservient.

In the empty dressing-room panelled with grey-painted metal lockers, Suzuki removed his sweat-shirt, socks and shoes, retaining only the shorts while he showered off the sweat. Actually Suzuki’s body, unless hard pressed, hardly perspired at all, but the club standing orders said that the swimming-pool should not be entered without a shower first. Suzuki showered as thoroughly as if there had been a hidden camera. Then he climbed the steps to the swimming-pool, which he entered just as Lionel was leaving it. ‘Wotcher, Akira. How’s your endurance. Awe rye?’ Lionel, having run the gamut of his jokes, had begun again. Lilian did not swim quite as well as she danced. She smiled at him as she forged past in a strong but rather wasteful breast stroke, her black Lycra-clad bottom gleaming like a dolphin with a split skull. She smiled at him again after she had climbed out of the pool, reached for her towel, and thereby offered him further revelations of how radiantly lissom the Western female body could be.

Suzuki waited until she had left the pool area altogether before he increased his pace. He had been quite a promising swimmer, too. Promising but not startling. Even had he been more talented, he would probably not have gone on with it. Japanese competitive swimming had reached its peak in the Fifties, when Shimura-san’s generation had been young. Shimura-san, indeed, had been the third swimmer in the Japanese 4 x 400 metres freestyle relay team at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Competition swimming had been the route of the Japanese nation’s return to world prominence after the war. But soon the Australians, and then the Americans, had attained superiority. All other things being equal, dominance in the swimming-pool went to the physical type with the greater length of leg. The very factor which kept Japanese men supreme in gymnastics, their symmetrical equality of trunk and lower limb, set a limit to the leverage they could achieve in the water. Suzuki did not find this a matter of regret. He was proud of his people. Until recently he had been proud of himself. He had thought of himself as a cool customer.

In the absence of Jane he might have profited by paying renewed attention to his obligations. Normally he would have made such an adjustment without faltering. He would have made up for any hour of dissipation with two hours of dedicated work. Rut this time he found himself moongazing. He wrote a poem. It took him a long time. After writing our a fine copy with a brush on good paper, he translated it into English.

As the cherry blossom
After it has fallen
Is scattered on the pavement by the wind
So her life drifts —
Appreciable only for a moment
Which exists in movement.

Suzuki was up late for two nights working on the poem and could not call himself ecstatic with the result, to which he gave the title ‘The Girl with Milk Skin’. Technically it was a breakthrough in his work. Strictly traditional in form, it yet contained elements of word music — for example, the deliberately placed interior rhyme of the words kaze (wind) and nate (cause, reason) — which could be attributed only to, and not necessarily justified by, Western influence. Transcribing the original language version of his poem into a letter to Shimura-san, Suzuki was trepidatious about what his mentor might think. The English language version he took along on his next visit to Rochester-san. Eager to make up to Rochester-san for having broken a date with him, Suzuki knew that the English journalist, who loved to give advice, would take delight in being consulted by his Japanese apprentice on the technicalities of English verse. Nor were Rochester-san’s admonitions and exhortations, when they had to do with literature and the arts, quite as useless as they were in other fields. In the field of savoir faire, the very area in which Rochester-san considered himself an expert, it was a miracle that he could get across the street alive. But he was a genuinely cultivated man, although even when it came to the arts he was so mercurial in his judgments, so effervescent in his enthusiasms, that Suzuki scarcely knew which of the multiplicity of suggested courses he was supposed to take. Suzuki was pleased, however, to be told that his conscious deployment of the words ‘moment’ and ‘movement’, though it would not be considered subtle by an informed critic, would not be considered clumsy either. He was displeased to be told that the long-range chime of ‘pavement’ and ‘movement’ was a startling achievement for someone writing in his second language. He was displeased because he had not planned it. It was a fluke. He confessed this, and was told that the sum total of such flukes amounted to a talent for writing English poetry.

‘Don’t go a bundle on the title, though,’ said Rochester-san, apparently as an afterthought.

‘Don’t go a bundle?’

‘I don’t think it’s quite right. Trouble is, milk has a skin of its own when it’s been boiled or gone sour. Rather unfortunate associations.’


Call it “A Girl With Skin Like Milk” and you’ll be OK. Because then it can only be her skin, do you see?’

‘Yes. Now I do. I didn’t before. You are always a great help in these things.’

It was not quite true. Always alert to the possibility of an invaluable free lesson about the nuances of the English language, Suzuki took in everything Rochester-san said, which was what was so exhausting about their relationship, because on larger issues so much of what Rochester-san said, after it had been taken in and examined, had to be thrown out again. Yet Suzuki could not deny that he had learned a lot from Rochester-san. Once having recovered from finding out how completely Galsworthy’s reputation had collapsed. Suzuki had been gratified, while being given a tour of Rochester-san’s shelves, to be told many other literary names that he might follow up. He had been following some of them up ever since, although here again it was always necessary to discount Rochester-san’s spur of the moment enthusiasms and sort out what was essential. Suzuki had learned his first hard lesson in that regard when he had spent a week getting half-way through Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris before finding out that on the subject of writers in Paris he should have been reading, in the first instance, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rochester-san was a bad teacher from that viewpoint. He knew everything himself, but couldn’t remember how he had found out, so he made no allowance for the fact that his pupil would either have to proceed step by step or else retire bewildered. Suzuki’s annoyance, however, was soon offset by his respect for Rochester-san’s undoubted erudition, remarkable over the whole range of the arts, and especially, as far as Suzuki could tell, profound in the area of Western music. On LP, cassette or compact disc, Rochester-san seemed to be in possession of every important recording ever made. Just the books on music filled a whole long wall. On the subject of Suzuki’s hero Karajan, Rochester-san was irreverent but illuminating.

‘Now’s the time’, said Rochester-san, ‘to go for das Wunder’s early performances while they’re coming out on cheap tapes.’ It was later in the same evening. Suzuki had offered up his poem for praise and analysis. Now it was time for the retaliatory gift. Though Rochester-san was scarcely a model of sensitivity, it might just have been possible that he had realised, at some subconscious level, that Suzuki had done him an honour. Anyway, for once he spoke to the point, with comparatively few digressions. ‘You see, the trouble with old Karajan is that he’s so bloody convinced that music is made of sound, he can’t leave well alone. He gets such a lush sound out of the Berlin Phil, — that’s the Philharmonic, sorry, you might remember that one — gets such a bloody beautiful sound out of it, that when digital recording came along he couldn’t resist the opportunity to make everything again. And then CD came along and he wanted to make everything again, do you see? Result is, all the older performances have started piling up in the back catalogue. So now you’re starting to get them on cheap tapes. And some of them were simply better than anything he’s likely to do now. Not just because he was younger, but because the limitations of the medium — no, better way of putting it, the lack of opportunities to be indulgent beyond reasonable expectation, that’s it — kept him in line. Made him cleave to a more compact line. Better shape. Less of the beautiful luxuriant sprawl and more of the tight vibrant shape. Like you. But we won’t go into that. Because we can’t, can we, my own lovely? Chin chin.’

Suzuki, as he had long ago learned to, smiled with the exact measure of polite regret which made Rochester-san feel that a Platonic romance was better than nothing. Rochester-san sank the rest of his brandy, stood up, poured them both another, settled back into his chair, and went on, so obviously loving the sound of his own voice that Suzuki felt pity for him, as for a child lasciviously rolling the products of its picked nose between finger and thumb. But the pity was more than balanced by respect. What a lot this man knew. Suzuki wanted to be knowledgeable, as he had once wanted to fly for Japan on the high bar. It would come, listen and learn.

‘Take that new Rosenkavalier of his,’ Rochester-san went on. ‘On CD it sounds unbelievable. Un-be-lievable. But when you listen to the trio in the last act, the dynamics have gone to pot.’

‘Gone to pot?’

‘Gone to the dogs. To buggery. Way of saying they’ve deteriorated. Like me, rather. Three gorgeous voices going absolutely nowhere. Put on his old Schwarzkopf set straight after it and the difference is enough to convince anybody that he should never, ne-ver, have conducted the thing again. Have you heard it, by the way? His first Rosenkavalier set? The one with Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig? No?’

Rochester-san found the tape, put it on the machine, and the evening proceeded. At first the sound seemed crowded to Suzuki. Japanese classical instrumentation was so sparse and pure that he, who was no musician, could almost tell if a shamisen was being played in sunlight or in shadow. Western music always sounded dense at first hearing. But as Rochester-san rewound the tape to play the same passage over and over, Suzuki gradually sorted out the three voices. That was what he was here for: to sort out the voices. Rochester-san was helping to give him the West. As the clumsy Englishman turned down the lights to make the atmosphere conform more closely to his amorous dreams, the many diodes of the National Panasonic audio stack lit up like the eyes of nocturnal insects. It was how Japan lived: by reading the world’s mind and helping it to the realisation of what it wished.

What Suzuki wished was less easily divined, by him at any rate. He was prepared, in his mental account book, to offset the inconvenience his new English mistress would cause him against the experience he would gain, not to mention the pleasure. But the account book lacked, as it were, a time-table. There was no means of knowing when Jane would turn up. The only time she called him on the telephone, she called his home number while he was at the bookshop. How could she possibly not realise that he would be at work during the hours of daylight? Did she think he was like her, waking in the middle of the day, not even knowing whether it was day or night without first looking out of the window? Shimura-san had once told him that all egomaniacs are like that: they think that all other people are like them. But Suzuki, at this stage, still found it hard to believe that the girl could be quite so disorganised. It went without saying that she could be so inconsiderate of the havoc she would cause by calling when he was out. She was not to know that his landlady would be so hostile. He therefore did not blame Jane for the low-pitched but remorseless tirade with which the woman greeted him when he got home one evening. ‘A Miss Austen rang.’ That was the start of it. ‘She sounded very strange to me. She sounded very angry that you weren’t here. She used some very uncouth words. I can’t be having that, Mr Suzy.’ There was a lot more at the same steady tempo. Suzuki nodded and occasionally declined his head deferentially, halfway between a nod and a bow. He wondered if his landlady had not grown to like these signs of deference and had begun to contrive situations in which she might extract them from him. Though always dressed in a manner which suggested that she had either recently got out of bed or would soon get into it, she was well-proportioned in a middle-aged way and moved with surprising grace for someone whose vocal output was so brutal.

Suzuki did not blame her for calling him Mr Suzy. It was an improvement on what she had called him at first: Mr Jacuzzi. He himself had trouble pronouncing her name, a minefield of l’s and th’s. Ethel Thelwell. It took him an eternity. But beyond their linguistic estrangement there was undoubtedly an element, on her part, of conscious malice. Why did she take guests, if she was so irritated by the duties of being a hostess? It was a mystery to him, like the aggressively bad service in railway cafeterias, the drifts of rubbish in the streets, and the telephone-boxes that looked as if they had been bombed with phosphorus. These, he had noticed, were slowly being replaced with a new model public telephone unit which appeared to have been machined out of a single block of tungsten. It was a wise capitulation to the inevitable. Here, public property was the eternal victim in a war of attrition, whose patient aggressor, strangely, was the public itself. Suzuki was continually mystified by a society which featured so much open hostility in its everyday life yet so rarely came to blows. The rhythm of life in his own country was more spasmodic. Everything was done to avoid confrontation of any kind. Then, when an unkind word was spoken, there was no recourse except to tie a water-soaked bandanna around one’s mouth, cram a crash helmet on to one’s head, and fight.