Christine Piper (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
Tokyo, August 6, 1989
Mrs Ono descends the stairs to my landing, plump arms swinging.
“Good morning, sensei,” she says.
There’s an elevator just a few metres away, but she always takes the stairs. For exercise, she says. But she’s not in her usual walking gear of sun visor, polo shirt and slacks. She’s wearing a straw hat over her perm, a skirt and a short-sleeved top that rolls at her neck. She walks past the window, over the rectangle of sunlight projected onto the tiles, and marches across the landing towards me. Before I have a chance to bend down, she scoops up the newspaper at my feet.
“Isn’t it terrible,” she tuts at something on the front page. I stare at her face. Foundation mottles her skin. Painted, blood-red lips. “The things that go on in the world these days—”
“Going somewhere special today?” I take the newspaper from her and tuck it under my arm. Surprise transforms Mrs Ono’s expression. It’s the sort of reaction I dread these days. The subtle missteps one makes. Perhaps I took the paper too quickly?
She hesitates. Her eyes search my face. When she speaks again, her voice is softer.
“It’s the anniversary today… of the bombing.”
Ah—I had forgotten. I’d remembered last night, when I switched off the television program about hibakusha. And I remembered this morning, when I woke up to the glow of sunlight behind the curtains. Hot day. Good excuse to stay indoors, I thought. But sometime between getting out of bed, getting dressed, and setting the drip-filter coffee maker, I’d forgotten all about it.
“Yes, of course. My memory…” My hand flutters at my brow. “The ceremony in the park—is that where you’re going? How many years has it been now?”
“Forty-four,” Mrs Ono states, as if it’s something I should know by heart. She inclines her head as she studies my face. “You won’t attend?”
“No, I don’t think so. The weather—it’s difficult for me…”
I smile, hoping to send her on her way, but she doesn’t move.
“You never go, do you? To the anniversary ceremonies, I mean.”
I grow hot under her gaze. Perhaps my irritation shows, because Mrs Ono doesn’t wait for my response.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask such things. How rude of me. Only…” Her eyes wander to the inside of my apartment. “In my experience, I’ve found it helps to go to these things. It eases the pain. To honour them by remembering. I learnt that after my husband passed away.” Mrs Ono straightens up. Her smile snaps back into place. “Anyway, a bit of fresh air and sunlight in the morning is vital for a healthy body, wouldn’t you agree? If you want to come to the ceremony, I’ll make sure you get a seat. Just look out for me near the front.”
She excuses herself and walks down the stairs, straw hat bobbing. My heart thumps as I close the door. I sit at the kitchen table to rest a moment. I press the cool tips of my fingers on my eyelids. When my head clears I take a deep breath and spread out the newspaper in front of me. The first page features a story about the effects of radiation forty years on. Beneath it is a smaller article about the mystery of unearthed bones.
I’m surprised by how much Mrs Ono’s comment has unsettled me. Urging me to attend the ceremony, as if I never go out! I see friends from the hospital most weeks and my sister’s family at least once a month. I play goh in Kanda with my friends every weekend, although I don’t suppose she’d approve of the hours we spend staring at the board, arguing and drinking tea. I regularly walk in our neighbourhood park. I pride myself on remaining active—even though I’m now retired, I have to practise what I once preached.
I fold the paper and stand up. My eye catches the dusty photo of my wife. Leaning against a tree beside the Kamo River, she smiles uncertainly, her hair pinned in soft waves around her face. She was nervous because I asked her to move closer to the river, but I recall little else of the trip. All my memories are in the photo. Even Kayoko’s laugh and the pitch of her voice are lost to me now.
I pour myself a cup of coffee and stand at the glass door that leads onto the balcony. From this vantage point, the cluster of buildings at the city’s heart echoes the distant curve of the Kanto mountains. The river snakes through the city, an age-old path through modernity.
I’ve never been one to dwell on the past. What use is there in remembering when you can’t change what has been and gone? It may seem an odd belief, but there was a time after the war when everyone in Japan wanted to forget.
But as the decades have passed the tide has turned. Now there are all manner of anniversaries and rituals that compel us to look back. Perhaps Mrs Ono’s right. I should make an effort. And why not? I’m too old to have any regrets.
I fetch my hat and pull on my sneakers and go outside. The sun momentarily blinds me as I cross the main road. I weave through the network of alleyways until I reach the park. A hundred people hug the shade beneath a grove of trees. A raised platform with a lectern caps one end. I’m glad for the children, who squirm around their parents’ legs as I join the back of the crowd. Mrs Ono’s straw hat floats several rows ahead. I move behind someone tall so she won’t see me.
The district mayor is talking about the importance of community in the face of adversity. I can’t see his face, but his voice is like a current that carries me to another continent, where I lived for many years. I begin to think about people I once knew and scan the faces in the crowd, wondering what they might look like now.
The mayor invites a survivor to the stage. I have to strain to hear him. He lost both his parents to the bomb, but somehow he survived. “I still remember the explosion—that flash of white light. It’s burned onto my memory forever,” he says. Everyone claps when he finishes his speech. The woman beside me dabs her eyes. There’s a flurry of wings as a flock of doves is released. I look up to catch sight of the birds scattering and I’m jolted back to a place where strange birds roam the wide blue sky and barbed wire brushes the ochre earth.
I return home. Unease gnaws at my stomach, so I busy myself around the apartment, watering plants and filing letters. But something takes shape within me. Not even sorting through my photographs calms me like it usually does.
Now, as I sit at my desk, I see the persimmon tree outside, its broad green leaves almost touching the windowpane. It makes me think of my childhood. Being hoisted onto Father’s shoulders to pick the reddest fruit at the top of the tree. Later the sweet flesh erupting in my mouth.
And the smell of simmering broth from the apartment below brings to mind Kayoko, and our first winter spent as husband and wife. Living together in a cramped one-room apartment in downtown Tokyo, the aromas from every home-cooked meal melting into my clothes, my skin, my hair.
And the glint of my watch as it catches the light. It draws me back to the Loveday internment camp in South Australia, where I stood alone, one hand shielding my eyes from the glare of floodlights, the other holding a suitcase with the remnants of my life.
Christine Piper is a Doctor of Creative Arts candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney. This extract is from Undertow, an historical fiction novel she’s writing as part of her degree. Her fiction has been published in Seizure and Things That Are Found In Trees (Margaret River Press, 2012). She has studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop and received fellowships from Varuna, Bundanon, Ragdale and VCCA. http://thegistonline.net