Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Halloween story

The river is different at night.

By day, the various sports pitches, tennis courts, golf courses and whatever else that line the waterfront are a lively testament to the vigorous energy of Osaka's young and old alike.

Even in this season, one would be ill-advised to brave the midday sun without appropriate safeguards against burning. The myriad birds and butterflies are in their element, as are the dogs whose owners bring them down to the riverside for their exercise, continually straining on the leash in their eagerness to chase after some passing cyclist, such as I, or exchange greetings with one of their fellows across the path.

I reflect, as I ride, that with a silver lining as dazzling as this, it is easy to lose track of the cloud.


When I first came to Japan, I did so with visions of a yen-fuelled lifestyle of outrageous hedonism, backed up by a salary so grossly inflated that I would, in due course, be returning to my home country, England, with enough money saved to buy a car, go back to university, or else spend a while idling and writing the novel I had always been meaning to.

However, after about six months of rather modest hedonism, punctuated by five or six days of abject poverty as I awaited my next pay packet, I was forced to admit to myself that my expectations had been a little unrealistic. After all, these are not the 1980s.

Likewise, it seems our company president was still living in the golden heyday of the Japanese economy: whilst others might have looked to expand their profitable chain of English schools at a sustainable pace, he spent money hand over fist, opening schools like they were Starbucks franchises, waving aside queries about the ruinous losses such rapid expenditure would almost inevitably incur: the board were always satisfied with promises of jam tomorrow, whilst he passed off ominous signs as temporary setbacks, the darkest hour before the dawn, the last vegetable before dessert, and so forth.

But 1980s economics leads to 1990s fallout: eventually our numerous creditors were no longer happy to be turned away with glib lies and doctored balance sheets. They wanted money, which was the one thing we didn't actually have. Schools we had, students we had, merchandise we had; money had we not.

And so the schools began to close.


On the 19th of this month, I had a nasty shock. If one can be said to be shocked, without actually being surprised, that is. Our salary, already four days late, failed to arrive in our bank accounts, as had been promised by the illegible scrawl at the bottom of a sheet of non-headed paper, which was as much as anyone had seen of our president in months.

The ship was going down, and the captain had had it away on his toes in the very first lifeboat.

Ride out the storm, I thought: fortune favours the brave. (With such internal rhetoric as this, it is perhaps easy for a reader to understand why my financial situation is barely any more favourable than that of my benighted employer.)

I made a list of my problems: it was pretty short.

My problems

1. No money

Having read over my list twice, I put it to one side and thought about how best to deal with problem #1.

The obvious answer seemed to be that I should cash my penny jar. This however, I was forced to acknowledge, was very much a quick fix. Perhaps the equivalent, you might say, of the president of a beleaguered chain of language schools trying to borrow 7 billion yen off the kind of guys who hold meetings in saunas, while the company's already well over 40 billion in the hole.

Just for example.

In my case, the proceeds of my penny jar were enough to meet my nutritional requirements, so long as I was prepared to make a few small changes to my diet. What my dribs and drabs of small change were not going to be able to foot the bill for, however, was the cost of my commute.

Thus it came about that I would be cycling the 16 miles or so from home to work along the riverfront: at least until matters improved.


The river is different at night.

As I ride down the path, the steepness of the riverbank to my left obscures the lights from buildings, the traffic's song, the existence of the cities that punctuate my weary voyage home, like a series of closed pit stops. The only lights I see are far, far ahead, or else to my right, off across the water, on the far shore. On this side of the river bank, in the cloying darkness, eyes straining ahead, it is impossible to see all one ought. And yet it is also possible to see some things we ought not.


Night three: riding home and thoroughly sick of the ghosts, goblins and fairies that haunt the riverbank by night, wondering when on this earth or out of it I'm ever going to see my salary, wondering if my saddle's full of rocks. I pull up short by the basketball court.

Not a full basketball court, I should add, just the one hoop with the obligatory foul-throw line laid out in front. In the day it is generally empty. By night, on the other hand, it is a social hub to the various unquiet spirits that haunt the river.

I see a man, about 5'2" tall, blundering about the court. The reason for his diminutive stature and his clumsiness are one and the same: he doesn't have a head.

His head, protesting loudly all the while, is being tossed to and fro between a couple of translucent airborne spectres, as quick and capricious as the wind. His cries are of "stop!" with the occasional "ouch!" thrown in, as his head rebounds off the rim of the basketball hoop, or else lands with a rather grisly noise on the tarmac court and fails to bounce as a basketball should.

It appears to be the nightly sport of the air spirits to torment the poor body with this game. I am seeing this for the third time. On the first night, I rocketed past, terrified out of my wits, until my successive encounters with other nocturnal abominations further down the road dulled my terror and left me, as I finally rode back into the city, rather disdainful of the crude nature and unlovely personalities of the riverfolk.

On the second night, I actually stopped to watch the game a while, until a toothless old man came crawling out of the undergrowth behind me and started trying to bite my ankles with his slavering gums. Whether he was a spirit or simply an unfortunate, I know not: but I bade him farewell with the sole of my boot before leaping onto my bicycle and departing, damp sock and all.

Remembering the old man, I lock my bicycle before I stride onto the basketball court. Although the headless figure, his body clad in a filthy, decaying kimono, may well have done something terrible in life to have earned his eternal punishment, I am unsure whether Japanese post-mortal status is decided as meritocratically as in England. And besides, I have begun to grow irritated by the shrill whoops and cheers of the air spirits as they toss their misfortunate victim's head back and forth.

The air spirits do not at first seem to realise I am there. They throw their trophy around much as before, with the occasional joyous cry as they slam it into the unguarded hoop. After a few token jumps, I realise that, even with my head on, I am unlikely to dispossess the spirits. Therefore, I sit down and wait patiently beneath the basketball hoop. Sure enough, after a minute or two of throwing the head to each other over the flailing arms of the piteous body, the spirits float down the court and dunk it, whereupon it lands in my lap with a muffled exclamation of "oof!" Standing up, I stride down the court to where the body is standing. The air spirits, realising what has happened, buzz about me like a swarm of gnats. I feel their chilly breath on my neck and ears, but I am determined.

I present the head to the body, which accepts it with both hands and sets it firmly in place on its neck. I am left looking at a rather unkempt man, perhaps in his early 40s, probably born in the 16th century. He bows deeply to me, then draws a tarnished-looking sword and begins pursuing the air spirits around the court. Their whoops and cheers resume; obviously this game is as much fun to them as the basketball.

Returning to my bike, I find my toothless assailant of the previous night masticating wetly on my back tyre. I kick him into the bushes and mount my steed. Taking one final look at the basketball court, I see that the air spirits have stolen the man's sword and are throwing it to each other whilst he runs frantically about between them.


The darkness is thick like coffee. My legs are weary. I am overtaken by a large group of snakes, moving fluently like a team of bike riders, continually cycling their leader from the front to the back, as they speed past and then away in front, beyond my limited vision. I wonder why they are doing this, until a team of scorpions scuttles past in hot pursuit.

Overhead, in the branches of a tree, I actually see one of my students. As she is gnawing on what appears to be a human arm, I decide against stopping for pleasantries.


Finally, I reach the end of the river stretch of my journey. I dismount my bike for a second to stand and admire the view of the city by night across the water. Instantly, a bush to my right begins to rustle, and I realise I am in for at least one more spectacle. I give a heartfelt sigh.

A large, gruesomely-flayed rabbit pulls itself into view, panting with exertion. Mistaking my austere expression for a quizzical one, it explains its appearance as follows:

"I needed to cross the river, but I couldn't find the bridge, so I bet all the sharks in the river that if they lined up, there wouldn't be enough to go from one side to the other. Of course, when they lined up, I ran across their backs just as quick as you like, but when I got to the shore, I turned round and teased them and the last shark caught hold of me. Look at my skin!"

Laying unkind hands upon the whimpering rabbit, I toss him back into the river, where the churning of the water, interspersed with lapine squeals, informs me that the sharks are giving the rabbit a good hiding. Rabbits that try to fool people can cause a lot of problems.

Shouldering my bicycle, I begin my ascent up the steps to the crest of the riverbank, turning my back on the lunacy of its inhabitants for another night.


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