I hate the way gumtrees look. They’re ugly, damaged things with pale bark and gangly limbs that drop at the smallest trauma. There’s nothing orderly or beautiful about them. When I was little, a line of them stood over my house. After a storm, the garden would become a mangled graveyard of leaves and branches cast away by the gums like twisted tails thrown by an army of fleeing lizards. With seven-year-old hands, I would return the torn limbs to the bases of the trees, and wonder how the old gums could cast away their tails, their arms, and remain tall and stoic. I would wonder how, ugly, broken, and missing parts of themselves, they could keep going.
Now, I miss them.
The trees here are small, neat, and so vibrant none of them seem real—it’s as if each leaf has been stripped from its siblings, Photoshopped, and stuck back on its stem. Their intensity, though, is nothing compared to the weather’s. An Adelaide summer is an honest one: enormous, empty blue above, burnt skin, aloe vera oil, and heat so dry and thin you could suck it all up in one go. But here, the summer is one of steel skies, thunderstorms and air thick and sticky: it refuses to find its way into your lungs at all. The moment Dad and I step off the plane at Haneda, the June humidity licks us up, swallows us into its womb and begins the slow, relentless constriction. I feel it immediately.
Dad doesn’t. As we walk through the vestibule and into the airport, he’s almost giddy with excitement. He props his iPad under his arm, puts his glasses on his head and doesn’t bother to contain the grin that’s spread across his ruddy face.
Bec broke up with me the morning before graduation. Our housemates were out, and she sat cross-legged on our old couch watching a documentary about manatees. She loves manatees. I came into the living room, holding two ties.
‘Which one?’ I asked, ‘The blue one goes better with the shirt but the yellow one is nicer.’
It took a moment before I realised she was crying.
I moved back in with Dad that night. My parchment, handed to me a few hours before, laid on the coffee table while I carried boxes past it. Bec and I had dated since high school. Without her, everything became strange and lonely and uncomfortable.
A month after, Dad’s company finally offered him a transfer to their Tokyo office. I had been sitting at the kitchen table, sketching, when he came home. I heard it in his footsteps: a child-like excitement that I hadn’t seen in him since at least before mum left. In a hurried, happy barrage of words he told me the news and, then, paused.
‘Andrew, why don’t you come with me?’ he said.
‘To Tokyo? … I don’t know.’
‘You’ll love it! It’s a beautiful place. And there’s heaps of English teaching jobs for foreigners. Just for a year, Drew. How about it? You could get a Working Holiday Visa and finally put that degree to use.’
‘It’s only been a month.’
‘A month of you waiting around for nothing. What else have you got going on? It’ll be fun!’
‘Dad, I don’t speak Japanese.’
‘Neither did I until I learned.’ He scuttled off to his bedroom and came back with three green textbooks. ‘There,’ he said, dropping them on the table next to me.
I stared at him.
When it happened, I didn’t see him for almost two months. Nan had to come look after the house. It was she who told me that Mum was gone, while Dad hid in his room. I used to pause at his door every now and then, listening. Too scared to knock. When he emerged so many weeks later, he was thin and aged and holding a book about Japanese folklore that Aunty Val had bought him for Christmas.
After that, time accelerated and Nan moved back to Renmark. On Sunday mornings, I started to find him sitting at the table, coffee mug in his hand, reading glasses perched on his head, with those three green textbooks open in front of him.
Now, he stood there looking at me. It took weeks of coaxing. He made sushi for me four times. In spite of myself, I became excited. I agreed.
I don’t find a job, despite Dad’s enthusiasm. All the English teaching positions require proper experience or Japanese language proficiency. I have neither. I apply to all of them anyway and hear nothing. ‘It’s the wrong time of the year,’ Dad says and then changes the subject. He doesn’t mind that I can’t find a job; he’s happy. Every night he comes home late from work and tells me about his day while I cook dinner. He talks and talks about his co-workers, Yuta and Honoka, and his bosses and his meetings. He forgets to ask about my day. I don’t mind. I let him keep talking as I chew my rice and silently miss the softness of McCain’s oven fries.
The house Dad picked is old. We could have had a nicer one, but he wanted something ‘authentic’. The location is great—there’s a convenience store one street over and Yoyogi Park is only a fifteen-minute walk away—but the house itself is creepy.
When we open the front door and the musky scent of mould and dust envelops us, Dad is delighted. He finds the cobwebs and the creaking stairs endearing. When I almost step on a centipede in the bathtub, he grins and says, ‘Ah, a mukade! Lucky you didn’t hurt him, Drew. Little fella’s supposed to be poisonous.’
Dad goes to work every day and I clean. There’s nothing else to do. I’ve applied for every job I can. On cooler days, I visit the temples, the shopping streets and the parks listed on the tourist sites. I pick out my fortune at Senso-ji. It tells me I’m lucky. But, when I’m home, I can’t escape the eeriness. It’s like there’s something living in between the door hinges and underneath the floorboards. So, I scrub the floors, dust the shoji screens and open all the windows. There’s a radio on the sill. I click it on. The presenter speaks in crackly Japanese and then a pop song plays. I click it off. I listen to silence as I wash the cupboards and arrange the food shopping by height and expiration date. I light the incense Dad brought from home. The house still smells. I grab my laptop from upstairs, and go sit on the couch. There are no new teaching jobs. I refresh the webpage over and over.
In the garden there is a bird fountain. It’s a strange little thing: an angel holding a bowl full of murky water for the crows to drink and waggle their tails in. It’s exactly the same as the bird fountain that used to sit underneath the gumtrees at home.
Whenever I walk past the windows at the back of the house, I look out to it. It sits under the maple tree, water spurting out from the centre and throwing ripples to the edges, collecting leaves like ours used to collect gumnuts. There’s something sinister to it—almost like the angel is watching me as I clean and cook and learn Japanese and sketch and refresh the jobs page over and over. It takes me weeks, but I realise: it looks like my mother.
‘Drew, where’re the corn flakes?’
‘The supermarket didn’t have cornflakes. Only this weird granola.’
‘Oh, well. Can you pass the weird granola?’
‘Are you making any headway in your Japanese?’
‘… Met any friends? You went to Harajuku yesterday, right?’
‘Surely you spoke to someone.’
‘I don’t think saying ‘thank you’ to the guy at Seven-Eleven counts.’
‘You should make friends, Andrew. Enjoy your time here. Life’s a merry-go-round, you know—always getting faster. Blink twice and you’ll miss it.’
It’s August. As I open the sliding door, the only thing I can hear is the cicadas singing and chirping in their coarse little orchestra. I sit down on the back porch and open my sketchbook. The sky is grey again. It’s hot, too. No sooner do I step outside than I begin sweating. Wetness trickles down my face, pools in my armpits and soaks through my shirt.
I sketch the garden. Checking and rechecking the details, I pencil in the maple, the fountain, the gecko tail lying on the porch, the square pavers placed carefully between the tufty weeds and flowers, and the wooden fence encasing it all. A murder sits atop the wood; the crows gallop along and flutter to the fountain. They giggle in their coy but curt way. Somewhere beyond, an ambulance cries and offends the cicadas. They sing louder, trying to obscure it.
I take special care as I sketch the fountain. The paper is rough and creased from erasing the little face so many times. I hook the pencil around the nose, scratch in the eye lids, the chin, and softly shade the shadows on the back of the angel’s neck.
Against the sliding door, my head rests. The sun is warm on my arms and my face, and I watch the crows bouncing between the posts, circling the angel on the fountain, and playing in the water. I wonder if they know how ephemeral this moment is. One day, these crows will be dead, and I will be old and there is not a thing I nor they can do to slow down the process. I stare at the bird fountain, the angel, and wish that I could remember my mother’s face. The sun sets on the humid day as I sit here, uncomfortable, watching each moment turning into the past.
I dream about Bec still. Her hair is mousey-brown, she has a chicken-pox scar on her left cheek, and she’s smiling. She’s not beautiful. Her eyebrows are too close together and the skin around her fingernails is always cracked but she’s dozing and her hips are soft and her hands are on my chest and I feel like I’m home and then I wake. I’m drenched in sweat and she’s somewhere eight-thousand kilometres away, fast asleep.
I sleep and wake and sleep and wake and sleep and wake and wonder why I’ve chosen this limbo. A manatee sits cross-legged on our couch. Our housemates are at my graduation ceremony, but I am not. The manatee cries. It tells me we’ve outgrown each other. It tells me it loves me but we’re not the same species anymore. Also, says the manatee, there’s a job waiting somewhere beyond this haze. Somewhere back in Adelaide. I’m biding time here, it says. I’m standing still. I’m waiting. Go home, it says. A real world exists. I blink twice. The manatee is gone.
It’s 2:00a.m. and Dad is asleep. The sound of stone shattering erupts from outside. I wake. I don’t understand. Another shattering sounds. Something is horribly wrong. I throw back the covers, grab my phone and switch on its torch. When I come down the stairs and into the kitchen, I see that the sliding door is open. Beyond, in the cramped garden, the bird fountain is gone.
I wake Dad. I tell him.
He asks: ‘What bird fountain?’
The radio is on, and I stand in the kitchen. Since the bird fountain left, I haven’t liked the silence of this house. Pop music plays. The windows are wide open and the cicadas shriek. Our neighbours bought a puppy. The woman next door, Hisae, named the little creature Natsuki. She’s sweet and she yaps constantly. When I pass her in the street, Hisae apologises in English for the puppy’s noisiness. ‘I don’t mind,’ I say, scratching Natsuki’s ears, ‘She just wants to be heard.’
Natsuki barks now. Her yapping makes the house more homely.
For dinner, Dad has requested Gyūdon. I take his favourite cookbook from the shelf and prop it up between the wall and a box of tea, and cook. The scent of ginger, garlic, soy sauce and dashi fills the kitchen. The rice cooker beeps. I finish. I refresh the jobs page. I check the price of airplane tickets back to Adelaide.
It’s quarter-past-nine and Dad still isn’t home.
There are no messages from him. He’s hardly a meticulous person, but he’s rarely late. I call him. No answer. I wait in the kitchen, a tiny glob of worry dancing to the beat of the crackly pop music. I wrap up the food in cling wrap and do the dishes. By eleven o’clock, he still isn’t home and I eat slowly. My hands wobble. I give up on chopsticks. I grab a fork.
The trains are probably congested. He’ll open the door at any moment and apologise for being late. He lost his wallet and had to go to the police station to report it or he went out for drinks with Yuta and Honoka and forgot to tell me. Something like that.
At midnight, I sit in the living room. I open the green textbooks and stare at the words and kanji on the pages. I learn nothing. I try not to think about Dad’s closed bedroom door, and how I used to wish over and over that I could pause everything just before it shut. I used to wish that I could grab time by the tail and pin it down and force it to stay with us and be happy.
It’ll be 1a.m. soon and the trains will stop running. Then, he’ll have to walk or get a hotel. I call him again. At four a.m., I fall asleep, still waiting.
It’s been weeks. The police haven’t called back. The missing person’s report to the Department of Foreign Affairs has turned up nothing. I walk home from the supermarket with bags of instant noodles and microwave spaghetti. As I turn onto my street, I see Natsuki: the puppy from next door. She’s trotting along, totally alone. I’m about to call out her name when she begins to morph and change. Natsuki’s fur turns dark, darker than the shadows around her, and she grows enormous. The huge creature turns to me, standing on two legs. I freeze. It tips back its head and laughs a cruel laugh, before scampering into the night-time.
I don’t sleep. I lie in my bed with the windows open, watching the thin, white curtains floating on the breeze. They’re like the ocean. There was a beach near our house in Adelaide, I think, somewhere beyond the gumtrees and the closed doors. I hear it now, the salty sound ushered in by seafoam curtains, waxing and waning, beckoning and shunning me as they watch me lying here, suffering.
Another day expires. The things I’ve lost run further into the distance. The sun begins to rise. It’s 5 a.m. and I give up. I get out of bed, dress, take up my keys and my residence card from where I left them on the floor, and exit the house. I don’t clean anymore. I don’t draw. Instead, I walk. It’s too early for the sun to rise, but it does so anyway. It’s hot, even before it should be. I miss home. Here, nothing changes; it’s the consistency, the summer’s dedication to its heat, that wears away at me. I keep going, though. Dad might come home. So might Bec. And Mum. And the bird fountain. The cicadas scream at me as I pass them, as I pass the tufts of bushes and trees, and amble up and down the hills, across the railway lines, and into Yoyogi Park.
Crows wait on the iron gates as I enter. The sun is bright and hot and swells my head, but I walk anyway. I walk and walk, looping around the circular park. Though it’s early, there are a small groups of runners trickling past. The odd dog walker heads towards the dog run. The crows sit between it all, watching, cawing. I walk around and around and around, and then I see her.
She’s wearing white and her hair is mousey-brown, and there are creases in her face I hadn’t noticed before. When she sees me, she runs. I chase. The heels of her feet duck in and out of the white dress. She runs faster and faster. I can’t catch her. In a moment, she is tiny. The size of a fairy in the distance, then a speck: the white, blurry seed of a dandelion whisked away into nothing. She disappears. All that’s left is the emptiness of the road ahead as I keep running. Suddenly, I can’t stop.
The floor is moving underneath my feet. Two hands, invisible and far away, have taken the path and are tugging it from under me. It’s a merry-go-round. I keep running. If I stop, I’ll die. The trees pass me. The long, lonely maples offer an armless salute. My mother is gone. The maples morph into gumtrees; their limbs fall and crash around me. Around and around the park I keep going. The merry-go-round blurs the Photoshopped greenery and the laughter of children and the yapping of Natsuki and the caw of crows and the thick, sticky humidity of the air and the sweat dripping down my arms and face and chest. Faster and faster it turns. My father is gone. I run past the bird fountain. It’s shattered on the floor. As I pass, it melts into the pavement. Everything becomes one. I can’t remember Dad’s face. I leap over a dead manatee. My limbs are cast off, like lizards dropping tails. They all leave me.
I keep going.