There have been a couple of very interesting articles regarding the sense of smell in the New York Times recently. The first one describes recent medical research contending that loss of olfaction, particularly in old age, is a fairly reliable precursor of oncoming death. More than any other health indicator – blood pressure, liver function and other weakenings of our vital signs included, the severing of the connection between the brimming sensual world of smell and its woozy inhalations apparently seems to suggests an end to life itself.
Like most people, I have absolutely no idea what happens when we die. Whether there is an afterlife of some kind, some form of rebirth in another incarnation, or, quite likely, the simple cessation of it all – a great, silent nothing. A confirmed agnostic, I take what is to me the most logical and sensible viewpoint – that we simply do…
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If I think back to our lives ten to fifteen years ago; before The Black Narcissus ( inconceivable!), before I started writing, before we found our cat, Mori, in a forest; before the internet – which didn’t really exist for me until around 2008 or so – I see my life then in Japan as much darker, limiting, and lost.
We were still creative – costume parties, music recitals, but not in the same way. It was more like a reaction to a constant sense of uncertainty and on my part, cultural fatigue and alienation as I got further mired in the life of a Japanese company and its rituals; its constant, unfailingly pleasant sadomasochisms.
Around this time, on Sundays, once a month or so, I would walk down the hill to the Fue cafe, a lovely wooden baroque music little place that serves excellent coffee, with an impressive selection of woodwind instruments mounted on its walls ( ‘fue’ means flute), an oasis of calm and pleasingly Japanese-European mania: bamboo and irises beyond the windows, Bach music ensembles on the inside.
Learning that the owner, Mr Y, was a flute player ( as was I, of sorts, though in truth I was never particularly good ), as a way of expressing something differently to the everyday, we started doing flute duets and would occasionally perform at ‘hapyokai’, or mass recitals, where half the citizens of Kamakura and their children, seemingly, would play their hard practiced instruments on a huge stage at the municipal auditorium to the metronomed reactions of the audience ( comprising their relatives and some old down and outs enjoying the comfortable seats).
Although I would often find it an incredible hassle to drag myself from the soporific drowse of a Sunday afternoon; gather up all the photocopied sheet music that would inevitably have gone astray, pack up the silver flute that my parents gave me when I was nine years old, and leave the confines of our previous apartment ( much smaller : we moved to our present place after the Earthquake) to be polite and play obscure old classical pieces by Telemann or Vivaldi, for the most part, as we played and got in sync with each other ( he was a renegade ‘salaryman’ of the seventies who had rejected the conventional office life to follow his dream of teaching the ocarina and running his own coffeehouse; and now something of a bandana’d, gentleman hippie), I would find myself passing through the membrane into an alternate, twilighted reality; changed, as though passing through glass into a more timeless stratum, the transformational act of the transcribed notes on the pages coming alive in the cosily timbered, familiar atmosphere.
One day, Mr Y announced that we were now a trio. A violinist, a woman around my age who I shall call S, was joining us and we would henceforth ( rather pretentiously I thought ) be known as Primavera. Sweet, coy, if curiously indefinable facially – always somehow a little puffy, or sunken, her round eyes strangely hidden despite her big, open face curtained with wavy long black hair – she would float in late dressed in summery floral chiffon dresses, pretty in her way; gentle, if suppressed in a particular way I couldn’t quite put my finger on; troubled, perhaps – but then aren’t we all. Working as a kindergarten teacher, music was her emotional outlet, and despite my initial reservations and slight indignation that I hadn’t been informed of the sudden change in lineup, I got used to our new, amateurish, woozy sound in which we were never entirely in tune with each other but which in itself had a slightly charming, rural, almost Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe that was quite enjoyable to be part of : we performed a few times together and got into our own, idiosyncratic, groove.
S knew my good friend Yoko ( real name ), who I still do piano duets with, and we all belonged to the same musical circle who congregate every November for the ‘Autumn Concert’ at one family’s house. In later years, Duncan also started coming as well, playing recorder music with Mr Y, so She knew full well that we were together. I had never pretended otherwise. I would have no reason to. Once, she even came to a dinner party at our house with Yoko’s family, though I immediately regretted it : her intensely dark brown eyes were almost black that evening; inchoate, and she moved about like a wounded coyote, moody and expressionless, childishly, embarrassingly so; and it began to then dawn on me what was probably happening. To my knowledge, I hadn’t been consciously flirtatious, just friendly; jokey and sociable, which is my teacher persona default switch when I go from solitude to daytime; nothing special, but perhaps she had got the wrong idea. In any case, she had kept going on, rather ostentatiously, about a boyfriend, or possibly fiancé, of hers living in Florence – she had yearly or more frequent trips to Italy – and although later Yoko and I speculated that this fidanzato was just a figment of her imagination ( or a fictitious ploy to make me ‘jealous’), at the time I was merely pleased for her. She was a nice person who didn’t quite fit into Japanese life; was slightly estranged from her family, and who deserved happiness.
One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from her. It was peak hydrangea (‘ajisai’) season, when the valley is a mass of them, and throngs of tourists come to play prescribed homage to the officially christened finest hydrangea temple in the country, the beautiful Meigetsuin, queuing up from the early morning to get in, nudging along in packs taking pictures of themselves with the flowers ….. ….
Initially quite enchanted by the sight, when I first moved to the area two decades ago, particularly of an evening when there was no one about; alone, the road that led to the temple, by a stream, boughed down with dapples of green and mystical blue, I had eventually grown quite sick of it, all those people, year after year – there was something quite dreadfully unimaginative about it all. Plus, I had no inclination whatsoever to go out with this girl on a ‘date’ ( which I immediately knew this was ) – I had been through enough tedious window dressing of my real romantic self as a teenager, and had no intention of starting all that again now. The idea was simply laughable to me. She knew that the D and I were together, and I couldn’t quite work out what she was thinking. I said sorry, I was busy, and didn’t even especially like hydrangeas, but she was very insistent: nichiyobi, nichiyobi, on Sunday, on Sunday- it’s going to be sunny and the flowers will be in full bloom! We have to go ! We can go to Fue as well and see Mr Y! Why not?!
I relented. What harm could it do? I just had to walk down the hill, pass a pleasant, traditional time with the hydrangeas, chat a while, and then leave. It couldn’t hurt – after all, we were in the same music ensemble, and soon she might be leaving for Florence to get married. I put on some clothes and went.
I realized straight away that I had made a mistake. She had driven to our meeting point in some fancy ( borrowed?) sports car and was dressed and made up to the nines, all straw boater hat, tight fitting, summery cotton dress, and I could see in her carefully lowered or fluttering eyes what this was all about. Oh god, I thought, what have I let myself in for…
We went around the shrine, where, knowing I loved perfume, she had presented me with a scent she had got for me in Italy, a green floral ‘Magnolia’ by L’Erbolario which was actually quite nice, especially when just sprayed into a room ( and I just love being given fragrance as a gift – it is the ultimate for me), so assuaged somewhat, I suppose I let down my guard.
But I wasn’t expecting her to suddenly, without any warning, just grab my hand and tightly not let go of it as we went across the railtracks, despite my protestations and my eventually yanking my hand away from her; quite exasperated by her lack of realism and the physical repulsion I could not help feeling ( the smell of phlegm is one of my ultimate olfactory bete noires : surely if you were going to try and seduce the object of your affections and you knew that he was so smell-sensitive you would consider these things : her obliviousness in multiple regards infuriated me and I was DYING just to get away from her.)
You know that I am with Duncan.
What are you doing ?
What were you thinking ?
All that is over with now. It was fine, but now you are with me. We can be together. That isn’t real.
What the fuck are you talking about.
Are you insane?
You can be with me. We can be together.
That isn’t real.
I can’t remember all the exact words that happened then or afterward precisely, but this was the essence of our exchange as I sat her down on a bench near the railtracks and aggressively opened her willfully ignorant eyes. I didn’t mince my words, as I am sure you can imagine. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I had to kill dead whatever she thought was real and shake her into reality. I told her that I liked men, not women, at least in that sense; that she knew I was in a relationship, that I felt sorry if I had misled her in any way but that her thought process was very insulting to me, and as she sat there, crying inconsolably, I just thought Christ get me away from this situation. I can’t stand it. It is utterly ridiculous. Comical, almost, except for the obvious pain that she was going through (in retrospect , I realized that it must have taken a lot of courage for her to make her declaration of love, even if it ENRAGED me that she could have been so bigoted to imagine that she could just dismiss my entire sexuality with one clasp of her pale, tight-gripping hand and the life that I had built for myself) and think that I would then, among the extreme tedium of the flora, take up with some bloated fey adult rag doll with featureless sultanas for eyes). This person simply begged to be enlightened. So sternly making her realize that she had to let go of this fantasy and get on with her life, I made up some untrue excuse about having to go to work, and first, naturally, making sure that she was alright, I walked ahead into the distance towards the railway station; and left her alone with her heartbreak.
It was not long after this that the phone calls began.
Late, or in the middle of the night.
I suffer. I am suffering.
A disconsolate, disembodied, voice in the dark amidst the sound of crying. Sniffling: somewhere.
I knew it was her, and I tried to console her. I felt for her. I am a fiery, but not a cruel person, and I know what unrequited, or unfulfilled love ( or the rage of unsanctioned love) feels like. I had empathy, I didn’t want to hurt the poor creature, apart from when it kept happening; disturbing our lives, waking us in the early hours – ‘kurushii’, yes, but it got to the point where her delusional infatuation was impingeing too much on my reality ; the phone calls, there may even have been a letter, I can’t remember. I had to sever it. I put our trio on indefinite hiatus. I told the cafe owner. Duncan was furious. Get rid of that stupid cow. And I eventually did.
I saw her a couple of times after that. Once, at the Autumn concert. Wow, dressed to kill, whispered Yoko to me when she walked in, that time, all tight black mini dress and overly kohl-smudged eyes, as if in revenge. And then another time when she was pudgier and more fragile-looking. I don’t think we ever spoke, and it was hard for her to look at me. And I felt for her. I hope she is happy. Her heart is good. But to this day, that thick, black long hair; those flowers; that stillness and heaviness in the air, that awkwardness, it still lives inside of me as a memory of hurt and unwilling pain; misunderstanding, melancholy……….and at this time of year specifically : a particularly shadowy, mournful, shade of blue.