On cats, casualties and Japan

I’m not well. Nothing major. A cold perhaps. The type the gets progressively worse and leaves me with a head like an echo chamber and a little on the spacey side. I can’t sleep it off even if I wanted. 

I have only one memory of being unwell as a child. Feverish I stayed in bed for what must have been days. When I put my feet onto the ground to take myself outside to the toilet, the dizziness was so strong I thought I might fall over. 

I’m into another Haruki Murakami, this time Kafka by the Shore. I’m too early in to know what is happening. The story follows many threads, children who fall unconscious in the forest of Japan on a mushrooming expedition with their teacher. And no one can account for what happened, though there are hints it might be a nerve gas. Close by Hiroshima with hints of worse top come.

This is during the Second World War, 1944, and American planes are doing their bit to terrify the Japanese people.

People are always the casualties of war. Ordinary people caught in the cross fire of their leaders.

One of the children who falls unconscious on that mountainside, unlike the other children does not wake up. He never regains his memory or intellectual ability and spends his life thinking he is stupid. We meet him some fifty years after the event. He has one ability though. He can talk to cats. He’s on a pension from the government which he subsidies with cash payments for finding lost cats.

Murakami has a thing for lost cats and for people with amazing abilities who find them.

I find Murakami a soothing read even as he takes me into worlds that make little sense to me.

And I think back to that time in 2016 when I travelled to Japan with my husband to visit our daughter who was living there for three years with her then boyfriend, now husband, to gain experience of living and working outside Australia. It must have been her thirtieth birthday when we visited. 

Each day our daughter and her partner took us on tours of Tokyo where they were living. And the thing that stays with me, the visit to the shrine, all dark panelled and situated among glorious squat trees like full sized origami on platforms of rock. 

Everywhere tourists cast their votive offerings to the gods. As did I. 

I was horrified with what came back to me. I sent wishes that my book might find a publisher. Years before I wished for babies. And decades before that my dad might stop drinking or that he might die. 

All my wishes have come true though it took my father many years to die and by the time he was gone I was not so keen on his leaving. Nor was I distressed by his death. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be grief stricken on the death of a father. Though I see other people who grieve for their dadas in ways I can only imagine.

With my noise cancelling headphone cradling my ears, the malaise that has come upon me is now not so intense. Almost not there. 

I saw a tiny dead bird on the footpath on my walk with the dogs this morning. So pink so foetal. So sad it must have fallen from its nest and died there on the cold hard earth. 

I thought to take a photo, but it seemed sacrilegious somehow. As if to keep its death on view forever.

Better to let it fade under the tree where it first saw life. 

The pram in the hallway

The pram in the hallway, the baby seats in the car, speak to the presence of little ones. JG Ballard considered it an advantage to his writing, after his wife had died and he was left to care for their three small children. He refused to pass them onto relatives and chose instead to raise them as best he could, single parent by day, writer by night with much drinking and cigarette smoking to shore up his energy until he too was dead.

Others see the pram in the hallway as a deterrent to the lives of writers. Either to the person who does not take up writing till after the children are grown and gone, or the children themselves who suffer neglect.

I never used a pram with my babies, nor a highchair. When they were tiny I ferried them places by car, in a capsule for the later babies, a bassinette on the back seat for my first born. 

By the time my children could sit, I invested in a lightweight Maclaren pusher to wheel them around. A pram seemed an unnecessary luxury, until my youngest came along and I borrowed the pram of another to experience the joy of walking along a street pushing my little one as she slept.

My mother had a pram in Holland. She used it to walk the thirty long miles from her home in Haarlem to the countryside where one of her cousins lived. This cousin was married to a man who ran a farm with crops and cows enough to feed the sickly baby watered down milk so that she might regain her strength during the Honger winter of 1945. 

The pram was in wicker with high wheels and sturdy frame, and it held the baby snug over the rickety cobblestones of Haarlem streets, over the kinderhoofjes, babies heads, so named because of the round bluestones that covered the ground, and then onto the gravel laneways of the countryside. 

By the time they reached Heilo, the baby sickened. She lasted only one night and died in the morning. In May towards the end of that cruel winter when ice was beginning to thaw, an icicle entered my mother’s heart. It stayed there as she pushed her pram, now empty. They buried the baby in Heilo, far from her home. Dead at five months of age but forever in my mother’s heart.

I asked her to tell me this story again and again when I was a child. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to understand how my mother could go on living in a world in which her baby no longer lived. 

I could not understand the way she held back tears. Her ability to tell this story with seeming detachment. 

In one of my earliest writing classes I befriended a woman who described the death of two babies, boys. They each died in turn of a genetic abnormality before they were the age of one. My friend told the story with more grief than my mother showed for her lost baby. 

‘I could not bear to go through what you went through,’ I said to her in a break during our class. ‘To lose two babies.’

‘I could not bear to live with an incestuous father,’ she said and turned to face me, her eyes grim. ‘I can’t think of anything worse.’

And so it was we shared our grief. Compared notes, pondered on the unimaginable, each a different story. We survived the unthinkable, each in our own ways. My friend wrote fiction, insisting her story was too raw, too close to home, but her fiction spoke of a young woman who had lost a baby and could not believe the baby was gone, while I stuck to memoir even as at the time I wrote my story as fiction. Always in the third person a thin disguise.

Even as I write now in the first person, a thin disguise, an effort to process something I could not make sense of when I was young. The unimaginable, the stuff that makes no sense, life lived under cover of darkness.

At the age of 34, JG Ballard drove his family from his home in England to Spain for a holiday and there his wife contracted pneumonia and died. He drove back home, the front seat empty, his three children in his care alone. 

My mother pushed her empty pram across the fields of Holland, an empty space in her heart.

The pram in the hallway suggests the presence of a small life in your care, the empty pram its absence.

In 1964 when JG Ballard was 34 years old and drove his car with his wife and three children on a holiday to Spain, he did not know that his wife’s lungs would become so congested with pneumonia she could no longer breathe. Nor that he would later drive home alone with his three children to a life so different from the one he had imagined. 

Ballard had also been interned by the Japanese during the Second World War and although he was only a child, looking back on it, he did not imagine internment was so bad for him. A child who simply played with other children, the way children do. 

He saw cruel things beatings and torture, but it was only later through his writing he came to recognise the extent of the trauma. His family had been prosperous and successful in Shanghai. Then one day out of nowhere it was all taken. They were dropped into a bucket of despair. 

This is the stuff that, like the pram in the hallway, offers a writerly dimension, the stuff we must explore. For how can our expectations be so turned on their heads, the way it is in war times, when we are helpless to forces beyond our control, when we might lose all we once had or find ourselves as hungry as our dog this morning who vomited because he had been fed too early the day before and his hunger, his empty stomach turned into an acid bath so great he had to expel it. 

‘A hungry vomit,’ my daughter called it. This breed of dogs have bodies not designed to be so empty; they shrivel. Our minds too need nourishment. A pram needs a baby, and a life needs to be populated by live company to keep it going.