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. 

On boredom

‘Nothing so consumes a person as meaningless exertion’ Haruki Murakami

Boredom, pure and simple but Murakami refers to something else, meaningless exertion, day after day of doing the same thing without understanding its significance. 

There were days in my childhood when life took on a colourless tone, where every move felt laboured under the weight of not knowing what to do, days when my father forced us out of our house into the safety of my brother’s place, semi-detached in red brick in a side street that led through an alley way and countless other streets to the Auburn railway station. 

The house is still there, not far from where I live today, and when I walk past with dogs on their leads, as they sniff around the grass under lamp posts on the narrow nature strip, I check out its proportions against my memory. 

The way it sat there banged up against its identical partner, concrete pathway to the front door which was tucked to one side and invisible from the street. The square of lawn consisted of little more than a patch of green bordered by flower beds of begonia and geranium. The stock standard flowers of my childhood. They looked after themselves.

My brother lived in this house with his young wife, a woman who eclipsed us all with her foreign beauty. Her clean round face free of the blemishes that beset me as a soon-to-be teenager. She dressed in an elegance that spoke to serious care and she helped my brother to rise above the dishevelled state of his own youthful neglect into something better, while the rest of us, my sisters and his younger brothers languished behind layers of dirt and disinterest in all but our schoolwork. 

Schoolwork was all I enjoyed, but on one such day in my brother’s house even my schoolwork could not help me. We were bang smack in the middle of holidays and no one had homework then.

During holidays you were meant to play, have fun, go to new places, with your parents, take trips into the city with friends like some of the popular girls at my school, or make time for activities like ice skating at St Mauritz in St Kilda.

Such experiences needed money and parental supervision, none of which we had in those days when my mother took herself off to work to raise what little money she could, and my father floated at home on yet another bender. We four kids in the middle made do at my brother’s house trying to keep the place tidy in the same way my brother and his young bride left it once they too took themselves off to work. 

One of the younger brothers lost himself in books, another took himself into the garden to explore the insect life. My sisters were young enough to make up imaginary games with dolls or other pleasurable preoccupations while I looked out the window onto a rain-soaked street and nursed my boredom like a broken arm.

There’s a television series doing the rounds that features a sensory deprivation tent. The character in the movie who enters the tent then enters new worlds. What fun. 

When I was a kid in my own version of a sensory deprivation tent, I could not kick start my imagination into anything other than boredom eked out of every moment and stretched to kill time. 

I walked over to the kitchen sink and wiped it shiny clean so that it sparkled the way my sister in law left it in the morning before work. I marvelled that she could keep her kitchen so clean. Nothing left behind on the bench beyond the toaster. And bread bin. An empty bread bin which made my stomach rumble at the left-over smells as I lifted the lid and looked for crumbs. 

We ate the last slices toasted at breakfast and my brother said we’d need to wait till he came home with something for dinner. He did not want us to cook anything from the cupboard for fear of the mess we might make in his kitchen, his new wife’s domain and so that one obvious activity – the preparation of food – became another activity denied in my sensory deprivation tent.

At such times it’s hard to form memories. Memories come from events that are loaded with feelings. On this day I looked down on my knees and marvelled at the shape of bones as they turned the corner to the rest of my legs to my sandshoes below. 

I wore a woollen skirt, a hand me down from my elder sister. Tight now, it bunched around my hips, and I needed to straighten it so that it sat comfortably. Otherwise, the wool scratched. I wore long socks that covered my legs to the nape of my knees. The gap in between where the cold air grabbed was annoying, as if there was a draft in my deprivation tent where sensations could sneak through. I wanted to numb myself to all sensation so that time might pass, and the day end and I could be somewhere else that held meaning, some promise in this otherwise drab world in my brother’s house where I dared not imagine life.

In moments like these it was hard to locate myself. To feel the contours of my mind and body. To sense myself as a person who had reason for being and could go on being. I was as transparent and ephemeral as the daddy long legs that crawled across the carpet to its hole in the corner of the lounge. 

My sister-in-law would be displeased at the sight of such a creature, and I had the impulse to swat it, but I also had a sense that this creature carried a soul and heart. This creature should live. 

So, I let it be and watched the knobbles on its long legs, the place which I imagined were its knees. as it sidled along the wall to the darkest corner and a crack in the sideboard where it finally disappeared. 

When you’re young and bored, when life offers you no sense of amusement or purpose, when you are helpless to the endless ticking of the clock and the inertia that comes from having nothing to do and no one to tell you where to go or how to spend your hours, you enter a limbo state in which your arms become sludge. It gets hard to stir yourself, to engage with the world. 

I was in the in-between state of early childhood like my two younger sisters stooped over their dolls in one corner of the lounge room in contrast to my older brothers who made a point of action into books or the outside world, while even my imagination let me down, and I tried to enter my tent of sensory deprivation to create a numbness akin to how it feels when you’re dead.

Only I was not yet dead.