I step off the air-conditioned train along with five or six other passengers.
The midday, midsummer heat envelops me in a suffocating embrace as I walk the few steps to the street exit of the sleepy provincial station. The small, white-shirted inspector looks askance at me as I hand him the stub of my one-way ticket. Probably my height (just shy of five foot eleven) was rather unusual for a Japanese woman, as I'd noticed several similarly curious glances cast my way during the two hour journey from Osaka via Saidaiji where I'd changed onto the two carriage Kintetsu line local train.
I stop outside the station among the messily parked bicycles to buy a Pocari Sweat from the row of gleaming vending machines there. There's not much to it - a few shabby looking shops, one stand up red lantern diner serving udon and curry rice and yakitori, one narrow road leading east to the town centre, and one north to the countryside, the two roads intersecting at a small and run down-looking bus station at the corner of the parade of shops.
I need desperately to change out of my skinny black jeans into a skirt. It's so hot that my body's already soaking wet from sweat. I look around and find the sign for the station's ladies room and slip inside, emerging soon afterwards in a more practical short yellow skirt that I'd bought from American Apparel in Tokyo a week or so before. I bend down to tie a loose lace on one of my Converse (and to retrieve an errant sneaker sock that had been sucked down into the shoe to bunch painfully under my left arch), shoulder my bright turquoise canvas bag and head for the bus stop at the north end of the station parade.
As I walk along the baked dry pavement slurping my icy canned drink, I have a sudden atavistic recall of the perpetual dustiness of the hot summer roads of this, my childhood home town, a far cry from the mucky damp streets of Archway where I now live. I put The Royal Society by 80's Matchbox B-Line Disaster on my iPod and sit down on the peeling green bench next to a middle-aged man with a pochi dog who's chainsmoking Mild Sevens (the man, not the dog).
And so I wait patiently for the hourly bus to the local Shinto shrine.
I'm not at all keen to reacquaint myself with my family or their friends, some of whom I know still live in this quiet little backwater, looking as I do now: like some skinny, trendy girl from America Town, and with the mounds of my newish, small breasts visible under my boat neck top's low chest. That would be too hard to explain for those expecting the too-tall-for-his-skin awkward, slightly overweight boy of their past. So I keep my big sunglasses on and hide my face under a huge, orange sun hat and my bush of curly bottle blonde hair. I get plenty of stares (I look understandably rather too exotic and ponyish for such a small, unchanging town) but no recognition.
I notice that the trees that line the road leading north of the bus stop have grown as I gulp down the rest of my slightly salty sports drink. During my youth, they'd been a distinct and pretty avenue of foliage leading off into the middle distance (well, to the county town, eventually, actually) but these had now grown and intertwined above to become a long and shady green tunnel, impossibly inviting in the heat.
I look down the tunnel of trees, squinting, expecting to see an approaching car, or a girl on a bicycle, or a bus returning from the shrine but nothing comes. The tunnel just stretches off into a peaceful green darkness. I turn away, then back again, drawn by the promise of the cool, peaceful green.
My mobile rings, startling me from my reverie.
I retrieve it from the interior pocket of my bag and look at the display. It reads "MOCHA". Stupid cow! I feel a powerful and quiet fury that my so called 'best friend' from London seems already to have forgotten that I'm abroad and I told her not to call me for any reason. I thumb the busy tone button and replace my phone in my holdall. She probably just wants to discuss sharing cabs to the club on Saturday or some such. As I'm fuming, a bus pulls into the rotunda that houses the bus stop with a diesel rumble. I look up in anticipation, but it's just the town centre shuttle. The five or so passengers waiting with me all mount the bus, my companion on the bench stubbing out the latest of his cigarettes and ascending the step last. His dog follows him aboard, looking back at me with mournful eyes and a slight whine. The double cantilevered doors hiss shut and the bus pulls away leaving a cloud of the omnipresent dust. I watch it go as the cloud settles. I'm now quite alone.
I turn back again to the tunnel of trees. It might be an illusion but the far end seems even more distant now, swallowed up in unfathomable darkness. I fight a strong urge to get up and walk off into the darkness and instead retrieve my phone again to check the time just as it shudders to alert me that a message has arrived.
I flip the little pink thing open. It's from Mocha:
Call me when u get 2 shrine urgent!
I close the message then open it again, read it again.
Mocha neither knows I'm in my home town going to visit the shrine, nor has any inkling of just how urgent any of this is.
I'm trying to work this one out when I notice that the shadows are lengthening around me. I must have been sitting waiting longer than I realised as it's now early evening. I look around to see if there's anyone I can ask about the bus. But the station and the shops around it are all deserted.
I shake my head. I feel as though I've been asleep. I feel a powerful sense of drowsiness. But I've been awake since I got here. The town centre bus only just left. I'm sure of it. Yet it feels simultaneously like hours have passed.
I look again to the tree-lined road that leads to the shrine. My phone rattles again in my palm.
1 new text message from: MOCHA
We r waiting pls hurry!!!!
I close my phone and put it away, shouldering my bag. I look again at the dim extent of the green tunnel of trees. I can almost imagine that there are shapes moving at the far end. Dusk is falling far quicker than I'm used to back home in London and I'm aware that, somehow, somewhere time is running out for me, or for J, so I get up and abandon my wait for the bus. I'll deal with Mocha's baffling texts later.
I slip into the tunnel of trees and walk onwards into the gathering darkness.
As little as fifty steps into the cool darkness of the tunnel of trees, I feel as though I'm a million miles away from the railway station at its entrance. The trees up above have closed into a vertiginous, tangled canopy that lets only a murky, seabed light through. Shivering in the sudden damp chill, I pull a stripy cardigan from my big bag and shrug it on.
Looking back, I notice that the dusk of the town that I left behind has dwindled to a distant, indistinct smudge of orangish light that is soon swallowed up by the pervasive gloom. I glance back a couple more times, but have the uneasy feeling that I shouldn't look back any more so I fix my eyes ahead and continue.
At intervals on the eastern verge of the silent road (to my right) sit small, moss-covered Jizo statues, looking impassively at me from the gloom with their eroded eyes. Remains of ancient offerings sit decaying at their feet, but it's clear that no fresh flowers or pieces of food have been placed for these tiny stone spirits for many months, even years. Nothing sits on the overgrown western verge of the road. Instinctively I keep to the right, closer to the statues. It feels safer,
The road is impossibly quiet now. Even my footsteps sound muffled. Ahead is impenetrable darkness but I know I have to carry on. So I do.
I'm not sure when I first notice it. I suppose that it's just a sensation of being observed to begin with.
By now the darkness is so suffocating that all I'm aware of is the movement of my joints as I walk, the tug of my bag on my shoulder. Sight, sound, even smell have long since been lost to me. I can feel hardly any sensation save a vague sense of forwards-ness.
Anyway, I start to have a slightly uneasy feeling that there are others watching me in the dark, At first I think it might be because of the little stone spirits on the road verge. I know they're there so I must subconsciously be projecting an observational role on them.
But slowly, I begin to realise there are others walking in the dark with me. At first it's just a faint sound of a scuffed footfall in the darkness to my left. Then something brushes my right arm and I hear faint breaths of exertion behind me. Somewhere ahead is a faint light as someone lights a cigarette and I smell the smoke as it drifts back to me on the faint air current.
Gradually I become aware that I'm surrounded by a dense crowd of shuffling figures, all treading the tarmac as I do, all heading in the same direction. Forwards...
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. The mass of humanity shuffling like automata around me reminds me of the mental image that quotation always puts in my head, of a throng of faceless people pushing forwards in an absurd impulse to get somewhere, somehow, not knowing why, where or how it will help.
By degrees, I realise that I'm beginning to be able to see. There's a milky, rippling, bluish light that's beginning to suffuse the road from ahead. I begin to see the figures around me, hunched over, formless, shuffling forwards. There must be hundreds of us on the suddenly much wider road, all about two or three feet apart. Strangely, each individual figure seems strangely shapeless until I look directly at them, at which point they resolve into sharp reality. I know them all, in some vague way. I focus on two friends from college a few feet away, walking together in the blue light, Hugo and Sasha. I make to go over to them, but suddenly realise they're kissing and hang back. Damn. I thought they were over each other.
Twenty feet ahead, my focusing gaze brings another group of people into relief. Mocha! And a few others from the club. What the hell are they doing here? I shout out her name, but she doesn't hear me.
Or rather she can't hear me. My voice makes no sound in the strange, attenuated vacuum that surrounds us. I pick up my pace, trying to work my way through the crowd to them, pushing the other people aside in my haste.
As I pass others in the shuffling crowd I realise that they're fading away. I'm reasonably certain that any of those that I've already pushed behind me no longer exist, as though only my attention is keeping them anchored to the reality of the path. As I move forward I'm erasing the people who fall behind me out of my line of sight.
But I don't care because I've just seen who's at the front of the crowd making his way along the road in the uncanny blue, rippling light ahead.
I'd recognise that outline, that tilt of the head, that long black hair, anywhere. J!!
I redouble my pace and barge my way through the crowd, past Mocha and Mel and Pierre who fade noiselessly as I push past. Past hundreds more insubstantial ghosts, erasing them even as I brush past and ignore them. I only want to get to J, to hold him and kiss him, to talk, to laugh and eat and drink and just to be with him to banish this permadusk that I've endured since he disappeared.
But J is still leaving me behind. The faster I try to advance the more I feel stuck. Invisible hands hold me back and J is disappearing into the distance. I've struggled to a complete halt. The mass of the ignored won't let me have him if I won't acknowledge them. Insubstantial though they are they hold me imprisoned in the gloom. I'm running but I'm perfectly still. Shouting myself hoarse but unable to hear myself or be heard.
Ahead, J stops. Cocking his head as though he's heard something, he looks around. I jerk my neck trying to push aside the invisible, cold hand of one of the ignored that's covering my mouth and manage to utter one, desperate shout: "PLEASE!!!!"
The blue light is coming from him and grows to envelop me as he steps slowly back towards me, a sad little smile on his face.
Tears are pouring down my face. I want to reach up and hug him but I'm still completely unable to move.
J reaches out a glowing blue hand and touches my tear-wet cheek.
Then he shrinks into a tiny blue point of light which vanishes off into the distance of the still forest.
As he goes, the darkness falls down on me like a shroud. I lie utterly immobile, entombed in icy stillness.
I no longer exist. I've become one of the ignored.
I woke up with a huge, tearing cry. My pillow was soaking wet with sweat and tears.
I looked at my phone. It was five am on Saturday morning.
J had been missing exactly five weeks now and I missed him more every day. The only contact I'd had since he'd gone to Paris had been that weird click- ridden and impossibly distant-sounding phone message. I counted that as when he went missing, though technically you could say that he wasn't really missing as he'd been able to call me. I just don't think whoever or whatever rang me that night was actually J.
He's been due back the third week of August but it was now September 15th, the leaves were beginning to turn, and his flat lay empty. I'd asked the cab drivers at the club every Saturday but they said he wasn't back yet, that they hadn't seen him. Now they just shrugged.
No-one really knew J, it seemed. He didn't seem to have family. No one missed him. Except me. I missed him fiercely. I missed his funny askew smile, his big soulful eyes and the fine curls of black hair that adorned his flat brown chest.
I reported him missing at Shoreditch police station. I tried his mobile once in a while, left voicemail, sent him email, filled out the contact form on his Mosque clock site and left messages on his Facebook.
The man I had been appalled to realise I loved was slowly fading from my life.
Meanwhile, my sleep problems had got worse. Since that phone message, I'd barely been able to sleep more than an hour or so at night. Every few days I'd be gripped by sleep paralysis and I'd become so terrified of a repeat of my nocturnal visitor that I actually set up a camcorder on Long Play record and night mode at the end of my bed and recorded, Britain's Most Haunted style, my sleeping self every night.
But I didn't receive any more visitations, though sometimes I'd lie awake imagining that I could sense the strange blue glow of that ball-headed entity approaching my bedroom up the stairs. The green, grainy camcorder footage revealed just what the tape captured night upon night. A strung-out looking tranny on the constant edge of a cliff of sleep.
I sat up in bed smoking, thinking about the vivid dream I'd just had. Dawn was starting to creep over the Archway skyline. I'd fallen asleep in my makeup and lingerie from the night before and I looked an absolute fright in the mirror next to my bed.
The more I contemplated that dream, the more I became convinced that J had been trying to contact me through it. It was as though he'd taken me to a familiar place from my childhood then was trying to draw me into some nether place where he was trapped.
Trapped. Why else would his message sound so desperate? He had to be lost, or marooned, or imprisoned somewhere. It was exactly five weeks since that weird phone call. I didn't dare think about terrorism, because it was clearly so absurd a notion.
Besides, I felt a sensation akin to a conviction that whatever J was mixed up in was a lot weirder than that.
Stubbing out my cigarette, I picked up my phone and dialled J's mobile. No answer. Not that I'd been expecting any. The phone had gone straight to voicemail every time since.
The girl had a small bead of blood glistening on her pale earlobe.
Well, that's what it looked like. The cheap resin earring that studded her earlobe was glinting wetly in the bright early morning sunlight in front of me and I couldn't keep my eyes off it in my fuddled condition.
I was on the top deck of the 271 bus travelling south towards Shoreditch.
Since waking up from the dream of J leaving me in the tunnel, I'd become obsessed with the idea that something was about to happen, so I'd quickly thrown on some jeans and just about the only clean top I could find, touched up my lippy and my puffy eyes, stuffed my purse, makeup, a bottle of water and a cardy into my turquoise bag and pelted out of the house. I reckoned his flat in Bethnal Green was a good place to start so I'd grabbed a doughnut and a coffee at McDonalds by the Whittington Hospital and hopped onto this bus.
Now I was bumping down New North Road. It was a beautiful morning, clear and warm. But all I could do was stare at this woman's cheap earring. I was about to reach out and pull it out of her ear, or ask her where she'd got it, or do something equally foolish, when my mobile rang.
It was Mocha. I tucked my newly blonde hair behind my ear and pressed the answer button.
"What you wearing tonight, LADY?" she said. She sounded drunk.
I'd completely forgotten it was Saturday. I was working tonight. "Mocha, it's seven fucking am. What are you doing up this early?"
There was a confused pause at the other end. I could hear keys being dropped and picked up; then rattling in a lock.
"Ohhhh, I just got IN girl! You'll never guess who I was OUT with. You'll just DIE!! Anyway what you WEARIN', lady? Cos I thought we could go like MEGA-80s? You know that new pink BAT THING you got down at Utopia in Chapel Market? I got a black and GOLD one that matches it. We'll be AMAZIN' whadyafink BIA- TCH??"
The bus was pulling up at the Old Street stop. Earring girl was getting off and I had to too. I shouldered my bag and followed her downstairs, cradling my mobile with my chin and shoulder. "Yeah, sounds good love, but listen, I have to go right now. Sorry. In the middle of something sticky. Call you later. Mwah!" I hung up before I could hear any of Mocha's protests. She rang once again but I ignored it. That was quickly followed by a text that simply said "BIATCH XX".
I walked up Old Street and around the corner onto Shoreditch High Street to wait for an 8 to Bethnal Green, wondering who Mocha'd been out with. Probably one of those microcelebs that she liked to pretend were actually famous.
To my slight surprise, 'Earrings' was sat on the red plastic bench at the bus stop, reading a folded over copy of Time Out. I sat down next to her and smoked a fag squinting up at the sun glinting off the windows at the front of the Tea Building. I studied her askance. She was small, birdlike and pretty, in a tweedy green peacoat and bright yellow tights, purple Mary Janes on her feet that I'd seen in Office shoes. Her brown bob was tucked into a red beret. She wore delicate, red-framed glasses that matched the earrings and moved her lips slightly as she read.
She glanced up at me and I pretended to be surreptitiously reading her magazine. She smiled faintly and I smiled back. She started to rise and I realised that my bus was pulling up to the stop. I hopped on after her and sat down by the baby-carriage bit. She went upstairs.
As the bus trundled along Bethnal Green Road towards J's Peabody Housing block, my face was bathed in the early autumn sunlight. I drifted up into my thoughts like a cloud in the blue sky above.
The corners of the drab buildings idled past my grubby bus window. Halal meat shops, convenience stores, video rental places, kebab and fish and chip shops, curry restaurants, internet cafes, money transfer, dry cleaning, the odd letting agent and dilapidated pub; behind them the ever looming grey and red- brick tenement blocks and estates. All the services the city needs to keep ticking over. The bottom rung of the urban hierarchy of needs; a far remove from the luxury that one might find just a few miles west. The mass of men, women and the undecided, living their lives of quiet desperation, one day at a time, hoping for the phone call, the letter, the email, the chance encounter that would let light into their twilight of the ignored.
J had been that light for me. I harboured hopes and fears like anyone else in this massive, cruel city. It had been a happy release from the day to day tedium of urban life to have been able to share my life, however briefly, with the man who'd driven me home that night. I was under no illusions that being the person I was, I'd find it harder to find companionship of a genuine nature. I'd had plenty of one-or-more night stands, but many of my so-called boyfriends fetishised me rather than truly saw me as a partner in time. It gets fucking painful standing up on that pedestal in stillettoes, believe me.
Not J. He and I genuinely had something indescribable. Shit... We did... I brushed some moistness from my eyes with a MacDonalds napkin and blew my nose. Shit.
The bell to stop the bus rang as I was reaching for it. I head footsteps descending the steps from the top deck and smiled as Earring Girl emerged from the stairwell. It seemed like our journeys were inextricable. I got up and joined her at the exit door as the bus pulled up at the stop for J's street.
I paused at the bus stop to rummage in my bag for my cigarettes, and lit one, removing my cardigan in the increasing warmth and stuffing it in the turquoise bag's roomy canvas confines. I noticed that Earrings was heading up the side street towards J's block of flats. I suddenly felt a bit self conscious, like I was stalking her. God knows why, but I tried to keep a surreptitious distance as I followed her up the familiar street lined with London Planes. She was probably just heading home after a night out or something. She turned right and left. Bemused, I followed. She was heading straight towards J's Peabody block.
I came to a halt by the street corner greasy spoon cafe on J's street as I realised she was actually going into the street door that led to J's flat.
There were only five flats to every entrance. Surely coincidence couldn't stretch that far. Had she been following me somehow? Was she mixed up in whatever scheme had wrenched my lover from me? No. It didn't make sense. I'd been following her. No. I mean, she'd been ahead of me, so she couldn't have been following me, unless she was somehow following me from in front of me... wait, no, wait...
No. Stupid. It was just a stupid coincidence. I was tired and upset and was seeing menace where there was none. Crossing the street, I walked up to the door and tried J's doorbell.
Of course there would be no reply. Why on Earth would there be? I'd tried often enough the last five weeks. Why would he be back now?
The intercom crackled. "Hello?"
After I'd poured myself back into my skin and got my thudding heart back on a regular beat again, I leaned into the microphone grille. "Ummm.... hi. I'm looking for J, the Asian guy who lives here... I'm a friend of his?"
There was a pause.
"Oh..." said a woman's voice from the intercom. There was another pause.
"You'd better come up."
The entry buzzer sounded. I pushed the door open and went inside.
to be continued...
The novella, 'Transformer' is part of the Transformer series, a loose cycle of semi-autobiographical, semi-connected short stories.
'Transformer' was incomplete in the previous version of my site, with only the first two instalments of the novella completed. Having finished all five parts of the story now, I'm very happy to be able to publish it in its entirety. Enjoy.
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