Unlike the foreigners I met in Japan who were trying to find themselves, I’d travelled six thousand miles from London to lose a bit of myself: the scars left behind by Mama discovering a receipt in Baba’s shirt pocket one Friday while he was hanging out at the mosque with his friends, leaving her to hang out the washing. Date: February 14. Diners: 2. Amount: £67.56 (incl. coupon @ 30%). Two years of slamming doors, dishes crashing into the sink, my little brother wetting the bed and my little sister going round punching people at school. That was the most I could take before I started planning my escape. When I finished my degree in business studies — the drab suitor my parents had pushed me towards instead of my love-match of English literature — I did a TEFL course, and then I applied for a job teaching English in Japan.
‘No daughter of mine is leaving home until the day she gets married!’ said the meal-deal Casanova, clicking his subha beads on fast-forward. ‘You’ll stay here, madam, and sleep in your own bed. Don’t think you’re English just because you were born in this cesspit of a country! You want to move to the other side of the world and carry on like these English girls do, these cheap, easy women? Japan, she says! What’s there for you in Japan?’
The floorboards upstairs were creaking. We both knew Mama was in bed with the covers over her head and the kids were crouched by the staircase, listening. I looked at him just long enough to let the threat sink in. ‘Go then,’ he mumbled, for some reason pointing at the higgledy pile of umbrellas in the hall, as if he wanted me to transport myself to Japan Mary Poppins style. ‘Do what you want and let’s see how it ruins you!’
Two months later, I stood in a softly lit bar in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Nodagawa, talking baby Japanese to Yumiko, a woman I’d just met. She nodded encouragingly at every word that came out like a difficult bowel movement.
‘First time wine drink me,’ I said. ‘Reddy wine no drink. Me make ...’
Cue jazz-hands, the new international symbol for ‘drunk’, and everything else in the abyss where words should've been. Now I knew how Mama felt each time she opened her mouth in English to be met with blank expressions. Even after twenty-five years in London, the words seemed to curdle on her tongue like rancid milk.
Putting me out of my misery, Yumiko switched to English: ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s my first time to go to a wine-tasting event too. Red wine is very strong. Who did you come with?’
‘Them,’ I said, nodding at the beaming, clear-complexioned white couple across the bar. Like me, they were teachers in the neighbouring prefecture. A male and a female: Alex and Chris, Chris and Alex. Hard to remember who was who when they only ever called each other ‘Heyyy’. They were Canadian. His and hers hiking boots, baggy lumberjack shirts. Married at the age of twenty-two. Christians of the kind born holding a tambourine. But never mind: they had a car and they were generous with their rides.
‘Where did you learn such good English?’ I said to Yumiko, wiping the sweat off my forehead. Even in September, I was a melting waxwork in Japan.
Sussex, some town I’d never heard of. We talked about homestay families and language school, cricket and warm beer, mists and mellow fruitfulness and all the other Englands I didn't know, apart from in the old programmes on ITV 3. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, nodding until my neck felt like it was about to roll off. ‘Yes, that’s right.’ Making up for yawning when she’d said, ‘Who do you think is more handsome? Prince William or Prince Harry?’
Yumiko made her excuses and left. I found myself sitting in a row at the bar with the Canadians, who fixed me with the beatific smiles of those who haven’t lost their religion. God, they smelt good: the kind of cleanliness that comes from a place soap and water can’t reach.
Someone hit play on the sound system, and old-school trip-hop floated into the bar. ‘I love this song!’ I said. ‘Roads …’
‘Yeah, by Tortoisehead, right?’ said the male Canadian. He always sounded as if he was speaking to a classroom. I laughed, thinking he was joking, and then realised he was being serious. ‘Portishead,’ I said, but I must’ve mumbled because he said, projecting from the diaphragm, ‘What was that?’
More wine arrived, hot this time. I drank it in three swigs.
‘All year round,’ said the male Canadian. ‘Huh. Only in Japan.’
Massaged by the mulled wine and dreamy beats, my knots began to loosen. Normally, when foreigners said things like ‘only in Japan’, it made me want to say ‘your culture is a freak-show to other people too.’ It made me want to tell them that my parents could never understand why anyone would go camping, for example, because why would you choose to sleep in a tent unless you were a Bedouin or a refugee? That Mama had once asked me why English people had to be drunk to do something as natural as dancing (and that I’d nodded and smiled, unable to tell her that I drank alcohol too, and that I couldn’t dance unless I was drunk either, because I was English in that way). I never did say those things, though: I didn’t want to look like I was making a big deal out of being a different kind of gaijin, or to give anyone the hump by saying ‘your culture’ instead of ‘our culture.’
‘Don’t you think that when you live abroad, you feel like you’re always on holiday?’ said the female Canadian, cupping her palm to her cheek as she turned to face me, pinpricks of light dancing on her honey-coloured hair. ‘Because, in a way, nothing feels totally real?’
‘Yes!’ I said, distracted by a drop of wine glistening on the bar-top and by the fact that she’d said ‘holiday’ instead ‘vacation’, as I would’ve expected from a North American. ‘That’s so true!’
I thought of the glittering sky in Tokyo the night I’d landed at Narita Airport; how it had left a vapour trail across my heart in a way nothing real or permanent could ever do. If my parents hadn’t realised they were on holiday when they’d arrived in England from Algeria, that was because they were travellers of a different sort: immigrants, not expats.
The female reached out for her glass, her arm grazing mine. ‘Your skin’s so soft!’ I said, stroking it.
‘Thank you, so is yours,’ she said, touching me back lightly. How long had it been since that, in any meaningful way? Months or was it decades. Sex in the toilets at the Pizza Express in Soho before I left for Japan, just before I went home for a final Ramadan breakfast at the house of horrors, running upstairs to brush my teeth before anyone could smell the food on my breath. Not with some random — with a guy I’d been seeing on and off for three years at university. Secretly, of course. ‘One for the road!’ I’d said, laughing breathlessly as we got dressed again, and then felt like a murderer when I saw he was crying.
Another foreigner came over and slid into the barstool on my right. A shortish, slight man with brown skin and tight curly hair. Older than me and the Canadians. We struck up a conversation in English as the Canadians looked on, exchanging coded glances that niggled in my peripheral vision. They were a real double-act. It made me want to be part of a double-act too. The man had an accent I knew, but I kept quiet about it. I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted him to know that I knew.
‘You want to go and sit over there?’ he said, pointing at a red velvet sofa in the darkest corner of the bar. ‘Mahmoud,’ he said once we were squished together. He laughed at the dried wine stuck to my lips. ‘Lipstick,’ he said, trailing his fingers across my mouth for a second. Hands didn’t linger on me in Japan. Right then, I wanted to grab someone’s fleeting touch and pin it to me. Anyone’s would do.
‘Where are you from?’ I said, taking the plunge.
‘I knew it!’
Not just any old Moroccan: he was Moroccan Jewish. An Arab Jew, a Jewish Arab, a once normal oxymoron. An endangered species. ‘Sugoi!’ I said, like I’d heard Japanese people say about nothing much. Amazing.
‘What’s your name?’ he said.
‘Nesrine. Susu with my family — they’re Algerian. Nessie in England. I don’t know yet what I’ll end up being over here.’
He smiled and put his arm round me. ‘I’ll tell you my Hebrew name,’ he said. ‘I’ll say some things for you in Hebrew.’ His eyes were almost black, familiar and familial. Why didn’t I know that Hebrew could sound like this, like a lovelier, more loving sibling of Arabic? That’s how he spoke it to me anyway. ‘Thirty-seven,’ he said, when I asked. I was twenty-one.
‘I’ve got another name too,’ I said. ‘My mum calls me ya luli’. My pearl.
‘Ya luli!’ he said, inhaling the words like a smoker who’d been waiting too long and breathing them back at me.
A key turned in a lock, and I was a child again, at my grandparents’ flat in Algiers, enveloped by the smell of dark wood and jasmine and hot, sleepy afternoons. Listening to Mama and her sisters as they sat in the living room keeping the shutters closed to block out the heat, murmuring in the corner while geckos made kissing sounds from behind the grandfather clock that seemed to tick slower than any clock in England.
‘… And I said to him, “Aren't you going to come and see her in the hospital?” and he said, “I'm afraid she might die,” and I said, “Are you scared of death?”…’
‘… He said he doesn't want to … what can I do?’
‘… Never mind, hbibti, it's your fate, what can you do …’
Why did they do it, this gloating, secretive gossiping in dark rooms? Why couldn't they be like men, shouting in the open air, getting angry in broad daylight, saying what they really meant? I didn't realise then that men can shout about things they don't really mean, keeping the real things quiet and festering.
So close, the Moroccan man’s breath, it sounded like the sea in my ear. ‘I miss home,’ he said. Oh, so did I, so did I, in this bar in Nodagawa with this man from North Africa I missed home so much, England or Algeria or wherever it was, if it was.
‘Yo! Whatcha up to?’ The Canadian male slammed himself onto the sofa next to me, grinning, holding his hand out to the Moroccan man.
‘Haha, just chatting.’
Oh, go bash your tambourine somewhere else.
So where were we? Cigarettes and chewing gum, that combination that always did something to me. Fencing with tongues. His hand up here, my hand down there, both of us gasping at the contact. A flip in my stomach at the sound of his gasp. ‘I can feel your heart,’ he said in Arabic. ‘I don't have a heart,’ I said in Year 7 French, being someone else. And then for no particular reason I said, pulling away, ‘Are you married?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have a wife and four children in Morocco.’
A wife, eh? A wife and four children. Won’t somebody think of the children? Not me, I don’t wanna think about the little Kinder Surprises. Won’t somebody think of wifey? Yes yes, let him do the thinking, him with his cigarettes and mint in my mouth, the taste of home, the taste of something or other, the echo of his fingers on my skin, let him think of his wife and children. Pulling my arm next to his, stroking it with his other hand. ‘Same,’ he said, sorrowfully, as if the skin colour we shared was a blight on our lives. Talk to me in Arabic, in Hebrew, in French, in Japanese, read me the story of your life and mine, and he did, and then in English he said, 'Will you come with me to the car park?’
My arm round his waist, his hand on my arse, we lurched to the door, humidity hitting my lungs as it opened. A cicada orchestra swelled in my ears, a soundtrack to someone else’s life. Don’t ask what kind of car he had, medium-sized, dark.
‘Does this seat go back?’
‘Yes, push it like that.’
‘Have you got, have you got a ... you know?’
‘No, I don’t ...’ Arms spread in regret ‘There’s a convenience store …’
‘No it’s okay, don’t worry, I’ll sort it out later.’
Backwards in the passenger seat I drove, his arms pinned back across the headrest like Christ on the cross, this father of four. Thin, sad face, off inside himself, not in me. ‘Where are you?’ I said in Arabic, but what I really meant was ‘Who are you?’ All done? Untangle, unstick, good thing I was wearing a skirt, no tights. Went to kiss his belly, bumped my head on his elbow. ‘Ouch’, ‘Sorry sorry are you okay?’ ‘Yes yes, gotta go.’ Dropping or flinging the business card he’d given me on the floor as I hurried back to the Canadians, to the safety of their marriage, their religion, their baggy clothes and hiking boots.
And then we were in the car driving home. What was the name of that look in the Canadian male’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, me crumpled in the back like dirty laundry, giving the world a view of my rear? Oh, it was called contempt wasn't it, or was it amusement? ‘Total sleezeball …,’ I heard him say. ‘Hitting on every woman in the bar … the others all told him to get lost.’ The female whispered something: ‘… state of dishabille ...’ Disahillbilly, a punchline to a joke that didn't exist. Moonlit paddy fields, so many shadows, why did I say I’d sort it out? This was Japan, I couldn't sort things out, I was a child at everyone’s mercy like Mama was in England. Wifey in Morocco. Really needed a piss. What would Mama think of her luli now? Wifey in Morocco. What would Mama think of her pearl with someone else’s pearls dripping down her legs?