I sat at the kitchen table while Valentine prepared cups of flowery, smoky loose leaf tea. Antoine held his in both hands and smiled at me wolfishly. He had a bald, muscular head, and a flushed red face. He took a long sip of tea, set down the cup, and leant across the table towards me.
‘The first rule is, don’t bring girls here. We will be able to hear you. We will be able to hear everything.’
The plywood second floor had been erected by the three architecture students themselves, hammered into stilts and bolted to the girders criss-crossing the roof of the warehouse. Antoine rapped his knuckles on the kitchen table which, he told me, was made of the same plywood as our rooms upstairs.
‘We can hear everything,’ he said again, flashing me a knowing grimace.
He held my gaze and continued to knock on the table. The rhythm became more and more suggestive, as he wrapped out a deliberate doing-it beat, alternating between his knuckles and the back of his fist. Then he stopped the banging and laughed loudly, throwing his head back. ‘Arrête,’ said Valentine sharply, topping up my cup with more tea. Leaning towards me conspiratorially, Pascal pointed a drum-stick at Antoine and whispered loudly in English, ‘I often break his rules.’
The morning after my first night at the warehouse in Montreuil, I was reading at the kitchen table when I heard Pascal start laying into his drum kit in his room beside the kitchen. His girlfriend emerged, rubbing her eyes. She told me that Pascal practiced every morning before lectures. She sat down next to me in her pyjama t-shirt, waiting for the kettle to boil. We sat at the table as the drum kit sent spasms of energy through the legs of the second floor, straight up into Antoine’s room above us.
The architecture students played in a brass band together, The Super Lapins, led by Antoine, who played the trumpet. Valentine played the trombone. It was Pascal, the drummer, who came to knock on the door of my plywood box-room, after his morning practice session one Friday morning, to let me know that the Lapins were hosting an end-of-term party in the evening. He said I should come along, and bring whoever I wanted. I told him, shyly, that I had started seeing an Austrian girl from my French classes. Pascal said that of course, I should invite her. Then he gestured towards Antoine’s box-room just next to mine. He grinned and thrust his hips back and forth, with one finger pressed to his lips.
Valentine greeted me and the Austrian girl as we arrived at the warehouse that evening, waving her trombone above her head. It caught the beam of the construction lights they had set up to illuminate the courtyard. She and another member of the band, holding a tuba, were surrounded by a group of guys who were making vague, drunken attempts to snatch the instruments, glistening just out of reach. I led the Austrian girl inside to get something to drink. Pascal and another student with spray-painted green hair threw their arms around us, and Pascal offered us generous swigs of wine from an Evian bottle; turning to his friend, he started playing our baby-sitter, ‘si mignon, les gamins.’ They bundled us over towards a stage in the living room, where Antoine and others had already started playing. After several more swigs of wine, when the rest of the band had joined in, we ended up in a sweaty crush of students gathered near the stage, jumping about, bopping and clapping to Valentine’s trombone solo, yelling along to ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’.
Under cover of the big band, we snuck away from the students, up the staircase, and slid open the wooden door to my room. We got undressed and lay beside each other. The band started playing a schmaltzy cover of ‘Can’t Take my Eyes Off You’. The music wafted up from the floor below, making the room quiver with each note of the bass line, every trombone blast from Valentine coming to us in a fuzzy tremolo through my mattress on the floor. We danced together, horizontal on the mattress, forehead to forehead. I kept breaking our kisses just to look at her body. She giggled and pulled me back, but I was intent on remembering her nipples, her thighs, the bone at the base of her spine.
It was still dark when she woke me. She was speaking German in her sleep, getting faster and more agitated the more she spoke. I was worried she was going to wake up Antoine, who was snoring in the next room. I sat up, whispered sharply to her, and gave her a little shake. She opened her eyes, still quietly speaking German. She was staring straight at me. Her voice became quieter and quieter. Her muttering ceased, and she went back to sleep. I reached over her for a glass of water from the shelf beside the bed, trying not to make a sound, or spill the water. Suddenly she woke up, as if from a terrible dream, clutched at me, and yelled out, ‘Don’t leave me.’ There was a loud bang on the plywood as Antoine struck out at the wall from his side, and a cracking sound from where the board was bolted to the girder above our heads. She looked at me, and I put my finger to my lips. We waited, and soon Antoine was snoring again.
In the early morning, while everyone else was still asleep, she untangled herself from me and sat up crosslegged. I sat up too, my back against the dividing wall between mine and Antoine’s room. I asked about her nightmare, and whether it had happened before. She nodded and, still half-listening for any signs of Antoine, I sat there and listened as she told me this story.
One day in Vienna, a famous Austrian writer came to her parents’ house for dinner. The writer brought his wife and their two sons, who were the same age as her and her older sister. After dinner, her father showed the writer’s family a slideshow from a recent holiday to Thailand. The writer and his family were so impressed that they decided to go the following Christmas to the same seafront hotel.
Christmas 2004 was the year the Boxing Day Tsunami hit. She said she had seen footage on the internet taken from a tall building near the coast, which showed the tide out, the uneven surface of the seabed exposed, and curious people drawn to wander across it way out to sea. The woman filming had shouted down at them that the tide was coming back in, and everyone ran, but there was one person who didn’t, who got knocked down as the wave came in. The surge picked up bits of house and guttering, boats, deck chairs and volleyball nets.
Once they returned to Vienna, the writer’s family visited them again. After they finished dinner, the writer began to talk about what had happened. He told them that he and his family had been in the swimming pool when someone had spotted the wave. The writer made sure that his family was with him, pushing them up the hill towards the hotel building. He was halfway up a fire-escape, following his family to the roof of the hotel, when the water came rushing past, throwing him off his feet. He tried to pull himself out of the rushing water, grabbing hold of the handrail of the fire-escape, but it buckled as the water churned past and the whole frame of the fire-escape broke away and swung against the building, crushing his arm from his elbow to his hand, as his arm slipped between the brick wall and the bent and broken handrail.
He could feel the blood puffing up his lower arm where his wrist was being crushed by the churning tide of water, the metal, and the brick wall. He had to break his own arm to get it out. He pulled himself out, and made it up the fire escape to the roof. His older son was sitting with his wife. His younger son was holding a toddler he had carried from the pool. They sat together on the roof, watching the bodies floating past, as the sea continued to rush inland, waiting to be rescued.
‘Pappy was crying,’ she said. Her father blamed himself for what had happened. Her family had felt like they were more than just involved, and were somehow to blame for what had happened to the writer and his family.
One of the last things I wrote in my diary in Paris was a long letter, which I never sent to her. I had not been an entirely faithful boyfriend, and I was sure she had been seeing someone else too. We hadn’t talked about whether this was okay, or about much of anything at all. So I ended up treasuring this story about this terrible thing that happened to her father’s friends, just because she had told it to me.
I started a French degree, but ending up getting bored, almost dropping out, and switching to Japanese. After I graduated, I found a trainee position at a company selling feature film rights. My Japanese was not much more than a bricolage of textbook phrases, but I spoke enough to get by, and reeled off sketchy translations of film synopses in our catalogue to clients over the phone often enough that my manager would hear me pitching in Japanese, even if I didn’t end up selling anything at all.
I thought this system was working well, that I had fooled everyone, until one afternoon, my manager treated me to a cup of coffee and took me on a walk by the canal near our offices. We stood on the concrete bank of the canal, holding our cups of coffee, watching a ping-pong match being played out on the opposite bank where an architecture firm had their office building.
‘That’s the kind of set up we should have,’ he said.
They were slicing and volleying the ball like pros. The offices had a curved glass roof, like the shell of an armadillo. Over the curve of the shell was a jumble of cranes where high-rise buildings were going up, some near completion, some still lattices of red metal girders drawn over Shoreditch as though they’d been drafted against the skyline in red Sharpie. Tarpaulin canvasses printed with ads for the luxury apartments being crafted behind them, several-story-high blown-up images of handsome men in suits, young couples sitting down to breakfast, beat in the wind against the scaffolding to which they were bound.
He looked at me kindly and said that we both knew I wasn’t bringing in nearly the revenue expected from me. He took a sip of coffee. He said gently that he knew how difficult it was working with Asia, coming in early, making all those early-morning calls. And the good news was that he had managed to convince them to send me to Tokyo before Christmas, to help turn things around. He smiled at me reassuringly and said, ‘I have every confidence in you.’
‘What do you expect from me?’ I asked.
My manager was taken aback.
‘Well, we expect you to make more sales, to hit your target, or we wouldn’t have hired you.’ He shook his head, like an animal shaking a fly from its back. As we headed back to the office, he walked slightly ahead, outpacing me on every stride. I had to double or triple his steps to catch up.
I had been reading a book of W. H. Auden poems on the bus to and from work. That evening, buoyed by the rush from clinching this trip to Tokyo, even if it had nothing to do with me, almost every line of one of the poems I was reading hit home:
‘Each salesman now is the polite
Adventurer, the landless knight
Gawain-Quixote, and his goal …’
I wasn’t a real salesperson. I was only borrowing the personality of this man to give myself a foothold on the tail of a larger fabric of a network bigger than the associations of persons and companies, a fabric someone like Auden never understood, and could only ever see from above, like an angel or a drone.
The concrete walkway that led up to the entrance of the television broadcast centre near Roppongi Station was lined like a gallery with posters of the TV station’s biggest hits. Doctor X, the heroine wearing knee-high boots, sitting in the ‘X’, one arm draped over the the top of the X’s serif. A drama about two girls in love, who lay on a white bedspread, feathers flying about as if they’d had a pillow fight, bunching up the duvet to cover their breasts. A legal drama about two rival lawyers, glaring at each other across a jagged yellow versus sign.
I took the elevator to the seventeenth floor, and stood facing a large window. In the fading evening light, a surge of low cloud or smog building above the city looked ready to snow on, or smother, the plaza spread cruciform below between four skyscrapers. My client, Mr. Umehara, emerged from behind a frosted glass door. He was short and squat, his face like a wrinkled plum, saggy and darkly tanned. The suit he wore was slightly too large for him, so he seemed to drag himself over to me, trailing his long trouser legs. He shook my hand shyly.
‘I am Umehara, it is very nice to meet you,’ he said.
He smiled, his eyes creasing as they sleepily took me in, a pin-prick of light stirring in each of them. He took me into a meeting room, where he offered me a dark green leather chair, before sitting down opposite me. The dark wooden desk in front of us was shiny, as if it had just been cleaned, and smelled good.
A grey-haired, handsome man swung open the door, carrying three bottles of green tea. He was thin and tall, wearing a blue pinstripe suit, and a smart skinny tie. He threw a bottle of tea for Umehara to catch, which he fumbled. The grey-haired man handed me his card. His name was Honda. This prompted Umehara to look for his.
‘You’re in luck. We may be a broadcaster, but we also buy and sell film rights within Japan,’ Honda said. ‘We are one of the very few companies that offer foreigners a gateway into the Japanese market.’
‘Honda san also presents a TV show in Japan. He is quite a famous presenter,’ added Umehara, handing me his card, which I placed on the table before me together with Honda’s.
‘I am the Sales Executive in charge of Japan,’ I began in my rehearsed, formal Japanese. ‘If you would like to purchase feature films for your TV station …’ Honda interrupted in English, waving his hand.
‘No, no. We would like to purchase your films for all of Japan. Not just television. We will represent your films to cinema chains, DVD rental, universities, you name it. This is how we work.’
‘Thank you, but I am also meeting other companies here in Tokyo myself,’ I said, concerned that I had given the wrong impression, indignant because I was sure I had not, and hot and worried as I already felt myself losing control of the conversation.
Honda continued: ‘Have you heard of Nomunication? The Japanese word for drink, no-mu, and the English word communication. If you want to sell something in Japan, you need to work with people like us. Mr Umehara here will buy many drinks for his clients in the bar or the restaurant. He will say ‘buy, it, buy it!’ until one his his clients says ‘okay, okay!’ That’s how business gets done in Japan.’
Honda placed both hands on the table in front of him.
‘Mr Umehara is an expert Nomunicator.’
Umehara laughed heartily. The two men waited for my reply. I was concerned that one wrong word from me would set in motion an unstoppable process, a process that would end with my losing control of the film rights I was supposed to be selling. Umehara asked me if it was my first time in Tokyo.
‘I spent a few months here as a foreign exchange student,’ I replied, on firmer footing with textbook Japanese.
Umehara asked me how many meetings I had scheduled. When I told him, he looked at me in disbelief. Then he rocked back in his chair, breathed sharply through his mouth, and looked furtively at Honda.
Honda calmly unscrewed the cap of his bottle of green tea. ‘Who else are you meeting here in Tokyo?’
I took my schedule out of my bag and passed it to Honda. Umehara craned over to look at the schedule. He said something to Honda, who laughed. ‘Umehara says you are a very nimble young man.’
‘Good footwork,’ confirmed Umehara in English.
They insisted on taking me for dinner, and as we left the building, I noticed that the posters were now all back-lit. The X of Doctor X glowed red like the lights of a distant space station. The lovers’ poster gave off a pinky-white glow, hugging the edges of the square pillars along the concrete walkway. The poster for the legal drama shot a yellow danger bar across the plaza, zig-zagging away until it forgot itself in the lights of the merry-go-round in the plaza playing a music-box version of ‘Ode to Joy’.
They took me out to a nearby sushi restaurant, where Honda, in great spirits, ordered us a lot of beer and sushi, before we moved on to sake, all the while keeping up his tripping, playful American English.
‘Have you had oysters before? You’ll love them. Can you eat cod roe? Fantastic! Hey waiter! This guy has come all the way from London, would you believe it!’
We kept drinking and talking about films. Honda insisted that I was likely to be head of the film company before too long, and Umehara, really drunk now, told me that I should stop calling his boss Honda and call him ‘pappy’ instead.
‘He is old enough to be your pappy.’
A month or so after returning to London, our company acquired the rights to a film about recovering bodies in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand after the waters had receded. It followed a team of detectives faced with the grim forensic task of identifying the dead, matching bodies to records of missing people. I pitched the film to Umehara and Honda by email, asking if they were interested in the film for their satellite channel. After a week or so, I received a reply from Umehara.
He thanked me for sending him the film. He had watched it, and found it very moving. But he wanted to make sure that I knew the facts. The Sumatra–Andaman earthquake on 26 December 2004 might well interest a Japanese audience. But The Tripartite Disaster, including the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power-plant disaster, on 11 March 2011, killed over 15, 000 people. Over 400, 000 had been evacuated, and the accident at Fukushima continued to unfold. As a result, under these circumstances, I should know that they would find it hard to promote our film.
I first went to the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015, the year the river burst its banks, and floods killed a number of people in a retirement home, as well as several others who drowned in their cars, trapped inside an underground carpark.
When I arrived at the company’s rented villa in the hills above the town, my manager was looking pale. He told me that he had been at a dinner with a group of Scandinavian film executives when an air-raid siren had sounded and the lights had gone out. When they left the restaurant, water had been flowing down the street outside like a river. As they waded through the flood, a Scandinavian woman next to him had suddenly pulled down sharply on his hand and disappeared under the water. She had fallen down the shaft of a manhole cover that had come loose. He held onto her, while others helped him to drag her out. He was still shaken by how dreadful it could have been.
A few of our colleagues interrupted us, coming through the door of the villa laughing about how badly they all smelt, stepping out of sodden suit trousers and skirts, heels and boots full of water.
I was half in and half out of the jacuzzi at the villa, a book in my one dry hand, when an alarm went off on my phone telling me that I was due at a dinner date with Mr Umehara in the town. As soon as I saw the alarm, I realised that my phone had not switched over to French time, and that the dinner had started an hour ago. My stomach plummeted. I threw my book down on a chair, ran up the stone steps to the villa, dressed quickly, and raced down the hill towards the town.
The streets towards the seafront were bustling with television and film people, all wearing their entrance passes round their necks like Olympic medals. Here and there, workmen were repairing potholes, sweeping aside leaves and branches, brickwork and shutters torn off ground-floor windows. A few cars had been totalled by the flood-water, and brushed up against the side of the streets, some thrown onto their sides. I sweated into my suit, filled with a blind panic as I felt time, and Umehara’s friendship, and his business, being sucked away from me.
A table of nine people was waiting for me, including Mr Umehara. One older woman sitting opposite him turned round in her seat. When she saw me squeezing past another table, already apologising as I made my way over to them, she started to laugh, before stopping herself.
Mr Umehara groaned a sort of tired welcome. He had drunk a lot of wine. His face brightened when he saw me, but fell as he slowly realised how disappointed he was, how disappointed we both were, in me. I didn’t know how to apologise for being so late, and bowed in what I hoped expressed sincere humility rather than a clumsy attempt to mimic Japanese etiquette.
Sitting at the table together during what remained of the meal, he ordered me a dessert and said to me in English, ‘Please don’t worry about it. You don’t need to apologise any more. I’m glad you are here.’
He leant back in his chair. Then he leant forwards again and added, with a smile.
‘Of course, I would rather you had been on time.’
Then he whispered seriously, ‘Please don’t ask me about Mr Honda. He has been transferred.’
Two tricolour flags hung limply above the entrance of the town hall, the French limestone the same warm, wet beige as buildings in Paris. Two of my colleagues were sitting outside a brasserie in the square. The colleague nearest my age, wearing a red dress with a sweetheart neckline, came over to me, running on the cobbles in her heels, twisting and nearly falling. Seeing my face, she asked what was wrong. I told her I had almost missed a dinner with my client, and she laughed.
‘We’re going to have fun tonight,’ she said, taking my hand and leading me back towards the brasserie where she made me finish another dessert, pay the bill, and leave.
A film magazine was running a pop-up beach bar, and the lone barman at the centre of a circular JD whiskey-sponsored Hawaiian counter looked panicked by the crowds. Illuminated plants in white pots glowed among us like spaceships. There was the strong smell of rich, oaky cologne. I saw my manager on the other side of the circle by the bar, with his hand in the air. A girl had her mouth pressed close to his ear. My manager saw me and gave me a salute, but continued holding up his hand, trying to attract the attention of the barman. He leant towards me and cupped a hand to his mouth, and the girl let her mouth fall from his ear with that slow-motion disappointed look of a drunk person who thinks they are being listened to, and suddenly realises they aren’t.
‘Is she okay?’ my manager mouthed, nodding his head to indicate our colleague behind me.
I turned to my friend who had closed her eyes as if she was about to fall asleep. She staggered forwards for a moment. Then she fell backwards into the people queuing behind her. There was a ripple of concern and irritation, and one man pushed her back towards me.
We cut out of the crowd, back across the main square, and up a side-road heading back to the villa. She nearly fell into a doorway where a homeless man was sleeping. He yelled at her. She yelled an angry apology back at him. She took off her heels, held them in one hand, and took my arm with the other.
None of the lights were on in the villa. The door lock echoed loudly. I took off my shoes, and hung up my blazer in the hall. We could hear the chirp of cicadas, and the hum of the fridge.
‘Let’s go for a swim,’ she said.
She ran along the corridor to the main room, stepped out of her jeans, took off her top and threw it onto the sofa in the main room. I unlocked the back door for her. She ran out and yelped as she nearly fell down the stone steps to the pool. Then I heard her jump into the water. I opened the wooden shutters of the window in the main room, so she would have some light to swim by.
She swam confidently and cleanly, kicking her legs under the water so the only sounds were her arms coming out and going back into the water, her regular breaths between strokes. She made neat half-somersault turns, her strong arms making quick work of each length of the small pool. Around her feet were clouds of little bubbles, black and white disturbances which frothed, fizzled and settled. Her hands sliced out of the water, then hit the surface with a crunch like someone stamping on champagne glasses, static punches which spread until the small pool was choppy with waves.
I didn’t hear my manager come in. He stood beside me, swaying a little, watching at the window as our colleague swam lengths of the pool. He looked at me, and raised his eyebrows. ‘What does she think she’s doing?’ he asked. She stopped in the shallow end, her feet finding the bottom of the pool, and looked up at me. She jumped up and down, crossed her arms, hugging herself.
‘Dude, it’s so cold!’
I laughed and called out, ‘I’m coming down.’ My manager looked at me with surprise. Then he moved away from the window. I didn’t ask if he wanted to join us. He leant against the billiard table in the front room, as if a wave of nausea had just come over him. He gulped, wobbled, and supported himself with both hands on the table, staring deeply into the green felt. Then, with one hand, he slowly potted a red ball into a hole. He waited as the table clunked, processed and racked the ball. Then he did the same thing again. I left him there, and followed her outside.
We sat in a pair of deck chairs under the window. Light from the villa shot over our heads turning the shallow end into a microscope slide, magnifying the dead ants clinging to the blue walls underwater. As we shared another drink, I told her about Honda and Umehara. I realised, in the telling, that Umehara was growing rounder and more friendly, while Honda was growing more twinkly, like a pantomime baddie, who had suffered a mysterious and terrible fate. With the telling they were becoming crisper, and funnier, rendered as adversaries, like the two lawyers on the poster of their broadcasting centre. The shame of letting Umehara down became a small part of the larger story I was telling her, one in which I was smarter and less passive that I actually felt, with a knack for opportunity. For all my invention, spinning out the story meant that some of the shame was ebbing away.
She refilled my glass.
‘I’m leaving at the end of the month,’ she said flatly, and lay back in the deck chair, arms above her head. I feigned surprise, but another colleague had told me already that she had been making plans to go.
‘I am so looking forward to doing something that isn’t this!’ she said loudly. I wondered if my manager could still hear us from the living room.
She sat up on her elbows and looked at me. ‘I can’t wait until you leave too.’
I wasn’t planning to, but I nodded anyway. She smiled encouragingly, and sat back in her deck chair again to look at me, as if the distance allowed her to see me more clearly.
‘I am so looking forward to seeing what you can do.’