"We were going to start with news of the typhoon, but..."
- Newscaster on NHK introducing the story of the century.
It was a Tuesday evening, and a large typhoon had been belting the Japanese coast all day. Since the bad weather had encouraged me and many others to leave work early, I was at home, and in two
minds as to whether I would brave the elements to go to Simple Simon. I turned on the evening news just before 10PM to catch reports of the weather damage. One of the commercial stations was
coming to the end of its news program, and interrupted the normal news content to show footage of a building on fire. At this point they did not know where it was, only that the footage was
coming from an American station. They showed a building with smoke pouring out of it, taken from a helicopter circling it at a distance. By the time I switched to NHK to get their news broadcast
starting at 10PM, we had learned that the building was in New York. Because of the camera angle, the second tower, which would have confirmed the location, could not be seen well enough, so it
was not until a few minutes into the NHK coverage that it was clear that the World Trade Centre was on fire. Reports of a plane crash were at that stage still unconfirmed. As the anchorman in
Tokyo quizzed the reporter in New York, I watched the second plane glide into the picture and behind the towers. I remember thinking of the time I flew to Hong Kong and watched people through
their apartment windows as the plane made its landing in between the skyscrapers, and wondered if the airport in New York was also that close to the city. The plane seemed to be taking an
unusually long time to go behind the towers and come out the other side, and when a ball of fire spewed out of the left side of the towers, it took a few seconds before I realised what was
happening. The Tokyo anchorman asked his reporter in excited tones "Did I just see another plane hit the towers?!" The reporter, who I can only assume was not watching his monitor or was working
from prepared notes, replied that he had not heard anything about a second plane. Expletives bounced around my brain as I put together various scenarios about what was going on, and I am sure
some of them came out of my mouth. As this was unfolding, I had just got a beer from the fridge and was standing in the middle of my living room, half way to the sofa. I leaned forward and put my
weight on the armchair, as I was so shocked I was uncertain I could stay standing. I pulled myself around the armchair and sat down. At this point, I had just seen the most amazing piece of news
footage I had ever or would ever lay eyes upon, and a strange anticipation overtook me that this would be a very interesting night of television. Any chance of sleep was now lost, and I felt the
need to have someone with whom to watch this drama unfold. I finished off my beer and headed to Simple Simon.
As I had expected, he was watching CNN on his cable TV. A mutual friend, the other Anthony who had gone to see B.B. King with us, had called him and clued him in. We sat and watched reporters as they guessed what was going on from the garbled reports they were receiving. Shimano wondered out loud if it was an accident or a deliberate attack, so I asked him to estimate the chances of two planes hitting the two towers of the same world famous building on the same day. I suppose this was when I first fully realised the truth myself. He thought for a moment, and then fell silent. I went outside to call Naoko, who was watching at home, and my own parents, who were also aware of what was going on. When I went back into the bar, the TV was showing the collapse of the first tower. We stayed glued to the screen until after closing time, and the collapse of the second tower seemed a fitting point at which to call it a day.
I went home and continued watching until I fell asleep in front of the TV. I woke around 5AM, and the coverage was still going on. I went to work, but spent most of the day surfing the internet looking at news and images of the attack. In the days that followed, it all seemed unreal. When I met up with some Belgian friends at the weekend, jokes were made about the scale of the destruction, and about how unreal it all seemed, although this was probably only a defensive reaction preferable to facing reality. The magnitude of the human aspect of it all only hit me some days later, as I watched news footage of the Pope at a memorial service held in the Vatican soon after the event. He was shown from a distance, kneeling slowly and putting his head in his hands. His movements were slow and weak, as if all energy had been drained from him. Perhaps even the most religious man in the world was now doubting his beliefs, doubting the innate goodness of man, and as soon as I saw this I too was gripped by overwhelming emotion and burst into tears.
Two weeks later was my birthday, and Naoko took me to see the Irish band The Corrs play in Tokyo. Despite sitting in the very back row of the auditorium, where I could reach up and touch the ceiling, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had only started listening to them recently, at Naoko's recommendation, and liked them a lot. Some of their songs moved me a lot, and I found myself close to tears at several points in the show. After the show we stopped off at Simple Simon for something to eat, but Naoko wasn't feeling well and left early. Before going she gave me her present, and as she gathered her things to leave, I was again overcome with emotion. I was grateful for a wonderful day together, and sad that she was leaving so quickly. I think I was also having a reaction to the events of recent days. Having seen what hate could do on a global scale, I was all the more aware of the importance of her in my life. I followed her outside and hugged her goodbye with tears streaming down my cheeks. I may have frightened her a little by doing this, and I could not explain my actions or feelings any way eloquently, but she assumed it was because of the card she had given me and I let her think that. I went back inside the bar and read the card which she had attached to the present. In it she described the time she had bought me a beer on my birthday three years before, (and this was the first time I had remembered that incident since it happened), and went on to state her wish that she could be an important part of my life, and that she would always try to be at my side and support me. I realised that I had received something that night which was far more important and wonderful than the rucksack she had bought me, and knew that Naoko would always be an important part of my life. For the first time since the New York attacks, I felt good inside.
The following month, it was decided that I should meet Naoko's parents. Naoko negotiated neutral ground, a meal at a local hotel, and only her mother would attend the first meeting. Naoko also asked, presumably to placate some of her mother's objections, that I shave off my beard just for that first meeting. On the morning of this meeting I showered and, with a rueful last look in the mirror, shaved for maybe the second time in about twelve years. When I had finished, I checked out my appearance for a few minutes, and decided that if I was going to make a sacrifice like that as part of my commitment to Naoko, I might as well cut my hair as well. (To be honest, I had lost the novelty feeling of having long hair, and it was just as much bother to maintain when long as it was when short.) I cut off the pony tail and tried to trim the remaining hair to a long swept back look. It wasn't perfect, but it would get me through the day with the help of a sizeable amount of gel. When we met at the hotel, Naoko seemed genuinely pleased that I had cut it, and her mother seemed impressed by the effort. It was an awkward, long lunch, and I had to bite my tongue more than a few times at the inappropriate comments and intrusive questions from Naoko's mother, including a close up examination of my upper lip, which bore the scar of a cleft lip. She was apparently worried this would be passed on to our children, and once she had been assured that it was congenital, not genetic, she later apologised for the inappropriate interrogation. She was also concerned about whether or not I really planned to stay in Japan, as she did not want her daughter to go overseas, as there would be no one left to look after herself and her husband in their old age. I assured her that I wanted to stay and had no plans to leave, but the future was not totally in my hands. In the end, she was not convinced, but agreed to let things continue and see what happened. Naoko thanked me that evening for my efforts, and apparently they had had a positive effect. All in all it had been somewhat less hostile than the American bombing of Afghanistan that began the same day.
In that same month, the IRA, obviously put in an awkward position by the events of September 11 and the American government's declared war on terrorism, decommissioned a portion of the armaments they held. The following month I was invited to Naoko's house, and spent an evening not making eye contact with her father and answering the same questions her mother had asked me. Her father was, in the end, quicker to accept the situation, and resigned himself to face reality without the repeated outbursts of dissatisfaction that her mother displayed in coming months. One other concession to the increasing seriousness of my relationship with Naoko was the replacement of my long serving washing machine, which had been received free some thirteen years earlier. Also in that November, my mother was readmitted to hospital, as her cancer had apparently resurfaced. She had an operation to correct some of the damage, and was scheduled to begin a course of radio therapy in the New Year.
That year I went home for Christmas, bringing a present of apples for my mother from Naoko. On the night before I left I rang Naoko and asked if she wouldn't mind if I left it behind, as it was not technically legal to bring fruit into Europe. On reflection this was a stupid question to ask, and Naoko was considerably upset. I agreed to carry the apples after an hour long phone call during which I was made to feel like a complete bastard, and both myself and the apples made it into Ireland without any impediment. My mother was delighted to receive them, and baked an apple pie with them the very next day. She joked that she would have to get something in return, and I responded that since I was seriously considering marrying Naoko, that she was worth the effort. Mum was noticeable taken aback by this, but I think she was pleased. She was noticeably weaker this time around than a year before, and I presumed she was at a low point on the cycle of recovery and would soon be herself again once the soon scheduled therapy started. As I was leaving for the airport to come back to Japan, I hugged her in the kitchen to say good bye, and she whispered in my ear that she would "try and hold on". I was shocked. For a moment I thought she was making a joke, and asked her if that was so. She looked hurt, and said no more. I did not know it at that time, but her illness was a lot more serious than I had understood it to be.
I was invited to spend the New Year holiday at Naoko's house and did so, sleeping in one of the downstairs rooms. This was only the second time I had spent a night at a Japanese family's house, and I appreciated the honour of the invitation. Both her parents were getting used to the idea of Naoko dating me, and could see that my intentions were honest, so things went reasonably smoothly (although Naoko's mother would later complain that I should have behaved "more like a Japanese", without explaining what that meant).
Early in January I came back from Simple Simon late one night, and noticed immediately that the lock on my front door was open. I tried to remember if I had locked it that morning, but as soon as I stepped inside I realised that something more sinister had happened. There was a broken plate and a frying pan lying on the kitchen floor. I stepped in cautiously, reassuring myself that I had not broken any plates on my way out that morning, and as I looked around the kitchen I could see that someone had obviously climbed in the window over the sink, which I often left open, The balcony that ran from the elevator to my front door stopped just after my front door, since mine was a corner apartment, and I had presumed no one would dare to try jumping in through this window from the balcony because there was a five story drop below it. (Although my friend Eamon had once tried!)
I checked around the apartment, suddenly realising that whoever had broken in could still be there, and then called the police. After I had given all my details, the operator told me my Japanese was very good but she still had to ask where I was from. I wanted to question why that was necessary, but the lateness of the hour, the cold, and a little bit of common sense won me over. Having confirmed the apartment was empty, I took off my shoes, turned on the heater and waited for the police to arrive. As far as I could tell, all that had been taken was my coin collection, and the contents of a plastic bottle in which I had been saving five hundred yen coins. Luckily the secret hiding place I had for my passport and bank books had evaded the thieves.
When the police arrived, there were two of them, who were both very professional and polite. A third officer joined later, but left as soon as he heard what had been taken, since there had apparently been a more serious robbery somewhere else that night. They looked around, drew a little map of the apartment, and then checked around for footprints and fingerprints. They then told me that they would need a set of my prints to eliminate them from the check of the prints they had taken from the bottle in which I kept the coins. I must have looked surprised, because the officer got very defensive and apologetic, and assured me the prints would be destroyed as soon as they were no longer useful. Another ranting argument was lost to the cold of the night and ever increasing tiredness. Both officers gave me their business cards, and after assuring me that the culprits were probably Chinese, left. As a totally racist assumption (the police were making a big issue in the media of crimes by foreigners at that time), and a blanket insult to all foreigners in Japan (are crimes committed by foreigners more serious than crimes committed by Japanese? or was he telling me that I should not be suspicious of my "fellow" Japanese?), this was more fuel to the fire for a potential argument, but the cold, the late hour, my increasing drowsiness and the obvious futility of it all meant that the officers went home unscolded.
I opened another can of beer, and set about the task of cleaning up the mess in my kitchen. Once I had gotten the pieces of broken plate off the floor, I threw them in the sink and decided to leave the rest of the cleanup until the following day.
Then things got worse....
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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