FLIGHT PATHS OF THE EMPEROR - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

FLIGHT PATHS OF THE EMPEROR

A SHORT STORY BY STEVEN HEIGHTON

I. That autumn the Emperor's death seemed imminent, but he surprised the whole nation with a last-minute rally. By November the daily reports from Tokyo were encouraging: Hirohito-sama was in a stable condition, eating regularly, rising after meals to take light exercise and each day enjoying the televised sumo he had always loved. Still, Osaka's dirty air seemed to hum with an electric tension. The old man's time was coming, that much was clear, and his death might set in motion a series of complex and precarious changes. Even in a time of fabulous prosperity, the advent of a new era was cause for concern.

In mid-December, snow appeared in the last range of hills you cross travelling north towards Osaka. Sandra and Nick were returning to the city by train after spending the day on a mountain dotted with temples and old tombs.

"You're cold," Sandra said to him, testing the silence, wrapping a warm, thickset arm round his shoulder. The train entered a tunnel and harsh lights snapped on above their heads. Nick looked away.

"I'll be fine," he said. "I'm not really cold."

"You're shaking. I can feel it."

"I'm not cold."

"Anyway we're almost home. Are you hungry? You must be hungry by now."

The train came out of the long tunnel and he turned back to her. Snow- covered hills framed her tired face.

"I said you must be hungry."

"We should have left at two," he said, turning from her and glaring into the aisle. A few rows ahead an old woman slumped sidelong out of her seat, half blocking the aisle, white head and tiny shoulders trembling to the rhythm of the train. She tried briefly to rouse and straighten herself, then yielded to the embrace of gravity. Her mouth lolled open as if frozen in mid-phrase. For a moment Nick hated the slack mouth, its snoring.

"I thought you wanted to see the place," Sandra said.

"We saw it this morning in two hours. It was nice. We didn't need to stay all day." He shivered. The mountain's chill had settled into his limbs and bones.

She pulled her arm away and looked out the window.

"You know we couldn't leave at two, Nick. We promised my boss..."

"You promised," he said. "I'm the one who found the grave."

"You mean the tomb."

"You know what I mean."

"Come on, Nick, we were going up anyway, it's customary for friends..."

"Not on their day off it isn't. Christ. You do more than enough for him as it is." He shook his head and saw her pale knuckles tighten on the armrest.

Dusk was falling behind the mountains. To the north the glow of the city's lights crept upward, gathering strength.

"Nick, please, I've apologised. All right? I really didn't think it would take so long to find."

"Like trying to find a friendly face," he said softly, "in an Osaka crowd."

She stiffened. Her eyes were a soft, aquatic green, but in anger they would freeze up with a biting, brittle glint, like marbles or the glass eyes of a doll. "Oh I'm sure you'd have no trouble doing that," she whispered, "if you liked. Maybe you've already found a friendly face or two. Maybe I have myself."

"I don't believe you."

Her head sagged. "Don't, then. Why should you? You know by now what I'm like ... And I know you."

Looking numbly into his lap he saw the dull, delicate ellipse of his wedding ring, the chilled hands open, palms upward, as if showing they had nothing to hide. "I told you I was through with that when we left Canada."

"But now we're going back."

"You say it as if it's my fault."

"You mean it's mine," she said, and he saw that he had, he had meant that exactly, it was her fault, or at least her mother's - they were going back on her account.

"Look - not yours. I'm sorry. I'm glad we're going back."

"I know you're not."

"I am. I am, really. Sandra? Look, I'm glad we're going back."

The news hadn't been so much of a surprise. Dorothy's illness had almost kept them from leaving home in the first place. Of course she had urged them to go but under her bright brisk entreaties was a plaintive, despairing strain, another voice with its own sharp message: Go, hurry up and go, why stay and watch a fat old lady fall apart when you can tour the Orient? You're still young, you have your health, I know you want to leave me...

Promises. A promise to sprinkle water on the tomb of the Takamuras. A promise to return if Dorothy's condition should worsen. A promise to love, honour and cherish, and so on.

His father-in-law's letter was curt and pointed. Dorothy might be gone by Christmas -

Sandra's body was turned from him now. Her heavy shoulders quivered. Softly she blew her nose. He checked the surrounding seats and made sure most of their neighbours were asleep; the middle-aged women across the aisle reading fashion magazines had kindly granted them the status of ghosts. In Japan it is rude to blow one's nose in public, and ruder still for a couple to fight.

"Sandra?"

She spun round. Her face was strange to him, twisted by opposing urges, her sudden hatred and the wish to be reconciled. Now she would collaborate, conniving at the cheapest, most slapdash denouement, forced by the broadcast warning that Namba Station was just minutes away into more and more tawdry, outrageous devices; anything, anything. That was how it would be. The overhead lights came on again, adding years to her face and startling him with the knowledge he had the power to make her ugly.

II. The next day at the school is taken up with farewells. His students are disappointed to see him go, but not especially surprised, since foreign teachers seldom stay long and always leave unexpectedly. His principal is frankly suspicious about "the illness of his wife's mother"; too many teachers, she probably feels, have killed off friends and relatives in order to escape their obligations in Japan.

"To judge from the teachers I have employed in the last ten years," she says, "you North Americans are a uniquely unhealthy race. Never have I seen so many friends and parents and uncles and cousins die suddenly. Oh, it is a terrible thing! So many of them struck down in the prime of life. And so often the day after I distribute pay cheques or generous advances."

No doubt her suspicions are heightened by her never having met Sandra, whose existence she is too polite to call into question. She wants to know if he will return to the school when things are taken care of at home.

"But Yamaguchi-san," he petitions her, "my contract expires on the first of March anyway. Surely it would be more reasonable -"

"It would be more reasonable for you to honour your contract."

"Of course. I realise that. But I'm afraid under the circumstances..."

"Yes, yes, I know. You foreigners are always pleading circumstances. As if a contract is conditional upon ideal unchanging circumstances. But life is not like that, Mr Asher. Perhaps the Japanese ability to face and endure adversity in lieu of shying away from it is the main factor behind our current economic success. And our social stability. Why, look at the divorce rate in America these days ..." And she removes her glasses to indicate the interview is at an end.

He bows slightly, then excuses himself and hurries into the classroom for his last lesson. As he enters the room he overhears his students discussing him in Japanese, and for a disconcerting instant learns that he is about to die. Then realises his mistake: in Japanese to go away and to pass away sound almost the same.

At the end of the class he hands out goodwill gifts - seven felt pencil- cases embroidered with scarlet maple leaves - and the students instantly retaliate with baskets of persimmons, Japanese tea-cakes, a summer kimono, fountain pens, notebooks, and from Teruyo, his best student, a miniature brush painting of butterflies in a temple garden. She seems to find her young teacher's fondness for the old culture quaint and charming.

On his way out he trudges up the half-lit, flickering hallway to Yamaguchi- san's office. Her door is open. She is stiff in her chair, unaware of him, her enlarged eyes unfocused as she listens to a news report from a hidden radio. The Emperor, he thinks. Gone. He can make out only a few words. Ah, the Emperor is still alive. But fallen into a profound sleep. His doctors are extremely worried.

Yamaguchi-san sees him and asks him what he wants. She adjusts her glasses and her weak eyes blink repeatedly, as if finding it hard to bring his face into focus. She frowns. In her mind he already belongs to the past, not the future that is now bearing down on her, and his present apparition does not demand the usual courtesies.

"Well? You're on your way?"

"Yes. I'm sorry about what happened..."

"These things cannot be helped. There are other teachers."

There are other schools, he has a cruel urge to say - but does not. He knows her school is in trouble. And it is clear to him as he watches her how quickly she is ageing. The dusty fluorescent lights glittering above her head give her figure a dim, flickering cast, like a dead actress in an early film; he reminds himself she is of the generation that local youths - students not much younger than he - refer to as "already ancient".

On the train from Kobe to Osaka he savours for the last time the felicitous imprecision of Japanese English. Even now the earnest blunderings of subway billboarders coax a smile from his exhaustion. Across the aisle an ad for some kind of hair tonic leaps out over the slumped shoulders of two dozing salarymen: NOT ONLY DRESS UP LIKE FOP BUT TO PERFORM HIMSELF MAN MAKES UP OWN HAIR SYLE. THERE'S SOMETHING THAT MAKES MAN LOOK SHINY.

He covers his smile with a hand, in the Japanese way. But as the emptying train emerges from the underworld and crosses a high trestle he sees among the office towers and neon billboards a great red crab pulsing above a famous restaurant. His mind makes the necessary connections. Cancer is the word no one uses when talking of Dorothy and her treasonous bowels; a word that sounds today more and more like a knell, an irreversible sentence, as Black Death must have sounded to medieval ears. And if Yamaguchi-san was right about the alarming rate at which Western marriages were dissolving she would have to admit also that cancer was now the scourge of the industrially poisoned home islands. In the last year several of his students had lost parents to the epidemic. Side effects of the new era. Perhaps Yamaguchi- san was becoming ill herself...

He gets out at Nagai and heads toward the apartment for the last time. From now on, everything will be transformed by this sense of finality. He wonders if there is an inkling here of how it feels having only weeks to live - when at last the fabulous is seen in the banal, in the faded sheen off antique faucets, late sunlight creeping over warped linoleum and the lovely, squalid muddle of shoes by the door ... He notices tonight that the Love Hotels he always passes are turning a brisk trade. The coffee- shops are closing up, and a drunk reeling out of the American Dream smiles and asks him for a light. In the glow of the flame the man's round face is a rich amber, like an old moon on the rise, or a paper lantern at New Year's. There's something, he thinks, that makes man look shiny.

III. But illness wasn't just a reason for return; it was illness that caused your departure. Your parents divorced years ago and at home you watched your father and stepmother, who lived not far from your apartment, infect each other with their ennui and spite. It was open war. Your stepmother waged a more audacious campaign and you could not help foreseeing her eventual triumph - but on some points the two of them were still allied. For example, they could not conceal (from you or themselves) their view that you might have done a bit better than Sandra. When you visited for Sunday dinner your stepmother would charge from the kitchen with a great basted bird, the raised legs tipped with crowns of frilled paper so it resembled a disgraced, murdered monarch - then present Sandra with a few eviscerate scraps that seemed to settle and wilt to nothing in the time it took father to mumble grace. She would never offer Sandra dessert, she would suggest a long walk after dinner, she would find other, more subtle ways to accuse her of obesity and ugliness. "A teacher!" she'd cried on first meeting Sandra, and at the time you believed she had said it with pleasure.

Your career was devouring itself too. You were not cut out for office work. The idleness, the cramped spaces oppressed you. You thought marriage would admit you to a secure and roomy structure promising freedom and maturity and creature comforts along with its duties and responsibilities - but its unexpected confines brought out the ogre in you, the wayward, wilful child. On your desk for several years you kept a picture of your wife on your wedding day and insisted to yourself with pious regularity that this was the Sandra you'd married; and every evening when she came home (exactly twenty minutes after you) she looked less and less like the woman you spent your coffee breaks recreating. To fortify your image of the old, authentic Sandra and buttress her memory against the onslaught of this pudgy impostor, you erected along the edges of your desk a breastwork of wedding and pre-wedding pictures. And still the two of you could laugh together when recalling an incident from an office party: Gareth loudly presenting his girlfriend, a secretary from accounting who dressed plainly and used no cosmetics but had arrived made-up like an auditioning stripper - "This," he roared several times in the course of the evening, his pink face puffy with bourbon and pride, "is the real Barbara."

Your work suffered. Your boss dropped hints, then began to make warnings. You'd better shape up, Asher. You call in sick too often. And you felt his sceptical eyes upon you at the Christmas party.

You started an affair, as Gareth had long predicted you would.

"Listen, Nick, a guy can't hold out forever. Times are changing, join the club." Gareth always sounded like the Dictionary of Phrases you later used in classes in Japan. "It's the way of the world. You're only young once - better make hay while the sun shines." He leered and licked a silver fleck of beer-foam off the edge of his moustache. "At least that's my personal opinion."

Randi was a celluloid goddess, a high-profile big-city model with an anorexic mind. Years of indiscriminate praise and the scheming deference of suitors had atrophied her brain. When you made love to her she behaved as if your eyes were the attentive lenses of two Hollywood cameras. It was not till two years later in Japan that you found in subway ads and T-shirt inscriptions an analogue of her crippled speech.

You could laugh at her, and you could laugh at Gareth. You could even laugh at yourself. But you could not stop what you were doing.

Sandra knew all about it. You returned one afternoon from a taxing rendezvous and her look told you everything. She was sitting on the sofa under the window, her face grey in the pale light seeping through those cheap gauze curtains she'd insisted on. During your affair she had steadily put on weight - as if billowing with pent-up shame, indignation. Dorothy sat beside her discussing laxatives. Jim, as usual, had appropriated your Lay-Z-Boy chair and was drinking your last Export, while visibly fending off sleep. In their tired faces you saw Sandra's face shadowed as if in a crude, distorting mirror, a mirror marred by hairline cracks that map out an appalling future in wrinkles.

Terrible thoughts you were having. You felt them crawling inside you, multiplying, probing icy tentacles into your outermost parts. Clearly you were now a monster. But monsters are not immune to fear; and so, night after night, while dawn's official duties spun towards you out of the dark, you lay awake in the arms of premonitions: you and Sandra at seventy, chastened and respectable, leaving the ballet for streets where angels in designer blue-jeans scamper by just out of grasp. You are ugly and weak, indistinguishable from your own shadow; Sandra is grey, matronly, the deep scores round her mouth puckered in chronic reproach.

At night you thought of Dorothy's symptoms. They had become too grim for her to invent. And Randi, beautiful Randi, solace of rent-by-the-hour afternoons, whose aerobic physique agreed in every particular with the latest aesthetic norms - Randi was accusing you of letting things at home get in the way. And she was right.

So that when Gareth mentioned to the boys at the office that he was going to Japan where there were countless jobs and good money and nice Japanese girls and chances to travel (and no parents-in-law) you asked him for more information.

He was always happy to help out a friend.

Japan! The Land of the Rising Sun! A new start! An exotic eastern fief that still had an emperor, for Christ's sake! A country enjoying untold prosperity! Not to mention the longest life expectancy in the world.

IV. Tokyo in mid-December. Amplified Christmas carols in garbled English, flashing ornaments and parcel-laden crowds swarming through the Ginza. You find a traditional inn tucked between two giant banks on a street behind Ueno Station. Make several trips to the headquarters of Japan Air Lines where you confirm reservations and where, if you are not very much mistaken, a bowing kimono-clad doorman exclaims in fervent English, "We hope you have enjoyed our hostility."

Silence in the East Garden. Over one of these granite walls, behind some ornate, immemorial door in the heart of the Imperial Palace, the Mikado is dying. This morning's Japan Times informs you that he is in a critical but stable condition - a contradiction in terms you have never understood. You learn that Hirohito-sama's problems are not particular but generalised and systemic. The old man is dying of his age. He ascended the throne, you recall, in 1925. Over sixty years as "Heaven's Emperor". The miracle is that he survived the crushing defeat his kingdom endured at the end of the Second World War. It was the death of an era, an empire and a god. A middle- aged mortal, short and slight of build, stripped of power and godhood, lived on.

Silence in the East Garden. You and Sandra walk together in the bitter air through a light, untimely fall of snow. Not even a breath of wind. The carefully tended maples, hedges and barren flower plots maintain a breathless repose. The crooked pines under the Palace walls are static, stiffly poised, like the moment itself - frozen. Things are about to be explained. Sandra takes your hand in hers and after a moment's hesitation you grip her stubby fingers. But your hand is cold and will not thaw and she soon withdraws her own hand for the relative warmth of a pocket.

Silence in the East Garden. You see an old man, shrunk and gnarled as an antique bonsai, hobbling away up a crossing path. It is Hirohito, the humbled Emperor, meditating perhaps on the nature of dreams and the vanity of human wishes.

"Don't be ridiculous, Nick. You know it's not him."

When you tell her it would be easy to mistake him - the old folks of that generation are all small and stooped - she explains it's because of an excess of salt in the diet which eats away the bones from inside. Sandra had been obsessed with pathology since her mother became ill.

In a nearby museum you admire a painting called "Moon Through a Spider's Web".

That evening on television there are more reports on the Emperor, who once again has defied all expectations and rallied. Your shaggy translation of the commentary yields this rough gem: "And so, once more, the epoch is preserved ..." There is weather, of course - snow expected to continue into tomorrow - and sumo highlights. It seems Chiyonofuji, the Emperor's favourite wrestler, will have to settle this year for second place; the winner is a 200 kilogram import from Hawaii.

Some time after midnight, grieving, choked with desire, you wake from a dream you cannot remember and reach out. With shivering fingers you touch her exposed nape but she sleeps on, her face to the wall, her broad shoulder shrugged above you like a stone slab or the cliffs of an island. For the briefest span the mark of your fingers remains in her flesh. How deep the snow must be now in the East Garden.

V. No beating around the bush. Japan was a healthy break in an otherwise run-down marriage. In Japan there were centripetal pressures that drove us together, threw us back on mutual resources, taught us to love, honour, cherish and revere. Or words to that effect. Now we were being called back, as I knew we would be, to a painfully familiar place, by the centrifugal powers of duty and disease.

In the dark flickering hull of the 747, hemmed in by strangers as in our narrow eight-tatami flat, issued a mediocre meal and with only stale, soporific films for diversion, there was nothing left to do but turn and face each other and try to talk. This might be the last time we could give each other such attention.

"You don't want to see the film," I predicted, waving at the screen where a khaki-clad adventurer faced a doddering chieftain. My voice boomed in the silent fuselage.

"I've seen it," she said. "It's old. I saw it before I knew you."

At least eight years. "Who with?"

"I can't remember. No wait - it must have been Marco."

Marco. "You should have married him," I said lightly, taking a gulp of Kirin. "He would have treated you better. He wanted to marry you, didn't he?"

On the screen two grimacing tribesmen grabbed the adventurer and menaced him with spears. I finished my Kirin.

"His family wanted him to. They were crazy about me."

Light from the screen flashed cinematically across her face.

"Like mine, eh?"

The adventurer shook himself free and yanked a huge handgun from his trousers. Cowardly tribesmen scattered into the jungle. The adventurer managed to shoot two or three. In the seats around us, earphoned spectators were laughing robustly - perhaps at some amusing remark on the soundtrack.

"Let's not talk about it," she whispered. "They won't be at the airport, will they?"

"I doubt it."

She gnawed at a stale bun. "Tell your stepmother I lost ten pounds in Japan. Maybe now she'll be able to love me."

"I don't know ... Maybe if you'd flunked Teacher's College the way she did ..."

"She'd hate me more."

"She doesn't hate you."

"God, Nick, it was forty years ago she failed! Why can't she forget?"

"She doesn't hate you. It's just that - I don't think she ever learned how to love. You or anyone else."

"Sometimes I think the same about your father."

I choked down a forkful of rice. In a close-up, the dashing, unshaven adventurer poked the barrel of his revolver into the chieftain's slack throat. The old man rolled his eyes like a minstrel in black face.

"You don't understand my father. Don't say things like that about him."

Something we couldn't hear made the adventurer spin round. Cut to a close- up of a native armed with bow-and-arrow cowering at the edge of the jungle.

"You could have had other women. Your parents would have been happier. Hey, are you listening to me?"

The native, smirking like a sinister cupid, drew his bow and shot an arrow, then slumped back with a bullet hole between the eyes.

"You could have had other men," I said.

Cut to the chieftain, crumpled now against a palm tree with his own man's arrow sticking out of his gut. Clearly the nimble adventurer had leapt aside in the nick of time. He stood now, proud, monumental, a smoking revolver in his sinewy fist. Leering smugly he made some remark the surrounding audience enjoyed. It struck me that at this very moment we might be plummeting out of control to the sea.

"You were it," she said.

"For better or worse."

The adventurer blew a fume of smoke from the tip of his revolver.

"I do love you," I said.

VI. At Seattle airport we have a few hours to kill before boarding our connecting flight to Toronto. After reduced-scale Osaka we find ourselves dwarfed by hordes of sumo-sized specimens gobbling hamburgers and potato chips and foot-long dogs. Sandra is sitting by the windows, her manner unnaturally stiff, eyes furtive, as if waking just now to the presence of her body. She watches jet- planes with exotic insignia taxi in from the runway. I buy a copy of the Seattle Post and enclose myself in the aloof, comforting shell of far-off disaster.

A small story on the second page mentions that Hirohito is failing again and is not expected to see the New Year. But we know by now that the Emperor, like the old epoch, is more resilient than anyone would think.

In the back pages I find another, smaller story:

HIROHITO STIRS BRIEFLY FROM PROLONGED SLEEP

TOKYO (Reuter) - Japan's Emperor Hirohito, who collapsed in mid-September, awoke briefly from his long sleep yesterday and looked around his bedroom, a palace official said. `I don't think His Majesty wanted anything but he opened up his eyes and looked around the room,' the official said. The 87-year-old emperor, whose condition is described as being close to a coma, lost a small amount of blood overnight.

I close the paper. Sandra is still staring off toward the runway. Through terminal windows the huge white cone of Mt Rainier looms like Fujiyama.

VII. Jim is waiting for you on the far side of customs. Without Dorothy beside him he is insubstantial, an extra on a vast set teeming with rangy, vivacious actors. He embraces his daughter as if you are a stranger, or a ghost he can exorcise only by ignoring. His felt cap is too large, his beige eyes anonymous, glassy, and when he turns to give your hand a perfunctory shake there is nothing to say. You smell beer, and something stronger. On the way home those lonely bar-room odours fill the car.

The burden of strength now squarely upon her, Sandra swells with solicitude, kindness, her eyes lit up with a desperate optimism. Like a new mother, all her fears have been transformed into a brisk, efficient energy. And after all the news is not so bad.

On the way home Jim leaks the truth gently, gradually, almost with reluctance, as if unwilling to forfeit the status of victim. He seems confused by the turn of events. Perhaps he doesn't know what to feel. Dorothy, it turns out, has made great progress. The doctors are puzzled but impressed and judge that if watched and encouraged this respite could last for years. Remission, that is the word they are using - an echo from made-for-TV movies about cancer victims and their unstinting families. An echo from the liturgy you recited in childhood - something about the remission of sins.

You embrace Dorothy. She looks the same as before the trip, a touch thinner perhaps, but shimmering with her recovery, the pride of it, an old woman who has made a brazen unforeseen leap from the crumbling lip of her grave onto solid ground. She has put on a light floral dress, as if for an August supper on the patio. Anecdotes seethe behind her eyes. She apologises for not coming to the airport and assures you she feels fine and could have made it if the doctors hadn't been so fussy, insisting she stay in till after New Year's ...

She has been granted a reprieve. You suggest a drink to celebrate, and ask Jim for a double. He pours two. Well, cheers, he says, his voice an anaemic, squeaky whisper. Because of a simple diagnostic error you have been summoned back into the glittering web, and trapped. Your marriage, you understand, will be slowly exterminated. You can't be sure by whom. The old cling to life and link you with the dead. There will be no brave new era.

VIII. A few days into the New Year we visit my father's parents in Buckingham, Quebec. My father tells me how excited they are about our coming; our visits have been an annual rite but this year they'd expected us to be off in Japan, and perhaps have sensed (I've hinted at it enough in my letters) that we'll renew our contracts and stay another year, then another year after that...

The night before driving up we have dinner at my father's house.

"They can't wait to see you," my father says, nodding sharply so that his glasses slip down his nose and he can peer at me over the rims. This is meant to prepare me for a serious remark. "It's a good thing you came back."

"In some ways," my stepmother corrects him. "After all, they had to break their contracts. And don't forget the reason. Illness is hardly a good thing. Care for some more potatoes, dear?"

Before she can reply, my stepmother ladles a steaming cairn of mashed potatoes onto Sandra's plate; out of deference to Dorothy's reduced condition, it seems, she has relaxed her campaign to save Sandra's figure, or remind her of it, or both.

"We're so glad to hear how she's improved," she says, reddening as she struggles with a piece of chicken. "We've been calling every couple of days."

"Unfortunately your grandfather has not improved," says my father. "Physically he's still fine, but I'm afraid his mind" - he taps a forefinger against his temple - "well, he hardly knows who I am any more. He spends most of his time sleeping, or staring at the TV."

"And think of the stations they get up there!" my stepmother cries, sitting back and fingering the scarab brooch on her cardigan. "Almost all of them French! He must be miserable."

"It comes to us all," my father reflects.

"I don't think he knew me the last time we went up," I say. "He seemed to think Sandra was a French barmaid he'd known during the First World War."

"Ma chere Danielle, ma chere Danielle," chants Sandra - and with a brisk manual motion my father replaces his glasses, chuckling politely. The evil stepmother casts Sandra a baleful glance, perhaps feeling that mirth - especially in bilingual form - is unseemly in the awkward and the ugly, who should be more penitent in their misfortune. But tonight I ignore her. I feel generous, expansive, I accept second helpings and recklessly propose a bottle of wine. Naturally there is no wine in the house, but tonight my motion is not even condemned, and since it's allowed to stand - to breathe, as it were - it seems intoxicating of itself. Tomorrow, after all, we are going on a trip, and even if the destination is near and our hosts not exactly foreign it is a kind of adventure, a kind of escape.

With arthritic fingers my stepmother smooths the skin round her carefully designed lips. She is what fashion and film magazines dub "well-preserved". But now her opaque, ash-coloured eyes seem punctured, drained by our laughter, deflated; not an evil stepmother, I think, at all.

"You be careful tomorrow in the car," she says. "You don't know how your father worries about you when you're off on your travels. It gives him grey hair and lines above the eyes."

"We'll be careful," we promise.

"Especially once you cross over into Quebec," she goes on, relentless in her concern, "you know how they drive up there. And the roads! It's just terrible. When I was a student about your age I lived for a year in Montreal and" - she breaks off, having received some private signal from my father, who is peering again over the rim of his glasses. Tonight her mood is delicate, frangible as fine china; usually he cannot stop her so easily. He begins to speak. "I read in the papers today that they expect Emperor Hirohito to die by tomorrow morning." And gives his napkin an urbane twirl, as if to congratulate himself on this subtle gambit. No doubt he thinks he has changed the topic to something new.

IX. There had been a thaw in the night, and when Sandra took the wheel near Prescott he was free to sit back and study the passing landscape. A midwinter thaw is a kind of remission; this far north it never lasts for long. Nick looked out over a country of dark fields, deserted farms and trailer parks, gas stations, old churchyards under a marble sky.

Outside Hull the highway began to disintegrate, but the murderous drivers his stepmother had promised them were nowhere to be seen. It was Sunday, mid-afternoon, a time for digesting sermons or heavy dinners and peering out through frosted window-panes, not for trying to get anywhere.

Sandra and Nick hardly spoke from Kingston to Buckingham. In a small car on a midwinter's day, he thought, the centripetal forces that fused them in Japan should be active, irresistible. And they said nothing. Sandra's free hand lay by the gearshift, twitching now and then. Her eyes glared straight ahead up the empty road. On New Year's Eve they had made love with a tentative, awakening ardour, like shy lovers giving themselves for the first time; and feeling the generous warmth of her breasts and large body around him he had been sure he could never love another woman. But the next morning she was silent, sullen, their ecstatic communion a victim of poor sleep, anxious dreams or some abrupt recognition. Now that Dorothy was flagrantly well, the energy Sandra had conjured to support her seemed to vanish. The sheen passed from her eyes, the bloom from her cheeks. She moved heavily within her skin, her body had a sad, abandoned look, as if she herself had left and caught a flight to a far-off country. Again Nick felt a nagging urge to escape her, a desire for the youthful, conspicuous good looks that asked so little effort and promised eternal life. There were times Nick thought he knew the future, and times he thought he understood the past. He always turned out to be wrong. On the train to Osaka, faced with the prospect of an early return, resurrecting old grievances and finding them undecayed, he'd foreseen with absolute clarity the death of his marriage. On the flight home and on New Year's Eve - and even the night before at dinner, teamed with Sandra against a flagging stepmother - he'd been equally sure they would survive. How many times he had flown between the two extremes, a trapped commuter who never seemed to touch down. And he knew, if he knew anything at all, that he never would touch down.

They reached Buckingham at three. The streets were deserted. Already lamps glowed in most of the windows.

Ed was sleeping when they entered the peeling clapboard house he and Emily had owned since the war. Seeing their car in the driveway Emily had tried to rouse him but he'd barked at her to leave him alone, let him rest. "I told him it was Danielle," she beamed, her gentle face a shrivelled browless version of his father's. Her wandering left eye, he saw, was now completely free of her will. Her apron and house dress sported badly faded but plucky floral designs. "Danielle from Paris, I told him, but he didn't understand. He thought I meant there was somebody French at the door." She winked. "You know how he feels about them."

Nick knew. His grandparents were of Loyalist blood and solemnly stuck to principles of remote but hallowed origin. For forty years they had resisted the French language with such determined gallantry that Gran could now claim with good conscience she hadn't learned a single word. Picked up was the way she liked to put it; I haven't picked up a thing, she would say, as if talking of trash from a gutter or a contagious, possibly fatal disease. But times were changing - that much she would allow. She and Ed were the last of a dying breed. At one time they'd had a lot of English friends here.

Grandmother's devoted bigotry was an old joke in his family, so he was startled when she asked them over tea and buttered scones about their experiences in Japan - then listened closely to their answers. She wanted to know how the older Japanese felt about the Emperor's illness, which she had been following in the papers. Then she recalled reading about his coronation in 1925. At that time she had been just thirty. Thirty years old!

She shook her head, as if at the farfetched remark of a guest only she could see. The lamplight crossing her pale hairnet made it shimmer like a web.

"Nicholas, if you'd only come here before your tour instead of leaving in such a hurry I might have taught you some Japanese."

Nick asked her, politely, what she was talking about. He reminded himself that Edward's Alzheimer's was not infectious.

"Not more than a few words, mind you. Just a phrase I learned as a girl."

He put down his teacup.

"I was only ten. I'm not sure I can remember ..." She broke off and stared at the untouched plate of scones. "You're not eating, Nicky."

"I'll have one in a minute, Gran, I promise - but how -" "I spent half the morning baking them. Please. You loved them as a boy. Now ... when I was ten ... when I was ten my parents worked as missionaries in Churchill. Churchill is a small town in northern Manitoba."

He nodded. He knew. She had spoken of it many times before.

"One of their friends - another missionary - returned to Churchill from Japan. It was after a war, some war they'd just fought ... Sandra dear, please, you'll waste away -"

"The Russo-Japanese war," he said. "1904-05." Sandra and he exchanged looks and he could see she was feeling the same wonder, the miracle of dead figures and dry bones revived by an old woman's breath.

"Yes, that war. I forget the man's name. Now I remember - Sandberg, Reverend Sandberg. A big man, bald. He brought gifts for my sister and me. I can't remember what Vicky got but he gave me a doll. Ningyo, he said. That means doll."

Nick leaned over the table. "Yes. Yes it does."

Her fingers, gnarled like the roots of a tiny, ancient tree, carved rectangular shapes from the air.

"It came in one of those wooden boxes - Sandra, dear, you must know them - the crates they put mandarin oranges in - and it was in a bed of crumpled paper. A little boy, a little warrior in a kimono with a silk belt and a small wooden sword. And when he gave it to me Reverend Sandberg taught me to say what it was in Japanese. "Honto," she said, squinting, focusing cloudy eyes on the scones. "Honto no - ko kotaishi."

"That means `a real prince'."

"Yes, yes," she said, impatient with herself, seizing her teacup and glaring into it, a fortune-teller reading tea-leaves. "But he taught me to say a full sentence."

Her right eye fixed on his face while the other seemed to study another guest, invisible beside him. He saw her struggling to exhume the final honorific. As a teacher he'd learned never to intervene.

"Honto no koraishi" - she paused, squinting - "de gozaimasu. A real prince, it is."

Nick beamed and nodded. "Old Japanese," he said, "extremely polite. And you still remember this?"

She looked at him with playful disdain. "My mind's not gone yet," she said. "You'd be surprised at the things I remember." She turned her trembling head towards Sandra. "I could tell you some things about your husband here, as a little boy..."

"Honto no kotaishi de gozaimasu," he interrupted, shaking his head. The words were simple and familiar enough but on the tongue of a woman he'd known since birth and who'd long since lost the power to surprise him they had a fabulous, exotic sound. She had heard them half a century before his birth, then harboured the echoes all those years like a family secret. They loomed up in his mind, immense as a continent; they took on trappings like a spell or a mantra. Nothing could ever pass away.

"Do you still have the doll?" Sandra asked.

"The doll?" she snapped. "Oh, well, I've really no idea at all what became of it. When we left Winnipeg after the war it must have been lost in the move. Or else when I was married and left home. But I still remember the doll's face: very proud, a noble little warrior, a samurai."

Emily shuddered, as if trying to shake herself from a dream. She stood up and reached with fluttering fingers for the teapot. She was still a businesslike woman, hurried and brusque, lavishly energetic like someone half her age; she never let conversations linger on her own affairs.

Sandra and Nick rose together to offer their help but she brushed them away and had them know she wasn't ready for a nursing home yet.

There was a groan from the bedroom.

"It's him," Emily said, glancing at the tiny wristwatch she had worn for as long as Nick could remember. "He'll be needing me now. No, please, I told you, leave the tea things alone. Make yourselves comfortable for a few minutes while I go and see him. In a little while, I'll bring him out for a visit. We won't be long."

Nick poured Sandra some tea and then, in the Japanese manner, let her replenish his own cup. The sound of the trickling fluid filled the small kitchen. The windows were clouding over with steam so that patterns a dreaming finger had traced appeared and spread outward over the panes: transparent paths, cursive and meandering, illegible as a line of characters. A fit of coughing erupted from the bedroom and then, like a lullaby, soothing sounds. Over steaming cups Nick and Sandra watched each other with a new patience that was close to love.

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