My Falling Down House

My Falling Down House

by Jayne Joso

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781781723395
Publisher: Seren
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 188
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author


Jayne Joso is a British novelist, playwright, writer and artist. Having lived and worked in Japan, China and Kenya she now lives in the UK. She received her first play commission in China. Written to celebrate Children’s Day, the play, China’s Smile, enjoyed a long theatre run and was later televised. Her poetic children’s book How Do You Feel? was published in Japan and has been reprinted numerous times. In 2012, she was awarded the Coracle International Writer’s Residency in Ireland. Her first novel, Soothing Music for Stray Cats explores the lives of disaffected city dwellers, and was heralded as "the debut of a distinctive voice in contemporary British Fiction" by social historian Joe Moran.

Read an Excerpt

My Falling Down House


By Jayne Joso

Poetry Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Jayne Joso
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78172-340-1


CHAPTER 1

SUMMER


TOKYO


1.

Let me tell you who I am. My name is Tanaka, Takeo Tanaka.


My father says I'm an idealist, and that this will be my downfall. I disagree. Sometimes you just have to be patient and see how things play out.

As for the house, it's abandoned and dilapidated, but somehow I'm drawn back to it. It's a place I fell into about a year ago following a heavy night's drinking with co-workers. Back then my stay here was nothing more than an accident and only for one night. Strange to think that I ended up seeking the place out. But this is only temporary, and as soon as I recover I'll move on.

When I arrived here all I had with me was a box. Just a large ordinary cardboard box. I knew there was some of my stuff in there, I just didn't know what exactly, and so far I've lacked the curiosity to look inside.

A cat had joined me on my journey from the station. He was black and handsome looking, and I guessed he was still quite young – I remember how the heat kept everything weighted, our moves made in a sun and dust slow motion. When we reached the house he peeled off as though he had done his duty for the day.

Getting inside the house was tougher than I expected, and I knew I had to suck up my anxiety until I was safely in. I leant against the door to steady myself, the box making me clumsy. I glanced back to check I was alone. As long as no one slid open a door or drew back their shoji, all would be well. This wasn't my neighbourhood, and taking up residence, however temporarily, in a place that is not yours, is a tricky and potentially dangerous thing to do.

The door felt heavy and fragile and no longer fitted quite as it should. Clearly no one had done any work on the place. It was a falling down house, falling apart in stages, and I ought to treat it with care.

By now these traditional old houses were rare in Tokyo, most of them awaiting renovation or demolition, but mostly demolition because land prices are super high. So it was strange to find such a dwelling so close to the city, and in such bad condition; usually they are quickly removed, a pencil tower erected in their place or something very much larger. And it's hard to know exactly what criteria would save a place and what would line it up for the diggers. I couldn't guess how it would go with this one in the long run, but I hoped it would survive.

I snuck inside and shuffled the door shut. Finally, the world outside was gone. I could breathe again. I set the box down on the tatami.


The joints of the place creaked; the walls leaned whichever way seemed to ease them; the shoji was torn, yellow by now, and stained; and a purple-grey dust formed like tiny stalagmites all about the room. Clay dust sifted from the ceiling, a gentle reminder to take good care. I seemed to bow in recognition.

I sat a moment, the box settled next to me, and dusted my feet. For some reason that day I had not worn shoes and I realised now why the streets had felt so hot. I checked back around the entrance. No shoes there at all, just several pairs of slippers long since forgotten, coated in dust, and a single black umbrella. Cobwebs. I returned to the tatami and lay down by the box.


On my last birthday I turned twenty-five. And somewhere around that time I lost my job, my girlfriend, and my home. I wondered how it was possible to be quite that failed that soon.


I lay on the tatami I don't know how long, a sleepy honey-bee, my shoulders warm and soft, aware of how different this place seemed in bright white sunshine. A gentle breeze slipped through cracks and breaks in the windows making ripples in the shoji. The breeze caught a wind chime somewhere – it startled me until I sensed what it was. I lay back down again and felt the sun pour in and over me, a yellow rain, and with it a wonderful heat. So intense I wanted to make a blanket of it, pull it all around me, and curl up inside. And I wanted to lie there that way a good long while nothing but nothing in my head.


When I woke my face was wet. My body dripped with sweat. I had taken off my clothes and laid them beside me.

I sat up and shuffled back on my heels and into the shadows as great slashes of light suddenly shot in, carving up the space. I watched as they formed a perfect golden geometry on the old and dusty wooden floor, up over steps, zigzagging across the tatami. Dust particles danced in the light. I noticed the breaks in the windows again, how damaged the place was. I wondered just how many quakes it had seen, and yet it was standing. Bent at the knees but standing.


The box seemed to have moved, or perhaps it was just that it didn't really seem to belong to me. And what did I need? Fleetingly, I thought about my cello. That day drinking with my co-workers I was so completely wasted that when I passed by a second-hand music shop, I wound up inside buying a cello. It's not the craziest thing I could have done, I used to play – what was crazy was that I bought one right then. I could barely stand, and I have no idea how I managed to get it safely to this place. When I woke my recollection of the night was all out of focus; I didn't even know where I was. I had to get to the office and the cello got left behind. It had to be here. I slid some doors back and hunted around. Nothing. I slid some more. Then more. It wasn't there. I stopped looking. Tense.

The cello didn't matter. The box didn't either. What I needed to do was to sit down and try to make sense of things. Too much had happened and I had to find a way to fix it. But right now my head was empty. Just space. A room without windows and nothing in it. It was all I could do to hope that a few days' rest would somehow put things right. Then I could return to the city and get on with it all. I began to wonder what my father would have said, Takeo Tanaka, you must face what has happened, and you must face yourself. But do not be afraid. I added the last sentence myself, that's not something he would say. In truth, I'll never know what he would say – I can't ever tell him.


I knew that one stroke of bad luck never broke a man, or even knocked him over. But several episodes – I might even call them events – that seemed a little more troublesome to negotiate, so I ought to handle the details with care. Until a few weeks ago I was gainfully if not that happily employed in the financial sector. It was a good job in all obvious respects, a very good job, and everything seemed to be headed in the right direction. I didn't question a thing. I already commanded a healthy salary, and my progression in the company seemed certain, assured. Alongside this, I had a girlfriend, Yumi, and the two of us lived together in a smart apartment in Setagaya, a smart part of town. It's hard to stomach that losing one thing could possibly lead to losing it all, but that's what happened. Perhaps I was arrogant. Or simply naive. But I thought I had a job for life, a place to call home.

I have to get some water. And I should wash.


For a while I managed to sleep at my old office. Shizuka was a cleaner there, she was quite young, younger than me at least, and she would help me hide out. It was a system that evolved when Yumi and I fell out from time to time. When everyone else had left for the day, I would make a kind of nest under my desk. I had a box and Shizuka brought me a blanket. Box Man, she would call me. You are the Box Man, and she would laugh warmly. Then she would head home and return in the early hours, waking me before anyone else arrived. This was just about manageable as long as I still worked there. My suit would get crumpled but really that was the worst of it. I remember I developed some skill in box sleeping, even taking pride in fitting into the box quite so neatly. Human origami, the foldaway man. But sneaking in and out of the place was much harder to get away with once I lost my job, and I couldn't risk being the cause of Shizuka losing hers.


Strange to think that this series of events now positioned me as little more than a criminal. But that's how it looked. My life had become too slippery and, like a soft ball of sweet, sticky rice, once it fell it simply gathered more and more mess. A man, when he falls, first becomes a box man, and next a sticky ball of rice. It's not a good way for things to go.


There had been an economic downturn, a crisis, and like many I was surplus to requirements. My girlfriend had no interest in a man without an income, and lacked the patience to wait while I found something new. Bills mounted and drained my account. Yumi took on the apartment on her own, and I moved out. I did not live in Setagaya anymore, and whatever was in the box was clearly the last of my possessions. A few belongings chosen by Yumi. My world: the contents of a single box.


2.

Somewhere it is detailed how many days a man might last without food and in what condition his mind could find itself. If the man has also experienced trauma the symptoms might be exacerbated and include hallucinations, both visual and auditory. I read about a soldier, long after a war was over, wandering in a forest in just such a state. I cannot remember the outcome.


During the night I grew feverish and woke sensing that someone else or something else was in here. I sat up and held my breath. Sand shivered from the wall behind me. I kept myself firmly in the darkest spot, so that if there was something it would not see me. My hands curled into fists. The air unsettled, I could hear and feel my breathing. Something moved above my head. I feared the ceiling giving way and braced myself. I crouched down, wrapping my head in my arms like an ape. Whatever it was landed heavily but moved about the room with ease. If I had to, I would fight. The box shifted on the tatami, then turned over. I came to my feet and raised my fists. The walls moaned and shifted in the shadows. The paper shoji teased me, rippling in the dark; menacing images eased themselves up and over the walls, lurching above me. Lunging, retreating, shivering their menace. The wind chime tinkled softly and fell silent. Everywhere, silent. Perhaps it was the cat.

I breathed, and found myself kneeling, my head lowered to the floor. If there was something, it had gone now. And perhaps I had been dreaming.

When eventually I raised my head I noticed something that I had not seen before, in the alcove. A cello. My cello. Laid upon its side, like a woman sleeping. Quickly, I inched my way over the tatami close to the ground. I touched its dusty surface. Even in the dark I was sure of what it was. Kneeling, I raised it upright, then I shuffled forward gently and centred it in the alcove where I guessed it had been standing. I released my grip and hoped it would not fall again.

After a moment I moved back to the upturned box, and wondered why a cat would find it interesting. I brushed my foot lightly over the contents, but there was nothing there that mattered, just clothes it seemed. I put them back, closed the lid, and pushed the box aside again.

If I was going to stay in this place a few nights longer, I had to stop taking fright so easily. When I came here a year ago it was completely dark and I was drunk. I couldn't have described it on the inside save for the obvious; I just recalled a sense of being perfectly at ease. All I needed was a place to hide out and rest until I was myself again, just a roof over my head, a little food if I could find some, but really nothing more. Even without food I would be fine in a few more days. I had come here because I was drawn to the place, there was a feel for nature here, a sense of a slow and simple way of living. A forgotten way of living. There was nothing here to harm me. Earth, wood, sand and stone, and tatami beneath my feet. And now I had the cello. This house was on my side.


3.

It didn't sit easy with me to stay some place (no matter how dilapidated) that wasn't mine and for which I paid no rent. I decided that as long as I was here I would make myself useful and fix what I could. The work would distract me, and in a day or two my mind would calm and I would figure things out – and I saw no reason not to make a few repairs and make the place more habitable. I would make notes and then fix what I could. I just needed to be careful that I wasn't seen or heard. I had already been too casual when searching for the cello, slamming a door, snapping it hard into its frame. With that in mind, and until I was sure if anyone spied upon the place, I decided to start my activities at night.

So far I had discovered very little about the house, save for the toilet and a running tap allowing me to drink and wash. Now I would scope the place out and start to get acquainted with the house in full.

Determined not to draw attention to myself I kept for the moment to the floor, moving about mostly on my hands and knees, sometimes hands and feet. It was quite an efficient method; I didn't know where there would be windows or possibly even breaks in the walls (perhaps where the cat had made its entry), but it was imperative that I was not found out. I moved from space to space taking in what I could, my sight still adjusting to the dark. But I quickly got a sense of its vastness on the inside, really it was huge, and it struck me that this was quite a trick since its narrow facade on the street gave the impression of a very much smaller place. I liked this. A house of great proportions disguised as something entirely modest. A big house in a small house.

I took a rest and thought back to my office and the box dwelling. I tried to recall its dimensions. Truly, if Shizuka had not helped me at certain points, I could so easily have joined the ranks of the homeless. A box in an office is something quite different from a box in the street. A shiver ran across my back.

Quickly I settled myself back to exploring, struck by the strong sense of nature inside the place. Clay, wood, straw and stone. I could smell the smoke-blackened timbers. I put my hands inside the broken walls and touched bamboo, I rolled around on dark earth floors and tatami, and wrapped myself in rough, worn cloth. As morning came, impenetrable shadows formed themselves all around me, long and wide, deep and narrow, and then were gone. The place changing right before me as the light filtered in. From the floor I lay and watched a good long while. A nice position. It was getting lighter, and I had been awake the whole night through.

I had discovered that the place also had an upstairs level, another trick hidden from the street from which I'd entered, but I would save it for another day. And from my current position I could see, through the haze of emerging sunlight and a break in the window, the outline of buildings on the other side, and perhaps a garden. Close by it was overgrown. I didn't mind at all, it offered some privacy, but when the time seemed right I would explore that side more closely.

Of my findings so far a stove, cooking pots, and a sack of rice, a huge sack of rice – a good six months' supply – had been my greatest treasures. The rice seemed old, but I would eat it nonetheless. Even so I did not eat straightaway, somehow I was sated by the mere idea of food. I had gone hungry some days but was not certain at all how many; or perhaps it was not that the idea sated me but simply that my energy was spent. I took a handful of the dry grains, and watched them fall through my fingers. My forearms and knees were sore from crawling, I dripped water over them. Sweating again, I laid myself down and wiped away my tears. I would rest awhile, and then I would cook.


Nestling on the tatami Cat is here. I observe Cello in the distance and she appears to be content. Propped up comfortably in the centre of the alcove, in a space all her own – and perhaps it is even a stage of her own where later she might perform. For now it seems all parties are restful and happy simply to sleep in the sun and in the shadows.


4.

My adjustment to nocturnal life was going well. As night fell I was always glad of the work ahead and in the mornings I was generally so exhausted I easily slept the daylight hours through. The only thing that suggested the daytime sleeps were possibly a mistake was the sheer number of mosquito bites printed over my skin. Always so hot, I never thought to cover up. It was hard to imagine that my blood offered anything nourishing on a diet of old rice, but these small creatures seemed certain it was for sharing. I lay awake awhile and watched them fly above me as though heavy and drunk, moving about in a slow and seemingly ordered formation, synchronised against a hazy, soupy sun.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from My Falling Down House by Jayne Joso. Copyright © 2016 Jayne Joso. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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