Sunday, 25 July 2010
Mr. Happy Things
Otis Redding called himself Mr. Pitiful and in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy there was Marvin the Paranoid Android. Both these cultural icons fire synaptic connections every Monday morning when I teach Mr. T. Somehow these cultural connections blend with my image of a medieval Benedictine monk who has inflicted upon himself a vow of misery and hardship which entails spending interminable hours in a Spartan cell contemplating this vale of tears.
Mr. T. is the only man in the class. The other students are middle-aged housewives who are intent on filling their days with happy sacrifices for their family, shopping and afternoon chats over a long lunch. Every week they have some pleasant tale of food, shopping, travelling or family to share with the class. Mr. T. is the only member of the class with any professed religious beliefs. He is a Catholic and has an austere haircut with a centre parting that no doubt contributes to my mental image of him as a penitential monk struggling with an uneasy conscience. It is not the case, however, that Mr. T. is perpetually depressed like Marvin the Android. It is rather that he seems to only enjoy the dour and morose aspects of his existence. He takes a certain stoical relish in recounting the bleak. It is tinged with maudlin in the sense not of tears but of sentimentality. How he reminds me of Marvin is in two ways – firstly he is very well educated with nearly flawless English. His brain is not the size of a planet but in comparison to the other students it does seem elephantine. And secondly, just as Marvin's rampant depression produces moments of inspired comedy so does Mr. T's bleak outlook create a jovial atmosphere amongst the twittering ladies of the class. It is as if he has sucked out all the sadness from the air and jealousy hordes it. With no sadness to go round we all have to feast on gaiety instead.
Every week I ask a similar question to Mr. T. And it goes something like this:
“Do you have anything happy to tell us today, Mr. T?”
And now it is a running joke for the class. Mr. T. is a touch too pompous to notice that I am taking the piss, but the ladies immediately get my sarcasm and snigger with guilty delight. And like the miserable fool that he is, he runs straight into my trap and without fail manages to recite in his bumbling way a tale of woe. A tale lacking in sound and fury that habitually signifies nothing other than he should have spent his youth getting high and chasing poontang.
Below I will recount some of Mr. T's more memorable happy reflections.
“Anything happy for us today, Mr. T?”
“Yes, last Saturday my wife and I took the train to Aomori Prefecture to lay to final rest the ashes of my father-in-law. It was very hot. They were very busy in Aomori Prefecture because they are extending the shinkansen line to increase tourism.”
Masterful little prose poem this combining with a poet’s lightness of touch the disparate elements of death, tourism and high speed train travel.
“Do you have something happy for us today, Mr.T?”
“Yes, I want to speak about an experience a friend told me recently. My friend is a taxi driver. There was a JAL plane crash. The plane crashed into Mount Takamagahara in 1985. The plane crash killed 500 people. There were only 4 survivors. My friend was a taxi driver. He had to go to the memorial service for the victims. There are no trains on the mountain. No public transport. After the memorial service it was too late to move the dead bodies so they were stored in the local community centre. There were no hotel rooms available so my friend and many other taxi drivers slept with the dead bodies in the community centre. The next morning he drove one of the dead bodies back to its home. Every victim was taken back home by taxi. The most expensive taxi journey was 350,000 yen. JAL paid for the taxis for the dead bodies.”
“And why did you tell us this Mr. T?”
“Because my friend was one of the taxi drivers.”
Mr. T’s account of the plane crash, memorial service and sleeping with corpses was actually much more protracted than my rendition of his speech. Mr. T. squeezed the tale for all the time that he could by filling the classroom with circumlocutions and repetitions. His tone was not one of horror at the awful accident or even of anger for the incompetence of Japan Airlines. Rather it was admiration for how everyone pitched in to deal with the logistics of shifting so many dead bodies and how marvelous that JAL chucked millions of yen away on taxi fares. My only question was why didn't they rent cars and drivers? That would have been much cheaper than going on the meter. And I did mention that I would have slept outside rather than in a hall with 500 coffins.
“Tell us something cheerful, Mr. T. I don't want any more stories about dead people.”
“Yes, OK. Recently I have the feeling that I don't have much longer to live. My life is running out. Now the time is limited. Only a few more times can I see the colour of autumn leaves. There is so much that I cannot do before I die.”
“I see. And what is it that you want to do before you die?”
“I want to plant more fig trees in my garden. Insects ate my last tree. It was an Israeli fig tree.”
We all tried and failed to keep a straight face when Mr. T. delivered this gem of nonsense.
“So Mr. T. please let's have something uplifting today. I know. What did you do at the weekend?”
I was crossing my fingers and praying that it wasn't the anniversary of some awful massacre or natural disaster somewhere and sometime in Japan (it was obvious Mr. T. took no pleasure in the pain of foreigners and indeed felt that only Japanese and only himself in particular could really appreciate suffering and devastation). Mr. T. really excelled himself with this one. We all thought he was going to play a brave and cheerful melody. The first few carefree notes lulled us into a brief moment of hope before he tore apart the illusion of happiness with a series of thunderous chords of pathos.
“I went to a school reunion on Saturday to see my old school friends. The reunion was in Z Prefecture. I grew up in Z Prefecture. I was really looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially one girl that I really loved.
“But she wasn't there. Emiko didn't come to the reunion. I was very sad. She was the girl that I should have married. I loved her at school but after college I moved away and married my wife. That was a mistake. I really wanted to see Emiko.”
One of the ladies couldn't help interrupting. She asked: “Does your wife know about Emiko? About your love for Emiko?”
“Yes, I have told her.”
Silence poured down upon us that moment. I thought yes of course he's going to tell his wife about it. Surely his wife bears the brunt of this Marvin misery nonsense. This man really does want to be called “Mr. Pitiful”. If I were her I would have long ago killed Mr. T. by over salting his food or I would have fled the house in the middle of the night. Not however, before I had hacked to death his fig trees from Israel.