Hi. I see you’re reading Silkroad. Summons up images of Marco Polo crossing the Gobi Desert, doesn’t it? Though I bet Marco Polo had more legroom on his camel than we have here. Not that I’m criticising Cathay Dragon, mind you. Nice airline, and it’s roomier up in Business Class, no doubt. Good safety record, good coffee, good everything. It’s OK – if you’re thinking, Oh no, I’m stuck next one of those nut-job passengers who’ll jabber non-stop until we land, don’t worry. I’m not going to share my tales of surgery, or my conspiracy theories about shape-shifting alien lizards, or my political views. Definitely no politics, not in this part of the world. So is Hong Kong home for you, or are you on vacation?
Where am I from? Tricky question. ‘From my mother’? I had a peripatetic childhood, so I’ve got more passports than Jason Bourne. All legal, I hasten to add. Even the matter of where I live now gets a bit… complicated. You know those wandering poet-monks in feudal China and Japan who used to say the road was their home, and the grass was their pillow? You could say I’m a contemporary reboot of them. ‘My spiritual home is the transit lounge.’ I should get that printed on a T-shirt. Don’t think I’m romanticising this way of life: I’m not. I envy what I guess you have. Friends, a partner maybe, a job, or at least a role, a family to be a part of – even if they drive you crazy now and then. Belongingness is underrated, especially by the young. Oh dear. I do sound like one of those nut-job passengers after all, don’t I?
Polite of you to say so, but I do. Most people are talkers, not listeners, don’t you find? They listen for as long as it takes them to calibrate their next interruption and then bang, they’re off again, ‘Me, me, me’. True listeners are an endangered species. There’s a certain look they have. You have it. That’s why – I bet – people often confide in you. You radiate attentiveness. A calm curiosity. To almost everyone I meet, I’m highly forgettable. I could say, ‘literally, instantly forgettable’ with a jot of exaggeration. It’s a strange claim to make, I know, but to back it up, I’d need to serve you a slab of backstory, and for all I know you’re itching to plug in your earphones and watch a film on your iPad, or get back to Silkroad, so I really shouldn’t impose…
OK, if you insist. Be warned – the story doesn’t cast me in a very good light. Back in my twenties, you see, when I was living in Japan, I made some ‘ill-advised life choices’. I’ll lower my voice for this part. The thing is, I made a living by selling certain pills to the foreign community in Tokyo. Party pills, to keep you dancing at raves for twelve hours non-stop. Don’t be alarmed, I’m not going to ask you take a package through customs or anything – I know you’re not stupid. But I was, alas. Stupid enough to believe the worst-case scenario was getting my knuckles rapped by the police and held in a cell for a few days before being booted out of the country. Like Paul McCartney was that time. Honestly, I look back at the idiot I was, I watch him strutting around Roppongi and Ikebukuro and Shibuya thinking, Who knew that beating the system could be so profitable and such fun? And… I could weep. I had no idea, no idea, about the worst-case scenario.
My supplier was this older guy named Ryū. He had a grey ponytail, played Mississippi blues guitar, and was always nice to me. We operated on a no-credit, payment-up-front basis, so relations were never soured by debt. Ryū lived in a crumbling apartment block in a seedy neighbourhood known as San’ya. You won’t find San’ya on any official map of Tokyo. In the old days it was where the burakumin lived – they were the untouchable caste who did the dirty work everyone else was too ‘pure’ to do, so it was all knackers’ yards, leatherworkers, a prison and an execution ground back then. San’ya is a bit of a Yakuza fiefdom, to this day. Anyway, one January afternoon I went over to Ryū’s apartment to replenish my stock of party pills and saw, despite the cold, his door was half-open. So I peered in and saw four men beating and kicking him to a pulp. Really laying into him. Yakuza, of course. The tattoos and punch-perms are a dead giveaway. I should have slipped off, there and then, but I’d only ever seen violence on video games, and… my brain kind of shut down. Look, you signed up for a nice traveller’s tale, not this nastiness. Are you sure you want me to go on?
No, no, the story doesn’t upset me. Not this part, anyway. This all happened ten years ago and really, it’s a prelude to what follows. So there I was, transfixed by the sight of Ryū’s beating, when one of the assailants spotted me and shouted, ‘Get him!’ I bolted. Along the balcony, down the clanging iron steps. All four were after me. I meant to get back to the Tokyo of shopping malls and Mister Donut and safety, but the narrow streets in those old neighbourhoods play tricks on you, and I ran the wrong way. Time blurred and slowed and speeded up. The more I tried to get to where lots of people were, the emptier the side streets became. The chase can only have lasted a few minutes, but it was enough for the sky to get dark and swell up with the promise of snow. Crows watched from overhead cables. Down this dead end, walled in by shuttered-up shops, I found myself by an old shrine. Not a picturesque shrine from a Hokusai print. This was a poky affair that somehow survived the war, with a small torii gate guarding a yard smaller than a tennis court. The shrine building was as run-down and small as a, I don’t know, a bicycle repair shop. A custodian was sweeping the flagstones by a row of graves, over in the corner. He looked about ninety. Mottled skin, tufty eyebrows. Up at the turn-off, the four yakuza guys appeared – and saw me. One called out an unprintable threat, another laughed, and all four strode my way. Swaggering.
You bet I was scared! I ducked into the courtyard, past a statue of Inari the fox god, and frantically searched for a way out. No joy. High walls, no ladders, no gates, no exits. Seriously, the shrine could have been designed for Yakuza punishment beatings. I got out my phone to call the police, but there wasn’t a signal – even though this was Greater Tokyo we were in. The old custodian with the broom wasn’t going to be much use – I was just this foreigner who ran into his shrine and stood there looking deranged. I went up to the shrine building hoping against hope it might contain a hiding place, but no, it was full of dark nothing. A thick straw rope was strung across its mouth. Three ornate paper streamers hung down, spinning in the eddies and currents of the place. Hopeless. You should understand, I wasn’t a believer. Not in spirits or ghosts or fox gods or kami or magic, or anything. But when fear grows into a critical mass, you talk to what you don’t believe in. Ask any soldier. You beg, implore, plead. You pray; and a prayer requires an addressee. Mine, that January afternoon, was the dark nothing that resided in the shrine, and my prayer was, Let them not see me, let them forget me.
Vertigo. I remember vertigo. Falling, without falling. A dim hush. My heart, thumping. The old man’s broom, scratching. I looked at him. He looked at me. Perhaps he nodded. Perhaps he didn’t. Under the torii gate, the thugs entered the courtyard… and looked around, confused. One asked, ‘Where’d he go?’ Another swore. They were toying with me, surely – I was there, in front of them, in plain sight! If they hadn’t seen my face in Ryū’s doorway, I still wore my sheepskin jacket, my maroon jeans. How could they have chased me through San’ya but failed to recognise me now? More moments passed and their bafflement grew. As did mine. It’s not like I was invisible – their leader asked me if I’d seen ‘their friend, another foreigner like you’ run into the shrine just now. I managed the guttural ‘ii-ye’ that in Japanese indicates a ‘no’ plus indifference. The first snowflakes appeared. The bulkiest pursuer walked up the few steps to the shrine building and looked in. He inspected my face, close-up. I tensed, expecting a hammer-punch at any moment. But he simply didn’t connect me with the guy they’d just been hunting. Trying not to tremble, I walked down the steps, past the three others, and them, still scratching their heads. San’ya let me exit its labyrinth this time, and soon I was on a warm train. Snow fell like embers in the canyons of the city, drifting into underpasses, settling on roofs, obscuring all things.
My small apartment was as I’d left it. Laundry, kitchenette, TV, futon. As if the whole day hadn’t happened. I doubt I ate. I guess I drank a beer. It was a Friday, and normally I’d go to a club to sell my merchandise to my regular clients, but I stayed in. Partly out of cowardice. Who knew which ‘mutual friends’ of mine and Ryū’s weren’t informers? I didn’t dare call his mobile to see if he was conscious or in hospital, in case the call was tracked back to me. I presumed Ryū would be OK. OK-ish. If the Yakuza really wants someone offed, they have guns, right? Now that I was out of immediate danger, I began rationalising what had happened at the shrine back in San’ya. The bad guys must have had a joint brain-fade that let me walk free. What other rational explanation was there? Luck that improbable, however, doesn’t happen twice. I vowed to retire from pharmaceutical retail. I thought about quitting Japan, of where I’d go instead, and how I might earn a legal living once I got there. Then I fell asleep.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining, yes, but dark clouds with silver linings can still grow into typhoons. The following morning, I went down to Mister Donut’s for coffee. A girl who worked there and I were on first-name terms. She was Okinawan and I kind of fancied her, so I’d learn a few words in her dialect to make her smile. But that morning, she acted as if I was a perfect stranger. Formal language and head bows. Well, I guessed that was her way of telling me she wasn’t interested in me. So I left, a little disappointed, and called my friend Mo – short for Mohammed Tanaka, a DJ, complex parentage. I said, ‘Hi, Mo, it’s me’ and after a long pause, Mo said, ‘Look, no offence, your name’s flashed up on my phone, but who actually are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, hilarious wind-up Mo, let’s meet at Tandoor for lunch.’ There was this long, confused pause. Mo said, ‘Sorry, but I don’t like prank calls, so if you’re not going to tell me who you are, sayonara.’ When I called back he’d barred my number.
You bet I was spooked. And flummoxed, and hurt, and worried. I stumbled through icy slush for a few blocks to my friends’ music shop. The owners were a couple, Satoru and Ai. They weren’t much older than me but they’d taken me under their wing when I arrived in Tokyo. We jammed a bit on the weekends – Ai was a great piano player. Satoru was just opening up as I arrived, but he gave me the same reaction as the girl at Mister Donut: ‘Good morning, can I help you?’ I said, ‘Satoru, it’s me.’ Just then his little son, Kōki, appeared from the stockroom, and ran straight past me. I babysat Kōki once a fortnight when Satoru and Ai were out gigging. He called me big brother, and we played PlayStation past his bedtime. Sure, adults can have their mysterious agendas, but why would an eight-year-old kid fake amnesia? My voice was trembling as I asked Satoru, ‘Do you really not know who I am?’ Satoru studied me, and did that rueful smile that people do when they want to remember but can’t. ‘Please excuse me,’ he said, ‘I really have a terrible memory for faces.’ That was the only time I ever heard Satoru lie. He had an excellent memory for faces.
I fled. I wandered around all day, then found myself at Mac Bar, my early-evening hangout. I took my usual place and waited for Mac to pour me my Jim Beam and ask how my day had been. He was a lovely guy, Mac. Instead, Mac said, ‘Hello, I’m Mac and welcome to my bar. What can I get you?’ Gutted, I asked for a Jim Beam, hoping it might jog loose a memory. Mac served it up, and asked, ‘Are you in Tokyo on business, or just visiting, or do you live here?’ Mac liked to know his customers. This was pre-smartphone so I couldn’t flash up five hundred photos of us, but in my wallet I carried an old-fashioned photo of Mac, Satoru, me, Mo and Amy Winehouse after her concert at the Blue Note. Mac peered at it, frowned, grinned sheepishly and said, ‘Of course! That was a great night! How are you?’ But… he couldn’t fool me. He didn’t know who I was. A bunch of customers piled in, and off he went to greet them. Then, twenty minutes later, he saw me drinking alone and came over: ‘So, hi, I’m Mac. Welcome to my bar. Are you in Tokyo on holiday, or do you live here?’
Exactly. Not only were Mac’s memories of me from the previous two years erased – his short-term memory of me was gone, too. Not just Mac, either. Everyone I met who knew me no longer knew me. When presented with proof that they had known me, they were puzzled, or embarrassed, or suspicious or all three at once. Then, after I’d left the front of their minds, they forgot me all over again. I grew so desperate I made an international call to my mother. My mother and I, you should know, had parted on awkward terms. She answered, and to my initial – enormous – relief, she remembered that I existed. But when I began filling her in on the previous two years, she interrupted: ‘Look: whoever you are, you don’t even sound like my child. If you call this number again, I’ll contact the police.’ With that, she hung up.
I hoped it would wear off, whatever ‘it’ was. No joy. It took me a while to work things out, but my desperate ‘prayer’ at the shrine in San’ya to go unrecognised by the yakuza thugs had been granted: but it wasn’t limited to them, and it had no expiry date. An infinite blessing is a curse. I went back to the shrine to ask the custodian for help, or to pray for my ‘blessing’ to be lifted, but the shrine had gone. In its place was a giant building site. Yep. The whole area had been levelled to make way for a new overpass. So now I inhabit a world where everyone except me has a kind of Alzheimer’s forgetfulness of me. I can’t make friends, can’t be loved, can’t get a job, can’t belong. Sure, I can dine in the finest restaurants and be forgotten before I have to pay. I can shoplift with impunity. I have to, to survive. I have online friends – emails don’t vanish – but if I ever meet online friends physically, they forget who I am the moment I’ve left the room. I spend my life searching for a ‘cure’ at shrines, at holy sites, in churches, in science. A clinical neurologist at Cambridge University once labelled my ailment ‘Second Person Mnemonesia Psychosis’ – SPMP – and got very excited about researching me. But then his phone rang and when he finished his call, he blinked, asked me who I was and why I was in his office. It’s lonely. Unendurably so. I won’t pretend it isn’t. Even a natural-born listener like you is going to forget me. You’ll see. Well, actually, you won’t. I’m off to the bathroom now, and when I get back to this seat, I’ll just be a stranger sitting next to you on a plane. Guaranteed. So. Enjoy the rest of Silkroad. Nice talking to you.
David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, spent many years living in Japan and has set several of his novels in the country, including number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Cathay Dragon and Cathay Pacific fly to Tokyo from Hong Kong 56 times a week.
The story above is part of Silkroad’s Fiction Anthology, available on Cathay Dragon flights during July 2017. Click the images above for the other stories.