By Peter Ninnes
“Do you think you’re the same person you were seven years ago, when you first moved to Helsinki?”
The train pulled out of Tampere station on the way back to the capital. Hiroki’s eyes flitted over the faces of the people waving goodbye on the platform.
He turned and looked across the table between us, his black fringe nearly reaching his dark eyes. “No, not at all, Dr Lee.”
“And I’m not the same person I was when I taught you English literature at Kyoto University.” I’ve changed more than you think, I added to myself. I’m like an oasis whose well has run dry. A desert town over-run by sand dunes. “But here we are, together after all this time.”
I’d been unable to stop looking at him, struggling to accept the maturity in the smooth, confident cheeks, unable to escape my memory of the gaunt melancholy that once haunted his undergraduate face.
“I’m happy we’ve moved beyond the teacher-student relationship,” Hiroki said.
The dry well was filling with sand blown by desert winds, yet a stark beauty marked each grain. “You could call me Charmaine, you know. Or, if you can’t escape your cultural shackles, I don’t mind sensei.”
Hiroki smiled. “I’ll try my best, sensei.”
My stomach reminded me that we’d spent hours visiting the Lenin Museum and admiring the frescoes in the cathedral, and it was now well past lunch time. “Let’s go find the dining car,” I said. We lurched through the intervening carriages, and settled at a window table. From time to time, an earnest blue lake appeared among the endless stands of pine and spruce.
“The menu has meatballs,” Hiroki said.
“I’ve always wanted to try them. Will you please order some, Hiroki?”
I passed him a ten euro note.
Just as Hiroki returned with two plates on a tray, the carriage dimmed. The entire panorama outside turned white, as if the train had plunged into a vast sea of milk.
“How strange,” Hiroki said. “Usually it’s only foggy in the morning.”
Tendrils of cloud snaked into the room, sparkling in the cabin lights.
“Oh, look! Orchids!” The window sills, bare boards moments ago, were carpeted with purple and white flowers. “And frangipanis!” Countless leis of the deep red variety now clothed the dining car walls. “How gorgeous!” I breathed in deeply as their aroma possessed my senses like a ghost.
“Sensei, why don’t we eat downstairs?”
I followed Hiroki and his lunch tray to the end of the carriage. The mist had snuck in, perhaps under the door, and swirled about the ceiling. The lobby, functional and sparse when we passed through earlier, was now lined with large wooden tubs, each holding a sturdy palm. Phalanxes of potted ferns crowded a spiral staircase in one corner. Hiroki led me down the stairs, which seemed never ending. Around and around we went until I could barely tell up from down or left from right. At last, we turned into a corridor at the bottom of the stairs, where a bevy of vases overflowing with gladioli greeted us. Intoxicating scents pirouetted through the corridors, and I wanted to leap into the air like Nijinsky.
“This way, sensei.” Hiroki swung open a heavy metal door. “Go through there, and I’ll join you shortly.” Inside, a meadow of buttercups stretched in all directions, to a distant thicket of birch trees. Just ahead stood a wooden picnic table and two chairs. In a few moments, Hiroki appeared, pushed the door shut with his foot, and placed the food tray and a large woven hamper on the table.
A gentle breeze precipitated an outbreak of goose bumps on my arms as I sat down. A long-lost warmth spread out from deep in my belly to the arid corners of my soul. Hiroki produced a thick paperback and a bottle of red wine from the hamper.
I leaned back in the chair, my eyelids weighed down by the sunshine. The smell of the meatballs and brown sauce engaged in a lascivious dance with the scents in the meadow. The grass, the flowers, even the soil itself seemed to emit an unearthly richness.
“Is that book The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Hiroki?” I asked as he poured me a glass of wine.
“Yes, it is, sensei. Eat your lunch before it gets cold, while I read to you.”
Hiroki perched on the edge of the chair. He’d selected the passage in which the protagonist meets the girl sunbathing in her yard.
Sips of wine punctuated the delicate caresses of the meatball sauce. Hiroki’s voice, a delightful mixture of Japanese and English accents, floated like a zephyr towards me.
At last, Hiroki finished the chapter and lay the book on the table. His plate was empty, although I had not noticed him take a bite.
I ran my finger around the edge of my plate to capture the last of the sauce. “The protagonist had a strangely platonic relationship with that girl.”
“She was quite a bit younger than him, sensei.”
“True, but she comes across as very mature.”
“I think Murakami wanted to focus more on friendship, especially after Norwegian Wood.”
“Perhaps. It would have been tedious to write another novel in which the protagonist has sex with every female character.”
Hiroki poured the last of the wine into my glass and loaded the empty plates on the tray. “Take your time and enjoy the view, sensei” he said. “You can leave the hamper here. I’ll wait for you in the dining car.”
“Thank you, Hiroki.”
The last of the wine slipped down my throat. A final bout of tingling crept over my skin as the sun lit the meadow in a sea of yellow flames.
I left the empty glass on the table and stepped into the corridor. The gladioli had vanished and, with a single turn of the vacant stairs, I ascended to the uncluttered lobby.
Hiroki sat at our usual table, the sunlight splashing indigo accents in his hair. The carriage had returned to its forthright functionality, bereft of frangipanis and orchids.
“We’ve left the fog behind,” Hiroki said.
The wheels squealed; the train slowed. My rings glittered as I gestured at the platform sliding past. “And our time together is almost over.”
“It’s been a magical trip, sensei.”
I studied his face again, still surprised at the man he had become.
In a few hours I’d fly home to Hong Kong. The memory of the fog would go with me, each grain of sand glistening with its moisture. Already I sensed life returning to the oasis, as fresh green shoots, hesitant and shy, poked their noses at the desert sky.