Last Train

By Tongari | www

In late October, it starts getting too cold to walk everywhere, and he takes up reading Neverwhere while waiting for the next Circle Line train to show up (an event even the station announcers keep reminding you not to put too much faith in).

He's always found reading very tedious; prefers movies, since he analyses details better than he imagines them. Maybe it's what people mean when they say he's a genius who can't develop any further - he can tell what you're thinking of when you stand opposite him, what you might do next, the tricks you're planning visible in the crook of your fingers - but he can't come up with any tricks of his own. He has to assign the faces of famous people to the names of the characters and walk around the city to see what's going on in the book, touch the stone of the buildings and read the names on the plaques screwed into brick and concrete, and he ends up taking the Underground more often than he'd ever planned to. The Old Bailey, he thinks to himself, what is that? and he makes his way there (Circle Line to Notting Hill Gate and run to catch the Central Line to St Paul's) stands in the visitor's gallery and thinks of the Marquis stalking the roof like an oversized crow, the faint and rain-washed smell of posies rising to the rafters and making him shiver. And it seems normal to shiver in October but it doesn't matter, he finds out a year later; even in late July his fingers and the air inside shadows are always cold, as though the city is too grey to absorb sunlight, or warmth, or summer.

He understands the concepts without further illustration, though, and thinks about them when he's on the train and he can't read without feeling very ill in his stomach and in between his eyes. About how things are never really Better or Worse in real life, and that London (and maybe other cities) must be unique in having such a mutually exclusive, clearly defined Above and Below. But then he remembers high school, fifteen years old, tennis club, a boy with his jacket on his shoulders and his hair flicked very slightly, wispily out at its ends; the single dark speck below his eye like the mark of a god.

*****



There is a huge party just before they leave, those who are going. Ironically they are the ones who spend the least time there, because of preparations and shopping trips and packing; Oshitari only manages to get there long after the party starts, and he has to leave long before it will ever end. On his way out, not even decently drunk yet, Atobe's goodbye to him is, "You're always late."

"You make me," Oshitari replies.

The light is very bright where they are standing, Atobe's back to a window heavy with sunlight, and Oshitari scrunches up his face when he tries to look at Atobe, backlit with the glare of whitewashed walls. Atobe says, "I don't tell you to be late," and Oshitari only hears it a few seconds later, blinking hard and taking his glasses off to wipe his eyes. Atobe says, "Are you listening?" and Oshitari nods, but, again, it takes a while; by the time his head is moving, Atobe has already turned around to answer somebody else's distant question.

"Don't be late for anything else, then," Atobe tells him, and motions to a servant to open the door. "And study hard. But not too hard."

Oshitari thinks he means 'take care', in his own convoluted way, and closes his hand around Atobe's wrist, skin strangely clean and cool as though Atobe is made of the same swirled, pale marble as the arches of the high, wide hallway they are standing in. Atobe lets it happen, alone for a few bars of song in between the barbeque and the cocktail bar; then he is out of Oshitari's reach and spinning away, slowly, gracefully, a leaf floating across the garden, and Oshitari thinks he says, "Tell me what London smells like in winter."

*****



Phone cards are cheap in Chinatown (Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square, get out at the steak house exit and turn in the road just before the Eurochange), which is also good for groceries and eating out and haircuts. He buys three at a go; they will last him three months, two thousand and one hundred minutes of talktime. He knows that he will spend about twenty minutes over this whole time, just connecting and waiting for the phone to be picked up; eight hundred and forty minutes listening to Gakuto chatter while he watches pigeons take off clumsily from the eaves of rain-dark roofs and suddenly wishes they were sparrows instead; fifteen two-minute calls to Shishido, every Sunday; a whole hour talking to Kabaji which he can't remember, he's too hung over the next morning but he knows he called and he knows he can't call back to ask what he said. It might have been the first interactive conversation Kabaji has sustained with anyone for more than two sentences; it could also be just Oshitari regurgitating his entire Pathology textbook, which his first girlfriend in university complained he did once in his sleep.

He is trying to explain to Shishido why he hooked up with the girl when it hits him, and he looks at her shoes in the hallway, half in shadow with all the lights dimmed down. Her coat, hung over his and on the same hook, so that he'll smell her until the next walk he takes through Central coats him with the smell of the city. He thinks aloud that sometimes it's not that you fall in love or anything like that; it's just that you can't bring yourself to look away.

The other one thousand and thirty minutes he spends listening to Atobe. He reckons about four hundred minutes is pure silence, when Atobe waits for him to reply, and he can't think of anything to say the connection lags, and he hears Atobe's voice asking him if he's still there, right as he's wondering the same thing about Atobe. There is nothing that illustrates distance and your inability to shorten it any more painfully than a bad phone line.

"Why winter?" he asks, one day. It takes years to travel down the phone, and Atobe's answer is gently but distinctly impatient, as ever. When Oshitari hangs up later he makes a note to buy an extra Travelcard for Atobe, just before he realises that, of course, Atobe would have a car.

*****



Spring passes by in a blur of sunlight on sidewalks, girls in white skirts, and alarmingly sunburnt and shirtless men jogging through Hyde Park (District or Circle Line to Bayswater, Picadilly Line to Hyde Park Corner). Most of it is Atobe, Atobe, Atobe, seldom manifest in the flesh because he's so busy even ten thousand miles away from home, simplified (but not reduced) to the quiet beep of a text message in your pocket, a growing pile of shopping bags with designer names on them shoved under the kitchen counter, a valet opening the door for you when you come home, lobster bisque and seared asparagus tips at a table set for two with a napkin pointedly folded over the plate opposite you.

"You didn't bring your chef along and hide him in the broom closet, did you?" Oshitari asks, one Sunday morning when none of the shops along Bond Street are open and Atobe is going through his diary, trying to remember who he's supposed to meet for lunch. Oshitari is always invited but something about these exquisite, expensive friends of the Atobe family makes wine curdle in his mouth. There are so many of them, and they all look the same; tall, tan, flawless skin and perfect nose bridges. Some are swarthy and some are blond; all have smiles charming and identical and whiter than teeth.

"Of course not," Atobe said. "I disguised him as a valet. Now are you sure you won't come along?"

"I have practicals on Thursday."

"You have practicals every week and you've stayed in for all of them. One won't hurt. Besides, I'm not going to sit in and watch you study all day. Yuushi? Are you listening to me?"

"Why did you come?" Oshitari asks, as though there has been nothing but silence between them ever since Atobe's valet carried the first expensive suitcase through the door. They are standing in the hallway, and he's just put his hand on the door before he remembers there isn't any mail on Sundays, and Atobe is looking at him with something sour and stinging barely contained within a pleasant smile. An old feeling, one he knows well. It's starting to rain outside but he feels like his head is puffing and collapsing under assault from the humidity and sunlight of late midsummer, of Tokyo, of Atobe's garden and a barbeque he's walking away from before he suffocates.

Atobe never answers the question. He cancels his lunch appointment, and takes Oshitari out for afternoon tea.

*****



"We are flying to Corfu after you're done with classes," Atobe announces, over Darjeeling and Devon scones and the sound of distant traffic on the high street, five sleepy, sun-dazzled blocks of townhouses away. Oshitari thinks, they could have come here via the Circle Line to High Street Kensington and saved Atobe's chauffeur a miserable half hour of circling and looking for parking, but he isn't the one driving. The chairs are aluminium and burn Oshitari's elbows when he rests them on the metal armrests, and the butter on his scones melts faster because he is on the sunny half of the table; his head buzzes with sunburn and his eyelids keep drifting downwards, top-heavy. Atobe glows beneath the awning, cool and crisp in white linen, and it hurts Oshitari's eyes to look at him, takes him longer to hear and compose a reply.

"Corfu?"

Atobe sets his cup down; Oshitari looks at it, notices that it is the same colour and smooth grain of his fingers.

"You haven't been paying attention," Atobe says. "And it's too hot to tell you all over again. Is it really so hard to join me for tea without passing out halfway?"

Tourists chat, a cylist spins by, Oshitari lags; Atobe sighs, picks up a knife and flicks another curl of butter out of the ceramic saucer that it has been miraculously packed neat and flat into. By the time Oshitari says, "It's not you," the scone is daintily topped with clotted cream and jam, Atobe's eyes are closed, his teeth very white and even, he is not listening. Oshitari hears a soft and indescribable sound, the warm wet slide of mouth parting and pastry separating, long before his eyes manage to focus on the long red line of jam running sticky down Atobe's white fingers, dripping off at the knuckles. He thinks of blue skies, green waves; how the ocean is the last thing he remembers that tastes like skin. How the edge of the ocean always felt like no matter how hard he swam out to touch it - tongue turning numb, salt stinging unshielded eyes - he'd never bring it back to shore.

"I want to show you something," he says to Atobe.

They walk down the street, pausing to look at a shop display only once, and inside the Underground station Oshitari buys a set of Carnets from the ticket machine in the station with a few touches of an infrared screen. Atobe, watching on with a sort of rapidly growing horror when he looked from the tickets to the barrier crowded with people pushing to make the train in time, says, "You are not. No. I am not. Yuushi. No," and actually digs in his heels when Oshitari gets behind him and pushes him toward the barrier. Oshitari is stronger, taller, and if Atobe really minded he'd command so, but he doesn't tell Oshitari what to do and so they make it through the barrier and down the stairs, Oshitari's head light and senses sharp now that they are in the shadow of the station, although sunlight burns metal rails six feet away from where they wait on the platform.

Atobe goes on and on about the ugliness and filth of the place, refuses to sit down on the seats when the train arrives and stands near the door instead, and Oshitari holds on to his shoulder, leans against the door, listens to the wind howling as it rushes down the tunnels. Atobe looks at him and stops talking, and it's quiet for a while, except for other people, which makes their silence feel bigger, closer, more important.

At their destination station, Oshitari follows Atobe through the ticket barrier, and habit makes him pause as he steps through and put his hand near the return slot, waiting for the ticket to pop back up into his hand. Just as he remembers that Carnets are one-way tickets, and Atobe is wandering off towards the first bright patch of light that marks an exit, the machine beeps and presses the warm ticket into his waiting hand. He grabs it and runs to catch up with Atobe.

"That was the Underground," he says.

"Wonderful," Atobe replies. "Now why are we here?"

"That was the train home."

Atobe looks around, slowly, pointedly, and blinks at him. "This place isn't familiar, Yuushi."

"We still have to walk down the street. It's only five minutes."

Atobe looks around again, sighs, and reaches into his pocket for his mobile phone. It's hot and bright where they are, the cool of the station a distant memory and six yards behind, and by the time Oshitari hears Atobe order the car to come around and pick them up, the phone is already sliding back into Atobe's pocket.

*****



The first person Oshitari sees in Corfu is Sanada Genichirou - dark and fierce like the cypress trees he is standing under, lean and hungry from a French tournament he has just won - never looking directly at either him or Atobe until they are right in front of him, Atobe almost flickering with the intensity of sunlight and anticipation on his skin, and Oshitari can feel himself fading away into the shadow of the trees. Sanada's expression never changes, and Oshitari suspects that his own doesn't either, but Sanada is sleepy in shade, alert in sunlight, and Atobe is something that other people revolve around.

For the first time in his life, Oshitari finds himself wishing it would rain.

*****



Oshitari walks out of the first class of summer term because the lecturer reminds him of Atobe's mother, and the whole ten seconds he sees of her, walking into the hall with her back very straight and the precise, affected stride of a dancer, cleaves his tongue so thoroughly he can't speak Kansai-ben for an hour. He spends it chatting in English with some students outside the café - there are always students, smoking and drinking coffee, outside the café on the ground floor - and by the time he meets up with his regular group of friends for lunch, he's able to slip back into dialect so comfortably that one of the girls, who's only spent a handful of summers in Tokyo for the past ten years, can't understand what he's saying.

He calls Atobe - ruthlessly, direct from his mobile - standing a little way off from the others, and asks him, "What's the time now?"

"Is this a hint about your birthday present? It's months coming, Yuushi."

"What's the time where you are now?"

Atobe tells him, and when he asks, why, what's the time where you are? Oshitari says, softly, "Always eight hours late," and hangs up.

The girl who doesn't understand Kansai-ben asks him, "Is that your girlfriend?" and when he looks at her, his tongue gone numb again, she says, "You don't speak very nicely to her."


"It's not," he replies.

She smiles at him, very kind, faintly warmer than any girl has dared to smile at him since they've known him; as though guessing that the girlfriend has already become the ex-girlfriend.

*****



One day he realises he has been in London long enough to call the Underground the Tube, long enough to say quid and pee instead of sterling and pence, long enough to hold a few pints of Stella Artois and be able to discuss the Premiership intelligently. He calls Shishido just before the FA Cup Final, in the bathroom of a smoky pub echoing with very loud small talk, and Shishido says, "By the way, Kabaji's getting married."

Oshitari totally forgets that he has placed fifty quid on Arsenal to win.

"She runs a bookshop near Shinjuku. I don't know her. Met them once and they seemed pretty happy. He's stopped looking over his shoulder; she's kind of put her head on it."

"What?"

Shishido sighs. Oshitari wonders if he should ask how Ohtori is, but holds the question back; another time, then. "You were the one who said something about not being able to look away, right?" Shishido asks. "I guess he did."

There is a silence almost long enough for Shishido to be considering asking, what about you? except that Oshitari doesn't let it grow.

"When's the ceremony, do you know?"

"In a while, I guess. When everyone's back. We're all invited. Which is kind of sweet, you know? I don't think I've spoken ten words to him."

"No," Oshtari says.

"Yeah. Okay, shit, the line is getting crazy, you must be on the train again. Talk to you next week."

"It's just people getting drunk," Oshitari says, but Shishido has already hung up.

Arsenal loses.

*****



The difference between him and Kabaji is that, once upon a time, Atobe couldn't look away either. The difference between Sanada and him is that Atobe will never look away again.

Oshitari takes his glasses off and, without folding their legs, places them on the table, so that when he goes to sleep the empty lenses reflect his face. The curtains are drawn and when he looks out through the lenses he can see rooftops and arches and towers, and it feels like a face, peering in through his window and through his glasses and at him. A cold face, grey and sometimes pale yellow with streetlight, blue-edged with sky-shadow. He stares back at it and realises that he can't fall asleep until he draws the curtains and pushes the heater switch all the way up so that he's shaken awake in the morning by the horrible discomfort of sweat, sticky and warm and cloying, on his sheets, and the first thing he does is jump up and push the window open so he can shiver in a blast of cold air.

*****



For all the times he'll take the Underground, he will have only one battered Carnet to show for it, and there will be these two sentences written on the back of it to commemorate the event. He will have almost written something else, but then change his mind. Sometimes, while he's walking back along the streets after taking the last train home and everything feels dark and dead and empty, shop displays still lit up but no one around to see them, he will put his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat and finger the old ticket, its edges worn soft, and he'll say out loud:

One.

When you walk out through the ticket barrier at any Underground station, it is supposed to swallow your ticket and never give it back, and so you will not have any proof that you ever took a ride on it at all.

Two.

All systems are imperfect.

The wind will always be cold and sharp, so chokingly cold, he'll never know what London smells like.


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