Half Life

Dear B,

Blimey. That was easy, actually. Considering, you know, how long it’s been. Truth be told, I’ve probably started trying to write this about a hundred times on paper, and about a thousand in my head. Even without all the stuff that’s gone on, it’s hard, trying to work out the exact right way to start a letter, after such a gap.

Remember when we were kids, me in Southerton, and you up North? Sending each other at least a letter a week, with never less then five large, tightly lettered sheets, both sides covered with whatever nonsense was going on at the time? There was always time taken to cover the envelope in extra stuff, too: extra notes, coded messages to get past the postman, doodles. If those letters weren’t, looking back, the most incredibly obvious expressions of love ever, I’d have to say that they were probably the gayest thing I’ve ever done.

I mean, we used to make stuff for each other. JESUS! Arts and crafts… shivering here.

Isn’t it weird, though? So many more things seem to happen now, and yet it’s more difficult to find things to write. And we seem, as adults, to be constantly busy, though we seem to get so much less done.

Japan is…

Oh, hang on. You probably don’t know that I’m in Japan. Actually, that’s a bit disingenious, because I know that you don’t know that I’m in Japan, because I only recently received the bundle of letters that you sent to me, at my mate’s place in Melbourne. And Australia was, what, fuck, at least six, maybe eight months back. Maybe longer.

I guess, when you get this, you might be a little angry with me.

But, listen, I don’t want to get hung up on that. It’s… it’s something that’s way in the past. Things have changed too much. I mean, well, they’ve only changed in the last few days; for me, anyway. But they’ve changed so much that it seems like they’re way in the past.
So, yeah, Japan.

Specifically, Nagasaki. Not Old Nagasaki, and not New Nagasaki. The inbetween one. Which, oddly, is probably the one that’s most like the Japan that we used to watch in movies, when your mum was out of the house.

You know, it’s actually shocking how little I know about this place… well, the whole of Asia, really. I’ve always thought I was fairly worldly, because I could tell the difference in facial features between people from Korea and Japan and China, and that I could recognise a comic or movie from one place or the other.

But really, I knew fuck all before I got here. Still know fuck all, if I’m honest. And there’s far too much to take in in one lifetime.

Did you know that less than fifty years ago, Japan was more like a string of islands than one big one? It used to look like a seahorse taking a swan-dive straight at the Phillipines, where all the sex-cam girls come from. Taiwan didn’t even used to be attached! And Seoul, where all those martial art musicals we used to piss ourselves over came from? It was only about thirty odd years ago that that was part of the mainland, within the Korean border. When we were babies, it was part of a whole other island, can you believe that?
My history is a bit shaky, and I’m not actually convinced that in the West, we ever focus that closely on the goings on in this part of the world. Because, well, frankly, they’re just a little odd. From talking to people here, I’ve managed to gather that after World War 2, the Japanese kind of just, well, decided that one single landmass would be easier to manage then several little ones. And while they were at it, they could do with a little more space. So, partly through a process of reclaiming land, many feats of engineering, and, well, some other methods that I still can’t quite get my head round, they just… made it happen.

Oh, god, B, if you could see it all! I’m looking out of the window of the place where I’m staying, the penthouse apartment of this guy Johnny that I met, and I can see the whole city laid out below me. I can see, on a building across the way, there’s this massive, constantly changing display. One whole side of this hundred storey building! I walked past it the other day, and tried to see how it worked, whether it was lights, or some kind of digital display, but I swear, it was just weird. It looked for all the world like the paint on the bricks was shifting and changing.

And then the sumo wrestler that was on the wall at the time crouched down, his head dropping the length of the building, and held a finger to his lips, looking straight at me with eyes bigger than cars. And he winked at me. I swear. Like Sean Connery at the end of Time Bandits, sharing some kind of cosmic secret with me!

Course, I went and got pissed straight afterwards, and I missed you incredibly. I haven’t let myself think about you, while I’ve been drinking, for ages now, because it always makes me think of sneaking drinks with you in the pubs back home when we were kids, and it’s just a bit too much, frankly.

Fuck, I mean, I feel like an arsehole just being in this country, knowing how many people back home would give a limb to have the experience, to take in the culture – even, I don’t know, just to go looking for ninjas or demons or one of those phonebook comics you always hear about. And here’s me, I didn’t even give a shit when I got here.

Truthfully? And really, I know I’m taking my time about it, but finally being truthful is what this letter is supposed to all be about. So – truthfully? I only came here because I couldn’t walk down a street in Australia, or France, or Canada, or any number of other countries, without seeing at least one girl that reminded me of you. Not… not that they looked like you exactly, but that they had one thing that triggered thoughts of you. Eyes the same odd shade of grey/brown, or if not that, the same shape as yours. Your constant half-smirk. A vague suggestion of Modigliani.

And when the girls didn’t remind me of you, the places did. Pubs that had the same musty smell as places that we’d been together. Parks like the ones we hung around in back home, waiting for something to happen.

And it wasn’t helping. I couldn’t take it. There, I admitted it.

It hurt too much, and I ran like a coward.

So I came to Japan, because I’d heard that it was about as different to England as it was possible to get.
And it really is.

At the very least, I could be fairly certain that women here wouldn’t be so freakishly tall.

You know, apparently Nagasaki wasn’t always so heavy-duty metropolis-ey. Back in the forties, I think it was a naval town. There are parts of the city, down near where it crosses over into both New Nagi (in the southwest) and Old Nagi (higher up), that still carry the stink of old fish and salt water.

But the place started changing really fast, once the Allies dropped the bomb on it.
Did you remember that Nagasaki got hit, just a couple of days after Hiroshima? Again, I think we tend to disregard it, because it isn’t as easy to get a handle on as an A-Bomb.

Nagasaki was kind of an afterthought, actually. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been a target, except that some guy didn’t want Kyoto targetted, because that was where he first got laid. And the weapon that they dropped on the place was an unknown quantity, too. The Americans were fairly well convinced that the Little Boy had broken the backs of Japan’s enthusiasm for world war, but the Japanese government were taking a little too long writing up the paperwork of their surrender. Fuck ‘em, thought the Allies, and, figuring that in the aftermath of Enola’s gay payload they could afford to experiment a little, they decided to try out a new, somewhat more metaphysical weapon.

So while the country was still reeling under the mushroom cloud of the first nuclear weapon in the world to be used in anger, a re-tooled B-29 named Butterfly dropped Snowflake, the first and last Probability bomb ever made, onto Nagasaki.

This is fascinating stuff, B. See, nobody seems to know exactly what Snowflake did, least of all the people who live here. Some people reported a flash, and an explosion, but it seems likely that that was just the bomb’s initial impact, because no buildings were destroyed, or people vapourised or burned, by that first flashover. I tried to read up on it in the library here, and found an old interview with Butterfly’s pilot, and a couple of the research scientists who helped build it, and they’re even pretty hazy on what exactly Snowflake was intended to do.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t devastating, if only in the most peculiar of ways. There are memorials all over Japan, and especially in Nagi, for the thousands of people who died on the day. They just didn’t die quite how you’d expect. Some of them collapsed, their hearts just stopped. There are reports of others who dissolved, or who seemed to fold in on themselves. And some disappeared altogether.

All told, around three in every five people, within a twenty mile radius, was killed within minutes of the payload initiating, or died in the few days following the event. Whole neighbourhoods of the city were fucked over, too, either collapsing into the ground or spontaneously burning or… well, but those are all built over, now.

I’ve had a bit of a crash course in all this history – it’s incredible, really. I was waiting for your letters to arrive for around a week after meeting Johnny, and watching Japanese tv was just another thing that made me think of you, what with all the gleeful shouting and disorientation. And I’ve kind of learnt, what with all the flash storms, fireballs, and roving gangs of ninja businessmen or demon bikers, to stay indoors as much as possible.

Yeah, Johnny. Hm. How did I meet Johnny…?

Well, it’s a little embarassing, but, after getting your last letter… I mean, the last one I read before leaving Oz… uh, it was the one where you invited me to the engagement party? And, well, also the one where you told me that, as you were engaged, you were a little uncomfortable with me mentioning The Kissing Night so often.

So, anyway, after getting that letter, I had to get away, somewhere. I couldn’t get to the fucking moon, so Japan it was.

But I’ll be honest, after a few days here, I wasn’t feeling any better. And, I don’t want any sympathy, and I don’t want you to freak out, but I wasn’t… hm. There’s no way this is going to sound good, so I might as well just say it. I wasn’t being as careful as I should have been. I was drinking too much. Talking too loud, to people who were too dangerous. I had stopped bothering to check traffic when I crossed the road. And the roads are wide here – the cars stupid fast.

And I’m a fortnight into my big fat Japanese self-destruct adventure, and I’m down this alley. It’s funny how you can find yourself in the wrong part of town, even when it isn’t your town.

This was, like, a real movie alleyway. A few of those big skips along one side, puddles reflecting neon from one or other of the busier streets at either end. Suddenly, I realise that I can hear voices, whispering to each other, giggling, and I sober right up, because there’s something not quite right about them. And then I’m pulled back, behind one of the skips, pushed down, and somebody is talking in Japanese at me urgently – the meaning clear, because basically “stay here and keep your fucking head down” sounds the same, whatever the language.

And then the hands holding me back were gone, and all I could do was look around the dirty metal bin, and see what was going on.

What I saw was weird at first. There was a guy – fairly ordinary looking, mid-twenties, Japanese (remember, I can tell!), just standing in the middle of that alley, looking around efficiently, hands by his side but clenched tight.

So I’m just thinking that he must be the guy who shoved me back, and I’m about to get up and give him a bollocking, because it seems like a good idea, when the air around him starts to kind of shimmer. And suddenly, these … things… kind of like people, and wearing people clothes, but with limbs going in all the wrong directions – like when you get distracted as a kid, and suddenly Action Man’s crotch is facing the wrong way, and his wrists are just plain creepy – are just… there.

I don’t think we’ve seen any Japanese martial arts movies, really. The flickers we’ve seen from this part of the world have mostly been weird, bomb-fuelled confections, or gun-ballet crime-stories. And I guess that the reason for that is that, well, if this lot were anything to go by, martial arts here are fast, and decisive, and not really particularly cinematic. Sure, as my apparent saviour fought the weird broken doll people, it was impressive as anything. It was just all over very quickly indeed.

The thing is, though, was that while I watched, in those few short moments, it just occured to me that you would have loved to see it, and that you probably would have said something incredibly juvenile and witty and funny as you did. And probably I would have too, because I’m just more funny when you’re around. And more juvenile, and more witty.

But there was no angst. No hurty tummy, no broken-hearted, why is life so unfair, WHY GOD WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE.

I just really thought it would have been cool to have you there.

In fact, for the first time since the first of the kisses on The Kissing Night, I thought of you, and didn’t think about the first kiss at the same time. If you know what I mean.

So, afterwards, when all the bleeding and killing and everything was done, the guy started to walk away, in a bit of a hurry. And I, not really having anything better to do right then, went after him. Frankly, having just realised that it would be better to see you and not be with you then not see you at all, I had quickly decided that walking around as if I wanted to die was actually a bit stupid, because it was quite likely to get me killed.

So anyway, that’s Johnny Half-Life. At least, that’s what he wants me to call him.
Once he realised that I wasn’t going to stop following him, he kind of half looked me up and down, as if looking for signs that my arms were about to flex the wrong way. Then he grunted, and signalled me to follow him. And somehow, for reasons that I’m utterly uncertain of, I’ve ended up staying in his place.

Johnny is an odd man. He doesn’t say much, and he’s often out of the penthouse, doing I don’t know what. Although from the state of him when he comes back sometimes, I suspect that it is mostly more of what he was doing the night I met him.

As near as I can tell from the broken conversations we have, and the framed photos around the place, he was actually here in Nagasaki when Snowflake hit. Which shouldn’t really be possible, because he looks about ten years younger than me, and that was, what just over sixty years ago?

From what he’s said, there’s something about the people who lived through the probability bomb. Something different from the rest of us, and probably from each other. You’d never know, walking the streets. People still seem to mill about, work in offices, shop in chain stores.

But there’s certainly something about the way that they quietly, modestly go about their lives, though. Because after all, even if for some reason the rest of the world chooses not to notice it, this island country has changed a bit too much in quite a short time for it to be entirely normal.

Still, I don’t care. I’ve enjoyed my time here. And after that night, when I met Johnny, I quickly came to understand that, well… in less then two years, I’ll be half-way to seventy, and put quite simply, that is too old to be without your best friend, even if it sometimes is weird.

And then, of course, there was the tacked on ending to my journey – the bit that came after I’d already had my big epiphany.

Because if I had decide to go home, I was going to need my stuff. And most of it was back in Melbourne, at Jackson’s place.

So I phoned through to Jackson, who was glad to be getting rid of my shit, and in under a week, it arrived here. Along with a stack of twenty letters, held together with a thick elastic band, and my name and Jackson’s address in your instantly recognisable scrawl on the top.

Around an hour before I started this (now epic!!) missive, I sat on Johnny’s sofa with one of Johnny’s beers, and started reading through your letters. I read them in sequence, and I saw you go through some weird processes, that I’d never have dreamed you’d be experiencing, while I was trying to hide from you. There was sympathy; concern; resignation… then there was a point, at around the three month mark, where your tone changed. I’ll ask you soon what exactly happened, but I got the feeling that you’d decided that I wasn’t ever going to see the letters, for some reason. The tone changed abruptly.

Suddenly you were writing like we used to, way back when. Incredible, long, ranging letters, with doodles, and stupid little rhymes. Absolute nonsense, and paradoxically, not a shred of polite small-talk.

And then that final one, that looks like it arrived in Oz around the same day that Johnny saved me from the bendy men. The one that had no embellishment on the envelope, and that felt incredibly light.

That had only one sheet of paper in. With only one short sentence, dead bang in the middle of it.

Really, B, I’m going to remember those words for the rest of my life, I reckon.

“I’m not engaged any more, and I miss you. x”

I have absolutely no idea what that really means. I’ve been thinking about it the whole time that I’ve been writing this letter, and I still don’t have a clue. It’s full of potential, but then, there isn’t a promise anywhere in it.

But, you know, it doesn’t really matter. Because whatever it means, I love you, whatever that means. And by the time this gets delivered, I’ll probably be there, and almost with you. Knocking on your door, ready to take you out for a pint, before you’ve even properly finished reading that this is sent:

With all my love,
AC x

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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