By Bruno Noble
"The I is a thing of the moment, and yet our lives are ruled by it. We cannot rid ourselves of this inexistent thing." (John Gray, Straw Dogs, 2002) A novel on the nature of the self
There was a peppery irony to the fact that Sebastian left my life for Japan the week that Mie from Japan entered it. She was, for a short time, the prickly reminder of where or what I had lost him to but I couldn’t bring myself to hold it against her.
There was a quality to Mie that elevated her above the other Japanese desk assistants Yuuto had had. The others had been either expats’ daughters or expats’ wives who had sought diversion or pocket money rather than careers and who had allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the pace and pressures of the macho trading room environment. The more uncertain and nervous they had become, the more irritable with them Yuuto had been and the louder his voice behind me had grown when in impatient instruction or reprimand. The more make-up and the more ostentatious the brands and labels the assistants had worn, the less time I had thought the assistants would last, confirmation that the bigger, the brasher the logo, the greater the insecurity that lay behind it.
On the occasion of my first seeing Mie, I had had to resist an impulse to laugh and had brought my hand to my mouth in involuntary caricature of the Japanese assistants’ gesture when addressed directly and embarrassed. The antithesis of her predecessors, she was dressed like a grandmother: in a below-the-knee-length woolen skirt, socks and sandals with an ever so slight heel and a plain, dark blouse. Over one arm was an ill-matching jacket; over the other hung a large, featureless handbag. Jet black, pomaded hair was pulled back in a tight bun above a plain face, cosmetics-free save the eyebrows that I initially thought had been entirely painted on so perfectly had they been plucked to crescent shapes.
Mie had a focus and a dogged commitment to the job that the others had lacked. She seemed to apply herself consciously even to walking and moving, as though she had to concentrate on every step and turn, as though every action were considered, executed only once properly deliberated and weighed. She never said as much but gave the impression that, having left home and Japan for this job, failure was not an option for her.
For a week or two, I had considered her if not stupid then a little slow because she asked questions about everything and I feared for Mr Johnson, whom I had quite liked on our first meeting and who I knew had stuck his neck out to break recruitment protocol in hiring her. I came to realise, however, that her questions were good ones, that she never repeated them and that they demonstrated a desire to go beyond the mechanics of a task to a full understanding of the reason behind it. To my embarrassment, I didn’t always have the answers and felt the blood go to my face when replying, “We don’t need to know that” as an alternative to repeating, “I don’t know.”
To begin with, Mie shadowed my every move. I showed her how the UK sales team’s clients were organized in my database and we replicated the same for the Japan team’s clients. We wrote sale and buy tickets together, had the salespeople and then the traders sign them together and walked the carbon copies to the back office together.
“Sharon, what did Jonathan do just then?”
“He sold his client this. This. This bond.” I waved the trading slip at her on which I had written the names of the client and of a company, a rate, a date, a price, an identifying code and the day’s date and time.
“What is a bond, exactly?”
“I don’t know!”
“Why did the client want to buy it?”
“I don’t know!”
“Why did we want to sell it?”
“It’s what we do!” I cried in exasperation.
“It’s what we do on the UK desk,” said Jonathan a phone on each shoulder and his back turned to Yuuto. “I don’t know about the Japan desk, though. I think there you’ll only get to write lunch orders, Mie.”
Yuuto replied at length in Japanese.
“No need to translate, Mie!” said Jonathan cheerily, “I think I got the gist!”
Mie looked seriously at the three of us in turn and then stood up. Yuuto looked at her from the corner of his eyes to gauge the effects of his words on her but she seemed quite unfazed by whatever it was he had said. “Come on,” she said holding her hand out for the slips. “Trading.”
We placed the slips in front of the trader for signing.
“Hello darling,” he said to me as he signed.
“Excuse me,” said Mie to the trader, “Why did you quote this price instead of another?”
“Are you questioning my pricing?”
“Come on, Mie!” I took the duplicate slips in one hand and Mie’s elbow in the other. To the trader: “Thanks!” To Mie: “Now’s not the time! Not while they’re busy!”
“Alright. So, back office next?”
“What is the back office, exactly? Excuse me, what is it you do here?”
“What do I do?” asked a settlements clerk.
“Yes. What does the back office do?”
“It’s where we settle the trades.”
“Mie!” I took her by the arm again. “Save it. We can’t be away from our desks too long. Not when phones need answering and tickets are being written.”
To the UK team’s amusement, Mie walked, or had the appearance of walking, from below the knees only, her thighs seemingly immobile while her calves proceeded to and fro like pendulums at pace. She managed to glide and beetle along simultaneously, without bobbing. Seen across a bank of desks, when only the top half of her was visible, she gave the impression of riding a horizontal escalator, a moving stairway.
“How on earth does she do that?” reflected Curtis admiringly.
Mie was humourless but not unfriendly. She exuded an air of certainty, a contained self-confidence, a modest self-sufficiency to which humour was a superfluity. For a time, I wobbled, suddenly honestly cognisant that I used humour ingratiatingly, in order to gain approval and acceptance, and fearful that this would be revealed as a weakness. To my amazement and surprise, I discovered that men found this rather dour, resolute quality of Mie attractive. Yuuto seemed a little in awe of her and Mr Johnson and his sidekick, David, ostensibly to help her settle in, took to entertaining her once a fortnight in The George, a pub that was so noisy that its customers had to get close to hear each other speak above the din of City traders. Occasionally, I would join them and make up a four in which Mr Johnson would address us all animatedly, David would look doe-eyed at Mie with barely a word and Mie would look gravely at each of us in turn before asking a question about the financial markets that Mr Johnson would answer at length.
I joined Mr Johnson at the bar in order to help him carry the drinks back to the table David and Mie had secured.
“So, how’s she settling in?” asked Mr Johnson who had managed to elbow his way into an ordering position.
“I think she’s doing very well,” I replied.
“Does she have many friends?”
“Outside of work? I don’t think so. She’s been too busy looking for an apartment. The company one was only for three months. Anyway, she’s found one.”
“Oh good. Say, do you think you could take her out with your friends? Just a couple of times?” He looked apologetically at me and then down at his feet. “You know.”
“Of course! I’d be quite happy to. In fact, I’d already decided to. And we have a date.”
Mr Johnson looked up at once and his eyes filled with an excess of gratitude. “Oh, great! Thank you, thank you!”
My college friends welcomed Mie unquestioningly into our little group so that our band of four became a band of five until Sarah started pleading a heavy work schedule and boyfriend commitments and gradually withdrew from most of our get-togethers. If Sarah were no longer seeing us because she objected to Mie’s intrusion, she and no-one else ever gave any intimation of it and Mie, so blissfully assured of herself, never gave any indication that she ever suspected as much, which, given her self-assurance, was unlikely.
Mie had an earnestness that we found amusing at times and trying at others. We all, which is to say Mie and even my English friends and I, discovered other Englands. Over a gin and tonic, Mie’s pub drink of choice, and a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, her favourite Italian dish, Mie would quiz us on English authors we had more often than not never heard of or, if we were lucky, had encountered once because of a set text in our English O level curriculum. She’d ask about non-mainstream, art-house films we might have caught some years after their release on a rainy Saturday afternoon on BBC2’s more exotic film schedule or about music and bands that we only knew of because we recognized the names from our parents’ record collections. She would extract guidebooks from the shabby handbag she insisted on retaining and request our advice on whether to visit Bath or Cambridge on a coming bank holiday weekend. She shone a spotlight not so much on our ignorance as on the extremely local and contemporary nature and extent of our knowledge. Whenever we did happen to have a recommendation of any kind, she would studiously write it down in a book, which had the effect of discouraging further contributions for fear that we might be held to account for any errors of fact or judgment. Quite unwittingly, I was sure, she had the effect of making me feel less secure, as though the level of meness that had been slowly filling the form that was me up had reversed its rise and was slowly declining as a consequence of ruptured ties and incomplete knowledge. Departing from us after the restaurant and pub and declining our appeals and invitations to join us in the nightclubs, she would leave me with a sense of inadequacy, of social and intellectual deficiency, scuttling off to the nearest tube, her back turned on fun, frivolity, hedonism and the opposite sex.
“You should try a Japanese restaurant. We could go to one one evening,” said Mie casually as she, Gavina, Monica and I were settling a restaurant bill. “Next time.”
“Are there any in London?” asked Monica.
“Oh, sure, there are a few,” said Mie. “There’s one in Swiss Cottage.”
“Swiss Cottage? But that’s North London!” said Gavina who reminded me of Dad in the fixation they shared on the South and North London divide.
On the rare occasion of our forays to the north of the city, Dad used to say, as we climbed into the family car, “Right. Have we got our passports? I’ve checked the oil, the tyres and the petrol. Seamus, are the blankets and spade in the boot?”
Despite myself and in spite of Monica’s and Sarah’s acclamation of North London for its cool music clubs and markets, some of Dad’s prejudice must have rubbed off on me, as I heard myself saying, “Surely, there must be a closer one.”
“I must warn you, it is expensive,” said Mie.
Monica expressed the most enthusiasm. “What a great idea!”
Gavina and I went along with it, with a progression of hums and hahs to Why nots? and Okays.
Two weeks later, the four of us sat down to a distinctly unfamiliar menu in a restaurant as functional and formal and yet as warm and welcoming as any I had visited with a quality of service that was as attentive and polite as it could be without appearing obsequious.
“How nice to be able to clean your hands on this fresh little towel after the tube ride,” I said, placing it on a wooded tray held out to me by a waitress in a kimono.
“I might need some help here,” said Monica, staring wide-eyed at the Japanese menu.
“You can ask me anything you like,” said Mie, “even though I see everything has been translated into English.”
A waiter bowed and stood to attention by our table.
Gavina closed her menu and said, “I’ll have a lasagne.”
The startled waiter repeated the word. “Lasagne? We don’t have lasagne.”
“Very well then, I’ll have spaghetti Bolognese.”
The bewildered waiter looked around for help.
Monica and I couldn’t help but utter a laugh and then I said, “Come on, Gavina, make it easy for him.”
Gavina waved her menu about. “I don’t understand a word of this!” She opened it. “Okay, what’s this? I’ll have this.”
The perspiring waiter leant over to better read the menu item Gavina was pointing at. “The sashimi?”
“Yes. What is it exactly?”
The appeased waiter straightened. “It’s little pieces of fish, madam, law fish.”
“Raw fish! I want mine cooked.” Gavina handed the menu to him.
“Cooked? Cooked!” The now extremely disconcerted waiter hopped from one foot to the other, refusing the proffered menu. “Perhaps madam can choose another dish?”
Gavina huffed and puffed and rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said, “what’s this?” pointing from a distance at a menu item.
“Yes, yakitori. What is it?”
“It’s chicken on a stick with soy sauce, madam.”
“Is the chicken cooked?”
“Oh, yes, madam, very cooked!”
“Good! I’ll have some cooked chicken on a stick,” decided Gavina, thrusting the menu at the relieved waiter.
That evening and the few subsequent ones when the four of us met were never quite the same after that. Mie, who had remained stony faced throughout the exchange, had clearly taken offence and despite Gavina’s best efforts to make up for her interventions, that I had to hide from Mie I had found as amusing as crass, what little warmth there had been between them cooled. Certainly, their relationship wasn’t helped by the revelations of our nocturnal carnal adventures that percolated from Monica’s lips over coffees at the end of our restaurant meals during which she would have consumed a bottle of wine or two in addition to the pub-ingested Babychams and Cinzanos that would have begun lessening her inhibitions. Monica had found herself a boyfriend and succeeded in airbrushing herself from our old stories of sexual conquest as she recounted anecdotes in which Gavina was depicted as a libertine, a floozy single-mindedly in pursuit of men, and I not much better. I saw Gavina and myself through Mie’s disapproving eyes, to my double discomfort: not only discomfited for being considered loose by her I was also unhappy with my ongoing inability to anchor myself in a value system of my own.