I was ever so keen to visit the Aran Islands, but unfortunately, I died before ever making it out of Japan. I was seventy-two at the time. My home help Ozono found me, collapsed from a cardiac arrest. When the funeral and everything was over, I was reduced to ashes.
It wasn’t a bad life I’d lived, so by rights I should have disappeared from this world pretty straightforwardly. True, I hadn’t been gifted with children, and in the five years since my wife Fukie died my existence hadn’t been exactly free of loneliness or solitude, but I got on with things, relearning how to do various chores around the house, growing vegetables on my balcony, going for walks in the mountains, playing a relatively active role in the neighbourhood association and so on, and I’d started to reach the conclusion that these ways of passing the time were all part and parcel of the final stages of one’s life. If I happened to shuffle off this mortal coil at any point, I thought, then I’d be without any regrets or things I’d left undone, or anything else that would keep me in this world, and I could expect to join Fukie without any obstacles standing in my way.
And yet. In the months just prior to my death the idea had been mooted among the members of the neighbourhood association to go away on holiday. Over cups of tea after our weekly meeting, the vice-chair Mr Nakarai had let slip that he’d never been overseas, and then, one after another, all the other members of the group had begun to chime in, saying: ‘Me neither!’ ‘Oh, me neither!’ ‘No, I’ve never been abroad either.’ My voice had been among them. In that case, it was suggested, those of us who’d never once left the country should go along to a travel agency, organize a tour guide to accompany us, and take a yokels-abroad sort of vacation. We would go to some place that was the furthest imaginable from Japan. Doubtless the trip would completely wear us out, but we were all of the same generation, and if being abroad for the first time would wear us out to a similar degree, then at least we could be worn out freely and openly, just as our hearts desired. We could embarrass ourselves thoroughly and find it all too much, knowing that we were in good company.
From that day on, the subject of discussion after our weekly meetings became about where we should go on our holiday. There were any number of suggestions – Patagonia, Saariselkä, Anchorage, Cape Town – but in the end, we settled on the Aran Islands in Ireland, on the basis they seemed peaceful, and thus probably well-suited to a bunch of pensioners like us.
Three weeks later, I died. Apparently my desire to go to the Aran Islands was even greater than I thought, because I was unable to proceed smoothly to the next life, and ended up instead stopping in this world as a ghost.
Hold on a minute! I thought, when I realized what had happened. I was now invisible, which meant I didn’t need to pay travel fares. Without thinking too hard on the matter, I figured that I’d easily be able to get to the Aran Islands by myself, and so I headed down to the local station and attempted to get on a train bound for the airport, only to discover that the trains passed straight through me, leaving me unable to board. Thinking it might be just trains that didn’t work for me, I set out floating towards the airport. It was quite some distance, and it took me from morning until evening to get there, but when I made it up to the plane I learned that they passed right through me also. It was at about that point that I finally realized that not only was I not granted a free ride to anywhere I liked, but, moreover, I was only able to travel the same kind of distance that my feet would carry me back when I was still alive.
This revelation came as a big shock to me, and I felt quite discouraged by it. Seeing as I could slip through anything, I thought, I might as well go to the women’s public baths to cheer myself up, but I soon learned that users of the baths were generally old women of about the same age as me, and I gave up after a couple of visits. I suppose I could have searched out a bathhouse frequented by younger women, but I had no way of talking to living people to ask for recommendations, and when I tried to use computers and smartphones my hands would slip right through them, which made internet-based research out of the question.
What I did have, though, was lots and lots of time, so I tried seeing how far I could float. It was then that it struck me: although it was all well and good not needing sleep, and not getting tired, simply floating along was terribly boring. Theoretically, I suppose I could have just floated on endlessly in the direction of the Aran Islands, and I might have reached them in several years’ time. But floating was bad enough on land, and just imagining what would happen when I got to the Sea of Japan and had to float west for days on end across the water left me feeling limp. The prospect of the alternative route, which would have meant passing over the Pacific, traversing the American continent and then crossing the Atlantic, was even worse.
After discovering that all forms of transport passed straight through me, and losing hope even in the women’s public baths, I began to spend my days idly lingering around the neighbourhood, keenly aware that this was the price to pay for dying with unfinished business in the living world. With so much time on my hands, I went along without fail to all the neighbourhood association meetings in the local meeting hall. That was how I found out that people were kind of lamenting my absence, and saying that, given that I was the one who had most wanted to go away, it would be wrong to go without me, and they’d be best giving the idea up. ‘No, no, no!’ I protested. ‘Even if the person with the greatest desire to go has died, the people with the second-greatest, the third-greatest desires are still around!’ I felt terrible to think that my death had deprived all those people in the neighbourhood association of the pleasure that should rightfully have been theirs, so I kept on saying in the ear of Mr Nakarai, the vice-chair, ‘No! Don’t worry about me, you should go! I beg you! If you don’t, there’ll be even less chance of my getting to rest in peace!’ But Mr Nakarai was totally oblivious to my pleading, saying that if they were going to go on holiday without Mr Mita (that’s me), then they should at least put the holiday off by a year and then discuss the matter again, and if at that point there was someone as enthused as Mr Mita had been about the idea, then they could make new plans. The other members all agreed with this suggestion.
‘No, no, no!’ I said again into Mr Nakarai’s ear. ‘I mean, yes, admittedly if you do all end up going on holiday that’ll mean there won’t be any neighbourhood association meetings while you’re away, which will mean I’ll be even more bored than usual, which will certainly be tough for me, but I’ll bear it as best as I can! Who knows, I might even venture off to a bathhouse a little way away and spend some time in the ladies’ baths.’ I was practically bellowing into Mr Nakarai’s ear by this point, but he couldn’t hear a thing I said, and so he just said for the umpteenth time,
‘Mr Mita was just so keen to go to the Aran Islands, he was just so keen to buy an Aran sweater.’
‘No!’ I said, protesting desperately, ‘That’s not right! I did want to buy an Aran sweater. What I really wanted to do was to look out over the Atlantic from the top of the cliffs!’ and as I was saying this, an image suddenly popped into my mind of a place I could go where I would be relatively assured of seeing a naked woman younger than I was. I suppose it must have been my feeling of desperation that had unearthed this revelation. And so I yelled into Mr Nakarai’s ear, ‘I’VE GOT IT! ALL I NEED TO DO IS GO TO SPA LAND!’ and as I did, a very bizarre thing happened: I felt myself being sucked inside Mr Nakarai’s ear. I guess this is how dirt must feel as it’s hoovered up by a vacuum cleaner, I thought, surrendering myself to that sensation of suction, which I was experiencing for the very first time in my life – or, I should better say, the very first time after my death. The moment I snapped back to myself, I realized that I was watching the neighbourhood association meeting through Mr Nakarai’s eyes. When Mr Nakarai stood up and walked over to the coffee pot to pour himself another cup, my perspective lifted up off the chair and fixed itself on Mr Nakarai’s hands, settling around the height of the top of the dark stain inside his empty coffee cup and thus observing the level of the coffee filling it up. When Mr Nakarai returned to his chair, my view returned to that of a seated person. Thus, in a state of some astonishment, I savoured what it was like to share a perspective with Mr Nakarai.
Even after the meeting was adjourned, I stayed with Mr Nakarai. Through his eyes, I watched his hands as they picked up his jacket, and then closed and locked the door of the meeting hall. It seemed as though, ghost that I was, I had quite unintentionally developed the knack of possessing people.
Through the act of possessing Mr Nakarai, I was able to make use of public transport such as trains and buses. Of course, I couldn’t select my destination, but remembering how distressed I’d been by my inability to board a train, this seemed like a big step forward. The locations Mr Nakarai moved between were pretty limited in scope, but I could still go to more places this way than I had been able to when floating around on my own. I went to watch the baseball with Mr Nakarai’s grandson, went to collect Mr Nakarai’s wife from her pottery class, and listened to Mr Nakarai’s son speaking about his work. I felt quite grateful that I was simply borrowing Mr Nakarai’s perspective on the world, and had no insight into what he was thinking. I hadn’t been a ghost for very long, and I didn’t feel like I had the mental energy to be taking on his thought processes at this stage.
That said, I did start to become vaguely aware of certain aspects of Mr Nakarai’s life, like how his son was worried that his wife was cheating on him, or how things between Mr Nakarai and his own wife were frosty in the extreme, and Mr Nakarai felt more joy when he was around Mrs Makihara, the vice-chair of the women’s association. I didn’t blame him for that. I understood that that was how things were sometimes. Up until Fukie died, I had always thought that she was the one for me, and even afterwards I never thought to try and find a person I would get on with better, but since becoming a ghost I’d found myself thinking about going to Spa Land to try and get a peek at naked young women, so I was hardly one to point a finger.
When Mr Nakarai told his wife that he wouldn’t be going on holiday after all, at least for a while, his wife looked a bit disappointed and said, ‘Well, I guess that means I can’t go away either.’
‘Hey!’ I said to Mr Nakarai, seeing my chance, ‘Why don’t the two of you go to the Aran Islands, and then I’d get to go as well?’ But I hadn’t actually entered his head – it was more like I was a second person inside the same set of clothes, like two parts of a pantomime horse or something, and so my words entirely failed to land.
After spending a week with Mr Nakarai, I started to grow bored with his life. At first, with it being the life of a total stranger, there had been bits that seemed fresh and new, but the more I saw, the more I realized it was basically just the life of the same Mr Nakarai who I knew well enough, and it wasn’t as though he ever ventured very far from his home turf. It would be untrue to say that I had no interest in the state of his marriage or the people around him, but I wasn’t still hanging around here on earth because of an unfulfilled desire to peek into the life of another person. No, I was here because I’d wanted to go on holiday, and so acquiring a deep understanding of Mr Nakarai’s inner workings didn’t hold any particular meaning for me.
I began thinking about switching over from Mr Nakarai as soon as possible. Given how things were, I figured I’d have to be settle for any kind of holiday at all, even if it was just inside Japan. I remembered that in speaking about his work, Mr Nakarai’s son had mentioned all the business trips he’d been going on, so I decided to take my chances on him. The question remained of how, exactly, I was supposed to switch from one person to another. When I recalled how I’d taken possession of Mr Nakarai by sheer accident, I was troubled by how little I knew about the procedure, but I felt sure that the key lay in trying one’s utmost. And so, while Mr Nakarai was talking to his son, I crawled out of his ear a little, attempting to get as close as possible to that of his son, and yelled at the top of my voice the same words I’d been shouting when I’d first possessed Mr Nakarai: ‘ALL I NEED TO DO IS GO TO SPA-LAND!’
And I’m pleased to report that my attempts proved highly successful. I jumped out of Mr Nakarai’s ear canal and was promptly sucked inside his son’s. For the second time since my death I experienced the sensation of what dirt must feel as it is hoovered up by a vacuum cleaner.
Mr Nakarai’s son left his boy with Mr and Mrs Nakarai, went out to work, and on the way home, stopped in at Spa Land. It seemed as though the son was a more sensual type than the father. Reminding myself that I’d only just succeeded in my second switchover, I decided to stay with the son, rather than trying to enter the women’s part of the spa.
I’d switched to Mr Nakarai’s son solely for his business trips, but he showed no sign of taking one. And why not? I wondered to myself, looking around the manufacturing company where he worked through his eyes. Yet soon enough I came to understand that the son had just that month been moved over from the Foreign Strategy Department to the HR section. So there he was, doing a bunch of tasks he wasn’t used to, and when he bumped into colleagues from his former section in the lift, he would talk about how out of shape he felt stuck behind a desk all day. Perhaps his trip to Spa Land when I’d switched over to him had really given him some respite, because he began going every other day. But I wasn’t still hanging around on earth because of some unfulfilled desire to peek into the women’s baths, and so the visits didn’t hold that much meaning for me. Snooping on women in the nude was all right as a way of passing the time, but my true objective was to go on holiday – if possible, to the Aran Islands.
And so, in no time at all, I began thinking about switching again. The wife of Mr Nakarai’s son had also switched to another man some while ago and left the house, and the son was now going on occasional dates with a woman from his previous department, which was intriguing enough I suppose, but I wasn’t here because I’d died with an unfulfilled desire to find out in detail about the love life of an acquaintance’s son, and so I hardly paid the matter any attention.
The woman in question, Miss Shioka, was the same age as the son. She was a capable woman who would listen quietly and nod as the son spoke feverishly and at great length about the immense benefits of Spa Land. The whole time he was speaking, she had a look on her face that suggested there was something she wanted to say, but she was apparently put off by the son’s intense enthusiasm as he said things like, ‘On my next day off, I’m going to try going around several different Spa Lands one after another – would you like to come?’ and so she never came out with it. With a reluctant expression, she’d say, ‘Yes, okay,’ and the son would say happily:
‘Great, next Sunday I might be able to leave my son with my parents, so keep it free for now,’ to which Miss Shioka would reply, with a somewhat pained expression on her face, ‘Sure, that sounds good.’
As he was paying the bill in the restaurant, the son said, ‘Actually, you know what? I’d like to bring my son along with us, but I don’t want to burden you in any way,’ and turned around to look at Miss Shioka. His tone suggested he was expecting the response, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it!’ Perhaps the word ‘son’ elicited in Miss Shioka an even greater compulsion to remain discreet because she raised the corners of her mouth into a polite smile and just said, ‘Maybe some day.’ I supposed she must have felt reluctant to meet his child when the divorce hadn’t gone through yet.
Miss Shioka kept looking like she wanted to say something to the son, but she never came out with it. What with his just having moved department, and his eagerness to build this new relationship with Miss Shioka, the son seemed to have a lot on his plate, and he didn’t show any sign of noticing the disconsolate look on her face. He’s a well-meaning young man, I thought, but he’s not the most perceptive of people. Though then it occurred to me that that was probably considered just the right degree of perceptiveness for a man like him.
I was so curious to know the reason for Miss Shioka’s dejection that, when it came time for them to part and the two exchanged a brief kiss, I stuck my head out of Mr Nakarai’s son’s ear and entered Miss Shioka’s instead. This was my third switchover, and my first female possessee, which made me a bit nervous, but the act itself was accomplished easily enough.
After I’d left him, Mr Nakarai’s son started saying that he didn’t know why, but he suddenly didn’t feel as keen on going to Spa Land as he had before, and the thought crossed my mind for an instant that maybe he was a real lost cause, but I didn’t want to influence Miss Shioka, so I did my utmost not to think bad things about him.
Miss Shioka was a rather attractive woman, reminiscent in some way of Fukie in her youth. She lived in a flat eight minutes’ walk from a small private railway station at which only the slow trains stopped. Her apartment was very tidy. On the way home, she bought a can of beer at the convenience store, but then apparently decided to have a bath before opening it. I knew this, because when she got inside her flat she began to take off her clothes, which put me in a real head spin. Quite unexpectedly, I was now going to be witness to the sight of a woman younger than myself taking a bath. But I wasn’t there because I’d died with an unfulfilled desire to see a young woman bathing, and so, through Miss Shioka’s eyes, I looked out at the walls of the bathroom and the cracks in the ceiling.
I found out the cause of Miss Shioka’s dejection as soon as she got into work the following day. Sitting on her desk was a bunch of flowers from a person called Ronaldo Carlinhos Santos. Actually, it was less a bunch of flowers, and more like a garland of the kind that people present to shops and new businesses when they open, and on it was a card with the message, ‘Look forward to seeing you in Rio!’ in big, handwritten letters. Even greater than the doubts this instilled in me about Ronaldo’s taste were my reservations about the flower shop that had fulfilled the request, regardless of what the client might have asked for.
After Miss Shioka had exchanged a few remarks with the woman at the desk next to her, like, ‘Yes, from Ronaldo again,’ an,d ‘I hear he’s visiting again the day after tomorrow,’ the two of them combined efforts to move the bouquet into the corner of the office floor. To go by what they were saying, Ronaldo was an IT billionaire living in Rio de Janeiro, and a client of the company. As of this year, he’d been channelling his energy into making a breakthrough in the Japanese market, and as the only Portuguese speaker in the company, Miss Shiori had been serving as his point of contact.
For me, who’d been thinking that I’d make do with a domestic holiday, the news that Ronaldo would be visiting Japan seemed like an unexpected stroke of luck. An even more welcome piece of news came gliding my way towards the close of the day. Believe it or not, the morning of the day that Ronaldo was visiting, a client’s secretary would be coming for a meeting all the way from Dublin. Could this be? I thought to myself, feeling my heart begin to palpitate. Of course my heart had already stopped beating once and for all, but that is neither here nor there.
It was now clear to me what I must do. I had to go to Dublin. If I ended up going to Rio de Janeiro, my life might end without my ever seeing the Aran Islands. Of course, my life had already ended, but that is neither here nor there.
With this in mind, I waited feverishly for the arrival of the Irish secretary, but regretfully enough, my attempted switchover to Stephen from Dublin failed. The person I finally switched to was Ronaldo, who was returning to Brazil. He arrived in the afternoon, and told Miss Shioka that he’d taken time out of his busy schedule in order to come to Japan and request her hand in marriage. After talking the matter through with her boss and various other executives, Miss Shioka decided to tell him honestly that she was already seeing someone, whom she was thinking about marrying.
Ronaldo appeared pretty disappointed by the news, but he said something along the lines of, if ever the day came that Miki (that was Miss Shioka’s first name) got divorced, then she should put him at the top of her list of candidates, and he left the country without withdrawing his business from the company.
Such details were not for me to know, or rather, I wished I didn’t have to know them. I had planned to enter the ear of Stephen, who’d come for a meeting that morning, intending to travel back with him to Dublin, and then wait for my opportunity to go to the Aran Islands. This seemed to me a simple enough idea, but I could never have predicted that at 120 kilograms, Stephen would be a veritable giant, or that he was going to collide in the corridor with Ronaldo, who came running and panting in the direction of the offices, bouquet in hand.
Apparently having hurt some part of his body in the collision, Stephen tumbled towards the wall and knocked his head, losing consciousness for a few seconds. I had entered Stephen by this point, but I was forced out of his ear, as though being squeezed from a tube of toothpaste, and slipped inside the ear of Ronaldo, who was close by. I did my best return to Stephen, but it appeared as though the ears of the unconscious lost all of their suction, and I had no success at all.
Stephen came around soon enough, and made to go back to his hotel, but Ronaldo kicked up a big fuss, telling someone in the company to call an ambulance, and so Stephen was put on a stretcher and carried off to hospital. I struggled frantically in a bid to chase after him, but it seemed that I was only as agile as I had been in my final days, which is to say, at the age of seventy-two, and the suction power of Ronaldo’s ears was quite something. I was forced to watch on helplessly as Stephen was loaded into the ambulance.
And so I ended up going back to Brazil with Ronaldo. Before getting on the plane, the well-to-do Ronaldo had been to a nightclub in Roppongi, where he’d been ministered to by all sorts of beautiful women and had lived it up to the nines. This made me wonder why he’d been so taken by Miss Shioka, but I reached the rather standard conclusion that the kind of woman you wanted to be fawned over by in a nightclub and the kind of woman you wanted to marry were somewhat different.
This was how I ended up in Brazil. I suppose that I could have switched back over to Miss Shioka and waited for an overseas client from somewhere relatively close to the Aran Islands to come and visit, but while inside Ronaldo, I checked the client visiting schedule for Miss Shioka and the rest of the foreign strategy section, only to find that it was all people from places like Guadeloupe, Vladivostok, Mumbai, Beijing, Ulaanbaatar and so on, and there was no sign of anyone from anywhere even close to the Aran Islands. And so, out of a feeling akin to self-destructiveness, I decided to stay with Ronaldo.
In terms of proximity, Brazil was about as far away from Japan as the Aran Islands, or even further, I thought to myself, vaguely imagining a map of the world in my head, trying to convince myself that my staying with Ronaldo was the right thing to do. As Ronaldo exchanged flirtatious glances with all the cabin attendants I marvelled to myself, Wow, this sure is one way to live, and I was carried across the sea to Brazil.
It seemed that when ghosts like me took possession of people from other countries, it didn’t magically make them able to understand their possessee’s language, so in Brazil I had no idea what was being said around me. But it wasn’t like I needed anything in particular, so I wasn’t especially inconvenienced. It just made for a mighty strange time.
The life of Ronaldo, who lived in a luxury apartment in Rio de Janeiro, was built around the two central pillars of work and women, and I felt like for me, at the advanced age of seventy-two where all kinds of things had started to shrivel, the stimulus of such a life was just too great, and so I spent my time in Brazil switching as I saw fit between him, Danilo the doorman, and Silvia the housekeeper.
Ronaldo went about his work with passion and enthusiasm, was popular with the ladies, and was a general all-round good guy. The kinds of goings-on with the residents of the luxury flats that Danilo got to observe were pretty interesting, and although Silvia’s life with her three children wasn’t particularly affluent, there were definitely heart-warming elements to it. As well as two boys and a girl, Silvia also had a husband who wasn’t well, and she cleaned the flat directly underneath Ronaldo’s, and the one on the floor below that too. When I saw Ronaldo occasionally giving her a huge tip, I would sometimes think that the guy might have been a better choice for Miss Shioka than Mr Nakarai’s son after all.
But every week or so I would come back to reality, and remind myself that this was no time for getting all warm and fuzzy. It seemed to me that by coming to Brazil in what amounted to a kind of panic, I’d moved even further away from ever making it out of this world. At least in Japan I’d been able to understand what the person I was possessing and the people they conversed with were saying, and so I’d had a grasp of the superficial elements of what was going on. Here, not understanding a word that was being said, I felt my perception of things gradually becoming more and more blurred, and I had the sense that I was shrinking. Back in Japan, I’d had the firm awareness that I was a ghost, whereas here it felt to me as if I was like some sort of small fly that happened to be floating round and round Ronaldo and Danilo and Silvia, despite knowing deep down that that wasn’t actually true. Between feeling like a small fly and thinking of myself as a ghost, I personally found the latter much more comfortable.
It wasn’t that I didn’t take to Brazil. The culture there was totally alien to me, and I often found elements of it fun and fascinating. Maybe it would have been a good idea to increase my range of people to possess beyond Danilo and Silvia – maybe I could have tried switching to one of Ronaldo’s girlfriends. And yet the more I hung around, casually observing other people’s lives, the more distant grew the prospect of ever being reunited with Fukie, and I began to feel a nebulous sense of anxiety. It was around this time that I realized incontrovertibly that if I didn’t visit the Aran Islands, I would never make it to the afterlife. With Ronaldo and the other people around me showing no intention of setting foot in that direction, I spent my days feeling at a total loss as to what to do.
So, you could say that it was a piece of good luck for me when the Olympics were held in Rio de Janeiro. The fact that Ronaldo was rich and provided support for Brazilian athletes also moved things in a favourable direction. First and foremost, Ronaldo was a football fan and would go to the stadium practically every week, sitting in good seats and watching the match while he was ministered to by beautiful women, but he also served as sponsor to several track and field stars. Although not all of the athletes he sponsored were able to compete in the Olympics, Matheus, who was of indigenous descent, was chosen to represent Brazil in the javelin throw.
At Matheus’s send-off party, while Ronaldo put his arm round Matheus and showered him with words of encouragement and Matheus listened with a somewhat glum-looking expression, I stared at Matheus’s sizeable ear and thought to myself that this might be my big chance. Matheus was to go to the Olympic Village, where there would be athletes from all around the world. If I could locate an Irish athlete and switch over to him or her, then I would be sure of reaching the Aran Islands in not too long a time. And so I took the decision to switch over to Matheus.
I found out very quickly the reason behind Matheus’s glum expression. He had been going out with a female javelin thrower, but had just broken up with her after discovering that she was cheating on him with a man who appeared to be her coach. I worked that out because once every hour, Matheus would pull up a photo of her on his phone, and then pull up one of her together with an older man in a Brazil shirt with his arm around her, and would flick between the two, looking at each a minimum of ten times. If the man was in fact her father or something, then I can only apologize for my misreading of the situation. But if the man really was her father then surely Matheus wouldn’t have been staring at that photo and sighing, loitering in the garage in the training grounds apparently waiting for her, only to hide behind someone else’s car when she actually appeared.
Should he really be spending his time in this manner right before the Olympics? I wondered, but then I told myself that I really wasn’t in a place to be worrying about other people, that this was a time when I needed to be ruthless, so I hardened myself to his suffering, and each time Matheus looked at lists of the athletes who would be competing alongside him, I kept my eyes peeled for the three letters IRL, and the little flag with its three bands of green, white and orange.
It seemed as though Matheus wasn’t the sort of person to concern himself with where his rivals came from, and he didn’t look at the lists and noticeboards enough for me to carry out a thorough survey, but the day before he was due to throw in the qualifying round, I discovered that there was an Irish javelin thrower who would be appearing in the same event. His name was Patrick O’Connell. He was due to throw two people after Matheus. ‘Patrick,’ I addressed him in my head, ‘I’m waiting for you, Patrick’. And so I sat there in Matheus’s ear, holding on with bated breath for the moment when Patrick and Matheus would pass one another at close range.
Matheus just scraped through the qualifying round, and Patrick’s name was not called. Why? Why? Why? I said to myself, frantically trying to look from the corner of Matheus’s eye in the direction of the other participating athletes, but it wasn’t like I knew what Patrick looked like in the first place, and soon enough the qualifying round came to an end. Patrick O’Connell had been the only Irish player who was supposed to take part, and so I was now left without any leads whatsoever. Matheus didn’t have much interest in other javelin throwers, but he seemed to have even less interest in players of other Olympic sports, and even though he’d just pulled off the spectacular feat of making it through to the qualifying round, he still kept pulling up the picture of his ex-girlfriend on his phone and sighing. It seemed that the heartbreak had left him quite weak, and so the fact that he’d made it through the Olympic qualifiers regardless suggested that he was possibly quite a force to be reckoned with.
However, Matheus’ affairs were neither here nor there to me. Every time that he passed another athlete, I would squint at the flag and country name sewn onto the sleeves or across the chest of their kit, but I didn’t manage to locate a single Irish player.
What was more, looking out the whole time at the country names of every player Matheus passed left me feeling totally exhausted, and I was just beginning to think that there was nothing for it but to stay on in Brazil when the woman appeared.
It was night-time and Matheus, who basically knew nobody, was strolling around the garden of the Olympic Village. Hearing the sound of laughter coming from a little way off, Matheus seated himself alone on a bench, and began looking at that picture of his ex on his phone. Several times he went to delete it, but it seemed like he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He’d already erased the photo of her with the coach, but I imagined he was thinking something to the tune of: cheating was bad, but that didn’t necessarily make her an inherently bad person, or did it? and so on. Perched at the edge of the bench with elbows resting on his knees, Matheus was looking fixedly at the phone he held in both hands when a red-haired woman appeared, talking on the phone. She seemed to be the source of the laughter, and may also have been a bit tipsy. She passed so close beside Matheus that she knocked his arm, and the phone fell to the floor. Matheus hurriedly reached to pick it up. In the instant that she’d bumped him, it appeared, his finger had made contact with the delete button, and now the picture of his ex-girlfriend had vanished.
The smile instantly faded from the red-haired woman’s face and, with gestures that seemed to indicate how sorry she was, she went to check if Matheus’s phone was damaged, but he shook his head and put it in his pocket. Then she apologized in English, and made to give him something from her wallet, but she didn’t appear to have anything in there. She bowed her head sheepishly and said in English again, ‘I’m really sorry.’
She was a tall, red-haired woman. For a javelin thrower, Matheus was on the short side at just five foot seven, and she was slightly taller than him. Printed across the chest of the T-shirt she was wearing were the letters IRL.
Inevitably, the times when you really need to leap into action are also the times when you’re in such a daze that you can’t quite pull yourself together. That magical three-letter code which I’d given up hope on seeing had now appeared in front of me, but by the time that I’d thought to myself, This is it! This is the one! and made to jump from Matheus’s ear, the red-haired woman was already gone. ‘Noreen Martin,’ Matheus mumbled to himself, staring at her back as she disappeared into the distance. He must have spotted her name on the nametag she’d been wearing around her neck. After that, Matheus went back to his room but was unable to sleep, turning over in bed several times before getting up to use the bathroom. Finally he got out his phone and searched for her online, apparently vaguely remembering the spelling of her name.
Noreen Martin, it transpired, was another javelin thrower like Matheus. She had got through the qualifying round, and would appear in the women’s finals tomorrow. I was exhausted from staying on the lookout for so long, and so I did the ghostly equivalent of closing my eyes and zoning out. All that while, Matheus continued to research Noreen.
Matheus went to see Noreen’s match by himself. She came ninth, meaning she didn’t get a medal, but as she made to leave the stadium, undisturbed by the pack of reporters milling around, she wore a cheerful expression on her face, perhaps because she’d come so close. As she went off, Matheus called out something that sounded like ‘Ooooi!’ and waved to her from where he was sitting. Seeing him, Noreen smiled and waved back. I crawled out of Matheus’s ear, thinking I’d float around the stadium and find her, but the movements of young Noreen were so quick that by the time I reached where she’d previously been standing, she’d already disappeared into the crowd.
I encountered Noreen just once more in the Olympic Village. Before the men’s final Matheus, whose performance had deteriorated a bit so that he wasn’t throwing as far as he had in the qualifying round, was walking around the village when Noreen called out to him and approached with a wave, a full Boston bag slung from her shoulders. ‘Go on, Matheus!’ I entreated him with all my might, ‘Run up to her! Go right up close!’ but despite my efforts, he just stood there standing dazedly on the spot.
‘Goodbye! See you again sometime!’ Noreen said to him in English. Did Matheus even understand her? I wondered. Surely even he must have understood English as basic as that?
When Matheus went back to his room, he found a piece of notepaper stuck under his door.
‘I asked my friend staying in the male accommodation to put this under your door. I’m so sorry about your phone. I wanted to see your match, but I have to go home today, so I’ll record it and watch it when I’m back. I saw you in the qualifying round, and I learned a lot from your quiet, free technique. I hope we meet again sometime. Noreen Martin.’
Whether or not it was deliberately penned with Matheus’s language ability in mind, the note was written in English so simple that even I could comprehend it. I had no idea how much of its contents Matheus understood.
Matheus went to show the letter to his coach several times but stopped himself, before finally folding it up and putting it in his wallet. Seeming to forget about it entirely, he went to his last training session, where his performance had returned to normal.
In the final, Matheus threw his personal best, coming in fifth. He didn’t get a medal, but it was his highest placing to date, at least in the short time that I’d known him.
Matheus’s victory was celebrated in suitably grand style by his sponsor Ronaldo and various others, and after bashfully laughing off all their praise, Matheus went back to his family home. There he took Noreen’s note out of his wallet and translated it, looking up the meaning of a number of words on his phone. Then he searched Noreen’s name again. If you’re that passionate about her, I told him, then you should have tried a bit harder to get close to her while she was in Brazil, and with that, I turned my eyes from his plight.
Via the news Matheus was watching on the internet, I learned that Patrick O’Connell hadn’t been able to attend the Olympics because of appendicitis. The article featured a photograph of him glaring at the camera with his perfectly bald head and shaved eyebrows, affixed with the slogan, ‘Watch out in Tokyo!’, which I found frankly terrifying.
The best thing I could have done would have been to switch over to Noreen, but that hadn’t happened, so I figured that I’d stick around with Matheus as he prepared to attend the Tokyo Olympics, and then return to Japan in four years’ time. Matheus also competed in the IAAF Diamond League, so with him I supposed I’d at least be able to see various parts of the world, which might prove interesting. Such were my thoughts when Matheus requested a holiday from his coach, and began slowly preparing to take a trip.
He had bought a ticket to London, so I assumed he would be visiting the UK, but after getting off the aeroplane and staring for a good while at his guidebook, he eventually arrived at a ferry port. The boat had a picture of a clover on its side, and I understood in an instant that it would be taking us to Ireland. For the duration of both the plane and the ferry journey, Matheus buried himself in a teach-yourself-English book, although whether or not any of it was going in, I had no idea.
After disembarking the ferry, we stayed a night in Dublin, and then Matheus got on a train which ran the width of the country. Ireland wasn’t large, and you could travel across it in two and a half hours. In the town we arrived at, Matheus boarded another boat. His ticket was printed with the destination INISHMORE.
Thinking back, I realise that by this point my consciousness had begun to grow dim. Quite honestly, it took everything I had to try and grasp what it was that Matheus was doing, and I found myself thinking back more and more to the days I’d spent with Fukie. Not being too attached to what was going on in the present moment and simply dissolving into the time I’d already lived through was such a good feeling, I thought to myself as I gazed out through Matheus’s eyes at the island that was drawing closer.
What would Noreen think of Matheus, who had come all the way to the Aran Islands, holding onto her words, ‘I hope we meet again sometime’? I hoped that she didn’t find him creepy or look down on him. Thanks to the opportunity with which you provided him, I wanted to tell her, Matheus has been able to put his unfaithful ex-girlfriend behind him, and to achieve his personal best on the all-important Olympic stage. As a result, he can prepare for the next Olympics with confidence. He’s not hoping for that much from you. He just wanted to go away to somewhere that wasn’t an athletics competition for once, so it occurred to him to visit you and say thank you.
The boat landed at the port, and Matheus walked down the gangway. The moment he set foot on Inishmore soil, I knew I had disappeared from the world. I knew that at any moment, I would be reunited with Fukie.
Image © JM Barthe
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, one of twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.