The other night I couldn’t sleep. After lying awake for an hour or so and not feeling any sleepier I decided to get up.
I didn’t want to sit in the fluorescent glare of my small Tokyo room so I opened the curtains and let the light from a street light illuminate the room. The light was dim but I could still make out the contours of the furniture and a small patch of light reflecting off the wooden floorboards.
I sat in a hardback chair (that’s all I have in this flat) and looked at the darkened room. For some reason I found myself thinking how odd it is that I am completely made of genes from my mum and dad. In a genetic sense 50% of my mum, who was now half way around the world, was sitting in the dark in Tokyo. And the same for my dad. And the same goes for my four dead grandparents, who share 100% of me between them. I generally don’t think that much about my family but this thought made me feel closer to them.
All my ancestors on my mother’s side were from the Ashford area of Kent in England, while nearly all of my ancestors on my father’s side were from Islington in London. I say almost all because around the time of the potato famine in Ireland two great-great-great grandparents moved from Limerick in Ireland to Islington and had about a dozen children. Those Irish Catholics! There were therefore also a few Irish genes sitting in me in the darkened room in Tokyo.
All the rest of my relatives were native to London or Kent as far back as I can trace, which is sometimes two or three centuries back. At some point their lines disappear into the mists of time, the women being especially difficult to trace since they give up their surnames on marrying and their lineages are therefore harder to trace.
I thought of my brother and sister, each living in different countries and each living very different lives. I thought of places I had been. When I was 19 I gave up my job in a shoe factory in England and spent an evening pouring over a map of Europe in our old Collins Family Atlas and for no special reason decided Cologne in Germany sounded nice. The next day I got on a train to St. Pancras in London, then went by tube to Liverpool Street and from there to Harwich, where I caught a ferry over the Channel to the Hook of Holland. I then continued on by train to Cologne.
Bizarrely I had packed my brand new expensive, gut-strung Wilson tennis racket in the one bag I took. This is odd because I rarely played tennis and didn’t play particularly well. Of course, I never used it and lost it during one of my many moves.
On the train to Cologne I chatted to an elderly German man. He lived in England but was going back to East Germany for his brother’s funeral. He needed a special permit to enter East Germany for a few days. Had I known then what I now know about history I would have asked him more questions and would have listened more attentively to his answers. As it was I knew practically nothing about Germany and its history and so his conversation about Germany being partitioned after the war meant little to me.
I reached Cologne at about midnight on a January night. I had given no thought to the time I would arrive and where I would stay once I got there. I walked out of Cologne Station and it was snowing. I turned a corner and right in front of me was the huge silhouette of the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral looming out of the darkness. I will never forget that moment, standing alone at night in the snow in a strange country, only 19-years-old and looking even younger.
I realised that there was no point in going anywhere that night so I went back into the station and stayed the night with the homeless people. Even so, as I lay down on a bench in the station the sense of my adult life beginning was thrilling.
The next night I booked into a youth hostel where I got talking to five German girls who took me out with them when they went out. When we got back they invited me back to their room where I sat on one of their beds chatting to them for an hour or so before going back to my own dormitory. No girls in England had ever shown any interest in me and had certainly never invited me to spend the evening with them. That night I lay down probably feeling better than I had ever done.
I stayed in Germany for the next 3½ years. After six months in Cologne I moved to Berlin but I still made the occasional trip back.
I remember one trip on the night train returning from Cologne to Berlin. All of the people in my carriage were asleep. I went out into the corridor, quietly sliding the door closed. I opened one of the small windows in the corridor and stuck my head out. The air was freezing cold and there was snow covering the fields. I stared out into the darkness and cold for quite a while, not really able to see much. I could still hardly believe that I was living in a foreign country, whose language I was starting to speak more fluently and was now earning a living (driving a tractor, clearing snow from paths and throwing away rubbish in a student residence.) I felt great and the romance and magic of life that night was overwhelming.
As we entered the outskirts of Berlin, surly East German border guards boarded the train and scrutinized our passports without any of the usual pleasantries that most westerners are used to. Their colleagues outside patrolled the train with Alsatian dogs, all looking for would-be escapees. From time to time they would bang metal sticks against the undercarriage of the train to make sure no one was hanging onto it. Presumably they could tell from the sound. You really would have had to be desperate to hang onto the underside of a train for any length of time in that cold weather. Alsatians on sliding chains ran backwards and forwards parallel to the track, barking. This was back in 1979 when Helmut Schmidt was the West German Chancellor and Erich Honecker was the leader of East Germany, a foreign country where they really did do things differently.
Still sitting in the dark in Tokyo, my mind went further back to a time when I was a child and my family visited my grandparents in south-west London. I always loved going there because everything in their house was old and it had a certain smell that never changed and which I liked. They had an Anderson shelter in their back garden from World War Two which was overgrown and which I wasn’t allowed to go down. Both my grandfather and grandmother were kind, simple people, though I can’t remember much about my grandfather now. He died when I was 7. I remember standing one evening on a kind of hill with the rest of my family and looking at the lights of London in the distance. Night views of big cities had a magic which I now find hard to recapture.
I remembered songs that my dad had on his reel-to-reel recorder. These were tapes that we played over and over again so we knew exactly which songs were coming next. In his sloping draughtsman’s hand my dad listed all the songs on his tapes in a small green notebook. There was Midnight in Moscow by Kenny Ball, both the title and music conjuring up sophisticated couples, slowly dancing or smoking and drinking at tables, the men besuited like James Bond and the women elegant like Audrey Hepburn.
I thought of my Spanish friends who were possibly putting their young children to bed right now, and my German friends who might be playing a board game with their older children.
So many memories and thoughts flitted in and out of my mind and for once the feeling of being confined to my body left me for a while. My core was still in a dark room in Tokyo but my thoughts were scattered around Europe’s past. At that moment the things that mattered to me were my parents, grandparents, ancestors, siblings, friends, the old German man on the train, old Berlin and Cologne, and even Moscow only known through old cold war films. All of these people and places felt like a part of me.
As long as that feeling lasted, I could begin to imagine what people mean when they talk about having a soul. Usually I just feel like a consciousness being transported around in a body but for a short time it was as if I was spread out over time and space. Perhaps I felt like a religious person, or a patriot, or someone in a small tight-knit rural community might feel; part of something bigger.
Needless to say the feeling didn’t last until morning and I now have absolutely no sense of it at all.