By Meredith Stephens
It’s eight o’clock on a winter Sunday morning in February and I am enjoying a well-earned sleep-in, when suddenly I hear an insistent banging and heavy drilling. In my semi-conscious state I think it must be the humming of my heater, but then I realize that it’s coming from outside. I snuggle back into my thick blankets, hoping that the noise will stop, but it becomes more and more insistent. The banging forces me out of my bed, and with my hair awry and wearing my daughter’s over-sized American basketball sweatshirt, I follow the noise and open the back door. I see a group of men gathered around all sides of my backyard concrete wall, attacking it with a drill. I don’t need to say anything. They look up at me from where I am standing on the raised platform of the ground floor of my Japanese house, and I know that my fury is evident, as I feel the heat rush to my face. They meet my eyes in puzzlement, and although I am still in my myopic state, I can see that they sense my outrage. After staring at them for what feels like a few minutes but is probably only a few seconds, I yell at them “Yamete kudasai. Nichiyobi desho?” (Stop it! It’s Sunday, isn’t it?) One of the foremen repeats my injunction to his workmates and the noise stops. I retreat back to my hibernation in my fluffy blankets and before long I am back to that happy state of semi-wakefulness as the sun streams through the crack between the drawn curtains. Did I really do that and did those workmen take me seriously? I am normally meek and accommodating, unless someone disrupts my sleep. Did I really shout at a group of strangers in Japanese? Maybe that’s a sign of proficiency, although I did use the formal register when demanding that they stop.
I lie in that delicious restful state for a couple more hours, and then I hear a voice calling out for Kenya-san. Who’s that, I wonder? It can’t be for me, I hope, because I want to stay in bed as long as possible, but the voice becomes more insistent, this time calling out an urgent “konnichiwa!”, which can be used to politely gain attention. Again I labour out of my bed with my disheveled hair and still in my daughter’s over-sized American basketball sweatshirt, and there is my eighty-year old neighbour, dressed immaculately in a bottle-green cardigan, necklace, carefully coiffed hair and make-up. She has never been in my house before, so what is she doing on my staircase, and why is she so well dressed?
“Sorry. I rang the bell and you didn’t answer, so I went around the back and found the door open,” she explains in Japanese.
I wonder why she was calling out for “Kenya san”.
“My name is Merri,” I tell her sheepishly.
I have lived here for ten years, greeted her every morning as I cycle to work, and given her souvenirs every time I return from Australia. She has tended my two by one metre garden over these years, collected my mail during my frequent absences, and turned over my car engine in winter when I am away.
“Merri chan” she confirms, using the diminutive “chan” to address me, and I am delighted at this sudden sign of familiarity and affection, even though she hasn’t known how to address me until now.
“The council has issued directives to destroy high concrete walls. If there is a tsunami we need to be able to evacuate quickly,” she explains.
Then I understand that there has been a discussion among the neighbours, and she is the one who has been chosen to explain what is going on.
“Someone came over yesterday to explain it to you, but no-one was here. Then they rang the bell again this morning, but you didn’t hear it. Anyway, I’ll sort it out,” she assures me, and lets herself out the back door.
I retreat to my warm bed and fluffy blanket again.
Not for long though. This time I do hear the doorbell. Again I leap out of bed in my daughter’s over-sized American basketball sweatshirt and messy hair, and open the front door. There is my immaculately presented octogenarian neighbour again, this time accompanied by another neighbor, the owner of the rear wall. The other neighbour presents herself in a neat buttoned-up black coat, and wears a tidy ponytail. They take shelter from the cold outside air and stand in the genkan entrance. The neighbour in the black coat has brought a large paper bag of exquisite fruit and chocolates, and places this in on the raised floor of the house.
The genkan is where you change your shoes, and where unannounced visitors are usually permitted to stand. I am tall in this country so I lower myself into the genkan so I don’t tower above them. Then the neighbour in the black coat clutches my hands in hers at her chest, and looks into my eyes intently and apologetically.
“I’m really, really sorry,” she says in Japanese. “We tried to notify you earlier but you were out. We need to create an escape route in case we have to suddenly evaculate in the case of an earthquake or tsunami.”
Suddenly it all becomes credible. I recall how much work has gone into reinforcing public buildings, with huge criss-crossed supports being placed between the floor and ceiling of classrooms to prevent the floors being sandwiched together during a quake.
Then I tell her about how unhappy I have been since the house behind mine was demolished, and the persimmon tree which yawned into the blue sky was taken out. I used to have a free view of that garden dotted with orange fruit, and a ramshackle wooden house to protect me from the street beyond, but now it has been replaced with an unsealed carpark. Now I have cars bringing dirt into the back of my house every morning, and no shelter from the road beyond.
“At least my neighbour on the other side has green fingers,” I say, acknowledging the work of my octogenarian neighbour whose plants extend beyond her garden to the front of the abandoned cottage in front of mine.
Then they notice that I am standing in my socks in the genkan.
“Your feet will get cold. Don’t stand there.”
I raise myself to the floor level, but then notice I am towering over them again, and step back down into the genkan.
“The workmen will be here again early tomorrow morning,” my neighbour explains gently. Oh no! I say to myself. Tomorrow is a public holiday. This work ethic is all too much for me. I notice the big bag of fruit, and know I should refuse it out of decorum, but the apples and oranges are beckoning me.
“What country are you from?” the neighbour in the black coat asks.
“Australia” I reply.
“Oh, I put some chocolate biscuits from Australia in the bag,” she tells me.
I pick up the biscuits and happily confirm the origin on the back of the pack. Then I realize that she has gone to a lot of trouble to fill the bag with appetizing treats. I know that in Japan it is decorous to reciprocate. Then again, they have come here to apologize for a huge disruption to my sleep, which I take very seriously. I don’t leave myself time to debate this, and instead make a quick decision.
“Wait a minute,” I entreat them.
They demur, knowing that “wait a minute” in this situation means “I am going inside to find a present for you”. I am suddenly glad to have been seduced so many times in airport departure lounges by
multinational companies soliciting my business. I retreat to my bedroom, not to sleep, because by now I am well awake, but to retrieve some miniature bottles of perfume I have bought for emergencies like this. I rip the packet open and take out the individually wrapped perfumes. I hurry back to the genkan and give them one each.
“Oh, these are so luxurious,” they demur again, but accept them.
“Merri-chan always gives me something like this when she comes back from her country,” my octogenarian neighbour explains approvingly.
They excuse themselves. The house is silent for a while, but a few hours later the construction noise resumes. But by now I am at peace with the noise, thanks to good neighbourly relations, enhanced safety in case of an earthquake or tsunami, not to mention now being awake and having received a large bag of fruit and chocolate.