by Kevin Ramsden
Dougal McLeish had been staring out of his office window for a full hour, the yellowing light of an early autumnal evening creeping slowly across the cluttered desktop in front of him. Hands folded in his lap, shoulders sagging forward, his demeanour bore all the hallmarks of the dejected. Yet, there was no sadness in him, nor a desire to wallow in self-pity. No, he was just tired, extremely and unutterably tired. Things had been a little trying of late, but Dougal was not a worrier. On the contrary, he liked to think of himself as the eternal optimist, the one others might come to when a little boost of confidence was needed. A quick cheering up. If Dougal McLeish was tired, then he was simply that. Tired. Nothing more, nothing less. Well, that’s what he was telling himself anyway. He looked down at the piece of paper on his desk again, and sighed deeply.
It hadn’t always been this way. When Dougal had first arrived at the cornucopia of concrete that formed the campus of Takano Junior College in northern Kyoto prefecture to take up his position a little over eighteen months before, he had been brimming over with energy and unbridled enthusiasm. Every waking moment, and a fair proportion of his free time too, had been given over to the preparation and deliverance of what he believed to be pretty decent courses of study. Why, had not Professor Koizumi himself, the Dean of his faculty, commented on it personally at a chance meeting by the water cooler one lunchtime? Yes, there had been some recognition of his endeavours by his superiors it seemed, but not perhaps by those whose opinion mattered the most to him – his students.
Dougal was twenty-four years old. A little over six feet three inches tall, sandy haired, of rake like build, and by his own admission, pretty much unexceptional in just about every way. He had lived in the tiny Scottish Borders town of his birth for twenty-three of those years and had only ventured out of the area on two previous occasions. Once on a three-day high school trip to the distant metropolis of London, and once to attend the funeral of a maiden aunt he had never laid eyes on, and never would, now she had been lowered into the ground. He had earned his degree in Theology from a small, but respectable college in a larger neighbouring town, which had enabled him to stay in the warm embrace of his loving and very close family. This had also allowed him to indulge in his other great passion, which was singing in the choir of his local church, of which his father was the venerable pastor. Dougal, as often said by those who knew and loved him, was an excellent student, a loyal son, a good Christian, and perhaps just a tad unworldly. That he had come to be teaching English to teenage Japanese, in Japan of all places, had surprised a considerable number of people, not least Dougal himself. The way this had come about in actuality was, however, really quite unremarkable.
A little over two years previously, the small town of Takano some way north of Kyoto City in western Japan had somehow found itself twinned with Glenruttock home of the extended McLeish family, among others. The locating of a gigantic new micro-processor plant operated by the Japanese NIHONTECH Corporation might have been part of the equation, and small groups of Japanese businessmen had been spotted swinging with abandon on both of the local golf courses. In light of these developments, Daddy McLeish, being a man of considerable stature in the local community, had therefore taken it upon himself to host an opposite number from Takano, when a delegation from that fine town had arrived on a goodwill visit. It was his civic and Christian duty, after all. Professor Koizumi had been their honoured guest, and had stayed in their humble abode for two weeks of a glorious Glenruttock summer. During this time, aside from reveling in the delights of the Scottish countryside, he had had ample opportunity to size up the young Dougal McLeish.
It had appeared to him straight away that here was a young fellow who exhibited all the wonderful qualities he sought to bestow on his own youthful charges. Unfortunately, with each passing year, and new intake of students, those qualities seemed to be in ever decreasing supply. Low morality, appalling personal appearance, a genuine disregard for authority and seniority, and a general lack of common sense, the list, to Koizumi sensei at least, seemed to characterize the modern generation, and was extremely depressing to an old schooler like himself. Well, if that was to be the new face of Japanese youth, then Koizumi had felt a need, nay, a compulsion, to give it a serious makeover. And he was sure that fine, upstanding young gentlemen like Dougal McLeish would be his shock troops in the battles ahead. He had wasted no time in convincing Daddy McLeish of this, who had in turn persuaded Dougal of his duty as both a Christian and a Glenruttockian. After constant reassurances from the Japanese scholar that his complete lack of teaching experience would prove no barrier to a successful execution of his duties, Dougal was dispatched to the Land of the Rising Sun for the start of the next academic year.
Things had not really gone to plan since then, that much was true, but Dougal was nothing if not determined. He had received less support than he had hoped for from Professor Koizumi, who had seemed so enthusiastic on those inspirational nights filled with earnest conversation back in his father’s study. Over what, in retrospect, seemed a frighteningly large quantity of Daddy McLeish’s 20-year old single malt, he had laid down his vision of a new Takano Junior College, and Dougal’s part in it. However, since his arrival, other matters had seemed to take up an ever-increasing portion of his sponsor’s time, and Dougal had been left to spearhead a rather lonely campaign.
He felt alone, and much too young to be so. The students had turned out to be, on the whole, quite likeable, but he felt the distance between them and himself was growing immeasurably. They had nothing in common, even as young people. Their language, clothes, musical tastes and sense of fun were all dissimilar. But more than this, their attitude was different, and this was reflected mainly in their studies. They seemed to him to have more interest in pursuing non-academic interests than in the essential goal of acquiring knowledge. Dougal had attempted to understand it, attending school events and festivals, even consulting colleagues on the matter, many of whom had seemed at a loss to comprehend his concern, but things had slowly been building up to the point where he found himself today: close to defeat. The source of his malaise, at least in part, lay on the desk in front of him in the form of this single piece of paper.
There was nothing remarkable about it. A4 in size, white, with five words covering its surface. Two of the words were placed at the head of the sheet and spelled out a name: Tanaka Shu, the names reversed in the Japanese style, with the surname printed first. The other three words were entered about 4 centimetres south of these, written in pencil in the same drunken pre-schooler type scrawl as the former. These three words formed the legend: MONKEY WANT BANANA. Rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands and with an abrupt and fog clearing shake of the head, it was to this that he finally turned his attention. “Ah, Mr. Tanaka,” he murmured to himself. “Mr. Shu Tanaka.”
Though he taught an increasingly large number of students each semester, Dougal had no trouble conjuring up an image of the young man in question. Shu Tanaka was in his Thursday, Period Two, Second Year Writing class. The students in this class represented possibly the least motivated group of individuals in the entire college, ranging from the basically indifferent to the invisible. A turnout of over 50% for any one class could be considered a major attendance breakthrough. Shu Tanaka fell into the semi-visible group and stood out for one particular reason – he pretty much always sat alone. He was not a party to the incessant chattering that accompanied the best part of Dougal’s classes from the mid-classroom area, this being the domain of Emi Kimura and her make-up mirror, bejeweled cell phone-wielding cohorts. Nor did he involve himself with the more boisterous activity displayed by some of the alpha males in the group. Shows of bravado, no doubt intended to secure the attentions of Emi and her style posse. Instead, hiding behind the fringe of a spectacular mop of frizzy, two-toned dyed hair, he would slump in his seat toward the back of the room busying himself with his cellphone. This, Dougal assumed, he had had to acquire by scraping together funds from an outrageously underpaid part-time job. Shu was not really then a problem student in a behavioural sense, he just seemed to lack, well, purpose.
This latest literary offering was probably the most pathetic attempt at descriptive writing that Dougal had received to date. But considering three-quarters of the class had failed to hand in anything at all by the deadline, he couldn’t really dismiss it out of hand. It would be impossible to grade, but it could be considered a foundation on which to build something a little more constructive. Well, couldn’t it? MONKEY WANT BANANA.
The assignment had been, to Dougal’s mind, a wonderful opportunity for the students to express themselves. Selecting one photo from a choice of three, depicting wild animals in their natural environment, the students were to produce a paragraph of writing ‘through the animal’s eyes.’ A stalking tiger, a soaring eagle, and the close-up facial shot of a full-grown male chimpanzee, eyes burning with intelligence and curiosity. How liberating, he had thought, how tantalizing a chance to give freedom to the pen and let your innermost feelings run wild by connecting with the wildest of the wild themselves. One paragraph would surely be far too limiting! How wrong he had been.
He had received ten scraps of paper, all handwritten, and some barely legible. To find an adjective containing more than one syllable had been next to impossible. There simply had been no attempt at expression at all, unless the message behind each piece was a declaration of apathy. MONKEY WANT BANANA was minimal, fair enough, but displayed a factual simplicity that could not easily be ignored. Perhaps Shu Tanaka had really tried other routes then finally settled for the obvious. Yes, that may well be it, thought Dougal. He would have to have a little chat with him and get to the bottom of it. Suddenly more animated, and curiously excited, he straightened in his chair and rubbed his hands together vigorously. He felt considerably better. That was it. Take control and approach him as an individual. Wonderful! The prospect of a protégé was appealing in the extreme.
The following Thursday morning, Shu Tanaka shuffled into Dougal’s classroom a little after ten past eleven. Shu knew he was an impressive twenty five minutes late and was quite surprised to see the nerdy, stringbean of a British teacher actually smile at him. Was he being sarcastic? He concluded not. He didn’t seem to have a sense of humour, this one. Shu had had a couple of foreign teachers before, and although their classes were equally mind-numbingly dull, they had at least raised the occasional chuckle from the pack. Avoiding any further eye contact with the teacher and moving at roughly the same speed as an octogenarian with a serious hemorrhoids problem, he covered the remaining distance to his favourite pew at the back of the room and flopped down onto the hard, wooden seat. Without looking up, he opened the comic he had recovered from a waste bin moments before and proceeded to read.
Dougal had followed Shu’s progress to his seat and was now staring in that direction with growing incredulity. Could this shambling fool really have been the focus of so much of his thinking over the last few days? Did he honestly believe this rude and dramatically unpunctual degenerate worthy of his individual attention. Suppressing an urge to stride down the classroom and demand an apology for his clear lack of manners, he turned instead and started to write furiously on the blackboard, all too aware of the sniggering and snatches of whispered conversation in a language with which he was still far too unfamiliar, coming from behind him. He had been humiliated in similar situations before, but this time he felt horribly let down – and mainly by himself. “Professionalism, Dougal” he muttered to himself, “Professionalism.”
“Thank you, class. And if I could please have the remainder of the essays by next Thursday, that would be excellent,” Dougal said, dismissing the class a little over an hour later. The fact that the majority of the students had already bolted upon hearing the sound of the tones signaling the end of the second period was lost on the young teacher. He was more intent on intercepting the now faster moving Shu Tanaka as he also made a beeline for the door. “Shu, if I could just have a moment, please?” he managed to direct at the back of the retreating youth. Shu knew he was caught, and equally that there was no escape. He had been through the same scenario many times before, and knew the procedure. Turning slowly, head down, he hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans and addressed his teacher, “Hai, sensei” he muttered. Dougal spoke softly, “Listen Shu, I know it’s pretty hard to make it to all your classes on time and all that, but, you know, a simple ‘sorry’ wouldn’t go amiss, from time to time now would it?” Shu looked up and delivered his most baleful and well-practiced apologetic look. “Sorry, sensei,” he managed in the special, whining, remorseful tone he reserved for his foreign teachers. Dougal responded, “Well, alright then, we’ll say no more about it this time.” Then just as Shu was about to execute a high-speed exit, “However, I would like to have a little word about your composition, if you could spare a minute or two.” Shu’s heart sank. Any chance of making an early run to the school cafeteria for an early lunch spot were well and truly out the window. The ensuing conversation was relatively brief.
Dougal: Well, how’s school life these days, Shu?
Shu: Very busy, so busy, Dougal sensei.
Dougal: Yes, I can remember my own college days, so much study and so little time (slight chuckle).
Shu: Yes, sensei, I work very, so hard.
Dougal: Good, good for you Shu. Well, actually, as I said, I wanted to talk to you about the paper you submitted two weeks ago, MONKEY WANT BANANA.
Shu: Oh! hai, yes, sensei.
Dougal: OK, well, yes, errm, well perhaps you might like to have another try at it. Not that it’s terribly bad or anything like that, but only it’s a little, how can I say, on the short side, if you see what I mean.
Dougal: Mm, well the thing is Shu, four words is really only about the length of a title, isn’t it? I was hoping for, well, considerably more actually. I mean I understand what you were trying to express, that the monkey really wanted that banana, but perhaps that wasn’t all the monkey wanted to say. Perhaps the monkey wanted to say more, Shu?
Shu: You want monkey say more, sensei?
Dougal: Yes Shu, I think the monkey, if it could communicate, has more to say to you, and I think you can write down all that down. What do you think?
Shu: Yes, I think about monkey more again. Write about more monkey, sensei.
Dougal: That’s the spirit, Shu. Rewrite the piece and hand it in to me next Thursday. I shall look forward to reading it.
Shu: Hai, sensei. Thank you, thank you very much, bye-bye.
Dougal: Thank you, Shu. Goodbye!
Dougal returned to his office in great spirits. He had finally made a breakthrough. The young feller had seemed to understand the essence of what he was trying to convey and had accepted his advice without question. He had apologized for his earlier rudeness, hadn’t he? He was prepared to try harder, wasn’t he? Of course, he was, and he, Dougal McLeish, would not turn his back on him now. Yes, now he thought about it, a lot of the fellow’s behaviour could clearly be misinterpreted. The pathetic walk and looks could just as easily be signs of a terrible life-long shyness. The refusal to make eye contact with his teachers and other students, signs of loneliness, of one unable to reach out to others easily. To Dougal McLeish, Shu Tanaka was a loner. That was as evident as the suffering of the good Lord Jesus himself. But he could help him. And help him he most certainly would. Shu Tanaka would be assisted in reaching his full potential, because that was what he, Dougal McLeish, had been brought to Japan to do.
Professor Koizumi was right after all. The reason why Dougal had seen so little of him was obviously because the professor had wanted him to seek out these challenges by himself. He was beside himself now. He switched on his computer and began to compose the first of his twice daily e-mails home to the family. Today’s would be very special, though. Today’s would tell them that he had finally found a purpose to his life, that he now knew he was destined to help others fulfil their dreams and potential. He would ask them to include Shu Tanaka in their evening prayers.
Shu Tanaka went out that evening with a few of his cronies to a favorite student hang out near the campus. He recounted the incident with Dougal McLeish over more than a few beers and it got some serious belly laughs, mostly due to Shu’s outrageous impression of the young teacher. Most of those present had taken classes with McLeish sensei, and while they agreed he wasn’t such a bad guy or a hardass, he was, in general, pretty weird. Over the next week Shu divided his time fairly equally between visits to pubs, mates’ houses and his long-suffering girlfriend. One thing he didn’t do, or even actually think about, was rewriting the paper for Dougal. At about ten-thirty on the following Thursday morning, fifteen minutes before he was due to walk into the writing class, Shu was sitting, sipping coffee, in a student only area of his faculty building. He was nursing a stinking hangover and couldn’t really decide on why he had made the decision to come to school at all. It was only then that a feeling of alarm slowly crept up on him. Diving into his tatty, clear plastic folder he extracted the paper that McLeish sensei had returned to him the week before. A little more creased, twice folded over, but otherwise untouched. Shu put down his coffee, picked out a pen with a bit of colour and began to write.
Dougal was a little disappointed to see Shu make yet another late entry to the class, but very happy to see him none the less. He hadn’t seen his student around the campus during the previous week, and had felt a little disconcerted at his feelings of concern for the young man. Hey, he wasn’t his father or anything, after all. Still, he was here now, and … wasn’t that a smile and a nod from the young feller! Well, well, well!
Shu crept into the room, hoping McLeish sensei would be facing the board and not see yet another of his famous late entrances. He tossed a casual smirk at Emi Kimura who blushed a little and smiled back. He’d been out with Emi in the first year, and she’d been a rare old laugh, for a while at least. Looking forward he saw that his teacher was staring straight at him. Dammit! He did the only thing he could do. He gave the guy a nod and a smile. What do you know, he smiled straight back. This one practically handed you the chain to jerk so often it just wasn’t sport, he thought. Adopting his cool, but casual walk, Shu proceeded to his usual seat, pulled out his fashion mag and got down to some serious reading.
At the end of the ninety minutes Dougal could hardly contain himself. While he was answering the same questions he had answered during the lesson itself to one of the more persistently inattentive students, he could see Shu Tanaka hovering on the periphery, obviously nervous and anxiously glancing between the paper he was holding in his hand and the door. Dougal could tell he was finding it difficult to summon up the courage to come forward and hand in the paper. He was probably so insecure in his own ability that he had spent most of the past week going over what he wanted to say this very morning. He finished off answering the last of the questions and raising his chin beckoned Shu Tanaka forward.
Shu was desperate to get out of that bloody classroom. He was hopping from foot to foot, looking at his watch, looking at the door. That idiot Junichi was asking his stupid questions again. Come on you stupid … aarrg!! He had to get going if he was to have any chance of getting one of the lunch specials, and he was bloody starving. Plus, when he handed in this paper he didn’t really want to have another heart to heart with Mr. Wacko. Oh great! He’s finished.
Shu rushed forward clutching the paper. He thrust it forward, forcing Dougal to take it from him. Then after a split second of indecisiveness when he was actually considering initiating a conversation with the man, he shrugged his shoulders, turned on his heels and was off out the door. The young Scot was taken aback. He looked at the familiar piece of paper in his hand, then slowly started to unfold it. Once opened out and presented in its full glory, he took a sharp, involuntary intake of breath. Then raising his eyes slowly to the ceiling, pressing the now wrinkled paper to his chest, softly and under his breath murmured, “Yes Shu, I think you may be right. I really think you may very well be right.” Spreading the paper out again on the desktop he read aloud the new, and to his mind, much improved legend ‘MONKEY WANT BANANA AND FRIEND!!
(This story is part of a collection ‘Here Comes Kenji and Other Stories from Contemporary Japan’, which is available in both e-book and paperback formats on Amazon. All profits from sales of this collection are used to pay the school fees of AIDS orphans in rural Zimbabwe.)