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Half a Life
A short story by Brian Howell

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Atsushi spent up to a third of his time away from home on trains, commuting to and from work. It is true that he had a beautiful family and house, and when he was at home he was the perfect father and family man. Yet, at the very stage that he stepped over the threshold of his front door in the morning and back again in the evening, he was glancingly aware, in a millisecond of lucidity, of an abrupt, almost brutal change, as if somewhere a switch had been thrown.

Normally, one could divide a salaried person’s life into three equal parts: home, work, and the necessarily irksome commuting; or, perhaps, work, play and sleep. Two of these elements usually carried greater weight than the other, but with Atsushi one of them had almost completely disappeared now – his work. There were days when, on the way there, he simply could not recall for long stretches at a time what work he did, sometimes, even, the physical appearance of the building he worked in. Accordingly, the time he spent travelling had taken on all the greater significance for him than it probably did for others. Given this awareness, perhaps, he had a correspondingly heightened sense of what occupied his mind during even the most mundane passages of time spent commuting.

To give an example, when he travelled, he concentrated on one aspect of his environment to the exclusion of almost any other: women’s bodies. The outside world, as served up by the Tokyo train system, was a constant provocation to his senses. He had to wonder if he was different from other men (he could not speak for the women), but he had long since resigned himself to this particular proclivity of his. There had never been any longing to touch, to fondle; his passion was scopofilic in nature. For a while he had fought his addiction, passively, by trying to concentrate on a book or a magazine, but such accessories only served to frame and sharpen his focus. The edge of a book would invariably only serve to cut off some part of a woman, above the waist, below the waist, above the neck (leaving her headless), or below the ankles (in which case her feet would stand for the whole of her), jumbling her up into a Cubist collage, or, depending on a fortunate concatenation of horizontals and verticals, might direct his eye to the shaded milky turquoise pit of a schoolgirl’s knee. Negative space sucked him in like a black hole eats up galaxies.

These were poor excuses for an unhealthy obsession, surely, or were they simply a way to deal with and rationalize it? Yet there had to be something to look forward to in his day. He did not have the solace of Sunday painting or trainspotting. On the trains themselves, one day was the same as any other, to be sure, but it was completely different, too. Even in a modest suburb on the outskirts of Tokyo such as he lived in, he would never see the same person twice, so the opportunity to survey a variety of physical and sartorial styles was huge.

One had to have a structure, a way of refining his tastes, and eventually he had come to the realization that there was a particular niche of interest for him: the bottom half of a woman.

A combination of practicality and predilection led him to this conclusion: you simply could not look at most parts of a woman on a train without making the woman uncomfortable or meeting with protest. He wanted neither. But when she was turned from him, he could look, study and assess unhindered – especially as most other passengers were invariably sleeping as his eye roved. In time, it occurred to him he had no particular longing beyond a generic form or shape. He was not hung up on women’s behinds per se, nor their legs, nor the clothes they wore. He had once toyed with the idea of buying a blow-up sex-doll, whose proportions are inevitably made-to-measure, and though Akemi would not have objected too strongly (he could have made a good argument for it being an excellent sex tool for them both without raising undue suspicion), it would have been totally impractical: it would not have taken long for it to be discovered by one of his children. They were both at the age, three and five, where curiosity intersected with motor ability to frustrate his precious home-life.

He would have been content with his lot, to go on just observing, of being an outsider, but two things in particular had combined to ambush his established routine of distance from any one subject, and, he might even say, impartiality, and draw him in further than heretofore.

Six months earlier they had had to move house to give their children their own rooms. The back of their house now looked onto the very line that he used for part of his daily journey into work. From his study, he would see the trains pass at regular two-minute intervals, and he would peer disinterestedly at the windows of the carriages as if he were looking into someone’s living room or bedroom, though not intrusively. Gradually, however, he imagined these people talking to each other as if gathered together for a dinner or a party, though in reality, he knew, people would rarely speak except in twos, and in the mornings and late evenings, never. He enjoyed his spying most in the evenings, when, as he sat in the dark, the trains became the only source of light around their house, built facing an empty field, as they suddenly barrelled along the line out of the dark, like huge darting fireflies.

Usually, she wore tight jeans or black cotton trousers, and high-heels. Beyond that he knew little about her save for the fact that she must be on roughly the same timetable as him. It was impossible to say from what perspective he had first become aware of her, whether it was on a train itself, or from his study window, in the way that one only becomes aware of a humming fridge once it has clicked on from its slumber or off into a new one. He did know, however, that every time he saw her from his window, he never saw her upper half. One of the blinds in the train, on his side, was always down, cutting her off at waist-height, or, if he glimpsed her from within a train, someone’s arm was held akimbo or a spread-out newspaper would cover her face and upper half. Often, he would only see her through another person’s legs, her own legs spread out, their V meeting those of the person opposite’s triangular stance like some trigonometrical design.

The second factor was their recent acquisition of a small DV video camera. Their main reason for buying one was simply a humdrum yearning to take home-movies, but Atsushi soon found himself directing the lens on the passing trains in front of his window, in search of that woman, or half-woman, who had started to beguile him so much. It did not take so long to locate her. He tended to see her mainly on the way to work, but she returned slightly later than him, giving him enough time to set up the camera. She always sat in the same carriage, four cars from the back, two from the front, in the area next to the doors on the north side of the carriage. Of course, everything was a blur at first, but when he transferred the DV tape to VHS, he could slow the tape down and freeze-frame. She was there, but, as ever, he could only see her legs and feet.

He was not a heartless man. He would imagine her face, a soft blur of pleasantness, her hairstyle, which he saw as long and straight, and her breasts, small, modest projections with double-nipples a little like those twin stars he saw in his magazines, surrounded by a prismatic halo of gas. He even imagined her sometimes with a boyfriend, a cool-looking type with dyed long hair and a sullen expression, or tied down to life with a salaryman, living a bubble-life whose parameters did not go beyond her work, the journey home and cooking and cleaning for him.

It was perhaps two months after the move that he got closest to his prize. One morning he had found her and was biding his time, resigned to the fact that he would not see her face unless he took action. The carriage was full of the usual passengers, the businessmen with their comics, the schoolgirls, office ladies and students with their mobile phones, old people, all jumbled up in the crush, in an amalgam of limbs, but through this, miraculously, there was a corridor of space, in which she sat directly opposite him, along which he looked as if down a dizzying stairwell, so that, Escher-like, horizontal and vertical were momentarily confused.

She would be exiting at the next and final destination with everyone else. Yet at the moment the doors opened, the unexpected happened, a rending scream from a child, whose hand, it soon turned out, had worked its way into the shallow depression in the door housing the window as it opened, trapping the hand between the door and the side of the carriage. Plenty of people fell out of the overstuffed carriage and went on about their way, not even looking back, but Atsushi found himself with two others trying to ease the child’s blackened hand from the narrow space. The dilemma ended when a guard assessed the situation and saw that the only solution was to close the doors again, whereupon the child’s hand reappeared, a blackened flap of flesh looking like the redundant limb of some prototypical mammal. By the time all this had taken place, she was, not surprisingly, gone.

When he returned that evening, slightly later than usual, he registered a change, at once major and subtle, like a drop in air pressure or gravity’s game of sudden catch-up in a lift. He knew he was going through a transition, but at the same time he was not witnessing it, he was coming after the fact. He walked about the house, quietly, noticed, incredibly, as if for the very first time, the trap door in the bathroom, a rectangle of lino with a fake wood parquet pattern surrounded by an aluminium border – it looked like nothing so much as a metal plate fitted to the head of an automaton. He imagined opening it and letting out a nexus of multi-coloured wires, or bloody entrails.

Then it came to him, like one train shunting into another, the realization that they were gone. The last time he had thought of his children was when the child’s hand had been caught in the door earlier that day. At that moment his own children’s lives had been more immediate than at any previous moment in the last month. But that had not been enough to save him or them. Surely he should have more memories than this? It was as if his body, his life till now, had been displaced, moved to the side, while his consciousness remained behind, only in the present.

He did not panic. He passed into his next actions like a person greedy to get on with something. If he had seen himself, he would have realized that he was excited; he felt free, and felt no guilt at this unqualified access to a new phase in his life. He did not even look around the house, or call out. He knew that they were not coming back.

That night he cleared their bedroom of all miscellaneous clutter, the electric dryer, the poll that acted as an indoor washing-line, Akemi’s futon, all the extra bedclothes, until there was only the dresser, his futon and his quilt. Outside, every five minutes, the train passed by in either direction, and he imagined her on it, riding in a continual loop around his house. It did not generate enough light to reach his room, he knew, but he thought that with every circuit now a brief flash was printed on the wall. As he moved into sleep, those flashes, like palimpsests superimposed one on the other, accumulated, until he saw a pristine image as clear as a Hi-Vision TV on the wall, and for the first time he saw her face. She was standing at one of the doors, her hands pressed against the glass, the passengers bunched up behind her like figures from a painting by Bosch. Her face was angled down as if she were looking down at him as he dreamed.

In the dream she finally came to him. On the bed, he pushed her legs so far back with his arms and his weight that they were propped against the wall and her vulva was almost touching her own mouth, her wetness running down in rivulets onto her face. He buried his tongue in her anus, then her vulva, so that it stuck to his mouth like a limpet, completing their symbiosis; he disengaged, looking into that stenopetalous gap between her legs, as if a crack had opened up into the earth or another dimension, even. He fantasized about the sights that drove him on through the day, the undressing of women of all ages, the heady voyeuristic search for angles, the lingering on images of the ubiquitous schoolgirls, who did not so much walk as step into light, moulding the air around them, their loose cotton socks quietly aglow with their own luminosity, the starched whiteness of their blouses threatening to rub off on passers-by, the overall impression one of sedately ambling ponies.

He subsided into her, into the dark, and did not expect to wake.

He was holding her hand, which just cleared the top of the quilt. Not certain if what he remembered of the previous night had happened, whether he had dreamed Akemi’s leaving with the children, or whether that part were true and he had only dreamed the part about making love with the half-woman, he tugged on it, wanting Akemi back, wanting all of her once again, but it was only a bloody stump, wearing the ring he knew so well. Around the room, like an extreme detail of an artist’s impression of a battlefield, lay the limbs of his loved ones, a bloody collage of headless parts, a crimson collusion in carnage.

Copyright © Brian Howell 2003

Brian Howell lives and teaches in Japan. He has been publishing stories since 1990. Publications include Critical Quarterly, Panurge, Stand, Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Vol.1, and Leviathan Quarterly.

Online, his stories have appeared in various magazines, including issue 3 of Painted Moon Review, which features a selection of his stories and poems as well as an interview. He is currently working on his second novel and on a collection of stories dealing with a variety of aspects of modern-day Japanese life.

His novel based on the life of Jan Vermeer, was published in March 2002 by The Toby Press and is available at Amazon and other online booksites.

This short story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Half a Life is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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