By Robert Feeney

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and says that hashtag Chernobyl2011 is trending on Twitter. Greg is sitting with him on the floor of a bullet train. The other teachers are scattered around the carriage, and some have found seats. Greg looks at them through the glass of the sliding door. Then he turns back to Marcus, who is running his finger over his teeth, back and forth. The train is moving smoothly and, visible through the right side windows, Fuji-san is still standing. But Marcus doesn't seem to notice the mountain, and only responds to the vibrations of incoming message alerts. Greg looks for a way to change the subject.

"A student told me that the deer at Nara, if you bow to them, they bow back," he says.

"Are we going to Nara as well?" says Marcus.

"Why not? It's only another forty minutes or so by train."

Marcus frowns. The expression does not suit his regal, early twenties face. It makes him look childish. 

"I don't know if that's a good idea," he says.

Greg is about to reply when his own phone starts to vibrate. It is a call from their Director of Studies. He wants to know about the teachers' plans. Greg says that a number of them are currently on the train to Osaka, the "nation's kitchen". Just for a holiday, to get away from all the talk of reactors and food shortages, nothing more. No mention of escape. The Director responds by choosing his words carefully, reminding him that the schools are definitely re-opening next week, and that they are expected to be back at work then. Spring schools begin at the end of this month. It's a busy time. He asks Greg to tell the other teachers this, especially Marcus, who hasn't been returning his calls. After he hangs up, Greg decides he will leave this reminder until later, when they have had some cheap beers and sushi. He returns to his place on the floor. A few minutes later, Marcus' smart phone rings, the tone resembling an alarm bell. He checks the caller ID, then places it back into his pocket. They both stand up, as the train is pulling to a stop, and they need to clear the area in front of the doors. A large number of businessmen rush out, allowing the teachers to sit together in a group, in actual seats. They talk about their least favourite students. Greg tells them about a twelve year old girl who, independent of his tutoring, has learnt the word "fuck". 

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and reads out loud the reports of a Dutchman who has found traces of radiation in the tap water in Tokyo. Greg revolves his beer glass, so that the label faces away from him. They, and four other teachers, are sitting in a restaurant that serves savoury pancakes. The group voted against raw fish, given the circumstances. A waiter comes around and pours a batter of flour, eggs, squid and cabbage onto the table hotplate in front of them. It instantly bubbles into life. Greg hands a metal spatula to Marcus, to distract him. 

"Bring your own beer, sure, but do your own cooking? This is a bit of a con," says Marcus.

"It's supposed to give you a feeling of satisfaction, I suppose. Like hunting, or fishing for your food," says Greg.

Marcus attempts to spread the mixture evenly. The squid pieces jump and splutter in the white sea. It flows uncontrollably outwards.

"How about this," says Greg, "a restaurant where people bring their own drink, catch the food on-site, and cook it themselves? All we need to provide are the tables and chairs." 

"How do you mean catch the food?" says Marcus, as the cabbage wavers and shrivels in the rising heat.

"There'll be a miniature lake and some live pigs, or chickens, maybe."

"So the customers have to kill live animals?"

"Yeah, it's a return to basics. Survival of the fittest and such."

"That's the worst idea I've ever heard," says Marcus, as he tries to gather the ingredients that are sliding around on the hotplate. One of the squid tentacles escapes over the side of the table, and is crushed by a passing businessman rushing to the toilet. The other teachers are discussing work, and whether they will be paid for this unexpected week's holiday.

"Herr Director won't be happy if his teachers start leaving. He might have to teach some classes himself then," says Marcus.

An alarm bell goes off, and he checks his smart phone again. Greg takes over cooking duties, flipping over the congealing pancake. He chats, and thinks of his parents and friends who are worried about him. When the food is cooked, he asks Marcus if he wants seaweed flakes on top of his. But Marcus isn't listening, so, in retaliation, he buries it in pickled ginger instead.

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and reads out loud the reports of a German who has found no traces of radiation in the Tokyo tap water. They are in an underground bunker of a bar, in downtown Osaka. It is St Patrick's Day, and Marcus has bought a pitcher to celebrate. Three other teachers have accompanied them, and are sipping gin and tonics at a plank posing as a table. Greg spots a certificate on the wall, certifying that the barman on duty studied in a brewery in Cork. It is a good sign. He also spots a middle-aged man, dressed as a leprechaun, trying to chat up a local girl. He goes over to ask him if he is Irish. The leprechaun is American, and, after a brief introduction, tells Greg about the history of mental illness in his family. Marcus takes the opportunity to steal away the local girl. Although he is inept at speaking Japanese, his height and blond hair give him a certain allure. Greg listens in to their stilted conversation, while pretending to be interested in the leprechaun's phobias. He laughs when he hears the girl say "Prince Harry" to Marcus. They both know she means Prince William, but has confused her cultural icons. Marcus takes her to sit down in a corner, and raises his pitcher in salute to his friend. The gesture reminds Greg that he is dry, and he excuses himself from the conversation of hospitals and syringes to return to the bar. The place is not crowded, despite the occasion. A few groups of foreigners, probably teachers as well, sit at tables and discuss in low voices the issue of the day. Listening in, Greg hears a multitude of accents, but everything suggests that, at this moment, he is the only Irishman here. He wants to ask the bartender about the certificate, but his Japanese, also inept, will only permit him to order another beer. He looks around and toasts the Guinness adverts and Celtic jerseys. The leprechaun is dancing a jig with a tipsy businessman. Marcus is content in his corner. Despite everything, they can still buy a drink.

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and says that the shops in Tokyo have sold out of rice bread. His words are distorted by the wind that blows across the rooftop of Osaka castle's main tower. Golden dragon fish are beached, unbreathing, on the stone ramparts. Greg reaches out a hand to see if he can touch one, for luck.

"It's rather cold up here," shouts Marcus.

It is cold. The wind is coming from the North. 

"Can we go back down?" says Marcus, who has not brought a jacket.

"What do you think of the view?" says Greg.

Marcus looks and sees the skyscrapers, raised perilously from the city's business quarter. If he stares at them long enough, they seem to rock back and forth slightly.

"It's good," says Marcus.

"This castle was the last stand of the famous Toyotomi family. The emperor wiped them out after they tried to fix the moat that he'd previously filled in," says Greg.

"Filled with what?"

"I don't know. Rocks?"

"That would work, I suppose."

They look at the moat as it is now, filled with water and couples boating. The ripples of their passage crash into each other.

"Do you think we're okay?" says Marcus.

"What?" says Greg.

"Being up here I mean."

"Are you that cold? You're so weak."

Greg lifts and crushes him in a bear hug. Marcus hits him over the head with a rolled up tourist brochure. 

"I'm going back down," says Marcus.

"You haven't even seen the view from the other sides," says Greg.

The wind has blown most of the cloud cover away, allowing for a panoramic view of the surroundings. They can even see Osaka International Airport, fifteen miles to the north-west.

"Let's come back when it's not so windy," says Marcus, "besides, I'm hungry, and I think I can see a dumpling stall down there."

"Fine, you owe me a meal anyway."

They haggle over the particulars as they part the crowd of cameras and slide their hands down the bannisters. They watch a family from Tokyo preserve the sunset in a photograph. When they reach the bottom, a lamp post nearby squeals as the ground shifts a fraction beneath it. An aftershock.

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and reads an opinion piece by an environmentalist who has reversed his position on nuclear power. Greg has been trying to get to sleep, but his friend feels the need to whisper this latest good news into his ear. They are sharing a cheap hotel room with two other teachers. A deep snore, unattributed, blankets the air. The walk from the castle tower has made Greg weary, but he cannot drop off. Every time his thoughts begin to liquefy, the snore brings him back to Earth. He turns to face Marcus, whose lower body is tucked inside a red sleeping bag similar to his. They were purchased together while shopping for canned food and five litre bottles of water.

"Tell me one of your long jokes with no punchline again," says Greg.

"Why? You hate those jokes."

"They're so boring they might help me sleep."

Marcus tells a joke about a circus performer whose head is smashed apart by a sledgehammer, but Greg is unaffected. He can feel the hardness of the floor through the fabric of the sleeping bag. He turns onto his back, then onto his front, then onto his back again. Earlier, the group played an elaborate version of rock paper scissors to determine who would get the bed. He chose rock.

"And he opens his eyes, and says... ta-daaa," says Marcus. 

The snore seems to be vibrating off the glass fixtures of the room. Behind it, another sound is making itself known. The moans of a woman are coming through the thin walls. They are shortly followed by the creaking of a bed. Marcus turns to Greg and grins. The sounds get louder as they continue, while the power of the snore diminishes.

"Impressive stamina," says Marcus. 

"That's probably the girl you failed so miserably with yesterday," says Greg.

"That's hurtful. My ex-girlfriend once slept with my room-mate in the bedroom right next to mine."

"Really?"

"No."

The bodily crescendo is reaching its peak, and the rhythm of the snoring changes to add depth to the piece.

"That girl in the bar, she came down on the bullet train, like us. From Tokyo," says Marcus.

"Did she say how long she's staying for?" says Greg.

"I don't think so."

Greg sees Marcus and the local girl in the corner of the bar. Marcus raises his pitcher in salute, and the leprechaun dances into it, and the beer spills over his blond hair.

"How long are we staying for, Greg?"

The music gets louder as huge crowds of people begin to flood into the bar. Greg can't see Marcus anymore. The corner is empty. He's being swept in the direction of a television screen, which shows a bridge crumbling over and over again.

"Greg?"

The lights of the bar have gone out. Someone is shouting. The bartender says that there is no more Guinness.

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and watches a YouTube video of a deserted shopping mall in downtown Tokyo. Greg is looking at a neon crab that towers over Osaka's entertainment district. The lights of its claw flash on and off. He chooses a ramen restaurant, but the teacher accompanying them decides to go elsewhere. Marcus looks at his smart phone, and sees that the comments on the YouTube video are questioning its validity. He orders a huge bowl of soup and noodles, which he slurps down vigorously, while telling a long joke about a travelling monk. There is no punchline. Greg looks at the pictures of the dessert menu. Marcus looks at his smart phone, and reads that the German has found traces of radiation after all. His name is Gunther, and his Facebook status is "away". Greg pushes over a half finished bowl of green tea ice cream, but Marcus doesn't touch it. They walk across the road to a book store.  Greg attempts to read the signs so that they can find the foreign literature. Marcus looks at his smart phone, and reads that the governments of the world are sending experts to assist Japan in every possible way. He grabs an erotic comic from the shelves, and tries to sneak it into Greg's rucksack. Greg pushes back, and businessmen turn to look at their undignified squabbling. Greg finds a shelf of books in English, but they are all airport thrillers, concerned with death and disaster. He chooses a horror novel about an Internet stalker. Marcus looks at his smart phone, and sees that over five thousand people are reported missing in Tohoku. Greg asks him for some change, and he hands over his entire wallet. As they step outside into the unconditioned air, Greg snatches his smart phone from him, and dances with it in the middle of the square. When Greg sees the look on Marcus' face, he stops, and hands it back. But he holds on to the wallet, until two hours later, when Marcus realises it's missing.

 

Marcus looks at his smart phone, and sees an email from the British Embassy.

"They're recommending that people with families evacuate."

Dull light yellows the floor of the hotel lobby. They sit side by side on a couch facing reception. The queue of people reaches back almost as far as the revolving door.

"They're laying on extra flights from Tokyo. And Osaka."

Greg got an email from the Irish Embassy yesterday. They didn't recommend evacuation, and they haven't laid on extra flights.

"What do you think?" says Marcus.

Greg is looking at a family in the queue. The son is pushing down on the extendable handle of a suitcase. It looks like he is trying to detonate a bomb.

"If we stay, you know we'll have to work a load of overtime to cover all the teachers who do leave," says Marcus, "and with the spring schools coming up, it'll be a nightmare."

"We don't have families," says Greg.

"I have parents and a sister," says Marcus.

"You know what I mean. The British Embassy is just trying to protect itself. It doesn't want paranoid fathers and mothers crowding its doorstep."

"Are you sure they're paranoid? I read today that the repair crews haven't got any further in stabilising the reactor."

"Where did you read that? Twitter? Reddit?"

"It was in The Times, actually."

"It's sensationalism. Fear sells newspapers, so they try to create fear. That's all it is."

"Well, it's working."

In thirty minutes, dinner will be served in the hotel dining room. But the rate is too expensive for their budget. The convenience store around the corner sells rice balls and canned coffee. In four days the schools will re-open, and their Director of Studies will call the receptionists of each school to see who has turned up. He will have a list of names in front of him, some of which will have already been crossed out.

"I don't feel right, Greg."

Greg turns to look at his friend. Dull light yellows Marcus' face.

"Let's do something fun tomorrow," says Greg, "we could go to Universal Studios, or the Aquarium. You know what we should do, we should go to Nara. Remember? That'd be a good day out before we have to go back."

Marcus nods. The son is priming the suitcase again.

"I think I need to go lie down for a bit," he says.

"Do you want anything from the convenience store?"

"No. Thanks though."

The lift doors open as soon as Marcus presses the call button, and close as he exhales.

 

Greg looks at his phone, and realises he has slept in. He sprays a thick cloud of deodorant over his clothes, then rushes to catch the next train to Nara. The journey is only forty minutes or so. When he arrives, there is a line of girl scouts outside the station. They hold out boxes and cry out in chorusing voices. He slips a note into their collection, and their shouting becomes more tolerable. He walks at a brisk pace towards the temple district. The weather is obliviously perfect. He reaches a large park area, where families are buying food from vendors. Greg is too warm, and fears sunburn, so he steps into the shade of a cedar-lined avenue. The crowds are absent here. A deer emerges from the side of the path. Greg bows to it. The deer stands rigidly still. He bows again. Nothing. He looks across the way to the park, and sees a small Japanese girl attempt the same feat with a doe. It lowers its head in response. Angered, he begins to head over to the more receptive deer, but feels resistance. His deer has snatched the tourist brochure he is holding in its jaws. Greg struggles with the animal. It's the only one he has. And if the deer wins, if it eats the plastic and paperclips, the street map, the pictures of Osaka castle and the restaurant coupons, its stomach could be torn to shreds. Greg struggles, but the deer's grip and hunger are too strong. With a twist of its neck, it wrestles the brochure from his grasp. Then turns, and trots away. Greg stands in the shade, and watches the deer vanish back into the trees, chewing, chewing.

---

 

Robert Feeney taught English for six years in Japan before returning home to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at University College Cork. He is the author of several short stories, plays, and a sitcom script that was kindly rejected by the BBC. His favourite colour is either blue or grey.