Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Good Funerals and Nicotine Withdrawals

Last time I spoke to Grandma, she was already struggling to breathe. It was Mothers Day in the UK, so I took the hit and called her from Japan. I think we already knew at that point it was a case of slowing the inevitable rather than getting better. She was happy to hear from me, but couldn't speak for long as everything had become exhausting. That's when I realised something was really wrong, because Renee Poole would take any opportunity to tell you all about her latest trials and tribulations.

See, Grandma had smoked her whole life. The first time she was in hospital they actually gave her cigarettes to dull the pain and calm her nerves (which is the kind of irony that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, rather than the kind that makes moody teenage girls swoon.)

I therefore always knew her as a smoker. Grandma's house always had that "ashtray" smell of stale cigarettes, and I've always associated it with her. When I first started smoking, I realised my clothes had started to smell like Grandma. When I started coughing and wheezing I recognized Grandma's cough. And when my fingers took on a yellow nicotine tinge I saw Grandma's hands - minus the rheumatism and nail polish.

So although I quit smoking 9 months ago when I came to Japan, the first thing I did when I heard my Grandmother had died of lung cancer was chain smoke half a pack.

Yoyogi Park

I have had relatives die before but this one had a real bite to it, for two reasons. First off, I had been really close to my Gran. Lots of memories I have were of just the two of us, making me the sole proprietor now. I remember long drives through Chatsworth park to see the deer, then up into the Derbyshire moors to pick heather. Rides on the back of her wheelchair to get a secret packet of sweets from the corner shop. Arguments about cricket, Margaret Thatcher, the NHS, and pretty much any other topic you wished to be educated on. We were friends as well as relatives, so it struck doubly deep.

Equally as bitey was the fact that I was in Japan when it happened, miles away from the twelve or so people whose lives had also just come to a crashing stop for the next week. I got the news on a sunny day in one of the most beautiful parks in Tokyo. At this point I didn't even know what I was feeling other than panic. You know that feeling when you left it too late to do your homework at school, or three uni essays and two days to write them? Well that overwhelming feeling - that the task at hand just seems too big to handle - came sweeping over me. How was I getting back? Could I get flights? Could I get time off? A million and one other questions which can be summed up with "What the fuck am I doing in Japan right now?"

I started crying under a tree, and all I could think was that the Japanese couldn't see me like this. They'd never approve. Thankfully the park-goers averted their gaze, avoiding eye contact at all costs. Except of course for a burly dog dragging his owner round the greens. Dogs are the same everywhere and assume everyone is there to play with them. He was more than happy to get right up in my personal space. Even in times like these, I couldn't resist petting it and make doggy-talk-noises. Something other than mainlining nicotine was happening. I attempted a grin. Nan sai desu ka?

I made some key phone calls, had a couple ice coffees, and a couple more beers. Everything was gonna be OK. Work gave me the time off no questions asked, and I had flights booked days later. I'm still shaking the cigarettes though.*

Classy Lager

"Funeral" and "Good" are two words that don't particularly go together very well. Its not quite an oxymoron, but these parts of our language are at odds with each other from the moment they leave our lips. "British cuisine" suffers the same affliction. Or "classy lager."

Last Monday was as close to a good funeral as the English language allows. The family rarely gets all together like that, and usually finds a reason to hate each other by the end of it. For once peace reigned and it was cathartic for everyone. My Mum and Dad (who are quite religious these days) got everything they needed from the service, while my Uncles and Cousins (who are decidedly irreligious) got everything they needed from a family curry and trip to the pub. I took part in both with equal vigour, waking up with a sense of well being and a hangover. Turns out everyone in my family can drink me under the table.

The only regret is that I now probably wont be able to get back to the UK for another year or so. I had forgotten how much I missed temperate weather, proper curry, drinking full pints, understanding what people are saying,  and getting on a train without everyone noticeably tensing.

Its not all bad being back though. Today I had my first lesson in three weeks with my 2nd years, and one kid started cheering when I came into the classroom, He'd been asking me for about half the year to shave my beard, and assumed I had gotten rid of it for him. He was far too happy for me to correct his mistake, and I don't know the Japanese word for "Funeral" anyway, so I just let him have it.

*For the mildly concerned out there, please know that I could never smoke full time in Japan. Yes, the cigarettes cost pennies here, but:

a) I teach children
b) People judge you if you smoke on the street instead of the designated little smoking boxes. Those little smoking boxes are hell on earth. Only spending Sunday evenings alone and certain parts of the Grimsby high street fill me with more dread.
c) I've built a non-smokers life in Japan, so it would actually be harder work to start smoking again than going through four days of wanting to kill all my coworkers. Im on day 2.

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