Pulp.net - Post-Blossom Blues

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Sarah MacLeod
The introductory interview took place in a Gordon Square basement, where the walls were solid and thick like rocks, and the rooms shaped like caves.

Sonya watched rays of sunlight pour in from the street above, and listened to immaculately dressed people with beautiful skin make promises about the future.

Afterwards, in the street, she realised that part of her had already escaped London. She was dreaming of her life on the other side of the world. As she walked past the sober Bloomsbury buildings and parks, she pictured elaborate wooden temples and dancing neon.

Just after High Holborn, someone with dirty hands spoke to her.

‘Sorry, I gave my change away already,’ she replied.

‘Wait a minute! I’m not a homeless! I’m Japanese!’

She turned back and looked at him and saw that he did indeed look Japanese, that he had bleached hair and that his hands were very dirty.

‘You’re really Japanese?’ she said.

‘Yes, I’m from Tokyo, you know? Big place, bigger than London.’

‘That’s amazing! I just had an interview about a job in Tokyo.’

‘That is very strange. Is it teaching job?’


‘What’s wrong with London?’

‘Nothing’s wrong with London, but...’

‘Anyway, I’m a hairdresser. I work in salon over there. I need to practise on hair. I need hair. My life is about hair. I’m out here in the street, trying to persuade hair to come to the salon, but hair just keeps walking past.’

‘Oh,’ she said, thinking that it must be hair dye on his hands. He smelt of expensive hair products.

‘Can you come to salon? I like your hair. It’s very nice. I want to style it, not cut it or anything, but just wash and blow dry and maybe you know just some gel or some mousse and maybe I’ll try a different style. It’s so shiny your hair. I mean what do you think?’

‘I’m a bit busy at the moment.’

‘Yeah yeah yeah, that’s fine, that’s fine, but maybe some other time, when you’re not busy, like tomorrow or next week or the week after or next month or the next?’

‘Maybe next week?’

‘Really? You can come? Wow, yeah, great. You can really come? Let’s make appointment and here’s my card. Don’t worry about pronouncing of my name, just call me hairdresser, OK? I like that title. Please phone me if you can’t make it.’

• • •

Sonya set off down Monmouth Street and the hairdresser continued his hair recruitment. She passed cafes and newsagents and shops selling cakes and music and books, and just before the Seven Dials, THAT SHOP loomed up in front of her. She had first noticed it a week before and she couldn’t believe it. She was trying to block everything out, but now the very same poster that could be seen from the bed of the one-she-was-trying-to-forget was dangling in THAT SHOP’s window in front of her. Every time she saw it was like being given the finger. ‘Fuck you!’ this image was saying to her. ‘You will never forget. Wherever you go there will be something to remind you.’ Sonya felt like Raskolnikov without the crime. Her punishment was to be tormented by recurring images.

The poster was an old black and white photograph of a couple waltzing. The two figures were lit up in the shadows of a dark street. The man’s arm was resting gently on the woman’s waist and they were looking at each other. Her skirt swirled out as he spun her around.

When she’d seen that picture in the one-she-was-trying-to-forget’s flat, it had plunged right into the core of her. It seemed to represent something she longed for but couldn’t get. She’d been staring at it one night and when he passed she’d told him, ‘I like that picture.’

‘The dancers?’

‘Yes, it’s so…’

She didn’t have time to finish her sentence. He’d switched out the lights and the picture disappeared. In the dark intimacy that followed, the lingering image of the picture and the hope it held seemed to be floating somewhere above her.

• • •

The following week, after the hairdresser had styled her hair, they walked around Bloomsbury.

‘So many parks, here,’ he said. ‘Just like Tokyo.’

‘Tokyo has parks?’

‘Yeah, lots, big ones, small ones, some with temples, some with festivals, some for children, one for the Emperor.’

‘The Emperor lives in a park?’

‘Yeah, in a big one in the centre of Tokyo. It’s got a river going around it and trees and bridges.’

‘Do the other parks have people living in them?’

‘Eh … yeah, the homeless.’

‘The homeless live in parks?’

‘Yeah they build huts under trees and use public toilets.’

‘So both the rich and poor live in the parks.’

‘Yeah. Doesn’t nobody live in parks around here?’

‘I don’t know, but there are lots of statues.’

‘Statues? Whose statues?’

‘Oh, everyone. They’re all over the place. Up there in Tavistock Square, there’s a Gandhi.’


‘Yeah. And in the same park there’s a cherry blossom tree to commemorate the victims of Hiroshima.’

‘Just one tree?’ said the hairdresser softly.

‘Yeah only one and probably nobody even notices the plaque about Hiroshima. Such a horrible thing and only one small tree in a quiet garden. If they had one tree for every victim the forest would be bigger than Bloomsbury, would probably cover Camden, maybe Islington too.’

Sonya’s voice had become quite loud.

‘But it’s important. Tree is important because after bomb was dropped people thought nothing would ever grow there again, not grass, not trees, not flowers,’ said the hairdresser.

‘And they did?’

‘Yes, nature came back and hope too. Hey, let’s go and see.’

• • •

It was early spring and the cherry blossom tree was easy to find. Its pink petals were scattered on the ground. Most of it was still in bloom.

‘Amazing,’ said the hairdresser. ‘Perfect timing.’

‘They only bloom once a year?’

‘Yeah and only for a short while. ‘Hakanai’ we say in Japanese. What is it in English? Something that doesn’t last long, like intense love or the shortness of life, something fragile. It has a sad meaning.’

Sonya pictured the blossoming of a cherry tree: the buds forming on the twigs, the gentle opening of the flowers, the whole tree exploding like a bursting heart and then the shrinking, the falling petals and the empty skeletons of branches.

‘Maybe ephemeral or fleeting,’ she replied quietly.



The hairdresser got out a notebook.

‘Can you write it here?’


‘Thanks. If this was Japan there’d be lots of people under tree drinking sake.’

‘What for?’

‘To celebrate cherry blossoms. It’s called hanami, flower viewing.’

‘Do all Japanese words begin with “ha”
or something?’

The hairdresser laughed.

‘That must be why you’re a hairdresser because it begins with ha.’

‘There’s no “ha” in Japanese word for hairdresser.’

‘Anyway, shall we do hanami now? Let’s get some sake.’

‘Sake? I don’t know where to get in London.’

‘And you call yourself Japanese?’

‘Well we can get something else to drink, wine or beer or rum or gin or whisky or Malibu or Martini or Guinness or tea or juice or even mango lassi or pina colada or...’

‘OK, OK,’ Sonya smiled.

‘And we also need blue plastic sheet.’


‘To sit on.’

‘But why blue?’

‘In Japan somebody decided that blue matched cherry blossoms. It’s a kind of Windows XP blue. Now almost all hanami-going people use blue sheets, well there are rebels with polka dot or green ones, but blue is most common.’

‘OK, let’s go to the shop.’

• • •

When they returned to the tree armed with blue binliners, there was a homeless man sitting on a bench beside it.

‘Ah, just like in Japan,’ said the hairdresser.

The homeless man had a voluminous grey-black beard, wild hair and sun weathered skin. He bore a strong resemblance to Karl Marx. His dark-coloured suit was ripped at the shoulder, and he was drinking from a can and swaying.

They spread out their binliners under the tree and sat down. They’d bought white wine with a screw top and plastic cups.

Karl Marx watched them from under his eyebrows. Sonya smiled at him and he raised his can.

‘Cheers,’ he shouted.

‘Cheers,’ they shouted back.

‘Kampai,’ said the hairdresser.

‘What?’ said Sonya.

‘It’s cheers in Japanese.’

‘But it doesn’t begin with ha. I can’t believe it’s a real Japanese word. You’re making it up.’

Suddenly Karl Marx stood up and started doing a dance, a kind of waltz with his beer. He held his arms out in front of him to support an imaginary partner and hummed to himself. His brow was wrinkled and his eyes looked glassy and emotional. He moved slowly around the bench.

‘What’s he humming?’ whispered the hairdresser.

‘I can’t hear properly, something old and romantic.’

‘Yeah, sounds romantic.’

‘Do the homeless in Japan dance like this in their parks?’

‘I’ve never seen, but the salary men dance when they’ve drunk too much. They dance on their own on the station platforms.’

‘That’s a bit dangerous.’

‘Yeah, sometimes fall over in front of trains.’

‘Oh well, it’s a good thing to dance until you die,’ said Sonya, ‘I suppose their last thoughts would have been happy ones.’

All this talk of dancing conjured up the-one-she-was-trying-to-forget again. She wondered how these images had got so deep inside her. She remembered walking with him at 3am through the housing estate near his flat and how they’d reached for each other’s hands at the same moment and walked in silence. At the time, at the peak of her rapture, that synchronicity had reinforced all her dreams.

Karl Marx kept on waltzing around the gardens. He moved towards the Gandhi statue, where he bowed in front of it and held out his hand to lead his imaginary partner up the stairs. Then he stopped, looking at the statue.

‘Cheers!’ he shouted. ‘Cheers, Gandhi, and how about a beer for yourself? Are you a drinking man?’

Sonya and the hairdresser looked at each other and smiled.

‘Do you like Bob Marley?’ said the hairdresser.

‘Mmm,’ said Sonya.

‘I heard that he lived near here.’

‘No way. He was from Jamaica.’

‘Yeah, but he lived in Bloomsbury for while when he was in London.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Someone in salon said.’

‘I had a Bob Marley experience at London Bridge,’ said Sonya.

‘A Bob Marley experience?’

‘Yeah, I was waiting for a train one Sunday in January. It had been snowing and it was freezing and the trains were all fucked up.’

The hairdresser became quite animated. ‘Fucking British trains. Why can’t they get it together? At least in Japan trains run on time.’

‘Anyway, I went and stood up the stairs between the platforms, you know where the train times are displayed? It was so cold you could see your breath.’

‘Yeah. I’ve spent long time waiting at London Bridge too.’

‘Well, there was nobody around except this man selling coffee from a kiosk and he started to play Bob Marley, really loud. It was just amazing – the whole Legend album. The cold wintery station was totally transformed. Then a skinny guy appeared all wrapped up in a scarf and hat, bought a coffee and started dancing near the kiosk. A few more people appeared and everyone was dancing and smiling and the warm breath was rising out of their mouths. I saw white teeth shining through scarves and hoods. Do you know how unusual it is to see people smiling at London Bridge? I realized then that I hardly ever saw teeth there.’

‘Did you dance too?’

‘No… no, I was standing apart from it all, near the timetables.’

‘Why not? Sounds like it would have been fun.’

‘Mmm, I don’t know. I didn’t really feel like dancing.’
Sonya remembered with a shiver how she’d felt that day: bleaker than January at London Bridge, on a different planet from the Bob Marley dancers.

She looked up and saw Karl Marx staggering in their direction. He was all arms and legs in an effort to keep his balance. He stopped in front of them and started to speak.

‘World peace!’ he announced.

‘Yes, here’s to world peace,’ said Sonya, raising her plastic cup.

‘I would love to cut his hair,’ said the hairdresser.

‘I beg your pardon?’ said Karl Marx.

‘I like your hair,’ said the hairdresser. ‘I’m a hairdresser.’

‘Hmm,’ said Karl Marx, ‘well, you take care of her.’

‘I’ve already taken care of her hair.’

‘Very good,’ said Karl Marx and he turned and tottered away.

The hairdresser poured a little wine into Sonya’s cup. A breeze rustled the cherry tree and it started raining pink petals.

‘In two months I’ll be in Japan,’ said Sonya.

‘And I’ll be here in London,’ said the hairdresser.

He put down his plastic cup and stood up in the cherry blossom rain. He held out his hand towards Sonya.

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you didn’t dance to Bob Marley, so let’s dance now.’

Sonya felt herself recoil as the image of the dancers poster flashed through her mind again. The petals were falling around the hairdresser under the Hiroshima tree. She reluctantly took his hand and stood up and he started humming ‘Three little birds.’

More petals fell and she thought that soon the tree would be an empty skeleton like Hiroshima in the wake of the bombing. After the brief intensity of the blossoms, darkness and destitution would return.

The hairdresser moved her around the tree humming to himself. Then he glanced at her face. She noticed him wince.

‘Are you OK?’ he asked.

‘Mmm, but I think I’d like to sit down,’ said Sonya. ‘Maybe I had too much wine.’

He stopped dancing and stood apart from her. His eyes darted back and forth as he examined her expression.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘We can dance another time, tomorrow or the day after or next week or next month or even in Tokyo. Yeah, we can dance in Tokyo. Just let me know when you want to dance.’

© Sarah MacLeod 2007

This story won first place in the Pulp Net Bloomsbury Prize 2007.