On the night of the fireworks

FireworksOn the night of the fireworks he rests his hand on the back of my neck as we walk. His hand is heavy and tanned brown. I can picture the hand lying dark against my pink, sunburnt neck, the fingers stretched enough to curl around my neck where it meets my shoulder, to cup the rosy hot skin burned by the sun of the summer festival.

We are part of a crowd walking slowly down to the river bank to watch the fireworks. People smile at me as they pass. They smile because I am not one of them, but I have come to watch anyway. I can appreciate this part of their culture, even though I am a foreigner. I can be a part of this event. We will all be a part of this event together, it is for sharing, and we will come away happy and tired and then I will go home. Home to my own country. Tomorrow I will board a plane and go home and one day soon I will share this pleasure with my own people by showing them photographs and telling them about my adventures, and we will all understand each other better. That, I think, is what they believe.

The weight of the brown hand resting on the back of my neck lifts, and Hiroshi points to a stall by the side of the road selling dinner boxes packed with noodles and dumplings and other small delicacies with rice. The stall is lit up by bare bulbs. Plastic flags in red and white stripes hang in an arc from the poles at each corner. The flags flutter in the evening breeze. The breeze and the moving flags make it seem like it should be cool, but it is still hot, the air is dank with humidity, and Hiroshi's warm hand has left a moist print on the back of my neck.

He reaches around my waist and guides me toward the stall, where the stallholder is shouting a welcome and waving his tongs over the range of his merchandise. I am wearing a black rayon dress that hangs from two thin straps at my shoulders. Hiroshi's hand is hot through the rayon of my black dress as though we were skin to skin.

Irasshai! the stallholder shouts. Welcome, hello! Hello Miss America!

He has a row of golden teeth along the bottom of his jaw that gleam in the light of the bare bulbs. At the stall next door, a man is selling goldfish to children. His stall is a series of plastic blue and white pools teeming with fish. The children have to scoop up a fish in a tiny net, then they are given their catch in a plastic bag filled with water. The fish man waves a scooping net at me, Hello, fish here, hello. The golden-toothed stallholder makes a joke in a low voice to the fish man and they both laugh before turning away from me and Hiroshi.

What did they say? I ask Hiroshi, and he looks at me. I can see his lips moving as he tries to form the translation in his mouth, but his mouth is all slow and sticky from the heat and he cannot make the English from the Japanese.

About fish, Hiroshi says, and shrugs. Translating is too much trouble — it is too hot.

A small child wearing a Japanese happi coat and tiny wooden sandals runs past and touches my sleeve on the way. Hallo, hallo, sensei, she calls before her mother puts a hand on the small of her back and pushes her forward. I know this child, although I can't remember her name. Hallo, I call back. Goodbye. She came to my class a few times, my class of toddlers and young children who repeated English words after me so accurately that I could hear my own Australian accent in their voices. To die is choose die. What will we do to die? The mother looks back over her shoulder and nods her head slightly as she smiles to me.

Further along the road, a few stalls selling grilled chicken skewers have set up. The fat from the chicken drips and sizzles on the charcoals and the aroma wafts along the street past us. Two businessmen, their ties loosened and their sleeves rolled up, sit on low stools in front of the closest stall drinking from big mugs of beer.

We pass the local supermarket with its bargain bins of socks and cabbages, then the futon shop. Fluffy futons are stacked five high on palettes out the front while the old man who owns the shop sits drinking tea on tatami matting inside the window. He stares at me and Hiroshi as we stroll by, as if he thinks the window makes him invisible. Further along the road the pottery shop owner pulls down her shutter, locks it, then joins the crowd moving toward the river. Watching her brush streaks of clay dust from her shirt as she walks, I realise that the sights on this walk are souvenirs I should be collecting.

Hiroshi is swinging the plastic bag with our dinner boxes backwards and forwards in time with our steps. He leans over and takes my hand in his, then lifts it to his mouth and blows cool air into my palm.

Hot night, he says, then laughs. Hot August night.

At home, August is the month where we have lost patience with the cold and the dark. We long for nights like this.

As we round a corner on the road we see the riverbank laid out before us like a woodblock print. Many hundreds of people are gathered to watch the fireworks. They sit in groups, their brightly coloured cotton kimonos glowing in the dusk light. Each group has its own patchwork of groundsheets and blankets, and pairs of shoes and sandals are lined up neatly at the edge of each group's territory. Paper lanterns sway on the decks of flat-bottomed boats cruising up and down the river, and down by the dock a man with a megaphone tries to organise a group of unruly elderly citizens.

I feel a rush of panic for what I am about to lose. I stop for a moment and breathe in deeply, trying to capture the complicated scent that is Tokyo on a hot summer night.

We pick our way among the parties on the riverbank and find a small spot to spread our plastic sheet. I slip off my sandals and step onto the plastic. Hiroshi passes me the dinner boxes and I hold them while he unlaces his shoes and pulls off his socks, then steps onto the sheet beside me. As I look down I glimpse where my dress strap has slipped. The white skin where I was protected by the dress stands out in stark contrast to my pink shoulders and arms, as though this day, this festival, this country has burned its impression on to my body.

Just as we have opened our boxes and lifted salty pickled plums to our mouths, the first firework explodes above us. Then another and another and for half an hour we all stare upwards at the brilliant light of the sky, and at the climax the whole sky burns bright until suddenly there is only darkness and the smell of the burned powder and empty bottles and dinner boxes and children asleep on their parents' shoulders and it is over.


Paddy O'Reilly's website

Paddy O'ReillyPaddy O'Reilly is author of the short story collection, The End of the World, novel The Factory, novella Deep Water and several screenplays. Paddy has been Asialink writer-in-residence in Japan, a fellow at Varuna: the Writers' House, writer-in-residence at Kelly Steps Cottage, Tasmania, and a full fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, USA.



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Existing comments

What a pleasure to read on opening up the computer. Thanks, Paddy, and congrats to Eureka Street on the policy of publishing poems and stories so regularly. Great for the spirit!
Joe Castley | 12 March 2008

Paddy uses the full palette of the senses to create a fully realised world. A beautiful story. I echo Joe's comments re the pleasure of finding these wonderful word pictures waiting for me on the computer. Thank you, Eureka Street!
Gabrielle Bridges | 18 March 2008


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