At Ueno Zoo last Sunday, my wife and I watched the penguins shuffling around their pond. Akiko giggled behind her hand. “Kawaii,” she said. Cute.
A little boy next to me tugged at his mother’s hand. “They’re wearing suits, like Dada, look!”
“Yes,” she replied, smiling down at him. “Little salarymen, with little black trousers and little white shirts.”
Akiko wandered off, but I stood for a while and watched the penguins trudge round their tiny concrete pool again, back to where they started.
In the ramen bar that evening, Akiko was trying to work out how soon we could afford a new carpet for the living room and whether blue or beige went best with the new blinds. When she had finally wound to a halt, I asked, “Where do penguins live?”
Akiko sighed. “Canada, I think. Is it important?”
“No, not really. Shall we go for a beer after this?”
“Oh, Tadao – it’s Monday tomorrow. Don’t you think you’ll be too tired for work if we stay out late?”
The next day, as usual, the alarm woke me at 5:40am. I groped in the dark for the snooze button. It seemed only seconds before the alarm shrilled again, but now the laser digits of the clock said 5:50am. I cursed and stretched to hit the button again, but Akiko stirred. “Tadao, you’ll miss the train!”
I swung out of bed, pulled on my work clothes and ran through the concrete streets to the railway station. “Danger! Closing now!” the carriage doors reprimanded me, as I squeezed through them gasping for breath.
An hour later my train arrived at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. For the first time in my life, I stood still and watched. The dark worsted swarms of commuters bustled endlessly through the bright concrete tunnels. There were thousands upon thousands of them, in their indistinguishable suits, travelling in to their indistinguishable jobs and then out again to their indistinguishable houses. Black suits swarming everywhere, going nowhere: like ants. Like penguins.
I didn’t follow them. I walked up the stairs and out to the skyscrapers and the bright blue air.
I bought a packet of Marlboro from a vending machine and strolled over to Segafreddo for an espresso. I sat outside in the sun, lit my first cigarette since I’d married Akiko, and took a long, relieved drag. It seemed that all my life I’d been carrying a huge rucksack filled with lead, and now I’d laid it down, and I was weightless.
When I finished my coffee, I walked to the agency opposite and bought a ticket.
On the plane that afternoon, I sat next to an elderly western woman. “Hello,” she said to me in English. “Why are you flying to Canada? Business?”
“No, sorry,” I said politely, struggling to find the foreign words. “Because of the penguins.”
She smiled at me as if I were a child. “But there are no penguins in Canada.”
“I know,” I replied.