Taken by the current

Konstantinos Doxiadis

7:55


Eiji woke to the phone’s shrill tune, a penetrating sound which grew increasingly loud as it drew him from his slumber.

‘Hello?’, he mumbled, still half-asleep.

‘Good morning. Is this Date-san?’
‘Yes, speaking. How may I help you?’

‘I would like to thank you for your participation in our programme yesterday. All the reviews were -’

‘I’m sorry,’ Eiji interrupted puzzled, ‘What programme is this?’
There was a pause on the other end, followed by the sound of rustling paper.

‘Is this not Date Eiji the musician? I’m calling regarding the Ueno Music Festival…’

Eiji sighed, cursing, yet again, the commonality of his name.

‘I’m afraid that’s not me. I teach Literature at Todai.’

***

He looked at his alarm’s iridescent display, 7:56, and drowsily got out of bed. The mornings he awoke at 8, to the Fur Elise his alarm clock, were ever scarcer. The calls always came in in the mornings, as though the universe had decidedly drawn a line between his identity, as though it was saying ‘the Date who sleeps is different from the one who’s awake’. Long-lost friends and supposed relatives were the most frequent, followed closely by updates on non-existent deliveries, and mistaken business calls. All placed for a Date Eiji that was not there. He knew that this was not normal, that something was amiss, but, all things considered, there was nothing he could do. What could he say? ‘I’m being plagued by a curse of mistaken identities!’ No, that was ridiculous. No one would listen. So Eiji kept the seemingly random string of occurrences to himself, attributing them to freakish coincidence on his good days, and a cosmological conspiracy aimed at disrupting his sleep on the bad ones. Thankfully, today’s awakening belonged to the former, and as he got dressed swiftly and methodically, he hummed the alarm tune under his breath.


He had done quite well for himself, managing to find a tenured position mere weeks after attaining his doctorate, a feat, unheard of in his profession. From there, he quickly rose to the prominent position of assistant professor, and today, at only 28 years of age, would be inaugurating the annual Tokyo Literary Festival at the university. Several high-ranking members of the ministry of culture were rumoured to be attending, and with the new faculty funding cycles looming around the corner, the prospect of impressing them filled him with eager anticipation. This importance was further amplified as Eiji himself was hoping to receive the prestigious ‘Soseki Writer’s Fellowship,’ allowing him to take a few years off from academia, to focus on a series of papers about lyrical poetry in the Meiji period. Or at least, that was what he told people; in truth, his main priority was to publish a poetry compendium of his own, under a nom de plume. He had been drafting his ideas for the past year, the first few sheets of tentative scribbles quickly turning into a densely packed notebook, then two, and then exploding outwards onto the margins of textbooks, papers and magazines, his desk slowly sagging under the weight of the paraphernalia. Part of the excitement was certainly the pull of anonymity, the knowledge of being shrouded in the midst of a sea of people, just breaking the surface of the water with your head, to see the state of the waves. And the ability to then wade back into the deeps, switching current at will. But the greatest pull would have to be the appeal of permanence; transcending the confines of temporality. Producing work that would speak of itself, without need for discussion, an oeuvre so complete that none would even find motivation for analysis.

He had cleared his schedule for the past week, devoting all time and energy to the thirty minutes allotted to him, so as to do his work justice. One could say, even, that this would be the most influential half-hour of his life, a slot so short that the slightest of slip-ups could cost him the spot on the shortlist. Used to experiencing immense bouts of stage fright in the hours preceding presentations, it was surprising that on this crucial occasion, he felt completely at ease. His mind was clear, his hands steady, and the butterflies that usually fluttered in his chest had turned into a concentrated stream of energy, bursting to be unleashed. Eiji hummed a bit louder.

***

He stood by the carriage doors, the centre of the metro crammed to the brim with schoolboys and salary-men, a pulsating mass of black and white attire, the span of 3 whole generations, differentiated only by their height. Eiji smiled to himself. ‘They are all replaceable,’ he thought, ‘going to and fro from work every day, leading two separate lives, each deprived of the fulfilment it could provide.’ Eiji enjoyed thinking like this, casting himself on a pedestal from which to judge humanity. Who where they, who presumed to be made of the same ilk as him? Their concerns, and indeed their desires, were the epitome of pettiness. Money, fame, entertainment. This notion of ‘joie de vivre.’ He was above all of it, he concluded smugly, and as the doors opened, he stepped out with a renewed vigour in his stride.


Eiji had been chasing greatness all his life, chasing it through the ever-flowing torrent of trivialities and distractions around him. It was a river that possessed only breadth; an endless streak of blue, splitting the world in half. He knew not where it flowed to, but, quite frankly, he did not care. He had never been partial to the infinite, adamantly averse to the notion of losing one’s self in the open water. All he had set his sights on was the opposite bank, that pure fallowed land, ready to welcome those capable of reaping its crop. And Eiji was capable, if not yet ready. Human time, you see, differs for every person, and for Eiji this meant that he was in a constant conquest to defeat to clock, to shave off seconds from that ticking, and cross the river before the hands stopped. So, he scrambled from stone to mossy stone, often landing precariously, and righting his balance at the very last moment. Not once did he look back at the receding shoreline, that weed-strewn land which had housed him all his life. He could not afford to miss his step, to fall into the water, and be carried off by the current, to that unknown sea.

***

Thunderous applause followed the speech, more than Eiji had ever received, and as he stood there, facing the glaring lights pointed at the podium, he could just make out the smiles of his superiors, beaming through the light. ‘Congratulations my boy!’ ‘I’m going to be expecting even greater things now!’ they laughed as they slapped him on the shoulder, making sure to position themselves right beside the ministry officials. Even the director of the university came to commend him on his performance, stating he was an indispensable asset to the faculty, and that a promotion was surely in order. Eiji met them all with a frosty smile, the upturned lips which would otherwise have conveyed warmth, betrayed only by the lifeless eyes resting above. While the former were stuck in the banality of the present, the latter, hardening their resolve in anticipation, had already set their sights on the next stone ahead.


***

Eiji was 10 when he received the ‘Young Writer’s Prize for Exceptional Verse,’ his then small and pale hand gripped firmly by the larger, and significantly darker, hand of the headmaster. Turning to face the crowd, Eiji bowed to his knees, cheeks red with pride, and rushed back to his seat, certificate in hand. Little did they know that he had written his poem for Aiko, wonderful, beautiful, serene, divine Aiko, whose long black hair billowed in the wind. She too, was oblivious, for he had never mustered the courage to give it to her.


***

He woke with a start, the phone ringing in his ear.


‘Date Eiji speaking.’

‘Hey Eiji, it’s been so long!’ came the high-pitched female voice, ‘How are you?’

‘Aiko?’ he muttered, still flustered from his dream.

‘What? No, this is Tokiko, can’t you recognise my voice.’ The woman joked.

Eiji sat up and rubbed his temples. ‘I’m very sorry, but I don’t know any Tokiko. Are you sure you have the right Date Eiji?’

The woman paused, ‘Oh. Isn’t this the number of Date Eiji who went to school in Chiba?’

‘I grew up in Osaka, so I’m afraid that’s not me.’ Eiji said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and glancing at his clock.

‘What an idiot I am’, he swore, after he had closed the phone ‘I’m not her Date Eiji because I’m not her Date Eiji, not because I grew up in Osaka. What stupidity.’

It was 7:48.

***

It was the first time someone had called him from Chiba, Eiji thought to himself, as he sat down in the crowded metro, unconscious of the old man standing above him, staring down with reproach.


***

The department was already well into its celebrations by the time he arrived, having just received a significant amount of funding to expand the faculty. In addition to that, a select few academics, himself included, had been granted individual awards, to help ‘support the passion with which they advanced ground-breaking contributions in their fields.’ After exchanging numerous congratulatory wishes and multiple bows, he walked across to the director’s office, knocking on the ajar door.


‘Come in! Come in!’ came the voice from inside. Judging from its tone, it sounded like the director’s festivities had involved drinking a lot of the champagne he was known to be a fan of.

‘Date! It’s great news! Great! Absolutely magnificent!’ He cast his hand in the air, splattering the desk with alcohol to emphasise his statement. ‘The minister himself mentioned you, they were very very impressed with your research. I think we should talk about a raise.’ He stood to fill a second glass for Eiji.

‘Thank you, sir. But I am afraid I shall have to decline.’

‘Oh no worries, no worries at all.’ The director said happily, continuing to fill his glass, ‘All the more for me!’

‘No. I’m wasn’t talking about the drink. I am afraid I’ll have to decline your offer for a raise.’ Eiji said, his voice growing cold.

‘Decline? Why on earth would you decline?’ The director said bemused, finally placing the champagne bottle down.

‘In light of the money I have received, I have decided to pursue a career in writing, without the responsibilities that come alongside an academic post. I came here to hand in my notice,’ he added in a softer voice.

Eiji, it seems, had finally reached the opposite bank.

***

Three months had passed since Eiji had quit his job, and he had yet to write a single word. He woke up at 8 every morning, only to sit at his desk in forlorn stupor, listlessly twirling the pen in his hands. Every morning, he heard that damn Fur Elise on his alarm, jingling its melody beside his ear. He had made it his personal mission to stamp out its voice as fast as he could, his arm snapping out from under the covers with the very first ring.


It had been three months since someone had last mistaken Eiji’s identity. Since that girl Tokiko had called him. Every morning, after turning off his alarm clock, he would check his phone, just to make sure that no one had tried to reach him in his sleep. He could not bring himself to admit it, but there were days when Eiji desired, more than anything in the world, to be woken up by an unidentified caller. To be mistaken for a Date Eiji that was not him. He would respond affirmatively now. ‘Yes,’ he would say, ‘It is me, Date Eiji’. And every night he dreamed of those stones across the river, growing every mossier in his absence; of making his way back to that infested land, and perhaps even, of falling into the torrent, of letting the current overpower him, and carry him off to the sea.

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