APAGear - Volume 6, Number 1 - January 2004

Tabula Rasa

Tom McGrenery

If I stretch over, I can see the front of the train as it pulls along a slow right-hand curve, leaving the desert halt behind. As the support pylons flick, flick past the window, Hiromi turns her head against the inside of my shoulder. The pylon loops block out the shrinking sun half a second at a time, which makes the window flicker as it polarises. Hiromi shrugs her draped jacket over her neck and I can feel her hair pressed against my mouth.

Her eyes are shut, but she's not asleep. She grips my arm, rubbing back and forth with her thumb. I take her hand in my own. The tips of her fingers are cold.

We picked up some purples from a friend of an acquaintance before we set off. Hiromi kind of panicked while she was down by the dining car. She spotted a bunch of cops in there and scoffed the two she was carrying. They turned out to be better than expected – they'd already kicked in by the time she made it back with a hyperactive lack of coordination to our seats. We decided it was best if she just hung on to me and tried to stay cool, so she curled up under her jacket and pretended to sleep.

I'd looked up just then, and into the eyes of an old man in the seat opposite. He had a face like a hundred sunsets, hollowing now. He wore a long army-issue coat that probably fitted him like a glove when he last wore it as uniform. Now it sagged at the shoulders and folded at the elbows and seemed to envelop him, fading him into his seat.

He'd got off two stations ago. Maybe already he was telling his wife about the messed-up girl and her guy, out of place in first class. Remembering his grey eyes, I doubted it.


Hiromi had been out of place in first class when I met her. The daughter of well-off émigré parents in Marathon City, too sharp and independent for the expensive academy where I found her, the opposite of everything the school calculated to achieve in its charges. Her parents had kept her in for two extra years, hoping fervently for the docile girl they thought they deserved. A friend of mine was a teacher there, asked me to cover a few lessons for him while he was away. I taught her how to weld.

I privately debated the propriety of asking a student out, for some time. I didn't want to cause trouble for my friend. In the end, she took the decision out of my hands by asking me out. There was no way I could look her in the eye and say no. We went to a glass-fronted restaurant with cutlery I could barely use. I walked her home in the drizzle by the bright lights of the west district back streets.


She knocked on my door twelve days later, in blue-tinted shades, her battered hide jacket and what she called her travel clothes – a grey striped T-shirt, canvas trousers with plenty of pockets, and running shoes.

In her bag were two first class air/maglev tickets, courtesy of her parents' inability to come up with an imaginative PIN code for the bank account.

Hiromi had an appointment the next day at a discreet and well-heeled clinic with see-through floors and a receptionist whose chair probably cost more than my car. She said it was mainly her mother's idea, but her father was going along with it. They wanted to put a little ceramic-cased unit in her brain, re-route some of her wiring. Nothing too harsh or indecorous. Just enough to make her really, really want to stick with her curfew. And maybe a little Pavlovian dose of serotonin if she dressed right and got the grades. They'd told her that morning, before heading off for work. Not the truth, but enough to make her break the office desk open and read the doctor's invoice.


All this on the doorstep. I had commitments to think about. I had a whole lot of time on the lease for my flat. A job, bills to pay. But a lilac-like girl with a ticket for me was asking me to run with her. The corridor light reflected in her jet black hair as she looked up at me through tough mask shades and shifted her weight to one foot. She bit the inside of her lip at one corner. Though I couldn't see her eyes, I knew had to go and get my coat. I packed few things.

We took a taxi from my flat to the station, and I held her sunglasses for her when she started crying.


The sky outside is dark now. In the window, the reflection of the carriage's interior is superimposed on a backdrop of stars. I look at myself and try to read the expression I see there. My reflection only has shadows for eyes. I look at her – the real Hiromi – to find she's fallen asleep after all. I put my arm around her and brush a strand of hair away from her lips. She murmurs something in her sleep but I can't hear what it is. I look at us, reflected over the desert, and I think how young we both look, and how old.


We had a bus connection on time to get to a terminus. Found ourselves in a café with a corrugated rust roof, strung out with lack of sleep and drinking an unlikely combination of tea and red wine from our flasks. Hiromi drummed her nails on the steel tabletop and squinted south down the street.

A suited man with a face like a disgruntled ferret was sitting at the next table along. As the waitress brought his order, he shot us a look of suspicion.

"Don't look now, Hiromi," I said, "But I that guy over there is a spy."

She glanced over.

"Watch out," she stage-whispered, "His drink is really a camera."

"Didn't I say not to look?"

"I just thought that was, you know, code. For 'look'."


City lights glow on the horizon like a sunrise. We're getting there – the end of the line. Where we can be reinvented, or blanked, pressed flat by sheer numbers of people, faceless.

The ancient Romans used wax tablets with wooden frames as notebooks. When you wanted to erase what you'd written, you just rubbed the wax over. But if you wanted to keep secrets, it was best to dispose of the whole tablet. Otherwise, someone could be able to read the scratches on the wooden backboard, made by the stylus pushing through the wax. I don't remember where I read that.

We're making our way down the train, to the dining car. They're in there again, the cops Hiromi saw, but they don't look as if they're in active police mode. They're pretty drunk, for one thing. One of the female officers has a bright pink wig, for some reason. Maybe she got it from someone she arrested. Anyway, the cops all find this hilarious fun, laughing like drains as each new person tries it on.

We order miso and wait by the counter. Hiromi's looking towards the streetlight glow.

"Gomi no shengming," she says quietly.

I ask her what it means.

"Nothing," she says, "It doesn't mean anything."


Memories of an open-faced hotel room, thatched grass roof and bamboo walls. We'd decided to check how the travel fund was. We were okay for cash, but the need to get some more was obvious. So, naturally, we put it off. Hiromi deciphered the local slang well enough to get some of the right kind of methamphetamine and we got two jugs of ice water and took them up to our room.

She took my hand as I lay on the bed, and as the drugs took effect interwove her fingers with mine. I realised I was up then, with the heightened sensation of her skin cool against mine, right down between my fingers. She'd put on some music, a kind of flute that I remembered she'd said her mother used to play. I brushed back her hair as I watched the ceiling fan rotate, then turned my head to look at her. I found myself sinking into her eyes, where the speck of light in the blackness seemed to promise everything. I reached out and gently traced the line of her eyebrows with my thumb. Then she smiled at me, which at that moment was the best thing I could have hoped for.

I cradled her in my arms, shivering as she ran her fingernails down my neck. I brushed my fingertips along the curve of her ear down to the hard, solid silver earring she wore, before the usual thoughts of remote analysis began in my head, as if looking through my eyes from a distance. Doubts of the future, of myself and of how well I really knew her pinwheeled across my mind. She kissed me, and all was right again.


I can feel our closeness to out destination, to the end of the plan and the beginning of the blank slate. We're coming into the city now, past heaps of junk, scrap and just plain refuse.

"Gomi no chengshi," Hiromi calls it.

The train goes through a tunnel briefly, and I find no recognition in the face of the man reflected in the window. The platform glides in beside us, and there's the hiss of doors released, then the urgent movement of people who know when and where they have to go.

Hiromi puts on her sunglasses as we step out. We stop and look at one another. The other passengers make their way from the station and the train departs. Then it's just the two of us, on an empty platform.