Elliot met Birdie at Starbucks Asakusa armed with his Lonely Planet.
I’m getting you out of here, babe. You’ve been working too much, and Sunny’s grinding you down. You need a time-out. And me too.
Work had been getting tough for Birdie. Fewer clients were asking for her by name and there were two new Australian girls who were younger and more enthusiastic. She had been pondering changing her hair colour or getting acrylic nails but Elliot had laughed and told her he wanted her exactly the way she was.
They settled on Nikko and Birdie finished her Frappuccino while Elliot called his work and explained how horribly ill Birdie was, and how badly she needed him to nurse her for a couple of days.
She doesn’t have anyone else — her room-mate’s useless. He was laughing when he got off his phone, all his boss had said to him was, Have fun mate, where are you taking her? Kyoto? Hakone? Nikko? His boss wasn’t Japanese. Mr Ono was less enthusiastic when Birdie called him, so she promised she would be all better by the following night. Not that it would matter to any of the clients, Birdie thought.
Elliot shook his head at her and mouthed, grinning, Oh no she won’t Mr Ono…
They sat on the cool benches in the station waiting for the next train and playing Elliot’s favourite time-killer, the Word Association Game. He seemed calmer than usual and it settled Birdie. She realised that she hadn’t left the city for months, and he couldn’t have either. He held her hand as if it were light, rested his square knee against her round one and started again:
Raisin — Date — Dinner — Dessert — Desert — Camel — Hump — Whale —Greenpeace — Protest – Cop — Donut — Bagel – Cream Cheese — Cow — Grass —Weed — High — Sky — Cloud — Thunder — THUNDER DOLPHIN ROLLER COASTER –
He let Birdie have that, even though she’d repeated a word, and when she stopped laughing she found herself wishing Sunny was here, that she was coming with them. Or the Sunny from before, anyway.
On the train Elliot pored over the Lonely Planet, working out which shrines and temples they should see, and where the best place would be for lunch. Birdie tried to relax and not think about Sunny. She knew she should call her or send a text, but something stopped her, something in her wanted to make Sunny wonder, maybe even worry. Switch places for once. And even mentioning her name usually pissed Elliot off, so Birdie left it.
The trip took two hours, so it was lunchtime when they arrived at Nikko. They left the train station and walked out into the clean air. Birdie took in a deep breath.
Can we live here?
Elliot laughed at her, Yeah, sure we can babe, you just have to clear it with Mr Ono, and Sunny first, huh?
Across the square from the station there was a decrepit grey building with a huge sign on the front, screaming at them to EAT YAKITORI and suddenly their Korean restaurant plans were squashed by the thought of garlicky grilled chicken and icy beer. They took a table outside in the garden and as she leaned back to stretch in her seat, Elliot smiled at Birdie. Good idea or excellent idea?
After lunch they took a bus from the centre of the little village to the temple district. The road was winding and Birdie felt wobbly high up in the bus. Perhaps it was the beer, maybe it was all the green, all that empty space spreading out in every direction. It was a good, soft kind of wobbly. Elliot was babbling in Japanese to an elderly couple across the aisle. He was telling them something about Colorado and his sister. Birdie was pretty sure he didn’t have a sister. It didn’t matter though because soon enough they were getting off at the stop for Tōshō-Gū, the main shrine. There was a group of school kids in matching yellow caps roaming around and taking photos of each other making the peace sign in front of furious-looking carved Deva kings. Elliot asked a kid to take his and Birdie’s picture but he giggled and ran off to join the group, so Birdie attempted a self-take with their cheeks touching and an angry king roaring in the background.
Nikko was one of those must-visit places. Wandering around the shrine, Birdie felt a little bit guilty that she hadn’t made the effort to get out here until now, and it struck her that the happiest of the girls at the club were the ones who actually took trips out of the city, on their own or with clients, to see something other than neon and glass and concrete. She made a silent promise to start a new regime of day-tripping.
Elliot was speaking Japanese to a French girl in short denim overalls when Birdie found him behind the main building. Hey happy-snapper, let’s go and see this famous sleeping cat of yours. There was too much fresh air in her lungs to get insecure and panicky about some long-legged European so she smiled and introduced herself in French and the girl answered her in Japanese, and laughed with Elliot. Birdie slipped her hand into Elliot’s and pulled him gently back to the path.
They walked in silence down the huge stone steps towards the exit and Elliot dropped her hand and sighed. I thought we were leaving Tokyo in Tokyo, Bird. She kept walking and then smiled straight at him. This was not going to be a big deal. Bird — I’m serious, you’re gonna have to loosen up, he grabbed her shoulder, and Birdie said with a grin, I am loose! But it came out strained and high-pitched, and he knew better than to push her any further; he didn’t want to spoil the day with a scene either.
They stopped near the famous red bridge, Shin-Kyo, and Elliot took pictures and started going on about the colour of the swirling Daiya River beneath, and how great these shots were going to come up when he saturated the colours with his new software when they got home. Birdie couldn’t stop herself. Tears just started leaking out of her and she turned away from him and tried to sniff herself back to composure, but it didn’t work and as soon as he touched her she broke out in sobs, which led to messy hiccups and coughing and he laughed gently and hugged her to him, rubbing her back and not saying anything.
The hotel was a western-style inn, with a private bathroom and an enormous proper bed. Birdie showered for almost half an hour under the high-pressure and when she got out Elliot had the sheets turned back and helped her into bed like she was injured. Just take it easy babe, I’ll go out and get you whatever you want, you probably need some time, maybe some sleep? Birdie wished he wasn’t being so good to her, it was too much. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I think I’m losing it, all this fresh air and religion — maybe I’m allergic. But he didn’t laugh.
It had been years since she’d had one of these teary meltdowns. She felt like a child again and he was acting so adult and concerned, Birdie wanted to make it all stop but she felt too tired. Her whole body was weak so she just asked him to get her Diet Coke and to make sure her phone was on the charger.
The bed was soft and Birdie could feel herself slipping away into sleep, like she was rolling down a hill.
She woke up the next day at noon and checked her messages; two from Sunny telling her to call her and one from Mr Ono checking that she would be at work that night. Elliot had left a note telling her to rest and saying he’d gone to a hot spring, and he’d be back later. Birdie turned her phone off and went back to sleep. She was probably going to lose her job, she realised, but that didn’t matter because in her sleepy haze she was pretty sure she was going to live in this hotel room for the next year or so anyway.