It was our first lunch out, our first restaurant meal after isolation — and it seemed so rushed. The waiter hurried to seat us, pushing the menus in into our slow clumsy hands, the traffic hurtled by, the arms of the municipal clock spun in their course.
Then came the wine and the bread and we had at it, as if we had never tasted anything as wonderful — this ordinary crust, this cheap carafe.
Unready to talk, we watched the bluster of the coming storm through the restaurant’s windows. Women’s skirts slapped the back of their legs, their hair snatched into a swirling frizz; someone lost their papers — A4 sheets were blown high above the traffic. A uni assignment, court papers, the taxman’s receipts all joined the plastic bags and leaves in the rising swirl.
‘It’s just like that woodcut,’ you say.
I look at you dumbly, bread in mid-air. ‘You mean the blue wave? Hokusai.’
‘Yes, no, not that one.’ A moment searching on your phone. ‘Here.’
The paddy fields are tall with rice, and figures — day labourers, a woman with her book of poetry, a rich man and his porter — are walking the path from the middle distance. When the gust catches them, each is turned at different angle to the wind. One scrunches down, one loses their hat, another’s pages are taken into the air, a kimono is lifted, and we see bare calves and skinny knees, two scant trees bend shedding their leaves.
The artist sees this comedy, this instant in an ordinary landscape from the stillness of the picture’s frame. (And we in turn see it in crystalline perfection of a webpage on your Samsung Galaxy s20). Isn’t that what art does — insists you observe rather than participate, rather than chase down that flying hat?
‘Not a bad metaphor for iso,’ you say.
Lunchtime on B. Street is a parade: a trio of uniformed women arm-in-arm lean into the wind; a man in a shepherd’s kaftan pushing a baby stroller hurries through the traffic, banging the stroller up over the kerb; a young man in tight pants phone held hard; a bald guy, shirtless in the cold pushes a shopping trolley brimful of rolled cardboard, his skin is yellow with jaundice.
The woodcut leads into the distance. Salt marshes, the rising tide sketched in with a few quick lines, and there, in three perfect strokes, is Mount Fuji — no detail, no colour, no snowy summit, just the haze of the afternoon and all that air between us and the mountain.
What is Hokusai saying? This is late spring in 1830 and Japan is on the edge of change — two-hundred and fifty years of isolation and self-reflection and culture and now a dynasty is ending; the wind will blow away all certainties.
Perhaps he’s also saying your hat won’t be found, those pages are lost, the land’s gone under and there’s no going back.
‘Or we face these things alone,’ you say quietly.
A squall of rain and the pedestrians have gone. A bus rumbles by rattling the window glass. The waiter checks his watch but we’re still talking. Talking about nothing really, but talking again.
Image: Photo by Joshua Reddekopp on Unsplash. A piece inspired by Katsushika Hokusai’s woodcut Suruga Ejiri (Eijiri in Suruga Province), from his book 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Japan, 1831. Ejiri was a small rural town in Suruga Province on Honshu, the main island of Japan.