Phoebe Cannard-Higgins

Phoebe Cannard-Higgins (28) is a writer from Melbourne Australia. She is writing a novel that intertwines fragments of memoir with fiction as well as doing her MA at Goldsmiths and working in a pub. In Australia her work has been published in short-story anthology Crush (2017) by Midnight Sun Publishing, Voiceworks, Fead Magazine and The Sumtimes. In 2015, she won the Future Leaders ‘Questions’ Writers Prize for writers under thirty. Her writing is interested in feminism, playing with form and the construction of identity.

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 [Excerpt from Memoir]

Winter, Japan 2009. 

The flight from Korea to Japan is a particularly turbulent one. I know this because a Brazilian tells me as we wait in the small departing lounge. He has smooth brown skin, but he avoids eye contact. Instead he talks to me with his body, his face turned in other directions, towards a vending machine, then a grey window that looks out onto the tarmac. His chin rises and sinks as he inspects the other passengers coming into the lounge, his eyes move fast, careful never to rest too long on anyone or thing. I try to hold him by keeping my gaze firmly on his face, but he is evasive.

He is right. The plane moves violently in the sky and I am is shuddered forward in my seat, afraid that this might be my last…my last what exactly? I am overcome by the calmness that one can only feel when their fate is truly out of their control. If I die, I think, there was nothing I could do about it.

The plane thuds onto the tarmac and we exit straight into the cold, cement world, waved along by men with orange sticks and high-vision jackets. In the que to get out of the airport I look for the Brazilian and see his broad shoulders up ahead. We know each other only partly. We have worked together on an underwear shoot and I have seen him out at the clubs. He is friends with some of my friends, and I realise that I am hoping this trip could bring us closer together. By the time I slide my bags through the X-ray machine and look up again, he is gone. The deep pang of loneliness twists in my gut, another missed opportunity.

In the depths of the Japanese subway I pull out the piece of paper with the instructions on it. A red train slides in beside me, bringing with it a wind that lifts the ends of my hair and flicks them around my mouth. I pull my jacket tightly around myself and step forward into the push and pull of people and am carried onto the train. I stand with both hands wrapped around a handle that dangles from the roof, my heavy backpack at my feet.

The escalator carries me upwards and into a brightly lit tunnel. Small shops line the walls, selling water bottles and chocolates. I pause at a stall in the middle of the walk-way to look at some glowing rings. They appear like sharply cut candy glued to plastic. I feel the impulse to bring one to my mouth, but think better of it. Across from me a Japanese man, wearing a white shirt and carrying a briefcase has stopped. He pretends to look at the shiny plastic goods before him. Maybe he is buying something for his daughter, I think hopefully, but a small part of me (from somewhere in the past) already knows.

I weave through a crowd of smartly dressed school girls, admiring their sleek ponytails and scan the walls for an exit sign, increasingly aware of the shadow in my right eye. There are times when I wish I could just fall away. When I wish that the eyes of others, could see me and see nothing. Instead they see something they want. Something to take. I have to do everything in my power just to keep the fragments of myself together, out of clutches of others. But I am feeling sorry for myself again, and I must not do that.

I duck into a pharmacy near the exit of the tunnel and hover near a neon green sign while gazing at the colourful shampoo bottles. If I were a shampoo, I decide, I’d be Herbal Essences, maybe the strawberry one. Herbal Essences was big in the nineties, it’s less popular now, a somewhat forgotten brand, but it smells surprisingly good and leaves your hair extra shiny. The bottle is smooth and cold in my hand, I turn it over and run my fingers down the indecipherable language. Lines and crosses and curves like beautiful little pictures. Every word a tiny artwork.

My manoeuvre into the pharmacy has not been enough. The man is at my side, grinning. I return his smile hesitantly being careful not to appear too enthusiastic. He is shorter than me, and perhaps only just wider in the body. He says hello, bending forward slightly and nodding his head. I mouth hello quietly as if we were in a library or our exchange isn’t happening at all, but it is, and we are not in a library, we are in a pharmacy.

Above us there is loud pop music coming from speakers in the wall. Below us there is a squeaky linoleum floor. I turn and walk down the aisle. Rows of varying creams line the shelves. Alabaster, translucent, natural ivory, peach, beige, bronze. The man is one step behind me. Our exchange has somehow connected us, solidified and justified his existence as my companion, my follower. He doesn’t seem as if he is in a rush, if anything he is docile, at ease in his role. He too examines the rows of creams, making exasperated facial expressions when I pick one up and begin to read the back. I am not sure if this is because the creams are very expensive or if they contain radioactive properties, or if perhaps this is the initiation of a game between the two of us. I pick one up and turn it over, he reads the back – and as if translating, contorts, stretches and pulls his face in all manner of ways, shaking his head, or widening his eyes, pointing his finger at specific words (whose meaning I know nothing off) to give the impression that he is, if nothing else, shocked by the products very existence.

The man’s overall energy for the game makes me laugh and I play for a while, selecting different products and handing them to him. Each time he acts with equal outraged ferocity and places the creams back into their spots on the shelves. But like any game, the players tire and move on.

I nod my head at him as goodbye, but he reaches out and takes my arm.

‘I will take you to dinner tonight.’ he says nodding. I shake my head, turn and walk determinedly out of the pharmacy and back into the river of people that drag me into the afternoon sun. Above the station is a large square, bordered by more shops and neon signs. People walk in every direction, calmly zig-zagging through one another. Across from the square is a road, the one, according to my map that should take me to my hotel. It is lined by leafless trees that push up through the cement and look like old, varicose-veined hands clasping at the sky, and this man is still at my side. As I duck and weave with my heavy backpack through the streams of bodies that pour over the square I think I should be at Pop’s funeral. I should be standing face pointed at the ground, hands clasped in front of me in a graveyard somewhere next to my Dad. Instead I have come to Japan to get a visa, and I am running through a busy square of brightly lit McDonalds signs, and Zara signs away from a man I don’t want to know. I cross the street and enter a 7-11, walk to the back and hide near the magazines. Through the sliding doors I see the man go past. He doesn’t turn and see my eyes behind the Marie Claire, but for a second, he hesitates and in the afternoon light I see a strange, almost hurt look cross his face, and then he is gone.