New Irish Writing: March’s winning story

How To Write A Song by David Brennan


I once wrote a song about 1642. The year that is.

I was taking the train from Noborito, where I lived, to Ginza, in central Tokyo to meet my lover. I had just kissed my wife goodbye and assured her that all things would work out and that she shouldn’t panic and give into the forces of chaos. As I waited on the platform I glanced up at the electronic sign and saw that the train was due at 16:42. The idea, like all good ones, came out of nowhere, and was accompanied by a giddy feeling – I’d write a song about 1642, a standard blues train kind of thing: Heading Down to Ginza on the 16:42.

Worse than the heat was the August humidity. The air conditioners were, as always, too cold and after a few minutes the sweat on my back turned cold and goose pimples broke out on my arms. As the train was travelling into Tokyo and it wasn’t rush hour yet I was able to get a seat. I pulled out my iPhone and began checking Wikipedia about the year 1642.

I was soon interrupted by a message. Let’s call her Akiko. A married woman I’d met at work. She’d said she’d be 10 minutes late. Even separated by cyber distances she had a devastating effect on me. My hands shook as I typed back that I’d meet her at the usual place and that she shouldn’t rush. We’d been meeting for over a year and there were no signs of the intensity decreasing; if anything, it was the opposite. There was an animal quality to these encounters, which even now can ripple my bones. I’d made love to my wife earlier and was regretting it a little because it might blunt the edge of my time with Akiko.

The first thing I discovered was that a lot happened in 1642. This was a problem as I’d have to condense it into three or four minutes. I continued reading. In the west, the English civil war was arguably the defining event of that year. Oliver Cromwell was on a rampage. Heads were rolling. Puritan hell was sweeping o’er the land. Red Roses and White roses – now there was an image which could be turned into a chorus:

The red rose for my lover and the white rose, the white rose is for you.

The Odakyu express sped towards Shinjuku. There, I changed trains to the Ginza line and again I got a seat and could continue my research.

The following extract caught my attention and convinced me I was onto something.

Sentenced to death

Thomas Graunger or Granger (1625? – September 8th, 1642) was one of the first people hanged in the Plymouth county (the first hanged in Plymouth or in any of the colonies of New England being John Billington) and the first known juvenile to be sentenced to death and executed in the territory of today’s United States.

He was a servant to Love Brewster of Duxbury in the Plymouth Colony of British North America. Graunger, at the age of 16 or 17, was convicted of “buggery with a mare, a cow, two goats, divers sheepe, two calves, and a turkey”, according to court records of September 7th, 1642.

Graunger confessed to his crimes in court privately to local magistrates, and upon indictment, publicly to ministers and the jury, being sentenced to “death by hanging until he was dead”. He was hanged by John Holmes, Messenger of the Court, on September 8th, 1642. Before Graunger’s execution, following the laws set down in Leviticus 20:15 (“And if a man shall lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast”), the animals involved were slaughtered before his face and thrown into a large pit dug for their disposal, no use being made of any part of them.

* William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647.

Thomas Graunger would have to be in the song. Yes, that poor unfortunate would have to be resurfaced. It wasn’t just that I felt sorry for him; I felt I could identify with him. It has always been my nature to feel affinity for those ridiculed and outcast. Let me make it clear that I am in no way interested in having sex with animals, though I can understand the intensity with which lust can sometimes overtake a man. In all likelihood Graunger was probably not guilty of all those offences but was forced to confess by puritanical fanatics quoting the book of Leviticus.

Maybe he’d pissed off the wrong guy. Maybe the crops were bad that year. Maybe he was caught with his pants down. We’ll never know.

Other notable events of the year 1642 include:

November 24th Abel Tasman becomes the first European to discover the island Van Diemen’s Land. He later discovered New Zeland.

Rembrandt finishes his painting The Night Watch.

1642 Yellow River flood: Some 300,000 people die when the Ming dynasty army in China intentionally breaks the dams and dykes of the Yellow River to break the siege by the large rebel force of Li Zicheng.

On January 8th, Galileo Galilei dies.

On Christmas Day, Isaac Newton is born.

Actually, I wasn’t going to Ginza but to Toranomon. But for a song, Ginza is much better, as it’s famous in Tokyo for its high-end shops, restaurants and nightlife. Going down to Toranomon just didn’t cut it. It sounded like a newly discovered species of dinosaur. In “The Ginza” (as the Japanese call it) you can find the most expensive Kabakura clubs with the most beautiful girls. Kabakura is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon: businessmen come to a bar where they pay to talk to (and to only talk to) attractive and charming women. There is a no touching policy and, for the most part, it’s not about sex, more about the promise of it.

Never alone

I took the east exit and emerged into the relentless heat. As usual I was early. I entered the Family Mart, where we always met, and went to the magazine section to kill some time. I wasn’t alone. You are never alone in Tokyo. Two high school boys, head stuck in manga. Three salary men leafing through porn mags. Office lady fiddling with fashion mags. Salary men glancing at office girl. Sex fuels the giant mechanism that is Tokyo, the metropolitan concrete marsh spanning 30 million souls. It drips it, oozes it. You’d lick it off the pavement. Feel it in the raindrops. Smell it on eyeballs of shy glances. Smell it, almost see it, on crowded trains, thick in the air, the aroma of hundreds of closely packed groins sweating, ovulating, pulsing to the rhythm of the tracks.

My phone buzzed in my right pocket signalling her arrival.

I started to purchase the usual things: ice-cream and bottled green and oolong tea.

I’d asked her to wear that pink summer dress, the one which barely contained her breasts and subtly revealed her legs. We exchanged smiles and touched hands briefly but otherwise kept our distance. Thirty million people but you just never know who you’d bump into. Separated by a few meters I walked ahead and she followed behind.

All we could see of the receptionist were her wrinkled hands when she took the money. The wrinkles matched the heavy years in her voice. Akiko put the ice-cream in the fridge and took a sip from her green tea. I took out two neckties from my bag and stared at the blue/white stripped one which I’d worn for work the day before. I sat on the corner of the bed looking at her, at her face, her legs, her breasts.

“Did you bring it?”

She nodded and glanced towards her handbag. We played familiar melodies with our hands, teasing the seconds, undulating anticipation. I told her to take off her underwear. She knew to leave on the dress. As she kneeled on the floor and moaned, her mouth full, I played with her breasts as they hung out uselessly over the top of her dress. She was hungry and I had to pull her back. It might sound like I was in control but I had lost control a long time ago. We took our time. Drew it out like an elastic band.

Sensitivity to pleasure

She’d brought the edible lotion. Japanese attention to detail and sensitivity to pleasure cannot be equaled by other races. I’d seen those guys cleaning the train platforms with toothbrushes. After she’d made me squeal and moan I crucified her and she loved it. When I asked her where her husband was and what he was doing, she moaned loud. When I asked her if she was going to call her mother-in-law later, she moaned harder.

Afterwards we lay on the bed for a few minutes wrapped in silence, punctuated only by the sound of our breathing. We talked of work. We ate the chocolate ice-cream and drank tea. We talked about the students we knew. We talked of nothing until she ventured out and demanded something for herself. We’d never spent the night together, she reminded me. Wouldn’t it be nice? Yes, I said, it would be lovely. But I wasn’t sure. I wanted to keep her right where she was – without too much power over me. That was the best point of married women. I wanted to sleep, to fall into that silence again, but things were pressing on me to get going. What things I can’t precisely say but it was more or less everything.

I thought of my wife and I felt I should be back with her. The first few times you betray someone the guilt is sharp. But over time the sharpness dulls and betrayal becomes normal. There were other women too but Akiko was different. She’d been hard to win but once she broke she gave everything.

On the train home after checking more details about 1642 I realised I’d mixed up the War of the Roses, which took place in sporadic episodes from 1455 to 1487, with the civil war of 1642. But I needed the rose imagery for the chorus and I wasn’t going to change the year. I would bend the facts. After all, it was just a song. The train was thick with bodies, of which at least four were touching mine. Their disgust, their discomfort, their lust became indistinguishable from my own. I put on my iPod, closed my eyes and tried to remember the silence.

Ideal wife

As soon as I got home I ate the sandwiches my wife had prepared. They were always the same: cheese, ham, lettuce and onion. My wife was 10 years younger than Akiko, more sensible, practical and reliable. When things were good she was the ideal wife. I went to my room where I picked up the guitar and started on the song, capo on the fourth, playing a C chord, sounding the key of E a key, which suited my voice. I used an alternating bass line country-sounding strum and began fiddling round with the words. Somehow the song fell into place like it had always existed. Verse-chorus-verse with a simple melody. My wife came in and told me to keep it down. She never liked my playing or singing and considered it all a waste of time. I kept it down.

One night in the city girl
Is all I ask of you.
I’m heading down to Ginza
On the 16:42
On the 16:42.
Won’t you be there beside me
When the end comes crashing down?
I hear that girl a singing
She’s a singing oh so clear
She’s singing oh so clear.

Well, I’m heading down to Ginza on the 16:42
Won’t you come along and come to Ginza too
I got a red rose and a white rose and the red
Rose’s for my lover and the white rose is for you
The white rose is for you

Rembrandt’s painting pictures cause
The night watchmen are sleeping.
Thomas Graunger’s crying cause
they’re hanging him at dawn,
They’re hanging him a dawn.
Galileo Galileo is going
home to see the stars.
She’s headed for Van demines Land
She’s crying as she goes
Oh she’s crying as she goes.

Heading down to Ginza, like most of my songs, was heard by only a handful of people. I performed it once in a bar in Shimokitazawa called Gari Gari (which is an onomatopoeic expression for skinny) to an audience of 15-20 people, most of whom were musicians, poets and songwriters themselves.

The performance was unremarkable. But I was happy that I could sing a song in Tokyo, mentioning Thomas Graunger, who was executed 400 years ago in Pennsylvania for crimes of bestiality.

The storm has passed its claw
Across the broken dawn.
Two horsemen hold the parchment
Where the lovers’ home is drawn
Where the lovers’ home is drawn.
Cut it down the middle
Pull the guts out from the bone
Take it as it comes
whichever way it goes
whichever way it goes.

David lives in Cork. He was one of the winners of the Irish Novel Fair 2018. In 2016 he won the Frank O’Connor Mentorship Bursary Award and has been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story (2017) and the Fish Memoire (2018) among others.

His first novel is forthcoming and due for publication with Époque press in 2019.

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