On the morning of 1 October 1987, the day Raymond Carver was scheduled for surgery to remove three-quarters of a lung, Haruki Murakami received a telephone call to say that the bed was finally ready.
It was almost a year since Murakami had travelled from his Tokyo apartment to visit the futon manufacturing company in Yokohama. There, he’d sat with the owner and described what he’d wanted. The owner, an old man who’d played a villager in Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon, sat nodding, curled shavings of maple falling from his thin grey beard. He raised his eyebrows when Murakami requested the bed to be six-feet wide and seven-feet long. ‘It’s an important bed,’ Murakami said, and then went on to describe the timber he had collected. ‘I’ll have it brought to you by the end of the week.’
Since he and his wife founded their jazz club, Peter Cat (named after his childhood cat, Peter), Murakami had collected lengths of maple, which he stored beneath their bed. Yoko accepted this without question, until one night when she crossed their darkened bedroom and stubbed her toe on the protruding timber. Only then did she insist on knowing Murakami’s intentions. ‘It’s a tone wood,’ he explained.
‘Maple carries sound well and I would like to have instruments made from it.’
‘But you don’t play! ’
‘Not now,’ Murakami said. ‘But one day I would like to.’
But running Peter Cat left no time for such plans, and for almost a decade the maple had lain beneath the bed as a reminder of good intentions thwarted by the relentlessness oflife. Until he visited Yokohama.
In the office of the futon manufacturer, Murakami had watched as the old man made a series of sketches on broad sheets of paper. He took the best features of one sketch and combined it with the best of others until a design was decided on. The frame needed to support the six-by-seven mattress; the head and foot of the bed would contain solid panels of quilt maple – maple bearing the decorative grain, and into the centre of the head would be carved a small symbol made of an interlocked pair of samaras, the two-winged fruit of a maple tree. The design was simple. A price was negotiated and Murakami paid for the bed in full.
The morning the bed was ready, Murakami had just finished a session of writing. Yoko made tea and they sat in silence. Murakami thought of Raymond Carver. When Yoko cleared the table, Murakami went to the telephone. From where he stood, he could see a portrait of Carver and his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher; it was one of the few photos hanging in the apartment. Murakami called to arrange delivery of the bed.
The bed was for Carver.
A couple of years after he first started translating Carver’s work into Japanese, Murakami and Yoko travelled to the United States, where they met Carver and Tess at their home in Port Angeles. Later, Carver had responded with great enthusiasm to Murakami’s invitation for a reciprocal visit. He was to travel to Japan at the invitation of the Chuo Koron Company publishers, and Murakami, who’d been so impressed by Carver’s height, was having the bed made to accommodate Carver’s six-foot two-inch frame.
Though the two men met for no more than an hour or two that day at Port Angeles, and the awkward quality of Murakami’s spoken English delivered much silence to the conversation, Murakami was moved to be in Carver’s presence. So too was Carver, it seemed. Tess later said that Carver was eager, ‘almost childlike with delight, to meet Murakami, to see who he was and why Ray’s writing had brought them together on the planet’.
The Murakamis arrived in the early afternoon and were served a simple meal of tea, smoked salmon and crackers. Carver had overcome his drinking problem but was yet to develop a taste for tea. Murakami recalled the distaste with which Carver consumed the thin black liquid. ‘In the waning of that quiet afternoon,’ Murakami later said, ‘holding the teacup in his hand, he looked as though he was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place.’
Carver would sometimes haul himself up out of his chair, excusing himself with a heavy outlet of breath, and go to the deck, where he would smoke. Sometimes, Murakami went with him. He had been a smoker himself but had, in the years before, gone cold turkey, cutting back from three packets a day to none. Taking up running instead, Murakami had quickly developed the fitness to run marathons, the first of which was the original marathon course, the historic route from Marathon to Athens, which Murakami had run alone in the opposite direction because he had not wanted to arrive in Athens during the rush hour. Murakami declined Carver’s offer of a cigarette and Carver said that he probably shouldn’t smoke either. But he did. He took out a Zippo and lit a Lucky Strike. And Carver told Murakami the story of how he’d found the Zippo.
He’d been out hunting geese with Richard Ford. It was something they liked to do together. ‘Come to think of it,’ Carver said, looking out from the deck and pointing to a ferryboat on its way to Canada, ‘that’s something we haven’t done for a while now. Do you shoot?’ Murakami looked puzzled. Carver held the cigarette between his lips and feigned pointing a rifle at Murakami who held up his palms. Carver laughed his short, barking laugh and Murakami dropped his hands. ‘Never feel so alive as when I’m out there in the cold and wind, with a rifle slung over my shoulder.’
Ford and Carver had gone out in the afternoon and it wasn’t until early evening that they had found geese. The men had been crawling over a low rise when, laid out over the water like a bandage, they encountered hundreds of the birds, thousands, even. Carver had one of Ford’s bird-dogs, a Brittany Spaniel called Sutpen, at his side, and as they crawled over the wet ground, their knees and elbows cooling with the damp, the dog began pawing at the dirt. Carver heard the metallic chink of the dog’s nails and when he pulled the dog aside, there was the lighter. He picked it up, wiped it against the sleeve of his jacket and held it up to Ford. Carver began to say something, but Ford shook his head at him – as though Carver might have been a son of his, a child that Ford could silence with only a finger to his lips or a shake of his fist.
Carver and Tess were supposed to visit Japan in September of 1987 but that journey was postponed days before they were to fly out. Carver – like Chekhov before him – had been bleeding from the mouth. While so much blood had gushed from Chekhov’s mouth that his friend and confidant Alexei Suvorin and two waiters had vainly sought to staunch the flow, Carver was alone at his kitchen table, editing a typed manuscript by hand. A small amount of blood came into his mouth. As he took the cigarette from his lips, he coughed and the blood was there on the page before him. He tried to wipe it off the passage he was making notes on, a passage from ‘Whoever Was Using This Bed’. In the story, a couple lie in bed smoking in the early hours of the morning while the woman tells her husband about a dream she had:
I can see smoke hangs in the air of the room. ‘Maybe we should open a window,’ I say.
‘That’s a good idea,’ she says. ’Let some of this smoke out. It can’t be any good for us.’
‘Hell, no, it isn’t,’ I say.
I get up again and go to the window and raise it a few inches. I can feel the cool air that comes in and from a distance. I hear a truck grinding down as it starts up the grade that will take it to the pass and on over into the next state.
‘I guess pretty soon we’re going to be the last smokers left in America,’ she says. ‘Seriously, we should think about quitting.’ She says this as she puts her cigarette out and reaches for the pack next to the ashtray.
‘It’s open season on smokers,’ I say.
Much of the remainder of the story has the couple telling each other how they do or do not want to die.
Within weeks Carver was seriously ill; the lung cancer had settled into him and his health was deteriorating. Carver never did visit Murakami. Instead, when he’d otherwise planned to be staying at his friend’s seaside house west of Tokyo, Carver was kneeling over a dark hole he’d dug in the yard at his own home in Port Angeles. He knelt there with the persistent trace of a smile on his face, breathing with great difficulty, as he held the stem of a flowering Japanese Maple in his bare hand. He lowered it slowly into the ground and Tess took a photograph that she would later send to Murakami. Carver had signed the back of the photograph, in his small scribble: ‘Finally got my own little piece of Japan! Hope to see you again sometime soon, comrade. Ray, USA.’
Carver died two months later.
After his death, Tess sent Murakami a pair of Carver’s shoes.
The shoes were three sizes too big for Murakami, but then he never intended to wear them. The day they arrived, Murakami spent much of an evening polishing them until the creased leather gleamed like shoes Carver himself might have carried out of a store downtown that very afternoon. Only when Murakami saw himself clearly in the dark leather did he take the shoes and place them down by the front door of his apartment. He left them there, waiting.
When he heard of Carver’s death, Murakami went to a favourite jazz bar, where he stayed, drinking single-malt whisky, until the early hours of the morning. When he came home, Yoko was reading his translation of Carver’s ‘Errand’ – the story Carver had written about the death of Chekhov. Yoko had always been Murakami’s first reader. Murakami slumped on the edge of the bed. Yoko let the handwritten pages slip from between her fingers, reaching for him.
He woke at 4am the next morning, showered and dressed. He took Carver’s shoes and set out for his seaside house, west of Tokyo. He reached the house soon after dawn, when the sea was flat and grey. He removed his own shoes at the door, set Carver’s down beside them, and went into the room where he’d arranged Carver’s bed. He switched on the lamp beside the bed. The futon mattress was rolled and bound in the corner of the room. The light passed through the bare slatted base of the unmade bed and shadows fell on the rattan mats beneath. Translations of Carver’s work were stacked on the floor beside the bed. The photo of Carver planting the maple hung on one wall. Murakami thought of ‘The Projectile’, the poem Carver dedicated to him after their first meeting, and of how something – success or failure, cancer or a snowball hurled from across the street – might strike when you had your back turned, or even if you had spent years keeping an eye out for it.
Then, for a moment, it was 1984 again, and he and Carver were sitting in low chairs in the lounge room at Port Angeles, lamenting the death of small birds that had been crashing into a glass windbreak. When Murakami had failed to find the words to say what he wanted to say, Carver had just smiled and sipped his tea, grimacing a little as though he was in pain already. Then Carver had politely raised his tea cup, and for a minute something else, something neither Carver nor Murakami could find the words for, entered the room.
The year after Carver’s death, Murakami joined friends for ohanami, the annual cherry blossom party they held in Tokyo’s Ueno Park during the days when the flowering peaked. The park was a sixty-acre piece ofland left as it was before the city rose around it. Murakami found his friends where they took up their position each year. They were sprawled out on flattened cardboard cartons; their shoes lined the perimeter. They feasted on platters of sushi, plates of pizza, bowls of noodles. They drank from cases of beer and barrels of sake.
Murakami lay on his back and looked at the ancient cherry trees and their great mossy trunks. He saw the dark lines of the branches across the sky. Late in the afternoon, a wind picked up and, as they began gathering their things, the group was engulfed in hanafubuki, a storm of flower petals. It began to rain then and the damp petals stuck to their faces and lips and, if they chose to speak or laugh or sing, gathered sweetly on their tongues.