Those Graceful Hands

“Please stand back from the edge. Please be mindful of the yellow line. Please form a queue. Please be patient. Please stand back from the edge. Please…”

The station is chaos. Somewhere upstream someone has either fallen or thrown themselves on the tracks, the official language is notoriously obtuse in these circumstances, and we ride the trickle-down as the cascading delays break neatly onto subsidiary lines, a crashing wave of green signs turned amber and then red. “Please stand away from the edge. Please be mindful of the yellow line.”

The novel I am reading is a hefty tome, kilograms of dead tree barely held together by a fraying spine and a ragged cover. I haven’t yet had a chance to get stuck into it — I get my weight training carrying shopping bags up my mountain, thank you very much — but faced with a lengthy train ride, I threw it in my bag. I’m glad I did. This will be a long commute.

A train arrives. It is not going where I need to be, but it is going somewhere and that is enough. I wedge myself in a corner seat and pull out my book. This is a tactile thing, a real thing, and I immerse myself in a way that is still only possible for me with these kinds of physical objects. I am tangentially aware of lengthy stops between stations and the intermittent hum of clusters of humans late for somewhere they need to be but with no way to get there. Some time later, I notice that the carriage has gone unusually quiet. I look up.

Across the aisle, an enormous man has just sat down. He is dressed in an austere blue kimono, hair tied neatly behind his head in a simple top-knot, and carries a small bag made of a twisted square of beautifully patterned cloth, a furoshiki bag. The man is arranging his limbs as he settles in his seat. Seats. Somehow he has managed to negotiate two consecutive seats, a miracle in the oppressive squeeze of rush-hour delays. He shuffles gently sideways, his enormous bulk requiring that he spread himself across the entire bench with legs splayed.

This is a sumo wrestler and, judging from the now complete silence in the train carriage, quite a famous one. The man’s massive thighs quiver beneath the fabric of the kimono as he settles himself. He sighs deeply, a brusque sharp exhalation of air that cuts against the silence of the carriage. The business man across from me whispers something to his colleague and they both pause, heft their newspapers, then lower them slowly in order to sneak a poorly concealed look in the manner of a middle-school spy manual.

The man-mountain pulls a small package from the furoshiki and lays it on his lap. It’s about the size of a tissue box and wrapped in beautiful patterned cloth, the same way grandparents wrap packed lunches, no folds and no visible fastening. The thickness of the fabric and the simplicity of the design betray the quality of the cloth. This is an expensive item or, at least, is wrapped expensively.

He fumbles briefly with the package and removes something before smoothing the cloth with remarkable dexterity for someone whose fingers resemble thick, meaty sausages. For a while I can’t see what he’s doing. I don’t want to stare, or to be rude, but I’m intensely curious as to what he’s playing with. I pretend to read my book and steal glances by looking at his reflection in the window next to me. This is chapter two of the middle-school spy manual. The next chapter details how to put a stone in your shoe so you don’t forget what leg you’re fake limping on.

There is a muffled and distant cough, and the conductor gives a short and garbled message indicating that if I want to have any hope of getting home, I should probably get off here and walk. The train stops. I snap my book closed and grab my bag from the floor. As I push past salarymen on the way to the exit, I glance down at the Sumo. Cradled in his hands is a tiny, latest model mobile phone, shiny and sapphire blue. It looks like a toy in hands. A little blue pillbox. He taps at the keypad with a single finger and I can see emoticons sprinkled throughout his text, animating in frenetic yellow loops.

As I step onto the platform, I hear the two young women disembarking in front of me conjecturing as to who he was, before concluding that he “certainly looked like somebody famous.” The sign above the closing doors scrolls a line of amber text noting a delay due to “human accident” and asks for understanding. We form a line, and neatly exit the station.

Animating emoticons