Rule Number One: Tales from the Gaijin House

Doug Breath

In the late 80s, I lived in a Gaijin House run by “Granny”, a 70-something Japanese woman.

A cast of six residents of varying genders, ages and nationalities rotated in and out of the place – and in and out of favour with Granny – depending on how closely they abided by the rules of her house, especially when it came to Rule Number One.

Rule Number One was made absolutely clear the day you moved in.

No bringing home “sex friends”.

The rule seemed to vaguely extend to other residents of the house itself, but upon this particular point Granny seemed somewhat credulous. Her perspective on the matter appeared to be something like “As if you would sleep with someone you were sharing a house with! Not very likely!”.

As it turned out, this was in fact not only likely it was the corollary to the rule.

“Do not bring home sex friends. You are living with them.”

So it came to be that the not-so-monogamous population of Granny’s gaijin house skittered two and fro along dimly lit corridors and up shaky steps in the middle of cold winter nights. The 90 year old pile of stone and straw which tentatively supported the massive tile roof, shook with gaijin frisson, and the little old lady who was so keenly observant of who came and went through the front and back door of her house was otherwise oblivious to who came inside it.

Lesley, an Aussie dude, was the man of the house and her chief enforcer. He had lived with Granny long enough to secure her trust as well as the large and widely coveted upstairs room. From here he ran a private “church”, which had the advantage of requiring his “parishioners” to stay for prolonged periods of undisturbed quiet.

The preacher didn’t fraternize with the rest of us unless it was to pontificate, mooch something, or request “donations”. Yet he was known to be loaded; due in part to a rather spartan life. He had spent his years in the priestly vocation saving up every yen he had ever earned teaching English, or which had been tithed to him and his church. As the elder gaijin, he delivered long and pedantic soliloquies around the kitchen table. No topic escaped his opinionated disquisitions. This was in the age before the internet and cable TV. With nothing much else to occupy our long winter nights, deriding him was the entertainment.

Granny’s husband had died in the living room, the same room where we we drank our tea, huddled under the kotatsu. The only remaining evidence of his existence was a fairly voluminous set of photo albums containing black and white shots taken at family outings. The shots were uninteresting at first glance, but once the preacher pointed out that almost invariably every shot contained a young female who just so happened to be bending over or walking near the person or persons who were ostensibly the subjects of the image, they became rather fascinating. With nothing much to do with our time we often took turns leafing through the albums and gawking at the blatant obsessions which occupied the long deceased master of the house.

In addition to Granny’s room, and four others on the first floor, there were two rooms upstairs. Ultimately, I was able to matriculate into the smaller of the two spaces which sat at the top of a comically steep row of stairs. It was only once I had moved into this room that I realized the sheer genius of Lesley’s criminal mind.

I soon discovered from one of his “parishioners” that it was possible to enter and depart his room via a simple sloping roof which was easily accessible from a small garden alley wall which also blocked the view from inside the house. The stairs were an added benefit, they were simply too much for Granny, who was still sharp but too feeble to climb them fast enough to catch you breaking Rule Number One.

Despite the fact that it was blatantly obvious that a number of different “services” were being performed in Lesley’s church, Granny seemed oblivious – much to the chagrin of the other residents who longed to see him revealed as a fraud and a hypocrite.

Living in a house full of gaijin is one thing. Living in a constant state of sexual tension presided over by a loquaciously fake priest and a woman obsessed with whether you were bringing women home to screw was another. There was a certain familial warmth about the place; unfortunately at times it seemed rather incestuous. In 1980s Nagoya, gaijin were still pretty rare. If you craved English books or conversation you pretty much took your chances with whomever was at hand.

Dinner at the house was family-style, and most nights we gathered around it to eat whatever bizzaro meal each other was making with the new ingredients we were encountering at the market. We warmed our hands and slices of impossibly white bread around a tiny little toaster oven and swapped war stories of our day farming Engrish students and riding trains to the boonies.

On one particularly cold Sunday night, we all gathered in the kitchen to keep warm and eat Granny’s Japanese-style curry – her speciality. There had been a particularly big snowfall and the house was so quiet you could literally hear her Minnie Mouse wall clock ticking. Lesley was upstairs holding one of his regular Sunday evening services and without anyone to mock we all sat around boozing it up on hot sake and chuhai.

The kitchen was directly under Lesley’s room and though Granny admonished us to that fact we got pretty rowdy. At one point I stood on a chair and did a pretty good rendition of his speech about “The Beast” and how we would all be bar-coded and scanned into slavery by the coming world government and how all of this was a sign of the end times. As usual, I ended my sermon with a request that all present donate prodigiously in order that I could go to the beer machine and obtain further libations for all present.

While standing on the chair I looked up and noticed something rather odd. The ceiling was moving. It was nearly imperceptible at first, but after I sat down and looked again it was quite apparent. I scanned the faces around the table for a reaction but no one seemed to notice. I looked again, staring intently – the movement was noticeably more exuberant. It was clear that the ecstasy of the spirit had come alive and that the services above were proceeding with great enthusiasm. The glory of the Lord had come; at least it certainly seemed about to.

Trying to avoid tipping off Granny, I silently pointed to the ceiling but soon it was evident to the entire room full of drunken gaijin what was happening. To make matters even more surreal, the movement came in waves of furious trembling, as if the ceiling itself might cave in. This was accompanied by a muffled, yet perceptible moan, which began to rise rapidly above the snowbound house.

The preacher had a screamer.

Suddenly the ceiling became more erratic pulsing up and down directly above Granny’s head, who though she could not see what was happening, or exactly hear what was going on, began to form a puzzled look as she saw us all break out in a roar of laughter.

The moaning became quite loud, enough so that everyone, including the old lady could hear it quite clearly. The howls of pleasure accelerated into shrieking, a tumultuous screaming of words that were not entirely clear but whose intention was not.

I didn’t speak Japanese at the time, so I couldn’t understand what was being said, but someone explained that the woman above us was requesting in the most strident terms possible that Lesley vigorously culminate his service. For his part, the preacher began begging her to pray in silence – plaintive words which were spoken loud enough to be heard but clearly not loud enough to stop the waves of and wailing and shouts of vehement supplication.

Apparently the parishioner’s most fervent request, as well as all of ours, had been granted.

Rule Number One… had been broken.

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