The Cushion

17 Oct 2018

The Cushion
“I need to go somewhere cool,” I stated to my equally sweaty friend Tom.
“What? As in cool getting down with the kids cool or cool as in it’s freaking hot out here?”
“Because the moist t-shirt wasn’t enough of a clue?” I sarcastically stated.
“I’m just checking. I know how being the trendy one means so much to you.”
Tom was right. I was forever concerned about my appearance and it didn’t matter what my friends said, I was never quite satisfied with how I came across to people. That was why we had come to Japan, to embrace a completely different culture and expose ourselves to situations that would test our courage. I had so far failed miserably however, point blank refusing to speak the language even though I knew some words and forcing my poor travel companion to organise everything regardless that he knew even less than I did. 
“And why are you smiling?” Tom asked as I self-analysed myself yet again.
“I’m just realising that we picked the completely wrong time of year to come here. I thought a bit of sun would be great for showing off all my hard work in the gym. Instead, here I am looking like I’ve been dragged backwards through a hedge whilst someone was watering it.”
“I really don’t know why you worry so much. You look fine,” Tom remarked. “Isn’t it just the same look you have in the gym anyway?”
“Ha ha. Very funny. It’s alright for you. You don’t care what people think of you.”
“That’s not true,” Tom stated in surprise.
“Okay, maybe just not how you look then. You know, you don’t worry about being cool.”
“I worry about being cool now?” Tom joked.
Seeing my glare of annoyance Tom pulled out his guide book.
“Look, I read about this place this morning. It’s a temple type place called Kiyomizudera and it’s underground so it should be much cooler than staying out here. What do you think?”
“Hmmm,” I pondered looking over the glossy photos of what looked like yet another pagoda type structure. “Underground you say?”
“Yes. Want to give it a go?”
“Okay, why not, as long as you ask for the tickets.”
“Fine! Come on, it’s not far.”
We made our way East through Kyoto and past touristy streets selling various local specialities and it took me multiple attempts to stop Tom from pausing at every stall to buy something. 
“Come on, it’s so hot!” I moaned.
“Okay okay, wow, I’m seriously going to start calling you moany Michael. We’re supposed to be having fun!”
“Why can’t we have cool fun though instead of hot fun?” I teased. I knew I was being childish, but I was exhausted and desperate to be somewhere cold.
“Look, it’s just over there, come on.”
Tom pulled my reluctant body over to what presumably was Kiyomizudera temple and I waited as he paid for two tickets. 
“You know you could have bought these. That guy didn’t say a word to me. I didn’t even have to ask for two tickets,” Tom remarked in surprise. “It was like he just knew.”
“What, that there were two people wanting to go in? Yeah, his psychic abilities are impressive,” I replied sarcastically. 
“You’re a nightmare!” Tom joked. 
“You still did it better than I would have done.”
“Oh come on. What’s the worst that could have happened?”
“They might think I’m some stupid tourist,” I exclaimed.
“We are stupid tourists,” Tom laughed. “Look at the state of us?”
“Okay, point made, but they might laugh at me?”
“And why would they do that?”
“I don’t know because I’m making a fool of myself.”
“No you’re not. You’re trying to speak their language. You’re making an effort. Only a horrible person would laugh at you. What about if it was the other way around?”
“What, like a Chinese tourist in London?”
“Yeah, just like that. Don’t they always try to speak English to you when they ask directions?”
“Yes, I’ve never understood why they always approach me,” I mused thoughtfully.
“Do you laugh at them? Do you think they’re stupid when they pronounce things wrong?”
“Point made.”
“Hmmm,” I mused thoughtfully. “I still feel stupid though.”
“Ugh!” Tom moaned poking me and smiling.
We made our way forward and down some stairs to where I wasn’t sure, presumably underground, but a queue had formed in front of us. Waiting patiently, I began to wonder if we had made the right decision.
“So now we’re standing in the heat,” I moaned.
“At least it’s in the shade,” Tom replied, but clearly he was beginning to feel the strain too.
Slowly we edged forward over a period of what must have been an hour until only two couples stood in front of us.
“What actually is in this place?” I asked.
“Err… well, it says it’s a pitch-black basement that supposedly represents a womb.”
“A womb? Interesting… and pitch black you say?”
“So… what will we actually see then?” I smiled, raising an eyebrow. “You know, just so I know if this is worth the wait.”
“That my friend, I have no idea, but it is supposed to be a temple all about love and relationships. Maybe being in the womb will help you come to terms with your… issues,” Tom mocked good humouredly.
“I don’t have issues,” I exclaimed in mock horror. “I feel quite content with visiting this womb. I am sure it is… very homely.”
We both laughed a little too loudly and immediately were met with annoyed gazes from the elderly couple in front. 
“Sorry,” Tom whispered bowing his head slightly and stifling his giggles.
“I think it’s just them in front now,” I whispered. “Can you even see where the couple in front of them went?”
“No, it’s just pitch-black ahead.”
I strained to see, but the brightness of the day sun just made it harder to see what was ahead.
“How will we know where we’re going?” I asked with a familiar anxiety rising inside me.
“It’ll be fine. Look, there’s a hand rail next to you. Just hold on to that as we go around.”
I looked down and felt relieved to see the hand rail in question and grabbed it immediately. Its cold metal bringing a little respite to my humid hands.
“Is it just me or have the couple in front gone now too?” I whispered.
“I’m not sure. Have they?”
“I can’t see them anymore or hear them.”
“Yeah, weren’t they arguing about something?”
“I thought that was about us,” I remarked.
“No listen, I can’t hear them anymore.”
“So, should we move forward?”
“I guess so.”
Looking behind us a long queue had formed, so reluctantly I moved my hands forward to see if I could feel the couple in front.
“What are you doing?” Tom exclaimed.
“I’m feeling my way forward. I can’t see a damn thing!”
“What, so you’re literally feeling them up?”
“You said they were gone?” I stated in surprise yanking my hands back. “You do it then.”
“I can’t feel anything. It’s just air. I think they’ve moved forward.”
I hesitantly held my hands out again and felt around.
“I can feel something,” I whispered nervously.
“What is it?”
“It… feels like… some sort of cushion? That all I can describe it as.”
“A cushion? So not a short fat bellied old man?”
I yanked my hands away again. “Stop saying that. Wouldn’t he have said something by now?” I whispered in horror.
“Maybe he’s being polite,” Tom replied trying not to laugh. “The Japanese are very polite people you know.”
“So, you really think he would happily accept some sweaty Westerner touching and poking him all over?” I asked concerned.
“Come on, the queue is massive now. We have to go somewhere.”
“But I can literally feel something soft in front of me. There is nowhere to go!”
“Well, where does the hand rail lead to?” Tom asked with a hint of stress finally rising in his voice.
“That’s it, it doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops… at the cushion.”
By now the humiliation of holding up the queue was too strong and with panic overcoming me I pulled at Tom and we ran back up the stairs and out into the sun. Panting and relieved at escaping the awkwardness we stared at each other.
“There was a cushion,” I whispered in my defence and we both laughed.
“So, what do we do now?” Tom asked. “Wanna give up?”
“No?” Tom asked surprised.
“You’re right. I need to face up to embarrassing situations.”
“You do, and to be fair no-one cared we ran back up the stairs, look. They’ve all made their way down now anyway.”
“Where have they gone?”
“Well, there my friend lies the mystery.”
“What about the cushion?”
“Or the poor elderly Japanese man who you fondled,” Tom teased.
“Oh shut it. That cushion was not a person. It was… well, cushiony.”
“You want to try again?” Tom asked. “See where those people went. They had to have gone somewhere.”
“Okay, let’s do this,” I replied, and to Tom’s surprise I led the way back down the stairs to the entrance of the underground hall and back to where I had felt the cushion.
“It’s not there!” I stated in surprise.
“What do you mean it’s not there?” Tom asked confused.
“The cushion. It’s… gone.”
“See, I told you it was that man, or his wife. They’ve probably filed a report by now.”
“Very funny.”
“So, does the hand rail go anywhere now?” Tom asked.
“Let’s see.”
I held on to the rail and thankfully it seemed to lead forward into the darkness so slowly we edged our way into the underground hall. For a few minutes we made our way through a ridiculously dark passageway with Tom clinging to my shirt and me blinking my eyes as if that would somehow make me see something, until we eventually reached a glowing light.
“Wow,” Tom whispered.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered back. “So, is this it? The womb thingy?”
“I guess so.”
“It does feel homely in here. It’s weird. It feels kinda cozy.”
“You glad you came in now?” Tom smiled in the candlelight.
“Yeah, puts it all in perspective doesn’t it.”
“Come on, I can feel people behind us again.”
We continued on through the darkness once again, holding on to the rail and up some stairs and back out into the bright sunshine.
“That was awesome.”
“Yeah, I’m glad we did that,” I smiled. “I feel… different.”
“Cleansed maybe?” Tom teased.
“Oh shut up. I’m trying to be a changed man here, but something is still bothering me.”
“The cushion?” 
“What was it?” I remarked.
“I guess that will always remain a mystery between the cushion and mother womb,” Tom grinned and we both laughed.


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