By John, 72. Kangaroo Ground, VIC
I can remember it so clearly, as if it only happened yesterday:
As I walked very briskly from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan I rehearsed my precise instructions. The stranger I was to meet would be loitering close to Hibiya Park fountain, where he or she would be wearing a big, white artificial flower in a top buttonhole. Obviously, in a shirt or blouse, on this hot day in August, 1989.
Earlier that day, I had been drinking champagne in Tokyo’s midtown business district, upstairs from the Foreign Correspondents’ impressive entrance in the Marunouchi Nijubashi Building, a steel and glass complex with sweeping upper-floor views of the city’s gleaming office towers.
Let me explain. I was a journalist abroad. And it was there I first met Mr. Hamilton York, an American finance reporter married to a Japanese woman, and both living permanently in Tokyo.
I recall being introduced to Hamilton by reception staff and, in turn, he immediately introduced me to his many friends and colleagues, all hanging about in the Club’s nearby Cozy Bar and Café.
I instantly felt very much at home with Hamilton, as he bought bottles of top French champagne, as if the price was nothing, and his popping corks opened more doors, attracting faces familiar to him, from various corners of the club. I found out he was a rusted-on regular here, a sometime share trader and very wealthy, who everyone called ‘Uncle Ham’, a pun on Uncle Sam.
It soon became a very jolly gathering indeed. Then, during a quiet moment ‘Uncle Ham’ asked me what I was doing here. “You’re Australian, aren’t you? From your accent?” he said.
He asked many questions, obviously adept at extracting information, along with corks. “I’m sending stories home,” I said. “But purely on commission. If a newspaper or magazine editor likes a particular idea that I float… well, then it floats. Lately, I’ve been writing on the arts, new Japanese technology, cultural interests, some travel…”
“Yup, I get it!” he said. “Good luck to you! And enjoy your first day here at our friendly little Correspondents’ Club.”
Suddenly, he stood up. “A first-dayer,” he said, playfully pointing at me. “Hope you come back often.” Then, much louder, to all within hearing range: “Don’t we, ladies and gentlemen?
More glasses were raised, with smiles all round, as he poured another, and another…
“So, you want a really good story, do you? One your editor will find impossible to refuse?” It was the following week, and Uncle Ham had taken me aside for a moment, and I noticed that no one tried to interrupt him, as his expression and gestures flipped into a more hushed, conspiratorial mode.
“What are you saying?” I asked, innocently.
It all seemed a bit strange, but I went along with it. Uncle Ham said he would make a quick phone call. Then, in two hours’ time, I was to go to nearby Hibiya Park, to its central fountain, a favorite meeting place in Tokyo, where people often gathered.
“There you will see someone stand in front of the fountain. I won’t say who. He or she will be wearing a big, white artificial flower in their top buttonhole, beaming a huge smile, and constantly glancing down at their watch. You will approach this person and they will immediately say, ‘The birds in this park often sing to me!’ In reply, you will then softly whistle a little tune – any tune will do – and be conducted by the button-hole wearer to a park bench, where you can talk much more discreetly.”
“But why?” I asked, very reasonably.
Uncle Ham then explained that this person would have vital information for me; in fact, a huge story every journalist on Earth would love to ace. And just on an impulse, or hunch if you like, Uncle Ham had selected me to break the news. Well, it was a bit odd, of course, but what the hell, I had a free day, and so…
So… I had several coffees and chatted pleasantly with my new friends, until just a few remained at the café.
At the appointed time, I walked briskly from the Club, recalling Ham’s instructions.
Soon, I saw trees and a central paved area in front of Hibiya Park fountain. As usual, it sent jets of white water high into the air, falling into triple shallow bowls one inside the other, with the top jet constantly erupting.
My jaw dropped when I saw them. About thirty people had gathered there, all with big, white flowers in their top buttonholes, glancing down at watches and grinning wildly. I had seen most of them at the club today, including Hamilton York, sporting the widest grin of all.
Well, the joke was on me, and how clever! Suppressing a chuckle, I ignored them all, except for one interesting and very intelligent looking woman with surely the loveliest smile in Tokyo. “The birds in this park often sing to me!” she said, looking up from her watch as I approached.
That was just the start of a very enjoyable evening with the lovely Heather MacCallum, who had just returned from the Middle East, but now wanted to write a few light-hearted travel pieces in Japan, for just a week or three, before flying back home to Glasgow.
“Chirp! Chirp!” I replied, and politely invited her out.
Happily, she said yes, and we flitted off, far away from Ham’s silly button-hole brigade, both very soon to discover that we were, indeed, birds of a feather.