Strings 1

‘dreams jangling with lost connections’

March 2024

Cursed (from Tokyo Time)

In her cottagey living room with its oatmeal wall to wall carpet, its framed paintings of flowers in vases and English landscapes, I am relieved it is only the sofa cushion I have sullied with endometrial blood. 

I am in my mid forties, perimenopausal, and fortunately she does not freak out on this occasion. I successfully wash the fabric clean, purging the stain of middle-aged womanhood and its wanton bleeds. 

As I stand at the sink, up to my elbows in cold Ariel suds, she muses that the cause of this bleeding might just be a sign of something sinister, ovarian cysts or fibroids. I must get myself checked out when I go back to New York, and really, probably, I need a hysterectomy, just like she did at my age, when fibroids invaded the endometrial tissue of her uterus. 

Fortunately, my body is not her body, and though I did once reside in her womb, I neither have cysts nor fibroids nor a pressing need to remove my uterus. 

Once, in her seventies, she became possessed with rage (intermittent explosive disorder) at a teenage granddaughter whom she suspected of having shed tell-tale period droplets upon the bathroom floor. It was just a nosebleed, the girl pleaded.


A decade later, I am stranded in Tokyo at the beginning of the pandemic, where my endometrial bleeding resumes once more. It might or might not be a sign of cancer, though most likely it is because I have run out of progesterone tablets. I am covered by health insurance for my visit, and so I make an appointment with a local gynaecologist. 

The clinic is a half hour subway ride from my apartment, easily located in the vicinity of the red and white Tokyo Tower which is as pleasingly majestic at close quarters as it is when glimpsed at a distance. Before I go for my appointment, I check the consultant’s credentials online because I am slightly cautious given the nature of my condition. A graduate of medical school in Japan with a degree from Yale University, a fluent English speaker, whom I hope will be – what? I want to say enlightened, progressive in his attitude towards women. My problem, I explain to him, is that I have run out of Oestrogel, which I take to counter a condition called osteopenia that was indicated in a recent bone scan, and also the progesterone pills I need to prevent the endometrial bleeding that has flared up. 

Dr H, a man in his sixties, informs me that I do not need oestrogen, or indeed HRT at all. He smoothly asserts this gendered authority from another time, another era, and I am clenched, snapped in a trap. He turns upon the swivel chair at his desk and mentions that the progesterone and Oestrogel are unavailable in those forms in Japan. But in any case, he maintains, I don’t really need them. What I need, he informs me, is Fosamax to counter osteoporosis, a drug which my mother took that I know carries harsh side effects, such as a risk of cauterising the oesophagus if not taken correctly: a burnt throat.

I’d like a replacement prescription, I say, because I am stranded here in Tokyo, my flight back to London cancelled. 

When I go to the pharmacy to get the prescription filled, I realise that Dr H has dialled down the calibration to less than half the amount I have been using. 

I double the dose till my bleeding stops. 


A year earlier, I am in my mother’s house, in her end days. I am visiting and staying over, going back and forth to London, where my younger daughter is taking her A levels. I take turns with my husband, and other family members, to be there. Each morning, B her carer arrives with her rotating team, who wash and tend to her, administering her pain relief, though she is no longer given any sustenance, no food or drink. This is the end of life protocol, something that she agreed to with her GP while fully alive, and after consultation with her attentive local GP, who rang me to explain that we had reached this point. 

My mother visits B in her dreams in those strange dwindling last weeks. She is walking away down a woodland path, in that eery bucolic dreamscape boding death, but something is stopping her. In real life, her body refuses to let go, lingering far longer than the projected few days, and B thinks she knows why. We are standing drinking instant coffee in my mother’s kitchen when she tells me. It’s because she refused to say she was sorry for what she did to you, she says, eyes glistening. Other people’s dreams are hard to metabolise, they evanesce upon the retelling, but I take this as a sign, a portent. We swill the cold dregs, and both hope that this final severance from life will come soon and release her, release us, from what feels like a bitter protest, a failed ending, a final curse. 

It is a commonplace to say after a death that everything carries relentlessly on. And it is true, there is a schedule, even if my mother is no longer participating in it.

It is nearly time, nearly the end, and I have to leave, even if she will not go.

My daughter has been by herself all week, and I am anxious to get home to take care of her.  

I say goodbye to my mother’s unconscious form: peaceful, pink cheeked, hair combed through with dry shampoo, tucked up in the hospital bed in her dining room. 

I drive away from her forever. 

In the car, I turn on the soundtrack from the musical film La La Land at loud volume, possibly an inappropriate choice, but I feel weirdly hyper. I drive the 90 odd miles at great speed without stopping until I reach the west side of London, where I park near the school gates. I am jittery, hungry but not able to eat: I need a drink. There is a sleek bar with a fake Austrian vibe called Fischers dead opposite the church, and I go in and order a ruby dark Negroni without checking the price, eye-wateringly high. I do not care, I relish my perch all alone at the bar, the serried bottles of gem-bright spirits, before the school prizegiving, which takes place in the church. My daughter receives a prize for English, and my friend A’s daughter gets one for maths. I want to go out for a bite to eat with them, but my daughter is keen to get home. She is struggling, and I am not fully seeing it.

In the dangling days between my mother’s death and the funeral, I run. 

I run everywhere to get everything I have let go or neglected, done. My brother who flew in from New Jersey for her end days is now orchestrating her funeral. He has learnt to his chagrin that her last will divided her estate equally among us three siblings, dashing his expectations that he is the sole inheritor. 

I do not challenge his insistence upon flying in a Methodist pastor of his acquaintance from America. Instead, I adopt a strategy of jollying him along with whatever he wants for the occasion. Reply to group emails on the order of service. Suggest hymns. Agree on the choice of coffin. Organise a spread of sandwiches for the after-do. Agree to her wearing the fake fur coat she bought on a visit to him in New Jersey from the Burlington Coat Factory for the open coffin at the undertakers. All in the hope that he will not contest her final will, but of course, he later does.

Another thing I do is this: order a video transfer of my student thesis film, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”, featuring footage of my mother, and my parents doomed mixed heritage marriage, alongside my own failed attempt at getting married to a Jewish American theatre director in New York. The film is a collage of Super 8 film, Hi8 video and still photo footage of my mother and father, and of me and the fiancé. Something for us all to watch, I suggest, at the funeral reception. 

Back in London, I find my daughter plummeting, having been left alone too long while I have been arranging things for the funeral. I make an appointment for her to see the GP there, but she wants it postponed till half term in late October. She’ll have more free time then, she tells me, and I sympathise, not wanting to insist and freight her further, which is one of my many mistakes. 

Here is another: in the time between my mother’s death and her funeral, I break my shoulder.

Idiotically, culpably.

It is my own fault for running around pell mell. It happens one dark November evening close to Tottenham Court Road tube station. I have run from the parent-teacher evening at school, to the video transfer shop in Wardour Street to pick up my student film.

The guy on the desk is friendly, and as it is almost Halloween, he gives me a Fun Size packet of M&Ms left by a client. Perhaps I am a little too on top of everything, a little too exhilarated maybe (!), running to make dinner so my daughter can eat a proper meal and my husband can write his column by deadline.

I am also thinking about the film I made so many years ago on formats

that no longer exist.

About how my father and mother were so keen to see me married (off)

and how I avoided their insistence.

I am also thinking    tripping over my thinking   my daughters (mine, hers)

as I run from Soho to Tottenham Court Road Tube station without stopping, tripping over a too big desert boot (I knew was too big when I bought it) on the ultra low curb designed for health and safety and crash land onto the pavement on my left side.

the pain in my upper arm    my shoulder!    is excruciating    the worst I have ever experienced    worse than the car crash with my dad in my early twenties

worse than childbirth

Passers by gather around, a clustering of concern, to see if anything is broken 

In the end, nothing. Nothing to see here, nothing to be done.

I decline offers of help, and get to my feet. I hail a black cab using my good arm, and I fold my defeated body into the corner of the seat. I spend the journey home crying with pain, crying at my bad fortune. The taxi driver is distractedly sympathetic, (I am middle aged and post-cute, and he has one ear on talk radio) chuntering on about hospital and road closures and and and and and people coming over here and and. . .for the entire ride back to Hackney.

The price of the journey is £25, the price of my ruby Negroni when everything was different. 


(Acu-moxa chart: points of the shoulders, Japanese woodcut. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain mark. Source: Wellcome Collection)

The x-ray of your shoulder from A&E does not provide enough detail about the injury, and so you are sent for an MRI, which gives a legible image for diagnosis. 

A letter arrives in the post a week or so later, and in the subject line it says,

Diagnosis: Left shoulder – undisplaced greater tuberosity fracture

The MRI shows intact rotator cuff, and an undisplaced fracture of the greater tuberosity (associated with) a small glenohumeral joint effusion. 

You wonder about these anatomical categories and distinctions. 

You search for images of broken shoulders, physiotherapy exercises, chat sites on factures, nexuses of hope and despair, NHS websites on symptoms and treatment protocols, recovery times and possible orthopaedic surgeries. You delve into academic articles and lean into gloomy prognoses. 

Rotator cuff, tuberosity, glenohumeral. If the anatomy is unfamiliar to you, the terminology startlingly graphic, you cannot help but be impressed with all these functioning parts in the body that you did not know were yours to use with abandon, (at your own risk!)

*Here is a woodblock illustration from a work on Chinese medicine by the 18th century Japanese physician Hara Masakatsu, the acu-moxa locations are marked and labelled in the outline drawings of the shoulders. 

You are captured by the poetic taxonomy that travels to you from a distant time and place:

Celestial Crevice
Grasping the Wind
Crooked Wall
Celestial Ancestor
Shoulder True
Great Bone
Shoulder Crevice

This broken shoulder
celestial ancestor
hidden from the world


The next time I visit my mother’s house it is for her funeral, and here is a stranger, the Methodist pastor from New Jersey, who is pressing in to hug me. 

I am back in her tight living room which is already unrecognisable, packed with shapeless and unfamiliar presences occupying the sofa, cooing and chit chatting in a range of tones and registers and accents. 

My shoulder is broken, actually, please don’t, I entreat the pastor as he moves in to embrace me. 

oh come on, at least let me give you a hug!

(‘let me give you’) 

So I let him. My shoulder screams. 

But I am polite, anxious not to make a scene, and upset the strange tableau vivant I have just entered. Other characters shuffle over, keen to do likewise, to hug me in my dead mother’s lounge. Here is a pallid woman in baggy pilled jumper with a frizz of hair who says she is the pastor’s wife, and there is the male school friend of my brother, not sighted in decades. Wait, oh hello, here’s someone I half recognise! The neighbour who interacted with me briefly to challenge a parking space, beadily eyeballing me from her position at the kitchen sink in her house opposite. Now she occupies a seat on my mother’s sofa (the blood sullied cushion!), and there is no talk of where I have parked. 

In the aftermath of my mother’s death, the fracture is a curse, a literal curse, not the mythical kind. I figure that it must be a matrilineal curse from beyond the grave, this injury, so avoidable, and so incontrovertibly my own fault. 

I am being punished for various misdeeds. For running across a street without looking. For thinking if I do this thing, then that thing won’t happen. For dabbling in dealmaking with superstition, never a wise strategy. 

I was flung down onto Tottenham Court Road to serve me right for my folly, my actual hubris. I feel no doubt in this conviction, no maybe probably possibly. 

At night the shoulder pain and disembodied feelings in my body rise up and taunt me. By day, working, dressing, cooking, writing, or indeed getting on with anything, is painful and thwarted. 

I am cursed. 

I heat up a frozen pizza (single shoulderedly) and my daughter and I eat it together in silence. I must not become frozen in my quotidian tasks because my shoulder will freeze too. Frozen shoulder, like frozen pizza, is apparently a thing, or so I read on the world wide web.

I am being punished for something I cannot name or identify, like a farcical version of Greek tragedy. I am a fated girl in that old German folktale, one of the bad children who play with matches and don’t eat their food and end up dead in Struwelpeter

For being too upbeat in my mother’s end days. 
For glugging an expensive cocktail shortly after the last goodbye. 
For swimming in the limpid Sicilian sea that summer.
For writing the wrong book. 
For being a fatally distracted mother who missed the signs. 


One blustery day at the end of November, you go for an appointment with Mr T, the shoulder specialist consultant, someone you sought out online with impressive credentials. You go into the meeting dreading forecasts for future surgery and loss of movement, but you turn out to be quite wrong. 

Your shoulder is broken, yes, but luckily the tendon did not snap. This would have been the more likely outcome for an elderly person’s injury, says the consultant, and you allow yourself a pop of pride for your elasticity of tendon. 

Is this, you wonder, a reprieve of the curse, a token of something, a sign? 

You seek out online exercises, like a querent, while waiting anxiously for the physiotherapist to schedule a consultation. You find one particular move called ‘pendulum’ that stipulates a circular swinging motion of the arm to relieve pain and prevent stiffness, and you are euphoric that it appears to work. 

It feels like this too might be a sign, the yes-no swing of the arm pendulum. If this way, then yes, if that way, then no. You lean into optimism for once, cheating a little. 

The physiotherapist listens to your ramblings, assesses the injury, and declares you are making a miraculously speedy recovery. A win for your body, hooray! He gives you a stretchy pink band to practise a range of moves designed to build muscles and tendons you never realised you had until now: a gift. The rotator cuff still haunts you, but at least you are now a kind of expert in shoulders, a shoulder fanatic, a convert to its vagaries, its knobbly quirks. 

In the dark mornings at home, you stand in front of the long mirror and see how high you can lift the broken shoulder arm, each day getting a little closer to the twelve o’clock goal on the imaginary clockface. 

And even if you still can’t put on an actual dress    wash blow dry hair    fasten laces    fix a meal    type a    sentence 

it somehow doesn’t matter. 

You count down the days for projected recovery, and you make various deals with yourself in strict relation to this schedule. 

It will definitely happen, or so you decide, in this fixed time frame. 

It is on the horizon, look, there.

ROSIE DASTGIR is a writer based in east London. Her debut novel, A Small Fortune, was published by Riverhead in the US, Quercus in the UK, and Éditions Bourgois in France. It received the Parveen Shakhir Prize for Fiction in Pakistan and was runner-up for the Lecteur’s Prize at the Littératures Européennes, Cognac.

Her work in progress, Tokyo Time: One Hundred and Sixty Three Entries, is a hybrid memoir around a grid of Instagram photos she took when stranded in Tokyo during the pandemic in 2020. The project received development awards from the Society of Authors and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation in 2023.

Instagram: @rosiedastgirwriter