To catch a thief: extract from My Son, My Son
When his Japanese wife abducted their two sons, Douglas Galbraith had to resort to devious means to track them down
By Douglas Galbraith
7:00AM GMT 24 Mar 2012
Summer in Scotland, 2003, the little drama almost five years ago to the day I start writing this – these things take time.
It is Fife in particular, an untypical part of a largely rough country – calm waves of land capped with a richer soil that patchworks the view with ripening crops instead of hill, moor or stubbornly improved pasture. There is something almost Kentish about it, though no hop fields these days and less spoiled – less concrete, fewer people, narrower and less cluttered roads, and beyond the low horizon the North Sea and a fringe of undeveloped sandy strands and coastal cliffs promising, it is said, fossils and gems to the patient hunter. It is a good place to bring up a family.
The scene is a railway station. The service up from London pulls away and I watch the homecomings and the visitors being greeted. The minicabs make off with their fares, then a bus collects its passengers from the shelter. It is not a busy time and I am soon alone with one other traveller. I look over the car-park, searching for a patch of dirty red which indicates our permanently unwashed car and my wife and sons come to collect me and make the 20-minute journey to our home. Nothing yet, but it doesn’t matter on such a warm and luminous evening.
They were there four days ago, two boys six and four years old, a little grumpy at being dragged out on some trip that had nothing to do with them. They are different, though clearly a pair with the same straight chestnut-brown hair, the same deep brown eyes and the skin by no means dark, but not quite fair either, a skin that takes the sun easily and might suggest, if you saw them out of context, something southern. In another country they stand out, but in multi-ethnic Britain – and that includes even Fife these days – they are noticed only for themselves.
Their names, if you were to overhear them, would be a more helpful clue: the little one with his head and face so much rounder than his brother is Makoto, his elder brother Satomi. He was once called something else, but even I call him Satomi now, as did all his schoolmates 10 days earlier at the first, and almost certainly last, sports day I will ever attend as a parent.
It’s a small country school, probably no more than 20 pupils, two teachers in a pretty stone schoolhouse not much changed or expanded since it was built for the purpose a hundred years back. The field of competition is the village recreation ground, just an acre and a half with swings and a roundabout at one end.
Makoto, still a year too young to be a pupil, amuses himself on these as the action unfolds. A sportsman emerges, face grim with effort and aggression as he gets his chest increasingly covered with gold stickers – never enough, it seems; one to watch for the future. Satomi is happier with his honourable collection of silver and bronze, perhaps having inherited his father’s disdain for winning. The final event is a longer race around the perimeter. Satomi falls back, flopping with exhaustion, but delighted all the same as he runs towards me and breathlessly declares, ‘I ran faster than somebody.’
Already self-contained at four years old, Makoto has paid no attention at all to the proceedings. Besides myself the other particular observer of Satomi’s efforts has been his mother. Expressionless, determinedly apart, this small Japanese woman, Tomoko by name, looks on frigidly and with mounting anxiety as she watches her son, so visibly different from her, interact with Western teachers and Western children and all in a Western language.
Though no rational investigator could find any evidence for it, she is sure in her own mind that everyone else there is part of a conspiracy to loosen her grip on her children. No one would suspect she has any connection with me. Indeed, she is clearly concerned not to have any connection. All afternoon she will not look at me or speak a single word, even to explain why she is not speaking. This is not unusual. The behaviour neither surprises me nor, at this late stage in a long decline, embarrasses me. We look like a couple who have had a row that morning, although in truth there has been an openly declared and exhausting war for the past five years.
On this occasion there is something different about it, something of the extremist in her insistence that I do not exist, that her children’s father is simply not there, not to be thought of. It was a necessity, I suppose, given what she had planned. The signs were there, clear in retrospect, but in those days there were still things I didn’t believe people were capable of and I couldn’t read them correctly. I was outclassed in deception. With some regret, I know that will never happen again.
Sports day is over and it’s time to go. The red car – the one I am waiting for a fortnight later at the station – is parked by the side of the road with its doors open, Makoto already strapped into his seat in the back. The goodbyes are made, his elder brother’s foreign name chorused by a dozen childish Scottish voices.
I think back on this day as I pace the platform and check my watch. Cars emerge from a bend in the road and run along a short straight past the station before disappearing among the outlying houses of Leuchars. Traffic is light now and I can hear individual engines approaching before I can see anything. I stare at that point where they first become visible, willing the next one to be red. Sometimes it is, though not the one I’m waiting for.
‘See you Thursday,’ Tomoko had said to me the previous Sunday as I got the train down. She was not always convincing, but was at her best that day: completely natural. I was looking forward to getting away. As a writer my workplace was a room in the house and this constant mutual presence was perhaps not such a good thing. I saw my journey to London as necessary, but also welcome. Whether excessive contact with the mother of my children hastened the end or delayed it is difficult to say; it was, after all, just such a rare period of absence that she was waiting for.
I have already dialled my home number once from the public telephone and now dial again and listen to it ring and ring. They must be on their way, then – a confusion about the times. I think back to our parting the previous Sunday. Could there have been any misunderstanding? The right day was clearly mentioned, followed by a needling ‘have fun’. I construct reassuring scenarios but cannot stop the fear rising.
I abandon the wait and start making my way home by public transport. This involves two buses and then a taxi ride of four or five miles. It cannot be much before 10 o’clock when I arrive. The house has not burned down, it is not surrounded by police cars. Although it is still light, it is also past the children’s bedtime and so I notice that all the curtains are open. The red car stands on the driveway. The garage door is open. The doors of the house are locked and I have no key.
I become very conscious of the possibility of being observed from the other houses that curve around ours in a tight cul-de-sac, so I move through a side gate into the back garden. There I pace for a long time, partly working over the problem of how to break into my own house, but mostly struggling with the fear of what I might find inside. In truth it is not the prospect of finding Tomoko’s small, manipulative corpse that bothers me. It is the other thing – that extreme and unspeakable news story one sees once or twice a year, blowing in sensationally from a far-off country, always impossible to understand. Something makes me believe she is capable of it and that’s why I don’t want to know what’s in my house.
I get a screwdriver from the garage. My breath is short and my hands trembling as I lever open a window and climb in. The place is very silent and I stand still for several minutes before being able to make any decision. There are eight principal rooms. That’s seven others to enter – seven thresholds, seven doors to be opened. Very slowly I go round them all, hesitating before entering each one. On the way I notice that an item of furniture is missing. Books have gone from the shelves and where there were two prints hanging together on the wall there is now only one. I go upstairs to the bedrooms. Everything is neat and empty. I come to the closed door of the master bedroom, the appropriate setting for horrors and tragedies. Inside there is nothing worse than two pairs of pyjamas lying in the middle of the floor in vaguely child-shaped heaps. They have my boys’ fresh smell and my hallucinating skin detects a warmth that can no longer be real.
Downstairs I notice a single letter on the doormat. It is from the Royal Mail and is addressed to Tomoko. It was not her plan that it should have been sent, let alone seen by me. It is the one imperfection of the crime scene, the lead one expects in a piece of mass-market fiction before the story really gets going. I open it and read that they are pleased to confirm her instructions for forwarding mail to her new address: Studio Shinmido, Yodogawa, Osaka, Japan. I know something of the law, I know something of Japan and Britain too, I know a great deal about Tomoko, and so I know I will never see my children again.
I have been searching the place and have become aware, loss by loss, just what a meticulous and thorough burglary has been committed. It’s no surprise that the bank statements have gone, and one could hardly object to this any more than to an opponent’s winning stroke. Birth certificates are missing too, and photographs, which surely goes beyond the strictly necessary. Then I know what I must find, and I turn the place upside down, going through it all with a breathless violence as if in a mad scene from an opera or an old play. Finally I come across the right box, but it is empty too – of a lock of Makoto’s infant hair, of the two tiny hospital security bracelets and of the ultrasound picture of Satomi before he was born.
I am lying on a white sofa in a room full of light, waiting for the police. It is not a room I believe in any more. I don’t believe in the table, the windows, the silence. I don’t believe in the facts I know to be true. I don’t believe, and will not for many months, that there is a single car that drives down my street which is not bringing my children back to me.
I don’t believe the telephone, but eventually get up to answer it all the same. It’s a voice I don’t know, a woman, and I am still certain she is about to tell me something of great importance when I hear her ask if the sofa is still available. I hesitate, I lie. I return to the sofa in question. I sit on it, slump on it prostrate, reach for the local paper on the table and turn to the classifieds where I find, not without a certain grim admiration, the contents of my house advertised for sale.
Some weeks later, Tomoko, Satomi and Makoto are visited by Interpol in their temporary quarters just before they move on to an address unknown; that is, unknown to me. The mother is described as ‘strange’ and the accommodation cramped, but neither to an extent that would justify intervention. And no, they won’t give me a forward address. The attitude of the Japanese authorities is predictably consistent with that of their British counterparts and their labour-saving affection for the Data Protection Act: within days I am told by officials on the opposite sides of the earth that my children are no longer my business. There is no explanation and no possibility of entering into a debate – it is a plain fact.
There was one question that nagged at me in these early days of being a left-behind parent. I still had my children’s passports, both the Japanese and the British versions. I found them where I had hidden them, useless now but precious because of the photographs they contained. The hiding place had been a good one, but Tomoko had clearly found another solution. I telephoned the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh. Japan answers. It’s a young woman, instantly flustered by encountering a foreigner and with a constantly rising pitch of anxiety in her voice. Her initial approach is impressively fundamental: I am lying, I have made the whole thing up, and she won’t tell me anything. As a brush-off technique this makes the Data Protection Act positively caring by comparison. She doesn’t sound persuadable. Could I speak to someone else? No. To the Consul perhaps? Out of the question. Might I know his name so that I could write to him? No. Is his name a secret? Yes.
Happily for me, there has been an appalling security breakdown and the Consul’s name appears on the front page of the website. I write to him. He ignores me. I send the same letter again, recorded delivery. He directs a minor functionary to reply, explaining that as I am almost certainly an impostor he hopes I will understand that it would be quite impossible for them to communicate with me at all.
I write again, this time enclosing copies of my children’s Japanese passports, solemn documents covered in the language and symbolism of the state the Consul and his staff are paid to serve – the old-style kanji characters on the front, the golden imperial chrysanthemum, and the pages inside with their Mount Fuji watermarks. This is the epistolary equivalent of playing the national anthem at full blast. They snap to attention and confess. Yes, they did it: they issued the passports that got my children out of the country. But no, they will not explain why they produced duplicate passports for two British-Japanese children who already had valid Japanese passports in issue. They will not say what questions they asked, or checks they made. They will not say why they did not think it reasonable to obtain the consent of both parents. All this is none of my business. An authentic, official detail is added – it’s the real purpose of the letter, the one point they wish to get clear. The passports I hold are no longer the real ones – they have been cancelled. Only the duplicates are the real ones now, the ones that did the damage.
Time passes. There is a sense of deep change, not only in my circumstances but in my identity too, my self. I am being pulled away from the old tribe and forcibly joined to the new: my people now, the only ones who know what this is. I bear new marks. I begin the process by which I will come to accept new and unfamiliar beliefs. Blow by blow, I am beaten into a new shape.
One fine day I sit on the steps that lead out to the garden. The potentilla is flowering, the fuchsia in bud. Sweetpea clambers up canes against a background of uncut grass. Here and there in the thickening undergrowth my eye picks out the brightness of unnatural colours – a small blue bucket shaped like a castle with four corner turrets and a portcullis entrance, a scarlet plastic crab, a toy ambulance canted over against a clod of earth, the word emergency printed in green on its white flank.
I review the events of the past weeks. I see a pattern and begin to follow it – the nervous dismissiveness of the police receptionist and the open incredulity of her colleague in the Japanese Consulate, the coldness of the head teacher, the idleness of the police officer justified by a reference to the abductor’s gender. It seemed that on this subject, the subject of a father and his children, I had almost literally lost my voice. And so a question began to form, more and more insistently: had I lost my voice recently, or had it been weakening for years through a process I had been too complacent to notice?
So much for one small case in a growing problem. What should happen, what happens elsewhere, what would happen in a better world? It may not be possible in the UK to interest a police officer in the disappearance of your children – or at least, not where the other parent is involved – but that doesn’t mean there is no procedure at all. There most certainly is. The procedure is user-friendly and easy to understand: you contact the Foreign Office and they send you a leaflet.
Apart from listing what the British government will not do for its citizens in these circumstances, the leaflet does contain one worthwhile piece of information – a pointer to the central international legal instrument in the parental child abduction scene. It doesn’t work very well anywhere, and in much of the world it doesn’t work at all, but it’s pretty much all there is. It dates from 1980 and is called the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
The Convention declares its aims in the opening article: to secure the prompt return of wrongfully removed children and to secure rights of custody and access across the borders of the signatory states. The Hague Abduction Convention requires every signatory to agree that parents in troubled families should not obtain unfair advantages over each other by skipping from one jurisdiction to another. Its central principle is that abducted children should be returned to their country of habitual residence where parental skirmishing can continue in the domestic courts, if that is what the parents wish. The procedure is led by a purpose-built ‘Central Authority’ in each country, relieving the left-behind parent of the burden of cost, and is supposed to focus on whether the disputed child was wrongfully removed from the original country or not. If the answer to this question is ‘yes’ an order should be made for the return of the child and that order should be promptly enforced. What could possibly go wrong?
Sadly, the law has long been adept at frustrating the ends of justice and the operation of the Convention illustrates this as well as any international instrument. In several jurisdictions orders for return are not immediately enforceable, in others appeals are entertained, undermining the very idea of a simple summary procedure. Endless debates are possible about the precise definitions of custody rights and wrongful removal, points often being submitted in bad faith with the intention of stringing out the process.
A return can also be refused if abducted children are judged to have become settled in their new environment after a period of one year. While practical at first sight, one predictable consequence of this has been to turn proceedings into a game played against the clock. The abductor can easily creep up on final victory through a series of delays, procrastinations and open non-co‑operation while the left-behind parent can only look on from abroad as the prospect of restoration leaks away month by month.
Defenders of the Convention admit its weaknesses but seek either to diminish or conceal their scale, and its advocates remain strikingly coy about hard figures for the return of children. Some external pressure is typically needed and a UK ministerial answer to a written parliamentary question tabled in 1998 shows what it is they are so keen to hide: applications received in the previous year regarding abductions to France 16, judicial returns one; applications regarding Spain 13, judicial returns one; applications regarding Germany 16, judicial returns one. That’s a 93 per cent failure rate even between major European jurisdictions.
Lined up against the Convention and its good intentions is the divisive wedge of cultural differences, deep-seated gender norms, the visceral desire to hold rather than surrender one’s children and the mutual loathing and distrust of warring parents. These are powerful enemies and its relative failure in the face of such opposition should be no great surprise. On the cultural front a glance down the list of signatory states is exactly what one would expect. The Islamic world, with only a few exceptions, continues to reject the Convention’s humane and compromising embrace. In China, its microscopic footprint does not extend beyond Hong Kong and Macau, where it persists as a legacy of British and Portuguese rule. India will have none of it.
There’s something too obvious about the way international law emanates from the West – intellectually, historically, even physically – for it to be easy for the non-Western world to co-operate with its foreign reasonableness, the abrasive superiority of its values. It is hardly unexpected that Japan should lead these holdouts, maintaining a unique status as the only major and fully developed country to continue to reject the provisions of the Child Abduction Convention. The government of Japan has been considering the Convention for many years. The practical reality remains that no abducted child has ever been recovered from Japan as a result of legal proceedings and it remains highly doubtful that this will change in the foreseeable future.
‘See you Thursday. Have fun.’ The words are so real I turn to confront the speaker. But it’s only me, there again on the station platform, waiting for the red car that never comes. Public and private converge in a neat, reinforcing fit. I find myself drawing up an account of the price I’ve paid for not lying – the cvs not embellished, the odious patrons not flattered, the sharp truth not suppressed whenever in the company of another influential moral defective. It’s quite a bill. At school I escaped a caning and suspension by lying. The headmaster demanded I look him in the eye and tell him the truth. I looked him in the eye and told him a beautiful, barefaced and magnificently effective lie. I made him believe what I wanted him to believe, I made him do what I wanted him to do. It is my only entirely happy memory of school, and a deep-buried lesson.
It is time to change up to the higher morality – it is time to start lying. As I can achieve nothing myself it is essential to become someone else, and as the old gender hasn’t been working so well for me lately, I have to change that too. So I become Sarah, Sarah Levi in particular, who knows all the right people in 18th-century English studies and is in a position to offer Tomoko the re-publication in a prestigious book of her only scholarly paper. That is to say, to offer her the only thing that will bump her up from being the part-time language teacher she was in Reading to being a proper lecturer in a Japanese university. This is a hand-tied fly for one very particular fish – but where to cast it? I guess that Tomoko is trying to use the last professional connection still open to her: her old university. And so I send it to their alumni office, with my respects and gratitude in advance for their help in passing it on to their former student, should they happen to know her whereabouts.
A fortnight passes. My routine is to fire up the computer at the start of each day, time-waste on the net, correspond with others involved in their own abduction stories. I spot something in my inbox on January 28 2004. I open it and read: ‘Dear Sarah…’
Tomoko is enthusiastic about the publishing proposal. She sends her acceptance by email and looks forward to further news when the project is more advanced. Sarah replies with more details – the particular university that hosted the conference out of which all this arose, the likely publishing timetable, the terms regarding free offprints and the author discount on the final book. I reread this email now, more than six years after it was sent, and have the odd experience of almost believing it myself. Everything about it is right – it’s a modest but perfect piece of the literary illusionist’s art. It had to be good, for whatever else I’ve written, and whatever I write in the future, this was the one occasion on which a certain talent for making things up truly mattered.
It’s contact, but of the barest sort. Obsessively, I read over the two lines of Tomoko’s reply, trying by some magical process to squeeze further information from it. I imagine a trail of data, bytes, electrons, the breadcrumbs of the digital world that must go back all the way to another keyboard which, when used to send this message, may have been no more than a few feet away from my children. Part of them has come with it, an infinitesimal, homoeopathic dilution of their selves.
There are some practical problems with this deception: I have no interest in corresponding with Tomoko about the publication of an imaginary book, and she would certainly have no interest in corresponding with the real Douglas Galbraith. The lie must be maintained and at the same time developed to produce useful information. Sarah decides that the article must be re-typeset, and as this involves the possibility of errors creeping in, it will have to be proof-read by Tomoko – could she have a postal address for sending the proofs? There’s another lengthy, cagey silence before I get the next ‘Dear Sarah…’
And there it is. For the first time in months I know where my children are: an apartment in a place called Toyonaka, just a few miles north of where they were before. It’s a high-density suburb of Osaka. With the help of the postcode I can pin them on a map to within a few tens of metres. I look it up and get pictures of the locality. I’ve seen worse, but my heart sinks as I look at them and the crime feels freshly magnified, against Satomi and Makoto more than against myself. Why take them there, why take everything away from them and replace it with this?
What should I do with this information? Grandly, I feel this is like a piece of wartime Ultra intelligence – what matters most is that the enemy should never know I have it and should certainly never know how I got it. But this isn’t a war, in spite of appearances, and all I care about is that my children should know as soon as possible that their father, mentally at least, is always with them. I send presents, revealing by doing so that I have found their new location. I send letters begging for photographs and receive a reply from Tomoko demanding money but regretting that her camera isn’t working. I send a camera. Apparently, this one doesn’t work either.
There doesn’t seem to be anything more I can do. Weeks go by, perhaps a couple of months before I receive an unexpected message: ‘Dear Sarah, How are you? It’s a long time since I heard anything and I’m wondering how the book is coming on?’ Only then do I realise that Tomoko has never connected my knowledge of her address with the fictional Sarah Levi and the much-desired book. Sarah Levi can still perform one last service.
It’s a legal one, in a way. The job is to find a way through the ethical desert of one of the central elements of the new deal between men and women – no-fault divorce.
The facts are not in dispute – and via our respective lawyers, Tomoko’s submission to the court readily admits that she removed our children from the country by deception and without consent. She explains, with admirable candour, that she did this because (a) she felt like it, and (b) because of the poor quality of the sushi available from the local Tesco. Sadly for connoisseurs of the law’s madnesses, this case would never come to judgment and so the diet-related defence of child abduction remains untested in Scotland. The argument, in any case, is not about these things and is not even directly about children – it is about money. In particular it is about the house, the house Tomoko also tried to sell in advance of her disappearance, along with the sofa, ushering various estate agents around the place as I plodded on in the study.
And so the house, and the money it represents, remains in the jurisdiction and becomes a proxy for the whole issue. In divorce actions arising from international parental abductions, left-behind assets are a special case and should be recognised as such by the courts. They are often the only leverage on the abducting parent and should be available to negotiate better compromises on contact and communication with the abducted children. But where no-fault principles are applied, the intending abductor can be confident that if they take the children first the courts will send the money on afterwards.
Having broken up the family by abduction, they then make additional financial demands on the grounds that they have burdened themselves with the costs of raising the stolen children. Acceding to these demands forces the bereft parent to finance the break-up of their own family and deprives them of the resources to pursue any legal action abroad. This was precisely the position of Tomoko’s lawyers and there was never any indication in preliminary hearings that it was considered outlandish or legally unviable.
I want to talk to my children. I want to hear their voices and tell them their father loves them.
I want to say that what they have been told about their new life may not be true and that they must try hard to think for themselves. I want to tell them to be happy and make them laugh. To do this I have a disputed asset, the last piece on my side of the board – that, and Sarah Levi.
Divorce actions involve a lot of lying about money. Tomoko foresaw this and took the financial paperwork with her as well as the children. She’s confident she can say anything she likes and pleads a poverty as shamelessly fictional as Sarah herself. In circumstances such as these playing by the rules means losing, so it’s time for Sarah to fire off some more good news about that long-delayed book. She announces that it’s almost ready to go and one last thing is needed – a brief cv or author biography, the more detailed and up to date the better. I don’t really expect this to work, but the reply comes quickly and could have been written to order. Tomoko tells Sarah she is employed by two separate Japanese universities, which is odd because she’s telling the court she isn’t employed at all. A couple of days later I am sitting in my solicitor’s office and watching a smile broaden across his face. He looks up and removes his glasses with a gesture daringly close to a flourish. ‘Leave this with me.’
There’s a telephone call the next morning just after breakfast. ‘Interesting developments.’
Tomoko’s solicitor has just resigned. It can’t be any sense of queasiness at representing a child abductor – she’s known that from the start. And it can hardly be the fact that her client has been lying – she must also have known that from an early stage. It can only be the additional technical detail of this being proved by Tomoko’s own words. Sarah sympathises with her professional embarrassment and sends a final communication, a condolence card before vanishing back into the nothingness from which I had created her.
Another lawyer picks up the lucrative baton on Tomoko’s behalf. The new lawyer must have explained to Tomoko that her fumble with the truth could weigh against her, that she might forfeit a little of the court’s deep reserves of trust. Might it not be a good idea to manufacture some more positive evidence, proof of reasonableness, compromise? He must have had a struggle with this point – it is not the language of the parental abductor. But Tomoko does understand tactics, manipulation, the useful smile. Within a week or two, sitting down at the computer, I find a new message. I can see that it’s from Japan and hesitate. I open it and find the telephone number I didn’t dare to hope for.
Nearly a year has passed and I am pacing in the kitchen, with the long international number in my hand. There is an appointed hour and I know it has come when I hear the pips on the radio. I turn down the volume and key in the 12 digits. There are clicks, a gap and then a foreign ring tone. Tomoko answers in Japanese, pretending that it might not be me. There’s a frigid control in her voice. She launches at once into a lengthy complaint about the non-existence of Sarah Levi and all the trouble she has caused her. Her victimhood has remained pristine.
Tomoko tells me to wait. There are sounds of movement, the receiver being picked up, a small, silent, uncertain presence. ‘Papa?’
The calls establish themselves on a fortnightly basis. They are part of an obscene bargain which trades control of assets for the right of two children to hear their father’s voice. The house must be sold, large sums of money transferred to Japan, but the agreement lacks a timetable – it can be a long game. I squat on the asset, refusing to let it be advertised for sale and every few months fending off a monstrously covetous estate agent in hot pursuit of commission. This lasts for a surprising length of time – more than two years, maybe nearer to three. But it can’t be put off for ever and eventually the sale is made. Tomoko now has the children and the money and before long the telephone, predictably, goes dead. It has been an expensive exercise. Together, these telephone calls came to six figures, possibly the most expensive there have ever been. They were worth it.
‘My Son, My Son’ (Harvill, £16.99) is available for £14.99 plus £1.25 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844-871 1516)