No lights in Tokyo. This was unheard of.
It was dark and the buildings were fierce inky silhouettes against the murky cavern of the night sky.
He continued walking along the centre of the tracks from his home station to Sangenjaya, the end of his line. Not thinking, just progressing through the neighbourhood almost as though he himself were on rails. The houses on either side were squat concrete boxes, like Mexican jails in old Westerns, occasionally punctuated by the exclamation of a ten-or-eleven-storey apartment building.
There was no train.
There were no people.
He walked on past Shoinjinjamae with its Buddhist temple shrouded by a cluster of hostess bars, sex emporiums and local shops. Past the tiny park before Wakabayashi, discarded bicycles littering the gravel and clay playground.
As he neared Sangenjaya he could see indistinct shapes near the hollow craw of the station shed. They were small and in formation, resembling bowling pins. As he got closer, they appeared as the small statues of deceased children found at some temples and shrines. Closer still and they were children.
As he walked toward them, compelled, and felt, then saw their lifeless, vacant stares upon him, a low rumbling rose from the pit of the earth below. It gained in volume until it exploded in an animal snarl and at that moment Sam awoke. His apartment was jolted, as though by some giant, disgruntled toddler shaking a toy, and was still. The nightmare, and the earthquake, had passed.
No one could butcher the English language quite like Mr O. He sat across from Sam, mangled sentence structure tumbling raggedly from his mouth while Kazuko sat politely listening, her back ramrod straight, her expression serene. Through the window the lego-set buildings of west Tokyo jostled for space across the narrow street. It was nearing dark, nearing the final bell of the final lesson of the day and the neon hadn’t come on just yet, bathing them all in a blood-red light from the high-rise hostess bars across the way.
Mr O said, ‘A mercenary,’ then trying out the word again, ‘mercenary. So, so.’
Kazuko said, ‘I don’t wish to doubt you, but it doesn’t seem likely a Japanese housewife would be a mercenary.’
A bit higher up the linguistic food chain, was Kazuko, but it was a mixed ability conversation class and you took the rough with the smooth.
‘So, so! Mercenary in Africa. Three years.’
Sam had to put Kazuko out of her misery. She was struggling to maintain her nerve under fire from Mr O’s garbled narrative and might commit the cardinal sin of betraying her annoyance in word or deed, a great shame in Japanese language school society.
Sam asked, ‘What is a mercenary, Mr O?’
‘A person who working for Christo in another country.’
Person pronounced pah-son, another pronounced ah-naza.
Sam had been in Japan long enough to know that Christo meant Christian, and to connect the syntactical dots. Mr O’s neighbour would go to Africa for missionary, not mercenary, work.
Mr O was probably in his late sixties and looked pretty good for it, as many Japanese of his generation did. He was short but solid and stocky with a lined, impish face, not unlike an oriental Yoda. A mischievous wee character who came to the school with free cans of vending machine coffee and a supply of newspapers. These were to sit on in the classroom; Who knew why? Dave from Auckland was sure it was due to haemorrhoids, Mr O himself once declared in enigmatic fashion it was due to ‘leaking’, but Sam thought it was just one of the wee man’s eccentricities.
The fact was, Mr O didn’t give a toss what people thought of him, what he said or who he upset. In other words, he was worth his weight in gold in the stilted, mannered world of Japanese adult language learners.
No one in Super-Com English conversation school knew his real name, just the self-proclaimed title Mr O. In fact no one knew much about Mr O at all, from his address to his marital status to what his job had been before he retired. While many students took out loans to pay for their tuition, he always handed over a lump sum in cash. The Japanese clerical staff had a contact number for him and no more. They knew they were on to a good thing – an uncomplaining student who brought large sums of cash to pay for months of tuition outright – to risk alienating him with intrusive questions about his address or personal circumstances. In nine months of teaching the wee man, Sam had gathered that he was some kind of part-time crossing guard for an elementary school, had a Walter Mitty approach to reality in the classroom, and was fond of drinking ready-made canned coffee.
For the remainder of the day’s lesson, Mr O held forth on a number of random topics: How Japan is not the ‘safety world country’ we think it is; how the current low honey bee population around the globe was due to a Chinese physician who was treating people with bee stings; the superiority of Japanese cocks over French cocks (actually ‘cooks’ but this particular mispronunciation always gave Sam a laugh, so he ran with it for a while). At the end of class he packed up his newspapers, bowed and shuffled out the door.
Around eight pm, Sam stood in the sodden press of bodies in the carriage of the Setagaya line train, inching his way back to a sterile concrete apartment in west Tokyo. The oldest train service in the city with just two, non-air-conditioned cars, it ran along a small track at street level behind and between the crowded housing of the Setagaya district. Little more than a glorified tram, the train was a true relic with a sweating wooden interior and ceiling fans that churned fetid mid-summer air in time to the shunting and lurching of the carriages. At least it was free of the jumpers that played havoc with the faster, sleeker lines like the Keiyo or Chuo. The Chuo line had spawned the term chuocide, so many desperate souls had leapt in front of the train.
It was a mercifully short commute for Sam, just four stops and less than fifteen minutes, but he felt irritated and restless. After over a year he was still unable to read Japanese kanji characters, and was fighting a losing battle with the easier phonetic system of katakana. He glanced over the shoulder of a woman in front of him and looked at a newspaper she was reading.
He thought: re…su…to…ran…right you be. Restaurant. Katakana comprehension was getting better.
Su-pa: supermarket? Hold your horses there, boy. Su-pa-sei-ru: dead on. Super-sale. Making real progress here.
This one only partially glimpsed. First part was su…to? The rest…bugger that. Anyway, his stop was coming up. Still, he’d remember one of the characters – 子 – even if he couldn’t write it. His enforced illiteracy had instilled an ability to remember symbols and strokes. You never knew when they might come in handy and this one had an animated quality he found interesting. Another quick glance at the headline and Sam cajoled and squeezed his way off the train. He was met by the searing chatter of cicadas and wandered back to a air-conditioning, a well-loved paperback and a six-pack of beers.
The businessman in front of him, centimetres from his face, reeked of alcohol and tobacco. He slept standing up, held vertical by the press of bodies in the carriage as they rocked gently through the blazing skyscraper canyons of Shinjuku, past the quieter leafy sidings of Yoyogi and the edge of Harajuku, and into the riot of multicoloured neon that is Shibuya. It was raining, the wind whipping drops of water across the windows. They reflected the glaring neon colours like some psychedelic effect from an old sixties movie.
The train slowed and began creaking down the line. The silent bodies in the carriage, like flesh and blood mannequins, lurched to the left, then right as the train righted itself on the track.
There were no stops. There were no stations.
No one got off.
Sam began to push through the sweating, languid throng. His fellow passengers slipping past like soft, fleshy undergrowth in an overgrown human garden. They were almost featureless, their faces like smooth, smudged masks. A small figure appeared in front of him, less than waist height, its back to Sam as he moved deliberately toward the front of the train. It was a child, had to be a child from its awkward, twitching gate, clearly unsure of its footing.
The carriage seemed to go on forever and Sam had come to the realization some time ago that he was in a dream. He couldn’t change it. He couldn’t end it. He was on board for the duration of the ride.
Finally, he reached the front of the train. The child had gone, lost somewhere in the adult forest of bodies. He reached out, opened the driver’s cab and stepped into the cramped compartment. As he did so, the train came to an abrupt halt and he saw that the cab was empty. The neon outside had gone, replaced by the darker silent suburbs of west Tokyo.
As his gaze drifted downward, Sam took in the wild, tangled grass at the side of the line, the harsh gravel next to the rail and, in the centre of the narrow track, the broken and torn figure of the child he had pursued through the carriage.
After his heart had slowed, after he had gulped a glass of rancid, city tap water and calmed himself from awaking with a violent start, he lay back on his futon. Morning came slowly, with a chorus of anguished crow calls and the slow clatter of the Setagaya train at the end of the street.
‘Train bridge. I was on train bridge.’
‘A railway bridge. I see.’
‘You were young, a child.’
‘So, so, so. Bridge wa very high off river. I jump, I will die but train is coming nearer.’
‘So, what do you think I do?’
‘I have no idea. Why don’t you enlighten us?’
‘Light in? Light in where?’
‘Mr O, What did you do?’
‘I lie in middle of track. Train goes over me, but I am child, so very small. No problem. I survive.’
There was a chorus of amazed gasps from the assembled housewives in the room. A childhood tale of evading death by freight train out in the boondocks, it was a decent yarn and got a rise out of the biddies. Sam thanked Mr O for his contribution and, story time over, moved on to what variation on rice, fish and miso soup Mrs Kobayashi had eaten for breakfast.
After the lesson he sat in the teachers’ room and skimmed the Daily Yomiuri, the English language imprint of the Yomiuri newspaper. It was a decent source of local stories and articles for use in class. Ironically, in the land of Sony et al, they didn’t have a computer in the staff room, while his laptop was buggered and in for repairs. It was Friday and he needed something in his back pocket to kick start the last class of the day, a free conversation session.
There was something about the Korean mafia moving in on the Yakuza in Shinjuku. A missing kid and a high profile suicide on the central Yamanote line. All too dark for the tea-and-biscuits crowd. Ah-ha: something about a famous baseball star getting divorced from an actress. Perfect.
As he put down the paper and set about cobbling a loose lesson plan together, Sam noticed a symbol printed in a Japanese translation of one of the stories: 子. He remembered it from last night’s briefly glimpsed newspaper. It was the report on…
‘Thirsty desu ka? Are you thirsty, Mr Sam?’
Bloody hell, where had he come from? He was light on his feet for an oul fella.
Mr O was standing in the doorway of the room in his suit and tie, benevolent smile and can of coffee held in his outstretched hand. Someone loitered behind him at the reception desk, Sam’s view blocked by the wee imp.
‘Thank you very much, Mr O. You really didn’t have to.’
‘You like coffee. Look tired. Maybe nightmares?’
‘Could you repeat that Mr O?’
‘Maybe you bad sleep. Joke, joke.’
The figure behind him shuffled towards the classrooms off to the left. Robotic gait, dead-eyed stare. Shohei. A former driver on the Chuo line, now one of the country’s miniscule number of long-term unemployed, it was rumoured that Shohei had experienced chuocide first hand.
Sam was tired. His already shredded nerves and over-active imagination were kicking in thanks to too much booze and too little sleep. He assured Mr O that he was fine, thanked him again for the coffee and bade him farewell until the next time.
Another night, another mission to drink himself to a stupor. The English-speaking doctor on the school’s books thought the insomnia and nightmares were stress. Probably homesickness. Whatever it was, cheap beer and sake helped.
It was another sweltering night and Sam decided on a wander as the clock rolled around to midnight. There were no children on the streets, no spirits. At least not outside.
But two hours later he had company.
She was standing at the entrance to his bedroom at the end of his futon, looking down at him. He presumed she was looking at him but she had no eyes. No nose or mouth, just a smooth ivory surface where her face should have been. She raised her arms from her sides and splayed them out, the palms of her hands up in a gesture of what looked like supplication. It was the stance he’d taken at school when he knew the sting of the ruler was on its way. She was around five years old, wearing a dark purple kimono and her hair was tied up in the traditional fashion. As he looked at her palms, a character appeared on them: 子. He looked from her hands to her face and that was when she smiled, the smooth dome of her featureless face tearing into a bloodied, toothless gash.
He lay on the towel soaking up their sweat on the futon, and relished the caress of the fan. The pores of the wooden timbers and tatami mats of Ami’s apartment perspired with a thick, earthy musk and he traced a figure of eight on her flat belly as she gazed at him. Ami was in her mid-twenties, sharp and intelligent with good English and a wiry, athletic frame. The flush of sex almost camouflaged the wine coloured birthmark on her left cheek.
It was purely physical for both of them but it was companionship of a sort and they could share lazy summer afternoons like this.
Earlier he’d attempted to write a rough and ready approximation of the 子 character of his dream and, after some allowance for his atrocious calligraphy, she’d proclaimed it was the Japanese character for child. He’d told her about the dreams too. The last one reminded her of tales of Noppora-bo a faceless spirit of Japanese folklore.
He talked about students and she asked him about Mr O.
‘You know nothing about this man?’
‘Nothing. He’s the original man of mystery.’
‘Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to ask?’
‘Yes, but it’s against house rules. They pay their money to study and they set the parameters of what we can discuss in the classroom. It’s good for business but hell on teaching the language.’
‘So they don’t want to talk about their private lives?’
‘Why do they study?’
‘I ask sometimes. What a lot of them say, when they speak English they feel as though they’re someone else. It’s a chance to – ’
‘ – escape.’
He looked at her, but her expression betrayed nothing. Was she thinking of herself? Of him?
Talk of limits led to talk of what they’d be willing to do or not do, try or not try, and that led to some experimentation for the rest of the afternoon. But after, while he lay next to her looking at the ceiling and she dozed, he saw the wooden beams above as train tracks with small, child-like footprints leading to the darkened corners of the room.
Another Monday, another trawl through the Yomiuri. A report on binge drinking; a cabinet member indicted for taking bribes; a body found near Akihabara station. Into class: three housewives and Shohei.
Shohei with deep rings under his eyes and a hollow, vacant darkness behind them.
A future tenses lesson but time seemed to stand still, getting input from the students like pulling teeth. Sam looked at Shohei and wondered what it might do to a man, grinding over a body as you piloted the train into a station. How a routine morning commute could become a horror show of blood and gore. What that might do to the driver. What that might do to his soul.
Finally, time for a break. A chat with Chris from Vancouver and a crossword in the staff room.
Lesson two, a one-to-one with a retired police officer, Toshihiro. Always good for a few stories, this boy. Sure enough, he proclaimed on the Korean mafia’s push into the flesh pots of Kabuki-cho district. He spoke about the increase in Yakuza crime. He lamented the wee girl found on the tracks near Akihabara, just a child and her face all cut up like that, her mouth opened up from ear to ear with some kind of knife.
The hum of the air conditioning seemed to ratchet up in pitch in Sam’s head.
He asked Toshihiro if he had a newspaper. The old copper did, translating the headline: Young Girl’s Body Found Brutally Slain On Train Line In North Tokyo. Sam could see the 子 character among the other symbols in the newsprint. Toshihiro told Sam how it wouldn’t have happened in his younger days, how traditional values were slipping, how this was the second wee girl killed and dumped in as many months.
The sound of the air conditioning, now a whine, developed into a splitting headache.
Sam asked about the other kid, where she was found. Was it in the same area?
Toshihiro told him: always the train tracks, this time in the west of the city. The girl before went missing on her way home from school, one of the country’s ‘half’ children of mixed parentage. Her mother was Japanese, her father American. Tragic. What would foreigners think of Japan now?
Lesson three and Sam on autopilot. Two university students and a night shift worker from Haneda airport.
Lesson four and Mr O, in rare form today, telling a tale about his university days as a boxer, one fight and undefeated. His nickname was The Mosquito. Sam smiled but his head, his heart was somewhere else. He glanced at the newspaper under Mr O’s arse, wondered if he was sitting on the story of the little dead girl as they chatted. Sam brought the topic around to children, to Mr O’s job as a crossing guard.
A tremor of excitement entered the wee man’s voice and he talked of a grandchild, Yuki. He began rambling, almost misty-eyed as he told of her big eyes and ‘happiness smiling’. Sam felt warmed by the conversation, relieved that this strange, lonely old man had a young child in his life, a small torch of youth and innocence to air out the greying walls of his life. He’d imagined Mr O to be a bachelor or widower, taking the crossing guard job to fill his days and connect with the young, the school kids a surrogate brood of grandchildren. And to be given this glimpse into the wee man’s life beyond the peeling walls of the classroom now, after hearing the dreadful news from Toshihiro, made Sam feel privileged. His ego swelled to think that this most private of men was comfortable enough with Sam, trusted him enough, to open up to some degree in his class. It was a ridiculous, selfish sentiment but it lifted the gloom and despair of the terrible child murders and gave him some form of human connection to this sprawling monolith of a city.
Everyone in the room was smiling as he talked about his granddaughter’s favourite Minnie Mouse t-shirt, how she loved the kids’ cartoon Ampa-man. He spoke of her teddy bear and how it was missing an ear but she cherished it just the same. The chime sounded for the end of class and Mr O folded his newspapers, stretched and bade Sam farewell, with a promise of coffee next time.
In a country where outward displays of emotion – even affection – between family members was uncomfortable at best, unthinkable at worst, it was warming to have seen the wee man wax lyrical on his granddaughter, showing such pride. It was just another reason that the oul fella was such a pleasure to be around.
Then Sam saw a shuffling, broken figure pass by the open door of his room. Shohei, a dark shadow to the laughter of the last lesson, slipped by like a half remembered wraith from some bad dream.
Night came and Sam finally drifted into a booze-fuelled slumber in the small hours. He was in Belfast, watching a football match with his Da. He wandered out of Windsor Park at half time and found himself on the train line to Dublin, running between the Railway Stand of the stadium and the bakery out back. The bakery had enormous kanji characters above the loading bays. They glowed red in the encroaching dusk but he could read only one: 子.
He stared at the character for a time. When he looked around him he was no longer in South Belfast. Windsor Avenue and the snaking red brick terraced houses had been replaced by an impenetrable, seething forest of bamboo on either side of the train tracks. There was no sound, not even the whisper of the trees.
Then he heard a frantic, drawn-out whimper growing to a fragile crescendo. It broke into a piercing scream and he saw a child crawl in terrible jerking spasms out from the undulating wall of the forest. It reached the tracks and sat, wailing and howling, a mess of filthy cheeks streaked by salty tears and thick, onerous snot. The child was crying so hard it seemed in terrible pain and Sam covered his ears. He couldn’t stand the distress and fear, the desperate racket, and squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again the child was still there but silent. At least its body was present. It sat slightly hunched on a split and rotting sleeper. But the light, the life inside the fragile little body, was gone.
The morning slinked in with a hot, balmy breath and he showered, trying to sweat the alcohol out of his system before work. This couldn’t go on, this torment. It was taking more and more booze to finally drift into troubled sleep and soon he’d turn to hard spirits for a faster fix. And while the scald and steam of the shower might purge him of some of the poison in his system, it couldn’t clear the image of the children from his tortured mind.
The air conditioner was broken and the classroom freezing but Mr O and Shohei suffered manfully. The wee man was off on one, blethering something about iced sand. Sam wasn’t thinking straight due to the cold and lack of rest and it took him a while to work out the old geezer was talking about an ice cream sandwich, of all things. The oul lad was in rum form this morning, a lively counterpart to Shohei. The former train driver’s dead-eyed stare skated a little too close to the dead child from last night’s nightmare and Sam was in no shape to deal with that.
Mr O went on, ‘Japanese love sea. I am young man, I am idea man.’
Sam mustered a smile in encouragement.
‘I am young, I indent seaweed ice.’
Sam thought this one couldn’t be right, even after he’d run it through his internal translator.
‘Indent, Mr O? Do you mean you had a new idea? You made something new?’
‘So, so. I indent, like Graham Bell.’
‘You invented a new flavour of ice-cream.’
‘You invented seaweed ice-cream?’
‘So, so, so. It wan – ’
One of the admin staff knocked on the door and peered into the room. She made her profound excuses, bowed to all and sundry and asked Mr O to step outside for a moment. Sam heard the word hanko, meaning a personalised stamp, as good as a signature in Japan. The staff needed the wee man’s seal on some kind of paperwork and he smiled sweetly for the young lady and excused himself from the room.
Shohei was staring dead ahead and Sam let his own eyes wander for a moment, happy to burn up a little more lesson time. He took in the map of Japan and photograph of the Grand Canyon on the wall. He glanced at the ever-dragging arms of the clock, the cheap plastic clutter of pens and notebooks on the circular table and the coffee stain on the ravaged carpet at his feet. Anywhere, in fact, but into the dead, sunken eyes of Shohei.
The word, barely hissed by Shohei, sounded thunderous in the silence of the room. It almost slapped Sam across the face with a physical force, so shocked was he by the utterance.
Shohei turned his head, craning his neck while his body remained frozen and then his eyes looked away from Sam while his head remained immobile, locked in this new position. He said the word again, now with a hoarse growl.
Sam felt his bowels loosen and he was, for the first time in a relatively uneventful adult life, terrified.
At first he struggled with the moment, twisted from it as someone buried deep in a dream writhes on the bed in desperation, frantic for escape. Then suddenly it seemed inevitable and he thought he had probably known this for some time now: the dreams, the news stories, the vacant, hollow glare of Shohei’s gaze, the blood and death on railway tracks.
How could this monster, this fairytale ogre feeding off the children of this vast conurbation – the greatest village in the world – Tokyo, not be this man?
It seemed incredible that in a human sprawl of over twenty million souls Sam’s life had led him to this point: sitting at a table within touching distance of the most vicious murderer in the city. But the dreams: perhaps appeals, maybe warnings, undoubtedly messages from the children. The unease he’d felt in recent weeks, the constant anxiety that had fed his drinking and starved him of sleep. It had all pointed to this moment. And he had been chosen as… what? This man’s confessor? Surely not his cohort or co-conspirator.
He stared at Shohei even as he willed himself to look away, fascinated by the abomination before him and how this deeply evil man even now averted his gaze from him. He took in the deadened eyes, staring away to his left, and willed Mr O to return, to start rambling again and give Sam time to think.
He followed Shohei’s gaze, scrambling desperately in his mind for a course of action and acutely aware that he hadn’t spoken since Shohei’s utterance. The man was staring beyond the textbook, past the pens and scribbled notes. Past the table to the vacant third plastic chair in the room and the crumpled newspaper on its seat.
And then Sam saw it. The character looked angry and violent now in the bold type, as though someone had slashed the strokes into the paper with an ink covered scalpel.
His mouth was dry as he asked Shohei what the headline said. The man read it like a station announcement, without cadence or emotion.
Dead Body Of Another Missing Child Found On Train Tracks.
Before replacing the front sheet, Sam glanced at the body of the paper. Now he saw that it wasn’t a newspaper at all. It was a collection of front pages. Some headlines loomed above photos of smiling, beatific little boys or girls. The ugly black type looked like headstone engravings.
There were grainy images of train tracks with forensics teams wandering in the background and little bundles on the line. So little, and covered by black coroner’s sheets. A railway bridge in the farthest reaches of the city, a grieving couple, a silver cross standing out from the black skin of the father’s large hands. He read アフリカ and アメリカ and new enough to understand these sad, grieving hands belonged to an African American.
A blurry shot on the front page of an evening edition from a year ago: a forlorn teddy bear on a grass verge, the left ear a ragged and frayed stump. The photo had been defaced with brutal gashes of biro and English obscenities, stark and ugly amongst the intricate kanji.
Some of the sheets were yellowed with age. There were crude scribblings and furious lacerations of angry ink on pages. One shot of an innocent victim had been almost obliterated with frenzied pen strokes.
Every yarn Mr O had spun matched a headline or photo. Sam realised that these hours spent in the classroom were no lessons. These were confessionals, profane confessionals. All the headlines had that same character: 子.
It was a scrapbook, a sickening anthology, a collection of trophies. Sam dropped the papers back on the chair. He was repulsed. He felt sick, wanted air, needed to cleanse himself with some space. He had to get a reception on his mobile. He’d call Ami. She’d help, talk to the police, bridge the language gap.
The door opened again.
Shohei was still staring, seeing nothing. Mr O shuffled back into the room, settling carefully onto the newspaper sheets with a satisfied grin. Sam had an image of a vulture covered in crimson viscera, settling on a nest of broken and bloodied eggs. Mr O looked at Sam, a sparkle in his eyes. He cleared his throat and spoke.
‘I have another story Mr Sam. I have many, many stories.’
Copyright © 2014 John Steele. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!