Episode 2: Shoko in Ookayama
Alan could not allow Shoko to do nothing. So he asked her to beautify their apartment in Ookayama. She wasn’t particularly good or bad at it. But it wasn’t enough to fill her days. The problem was that their apartment was already furnished and she wasn’t bothered by the mismatched shapes and colours. She saw it as an excuse for her to feel hopeless. When she told him that there wasn’t much that she could do about it, she was met with his cold stare, to which she was so accustomed. She could suck it up without any effort. So she was taking an afternoon nap on a Friday.
Suddenly, a loud song started blasting outside. The alarming volume woke her up. But she stayed and listened in bed. It was a traditional Japanese nursery rhyme, quite familiar to her.
Somebody — she forgot who — had told her that the same song was played throughout Tokyo at exactly 5:00 p.m. every weekday, to check the alert system designed to be used for emergencies such as earthquakes. In the small Japanese town where Shoko grew up, it was a siren, like the one to signal an air raid, which was used for the same test, also every weekday. Although she was born decades after the Pacific War, that siren reminded her of the wartime that she had never experienced.
During her childhood, kids had been taught, as soon as the siren went off, to leave their playgrounds and head home before it got dark. On their way home, the kids started singing this nursery rhyme together. The tune was sentimental.
The sky is glowing, and the sun is setting.
I hear a long gong from a temple in the mountains.
Let’s go home, everyone, hand in hand.
Let’s go home. Crows are also flying back to their nest.
When the recorded tune ended, Shoko expected silence. Instead, a mix of screaming voices ensued. They were constant, and sounded like kids. She got up from her bed and slid the window open. The apartment unit was on the second floor facing southwest. The January sky was a mottled orange. She finally felt a pinch of guilt for not being productive all day.
There were some trees and houses in view. She stared into the twilight, but no one was there. When she was about to close the window, some flying creatures caught her eye.
They passed rapidly. She couldn’t tell what they were, and followed the flapping sound. There, on the branches of bare ginkgo trees at the far end of her apartment complex, she discovered them perching, in the hundreds. They were silhouetted against the sunset. They were about the size of a crow, but their tails were longer and narrower. As her eyes adjusted to the afterglow, she could make out the green and yellow of their feathers.
Meanwhile, the flapping sound continued. The flock grew bigger and louder. There was clamour, as if the birds were telling each other how their day went. They jumped from branch to branch. The trees seemed to thicken and shift. Shoko shivered. Then there was a chime. It was a text message from Alan.
“Hey, I have a dinner with clients tonight. Can’t eat with you. Sorry.”
Dinner with clients on a Friday? Shoko’s mind raced back to the recent encounter with a woman named Sally.
Sally was an attractive Asian Canadian who worked with Alan in Toronto. At the staff Christmas party, she spotted Alan and approached Shoko, smiling. She was probably Shoko’s age or younger, wearing a sleek black dress and a confidence that Shoko had never possessed.
“I’ve heard a lot about you. My name is Sally.”
Her teeth were whitened. Her eyelashes were extended to bold, frightening lengths. Her biceps were well-defined. Her confidence and proffered hand felt like a provocation.
Shoko couldn’t bear being on display, and looked down. But she took the hand. She had to. The shake was light and short. And Alan hugged Sally with the ease of someone who had held her before.
“Chat with you later.” Sally walked away with one hand still touching him.
Shoko waited until Sally was far enough away. “Who is that?”
“We used to be on the same team.”
“I don’t remember.” He then excused himself to use the bathroom.
That was why Shoko quit her job and came to Japan. Now in Ookayama, she was tempted to ask who else would attend the dinner with the clients on Friday night. She wiped the nervous sweat from her forehead and typed “OK” instead.
A reply came immediately. “Don’t forget we’re in JAPAN.”
She did not know what to make of his response, with the all-caps Japan. Did he mean that in Japan, fidelity should mean something different? Fidelity to whom? To the company? To the clients? To Sally? To all but Shoko?
When she looked at the phone again, he was already gone. She buried her face in her hands.
By the time Shoko left the apartment, the sun had already set completely. The birds had quieted down. She couldn’t tell if they were still on the same trees. She adjusted her knit scarf to keep herself warm.
There was no one else in the alley, despite it being Friday evening. The alley was lined with small houses and old shops selling tobacco, liquor, stationery, meat, used books. No one was shopping. A very old woman sitting motionlessly at the register in one of the shops glanced at her, as if she had bet that Shoko was not going to stop at her store, as if Shoko was responsible for the decline in business in all these stores.
In between were newer concrete buildings and some hollow patches of land awaiting development. Shoko thought: when that old woman dies, her shop will also be replaced with something new. Everything in this alley was so much smaller and closer together than in Toronto. She could almost smell people’s dinner from the outside. Then she came upon a brightly-lit vending machine humming electrical sounds. The machine’s glare forced her to squint. She stood upon a crossroad.
Near the intersection, she saw a soft-white illuminated sign. It had a drawing of a black cat, and a French phrase below it: “Un Chat Errant.”
The place was dimly lit, and the window reflected the silhouette of several people. There was a stairway leading up to the door. Before realizing it, she had started her ascent. When she pushed the door open, the smell of cigarettes hit her nostrils.
Two female voices greeted her pausing at the door. The older voice was husky. The bar counter nearly filled the entire room. Four people sat at the counter, perched on stools, busy in conversation and smoking.
“Have a seat. Anywhere you like.” The old woman motioned the hesitating Shoko to an empty stool. “If you like, please leave your coat on the couch by the window.” The couch was squeezed into a tiny space. A man’s trench coat and a black leather laptop case were placed on it. There was a flower arrangement on a small table in the same cramped corner. The elegant flowers looked somewhat out of place in this place, reminding Shoko of someone’s old family room with dark wood panels. She took a seat at the bar.
“Your first time here?” The same old woman asked in a disarmingly friendly tone.
“Yes.” Shoko was still unsure of the smell of tobacco. She could see white smoke against the dark wall.
“Welcome to Un Chat Errant. Do you live nearby?”
Shoko answered yes. “Fifteen minutes on foot,” she added.
“That’s very close,” the woman smiled. “This place is not so easy to find. We don’t advertise on the internet. No one posts a review online either. So whenever a new customer comes, I have to ask how they found us. It could be that one of our regulars invited a new customer here, you know. What would you like to drink?” The woman handed Shoko a warm wet hand-towel.
Wiping her hands, Shoko looked around to see what they had. No beer taps. She saw a bunch of whiskey bottles in the bar rail.
“Whiskey and soda, please.” But it was met with a brief silence.
“You mean, highball?”
Shoko said yes, and remembered that in Japan, people normally didn’t call the drink “whiskey and soda.”
“Is there any whiskey you prefer?” Then the woman suggested a Japanese whiskey.
Shoko nodded in reply. It was another reminder that she was in Japan; the woman’s pick wasn’t Canadian, American, or Irish.
Everyone at this bar knew each other’s names. While making the highball, the woman chatted with two men. One was an old man wearing an Ascot cap, and the other was a much younger man of seemingly barely drinking age. They were discussing a movie called Big Hero 6, claiming the university in the movie was the technical university in this neighbourhood. Only his youthful face glowed bright in the dim light.
Right next to Shoko, there was a middle-aged couple who appeared to be meeting for a drink after work before heading home. The couple was talking to the young girl working at the counter. She had jet black, straight, semi-long hair. The girl turned to Shoko and asked how she had heard about this place.
“I just saw the sign outside when I was walking.”
“Most of our customers live in this neighbourhood. Are you new to this town?”
“Yes. I’m from Canada — I mean, I was born in Japan, but I live there now. No, I meant… I’m back in Japan just temporarily, but my main residence is in Canada.” Shoko still felt inadequate after explaining. But she could see excitement in the girl’s eyes rather than confusion.
“I can’t believe I’m talking to someone from Canada!”
The girl said she used to live in Vancouver. But she had never lived in Toronto.
“What took you to Toronto?”
“Got married to a Canadian.” Shoko said this as if delivering bad news. But the girl was more excited now, and looked straight into Shoko’s eyes.
“And what brought you to Tokyo?”
Shoko traced the grooves on her whiskey glass with her finger. She felt everyone’s ears tuned to her in anticipation. She replied that Alan was transferred to Tokyo for three months.
“How nice!” the girl clasped her hands. “I want to have a life like yours, spend some time in Japan and some time overseas. I don’t want to be stuck on this tiny island forever.”
As it turned out, the girl had an Italian boyfriend whom she had met in Canada while both were on a working holiday. She had worked at a Japanese restaurant, he at an Italian restaurant on the same street. Shoko was just glad to have someone who talked a lot.
“How did you like being in Canada?”
“I loved it. I only lived in Vancouver though. My English wasn’t good at the beginning. But I picked up some restaurant English fairly quickly. You know, taking orders and stuff. But small talk was tougher. It doesn’t come easy for me even in Japanese.” The girl laughed, completely oblivious to her other duties.
Shoko realized that she saw many young Japanese like this girl, working at restaurants and cafes in Toronto, but never knew them personally.
“I’m still learning to chat with customers here. I started this job just a couple of months ago. Mama hired me.”
“Is she the owner?” Shoko darted a look in the old woman’s direction.
“Yes.” The girl replied as if she was waiting for this moment. “Mama owns this bar. Her name is Kayoko. Some old regulars call her by her first name. Not many customers are entitled to call her that. Only her longtime fans. Everybody else calls her Mama. She’s been doing this for a long time. She does what she loves. Isn’t that cool? This is her place. She’s the boss.”
The couple next to Shoko signalled to the girl for the bill. She went over to Mama. Shoko was glad to divert the conversation away from Canada.
The girl came back and resumed the conversation. “I envy Mama. I wish I could find something I love. You know, something I could pursue for a lifetime. Oh, maybe I should open a bar like this in Italy with my boyfriend. He’s struggling to find a job right now.”
“Do you speak Italian?”
“Hell no. But I can probably hack it with a few words I know.” The girl chuckled.
Mama came over to inform the couple of the bill amount. They paid in cash. The girl said good-bye to them. Mama escorted them down to the alley.
“How old is Mama?” Shoko lowered her voice.
“I heard she was eighty.” The girl whispered back. “But she’s very sharp. She reads tons of books and tells me to read too.” She gestured to the window sill, filled with books. “She always says she needs to quit smoking. She’s just saying that, I think. She must know smoking is bad for her. I never smoke, but in my opinion, she should just keep smoking. My grandfather smoked like a chimney his entire life. Cigarettes don’t always kill people.” And she laughed.
Sipping her whiskey, Shoko threw a quick glance at Mama, who was now with a cigarette in her hand, talking to the two men at the back again.
“What’s your name?” Shoko asked.
“My name is Yukiko.”