‘Capsules’ by Alex Jasinski (New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2018 Prize Winning Entry)

This brief story follows an aging businessman named Kimoto during his would-be triumphant return to Tokyo. Unfortunately, his business meeting does not go according to plan and the man is confronted not only with his fragile self and long-harboured fears but also with the city that has transformed over the years to the point where it is barely recognizable. Struggling with his failing body and flooding memories, Kimoto seeks refuge in the sleepless district of Akihabara.

A cough resonating from another capsule stirred Kimoto from his uneasy sleep. His neck was almost ready to straighten but he stopped himself in time.

Scan surroundings in a few eye blinks. Establish a timeline.

He brought his hands up close for inspection. They were stub-fingered and rugged, with ever-prominent veins. Familiar was the word he had to grow accustomed to. It took a while.

Coughing resonated across the capsule room again. Whoever was the culprit would wake up soon. Kimoto was trying to ease his mind for a few more minutes, to close eyes and drift away. It was not meant to be. He was intensely aware of himself here and now and that awareness wasn’t going to leave him alone anytime soon. Stranger bodies in other capsules were still carried by a river of unconsciousness but his head was bobbing and breathing with urgency of a man who knew all too well what is feels to be drowning.

Kimoto’s body was ready. It ached, not only from age and interrupted sleep. It ached with all of its unremitting hopes. Nothing could contain him now. He was ready to burst out. Today he was ready to show the world what he was worth. If only he could just muster another ten minutes of sleep –

            Ohayo gozaimasu!

His head was still tying his shoelaces, his legs were still trying to stretch out and his hands were still rubbing shampoo into his hair but his mouth managed to outpace all the other parts. So Mr Kimoto found himself ordering a big bowl of shoyu ramen. He found a seat and enough soberness of mind to eat a bowlful without having his suit incur any stains. On a day like this any stains equal damage to reputation. Mr Kimoto always maintained a good reputation among his peers and friends alike. Good, consistent, reliable. Like a secret garden, he thought, is my reputation. I might not know its extent or contents, yet all the hard work put into it certainly must have resulted in something remarkable.

His fingers involuntarily clasped around chopsticks. His thoughts drifted.

His presentation. Was it as ready and succinct as he wished it to be? What could have been changed? His grip relaxed and chopsticks fell in their rightful position.  He hastily finished his unremarkable bowl of noodles. He nodded at a waitress, who quickly and efficiently responded to the cue.

He pulled out a pile of sundry papers out his dark leather case.

He studied charts, percentages, risks.

Eyes adrift, attention simple-minded in its focus.

He spent maybe an hour in this trance, minutes transformed into flying numbers and muttered fragments of speech.

Where once he would have sweated a river, now mere droplets trickled down his neck.

I am ready, he told himself. You are ready, reassured him his wife and daughter.

Is this seat free? Asked a young suited gentleman.

Kimoto nodded and was eager to drift back into his trance of rehearsed paragraphs and figures but that proved impossible. It sounded like half the city descended on this poor ramen restaurant. Kimoto could see the same waitress who served him running amok, with trays brimming with ramen and gyozas and wobbling jugs of beers. He gathered his documents, exchanged pleasantries and promptly departed.

***

            At the age of 56 he was making an unusual return to the city of Tokyo. Having relocated to Odawara twenty-five years prior, he never went any further than Yokohama. He wasn’t quite sure why. He had outstanding invitations from friends and acquaintances he hadn’t seen for a considerable amount of time. He even had relatives in some outer Tokyo wards. He recalled making tentative plans to visit, on one occasion going as far as drafting a preliminary itinerary.  Yet the facts were that up until the last Sunday he hadn’t set his foot in the city for over twenty-five years. He frequented Hakone, sporadically visited Yokohama and Osaka. Tokyo however, for whatever reasons, became obscured by time and changes. The city he returned to was nowhere near the city he left. Contemporaneity screamed from display windows and neon signs. Ubiquitous smart phones replaced Walkmans and CD players. Advertising got more sophisticated and sublime. He saw these changes happen in other cities so in a way they were not surprising. However, they were novel in a way in which they penetrated a city of his memories. The city has been updated.  What it did retain was a maniac way of life. Suited figures rushed past him in the street. Sometimes could not tell if a person nudging past him on escalator stairs was a woman or a man. They merged into a stream of indifferent yet determined faces. He held on to his case and marched onwards. Why should he be even remotely surprised by those countenances? He embodied determination.

In the forest of identically looking towers and skyscrapers it took him a while to locate the office where he was supposed to meet Mr Haro and his future investors. But he was not late, not by any stretch of imagination. Mr Kimoto was always on time. The secret behind being on time, he insisted, was in arriving before your scheduled time.

With almost an hour left to go, he weighed his options. There was Maruzen not too far from the office. He could have chanced a walk to the Imperial Palace. Alternatively, the skyscraper that hosted Mr Haro’s office amongst others also provided space for a café. Given the situation he found himself in, Mr Kimoto didn’t have to ponder for a very long time. He had an interview ahead of him and a cup of fresh coffee was in order.

He collected his order and seated himself next to a middle-aged professional. There was a lot to go through. He sifted through papers and statistics, his eyes running a marathon. He triple checked his figure back in Odawara. Moderate profit in the first two years followed by a substantial increase in the third year. Once the machine started, it would be difficult to stop. He didn’t include prognosis beyond the fifth year in fear of being accused of fabrication and daydreaming. However, with your help, Mr Haro, I am sure that fifth year could happen much sooner.

As he was examining his papers, he noticed that the middle-age man was staring at them with strange intent. So he gathered them up, folded them in half and held them close to his chest. The middle-age professional smiled and laughed feebly.

Kimoto-san, you mustn’t hold my indiscretion against me. It’s just that my lazy eye caught a rare glimpse of something intriguing and decided to follow up on it. Please forgive me my manners and terrible curiosity! My name is Manusa. I was just wondering if you could introduce your idea in your own words.

Kimoto was ready to get up and storm away. This stranger knew his name and clearly exhibited an unhealthy interest in his idea. Any further conversation could have posed a grave danger to his enterprise. Yet two questions begged to be answered.

Manusa-san, how do you know my name? I believe we have not made acquaintance before. Now that we have, may I be so bold as to ask whether you know Haro-san. He is the man I am meant to talk about this and other ideas.

Manusa gaze clouded with thoughts.

No, I am afraid we have not made prior acquaintance, Kimoto-san, if memory serves me right. Nor had I pleasure of meeting Haro-san, although I am sure as a close friend of yours, he must be a fine man. I work in a nearby office and am not particularly familiar with any of the denizens of this place. However, I am familiar with great ideas and can spot one when I see one. And here – he pointed to the closely guarded papers – I saw a lot of potential and

Mr Kimoto’s face must have alerted him for his tone softened and became placatory – and I simply wanted to lend my expertise or, at the very least, a sympathetic ear. I hold a stable job and I am neither an adventurous person nor a particularly entrepreneurial one. But I like to challenge my mind and, dare I say so, be challenged.

Reassured, Mr Kimoto allowed himself a small smile. He picked up his chair and moved it closer to Manusa.  Wasting no time to produce his papers, he dove straight into the details of his enterprise.

You see, it’s a simple investment… Even if markets… Fail proof really…

He threw figures at Manusa and they were initially met with raised eyebrows . But gradually, as Kimoto elaborated on his business model with precision and restlessness of a Gatling gun, Manusa’s features softened and brightened. When exasperated Kimoto finally paused for breath, Manusa couldn’t help but clap his hands and exclaim – Kimoto-san, for all that’s sacred, you are a true marvel!

Mr Kimoto shook his head disapprovingly but his moustache twitched ever so slightly, pleased by the compliment. The room seemed to fill up with light as he said – It’s nothing really, anyone could have

Excuse me, the middle-aged man walked away as if nothing ever happened.

Papers scattered across the floor. Kimoto collected them frantically, glancing sideways as he neatened them into a nice pile. He checked the time. There was a large white shimmering blot obscuring the dials. Strange, he thought, and tried to wipe the watch. It didn’t help. He looked around. The dot was still in front him, its centre glittering with bright white sparkles and rapidly fading into specks of darkness. Like burning paper, it crossed his mind. He shrugged his arms, picked up his belongings and went upstairs.

Mr Haro office was smaller than Kimoto imagined. It consisted of a wooden desk, a table with six seats and a wall with stacked shelves. There were photographs of high-rise buildings and awards adorning walls. There must be a good explanation behind this, Kimoto reflected, like price per square meter in the centre of Toyko that would make it prohibitive to the more judicious businessmen. Mr Haro, he surmised, must have a much larger office somewhere peripheral.

The assistant who had let Mr Kimoto in bowed out and promptly left, leaving him in a company of four gentlemen. They exchanged pleasantries. Then Mr Haro, whose countenance resembled a landslide of wrinkles, gestured Kimoto to sit down at the opposite end of the table.

Coffee, he rasped, pointing to an old, cheap kettle.

No, no, Haro-san, you’re all too kind but I wouldn’t want to trouble you. I just had some.

Pfff, Haro puffed out, grabbed a kettle and poured himself a glass of water.

Warm water, Kimoto remarked from his chair.

Warm water, yes, warm water, Haro barked out. He drank loudly, with his eyes bulging. He smacked his lips, poured himself another glass and lumbered towards the table.

The other two men were seated on both sides of the table. Behind pairs of rimmed glasses their dark eyes were focused and drilling through Kimoto.

They seemed intent on not speaking and their initial introduction was done in such a rushed and quiet way that he had to resort to calling them Mr I and Mr J.

The last man was a lanky, bald fellow. A scribe, he thought. Seated on a stool by the door, the scribe was more preoccupied with the computer screen in front of him than any business proceedings.

Akusai, Mr Haro bellowed at the scribe, all in order?

Akusai gave a wry smile. It meant go ahead.

Haro humphed and wriggled uneasily. As if prompted by his own uneasiness, he started:

This is the thing with these chairs; they are really hard on your ass. You sit on them day in and day out and it’s like sitting on a poorly chiselled stone, don’t you think?

That last question hung in the air.

Kimoto wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to answer it. He wasn’t sure anybody was supposed to answer.

After a brief pause, Haro continued.

We used to have comfortable chairs, nice, Japanese chairs. You know what happened? We had a gentleman like you come in one day. Only he was much more round, you see. He sat down on one of my chairs, very comfortable, you see, he said. So comfortable he slid down and, whoosh, he went down on the floor. Now that was hard on his ass! Hard!

Mr Haro had a very prominent forehead. As his face was too wrinkled to allow for much expression, it was his tall forehead that did most of expressing.

Right there, Kimoto noticed, Mr Haro was laughing. A muffled chortle came out of his mouth but barely moved his lips. However, it was his waving forehead that signalled to everybody that this was a joke.

So, feeling obliged, Kimoto laughed. Emboldened by his laughter, Mr I and Mr J joined in with a salvo of restrained laughter. Thus bolstered, Mr Haro’s forehead went tidal and his chortling grew in resonance. Only Akusai seemed not amused.

See, he landed on his behind and his elbows went into the air and broke my chair upon landing. Broken into smithereens.

Kimoto was still laughing out of common courtesy when just like that, Haro’s forehead became still like a gravestone. Mr I’s and J’s faces went stone cold. Air in the room seemed petrified. It was almost too heavy to inhale.

Now that we’ve amused ourselves, let’s talk business, Mr Kimoto, Haro began.

Kimoto nodded.

Haro nonchalantly gestured. Go on.

My business, as you will see in the course of this presentation, is a straightforward one. It builds upon my prior experiences and aspires to fill a niche in the market that went unnoticed by competitors. I truly believe that—

The hand went into the air in a curt sign of interruption.

In other words, you are trying to sell us something that nobody deemed profitable.

That thought crossed Kimoto’s mind before. He shrugged it off then and he thought it best to shrug it off now as well.

It’s not quite that. I feel that the market was simply too preoccupied with other solutions to —

A wry smile distorted Haro’s face. He looked like a crocodile at the most unfortunate of crossings.

Despite his best efforts, Kimoto writhed in his seat. An outburst of short-lived spasms rattled his arm. He placed the other hand on his wrist to stop the trembling. Nerves were getting are getting to me.

There is no reason to be nervous. It’s just a few questions.

He looked around the room. A quick scan of strained faces. A throwaway glance for Akusai.  No need to be nervous.

Did someone just say that again? He gazed intently at the interviewing panel.

He hemmed and hit the stride.

My business is efficient. It is truly – truly- truly –

Swallow. Think, think, truly, it’s truly, it’s truly, truly – what. Truly what?

Are you alright, Mr Kimoto.

Was that a statement or a question? It certainly came from either Mr I or Mr J.

He was convinced.

Yes, yes, I am. I was just about to say, I mean, I would like to apologize, H-H-H-Harosan – I —

He coughed. He caught a glimpse of I and J exchanging meaningful looks.

Haro’s face seemed closer and tenser. Was he leaning in?

I truly believe that my, that my, my, my business is, I mean, it will be, I, it will be…

Kimoto’s gaze darted around the room. His mind froze. His tongue froze. His neck refused to hold his head up high. It was hopeless.

Haro put his hands on the table and lifted himself to a standing position.

Have you been institutionalized, Mr Kimoto?

He felt the grip on his wrist loosening. Trembling was taking over. He stuttered.

Mmmm-rrr Hhharro, I assure you-you my plan izzz sounddd…

He jerked himself upright. Hand in hand, he felt his body shudder. He tried to walk up to Haro. The first step was easy but then his other leg refused to budge.

I’m so trribly, tribbbbly sorry. He almost fell over while stuttering.

Akusai burst out laughing.

***

            What followed was like a reel of images. A stuttered assurance it was a real privilege to present ideas to such fantastic listeners. Followed by profuse apologies.  A bow to howls of laughter. Finally, a dash for the exit.

Once outside, Kimoto examined himself. He was still shaking but by now shudders of rage replaced the surprise trembling. He nearly ran down the escalators – only to go up again for no reason. He thought of his wife and daughter. The thoughts were clouded with despair and loneliness. What was he supposed to tell them? And how? What was he to do? How would they feel? What would others say? His head was throbbing. What a mess. What a mess he got himself into. What was he even thinking?

He vigorously shook his stiff leg. It relaxed enough to let him walk normally again. He reflected upon the meeting. Failure was always an option. The odds were stacked against him. They probably get a cohort of young and hungry arrogant duffs, who prance around the room and holler big, booming words that pummel listeners into submission. His quiet and polite demeanour had to compete with that. They lacked humility; he entered through the door already kowtowing.

He wasn’t going to go down to their level. No, that was out of question.

He reached the busy Tokyo metro station. Faces floated past like apparitions.

He stopped. Where was he going? He reached a destination, his destination, but where was he heading? He stared absent-mindedly into long underground corridors unwinding ahead of him. He was gone for so many years. Now that he returned, could this even be called a return? Everything changed. Everything changed, the thought resonated within him. The low humdrum of a busy quarter approached him from every corner. If everything changed yet life flourished, then that meant the change was for good. He must embrace it.

The thoughts of his wife, of the piercing, knowing look she would give him upon arrival flooded his mind. He pictured her being quiet and ostensibly understanding but she would not be able to truly pardon him, to pardon his failure.  How – how –

He cast disorientated glances. His brain was trying to catch up with the hectic nature of the city he momentarily inhabited. I must let Tokyo in, I must let it in.

But his body felt sluggish, unaccommodating. He slouched and ached.  This was no longer the self-assured, erect young man from decades ago.

His gaze focused on passing physiognomies. There were men and women much older than him that metro sucked in without any hiccups. What was stopping him? He rubbed his hands and hurried downwards.

The zeal of olden days, that’s what he needs. Forget Haro, forget Akusai, forget his wife and daughter – for the time being at least. He entered a carriage and studied the surroundings. Finding a young man reading a manga suddenly illuminated him. Just like children playing home or pretending to be doctors or firefighters, so can he tap into the reservoirs of youth. He had seen otaku and heard of hikikomori, and was well aware of stigma attached to both groups. So, he reasoned, I know the boundaries. He could participate without the fear of getting lost. He thought of simple features of anime characters, of noble acts and clear-cut conflicts. He wasn’t quite sure how accurate his visions were but he was eager to confront them with reality. That could have been done only one way.

Nodding to himself, he headed north.

North is where fun’s to be had.

Akihabara.

***

            Neon lights were jumping from wall to wall like electronic ninjas. The whole quarter was lined with storeys of shops and video and DVD rentals and cafes and  cheap ramen and fried chicken holes-in-the-wall. Enormous, doe-eyed anime girls were smiling at passers-by in a way that made innocence alluring. Sprawled across streets were little candy stands and congregations of young women dressed up in vivacious costumes. Stockings of all colours but primarily black and white fleeted past Kimoto. Attached to those nimble limbs were young bodies  in maid clothes, handing out fliers and faint smiles that were not unlike that of their anime patrons.

Kimoto felt a burden of age. Hesitant and lost, he stood at a crossing, watching people go about their business. Maids would approach them with fliers and receive next to no attention.  Yet somehow they managed to remain infectiously optimistic, cheerfully greeting the constantly changing panoply of faces. He stood watching them for a good few minutes before some of them took notice and – he imagined – blushed and exchanged a few words among themselves. That’s when he felt as if all the poster boys and girls were suddenly staring at him, pointing at him as some kind of aberration. He hasted forward, eager to dispel that feeling and get lost among neons and pop songs.

Initially apprehensive about entering, he wandered through lit alleys between stores and cafes in a state of daze. Flooding colours and lights were overwhelming. He tried to make something out of the assault of shapes and characters but clarity eluded him. His eyes quickly grew tired and teary. Crossing thresholds, scanning plentiful shelves and absorbing booming pop-songs gradually lowered Kimoto’s posture and he laboured across various establishments with a creeping reticence. From behind shelves and counters men in early and late thirties observed him with a mix of suspicion and pity. He had nothing to hide behind but his age. Their gazes would occasionally meet – his face still tense and morose from before and theirs bored and disengaged. To them, he must have been a spectre shuffling from one world to another. Herding between them were children of new age, flicking through DVD releases, collectible cards and figurines. Conversations were shared in hushed tones about this and that character from a manga or anime that Kimoto couldn’t even pretend to recognize. He would pause and try to make out bits of these cryptic exchanges to no avail. These messages, this language – they were not meant for men like him. He did not grew discouraged though. He had no delusions about  accessibility or inclusive nature of this world. He just wanted to witness it first-hand. To take his mind off things.

Are you looking for anything in particular, sir?

A bespectacled youngster appeared from behind one of the stands.

Kimoto hemmed out a few incomprehensible words. This sudden encounter brought him back out of his pleasant daze and put him in a spotlight. He wasn’t sure where exactly he was. This situation necessitated quick assessment.

What kind of products could be purveyed in here? His head turned left and right.

The young shopkeeper watched him.

We currently are on the third floor, sir, and here you can find anime and manga for girls. The floor above has manga for men.

The boy’s voice oozed calm and professional demeanour, but Kimoto sensed deprecatory undertones. Not that he could force himself to criticize anyone. He found himself wanting words and lacking composure. Without deigning to reply, he propped himself against one of the stands and nodded. The seller, interpreting this as a note of encouragement, launched himself into a laudatory campaign. Were Kimoto capable of listening, he would no doubt learn of various products and services available to him. He would know all about the distinguished history of the shop and of comic books purveyed therein. The paeans would not stop there. Of great interest would have been to hear about special deliveries, all the events hosted over years, different competitions and contests organized in this space, cute j-pop starlets that visited the store and deep sense of community the store fostered. Perhaps if Kimoto was not filled with a sudden pressing urgency he would be more attentive to these nuances.

Excuse me, pale Kimoto gasped and elbowed past the young shopkeeper, who momentarily turned a darker shade of purple.

He ran into a small cubicle and slammed the door.

Things whirled before his eyes. Little white stars lit up, scintillated and vanished in an instant among dark universe. Yet another bright white dot danced on the edge of his vision.  His stomach sent clear signals. He squatted, bent in half and feeling his abdomen swell with unanticipated torsions. Thoughts roared across his mind like a hurricane. He was caught up right in the middle of it, a man desperately clutching at things – poles, stands, wheelie bins, cornices, handles, trees, digging his nails deep in mud and screaming or rather attempting to scream as the wind sucked him in, as he kicked and pushed things aside and faces came flying in, faded faces of metro passers-by, of restless commuters, of laughing bartenders, of little kindergarten children, of stern looking politicians, of soldiers and sailors, of dancing starlets, of shopkeepers and policemen, clowns and violists, bovine faces, snouts, yelping pigs, whiskers followed by mad cats, of Akusai still laughing and Haro blowing up like a birthday balloon, of thousand little Kimoto confetti-faces falling out of that burst balloon, as family observed him in a worried state of disgust and compassion obscured by thousands of cranes taking off.

His bowels stirred. His chin rattled against his breasts and things started drooping from his orifices. He heaved and crackled through his nose. He tried to regain coordination, to wipe his mouth at least or breathe with more ease but it was not meant to be. The faintest of movements made him retch again. It must be the noodles, an idea briefly crossed his mind and then was swept away. He placed his hands against the bathroom doors. His head remained bent, heaving. It was of paramount importance that he does not collapse. If this is, another fleeting thought seized his attention, if this is it then I prefer to go seated.

But this was not the end of it. His bowels did their thing and minutes stretched themselves across suspirations . Time abstracted itself. He could not tell what was happening or why. His concentration focused on the strained palms pressed against the plastic door. He feared someone would attempt to enter. Then he feared  that, on the contrary, no one would ever bother to come in and check on him while he rotted away in this little cubicle. He almost pictured himself in his mind’s eye or rather the pulsing mass that was left of him after many weeks spent covered in mildew and reeking of excretions.  He stared at the numb hands in front of him, at the ranges of prominent veins pulsing with effort. Perhaps there was more to come. Perhaps…

His breathing regained tempo, his bowels settled down. After a brief crisis, it looked like his machinery of life was resetting itself. A total collapse was not meant to be. He tried balancing himself. His arms trembled, but he felt strong enough to gradually stand up. He decided it was better not to look at the floor. Instead he washed his mouth over and over, each time looking up and catching a glimpse of his blurred image in the mirror before diving right back in.

A feeling swelled in his chest and drained blood from his face and limbs. He knew that feeling all too well. For once he did not care. Nothing could be done, he surmised in an exhausted whisper. He carefully washed his hands a couple of times, on both occasions squeezing a half empty soap dispenser with an odd sense of relief. Was it this recognizable aspect of a safe ritual that brought on this pleasant sensation? Or was it the fact that it he regained control of himself?

He felt as if his head was wrapped in a thin gauze. Muffled voices and blurry vision filled him with discomfort.

He left the cubicle just like he left the whole shop, promptly and without any exchange of words or glances. Soon enough the dazed feeling was reinforced further by the garish street advertising. The night drew in and put out all non-artificial lights. But Akihabara was far from falling asleep. Gigantic screens blared at pedestrians. The district flared up left and right, and lights – yellow, blue and crimson – soared up to heavens. Perhaps they even stood for heavens themselves, for who could fathom the overhanging darkness and assert there was beyond those illuminations.  Sidestepping currents of faces, he followed these blistering lines that spun and spiralled off into signs and writing. They were supposed to signify brands and stores names and advertisements, yet brightness became their defining – and blinding – quality. They  etched themselves into mind meaninglessly. Kimoto’s gaze hopped all over the place, collecting symbols the way you collect stamps for an unspecified prize.

He wandered on for a while, aimless and ignorant of time. Cars flew to his side and he only noticed them on a very superficial level. Blocks dwarfed him – he thought of Tetris but instantly reflected that this frame of reference was long outdated.

He stopped. His legs turned to stone in an instant. He was determined, he was ready to go on – but he couldn’t. His legs were loading him down.

He would not move nor would be moved. That much was decided.

Desperate glances were being cast sideways – no one noticed.

He squatted and then used the weight of his body to wobble in place. Not that his knees yearned for exercise nor his body needed warming up. But it was better than surrendering. Keeping cool composure despite ailing joints, he stared defiantly at the shimmering red neons.

They gradually retreated, a constellation of ruby scintillations dispersing into softened darkness. Just like that day, many, many years ago when he stood at the lake Ashi’s edge watching a sunset.

Namuro caught up with him and Itsuki, supporting his girlfriend Yui, was lagging not far behind. Fading sunbeams cascaded over the lake, with solemn warmth of sadness spilling over into their souls. Leftover snow crunched under Itsuki’s and Yui’s steps.

Another day ends, Namuro whispered. Kimoto nodded. A shoal of orange and crimson soared above the lake’s surface only to dive right back in.

I’m glad we managed to catch it in time.

He thought he could glimpse the snow-cap of Fiji looming in the distance. He was never quite sure. Some days he fancied his eyesight sharp enough to distinguish not only the outline but also some other basic features of the volcano. Yet other days no matter how much he strained his eyes, nothing could be made out save indistinct vastness of the horizon. It all proved insignificant in this cavalcade of crimson hues.

This explosion of colours looked as if it stemmed from Fiji but seemed to balk at its point of origin, engulfing everything in gentle imaginary fires. Namuro smiled wanly. Yui stood hand in hand with Itsuki, both of them captivated  by the spectacle.

Kimoto rubbed his hands to stave off the cold. He chuckled at the irony of this sensation.    Then he caught of glimpse of them –

under a blossoming cherry tree, two girls stood as transfixed as the rest of them. Yet they themselves were caught amidst another small miracle. The sight of early sakura pierced through the snow like dim lanterns of a rescue crew approaching a blockade of ice. Kimoto wasn’t sure whether the effervescent sunset overshadowed this natural wonder for other observers or the extent to which the two girls were aware of it.

In an odd state of stasis, he stood there absorbing the tiding moment. A thought of his research sprung to his mind, an involuntary association between knowledge and keen sense of ephemeral beauty that he was witnessing. Regression towards the mean. He could not see much in terms of relevance of the concept. Nevertheless, for better and for worse, it seared across his brain in a quizzical way. He closed his eyes – the street almost re-emerged – he opened them again. Two girls, sakura, snow, friends, sunset, lake. World seemed perfectly busy with being extraordinary.

Namuro sighed. Kimoto wondered about that sigh ever since. Was it an expression of exasperation or admiration, sadness or happiness and what was it directed at? Yui pulled Itsuki closer and clumsily put his arm around his significant other. Gazing absent-mindedly at his friends, Kimoto noticed one of the girls smiling at him – or maybe smiling at something behind him? He couldn’t tell then and even years later, following marriage and fathering a talented daughter, he still couldn’t find a definite answer. His eyes met hers in that instance without knowing whether they were sought after or not, and her oval face, sharp, pointy nose and fringe were etched forever in his memory. Her smile was a coy uprising of lips, a phenomenon that did not seem to disturb her stoic face very often. He wondered for months on end whether this was it, was that the most significant moment not only in his adult life but also in lives of people surrounding him at that time and equally immersed in the exceptional occurrence.  There was no way of knowing that, of course, but he imagined her smile as a tacit acknowledgement that he was not the only one. He was not the only one – – –  He heard footsteps running down the stairs and soon enough she entered the kitchen, her eyes gleaming dreamily. In joyous exclamations and sighs, her engagement to her long-time boyfriend was announced. He picked up a cup of coffee and drank from it in quick successions, neither looking at her nor looking away, preferring to fix his gaze on the floor space between them. His daughter was getting engaged. The thought was still resonating strangely with him as his wife entered the room and joined in on jubilations. Their exultations were reinforced by relative aloofness of the couple. He prided himself on bringing up his daughter with a certain amount of poise and reticence, setting foundations for a woman well aware of her talents and devoid of the burning desire to flaunt them. In that respect he thought he succeeded admirably. Unfortunately, the development of the  very same traits coincided with emergence some less desirable qualities, including inability to distinguish reserve from timidity and ineptitude when it came to men. He did not hold it against her. He found himself equally confused the first time he met her boyfriend. While being treated with adequate reserve and deference, he never felt fully respected but rather merely accepted. Accepted the way you accept an old couch in a newly bought house. His daughter’s boyfriend would talk of their family trips to the States, hobbies, international politics and imperial institution and all of his judgements were delivered with a sensational bent. US was so powerful, his hobbies so fascinating and international politics so complex that all one could do was just pause and wonder.  It was then and there, upon this closer inspection, that Kimoto could determine the fault at hand. He was dealing with a meek man who held principles that he had no will to enforce.  A man happy to compliment hospitality and praise one’s ancestor purely out of prudence and sense of obligation, calmly calculating that pretty words are pretty affordable these days. The kind of man who trifles his time away.  But looking at his enamoured daughter, he could not bring himself to pronounce this harsh critique in public. Witnessing the happiness that his daughter’s prenuptial joy brought to his wife, he felt more and more at odds with the rest of his family. They love him, he thought, and so I must learn to love him, too. Or accept him at the very least.

The city lights glimmered in his absent eyes. His heart, that old, trusty muscle, contracted and expanded inside his chest in a unceremonious manner. He stood in place but did not feel his legs. He looked around. This world was crazy. There were searing lights and crooked figures swarming from everywhere and cars zooming past and various scents and smells approaching from all directions. Kimoto dragged himself down the pavement. His legs carried him, acting with unusual aloofness and reserve. Eventually, he recognized himself as being walked down the pavement, through blazes and screams of orgies of colours. He still contemplated Ashi lake, sakura and snow when he arrived at the doors of a maid cafe.

All types of pastels coloured the spacious room he found himself in. The environment felt easy on his eyes and Kimoto finally relaxed. A maid appeared  and greeted him with a smile and a pair of floppy bunny ears which were promptly nested upon his balding head. The place seemed busy, with several maids tiptoeing from table to table, taking orders, joining guests for games and posing for pictures, all priced accordingly.  He was led to one of the tables at the back of the cafe. The maid serving Kimoto introduced herself as Yumi, presented him with a menu and cupped her hand in front of her mouth, giggling in a cutesy manner. What would Master like to eat tonight, she asked.

Kimoto measured her with his sullen eyes. She was a young, petite brunette with eyes that were made look unnaturally large and a short, pointy nose. Even though her pupils emitted cold nonchalance, her face seemed to be ecstatic to see him. Yumi exuded energy as she gestured in an exaggerated manner, advertising specials and  encouraging him to try their unique strawberry pancake.

I will draw something special for you on top of it, Master.

He yielded in reluctantly. He went for beer and a pancake.

She took his order and promptly vanished.

The spaciousness of the room suddenly contracted. He saw chairs and tables that seemed dangerously close to each other, overheard strips of conversations from neighbouring tables, glimpsed the intricate performance between servers dressed as maids and their customers. He could hear faint giggles and spot peace signs but he tried not to pay much attention. There was an odd emptiness hollowing his insides, sucking him in. He kept his composure on the outside, however his internal strife was ongoing and blemishing his observations. Everyone seemed so much more hopeful, so much happier, so much younger. He gazed longingly at  youthful features of acne-ridden men in their mid-twenties and their maid companions. His eyes fell on some anime and manga posters that adored the nearby walls. One depicted a lanky character with a mess of a hairdo and a serious look on his face. Probably someone famous, he thought. Before he got a chance to examine others, Yumi arrived with his order. She presented the plate eagerly, with hand movement straight out of soap opera.

The pancake had a curiously smiley cat face drawn on top of it using whipped cream and something that looked like ketchup but might as well have been strawberry jam. One of the whiskers curled up a little bit. Yumi apologized and explained that aerosol can got stuck while she was finishing the drawing, resulting in that unfortunate blot.  He nodded indifferently, exchanging a meaningful look with the squinting pancake cat. The said cat and his can of Asahi, which has been emptied into a jug behind the counter, were accompanied by a special performance, allegedly just for the Master. In addition to cutesy poses and high pitched vocal acrobatics, there wasn’t much to it. However, it did demand Kimoto’s reluctant participation.

Their eyes met. Hers were a pair of soft, heavily coated with makeup, sparkling onyxes.  His were downcast. Sullen. Exhausted.

But as she performed, in spite of the obvious preposterousness of the whole situation and hesitance it induced in him, Kimoto felt a tingling at the back of his spine. There is more than meets the eye, he decided.

Almost as soon as that thought crossed his mind, the performance was over; he was to pay for it, too. She was ready to leave; he felt far from ready.

I hope I made Master happy.

Kimoto was about to nod in agreement. His neck refused to bend. Instead he mumbled a few words and, as she was about to leave, placed his hand on top of hers. But her hand slid out of his grip almost instantly as if a sensitive nerve was touched. In response his other hand reached into his wallet and pulled out a wad of cash. Words were tipping his tongue.

I want more time. I need more time.

Yumi’s enlarged eyes stared at him in a mix of embarrassment, terror and confusion. She gave her colleagues a quick succession of glances but no one seemed to pay much attention. Then her focus shifted back to Master and the pile of money on the table. Kimoto watched her carefully, his heart thudding unusually fast. Her black and white outfit, her shy, downcast eyes, that sparkle as she smiled…

So she took a spot around the table right across from him. He could just about see her tense face, her shy gaze lowered and dark hair glistening with youthfulness. He spent a moment just absorbing the memories of her features, etching a mental picture of the being in front of him, before his attention began to falter and words started coming out of his mouth. He found himself talking, first slowly and with a large degree of hesitation, then with an increased sense of belonging and verve. He talked about his wife, his daughter, her boyfriend, their life and the sacrifices each of them had to make. Yumi kept her gaze lowered throughout the conversation, proving incredibly patient and responding mostly with quick nods or hai. He mentioned the beauty of spring season, briefly addressed the meeting with Manusa. Then he launched a tirade against Haro and people like him, against the corporate world he knew so well and that he found so abhorrent. His voice boomed as he raged against the relentless restlessness of modernity, against the ever-present noise and  the absurdity of it all. He ranted about the labyrinthine streets and subway stations, he criticized the government and then praised the imperial family. He thought back to those days around the lake, to the sakura and moments spent with friends. He told her about the climb to mount Fiji, about the tracks through Hokkaido parks. He contemplated the beauty of the coast, the marvels of Kyoto. He descended into Tokyo of old, into the first steps in his career. How long ago was it, how far away it all seemed. But Yumi was a good listener, he noticed, she did not mind his personal trivia or digressions. She was not miffed about him changing or remembering certain details, she did not smirk when he stopped mid-sentence on a couple of occasions. So he talked more, about the nature of age, about the admonishment he received from his own body. He spoke softly of his recent troubles. He even asked her if she was bored, but upon being reassured by a gently shaken head, he launched into a detailed examination of his current situation. He failed the two women he loved. Worse, he failed himself. He planned this magnificent comeback to the city, a comeback to the future that did not work out. At least here was someone who understands how I feel though, he said. I fumbled the ball, but I – Beep, beep.

Yumi stood up, her eyes still downcast and looking at the mobile phone in her hands, typing furiously. She very briefly glanced at him and there he saw eyes full of absent-minded marvel. The rest of the transaction went smoothly without a word exchanged.

***

            There are a quite few trains going from Tokyo to Odawara and none of them are ever fully booked.  Inside you will find various faces, staring quietly into the space in front of them.  How many of them look forward so that they don’t have to look back, I honestly don’t know. But as sunlight streams in through the wide windows and the floor brightens with a dark tesserae of leaf shadows, I’d like to think that perhaps looking forward isn’t the worst place to look. I watch a weary gentleman lift himself up and drag his feet towards the dawning exit, his luggage towed behind him. Odawara. Next station Hakone. Lucky fellow, what a great place to visit, the thought crosses my mind before a new song starts humming in my headphones.

***

Glossary:

Ohayo gozaimasu – good morning

Hai – yes; I agree

Author’s Bio: Alex Jasinski was born in Wroclaw, Poland but bred in Prague, Czech Republic and educated in the mysteries of zoo archaeology at the University of York, UK where he specialized in ants and termites. Afterwards, he taught English in Nanjing for three years and is presently educating himself further at KU Leuven in Brussels. He mostly writes poetry in Polish and English and loves W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Robert Burton, Kashiwa Daisuke Lagavulin and Suzhou cuisine

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