Uncle Kentaro finished revving the engine and we lurched off in his Mini.
“Uncle Kentaro, will I ever be smart enough to be on TV?”
“It’s nothing to do with smarts.”
“But Koji Tachibana is smart. Hikaru Hayashi is smart. They speak native English and Japanese and are on the news. I serve ramen at Aunt Tanaka’s. They must be smarter than me.”
Uncle Kentaro hit the accelerator.
“They may be smart, Hana, but you don’t get good jobs just by being smart. They are kikokushijo, pure-bred Japanese. Their fathers would have been sent to the USA by their companies. So, they spent their teenage years at American high schools, then walked in to good US colleges on their father’s company paycheque. And then back to Japan, where they’re as American as apple pie but as sweet as only Japanese blood can be. The rest is just good connections.”
“Well, maybe I can make good connections.”
Uncle Kentaro didn’t suck his teeth.
“Maybe you can, Hana.”
He waited for me to climb the slope to the Ryokan Tomimasu inn. At the entrance, I turned to wave, but Uncle Kentaro had already disappeared down the side street. I wished I could too. I wanted to be far away from here, to be a different person. But when I saw my reflection in the sliding doors, I already was different. I was wearing the red robes of the miko not the hot-pants of the ramen waitress. Appearances are important, everyone says so, not just Aunt Tanaka.
Mr. Blackmore was sitting on an antique cherry-wood bench in the lobby, trying not to put all his weight on it. He wore the same jeans and shirt as last night. And was running his fingers around the brim of his hat. His chin looked dirty like Uncle Kentaro’s.
“Get any sleep? Enjoy your breakfast?” I asked.
“That’s a ‘heck no’ on both counts. Seems they don’t serve food folks can eat or have beds folks can sleep in. Kind of a disadvantage in a place to eat and sleep.”
“Traditional, huh? Whatever, we were put on this Earth to make an effort. What news of Emi?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve been thinking. She’s not here in Abiko. But I know a way to find her. She likes reading, right?”
“Then let’s go to the library.”
Mr. Blackmore’s brow creased. “Library?”
He cocked his head to one side and put his hat on. He kicked his plastic slippers off and pulled on his boots. The inn’s Master-san appeared out of nowhere and handed Mr. Blackmore something with both hands, palms outstretched, like it was a samurai katana sword.
“Thank you,” Mr. Blackmore said, bowing with one hand on his hat, the other on the yellow plastic shoe-horn from the ¥100 shop.
“I’m not sure what time we’ll be back,” I told Master-san, “but maybe no breakfast tomorrow for my uncle?”
Master-san returned Blackmore’s bow and gave me a wink. “Perhaps you should tell him there is a McDonald’s near the station…?”
“But then he wouldn’t experience the real Japan, would he?” I said.
“That is the real Japan,” Master-san said.
We walked down the slope into a chilly, overcast day. An old man passed the entrance on a mama-chari shopping bicycle, and lost his balance twisting his neck to stare over his shoulder at us.
“It’s your hat,” I said.
“It’s your red pants,” Mr. Blackmore said.
Maybe everyone would notice us and maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. I didn’t fancy everyone pointing at the cowboy and the miko, so we followed the side street that ran parallel to the main road to Abisuta, the Abiko library. We passed the backs of shops, with air conditioning units and cracked asphalt of the car parks on the left. Bamboo trees towered over our heads on the right.
We were at Abisuta in 10 minutes. I always got confused there. There were little rooms, big rooms, a café, a great hall and a little hall. I could never work out how many floors it had. The ground floor ceiling was the roof, but there were stairs to a second floor, which had a different roof, and if you took the lift to the third floor the doors opened to a park. This is called a multi-purpose building. Papa called it a no-purpose building. I didn’t know which was right, I was just looking for the books.
On the ground floor was a counter along one whole wall of the building. Behind it there were three women in beige checked waistcoats and brown tweed short dungarees, busy counting forms and moving stacks of papers from one desk to another.
I didn’t want Mr. Blackmore to worry about my confusion so I sat him around a corner from the counter in the cafeteria space in the middle of the ground floor. There was a cluster of vending machines offering canned coffee, Calpis, and Pocari Sweat.
“Sweat or Calpis? Heck, what a choice. I’ll have a coffee,” he said.
After he bought the drinks, we sat on plastic chairs with the scalding hot cans of coffee in our hands. I held my can in my right hand to see how long I could before my skin couldn’t bear it any more. Then I held it in my left hand. And repeated. I needed to get ready for what to do next.
“You never know when you’ll keel over,” an old woman said behind me. Bowing her head at my coffee can.
“I should know, I’m 85. So you’ve got to make the most of your life.”
She looked surprised. But maybe she’d just drawn on her eyebrows a little too high.
“That’s right,” she said, “before your husband makes the most of it. The best husband is wealthy, wise and, er, what’s the other thing?”
“Healthy?” I said.
“No, child. Dead. I was going to say dead. Ha, ha. How old are you? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I probably should be, Obaa-san, you’re right. I never made it past junior high school. I should go back, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
“You are in a library, this is the place to learn. Junior high school? That was before I’d ever tasted coffee. Back before, you know…”
She nodded toward the wall.
Black and white photos, behind the vending machines. My eyes rested on a photo of a mother breast-feeding her baby, only there was something wrong.
The mother was my age, but dressed in rags and with black stains on her cheeks. Her hair was trussed up, but she didn’t care about how she looked or even that someone was taking her picture. She had only one job: to feed her baby. Her baby’s face stuck out from mother’s mess of hair, and was focused, eyes fixed upwards toward Mama. Mama and baby, baby and Mama.
But then I saw the rest of the picture. This was no nursery, no picnic. The window behind them was smashed. All around her were broken beams of wood, splinters, and dirt. Was it a factory? A bed. She was sitting on a bed. A hospital? How many more were there like her? And those were no stains on her cheeks, they were burns.
I read the caption below the picture.
Survivors of the A-bomb. Hiroshima 1945. In one second, 80,000 dead, and 140,000 more who wouldn’t make it through the year.
Did these two make it? The caption didn’t say. I looked back at the old lady.
“Are you angry about the war?”
“No. In war, terrible things happen. Death is all around. You just accept it as that was what happened at the time. Bad times. Bad smells. The smell of burnt flesh. Like hot dogs. It was just in the air. I am alive, you are alive. They were dead. But it is better to be alive.”
“Aren’t you angry at the Americans, the foreigners who did this to… us?” I said, not looking at Mr. Blackmore in his cowboy hat.
“Don’t be silly. Do you have any idea how hard life was before the Americans? No, child, you do have a lot to learn. Before the war I was good at English until they decided we shouldn’t study it anymore. After the war, well, there were more important things to worry about. Life is cheap, but I’ve been lucky. I’m still here. Enjoy your life, child.”
“I will one day, but I’m too busy right now.”
“Wait for the right day and you’ll be too old to care.”
I nodded. But I needed to find my girl. I needed something real. But most of all, I needed her address. I’d have to improvise. My palms were sweating as I came up to the tweed women behind the long, white desk. There wasn’t much difference in age between Emi and me. If the librarians didn’t look too closely maybe I could…
“Umm, I lost my library card.”
“Please fill out one of these forms,” said one of the women. She wore glasses like John Lennon.
“Yes. So I need a replacement.”
“Thank you, please fill out one of these forms.”
“It’s just that I need to know what address the card is registered under.”
“Well, it’s your card, you must know the address. Please fill out one of these forms.” She smiled an unfriendly smile.
I had an idea.
“I’m sorry, of course it is my card. My name’s Emi. Emi Blackmore.” I made sure to pronounce the last name with a crisp L and R like they do on the BBC.
“Bu-ru-a-ku-mo-wa…?” she said.
“b-L-ac-K-moRe,” I said.
I reached my hand out to shake hers like foreigners do on TV. She sat up straight, then stood, then began a full body bow but corrected herself. Then she held out her hand like you do when you have to carry the soggy vegetable peel in the bottom of the kitchen sink out to the rubbish bin.
I grabbed her hand with both of mine and pulled her close.
“Thank you,” I said in English.
Maybe that was enough to break through?
I wrote out “Blackmore” in English on the back of a form, then told her in Japanese: “Please just type that in and you can tell me the address.” She started to type, but then she stopped.
“Why do you need to know your own address?”
“Why do you need to know your own address?”
“Yes, that is funny. Ha!” I said.
She didn’t move.
“Because I recently moved and I need to change my old address? Yes.”
“Just write your new address on the form, at the next counter station along.”
“Well that’s the thing. I just can’t quite remember it, but I think my mother may have already changed it, so I don’t want to waste your time. I get confused easily…”
“So do I,” she said, “Please, fill in the form.” Smile. Short, head-only bow. Smile. She smiled a lot but she really was not my friend.
I shuffled over to the counter beside me with crisp change-of-address forms stacked in front of me. I leaned over the counter to write.
“Why is everything in Japan designed for a person with tiny legs and enormous arms?” Mr. Blackmore said as he wandered over. “All the counters are too low, cabinets too high and steps too narrow.”
I filled in the only address I knew in the form and rested my chin on my hands on the counter. I looked into the librarian’s eyes and did my best impression of a cat hoping for cream. She ignored me while whipping the paper from under my hands and typing the address I’d written—Aunt Tanaka’s ramen noodle shop.
From my low angle on the desk I could see the reflection from her computer screen in her glasses. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like the kanji for “mountain”. There was only one neighbourhood in Abiko with that name.
I straightened myself up.
“Kounoyama. I used to live in Kounoyama.”
“Yes,” the librarian said, “I see that. 4-205 Kounoyama.”
This was what I had come for. Emi’s real address. I’d done it!
“But I thought you said you couldn’t reveal the address?”
“But now I have the new address, the old address is no longer important,” she said.
“Why didn’t you just tell me the address when I asked for it five minutes ago?”
“Because now I have your address in writing.”
I didn’t, but one thing I could see: If Emi was telling the truth on Twitter then she was far north up the coast, not at this address. Then I remembered what Uncle Kentaro had said: if it was this easy to find her address, then the yakuza probably had it already.
I stood up. “Well, thank you, I’ll use the library again.”
“You won’t” she said.
“You won’t without your library card. Here.”
“Thanks.” That gave me another idea. “Could you tell me if I have any books overdue?”
She looked back at the computer screen, “No, you only took two books out, returned them a month ago.”
“Can you tell me their names? I didn’t read them and I’d like to take them out again.”
She glanced over her glasses at me. Papa said there were no stupid questions only stupid answers. But the way she looked at me made me think that maybe I’d got it the wrong way round.
“A Berlitz textbook… Doing Business in English and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Both are in the English books section.”
I passed a Berlitz school in Kashiwa on the way to Aunt Tanaka’s shop every afternoon. I was pretty sure it was the only one this side of Tokyo. I was getting another idea.
I sat down with my books and chewed my lip. It was something Emi said on Twitter…
“Mr. Blackmore, we have an address, but I think we have another clue. We have found her boyfriend.”
“She has a…? We have…?”
Start the novel from Chapter 1 here or use the next/previous arrow keys to flip through the book.
That was a chapter of Half Life: A Hana Walker Mystery. I’m publishing a chapter a day in sequence on this blog to promote the book. You can buy HALF LIFE as a paperback from Create Space here or as a Kindle download from any Amazon site including links to the book here at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.jp.
The sequel, Prime Life, is coming out in the New Year.