I was 15-minutes in to an English lesson when the doorbell rang. This never happens mid-lesson. Students are impeccable about arriving on time or two-minutes before a lesson. If a raging typhoon or Level 4 earthquake causes traffic jams or train cancellations, then being five minutes late can be overlooked. But an interruption 15 minutes past the hour?
The shock of the doorbell had reduced my student to giggles. I apologised to her. As a rule, I would never dream of breaking the sacred bond between teacher and student by halting a lesson, but a fundamental question of human existence had reared its head: Who would do such a thing as to ring a doorbell unexpectedly?
I apologised a second time to mark my exit, irrevocably breaking the fictive dream that we were, I don’t know, taking tea and scones in a Cotswolds tearoom. But now, we had been rudely pulled back to the here and now, a wooden shack of a one-storey house nine minutes walk from Abiko Station on the Joban Line, 35 minutes by rapid train from Ueno, Central Tokyo. The doorbell had been rung and it could not be unrung.
I couldn’t tell from the monitor who it was, the fisheye camera caught only the tip of the caller’s head. But from that warped view, I could detect a wisp of white hair and the shiny glare of male pattern baldness.
I leaned over the stone tiles of the small genkan entrance hall and shoved open the wooden front door.
There he stood, a man in his 50s in an off-white boiler suit of a uniform like the ones experts wore when giving press conferences during the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
“Konnichiwa?” I ventured.
He apologised profusely. He pointed over his shoulder to the next-door-neighbour’s house and apologised some more, proffering me with both hands a rectangle of cloth, gift-wrapped and covered in transparent plastic. I received his gift and thanked him, and he left. I returned to my student. And unwrapped the package.
It was a towel. I shrugged. I’m aware that it’s hard to be in Japan for very long without getting a towel from a stranger, or having to give one. It’s just something that happens.
But my student wasn’t satisfied with my low level of comprehension. She examined the towel. It was stamped with a company and contact details and she instantly formed a hypothesis. The neighbour was having her house decorated and this was a towel from the firm who had sent the painter round to apologise in advance for any potential disturbance to the peace.
“We’ll see,” I said.
When I arrived for work next day, my neighbour’s house was hidden behind a mass of scaffolding and the smell of oil-based paint filled the air.