If he had just stopped screaming, he might have heard me say sorry. But I’m old enough to know sometimes people don’t always listen even if they can understand you.
“Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” I’m sorry! I’m sorry!
I dropped to my knees, and scooped the steaming ramen noodles with my hands off the floor back into the bowl. They stung my fingers, but they’d have been hotter if the soup had still been in the bowl, not down his suit trousers.
He ran into the toilet at the end of the eight-mat room, his whimpers drowned out by the air drier. Aunt Tanaka was watching me from the kitchen on the other side of the counter, the knuckles around her chopsticks as white as the power stones in her bracelet. She hadn’t seen him brush his hand accidentally against my leg as I served water. Or his elbow scrape accidentally against my chest as I turned to take his order. She’d only seen me put the bowl over the edge of the table above his lap.
But the only other customer who had come in with the man had seen.
“Accidents happen,” he said, and grinned.
I smiled back, but lowered my eyes to the floor. Maybe the guy had just been clumsy. I scooped the last of the noodles up into the bowl and felt for my phone, checking again that the ringer was on. I slipped it back into place in my apron pocket.
“I’m the clumsy one. I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said in English to myself.
“I think you do. Allow me to apologise for my young companion,” he said, his English was like on the TV. He held out his business card on a leather carrying case with both hands, head bowed. Aunt Tanaka didn’t stop glaring at me. I fumbled to dry my hands on my apron.
I stood up and held the card with both hands in front of me, looking it over for a good 10 seconds, the way you are supposed to do. Japanese on one side, English on the other. Thick paper, the colour of milk tea.
Director of Global Communications
Prime Minister’s Office
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a business card,” I said in English.
“Don’t worry, I can see what you do. But what is your name?”
“Walker. Hana Walker.”
“You are wasted here, Hana. We could use someone like you, someone with your talents.”
“No, using your English. In fact, I recorded an interview in English for cable just an hour ago. Hey, what time do you get off tonight, Hana?”
“Now, but I don’t know if I can meet men customers I have something important I have to…”
He nodded toward the toilet. “I’ll have Ono wait with the car for you. I like to stay up late too. There is a lot of work to be done for Japan.”
He smiled and sat back, but his eyes didn’t leave mine. He was the same age as Papa would have been.
The Ono man waddled back from the toilet. He looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure. He was funny. He was half the age of Tachibana, but twice as fat. His shirt was too small for his belly, but his black suit was too big for him. And the trousers were still wet.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
Ono opened his mouth, but Tachibana spoke: “Don’t worry, it’s easy to lose your balance.”
I bowed my head to Ono. “I’ll get you another bowl.”
Aunt Tanaka had already scooped ramen and soup into another bowl and made a bonus side order of gyoza dumplings.
“Careful Hana, Don’t drop this one.”
I slipped in between the two men.
“Ramen. And the gyoza is on the house.”
My arm brushed Ono’s.
“Where are you from?” he said.
“No, I mean your country of birth.”
“Japan. I was born in Japan.”
“You know what I mean. Where are you from? You don’t look like me.”
“No, I’m a girl.”
Tachibana laughed. Ono laughed too, but not like it was funny.
“What’s your mother tongue?”
He had brown, chipped teeth, and there were bits of seaweed on his front teeth. Mama said not to trust anyone who had bits of seaweed on their front teeth. I backed away a little.
“My mother tongue? Mama was Japanese.”
“But you’re not like me.”
“No, I told you, I’m a girl.”
“Eh? I got that. I’m just trying to find out where you are from.”
“Papa was from England.”
“You are from England then?”
“I am from Japan.”
“But your passport?”
“Got it. You’re hafu.”
“Hana-chan.” Aunt Tanaka called out to me from behind the counter. I went into the kitchen.
“What are you doing being so clumsy? You have been listening out for the phone, haven’t you?”
“Yes, of course, Aunt Tanaka. I was just chatting with the customers. The older man, Tachibana-san wants me to work for him, I think. He works for the prime minister. He’s going to take me in his car.”
I showed her the business card. She looked at the Japanese side.
“Next, he’ll be telling you his wife doesn’t understand him…”
“What do you mean?”
She ran her fingers over her bracelet.
“Hana-chan, step into my office.”
She put her shoulder against an aluminium door under the green light of the emergency exit sign and pushed it open. The breeze blew through my T-shirt and cooled the sweat on the back of my neck. Aunt Tanaka cupped her hands to light her cigarette. I could see the mane of a cartoon lion of a cash loan service at the end of the road. Hundreds and hundreds of steel balls rattled from the pachinko parlours all along the alley to the red gate of the Kashiwa shrine.
She had started talking.
“…good luck follows bad. And bad follows good. Dropping the bowl was unlucky, so that means meeting Tachibana-san is good luck. Then the next thing that happens will be bad. Then good luck, then bad. You understand, right?”
I nodded, but couldn’t meet her eyes.
“You know I have your best interests at heart.”
“That I love you, Hana-chan.”
“Yes, Aunt Tanaka.”
“Then focus, OK? Don’t miss that phone call.”
“You do know how much this means, right?”
“Oh, Hana-chan, concentrate. You answer the phone. Talk to the American. Call the number I gave you and tell the Japanese man what the American said.”
“Talk to the American man and tell the Japanese man what the American man said.”
“That’s it, Hana.”
“But why? What are they going to do to him?”
“Why? Who knows. They are going to help him, maybe. But best not to ask too many questions, Hana-chan, you’ll only get confused. If you don’t ask too many questions, you won’t get into any trouble. You know what happens to the nail that sticks out, don’t you?”
“It gets caught on your dress?”
“It gets hammered down. Don’t be the nail that sticks out. Hana-chan, this is the big one. All I’ve got is this noodle joint, I’ll be here till I die, which at this rate could be tomorrow.”
“Don’t say that, Aunt Tanaka.”
“I didn’t mean it, Hana-chan. All I mean is sometimes you have to do things to help luck along. We’ve had all the bad luck in the world, it’s time for our break. Don’t let your past eat your future. You can stay pure and do nothing, or you can get dirty and get things done.”
“I don’t mind what gets done or doesn’t. Or getting dirty. And I’m not a fussy eater.”
Aunt Tanaka stubbed her cigarette out into a little round tin ashtray and hid it under her apron.
“When you are with a man, you don’t have to give him everything, even when he thinks you are giving him everything.”
“I don’t want to talk about things like that. Mama said not to talk to anyone about man things.”
Aunt Tanaka turned the beads in her bracelet around on her wrist again.
“Your mother was a very wise lady. But I’m what you’ve got now, and you come of age this year so it’s time to learn some more things about men, OK? Can you focus for me?”
I made my eyes go small.
“Keep something in reserve, you can give a man what he wants. Men are simple that way. Decide what you don’t want to give up and what you can’t give up. They are two different things. You can fight and when you can fight no more, give him what you don’t want to. He’ll think you have given him everything. But you have still kept hold of that one thing you could not give up. Do you know what I mean?”
“No, Aunt Tanaka. I tried to focus, I know all the words you said, but I don’t know what you mean. I don’t want to fight.”
“I know you don’t. But if there is something worth fighting for, you have to fight for it. You just haven’t found it yet.”
She looked back at the lion’s mane.
“OK, don’t worry. There’s nothing to it. Just use your common sense, smile and keep moving.”
“That’s my girl.”
“But Aunt Tanaka, what should I do about the two customers? Should I go with them?”
She rubbed her bracelet.
“This might be your lucky day.”
That was the first chapter of the first Hana Walker mystery, Half Life. Subscribe to my newsletter and receive the whole novel for free, as well as a humorous short story, I am Not a Foreigner, exclusive to subscribers.