Tokyo Weekender’s series TW Creatives feature various works by Japan-based writers, photographers, videographers, illustrators and other creatives in a bid to provide one additional platform for them to exhibit their talent. The works submitted here belong entirely to the creators — Tokyo Weekender only takes pride in being one of their most passionate supporters!
For our latest entry, we present a fourth short fiction work of author Amanda Huggins.
A Potential Husband
Behind the Iwari house there was a small lake filled with glittering nishikigoi fish. At night the veranda was lit by lanterns, and on a clear evening Michiko often heard music; sometimes Satie or Philip Glass, sometimes Burt Bacharach or Frank Sinatra. She imagined cocktail parties: beaded evening bags dangling from delicate wrists, cigarette smoke mingled with the scent of perfume – jasmine, plum and musk – and young girls politely covering their rosebud mouths with slender manicured hands as they laughed at their host’s witty conversation. In short, she imagined the life she’d read about in novels between serving the customers in her aunt’s kimono shop.
Her mother had begged her to stay on at school, to study for a career, but the eighteen-year-old Michiko was a romantic and had no ambition other than to work in her aunt’s kimono store until she married. Her father didn’t try to change her mind. He started to look around for a potential husband for his daughter, yet she’d rejected the men he’d introduced her to so far, and that Saturday night she had plans to find her own perfect match
Wearing a vintage 1960s dress she’d found in the thrift shop, she told her parents she was going out for a meal with her friend, Natsume, but as soon as she had waved to her mother from the gate, she changed direction and walked along the river.
Tonight, Michiko was going to call on Gorou Iwari.
Everybody in the neighborhood talked about him, but no one appeared to know him in person. Rumour had it he’d been a gardener for a wealthy gentleman in Tokyo, and that when the old man had died he’d left Gorou his Kyoto house – which had been his holiday home – and a considerable sum of money.
Gorou was married, but his wife, Ume, had spent the last year at her parents’ house in Takamatsu. The gossips believed they would eventually divorce, as apparently he was intolerable to live with, yet no one ever suggested the reason why. Maybe he spent too much time in the tea house with his favorite geisha, or paid more attention to his koi and water lilies than to his wife?
Her aunt often whispered and tutted when he walked past the shop window, but all Michiko saw was a handsome man who always smiled and bowed if their paths crossed in the grocery store. The more mysterious he appeared to her, the more interested she became in him.
She had brought an old key with her from a drawer in the kitchen chest. No one knew what it was for any longer, but her mother kept it in case they remembered. Her plan was to knock on the door and pretend she had found it at his gate. If Gorou Iwari was polite he would invite her inside to join his party.
Michiko walked up the path towards the pool of soft light behind the window screens. The veranda was lit by red lanterns, and as she followed it around the house she could hear music. She stopped for a moment, listened to the swell of the piano, imagined the guests dancing as waiters circled the room with trays of drinks. There was no door at the side of the house, and she was forced to continue round the back.
When she turned the final corner, the garden stopped her in her tracks. It was beautiful in the lantern light, the manicured profile of each tree mirrored in the still water until a single dappled fish broke the surface. She took a step forward, and as she did so the veranda creaked beneath her foot; a tiny sound like the chirp of a frightened bird. She was suddenly aware she was being watched. Through an open screen door at the end of the house, Michiko saw Gorou, silhouetted against the light, the tip of his cigarette glowing in the dark. She half-turned to leave, suddenly realizing what a stupid idea this had been, but he’d already seen her.
She heard him laugh. ‘Caught out by my nightingale floor! Can I help you, Michiko?’
She walked slowly towards him, holding up the key. He observed her coolly, one hand in his pocket, the other holding his cigarette between long fingers.
‘I saw this at the gate as I was passing,’ she said. ‘I thought it could have been yours?’
Gorou waited until she reached the light of the open doorway, pretending to examine the key closely before shaking his head. He smiled, and she knew that he wasn’t fooled, yet the smile was not unkind.
He gestured inside towards the music, and then back out across the veranda.
‘Dance with me, Michiko. Dance with me on my nightingale floor, and make the birds sing.’
Michiko took his hand without hesitation. Glancing inside the house she saw that they were alone.
Michiko started to go up to the Iwari house nearly every day after work. When she returned home she slipped through the side door as quietly as she could. But tonight, as she changed into her indoor slippers, her mother rushed out to greet her.
‘You’re late! The Okadas are here – where have you been?’
Michiko was confused for a moment, and then she remembered who the Okadas were.
The sooner Gorou arranged his divorce, the sooner she could tell her parents that she had found a husband, then they would stop this pointless parade of useless suitors. Her mother had bought her two new kimono especially for these introductions. She prepared homemade snacks, arranged flowers, and even instructed her daughter where to sit so that she was presented at her best angle. Michiko had to kneel on a cushion by the door to the garden so that the soft evening light illuminated her face. She was an exhibit, an artist’s model, a component of a still life, framed by the doorway with a view of the trees and the distant hills.
‘I’ve been at Natsume-san’s. I told you I was going over there after work.’
Her mother lowered her voice to a whisper as she ushered Michiko towards her room.
‘I’ll talk to you about that later, but now I want you to change quickly into your kimono. Hitoshi Okada is a good prospect, Michiko, don’t let your father down.’
Michiko closed the door firmly to stop her mother following her into the bedroom, and sat for a moment in front of her mirror. She smiled at her own image, reaching out to touch the reflection of her cheek. Nothing could dampen her spirits this evening, not even the prospect of the Okadas.
She had left Gorou just half an hour earlier, and she knew he would still be sat on the veranda, watching the sunset turn the lake to crimson. He would put on some music, then walk down to the jetty to feed his fish. They would be gathered there, already waiting, a shoal of gold and silver, bright beneath the cool surface, their expectant mouths gaping.
She’d run all the way home, dodging the evening showers. Earlier they’d taken a futon out onto the veranda as the rains started, and Gorou made love to her there, in the open air, with the sound of the soft rain pattering on the leaves. In the dusk their tangled limbs blended into one. A single shade of pale.
She lay back on the pillow, her eyes closed, heard the heavy click of his lighter as he flicked it open, the deep inhale as he lit a cigarette.
Sometimes he was almost a stranger to her, yet he had become everything that mattered. He was reserved, controlled, a man impossible to know, yet somehow he always made it appear he was revealing more, so that it was only later Michiko would realize how little he had said. Of his marriage he told her little, yet when she learned that Ume’s late uncle had been Gorou’s employer and benefactor, it didn’t take much working out that the marriage had been forced upon him.
‘My wife and I do not make each other happy, Michiko,’ he said. ‘We want different things.’
‘Then you should not have accepted the arrangement. I won’t accept my parents’ choices for me.’
‘Marriages aren’t arranged, Michiko-san, only introductions are arranged. It’s up to us to decide who we marry.’
Michiko snorted. ‘You say that, but is it really true? Most Japanese accept their parents’ choice in the end. And look at the British prince. They said he chose, but I could see he didn’t.’
‘The British prince?’
‘Yes, Prince Charles. I remember it on the news when he announced his engagement to Lady Diana. The journalist asked if they were in love. The prince said, “Whatever ‘in love’ means”. He couldn’t even bring himself to lie and just say yes. He knew what love meant, and he didn’t feel it. I was little more than a child when I first saw that footage but I somehow understood it was odd, even then. I will never bow to that.’
She had wanted to tell him then that she thought she might be pregnant, that she was three weeks late, that she loved him, that she wanted to be his wife. Yet something stopped her. She needed to be totally sure before she said anything.
A voice cut through Michiko’s thoughts, and she jumped to her feet, pulling a kimono from the drawer as the door opened. She hastily pinned up her short glossy hair with a tasseled clip as her mother pushed her into the hallway, reminding her of Hitoshi’s resume as they walked towards the room where the Okadas were waiting.
Michiko thought about Hitoshi Okada as she worked in the shop the following afternoon. He wasn’t handsome, yet his face was kind, and for some reason she felt a connection with him even though they had hardly talked. He’d already sent word via his parents that he liked Michiko and wanted to see her again. It made her feel a little guilty, as though she’d tricked him somehow, but she soon dismissed her thoughts. She had other things to think about now. She’d done a pregnancy test that morning and she knew everything would change fast when Gorou heard her news.
She folded and re-folded the kimono, smiled and greeted the customers without really seeing them. Michiko rarely listened to the talk in the shop, it passed over her head in a high-pitched thrum. However, today she paid a little more attention. The voices had fallen to a half-whisper, signifying gossip.
They talked about the new family in the next street, and then Michiko heard Kyoko Amada say the name Iwari. Her cheeks flushed and her hands shook as she wrapped a flowered yukata. Her customer chattered on, oblivious to the gossip at the other side of the room, and somehow Michiko smiled and nodded in the right places as she secured the package. She gritted her teeth, trying to tune in to her aunt’s conversation. She transferred the neatly-wrapped yukata into a carrier bag and tied it with a length of black ribbon, offering it with both hands and bowing as she walked out from behind the counter to move closer to her aunt.
At the other end of the shop, her aunt laid out several kimono as the women chatted. Kyoko Amada was their neighborhood’s number one busybody, and there was hardly ever any smoke without fire. Her gossip was of the most reliable kind.
It was apparent that Gorou’s wife, Ume, was a friend of Kyoko’s, and Michiko heard her say they had spoken on the phone regularly since Ume had moved back to her parents’ house in Takamatsu.
‘She’s coming back in a week’s time. They’ve talked on the phone, and she’s prepared to give the marriage another try. Between you and me, I think she’s feeling cooped up in that small house with her parents. What they need is a baby – that would settle the matter, but she’s always told me that Gorou-san doesn’t want children.’
‘Does he even want her back?’ Michiko heard her aunt ask.
Kyoko shrugged, and leant in closer as she whispered her reply.
‘He’s always played around, but he soon tires of them when they try to pin him down.’
Michiko’s head swam. She rushed to the toilet and locked the door behind her; resting her forehead against the cool tiles as she waited for her heart to slow down. Then she slipped out of the side door, not caring about the excuses she would have to give later, running all the way to the Iwari house.
Gorou was crouched down at the edge of the lake, pulling tangled weed from around the jetty. He sat back on his haunches when he saw Michiko, his smile quickly disappearing as she spoke, hurling the words in breathless gasps, tears streaming down her face.
‘I didn’t promise you anything, Michiko. I didn’t tell you I was getting a divorce – that’s been wishful thinking on your part.’
‘I’m pregnant . . .’
He frowned and stood up, shaking his head in disbelief.
She stepped towards him. ‘I thought it would make a difference, Gorou. That we could be together . . .’
‘Don’t be stupid, we can never be together. How could you let this happen? I won’t let you ruin my life – you’ll have to get rid of it.’
When he saw her face fall, he realized he had gone too far. Yet Michiko was too fast for him; she saw through this false recovery, the quick change of approach as he offered her his gentlest smile. He moved towards her, reaching for her shoulders, but she pushed him away, catching him off-balance. He tried to grab the veranda railing, but missed and overbalanced, striking his head on the corner of a post as he fell into the water.
Michiko didn’t scream, or cry for help. She watched him thrashing in the lake, struggling to stand up, the glint of the fish as they swam through the swirl of his blood. Her heart pounded in her ears, for a moment she felt as though it were her own blood in the water; some kind of heartbreak made visible. She knew she should jump in to help him, yet she didn’t. She could see he would be alright, and the darkest part of her wouldn’t have cared if he wasn’t.
She calmly walked away around the veranda, heard the chirp of the nightingale as the boards squeaked, and when she looked down she saw her key from the kitchen chest; it had slipped through a gap and lay on the moss underneath. She jumped down and retrieved it, then set off home.
As she undressed in her bedroom, the key fell out of her pocket. She held it in her hand for a moment, cold and hard, slightly tarnished. Then she slid back the screen and threw it as hard as she could out into the garden.
She thought about leaving. She didn’t have to bow to her father’s wishes, she could persuade him to let her move to Osaka, arrange for her to stay with her Aunt Yoko in a city where no one else knew her. She would find a job to support her and the baby, and one day she might meet a man who loved her, a man she would love in return with a passion greater than any she had felt for Gorou Iwari.
Then she thought about Hitoshi Okada. He had a job at the bank with excellent prospects, he was from a good family, he appeared to be a kind and respectful man. She didn’t know yet if she could love him, but she could build a life with him. Pretending didn’t work out for the British prince, yet maybe it would for Michiko and her baby.
She sat in front of the mirror and brushed her hair, the repetitive action helping to organize her thoughts.
When she closed the screens and slid beneath the quilt she had decided what to do. Tomorrow she would ask her father to make the phone call.
Amanda Huggins is an award-winning travel writer, author and poet. Her debut novella, All Our Squandered Beauty, will be published in January 2021. Amanda grew up on the north-east coast of England, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire. She has made several trips to Japan over the last fifteen years and has a great interest in all aspects of Japanese culture and lifestyle. She is also a voracious reader of Japanese literature in translation and a big fan of Japanese cinema. She worked in engineering for twenty years and is also a creative writing tutor and competition judge. You can pre-order All Our Squandered Beauty from Victorina Press here and Amanda‘s short story collections, Separated From the Sea and Scratched Enamel Heart are available online from Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble etc. Follow her on Twitter @troutiemcfish
Read more of Huggins’ fiction work here:
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