Results 2017

Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel - Judge: Nathan Filer


1ST PRIZE - (please click the title to read the opening chapters from this novel)

Djinn Patrol on the Purple LineDeepa Anappara

 

RUNNER-UP - (please click the title to read the opening chapters from this novel)

The SentenceStephanie Scott

 

SHORTLIST (alphabetical by title)

Sugar Bird – Claire Bassi

The Embalming – Jo Browning Wroe

The Waiting Rooms –  E.C. Smith 

 

LONGLIST (alphabetical by title)

A Crack in the Door – Helen Ryan

A Dream of Something Falling – Scott Lupasko

A Fancy-Dress Genocide – Daniel Magnowski

A Fatal Mercy – Thomas Moore

Albany – Stephanie Artley

All In Sarah Gee’s Head – Nasser Hashmi

Billy Watkins – Georgina Mc Arthur

Here in Eden – Elizabeth Loudon

May Never – Steve Herrington

Nuance of Nothing – Tammy Boyce

Skinned – Peter Lewenstein

The Arrow Garden – Andrew King

The Passenger – Ailsa Caine

The Scribbler's Tales - Anna James

The Second Heart – Mary Downes

 

FIRST PRIZE - Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara


I Look at Our House with -

 

- upside-down eyes and count five holes in our tin roof. There must be more, but I can’t see them because the black fog outside has wiped the stars off the sky. Inside our house, the light bulb swinging from the ceiling is as dim as Runu-Didi and, like her, always itching to snooze. I picture a djinn crouching down on the roof, his eye turning like a key in a lock as he watches us through a hole, waiting for Ma and Papa to fall asleep so that he can draw out my soul. Djinns aren’t real, but if they were, they would only steal children because we have the most delicious souls. 

My elbows wobble on the bed on which I’m doing the headstand, so I lean my legs against the wall. Runu-Didi stops counting the seconds I have been upside down and says, ‘Arrey, Jai, I’m right here and still you’re cheating-cheating only. You’ve no shame, kya?’ Her voice is high and jumpy because she’s too happy that I can’t stay upside-down for as long as she can.      

This headstand contest is not a fair one. The yoga classes at our school are for students in Class Six and above, and Runu-Didi is in Class Seven, so she gets to learn from a real teacher. I’m in Class Four, so I have to rely on Baba Devanand, who says on TV that if we stand upside-down, children like me will:

  • - never have to wear glasses our whole lives
  • - never have white in our hair or black holes in our teeth 
  • - never have puddles in our brains or slowness in our arms and legs
  • - always be NUMBER ONE in Health + Fitness + Knowledge + Character.

I like headstands a lot more than the huff-puff exercises Baba Devanand does with his legs crossed in the lotus position. But right now, if I stay topsy-turvy any longer, I will break my neck, so I flump to the bed that smells of coriander powder and raw onions and Ma and bricks and cement and Papa.

‘Baba Jai has been proved to be a conman,’ Runu-Didi shouts like the newsreaders whose faces redden every night from the angry news they have to read out on TV. ‘Will our nation just stand and watch?’

I stick my fingers in my ears. Runu-Didi’s lips move but it’s as if she’s speaking the bubble language of fish in a glass tank. I can’t hear a word of her chik-chik. Had I lived in a big house, I would have taken my shut-ears and run up the stairs two at a time and squashed myself inside a cupboard. But our whole house is only one room.

Papa says this room has everything we need for our happiness to grow: our clothes hanging on nails; our textbook towers on plastic footstools; the TV on a shelf with steel plates and aluminium tins; god and goddess pictures sellotaped to the four green walls; the gas stove that’s lower than my knees tucked into the corner where Ma cooks, sitting on the floor; and wooden boards that Ma has fixed at the right height so that her hands can easily reach the spice tins dotted yellow with turmeric or light brown with mango powder, and plastic baskets with onions peeling off their pinkish-purplish coats as if they’re always too hot.

The smells of Ma’s cooking make my belly ache. I lift my head up and look across the room to the kitchen corner where she’s shaping rotis into perfect rounds with the same rolling pin that she uses to whack my bottom when I shout bad words behind Runu-Didi while she talks to Nana-Nani on Ma’s mobile phone.

Ma’s eyes are now on the television. Round, white letters on the TV screen say, Dilli: Police Commissioner’s Missing Cat Spotted. Sometimes the Hindi news is written in letters that look like they’re spurting blood, especially when the news-people ask tough questions we can’t answer, like:

Are You Drinking the Milk of Alien Cows?

or

Does a Real Devil Live in Sachin Tendulkar’s Head?

or

Is a Bull this Varanasi Sari Shop’s Best Customer?

or

Did a Rasgulla Break Up Actress Chandni’s Marriage?

Ma likes such stories because she and Papa can argue about them for hours. He will say, ‘If the TV-wallahs claim someone found the half-man-half-lion god in Tihar Jail, then it must be true.’ He’s only pulling her leg.

I don’t like the news much. My favourite shows are ones that Ma says I’m not old enough to watch, like Police Patrol and Live Crime. But she doesn’t switch off the TV when they come on because she likes guessing who the evil people are and telling me how the policemen are sons-of-owls for never spotting criminals as fast as she can.

Runu-Didi has stopped talking and has opened her Science textbook. She’s staring at a page, and brushing her chin with the end of her long braid. My fingers are going numb in my ears, so I pull them out and wipe them against my cargo pants that are already spattered with ink and mud and grease. All my clothes are dirty like these pants, even my school uniform.

I have been asking Ma to let me wear the new uniform that I got free from school this winter, but Ma has wrapped it up in a plastic bag and kept it on top of a shelf where I can’t reach it. She says only rich children throw clothes away when there’s still life left in them. If I show her how my brown trousers end above my ankles, and how my grey shirt and sweater look as if rats tried to eat them and spat them out, Ma will say even film stars wear ill-fitting clothes because it’s the latest fashion.

She’s still saying things like that to trick me like she did when I was smaller than I’m now. She doesn’t know that every morning, my friends Pari and Faiz laugh when they see me and tell me I look like a joss stick but one that smells of fart.   

‘Ma, listen, my uniform—’ I start to say and then I stop because there’s a scream from outside so loud I think it will squish the walls of our house. Runu-Didi jumps out of the bed, her textbook thud-thuds on the floor, and Ma’s hand brushes against a hot pan by mistake and her face goes all sharp and jagged like bitter-gourd skin.

I think it’s Papa trying to scare us, because he’s always singing old Hindi songs in his hairy voice that rolls down the alleys of our basti like an empty LPG cylinder, waking up stray dogs and babies and making them bawl. But then the scream punches our walls again, and Ma switches off the stove and we run out of the house.

 The cold slithers up my bare feet. Shadows and voices judder across the narrow alley. The fog combs my hair with fingers that are smoky but also damp at the same time. People shout, ‘What’s happening? Has something happened? Who’s screaming? Did someone scream?’ Goats that their owners have dressed in old sweaters and shirts to keep off the cold hide under the charpais on both sides of the lane. The lights in the skyscrapers near our basti blink like fireflies and then start to disappear. The current goes off.

I don’t know where Ma and Runu-Didi are. Women wearing clinking glass bangles hold up mobile phone torches and kerosene lanterns but their light is too wishy-washy in the fog.

Everyone around me is taller than I am, and their worried hips or elbows knock into my face as they ask each other about the screams. We can tell by now that they are coming from Drunkard Laloo’s house.

‘Something bad is going on over there,’ a chacha who lives in our alley says. ‘Laloo’s wife was asking earlier if anyone had seen her son.’

‘That Laloo too, na, all the time beating his wife, beating his children,’ a woman says. ‘Just you wait and see, one day his wife will also disappear. What will that useless fellow do for money then? From where will he get his hooch, haan?’

I wonder which one of Drunkard Laloo’s sons is missing. The eldest, Bahadur, is a stutterer who is in my class.

The earth twitches as a metro train rumbles underground somewhere near us. It will worm out of a tunnel and go up a bridge to a station near our basti before returning to the city because this is where the Purple Line ends. The metro station is new, and Papa was one of the people who built its sparkly walls. Now he’s making a skyscraper so tall they have to put flashing red lights on top to warn pilots not to fly too low. 

The screams have stopped. I’m cold and my teeth are talking among themselves. Then Runu-Didi’s hand darts out of the darkness, snatches me and drags me forward.   

‘What are you doing?’ I ask. ‘I want to go home.’

‘Didn’t you hear what people were saying about Bahadur?’

‘He ran away because his father hit him?’ I ask. 

‘Must be. Don’t you want to find out?’

Runu-Didi can’t see my face in the fog but I nod. We follow a lantern swinging from someone’s hands, but it’s not bright enough to show us the puddles where washing-up water has collected and we keep stepping into them. The water is slippery and icky and I should turn around but I also want to know what happened to Bahadur because I don’t like him much. Teachers don’t ask him questions in class because of his stammer. Once or twice I tried going ka-ka-ka too, but that only got me a rap on the knuckles with a wooden ruler held sideways. Ruler beatings hurt much worse than canings.

I almost trip over Fatima’s buffalo, who is lying in the middle of the alley, a giant black smudge that I can’t tell apart from the fog. Ma says the buffalo is like a sage who has been meditating for hundreds and hundreds of years in the sun and the rain and the snow. Faiz and I once roared at Buffalo-Baba like lions, and then we pelted him with pebbles, but he didn’t roll his big buffalo eyes or shake his backward-curving horns at us.

All the lanterns and phone-torches have stopped outside Bahadur’s house. We can’t see anything because of the crowd. I tell Runu-Didi to wait, and I jostle past trouser-clad, sari-clad, dhoti-clad legs, and hands that smell of kerosene and sweat and food and metal. Bahadur’s mother is sitting on the doorstep, folded in half like a sheet of paper.

Ma has got here before I have and is smoothing Bahadur’s mother’s hair, rubbing her back, and saying things like, ‘He’s only a child, must be somewhere around here. Can’t have gone that far.’ Drunkard Laloo is squatting next to them, his head bobbling as his red-rivered eyes squint up at our faces.

Ma sees me in the crowd and asks, ‘Jai, was Bahadur at school today?’

‘No,’ I say. Bahadur’s Ma looks so sad that I wish I could remember when I last saw him. Because of his stammer, Bahadur doesn’t speak much, so no one notices if he’s in the classroom or not. Then Pari sticks her head out of the sea of legs and says, ‘He hasn’t been coming to school. We saw him last Thursday.’

Today is Tuesday. Pari and Faiz mutter ‘side-side-side’ as if they are waiters carrying wire racks of steaming chai glasses, so that people will make way for them to pass. Then they come over and stand next to me. Both of them are still wearing our school uniform. Ma makes me change into home clothes as soon I enter the house so that my uniform won’t get even more mucky. She’s too strict.

‘Where were you?’ Pari asks. ‘We looked for you everywhere.’

‘Here only,’ I say.

Pari has pinned back her fringe at such a height that it looks like one-half of a mosque’s onion dome. Before I can ask why no one realised Bahadur was missing until today, Pari and Faiz start telling me why, because they are my friends and they can see the thoughts in my head. 

‘His mother, na, for a week or so she wasn’t here,’ Faiz whispers. ‘And his father¾’

‘¾is World-Best Bewda Number 1. If a bandicoot chews off his ears, he won’t know because he’s fultoo drunk all the time,’ Pari says loudly as if she wants Drunkard Laloo to hear her. But everyone around us is talking too, so he doesn’t. ‘The chachis next-door should have noticed Bahadur is missing, don’t you think?’ she asks.   

I don’t say anything. Pari is always quick to blame others because she thinks she’s perfect; an angel, just like her name.  

‘The chachis have been taking care of Bahadur’s brother and sister,’ Faiz says. ‘They thought Bahadur was staying with a friend. Imagine, he can’t even say one word properly. How will he have any friends?’   

‘It’s this man’s fault,’ Pari says. She points her onion-fringe towards Drunkard Laloo. Every day we see him stumbling around the basti, drool dripping from his mouth, doing nothing but eating air. He asks even children like us if we have coins to spare so that he can buy himself a glass of kadak chai. It is Bahadur’s mother who makes money by working as a nanny and a maid for a family in one of the skyscrapers near our basti. Ma and lots of chachis in the basti also work for the hi-fi people who live up there.

I turn my head to look at the skyscrapers, which are close to our basti but seem far because there’s a rubbish ground in between, and then a brick wall that Ma says is not high enough to keep out the stink from the garbage mounds. There are many grown-ups behind me but through the tiny gaps between their monkey-caps I can see that the skyscrapers have light now. It must be because they have diesel generators. The basti is still dark because our bulbs run on current stolen from the mains.

Bahadur’s Ma is wailing like somebody has died. ‘Why did I go?’ she howls. ‘I should’ve never left them alone.’

‘The rich family went to Neemrana, and they took Bahadur’s mother with them. To take care of their babies,’ Pari explains to me. ‘That’s why she wasn’t here.’

‘She went on a tour,’ Faiz says. ‘She was doing masti.’

‘What’s Neemrana?’ I ask.

‘It’s a fort-palace in Rajasthan,’ Pari says. ‘On top of a hill.’ 

Drunkard Laloo tries to stand with one hand pressing the ground. A chacha helps him up and, swinging from side to side, he tells his wife, ‘Bahadur ki Ma, don’t cry. You leave all the worrying to me. I’m going to find him.’ Then he hobbles towards us. ‘Where is he?’ he asks. ‘You play with him, don’t you?’

We step backwards, bumping into people. Drunkard Laloo kneels down in front of us, nearly toppling over, but he manages to level his old-man eyes with mine. Then he catches me by my shoulders and shakes me back and forth as if I’m a soda bottle and he wants to make me fizz. I try to wriggle out of his grip. Instead of saving me, Pari and Faiz scoot off into the darkness. Drunkard Laloo’s smelly breath rushes into my face. Tears run down his hollow cheeks.

‘You know where my son is, don’t you?’ he says. ‘Tell me where he is. Why won’t you tell me?’

‘Leave that boy alone,’ someone shouts.

I don’t think Drunkard Laloo will listen, but he ruffles my hair and mutters, ‘All right, all right.’ Then he lets go of me.  

***

Papa always leaves for work early, when I’m still sleeping, but the next morning I wake up to the smell of turpentine on his shirt, and his rough hands grazing my cheeks.

‘Be careful. You walk with Runu to school and back, you hear me?’ Papa speaks as if I’m two. ‘After class, come straight home. No wandering around Bhoot Bazaar by yourself.’ He has never seen me there but somehow knows it’s my favourite place. Then he scolds Runu-Didi for sleeping late but he also tells me it’s not time for me to get up. Before leaving, he kisses me on the forehead, and says again, ‘You’ll be careful?’

I wonder what he imagines has happened to Bahadur. Does he think a djinn snatched him? But djinns aren’t real. Papa himself has told me that a thousand times.   

Ma doesn’t care for what Papa says because she tears the blanket from me and slaps my legs and tells me to hurry-hurry-hurry. She’s never on time for work because she first has to go to a tank that’s to the north of our basti where tubewell water is pumped up each morning. Ma says the minute the pipe makes sputtering noises, people start pushing and shoving each other and, sometimes in the scuffle, she can’t even get anywhere near the tank.

Inside the house Ma is like Durga Mata, hankering to let off a torrent of arrows, but outside, she’s no good. Her face is always fog-dark when she gets home from the tank, with or without the water. She snaps at us to eat fast so that she can leave for work. The hi-fi Madam whose flat she cleans is a mean lady who has already put two strikes against Ma’s name for being late. One night when I was pretending to sleep, Ma told Papa that the Madam threatened to chop her into tiny-tiny pieces and chuck slices of her over the balcony for the hawks circling the building to catch.

The skyscrapers near our basti are clustered in the east, so the morning sun can’t get past them to warm our roofs. This means that: (first of all) our home is ice-cold when I wake up in winter; (second of all) there are hundreds of jobs in the hundreds of flats in each skyscraper; and (third of all), Ma can easily find another job. But (fourth of all), Ma likes the Madam’s babies, or she likes that the Madam gives her leftovers in plastic bags, bhindi masala or tinda fry, and sometimes even mutton curry or butter chicken. She doesn’t want to lose this job.  

With Runu-Didi carrying a bucket of water, and an empty ghee can for a mug, I head to the toilet complex that NGO-people have built near the rubbish ground, far away from the water tank. The black fog is still sulking above us and it pricks my eyes and plashes tears onto my cheeks.

Runu-Didi teases me by saying that I must be missing Bahadur. ‘You’re crying for your dost?’ she asks, and I would tell her to shut up, but there’s a long queue for the toilets though it costs two rupees to go and I have to focus on shifting my weight from one leg to another so that I won’t pee into my chaddi like babies do. 

Some of the people waiting in the queue are talking about Bahadur. A chacha says, ‘That boy must be hiding somewhere, waiting for his mother to kick his father out.’ Everyone murmurs in agreement. They decide Bahadur will come home once he tires of brawling with stray dogs for an old roti in a pile of garbage.

They talk about how loudly Bahadur’s Ma screamed the previous night, loud enough to scare the ghosts that live in Bhoot Bazaar, and then they joke with each other about how long it will take them to spot that one of their own children is missing. Hours-days-weeks-months?

One chacha says that even if he notices he won’t bring it up. ‘I have eight children. What difference will one less or one more make?’ he says, and everyone laughs. The fog is worrying their eyes too, so they are also crying at the same time.

I get to the front of the queue but all the toilets are stinking and filled with flies and dried crap and I have to step on the flat rocks someone has placed around the complex to find my way through the mess. I pinch my nostrils with my fingers and imagine I’m living in a skyscraper flat that has a bathroom scented like jasmine, with tiles so polished I can see my face in them. This is the only way I can do my business quickly. I wonder if Bahadur ran away so that he could find somewhere better than our basti. Maybe he’s not as stupid as I think he is.  

Afterwards, back at home, Ma gives us chai and rusk for breakfast. The rusk is hard and tastes of nothing, but I obediently chew it up because Ma won’t stand for my whining now. Then it’s time to change into our uniform and go to school.

Though Papa told me not to, I decide I will give Runu-Didi the slip as soon as we are out of Ma’s sight. But there is a swarm of people around Buffalo-Baba, some standing on plastic chairs and charpais and craning their necks to see whatever is going on, and they are blocking our way.

I hear a voice I recognise from last night. It’s Drunkard Laloo, crying, ‘Find my son, Baba, find my son for me. I won’t move from here until my Bahadur is found.’ Then I hear a woman’s voice: ‘Achha, now you can’t live without our son? You didn’t think of that when you were hitting him?’ It is Bahadur’s ma.   

‘We’re going to be so late,’ Runu-Didi says. She holds her schoolbag in front of her and uses it to slam into people so that they will move, and I do the same. By the time we are out of the crowd, our hair is messy and our uniforms creased.

Runu-Didi straightens her mussed-up skirt, and I spit on my left hand and slick my hair back. Then, before Didi can stop me, I jump over a gutter, and sprint past cows and hens and dogs and goats wearing better sweaters than I am, past a woman washing vessels, and a white-haired grandmother stringing beans, and a cobbler arranging brushes and tins of shoe polish on a torn sack. I knock into an old man sitting on a plastic chair with one leg shorter than the others, the difference in height made up with bricks. The chair topples over and the man lands on the ground with his backside in the mud. I rub my left knee, which hurts a bit, and then I run off again and the man’s curses chase me all the way to another alley that smells of chhole-bhature.

Here Pari and Faiz are waiting for me, outside a store that sells Tau-Jee and Chulbule and other salty, masala-coated snacks. The bright reds and greens and blues of the wrappers look dreary in the fog today, and the husband and wife who run the shop are sitting behind the counter with mufflers wrapped over their faces. The fog doesn’t bother me as much, probably because I’m strong.    

‘This Faiz, na,’ Pari says as soon as I join them, ‘is an idiot.’ Her minaret fringe looks like it will collapse any second, and a bit of snot has crusted under her nose.  

‘You’re the idiot,’ Faiz says.

‘You saw?’ I ask, waving my right hand in the direction of our basti. ‘Drunkard Laloo is praying to Buffalo-Baba but his wife is shouting at him.’

‘She was screaming she’ll go to the police,’ Pari says.

‘She’s mad,’ Faiz says.

‘The police will kick us out,’ I say. ‘We’re illegals.’

‘The basti is illegal,’ Pari says. ‘Not us. The police won’t do anything to us as long as we pay them their hafta on time.’

 ‘Papa says we should never go to them because they’ll only ask for more money,’ I say. There’s rusk stuck between my teeth and I pry it out with my tongue.

‘Bahadur’s Ma won’t make a police complaint,’ Pari says. ‘She’s talking nonsense because she’s sad. My ma told me so.’

‘I hope Bahadur comes back so that I can give him one tight slap,’ I say. 

‘Faiz thinks Bahadur is dead,’ Pari says.

‘Bahadur is our age.’ I hook my thumb under the strap of my schoolbag that’s pressing down on my shoulder. ‘We aren’t old enough to die.’ 

‘I didn’t say he died,’ Faiz protests, and then he starts coughing. He hawks up spit, wipes his mouth with his hands, and says, ‘Bahadur had asthma. We all heard it. Remember how he got once when we were in Class Two?’ He looks at Pari. ‘You started crying because you were scared.’

‘Anything only you’ll say now?’ Pari says. ‘I don’t cry ever.’

‘But what if his asthma went bad because of the fog’—Faiz’s hands jab the ashy air around us—‘and then Bahadur couldn’t breathe and then he fell into a manhole but no one saw him?’

‘Have you gone blind?’ Pari asks. ‘You can’t see the number of people here? Okay, you do one thing, why don’t you jump into a gutter? Dekh lena, a hundred hands will pull you out.’ 

I eye the people walking past us, to establish if they seem like the helpful type. But their faces are half-hidden by handkerchiefs to keep the fog from getting inside their ears and noses and mouths. Some of them are barking into their mobile phones through their masks. There’s a chhole-bhature vendor on the roadside, and though his face isn’t covered by a scarf, it’s enveloped in a cloud of smoke rising from a vat of sizzling hot oil in which he’s frying bhaturas. His customers are labourers on their way to construction sites, and security guards at malls returning home after a nightshift. The men scoop up the chhole with steel spoons and munch, their kerchiefs pulled down to their chins. Their eyes are fixed on their plates of hot food. If a mad elephant were stomping towards them, they wouldn’t know. 

‘Jump into a gutter, I dare you,’ Pari tells Faiz, and rubs her nose against the right sleeve of her sweater. 

Faiz furrows his forehead, and the groove of the white scar that runs across his left temple, just missing his eye, deepens as if something is tugging at his skin from the inside. 

‘Bahadur ran away because he had enough of his father,’ I say.  

‘That’s what I said,’ Pari says as if I have stolen her words. 

‘We’ll miss the assembly,’ I say. Watching Pari and Faiz fight is the most boring thing in the world.

Faiz fast-walks, even when we get to the lanes of Bhoot Bazaar, which are crammed with too many people and dogs and cows and cycle-rickshaws and autorickshaws and e-rickshaws. To keep pace with him, I can’t do any of the things I usually do at the bazaar, like count the bloodied goat hooves on sale at Afsal-Chacha’s shop or climb over the jumble of yellow police barricades that rickshaw drivers kick out of the way when the thullas are not looking.

No one will believe me but I’m one hundred percent pakka that my nose grows longer when I’m in the bazaar because of its smells, of tea and raw meat and buns and kebabs and rotis. I can feel my ears get bigger too, because of the sounds, ladles scraping against pans, butcher knives thwacking against chopping boards, rickshaws and scooters honking, and music blaring from sari centres and kids-wear showrooms. Not today though. Today my nose and ears stay the same size because my friends are sulking and the fog is making everything blurry.

In front of us, sparks fall on the ground from a bird’s nest of electric wires hanging over the bazaar.

‘That’s a sign,’ Faiz says. ‘Allah is telling us to be careful.’ 

Pari looks at me, her eyebrows climbing up her forehead. Whatever mosquito bit Papa has bit Faiz too, because he’s being crazy. But just in case he’s right, I keep an eye on the ditches for the rest of our walk to school. All I spot are empty wrappers and holey plastic bags and eggshells and dead rats and dead cats and chicken and mutton bones sucked clean by hungry mouths.  

 

Bahadur

 

From a distance, the boy watched three men swathed in blankets huddle by a fire. Ash-tipped flames rose from a large metal bowl that must once have been used to carry cement at a construction site. The men let their hands hover above the fire as if performing a solemn ritual. Yellow sparks leapt higher than their faces but their hands didn’t return to the folds of their blankets. 

There was a silent companionship between these men that made Bahadur wish he were older, so that he too could sit with them. But he was only a boy hiding under a pushcart that smelled of guavas, a faint sweet note that trickled down to him through the charred winter air.

The cart’s owner was sleeping on the footpath nearby, his body turned towards a shop’s padlocked shutter, and covered like a corpse from head to toe with a sheet that wasn’t thick enough to muffle his snores. He must have been exhausted from the day’s work. Bahadur had searched, carefully, under the folded tarpaulin sheets and sacks on the cart for guavas, and found none. The cart owner must have walked long and far that day to sell his fruit. 

Bahadur wasn’t sure for how long he had been watching these men. It was well past midnight and he knew he should sleep but below the cart it was cold and he wanted to walk first to warm the blood in his veins. He crawled out and turned to look at the men. They were now drinking from a bottle that they shared, each man wiping its lip against their sweater sleeves once they had taken a sip. He knew in another hour they would be drowsing by the fire, using bricks for pillows, legs half-covered by blankets splayed across the lane.       

The alleys of Bhoot Bazaar stretched wide around him like the gaping mouths of demons. He wasn’t scared. He used to be, when he started sleeping outside three years ago, on those nights his mother stayed back at the flat where she worked, to care for Madam’s feverish child, or to serve guests at a party that Madam was hosting. Until then Bahadur had seen the bazaar only in the day, when it heaved with people and animals and vehicles and the gods invoked in the prayers drifting out of loudspeakers from a temple, a gurudwara, and a mosque. All these scents and sounds so thick that they seeped into him as if he were made of gauze.   

So at age six, when he snuck away from home and walked to the bazaar late at night, its stillness had spooked him at first. The sky roiled blackish-blue above tangled cables and dusty streetlamps. The market was mostly empty but for the crumpled forms of sleeping men. Then his ears grew accustomed to the distant, steady thrum of the highway. His nose learnt to catch the weakest of smells from hours before—marigold garlands, slices of papayas and melons served with a pinch of chaat powder on top, puris fried in oil—to guide his steps to the right or left in dark corners. His eyes could tell the stray dogs in the alleys apart by the curves of their tails or the shapes of the white patches on their brown or black coats. He had nodded to them as if they were his acquaintances. 

Now he was almost ten, old enough to be on his own though he would never say that to his mother. She didn’t know that he came here. No one did. The world had long ago receded from his father’s hooch-stained eyes.

On the nights his mother was away, his siblings cajoled the neighbourhood aunties into taking them in and thought somebody must be doing the same for him. But he didn’t want to be with these aunties who clucked their tongues and asked the gods to lift the curse they had put on him, or their children who sneered at the way letters stayed glued to his tongue no matter how much he tried to spit them loose. To them he was always That Idiot or Duffer or Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka or He-He-He-Ro-Ro. There was none of that nonsense in the bazaar. He didn’t have to talk to anyone. If he wanted, he could even pretend that he was a Mughal prince patrolling his kingdom disguised as a street child.  

Around him, the downed shutters of shops crinkled like waves. The cold caught up with him, no matter how fast he walked. He might as well stop to give his legs a rest. Near him was a cycle rickshaw driver, asleep under a blanket on the passenger seat of his vehicle. Hanging from the handlebar was a white plastic bag that the man had used to pack his lunch or dinner, with something dark and thick pooled at the bottom. Bahadur untied the bag as quietly as he could and ran ahead and inspected its contents. Only a few scoops of black dal that he guzzled with his neck tilted towards the sky.       

His best chance for a proper meal would be when his mother returned home on Tuesday, but this was only Saturday night and the hours stretched ahead of him. He chucked the bag in his hand into the gutter, then kneeled down and sifted through a pile of trash heaped by the stalls where in the day vendors sold papdi chaat and aloo tikkis glazed with curd and tamarind chutney. But the animals of the bazaar had got to the food before him. They always did. He wiped his hands against the bottom of a discarded aluminium foil bowl and stood up. 

A heaviness settled in his chest. The air was sharp with smoke and soon the tickle in his nostrils would turn into a cough that would leave him gasping for breath. He knew that it would pass, in a few minutes perhaps. Only once when he was smaller had the feeling of breathlessness, of drowning on land, lasted a few hours. It seemed unfair to him that he struggled with the things that came naturally to everyone else, things like talking and breathing. But he was done with cursing gods, done with trying to get them on his side with prayers.   

He walked a little ahead to Hakim’s Electronics and Electrical Repair Shop, which was his favourite place in the bazaar. Hakim Chacha never expected him to talk and instead taught him about blown capacitors and loose cables. Bahadur’s mother had once hired two boys to bring home a clattering refrigerator and a TV that Madam had tossed into the garbage ground near their basti. Bahadur had fixed them in no time and made them as good as new. Chacha liked to say that Bahadur had a gift. That when he grew up he would be an engineer and live in a flat like Madam, not a jhopdi like where he lived now.   

Bahadur wished a man like Chacha had been his father. The past two days, each time he visited the electronics shop, Chacha had bought him newspaper cones filled with warm peanuts roasted in salt. And he had done so without knowing Bahadur was hungry. Bahadur had stored a few peanuts in the pockets of his jeans for later though they were all gone now. He checked again, without hope, pushing his hands deep into his pockets. When he brought them out, the papery skin of peanuts was stuck to the tips of his fingers. He licked them, tasting the salt, remembering too late that it would make him thirsty. 

A fog was beginning to swill against the streetlights. He swallowed the air in big gulps and curled up on the raised platform outside the repair shop, his hands around himself, his knees drawn towards his chest. He was still cold. He got up and found two red crates caked with dirt stacked by the shop next door, and balanced them on top of his legs but they were uncomfortable and didn’t lessen the chill. He pushed them aside and lay down again.

The fog smothered the streetlights and made the darkness darker. Every winter until now the fog had been white, like a cloud that had lost its way and plunged down to earth. In its new grey-black form, it appeared to be the devil’s own breath. To calm himself Bahadur thought of all the things he liked to do: eating rasgullas steeped in sugar syrup, swinging on rubber tyres tied to the branches of toothbrush trees, and holding a warm brick swaddled in rags that his mother used to give him on moon-cold nights. He imagined her rubbing his chest with Vicks Vaporub though he had only seen this on TV and they didn’t even have a tub of Vicks in their house. But it soothed him, and he decided to hold onto that picture until he fell asleep.

Then: a movement in the alley that he sensed in the concrete pressed against the back of his head. He cocked his ears for footsteps, but there was nothing.

Memories that he didn’t care to remember rustled in his head. On a summer night two years ago, a man who smelled of cigarettes, with a moustache as thick as a squirrel’s tail, had pinioned him against a wall with one hand and, with the other, loosened the knot of his own salwar. Bahadur shook a little, still feeling the pressure of the man’s palm. That night, two labourers returning home had seen what was happening and chased the man, giving Bahadur enough time to run away. He had stopped wandering in the bazaar for months afterwards until his fears dulled and his father’s temper bubbled again.

Bahadur wondered if he should have picked another spot to sleep. Outside the repair shop the alley was too quiet, too empty. Any other night it would have been fine but who knew what beast lurked in this fog, waiting to clamp its jaws on his legs. Where had this fog come from anyway? He had never seen anything like it. Above him, on the roof overhang, pigeons grunted and shuffled. Then, as if nervous, they took off into the air.

He sat up and peered into the darkness, his palms fixed to the floor, small stones stabbing his skin. A cat mewled and a dog barked as if to hush it. He thought of the ghosts after whom Bhoot Bazaar had been named. They were the friendly spirits of the people who had lived in these parts hundreds of years ago when the Mughals had been kings. Hakim Chacha had sworn this was true with his fingers pinching the skin at his throat. ‘Allah ki kasam,’ he had said once, ‘I’m not lying. They’ll never hurt us.’

If a ghost from the bazaar was in fact approaching Bahadur, maybe it wanted to help him breathe or tell him it was foolish to sleep outside on a night like this. But if he showed the ghost his face, the imprint of his father’s hand on his skin, perhaps the ghost would let him stay.

Hakim Chacha never asked Bahadur about his injuries or the Band-Aids his mother plastered over them when she returned. But the day before, Bahadur had glimpsed his own reflection in the screen of an unplugged TV at the repair shop and the bruise around his eye had looked shiny and black like the river that divided his city in two.

Bahadur told himself he was being silly. There were no ghosts or monsters. They lived only in the stories people told each other. But the air pulsed with dread, palpable like static. He thought he could see the shapes of hands and legs in the dark, phantom limbs outlined in white, mouths without lips drawn towards him by the clamour of his breathing.

Maybe he should get up and run home. The cold snagged his bones, which felt so brittle that he thought they would snap. He wished the blackness would part, the moon would shine, and the men he had seen by the fire would saunter down this alley. The fog tightened around his neck like a coil of coarse rope.

Now he could hear it: the pitter-patter of bandicoots hunting in packs for crumbs, a horse neighing somewhere, the clang of a metal bucket being overturned by a cat or a dog, and then, the slow, heavy footsteps of something or someone that he was certain was coming towards him. He opened his mouth to scream, but couldn’t. The sound of it stayed pinned to the back of his throat like all the other words he had never been able to say.    

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RUNNER UP - The Sentence by Stephanie Scott

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

 WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY
 

 

Prologue 


Sarashima is a beautiful name; a name that now belongs only to me. I was not born with it, this name, but I have chosen to take it, because before me it belonged to my mother.

It is customary upon meeting someone to explain who you are and where you come from, but whether you realise it or not, you already know me and you know my story. Look closely. Reach into the far corners of your mind and sift through the news clippings, bulletins and other snippets of information there. You will see me. I am the line at the end of an article; I am the final sentence ending with a full stop.

Wakaresaseya Agent Goes Too Far?

By Yu Yamada. Published: 18.30pm, 05/05/1994

The trial of Takashi Nakamura, the man accused of murdering 30-year old Rina Satō, began today at the Tokyo District Court.

The case has attracted international attention due to the fact that the defendant, Mr Nakamura, is an agent in the Wakaresaseya or so-called ‘marriage break-up’ industry, and has admitted that he was hired by the victim’s husband, Osamu Satō, to seduce Rina Satō and provide grounds for divorce.

Nakamura claims that he and the deceased fell in love and were planning to start a new life together. If convicted of murder Nakamura faces a minimum 20 year prison sentence; the judges may even consider the death penalty.

Rina Satō’s father told reporters:

 ‘I will never forgive my son-in-law for bringing this man into our lives, or the industry itself. A profession that preys on the lives of people should not be allowed to function in Tokyo.’

Rina Satō is survived by a daughter of seven years old.

 

When did you first read this? Can you remember? Were you at home at your breakfast table or in the office, scanning the morning news? I can see your face as you read about my family; your brows drew together in a slight frown, a crinkle formed above your nose. You shook your head and reached for a slice of toast – cold – it had hardened on the plate while you were reading the article. The smell of coffee was strong and reassuring in the air. Eventually, you smiled and turned the page. The world is full of strange things.

Wakaresaseya was not common in Japan when Takashi was drawn into my mother’s life. The industry emerged out of a demand for its services, a demand that exists all over the world today. Look at the people around you: those you love, those who love you, those who want what you have. They can enter your life as easily as he entered mine.

Do you remember where we first met, you and I? Was it in The Telegraph, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Sydney Morning Herald? My story stopped there in the foreign press. Later articles focused on the marriage-break-up industry itself and the agents who populate it, but none of them mentioned me. Lives to be rebuilt are always less interesting than lives destroyed. Even in Japan, I disappeared from the page.

 

Part One

 

When you look at the world with knowledge, you realize that things are unchangeable and at the same time are constantly being transformed.

MISHIMA

 

 

Sumiko

  

What’s in a Name?

For the Sarashima, the naming of a child is a family matter. For me, it marked a bond with tradition that would govern my life. The names of my maternal koseki have always been chosen at Kiyoji in Ebisu. You can just about glimpse the temple from the park at the end of our street. It sits at the base of a hill in the very centre of our neighbourhood; the green peaks of its roof tiles gleam in the sun and the red pillars of the portico peer out over the surrounding buildings.

As I grew up, my grandfather told me that our family have worshipped here since coming to Tokyo. He said that they remained at prayer during the bombing of the city and returned after the war to restore the temple. For him, it is a symbol of regeneration.

This is why, six days into my life, instead of gathering around the kami-dana in the north east corner of the kitchen, I was carried in my mother’s arms beneath the gates and into the heart of the temple complex.

As we climbed the stone steps leading to the main hall, my mother glanced up at the sprawling wooden roof, at its curved eaves stretching out beyond the building - shutting out the sunlight - and resulting in the cool, dark shadows within. Inside, we proceeded through the sweet smoke of the incense to the altar. All around us the wind blew through in gusts and the air swirled, while outside the bronze bells of the surrounding temples began to toll.

I don’t remember this journey, but I can see it quite clearly: me in my cream blanket, my father carrying Tora, the toy white tiger that Grandpa had given to me, and my grandfather himself, grave, in his three-piece suit. I have been told this story so many times it has seeped into my memory.

 Before the altar, one of the monks, pale in his purple robes, bowed to my grandfather and took from him a pouch containing a selection of names. My mother had prepared these names, first consulting the astrologer and then choosing her favourite three, counting the strokes of the characters to ensure that each name, combined with our surname, would add up to an optimal number.

I can see her sitting at our dining table in her house slippers and jeans, an oversized T-shirt covering the bump where I had been. The blinds were open, the sun slanting across the marble floors of our home, while in the kitchen the rice cooker bubbled and the washing up dried on the draining board. My mother laid the sheets of hanshi, rice paper, out in front of her and turned to the stone suzuri of charcoal ink by her side. I can see her dip her brush into the ink, smell the rich scent of earth rising into the air as using just the tip of the brush she pressed down, the horsehair bending with the pressure to create the first fluid stroke.

The monk bowed and placed the names in a shallow dish upon the altar. Kneeling before them he selected a thin bamboo fan. Then in unison with the breeze that drifted through the open screens he unfurled the fan, whipping up currents of air. Everyone was silent. The grey smoke of the incense drifted towards the rafters as one by one, the names painted by my mother flew towards the ceiling. Eventually, one remained, alone on the teak surface.

寿美子

Grandpa knelt and picked it up from the altar and a smile broke out on his face. “Sumiko,” he said. “Sumiko Sarashima.”

My father had been silent throughout the proceedings. In the weeks leading up to my birth, plans for an ‘adoptive’ ceremony had been discussed. Under Japanese law, both people in a marriage must share the same surname, but in certain circumstances, a husband may take his wife’s surname and join her household, so that her name and her line may continue. My father was a second son and his family, the Satōs, had readily agreed. However, that day as the priest took out the register of the temple and began to inscribe my name on a fresh new page, my father spoke:           

“Satō,” he said. “She is a Satō, not a Sarashima.”

 

What I Know

I was raised by my grandfather, Yoshi Sarashima.

I lived with him in a white house in Meguro, Tokyo.

In the evenings he would read to me.

He told me every story but my own.

 

My grandfather was a lawyer; he was careful in his speech. Even when we were alone together in his study and I would sit on his lap, tracing the creases in his leather armchair, even then, he had a precision with words. I have kept faith with that precision to this day.

Grandpa read everything to me – Mishima, Sartre, Dumas, Basho, tales of his youth and duck hunting in Shimoda and one book, The Trial, that became my favourite. The story begins like this: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.”

When we read that line for the first time, Grandpa explained to me that the story we were reading was a translation. I was ten years old, stretching out my fingers for a world beyond my own and I reached out then to the yellowed page, stroking the kanji that spoke of something new. I formed the sentences in my mouth, summoning the figure of Josef K: a lonely man, a man people would tell lies about. 

As I grew older, I began to argue with Grandpa about The Trial. He told me other people fought over it too, that they fight about it even today – over the translation of one word in particular – “verlumdet”. To tell a lie. In some versions of the story, this word is translated as “slander”. Slander speaks of courts and accusations, of public reckoning, it has none of the childhood resonance of “telling lies”. And yet, when I read this story for the first time, it was the use of “telling lies” that fascinated me.

Lies, when they are first told have a shadow quality to them, a gossamer texture that can wrap around a life. They have that feather-light essence of childhood and my childhood was built on lies.

 The summer before my mother died, we went to the sea. When I look back on that time, those months hold a sense of finality for me - not because that was the last holiday that my mother and I would take together but because it is the site of my last true memory.

Every year, as the August heat engulfed Tokyo, my family piled their suitcases onto a local train and headed for the coast. We went to Shimoda. Father remained in the city to work, but Grandpa Sarashima would accompany us. Every time, he stopped at the same kiosk in the station to buy frozen clementines for the train and in the metallic heat of the carriage, Mama and I would wait impatiently for the fruit to soften so we could get at the pockets of sorbet within. Finally, when our chins were sticky with juice, Mama would turn to me in our little row of two and ask what I would like to do by the sea, just her and I, alone.

  Our house on the peninsula was old, its wooden gateposts warped by the winds that peeled off the Pacific. As we climbed towards the rocky promontory at the top of the hill, the gates, dark and encrusted with salt, signalled that my home was near: Washikura - Eagle’s Nest; the house overlooking the bay, between Mount Fuji and the sea.

My country is built around mountains, its people are piled up in concrete boxes, cages. To have land is rare, but the house in Shimoda had belonged to my family since before the war and afterwards my grandfather fought to keep it when everything else was lost.

Forest sweeps over the hills above the house. I was not allowed up there alone as a child and so when I looked at my mother on the train that summer she knew immediately what I would ask for. In the afternoons, Mama and I climbed high on the wooded slopes above Washikura. We watched the tea fields as they darkened before autumn. We lay back on the rocky black soil and breathed in the sharp resin of the pines. Some days, we heard the call of a sea eagle as it circled overhead.

Grandpa knew the forest but he never found us there. At four o’clock each afternoon, he would venture to the base of the hillside and call to us through the trees. He shouted our names: “Rina!” “Sumi!” Together, we nestled amongst the pines, giggling, as grandfather’s voice wavered and fell.

I often heard Grandpa calling before Mama did, but I always waited for her signal to be quiet. On our last afternoon in the forest, I lay still, feeling the soft and steady puff of my mother’s breath against my face. She pulled me against her and her breathing quieted and slowed. I opened my eyes and stared at her, at the dark lashes against her cheeks. I took in her pallor, her stillness. I heard my grandfather begin to call, his voice thin and distant. I snuggled closer, kissing her face, pushing through the coldness with my breath. Suddenly, she smiled, her eyes still closed, and pressed a finger to her lips.

We no longer own our home, Washikura, on the outskirts of Shimoda; Grandpa sold it years ago. But when I go there today, climbing up through the undergrowth, I can feel my mother there beneath the trees. When I lie down on the ground, the pine needles sharp under my cheek, I imagine that the chill of the breeze is the stroke of her finger.

 

 

Rina


 

Atami

Rina stood in the garden of Washikura and looked out at the slopes and mountains stretching towards Mount Fuji, at the deep shadows forming across the forested hills. She thought of how the plates which had created the peninsula had converged at Fuji-san millions of years ago, causing a land of volcanoes, earthquakes and hot springs to rise from the sea. 

The volcano was still active, she knew. On a clear day one could see vapour and smoke curling above the snow-covered peak, hinting at the new islands, plateaus and peninsulas waiting within. But that summer, as Rina watched the slopes before her turn gradually from lime green to pomegranate to rust, she did not think of what was to come, she thought about her daughter kneeling beside Grandpa Yoshi in the garden, digging into the dark soil of the azaleas with her trowel, her face sullenly turned away from her mother. Rina looked up at the mountains watching over them and beneath their quiet gaze she climbed into her red Fiat and drove to Atami.

At the crowded beachfront Rina stopped and looked for a space to park. Atami had become a place for pleasure-seekers. Salarimen flocked to its beaches, eager to supplement their existence in Tokyo with summer condos, shopping malls and karaoke. Hotels capitalised on the natural hot springs and buildings replaced the trees. Soon, the forests of camphor and ferns that had once surrounded the town were cut back, until little trace of them remained. Rina left her car at the end of the beach and walked back along the waterfront, shading her eyes against the glare of the sun as it glanced off the concrete.

 “You came!”

At the sound of his voice, Rina turned. Takashi was walking across the beach towards her, barefoot in the sand. She smiled and watched his slow, loping stride. 

“I was afraid you’d stood me up,” he said as he reached her.

“You weren’t afraid.”

“I am when you’re not with me,” he replied.

Rina laughed and they began to walk towards the yachts bobbing against the blue of the sea. She stopped by an ice cream stall advertising azuki, red bean. At her side, Takashi passed his sandals from one hand to the other and reached into his pocket for some change.

“Just one, onegai shimasu.

Rina smiled at him. “My daughter loves these,” she said as she bit into the ice cream, savouring the caramel sweetness of the beans. “I wish I could take her some.” She felt Takashi’s eyes upon her and lowered her gaze.

“We can bring Sumiko here,” he said.

“Impossible.” Rina shifted as he stepped behind her. She felt the warmth of him at her back, his breath at her ear.

 “We can do anything,” he said. “Yoshi won’t notice if we took her for an afternoon.” 

“What will I tell her when this ends?”

“It won’t end Rina.”

He drew her back against his chest and she dug her toes deep into the white sand, feeling the tiny grains sift between her red sandals and her skin.

“I should go,” she said, but her sentence ended in a shriek as he lifted her up into the air and over his shoulder.

“Oh my god!” she hissed, hitting at him with her fists. “What are you doing?” Rina gasped as her ice cream fell into the sand.

“There are too many people here,” he said. “We can’t talk.”

“What are you, a child?”

Takashi grinned against her, “You bring out the worst in me.”

 “People are staring.”

“I don’t care,” he said. And it was true, she thought, he really didn’t.

They reached his car and he put her down. Rina could feel the blush rising in her cheeks; people were still looking at them. Takashi placed his palms on either side of her face, holding her head in his hands. “Rina,” he said, “you’re with me today. Try to concentrate.”

She took a deep breath and looked up at him. “I don’t have long.”

Rina caught glimpses of the view as they drove up into the hills above the town, following a narrow road that wove between the pines. The sea was a deep blue against the concrete of the bay and along the slopes she could see the cypresses and cedars settling along the fringes of Atami, as though they would one day reclaim it.

They drove to a parking spot where a stone path led up into the hillside. Rina tied her hair back with a handkerchief to protect it from the wind, then she joined Takashi on the slope. Together they climbed up into an orchard of natsumikan trees, the giant oranges hung low and heavy against the dark green shells of the leaves. Takashi found a spot for them in the grass and spread out the macintosh he had brought from the car - it was beige in the mold of New York detectives and Rina smiled, she liked to tease him about it. A few minutes later, however, as the cool of the breeze settled against the back of her neck, she felt a thread of unease. She had committed herself by coming with him. He wanted more from her, of that she was sure. Rina shifted away from him, pulling her skirt down over her knees. She sat back on his coat as Takashi dug into his satchel.

 Takashi looked up at her; he must have seen the nerves on her face but he just smiled, his right hand reaching to the bottom of the bag while Rina pressed her nails into the flesh of her palm.

“I brought this for you,” Takashi said.

She turned to look at the object he held in his hands: a Canon EOS 3500. Surprise pushed through her anxiety. She’d seen one in the back streets of Akihabara, looked at it in catalogues, but she had never held one.

 “Go on,” Takashi said. “Take it. I thought we could do some work while we’re up here.”

“Work?”

“Don’t you think it’s time?”

Rina turned away. He brought this up persistently - the possibility that she might return to the career she’d once planned, but she was afraid, if you neglected something for long enough didn’t it die?

“I found your monograph, Rina,” he said. “The one you published in The Workshop?”

Rina bit her lip. “That was experimenting.”

“It doesn’t read that way,” he said.

“I wrote it after I left the law program at Todai. Father threw every copy out of the house.”

“I can get you a copy.”

“No need,” she said and she looked at him then. “I remember it.”

Silently, he handed her the camera.

They moved through the orchard and lay down on the sheets of leaves. Rina watched him, her eyes following the speed of his movements, his fingers nimble as they slid across the bevel of the lens, selecting apertures, accentuating the natural palette of the hillside. For half an hour she remained still beside him, enjoying the rapid click of the shutter, feeling the weight of a camera in her palm. Then, slowly, she lifted the viewfinder of her Canon to see what he could see.

They finished shooting in colour and then gauging the light and shadows of the afternoon switched to monochrome film, drawing the shapes of the leaves out through the filters of black and white. She turned to find Takashi propped up on his elbow watching her; he was waiting for her to take her shot. Rina narrowed her eyes at him and he grinned, twisting the lens off his camera. She leaned towards him, watching as he reached into his satchel and drew out a new lens, holding it out to her, describing how he would capture the light drifting down to them.

Later, sitting barefoot on the grass, Rina reached out and plucked an orange from a branch. Takashi settled beside her as she split the bright skin and pith of the fruit open with her thumb nail, releasing tiny droplets of zest into the air. She pulled it apart and handed half to him, sucking the sour liquid off her palm. As the sun sank lower on the horizon, Rina leant back against his shoulder. She rested her cheek on the ridge of his collarbone and watched the light flickering between the trees.

A droplet of water fell onto Rina’s hair followed by two more. It was not until the shower broke through the leaves that she rose to her feet. The storm had crept up on them. It was that way in the mountains, the undergrowth beckoned to the moisture in the air.

Takashi threw his coat over both of them and she grabbed her sandals as they scrambled down the slope, awash with wet leaves, to the car. Streams of water cascaded down the windows and a white fog materialised over the hills, flattening the mountains into two dimensions before rendering them invisible. Neither of them turned the radio on, they sat in the silence as Takashi took her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers.

“I came third in the Noguchi Photography Prize,” he said. “They’re going to feature one of my pieces in an exhibition. Will you come?”

“Where is it?” Rina asked, turning her head to look at him.

“A warehouse in Akiba. If the art isn’t to your taste I can always take you to Kanda Yabu Soba.”

Rina smiled; he was so cunningly aware of her obsession with food.

“Don’t mention the duck soba,” she said, warning him off with her hand.

“It would mean a lot to me if you would come,” he said.

She looked at him and the laughter faded from her eyes. “Then I will.”

The rain slowed to a drizzle and eventually stopped as the evening drew on. They got out of the car and approached the rails lining the road; they could see the sea emerging through the wisps of mist that lingered on the hillside.

Takashi put his arms around her, rubbing her shoulders to ward off the chill. “I should go,” she said, but this time she was reluctant to leave. “Kash,” she turned towards him, “about today…”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

“Thank you.”

He brushed her hair away from her face, untying the damp handkerchief that held it in place. Rina watched as he put it in his pocket and she let him take it.

“I love you,” he said.

Rina shifted in his arms, she tried to say something, but Takashi shook his head and placed his fingers over her lips; his skin was rough where it touched her mouth.

“I do.” 

 

 

Sumiko


 

Tokyo

My mother was a photographer, before she became a wife. Each year when we went to the sea, Mama would play with me on the beach taking roll after roll of film and Grandpa would send them off to Kodak to be made into kodachrome slides. In the autumn, as the leaves darkened and we returned to Tokyo, my mother would open a bottle of Coca Cola at Grandpa’s home in Meguro and we would watch the slides all at once on the projector.

I still have them, these home movies of sorts; they are in the basement of the Meguro house, filed away in narrow leather boxes. Sometimes I go down there to look at the slides. They are beautiful, each one a rectangular jewel encased in white card. I can see my mother in miniature biting the cone of an ice-cream; me in the sand with my red bucket, my swimming costume damp from the sea; Grandpa sheltering under an umbrella, even though he is already in the shade.

I have other memories too, but they are not of Shimoda. These appear to me as glimpses and flashes. In my mind’s eye, the line of the coast straightens, the rocky inlets of Shimoda are replaced by an open harbour and I hear the slap of my feet on concrete as I run and run. There are moments of clarity, liquid scenes: I see a yacht on the waves, its sails stretched taught; I feel strong arms lifting me into the air; I turn away from the flash of a camera lens in the sun; a man’s hand offers me a cone of red bean ice cream, a man with long elegant fingers that do not belong to my father.

I have never found these images in my grandfather’s basement nor have I seen that harbour in any of our photographs. But sometimes, I wake in the night to the caramel scent of red beans. A breeze lingers in the air and there is an echo of people talking in the distance, but perhaps it is only the whir of the ceiling fan and the scent of Hannae’s azuki buns left to cool in the kitchen.

I asked Grandpa once about these memories of mine. He said I was remembering Shimoda. When I continued to look at him, he laughed and motioned for me to sit beside him on the stool by his chair. He reached for a pile of books stacked on the edge of his shelves, his fingers tracing the hardbacks, paperbacks and volumes of poetry. “Which one will it be today?” he asked. 

I was standing in my grandfather’s study when the lies that wrapped around my life began to unravel. I was due to give a talk on ‘Careers in the Law’ to the final year students at Todai and I was dressed in a navy suit, my hair pulled back from my face in a pinned chignon; immaculate but late, for I had lost my notes.

I leaned over my grandfather’s desk, casting the papers into disorder. I had passed the Japanese Bar a year before and now my legal apprenticeship with the Supreme Court in Wakō City was drawing to a close. I had just completed the final exams and so all my cases from the long months of rotations with Judges, Public Prosecutors, and Attorneys were stacked across every surface. Grandpa had gone to stay at an onsen with friends, but long before that he had ceded his office to me, too delighted by my professional choices and the job offers which followed to question the invasion.

Crossing to the leather armchair in the corner of the room, I leafed through the files I’d left on the seat. Following my long daily commute home from Wakō, I often fell asleep reading there. In the past year I had taken on extra cases in an effort to stand out from the other trainees and I’d worked hard to build up my network among the attorneys and prosecutors. Finally, however, the lack of sleep was catching up with me.

I was kneeling on the floor, my hand outstretched towards a sheaf of papers that might have been my notes, when the phone started to ring. My life was in that room: certificates from childhood and university; the framed newspaper article on Grandpa’s most famous case; the folder on current events which he kept for me. Each morning, Grandpa would sit at the breakfast table, sipping his favourite cold noodles and cutting clippings from the day’s news so I would not get caught out. I had read every article, every story in that room, except mine. I was so caught up in the paraphernalia of my current life that I almost didn’t hear it.

 “Hello?” I said, picking up the phone.

“Good afternoon” the voice said. It was hesitant, female. “May I speak to Sarashima-san?”

 I was distracted and so I mumbled into the handset, glancing around the room. “I’m afraid he is in Osaka at the moment, what is this regarding?”

“Is this the home of Mr. Yoshitake Sarashima?”

“Yes,” I repeated. “I am his granddaughter, Sumiko. How can I help?”

“Is this the household and family of Mrs Rina Satō?”

“My mother is dead,” I replied, focusing on the phone and the person at the other end of the line. There was silence. For a moment I thought that the girl with the hesitant voice had hung up, but then I heard her take a breath. Over the earpiece she said “I am calling from the Ministry of Justice, on behalf of the Prison Service. I am very sorry to tell you, Miss Satō, my call is regarding Takashi Nakamura.”

“Who is that?” I asked.

As my voice travelled into the silence, the line went dead.

 

Bells

The bell - is it Ueno?

Is it Asakusa?

BASHO

 

People are fond of saying that you can’t un-ring a bell; that words once spoken hang in the air with a life of their own. In the last year of my mother’s life, my grandfather started taking me to a temple in the city. The hum of the crowds surrounded us as Grandpa and I made our way towards Senso-ji. As we walked I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of burning leaves and incense and tugged at Grandpa’s coat. He looked down and lifted me into his arms, continuing to walk through the market. It was a new ritual of ours, this weekly visit. He lifted me higher onto his hip, tucking my yellow skirt around my legs. I chattered to him as we walked, pointing out the things which caught my eye. There were over one hundred stalls stretching between the beginning of the avenue and Senso-ji, and there was another arcade running east to west but he always chose this approach because I liked it best; it contained my favourite treats.

“Manjū!” I demanded, pointing to a stall selling deep-fried jam buns. In yam, cherry, sweet potato or chocolate, I loved them all, but I lived for the red bean. “Manjū, Ojisan,” I repeated. Already a large queue was forming, spreading out beyond the store several lanes wide. People shoved to get closer as flavour by flavour the hot buns were lined up beneath the counter. A stocky middle-aged woman stood in the centre of the crowd moving sales along; she would push people forward and then shove them away as soon as they collected their buns, almost in one fluid motion.

I pointed at a tray of crispy manjū, but Grandpa shook his head. “Red bean!” I squealed.  

“Later Sumiko,” Grandpa said while I tugged at his hair in annoyance.

“Did you bring Mummy here?”

“Yes, when she was small,” Grandpa replied shifting me on his hip. I was getting too big to carry, but he didn’t seem to mind. He said he wanted to remember me at this age.

“Where is Mummy?” I asked.

“She’s shopping.”

“Why didn’t she take me?”

“I wanted to spend time with you.”

“I want - ”

“I brought your mother here when she was just your age,” he continued as I began to lean away from him again towards the bun stall. 

“Sumichan!” Grandpa put me down on the ground. “Temple first” he scolded, and held out his hand for me to take. In the midst of the crowds, I pressed against his legs and my fingers tangled with his; I did not like to be surrounded by the other people and tourists. I was quiet as we walked towards the great red pillars of the first courtyard with their giant sandals made of straw. The sound of the great bell reverberated in the distance: as each new person stepped up to pray there was a pause as the cedar beam was pulled back and then released, followed by the mellow vibrations of the bronze.

Weaving through the throng, Grandpa made his way towards the incense burner in front of the temple. As we walked he told me that the smoke of the charcoal had always reminded him not of purification, but of my mother, smaller than me, washing herself in the waves while he held her up, her hair tied with white satin bows, her petticoats showing through her Sunday dress.

 “Are you ready to go in?” Grandpa asked and I nodded, contrite. As he lifted me onto his hip once more, I smiled at him and he found a place for us in front of the cast-iron cauldron billowing smoke into the air. I leaned in and as Grandpa wafted the incense towards me I pretended to wash in it, scrubbing my face and hands.

“Are you pure now?” Grandpa asked. “Are you sure?” he teased. “No more naughty little girl?” He laughed when I smiled sweetly at him. “I know what you would like to do,” he said, “you would like to see your fortune.”

This too was a ritual of ours. Every time we came to Senso-ji, before Grandpa said his prayers in the main temple, he would take me to the bureau of the three hundred drawers. He gave me a coin to throw between the slots and together we listened to the metal as it tumbled and fell into the donation box. Then he handed me a cylinder filled with long, slender sticks and let me shake it back and forth until one of them fell out.

Lifting the stick, I looked at the writing carved into the wood and we searched for a matching symbol on a drawer. When I had found it, Grandpa reached inside and took the first sheet of paper off the pile. Then he handed it to me; I liked to be the first one to read the fortunes. 

Grandpa watched as I shaped the words in my mouth, reading the riddle aloud. I loved these predictions. Even in the mountains I would ask Grandpa to buy them for me from the vending machines by the ski slopes. That day when I had finished reading, I was not sure what the fortune meant and I held out the paper to my grandfather. Grandpa smiled, giving me a slight bow, and murmured that he was glad to be of service. “What do we have here?” he asked, scanning the symbols, looking for the scale of luck in the top right hand corner. He lifted the paper higher and I heard his intake of breath. He turned away from me and I could see him reaching for the wire which hung above the drawers, the wire where all the fortunes he would not read to me were hung. There were several there that day, idly flapping in the wind.

I stepped forward as he was looking for twine with which to tie up the paper and snatched the fortune from his hand. 

“What does it mean?” I asked, peering at the symbols once again.

“We don’t want this one,” he said. “Let’s tie it up, so the wind can blow it away.”

“I want to know,” I said stepping away from him, holding the paper in my hands.

“Sumichan, give it to me. This one belongs to the wind.”

“Tell!” I said, crumpling the thin sheet in my fist. 

Grandpa reached for my hand and began to pry my fingers open. “Come on Sumiko, I’ll get you another,” he said, but his eyes widened in horror as I shoved the wisp of paper into my mouth and began to chew.

Some words are buried, even burned, but over the years they re-emerge, ringing out like temple bells, rising above the din. 

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