It was the evening of the 28th of December. Just as I had got out of the bath, and was thinking that the air seemed especially chilly, I felt a creaking pain pipe up from the joints of my knees and elbows. I picked up the thermometer, still lying on the circular bedside table from the last time I’d used it, and stuck it in my mouth. Sure enough, it read 38.3 degrees. I decided to take some of the cold medicine I had in the cabinet and get into bed. But I couldn’t stop shivering, and though I managed to doze off for a bit, the tremors eventually woke me. The blankets I had on clearly weren’t enough, so I dragged out the feather duvet I kept rolled up in the wardrobe, stacked it on top of the pile and coiled the whole thing around my body.
When I wake up tomorrow, I told myself as I shut my eyes, I’ll go to the hospital. The hospital was only a three minute walk from my flat.
The following morning, the thermometer read 39.8 degrees, the highest temperature I’d had since I was a child. That’s it, I thought to myself. I’m dying. I swapped the jogging bottoms I was wearing for a pair of jeans, picked up the down jacket which was lying in the place I’d thrown it off the day before, put on a woollen hat to cover my sleep-ruffled hair and cold mask to hide my stubble, and staggered down to the hospital which lay by the Loop Route No. 8, the furthest out of Tokyo’s concentric expressways.
The sunlight was painfully bright, which I figured was probably a result of the fever. The big road looked to me like a river, the cars rushing by as if carried along on its current. I resented anyone who had the energy to drive at such a blistering speed. As luck would have it, there weren’t too many people waiting at the hospital, and I was called up almost immediately. It was my first flu test, and it struck me as pure torture. The doctor stuck a long cotton bud-like thing right up my nose and proceeded to jab and jiggle it around. It was humiliating – enough, in fact, to call the phrase ‘human dignity’ to mind. You can’t stick foreign objects so far inside other people’s bodies like that, not with that degree of force. It’s not okay. This is supposed to be the twenty-first century.
I was told to sit back down in the waiting room. When I was called up again, the doctor announced merrily that it looked like a case of Hong Kong Type A.
‘Which would you prefer?’ he asked. ‘Tamiflu, Relenza or Rapiacta?’
Damned if I know, I thought. I had no idea what any of those things were, and even if I’d been given a halfway decent explanation, my fever had rendered my powers of judgement null and void.
‘Would you prefer oral medication or a drip?’
I opted for the drip. Somehow I had the feeling it would kick in faster.
‘Now, you’re not allowed any human contact for five days, all right?’ the nurse said, as the needle of the drip slid into my arm, in the sort of voice one might use to soothe a child. There goes my New Year’s holiday, I thought.
A holiday stamped out by the flu. Not that I had anything planned for it, but still.
It was right before lunch on the 18th of December when I got the call saying my dad had died. I was in the van at the time, having just installed my third copier of the day. The call was from someone at the old folks’ home where my dad had lived.
‘Can you come now?’ they asked at first, but must have noticed my hesitation, explaining that if I could just come to the funeral on Saturday, the day after tomorrow, that would also be fine. They gave me a quick run-through of the arrangements, and put the phone down.
‘What’s up?’ Yoshioka, the van driver, asked, peering at me.
‘Oh, it’s, um, my dad’s dead.’
‘Seventyish. Seventy-two or three,’ I said. In truth I didn’t know my dad’s exact age.
‘What’s happening with the funeral?’
‘He was in an old folks’ home, it looks like they’re going to take care of it all there.’
‘In that case, you’ve gotten off lightly,’ Yoshioka said as he steered the van into the parking lot of a ramen restaurant.
Half-choking on my hot and sour noodles (‘sour, spicy and soup-er good!’ said the menu), I sent a LINE message to my brother, Takashi.
‘So Dad’s dead.’
Takashi was probably on his lunch break too, because the word ‘Read’ flashed up immediately next to my message.
‘What about the funeral?’
‘Day after tomorrow. Looks like they’re gonna take care of it all there. Can you come?’
‘Kanako’s got work so she won’t be able to.’
‘Just you and me will do. There’s no point inviting the whole family. We’ll only end up getting a kicking from everyone who’s had to put up with all his crap.’
‘Where is it?’
‘In the mountains, in Okutama. From 1pm.’
This final ‘OK!’ was a stamp, complete with a picture that made no sense to me.
As I put my iPhone back in my coat pocket, I had a sudden thought. Wasn’t Takashi supposed to be getting married on New Year’s Day?
I’d heard about his plan to have the ceremony in Saipan with just his fiancée Kanako and a few close friends over drinks the month before. It was the first time the two of us had been drinking together in three years.
‘Wanna come?’ Takashi had asked me then, but I’d refused on the grounds that I got panic attacks in enclosed spaces like planes and high-speed trains for long periods of time. Now that my dad was dead, that meant Takashi, four years my junior, was the only member of my family I had any contact with, but even we very rarely called or texted each other.
When I was ten, my mum had finally used up her last drop of patience for my dad’s drinking and gambling and walked out, leaving me and Takashi behind. After the divorce, we were raised by our gran, who back then was still in fine form. Around the time of my twentieth birthday, my mum’s sister got in touch out of the blue, and I was forced to meet with my mum. She went on and on about my gran, saying things like ‘I didn’t desert you two, you know. That woman wouldn’t let me back in the house’, but by that time, I really couldn’t have cared less.
It turned out that my mum had got married again to a younger man some time back, and when I met her she looked young and happy.
My dad, on the other hand, had lost any semblance of vitality the day my mum walked out, immersing himself deeper and deeper in booze and gambling, forever borrowing money from his relatives, and attempting suicide when they turned him down. Growing up in a home like that, it was no wonder Takashi went off the rails. I didn’t even have the strength of character for that. I was just desperate to get away from my dad, so I entered university on a scholarship place, and moved out at the age of twenty after my gran died. I would still get calls sometimes from the police or the hospital, though.
It was me who went to the police station to collect my dad or Takashi, like when my dad tried to jump off a bridge into the Tama River, or when Takashi got caught shoplifting in a supermarket. After my dad was rushed to hospital after taking an overdose of something or other, I was assigned a social worker, and that was how I managed to sling my dad into an old folks’ home. I’ll be damned if I ever go and visit him, I remember thinking to myself as I signed and put my seal on the millions of documents that were needed to get him in.
Takashi only ever got in touch when he needed me for something, like when he wanted me to act as guarantor for his new flat, or when he was strapped for cash. Sometimes I said yes, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I lost it, and would find myself yelling stuff down the phone: ‘What do you think I am? Some kind of bloody ATM?’ But lately, Takashi was just about managing to scrape by on an income from his job at a company that installed air conditioning units.
If there are such things as biorhythmic cycles in life, then it seemed like it was somehow set up so that when things were relatively on track in my life, they would be off kilter in Takashi’s, and when things were rough with me, Takashi’s life would stabilize. This time, it was me that was down on my luck. Takashi was about to get married, and I had got divorced just a month back.
‘We broke up for a while, but then we ended up climbing Mount Fuji together and decided to get married.’
That was what Takashi had told me when I saw him last month.
I had met Kanako, Takashi’s fiancée, just once, when she came over to my house. That was back in the days when I was still living with my wife. Kanako had a throaty way of speaking, like an aging landlady at a bar in the outskirts of town, which was probably a result of raising her voice at children every day. But she also had an unusual dignity about her, despite how young she was. It turned out she and Takashi had been living together for six months by that point.
On that day, Takashi teased her, saying, ‘Whenever something happens at the nursery, she comes home and bursts into tears the moment she gets in the door.’
‘It’s true, it’s true,’ Kanako replied. ‘But my eyelash extensions come off when I cry, so I have to try and really hold it in. I have to, like, look up at the ceiling when I’m crying.’
Then she laughed, huskily. Seeing that, the thought went through my mind that these two might just last.
‘Yeah, I kind of figured that things weren’t going so well at yours. The air felt icy,’ Takashi had said bluntly when I told him that I was getting divorced.
‘Your wife seemed kind of on edge all the time. She didn’t like me, right? I bet she said so.’
I came very close to nodding and saying yes, which would have been the honest thing to do, but instead I stayed quiet.
My ex-wife first starting speaking about divorce half a year ago. All the proceedings that followed, I have no desire to think about ever again. I was never a big drinker like my dad was, I had no debts and I didn’t gamble. And yet, my wife repeatedly said that living with me stripped her of the will to live. Just once, I told her not to talk nonsense and slapped her, and so, it was me who was in the wrong. The journey leading up to the divorce took place at exactly the pace my wife dictated, and then I found myself alone.
On the day of the funeral, Takashi spotted me as I came through the ticket barriers and waved, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.
‘I thought I’d chuck these in dad’s coffin for him,’ he said.
In the pick-up area outside the station, someone from the temple where the funeral was to be held was waiting for us in a minivan. With me and Takashi safely inside, the van began slowly wending its way up the mountain roads until, about half an hour later, we arrived outside the temple. It was so far into the mountains that there were hardly any houses in sight, and the air felt a good deal colder than it had in the city. We were shown through to a room near the entrance where we sat facing the priest and someone from the old folks’ home.
‘It really is a shame,’ the kind-looking carer said, then went on to explain the circumstances leading up to my dad’s death. Noticing something was up with my dad, the carer had gone to get help, but it was already too late. ‘I’m so sorry,’ the carer said repeatedly. Not knowing how to respond at all, I just lowered my head into a sort of bow.
Then we were led through into the temple hall, with a simple wooden coffin placed in the middle. The body lying inside the coffin was dressed all in white. It was the first time in five years that I’d seen my dad’s face, and somehow I couldn’t connect it up with the one in my memory. The face in the coffin, its gaping mouth without a false tooth in sight, was the face of an old man I didn’t know. I remembered reading somewhere that if a person’s jaw didn’t get closed soon after their death, it would get stuck hanging wide open. I had the feeling that the priest and the carer were waiting on me and Takashi for a reaction, but the truth was that not even a single tear came to my eye. Unable to bear the feeling of their eyes on me, though, I reached out my hand and placed it on my dad’s forehead. It was the same gesture a mother would use to check if their child had a fever. Cold. My dad’s forehead felt cold. Takashi put the box of cigarettes in a corner of the coffin, but didn’t touch the body.
It turned out that, in the absence of requests from relatives to the contrary, the care home arranged for funerals to be held at this temple, which belonged to the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. The recitation of the sutras began. It was the first time I’d ever heard it done, and it was weird to me, the way it sounded like the sutras were being sung. As I listened, I thought about how, after this, we would proceed to the crematorium where my dad’s body would be burned down to ashes, which would be stored in the graveyard of a temple near the house I grew up in – and my god, what a hassle those arrangements had been, I remembered with distaste. The temple where our family tomb was situated belonged to the Tendai sect. That meant a funeral carried out in accordance with Jodo Shinshu procedure was a problem. The woman from the temple near our house had explained over the phone at some speed that, if we wanted our father’s ashes to be stored there, then we would have to hold another funeral.
What did it matter whether the funeral was done in the Jodo Shinshu style or the Tendai style, for heaven’s sake? It was all Buddhism of one kind or another. When I went to a Shinto shrine I clapped my hands in prayer, and at Christmas I ate Christmas cake, just like every other typical Japanese person. That was what I wanted to say to her, but I held it in and instead asked, ‘And how much will that cost? The most basic ceremony possible will be fine.’
After firing off a round of complaints at breakneck speed, the woman finally came out with a figure that left me tutting inside. The idea of giving a father like mine two whole funerals, and for what? Sure, that temple was where our family tomb was based, and I paid for its upkeep through the patronage fees. And I had paid off the backlog of contribution debts my dad had stacked up over the years, too. But I was sick of the damn tomb already. They could cremate me and leave whatever was left of me out with the unburnable rubbish on collection day for all I cared. When I told Takashi that, he offered to start paying for the tomb’s upkeep. After all, he and Kanako would be put there some day, he said. The change my brother’s upcoming wedding seemed to have had on his attitude took me aback.
Could marriage really bring about such changes in people, I wondered. Had my marriage changed me? Maybe it had been the fact that I hadn’t changed which had led my wife to divorce me. I had given Takashi a pretty generous sum of money for his wedding present, and now he was saying that he would use it pay for our dad’s second funeral. I supposed that if that was what he really wanted to do with it, then that was okay.
The sutras were soon over, and the carer made to leave, though not before telling us that there were some forms we needed to fill in, and asking us to come by in the near future. Then the carer bowed, and left. The coffin was loaded into a big van, and we were driven even deeper into the mountains. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a white modern-looking building like an art museum appeared in front of us. The person from the temple dropped us off there. The coffin with my dad’s body inside was carried into a room with a row of silver hatches, and set down in front of one. Then, before I knew it, the coffin was gone. It would take an hour, they said, for the body to be cremated. Takashi and I were led into a smallish room on the first floor and told to wait there. I went to have a smoke, and on my way out, noticed that the room next door was bustling with people. I knew it wasn’t as if a dead person’s popularity was determined by the number of people who turned up to their funeral, but even so, I couldn’t help thinking that the fact that no one but me and my brother had showed up to either my dad’s funeral or his cremation meant he had led a pretty measly, deprived sort of life.
The bigger bones like the skull and the thigh bones had been stained the colour of milky coffee. It was probably something to do with the temperature of the fire used in the cremation, I thought. The crematorium attendant told us to pick up the bigger pieces of bone together using long chopsticks, and place them inside the urn. Once there were a few in there, the bones started to make a brittle sound when they knocked against each other. The attendant swept up the smaller bones and powdery fragments with something that looked like a dustpan and brush, and tipped them into the urn too. In a minute, it was all over.
I picked up the urn, which was wrapped in a cloth and knotted on top. I was planning to bring it home with me, so I could take it along to the second funeral, but Takashi took it from my hands, saying,
‘I live closer, so.’
The taxi-ride back to the station took half an hour. We decided to grab a bite to eat at the large station four stops down the line, where we had to change trains anyway. We went into a Chinese restaurant on the top floor of the department store above the station. Takashi placed the urn next to him, and ordered two draft beers.
When the waiter brought the beers, Takashi picked out a bunch of different dishes, poking at the menu with his finger. There was no way we would be able to eat that much, I thought to myself, but I hadn’t had lunch and, as I drank the beer I realised how hungry I was.
‘Having to sit through another funeral next week is gonna be a real pain,’ Takashi said as he munched on a spring roll.
‘Yeah, sorry about it ending up right before your wedding.’
‘It’s not like it’s your fault,’ Takashi said, as he drained his beer.
‘Do you do housework?’ I said.
‘Yeah, I do the dishes and cleaning and things. Anything I’m told to. I always wash up my lunchbox and stuff.’
‘I get in real shit if I don’t,’ Takashi said, and the image of Kanako yelling at him in her throaty voice immediately popped into my mind. ‘Did you do any?’
‘No wonder you got chucked.’
Oh yeah, I thought. I really had got chucked. The idea crossed my mind that maybe, if I’d just done my bit around the house, I wouldn’t have been shown the door, but somehow I knew that even if I had done the housework with my wife yelling at me, like Takashi, we would still have split up.
‘It was like I was living on my own the whole time.’ That was what my wife had said, expressionlessly, as she stamped her seal on the divorce papers.
The second funeral took place on Christmas Day, at the request of the temple. Kanako said that she wanted to go, but she had to work in the nursery. In the end, it was just Takashi and me like the time before. It was the middle of the busy end-of-year period, so once the ashes had been put in the tomb, both Takashi and I knew we had to go straight back to work.
‘It won’t do, you know, this sort of thing. This is where the tomb is, so you’re supposed to have the funeral here.’
That was the first thing the woman from the temple said to us, standing in the doorway holding my dad’s ashes. As she headed down the corridor, Takashi gave me a look that said, what an absolute pain in the arse.
‘Oh, and this is the charge for the flowers,’ she said, coming back and holding out a receipt for 15,000 yen. The bank transfer for the funeral cost had already been made. I suddenly felt utterly sick and tired of it all. Just how much did it cost to put a single person in a tomb for crying out loud? I was on the verge of asking if the flower charge wasn’t covered by the funeral cost, but I bit my tongue and took the money out of my wallet. Then we set out again down the corridor.
‘She’s a nasty old bitch, that one,’ Takashi said. ‘I knew it within half a minute of laying eyes on her.’ I nodded silently.
Takashi and I sat alone in the temple hall, legs folded under us as was proper in such situations, waiting for the priest to come and read the sutras. The man who, after a while, came in and bowed to us was a young priest in a surplice with dyed blonde hair. I remembered that the priest at my gran’s funeral had been an older, dignified sort of a man. This guy was probably the son of that stupid old woman.
So this was who you got landed with when you requested the most basic ceremony possible, was it? As he sat with his back facing us to begin the sutras, I saw a row of piercings on his left ear. I wondered if it was his way of protesting. I don’t wanna be no bloody priest. But his sutras, delivered in an almost throwaway fashion, were surprisingly powerful, and I found myself moved. The blonde priest’s throwaway sutras were a fitting way to cap off a miserable couple of funerals with only me and Takashi present, for a father who had led a similarly throwaway life. The back of my nose began to tingle. I knew that if I let myself, I could cry. I resisted the urge desperately.
The sutras were over in a flash, and we went out to the graveyard that lay alongside the temple in order to place the ashes inside the tomb.
With a scraping sound, a middle-aged man in construction clothes moved the stone away from the vault in which the ashes were stored.
It was twenty years ago that my gran had died, which meant this would be the first time in twenty years that the vault had seen the light of day. The urn containing my gran’s ashes, placed nearest the front of the chamber, sparkled just as white as when it had been put in. The man moved it further back inside, and placed my dad’s urn in at the front. Then he moved the stone back, sealing the vault off again.
The next person to end up here, going by age, would be me. If the blonde priest was still blonde by then, I thought, I wanted him to read my sutras in his slapdash sort of way.
‘Here,’ Takashi said, as he tried to hand me some money. ‘This is for the flowers from before.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Keep it. The wedding must be costing you a bomb.’
‘But you’ve basically paid for this funeral too. I know you’re the oldest son and all that, but you don’t have to do everything, you know.’
As I lit up a cigarette in the rest area beside the graveyard, Takashi slid the money into my coat pocket. Tossing my empty coffee can into the bin for unburnable rubbish, I thought to myself how the only thing me and my brother ever talked about was money. From the graveyard, which lay at the top of a tallish hill, you could see the bridge over the Tama River. It hadn’t been there when I was a child. It was the bridge my dad had tried to throw himself off. Staring down at it, the thought crossed my mind that I was kind of glad that no one in my family had actually managed to kill themselves. Takashi and I said goodbye at the temple that day without having anything to eat, both totally exhausted.
Work was very busy right up until the New Year break began and I went around what felt like the whole of Tokyo, bowing at people in order to get them to fork out for new copiers. Unlike when I was younger, I didn’t think about things like whether or not I enjoyed my job, or whether I felt like what I did had meaning. A job was a repetitive task you carried out so that you could go on eating, go on living. When I had finished installing the fifth copier on my last day of work for the year, I had the vague sense that my spine felt shivery. I guess that by that point, the Hong Kong Type A influenza virus cells were already multiplying inside my body.
Staggering home from the hospital, I stopped at a convenience store and stocked up on large amounts of jelly drinks, energy drinks, microwaveable rice porridge and pre-cut fruit. I took the medicine I’d been given and nodded off, eating whatever I could when I woke up. My temperature stayed high for two days, but began to fall by the third. No doubt the drip had finally kicked in. I slept an unbelievable amount. I didn’t phone or text anyone, didn’t speak a single word to anybody. I stayed in bed throughout, wrapped up in the duvet like a bagworm.
Lying there without even the TV for company, I could hear the patter of footsteps from the floor above, and the voice of a young child laughing and shrieking. The everyday sounds an unknown family going about their lives. The only noises I ever heard in my room were the ones that I made myself. I wondered if there had been anyone at all who had listened to the sounds my wife and I had made over the course of the few years we were married.
Glancing down at my iPhone, lying where I’d slung it on the floor by my bed, I noticed it was the 31st of December. New Year’s Eve, I thought to myself, but that was it. I felt no emotion about it at all. The fact that tomorrow was the start of a new year meant nothing to me. I would no doubt spend it just as I’d spent today, curled up by myself in a sweaty duvet.
Dozing off again, I thought I heard the low chime of a bell echoing far off in the distance. I didn’t remember ever seeing any temples nearby, so at first I figured that the fever was making me hallucinate, but as time went on I realized it was real. From somewhere, I could hear the sound of the great bell that was struck in temples across Japan on New Year’s Eve to erase the one hundred and eight kinds of human desires and passions. I thought about how greedy the Japanese were, visiting the Buddhist temple on New Year’s Eve and the Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day. It was like we were ready to depend on whatever gods were willing to have us.
My dad had been a lucky man. His whole life, he’d only ever thought about himself, and then he’d been given two funerals at the end of it. No doubt he’d be able to go to whichever bloody heaven he wanted to.
Without thinking about what I was doing, I raised my hand to my forehead. It felt cold, just like my dead dad’s. I briefly wondered how I would die. Would Takashi organize my funeral? Just then my iPhone vibrated. It was a LINE message from Takashi, with a photo of him and Kanako.
‘Happy New Year. We’re getting married today,’ it said.
So the New Year had come a bit earlier in Saipan. They had no idea that I’d been practically dying of the flu. Behind Takashi and Kanako was a great expanse of translucent blue sea and white sand. It looked a bit like a shot of the two of them in heaven.
‘Congratulations,’ I typed, then shut my eyes again. I could still hear the chime of the bell. I didn’t want to die alone. The chimes went on and on. As I listened, I thought about how, more than anything, I just wanted someone’s hand on my forehead.
Image © ‘病室からの眺望’, Fluoride