She never mentions her past.
‘I don’t really talk about my childhood.’
Asked why, she’ll smile.
‘Well, I was such a little liar. Now I’m not sure how much of what I remember actually happened.’
It’s not just her childhood she doesn’t talk about. Nobody knows what she did before coming to this town and opening the bar. It’s not like anyone really wants to go digging into her past either. Instead, they just pull a face, ask for a beer – or maybe a whiskey soda – and that’s the end of that.
Hayakawa spends a few moments deciding whether to have another nibble from the plate of hijiki salad in front of him, or whether it might be better, perhaps, to take another sip of his drink and then eat the salad. His elbows rest on the counter, head in one hand, glass in the other. His natural slouch means that his head, drooping forwards, sticks out even further from his body. His drink is so close to his face that if he purses his lips like an octopus, all he has to do is tilt the glass slightly and it’ll pour right in.
‘Mama,’ he blurts out. It’s what the regulars all call her. She looks up from her chopping board, but it turns out he doesn’t actually need anything. His head is still drooping, though his eyes have rolled up to look at her. A moment passes before she looks down and gets back to her chopping.
Oh boy, I’ve gotten old. He is observing himself from a distance. All grown up now. He remembers how adults looked when he was a child and, confronted by this adult self, indeed feels like a child, like someone who would be forgiven for playing a prank or two. Sensing that this younger self has something to do with what he blurted out just now, he feels a delayed pang of embarrassment. Although, come to think of it, he never actually called his mother ‘mama’. His thoughts drift to all the ageing still ahead of him, and a trace of youthful vigour returns to his elbows and back. Watching from a distance, he is sober, so he says to the man sitting at the bar, Time to call it a night, don’t you think? But the man replies, Oh no, I’m not done yet, and they both know he’s not the type to listen, so he gives up.
He realises that at some point his gaze has shifted from his plate of seaweed to the small mirrorball on the ceiling in the corner of the long, narrow bar. Nobody is singing karaoke, so the mirrorball isn’t turning, but its shimmering scales give him a strong craving for pickled mackerel. Mama’s pickled mackerel is the real deal.
From what distant place am I watching myself? It can’t be the past. So – the future? An old me, on my deathbed? Or maybe I’m watching from somewhere in the present?
‘Time for some Imawano! Imawa-no time like the present!’ says Kondo, two seats down. He grabs the microphone.
Mama stops washing the shredded daikon and takes the karaoke remote from on top of the raised partition dividing her side of the bar from theirs. But then, seeing that Kondo is just holding the microphone without actually attempting to sing any Imawano, she gets on with her next task, taking some leftover ginger root from the fridge behind her and grating it.
Kondo, clinging to the microphone, is the drunkest of the lot. Once he’s far enough gone, he’ll slump onto the counter and fall asleep – but he’s not quite there yet.
The men sit at the bar, occasionally conversing, mainly just spooling out their usual monologues. She watches them, though her hands never stop moving. There’s too much for her to do – kitchen chores, the orders that come in, and everything else she gets on with in between. The bar seats six people, eight at a squeeze, and she’s in charge of the whole operation. From opening time to closing time, the small area hidden behind the counter is a hive of activity, her hands and feet constantly in motion. Her eyes, meanwhile, carefully monitor their glasses and bottles, the amount of food left on their plates, the expressions on their faces. Kondo, who runs a futon company, still hasn’t sung a note. The microphone is off, his left hand clutching it while he picks at a chikuwa sausage with his right.
One, two, she counts, starting from the end of the bar. Next to Kondo sits Chino, who works in the tourism department at the town hall. Chino is in his forties, but that still makes him the junior of everyone else at the bar, and they’ve always thought of him as the youngster in their midst. There are four of them here tonight. It’s past nine on a weekday, probably too late for anyone else to show up. Stirring fish cakes and taro in a small pot, she thinks up a rhyme. ‘One, two . . . the same old stew . . .’ She finds herself locking eyes with number three, Hayakawa. He works at the Water Board and always turns up still wearing his overalls. Normally when he’s drunk, his chubby figure curls in on itself even more than usual as he disappears into his thoughts. But now he suddenly rouses himself and twists to face Chino and then, two seats down, old Kasugai.
‘You hear that? The same old stew, she called us!’
The four of them turn to each other and laugh like a bunch of schoolkids, so she laughs too. Apparently she’d said that part out loud.
‘Well, we are a pretty hopeless bunch,’ says Kasugai, number four, looking up from his sports paper. ‘Must be boring for you too, Mama.’
Kasugai, sitting at the end of the bar, was once a middle school teacher. He’s almost seventy-seven and officially retired, but now dedicates his time to writing amateur contributions to newspapers. Day after day, he scours not just the papers but also the weekly magazines and the TV channels for something to write about.
That’s for sure, she replies in her head. Where’s a handsome young man when you need one?
It’s a trick she learned when she worked at a bar in Tokyo. Even now, words sometimes reach the tip of her tongue before they even cross her mind, but she doesn’t let them out. Here, in my own bar, in this town, I keep my thoughts to myself. She says this last part in her head, as if testing herself. She doesn’t affirm or deny anything they say, doesn’t indulge them or reproach them. She just laughs, and leaves it at that.
Adding a little soy sauce to the pot, she imagines how that conversation would continue:
‘No chance. There aren’t any young guys around anyway. Not in this town. Barely even any high school kids . . .’
‘What about Tsutomu at that Ebisu place?’
‘Call that guy handsome?’
‘Well, he’s young at least . . .’
‘He doesn’t drink. Why would he show up here?’
‘He’s the right age though.’
‘What about marriage?’
So it looks like they would end up talking about Tsutomu. She switches off the hob and turns to Kondo.
‘Going to sing us something?’
Kondo has switched the microphone on now. He looks at her and puts on a woman’s voice.
‘Where’s a handsome young man when you need one?’
She just shoots him a glance and snorts. No use overreacting. Kasugai’s newspaper rustles as he turns the page. Another pause.
Even among the regular pool of amateur contributors, Kasugai distinguishes himself with his sharp critical eye and trademark wit. His achievements include writing articles for the local municipality’s PR magazine, while his knowledge of celebrity gossip is unrivalled by anyone at the bar. ‘You shouldn’t sniff at the trivial stuff,’ he tells people. ‘It teaches you something about the way the world goes round.’
Day after day, this hopeless bunch repeat their hopeless conversations, but always with almost imperceptible variations which, together with the unexceptional hours they spend in this bar, steadily accumulate to form its history. As a matter of principle and taste, she has largely refrained from decorating the bar, but a piece of card is stuck to the wall opposite the counter. All the regulars wrote on it to celebrate the bar’s tenth anniversary – about ten names scrawled in colourful marker pens, each with a message. The four here tonight are among those names, of course. That piece of card has been there for almost a decade.
The same conversation never happens the same way twice. Running a bar in a small town like this means watching these thin layers of life slowly pile up. Watch them for long enough and you develop a certain fondness for it all, but it’s not always easy. Half the people whose names are on the card have already passed away.
The conversation does turn to Tsutomu, but she hasn’t foreseen the sudden twist it will take.
‘No chance. There aren’t any young guys around anyway. Not in this town. Barely even any high school kids . . .’
‘What about Tsutomu at that Ebisu place?’
‘Call that guy handsome?’
‘Well, he’s young at least . . .’
‘About ten years younger than Chino?’
‘Hmm . . . I guess. Something like that.’
Kondo is still holding the microphone. Now, his voice rings out from the speakers:
‘The guy’s my kid’s age!’
Hearing this, Mama and the other three look a little startled.
‘Kondo, you have a child?’
They know that after high school Kondo left his hometown to go to university in Tohoku, and that later on he got a job in Tokyo. And they know he married, divorced after a few years, and in his mid-thirties came back to his hometown to take over his father’s futon business. His father became unwell around then, but although they must have asked him countless times, nobody can quite remember the details. Did he come back because his father was ill, or did that happen just after he got back? But as far as having a child is concerned, well, nobody has heard that part before.
Kasugai casts his eyes back down to his newspaper.
If Kondo had been talking about some distant relative, it would have been perfectly normal for him simply never to have mentioned them. They’ve all been around long enough to have plenty of obscure family connections. But his own child? It’s just too implausible that something like that would never have come up. In countless fragments exchanged over the course of many years, these four have talked about almost everything that ever happened to them, or so they think. If Kondo does have a child, then all sorts of things he’s told them no longer add up.
‘Just joking,’ he adds, quickly. He’s still speaking through the microphone.
‘What the . . .’ mutter both Chino and Hayakawa, before they go back to sipping their drinks and picking at their food. Kondo takes a gulp of his shochu, shouts ‘Mama!’ over the microphone for her to start the music, and launches into his song. Chino orders a plate of grilled smelt.
She turns the mirrorball on and sets it to colour mode. Listening to the gentle intro, she sets a grill over the hob, takes a pack of smelt from the fridge and starts to cook a couple of them. Kondo sings:
A sweet kiss, a distant memory
Shall I dream of them and weep?
The grill starts to crackle. From the ceiling comes another sound: the spinning mirrorball, catching in the same place each time. Click . . . click . . . She watches the smelt on the grill, thinking to herself: This happens sometimes. A pointless, unexpected lie that is immediately revealed as such, one that has nothing to do with personal gain, or right and wrong. It’s not even a lie, really – more like a slip of the tongue, or sleep talking. Something untrue that simply emerges, without the speaker even knowing why. Such things happen in bars.
Drunks are unpredictable by nature. The problem isn’t so much what Kondo said – it’s that they don’t know how to respond. She knows that the other three are sitting there, all thinking: It’s entirely possible that Kondo really does have a kid, and he’s carefully kept it a secret until just now, when he blurted it out by mistake. Otherwise, why tell a lie like that? Even if he says he’s just joking, it doesn’t make any sense.
‘Lonesome Serenade’ is a tricky song to get right, and just because Kondo is fond of karaoke doesn’t mean he’s particularly good at it. Normally he picks something livelier and just bellows it out, but today his voice is weak and unsteady. Why choose this slow, unfamiliar ballad after hinting that he might secretly have a child? Is today some kind of special day? It’s hard not to think that some deep meaning might be lurking here, too.
No more whispers in the wind
Who can tell me why?
Or should I simply weep?
There’s something about these lyrics that catches their attention. Might it be possible that he really does have a son or daughter somewhere? That he’s living his life as if they don’t exist, but can’t quite forget them? And that now, finally, alcohol has caused him to lose his self-control?
Hayakawa is still staring at the mirrorball, although now it’s turning. Like before, his head is in one hand and his drink in the other, inches from his face, but the glass is almost empty. Unable to decide if he should have another or call it a night, he wonders whether Kondo might have suddenly noticed the other Hayakawa who, even now, is watching himself slouched there at the bar. Perhaps that would explain why Kondo said that strange thing just now. Try as he might to work it out, though, it’s all just too complicated. He doesn’t have a wife or any children, but it isn’t entirely unthinkable that one of the women in his past might have borne a child. As he thinks this, he feels a lurching in his chest, something welling up from deep inside him, and, although Kondo is mid-song, suddenly exclaims across the counter to Mama:
‘You live all these years, and you just end up throwing so many possibilities away along the way. Know what I mean?’
Mama just looks at him and nods.
He does sometimes wonder what his children would be like if he’d had them. Doesn’t everyone? Maybe the person watching him is a bit like the child that Kondo may or may not have. Like a zashiki warashi, one of those mischievous child spirits said to protect households – suddenly you realise they’ve been watching you from the corner of the room the whole time. The child he might have had, but never did. Kondo has finished his song, so Hayakawa tries to clap, but forgets he has a glass in his hand. It topples but doesn’t smash, though the rest of his drink spills out and his ice goes sliding down the bar towards Kondo. He joins Mama and Chino in making a fuss and grabbing tissues to clean it up.
All this, too, will become just another layer in the bar’s history. Eventually it will disappear from sight, and almost nothing about tonight will be remembered.
‘Great song,’ Mama tells Kondo. Kondo looks pleased.
She doesn’t drink herself, but she pours plenty of them every day. When her patrons sit there drinking in front of her, it feels like the alcohol is working its way through her own brain and body. Of course, nobody gets drunk the same way, and even the same person gets drunk differently depending on the day or what it is they’re drinking. Some people become fuddled and withdrawn, while others start talking faster and faster. Some get drunk slowly, over a couple of hours, while others get there in ten minutes and then ramble away for the whole evening. Sometimes it’s like they’re all running at different speeds. Then there are those who never get properly drunk no matter how much they have. Others barely get drunk at all, remaining completely lucid, although that doesn’t mean they’re still their usual selves – it’s just that their bodies and minds are filled with something other than drunkenness.
She observes them less when they’re talking, and more in the silences in between. When they’re taking a sip of their drink, nibbling on something, or just staring blankly into space, she knows what they’re thinking. Of course, she doesn’t know exactly what’s on their mind, but she’s familiar with the speed, the intensity, the scattered nature of their thoughts. The details aren’t too important. But as she feels her thoughts expanding and dissipating in unison with their own, she begins to feel drunk herself.
It’s not clear whether Kondo really has a child. Most likely he doesn’t. But she can imagine what might lead him to blurt something like that out.
She tries saying to herself I don’t have a child, and then pauses In that moment of suggestive silence, she can’t help but feel a creeping doubt towards her own words.
Does she really not have a child?
No, of course she doesn’t. But then where does the doubt come from?
They do call me Mama, after all.
Maybe she really is drunk.
She takes the smelt off the grill and, with a smooth movement, transfers it to a round dish. She always takes great care arranging and garnishing her food, but her grilled smelt comes unadorned. Even the plate is just a basic cheap white dish, not a ceramic one. If a customer likes it with mayonnaise, she serves a little on the side, but Chino doesn’t, and this isn’t a restaurant, so all she needs to do is pop the fish on a plate and he’ll eat it with his hands. Meanwhile, old Kasugai’s glass is running low, so she has the bottle ready before he even calls her and tops him up straight away. There’s a fine art to all this apparent casualness.
As a rule, she doesn’t talk about the past. She hasn’t told any of her customers about her life before coming to this town, or how she ended up here. That makes it all the more natural for them to imagine that this mysterious proprietress might have a husband or child lurking somewhere in her past. If you avoid talking about something long enough, then that very vagueness can start to take on the solidity and weight of an actual past event.
‘Mama,’ says Hayakawa. He’s close to leaving. One more, or will he call it a night? ‘Where’s my pickled mackerel?’ Nobody has ordered any pickled mackerel.
‘What, I didn’t order any?’ Hayakawa’s mouth is agape, his expression vacant.
Pretend you forgot, apologise, serve it up right away. Looks like he will be having one more.
‘You didn’t order any mackerel,’ says Kasugai, sitting next to Hayakawa.
‘Mama’s pickled mackerel is the real deal,’ says Hayakawa as she pours him his drink. She’s heard this line countless times.
‘I know.’ Kasugai takes a sip of his whiskey soda, then goes on: ‘That’s because . . .’ She glances at him, and her lips stiffen slightly. In fact, they visibly contort. Kasugai, Hayakawa and Chino have all noticed. Kondo has dropped the microphone and is sleeping face down on the bar.
That’s because she does it Kyushu-style. They all hear those words, though this time Kasugai says no such thing. It’s a blunder he committed several years earlier, one that has permanently marred the smooth surface of Mama’s unspoken past. No angry words had been exchanged that night. Instead, a long and heavy silence had descended.
When Kasugai had uttered the word ‘Kyushu’, it had travelled from the ears of the assembled drunks to their brains, and from their brains into their memories, arousing their vulgar curiosity, coursing through their bodies together with the alcohol they had consumed. To them, it had seemed a great revelation, shining a piercing light into their Mama’s past, which until then had been untethered to any particular region or town. Before long, a few of them remembered a minor scandal caused by a young singer from the nightlife district of a city in Kyushu. Much had been expected of her on account of her beautiful and powerful voice, and she had moved to Tokyo. When she tried to break up with her boyfriend from back home, things got nasty: her record company and the boyfriend’s yakuza gang got involved, and eventually the police had to step in. Messy lovers’ tiffs like that were nothing out of the ordinary in either the nightlife or the entertainment world, but in this case the contrast with the singer’s carefully manicured image was considered amusing, and the story was picked up and reported with much excitement. On the cusp of her big break, the young singer was forced to retire from showbusiness with just two records to her name, all because of the scandal.
‘ . . . That’s because . . . Well, it is the real deal.’ In the end, that’s all Kasugai says, before taking another sip of his whiskey soda. Hayakawa is finishing off his last drink too. Chino gnaws at the head of his remaining fish. All of them, except Kondo who is still asleep, are thinking about that day. But, absurdly enough, even this awkward scene is just a rerun of one that’s happened many times before, whenever anyone orders pickled mackerel. This is why alcohol always spells trouble, Kasugai thinks. He’s had this same thought many times before too. Drinking is a stupid thing to do, he scribbles in his notebook, over and over again.
Mama’s the only one who looks composed. Her lips, contorted only a moment ago, now play host to a gentle smile. But since Kasugai uttered those words, she’s never again sung the tune that was once her karaoke standard.
The bar is by the station, and normally it’s only a two- or three-minute walk to Kondo’s place, but that depends on how he walks. Five minutes if he slows his pace. Ten minutes if he takes a detour. Tonight, he stays off the station road and walks in the opposite direction to home, following the street that leads towards the pitch-dark fields instead. His belly is full from the rice ball and miso soup he had Mama make him before he left. In a voice so faint it might as well be in his head, he murmurs his song from earlier.
Just for tonight, shall I seek out
The whispers of a long-forgotten love?
From the fields and, further off, the river, he hears the high-pitched chirping of insects. It’s a little chilly, but not cold enough to wear the jacket that, he just now realises, he left hanging on his chair at the bar.
Business is tough, but there are still plenty of old houses in this town with bedding that needs replacing and futons that need fluffing up, so he should manage. He’s even able to go out for a drink every now and then, like tonight. Although, come to think of it, the main reason is that he lives on his own.
Sad and lonely
I’d rather hear a gentle serenade
Unable to reach the high notes, he leaves them for the insects to sing.
Cover Image © Rookuzz