Something like a torn blanket – I could not see clearly through the evening gloom – had caught high in the limbs of a tree and was billowing gently in the wind. Another tree had fallen and tumbled over the shrubs. Leaves and broken branches lay scattered everywhere. I thought of the war, of the destruction and waste I had seen throughout my earliest years, and I stared at the garden, saying nothing, while my grandmother explained how a typhoon had passed through Kagoshima that morning.
Within a few days, the garden had been tidied, the broken tree piled against a wall together with all the branches and dead foliage. Only then did I notice for the first time the stepping stones which wound a passage through the shrubs towards the trees at the back of the garden. Those shrubs bore a few signs of the assault so recently endured; they were in full bloom, their foliage rich and strangely coloured – in shades of red, orange, and purple unlike anything I had encountered in Tokyo. In all, the garden ceased to hold much resemblance to that defeated place I had glimpsed on the night of my arrival.
Between the veranda of the house and the start of the stepping stones was a flat area of turf. There, each morning before the sun had fully risen, my grandfather would lay out his straw mat and exercise. I would awake to the sounds coming from the garden, dress quickly, and go out onto the veranda. I would then see my grandfather’s figure, clad in a loose kimono, moving in the early light. He would bend and stretch with some vigour, and his step was light when he ran on the spot. I would sit waiting quietly through these routine movements. Eventually, the sun would have risen high enough to fall over the wall and into the garden; and all around me, the polished planks of the veranda would become covered in patches of sunlight. Then at last, my grandfather’s face would turn stern, and he would begin the judo sequences: swift turns, frozen postures, and – best of all – the throwing motions, each throw accompanied by a short shout. As I watched, I could see vividly the invisible assailants who came at him from all sides, only to fall helplessly in the face of such prowess.
At the end of each session, my grandfather would follow the stepping stones to the back of the garden to confront the largest of the trees that grew by the wall. He would stand before the tree for several seconds, absolutely still. Then, with an abrupt shout, he would pounce on it and attempt to throw it over his hip. He would repeat the attack four or five times, beginning each time with those few seconds of contemplative silence, as if that way he would catch the tree by surprise.
As soon as my grandfather had gone inside to change, I would go into the garden and attempt to reproduce the movements I had just seen. This would end with my constructing elaborate scenarios around the movements – scenarios which were always variations on the same plot. They always began with my grandfather and I walking home at night, along the alley behind the Kagoshima railway station. From out of the darkness would emerge figures, and we would be obliged to stop. Their leader would step forward – a man with drunken, slovenly speech – demanding we hand over money. My grandfather would quietly warn them they should let us pass or they would come to harm. At this, voices would laugh in the darkness all around us – dirty, leering laughs. My grandfather and I would exchange an unworried glance, then take up positions back to back. Then they would come, an unlimited number from all sides. And there in the garden I would enact their destruction; my grandfather and I, a smoothly co-ordinated team, rendering them harmless one by one. Finally, we would survey with gravity the bodies all around us. He would then nod, and we would go on our way. Of course, we would show no untoward excitement about the matter and continue home without discussing it.
There were times midway through such a battle, when Noriko, my grandparents’ housemaid, called me in to breakfast. But otherwise, I would conclude my programme as my grandfather did; I would go to the tree, stand before it silently for those vital few seconds, then embrace it with appropriate suddenness. I did at times act out a scenario in which, before my grandfather’s startled gaze, I would actually uproot the tree and send it tumbling over the shrubs. But the tree was infinitely more solid than the one broken by the typhoon, and even as a boy of seven, I accepted this particular scenario as unlikely, not of the same realm of possibility as the other.
I do not think my grandfather was an especially wealthy man, but life at his house seemed very comfortable after the conditions I had known in Tokyo. There were shopping expeditions with Noriko to buy toys, books, and new clothes; and there were many kinds of food – though commonplace enough today – which I tasted for the first time in my life. The house too seemed spacious, despite a whole side of it being so damaged as to be uninhabitable. One afternoon soon after my arrival, my grandmother took me around it to show me the paintings and ornaments which adorned the rooms. Whenever I saw a painting I liked, I would point and ask: ‘Did my grandfather do that?’ But in the end, though we must have inspected each of the many paintings displayed around the house, not one turned out to be an example of my grandfather’s work.
‘But I thought Oji was a famous painter,’ I said. ‘Where are his paintings?’
‘Perhaps you would care for something to eat, Ichiro-San?’
‘Oji’s paintings! Bring them at once!’
My grandmother looked at me with a curious expression. ‘I wonder now,’ she said. ‘I suppose it was Ichiro’s aunt who told him about his grandfather.’
Something in her manner caused me to become silent.
‘I wonder what else Ichiro’s aunt told him,’ she continued. ‘Yes, I do wonder.’
‘She just said Oji was a famous painter. Why aren’t his paintings here?’
‘What else did she say, Ichiro-San?’
‘Why aren’t his paintings here? I want an answer!’
My grandmother smiled. ‘I expect they’ve been tidied away. We can look for them another time. But your aunt was saying how keen you were yourself on drawing and painting. Most talented, she told me. If you were to ask your grandfather, Ichiro-San, I’m sure he’d be honoured to teach you.’
‘I don’t need a teacher.’
‘Forgive me, it was merely a suggestion. Now, perhaps, you would care for something to eat.’
As it was, my grandfather began helping me to paint without my having to ask him. I was sitting on the veranda one hot day, trying to compose a picture with my water paints. The picture was going badly, and I was about to screw it up in anger when my grandfather came out onto the veranda, placed a cushion near me, and sat down.
‘Don’t let me stop you working, Ichiro.’ He leaned over to see the picture, but I hid it with my arm. ‘All right,’ he said, with a laugh. ‘I’ll see it once it’s finished.’
Noriko brought out some tea, poured it, and left. My grandfather continued to sit there with a contented air, sipping tea and looking out onto his garden. His presence made me self-conscious, and I made a show of working at my picture. After some minutes, however, the frustration overtook me again, and I hurled my paint-brush across the veranda. My grandfather turned to me.
‘Ichiro,’ he said, quite calmly, ‘you’re throwing paint everywhere. If Noriki-San sees that, she’ll be very angry with you.’
‘I don’t care.’
He gave a laugh and once more leaned over to look at my painting. I tried to hide it again, but he held my arm aside.
‘Not so bad. Why are you so angry with it?’
‘Give it back. I want to tear it up.’
He held the picture beyond my reach and continued looking at it. ‘Not so bad at all,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘You shouldn’t give up so easily. Look, Oji will help you a little. Then you try and finish it.’
The brush had bounced across the floor boards to a point some distance from us, and my grandfather rose to retrieve it. When he picked it up, he touched the end with his fingertips as if to heal it, then came back and sat down. He studied the picture carefully for a moment, dipped the brush into the water, then touched it against two or three of the colours. And then, in one smooth movement, he passed the dripping brush across the surface of my picture, and a trail of tiny leaves had appeared in its wake: lights and shades, folds and clusters, all in one smooth movement.
‘There. Now you try and finish it.’
I did my best to look unimpressed, but my enthusiasm could not help being rekindled by such a feat. Once my grandfather had returned to sipping his tea and looking out at the garden, I dipped the brush in paint and water, then tried to emulate what I had just witnessed.
I succeeded in painting a number of thick wet lines across the paper. My grandfather saw this and shook his head, believing I had been erasing my picture.
Initially, I had assumed that the damage to the house had been caused by the typhoon, but I soon discovered that most of it originated from the war. My grandfather had been in the process of rebuilding that side of the house, when the typhoon had demolished the scaffolding and ruined much of what he had achieved over the past year. He showed little frustration over what had occurred, and during the weeks after my arrival, continued to work on the house at a steady pace – perhaps two or three hours each day. At times, workmen would come to assist him, but usually he worked alone, hammering and sawing. There was no sense of urgency about the matter. There was plenty of room in the rest of the house, and, in any case, progress was necessarily impeded by the scarcity of materials. Sometimes, he would wait days for a box of nails or a certain piece of wood.
The only room in use on the damaged side of the house was the bathroom. It was very bare; the floor was concrete, with channels cut into it to allow water to flow out under the outer wall; and the windows looked out onto the rubble and scaffolding outside, so that one felt one was standing in an annex of the house rather than within it. But in one corner, my grandfather had built a deep wooden box into which could be poured three or four feet of steaming water. Each night before going to bed, I would call to my grandfather through the screen, and sliding it back, would discover the room filled with steam. There would be a smell, like that of dried fish, which I thought appropriate to the body of a grown man, and my grandfather would be in his bath, up to his neck in hot water. And each night, I would stand in that steam-filled room and talk to him – often of matters I would never mention elsewhere. My grandfather would listen, then answer me with sparse, reassuring words from behind the clouds of steam.
‘This is your home now, Ichiro,’ he would say. ‘No need to leave until you’ve grown up. Even then, you may want to stay here. No need to worry. No need at all.’
On one such evening in that bathroom, I remarked to my grandfather: ‘Japanese soldiers were the best fighters in the war.’
‘Our soldiers certainly were the most determined,’ he said. ‘The most courageous, perhaps. Very brave soldiers. But even the finest of soldiers are sometimes defeated.’
‘Because there’s too many of the enemy.’
‘Because there’s too many of the enemy. And because the enemy have more weapons.’
‘Japanese soldiers could fight on even when they were badly wounded, couldn’t they? Because they were determined.’
‘Yes. Our soldiers fought even when they were badly hurt.’
There in the bathroom, I began to act out a scenario of a soldier surrounded by enemies, engaged in unarmed combat. Whenever a bullet struck me, I would halt briefly,then continue fighting. ‘Yah! Yah!’
My grandfather laughed, raised his hands from the water and applauded. Encouraged, I fought on – eight, nine, ten bullets. When I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, my grandfather was still clapping and laughing to himself.
‘Oji, do you know who I am?’
He closed his eyes again, and sank deeper into the water. ‘A soldier. A very brave Japanese soldier.’
‘Yes, but who? Which soldier? Watch, Oji. You guess.’
I pressed a hand painfully against my wounds and recommenced the battle. The large number of bullets I had received in my chest and stomach obliged me to forego my more flamboyant techniques. ‘Yah! Yah! Who am I, Oji? Guess! Guess!’
Then I noticed that my grandfather had opened his eyes and was staring at me through the steam. He was staring at me as if I were a ghost, and a chill went through me. I stopped and stared back at him. Then his face smiled again, but the strange look remained in his eyes.
‘Enough now,’ he said, reclining again in the water. ‘Too many enemies. Too many.’
I remained standing still.
‘What’s the matter, Ichiro?’ he asked, and gave a laugh. ‘Suddenly so quiet.’
I did not reply. My grandfather closed his eyes again and sighed.
‘What an awful thing war is, Ichiro,’ he said, tiredly. ‘An awful thing. But never mind. You’re here now. This is your home. No need to worry.’
One evening at the height of the summer, I came in to find an extra place set for supper. My grandmother said in a low voice: ‘Your grandfather has a visitor. They’ll be through in a moment.’
For some time, my grandmother, Noriko, and I sat waiting around the supper table. When I began to show impatience, Noriko told me to keep my voice down. ‘The gentleman’s only just arrived. You can’t expect him to be ready so soon.’
My grandmother nodded. ‘I expect they have much to say to each other after all this time.’
At last, my grandfather appeared with the guest. He was perhaps around forty – I had little sense of adults’ ages then – a stocky man, with eyebrows so black they looked as if they were inked in. During the meal, he and my grandfather talked much of the past. A name would be mentioned, and my grandfather would repeat it and nod gravely. Soon, a solemn atmosphere hung over the table. Once, my grandmother began to congratulate the visitor on his new job, but he stopped her.
‘No, no, madam. You’re most kind, but too hasty. The appointment is by no means certain.’
‘But as you say,’ my grandfather put in, ‘you have no real rivals. You’re by far the best qualified for the post.’
‘You’re much too kind, Sensei,’ the visitor said. ‘But it’s by no means certain. I can only hope and wait.’
‘If this were a few years ago,’ said my grandfather, ‘I could have put in a good word for you. But I don’t expect my opinion carries much weight these days.’
‘Really, Sensei,’ said the visitor, ‘you do yourself a grave injustice. A man of your achievements must always be respected.’
At this, my grandfather laughed rather oddly.
After supper, I asked my grandmother: ‘Why does he call Oji “Sensei”?’
‘The gentleman was once your grandfather’s pupil. A most brilliant one.’
‘When Oji was a famous painter?’
‘Yes. The gentleman is a very splendid artist. One of your grandfather’s most brilliant pupils.’
The visitor’s presence meant I was deprived of my grandfather’s attention, and this put me in a bad mood. During the days which followed, I avoided the visitor as much as I could and spoke barely a word to him. Then one afternoon, I overheard the conversation which took place on the veranda.
At the top of my grandfather’s house was a Western-style room with high chairs and tables. The balcony of the room overlooked the garden, and the veranda was two floors below. I had been amusing myself in the room, and had been conscious for some time of the voices below me. Then something caught my attention – something in the tone of the exchange – and I went out onto the balcony to listen. Sure enough, my grandfather and his guest were in disagreement; as I understood it, the matter involved some letter the visitor wished my grandfather to write.
‘Surely, Sensei,’ the man was saying, ‘it’s hardly unreasonable of me. For a long time, I believed my career to be at an end. Surely, Sensei wouldn’t wish to see me burdened down by what happened in the past.’
There was silence for a while, then the visitor spoke ‘Please don’t misunderstand, Sensei. I’m as proud as ever to have my name associated with yours. It’s merely for the purpose of satisfying the committee, nothing more.’
‘So this is why you’ve come to see me.’ My grandfather’s voice sounded more weary than angry. ‘So this is why you’ve come after all this time. But why do you wish to lie about yourself? You did what you did with pride and brilliance. A mistake or not, a man should not lie about himself.’
‘But, Sensei, perhaps you’ve forgotten. Do you remember that evening in Kobe? After the banquet for Kinoshita-San? You became angry with me that night because I dared to disagree with you. Don’t you remember, Sensei?’
‘The banquet for Kinoshita? I’m afraid I don’t. What did we quarrel about?’
‘We quarrelled because I dared to suggest the school had taken a wrong direction. Don’t you remember, Sensei? I said that it was no business of ours to employ our talents like that. And you were furious at me. Don’t you remember that, Sensei?’
There was silence again.
‘Ah yes,’ my grandfather said, eventually. ‘I remember now. It was at the time of the China campaign. A crucial time for the nation. It would have been irresponsible to carry on working as we once had.’
‘But I always disagreed with you, Sensei. And I felt so strongly about it, I actually told you to your face. All I’m asking now is simply that you acknowledge that fact to the committee. Simply state what my view was from the beginning, and that I went so far as to disagree with you openly. Surely, that’s not unreasonable, Sensei.’
There was another pause, then my grandfather said: ‘You benefited much from my name while it was revered. Now the world has a different opinion of me, you must face up to it.’
There was silence for some time, then I could hear movement and the sliding shut of screens.
At supper, I searched for signs of conflict between my grandfather and the visitor, but they behaved towards each other with perfect politeness. That night, in the steam-filled bathroom, I asked my grandfather: ‘Oji, why don’t you paint any more?’
At first, he was silent. Then he said: ‘Sometimes, when you paint your pictures and things don’t go well, you get angry, don’t you? You want to tear the pictures up and Oji has to stop you. Isn’t that so?’
‘Yes,’ I said, and waited. His eyes remained closed, his voice slow and tired. ‘It was rather like that for your grandfather. He didn’t do things so well, so he decided to put it aside.’
‘But you always tell me not to tear up pictures. You always make me finish them.’
‘That’s true. But then you’re very young, Ichiro. You’ll get so much better.’
The next morning, the sun was already high when I went out to the veranda to watch my grandfather. Shortly after I had sat down, there was a sound behind me, and the visitor appeared, dressed in a dark kimono. He greeted me, and when I said nothing, laughed and strode past me to the edge of the veranda. My grandfather saw him and stopped exercising.
‘Ah! Up so early. I didn’t disturb you, I hope.’ My grandfather reached down to roll up his straw mat.
‘Not at all, Sensei. I slept splendidly. But please don’t let me stop you. Noriko-San was telling me you do this every morning, summer or winter. Highly admirable. No, please, really. I was so impressed, I promised myself I’d get up this morning and see for myself. I’d never forgive myself if I were the reason for Sensei breaking his routine. Sensei, please.’
In the end, my grandfather continued his exercises – he had been running on the spot – with an air of reluctance. He stopped again almost immediately and said: ‘Thank you for being so patient. Really, that will do for this morning.’
‘But Sensei, the little gentleman here will be disappointed. I heard how much he enjoys your judo training. Now isn’t that so, Ichiro-San?’
I pretended not to have heard.
‘It will do no harm to miss them this morning,’ said my grandfather. ‘Let’s go inside and wait for breakfast.’
‘But I too would be disappointed, Sensei. I was hoping to be reminded of your prowess. Do you remember you tried to teach me judo once?’
‘Really? Yes, I seem to remember something like that.’
‘Murasaki was with us then. And Ishida. At that sports-hall in Yokohama. You remember that, Sensei? However I tried to throw you, I’d end up flat on my back. I was so dejected afterwards. Come, Sensei – Ichiro and I would like to see you practising.’
My grandfather laughed and held up his hands. He was standing rather awkwardly at the centre of his mat. ‘But really, I gave up serious training a long time ago.’
‘You know, Sensei, during the war I became quite an expert myself. We trained a lot in unarmed combat.’ As he said this, the visitor glanced towards me.
‘I’m sure you were very well trained in the army,’ my grandfather said.
‘As I say, I became quite an expert. Still, if I were to take on Sensei again, I’m sure my fate would be no different from before. I’d be flat on my back in no time.’
They both laughed.
‘I’m sure you had excellent training,’ my grandfather said.
The visitor turned towards me again, and I saw his eyes were smiling in an odd way. ‘But against a man of Sensei’s experience, all that training would be of little use. I’m sure my fate would be just as it was in that sports-hall.’
My grandfather remained standing on his mat. Then the visitor said: ‘Please, Sensei, don’t let me disturb you. Exercise as if I weren’t here.’
‘No, really. That will do for this morning.’ My grandfather dropped down onto one knee and began rolling up his mat.
The visitor leaned his shoulder against the veranda post and looked up at the sky.
‘Murasaki, Ishida….That seems a long time ago now.’ He appeared to be talking to himself, but he spoke loudly enough for my grandfather to hear. My grandfather’s back was turned to us as he continued gathering up the mat.
‘All of them gone now,’ the visitor said. ‘You and I, Sensei. We seem to be the only ones left from those days.’
My grandfather paused. ‘Yes,’ he said, without turning. ‘Yes, it’s tragic’
‘That war was such a waste. Such a mistake.’ The visitor was staring at my grandfather’s back.
‘Yes, it’s tragic,’ my grandfather repeated, quietly. I could see him gazing at a spot on the ground, the straw mat half-rolled before him.
The visitor left that day after breakfast, and I was never to see him again. My grandfather was reluctant to talk about him and would tell me only what I knew already. I did, however, learn something from Noriko.
I often accompanied her when she went shopping for groceries, and during one such outing, I asked: ‘Noriko, what was the China campaign?’
She obviously assumed I had asked an ‘education’ question, for she replied in the pleased, patient manner she adopted when I asked her such questions as where frogs went in winter. Before the outbreak of the Pacific War, she explained, the Japanese army had undertaken a campaign of some success through China. I asked her if there had been something wrong about it and for the first time she looked at me curiously. No, there had been nothing wrong about it, but there had been a lot of argument at the time. And now, some people were saying there would not have been a war if the army had not pressed on into China. I asked again if the army had been wrong to invade China. Noriko said there was nothing wrong as such, but there had been a lot of argument about it. War was not a good thing, everyone knew that now.
As the summer went on, my grandfather spent more and more time with me – so much so that he had almost ceased to work on the repairs to the damaged side of the house. With his encouragement, my interest in painting and sketching grew into a genuine enthusiasm. He would take me on day outings, and on reaching our destination, we would sit in the sunshine while I sketched with my coloured crayons. Usually, we would go somewhere far away from people – perhaps to some hill slope with tall grass and a splendid view. Or we would go to the shipyards, or the site of some new factory. Then on the tram going home, we would look through the sketches I had done that day.
Our days would still begin with my going out to the veranda to watch my grandfather exercise. But we had by then added a new feature to the morning’s routine. When my grandfather had completed his round of exercises on the mat, he would call up to me: ‘Come on then. Let’s see if you’re any tougher today.’ And I would step down from the veranda, go to his mat, and hold his kimono as he had shown me – one hand gripping the collar, the other the sleeve close to the elbow. I would then try to execute the throw he had taught me, and after several attempts would succeed in getting my grandfather onto his back. Although I realized he was allowing me to throw him, I would nonetheless be overcome with pride when he finally went over. My grandfather would see to it though that I would have to try a little harder each time before succeeding. Then one morning, however much I tried, my grandfather would not oblige by going over.
‘Come on, Ichiro, don’t give up. You’re not holding the kimono correctly, are you?’
I readjusted the grip.
‘Good. Now try again:’
I turned and tried once more.
‘Nearly. You have to put your whole hip into it. Oji is a big man. You won’t do it with just your hands.’
I tried yet again; my grandfather still would not go over. Disheartened, I let go.
‘Now, come on, Ichiro. Don’t give up so easily. Just once more. Do everything right. That’s right. There, now I’m helpless. Now throw.’
This time my grandfather gave no resistance and tumbled over my heel and onto his back. He lay on the mat with his eyes closed.
‘You let me do it,’ I said, sulkily.
My grandfather did not open his eyes. I laughed, deciding he was pretending to be dead. My grandfather still gave no response.
He opened his eyes, then noticing me, smiled. He sat up slowly, a puzzled expression on his face, and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. ‘Well, well,’ he said. ‘Now that was a proper throw.’ He touched my arm, but immediately his hand returned to the back of his neck. Then he gave a laugh and got to his feet. ‘Breakfast now.’
‘Aren’t you going to the tree?’
‘Not today. You’ve given Oji enough for one morning.’
A great sense of triumph was rising in me; for the first time, I thought, I had thrown my grandfather without his letting me.
‘I’m going to practise with the tree,’ I said.
‘No, no.’ My grandfather ushered me towards him, one hand still rubbing his neck. ‘Come and eat now. Men have to eat or they’ll lose their strength.’
It was not until the early months of autumn that I finally saw an example of my grandfather’s work. I had been helping Noriko store away some old books in the Western room at the top of the house, when I noticed protruding from a box in a cupboard, several large rolled sheets of paper. I pulled one out and unrolled it on the floor. What I had found resembled a cinema poster. I tried to examine it more closely, but it had spent so much time rolled up, I could not hold it flat without it curling. I asked Noriko to hold one end, and I moved round to hold down the other.
We both looked at the poster. It showed a samurai holding up a sword; behind him was the Japanese military flag. The picture was set against a deep red background which gave me an uneasy feeling, reminding me of the colour of wounds when I fell and injured my leg. Down one edge were bold kanji characters, of which I only recognized those reading ‘Japan’. I asked Noriko what the poster said. She was examining another section of it with interest, and read off the heading rather distractedly: ‘”No time for cowardly talking. Japan must go forward.’”
‘What is it?’
‘Something your grandfather did. A long time ago.’
‘Oji?’ I was disappointed, for I disliked the poster and I had always imagined his work to have been of a quite different nature.
‘Yes, a long time ago. See, here’s his signature in the corner.’
There was more writing towards the bottom of the sheet. Noriko turned her head and began to read.
‘What does it say?’ I asked.
She continued to read with a serious expression.
‘What does it say, Noriko?’
She released her end of the sheet, and it immediately rolled over my hand. I tried to spread it open again, but Noriko was no longer interested.
‘What does it say, Noriko?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, returning to the books. ‘It’s very old. Before the war.’
I did not persist with the matter, but resolved to find out more from my grandfather.
That evening, as usual, I went to the bathroom and called to him through the partition. There was no reply, and I called more loudly. Then I put my ear to the screen and listened. Everything inside seemed very still. The thought occurred to me that my grandfather had discovered about my seeing the poster and was angry with me. But then a fear passed through me, and I slid back the partition and looked inside.
The bathroom was filled with steam, and for a moment I could not make things out clearly. Then I saw, over by the wall, my grandfather trying to get out of his bath. I could see through the steam his elbow and shoulder, locked in an effort to heave the body out of the water. His face was bowed over, almost touching the rim of the bath. He was absolutely still, as if he could go no further and his body had locked itself. I ran to him.
My grandfather remained still. I reached out and touched him, but did so cautiously, afraid the shoulder would collapse and he would fall back into the water.
Noriko came hurrying into the room, then my grandmother. One of them pulled me aside, and they both struggled with my grandfather. Whenever I tried to help, I was told to stand away. They lifted my grandfather out of the bath with considerable difficulty, then I was ordered out of the room.
I went to my own room and listened to the commotion around the house. There were voices I did not recognize, and whenever I slid open my door and tried to step out, someone would tell me angrily to return to bed. I lay awake for a long time.
During the days that followed, I was not allowed to see my grandfather and he did not emerge from his room. A nurse came to the house each morning and would stay all day. My questions always received the same reply: my grandfather was ill, but would be all right again. It was only natural that he, like anyone else, should fall ill from time to time.
I continued each morning to get up early and go to the veranda, hoping to find my grandfather recovered and exercising again. When he did not appear, I would remain in the garden, not giving up hope, until Noriko called me in to breakfast.
Then one evening, I was told I could visit my grandfather’s room. I was warned I could see him only briefly, and when I went in, Noriko sat beside me as if she would take me away should I do anything out of place. The nurse was sat in the far corner, and there was a smell of chemicals in the room.
My grandfather was lying on his side. He smiled at me, made a small motion with his head, but said nothing. I sensed a formality about the occasion and became inhibited. In the end, I said: ‘Oji, you’re to get better soon.’
Again, he smiled, but said nothing.
‘I drew the maple tree yesterday,’ I said. ‘I brought it for you. I’ll leave it here.’
‘Let me see it,’ he said, quietly.
I held out the sketch. My grandfather took it and turned onto his back. As he did so, Noriko stirred uneasily beside me.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Well done.’
Noriko reached forward quickly and took the sketch from him.
‘Leave it here with me,’ my grandfather said. ‘It’ll help me get better.’
Noriko placed the sketch on the tatami close to him, then led me out of the room.
Weeks passed without my being allowed to see him. I still awoke each morning in the hope of finding him in the garden, but he would not be there, and my days became long and empty.
Then one morning, I was in the garden as usual, when my grandfather appeared on the veranda. He was seating himself as I ran up to him and hugged him.
‘So what have you been up to, Ichiro?’
Somewhat ashamed of my show of emotion, I composed myself and sat beside him in what I considered a manly posture.
‘Just walking around the garden,’ I said. ‘Taking the air a little before breakfast.’
‘I see.’ My grandfather’s eyes were roving around the garden, as if to study each shrub and tree. I followed his gaze. It was well into autumn by then; the sky above the wall was grey, the garden full of fallen leaves.
‘Tell me, Ichiro,’ he said, still looking at the garden. ‘What will you be when you grow up?’
I thought for a moment. ‘A policeman,’ I said.
‘A policeman?’ My grandfather turned to me and smiled. ‘Now that’s a real man’s job.’
‘I’ll need to practise hard if I want to be successful.’
‘Practise? What will you practise to become a policeman?’
‘Judo. I’ve been practising some mornings. Before breakfast.’
My grandfather’s eyes returned to the garden. ‘Indeed,’ he said, quietly. ‘A real man’s job.’
I watched my grandfather for a while. ‘Oji,’ I asked, ‘what did you want to be when you were my age?’
‘When I was your age?’ For some moments, he continued to gaze at the garden. Then he said: ‘Why, I suppose I wanted to be a painter. I don’t remember a time when I wished to be anything else.’
‘I want to be a painter too.’
‘Really? You’re very good already, Ichiro. I wasn’t as good at your age.’
‘Where are you off to?’ he called after me.
‘Oji, watch. Watch!’
I ran to the back of the garden and stood before my grandfather’s tree.
‘Yah!’ I gripped it round the trunk and heaved my hip against it. ‘Yah! Yah!’
I looked up and my grandfather was laughing. He raised both hands and applauded. I laughed also, overcome with happiness that my grandfather had been returned to me. Then I turned back to the tree and challenged it once more.
From the veranda came the sounds of my grandfather’s laughter and the clapping of his hands.
Image © Urban Gazelle