The moment I stepped out of the temple gate, the thick steam wafting over from the building opposite caught in my throat. I knew the source of that steam well enough: udon. The udon works was right in front of the temple where my parents’ graves were.
Tacked up to the wooden wall on the far side of the steam was a recruiting notice. Experience not required, it read, which was all well and good, but then it said, Applicants should be sixty-seven years or younger, a stipulation whose peculiar specificity bothered me. Sensing a flash of movement, I looked down to the gutter from where the steam was emanating and saw a single udon noodle go sliding by. I was quite sure that there used to be more of them in the past. It wasn’t clear to me whether the noodles were being deliberately abandoned, or if they were the casualties of sheer carelessness, but either way the number going to waste seemed to have dwindled over the years.
This narrow street separating the temple from the udon works was on the route I had once taken to school. That was back in my primary school days, a good few decades ago now. Since the death of my mother, my last surviving relative in this town, I only came to this neck of the woods to visit the family grave, which I did once every few years. Each time I returned, I was surprised to see the udon place still going.
Yet I did sense they were cutting back a bit in terms of scale, I thought to myself, walking off in the direction my legs carried me. Now that I’d started reminiscing about my school days, it struck me that I might as well walk to my old school. I’d left the temple at midday, so I still had plenty of time before the furniture would arrive at my new flat.
Even though there was nothing in particular left for me in this place I’d grown up in, I’d decided to move back. It had all started when a former colleague asked if I knew of any nice, reputable rooms for rent here. His daughter had a thing about natural farming, and was interested in moving to this considerably more rural part of the country. I had no leads on any properties whatsoever, but I wanted to be of service if I could, and I’d taken a look online only to discover that the rent for flats in this area was less than half what I was paying at the time. In the end, my colleague’s daughter did not take up natural farming: she stopped leaving her room entirely. Yet I couldn’t get the thought of living somewhere for half what I was currently spending out of my head, and before I knew it, I’d moved. As a single man living alone who’d retired at the stipulated age, there was really nothing stopping me.
I made my way down the narrow street that led from the temple to where the primary school used to be, which was just wide enough for a single car to pass through, and I spotted several surnames on the nameplates of houses which brought vague memories of old schoolmates floating to the surface of my mind, but all of these names were common to the region, and it was likely that the houses belonged to different people entirely. Not only did I have no relatives here, but it was safe to say I didn’t really know anybody in this town at all.
The streets were so quiet. In the city, you’d often catch sight of birds, but their song would be drowned out by the noise of the passing cars. In these streets of my hometown, all I could hear were my own footsteps, and the cries of the sparrows, and some caged bird kept in one of the nearby houses.
It came to me that if I turned down a certain side street, I’d get to the sushi restaurant my parents sometimes got takeaways from on special occasions, but I figured that if I attempted a visit I’d likely only end up lost, so I stuck to the route I knew. Had that restaurant managed to weather these forty-something years? Probably, I guessed, so long as there’d been someone to take over from the sushi master who was there when I was young.
My old school was still there. Not the wooden building I’d been familiar with, of course – but from what I could see, the concrete one which had replaced it was pretty similar in layout to the original. I had no idea when the reconstruction had taken place, but even this concrete number was showing signs of wear and tear. Between the gates and the entrance was a small hut-like construction, with a sign pinned to it that read Local Residents’ Protection Squad. Could I join? I wondered. Would the squad accept members without children or grandchildren?
I didn’t really feel any deep emotion towards the school, beyond a sense of satisfaction at having seen it again, but when I glanced down the little alley diagonally across from the gates and glimpsed the sea there in the distance, I gulped. Now I remembered. This was the same alley I’d gazed down on my way back from school, and at its end, the same sea.
I stood there in the middle of the crossroads for a while, staring out at the strip of sea floating at the end of the alley. Eventually, an approaching car honked its horn ostentatiously at me and snapped me back into reality, and I set off back along the road I’d come down.
Walking towards the town’s little train station, served not by the public network but a private line, I started to worry about how few amenities there were around here. How did people get by with just one convenience store? Of course I myself had once coped, back in the day. But I wanted to know if the convenience store could be relied on, so I went inside and roamed up and down the aisles. Being in the country, I’d feared its selection might be limited, but I soon realized that it was a standard convenience store with the standard array of goods, which comforted me a bit. There was a decent selection of magazines and a range of cheap DVDs, too. I’ve recently moved to this area, I said to a cashier with a bun and oversized glasses. Where can I go to buy the kinds of books that you don’t stock here? Or household tools and that sort of thing? If you go onto the highway, she informed me politely, there’s a big chain bookstore and a home store, and a supermarket as well.
As I pictured the location of my new home in my head, it came to me that the block of flats could be accessed from the highway, and I decided to switch my route so I could investigate.
As the shop assistant had promised, beside the four-lane national road was a large bookshop shaped like of a big block of tofu, a rectangular two-storey home store painted a dull shade of blue, and, beside it, a one-storey supermarket that seemed pretty spacious. They looked rather out of place in this area, where all the other buildings were so diminutive and flat. Perhaps as the result of some kind of financial arrangement, the supermarket and the home store shared a car park, which had a fast-food chain and an all-you-can-eat Korean barbeque restaurant perched in the corner.
Otherwise, there was basically nothing there. Lining the sides of the highway with its meagre scattering of cars were fields, houses, a great big billboard advertising termite extermination, a great big billboard advertising a cash loan hotline, a great big billboard advertising flats for sale, and so on. All the billboards were noticeably enormous. That was proof of how much space there was in this part of the country. Had the house I’d grown up in had a termite problem? I wondered about this as I walked down one side of the highway, pulling out my smartphone to check my whereabouts on the map before turning down the road that led to the coast, where my new flat was. Now that I was getting further from the station there seemed to be more fields around. Not as many as when I’d been growing up, for sure, but the fact that at least half of them had survived came as a shock.
I walked along the side of an onion field facing the highway, heading for the ground floor of the two-storey block midway down the road to the sea. Going by rent alone, there was no end of flats in the area that I could have selected, and my sole reason for choosing this one over any of the others was that it was near the house I’d grown up in. And yet when I arrived, I saw that the place as it existed in my memory didn’t quite match up with the place as it actually was. Cocking my head in bemusement, I stuck the key that the estate agent had given me into the keyhole.
There’d been a water tower, it came to me suddenly. I couldn’t for the life of me remember where, but it was somewhere around here. In the middle of a field, perhaps, or standing in the grounds of somebody’s house. It had been a lovely shade of – I don’t know if you would call it cyan or pale aqua or what – but in any case it was a beautiful shade of light greenish-blue, and there was something about the grandeur of its presence, how it stood taller even than the school, which had captivated me. Whenever I played around with friends outside, I’d steal glances in its direction when they weren’t looking. The truth is, I didn’t know it was a water tower until later, once I’d grown up. It was with the vague notion that I wanted to build things like that tower that I found myself a job at a construction company with strong connections to the water industry.
I opened the door to my flat and was just about to step inside when I heard a voice at my back. Um, excuse me? said the voice. It belonged to a middle-aged woman with a surly expression who looked to be just a few years younger than me. I’m the caretaker here, she said, and, pointing towards the garage, went on: A parcel’s arrived for you, will you deal with it please? I looked in the direction she indicated, and sure enough I saw the box that she meant: not that deep, but of considerable height and width. I made out the name of the company printed on the box, and hurried towards it, my heart fluttering a little.
The cross bike I’d ordered online had arrived early. She could have sent the courier away, the caretaker told me, but he’d begged her not to make him redeliver such a big parcel, and because she knew the person who ran the company, she’d agreed to sign for it on my behalf. This really is the countryside, I thought to myself as I listened to her story. When you know the person who runs the delivery company, you know you’re in the countryside.
I’d be grateful if you opened it right away, she said, and before I could really think I was saying, Then I’d be grateful if you lent me a box-cutter. She retreated into her room, and emerged with a barber’s razor saying: This’ll do, won’t it?
The large, flat cardboard parcel was bound together with huge copper staples, and it took some doing to get it open. What is that thing, anyway? asked the caretaker, coming up behind me. It’s a bike, I answered. Why would you go and order something like that? she asked as she mounted the enormous piece of discarded cardboard and folded it in half. That didn’t make it much less bulky, though, so I scored some slits into it with the razor, and somehow managed to fold it into smaller pieces.
Someone I knew from my previous workplace took up cycling and he gave me the idea, I told her. He was always saying how much he enjoyed it. As I spoke, I recalled the conversation we’d had at my leaving party. The guy in question was younger than I was but still over forty, and after being diagnosed with hyperlipidemia, he told me, he’d taken up exercise.
You’re a strange one, you are, the caretaker said, shaking her head as she picked up the strips of bubble wrap that had been encasing the bicycle, winding them round and round into a ball. The person living in your flat before you was a strange one too. And she lived on her own, like you.
I couldn’t figure out if the caretaker was a real busybody or if she just had a lot of spare time on her hands, but either way, she stood there chatting away as I divested my bicycle of its myriad pieces of packaging.
She was an elderly woman, the caretaker went on, by the name of Noyo. See, even her name was strange! Apparently she’d been in love with some childhood friend of hers. He was a few years older than her, but he went off to war and never came back and she refused to marry anyone else. She worked selling insurance, made it as far as the head of the branch, if memory serves me right.
Noyo had moved to the area after retiring, the caretaker went on to say, and found herself a job in the clothes alterations kiosk at the local supermarket, where she’d worked right up until the day she died of heart failure. Before Noyo’s death the caretaker had been wary of her, figuring that she was exactly the type of person to die unnoticed in her flat and go undiscovered for months. In the end, the person to find her body was a young colleague of hers from the alteration kiosk.
Noyo, it turned out, had forever been telling people at work that if she ever failed to turn up to the kiosk without giving any notice, they were to go over to check on her. For that reason, she would always inform them if she couldn’t make it into work, and had taught herself how to use a mobile phone in the case of an emergency. The young woman who’d turned up at Noyo’s flat had called her, and she didn’t pick up. So I just came over, she had said with a shrug.
Noyo’s will had been easy to find, and disposing of her personal affairs was simple enough. She’d instructed that half of her money should go to distant relatives living in another part of the country, and the other half to the closest orphanage.
The caretaker spoke in such detail that I had to wonder if she should be revealing so much to me, given I’d never even met this person, but I supposed she’d decided that it was all right, since the subject in question was dead and had no relatives. As it happened, I already knew from the estate agent that the previous tenant had passed away in the flat. Would the caretaker talk about me in the same way to the next person, if something happened to me? Well, I thought, so be it.
The only thing is, the caretaker went on, she had this pet turtle which has proved a real headache. She only got it a couple of months before she died, see, so it wasn’t mentioned in the will. I’m keeping it in my room for the moment, would you like to see it? But knowing that my furniture would be arriving at any moment, and that afterwards I wanted to take my cross bike for a spin, I declined and said I’d leave the turtle-viewing for another time.
Before you go, there’s something I want to ask you, the caretaker said, folding her arms across her chest and looking straight at me. How is it that people like Noyo and you can stand to be all on your own? I looked down at the caretaker’s left hand, verifying the presence of a ring on her wedding finger, and then shrugged. I guess I’ve always been busy, I said. But there are plenty of busy people who aren’t single, the caretaker replied. I was busy and I was never very good at any of that stuff, I said, and then I walked into my room cradling large amounts of cardboard and packaging.
As I consigned the rubbish into the corner of the kitchen, my mind traced its way along the path which had led me to where I was now, the path I so rarely thought of. I realized soon enough that there was a reason that I so rarely thought of it, and stopped – though not before I’d had time to recall the woman of twenty-eight my boss had introduced me to back when I was the same age, who’d said I was ‘too vacant’. And the woman five years younger than me I’d been intending to marry at thirty-five, who had turned out to already be married, and had returned in the end to her emotionally blackmailing husband. And the woman ten years younger who I’d met at forty-five, who’d broken it off because of her concern about the perils of childbirth. At work, I’d found myself being sent all around the country in place of the married folk whose families prevented them from being posted to far-flung places, and occasionally I would get friendly with women in one of those various locations, but usually, whenever it looked like things might be going somewhere, I’d be called back to head office.
It wasn’t that I wanted to stay single and carefree. Somehow things never quite went my way, and I wasn’t ever able to plunge myself headlong into anything. I regret that, I really do. The reason that people need family and children is that without duty, life just feels long and flat. The simple repetitiveness becomes too much to bear.
But those thoughts vanished into the ether with the arrival of the moving company. The furniture they’d brought from my previous flat consisted of a fridge, a washing machine, a futon, a single chair, and two storage boxes for clothes. Everything else I planned to order online. You must have a sea view from out there, the youngest-looking of the movers said, pointing to a back-room window whose storm shutters were still down. By the time I collected myself and replied, Oh really?, the kid had already finished putting on his shoes in the entranceway.
I decided to leave the furniture and the sea for the moment, and went back down into the garage to mess around with the cross bike. A clear plastic pouch housed the instruction manual and an Allen key, which I gathered was used to turn the handlebars that had been rotated to one side in order to fit the bike in the box, as well as to adjust the height of the saddle and so on. I stood to the left of the bicycle as I adjusted the angle of the handlebars, closing each eye in turn, blinking several times, and tilting my body from side to side to check that they were really straight. According to the manual, the part between the handlebars and the frame I’d been adjusting was called the ‘stem’. I’d learned something, I thought to myself.
I went back to my room to pick up my rucksack, packed it with my wallet and the new chain lock that I’d ordered online along with the bike, and set out. Compared to the city bikes I’d ridden before, the ‘top tube’ – another new word from the manual – was much higher, and I had a hard time straddling it and perching on the saddle. After a while I realized that I needed to place my feet on the pedals before trying to sit down. Once I’d figured that out, I managed to set forth in relative comfort, pitching gently from side to side as I went.
Beer, beer, beer, sounded the voice inside my head. My body felt lighter. A bike is not like a car. On a bike you feel the speed right there on your skin.
Under a gazebo in the corner of a field was an unmanned stall selling homemade pickles. Unable to resist, I stopped my bike and bought a bag of pickled aubergines and a whole pickled daikon. The money went into a small square wooden box at the side of the stall.
Then I set off in the direction of the supermarket once again, the beer, beer, beer chant growing ever stronger. There were very few bikes in the rack. My gaze was drawn to the abnormally chunky blue mountain bike chained up to one side, and before I knew it, I found myself pulling in alongside it. My bike was also blue, as it happened, but compared to that mountain bike it looked like a little boy’s. The round, white-on-black logo didn’t help.
The chorus of beer, beer, beer was now so commanding I couldn’t think of anything else. Inside the supermarket I made a beeline for the alcohol section, picked up a well-chilled six pack of amber Yebisu, marched over to the till, and left again. I’m forgetting something I thought, cocking my head, but of late I’d given up hating myself for being unable to remember things, and so I simply told myself that whatever it was, I’d come back for it when I remembered. With that, I made my way to the bike rack, where I came across the owner of the mountain bike studiously removing the chain and the other bits of his lock. He was kitted out even more seriously than I’d envisaged: a black helmet, black sunglasses and a black lycra outfit. As I stood watching him, whistling internally in awe, the petite, wiry-looking man raised his tanned face. He was almost certainly older than me, I saw, the kind of age that made him unequivocally an old man. With his long grey-streaked hair tied at his neck and his sunglasses, there was something pretty intimidating about him.
Thinking it wouldn’t do to keep ogling him I averted my eyes, just as he said: That’s a great bike you’ve got!
Oh no, I said, taken aback. No, it’s nothing on yours, this is just a cross bike I bought for 50,000 yen online, it’s not a patch on what you’ve got there, I said, indicating his mountain bike sheepishly.
A cross bike is perfect for this area though, he said. The roads are really not in great condition.
He had a slight accent – it sounded like he was from the south, maybe Kyushu. The accent went a long way to soften the ridiculously professional look created by his cycle gear.
At first I was planning to get a road bike, I said, but I thought I’d try this out for a year and see how it goes.
I used to ride a road bike too, he said, but the roads here are surprisingly uneven and I was forever getting punctures. That’s why I switched over to this one, but now the rear hub is quite heavy, and I get tired quickly.
Right, I said, though in my head I was thinking: rear hub, you say? I resolved to look up what that was when I got home.
I’ll see you around, the man said, raising a hand and cycling away. He cut a dashing figure, that was for sure. I stood watching him until he left the car park, then zipped the six-pack into my rucksack and cycled back along the highway to my new home.
Dusk was falling. I had the faint sense that it came earlier here than in the flat I was living in before. My head was a lot clearer now that I’d bought the beer, and I recalled something else I’d meant to buy: turtle food. There was another thing as well though, which I still couldn’t remember.
I parked my bike in the rack for the block of flats, and pressed the buzzer for the caretaker. I’ll take the turtle, I told her when she emerged. Oh will you, she said, nodding blankly, and then came out carrying the small tank. I’ve got a box of food, she told me, so I’ll bring that round later. But what made you decide to take it? This woman questions everything, I thought to myself, somewhat incredulously. In a flash of inspiration, I said that I’d seen Aki Takejo talking about keeping turtles on some TV programme a while back, and had been wanting one ever since. Hah, the caretaker laughed darkly.
Back inside my room, I unzipped my rucksack and took out the Yebisu and the bagged pickles. Ah! I exclaimed, striking myself on the forehead, I should have bought kitchen stuff. Setting one can of beer and the aubergine pickles aside, I transferred the rest of the stuff to the fridge. I rinsed my hands, put the pickles and the beer on the chair, which I carried into the back room, and then opened the storm shutters. Just as the guy from the moving company had said, there was indeed a sea view from the balcony. The sea was mottled with the light of the setting sun.
I carried the turtle tank out onto the balcony, washed my hands again, and took the beer and the bag of pickled aubergine off the chair. I’d been planning to take the chair into the back room and drink the beer there, but I decided to move it out onto the balcony instead.
Outside, the sea moved a little closer. I breathed in. The smell! There were probably too many impurities mixed in to really call it ‘the smell of the sea’, but it still seemed to me like the same smell I’d breathed as a kid.
And there in the distance, to one side of the balcony, was the water tower I’d been looking for. It was curious that I hadn’t been able to see it from the highway, but I supposed this block of flats must have blocked it from view. There it stood in the middle of the field, delicately assembled of slender metal bones. There was an onion-drying shed nearby, and a wooden gazebo, which I guessed the farmers used as a resting spot.
I popped the tab on the can of beer and raised it to my lips. It tasted so good it was like all the cells in my body trembled in appreciation.
I’ve come home, I thought. Home to this scenery, to all these things I used to look at.
As I raised the beer to my lips a second time, the turtle in the tank moved, and I heard a faint scrape of gravel. The only other sound was that of the wind blowing.
I opened up the bag and took a bite of one of the pickled aubergines. Then I remembered the other thing I’d forgotten to get. Resume templates, so I could apply for the job at the udon works in front of the temple.
Tomorrow, I decided, I’d go to the supermarket and buy the templates. I’d cycle there – in the morning this time. I was pretty sure that would feel great.
Copyright © Kikuko Tsumura 2016
Photograph © Terence Mangram