Frank Grunwald sighed as he placed two espressos on the table and squeezed into the bamboo chair that faced his colleague. Ed Wade had joined the agency a few years before, Japan being his first overseas assignment. Having arrived a couple of years earlier and remembering some of the struggles he’d had settling in to Tokyo at first, Frank had taken Ed under his wing. On their first night on the town, they discovered a shared and deep-rooted passion for jazz that sealed their friendship.
When his memo had originally come through, an electronic missive from the comparative calm of the bygone Clinton era, Frank had squared up the changes that this would mean for his settled life. Even with Columbine, Mogadishu, Iraqi no-fly zones and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the government building in Oklahoma, when viewed through the fear-laden spectacles of these times of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, it seemed like such a peaceful period in American life. Then again, as the past is lived through and the present is lived in, it’s easier to focus the memory on what was good and obliterate the bad.
Despite the sackful of change that was about to rain down on the family, a part of him was delighted at the prospect. All the greats dropped by Tokyo. Yokohama had its own Blue Note. The secret joints squirreled away down some unknown side street in the middle of nowhere were legendary to him and his band of fellow true believers.
‘You’re sounding tired, Frank’, started Ed, kicking off their traditional Saturday morning get together with a sympathetic ear. Every week they followed the same pattern – they’d meet at 10, set the wives off shopping down Omotesando, then retire to their usual café, sitting in the same seats, ordering the same drinks and talking about the same things. The mundanity of routine provided comfort and relief from the pressures of their work and the quantum shift needed in human behaviour to make their work unnecessary.
They’d kick off by getting the working week out of the way – a new development in Japanese solar power research, the latest threat to their agency from the fossil fuel lobby or a pending paper being presented at a carbon trading conference in Delhi. Once the in tray was cleared, they could get down to what really mattered. A Bill Evans reissue, lovingly remastered and with extensive liner notes, picked up in Shibuya on Wednesday evening. A newly discovered Japanese bass player, plucking pure magic from his strings and chanced upon in some Kichijoji basement dive. Who’ll be on the bill with Herbie at Big Sight this year.
Outside, the street was already in full bustle as the shadows on the paving shortened in line with the ascension of the spring sun. A light breeze murmured along the boulevard, brushing the leaves, pregnant in their green brilliance, against each other with sighs of their own.
‘Another tough week, Ed. I’m really in need of a break.’
Convinced that the dark circles under Frank’s eyes had grown larger since last weekend and aware that his boss was unlikely to get a vacation this summer due to the G8 Advisory Panel he was chairing, Ed thought it better to get the shop talk out of the way faster.
‘So how was Kyoto?’ he enquired, keen for a few scraps of good news but also hoping that Frank had followed up on his suggestion of taking a little time for himself whilst there.
Across the table, Frank knocked back the rest of his espresso and his eyes glazed over for a moment. He’d had a gruelling week running a series of workshops on environmental responsibility for US corporations operating in Asia, and rewiring DNA is hardly falling off a log.
The caffeine kicked in and the tiniest of smiles began a slow crawl across his face.
‘Stumbled across this great little joint I’d never known about before. A hot little trio…nothing but Monk tunes. Broke my heart, man, broke my heart…’ he paused for a moment to recollect the sumptuous notes coaxed out of the keys a couple of days before ‘…and made up for that damned Exxon asshole I had to deal with in the morning.’ His brow furrowed again. ‘I don’t know Ed, some people just can’t seem to comprehend what we’re facing. They just don’t get it.’
‘Well my friend, if biology decides to continue this experiment with higher intelligence, natural selection will take those fossil fuel dinosaurs out eventually.’
‘And it’s precisely that long term view that helps me hold my tongue,’ Frank replied. ‘Still, the hotel was nice.’
Ed enjoyed comparing places to stay and he was generally impressed with Japanese hotels. They had a smooth consistency in their operations and tended to work like well-oiled machines. He’d stayed in some pretty rough joints trekking round Europe after graduation so the service he got in a Japanese hotel would always remind him of having come up in the world since his earlier youth. As far as Frank was concerned, they were purely functional boxes that kept him away from sleeping next to his wife. It was unusual for him to have actually remembered this one.
‘A funny thing happened at breakfast on my second day there,’ Frank leaned in, warming Ed up for a story.
As he was usually stuck in the office during the working week, he was always keen to hear Frank’s ‘on the road’ tales from the provinces outside of the metropolis.
‘I went down for breakfast at 6.30…’ Frank went on, ‘…can’t think so clearly on an empty stomach so I went down early. I loaded my tray from the buffet – miso soup, fish, eggs, coffee, the usual kind of Western-Japanese mix, and took a seat outside with it. You remember the weather in the week?’
‘Sure. It was really warm here. There too?’
‘A glorious spring morning. Anyway, I’m chowing down my food, no-one else around, sun on my back, when this woman came onto the terrace. The staff were all scurrying around in their uniforms, seating people on the inside and clearing away the trays from the early birds who’d finished their breakfasts and gone. She was pretty well dressed in a smart business suit, and fully made up for the time of day it was. Not overdone or anything, tastefully applied an’ all that, but enough of a mask on to face the day.’
‘How old was she?’
‘From her clothes, I’d guess at mid forties, but I can never tell these things. Might have been in her fifties for all I knew. She walked past and sat on the table behind me, so we’re back to back. Now, this place is self-service, right? There’s nobody else but me on the terrace. Soon as she’s sat down, she belts out a ‘Sumimasen!’ – trying to get the waiter’s attention.’
Ed expected this to be a good story and began to pepper Frank’s tale with comments of his own. ‘Not a great move in a self-service buffet. Must have caused a scene. Anyone answer her call?’
‘Not straight away, no. There’s no one else on the terrace bar her and me anyway. She tries again, this time booming out so the staff inside will definitely hear her and asking for a beer.’
‘That’s a bit early.’
‘Just what I thought. She’s sporting a navy blue business suit, offset with gold jewellery, and I can sense a sadness in her that is not written on her face. She’s smiling to herself as her long fingers raise a Pianissimo Slim to her red lips and her gold lighter clicks open. Beer and smokes at that time of the day, she’s tougher than I am.’
‘At college I sometimes started a day like that, but sure couldn’t keep it up for the rest of it,’ sympathised Ed.
‘Right. When nobody comes out to serve her, she stands up and purposefully walks inside, cigarette dangling off her bottom lip. I’ve got my fish and eggs down at this point and am working towards the coffee to get my brain in gear for the day ahead. Trouble is, I can’t think about work ‘cause I’m trying to figure out what’s the deal with her.’
A couple of minutes later, she’s back with a large glass of beer in her hand and a big smile on her face. She sits down and knocks it back, like she was Harry Dean Stanton just outta the Texas desert.’
Shoko fumbled around in her bag a second time, to find the card that served as a key for the door of his hotel room. Had she given it to him to keep safe after all? A foolish mistake she’d not make again, if so. Junya was always forgetting things – his wallet on top of a parking lot toll machine, an umbrella under the table at a restaurant, even his own suitcase on the shinkansen. He wheezed next to her, catching his breath and not bothering to check his pockets. The alcohol had gone to both of their heads and he was more concerned with straightening out his vision so that there was only one door handle, not two or three.
The same size and shape as the business cards that littered the bottom of her purse, she eventually located it amongst them, extracted it carefully and dropped it into the awaiting slot above the handle.
A satisfying click and they were inside.
The hotel room was dark and cool. When they had gone out earlier in the evening, they had closed the curtains, left the air conditioning on cool and switched on a small table lamp in the corner to provide some subtle illumination of the room. The bedclothes were still the same highway pile-up they’d been left as earlier.
First, shoes off and left by the door. Junya had kicked his off and stumbled into the darker recesses of their hideaway from the rest of the world and the reality of the lives they usually led. Shoko took her left heel in her hand and slipped the shoe smoothly off her foot, repeating the well-worn action with the right one. She subconsciously followed the same pattern every time she removed her footwear, with the same unthinking and lilting rhythm of a river passing over the stones on its bed. Placing her shoes carefully next to each other, she did the same for the ones he’d cast off so carelessly.
As he stumbled into the room, Junya’s hand automatically found the remote control and flicked the hotel TV on. The screen showed a parade of pretty young things – actors, actresses, singers, models – on another cooking show. Their hairstyles were meticulously tousled and their expensive designer threads looked casually thrown on. Each one was enjoying their 15 seconds of passing through the spotlight’s orbit – Warhol’s maxim reduced yet further for the blip era. The pretty young things were taking it in turn to sample the delights or horrors of each others attempts at cooking a range of seafood dishes, brandishing expressions of delighted joy or cutely constrained repulsion.
As he tried to focus on the glaring box that had taken over the room, Junya struggled to figure out whether he’d already seen this show once or twice today, or if it was a new one.
Although his drunkenness caused him to lose some of his sheen, he usually cut a fairly dashing figure. A sharply chiselled jaw, hair cut in an Elvis style plus the diamond-studded cufflinks he usually sported had made him stand out from the other gentlemen when they had first met. That was two years ago, and the bar in the Gion district where the encounter had taken place was no longer in business.
Junya lived with his wife and daughter, out west in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa, although he was rarely at home. A salesman for a major electronics company, he was often out of town on business. Even when he was in Tokyo, the combination of having to work hard and entertain his clients after hours, plus his weakness for the Russian dancers that kept many of Roppongi’s ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in a steady supply of bottle blondes meant that he spent very little time with his wife and barely even knew his daughter.
Shoko was a little younger than Junya, but not by a great deal. In the 1980’s, during the ‘Bubble Era’, she and her husband Hirotaka had run a highly successful advertising agency in Osaka. As they always do, the bubble burst, the Japanese economy slumped and their agency eventually hit the skids. Hiro was utterly ashamed of what he perceived to be his failure to be successful in business, but took a different route to many of his contemporaries. He didn’t jump in front of a rush hour commuter train. Instead, he picked off one of the young company secretaries and ran off to Hokkaido with her.
To Shoko’s astonishment, she never heard from him again. Accustomed to the good life as she was, the lean years following the collapse of her former life were a great struggle to adjust to and after a few years, she slipped into hostessing. It kept her in diamond smiles and having worked in advertising, she became very good at targeting her clients exact needs. In time, she worked her way upwards through the ranks and became one of the city’s best-known Mama-sans, Kyoto being her new start to Hiro’s Hokkaido.
Junya’s exact needs had been more difficult to identify. To her, he had a mystique to his character, a faraway look in his eye that, dangerous as it probably was, attracted her. He had a notorious weakness for women, but the restless spirit that marked him out as magnetic seemed to spring from somewhere else, somewhere distant.
One thing she could be sure of, although they were both finally in the same hotel room again after another month apart, he was drunk. He’d been drinking on the train on the way in that evening already, which she’d picked up right away despite his best attempts to hide it with breath mints. He’d carried on at the restaurant, clearly drinking with a purpose. When asked over dinner whether there was anything wrong or that was troubling him, he batted her concerns away and replied how glad he was to see her. Shoko couldn’t help but notice that his hand kept loitering near his chest, fluttering as if unable to make a decision yet trying to clutch at something.
Sprawled on his back, Junya took up most of the bed. After a brief glance in the mirror whilst passing, shoes neatly aligned near the door, she gingerly sat on the edge of the bed and turned to face him. His eyelids were drooping and sporadically jerked upwards as he struggled to stay awake. Shoko tucked her legs underneath her behind, so that she was sitting on her feet. Then she reached her long fingers out and placed them on his cheek. As he drifted off, the touch of her hand on his skin produced a ripple of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
Perhaps it was the disappointment of him being in this condition after the long absense. Perhaps it was the combination of the alcohol itself and the medication that she’d been taking for recent yet chronic cases of depression that had been happening. Perhaps it was the unavoidable breaking down of some neural pathway that was on its way out. Whatever the reason, something snapped in Shoko. She grabbed his necktie in one hand and slapped him hard across the face – back and forth, once, twice, three times. Sluggishly, his eyes began to open, slow as a lizard trying to move around in the winter sun. The speed of his reaction caused her anger to rise yet further. She clenched her fists and began pummelling his chest, screaming no words yet exhaling her growing rage.
As one domino knocks down another, whatever snapped in her caused something to snap in him. His eyes shot open and his chest jerked upwards. His face wore a shocked expression and his hands jumped to clutch at his heart. Shoko was still trapped in her rage, and continued unabated. For a brief moment, Junya found his voice and implored her to stop. The first utterance had the force of an angry man, the second was the sound of a balloon gradually letting out the rest of its air, the third – Junya’s last word – barely even managed to limp out of his throat before it died on his lips.
Slumping back down again, his arched back snapped straight and his eyelids flickered for one last time before clamping shut.
Shoko had no idea that he was suffering from a fragile heart condition, he’d hidden it so well. At first, the momentum of her anger carried her rage into his state of stillness. After a while however, she realised that her actions were having no effect and the life drained from her fury. She poked at his chest, shook his shoulders and implored him to give her some kind of response. Like the sun’s slow crawl into a new day, it dawned on her that Junya had stopped breathing altogether and was dead.
The moment this realisation struck, her mind flooded – thoughts, fears, likely consequences, gushed unstoppably across her conscience. She had killed a man. Would she go to jail? What would happen when his wife found out? Why had she been so angry? Why hadn’t he told her about his condition? Would she be able to find another partner at this stage in her life? How could she get out of the hotel without being found out? Who was going to sing to her, make love to her, buy her jewellery now?
Wildly contradictory emotions battled each other. Panic arose from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat. As her body began to shake, she sidled into the corner of the room and curled into a ball.
A few hours later, shafts of sunlight stubbornly broke through the gaps in the curtains and began staking footholds on the hotel carpet, waking Shoko up to the fact that tomorrow was already here. She snapped out of the trance that had held her captive behind the armchair in the corner of the room and carefully got on her feet. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of Junya’s prostate form lying exactly where she’d left him, not yet fully cold but statue still. The bedclothes were piled up around him. What a shock that would be for the chambermaid!
Stepping into the small bathroom, she let her clothes fall to the floor and left them unfolded, an early chink in the armour. She slipped into the shower and the hot water coursed all over her body, making her skin tingle. After the shower, she rubbed herself dry, then wrapped one towel around her body and her hair in another. The morning routine followed to the note – mirror light on, sit down facing mirror, open vanity case, apply foundation, catch glimpse of corpse in background, eye make-up and lipstick, off with the first towel, underwear on…
Shoko checked her reflection in the mirror one last time. Her hair was fine, make-up perfect, smile still in place, clothes looking good, earrings matching outfit – altogether quite beautiful! She was ready for breakfast. Leaving the room exactly as it was, she removed the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign from the outside, closed the door behind her and walked off in the direction of the elevator.
Frank continued with his story.
‘So she starts calling the waiter over again. There’s some really familiar song in the background, just casually tripping out of the restaurant pa. It’s kind of jolly and sorrowful at the same time, plenty of keyboards and a little harmonica. Sounds like it’s meant to be Dylan, but I know it’s not him.’
‘She get a better response from the waiter this time?’ enquired Ed.
‘Oh, for sure. They were watching her like hawks now, only from the background. One of them came onto the terrace and over to her table. She asked him for a bottle of wine!’
Traces of the song began coming back to him and tugging away at his memory…(’it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday’)…(‘making love to his tonic and gin’)…
‘It was perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen a Japanese waiter refuse to serve somebody at breakfast. And you know how reluctant they are to turn down a customer.’
‘For sure. Was she pissed at that?’
…(‘can you play me a memory?’)…(‘not really sure how it goes’)…(‘I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes’)…
‘She seemed to pretty much accept it after a while. I heard the click of her lighter and she just settled on smoking instead. I’m sitting there, with my back to her. There’s a few other guests scattered across the terrace now too, all quietly tucking into their food.
All of a sudden, I started hearing conversation…‘Why won’t they serve us?’…‘I know it’s early, but I’d like a drink’…‘we can do that later, you bad boy!’…‘Let them look, I don’t care’…
Something was wrong though. As casually as I could manage, I turned around, pretending to stretch and also happening to catch a glimpse of this lady.’
‘So what was the deal?’ Ed enquired, picturing himself on the terrace with the sun mottling his face and the fresh smell of morning and coffee in the air.
…(‘we’re all in the mood for a melody’)…(‘you’ve got us feelin’ alright’)…
Frank paused a moment, as if for dramatic effect, knowing he had Ed’s full attention. ‘What was that damned song?’ he thought to himself. He drummed his fingers on the table for a second, stretched out his arms and then leaned in, conspiratorially.
‘I’ll tell you what the deal was, Ed. There was nobody else there. Not a soul. No-one.’
‘So she’s just talking away to herself? Schizophrenia? Imaginary friend?’
‘I don’t know, man. I was wondering the same thing myself. The strangest part for me though (…‘they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness’…) was what happened next. She’s chatting away to this imaginary friend, real bubbly and like she’s having a great time. Of course, she’s getting pretty funny looks by now – people are really staring at her (…‘but it’s better than drinking alone’…) even though she seems to be completely oblivious. Then, all of a sudden, she’s up on her feet and really laying into whoever she thinks she’s with. ‘My name is Shoko!’ she shouts, ‘not Candy, or Star, or Rosie, or Moonlight AND I WILL NOT TAKE THIS ANY MORE!!’
‘My God,’ cut in Ed ‘What a scene!’
‘I didn’t know which way to look. Next thing I know, she slams her fist down on the table – it’s one of those lightweight, round aluminium ones – and her beer glass bounces off and smashes on the terrace paving. The waiters jump into action, more concerned by the fact of the broken glass on the floor than what’s probably the biggest scene they’ve ever seen over breakfast. And she storms out!’
And at exactly that moment, the song came back into his head.
‘Billy Joel! ‘Piano Man’! Got it!’
Ed’s expression veered from the astonishment that was spread across his face at the tale of the Kyoto hotel breakfast to puzzlement at why his colleague had suddenly switched to AOR balladeers (Ed had always much preferred Tom Waits’ bar-room tales).
Yes, they were sharing a drink they called loneliness.
But it was better than drinking alone.