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TOKYO FLASH FICTION - ONE PHOTO, ONE STORY - Issue #10

Alex Lund
Alex Lund
Hi there,
Hope you’re doing well!
A bit of a heat wave here in Tokyo, but it sure beats the rainy season!
This story is about finding your creativity…and a bit more. Hope you enjoy it and have a great day!
Alex

Shibuya
Shibuya
THE GUARDMAN
No thank-you speeches. No flower bouquets. Nothing at all. My career of forty-seven years ended just like any other day.
 
As I walked away from my post at one of the giant construction sites in Shibuya, where I had just completed my final term guiding trucks and deliveries in and out, a wave of emotions washed over me; relief, sadness, and maybe more than anything, a sense of emptiness.
 
It was late afternoon on a Friday in Shibuya, which normally would have been swarming with people in spite of the merciless summer heat, hadn’t it been for the pandemic.
 
“It is what it is…” I mumbled, taking some comfort in the fact that at least I had a little bit of pension that I could live on, and I didn’t care for flowers anyway.
 
I continued towards Shibuya Station, passing through my favorite drinking quarters, Nombei-Yokocho, two shanty rows of old barrack-like buildings packed with little bars and restaurants with room for no more than a handful of guests each, where I had spent countless nights drinking away and making plans for the future with my fellow contract workers – my particular plans always being the grandest - all of us believing that our current job was nothing but a temporary gig, a stepping-stone on our way to the real thing.
 
But somehow that real thing never came, at least not for me, and here I was, a sixty-five year old man, healthy but lonely, on my way home with a completely open schedule the following day…in fact all following days!
 
“Temporarily closed due to Covid-19,” it said on most of the little doors that I passed, except for a few joints that looked like they were either being renovated, or had shut down for good.
 
I took out my towel and wiped the sweat off my face and neck as I passed the very last restaurant on the corner, which I noted looked fresher than the other ones, clearly having just changed owners. It was dim inside, but I heard the sound of someone moving around as I peeked through the half-open door.
 
“Yoshida!” I suddenly burst out as I laid eyes on a short, overweight man, wearing a crisp, white, doubled-buttoned chef’s jacket looking so neat and proper that he could have easily passed as the head chef at some five-star restaurant in Ginza as I had seen them appear on TV.
 
The man stared at me with wide eyes, putting his left hand to his forehead, but his open mouth failed to produce any words.
 
“Kato!” he finally exclaimed, quickly adding, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you.”
 
There was something in his eyes that left me with a feeling that he had in fact pretended not to recognize me, but realized halfway through his act that he wouldn’t be able to get away with it.
 
You didn’t recognize me? That’s what I should be saying. Look at you!” I replied, putting my fists on my hips as my eyes examined the unusual appearance of my former colleague of many years.
 
“So this is what you’ve been up to since you suddenly quit, eh? You should have told me,” I continued, stepping inside the compact space which consisted of a blue bar counter hardly visible under stacks of various vegetables lined up on top of it, behind which Kato, my junior by five years, was standing. Next to him was a little gas cooking stove, a rice cooker, a small fridge, and behind him some newly painted blue shelves full of glasses and plates, more than enough for the five guests there was space for along the counter.
 
“I thought I mentioned it…” Yoshida replied, moving a tomato from one tray to another, avoiding my gaze.
 
“I had no idea! And I didn’t know you had a thing for blue?” I continued, looking around.
 
“Well, there is some red and white, too,” Yoshida said softly, pointing at the wall behind me decorated with photos of Paris in thick red and white frames. “You know, French cuisine…I mean food,” he added almost timidly, as if to avoid sounding pretentious.
 
I broke into laughter at Yoshida’s ambitions, my mind automatically jumping to the conclusion that his new venture was bound to fail. Having worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Yoshida at the same dirty construction site just up until half a year earlier, and before that shared countless similar postings with him around Tokyo for years, my mind was unable to focus on anything but the ridiculousness of this stocky, almost bald man who had always struggled even to arrive on time - let alone directing trucks to the right zones inside the premises - was now in my eyes trying to pretend he was some celebrated French restaurateur all of a sudden.
 
I noticed Yoshida got on the defensive, surely expecting more of my raw sarcasm, my biggest flaw according to my long-gone mother, believing it to be the reason I had been unable to make any real friends back in school, although I had always assured her everyone thought I was the funniest guy in my class.
 
I fired off a few more questions at Yoshida about how he expected to get off to a decent start right in the middle of a pandemic, and how someone like him, who had as far as I knew only taken some evening cooking classes, expected to gain any traction in the notoriously competitive Nombei-Yokocho, packed with little restaurants and bars that had built up a steady base of repeat customers over the years, Yoshida and myself included for a few of them. He just nodded and mumbled something about hoping to get support from the other more experienced chefs, and that he would be happy if he just managed to scrape by in the beginning while learning from his mistakes.
 
Feeling even more convinced after our short conversation that he was destined for failure and would soon be back at the construction sites, I added almost triumphantly, “Well, today was my last day at the site. I’ll be going on to something big now.”
 
“What are you going to do?” Yoshida asked, looking up at me with both curiosity and also what I interpreted to be doubt in his eyes, which annoyed me.
 
“Ha! Don’t you worry about me!” I said confidently, adding in a scoffing tone, “Well, good luck then I guess…maybe I’ll stop by some time.”
 
I walked out with a wide grin on my face, for some reason feeling reinvigorated by Yoshida’s naivety to pour whatever meagre savings he had managed to put away over the years into such a ridiculous project.
 
An hour later I walked up the creaky staircase leading to the entrance of my six tatami straw mat apartment, my home for over four decades that I had initially considered just a temporary pad.
 
As soon as I opened the door, a wall of heat and humidity hit me as I cursed myself remembering I still hadn’t been able to put away enough cash to get my air conditioner fixed. I left the door wide open and also slid open my only window facing nothing but the dirty, oily wall of the yakiniku joint next door, well aware that the odor of barbecued meat was the price I had to pay for a slight breeze. I then took off my blue uniform for the last time and sat down on the tatami mat wearing only my underwear.
 
As I sat there panting and wiping sweat off my face, my thoughts went to Yoshida, and I started wondering why our brief encounter had left me in such a good mood. Why was I taking pleasure in my conviction that he was destined to fail? After all, wasn’t Yoshida my friend, or at least one of the few persons in my life that I had managed to come relatively close to? Why didn’t I have it in my heart to feel happy for him now that he had finally gathered courage to follow his passion?
 
Was it perhaps jealousy that had prevented me from encouraging him and instead made me go off on one of my usual sarcastic rants? I forced the thought out of my mind - I certainly had no reason to be jealous of somebody like Yoshida!
 
As I was about to reach for the TV remote control, my eyes fell on a pile of old sketchbooks that I hadn’t touched for ages, almost hidden in a corner behind a stack of newspapers. It was the one place where I never allowed my glance to linger, but now, for some reason, I found my hand reaching out, grabbing the one at the top and putting it carefully on my lap.
 
“April 7, 1996,” it said at the front in my own bold letters.
 
“Over twenty-five years ago…” I said out loud, as if to let the dusty black and yellow checkered sketchbook know that I was about to open it. I turned over the hard cover page, feeling my heart beating faster as a strange sense of embarrassment came over me when I found myself staring into the warm, black eyes of a woman; beautiful, but looking somewhat distracted or uninterested in the beholder. There was a large, bold cross in black crayon over her face, the thick lines having been drawn with such force that it had ripped through part of the paper.
 
I quickly turned the page, not wanting my mind to travel back to the time when the love of my life had rejected me, the despair that followed having directed my hand to produce the cross.
 
Another face looked at me, this time that of an old, tired man with an empty stare that seemed to be asking me what the point was of even making the effort of depicting him. I knew the face belonged to my father, but I had no recollection of ever having attempted to draw him. There was no cross over his face, but the drawing was incomplete; he had no mouth and his blank gaze communicated a complete lack of interest in the holder of the crayon. I shook my head slowly and turned the page, knowing it was meaningless to ponder any further.
 
I continued flicking through the pages of mostly half-hearted attempts, aborted in frustration that felt so real and profound even now that I sometimes had to look away, each sketch serving as a painful reminder of how I had struggled to find satisfaction in expressing myself on the canvas. It was as if a giant wave of hopelessness – the toils of adulthood maybe - had drowned any joy I felt when drawing as a kid, that I was unable to recreate in spite of knowing deep inside that I had the ability; art being the only subject at school that I had consistently excelled at. What was it that I had as a child that I wasn’t able to bring back as an artist in my older age? Innocence and purity not yet tinted by the troubles of dealing with other grown-ups? But shouldn’t artists get better with age as they develop their technique? I had no answer.
 
I continued turning the pages and then suddenly stopped. A blank page stared at me as if it was saying cockily, “Oh yeah? So you think you can do any better now? Try me!”
 
I closed my eyes for a moment as if to dodge the question, but as I did, for some reason a vision of Yoshida’s face appeared in my mind as he stood there hunched over his bar counter with his full attention fixed on a knife in his right hand cutting a long cucumber at a speed and precision unmatched, like a professional who wasn’t going to let anything come between him and his mission.
 
I opened my eyes again and to my surprise watched as my hand picked up an old crayon from the floor and then started moving with swift strokes, almost without my own direction, over the white paper which seemed to want to repel the mere intrusion of gray on its shiny, white surface. It was as if my hand was fighting a battle against an enemy from the past, trying to conquer its old nemesis, as sweat started dripping from my chin.
 
In what must have been only a few minutes, Yoshida appeared on the sheet in front of me. He wasn’t bent down anymore, though, but was staring straight at me with a wide smile on his face, as if he was fully enjoying being the object of my sudden creativity. It was as if he was saying to me, “See, it wasn’t so hard after all, was it?”
 
Yoshida’s smile was infectious, and the next moment I found myself breaking into laughter remembering the good times we had had in the past as drinking buddies, only to be abruptly brought back to reality by unforgiving feelings of guilt for the way I had treated him earlier in the day.
 
Unable to face Yoshida’s gaze any longer, I hurriedly turned to the next fresh page. My hand started moving again, this time with unwavering determination, and gradually a new version of Yoshida started to take shape. I must have been sitting there for at least an hour since I didn’t even notice that it was dark outside when I finally put down the drawing on the table, this time complete with details and in full color depicting Yoshida so vividly that it almost felt as he was there in the room with me.
 
“Already eight-thirty!” I exclaimed after a glance at the clock on the wall, quickly got dressed, grabbed the sketchbook and rushed out. As soon as I returned home again from the only store selling frames in my neighborhood, I immediately went to work, cutting the sides of the canvas and neatly putting it inside a thick, white frame.
 
When I arrived at Nombei Yokocho the next afternoon and peeked inside Yoshida’s place, he was wearing the same attire and seemed like he hadn’t moved since the previous day, hunched over the bar counter chopping vegetables.
 
“Excuse me,” I said, knocking lightly on the side of the door.
 
He looked up in surprise, but before I gave him a chance to speak, suspecting I would not receive any warm words of welcome, I stepped inside, unwrapped the framed picture and held it up under the light so that he could clearly see it.
 
Yoshida was not a person of grand gestures and bravado - according to himself the prime reason that he, too, was still single – but he dropped his knife, covered his mouth with both hands, and just stared at what was as close to a mirror image of himself as I was able to produce from my memory of when I laid eyes on him the previous day; the image of a dedicated professional in the midst of carrying out his craft.
 
“Sorry for the way I…behaved yesterday,” I said, almost stuttering, this being the first time I could recall ever offering a genuine apology to anyone, but deep in my heart I knew I wanted Yoshida’s forgiveness.
 
I cleared my throat and continued, as Yoshida just kept staring at the picture in silence, “Well, I thought maybe you could find a place for it here on the wall…”
 
Yoshida’s eyes seemed to systematically work their way across every detail of the drawing, until he finally said in a voice thick with emotion, “You drew this?”
 
I nodded and said with a somewhat strained smile, “Thank you for helping me find inspiration again.”
 
“If you only knew how much this meant to me…” I added, knowing he probably wouldn’t understand.
 
Just as Yoshida was about to say something else, a middle-aged couple entered, and immediately he bowed to them and invited them to sit down.
 
“Sorry Kato, I’m fully booked tonight, but why don’t you come by again tomorrow?” he said, looking at me with a guilty smile. “I’ll cook up something good…I mean if you like French food?” he added.
 
I returned his smile and said, “You can count on that!”
 
I walked out and steered my steps towards the station. When I looked back, I was surprised to see Yoshida standing outside seeing me off, and when our eyes met, he bowed deeply to me. I made a full stop and returned his bow, and then gave him a thumbs-up before I turned the corner, noticing a warm smile spread across his face.
 
I had one more important stop to make; an art supply store in Shibuya that I used to visit in my youth, to buy a proper stand, a few canvases, and a set of new crayons, well aware that the investment would put my budget in the red and delay the repair of my air conditioner until my first pension payout.
 
“The life of a struggling artist!” I said to myself, smiling as I headed home.
 
THE END
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Alex Lund
Alex Lund @AlexLundAuthor

TOKYO FLASH FICTION - ONE PHOTO, ONE STORY

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