he cherry blossoms were suddenly there. Magic, frothing and bubbling and there just above our heads filling the air with color too delicate for words like "pink" or "white." How had such grim trees created something so otherworldly in a backstreet with no agreed-upon name? An annual miracle, beyond my understanding.
It was a morning for Ella Fitzgerald. There are fine things in the world, after all. Dignity, refinement, warmth, and humor, where you'd never expect to find them. Even as an old woman, an amputee in a wheelchair, Ella sang like a girl who could still be in high school, falling in love for the first time.
The phone rang. "It's Takeshi."
"Hi, boss. Are you having a good day?"
"I am not having a good day. I'm having a very bad day."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"I am a fool. A bloody fool. A bloody, bloody fool. Why do men do this?" He was drunk, and me still on my morning tea. "Where does this impulse come from, Satoru? Tell me!" Like I knew but was refusing to grant him enlightenment. "A sticky wrestle in an anonymous bedroom, a few bite marks, about three seconds' worth of orgasm if you're lucky, a pleasant drowse for thirty minutes, and when you come to you suddenly realize you've become a lecherous, Iying sleazebag who's flushing several million sperm and six years of marriage down the toilet. Why are we programmed to do this? Why?"
I couldn't think of an answer that was both honest and consoling. So I went for honesty. "No idea."
Takeshi told the same story three times in a loop. "My wife dropped by to pick me up for lunch. We were going to go out, talk things over, maybe sort things out.... I'd bought her some flowers, she'd bought me a new striped jacket she'd seen somewhere. Hopelessly uncool, of course, but she remembered my size. It was a peace pipe. We were just leaving when she went to the bathroom and what did she find?"
I almost said "a nurse's corpse," but thought better of it. "What?"
"Her bag. And dressing gown. The nurse's. And the message she'd written to me, in lipstick. On the inside of the mirror."
"What was the message?"
I heard ice cubes crack as Takeshi poured himself another drink. "None of your business. But when my wife read it she calmly walked back into the living room, poured vodka on the jacket, set it alight, and left. The jacket shriveled up and melted."
"The power of the written word."
"Damn it, Satoru, I wish I was your age again. It was all so bloody simple back then! What have I done? Where does this myth come from?"
"The one that plagues all men. The one that says a life without darkness and sex and mystery is only half a life. Why? And it was hardly like I'd been rooting Miss Celestial Beauty Incarnate. She was just some stupid slag of a nurse.... Why?"
I'm only nineteen. Graduated from high school last year. I don't know.
It was all pretty pathetic to listen to. Luckily at that moment Mama-san and Taro came in so I could leave Takeshi's unanswerable questions unanswered.
If Mama-san were a bird she would be a kind, white crow.
Taro would not be a bird. Taro would be a tank. For decades, long before I was on the scene, he has escorted Mama-san everywhere. Their relationship has depths to it that I've certainly never sussed. I've seen old photos of them from the sixties and seventies. They were a beautiful couple, in their way. Now they make me think of a frail mistress and a faithful bulldog. Taro, the rumors go, used to do odd jobs for the yakuza in his youth. Debt collection, and suchlike. He still has some versatile friends in that world, which is very useful when it comes to paying protection money on The Wild Orchid. Mama-san gets a sixty percent discount. Another of those friends with connections at city hall managed to obtain my full Japanese citizenship.
Mama-san brought me my lunch box. "I know you overslept this morning," she crackled, "because of all the bloody racket."
"Sorry. What time did the last guests leave last night?"
"The Mitsubishi men: 3:30 A.M., or so... One of them has a real thing for Yumi-chan. He insisted on a date next Saturday."
"What did Yumi-chan say?"
"The Mitsubishi men pay on time. They have a whacking entertainment budget they need to use up every month. I promised her a new outfit from somewhere plush if she said yes. Besides, the man's married, so it won't get complicated."
"Go out with Koji last night?" Taro cased the joint like a bodyguard looking for escape routes.
"Yes. I drank a bit too much. That's why I overslept."
Taro guffawed. "He's a good lad, that Koji. He's got his shit together. Meet any chicks?"
"Only ones who want to know whether your sports car has tinted windows."
Taro harrumphed. "Brains aren't everything in a woman. Ayaka was saying only this morning, a lad your age should be stoking the poker more, it's not healthy to--"
"Taro, put Satoru down." Mama-san smiled at me contentedly. "Aren't the cherry blossoms outside a picture? Taro's taking me on a shopping expedition, and then we're going to see the blossoms in Ueno Park. Mrs. Nakamori's girls have invited ours along to a cherry-blossom party this afternoon, so we're going along to make sure they don't get up to too much mischief. Oh yes. That reminds me. Mrs. Nakamori asked if you and Koji might be free to play in their cocktail lounge next Sunday. Apparently the trombonist in their regular band was involved in some sort of accident involving a bent pipe and some zoo animals. I thought it best not to pry. The poor man isn't going to be able to unbend his arm until June, so the band has had to cancel their fixtures. I told Mrs. Nakamori that I wasn't sure when Koji started back at college. Maybe you could give her a ring today or tomorrow? Come along now, Taro. We must be off."
Taro picked up the book I was reading. "What's this? Madame Bovary, eh? That French geezer? Wouldn't you credit it, Mama-san? We couldn't get him to study for six years of education, now he's reading on the job." He read out a bit I'd underlined: "'One should be wary of touching one's idols, for the gilt comes off on one's fingers.'" He thought about it for a moment. "Funny things, books. Yes, Mama-san. We'd better go."
"Thanks for bringing my lunch."
Mama-san nodded. "Ayaka made it. It's broiled eel. She knows how much you like it. Remember to thank her later. Good-bye now."
The sky was brightening up. I ate my boxed lunch, wishing I was in Ueno Park too. Mama-san's girls are fun. They treat me like a kid brother. They would have spread out a big blanket under a tree and would be singing old tunes with made-up words. I've seen foreigners get drunk in bars out in Shibuya and places, and they turn into animals. Japanese people never do that. The men might get friskier, but never violent. Alcohol lets off steam for Japanese. For foreigners, alcohol just seems to build steam up. And they kiss in public, too! I've seen them stick their tongues in and grope the girl's breasts. In bars, where everyone can see! I can never get over that. Mama-san always tells Taro to tell them we're full, or else she stings them for such a whopping cover charge that they never come back.
The disc finished. I ate the last morsel of broiled eel, rice, and pickle. Ayaka knew how to make a good boxed lunch.
My back hurt. I'm too young for my back to hurt. This chair has become really uncomfortable lately; I can't sit still. When Takeshi gets over his present financial crisis I'll ask him about gett ing a new one. Looks like I'll have to wait a long time, though. I wondered what to play next. I burrowed through a box full of unsorted discs that Takeshi had left on the floor behind the counter, but there was nothing I didn't already know. Surely I could find something. We have twelve thousand discs in stock. I realized I was scared of not needing music any more.
It turned out to be quite a busy afternoon. A lot of browsers, but a lot of buyers too. Seven o'clock came round quickly. I cashed up, put the takings in the safe in the tiny office, set the alarm and locked the office door. Put my lunch box and Madame Bovary in my bag, a Benny Goodman CD that I was going to borrow that night--a perk of the job--flicked off the lights, and locked the door.
I was outside rolling down the shutter when I heard the phone ringing inside. Damn! My first impulse was to pretend I hadn't heard it, but then I knew that I'd be spending the whole evening wondering who had been trying to ring. I'd probably have to start phoning around to people just to see if they'd phoned me, and if I did that I'd have to explain why I hadn't answered in the first place.... Damn it. It would be easier just to open up the shop again and answer it.
I've thought about it many times since: if that phone hadn't rung at that moment, and if I hadn't taken the decision to go back and answer it, then everything that happened afterwards wouldn't have happened.
An unknown voice. Soft, worried. "It's Quasar. The dog needs to fed!"
Excuse me? I listened for more. The static hiss sounded like the crashing of waves, or could it be the noise of a pachinko arcade? I didn't say anything--it's best not to encourage these crank callers. There was nothing more. As though he was waiting for something. So I waited a little longer, and then I hung up, puzzled. Oh well.
I had my back to the door when it opened. The bell jingled, and I thought, "Oh no, let me out of here!" I turned around, and when I looked up I almost fell backwards over a limited edition box set of Lester Young. The floor of Takeshi's Jazz Hole swelled.
It's you! Peering into the dimness of my place.
She was speaking to me. She was actually here. She'd come back alone. I'd imagined this scene so many times in my head, but each time it was I who started things. I almost didn't catch what she was saying. She'd actually come back!
"Are you still open?"
"You don't seem very open. The lights are off."
"--yes! Erm, I was getting ready to close, but until I close, I'm very completely open. Here!" I switched the lights on again. "There." Wishing I sounded cooler. I must look like a junior high school kid.
"Don't let me stop you going home."
"Don't let--no, you're not. Erm, I. Take your time. Please. Come in."
"Thank you." The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes, through my eyes, and at the me that lives in me.
"I--" I began.
"This--" she began.
"Go on," we both said.
"No," I said. "You go on. You're the lady."
"You're going to think I'm a nutcase, but I came in about ten days ago, and--" She was unconsciously rolling on the balls of her heels. "And there was this piece of music you were playing.... I can't get it out of my head. A piano and a saxophone. I mean, there's no reason why you should have remembered it or me or anything...." She trailed off. There was something odd about the way she spoke. Her accent swung this way and that. I loved it.
"It was two weeks ago. Exactly. Plus a couple of hours."
She was pleased. "You remember me?"
I didn't quite recognize my own laugh. "Sure I do."
"I was with my revolting cousin and her friends. They treat me like an imbecile because I'm half-Chinese. My mother was Japanese, you see. Dad's Hong Kong Chinese. My home's in Hong Kong." Nothing apologetic about the way she spoke. I'm not pure Japanese and if you don't like that you can stick it.
I thought of Tony Williams's drumming in "In a Silent Way." No, I didn't think of it. I felt it, somewhere inside.
"Hey, that's nothing! I'm half-Filipino. The music was 'Left Alone' by Mal Waldron. Would you like to hear it again?"
"Would you mind?"
"'Course I wouldn't mind.... Mal Waldron's one of my gods. I kneel down to him every time I go to the temple. What's Hong Kong like, compared to Tokyo?"
"Foreigners say it's dirty, noisy, and poky, but really, there's nowhere like it. Not anywhere. And when Kowloon gets too much you can escape to the islands. On Lantau Island there's a big Buddha sitting on a hill..."
For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.
Excerpted from Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. Copyright © 2000 by David Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.