‘Noritake-san? Wasn’t he discharged from the hospital last week?’
‘He told me his neighbour Nana-san was found dead in her house after a month because of the stink—rotting odour in the streets. Guess what smell?’
‘Iwashi!’ Abe-san cackled. ‘Apparently her corpse smelt like sardines.’
Waka-san leant towards us: ‘Guess there was a purpose for all those fishies that witch ate.’
‘Hag food. Ha-hah!’ howled Abe-san and Waka-san. I fidgeted in my wheelchair listening to their cough-punctuated laughter. Call me overly sensitive, but I couldn’t find it in myself, yet, to join in what I now perceived to be a daily ritual that kept them going. Laughter is indeed the best medicine, and I was staring at two fine specimens in their nineties serving as living proof. Being only seventy-three was a significant age gap; twenty more years before I could transform such absurdity into hilarity. I had a lot to learn.
‘Yuki-chan, what’s wrong?’
I mustered a grin, and judging by their quick turn of conversation—this time about some lady who couldn’t control her bowel movements (cue laughter; maturity clearly didn’t correlate with a disgust for potty humour)—it was enough to assuage their suspicion; solidarity kept intact.
‘Masa-san! What are you doing over there, alone? Come join us!’
I glanced over at the man—face wrinkled like an umeboshi, head covered in glorious white—fingering the shōgi pieces in the corner with the optimal view of the garden. Masahiro Takayuki: oldest, at ninety-seven; longest residence, of nearly two decades; respected because of his seniority and admired for his patience, but also holding a reputation for being “unconventional”, which I presumed was just a nicer alternative for “eccentric”. And he was irritatingly sympathetic to the youngsters who took care of us—those spoiled brats.
Just last week, a twenty-eight-year-old staff member who’d worked here six years was forced to leave because she’d abused poor, cancer-ridden Izumi-san. Even Abe-san had been uncharacteristically worried a few weeks ago, pointing out bruises on Izumi-san’s arms and her uneven loss of hair, millimetre-long follicles sprouting from cherry tomato spots that covered her scalp.
‘Izumi-chan! Looking beautiful with that wispy fluff! You’re almost as charming as Sadako!’ shouted Waka-san last Wednesday, only to jump in fright at the sound of Izumi-san crashing to the floor; her relentless shaking had thrown her cane off balance. By the time Waka-san waddled over in his oversized trousers that were slipping off—arms extended behind, wrists bent back and paddling the air like an awkward duck—Izumi-san had broken into tears, snot running into her mouth as she pounded her temples with her palms.
‘I’m ugly! Hideous! Like a witch! Better to be a yūrei, better to be a ghost like Sadako!’ she screeched, tearing at her hair and skin with sharp fingernails her carer hadn’t bothered to cut. Magmatic lines appeared faintly, blossoming into a bright, bold pink that quickly spouted a torrent of pent-up frustrations, manifesting in a bloody drip-drop. Waka-san searched his pockets for his snot-covered handkerchief, wiping away but not fast enough. Finally, Shinichi-kun, one of the better carers, came running with the first aid kit and pressed a gauze pad against the oozing streams as Waka-san held her hands tightly.
An immediate investigation and perusal of security camera footage revealed habitual hair-pulling and body-pummelling by her carer, along with demeaning accusations and mortifying insults. Komaeda Home for the Elderly blew up at this unprecedented occurrence; furious shouts were flung over dinner the other night, some even calling for the carer to be thrown into prison. But Masa-san’s voice had rung out clearly in the dining room: ‘Must be patient with them—still learning.’
Abe-san couldn’t restrain herself: ‘Bullshit! Izumi-san’s carer’s been here six years already! They’re cruel, fuck them all!’
Masa-san didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘They’re tired. Exhausted. Imagine having to mop up after yourself every day for six years.’
‘I’d probably strangle you in your sleep!’ piped Waka-san.
Abe-san hissed at Masa-san: ‘You give them the benefit of the doubt too much. It’s their job. And they’re doing it poorly.’
He stared off into the distance. ‘Must always give people the benefit of the doubt.’ And that was all he’d said for the rest of the night. Like I said, irritatingly sympathetic. “Unconventional”.
‘Masa-san!’ Abe-san’s persistence finally caused him to abandon the shōgi board and wheel over. In the moonlight he looked almost ethereal. We were sitting in the main common room, our neatly aligned wheelchairs forming an inward-facing semi-circle, while others lounged in sofa chairs, canes of varying shades of brown resting on their laps; a few even had IVs stuck in their puny, veiny arms, shuddering as they reached for gold generals on the board to dispatch flying chariots. The weak can only be strong through games of ruthless pretence; yet weak we still were. Through the windows, backyard foliage monitored our soon-to-be cadavers, watching us wilt away as they grew steadily and healthily, sighing oxygen in photosynthetic pity. Most of the residents were here; it was seven in the evening.
‘Masa-san! Yuki-chan hasn’t heard your stories before!’ The din dropped several notches in synchrony. I saw a few ears perk up in muted interest, some even coughing to cover up the sound of chairs scraping the floor for a better view—enough to pique my curiosity. He looked at me as I nodded reverently—the blessed recipient of an imperial secret about to be bestowed upon me by a hallowed sage.
‘Chronic stomach pain,’ he began in polished delivery, ‘my whole life.’ His voice was as gentle as the beaming moon—as if he was sharing about his beloved granddaughter rather than an affliction—but it contained an authoritative gravitas that commanded attention from all who listened. This was a man who believed everything he said; yet he also exuded a peculiar air of ambiguity. It was uncanny.
‘When I was five or six,’ he continued, ‘would sit on the toilet, legs dangling with trousers at ankles. Fifteen minutes of cringing and squirming before mother would knock on the door and ask if I was all right. Would say yes; was supposed to be a big boy. Recited Buddhist chants on the wall calendar under my breath until worst was over—kept mind off pain.’ Several of the more pious muttered quick prayers, palms together and heads bowed in affirmation.
‘Learnt a lot about this—’ He pointed to his abdomen. ‘—through trial and error. Relied on information from others who knew more about health than I did. For example, put an end to sixteen years of drinking milk every morning and evening because someone told me about lactose intolerance. Sure enough, pain lessened.’
‘That’s why you never drink milk for breakfast,’ stated Honma-san.
‘I once read that most Asians aren’t tolerant because our ancestors didn’t drink much of it,’ I remarked, ‘unlike Westerners.’
‘Tough white-skinned barbarians,’ said Nobu-san. ‘Milk must be drugged.’
‘Was my own doctor; self-diagnoses proved more effective than those of professionals. But every time my stomach worsened, would resume hunt to eliminate any offending food or drink. Black coffee viciously burned my stomach, so switched to only tea—improvement. Stools so hard they caused anal bleeding every time; medical checkups, gastroscopies, did the whole works—’
‘I once had a gastroscopy,’ interjected Waka-san. ‘Through the throat. Felt like I was gonna suffocate and vomit at the same time. Horrible experience.’
‘The nose is easier than the throat,’ added Nobu-san.
‘Nothing wrong, they told me,’ Masa-san said. ‘Healthier than the average person.’
‘They were lying to you,’ grinned Abe-san.
‘My body couldn’t lie. Certainly didn’t feel healthy. A friend then told me about gluten intolerance: another foreign but relevant concept. Read those supermarket labels more thoroughly than I ever did school textbooks. Bleeding soon stopped.’
‘Just like that?’ I asked.
‘Instantly. Took two days. Stools softened; allowed my stomach to absorb proper nutrients for digestion. Huge pain to maintain gluten free diet, but thank gods for sushi.’
Several people began grumbling about how hungry they were. ‘What’s gluten?’ I whispered to Honma-san.
‘It’s like wheat,’ she replied.
‘Oh, so, bread, then?’
‘Noodles too,’ she said, before chiding Waka-san who had pulled out a cigarette: ‘Waka-san! How could you! Be considerate!’
‘We’re all gonna die anyway!’ he yelled.
‘Let him smoke,’ said Masa-san. ‘Ah, dear Waka-san, you’re blessed to have a healthy body.’
‘Healthy. Sure am.’ He pointed to his crotch with his trembling index and middle finger and upright cigarette in-between, and was met with catcalls.
‘Imagine working as a businessman, gut suddenly hit by piercing pain, stumbling to the toilet and sitting there for hours, legs cramped and numb from lack of blood flow, silently pounding walls in agony, unable to make a sound because you’re at the office, wrapping your clothes tightly around yourself to keep warm because you feel, not just immense pain forcing you to bend double, but also an intense chill, full-body cold sweat breaking out, emerging from the stall feverish, so fatigued you can barely stand,’ said Masa-san, out of breath.
‘That’s terrible,’ I said, sympathetically.
‘Sounds exaggerated,’ someone muttered. Several others got up and wandered off—what initial interest there had been in Masa-san seemed to have gradually dissipated.
‘The young ones aren’t concerned with politics, yet,’ said a lady whose name I didn’t know. ‘If someone drives us to the polling station, we can vote for Kamai-san who’s promised to splurge on our pension funds. Might as well enjoy our last days before those brats start taking an interest.’
‘Souda!’ bellowed Waka-san. ‘It’s about time the government paid its dues and rewarded our hard work!’
‘You haven’t accomplished anything!’ shrieked Abe-san. ‘You’re a crazy lazy lunatic fucker who knows Tokyo’s love hotels better than your own house!’
‘Acha! You’re right!’ Waka-san toppled backwards in his chair, hand on his bald forehead in exaggerated comic fashion. ‘Got me there!’ The room exploded with laughter, admittedly from my own mouth too.
‘My late twenties,’ continued Masa-san unnerved, ‘was walking in Ikebukuro and heard music from West Gate Park. Raw, unpolished—but something authentic and real about it. Drew closer, found a bunch of singing foreigners standing around a guitar player, eyes closed, hands raised—Christians.’
‘Bah, Christians,’ said Nobu-san. ‘Trying to convert us to that foreign religion of theirs.’
‘They’re nice from my experience,’ added Honma-san.
‘With them, a Japanese man in a wheelchair. A lady suddenly knelt down and laid hands on his legs. Others began speaking a foreign tongue—not English—really fast, couldn’t understand. Before I knew it, the man was walking. Well, stumbling, but still, taking step by step, beaming, tears streaming down his face.’
‘Bullshit,’ Abe-san started giggling. ‘Sagi!’
‘Miracles don’t exist,’ snorted Nobu-san.
‘Well, we’re all still alive!’ screamed Waka-san. ‘That’s a miracle!’
‘Asked if they could do the same for my stomach—what had I to lose? Worst-case scenario, nothing happens; at best, get healed. Of course, didn’t expect anything. They laid hands on my stomach and prayed.’
‘And?’ sang the chorus.
‘No way,’ I said incredulously. ‘Uso desho. You must have been imagining things. Or drunk. I can’t believe it.’ I squinted at him. ‘You don’t believe that religious nonsense, do you?’
I swear I saw, for a split second, his peaceful, smiling face falter, a deep concern behind his striking black pupils. But, as if I’d seen a mirage, he was once again smiling. ‘Don’t know what to believe, but couldn’t deny the pain had gone.’
‘Did it last?’ asked Honma-san.
‘No, relapsed after several years.’
‘Fakers,’ Nobu-san spat. ‘Abe-san’s right, sagi dayo—sagi!’
‘Maybe,’ he retorted, ‘but for me, several pain-free years—heaven. Unfortunately, gastric pain intensified in my thirties. Once, on my way home from work, even had to recline on the train seats. Ended up at a hospital after collapsing on the platform.’ He leaned in. ‘But never once thought I was going to die.’
‘Why was that?’ I asked.
‘An angel told me in the ambulance: “Do not worry, you will live.”’
‘An angel! Floating on a cloud, was it!’ mocked Waka-san.
‘Never been afraid of death. Always known somehow would live to a ripe old age—and look at me, approaching 100.’
‘But don’t you wish you could just die and end the suffering?’ I asked, hoping to glean some wisdom for myself as I tried wiggling my toes.
‘Pain, suffering—what’s life without it?’ replied Masa-san.
‘You hear about those new modern state-of-the-art high-rise apartments downtown in Aoyama?’ Waka-san abruptly asked our merry party.
‘I’ve got a couple of friends moving there,’ replied Abe-san.
‘Rich filth,’ said Nobu-san.
‘People are dying there,’ explained Waka-san, ‘every week—’
‘Naturally,’ they piped.
‘—and still alone. Same thing happens to any old person abandoned by their family in a run-down house that ultimately turns into an empty den used by squatters or school brats on a dare,’ said Waka-san. ‘I’d rather die here with all of you than die alone.’
‘Ara, Waka-chan’s getting all choked up,’ cooed Abe-san. ‘You’re right though. It doesn’t matter where. A dead body’s a dead body. We’ll all end up like Nana-san. Stinking sardines.’
As the grandfather clock chimed eight, everyone began to disperse. Abe-san wheeled past me and whispered, ‘He tells the same stories every time. Unbelievable, aren’t they. We can never figure out what’s true and what’s not. But they’re entertaining, nonetheless. We’re always hoping for new episodes, but I suspect his imagination’s rusty. Next time I’m sure he’ll tell you about his post-forties. Kurutteru, gets even crazier.’
Soon it was just me and Masa-san left. Silence, other than a heater’s hum from someone’s room—likely Akamatsu-san who gets easily cold. I glanced at him and asked, hesitantly, ‘Did you really see an angel?’
He nodded, looking me squarely in the eyes; I was fixated on that sure gaze. ‘Met my wife that night, a nurse. Name was Michiko. Micchi, used to call her. Lived for years by the sea in Kamakura. Happy times.’
I wanted to ask more about her but I couldn’t. ‘Did you really get healed in the park?’
His eyes suddenly shimmered with tears. ‘Yes.’
Such assurance. I didn’t have the heart to dig deeper. It felt too cruel. ‘Aren’t you returning to your room?’ I said as I began wheeling away.
‘Might stay here a while longer,’ he muttered, closing his eyes, his demeanour betraying nothing. I watched him for a bit. Did his stomach still hurt? What was he thinking? I realised I couldn’t hear him breathing, nor could I see his chest moving. Maybe he was finally dead; or perhaps, so I wished, for his sake—he deserved a merciful end. What kept this man going, what kept him alive, despite everything? Yet if he was content and at peace—which he seemed to be—then maybe, I was happy for him.
Justin YW Lau (@JustinYWLau) is a writer and musician born in Singapore and raised in Japan. He studied English Literature at Durham University, UK and currently resides in Tokyo, though he’ll return to Durham to do an MA in October 2016. He has been published in The Missing Slate, Bunbury and elsewhere, and is editor-in-chief of Transect Magazine.