When Kenta and Masayo entered the reception area of one of the new breed of cram schools, they were at first somewhat put out by the plainness of the set-up, but as they sat there on the moulded chairs, they felt themselves slowly lulled into a state of acceptance by a combination of the blue pastel of the painted walls and the school’s posters of young children with their intoxicating vision of doll-like prettiness. From where they sat, they could see only these surfaces; the receptionist, in front of her slimline computer, in her coolness, her concentration, and the way she ignored them, seemed barely necessary.
The principal wore a lilac two-piece suit. She perched stiffly on the edge of her chair, her flesh barely drawing substance from her slender frame. Kenta formed the impression that there was something almost two-dimensional about her, as if moving slightly back or even to the side of the woman would fail to reveal depth.
She explained the fee structure, but passed over it as if it were incidental to the choice they had made in coming to this place.
“We realise that parents are under increasing pressure these days to provide the right education, from the earliest age, and we know that competition for the better schools and universities is fierce. We are in the business of taking that pressure off your shoulders. You understand that?”
“Why, of course,” Masayo replied, her hands clasped lightly over her kneecaps. She was aware that she was slightly hunched over, her presence as tentative as a nervous young teenager’s, so, by small gradations, as imperceptibly as those flowers that only bloom in the morning and close up by the afternoon, she discreetly straightened her back to vertical.
Turning to the form Masayo had filled in and both had signed, the principal continued, “You have a little girl of four, then?”
“Yes, actually, she’s a very happy child,” Masayo said, aware this information sounded almost like a selling point.
“Actually,” the principal repeated, worrying the word as if it were a chain of beads, so that her next words seemed almost an anticlimax: “Good, good.”
Her voice was soothing, understanding.
“Well, I think we can take your child off you,” she said after a pause.
Masayo did a double-take and looked at Kenta, who had gone pale, thinking the principal had finished her sentence, but then she added, “For three hours a day, at any rate.” Kenta laughed with relief and this allowed a trickle of comfort to grow in Masayo. Unconsciously, one of Masayo’s hands had wandered to Kenta’s knee.
Despite the principal’s tantalisingly deferred reassurance, they would come to realise when it was too late not only that there was no irony in the former part of the principal’s words, but even that those words were in no way comforting.
The next day Kenta was back to his usual commuting, but it was hard for him to take his mind off the previous day’s visit to the school.
As was often the case on such journeys, in a Tokyo summer, it was particularly hot, and in the train carriage, even with the air conditioner on full blast, he could not stay awake for more than ten minutes during a forty-minute journey.
His slumbers were, often as not, accompanied by fitful jolts as the train barreled into a bend, went into a steep descent, or an oncoming train blasted its horn as both trains passed a level crossing at the same moment. However, on this day, these sudden shunts into consciousness were paired with the oddest visions. In one, his daughter, Risa, whom he was holding curled up in a ball, unscrolled like a sleeping bag and fell backwards and down, as into a steep drop, at which Kenta woke up with a start. In another, he was looking down at her as from a helicopter: she was standing against the sill of a dormer window, peering up at him, squinting against the sun. In yet another, she was walking into the path of a speeding cyclist. In the last, he was treading warily through a narrow space in his house, trying to avoid stepping on certain parts of the floor, as if he were negotiating demarcators of geometric constriction assigned specifically to him.
But these visions were as nothing to his most common feeling on a train, that of an intense desire to jump out onto the tracks when he woke up. This disposition dissipated after a few minutes, but each time it recurred he remembered having known it ever since he had been a child. Whether there was a connection between this and today’s visions, he could not have said, but he did not feel any particular anxiety in his life right now. If anything, a sensation of comfortable lassitude had descended on him and Masayo.
They lived in a house they had built from a catalogue of designs. The style was determinedly non-Japanese and its key feature was, seen from one side, a sloping half-gable which failed to meet its partner some two metres lower down, so that a significant tunnel—a kind of deep groove or channel—ran across the roof as if continually seeking fulfilment, leaving the two slopes of the roof looking like two halves of a bridge lowered at different speeds and left standing in a permanently disunited salute to each other. Moreover, there was a helical staircase which bulged out of one side of the house and looked, from outside, a little like the rounded towers at either end of a European mediaeval castle, an effect heightened by the machicolation-like slits which framed the two staircase windows— except that the staircase was narrower at the base than at the top and ended up looking more like a torch. Inside, it turned in a lazy spiral which appeared at one point to want to float up into a space high up before it disappeared and led into the upstairs rooms. Sometimes, he would catch Risa lurking on the polished oaken steps, her feet just edging themselves into view—because they could not hide forever—behind the series of turns that clung to the main axis of the staircase.
So, on his return that day, Kenta was greeted with the news that Risa had been accepted by the school. In truth, it was not exactly a momentous event to celebrate, as one might an acceptance to a high school or a prestigious university, but they both felt that they had achieved something. It would also give Masayo an extra couple of hours a day to shop or do the housework. As it turned out, the next day, as she stood outside the house with the other women whose children attended the same kindergarten and whom she saw every day at the school bus stop, she learned that their children would all be going to the same school.
On his way home the next day Kenta’s mind had been mostly free of those visions of his daughter. Perhaps he was too focused on the school to allow the human substance of her directly into his thoughts. Yet as soon as he arrived home, her whereabouts was his first thought. She did not rush to him or even try to surprise him from behind the sliding door, for once; nor was any part of her visible directly. There was one moment when he thought she had, butterfly-like, merged with the subtle vertical fade of the brown-to-cream staircase wallpaper as this pattern ran laterally and down like a dripping dye, from a deep brown through various shades to a pale, almost cream, white, even as it spiralled at the same time somewhat dizzyingly up the staircase. He speculated, even further, that, Cubist-like, her body had separated into various planes which, at this moment, were turned on their axes in such a way as to make her invisible. But why would such a suspicion only occur to him now?
“She’s already started?” he said.
“Kenta, it’s a different kind of school. There’s no entrance ceremony. Didn’t I tell you?”
He looked at her, peeved, a little like a sulky imp whose face was getting smaller and more triangular by the second.
“When’s she back?”
“Oh, don’t worry.” Her tone was unconcerned, dismissive, even.
Now he was little more than a gnat looking up at her as he tried to gauge her words.
She was a moody woman, but he was always willing to forgive her the terror she sometimes inspired because he knew that ultimately she would calm down and allow him to bury his face in her pendulous breasts which had the elongated shape of ripe aubergines and were rarely out of his thoughts for any significant period of the day. For this blessing, he was willing to forgive her not only the crippling silences her moods imposed on their communication at such times but also the indulgences that had seen a slight convexity swell her stomach in recent years. In actual fact, he found a protuberant stomach on a woman appealing. He loved to put his hand on it and feel its small centre of gravity fit his palm.
By her peers’ standards, Risa was boisterous, but Kenta thought that she was becoming quieter with every month that went by. When he mentioned this to Masayo, she laughed. As if he were an idiot. It did not disturb him, though, as much as a correlation he was becoming slowly aware of. At first he thought, but then he was certain, that Risa was coming home later every afternoon. Until it started to reach the early evening. Further, he concluded—and this was really too hard to accept, to really believe—that Masayo was deferring his anxiety about Risa by luring him into making love at times when it would previously have been out of the question.
Sometimes, he fantasised what it must be like to stand outside with the local mothers and chat. For hours. He could almost see himself doing it, but then he had to think about what he could possibly have talked about for one to two hours with people with whom he presumably had in common only the fact that he was a woman who lived near them and had a child who went to the same school as their children. Beyond that, there would be a firmament of unfulfilled desires and unexpressed emotions. But he was hardly about to be a mother, even on this surrogate level.
So the days when something concrete had existed in their lives, where lines could have been drawn between different elements—Risa’s being, Masayo’s place as a mother, his place as the commuting father, their carefully designed house—became slowly both blurred and hyper-real.
Even on the way home from work he began to look at things he had earlier given little thought to, having bought a small book that illustrated the bewildering number of indigenous flowers. Some he knew: hydrangeas, daisies, sunflowers, marigolds. Others, whether they were the harmless-looking lilac echinops or the alien-like globe artichoke, with its explosion of purple stamens, seemed to press up to him in a way that questioned not whether they but he had really existed all this time he had been coming along this path home.
He began to think about how those monstrous flowers and weeds in the allotment that ran along the path parallel to the railway track near their house propagated. Cross-pollination via insects was one way, as was being carried by the air or by raindrops, and probably many other ways he could not fathom. And then, as he stood staring into this allotment patch, which seemed endless, heartless, frighteningly fecund, he realised he was staring at a reflection of what his mind was becoming. He wanted to wade into the bush and fuck the flowers and bushes, his penis snagging on spines, his balls punctured by thorns, his buttocks irritated by nettles and insects. He remembered a similar feeling from his teens when he had wanted to walk innocently naked into a forest but never did. Then he pulled himself away. Home, family, and safety were only a few yards off.
As he retreated, he could hear the mothers talking, then Risa’s voice, the tinkle in its upper reaches as it clamped onto new sounds and made them its own.
Where was he? There was always the worry about when he would arrive back and if she would catch the dust, the spirit, as she saw it, before it got in with him. He couldn’t imagine it, she knew that, this constant battle to keep it out at the same time as looking after Risa. Oh, yes, it was one thing to chat with the other mothers, to share their worries and keep their network going, but she saw herself as the gatekeeper to the outside world and their house.
Her task was in essence simple: once everyone was in, she had to wipe down the immediate area around the doorway; that meant, to the left, the shoe cupboard; straight on, the initial steps of the stairs; and to the right, the door to the living room. Then she had to see to all surfaces where hands might alight, and almost always did, and this meant door jambs, and all glass, metal, plastic, and wood surfaces, as well as all door handles and wall fittings on the way to the bathroom, which itself had to be sprayed and cleaned every day. Sometimes, however, she had already started before he or Risa were home, in which case she allowed Kenta to move through a narrow corridor of uncleaned space to the bathroom; he had once joked that he could almost see lines of tape, as at a crime scene investigation.
Then he was there, slinging his briefcase up behind his head for a moment, looking like a schoolboy with his satchel on his back. She was standing there with Ayaka and Momoko, two of the mothers she was closest to; she chuckled inwardly, knowing, exactly how Kenta’s fantasies of them ran. Ayaka was quite maternal-looking, big-boned, gap-toothed, and large-breasted. Only the other day he said that he had tried to imagine what her nipples looked like, that they were probably quite knobby and that he would like to have rubbed these nipples until they were sore, trying to suck out their absent milk. Ayaka frequently wore an apron outside, so it was little wonder that the sight of her big body, combined with her unlikely Wendy-doll features and curled hair, nurtured such imaginings.
Of course, he tried to do the same with her, but she couldn’t see the point. Once she had allowed him to put clamps on her nipples. It brought nothing but a searing pain and on occasion inadvertently drew blood. Better to let him fantasise about her friends and his porn stars. But she was not frigid; she just wanted normal sex. She did not mind his consumption of porn; if anything, she had encouraged it over the years, though a certain doubt had entered a crack in her mind at some stage. If he could gain so much pleasure from two-dimensional images and still have sex with her, was there not a danger that at some stage the two would merge? That one form had no greater significance than the other and that she would in turn become merely two-dimensional to him?
Perhaps as if to counterbalance this perceived state, she had been insisting on making love on a more regular basis. And now, with Risa going to that new school a few hours extra a day, it should help things a little in that direction.
It was time to take Risa to the school. He was safely in, showered and changed and wouldn’t be going out again that day.
Risa was getting to like the new school. Were all schools like this? There was a giant furry tiger, there were all kinds of paintings with heavy gold frames, large comfortable sofas and armchairs, not just in the main play area but in the office of the school’s owner, the principal’s husband, and, above all, there were the cats. The sky was painted on all the ceilings, just as it was in the car park, with clouds dancing over it like the black spots on a cow. She’d tried to describe her school to Mummy and Daddy, how nice the women teachers were, though they all looked so similar, with hair like Japanese dolls and big eyes, but she was still a little afraid of this big man with hair that stood out a little like it was being blown in the wind, not flat like most men’s, and a smile like a smiley face and a blue suit that smelt of tobacco and shaved wood. Sometimes he took her on his knee. He called her their favourite pupil when he did this. It made her happy.
But recently her time there seemed longer. She wanted Mummy to come and get her. Why didn’t she come sooner?
Masayo was back in ten minutes. She immediately got Risa into the bath, without giving any thought to Kenta beyond the ritual “Tadaima!,” which did not receive its corresponding “Okaeri!,” but that was not so unusual with him. She gave it a few minutes, but he didn’t come down.
She looked in all the rooms downstairs and started to climb the winding staircase, seeing through the maddening slits in the windows (he had insisted on having them) the allotment by the railway line, wondering if he was in the small room he once jokingly expressed an interest in, despite the lack of a window or ventilation. She remembered at least once catching him in there like a skulking child. But he knew that was off limits.
But maybe, just maybe, he had gone outside again? She went to the bedroom, and her eye caught the glistening rails of the train line. Following these, as the reflection of the sun skated along them in response to the movement of her body, this parallax view led to something moving about in the allotment bushes. At first she had thought it was one of the sunflowers suddenly animated by a burst of energy supernaturally obtained from the giant waning orb on the horizon. But she was soon disabused.
She hated the allotment, the messy bushes entangled in weeds and the cyclopean flowers that waited there for you as you came home, as if spying on you. She wasn’t much keener on the insects that inevitably hovered around and that she had to fight off occasionally, along with their unwanted accompaniment all the way to the front door. But she had to go out and see what was going on.
Was it his voice she heard? Really? A man’s … a man’s home … a man’s home is his castle! A man’s home is his castle! Hah hah hah! A man’s home is his castle! What do you think of that, eh? Have at you! Yes, there, and there, and there!
Following these exclamations, she heard whoops and thrashings and what sounded like screams. She remembered there were roses in these bushes. Red roses. White roses, too.
Masayo thought she saw the back of a naked human leg. A very scratched leg, with rivulets of blood running down the calf. She tried to approach but it moved suddenly, like an animal, but then she heard a gasp and something slumping.
“Kenta? Please. Is it you?”
She moved in closer. She knew it was her husband. But the sweaty shining furrow that was his back, the bloody trails and scratches, the grasses, weeds and flowers he was entangled in distanced her immeasurably from acknowledging that it really was her husband. Despite this, she stretched her hand out and touched the heel of a foot. It was hot, which was possibly a good sign.
“No!” she heard.
“Don’t touch me.”
“What are you talking about, Kenta?”
“A man’s house is his castle, and this is my castle … my jungle. Yes, my jungle, and I am the tiger. Hah! Leave my jungle!”
She turned back, trembling, finally realising that she would never be able to explain this to the neighbours, or Risa.
He’s finally gone, she concluded. No way back from this. She had to get back to Risa. It was her duty as a mother. She would need time to explain.