by Sue Herbert
Funny, isn’t it, how things work out?
I caught Masami with an old photo album, hunting for pictures of her mother. She said she needed them for something they’re doing at school. She’ll be graduating soon and going on to college. I’m that proud of her I could cry.
She found what she wanted—a few snaps of Keiko, one as a kiddie in a pink kimono, posing in front of the shrine, one larking about with her mates on a school trip, and one of her and Hasegawa I couldn’t remember ever seeing before.
Took me right back, it did. I must admit, I hardly ever think of Keiko these days. It all seems like such a long time ago. She was my only child, it’s true, but I had such a job with her. She was always wayward, always! Fumi used to say it was because she grew up without a father, but I noticed a defiance in her from a very young age. I don’t think it would have made much difference where Keiko was concerned, if her father had survived the road accident that took him so young.
Don’t think I didn’t try and do my best for that girl. The insurance and the compensation paid out a decent sum and I saved most of it for her. I suppose we could have moved to a better part of Kobe, and who knows?—that might have saved her. But I was well settled in Nagata and knew all my neighbours. I knew I’d need them, too, trying to bring up a child on my own. So I put the money by for Keiko’s education.
Education! What a waste of time that was! She did well enough at primary, but once she got to middle school she seemed to grow up much faster than the other kids. She never would listen to me. Brought home fancy magazines she used to hide behind her bookcase. Spent her money on make-up and skimpy, black outfits that were all the rage then. She went out and got her hair bleached one time. The school were none too pleased and I had to go and see her teacher. She calmed down a bit after that and I thought it was all blowing over. But then the struggle I had getting her to go to high school! No-one even got a half-decent job without a high school diploma, but my daughter never gave a thought to her future.
Well, she went. I made sure of that. But that’s when she started telling lies, deceiving me. I was working at a supermarket then, that stayed open till late in the evening. They were afraid of losing customers to the 24-hour convenience store that had just started up near the station. It was better for me to work in the evenings—we weren’t rushed off our feet and the money was good. Keiko was plenty old enough to manage by herself. She told me she sometimes went to a friend’s house after school so they could do their homework together. How was I to know my daughter was dressing up and going out to bars to meet men?
She dropped out of school in the second year. There was just no point her staying—her marks were rock bottom. But it nearly broke my heart. She’d just turned seventeen. I couldn’t help thinking how disappointed her father would have been, but of course that meant nothing to her. I didn’t say much. To tell you the truth, I was sick and tired of fighting her. She’d got her own way, and for months after that there was peace in the house. She wasn’t all bad, I have to say. From time to time she bought me flowers in pots: geraniums, chrysanthemums, and that red leafy thing you have at Christmas. But I’d look at her sometimes, when she was sprawled in front of the television, laughing at some quiz show and flicking her cigarette ash on the carpet, and I’d think, “You aren’t my daughter! I don’t know where I got you from, but you’re not and never have been the daughter I wanted.” Terrible really, but that’s how it was.
I think she must have met Hasegawa at the bar where she worked. She didn’t tell me much about what she was doing then, but some nights she didn’t come home. I thought she had a boyfriend because I saw him drop her off a couple of times. Big white car he had. It was quite a bit later she started to talk about him. Said he had a good job working for a firm in the port, importing stuff or something.
“Very nice,” I said.
“Mum, are you listening? You never know, I might marry this guy. But you’re not the least bit interested. You’ve never been interested in anything about me all my life. I might just as well not have a mother!”
I assumed that little outburst to be Keiko’s way of letting me know she was engaged.
So I met him and he seemed an average sort of fellow. A bit flash but a lot steadier than I’d expected. They got married shortly after, but they didn’t bother with a ceremony or anything. The only family we kept up with was my sister Fumi, so I got her over from Otsu to make it a bit of an occasion. They wanted to go to some Italian place in Sannomiya, but Fumi won’t eat western food and I had to work late so we ended up with okonomiyaki down the street. Hasegawa kept ordering more and more beer, I remember, and Fumi got quite merry, but she held it against him afterwards. Said she thought he was the greasy sort that might try to get his hands on her money. That made me laugh. When she goes she’ll hardly leave enough for her own funeral!
We did wonder though, why they bothered to make it legal. There was a reason, as it turned out. His firm were talking about transferring him to somewhere in Hokkaido for a couple of years. Seems he thought that if he were married, the firm would pay for them both to go and they’d get better accommodation.
He should have checked first, shouldn’t he. Firms weren’t doing at all well at that time—something about the bubble bursting—and he was told he had to go on his own. All that way and only two trips home a year. He left in the spring. Keiko was pretty subdued, but she got a nice bit of money sent to her every month. I found her a part time job in a fast food place, hoping she’d settle and save a bit for their future. Hasegawa came back for O-bon week in August. They took themselves off somewhere, and she came home brown as a berry—and pregnant. ‘Course, she didn’t realize for the first few weeks till the sickness started.
She was still only nineteen, poor kid, and I suppose it came hard to her. But me, I was so happy! I remember the thrill I got whenever I heard her throwing up in the toilet. A baby! New life in the house! I suppose I thought my excitement would cheer her up but I don’t know—maybe it was me being so pleased about it that bugged her.
She was sitting pale and weak in my wicker chair staring at the television when I heard her say, “I think I’ll get rid of it. What do I want with a baby at my age? He’s not coming back again till New Year so he’ll never know.”
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was standing at the sink and I felt the blood rush to my head. I wiped my hands on my apron as I crossed the room, and I knelt down in front of her and gripped her by her stringy upper arms.
“Mum, that hurts!”
“You’ll do no such thing! Get rid of it? You realize that’s my grandchild you’re talking of getting rid of?”
She looked at me then. Brazen as ever, but a bit mystified, I thought.
“You want a grandchild? What, just so you can boast to the neighbours? Show them your daughter’s turned up trumps after all.”
I would have slapped her face, I swear. She freed herself from my grip, reached for a cigarette and lit it. I sat back on my heels and switched off the idiots capering about on the TV screen.
“I was watching that!”
“If you get rid of that baby, I swear to you, I’ll tell him.”
I don’t know what got into me, really. I just knew that this time I had to be tougher than her. This one I had to win. Still, I didn’t expect her to believe me. I went back to the sink and braced myself for her scorn. But she just went on smoking. Finally she stubbed out her cigarette irritably.
“OK. You win. But listen, if you’re so keen on having a grandchild, then you can look after it. I’m not going to stick around in the house day and night. I’ll go out to work and you bring up the baby, OK?”
The deal was struck so easily. I couldn’t sleep that night for joy.
Masami was born a bit premature in early May. She was a little angel, so tiny, so perfectly formed. I took to her at once, and thought Keiko would naturally warm to her. But no. Soon as she could, she handed her over. We kept to our bargain. I left my job to look after the baby, and before I knew it Keiko was back working at the bar. Money’s so much better, she said. But then she spent the difference on getting her hair done and buying herself fancy tights that glittered. I once made the mistake of reminding her she was a wife and mother. She jumped right down my throat. Accused me of interfering in her life. Of being jealous of her. Jealous, I ask you! We were all right, though, the baby and me. Keiko gave me her bankbook and we lived on Hasegawa’s money. The baby was fretful while she was small—I put it down to the hot weather—and cried a lot when she couldn’t sleep. I used to take her out in the mornings so she didn’t disturb Keiko. Put a little bonnet on her head and strapped her on my back. The local shopkeepers all loved her.
“It’s like she’s your own,” they said.
I could feel the sweaty warmth against me, and I knew deep down, without any doubt at all, that she was.
‘Course, I’d let Keiko play mother when Hasegawa came home. But they went out a lot and usually left the baby with me. And there was so little space in Keiko’s room when he was staying that it seemed quite natural for me to have her at night. The second summer she was toddling and saying a few words. Hasegawa was thrilled with her—never mind she upset his beer all over his best white jeans.
The blow fell that winter. Hasegawa came back to Kobe sooner than we expected and I remember he took Keiko out for Christmas Eve. They came home with some cake and we sat round the table to eat it. Masami was playing up and got cream all over herself. Hasegawa took her onto his lap while I got a cloth to clean her up.
“Mum, we’ve got some news. He’s being transferred and in the new year we’re going to live in Yokohama.” Keiko said it straight out, and the two of them turned their attention to wiping Masami’s face and hands while I stood paralysed with shock. Hasegawa was pulling faces and joggling the child on his lap.
“Masami-chan’s going to live in a nice new flat with her Mummy and Daddy!”
The child rewarded him with a dribbly chuckle. I sat down. I felt I’d been shot through the heart.
Hasegawa went back to Hokkaido on the first day of the new year to pack up and move himself to Yokohama, ready to start there on the first working day after the holidays. The firm had accommodation there, he’d said, and he wanted his family to join him as soon as possible. Understandable, really. He rang from Yokohama, and told Keiko he’d drive down in a rented van and pick them up with all their stuff the next weekend. The Monday was a holiday, which would give them more time to get her packed up, and to avoid the worst of the holiday traffic he planned to set off in the early hours of Tuesday morning. January 17th. That fateful day.
I never did find out how Keiko felt about going to Yokohama. She was out a lot that week and didn’t say much to me at home. I brought her in some cardboard boxes but she didn’t get far with her packing. I could see there’d be a last-minute rush. The little one felt something going on and I wanted to spare her the noise and dust, the screaming and shouting. So I said I’d take her over to Otsu to say goodbye to Fumi. I left on the Saturday after Hasegawa arrived, and promised to bring her back on the Monday.
The thing is, I never got back to Kobe that Monday. I don’t know what I was thinking about. I don’t think I seriously intended to keep the child from them. But it had come as such a shock, you see, and I hadn’t had time to get used to the idea. I couldn’t see how Keiko was going to look after her without me. She wouldn’t know where to start. And Masami, how would she get on? She’d miss me terribly. It was going round and round my head all weekend. Fumi said she’d never seen me so upset. Monday drifted by and suddenly it was getting dark. I could still have got back to Kobe then, but it had turned so cold. Keiko rang and shouted a load of abuse at me down the phone. I could hear Hasegawa in the background trying to calm her down. Decent fellow he was, really. I promised I’d get Masami back first thing in the morning.
The earthquake gave us quite a fright in Otsu. It was early and still dark. Fumi and I were awake, but the rattling woke Masami and she started to cry. I warmed her up some milk, but she went on and on whimpering. Later, when we heard the shake had been stronger in Kobe I tried to reach Keiko on the phone but couldn’t get through. That’s when I got concerned. I decided to leave the little one with Fumi and go back home by myself, but I didn’t get any further than the station. There were signs up and announcements that no trains were running through to Kobe. Funny, I can remember how mad I was because they wouldn’t say how long it was likely to be before they got the service up again. I got back to Fumi’s place and found her watching the TV news. She looked up as I came in and her face was white as a sheet.
“I just hope and pray they’re all right,” she said.
Someone told me later that almost every old building in my street had pretty much collapsed. They went round shouting to find survivors before the fire devastated the area, and pulled one or two to safety, but heard no sound from my house. It was a couple of weeks before I managed to get back there, and there was nothing left, nothing at all. It was just a charred wasteland. Even though I’d seen the TV pictures, it came as a terrible shock. I left some flowers where my front door had been, muttered a few despairing prayers, and moved on to the evacuation center, where I met up with the neighbours who’d survived. They were so pleased to see me—they thought we’d been killed, too. We cried and cried. No-one could find words. We just held hands and cried.
I kept Masami with me at Fumi’s place, and when I got my compensation money the three of us moved to a bigger flat in a nicer part of Otsu. I couldn’t bring myself to move back to Kobe. Masami came in for a lot of benefits because she’d lost both parents in the quake, so I could afford to send her to a good school in Kyoto. She’s done me proud. Passed all her exams with flying colours and tells me she hopes to be a kindergarten teacher. She’s never given me a moment’s worry and has been everything I wanted in a daughter. She looks a bit like Keiko, but she’s completely different by nature. Except last Christmas she bought me a plant in a pot. That red, leafy thing—I can never remember its name.
The Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck at 5.46 a.m. on 17 January 1995 killed around 6,400 people in and around the city of Kobe in western Japan. The working class suburb of Nagata was almost entirely destroyed by fires that followed the earthquake.