by Sue Herbert
Kasetsu jutaku is the Japanese term for the temporary housing provided for those displaced by earthquakes and other natural disasters.
No call. No message all day.
She lay on the futon in her pyjamas and stared at the ceiling. A fluorescent light right outside the window flickered and buzzed intrusively. It was late. Next door’s TV had been switched off, leaving her a sort of quietness. She couldn’t watch TV herself. All those sleek and smiling newsreaders pretending they cared. No-one round here felt like smiling.
“Oy! You there? I need to piss.”
Her father’s raucous voice from the next room broke the silence.
OK, Gramps. Don’t tell the whole row. She stepped through the doorway to where he was kneeling on all fours.
“Here, take my arm.”
She eased him into the toilet, pulled his pants off his scraggy hips and helped him guide his flow. Even so, he got urine on the floor. Lucky that Jo was out. She didn’t need another earful from him, about his disgusting granddad, about how he couldn’t stay another week in the same cramped room with him, about how she should do something about it.
“Mum, get him put in a home.”
“There’s plenty a lot worse than him. And what home? Where? They were all full up even before this happened.”
Gramps got his pants back on, and crawled his way back to his bed, gasping and grunting. She quickly wiped the floor with toilet paper and rinsed her hands at the sink. In the semi-dark the shadows of her own reflection dismayed her. She’d once been a good-looking woman. Eyes her best feature. Years ago a lot of the boys had fancied her. She put up a shaky hand to smooth her hair back. She’d kept up appearances despite the hard lot she’d had in life. But no time or money now to get her grey dyed, to apply a face she was not ashamed of when she went out.
“Oy! Get me some water.”
She dried her hands and shut her eyes. Why hadn’t he called? Leaving her on tenterhooks, not knowing whether they’d got the chance of something—anything—better than this.
“Hallo? Anyone home?” A uniform was standing outside, with a crumpled shadow at his side.
She slid the full-length window open wide and switched on the room light. The policeman blinked up at her.
“Good evening. Is it Mrs Otsuka? Is Mr Otsuka home?”
“He’s away. Gone to see about a job.”
“Ah. This is your son, Jo Otsuka?”
“He was involved in a brawl down by the station. He’s been drinking. We brought him home.”
“Thank you, officer. Very grateful.” A nervous glance round to see if curtains were twitching. Jo, mumbling, fell against the window, under the glare of the outside light.
“He refused to disclose his age, but we have reason to believe he’s at high school. Is that right?”
“He just graduated. Jo, get inside here.”
The boy lurched unsteadily and slurred his words. “I socked him one. Let him have it!” As if demonstrating, or re-living the memory, he landed his fist, hard, on the window frame. The flimsy structure shuddered.
“Mrs Otsuka, your son should not be drinking at his age. We decided not to take him in this time. But please ensure he abides by the law.”
The policeman avoided her eyes. He took Jo by the arm and swung him round so that he sat down heavily in the open window.
“Get your shoes off, get to bed, and don’t make trouble for your mother.”
Jo shrugged off his hold and spat on the ground at his feet.
“Thank you, officer. Sorry for the bother.” She continued to bow to the back of the policeman already crunching across the gravel down the row, towards the flashing light of the police car in the street.
“Socked him one good and proper. He can’t go round telling those lies.”
“Jo, get inside.” She shoved hard at the smooth teenage flesh to get her son’s limbs out of the way of the window as she closed it. He sprawled across her futon and thumped his fist on the floor. She stepped over him, turned out the light, and took some water to her agitated father.
“That boy. He’s violent. Just like his father. He’ll turn out bad, you watch!”
“Yeah, yeah.” She settled him under his bedclothes and went back to Jo.
“He said she’d been two-timing me. Been seeing Tsuboi. That everybody knew.” He went on beating the floor and started to sob. “Mum, she never cheated on me. Say she never cheated on me.”
She settled back down on the floor by the window. “Well, you’ll never know, will you? Not now.” She picked up her mobile to check again for messages.
“She was my girl. We talked about going to Tokyo together. Get away from our fucking families!”
That riled her. “Listen. They didn’t even let you know when the funeral was. Forget about her, Jo.”
He staggered to the toilet without another word.
She stared out at the brightly lit gravel. In truth she’d been surprised by her son’s long devotion to his girl. And now the tsunami had killed her. Life’s a rough ride and he was learning the hard way. But he was young and still had a future. For herself it was harder to be optimistic. The water had swept away everything they owned and they were reduced to living like this. No better than battery hens. She knew it was reckless to hope, but equally she couldn’t give way to despair. All she could do was live one day at a time.
She rested her head against the window and dozed. Jo undressed, lay down on his bed and put on his headset, and in the quiet the soft thrump of his music mixed with the snorts and snores of her father.
The chime of the mobile on her lap made her jump. The screen glowed with a text.
no job coming back on overnight bus
She sat motionless for a long moment, then switched the phone to silent and got to her feet to sort the laundry ready for the morning’s wash.
Editor’s Note on Kasetsu Jutaku:
Kasetsu Jutaku is not Sue Herbert’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are:
- Funny How Things Work Out appeared in Eastlit June 2016.