by Kelda Crich
I didn’t want her to hear me. I didn’t want to disturb her.
Jayleen was kneeling with her back to me. This was the wrong setting for her. I’d tried to make the house look cheerful for Christmas. Tinsel braided the mantle. The few cards I’d received were displayed—robin and holly bright.
But Jayleen should’ve been kneeling on a rush mat; she should have been screened by paper doors as she worked on her shodō. I’d met Jayleen just a few months after Mother’s death. In that gray, hopeless fog she’d reached out to me. She was so different from any woman I’d ever known. I could spend hours just watching her.
“I can sense you, Dave,” she said.
“Sorry.” I knew that she needed solitude.
She turned her head. How was it that someone as beautiful as Jayleen could love me? My heart swelled at my improbable fortune.
“Can I come and see?”
I walked over and looked at her work: flowing lines of black ink, kanji on the mulberry paper. She’d taught me about the simplicity and beauty of shodō.
Jayleen inked the brush and added trees to the kanji on the paper.
“I don’t know how you can ink directly onto the paper,” I said. “Why not pencil it in first?”
“That would not be proper.” With sweeping lines Jayleen thickened the grove of trees.
“Line and shape,” I said.
“And the third element is?”
“The third element is space.”
She smiled. “That’s right. Before I work, I visualize the end points and the beginnings of the lines. Something that might seem uncomplicated and simplistic to an untutored eye may encompass a mastery of the aesthetic criteria.”
“I think it’s beautiful.”
“It’s flawed.” Jayleen crumpled up the paper.
“But it was lovely.”
“Creation must arise from a state of no mind. And you, my dear David, provided the disturbance.”
“I must become no one when I ink.”
“I am very sorry.”
“That’s all right. Do you know why I love you, David?”
“Because I see that quality of mu-shin in you, David. You have the potential to be no one.”
It was strange that she loved the quality in me that I so despised
When I’d asked Jayleen about her plans for Christmas, she’d smiled and said, “Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in Japan. It’s not a Christian country, David.” Did I mention that Jayleen has a business importing Japanese goods? She embraced Japanese culture.
I must have looked disappointed because she said, “But we’re a global village and traditions have a way of slipping through cultural barriers. Some people send cards or give presents.”
“So they don’t have a Christmas dinner?” I’d been planning to make a turkey with all the trimmings.
“On Christmas Day people often go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. They’re booked months in advance. I’ll be working on the 25th. The businesses in Japan will be open as normal, but Christmas Eve is more like Valentine’s Day, a romantic time for couples, and I’ll see you then.”
I wanted to do exactly what Jayleen wanted. I planned a romantic meal with a Japanese menu. I bought a Christmas cake, not an iced fruit cake but a sponge cake topped with cream and strawberries.
“The New Year is the time that families get together,” Jayleen had said. “I’ll introduce you to my family then.”
I was thrilled. We’d been together six months, and this was the first time Jayleen had suggested that I meet her family. We were growing closer.
On their release the secretaries donned garlands of tinsel and scattered like a flock of brightly colored birds, with calls of raucous laughter, flying to find bars for the last excess of city festivity before returning to whatever duties awaited them in the suburbs. And none had thought of me, my head bent over my screen, near invisible, patiently transcribing Katherine Watkins’ precise recorded voice into documents that would be unneeded until after the New Year. Not even to wish me a Merry Christmas.
The dying light of dusk fanned through the windows to touch the abandoned desks, the dark screens on this dull day of winter.
I alone was left behind to work the remains of the shift on Christmas Eve. The office clock was undoubtedly at five. Mrs Watkins was the only partner left in the office. If I wanted to leave, I was just going to have to be direct. (I’d already asked her four times in the last two hours to if she wanted a cup of coffee.)
The light shone bright from her office door window. The fact that she was still here was strange. Everyone went home early on Christmas Eve. I’d been counting on it. On any other year of the decade past it wouldn’t have made any difference, but today I had something to do.
I tapped at Mrs Watkins’ door.
“Mrs Watkins?” I stepped into the office. Disarray was its decoration. Papers, (possibly important papers) were strewn on the floor. The air heavy with the scent of whiskey. Mrs Watkins held her tumbler at eye level, staring at the melting ice clinking in the tawny sea.
“Yes. What is it?” She was more interested in the melting, fascinating ice than me.
“It’s five o’ clock, Mrs Watkins. And it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Is it all right if I go now?”
Recognition slowly surfaced within Mrs Watkins, from some faraway place, from the gritted beds under the liquid sea. “Oh. I see,” she said, the words falling like slow moving ice. “I hadn’t realized you were still here.”
I laughed, a small laugh and inappropriate. “Well, I am still here.” But I was worried. Mrs Watkins wasn’t usually a drinker. Except in the usual sense, when clients wanted the partners to share their joy in celebration of the completion of some tortuous transaction. Something was wrong, to be drinking alone on Christmas Eve with such need.
Mr Watkin and the children glared out of a silver frame. Had Mr Watkins discovered her other life? The weekends away with ‘clients’ that never entered the books? The credit card statements sent directly to the office? If she’d split up from her husband, maybe I’d be the last person she’d see over the holiday. Christmas could be lonely. I knew that all too well. But I couldn’t find the words to ask Mrs Watkins what was wrong. So instead, I said, “I’ve got some shopping to do, Mrs Watkins.”
“Last minute shopping? That doesn’t sound like you, David. ”
No. It didn’t. I was extremely organized. The other secretaries laughed at me about it.
The last thing I wanted to be doing was shopping on Christmas Eve. But the Tokyo Shipping Factory had let me down. I’d ordered Jayleen’s gift in November and paid for express delivery. But instead of the antique calligraphy set I’d ordered, they’d sent a very cheap and nasty modern replica. I’d contacted customer services. They were very apologetic. They assured me that they would immediately send a replacement. But despite my many e-mails and phone calls and trips to the post office the gift hadn’t arrived. I wanted to give Jayleen the perfect gift, wanted to give her something that showed how much I loved her, something written with meaning.
“So, go do your last minute shopping,” said Mrs Watkins. She saluted me with the glass of whiskey. “Unless you’d like to join me?”
Automatically I said, “No, thank you, Mrs Watkins.” I’d been her personal secretary for nearly ten years and this was the first time she’d asked me to join her for a drink. We were colleagues and strangers.
Mrs Watkins nodded and swallowed half her glass of whiskey.
“Will you be spending Christmas with your family?” I ventured to ask.
“Of course. And you’ll be spending Christmas with your mother.” She nodded, finished the whisky, poured herself another.
“Yes.” Did she even know who I was? Couldn’t she remember last May, when I took a leave of absence to nurse Mother through those last, terrible weeks? She’d certainly complained enough about it at the time. And Mother was the only family I’d ever had.
But this year I had Jayleen.
Mrs Watkins was drunk. People forgot things when they were drunk. “Mrs Watkins, is there anything else you need?”
She glared at me, angry. “There’s nothing I need from you, David.” Because I was a nobody, a stranger, just somebody who’d worked with her for the best part of a decade.
I’d irritated her somehow. I’d always had this unfortunate way with other people. It was a lack within me. It was why I didn’t have any friends. It was why Jayleen was my first girlfriend. Most of the time people didn’t notice me, but if they did, I always seemed to say something to make them angry. It was better to be silent.
“Well, Merry Christmas, Mrs Watkins.” I left the office, closing the door quietly behind me.
The glass, when it smashed against the door, sounded like a gunshot. I stood still for a moment. I wasn’t frightened, only confused. Why had Mrs Watkins thrown her glass at the door? Was it a threat? Was it a cry for help? Why did I never know what people meant when they did these things? It was as if they spoke in a language I didn’t understand.
Before leaving, I switched off the Christmas lights and let darkness consume the office, except for the light from Mrs Watkins’ office. I wondered if it would be burning into the Christmas morning.
I left the office. Outside, fog stirred the darkening sky, clinging to the buildings, rendering them invisible. I gave five pounds to a homeless guy selling the Big Issue. He became angry when I politely declined the magazine. I thought he’d appreciate having another copy to sell. But he muttered, “It’s not a bloody charity.” That was exactly what I thought it was. I’d got it wrong again. I didn’t understand. Only Jayleen understood me.
The streets were full with shoppers, a relentless tide of people desperate for something to buy. Something to fix a need, a lack in the way that goods never could. I was swept by the crowd and I almost missed Izumo Province Street which was unlit and a quiet contrast to the other streets. There were, unfortunately, road works in the street. I walked slowly through muddy clay, and even had to hop over a small trench to reach my destination.
The store had large Japanese characters in gold over the door:
and underneath in much smaller English characters, the sign read: Yomi-no-kuni. This was where I’d find the perfect gift for Jayleen, a department store specializing in Japanese goods.
Inside the store was lit by paper lanterns casting a dull light. “Meri Kurisumasu,” I said to the guard at the door. He stared at me without a reply. Did he understand? “Could you tell me where the calligraphy section is, please?” Still no reply. I shook my head and made my way through the entrance and into a food hall.
Strange flavors hung in the air, the choking smell of oil and a lingering ripeness. The hall was set out like a market place with dozens of stalls. Only a handful of customers wandered in the gloom. The salespeople seemed disinterested. They didn’t seem to notice me when I tried to catch their eye, intent as they were immersing vegetables, meats and dumpling into steaming cauldrons. I walked to a vegetable stall. I smiled at the tall, thin salesman. He turned his back and began to work furiously chopping unfamiliar pale vegetables with a wicked looking hatchet.
I sighed. I walked to another stall, where an old woman with hair turned white with age and orange with henna stirred a simmering pot of soup. “Excuse me.” The old woman’s eyes remained focused on the simmering soup, as if she could read the future in the cloudy mixture. “I’m looking for the calligraphy section,” I said.
The old woman held out a ladle towards me. A tentacled morsel lay in a bath of cloudy soup. “Eat,” she said.
“No, thank you. Could you tell me where the calligraphy section is, please?”
The woman scowled and let the tentacles slide gelatinously back into the soup. “Upstairs,” she said with an upward jerk of her head.
I made my way through the food hall to the central atrium. There were no maps, no one to ask. And no escalators, which was unusual for a department store, although it fit with the old fashioned tone of the place. I walked upstairs, watching myself in the mirrored stairwell. I thought about Mrs Watkins. If only I could have done something to help her.
On the first floor the air was heavy with the tang of incense. I wandered through rows of Kimonos like silken skins, plum blossom and birds, pine and bamboo, cranes and peonies, spiders. Yukatas in cotton, striped and plain and dusty.
It was so quiet. I was the only customer here. The incense irritated the back of my throat. It reminded me of Jayleen’s perfume.
I walked through rows of wooden sandals with bright cloth straps interspersed with tabi socks with divided toes, until I found a salesman and asked him where to find the calligraphy section.
Without a word he pointed upwards to the next level.
I made my way back to the central atrium and to the stairs.
This second floor brought the sound of jangling music and rows of wooden kokeshi dolls with smooth black hair, lucky cats with beckoning paws, geisha figurines, daruma dolls without limbs, wall hangings with calligraphy, paper parasol showing scenes from the ancient past of a faraway country.
“Where’s the calligraphy sets?” I asked the saleswomen sitting at the wooden counter with her head bent forward, her hair falling and covering her face.
“You’re nearly there,” said the girl without raising her head.
These were the most unhelpful salespeople I’d ever met. No wonder the store was almost empty.
I wandered deeper. The wares were piled high, on overladen shelves, crammed into baskets. I wandered until I found the rows of calligraphy sets.
I’d listened carefully when Jayleen had talked about shodō. If it was important to her, it was important to me. A calligraphy set must contain the ‘Four Treasures of the Study’: brush, ink stick, paper and ink stone. The sets were wonderful, antiques lined with silks, some decayed and not suitable for sale, some obviously used with stained brushes. But at last I found the perfect set for Jayleen with a rabbit hair brush and an unused ink stick embossed with lotus flowers and smelling of spice; mulberry paper, and a charming ink stone in the shape of a pond. In addition to the four treasures, the set contained brush holder, a paperweight, a brush rinsing pot, a seal and the seal ink. It was perfect. It wasn’t marked with a price, but whatever it cost I had to buy it.
I walked back to the unhelpful saleswoman and placed the box on the counter. “Can you help me?”
“Help you?” said the woman from under her veil of hair, as if this was an unreasonable request to make of a salesperson.
“Yes. I’ve found this,” I tapped the calligraphy set. “And it really is the perfect gift for a very close friend of mine. But I’m not sure how much it costs. But I’m sure that it doesn’t really matter. How much it costs, because I want something that’s perfect for her.” I didn’t know why I was telling her all this.
The woman extended a very thin hand—skeletal almost—from the folds of her kimono; she drew the package towards her, slowly. “You shouldn’t really be buying her gifts.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said you shouldn’t buy Jayleen a gift.”
“And who are you to tell me what to do?”
The woman touched her face, drawing back the long smooth hair. “I’m nobody,” she said. She had no face. Where eyes and nose and mouth should be was only an impossible, smooth expanse of skin. Her voice came from her mouthless face.
Blood pounding, hardly knowing where I was going, only knowing that I had to get away. I ran. I ran. I ran. Until somebody stopped me, and I gasped, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“What’s wrong, sir?” A security guard had a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I looked around, and a few customers were watching me curiously.
“I thought I saw something. There’s somebody in the other room. The salesgirl. There’s something not right with her face.”
“I thought I saw something. I’m sorry. Perhaps I didn’t.”
“What’s your name, sir?” asked the security guard in a low voice.
“I’m . . .”
Everyone was staring at me. I couldn’t abide to be the center of attention. What was I thinking? If I told them what I thought I’d seen, they’d all laugh.
“What’s your name, sir?”
“That’s all right, sir. We’re all nobody here.” The security guard raised his hand towards his face. I knew that when he was about to touch the skin and reveal the smooth skein of nothingness.
Time slowed down. I turned my head to the other customers. Of one accord they were raising their hands to their face: the mother and the child, the mother smiling, the child raising his mittened hand, an old man dressed in priest’s robes, a young man with a scarred face all raising their hands as slow as a dream, about to wipe their expression clean, to become the nothingness underneath and all in the cold, the seconds ticking like the faceless universe as adroitly, implacable as ice accreting in the diminishing air to wipe the mask and show me the nothingness underneath.
“No,” I whispered. I ran. Time reasserted itself in the hot blood, back beat of mindless terror. I ran, through the rooms to the stairs, stumbling, falling over my feet juddering and lurching but always moving downwards. I ran through the food hall, past the salespeople with dead eyes and out of the store. Out into the street, into the fog, running through the clay, slip sliding towards the light and towards the crowds.
Somehow I got home. Somehow I found myself opening the door, pushing it behind me, leaning against it as if I could keep out the world.
I made dinner for Jayleen, pushing aside all the events of the day. I focused on making everything perfect, keeping busy until Jayleen came over.
“Meri Kurisumasu.” When she came through the door and kissed me, everything was fine again.
“I went to the store today, to get you a present.”
“What store?” she asked.
I told her what had happened.
Jayleen smiled. “They sound like the Noppera-bō,” she said.
“Is that Japanese?”
“Of course it is, the faceless men. The faceless ghosts.”
“You’ve seen them, too?”
“Oh yes,” she said turning his smooth face towards me. “I see them all the time.”
I felt no fear. You only have to feel fear if you want to. Emotion is a habit. Like the strokes from a master’s brush, a life could be written in different styles. And all my life I have been written in a different script from “Who are you?”
“I’m nobody, David. Nobody. Just like you.”
And when I raised my hand to my face, I was unsurprised to find the same smooth, beautiful nothingness of my skin. “I’m nobody,” I whispered. “Meri Kurisumasu.”
Kelda Crich is a new born entity. She’s been lurking in her creator’s mind for a few years. Now she’s out in the open. Find her in London looking at strange things in medical museums or on her blog: http://keldacrichblog.blogspot.com/ Her work has appeared in Lovecraft Ezine, Spinetinglers and the After Death anthology.