This is a work of fiction and the characters are not based on any real person. However, my command of Japanese language and culture really is very basic, so I would welcome any comments from someone who knows! I have tried to use the conventional method of representing the language in our alphabetic form.
Where to start? I'll apologise right away if this account is disorganised; there're so many strands I hardly know how to weave them together. Why don't I start with myself?
I'm retired; six foot one and slim, though spreading a little round the middle despite thrice-weekly visits to the gym. A widower, with one son who is married to a Japanese girl; they have two little girls, who are gorgeous. The Japanese word is 'kawaii' which means, more or less, 'cute'. I'm not stupid, but I have never had much success learning other languages, partly because I'm too lazy to sweat rote-learning the vocabulary. However, Jamie's my only family now and it seemed a good idea to try to learn Japanese so I could communicate effectively with his wife, Hanako, and the girls. Twice through the basic language course and ... what ... I was beginning to at least start to get a handle on the grammar which is very different from Latin based languages, and I had a limited, very limited, vocabulary. Anyway, I'd suppose my minuscule grasp of Japanese is the first strand in the tale.
The second strand, I suppose, would be Jamie and Hanako's decision to take the girls to Japan for six months. Despite Skype, it was going to be a little lonely.
Perhaps the third strand would be the multiple pile-up on the M1 motorway.
The fourth strand was my taking them to the airport for their flight to Osaka, via Tokyo. I'd waved them off and was about to go to retrieve my car from the short-stay car-park when I saw her.
The first word that came to mind was 'kawaii', which I immediately amended to 'totemo kawaii' – very cute. The second was 'kirei' – beautiful ... not to be confused with 'kirai' – ugly. What a language, huh? The third was 'diminutive'. I couldn't think of the Japanese word for small. I was fairly sure that 'chiisai' was not supposed to be applied to people.
She stood about four foot eleven and possessed a sort of doll-like perfection of form, smooth, straight, black hair framing her smooth, round face. She was motionless with her rolling case and a small carry-on by her side. The fourth word that came to mind was 'lost'.
Now another strand of the story would be my inability to avoid offering to help someone who looked as though they needed it and I suppose I'd have to admit that I just like girls.
I had no idea who she was, or even what nationality, but she looked oriental and, I thought, Japanese. There are subtle differences in the appearance of the oriental peoples, but I'm no expert. Anyway, I thought I'd try out my Japanese. It couldn't do any harm, could it?
I raked around in my memory and the Japanese dictionary. "Sumimasen. Anata ga ushinawa reru nodesu ka?" (Excuse me ... are you lost?)
Her expression brightened slightly. "Watashi wa watashi no yujin ga watashi o mitasu tame ni kitai shite ita."
She lost me after the first two words. "Sumimasen," (sorry, or excuse me) "Wakarimasen"(I don't understand)
"I ... expect ... my ... fi ren do ... to be here."
"Ah! Sou desu." (Ah, I see) "Anata wa doko ni ikimasu?" "you go where?)
"Watashi wa shefi-rudo ni iku" (I go to Sheffield).
And that was another strand; I live in Sheffield. I dug out my wallet and found my Hallam University ID card, which I have because I invigilate for them. "Watashi wa shefi-rudo ni sundeimasu" (I live in Sheffield)
She brightened even more. "Sou desu ne?!"
I gave up the unequal struggle with language. "Come and have a drink." I pointed at the Costa Coffee area. "Tea, Coffee, Juice?" Those three are recognisable in Japanese. "Ocha?" That's green tea.
"Hai! Arigato gozeimasu."
I bought tea and some packets of biscuits, though she indicated she wasn't hungry, I was a little. When we were settled, I pointed at myself. "Ron desu" (I'm Ron) "Onomae wa?" (what's your name?)
"Watashi no namaeha Akemi Suzuki desu"
I got that; it was fairly straightforward. Japanese usually use surnames, but I'd given my Christian name, so I said, "Akemi-san ... is that okay?"
"Kudasai ... please ... call me Akemi."
"Have you tried to ring your friend?" I held up my mobile.
She shrugged. "Phone ... not ... work." Well ... not surprising, I suppose. I handed over mine.
"Call them," I said.
I watched as she carefully punched in the number, and as her face grew longer and longer. She tried a different number, and then, yet another. "Mu oto. No ... answer," she said, handing the phone back
I dug out my laptop and switched on. Once it had booted up I got out my dongle and logged on to the internet. There was little surprise her friends were late – there'd been a massive pile-up on the motorway. We must have just missed it. But if they were held up, surely they'd answer the phone? I showed her the news report.
You can't tell me Japanese people don't show emotion; I could see the devastation in her eyes.
"They may be okay," I said, "just held up by the accident."
"That ... I do not ... think. I think they ... in accident."
Now ... sorry if you think I'm a cheapskate, but I was thinking of my parking bill, mounting almost by the minute.
"Come with me ... to Sheffield," I said slowly. "Send a text to your friends' mobiles. They'll probably be relieved that you're not stuck here on your own. I'll take you to their address."
She looked at me, a penetrating, questioning look, for some seconds. "How do I know I safe with you?"
"You don't," I said. But I reached for my wallet and took out a dog-eared photo. "My son," I said pointing, "My daughter-in-law ... giri no musume ... Hanako. Grand-daughters ... mago-musume ... Fujiko ... Haruko."
Her eyes widened, flicking from the photo to my face, which bore the usual expression of gooey pride I wear when considering my grand-kids, and back again.
"That ... why you speak Nihongo ... Japanese."
I grinned and held up my hand, first finger and thumb a couple of millimetres apart. "Just a very little ... chiisai."
She giggled. I thought the sound delightful ... charming. I was smitten, but kept a fairly serious face.
"Okay. I come."
I handed her my phone again. "Text your friends," I said, "Say you're heading for Sheffield and not to worry about you."
She frowned – I'm not sure how much she understood, though to be fair her English was much better than my Japanese which served mainly as an ice-breaker. Soon enough I was feeding one of the parking-charge machines with plastic, and not much later we were on our way out, to pick up the M4 west, then the dreaded M25 orbital.
The M1 still being blocked, we took the M40 and then the A43 to pick up the M1 at Northampton. I was properly hungry by then and in serious need of some coffee, so we stopped at the services. Akemi was disorientated and still not hungry, but she drank some green tea while I tucked in to a steak pie, mushy peas and gravy, accompanied by a very large cup of coffee which wasn't entirely awful and at least provided me with a caffeine fix.
We were back in Sheffield mid-afternoon. She had her friends' address, a terrace in Netheredge, which had no signs of life when we knocked. We waited a while, but there was no sign of anyone, and no message on my phone, so I took her home to my little cottage in Broomhall. I got a tub of vegetable soup out of the freezer and set it to warming through; once it was hot I warmed crusty bread in the oven. She liked the soup, though she still had little appetite and about eight o'clock she was obviously fading. I don't know how long she'd been awake, but of course she was completely out of synch – Tokyo is nine hours ahead of London.
I made up a bed in Jamie's old room. "Why don't you sleep? If there's a message, I'll deal with it."
She nodded wearily – I found her a towel and left her to it.
There's something about sleeping alone in a house; you become aware of every creak, knock and squeak. It always amazes me how different it is when there's someone else in the house. So when I went to bed myself, I lay there, listening to the silence. The silence that meant, I wasn't alone in the house.
In the morning, I was up at my usual time, like a lot of older people I wake early and usually have breakfast about six o'clock. Akemi ... I have to say, tip-toed into the kitchen where I was sitting with my muesli, coffee and novel. I looked up and stood. I mean, I'm old-fashioned. She blushed.
I smiled. "Ohayoh gozeimas, Akemi-san."
She bobbed in a polite little bow. "Arigato, Ron-san."
My Lord ... she was so lovely; what was going to happen to her?
I offered her breakfast; a limited choice ... I just didn't keep much in the house. But she hadn't been used to a cooked breakfast anyway and was happy with toast, orange juice and oolong – China brown tea, which she drank without milk or sugar.
We hadn't any call or text from her friends, but there was a number to call on the news for people who were worried about friends or family. It took several attempts; not everyone had been identified, but by the evening we had the news. Her friends were among the dead. Akemi's face set like stone; she excused herself and went to bed.
.... There is more of this story ...