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.
I woke in the wee small hours; not unusual. But when I went to empty my protesting bladder, I heard her crying. Unable to resist, I crept downstairs and made tea before knocking on her door. There was a delay – I assume as she composed herself.
She accepted the tea, sipped it, and whispered, "Dozo arigato goziemas. Totemo zan'nen watashi wa anata o jama suru koto watashi wa sou."
That was a very formal thank you and apology for disturbing me. "You didn't disturb me, I often wake in the night," I said, "but when I heard you..."
"Gomen nasai, Ron-san."
"Please ... tell me what is the trouble, Akemi-san."
"I like if you call ... Akemi."
"Arigato ... thank you, Akemi. I am Ron, okay?"
"Okay, Ron. I don't know ... what ... to do. I have no one here and I have ... my family have ... rejected me. I ... have ... student visa. Place at Shefi-rudo Daigaku ... University. But ... no-where to live. Not ... much money..."
"So ... live here," I said, "rent free ... teach me Japanese."
She looked at me; I recognised the look. It was the same one she'd given me at Heathrow Arrivals. She was trying to look into my heart.
"Okay..." she said slowly, "but I need learn English, too."
"Each day," I said. "Nihongo one day, Eigo the next."
She muttered something, then "I ... will be in ... debt to you. Thank you. Arigato."
We sat in silence until we'd finished our tea. As I rose from the chair, she held out her hand to me. I stepped up to the bed and took it, but instead of shaking it, she kissed it and held it against her cheek, looking into my eyes.
She released me and I was in two minds about going back to bed; it was three a.m. I had a fifty/fifty chance of getting back to sleep. I knew that if I stayed up I'd be tired by the end of the day, but I could do it. So, I fired up the computer, checked my email; there was one from Jamie to say they were safe and well in Osaka. I caught up with my accounts, not that there was much to do there. Scanned some porn ... hey, I'm not dead yet.
I thought ... if I were reading this, I wouldn't believe it; it's an old-man's fantasy. So I fired up the word-processor and began to write. About six, I knocked off and went to have some breakfast. Akemi wasn't quite so early that morning, but she duly appeared as I was sipping coffee, having otherwise finished.
"Ohayoh gozeimas, Ron." Ah, it was to be a Japanese day.
"Ohayoh gozeimas, Akemi. O genki desu ka?" (Good morning, are you well?)
"Genki desu." (Fine, thank you.)
"Watashi wa, kyou shefi-rudo o shimesanakereba naranai?" (Shall I show you Sheffield today? - I needed extensive recourse to the dictionary beforehand)
We didn't leave immediately; it was far too early, of course. But once she'd had breakfast and a shower, we walked up the hill to the University. From there, we rode the tram to Crystal Peaks and back to the City centre, as I pointed out various points of interest and she corrected my pronunciation and grammar, frequently helping me with words too. As I said, my Japanese was very limited.
As it was about lunch-time by then, I took her to the Hallam University restaurant in the Owen Building. Well, that's where I work, sometimes. She wanted to know why I worked there rather than for Sheffield Uni. I laughed and told her they paid better.
We rode out to Meadowhall on the tram. It's not my favourite place in the world, but we looked round and had a drink at the Oasis before heading home. When we got in, she sat in the kitchen and watched, apparently fascinated, as I made bread. It was going to be a late tea. In fact, it was past seven-thirty when we sat down to hot bread-rolls, butter and jam, with green tea for Akemi and Darjeeling for myself.
Over the next couple of weeks I helped Akemi settle in to Sheffield and I slowly found out a little about her. She was twenty-two years old and had a bachelor's degree in business systems, which explained how quickly she was able to connect to my wireless router once I gave her the key. She'd gained a place for a Master's degree at Sheffield; fees paid up front; and had been ... cast out is the only way I can describe it ... by her father when she refused to marry a middle-aged, fat, boring business-man who was somehow connected to her father's business. I'm sure there was more to it than that, but that's what I got. She'd been expecting to live with her friends, which would have meant getting a part-time job as she didn't have enough money for rent and food for the year. That, technically, was illegal as she didn't have a work visa. Head down, she'd told me she'd hoped she would meet a nice young Englishman who would marry her so she could stay in Britain, though with a good degree and if she improved her English, she could hope to get a work visa even if she didn't marry.
Anyway, apart from learning about the city, she found an oriental foods market, tucked away somewhere I never went, and cooked Japanese meals for me. How did I ask her not to give me squid or raw fish again without offending her? I really didn't want to offend her.
We rode the bus out into Derbyshire and walked, or walked in the parks of Sheffield. I was surprised that a city girl would like the trees and the country, but she did.
The interlude came to an end when her course started and she was out of the house quite a lot. She made friends, of course and, I think, had a few dates, but I still saw quite a bit of her, mornings and most evenings. My Japanese improved, though not as fast as her English.
I half expected her to move out and live with some of her friends, but it seemed that wasn't going to happen; we were together for Christmas, which presented me with a problem; I have always been hopeless at buying gifts for women and had to settle for chocolate and toiletries. Unimaginative, I know.
I took her to the Midnight service at the Cathedral, which she thought 'very beautiful' in two languages and at length, we slept late and worked together to create a traditional Christmas meal ... she seemed genuinely interested as I explained the various elements.
When we exchanged gifts, I was touched that she'd made ... knitted or crocheted or something ... a sort of hat/scarf and matching gloves. Even better, I got a kiss, though that was going to make things a little difficult for me, I thought, later on. The meal was a great success and afterwards we walked off the excess calories in the park. It was bright and cold and I wore my present. Soon after we left the house, she slipped her hand into mine and I looked down in surprise. She'd never done that before.
Late February, I collected Hanako, Jamie and the girls from Heathrow. They were coming back to Sheffield so I could spend some time with Fujiko and Haruko and on the way I explained that I had a guest and something of the circumstances. Hanako was very quiet. It shouldn't have made such a difference as anyway they all slept in the living room on the futon; the second bedroom was nowhere big enough for them all. At tea-time, when Akemi came in from the University, the girls were asleep in my bed. Hanako was ... frostily polite, I suppose. She gabbled something at Jamie, to the effect he should go out with me for a drink, and get something to eat if we wanted. We looked at each other and shrugged.
I looked hard at my daughter-in-law. "Hanako, Akemi wa watashi no gesutodesu." (Hanako, Akemi is my guest.) She looked at me, then at Akemi, then at her husband, who frowned at her.
"Gomen nasai, Otu-san," she said to me with a formal little bow, "Gomen nasai, Akemi-san," to Akemi with another, deeper bow. (Sorry, Father. Sorry, Miss Akemi.)
I'd had more than enough driving for the day, so we walked up the hill to a local pub – part of a chain, you know the sort of thing? Indifferent, not too expensive, food, cheap booze, too many people, underpaid, young staff who none-the-less did their best for the customers. Over the meal we didn't say much, but as we finished our beer, Jamie volunteered, "I don't know what's got into Hanako, Dad, but ... she loves you, you know and it may be she thinks Akemi is, well, sponging off you."
I shrugged. "I've made all the running," I said. "I invited her in the first place, not that I could have just left her in Arrivals at Heathrow, and she's never asked me for a thing. Besides, she's company. I like having her around."
"Easy on the eye, too," Jamie commented.
"That, too," I agreed.
When we got back, it was clear that whatever the hostility had been about, an armistice had been agreed. The girls were awake and Hanako and Akemi were playing with them on the living-room floor.
They were all jet-lagged and worn out, though Fujiko and Haruko had got their second wind thanks to their nap, so would be awake longer than was really convenient. Akemi needed to go to bed – she had a lecture, or maybe a seminar, first thing in the morning – and I was tired too, after an early start and a long drive, so we left them to it in the living room.
In the morning, Akemi and I had Fujiko and Haruko to entertain while their parents slept off their exhaustion, then Akemi left and I got the girls dressed, teeth cleaned, and out of the door to wear off some energy at the playground. Fujiko is the adventurous one, loving the climbing equipment, while Haruko is mostly happy to be pushed in a swing.
Back at the house we found Hanako and Jamie contemplating toast and coffee, looking very jaded. I sat the girls in front of CeeBeebies and told Hanako and Jamie to go and get some fresh air. "I'll give the girls some lunch," I said, "You go and try to get your bodies back in synch with the clock."
I took them back to Essex four days later and expected things to get back to normal. Why was I surprised that they didn't?
By now, I ought to be used to things not working out the way I expect, but even after over sixty years I am constantly being surprised. When I took Jamie and his family to their home in Essex, I expected to go back to my fairly solitary life, enlivened somewhat by my little Japanese guest.
What happened was that Akemi was around much more and rarely went out in the evening. I have one of those contracts with the phone company that lets me ring ordinary numbers without paying extra. There is a cordless extension in each room, including my garage/workshop. I told Akemi she was welcome to use the phone freely for normal landline numbers and that she was welcome to use my mobile for calls to other mobiles; I never use all my free minutes usually. I found that she was spending quite a lot of time on the phone, but as she wasn't ringing overseas or premium rate numbers, I wasn't bothered. It was only much later I found she was spending hours talking to Hanako.
She'd always been good about helping out in the kitchen, but I found she was wanting to cook for both of us, three or four times a week, and often after we'd eaten, she was wanting me to put on a record of some music from my collection, which is eclectic. She found out I'd been interested in photography and had processed my own black-and-white pictures in the past, and pestered me to dig out my camera. We spent several happy Saturdays wandering around trying to find interesting subjects, in parks, in the country and in town. Once I'd finished a thirty-six exposure film, nothing would do but that I get chemicals and set up the darkroom (actually, the bathroom which is really inconvenient).
I had to talk her through developing the film, then we squeezed into the bathroom to make the prints. It's not a large space, though ample for one adult, or if bathing a child. Two adults together? You need to be friendly. It was no hardship, of course, to be in close proximity to such a delightful young woman. As I said... 'kawaii'. But we made some quite nice pictures together. I particularly liked some of Akemi with some ancient, small, gnarled, Sessile Oak trees – reaching out to one, leaning against another and smiling at the camera.
I suppose I have to confess I fantasised about her. But never did it enter my head to make a move on her. It wouldn't have occurred to me she might have been interested in me. Perhaps she might have responded from a sense of debt, of gratitude, and I'd have hated that.
I must try to avoid a couple of rants, here, on the corruption of language. In English, the word 'love' has been so abused it is difficult to know how it is being used. The Greeks have four different root words for different aspects of love; we have 'love' and 'like'. We might say 'I just love chocolate cake'. How do you tell someone you love them, meaning you feel something for them that is so powerful and central to your being that you can't imagine living without them? It is far too easy to say 'I love you' ... when what you mean is 'I fancy you like crazy' rather than, 'I want to spend the rest of my life with you'. Oh, and I just thought of 'adore'. How often do we use 'adore' these days?
Anyway ... one evening in late April I came in to the house after a late afternoon exam and she was busy in the kitchen. When she looked round, I didn't know what to make of her expression, but she gave me a little smile. Leaving what she was doing, she gently guided me to the living room and my favourite chair, and placed a glass of whisky in my hand. Well, I didn't know what was going on, but I wasn't about to argue.
When she called me to eat, she was wearing ... I suppose it was a kimono. I've never learned about Japanese clothing. Sort of ivory colour, with a broad sash round her waist – an obi – and flip-flop sandals.