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Wen-suing met Jirou in Taipei.
“Come to Tainan,” Jirou had pleaded. “We need translators! Those fishermen, they can't speak Japanese, like you!”
Jirou had a vibrant personality that was intoxicating. A Japanese chef, who had sailed to Taiwan through a storm (he claimed) to take over his uncle's busy restaurant in the business district of Tainan. Wen-siung had laughed, and his parents had been angry when he told them he was leaving the family tea business. They accused him of being irresponsible, but he didn't care. He had packed his gramophone, his 78s, his books and clothes and moved to Tainan, which lay beneath the Tropic of Cancer, was fiercely hot in summer, and where the food was so much sweeter because of the fields of sugar cane.
The song “Rainy Night Flower,” sung in his native Taiwanese, warbled and crackled as the needle glided across the undulating surface of the record. Melancholia dampened Wen-siung's soul, as he recalled the joy of youth, to be part of the arty crowd of poets and musicians during that golden age in the 1930s, when he first arrived in Tainan. It had been heady indeed and alive with possibilities, when Japanese and Taiwanese culture fused, and they were drunk and high on their idealistic hopes for the future. He removed the record from the gramophone, it was no good, reminiscing like this, those days were well and truly over.
He needed to see Jirou, he could put it off no longer, and he noticed that darkness was now creeping over the city. He walked through the dusty back alleys, avoiding the crowded main streets, until he arrived at the restaurant. He spotted Jirou through the window, dressed in a kimono. Although Jirou was small and plump, with fists full of chubby fingers, he had a gracefulness about him. He could prepare sushi deftly like a magician, weave nimbly between tables, had a sharp memory, could memorize customers' names, their preferences. He was popular with ladies, despite his apple shaped body, because of his confident geniality but had never married because, he would laugh, he was too busy and overworked.
Wen-siung was about to step inside, then seeing two Japanese military officials, he hesitated, and feeling suddenly nervous, took a step back. Imaginary lines had been drawn in the sand. The mood of the country had changed.
Jirou spotted Wen-siung hovering in the doorway and called over his shoulder to someone in the restaurant, “Just ten minutes!” He wiped his hands on his stained apron and hurried to join Wen-siung. They moved to the bench next to the bottle tree, and Wen-siung was aware of the odour that was peculiar to Jirou, an evocative odour that detailed Jirou's life and personality more than simple words could. Soap imported from Osaka that hinted of tar and sulphur spas; a variety of fish, triggering memories of ocean voyages; stale tobacco and beer, surprisingly pleasant reminders of late night gatherings; sweat from long work hours. Wen-siung knew that Jirou's hair also smelt of steam and rice, even after it had been washed, and the oily smell of the sea would also linger after long steam baths. Jirou leaned towards Wen-siung, his warm greasy hand over Wen-siung's long thin fingers, holding his hand steady as he lit his cigarette from Wen-siung's. Then they moved apart slightly but close enough to feel the heat from each other's bodies.
They sat beside each other, watching the scene before them with a sense of unreality, as if in a faraway dream or a movie theatre. The raucous noise from the restaurant, the singing of the geisha, the steam that poured frantically, white and ghostly, from a vent in the kitchen, the string of red lanterns that dangled and waved in the evening breeze. The knowledge that it was coming to an end.
“My parents want me to return to Japan.” Jirou turned to look at Wen-siung, white-faced. “They feel it's no longer safe here. I'm leaving next week. You understand.”
Wen-siung felt his insides twist in agony, but he understood, blinking furiously to stop the tears falling.
“I thought, when things settle down, you could come to Japan!” Jirou tried to sound upbeat, positive, but his words fell flat through the smoke that curled from his mouth. He threw his cigarette to the ground and pulled a slip of paper from his apron pocket.
“Here, my address, I'll wait.” He pressed the folded paper into Wen-siung's palm, squeezing his hand, not wanting to let go.
Wen-siung felt a sudden dizziness, as Jirou held his hand, a deep icy fear as waves of blackness washed over his body like a tsunami. A sudden certainty, that they would never meet again. But he didn't want to acknowledge this fear, tried to tell himself he was being overdramatic, as he gripped Jirou's hand.
Jirou, openly crying now, wiping his eyes with his sleeve, hugged Wen-siung close.
“The address, please, we'll meet again, when all this is over. Promise.”
“Yes, I promise. Dear Jirou.” Wen-siung smiled.
Jirou rose abruptly; he could stand it no longer. He walked to the restaurant, shoulders hunched, without looking back.
Wen-suing returned home, taking Jirou's scrap of paper from his pocket. He smoothed the creases, noting the spidery writing, the greasy thumb print, the smell of oil and fish, and placed it carefully within the pages of his diary. He knew it was time to return to his family's tea farm in the mountains outside Taipei. It was no longer safe, Tainan may be targeted by American forces, he had been warned. He began to pack with a sadness so deep he could hardly breathe.
It was many years later when he discovered it, unpacking boxes, that had gathered dust during the war years and beyond. He felt a painful joy, when it fell from the pages of his diary, long forgotten. Yellowed brittle paper, spidery writing, an oily thumb print. A street address in Hiroshima.
Author’s note: This story was inspired by Hikuisu Restaurant in historic Tainan, a very old Japanese restaurant which survived the war and is now a tourist attraction.
|© 2023, Julie Dron||
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