‘Ueno, please,’ she says, ducking her head as she gets into the back seat.
I nod and pull the lever beneath my steering wheel, which automatically closes the rear doors. We set off in silence. She’s wearing a pink kimono with a sakura blossom pattern, ever so subtle. From the looks of her traditional hairstyle, I’d say she’s from out of town. Women in Tokyo don’t wear their hair like that anymore. Reckon she’s from a town with a bit of history—somewhere like Kyoto maybe. Rich, very well to do. Wouldn’t like to guess her age, that wouldn’t be very gentlemanly. Sometimes if I’m bored, I try to work out what kind of person a passenger is. It’s good to weigh someone up when they get in, try to guess who they are, what they do and where they’re going. I don’t make a habit of prying into their lives though. Most of the time I just focus on the road. Try not to be nosey. People’s business is their own.
‘Lovely spring day, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘Most certainly is,’ I reply.
‘Years since I’ve seen the blossoms in Tokyo.’ She sighs.
‘Come far, have you?’
‘Kanazawa. I don’t come to Tokyo often. It’s a treat for me.’
‘Well, I hope you enjoy your stay.’
‘Thank you.’ In the rearview mirror, I catch her smile.
We go quiet again for a bit, but then she carries on the conversation.
‘Have you ever been to Kanazawa?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I haven’t really travelled much.’
‘I suppose you must work a lot.’
‘A fair bit, yes.’
‘I’m here to see my son. Do you have any children?’
‘Yes, a daughter.’
‘Where does she live?’
‘Wonderful! What does she do there?’
I have to brake slightly because the traffic lights have changed to red. ‘Married to an American. Nice guy—loves to drink. Likes his beer and shochu. Had a great time when they came to visit at New Year. It’s always sad to see them leave. She’s expecting soon. Who would believe it? Me, a grandfather!’
‘You don’t look old enough to be a grandfather. How old are you?’
‘Will you and your wife go visit New York when the baby is born?’
I’m not sure what to say, I don’t want to bring the mood down. ‘I hope so.’
‘You’ll both have a wonderful time.’
She would’ve, yes. ‘I hope so.’
When we arrive at Ueno she pulls crisp bills from her purse and thanks me as she pays. I give her change, then pull the lever to open the rear door. Handy thing, these auto doors. Bet they don’t have them on the yellow cabs in New York. She bows her head to me, and I bow back. She places a hand under her kimono expertly as she’s leaving the taxi. Then she’s out on the streets and meeting up with three other ladies her age, all dressed in kimono that match the colours of spring. They’re headed towards the park.
The revellers are out in full today. They sit beneath the blossoms, drinking beers, eating bento, passing around plastic containers of fried chicken from the convenience store. Some of the older men are drunk already—fallen asleep on the blue tarpaulins spread across the ground. Everyone’s lined their shoes up neatly by the tarps. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes—mostly the black shoes of salarymen, but there are sandals, high heels and sneakers too. I wonder how many people lose shoes in the hanami chaos.
I wish I could join them, drinking beneath the trees. But I need to get lunch and take a quick nap. Catnapping is the only way to get through the long shift—8 AM till 4 AM the next day. I hardly spend any time at home, but that suits me fine. I don’t really like being alone in the house. Empty spaces are the biggest reminder of what was there before. The negative space. The gap in the bed, the vacant chair, the pair of chopsticks that stay in the drawer unused, the rice bowl that sits on the shelf next to the soup bowl, all dusty now.
I stop in at the convenience store to buy a bento and a bottle of green tea. All the food and drink packaging in the store is decorated with cherry blossoms, and I’m tempted by the colourful pink designs on the cans of beer. Bah, work. I usually eat my lunch in the car. Then I can listen to some music. I’ve got a Cat Stevens CD in the player at the moment. Sometimes I play it when I’m driving, but some of the customers complain. Best to listen to music on my breaks, or when I’m driving alone. As I’m driving down a side road I see the perfect place to stop for lunch—under a cherry blossom tree that hangs out over the road, providing a bit of shade. I sit in the car, put on Father and Son and eat my bento and drink my tea, looking up at the cherry blossoms. It’s my own private hanami.
After I finish eating, I put the seat back, and stretch out with my hands behind my head and look up at the blossoms. A strong gust of wind hits the petals and now they’re falling down onto the windshield like a blizzard of cherry-coloured snowflakes. I close my eyes and imagine the petals falling on my face.
* * *
I’m dreaming. I know I’m dreaming, because I’m in Dad’s study and he’s still alive. I’m watching him write his stories. He’s using the old fountain pen he gave to me before he died. He’s carefully marking out kanji characters in bright blue ink on square manuscript sheets. He looks up as I walk into the study and he smiles. There are neat piles of paper everywhere, ready to be sent off to editors and publishers. Books in wobbly stacks. The lower corner-section of his bookcase is filled with all the rakugo books that my older brother, Ichiro, used to read over and over.
I’ve still got the pen, but now it’s sitting in a drawer. Haven’t used it in years. I promised him I’d write more poems. I never did, not since I met her. Once I met her, I just didn’t feel the need to write anymore. And then when Ryoko was born, all I wanted to do was work, to earn money for them. To make them happy.
When I look back at my father’s face again, it’s changed to my brother’s.
Ichiro was always the storyteller, the famous one.
And now he’s gone too.
I couldn’t even call him to tell him when she died.
* * *
The alarm on my smartphone wakes me. The sun is shining in through the cab window, and I’m sweating. My back is aching badly. I open the glove compartment and scrabble around for the pot of pills. My fingers fumble with the cap and I find it hard to get a pill in my grasp. I put it on my tongue and taste its bitterness, wash it down with the dregs of my tea. Then I put on a clean pair of white driving gloves, set my hat on straight, check myself in the mirror, and drive on.
When I’m passing by Ueno Station a salaryman in his thirties flags me down. He gets in silently and we head off.
‘Akihabara,’ he says, looking out the window.
Outside the buildings snake and swarm around us. The sun is high, and the midday heat is roasting the asphalt. Shimmering heat waves hang in midair. I put on the air conditioner. The glass high risers of the electrical district reflect the sky’s deep blue, smatterings of white fluffy clouds transposed on the windows of grey concrete boxes. If I had my pen, I’d write this stuff down. Dad would’ve liked it.
When we pass a gaggle of foreign tourists on the sidewalk, the salaryman says, ‘Is it me, or is this city crawling with gaijin these days?’
He cracks his knuckles. I shiver.
‘Yes, it makes me proud—’
‘It makes me sick.’ He’s not listening.
‘Is that so?’
‘Coming here, disrespecting our culture. Don’t even speak Japanese.’ He snorts.
‘They come here, trample on our temples, shrines and graves. They disrespect our history, our culture. They go to bars, drink too much and grope our women. They treat us like idiots.’
‘My apologies, Kyaku-sama, but, well, it’s probably my misunderstanding, but I thought they came because they’re interested in our culture…’
‘Oh, you think so, eh?’ He makes a funny spluttering sound in his throat, like I’ve said the stupidest thing in the world. ‘The Americans dropped bombs on us, castrated us, made us accept their peace. Not our peace, their peace. And now we stand by and let the Chinese take the Senkakujima islands from us, while the Koreans try to steal Takeshima Island. We’ve become the joke of Asia, because we let everyone walk over us. Gaijin don’t respect Japan, or our culture. It makes me sick.’
What a load of bollocks, is what I think, but I can’t say that to a customer.
‘I see,’ is what I say.
‘Thanks. I’ll get out here.’
I stop the car and he pays his fare. As I’m giving him his change, he passes me a card.
‘If you’re interested.’
I look at the card as he’s walking away. Embossed in gold it says The Rising Dragon Party. Uyoku dantai—a right-wing political group. I look out the window and see him disappearing into a maid café. I shake my head and slip the card into my little rubbish bag in the footwell.
Over the next few hours I pick up a few passengers here and there—a group of high school girls on their way to karaoke, a couple of sumo wrestlers who make the car creak and tip backwards slightly, a friendly old professor with a stack of secondhand books he bought in the bookshops of Jinbōchō. By sundown I’m working the area around Tokyo Station. The office blocks of Marunouchi are emptying as the working day comes to an end. Most of the senior workers were out all day under the cherry blossoms drinking, but now the juniors are getting out from the offices and hurrying to join the festivities. I ferry a young guy from the taxi rank outside Tokyo Station on his way to Shimbashi. Looks like he’s been drinking on the train a bit already. Probably on a business trip from out of town.
‘Sorry, could you drive a bit slower,’ he says, coughing.
‘Certainly, sir. Sorry about that.’
‘It’s OK, I just… I just….’
‘Are you alright?’ I’m already pulling over.
‘I need to—’ he makes a retching sound, and he’s covering his mouth with his hand.
I whip out a sick bag from my side pocket and pass it to him as quick as I can. I look the other way as he vomits. I hear the splattering of watery solid against the bag’s paper base. The smell is already at my nostrils, so I cover my nose with my hand discreetly, and crack the window open a bit.
‘Sorry,’ he says.
‘Please, sir. It happens. Don’t apologize.’ I smile at him and see a long strand of saliva linking his lips to the bag’s edge. I pass him the silk handkerchief from my jacket pocket.
‘Thank you.’ He wipes his face then offers the handkerchief back to me.
‘Keep it,’ I say. ‘Are you alright to carry on?’
‘I think so. Can we take it a bit slower?’
‘And, can you put on some music, please?’
‘Sure. Do you like Cat Stevens?’
‘Love him.’ He smiles.
The city glides at night. It stutters during the day, with the bumper-to-bumper traffic. But at night, the roads clear, and my cab cruises seamlessly from one fare to another. The concrete sings a quiet tune beneath my tyres. It’s like the whole city is on ball bearings, moving around me, and I’m the one in the centre holding everything together. I like the sensation. It reminds me of something I always think about before I go to sleep, have done ever since I was a kid. My futon becomes a magic carpet, and I can fly around the streets while lying down. People look at me and point as I fly by, and sometimes I slow down to chat.