Death always smells the same. Yuichi adjusted her blue plastic overalls then picked her way between the fast food containers, betting slips and soiled laundry littering the floor to pull back the curtains and let in the Osaka morning. Another day, another cleanup, another invisible death. The sofa carried the indentations, dark stained upholstery to one end and a few strands of short black hair on the other.
“Six months this one. They said they had trouble separating flesh from the vinyl.” Takeshi came through the front door, cleaning cart in tow. “Wouldn’t have known except for the cats.”
Takeshi wasn’t cruel; it was the necessary armor for the job. Yuichi had to treat each one as a thing, forget the person who had lived and suffered and died alone. There was only enough room to mourn one and that space was filled.
The cleaning wasn’t difficult. The bodies were all desiccated flesh, fluids drained into furniture or floor to be discarded beyond repair. The rest just stubborn stains, piles of ingrained filth, remnants of grating lives abandoned to isolation in a world of cheek to jowl connection.
The boxing’s confronting, to get the meager assortment of things sorted and tagged. Old photographs, smiling faces and bright eyed children staring out watching a stranger remove the last earthly trace of an unknown other. Yuichi’s armor had thickened, nothing moved her, all of it intellectual curiosity as she traded time for the means to survive.
Just past midday they stood at the doorway looking past two small sealed cartons to a clean, freshly aired room. Seventy-five years walking this earth and all that remains would fit under my sink. Takeshi placed two orange garbage bags on the cart. Yuichi bowed deeply, stepped backwards and closed the door.
“You always do that. They do not see or care.”
“Once someone did. Forgetting is impolite.”
“Whatever. Lunch then see what’s next?”
Her boss like all bosses was tight fisted. The cheap soba was in character, keeping her hand out of his pocket. Yuichi slurped away steadily.
Takeshi reached for a pen. “They have a small one for tomorrow but my daughter has an appointment. You will be able to manage by yourself.”
It was no request. It never was.
He scrawled hurriedly on a napkin.
“I will leave the cart inside the door tonight. This is the address and entry code. I will meet you there at 6pm tomorrow.”
It could not be called an apartment. Shared bathroom and kitchen, what was left barely six paces across. She pushed past the cart to pull up the blind, the wall of concrete and glass opposite blocking all but the faintest reflection of a smog tinted day.
It’s a mistake, perhaps Takeshi had already done the work. No, a check of the address said it was the right place, the folded orange bags and stacked empty boxes awaited her attention. The room was nearly bare. Just the stale scent of decay blanketing a wooden chair and table, a framed photograph, a small pile of soiled clothes. An hour’s work, maybe less. Perhaps Takeshi was softening, handing over easier jobs.
An elderly woman four months dead, it did not seem to fit. Where had she lain? Yuichi looked down to two small patches on threadbare carpet in front of the chair. It didn’t matter, the police would work through that.
It was finished, ready to close yet her age and the room’s dankness conspired against her knees. Three pm, three hours to wander until Takeshi returns. Perhaps I will wait, sit for a while. She wouldn’t object.
The chair was hard but comfortable, a western design with scallops for her buttocks. She relaxed into it quickly. With the window open the late afternoon breeze eventually turned cold on her shoulders. She couldn’t close it, had to let the room air, so she lifted the chair to move it back against the wall. Arthritic fingers failed, the chair slipping from her grip to fall across the table. Something dislodged itself, rolled to a stop at her feet. A small, dark disc. Yuichi picked it up. Where did it come from? She couldn’t see any part of the table missing or broken. Takeshi was strict and the police were firmer, no theft or breakages permitted. She heard him coming down the corridor. She slid the disc into her pocket with her tack rag just as his face popped round the doorway.
“I hope you did not work too hard today. A simple one after that run of bad, you could do with a little rest.”
“It was exceptionally clean Takeshi-san.”
“They said she hardly ate or came out of her room, she wasn’t really here anyway. I will drive you home, I have the van outside.”
My apartment’s no larger than hers, a single room with bathroom and kitchenette. I left the curtains open this morning, the ten story J-pop neon now lighting the apartment as day. I used to track the days by name, then by the work that came, now by the pain. My back says it’s mid-week, by the time my legs scream it will be my rest day.
I pour a lukewarm cup of tea and sit heavily opposite the low display cabinet. His face stares back from the frame younger, confident, proudly in love. I can’t remember why I keep it, his confidence and strength a shattered lie bringing the rest of my world down when he left.
I carefully fold and place my clothes on the floor ready for tomorrow. The disc falls, rolls a short distance to stop in the cracked linoleum. I pick it up and absent mindedly spin it. Thin, smooth and cool to the touch, a curiosity from a dead woman to a dying one.
The disc is strangely captivating sliding across my palm; I really should return it to the police, let it lie unclaimed for a year then be incinerated. Would it hurt just this once to hold onto something, a small reminder of a life passed unnoticed? I place the disc between the frames.
Small reminders, all that was left for many, all that is left me. His was the one love, enough while it lasted. I should forgive, should understand the pain to him was as great as mine, but time has entombed his fragility in the walls of my sorrow.
A six year old’s pretend scowl stares out at me. Ashima at cherry blossom time in the avenue, rose colored petals at her feet. The disc glowed unnoticed from deep indigo to dark blue. Oh how Ashima demanded that costume, the pins and clips bunching the sack-like kimono away from the camera’s telltale eye until her delight with the final picture. Another perfect day in a perfect little life, a perfect little family safe inside the salary man bubble dissolving a week later as Ashima lay broken at the bottom of the stairs and he abandoned me to my fate.
The dark blue pales with my tears, small hesitant travellers down the lined and pockmarked landscape of experience. Each night I cry, each night I mourn for her, for forty empty years and the lives stolen from me. Pale blue rises unnoticed to white as I screw my eyes closed struggling to bring a scrap of Ashima’s laughter back, her smell, the strength in a child’s hug. I fail as I always do, screaming silent curses to my impotent ancestors.
“Mummy, why are you crying?”
Why do they taunt me, taking even her memory from me to dangle the ravings of a shattered mind before me?
“Open your eyes, the blossoms are falling and the sky is blue.”
Perfumed scent enfolds me, the breeze gently tousling my hair. My eyes open to a clear day, cherry blossom avenue, the impossible.
“Ashima? What are you doing here?”
“It’s my birthday, you promised I could cosplay.”
“No, no I mean you’re here? You are aren’t you?”
“You’re silly, the costume’s not that good.”
The white soars to rainbow incandescence, the beauty lost to unseeing eyes.
“How long do we have?”
“Today and tomorrow and the next and forever and ever.”
Ashima bounded over wrapping her arms around me. Strong arms, apple scented hair, soft cheeks.
“I want the photo first and then the pandas, the little baby ones.”
She unhooked her arms, grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet.
“Can I have some ice-cream? Just a little, I promise I won’t spoil dinner.”
“Of course, of course you can.”
“Good. You can have the vanilla, I’ll eat the strawberry. I love you mummy.”
“I love you too sweetheart.”
The disc glows translucent, Yuichi as stone in the chair unmoving, unseeing, unaware. The night fell into day back to neon night to weeks, an unnoticed procession as it glows, as Yuichi remains.
Yuichi drew her last breath and was stilled.
The disc faded to deep indigo and waited.