© Benjamin Parks

Shimoyama and the Absent Ghost

It was important that the prostitute be foreign, ideally newly arrived, not conversant in Japanese. Shimoyama wished to keep talk to a minimum. Furthermore, a foreigner would have more of an enterprising nature – or perhaps, as he was coldly aware, be economically deprived of choice – to agree to the service he desired. 

His planning was scrupulous: take the local to Sendai, then the bullet train on to Tokyo, arrival at six, find the pleasure district near Ueno station and let himself be approached on the stroll; after a show of reluctance, negotiation and deal. A simple enough transaction. And yet he was apprehensive. Was the pleasure district, run by yakuza mobsters and patrolled at night by a token police beat, safe for a schoolteacher from the sticks? Could he trust the woman not to attempt a grab at his wallet, or worse, short-change him on the service he desired? He shuddered to think the excursion might come to nothing. 

At the local station, a mannerly spat ensued. Ando waived any pay but Shimoyama insisted, aware that his father-in-law needed cash. Fares had dropped since the great tsunami and Ando refused to drive out to the devastated areas – half of Yamamoto was such – for fear that the passengers might be ghosts returning to their homes, addresses no longer in existence. Moreover, Shimoyama wanted no more debt, no more favours to repay Ando after everything he’d already incurred: the shelter and food, the assistance with the insurance, the old bicycle to get around. The tsunami had claimed Shimoyama’s house and every last possession inside, leaving him – who had escaped the wave gunning his truck up a nearby hill – with just the clothes on his back and a satchel full of history quizzes, useless now that there was nothing where the school had once stood. 

‘Be careful in Tokyo.’ Ando’s breath steamed like motor exhaust. ‘The food there’s weak for Tohoku people.’ 

Beyond the lamppost and the snow-covered tracks, in the darkness of the cedar woods leading all the way down to the sea, a face floated up for an instant. Muddied and torn, a dress flitted behind the trees. 

As the two men bowed and came up without their eyes meeting, neither displayed any emotion, not betraying in the slightest manner that they assumed the goodbye to be final, that for a long time and for reasons never voiced or reassessed, they wouldn’t see each other again. 


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