- 'The Otter'
The cigarette fell from his fingertips one Monday evening.
He was sitting on the veranda, looking at the garden. The sliding screen that separated the house and veranda was open, and Atsuko, his wife, was kneeling in the tatami-matted room inside, folding the washing. She had yet again raised the contentious issue of whether to build on the garden.
Atsuko had been convinced it was a good idea by the estate agent. It was a good-sized plot and big enough for an apartment block. Takuji resisted, saying they might as well wait until he retired. That was three years away.
Takuji had inherited the place from his father, a man who loved trees and plants. The house was nothing to speak of, but the garden was rather fine. Each day after work Takuji would come straight home and sit for a while on the veranda, just looking at the garden. He enjoyed observing how the vegetation changed with the seasons. And there, amongst the plants, unchanging, was a small, solitary, stone pagoda.
As he watched the scene disappear into the gathering darkness, he would no longer resent his hour-and-a-half commute. Nor would he mind his position at work – Documentation Manager – a job with no prospects. The only prospect that interested him was the prospect over his garden.
Atsuko seemed to appreciate how her husband felt, and normally she let the matter drop quite quickly. But on that day she was strangely persistent. And Takuji responded with unusual irritation. 'If we build on the garden, I'm giving up work,' he said.
It was just then that the cigarette fell from his fingers.
Takuji thought it might be the wind. A breeze had suddenly lifted the cigarette from his fingers. That's what it felt like.
'Yes, the wind,' he muttered.
'There's no wind, I'm sure,' said Atsuko, 'If there was a wind the clothes would be dry, wouldn't they.' Coming out onto the veranda, she licked her forefinger and thrust it vertically in the air, candle-like. 'No, there's no wind at all.' [End Page 152]
Nine years younger than Takuji, Atsuko had a mischievous, rather immature side – perhaps, in part, because she had no children. Her eyes were small, bright and black, like watermelon seeds. Takuji watched them dance with delight, his wife revelling in her little performance. He could no longer be bothered to mention the cigarette.
It had landed on a stepping stone down below the veranda. There it lay, sending up a thin plume of smoke. As he picked it up, Takuji recalled the words of a medicine advertisement: 'Middle-aged? Numb hands? Numb feet?' It felt as though he were holding the cigarette through a glove. It was a strange sensation.
Looking back, this was the first sign of what was to come.
A few days later at work he suddenly found he could not remember the name of his boss, who was standing just in front of him.
It was either that day or the next that he went drinking with some colleagues and took a taxi home. When he climbed out of the car he lost all coordination in his limbs and fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. The taxi driver helped him, and he soon recovered. But this had been another sign.
One morning a week after he dropped the cigarette, he got up and went to fetch the newspaper from the letter box. Coming back he clutched at the frame of the sliding door and collapsed. He had had a stroke.
* * *
A grub was fidgeting in his head. It was a month after his stroke and the grub was fidgeting and squeaking behind his ears: chee chee, it went, chee chee, like a persistent, niggling memory.
He had recovered full consciousness about an hour after the stroke, but there was some paralysis in the right-side of his body. He could just about manage a walking stick, but chopsticks were much too difficult.
Atsuko was humming. She had been humming a lot since his stroke. She might have...