The Sinking World (Chapter Five)

5

Case 144B

Transcript for case 144B.

August 16, 1994. 6.43pm.

Police Sergeant, Masaru Tanaka (MT) interviewed by representative for Toko-Life Insurance (TL). Representative to remain anonymous for the purpose of this interview.

Interview conducted in recovery ward B16, Self-Defence Forces Shiranami Eastern Hospital.

Sgt Tanaka is compos mentis but may ask for interview to be cut short due to severe breathing difficulties.

TL: Mr Tanaka, let us start by expressing our relief at your speedy recovery following the events of February 28th. As you will already know from our previous correspondence, when a public servant makes a claim with Toko-Life, we have to conduct a short interview. It’s a mere formality in your case, Mr Tanaka, as no one would refute the severity of your injuries. However, company policy clearly states that the claimant must describe the reason for their grievances in full. If you wish us to return at a more convenient time this can be arranged, but please be aware that your settlement may…

(MT interrupts TL with raised hand).

MT: Ask your questions.

TL: Very well, Mr Tanaka. Please could you describe the events of February 28th in as much detail as possible? Pay particular attention to any actions resulting in your hospitalisation.

MT: Can’t you just read my original statement?

TL: Please, Mr Tanaka, we need to hear this from you in person.

MT: Have it your way. My wife and I live only fifteen kilometres from the —— estate so I was first to arrive on the scene. I found the homeowner, ——– —— lying unconscious in the forecourt.  He was in a mess, certainly in no condition to be moved, so I left him for the paramedics. When I entered the house… (coughs violently/ spits into cardboard tray) There were bodies… (coughing continues/ brief intervention from nurse) And the girl.

TL: The daughter of Mr ——. Do you still maintain she was your attacker? That she killed all of those men?

MT: Of course, I don’t have a brain injury (coughing bout returns/ nurse arranges breathing apparatus).

MT: Incidentally, why do you say men?

TL: I don’t follow. Are you certain you’re up to this, Mr Tanaka?

MT: You said she killed all of those men.

TL: Yes, there were twelve male victims in total. I’m surprised you weren’t made aware of this.

MT: And the women of the household?

TL: A few were discovered hiding in the walk-in freezer. The rest had fled across the riding paddocks to the stable blocks.

MT: Do you have the case report on you?

TL: Yes, but…

(MT turns to nurse and asks whether the ward has a photocopier).

MT: I want a copy of that report.
TL: This is highly irregular, Mr Tanaka. I can’t just hand over sensitive material. I could lose my job.

MT: And I could sue the NPA for withholding information. If being a party to that is really in Toko-Life’s best interests, then by all means, keep hold of your document.

(TL gives MT case report <legal bound/ 49 pages> MT hands nurse document/ insists on photocopy/ nurse complies. Nurse returns/ MT hands original back to TL before reading copy).

TL: Mr Tanaka, if you are well enough to continue please could we finish the interview? I have other clients to see this afternoon.

MT:(not looking up from document) You want to know why I’m in here? An eight-inch kitchen knife cracked three of my ribs before collapsing my left lung. I’d be in the basement morgue if my wife hadn’t packed my hard-vest that morning. While it seems implausible that a fourteen-year-old girl could do this to a grown man, my colleagues verified my account at the time.

TL: The same colleagues who now refute your account of events? Is it possible you were mistaken?

MT: (looks up from document) I know what I saw. Or maybe you think I should claim for a brain injury?

TL: Not at all, Mr Tanaka. I’m simply saying that if your account does not corroborate with that of your colleagues’, your settlement could run into difficulties.

MT: You mean it could be delayed. That’s not gonna happen. Listen, I understand why my colleagues did it. If they wanted any shot at a future promotion they had to distance themselves. I’m not bitter; I worked with some of those men for over a decade. In fact, I hope one of them lands my job.

TL: You don’t plan on returning to work?

MT: This settlement will make up for the money I’ll be losing through voluntary retirement. That’s why it can’t be delayed (skim reads through document and settles on a page). To ensure this, I’m going to amend my initial statement. I’d like it to be known that my attack was not carried out by the fourteen-year-old daughter of ——– ——, but by the terrorist cell who assassinated city governor, ——– ———.

TL: Mr Tanaka, you can’t simply read the material in the case report and pass it off as your own.

MT: What case report? (drops document into bedpan) How would I come by one of those?

TL: Well I guess we’re done here. You shouldn’t hear from us until arrangements for the settlement are finalised. Good afternoon, Mr Tanaka.

The Sinking World (Chapter Four)

4

Animal Testing

Though we’re at least a few blocks clear of The Crying Lemon, I still shrink away from the open at the sound of distant police sirens. My mac is soaked in alcohol and my slippers in gore and though the rain is helping to clear the stench, I’m still a mobile crime scene.

I find shelter beneath the awning to a traditional handicraft shop, sitting cross-legged at the base of the window in the only dry patch available. The display houses patchwork dolls with buttons for eyes, tea containers made from cuts of bamboo, patterned sushi dining sets, plush floor cushions, and rolls of hand-dyed fabric. It seems a strange shop to find in Yōkoso Harbour. The merchandise would better suit a country home many miles from the coast.

My apartment is lost. I know that. It’s a shame because I’d begun to feel its heartbeat: the way the water spluttered from every tap; the ping from the kitchen radiator as it heated up; the family of mice scurrying behind the kitchen units; the sort of sensations that make a home. I know if the front door is left unlocked it can swing open of its own accord and though there’s nothing of real value inside, I dread the thought of setting up another homebrew kit from scratch. I couldn’t care less about Nanashi’s opinion of my saké, there’s just no way I’m going back to stealing bottles.

“You reek,” he says. “Ditch that mac of yours.”

“No chance. Even if it were ripped to shreds, I’d still keep it.”

“Your attachment to that miserable garment will be our downfall.”

“Akemi gave me this coat and it’s all I have left of her. How would you feel about throwing your mask?”

“What a ludicrous comparison. I’m not asking you to harvest your organs.”

I reach into my mac pocket and lift out Greaser’s stolen possessions. There’s a leather wallet, a blue asthma inhaler and a crumpled pack of Seven Stars cigarettes. If we do get caught, I don’t want anything connecting us to his murder.

Opening the wallet, I hesitate over a disturbing photo. A woman poses on a garden chair with a toddler on her knee. The child is grinning, but the woman’s face has been burnt away with a cigarette end. Is this Greaser’s family? Why would he deface her like that? This isn’t helping my state of mind.

Inside the money compartment is a stack of crisp 10,000¥ notes. How does a low paid door attendant come by so much cash? I take enough to live it up in Tokyo for a solid month then reach to the side and drop the wallet through a sewer grating.

“Jackpot! I bet that’s more than those whores make in a year,” Nanashi says. “We should visit String Beetle for a Junmai fountain.”

Occasionally Nanashi and I will spend an evening pick pocketing. Around Christmas time, after a particularly profitable shift in the city, I treated Nanashi to a Junmai fountain at the String Beetle restaurant. I’d take him there every evening if I could. The restaurant serves its famous cocktail via taps that rise up from the centre of the table. Customers are supposed to refill glass tumblers, but since Nanashi is invisible to others, I just let him glug straight from the taps. He left more alcohol on the surface of the table than in his stomach. That night I got away with blaming a faulty tap and they didn’t even charge me for my meal. People don’t get that lucky twice.

“We need to spend this money carefully,” I say. “The cops could trace it.”

“We should hire a night ferry from the quayside. We can afford one with on-board entertainment. I crave the company of sophisticated women, especially when they’re serving saké by sea.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I said carefully.”

“Shoki, I’m getting thirsty.”

He’s being sincere. Splinters have started to emerge across the surface of his mask, and his numerous limbs have turned the consistency and colour of peeled corn. If he goes without alcohol for too long he’ll dehydrate, killing us both in the process. At least, that’s what he’s led me to believe.

“That small newsagents on the way to the train station opens soon,” I say. “I’ll get you a bottle there.”

“Train station? Where are we headed?”

“Shiranami.”

“Excellent. Are we stopping for the day?”

“You mean are we hanging out in the arcade?”

“Well are we?”

“I need to meet with Gotō…”

“And after that?”

“I’m getting straight out of there. You’ve seen what the city’s done to Mama.”

He stretches out a tendril so that it clears the awning and when he sends the heat through it fizzes and steams in the rain. “Always blaming everything but her. At least I acknowledge my addictions.”

“You don’t have a clue what she’s been through.”

“You’re wrong, I know exactly what she’s been through and it’s no more than any other hopeless creature wasting space on this exceedingly cramped island.”

“As sympathetic as ever.”

I rest my head back for a moment only to be interrupted by another siren. It’s closer this time, maybe a block away at most. At the same time a police cruiser edges silently out from a side street like a conger eel poised in a crevice. We turn at the same time, argument abandoned instantly.

“You think they’re still looking for the girl?” I ask.

“That’s no longer your concern.” He directs a number of fingers towards the eastern skyline. Rising above the rooftops are the recently built sumo stables, a training complex for professional wrestlers. The previous summer the mayor of Yōkoso Harbour unveiled the stables by cutting a rope with a commemorative silver axe, a ceremony typically performed by ship builders to launch new vessels. It doesn’t look much like a boat to me; more like a gigantic steaming basket, the interior filled with sticky rice, each grain the size of a baked potato.

Yōkoso Harbour is famous for producing many of Japan’s national sumo champions. Triangular yellow flags surround the roof of the stables, each one representing a past winner. There are countless theories as to why great wrestlers are made on this coastline. Some say it begins with a diet of our celebrated kelp. Others believe our men are descended from ­­­­the war god Hachiman himself. Personally, I’ve never understood the sport. Sumo hardly seem athletic to me, more like a bunch of overeaters who never really got over being bullied at school.

“Keep your head down and stick to the walls,” Nanashi says.

I take the next left from the handicraft shop, following Nanashi’s outstretched limbs as if dowsing for water. The emergency vehicles are gathering, their blue and red lights staining the haze of fine rain above distant buildings.

After navigating a few back alleys too narrow for vehicles to enter, I step out onto Salt Ring Street. The sumo stables loom large, a proud symbol to some, an eyesore to most. As we approach, there’s a distinct smell in the air, a mixture of sweat, straw and something that brings images of cattle to mind. The yellow flags fluttering in the dark high above us sound like roosting bats.

“The wrestlers won’t start training for hours,” Nanashi says. “Perfect spot to lie low.”

“What about your thirst?”

“We’ll treat the police sirens like claps of thunder. When they’re far enough apart, we’ll know the storm has died down. That’s when we’ll move on.”

“How do we get in there?”

“A rear door. I spotted it on the way back from the noodle vendor yesterday. It’s the cleaners’ entrance.”

“You notice the strangest things.”

“I notice what’s important.”

Following the smooth contours of the stables, we arrive at a small door, barely visible against the wood panelling of the building. The entrance is secured with a padlock.

Removing my journal, I turn to the front page, revealing a plastic baggie stapled to the inside cover. It contains hairclips of varying design. I remove one with a pink and green enamel flower at one end. Unable to twist the flower off by hand, I place the hairclip on the ground and strike it with a rock. With the flower removed, I ease the pin into the padlock to gauge its depth and mechanics. Satisfied, I slide it back out and then delicately bend the metal prongs. Finally, returning pin to lock, I search for the sweet spot and with a subtle click it opens.

“You’ve come a long way since your father’s liquor cabinet,” Nanashi says.

I flinch at the mention of Papa.

Moving inside, the cattle smell increases twofold, though I’ll take it over the booze and blood of The Crying Lemon. The electrics are off, but white chalk lining four sparring rings creates its own natural light. I’m drawn to a sound at the back of the hall. Passing between thick wooden poles and over lengths of rope pinned to the floor, we come to a row of slatted shelves supporting laundered sumo belts. The noise is coming from an industrial heater left on overnight to dry the belts and warm the stables before morning practice.

Sliding a few belts to one side, marvelling at their weight, I hop up and lie flat.

“Unless you want my finger in an orifice as an alarm clock, I wouldn’t fall asleep,” Nanashi warns.

“Why did Faintfoot stop on the pavement below our apartment? Could she sense us watching her?”

“Will answering arbitrary questions keep you awake?”

I nod. “It was unexpected. It’s hard to imagine her hesitating for anything.”

“She was asking for permission to cross the street.”

“Permission?”

“Red Gate isn’t her territory.”

“It’s owned by someone?”

“Every street belongs to the dead. Some old crone presides over Red Gate, though her name now escapes me.”

I sit up, using my forearms for support. “I didn’t think they could stick around for long. Now you’re saying they can be landowners?”

“That part’s irrelevant. She just happens to be the oldest of the dead and therefore the most entitled. Their ability to ‘stick around’, as you put it, usually depends on motivation. The crone’s an exception to this, having been nominated Red Gate supervisor and gifted a prolonged afterlife.”

“How do you know all of this?”

“She filled me in while you were having one of your occasional naps.”

“She was in our apartment?”

“There were always spirits in the apartment.”

I shudder, picturing dead eyes watching me sleep.

“I’ll give you a more specific example,” Nanashi continues. “I heard about this factory worker in Osaka who’d booked tickets to see a World Cup match with his boy. It was supposed to be a bonding session between father and son before the old man was due in hospital for a brain operation. Anyway, days before the start of the competition, his aneurism burst and he died without having told his son about their planned trip to Yokohama Stadium. But he was determined. He used whatever willpower he had left to guide his boy to the office drawer where the tickets were stashed. He even had enough time to sit in the stands while his wife and kid watched the game.” His mask becomes dense and grey like wet concrete. “Faintfoot needs no willpower when revenge is her motivation. She’ll stop at nothing until Gotō’s in the ground. Only then will she join her ancestors.”

 “But she must still have a mind of her own. Why else would she ask for permission to enter Red Gate? Maybe she can be reasoned with?”

“If you think she can talk though her issues, you’re gravely mistaken. That girl is now a shell emptied off all humanity.”

“So Gotō’s next and I can’t do a thing about it.”

“Not my concern.”

“Not your concern! Maybe I should stop making saké my concern? Maybe I should just lie here over this heater until your mask’s dry enough to flake apart?”

“Torture me all you want. You’ll only be subjecting yourself to the same desperate thirst. Maybe you should test me? If you knew true suffering maybe you wouldn’t rush headlong into every situation I advise against.”

“So visit a brothel because they serve fabulous drinks but don’t mess with the spirit there or she’ll likely turn you inside out. That’s your advice?”

“And don’t you wish you’d taken it?”

I lie flat and roll over to face the wall.

“Let’s change the subject,” he says. “What to do with the doorman’s bankroll? Considering we’re already here, we should stake the money on a few matches. The box-office opens in a few hours and I have a failsafe method of picking winners. A fighter’s size is just a distraction; the true champ’s crowned before he’s even stepped into the ring. Take the famous Kōji Takanohana; on the rare occasion of losing a bout, his eyes would always give him away.”

I can’t ignore the irony. Nanashi stole the money he now wants to gamble from the still-warm corpse of an ex-wrestler. He has no respect for the dead.

“Mama’s having the money,” I mumble, barely conscious as waves of heat rise up against my cheek.

Nanashi goes rigid and imagine he looks like a statue of a Hindu goddess with dozens of arms.

“Not till you’ve replaced my possessions,” he says.

“What possessions? You didn’t own anything.”

“The homebrew kit was mine.”

“You’ve changed your tune. Just a few hours ago you said my saké was rancid. Besides, I got the parts, I put it together and I did the brewing. What did you do?”

His tendrils slide around my throat. “It was mine,” he hisses.

I bolt upright. “Get off!”

He flexes until I can barely breathe.

“Your mother will blow it all on Pachinko!” he growls. “A quarter million yen spent feeding ball-bearings into a bottomless machine!”

When we moved to the city, Mama started visiting the Pachinko parlours, sprawling amusement arcades filled with rows of slot machines. These days she spends what little money she has sustaining her addiction. I’ve tried talking her out of it, but she just acts like nothing’s wrong. She stopped listening to anyone after Papa left.

I point rapidly at my neck and Nanashi releases his hold on my windpipe. Doubling over, I begin to cough violently, my eyes streaming with tears.

“I want her clear of that terrible apartment building,” I say, dapping my eyes on a sumo belt. “If she moves to the Harbour, at least she’ll be shot of the parlours.”

“And what about us?”

“What about us?”

“Where are we to stay?”

“The memorial park will do for now.”

“You can’t be serious! Open air, grass… trees. I’ll suffocate.”

“It’s only for a few nights.”

“We should at least stay in a hotel with room service. We could have Misty Ginza’s on tap! Just a quick call downstairs and they’d arrive on one of those classy metal trays with folded serviettes. C’mon, you’ve always liked watching the dry ice settle over that cherry-red base.” He pauses, tapping his mask thoughtfully. “I should’ve guessed. It’s down to him, isn’t it? That’s why we’re headed for the park.”

“It’s safe there.”

“Safe in his arms you mean.”

“Tiger’s just a friend.”

“So you know who I’m talking about.”

“I don’t know anyone else!”

“A so-called friend shouldn’t have that hunger in their eyes.”

Some of the homeless men staying in the memorial park have the hunger Nanashi’s referring to. Like urban foxes, they’re always looking for something vulnerable to drag from the open and tear apart behind the bushes. Tiger is not one of them.

“We’re staying there and that’s final!” I slide down from the shelf. “I need some air.”

“The streets may not be clear yet.”

“I don’t care if they’re swarming with cops; I can’t take another minute in here with you.”

“Fine with me. Seems I’ll be getting my saké sooner than expected.”

Stepping outside, I replace the padlock and make my way back around to the front entrance.

Nanashi tilts his head back to allow raindrops from the overhanging roof to patter off his mask. “I must hide from this rain. Exposing every sin of heart and skin. I shall wait for the sun and for freedom. Thereupon, I shall dance until my palms burn blossom pink.”

“Is that poetry?”

“Quick as ever. Don’t suppose you’ve heard it before?”

I shake my head.

“Can’t say I’m surprised when the radio’s flooded with tedious J-pop sung by artists valued for their hairstyle over their talent.”

From the stables, we head away from the harbour front and into a dimly lit alleyway. Something blocks the path and I have to clamber around a spilled container of tissue packets advertising the Satellite of Love Hotel. The packets look to have been spread out strategically and it’s not hard to imagine that if I followed their trail, I’d soon arrive at the hotel entrance.

“Who wrote the poem?” I ask.

“The celebrated Yokohamian, Magohachi Shintaro. Died in 1923 and not from the earthquake surprisingly. Your ancestor was a close personal friend of his and something of a poet himself.”

“You don’t mention them much.”

“I didn’t think you were into poetry.”

“Not poets. I mean my ancestors.”

“If I started listing their inestimable virtues, I’m sure it would only demotivate you further.”

“But I want to hear more about them. What sort of people they were; what they got up to; if they were like me at all.”

“They were nothing like you,” he says tersely. “Each one a man. Each unwaveringly dedicated to the task set out before him. Each obedient, focused and strong.”

“You could’ve just said they were different.” Inside I’m hurting. “Maybe it would help if you stopped fixating on my dead relatives and told me about this task?”

“I’ll tell you when you stop fixating on your living relatives.”

“You know I can’t do that. I’ll gladly disappoint you if it means they’re safe.”

“Then don’t ask about your ancestors again. The subject of your bloodline is now closed.”

“Fine with me.” I cross my arms.

A scraggy ginger-and-white cat paces out from behind a pile of trash bags stopping just ahead of us. It doesn’t move a muscle even as the breeze picks up. It could be taxidermy.

“Mustn’t have seen me yet,” Nanashi says.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because she would’ve bolted already.”

“How can you get such a kick out of repelling animals? I bet you hate it when Neko ignores you. Maybe you’re losing your touch?”

“If your mother’s cat could see through those infected eyes or walk on those decrepit legs, she’d flee just as quick as the rest.”

The ginger-and-white cat finally moves, but not for the shelter of the rooftops. Instead she pads towards us. As she approaches, I reach out to stroke her. “You were saying…”

“Don’t do that! She’s infested.”

I pull away at the last moment as she rolls onto her back and writhes about gleefully.

Nanashi stretches from my shoulder until he’s only inches from her. “She’s a confident one, I’ll give her that. Not like her weak, domesticated cousins.” Making a straining sound, he forces bright bands of colour to the surface of his mask. “Does the mangy flea-farm want to play?”

His words freeze her to the spot and for the first time I notice her spine accentuated beneath patchy fur. Slowly she tilts her head to look up at him, her eyes wide and unblinking, tail swaying nervously from side to side.

“Stop teasing her,” I say.

He doesn’t quit. Instead he remains perfectly still, holding her gaze. “What a life you must’ve endured to be so unafraid of me.”

The staring contest continues until she blinks suddenly in quick succession and then darts up the side of the closest building, vanishing from sight behind a clothesline overloaded with towels. Nanashi withdraws to his usual position on my left shoulder and the bands of colour gradually fade from his mask.

When I next spot the cat, she’s standing at the edge of the tallest building, stooped low, wiggling her backside like a baseball player preparing to swing.

“What’s she doing?” I demand.

But I already know.

As she leaps, for a fleeting moment I’m convinced she’ll make it to the neighbouring building, and then her high-pitched whine says otherwise. She catches her paw on a telephone wire, spins tail-over-head into a window ledge and then plummets, hitting the tarmac a few feet away.

There is no death toll, just a leaden thud. I try to stutter something, to express my shock, but nothing comes forth. My hands are trembling and I think I’m going to puke. “What did you…?” Again, I already know.

Blood leaks from the cat’s head and trickles to soak through an open tissue packet. Her rear legs are twitching.

“It would’ve followed us everywhere,” Nanashi says, “begging for food, whining incessantly, spreading its mites. Useless thing didn’t even land on its feet. I heard they always did that.”

The amusement in his voice is the worst. If not for that, I might have avoided hallucinating. First the alleyway walls shudder. Then a ton of masonry shifts, the bricks at the base moving in sequence like centipede legs. Instinctively, I plant my feet and spread my arms out wide.

“What are you doing?” Nanashi demands.

An onlooker could never appreciate what I’m going through. Even though I know it’s all in my mind, when I’m hallucinating I feel enslaved. Sleep specialists have told me that the potency and realism of my experiences are highly unusual, leading me to believe that Nanashi is somehow to blame.

I scream. Murderer echoes back.

“Pull yourself together, girl.”

A dog starts barking as lights in the buildings overhead are switched on.

“Dammit, Shoki! You’ll wake the whole street.”

In my delusion there’s only a few feet of space remaining and I’m certain the walls will crush me where I stand. I feel the rough brick against my palms before my elbows buckle under the pressure.

Ahead of me lies the broken body of the cat. Damp fur wraps her bones and the rain has gathered in her glassy eyes. Her tongue hangs loose from between her teeth. “Leave me be,” she utters.

Horrified, I step over her, turning side-on to shuffle towards the alleyway exit. With only seconds to spare, I make a dive for freedom. I’m too late. My right foot gets sandwiched and I’m plucked from mid-air and dashed against the tarmac. Ignoring the pain in my shoulder, I tug frantically at my knee joint. When it doesn’t budge, I watch helplessly as the round bones to the sides of my ankle are pushed inwards and the tendons across the top are forced to the surface, bursting through my skin like tent poles through fabric. I try to scream but blood fills my mouth and then spills from the edges of my lips.

As the alleyway walls come together, the pain vanishes. Resting my head back, I gaze upside-down at a vintage clothes boutique across the way. The shop window has been vandalised and circular cracks look like age rings inside a tree trunk. They begin to spiral. Flashes of colour erupt. Psychedelic.

The Sinking World (Chapter Three)

In which Shoki and Nanashi follow a revenge spirit into a local brothel hoping to prevent a death.

3

Basement Brothel Blues

“Gotō’s lackeys are not your responsibility,” Nanashi persists.

“I couldn’t care less about his hired thugs,” I say. “I just can’t stand back and let Faintfoot ruin another girl’s life.”

His mask jolts disconcertingly as he shakes his head, becoming speckled with white flecks like one of those snow globes found at Christmas market. “Believe me, those girls were ruined long ago.”

I take the journal and move back through to the lounge. Slung across the arm of my sofa is a vintage 1970s lime-green mackintosh. It’s the only item of clothing I’ve ever cared about. I push my arms through the sleeves and tuck the journal into the right hand pocket.

Wasting no time changing from my slippers or locking the apartment door, I rush down the stairwell to the lobby, avoiding contact with insurers currently inspecting my neighbour’s blackened living room.

As soon as we’re outside, I can see my breath in the chill air. The buttons are missing from my mac so I slide my hands into the pockets and draw the edges together.

Yōkoso Harbour differs from many Japanese towns in that the street names are based on popular landmarks instead of area codes. Red Gate Street takes its name from an old theatre at the north end. The building entrance was bricked up years ago but the surrounding wall is still bright with colour. The pavement below is always littered with peels of dry, red paint. There seem to be endless layers, as if the decorators knew the theatre would one day be abandoned and vowed to keep its memory alive.

I hurry across Red Gate to reach the basement steps. A lamppost overhangs the entranceway, rising up from a pyre of bent and sodden cigarette ends. Moths and midges swarm around the frosted lamp competing for space while eager spiders welcome the chaos, priming their webs for a long feast.

The door to the basement is dented in places and plastered with graffiti. The Crying Lemon is a far cry from the upmarket establishments of Shiranami. Though the services on offer are just as sordid, at least in the heart of the city the yakuza have zero tolerance for vandalism. To the left side of the door is a makeshift security panel fashioned from chicken wire. I take the steps and knock on the panel, hearing a bolt strain as it’s pulled across. With a final clunk the door grinds open.

A wash of buttery light bathes my face and music vibrates underfoot. A door attendant stands before us, a giant of a man virtually filling the dimensions of the entrance. He’s wearing a body-hugging white t-shirt and has tucked a packet of cigarettes beneath the sleeve like a Greaser from ‘50s America.

“Ex sumo,” Nanashi says. “Only job going for retired fighters.”

Nanashi may not like people, but he sure can read them. Greaser has cauliflower ears, a retreating hairline, a disproportioned upper body and swollen, pale hands. At some point in his life he was definitely a wrestler.

“You’re not one of our girls,” Greaser says. “What do you want?”

With Nanashi’s appearance, lying became a necessity. And now, after years of practice, I can weave a story as if I’m performing Rakugo to a packed audience.

“I’ve be sent from The Honey Emporium,” I reply. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it.” The Emporium is a popular club in Shiranami’s red light district. I’ve passed it many times on my way to Mama’s apartment, unable to resist gawking at the girls and their chaperones dressed like they’re attending a movie gala. “They’re looking out this way for venues with potential. Clubs that could represent the famous Honey name.”

Greaser looks indifferent.

“I’m not spending long in each place,” I continue. “Just enough to get an impression and take in the atmosphere.”

His expression remains unchanged.

“Your words are bouncing off a wall of flesh,” Nanashi remarks.

“I could easily skip your establishment,” I press. “But I’m sure your manager wouldn’t pass up this opportunity…”

“When it comes to the door, I make the calls,” Greaser interrupts.

I have to maintain the upper hand. “So the dents and graffiti are your responsibility?”

He flushes with anger and the neglected muscles in his neck tighten as if he’s reversed time to his wrestling days. “Unless you want a painful exit from this place, I’d watch your mouth.”

Spreading my mac and stretching my t-shirt at the collar, I reveal the raw blisters. “You couldn’t hurt me.”

Greaser’s expression changes from anger to intrigue. He removes a see-through-plastic lighter from his trouser pocket, which he rolls deftly between his chubby fingers, all the while studying my neck. After an uncomfortable silence, he sits back on a barstool and lights a cigarette he had tucked behind his deformed ear.

He gestures to the sloping corridor ahead with a doughy hand. “I get off in a few hours. Maybe you’d like a tour of the Harbour? It’s at its best come daybreak.”

I nod reluctantly and step in. His eyes are on me, unblinking even as he exhales smoke.

I often attract men, which puzzles me considering the state of my clothes and the perpetual deep rings beneath my eyes. It’s not a sympathetic interest either; reasonably good-looking guys have propositioned me on occasion. Nanashi is insistent: “Bring someone back. Boy or girl, I’m not fussed”. And blatant: “Since I can’t do it, I’ll watch you on your back instead”. Consequently I’m still a virgin.

The corridor descends to slatted wooden swing-doors seen in any Spaghetti Western. Pushing through, we enter a spacious room centred by an oval cocktail bar. The décor is in keeping with the café above. Large plywood cutouts of lemons are nailed to the walls and seem to shift beneath the mood lighting, as if dorsal shapes cutting through murky waters.

To the far side is a karaoke stage where a drunken crooner is attempting to silence his critics by wielding a microphone like a bola, swinging the cord dangerously close to a rotating mirrorball overhead.

I recognise the man. His name is Keitarou. At one time he was a fisherman and rented the apartment across from us. I happened to be sitting on the pier when the bailiffs came to repossess his trawler. He acted like a maniac that morning, swinging a knotted rope above his head much like the microphone in his hands now. It strikes me how similar the two events are, as if he’s transformed his misfortune into a bizarre stage performance.

Bouncers arrive to end his routine and he’s dragged out through a fire exit where he’ll be lucky to escape unharmed.

Nanashi points to the kaleidoscope of drinks bottles behind the bar. “Just a small glass?” he requests.

“Wait till we get back,” I whisper.

“A taster then?”

I ignore him.

“Button-nosed bitch!” He inhales dramatically before letting it back out with even greater gusto. “Never mind my lovelies, I’ll be with you before you know it.”

A Chinese girl wearing an off the peg jade kimono is studying me from a nearby sofa. She frowns at the oil stains patching my t-shirt and the scorch marks along my mac collar. Though our lives are worlds apart, at that precise moment the pitiful looks we exchange are identical. To my relief a balding man sits down beside her and whispers something distracting in her ear. She laughs falsely and turns to offer her full attention.

Moving around the bar, I spot the private quarters to the right of the karaoke stage. Faintfoot will be back there searching for a host. She’ll be after a girl who knows the premises intimately, someone with access to a weapon, and above all, someone easily manipulated. I don’t have much time.

Like mosquitoes on hot skin, girls huddle around the lone salaryman at the bar. He clutches his briefcase to his chest, clearly out of his depth, probably many miles from home, abandoned by his colleagues for whatever services they offer here. Beside him, the barman is preparing a cocktail for a heavyset man with a neat goatee and gelled-flat, white hair. Though I’ve only met Gotō the one time, this man bears a striking resemblance to the yakuza boss.

Nanashi tests the air. “What’s he having? I’m getting vodka, Tia Mariaandsomething else. Is that Cointreau?”

The barman slides the white cocktail to the patron and I know it’s Gotō’s lookalike when he lifts the glass to his lips with a gloved hand. As a child, you’re taught many rules of etiquette, not wearing gloves indoors being one of them. Most people stick to these traditions, but Gotō isn’t most people.

As I move towards the lookalike formulating what to say, a girl wearing fake clip-on pigtails nestles up beside him. I change direction at the very last moment, ducking into a nearby lavatory.

Dammit!

The tastelessly finished room has chrome basins set in pink marble and a wide, concave mirror. Plastered across the mirror are countless star-shaped stickers, each one centred by the flawless face of a pop idol. They are perfectly ugly.

I enter the far cubicle, lock the door and take a seat.

Nanashi reaches to one side and activates the Sound Princess, a device that produces an artificial flushing effect.

I cut it short with my fist. “I’m never convincing that gangster to leave.”

“Then we get a drink and go,” Nanashi suggests.

“I’m not abandoning the girl now. I have to stop Faintfoot instead.”

He groans. “This again.”

I cross my arms. “There has to be a way. Tell me or I’m adding extra ingredients to your homebrew.”

“Puh! What ingredients?”

“Just know it won’t taste quite how you like it.”

His mask turns wasabi-green, sprouting patches of something dark and fungal. “Nothing’s changed; you face her now and she’ll kill you quicker than a sloppily prepared blowfish.”

“If I can face her then surely I can do something.”

“Shoki, I wouldn’t lie to you about this.” He sounds different; his voice is softer, almost concerned. I don’t know this Nanashi.

“Then why point her out in the first place? I would’ve been none the wiser.”

“I just thought you’d be glad she hadn’t found the real Gotō. How was I to know you’d go on some idealistic crusade?”

“I don’t buy it. You might think that mask gives you a poker face, but I can tell when you’re lying. You knew I’d follow her down here.”

He taps the cubicle wall, leaving black marks like Rorschach patterns.

“C’mon you coward, admit it!”

His silence tells me everything.

“I knew it!”

“Of course you knew it! Hardly a stretch to imagine this place was on my radar. I was just waiting for her.”

“Faintfoot?”

“Who else? I knew she’d be along soon enough. Gotō’s doppelganger has been in and out of this place for weeks, even sitting upstairs when they’ve got coffee instead of girls on the menu.”

I know his alcoholism can be a problem, but I never imagined he’d stoop to this.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he says. “You have no idea what it’s like to truly desire, to fantasise for months with no relief. Every time that rancid homebrew passed my lips, my mind was transported here, tasting a Crying Lemon cocktail. And now, finally, when that swollen sack of cats opened the front door, I could smell every sweet bottle. The nectar drifted up that slope as if borne on the back of divine Amaterasu herself.”

I know this Nanashi.

“You’d risk our lives for a drink?”

“Not just any drink,” he purrs.

I kick the cubicle door a little too hard, causing the bolt to hang loose. Outside they’re playing the blues song Midnight Moon by Timbo Ells. Just a few cords are enough to take me back to the attic veranda beneath the mountains. Papa slides a vinyl LP into the record player. The needle lowers as he sits in his rattan chair, feet up on a three-legged stool, wisps of smoke from his cigarette dense in the cold air.

Where did they get a copy of that song? And why play kitsch J-Pop one minute and obscure American blues the next? Nanashi begins to hum along, clearly not troubled in the slightest by this extraordinary coincidence.

“Shut up,” I say, my mind a jumble. “Just shut the hell up!”

Without warning, the lavatory door swings open and the Chinese girl in the jade kimono saunters in, placing a dainty purple handbag to one side. She leans forward to inspect her eyelashes in the mirror. All I can do is stare from the exposed cubicle.

She glances at my reflection. “The clients are all taken,” she says.

Ignoring her, I step out and head straight for the exit.

“Did you hear me, Goth?” she continues. “I said there’s no one for you.”

I’ve been called many names – especially when caught pickpocketing – but never a Goth. I’m wearing a bright-green mac, not a corset, black eyeliner and ripped stockings.

Before leaving, I wheel around and hiss at her like a cat.

 “You really know how to intimidate people,” Nanashi mocks. “Maybe try out animal impressions on Gotō and his posse?”

Outside, the girl’s balding client is examining a framed print of cormorants diving for fish. He doesn’t notice me as I edge around behind him. Passing beneath an archway decorated with fake ivy, I come to the first of the entertaining rooms and place my ear to the door.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Nanashi is now singing Midnight Moon. Timbo Ells is Papa’s favourite blues musician. The New Yorker’s voice is unique, almost a growl at its lowest pitch. Though Nanashi’s impression is admirable, he’s only trying to annoy me.

“Quiet,” I insist.

He raises his voice.

“Shut it! I can’t tell if there are people…”

“Screwing,” he cuts in; “writhing up against each other like a catch of eels on a trawler.”

This isn’t the room.

“What are you doing, Shoki? The bar’s back there.”

Placing my ear to the next door, I recoil immediately from its ice-cold surface. I have to rub my earlobe vigorously to regain some feeling.

I’ve found her.

“There are far safer ways to get back at me,” Nanashi continues. “Why not settle our little dispute over a few Manhattans?”

I turn the handle. Through the gap I can make out a dressing table supporting a collection of plush toys and a ceramic lamp with a mandarin shade. Behind the table is a corkboard plastered with nightclub flyers. Nudging the door further, I reveal Faintfoot. Her head is bowed and sheer black hair covers her face. Her short-sleeved white shirt is dotted with thumb-sized smudges. At first I take them for mud stains and then one moves beside her shirt pocket. They’re slugs! Her corpse must have been left in a damp place, probably a cellar or shallow grave ironically swarming with life.

Whenever Nanashi is close to her kind his body heats up until I feel like I’m shouldering a clothes iron. I haven’t yet entered the room and already his elemental form prickles my skin.

Faintfoot’s bony arms and fingers are outstretched, reaching for a petite girl applying lipstick before a full-length mirror. Nanashi insists I can’t stop Faintfoot, but if I can get to the girl first, I won’t have to.

As I move inside, Nanashi folds around me like a foam neck brace, only one made of molten larva. I cover my mouth to prevent a whimper from escaping, but fail to notice the plastic fumes now rising up from my smouldering mac. They fill my nostrils. I sneeze into my palm.

Dammit!

Faintfoot turns to observe me, her black hair parting in the centre. Her eyes are milky white, the pupils grey beneath the surface like hard-boiled yokes. The slugs are everywhere: gathered in the sunken nape of her neck, poking out from between her lips, settled on her crown, their countless shiny trails glistening amber in the lamplight.

I can’t tear my eyes away. The cream carpet beneath my slippers wavers and then seems to unravel. I’m sinking! Scrambling for purchase, I claw at the carpet but it parts between my fingers like tofu left out of the fridge.

The girl is panicking. I must look like I’m having some sort of seizure. She’s trying to edge around me to reach the door. I’m blocking her escape! I’m putting her in danger!

As Faintfoot drifts across the room, I can only think of one thing: when she takes the girl what will happen to the slugs? Will they disappear or become a part of her, moving just below the skin?

I’m about to disappear when I feel one of Nanashi’s fingers press up against my earlobe. For once I welcome the sting; the pain brings me back and the carpet is solid again. Finding my feet, I lunge ahead and seize the girl by the wrist. She struggles wildly, smearing purple lipstick down my t-shirt. I try to restrain her flailing hand but she catches me square on the jaw. The room shudders, as do my legs. When I’m pushed back, I lose my footing, and then I’m falling, down and down until my head meets a solid surface.

Where am I? Why can’t I see? Who’s talking? Why is my back wet? Is that water? No, it’s thicker. More like paint. What’s that noise? A horse? Can’t be anything else. It’s growing. Getting louder. Closer. I’ll be trampled! I’ve seen horses stampede a thrown jockey in the Japan Cup. Hooves are disturbing the paint. It’s lapping up against my thighs. Where are my tracksuit bottoms? Am I naked? I’m naked! They’ll find me naked, trampled and covered in paint!

When I come to, I’m assaulted by a smell. It wrinkles up my nostrils like the leftover carcasses from fish market sloshing about in thawed ice.

“Take it easy,” Nanashi says.

I scramble to my feet and immediately regret it. Lightheaded, I lurch to one side, scattering the plush toys and the lamp from the dressing table. The back of my head is throbbing and there’s a patch of dry blood beneath my hairline.

“Where’s the girl?” I start, setting my hands down and concentrating on the nightclub fliers until I can clearly read the words ‘Foam Party at the Acid Cellar’.

“Possessed and probably frolicking in that lookalike’s entrails.”

Panicked, I head for the door, kicking soft toys from my path as I go. The girl’s makeup collection is scattered outside: purple lipstick halved, mascara pen bent, concealer tray cracked. Slugs also litter the carpet, dry and shrunken like spent fortune cookies. At least she’s been spared that fate.

Have I gone deaf? No, it really is that quiet. What’s happened to the music? And what is that smell? It’s coming from the bar area, intensifying as I stumble along the corridor. When I reach the lavatories, the source becomes clear. The tiled floor is waterlogged. Alcohol from dozens of broken bottles soaks my slippers, mixing to create a nauseatingly powerful smell. When the full impact of it hits me, I’m desperate to get away. I make a beeline for the exit, splashing through the pungent liquor.

Nanashi tugs at my hair. “The place is empty,” he says. “Grab any leftover bottles.”

It’s enough to distract me. I catch my ankle on something bulky and sprawl to the ground. I’m only a few feet shy of the swing-doors; close enough to reach out and push them aside. Instinctively my eyes move to the object that has caused my fall. The bar isn’t empty – Gotō’s doppelgänger lies facing us. Puncture wounds pepper his neck, and blood has pooled beneath him turning the alcohol thick like tar. He has an intricate tattoo, which I can see through his saturated shirt: a silvery eel coiled around a red baseball bat.

His dead eyes are on me.

“I can’t move,” I whimper. “Help me.”

“Will you give me what I want?” Nanashi asks.

Whenever I’m in a vulnerable position, which seems all too often recently, Nanashi asks me the same thing. It’s safe to assume his desires will involve either drink or sex, possibly both, but there’s something in his request that terrifies me.

Fear motivates me into action. Unable to stand, I shuffle to the swing-doors and half push through. The combination of blood and piss brings tears to my eyes.

“This is just undignified,” Nanashi says.

“Well help me out then!”

“Final freebie.”

He reaches down and clamps his tendrils behind my knees as if attaching jumper cables to a car battery. When he sends the heat through, I feel new empathy for mechanical parts. Muscles recharged, I muster what little willpower I have left, get to my feet and head for the exit.

At the top of the slope, Greaser is slumped in his stool. His arms hang loose like a sleeping gorilla’s.

“Stop!” Nanashi demands. “We’re not leaving empty-handed.”

I don’t have the energy to challenge him or the stomach to look upon Greaser’s startled face. Nanashi stretches from my shoulder to rummage through the doorman’s clothes. He returns swiftly to deposit a collection of items into my mac pocket.

Hands shaking, I unbolt the door, shouldering through when I hear the clunk.

It has started to rain. Reaching the top of the steps, I lean against the lamppost to steady my nerves and catch my breath. Bloody footprints cross Red Gate to disappear into an alleyway.

I can still help her.

“Walk the other way,” Nanashi says, guessing my intentions. “She’s better off in hospital.”

“Hospital? You mean an institution! I’m not leaving her like this. I don’t care what you say.”

He doesn’t have to. Police sirens. Closing in. Fast.

And with that Nanashi has won. I imagine he’s grinning behind that expressionless mask. The police will discover the girl squatting in the alleyway, clutching the murder weapon, wondering whether the blood covering her hands is her own. If I had succeeded, I could’ve led her away, cleaned her up and taken her to Tiger for sanctuary.

But Nanashi has won and I have failed.

Monday 24th June

This week I added the second chapter of my YA novel, The Sinking World. This part introduces readers to my protagonists, Shoki Nakamura and the demon Nanashi, who has haunted her since childhood. It also describes her chronic insomnia and explores some of the problems associated with this condition. I found writing from a young girl’s POV pretty challenging but feedback from professional writers, tutors and agents has been largely positive. I’m hoping the novel can empower teens Shoki’s age.

A lot of work was done on Inspirisles, including a completely original character sheet for my Foundlings, pixel representations of my four gods, and more information throughout setting.

Today I gave first feedback to my RPG Workshop (@RPGWriterWrkshp) mentees. One of them had the bones to a fantastic concept and I hope he steals some of my ideas for his druidic themed adventure.

Having still heard nothing from the deaf associations contacted this week, I had a realisation about Deafness & Dragons, where my expectations were clearly too high. I need to work with what my resources and experience allows, therefore I’ll be concentrating on deaf awareness and BSL for my Hatchlings groups and holding off on the dream of a completley inclusive D&D environment for the deaf community.

For the week ahead, I will continue to offer feedback to my mentees on their projects. I will flesh out Inspirisles content including completing the Questing section and pixel representations of friends and foes. I will also download a BSL signed alphabet, which I can adapt for Hatchlings groups.

Go to relevant pages for these updates.

The Sinking World (Chapter Two)

In which we are introduced to our protagonists, Shoki Nakamura and the demon, Nanashi.

2

Shower Scene

They call this country the Floating World. Yet sometimes, when I move to the window, I expect the town to have sunk into the crust of the Earth to be swallowed up by the magma. This morning the streets of Yōkoso Harbour are still there. And unfortunately, so is he.

Nanashi is perched lazily on my left shoulder. A plain, grey mask covers his face and only his red eyes are visible through the small openings. I try to avoid those eyes. There’s something foreboding there, like the first firebombs blinking in the night sky over wartime Tokyo. His countless ghostly fingers rest on my neck, stroking and tapping the raised tendons beneath my skin as if they are piano keys. But he’s no musician. His fingers only burn and scar whatever they touch.

“So that quaint little café is actually a hotbed of depravity and you don’t think to mention it?” he asks.

“Why would I?” I reply. “Not like it’s the sort of place I’d go to meet friends.”

“Puh! You? Friends?”

I think of Tiger and the other homeless residents of Shiranami Memorial Park. On the occasions I’ve stayed there, someone was always awake to keep me company. I miss the park. I miss friends.

“Of course, it won’t be an authentic pleasure house,” Nanashi continues. “I’ll wager it’s some pink salon or soap palace guaranteed to leave the tongue and tackle limper than pickled sardines.”

“If you’re not interested then stop talking about it.”

“You just shouldn’t have kept it to yourself.”

This coming from the king of secrets: secret name, secret past, secret motivations.

I walk over to the electric cooker where oil has started to pop and spit from the base of a wok. I drop in a handful of noodles that I bought from an elderly vendor who always calls me ‘little man’. I could blame his poor eyesight, but when I’m wearing baggy tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie, I can look a bit tomboyish.

“Do you plan on stuffing your face whenever you can’t asleep?” Nanashi asks. “When I said you needed a thicker skin, I didn’t mean a fat suit.”

“What are you on about? It’s not like I eat junk food. Besides, last time I wore my hair up you said I looked like a shabby calligraphy brush. So what am I? Fat or thin? I can’t be both.”

He stretches to look me up and down as if scrutinising a catwalk model. “Neither. You’re shapeless.”

I’m shapeless. He’s the one whose limbs and fingers constantly divide. And that mask of his goes through more changes than a Kabuki actor on performance night.

I shove the noodles to one side and tip in a dish of tofu chunks, broccoli florets, cashew nuts and diced spring onion. The mixture meets the hot oil, sending droplets up my bare forearm. I hardly notice. When the tofu begins to brown along the edges, I pour in a broth of vegetable stock, soy sauce, sugar, ginger and whisky. Nanashi stretches over the mixture to inhale the fumes. He slumps back when the whisky has evaporated.

“What a waste,” he huffs.

I glare at the space between the oven and the fridge where there sits a strange device that could double as a prop for any Science Fiction B-movie. I kick it hard enough for the homebrewed saké inside to slosh about.

“Hey, take it easy,” Nanashi protests.

“You take it easy! That’s half a keg you’ve drained this week already. I’m not brewing again till Friday so you’d better slow down.”

I know he won’t. He’s incapable of pacing himself when it comes to alcohol. If he had a body or anatomy of any description his vital organs would resemble mouldy figs by now.

“It’s hardly expensive,” he says. “And someone worried about money doesn’t then buy whisky to go in their stir-fry.”

“Firstly, the whisky’s from your emergency supply in case the homebrew kit malfunctions again. And secondly, did I say it was expensive? You’re just knocking it back at a rate of knots and I can’t keep up.”

“I need it to stay strong, you know that. You wouldn’t deny a bodybuilder his protein shakes.”

“I would if they stunk out the apartment and leaked through the floorboards.”

“Back to this again. I told you the valve was faulty.”

“You left me sleeping while a gallon of saké was busy marinating the neighbour’s carpet.”

“I dealt with it.”

“Yeah, let’s talk about that. Of all the actions you could’ve taken, including waking me to discover any minor repairs were covered by my damage deposit, you decide to set his place on fire.”

“If he’d smelt the alcohol he would’ve called the cops.”

“The same cops probably now investigating an arson case.”

“You’re being paranoid as usual. The blaze only touched his living room before the neighbours started wielding extinguishers.”

“He could’ve burned.”

“Just like your food.”

Dammit!

Realising I’ve cremated the tofu, I remove the wok from the hob and empty the mixture into a bowl. I switch on the alarm clock radio above the fridge before carrying the food over to the lounge window.

…The attack on popular musician, Ms Kazuko Tanaka, known to her fans as Jo-Jo, has shocked the music world, emphasising concerns surrounding negligent security within the industry. An obsessive fan stabbed her during a live performance at the Fluid Rooms on Mercury Mile. Paramedics attempted to stabilise her condition, but she was pronounced dead shortly before reaching hospital. The twenty-two-year-old trained at the Tokyo Music Academy and was due to begin a tour of the United States this summer…

The newsreader’s clinical voice rasps through dust-clogged speakers. His tone is always the same whether he’s reporting on the tragic murder of a young musician or reading out the soccer scores.

It’s a little after two in the morning and all is quiet. My apartment is only a short distance from the docks though it’s too early even for the car manufacturers to be at work. In a few short hours my apartment walls will begin to vibrate as the factory machines warm up. I imagine they have a life of their own beyond their coding, a consciousness reserved for the dead of night when the security guard has dozed off in front of the CCTV panel. It would be like a ballroom dance: welding robots would bow deeply before reaching for a partner. Pneumatic arms would connect, tubes would coil and molten-metal sparks would shower the factory floor. The display would end just as the security guard stirred.

…The radical feminist group, Lips have used their popular radio broadcast to launch a scathing attack on the Prime Minister. The controversial programme was aired following a consensus to refuse the group a representative in court. Unfortunately for legal reasons we cannot air the Lips broadcast…

The New Year refuses to fade despite two months having passed. Tangerine lanterns still sway from rafters, trampled strips of confetti streak the pavements, and a kite dangles from the telephone cable beyond my bedroom window.

Yōkoso Harbour is big on festivities, to the point of inventing occasions to celebrate. Last October the crested ibis become extinct from the wild and the locals had their children create bird masks with red faces, beady yellow eyes and elongated black beaks. The procession that followed was like a Venetian carnival with every child dressed as a plague doctor. For an insomniac, having not slept for three solid days, witnessing eighty-or-so children wearing pale cloaks and grotesque masks pass beneath the window was comparable to a fever dream.

“It’s time we moved,” Nanashi says.

I shake my head. “What is it this time?”

His dissatisfaction with our living conditions is a regular topic. I could turn the apartment into a distillery and he’d still find something to complain about.

“Those shit-dribbling gulls,” he explains. “How can you put up with them? Always clambering across the roof tiles with their ridiculous feet, this way and that, this way and that, all the while screeching and flapping their wings like apocalyptic messengers.” He waves his countless arms like a sea anemone beneath a breaking wave.

I sigh. “Is that all?”

“No, there’s the smell too.”

“What smell?”

“Seaweed.”

“You’re imagining things.”

“You’ve gotten used to it;” he says, “living here has dulled your senses.”

“My senses are just fine.”

“They’re not what they were up north surrounded by all that untainted mountain air.”

“The same mountain air you couldn’t stand.”

“I’d take it over this stench. Think about it… sea-weed. Imagine a Zen garden with weeds. They’d be plucked from the ground and incinerated on the spot.”

“You’re talking about kelp. Doesn’t bother anyone else. In fact the salarymen can’t seem to do without it. They believe it’s got healing powers or something. Convinced enough to empty their wallets if they see it anywhere on a menu. Tiger told me that with the right ingredients you could even make soap out of it.”

“What does the bum know? Bet you had to barter for that useless piece of information. What did he ask for? Donuts please, Shoki. Cigarettes please, Shoki. A blowjob please, Shoki.” Between each request he bows mockingly.

“That’s disgusting! He’s never asked me for anything and you know it. What is it with him? Are you jealous?”

“Jealous!” His mask changes from the usual grey to terracotta with smooth lumps of amber appearing on the surface. “How could anyone be jealous of that subhuman?”

“I’ve obviously hit a nerve.”

With a faint groan, he turns away.

I rest my forehead against the windowpane. The glass is reassuringly cool. “Is that it? Nothing more to get off your chest? No more smells bothering you? Maybe I should buy an air rifle and pick off those gulls one by one? I’m sure that wouldn’t draw any attention.”

I can feel his anger. He’s visibly trembling. I know he wants to retort, to shower me with curses like acid rain, but something’s holding him back.

“Look, the gulls are only a problem when they start mating,” I say, attempting to pacify him. “That won’t happen till at least March. And I admit the kelp can smell a little, but only during the summer months when it’s baking on the shoreline. There’s no reason to move right now.”

...And in local news. Despite lengthy protests, plans to build an offshore wind farm are to go ahead this spring. Spokesperson for OceanMill Hydroelectrics, Haruto Eda said the operation would mark a new chapter in Japan’s clean energy future…

Ignoring me, Nanashi has switched his attention to The Crying Lemon café. Though its security shutters are down, steam continues to seep from vents connected to the brothel downstairs. I often watch the girls smoking on the basement steps, huddling like arctic penguins in the chill air while they tout for customers. Since setting up the homebrew kit, Nanashi’s interest in the outside world has admittedly dwindled, though how I noticed such a place before him is beyond me.

I lift a large portion of noodles with my chopsticks and attempt to pick clear the charred tofu chunks with my fingers. Realising I’m getting nowhere, I head for the kitchen bin.

“Stay at the window,” Nanashi barks.

“The meal’s ruined so I’m taking a shower. If you don’t bother me for the next five minutes, I’ll fix you a drink as soon as I’m out.”

The mere prospect of alcohol should keep him quiet.

After snapping the pull cord to the bathroom light, the already dreary space is now remarkably bleak. I wouldn’t shower so often but for Nanashi’s constant remarks on my personal hygiene. I don’t know why I listen to him? I guess I’m like any other girl my age when it comes to these things.

Once in the bathroom, I routinely inspect the ceiling for spreading damp. I’ve used thick emulsion paint to cover a large patch in one corner but the moisture always manages to bleed through. Damp is where the jellyfish come from.

Removing my t-shirt, I drape it across the sink before stepping from the bunched legs of my tracksuit bottoms. Forgetting to put on underwear is just another symptom of sleep deprivation. I’ve also placed frozen food in the oven, mistaken emulsion paint for moisturiser and added rat poison to the homebrew instead of rice, which Nanashi still drunk without complaint.

For the longest time, I wouldn’t bathe or shower in his company, and if I had to, I would always wrap myself in a towel. I gave up this pretence after waking from a rare sleep to discover him fondling my breasts.

Once in the bathtub, I draw the plastic curtain across before switching on the shower. The spluttering jet forms a cold pool around my feet. I wait for the temperature to rise before leaning forwards. The warm spray passes straight through Nanashi, striking a particularly angry blister above my left collarbone from a recent quarrel.

Not every scar is of his making. The raised tissue crisscrossing the length of my thighs is barely visible to the naked eye and yet still prevents me from ever undressing in public for fear of being labelled a self-harmer.

Tilting my head back, I let the water overwhelm me. I enjoy the brief feeling of disorientation as the stream hits my eyelids and trickles down into the hollows of my ears. I feel safe in the knowledge that I can return to the real world simply by opening my eyes.

I reach blindly for the shampoo.

The radio shrieks.

The bathroom light flickers to life.

Panicking, I flail and knock the showerhead with my hand, pushing the jet into the curtain. I back up against the wall; my palms flush to the tiles, fingers rigid and spread apart like dehydrated starfish.

Something scuttles across the lino. My breathing turns shallow and raspy. The thing scratches the smooth surface of the bath side. I imagine a crab: leathery green shell, eyes attached to stalks, jagged legs, bulbous claws. It’s trying to climb up! Can it do that? Maybe a spider could, but not a crab; they’re not as agile. What if it’s a Spider Crab? Would that make a difference? Can they climb?

Cowering in the tub, I listen as its claws open and shut and picture them clamped around my toes, squeezing, rings of blood framing my nails, bruises blossoming like ink in water.

Nanashi sniggers and his amusement is enough to bring bile to my throat. I retch and spit out undigested noodles. The shower stream washes them down where they settle over the plughole guard. A single piece of tofu disintegrates in the water, leaving residue like cigarette ash.

The scratching gets louder. The crab has burrowed through the side of the bath. It’s directly beneath me! The stiff tips of its legs echo off the fibreglass layer separating us. I reach up and lift the showerhead from its cradle. If the crab gets through I’ll spray it, and if that doesn’t work I’ll club it into a pulp.

The scratching ends.

The light bulb pops and fizzles out.

The reporter’s mutterings return.

I stay there for a minute, not moving a muscle. I know as soon as I draw the curtain across everything will be exactly as it was. I’m certain of this, just as I’m certain there was never a crab in the first place.

“Dammit!” I scream. “And damn you.”

“Nothing to do with me. You’re the one seeing things. What was it this time? Jellyfish from the ceiling? Eels from the plughole? Octopi from the showerhead perhaps? Now stop your whining and return to the window.”

“Get lost!”

He digs his fingers into my shoulder blade. I feel a scratch against bone. I may have a high pain threshold, but Nanashi can still hurt me.

“Okayokay!” I cry. “Enough… please.”

“To the window,” he repeats.

I switch off the shower and step from the bath. Struggling back into my tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt, which cling to my wet skin, I stamp theatrically across the lounge, my hair trailing water as I go.

I’m breathing hard as I reach the window. Nanashi leans over and wipes clear the condensation my breath has produced on the glass. I half expect his fingers to cut through like one of those gadgets professional thieves use to break stealthily into museums and galleries.

The street below is deserted and there are only distant sounds: the familiar chugging engine of the weekend road-sweeper, an intermittent car alarm, Nanashi’s ‘apocalyptic messengers’ screeching from the rooftops.

“What?” I demand.

“Just wait.”

“It’s freezing. My hair’s dripping…”

“I said wait!”

Out of nowhere a young girl emerges from the alleyway running alongside my building. She moves to the edge of the pavement and then stops abruptly, eyeing the tarmac as if it’s been freshly laid.

She could pass for an ordinary student: she’s wearing a typical school uniform and though she’s exceptionally skinny and pale, it is a popular look these days. She could pass, but for one glaring oddity – she doesn’t have any feet! It’s why Nanashi calls her Faintfoot.

“Why do I have these eyes?” I groan.

Nanashi lowers a cluster of fingers, suspending them inches from my face. “Perhaps you’d rather be blind?”

Sometimes I long for just that, for all my senses to burn away. In that place beyond darkness maybe I could truly sleep.

Faintfoot finally leaves the pavement and drifts towards The Crying Lemon. Even from such a distance, thick glass between us, I can feel her malice. If her sinister energy were visible it would leap from her like solar flares.

Nanashi leans in until his mask is practically touching the windowpane. I glance at his reflection, just for a second, but long enough to look into his eyes. I can usually detach myself from his cruelty, ignore his malicious words and tolerate his soldering fingertips, but there’s no escaping those eyes. What terrors have they seen? What atrocities have they guided?

“She’s after your baseball enthusiast,” he says.

“What’s Gotō doing here? I told him to stay clear of the Harbour!”

“Relax, he’s not here.”

“You just said she was after him…”

“But not that she’d find him. Gotō’s probably lounging in a rooftop Jacuzzi someplace surrounded by smooth-skinned women serving sakétinis.”

“So why is she heading to the brothel?”

“The bloated maggot must’ve hired someone to pose as him. Wouldn’t have to be anything elaborate; wearing the same aftershave would peak her interest.”

I dash into the bedroom and fling open the bedside cabinet door. Inside is a leather-bound journal, which I remove and place on the duvet.

“What are you doing?” Nanashi asks.

I negotiate a cluttered pile of equipment used in homebrewing and lift a towel from a clotheshorse beside the radiator. Feverishly drying my hair, I squeeze the last of the droplets free and then gather the damp mass up into a bun to secure it in place with a pencil. “I have to stop this.”

Monday 17th June

This week I added the first chapter of my YA novel, The Sinking World, I’m hoping people discover my writing through an interest in Dungeons & Dragons, as I’m very proud of my take on modern Japan and the young female protagonist I’ve created. The novel explores my interest in the supernatural, but also chronic illness, isolation and violence.

A lot of work was done on Inspirisles, including a character sheet for my Foundlings, descriptions of my four gods, the Inspired, bios for key characters, a set of class options and finishing touches to the world map. I’m making good progress with the setting but the task will surely stretch beyond my August deadline.

I am also acting as a mentor for the RPG Workshop (@RPGWriterWrkshp), which I discovered through Ashley Warren via Twitter. I have a couple of mentees who I hope to help throughout July and they seem to have much in common with me. Hopefully I can be a source of inspiration and growth for them on their road to publication.

For the week ahead, I hope to make contact with potential candidates to endorse/fund my projects. These include the British Deaf Association, Action on Hearing Loss (again) and Bristol County Council. Beyond this, I will continue to mentor for the RPG Workshop and complete the Questing section of Inspirisles.

Go to relevant pages for these updates.

The Sinking World (YA Fiction)

During my Masters degree in creative writing, I wrote a YA novel set in contemporary Japan. The story followed teenager, Shoki Nakamura, a girl who could see the spirits of the recently deceased and quickly became entangled with the yakuza and ghosts hellbent on revenge.

The novel is currently in limbo, between agents and without a home. I feel it would make for a compelling tabletop RPG and I’d like to adapt it down the line, but for now I’ve decided to share it with those visiting the site.

I will update the page with a new chapter each month.

Enjoy reading.

Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi
Battle of Iwo Jima
March 17th, 1945

1

Ninja

Police Sergeant, Masaru Tanaka was unclogging the lawnmower, wondering why he should spend his free time maintaining an artificial roof lawn, when his wife approached to hand him his pager. After rummaging through their freshly laundered clothes she had found it still clipped to the hem of his trousers. Now it displayed an unusual dispatch code reserved for matters of national security, and though Masaru assumed it had malfunctioned in the wash, he could not take that chance.

As was typical, he arrived first on the scene, parking behind a row of immaculate topiary bushes resembling horses in mid jump. Masaru believed his promotion through the ranks had as much to do with punctuality as with anything else. He found modern methods of law enforcement insufferable and was forever ripping textbooks from the hands of rookies in favour of a night patrol. Out there, driving beneath city lights whilst the swarm of human suffering and inhuman crimes crackled through the scanner, he could tell precisely who was cut out for the job.

He switched off the engine and opened the glove compartment to remove a pistol. Having only ever fired the weapon in practice it acted more as a deterrent, but he still kept it clean, oiled and stocked just in case.

Masaru had contacted dispatch on route, but they had given him very little to go on. And according to the code streaming across his pager, backup was still fifteen minutes shy of the country estate. For now he was on his own.

Taking a few deep breaths, he stepped from the car and moved immediately up the driveway to find cover behind a large stone urn. Disturbed by his presence, ants emptied from a gaping crack in the base. Some attempted to scale the thick rubber soles of his boots while others disappeared beneath the tread as if fishing trawlers passing through the Ebihara Marina tunnel.

Masaru leaned out a fraction to view the forecourt. Nothing moved. He expected to see birds occupying the central lawn or drinking from the twin fountains at either end, and there were none roosting in the trees which remained as still as torii gates at the entrance to a shrine. The silence too was unearthly. Having tolerated ear-splitting sirens for years, Masaru’s hearing was admittedly poor, but this was different; he felt like he was trapped in a Polaroid.

As if to justify his unease, a few feet shy of the house there lay a body. Masaru recognised the individual. Shigeo Kasai had been in every paper that week. He was the sole financer for the recently elected city Governor, the same city Governor now facing allegations of corruption. Maybe this was a matter of national security? Mr Kasai’s left leg was resting at an unnatural angle and dry blood had formed a broad halo around his scalp.

Keeping low, Masaru moved across the forecourt, his pistol bobbing left and right to track his eye movements. Reaching Mr Kasai, he crouched to check the man’s pulse. There was a rapid but shallow beat, like the sensation of lifting a hamster from its cage. Without medical attention he had around half an hour to live, maybe less. Masaru hoped his backup would arrive with paramedics in tow.

It looked like a clear-cut suicide attempt: open elevated window, no signs of tampering, injuries consistent with a fall from that height. And yet Masaru had that ache in his gut he had learned to trust over the years, that ball of undigested instincts that now directed him to the house.

In place of a traditional Japanese entranceway constructed of sliding panels, the Kasai family home was American in design with a single hardwood door. As Masaru approached, he felt his anxiety increase with each step. He was not afraid for his life; he had always been a little too willing to risk that. Instead it had to do with his impending retirement and a feeling of inevitability. That this was the end of things.

The door had not been forced. He turned the handle and used the barrel of his pistol to ease it open. The same stillness he had felt outside was present here; a kind of mantle draped over the realities of time and space.

A lavish chandelier hanging above the entrance hall illuminated many canvases of modern art lining the walls. With their clashing colours and chaotic brushwork, Masaru could not discern them from the artless daubs of a toddler, yet he had little doubt selling a single piece would double his retirement package. Beneath the canvases were sealed display cabinets containing antique ceramics of Chinese origin. Anybody could tell their considerable value and he was almost saddened to see a toppled cabinet and fragments of the ancient porcelain scattered across the floorboards. Saddened, that is, until he noticed the bodies.

As part of his captaincy training, Masaru had undergone regular psychological appraisals. One of these sessions was used to evaluate a candidates’ reaction to violence. He had been shown war photos taken during the Nanjing Massacre followed by slide after slide of disturbing images: starving prisoners, mutilated bodies, mass graves. At the time he had responded calmly and assuredly, never believing a police officerwould witness such brutality.

He was wrong. This was another massacre. The Shiranami Massacre.

The door came to rest against a chauffeur in a grey suit. The man’s peaked hat lay crumpled under his matted hair and the right lens to his sunglasses had split, revealing a deep, bloody cavity. Further in lay a young man whose tennis whites were now utterly red. Another body was slumped at the base of a door like a draft excluder and two more were sprawled on the staircase, their contorted expressions sharpened beneath the glare of the chandelier.

There were more victims, but Masaru had stopped looking. He was doubled over with his hands on his knees. To stop himself from vomiting, he allowed a string of saliva to fall slowly from his lips.

What was he dealing with here? Masaru had a keen interest in history and as he gathered himself to survey the bloodbath once more, he was reminded of mercenary ninja from the Sengoku period, adept killers who required but a single opportunity to dispose of a target. And as the floorboards creaked beneath his boots, he half expected a throwing star to spin out from the shadows towards his throat.

The scene before him was preposterous. And if it were not for the homeowner lying outside, he would have considered himself the victim of a practical joke. But this was no retirement stunt. His colleagues were not waiting to surprise him. The bodies would not miraculously get to their feet to remove wigs, makeup and prosthetics.

The whine of distant sirens made him breathe a little easier.

Then she appeared at the top of the staircase.

He nearly dropped his pistol. Her eyes! Full. Feverish. Feral. Masaru had seen eyes like those before, but never on a person. They belonged to trainee attack dogs confined to kennels during the starvation phase. Blood glistened through her hair and streaked her knitted cardigan. It was thickest along her right arm, unbroken crimson to the very tip of a kitchen knife she held.

She approached, making no effort to negotiate the bodies on the stairs, her eyes fixed on the open door.

Masaru heard the skid of tyres on gravel.

In any other circumstances, he would have assumed the girl a lucky survivor. Knife to be used only if the Sengoku ninja discovered her hiding place. Except, Masaru realised, she was the ninja.

“Drop the knife,” he demanded.

She kept coming, eyes never straying from the door.

He aimed his pistol at her shoulder. “I said, drop the knife!”

Surely escape wasn’t on her mind? Maybe she wanted death? Maybe a bullet was preferable to the alternative?

Masaru turned to acknowledge his colleagues, the briefest of movements, but enough for a ninja. She was on him before he could even cock his pistol. The knife flashed and he felt the punch, the spike of pain, and then nothing.

As he collapsed, his colleagues opened fire. The girl flailed her arms as she was sprayed with bullets, her fingers refusing to surrender the weapon even as she hit the deck.

From the floor, Masaru tilted his head towards her. He watched the hunger leave her eyes with the last of her breath. Then something else left her. Like steam from a rice basket. It formed in the air above her, at first hazy and indistinct, then crystal clear. A figure. A woman. Torn stockings covered shapely legs, slender hands ended at crudely broken nails, and a white shirt hung loose exposing a filigree bra and a necklace of bruised finger-marks.

Masaru was rolled onto his back and an oxygen mask placed over his nose and mouth. He tried desperately to turn his head, to look upon the woman’s face, but the paramedic was stronger. Masaru felt a needle in his shoulder followed by the sting of drugs entering his bloodstream. Then he was lost. Covered by the mantle. Lost in time and space.