Hibiki Matsushita had a face, smooth-skinned and slightly mournful, which happened to be almost identical to that of Hideyoshi Matsuoka. Hideyoshi Matsuoka was a famous pop singer with a long fringe and skinny thighs. Hibiki was not famous. He came from ordinary middle class parents and lived in an ordinary suburb of Fukuoka. When he was a teenager, though, which was when Hideyoshi became famous, people would ask him all the time, ‘Hey, Hideyoshi Matsuoka? Can I have your autograph?’ And he would have to tell them, ‘No, I’m not. I’m Hibiki,’ and watch them look embarrassed and resentful as they walked away without a signature. His friends told him he should at least pretend to be Hideyoshi. It would help him to get girls. No doubt Hideyoshi had girls throwing themselves at him. But he didn’t want to look like Hideyoshi Matsuoka; he disliked his music, his calculatingly amorous smile and dishevelled clothes.
Because even though Hibiki looked like the pop star, he wasn’t popular with the girls. He had the right mouth, soft and full lipped, and attractively wide eyes and symmetrical cheekbones, but the fact that he was not Hideyoshi always put them off. It was as if he radiated a negative Hideyoshi energy; what Hideyoshi attracted Hibiki repelled in equal force. Moreover, Hibiki was unnerved every time he looked in the mirror after he turned 15. The unnerve stuck with him and he emerged as an apologetic young man, uncomfortable with his own shadow and always aware of what he was not.
When he was 18 he failed to get into Fukuoka University, so his parents decided to send him to America to learn English. If he spoke English fluently, they reasoned, it would certainly improve his chances of finding a nice wife.
In America no one had heard of Hideyoshi Matsuoka so to his relief he was no longer asked for autographs. He studied English as an anonymous foreign student. He hung out with the other Asian students and even made friends with a few Americans, drinking beer and playing pool at the university bar. For a while he went out with a small American girl who had brown eyes and flushed cheeks and liked manga. Eventually, though, she found out that he was not a character from an anime and preferred spaghetti to sushi, so she broke up with him. He went out with a muscular, assertive Chinese exchange student, too. She loved everything so much, though, that she soon grew bored with his lack of love and broke up with him.
And then, in his third year of university, his mother suddenly called him to tell him his great aunt was bedridden. She didn’t want to go to an old people’s home but they had no time to care for her. Could he please come over. They would pay. It mightn’t be long, she’s very ill and on her way out. She won’t take much looking after.
Hibiki disliked his great aunt. She didn’t know who Hideyoshi was. She had a narrow, sharp nose, and an austere mouth; although she was small there was something large and imposing in her silent presence and he was always intimidated by her. She had been a school teacher and married late in life but never had children. Her husband had left her, after seven years, for a woman he met in a coffee shop. She was an independent woman and treated Hibiki disdainfully, as if it hurt her independence to be generous. She would come occasionally to family gatherings but only rarely invited them to her place. When they did go there she would offer them cakes, their insides white and crumbly and slightly stale. Her house was cluttered with things from foreign places; a pink parasol, dark Chinese drawers, Italian coffee grinders, wooden statues of Indonesian gods and an Eiffel tower paperweight. It smelt musty and sticky like old toffees.
So he found himself back in Fukuoka, taking the number 35 bus everyday to his aunt’s small and cluttered apartment, driving home in the late evening with his parents and trying to reconcile Hibiki in America with Hibiki in Fukuoka.
On the first day he went to see her with his mother, who had taken the afternoon off work. His great aunt was propped up on large flat pillows in her dark bedroom. There were prints on the walls of dancing figures and on the duchesse was a chaotic collection of fat porcelain monks, shepherd girls, toy fluffy cats and a snake in a bottle. As soon as they had entered she had begun speaking in a detached monotone about Aristophanes.
‘You know in Aristophanes, this idea that each person is a round berry that has been sliced in half and goes about, looking for the other side of it. Perhaps it isn’t a berry, but that’s the picture I get in my head. What happens if it never finds this other side? I used to imagine myself, this half-berry, rolling clumsily about looking for my half-berry other self.’
Hibiki looked at his mother and she shrugged. They hadn’t told him his aunt was losing her marbles.
His mother said, very loudly, ‘Shall I get you some soup, Auntie? I’ll just open the windows, shall I?’
His aunt continued seamlessly, ‘And I would imagine finding it somewhere odd. On a bus, perhaps. In one of my student’s lunch boxes. At the top of an escalator in a crowded mall. This identical cross-sectioned berry and we would jam ourselves together and become a whole thing. But you see, the problem is that then I would lose my face, the inside of me would be subsumed by this other thing, all that would remain would be a smooth-skinned berry exterior. You see? I like my face but the whole front of me would be entirely hidden. So I stopped imagining this.’
Hibiki laughed loudly but his aunt’s face remained expressionless and his mother frowned disapprovingly at him and told him to boil some water for soup.
Hibiki’s mother was an austere but diffident woman. She liked to have friends over for tea and had been relieved at her husband’s decision to send Hibiki away for a better education. She was obliged to him for being her son, and for speaking English so well but she had forgotten what it was like to have him about her house. She was alarmed, now, by the tall quiet man who had returned to her and who seemed to have copied her own style of practised indifference.
His father was a stooped man who resembled a tired little hamster, rushing out of breath on its wheel. He had been cheerful and benign enough in Hibiki’s youth, but now it seemed all the old remnants of patience had finally been worn away and what was left was a harried, kindless little man.
In the evening both his parents would come and glance sympathetic eyes at his aunt’s monotone and then they would all drive back quietly to their house, 40 minutes across town.
Hibiki would go and visit her in the morning and stay all day, listening to her and making soup, or sometimes cleaning the house, or opening windows to try to squeeze light into the corners. He was surprised by Fukuoka somehow, trundling along on the number 35 bus, watching its familiar streets, with their particular, clipped fashions the thick trunked trees. It was the same as when he had left; the muted sea-smell, the sugar-coated downtown with its wide streets and brisk, orderly crowds. The pleasant houses in their muted ochre and greys and subtle olives. It was all the same and yet it unsettled him, as if it were in fact only a replica of the Fukuoka he had known. Sometimes, rounding a bend or approaching an old building he remembered, it was as if he were meeting an old self, someone he had almost forgotten. Once he walked past his old school and it made him feel very small, as if he had shrunk from the boy he had been, the Hideyoshi look-alike, to the boy he was now. He stood in a shop, one morning, and they seemed to be playing a song he knew. But as he was trying to remember the song the first verse started and it was something he had never heard at all.
His aunt’s monologues were elliptical and slightly fuzzy, as if she were reciting an old poem she’d written a long time ago. ‘Sitting in the park, in the city, I’d watch the leaves, going crimson, eat my rice. Masashi was very flamboyant. He’d sweep me up and whisk me through the leaves. I was flamboyant too, with him. That’s when I learnt people infect you with themselves. When I was alone I’d always just sit, watch the leaves, eat my rice.’
She talked as if no one were in the room and he could imagine when he left that she would go on talking, like that, to no one, right through the night. She would keep recounting all her dreams and fantasies so that when she died it would just be the hollowed outer shell of her left and all the stories and bits of memories would hang in the air, eventually fading away into the dingy wallpaper or drifting out the opened windows.
‘In school they’d say: Would you die for your emperor? And we’d say, Yes. Would you die for your Emperor? Yes. After the war it turned out the emperor was a man with small hands and a reedy sort of voice.’
It seemed strange that you could know someone all your life but then only see them at their approach to death. The nearness of it made her pale skin glow. It gave an unnatural sheen to her dark eyes. Her hair was short and grey and limp strands of it sat about her face.
He came up to her house every day for the fortnight that he was in Japan. Every evening he would wish he hadn’t, and think perhaps instead he should look up old friends or go to the beach, and travelling home with his parents he could smell the musty scent of the room in his clothes and hair, and would see everywhere the proximity of death. But in the morning, when he woke he would be compelled to go. Excited, even, as if he were rendezvousing with a lover. It was late spring and the air was soft and warm.
His mother was suspicious of him as soon as he returned from America. He looked different, he smelled different. When he spoke there was the faintest hint of an accent in his Japanese, a subtle twang of coke and steak and William Faulkner. She had found a wife for him. She would wait until his studies were over but, she said, if you want, I have found you a wife. She is kind and respectable. She is a secretary. She would be disappointed that he was not Hideyoshi.
To his surprise, though, people had forgotten who Hideyoshi was. No one commented on the resemblance. He was not asked for autographs, he was not stared at sideways in bus shelters. His black hair and downward sloping eyes and soft mouth were entirely inconspicuous. He was less than inconspicuous, in fact, he felt sometimes invisible. His body resided amongst a blur of humanity but he had no identity himself, no actual firm being of his own. This feeling became stronger as he stayed there, that more and more (or less and less) he did not in fact exist. Even when he sat with his dying, rambling aunt he did not really sit there but rather absorbed all her memories, became part of the sponge of air and wall paper and dust mites that soaked up her dying self.
Sometimes his cousins would be there, too, but she continued talking regardless of them and their inimical, uncomfortable smiles. The two of them felt only a peevish affection for their aunt, out of sympathy for her dying, but they too had never been close. For some reason Hibiki had been the only one nominated as her caregiver. Perhaps they thought America was not so important it couldn’t be interrupted for this.
In spite of her having few relatives, she had never made much effort to get to know any of them. She had been a solitary, reticent woman who spoke only rarely. This sudden volubility intimidated his mother and he wondered if she too felt she was meeting her aunt for the first time.
One day when the cousins were there their aunt said, ‘They told me in Paris everyone was in love. People, they said, fall in love with everything in Paris; with trees, with bridges, with the eaves of houses and fresh croissants. I didn’t fall in love with anything. I thought it was boring, all these people wandering about in love.’
‘She’s lost her marbles,’ said the eldest cousin, but Hibiki thought, she hasn’t lost her marbles. She is in the process of scattering them.
Those two weeks began to seem like another world, as if the rest of his life – America, his Chinese girlfriend, Hideyoshi – had all been a dream and this was the only real world he had ever known.
‘You know how far space is from the Earth? Not far, not far at all. About 200 Li. That means if you drove a car straight up it wouldn’t take long, would it?’
There was a peculiar resignation to the waiting, a gentle eloquence to it, as if this were a ceremonial method of dying.
‘Of course, it might be cold there.’
Sometimes she registered his presence and sometimes she would slurp her soup as if it had fallen through the window into her lap. One day, though, he asked her what she thought would happen when she died.
She paused in her soup-slurping for a moment and then looked directly at him and said, ‘Death is like a sea. You get carried across it by Charon. You have to pay him a lire or two. (Make sure you put some yen in my hand so I can pay him.) I’ll pay him and he’ll carry me across. I can’t write you letters, from there, you know. Or make a phone call, so you’ll just have to find it out yourself. Perhaps they will let me send a post card. A little post card with no writing or address, and then you’ll know that I got there okay.’
She gave a little chuckle and looked across at him and he smiled too. He wished he had met her earlier.
The room began to smell, after the tenth day, of more than old toffees and dust. He opened the blinds and the windows, scrubbed the floors, changed her sheets but it still smelt. It smelt as if the whole house were succumbing to something large and dank and malodorous.
On the fourteenth morning he opened the door of the apartment to a strange pervasive silence. He closed it behind him and the click of the door felt swallowed into the noiselessness. He walked slowly down to her room and could not hear his feet or his breathing or even the blood pumping through his ears. He went into her room and tried to say hello, but nothing came out. The air itself was immobile so that he felt he was physically pushing his way through it. He sat on the chair next to her bed and looked over to her. Her mouth was open and seemed like a hole without lips or a bottom. She was not breathing.
He sat for a very long time, watching her. Her face looked like the underneath of a surface once the paint has been stripped from it, and her frame was deflated and suddenly very frail and small.
He thought he ought to call his parents, but knew he could not talk, now, inside the apartment. So he went out into the bright sunshine and noise outside and glided through it as if he existed on some other plane.
He sat on the bus and let his body rock with its movement, watching the neat blocks of apartments and the brilliant limpid blue of the sky.
Eventually he noticed that the woman opposite him was staring intently at him. Hibiki tried to ignore it, but every time he stole a glance across her eyes were boring into him. She was a young woman, maybe of similar age to him, with narrow black jeans and soft curly hair. When he stood up at his stop the girl stood up too and followed him out. ‘Hey,’ she said as the bus pulled away, ‘aren’t you Hideyoshi Matsuoka? I remember you. I used to love your music. In fact I think it’s what got me through high school, I couldn’t have made it otherwise. I can still remember all the words, I sing them sometimes when I’m lonely.’
‘Yeah,’ she laughed a little bashfully, ‘Do you think I could have your autograph?’
‘Sure,’ said Hibiki, smiling and feeling for a moment as if he really could be Hideyoshi, as if his life were interchangeable with anyone else’s.
‘Wow. It’s so great to meet someone famous. And on my bus too! Whatever happened to you? You just seemed to disappear.’
‘I went to America.’
‘Oh really? Oh cool. To do music?’
‘To find my other half.’
‘Oh right. And did you?’
‘No. Maybe.’ He signed the red notebook in neat Kanji Matsuoka Hideyoshi with a ball point pen she had provided and giving his best impression of a glamorous smile he walked back up to his parent’s house.
He only stayed in Japan for a few days after the funeral. He gave his mother a kiss on the cheek at the airport, and his father a bottle of whisky, and flew back to his little hostel room in America. When he arrived America was clean and flat and smelt of cleaning products and an excess of space. He stood for a full ten minutes in his room, staring at his scant possessions, rigidly ordered, the pale off-white walls, the flat blinds and grey sheets neatly folded back. He sat at his blank desk and began half-heartedly opening the mail that had accumulated; bills, a couple of bank account statements, a prize of $10,000 if he bought twenty tubes of miracle wonder crème now. The envelopes made a grating crunch as he scrunched them up and tossed them into his metallic waste basket.
But right at the bottom of the pile of mail he found a curious postcard. One side of it was dark sepia, like a photo that has been taken on an antique box camera. He studied it carefully but could not make out any distinct images, although there seemed to be the vague outline of a woman’s body, her face slightly turned away.
His hands trembled slightly as he held it.
On the other side, surrounded in white space, in neat Kanji, was written simply, Matsushita Hibiki.