Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Other Side of the Closet (PART 1)

I recently rediscovered this old short story I wrote a couple of years ago and since it seems unlikely that anyone is ever going to publish it and since I so rarely update this blog, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, knocked up a few illustrations and decided to dump it on here. There will be three parts in total and I'll post each of the next two episodes up when I have time to draw some suitable pictures to accompany them. Anyway, here's the first bit.

The Other Side of the Closet
Ian Martin

"They must be crazy!" Keiichi cried, grinning, as we stepped out of the stairwell into the bright, clear spring sunshine.
I nodded solemnly and tried to stop myself from smiling.
"He talked so long I thought he was never going to stop, eh Shunsuke!"
Keiichi looked as if he was about to start dancing as he launched into an imitation of the old man's voice.
"...really the best value. Remember the location, right by the bus stop and only five minutes from Yotsuya Station..."
Keiichi had always been good at imitations and he had the estate agent's voice down perfectly; the slow, precise enunciation of each word that made him sound like an NHK Radio education broadcast, and the slightly weary hint of desperation that was all the estate agent's own.
"...all the space you could need. Two bedrooms, large dining room and kitchen combo, lots of closet space, even a spare one in the kitchen..."
The old man had seemed very proud of the extra closet and had spent a good while longer than necessary talking us through all the uses we could put it to.
In fact, the whole meeting had been quite frustrating. We'd sat there for more than an hour, nodding solemnly and politely, trying not to laugh, trying not to cry out, trying not to scream with delight.
"Sixty thousand yen! They're out of their minds!"
We high-fived, Keiichi climbed a lamp post to celebrate, and I grabbed and kissed a passing businessman, then waved goodbye to him as he shook me off and hurried onwards.
The apartment was indeed in a beautiful location, on the corner of two tree-lined roads. It was on the second floor with the kitchen window overlooking the street. We'd looked around twice: once to see if we liked it and then a second time so that Keiichi's girlfriend, Aya, could give it her seal of approval. Even she, with her notoriously exacting taste, had only noted two problems.
Firstly, she was not impressed by the old man who seemed to constantly sit in the window of the first floor apartment with the radio tuned to J-Wave. Apparently he had given her a strange look as she was inspecting the building's structure and she thought he might be a pervert. Secondly, the building had been painted bright yellow.
Fortunately, neither of these problems had been enough for her to veto the apartment and within three days of signing the contract, Keiichi and I had moved in.

The two of us had been friends since high school and we'd somehow entered university together as well: him studying sociology and me doing art and design. I always teased him, saying that he'd followed me, but thinking back it was just as likely to have been the other way round. The truth of it was that we often just ended up making the same decisions, and that was probably why we were friends.
After we graduated, however, things began to change almost immediately. A couple of weeks after moving into the new apartment Keiichi started his new job at an advertising company, working late into the night and leaving me alone in the apartment for most of the day. I settled into a habit of sleeping into the afternoon and working on my occasional illustration jobs at night. I was the first to admit that it wasn't the best way to make a living, but it brought in enough money to live, especially with the rent being so cheap.
At the end of the month I got some money from a women's magazine that I'd done some sketches for and decided to celebrate. When there was still no sign of Keiichi by 10:00 p.m., I pulled on my jacket and headed out alone.
Shibuya is the worst place in Tokyo, from the suffocating crush of people as you exit the station to the smell of the sewers that rises up from beneath the pavement. I navigated my way through the crowds, past 109, up the hill and then through a network of seedy streets that led to the club I was heading for.
The lower floor was thick with people shuffling about, dancing self-consciously. No one was talking because the music was too loud, so I moved on to the upstairs bar. I talked to a few girls, casually mentioning that I worked for fashion magazines – a half-truth, admittedly, but not an outright lie – and eventually got talking to a cute girl with dyed brown hair and big eyes. Her name was Yuko or Yuka, or something like that.
She was working in a boutique and had done some modelling, she said, which I took with a pinch of salt. We liked a lot of the same music and movies though, and after we'd both drunk enough to let our inhibitions drop, we took a taxi together back to my place.
Inside I saw Keiichi's shoes and coat on the floor. No matter how serious he became about his job, he was still messy at home. The two of us tiptoed across the kitchen, the girl giggling at the sound of fitful snoring coming from behind Keiichi's door, and entered my room. I slid the door shut and she let me kiss her, which is when we heard the sound from the kitchen.

The harsh cymbal-crash of a saucepan hitting the kitchen floor jolted us from our kiss. At first I thought a local cat might have got into the apartment, but the sound was quickly followed by a human-sounding gasp of annoyance. Next came further sounds of kitchenware being rearranged.
The girl looked at me, her already wide eyes growing to the size of saucers.
"Your roommate?" she whispered.
Keiichi had been sound asleep when we had come back to the apartment, but the sound of his snoring had stopped now. I was slowly edging towards the door of my room when a sharp buzzing sound came from behind me. I swung round to see my mobile phone scampering around over the tatami floor and quickly snatched it up. It was a message from Keiichi:
-Is that you in the kitchen?
I texted him back that it wasn't and asked if it could be Aya. He didn't reply for a while. Meanwhile the girl was tugging at my arm.
"What's that smell?"
She was right. It smelled like frying vegetables. I edged closer to the door again. I could see a crack of light around the doorframe and decided to try edging it open slightly. Just then my phone went again.
-It's not Aya. Shall we both go out there at once?
I agreed.
I took a couple of deep breaths, got my phone ready and called Keiichi's number. It rang once, then twice; my heart was beating faster. The third ring was the signal and we both threw open the doors to our rooms.
In the kitchen stood a girl in her late teens or early twenties, wearing an old-fashioned looking kimono. Behind her were two gently simmering pots and a frying pan full of vegetables. She spun round in surprise. She stared at Keiichi, then me, then back to Keiichi, then back to me. She dropped the spatula and spoon that she was holding and ran through the door of the kitchen closet.
"Did you see that?" Keiichi sounded shocked, "You saw that too, right?"
I had seen it too. She had run through the door to the closet.
The girl I'd brought home with me had also clearly seen it because she was pulling on her jacket and edging fearfully towards the front door.
"Hey, where are you going?" I called after her, struggling to remember her name, "Just hold on a minute Yuka!"
She finished pulling on her boots, threw me a glance over her shoulder, said, "My name's Yuki," and left.

"So what do we do now?"
I opened the closet and looked around inside. It was empty apart from a bag of rice, a dustpan and brush, and some bottles of household cleaner. Keiichi didn't reply for a while.
"We both saw it. It was a ghost, right? There's no doubt about it, Keiichi: that was a ghost."
I turned back round. Keiichi was sitting at the kitchen table with the frying pan in front of him, deep in thought, eating the fried vegetables.
"Is it safe to eat that? You know, ghost food?"
He nodded, "These are the peppers and aubergine I bought the other day."
I sat down opposite him.
"Seriously though, what do we do now? How do we get rid of it?"
"These are good. You should try some, come on."
"I don't want to try some," I shouted, "I want that ghost gone and Yuka or Yuki or Yuko or whoever she is back in my be..."
I cut myself short as I heard the front door open again. I thought for one horrible moment that Yuki had come back and heard me, but it was worse. It was Aya.
"I get a text in the middle of the night asking me if I'm in your kitchen," she announced wearily, "I rush over here in a panic half expecting to find your dead bodies hanging out of the windows, and what crisis do I find? A ghost has scared off three of Shunsuke's girlfriends. Life is just a never-ending circus attraction with you guys, isn't it? Oh, and Keiichi, be a darling and go pay the taxi driver please."
Keiichi shuffled back into his room to fish out his wallet before heading outside. Aya sat down at the kitchen table, crossed her legs, folded her arms and glared at me in silence. I knew she was quietly blaming me for whatever had happened. In Aya’s world any time something happened to Keiichi, it was always my fault somewhere along the line. When we were students if he missed a class because of a hangover, it was because I was leading him astray. If he was having money problems, it was my fault for setting a bad example. Aya was an intelligent, organized woman with a sharp tongue, and it was hard work being disliked by her. I rode out her silence as best I could until Keiichi returned.
He explained what had happened with the ghost and Aya patiently took in everything he said. He demonstrated the empty closet and proffered the fried vegetables as evidence. Finally he sat himself down again with a shrug and a nervous grin. “So I guess we know why the place was so cheap now. Crazy night, huh?”
“Yes,” I butted in, “but how are we going to get rid of it?”
Keiichi shifted uncomfortably, “Well, let’s think about this. I mean, so far all she’s done is cook...”
“So what? It’s a ghost!” There was something frustrating about Keiichi’s laid-back attitude, and I could feel myself raising my voice. “Surely it must have some other place to go. What about all the other dead people? Why can’t it hang out with them instead of hassling us in the middle of the night?”
A look of annoyance flashed across Keiichi’s face.
“Just because she scared off that precious little girl whose name you can’t even remember, I don’t see why I should...”
I was ready to come back at him when Aya cleared her throat and we both stopped. She reached into her bag for a cigarette and lit it up, looking from one of us to the other. We both looked back at her, our judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one, and waited for the verdict.
She took out her cigarette, wearily blew smoke, and said four words that I never thought I’d hear from her lips.
“I agree with Shunsuke.”

To be continued...