Short Stories

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Ramen ©

“This is it.” Charles turned off the engine and turned his head to look at his passenger. His hands hung loosely on the wheel. The car was rented and small, but despite this there was satellite navigation and an impressive stereo. It sat in the snow in the shadow of some enormous rice-drying racks. The sun was going down and added a pinkish glow to everything. His passenger got out first; she was thin to the point of being sharp. Turning, she watched Charles get out of the car. His size made it slightly awkward and as if to complain he stretched his back before locking the doors.

As they walked towards the building Harriet was looking at the snow. “Look Charlie, paw prints. Just like in our garden last winter. That fox came and tipped our bins.” Charles made a show of looking but was glad they were getting close to the door.

“Charlie, this place has never before had a Western customer so promise to be on your best behaviour.” Harriet smiled at her husband. She hoped that he got her joke. This holiday was meant to be about patching things up. The first two weeks in America had been for Charles. Harriet didn’t care for the brash and large atmosphere but had enjoyed the confidence of such a large and powerful nation. Coming to Japan was all for her.

The argument that had started all the problems was six months ago now. It initiated a chain of events which ate away at their relationship until both of them had no idea what was happening to them anymore. When they first met Harriet was an artist and Charles was her father’s accountant. They had fallen in love, total and utter. In the last six months, both had managed to forget.

There were two restaurants on this road. They were about three miles apart and surrounded by fields. The first was run by a robust and well travelled man with his French wife and teenage son. It was in all the guide books and in the last year had won a number of awards. The valley was the least densely populated area in Japan. The two restaurants were the only structures that weren’t farm related on their side of the mountain wall. The famous one was built first and almost went out of business twice before it got discovered. Charles and Harriet were visiting the other.

Charles slid the door and held the hanging cloth out the way for Harriet to pass. The entrance area was well kept dirt about six foot square and lower than the main wood floor by a full foot. Around the edge, on the wood, were neatly lined up slippers.

Charles was getting ready to cough or say something when from the back a low voice said “Irashymase”. Harriet leant over and softly translated. Apparently they were welcome in this establishment. The owner and head chef came out to greet them. He was compact in a muscular way. His apron was dazzling white and beneath he wore black trousers and a gently striped apricot shirt. His cheeks, a little red, showed he had been drinking and accentuated the few black whiskers he had on his top lip. He managed to hide his surprise at having foreign customers from Charles but Harriet noticed; a smile appeared at the corners of her mouth. Bowing several times the man indicated an open and lit room off to one side and then backed out the way he had come.

“Darling, you are going to have to help me with the menu.” Charles was slowly getting used to asking for help. He understood why his wife had brought him to this country. He was completely at her mercy. She had an elementary grasp of the language where he knew nothing. America had been his; he loved the space and arrogance of the country. “Didn’t your friend recommend some kind of noodle dish? Can you see that?”

Harriet was looking at the menu contently. She wanted to talk to Charles about their relationship. She felt like he blamed her for the argument. Six months ago, something she said had upset Charles. She had not been concentrating on what she was saying. Something had come out and he had left the room. It was a week before he had come back to her. Being only angry that he wouldn’t talk about what she had said, mostly she only felt the distance growing between them. This holiday had helped; they were regaining some of their warmth. She could see the man she had fallen in love with being revealed again. However, something was still not right. She felt restricted; like she was always trying to make up for their problems. She hated it. The way she felt about Charles was changing. If they didn’t talk soon, she couldn’t see how things could really get fully better.

A noise made the couple raise their heads. There was a shuffling coming from the adjacent room. “That must be our waitress.” Harriet enjoyed her control. Telling Charles what was what in hushed tones made her feel like a grown up. He was ten years older and she usually felt immature around him.

The entrance of an old woman proved her wrong. There was no way she could be their waitress. Dressed traditionally in dark silk and carrying a Shamisen she shuffled past them and sat with surprising grace in the corner of the room. Charles had a direct line of sight to her.

“Harriet, look at her eyes.” Charles had forgotten about getting Harriet to find his food. The old woman had raised her head and spoken.

“She just said she will play for us. I think she is blind.” At this point Harriet laid the menu on the table. She was having a little trouble translating more than the drinks section. It was nice to have something else to focus on.

The old woman struck her first note. It rang within the instrument. The rice mats and paper walls soaked up the sound and the room was warmed with music.

Harriet returned to the menu. Charles was watching the old woman. Something didn’t seem quite right to Harriet about the dishes on offer. She was beginning to think that her translations were wrong. A lot of the characters made sense, pork, ramen, chicken and rice. However there were extra words that confused her. Sounding them out, the words she heard herself speak still didn’t make sense.

“Harriet, are you happy here?” Charles had finally stopped staring at the old woman. Harriet’s heart fluttered slightly at the thought that Charles was going to initiate the conversation about their relationship. The door to their room slid open for the second time and the waitress arrived. She was also traditionally dressed but a lot younger. Harriet saw Charles’ attention shift and knew that it was pointless. In a minute or so he would have forgotten all about it.

The waitress’ hair hung over her face as she bowed to them both. Harriet instinctively dipped her head. As she did she noticed that Charles’ hands were twisting the paper wrapper from his chopsticks. He always did something like that when he was nervous. They had not yet agreed what they were going to eat yet. Charles liked to be prepared. Normally, in a place where he was totally comfortable he would have said something; nothing nasty, just enough.

Harriet was beginning to find him frustrating. Why did he make her feel like it was her fault? He hadn’t said anything this time, but she knew the situation too well. She studied the side of his face; only seeing now that he had put on weight in America. He still wasn’t fat, but at that moment the weight hung like greed on his cheeks.

Without a word the waitress reached back outside the room and brought in a tray. On this there was a pot of tea, two cups and a plate of something Harriet couldn’t quite see. Bringing the tray to their table the waitress bowed again and served them both.

Harriet was mesmerised by the practiced speed of the girl’s hands. Charles was looking at her hair. It still hung in front of her face after her second bow. Placing the final plate between them the waitress started to leave. Harriet plucked up her courage and asked quietly “Excuse, this what?” Her Japanese failing through nervousness. She did, however, remember to point with her whole hand instead of just one finger. The waitress spoke very softly in reply. Harriet got the word ‘pig’ but missed the rest. The waitress sensed her misunderstanding and delicately reached for the menu in front of Charles. She spoke words he would never understand.

“She is asking you to forgive her rudeness.” Harriet’s help was almost imperceptively quiet. The waitress had brought stillness to the room that could only be broken by the old woman’s notes.

A slender finger, bright pink against the whiteness of the cuff, pointed to an item near the start of the menu. Harriet read the characters and decided that she must be translating wrong. The meat on the plate looked good, so she decided to let it drop. Harriet sipped her tea and picked up her chopsticks. Charles tried to do the same but didn’t manage to get them to stay in his hand. The waitress muttered her apology, this time to Harriet and darted her hands over Charles’ place settings.

When she had finished his chopsticks were bound at the top with his twisted paper wrapper between them. He picked them up and clacked them together looking pleased.

The waitress raised herself to leave and her hair moved away from her face. Harriet was back in the menu but Charles saw what was revealed. A scar traced a line from her chin to her forehead crossing her right eye. Before he could see any more she had turned and was leaving. The door slid noiselessly shut.

Harriet was starting to relax. They had ordered their main meals and the tea and warming music were helping her to organise her thoughts. Soon she would be able to start the conversation she needed to have. No matter how much better her relationship with Charles had become while they were travelling she could not feel fully at ease until she had found out the cause of the original argument.

“Charlie, darling, how do you like your tea?” A good start Harriet felt, not too obvious. She was never aggressive; never direct. Part of her, in the pit of her stomach, wanted to shout at him.

“The more I drink the more it goes with the food here.” Referring to the country rather than the restaurant Charles sipped again and took a small portion of the meat from the plate between them. To him it tasted like a spicy steak tartar, but it definitely wasn’t beef.

“You asked me if I was happy here.” That question had surprised her, pleasantly. She wasn’t sure if Charles had meant Japan or this restaurant. It didn’t really matter; the answer was yes to either.

“Yes, I did.” The question seemed like a long time ago to Charles. When she said it, he knew it was true but he never would have remembered on his own. He was getting hungry. The old woman had stopped playing and thanked them for listening. According to Harriet she was going to rest a little before starting again. Charles found it odd for her to be the only other person in the room with them. He found it hard to ignore the fact that when she played she seemed to stare directly at him. The total whiteness of her eyes distorted her face. As soon as he looked away he couldn’t remember what she looked like, so he looked back.

“I am, very. It’s so lovely to be here with you. I think this trip has done us the world of good.” Harriet was watching Charles’ face as she spoke the final sentence.

“Yes, it has. I feel very refreshed. I think I sleep better on holiday.” His misinterpretation was like a lead weight in Harriet’s stomach. She was sure that she had been making progress in the right direction. The lead sat on top of her aggression in her stomach.

“No, Charlie. I didn’t mean like that.” Pushing it like this was not her usual style. Something about this place and the predominance of women in the building was giving her confidence. She had had enough of this man. He didn’t even seem to be trying.

“Oh, right. I suppose it has, yes.” His face lost its touch of its relaxation. Harriet wasn’t sure if Charles knew, but she could see it. A memory had been triggered. Talking about them and their relationship, forcing the issue, had turned his mood. The door slid open. The waitress announced herself. Harriet breathed out a little too hard and the unfolded paper wrapper from her chopsticks fluttered onto the floor. Bending to pick it up she noticed the waitresses hand on the floor. It was missing a finger. Harriet retrieved her released breath from the air around her in a short gasp.

As the waitress served them Harriet saw that she cleverly kept her missing finger hidden from the guests. Charles noticed that, this time again, her bow at the table kept her hair in front of her face.

Their steaming meals sat between them. Harriet had insisted they both had a pork dish and Charlie had not complained. His cutlet was large and neatly cut into easily manageable strips. Harriet’s noodles had flat shavings of meat floating in the soup. The old woman started to play again when they were served. This time she had also started to sing with a surprisingly deep and unobtrusive voice. Harriet didn’t understand the words, but she felt them. The old woman was singing for her. She knew Charles couldn’t be appreciating it.

The food was good. Charles and Harriet ate in practiced silence. Each knew the other preferred to leave conversation for between courses. Harriet’s mind was working to think how to revive her preferred topic without directly bringing it up. Charles ate and worried that something was troubling Harriet. Had she ordered something she didn’t like by accident? Was the atonal twanging of the old woman grating on her as it was on him?

Charles finished first and asked, apologetically, if Harriet could help him find the toilet. Harriet wanted to help, but had no idea how to summon the waitress politely in a restaurant like this. Standing she walked to the door and slid it back a crack. On the floor outside the waitress was kneeling. When the door moved she quickly bowed her head. “Please, toilet where. Him.” Was the best Harriet could manage. The idea that the girl had been sitting outside the door of their room touched her. Harriet envied her patience.

The waitress slid the door shut as Charles stepped out. Harriet was left in the dining room with the old woman. As soon as Charles had stood she stopped playing and didn’t start again after the door was closed. Harriet continued to eat her noodles in silence.

Charles, guided by the waitress, slipped between the dining rooms towards the back of the restaurant. All the other rooms were dark and unoccupied. The door before the toilets was different to all the others; it still slid but was made of metal. Charles could hear the sound of frying and a voice singing from behind the door. Occasionally the song was punctuated by a heavy chop. Charles recognised the voice as that of the man who had welcomed him to the restaurant; he recognised the tune as well, it was the same as the old woman had played while he ate.

Opening the door to the toilet Charles tried, once again, to remember the symbol painted at eye height. Harriet had told him that it represented man. Charles didn’t know why they couldn’t just use a picture of a man like everywhere else. He hadn’t ever said this to Harriet. She was so enchanted by the differences here.

Dropping the paper towel he had used to dry his hands into the bin under the sink Charles opened the door and stepped into the hall way. The first thing he noticed was that the door to the kitchen was now open. The sound of the chef’s singing was much clearer; he was still chopping away at something. Charles turned to glance into the kitchen as he walked past. The chef had a joint of meat on his counter. Charles assumed it was pork. The skin was pale and the bone ran right down the middle.

He was almost past the door when he noticed something else. There was a bulge at the back of the chef’s trousers. Charles was not sure why he had noticed this, but as soon as he had something new caught his attention that knocked the bulge right out of his mind. On the counter next to the chef was what looked like a wig. This brought Charles back a step to get a better look. The boards of the floor creaked and the chef turned. He saw Charles and followed his gaze. Charles only noticed he had been heard when the chef reached out and grabbed the hair. As he lifted it Charles could see a pink layer beneath.

A high pitched whiny laugh snapped Charles back to reality. His mind had been stuck in a loop: the hair had skin, skin meant scalp, and scalp meant man. He couldn’t quite process the information; the chef had a human scalp on his butchery block.

The chef’s laughter seems directed at Charles.

As soon as the chef was sure that he had Charles’ attention he flipped the scalp onto his own head, pushed up his nose and made grunting noises. Charles stepped back, disgusted. His movement pleased the chef into baring his teeth in a smile. Not normal teeth. To Charles it looked like the chef had a mouth full of needles. The mouth was distinctly animal and cruel.

Harriet was chasing a stray noodle around the last bit of soup in the bottom of the bowel. The old woman was still sitting behind her in silence. Even though she was blind Harriet didn’t have the courage to turn and look at her.

Laying her chopsticks centrally on the little stand next to her cup she realised that she was calm. While he had not been there she had made a decision about Charles. Him not being in the room had helped. If he wasn’t comfortable talking to her then she would have to make all the decisions. The confidence was rising inside her. She could almost feel it. It felt warm in her chest.

She heard laughing in the distance. It was strangely barked and high pitched laughter. It raised a smile on her face. The energy of it reached inside her.

Charles ran towards the only lit room. The waitress was kneeling outside with her head lowered. As Charles approached she looked up. Her scar stood red against her skin. Grinning as she stood Charles saw the same needle like teeth. As he approached she leapt back and disappeared into one of the darkened rooms.

He raised his hand and accidentally punched through one of the paper panels as he slid open the door to the lit room. Harriet was sitting where he had left her. But now the old woman was right behind her. Wrinkled hands either side of Harriet’s head, not touching and not within the reach of her peripheral vision. The old woman’s head was back and her mouth open; again the needle like teeth. Charles felt his jaw drop open. He made a sound, but not a word. As he did the old woman’s blind eyes stared at him. Without a sound she leapt back into the corner of the room landing seated exactly like when he had left. Solemnly she picked up her instrument.

“What’s wrong darling? You’re gaping.” Harriet turned following Charles’ stare to the old women in the corner. Her hands were getting ready to play again.

“We’re going.” Charles’ voice was low and harsh.

“But…” Harriet’s will had broken as Charles spoke. Something in the violence of his entry and the look on his face forced everything that had been building inside her to sink back down again to the bottom of her stomach. Her decision was fixed, but the return of her old feelings of inadequacy and guilt made her stand and follow him out.

Sitting in the car Charles breathed hard steaming the windscreen. Harriet didn’t seem to notice, her full attention was on the contents of her bag. Charles fumbled with the keys and managed to get the engine started. The lights came on and illuminated the front of the restaurant. The chef, waitress and old women were in the doorway. All of them were waving their arms and laughing. As Charles reversed the car into the darkness and snow the group turned to go back inside Charles saw that all of them had tails, bushy ginger tails with white tips. Harriet saw none of it; she was twisting round to search the back seat. “Slow down darling. You know how we slid on the way here.”

“Hair.” It was the first word either of them had spoken since they had joined the road out of the valley. Harriet had been thumbing through her dictionary, rescued from the back seat, in the light from the glove compartment.

“What?” Charles was glad that she had broken the silence, but had no idea what she was talking about.

“The symbol I couldn’t understand in the menu was ‘Hair’.” Harriet’s voice was weak. “All the food was made from Hairy Pig.”

“…in the kitchen I saw. No, no I can’t say.” It all sunk in. Turning to look at her Charles could see she had no idea what he was talking about. His stomach and he said “I am sorry, I have to pull over.”

The red rear lights came on, bright in the darkness and reflected in the snow. Ice made it difficult to stop. When the car eventually came to a halt, almost nose down in a ditch, Charles fell out of the driver's door and vomited; his whole body heaving. A vivid yellow hole was burnt into the snow. Harriet was leaning over. “Darling, what’s wrong?” The ‘Darling’ stuck a little in her throat. ‘When we are home’ she thought.

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