The day Mr Tanaka decided to say goodbye to the world it was a crisp spring morning and the cherry trees lining the Kamo River had yet to bloom. The buds, still wary of the last chilly breaths of winter, lay huddled on the barren branches, waiting. Mr Tanaka was sitting on a bench watching the still-dozing nature and it occurred to him he did not wish to see the cherry blossoms that year. He, who was considered an avid lover of passing beauty. He, who had just the previous fall bought a special lens advertised as ideal for photographing leaves at close range. He, who owned albums upon albums of personally taken pictures of cherry blossoms and maple leaves.
That morning as he was leaving his house – that small one bedroom apartment he had never bothered to change since he had felt no need for further space – he had caught a glimpse of them stacked one over the other in the far corner of his room. He seldom looked at them. Every time one cherry blossom season ended, his enthusiasm faded and all that he looked forward to was the next season. For the first time, he thought photographs of such things were of poor taste.
As he sat on the bench, he was dimly aware that he was late for work. It scarcely mattered now that he had reached seniority, but the instinct of years past kept nagging him at the back of his mind – “You cannot be late” – and yet, that morning there was something quite definite that he was pondering, a thought that had been gathering strength over the last few weeks. A few days before, while waiting for his train, he had run into Koji Ito, his senpai of days gone by, now a meek little man in a plaid shirt and a fishing hat. Ito had once been a rising star within the company. Mr Tanaka had been the witness of his rise and eventual disappearance from their mutual workplace. The company had taken him, a promising youth of 22 fresh out of university, put him in line and ground him for 40 years, and spat him out this smiling little grey haired man. Mr Tanaka had never quite thought of it that way before. After exchanging pleasantries with Ito, he had boarded his train and stood dazed by the door, considered his life and thought there were not many memories in the last 30 years that did not involve the company. At the looming prospect of his retirement, he had cringed. What would become of him once the company was gone?
He had told himself that he, at least, still had the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, but here he was, denying himself even that. The fatality of that thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. Why should he wait for the cherry blossoms or the maple leaves? Why wait for retirement? It was so easy to just make a clean break from it all, and the prospect of death finally gave him the strength to stand up from the bench.
At work, nobody brought up his lateness. He was, after all, middle management. Entering his office, he noticed his mail had been brought in and laid down on his desk. There were several important tasks that needed his attention and the next time he had a moment to think to himself he was home. The gloomy stacks of albums brought back the thought in its entirety. From there, his eyes moved to the closet where his suits – now old-fashioned, but still presentable – were lined up one next to the other and his few casual clothes were neatly bundled on the top right shelf. He decided that if he really meant to take his own life, he should first consider it properly. So that night he started opening every closet, every drawer and turning on all possible sides every object he owned. But 25 years of accumulated possessions – for he had lived in this particular apartment for that long – were not so easily dismissed. He had never really denied himself anything he had wanted. Having no family or pet to eat up his money, he had spoiled himself in this one respect. After all, he had always said that he hadn’t married because he couldn’t really imagine having to give up his little personal time to other people. In consequence he had always dedicated his free time to himself. He was not a rich man, but working in a permanent position in a company and having no need for big spending, he could afford to live a very comfortable life. How many times had he congratulated himself on not having children when he had witnessed the trouble some of his co-workers had gone through paying for school fees, cram schools and private lessons?
So it was that Mr Tanaka spent the better part of that week’s evenings contemplating his possessions: his old camera equipment, good luck charms, back scratchers, music collection, books, fancy gadgets – a tablet he had never touched and a smart phone he kept closed most of the time. Next came his scarf stage, several old pairs of glasses and his assortment of socks. All the wonderfully useless things: figurines, watches, expensive pens and 20-year-old perfumes from the time he had thought himself a dandy. Looking over his pictures, with a variety show playing in the background, he pondered his life before the company and thought he had been very happy for a while. But not even all the pictures of his university’s rather incompetent but hard working baseball team could shake his resolution. While looking through them, he forgot where he was; the sound of the television faded and he replayed all his memories in his mind. He remembered when the pictures were taken, when he had been recruited into the team because they had heard he had been in the baseball team of his former high school and wasn’t a bad pitcher. He remembered when they had finally won their first game – against one of the most insignificant of Kyoto’s 35 universities, but who cared?! – and how they had all drunk that night and how he had passed out after two beers and slept at the table. He laughed; he had never been much of a drinker, even after joining the company.
He would never forget when his boss had made him drink three bottles of sake and he had thrown up in the street all over Reiko’s perfectly black shoes. His co-workers had teased him about it for a long time until one night Ito got drunk and took off his shirt at a company drinking party. Tanaka always thought he had done it on purpose to divert people’s attention from him. Ito had always been a good drinker.
And then he was back in his little apartment, never more aware of the passing nature of time. All these memories were good and nice, but what were they to him, to his present? Had he a right to expect such memories from life anymore? What did Ito get up to in his free time? He had said he went to visit temples. He had bought a bicycle and enjoyed cycling to each and every one. It was something he had always wanted to do, but never had the chance to before. The thought did not particularly appeal to Tanaka and he was weary just thinking about it. Ito had always been energetic, but it made Tanaka sad to think that his energy was now consumed on bike rides from Kiyomizudera to Ginkakuji and back.
The week passed in a daze and Mr Tanaka felt like he was living between two worlds. One was the company – because the company was always a world – and the second was the past as it rose up from the things scattered around his apartment, keeping him in a web of memories and illusions of past happiness. And then there were the albums full of cherry blossoms and maple leaves – like pictures of decaying corpses, disgusting to even contemplate.
It occurred to Mr Tanaka that perhaps his thoughts were generated by these nefarious albums and that, by their removal, he might begin to see things differently. He decided to get rid of them all. It took him some time to find the right way to recycle them. He had to individually remove every picture from every album and then stack the printed ones together with the paper waste, the developed ones with the general trash and most of the old albums with the plastic trash. The process took him two nights and looking through them all gave him a feeling of nausea as if the smell of their putrefaction could reach him through the glossy frame of the pictures. At the end of the two nights, when he finally secured the trash bags, he felt the need for a drink so he had a beer. His face turned beet-red after less than half. He fell asleep with the TV on, without bringing out the futon. But it was no use: his dreams were haunted by cherry blossoms and he felt like he was walking around in a suffocating garden of pink delight, but in every flower the seed of rot lay in wait. When he woke up, he felt chilled to the bone. He hoped he hadn’t caught a cold.
He had expected improvement in his mood, waiting for the spectre of the million cherry blossoms and maple leaves to fade from his consciousness, but although the dreams ceased and only vague anxieties remained while he slept, he still thought of how good it would be to die.
There was only one box of his possessions left unchecked. One of the oldest ones that his mother had sent him when they had last remodelled their house – his father’s hobby was carpentry – and they had erased the last few remnants of Tanaka’s existence from it. It was a box of things from high school. He had been a rather awkward teenager and had spent a considerable amount of his free time between baseball practice and studying, not having much time to think about anything else. He found his year three class picture and remembered Ayako. She had been the girl with braided pigtails that had sat across from him in class. She had been gentle and conscientious. She always got good grades and was part of the music circle. She played the piano. He had barely ever talked to her – being as awkward as he had been, he hadn’t really talked to girls – but the few times she had addressed him, it had always made his heart skip a beat. He had always watched her from afar. Followed her with his gaze in class, went to the music circle’s recitals and always made a point of going to their event at the school festival. He had thought about confessing to her in theory, but then he would have baseball practice and return home tired and ready only to eat, take a bath and do his homework. She had had her admirers though and she had received at least two confessions he remembered from their classmates. She had been cute and kind, it had been hard not to love her. Of course, with the exception of that awful kid Seto that had sat behind her and always pulled her braids. He had been the troublemaker of their class and had even shown up with dyed hair one day! The other kids used to say his father worked for the yakuza, but Tanaka was pretty sure that was what Seto himself had wanted them to think. His mother had known Seto’s mother and their family wasn’t much different from his own.
The next day, during lunch, Tanaka found himself looking up train schedules. He had heard it said that it was a fairly painless death, if you had the good fortune to jump in front of a very fast train. People tended to use smaller stations where the express trains didn’t stop, but rushed through at full speed. Of course bullet trains were the fastest option and some of them did pass through smaller stations, but when that was the case, they always did so through a middle track not reachable from the platform. The next best option were the JR trains. They were also the most popular choice which is why the clean-up costs they demanded of the jumpers’ families were also the highest. Tanaka intended to leave the money ready in his apartment for his family though. He also thought about the right time. Sometimes a suicide disturbed train schedules for a few hours. Tanaka couldn’t understand how people could be so thoughtless towards all those poor working people. Had they no idea how important it was to be on time and what it could mean for the companies whose schedules they upset? No, Tanaka would never do such a thing. He decided he would do it on a weekend, preferably Sunday when people were less likely to be working.
That night he had a dream about Ayako. It was the first time she had talked to him. It was because her little brother had wanted to join the baseball team and she wondered if they were willing to take him on although he was not a great player. Much like Tanaka’s university team, his high school’s wasn’t any good either, so they accepted anyone who wanted to join and Tanaka couldn’t say no to Ayako anyway! A shrewder boy would have become close to her brother and been invited over to her house to see Ayako out of uniform, but Tanaka at 17 – unlike Tanaka at 61 – had little time to think.
When he awoke, he decided to see Ayako one more time. He contacted the school about her and then called her parents’ house and they provided him with her phone number. It seemed she had married and now lived in Kobe.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Hello, this is Hiroaki Tanaka. May I speak to Ayako Ishida?” His voice trembled a little.
“Ah, it’s been a while since I last heard that name!” she laughed. “This is Ayako Kageyama. Is that Tanaka from Fujimaru High School?”
He lied and said he was in Kobe for a few days and since he had heard she lived there, he had asked her parents for her number. He wanted to catch up. She invited him to her house for tea.
Mr Tanaka took the JR express train to Kobe the next morning. He had taken a day off from work for this excursion. His boss had grudgingly approved it last minute after he had hinted at a delicate family matter that needed urgent attention. As he counted the small stations the express train passed through hurtling at full speed, he thought it was definitely the wisest choice. The only question was which small station to choose?
When he found himself in front of Ayako’s apartment, he felt his pulse racing. Ah, his heart had not forgotten the lovely Ayako. He mustered up his courage and rang the doorbell. There were sounds of movement from within and when the door opened, Tanaka came face to face with Ayako. Her smile was still the same, kind and warm, but her braids were gone and the colour of her dark hair had faded. She had turned into a middle-aged housewife.
“Tanaka!” she greeted him. “Come in!”
The house was littered with memories of a rich family life, full of pictures of children and grandchildren, old newspapers and figurines. And as a symbol of all this, behind the sliding door, he saw a toddler walking precariously, but determined, on doughy legs.
“Ah, Shin-chan, no, no, you mustn’t touch the TV!” Ayako said suddenly rushing into the room and scooping up the child. Shin-chan struggled and threatened to cry. “Please, take a seat, Tanaka. My daughter had to go to Osaka today and she left Shin-chan with me. But he’s a good boy, if not a little stubborn.”
Tanaka watched her with a sort of disbelief. Had this been what he had wanted to see? This grown-up Ayako, so far out of his reach? Why had he come there? Ayako brought in tea and treats – she’d turned into a regular granny – and started asking him about his life. He talked of the company and his work and was a little proud that Ayako seemed impressed. He then asked her about her life and she talked of her children with much enthusiasm and humour and he thought to himself, she was probably a great mother. And as these things happen, they wound up talking of the old days and their classmates.
“Ah, how nostalgic! Do you remember Seto? He used to sit behind me and always pulled my braids? He was such a rascal! I heard he lives in Tokyo these days,” she said and smiled, absently touching her hair as if expecting to feel her braids again. “I used to really like him you know, but I never had the courage to tell him. Maybe he liked me too. Young boys do tease the girls they like.”
“You liked Seto?” Tanaka asked, surprised.
“Oh, yes, why do you think I continued to tie my hair in braids although he always teased me about them? That way, he’d always talk to me,” she laughed again. “How silly it all sounds now!”
“You know…” Tanaka said, but stopped. What was the point of it? Like Ayako had never told Seto her feelings, so Tanaka would never tell Ayako his. And none of them would live different lives because of it. He smiled instead: “You’re better off without him. He was a troublemaker, he was bound to make you unhappy.”
“Maybe you’re right, but sometimes I do wonder. I look through my old picture albums and I remember. It’s such a good feeling!”
“It is,” he agreed, recalling his own recent excursions into the past.
On his way back to Kyoto, he read in an article that the cherry trees were expected to bloom the following week. The thought of dying surrounded by cherry blossoms repelled him. He decided to die that Sunday.
He spent the rest of the week getting his affairs in order. He discussed a long leave of absence openly and quite seriously with his various bosses and they spent a rather tense lunch together trying to find his temporary – permanent – replacement. Once they decided on Matsuda, only four years his junior and due for a promotion, the tension dissipated as fast as it had manifested itself and the routine set in again.
He took out the money for the payment of the clean-up from his savings account and, putting it in an envelope, also included a note of apology to his parents for any distress and inconvenience his death would cause them. He arranged for his remains to be sent to them after they were incinerated so he would be buried in their family’s cemetery. He thought it would be a good place for them and vaguely entertained the idea of walking with his ancestors in death.
The station he picked was that of a small town between Kyoto and Kobe with a reduced frequency of trains on Sundays. They only stopped there every 30 minutes while express trains passed through every other hour. Whether he had chosen it out of some remnant of bitterness at the unfulfilled past that Ayako was forever the guardian of, or out of simple convenience, he did not know.
Although the day began with a rather chilly morning, spring had extended its nimble fingers over the afternoon and a warm breeze enveloped the determined figure of Mr Tanaka as he stood on the platform, waiting. His mind, he found, was surprisingly blank. He was neither afraid, nor sad. He had no instinct for self-pity and his life, which he had meticulously gone over the last few weeks, had been carefully put in order and packed away leaving no more lingering thoughts for this last morning.
Across the tracks and beyond the walls of the station, he noticed a cherry tree reaching up over the fence. And as the warning came that an express train was about to pass through, Mr Tanaka noticed that on one frail twisted branch, a flower had bloomed. Tentatively, as if still unsure of the ripeness of the time, it had extended a few trembling petals into the air to test its deceitful heat. Its delicate corolla fluttered gently, a few drowsy petals still clung to its perfumed centre like unweaned babes and its colour, oh, the purest blush of spring. The sound of the train drew near and Mr Tanaka could not move his eyes away from the cheerful dance of the wind around the flower. How beautiful it was. And how passing.
Originally published August 2016 in Issue 7 of