Sincere - part 1
It’s that time when afternoon becomes evening. Beautiful in the countryside, otherworldly in the city. The bleed of rain on pavements and the click click of hurrying feet. No one can meet anyone else’s eye, even if they want to – everyone too hunkered down in their autumn coats. Trying to look cool, just looking cold.
The interiors of shops and bars hold promise at this hour. Of company and warmth. Of material sustenance and the reassurance that you’re not alone. The steam on the insides of windows means at least there are other people breathing.
In his workshop above the hundred yen shop, Asao is working on his new, Noh mask. The block of hinoki wood is on the bench in front of him, and he moves both it and the angle-poise lamp to ensure the best position of light on grain. He always aims for this sweet spot so he can begin to trace the basic shape of the mask. Before he can begin rough carving the outline, he needs to sharpen his chisels and in preparation, Asao lays out his red whetstone on the end of the bench.
The identity of each mask is determined by the personality of the particular block of wood, Asao likes to think. Watch the wood and see the face. This one, he already knows, is going to be Okina, with his quizzical, lined features. Asao can feel the age and wisdom seeping out of the wood.
Asao likes to work late and alone - in the workshop, he has time to think and to create. Sometimes, though, he has a sense of another presence in the room. Something watching him in the corner by the offcuts and the old bottles of lacquer. He prefers not to think about this, and would consider installing an extra light in that part of the room if only that didn’t confirm his acceptance of something actually being there.
A rush of damp air and the vibration of a phone alerts Asao to the comfort of a more tangible presence, and he bows slightly at the dark-suited man standing by the door, futilely brushing raindrops off his trousers. “Good evening, Asao”, the man says. “I’ve come to pick up my mask.” Something about the smell coming off the man’s suit makes Asao recoil, but he nods and goes into the back room to pick up the commission.
Money is exchanged and after joint inspection and appreciation of the product, Asao wraps up the mask in old news-sheets and brown, parcel paper. “Good evening, Haruhiro-san”, Asao calls as the man leaves the workshop. “I trust your mask is all you want it to be.”
Outside, it’s stopped raining and the night has fully fallen, held back only a little by the pools of liquid street light on the concrete. Haruhiro is already tearing off the packaging of his mask, putting the paper into the waste bin by the hundred yen shop and hoping that Asao can’t see what he’s doing from his workshop’s, small, first floor window. He decides though, as he puts the mask on, that Asao won’t care what he does with it – he’s been paid for his work and that’s all that will matter to him.
In the workshop, the mask had looked terrifying. A Hannya mask - the demon in its final form - with its protruding horns and sad, idiot grin. Now he’s wearing it, however, Haruhiro isn’t so sure. Maybe people can’t see it in the darkness, but he’s sure an old man walking with a little girl being held tightly by her hand, smiled at him as they passed him at the entrance to the Metro.
On the train, the young woman opposite him, smiles too and twists her hair around her index finger in a gesture that Haruhiro can only interpret as one of shy flirtation. He’s tired and looks away from her, allowing the train’s whirr to soothe him. He has a busy weekend ahead and he tries to block the thought of Ai’s mother coming to visit and the long, planned visit to the Kiyosumi Gardens. He tries not to think either of what he knows the experience will be – the grating voice of his mother-in-law commenting literally and incessantly on this plant, or that pebble in the water. Dragged along, disinterested children. Ai, defeated and frighteningly cheerful.
Haruhiro gets off the train two stops before the one for his house and makes his way towards the apartment no one knows he rents. He requires at least a little fun before the dreadful weekend begins in earnest. He doesn’t take the lift, instead the stairs, slowly and deliberately. He wants these moments to last. He puts the key in the door when he reaches the fourth floor and opens it into the room without switching the light on.
In the black of the room, he can hear the girl’s breathing and the rattle of the padlock that chains her to the chair. He can hardly see her, maybe a little of the criss-cross lattice of scars on her forearms. He can certainly feel underfoot how wet the tatami mat is and her lack of restraint disgusts him. She’s whispering, the same words repeated. “Please, water. Please, water.”
Haruhiro puts down his suitcase and takes off his mask, placing it carefully on top of the suitcase. He looks out of the window across the city. The night has cleared somewhat and the moon is breaking through the clouds. It’s strange, Haruhiro thinks, that in this city of so much man-made light, it’s the moon that looks tawdry. In any case, no significant light reaches into the room. Here, it is dark and very quiet.