Tokyo, 1925 At the death of his mother, the geisha Yukihime, young Jiko Mizumi goes from the teahouse to the noodleshop of his aunt and uncle. But he's about to go even farther than that - when th...
His earliest memory was a string of little paper cranes that hung from the rafter near his bed - every now and then his mother would fold another one and add it to the chain, and he remembered that it had nearly reached the floor the year she died and he left the ochaya. That was the way he came to see all his memories, as a string of small things that moved slowly in a slight breeze, delicate, intricate, some in bright colours and patterns, some made from sweet wrappers and bits of scrap, others flickering gold and silver.
He had three of the cranes in the little box where he kept what remained of the time when he had been Jiko and not Bertie - a dull silver one, a black one patterned in gold and red chrysanthemums, and bright pink one that had got crumpled somehow - he thought he remembered holding it a little too tightly, or maybe it had happened when he pulled it from the string - the last thing he had done when his aunt and uncle had come to get him from the ochaya.
He had an ornament his mother had worn in her hair; a long pin with a knotted red silk tassel and a spill of lacquered beads - he could tell from the colours that it had probably been part of the costume she wore when she performed the new year's dance.
A Western-style powder-compact with a mirror and a beautiful enameled lily on the back - it had to have been a gift from a patron and still held the puff and smelt faintly of violets. Bertie sometimes took it out and flicked it open; looking into the little round mirror he found himself making the same face his mother had, widening his eyes and opening his mouth a little - then he'd shiver and put it away, half-believing that her ghost lived inside it. It seemed to hold more of her spirit than the picture he had of her, a formal, posed photograph now rather rubbed around the edges, taken to commemorate her promotion to the highest rank of the flower-and-willow world. Her art-name, Yukihime, was written on the back of it, along with the name of the teahouse and a short poem about the beauty of a spring snow that melted as it fell. Bertie knew that her lips had been bright red, but they looked black in the picture; her professional half-smile seemed cold and empty, holding nothing of the feeling he remembered - still, it was what he had, and better than nothing.
And that was all of it, a pile small enough to fit into his two cupped hands, tied up in a /furushik/i scarf that had probably once been wrapped around a small gift, a parcel of cakes or sweets perhaps, and kept in a flat box of indeterminate origin. His mother had died still in debt to her house, and everything that had seemed to be hers; kimono, jewelry, cash, bedding, furniture - even her wigs and make-up, went back to the house.
There had been some discussion about the actual ownership of Bertie/Jiko himself, carried on with no reference to the opinion of the child who knelt silently on the matting a little way from the two women, hands pressed against his thighs and eyes on the ground. He had been six then, large-eyed, with the bowlegged, clumsy appeal of a kitten, just one of the litter of mistakes that ran about the place being fed, scolded, petted and shoved out of the way until they were old enough to be profitable. The pretty girls became kamuro, apprentice-geisha who acted as ladies'-maids to their older colleagues, the plain girls made useful servants, and the boys simply disappeared, usually farmed out to relatives happy to have an extra pair of hands. It was an indication of Yukihime's status that she had been able to keep her son with her over the objections of Hanako, the teahouse proprietress, and the geisha's sister Osuzu, who would have been delighted to foster Jiko and teach him everything he needed to know about running a respectable noodle-shop. As time went on and the boy grew, Hanako, a retired professional herself with a shrewd eye for potential profit, stopped objecting.
And then Yukihime had died. It was very sad. Their otouto-chan was most fortunate indeed to have an aunt with his welfare at heart...however...Hanako, pouring a cup of tea for Osuzu-san, pointed out with regret that Jiko was already starting to show his mixed ancestry, and reminded the excellent woman that such children were often regarded with contempt or superstition in the ordinary world, and perhaps, for Jiko's own good, he ought to stay under the protection of the house, where they were at least accustomed to his odd looks...
Osuzu had reminded Hanako-san that the noodle-shop was two streets away and technically still part of the protected world, and that while children like Jiko were indeed unusual, they were hardly freaks, and at least his hair was black. And he was family.
Hanako had sighed, moved the plate of red-bean pastries a little closer to Osuzu-san and informed her that the house had had all the expense of keeping Jiko-chan for the last six years, and that she would be willing, if necessary, to negotiate his contract in the usual way, starting with the customary ten-year arrangement...
At that point Osuzu stood up, bowed courteously, thanked Hanako-san for the tea, took a firm hold on the neck of her nephew's little blue kimono and hauled him bodily out of the building, startling her husband Goro, who had been having a quiet smoke outside with the ochaya's doorman. "Go in and get his things," she'd hissed at him. "And don't let that woman talk to you." Goro shrugged and did as he was told.
Jiko had spent the next nine years sweeping, washing dishes, playing in the street, learning to read, write, and cook noodles, adding up the customers' bills, smiling politely, and fending off the advances of various late-night patrons who had had more sake than was good for them.
His aunt noted the increasing frequency of the fending-off process with bewilderment. She thought Jiko an ugly boy, speckled and washed-out-looking, and the years of lifting and carrying boxes and trays had failed to offset the appearance of fragility he'd inherited from his mother.
"I'm not doing anything," Jiko had said, when questioned, "it just happens." And he'd turned sulky, which only made it happen more often.
She took him to the local Shinto priest and had him briskly exorcised, just in case Yukihime's spirit had taken up residence in the boy, but the problem continued. Osuzu, remembering the teahouse proprietress's persistence, began to think that maybe it wasn't such a problem after all - it did draw customers to the shop - she didn't understand it herself, but the tastes of men were incomprehensible, and perhaps some profit could be made of it.
Then she had got her brilliant idea. She knew that the kabuki theatre trained likely boys as dancers and as onnagata to play the heroines' parts, and her nephew was graceful...and covered under a layer of white face-powder, his obvious differences might be disguised. There was no reason why he shouldn't make an excellent actor, and well-known actors attracted rich and powerful patrons...Osuzu's fingers slowed on her abacus as she imagined the endless possibilities. Jiko, arriving with a basket of fresh beansprouts, had been startled when his aunt told him she was taking him to buy a new kimono. "Grow your hair," she'd said.
And then the foreign man had come, and spoiled everything.
The street was too narrow for the black consular car and it had been left on the other side of the bridge, causing a certain amount of excitement in the neighbourhood, particularly when it was observed that the two formally-dressed consular aides were accompanied by a policeman and a tall Western man in a very expensive suit. None of these alone was unusual enough to cause any undue disturbance, but the combination was intriguing, particularly when they were seen to enter the Usagiya noodle-shop.
Osuzu took one look at the Englishman and his escort and knew that it wasn't an eccentric desire for the house special udon that had brought him. He stood quietly, hands behind his back, looking around the shop with lifted eyebrows. To Osuzu he seemed enormous, but his height was barely average. His eyes might have been hazel, or blue, or pale brown, and his hair was dark, one lock of it lifting and falling onto his forehead in a way that Jiko's aunt recognized with a pang. Anywhere else in the world, he would have passed unnoticed, but here in the noodle-shop he stood out like a storm cloud in a clear sky.
One of the aides stepped forward with a small bow. Osuzu skittered out from behind the counter, wiping her hands on her apron and bowing too, but a great deal lower. Goro put his head out of the storeroom and swiftly withdrew it again.
"This is Sir Richard Walpole. He's come to -"
"I've been to the teahouse," the Englishman said, interrupting his assistant. His Japanese, though heavily accented, was correct enough.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
Osuzu bent herself double again.
"I'm told there's a boy."
"Ahhhhh....." Osuzu felt something like a cold, gentle breath on the back of her neck.
"Walpole-san has documents, Mrs. Mizumi - " The aide glanced at the policeman, who folded his white-gloved hands in front of him and tilted his chin up in an official manner.
"Walpole-san has his face," Osuzu said, giving in to what had to be the workings of karma. Only the gods knew what she'd done in her last life to deserve this. "I'll see if I can find..."
At this point, Goro reappeared from the storeroom, pulling Jiko after him. The boy stumbled as his geta caught on an uneven place in the wooden floor, recovered himself, and took a breath.
What now? "Am I...being /arrested/?" He couldn't think of anything he'd done recently that could be precisely defined as illegal, but you never knew...
"Bow, foolish boy," his uncle muttered, elbowing him. Jiko bowed, and found himself staring at a pair of shining black shoes. The shoes moved a step forward, and the man wearing them took hold of Jiko's chin, pulling him upright. The eyes that looked into his were the colour of wet stones - then, slowly, they warmed, as if the sun had struck them.
/Not again.../Jiko pasted on a polite smile - no one had told this foreigner it was rude to stare another person in the face, even if that person was only the boy at the noodle-shop..."I'm so sorry, sir, but I think you..." he began in tones of bright regret - it was a speech he'd made several times and was getting rather good at.
His aunt made a small sound, and Jiko stopped in confusion. She'd never interfered before - was he supposed to say yes to this particular man? He wished someone would explain, before he made a mistake he'd get blamed for later.
Still looking at Jiko, the man said something in English, almost as if he didn't know words were leaving his mouth.
The soft, apologetic voice of the consular aide added itself to the end of the flow of sound. "Walpole-san says you resemble his mother very greatly, Mizumi-kun."
The man said something else, then turned abruptly and left the noodle-shop, agitating the red door-curtain with the smiling rabbit on it.
One man hurried after him, and the other turned to Osuzu and Goro. "Walpole-san says he will return tomorrow. He would be grateful if the boy was packed and ready to leave then." With another small bow, he handed an envelope to Goro. "I was instructed to leave this with you...Walpole-san extends his thanks to you for caring for his son for so many years." Goro tried not to stare at the packet in his hand. It was very heavy...
Instead, he glanced at his nephew, suddenly and strangely transformed to a different kind of being altogether. The boy had turned the colour of overcooked rice and was standing, perfectly still, staring into the space so recently occupied by the man who was his father.
A Week Later
The British Consul's secretary stamped the document with the consular seal. "That's done, then, Sir Richard. All rather irregular, but Sir Anthony insisted that you be given every accommodation, as I understand you're sailing tomorrow morning. Back to Blighty, eh, young fellow?" He smiled at the silent half-caste boy in the very new suit. The boy blinked at him.
"He only speaks Japanese," Sir Richard said, signing the paper in three places and looking at his watch.
"Of course, of course," the secretary murmured. "Yes. Well...you'll have to see your solicitor when you get back to London to make the adoption formal, but these should see you through the ports..." He paused, the pen held over the sheet of thick paper. "And what name should I record....?"
Sir Richard looked at his boy. He simply couldn't run around Norfolk with a name like Jiko Walpole. It was absurd - imagine what they'd say when he started school -impossible. He bit his lip. A name...a name... his eye fell on the portrait of the old king that hung in the corner of the Secretary's office, still wearing a dusty bow of mourning crepe... "Albert. Edward. Albert Edward Walpole."
The Secretary duly recorded the unexpected existence of the Honourable Albert Edward Walpole.