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Old Friends

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Jigen’s first response was clearcut. “Absolutely not. Cameras…” He was stretched out on the living room sofa, reading a really old copy of G-Men. It promised to be a good, mellow Sunday, his belly was full with good home-cooked food, and for once he hadn’t woken up with the god damn cat on his face.

 

Fujiko dropped a piece of paper on him. He huffed, turning it over to see what was written on it.

 

It was an invitation card. Tastefully embossed, bearing a stylised logo and the date and time of the event.

 

“You worried about cameras?” she said, crouching down to let Tama-chan out the door. He made an ingratiating noise, but ran off quickly. The fiend must have spent the night in her room, Jigen decided. “I thought we were masters of disguise.”

 

And just like that, the game was on.

 

 

 

It wasn’t even dark out and he was bored, or so he told himself. He knocked twice on the door.

 

“Come in!” said Fujiko.

 

He stumbled over something on the way in. An instrument bag. As usual her room was filthy, clothes and papers and mechanical parts strewn across the bed, not even a duvet on top to keep dust off. The record player was on, and as he stepped over the bag on the floor, the song changed. The charging guitar intro to Funkadelic’s “Super Stupid” filled the room. He walked up to her dressing table, dragging a chair behind him.

 

He’d been expecting a different disguise, he realised. Blonde instead of her signature red. Maybe even something masculine. But she was just applying aging prosthetics to her plain, freshly washed face. She was dressed already, a dark dress over dark tights. The look could be described as frumpy. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. He picked up the snow globe on the table, the tiny scene a reminder of an adventure from long ago.

 

It had been a gift. He smiled.

 

“What happened to those zip-up-and-go latex ones?” said Jigen, setting the snow globe back down. He wanted a smoke, but the room already stank of it. He made a note of it, uselessly—she wasn’t supposed to smoke in the house, but then neither was he. And he did it at least twice a week.

 

Jigen crossed over the junk on the floor one more time, to crack open another window.

 

“They weren’t exactly zip-up-and-go,” said Fujiko, adjusting the lamp that was casting bright white light on her face. “And they’d leave you smelling like melted rubber for days afterwards.”

 

“How old are you supposed to be tonight?”

 

“Never ask a lady’s age,” said Fujiko. “Eh, forty-four.”

 

“I thought you were joking about the gig.”

 

“Sorry yours didn’t cut it.”

 

“Shut up,” said Jigen, pulling his hat lower over his eyes. To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t bothered. Turned out writing songs was hard work and involved annoyances like editing.

 

 

 

He held the belief that a song was a God-given expression straight from the soul and fussing over it too much ruined the whole thing. He’d said as much to Fujiko once and gotten slapped lightly on the head for it with a rolled up sheet of music.

 

Those were early days, Jigen sitting on the roof with the ugly semi-feral cat that had adopted them and a six pack from the kitchen fridge. Fujiko was picking away at her guitar, a banged up thing she’d bought on a whim shortly after they moved into town.

 

It was the most unexpected, innocent hobby he’d known her to take up. He’d assumed it’d go the way all the other ones had, forgotten, the gear ordered online at 4 am and inaugurated with ceremony soon to be laid aside or screwdrivered apart for other purposes.

 

The first time he’d heard her play a song, he’d been repairing their shitty TV. It was a fast-paced, old-timey sounding tune, vaguely familiar. Not bad, he thought.

 

He’d asked her about it over dinner, watching a variety show on their re-repaired, still shitty TV. “It’s an old song,” said Fujiko, after a long pause. There was sauce on her face from the chicken, and her eyes were glued to the screen. “You never heard it?”

 

“I didn’t grow up here,” said Jigen, throwing a paper towel at her.

 

“Okay, Mister Americano,” said Fujiko in a very exaggerated accent. Then she burped. One of the guests on the show said something even sillier, and Jigen got distracted.

 

 

 

The record came around to the start as Jigen watched the street through Fujiko’s window. Eddie Hazel’s searing solo was putting him in a mood. The veined hand on the curtain with its scarred fingers didn’t feel like it could be his. Fujiko’s alter ego was forty-four, but she was still only thirty-five. He was fifty. Somehow the entire past two years had happened. He’d lived it. He was here.

 

And of all people… she was here, too.

 

“Your turn,” said Fujiko. Jigen went back to her and straddled his chair. “The hat, Jigen.”

 

He took the hat off. “Should’ve asked for more details earlier.” Fujiko was aiming for him with what looked like a wig. “I’m not the boytoy?”

 

“Hanae Koshino doesn’t have a boytoy,” said Fujiko. It was a fake beard and moustache. It could have been much worse, so he didn’t complain. “And that’s beyond my makeup skills.”

 

“You take that back.”

 

“Hold still,” said Fujiko.

 

He held still. She was quick. He assessed himself in the mirror. Subtle and effective.

 

“You famous enough to get on magazine covers or something? They gonna do a photo feature on your home life?”

 

“Why, I had no idea that was a fantasy of yours…”

 

Jigen pulled a face, feeling the synthetic moustache move with his upper lip. But he liked this place they called home now. He’d thought the quiet would kill him. That, or just the sound of his own thoughts.

 

Fujiko was shaking her head, and he was already on his feet when something made him stop and look. The stranger sitting at Fujiko’s dressing table was an older woman with a messy, but kind of artful bob. Silvering hair sliced through the dark strands of her wig here and there. A pair of black-rimmed eyeglasses sat on her nose.

 

That was when he realised he was seeing what Fujiko might actually look like years from now. The hair and the glasses were a decoy. The eyes under their gently sloping lids looked curiously at him. Too bright. The one flaw in the disguise.

 

No, he could believe that she’d have that same look years later. Decades later.

 

“Let’s leave in ten,” said Fujiko.

 

 

 

Jigen was still mulling over his paper-thin backstory as they reached the venue. They’d been sent a car by the organizers, which somehow felt more luxurious than any ride they’d ever stolen. Someone very famous spilled slowly from a mean-looking limo just ahead of them, a collection of mile-long legs and diaphanous silver fabric. Reporters thronged. The security staff’s force shield held, but flashes went off. And cries.

 

Suddenly Jigen remembered a snowy night in Moscow, at the Bolshoi.

 

A few smiling young men ushered them unmolested through a side entrance. Things moved rapidly from there, and Jigen only had to smile and bow on cue, “Hanae” handling all the salutations and small talk on the way to the banquet hall.

 

The stage was bigger than he’d been thinking to see. The decor looked like wedding cake. Probably didn’t taste good, though. Camera crews were indeed all over the place, doing spot checks, sound checks, pushing cables and people into TV-worthy configurations.

 

He was the songwriter’s equally introverted husband, a professor overseas. What was his field? He lectured on archaeology. His interlocutors smiled, the words passing through one ear and out the other. Fujiko was damn good at coming up with this shit. He started tuning things out, now feeling quite serene.

 

A few women around Hanae’s age came up to talk to her. Some older men. One of them had an air about him, it set Jigen’s nerves on edge. A producer, confident and sleek-suited, with assorted hangers-on. He was looking at Fujiko, thought Jigen, a little too keenly. A frisson of old excitement—did he know this guy? Did she?

 

Luckily they were interrupted by members of the TV crew. They didn’t even look at Jigen. “Hanae” listened with attention as the woman, an assistant director, explained various things to her. Some piped music filled the hall, and the stage lights pulsated briefly yellow. “Yumi says your makeup is almost perfect, actually, but she’d love to do a bit of touch-up. Sorry. Because it’s going live, you understand.”

 

“Ah, my daughter is so good, no? Almost professional. Of course, no problem.” They’d walked up to their table, and the AD indicated where Jigen should sit. Hanae and her professor husband exchanged greetings with the others, and then she disappeared.

 

Jigen was feeling naked without the hat. But the tinted glasses helped. The three other people at his table had struck up a lively conversation about politics and he was happy to be left out of it. Some other time he would have memorized all possible exits, and a few impossible ones. He wouldn’t have sat with his back to the door. And his eyes wouldn’t have slid unseeing over the faces of his tablemates.

 

Some other time. The server stopped by to fill his wineglass, and he sank deeper into his thoughts.

 

 

 

Winter was hardest. His bones ached, a phantom pain stirring in his left knee, and Fujiko was never in the apartment. Not through most of that second winter. Whatever weak sunlight entered their rooms, the potted plants ate it up. Tama-chan sprawled on the most inconvenient surface available, fattened on grilled bonito and Jigen’s grudging affection. Of his human housemate, he’d catch glimpses here and there.

 

Jigen saw her outside the wet market one day, passing her palm over glistening green masses of produce like she was blessing them. He saw her on the hilltop behind the fire station, standing under a skeleton tree a few minutes before sunset, her head crowned with unruly flame. He saw her looking through the glass on the little side streets, into bakeries and hairdresser’s shops and bookstores.

 

He’d see her most often around the small station, at the busiest times. The image he’d cultivated of her, even when she’d been working with Lu—with them, had been such a busy one, and he’d forgotten that a big part of her talent lay also in being able to disappear.

 

She was the town ghost, only coming back to the house at night, after he’d gone to bed, a shuffle of boots at the door and socked feet padding straight to her room.

 

For some months, Jigen thought every morning that she’d be gone, no trace remaining. Drift out of their surreal life and into something crazier. He’d lie in bed, eyes closed, imagining what her new form would take. Maybe he’d turn on the TV and hear about an audacious heist, an entire museum wiped clean of its treasures overnight. The start of a war. Maybe she’d get on a rocket to Mars. They were building one now.

 

How could a person who wanted so much still be here?

 

 

 

The programme was already under way when Fujiko returned to the table, ducking to stay out of line of the cameras. She slipped into her seat and he poured her a drink. The smile she shot him was wavy, genuine. Nervous.

 

Nervous?

 

He tried to watch the stage acts more. It was uneven up to this point, most recently a jangly, pyrotechnic set by teenaged popsters he didn’t catch the names of. But now the long-legged celebrity they’d seen at the entrance had a good one going, with her operatic voice and a performance reminiscent of shadow puppet theatre. It’d definitely make for good TV.

 

A local band was up next, and they had a lot of fans in the house, if the applause from the back was anything to go by. College-aged and earnest, they sang a folk-tinged song about lost youth and the changing rhythms of life, and leaving home. The lyrics were unsentimental, yet evocative. There were four of them, a singer and a lead guitarist, both male, one androgynous-looking drummer, and a shamisen-wielding girl Jigen had seen somewhere before. The lead singer’s sweet, boyish voice made for quite a contrast to the words and the sharp, opinionated shamisen, and Jigen found himself listening carefully to the turns of the simple melody and phrasing, the interplay.

 

He looked sidewise once, casually, at his “wife” and blinked. Fujiko was scrolling away at her phone under the table, her face unreadable.

 

Several minutes later, the song came to an end on a wistful final high note, held effortlessly by the singer. Then a silence.

 

Jigen’s throat was dry, and his eyes wet. Horrified, he cupped his forehead, as if massaging out a headache. He felt more than heard the applause, unprompted in its enthusiasm. The sweet-voiced boy unstrapped himself from his guitar and bowed very deeply, repeating his thanks until someone came to guide him offstage.

 

Jigen drained his glass. His phone buzzed. He looked at Fujiko.

 

The woman beside him pushed her glasses higher up her nose and tilted her chin toward his phone, which was on the table between them. As if on cue, it started vibrating.

 

“Now?”

 

She nodded.

 

He swiped the thing open, confused. A video started playing, the sound muted. A cockatoo was dancing on its stand.

 

Jigen stared at the video, then at Fujiko.

 

She shrugged and drained her own glass.

 

There was a change of scenery. The evening’s host, a cheerful young woman in a red dress, walked up to the dais with a guy Jigen thought he’d seen. It was the producer from earlier!

 

They were announcing an award again. A few had been handed out so far, but this was a big one. Best Song. He knew immediately which one would get it, and was stupidly pleased when his guess was proved correct. The college band shuffled back on the stage, to yet another round of applause.

 

Then Fujiko got up too, and Jigen’s other tablemates were applauding up at her.

 

A spotlight suddenly fell on Fujiko, momentarily blinding Jigen, and he stood in shock as she gave him a quick hug, just like they all do at real awards shows. Then just as suddenly, she was gone.

 

Someone was narrating the story behind the song, a struggling young band and the unlikely friendship they’d struck up online with a housewife who dabbled in writing. The portfolio of songs that had become popular through word of mouth and shared videos of small gigs in small towns. Enough to win record industry attention. The album’s heady mix of maturity and vulnerability, experience and freshness.

 

Shamisen girl was pressing the trophy into Fujiko’s hands as the other kids watched, and Fujiko was smiling.

 

 

 

They didn’t speak in the car on the way home, and when Fujiko leaned forward to talk to the driver, Jigen watched from his dark corner. City lights strobed over her silhouette, the strange-familiar face she wore.

 

The car stopped, not near their building, but at the back of the train station. Jigen, calmer, walked up the steps in the dark after her. They lingered at the top of the stairs, waiting for the distant rush of the last train. When he saw her again, her face was younger, her hair back to bottled sunset in the dim lights. And there was a cigarette between her lips.

 

Jigen drew the lighter from his jacket pocket and offered it to her.

 

“Thanks,” said Fujiko. “It’s the pumpkin hour.”

 

“Yeah?” said Jigen, but he knew.

 

“A housewife who dabbles in writing! What the hell was I thinking?”

 

“A cover’s a cover. You couldn’t do something like that with your real name,” said Jigen. But she knew.

 

“Yeah. Joke’s on me.”

 

 

 

The electronic board glowed new numbers and characters at them. Fujiko held her hand up. As if she could feel the train passing behind her. Within a few minutes, people started walking out of the bowels of the station, climbing up with tired faces, jackets and shirts unbuttoned against the warmth. A group of young women ran out, laughing, carefree. An old man pushed a trolley bigger than his entire body in front, a phone pressed between ear and shoulder. Two middle-aged women in funeral wear.

 

A younger man walked out, hands in his pockets. He could not be older than twenty-four, twenty-five. Handsome, a sensitive face. Loose-limbed and alert, his gaze fell easily on Fujiko, and even from far away Jigen could see the naked hunger in it.

 

Fujiko puffed out a cloud of smoke, watching him back.

 

“Fujiko,” said Jigen.

 

The man walked past them, then slowly down the stairs, craning his neck still to watch her. Fujiko turned, too, as if magnetised. Jigen couldn’t see her face.

 

Just as he’d passed them, the other man grinned at her, baring teeth. Jigen’s right hand flew to his empty side, but the younger man threw up a V sign at her.

 

Fujiko laughed out loud and gave him a thumb up. And the man continued on his way.

 

“He finally got a job,” said Fujiko, sitting down on the steps. She stubbed the cigarette out on the concrete, but held on to the butt.

 

“You didn’t tell me about the award,” said Jigen, watching the back of the man.

 

“I didn’t wanna jinx it,” said Fujiko.

 

“Right,” said Jigen. “That’s what you were doing all winter. Songs, you were writing songs. I thought…”

 

“I grew up in a town like this,” said Fujiko. “I thought L… I thought you knew by now.”

 

Jigen nodded. It was plain she didn’t want to talk about it.

 

“Thanks for being a sport, Jigen.”

 

He was smiling. “Don’t mention it. Let’s head back, yeah?”

 

Joke’s on me, she’d said. The real joke, thought Jigen, was that she’d spent months out in the cold, prospecting the jewel mine of her own colourful memories and this shitty town, polishing her findings into something the world could hold and get warm with. And all he’d thought was that she was losing her grip.

 

“Yeah, let’s,” said Fujiko. “I hope Tama-chan got back into the house.”

 

“That cat is a demon,” said Jigen, walking up the road.

 

“He purrs the loudest when he’s getting his ears scritched by you,” said Fujiko.

 

Jigen ignored the taunt. He started humming a tune. Fast-paced, old-timey.