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Camilla Balshaw

Camilla has written for the Guardian Weekend, Observer magazine and gal-dem. Camilla writes short fiction, flash fiction and life writing. She is working on her first novel set in the wilds of Norfolk.

You can find Camilla on Instagram: @CamillaBalshaw

Email: camillabalshaw (@gmail.com)

 

Evaporated People

“I’ve some rather distressing news.” Mr Seito said.  

The assembled staff waited as Mr Seito cleared his throat and fiddled with his tie. 

“As you know Ms. Kanagawa hasn’t been seen at school or her apartment.” 

There were sounds of collective agreement. No one had seen Midori, our most diligent and reliable student for weeks. She hadn’t responded to my texts or calls either. 

“It’s completely out of character and I’m sorry to inform you but Midori Kanagawa has been reported as missing.” Mr Seito shifted from side to side on his chair. “Our thoughts are with her family at this most difficult time.”

I wanted to say, “she doesn’t speak to her family,” but I bowed my head and inspected the squiggly patterns on my trousers instead. 

Mr Hayes, sat next to me. He was blue-eyed and blonde from Nova Scotia, and Midori loved mimicking his Canadian accent. 

“I can’t believe it. This is so sad, so unbelievably sad,” Mr Hayes said to no one in particular. 

The staff room was no bigger than a closet. Space was limited, our white plastic chairs touched.  

The teachers formed a tight semi-circle aound Mr Seito, a quartet were from North American, two South Africans, and me, from leafy Leytonstone. All united in one ability.  We spoke English. 

“Let’s keep this amongst ourselves for now,” Mr Seito said. “No need to worry the student’s until we have more information.”  

And then Mr Seito, stood up. It was a movement of intention that told us the meeting was over. 

Chairs scrapped against the lino floor and the staff trudged out murmuring and speculating under their breath. I attempted to stand too but my legs were like a baby learning to walk.
“I’d better get ready for my class,” I said, picking up my bag which was weighty and full of teaching materials.
“Of course, your 5:30 Intermediate group,” Mr Seito said checking his watch.
“I realise this is particularly hard for you Ms Jones but let’s keep it quiet.”
“Of course Mr Seito,” I gave him a weak smile and closed the staff room door behind me. 

My teaching wasn’t up to my usual high standards. Sure, I made all the right noises and the students practiced English conversation and took handouts. But once I was satisfied they could get on with their work I stared out the window. 

Seito Language School was on the eleventh floor of a twenty-storey building. The city below sparkled, but I didn’t. I knew the statistics. The majority of missing people were found within 48 hours and Midori had been gone for nearly two weeks. 

I suppose you could say Midori and I connected the very first time we met. We were a similar height, five ft six. The same age, thirty-four and coincidently both named after the same colour. In Japanese Midori means green and my first names Jade. Midori used to say “we were the green ladies of Tokyo.” And she’d laugh, cover her mouth and her shoulders would dance. 

Overtime we grew close Midori and I, of course it wasn’t encouraged to fraternise with students but the higher level one’s like Midori often hung around the school. It was inevitable that pretty soon there were drinks after class, or a bite to eat, that sort of thing. I knew Midori had an ulterior motive. She used me to practice her English language skills, but I didn’t mind. She was good company, and I was a new teacher in an unfamiliar city. Our friendship was mutually beneficial but even so we were friends, and that’s why her disappearance hurt so much. 

 There were differences too. I was divorced, no kids, thank God. My ex-was a controlling bastard and once I’d plucked up the courage to leave him I made the decision to do something radical. I’d rebelled at school you see. I couldn’t get on with all the rules and regimented crap but I was bright, left school with a handful of qualifications and ended up selling home insurance. 

Once I left Paul, my ex, I did a BA in English courtesy of the Open University and then a certificate in English as a foreign language. After this I accepted a one-year teaching post in Japan of all places. 

Midori had never married. In fact she told me she’d never had a ‘proper boyfriend’. Not really. There’d been fumbles but nothing more. 

“No wonder the birth rate in Japan was so low.” Midori said. “Nobody in Japan is having sexual intercourse!” 

That’s when she told me about the dating event. The Konkatsu. 

“Ms Jones!”
I looked out of the window, dazzled by neon and the stream of bodies who moved like insects. The city below reminded me of the lego my younger brother played with as a kid. 

“Jones teacher!” 

I turned to face Tomo, my student, who always wore a t-shirt with ‘Mumford & Sons’ emblazoned on the front. Twelve sets of eyes stared at back at me. It was 6.30. They’d finished their work. The class was over.  

“See you next week,” I said keen to maintain an aura of professionalism.
The students gathered their books and shuffled out in silence.
The emotion I’d bottled up came out quickly. I didn’t wipe my eyes. I let the tears fall. 

That evening I cycled back to my apartment with my headphones on. I wanted to block out thoughts of Midori and the frenetic pace of Tokyo at rush hour. It was late summer. The few trees that lined the pavement were vibrant and lush. I cycled past my favourite temple that stood cheek by jowl with ugly concrete buildings and electric pylons. I pedalled fast. Buoyed by Aretha Franklin’s rhythm. I lived in Takadanobaba, a university town, and a thirty minute cycle ride from Seito school. I couldn’t pronounce ‘Takandanobaba’ when I first arrived. My feeble attempts had made Midori laugh so hard her shoulders shook.

My apartment was traditional and on the fourth floor of a six-storey building. It had tatami flooring so there was always a distinctive woody smell. The bathroom had a squat down toilet and the kitchen was basic with a two ringed hob and microwave. By night the living room transformed into my bedroom. In the daytime I copied the Japanese and hung a futon over the balcony like a thick curtain. 

I had little appetite so I warmed up the meagre leftovers of a miso stew. I ate it on the low chabudai table and thought about Midori. She’d told me about the Konkatsu dating event one Friday night. We were sat on the floor eating soba noodles and sushi in her funny little apartment. It was sparse and lacked the personality that Midori had in abundance. I attempted to sit cross legged. I’d cross my right leg in front of my left but my knees would rise up higher than my hips. The pain was excruciating, but over time eased and the position became comfortable. Almost. 

Midori, alternated between crossed legs or she knelt with her socked feet tucked against her outer hips like contented kittens. We listened to Leonard Cohen. I wasn’t a fan but Midori loved Leonard and in particular one track.‘The Ballad of Absent Mare.’ She played it over and over. And 

she sang along in her tuneless voice: 

“And there’s nothing to follow there’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer gone like the snow 

And the crickets are breaking his heart with his song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong.” 

And then she stopped singing and swayed along to the music like a badly choreographed ballerina. 

 For all her talents Midori wasn’t much of a singer or dancer.
“Do you know this song has a Japanese connection?” Midori said. As usual she wore her work clothes, navy blue skirt, white blouse and matching navy blue jacket. The regimented uniform of a Japanese office worker. 

“Wasn’t he a Buddhist?” I said. 

Midori nodded. “The story goes that Leonard found some old pictures and they were called The Ten Bulls, old Japanese woodcuts,” She took an extravagant slurp from her bowl. 

“The woodcuts symbolise the stages of a monk’s life on the road to Enlightenment.” She got up and turned the volume up. “How cool is that!” 

I knew her neighbours had complained in the past about her music. It didn’t take long. A hard thump banged against the thin walls and a shrill male voice cried out in Japanese, “will you turn it down!” 

After that we listened to Leonard on low volume. We had huge overgrown strawberries for dessert, washed down with green tea.

“So, what’s this Konkatsu dating thing?” I licked my lips. 

“It’s a government scheme to get men and women to meet, date and,” Midori raised her eyebrows, “marry and have babies!” 

“I’ve been single for too long Jade.” She laughed but her shoulders didn’t shake. “The Japanese government are worried,” she said. “We Japanese aren’t bothered about dating. We’re all too overworked and too tired!” 

“But what about Tinder or meeting someone at work?” I said. “Your office must have loads of single men,” I said sipping my tea. 

“It’s not like London,” Midori said. “Japanese companies are so, what’s the word?” 

“Old-fashioned,” I said.
She nodded and searched into her little leather handbag. She took out a brown notebook. 

She wrote ‘old-fashioned’ in her slopping handwriting and placed the new word in her bag.
“Work isn’t the place to find true love,” she said.
And then she filled me in on what she knew about the event.
“There are forty-nine men and women at the Konkatsu,” Midori said. “We pay a fee to attend and from our profiles we’re matched with potential dates.”  

“So, it’s like speed dating?” 

Midori nodded and said. “Kind of.” She took a sip of her tea. “What should I wear? I’ll be coming from work so I’ll look a bit boring in my dark suit.” 

Midori had long dark hair and a few months back she’d toyed with going blonde, just for fun, but she knew this wouldn’t go down well at the bank where she worked.
’You’ll look lovely,” I said,” and I meant it. Midori was naturally pretty, clear skinned with bright lively eyes when they weren’t covered by sunglasses. Most days she wore her hair in a tight pony tail with her signature lick of fuchsia lipstick. That she was still single was a crime, but I knew part of this was due to her quirky personality. The sunglasses worn whether it was sunny or not. And her dedication to learning English and Leonard Cohen bordered on the fanatical. She attended classes at Seito language school every day 7-8 pm and always in her work clothes. Her apartment walls were covered in pictures of Leonard Cohen in varying stages of youth and old age. She’d told me she stayed in bed for a week when he died. And she’d worn black for months. 

She handed me her Konkatsu profile. A smiling Midori looked out from a passport photo. Below this were her details. I could read the odd snippet of hiragana but this was way too complex so I asked Midori to read it out loud.  

“OK, Midori Kanagawa is thirty-four. I did think about saying I was younger but thought better of it,” she said. “Midori was born in Ishikawa prefecture. Her parents are rice farmers. She’s an Office Worker, blood type O. Her hobbies are listening to music (I love Leonard Cohen!) Sleeping, learning English and visiting onsens.” 

I could vouch for Midori’s love of onsens, traditional Japanese baths said to relieve all manner of aches and pain. One night  she took me to her favourite onsen in Hakone, just outside the city. 

I’d only been in Tokyo a few months so the concept of bathing with strangers was kind of weird. 

The onsen was packed and full of older Japanese women. Midori called them the ‘crinkly centenarians’. And bloody hell they looked ancient but at the same time ever so sprightly. 

“Bathing in onsens will make you live to be one hundred too Jade!” Midori said. 

The bathers watched in fascination as I took off my clothes and dipped into the natural steaming hot water. It soothed my skin and the relentlessness of city life dissipated. I caught the side-glances too. But I didn’t mind. It wasn’t everyday they were in a hot bath with a gaijin, a foreigner. They stared at my dark skin and halo of frizzy hair. I’d ditched the chemical relaxers and wore my hair natural as I didn’t have my ex husband telling me to straighten it. I’d lost weight too. I was now the proud owner of cheekbones, a waist and an afro. 

At the end of her Kontasku profile Midori had said ‘nice to meet you and no smokers please’. 

“I wish I could write something a little more interesting,” Midori sighed. And I agreed, it was kind of buttoned up. 

“What I want to ask is what’s your favourite word or if you had a super power what would it be or what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” Midori said. 

“What kind of person do you want to date?” I said trying to imagine Midori’s type. 

“Fun, kind and interesting!” she said. “I’m not looking for much.”
And then she said, “And he must like Leonard!”
We laughed. The remainder of the evening was spent discussing the new Spike Lee film. 

Midori talked about the relevance of Black Lives Matter and how Lee was “a genius and so much better a director than Tarrentino.” 

That was Midori Kanagawa. Seito Language School’s best student. And my friend. 

A few days after the Konkastu dating event Midori and I met for a drink. Ben’s, was a new cafe owed by an American and popular with ex-pats and locals. 

It was around 5:45 in the evening and I’d finished teaching for the day. I chained up my bicycle and walked towards the cafe. It wasn’t busy and Midori sat in the corner. Her mouth moved in animated conversation. One shoulder was shrugged up holding her mobile phone against her ear. It was a Sunday, and on Sunday’s Ben’s Cafe played jazz at high volume on four speakers. Midori sat underneath one of them. Although it was the weekend she wore her usual blue suit and crisply ironed white shirt. She wore sunglasses as usual. I waved and eased into the chair opposite. I looked back at myself. Midori’s sunglasses were the mirrored type. She finished her conversation and put the phone in her bag. 

“So how was the Konkastu?” I was excited to hear all the details. 

Midori shrugged. She told me she’d met a guy. His name was Kenichi and he lived with his parents in Ikuta, a suburb somewhere out in the sticks. He was forty, and a computer programmer. 

“He’s a nice guy,” her tone was flat. “He’s got good teeth.” 

Midori and Kenichi had texted one another and made plans to meet up.  

She stirred her tea and the spoon clinked against the cup. Miles Davis played at speed and pace above our heads.
“I might go and see my parents in Ishikawa,” Midori said.  

I knew they hadn’t spoken, not properly, for a while now.

“That’s great news Midori.”
She gave me a weak smile but it caught on her lips and didn’t form into much of anything. 

Then she said.
“Jade, strange things happen on rice farms.”  

*

Over the next few months news of Midori’s disappearance swept around the school. The gossip became elaborate. ‘She’d gone off with a local yakuza gangster’ or ‘Midori had won big on the pachinko, the popular gambling machines’. 

The local media picked up the story too, ‘YOUNG WOMAN MISSING – Have you seen Midori Kanagawa?’ The accompanying photograph was of poor quality and didn’t capture Midori’s spirit. 

By the autumn I still expected Midori to come back to school. I watched the classroom door hoping she’d walk in with her sunglasses on, but it never happened. 

The police interviewed all the staff at Seito and her parents in Ishikawa were kept informed of any developments. Kenichi from the Konkatsu was interviewed a couple of times too but nothing came of it. 

My interview was brief. It was conducted in the staff room with a young looking interpreter with acne and horn rimmed glasses. The older looking policeman had a stomach that fell towards his lap as though he carried a small child. 

It was early November. 

We sat on plastic chairs and the two men faced me. 

“How long did you know Midori Kanagawa?” 

“Five months or so.”
“Did she seem happy?” 

“Yes, and sometimes you know what, maybe no she wasn’t.” 

“What kind of student was she?”
“The best. Our most advanced.”
“Did she have many friends?” 

“I’m not sure. I never met any.” 

And then the policeman said. 

“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know. I hope she’s listening to Leonard Cohen and she’s happy, really happy”.
I heard the policeman’s stomach rumble. There was an Indian restaurant below Seito language school and a smell of frying garlic permeated the air.
“Not knowing what happened to Midori is hard, it’s the hardest isn’t it?” I said looking at the policeman and then towards his sidekick.
The policeman stood up and walked over to the water cooler. He took a plastic cup and pressed the blue leaver. but only a slow trickle fell. The water cooler was empty. He walked to the staff notice board. There was a handwritten advert for a room ‘in trendy Shibuya’ and business cards dotted around the edges of the board for English speaking tradespeople, plumbers, electricians, that sort of thing.
“Maybe she’s one of the evaporated people,” the policeman said to the notice board.
“The what?” I said to the intrepreter.
“It’s common in Japan. Sometimes people just disappear. They take off somewhere and start a new life.” The policeman turned to me and shrugged. ‘It happens a lot.”
“But Midori had so much going for her. She wouldn’t just disappear like that.” 

The policeman and the interpreter moved towards the door. “Ms Kanagawa did lose her job seven months ago.” 

They both bowed. 

“But Midori always came to class in her work clothes.” I said out loud to the closed door. 

* 

By February Midori had been missing for six months. I’d been in Tokyo for almost a year.  My parents weren’t getting any younger and I missed my friends so I decided not to renew my contract.  

The language school had a farewell gathering for me in one of the local izakaya pubs with its back room karaoke bar. The izakaya was long and narrow with fluorescent strip lights on the ceiling and long low wooden seating. Mr Seito and I sat cross legged at the head of the table. He gave a speech and said “how hard it would be to find such a dedicated and inspirational teacher.” I smiled and took the compliment even though I knew they’d already interviewed and hired someone from Slough with an MA in Linguistics. 

A healthy turn out of students and staff came. Some were a little red faced and wobbly. Tomo, from my beginners class wore his usual ‘Mumford & Sons’ t-shirt. He planted two beer stained kisses on my cheeks and was so bloated with alcohol told Mr Seito of his school nickname. 

“We call you, Mr Psycho,” Tomo said slurring his words. And Mr Seito laughed. He wasn’t offended, in fact he ordered Tomo another beer. 

Mr Hayes, from Nova Scotia was there too. He’d been promoted and talked about staying for another couple of years. We clinked glasses. He wished me luck. I opened my intricately wrapped gifts and they shuddered and shimmered from my ear lobes. 

When it was my turn to sing. I belted out a Beyonce classic. They didn’t have any Aretha. 

Mr Hayes was next up.
“I love this song,” he said as he took his position. 

He began to sing.
“And there’s nothing to follow

 There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking his heart with his song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong.” 

He performed it with just the right amount of delivery. It was Midori’s song. ‘The Ballad of Absent Mare’. 

I imagined Midori was with us. Her shoulders shaking with laughter. She swayed to the music wearing sunglasses and her white and blue work clothes. She had her little notebook and in it pages of new English words. She wasn’t evaporated. Not in my mind. 

Mr Hayes sat down to a chorus of applause. 

After a moment or two I asked Mr Hayes to sing ‘The Ballad of Absent Mare’, one more time. 

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