The Tokyo Express

By Una Rose

General fiction, Historical fiction

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11 mins

Chapter One

World Service News Report: 10 March 1945

The Japanese capital is tonight in flames after a surprise night air raid by 300 American B-29 bombers. A source close to Major-General Curtis LeMay said the deadly M69 bombs released over the city contain an innovative new incendiary compound ‘Napalm’ which splinters into hundreds of mini-bombs providing ‘maximum impact’. Some 1,500 tons of bombs were used in the raid.
Large swathes of Tokyo’s mostly wood-and-paper buildings are engulfed in flames as clusters of enormous fire-storms fanned by strong winds have spread rapidly across the city destroying everything in their paths, according to our Japan correspondent.
“Fire fighters are fighting in vain to contain the fires. The air is thick with smoke making it hard to breathe. There are charred bodies of women, children and the elderly everywhere I look. Hundreds of people have perished jumping into the Sumida River to escape the flames. The river is thick with bodies. This will surely be called as the worst fire in the history of mankind.”

News Flash: 06.00 GMT, 11 March 2011

Tokyo and areas to the north have been struck by an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter Scale. The quake, the largest ever recorded in Japan, struck 78 miles off the east coast at 2.46pm local time.

Japan earthquake update: 18.00 GMT

The earthquake, which struck Japan earlier today, has triggered a 33 foot tsunami wave, which has left several cities on the densely populated north-east coastline under water. Tens of thousands of people are missing, feared dead. In the fishing port of Ishinomaki, the super wave destroyed the fortified tsunami defences and surged several miles inland. The Japanese government has declared a state of emergency and said it is the worst disaster to hit Japan since the end of the Second World War, 66 years ago.

Japan earthquake latest: 23.00 GMT

Japan is facing further disaster with reports emerging of a serious radiation leak at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on the north-east coast, where a major earthquake and tsunami struck earlier today. The government has dismissed rumours of a meltdown of one of the reactors.
Emperor Akihito has made a rare televised address to the Japanese people calling on them “to share with the victims their hardship.” Commentators say the speech resonates with the declaration by his father to end the war when the Japanese were asked to “endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable.”


Ishinomaki, 13 March 2011

The killer tide was gone. But its ugly tide mark remained. A greasy layer of mud, black, undulating and oily, was emitting a rank odour of rot and decay, and as Conor scrambled up the slippery slope, his feet were sucked into the greasy mulch. His trainers were instantly coated in the black slime that oozed into his socks.
The tsunami wasn’t supposed to hit here. All the experts had said it would be Tokyo Bay, not this far north. Why did it have to come here? Why now?
The surreal television news coverage had resembled the catastrophic scenes of a Hollywood blockbuster, the type he would never consider watching because they were so far-fetched. But this too was so far-fetched. One of the world’s greatest economies brought to its knees by a wave. That desperate film footage taken on mobile phones by the luckier ones on roof tops, watching others in their cars desperately trying to drive away from the furious dark torrent of water which was rushing all too rapidly behind them. And then nothing. Roads, homes, people covered by this unstoppable body of water.
The Ishinomaki he knew was a coastal retreat and a gentle refuge from the chaos and noise of Tokyo. It was also his wife’s birthplace. He could visualise still so clearly in his mind the cycle rides along the shore they had taken while still courting, the spring party they had spent in the park under the cherry blossoms with her parents, the same afternoon they had announced their engagement. Her house-proud mother, in her smock apron, greeting them at the entrance of her Zen garden, bonsai trees so sprucely tended, no decorative stone ever out of place. And their favourite little eatery, Mr Nakano’s noodle bar. Surely they would all still be there?
He faltered, seized by another sudden flashback. The last time they had stood on this hill overlooking the sea had been a mere six months ago. It had been one of those perfect summer days during their farewell visit to Mimi’s parents. How had they managed to experience such a succession of tumultuous events in such a short space of time? He was stalling, unwilling to reach the brow of the hill and take a look at the brutal reality that awaited.
Mimi’s voice was in his mind.
“Conor, don’t be afraid to go home. There is something within every person, an invisible tie, pulling to us back to a place where we feel safe and welcome.”
Her words were replaying over and over in his mind.
And then at last he reached the top, looking but not believing. A vista of nature’s Armageddon. Houses and businesses flattened and shredded like cardboard boxes ripped apart by wild beasts. Solid steel structures, tree trunks, corrugated iron panels, vehicle wheels, bed mattresses, kitchen appliances, mangled together as if churned in a Godzilla-size mixer and splattered as far as the eye could see. And there were sights that were just too confusing to make sense of.
A huge whaling vessel stood where the main shopping area once existed. Its rusty red hull provided a splash of colour in a grey desert of ash. The propeller bent out of shape, wedged into a half-demolished house. Close by, a giant white pleasure cruiser seemingly unscathed, balanced perfectly on top of a two-storey car park. Roofs ripped off buildings hung in treetops. Cars stood on their bonnets, stubbed down like extinguished cigarette butts. In some places the wreckage was higher than the houses it butted up against. Buildings on top of other buildings, broken masonry and rubble disguised roads, metal poles bent like origami. The only movement was smoke, billowing from burnt out fires. It was too much to take in, and yet Conor noted every nuance. A twisted metal-strewn landscape. An unnatural stillness and silence. And all this caused by the force of one wave? He was awestruck.
This was a town of ten thousand people. Where were they? Conor concentrated from the vantage point to see if he could see any movement, any sign of life. A light rain began to fall and he knew it was not safe to be here. The government was continually issuing radio warnings about the dangers of radiation fall-out, which could be spread by rain. The mega-quake had set off a chain of reactions at several nuclear power plants. Foreigners were fleeing Japan in droves, but Conor wasn’t going anywhere until he discovered what had happened to his wife and family. He had no other life to return to.

Chapter 1

Six months earlier

The day that his life began to fall apart began just like any other working day. Mimi prepared the breakfast while he went for an early morning jog around Inokashira Park. A quick shower and grab of food, much to Mimi's chiding, he was out the door again, and sweating in the morning humidity as he walked to the station to catch the 7.55am express to Shinjuku. He grabbed the last available seat and tried to read The Japan Times, as bodies pushed in around his space. Even after five years in Tokyo, it still bothered him how little space was available on trains, at home, even in the cramped offices of the Shintaki Corporation, but then he reminded himself why he had actively sought a job in Japan. Sure, hadn't he craved to escape the endless green fields of Ireland?
This week they hoped to sign off on a project for a difficult customer, which made work more stressful but it did make time go quicker also, and he was surprised when the midday bell sounded. He took up the offer to join colleagues in the ramen noddle shop in the basement of their office block. But this soupy noodle dish was never enough of a lunch, so the afternoon snacks provided by the lovely office ladies were always most welcomed. Sometimes they brought perfectly peeled satsumas removed by their manicured nails, or the sweet sticky cakes made from plums served with green tea, but what Conor loved most from these highly educated, yet submissive girls, was their daily shoulder massages. Naomi was most willing and in exchange he would allow her to practise her English. She had a wicked sense of humour which meant they were often playing tricks on each other. Not long after returning from lunch, he watched her approach, looking for clues as to what she had in store. She was very different from Mimi, much stouter and taller and not at all fashionable. He suspected she might find the task of finding a Japanese husband quite difficult. He made a mental note to introduce her to one of the single lads. Naomi would normally not be able to suppress her smile when playing a prank but today was doing so well, her stony face not giving anything away.
"It is for you, Conor," she said, as she coyly slipped him a faxed sheet, with lowered eyes
He expected to laugh out loud. He quickly read the paragraph and then looked back at Naomi quizzically. The words written on the faxed sheet were in English, comprehensible, and in his mother’s fine writing, but they made no sense to him. He read them again and felt the blood drain from him head. He was shaking and felt a clenching pain in his thorax, the familiar tightness in the chest that told him to concentrate on breathing. Naomi stood close by. He needed privacy and space, something his Japanese colleagues had never been accustomed to. They were all now staring in his direction, emotionless and possibly already aware of the message he had just received. He was unsure of what to say, yet Naomi seemed to be waiting for something. He swivelled his chair around towards the window and began to squint as an ochre light crawled across his face.
A Tokyo sunset is a sight to behold, especially from the 26th floor of a mirrored skyscraper. A giant scarlet orb bathing the otherwise steel-grey city in a blaze of colour. But as Conor approached the fingerprint-smeared window behind his desk, he wasn’t taking in the glorious view.
This was his favourite spot in the office, his personal refuge. He liked the ceiling-high windows, which offered a vantage point over the down-town area. From here, it was sometimes possible to see the tiny triangle of Mount Fuji poking up in the far distance over the criss-cross of telephone and electricity wires that cannot be buried in an earthquake-prone capital. He had always found it so ugly, but now he was sad to think about leaving.
How could she be so cruel? Desperate to hold onto his composure, he pressed his face onto the triple-glazed pane of glass. Conor remembered as a child how he would bang his head on the glass door to the shop to grab his mother’s attention. A rage rose within him which he was unable to quell. He was unable to control himself. Ten minutes later, it was over. He lunged full pelt at the revolving door, and was summarily ejected onto Shinjuku Dori. The concrete pavement felt as if it would scorch his face, such was the intensity still of the evening sun’s blaze. Sweat that had been kept at bay inside by the Siberian air-cooling system was beginning to trickle through his thin eyebrows, which he wiped away with his freckly forearms. As he picked himself up, he glimpsed the fiery refractions of the sun on the opposite glass building creating a sort of magical aurora. But it was a rare sight. Tokyo in August is nothing short of torture. Extreme humidity combined with a deadly haze of pollution, make it nearly impossible to breathe most of the time.
He rushed around the side of the building to the company cycle stand, where he kept a bike to take him back and forth to Shinjuku station and just stared in bewilderment as if seeing this everyday event through new shell-shocked eyes. Thousands of identical silver cycles, each with a deep basket on the front to carry shopping, brief cases, even children, were arranged in orderly rows. He had applied some Irish flag stickers on his crossbar to help identify his from the mass, but he was unable to find it now. In the past when unable to find his own he would “borrow” another. His own bike had been “borrowed” in that way and turned up outside his flat the next day, dropped off by police who trace owners through the bike’s identity code. It was an unwritten form of shared ownership. Conor began tugging at the nearest cycle which had got tangled with two others.
“Will someone fecking help me find my bike, or any bike?”
Angry at the lack of response from cyclists collecting their bikes who averted their eyes from him, he kicked at the nearest bike rack sending a row of steel and plastic in a crunching domino pile.
“Oh, yee’s all looking now, aren’t ye!”
His audience was waiting until he left so they could rearrange the cycles. Conor grabbed the top bike. Aware of the social taboos he was breaking, it felt damn good to let go. He was speeding along the road, not knowing why, but he did know where he was heading. Home! It was a word that shocked him as soon as it popped into his head. He had not associated it with Ireland for over five years. He felt his heart pounding and the beginnings of an asthma attack.
Suddenly all that had become the norm was now alien once more to him. The incessant cacophony of traffic and giggly schoolgirl-like conversations all around him got louder and louder, so that his head felt like it was going to burst open. He stopped still in the middle of the giant six-pronged crossroad junction at Studio Alta. In this western corner of Tokyo it was nearly always impossible to even see the sky from the ground. He was almost hypnotised by the clashing neon flashing lights, clinging to the sides of skyscrapers. Such ugly giant concrete edifices, built on rollers to sway under earth tremors. Were they moving now? His head swayed. Conor had a sudden overwhelming sense of entrapment. Vast groups of pedestrians swarmed on either side of him like bees in a hive avoiding the queen bee, and he froze. Bicycle bells were ringing all around as riders swung to avoid him, but still he couldn’t move. Everything was whirling and he felt himself swoon almost before he felt a tug on his arm.
“You stop, drink beer too much? You take drugs?”
“Jesus! What are you talking about? Let go of me you eejits,” said Conor, as he shook off his assailant who then dutifully picked up his bicycle. When another stranger in a white shirt grabbed hold of him dragging him away from the road, it dawned on him, they were the cops! He’d never come this close to a Japanese policeman before, but had read about their martial arts prowess. Yet somehow he couldn’t take this pair with their pot-bellies seriously. They were like cartoon characters.
“Come here,” said the larger of the policemen who was shorter than Conor.
“No fecking way, what have I done?”
“We make you, and now we do finger paint too.”
“What is this, fecking Blue Peter? Leave me be and get on with finding lost bicycles, will yer? And you can take this one back while you’re at it!” But his smirking was not taken kindly and he was almost dragged along the pavement and into the ubiquitous street corner police cabin.
“We take your inside,” said the smaller copper.
“For what crime?” Conor asked astonished, as he was forced into a plastic garden chair. He got out his inhaler. The policemen reacted swiftly, reaching for their batons - only to relax again when they saw what he was holding. There were two other seats behind a desk but the officers stood over him in an attempt to intimidate.
“You break law by riding bike on road and you are too drunk,” one said in a stern voice.
“What, do you mean? I am stone cold sober! And I have a funeral to get to, so If you don't mind.”
Conor couldn’t believe this was happening and judging by their faces, they didn’t believe him. The smaller of the two men, about the size of a teenage westerner, leaned towards his face with a thin mouth belching out stale tobacco.
“Name, add-les, do you have gaijin card?”
“Look boys, I’ve done nothing wrong. Go outside and you will find hundreds of pissed salary men lying in gutters, in mortal danger not only to themselves but all female kind. Why don’t you arrest them?” They looked at him blankly.
“I’m telling yees. There are some real weirdoes out there, you know! I’ve seen them myself trying to look up the skirts of female passengers with mirrors on escalators or grope their tits while they sleep on the trains. Why pick on an innocent gaijin?”
Conor realised they didn’t understand a word he said, and he was not about to let on he could speak Japanese. Acting the ignorant foreigner was going to be far the better tactic.
“Gaijin identity card?”
“Left it at home mate, sorry!”
Normally he would not want to put the Shintaki Corporation into disrepute, his job would depend on it, but now it gave him great delight to hand over his business card. “Conor Flanaghan, Chief Engineer”. That should put them in their place, he thought.
The two officers looked at the card with much respect, mumbling Shintaki Company, and handed it back. But as Conor got up to leave, they pushed him back into his seat, producing a fingerprint scanner. This is getting serious, thought Conor deciding then to cooperate as they scanned all his digits.
While one of them explained there would be a delay to hear back from the Ministry of Justice database, the other passed his colleague and then Conor his pack of cigarettes before switching on the portable television. They tuned in to watch the Sumo Summer Basho highlights. Then Conor got it. He was an excuse for them to have a break. He was going nowhere so he may as well join them.
Conor had never got sumo. Watching two morbidly obese blokes in G-strings push one another out of a sawdust ring, and collect an envelope of money from an over-dressed referee was not his idea of sport. Nor could he understand what the hordes of gorgeous looking models were doing marrying these so called “athletes”. But he had to admit the atmosphere in the stadium did look electric and even the two stooges with him were getting rather animated.
Between short bouts the TV cameras would scan the audience. It was mostly families gathered with picnics and then one very elderly woman came into view. She was surrounded by several generations of her family and was wearing a very distinct T-shirt with the words: “God save the Queen - F**k Off!” emblazoned on it. The Japanese were notorious for their oblivious misuse of English, but this was a classic. Conor creased up in laughter. The officers looked at him quizzically, and angrily.
“Sumo no funny, very serious,” said the bigger chap.
“Sumo best sport,” said Conor, “nothing quite like it anywhere else.”
More cigarettes were passed around and they had just resumed viewing, when the phone rang.
“Hai, hai,” said the smaller officer who bowed at the person on the other end of the line, stubbed out his cigarette and then smiled in Conor’s direction.
“You come with me,” he said, grabbing Conor’s arm and coaxing him back into the heat.
“What next? I am an innocent man. Do you expect me now to perform a ritual Seppuku killing because of the disgrace of being wrongly accused?”
His companion looked on blankly as he led onto the nearest vending machine. It was full of bottles of a blue sports drink that most self-respecting foreigners wouldn’t touch thanks to its name: Pocari Sweat. As the little man put in a 100 yen coin, Conor turned away wondering how to make an escape. He felt the cold can brushing his arm as he was handed an ice-cold can of Double Jolt- Japan’s own version of Coke with more than double the normal caffeine. Delighted it wasn’t the sweat stuff he took it in the hope it would convince them he was now sober.
“Drink, then go to home or is it how you say ‘harse’,” he asked. “I am learning English and want to learn best phlases. Is ‘harse’, right?”
“Best phrases hey? What you say is this: ‘Up yer arse,’ said Conor smiling, as he pulled open the can. “Say it to the gaijins, especially the English ones!”
“Up yer arse, up yer arse,” his companion repeated.
“That’s right, tell them an Irish fella taught you.”
How Conor loved Japan for all its madness! The policeman was profusely pleased, giving him a courteous bow. It was the happiest he had seen the little man, who wandered off back to his box chanting, “up your arse.”
The caffeine hit from the drink was immediate and Conor fell into the quick march of the crowd towards Shinjuku Station. He dived in and out of the throng of commuters as he headed for the underground passageway to platform 15 at the opposite end of the vast transport hub. It always amazed him, this underground world under Tokyo, where miles of shops and restaurants operate escaping the crippling retail rents of the most expensive city in the world. An angry zone of incessant noise pollution, where pretty girls with squeaky voices hand out free samples, against a louder backdrop of musical vending machines and electronic doors mindlessly telling customers they are opening and closing. This was the pulse of Tokyo he had described in letters home, and like the locals, Conor dug out his iPod to blot it out. For a moment, as he stood on the platform it felt like just another journey home with another funny story to tell Mimi, and then he remembered the fax.



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