Andy is watching his father unpack, shifting the neatly folded T-shirts, shorts and jeans from the case to the drawer. Most of the clothing is in shades of blue, washed, ironed and packed by Andy’s mother. Blue because his father is colour blind and has a habit of teaming wildly inappropriate colours or wearing odd socks.
His mother emerges from the bathroom. When had she become so overweight? He’s used to neat, small-packaged Japanese women. He'd been able to tuck his girlfriend, Sachi, in under his arm when they strolled the temples and gardens on weekends. Mustn't think of her now; that part of his life in Kyoto is over. Here, right now, is his mother wearing jeans and a pink top that belong on a smaller woman. Rolls of flesh press against the stretchy material and her breasts swell and sway in a way he finds embarrassing.
Andy hasn't seen his parents, Brian and Nora, for over a year and they seem to have morphed into two lost children waiting to have the rules of a new game explained. They are even wearing the uniform of a tourist: the man, jeans and Adidas shoes, a navy polo shirt and a Canon camera slung around his neck; the woman, also in runners and jeans, the stretchy pink top and clutching a large hold-all. Andy isn't used to being responsible for anyone but himself. Now he has his parents for two weeks, eager for him to unravel the mysteries of Japanese language and culture and meet – they’d hoped – their future daughter-in-law.
Sachi's presence would have made it easier.
‘You’re hungry,’ he says. ‘We could eat.’
‘We're in your hands,’ says his father.
Brian rushes ahead, weaving between other pedestrians, pausing occasionally to look back at his wife and son before loping on again.
Nora says, ‘So, it's definitely over then, you and Sachi.’
‘Yes, Mum, it’s over.’
‘Pretty, the name I mean. And from the photos you sent. You looked happy.’
They walk in silence, Andy reciting all the questions in his head he thinks she wants to ask. Did Sachi’s parents disapprove of her marrying someone who wasn’t Japanese? Didn't she want to move to Australia? Why can’t it be mended? She’s always done this, wanting Andy’s answers to allow her into his world and give her fodder for her conversation with his father, her friends, other family members: Andy thought the party on Saturday night was boring, Andy likes that girl he took to the dance, Andy…
Nora does say, ‘He does this all the time.’
‘Your father. Leaves me to bring up the rear.’
She weaves across the path, peering ahead to see where Brian has gone, then gets distracted by a small shop with an exquisite display of geisha fans.
‘Oh, these are pretty. Your sister would love one.’
Andy reaches out and pulls her to his side because she hasn't seen the cyclist coming up behind.
‘Are they allowed to ride on the footpath here?’
‘The roads are busy.’
‘I thought the Japanese were very law-abiding.’
‘They are. Riding on the footpath is allowed.’
‘They're good at avoiding obstacles.’
‘Am I an obstacle?’
Not trusting himself to reply, Andy keeps hold of her arm and steers her forward.
Brian is standing on the corner of a busy intersection, his camera pointed at a vast rack of bicycles parked in front of large iron gates.
‘He’s only waiting because he doesn’t know which way to go.’ To Brian, she says, ‘In a hurry, as usual.’
‘Just leaving you to have a chat with Andy. A lot to catch up on.’ He offers Andy a knowing look.
Andy ignores the implication. ‘We can walk through here,’ he says.
‘Is this a park?’ Nora asks, pointing beyond the gates.
‘I’m looking forward to seeing the temples. Sally Fisher from book club was here earlier this year. She said the temples were amazing. She said we had to make sure we went to the Golden Temple. Kinka … something. These Japanese names are impossible.’
‘It’s religious tourism,’ Brian says, as they enter the gardens. ‘People can’t even worship in peace without some idiot waving phones on selfie sticks. Your mother will be wanting me to take her photo next to Buddha’s nostril.’ He laughs. Andy and Nora don’t.
‘The temples and the shrines benefit from the tourists, Dad. Mostly, they charge an entrance fee. Helps with the upkeep.’ His father has his camera focused on a shrine, a large brass bull garlanded with flowers. He’s not listening.
Two weeks, thinks Andy.
He’s come this way because it’s where he and Sachi always had lunch together. He can see their seat at the edge of the pond, partially hidden from the path. He hears again the lilt of her last words. ‘I belong here, Andy. Every day my mother fed the koi. Her spirit is here. I can’t … go to Australia with you.’ The sucking lips of the koi mocked him. He’d left without saying anything. Three days later, his parents arrived from Melbourne.
Now, he herds them past the pond, angry with himself for coming this way. When Nora protests, he says, ‘We’ll feed the koi another day. We need to eat.’
Andy’s favourite restaurant is a noodle shop tucked in a back lane. It’s always busy in the middle of the day. He installs Nora and Brian in a booth and retreats to the counter. He breaths in the fragrance of the rich broth, delivers his order and perches on a stool at the counter to watch the cook ladle the soup into bowls. For a few minutes, he can forget that he’s anything but a young Australian male working for an IT company on an extended working visa in Japan. They’re playing his favourite jazz piano piece, ‘I Put a Spell on You’. Andy feels the itch in his fingers, regrets the gig he’s had to sacrifice tonight because of his parent’s arrival. Sachi loves this piece too. Sachi. Sachi. She should be here helping him navigate the choppy waters of the parental reunion. She would have charmed them, found out his mother taught English to refugees, that his father sang in a men’s choir, teased out stories of Andy growing up.
‘I’ve never eaten soup with chopsticks before.’ His mother snaps the disposable wooden chopsticks down the centre and waves them aimlessly over her bowl of steaming ramen.
‘You use them to eat the noodles and meat. Slurping’s okay. Then you pick up the bowl and drink. You don’t have to finish it all.’
‘Where’s yours?’ Nora asks.
‘I’m not really hungry.’
‘You’re too thin.’
‘I promise I’ll have a big meal tonight.’ Lately, it seemed as if he’d never get his appetite back.
Brian is jabbing the air with his chopsticks. ‘I read the Japanese use about 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks in a year. Equivalent to 200 pairs per person per year.’ He snaps his apart and gazes at the two pieces. ‘That’s a lot of trees.’
Brian’s brain is a vast Excel spreadsheet of facts and figures. Flowing conversations are brought to an abrupt halt with a carefully placed percentage. He’s rarely wrong or, at least, no one can be bothered challenging him.
‘I’ve got reusable sets at home,’ Andy says. ‘You can carry them with you when we eat out, if the disposable ones are a problem.’
‘Not a problem. Just something I read.’
‘Slurping’s fun,’ Nora says. She’s attached a paper bib over the pink top and is leaning over the bowl, sucking up the noodles like a large baby. Andy feels a surge of fondness and forgives her, just a bit, for the extra weight.
Brian spends the afternoon tapping on his iPad, no doubt checking out more facts and figures. Nora sleeps, satiated with soup and worn out from the long flight.
‘It’s getting to the airport,’ she says when she stumbles groggily out of the bedroom, ‘and all that checking through customs and waiting about. It’s tiring.’
Andy makes her a cup of tea and watches from the kitchen counter as she settles on the couch and cruises the room with her eyes. The apartment is small. He’s moved himself into the spare room for the visit and collected up the remnants of Sachi’s presence and piled them in the corner. There’s no trace of her in the larger bedroom they shared and where he’s installed Brian and Nora, he’s sure of that, but on the bookshelf next to the couch there’s an album of photos. By the time Andy has replaced the milk in the fridge, Nora has the album open on her lap, flicking over the pages.
‘Sachi’s keen on hiking, then?’
Andy feels ambushed. ‘Loves it.’
‘This one looks like it was taken in New Zealand.’ Nora pushes the album across the coffee table so Andy can see the photo, but he knows the one: Sachi dwarfed by the pack on her back, her face half hidden by a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, grinning because she’s conquered a high pass.
‘She’s travelled heaps. Before we met,’ Andy offers.
‘So, she’s not against the idea of living somewhere else?’
The casual prying needles at him. ‘That’s different. Travellers go home.’ He wants no more of this. He picks up the album and pushes it back on the bookshelf. ‘Dinner! I know a great sushi bar.’ One way of distracting them is with food.
‘I’m not very keen on raw fish,’ Nora says.
‘You haven’t tasted raw fish like this.’
Always compliant, she says, ‘I’ll give it a go.’
Andy braves the buses with them. His mother has changed into black pants and a looser shirt, twisted a patterned scarf around her neck. Earrings, lipstick. He sees the mother who picked him up from school, who stood out from the other mothers, blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders, wearing dresses that seemed to drift about her body when she moved. She’d wave and he’d leave his friends and run into her hug. Before hugging your mother became embarrassing.
Now it’s his father who’s embarrassing with his overly loud voice and grating Australian accent. ‘Is the restaurant authentic? I don’t want to eat in one of those tourist traps.’ He taps the cover of his Lonely Planet Guide to Japan.
Why is he carrying that, thinks Andy, if it leads him to tourist traps?
He says, ‘It’s good, Dad. Tourists, locals, we all eat there.’ Sachi had recommended it when they’d first met at the language college, but he doesn’t say this.
Nora ignores them both. She’s smiling at a toddler perched on the seat opposite, lip wobbling at the scary pale woman. The toddler’s mother sees the impending tears and lifts him onto her knee, smiles and nods at Nora.
Brian drones on: ‘I’m sure the restaurant you’re suggesting is very good, Andy, but I thought we could head into the back streets. Find the genuine article.’
‘Not a good idea, Dad. Maybe when you’re a bit more used to the food. Mum might not like it.’
‘She’ll eat anything.’
Nora shows she has been listening. ‘I did say I wasn’t keen on the idea of raw fish.’
‘I’ll give it a try.’
When they get off the bus, darkness has come, but it’s a repeat of the morning, with his father striding ahead and Nora and Andy a few paces behind. The street is crowded: dark-suited business men, strolling families, a large group of Chinese tourists walking behind a guide carrying a red flag. Street lights and brightly lit shopfronts give colour to the confusion. Nora is looking everywhere, peering in a shop selling geisha garments, turning a little further to admire the paper lanterns, crossing the street to find an entire shop stocked with boxed green tea sweets stacked in pyramids. A shopkeeper smiles and bows. She bows back, not knowing what to do next.
Andy crosses the road and takes her by the arm. ‘We need to keep moving, Mum. We’ll lose Dad.’
They catch up to Brian and Nora clutches at the strap of his camera. ‘Do I need to keep you on a leash?’
They walk together for a few paces then Brian lopes ahead again.
‘Wait at the next corner, Dad,’ Andy calls.
‘Your mother’s impossible to walk anywhere with. Can’t stop looking at things,’ he says, talking to them over his shoulder.
‘It’s why we’re here, Brian,’ Nora says. ‘We’re tourists.’
‘I can’t stand dawdling. I’ll wait at the main intersection. I’ve looked at the map.’
‘He’s so irritating,’ says Nora, watching Brian absorbed into the crowd. She glances at Andy. ‘You must be getting tired of us.’
‘You’ve only just arrived, Mum.’
‘We work fast.’
When they reach the corner, there’s no sign of Brian.
‘Typical,’ says Nora. ‘Maybe we could eat without him. Somewhere nice and touristy.’
‘What’s going on, Mum?’
She moves her handbag from one arm to the other. ‘Oh Andy, we’ve always been like this, a bit abrasive. You’ve just never noticed. Or forgotten.’ The street light behind Andy illuminates his mother’s face, accentuating the pouches beneath her eyes, the half-moons at each side of her mouth.
‘This is our marriage,’ she continues. ‘I’d be lost without him.’ She shifts the handbag again and places a hand on his arm. ‘I know you don’t want to talk about Sachi, but I also know you’re miserable. You’ve got to decide what really matters.’
‘There you are. Thought I’d lost you.’ Brian comes up behind Nora, gives her shoulder a squeeze. Nora leans into the embrace, looks directly at Andy before straightening up and saying bravely, ‘I’m starving. I could tackle a whole ocean of Fukushima sushi.’
The sushi platters have slices of fish fanned like a hand of cards, enhancing the different pinkish hues. Small mounds of rice on a second platter are topped with slivers of dull red tuna. Avocado and other fishy slivers nestle in wheels of rolled rice and black seaweed.
‘That’s sashimi,’ explains Andy, indicating the second platter.
‘So colourful,’ Nora says.
‘All looks much the same to me. Haven’t stopped being colour-blind, you know,’ Brian says.
‘It looks too good to eat, but I’m going to eat it anyway.’
They’ve rejected the cushions and the low table – I’d never get up again, Nora said– and perched themselves on stools at a long bar. They’ve downed one brimming beaker of sake, started on a second and are enjoying the spectacle of the chef, knife flashing and fingers moving in a blur, carving the fish into slivers.
The bar is occupied exclusively by tourists, but this doesn’t seem to be worrying Brian. He takes another sip of sake and makes a confession.
‘Thought I’d found the ideal restaurant while you two were dawdling along. Decided I had time to duck down a side street. Poked my head in around one of those curtains looped on a rod, Andy. You told me it shows a restaurant is open. I thought, this is it. Just the sort of place I’m after. Not a western face to be seen. Japanese men in suits, women all done up, thick make-up, beehive hair. Something not quite right though. More of a bar, I’m thinking. More like a …’
‘… brothel,’ contributes Andy. ‘There was probably a red light outside.’
They all laugh.
Nora picks up the last piece of sashimi and says, ‘This is delicious. No one ever told me that raw fish doesn’t actually taste raw.’
‘I think I’m going to like Japan,’ Brian says, ‘and, statistically speaking, cross cultural marriages have the same success rate as marriages within cultures.’
Nora drains the last of her sake. ‘Nonsense, Brian. You’re making it up.’
‘Just trying to break the ice on Andy’s dilemma.’
And suddenly it’s easy to talk about it. Easy to tell them that he loves Sachi, but he loves his music too and the prospect of a music scholarship at Melbourne University is an irresistible drawcard to return home.
‘What matters most to her?’ Nora asks, and for the first time Andy asks himself the same question.
The next day, he arms his parents with a bus timetable and leaves them to explore alone. He goes to work. Concentrating is difficult. The office noises, normally unheard, annoy and irritate. The phones ring too loudly, the guy at the next desk keeps clicking his pen. At midday, he announces to the pen clicker, ‘I’m taking early lunch,’ and exits the building.
Sachi hasn’t been there long because her plastic lunch box sits unopened on the seat beside her. She always feeds the koi first. The fish flip and tangle in flashes of colour: silver, orange, speckled. Their gaping mouths are hungry bubbles on the water’s surface. Sachi leans forward to throw the food pellets and Andy slides onto the end of the seat.
‘Always hungry,’ he says. ‘Do you think they could ever have enough?’
Sachi leans back against the wooden slats, keeping her body still.
Andy’s mouth is slightly open, like the koi. ‘Sachi, I’ll stay—'
She speaks over him. ‘I’d like to meet your parents.’ She tosses the last of the fish pellets into the water. ‘I’ll come this evening.’
When he arrives home from work, Sachi is already there. He sees her black slip-on shoes carefully lined up next to his parents’ Nikes. She’s sitting with Nora and Brian at the kitchen table. They’re sipping green tea from the delicate porcelain cups Sachi favours, their heads bent close together – one jet black, one bottled blonde, one noticeably balding – looking at a sheaf of papers. They look up when he kicks off his shoes and steps into the room, conspiring children rather than lost children. Andy feels doused with tenderness.