Small white Card 96

Le mot du jour : scar = cicatrice

 

96

 

“Would you do me the honour of sitting beside me, Otousan?”

Kazan had spoken without turning round. Kyu stopped dead in his tracks.

“I am glad to see you are making progress. Did you hear me?”

“You know full well nobody hears you coming. I sensed your presence.”

Kyu was still standing behind him. Kazan had not put his shirt back on because the rub of the material against his skin would have been difficult to bear. The weals made by the bamboo cane were beginning to fade, leaving an overall redness against which his scars stood out even more.

“Are you looking at my scars, Otousan?”

“You will soon be as good as your father.”

“I doubt it. But I’m learning to listen to my senses.”

“Well done, Kazan,” replied Kyu, going to sit next to him on his favourite stone.

Kazan’s gaze had not once left the water. He gave a small smile which Kyu noticed out of the corner of his eye.

“My scars must stand out nicely…”

He stopped. Kyu said nothing, sensing that there was more to come.

“I was in yet another foster home. No one ever wanted to keep me for more than a few weeks. You can hardly blame them. It takes a martial arts champion to do the job properly. This couple didn’t have any kids. The guy was a complete head case. He’d been thrown out of the army because he was so crazy. His wife was terrified of him, poor thing. He’d got it into his head he was going to discipline me, break me. He wanted to show them that getting this kid back on the rails could be done. But one day he went too far. Because I’d wet my bed he started burning my back with a white-hot knife, and all the while I heard him saying to his wife: we’ll adopt him, like that I’ll be able to train him the way I want; it’ll be like having a dog except it won’t leave its hairs on the carpet.

Kazan paused a moment to get over the emotion which had cracked his voice. When he was ready, he went on.

“I spun round, grabbed the knife and stabbed him.”

As he turned towards Kyu he saw how much his words had affected him. It was the first time he had seen his father’s face express such powerful emotion. He took a deep breath.

“Because I was only twelve, I was not convicted. But they sent me to borstal. I ran away as soon as I could and from then on it was the streets. And in and out of prison. And from time to time those sweet moments at Ouané’s.”

Hearing Kazan’s story, seeing the courage it must have taken his son to put his suffering into words, Kyu was too shocked and upset to speak. So that was why he had bolted when he had learned he was to have a father, why he had tried to hide himself away in that rock: it had sparked off a flashback to the day that brute had said he was going to adopt him.

“Yes, Otousan, I think that is why I was so scared when you said I was your son. I suppose that old memory came rushing back and I lost my head.”

“You have come a long way, Kazan, now you are the one reading my mind.”

Kazan gave a brief chuckle. After a while he glanced furtively at his father.

“The girl who was coming over with the grocery boat for me… will she still be coming?”

“Of course. You have been punished once, that is enough.”

“I see… it’s just that maybe we should wait a few days. I don’t really feel like having my back clawed right now.”

“I hit hard, I know, but you had broken not one but two fundamental rules: you disobeyed me, and you not only drank alcohol but you got yourself very drunk. I did not want you to forget the punishment.”

“I don’t think I will,” acknowledged Kazan. “Actually… actually I think I broke those rules on purpose… I think I chose the worst thing I could think of so as to… to see…” He trailed off.

“So as to see what sort of a father I was going to be, to see if you could still trust me, to see if your sensei was still the same man now that he was your father. I was expecting some kind of test but I admit you surprised me by trying to cross one of the most closely guarded boundary lines. At least now you have your answer: yes I am the same man. Just a prouder one.”

Puzzled, Kazan looked at him.

“I am proud to have a son like you, Kazan.”

“Despite all the stupid things I do?”

“Yes. You do not seem to see your good points. First of all your straightforwardness is like a true diamond shining deep within you. Your courage too. You knew I would stop flogging you the moment you dropped, but you refused to fall. I do have reasons to be proud of my son.”

Kazan was very moved by his father’s words.

“Arigatou, Otousan,” he murmured.

 

Small white Card 95

L’expression du jour : blind drunk = complètement soûl

 

95

 

Kyu had been right. Kazan did try to break some of the rules in the days following his adoption, but when he had found himself doing twice as many push-ups per day or sweating away at intensified dojo sessions he had come to his senses. Until now.

He woke from a leaden sleep, groggy and confused, momentarily unable to work out where he was or what he had been up to. When he caught sight of the empty whisky bottle lying beside him it all came back to him. Fuck. And he was in the hut by the river. He must’ve crashed out there, blind drunk, having downed the bottle he’d bought from the grocery boat while his father was giving lessons. Shit. Fuck. Now he’d really stepped out of line. With a jolt which sent the remaining effects of the alcohol shooting from his head he saw daylight filtering through the planks of wood and realized that he had missed the 5 a.m. start to his day’s lesson. He had no idea what time it was. He jumped up and made for the door, but then stopped abruptly. His father must be waiting outside for him. Bloody hell. It took all his courage to open the door. Kyu was standing there. Kazan immediately saw that the bamboo cane was back in its place and blanched. He moved slowly forwards and stopped in front of Kyu.

“Forgive me, Otousan,” he said, head bowed.

“Whether or not I forgive you is not the point, Kazan. Of course I forgive you, and I always will, no matter what crimes you commit.”

Kyu had spoken calmly, with no trace of anger in his voice. Kazan looked up, bemused. He was forgiven? So why the bamboo cane?

“Whatever you do,” Kyu went on, “I will always be there to defend you. Whether it is against your enemies or against the police, you will always find me at your side. I will back you up, I will protect you, I will fight for you even if what happens is your fault. I am your father and I will always look after you, no matter what trouble you get yourself into. But forgiving you and watching your back does not stop me punishing you for your bad behaviour. I will not let you go back to prison.”

Kazan felt all his muscles stiffen but he said nothing and continued to look into his father’s eyes with candour, indicating that he had understood.

“You disobeyed me, Kazan. I said nothing for the cigarettes because I had not forbidden you to buy cigarettes. I do not forbid you to smoke. I did, however, forbid you to ever drink alcohol, and I explained why. I have always given you the reasons for my decisions.”

Kazan managed to hold his father’s gaze. Yes, he had given his reasons for banning alcohol: martial arts would turn him into a weapon, just like his father. He was going to learn to kill. His father had said ‘you do not hand a drunken man a weapon’.

Watching Kazan’s face, noting the frank, open expression, Kyu could tell what was going on, that he was once again putting into practice his new-found and blossoming ability to reason.

“When you raised your hand against me you did so without even thinking about the consequences. That is what you were like when you arrived on this island. Then, when you threw the cup on the floor you realized that there would be reprisals and, fearing the consequences, you wished you had not done it. It did not bother you that the cup was broken, but understanding that every act has its consequences was a step in the right direction. Today, for the first time, you are fully aware of what you have done and regret your course of action, not because you know that I will punish you. It is the deed itself which you regret. This constitutes another great step forwards, Kazan.”

Without letting Kazan see the distress it caused him, he indicated that his son should take his shirt off.

 

Kazan remained upright for as long as he could bear to. Much longer than when he had run at his sensei. And when he fell, it was without a whimper.

Small white Card 94

Le faux-ami du jour : eventually = finalement

94

 

Kazan was not at his usual evening post beside the river. He was squeezed, huddled into a crack in the rocks on the other side of the island, his whole body shaking. Kyu was squatting a few feet away.

“Kazan…”

He had spoken the word softly so as not to further scare the petrified animal which was burrowing itself into a hole. He saw in the semi-darkness that Kazan was trying to force his body even deeper into the narrow gap. He slowly held out his hand, palm upwards, towards him, and waited. When at last Kazan stretched out his own violently trembling hand he took and held it. After a while the shaking lessened and eventually stopped.

Kazan was frightened. The shock of hearing what Kyu was going to call the Grand Annual Tournament had overwhelmed him, and instinct had taken over. It was instinct which had driven him to earth like a hunted animal in order to protect him from a world which had rejected him, a world which had hurt him and hurt him again. Right now, Kazan was a terrified wild animal unable to comprehend what was happening.

Kyu was deeply affected by the look of terror on his face, by the way he had forced himself into the crevice to hide as much of himself as possible, and by how he was holding his arms and legs to protect his vital organs. He spoke to him to calm him down, in Japanese, language which had nothing to do with whatever he had previously been through, and which was steeped in the essence of this island where he felt at home, where he had learned to be someone, where he had laughed, learned, messed with mud and been happy.

“I know that you are frightened and I understand. You do not know what it means to have a father. I also know that you would like to be my son. Instinct made you run away and hide like you must have had to do in the past if the scars on your back are anything to go by. You need not worry that I am offended that it is because of me your instinct made you run away from today. I am not. On the contrary.”

While Kyu had been talking Kazan had listened but made no move to leave his refuge.

“Come out now.”

Kyu’s strong hand pulled him out of his hiding place. Kazan stood there in front of him and although he still looked very wary he seemed to be more himself.

“Would you like me to be your father?”

Kazan looked at the man he would trust with his life, the man who had been looking after him for all these months, the man who had never treated him unfairly.

“Yes, Sensei… arigatou, Sensei.”

“Hmm, yes Sensei, arigatou Sensei, what a good obedient son I have…”

Kazan gave a small smile but did not answer.

“One day soon we must go to Tokyo.”

“What for, Sensei?”

“Because I want to become your father officially. We must fill in the adoption papers.”

“Does that mean I’ll have your surname, Sensei?”

“Yes, your name will be Kazan Sukomatayashi and you had better not get into trouble any more or you will get what is coming to you. You saw what I did on the tatami earlier on, didn’t you?”

“Oh, shi-it!”

His eyes shone with admiration as he momentarily relived the fight.

“And that’s enough of that, too.”

“Enough of what?”

“Enough bad language. I want a polite son.”

“Yes, Sensei.”

 

The grocery boat took them to Yonago, where they would get the plane to Tokyo. Kazan, now over the initial shock, was just beginning to get used to the idea of having Kyu as a father. His father, shi-it. Oops, no bad language. His father disapproved. This time it was okay, he’d only said it in his head, so Sensei, er, his father hadn’t heard. Or had he? You could never be sure with him. Better not even think those words any more! He glanced sideways at Kyu to see if he had heard. You couldn’t see his eyes because he was wearing sunglasses so it was anybody’s guess. When you couldn’t see those strange-coloured eyes he looked Japanese. Well, even without the glasses he looked Japanese of course, but right now he could be just anyone. Ah, maybe that was why he was wearing sunglasses, like on the journey from France, so that he wouldn’t be recognized. But why wouldn’t he want to be recognized? He hadn’t been wearing his sunglasses during the Grand Annual Tournament and all those guys had seen – and recognized – him. So how come he could show his face on the island but not in Yonago or Tokyo or on the Paris/Tokyo plane?

Now that Sensei was his father Kazan felt slightly intimidated, especially after his recent performance on the tatami, shi… no, no bad language. He couldn’t bring himself to ask about the glasses.

“I am wearing sunglasses so that people cannot see my eyes.”

“It makes you look Japanese.”

Kyu laughed.

“And what would I look without them?”

“Japanese too, but with them you could be anybody.”

“That is exactly why I wear them. I do not want to be recognized.”

“Is somebody looking for you?”

“Yes. I am wanted by the Japanese police. They have nicknamed me Suigyoku which means ‘emerald’. All the martial artists you saw at the Grand Annual Tournament are acquainted with this nickname, although none would ever dare use it to my face, but it is not in their interest to turn me in, firstly because they have no particular fondness for the police and secondly because I suspect they might have a job getting a good night’s sleep if they did turn me in. They might suddenly find they were scared of the dark. But if the Tokyo or Yonago police recognize me they will arrest me.”

“You can run fast.”

“Yes, but they have guns. I do not run faster than bullets.”

A silence fell.

“I thought you were going to ask me why I was wanted by the Japanese police,” said Kyu after a while.

Kazan turned to him with the same black velvet look in his eyes that he had had at Ouané’s.

“When I wanted to know why you’d never asked me about the scars on my back you said that it was my story, part of my book. It’s the same for your sunglasses – it’s part of your book.”

Kyu looked at his son with affection and pride. There had been a clear progression in the way he thought things through. He had come a long way.

Kazan remained staring out over the waves for a time.

“I don’t want you to adopt me,” he said quietly, without looking at Kyu.

Then he swung abruptly round to face him and Kyu saw that his eyes were now glowing like live coals: the volcano had awoken.

“I don’t want to be your son!” he shouted. “I don’t want you to be my father! I don’t want your surname!”

Kyu saw the fury and the anguish, or rather the fury of the anguish, in his eyes. Yes, Kazan was the best son a man could have.

“I do not know what the procedure is in France, but here adopting an adult is very straightforward. It is simply a question of informing the authorities. Of course I will, as you have just realized, have to show them my passport, but do not worry, the police do not have my name, only my physical description with this striking distinguishing mark I wear on my face.”

“They don’t know your name?”

“No.”

“Why are your eyes that colour?”

“I have always answered all your questions but I cannot answer that one for the simple reason that I do not know.”

“You’re a genetic error.”

Kyu was gripped by an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh. Who else on earth would dare to call him a genetic error? Who, other than Kazan, who had also been the only one to dare to raise his hand against him? Managing to keep his face straight, he turned to him.

“Raising your hand against your sensei is one thing, and you are well aware of the upshot of such behaviour. But behaving with impudence towards your father is worse. Do not forget that.”

He wouldn’t be calling his father a genetic error again, shi…

His father… he gazed up at the sky and felt like shouting it out for the whole world to hear, that he had a father, that Sensei was his father. Grinning, his nose in the air and his curls in the wind, he thought how good it was to have a father, to be Sensei’s son.

“Otousan?”

Kyu’s heart melted. The great fighter, feared by all, suddenly felt his ruthlessness turn to marshmallow. Kazan had just called him ‘father’. He tried not to let his emotions show.

“Yes?”

“Have they got women in Tokyo?”

Kyu looked at him, the corner of his mouth twitching.

“Were you trying to soften me by calling me ‘father’?”

“No. I just felt like trying it out. Never done it before. Wanted to see the effect.”

And if he knew what it felt like hearing it…

“So you were wondering if there were any women in Tokyo…”

“It’s just that… I’m young… and healthy… and it’s been over a year…”

Kyu began to laugh, not a restrained chuckle like usual, but a real, deep down rumble.

“I am very happy to know that my son is young and healthy. I will talk to the captain of the boat. We should be able to work something out.”

“Arigatou, Otousan. I knew a father would understand these things… and… since you’re paying… one with big breasts if possible…”

Kyu made a mental note not to become too lenient with Kazan, especially as Hanshi let the boy get away with so much.

They completed the crossing in amicable silence, leaning on the railing, side by side, each watching his own thoughts shimmering in the water.

Kyu let Amélie out of the place deep inside where he kept her and watched her glinting through the waves and knew that she would be with him all his life. The memory of her grey eyes and the ringlets in her hair was not about to fade away. Maybe one day he would meet, even marry, another woman but the chapter entitled Amélie would never be erased from his book. She would always be there, in amongst those pages which no longer had the power to hurt him because he had implemented the choice to refuse psychological suffering. It was nevertheless an undeniable fact that the edges of those pages were not flush with the rest of the book and he knew full well that their contents had not lost their magic. He must resist. She had not written back and that was that. In any case there was Kazan to think about. He had become someone, someone happy, and the last thing he wanted to do was jeopardize that happiness. Kazan no longer wanted to see his mother. Kyu made his mind go blank so that Amélie could leave the waves and return to the dark place inside him.

He was suddenly struck by a thought: now that he had a son, he wanted a family. Then Kazan would have a mother, a home, maybe even a younger brother or sister. He glanced briefly at him and smiled, thinking that for the moment at least he was basking in being an only son. He had just got a father and almost certainly did not feel like sharing him just yet. He would have to grow up a little bit more, he would need to get used to what it meant to be a son, to have a father. And his education needed thinking about. He would have to be constantly available to guide him, on the lookout to make sure all those fences remained in place because Kazan would now try to break through them again to see if being his son changed anything. He saw that now: his son was his priority. The rest could wait.

And as for Kazan, what he could see romping through the sea was a beautiful mermaid. A beautiful mermaid with big breasts.

 

 

Small white Card 93

Le mot du jour : betray = trahir

93

 

Motor-boats homed in on the island. Having disgorged the martial arts masters coming for the Annual Tournament, they spurted away again into the blue. Other than the participants in the tournament, there were never any spectators: this was not a show. This year, however, there would be one exception: Kazan. This would doubtless incite silent speculation but no questions would be asked. It was Hanshi’s decision, and this was his dojo. No one would be asking the emerald-eyed fighter either, and not just because of his connections with Hanshi.

The dojo was filling up and however much Kazan was impressed by the display of strength he did not let it show. The contestants were wearing nothing but black trousers, and their naked chests and arms rippled with muscles. Kazan was dressed the same. His imposing body, toughened by the months of physical training, meant that there was little to distinguish him from them. Everyone had noticed him standing with Hanshi and Kyu, noticed the volcano on his chest beside Kyu’s golden lightning bolt. They all knew that lightning bolt well and had learned to fear it.

The martial artists stood around the tatami in silence, ready to listen with deference to what Hanshi had to say. He walked to the middle of the circle.

“It is a great honour for me to welcome you to my dojo for the Grand Annual Tournament. As usual I will begin by going through the rules. During this competition the blows will be real, but excessive or dangerous kicks, punches and contact are prohibited. A fight can finish in one of three ways. The first is a knockout. The second is surrender. In this dojo there is no shame in standing down because it constitutes honourable recognition of your opponent’s superior strength. It is an ancient custom here to respect and honour the admission of defeat because it illustrates an understanding of one’s limits. You are not only here to gauge your own might in relation to others, you are here to learn humility. The third way in which a fight can finish is by decision of the grand master. The contestant who wins the final heat will try his strength against last year’s winner, Kyuuden Sukomatayashi, who, even when living abroad has never missed a single Grand Annual Tournament as most of you know.”

Kyu walked out onto the tatami and bowed to all the contestants. As they bowed back the silence seemed to thicken. Kazan had bowed with them, in a turmoil of excitement which had been gradually increasing ever since the beginning of the opening ceremony. Being Sensei’s student had always made him happy, but now he felt something he had never felt before: this evening, seeing all these great masters respectfully bowing to Sensei, Kazan was brimming over with pride.

By now he was fluent enough in Japanese to have understood Hanshi’s speech. Shi-it, were they really going to fight with real blows? He’d supposed it was going to be like the training sessions where each kick or punch stopped a hair’s breadth from your opponent and points were scored. Bloody hell, imagine being on the receiving end of one of Sensei’s kicks, like when he was smashing those planks of wood yesterday. Thank God it wasn’t going to be him out there on the tatami today.

The contestants had drawn lots and the first heat could begin. Sitting on their heels, Hanshi and Kyu carefully watched the confrontation between the first two participants. On Kyu’s right, also squatting down, Kazan had been accorded the special favour of watching the event with the master of the dojo and the title-holder. According to ancient tradition only the previous year’s winner could sit beside the master of the dojo. The contestants were spread out around the other three sides of the tatami. The favour had not gone unnoticed. The only person unaware of the honour which had been bestowed upon him was Kazan: nobody had told him what it meant to be sitting on Kyu’s right.

The fights went on. Some finished with knockouts, some with one of the contestants standing down. Hanshi was not required to put a stop to any of them since the basic rules of fair play were respected by all. At last it was time for the final combat of the tournament, the impressive encounter between two superb athletes, which finished with one of them abandoning. The winner, a massive Chinese fighter, turned to Kyu and bowed to him respectfully, and, as dictated by tradition, invited him to duel.

Kyu stood up, joined him on the tatami and bowed his acceptance. Kazan’s heart was thumping as he watched Kyu, a solid block of concentration, face his opponent and wait for his move. In major events he never made the first move. This rule of honour which he had made his own was tacitly understood by all the contestants. So the Chinese giant struck first. Kyu avoided the blow with one of his astonishing bounds, managing to land a prestigious mid-air kick before gracefully alighting. Whereas the fights during the eliminatory heats had all gone on for several minutes, the final duel against the invincible lightning bolt had lasted mere seconds. His opponent was lying on the ground, out cold. When he came to, Kyu went over to him and held out his hand symbolically helping him up.

“It was a great honour to fight against you,” he said with a bow.

“The great honour was for me,” replied his rival, bowing back, and he made his way back to his place, wondering what had hit him. He had not seen it coming.

Then Kyu bowed to all the contestants. You could have heard a pin drop as everybody waited to find out the title of the Grand Annual Tournament.

“I name this tournament after my son, Kazan.”

He turned to Kazan and beckoned him to join him. Kazan stood up and walked over to Kyu his face betraying not the merest emotion. He moved in an unreal, cotton wool world. He no longer seemed to be attached to his body. From a far away cloud he saw his body bow deferentially to Kyu and as if in a dream he caught a slow-motion glimpse of the entire company standing up and bowing to him.

Small white Card 92

Le mot du jour : fetch = aller chercher

 

92

 

Amélie had just had a shower, like she did every evening upon returning from the baker’s. When she got home, tired but relieved to be earning a living, she always felt as if she was covered in flour. To cheer herself up she would sometimes quietly work out how much she’d made that day.

Kyu had not written again. In any case she was no longer expecting a letter. She had decided that she’d been imagining a lot of what she’d thought had been going on between them. She must’ve exaggerated it, thinking there’d been feelings for her written in his eyes. Hardly surprising mind you: with eyes as peculiar as that, you could end up imagining all manner of things in them. But it was over now. She had come to terms with the idea of living alone, for the time being at least. Maybe later that would change…

She thought about one of her regular customers at the baker’s, Marc, a really nice man who always had a kind word for her and who had made it clear that he was interested in her. What on earth would she say if ever he asked her to marry him? She had no idea and didn’t want to think about it. Not now.

Standing in front of her mirror she brushed the tangles out of her wet hair. As usual she would let it dry naturally because using a hair-dryer would only turn her curls to frizz. But what was that? Her hand remained poised half-brush as she stared at what she had caught sight of in the mirror: a grey hair sticking out of the top of her head, stiff and dead. A grey hair. Already. Which could only mean more would follow. She jerked it out sharply and tried not to think about it any more but it kept springing back into her consciousness, standing there stiff, grey and dead.

Marc was coming round to pick her up that evening. It was Saturday and he was coming to take her out to a restaurant. She smiled as she thought of him. He was so caring, so kind… even if not very tall and slightly overweight. No, he wasn’t really very handsome but what did that matter? In her mind’s eye Amélie suddenly saw Kyu and Marc side by side. Kyu, with his fine, distinguished face and his eyes the colour of a mountain lake… she once again chased away the vision which would not leave her alone. She would never see him again, she knew that. And what if Marc did ask her to marry him? Her immediate, gut feeling was to accept, but at the same time something much deeper down was telling her not to. She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t make her mind up. He was such a nice man and Agathe liked him. He always brought her sweets, crayons and colouring books. Whenever he popped by she ran to him with her arms held out to be picked up so that she could give him a kiss. Yes, Marc was the everyday, ordinary, run of the mill dad that Agathe needed. And now she came to think of it her daughter was calmer, more reasonable since Marc had come on the scene. And he never minded her being there.

Amélie told herself that marrying Marc would be the right thing to do. As she finished patting her curls into place she realized that she had not yet checked the post and went out to have a look. There was a letter, addressed to Marie-Reine. The envelope was a calligraphic work of art, the writing as bold and neat and uniform in size as if it had been typed. She turned it over and saw the sender’s name and address written just as meticulously. Kyu! Kyu had written! Suddenly her heart seemed to be beating very loudly. She was just about to gingerly prise open the envelope, terrified of tearing the address, when she saw that someone had already carefully slit it open along the end with what must have been a very sharp knife. She pulled out the contents: a note from Marie-Reine, a small square of folded up paper and Kyu’s letter. Trying in vain to stop her hands from trembling, she started by smoothing out Marie-Reine’s note to read.

 

The Chinaman’s wrote, Mrs M, so I’s puttin’ ’is letter straight in your letter box. I’s wrote ’is address on a separate piece of paper too cos even if you ’ant got a dog you never know. An’ I wrote it out on another piece of paper too an’ put it in my apron pocket like tha’ we can be sure there won’ be another catastrophe.

Marie-Reine

 

Amélie’s immediate reaction was to go and hug Marie-Reine but first she must read Kyu’s letter. She was all of a dither, her heart was beating wildly. Taking a deep breath she unfolded the piece of paper.

 

Luc is well. He has grown stronger and more solid both in his body and in his mind. He is still living with me in Japan and does not want to leave for the time being. He can stay as long as he wishes. We are looking after him. You do not need to worry.

Kyu Sukomatayashi

 

Amélie read through her tears, read and read again. She was overjoyed to learn that Luc was alright, that he was being looked after, that he had ‘grown stronger in his mind’ yet deeply saddened by what she read between the lines: ‘He is living with me in Japan’… so Kyu had left France for good. And then there was the ‘we are looking after him’. Who was ‘we’? Kyu was not on his own. He must have a wife… maybe he’d already been married when he came to France. His job here had been a short term venture, he’d made that clear.

She read the words again, for the tenth, twentieth time. It suddenly felt as though she was weighed down under a heavy load of bricks. She was unable to control her sobs. Why did the immense relief and happiness of knowing that Luc was well, that he was not in prison, that he was being taken care of and that he was in good spirits have to be sullied by such sorrow? Kyu was not coming back.

Amélie slid the letter into its envelope and went to put it away in her room. She would answer it, but not today. Today she was going to make herself pretty, prettier than she’d ever been before for Marc, she still had enough time. She made her face up very carefully, with eye-liner to highlight her grey eyes, then fetched her pearl necklace, the one Gauthier had bought her for their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Gauthier, who was now married to someone else and who was going to have a baby girl, while here she was, all alone. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror and wondered if she might not actually be quite pretty. She was.

“We won’t be alone for much longer”, she said to her reflection. “We’re going to marry Marc”.

Small white Card 91

L’expression du jour : how come? = comment ça se fait?

91

 

Kyu was training, performing extraordinary jumps, double somersaults, backwards and forwards, even kicking through planks fixed in a tree before landing gracefully back on the ground. Kazan was sitting on his heels nearby watching, transfixed by his master’s strength and agility and by the precision and speed of his every move.

Kyu came to the end of his session but even if it had gone on for hours Kazan would not have noticed: time lost its authority in the glow radiating from by such greatness. And, as usual, it was Kyu who spoke first: Kazan always felt too awed to speak after watching his master’s workouts.

“There will be a lot of people arriving on the island tomorrow,” said Kyu as he sat down, smiling because he knew what Kazan’s reaction was going to be.

“How come, Sensei? You told me there’d be no lessons in the dojo for a week, and only five days have gone past.”

“There were no lessons in order to give me time to train, because tomorrow is the day of the Grand Annual Tournament.”

“The Grand Annual Tournament? What’s that?”

“It is for any martial arts master who wishes to compete. There has been a Grand Annual Tournament held in this dojo for as long as anyone can remember. The contestants are drawn against each other in the preliminary heats, and the winner of the tournament pits his strength against the title-holder, hoping to thus earn the privilege of naming this year’s combat. This is a great honour: when we refer to the different combats we do not necessarily mention the year they took place, we use the name chosen by the winner. Each participant prepares a name before coming and most take them away again. Some have been trying to win for years in the hope of naming the tournament after their oldest son. That is another of the ancient traditions associated with this dojo.”

“Have you ever won the Grand Annual Tournament, Sensei?”

“Yes.”

“How many times?”

“As many times as I entered.”

“You’ve never been beaten?”

“No.”

“Bloody hell!”

Kazan gazed at his sensei in admiration.

“Sensei…”

“Yes?”

“Can I watch the Grand Annual Tournament?”

“Of course.”

“Sensei…”

“Yes?”

“Did you name any of them after your son?”

“No.”

Kazan decided to drop the subject: things clearly weren’t going too smoothly between Sensei and his son if he’d never named the contest after him despite having won so many times… bloody hell…

 

Later that day Kazan was down at the shore watching out for the grocery boat. Hanshi had ordered some clothes for him and he could not wait to see them. He also could not wait to get his hands on some more coffee.

He gazed out over the immense expanse of water which tirelessly sent its waves crashing against the island. He thought again of what Kyu had told him about his birth, and about the three days and three nights when Hanshi had shut him away in the cave. Shi-it, had it been that long? He tried to remember what it had been like trapped inside that damp, icy rock prison but could only catch fleeting glimpses, fading impressions. Fear. Pain. And, strange for someone who never felt the cold, aching coldness. Sensei had told him he’d spent three days and three nights in the cold, screaming, when he’d been born. That must be why he never felt the cold, he must’ve bloody well acquired natural resistance to that when he was born, mustn’t he?   A brief smile came to his face as he recalled what Sensei had said about him being a nettle, a hardy weed. He was strong, he knew he was. Sensei was right. And it turns out it was because of his mother. And the fact that he really wanted to survive, did that stem from then too? Had he been born with the will to live and an urge to smash everybody’s face in? He smiled again. Well it was true, he did fucking want to be alive. He thought of the fish again, that superb, iridescent fish he’d killed. He hadn’t had the choice and Sensei had said he’d done the right thing. If there’d been a way of making it better he would have, but there’d been nothing anyone could do. And there’d been nothing his mother could have done back then, either. ‘I was very young; I was drunk’ – ‘Your mother was responsible. But should we therefore say she was guilty?’ – ‘You are strong, Kazan.’ Yes, he was strong, and maybe it was because of his disastrous birth. And now he had something more than just strength: since he’d spat out that thorn he could see life in colour. He’d closed the book which told the story of his life up till now, where he had only seen things in black and white. ‘You have just been born and your name is Kazan’. He looked at the volcano on his chest.

The grocery boat came into sight on the horizon and Kazan, tired of waiting, jumped up.

He paid for the goods they had asked for and then, before setting off back with the bundles, he bought a packet of cigarettes. What the hell, there’d been plenty of money left over from what Hanshi had given him for the shopping… and anyway this time he’d thought it through, just like Sensei had taught him to: cigarettes were things, and money too, and things are less important than people. You don’t get told off for a cup so it must follow that you don’t get told off for cigarettes either. He was aware of the fact that his line of reasoning was not entirely watertight, especially as he no longer needed to refer to concrete examples to work out what was or wasn’t a stupid thing to do. Buying himself cigarettes with Hanshi’s money, without even asking, was clearly wrong. But even if it was wrong, he’d thought it through. Did you get told off for doing something wrong if you’d thought it through carefully? He couldn’t be bothered with this, dammit, he hadn’t had a smoke in nearly a year. Even if he got a flogging, he’d have had a smoke. That had to be worth it. Mind you… maybe not. He was not so sure any more. He turned round but the grocery boat had already left. Shi-it, he’d put his foot in it again. So great, now he was a thinking idiot, not just an idiot.

Walking up from the beach he considered not telling Sensei he’d bought the cigarettes, and smoking them in secret. He dropped the idea straight away – did he really think he could do something without Sensei knowing, when he couldn’t even manage to hear him coming to sit down by him?

He arrived at Hanshi’s house, unpacked and put away the shopping, then opened the parcel containing his new clothes. Fuckin’ amazing, the same black trousers and wide-sleeved grey shirt as Hanshi and Sensei! He tried them on and went straight to Hanshi and bowed.

“Thank you, Hanshi, trousers and shirt make very fine, Kazan happy and proud. Trousers and shirt like great masters Hanshi and Sensei. Kazan great master too now,” he said.

His comprehension and use of Japanese had improved greatly over time and he could now converse without too much difficulty. Hanshi laughed.

“It pleases me to see that you like the clothes, Kazan,” he replied. “Yes, trousers and shirt make very fine.”

“Arigatou, Hanshi.”

Kyu had been following the conversation and seen the joy on Kazan’s face. Then came what he had known was going to come.

“Sensei…”

“Yes?”

Kazan hesitated before going on, looking for the right words.

“If you do something stupid… and you’ve thought it through beforehand but… you do it even so… is that very bad?”

He was clearly regretting what he had done.

“If you are talking about the cigarettes, you will clean the dojo from top to bottom to reimburse Hanshi. It must be spotless for tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Sensei. I’ll just have a quick smoke and then I’ll go straight to clean the dojo.”

“No. You will clean the dojo first.”

“Yes, Sensei.”

Small white Card 90

Le mot du jour : lucky bastard = veinard

90

 

 

Time passed by, each season nudging its neighbour into place, and all the while the bonds between Kazan and Kyu strengthened.

Kazan’s training sessions at the dojo were intensive, and he soon found himself participating in his first fights. He did not often win, because his opponents were more experienced, but his movements were precise and controlled. He did not allow his concentration to waver and was clearly anxious to follow all the rules of combat that his sensei had taught him, to the great satisfaction of his master, who was putting his all into educating him.

Since he had become uchi-deshi Kazan’s nights had been spent in Hanshi’s house, but every evening he came to sit by the river near the hut where he had first slept.

One evening, dressed as usual in no more than trousers and a shirt, whatever the season, he was sitting there, watching the water, waiting for Kyu to arrive. Using Kazan’s questions as starting points for discussion, Kyu had gradually introduced him to various aspects of Eastern philosophy, culture and ways of thinking, opening his mind to new ideas every day. If Kazan’s body had muscled up as a result of the intensive daily physical training his sensei put him through, his mind was muscling up too. Kazan had changed. He was taking in and learning everything that his master taught him. The ignorant, violent, impudent Luc seemed far away. Kyu sat down beside him and, like every evening, Kazan jumped slightly.

“You must learn to set greater store by your senses, Kazan,” he said to him. “I always manage to approach you without you noticing.”

“Yes, Sensei.”

Kazan’s answer was lacking in both conviction and curiosity. It was clear that something was bothering him. Kyu waited, letting him gather his thoughts.

“Sensei…”

“Yes?”

“How long have we been here?”

“Nearly a year.”

“You were supposed to be looking after me for six months.”

“I cannot force you to stay here, Kazan. You are not a prisoner. If you want to leave you can get on the next grocery boat.”

Kazan turned abruptly to Kyu, his face betraying the question he was not asking.

“But if you want to stay, you can.”

Kazan continued to look at Kyu, silent. He was learning to control his emotions, to wait, to listen.

“When I saw that you were caught up in something,” Kyu went on, “and that prison was not the answer, I thought that there would be more chance of you finding a way out with me, and that you would be better off here. That is why I decided to bring you to this island, to give you, shall we say, the education you never had. There was never anybody to look after you, Kazan, you had to work out for yourself how to grow, like a nettle on a patch of waste ground. This weed which grew against all odds grew fiercely, but first you had to survive your birth and you managed. You are strong, Kazan. I do not suppose your twin brother was as strong as you. You knew you had a twin brother?”

“Yes, Ouané told me.”

“When your mother abandoned you I do not know what became of your brother. Perhaps he died. But you, you stayed for three days with nothing to eat or drink, naked and cold, and nobody acknowledged your cries for help. You survived. But what happened at your birth left its mark and that is completely understandable, Kazan. You went through hell.”

Kazan was profoundly affected by what Kyu was saying. Nobody had ever before said that he had suffered at birth, nobody had ever before recognized this suffering for what it was. Not even himself. So that was where that fucking thorn had come from, stabbing into his heart.

“Sensei…”

“Yes?”

“Before… it felt like… like there was a thorn sticking into me… right in deep… and it hurt. Now… I don’t know… I don’t think I can feel it anymore.”

“What did you think when Hanshi shut you away for three days and three nights in that cave? You had done nothing to deserve it. Did you feel that it was unfair?”

“No. I didn’t even think about it.”

“But it was unfair.”

Kazan looked up at Kyu.

“You were wronged then, Kazan, just as you were wronged, dreadfully, deplorably wronged, at your birth. You were an innocent new-born baby and you suffered for three days and three nights. Hanshi made you relive that injustice on purpose, placing you in exactly the same conditions, so that you would be able to bring to the surface the trauma you suffered at birth, so that you could shout, so that you could scream at the unfairness of it. And that is what you did. We heard you, Hanshi and I, because we remained nearby. You spat that thorn out. Yes, Kazan, it was because of your mother that you suffered. Do not be afraid to confront that fact, to say it out loud. You suffered horribly and it was your mother’s fault. But should we say that she is therefore guilty? Do you remember that fine fish which got stuck in the rocks and was slowly dying? You had to kill it to stop it suffering. You had no choice. Your mother abandoned you and you have every right to be angry. You have the right to scream out your pain like you did in the cave but know this: like you with the fish, she did what she did because she had no choice.”

Kazan gritted his teeth in order to get the better of his emotions.

“She was drunk,” he said, hiccoughing back his sobs, “so drunk she didn’t even notice she had twins.”

“I know.”

Kyu placed his warm, strong hand on Kazan’s shoulder.

“Kazan, you can cry. The calm, serene river you see flowing here, started out as the raging torrents of the waterfall: rapids weep long and hard before they are transformed into peaceful waters.”

Kazan began to cry. When his body was no longer racked by sobs he looked at Kyu.

“I don’t want to leave the island on the next grocery boat,” he said.

“This is your home, Kazan.”

“Arigatou, Sensei.”

Kazan looked at Kyu again.

“Have you got any kids, Sensei?”

“Yes, I have a son.”

A son? Lucky bastard, having Sensei for a father.

Small white Card 89

Le mot du jour : balance = équilibre

89

 

 

Kyu had told Kazan to go on ahead of him. Kazan raced off to Hanshi’s house.

“Hanshi! Hanshi!” he shouted.

The master smiled inwardly as Kazan came into sight, galloping towards him like a frisky horse despite knowing full well that that was not the way to approach a master. He motioned to Kazan to calm himself and Kazan stopped dead. Bloody hell, he’d put his foot in it again, you must never run up to Hanshi or Sensei when you want to speak to them. He moved forwards slowly and bowed, gathering together in his head the few Japanese words he knew in an attempt to make himself understood, but nevertheless managed to mix up please and sorry.

“Hanshi volcano make fine sorry thank you,” he said, pointing at his chest.

Hanshi burst out laughing and told him to sit down and wait. He went into his house and returned with needles and little pots of different-coloured ink. Kazan was overjoyed when he saw not only that he had been understood but that Hanshi was prepared to do his tattoo there and then. The master had him lie down, and began to prick his skin. At first Kazan lay still but after a few minutes he became impatient to see what it looked like and began lifting his head to take a peek, until a sharp tap on his forehead indicated that he was not to move. He ended up being so lulled by the regular, repetitive pricking of the needle that he fell asleep, much to Hanshi’s relief.

Using various different shades of brown, yellow and red, the master brought a magnificent volcano spouting lava into existence on Kazan’s chest. It took him several hours but Kazan did not wake up. When he had finished he looked fondly at the sleeping volcano for a moment.

“You are, and always will be, a volcano. Do not forget that, Kazan.”

 

Meanwhile Kyu was sitting below the waterfall watching the tumultuous encounter between water and stone. He merged with the roar of the elements. His eyes closed, his concentration at its highest, he left his body sitting on the stone and flowed with the water, as limpid as its droplets. Yet again the grocery boat had brought him no mail. Amélie had not sent an answer and that hurt. But he only had himself to blame for this suffering. It was not his feelings for Amélie which were responsible: what was unacceptable was the effect he had allowed them to have on him. Of course he could fall in love, and there was no reason he should hide the fact, nor indeed deny himself the right. But what had become of all the good advice Hanshi had given him in the past? ‘If your body is suffering, Kyuuden, you can only accept the pain, but you alone are master of your inner suffering and you may choose to refuse it’.

He had made a choice, to look after Luc, and had no regrets. Each choice carries with it relinquishment.

He opened his eyes and sank slowly back into his body, then stood up and made his way back down to the house, where he found Kazan asleep. Seeing the magnificent volcano which would without a doubt render its host speechless with delight when he woke up, Kyu smiled.

 

Later that day Hanshi watched as Kyu and Kazan played like children. Since waking up and seeing the breathtakingly beautiful work of art on the left side of his chest, Kazan had refused to put on his shirt.

Kyu was teaching him how to catch fish with his hands. It was part of his martial arts training, to develop rapidity and precision. Kyu caught all his at the first attempt, and Kazan, who had thought it looked easy when he was watching, did not manage to catch a single one. They were standing side by side in the river, laughing like kids. Swear words ricocheted across the waters, especially as, to annoy him, Kyu was catching all the fish that Kazan was missing. When Kazan finally caught one it slipped out of his hands almost immediately, only to be plucked out of the air on its way down by Kyu.

“Fuck you, that’s my fish, it’s me who caught it.”

As Kazan lurched over to snatch it out of Kyu’s hands he slipped and toppled into the water, pulling Kyu with him. The ensuing water-fight, as each tried to push the other under, was a sight to behold. Despite his strength Kazan did not once manage to make Kyu lose his balance and continually found himself up to his neck in water for his pains.

 

Like father, like son, murmured Hanshi with a smile.

Small white Card 88

Le mot du jour : exhaustion = épuisement

 

88

 

Kazan was fumbling awkwardly with a lump of clay and his cup bore no resemblance to a cup. By his side Hanshi had already finished his, a paper-thin, elegant drinking vessel, and was guiding his pupil’s clumsy hands. Even if he did not seem to be getting anywhere, Kazan was enjoying working the sticky mass. He at last managed to produce something looking vaguely like a cup, without a handle, and proudly turned to show his work of art to Hanshi.

“Cup make fine!” he announced triumphantly, knowing that Hanshi did not speak a word of French and so using his smatterings of Japanese to say something he hoped the master would understand.

Hanshi, whose impassive face rarely betrayed his emotions, burst out laughing.

“Yes, cup make fine,” he repeated in the same broken Japanese.

He had grown fond of Kazan, fond of this mishmash between a grown man capable of unpredictable violence and a child happy to exclaim in wonder at his somewhat misshapen creation. Fond of the variety of emotions displayed on his face which fluctuated between spurting, scorching lava and open, child-like curiosity about his new life here on the island. Fond of this volcano whose eruptions were never premeditated. And something he admired in Kazan was his courage. While the cup was baking, watched over eagerly by his pupil, Hanshi looked at him, thinking back to the first martial arts lesson Kazan had had that very morning. He had been brave, he had applied himself seriously, without losing his nerve, in order to please his sensei. He certainly had a lot to learn but Hanshi had seen immediately that Kazan would progress quickly. At the end of the four-hour session he had gone up to Kazan, who was standing there very straight despite his exhaustion, and made the following solemn announcement, which Kyu had translated:

“On account of your hard work and your attitude towards the topics covered in your first lesson I bestow upon you the title of uchi-deshi. From now on you are a disciple both of myself and of your sensei. I grant you the right to receive instruction in this dojo.”

Kazan had never before been granted the right to do anything whatsoever and now all of a sudden he was uchi-deshi, disciple worthy of these great masters’ teachings. He had felt a moment of keen, searing joy but had not let it show.

“Arigatou, Hanshi,” he had said with a bow, following the restrained example of his masters.

 

The cups were now baked. Kyu had just returned. He had been down to the shore in order to buy various items from the grocery boat. Hanshi’s ancestors had traded solely by bartering martial arts lessons for commodities, having no other means of paying. Now Hanshi’s dojo, one of the most highly esteemed in the world, attracted students from as far away as China, and money was no longer a problem. Hanshi earned more than enough to cover his needs and whatever he asked the captain of the boat for would be supplied. The boat even ran a postal service for the island.

Since the rumour had spread that Kyu was back after five years’ absence and had taken up his lessons again, the number of students had risen noticeably. Some newcomers had seen him before at one of the many competitions; some had even met him face to face. Of those who had fought against him, all had lost, implacably beaten by the man whose whispered nick-name was Suigyoku – Emerald – because of the strange colour of his eyes. Suigyoku, unequalled and unbeatable opponent, whose absolute respect for rules was legendary. Suigyoku, who commanded such deference, fear, and admiration. Some even took the colour of his eyes to be the mark of divine lineage. Suigyoku: half man, half god. Kazan was alone in having dared to run at him: it would not happen again.

“Look at my cup, Sensei, it’s good, isn’t it?”

Kyu gave a small smile and threw Kazan the parcel containing the coffee he had bought for him.

“Superb. Try not to smash it on the ground.”

Kazan had caught and opened the parcel.

“Fuckin’ amazing! Coffee! Arigatou, Sensei.”

 

Only a relatively small part of the island was flat, an area of about one thousand square metres where Hanshi’s house had been built overlooking the bay. A narrow, rocky path led down to the beach. Seen from the sea the island looked like a massive, craggy boulder. Apart from this secluded area where the house was, there was nothing but stones. Narrow trails wound their way through stark scenery along sheer cliffs, meandering up to the summit, where a giant gash in the mountainside spewed forth a cascade of icy water. Kyu climbed up to the waterfall. He got undressed and, advancing onto a natural outcrop of rock, stood beneath the furious torrents of water, letting them crash down on him.

Kazan had followed, unobserved. Did Sensei really think he hadn’t noticed the filthy mood he’d been in when he got back from the grocery boat? He watched him bracing himself against the violent buffeting, against the raw lacerations of the waterfall, with that magnificent, golden lightning bolt on his chest. When Kyu had wiped himself dry with grass, Kazan made to pick up his clothes to pass them to him. He looked at the bamboo cane, which had become unhooked from its belt, hesitated, and then picked it up with the rest. What the fuck, there were more bamboo canes where that one came from so he might as well give it him.

“Here you are, Sensei,” he said, holding out the clothes.

When Kyu was dressed, Kazan held out the bamboo cane.

“You can leave that here. Now that you are uchi-deshi we will not be needing it any more.”

Kazan looked at the cane and considered what Kyu had said. What did it mean? That now he wasn’t going to make any more mistakes or that now Sensei would punish him in the dojo, on the tatami?

Kyu saw the questions in Kazan’s eyes.

“Lessons will teach you to control yourself without my intervention.”

Kazan was on the point of snapping the cane into little bits when he thought better of it and placed it reverently on the ground. Kyu burst out laughing.

“You see,” he said, “you have already started!”

Shi-it, how come Sensei guessed everything? He looked at him. There was something about that guy. And that lightning bolt – bloody amazing. He was dying to ask him about it.

“You are intrigued by my tattoo.”

Shi-it, could he read minds?

“Yes, Sensei, it’s amazing. Did you get it done because you like storms?”

“No. This tattoo is here to remind me of who I am, and who I will never cease to be, despite my efforts to tame my nature: kyuuden. It is what lightning is called when it forms a ball.”

“Ball lightning… so is Kyu short for Kyuuden?”

“My name is Kyu. It is Hanshi who named me Kyuuden because he knows that I am capable of sudden, very violent fury. He will paint an erupting volcano on your chest so that you never forget that you are, and that you will always be, Kazan. Your identity must be permanently uppermost in your mind. You were born Kazan and even if you learn one day to keep yourself under control you will be a sleeping volcano, kyuukazan, and a sleeping volcano may wake.”

“Kyuukazan? That sounds like Kyuuden. The first part of our names is the same, Sensei.”

“Yes, Kazan, part of our names is the same. Volcanos and lightning have a lot in common.”

Kazan was about to say ‘yes, but lightning’s worse’ but stopped himself.

“Yes, Kazan, lightning is more dangerous, because it strikes more quickly.”

“When can I get my tattoo done?”

Kyu smiled.

“Ask Hanshi. I have noticed he lets you get away with murder. I would be surprised if he refused to do it right away.”

“Fuckin’ amazing. I’m off.”

 

Small white Card 87

L’expression du jour : I’ll be off = je vais partir

87

 

Amélie finished sweeping the floor and when the baker brought in a load of warm, fresh loaves she stacked them on the shelves. She had been working there for nearly a month now and knew the ropes. It was barely 6 a.m. but the customers would soon be pouring in. Marie-Reine appeared.

“Mornin’ Mrs M.”

It was always a comfort to see Marie-Reine.

“Good morning, Marie-Reine. Three farmhouse loaves as usual?”

“Please.”

Marie-Reine was hunting in her purse for the right coins.

“By the way,” she said, “the Chinaman wrote.”

Amélie stopped everything she was doing.

“The Chinaman? You mean Kyu?”

“Course I does. Says Luc’s fine.”

“I… I didn’t get a letter.”

“Course you din’ cos ’e says ’e wrote but ’is letter came back to ’im cos you moved. An’ seein’ as ’ow the new pos’man don’ know you’s livin’ in the ’ouse-over-the-bridge… so the Chinaman wrote to me to give you news of Luc. Well I’ll be off, you got work to be gettin’ on wiv.”

“Wait.”

Marie-Reine turned round.

“Yes, Mrs M?”

“Could I see the letter?”

“Course y’can.”

With these words Marie-Reine left the shop. She ’ad to go, there was Théodore sleepin’ an’ even if Grampa was there t’look after ’im if ’e woke, no point dawdlin’. An’ the soup wasn’t goin’ t’cook isself, was it? An’ anyways Mrs M had work to do, din’ she?

The shop was now full of customers waiting to be served. Just when Amélie was calling Marie-Reine back the baker had appeared, his arms loaded with freshly-baked bread.

“I pay you to work, not chat. Unless you’d prefer to go home, I would like to point out that there are people waiting,” he said dryly.

Amélie made an effort to pull herself together. She mumbled ‘Yes of course, I’m sorry’, and presented the next client with three farmhouse loaves instead of the baguette they had asked for. When she saw her boss frowning at her she corrected her mistake, replacing the loaves on the shelf and grabbing a baguette which she held out at random, no longer quite sure who had asked for it.

Kyu had written… Amélie found it hard to concentrate on serving the customers and remembering what they had ordered. She made several mistakes, and even if she was mostly forgiven, certain loud-spoken, disagreeable remarks such as ‘it’s not like I asked for something complicated’ or ‘his wife never made mistakes like that’, reached the baker’s ears with the result that he came to see her at closing time to tell her that if the following day things did not improve she could start looking for another job. She apologized once more and told him it would not happen again.

She must not lose her job! She could not afford to, especially as it was so convenient: she didn’t even have to take the car, which would have meant extra time and money spent. She’d need her work to be faultless the next day. She’d go in early and clean the shop from top to bottom to show she was sorry. But right now the only thing that mattered was getting round to Marie-Reine’s as quickly as possible to see Kyu’s letter.

Her mind racing, she arrived at Marie-Reine’s out of breath: in her hurry to get there she had ended up running without even realizing it. She went in without knocking.

“Ooh, ’ello Mrs M, sit y’down.”

Amélie sat, and tried in vain to calm herself.

Dearie me she do seem out of sorts today. Must’ve ’ad too much to do at the baker’s.

“Marie-Reine, can I… can I see Kyu’s letter?”

“Oh, well ’fraid tha’ won’ be possible.”

“Why on earth not?” asked Amélie, unable to comprehend her neighbour’s refusal.

“Cos the dog ’ad it f’breakfast while I was at the baker’s, dinne? ’E likes eatin’ paper, don’ you my lovely?”

She leant down to talk to the docile dog asleep under the table. He opened one eye and seemed to smile at Marie-Reine before falling back to sleep. When she sat up again and looked at Amélie she saw that her face had turned a ghostly shade of grey.

“And the envelope? Was Kyu’s address on the back of the envelope?”

“Yes.”

“And the dog ate the envelope too?”

“Course ’e did.”

She knew that Mrs M had gone soft on the Chinaman but this was serious. She was right pale. She looked at the dog. Not a lot she could do really. She went over to Amélie and put her hand on her shoulder.

“Don’ you worry, Mrs M, ’e’ll write again, the Chinaman, ’e’ll write again. An’ when ’e do I’s’ll bring the letter round right away, an’ I’s’ll copy out ’is address on a piece of paper an’ put it in the pocket of my apron jus’ in case the dog eats the envelope again. I’m so sorry, Mrs M.”

Amélie burst into tears. Marie-Reine held her in her massive arms.

“It’ll be alrigh’ Mrs M, don’ you worry now, ’e’s’ll write again, tha’ Chinaman.”

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