3rd May 2019
Elle’s reply to my text message, that had been sent weeks ago, wandered into my in-box.
“Ben says your Gmail account is now deactivated. Anything else you need?”
The flat tone of the message stung my skin. The account should have been closed the next day I was banned from access on 18th February. Who had been handling my account for the last two months? But I shouldn’t expect any more answers from them. It’s obvious that Elle doesn’t want to get involved any further.
I remember my stammering when I went to MUFG with Elle to open her account. Walking along the narrow streets of Kanda, for no apparent cause, my stomach clenched with fear. I desperately sought the reason. Elle, who had just arrived from the Philippines, was simply showing a warm smile on her brown, round face. There wasn’t always a reason. Once I started being afraid of stammering, the fear just blocked my throat.
“Thank you, Elle,” I wrote a reply. “Nothing else. Thank Ben too.”
For a moment, the song of a bush warbler stopped time in the whole neighbourhood.
By the window sill, my ivy twigs in a glass jar were stretching out their young shoots. Outside the window, the little plum tree was also sprouting its lime leaves. These plants just exist without any stupid fears, yet they seem to know everything. Throughout the freezing winter and the scorching summer, they stay there without fleeing unlike me.
To start my blog, I sat down cross-legged in front of the low table. The heater was no longer needed in May, but I still made a cup of hot cocoa for myself. One sip with each thought. I was hesitant to look back. Unlike Ami’s colourful nail-art blog, mine would be a monochromatic one. I only grew frustrated as I recalled the days at ITCM. Who would read my story? Who am I writing for?
To my surprise, in my time-travelling mind I saw quite a few faces enjoying my blog. Ike’s mischievous grin and Jim’s thoughtful nod, Yumi’s laughter and even my previous boss, Miyo’s giggling face; all were depicted in my broken brain. Rica might tell this story to our parents and I would successfully skip the painful explanation of my latest job change to them. Not a bad deal.
“On the 18th of February, 2019…”
Going back to the past is never hard for time travellers. I can see the scenes as if watching a movie. Fred’s frown came back as fresh as yesterday and I automatically began revising the miserable picture.
“My director actually didn’t want to fire me. He was manipulated by someone who wanted me to go—” Once I started imagining, the fiction flooded out like the rivers after a typhoon.
“The cunning manipulator whispered to him that I was going to report to the labour office about the company’s wrongdoings. Fred believed it because he knew of my repeated suggestions to follow the labour laws. He was afraid. He consulted with the ITCM Group lawyers, Wendy and his big boss in Hong Kong. Megumi Ishikawa has to go, they decided. Once she was axed, the labour office would hear her story as merely the complaining of a dismissed employee…”
Alas, I should stop this! Half an hour has passed, yet my PC screen is still blank.
Come on Megu. Do not create any fancy stories. Simply write what “actually” happened on 18th February.
“18th February 2019, my director called me in the meeting room, which was quite rare—”
God, I still feel this lump in my gut. Instead of writing, I wish I could have my memory of that whole day erased and never remember again!
4th May 2019
I must be the most bored person in Ogikubo, sitting and writing while people enjoy the spring sun in Golden Week. I’m still writing about 18th February with no vision of how far I can go. But as a chameleon, I know my shifting mood well. I do something I don’t really understand today but I might see the reason tomorrow.
5th May 2019
Rose flowers were still hiding in their buds in Jindai Botanical garden. The red layers under the green armour looked naive.
“Still too early for roses, but Fuji flowers are beautiful,” Kumiko commented just like the other visitors there.
We were on the bench under the Fuji-dana. The mossy pond was shining in front of us. I was the one who had planned today’s picnic because I had no plan for this Golden Week. Kumiko was a busy woman with her hobbies and grandchildren. I enjoyed listening to her talking about her past, including how her left ear had been deafened by an injury decades ago. But I liked the ballet topic most.
“Actually, you shouldn’t volunteer to do the mopping after the ballet class,” my aunt-like Kumiko warned me. “You might think you should do it because you’re new there, but the others want to do it too.”
I had never doubted that I was a little helpful to the other students by mopping the studio floor.
“Do they? It’s just a minute run through the studio.”
“Still, they want to do it,” Kumiko insisted, “because they want Mr Kawai to see their enthusiasm, you see?”
There was disbelief on my face, so she continued.
“Believe me. I used to mop when I started to join the classes. I thought it’s a newcomers’ job. One day, some little madams asked me if I want to become our instructor’s pet.”
A grin spread on my face. Kumiko soon joined my cackling, saying that it’s like a high-school-girls’ comic story.
“I know it’s silly, but it’s true. I’ve warned you anyway, right?”
And she gossiped that quite a few joiners had left the class after getting other little madams’ disapproval. Especially, young and pretty girls who were good at dancing had gone sooner, she said.
“You’d be surprised. Women are jealous no matter how old they are.”
“But everyone was kind to me when I joined the class…” Saying this, I noticed that it’s because I’m 37, plain-looking and a bad dancer!
“Look. Even I, with this age and plump body, am envied by those women when Mr Kawai touches my hand to correct my posture.” Kumiko sounded almost proud.
I have never been told anything by anyone when our instructor corrected the posture of my spindly arm. I don’t know if I should be pleased by the fact or not.
“Anyway, you’d better be careful with jealousy little madams, OK? Some are really nice, but some are nasty,” Kumiko concluded. “You are young and naive, Megu. So I must look after you.”
Am I… naive?
Walking through the candlestands-like rose bush, I thought of our ballet instructor. When I first met Mr Kawai, I thought he was a kind guy from the gym staff. He told me to leave my pair of trainers in the studio and imitate the other students with socks. I was surprised when he suddenly stood in front of everyone and started to teach, because I had ignorantly thought that our instructor must be a woman.
“What do you think about Mr Kawai?” Kumiko startled me with this question. But I knew what she wanted to hear.
“Well, he is a fantastic instructor,” I started evaluating. “I understand why he is so popular among his students. He puts no pressure on us. He patiently walks up with us no matter how slow our pace is. In fact, every small step with him is a precious moment for us.”
Kumiko nodded. “Yes, he shows us how to enjoy the dance.”
“Exactly. The best coach is not the one who knows how to teach, but the one who can draw out the student’s best performance and make her happy.”
“Make her happy… I totally agree!”
Kumiko’s dreamy eyes were cast beyond the Fuji flowers waving in the moist breeze. My words seemed to have boosted her admiration for the instructor. And funnily, I felt this fey aroma coming into my lungs too. If her heart was in a mirror lake, mine was in a mossy pond.
“Compared to his class, I feel uneasy in Ms Oda’s class on Saturdays,” I changed the subject. “Ms Oda describes postures very well, but her eyes make me ashamed of my existence in the studio.”
Kumiko chuckled, saying that she felt the same. “I can tell that my dance is torturing her too.”
Though we laughed together, I was seriously getting worn away by Ms Oda’s critical eyes in her class. After just four lessons, I already wanted to run away from the strict instructor. Surely, I wasn’t born with a ballerina’s spirit.
7th May 2019
Golden Week was over and people in my workplace didn’t look so refreshed. Maybe they were tired from hiking.
“How was your holiday? Where did you go?” I asked Uchida, who joined the RA group on the same day as me and worked in a different department as a telephone operator.
“I went to a live concert of Arashi!” was the highlight of her holiday.
“That’s awesome!” I said, though I didn’t know who the group members were.
I hardly saw Uchida in the company premises, but we chatted like this whenever we met. For now, she was the only person I considered my friend here. I wondered if I could ask my supervisor Namiko the same question. She was talking with Hiro at their desks as usual.
“The 5th and the 6th of May were crazy.” Namiko’s thick voice stuck to my back like sweat. “Lots of customers complained about the crowded restaurants—.”
She actually worked during Golden Week!
Hearing how busy she was during the holiday, I was relieved that I didn’t ask her the stupid question.
“You know, holidays are actually the toughest time for our clients. We need to assist them,” Namiko was saying sincerely.
No surprise that this senior worker was totally relied on by our line manager. They often went out together for cigarettes. Even the stern bachelor showed a certain respect to this Otsubone. Hiro told me that we would have been buried by heaps of tasks this morning, if Namiko hadn’t worked during Golden Week. I said thanks to my supervisor, somehow feeling guilty.
Thanks to Namiko, our email team wasn’t having a disastrous time, but the telephones didn’t stop ringing all day today. The phone team leader, Yuri, frequently left her balance ball to instruct the operators. She was an experienced prison warden there. I had witnessed some of her workers asking for permission to go to the toilet.
“I have explained this before, haven’t I? Why did you answer that to the customer?”
Yuri’s fierce voice intruded in my ears unless I covered them with my palms and sang loudly – la, la, la….
“I’m so sorry…” an operator’s apology followed.
“Call the customer back immediately and apologize to him. Right now. Go!”
After giving her command, the leader calmly resumed her task, listening to the recorded telephone conversations of the operators. So far, one of her workers was clearly disfavoured by her. I could recognize the operator by her high, confident talking voice.
At 5 p.m., most of the telephone operators went home and the office finally became quiet. Just one operator Sasagawa, who finished at 6 p.m., sometimes answered the calls.
“Sasagawa is doing very well.” I heard Yuri reporting to the line manager. She occasionally came to his desk to talk.
“Yes, she sounds good,” admitted the manager in a low voice, hearing the operator talking on the phone.
“Sasagawa has been here for only two months, but she is learning well. Compared to her, Ms Maeda is terrible,” the team leader whispered. “I don’t want her for the next term. She doesn’t listen to my instructions.”
“Ms Maeda? Is she the one who works from 11 o’clock?”
The line manager didn’t know her, while all the other workers in the office knew at whom Yuri shouted most.
“No. She’s the one who worked with us last year. She left before then came back for this project in March.”
“Anyway, we need to talk with the operators’ agency about who will continue working with us.” The manager sounded indifferent, bouncing on his balance ball.
“Of course,” Yuri smiled, suppressing her frustration. “Just making a suggestion.”
They reminded me of ITCM. Karen makes a little suggestion to Fred, whispering who she doesn’t want for next term. I don’t want to hear them. I must be cursed, having this ominous seat just in front of the line manager and diagonally before the department manager.
13th May 2019
My job in RA isn’t as boring as it may sound. Though I wish AI would take over my email patchwork jobs, I like reading customer complaints. The written language is sometimes more powerful than hysterical shouts.
Today, I read an email about a “young, brash, mean waitress who closed the showcase whenever the customer approached for a free sample of new breads.”
The customer was having a cup of coffee at the bakery restaurant. “The waitress deliberately left her position whenever she saw me coming,” the email said. “Three times, I had to pretend that I stood up for the washroom or a glass of water, though I actually wanted to taste some new breads. It was so embarrassing.”
Let me explain my previous remark, I like reading these complaints. I never feel happy with someone’s unhappy experience. On the contrary, I put myself in the customer’s place and have the same resentment. That’s what I mean. Their writing shows me the scene and takes me into their stories, and I love stories.
“If you don’t believe me, check the surveillance camera in the restaurant. I had never imagined that I would be discriminated like this in my life.” She ended her email with this sentence, “I now understand the feeling of black people in the US.”
As usual, I started to write an apology email by combining several sentences from our templates. I wish I could write it with my own words and denounce this unpleasant experience for the customer. We don’t know if the waitress was really mean or it was just a misunderstanding, but our job here is to listen to the customers no matter what.
“We are very sorry about ご不快な思いをおかけし…” I pasted the first line. This is a weird Japanese expression, come to think of it.
“If you would forgive us, please forgive…ご容赦いただけますようお願いいたします…” This line sounds awkward too. In fact, our email templates are not only mechanical but also full of unnatual Japanese sentences. But I shouldn’t care.
My third eye watched my supervisor’s rather wide back. Despite her rigour, I wanted to attend Ms Oda’s ballet class tonight.
“I’ve submitted some emails into the first checker’s box, so when you find time, please.” As always, I asked when my co-workers took a break from their chat.
“All right,” Namiko answered, but she wouldn’t check them any time soon. She is constantly busy. There are people who never manage their time well.
“Why am I so busy?” Hearing her irritable cry from behind, I told myself to forget about tonight’s ballet.
Monday is the busiest weekday because customers write about their bad experiences during the weekends. But unexpectedly, I was released on time today. It was also rare that Yasue left the office just after me.
“Are you in a hurry, Megu-chan? You are walking so fast.” Yasue caught up with me rushing towards Yotsuya station. I was always like a fleeing bird after work, though my walk towards the office was snail-paced in the morning.
“A little. I’m going to the gym,” I replied. “I want to join a class at 7 p.m.”
“I see. That’s nice,” she smiled. “Enjoy your evening. See you tomorrow.”
Whenever someone says “Enjoy” to me, I feel like the whole world is celebrating my happiness.
Each ballerina was in the spotlight at Monday’s class because the studio was much smaller than Friday’s. There were not even pillars to hide me from the instructor.
“Move your arms like drawing Mount Fuji.” Ms Oda’s steady voice hit the four walls at a time. I’m sure her voice has never shaken except when she caught a cold.
“Like Mount Fuji, OK?” Her thin eyes pinned at my wobbling arms. “No, that’s not Mt Fuji.”
She performed the great Mount Fuji movement again and I imitated. But, “No. That’s Mount Takao!” The instructor disapprovingly glanced at me, and the other students looked around wondering who had drawn Mt Takao. While I was trying to figure the shape of the local mountain in Takao, Ms Oda demanded the same movement.
“No. That is Takao,” she shook her head impatiently. “Try again.”
As I feared the instructor’s growing frustration, my arms moved more jellyfish-like. I felt I now understood the shape of Mount Takao. It must be convoluted.
“That’s still Takao.”
Everyone looked at my embarrassing posture and I felt like running away. OK. I’m totally fine with Mount Takao. I have never climbed Mount Fuji, while I have hiked Mount Takao many times since I was a kid. Besides, drawing Takao is much harder than Mount Fuji, isn’t it? I know I have zero ballet mettle.
15th May 2019
Namiko is proud of her keen eyes, which never miss a single word that doesn’t refer to the templates in my emails. “I thought so,” she says, triumphantly convinced of her skill. “I thought this word’s unfamiliar. For sure, it’s your own word!”
If she is the first-class anti-template word detector, I’m the award-winning observer. I watch my supervisor and make my plan for the day. Wednesday was not a gym day, but my third eye kept an eye on Namiko because my fridge was finally going to be collected at 7.30 tonight. After a month of observation training here, my time management was a success and I left the office by 6.30.
On the train, I sent a message to the woman who was going to buy my fridge that we could meet as planned. My sigh of relief was so big that the next passenger slightly turned his head to me. It’s nerve-racking, being unable to go home without my supervisor’s permission every day. In the RA group, everyone except for agency workers worked until late at night. I already felt oppressed by the thought of becoming the company’s slave. No. Not only when I have an appointment in the evening, but every day I want to work for eight hours. It’s long enough to make my lower back sore on the chair. Should I ask for a balance ball? No, that’s not the point. I want at least a few hours for myself every day. Am I a lazy worker for wishing this?
I carried my one-door fridge by holding it with my arms, to the meeting place the Ogikubo 4th post office. The woman appeared with a cart and looked satisfied with my fridge.
“It looks new and the size is perfect for me,” she said. “You’ve got a bigger fridge, I guess?”
“Um…yes…” I mumbled. “Yes, I have.”
Everyone asked me the same question. Why should I trouble this nice stranger by saying that I have started a no-fridge life? My elder sister Keiko had even told me that I’d been brainwashed by a cult.
Now my fridge has gone and my kitchen looks very different. I put a small white table at the place where the fridge had been, the opposite side of my new kitchen cupboard. Two brown baskets were set on the table for the vegetables and the fruit. Brilliant! I feel like painting a picture of them.
23rd May 2019
The director of RA is a short, baby-faced man in his 60s. His tiny round eyes behind the glasses remind me of my late grandma. His little figure is humble and his voice is so mild that I often see an illusion of a human-sized black mouse beside the masculine bachelor who is merely a human.
“Which email are you talking about, sir?” The bachelor’s voice is irritable from the morning. I have never seen this department manager smiling, even to his boss. “I’ve read it all through, but it wasn’t mentioned.”
The black mouse soundlessly came to the human’s desk. “Well, let me see your email box then…” He looked totally fine with this bellicose human’s impatient attitude. “Ah, this is it,” the little one pointed to the PC screen. His tone never changes.
I glanced at the bachelor’s face which was slightly reddening.
“Oh, this was it…” he uttered. “I have completely missed this one, sir… I –”
“That’s all right. This task should be done by next week. If you would work on it, that would be great.”
I saw the mouse in his black suit already moving back towards his office, the next door. If I stood up, I could see him at his director’s desk through the transparent upper part of the partition wall between us. He is always so quiet in his room that I often need to stand up and check if the mouse is in his box. Recently, the director has begun instructing me about the global hotline project, while the bachelor is away for other tasks. I’ve found it’s rather a pleasure, though I felt diffident about working with the company’s top person at first.
“Ishikawa-san, can you come in and check this English document for me, please?” He would call me casually in his office. Though the mouse’s face is emotionless, it’s always calm and promising me that no sudden tsunami would occur.
That afternoon, when the workers were a little relaxed, the director stepped out of his room and asked if anyone would like to have a kitten. Apparently, the mouse had a cat at home and the pet cat had had babies. Women soon circled their big boss to see the pictures of the cute kittens on his smartphone. Though his small figure was completely hidden by the tall women, I could hear him telling them which kitten with which colour had been named what. In the end, most of the workers declined because their landlord wouldn’t allow it or they already had a pet, but the phone operator Sasagawa decided to adopt two kittens. The director looked very happy and so did Sasagawa.
“What a lucky girl she is!” cried Namiko, Hiro and Yasue enviously.
Just after the mouse had gone, the bachelor came back to the office from outside. His irritable typing sound always cut my breath short. When he chatted with Yasue or the line manager rather casually, I figured that the bachelor wasn’t actually having his ceaseless migraine. Hiro sometimes joined their talk, sensing the green light from the atmosphere. I chose to keep silent. I’m not a person who can go out in the ocean even when the tide is low. Because I know that a tsunami might be coming, I rather stay away all the time.
Such a tsunami was actually made quite often by the bachelor. One phone call could easily break the calm atmosphere in the office just like this afternoon. As the bachelor took the call, his face gradually turned stony like a Nio statue at a temple gate. Yasue and Hiro instantly went back to their tasks, hearing their angry manager calling to a worker from another room. “Whatever you’re doing now, stop it and come to my desk immediately.”
The issue turned out to be that one telephone operator’s email language was too casual for a company’s important client and the client had made a complaint.
“Really, I mean, really…” the bachelor shook his head in dismay. “Is this an email a grown-up person writes in a company?”
Even though I kept looking down at my computer keyboard, the young worker’s dangling head was in my vision. He looked in his early 20s, possibly still a teenager.
“What did you mean, a joke? What were you thinking when you wrote this?” The bachelor’s interrogation usually continues for hours. “Answer me, eh? What were you thinking?”
What the boy could say was only he was terribly sorry. He never looked like he had meant a little joke, but the bachelor kept picking up the email sentences.
“…と思ったんでしょうが… seriously, do you talk like this to your customer? You were chatting with your friend on LINE, huh? Do you write to our important customer, したらいいんじゃないですかね?”
“I am very sorry, sir…” the worker was apologising. “I should learn professional writing.”
Surely, what he needed was proper training, I thought. I’ve seen youngsters who haven’t yet used the polite Japanese language, Keigo, in their short career. I’ve even worked with a boy who put the stainless pan in the microwave in the kitchen. He just didn’t know.
“Yes, you should,” the bachelor snapped. “You are not a kid. You must learn. You are a failure as a human working in this society. A failure!”
A failure as a human!
“No normal adult writes such a stupid message to the customer, OK?”
I was almost impressed by the bachelor’s toxic verbal attack. It’s my mum’s level when she has a quarrel with dad. I understand that here in the office, the boss points out his worker’s error and warns, corrects, educates him… but to insult him? Can he really say whatever he likes?
If the boy was a failure, then the bachelor would be too, since he can’t control his anger and throws such damaging words at his junior worker who should be educated and encouraged to improve. And so would I be, as I can’t help hating this department manager already. Kim would say that American bosses are far harsher. But I can never get used to those bosses. No, I can’t!
31st May 2019
After work, I ran across Uchida in Seiyu Ogikubo and we ended up chatting there for an hour, standing next to a pile of aubergines.
“Sasagawa-san is being bullied by her supervisor, but everyone is turning a blind eye to it.” I had never told anyone about this until today.
“But I heard Sasagawa-san is doing her tasks well. My supervisor often says so,” said Uchida, surprised.
I had also heard Yuri actually praising her not so long ago. “It’s started recently. I don’t know how it’s started…”
The attitude of the phone-team leader towards Sasagawa had changed as if she had developed another personality.
“I’m sure I’ve already explained this to you at least twice, but you are saying you forgot?” Yuri’s restrained voice contained enormous energy like a volcano before the eruption.
“Hah? Is that your question? Did you read the manual before asking me? I am not your personal teacher, OK?” Her fierce tone to Sasagawa even froze the observers, at least me.
“She was napping. You know, napping! I can’t forgive it!”
I heard Yuri furiously talking with Hiro when Sasagawa had gone. So this might be the reason for her sudden personality change. “When I saw Sasagawa napping, I knew that she undermined our job. She just pretends to be a good worker, but actually she’s so lazy.”
“Napping? What a nerve the Haken girl has got!” Namiko gasped, joining the conversation. “I never thought Sasagawa was that type of bitch.”
Hearing them, my mind, half-tranced by the tedious email patchwork jobs, was jolted awake.
“It might be a sort of disease,” Yasue suggested. “You know, like sleep apnea syndrome. People can’t help losing a few minutes occasionally.”
“It could be. She’s kind of fat…” The women giggled. “But if so, she should have told me in the beginning, right?” Yuri was still angry.
“Angry. You know, everyone is angry around me,” I told Uchida, holding my shopping basket. “Customers are angry. Namiko is angry at the customers. Managers and leaders are angry at their workers…”
There was another story I wanted to share with my only friend in the company. One morning, Sasagawa’s desktop computer suddenly shut down in the middle of her phone conversation with a customer. Though I had my back turned to her, I saw what had happened. Half in a panic, Sasagawa turned to Yuri at the next desk, but she was told,
“Huh? Your computer suddenly shut down? Strange. Can such a thing happen?”
Yuri busily kept on with her work and never stood up from her balance ball. So Sasagawa went to the line manager and reported the problem.
“I’m not an IT engineer,” was his reply. “I don’t know about your PC, OK?” said the Natto manager without raising his eyes from his computer screen.
“OK. How can I contact the IT engineer, please?” asked Sasagawa.
“Ah, he’s not here yet. He comes in the afternoon.”
Poor Sasagawa looked around the silent office. Everyone was listening, but no one even raised their faces. If the bosses abandoned her, what else could anyone do?
I, the newest stuttering worker, stood up and went to Sasagawa’s desk. It’s not about fixing the PC problem. Everyone should know that.
“You’re in trouble? I’m not good at computers but let’s check it together,” I said, and saw her tense face immediately loosened.
“Yes, it suddenly shut down when I was on the phone. The line was also cut off and all the data were gone. I have to get the customer’s number and call to apologize soon.”
“I see. That’s quite a problem.”
When I was crouching to check the computer and the phone cables, I sensed Yuri’s cold stare toward us.
“Have you finished filling the ID numbers, Megu-chan? I need them urgently,” Namiko said in a bossy way. “You are not an IT engineer. You don’t need to do that now, don’t you think?”
“Just a second, I’m finishing soon.” I nailed my obedient smile to my face and unplugged Sasagawa’s computer. “Let’s try plugging in and restarting.”
In a minute, I sat back at my desk and resumed my copy and paste task. Sasagawa’s computer recovered and she said thanks to me.
“When I said no problem to her, I saw Namiko glaring at me,” I said to Uchida, who had slightly moved nearer the wall for the people who wanted to take some aubergines. “I was quite shocked, seeing everyone ignoring Sasagawa when she was in trouble. Not a single word like ‘don’t worry, you can wait until the IT engineer comes’ was given.”
“They’re all in the same group, bullying her. Right?” Uchida had already grasped the situation.
“They are, and they expected me to do the same. They know I have heard them criticizing Sasagawa several times behind her back.”
But they saw that Megumi Ishikawa wasn’t avoiding the lazy, napping girl who had already been abandoned by all the superiors. Instead, she tried to help the goner. Is she crazy, or possibly being rebellious? Anyway, they now know that Megumi won’t survive here for long.
After seeing Uchida off, I picked up three aubergines from the pile and put them in my basket.