A year and a half after my mother’s funeral, while the reception is still fresh in my mind like mushrooms growing on cow dung, I find myself in a seedy part of town. I have two thousand pounds cash in a folded envelope right next to my balls. It kind of chafes, and when I later pull it out, it will smell like the sweat that gathers down there on nervous days in black cars with tinted windows. I have this fantasy that someone will, on the short walk from the cab to my destination, jump me because they recognize me from the papers. They will then steal my nearly useless wallet and the clean cell phone I’ve brought for just this occasion, and I will walk away with my pride wounded but two thousand pounds intact. Still, I worry about the odour.
This is the place. This has to be the place. I do not know why, but this place must be it, where the signs are all neon and mostly foreign. The most common word I can make out is “SUSHI”, helpfully written in white over the green windows outside. I tell the cabbie to stop.
Smoke hisses out of cobblestone cracks, door gaps, and the throats of chimneys. I thank the cabbie, hand him a crumpled note, and watch him speed off. The effect is somewhat ruined by his having to stop at a zebra crossing twenty metres ahead, to let a man with a pushchair cross. I walk up to the restaurant. No-one mugs me.
I step inside this Japanese restaurant where the staff are all clearly speaking Vietnamese with each other, and a sign tells me to wait to be seated. The smell of minty shrimp caresses my cheek softly, before raw seaweed knocks out my sense of smell completely. It is very crimson in here, and I can only see part of the restaurant, most of it is artfully hidden behind beige screens with paintings of birds on them. I can just about make out the silhouettes of people if they’re sitting near the screens, it looks like the birds’ shrubbery is rustling, while the birds sit completely still.
“Have you made a reservation?” asks a waiter, a big smile plastered on her face.
“I want to talk to the psychic.”
The waiter narrows her eyes, but she’s forgotten to remove the phony smile so this new expression is grotesque.
I don’t speak good Vietnamese, but the word for “pervert” gets thrown around a lot in the short tennis match of a conversation she has with a colleague the other side of the room. She grunts, rearranges her facial muscles a bit, and shows me to a paper-thin screen that hides a door. She rolls the screen to the side and gestures to the brass doorknob.
In this new room, the buzz of the restaurant is muted, like I’m hearing it under water or through a drunken stupor. It’s a small room, and it gets smaller when the lights go out; I am robbed of three of my favourite senses. Fortunately for me, a stocky bloke appears, with hands like a panda. He starts feeling me up, which reassures me that I haven’t lost my senses of touch or discomfort. He puts his paws down my pants and brings out my envelope.
“Payment,” I say, “for dinner with the ghost girl.” I talk slowly, condescendingly, to pretend that I’m the one in charge in this little room. The panda grunts. He hands me back my envelope, and a faint whiff of piss claws at my face, welcoming me back to my senses. I step through a doorway into the next room.
I’m in a room without windows now. There are two doors out: through the kitchen or by the panda. There is a couch, redder than the walls, sorely lacking a table. From the ceiling, lanterns hang, like paper cocoons. A young sous-chef greets me, bows to me. Her hat stays on her head the whole time. When she speaks, her accent is closer to Japanese than Vietnamese, but it’s slight enough that I can’t tell for sure. She says, “You’ve come for sushi.”
“But I’ll stay for the conversations with dead people.” I turn my remark into a mumble, thinking better of it about halfway through.
“You have two thousand pounds sterling with you.”
I flash my envelope, which I have stuffed into a more sensible place, an inner pocket on my coat. She takes my money, counts it, prints out a receipt for me, and leaves through the backdoor. I enjoy the panda’s company in the couch for about an hour, though he stands up the whole time. I ask for a beer, and he mutters into his wrist and a minute later a beverage arrives. I am informed that it is on the house. It is dark and bitter, like a family reunion, or spending time in the old house where she died. I convince, unconvince, and reconvince myself that this is worth it.
In rolls a table, on it a naked woman. The wheels squeak a bit, I think they are supposed to. The shivering girl, hardly 20 years old, is the colour of something afraid of the sun. Her hair is short and black, and she is covered with cold food. Little green leaves carrying sashimi flowers, sushi rolls, or in the case of the minuscule leaves covering her nipples, strawberries. There is a small gutter cut into the wood of the table, and it is half filled with water. Her hair is wet from it. I can see the way her stomach inflates and deflates with every breath, disturbing the food. A few rolls of seaweed have fallen over but are staying on their leaves. I try to look as though I’m fully expecting all this.
The sous-chef looks at me. “Who is it you wish to speak with?” She lights a match and, with the match, a single candle placed between the girl’s thighs. I make myself look away.
Maybe she doesn’t know who I am, maybe I’m just not a celebrity in this part of town. “Augusta Maxwell,” I say. “Born the 14th of November, 1942, as Augusta Bernarde.”
The girl stirs. “Ethan, is that you?” she asks, in a thick Japanese accent. “Is it really you?” The rhythm of her breathing is different, calmer. The fragrance of lemongrass and oyster sauce laughs at me – the perfume she used to wear.
“Yes, this is Ethan,” I say. “And for the record, who am I talking to?”
The girl on the table sucks her teeth just like she used to do, but when she talks it is barely English.
“Eat your food,” the sous-chef tells me. “Or she goes away.”
Reluctantly, I pick up a roll of seaweed and rice with my hand. The girl’s skin feels as if she’s been stowed away in the fridge. The sushi roll is covered with caviar, and I put it in my mouth and chew it down. The taste envelops my tongue, and the Japanese turns to the English that she spoke – British laden with money, whiteness, and South Africa.
“… child. You know who I am.”
“I’m serious. I have important things to tell you, and I need to make sure it’s you I’m talking to, that I’m not being ripped off. Tell me something only you could know about me.”
She is silent. Contemplative. “Are you testing me?” It is around this time that I notice that the girl is paralysed, save for her mouth. Her eyes are fixed, staring upwards, her hands are clenched and her nails are probably digging into her palms. There are two small plugs in her nose. She can’t blink.
I reach for another roll, but think better of it. I crack open a pair of chopsticks, rub them together like a hobo trying to stay warm, and I pick up a ball of rice from somewhere on the girl’s abdomen. It tastes sticky and slick at the same time, and it refuses to be swallowed without the last swig of my beer. “Yes,” I say. “Yes, I am testing you.”
“How am I supposed to know anything like that? Our whole lives have been under public scrutiny. Oh. Oh no. Ethan, Ethan, Ethan,” she says. “Oh no.”
I pick up the next roll of seaweed from just above her hips, very carefully avoiding her skin. “What?”
“You’re not at one of those psychics, are you? Are you wasting your money on talking to me, is that how you’re talking to me?”
“I don’t think it’s a waste of money,” I inform her, and the girl’s body temperature rises a degree or two. I’m chewing and swallowing as slowly as I can, keeping the burning candle in my periphery whilst trying to avoid noticing her pubic hair. “But I’m serious. Tell me what nightmares I had as a child.”
She sighs, a puff of smoke flies upwards. “You dreamt that there was a factory of Mums, and that I died every night, after being taken by aliens. So they sent you a new Mum and you couldn’t tell the difference. After a few months of dreaming that, you started to suspect that there was a factory of Ethans, too.”
I bite my cheeks until the taste of blood makes its presence known. The sous-chef, leaning against a wall and looking at her nails, clears her throat. I pick up a sashimi. I hold it too hard and I crush it, I have to pick the pieces up one by one. The girl sucks on her teeth; someone pours me some sake. I take the girl’s hand. “That’s right.”
“Oh, Ethan,” she says. “Did you really go to a psychic?”
“Actually, I went to several, but this one’s the only one, ah, carrying through.” I swallow some more sticky rice. “I want to talk to you about the house.”
The sous-chef starts pouring soy sauce over the girl, on one of the bits of sashimi I’ve been deliberately avoiding. It is a baby tentacle and it is now wriggling; I think the salt is making the dead thing twitch, I have read about that.
“The house?” she asks, and there is a childlike overtone to what she is saying, as if I’m suddenly talking to the ghost of a 9-year old. “The one on Hartlake Street? You know, that was always my favourite place in the whole world. It’s where I and your dad married, you know! Oh, you were so little back then, you couldn’t possibly remember. Let me see if I can find the old photographs–” The ghastly girl is opening and closing her hands at random. I realize that if she cannot move her eyes, she is staring directly at one of the more dim paper lanterns.
I am in control. Expertly, I cut the baby tentacle in half with my chopsticks and eat it, along with most of the rice. It keeps dancing on its way down my throat. I let her talk, and the Japanese accent comes back. She starts having problems finding the right words, she was never this demented when she was alive. I swallow another riceball, and someone pours me some sake, and her accent is restored.
She coughs, but she cannot move most of her muscles. Some phlegm runs down the side of her face. “What did you want to say about the house, my son?”
“Well, I had a long talk with Dad on the day of your funeral. I knew he owned the house, on the papers, and I thought – if a family of three or possibly more is going to live in that house now, we might need to renovate. So I asked him to let me have it.”
I pick up a rose made from salmon and I sniff the air. Her perfume still clings to the room with insistence; she said she wore it because she wanted certain men to lick their lips when she entered the room. In her heyday, she could have had her pick of nearly all men in nearly any room. Only people of certain wealth would recognize the fragrance of oyster sauce, and only people with certain tastes would lick their lips when they caught a whiff of it. She says, “How did you get Michael to agree to that?”
“It was a day of emotions. He still has a place for you in his heart, you know, despite appearances. That’s why he let you have the house, after all those years. He told me he regretted letting the house go decrepit on you like that. He wanted to make it up to the family somehow. I think your death rattled him.”
Her mouth twitches and the dried spittle running down from the corners of her mouth make it all seem like her old tanned wrinkles are still there, just under the young, pale skin of this girl she is possessing. It’s running down lines that aren’t there on the psychic’s face.
I drink a whole cup of sake.
She says, “What was that you said about a family of three?”
I smile. Apparently, it is actually possible to tell if someone is smiling just from hearing them speak. That was a skill I never learnt. Nevertheless, smiling, I say, “Oh, Andrea is pregnant. Four months now.”
On days that were good days, she no longer wore the saucy perfume of her heyday. Those days, she wore no perfume, simply odourless deodorant, and the living room would smell of her, what she really smelled like. I lure out those smells with my words now. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the old woman as happy as that Japanese girl is seeming right now. I can see the gaps between her teeth when she smiles, she was always conscious to hide those.
“But don’t worry,” I say, “we kept it looking as it did when you first moved in there. We just touched it up, reinforced walls, that sort of thing.” I swallow more balls of rice with fish on them. There are few left. The candle between her legs is now on level with her pubis mons. It’s dropping quickly. I can guess what this means.
“Tell me more,” she asks me.
Another chunk of rice crawls down my throat like a chimbleysweep. I now try one of the lonely green leaves surrounding her navel, but it is bitter and inedible. I speak a little quicker than normal. “We replaced all the broken windows in the greenhouse and we planted tomatoes in there in spring. It gets really hot in there. They’re just blooming now, they are huge and round and pulpy. I should have brought one to show you. The whole garden is coming along greatly, there are hardly any brown spots left.”
I swallow the last piece of the tentacle.
“Tentatively, the wedding is set for August next year, we don’t want to rush anything now that we have all the time in the world.”
I find out that smiling actually hurts your cheeks after a while.
“And we redid the kitchen, and we got another gas stove. Andrea’s been learning to cook on it, bless her. She’s come a long way, I should tell you, from pancakes with onions in them.”
She laughs, we both laugh.
I skewer the two strawberries adorning the ghost girl’s nipples, and I hold them up, my chopstick like an old-style teacher’s pointer. “But everything I said was a lie, you old hag.”
“You heard me.”
“I don’t understand,” she says.
“There is no garden anymore. Dad didn’t come to the funeral. I scrounged up some money and I bought the house from him, fair and square, and I am turning it into a parking lot. The machines have already been there, and it’s unbelievably smooth and grey now. I broke up with Andrea, I haven’t heard from her in eight months. She didn’t like me going to psychics, I guess.”
The candle has almost run out. The girl’s head is shaking, her eyes rolled back. Someone, maybe the sous-chef, shouts “Seizure!” as the dead woman starts convulsing. It sounds violent, but I am looking away, walking past the panda man, chewing on my strawberries as slowly as I can.