I had had enough of the never-ending dusty road, the heat from the sun, and the ancient and almost expired car I was in. Driving for more than three hours at 35 degrees and above in a broken-down car with no air conditioning and jammed windows was living hell. And this was rural Japan, where people, cafes, shops and other convenient distractions to take my mind off the sickening journey were next to non-existent. In fact, the only remotely interesting features were a few trees. So it was a great relief to me when I spotted a small tobacconist at the roadside.
It looked like a run-down garden shed, and there was nothing to suggest that this was a shop other than the dust-covered display case which contained the boxes of cigarettes on sale, and the rusty sign which said ‘cigarettes’. No one was at the till when I reached it, and when I called, a young girl came out. She looked to be about sixteen or seventeen, and she was the complete opposite of a city girl. She did not have any makeup; she wore very plain clothes and spoke in a very polite and soothing manner. Well, soothing to me at least, as I was perspiring constantly in the heat.
I asked for a pack of Casters, and she gently picked a box from the lowest shelf and handed it to me, quoting the price of 300 yen. Then she asked me if I wanted to come inside and rest. I didn’t hesitate to accept her invitation.
It was a small room, and an electric fan was on, but no air conditioning. Soon, the girl told brought a cool, wet towel, and she wiped all the sweat off my face and arms. She brought me a chilled beer, a lighter, and we engaged in smalltalk for an hour. When it was time for me to say goodbye, I almost felt inclined to ask her to come with me.
A year later, I was driving down the same road in the same conditions, although this time, I was not quite as depressed as a year ago because I knew that I had the tobacconist girl to look forward to.
I parked in front of the shop. I recognised everything: the dusty showcase, the shelf with the tobacco packs on with the hole on the sideboard, the till which still had the stain of a coffee spill, etc. One thing I did not recognise was the sleeping woman slouched on the chair. She had heavy makeup which looked like she dunked her face in a bath full of colours; she was extremely scantily clad and her body was overexposed, and she seemed like she could not have cared less about her dignity; she had more wristbands, bracelets, piercings, and other jewellery than I had ever seen.
‘Excuse me’ I said. The woman woke up, opened one eye and looked at me.
‘What do you want?’ she said.
‘Can I have a pack of Casters please?’
‘I’m sorry, we don’t have any of those left. Can’t you do with Marlboros?’
‘But I can see packs of Casters down there on the bottom shelf’
‘Yeah, I know, I just can’t be bothered to reach for them’
Maybe I had the wrong tobacconist. Maybe the girl last year had moved away. I asked
‘How long have you been working here?’
‘What does that matter to you?’
‘No, I’m just curious because I’m looking for someone, and that person was spotted around here a year ago’
‘Well I was definitely here a year ago. I’ve been living in this place all my life, and I’m all alone after daddy died two years ago. Don’t know who you’re talking about though. You’re the first person to buy from this shop in the last five years’
‘Are there any other tobacconists around this area?’
‘Nope, this is the only one you’ll find in four hours’ drive’
The only one thing I could find in common with this girl and the girl last year was her voice. Everything about her I could not recognise, but her voice, although it was losing and going, still had that slight tinge of soothing that I experienced a year ago.