By SUYOG GARG
To a majority of us, it is a known fact that some days are actually longer than a day. The day in question, however, wasn't. It was in fact meant to be one of the driest and the most barren of the days. The kind of a day one mostly spends snug on the bed with the largest exertion afforded to the limbs being the quiet finger pressings on a touch screen. And yet, looking back now, the singular chain of events from that day, though ordinary in themselves, assume such a perplexing proportion when taken together, that the day has remained so unequivocally imprinted in my mind.
At that time I was working as a JSPS Post-Doctoral fellow in the Department of Physics at the University of Tokyo. I had come to Japan from India as a Master’s student about six years prior and had been living in Tokyo since then. Following the PhD degree, owing to my fascination with the city and in order to satisfactorily sum up my current research, I had chosen to continue at the same lab as a Post-Doc for a few years, before finally deciding on another Post-Doc or an Assistant Professorship in the U.S.
Tokyo has a habit of first mesmerizing its foreign visitors with an overflow of the city’s multifaceted culture and then slowly tuning down the fervour to a more subtle yet intimate level, as the visitors take up a long-term residence. Therefore, after the initial excitement of coming to a new country had slowly died out, my daily schedule took up a look of constancy and regularity. Mondays to Fridays, from morning till late evening, I went to the university for work. Whereas on weekends, half of my day was spent allotting sleep, a bit more generous portion and the other half on some outings with friends. Sure there were times when the outing happened in the form of a Friday night Karaoke instead of the usual weekend, and there were the long holidays typically employed for a country-side trip or for binge-watching a Netflix show. However, the days had taken a sufficient rhythm in themselves so as to constitute a reasonably settled life. Anything out of the ordinary seldom took place, if at all.
These events date from around the middle of last year. For the Golden Week holidays that year, I had taken a bit of liberty from my well-formed routine and gone on a hiking trip to the Chugoku region of Japan with a local student club. Having thus been refreshed both in my mind and in my body, I had returned to work with added vigour and was already halfway through finishing a new paper that had been confounding me for a while previously. Following my general routine then, as I went to bed the night before the weekend of May 20th, I had in mind, plenty of rest, some reading and perhaps a few calls to long-lost friends, as the planned tasks for the next day.
The Sun rises quite early in this part of the world. Accordingly, the people too have inculcated in themselves the tiresome habit to arise much before than ideally would be recommended. Majority of the offices and other establishments open up a day’s work around 8:30 in the morning and close around 6:00 in the evening. Given the unspoken stress on punctuality, the rush hour crowds at the Tokyo railway stations are like a mini-megalopolis in themselves. Among the crowd one often sees salarymen clad in black 3-piece suits, and clasping a briefcase in one hand while supporting their hats with the other, as they tactfully manoeuvre through the human mass, carefully avoiding collisions with the other gentry. Bereft of the necessity for all this hassle, the weekend mornings are indeed a warm welcome.
On that 20th of May, the Sun had already covered a better part of its path to the zenith, before it was time for me to get out of the inviting bed. The calls and perusal of literature took up most of the afternoon. Soon I could customarily hear the sound of the gong being struck reverberating through the streets, as the clock in a neighbouring park struck 5:00 pm. I hastened through some further pending tasks. It was now time for a cup of coffee and an evening stroll.
A considerable amount of time has elapsed between that day and now. However, I concretely recall a sudden unexpected feeling of anxiousness coming upon me, as I stepped out of my apartment door that day. Outside, the blue sky was just beginning to take on a crimson hue. Twilight, that heavenly hour when anything can happen, was still to make an appearance. The unreasonableness of my feelings struck me. Can anything untoward happen when the evening is so pleasant? Accounting the morning’s sluggishness as the cause for my anxiety and thus brushing it aside, I started out merrily enough.
My apartment is situated in a neighbourhood of Tokyo particularly famous for containing within itself both the city’s oldest temple, which dates back to more than a thousand years, and also a towering monument that has been one of the best examples of modernism in the country. In short, I live near Asakusa. More precisely though, my humble 1RK apartment is situated on the SkyTree side of the Sumida river. This stretch of the river between Asakusa temple and the SkyTree is intersected by a number of pedestrian and railway bridges. The path on the Asakusa side, starting from the bridge near the station and going along the river for a few kilometre, offers a spectacular view of the SkyTree across the river on the right. The river bank has been cut out to have multiple levels. Pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths are close beside the river, while parks and small avenues are farther away uphill. The set route for my evening walks was to cross the river to the Asakusa side via the first bridge near the station, then walk along the riverside, pass underneath the second bridge and then to go across on the third one and return straight that way. Ideally one such rectangular loop took me about an hour.
That day, I was calmly enjoying the views and walking at a much more leisurely pace. So, it was more than a quarter of an hour by the time I came across the first bridge itself. There’s a Doutor Coffee store here right at the intersection where the bridge ends. Craving caffeine more than ever that day and being fond of it, I went inside the shop.
“One Hot Caffe Latte please”, I said walking up to the counter.
“What size Sir?”
“Umm… Large will do!”
“That will be 550 yen Sir”, the young clerk said smiling.
Handing the cash, I picked up my cup, added in two more packs of sugar and headed out the exit. Walking carefully so as not to spill the coffee, I descended the stairs near the bridge and trudged along the riverside searching for a quiet sitting space. The place seemed to be more crowded than it normally is. All the nearby benches were occupied. I located an empty bench a few meters before the underpass of the second bridge and went to sit and sip the coffee there.
Over the years this area has become a popular tourist spot both for domestic and for international travellers. Tourist ferry services, in ellipse-shaped futuristic boats with semi-transparent roofs, regularly ply on route from the Asakusa pier to Odaiba in the south and back. Some ferries even go up north till Nikko, in Tochigi prefecture. A handful of wedding photography troupes can also easily be seen here at any given time of the year. During the spring months especially, the Sakura trees on the Asakusa side of the river blossom into a profusion of vividness. The SkyTree seen through a garland of Sakura flowers is a magnificent sight to behold. One of my own iPhone captures of the SkyTree, with a Black-headed Gull flying in the foreground with its wings out-stretched, was in fact, so well received that it garnered an honourable mention in a leading photography magazine. Presently too, a flock of Gulls swimming in the river started to rise and fly away. The coffee having exhausted some minutes back, I decided to take up this opportunity to capture another snapshot. It was now approaching dark, with the last traces of twilight lightening the horizon. One of those futuristic boats was also coming across underneath the bridge and would have made a wonderful backdrop if captured in the frame. So, I took my phone out and leaned onto the railings to click the picture.
“Do you like the Sea?”
Just as I finished examining the snapshot, I heard a voice. It was faint, but it was definitely there. Who had spoken? There wasn’t anyone present nearby a moment ago. I turned in the direction where the voice had come from. To my left, leaning onto the railings and faced away from me, was a person. A lady.
Now, although I do not make a point of it, I am pretty sure that I can sense a fine example of the opposite sex approaching towards me with a fair amount of ease. And yet, I could not say when it was that this lady had come to stand there. Surely I would have noticed her crossing my path, if she had come from the direction of the station. Then perhaps she had taken the other way? But even then, wouldn’t I have seen her long before now? Moreover, the lady appeared to be clad in typical grey and blue, but there was, what felt to be an uncanny aura about her. A strange otherworldly feeling to know more about her, took hold of me. Was it she who had spoken? It must have been, because there wasn’t anyone else nearby.
“Excuse me, I beg your pardon.”, I said inquiringly.
“Do you like the Sea?”, she repeated, after a pause, in a quaint voice but louder this time.
As she said so, she also stopped leaning onto the railings and turned towards me. Her face had a certain translucency to it that made her figure seem almost unearthly to me. And she was younger than I had anticipated, perhaps in her mid-20s. Her height must have been a little less than that of mine. I met her gaze. Her eyes were eager.
“Hmm… to a certain extent, I do. I do like the Sea indeed.”, I replied back.
My response somehow seems to have been what she was seeking, because upon hearing it, her lips curled up into a smile. Presently, she took her scarf, which she had been holding in her hand till now, and wrapped it around her neck, as if getting ready to start off. She then turned back and started to slowly walk away in the other direction.
All this while, I had been standing close to the station side mouth of the underpass, while the girl had stood around the centre of it. Unlike the other bridges that are concrete and stone structures, the second bridge is a two storey railway plus motor bridge built on steel frames with a pedestrian walkway on the sides. As one passes underneath it on the riverside path, if a train happens to cross through overhead, the whole framework vibrates and rattles enormously. To experience the sensation more closely, people passing by tend to ascend to the walkway on the sides of the bridge rather than to go through the underpass. Resultantly, there are only a fraction of the people near the underpass at any given time. Incidentally, right at the moment as the girl approached the other end of the underpass, a train happened to go through overhead. On a reflex action, my head turned upwards for a few seconds. When I lowered my head, the girl had vanished. I went up and down, scanning the path minutely several times, but she was not to be seen anywhere.
A few days after that singular experience, by chance or providence, say what you may, I came across the following report pasted on a notice board at the Police Box on my way back from the university.
Name: Kumi Damea
Appearance: Black hair, fair complexion, 5’6”
Last seen: April 11, evening, outside Asakusa Hospital
Asking around a bit, I was able to dig up a little more information. Kumi Damea, a returnee from the U.S., was a medical trainee at the Asakusa General Hospital. On the 11th of April, she was expected as usual at home in the evening after her Hospital rounds, but never made it back. She was 24, black hair, fair complexion and was last seen leaving the hospital premises on foot wearing blue Denim jeans, light grey sweater top and a white silk scarf around her neck. She had a white lab coat and black leather purse in her hands.
The officer in the Police Box also had a passport size photograph of Kumi offered by her family. A single glance at the portrait was sufficient to convince me that Kumi and the girl from the underpass were the very same person, or else they shared an extraordinary resemblance with each other. I narrated my incident to the Police officer, after which he began inquiries on the matter. No one else on the riverside around that hour had seen anyone satisfying Kumi’s appearance. There were CCTV cameras near the station side entrance to the path, but the footage from them wasn’t fruitful as well. The Police had already explored all other possible angles to the case and since my claim was not verifiable, after some time, they had to dismiss my incident. If it was Kumi that I had met that day, then why had anyone else not seen her? Where had she come from and where did she vanish to? And why did she want to know about the Sea? These questions are more than what I can answer.
My narrative is close to an end now. Over the weeks and months that have followed, I have taken to visit the underpass almost on a daily basis and often at all sorts of odd hours. A second meeting with Kumi or her apparition, if that is what it was, is yet to take place. Nor has there been any update on the missing person’s report.
Disclaimer: This is a fictional story!