Author and Journalist

An Extract from ‘Across a Bridge of Dreams’

Across a Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer

Tenth month, year of the rooster, the sixth year of the Meiji era (November 1873)

‘So Oharu’s getting married and you’ll be a grandmother soon,’ Aunt Kiharu was saying with a high-pitched laugh. Haru’s cheeks turned bright red and she stared fixedly at the glistening meat in her bowl.

‘And next we have to get Taka off our hands,’ boomed Fujino.

It was Taka’s turn to cringe. If only her mother didn’t have to speak quite so loudly, she thought, valiantly struggling with another piece of meat. It was horribly chewy but she refused to admit defeat.

Then suddenly she noticed that something had changed. The voices and clatter of chopsticks, the rustle of sleeves and patter of feet in the next room had stopped. There was utter silence, as if everyone was holding their breath, then a terrifying bellow. There were crashes as the diners scrambled to their feet and rushed for the door.

There was another sound too – footsteps, padding towards their private room. Taka felt a shock of fear. She stared around. They were trapped, there was no other way out. She rushed to the back of the room, knocking against a table as she ran. Fortunately it was big and heavy and didn’t fall over. If the glowing charcoal had spilt it would have set the whole place alight. She tried to hide behind Haru and the maids, squeezing against the wall so hard she felt the sandy grain of the plaster pressing into her skin.

She started as her mother’s three chairs crashed over. Fujino was on her feet, her dagger flashing in the candlelight. She must have taken it out of her bag. Now that she was the mistress of one of the country’s leading samurai, she’d taken to carrying a dagger, as samurai women did. Aunt Kiharu was beside her and she too had a dagger in her hand.

A ferocious country samurai

A ferocious country samurai

Breathing hard, Taka watched as the door slid open and a face appeared in the dim light of the hallway, swathed in a scarf like a brigand. Black eyes glinted from between the folds of cloth. It was a man, big and burly, in shabby leggings, the wide sleeves of his jacket tied back ready for a fight. He had a sword in one hand.

Taka knew exactly what he was – a ronin, a lordless samurai, impoverished and embittered, accountable to no one. When she was little, the streets had swarmed with men like him, swaggering along, looking for trouble. Memories flooded back, memories she’d done her best to suppress – of shouts echoing down the streets, fists pounding at the door, her mother confronting angry intruders. She remembered peeking through the shutters and seeing bodies right in front of their house.

Fujino stepped in front of him. Taka had often wished she were more like her school friends’ mothers – wispy, tight-lipped, nervous, not so huge and flamboyant. But now her heart swelled with pride.

‘What a commotion,’ Fujino said softly. It was her geisha voice, the icy tones she had used when men grew unruly from too much drink, when a glance from her narrowed eyes could make them tremble like children. ‘And all for one man!’ She drew out the syllables with scorn. ‘I’d put that sword away if I were you. Money, is that what you’re after?’

The man hesitated as if taken aback by her boldness. He glared at her defiantly.

‘Where is he, that traitor?’ he growled. ‘I know he’s here.’

He spoke in the broad vowels of a southerner. So he was a man of the Satsuma clan, like her father. It was her father he was after. She knew her father had enemies, it was far from the first time someone had come looking for him. The man must have spotted the family crest on their rickshaw.

‘What do you think you’re doing, a Satsuma man, waving your sword like a thug? You should be ashamed. The police will be here any moment. You’d better leave quickly, while you have the chance.’

‘He’s here, I know he is, that traitor, Kitaoka.’ He spat out the name.

Fujino drew herself up. In her voluminous skirts she filled the room. The man seemed to shrink before her.

‘Be careful how you speak of my husband, fellow,’ she boomed. ‘He’s a far greater man than you’ll ever be.’

The man raised his sword a little, keeping the blade pointing down.

‘Your husband?’ he sneered. ‘You’re no samurai wife. I know a geisha when I see one. You’re that fat Kyoto whore, that precious geisha of his. You’ve certainly come up in the world since you were swanning around the pleasure quarters, haven’t you, Princess Pig! Well, I’ll spoil your pretty face.’

Fujino raised her dagger.

‘Coward. We’re all women and children here.’

The Black Peony beef restaurant

The Black Peony beef restaurant

‘Women and children. I’ve got women and children of my own to support. Shame on you, with your fancy barbarian clothes, filling your stomachs with barbarian food. We didn’t fight and die to see our women aping stinking barbarians. My name is Terashima Morisaburo,’ he added, tearing off his scarf to reveal a swarthy face with a scar puckering one cheek. ‘You can tell Field Marshall Kitaoka one thing. He thinks he can take our swords, he thinks we’re going to hand them over just like that and leave ourselves defenceless. He thinks we’re going to stand by while he disbands the army and recruits peasants – peasants! – to do the work of samurai. And what are we supposed to do, we samurai, how are we supposed to survive when we have no work and no stipends? Well?’ The man took a step further into the room. ‘Answer me that!’

He reached his sword under Fujino’s skirts and jerked the blade upwards. She stepped back out of the way but Taka heard the fabric rip.

‘That’s what I think of your western finery.’

There was a swish as the man swung his sword. Taka gasped in horror. Fujino raised her dagger to parry the blow, but instead of the clang of steel on steel, there was a dull thud. Peeking from behind Haru’s skirts, Taka saw that the man had misjudged the height of the room. The sword had lodged in the low cross beam of the ceiling and stuck there, quivering.

Then she noticed a movement in the hallway outside and caught a glimpse of dark skin and the flash of eyes, slanted like a cat’s. There was someone else there – not the rickshaw boy, not the grooms, but another attacker, even more fearsome than the first. The restaurant was totally silent. Everyone had fled. There was no one to protect them from these villains.

Sawdust showered from the ceiling and there was a splintering sound as the samurai wrenched his sword free. He raised it again, holding it in both hands, preparing to bring it down in a death blow.

Suddenly a thin arm snaked out of the shadows behind him and wound around the man’s neck. Taken by surprise, the samurai stumbled backwards. His head jerked back and he grabbed at the fingers as they tightened around his neck. His face turned purple and his sword fell from his grasp. Fujino lunged forward and snatched it up. Bellowing with rage, the samurai thrashed with his elbows, prised the fingers off, spun round and started pummelling his assailant.

Taka caught a glimpse of the assailant’s face and her jaw dropped as she realised he was just a boy, a scrawny boy. His eyes were pale with fear in his sunburnt face, but he was scowling with determination. He’d had the advantage of surprise but now it was obvious he didn’t have a chance against the brawny samurai.

Fujino was chewing her lower lip and frowning in concentration. She handed the sword to Kiharu, raised her dagger and paused, her arm above her head. Fearless though she was, Taka had never known her draw blood. She took a breath and brought the dagger down, straight into the samurai’s exposed shoulder. As she wrenched it out, blood spurted, staining her lavish skirts. She was quivering with horror.

The man yelped and grabbed at his shoulder; the blow had slowed him down but hadn’t disabled him. Fujino jerked her head imperiously and the boy leapt out of the way, then she threw herself on top of the samurai, shoved him to the ground and plumped down on his back in all her enormous bulk. Tiny Aunt Kiharu sat on his legs. The two women were panting and their cheeks were flushed but their eyes were afire. The samurai writhed and pounded the floor and emitted muffled yells, but to no avail.

Anxious faces appeared at the door – a tubby officious-looking middle-aged man, rubbing his hands nervously, and two burly policemen with stern faces and smart buttoned uniforms. In the hubbub no one had noticed them approaching. The policemen pinioned the samurai’s arms and Taka heard him gasp for breath as Fujino heaved herself to her feet. She smoothed her skirts, examining them ruefully.

‘So sorry, Your Ladyship, so sorry,’ said the tubby man, whom Taka took to be the restaurant owner, wringing his plump hands. He fell to his knees, bowing again and again. Other faces appeared, peeking round the door, eyes huge like frightened rabbits – the rickshaw boy and the grooms. They threw themselves to their knees in front of Fujino and blurted excuses, beating their heads on the ground.

Their rescuer was standing uncertainly in the hallway. He was a thin-faced urchin, not much older than Taka, tall and gangly, with a long neck and prominent nose. His face was blackened as if he’d been working in the rice fields and there was fuzz on his upper lip. He was wearing a most peculiar assortment of clothes. Taka had to stop herself smiling as she realised he was wearing a girl’s kimono jacket with the sleeves shortened. His narrow black eyes darted curiously. Taka looked around, following his gaze, and saw the overturned chairs and mounds of meat scattered on the floor. The tables with their buckets of glowing charcoal were miraculously still upright.

Fujino turned to him.

‘You came just in time, young man,’ she said gravely, settling herself on her knees. ‘We are in your debt.’ The boy dropped to his knees too and bowed, shuffling uncomfortably.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, staring at the ground. ‘I didn’t do much of a job.’ There was a rustic twang, a hint of a dialect of some sort underlying his Edo speech. He glanced around as if he was eager to escape.

‘Nonsense,’ said Fujino briskly. ‘You saved us.’

At the sign of the Black Peony beef restaurant

At the sign of the Black Peony beef restaurant

‘He was just passing by, Your Ladyship,’ said one of the rickshaw boys, bowing frantically and baring his teeth in an embarrassed grin. He grabbed the boy’s arm and gripped it firmly. ‘It was us, we stopped him. Our ladies are in trouble, we said, and told him to go for help. A robber’s burst in, we said, one of those ronin, a Satsuma man by the looks of it. We hadn’t dared ask any of the diners, they all looked too important. But he just pushed us aside and rushed straight in.’

‘I didn’t do anything, Your Honour,’ the boy mumbled. ‘There was only one of him and I couldn’t even hold him back on my own. I’m sorry I failed you. Anyway, I’ll be on my way.’ He bowed again and backed on his knees towards the door.

Fujino put her hand to her waist where her obi should have been as if she’d forgotten she was wearing a western dress. She reached for her purse then looked at the boy and put it aside. It was obvious that he was far too proud to accept money.

‘Your name, young man?’ she asked gently.

‘Yoshida, Nobuyuki Yoshida. Glad I could be of service.’

His skinny arms were like sticks poking out of his tattered sleeves. Taka could see her mother’s brows knit as she tried to sum him up. He was far too shabby to be of samurai or merchant class, but he didn’t carry himself like a servant either. He was impossible to place.

‘Wait,’ Fujino said, putting a serviette over the blood stains on her skirts. ‘Master, take this boy to the kitchens and give him some food. And provide him with a decent set of clothes, too.’

The restaurant owner’s round face was shiny with sweat. He raised his eyebrows as he looked at the boy then gave a sigh, put his hands on the ground and bowed deferentially. ‘Whatever you say, Your Ladyship. The young man certainly deserves a reward. We’ll make sure we send him on his way with a full belly and a good cotton robe.’

‘I’ll be on my way,’ the boy muttered.

‘What house do you belong to?’ Fujino persisted.

Tokyo in 1870

Tokyo in 1870

The boy stared at the ground. ‘I’ve only recently arrived in Tokyo, Madam. I have relatives here but … er … I’ve been staying with a man called Shigehiro Iinuma, a middle-ranking official from the Omura domain in Hizen. I was in service there.’

He hadn’t mentioned his family.

‘You were, you say. And now?’

The boy’s tawny cheeks flushed. ‘I’m looking for work.’

‘What about your family?’ Taka cringed. Her mother was a geisha. Where others would have hesitated, she was always shockingly direct.

The boy hesitated. ‘I have a father and brothers, Your Honour. They’re far away.’

‘So you have no work?’ Fujino had the ability to prise information out of anybody, now matter how reluctant they were.

‘To be honest, Madam, I’ve just been to see a man. I was hoping to get a job as an errand boy. Hiromichi Nagakura gave me a letter for him. But his house is full already and he says he can’t afford any more servants.’

The words came out in a rush. Taka shivered, trying to imagine a world so harsh that people couldn’t even afford an extra errand boy. They had so much and he had so little and he’d saved their lives. Their house was full of people already. Surely one more wouldn’t make any difference? She spoke up. ‘Can’t we give him a job, Mother? I need a footman to carry my books when I’m going to school.’

The room fell silent. As she squeaked out the words, everyone turned to look. Haru nudged her with her elbow to tell her to be quiet but it was too late. The boy had been staring around like a cornered bear but he too swung around.

Taka felt heat rise to the tips of her ears and lowered her eyes. Fujino frowned, then her face softened and she smiled indulgently. When she turned back to the boy she was looking thoughtful.

‘Hiromichi Nagakura, you said, the ex-vice governor of Aomori? You carry a letter from him? Show me.’

The boy scowled, as if to communicate that he had no need of anyone’s pity. Fujino held out her hand coaxingly. When she wanted something no one could deny her, Taka thought admiringly. The boy pulled a scroll out of his sleeve. She unrolled and read it, frowning.

Taka was holding her breath, hoping desperately that her mother would agree. How thrilling it would be if this young lad could come and serve them. He seemed to open a door onto another, older world, bigger and more frightening, where people were not always pampered and taken care of, as she was, where everything was not always safe and tidy, where you had to fight to survive. She felt as if she was peering through a chink into the past where he was still lodged. For better or for worse, it was a world she wanted to know more of.

As Fujino scrutinised the scroll, Taka saw the boy staring at the ground, shoulders hunched, struggling to maintain his look of fierce indifference. His eyes widened and he squeezed his thin hands tightly together as if forbidding himself to hope.

‘Well, Nobu,’ Fujino said slowly, turning to him. ‘You’re obviously an honest, strong boy. We need someone like you. You’ll be better than these good-for-nothing grooms who abandon us to be attacked by madmen. We need an extra hand. Let me know who to speak to and we’ll give you a job.’

Nobu looked at her and, for the first time, he smiled.