An story inspired by the Nagasaki bombings.
He always reminded me that Kyoko meant ‘child of the city’. Or he would try, the times he managed to heave himself off the sticky couch, blearily wander into the kitchen, and mumble ‘kome’.
So I would fix him some rice, and he would sit on the floor, legs splayed, black soles of his feet towards me. He would slowly push the food in his mouth with yellowed fingers, reminders of decades of cigarettes. “Child of the city,” he would say, pointing a finger, grains stuck to his lips like debris, “you are a child of the city.”
From my tenth year onwards, this was our routine. I making sure he ate something, he pathetically passing out on the dining room floor. Luckily I had learned to cook from my mother before she passed away, otherwise we both would have starved. Leukaemia. The doctors guessed it was because of the bomb’s fallout. That was the excuse for a lot of illnesses around here though – The Fat Man – even fifty years on.
Father remained cancer-free, at least for the moment. But unlike the other survivors, who relished every moment of life, thankful for their good fortune, my otou-san drenched his body in poison from a different source. Sake has long been hailed as the national drink of Japan – our favourite spirit. Never has a drink been more favoured than in the Shimiku household.
He had it first with his natta and salmon for breakfast – or often, as breakfast itself. At 10 o’clock he would rise from the table, finished with the paper. This ritual held fast, although I suspect he had long stopped comprehending it. Then he would pour his second guinomi full and drink it slowly, like a wine critic savouring their drop. But again, this seemed a redundant habit; he had lost his sense of taste years ago.
The spirit looked so similar to water, but its molecules destroyed what its counterpart nourished.
And so he would continue, rising from his couch imprint only to punctuate his day with another glass. Sometimes, on weekends, he would also include a shot or two of whisky, or if particularly inebriated, umeshu, the sour plum wine that my mother had favoured.
He had not always found solace in the liquid. A hard worker, a talented fisherman, and regarded all over Nagasaki as a good man, he had once been known as “The Big Fish”. He had always been known as a big drinker, but somehow my mother’s presence had kept him steady. She was his original refuge, if you like, from those childhood events, which he never spoke about with anyone but her. They shared an unequivocal bond, something that when broken, broke him.
I never really knew what it meant to him, ‘Kyoko’. I just assumed I’d been conceived on a holiday or something equally as sentimental. I was never one for sentimentality; I didn’t get a chance to be. But I think it helped me survive the fallout. The after effects of my mother’s death rained down upon me like midnight ash. And still her absence hangs in the air, invisible but destructive, almost tangible. Like the radiation from their bomb.
My father contracted not radiation sickness or cancer from this fallout, but sickness of the heart.
So when he finally sat down with me and began to explain my name, and to finally tell me the story of his one defining day, it was a little startling.
“We named you for the city,” he said, gazing at his feet. “Your mother and I.”
“If it had not been for this city – and The Fat Man, too – we would never have met. And never had you.
“We met in a shelter. It was cold, and we could not see anything of outside. Inside it was busy and chaotic but lonely. She sat next to me, and just said ‘Hold me.’”
He filled his guinomi with whisky, no ice.
“We sat for a while, comforted somewhat with each other’s company while we waited for our families. Then mine arrived. My brothers and sisters first – burned all over. They smelled like smoke and flesh. They told me they did not know where mama was.”
He looked into his glass, almost to check if the spirit was still there. Apparently content with his observations, he continued:
“She came half an hour later. She was red. Clothes, limbs, everything drenched in blood. It formed sticky clumps in her tangled hair.
‘Lunch,’ she whispered to me, as I gathered her up. ‘Lunch is not finished.’
“She died the next day. The girls did too. Then my brother the next. But your mother, she had lost all her family, so she stayed with me. And then she never left.”
He began to weep, the poor drunkard’s shoulder-heaving sob. I felt a strange urge to comfort him, one I had not felt in a long time.
“When we had you, something good out of all that bad, we wanted to remind ourselves – and you, and everyone – that the city could still offer something good. Even through all the bad. Nagasaki could still give us a daughter.”
He drained his glass, and looked up at me with eyes full of tears and sorrow and sake. They begged for forgiveness, even though my first instinct was only pity and mild disgust.
But I realised I was his daughter, his only child. And a child of Nagasaki, a child of the bomb, a child of the city, for better or worse.