Samurai by Robert Hopkins
Ten stories have been shortlisted in our Legends of the Fall short-story competition. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
Upstairs Dita’s voice grew louder and louder. It sounded like she was complaining about something. She usually was. I don’t know a word of Polish, but the way she was shouting it was the first thing that came to mind. The tenor of her voice rose and she was biting her words off, and whoever she was talking to wasn’t getting a word in. It got to where she was roaring and I was thinking take a fucking breath will you when suddenly there was silence – maybe the other person was speaking – and it went on for what seemed like a long time. Then I heard muffled grunts and groans, a sob, then a flurry of them, and before I knew it she was bawling upstairs and I was frozen to the spot with a warm, oozing feeling in my chest, like I’d woken up in the middle of the night in someone else’s house and had no idea how I got there.
After a while she slowed down. She began to snort and blow her nose. I heard her clear her throat and spit. That broke the spell. I crept off the chair and slipped out the front door. I had to get away before she realised I was there.
I bought some tatami straw mats, and in the evenings I would clear the kitchen floor and place a rolled-up tatami on a target stand and practise my sword cuts. First you have to soak the mats in water for several days, to give them a weight that resembles that of human flesh. Then I’d slide a length of green bamboo through the middle of the mat to simulate bone. I’d slice up the tatami mats for an hour or so, dressed in a black kimono, with a sweatband around my forehead, looking like Mullingar’s answer to Chuck Norris. There are twin grooves along the sides of a katana, and if the orbit of your stroke is right the air rushing through the grooves should make a high-pitched whistling. I’d slash and cut until I was hot and sweaty, my shoulders aching from the weight of the sword in my hands. But I could never make the blade rend its note from the air. Still, the word “samurai” didn’t always refer to armed warriors. When first used it described those who wait on, or accompany, the higher ranks of society. Like a butler or a maid or even, I suppose, a sales manager.
I told Benny I knew who’d left the sandpaper in the office.
“It was Roman,” I said. “He seen it in a hardware shop in Poland on a trip home and brought it back.”
“Get rid of him,” said Benny. And he told me exactly what to say.
That Friday I phoned Gareth. Told him to get Roman to meet me in the office after work. The place would be empty. Benny was taking Dita on a shopping trip to London.
When Roman arrived I was sitting in Benny’s swivel chair, drinking coffee and browsing through a trade magazine. He looked tired. His face was blackened from exhaust fumes, his hands and arms were smeared with sawdust-coated patches of pine resin and a trail of tiny evergreen needles followed him in from the front door.
“Gareth say you want me,” he said, and he smiled.
“Work’s after getting real slow,” I said. “ We have to slim down to a two-man crew. Now this is only temporary. We’ll take you back on as soon as things pick up.”
He just stood there. Didn’t say a word.
“I know things are tight, Roman. They’re tight for everybody. It’s this recession. But you’ve worked here long enough to be able get the dole. Sign on for a few weeks and hopefully more work will come in.”
He shook his head.
“I need job,” he said. “I’ve wife and two kids in Cracow.”
“It’s only temporary,” I said.
He stared me at me.
“Tell me truth, Swords. Is this about the sandpaper?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Nobody gives a shite about the sandpaper. That’s water under the bridge. This is just simple economics. Money in and money out. We can’t afford to payroll a three-man crew right now.”
He stood there silently. He didn’t say a word, but his face sort of crumbled, and I immediately wanted to take it back, to tell him that it was all right, there had been a mistake, that he could have his job back and forget this conversation had ever happened. But it was too late. You can’t run a business like that. It would have been easier if he had yelled at me, lost his temper, thrown a fit. But he didn’t. He hung his head and stared at his dirty hands. After he left I felt queasy. My legs were shaking, so I sat down in the chair and lit a cigarette. He’ll be all right, I thought. Toughen the fuck up. You’ll never get through life with a soft heart.
I was driving past the office a week later and I saw Dita sitting on a chair by the window, reading from a book that lay open on the table beside her. Benny, on the phone, was standing behind her, his arms gesturing wildly as he talked into the air. She looked so poised and watchful, like the statue of a cat sitting guard over the entrance of a Pharaoh’s tomb. As I passed she looked up and saw me. She gave me a tiny nod. It was the ghost of a bow, a near imperceptible tip of the visor.
Robert Hopkins is a Dublin author whose short stories and essays have been published in the Stinging Fly and on the Someblindalleys website. He is studying English literature and history at Trinity College Dublin