New Irish Writing winning story, August 2019: Familiar Strangers
A new story by Michael Naghten Shanks
Illustration: Béibhínn McCarthy
I was trying to be a different person. I’d secured a new job as an editorial assistant for an independent publisher, doing whatever needed doing: editing submissions, making coffee, translating texts between Japanese and English. I worked until sleep seeped through the levee of my consciousness.
The main perk of the job was that it allowed me to live alone in a small room in the centre of Tokyo. Small rooms help you focus on what you value; life is easier to fill. I lived with a baby rubber tree – a gift to the new me – positioning it in the corner opposite my bed, next to the square window where it could thrive in the afternoon sunlight. One glass of water every Sunday was all it required to survive. Beneath it, a bookshelf filled with my favourites; each book a salve.
When the probation period ended I was let go. The room – the first I’d called my own – remained available for as long as I could afford the increased rent. I’d moved from my parents’ house in Sapporo to my husband’s apartment to a treatment facility for alcoholism, returning to my childhood bedroom at the end of the 12-week programme. That I wasn’t capable of living the life I’d imagined for myself on my own was a truth I couldn’t face. I drank to offset these feelings. This time I called my mother. Our relationship had strained since I deemed marriage counterproductive to my recovery. My husband wasn’t a bad man, he was a reminder.
I knew she would persuade my father to visit; once they did, I was confident I could get him to sign-off on transferring a sizeable amount of my grandfather’s inheritance. The plan – to hire a stand-in boss from a professional rent-a-friend agency called Familiar Strangers – proved effective; he praised me, my work, reassuring my parents that this new life I’d chosen was a success. I could afford to exist in my room.
I was curious then relieved when I received an email from the agency inviting me to attend an interview. The underside of my thigh stuck to the waiting room’s plastic chair as I surveyed the other interviewees in the mid-morning summer glare. Everyone was waiting to impress; the embodiment of those glossy but frayed culture and lifestyle magazines displayed then forgotten on the rectangular coffee table. Everyone was a type, even me. In the bathroom, after I’d rubbed water on the back of my neck, I buttoned my white shirt to the collar.
My interviewer, Mr Murata, was responsible for overseeing the Tokyo office. His bergamot presence put me at ease immediately.
“Do you know the purpose of our agency?” said Mr Murata.
I thought about the answer to that question I’d read on their website.
“I can only speak for myself,” I said. “I hired one of your agents because I needed help and had no one else to ask. I guess the purpose of your agency is to help people, to fill the absences in their lives.”
Mr Murata smiled.
I joined a small group of women similar to myself – mid-20s to mid-30s; attractive, but obtainable; perfumed with hopefulness – for several weeks of training and assessment. We were schooled in how to be the coy bride, the tender wife, the adoring mother. We donned virtual reality headsets to test our interpersonal skills, attempting to sate the various desires of our AI clients. I treated being a rent-a-friend like being a person, emphasising the more appealing aspects of myself based on who I was with and what was expected of me. There was no end to the people I was willing to become; the price negotiable.
My preference was for clients who required me to live a life furthest from the one I’d lived. Client X needed me to be his partner for a mixed doubles tennis tournament; client Y needed me to attend his stand-up comedy routine, laughing to encourage the rest of the audience; client Z needed me to be a substitute for her emigrant grand-daughter. I became all these people, cultivating different personas, trying them on like coats in a charity shop.
I first met Conor in a cat cafe; its quietness helped me gain an insight into potential clients. When I arrived he was downing his third espresso like a vodka shot, ignoring the affections of a ginger tabby. He’d been living in Tokyo for two years, teaching English.
“I stayed in a capsule hotel for too long,” he said. “My room was a refrigerator. Thin mattress, blanket, pillow. The air conditioner didn’t work but whirred like it did.”
His green eyes met mine for the second time; pupils like synchronised acrobats flying through the air from left to right to left, up and down.
“I shouldn’t complain. It was cheap and had the complimentary wifi I needed to finish my novel.”
I was pleased to feel the tabby’s fur and weight lean against my legs.
“The solitude helped my writing. But suffering from insomnia in a place like that was akin to being the only dying body in a room full of dead ones.”
As he talked he tore thin strips off his napkin, placing them in a pile like he was chopping wood for a fire.
He’d spent a year moving, eventually ending up in the box room of a large apartment owned by a German businessman he’d first met when living in Berlin.
“In each city I found myself surrounded by different versions of the same people; it was as if we were all waiting in a remote rural train station, delayed by a sudden rainstorm, unsure of where we were supposed to be going, or even if it was raining.”
He’d envisaged the story of our meeting, creating a character of himself for his memory of this moment. Silence leaned between us, erasing that character. I luxuriated in his anxiousness.
“The students just come and go. I’d like your help so that they don’t just see me as a teacher, but as a friend,” he said.
As we discussed how it could work I dipped the tip of my index finger into the cream of my coffee, letting the tabby cat lick it off – reward for its attentiveness. The coarse, dry sponge of its tongue scraped against my skin. When we got up to leave I waited to see if he would put the napkin strips into the bin. He didn’t.
Halfway through the course we went to a karaoke bar to practise our English. I smiled, talked, and flooded my consciousness. Most chose upbeat pop songs; I chose Creep by Radiohead. I stood over Conor, my left hand gripped under his stubbled chin, raising his face to face mine, singing in a slow staccato whisper – I wish I was special, you’re so f**king special . . . – lingering over each syllable. He pushed me away then walked out of the crowded booth. The track ran on, the screen illuminating the words as they went unsaid.
In the dark of the subway, strange faces whooshed by, my apparition echoing. I was a ghost on a ghost train. I was drunk for the first time in 987 days.
Conor’s door opened just wide enough for me to pass his satchel through.
“I need a drink,” I said. “Please.”
We sat in a silence punctuated only by the bubbles of our sparkling waters squirrelling up their glasses, fizzing and popping into the air.
“Why . . . Why did you run out?’ I said, angry with the new Aki.
“Why was your performance so confrontational? It’s not how I expected you to act.”
I stared at our blurred reflections in the window of Conor’s apartment. Outside, the Tokyo night air looked opaque atop the red aircraft warning lights dotting the skyline like a hundred neon eyes.
“Is that really how I am? So-
“You hired me to help you make friends,” I said.
We spent hours talking, drinking bottle after bottle of his German landlord’s blackberry-heavy red wine that jutted out from a walnut rack in the corner of the kitchen.
In the morning I stood on the narrow steps outside Conor’s building. Light from the low sun pinged in the windows up and down the one-way street. Cars moved like giant tortoises. On the pavement in front of the building were four city workers, three of who wore high-vis vests. The fourth man, swaddled in a knee-length parka, wrote notes on a clipboard as he leaned against a maple tree. One of the workers continued to drill with intermittent bursts, powdering the air with chalk.
I wanted to forget the night, to get a drink and drown the street down. Instead, I summoned up the granules of pavement in the froth of my red phlegm and spat it down the steps. A pink-haired young woman stopped to look at me then walked passed the workers, disappearing into the bright clouded mass of air and sunlight. How beautifully simple it would be to vanish like that.
I was on the grass with two husky pups in Yoyogi Park when I saw him: Conor. His beard had thickened in the months since we’d last spoken. Dreamlike, a customary smile slowly spread itself across my face as white cherry blossoms fell like faltering pixels in a video stream.
“How are you?”
“Great,” he said; throwaway, sincere. “The novel is almost finished. You?”
“I’m good.” I was 55 days sober, but no closer to believing my newest self. “I quit the agency.” Mr Murata decided I was unfit to act as any kind of person when I struggled to hide my drinking from my clients. “I’m a dog-walker now, part-time. And I’m freelance editing, writing my own stories,” I said.
We met my parents in an expensive restaurant on the 58th floor of a skyscraper situated near the Sumida river. A financial adviser, my father was as stern as he looked. I resembled my mother more; we had the same large, curious eyes and smiles confined to the corners of our mouths. Our table was a slab of unevenly-cut oak tree that required the concentrated placement of every dish and drink. The whole evening felt slow, tortoise-like. The plan was for Conor to act as an author whose book I was editing. I felt out of control for the first time since we’d met.
“What is your book about?” said my father.
“It’s about an Irishman moving to Japan; how he hires a rent-a-friend to alleviate his loneliness.”
He relished this opportunity to curate a fantasy of our time together. At any moment he could stop the pretence, forcing me to confront who I was with who I pretended to be.
“A what?” My mother’s gaze moved methodically around the table.
“People you can hire to act as your friend. Or partner. Or, well, whatever.”
“I guess life isn’t enough for some people,” said Conor.
The evening was avalanching.
“No, I mean why would anyone pretend to be someone else?”
“Money,” said my father.
“Or maybe it’s easier than being themselves.”
As Conor said this I fantasised about jamming my chopstick into his eyeball, piercing it in place like a cherry tomato that’d been pinballing around a plate. I let myself drift to the next table: an old-fashioned. The thought of sucking whiskey off of the orange rind hurried through my mind.
I focused on the restaurant’s thick black metallic window frames, how they made the peach sky look more than real, almost digital, an advertisement for something. As the evening crept – the sky darkening, the window now a mirror showing me the faint reflection of my own vacant face – I thought about the pink-haired woman who vanished: the potential of her unknown life; the splendour of her oblivion.
Michael Naghten Shanks is the author of two pamphlets, most recently The Architecture of Red Caviar Sandwiches (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2019). His writing has appeared in various publications, including gorse, Hotel, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Tangerine. Named a ‘Rising Generation’ poet by Poetry Ireland, he has been listed for numerous awards, including the inaugural Irish Poem of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2016 and The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2018. He lives in Dublin.