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Fireworks by Jennifer Luckenbill 




Mary Whitsell was born and raised in California, but considers herself a citizen of the world. She has lived in Japan, the Netherlands, and the U.K.

Her writing has appeared in Eclectica, MotherVerse, and Flashquake. Mary won first prize in the Killie Writing Competition and the United Kingdom Noise Association's Short Story Competition, and her first novel, Foreigners, placed in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Novel Writing Competition.  She currently lives with her family in Scotland.  You can find out more about Mary at



















Mary Whitsell


In the summer of 1982, I had to take a trip up to Tokyo to meet a friend who was flying in from the States and was nervous about getting around in Japan on her own.


I had very little money at the time, and my friend wasn’t certain exactly when her super-economy flight would come through, so a couple I knew arranged for me to stay with their friends. I was reluctant at first: putting up friends is hard enough in Tokyo where space is at a premium, but putting up a friend of friends is above and beyond the call of duty.


My friends reassured me that I need not worry about imposing. “Keiko and Hatsue love having houseguests,” they insisted. “They’re a little eccentric, and their apartment’s noisy and small, but you’re more than welcome.”. All of this turned out to be true, if a little understated.


Keiko and Hatsue were in their early thirties. They were probably lesbians (I never asked) and a wonderfully quirky couple. Keiko was gruff and hearty and smoked a pipe.  Hatsue was tiny and fragile with a china-doll complexion and bird-like features.  In their tiny apartment they kept a free-range parakeet, a hamster (also allowed to run free), and – in an ornate Victorian bird cage – a hen.


It was a little disconcerting having the parakeet fly overhead when you were least expecting it or padding across a darkened room at night on the way to the toilet when you knew that there might be a hamster–or hamster “residual”–underfoot. But I was bowled over by the hen.


“Why a hen?” I asked.


Keiko puffed on her pipe and blew out a thin stream of smoke. “I know it’s pretty weird, but I found her stranded one night, right in the middle of a typhoon. Just outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, of all places. No idea how she got there. The bird cage is just temporary until we find her a proper chicken pen.”


I shook my head. “But in an apartment in Tokyo?  


Keiko shrugged and tapped out her pipe. She reached into a bowl and pulled out a small white object.  “Check this out,” she replied, placing the object in my hand. A hen’s egg.  

She grinned proudly. “Her very first one. Laid it this morning. Cool, huh?”


Their tiny apartment was right next to a train station. By “next to” I do not mean a one- or two-minute walk away. Part of their apartment–their bedroom and toilet, in flagrant violation of zoning laws–was directly over a well-used private train line, while most of it–the miniscule kitchen and living room–was a stone’s throw from the tracks.  You could have leaned out their kitchen window and touched a train as it passed.


Local trains came through every five minutes like clockwork. Expresses came along every fifteen minutes, and super-expresses came along at enormous speeds every twenty-five minutes. Each time a train passed, the entire building–and everything in it–shook. All conversation should have come to a standstill, but Keiko and Hatsue had long since mastered the art of speaking through the disturbance and, with remarkable equanimity, continued to shout out comments and observations to each other as the trains shuddered, clacked, and rattled past.


After fifteen minutes there, I was shell-shocked, but what could I do? Keiko and Hatsue, obviously very congenial and social women, were more than happy to put me up. Given the size and location of their apartment, I can’t imagine that they got a lot of houseguests, and they both seemed almost inordinately pleased to have a foreign guest to feed and entertain. I told myself that if they’d managed to live in this apartment for a whole year, I ought to be able to manage five nights.


Keiko and Hatsue were artists. “This place is a little noisy,” Hatsue admitted after a super-express had just raged past us and rattled every dish in the cupboards, “but the rent’s cheap. And it’s convenient when you’re in a hurry to catch a train.”


I was able to observe this first-hand: on my first day there Hatsue got a request for a drawing that had to be delivered immediately. In thirty seconds she was out of the house and in another twenty she was on the train: Keiko and I waved back to her as she smiled and waved to us from her window. In a city where the average daily commuting time is three hours this was arguably a huge advantage. But as far as I was concerned, the price they paid for their cheap rent and convenience was astronomical.


Trying to sleep through it was the worst. All day long those trains shrieked and rattled past through the heat and dust and confusion of summer; you heard the strident shree-shreeee of the signal, then the warning clang-clang-clang as the gate arms went down. You began to feel the shuddering as the train neared the station, and finally you heard (and felt) the rush-and-roar of the approaching train. Then the vibration was swallowed up by the screeching, crashing, blasting of the train, for all the world as though it was right on top of you, until the sound gradually receded and was followed, in turn, by a moment of blessed silence. By the end of the day, your nerves were frayed and you were mentally exhausted. So at night, when we had returned from our trip to the local baths (the apartment had a toilet and a kitchen sink, but its plumbing amenities stopped there), it seemed particularly cruel that the passing trains became only a little more infrequent.


Keiko and Hatsue shared a room and I slept on the couch. I am normally a nervous sleeper and a life-long insomniac, but my nights in this apartment were as hellishly sleepless as any in my living memory. I would lie there and try to decide which I hated more, the locals or the expresses. The frequency of the local trains combined with the raucous screeching of brakes and the noise of the passengers getting on and off was awful. But the terrifying roar of the super expresses, the piercing blast from the train’s whistle, the tremendous shuddering they caused every time they hurtled through, bringing to mind earthquakes, blanket-bombing, and ensuing widespread destruction, were traumatizing. Three or four hours after going to bed, I would somehow manage to ease into a fitful half-drowsing state. Train service stopped altogether at 3:00 in the morning and commenced again at 6:00.


You might think that those three hours from 3:00 to 6:00 A.M. were a welcome oasis of quiet and calm. Unfortunately, they were not. I found that even during this period I would periodically wake up, gasping and sweating, certain that any minute a train was going to come shrilling past. Years later when I was breast-feeding my newborns I would recall those hellish nights. Your anticipation of being awoken keeps you in a state of tremulous anxiety. At Keiko and Hatue’s apartment, I lay blearily awake, miserable and staring, waiting for those trains to come back. Sometimes I actually managed an hour or two of light sleep, and that was almost worse. When the first express came whistling past at 6:05, I was wrenched from sleep into a state of confused terror that was practically surreal. By the end of my time there, I was having dreams that the trains were actually passing through my body. When I felt the familiar shuddering and shaking begin, I knew that a giant, gaping tunnel was opening in my chest, big enough to allow tons of overheated steel to come blasting through. And I would lie there quietly and just let it happen.


For the most part, Keiko and Hatsue acted as though the trains weren’t there. Hatsue confided that she’d found the trains noisy at first but by her third week had become perfectly used to them. Keiko, too, was nonchalant on the subject. You had to live somewhere, she maintained, and lots of other places she’d lived in had their problems. She reminisced about all the faults of past dwellings, citing poorly installed electric systems, bad plumbing, and a rented room she’d once had that was next door to a pig farm.


Almost everyone has an apartment horror story: in San Francisco I once lived in a room that was a former larder; you didn’t have to stretch your arms out fully to span its width. I’ve had my share of roach-infested apartments, and I once shared a house with two slobs who refused to clean the bathroom when it was their turn, even when mushrooms sprouted up near the shower. All of those places were bad, but they didn’t even come close to being as bad as Keiko’s and Hatsue’s train-track special because however smelly, dirty, or claustrophobic they most certainly were, I could always manage to get some sleep at night.


In the end, I managed four nights at Keiko and Hatsue’s place. The fourth morning, I “woke up” after, at best, thirty minutes of sleep, making a grand total of perhaps five hours of sleep for all the four nights of my visit. I knew that if I didn’t get six solid hours of sleep very soon I would either die or have a nervous breakdown, and I didn’t care which one came first.


I lied and told Hatsue and Keiko that my friend’s flight had come through. They both seemed genuinely disappointed that I wouldn’t be monopolizing their sofa or blocking their way to the kitchen with my backpack any longer. They saw me off with many expressions of concern and kindly invitations for future visits–Was I sure I ought to be going so soon? Why didn’t I bring my American friend back to their place once she got in? I felt like a heel to be leaving them when they were obviously hungry for company, but one more night in that apartment would have finished me off.


Five hours later I checked into one of the cheap-and-nasty foreigner hotels that were popular with western backpackers and other economy travellers. My shared room reeked of disinfectant, and the tatami mats were old, frayed, and darkened by the passage of countless feet. The linen on the futons was dubious, the mirror was cracked, and the plastic tea cup was stained, but the floor was free from hamster dung, no parakeets whirred overhead, and the shouts of the drunks on the streets outside were almost like a lullaby. I lay down and slept soundly until midnight.



 On The Wrong Side



of The Tracks