Amber Parker

Oh, thanks. I’ll have a pint of Foster, please.

    Yes, we had an international student, called Fuku, staying here for a while. Her real name was Fukuko and that means a lucky child, she told me. Isn’t it nice? We called her Fuku. My small daughter, Cathy, couldn’t pronounce it and started calling her Fuku, which stuck to us as well. No, she didn’t mind at all and even said, ‘You can call me whatever you want.’ Wasn’t it nice? So generous. Yes, she was a nice lady, gentle and kind, too.

     Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yes, everybody knows about her somehow. She was the only survivor in the hideous bus accident. But I don’t want to talk about such a bad thing right now, if it’s all right with you.

     She cooked for us one day. Fried eggs and rice. She explained to me that the fried eggs were layers of a thin fried egg and the rice was sticky. She broke the eggs, stirred them and put a bit into a frying pan and almost right away rolled it to the end. Then she put a bit more and rolled it, starting from the first one, so that the two were rolled together. Then she put another bit in and rolled it in the same way. She repeated the process several times until all the eggs were used. It was such an intricate cooking method. I thought it was a special meal for a celebration or something, but she said it’s a very common breakfast. Can you believe it? Could you cook that in the morning with our eyes still bleary and the hair sticking up every which way? She was surprised that I was surprised.

     Then she measured rice and water, which were the same amount. You know, we put a lot more water when we cook rice, or rather boil rice. But she said her way would make the rice sticky.

     You know, she paid for the room and two meals a day, but she spent her own money to buy those ingredients. I was touched.

     We’d had some international students before, but she was the best: so generous and gentle and kind.

     Do you know Eric, a friend of my son, Ben? No? He isn’t around anymore. He moved to a different city, well, just before Fuku left for back home. He was fifteen when Fuku was with us. I think she had a crush on him. I sometimes noticed her watching him when he visited Ben. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to embarrass her. She was such a delicate lady. If I’d told her, she might’ve cried or something. Eric was a neat-looking boy. I think it was her first time abroad and he must’ve been the first young man who talked to her. You know, when she first came to our place, Eric happened to be there and offered jokingly, ‘Can I take your bags to you room, Madame?’ She got red and just nodded. It was kind of natural for her to have feelings for him. It could’ve been somebody else, you know. I didn’t tell her that he had a girlfriend then. She might’ve, no, would’ve been hurt a lot. She was so vulnerable like a Victorian lady. I wanted her to stay and be happy at my place from the beginning to the end. You know, she was staying with us only for six months to study English. His girlfriend, Portia, had noticed and told Eric, who told me. They, Eric and Portia, didn’t mind. They were rather amused that a foreign lady had a crush on him. Of course I told my husband and Cathy overheard it, or rather eavesdropped on our conversation. Cheeky one, she was. I gravely told her not to tell Fuku that we knew. So, although everybody in my family knew about her crush, she didn’t know that we knew.

     When we were watching TV one evening when Eric was there (he often came to our house and he was like our second son), Fuku started sneezing and couldn’t stop. I don’t think she had any kind of allergy, but she just sneezed and sneezed. Then Eric stood up and asked her if she wanted some water to drink. She said, ‘Yes. Thank you,’ with a red face. When he gave it to her, her hand was trembling and she said, ‘Thank you very much. Thank you very much,’ bowed to him many times. You know, nobody thanks people that much nowadays. She knew how to appreciate other people’s kindness. We were lucky that we had such a nice lady at home.    

     Yeah, the English school was five days a week, just like all the other ones. She went there every day, never skipped a day. I knew Ben did a couple of times but Cathy hasn’t done it so far. She is only ten. I hope she’d learn from her.  

     Fuku did homework every day, right after coming back from school. She kept to herself in her room and didn’t come until it was done. She was a great example to the students.

     You want a top up? What was it? Carling? All right. I won’t be a sec. Woops. I’m a bit tipsy already. I’ll get some crisps as well.   

     And she helped with the housework. She didn’t have to do it at all. But she cleaned her room every now and then. She even helped with the washing-up sometimes. I said, ‘Oh, no. You don’t have to do it, Fuku.’ But she said, ‘It’s all right. Don’t worry,’ and kept drying the dishes I’d washed. So generous of her time after working hard at school and the homework in her room. She sometimes, only occasionally mind you, dropped a dish on the floor. It wasn’t intentional or anything. Oh, no. Nice Fuku wouldn’t do such a thing. When she first did it, she apologised in tears. ‘I am sorry. I am very sorry.’ ‘Don’t worry. It’s just a cheap plate. Don’t touch it. I’ll get a dustpan,’ I said and cleaned it up. It was actually one of the dinner set my best friend gave us for our twentieth our anniversary. But never mind.

     Oh, I know, you wanted me to tell you about the bus accident. Yeah, your face has been yelling it since the beginning. All right, all right, I’ll tell you some of it, but only a bit for now. I’ll skip how the accident happened, because you must know very well by now from all those TV reports and radio news and papers and gossip. While Fuku was still in hospital after the accident, she had lots of presents from her classmates and my neighbours and even some strangers. Around her bed in her hospital room with other five patients were teddy bears and flowers and boxes of chocolate and cards. It was like a bright gift shop in sterilised hospital room. Every time a nurse brought a present to her, she looked as if she wanted to hide under the bed or disappear into thin air. The first time, she was happy like a small kid, all smiles and laughter and everything. But after the second present, the third one, the fourth, the fifth, she became different. I asked her why. She said, ‘It is not good that I am the only one who gets presents. The other five people don’t get so many. It is not good.’ It was a bit of strange logic. It wasn’t her fault that she had so many presents, you know. The accident had been broadcasted on TV and radio, so everybody knew about it. I suggested that she should give some of the presents to the other people in her room. But she said, ‘Oh, no. They might think I look down on them.’ It was another strange theory. I don’t know much about Japan, yes that was where she was from, haven’t I told you? Anyway, We’d had homestay students only  from European countries. She was the only one out of the EU. It’s not that we avoided other countries. It just happened. So, as I said, I didn’t know much about Japanese culture, but it was very, very strange to me. I didn’t say anything to her about it. She was such a delicate lady, easily hurt. She begged me to take to the presents to her room in our house and I did.   

     She taught Cathy how to count in Japanese. One morning, she, my Cathy, came running to the kitchen and said one two three in Japanese with Fuku behind her, smiling. Isn’t it nice? She gave my daughter a free foreign language lesson. I don’t quite remember what she said. It was something like itchy for one and knee or elbow for two, and well, son for three, maybe. Isn’t it a funny language, Japanese? I don’t think Cathy still remembers it now. She has to study hard to get good marks, so her brain doesn’t have room for a language that isn’t to useful in this country. We had a French boy at home before, but he didn’t teach French to Cathy or Ben. Oh, well. Never mind.

     Oh, thanks. I think I’ve finished this pint a bit too quickly. But so what? We’re here to drink, aren’t we?

     I didn’t say what she’d cooked for us was good, because it wasn’t. It was actually a disaster.

     The fried eggs ended up something like a yellow blob and the bottom of the rice burnt and stuck to the pan. I had a very hard time to get rid of it. It wouldn’t come off. It was like cemented there. Anyway, both were still edible and we ate them. The taste? She’d forgotten to add salt to the eggs, so they actually had no taste. Still edible and still fried eggs. The rice was, well, we had the un-burnt part. It was all right. Fuku apologised in tears. ‘I am so solly. I am so solly. When I cooked zem before, zey were fine, but I don’t know what happened today. I am so solly.’ She bowed over and over again. Such a sense of responsibility! She was a nice lady. We all had to console her, patting her back, saying they were all right, smiling, and so on. Still, or rather because of that, she started crying in earnest. We didn’t know what to do. Nobody in this country at her age cries like that in front of people. She was from a different culture. Maybe, it’s a normal thing to do in her country. Anyway, when she finally started hiccuping and showing signs of subsiding, I said, ‘Well, let’s eat the food Fuku cooked for us. It must be very delicious.’ We ate, swallowed, chewed, swallowed, munched, swallowed. We ate everything. Well, Cathy couldn’t eat much of the rice. I just gathered it into a plastic bag under the table while Fuku was looking down and later I threw it into the bin. The kitchen was a smoky from the burnt rice. But never mind. It had cleared some time later. Fuku nibbled some and said, ‘Sank you. Sank you. You are bery kind. Sank you. Sank you.’ She didn’t eat it all. Well, I thought, we didn’t have to eat all either, then.

     You see, she had a strong accent and pronounced things wrong. But still understandably, usually. Sometimes we had to ask her to repeat it. Sometimes she couldn’t make us get what she wanted to say at all. But usually we could communicate.

     While we were eating the food, the kettle whistled. Fuku jumped up from the chair and upset a glass salt pot, which fell on the floor and broke. ‘I am solly. I am solly. I will pay for it. I am solly. I am solly.’ Fuku started weeping again. I hurried to her side and said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it, all right?’ I patted her back and got her to sit down in the chair. ‘I am solly. I am solly.’ She kept saying for a while. I went back to my chair. I was sick of hearing, ‘I am solly. I am solly.’ Why did she apologise so much? Was it her culture? Was she normal in Japan? I didn’t know and I still don’t and I don’t care. She’s gone now. But at that time it was annoying. Every time, every single time, she did something slightly wrong, she said, ‘Solly. Solly.’ And was often crying with a runny nose. She was thirty four then, for God’s sake. Grow up, I wanted to shout at her. But, you know, she’d cry harder and apologise more if I’d yelled at her, I knew that.

     Yeah, at that time her eyes were red and her nose was running. Some mucus started dangling from her nostrils and was about to reach her rice. She breathed it in noisily and it went all the way back her nose. It was amazing to see how her small nose could hold that much mucus. After that she kept breathing in the mucus to keep it in her nose. If it were Cathy, I’d send her to the bathroom to blow her nose. It was actually disgusting while eating, especially the food she’d cooked.  

     And she was so meek like a stupid sheep. Every time I asked her to do something, she did it right away as if I were her master and she were my slave. I thought it was nice at first, you know, she was so obliging. But gradually I started feeling strange. She was staying with us in our house and paying for her board. But that didn’t mean she was beneath us, you know. Still she acted as if she was. She never said no. Not once. She was like a small dog that was always ready to please people with its tongue out and its tail wagging. When she first came to our place, I asked her not to drink milk directly from the bottle. You know, I never allow my family to do that. The mouth of the bottle should be kept clean all the time. When I asked her about it, she said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ So naturally I believed she’d understood me. Then after for a while when we’d been talking about food, she asked, ‘Is it all light to dlink some milk flom the bottle?’ I couldn’t say anything for a second or two. I thought, ‘She actually didn’t like what I’d asked her and just pretended she’d understood me.’ It was a bit offensive, you know. But I said nicely, ‘No. Please don’t do it.’ She said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ I wasn’t sure if she’d got it. Later I realised that she often said, ‘Yes. Yes, Yes,’ even when she didn’t understand what she was asked. Like a couple weeks later, I asked her not to open the window while I was making cake. You know, it was very windy outside and the mixture of wholemeal flour and white flour I was using would be blown away if the window was open. But she opened it saying, ‘I am hot.’ The flours flew everywhere in the kitchen. I yelled, ‘Fuku! I told you not to open the window! Why did you do that?’ I couldn’t help it. And naturally, she started crying and apologising, ‘Solly. Solly. Solly.’ The same kind of things happened again for a couple of times. After that I had to get her repeat what she thought she’d understood, or she might have caused disasters, you know.

     Once when I was trimming the front hedge, she came back, crying. She was crying on the public street in broad daylight. She wasn’t a six-year-old kid but a thirty-four-year-old adult. I asked her after she’d calmed down. Can you believe what’d  made her cry walking in the street? She’d gone to her classmate’s house. A son of her host family, about twenty five, opened the door and said her friend wasn’t home, but she could wait for her inside and invited her in and said she looked nice and kissed her hand. That made her cry, she said. Can you believe it? A thirty-four-year-old woman cried when she was kissed on her hand. I know, that man wasn’t quite proper, but I was sure he was joking, you know. She cried walking in the street as if some kind of the end of the world was coming. Her friend’s place was on Woodside Avenue, so she’d been walking and crying all the way to my house on Munro Close. It was a quiet afternoon, but people were out walking everywhere. A couple of my neighbours asked me after her later. I was too embarrassed to tell the truth.

     Oh, almost forgot. I did have a non-EU student before her. She was a married woman from China with cute small nose and cute little dark eyes. She was also modest, but firm; she said no when she wanted and didn’t cry. She cooked beautiful Chinese food for us one evening. It was so delicious. You know, China and Japan are the same Asian countries, but they are so different. Amazing.

     Yeah, the accident. On the way back from the church retreat. She was the only survivor. All the others died, including my Ben. He was only fifteen. He went to Sunday school every Sunday and prayed every night. He wanted to study theology at uni. But he’s gone. And Fuku came back. I don’t know if Asians can be real Christians. They’re different people altogether, you know. She cried for Ben with me, but I was sick of her tears and stupid voice. I felt his death was dirtied by her crying. I didn’t visit her only once while she was in hospital, I was too much to do and I had too much to think about. My Ben.

     When she came back, I told her her room was occupied by my niece, so we couldn’t take her anymore. I just couldn’t have her in my place. Her stupid tears and her stupid face. My Ben’s smile wouldn’t come back. I just gave her her bags and all those presents in a rubbish bag at the door and shut it on her. I don’t where she went after that. Who cares?  

     Do you want one more round?

About the Author: Sayuri was born in Japan and came to England in 2003 after searching a country to live permanently in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and French Polynesia for ten years. She finished studying Creative and Critical Writing in a postgraduate course at the University of Winchester in September, 2011.

Artwork: Amber Parker