Home > A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills
Kazuo Ishiguro

Chapter One

Niki, the name we finally gave younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I— perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past—insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.

She came to see me earlier this year, in April, when the days were still cold and drizzly. Perhaps she had intended to stay longer. I do not know. But my country house and the quiet that surrounds it made her restless, and before long i could see she was anxious to return to her life in London. She listened impatiently to my classical records, flicked through numerous magazines. The telephone rang for her regularly, and she would stride across the carpet, her thin figure squeezed into her tight clothes, taking care to dose the door behind her so I would not overhear her conversation. She left after five days.

She did not mention Keiko until the second day. It was a grey windy morning, and we had moved the armchairs nearer the windows to watch the rain falling on my garden.

“Did you expect me to be there?” she asked. “At the funeral, I mean.”

“No, I suppose not. I didn’t really think you’d come.”

“It did upset me, hearing about her. I almost came.”

“I never expected you to come.”

“People didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she said. “I didn’t tell anybody. I suppose I was embarrassed. They wouldn’t understand really, they wouldn’t understand howl felt about it. Sisters are supposed to be people you’re close to, aren’t they. You may not like them much but you’re still close to them. That’s just not how it was though. I don’t even remember what she looked like now.”

“Yes, it’s quite a time since you saw her.”

“I just remember her as someone who used to make me miserable. That’s what I remember about her. But I was sad though, when I heard.”

Perhaps it was not just the quiet that drove my daughter back to London. For although we never dwelt long on the subject of Keiko’s death, it was never far away, hovering over us whenever we talked.

Keiko, unlike Niki was pure Japanese, and more than one newspaper was quick to pick up on this fact. The English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary; for that was all they reported, that she was Japanese and that she had hung herself in her room.

That same evening I was standing at the windows, looking out into the darkness, when I heard Niki say behind me; “What are you thinking about now, Mother?” She was sitting across the settee, a paperback book on her knee.

“I was thinking about someone I knew once. A woman I knew once."

“Someone you knew when you … before you came to

“I knew her when I was living in Nagasaki, if that’s what you mean.” She continued to watch me, so I added: “Along time ago. Long before I met your father."

She seemed satisfied and with some vague comment returned to her book. In many ways Niki is an affectionate child. She had not come simply to see howl had taken the news of Keiko’s death; she had come to me out of a sense of mission. For in recent years she has taken it upon herself to admire certain aspects of my past, and she had come prepared to tell me things were no different now, that I should have no regrets for those choices I once made. In short, to reassure me l was not responsible for Keiko’s death.

I have no great wish to dwell on Keiko now, it brings me little comfort. I only mention her here because those were the circumstances around Niki’s visit this April, and because it was during that visit I remembered Sachiko again after all this time. I never knew Sachiko well. In fact our friendship was no more than a matter of some several weeks one summer many years ago.

The worst days were over by then. American soldiers were as numerous as ever— for there was fighting in Korea— but in Nagasaki, after what had gone before, those were days of calm and relief. The world had a feeling of change about it.

My husband and I lived in an area to the east of the city, a short tram journey from the centre of town. A river ran near us, and I was once told that before the war a small village had grown up on the riverbank. But then the bomb had fallen and afterwards all that remained were charred ruins. Rebuilding had got under way and in time four concrete buildings had been erected, each containing forty or so separate apartments. Of the four, our block had been built last and it marked the point where the rebuilding programme had come to a halt; between us and the river lay an expanse of wasteground, several acres of dried mud and ditches. Many complained it was a health hazard, and indeed the drainage was appalling. All year round there were craters filled with stagnant water, and in the summer months the mosquitoes became intolerable. From time to time officials were to be seen pacing out measurements or scribbling down notes, but the months went by and nothing was done.

The occupants of the apartment blocks were much like ourselves—young married couples, the husbands having found good employment with expanding firms. Many of the apartments were owned by the firms, who rented them to employees at a generous rate. Each apartment was identical; the floors were tatami, the bathrooms and kitchens of a Western design. They were small and rather difficult to keep cool during the warmer months, but on the whole the feeling amongst the occupants seemed one of satisfaction. And yet I remember an unmistakable air of transience there, as if we were all of us waiting for the day we could move to something better.

One wooden cottage had survived both the devastation of the war and the government bulldozers. I could see it from our window, standing alone at the end of that expanse of wasteground, practically on the edge of the river. It was the kind of cottage often seen in the the countryside, with a tiled roof sloping almost to the ground. Often, during my empty moments, I would stand at my window gazing at it.

To judge from the attention attracted by Sachiko’s arrival, I was not alone in gazing at that cottage. There was much talk about two men seen working there one day—as to whether or not they were government workers. Later there was talk that a woman and her little girl were living there, and I saw them myself on several occasions, making their way across the ditchy ground.

It was towards the beginning of summer—I was in my third or fourth month of pregnancy by then—when I first watched that large American car, white and battered, bumping its way over the wasteground towards the river. It was well into the evening, and the sun setting behind the cottage gleamed a moment against the metal.

Then one afternoon I heard two women talking at the tram stop, about the woman who had moved into the derelict house by the river. One was explaining to her companion how she had spoken to the woman that morning and had received a dear snub. Her companion agreed the newcomer seemed unfriendly—proud probably. She must be thirty at the youngest, they thought, for the child was at least ten. The first woman said the stranger had spoken with a Tokyo dialect and certainly was not from Nagasaki. They discussed for a while her ‘American friend”, then the woman spoke again of how unfriendly the stranger had been to her that morning.

Now I do not doubt that amongst those women I lived with then, there were those who had suffered, those with sad and terrible memories. But to watch them each day, busily involved with their husbands and their children, I found this hard to believe—that their lives had ever held the tragedies and nightmares of wartime. It was never my intention to appear unfriendly, but it was probably true that i made no special effort to seem otherwise, for at that point in my life, I was still wishing to be left alone.

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