Angel in a Cardboard Box



The first thing Papa saw when he woke up in the morning was a picture of Paris. Mounted in a tarnished clip-frame, it hung on the wall, an aerial view of the Eiffel Tower and the surrounding avenues. Papa had cut it from a guidebook he’d found in a coin-laundry.
After waking, Papa carried out the routine familiar through years of habit. He took a swig of the water from the plastic bottle by his bedside. He carefully rolled up his sleeping-bag, and shoved it under the sawn-off coffee-table. He wistfully scanned the pictures of children in kimonos that he had tacked to the wall, close to the Eiffel tower. Then he put on his moldering sports shoes, and climbed out of his cardboard box to check the morning weather.
March was a treacherous time to be homeless. It held the promise of spring, but a deliciously warm day could sometimes be followed by the vicious cold of a winter that refuses to surrender. A cold that was, for many individuals Papa knew personally, potentially lethal. Leaving the gloom of the box interior, and standing alone in the quiet alley outside, Papa scanned the sky. It would be clear today, but cold.
The alley lay in a neglected corner of central Shibuya, Tokyo, sheltering under a pedestrian bridge and bordered by the parking lot of a warehouse. At one end of the alley stood the steps leading to a small park, shunned by all except the young, aggressive, Shibukaji kids who carried out nameless deals in its dark, graffiti-stained corners. At the other end lay the bustling streets that carried bright young people to the restaurants and department stores. None of them bothered or interrupted Papa and his compatriots, as they nestled underneath the bridge in their forlorn village of boxes.
Pulling his broom from behind the cardboard box, Papa stretched, hearing bones click like mah-jong tiles on a table, and began to methodically sweep the tunnel. The grit and discarded trash on the sidewalk could turn into an offensive dust when the wind picked up, getting into the eyes and the clothes of the villages population. The tunnel was not frequented by many; most were unaware of its existence, and the few salarymen who traversed it, seeking a short cut to the station, marched through with heads bowed, eyes fixed on the ground or on their own slim leather briefcases.
Papa constantly badgered the rest of the tunnel’s inmates to follow his example. In the morning, clear up and sort through any new garbage that had been placed in the surrounding area. Go to the station, and when the subway trains had pulled in and had disgorged their passengers, scan the racks for manga left behind. On a street near their tunnel, Papa and his compatriots would take turns throughout the day and evening, selling their finds for one hundred yen each. In the afternoon, he would take anyone who was well enough to the nearby temple or the charity centre, for hot food doled out by volunteers. Sometimes he would go alone to the back entrance of a nearby tonkatsu shop, where a sympathetic owner would give him bags of leftovers. He was a rare one, and an old acquaintance of Papa’s; most managers would now deliberately grind cigarette ash and broken cutlery in with the food scraps, to discourage the homeless. After leaving the discreet corner where they sold their manga, Papa and whoever he was with would carry their stock home, and in his box, Papa would read from his store of books by a flashlight he taped in place on the ceiling.
It was good to have a routine.
Papa would have no truck with the new breed of homeless, who would go up to ordinary people and pester them for money. Some of them, he had heard, approached gaijin to beg in broken English.
Unacceptable. Papa had his routine, he had his tunnel, and he had his pride. He had seen many others come, and seen many go; but he always asked them to co-operate with each other.
Arriving at the Shibuya Community Centre a little before twelve, Papa was shown a seat and given pork cutlets over rice, and a bowl of steaming miso soup. Papa savored his meal slowly, exchanging comments with those closest to him on the flimsy plastic table, watching from beneath the brim of his cap the nervous, fresh-faced volunteers in the kitchen.
On this afternoon, before he went on duty selling comics, he returned to his refuge and read some more – a novel he had read and admired many times, a great writer from the Meiji era. He sat in his Toshiba foldaway home, a threadbare rug over his knees, the flaps open to admit the dusty air. Every once in a while, Papa would shift position, when the grumbling from his back became too much.
Sometime before evening, as dusk began to bleed the life out of the sky, Papa’s concentration was broken. Furtive scrabbling came from the makeshift homestead next to Papa’s, and the old man felt it as well as heard it, the movements of his neighbor vibrating the cardboard wall behind Papa’s head. Moments later, he heard it: a low groan of discomfort. It was followed by others, that grew into a steady monotone of distress, a half-wailing that grated on the nerves.
Papa frowned. His neighbour, Yamashita-san, was a little deficient in the mental department, but he was mostly quiet. He wasn’t given to the horrible incoherent rambling that Papa had seen in some of his colleagues. Perhaps Yamashita-san was suffering from indigestion; very likely, considering the inedible trash he habitually shoveled into his mouth.
“Are you all right?” Papa called, a little halfheartedly. Then he realized; Yamashita-san was on the south side of Papa’s box. Behind him there was only the storage box that held the manga. Papa had no neighbor on the other side.
Confused, concerned and a little angered, Papa climbed out to investigate. Squeezed into the space between Papa’s box and the storage carton was a small hovel of cardboard and stiff paper. Papa could not remember seeing it before. Moreover, he could not think of who the tenant might be, and he prided himself on knowing all of the alley’s occupants by name or nickname.
He peered closely at the corporate labels half-washed away from the sides of the box. Either his eyesight was fading, or the Japanese characters were of a type unknown to him. He stood there wondering whether he should greet the new tenant. The moaning had stopped, and so had the movement. Presumably whoever was inside had fallen asleep. Shadows clinging to his stiff arms and legs, Papa climbed back into his box.
It was not long before Papa was disturbed by his neighbor again. He had fallen into a fitful doze, the book having fallen onto his chest. He awoke with a start, and a sudden feeling of alarm, as if were the first rumblings of an earthquake.
The moaning had returned, from a point that seemed to be a few centimeters behind Papa’s head. This time it was mixed with sobbing, and spates of occasional deep, sour cursing. “Are you all right?” Papa called, in resentment as well as concern. “Hello! What’s up?”
This time he received an answer. “I’ve had enough,” the voice said. It was a comment Papa had heard many times before. What shocked him now, though, was not the intensity of despair and scorn in the voice. What shocked him was that the voice belonged to a woman.
“I’ve had enough,” the voice repeated. It was an elderly voice; it could have been the voice of a grandmother. Papa had met several homeless women around Tokyo in the past few years, and the experience had always been deeply unsettling.
“I’ve lived for too long,” the quavering voice continued. “Why can’t I just die? Why can’t I just finish it?”
“That’s foolish talk!” Papa called in a stern voice. “There’s always something to be learned from your troubles. It doesn’t matter how bad things are. There’s always a reason for living, if you can just find it and hold onto it. ”
The moaning abated, and sank into a quiet, mournful, sniffing. After a while, the voice returned, calmer than before. “You’re Papa, aren’t you? They call you Papa. I know about you. I feel very encouraged to hear your voice.”
Papa chuckled, and nodded his head in acknowledgement. Even when homeless and destitute, he could still be charming.
“Yes, I’ve heard about you. The people of this tunnel respect you a lot, even if they don’t show it sometimes. You’ve helped them a lot. You’ve become quite a retainer for the homeless, haven’t you? That’s why I have been looking for you. That’s why I followed you here.”
Papa shrugged off the blanket and sat up. He was not going to keep his peace of mind tonight, he realized grimly. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been following you ever since that day in Corridor 4, Papa,” the voice replied.



About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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