Irene & Matilde

A tale of mystery and imagination from the pen of Stephen Forster

by Stephen Forster

“SO IT STRUCK YOU AS ODD.”

“Of course. She was nothing like the photo.”

“Well, it does happen. You should see the picture in my driving licence.”

“Not that different though. I’d studied the photo quite a bit.”

I didn’t doubt him there. For once he looked me in the eye instead of finding some other point in the room to address.

“That’s why I was taken aback when she walked up to me. Look.”

From a drawer, he pulled out two photos, scanned over them a second and handed the pair over. They did indeed show completely different women. The one utterly plain, broad of face, the mouth clamped shut, I suspected, so as to conceal a panel of prominent teeth. The other quite striking, even without make-up, her features almost vulpine.

“Hmm, I can see how disappointed you must have been when you finally saw the woman.”

He gave me an uncomprehending stare, then yanked the photos from my hands.

“No. You don’t get it.” He stabbed the picture of the attractive woman almost into my nose: “This is her!”

BACK IN THE CAR, I skimmed through my scrawled notes to make sure I’d got everything. Hauling out a tape recorder in these parts usually scares the daylights out of interviewees, and they tend to clam up as they warily eye the whirring machine. It all seemed to be there. I took a last view at the drab farmhouse stuck within its drab landscape and started the engine, aware, without having to check, that Oishi would be watching me from behind the curtains.

Might this be a real story at last? The other Filipinas and their farmer husbands all formed variations of the same pattern. The women had come expecting some gleaming, modern-fantasy Japan, but found when they got here that they had just made it all the way from one rural dump to another. One marriage and a child or two later, and the discontent of both spouses was as plain as the thick Yamagata accents each had come to acquire.

But Matilde was different. That much was clear when I spoke earlier to Sonia — apparently the only person Matilde ever did talk to, including her husband. It was Sonia who put me on to her. When I told Sonia how her own less-than-happy tale so resembled all the rest, she suggested I see Oishi: “Get him to tell you about Matilde. That’s a story you won’t have heard.”

And Oishi did have a lot to say about her, talking for an hour about their life together. It was clear, though, that the woman was almost as much a mystery to him on that day more than a year earlier when he found her brief note on the table, stating that she had left him for good, as when he first saw her striding toward him at Narita Airport.

I certainly had enough material for my piece — a standard sort of magazine story on how this particular exercise in international relations was working out in Yamagata. It seemed ploddingly routine to me now, but it was the kind of assignment I would have killed for a decade ago. I thought the time away from Tokyo and Shigeo would somehow do me good, yet after a week of Yamagata I’d had enough. But now Matilde had appeared, and she intrigued me. I wasn’t sure what to make of her, but it was enough to get the journalistic blood coursing that bit more quickly through my veins. I went to try Sonia again.

“Sure I know more about her.” Sonia eyed me dryly. Some foreign music was playing softly as we sat alone in her living room with its subdued lighting, pleasantly unlike the other farmhouses, which all seemed to be floodlit as if for a baseball game.

“Do you know where I can find Matilde?”

“I envy you, you know. You’re a woman with a career. Not reduced to this.” She swept her hand towards a clutter of toys lying in a corner. “I’m happy when I get him out the house. It’s worth him wasting his money on the pachinko or whatever, so that with the kids asleep I can have the time to myself.” She slowly surveyed the room. “Those children. Their mother tongue is their father’s tongue. I try teaching them Tagalog, but it’s like teaching them algebra.”

“Would things have been any better in the Philippines?”

“No. It’s because they weren’t better there and had no chance of getting better that I came here. You don’t arrive with grand dreams — not unless you’re a fool. You just come hoping for a slightly thicker slice of the pie.”

“Would you ever go back?”

“Ha!” Sonia refilled the blue-and-white porcelain cups. “You know, packets and packets of green tea are the one thing I’d take back with me.”

“What, just that and the kids?”

Sonia smiled: “Matilde, she’s smart too. We Filipinas come here; we marry these farmers and give them the children they crave to help stop this tiny piece of Yamagata from shriveling into nothing. But not Matilde.” She brushed back her hair with her hand, took up a mirror and regarded her face critically. “Here.” She put the mirror down and handed me a folded piece of paper from her purse. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find her there. If Matilde wants to talk, she’ll talk.”

AFTER I GOT BACK TO TOKYO I rang the number, expecting to reach some Kabukicho hostess joint. But I was surprised to find myself talking to a respectable-sounding young man at a real-estate agency. I went directly over to the place. When I arrived, I was fortunate that the one I’d spoken to — smartly suited, late 20s — had the time and inclination to spend with a passably attractive reporter who, on a good day, might charitably be taken for her late 20s. I was fortunate too that he was one of those quaint creatures who have it in their heads that a journalist’s work is somehow rather exciting.

He didn’t recognize Matilde’s name, so I showed him the photo I’d borrowed — after swearing to its return — from Oishi. The young man scrutinized the picture with the same concentration as he’d scrutinized my name card. “That’s certainly Irene Perez,” he declared. “Her hair’s different. There’s no . . . trouble is there?”

“None whatsoever. None I know of. Why, was she the trouble-making sort?”

“No. Quite the opposite. Everybody liked her. She got on well with people. She was fine with clients. Many are foreign professional types, so she spoke English or Tagalog to them. And she spoke Japanese with the staff. We were sorry when she left.”

“When was that?”

“Oh, five, six months ago.”

“Leave quite suddenly, did she?”

“How do you know?”

“Just guessing. I don’t suppose she left any contact details?”

“Afraid not.” His pocket suddenly started trilling the theme from “Star Wars.” He pulled the mobile phone out, peered at the display, frowned and turned the thing off. It took him a second to recall where he was. “Can I take it that your story won’t make any mention of this office?”

In my book, the journalist who can’t produce a look of unclouded sincerity at the drop of a hat isn’t worth her salt: “Absolutely.”

“Well, we deal with smaller properties, but we’re also involved with larger developments. Irene was keen to get into golf.”

“Golf?”

“Yes. Out in Chiba. We handle property-management services for a course there. Irene was eager to do that sort of work. Once she’s decided on something, she’s rather good at getting her way.”

A GOLF COURSE. It was a slender chance, but it was either that or trying to corner someone else at the agency. Well, no — another option was simply giving up on the whole damn thing. I called the number the assistant at the agency gave me.

“Hello this is Ms. Perez.” It wasn’t hard putting on the Filipina lilt I’d heard all week. I waited for some recognition at the other end.

“Good morning, Ms. Perez. How are you? Have you called to confirm the booking?”

The ease of the ploy almost took me aback. “That’s right. Er . . . sorry, I don’t seem to have my diary. When was that again?”

“Tomorrow at 3:30.” There was a hint of surprise in his voice: his Ms. Perez wouldn’t normally forget.

“Oh yes, yes. That’s fine. Thanks.”

Sonia had mentioned luck. And I’d never been so lucky with such a tenuous lead. I knew where Matilde was going to be the next day — unless she canceled. From Yamagata farm to Chiba golf club in a year: what had she been up to?

I picked Bovary up from the cattery, and she treated me with her usual contempt after a separation of more than a few days. It was not easy passing the time until the next day. I couldn’t settle into my work. There were calls on the answering machine, but not the one I’d hoped for. I leaned on the railing of my minuscule balcony and stared out over the tired roofs and facades of Takadanobaba. Shigeo’s flat lay in the opposite direction. I lost track of the times I was about to phone him, only to pull myself back at the last moment.

The next day I put on the kind of smart informal get-up I imagined someone might wear to a golf club and took a taxi to the place from the nearest station. There was nowhere in the car park to hang around inconspicuously, so I decided I’d have to try and meet Matilde in the changing room. This club was not the casual sort. But in my book the journalist who can’t get herself into a place at the drop of a hat isn’t worth her salt. I found a back way in and made for the main building. Someone spotted me and looked as if he might ask what I was doing. But I strode on past him as if I owned the place. He let me be.

The club was fairly busy for a mid-afternoon, and a woman without any golf clubs was able to find her way to the changing rooms without making herself too obvious. At 10 past 3 Matilde swept in as I was fiddling around with my bag, trying to look occupied. Though the photo Oishi had lent me showed the right woman, I felt I was just as surprised seeing her as he must have been at Narita. Gone was the practical short bob of the farmer’s wife, and instead she had long, rich, tinted hair. The collar was upturned on her crisp, open-neck white shirt; tightish black trousers were tucked into Prussian-blue boots. She glanced at me and after dumping her bag on the bench proceeded to twirl her hair into a knot before the mirror.

“Matilde?”

Her aplomb was impressive. She carried on putting her hair into place, fixing it with a pin, regarding it, taking the pin out and repeating the operation until she was satisfied. Only then did she turn to face me.

“So how is Sonia? Still with that clod?”

“Not too happy. And yes she is.”

“I told her she should leave. That’s why you’re standing here. I gave her that number as her way out.”

“But you’re no longer with the agency.”

“Chances don’t wait around forever. And you? You’re not with the authorities; you’re not a detective.”

“Reporter.”

“Ah, on a story. Well I’ve got a round of golf to play — unless I get bored and stop half-way through. It does happen. There’s a convenience store a kilometer down the road. Wait for me there in a couple of hours or so. I don’t know yet if I’ll talk to you. But if I do, I’ll be there.” She swung the locker door to and strode away.

IT WAS A SLEEK, BLACK BMW that pulled in to the empty Lawson’s car park. She stared straight ahead after stopping, waiting for me to get in.

“What should I call you — Matilde, Irene?”

“Call me what you like.” She smiled — rather engagingly — for the first time as she pulled away. “You won’t be seeing me again, so you won’t be making a habit of it.”

“What’s your story?”

“The Philippines is 7,000 islands. I was born at the rat-shit end of the archipelago. I knew things had to be better elsewhere because they couldn’t possibly be any worse than in my hometown. When I could get away, I made it to Manila. And there, I had the chance of making it to Japan. Now that struck me as a way of lifting myself into a whole new life.”

“How?”

“I was approached by one of the slimeball recruiters. They don’t say of course that they’re taking you over to become a whore. They make out you’re going to work as a dancer or a singer or whatever. But the dumb clucks fall for it.”

“You’re not dumb. Why didn’t you go to college?”

“Education costs money, and there are Filipina college grads cleaning floors for white bankers in Hong Kong. No. I went along with it. I got on the plane with some other girls, but I shook them off at Narita. Even spent the night there. It was my first and quite definitely last experience of having to sleep in a toilet. The slobs that bring you over usually grab your passport. But I still had mine. I figured that a day or two would be long enough for them to grow tired of waiting for me. It was.”

“And then?”

“I waited for a flight in from Manila and joined the first passengers off the plane. When I stepped out into the arrival lounge, I had no clear idea what to do. I knew nobody. Money would soon run out. But then I saw this placid-looking guy holding a sign with a Filipina name on it. And it struck me that I could pretend to be her — play it along and see how far it went. I had nothing to lose. It became clear what he was waiting for. He was surprised I wasn’t the girl in the picture — but he wasn’t disappointed. When the agency called, Oishi said there was no problem: he’d paid his money; he had his Filipina.”

“What about the differences in name and photo?”

“Language can be a convenient fog if you want it to be. I explained later that as a Catholic, I had a confirmation name, which I’d used with the agency, as well as my passport name. As for the photo, I said I had no idea — agencies have so many girls, perhaps they’d sent the wrong picture. Oishi wanted to believe me.”

“So you married and became the Yamagata wife.”

“It gave me stable visa status, and I used my time: I made it my business to learn Japanese. He’s not a bad man, Oishi. A dull man, but not a bad man. When his sporadic efforts didn’t result in the hoped-for child, he blamed himself, unaware of the steps I was taking.”

“How did you get away?”

“He gave me a little money. I managed to put some by for the fare to Tokyo and future expenses. When I could afford it and my Japanese was strong, I left. I landed in Tokyo. I landed on the seamy side of Tokyo which, believe me, reporter or not, you don’t want to know about. I did, well, various things. I didn’t want to be encumbered with the Japanese name, so I sorted out a new identity. I figured that my best way up was with that cruddy real-estate agency. I pushed myself into an area where I could meet clients with money and got myself a wealthy dentist. Not so bad-looking either. It’s astounding how much people make from something as simple as teeth.”

“So you never felt bad — about Oishi or the girl he never met in Narita?”

“My mother died delivering her fifth child. Little Sara died with her. My father took off not long after. Uncle Filipe was my first pimp. Sentimentality doesn’t run too far where I come from. The Filipina who Oishi set out to meet will get herself some other farmer desperate for a wife: they’re not in short supply. And Oishi, like I say, he’s not a bad man. He was decent to me. I gave him two years, which is more than I’ve given anybody. Every so often, he finds something in his account. But, as you know, these marriages never work. Japanese farmers and Filipinas from the sticks are not matches made in heaven. I was brought over as a prostitute and I became a mail-order bride — the two are not so far apart.”

The car had stopped and we were sitting in front of the station. “Has anyone else heard this story?”

“No.”

“Why me?”

“Why not? Print the yarn if you like. You’re not stupid enough to use real names. You’re the only person with the wit or inclination to have found me. Sonia wouldn’t have passed the number on to anybody. And as for you, I would guess that you have problems enough of your own. Here,” she handed me a small packet, “try chewing gum instead of your fingernails.”

Now that girl has a point, I thought, as I watched her drive away. And she has a BMW. And she has a life. I bit into a stick of gum, examined my fingernail stumps, recalled that I had an assignment to complete and suddenly realized I was keen to get stuck into it. I strode up to the ticket machine and slid the coins into the slot. Fuck Shigeo, I decided as the last coin fell, just as I decided that even if he did call, I no longer would.