In a snack bar just outside the exclusion zone, Endo unzipped his jeans. The back room was wooden, dusty, dark and empty apart from some dwindling crates of stock and a mirror. He looked down at Mai. She was young, half his age, twenty-four maybe, with a chubby round face and crooked teeth but she had cute dimples. Endo wondered if she was scared. He laid back and closed his eyes. His body ached. He was glad it was Friday. Even though he had work the next morning, for now, he didn’t want to think about it.
Out at the bar, Ken-kun was singing karaoke. He was always the first to get drunk. The bar was narrow and long with the same musty brown decor as the back room, ten of his colleagues were seated along it on high wooden stools, sipping shochu or beer and smoking cigarettes. They were laughing and talking, some singing and clapping along with Ken-kun, some trying to ignore him.
Endo walked over to his stool, now occupied by Ken-kun, who jumped up, apologised and then stumbled back into the music. Endo ruffled through his jacket and found his phone. Spread over a contract of two years, he hadn’t paid a single yen upfront. The company took care of his accommodation and meals, so even after sending money home he had some to spare. There were two missed calls but he put it back in his pocket. He did that a lot, take it out from his pocket for no reason and then put it back. Every few minutes he would do it.
The mama-san smiled at him and asked him if he’d like another sho-chu. Endo declined, said he was working in the morning and he would just have a beer. She said he worked so hard and when she put the beer down she smiled at him. The lashes of her eyes, her lips, her hair dyed black- even here she made an effort. He appreciated that.
-What will you do when you leave? Yamada-san asked.
Yamada was younger than Endo but looked older. Quiet and serious, he had an unusually thick moustache which made him look like a figure from the history books, those early Meiji pioneers with with their stiff western collars.
– Who says I’m leaving?
– Ken-kun told me on the bus. He said you’ll have reached the limit soon.
At the end of the every day, they would board the bus back to J-Village. It was a good thirty minute drive so nearly everybody would fall asleep- they were tired from working under the heat of the plastic suits, the masks and everything else. Only Ken-kun would stay awake and whoever was unfortunate enough to be sitting next to him.
-Ken-kun talks too much, Endo said.
He was surprised to hear Yamada laugh.
That evening they had dragged themselves off the bus as usual and joined the queue. They began to strip off all their gear as they entered the gym. Some men couldn’t wait and they tore at it with both hands. Endo started with the plastic shoe covering and threw it into a bag with all the others. Next came the respirators and then the white bodysuits. They would all be taken into the stadium and added to the mountain of contamination. The cold air hit the sweat on his skin and his legs felt buoyant. People started to talk and laugh again. Endo walked onto a sticky mat, to catch the hot particles, and was frisked for radiation. Over head the clock read 2.46 pm. He was handed a record of his exposure,as small as a receipt. Endo looked at it and then rolled it up and stuck it behind his ear.
– Endo-san, you’re phone is ringing.
– I’ll call them back.
– I don’t know what I’ll do when I reach the limit.
Endo wondered why Yamada had become so chatty now. Maybe he couldn’t handle his drink. Maybe he was always this stupid and just hid it behind his silence and his moustache.
-You’ll find another job, Endo said.
-Not with this kind of money. Not on a plant.
The phone began to vibrate in Endo’s pocket.
-Excuse me, Yamada-san, I’ll be right back.
Endo put on his jacket and squeezed outside.
The younger men crouched down on their haunches against the wall. Two of the guys from Osaka were playing out a comedy routine, a funny and a straight man. One was shouting in a strong Kansai accent ‘You idiot! That’s not the reactor. That’s my car!’ and the other was bowing deeply and apologising. Endo laughed and lit up a cigarette. Somebody offered him a beer but he refused. He smoked the cigarette and he dropped it down a drain. He took his phone out of his pocket and he played with it between his fingers.
– Mother, I’m sorry I missed your calls.
– I’m fine.
– I’m sorry, I was busy.
– It’s busy.
– There is no reason to worry.
– Don’t worry.
– We have suits and masks and everything.
– But you’re ok?
– You’re ok?
– Good. Mother, I’m sorry I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow.
– Yes. You too.
The men climbed onto the bus in the morning, suited up and silent. Some men had drunk too much and it would be a difficult day for them. The sky was clear but the sun was heavy. It was getting hotter. Soon there would be rain, thick rain to mark the transition of seasons and that would bring new problems. Then the summer would break through, rust-red and sweating.
By a stroke of bad luck he ended up with a seat next to Ken-kun. Ken-kun talked loudly about the night before. How much fun it was. Mai is very cute. Do you know that the french for orgasm is the little death?
Endo looked out the window and sighed. The abandoned fields were getting long but apart from that they looked healthy, a fine wind combing the blue green grass. Little houses soaking up the sunlight through their empty windows.
They entered the town of Namie. A sign said ‘Welcome to Namie’. The sun streamed down the streets, across shop fronts and front doors. The shops were shuttered and packs of dogs lay beneath them, lapping up the heat with their tongues or peering from beneath the shade of parked cars. They passed a primary school and clock over the entrance read 2.46 pm. The students would be finished lunch. They would be cleaning the school, covered in the sweat and dust of the school yard. Or they would be starting an afternoon lesson, looking out the window and wondering how long until they could go home. A little more towards the coast it would be different. The roads would be cracked, the fields clear. The houses and schools strewn in shattered pieces, scattered randomly with the crumpled cars.
The bus stopped, throwing Endo forward and his respirator slammed against the back of the seat in front of him. The driver cursed and blew his horn. Out on the road he saw a cow, a mother with a young calf by her side. They were lucky they had escaped their farm. Someone had left them go before the evacuation, knowing they would die of starvation otherwise. They ignored the horn and they grazed on the tufts of grass pushing out from the cracks in the road. The driver blew his horn again and eventually the mother moved out of the way, the calf followed and the bus continued its journey towards the reactor.
–Story by John Keating
–Photography by Manuel Estheim