Going to the fair was always a winning date. Knock a few cans over, win an oversized lumpy teddy and suddenly he was a hero. And so inspired, original for not taking them to a restaurant or a bar. Women were always easy to impress.
“Richard-san, look!” Manami said, tugging at his sleeve. She pointed at the brightly lit carousel ride. The horses glistened like glazed doughnuts with swirls of pink and white icing through their manes and tails. They bobbed up and down, impaled on the innocuous gold braids, ever-galloping but never going anywhere.
Manami looked up at him through her thick fringe and a knitted woollen hat. The teddy he had won for her was grotesque. The filling of polystyrene balls pressed against its distended belly and its plastic eyes pointed in different directions. As Manami squeezed it to her side, the seams puckered and strained.
They joined the queue of teenagers and children. Glances were thrown at him, eyes widening when they looked down at his petite date with her pastel blue tights and satchel covered in an oversized lace bow. She was drowning in the sheer volume of clothing—the Asian fashion that swamped her frame. A pretty little china doll.
Manami rummaged in her bag. She pulled out a bejewelled mirror and quickly checked her hair was in place before smiling at him.
“You have the most beautiful eyes,” Richard said. Manami looked at him, blushing. “But why don’t you wear makeup?”
She nodded apologetically. “I—I have some at home. I’ll wear it next time.” He watched as she ducked her head.
“And do you own any heels?” he added.
Manami’s mouth was hidden in her knitted scarf, but he saw in the satisfaction that her lip quivered. She shuffled in her fabric pumps as if she could hide her feet from sight. Blinking rapidly, the creases in her face smoothed over like remade dough and she pushed a smile into the cracks. She pulled a small cardboard box from her bag. Richard saw his name on top, surrounded by carefully drawn hearts and smiley faces. “I made you some cookies,” she said, the diminutive gift shielding her from a further appraisal.
He inspected it, every corner and edge scrutinised by an expert eye. Richard had seen better packaging, origami hearts or a furoshiki-wrapped parcel for example. And there wasn’t even a card. He nodded at his date, a non-committal motion of his head.
Inside were a dozen cookies. Lifting one out, he assessed it in the dim light of the carousel bulbs. Generous chocolate chunks began to melt between finger and thumb. He could devour it whole, break from his constructed nonchalance and greedily eat the entire box right now. But that wouldn’t do, wouldn’t suit the image he had established. The scent of freshly baked warmth lingered like unspoken words between them. Richard snapped the cookie in half. “Share one with me,” he said, taking only a tiny bite from the corner.
The cookie was good. It tasted of fervour and anticipation. A little too sweet for his liking but she could be taught, she definitely could be worked on
“It’s not bad. Can you cook anything else?”
“Yes, I enjoy cooking! I cook Asian dishes very well, but now I’m learning to cook Western foods too. What is your favourite food? I can learn to make it for you,” she said.
“I like lasagne, shepherd’s pie, a good Sunday roast, of course. I’ll eat Japanese food if you insist, but only once in a while.”
Manami’s eyes widened and she held her hands up to her mouth as she smiled. “You like Japanese foods? I can make oyakudon and miso soup for you!”
“I’m more open-minded than most,” Richard said, “but no seafood.” He didn’t think it would be appropriate to say that his last three exes had all been Asian. That he had cherry-picked Oriental girls from the dating app.
When the gate opened for them to tumble onto the ride and select their horses, Richard grabbed Manami by the wrist. She looked surprised but did not protest as he pulled her past the nearest horses to a white mare with one cocked hoof and golden hair. Richard let go of her and allowed her to sit side-saddle on the back of the plastic horse. She looked at him strangely then, as if she could not decide whether she liked his audacity or not. But Richard was confident. He had seen it in a Korean drama.
After the ride, they sat in a coffee shop. Manami held a mug of hot chocolate that swamped her lower face. Pink and white marshmallows drowned beneath the mountain of cream. Richard leaned back on the sofa with his tea and admired the view.
“And how has work been?” Manami asked between sips. “Last time you said you were working more from home?”
“Mmm, it’s a much more efficient use of my time. Facetime, email – most things can be done with a laptop.”
“It sounds very interesting to me. But maybe, a little lonely?”
“Working from home is good for the business. But people need companionship, friends. Otherwise… I mean, would anyone even realise if you were sick?”
Richard laughed. “You’re right. It is lonely sometimes. I’m not close to my family anymore.” His brow furrowed. “You don’t get to my age and position without making some sacrifices, Mana-chan.”
The Japanese girl removed her hat and pulled her long black hair over one shoulder. She played with it now, not meeting his eye. “Have you ever been married, Richard-san?”
“Once,” he replied, surprising himself with the honest response, “when I was in my twenties.”
“She was… English?” Manami asked.
“Scottish. We both prioritised our careers and, well… we drifted apart.”
“No.” Richard had bumped into his ex-wife only once in recent years. She’d been pushing a pram along the pavement with a gaggle of other mums, clucking away in a language only they seemed to understand. Her hair was scraped back and shadows had taken up residence under her eyes, but she smiled and laughed as she had never done with him. Not even once did she lift her eyes and catch him observing. This was what he had wanted: the housewife, the mother of his children. But she had said no: she was a modern woman with a career. And yet, in the end, as he always knew she would, she had chosen that life. Just with someone else.
“I’m sorry. I’ve made you sad. Sorry.” Manami touched his hand gingerly.
He shook his head, uncertain where the nostalgia had come from. He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, holding on longer and tighter than was strictly needed. Manami finally broke it off, rubbing her cramped fingers under the table. Richard opened up the checklist he had in his mind, weighing up her strengths and weaknesses with a smack of his lips. It was a most satisfactory outcome.
Richard arrived promptly, ten minutes before they were supposed to meet. He had a dozen red roses and a present wrapped in tissue paper. Tedious and unoriginal and yet that was what they all wanted really. If they were willing to admit it to themselves. Tonight would determine if she met all the requirements, a test Manami was sitting whether she was aware of it or not. She had offered to cook for him and as ever, he would be comparing her skills to his mental checklist. Looking for the jigsaw piece that would fit, even if that meant taking a hacksaw to the edges.
The door was ajar when he arrived. A small furry shape wedged in the gap. Richard pulled it out. It was a toy rabbit with worn and patchy fur. One of its ears had been mended with awkward stitches. Blue glass eyes bore into him. Richard hefted it under his arm and knocked.
Manami answered the door in a sunflower yellow kitchen apron. The smell of rice wafted into the corridor.
“An escapee?” Richard asked, holding out the plushie.
“Oh, silly me!” Manami said with a light laugh, taking the rabbit from him. She bowed a little, then invited him in. Crossing the threshold, Richard felt a most peculiar sensation. Something pressed again his chest. Shoved him, hard. A gale buffering him back towards the door. He took a step back, stopping only because Manami had grabbed his hand in concern.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I— I just feel a little light-headed,” he said. He pushed against the resistance, forced stiff legs forward. Heaved and yanked feet of lead. His vision swam whilst a growing whine pierced his ears. Hands pulled him, Manami’s voice soothing, through the hallway, guiding him to the living room and sitting him down. The cold glass she pressed against his lips was solid. Hard. The coolness slipped down his throat and his senses gradually re-aligned.
“I’m fine, honestly, just a— a dizzy spell,” he said, ignoring rapid punches of adrenaline at his ribcage.
“Are you sure, Richard-san? Do you want to lie down for a moment? Lie down on the couch. It’s okay, really, it’s okay. I am cooking anyway, so…”
Dimly he felt her take off his shoes and swing his feet up onto her cold leather couch. A moist flannel was pressed on his forehead and then the gentle hands were gone. Richard lay there, staring at the swirls in the artex ceiling and felt like an idiot. He hadn’t had a fainting spell since childhood. Perhaps his hours at work were getting too long. He needed someone to take care of him, to cook his dinner and keep his house clean.
Carefully he turned his head to look around. The living room was immaculate. Two cream floor cushions, a low beechwood table, and a sideboard. There were no pictures on the walls, no photos nor ornaments, unusual compared to the other women’s houses he had been to.
Only a single glass vase with a cut cherry blossom branch. Some of the blossoms had already wilted and fallen onto the table.
The ringing in his ears had not subsided. Keen whistling. It was like a cold wind punching through his eardrums so that his temples throbbed. He sat up and pressed at the sides of his head.
“How are you feeling?” Manami said, holding a tray of drinks as her slippers slapped across the laminate flooring. She knelt beside him and slid the tray onto the coffee table.
“I’m fine!” Richard lied. Things were not going to plan. He was supposed to take charge of the situation, not the other way around. “Stop fussing.”
Manami plucked the errant rabbit plushie where she had dropped it earlier. “Sorry for the mess, I can’t keep track sometimes!”
“You have many?” Richard said.
“A few. I guess you could call me a collector. When I’m lonely, I like to cuddle them,” Manami said, laughing at herself, “and when I get stressed, or angry, I like to—” She jabbed the rabbit in the face with a little punch, her nose screwed up and her mouth a pout of concentration. Richard laughed along with her. Manami couldn’t hurt someone if she tried. “But they keep forever.”
“You keep them forever,” Richard corrected insistently. Manami had been in the country for a year, and she had said some odd things on their previous dates. It had been endearing at first, but lately, it had started to irritate him. If she wanted to live here, she should learn the language. And the toy collection…? It wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but it really depended on what she meant by “a few”
“I brought you a present,” Richard said.
“Shall I open it?” Manami asked. Her hands already cupped the small parcel he had brought for her. Her fingers were carefully pinched around the curling ends of the decorative ribbon as though they were pinning back the wings of a butterfly.
This is why he liked them, the Asian girls he had dated. Always so submissive, so obedient. “Of course, it’s for you,” he said.
The heart-shaped pendant hung on a silver chain with a single diamante in it. Manami gasped, her hands covering her mouth. “Oh, Richard, Richard it’s… beautiful.”
He smiled, helping her clasp it around her neck. Women were magpies, and anything shiny was an easy winner. He had a loyalty card with the jewelry shop; made the most of it with his repeat purchases.
Manami threw her arms around Richard’s neck.
“Suki desu,” Richard said. The ubiquitous Japanese declaration of love.
Manami pulled away and stared at him in disbelief. “Are you sure?”
The headache pounded at the edges of his vision, but Richard wasn’t going to let it ruin his chances with this girl. His mental checklist was awash with ticks. Sure, he was still dating a Korean girl and messaging a few others, but Manami was close to perfect. Or she would be after he had sandpapered the edges.
Richard did his best to ignore his aching forehead and the sounds that crawled up his neck like fingernails.
Manami bent in to kiss him.
He must have blanked out.
Chopsticks lay in his hands and half a bowl of rice in front of him. Manami smiled at him across the kitchen table. A bitter taste filled his mouth and the crumbs of a finished dish lay scattered on a patterned blue plate before him. The kitchen behind Manami was cluttered with opened jars and unwashed plates. She was a messy cook, although there was not a single pan on the cooker. Manami scooped more of the dish up from a large bowl. She dumped a mass of congealed beige before him. Looked expectant, adoring.
Pretending confidence, Richard picked up a sizeable portion and shovelled it into his mouth. It tasted of nothing. Like candy floss dissolving on his palate but without the sweetness. Strands clung to the roof of his mouth, and he drained his glass to push it down.
“That should be enough,” Manami said.
“What, erm, was that dish?”
“Silly, I’ve told you already!” she said, twirling the pendant he had given her.
“Such an, um, unusual name though,” Richard said.
“In English, it is translated as ‘filled up’? You know, your stomach. Oh, I mean stuffing, that’s it, stuffing! For the chicken, the Christmas one.”
“Do you mean like sausage meat for the turkey?”
Manami shook her head, “No, not meat. It’s not a British dish… it’s a family recipe.” Her lower lip quivered. “You said you liked it, don’t you?”
“Of yes, it was fine, but next time I come you should make steak and chips,” Richard said.
“Next time,” Manami echoed, smiling with her teeth. The way she said it was less in agreement but something else. A slight curve of mockery? No, he must be imagining it. She struggled to understand humour at the best of times.
But she did not hunch over and look at her lap anymore. Straight-backed, Manami held his eye until he was the one to turn away. Her clothes had changed too. The pretty dress and apron had been replaced by a stained T-shirt and leggings. It was not a look he went for.
Something distracted him from his musings. An itch on his leg. He rubbed his ankles together. It subsided for a moment and then he felt it again. Glancing under the table, Richard found the toy rabbit again. Richard stared at it in confusion.
Manami grabbed it up and stroked the rabbit’s head. “Silly. We’ll have to fix you up.”
“I, uh, just need to use your bathroom,” Richard said, standing up from the table. He closed the kitchen door firmly behind him. Looking around, Richard headed straight for Manami’s bedroom. He needed to check what the damage was. A few toys he could handle, but …
Her bedroom was cream and pink with heart-shaped cushions piled up on the bed. In contrast to the living room, it was a very messy space. Richard warily stepped between the discarded clothes and pieces of fluff that littered the floor. On the dressing table, a sewing box lay splayed open. He ran his fingers through the clutter of needles and thread, plastic spools rolling haphazardly although he could not see a sewing machine nor any craft projects. Nor any toys for that matter.
Richard glanced back at the kitchen door before crossing the room to the built-in wardrobe. At first, the louvered cream doors were stiff when he pulled them. He yanked hard, falling back against the corner of the bed as they finally creaked open. Three shelves of plushies filled the wardrobe: cats, dogs, teddies, a veritable menagerie of soft lifeless faces. A yellow duck with a crooked beak, a discoloured cat with a crudely restitched tail, three chipmunks with grimaces sewn ear to ear. There was a blob-shaped like a sad teardrop and a star with an inane grin. A penguin with its mouth agape rolled across the carpet and stared up at him.
He heard feet moving behind the kitchen door and the handle began to turn. Richard raced across the bedroom and into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. Gripping the sink, he looked at himself in the mirror. His vision blurred over and refocused. The room swayed like after a heavy night of drinking. His eyes were bloodshot and his reflection lurched towards him. So, she liked to practise stitching on her toys. He thought about the other reasons he had stopped dating girls and tried to put this along the hierarchy. Tried, and failed.
“Come on Richard, pull yourself together,” he whispered to the glass. Straightening up, he cleared his throat and tried to look convincing. Picked a piece of fluff from his collar, another from his hair. His hand hovered over the bin. It was full: filled entirely with fluff: soft and cotton-like, all of it stained like rust with dried blood.
He crouched, heart, thudding so loud that he could hear it ringing in his ears. He swallowed, but his throat was scratched dry with the remnants of the meal. He turned on the tap and splashed water on his face, scooped handfuls of it into his mouth greedily and hoping the cold water would calm his nerves. There had to be a rational explanation. Women had… periods. Disgusting though, for her to leave it out like that. But that was all it was.
A steady dripping sound entered his consciousness. He had turned off the water but there it was. Tap, tap, tapping. Richard looked at himself in the mirror, the water clinging to his short hair like sweat beads. Noticed for the first time the drawn shower curtain behind him. His eyes looked back, daring him.
It was like the white curtain around hospital cubicles. The rings scraped against the rail, a harsh metallic clank like manacles snapping shut. Three toy carcasses lay across a drying rack, limp and skinned. They had been turned inside out and every shred of stuffing removed. The dripping came from the leg of the last toy. The bear he had won at the fair. Its paunch sagged with excess skin and those inverted beady eyes stared at him. The liquid pooled onto the white enamel, a red stream idly dribbling down the drain.
Richard backed up until he stood against the wall. He stared at the skins, clutching for a logical explanation. His head ran through his mental checklists, switched it to a barchart, a sliding scale. It fell right off the end and kept running. His head pulsed with one repeated scream. Get out.
Carefully opening the bathroom door, Richard looked into the hallway. The kitchen was round the corner and Manami would never know. He inched his way into the hall. He just needed to grab his shoes.
Each time he looked down, dark spots filled his vision and he had to stop. Richard squeezed his eyes shut and told himself to just get out. Barefooted if necessary. He opened his eyes again and took the last few steps, his hands reaching for the deadlock. Something blocked his way.
Shoes. Leather brogues in tan and black, dirty trainers, suede loafers and espadrilles were heaped up all around the door. All men’s shoes, his included, removed on entry and never reclaimed. The errant rabbit plushie sat atop the heap, watching him.
“You can’t leave,” Manami said from behind him. “We haven’t had dessert.”
Richard waded through the shoes and yanked at the lock: twisting it, shaking it to no avail.
“You said you’d teach me to be a good girlfriend. Fix me.” Her voice was directly behind him now, right by his ear.
“You have toy skins…”
Her hands were on his shoulders and she spun him around slowly. Manami was holding the bear. It was nothing more than a skinned pelt, folded over on itself, limbs waving uselessly to and fro. Richard’s own full stomach protested.
“I like to repair things too, you see. The defective ones, the ones that tick my list,” Manami said. She stood with a hand on her hip looking down at him. Richard’s stomach cramped and he bent over, bowing to her despite himself. She was nothing more than a petite Asian girl. He could handle her.
The cramp passed and Richard pulled himself back up. “I don’t know what sort of perversion you are into but that’s enough. Unlock this door right now and—” He stopped, mouth dry, and gagged. Something caught in his throat. Richard tried to swallow the bile back down but the feeling was overwhelming. He vomited. The contents of his stomach spilt over the strangers’ shoes, over the welcome mat and his own feet. Gasping as he finished, he stared down at the mess. It was stuffing. White downy stuffing. His whole chest had caved in.
“Now I fix you,” Manami said. She crouched down beside him, a threaded needle in her hand. Richard looked up, surprised as she loomed above him.
He tried to shove her away. Stubby limbs flapped ineffectively. Too short to push, too weak to offer any resistance. They merely waved at her arm, tickling her. He stared at the stumps, open-mouthed, trying, again and again, to curl and uncurl his fingers. His ears rang with a voiceless scream.
“What…I…no… Now listen to me, girl!” he started.
Manami clamped her hand over his mouth. Her hand was so big it covered his whole face, squashing the soft fur around his cheeks. Richard scrambled in panic, shaking his head although his eyes were rivetted in place: glued to her face, to the contemplative tilt of her head as she examined the problem from each angle. He scrunched his eyes closed. It was just a dream. A nightmare.
But on the third time, his eyes would not close. They were locked open, pupils dilated into perfectly round plastic beads.
“First thing’s first.” She started to sew his mouth shut.
About the Author
Eliza Chan writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. Her work has been published in British Fantasy Award-nominated Asian Monsters, Podcastle and Fantasy Magazine.