A short story written in lockdown
by Helen Friedlande
The Reseller stared at the window, pimpled with rain. Beyond the glass, the narrow Tokyo street was a fast flowing river. Glazed grey tiles on the building opposite, slicked with water, glinted and shone through the gloom.
He averted his eyes.
Things could scarcely be worse, he thought.
First pandemic; now rainy season.
He shifted his gaze.
Gucci and Luis Vuitton handbags, piled haphazardly on each other, almost completely obstructed access to the cupboard where he kept his clothes. Six months ago they were a portal to wealth; now they were clutter; an obstacle course preventing him from getting to his shorts.
Behind them were heaped t-shirts, caps and memorabilia for the Tokyo Olympics that had never happened.
All taking up space; none of them likely to find a new home soon.
On the other side of the world, the English teacher was waking up.
She sat up briefly, then slouched putting her head in her hands. After a moment she slid back under the bedclothes and pulled the covers over her head.
The day overwhelmed her.
Outside, the grass was winter white and desert dry. Her body mirrored the parched landscape; her skin sandpaper, her lips cracked; bits of skin flaked off them several times a day, no matter how often she coated them with moisturiser and lip salve. When she let the dog out, he came back with a thin film of dust coating his fur.
The dog had a sense of humour; she liked that about him. In the normal course of things his tail wagged constantly. In summer he would bring her the rubber door stops she used to wedge the doors open as a kind of dog joke.
In the first days of lockdown, when even walks were banned, his sense of humour had disappeared. His disapproval had leached into everything, depressing her in a way that nothing else had. The days when he had refused to get up from his bed in the kitchen, lying there all day with his head on his paws, holding her responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the world, had been pure torture. Thank goodness lockdown had now been eased enough to enable them to go walking and his tail had got its wag back.
Dust was everywhere. Dryness was everywhere. And it was cold. The coldest winter in ten years they said. The power kept failing; load shedding, they called it; a term papering over mismanagement and incompetence.
First pandemic, then winter.
She was ashamed to say that some days she just stayed in bed, getting up only to teach her online classes, sitting in the narrow corridor of order in front of her computer screen while the house sprawled around her, dirty and disheveled. She wore her pajama pants mostly, with a smart top and make up. It was most comfortable like that.
She could scarcely look at herself in the mirror. The face reflected was old, gaunt and haunted; unrecognisable. The once neat and clean house had taken on a life of its own, and was running amok. Her orderly routine of teaching, marking, housework, was shattered.
For the past few years her students had consistently achieved the best pass rate in the school, but this year she doubted any of them would pass. They were supposed to sit their exams in a few months. She noted the difficulties they had concentrating; the new hairstyles; the giggles, the shooting of glances to people behind the laptop screen while they were supposed to be following the text. They were too far beyond her control for her to help them.
Something she had always suspected, but had refused to fully admit, was now too obvious to ignore: Her teaching was inadequate.
It boiled down to a mixture of rote learning, cajoling and bullying. She knew the tricks, the formulas to help students get through the exams; that was all. She tried to convince herself that the exam system had forced her hand, but she recognised this thought as the rationalisation it was immediately.
In truth, she taught that way so she could get a good pass rate and rise up the ranks.
In truth, she did not care about her students at all.
Her teaching had not prepared them to work independently or think for themselves. It had not prepared them for the pandemic. It had not prepared them for life.
What would happen to them now?
And what would happen to her?
She was only a few years away from retirement and her savings were meagre. Teaching did not pay well and she had refused to moonlight as so many of her colleagues did. She was sure that if the school had to cut back on staff, she would be one of the first to go, despite her good record. One of the eager young things on the staff filled with boundless energy and ideas would easily absorb her work load.
Maybe the world would be so different in a few months’ time so that exams were not needed.
Then she would not definitely not be needed.
She sighed, breaching the bedcovers like a whale surfacing for air, and reached for her laptop.
The online news was a mental mine field. Even the Olympics had been cancelled. She remembered an essay that she had set on the topic in January, when the pandemic was a slightly scary novelty, confined to China. She loved watching the Olympics; reveled in how the competition inspired seemingly impossible achievements Her class had been caught up in her excitement, done research, and written pieces that had given her hope for them for the rest of the year.
She googled “Olympics” absent mindedly.
On the third page of Google, the advert jumped out.
“Remember the Olympics that never was! Discounted merchandise for sale; these are collectors’ items! Click here to read more.”
What bad luck Tokyo had with the Olympics. In 1940, the games was due to be held there, but was cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II. Now, the pandemic had cancelled it again.
Absent mindedly, she clicked on the ad. T-shirts, caps, keyrings. A semblance of normalcy. Copying the email address, on impulse she wrote:
“I live in Pretoria, South Africa, and am interested in purchasing a t-shirt, keyring and cap carrying the Olympic logo. They would not be able to be delivered right now because of the lockdown, but I would be grateful if you could reserve them for me. Please confirm.”
She felt better. This was more like it; take risks, move beyond your comfort zones! That was the way out of this mess. Defiantly she pressed send.
In Tokyo, midafternoon looked like night. Gloomily, the Reseller checked his emails. There had been nothing for days.
The email from the English teacher galvanized him, and he jumped up at once to find the items she had requested. He ran his hands through his hair.
This needed immediate follow up. The personal touch would close this sale!
“Items reserved,” he replied, his fingers flying over the keys. “If convenient, please connect using Skype to resolve delivery problem.” He added his Skype address. His spoken English was much better than the English he wrote. It would be best to connect on Skype. Besides, he was not bad looking; he had been told several times he was personable. A face to face conversation would do the trick.
Probably this was the first of many emails; people wanted to remember the Olympics that never was. These t-shirts were going to become collectors’ items! What a stroke of genius it had been to use that slogan!
Within moments, his phone rang. An elderly woman with long hair and a strange accent was on the other end. Wow, an eccentric go getter, the Reseller thought to himself. I am onto something!
Walking to the corner of his apartment, the reseller picked up the glasses with clear glass lenses, part of one of his disguises, and put them on. Intellectual and trustworthy, that was the way to go.
He frowned slightly, holding up the flyer advertising the new launderette down the road that had been pushed under his door this morning as though it was an important invoice. He positioned himself in front of the Luis Vuitton handbags.
“Nagasawa here, how may I assist?” (As if he didn’t know.)
“Good day. Is that the Nagasawa” (there was a pause) “Company?” The woman seemed confused and uncertain.
“Excuse me. My English is poor. Nagasawa is my name, and I am at your service.”
“I am enquiring about buying some memorabilia, a t-shirt and so on, commemorating the Tokyo Olympics, but perhaps this is the wrong number? I was trying to reach the company which sells them.”
“No, no, no. Not the wrong number.” How to reassure her?
“I am a Reseller. This is the correct number. I can help you.”
She was not reassured. Her brow wrinkled. There was a silence.
“I am afraid that I don’t understand,” she said in clearly enunciated English.
The Reseller became calm, and smiled to show her there was no danger. He spoke slowly.
“Madam, I am here to be of service. My job is to obtain items which are difficult for the public to purchase; and offer them to you at an excellent price. I buy sought after items; and make them available to those who cannot easily attain them. I am a Reseller.”
He paused, and then deftly plucked one of the Tokyo Olympics t-shirts from the pile behind him, and waved it tantalizingly in front of the phone.
“For example,” he cleared his throat. “This t-shirt was only made available in Tokyo; nowhere else in the world can you buy it. Even in other parts of Japan it is hard to obtain.”
He reached out for one of the handbags, and dangled it from a finger in front of the phone.
“This Luis Vuitton is a very limited edition handbag. It was only sold for one day in Tokyo. I slept outside the store all night; and was rewarded by being able to purchase a number of them.”
He eyed the handbag as he spoke, and was almost overwhelmed by the black hole in his savings the purchase of these very ugly handbags had made. Carefully he put the bag down, and studied the face on his phone’s screen.
He was encouraged. The woman looked more animated.
“Oh,” she said. “How fascinating. You must have had some interesting experiences. All night on the street to buy a handbag!”
“Yes, indeed.” The Reseller saw it was time to take her into his confidence.
“Once,” he said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, “I was an English teacher.”
Her shriek startled him:
“That’s what I am!” She cried. “What a coincidence! Probably it is quite different teaching in Japan, although I am sure we also have a lot in common.”
“It is a noble profession,” the Reseller said, “but it was not entirely suited to my character.” How fortunate she had interrupted before he went on about what a mundane dead end street teaching had been for him. “I needed to explore my entrepreneurial side.”
“Of course, how exciting, and how brave of you to branch out into something completely new.”
For the first time in weeks, the English teacher felt hopeful. There was life after teaching after all.
The Reseller could see that the English teacher had now relaxed completely. She had moved to sit on a couch with her legs tucked under her. He smiled quietly to himself.
“I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” she said, “but I would so love to hear more of your experiences. Maybe just one or two, if you are not too busy?”
Poor lonely woman in lockdown, the Reseller thought. Gallantly, he rose to the challenge.
“Last year,” he said, settling himself comfortably on his own couch, “this company started producing Moomin mugs.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Moomin. The cartoon character? Mugs with pictures on them? Moomin Valley Park?” he said hopefully.
She was lost.
“I will send you a picture.” He had many photos of the wonderful mugs on his phone; he had made a killing with them. A killing which had now been subsumed by the black hole of Luis Vuitton.
He pulled his laptop closer and googled Moomin. “They are imaginary characters,” he explained, and then read painstakingly from Wikipedia “They are a family of white, round fairy tale characters with large snouts that make them resemble hippopotamuses.”
He could see she also had her laptop out now, and was looking at images of the Moomin Valley theme park.
“How fascinating,” she said. “So people want these mugs, but they are hard to get?”
“Very hard.” He nodded. “When they came out, it was only three per person. I sold a lot; they were a very good line for me.”
“How did you do that if you could only buy three?”
He could see that she was hanging on his every word.
He lowered his voice and said conspiratorially, “Disguises.”
She gave a shriek of laughter so loud that it gave him a fright. “No!” she said.
“Yes. I used many disguises so I could buy many mugs.” He nodded his head like one who would go through fire to deliver to his customers. “I would go to Moomin Valley Park, and change clothing in the restrooms. I had different hats. Once I had a haircut at a nearby barber; and when I went back they did not recognize me at all. My head was practically shaved, so when I bought after that, I had to wear a hat.” He paused, and studied her face. It was rapt. “Many different hats, actually”. She laughed.
“And once I borrowed a friend’s dog. I also have different sunglasses.” He walked across to the drawers, and took out two samples, peering over the rims at her. She clapped her hands.
“I never got caught,” he said proudly. Then leaning forward, he said softly “I saw someone get caught once though.” He leaned back.
“Oh no,” she said, with a short intake of breath.
“He got away from them though, he pulled out of his jacket, and left them holding only that.”
“You lead a very interesting life,” she said.
He considered. Maybe he did.
“Thank you,” he said. There was an awkward pause, neither of them really sure where to go from there.
“Well,” he said business like, “when we can ship the purchase, I will email you.”
“Oh, thank you. Yes,” she said. “I can pay right now though. That is only right. It has been lovely talking to you.”
“Excellent. Please use pay with your credit card through my website. Thank you for your business.” The Reseller smiled with satisfaction and disconnected the phone.
The rain had stopped temporarily, and the air outside was fresh. Maybe he would go for a walk. Before he was even out of the door, his phoned pinged to say that he had received the money.
The English teacher went out walking too, with the dog; her first class was only at eleven.
Was she imaging it, or was that a hint of spring in the air?
The lockdown went on longer than either of them had ever imagined it would. It was two months since their initial conversation, when the Reseller’s phone rang.
“Perhaps you don’t remember me?” the English teacher said tentatively.
“Of course I do. I never forget a customer,” he said proudly.
“How wonderful. I thought it a good idea to just touch base,” she paused, seeing that he was not familiar with that expression; “check with you, I mean, as to the shipment of the Olympic items?” Her voice rose slightly, as if in a question.
“Ah yes,” he said, “I have been making enquiries.”
That was true. The conversation with the English teacher had indeed been the precursor of an upturn in his business. Not a huge upturn, but enough to encourage him, and pay the bills. He regarded her as a talisman. He would not let her down. He was resourceful, and had become quite friendly with one of the girls working at the South African embassy which was not far from his apartment. He liked visiting there, not only to see the girl, but also to see the pictures of the elephants on their walls. What amazing animals. Unfortunately though, South Africa was one of the countries where goods were not passing easily through customs right now. That was what this girl had told him. And it was confirmed by other reseller friends.
“It would seem that it is not yet possible to ship them. I have packaged them though, and will keep them for you, safely,” he said, patting the nearest cardboard box reassuringly.
“Oh thank you. I am sure I will get them eventually; you really seem very reliable.”
There was an awkward pause.
“Have you had any adventures lately?” she asked timidly.
He rose to the occasion, telling her how he had bicycled to the all night post office last night after midnight, to deliver an urgent order to a customer in Finland.
She was suitably impressed. There was another pause.
“Have you ever seen an elephant?” he blurted out.
“What?” she said, “Yes. Many times.”
He sighed, “I would really like to see an elephant. They are…” he paused, searching for the correct word, “Majestic.”
“Oh absolutely,” she said. “They are very majestic.”
After that, they fell into the habit of calling each other once a week. It was to check on the shipping situation, but the English teacher also heard about the windfall the Reseller had when he sold five pairs of sneakers to a famous American basketball player, and the Reseller learned about elephants, and snakes, and was introduced to the dog.
Then one day there was a knock on the Reseller’s front door. He was used to goods being delivered at all hours of the day, so he opened the door without a second thought. The package was from Amazon Japan. It was flat; unlike any of his usual deliveries. He ripped off the cardboard, curious, and not a little irritated; sure that this was a mistake; that he would have to repackage and return the item.
It was a glossy wildlife calendar. A huge elephant standing under a thorn tree was on the cover. Each month had its own elephant picture.
There was a note.
“I couldn’t resist sending these elephant to Japan, as right now you cannot visit the elephant. I hope you receive it safely. I used Google Translate to order and pay for it, and it seems as though deliveries in Japan are happening as usual. The English Teacher.”
The Reseller hung the calendar on the wall where he could see it from his bed. It was the last thing he saw each night before he went to sleep. How wonderful that she had brought elephants to him.
As the leaves on the trees turned brown and red, and the falling temperatures demanded that the Reseller take out his warmer sweaters, the English teacher began talking of spring. She told him how the birds were waking earlier now, and the trees were full of green leaves.
“They are so green,” she explained, “that they almost hurt your eyes.”
Once when he was talking to her, he heard loud thunder growling in the background. She was waiting for rain to end the drought of winter. He imagined the elephants on the dusty plains waiting for the rains too. Then one night, out of the blue, the English Teacher said “I think we should forget about trying to post the Tokyo Olympics stuff.”
“Of course,” he said. “It has been too long now. I will do the refund immediately.”
“Oh no,” she said, “I don’t want my money back. How about you keep my parcel, and I will keep checking on it. But please stop worrying about trying to post it. The whole situation right now is hopeless. Maybe you will even come to Africa to see the elephants one day, and then you can deliver it personally.”
They both laughed.
“The parcel will be safe with me,” he said, “You can rest assured I will get it to you sometime in the future.”
They both knew that the postal system would not be getting back to normal any time soon. They both knew he would not be going to Africa in the foreseeable future, and that the elephants on his wall would probably be the only ones he would ever see. With the pandemic still raging, no-one was going anywhere for a while.
After the conversation, the English teacher tucked her phone into her pocket and looked around her gleaming kitchen. She credited the weather for inspiring her to spring clean. Now that she had a neat and tidy house, things were better. She was putting a lot of effort into her veggie garden too. She glanced at her watch: it was time to pick greens and radishes for lunch; then she would work on her lesson for tomorrow.
When he put the phone down, the Reseller stowed the parcel with goods from the Olympics safely in the bottom drawer of his desk. He was not sure of how he felt.
It was not good business practice to not return her money, but he felt it the right thing to do. Maybe he was going mad, and lockdown was finally getting to him.
He had failed to deliver the goods, but he felt like celebrating.
He walked down the road to buy takeout sushi, pulling his jacket closer around him as the wind got up. He found himself humming quietly as he walked.
It was almost as though he had succeeded.