Fiction – Five Hearts That Beat As One [Long Post]

I’ve mentioned once or twice in my blog I’m a writer; so it was probably inevitable that I’d put some things I’d written up on here. This isn’t too long, and it’s completely free, so see what you make of it. I wrote it over the course of a couple of hours; to say anything about it beyond it’s about a man looking over his past and wondering if it was worth it would be to say too much.

Download it here: Five Hearts in PDF format.

Five Hearts That Beat As One – A Short Story by RP Webster (R042)

It’s the 14th June 2098, the twentieth National Celebration of Freedom. Even if it weren’t a bank holiday I’d have taken the day off. My family understand why. They understand why even though it’s a bank holiday, I won’t be joining them down the park, or at the zoo, or wherever they go. The National Celebration of Freedom is a day when I try to stop the past from dying, if not in the public mind, but in my own.

The real past. Not what it’s become.

I’m at the railway station waiting for a train to Amajima. There’s a guy selling tabloid newspapers, and I buy one not for want of something to do but to see how they’re celebrating the day. There’s a familiar face on page fifteen. Another lurid kiss-and-tell from a woman I neither kissed nor really told any secrets to, and my name is thankfully kept out of it. She’s doing her best to ruin my friends, though. She’s been doing it for years, decades even. Every so often she’ll come out with some awful accusation about one of us, and a threat to divulge more dreadful secrets if she doesn’t receive an enquiry, or at least an apology for her unfair dismissal. The response from the company that now own the place I used to work for is always the same. The tribunal’s decision was entirely justified.

I’m not so sure about that, in fact I know for certain the reason wasn’t the one everyone was told it was. But I stayed out of the drama, my job was to be stoic and inscrutable. We needed to maintain an image, and it was that image that started the whole problem. Tokiko Genma was fired from her job for putting on two dress sizes. It’s the truth. I was there when it happened. She wasn’t fat. Even as she was when she was fired, I couldn’t deny she was pretty. But we needed to maintain an image for the people.

She’d put the weight on from stress, and long hours. 12-hour shifts and constant readiness meant we weren’t getting decent quality of life, and that plus a fast food outlet by the station meant her weight crept up. A size 14 girl didn’t fit the image, or the uniform, so Tokiko was fired. She appealed, of course. Promised to fix it. But by the time they heard her appeal she was unemployed, poor and no longer in any shape to sell her image or story, so they didn’t listen. Besides, we’d filled her role by then. Hikaru Mishima. Just as talented, just as pretty, and as slim as Tokiko had been. Plus she’d even offered to dye her hair if it would fit the image. Which it did.

Pushed from the public eye by the new girl, Tokiko changed. The accusations started flying; mismanagement, harassment, embezzlement, and then worse. The latest is that Kensuke was abused during his time working for the company and she’d been forced into some sordid little game that could no way have ever happened.

Tokiko’s story is a sad one but I’ve no sympathy by now. Kensuke on the other hand – well, if anyone should be trying to destroy us all it’s Kensuke. He’s the one I’m on my way to visit, the one who is dying of some kind of untreatable, unknown condition. I sometimes feel I should visit him more often; after all, he didn’t really get a childhood. But equally, he probably doesn’t want to be reminded of us. He’s mostly with his family now – the family who never saw their son for most of his most precious years and now have inherited a dying wreck of a young man. I bet Kensuke would be glad to be in Tokiko’s position.

I carry on reading the paper, now sitting on the train as it pulls its way along the bay. There’s a big spread ad just after Tokiko’s bile with the gurning face of Hikaru on it. She’s done well for herself. She married Akito, my boss, and they live quite healthily on the profits from the new company. Selling toys, games, media. They’ve done well for themselves. But I know Akito hates every moment. He can’t be enjoying this. He was always ashamed of how it was going by the end. Saying we sold out isn’t, for once, an exaggeration. If Tokiko’s been poisoned by the past, Hikaru’s been made stupid by it. She can’t give it up, she wishes the good times still rolled; but when I see Kensuke in his hospice, I wonder if they really were good times. I remember the first ever National Celebration. Akito invited us all back to watch them begin knocking down the old site. He burnt his work clothes then. Perhaps it’s understandable. We have sold out. I’m sometimes depressed when I think about it but I keep quiet for my wife and children. Perhaps keeping up the illusion that Hikaru peddles is stopping people from believing what Tokiko is claiming.

Kensuke told me Hikaru or Akito never visit. I can understand why. Akito is terrified. It’s been a while now and they haven’t had children; the doctors think he might be infertile. Perhaps he’s worried that problem is just a ticking clock and in the future he’ll end up like Kensuke. There’s a child down the carriage playing with one of the toys Hikaru’s hawking on the page I’m reading. I’m glad he doesn’t recognise me. It would be a fine thing to say I’m off to see one of the people who made it possible, and he’s dying.

I’ve arrived at Amajima, and as I step out I smell meat frying in a wok. My stomach turns. I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty-two years now. I found I couldn’t eat meat for weeks after Denji died, and never reacquired the taste. Watching a man burnt alive will have that effect. For a while we hated Akito, held him responsible for Denji’s death, but really the more I think about it it was Denji or all five of us. At least his family weren’t told what it was really like. Just what they wanted to hear. He was replaced by Benkei. Once it was all over, Benkei got out. Went far away. Last I heard he was a monk now. He didn’t even go to the first reunion.

The memory of Denji is why I can’t watch anything with fire or volcanoes in. Even kids’ shows. I’m afraid I’ll burn one day. I still have nightmares about it.

I’m almost at the hospice, lost in thought, and I realise I’ve once again completed my litany of the past. Tokiko still incoherent. Hikaru not able to move on. Akito trapped with her. Denji dead. Benkei not able to look us in the eye.

And Kensuke dying before my eyes. The nurses told me he’s been doing worse of late. The painkillers aren’t helping so much. His treatment’s funded by the company, as well it should be. After all, they got him in this state. He’s asleep at the moment, his skin grey and thin to the point where you can see his ribs and cheekbones. When he wakes up it takes longer for him to recognise me than ever. It’s not just the pain that’s getting worse.

He’s pleased I came. I tell him I’ll always come. We talk, going over the same memories, the same pleasantries. I doubt he remembers I have even been there a week after today; let alone a year. But I stay with him until visiting hours are over, like usual. I can’t help but think to see his frail body that there won’t be many days like this in the future. He’s only 30. Nobody should die like this in their 30s. There’s a new cleaner in the ward, who asks how I know Kensuke. I say we worked together, she says nothing. That’s easiest. If I told her the whole story, he wouldn’t hear the end of it.

The sun’s setting now, and I’ve still got one trip to make before I go home. One friend, and he was a true friend, that I haven’t paid my respects to. I look up, and see the old site, my old home, still standing as a shell on the hill. It dominates the landscape like it used to; they couldn’t demolish it in the end. The company are thinking of turning it into a museum. I hope they don’t. No museum would represent what the site stood for properly. It wouldn’t talk about Denji’s final moments. Or Kensuke’s lingering death. Or why Tokiko was turned away. The tower is still standing proud, its dome now just a shell and the red paint flaked away and replaced by rust.

From Amajima I take a short branch line to Koba. That’s where the old folks’ home is. They’re expecting me.

Dr Makimaru is, as always, sitting in the middle of the room looking at the tower. He recognises me immediately and begins singing, like he always does. I join in, ignoring how stupid we look, me a weary man in my forties, he an indefatigable maniac of ninety-five. Singing like children. Striking a pose. It’s the one concession to the past I’ll allow myself. It keeps the other people in the room happy. Umi, his daughter, is with him. She’s looking old now; looking after the good doctor must be draining. When the company closed down, she went travelling for a while, came back only when the news came that her father had had a heart attack brought on by abusing his body for so long. So she did the right thing for her father – put him in a home, where he entertains the other inhabitants with his stories about how he saved the world singlehandedly.

Talking with Dr Makimaru is liberating after being with Kensuke. When I’m with him, I feel happier about talking about the past. He asks what Tokiko’s up to, and we curse her name. He asks about my family. But even with his boundless energy, he’s an old man. His eyes aren’t so bright. His movements are that bit slower, visit on visit. He’s getting more and more things confused. He thinks Benkei died in the fire, not Denji.

Umi takes me to one side. She tells me not to come again. She says it’s not good for her father to relive the past over and over. How she’s not sure if his misremembering is dementia or just trying to forget his mistakes. How he’s having more and more delusional spells.

I go back and he tells me he’s found a way to keep Kensuke safer when he’s working. How this new metal will protect us all. I don’t have the heart to tell him the truth about Kensuke. How we weren’t protected. Work never got safer no matter what Dr Makimaru did.

The old people go to eat, leaving me with the train ride from Koba home. I know that within a year or so I won’t be doing this any longer. When Kensuke dies, and Dr Makimaru is no longer able to hold a conversation, nobody will be left who really knows how it was. The people will have got what they wanted; heroes, celebrities and legends. Akito and Hikaru. The memory of Dr Makimura, the greatest mind of his generation.

And me, Jun, an ordinary salaryman who instead of visiting two friends every year will be visiting two graves. When they die I’ll burn my uniform too. I’ve still got it, packed away neatly.

Akito Akira, Tokiko Genma, Jun Ichimonji, Denji Hayashibara and Kensuke Ando. Working together with the great Dr Makimaru for the good of Japan, and the good of the world.

They’ll be remembered in the public eye as the perfect team, the heroes of their era. Hikaru’s boundless enthusiasm will have won out. Nobody will remember how Denji died screaming in flames as molten rock engulfed him. Or even know how Kensuke was doomed to twenty years of wasting agony from endless radiation exposure.

The public will be left with their happy memories of the pilots of Hyperion V, fighting the Volcanic Empire.

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10 comments

  1. Singo111

    I hope you don’t mind people leaving feedback – I have no credentials that permit me to criticise, so obviously feel free to take everything I say with a pinch of salt!

    Anyway – I’m amazed that you could knock something like this out in a couple of hours. There’s a consistant ‘voice’ throughout and I’ve not winced at any particularly clumsy sentences, which is a great start. Some of the passages are particularly tight for a first draft. I really like:

    “I know that within a year or so I won’t be doing this any longer. When Kensuke dies, and Dr Makimaru is no longer able to hold a conversation, nobody will be left who really knows how it was.”

    and

    “No museum would represent what the site stood for properly. It wouldn’t talk about Denji’s final moments. Or Kensuke’s lingering death. Or why Tokiko was turned away. The tower is still standing proud, its dome now just a shell and the red paint flaked away and replaced by rust.”

    The sense of regret and exhausted frustration is nicely built up through the piece, up to the really bleak last couple of paragraphs.

    I also like the idea of paragraph openings that jolt the reader back to the present tense (“I carry on reading the paper”, “I’ve arrived at Amajima”, “I’m almost at the hospice”, “The sun’s setting now”), I think perhaps they give the piece it’s best sense of structure and tempo.

    On the negative side, there’s probably too much going on for such a short piece – I struggled to follow all the threads sufficiently to piece them together, but in a writing exercise I think that’s an acceptable weakness. There are (one assumes intentionally) lots of loose ends (and even loose starts), which are very off-putting on a first read. I think the first reminiscence about Tokiko and Hakiru is a bit long and confused me as to where the whole thing was going. And, to be honest, by the end I still didn’t really understand any of the characters apart from the narrator.

    Thanks for posting.

    • r042

      I know it’s generally considered bad form (and leads to huge amounts of drama at times) for an author to respond to his critics but I’d like to say thank you so much for taking the time to respond!

      Any and all criticism is needed at this stage in my writing life; this piece really was written all in one go so I can certainly see why it might seem a bit crowded with ideas. If anything I prefer writing in slightly longer form, it allows me to more consciously avoid the loose ends and false starts you highlight.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read what I’ve written; I aim to put more fiction up in time (although the greater amount of proofing and editing it requires means obviously there will be less of it than non-fiction pieces.)

      • Digibro

        >>I know it’s generally considered bad form

        Really? I hate it when I either critique or get critiqued and it doesn’t become a conversation. How else can you work through your intent to arrive at a more perfect criticique?

        • r042

          It’s more that there’s a lot of cases I’ve seen online of authors getting really defensive of criticisms of their work and this spiralling out of control into pointless arguments that make no-one look good – so as a result it’s generally considered better to take the rough with the smooth and not quarrel.

      • Digibro

        Mmm but the opposite happens so much too. Some of my best friends became such when we started talking over their critique of my work. My friendship with ghostlightning started with him giving me tips on how to run my blog better, and we became close enough for me to fly around the world and live with him for a month.

        While we’re on the subject of criticism, I love what you’ve done with the blog design! Next I would recommend deepening the level of nested comments, so that we wouldn’t both be replying to your earlier comment.

    • r042

      In time I’ll write more but fiction, I’ve found, takes longer to write than opinion or criticism so it definitely won’t be as regular as other articles.

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