Year of the Talking Dog

Patrick Sherriff

“You are Olivewalker Hana,” the policeman says.

I scrunch up my nose. I can’t help it, I really can’t. Momma always told me to show respect for people in authority. Even when they are wrong. But I just can’t stop myself.

“No, I’m Hana Walker. Olive is my middle name,” I say. Again.

The policeman slams his hand on a stack of papers, making his business card on the table between us jump. It rests with the English side face down, Japanese side face up.

“There is no box on the form for a middle name. Where should I put your middle name?”

I look at the form. It’s a jumble of lines and squiggles that I can’t read.

“In the middle?” I say.

“No space,” he says.

“Well, what’s your middle name?” I ask him.

“Don’t have a middle name. Japanese don’t have middle names.”

I nod. “But I’m not Japanese.”

He sucks air through his teeth. He closes his eyes and then opens them. He smiles one of those smiles you make when you want to look happy even though you really want to cry. “But this is Japan. Would you prefer your middle name to be with your given name or family name?”

“What?”

“Do you want to be Walker Hanaolive or Olivewalker Hana?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it before.”

“Please think about it now.”

OK. Momma chose Hana as it means flower in Japanese. Dad picked Olive as that was his mother’s name. Nobody ever calls me Olive, not since my parents died.

“I’d like my middle name to be in the middle. Can’t you draw another box?”

He leans back in his chair and clicks his knuckles. Then he sneezes. Three times. He fumbles in his pockets and brings out a paper surgical mask. He adjusts the paper straps around his ears and pinches it tight over his nose.

“Why am I here?” I say.

“Why do you think you’re here? I need to fill out this form, to know where you were last night, then you are free. We are both free to go.”

His eyes flex like he’s smiling one of his sad smiles again under his mask. I shift in my chair.

“So…?” he says.

“So?”

“So where were you last night around 11pm?”

“I was in my dorm room in Kasai.”

“You are a student?”

“Yes, a journalism student.”

“You were in your room all night?”

“Yes.”

“And earlier?”

“Earlier, I might have been in the convenience store. I bought a roll of tape and a rice ball.”

He writes something in his notepad.

“Why?”

“I was hungry and the convenience store is, er, convenient.”

“No, I mean why did you buy a roll of tape?”

“I’m moving. I thought I needed to tape up some boxes. Actually, everything I wanted to keep fits in my suitcase. I threw out everything else.”

He tilts his head at me like I’m supposed to say more.

“I left my suitcase in a locker. In Shibuya station. Near my boyfriend’s apartment.”

He puts his hands together. He’s wearing white gloves like Japanese taxi drivers do. Then he tilts his head again.

“Well, he’s not actually my boyfriend. He’s my fiancé.”

He looks at me blankly.

“I’m just staying with him for the next two months, then we go back to London. We’re getting married.”

“And you didn’t see your boyfriend at all yesterday?”

“No. He’s working on a painting. I’m seeing him later today. When you phoned me I thought that was him. Is this about Steve?”

“Kemp-san? Steven Kemp?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, it’s about Steven Kemp. He’s your boyfriend?”

He stares at his hands again. Then I get it. It’s Steve’s stupid shopping bicycle. He’d bought a stolen bicycle, only he had no idea it had been stolen.

“He didn’t steal that bicycle. He bought it from a housemate last month; he didn’t know it was stolen. Nobody knew it was stolen two years ago. Steve wasn’t even in the country then.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“But that’s why you kept him in the police cell overnight. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s very sensitive. It wasn’t a good experience for him.”

“Yes, we know that now. That was all…over. The bicycle doesn’t matter now. All that matters now is to know what you were doing yesterday.”

“It doesn’t matter all that much to me. Why should it matter to you?”

“That’s not your worry at the moment. There is very good reason why we need to know what you were doing yesterday, and there is procedure to follow. But…” he adjusts his hands, plays with something on his finger inside the glove of his left hand. He smiles another sad smile. “…But I will I tell you all that I know, after you tell me all you know. Let me ask my questions and I’ll let you ask yours. Is that a deal, Olive Walkerhana?”

I grimace. But I nod.

“You promise?” he says.

I nod.

“OK. Why did Kemp-san come to Japan?”

“He’s a fine art student.”

He writes. Then stops.

“I see. He’s good at art?”

“No, well, yes. He’s good at art. But fine art means paintings and sculptures, that sort of thing. Not manga.”

“Did Kemp-san have a drink or drug problem?”

“What? He gets drunk on a second glass of wine. He couldn’t do drugs even if he wanted to. He has asthma. That’s his problem. Not drugs.”

“Not a problem with amphetamines?”

I look at him blankly.

“Er, bing du. Ice poison? Is that the name people use in English? Speed?”

“No, not at all. Why do you ask that?”

“Just clearing up a question. Witnesses. Strange actions. You last saw him…?”

“Two days ago. We had a pizza. In his flat. He’s spending the weekend working on his new painting, but we are going to meet this morning in fact. And go to Yoyogi Park. When you called me, I thought it was him.”

“Do you know his parents or other family members?”

“I’ve never spoken to his Mum and Dad, don’t know how to contact them. We’re going to do all that when we go to England this summer. Look, I’m going to meet him today. Why don’t you ask him yourself, if it’s so important?”

He takes a plastic bag from his jacket pocket and removes a tatty piece of paper. He puts it on the table then flips his business card back over to show his name and title in English. Detective Kai Watanabe. International liaison. Tokyo Police, Shibuya branch.

He unfolds the paper.

“One of these we know, but the other?”

I reach for the scrap of paper, he pulls it back, but holds it up for me to see. It’s a note in Steve’s gentle handwriting. On it was my name and my mobile phone number. And three letters: “A.O.I.”

“Do you know what it means?”

I shake my head.

“I’m sorry, just tying up loose ends. But…” Detective Watanabe puts the scrap of paper into a clear plastic case and takes his gloves off, folding them in a neat pile and adjusting them so that they’re an equal distance from the plastic case and himself.

I look him in the eye. “But what? Why do you have that paper?”

He loosens the mask from his ears and folds it up, slips it into his pocket. He stands up.

“I have some bad news to tell you. I regret to inform you that Steven Kemp died yesterday. He was crushed by an Omiya Express train.”

He bows very deeply to me. Then he laughs sadly.


“He can’t be dead. I’m going to see him now, in a few minutes, when we are through here.”

I look for a clock. There isn’t one anywhere in the room. Nothing on the walls except a calendar. A woman in a bikini. She’s holding a giant glass of beer and she has a beer moustache. Only there is something wrong about that. Her beer is perfectly full. The head is undisturbed and I know from serving beer at Aunt Tanaka’s that you can’t keep the perfect balance of two-thirds body, one-third head for more than 20 seconds before the head sags and the beer loses its proportions. Add to that the loss of liquid from taking a sip and I know the picture is a lie. Maybe it’s a training poster for young cops to practice their detecting on? But the year is 2012, not 24, as the calendar says. “This can’t be true. This can’t be happening. You must have made a mistake,” I say.

“You don’t understand how it works in Japan, do you?”

“That’s true,” I say. Not completely. “But I know a little.”

Like about the mask Detective Watanabe is wearing. You see plenty of people on the streets and subways of Tokyo wearing the flimsy paper masks. Aunt Tanaka says it’s a sign of the extreme politeness of the Japanese. People wear them in public places to protect others from their germs. But that’s a lie. Aunt Tanaka only wears hers when she’s running late for the ramen shop and hasn’t done her face. But that’s a small lie. A white lie. But for others, it’s a black lie. The truth is they are not being polite, they just don’t want to catch anyone else’s germs. People will tell you Japan is unique in that it has four seasons. But that’s nonsense. Japan has two. Flu and hay fever seasons. That’s it. And there are two different kinds of white paper masks to deal with the two seasons. The flu mask is a flimsy rectangular thing that covers half your face from the tip of your nose to your ears. Uncle Kentaro says that the chance of a flu-mask actually stopping a flu molecule from passing through it — once it’s got moist from all the breathing you have to do through it — is about the same as tying a dozen school plastic skipping ropes across the schoolyard and throwing a tennis ball at the rope and expecting it to stop the ball in its tracks. But I haven’t held a skipping rope for nine years and I’ve never played tennis. Hay-fever masks hug your face like an unfolded coffee filter stuck over your mouth and tied to your face with paper straps over your ears. That’s the kind Detective Watanabe has. But he’s right. I don’t really understand Japan, or what he’s saying to me about Steve. I don’t believe the woman in the bikini drinks beer. I don’t believe a skipping rope can stop a flu bug. I don’t believe Steve is dead.

“How can you be sure that Steve is dead?”

“We are sure. His wallet had his gaigokujin card.”

“Shouldn’t you do a DNA check or something?”

“That’s for the movies.”

“But he can’t really be dead. We’re meeting today. We’re going to walk through Yoyogi Park. I’m going to look at his new painting and go for coffee. We’re moving to England. He’s going to open a gallery in Brixton and I’m going to be a web journalist and we’re going to…”

“The deceased died instantly from his injuries suffered from falling into the path of the train,” Detective Watanabe flips through his notebook. “A salesman, Kubo-san, 57, on platform 3, saw him behaving strangely. He tripped and fell off platform 4 onto the tracks of the Omiya Express Line. The driver of the 23:12 Express to Omiya had only a few seconds warning. He sounded the train horn, but there was…a collision.”

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to think. Detective Watanabe closes his notebook.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this. It’s terrible. Horrible. But, you are young. And you can carry on with life. Kemp-san was…unlucky. Please mourn him. But even more, please don’t stop your life.”

I sit forward in my chair. “He was my life. He gave me a way to live. Since the accident.”

“Accident?”

I bow my head. Do I really want to talk about this to a detective? What can I say? I hardly understand it myself. It was hard enough losing my Japanese Momma to stomach cancer just when I started junior high school here. Then when my English Dad was struck by a train, I didn’t have anyone. Just a drunken friend of the family, Uncle Kentaro, who gave me a roof over my head. But Detective Watanabe didn’t need to know all that.

“I fell off a bridge.”

There is a road bridge over the Teganuma lake in Abiko. It was easy to lose your balance. I’ve done it before, falling into the lake below. Only this time when I lost my footing, I wasn’t that bothered by what happened to me. And after I woke up, much later when my bones had mended, I made a decision. I was going to get away from Japan, get away from where everything had gone wrong. Return to my roots, explore my own country that I’d yet to set foot in. Start again. But to do that I decided I needed to become more English, less Japanese. That meant shutting down my Japanese side. I decided I wouldn’t speak Japanese anymore.

The doctors said I was suffering from trauma, that my sudden loss of Japanese was not exactly a result of brain damage, more something they called “psychosomatic”. Uncle Kentaro said that was medical talk for making it up. But to me it’s just another way of saying “determined.” I was determined to be someone else. With Uncle Kentaro’s help and my Dad’s life insurance, I was allowed to do media studies at a college and now with Steve, I have a real chance to become that someone else in a country where I belong. Where I fit in. It’s what Dad would have wanted.

“It can’t be Steve, it has to be someone else. Foreigners all look alike to the Japanese, don’t they?”

The detective looks at his hands, but says nothing.

Then I have a thought. “Don’t you need someone to identify the body? If I could look at the body, I could tell if it really is him or someone else…”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea. There’s nothing to identify. But he died instantly if that helps.”

“But I need to know that it really was him.”

“I understand. I can promise you that the identity of the body is not in doubt. It’s Kemp-san. I knew as soon as I saw you. This was on his finger.”

He takes a plastic bag from his jacket pocket. It contains a signet ring.

An identical match is on my hand.

I find I can’t control my breathing.

Detective Watanabe is speaking, talking about shock and how there is nothing anyone can do about accidents in life and that time heals all and then he’s asking if I know where I want to go now, what I will do now. And I find myself thanking him, saying I’ll walk back to the Shibuya Station to get my suitcase. He offers to take me to the dorm room. I thank him. But I don’t live there anymore. I don’t live anywhere anymore. All I have is a key to my dead fiancé’s flat, a suitcase in a railway locker, and my phone.


Hana Walker, a 20-year-old journalism student, is heartbroken to learn her English fiancé’s body has been found on train tracks in Tokyo. But what seems like a tragic accident takes a sinister turn when a masked man starts following her. She’s forced to rely on her wits alone to stay alive. Can she overcome the language barrier, convince the reluctant Japanese police she’s not crazy and stop a killer before a conspiracy reaches its deadly conclusion in the skyscrapers of Tokyo?

Click on a link below to get Year of the Talking Dog right now for a reduced pre-order price before its release next week from any Amazon store, including Amazon.com, Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.au and Amazon.co.in

Patrick Sherriff

Written by

I write books and sketch. Ex-journalist with stints in US, UK and Japan. 1st Hana Walker mystery novel and a humorous story free at www.patricksherriff.com

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