The Interrogation of Margaret Thomassen - an extract from "Shig"

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Azuma’s destination was a nondescript stone building set back among trees in the Kasumigaseki district of government buildings. The Board of Audit stood just over a grassy knoll to the left, and an annex of the Ministry of Finance loomed to the right, beyond a pool graced by an elegant pagoda.

They entered their destination by a rear door, and Azuma led Shig up several flights of stairs to the top floor, leaving him panting, wheezing, and sweating. They went along a corridor to another steep staircase that took them into an attic room.

The air was frigid because the room’s two windows had been thrown wide open. Snow, driven in by the wind, was starting to form mounds over the floor, and Margaret Thomassen, blue from cold, sat naked on a stool, her spindly arms thrust down between skinny legs to hide her genitals. An obese, unshaven detective stood behind her.

           Azuma ordered him to close the windows and he sat down at a table on which lay paper, pencils, eraser, an ashtray, and a thermos flask. He waved Shig to take the other chair.

           “Before we begin, assure her that she will not be harmed. Tell her that her two colleagues from the school, after answering the questions put to them honesty and directly, have been released. Tell her that she, too, will be released, if she answers my questions as they did, honestly and directly.”

           He lit a cigarette and smoked it while Shig translated. Miss Thomassen raised her head and looked at him. Her face was tanned and creased, and when she spoke, Shig was impressed by the power of her voice, the tone of a schoolmarm facing down a classroom of ruffians.

           “The Reverend Moat must be informed that I have been detained. Until he gets here, I refuse to answer any questions. Tell this man that I must be taken from this room immediately, given my clothes back, and given some warmth. Tell him, if he hasn’t already noticed, that I am an old woman. I am also an American citizen. The United States and Japan are not at war. I hope and pray that the day will never come when we are. But if anything happens to me, the relationship between our two countries will suffer further.”

           Azuma’s eyes glowered with anger as he listened to Shig’s interpretation of her words, and his lower lip trembled. He drew himself up out of the chair and came around the desk, stabbing the air with his cigarette and letting forth a torrent of Japanese over the old woman’s head.

“You and your country do Japan a great injustice. A million people from our overcrowded nation have migrated to Manchuria, where they have been given the chance to start their lives afresh. We are improving the railways and the ports, opening mines, and making the area safe to live in.”

He waved away Shig’s attempt to interpret what he was saying, and his voice rose in pitch and passion.

“We plan to build a new state based on righteousness, a nation in which our various peoples, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Mongolians, and Manchurians can live together in peace and prosperity. And what does the United States do? It imposes trade restrictions, encourages the boycott of Japanese-made goods throughout Asia, pressures the League of Nations to demand our withdrawal from Manchuria, and intimidates the Japanese nationals who live in America.”

           At the end of this rant, he stubbed out the cigarette with great violence and snarled at Shig.

“Translate what I say from now on.” His eyes bored into Miss Thomassen’s. “And what do you do? You, who call yourself a missionary? You spy on us.”

           She shook her head when she heard this in English from Shig and repeated her earlier demand.

“I insist that Reverend Moat and the United States Embassy be notified immediately that I am being detained here illegally.”

Azuma ignored her.

“Ask her if she knows a young man by the name of Hori.”

           “She says there is a young man of that name enrolled at the Academy.”

           “In whose class?”

           “In one of her own.”

           “Ask her if she is aware this young man is a Communist with links to illegal Japanese agrarian organizations.”

           “She says she is not aware of that.”

           “Ask her what level class he is enrolled in.”

           “She does not recall.”

           “I can refresh her memory. He attends an advanced English conversation class that meets Monday evenings. But Hori has no education. He speaks no English. How does she account for the fact that he is enrolled in an advanced class?”

           Miss Thomassen explained her reasons.   

“All the lower level classes were full. Mr. Hori could only get away from his work on Monday nights. And he has a great yearning to learn. Times are hard at the school. We are in financial difficulties. I didn’t want to lose his enrollment fee, so I put him where I could.”

           Azuma accepted her answer with a nod.

“This class is held, not at the school, but in her house. Isn’t that irregular? Ask her why she conducts the class at home.”

“It is an advanced discussion class,” she told Shig. “I believe the more relaxed atmosphere of a living room, with coffee or tea, is more conducive to general discussion than a classroom.”

           “How many students come to her house on Monday evening?”

           “She says four.”

           “She gave each one an English name. Mr. Hori was Peter. The others were Mark, Luke, and Mathew. Hori does not know their real names. But Miss Thomassen does. Tell her I want those names, and insist that I want them immediately.”

Miss Thomassen said nothing. Azuma waited, but she remained silent. He nodded at the detective, who stepped up behind, closed his hands around her throat, and began to choke her.

She broke her fingernails clawing at the hands, and her heels beat the floor like hammers as her lungs screamed for air. Just before his fingers snapped the bones in her neck, he loosened his grip.

“I need their real names,” Azuma said again.

           She retched and coughed, and the words came out in a harsh rasp.

“I don’t remember.”

          Azuma glanced at the detective, who pulled her head back to his lips and thrust his tongue into her mouth. She screamed. His hands wandered over her body, to her breasts and into her pubic area.

He lifted her off the stool and bent her forward over it. His weight on her back kept her pinned down while he fumbled with his trouser buttons. She screamed at God and pleaded for the man to be called off her. Before he assented, Azuma wanted a point clarified. He asked Shig, “She will give me the names?”

“She will.”

           Azuma sent the detective out of the room for blankets and dismissed him from her sight after he had brought them. He poured hot vegetable soup from the thermos.

After she had drunk it, he asked his questions again, this time in a reasonable and quiet tone. She answered them, and Shig recorded those answers.

It was dawn before he was released from the nightmare into a blue and cloudless December sky. He crossed the parkland, crunching the frosty grass. Morning gongs sounded in hidden temples, and solitary monks raked the gravel. The air smelt of incense and cedar wood. Tofu sellers passed him ringing their bicycle bells. In Shimbashi, sleek military cars, their ID numbers covered and their windows darkened, carried home generals and admirals from the geisha houses.

He walked on, eventually reaching Tsukiji, where the sky was full of gulls driven crazy by the smells of fish from the market, flying in aimless, screeching circles in the air above his apartment. For once, they didn’t disturb him. He fell into bed and into oblivion.

 

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David Turri

Although I was born in England, I have lived in Japan for the past forty years. That’s why this country, its people and history, form the backdrop to many of my novels. I have no big ideas to peddle; I consider myself a simple story-teller and work hard at my craft. I spin my stories in such disparate genres as horror, espionage, war, occult - and humor. I live in Osaka with a wife, two grown daughter and two young grand-daughters – the whole catastrophe, as Zorba describes married life.