Sunday Story – The Death Room

Photos taken by the Hong Kong-based social welfare group Society for Community Organization highlight the cramped living conditions of poor people in one of Asia's richest cities. This apartment is just four feet by seven feet.
Image source

Takahashi showed Kanta the death room. 

Takahashi looked more like an accountant or a mobile phone salesman than a real estate agent who specialized in suicide houses.  Kanta was unkempt from manual labour and from living in shared accommodation where he had to vie with vile-breathed old men for bathroom space. 

Takahashi opened the door and the pair winced.  The smell was neither strong nor overpowering.  It was faint.  It would have been barely noticeable except that it was so . . . evil.

“There’s still a little smell, isn’t there,” Takahashi said professionally.  “We’ve had the room professionally cleaned so there’s no problem with hygiene.  The remaining odour is caused by trace amounts of gases that have permeated porous surfaces, mostly the wooden floor.  It helps to keep all the windows open but of course that can make the room very cold in winter.”

“Can you show me the spot?”

“Of course.  It’s right here.”  Takahashi pointed.  Just inside the door, the floorboards were marred with a dark, ugly discoloration.

“It won’t come out.  There is no remaining blood or other fluids but the wood has been permanently stained.  You can put a rug over it.  It was the second case that did the damage.  In the first incident, the man was found quickly because a neighbour alerted the police after hearing sounds.  That was in the same spot, same way – leaning down from the door with a thin rope attached to the handle.  The second case was quiet and not discovered for several months.”

They looked around the rest of the tiny apartment but Kanta took little notice of the cupboard space or bathroom fixtures.  He asked to reconfirm the price.

“Well, normally a death room in this area attracts a discount of around 15%, depending on the circumstances.  There is also the smell, which means another 20% discount.  And because there were two incidents, rather than one, that subtracts another 10%.  Some customers can be superstitious, you see.  So as I said over the phone, we are offering a 45% discount.

“However, I spoke to the owner this morning and I’m happy to say that I can now offer it to you for 50% off, no key money or company guarantor required.  If you can tolerate the smell, you’ll find it is by far the best deal available in Saitama.  There’s no hurry.  I’ll hold it for you.  Let me know within a week.”

It didn’t take Kanta long to move because he had few possessions.  There was a pot and a pan, a plastic bowl and plate, a teacup.  An electronic book filled with the Japanese classics.  A photo of a young family and some worn hiking gear from another life.  He placed the rental contract in a drawer.  It contained the unusual stipulation that he must not commit suicide in this room or there would be a significant financial penalty for which his family would be liable.

Kanta thought that the smell would become more tolerable once he became accustomed to it but instead it became worse, burning aggressively at his sinuses, never letting up for a second.  He laid out air fresheners, kept the freezing night air flowing and slept beside an open window on the far side of the room from the stain, but nothing could make the stench fade to the point that it would escape his attention for more than a moment.

Finally he bought a swimmer’s nose clip.  He could still sense the unpleasant air when he breathed, his mouth became reptile-dry at night and his throat often hurt, but it was an improvement. 

Beggars must not be choosers.  The room was cheaper than the dormitory and he finally had the solitude he craved.  Plus, it was near the park.

During the day, Kanta worked as a casual labourer at whatever sites he was taken by the unscrupulous hiring agencies’ vans.  It was hazardous, poorly remunerated work which attracted the most desperate vagabonds.  He was the only one among these wretched men who had the luxury of his own, private accommodation.  Many who mustered in the park for work each dawn lived in his old dormitory.  Others stayed in the park itself, sheltering in neat tents pitched discreetly behind some hedges.

The homeless men frightened Kanta.  To become homeless was to truly fall off the cliff edge of society and land in the filth that lay below.  One of them in particular caused him uneasiness; an ancient, toothless man who did not work.  He spent the days sitting barefoot on a straw mat by a gnarled camphor tree whose gigantic trunk was festooned with a sacred shimenawa rope, grinning stupidly at the assembled labourers, or wandering cats, or pompous crows.  When it rained, he retreated under the veranda of the tiny, adjacent shrine.

One morning, Kanta saw leftover bento boxes and other rubbish strewn around the shrine.  He threw the mess in the bin.  The old man reappeared nearby and his expression seemed more appreciative than ashamed.  Perhaps he was not the culprit.  The tree man remained disturbing but Kanta supposed that the park’s most earthy resident was, at heart, not a villain. 

No one else took any notice of him at all.

By day, Kanta hauled lumber and bags of cement, hammered nails, shifted rubble.  By night, he lay his aching body on a thin futon and read classics.  For many years he’d taught them but never had a chance to re-read them properly.  Here in the wicked stench, he finally had that opportunity.  The books provided some comfort, evoked his old life.

Soon his new life, too, was torn apart . . .


To see how the story ends and for 14 more, get Tales From Captivity:

Also available on many other platforms.

2 comments

  1. lemmiwinks · March 21

    This was one of my favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

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