Published On: Sun, Aug 6th, 2017

Short story: Under The Cherry Blossom by Lesley Downer


The taxi driver dropped her off at the end of the lane. Beth dragged her suitcase the last few yards up the road, gazing around in wonder at the rickety old wooden houses and the paper lanterns hanging outside. 

Then a door slid open and a face appeared – soft-skinned, gentle, much like her own grandmother. 

“Beth-chan.” Beth smiled gratefully.

The woman bowed, took her by the elbow, led her in. She showed her up a precipitous flight of stairs to a room. It was practically empty, lined with straw matting that gave slightly under her feet, with a tiny rack for her clothes and a doll’s house-sized dressing table.

The fourth wall wasn’t even a wall, just sliding paper doors that opened on to a balcony. As she looked down at the street, two extraordinary creatures passed by, dressed in brilliantly coloured kimonos with flapping sleeves and long stiff sashes. She heard girlish laughter, bells tinkling, saw combs and decorations glittering in their hair.

Beth gasped with delight. She was really in Japan at last. 

She’d been born and brought up in the suburbs of London but she’d always felt a little different, a little out of place. Her grandparents were Japanese and lived in Canada. Her mother had grown up there and had never taken much of an interest in Japan. She was too busy with her family and career. Beth sensed that, as a Japanese-Canadian living in London, her mother just wanted to fit in. 

But for Beth it was different. She wanted to find her roots. Perhaps if she went to Japan, it might all fall into place.  

Tokyo had been noisy, crowded, a huge modern city, not what she was looking for. Her grandmother had told her about Kyoto with its wooden houses and trees laden with blossom. She’d stepped off the bullet train at Kyoto station, a vast glass-walled edifice with escalators shuttling up and down – not at all what she’d been expecting.

“Kyoto’s expensive,” her mother had told her. “We’ll ask Granny if she knows anyone you can stay with. She still keeps in touch with her old friends.”

Beth smiled at the woman. 

With her delicate features and silky unlined skin, she reminded her irresistibly of her own grandmother. She brought out the gifts her mother had given her to take; Fortnum & Mason tea, Harrods biscuits, photographs of her family – of her mother and of Beth and her brothers and sisters. 

Then the old woman brought out a photograph album. There were faded photos of Beth’s grandmother as a young girl, straight-backed and beautiful. 

There was also a picture of the friends together, two slender perfectly coiffed smiling women, and another of them in middle age when her grandmother had come to visit her friend back in Japan.

Beth was wishing her Japanese was better when a young man came in. He bowed and smiled shyly. “I’m Tadao,” he said. “My grandmother asked me to come over and translate for her. I’m afraid my English isn’t very good.”

“It’s perfect,” said Beth. 

“Granny wants to hear everything about your grandmother. She’s missed her. But later. You must be hungry.”As they sat over dinner, Beth asked about the extraordinary painted young women she’d seen passing under her balcony.

“This is the best part of town,” Tadao answered, laughing. “Everyone comes here to see geisha and you’re right in the middle of the geisha district. Didn’t you know?”

Beth shook her head. 

“Granny was one of the most famous geisha in Kyoto,” said Tadao. “This used to be a geisha house.”

Beth looked at him in bewilderment. “My mother never told me my grandmother’s friend was a geisha.” 

He hesitated. “So she never told you…” His voice died away.

She looked from one to the other. She gasped. “You mean…”

The old woman began to speak. 

“Your grandmother was the most famous of all,” said Tadao softly, translating. “The most beautiful, the most accomplished. When she danced, men were enchanted. Men would spend a fortune just to spend a few hours in her company. She’s a legend here still. When she married, she told my grandmother she wanted to start a new life. 

Her husband had been posted to Toronto. She didn’t want anyone to know she’d been a geisha, least of all her children. She was sure they’d be ashamed. Geisha still have a double-edged image.”

Beth thought back to her grandmother, how proud and tiny and straight-backed she was. She had an almost aristocratic air and yet she had a down-to-earth side, too. She was kind, very kind, and devoted to her grandchildren. 

Maybe that was why she’d sent Beth to stay with her old friend. Maybe she’d decided it was time for Beth to know she’d been the most famous geisha in Kyoto. 

Maybe, Beth thought, that was why she herself had always felt a little out of place. Geisha too were outsiders, outside normal society.  

Tadao smiled. “Granny says you look just like her,” he said. “She wants me to take you to see the cherry blossom at Heian shrine.”

The vermilion pillars of Heian shrine were almost hidden behind clouds of pink blossom.

“It’s beautiful,” Beth said. 

Tadao took her hand and smiled at her. She noticed the cut of his features, his fine cheekbones, like his grandmother’s. Many Japanese were small but he was tall.

It hadn’t been just some kind of home she’d been looking for, Beth realised. She’d been looking for someone to tie her to her roots. 

Lesley Downer’s new novel The Shogun’s Queen (Corgi, £8.99) is out now. See Express Bookshop at expressbookshop.co.uk.


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