Cover Image
Stephen McClure
French Love Letters

Sitting on a bench by the pond in Tokyo's Zenpukuji Park on a crisp and sunny mid-October afternoon, I watched the golds, ochres and vermilions of the autumn leaves against the azure sky. A rowboat drifted by, and in its wake the brilliant fall foliage was reflected like a wavy tapestry in the ripples of the water. I sipped from my warm can of coffee, and took a deep breath of the intoxicatingly fresh air.

     My reverie was interrupted by a voice that came from behind me.

     "Est-ce que vous parlez francais?"

     I turned around to see an old woman in a wheelchair behind whom stood a woman who looked to be in her 20s – her nurse or granddaughter, I supposed. Both appeared to be Japanese.

     "Est-ce que vous parlez francais?" the woman in the wheelchair repeated.

     "Oui, madame, je parle un peu de francais," I ventured in my rusty French, taken aback at hearing that language spoken in the suburban setting of Zenpukuji Park.

     "Oh, how wonderful that you speak French," the old woman continued in that language. "My late father was a scholar of French literature, and I studied French at Taisho Women's College many years ago. But I seldom have the opportunity to speak it these days."

     "Well, you speak it awfully well, nonetheless," I replied haltingly as I attempted to retrieve what was left of my French skills from the dusty filing cabinets of my brain. "It's a pleasure to hear French spoken in this beautiful setting. I'm happy to be able to give you a chance to practice your linguistic skills."

     By this time the younger woman had pushed her wheelchair-bound charge directly beside me so I could talk to her without having to twist my neck around.

     "Auntie has been pestering foreigners she sees here in the park for I don't know how many weeks, asking them whether they speak French," said the younger woman in Japanese. "I'm sorry she's bothering you like this."

<  2  >

     "Yes, I've been making quite a nuisance of myself," laughed the old woman, switching to English. "I'm sure everyone thinks I'm batty. But I have a special reason for wanting to find someone with knowledge of French, and my intuition – which I always trust – told me I would find that person here in Zenpukuji Park. And so I have."

     We introduced ourselves. Her name was Atsuko Endo. She said she had lived near the park for the better part of 70 years. The name of her niece – her grand-niece, in fact – was Chie Nakamura.

     "Zenpukuji Park has mixed memories for me," Endo continued. "They came back to me the other day while I was doing some housecleaning. I found a box containing some old letters that I'd forgotten all about. They were sent to me by someone whom I first met one autumn day here in the park many years ago.

     "It was a lovely day, much like today. And as a matter of fact, I believe I was sitting on this same bench when I heard a voice behind me ask the same question I just asked you: 'Est-ce que vous parlez francais?' I turned around and saw a rather tall -- at least that's how he seemed to me -- and quite good-looking foreign gentleman smiling at me.

     "I was awfully shy and embarrassed by my poor French. But I answered him in that language, explaining that I was studying French at a women's college. His eyes lit up, and he sat right down on the bench beside me. He told me his name was Paul, and that he was looking for a language-exchange partner."

     Endo looked at me as a wry half-smile escaped her lips. "Not a terribly original pretext, obviously. But I went along, because, well, I had always wanted to have a romantic adventure. I grew up in a very strict traditional family, and I was so eager to break free and let my spirit soar. Can you imagine that the broken-down old woman you see here was once a flighty young girl, full of stupid notions about love and romance?"

<  3  >

     I refrained from offering any comment, realizing it was best to let Endo continue with her tale, which she obviously enjoyed telling.

     She laughed and looked at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

     "Anyway, it's very hard for me to read the letters after such a long time; they're written in French, you see, in beautiful cursive handwriting, and deciphering them is now quite beyond my abilities. So I would like someone to translate them for me. It would mean a lot to me … it's been such a long time since I thought of poor dear Paul."

     Endo sighed wistfully and looked across the pond. "What exactly is your work?" she asked.

     "I'm a freelance writer and editor," I replied.

     "Splendid! I knew I would find the right person here in the park eventually," Endo said happily.

     "Well, I'd love to be of help, Endo-san," I said, hemming and hawing, "but I don't think I'm up to the challenge of translating these letters into Japanese, as I work primarily in English. And I am rather busy at the moment with my work …"

     "Listen, young man" – Endo certainly knew how to stroke the old male ego – "I'll make it very much worth your while to spend some time translating Paul's letters. Money is no problem. And please don't worry about translating the letters into Japanese. As you can see, I can get by in English -- I worked for many years as a secretary at a British company's Tokyo office. But my French, well, that's another story. Paul would be so disappointed in me…."

     After Endo suggested a more than generous rate of payment, I agreed to at least have a look at the letters. She and her grand-niece took me along to her house, which was just a few minutes' walk from the park. It was a rambling old one-story traditional Japanese home, with a garden that needed a good trimming. I was invited to take a cup of tea in the position of honour in front of the tokonoma scroll in the front room. Endo asked her niece to bring in the box containing the letters.

<  4  >

     It was made of camphorwood and beautifully finished with lacquer. "I remember this box from when I was a child," Endo said. "Father kept his most important correspondence in it."

     Pushing her wheelchair close to the low table on which the box lay, she reached down and removed the lid with a speed and sense of purpose that jarred with my image of her as a frail old lady. Inside were several letters whose age was apparent from the 1950s-vintage Japanese postage stamps and the envelopes, which had yellowed with age.

     All of the letters were addressed to Miss Atsuko Endo at the address where I was now drinking tea. The address was written in flowing, highly stylized roman characters, which must have presented something of a challenge to the somewhat less-internationalized Japanese Post Office of the time.

     "I'd like you to start with this one, please," Endo said, picking one letter out of the box, "since it's the first letter Paul sent me." I took the letter out of the already-opened envelope carefully, since the paper appeared to be very dry and fragile. It was written in the same old-fashioned, idiosyncratic hand as the addresses on the envelopes. As I skimmed through it, I became confident that I could penetrate the letters' calligraphic and linguistic thickets and deliver a clean and clear English translation.

     Endo was pleased when I told her this. She asked me to come to her house in a week's time with the translation. "If it's not too much to ask, I would like you to read the letters out loud to me. That will make things much easier for me, and it would be kind of you to help me with some of the more difficult English phrases."

     I agreed, and Endo placed the letters in a large manila envelope. We said our goodbyes and I made my way to the genkan and out the door by myself. What an interesting and unexpected job, I mused. There's something to be said for idling away the afternoon in the park.

<  5  >

     The late-afternoon sunlight danced delicately in the red and golden leaves of the trees in Endo's garden; it broke up in nacreous ripples on a miniature pond as the wind ruffled the surface of the water. The calm was broken by the steady plonk-plonk of water dripping into a shishi odoshi, and I found myself walking in time with its gently incessant rhythm long after I closed Endo's front gate behind me and made my way back to the station.


I presented myself at the Endo residence next week at the appointed time. Chie answered the door. She explained that she was living with her great-aunt and looking after her while working on her master's degree in education at a nearby university. "We've tried to get her to see reason and move in with my parents, but she refuses to leave this house – she's so attached to it, you see. I worry about her sometimes. I don't think it's a good idea for her dwell so much in the past. And now she's obsessed with these silly old letters."

     "I heard you, Chie!" Endo's irate voice was clearly audible in the genkan. "Just because I'm a batty old crone doesn't mean I've lost my sense of hearing, you know!"

     "That was very rude of me, great-aunt," mumbled a chastened Chie. "Please accept my humble apologies."

     "Accepted. Now run along to school like a good girl and leave me and this gentleman to conduct our business."

     Chie rolled her eyes. "I'll be back in a couple of hours," she told me. "Here's my keitai number if you need to reach me. I'm sure great-auntie will be OK. Anyway, don't get me wrong – it's nice for her to have someone to talk to." Chie put on her jacket, picked up a satchel full of books, and was out the door.

     "Come in, come in!" Endo called from the front room. I entered and bowed, to find her sitting in her wheelchair in the same spot where I'd last seen her. "Please have some Darjeeling tea, and some of these nice French pastries. They remind me of Paul, who always had a sweet tooth.

<  6  >

     "Well then, sir, what progress have you made with that letter? I'm dying to hear what you've come up with."

     "Well, Endo-san, they're very, very…."

     "Romantic? Please don't be embarrassed on my account. I am not a prude, and I dislike equivocation. I want the truth." As Endo enunciated this last word her voice took on a darker tone that contrasted with what I had so far found to be her fairly upbeat personality.

     "If I may be blunt, the truth is that judging from this first letter, Paul was very much in love with you."

     Endo sighed. "And I with him. Well, I can't stand the suspense. Forgive an impatient old woman – may I see your translation, please?"

     I handed her a printout of the English text I'd prepared. Endo looked over it quickly. "I'll read through this at my leisure later on. But in the meantime, as per our agreement, would you please read it aloud to me?"

     "It would be my pleasure," I replied. "The first letter is dated September 29, 1955. It goes like this:

     My Dearest Atsuko,

     I find it difficult to believe that it has been three weeks since we met in the park. The time has gone by so fast, and so blissfully because I have been spending it with you. I was so lonely in Tokyo before I met you, not knowing how to speak Japanese at all, and finding very few people who could speak French. You have made great progress in French since we met; you are a much better student than those at the college where I teach. And I am truly grateful to you for helping me learn Japanese.

     "Oh, what a smooth operator that Paul was!" laughed Endo. "My French was atrocious, and I doubt whether he had enough Japanese to place an order in a yakitori-ya."

<  7  >

     I can never forget how lovely you looked when I saw you sitting alone beside the pond. You were like a vision from a Japanese painting, in your bright gold and red kimono, which perfectly matched the leaves that were just beginning to take on their autumnal glow.

     I hesitated to speak with you at first, partly because I was shy, but also because I didn't want to spoil the perfect picture of you sitting there in the bright sunshine, as the reflections of the fall foliage were mirrored in the rippling water of the pond.

     "He lays it on a bit thick, doesn't he?" said Endo. "Pardon my interruption; please do continue."

     I remember the look of surprise on your sweet face as you turned around to look at me when I finally felt bold enough to speak to you. When our eyes met, I knew my fears of rejection were unfounded, for I realized that I had found my soulmate, a shining jewel, who like me wanted to experience the beauty and passion of love.

     Here Endo emitted a long sigh, and after a moment I continued reading.

     I was so happy when you agreed to meet me for tea the next day, and I shall never forget our romantic stroll together through the garden at Korakuen. Having heard how shy and demure Japanese young ladies are, I was afraid that you would be shocked when I tried to plant a kiss on your sweet lips. But when we were in a secluded part of the garden, and you looked at me so sweetly, I knew it was the right time to take you in my arms and kiss you. Perhaps it is embarrassing for you to recall our first kiss; please forgive me, my darling Atsuko. But I shall never forget the exquisite sensation of breathing in the delicate aroma of your perfume, while holding you close to me and pressing our lips together, not caring if anyone was coming along the path towards us.

<  8  >

     "It's all coming back to me now. I thought I was going to die!" exclaimed Endo. "But after I got over the shock, I was in heaven."

     Later that day, as the sun began to sink below the trees and we had to part, I wondered whether I should ask you to accompany me to Enoshima, which I had wanted to visit ever since arriving in Japan. I was worried that I was being too forward and maladroit, knowing what a respectable young Japanese lady you are. But remembering that "faint heart never won fair maid," I decided to ask you, despite once again being afraid that you would recoil and reject me. When you agreed, I was filled with an indescribable happiness and a sense of anticipation that assuaged the pain of having to part with you that day.

     I am so looking forward to our romantic trip together to the enchanted isle of Enoshima.

     A thousand kisses,


     "Well, well – wasn't I a naughty girl!" laughed Endo. "I remember concocting some silly story about an overnight trip with a high-school friend to her family's besso up in the mountains in Gunma Prefecture after I convinced my friend to cover for me. It was rather convenient that the besso didn't have a telephone!

     "Anyway, I think that's enough romantic nostalgia for one day. Shall we make an appointment to meet here again at the same time next week?" I agreed, and sipped the last of my tea before bowing and leaving the room as Endo followed me in her wheelchair.

     As I put on my shoes in the genkan, Endo again told me how much she appreciated my work on the letter, and handed me a washi-paper envelope which I later found to contain a generous payment. "It's my pleasure," I replied.


Chie greeted me in the genkan the following week. I sensed mild disapproval from the look in her eyes, and I felt a bit awkward as I untied my shoes and put on a pair of slippers before entering the house. I paused as I tried to think of something to say to her.

<  9  >

     Before I could say anything to Chie to try to set her mind at ease about my translating the letters, her great-aunt called out from the living room.

     "Now mind your own business and get back to your schoolwork, Chie. I'm tired of people meddling in my affairs!

     "Pun intended," laughed Endo as I entered the living room. After asking me to help myself to tea and biscuits, she asked me how my work on the second of the batch of letters had gone.

     I blushed slightly. "Well, this one is a bit more ... intimate than the last one."

     "Yes, of course. There's no need to be embarrassed on my behalf. I've been waiting all week for this, so let's go down memory lane again, shall we?"

     "Paul wrote this letter on Oct. 15, 1955."

     My Sweetest Atsuko,

     As I write this, I am still awash in the roseate afterglow of our heavenly sojourn in Enoshima. It all still seems like a dream.

     When we met on the platform at Shinjuku to take the Romance Car (what an appropriate appellation for this mode of conveyance!) to our island destination, I was again struck by your refined elegance and beauty as you stood there in your lovely yamabuki (you see, I am learning some Japanese!) light gold-colored kimono; I thought I was seeing a vision from a Japanese fairy tale. But when I felt your delicate hand clasped in mine, I knew that you were very real indeed, my sweet angel.

     The rail journey to Enoshima seemed to pass by in a blur; all I can remember is sitting beside you and gazing into your eyes instead of the scenery rushing by outside. To be honest, I recall very little of the sights of Enoshima as we explored its quaint and delightful charms, apart from when you made a prayer at a Shinto shrine. My own silent prayer was that the bliss that I had found with you should last forever.

<  10  >

     I heard what sounded like a slight sniffle and looked across the table at Endo. She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "Shall I stop reading?" I asked.

     "No, please do go on. I seem to have some dust in my eye."

     "All right, but we can stop anytime if you like."

     The inn you had chosen for us was the quintessence of the refined Japanese aesthetic. I wish I could remember the names of all the exquisitely presented dishes that we enjoyed at dinner; I'm afraid I paid them much less attention than I did you. And until then I had not realized that sake could be so delicious and have such a seductively silky texture; it went to my head much more quickly than I had expected.

     "We were both fairly 'lit up,' as the expression so quaintly puts it," Endo said with a girlish giggle. "I kept trying to get him to drink some water, but he went on and on about the pride of the French, or some such nonsense."

     I will draw a discreet veil of silence over the night of glorious passion that followed; suffice it to say that it was truly wonderful to have achieved such total intellectual, spiritual and physical communion with you, my darling Atsuko.

     "Oh dear," muttered Endo, blushing slightly.

     I paused.

     "Please go on," she insisted.

     I want to write volumes of poetry paying homage to your beauty and expostulating upon the infinite theme of my profound and everlasting love for you, but my poor abilities are not equal to such a formidable task. Instead, I want to express my love for you with a myriad of kisses that I shall place on your divine lips the next time we are together. I propose that we meet this coming weekend in Asakusa, about which I have heard so much but which I have yet to visit. I hope that at some point I can meet your family; I understand that it may take some time before they accept the idea of your becoming involved with a foreigner. Given that, and the fact that I have no telephone here at the teachers' dormitory, I suppose we shall have to keep in touch with each other by post. I am eagerly waiting to receive your reply, my one and only love.

<  11  >

     Yours forever,


     PS: I forgot to mention to you that after I returned from Enoshima I found your lacquer hairpin mixed in with my clothes. It must have dropped into my suitcase when we were packing and I suddenly embraced you. Please find it enclosed in this envelope.

     Silence descended on the room. Endo looked out at the garden through the living-room window and said nothing, seemingly oblivious of my presence. She raised one hand to her head and carefully adjusted what I realized was the hairpin that Paul had returned to her.

     I thought it best not to speak, and watched dust motes spiral aimlessly in the sunbeams that streamed through the window into the room.

     "Sorry, I was worlds away," Endo said with a laugh. Her tone was suddenly businesslike.

     "Well, that's enough wallowing in the ancient past, I think," she said with a distracted air. "Please be so kind to read me another letter at the same time next week."

     "My pleasure," I said. "Are you … quite all right?" I ventured.

     "Yes, yes! Don't mind my moods. But thank you for asking. Please say hello to the big world outside for me, will you?"

     I left Endo alone as the sunlight faded and shadows stealthily emerged from the corners of the room like the advance guard of the cool autumn evening.


I was back at the Endo residence next week at the appointed time. I rang the doorbell and heard Endo's high but firm voice asking me to come in.

     "Well, I hope the next letter isn't too salacious," she said as I entered the living room. "I wouldn't want to upset your tender sensibilities."

     "Not exactly," I said. "It's anything but."

     Endo looked at me with a wistful grin. "Indeed," she said. "Well, shall we return to les temps perdus?"

<  12  >

     "If you're ready…" I hesitated.

     "I am. Please go ahead."

     "Right. The next letter from Paul is dated Oct. 23, 1955. It's much shorter than the first one."

     Dearest Atsuko,

     I trust this finds you well. I hope you have been enjoying the splendid tableau of the autumn leaves, which makes me wish I had taken up painting so that I could try to do justice to their subtle beauty.

     I hope you received my letter of Oct. 15; I had hoped to meet you last weekend in Asakusa, but I did not receive a reply from you. I'm sure there was a very good reason for your not writing back to me; perhaps you are busy with your schoolwork or have family commitments. In that case, please forgive my importunate and selfish insistence on meeting you so soon after our trip to Enoshima.

     It also occurs to me that you maybe have had some difficulty in reading my impenetrable script.

     "Yes, it must have been quite a struggle for you to read his letters, Endo-san," I observed.

     "Yes, indeed," she replied, with a slight catch in her voice. "Please, do go on."

     I shall try to write more clearly (and succinctly!) from now on.

     My sweet, sweet Atsuko. I love your playfulness, and how you tease me coquetteishly with that impish sparkle in your eyes, when we are alone.

     "Oh Paul! You naughty, naughty man!" exclaimed Endo as if her long-ago lover had suddenly entered the room. "I was such an incorrigible flirt," she chortled, directing her attention to me. "Sorry to interrupt you – please continue."

     I am finding it more and more difficult to concentrate on my teaching duties; when I look out at the young ladies in my classes, all I can see is you. I hope to see your beautiful face soon, my love, and to kiss your sweet lips as we tenderly embrace.

<  13  >

     Please write to me when you can; each day that goes by without word from you is an insufferable eternity for me.

     A thousand kisses,


     "Eternity … yes, how awfully long that is," muttered Endo. "Speaking of the passage of time, let's call it a day, shall we? I can only stand so much of being reminded of les temps perdus. Chie will be back soon to help me get dinner ready."

     We agreed to meet again at the same time the following week, and said our good-byes.


"Shall we turn the clock back once more?" Endo asked when I presented myself at her home the following week.

     "Yes, if you're ready."

     "I am indeed. Please proceed."

     "OK. The next letter is dated Oct. 25, 1955."

     My dearest Atsuko,

     Since I have not heard from you, I am becoming seriously worried about you, my love. Each night I pray that you have not met with some unfortunate calamity. Or have you rejected me? It may be that a mere barbarian such as me is unworthy to be the lover of an exquisite, exotic princess as you.

     "Oh my goodness," interjected Endo, blushing slightly.

     But you must believe me when I say, with the utmost seriousness and gravity, that you are my one and only love, and that it is my life's ambition to make myself worthy of your affection.

     It is my dearest hope that someday we will travel to France together, so that I may introduce you to my family and show you the delights of Paris, and the beautiful countryside where I have spent so many happy and tranquil days.

     "That was my dream, too," said Endo.

<  14  >

     In the meantime, however, nothing would give me more pleasure than to spend time with you in this beautiful, golden autumn, and to hear your merry, tinkling laughter as I did when we first met in the park near your house.

     I am half-tempted to go to your house to see whether you are all right; but I know that under the rules of Japanese etiquette that would be an unforgiveable imposition and a violation of your privacy.

     So please, please do write back to me when you can. I am so lonely without you, Atsuko.

     Yours only,


     As I read these last lines Endo sniffled and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.

     "I'm afraid this is all a bit much for me," she said, wiping away her tears. "I've always thought of myself as an unsentimental sort of person, but as you can see, I'm not."

     I didn't know what to say.

     "There are two more letters from Paul, Endo-san. Are you sure you want to go on with this?"

     "Yes, yes! Now that we've gone this far, there's no sense stopping. Some people – Chie, for example, bless her soul – think it's morbidly sentimental for me to dredge up old memories like this. But I disagree. I want to face the past head-on, no matter how painful it is!" Endo's voice became steadily louder as she said this, and as she half-shouted the word "painful," she slammed her fist hard down on the table while fixing me with a furious glare.

     She quickly recovered her composure. "Oh, I am so sorry! How rude of me. Please do forgive a bitter and frustrated old woman."

     "There's nothing to forgive, Endo-san. I know all this must be taking an emotional toll on you."

<  15  >

     "Thank you for your sympathy. I really do appreciate it. But now I would like to be alone and collect my thoughts. Please bring the translations of the last two letters with you next week."

     Dispensing with the usual formalities, I left the Endo residence. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun, low in the sky, threw some weak shafts of light into the garden. A few brown and yellow leaves were left on the nearly bare branches of the trees. Nothing moved. The only sound was the clock-like rhythm of the shishi odoshi. I stopped and listened. The intervals between each drop seemed like small eternities. I lost track of time, until the early-evening chill made me remember that I had an appointment to keep. I left the garden and walked through the quiet streets to the station.


"Good afternoon, Endo-san," I said as I entered the genkan a week later. "I trust you're well."

     "Never better," she replied. "Now, I think we are approaching what the French would call the denouement of my long-ago affair of the heart. You must be getting awfully bored with Paul's florid excesses, no?"

     "Not really. In this cynical age, it's refreshing to be reminded that there once was such a thing as romance and passion. And that people used to spend time and effort on the noble art of letter-writing. But I must admit to feeling a bit … voyeuristic as I read Paul's letters."

     "I understand. But please remember that you are doing me an enormous favour by wading through Paul's tangled prose. Now, shall we proceed?

     "Right. Here are the last two letters. They're both fairly short. The first one is dated Oct. 27, 1955, just two days after his previous letter."

     Dearest Atsuko,

     Why do you not respond to my letters? Am I a rejected suitor? Am I not worthy of your affection? Was I just a passing fancy for you? A novelty? Please tell me that I am mistaken, and dispel the dark and brooding thoughts that are clouding my troubled mind.

<  16  >

     I cannot work. I have missed several classes recently, pleading illness. I lie in bed all day wondering what I could have done to offend you. I have no energy, not even to weep. My heart is broken into a million pieces. I am sick with heartbreak. Why, oh why, do you treat me so?

     Worse than these thoughts are those that suggest to me that something awful has befallen you, that you are ill or have met with some accident – God forbid – that prevents you from corresponding with me.

     Yesterday I summoned up enough energy to go to Zempukuji Park in the faint hope that you might be there. But you weren't. The autumn leaves held no allure for me. I felt dead to the world. Nothing has any meaning for me anymore. The world is just a jumble of dust and shadows, and life to me is meaningless, or a cruel joke at best.

     On a foolish whim, I tried to find your house, but my regrettable lack of Japanese reading ability made it impossible for me to ascertain just where it was. As I walked up and down the streets of your neighbourhood, a policeman on a bicycle stopped to ask whether I needed any help. For a moment I thought of asking him to help me find your address, but then I saw a suspicious look in his eyes, and I told him that I was a student of Japanese architecture and that I was simply admiring the many lovely homes in the Zempukuji area. He seemed less than convinced by this, so I looked at my watch and told him I was late for an appointment in Shinjuku.

     I in fact returned to my lonely room here in the teachers' dormitory, where I occupy my time in thinking of the transcendently romantic times we had together. Just one word from you would set my tortured soul at rest, even if that word is "sayonara."

     I love you, Atsuko. Please ease my heart's pain and write to me. I beg you…..

<  17  >

     With all my heart,


     I looked up from the letter, half-expecting to see Endo weeping. But she was looking off into the garden or some undefined point in space. Her steely-eyed stare and clenched jaw told me she was doing her best to keep a lid on her roiling emotions.

     She took a deep breath and cleared her throat.

     "I'm sure you think I was a cold-hearted slattern, treating Paul that way. If I could only have…"

     At this point I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and elected to remain silent.

     "Well, aren't you going to read me the last letter?" Endo said, her voice rising. "Come on, get on with it!"

     "Right. The last letter is dated Nov. 5, 1955. Here we go:

     Dear Atsuko,

     It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that I am to return to France next week. Owing to my profound and unending depression, I have neglected my teaching duties so much that the principal has had no choice but to ask me to resign.

     When I first arrived in Tokyo a year ago, one of my countrymen told me that unless I was careful, Japan would break my heart. At the time, I laughed this off as a jaded expatriate's cheaply cynical apercu, but now I understand just how perceptive his remark was. My naïve enthusiasm for all things Japanese has faded, I am afraid to say, and is now just a dim shadow in my troubled mind.

     What does remain fresh and vivid for me is my memory of you, which I shall treasure until the day I die. To speak of you as a memory wounds my heart with a thousand lances; would that I could speak of you as my dream, my hope, my love eternal.

<  18  >

     Alas, it seems that such a hope is a mere chimera, from which the lifeblood will drain like the colors from the autumn leaves.

     I am sure there must be some very good reason why you have chosen to cut me off. Rest assured that any resentment, anger and frustration I may feel because of that is more than outweighed by the happy knowledge that once we loved each other and were one together.

     I will never forget you, Atsuko; please think of me sometimes, or at least dream a dream of me.

     Yours forever,


     Endo was silent as I finished reading this last letter.

     "Would you like another cup of tea?" she asked.

     "Um, yes, sure," I replied. Endo picked up the teapot and held it over my cup. But as she did, her hands started to tremble; so much so that I had to snatch the teapot from her.

     "Here, let me," I said.

     "Oh … thank you," Endo replied. "I'm afraid that last letter rather got to me."

     "I understand. I know what an emotional experience this has been for you. I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to go through those letters again after so many years."

     "That's just it, you see," answered Endo. "I've been less than forthcoming with you, I'm afraid. The truth is I wasn't aware of their existence until I found them when I was housecleaning a few weeks ago."

     Silence descended on the room. Endo suddenly looked very old and careworn.

     "It appears that my father intercepted Paul's letters and kept them from me."

     "So you thought..."

     "Yes. All these years I thought that Paul had just had his way with me and then forgotten me. But now I realize that …"

<  19  >

     Endo bowed her head and dissolved into a torrent of tears. Her frail body was racked with sobs.

     I tried to speak a few consoling words. They sounded hollow and fake.

     Chie, hearing her great-aunt weeping, came into the room and embraced her.

     "I'm too old to have my heart broken into a million pieces again!" wailed the old woman. "Oh, Paul! Paul! My love, my only…"

     Endo suddenly stood up and stretched out her arms, as if she were about to embrace someone. But she drew her arms together and embraced only empty air. She held them to her chest and sobbed heavily.


I felt very much out of place. I muttered some polite formalities about staying in good health and keeping in touch, and made my way out of the house.

     It was still early evening and I had some time to kill, so I made my way down the hill to Zenpukuji Park. The fateful bench was vacant. I sat down to get a moment's peace in the silent stillness. The rising moon was reflected on the undulating slate-grey waters of the pond.

     My meditation was interrupted by a female voice coming from behind me:

     "Excuse me, do you speak English?"

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