I’m moving out, was the first thing Noriko said to me. As I was moving in at the same time — she’d sidestepped me as I struggled up the stairs with an armful of folders — this was a little disconcerting. My feelings must have shown in my face, because she raised a hand to her mouth and laughed.
When I came out of my room, she was standing outside.
What’s your name? she asked.
Vilém, I said.
Villain? Her eyebrows disappeared under her fringe.
Vilém, I said again. Like William.
This was familiar territory: whenever I met somebody new, I was forced to disabuse them of my evil intentions. Still, Noriko returned a few hours later to knock on my door, bearing coffee and a packet of own-brand biscuits. She told me again that she was moving out, but really she wanted to apologise for the pile of boxes she had left in the hallway outside my room. She was taking her stuff over to her boyfriend’s house. He had trained as a sushi chef and they were starting a business together.
I was busy arranging my workspace on a wooden trestle table I’d salvaged from a skip: my cutting mats, my pencils, my scalpels. I cleared some of my junk off the bed so that Noriko could sit down. For a while she watched me in silence, nibbling on a custard cream, her legs crossed beneath her. Then she said, So what is it that you do?
I’m a paper engineer, I told her.
Her brow creased. A what?
I’ll show you. Look. In the absence of a bookcase, I had piled my books in waist-high stacks against the wall, the spines turned outwards. I pulled out Kubašta’s Christopher Columbus. Once upon a time there had been many others like this, but as a child I had been unable to resist the desire to pull apart such books in order to understand how they worked. It belonged to my mother, I said.
Oh! Noriko laughed as she turned the pages. A succession of boats and people and animals reared up unsteadily before collapsing again.
Now this one is really old. An original nineteenth-century Meggendorfer, the fold-out circus with its rapt, class-segregated crowd. I unwrapped it from its shroud of acid-free tissue paper and handed it to Noriko. She held it reverently.
And these are some of mine. I shrugged, affecting indifference. I showed her two copies of my retelling of Noah’s Ark. First the plain white prototype that was used to indicate how the mechanisms worked — the various wheels, pivots and pull-tabs — and then the final, published version, printed with brightly-coloured illustrations.
Beautiful, said Noriko. So clever. And you can make money from this?
I laughed. Children’s pop-up books had been my bread-and-butter for almost a decade, yet even to me they were beginning to seem like fragile relics from another age. Suze, my agent, was doing the rounds of the publishers, trying to pitch my idea for an adult-themed pop-up series — the Kama Sutra, Great Natural Disasters, that kind of thing — but so far without success.
No, Noriko, I said. I do it all for love.
That must be very nice for you. Her tone was edged with hurt, and I felt ashamed. She sat studying the two versions of Noah’s Ark and I ate another biscuit. Neither of us spoke.
I think I like it better this way, she said after a while, tapping the blank white cover of the prototype.
Yes, I said. Me too.
I wondered how long it would last, this stage of getting used to other people. I had lived with Maartje for three years. By the end of that time, I knew her routine and she knew mine. I knew the colours of all her underwear, the brand of baking soda toothpaste she favoured, the fact that she would only ever drink freshly-squeezed orange juice and not the crap made from concentrate. The soap in her bathroom sink was green and gritty and smelt of plants. Now I was living with strangers in a shared flat above a chicken shop, where the stink of oil fried too many times drifted up between the floorboards.
My new flatmates seemed pleasant enough. Dan was studying music technology and working weekends in a bar in town. Most other evenings he had friends round and they sat in conspiratorial huddles in his room, hunched over boxes of electronic equipment and laptops and guitars, eating takeaway pizza and skinning up. And then there was Noriko, with her blanched-almond face. She had the room next to mine and a decrepit red car she parked two streets away, where the double yellow lines ended. I often saw her driving around, peering intently over the wheel. She never saw me — in fact, she nearly ran me over at the junction at the top of the hill several times.
Dan and Noriko barely communicated with each other beyond the slightest of everyday exchanges, but this did not stop Dan from telling me what he thought of her. Quite possibly his theory was based on what had happened with the boxes she left in the hallway, the day I moved in. Overnight, some unseen, unheard person — Noriko, presumably — wove an intricate netting of fine string all around them. The effect was disconcertingly beautiful. Every time I left my room I could not stop myself from reaching out to pluck at the strands as they rose and fell in the draught. I half-expected that by doing this I could bring Noriko rushing out from wherever she had hidden herself, like a spider summoned to its web.
Three days later and the boxes had vanished, along with the string, but Noriko remained.
So what d’you reckon, Vil? Dan asked. He was swilling bleach around the sink as I boiled a pan of pasta. Strangely, considering the squalor of his dope-reeking den, he was forever wiping down the surfaces in the kitchen, J-cloth in hand.
She seems very nice, I said.
I reckon she’s kinky. I blinked at him and he grinned back. Shibari, he said, meaningfully. I made him repeat the word to me several times. After I had eaten, I looked it up on Google.
I couldn’t resist relaying this exchange to Noriko herself, albeit with slight modification. Dan thinks the Japanese are kinky, I said, as she stood ironing her jeans in the living room. I had never seen anyone ironing a pair of jeans before. She thumped the iron down on the damp denim as if she was branding it.
Oh yes? I thought she might ask me to elaborate, or even to explain the word kinky, but she did not. She pressed the iron to the fabric for so long I was sure it would burn. When she lifted it up again, a sighing cloud of steam engulfed us.
That Dan, she said. He smokes too much pot.
I had to concur.
I’d been trying to make a card for Maartje: it was sorry and I love you and Happy Valentine’s Day all at once. The mechanism was simple but for some reason I couldn’t get it to work properly. The paper figures that looked a bit like us were supposed to be embracing but they just kept getting tangled together, wrestlers rather than lovers. I started making an origami star for Maartje’s son Pieter instead, although this was fairly pointless, given that he shredded any piece of paper that came his way. Then I emailed Suze to see if she had managed to find me any work. She did not reply. To top it all off, I sliced my thumb on a scalpel.
A flurry of knocking, and Noriko stuck her head around my door. Vilém, she said. I need your help.
Yeah? I thought perhaps she needed someone to show her how to use a computer program, or to lend her a hand with changing a tyre on her car. I was about to suggest that she should speak to Dan instead, but she said, We need someone to take photographs. For us.
Photographs? For a brief, crazy moment, I wondered whether Dan was right after all. I had met Noriko’s boyfriend a few times now. Confounding my expectations, he was very tall, very overweight and very Italian. I did not want to think of the two of them together. What photographs?
Photographs of the sushi. For the website. You know?
I’m not a photographer, Noriko. I swept Maartje’s card into the bin and started picking at the bloodstained toilet-paper I had wound around my thumb.
But Vilém, she persisted. You are an artist.
I had never called myself an artist, as this smacked of pretension and people who earned even less money than I did, but I was flattered. Rather more usefully, I owned a fairly decent SLR. I asked Noriko where she planned to take the photos — in her room? At her boyfriend’s house? — but she told me that she had hired a photographic studio on the other side of town. I didn’t see that there would be a problem. I had little else to do.
Noriko beamed. Tomorrow, then. She looked at my thumb, and tutted.
So this is nigiri. These here, maki. And this is a California roll. Noriko had given me a blue sticking-plaster and a pair of disposable gloves, but the gloves were too small for me so I sat fiddling with the camera as she marshalled the pieces of sushi into tiny battalions. She held out a cylinder of decorated rice on a white, rectangular platter. Maybe you would like this one?
I shook my head. It was an unfashionable admission, but I had never eaten sushi. I was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, descended from stolid Silesian peasants with an ancestral memory of famine. The sushi, with its trim belts of seaweed, looked to me like food for people who were not really hungry. I felt a similar suspicion when confronted with elaborate bento boxes and sculptures carved from watermelon. And yet, I secretly envied Pieter, whose approach to eating was the exact opposite of the old vegetarian dictum: he’d eat anything with a face. This drove Maartje nuts, but when she wasn’t around Pieter and I would amuse ourselves sculpting mashed-potato monsters, sweetcorn vomit streaming from their mouths. Maartje had noted my inconsistency in both this and many other matters.
Noriko prodded the last maki roll into line and stepped back with a grimace of satisfaction. There, she said.
So what do you want me to do with all this, I asked.
I think I will leave that up to you. Noriko stripped off her gloves. You are the artist.
I’m taking photographs of sushi, I said, not painting the bloody Sistine Chapel, but she merely shrugged and hopped up onto a stool, swinging her legs back and forth. As I lugged the camera and its tripod around the table I became aware of an uneasy sense of my own capitulation, of the sweat gathering at the back of my neck.
I framed and focussed, framed and focussed. When I felt I had finished, Noriko tipped the sushi into a bin-bag and tied it shut. Under the hot photographic lights, the glistening slips and slivers of fish had begun to give off a faint, suggestive smell, and I was not sorry to see the back of it.
So, Vilém, she said.
The way she spoke my name sounded like the conclusion of a conversation I could not remember having. But I followed her lead and folded up my jeans and t-shirt carefully as I took them off. Underneath her clothes, Noriko was cool and flat as a cut-out doll. Next to her frank opacity I felt translucent, like a sheet of unryu. The mechanism of the act itself could be described in the most basic terms of paper engineering: tab A inserted into slot B.
Afterwards, we dressed ourselves in silence. I climbed into the passenger seat of Noriko’s decrepit red car and she dropped me off at the flat. Back in my room, I checked my phone and saw that I had two missed calls. I thought at least one of them might be from Maartje but they were both from Suze, so I called her back.
Suze was still on the train: her voice fizzed and sputtered in my ear. She’d been for a meeting with an editor who thought that my idea for an adult pop-up series would appeal to the same kind of people who bought colouring books. He wanted prototypes sent over as soon as possible. Suze didn’t mention what was going to happen with the illustrations, so I let myself believe that this time the books would be produced just as I first imagined them, perfectly blank and white.
I worked through the night. First I retrieved Maartje’s card from the bin and dissected the bloodied paper lovers with a scalpel. I could see now that these same figures might be used to depict the various positions of the Kama Sutra, an infinite copulatory pinwheel. The origami star I had made for Pieter became a paper sun imploding. It folded in upon itself to the size of a postage-stamp, a tiny vortex of light. By far my most ambitious construction was a skyline of paper towers, their paper foundations rocked by the action of a single pull-tab. Again and again I watched the towers fall, endlessly and noiselessly collapsing.