Hello. Nice To Meet You is from Alistair Vogan's short story collection Beyond Good and Eviler.
Chapter One - Surprise
It wasn’t what I’d expected. Anyway, for starters, it wasn’t like the photos... It seemed darker. I entered the school grounds and could see that the main building was considerably older, almost decrepit. I liked it immediately. A dark, grey mold, the result of countless hot and humid summers, had spread across much of its exterior, giving it the appearance of wearing a tattered angora sweater. Somewhere off in the distance, rising above the cries of the cicadas, a chorus of young men screamed, "Baaaanzaai!" - the rally cry of baseball players throughout Japan, and also the shriek of choice for kamikaze. In my mind, with limited associations of Japanese history, the school seemed to be having a hard time shaking off the Taisho era. This was my kind of place.
It was a cloudy day. I passed through the main entrance and was escorted into the staff room in shiny plastic slippers by my new, almost completely incommunicative immediate superior. I was given a cup of tea, and told to relax while I waited for the director. He’d see me soon, I was assured. There was a tension in the air for reasons I didn’t, yet, understand. I stood by the window and grinned stiffly while my new colleagues scurried out of the room. The secretary, a fierce-looking sixty-year-old woman with the eyes of a bald eagle appeared out of a door at the end of the room ominously and made eye-contact with my immediate superior in a way that indicated the director wanted to see me, and for us to hurry. With a firm hand between my shoulder blades, my supervisor guided me down two rows of identical grey desks towards this door, as if I were a model airplane. It was as we neared that I caught the anxious smile on the secretary's face. It seemed to say, "I don't know if this is going to work…" Before I knew it I found myself in the director's office, a dark grey, dimly-lit chamber.
Chapter Two - It’s a Pleasure.
The contrast in illumination was blinding. The curtains and blinds were closed. I glanced around wide-eyed but still it took a moment before my eyes distinguished anything in the black void. When they did adjust I realized I was standing before a stern, older gentleman in a dark blue suit behind a massive and immaculate oak desk. There was a humidor on the left-hand side. He sat facing me at the end of a very long room. I looked at him and he at me, but no words were spoken. He simply nodded, and I was again guided closer by my superior - though now I was acutely aware of the angle at which I was leaning backwards, and the just noticeable hesitation growing within myself. Still, with the grace of an aikido master, I was delivered up against the desk. The director and my immediate superior exchanged glances that said, "…What is this?!" And the director indicated, with a look I interpreted as livid that, perhaps, I’d like to sit.
There was an exchange between the two men, followed by uproarious laughter which was startling. The man behind the desk inhaled half a cigarette then immediately the mirth ceased and he locked eyes with me, his chin dropping. It was The Moment of Truth. His eyes said, "I know what you've done" and I swallowed hard trying to recall what that might be. As I did, he began to speak to me in Japanese at a pace that, for me, was rapid. He spoke at length. I nodded sagaciously, uncertain what he was talking about. When he finished I changed positions and sat upright to indicate that ‘Yes. I was game. I was the man for the job.’ He lit another cigarette and watched me. I realized some sort of response was expected. I listened to everyone’s breathing for a moment then delivered the short speech I had prepared in Japanese, and as I did his expression told me much of the rich impression I was making.
I stopped speaking and could see the director grimacing as if I had been shrieking into a megaphone and that the megaphone, which had picked up my amplified voice, was now sending feedback throughout the room. In fact, at that moment I thought I caught the glass cabinets around us shaking. He jerked his head involuntarily to the right and gave me a full, un-obscured view of his large mushroom-like ear.
I nodded again, uncertain what else I might do.
Chapter Three - Translation, Not Required
My immediate superior stood to my right, slightly behind me. I looked up for some assistance. He appeared to be imagining that I no longer existed. The director turned back and I could see he was considering a change of tactics. Then, in an attempt to bridge the language gap, because I had made it clear my Japanese ability was wanting - or that I was intent on breaking all the laws of Japanese grammar as some form of political theatre – the director began to speak in English. And, when he did, he chose from a collection of common English phrases, one you might find in a small Berlitz pocketbook. Also, I think he picked all the phrases at random. Though in English, my immediate superior translated. I nodded.
A large orange goldfish rose to the surface in the moat surrounding the school grounds. Its mouth stretched open to take in a tossed bread crumb. The fish sparkled in the sunlight and disappeared into the depths of the translucent green.
The director stomped out his cigarette and wove his hand before my immediate superior. Translation was NOT REQUIRED. He paused, lit a yet another cigarette and thought intensely for a moment, looking at his nails. We held our breath. I began to sweat. He snapped his fingers and began to beam. Something good was coming…
We could all feel it.
My superior asked me to stand up. I did. Then, the director pointed to the door with a half-smile like Han Solo and said, to my delight, his voice dropping nearly an octave, "I love you..."
“He means 'thank you’," said my supervisor, not skipping a beat.
The director shot him a look and my supervisor nodded obsequiously. I found my body turning towards the door and moving towards it quickly, as if the room was on fire. This was despite the fact that I, and my superior, could see that the director had more to say.
The door jerked open and the director stepped out from behind his desk, seemingly in slow motion, and looked at me as though I were on a cruise-liner, drifting out to sea, the distance between us growing heartbreakingly by the second. At the corner of my eyes I could see that in the staffroom the English teachers had gathered against the door, and were listening in. Still, I turned to the director. He nodded, reached for the humidor and smiled confidently as Ricardo Montalban might have and repeated, as if to correct my director, "…I love you Mr. Vogan."
My immediate superior whispered "Just bow, bow, …bow."
…I bowed and said “kornichiwa!” and my body glided effortless into the staff room. It was going to be a good year. I just knew it.
Ivan Von Noshrilgram Jr.