After considerable snooping, Tania discovered that her husband had been having an affair. Furious at being found out, Niko took Tania’s Japanese chef knife, the special one with her name engraved on the blade, and threatened to kill himself if she left him. Tania promptly went on a bender and hooked up with a professional baseball player.
Upon her return to the marital home, Niko’s elderly parents confronted her. Why was she threatening to leave their son and shame the family? Tania showed them the photos she’d found online. Niko clutching a chubby blonde in a neon mesh outfit at a nightclub. Supposedly away on business, he’d taken this woman on a holiday in Europe. Niko’s mother, a perpetually disappointed woman, scoffed and said: “They all do it. Even Otousan did it.”
Tania turned and stared at Niko’s dad, a kind man who looked like a Japanese Father Christmas. He nodded mournfully, on the verge of tears.
“I did; it’s true. Please don’t get a divorce.”
But she left Niko anyway. Now she was on her own in Tokyo and broke.
Tania began working for a caterer, selling lunches to office workers in the mornings, but she needed more money, and fast. Tania called Iraqi Lisa.
“There’s a hostess club in Ginza I used to work at,” said Lisa. “You get paid at the end of every night. The Mama-san is Chinese. Tell her I sent you.”
Tania wasn’t keen on drinking with old men every night, but one day she found herself disembarking at Ginza station.
She hadn’t spent much time in this part of town. The luxury shops, bars and restaurants of Ginza catered for an older, well-heeled crowd. Ginza was where her now-former mother-in-law shopped for Ferragamo shoes and had lunch with her friends. Tania stopped to marvel at a 150-year-old Japanese maple bonsai in a shop window. Its twisted trunk and limbs were offset by a cascade of delicate red leaves. Gnarled roots pushed up through a mound of velvety green moss in fine porcelain. It was breathtaking, and so was the price: 1.5 million yen.
Tania found the club tucked away on a side street. A willowy Chinese woman opened the door distractedly and looked her up and down while puffing on a cigarillo, before waving her in with an air of ‘you’ll do, I suppose.’
The club was very small, with only four tables, a bar brightly lit in the corner and a karaoke machine. The Mama-san motioned for Tania to sit down. She wore a gold Cartier watch, a powder-blue slip dress and low kitten heels. Tania guessed she was pushing fifty. She was an attractive woman with watchful eyes in a smooth, oval face. Tania thought she must have been very beautiful in her youth. She still was.
“What country?” said the woman brusquely, taking a long drag and squinting through the smoke.
Tania shook her head.
“Are you sure? Australian girls very lazy! I don’t need lazy girls here! I am Bei, but you call me Mama.”
“You speak Japanese? Good, good! Oh kay, you work tonight? You change in toilet.”
The toilet had a worn pink candlewick cover on the seat. Tania wondered how often it got washed. Iraqi Lisa had told her she’d be put to work immediately, so she was already made up and had a cheap cocktail dress in her backpack. She pulled it on quickly to avoid spending time in the unpleasant toilet/dressing room. She was ready.
Two grey-haired customers entered the club, their overcoats slick with rain. Mama barked out orders.
Tania rushed to help them with their wet coats and briefcases.
Tania held out a heated towel to one of the men, who grabbed it without looking at her and wiped his face.
Tania grabbed an ashtray from the bar and placed it next to her customer as he pulled out a cigarette.
Tania held out a light.
She added ice to tumblers and mixed their drinks.
“Hello, hello! Long time no see, ne!” Mama’s beaming smile flooded the room.
Over the next few weeks, Tania became adept at responding to and anticipating Mama’s frequent commands. Another key requirement was to be genki. Mama was an expert at it: she was the life of the party. She gently poked fun at her guests while showering them with affection and flattery. She deftly massaged shoulders and egos. She plonked herself in laps and played drinking games. She sang Japanese enka while draped over the peach velvet furniture. Her favourite song mourned the transience of female beauty.
Before her misty-eyed customers could cry into their drinks and call out, “Mama, you’re still the most beautiful!” she’d crack a filthy joke and have them in hysterics. Mama had known most of her customers for years. She’d once been a hostess too, and had become successful enough to open her own club.
Every night before the club opened, Mama sent Tania out to buy bottles of Scotch and snacks. Tania loved weaving through the narrow alleyways, catching glimpses of women in kimono clacking along the cobblestones in their zori, sushi chefs laden with trays of shiny fresh fish and flashes of noren fluttering in doorways. It would suddenly hit her. How did she end up here? When she first arrived in Tokyo, everything was weird. Then it became normal. Now it was weird that it was normal.
As Tania picked out ripe mangoes for the customers, she daydreamed about being rich, and thought about how she’d buy herself a navy Chanel 2.55 bag.
Mama sat in the corner and smoked furiously, with one eye on the clock. It was already 9.30 p.m. Tania sat with the other two hostesses, Agatha from Poland and Lucia from Lithuania, anxious about Mama’s foul mood.
“No customer, but I still pay you every hour,” Mama said. She stubbed out her cigarette. “Okay, this too boring. Let’s make Happy Friday.” She fished out a plastic shopping bag and a deck of cards from behind the bar. She tipped out the contents of the bag: lacy, barely there G-strings.
“I buy in China. You play Mama. If you win, you get,” she said, pointing to the pile of lingerie.
“And if Mama wins?” asked Lucia.
“Just for fun, ne,” said Mama. She dealt a round of poker.
Tania picked up her hand and saw that every card had a different naked man on it, each with a huge penis, eighties’ hair and tan-lines.
“Look at this one,” Agatha said, showing them her King of Hearts, a bodybuilder in cut-off denim shorts with a raging erection poking out through the leg. The women cackled in unison.
Tania was winning. She picked out a white lacy pair that tied at the sides, a hot pink thong with a strand of pearls instead of a fabric gusset and a red crotchless number.
“You good at poker, ne,” said Mama. “Your boyfriend have Happy Friday too.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m getting a divorce.”
“Omedetō,” Mama said.
“Do you have a boyfriend, Mama?” asked Lucia.
“Yes,” Mama said, “but they’re all married.”
Lucia eyed Tania’s pile of winnings.
“It’s not fair that we don’t have prizes for you, Mama,” she said.
“Just for fun, ne,” said Mama.
“Come on, Mama, let’s make it interesting,” said Agatha.
“Okay. Next winner plays me,” Mama said.
Tania continued her streak and won the next hand. Mama looked pleased.
“Okay, just me and you now, ne. If you win, you get 50,000 yen. If I win …” Mama made a big show of thinking hard. “Hmm, what do I want, Tania-chan? What do I need, ne?”
Tania started to feel nervous.”Just for fun, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course, yo! This fun!” Mama’s smile grew. “Oh I know! Mama have very good idea! I need Chi-Mama.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tania.
“I have club in Shanghai. If I win, you be my Chi-Mama. You go Shanghai and run my club.”
“Woah, I don’t know …”
Tania had never been to China. However, she could do with 50,000 yen if she won.
She looked over at Agatha and Lucia.
“Good chance!” said Agatha.
It was Friday night. Two new girls had come into the club: Nicole from Canada and Bianca from Brazil.
“You can call me Mama,” said Tania, admiring the way her new Rolex gleamed on her wrist.
Taken from the new short story collection Kōhine by Colleen Maria Lenihan (Huia, $25), available in bookstores nationwide. “Mama” concludes out week-long coverage of the author and her book, which included a self-portrait, a korero with Shelley Burne-Field, and an extraordinary review by Anna Rankin.
Next week’s short story is by Dunedin author Philip Temple.