4thWrite Prize 2023: The Man Who Cried at the Sky by Benjamin Toma James

I met him at the corner of Kobayashi street in central Tokyo. It was easy to find him, despite the
swarm of people. He was leaning against the wall beside the entrance to a soba restaurant, his right
leg jiggling, his nails between his teeth. No local would have expressed their agitation like he did.
He spotted me heading towards him from across the street and smiled. His leg grew still,
and his hands dropped to his sides. I was a little surprised. It was the first time a client’s picture
matched their real features, spot for red spot, hair for tousled hair, skin for pale skin.
‘Nakamura-san, nice to meet you,’ he said in decent Japanese, with a bow. ‘I must admit, I
wasn’t sure you’d come.’ Realising what he’d just said, he chuckled awkwardly and added: ‘Not
that I think you’re dishonest or anything! It’s just, we’d never see a service like yours where I’m
from. Anyway…’
Another nervous laugh.
I assured him I took no offence and mentioned it was only natural for such cultural
differences to be a bit jarring. He nodded along, a flicker of light appearing in his eyes, and seemed
to grow more at ease.
‘So it’s just me for the rest of the evening, right?’ he asked. ‘No other reservations? Okay,
great…’ He glanced at the entrance to the soba restaurant. ‘Shall we head in? I’ve been enjoying
this place recently – for the price the stuff’s tasty.’
I followed him in. The whole point of my service was that I did whatever the client wanted
me to do. If they wanted to eat, I’d eat with them; if they wanted to go to a concert I’d go with them
too. (They were responsible for paying my part of these outings.) I just had to be there, which didn’t
mean I had to be present. In moments of silence I was free to scroll through social media or take in
the surroundings, provided they were nice. If the client spoke to me I didn’t have to enquire further
or keep the conversation going.
Usually the price of the activity, or the effort that took to partake in it, would tell me if it
were the main event whenever the client hadn’t specified beforehand, which was the case here. And
the way he slurped down his soba, its price, told me something more significant was in store.
Especially for someone like him it was a cheap, ephemeral meal. But like all thoughts concerning
my clients, this one was fleeting, and I soon went back to finishing off my own bowl of noodles.
We stayed at the table after we’d finished. My client was silent, stared at the untouched
glass of water in front of him. His eyes were glassy themselves; the dim lights of the restaurant
permeated them and from there shimmered across the surface of the water in the glass. I used the
opportunity to scroll through my socials, reading up on the latest gossip, making sure to save the
most interesting-looking video clips for later. (I’d made it a rule not to play videos out loud in front
of my clients for fear of bringing undue attention to myself.) A good ten minutes of this passed
before he roused himself, blinking rapidly as if it had suddenly become bright, and asked me if I’d
enjoyed the meal. I lowered my phone and answered positively.
‘Good, good,’ he said. ‘It’s a nice little place. Started coming here a couple months ago,
during the last weeks of teaching. It’s good for grabbing something before going out.’
And there it was: the main event. He paused.
‘You’re okay with going out, like, staying out till late, right? See, I’m a bit of a night owl,
and ever since my contract ended I’ve been letting myself indulge in that side of me a bit more…’
I assured him I was available to do whatever he wanted within the time he’d booked and
the terms and conditions laid out on my website. This seemed to please him, even though all clients
were told this was the case when they made a reservation. Clearly he hadn’t been lying when he
said my services were totally foreign in his culture.
He paid up, then we headed deeper into the city centre where most of the nightlife took off.
He didn’t dawdle, or ask which bar I’d recommend. He headed straight for a small establishment
tucked away in a side street, from which I could distinguish the faint sounds of chatter, plucked bass
and brass.
It was packed inside. The tables and chairs near the bar were full, as were the stools at the
bar itself. On the walls hung posters of various jazz and blues musicians – Miles Davis, Billy
Holiday, Chuck Berry – alongside advertisements announcing upcoming jazz festivals. From behind
a curtain at the end of the bar escaped the sound of an energetic quartet.
‘What are you having?’ asked my client, who’d managed to squeeze in between a couple of
stools at the bar. ‘Don’t worry about seats – I’ve reserved a couple for us in the next room.’
I asked for a pils – a safe choice. He told me to go on ahead, tell the doorman (who was
more like a curtainman) that we had two places reserved under the name ‘Richards’. Seconds later I
was waiting for him at a table a couple of places away from the band, whose members comprised
three middle-aged men and one woman playing a relatively fast number most of the audience were
bobbing their heads to. Although I could appreciate a good beat, I was by no means well acquainted
enough with music to tell what a good or bad performance was. Jazz was especially difficult in this
regard: the swishing snare, the plucked bass, the ejections of bass, all of it sounded the same to me.
My ignorance made me want look at my phone more often than I had been, but I was aware other
people were doing it only occasionally, so restricted myself: otherwise I risked incurring the wrath
of the crowd, and thus a good chance of ruining the evening for my client. You see, the secret of my
trade was to disappear while remaining in the company of my clients. Things were meant to happen
to them, not to me; I was just there to accompany them through this process.
The band was wrapping up the number by the time he appeared with our drinks. He
seemed more with it now, more aware of his surroundings. He glanced at the band before settling
down with a smile.
‘Good stuff, eh? I discovered this place a couple of months ago. Think: just before I have
to leave!’ He sighed, and his face fell dramatically. ‘Better than not discovering it at all, I guess!’
He forced the corners of his lips up.
I nodded, clinked glasses with him and then drank. The band began another number. My
client started drumming his fingers on the table, in perfect time with the beat. Either he happened to
have natural talent and liked jazz or was a musician of some calibre himself. His eyes flickered
towards the principal instrument at any given time while his foot tapped the beat of another drum.
He seemed to forget I was there, which left me free to drink, look around, pretend to follow the
music and occasionally check my phone.
Eventually I settled on people watching, which was unlike me. It wasn’t just my clients I
didn’t find interesting; it was people in general. They didn’t really affect me for the most part, and
all of them possessed the same characteristics: they found some things interesting, others not; they
had to work in some capacity, and even if they didn’t, both types of people worried about money,
albeit for different reasons. To be quite honest I found it all quite dull, and I’m in no way excluding
myself from this equation. Boil humanity down to its core, and you end up with the same lifeless
So it said a lot that, since regular use of my phone was off-limits, the audience were what I
found most worth paying attention to. It was a pretty international place: although there were a fair
number of Japanese, most of them were dressed and acting like the westerners that made up the
bulk of the clientele. All of them were in groups, moving their heads with the music, smiling
occasionally at each other or even kissing when some change in the beat encouraged them to do so
– or so I assumed.
None of them seemed as engaged as my client, however. As far as I could tell he hadn’t
missed a beat with his fingers or feet, and his eyes kept darting between the bassist, trumpeter,
saxophonist and drummer with astonishing rapidity. Where everyone else seemed very much
present in the music-filled room, he appeared lost within the music itself. I wondered what that must
have felt like. I supposed I got lost in my role of doing nothing, not realising the minutes and then
hours were drifting away, but something about that lostness seemed different with him. Maybe it
was that while I was explicitly trying to disengage, he was doing the opposite. Why else, when the
musicians finished another piece and then thanked the crowd for attending that evening, would the
light that had been burning so fiercely in his eyes during the performance have died so rapidly?
We didn’t stick around for long. While everyone else descended into gradually louder
chatter about the evening’s performance we sat in silence, him staring at the condensation on his
bottle of beer glimmering in the bar’s overhead lights, me saving more video clips for later. But as if
there were something horrible on the bottle, he stood up suddenly after only a minute and excused
himself. After he returned from the toilet he asked if we could go. I agreed; there were only five
minutes left of my shift anyway.
‘Thanks for accompanying me,’ he said once we were out in the cool night air. ‘It was fun.’
I concurred.
‘Would you be around to do this again next week, around the same time?’
I told him I had a slot free then. He expressed his gladness about this, although the light
was still absent from his eyes. He smiled warmly when he handed me the second half of the fee,
though, and we parted amicably. I made my way home with one of the bass lines bouncing around
my head.


A couple of weeks passed in which we met at the same restaurant, went to the same bar and left at
the same time. The second week we did this twice. Everything was the same as it had been that
night: few words exchanged between us, long silences and my client’s habit of getting lost in his
thoughts before deciding abruptly it was time to go.
I didn’t ask myself any questions about this unchanging routine. My lack of curiosity
regarding my clients saw to that. It was necessary for my work: if I developed any interest in them,
by virtue of hanging out with them several times I’d become if not their friend or lover, something
in between, an all too intimate confidant, which was no good. My clients mostly hired me to simply
hang out with them, or, in rarer but not uncommon cases, to have a stranger listen to personal issues
they couldn’t share with their close ones. There were various reasons for this. Most of them simply
wanted to do something they feared their friends, family or partners would have no interest in doing
but which they were uncomfortable doing alone. For others it was simply easier to have a stranger
you could choose never to see again hear about your deepest fears and insecurities.
Basically, my clients just wanted someone to be there. Nothing more. These people weren’t
necessarily lonely – they were just afraid of feeling like they were. They didn’t need, or even want,
someone to show interest in them, probe them, get them to think about anything, let alone
themselves. That would have defeated the purpose. All they cared about was each moment I
provided that distracted them from the nothingness that could have been in my place.
My initial surprise at finding a gaijin had requested my services, then, hadn’t lasted
particularly long, and all but vanished by the time I set out to meet him for the first time and never
resurfaced. I suppose the reason the initial bout of surprise had even occurred was because I’d
grown used to seeing them grouped together whenever I saw them out and about, enjoying the
sounds, smells and sights of our country amid the comfort of their fellows. Gaijins were hardpressed
to find friends here other than fellow gaijins and, in less frequent cases, Japanese who had
more or less developed their mindset. Whether or not he had thought about these things, my client
didn’t share, which also made the whole process run as it was meant to.
The second time we met was in the Shinjuku Gyoen national garden. It was crowded, with
it being peak cherry blossom season, though not as bad as it could have been. I found him, via
location sharing, sitting on a bench under one of the trees overlooking the lake. Beyond it, in the
distance, loomed skyscrapers, as if warning everyone in the park not to forget their presence. From
behind them and above us the sky stretched blue, with not a cloud in sight.
He was staring at the lake’s surface, which was littered with cherry blossoms. It took him a
few moments to realise I’d arrived. When he did he blinked in confusion and got up, laughing
hesitantly all the while, bowing and apologising for his absentmindedness.
‘It’s easy to lose track of things, with this view,’ he said, looking up at the dark branches of
the tree and the gentle pink blossoms trembling on them and then back to the bench. ‘A good spot
for couples, don’t you think?’
I nodded.
‘Not that I’m suggesting anything,’ he added quickly with an awkward smile. ‘It’s just
that… Well, actually, while I was waiting, looking at the lake, it got me thinking about this person, a
woman. She worked at my school, as a receptionist, and I always got the impression she… Hang
on, I don’t know why I’m telling you this.’
Another laugh.
I told him he was free to talk about whatever he wanted when he was with me, that he was
also free to change his mind.
‘Right…’ he murmured, eyes darting up again. ‘Well, this receptionist… I’ll skip the
details, but she gave off pretty strong signs that, you know, maybe she’d like to go out with me
sometime. And this had been going on for a good few months into my contract, so it didn’t feel like
some fluke or anything. Well, long story short, I was going to invite her here last year, you know, to
see the cherry blossom, but when I was here by myself – I normally like to experience things alone
first – I saw her with some Japanese guy.’
His eyes fell on me again. It was hard to tell what was stirring within them.
‘Worst of it was she saw me, and waved at me, as if it was the most normal thing in the
He paused, let his eyes fall further to the ground. When they rose they were full of
‘And that taught me how good I was with picking up on these things! Anyway, about
today…’ He trailed off, his features turning sheepish. ‘I don’t actually know what I was planning to
do with you. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’ve got you for two hours, and I’ve got no plan…’ He
stopped, appeared to sink into deep thought, then said in a cheerier tone: ‘You know what? I guess
when I booked you I didn’t even want to do anything in particular! Yeah, that makes sense. So I
suppose we should walk around the park a bit, see what it has to offer?’
I agreed, naturally, and let him lead the stroll, which took us around the lake and down a
path towards the flowerbeds. He said nothing this whole time, just walked. Sometimes he looked at
the trees or the flowers, but mostly he kept his eyes on the ground. I was content to just walk too.
The sights were wonderful, and there weren’t too many people since it was a weekday; the April air
was pleasantly warm, with enough of a breeze to stop it from becoming stuffy.
The peaceful atmosphere grew even more palpable in the small wood towards the western
edge of the park. The trees seemed to block out any noise from the outside, and their leaves filtered
the sun’s rays so that they appeared as some ethereal haze. Birds chirped incessantly, excitedly, as
though they were expecting something great to happen, and on the rock beds in the ponds lazed a
bale of turtles. We stopped at one pond and observed its surface for a while, which was glinting
marvellously from a single ray of sun. My client squatted down to get a closer look at the turtles,
then looked up at the golden-green leaves before returning his gaze to the slothful creatures, the
corners of his lips twitching. He seemed to have forgotten all about me again. Single minutes
became ten, and eventually, despite the beauty of the place, I resorted to scrolling on my phone.
‘You know, when most people think of heaven, this must be it.’
I looked up, startled. He was still looking at the pond; all I could see was the back of his
‘There’s something nice about being cocooned in here, isn’t it? A bit like you’re being
protected. It’s weird: nothing here – the trees, the animals – none of it actually cares about us; none
of them even know we can care so much about them. They don’t know how much they make us feel
at peace. But I guess that’s the reason they’re capable of that.’
He stayed there some seconds longer, then stood up abruptly, treaded the path that
continued out of the wood. I hurried after him, slipping my phone into my pocket. For a minute we
walked briskly through the last remaining trees and towards the open, when, without notice, he
stopped at the edge of the wood. With no time to slow down I carried on a few steps ahead of him
and onto the lawn. I would have stepped back and retaken my place at his side, had I not been
stunned into immobility. He was standing still, rigidly, feet on the border of the wood and the open.
His whole body was turned towards the clear blue sky, on which his clear blue eyes were fixated.
The colours of both were so similar that his eyes might as well have been a mere reflection of the
sweeping blue above us. But there was no way they were mirrors: mirrors weren’t capable of
releasing rivers of tears.


My clients rarely cried; I mentioned before they weren’t necessarily sad or lonely people. They
were also far less likely to cry when they were with me. In many ways I was there to stop them
dwelling too much on unnecessary things, which happens to a lot of people when they do things by
themselves. And when they did cry it was easy to understand why.
A client who wanted me to deliver her hat to her was a case in point. One day she left the
house to take the train to Osaka to see some friends she hadn’t hung out with for a while. It
promised to be a hot Sunday, and although she usually never forgot to bring her hat on days like
this, out of excitement she’d forgotten to check the weather forecast. She realised she’d forgotten it
only with five minutes to spare before her train was ready to leave the platform. But just as in a film
her husband appeared, rushing across the platform to hand it to her. As she’d told me, she knew
immediately this gesture would stay with her for life.
When she returned that evening, with his favourite tempura set hidden in a plain plastic
bag, she found the house empty, which was strange because she’d never found him out at this time
on a Sunday evening before. But it wasn’t anything bizarre enough to prevent her from taking a
shower and laying out the chopsticks and plates and bowls. But when the tempura had started
getting cold and he still hadn’t returned, a sense of foreboding started to come over her, and she
called her friends and family for news.
No one knew where he was, which made her even more concerned. In the end she called
the police. It only took them a couple of days to find him. The nearby forest had become the default
place to look a long time ago.
Her request had been simple. I was to take the same hat he had brought to her and then
rush over to the same station platform where she was about to board the same train. (I only had to
run round the same corner, of course.) When I handed her her hat I saw the tears brimming in her
eyes. But not because she was reminded of her partner; rather she was so moved anew by his act of
But where her tears, all my clients’ tears, belonged in some way to the clear or immediate
past, my recent client’s came from somewhere far beyond. While most of my other clients’ tears
could be stemmed or dry up in the simple moments of distraction my service could provide them,
his were clearly incapable of that. And where I didn’t have to think about their angst outside those
given moments, his was impossible not to think about. I repeat: I could take a client crying in front
of me. But the usual result of that would be such great embarrassment that they’d either make sure
never to do it or, in more extreme cases, call on me again. It’s not that he didn’t apologise for his
tears and end the session there and then: it was that when he did contact me again, he did so in such
a way that it seemed the whole incident had never occurred.
So I didn’t respond. I’d already been thinking about him too much, and if he wasn’t goin
to acknowledge and do something about this behaviour, then I could only see that necessary
boundary of disinterest being further eroded. In the end I put our incompatibility down to cultural
differences. I knew gaijins tended to use more than words to express the way they were feeling
compared to us Japanese. That’s just one of many reasons we preferred to let them be in their
groups, that only the most untoward of us dared befriend them: they were all too willing to reveal
everything without ever considering it might not be appropriate in most situations – especially
His messages ceased after a few days. I think he figured I wasn’t interested in taking him
on anymore. I never felt bad about that. Sometimes clients just weren’t a right fit for a service, and
vice versa – not uncommonly it was both cases at once. That was just the nature of business. If my
clients were unique people, then maybe this way of looking at things could be problematic,
somehow. But they weren’t, and if I’d learnt anything over the last four years I’d been doing this, it
was that all the people I walked past on the streets, dressed so smartly, walking with such intent,
had all the same insecurities as my clients, the same fear of feeling alone; they’d just found ways to
distract themselves without my help.
But this client was unique, even though I didn’t want him to be, for the simple reason it
was impossible to understand the essence of his angst. He’d said some revealing things, of course,
but no one shed so many tears over a secretary they’d barely known and tried to date about a year
ago. Most of our time had been spent in silence, and he’d never requested I do something specific
related to some especially profound memories. Let me be clear, though: I wasn’t particularly
interested in him, and when I went back to the soba restaurant and jazz bar night after night, and the
park on days I didn’t have much on, I didn’t do so out of an unquenchable desire to figure out what
it was that had really caused his tears, maybe even what had become of him. I just had a vague
curiosity and nothing better to do but to seek out its resolution.
I never saw him again, though. I’d been going to the bar almost every night for the last
couple of weeks, to the point I’d even started to notice the difference between the different pieces
being performed, and even asked the server if he’d seen him around recently. He hadn’t, and I soon
gave up going after that.
On what turned out to be be the last day of fuel for my curiosity, I’d completed another
round of the park and was standing at the edge of the wood like he was, staring up into the sky.
We’d continued getting lucky over the preceding weeks: the sun continued to shine in the cloudless
blue sky, with the same gentle breeze caressing my cheeks. I stared hard, trying to understand what
it was that had caused his tears to flow so. With the sun overhead I sometimes had to squint, which
made the blue shimmer slightly, as if it were moving closer to and further away from me in quick
succession. The longer I kept my eyes in that position the more I felt my whole being follow suit,
moving to and fro within a steadily expanding space that presented no end. Soon I felt the space
above and around me become too large, too unnavigable; I felt myself losing control in this bright
blue sea of incessant movement. At one point, a snap – the movement was too much to bear – and I
took a blind step backwards, moving under the canopy of leaves. With the sunlight now filtering
through the golden-green leaves, I felt the cold sweat on my brow and, mixing with the rustle of the
leaves, my breath – heavy, ragged. Luckily there were no concerned walkers around. The last thing
I wanted in that moment was to see another human being. I stared at my hands, which were
trembling violently. Suddenly my client’s reaction didn’t seem all that strange, and I knew then that
seeing him again wasn’t an option. Definitely. It was probably the most certain I’d been of anything
for years.


I cancelled all my appointments for that evening, and the next day, and the day after that. I stayed
home, afraid to venture out of the apartment, to lay eyes on anyone who might have an inkling of
what I’d felt. And when I did eventually venture out, I made sure it was on a cloudy day.
‘Nakamura-san, are you feeling better?’ asked my first client since my self-isolation, a
young woman in her twenties who liked frequenting cafés with me. I’d told all my clients I
cancelled on that I had the flu.
I answered positively. She said how wonderful that was, and returned to her iced coffee
and phone contentedly. But the truth was, I wasn’t feeling any better. The sky may not have been
blue anymore, but the fact that behind the cluster of clouds it remained so frightened me. For once I
didn’t feel like scrolling through my feeds, saving videos for later. Instead I just stared at the
condensation gathering on the glass of my own iced beverage, the way the lights of the café danced
upon it.
But that was then.
Eventually the more my clients frequented me the more I was able to let go of what had
happened and forget him. I began feeling tempted to use my phone again; the small doses of
pleasure of saving another video for later came crawling back. Even when the clouds gave way to
the blue vault above our heads I didn’t pay it any more attention than I would have otherwise. Like
before I was happy to simply exist. And I still am.

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