All the stories you’ve been telling tonight seem to fall into two categories. There’s the type where you have the world of the living on one side, the world of death on the other, and some force that allows a crossing-over from one side to the other. This would include ghosts and the like. The second type involves paranormal abilities, premonitions, the ability to predict the future. All of your stories belong to one of these two groups.
In fact, your experiences tend to fall almost totally under one of these categories or the other. What I mean is, people who see ghosts just see ghosts and never have premonitions. And those who have premonitions don’t see ghosts. I don’t know why, but there would appear to be some individual predilection for one or the other. At least that’s the impression I get.
Of course some people don’t fall into either category. Me, for instance. In my thirty-odd years I’ve never once seen a ghost, never once had a premonition or prophetic dream. There was one time I was in a lift with a couple of friends and they swore they saw a ghost riding with us, but I didn’t see a thing. They claimed there was a woman in a grey suit standing right next to me, but there wasn’t any woman with us, at least not as far as I could make out. The three of us were the only ones in the lift. No kidding. And these two friends weren’t the type to play tricks on me. The whole thing was really weird, but the fact remains that I’ve still never seen a ghost.
But there was one time – just the one time – when I had an experience that scared me out of my wits. This happened more than ten years ago, and I’ve never told anybody about it. I was afraid to even talk about it. I felt that if I did, it might happen all over again, so I’ve never brought it up. But tonight each of you has related his own frightening experience, and as the host I can’t very well call it a night without contributing something of my own. So I’ve decided to come right out and tell you the story. Here goes.
I graduated from high school at the end of the 1960s, just as the student movement was in full swing. I was part of the hippie generation, and refused to go to university. Instead, I wandered all over Japan working at various manual labouring jobs. I was convinced that was the most righteous way to live. Young and impetuous, I suppose you’d call me. Looking back on it now, though, I think I had a pretty amusing life back then. Whether that was the right choice or not, if I had it to do over again, I’m pretty sure I would.
In the autumn of my second year of roaming all over the country, I got a job for a couple of months as a nightwatchman at a high school. This was a school in a tiny town in Niigata Prefecture. I’d got pretty worn out working over the summer and wanted to take it easy for a while. Being a nightwatchman isn’t exactly rocket science. During the day I slept in the caretaker’s office, and at night all I had to do was go twice around the whole school making sure everything was OK. The rest of the time I listened to records in the music room, read books in the library, played basketball by myself in the gym. Being alone all night in a school isn’t so bad, really. Was I afraid? Not at all. When you’re eighteen or nineteen, nothing gets to you.
I don’t imagine any of you have ever worked as a nightwatchman, so maybe I should explain the duties. You’re supposed to make two rounds each night, at 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. That’s the schedule. The school was a fairly new three-storey concrete building, with eighteen to twenty classrooms. Not an especially large school as these things go. In addition to the classrooms you had a music room, a home economics room an art studio, a science lab, a staff office and the headmaster’s office. Plus a separate cafeteria; swimming pool, gym and theatre. My job was to make a quick check of all of these.
As I made my rounds, I worked through a twenty-point checklist. I’d make a tick next to each one -staff office, tick, science lab, tick … I suppose I could have just stayed in bed in the caretaker’s room, where I slept, and ticked these off without going to the trouble of actually walking around. But I wasn’t such a casual sort of fellow. It didn’t take much time to make the rounds, and besides, if someone broke in while I was sleeping, I’d be the one who’d get attacked.
Anyway, there I was each night at nine and three, making my rounds, a torch in my left hand, a wooden kendo sword in my right. I’d practised kendo in school and felt pretty confident of my ability to fend off anyone. If an attacker was an amateur, and even if he had a real sword with him, that wouldn’t have frightened me. I was young, remember. If it happened now, I’d run like hell.
Anyhow, this took place on a windy night at the beginning of October. Actually it was rather steamy for the time of year. A swarm of mosquitoes buzzed around in the evening, and I remember burning a couple of mosquitorepellent coils to keep the little buggers at bay. The wind was noisy. The gate to the swimming pool was broken and the wind made the gate slap open and shut. I thought of fixing it, but it was too dark out, so it kept banging all night.
My 9 p.m. round went by fine, all twenty items on my list neatly ticked off. All the doors were locked, everything in its proper place. Nothing out of the ordinary. l went back to the caretaker’s room, set my alarm for three, and fell fast asleep.
When the alarm went off at three, though, I woke up feeling strange. I can’t explain it, but I just felt different. I didn’t feel like getting up – it was as though something was suppressing my will to get out of bed. I’m the type who usually leaps right out of bed, so I couldn’t understand it. I had to force myself to get out of bed and prepare to make my rounds. The gate to the pool was still making its rhythmic banging, but it sounded different from before. Something’s definitely weird, I thought, reluctant to get going. But I made up my mind I had to do my job, no matter what. If you duck doing your duty once, you’ll duck out again and again, and I didn’t want to fall into that. So I picked up my torch and wooden sword and off I went.
It was an altogether odd night. The wind grew stronger as the night went on, the air more humid. My skin started itching and I couldn’t focus. I decided to go round the gym, theatre and pool first. Everything checked out OK. The gate to the pool banged away in the wind like some crazy person who alternately shakes his head and nods. There was no order to it. First a couple of nods – yes, yes – then no, no, no … It’s an odd thing to compare it to, I know, but that’s what it felt like.
Inside the school building it was situation normal. I looked around and ticked off the points on my list. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened, despite the strange feeling I’d had. Relieved, I started back to the caretaker’s room. The last place on my checklist was the boiler room next to the cafeteria on the east side of the building, the opposite side from the caretaker’s room. This meant I had to walk down the long hallway on the first floor on my way back. It was pitch black. On nights when the moon was out, there was a little light in the hallway, but when there wasn’t, you couldn’t see a thing. I had to shine my torch ahed of me to see where I was going. This particular night, a typhoon was not too far off, so there was no moon at all. Occasionally there’d be a break in the clouds, but then it plunged into darkness again.
I walked faster than usual down the hallway, the rubber soles of my basketball shoes squeaking against the linoleum floor. It was a green linoleum floor, the colour of a hazy bed of moss. I can picture it even now.
The entrance to the school was halfway down the hallway, and as I passed it I thought, What the – ? I thought I’d seen something in the dark. I broke out in a sweat. Taking a firmer grip on the sword handle, I turned towards what I saw. I shined my torch at the wall next to the shelf for storing shoes.
And there I was. A mirror, in other words. It was just my reflection in a mirror. There wasn’t a mirror there the night before, so they must have put one in between then and now. Oh boy, was I startled. It was a long, full-length mirror. Relieved that it was just me in a mirror, I felt a bit stupid for having been so surprised. So that’s all it is, l told myself. How dumb. I put my torch down, took a cigarette from my pocket and lit it. As I took-a puff, I glanced at myself in the mirror. A faint street light from outside shone in through the window, reaching the mirror. From behind me, the swimming pool gate was banging in the wind.
After a couple of puffs, I suddenly noticed something odd. My reflection in the mirror wasn’t me. It looked exactly like me on the outside, but it definitely was not me. No, that’s not it. It was me, of course, but another me. Another me that never should have been. I don’t know how to put it. It’s hard to explain what it felt like.
The one thing I did understand was that this other figure loathed me. Inside it was a hatred like an iceberg floating in a dark sea. The kind of hatred that no one could ever diminish.
I stood there for a while, dumbfounded. My cigarette slipped from between my fingers and fell to the floor. The cigarette in the mirror fell to the floor, too. We stood there, staring at each other. I felt as if I was bound hand and foot, and couldn’t move.
Finally his hand moved, the fingertips of his right hand touching his chin, and then slowly, like an insect, crept up his face. I suddenly realised I was doing the same thing. As though I were the reflection of what was in the mirror and he was trying to take control of me.
Wrenching out my last ounce of strength I roared out a growl, and the bonds that held me rooted to the spot broke. I raised my kendo sword and smashed it down on the mirror as hard as I could. I heard glass shattering but didn’t look back as I raced back to my room. Once inside, I hurriedly locked the door and leapt under the covers. I was worried about the cigarette I’d dropped to the floor, but there was no way I was going back. The wind was howling the whole time, and the gate to the pool continued to make a racket until dawn. Yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no …
I’m sure you’ve already guessed the ending to my story. There never was any mirror.
When the sun came up, the typhoon had already passed. The wind had died down and it was a sunny day. I went over to the entrance. The cigarette butt I’d tossed away was there, as was my wooden sword. But no mirror. There never had been any mirror there.
What I saw wasn’t a ghost. It was simply – myself. I can never forget how terrified I was that night, and whenever I remember it, this thought always springs to mind: that the most frightening thing in the world is our own self. What do you think?
You may have noticed that I don’t have a single mirror here in my house. Learning to shave without one was no easy feat, believe me.