By Heather Mallett
He followed me to my door. He had warmed up; he was smiling broadly as he approached. This I attributed to his upcoming retirement. There had been a marked change to a sunnier disposition in the last several weeks. Now he was brimming with some information and his need to impart it.
Many times since my arrival in Japan I had tried to befriend our building’s caretaker. I took him freshly baked bread. I washed the front door conspicuously, and made an effort to wear an appropriately wifey apron on days when I carried old newspapers for disposal or checked the mailbox. I peeked out the door and when I found him at home, I carried over a small pot of whisky marmalade, or a piece of Christmas cake made in a fit of nostalgia for Canadian winter.
Still we had progressed only slightly in mutual understanding during my residency. He sat in disgruntled silence in our lobby for part of each day, his scowling caretaker’s box a few meters from our ground floor flat. We were on morning nodding terms, and acknowledged each other with another nod if he was still sitting there when I returned from work.
He was ruthless in his duties: ready to pounce on an unsuspecting resident for an incorrectly tied garbage bag or a front-of-building parking misdemeanour. Pity the swallows that attempted to nest in our car park or the insects that fluttered inside through an open window. He wielded his broom with authority.
My weekly Japanese lessons were beginning to provide me with rudimentary language skills. Even so I went, tongue-tied and anxious, to the most available person, the caretaker, with simple one-word questions. “Kore?” pointing to some object I wanted him to name in Japanese. He would grudgingly come to the window. “Nani?” was his invariable response to my fumbled pronunciation. “What?” Strange. My mother had taught me that “What?” was particularly impolite when asking someone to repeat something. Perhaps “Kore?”, said with a pointed finger, was equally impolite. Clearly language was not our only communication barrier.
I was putting my key in the lock, but turned to face him. “Tadaima!” he exclaimed. Yes, I was home again. Still beaming, he gave me a short demonstration. Waving “Bye-bye”, he said “Itte kimasu” and walked away. Then, turning back and re-entering the spotless lobby doors, he said again,”Tadaima.”
Too late. I had already learned the brief Japanese departing and returning home phrases from my Japanese teacher. That I often neglected to use these phrases was obvious from the caretaker’s desire to leave me with something useful after his long years of service. Should I tell him? I was so astonished by this breakthrough however that I was unable to manage a simple “arigatou”, but I matched him smile for smile.
Several days later, I encountered the caretaker watering shrubbery at the front of our building. I had walked my work-weary self up the long hill at the end of the day. I stood, waiting for him to notice my presence. When, catching me in his peripheral vision, he pivoted toward me, I uttered a perfect, “Tadaima!”
I now have the mnemonic for the Japanese equivalent of reaching-the-resting-point, I’m home again: “Ta-dahhhhh!”