“Matsubashita-san, long time no see!”
The gentleman shaking my hand vigorously is the owner of a sweets shop near my home. He’s a young, enterprising patissier who started his own cafe-attached shop in a residential area.
“Manager, it’s been a while. But, is it really okay?”
“Of course, it’s more than okay! I’m grateful to have someone with experience, and you, Matsubashita-san, are meticulous in your work.”
I couldn’t tell if he was just being polite or sincere, but I felt relieved by the manager’s friendly and welcoming smile. I could feel the tension in my shoulders easing.
After being informed by the temp agency that it would be difficult to find me another assignment for a while, I chose to take up a part-time job as a stopgap until I could receive unemployment benefits. Instead of looking for a new part-time job, I contacted the place where I had worked during my student days, and they readily agreed to employ me for a short term.
While making small talk with the manager, I took a quick look around the shop. Some things hadn’t changed, while others had undergone significant transformations. It had been five years, after all. However, the same old creaky swing door, which had been problematic since then, still squeaked annoyingly when used by the youthful staff, which made me almost laugh and cry at the same time.
“I’d like you to sell cakes and stollen at the storefront, Matsubashita-san. Is that okay? You can wear your own clothes as long as you wear this red coat over them.”
“Yes, I understand.”
The slightly faded red coat felt heavy as I took it. I sighed, remembering how I used to wear it without any trouble and smiled wryly.
“I know you understand, but you’ll be selling in pairs on the day, so cover for each other for breaks and restroom breaks. And, the person paired with you, well, their appearance is a bit… so, if anything happens, I’m counting on you.”
The manager said, patting my shoulder with a laugh. I responded with a half-hearted “yeah” and listened silently to the manager’s standard instructions.
Appearance is a bit…? Like Shrek?
In the familiar environment, my mind wandered with fleeting, random thoughts. Before I knew it, the manager had finished speaking. After asking a few questions and confirming there were no issues, we dispersed.
December, the end of the year.
Having been cut from my temp job, I stood in front of the shop amidst the cold wind, serving families and couples that fill the world.
Next to me stood the woman who was said to have “that appearance.” Naturally, she didn’t have green skin; her complexion was the typical yellowish tint of Asians. She was a bit taller, making me, at 155 cm, have to look up to her. She seemed like a college student, with a bag that contained what looked like heavy textbooks.
I observed the street in front of the shop. The foot traffic was sparse. It might have been the time when a nearby kindergarten ended, as I saw several pairs of mothers and toddlers pass by. Occasionally, people in suits would pass by without giving us a glance.
“It’s pretty quiet, isn’t it?”
The woman next to me spoke up with an anxious voice. I turned to look up at her, causing my neck to creak.
“Well, it’s still daytime.”
“Do you think customers will really come?”
“They will. I think the popular items will be sold out by the evening.”
She smiled relievedly at my words.
She must be serious, I thought. The phrase “unlike her looks” inevitably followed, leaving me to wonder whether that was a good or bad thing.
“Probably best to practice introducing the products now.”
“Right, I’ll practice.”
Her neatly arched eyebrows drooped as she hurriedly pulled out a notepad and began flipping through it.
Maybe my comment was a bit harsh. I looked at her well-shaped, tightly pursed lips and thought.
Regardless, she looked as if she had jumped right out of a magazine. Not just her face, but her long limbs, head shape, and overall balance were beautiful. Her semi-long hair fluttered elegantly, adding a glamorous charm that caught the eye.
Among the sporadic passersby, some whispered and stared, clearly drawn by my colleague’s looks.
I hoped it wouldn’t cause any trouble, remembering the manager’s words and understanding his request: to handle any issues that might arise. But was this really part of the job? It must be, I thought, and sighed, realizing why they had placed someone with social experience like me here.
I accepted the situation and prepared to engage with interested passersby with a work-ready smile.
The model-like woman introduced herself as Serina Kagoroku.
Her surname was unusual, but
considering my own, I refrained from commenting. You never know where landmines might be with people, and I’ve learned from various experiences that it’s best not to be too familiar.
“That’ll be 1080 yen.”
“Do I have 80 yen…?”
While waiting with a smile for a young mother clumsily searching through her wallet, I glanced at Kagoroku. She was handing a paper bag filled with cake to a boy who seemed to be in late elementary school, accompanying the mother.
As the boy lazily reached out to take the cake and then looked up, his face turned red in an instant.
I couldn’t help but snort through my nose.
The poor boy, mesmerized by her, became flushed and then, noticing my lukewarm gaze, glared at me before snatching the bag and running off.
“Ah, where are you going!”
The mother, in a panic, shouted after him, finishing the transaction and chasing after his back.
Kagoroku and I watched the parent and child leave. Then, she timidly spoke up.
“What is it?”
“Do you think I’m not suited for customer service?”
It was just too much stimulation for the boy, and partly my fault.
Yet, she looked somewhat sad, which puzzled me.
“You can’t tell in just an hour of starting.”
She frowned at my vague response, making a troubled face.
I wondered if I had been too harsh on both the boy and Kagoroku, but I didn’t plan to follow up.
Switching gears, I started greeting customers with a cheerful expression.
In the end, Kagoroku remained stiff until the shift ended.
Days passed without incident.
Kagoroku seemed to have gotten used to it, her expression relaxed, and she began to smile more often. Her presence shone like a spotlight was on her, attracting more people.
I took on tasks like packaging cakes and handling the cash register to let Kagoroku focus on the customers, which visibly improved our customer engagement.
I couldn’t help thinking it was blatant, but that’s just how people are. We flock to beauty and cover up the unsightly.
Suddenly, the customers coming to buy our products looked like insects swarming around a streetlight at night, and I shook my head to clear the thought.
Kagoroku looked at me curiously, her handsome face forming a question mark.
I wondered how she would react if I shared my thoughts. Would she look at me with disgust and criticize me loudly?
—That’s not a good way to think.
I knew that, but my thoughts continued to spiral downwards.
I tried to distract myself by looking around.
The day had completely turned to night, and colorful lights twinkled everywhere.
People began to wear a relaxed air as the end of the year approached, with both gift-givers and receivers excited.
A cold wind seemed to blow through the hole in my heart.
I stopped my busy hands and exhaled the stale air that had accumulated in my lungs.
“It’s cold,” I thought.
Even wearing a thick coat and standing near a heater, I was aware of a cold spot at the center of my chest.
I turned around, making sure no customers could see me, and closed my eyes, waiting for the wave of emotion to pass.
I heard a voice. It was one I’d become familiar with recently.
The voice sounded rushed, troubled, and I looked up reflexively.
“The customer, because I’m working now…”
“I’ll pay you whatever your wage is, just come with me for a bit, okay?”
A few young salarymen surrounded Kagoroku, looking at her with expectation, while she, with lowered eyebrows, sought help with her expression. However, everyone, including the staff, just watched from a distance.
I quickly scanned for the manager, but he was busy in the kitchen and unaware of the situation.
No choice. This is part of the job too.
I took a deep breath for courage and stepped in front of the salarymen, who smelled strongly of alcohol.
“Dear customers, I’m very sorry, but our limited-edition shortcake has sold out today. However, we can offer you our bitter chocolate cake at a 10% discount, if you’re interested.”
The men looked puzzled at my words.
I continued to describe our products, using the situation to divert their attention.
Navigating life straightforwardly is reserved for the chosen few.
Of course, I’m not one of them.
The men frowned, whispered to each other, and then laughed.
Let them laugh. Let them look down on me as a crazy woman.
I’m used to it.
Their morale deflated, the men left us, still babbling, but without buying anything.
I thought I heard insults as they left, but I’ve long lost the sensitivity to care.
“Thank you very much!” I bowed to their departing backs.
looked around to ensure everything was okay and saw Kagoroku standing there, looking apologetic.
“I’m sorry about that.”
She apologized in a weak voice.
It wasn’t her fault, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I nodded and suggested she take a break, and she bowed again before silently retreating to the back.
Her downcast look made me feel uncomfortable for a while.
As the customers gradually returned, Kagoroku came back too, and we sold out the cakes, ending the day’s work.
December 24th, Christmas Eve.
A day that used to dazzle me with colorful neon lights and cheerful music, making me excited and eager.
That day had gradually become just another grey day in my life, devoid of any special feelings.
On the last day of my part-time job, Kagoroku handled the customers with ease, as if it were a natural wave coming in.
As usual, I packaged the products, handled the cash register, and exchanged goods for money smoothly.
“It’s really busy today.”
“Well, today’s the main event.”
We moved efficiently, covering for each other and silently dealing with the products.
Despite dreading the lack of time for a meal, I somewhat enjoyed the work.
The gratitude from customers, the happy faces of children, and surprisingly, the good teamwork with Kagoroku were some of the reasons.
She learned the job quickly and was attentive to the needs of both customers and coworkers, quickly bouncing back from any setbacks with a positive attitude.
She would be fine wherever she went, unlike me, who was destined for a brighter future.
As we busied ourselves, the closing time came quickly.
Feeling slightly dizzy from hunger, I looked at the empty showcase with satisfaction. Kagoroku, however, seemed a bit disheartened.
“We really sold everything.”
“You seem disappointed.”
“I was hoping for some leftovers.”
Kagoroku said, then her stomach conveniently growled.
“Um, if you don’t mind, would you like to go out for dinner? I haven’t had the chance to thank you for the other day.”
“The other day?”
Realizing she was referring to the incident with the customers, I shook my head. I had planned to go home and drink some beer, but I hadn’t expected any further interaction with Kagoroku, so I was taken aback.
“You don’t have to thank me.”
“I’ll treat you! Please!”
She leaned in close, and I inadvertently looked away.
I wasn’t used to being stared at by a beautiful woman from such a close distance, and my heart raced.
Kagoroku didn’t back down, waiting for my response with a steadfast gaze.
Finally, seeing her sad expression, something I hadn’t seen even while working, I couldn’t help but agree.