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I was born in Gifu Prefecture in 1986. We moved to the city—my mother, my father and me—when I was so young that my memories start there. If you look at me, I’m a daughter of skyscrapers, not  mountains. I wear simple shirts, a city person’s clothes, and I don’t know anything about nature. When I was a girl we lived in a built-up suburb fifteen minutes by subway from Nagoya Station, a bead on a string of the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Now, I live in the apartment J and I rent in Nagoya. J is my husband. Three months, not even a marriage yet. The complex was built over fifty years ago, for a thousand bodies but for no individual soul. Fifty square metres is the average size of a couple’s apartment in the average building. We have two rooms, the bedroom and an eat-in kitchen, separated by a sliding door. The floor is made to look like wood but it is fake. The kitchen cabinets are an old creamy white. I once saw a TV news report about an incident in Xi’an, China, in which a woman was stuck in the elevator to her apartment building. Most people used another elevator, at the front of the building, so she wasn’t found until someone reported the broken elevator after a month, and a repairman was sent to fix it. By then she had starved to death. She lived on the fifteenth floor of the apartment building and mostly kept to herself. Nobody had noticed she was missing.

My mother says I’m thin but not in a way that is good.

I think of this story as I stand in my dressing-gown and slippers in the hallway of the apartment building, surrounded by residents from nearby apartments. J stands next to me. J’s stomach softens in his dressing-gown; his stocky frame reveals what his body wants to be; what it may look like when he’s old. My mother says I’m thin but not in a way that is good. I cut my hair to my shoulders after we married, as though it would make me seem older, more like a wife. We listen to the ambulance radios down below. We have been told to stay where we are; an evacuation is not necessary. It’s nearly six in the morning on a Friday in February. During the night, a girl in our apartment building committed suicide. We were woken by the sirens.

The night before had been completely ordinary. I returned from work around seven in the evening. J arrived at eight thirty. We ate the meal I prepared, and then J watched TV while I scrolled through my phone. I was preoccupied because I had run into the mother of an old school friend on my way home from work. She was leaving one of the department stores below Nagoya Station while I was passing along the walkway. Mrs Sato – is her name. She’s the mother of Hikaru, who I have not seen since high school. Mrs Sato – and I exchanged pleasantries; I told her I had recently married, and I asked after Hikaru. She nodded and said, Thank you, Mai, as though my question had offered her something, and said that she would pass on my regards to her son. Her face, which had aged only a little since I last saw her, was inscrutable. Only the purplish-grey rings under her eyes suggested she might have been feeling tired. She wore her hair in the same way as when Hikaru and I were young, tied back in a low bun.

And so that night, while J and I sat on the floor cushions on opposite sides of our table, turned away from each other to face the TV, I looked to see if Hikaru Sato – had an online profile, but he was nowhere to be found. I had not thought of him in a long time. I gave up and went to bed, pulling the sliding door closed behind me.

A man said that he and his wife and children were experiencing dizziness, sore throats. Nobody knew the source of the smell or if we were in danger.

Standing in the hallway in our gowns and slippers, the residents in our section of the apartment building are all strangely united. At first, the information was limited. Someone called to report a gas leak; another person complained of a noxious smell coming through the ceiling vents of his apartment. A man said that he and his wife and children were experiencing dizziness, sore throats. Nobody knew the source of the smell or if we were in danger. Then the news travelled down from the girl’s neighbour, three floors above us. The girl had mixed laundry detergent with bath salts, poisoning herself with hydrogen sulfide. She was fourteen. Her neighbour and a few others are taken to hospital because of the fumes, but it’s only precautionary; they’re fine. The police and the apartment manager encourage everyone to return to their apartments. We all must be at work soon, after all. J and I shuffle back inside. J takes a shower while I make soup and rice. I don’t feel like eating, and wonder if I can smell fumes coming in through the ceiling vents.

This winter, it snowed in the city. That doesn’t always happen. Nagoya Castle is coated in white like an old  woodcut drawing; the red lights of cranes in nearby construction sites are modern fireflies hovering around the old castle keep. I step out of the apartment building and the wind tears at my coat. I take the subway to work.

When I was a young girl, my existence didn’t feel particularly special to me. In the morning I dressed in my navy and white uniform, ate the usual soup-fish-rice breakfast my mother put on the table, went to school and sat at my desk, walked home and did my homework, ate the dinner my mother made—usually just my mother and I—and then watched TV or did more homework before I went to bed. My father worked for a company in Nagoya and my mother was an assistant at a dental clinic in our suburb. I never had the sense that we were particularly happy, but we were functional, and functional seemed to be the aim of all the parents of the other children at school. I did not seek out what was other than the ordinary. I don’t think it occurred to me that this might be possible.

When I was a young girl, my existence didn’t feel particularly special to me.

I stayed in Nagoya for high school and college, and when I graduated began working for a local language school. I met J through a colleague. His attentions were welcome. I have always been quiet; have often watched the world rather than participated in it. J might not have known me in some fundamental ways, but he offered what seemed to be a chance to participate in life, in a marriage. My mother said this was good, accept him, you are approaching your late twenties, soon you will have few chances for a husband. Take this opportunity while you can. I took it. Each night after work, I open the creaking glass door, cross the threshold into our apartment building, walk up the stairs, and become one of the thousand. I guess it is true that my life still doesn’t seem exceptional to me.

Throughout the day at work I think of the girl who committed suicide in our apartment building. I think of the encounter with Hikaru’s mother the night before. I’m unsettled by both events. I think of Hikaru Sato – and wonder what he looks like now.

This is an extract from The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon (Allen & Unwin). The Shut Ins is available now at your local independent bookseller.