The Little Teashop in Tokyo by Julie Caplin

Chapter 1

Haneda International Airport, Tokyo

‘Blend in, Fiona, blend in,’ she told herself, the mantra an old and familiar one, while rubbing the back of one calf with her leg like an awkward stork and tugging at the tail of her long blonde plait. Which was totally ridiculous when she was surrounded by teeny tiny women scurrying about like super busy ants. Next to the petite, fey females with their delicate features and thick, lustrous, glossy hair, she felt like a woolly mammoth that had somehow lumbered onto a Paris catwalk. For a horrible moment it was like being back at school, surrounded by the cool girls and their scornful dismissal.

She sucked in what was supposed to be a calming breath but instead sounded more like a tortured wheeze. All around her people were being met, their names held up on little signs by slender men in immaculate suits. She was starting to remember what it was like never to be picked in PE, the duffer that no one wanted on their team.

Trying not to look as anxious as she felt, she peered again at the white signs, praying she’d spot her name. Her ears were ringing with that big-airport echo and her spine tingled with an increasing sense of dislocation. The flight had landed an hour ago, her baggage disgorged with what she’d already realised was Japanese optimum efficiency and here she was still waiting. It was tempting to check the document stuffed in her bag with all the details but doing that, again, would feel too needy and nervous. Trust the piece of paper and the promises made therein, Fiona, she told herself. She was here. She was bold. It was no secret she was massively out of her comfort zone but she was going to do this. Despite her mother’s reservations, this was the opportunity of a lifetime and one that she’d never believed would happen to her.

Winning the prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan in conjunction with the Faculty of Arts at the Tokyo University Polytechnic was brilliant enough but the chance to exhibit her photographs at the Japan Centre in London was the icing on the cake. She was so thankful that she’d signed up for the evening course run by one of the London universities.

Digging her hand into her pocket, her fingers rubbed over the smooth ivory of the netsuke, the little carved figure that would once have been worn as part of traditional Japanese dress. The little rabbit carving travelled everywhere with her, the only thing she had from her father who died when she was a baby. It had inspired a vague, loose interest in Japan, so that when the competition had been announced, even without the prompting of her bossy friend Avril, she’d been tempted to enter. Avril had pushed temptation into action.

And now here she was for two weeks. Two weeks of experiencing everything Japan had to offer, including a mentoring programme with one of the best photographers in the world, Yutaka Araki. She’d worked hard on her application form and whether she believed it or not, she deserved to be here.

Her fingers itched to retrieve the carefully folded white piece of paper in her bag, for the reassurance of reading it just once more. Stop, she told herself, you know it quite clearly says that you’ll be met at Haneda International Airport. Someone with one of those neat little whiteboards bearing your name will be here any minute. It might even be the famous Yutaka Araki, himself. Her hand closed over her phone, nestled next to the little rabbit in the deep pocket of her mohair coat. No, she wasn’t going to get her phone out and check her messages. There was bound to be another text from her mother with an update on her blood pressure this morning. It regularly rose whenever Fiona did something her mother didn’t quite approve of.

Focusing on the airy space surrounding her and gazing around the crowded arrivals hall, she tried to analyse what made it so different. Thankfully some of the signs were in English as well as the fascinating but baffling Japanese calligraphy. Not being able to read basic information had been one of her biggest worries, along with the fact that she had never mastered using chopsticks and had never even tried sushi before because she really didn’t fancy raw fish. What on earth was she going to eat?

She swallowed hard. What if no one turned up? What would she do?