memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 11


The Novice Geisha

The 1930s was the time of the Depression, so there were fewer formal parties for me to go to than Mameha would have liked. But we went to small parties and not only at the teahouses. We went to swimming parties on the river, we went to sightseeing parties and kabuki plays.

At some of the parties there were writers and kabuki actors. But I’m sorry to say that the usual geisha party was more boring. The party was often given by a small company for another small company they did business with. The conversation usually wasn’t very intelligent. A man might turn to the geisha beside him and say, «The weather certainly is unusually warm, don’t you think?» And the geisha would reply with something like, «Oh, yes, very warm.»

After the conversation there would usually be a drinking game, or the geisha would try to get all the men singing. Sometimes the geisha played children’s games with the businessmen, to keep them happy.

The formal parties were the worst. There was one at Kansai International Hotel. Guests sat shoulder to shoulder in a U-shape around the outside of a big room with tatami mats on the floor. The geisha had to move inside the U-shape, kneeling in front of each guest long enough to pour sake and chat. It wasn’t exactly exciting, and it was even less exciting for a novice like me than for Mameha. Whenever Mameha introduced herself to a guest I did the same, bowing very low and saying, «My name is Sayuri; I’m a novice.» After that I said nothing and no one said anything to me.

Because I was a novice, I was not supposed to drink sake- novices should seem childlike. But sometimes the men poured a drink and made me drink it. On those occasions Mameha always rescued me, saying, «It’s your first day in Gion, Sayuri. You can’t get drunk. Just wet your lips.» And I would «drink» the sake with my lips closed.

It was just after one of these occasions-I remember the man who wanted me to drink sake had very bad skin-that Hatsumomo and Pumpkin first started following us. We were at the Komoriya Teahouse. I’d just dried my lips from the sake when I saw Hatsumomo smiling at me from the other side of the table. Mameha saw the fear in my face and we left.

That victory for Hatsumomo was quickly followed by many others. We went to a party at Kyoto University. Hatsumomo and Pumpkin appeared ten minutes after we’d arrived.

«Really, I don’t think there’s anything more difficult than being a novice,» Hatsumomo said to the man who was talking to me. «Don’t you think so, Sayuri?»

Hatsumomo had two reasons for making this «innocent» remark. First, the man I was talking to forgot all about me and had eyes only for Hatsumomo. Secondly, it was meant to remind us that Pumpkin was no longer a novice. She’d moved to the next stage in becoming a geisha apprentice; she was going to a lot of parties, and she was earning a lot more in ohana fees than me.

I couldn’t think of a smart reply to Hatsumomo, but luckily Mameha spoke for me:

«You’re certainly right about the novice time being a difficult time of life for you, Hatsumomo-san. Though, of course, you were more awkward than most.»

Hatsumomo just smiled. Men don’t come to parties to listen to geisha arguing, so, again, we left the party.

Mameha began to take me to parties that she thought Hatsumomo wouldn’t know about, but Hatsumomo and Pumpkin always appeared just a few minutes after we arrived.

I knew that Mameha was also worried that Hatsumomo was telling stories, lies, about me. It seems that she’d driven rivals out of Gion before by doing this.

Things were bad but they soon got worse. Mameha and I had just made ourselves look rude by leaving a party shortly after we arrived, to get away from Hatsumomo and Pumpkin, when Mameha pulled me into an empty room and held me by the wrist.

«Did you tell that terrible woman where we would be tonight?» she asked.

«No, Mameha-san. I didn’t know myself where we were going until I got to your apartment.»

«Yes… Yes, of course. Then how does she…? Is it my maid? But no Asami wouldn’t… Come on!»

«Where are we going?»

«Naga Teruomi just arrived in town from Tokyo. Do you know him? He’s one of Tokyo’s best young musicians. Anyway, he’s giving a very small party this evening. We’ll be safe there; hardly anybody knows he’s even in Kyoto.»

The party was at a very small teahouse near the Gion shrine, in east Gion. Ten minutes after we arrived, Hatsumomo and Pumpkin came in. Hatsumomo quickly got everybody’s attention and continued her conversation from the last party.

«I was just saying how difficult it is to be a novice,» Hatsumomo told the entire party; everybody was listening to her. «I’ll tell you a story about a novice… Oh no, I can’t-there’s one here, at this party.»

This, of course, was me.

«I want to hear this story,» said one of the men, just as Hatsumomo knew he would.

«Oh very well. But I’ll tell it to you only if you all promise that you won’t think of this poor girl here as you listen. Picture some other girl in your mind.»


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