Several silver candelabra and candlesticks provided a dim and intimate illumination in the large dining room. The place looked old, as in 19th century old, with fake antique furniture, red velvet curtains over paned windows, and table settings with embroidered tablecloths and neatly arranged napkins. ‘The Mansion’ was certainly a befitting name for this late-night bar/restaurant, which was situated in Akihabara, the district in Tokyo most notorious for its nightlife.
“Don’t forget to address them with ‘my lady’ or ‘my lord’.”
“No, not whatever. Look, Nik, I’m doing you a favour here, don’t screw up. Ogata sama will be pissed at me if you do. You won’t be given another chance.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Ogata sama, the owner of ‘the Mansion’, earlier in her office above the dining hall. She was a slender woman with the same cunning look in her dark eyes as Miss Isoyama, only she looked younger, about sixty instead of a hundred. She was dressed in a beautiful purple kimono and throughout the meeting held in her left hand a long, ivory cigarette holder in the shape of a dragon with a cigarette coming out of its mouth. As she brought it to her lips the wide sleeve of her kimono slid to her elbow exposing a flowery tattoo stretching from her wrist and, very likely, up to her shoulder. She had a funny, high pitched voice when she spoke in Japanese with Emile, but apart from her voice nothing else was funny about her. She was clearly a woman in charge.
“Ok, Emile. Tell me again, what is this place about?”
“It is an off-shot of the maid cafe. Never heard of them? No, of course, you haven’t. I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve ever left the hostel.”
I never explained to Emile my true purpose of coming to Japan nor told him about my futile wanderings on Tokyo streets.
"Bien, it’s like this. ‘The Mansion’ is a night version of the maid café, aimed at female guests, who want to have an experience of being served by their personal butler. I say female, but you should know there are sometimes male customers as well. Just so you don’t get surprised.” He gave me a sly look. “So, while there are cute maids in the maid cafes, here we have handsome butlers serving guests.”
“It sounds a bit kinky to me.”
Emile arched back and waved his hand in dismissal. ”Non, non, you just serve food and drinks, engage in conversation if guests want, and you make sure they keep ordering. You told me you’ve been a waiter before, yes?
“I was, back home, before I came to Japan.” Although drunk frustrated workers and soccer fans in a local Dutch pub could hardly compare to this setting.
“So, it’s the same, only you stick with one customer at a time.”
“Did you explain to Ogata sama I don’t have a working visa?”
Emile grabbed me by the arm and dragged me away from one of the employees, who came to check a table near us.
“Listen,” his voice was hushed, “do not mention to anyone you don’t have a visa. That’s only for Ogata sama to know. Look around, how many white dudes you see here? It’s just you and me. I brought you in as a replacement for a German guy, who left a week ago. Our customers like to be served by foreigners. Especially Europeans are valuable goods and hard to come by. Ogata sama is prepared to do an exception for now, and she will take care of your visa later, if you do well. She’s done it before. But you should not speak about it to anyone. Trust me, you don’t want to upset the She-Boss.” Emile seemed to be agitated.
“Fine.” I shook off his grip. “And do we need to wear this?”
The butler suit, which I was wearing, hardly fit me. All the garments, the black jacket, grey waistcoat, black pants, and the white blouse were tight.
“Yes, we all need to wear the uniform. It’s a bit small on you, but it only makes your muscles look more prominent. I’d kill for a body like yours.” Emile smirked and reached towards my neck to tighten the black tie, which I loosened substantially during our conversation.
“Emile...” I caught his hand and pushed it away. The place, the uniform, the rules – it all made me a bit edgy. Ending up in such environment was not what I had envisioned for myself in Japan. But I didn’t exactly have much of a choice. “So, all I have to do is to be a waiter?”
"Oui. You’ll be assigned a table and guests at that table will call for you by ringing a bell. Small advice, use the British accent, they love it. It’s why we Europeans are so popular. We’re closer to their image of a real butler. ”
“You know I’m not English, right?”
“Don’t worry, just do your best imitation. They’ll never notice the difference. You got that, mate?”
“Nope, that’s not it...” I shook my head at his poor attempt to sound English.
"Merde, here comes Sato the prick. Follow me.”
All the butlers in the hall, there were about seven of them, rushed to form a straight line. Emile stood first, I was next to him and the rest lined up after me. Emile told me earlier Sato was the head manager and the only Japanese among the butlers of ‘The Mansion’. The other employees were from Korea, Taiwan, Thailand or other Asian countries.
“Stand straight, don’t move, and let me do the talking,” Emile whispered to me.
Sato was dressed in the same butler outfit as the rest of us. The only difference was a silver pocket watch attached by a chain to his vest. He had a compact body and was a head shorter than me. His posture and his focused eyes behind small spectacles spoke of authority and demanded respect, both of which were acknowledged on the faces of the lined up butlers. Only Emile, his lips pressed tightly together, bore an expression of defiance.
Sato inspected the men, beginning with the last one in line and moving slowly towards me and Emile. His hands crossed behind his back. He stopped in front of some of the guys and after a prolonged moment of silent stare uttered nothing but a “hmm”. A sudden nervousness on the face of the recipient of this special treatment spoke of possible unpleasant consequences, which might befall on him later. I found the whole thing overly theatrical and by the time he stopped in front of me, I was barely suppressing a laugh.
“Emile, is this your new kohai?” Sato asked, keeping his eyes on me.
“Yes, Sato san. Ogata sama approved him.”
“I trust you explained to him the rules here?”
“I did, Sato san.”
“Good, because if things go wrong, you Emile, will be responsible.”
“Yes, Sato san.”
Sato was a shrewd individual, I understood that much from our short stare-down. It was a crafty move to let me know, it would be Emile the one to suffer, if I challenged him in any way. I did notice, however, an animosity between him and Emile, which seemed to have existed prior to my arrival.
Sato stepped back from the line, took out his pocket watch and opened the cover. He looked at us with his watch in his hand and said: “Butlers, ‘the Mansion’ opens in exactly five minutes. Make sure you do your job properly. Make sure, you keep the guests satisfied.”
“Hai, Sato san,” the whole line responded in one loud voice, taking me by surprise. All this serious, army like behaviour was too much for my self-control and I chuckled.
“Are my words funny to you, gaijin?”
Shit, here we go. I found myself face to face with Sato again. The word he used, gaijin, which meant foreigner, or better, non-Japanese, definitely carried a derogative meaning. I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled, a few possible answers to his question came to my mind, knowing none of them would be to Sato’s liking.
Luckily, Emile was quicker. “Sato san, Ogata sama was really hoping to test Nik tonight.”
Sato looked sideways at Emile, then back at me. He gave a derisive snort and walked away. The line dispersed and Emile turned to me. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Can’t you tell how things work here? Ranks and codes of behaviour mean everything. You need to respect that or you won’t get anywhere.”
“Sorry, but the guy is a prick. He’s taking himself way too seriously. What is a kohai anyway?”
“Arrgh, merde.” Emile stamped his feet impatiently and rubbed his forehead a few times. “I’m your senpai and you are my kohai. It means you’re my protégé. I’m supposed to teach you the work and you should do as I say. You do well, I will be praised, you do some shit, I will be held responsible. Got it?”
I frowned. “That’s...idiotic, but ok, I got it.”
“Do know, if things go wrong, you won’t get another chance.”
“You said so already.”
“Good. Now come, let’s choose a guest for you.”