As I was playing Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” in the music room, the door suddenly slammed open, and a tall male student sauntered into the room.
“Are you Kitazawa?”
He said in my direction in an arrogant tone.
I nodded silently.
“I have a favour to ask. Mind taping tomorrow’s game?”
The way he said it, it sounded less like a favour and more like a demand. I knew of him; he was Hanege Tetsuya, the ace of the baseball team. He had prominent cheekbones and mature features.
“There’s a camcorder in the music room, isn’t there?”
“Yeah, there is.”
“I’ve already gotten permission from Ms. Miyasaka. She told me that you know how to use it. I’ve got an important game tomorrow, so help me out, will you?”
“I have plans tomorrow.”
“What kind of plans?”
“I have my listening lesson tomorrow.”
His mouth and eyes both rounded. For a moment, a certain childishness flashed in his expression, and he looked more like the junior high student that he was.
“What’s this ‘listening lesson’-whatchamacallit?”
“It’s a music lesson. I go every Saturday.”
“Well, you can cancel one lesson, can’t you?”
He said casually. It seems that he had a personality that didn’t dwell on the small stuff.
When I said this, Tetsuya suddenly got a serious look in his eye as he gazed at me.
“Please. This isn’t just any game. A person’s life is riding on this game.”
“A life? What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain more later, so come on, I’m begging you here.”
Although he said this casually, there was passion in his voice and expression. I didn’t really know the circumstances, but I felt in my gut that he meant it when he said “it’s not just any game.” I wondered though just whose “life” was riding on this game?
I heard that back when he was in elementary school, Tetsuya participated in the National Little Leagues’ championship. At my school, he was pretty well known. I also heard that recruiters of private high schools that took part in the National High School Baseball Tournament practically every year were coming to watch him practice. He was also really popular with the girls at our school.
He wasn’t in the same class as me though, so I didn’t know very much about him other than that. I always figured that he was probably just some jerk with a lot of pride.
The serious expression he had as he said “please” didn’t seem bad.
“Okay, I won’t go to the lesson then,” I replied.
After I had prepared the necessary equipment and materials like batteries and a tripod, I left the music room.
Tetsuya’s words about the “life” that was riding on the line had left a deep impression in my heart.
On the way down the school steps, I suddenly felt a tightness in my chest that made it hard to breathe. It felt as if I were about to suffer a relapse of the asthma that had troubled me in my childhood. I opened the window on the landing and took in a deep breath.
My memories flashed back to what had happened on a Sunday two weeks earlier.
After my piano lesson, I had gotten on a train that headed in the opposite direction of my house. At the transfer station in the suburbs, I switched to a different line, and after, I got on a bus in front of that station. I got off at the stop gently sloping tableland where there was a mix of fields, houses, and factories.
It was my third time getting off at that stop.
My first time there, I hadn’t been familiar with the neighbourhood, but after having read multiple times the articles in the newspapers and weekly magazines, I had been able to instantly recognize the company-funded apartment complex that I had set out to find. Beyond the four-floored apartment complex towered a tall fourteen-floored apartment complex. And leaning against the handrail of the emergency exist stairs located on the thirteenth floor of that complex, I gazed down at the ground.
I felt weak-kneed; I could hardly breathe. I hastily retreated from the stairs and got on the elevator to go back to the first floor. I headed straight for the bus stop.
The second time, I felt a bit more at ease. I was able to get a good look at the wall of the landing where the suicide letter-like message was scrawled with a felt pen, and the fire extinguisher box that had been used as a step stool. On my way back, I stopped by the elementary school that the young boy had attended. I also walked along the school-commuting zones and the inside of the local market. I gazed at all the scenery that the boy should’ve seen as if I were that boy himself.
The young boy who had committed suicide had been in grade five. The official reason given was that he had been scolded by his teacher. There was a big article that was published in the papers about the scandal of how that teacher called out the boy to the teacher’s room, but how he had left ahead without seeing him and had gone off to spend time with an acquaintance.
In the weekly magazine, the young boy’s poems and compositions had been published. He was an intelligent boy who was beyond his years. His teacher had accused him of being un-childlike. It seemed to be the case that the young boy had shown a “making effort is a waste of time” attitude towards a teacher who preached the value of always striving to do your best. In the compositions that were published, the boy had written of how things like “justice” and “ideals” were just promises made by adults, and that the reality of the situation was that even adults didn’t believe in those things.
When I read the article, I was also in the fifth grade.
I felt like I understood at least part of his feelings.
The second time I went to the apartment complex, I had walked around the perimeters of the complex, so the surrounding roads and the images of the street corners were left etched in my memory, so when I got off at the bus stop this time, I was suddenly wrapped up in a kind of bitter, strangely nostalgic feeling. It felt as if I had come back to the town where I had been born.
It was a one way road with a yellow dividing line in the middle. Shops lined both sides. There were many vacant lots, so it wasn’t a shopping district, but it was a pretty lively spot for that area; just when you thought you saw an aging country-esque grocery store, there was beside it a brand new sign of a convenience store. Dusty wind blew through the jumbled townscape .
If you stepped away from the main street, a narrow winding cement road that looked as if an old country road had just recently been paved continued on. It appeared to be that that was the shortest route from the bus stop to the residential area, so quite a few people could be seen walking there. An elementary school boy wearing shorts was right ahead of me. I also passed by a junior high student with gold buttons.
Although my junior high was a public school, the school uniform was a blazer. In the heart of the city, blazers are common at junior highs. Around here, both public and private schools alike had similar looking gold-buttoned school uniforms.
The residential building wasn’t supposed to have been very old, but the walls were a dull ash color, and I could see signs of crack repairs. The gutters had a mottled black pattern left behind from water leakage.
I got on the elevator and headed for the thirteenth floor. Once I got out into the hallway, a gust of wind that was much stronger than on ground-level struck my cheeks. The blue sky spread out before me and filled my vision. Beyond the gently sloping hills, the Tanzawa mountain range appeared hazy. The boy who had died probably lived his days gazing at these mountains.
I walked past doors that were lined at evenly spaced intervals. To the right and left of the doors were a small window and a slightly large frosted glass window. The only difference between the apartments were that air conditioning units could be seen in the windows of some of them, whereas others didn’t; otherwise, all of the apartments looked alike from the outside.
This wasn’t the floor that the young boy had been living; he had lived on the eighth floor of the same building. I read though that his family had moved shortly after his death. The young boy’s father was a university-graduate business man. His mother worked part time, and he also had one younger sister. It had been a family like any other.
At the end of the hallway were the emergency stairs. The wind became noticeably stronger there.
I stopped just short of the wall of the landing.
On that wall, there were words scrawled in felt pen:
Even if you strain yourself in life,
Going to end up dying in the end anyway.
As I gazed intently at the ash-coloured wall, it seemed as if the felt-pen writing was emerging from the wall. I wondered who that “idiot!” line was being directed towards. Was it towards the teacher who had criticized him or was it towards society as a whole?
I try muttering it in the back of my throat.
Idiot, idiot, idiot…
That day, despite the biting wind, I stayed there at the emergency stairs for a long time and gazed at stuff like the sky, the mountain range, and from time to time, the ground beneath me. Whenever I began to feel pain in my throat and chest, I bit back the pain.
The sight from half a month ago and the sight in front of me superimposed on each other.
Right below the emergency stairs was a walkway made of cement. The junior high school grounds that I was gazing down at right now was surrounded by flower beds filled with soft dirt. Since this was the landing located halfway between the second and third floor, even if one were to fall from here, it probably wouldn’t prove fatal. Even then though, just gazing down at the ground from here, I felt a shortness of breath, and I could feel myself shrinking back instinctively.
The moment I muttered this, the word “life” that Tetsuya had said floated to surface in the corner of my mind.
There might not have been a particularly deep meaning in what he had said. It might have just been his way of saying that he put his life into baseball or that he put his all into every pitch.
But his eyes were serious when he had said it. It was as if light were being emitted from his eyes…
I left the school building and headed towards front gate. I could hear the enthusiastic yells of the baseball players from the baseball field. I heard the echo of the high-pitched ringing of the metal bat meeting the ball.
I don’t have any interest in baseball; I hardly know any of the names of the professional baseball players. Until now, even if the baseball team were practicing out on the field, I didn’t even glance their way. But now, before I had realized it, I had begun to head towards the backstop.
Since girls were swarming the back of the net, I thought Tetsuya was pitching, but at the pitching mound was a small-statured backup player. As for Tetsuya, he was in the batter’s box.
In his school uniform, he gave off an impression of being tall and lanky, but in his uniform, you could see his body was muscular, and he looked solid.
Although the batting was more practice shots than serious swings, Tetsuya’s batting had the balls flying one after another over the head of the outfielder who was standing by the fence. There were some that hit the wire fence, but many of the balls went over the fence and hit the gym wall. A player who was in charge of picking up balls was stationed in front of the gym.
Suddenly, the girls yelled in unison.
Tetsuya rounded his mouth as if saying “Oh?” and he turned around. The girls let out a squeal of delight. Well, it sounded more like a scream than a squeal.
I don’t know why, but I felt my heart stand still momentarily. It had less to do with my having been startled by the girls’ cheers, and more to do with the fact I was startled that Tetsuya had looked this way.
I wondered if he noticed that I was here.
I wondered why I was here; It felt strange to even me that I that was standing amongst the girls in the back of the net.
The junior high school is located by the city high way. My house is in the opposite direction so I immediately pass under the overpass after leaving the school gates. Because buildings were lined beside the road, the sound of the cars faded off into the distance after having walked for a bit.
I climbed the narrow hill, and partway up the hill was an even narrower private path.
At the end of that path was my house.
My mother’s white Canari ED was parked in the path in front of the house.
This made-to-sell house came with a semi-basement garage, but since a window frame was put in and the garage being converted into a room where the piano lessons would be held, the car always came to block the narrow road immediately in front of the house.
In the forty-tsubo worth of land, a two story house stands. If you looked up at it from below, it looked like a third story house. It’s a beautiful house that has white tiles. But lately, similar looking ready-built houses have been popping up in the neighbourhood. Most of the houses that were advertised in the flyers wedged between newspapers also had white or beige tiles.
Four years ago when I was in grade five, we moved into this house, but I’ve yet to come to like this place. The two bedroom wooden apartment that we lived in before felt more like home to me. There, my memories all the way from childhood permeated every inch of that space.
I climbed the concrete stairs and entered the front door of my house. I unlocked the electronic lock by entering a secret code. No one’s home. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the housekeeping lady comes to our house, but today’s Friday.
I can hear the sound of a piano from below. Every day from evening to night, students come for their lessons one after another. These students leave an envelope with money enclosed on top of the lid of the grand piano. Although it depends on the age of the student, the lesson fee that my mother charges is significantly higher than the lesson fee charged by the piano teacher whom I take lessons from.
I strain my ear to the sound coming from below.
It’s “Tempest” by Beethoven. The person is playing the piece by the book with a steady, feminine touch. The tempo is correct, and the dynamics are being placed at the exact spots as she’s been taught.
Playing a piece like this in this manner…this isn’t Beethoven.
My mother demands perfection in tempo above all. She favours a mechanical, expressionless performance. The performances of her students all sound alike.
I went up to my room on the second floor and let out a sigh.
Having come up this far, I can barely hear the sound of the piano from below.
Since the house was built on a slope, the view from the second floor is nice. From the space between the buildings that stood close together, I could see the highway stretched out horizontally. I could see the lanes for the passenger cars and trucks. The down-bound lanes had the signs of a traffic jam. The lanes headed for the city was moving along, but because the sound was blocked by the steel window frame, and I couldn’t hear the sounds coming from outside. I felt as if I were watching a silent film.
The room next to mine is my younger brother Kousuke’s room. Because he attends a distant private junior high, he doesn’t come home until just before dinner. This quietness will continue on yet for another hour.
I sat in front of the electronic piano, and I put on headphones. I changed the sound setting to cembalo and began playing Bach’s “Fugue.” There was a piano downstairs in the living room, but I wasn’t allowed to play while there was a lesson in session. The keys on the electronic piano are too light, and it didn’t really feel as if I was playing. My fingers began sliding across the keys on their own, and the sound welled up like foam.
My mother only showed her face during dinner. When she finished sticking the plates into the dishwasher, she once again went back down to the lesson room.
As for Kousuke, in order to be able to finish off the enormous pile of homework that he was assigned everyday, he would shut himself in his room.
Since I’m in grade nine, I should be studying for the high school entrance exams, but I can’t seem to focus, and in the end, I just end up sitting in front of the electronic piano again.
going to end up dying in the end anyway.
I can hear someone muttering. Like “Fugue,” the same phrase echoes inside my headphones.
The game was being held at the municipal baseball field. It took about thirty minutes by bus to get there from the school.
The baseball team members left early and headed for the field in a rented minibus. As for me, I headed for the field on the regular bus with the camcorder in hand after fourth block had ended. The female students were also in a rush to get there to cheer the school team on, so the bus was completely full.
There was a girl from my class on the bus, and she said to me curiously: “Kitazawa-kun, you’re going to watch the game too?” I gave a half-hearted answer by saying “I guess you could say that.”
I’m not really good with girls. When girls talk to me, I have this tendency to stammer, and I was often made fun of it growing up. Particularly once we entered the latter years of elementary school, the girls grew excessively tall, and their attitudes grew along with it. Lately, since I’ve grown taller too, I have no reason to fear anymore, but even now, I try to avoid girls as best as I could.
Even in the path leading to the field from the bus station, I kept a bit of a distance from the girls.
The strong sun’s rays beat down on the black soil of the baseball field. They were wrapping up the practice session before the main game. While I was setting up my tripod in the front row of the stands, Tetsuya rushed up to me.
The female students who were standing nearby let out a squeal.
Tetsuya ignored the girls and whispered to me:
“You only have to tape me.”
“So I don’t need to tape the changing score?”
“Whatever you think is good. And anyway, as long as you keep track of me, it’ll end up having to do with scoring runs.”
“Isn’t this supposed to be an official record for the school? Who are you going to show this to?”
“I’ll explain later but for now, just tape me, all right?”
When Tetsuya turned to go back to the bench, the girls who were standing behind the backstop cheered him on by saying in unison: “Tetsuya-kuuun! Fight-o!” Tetsuya waved his hand lightly in return. Then suddenly, he retraced his steps back to me.
“Don’t take any shots of the audience. Just keep your focus on the field.”
He said this emphatically with a serious look on his face.
“You got that? Don’t get any shots in of the girls.”
The game began.
The opposing team was up to bat first. Through the viewfinder of my camcorder I kept watch over Tetsuya, who was standing on the mound. After the start of the game had been declared, Tetsuya confirmed the catcher’s signs as he warmed up the ball inside his glove before throwing the first pitch.
When I zoomed in, inside the viewfinder, his eyes were sparkling.
Similar to how I enjoyed the feel of the piano keys everyday, he must also like the feel of the ball in his hand…
With an easy hand, he threw the first pitch wide. The fast ball struck the inside corner. The top batter for the opposing team seemed to have been aiming for the right corner from the very beginning, because his posture was one which was backing away from the ball.
The second pitch was a ball thrown in the upper outside corner of the plate. The ball settled into the mitt with a thud. It was a borderline pitch. The chief umpire shouted “Strike!” The batter was supposed to have been aiming for the outside corner, but it seems the ball was completely out of his reach.
The third pitch was a close ball that went through the middle of the strike zone. The batter flung his bat as if just aiming for a clean hit; however, his timing was off and he didn’t even graze it.
A strike out. Cheers rang out from the spectator stand.
There was no official cheer squad, but quite a few female students had gathered at the stands.
Tetsuya took no heed to the cheers, and continued to warm the ball in his hand.
The second batter held the bat extremely close. His posture was strange as if he was only practicing bunting as he only slightly held out the bat. Still, he was not able to hit the centre of the ball, and both the first and second throws led to fouls that rolled out of first base. The third pitch was an especially fast one, and the batter watched as he struck out with a look of blank amazement.
Tetsuya only ever pitched fastballs. It seemed to me that he didn’t take them seriously from the very beginning. Since they’re a team from the same municipality, they didn’t seem like a very strong team.
The third batter was much too slow at swinging his bat, and he even ended up hitting a foul fly to the catcher.
The batted ball was almost an overhead one. The catcher lost sight of it for an instant and almost ended up fumbling the ball. Tetsuya yelled at the catcher who had stumbled and crashed onto the ground immediately after catching the ball.
The catcher, Funabashi, was in the same class as me. He wasn’t as tall as Tetsuya, but he had a stocky build, and an intimidating aura to him. He was the leader of the group of juvenile delinquents at the school, and he walked with a swagger on the school grounds. But watching him out on the field, his stout figure was uncouth, and his movements sluggish.
And Tetsuya, who was yelling at this leader of juvenile delinquents, made for an impressive figure.
In the first inning, the first two were easy outs. The opposing team’s pitcher’s throw was so slow that it couldn’t hold a candle to the speed of Tetsuya’s pitch, but the batter of his team wasn’t any better.
The third one up was the shortstop, Higashiyama. He was also on the track and field team, and in the past, he had even come first place in the 100 metre dash at the prefecture competition.
I thought that he might not be half as bad as the previous batter, but his swing ended up being a grounder.
But because the third baseman was slow to reach the ball, and the throw back to the home base was a wide throw, Higashiyama managed to swiftly dash to the first base just in time.
The fourth one up was Tetsuya.
Before he got up to the mound, he briefly glanced my way. No… it wasn’t to me, but rather, whoever it was that would be watching this recording; it might just be that he sent some sort of message to that person.
He stepped onto the plate and gave the bat a light swing before turning to the pitcher and came to a standstill. Confidence poured out of every pore of his body.
His name was known in other schools. Perhaps the pitcher was intimidated by him, because he threw two consecutive waste pitches. The next batter was the leader of juvenile delinquents; there wasn’t much hope for him.
But it appeared the pitcher hadn’t made the decision to give Tetsuya an intentional walk, because although the third pitch was a wide one, it was still within the swinging range of the bat.
The short liner aimed for just above the head of the left fielder. Although it was almost head on and it looked as if he might catch it, there was strength to the hit, and it barely slipped through the fielder’s glove to go above his head.
The fast runner Higashiyama made a dash for the home base without hesitation, and Tetsuya advanced to the second base.
Cheering broke out from the bleachers. The girls were squealing with joy. Tetsuya didn’t try to boast by pumping his fist in the air; rather, he was standing at the second base as if hitting the ball had been a given.
Even when Funabashi went up to the batter’s box, the commotion didn’t die down.
I wasn’t sure if it was because he was pumped up over the status of the game, but even inside the batters box, he had been swinging his bat in an overly showy way. From his practice swings, it was hard to imagine that he would be able to hit the ball at all. When the opposition team’s pitcher threw his first pitch, however, Funabashi’s swing changed. He showed skilful batting as he hit the ball towards the right field.
Tetsuya made a run for the home base. Funabashi had been aiming to make it to the second base as the ball was being retrieved from the outfield, but he didn’t make it in time.
Although there was a switch, the two points the team had gained from the first inning could be considered impossible to make a turnaround from for the opposing team.
The opposing team struck out three batters in a row.
That being said, Tetsuya’s team wasn’t much better with almost all the batters except for the sluggers showing few hits. As Tetsuya’s turn to bat edged closer though, it put the opposing team’s pitcher under pressure.
With two outs in the end of the third inning, Higashiyama stepped up to plate. The pitcher was becoming increasingly agitated about Tetsuya, who was up to bat next, so he put too much strength into his throw and wasn’t able to strike him out.
He ended up giving him a walk.
Tetsuya slowly made his way to the batter’s box. The pitcher avoided his gaze and was breathing deeply.
Just as he had in his first time to bat, he did one quick practice swing before facing the pitcher.
The first pitch was an easy inside pitch. The sound of the ball connecting with the bat rang clear in the sky as the ball soared high in the air.
I couldn’t keep up with the speed of the ball with the viewfinder of my video camera. I decided to focus on the left-fielder who was running backwards to try to catch the ball, but it flew right over his head.
I zoomed out and captured Tetsuya’s form as he made his away around the bases. He wasn’t smiling; he had his head held down as he ran past the home base. I was surprised that he seemed to be playing it humble.
His pitching was also in full swing. Although most of the hits were narrow infield hits, since their team had such a large lead over the opposing team that it wasn’t a threat to them. He pitched lightning fast merciless pitches to try to strike out the opposing batter.
When time came for his team’s third time at bat, the batting order began with Tetsuya. The pitcher had been switched to a submarine pitch player, but because he had been intimidated by Tetsuya from the very beginning, he couldn’t get even one strike in. Tetsuya made a full-scale sprint to the first base.
It was immediately afterwards that Funabashi hit a come backer which led to a double play. Tetsuya headed back to the bench without showing any sign of annoyance at Funabashi.
It was his team’s fourth time at bat that his grand opportunity came along. After one strike out, the second batter’s grounder batted towards the first base led to the opposing team making a mistake. Higashiyama was successful in executing a safety bunt, and the first two bases became filled.
The Tetsuya captured in the viewfinder of the camcorder appeared visibly nervous. Since their team had a four point lead, he shouldn’t have felt any undue pressure. But Tetsuya, unlike the other three times he had stood up from the bench, showed an expression of doubt. As he moved into position, he was spending a longer amount of time shifting his weight between his feet. Even when it came to the way he held the bat, the tension in his shoulders was obvious.
The relief pitcher moved into high gear and threw a curve ball aimed at the corner. The first pitch was a meticulously controlled outcurve.
Tetsuya’s bat made a slight movement.
The umpire called a ball. The catcher, in his disappointment, remained in a crouched position holding the ball in his mitt for some time after watching it. Tetsuya kept his gaze trained on the mitt, and this action itself confirmed his nervous state.
Up until now, he had let the pitches that he should take no heed to pass by without a second glance. There had never been a time when he had turned to look back at the catcher.
Tetsuya released his right hand from the bat to wipe the palm of his hand on the side of his uniform.
The second pitch was a high straight pitch. It was a swing that made his shoulder and neck move with a heavy jerk. A sharp liner skidded towards the left-field, but it lost its power midway and landed in foul territory. A cloud of sand danced in a gust of wind.
Tetsuya inhaled deeply. He stepped away from the batter’s box and swung two practice swings. He then inhaled deeply once more.
The third pitch was a low curve ball. He lowered his right shoulder as he waited for the right timing before swinging the bat.
There was a dull sound, and a foul tip rolled towards the catcher. Tetsuya followed its path, and for a short while, kept his eyes on it.
The catcher picked up the ball, and as he threw the ball back towards the pitcher, Tetsuya glanced in my direction. He was looking into the lens of the camera with a troubled expression on his face. He suddenly lifted his hand in the air in a silent signal. A smile formed on his face.
The tension drained from Tetsuya’s body, and the confident calm that he showed during practice reappeared. The pitcher became visibly nervous as he shifted time and time again on the plate.
The pitcher began to show signs that he would begin his pitch. Tetsuya looked confident as he readied himself to bat. The ball came flying into the strike zone as if under some kind of magic.
In the next instant, the ball went flying into the air as a dry ringing sound of a ball meeting a bat echoed in the sky.
“Do you have some time tomorrow?”
After the game, Tetsuya rushed up to me and asked me this.
On Sundays I had my piano lessons, but they ended just after noon.
“If it’s in the afternoon, I’ll be free,” I replied.
“Do you know the general health care center in Shinmachi?”
“I’ve never been inside there, but I know where it is.”
“Two o’clock in front of the main entrance. Bring today’s tape with you.”
With that, Tetsuya retreated to the bench without waiting for my reply. I thought: what a self-centered guy.
If it’s the general health care center, I always passed by it on the bus on my way home from my piano lessons. It’s a large hospital that also had established a university research centre.
If I wasted a bit of time in front of the private railway station, I’d be able to get to the hospital right at two.
I realized that I had already got it in my mind that I would go to the hospital in my mind for me to think this far. I was being caught up in his high-handed pace, but strangely enough, I didn’t feel bad about that.
Putting that aside, I wonder who was at the hospital…
I gazed at Tetsuya, who was in front of the bench cleaning up the baseball equipment. In the stands nearby, around twenty female students had gathered and they were squealing and making a fuss. They were all Tetsuya’s fans.
“Don’t get any shots in of the girls.”
My mind flashed back to the serious look on Tetsuya’s face as he said this.
I killed time at the bookstore in front of the station, and got on the bus when I was sure that I wouldn’t be too early.
I got off at the bus stop in front of the medical care center.
Although I had agreed to meet him at the main entrance, Tetsuya was waiting at the front gates.
“You’re late,” he said in a slightly annoyed tone.
I glanced down at my watch.
“I’m still five minutes early.”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for fifteen minutes.”
He was the kind of guy who only ca red about what suited his own interests.
The hospital was a spacious one with a generously sized garden in the front. I walked alongside him as we started walking towards the main entrance.
“You brought the tape, right?”
“Yeah, I did, but do you have a VCR player?”
“The hospital will let me borrow one. You do all the set up though, got it? I’m not good when it comes to stuff like that.”
It might have been because it was a Sunday, but the outpatient waiting room was deserted. We headed to a ward tucked away in the back. Walking through a maze-like hallway, we entered an older building that permeated with humid air.
On the way, he passed by some young nurses. It seemed as if Tetsuya was well acquainted with them, because he nodded a greeting their way, and they in turn replied with a smile. There were even some nurses who giggled. From what I saw, it was clear he was popular here just as he was at school.
We got onto an old elevator with eerie music playing and when we got off at the third floor, there was a nurse station straight ahead.
The nurses all turned this way in unison. They were all smiling. Most of them were young, but there was one who was slightly older and who had an aura of calm to her. She seemed like a nice, sophisticated person. Her name tag read “Izumi.”
She asked Tetsuya, “So, did you win the game?”
“Of course,” he replied. “It was a 7-0 shutout victory with fourteen strikeouts.”
“What about the batting side of things?”
“I was three for three with two homers and drove in six runs.”
“The other team was a municipal team, so it’s a no brainer that we won. The game next week won’t be so easy.”
“Are they strong?”
“They’re in the running to win the championships.”
“But you’re confident that your team will win?”
“We’ll definitely lose; that’s why I got a recording of yesterday’s game.”
“Oh, so you brought the tape?”
“I’m not good with tech stuff, so I brought a guy who’s a pro at it with me. He’s the one who taped yesterday’s game too.”
As he said this, he turned my way.
The nurse also looked my way.
I gave a nod of greeting.
“Then I’ll show you where we store the equipment.”
Izumi-san began to walk briskly down the hallway. Mid-step, she turned my way and asked me, “What’s your name?”
“Kitazawa… Kitazawa Ryouichi.”
“Are you classmates with Hanege-kun?”
“We’re not in the same class, but we’re in the same grade.”
“So you’re friends with Naomi-chan too?”
My voice faltered, and that’s when Tetsuya cut in, “he doesn’t know anything.”
He said this in an icy tone.
Hospitals have a distinct smell to them.
The moment one stepped into the building, the sharp smell of disinfectant assaulted the nose; it wasn’t just that either. The expressions of the patients, nurses and visitors who walked past, their postures, their hushed conversations… they all contributed to the stifling, chilly atmosphere.
The smell of sickness…. I guess you could also call it the smell of death.
I didn’t know much about this place called a hospital.
Back when my asthma was pretty severe, I had come for check-ups a few times to the hospital but I went no further than the outpatient consulting room.
It was my first time going to this part of a hospital.
I wasn’t sure if it was because the building was old or if it was because this place was tucked away in a part of the hospital that out patients didn’t have access to, but it felt different from the waiting room; it was enveloped in humid air.
The moment the nurse opened the storage door, humid air that felt as if it dug into our skins assaulted us. It probably wasn’t the case that the humidity inside the storage was higher than the rest of the building. Since it was the place where their precious equipment were stored in, they probably had the air conditioning running, but I couldn’t help but feel an indescribable heaviness in the air.
In the cramped space, there were numerous machines packed side-by-side. I couldn’t really tell what the use of most of these machines were, but I guessed they were defibrillators, life-support systems, and other things used on patients who were at the brink of death. Transparent tubes were attached to a large machine with several meters attached. There was also a complicated looking machine that reminded me of a skeleton with automatic pumps and power transformers openly displayed. There was even the apparatus I had seen on TV before that was used to display a patient’s heartbeat rate. However out of place the VCR player looked being among these machines, it was right there alongside them.
We lugged the heavy out-dated VCR player onto a handcart and pushed it past the nurse station to the hospital ward on the opposite end of the building. The hallway was a bit uneven so the cart made a rattling sound as it made its way to its destination.
Large doors lined one side of the long hallway. It was a scene I have a memory of having seen before. In a dream I had, I had a feeling that I walked down the very same hallway. I remember having a hard time breathing, because I wasn’t sure what lay at the end of the hallway….
Tetsuya suddenly came to a stop. He lightly knocked on one of the doors and roughly opened the door without waiting for a reply.
“Yo!” He said.
Since he was standing directly in front of the half-opened door, I couldn’t see the inside of the room.
“I brought the tape, just like I said I would.”
I heard a voice reply from the inside of the room.
“Did you make sure to get a good shot?”
It was a girl’s voice.
“I’m not sure since I haven’t seen it yet. I did bring the guy who taped it though, so if it didn’t come out right, I’ll get him to take the rap. Yo, get in here already.”
Tetsuya turned my way to say this.
I pushed the handcart and stepped into the room.
The room was larger than I thought it would be, and the bed was in the center. From the windows with its black iron bars, a gentle sunlight filtered into the room.
The girl sitting on the bed with its white covers gazed at me curiously. I could feel the gaze of her large eyes looking my way. It was almost a bit rude the way she studied my face.
I didn’t know if it was because of her illness, but her face and neck were almost translucent white.
The bold demeanour and the lively sparkle in her eyes though were reminiscent of Tetsuya.
I was silent. It didn’t even cross my mind that I should at least say a word of greeting; my mind had gone completely blank.
The edge of her eyes crinkled up as she smiled.
“Tecchan, introduce us!”
She looked up to Tetsuya as she said this; the way she said it, it was clear that they were close. He had a sour look on his face as he glanced my way.
“Hey, you know how to introduce yourself, don’t you?”
In a fluster, I said, “I-I’m Kitazawa…. Kitazawa Ryouichi.”
“I’m Naomi. Uehara Naomi.”
In my mind I thought: “So, she isn’t his sister.” In that moment, I realized that there was a part of me that had been hoping that they were siblings.
Naomi continued, “I’ve known Tecchan since back in preschool when we were classmates.”
“We’ve known each other since before that,” he cut in.
“Well, I don’t remember.”
Naomi gazed up at Tetsuya. For two people who weren’t related to each other, there was an inexplicable closeness in the way they looked at the other that was undeniable.
“Do you want me to hook this up to a TV?”
I asked in a slightly loud voice. It was my job to show the tape. In any event, I needed to fulfill that role.
“Okay, I’ll leave it to you.”
There was a portable TV on top of the shelf by the bed. I switched it on and adjusted the tone and contrast. I unwrapped the cord and set up the antenna. I was focused on my task. Since it was an old VCR, there were some buttons that I didn’t recognize, and it took longer than it would have to get everything ready. They watched in silence as I went about connecting the right cords.
Once I had finished preparing everything, Naomi sat up in her bed with the help of Tetsuya.
I began playing the tape.
The noise waves faded and the screen turned white before a blurry shot of the bleachers came into focus.
“Huh? What the heck is this?” Tetsuya raised his voice.
“I’m not in the shot at all!”
I explained: “Since it’s the intro, I overexposed the shot on purpose.”
It was pretty apparent that he didn’t understand what I meant by this.
“What the hell? Don’t say stuff that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Tecchan, just shut up and watch.” Naomi said in a chiding manner.
The camera slowly panned out and the baseball field came into focus. The volume rose, and the cheering of the crowd could be heard in the background.
“Hey! There’s me!”
Tetsuya sounded satisfied as he said this.
In the middle of the screen was Tetsuya, who was practicing pitching at the mound. I glanced over at Naomi. She was wholly focused on the screen with an innocent childlike interest.
For an instant, my gaze shifted towards the window.
Since this room was on the third floor, there was another building right next to it, so not much light filtered through. Even then though, from the narrow space between the two buildings, I could see the blue sky. She must be gazing out at this sky everyday.
Once I returned my gaze to the TV screen, it was nearing the end of the first half of the first inning. The third batter hit a fly. The catcher Funabashi lost his balance and almost dropped the ball.
“Oh, you can’t do that!”
Naomi shouted. Her voice was a lively and animated one.
I wondered what kind of illness she was suffering from.
The second half of the first inning began.
After two outs, Higashiyama, the third to bat, got to first base with an infield hit. Tetsuya, who was up to bat next, batted a ball that flew over the head of the left fielder.
Her high pitched voice echoed in the hospital room.
If I were to be honest, I felt a bit envious of Tetsuya. I was surprised at how I felt, because when I was at the baseball field taping this match, I hadn’t felt this way.
The game continued on, and Tetsuya once again came up to bat. There was a base runner on first base.
“Hey, will the next one be a home run?” Naomi asked.
“Just be quiet and watch.”
Tetsuya replied gruffly. His second turn at bat really did turn into a home run. He didn’t pump his fist in the air though; he kept his eyes cast downward as he made his way around the bases. It was like him to act like this even after a home run.
At his third time up at bat, she asked the same question: “Hey, will it be a home run this time too?”
The relief pitcher’s pitch lacked control, and when it turned into a foul ball, she couldn’t have looked more disappointed as she let out a deep sigh.
“Well, what a downer.”
Tetsuya was silent.
Since I wanted the game to be contained in one tape, I skipped over a lot of scenes in the second half of the game so it wasn’t long before Tetsuya’s fourth time at bat came around. The first and second base were filled.
“Hey, what will happen this time?”
She asked impatiently with a sparkle in her eyes.
He didn’t reply.
“Hey, hey. So what happens, huh?”
She shifted her gaze over at me as if she wanted me to answer, but since Tetsuya wasn’t telling her, there was no way that I could.
This time at bat, Tetsuya had been nervous because it was his last time up to bat. Taking the opposing pitcher’s abilities into factor, he probably wouldn’t have felt satisfied with just one home run. The Tetsuya that was shown on the screen looked tense, and he kept shuffling his foot and pressing his fist into his uniform.
After one pitch, he hit two foul balls. The second one was such a flimsy foul tip that it was hard to believe that Tetsuya had been the one to bat it.
It appeared as if his confidence had deflated considerably as he stared down at the ball.
Suddenly, he turned his gaze to the screen.
“Tecchan, do your best!” Naomi yelled.
It was as if the Tetsuya on the screen had heard her voice, because he smiled and raised his hand in the direction of the camera. The next moment, it was as if he had regained his confidence as he glared at the opposing team’s pitcher.
I rewound the tape and ejected it from the VCR.
My job was done.
Even after the last scene of the game had faded on the screen, the excitement from the game still filled the air of the hospital room.
“Well then, I’ll leave now.”
I said this as I unplugged the cord; I didn’t want to disturb their intimate atmosphere.
“Oh!” She turned my way as if she were surprised. She looked as if she wanted to say something.
Tetsuya said in a light-hearted tone, “Oh, okay. Well, thanks.”
Since I skipped my listening lesson yesterday to tape the game, I wished he would have put more feelings into his thanks; but he was just that kind of person.
“Want me to put the VCR back?”
“Do you know where the storage is?”
As I turned to leave the room, Naomi said to me “Thank you, Kitazawa-kun.”
Even though it was short, I could tell she meant the words.
I saw Izumi-san back at the nurse station, and asked if she would unlock the door to the storage.
“You’re Hanegi-kun’s friend, right?”
Izumi-san asked me this as I put the VCR back into place and stepped out of the storage room.
I didn’t know how to reply other than to say, “It’s not really like that.”
“Oh, is that right?”
“He just asked me to tape his game; that’s all.”
“He asked you even though you two aren’t friends?”
“My. You were very kind then to accept, then.”
“Oh, no I wouldn’t say that…”
I mumbled; it wasn’t kindness that drove my actions. But at the same time, now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure why I had gone to the game as he had requested, and had even shown up at this hospital today. I didn’t regret having come to the hospital though.
As we parted, I opened my mouth to say something, but decided against it.
“What is it?” She asked.
The truth was, I wanted to ask her about why Naomi was in the hospital, and what the chances of her being discharged from the hospital were.
There was a part of me that was afraid to hear the answer to those questions.
I could hear the faint sound of a piano being played from the lesson room in the basement. I wasn’t familiar with the song, but it was probably one of the songs on my mother’s “brilliant technique practice list.” The fingers of the person playing the song were smoothly gliding along the keys. He or she was probably one of the university students that my mother taught. Since it was one of her students, it was no surprise that it was a performance bordering methodical in its preciseness. The only thing was…there was no emotion in the performance. If it were me, I would be able to put more emotion into the song…
I have yet to play a song from that list. My piano instructor told me that my fingers were too short to play them. At the annual school health check, my height was shorter than the average height of even girls in the same age as me, but compared to my weight last year, I had grown by over ten centimetres. If it was now, I was pretty confident that my fingers would be just as long, if not longer, than my instructor and mother.
I can hear the stereo playing from the second floor. Kousuke was listening to Mahler. My brother had a CD called “the complete collection of Mahler.” He had set the CD player to loop, and he would listen to Mahler from dawn to dusk.
There were leftover sandwiches from lunch on the kitchen table. I remembered that I had skipped lunch that day.
I stuck some milk in the microwave and once it had been heated up, put some decaf instant coffee into the cup. I ate one slice each of a tuna sandwich and veggie sandwich. Mahler’s song coming from the second floor was reaching a fevered pitch.
I wasn’t a fan of Mahler. I felt that his music was a bit over-the-top. I couldn’t understand how he could solve math problems while listening to music like that.
Kousuke was in the tennis club at school. Since his time outside of school was taken up by tennis practice and commuting to and from the school, he spent most of his time at home studying.
I wanted to play on my electronic piano, but I wasn’t in the mood to go up to the second floor and endure Mahler’s music.
I sat in front of the upright piano in the living room. Since there was an ongoing lesson downstairs, I couldn’t actually play any music. There were three pedals, and I stepped on the middle pedal that silenced the sound. When this pedal was pressed, a felt cloth was pressed down onto the piano wire, and kept the sound from reverberating. I began playing Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”
I could hear the sound of the wooden hammer being pressed against the steel wires. There was only a dry clicking sound though, and the wires didn’t reverberate. The sound was faint, like music from a music box, the chords of the melody rang clear to my ears.
As I played the song, I felt a piercing heat rush through my body. It was suffocating, but strangely enough, it wasn’t unpleasant. I felt at peace being enveloped in the soft, exquisite melody.
When the last of the notes ended, I was caught off guard by the clapping of hands. I hadn’t realized it, but Kousuke had come into the room to sit on the living room sofa. Even though he was my younger brother, he was taller than me. He was tanned, his face had a ruggedness to it. He was a cool rationalist who had only interests in numbers and Mahler.
“You were moved to tears by your own performance, huh?”
He said in a mocking tone. I guess he caught on to the fact that I had become swept up in the song.
“That’s right.” I replied.
I couldn’t think of what else to say. Even though we were brothers, it was impossible for us to relate.
I had been playing Bach in the music room during lunch when Ms. Miyasaka came into the room.
“You’re much better at playing Bach than me.” She said as she smiled.
I was allowed to play the piano in the music room whenever I wanted. She had been my teacher back when I was in grade eight. She knew about my mother, and she also knew that I was keeping my plans of trying out for a music school a secret from my mother.
“Have you been practicing your scales too?”
I abruptly stopped playing Bach and switched over to the scales.
“Wow! That’s some power you’ve got there. Let me see your fingers.”
I held out my hands, and she compared them to hers.
“Hey, your fingers are longer than mine! Well there you go!”
She had a small frame. She looked younger than her age, and since she had her hair cut in a short style, she looked more like a high school student than a teacher.
Even then though, when we had compared the lengths of our fingers last year, hers had been noticeably longer than mine.
“There are professional pianists who have hands like mine, so you could probably play any song that you want now.”
I glanced down at my own hands. Since I was living with my younger brother who was constantly growing, I hadn’t really realized the fact that I had been getting taller as well. It was true though that playing the scales had become considerably easier than it had been in the past.
“Hanegi-kun from the baseball club came to ask you to tape the game, didn’t he? Did you do it for him?”
“So how did the game go?”
“Is that right?”
After a brief pause, she asked “So what did you do with the tape? Did you show it to someone?”
“On Sunday, I went to a hospital.”
“I heard a bit about it from Hanegi-kun… a friend of his is in the hospital right now, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I heard it was a serious illness…”
“I don’t really know the details…”
Naomi had been full of energy. She had pulled herself upright on the bed to watch the video. But then I remembered how Tetsuya had said “Someone’s life is riding on the line here.”
“She looked pretty healthy to me.”
When I said this, the teacher smiled.
“Is that right? Well, I’m glad to hear that.”
She leaned down and said in a teasing manner, “Hanegi-kun didn’t mention it to me, but I bet that person was a girl?”
“Was she cute?”
I didn’t know why, but right before I replied, I had felt myself hesitating.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 2 – 49 – 103]