'All You Need Is Love'
A Gentleman Of Leisure.
Chiyo flung herself face down on the bed in her old room at home, exhausted after a hard day's shopping in central Tokyo. It was all reassuringly familiar - everything was still just as it had been when she set off for the United States over a year ago. Now she was preparing to go even further from home, this time all the way to the far side of the world.
She hadn't let her parents do anything to the room while she'd been away - not redecorate, put up new pictures, or even buy her any new furniture. If any of her old high school friends had walked in at that moment, they would have found it looking exactly the same as any time during the past four years - when they'd spent so many evenings and weekends here studying for their final exams, or before that, just visiting, or cutting out costumes as first year students, or even when they were planning their first summer trip to the Mihama family's summer home. Everything was just as it had always been. She needed it to be that way - it encapsulated her childhood. She felt safe here.
Her huge Pyrenean Mountain dog, Mr Tadakichi, padded quietly across the carpet and plonked himself down beside the bed with his muzzle resting by her head, happy to see her back again. She spent several minutes just lying there stroking him and tickling him behind the ears, something he enjoyed almost more than anything else in the world.
"It's a pity I'm too big to ride you these days, now I've grown up so much," she told him, as he sat there, eyes closed and tongue hanging out, in total ecstasy. "I could've saved my feet, or maybe even used you as a pack horse to carry my shopping. I bet that would have caused a few comments, wouldn't it, Mr. T.?"
The dog looked at her almost as if he understood every word, and perhaps he did. He was a most intelligent animal, and with a genius for a mistress who's to say some of her brilliance hadn't rubbed off on him. He was certainly brave and sensible, her companion since she was just five years old, and he'd saved her life more than once. Mostly it had been a relatively minor matter of grabbing the hem of her skirt, or her sleeve, or the tail of her jacket, to stop her from stepping out in front of cars or buses when she was very young and still learning what was safe to do and what was not. However, the last time had been a genuine life and death situation for both of them. Luckily they had encountered those Amerikan girls, the Slayers, just in time to save them both from a real Japanese Vampire, the dreaded Kyuuketsuki of ancient national legend. Chiyo absent-mindedly touched the fading scars on her neck, not even noticing she did so.
Life had indeed been strange, she thought. And, oh yes, that reminded her of the odd thing that had happened to her while she was out today. She reached over to get the cellphone out of her purse, and chose speed-dial.
"Ah! Hi, Sakaki, it's me, Chiyo here. How was veterinary college today? And Mayaa?"
Chiyo paused to listen to her friend's quiet reply, which, as usual with Sakaki, was brief though friendly. Though there was more than a hundred miles distance between the two of them, the older girl's voice was perfectly clear.
"Yes, I had a pretty good day too," Chiyo continued. She hesitated. "At least it was fine up until mid-afternoon. Then things got a little strange."
In her ear Sakaki's gentle voice enquired if she was all right. She reassured her friend it hadn't been anything dangerous, just a bit odd.
"I've been shopping in central Tokyo today for new clothes for the autumn weather in England, like I told you. Anyway I was just coming out of the 'Mitsukoshi' department store, their main one in Nihombashi, when I bumped straight into one of our old friends from high school. I bet you'll never guess who!"
Chiyo didn't wait for her friend to reply, but charged right on.
"Listen Sakaki, do you remember...?"
In the doorway of the department store, two young women stopped face to face, one entering from the sweltering late-summer heat outside, and one, heavily laden, about to exit the air-conditioned comfort of the interior. Each politely stepped to one side to allow the other to pass, but as is the nature of things, each time they moved it was in the same direction and they found themselves still obstructing each other.
Bowing apologetically, Chiyo looked up at the other young woman, and realised she knew her.
"Gomen nasai. Oh, Aida Kaori-san? Kaorin? Konnichiwa! You remember me, don't you? I'm Mihama Chiyo. I was in high school with you, in Yukari-Sensei's class. How are you?"
The other young woman looked at Chiyo with a polite though slightly distant expression, frowning a little. Chiyo wondered if perhaps the young woman did not recognise her after all.
"Oh? Oh yes, of course I do, Mihama-san," she said after a few seconds. "Er... Chiyo-chan, wasn't it? I'm fine thank you. How are you? Didn't you go to Amerika to study? How is that going?"
"Oh, well I think 'interesting' would definitely be a good word for it," replied Chiyo, with a half-smile. "I've certainly learned a lot, though not all of it in the lecture hall. It's a very dangerous place to live, though. I had a rather nasty experience there, so I've... er..." She hesitated for a moment. "I've decided not to go back there next college year. I'm going to go and study in Britain instead. Their Universities are much older, and have a far better reputation. Besides, it's a somewhat safer country to live in." Chiyo shuddered slightly. "Much safer, I hope!"
Kaorin merely looked at her blankly, as if Chiyo's reply had barely registered. Then, out of the blue she said, "You were Sakaki-san's best friend, weren't you? Do you ever hear from her?"
"Yes, of course I do," Chiyo replied politely, not really disconcerted by the other girl's rather obvious lack of interest in her life and doings in the USA, or by the abrupt change of subject. "I hear from all our old friends. Actually, I tried to get in touch with everybody when I got home so I could get all of us together again - unfortunately you were the only one I couldn't get hold of. I phoned when you didn't reply to my e-mail, but your mother said you were away, up north in Asahikawa. We were all very sorry to have missed you."
"Oh, that," Kaorin said flatly. "Yes, it was part of the second year of my Astronomy course. I had a chance to visit one of our national telescopes in Hokkaido. Even though it's so far north it's a good location because the air is so much clearer up there away from all the industrial pollution down here in Honshu. I just got back the day before yesterday. But have you seen Sakaki-san? How is she?"
Chiyo blinked slightly at Kaorin's rather abrupt return to the subject of Sakaki.
"Yes, yes I have. I got together with the others in our group just last week," she said. "It was a bit difficult to find a time when everyone was free, but we all managed to get a couple of hours off to meet up at a restaurant near the lawyer's office where Yomi's working as part of her second year law degree studies. Luckily it wasn't too far from Tomo's police residence either. It was really great fun being with them all again!" She laughed out loud at the memory of Tomo's sudden fall from grace - that superb clown-like pratfall straight to the floor of the restaurant.
Kaorin suddenly went pale and wide-eyed.
"You mean S-Sakaki-san was here in Tokyo? And I didn't know?" To Chiyo she seemed strangely disconcerted by this information.
"Yes, we came down on the train together from her veterinary college in the morning. It was a lovely day! It's a shame you missed meeting up with the rest of us. We were all really sorry not to have you there."
"You... you came down together? How was that? Did you go up there to see her specially?" For some reason, Kaorin appeared to be having some difficulty with her breathing.
Chiyo blushed slightly at her rather pointed questioning. "Yes," she said calmly. "I wanted to see her very much. You see, when I was at college over in Amerika, working extremely hard, I would get over-tired, and then sometimes I would start to feel very lonely. Then I would e-mail or write to her, and in her replies she would always manage to find just the right words to comfort and encourage me, and make me feel I was equally missed by all my friends. Somehow she was always able to say just the right thing to make me feel better. And sometimes she would write on behalf of all of them, and send me their news when they were too busy, or couldn't get round to sending me a letter or e-mail of their own."
"Did... did you stay with her, then?" said Kaorin. She seemed to be having trouble getting the words out.
"Oh, yes," said Chiyo, politely ignoring her slightly odd behaviour. "After all, it's such a long way to go just for an afternoon's visit. And anyway, we had a lot of things to talk about." She was hardly aware of her one-time fellow pupil's trembling at her words. "In fact, I stayed up there with her for several days. But now I'm back to see my parents for a bit, and hopefully meet up with the rest of the old gang again, before I set off for Britain in a couple of weeks time. Do you think you'll be able to make it if I can arrange another date with the others?"
Kaorin suddenly came to life, startling her. "Yes, yes, of course I will. Whenever you say. Wherever you like - anywhere, anywhere!" she gabbled. "I'd love to meet up with the others again - it's been ages. But you will make sure Sakaki-san is there, won't you? It's such a long time since I saw her!"
"I'll do my very best, Kaorin," Chiyo assured her. "You know, I always thought it was so unkind of Kimura-Sensei to persuade Yukari-Sensei to have you transferred to his class. You do know we missed you, don't you?"
Kaorin shuddered at the memory of her third year, abandoned to the unwelcome attentions of the creepy male home room teacher, Kimura-Sensei, and her face went almost blank.
"You all got on without me all right though, didn't you?" she said. "Kagura-san was always more a member of your group than I ever was. She fitted in almost from her first day in Yukari-Sensei's second-year class."
"It wasn't the same, though," Chiyo said. "Do you remember my first day? I think you and Chihiro were the first people to invite me to eat lunch with them. I remember how I was feeling rather out of my depth on my first morning in high school - everything was so strange and new, what with skipping middle school altogether. And everyone was so tall! Very disconcerting. It was so very kind of you both. It made a lot of difference to me, made me feel really welcome. That gave me confidence. I've never forgotten that. Had you two known each other before then?"
"Oh, yes," said Kaorin, nodding. "We used to live in the same neighbourhood, quite near each other, so we had some mutual friends even though we didn't go to the same middle school. At least she and I are still in touch," she added, sounding perhaps a little resentful towards the others for having lost contact with her. This registered with Chiyo.
"Sometimes the others only kept in touch with each other through Sakaki or me," she told Kaorin, "especially if they were working different hours or days, or at night like Tomo, when she was on late shift. Mind you, I would very occasionally get an e-mail or phone call in Amerika from her when she came off duty at 8 o'clock in the morning, Tokyo time, and because of the International Date Line it would still be late evening of the previous day for me! That could be quite weird, rather like getting a message from the future. Or do I mean the past?" She shook her head.
"Anyway," she went on, "how is Chihiro? Last thing I heard she was dating one of the boys from our old class. Was that true?"
"Well, yes, she was," said Kaorin curtly, "but it didn't last, though. He dumped her and took up with someone new he met at work". For a moment she gazed off over Chiyo's head into the middle distance. "Men are such pigs!" she burst out abruptly, glaring down at the younger girl almost as if she thought it might have been Chiyo's fault.
"I... I'm so sorry to hear that. Will you tell her I asked after her? Do give her my e-mail address, and then she can get in touch while I'm still at home here in Japan, before I go off to Britain."
Kaorin nodded. "I will - I'll be seeing her tonight," she said in a flat tone.
"Will you? That's amazing! What a wonderful coincidence," exclaimed Chiyo.
"Not really," Kaorin replied, dully. "We're sharing a very small apartment at the moment. It's all we can afford," she added a little unwillingly.
"Oh? Yes," said Chiyo thoughtfully, "I suppose it must be really difficult being a University student living in Tokyo, these days. They say it's now the most expensive city in the whole world to live in, even out in the farthest suburbs."
"It's true", Kaorin said. "Some weeks we really don't know how we'll manage to pay the landlord his rent - on more than one occasion it's been that, or being able to eat the following week."
"Oh! Oh!" she then suddenly exclaimed, apparently realising how her reply might have sounded. "I'm so sorry - I wasn't trying to make a point about your family being so very rich or... or anything! Please accept my most sincere humble apology!" and she hastily bowed deeply to Chiyo, who went quite pink and hot with embarrassment, and of course had to bow in return to the older girl. The subject of her family's wealth was something she never really gave much thought to, and certainly never deliberately spoke about. It had only very occasionally ever been made comment about among her friends, and then usually only by Tomo when 'the genki girl' was being her most obnoxious.
"Kaorin! Please don't! There's absolutely nothing to apologise for. I never even thought of that for a second!" Chiyo said quickly, putting her hand on Kaorin's arm, a common enough gesture for Westerners to make, which she had picked up in Amerika, but which was still slightly unusual among traditionally brought-up Japanese. Kaorin suddenly went quite still, looking down at Chiyo's hand in silence for a long moment. Feeling awkward, Chiyo drew back.
"Your hands are so lucky," Kaorin said quietly.
"Nani? How do you mean, Kaorin? I don't understand."
"You've been with Sakaki-san," said Kaorin. "Your hands must have touched her hands, her beautiful hair, her clothes, her futon..."
Chiyo looked up at her, and to her astonishment saw the other's eyes were brimming with tears. It was suddenly horribly obvious that the girl was very distressed about something.
"I'm so sorry," Chiyo said helplessly, not really sure what she was apologising for, or why.
"All of the above?" Kaorin asked, almost inaudibly.
Chiyo could only nod uncertainly, biting her lip, wondering why that had so upset the other girl.
Kaorin abruptly snatched her arm away as if it was on fire, and without another word turned and rushed out of the store and off down the street, ran out across the road despite the traffic lights being against her, and was lost in the crowd on the other side. When she was entirely out of sight, Chiyo finally let her breath out in a long, drawn-out sigh.
Chiyo rolled over and looked at the ceiling, swapping the cellphone over to her other ear so she could go on stroking Mr. Tadakichi. "And that was that," she said.
"Ah!" said Sakaki quietly. "So you think she might have guessed?"
"About us? Possibly." Chiyo nodded, and though of course the older girl couldn't see her, she heard the movement and understood.
"I see," said Sakaki. "She must have felt so jealous of you."
"Jealous?" said Chiyo, puzzled. "But why? To be honest, I really don't understand anything of what happened this afternoon."
"Well, Chiyo-chan, koibito..." Sakaki paused, uncertain how to put what she wanted to say. Chiyo waited politely.
"It's like this," said Sakaki hesitantly, after a moment or so, and Chiyo wondered if she could hear a slight tremor in her voice. "There is something I've never told you about, partly because I didn't really think it necessary, and partly because I wasn't sure I ought to, in fairness to Kaorin. Please don't be angry with me."
"Never!" Chiyo assured her immediately. "Why on earth should I? Anyway, what about?"
She heard Sakaki laugh gently on the other end of the line, before continuing.
"Ah, where do I begin? Hm. Yes! Well, Chiyo-chan, I suppose back in high school you were really a bit too young for Kaorin's behaviour to appear particularly unusual. Certainly nobody else commented on it, so far as I know.
"Anyway, I had absolutely no idea at the time, but apparently she had a heavy schoolgirl crush on me almost right from the beginning of our First Year. I suppose I was simply much too wrapped-up in my own self-contained little world for it to register. I know I was not very self-confident myself in those days, as you know. Not that I would have been at all interested in her anyway." Sakaki sighed.
"Anyhow, if she was dropping any hints I just didn't respond. Like I said, I never even noticed or realised it myself. Maybe she was just as shy as I was, I don't know. I suppose I never will. I don't want to make excuses, but after all I was still only fifteen when we all started there, and except for Yomi and Tomo, most of us were complete strangers to each other."
Chiyo nodded understandingly, despite knowing that Sakaki, a good hundred miles away, probably couldn't tell. "And as I'd only just turned ten years old," she pointed out, "that would explain why I never noticed anything."
Though I'm only about nine months younger now than you were then, aren't I? she thought to herself with a smile. Old enough now, dearest Sakaki, old enough!
"Ten? Yes, that's true. Mind you," Sakaki resumed out loud, "I imagine that just made things twice as difficult for you, skipping straight from being in school with friends your own age, to a class where everyone else was five years older, the lessons much, much harder, and everything was strange and unfamiliar."
"I managed fine, Sakaki, thanks to everybody's kindness - most especially yours," Chiyo assured her.
"Well, thank you, daisuki, but being so clever and so cute, how could you not?" Sakaki said, a smile in her voice, and they both laughed.
"I can hardly believe it now," Sakaki continued, "but I didn't even find out about Kaorin until long after we left school. It's really strange - I genuinely had no idea until Kagura, of all people, asked me about it several months after we graduated. Somehow it just came up in conversation one evening.
"At first she couldn't believe I didn't understand what she was talking about, so she started to explain, and then... Boom! It all came out. I suppose she must have thought I was really dumb not to have realised."
Sakaki paused, remembering her own utter astonishment. Chiyo patiently remained silent.
"I expect I sounded pretty naive," her friend continued eventually. "It was quite a shock at first - you could have knocked me down with a feather. To begin with I had absolutely no idea what on Earth she was talking about. It was not something I'd ever imagined, particularly not involving myself, at any rate.
"However, once Kagura explained, it gradually started to make some kind of sense of a whole lot of small things that I hadn't really noticed properly. For instance, there was Kaorin's weird behaviour when I ran that three legged race with her, which we won, and the folk dance, and... and how she reacted when she saw Tomo's holiday snaps of our first summer trip together... oh, and a whole lot of other odd little things. Do you remember how she would always be hovering around nearby, watching me, and yet hardly ever actually joining in whatever was happening? And then, when she did finally come with us all to your summer home that last time, what about how she was always trying to take photographs of me? That made me feel very awkward."
Chiyo heard her sigh.
"I do remember," she said. "Kagura's no fool, is she, despite having been a Bonkura. But what a shame. I have to feel sorry for poor Kaorin. I always liked her, but it was you and I who eventually became best friends. That was partly Mr. Tadakichi's doing though, wasn't it? Anyway, as you say, I hadn't a clue how she felt either. I wish now I hadn't mentioned I'd been staying with you - I really didn't mean to hurt her feelings."
" Of course you didn't! It's not your fault, dear Chiyo-chan - you weren't to know. And there's nothing we can do about it now... except, I suppose, not mention it if either of us meet her again."
" I don't expect she'll want to see or speak to either of us for a long, long time. It seems such a shame."
"Well, at least she still seems to be friends with Chihiro."
"Yes, there is that," said Chiyo thoughtfully. She hesitated. "Do you suppose...?"
"Ah!" said Sakaki gently, "who knows? Anyway, it's really not our affair, is it?" She was silent for a moment or two, then she said "Chiyo-chan?"
"Yes? Nani, daisuki?"
"Are you angry with me?"
"Angry? No! I already said I wasn't, didn't I, even before you told me why I might be. What should I be angry for - telling me about what Kagura said?" Chiyo exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "Of course not. Never. Never! It was never any of my business anyway, was it?"
"I was afraid it might upset you, to... to know about Kaorin," Sakaki said hesitantly.
"Sakaki! What am I, a stupid child or something?" Chiyo exclaimed. "You really needn't have worried. You know me better than that by now."
She heard Sakaki give another muffled sigh, perhaps this time one of relief, before the older girl said, "You really are worth your weight in gold, you know!"
Chiyo burst out laughing. "I can check with my bank manager, if you like," she giggled.
It was at last Sakaki's turn to laugh freely again. "No need. I am quite sure I'm right," she said happily. "I really, really am!"