Thanks to Mirage for his brilliant proofreading. As always feedback is very much appreciated.
…And the Speechless Poet
“So,” I say slowly, eyes fixed on the distant glint of the ocean that seems to grow closer with each passing moment. “Are we going to the beach?”
I didn’t bring any swimming clothes. Should I have? Do I even want him to see me in a bikini? This is why people shouldn’t surprise me.
“Not quite,” my boyfriend grins.
“It’s been years since I’ve seen the sea,” I muse, “I’ve forgotten what it looks like.”
“You visited the beach a lot when you were younger?” Hisao asks, pulling the sleeves of his cool back sweater up his arms.
“Yeah, my gran and grandad had a summer house. We used to spend a lot of time there when I was little.”
I had almost forgotten the warm wooden structure sitting on stilts a few hundred meters from the sea front, nestled amongst the rolling sand dunes. That was before dad left and everything fell apart, now it’s just a faded sense of nostalgia, like a crumpled photograph.
“They don’t live there anymore?” he asks politely.
“No, my grandmother died when I was younger, and after that my grandad focused all of his efforts into his job, I think it helped distract him.”
He also needed to work twice as hard to support me and mum, but Hisao doesn’t need to know that part - yet.
“I’m sorry.” Hisao says, squeezing my hand gently.
I shrug, returning the simple gesture with my own hand. “I don’t remember her much really.”
“How about you?” I ask.
“I don’t see my grandparents unless there’s a celebration or a disaster.” He pauses, smiling at a joke only he gets. “My parents used to like to travel outside of Japan. But I always thought that there were things here worth seeing.” He replies reflectively.
“I’ve never been out of the country,” I admit. “Flying kind of scares me.”
“It’s not so bad, though it messes with your ears,” he frowns, “I don’t even know if I’m allowed to fly anymore, what with..” He gestures to his chest.
“I’m sure you can,” I say consolingly, “Otherwise we can use a boat.”
“We?” he asks with a sly smile.
I can feel myself blush, “Well, I like spending time with you.”
“Me too,” with a smooth motion he strokes the back of my hand, sending shivers running down my spine. He is at least now becoming more confident about physical contact, even if it is only handholding.
“Hows your father doing?”
“Oh,” I mumble, taken aback by the sudden change of subject. “Better, he’s looking forward to meeting you.” I hesitate, “If you still want to visit us that is.”
“I do, though I’m a bit nervous of meeting my girlfriend's parents.” he admits quietly.
“It’s fine, I think most of the katana’s are in storage anyway.”
His eyes grow wide before I lose it and burst out laughing.
“It will be fine, my parents respect my choices, should I be worried about yours?” I ask.
“Dad, no. Mum on the other hand…” He raises his eyebrow at my cryptically, though no hint of a smile crosses his lips. Either he’s very good at acting, or I have something to worry about.
“Well, I will just have to be extra charming.” And not let on that I’m technically a criminal.
We continue to chat back and forth about our families, though the conversation feels stilled and oddly controlled. I have the sense that his parents - who both work full time - were once much closer to him, but for the last few years he has felt isolated. He never says anything like that aloud though.
For my part I manage to avoid telling him much about my own home life before Yamaku, a tinge of guilt pulling at my gut.
While we are talking the yellowing countryside blends into the pale concrete buildings of a picture postcard version of Japanese coastal life. The roofs, now faded with age form a patchwork of colour sloping down gradually to the seafront. Which I’m slightly disappointed to see is behind a large concrete sea wall, rather than the beach I had been hoping for.
Only a few moments later we are pulling into the station. It’s aged wooden awnings held aloft on delicately crafted pillars, a relic of an age when things were made with love, rather than the cold plain modernisation found in Ikuno’s fancy stores.
I almost forget I am here on a date in my haste to depart the train. All around me men and women dressed in work wear rub their hands together as they step into the cool morning air. It’s hard to imagine what coming here every day for work must be like - does the magic wear off after awhile?
Hisao follows the last of workers off of the train, keeping his normal distance from the crowd. I feel my cheeks warm as he approaches. Probably not best etiquette to abandon your partner on the first date.
“Sorry,” I say quickly, inhaling the scent of salt water carried in on the fresh breeze from the sea. I close my eyes as the smell mixed with the calling gulls overhead reawaken memories I didn’t know I still possessed.
“I take it you like it here?” Hisao asks.
The adorable dimples on his smiling face greet me as I open my eyes.
“I love it, are we going to look around?”
“We can later, but first we have an appointment on the seafront.
— — —
It’s exceptionally hard to stop myself drifting off to any one of the interesting looking stores tucked into aged buildings as we make our way down the gently sloping hill to the sea. And to think I was worried about not enjoying this surprise.
Beside me Hisao radiates the calm happiness I’ve come to expect from him, his mood a more subtle reflection of my own. It’s hard to imagine him processing the anger that frightened me so much in my dreams.
Soon the cobble street levels out and all that separates us from the stone wall holding back the sea is a quiet tarmac road. Above I had not noticed how many boats sheltered in the horseshoe harbour. Most of the vessels are small fishing or pleasure craft, each with a colourfully painted roof, I have fun imagining each belonging to a home with a matching roof somewhere up the hill.
Crossing the road Hisao leads me to the right. The sea slaps against the concrete wall beside us, I can almost feel its mist on my cheek. Inhaling deeply I catch the scent of the sea, salt mixed with fresh air which ignites my memories of darting in and out of the waves, seemingly an age ago.
I’m so distracted by my thoughts I nearly fall over when Hisao stops before a large sign, slightly faded and tied to the handrail that encompasses the seawall.
“Sightseeing cruises?” I ask, peering past the sign to a gangplank leading up to a large white ship, sitting low in the water like some alien spacecraft accidentally landed in this rustic seaside town.
“Err, yeah.” Hisao says tentatively. So this was his and Ikuno’s plan.
“That’s awesome, I’ve never been on a boat before.”
He laughs half with relief and half with amusement.
“Me neither to tell you the truth, but it’s supposed to be really good.”
It’s funny, being here makes me feel like a child again, and I seem to be able to let my guard down around Hisao. An effect very few people have ever had on me.
I have no idea what he thinks of me, or even if he’s questioning his decision to bring me on a date. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not, I don’t have the willpower or the energy for it - I just have to hope he likes every side of me.
“Shall we?” he asks, gesturing to the gangplank.
“Sure, how much is it?” I ask, reemerging in the handbag Ikuno lent me for my purse.
“Already taken care of,” he grins, withdrawing from his wallet two gold embossed tickets.
“Heh, you really did have this all planned out didn’t you?”
“Well.” Moving to my right side he once again takes my hand, “I admit Ikuno helped with the arrangements.”
“I have good friends,” I muse, more to myself than anyone else.
A portly steward meets us as we climb the steep ramp onto the deck, his face cracking into a heartening smile.
“Welcome aboard the Musashi,” he says happily, “Do sir and Madam have their tickets or will you be in need of my services behind the till.” With a grin he gestures to an archaic ticket machine slung around his neck.
Hisao hands over the tickets with a bow.
“Excellent! The best views are to be had from the port side of the bow, if you have any questions feel free to ask. Always happy to help!”
He sounds like he means it, I wonder if I will ever find a job which I enjoy as much as this guy does his.
“Port side?” I whisper to Hisao as we turn away from the steward.
“Oh, over here,” He replies leading me to a railing on the left side of the ship, almost at the front of the boat.
“Is there anything you don’t know?”
“I read a lot while I was in hospital.” He shrugs.
Boats are strange.
The entire structure rocks slowly back and forth under my feet, and I silently pray I’m not seasick. I don’t get carsick, but I’ve never had the chance to see how I do on boats before now. Had I known beforehand I could have set up a raft or something in the school pool, just to be safe.
“This feels strange,” I mumble, snuggling closer to Hisao who is leaning against the railing, peering into the rippling water below.
“You don’t get seasick do you?” He asks, mirroring my own concern.
“I don’t think so,” I say, deciding to move the conversation away from throwing up. “Were you in the hospital for long?”
“Yeah.” He doesn’t expand on his single word answer.
“It sucks, doesn’t it?”
“You’ve spent time in hospital as well?” He asks, before his eyes find my stump and guilt crumples his handsome face. “Sorry, I thought.”
“It’s okay,” I say quickly, “I was in for about three weeks when this happened.”
It’s amazing the void between how well I feel like I know him, and how well I actually do.
“I’m sorry, what…” he shakes his head quickly, as if trying to quickly erase the words he almost said.
“I was involved in a car crash.” I can hear my own voice as I speak, feel my lips form the words. But can’t believe I just said them. I suppose he was going to find out sooner or later, even if it isn’t the entire truth.
Hisao seems momentarily speechless. Glancing around quickly I notice the boat has started to fill up, mostly with older people and foreign tourists. I guess we only just beat the rush.
“I had a heart attack,” Hisao announces suddenly, causing me to turn back to him so fast I almost topple over.
“Before I came to Yamaku, it’s how I found out about my heart condition.” he says calmly.
I guess we both had pretty brutal introductions to our disabilities.
I can’t think of anything to say, no comfort to give. Even if Hisao wants comforting, which I doubt.
I simply wrap my arm around his waist, leaning my head against his shoulder. After a few moments hesitation he does the same and together we lean against the white railing. Waiting for our journey to begin.
— — —
An ethereal mist rolls over us as the ship slips through the waves undaunted. I don’t know how far we’ve traveled, but I doubt we would be able to see the town from here, even without the visibility being so limited.
I wish I had spent more time reading the sign. There were pictures but I hardly registered them in the excitement.
Slowly dark shapes start to form on the edge of the mist, no more than outlines in the grey haze. Intrigued I squint trying to make out the abstract forms on the waterline.
“So do you know who Matsuo Bashō is?” Hisao asks.
“I have no idea,” I say distractedly as we draw ever nearer to the ghostly shapes.
“He was a poet who wrote about this place.”
“Yeah?” I whisper, “What did he write about it?”
Before Hisao can answer the mist clears like a veil being pulled from across my eyes.
“Wow..” My exclamation is echoed between the passengers, followed by a rustle of clothes as everyone shifts to get a better view. Lucky for us the steward was right, we are in the best spot.
“That was pretty much what he wrote, too: wow,” Hisao adds, equally awed.
Before us sprouting from the waves like the twisted remains of some ancient sea monster lies a pale grey outcrop of rock. Rising only a few meters from the frothing surf the island gives off a supreme sense of timeless beauty, with hardy trees clinging onto its surface like survivors from a ship wreck, their weatherbeaten tips lost to the receding mist.
On one end of the island the rock curves into a natural arch that dives back into the clean white froth. Inhaling sharply I peer past the island, only to find another and another, disappearing into the infinite mists.
“It’s amazing,” I whisper, drawing if possible closer to Hisao. The warmth of his body and the sight before me causing a shiver to run up my spine.
“I was worried the mist would limit our view, but if anything it enhances it.” Hisao says, his eyes fixed on the site before us.
Only the islands closest to us are visible. All the others are blurred, like an out of focus camera, hidden just out of reach.
“Do you ever feel like your life has changed, but not in a way you could have ever predicted?” I ask quietly, mesmerised by the view. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, magic in a way I can’t just describe.
“Yes, all the time. I thought my life was over and then...” He pauses. “And then I came to Yamaku, and I met you.”
Apparently I’m not the only one for whom these islands seem to have an enchanting effect.
Slowly, with a care I might exercise if someone had handed me a priceless family heirloom I press my lips to his unsuspecting cheek. It’s as soft and warm as it is was my dreams.
His body stiffens, and to my horror he raises a hand to his chest, rubbing his sternum methodically.
“Oh shit, are you okay? I’m so sorry!” I say, panic causing my words to chase each other as they tumble from my mouth.
“I’m fine,” he says apologetically, still rubbing his chest, “You just took me by surprise.”
“But your chest, I mean, your heart.”
“Huh?” Hisao looks suddenly confused before his eyes follow mine to the hand rubbing his chest, which halts instantly.
“It’s just a nervous habit, I’m fine really,” he pauses, “I’ve really messed this first kiss stuff up haven’t I?”
“Well a kiss on the cheek isn’t really a proper first kiss.”
“No,” I grin half in relief and half in amusement.
“Huh, well could I get a heads up when the proper first kiss is about to happen? You know, just in case?” he mumbles dreamily, his eyes fixed on a spiral of rock erupting from the sea, its peak rounded and flattened like an angular mushroom.
“Oh, believe me you will definitely know when that's about to happen.”
— — —
Like all good and wonderful things our cruise comes to it’s inevitable end.
Seagulls scream overhead as the ship approaches the sunbaked dock we departed from. Hisao and I are the last to step off the gangplank, following a family of tourists in the most garish shirts I’ve ever seen. To each his own I suppose.
We spare the time to thank the steward, who in turn thanks us repeatedly for our patronage. I’m fairly sure the endless back and forth of thanks would have lasted all day, had the ship not needed preparing for the next batch of eager tourists.
“Thank you,” I say shyly once Hisao and I have wandered away from the mulling tourists. “I really enjoyed that.”
“Me to,” he says with a bright smile. I would like to imagine his cheeks were still red from the kiss.
“Would you like to get some lunch? I thought afterwards we could explore the seafront.”
“Sure,” I reply, my stomach giving an involuntary but non the less coincidental rumble.
“I have reservations for us this evening, if that’s okay?”
“Wow,” I grin, “You really have got this all planned out.”
Rubbing his neck he grins sheepishly. “Well, I wanted this to be special.”
Taking his hand into mine I flash him a crooked smile. “Mission accomplished. Come on, let’s go see what those charts are selling.”
Together we set off at a leisurely pace, keeping close to the seawall and enjoying the occasional light misting from a particularly energetic wave. It might be my imagination, but I’m sure that I can smell Taiyaki on the air, an image of watching the sunset while nibbling on one of the fish shaped treats flourishes in my mind. It’s nice to be remembering pleasant things for a change.
“You know, I think I want to live by the sea when I get older.” I say conversationally.
I nod, “It would be nice I think, I could run on the beach and then cool off in the ocean.”
It’s a stupid, but definitely appealing dream.
“Do you know what university you plan to attend after high school?”
“No, not really thought that far ahead.” I say as we draw ever closer to the delicious smell.
“But you’ve thought about where you want to live?” He asks, laughing softly.
“Yes, well a dream is different to a plan,” I frown, “How about you?”
“Something to do with science, I haven’t quite narrowed down which particular field yet.”
“You’re not going to spend all your time putting cats into boxes are you?” I ask in mock concern.
Shaking his head Hisao begins to laugh, his chestnut eyes sparkling and his face alive. Admiring the view for a few moments longer I let my own laughter take me, as together we stride towards a collection of street vendors and the promise of a gloriously unhealthy lunch.
— — —
Oh no, another restaurant I’m not nearly dressed up enough for - then again I think that applies to almost every location beside fast food shacks.
My mouth falls open slightly as we step inside, the walls are painted a soft mix of pale cream and blue, while the tables and chairs seem to be made from reclaimed driftwood - possibly tidal stowaways from the islands we visited this morning.
“I hope you like sea food,” My date asks nervously as an ornate waitress leads us across the nearly empty dining room. Wrapped in layers of smooth silk typical for - or at least what I imagine to be typical for - high end dining, she gives off a supreme sense of delicacy, like a china doll, breakable at the slightest touch.
I know of a few girls at Yamaku like that, though I doubt it’s for the same reason.
Much like the waiter in the Italian restaurant Ayumu took me too, our waitress makes every effort to go unnoticed. Truth be told it makes me a little nervous.
Placing my new straw hat - an item I simply had to have when I discovered it hidden in a microscopic seaside shop - on the empty chair beside me I wait awkwardly, as the menus are laid on the table.
Ordering an ice lemon soft drink I begin to scan the menu, which to my intense relief is in Japanese. It’s easy to find something I like. I’ve always been partial to fish and seafood, though my skills at preparing and cooking it leave something to be desired.
“It all looks so good,” I comment, not untruthfully.
“Yeah, I’ve never tried many of these dishes,” he lowers his menu long enough to smirk at me. “My mum has a phobia of fish.”
I choke a little on my laughter, “Excuse me?”
“Well, I don’t know why, but they have always freaked her out a bit, so as you can imagine she didn’t prepare seafood much.”
“Well I think I’m going to try this,” I say, pointing to my section on the menu.
“I think I will as well,” he says confidently, folding the menu in front of him.
I copy him quickly, feeling suddenly anxious. In my head I can see all the ways I might screw this up, knock over a drink, spill my food, insult my boyfriend.
It’s ridiculous I’ve eaten hundreds of times before without incident - why should this time be different?
“Something on your mind?” My boyfriend asks.
“Nothing important,” I smile, though it feels forced. “So what was your school like before you came to Yamaku?”
Keeping him talking seems like a good way to distract myself from my stupid thoughts.
“I suppose it was a fairly typical school, nothing like Yamaku.”
My reply is cut off by the waitress returning with our drinks, I notice her eyes hover on my stump and I quickly tuck it out of sight under the table. Looking guilty she takes our orders, before collecting the menus and leaving with a bow.
“It must be horrible, people looking all the time,” Hisao comments apologetically.
“Huh?” His words take me off guard, “Oh, I guess - It used to bother me more than it does now, but what can you do?” I shrug.
He simply nods, frowning slightly. We don’t often open up about our disabilities or conditions or however we are supposed to label them.
I know next to nothing about why he came into my life, other than he had a heart attack caused by a condition he was born with.
“Anyway,” I say, trying to lighten the mood. “You were talking about school?”
“Err, yeah - well there is not much more to say really, I had a few friends who I used to hang around with, play soccer, go to the arcade that kinda thing.”
I laugh softly, “I bet you looked cute in a soccer outfit, do you keep in contact with your friends?”
His cheeks redden slightly, but his eyes drift to the gnarled wooden tabletop, “No, we drifted apart after I went to hospital, and I’ve not heard from them since.”
“It feels like you were hanging around with them, rather than them hanging out with you huh?” I ask gently.
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“It was the same for me before I came to Yamaku, spent a lot of time with people who I thought were my friends, but not a single one visited me in the hospital.” There's a touch of unintended venom to my words.
“Well, here's to new friends huh?” Hisao smiles, raising his glass of soda.
Our drinks meet with a resenting clink.
After our toast the conversation waves and turns, as the topic shifts from home and nostalgia to half concocted dreams for the future. In many ways it’s like talking to Ayumu.
But more open and honest, with the meaning of words not hidden behind some elaborate vocabulary.
Soon enough our food arrives, and our attention is taken with the task of eating the soft fish dish. The perfectly cooked fish that flakes on contact with the chopsticks is an unplanned treat for me, food always tastes better when you don’t have to fight it.
As I eat I let my mind wander. I really would enjoy living in a place like this, out of the way but still connected, all at once it seems like a brilliant and terrible dream. I’m imagining things I have no right to - a cell is where my future lies, and my repeated thoughts otherwise are an act of weakness.
“Huh?” Once again my boyfriend has caught me lost in my own thoughts.
“Sorry, the food do you like it?” He asks gently, a hint of concern in his perfect eyes.
“It’s delicious,” I say quickly, “Sorry I get caught up in my own head sometimes.”
“Anything you want to share?”
Yes, all of it, I want all this responsibility and guilt to be someone else’s problem to handle.
“Nah, it’s not important.”
He doesn't look convinced.
— — —
We step out into the setting sun hand in hand. That was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
And it’s all down to the smiling boy beside me, who is looking - rightly so - very proud of himself.
“I suppose we should be heading back.” he says, his eyes flickering up the hill in the direction of the train station.
“Not yet,” I reply, “I want a last look at the sea.”
The promenade is deserted, even though the sun is only just setting. It’s desperation to hold onto the day staining the sky in beautiful indigos and amber, with thin clouds that seem to go on forever.
Below the turbulent sky the sea is calm, gently reflecting the perfect colours above, it’s gentle splash the only sound in the still night. Imagine running under this every night.
“It’s beautiful,” Hisao says softly.
“Um-hmm,” I agree, turning to face him.
Our eyes meet, and I can feel my heart flutter in my chest, my teeth meet my bottom lip as I work myself up for what I’m dying to ask.
“I want to kiss you,” I whisper, taking a step forward so we are closer than we have ever been.
“O… okay,” his voice shakes softly and he turns his red cheek slightly.
With a restrained movement I drop his hand, moving my fingers to his cheek, before guiding his lips to mine. He stiffens for a moment, and I worry he’s had another heart attack, but a second later his arms are wrapping around me, and he’s kissing back.
Time seems to stop, as together we share our first kiss, under the perfect sunset. How will I ever be able to give this up?
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