Page 3 of 22
Chapter 20 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:46 am
"So, do you have any plans for the upcoming three weeks of summer break you have left?"
"I… ummm… am going to S-Scotland together with my b-best friend and my b-boyfriend."
"Sounds fun. Any reason for Scotland specifically? Most tourists from Japan try to visit multiple countries while in Europe."
"M-my best friend's p-parents live there. She's visiting them, and we're a-allowed to come along."
"Well, I hope you'll have fun. By the way, could you check out page 156 of your binder?"
I curiously turn to the page Nakamura mentioned and suddenly smile.
"Just in case."
On the page in front of me is a large table containing the emergency phone number of each country, sorted by continent. I quickly take out my cell phone and save the emergency number for the United Kingdom in its memory.
The trainer takes out a handkerchief, wipes his forehead, then smiles at me.
I start to casually browse through the binder, not really reading but mostly keeping myself busy. As I look up, I can see Nakamura is again wiping his forehead. What's going on? It's not that hot here, is it?
After a few minutes, I catch him again taking out his handkerchief. He's looking a bit uncomfortable. Is he unwell or something?
"Ummm… A-are you… o-okay?"
He lets out a chuckle in order to dismiss the matter.
"I'm fine. I might be coming down with something. My luck, of course. Right around the start of my own summer break."
He slowly gets up, an uncomfortable expression still on his face.
"I… think I'm going to take a small bathroom break. I'll be right back. Could you open the window in the meantime? Let in some fresh air?"
As I head towards one of the windows, I notice Nakamura is walking a bit hunched over. It gives me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I turn towards the window and am about to push it open when I hear a soft groan behind me. As I look behind me, I'm shocked to see that Nakamura is lying face-down on the floor, about 10 steps away from the door. I physically reel from a sudden and almost overwhelming sense of dread that spreads through my body.
What's going on? Did he just collapse? What's wrong with him? What am I supposed to do?
My voice barely reaches above a whisper as I struggle to control my breathing.
Somehow, I'm capable of making it across the room without my shaking legs giving out and I kneel next to him, rolling him onto his back.
No reaction. What should I do now? Go and get help? But it's already nearly a week into summer break and the building is nearly deserted? What if he dies while I'm away? Why isn't anyone else here?
I guess I can't leave him alone. Doing my best to righten his head, I suddenly remember the first step of the drills I've done. Putting two fingers beneath his jaw, I THINK I can feel a pulse. Of course, it's almost impossible to be sure with my own heart pounding like a jackhammer, but it's a small relief. Putting my ear to his mouth, I can't hear any breathing though. Am I supposed to give him mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-nose now? I really hate the idea of anyone's face but Hisao's getting close to mine - close enough to peek past my bangs and see the damage. Still, do I have a choice? I suddenly have an idea. I carefully move his head back and open his mouth further, then carefully use my other hand to cover his eyes. As I move my head downward though, Nakamura suddenly exhales loudly, causing me to jump up with a startled cry. As I look on, Nakamura casually gets up, dusts himself off and gives me a concerned look.
"Are you alright, Ikezawa? Just sit down and take a few deep breaths. I'm fine. I was just faking it. I was holding my breath on purpose."
Faking it? He was just pretending to…?
I barely manage to stammer what's on my mind.
After making sure I'm not going to faint, Nakamura walks back to his desk and gives me a sheepish look.
"I figured one more practice drill was in order. Sorry to have frightened you. I wasn't even sure if it was going to work. I'm not exactly a seasoned actor. I'm surprised you didn't merely roll your eyes at me."
I should have known. He was testing me. He wanted to see if I'd call for help or go through the motions I practiced so many times or if I'd just run away or collapse in a shivering heap. I was dangerously close to doing the latter, that much is certain. And then what? Then my first aid certificate would be worth less than the paper it's printed on. I'd know in advance that this whole week had been a waste of time. And I'd end up feeling utterly worthless and more frightened of the prospect of Hisao's heart acting up than ever. For a moment I feel angry with Nakamura for drawing out my weakness with such little effort.
"I just finished your last test and your score is 84%. Very well done."
I nod in response, but don't really say anything. I'm still busy fighting off the adrenaline that's racing through my system. Nakamura frowns, gets up and sits on one of the desks in front of mine.
"I guess what I did was a bit thoughtless, but I thought it was important to get an idea on how you'd react in a real emergency situation... or at least as real as possible. The truth is that Mrs. Takawa asked me to give her my opinion on whether this training would be any use to you in such circumstances, and I thought this would be a good way to see for myself. If you'd have broken down just now, that would have given this week a real downer ending, but at least I could have reported to your therapist that this training wasn't sufficient on its own and that she'd best go and try something else. I figured the last thing you needed was a sense of security that'd prove to be false at the worst possible moment. I hope you can understand and that it helps to make you a little bit more confident about what you've learned here this week."
I can't say I don't understand his motivation, but I'm nevertheless unsettled at how panic-prone I just proved to still be even though it didn't paralyze me this time.
"You hesitated a bit, but you still reacted within an acceptable timespan. So I think you really deserve this."
He takes a fancy piece of paper from behind his back that I can see has my name on it and puts his signature on the dotted line near the bottom before handing it to me.
"Congratulations on succesfully finishing the training, Ikezawa."
I take it from him, still a bit shaky but also filled with a modest sense of pride.
"If you still have any questions for me, now would probably be a good time to ask. If not, I'm going to start packing up the dummies and get ready to head home."
I do have one question.
"Umm.... W-were y-you enacting an actual h-heart a-attack just now?"
"A little bit. Unlike what movies would like you to believe, heart attacks are rarely instantanous. But warning signs may vary from person to person."
"You can find a list of the more common ones on page 34 of your binder. Though if you're currently thinking of your boyfriend, please be aware that what sent him to the hospital last time wasn't a traditional heart attack."
"Remember that actual heart attacks involve the coronary artery getting clogged, resulting in part of the heart being deprived of oxygen and being damaged as a result. Your boyfriend's arteries are probably fine. His problem is that his heart occasionally starts a disfunctional rhythm. It's a different problem altogether. That doesn't mean he never experiences any warning signs, but... I think it's best if you try not to worry about those."
Not worry about them? Is he joking?
"Your boyfriend is probably well aware of his condition, and if any warning signs pop up that indicate an approaching episode, I'm willing to bet my life on it that he'll be aware of them long before you start noticing them. Ultimately it's his responsibility to take action and either slow down or warn others. If you sound the alarm each time he looks a little bit unwell, instead of trusting his judgement on it, you'll probably drive him and yourself crazy sooner or later. He's still as susceptible to colds and stomach aches as any other person after all."
That's a pretty good point, though I've never been good at applying the "no worrying" advice to my own life.
"If his heart gets into a disfunctional rhythm it won't come out of, the best thing you can do is be aware of the location of the nearest AED. I've noticed this school has quite a few of them hanging on the walls. I'm sure the head nurse here can get you a map of their locations."
"And outside of the s-school?"
"I'd like to suggest him getting an AED of his own at some point, but that's easier said than done. The one you've been practicing with this week costs as much as I pay in rent over the course of two months. Still, in the long term, it'd be a good investment."
He shakes his head and smiles.
"Try not to worry too much, and don't forget to enjoy life. Compared to other heart conditions, people with your boyfriend's condition still tend to live fairly long lives. And new scientific discoveries are made every day."
That cheers me up a little. I give him a tired smile and pick up my bag from my desk.
"T-Thank you...f-for everything."
"Glad to be of service. Have fun in Scotland."
After leaving the classroom, I decided to stop by at the newspaper club for just a few minutes and was greeted by Naomi and Jun who seem to be the only members still around the school grounds. When I entered the room, Naomi greeted me with a series of sounds that sounded like total gibberish to me.
"I said: 'Awrite! Hou's it gaun?' You don't know what that means?"
"It means 'Hi. How are you?' in Scottish. You were supposed to answer with something like 'A'm fine, slainte!' "
Naomi looks very pleased with her performance, but Jun gives me a tired look.
"I looked up some Scottish phrases on the internet for her this morning, and she's been practicing them out loud ever since. Hopefully she'll stop now."
Naomi playfully sticks her tongue out at Jun.
"You're just jealous because my Scottish is better than yours."
Jun just rolls her eyes and Naomi takes the opportunity to continue the conversation.
"You haven't been practicing your Scottish?"
I haven't. Lilly assured me that our English would suffice, so I can probably communicate with the locals if (and only if) I absolutely have to.
"This week was busy for me."
"Oh, right. Still that first aid training, huh? How'd it go?"
"I finished it today."
I produce the certificate I got earlier from my bag and hand it to Naomi and Jun. Naomi looks it over for a second before passing it to Jun. They then smile and break out into a short but sincere applause. Or rather, Naomi's clapping while Jun's mimicking the motion as best as she can.
"Great job. I bet it's a little easier to go on vacation now with that one behind you, isn't it?"
"Yes. I'm happy the two didn't overlap."
"Looking forward to it?"
"I am. Do you h-have any vacation plans?"
Jun just shakes her head. Naomi, on the other hand, nods enthusiastically.
"I'm going on a trip across Japan. Natsume's coming too. We'll head north first, stay in Hokkaido for a bit, then head south towards Kyoto."
"That sounds enjoyable too."
"It will be. I'll be sure to take plenty of pictures. We can swap photos afterwards."
That might be a problem. My cell phone has a camera function, but it doesn't have enough capacity to store a large amount of photos, and I don't have an actual photo camera myself.
"I could… buy a g-guidebook while I'm there."
Naomi makes a face as if I just offered her a spoiled sandwich.
"That won't do. You're a member of the newspaper club now. That means you gotta walk the walk. No taking shortcuts."
"Ah… B-but I…"
"Just a sec."
Naomi gets off the desk she's sitting on and sprints into the room we use as our archive. Jun scratches her arm and turns to me.
"Naomi asked me to come along with her, but I need to have this cast removed next week. They're probably going to wrap it in stiff bandages if it's healed sufficiently. I hate these heavy things. They really itch."
"I'm s-sorry to hear that."
"It's okay. I have plenty of video games I still need to finish."
"Tadaah! Check this out!"
Naomi comes running back in, carrying a black bag in her hands. She opens it and fishes a slick-looking camera out of it, along with several small plastic containers with memory cards inside. She then gives me a triumphant grin.
"You don't have a camera yourself, do you? Well, what do you think of this baby? There's at least twleve gigabyte worth of memory cards in here too. You can take enough photos to wallpaper the entire classroom with and still have space to spare."
Wow! Is she really lending me this? That camera looks really expensive.
Naomi simply gives a cheerful nod.
"I was thinking of taking it myself, but since I'm dropping by at my parents' place before my own trip, I can simply take their camera instead. You can't fly to the other end of the world and not take any pictures. That's journalistic malpractice. And we won't have any of that around here."
"T-Thank you s-so much."
"You're welcome. If you want to thank me, maybe you could take some requests from me."
"Since you're going to Scotland, are you going to visit that lake? You know, Loch Ness?"
"I hope so. It's only a few kilometers away from Inverness."
"They say there's a monster in there. It would be grand if you could snap a picture."
Jun promptly makes a facepalm gesture with her hand, which looks rather absurd due to the huge cast wrapped around it.
"You know that's an urban legend, don't you?"
"How about a picture of a Scotsman? You know, in traditional garb."
"I might be able to do that."
"Great. But no phonies. It has to be a true Scotsman."
Naomi lets out a pleased giggle.
Naomi puts the camera back into its bag and hands it to me. I take it from her and put it into my own bag, being as careful as I can with it. This is a really pleasant surprise. I'm so happy I decided to drop by the club today.
"Now, in case taking those pictures gets your journalistic juices flowing, there's something you can brainstorm about. I've decided what the next club you'll be covering in your column will be."
"Which one is it?"
Naomi makes a face as if I just asked her a very stupid question.
"This one of course. You'll have the advantage of not having to put together a question list for an interview. Just write something up using your own experiences here, and we can take a look at it after the summer break to see if there's anything missing. Try to emulate the style of your previous column for consistency's sake."
"I'll do that."
She winks at me.
"Don't make us look bad."
I smile as I take my bag and get ready to head to my dorm room.
"I'll p-put some extra l-love into it."
Naomi gives me a thumbs-up.
"Attagirl. Well, guid cheerio the nou then."
"Means goodbye. In Scottish."
As I leave the room, Jun comes after me with a conspiring expression on her face.
"If you DO take a picture of Loch Ness, could you mail it to me?"
"I can probably photoshop a monster in there."
Chapter 20 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:47 am
"I'll let you handle the tickets, Hisao."
Hisao takes the envelope containing our flight tickets from Lilly and carefully puts them away.
"I'll make certain not to lose them, Lilly."
"Good. Have the two of you finished packing all your luggage already?"
"I have. Hanako?"
Fortunately, I have too. Knowing this'd be a busy week, I've already tried to pack whatever I could last weekend.
Lilly gives a satisfied nod. As I look around her room where we've spent the last half hour drinking tea and discussing the final preparations, I notice that Lilly's own suitcase is still only half-full, though I doubt I'd be able to even pack a single thing without being able to see.
"Do you need some help with packing, Lilly?"
"No, thank you, Hanako. I know exactly what items I still have left to pack, and I'll be sure to finish things up soon."
Lilly lets out a short sigh.
"In other circumstances, we would be celebrating you getting your first aid certificate right now. I feel bad we lack the time for that at the moment."
"It's okay. It's for a good reason after all."
"We will hold a celebration for you once we're in Scotland, Hanako. That is a promise."
"T-Thank you, Lilly."
"I think it's probably best if Hanako and I take our leave now, Lilly. That'll give you time to wrap things up and get some rest."
"That might not be a bad idea, Hisao. Let us assemble in my room tomorrow morning at ten o' clock. That'll leave us enough time to get to the station and take the train to the airport."
"Sounds like a plan. Good night, Lilly."
"Good night, Lilly."
"Good night, Hanako, Hisao. Rest well. Tomorrow will be a very exhausting day for sure."
As I unlock the door to my dorm room and turn around to kiss Hisao goodnight, he puts one arm around me.
"Can I come in for a while?"
We enter the room, and I take a seat on my bed. I feel tired and tense at the same time. Today was stressful and exhausting. First the lesson on burns that hit several sensitive nerves and then the trainer's faked heart attack right in front of me. And tomorrow might even be more nervewracking.
"Wow, your shoulders are still really stiff. I guess that little get-together with Lilly didn't really help?"
Hisao has placed a hand on my shoulder and gives me a worried frown.
"It helped… a little bit."
"Maybe this will help a little bit more."
He sits down behind me and gently starts massaging my shoulders.
"That would be nice."
I let my head hang forward and try to relax as much as possible as Hisao massages the muscles of my neck and shoulders. This is something he's been doing for me since we started dating - a way to take away whatever stress I built up over the day.
"You can… d-do it a little more forcefully."
"This might make a difference too."
Hisao reaches around and unbuttons my blouse. I let it slide off my shoulders while he rubs his hands together to warm them. Moments later, I feel a warm hand on my bare left shoulder stroking it and then kneading it firmly. Minutes pass without either of us saying anything, but the silence fortunately isn't too uncomfortable. I've told Hisao all I cared to share about today earlier when I visited his room while he was in the process of packing his suitcase. Right now, there simply isn't much to say. After a while, Hisao gets off the bed.
"Hanako, can you lie on your stomach now?"
I comply with his request and feel my hips being pressed down as Hisao straddles me. Then I feel his hands press down on my upper back and make long, firm strokes.
"Hanako, I really appreciate the fact that you've made such a large effort this week on my behalf."
"It…wasn't just for you. It was also for myself."
"Well, regardless, I already feel a bit safer now than I did before."
I don't really share his optimism yet. This afternoon I've just barely managed to hold off a panic attack and that involved someone I hardly even knew. I'm still not very confident in my ability to hold things together if something were to happen to Hisao. Still, I feel a bit of happiness from his words.
"You know, the last time I spoke with her, I asked Miss Takawa for advice on what to do if you got overwhelmed by stress or fear again. Because I don't want to feel helpless either. Like that time you had an episode in science class."
"What d-did she s-say?"
Hisao stops the backrub he's been giving me until now and gets off the bed.
"I really liked her advice."
"What w-was it then?"
He doesn't respond, but I hear a bit of rustling behind me. The moment I turn around, however, I feel a pleasant and warm sensation that elicits a surprised gasp from me.
It takes me a moment to realize that the rustling sound I heard earlier was Hisao taking off his shirt and while I was turning around to face him, he got back onto the bed and is now lying next to me and hugging me tightly.
"She suggested something like this."
"She s-suggested taking your shirt off?"
"Hehe, not exactly. She suggested cuddling, though I don't think she'd object to some added intimacy if it helps the cause."
I wouldn't know about that, and I doubt I'll ever find out. My sex life is the one thing I've kept my therapist out of and if possible I'd like it to stay that way.
"E-Even if she'd… object, I w-wouldn't."
Hisao laughs softly and then plants his lips on mine. At first, our kisses are gentle, and we're content to just hold on to each other tightly, but soon our kisses become more feverish, and we're rubbing our bodies against each other. Suddenly, Hisao moves his hand down and playfully squeezes my butt which causes me to let out a yelp and reflexively thrust my hips forward, causing my crotch to press against his.
Hisao chuckles at my gasp and stops our makeout session to let his forehead rest against mine and look into my eyes for several seconds before giving me a quick peck on the lips. I know what that gesture means. He's used it several times in the past to get a question across that'd be too embarassing to ask with words. Do you want to have sleep together? I also know how to give the affirmative response. If I respond with a quick peck back, the way things are now, it'll probably take less than 15 seconds for the last piece of clothing to hit the floor. Yet there's a small sense of anxiety I feel that prevents me from immediately reciprocating his invitation. Maybe it's written on my face or maybe Hisao has noticed the pause.
"…Hanako. Would you… like to...?"
I merely lower my gaze, trying to work out my feelings.
"It has been some time."
That's certainly true. Between that night in a hotel where we had intercourse for the first time since the start of our relationship and the moment when Lilly announced her departure, Hisao and I did it several times. While I tried to keep the afternoons and evenings open for Lilly during that time, I made sure to save the nights for Hisao. I learned two things about myself during that period in time. The first was the fact that I actually possess a sex drive. I still prefer the lights to be either dimmed or off altogether and Hisao's always the one taking the initiative, but I've been seeking him out all those times knowing full well that we'd probably end up between the sheets together, and, while we were busy doing the deed, I found myself welcoming the experience.
The second thing I learned, however, was that my sex drive is also rather closely tied to my state of mind. So while I was busy taking Lilly on all sorts of outings, Hisao and I were far from hurting on the physical intimacy front. After Lilly announced her departure however, I quickly found I was unable to get into the mood. And during Hisao's time in the hospital, well, I didn't think I'd even get so much as a kiss out of him anymore ever again. Even though we reconciled nearly two weeks ago, Hisao's been forced to take it slowly ever since, and I obviously haven't been eager to push him past his limits.
"I… I know."
"And you seemed to be in the mood just now."
I was and part of me still is. My mood isn't really the issue. If it hadn't been for the fact Hisao was just released from the hospital a few hours earlier, I would have been happy to have my first experience with make-up sex the very day we reconciled. What weighs upon my heart is his current condition.
"It's n-not that. It's j-just…"
He seems to guess where this is going. Which is not surprising since we've had this kind of discussion before.
"I've worked hard the last one and a half week to get back into shape. I did a light jog this morning without any troubles. My stamina's not at the point where it was prior to my accident just yet, but it's getting there. I'll probably be fine."
"Did you… t-talk to the nurse?"
"Not about this."
I let out a soft but still audible sigh. I can't say I blame him very much. I certainly wouldn't be able to do it. But Hisao's a lot more confident than I am, and he sees the nurse on an almost daily basis. But still…
"Look Hanako, I'm not gonna ask him if he feels I'm physically ready to start sleeping with you again. Because that feels to me like I'm asking him for permission to have sex with my girlfriend. And I bet he'd feel the same way."
"How c-can you b-be sure?"
"Because I know him. I'll have to spend months listening to his immature jokes."
He squeezes his eyes shut and contorts his face into a broad grin like the nurse's.
"Just let me check your heartbeat, Hisao. If you're good, I'll give you a lollipop. Or a night with your girlfriend. Which one would you like best?"
I giggle. There's something bizarre about Hisao's impression.
"I d-don't think…"
"Hisao, guess what? I'm having a sale right now. Get one night between the sheets and you'll get a second one for free. Today only. What do you think?"
I press my hand to my mouth to hold back a laugh.
"Yeah, when you're not the one being made fun of."
Realizing we're getting off track, Hisao gives me another peck on the lips and genly presses my chin up so I'm looking right into his eyes again.
"Look Hanako, the nurse isn't going to stick around for the rest of my life, so in the end my own judgement will eventually be the thing I'll have to rely on."
That sounds a lot like what Nakamura told me earlier today… about not worrying about him too much.
"Hisao… I… I've been s-startled once a-already today, b-but if you really think you'll b-be okay, I'll t-trust your judgement."
I can see Hisao think for a moment, weighing the odds of his heart acting up. I'm not really that frightened he'll die on me if we end up doing it, but after today, I don't think I'd take even a flutter very well. Hisao seems to pick up on my thoughts and gives a short nod.
"Okay then, Hanako. We'll put it off for now."
I give him a quick kiss, feeling a bit guilty about getting cold feet, but also a bit relieved.
"Can I stay here tonight?"
"I'd really like that. We can still c-cuddle, if you like."
"That sounds good."
I get off the bed, take off my clothes and then lie down and pull the covers up to my chin. Hisao follows my example, settles down next to me, grabs me in a tight hug and whispers in my ear.
"I really missed this."
We spend some time snuggling up against each other while exchanging sweet kisses. We keep this up for some time until Hisao takes my face in both his hands and presses a quick peck on the tip of my nose.
"You know, I'm the one who has to take it easy, but I can still tend to you, Hanako."
He starts fondling my breasts and runs one finger up and down the front of my panties once.
Part of me would probably like that, but another part feels guilty about the idea of me having a good time without Hisao. Ever since the first time we started our physical love life, we've done it on a strict give-and-take basis and even when we started having actual intercourse, we always tried to make certain that neither of us was missing out in any way. Hisao seems to guess what I'm thinking.
"Let's face facts, Hanako. You've had a trying day. Heck, you've had a trying week and tomorrow will be another day that'll probably push you way beyond your comfort zone. Why not let me help you unwind a bit - get everything out of your system? I'd say you've earned it. Forget about the equal exchange thing for once."
"Ummm… I-I think I'll b-be fine with c-cuddling."
I take some time to figure out how to reply.
"I… want m-my first experience s-since we got back together to be a little bit special."
"Taking our t-time, s-sharing the experience, building things up gently and slowly…"
"Like that night in the hotel?"
"Yes, like that."
"You want it to be a bit romantic?"
Something like that. I like romance. At least, I think I do. But since silences between us are still awkward, our dates have centered around doing things that don't leave many silences such as watching a movie or playing video games. Fun, but not the most romantic way to spend time together. I'd argue that the most romantic moments we've shared are when we're together like this and we can communicate our affection for the other through cuddling, kisses and other non-verbal means.
I snuggle up to him and give him one last kiss.
"Good night, Hisao."
"Good night, Hanako. Sleep well. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:47 am
"Hisao, did you remember to bring a written statement from the nurse along regarding your medication?"
"It's kinda late to bring that up, isn't it Lilly? If I hadn't, it'd be too late to get one seeing that we're already past the security gate. Anyway, I did remember to pick one up yesterday and the lady at the baggage check-in said she'd make sure everything would be fine."
"That's a relief. Three weeks worth of medication must be quite a quantity."
"Seriously. Good thing Yamaku has its own apothecary."
This morning, our final preparations went off without a hitch, and neither our bus to the train station nor our train to the airport had any delays. We made sure to arrive at the airport three and a half hours before the departure of our flight, since getting around the airport wasn't going to be a quick process. Baggage check-in went well. That was pretty much where things went south though.
"Do you know what time it is, Hisao?"
Getting around the place proved to be a slow process and our odd formation must have turned several heads. Lilly had to be guided, of course, and I was placed in the role of navigator. With Lilly's hand on one arm and her carry-on luggage in the other, I've been leading our little group through the halls of the airport. Clinging to Lilly's other arm was Hanako, head down and hat lowered to obscure her face as much as possible, doing her best to block out the crowd all around us. The crowd didn't even turn out to be her biggest concern this day.
"We still have about 45 minutes until our plane departs, Lilly."
Having made it through airport security, we're now sitting in the corner of a small coffee shop near the gate, enjoying a drink and a light meal. The small talk between Lilly and myself is partially to kill time and partially to try and ease Hanako's tense mood. That Hanako would have a tough time navigating the airport was something to be expected - the terminal halls are quite a bit more crowded than the average street in the city, especially during this time of year.
"I wonder if we should already head for our gate."
During our trek through the main hall, we were suddenly approached by one of the security officials walking around the place who seemed drawn to Hanako in particular. A very uncomfortable pause took place when he walked up to us and then suddenly backed away for a moment upon noticing Hanako's facial scarring, though Lilly was quick to take control of the situation. When asked by Lilly if there was a problem, the guard explained to us that part of his job was to look out for people who were showing signs of unusually nervous behavior, and Hanako's body language caught his attention. We got a profuse apology afterwards, but the damage had already been done, and whenever I cast a sidelong glance at Hanako, I could see her eyes darting left and right as if watching out for other security officers who might see a potential smuggler or someone with some other form of guilty conscience in her.
"Isn't that way too early?"
Neither Lilly nor I bothered suggesting to Hanako to try and act more casually. She'd be as likely to do that as she'd be to don a bikini in the middle of the terminal. Both of us are aware she's emotionally in a bad place right now, but we also realize that openly worrying about her will only make her feel worse. We've come this far. The only way out is through and we're counting on the assumption that if we can get Hanako to her plane seat without her suffering a breakdown, she'll have plenty of opportunity to catch her bearings during the flight itself.
"International flights often start the boarding process about 20 minutes prior to departure. I'd like to be one of the first in the boarding area. Last time Akira and I got on a plane, we were among the very first people allowed to board. It's a courtesy policy of our airline towards disabled passengers. I see no reason not to take advantage of it. I would…"
Lilly hesitates for a moment.
"I would also like to get past the security gate before a big line forms there."
This immediately manages to catch, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hanako's attention. She's been quiet the whole time we've been sitting here, but now she looks at Lilly with a look of dread on her face.
"But Lilly, d-didn't w-we already p-pass security?"
"I'm sorry, Hanako. But there will be another security check just before we enter the jet bridge."
Hanako sighs loudly.
When we accepted Lilly's offer to join her on her trip, we were asked if either of us had ever been abroad before. When this didn't turn out to be the case, Akira was quick to point out we'd need to get ourselves a passport in order to accompany her sister. The process of getting a passport in itself wasn't that big of a problem. The whole thing had to be finished on a very short notice, but thankfully getting a passport doesn't take too long a time in this country and Akira gave us plenty of pointers on how to complete the application process as quickly as possible. Hanako, Lilly and I skipped school the day afterwards in an attempt to get all the necessary steps on our part done before the end of the day. Everything went pretty well until it was time to submit the forms and the photos. There was a photo booth nearby, so getting mug shots wasn't a big deal, but we found out that there were some pretty strict guidelines regarding the pictures.
When Hanako realized that she was expected to have a picture taken that showed a full frontal, unobscured closeup of her face, we could tell that she was seriously considering backing out of the whole trip. With a lot of effort, Lilly and I managed to convince her to grit her teeth and go through with the whole thing, though it still took over 10 tries before we managed to take a picture where Hanako was able to force herself into keeping a relatively neutral expression on her face. The expression on her face when she submitted her passport photos to the clerk behind the counter was beyond troubled.
The whole experience made me realize that for Hanako, willingly showing her face to someone was something she considered extremely intimate and she later confided in me that the whole thing very much felt to her like having a nude photo stuck on her passport. Needless to say, the prospect of having to show her passport to yet one more security guard and getting the almost guaranteed shocked look in return is something that makes her more than a little bit anxious. I get up.
"Best thing we can probably do is get it over with quickly."
Hanako nods quietly though it's apparent she's not exactly eager about it. As Lilly also rises to her feet, she puts her hand on Hanako's shoulder.
"Hanako, I realize today has been difficult and confrontational for you, but I'm still really happy that you decided to come along."
For a moment, Hanako allows herself to smile softly.
"T-Thank you, Lilly."
"Your seats are on the left all the way in the back. May I help you with the luggage?"
Lilly smiles sweetly at the flight attendant welcoming us aboard.
"Thank you, but my friends and I will manage."
As Lilly predicted, the airline allowed us to board the plane before anyone else in economy class and we were all relieved we had the opportunity to get to our seats before the plane started filling with people. It looks like Akira put some thought into picking our seats. A place in the back meant there'd be fewer people around us and Hanako's scarred side would be facing the wall of the cabin.
We walk down the aisle with me in the lead, Lilly behind me with one hand on my shoulder and Hanako following very close behind us. As we get to our seats, three chairs next to each other in one corner in the back of the plane, I turn around.
Lilly smiles, but shows no sign of getting ready to sit down.
"Akira told me once that one's first plane flight is a very special moment, particularly the first takeoff when you see the land below slowly get smaller. I think a place near the window would be wasted on me. I believe the window seat should go to the only person who hasn't flown before. I certainly think she has deserved it."
That's a good point. Not to mention the fact that having both me and Lilly as a buffer between herself and the rest of the people on the plane will probably allow Hanako to relax a little more. I open the storage compartment above the seats and take Hanako's backpack from her.
"That's you, Hanako. Go ahead and take the seat in the back. I'll put your and Lilly's luggage away."
Hanako nods and quickly moves to her assigned seat while I put everyone's bag in the storage bin.
"So I guess the second seat will be mine?"
"Yes. You might still have the opportunity to enjoy the view a bit, assuming Hanako doesn't end up hogging all of it for herself. And better still, you'll get to spend the upcoming 12 hours with one lovely lady on each side. I'm sure many men would envy you."
"How can I say no to such a tempting offer?"
I take my seat next to Hanako as Lilly folds up her cane, puts it in her bag and sits down in the seat to my left. I take a look at my girlfriend. As expected, just before we could board the plane, she received another proverbial gut punch in the form of another security gate we had to pass. I can tell the whole thing has taken its toll on her as she's looking gloomy, exhausted and physically ill. I don't like the fact that we'll have to repeat this hassle again when we arrive in London, but I'm thankful that that moment is still about half a day away. Hopefully Hanako will be able to rest a bit during the flight and be less tense when we arrive at London Heathrow.
"Can I have a book?"
This week, Hanako and I paid a visit to the library and made sure to borrow a few books that neither of us has read before, so we could swap them after we're finished with them. Seeing that we'll be spending several weeks in a foreign country, getting new books in Japanese will be all but impossible.
Hanako picks up her handbag and hands me one of our books. I expect her to get one for herself as well, but instead, she takes out a neat-looking photo camera.
"Hey, that's a nice camera."
Lilly turns her head in our direction.
"I didn't know you owned one, Hanako. We should remember to register it at customs so you don't have to pay duty on it."
"It's… not really mine. It belongs to the n-newspaper club. Naomi let me borrow it."
"Really? That's really nice of her. Do you get along well with her, Hanako?"
Hanako seems to think a bit on that.
"She… often comes up to talk to me these days, although she… does that with all members of the c-club. Most of the time, she just talks… and I just try to k-keep up with her. But I don't exactly hate spending time with her. I think she means well."
Until Hanako joined the newspaper club, I never really interacted with Naomi even though we're both in the same class. I wouldn't exactly call them a natural combination, seeing how talkative and forward Naomi often is and how quiet and reserved Hanako usually is. On the other hand, the fact that moments with Naomi hardly contain any silences probably does a lot to hide Hanako's social handicap, and shared interests can go a long way in bridging gaps between people.
"Well, let's give her gift meaning by making sure to take lots of photos to remember this trip by. Perhaps we could start right now."
"Could I have your camera for a moment?"
With a puzzled expression on her face, Hanako hands over the camera. I take it from her, get up and beckon a stewardess who's walking down our aisle.
"Excuse me. Would you mind taking a picture of the three of us?"
"Of course not."
As the stewardess readies the camera, I quickly wrap one arm around Hanako's waist, pulling her a little closer, and put my other hand on Lilly's shoulder. I give the stewardess a affirmative nod.
The stewardess presses the button, we hear a sharp click, and then she hands the camera back to me. I thank her and return the camera to Hanako.
"Let's take a look."
Hanako presses a button on the side, and I can see a picture of the three of us on the display. It's not perfect… Neither Lilly nor Hanako are completely facing the camera. Lilly was probably still in the process of determining the exact location of the camera, and Hanako was trying to look into the camera while at the same time trying to keep her scars out of view. Still, aside from those small snags, it's a nice picture and probably the first one ever taken that features all three of us.
"I like it. The first picture of the three of us."
"The first of many, I hope."
I open my book and start reading, trying to ignore the steady flow of fellow-travelers filling up the plane. I shoot a sideway glance at Hanako, but she's too occupied with examining the various options on the camera's display screen to pay much attention to the ever-growing crowd. That's probably a good thing. As I turn to page 12 and the flow of people starts slowly drying up, Hanako turns to Lilly.
"They have these… special clothes in Scotland, don't they? Like skirts?"
"Not many Scottish would appreciate you referring to them as skirts. They're called kilts over there."
"Do a lot of p-people wear them over there?"
Lilly shakes her head.
"Think of them as traditional garments, like kimonos, that are worn during special events but are uncommon in everyday life."
I scratch my head.
"Why the sudden interest in traditional local garments? Are you planning on getting one yourself?"
Hanako shyly shakes her head.
"Naomi wanted me to t-take a picture of a Scotsman. She m-meant a person in traditional clothes, I think."
Lilly thinks for a moment.
"The ideal occasion to get pictures would have been the Inverness Highland Games - a traditional sports event held once a year. But unfortunately, that event has been held in July already. I'm positive, however, that there are several tourist attractions in the area where you should be able to get a few shots of Scots in traditional garb. They are part of Scotland's national image after all, and we're in the middle of the tourist season."
I turn to Hanako.
"It's a small price for the opportunity to get a free camera, but it's still an odd request."
"She asked f-for a picture of the Loch Ness monster first, b-but then said a picture of a true Scotsman was fine too. She's a l-little strange sometimes."
"A true Scotsman? Oh my!"
Lilly raises her hand and covers her mouth, but it's not enough to hide a giggle and the broad grin on her face. I must have missed something, but Lilly seems to find Hanako's last remark extremely funny. Looking at Hanako, I can tell she's as confused by Lilly's reaction as I am.
"I'm afraid I don't quite follow. Care to enlighten us on what's so amusing?"
Lilly giggles once more, then scrapes her throat and composes herself.
"By tradition, kilts are worn without any underwear underneath. Asking a Scotsman whether he's a true Scotsman or not is the same as asking him if he's naked underneath his kilt."
Upon hearing Lilly's explanation, Hanako lets out a shocked gasp before turning bright red. Looks like Lilly just helped us dodge a bullet here.
"Thanks for saving us a really awkward situation. Hanako, do you think Naomi was serious or do you think she was playing with you?"
"It's d-difficult to t-tell with her sometimes. I t-think she was serious."
"Eh, we'll just take a picture of a Scotsman and tell Naomi it's a true one. Let her prove otherwise."
Before we can continue the discussion, the announcement system above our heads springs to life and we hear a chime followed by a male voice.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to flight OCN007 to London. Thank you for flying with Oceanic Airlines. In a few minutes, we'll receive permission from the control tower to access the runway. In the meantime, please make certain that your seat is in the upright position, and keep your seat belt fastened for as long as the sign above your seat is lit. We're about to show you a short video with safety instructions detailing how to act in an emergency situation."
The displays on the back of the seats in front of us suddenly turn on, and a flight attendant is seen going through the safety regulations like the smoking prohibition and the request to turn off cell phones.
"...please take note of the nearest emergency exit indicated by the signs that are currently lit up. In case of limited visibility, follow the trail of emergency lights on the floor..."
Judging from the seat chart the nearest emergency exit is right behind us although I seriously wonder if I'd be in a condition to even make it there in case of an emergency landing.
"...in the case of the loss of cabin pressure, compartments above your head will open automatically to reveal oxygen masks. Always make sure to put on your own breathing masks before helping others with theirs..."
I wonder if I'm the only one who's a bit put off by how annoyingly cheerful the attendant in the video seems to be while describing a grave emergency situation.
"That d-doesn't h-happen often, d-does it?"
I'm surprised by Hanako unexpectedly chipping in and even grow a little concerned when I notice she's become pale and visibly shivering a bit.
"Hey, are you alright?"
Hanako nods weakly, but looks more than a little bit uncomfortable. While I'm still trying to figure out why Hanako, who hasn't shown any indications of flight anxiety before, is suddenly getting jittery, Lilly calmly answers her question.
"I wouldn't worry, Hanako. These worst-case scenarios are very rare, and air travel on the whole is a lot safer than travelling by car."
Hanako seems to relax a bit. The information video ends, and a few minutes later I can hear the plane's engines starting, and we slowly start moving. We keep moving for about a minute and then suddenly stop again, causing Hanako to give us a puzzled look. Lilly seems to guess her thoughts.
"This is perfectly normal. We'll probably start moving again soon."
Sure enough, after a short while we start moving again, and the plane makes a slow turn. As we stop momentarily, Lilly smiles.
"Here we go. You might experience some light ear pain during the takeoff or landing due to the changing pressure in the cabin. What I did last time was try to yawn a few times or chew some chewing gum. I have some in my handbag if you want it."
Just as she finishes, the engines start roaring louder, and we're pressed into our seats as the plane starts accelerating. Faster and faster we go, and then I get a strange feeling in my stomach as our plane leaves the ground. I put my hands on Hanako's shoulders and softly move her aside just a little bit so I can look past her out the window as well. I move my right hand up to her face and use my index finger to gently brush her bangs aside so she can absorb the view with both eyes. And an amazing view it is, just like Lilly said. Tall buildings are turning small like playthings. The countryside turns into big green blanket. And then, just before the pilot informs us we've reached cruising altitude, Hanako and I are faced with a vast ocean of clouds as far as the eye can see. As we sit here, my arm around Hanako and her cheek pressed against mine, I occasionally look at the expression on her face which has turned from silent awe to a beautiful excited smile. Over the course of this day, I've had my doubts from time to time whether this whole trip was a good idea, but that doubt is completely gone now. This experience, this moment we're sharing together, was totally worth it.
Chapter 21 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:47 am
"What is it, Hisao?"
"I didn't wake you up, did I?"
"You didn't. I wasn't even sleeping. I already found out last time that I'm unable to sleep on airplanes."
"I guess that makes two of us. It seems like only Hanako will be getting any sleep for the rest of the day."
"So she's asleep right now? I already suspected as much by the sound of her breathing."
"She is. And what's more, she's currently using my shoulder as a pillow."
"It's not uncomfortable for you, is it?"
"No, far from it. However, I need to take a restroom break and take my medication, but I don't want to wake her up."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I've moved the armrests up. I'd like you to trade places with me for a little while if you don't mind."
"I don't mind. Do you simply want me to move to my right?"
"Just a second... Now."
I gently nudge Hanako upright a bit, then quickly get up as Lilly moves onto my seat before Hanako can slump back. I move away, and Lilly stays still for several seconds without even breathing. Eventually Hanako mumbles something in her sleep before settling down on Lilly's shoulder.
"Looks like we got away with it. I'll be back soon."
"Please don't rush yourself on my account."
I shake my legs, which have started tingling from the long bout of inactivity, back to life and wobble unsteadily towards the lavatory in the back. Opening the door, I'm taken aback for a moment at how cramped the thing is, but then take a deep breath and step inside. I'm pretty glad I'm not a claustrophobe right now. First taking the time to empty my bladder, I then open my backpack and get the usual dosage of pills out. A few hours earlier we had a modest meal (it was okay, though not exactly up to the standards of Lilly's cooking or Hanako's more succesful school lunches), and I made sure to order an additional flask of bottled mineral water for this occasion.
I use the water to flush the pills down my throat and yawn a bit. It should probably be night already, but if you look through the windows it's still broad daylight. Since we're flying west, we're essentially keeping up with the sun, making this possibly the longest day of my life. When we get to London, it'll be late in the afternoon. I hope I'm not going to experience jet lag while we're in Scotland.
When I get back to our seats, I see that Lilly made herself a bit more comfortable. She has her right arm wrapped around Hanako and holds Hanako's hand in her left hand. They look very cute together. I reach for Hanako's handbag near her feet, take out the camera and snap a quick picture. As Lilly recognizes the click from the camera she pouts with mock indignation.
"You should ask before taking pictures, Hisao. I probably looked a bit silly in this one."
"Nonsense, some of the best pictures are the ones taken spontanously. Ready to switch places again?"
Lilly considers for a moment.
"Actually, would you mind if I stayed like this a little longer?"
"Not at all."
I take a seat and look at the girls again. Lilly has a peaceful smile on her face. I don't think her request was merely about not wanting to risk waking up Hanako.
"There are blankets in the pockets of the seats in front of us. Would you…?"
I take the folded blankets and remove the plastic wrapping around them. I softly wrap one of them around Hanako's sleeping form and pass the second one to Lilly, who merely folds it out and covers her lap with it. I sit down in Lilly's original seat and get my own blanket. I doubt I'll get any sleep, but I try to relax nevertheless.
"Hisao, how long is it until we reach our destination?"
I take a look at one of the monitors hanging from the ceiling. The screen shows various bits of information, like the temperature outside, the altitude of the plane and the estimated time of arrival.
"Four and a half more hours. I hope Hanako will have recovered her energy a bit by the time we land."
"I'm relieved she was able to relax. She seemed anxious when we were about to take off. I was afraid she'd turn out to have a fear of flying."
"I've been thinking that over and… I don't think it was the flight itself that got her nervous. In fact, she seemed to love the view. It's the first time I've really seen her smile today. It was probably…"
"Ever since my first heart attack, I've hated hospitals. I dislike the sterile appearance and the overly clean smell. And I've really come to dislike heart monitors as well as anything that sounds like them. It's those beeps that really grate on me. Probably stir up some unpleasant memories. The same is true for Hanako, I think. She's been through a long stay in the hospital herself ten years ago. I was thinking that maybe…"
Lilly seems to get where I'm going.
"The oxygen masks?"
"Today was certainly confrontational for her."
"Yeah and yesterday wasn't really all that much better, with her being forced to sit through a lecture about burn injuries and her trainer scaring the living daylights out of her by faking a heart attack. I really can't wait for this day to end."
"Hisao, do you know if Hanako has gone on any trips before she came to Yamaku?"
"I asked her that myself a few days ago. You probably know the answer already. She hasn't been on vacation since she lost her family. The orphanage occasionally organized day trips for the children there, but Hanako skipped most of those. The closest thing she's had to a vacation in a decade was that trip to Hokkaido."
Lilly softly squeezes Hanako's hand and strokes her long, dark hair.
"Hisao… Let's both do our best to make this vacation the most memorable and wonderful experience of her life."
I take another look at Lilly and Hanako. Many of the people I know at school hang out in pairs. I know Emi often hangs out with her friend Rin, Naomi from the newspaper club is often seen together with Natsume, her neighbor in class, and I've hardly ever seen Shizune and Misha apart from one another. But none of them seem to have that intimate emotional connection that Lilly and Hanako seem to share, especially now that they've settled their differences.
"You really love Hanako, don't you?"
She gives a deep nod, smiling warmly.
"I feel very fortunate to have her as my best friend."
"I think she's very lucky to have you too. I don't think she could have wished for a better friend."
Lilly gives a self-deprecating sigh.
"I think I merely provided her with company and comfort. It was you who first broke through the barrier she erected around herself and convinced her to start opening up to others, including me. And it's been the people at the newspaper club who made her start thinking about what to do after graduation. In the end, I wasn't really able to help her grow as others have."
Something about what Lilly just said has a very familiar ring. I attempt to hold back a chuckle, but it's still loud enough for Lilly to catch it.
"Did I say something amusing?"
"You're starting to sound a little bit like Hanako."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The whole thing of 'How useful am I to my friends?' and 'Do my friends get as much out of me as I get out of them?' is how Hanako used to think all the time. Probably it's how she still thinks now and then. But I don't think it matters. Maybe it's true that I helped Hanako grow more than you did, and maybe it isn't. Maybe it's true that the newspaper club helped Hanako grow more than you did, and maybe it isn't. But I think that's completely irrelevant. I'd like to think that Hanako goes to the newspaper club because she enjoys the activities. I'd like to think that the reason she hangs out with me is because she cares about me and feels appreciated and validated by me. That's probably also why she spends time with you. Everything else is just a bonus. I don't think it matters to her. It probably shouldn't matter to us either."
Lilly breaks out into an amused smile.
"You sound so wise, Hisao."
I get the feeling she's poking fun at me, but she still sounds appreciative of my words.
"What I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't sell yourself short. You're the first real friend Hanako's ever made in her life. That's got to count for something."
"The first real friend…"
Lilly seems lost in thought for a moment, then shakes her head as if dismissing some unspoken thought.
"I suppose I'd better do my best to prove myself worthy of that honor."
"Just being yourself should be more than enough to pull that off."
Lilly smiles, but there's a sad quality to her expression.
"I'm not completely sure about that. The dilemma I faced concerning my parents' summoning weighed quite heavily on me, and the fact that Akira was involved in the whole situation as well meant that I couldn't go to her for objective advice. By facing that decision all on my own and by opting to keep everyone else out of it, I could argue that I was very much being myself. And it didn't bode particularly well for me."
"I think that trying to address your own problems yourself is only human. We all like to be as independent as possible."
There's also the possibility that, given the way she acts, Lilly was probably raised and educated to behave as traditionally as possible and was taught that burdening others with one's problems is one of the biggest sins one can commit.
"True, but if it had been Hanako who had been in my predicament, I would have encouraged her to let others share the burden. I suppose... I don't always practice what I preach. If I had confided in Hanako sooner, I probably could have saved her a breakdown. And you a heart attack."
"You're forgiven. This time."
Lilly chuckles and then carefully caresses Hanako's hair once more.
"I'd like to return the trust that Hanako has placed in me, Hisao. The next time she extends me a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on, I'll make sure not to turn it down."
I smile at Lilly and softly take her hand which is still holding Hanako's.
"I'm sure she'd be very happy to hear that, Lilly."
"Hey Hanako, I think this one is ours. Can you take a look at the other side of the carousel? I'm aching to get out of here."
Hanako walks over to the far side of the conveyor belt that has long strings of suitcases going in an endless circle, and we start looking for our baggage. When our plane landed here at Inverness Airport, we made sure to wait until all the other people on the plane got out. When we reached the baggage claim, I expected our suitcases to be the only ones left, but it seemed another flight had already finished unloading as well, and now we're rummaging through a large pile of bags and suitcases in search of our own.
Lilly's suitcase is easy to recognize, containing both a sticker with the Japanese and a sticker with the Scottish flag on it, no doubt put there by Akira during their previous journey here. Hanako's suitcase, however, is as average as they come, and the only way it stands out is that it appears less used than most suitcases on the conveyor.
As I rummage through the contents of the baggage carousel, I let out a loud yawn. It's nearly seven o' clock in the evening right now meaning it'd be about six o' clock in the morning in Japan. All three of us are about ready to faint from exhaustion. Neither Lilly nor I have slept for the last 22 hours or so, and while Hanako did get some sleep in during our flight to London, the sheer amount of stress she's had to deal with, both before and after our international flight, has pretty much negated the advantage she had. London Heathrow was even bigger and busier than the airport we departed from, and both the crowdedness and the process of having to go through customs and security took a harsh toll on her.
From the corner of my eye, I can see Hanako throw me a quick wave. As I look at her, I can see her dragging my suitcase off the conveyor belt. I get over to her side and notice there are two other suitcases at her feet. Either she got lucky or she's still sharper than I am right now.
"You just take your suitcase, and I'll carry mine and Lilly's."
"Are you g-going to be okay?"
"I'll be fine. You just guide Lilly for me."
We head back to Lilly who's sitting on the floor leaning against one of the walls and talking into her cell phone. As we reach her, I clear my throat to get her attention.
"We retrieved all our luggage, Lilly."
Sporting a weary smile, Lilly closes her cell phone and gets up.
"Very good, Hisao. Akira says she's almost at the airport. I asked her to wait for us at the parking space in front of the terminal."
"I can't wait to get out of here. Is there anything we need to do before we leave, Lilly?"
"No, Hisao. We've already dealt with customs in London, so all we need to do now is leave the secure zone and get through the main hall of the terminal building."
I take a quick look around and see a sign on the wall indicating the direction of the exit. I point it out to Hanako, and she takes Lilly's hand and puts it on her shoulder for guidance.
"Then let's get going. The sooner we get out of here, the better."
Lilly smiles wearily and nods.
"Yes, let's go."
As we leave the baggage claim area through some automatic one-way doors, Hanako presses her hat down in preparation of another slow slog through the crowd. It looks like I'm not the only one who can't wait for this long day to end. Thankfully, Inverness airport isn't nearly as large as London's is, so it only takes us a few minutes to get to the main entrance.
We leave the building, and Hanako and I start looking around for Lilly's sister.
"Do you see her anywhere?"
Despite her weariness, I can tell by the tone of Lilly's voice she's extremely eager to meet up with her older sister again, despite the fact it's been less than two weeks since she left Japan.
"I don't see her. Hanako?"
"Maybe she got h-held up in traffic."
Lilly takes out her cell phone again and presses the recall button.
"Akira? We're at the main entrance right now. Did you already make it here?"
"You did? Hisao and Hanako haven't seen you."
"What? You can see us?"
Hanako and I immediately start looking around, and, sure enough, less than 50 meters away from where we're standing we can see a person with blond hair holding a cell phone to her ear with one hand and waving enthusiastically in our direction with the other.
"Nevermind, we spotted her. I guess neither of us thought of the possibility she'd be wearing plain clothes today."
Lilly puts away her phone, and we hurry over to our welcoming committee. Hanako and I politely wait while Lilly steps forward and gives Akira a long and loving hug. Chuckling, Akira breaks off her sister's embrace.
"Damn, you missed me that much? It hasn't even been two weeks."
I have the impression Akira's merely playing cool. She looks quite happy to see her sister again as well.
"I must admit it felt strange knowing that you were all the way on the other end of the world and I couldn't meet up with you whenever I wanted to anymore."
Turning to us, Akira gives me a friendly nod while playfully ruffling Hanako's hair - a slightly odd gesture that nevertheless makes Hanako smile.
"Yo. Guess you were looking for someone in a business suit, huh?"
We both look Akira over. She does look different from the way she usually does. Instead of her striped black suit, she's wearing jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. She also has a pair of sunglasses on her head.
"You look… c-cool, Akira."
I smirk at our welcoming committee.
"No fair coming here in disguise."
Akira laughs heartily at my comment as she opens the trunk of her car and takes Lilly's suitcase from my hands.
"Unlike some people in this family, I can still occasionally get away from my job. And today's weather was too nice for the suit."
She finishes putting Lilly's suitcase away and reaches for Hanako's. Lilly looks disappointed.
"So they really couldn't make it? Even though it's Saturday today?"
"A foreign business delegation came over two days ago, and Dad wants to impress them, so he's showing them the sights this weekend. He and Mom are essentially playing tour guide right now."
"Couldn't he have delegated it to someone else?"
"It's Dad we're talking about, remember? He really, really likes to keep on top of his business. Though I wonder if those people would still have been so impressed if they had known he put off an opportunity to greet his daughter who's been living on the other side of the world."
I put my own suitcase in the trunk, and Akira slams the lid shut slightly louder than necessary.
"Are you guys hungry? I'll treat you."
"I'm not. We've already had dinner on the plane and had another meal at the London airport. Hanako?"
"I think all three of us are merely very tired right now."
"Fair enough. I'll treat you guys tomorrow then. A good night of sleep will do you a world of good."
Hanako and I get in the back while Lilly gets into the passenger's seat next to Akira.
"Our folks' home lies slightly to the northeast of Inverness. We keep following the shoreline, and we'll reach it in no time. All buckled up?"
Our last ride during that outing to a jazz club in the city near Yamaku showed us Akira's not particularly concerned with the speed limits, so we make sure to strap ourselves in firmly.
"Good. Let's go, guys!"
As we leave the airport behind us, I breathe a sigh of relief. Looks like the hard part of our vacation is over. Now the fun part can begin.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:48 am
As I open my eyes and gaze at a completely unfamiliar ceiling, I'm unaware where I am for a few moments. The room I've woken up in reminds me more of a hotel room, with its large bed, a small table with two chairs near one corner and a doorway leading to a niche with a sink and a small shower stall inside, than an ordinary bedroom.
The curtains in front of the window facing the bed are still closed, but judging from the amount of light they're letting through, it's definitely not morning anymore. The dim light and the pleasant temperature give the room a cozy feeling.
For as long as I've known her, Lilly has always carried herself with a certain air of nobility, and when she shelled out a whopping 20,000 yen for Hanako's birthday present without a moment of hesitation, it merely confirmed my suspicions that Lilly came from a family that could be categorized as upper class. The fact that her family owned a summer home and didn't seem to mind paying for two intercontinental flight tickets changed my expectations from 'not strapped for cash' to 'rich'. Still, when Akira dropped us off at the Satou family's residence, I was taken aback by the size of the building. I think the word mansion would not be an exaggeration.
The long journey here had left the three of us so extremely exhausted that after Akira bid us farewell, we pretty much went to bed immediately without waiting for Lilly's parents to come home.
I look at the chairs in the corner again. My own clothes are folded over one of them. The other holds Hanako's clothes. I softly turn my head to the right, and I can see my girlfriend lying next to me. She's currently lying on her stomach and seems occupied scribbling words onto a small blocknote in front of her. Since she's not wearing her hair clip, and a lock of hair is obscuring the right side of her face, it appears she hasn't noticed me waking up yet. With the covers on her side of the bed pulled back and with nothing on except her panties and a T-shirt, Hanako is a pleasant sight to wake up to. Taking care not to alert her, I sneak a hand over to the left side of her lower back and playfully tickle the exposed skin there. Hanako responds with a cry of surprise, turns around and quickly pulls the covers up to her chest. She then looks at me and does her best to pout at me which looks more cute than intimidating, and when I smile in amusement, she can't help smiling back.
"H-Hey. You're finally awake."
The Hanako lying next to me right now seems completely different from the way she was yesterday. While we were in the process of navigating the airports, Hanako seemed continuously in what I came to call 'survival mode'. Hat pressed down, eyes trained on the floor, gaze jumping back and forth as if scanning the ground for landmines and completely focussed on fighting off her anxieties that were trying to get a hold of her flight reflex. Right now though, she seems at ease, relaxed and there's a small twinkle in her eye as if she's eager to drag me out of bed and start experiencing our vacation for real.
"Finally? What time is it?"
This gets me a sheepish look.
"It's nearly five o' clock in the afternoon."
"Five o' clock in the afternoon already? Ugh, my sleeping patterns must have been more messed up than I thought."
I grin at Hanako embarrasedly.
"I hope you didn't think I died in my sleep or something."
"I... did... check your vital signs a f-few times... just to be s-sure."
"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Sleeping for nearly 24 hours straight isn't really n-normal."
"I didn't exactly sleep 24 hours. It was more like 8 hours, followed by 10 more. I've been awake for most of the night."
Hanako's expression shows a hint of worry upon hearing this.
"Did j-jetlag hit you that hard?"
"It's probably more than just jetlag in my case. I've been busy switching back to my regular medication over the last few days and due to the trip and the time differences I wasn't able to take my meds according to the usual schedule yesterday. My chemical balance was probably as stable as a chair with a missing leg."
"How about now?"
"I took my meds before going back to sleep. I'll take my next batch after dinner. I'll be okay."
"Did you just sit here all the time while you were awake?"
"At first I did, but then I decided to take a restroom break, and on my way back I ran into Lilly who heard me flush the toilet. Turns out she couldn't sleep either, so she ended up giving me a tour of the house. Seeing that we went to bed almost immediately after getting here, I appreciated the chance to sightsee. Afterwards we spent time hanging out in the living room until we got sleepy again. Which was probably around half past 6 or so."
Hanako looks dejected at this.
"I wish you'd have woken me up. I wanted to hang out too."
"You were looking so cute in your sleep, I couldn't bring myself to wake you. Besides, we both agreed that you're the one with the healthiest sleeping pattern right now."
Hanako considers this for a moment, then nods.
"So ummm... What's the house like? I would have liked a tour myself."
"It's pretty large. Large enough to cause Lilly to have the occasional bit of trouble navigating it. Seems like there are three bedrooms aside from the master bedroom including this one. Lilly slept here during her last trip, but since no other guest room has a king-sized bed, they decided to let us have this one. The living room is really nice. Big fireplace, soft couches. The kitchen is pretty large too. Two fridges, a kitchen island with several stoves and according to Lilly they have a cellar with a wine rack too."
"It seems... very... large for just two people."
"According to Lilly they employ two servants as well as a housekeeper who does the cooking most of the time."
"Did you know Lilly's family was this wealthy?"
Hanako thinks for a bit and then nods.
"Lilly's not very comfortable with it. I got a general idea from some of Akira's stories."
"You're gonna be surprised when you see the study and the bathroom."
"Most of the house is built in western style, but the study and bathroom are in traditional Japanese style. It's a very weird contrast, almost as if the house has a split personality. Lilly said her father still seems to have a strong emotional connection to his home culture."
"Have you m-met Lilly's parents already?"
"No, I haven't. Lilly said they briefly visited her room to welcome her when they came home last night, but when I woke up it was around midnight, and they already went to bed. I don't think they felt like waking us up just to say hello."
"I am a little bit curious about them."
Getting my point, Hanako smiles excitedly.
"A lot of other t-things too."
"I guess we'd better get out of bed then, huh?"
I reach out and playfully stroke the top of her head. As I do so, I notice her hair is slightly moist. Come to think of it, I recall she was wearing her nightgown when we went to sleep.
"You already took a shower?"
"You should t-take one too. It's nearly time for dinner already."
She gets out of bed, walks up to the dresser and takes a bath towel out of it. As I get my clothes off the nearby chair, take off my shirt and make my way to the shower stall, she hangs the towel over my shoulders.
"By the way, Hanako, how long have you been up?"
She doesn't respond but instead tugs both ends of the towel gently, drawing my face close to hers, and gives me a light peck on the lips. I suppose she's not gonna tell me, but judging from the position of the bookmark in the book on her nightstand, she's been awake a lot longer than I have been.
I take a quick shower, dry myself off, put my underwear back on and am about to put on the rest of my clothes when a thought suddenly hits me.
Most of my medication is still in my suitcase. If it stays in there, I might end up forgetting about it again just like what was nearly the case when we went to Hokkaido. It'd be really inconvenient if I ended up in the hospital here. I quickly head towards my suitcase in search of my pill collection.
"Hey Hanako, do you mind if I put my medication on the little shelf above the sink so I won't…"
"Ah. Good afternoon, Hisao."
My sentence is cut short when I emerge from the doorway, and I find not just Hanako but also Lilly standing there. Well, Lilly's actually still standing in the doorway. How the heck did I miss the sound of her knocking? As she observes me standing there in nothing but my boxers, Hanako's eyes grow wide and she puts her hand in front of her mouth in order to suppress a gasp.
Hanako's eyes dart back and forth between Lilly and me. I can tell she's trying to figure out what to say or do but she doesn't seem quite able to think of anything. Obviously Lilly can't see me, though I bet she'll deduce that something's off if both of us just keep standing there without saying a word. I swallow quietly and do my best to sound as casual as possible.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you knock. Did I interrupt you two?"
"Not at all. I merely came to tell you and Hanako that dinner will be served in half an hour. It's been a rather warm day today, and it will apparently remain pleasant for most of the evening, so you can probably afford to change into some light clothing if you haven't done so already."
"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind. Will we be eating in the dining room?"
"I've asked if we can have our meal on the patio behind the house. Apparently the view is quite lovely, and some fresh air will do us good after spending an entire day indoors."
"Works for me. Hanako?"
"S-Sure. I'm g-getting a bit hungry t-too."
Lilly smiles broadly.
"Very well. I will see you in thirty minutes then."
Giggling softly, Lilly turns around, feels her way over to the door and leaves the room. I quickly retrieve my pill bottles and start getting dressed. Hanako lets out a loud sigh.
"It kinda was. We got away with it though."
As Hanako and I make our way to the sliding doors leading outside, we can see someone in the distance standing by the table on the patio. Hanako leans in and whispers to me.
"That's not Lilly's m-mother, is it?"
"Dunno. I don't think so. She has brown hair…Lilly's mom is probably blonde, isn't she?"
"The maid then?"
"Most likely. I wonder if she speaks Japanese."
"I don't think she does."
We walk outside and the woman near the table, who upon closer inspection indeed seems to be wearing a servant's uniform, turns around and makes a deep and polite bow before addressing us.
"Hey, you speak Japanese! That's a relief. I'm not exactly a fluent English speaker."
My hopes are quickly dashed when she sheepishly shakes her head and starts talking to us in English.
"Whoa there! Hey Hanako, can you tell what she's saying?"
"Ummm… She's s-speaking rather quickly, but I think she's s-saying she only knows a few s-standard phrases in Japanese."
"That's a shame. Err… The English say 'How are you?' and 'Fine, thank you.' when they greet each other, don't they?"
"I d-don't think it's p-pronounced that way."
While the two of us are still figuring out how to communicate with the woman in front of us, she suddenly bows again and delivers another greeting, one in English this time. We look behind us and see Lilly standing there. As I listen to her replying to the woman, I notice she appears a little disappointed.
"Lilly! Good timing. What are you telling her?"
"I was telling her it was a shame she gave away my presence to you. I had been hoping to hear how far you'd get in your communication with her."
For a moment, I wonder if she's teasing us, but Lilly seems entirely sincere.
"Well, now that you're here anyway, would you mind doing the introductions?"
Lilly nods and starts talking to the servant woman. It's not easy to follow her, but we can clearly make out our own names among her words. The woman smiles and repeats our names.
"Hanako and Hisao."
We both smile a bit at hearing our names spoken in such a foreign accent.
"Hanako, Hisao… This lady is called Allison. She's my parents' housekeeper and coordinates the rest of the staff. She's also in charge of making whatever purchases the household needs and is often tasked with the meals as well. It is her cooking skill we'll be enjoying during our stay here. I have learned during my last trip here that she's a very good cook."
"H-How d-do you do, Allison?"
Allison smiles at our attempts to get her name right and from her subtle grin, I can tell we're mangling the pronunciation a bit.
"Her name can be tricky for Japanese to pronounce correctly, but you still did rather well."
With the formalities out of the way, the housekeeper motions us to sit at the table which has already been laid and, as Lilly prepares to take a seat, draws up a chair to assist her. Before walking back into the house, Allison turns to us and gives us a short explanation which makes little sense to me but results in an approving nod from Lilly.
"What is she saying?"
"We'll be having chicken soup to start with, followed by freshly made pork pie as the main course and pumpkin crumble for dessert. She hopes we'll enjoy it."
"It sounds good."
Hanako and I sit down, Hanako picking the seat that makes her right side face away from the house.
"The Scottish kitchen may take some getting used to if you've lived in Japan all your life. But if it's not to your tastes, don't hesitate to let Allison know."
"I hope it won't come to that. With the level my English skill is at, what's meant to be 'Could I have something else for my next meal?' could very well come out as 'Your nose reminds me of a pork sausage.' "
Lilly giggles at what she probably thinks is an exaggeration.
"Surely you're not that bad? This vacation offers you the opportunity to get in plenty of practice. And you did remember to bring along a dictionary, did you not?"
"I did, though I was kinda hoping that with you along, we weren't going to need it."
Lilly makes a face as if I just asked her to rejoin the student council.
"I don't mind playing interpretor every now and then, but I won't be around you 24/7. Unless you intend to stay in your bedroom all the time while I'm away, which would be a terrible waste of opportunity, you'll have to interact with others without any help on my part at some point or another."
"Huh? What do you mean away?"
"Initially, my parents were reluctant to pay for two additional tickets. They changed their minds when Akira pointed out that while I was spending time with them, one accompanying friend would just spend a lot of time alone. Two accompanying friends could keep each other company. I did come here to spend time with my mother and father, so during those times I won't always be able to hang out with you."
I kind of understand where Lilly's coming from, though with Hanako and me any kind of contact with the locals is still going to be tricky. English is pretty much my worst subject at school and conversations with people here will probably be difficult and drawn-out if I have to do the talking. Hanako's English, while definitely not on Lilly's level, is still a lot better than mine, but her lack of social skills and unease in dealing with people in general completely destroys the advantage she has over me in the language department. All in all, neither of us is really fit to interact with people around here.
Still, seeing how unique an opportunity we were given by being able to come here, I don't think even Hanako wants us to spend the entire vacation holed up in our room.
"So I suppose Hanako and I will have to find our way around. Any tips?"
"Being a city with an extensive tourist industry, Inverness is easy to navigate by coach. There's a bus stop not too far from here. I'll ask Allison to stop by the tourist information center tomorrow and get you two bus cards, some pamphlets and maps with the major tourist attractions and bus routes."
"That would probably be a good start."
"Are you two more interested in nature or culture? There's plenty of both in the area."
"I think I'd personally like a bit of both. I think the smartest thing is for Hanako and me to do the scenic parts by ourselves and save the cultural spots for when you're coming along so you can translate whatever the tour guides or videos have to say and we don't miss anything."
I look at Hanako who briefly nods to indicate her agreement.
"That sounds like a very good idea, Hisao. I'm sure we'll still get plenty of those opportunities."
At this moment, Allison returns with the first course of our meal. The soup tastes differently from the soup I usually buy from the cafeteria, but it's quite good nevertheless, and I think I can learn to really like this. As we eat, I take some time to look the girls over. Lilly's wearing a blouse with fairly short sleeves, sandals and a skirt that reaches down to her knees - a lot less conservative than her usual skirts which reach all the way to her ankles. Hanako's pants aren't unlike the ones she usually wears, but her blouse is slightly lighter. It still has long sleeves to cover the burns on her right arm, but the area around her neckline shows slightly more skin than her usual outfit does.
"Do the two of you have any plans for the evening?"
"I promised Hanako a tour of the mansion. She was really eager to see the rest of it for herself."
"Did you really sleep for nearly 24 hours, Hanako?"
"N-Not really. I woke up at ten o' clock. I just… wanted to finish m-my book first before going out."
Wow, that means she's been just lying next to me for nearly 7 hours. No wonder she was so eager for me to get up. I don't exactly buy the excuse about the book, and from the looks of it Lilly doesn't either. It's a whole lot more likely that Hanako decided not to leave our room because she was afraid of awkward encounters with the housekeeping staff or worse - with Lilly's parents. She probably dreaded the idea of making a poor first impression on them.
"I'll be honored to give you a small tour, Hanako. Any other plans?"
"No. Perhaps take a walk along the l-lake. We could see it from our bedroom window."
"Akira and I often went there during our last stay here. She often challenged me to swimming matches, though I'm afraid it was never much of a competition. It's not truly a lake by the way, despite Akira calling it that. Moray Firth is more like a cove or a bay. It's connected to the North Sea, though since it's almost completely surrounded by land you don't experience a lot of waves."
"I didn't even bring my swimming trunks, so I hope she's not thinking of challenging any of us."
"I don't think she will. She has her job here now, so after tonight we probably won't be interacting with her a lot, unfortunately."
"She called me about an hour ago and invited me to come and visit one of the local pubs with her tonight. I was hoping you'd be willing to come along as well."
"She's not wasting time in making good on her promise to take you out for a drink once you got here."
"It appears so. We'll be heading to downtown Inverness and see if we can find a place we like. I think she'd enjoy your company as well."
"That jazz club outing last time was pretty fun."
I look in Hanako's direction to see what she thinks. She seems to take a moment to consider the offer and then softly nods to indicate her agreement.
"Wonderful. Let's make tonight the first of many memorable experiences."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:48 am
"Let's get out here. The place should be around the corner."
Akira takes out her wallet, pays the cab driver and motions us to get out. She then takes Lilly's hand, puts it on her arm and carefully starts guiding her down the street. Hanako and I take a moment to look around. The airport and the green hills of the countryside could have been mistaken for being located somewhere in Japan, but that's definitely not the case with the town. Especially the older buildings we pass feel extremely foreign to us. They serve as an unavoidable reminder, aside from the cab driver's incomprehensible dialect, how far away from Japan we are.
I playfully take Hanako's hand and place it on my arm similar to what Akira just did. Hanako giggles, wraps her arm around mine, and we start following Akira's lead. After less than a minute, we reach the entrance of what seems to be a bar. Before we enter, Hanako turns around, pulls her photo camera from her bag and takes several pictures of the picturesque buildings lining the street.
“Want me to make some recommendations?"
As we enter, Akira cheerfully points to the bottle-filled shelves behind the bar. The place has a bit of an old-fashioned quality to it with most of the furniture made from unpainted wood and a stuffed head of a stag on the wall near the bar. The front of the room is fairly crowded, but there are several free stools near the bar itself. Near one wall is a small podium, and I think I can see something resembling a pool table in one corner on the far side of the room.
"They probably have soft drinks here, don't they?"
Lilly throws us a slightly mischievous smile as she folds up her cane and takes a seat on one of the bar stools.
"Would the two of you object to a glass of wine so we can perform a proper toast to Akira?"
I sit down one seat away from Lilly so Hanako can sit in between us and not worry about other patrons staring at her.
"Have you forgotten that the three of us are only 18, Lilly?"
Lilly chuckles, obviously having expected that answer.
"18 is old enough in this part of the world, Hisao. You can order whatever you like here."
"That's pretty convenient, though we'd still better moderate ourselves. I'd hate the idea of one of us getting sick in the cab on the way back."
"We won't be taking a cab, Hisao. We'll have a private transport to take us back to our parents' place. Even so, you make a good point. Let's not get carried away while we're here."
I throw a look at Hanako, probably the one among us with the lowest alcohol tolerance, to ask her opinion. She gives a brief nod to indicate it's okay, and I turn back to Akira.
"So I guess we'll have four glasses of wine. Would you mind ordering? I bet I'm incapable of even pronouncing half of the names on those bottles."
"Heh, would you believe lots of those brands are new to me too? Fortunately I've had a taste of several ones during our last time here. You won't be disappointed."
She beckons to the barkeeper and points to one of the bottles on the shelf behind him. After the barkeeper finishes handing us all a glass, Lilly takes hers, sniffs carefully to take in its scent and then raises it with an appreciative smile.
"I would like to perform a toast to my hard-working and wonderful sister, who has started working her way up the ranks here at head office. May her new job be met with great success and ample satisfaction. And may it be known that I admire and respect her very much."
We raise our glasses, perform a toast and each take a sip. The slightly sweet taste of the white wine Akira has gotten us is surprisingly similar to what we had during Hanako's birthday party. Akira seems to have a knack for picking tasty drinks. While Hanako, Lilly and I down our drinks in small, measured sips, Akira manages to empty her entire glass in a single gulp. Upon putting her glass back on the bar, she flashes Lilly a sheepish smile.
"Man, you may have a knack for speeches, Lils. Though I feel kinda compelled to point out that my current position probably has less to do with my work record than it has to do with me being a Satou."
Lilly gives her sister an encouraging smile.
"I know Father pulled a few strings to get you that recommendation, but I also know that now you're here you will do everything in your power to prove yourself and push yourself to excel until everyone at the office is convinced that putting you where you are now was not a special favor, but rather an act of foresight."
Akira gives Lilly an amused look, but when she speaks her tone is somewhat wistful.
"Probably... I guess... that's part of being a Satou as well, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't be at all surprised if Father felt the same when he first came here."
"Heh, from his reputation at the office I'd say he's still in the middle of that process. People seem to regard him as some kind of one-man army over there."
"You had better not become such a workaholic that our phone calls start getting phased out over it."
While Lilly's tone is playful, both she and Akira fall silent for a moment. Until now, it appears that they met up with one another whenever they could and contact took place on a regular basis. When Lilly returns to Japan however, their contact will be limited to carefully timed international phone calls and there's no doubt in my mind that both of them are painfully aware of this right now.
"Don't worry about that, Sis. I'll be sure to keep my priorities in order. Let's ditch the depressing thoughts tonight and have a good time."
Akira raises her hand and affectionately ruffles Lilly's hair, surprising her for a moment and then gestures to the barkeeper for another drink. While he's refilling her glass, the barkeeper says something to Akira that I can't quite make out but causes Lilly to ‘hmmm’ quietly. Akira then nods and passes him several bills from her wallet.
"What was he saying?"
"There's pub quizzes being held here during the weekends and the next one's about to start. I just paid him the admittance fee. You two interested in teaming up with us?"
I exchange a glance with Hanako. I don't think I'll be able to pull my weight here. I probably won't even understand the questions, let alone know much about what probably passes for common knowledge around here. Hanako seems a bit hesitant as well.
"I think we'll pass. I noticed a pool table in the corner over there and Hanako still owes me a rematch after our last game in the jazz bar."
Hanako nods with a small smile, eager to get farther away from the din in the front area and have a small competition with me.
"I accept t-the challenge."
"Have fun you two. We'll be at the table near the podium if you need us."
"Would it be okay if I paid a visit to the restroom first? I doubt we'll be allowed to leave our table during the quiz itself."
"Sure Sis. Let me show you the way."
Lilly folds out her cane and places her hand on Akira's arm. We follow them to a small corridor near the back.
"Ladies room is the door on the left."
As Lilly nods and navigates down the corridor, we turn to Akira.
"Lilly sure knows how to perform toasts. Sisterhood must be a wonderful thing."
Akira nods and smiles warmly.
"Several of my colleagues can’t stand their siblings. I think I just got lucky. We've always gotten along well despite the 7-year age gap. We got even closer when it was just the two of us living together."
"That couldn't have been easy, a 19-year old and a blind 12-year old living on their own, even with Lilly being as independent as she is."
"Don't mention to her that I told you this, but back when our parents first moved to Scotland, Lilly wasn't independent at all. I mean, whenever one of our parents wanted something done that they couldn't do themselves, they'd ask me to do it. Before our parents left, they liked pampering Lilly."
"So you taught her how to do stuff like laying the table and cooking?"
Hanako suddenly stifles a soft giggle. Akira grins broadly.
"In case that didn't tip you off, cooking isn't exactly where my talent lies, to use Lilly's words. That's as polite as she can be about it. That ought to tell you something."
"If you didn't then who did?"
"After our parents left, we hired a housekeeper who stuck around for some time. "
"And this housekeeper taught Lilly?"
"At my request in exchange for a very generous bonus. I wanted some peace of mind. I wanted to be able to sleep peacefully at night and do my job without worrying all the time. The burden of responsibility was enough as it was. I could have hired someone else. Heck, I could have easily hired two... Mom and Dad never really left us strapped us for cash. But..."
"I really hated still depending on our folks' money all the time - as if things were alright as long as they just kept paying. If we'd get independent enough for the two of us to get by without additional help, I wanted to shoot for that. And we reached that point eventually. Lilly was a very diligent pupil and a fast learner."
Akira seems aware of the fact that her own pride played a role in this whole thing and looks at the floor for a moment. I quickly move in to fill the moment of silence.
"Lilly's probably more self-sufficient than many of her classmates who have partial eyesight."
"That's a good thing. University probably ain't gonna be as accommodating to blind people as Yamaku. If she wasn't as independent as she is, she'd have had no choice but to follow me to Scotland."
Noticing the door of the ladies room opening, Akira points at the pool table nearby.
"We'll be heading to our seats. You two have ever played English billiards before?"
"English billiards? I thought this was a pool table."
"Look at the case on the wall. You can't play pool with only three balls."
I look into the direction Akira's pointing and notice a device on the wall with three balls, a white, a yellow and a red one, resting in three indentations at the top and a coin slot on the front. Akira walks over to it and takes one of the balls. Immediately, a high-pitched buzzer sounds, causing Lilly to flinch a bit. She quickly puts a coin into the coin slot and the noise stops.
"First game's on me. When the buzzer goes off you'll either have to insert another coin or return the balls to the case. You guys know the rules?"
One look at Hanako tells me she's as much in the dark about how to play as I am. Akira seems to read our expressions.
"One player uses the white ball and one player uses the yellow one. You score points by hitting the other balls with your cue ball in various ways. You get points for bumping the other balls into a pocket with your cue ball which is called a 'winning hazard' or by pocketing your own cue ball after contact with another ball which is called a 'losing hazard'. It's 3 points for moves involving the red ball and 2 points for moves involving the other player's cue ball. You also get points if you hit both other balls with your own cue ball in one shot. I believe they call that a...er..."
Akira shoots Lilly a smirk after the latter finishes the explanation for her.
"Heh, showoff. Let's hope your recollection of trivia is also gonna help us win that quiz."
After giving us an explanation about where to put the balls after pocketing them and what constitutes a foul, Akira points at the scoreboard on the wall.
"You can decide for yourself whether to make up a winning score or just play until the time runs out. Everything clear?"
"I think so."
"Great. Have fun. And wish us luck."
"I'll keep my fingers crossed for you."
As the Satou sisters make their way to the front of the pub, Hanako hands me a cue, and we each shoot a ball across the table to see who gets the first turn.
"Looks like you're closer to the front area than I am. Do you want to play with white or yellow?"
"Hmmm... I'll take white."
"I think it's best if we simply play until our time is up. Okay?"
Taking a moment to plan her move, Hanako shoots her cue ball forward and hits the red ball with considerable force, but then misses the yellow one by only a few centimeters.
Hanako's shot has left the balls in an advantageous position for me, and after taking careful aim, I manage to knock my own cue ball into the pocket after just barely grazing the red ball. This game is definitely gonna be trickier than that time we played pool. Since we're both new at this, the odds should be fairly even but I learned last time that Hanako has slightly better form than me. Beating her isn't going to be easy.
I put my cue ball on the designated spot on the table and try to shoot a repeat of my previous shot. This time, however, my aim is slightly off and my ball lands in the pocket without hitting any others.
"Ugh, a foul. That means you get 2 points, doesn't it?"
I move the sliders on the scoreboard and watch Hanako lining up her shot. The expression on her face is that same mixture of concentration and relaxation she had during that last game of pool we played. There are quite a few people in the pub at the moment, but now that the quiz has started almost everyone is gathered in front of the stage on the other side of the room, and nobody seems to be paying us any attention. I try to make out what the quiz host is saying, but can't really catch more than a few words here and there. We probably made the right decision in not going along with Lilly and Akira. The whole situation gives me a slight feeling of déjà vu.
"This sure brings up memories, doesn't it? The four of us going out and Lilly and Akira doing their thing while the two of us spend the evening knocking billiard balls around."
As she hits her cue ball and bounces it off both other balls, I can see Hanako smile at the memory.
"Let's h-hope this evening will b-be just as fun."
I had fun at the time as well, though in a moment of naïvete I also made a mistake that evening that nearly sank my chances with Hanako. When I told her, while she was in the process of opening up to me, that I was happy to protect her, it was a remark said with nothing but the best intentions. It wasn't until our confession in the park that I realized just how denigrating that must have sounded to her.
"I'll try not to mess up and say anything hurtful this time around."
Hanako was preparing an attempt to pocket my cue ball with her own, but upon hearing my words she looks at me and gives me a confused look. She thinks for a moment, then realizes what I was referring to.
"Oh... ummm... It's okay. I nearly f-forgot a-about that already."
"Sorry for bringing it up."
Hanako reaims her cue and takes the shot, but misses her intended target though her ball manages to touch the red ball before coming to a standstill.
"I'm... trying n-not to ponder the p-past while I'm here."
"You're right. Better to focus on the present."
As I move in to take my turn, I notice Hanako shaking her head with a shy smile.
"I... really... like the present as it is r-right now. I think I can... enjoy it more if I don't think too hard about things. But I still n-need to figure out what I want in the f-future."
That's the first time I’ve heard from her about that. I've asked her about it before, but she always told me she didn't know yet, and I'd drop the subject in order to avoid putting pressure on her.
"Good to hear you're giving it serious thought."
"I... I'd like to have it sorted out before c-classes start again."
"Do you have a general idea already?"
I've made an effort to come up with suggestions myself before, but it's kinda difficult because Hanako doesn't seem to have any subjects she naturally excels in, unlike Lilly and myself. However, also unlike Lilly and myself, Hanako doesn't have any subjects she's particularly bad at either. It's almost as if even Hanako's test scores are focussed on the purpose of not standing out. That does make planning a future a tricky activity.
I take a shot and manage to nudge Hanako's cue ball into a pocket.
"Care to tell me about it?"
Hanako doesn't respond, but merely looks at me. I know that look on her face. It's her ‘Quid pro quo’ expression.
"I'll tell you about my plans in return, okay?"
I make an attempt to pocket the red ball this time, but my shot is too soft, and my target stops mere centimeters away from the pocket in the corner.
"After starting the club with him, I think I'd seriously break Mutou's heart if I didn't pursue science as a career path. That part is pretty much a done deal. Unfortunately, I'm not sure yet about the specifics. That's why I asked Mutou to cover a wide range of topics at the club during the upcoming months."
"You're hoping to... c-come across a subject eventually that you feel a c-click with?"
"That's the idea. Also, there are several universities in my hometown that offer wide selections of scientific studies and whose entrance exams I should be able to handle. If I could make it into one of those, I could save on the costs of renting a dorm room on campus by moving back in with my parents. I have to be mindful of my family's financial situation."
Hanako nods understandingly and prepares to finish the shot I failed to get right.
"So how about you?"
"Ummm... Did you... like my article? About the science club?"
"I loved it, and it seems like Mutou did too. Why?"
"Naomi wants m-me to write the next ones too."
"Yes. The next one is about our own club, so I can use my own experience. There's no need to contact a teacher or club president, which makes it easier."
Personally I'd still be at a loss on what exactly to write and how to word it. Writing essays was never my strong suit, but Hanako doesn't seem worried about that. Come to think of it; when I woke up I saw her scribbling on a notepad.
"Were you busy writing your next column when I was waking up?"
"Just b-brainstorming a bit. But I want to have it finished before we fly back to Japan."
"I suppose this is related to your plans for the future, isn't it?"
Hanako takes aim and knocks both the red ball and her own cue ball into the corner pocket.
"Maybe... I could... do something related to that."
"You mean... study journalism?"
Hanako doesn't answer immediately. She merely gives me a long look as if to try to read my thoughts and determining whether I think she's gone crazy. After a few silent seconds, she slowly nods.
"What do you think?"
I'm not sure. No matter how hard I try, I'm completely unable to picture Hanako pushing herself through a thick crowd in order to shove some celebrity a microphone in their face. On the other hand, from what I've learned about her activities at the newspaper club, she's been genuinely enjoying them, and people are always more eager to push their boundaries when they're working on something they're interested in. And pushing boundaries and devising workarounds to our limits is what every student at Yamaku is encouraged to do. I'd never imagine Emi's friend Rin to be an artist either, seeing that she has no arms, yet she has learned to transcend that limitation, and now she's supposedly one of the best painters in the art club. Could it be the same with Hanako?
Chapter 23 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:49 am
"To be honest, it comes a bit out of the blue. It's not anywhere near the direction I thought you'd be heading into."
Putting the balls back on the table, Hanako smiles meekly while preparing to strike her cue ball.
"Ummm... What d-direction did you...AH!"
I'm having the impression Hanako's mind wasn't really into that last strike, since it's way too hard and as a result her cue ball flies off the table and rolls towards the bar, coming to a stop underneath one of the occupied barstools. I look at Hanako, and she gives me a pleading look back. I suppose it's up to me to be a gentleman.
"I'll go get it."
Hanako smiles in relief and gives a silent nod. I put down my cue and walk over to the people seated at the bar. I can see a businesswoman, a redheaded man dressed like a tourist and an older woman wearing a rather expensive beige jacket. As I approach, the two women turn around and look me over.
"Ah...please excuse me."
I instinctively bow before remembering that's not exactly a common practice in this country. I then bend down and reach out to grab Hanako's cue ball which has rolled under one of the women's barstools. But before I can take the ball, I hear the occupant of the barstool clear her throat. With a puzzled look I get back up. She gets off the barstool, reaches down, takes the ball and drops it into my hand.
"There you are."
"Thanks, but it really wasn't... necessary to..."
The woman stops me with a gesture and gives me a mischievous smile.
"You were just… retrieving something you dropped, correct?"
I wonder what exactly she's getting at? She chuckles as if I just said something hilarious.
"Every Scotsman is... familiar with that old trick, lad."
What does she...WAIT A SECOND! As I realize what she's insinuating I visibly reel in shock.
"I wasn't trying to..."
The bartender and the other woman both laugh as they watch me blush.
"It's a joke, lad. I hope you're not angry."
Not really knowing how to respond to her, I simply shake my head and walk back to the billiards table.
"I had to go through a lot to get this back for you."
Hanako smiles and plants a soft kiss on my cheek.
Since Hanako got a foul by striking a ball off the table, it's now my turn again. I retrieve my cue and take careful aim.
"By the way, what was it you were about to ask before you bounced that ball off the table?"
"Hmmm? Oh, I wanted to know... what direction you thought I h-had in mind for myself."
I strike the cue ball and manage to hit both other balls, but my ball ends up resting against one of the edges of the table, making the next shot a tricky one.
"Well, my reasoning was that since you seem to handle computers pretty well you could perhaps try for a career in the IT sector. There's a pretty high demand for people with experience in that area."
Not to mention the fact that that area also draws people with slightly less well-developed social skills, meaning Hanako would stand out less. I decide not to mention this though.
"I did... think about that. There's this girl at the n-newspaper club who does the editing together with me."
"The girl with the large cast on her arm?"
"Yes. Jun. She really likes computers. The few times we speak, she usually speaks about them. About v-video games and computers in general. It made me realize... I l-like working with them, but they d-don't interest me enough to make a career out of it."
I am about to reply to her when we're surprised by a sudden buzzing noise.
"Time is up."
"And you've won."
I have, though only by a few lucky shots. We are only a few points apart. If we play another game, it might very well end differently. We both look at the buzzing case with a look of annoyance. Hanako starts gathering the balls in order to return them to the case while I start searching my wallet for coins to insert into the slot. Before either of us can finish, the buzzing suddenly stops. I look up and notice the patron who flustered me earlier standing next to the time clock. She must have put some coins of her own into the slot. She gives us a friendly smile.
"To make up for ********* *****."
"Ah, excuse me?"
Hanako seems to have caught the patron's meaning as she whispers into my ear.
"She said it's to make up for embarrassing you. What d-did she do?"
I briefly tell Hanako what happened when I went to retrieve her cue ball. Hanako looks a bit sheepish. I can tell she finds it somewhat amusing, but doesn't want to laugh since I went to get the ball back that she shot off the table.
"I have no idea if this is the famed British humor or if this person is just plain weird."
The patron watches our conversation with an amused expression, though she obviously can't understand what we're saying. When we stop talking, she shrugs her shoulders.
"Well... it... was a rather bold action."
"Sorry... err... We're on... vacation here. My English... is not very... good."
This gets her to smile.
"It's not that bad. I can understand you well. Your… pronunciation is good."
"That's... ah... good."
I'm finding her rather easy to comprehend compared to most people here, and suddenly I realize why. Instead of a Scottish dialect, she's been speaking to us in common English without a very noticable trace of a local accent and it sounds like she's been doing her best to speak slowly and clearly.
"You're... not from around here?"
"I am, but I deal with many people from abroad at my work so I try to speak plain English when talking to people who aren't Scottish themselves. I can speak Scottish if you like."
"Or maybe I should speak in Japanese instead. It'll probably make it easier for us to understand one another."
Both Hanako and I gasp in surprise since that last statement was delivered in accented but otherwise completely fluent Japanese.
"Y-Y-You speak Japanese?"
The woman allows herself a brief laugh at our astonishment.
"Hmm hmmm. I've lived in Japan for over 20 years. "
The woman makes a polite bow.
"I'm very honored to meet my daughter's best friends."
"...Lilly's and Akira's mother? I am. Here in Scotland we're not as formal as people are in Japan. Would you mind if I address the two of you by your first names while you're here?"
I share a quick look with Hanako, who is still trying to digest what just happened and can only manage a flabbergasted nod. When in Rome...
"Err... That's okay."
The woman smiles broadly and extends her hand.
"Then I will address you as Hisao and Hanako, and you can call me Karla. Pleased to meet you."
Despite my dumbfoundedness, I manage to extend my hand and am given a firm, confident handshake. After a subtle nod in her direction, Hanako remembers to follow my example and hesitantly sticks out her hand for a handshake as well.
"Yes. Karla Satou."
After shaking Hanako's hand, Lilly's mother turns to me.
"It seems I caught you two by surprise. Didn't Lilly tell you that I'd be picking you up tonight?"
"She did mention we'd get 'private transport', but I didn't expect anyone to turn up this early. I also wasn't quite sure what either of you looked like."
"I suppose I did get here sooner than initially planned. I was getting a bit tired of courting investors, and my husband and the colleague who was with us seemed to be handling things fine without my input. I was already slated to leave early in order to pick all of you up, so I figured I could be missed for a little while longer. I don't get many opportunities to see my two daughters together."
She gives the two of us a long analyzing look that makes Hanako fidget nervously.
"I wasn't sure what either of you looked like either. We spoke briefly on the phone before, didn't we? I think you look a little like I imagined you to look like."
"You look quite a bit more like your youngest daughter than I imagined."
She chuckles modestly.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
My words were more an honest appraisal than an attempt at flattery. I can instantly tell that Lilly gets most of her looks from her mother. Karla Satou is a tall woman, probably as tall or even slightly taller than Lilly with a similar figure. Although her hair is significantly shorter than Lilly's - about neck-length from what I can see - there's a familiar waveyness to it, and its color is the same vibrant blond as that of her daughters, although it's already slightly grey near the roots. Her eyes are deep blue like Lilly's, but unlike Lilly's cloudy and unreadable stare, Karla's eyes have a sharp and curious gaze to them, and I can see a twinkle in there that I've seen in Akira's eyes as well. Karla's wearing a neat-looking business suit, but the lower part of it consists of a dark skirt that reaches down to her knees instead of pants like Akira's, and around her neck is a cross-shaped necklace similar to the one Lilly often wears. While looking just as formal, Karla's attire looks a lot more feminine than Akira's office clothing. She must be in her fifties already, but she's still quite good-looking. Unlike Lilly, who has a rather pale complexion, Karla has a rather obvious tan, suggesting she's an outdoor person. It would explain her rather fit and healthy appearance.
"Do Lilly and Akira know that you're here already?"
"They do. I made sure Akira spotted me when I came in here. Unfortunately I can't just walk up to them to say hello while the pub quiz is still going on. People might think I'm feeding answers to my daughters. So until that quiz is finished, it'll be just the three of us. If you don't mind some company while playing billiards, that is. I promise not to intrude."
She winks at me.
"I can even retrieve stray cue balls for you if you like."
"I... don't mind."
"Wonderful. I'll go and get my beer from the bar. Can I get you two anything to drink? It's on me."
"Really? Could you please get me an orange juice then?"
"F-For me too, please."
As Lilly's mom walks back to the bar, I turn to Hanako with a slight smirk.
"Lilly’s figure coupled with beer and a business suit. I'm shooting for a 50/50."
Hanako presses her hand to her mouth to hide a giggling fit. Looks like I wasn't the only one appraising Karla and trying to determine whether she's more like Lilly or Akira.
"So, wanna go for another game? I believe I now owe you a rematch."
"Let's play again."
As we put the balls in position, Karla comes back and places two glasses on the edge of the billiards table.
"Lilly told me the flight was kind of a taxing experience. Have you two gotten your bearings back already?"
"I'm still suffering from jetlag, but I'm pretty well-rested right now. The accommodations have been really good."
Karla smiles appreciatingly.
"Don't hesitate to ask if you need anything. If I'm not around, feel free to approach the staff. I take it you've met Allison?"
"We have. She's a very good cook."
"She is. If you get homesick, be sure to ask her to cook up some Japanese meals. She may not speak your language, but she knows a truckload of Japanese recipes. *chuckle* She IS employed by my husband after all. And don't be afraid to ask her if you need anything else."
It's nice to hear we're essentially having our own private restaurant. This vacation just keeps getting better and better. Hanako and I resume our game, and true to her word, Karla mostly goes back and forth between watching our game and listening to the quiz host's questions without making a lot of conversation aside from occasional small talk. We hear the buzzer again after what turned out to be an intense neck-and-neck race, and I let out a sigh as I realize that I'm a handful of points behind Hanako.
"Well, at least we kept the suspense going until the very end."
Hanako permits herself to show a proud little smile.
"It was a good game."
"I guess you two are even now, huh?"
Karla picks up the balls and puts them back on top of the time clock device, shutting down the annoying buzz.
"We are. We may need a third game to break the tie."
Hanako's expression tells me she'd be up for that, but Karla motions toward the front area and I notice the quizmaster is no longer on stage.
"You might want to wait with that for a moment. It looks like they're checking everyone's answers right now. We'll probably hear who has won in a few minutes."
"I wonder how they did."
"What team name did they come up with?"
Karla gives me an amused look.
"Not familiar with pub quizzes, are you? It's sort of a tradition for each participating team to think up a creative name. Like erm...'Knuckleheads' or 'Intellectually Challenged' or 'B for Dyslexic'. That sort of thing."
"They've probably picked one without us. We'll just have to see."
Knowing Lilly, it might very well be a play on blindness of some kind... That'd be the sort of thing she'd do, though that wouldn't apply to Akira, so maybe they went with something else.
Suddenly the quizmaster gets back on stage and gives a few taps on the microphone in order to make clear he has something to say. I try my hardest to make out what he's saying, but his accent and our distance from the stage make that somewhat of a lost cause. Lilly's mom seems to read my mind.
"Right now he's simply thanking everyone for participating. The people who came in third will get a free drink, the ones in second place will get three free drinks and the winners will get a special prize."
"And what would that be?"
"Usually just drinks. This is a pub after all."
The quizmaster makes an enthusiastic gesture, and the people in the room burst into applause at his words.
"Third place goes to 'The Masters of Romance'. I don't think that's them."
"Doesn't sound like it. Who on earth would think up such a name anyway?"
Another announcement from the quizmaster and another applause follows. I can see Lilly's mother smirking briefly.
"Second place goes to 'The Master Baiters'. That had BETTER not be them."
"Naw. Lilly's too classy for that."
Finally the winner is announced and Karla brightens up.
"Well, well. Winner of tonight's quiz is 'Oriental Express'. Heh, clever."
Sure enough, I can see Akira and Lilly getting up as a thunderous applause fills the room. Karla, Hanako and I are happy to join in with the applauding crowd. Akira takes Lilly's hand and carefully guides her up the stage.
“That’s pretty amazing. Two people who’ve lived in Japan their entire life beating what’s probably a bunch of locals.”
“Heh, the questions they use here are never about local tidbits during the summer break. Gotta give the tourists a fair chance, after all. It’s still impressive though.”
After the quiz host gives both of them a firm handshake, Akira feistily throws her hand up in the air and gives a 'V for victory' sign. Lilly merely gives a few modest waves as she's handed a bag presumably containing their prize. Their presence on stage results in another wave of applause and more than a few wolf whistles as well. Lilly and Akira seem to take the attention pretty well, but I'm happy Hanako and I decided not to join the team. I don't think getting up on stage would be Hanako's idea of a great time.
Knowing that Akira will eventually go back to where she left us, I decide to stay near the billiards table rather than meeting the sisters in the middle of a noisy crowd. Eventually they get down from the podium and slowly make their way back to where we are. Akira is wearing a confident grin.
"Man, those guys were no challenge at all. Imagine how easily we'd kick their asses if we'd take them on on our home turf."
"Well done you two."
"Congratulations. What d-did you win?"
"Let's have a look, shall we?"
Akira takes the bag from Lilly and looks inside, then fishes up a bottle with a honey-colored liquid inside.
"Heh, Scotch whisky. Two bottles. I should've guessed."
I take a look at the name on the bottle's label and promptly get a headache.
"Geez, can people around here actually pronounce that name?"
"Auchentoshan? Can't say I've tasted that one before, but this is not cheap liquor we've got here. Looks like we just won back our entry fee big time. Although..."
Lilly smiles playfully.
I'm sure I know what Lilly's thinking. I'm not sure how serious she is, but I can see her mother's eyes narrowing.
Lilly's pout and the slightly whiny tone of her reply, as if she just got caught with her hand in the cookie jar, seem so out of place for her that Hanako can't hold back a giggle. Lilly quickly recovers though and puts on her usual composed smile.
"Please use my real name, Mother."
"I hope you weren't seriously considering drinking that."
Lilly doesn't answer immediately. I know from experience that she has a habit of carefully choosing her words before speaking, but the slight delay seems to annoy Karla a bit.
"I admit it might be a little bit irresponsible."
Karla shrugs her shoulders.
"Only if you haven't been carefully and gradually building up your alcohol tolerance while you were in Japan."
"I have not."
No carefully considered reply this time. Lilly seems to recognize the importance of quickly denying Karla's suggestion. I wouldn't be surprised if Lilly's mother thinks that Lilly never even drank alcohol before. Akira grins an amused grin before coming to her sister's rescue.
"She does have a point, Lils. This Scotch contains 40% alcohol. That's a bit much if you're not used to alcohol or don't know exactly where your limits lie. Since it's a shame to waste our prize, why don't you let me try exchanging it at the bar for something milder? Like a few bottles of quality wine."
"Would that be acceptable, Mother? There's still a toast I have to perform when we get back."
Karla considers it for a moment and then gives a resigned nod.
"I'm personally fine with that. Just remember that we have a picnic scheduled for tomorrow, and you're coming along, whether you're feeling up to it or not."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:49 am
"I think it's only fair for me to take my half of the spoils."
Akira reaches into the bag, takes two bottles of wine out of it and hands them over to Lilly.
"These two should get the three of you through the night. Don't drink it all at once, kids."
After winning the pub quiz and getting two bottles of Scotch whisky as a prize, Akira made a deal with the bartender and exchanged the two bottles of Scotch for four bottles of wine. We didn't stay at the pub for much longer afterwards, opting to spend the rest of the evening at the Satou home. When we got there though, Akira expressed the desire to be brought back to her place. Karla seems a bit disappointed.
"I'll be returning to the place where your father is having his meeting. If you'd like, I could take you along to meet the investors we've been dining with this evening."
"Naw, I'd rather just get some extra rest."
Lilly walks over to Akira and places her hand on her sister's shoulder.
"Thank for the fun evening, Akira. And remember not to drink those bottles of yours alone. You know what they say about those kinds of people."
"Maybe I should return to that pub and pick up one of the guys who seemed so extremely interested in us."
Lilly's smile drops.
"I hope you're not being serious there."
"Tell you what... You can share it with me if you can find it in your schedule to drop by my place after I'm off-duty."
"I will remember that."
Akira gives us a small wave and then walks off, followed by her mother. Lilly turns to us, still holding her two bottles of wine.
"We're going to need a corkscrew and some glasses. The staff have already gone home, so we'll have to search the kitchen ourselves. If you come across any snacks you like, feel free to take them as well."
Hanako and I guide Lilly to the mansion's large kitchen, and the two of us start searching the various cupboards and drawers. I quickly find a corkscrew in the drawer containing the cutlery, and when I turn around I can see Hanako very carefully taking three glasses out of a cupboard.
"Lilly, I found some crackers and a box of olives. Can we take them?"
"Of course, Hisao. Is there any cheese in the refrigerator?"
"Yeah, a fairly big block. Not sure what kind it is though."
Lilly walks over to me and carefully sniffs the cheese.
"Have you ever had Cheddar before, Hisao? It's very popular here, but, like most kinds of cheese, considerably less so in Japan. "
"I don't think so. It can't hurt to give it a try though."
"Hanako, could you help me cut it into smaller pieces?"
As the girls prepare to start cutting the cheese, a thought suddenly springs up in the back of my mind.
"Lilly, before we left the pub, your mother spoke of a picnic."
"Yes, are you up for one? Supposedly the area she's picked is quite interesting."
"Is that okay? You said you'd be spending some time alone with your parents without us around."
"Mother's still curious about both of you. I don't think she'll object."
"Very well then."
"There should be a set of notes nearby somewhere. Could you get me one and a pen, please?"
Hanako puts a piece of paper and a pen in Lilly's hand, and I can see her slowly and carefully writing a small note that she then puts on the kitchen sink unit. It says: 'Picnic for four. Please change shopping list accordingly.' She then turns to Hanako.
"It is usually Allison handling the food for a picnic, but it might be fun for us to prepare it instead tomorrow morning. Will you help me?"
"Sure. I'd love to."
"Wonderful. I'm looking forward to it. That's for tomorrow though. Tonight, let's hang back and relax."
Taking the bottles, glasses and snacks with us, we make our way to the mansion's spacious living room.
"Is there a remote control lying around here, Hisao?"
"There's one near the fireplace. Want me to give it to you?"
"Just press the on-button. It should still be on the right setting."
I do as instructed and I hear a beep coming from the fireplace. A moment later, flames appear behind the glass window covering the fireplace. The light and heat coming from the gas fireplace give the room a cozy atmosphere. Lilly starts filling our glasses and gestures towards a smaller couch near the low table in the middle of the room.
"I think it'd be most appropriate if the two of you take the love seat."
I take one of the glasses off the table and sit down on the single cushion couch. Following my example, Hanako sits down next to me. Lilly takes a seat on the larger couch on the other side of the table. Waiting a moment to make certain we've gotten comfortable, she smiles at us and raises her glass.
"A second toast this evening, this time for my wonderful friend Hanako, who has, last week, succesfully completed her first aid training and is now a qualified first responder. May she never need the skills she was taught there, and may it be known that I admire and respect her very much."
Hanako blushes lightly, not sure how to deal with Lilly's praise, obviously not finding it completely unpleasant, but not completely comfortable either. As if attempting to look for distraction, she puts her glass to her lips and starts sipping at it. Looking at Lilly, I notice she gives a soft nod.
"Well, bottoms up."
As Lilly finishes a story about a funny incident involving Akira, I can hear Hanako giggle and suddenly feel her hand ruffling my hair. That's probably the fourth time she's done this over the last fifteen minutes. We've been hanging out here in the living room for well over an hour, and we finished the first bottle of wine a few minutes ago. To say that the atmosphere is cheerful is quickly becoming an understatement. I don't think anyone's actually completely drunk yet, but I'm sure we've reached the point where each of us is getting rather tipsy. The fact that the wine Akira obtained for us is really tasty, that the atmosphere between us is completely relaxed and that we don't have to be secretive about having a few glasses this time around probably all contributed to that.
I remember the time the three of us had our first encounter with alcohol during Hanako's birthday party. While Lilly merely became slightly more playful and forward than usual, the effect of the wine on Hanako was noticibly less subtle. Not only did her usually rigid inhibitions fall away after she had a couple of glasses, but she also became remarkably clingy. I'm starting to notice that aspect of her returning as the evening goes on.
"Heh, so even Akira screws up sometimes. She doesn't seem like someone you'd usually have a lot of worry over."
"Those occurences are indeed very rare. She's more responsible than she seems at first."
"Like earlier this evening? When she joked about going back to that pub and pick up some guy, you seemed put off."
Lilly's smile fades just a little. For a moment her thoughts seem elsewhere. Then she takes a sip from her glass and sighs softly.
"It's not really that... It's just..."
Suddenly the atmosphere is starting to get gloomy. Did I touch some unknown nerve?
"You are aware that Akira was in a relationship until recently, are you not?"
"Yes, when we decided to spend a long weekend in Hokkaido, you mentioned we'd be cleaning up the place because Akira and her boyfriend would be using it the week after."
"That... trip never took place. We were the last ones to use the summerhouse before it was sold."
"When we first learned about your parents' summoning she mentioned having broken up with him."
"She intended to spend the weekend with him there and tell him about her new job at the end of it. But it turned out he already knew about it."
"Yuichi's employed at the sales department of the company's Japanese branch. He and Akira met at work, although they generally didn't see each other on the workfloor very often. He heard the news about Akira's promotion through the grapevine, so to speak, before we even got back. When she invited him to spend the weekend with her, he confronted her with the rumors he heard."
"I suppose he wasn't very happy about it."
"I don't know the details, but I do know that they got into a fight, and she broke up with him then and there. They've been together for quite some time, and Akira seemed happy with their relationship. She doesn't show it, but I'm positive she's still hurting over it. She came back to Japan knowing she was going to break up her relationship, but this was not the way she wanted things to end."
"That kind of explains your reaction to her remark. Then again, maybe all that attention in the pub wasn't for her but for you."
"I certainly hope not."
"Perhaps I'm jumping to conclusions, but I do not think any person who wolf-whistles a lady would be my type."
Somehow that answer doesn't surprise me at all. Lilly is still a lady through and through. That does make me wonder about something else, though. Hanako mentioned once she didn't remember Lilly ever having had a boyfriend while she was attending Yamaku, despite the fact Lilly's a very popular student. Perhaps she has some very particular tastes?
"If you don't mind me asking a bold question... What kind of person would be your type, Lilly?"
Lilly sends me a very cheeky grin in return.
"That is a bold question, Hisao. May I ask why you are so interested? You already have Hanako, after all."
I can tell that Lilly's merely being a tease, but I nevertheless feel a sharp stare coming from my right. Looks like Lilly's remark is pushing me into very dangerous territory.
"Looks like a guy can't even be curious about his friends anymore without being accused of considering infidelity. Forget what I just asked, okay?"
"It's okay, Hisao. It wasn't an unfair question. But not an easy one either."
As Lilly takes some time to think up an answer, I give Hanako a quick reassuring kiss on the cheek although it doesn't seem to completely get rid of her suspicious frown.
"I think I would be most attracted to the type of person who has a bit of a gentlemanly streak and is kind and honest. He should have a caring personality and a bit of a laid-back pace. I don't think I'd be able to keep up with someone who'd always hurry me along. He does not have to be extremely social, although he should be fun to talk to."
So far no surprises there.
"He should not be adverse to me mothering him a bit at times, but he should display initiatives from time to time as well. He should be able to get along well with my sister and my best friends. It's fine if he doesn't share my musical tastes, although I'm not sure if I'd be able to be around someone who'd be playing... well... jackhammer music all the time."
That's a pretty interesting way to describe music with a loud and heavy bass and percussion. I can get why Lilly, who mostly uses sounds around her as orientation dislikes overbearing music.
"Above all, he should treat me as a person and not look upon me with pity."
I know for a fact that she's not the only person in the room who values that part.
"I would have to like the way he looks as well."
"I'm sorry, did you just say 'look'?"
Lilly sniffs curtly as if admonishing me.
"Of course. Just because I cannot see doesn't mean I don't have my own preferences."
"And what would those preferences be? I imagine something like hair color is a foreign concept to you."
"I think it's very hard to explain to people who do not use their sense of touch to determine appearances. What I 'see' may be completely different from the way you see things or people. I think the term 'I'll know it when I see it' applies here. Somewhat. I have a general idea of what most people I regularly interact with look like..."
Does that include Hanako? I quickly look at her. Hanako seems to understand what I'm thinking for she nods in affirmation.
"A little while back."
Lilly's dazzling smile confirms Hanako's words. I’ve never heard about that before. I'm impressed. That would make Lilly the second person Hanako has allowed to look upon her face voluntarily. No wonder they have been so close lately. This is probably about the biggest gesture of trust Hanako could give someone.
Lilly slowly gets up.
"I was wondering... There's one dear friend whose face I still can't picture in my mind. Would it be okay if I...?"
I immediately look at Hanako.
"Is it okay?"
Hanako pouts slightly.
"Why are you asking m-me?"
She's right. Asking her for permission only makes it seem like an act of intimacy. Lilly's been a treasured friend since I came to Yamaku and having her take a look at me is nothing unreasonable although Hanako doesn't seem to enjoy the idea. Still, I don't think this is something I can reasonably refuse.
I walk around the table and take Lilly's right hand which I then guide to my face before letting go. None of us says a word as Lilly's hand moves over and around my features, from my chin, to my cheeks, to everywhere else including my hair. I expected this to feel a lot more disquieting than it does. I suppose that's because the action is entirely a matter of practicality, being functionally no different to simply looking at someone's face. However, I notice that as she runs her fingers back and forth, a mischievous smile starts appearing on her face as if she's enjoying some private joke. Before I can figure out what it might be, I suddenly feel my arm being grabbed and pulled back just far enough for my face to retreat beyond the reach of Lilly's fingers.
As I look at Hanako, I notice that slightly disapproving pout is still on her face. I'm not sure how long this process usually takes, but from Lilly's slightly sheepish look, I'm almost beginning to wonder if she was... Can you accuse a blind person of staring?
"Thank you, Hisao."
"Ah... Right. Have you memorized it all?"
I prepare to get back to the couch we were sitting on, but Hanako isn't moving yet. She's still waiting as if expecting Lilly to say more. Eventually, Lilly smiles playfully.
"It seems you were spot-on about him, Hanako."
I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, but Hanako's eyes grow wide in horror, and she lets out a gasp, then immediately wraps both arms around me and pulls me back a little further before giving me a pleading look.
"Hey, don't look at me like that. What did you say about me?"
Instead of answering, Lilly merely teasingly shakes her head.
"Sorry Hisao. That's girls' talk."
I get back on the couch, and Hanako sits down next to me, but still holds onto me. I can only assume that Hanako confided in Lilly once that she thought I looked handsome or something and Lilly's statement of agreement, very likely combined with the wine that was consumed, has now triggered some sort of rival reflex in Hanako. Eager to change course and steer out of this minefield, I latch onto the first safe subject that springs to mind.
"You mentioned musical tastes, Lilly. I suppose that excludes anything with a prominent bass. I guess your tastes are more traditional? Like ballroom music?"
I recall Hanako taking Lilly on an outing to a night club that held a ballroom dance night a few weeks ago, so it's a safe bet that Lilly's into that kind of music.
"Ballroom music is among the things I like to listen to. Classical music in general is something I really enjoy listening to. Perhaps youth nostalgia plays a role as well."
"My mother used to play classical music, and me listening to her practice was one of the highlights of my day."
"What does your mother play? Would it be bagpipes or is that too cliché?"
Lilly makes a face.
"Not every Scotsman plays bagpipes, Hisao. And they're not very useful for anything other than Scottish folk music."
"Then what instrument does she play?"
"My mother's rather skilled at playing the cello. Perhaps I can convince her to give us a small performance this week. Assuming that she's kept up with her practice."
Cello, huh? I suddenly remember something I noticed when I was first shown this room.
"I think she has. There's a black case standing in this very room. I bet it contains her instrument."
Lilly's face lights up upon hearing this.
"Oh, she's keeping it here?"
"Yeah, there's a large case standing in one of the corners. I'm pretty sure there's a cello in there."
"Hmmm, would you mind bringing it over here for a moment? Please be very careful with it."
I walk over to the corner and carefully carry the cello case to the couch Lilly's sitting on. She kneels down next to it and slowly feels her way over to the small latches on the side. Opening the case, she takes the instrument out of it and gently, almost tenderly, feels its neck, fingerbox and strings. As she starts toying with the tuning pegs and occasionally plucking a string before carefully adjusting the corresponding peg, a nostalgic look appears on her face. The way she's tuning this thing gives me the impression this is far from the first time she's handled an instrument like this.
"From the looks of it this isn't the first time you've handled a cello."
"It is not. I had music lessons in middle school, and we were allowed to pick an instrument to familiarize ourselves with. I chose the cello, hoping my mother had passed her musical instincts onto me."
"And did she?"
"I don't think she did. I know how to play, but I'm not especially good at it. I haven't touched a cello after I graduated middle school."
"But you do know a few pieces, right?"
"A few. It takes a bit of time to learn to play a song completely by ear and from one's memory, especially if you weren't familiar with it before."
"Care to give us a demonstration?"
"If it's not a problem."
Lilly thinks for a moment before taking her glass and taking another sip.
"Very well then. On one condition."
"Please close your eyes, and keep them closed until I stop playing."
Huh? What an odd request. I'm a bit puzzled but decide not to think too hard on it and close my eyes.
"Okay, my eyes are shut."
Chapter 24 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:50 am
I can hear ruffling sounds coming from Lilly's direction, followed by a squeaking sound that's probably her adjusting the screw securing the endpin, followed by some more ruffling and finally silence. Then I hear a few strings being plucked and the beginning of a soft melody. It sounds slow and uncertain at first, but gradually picks up. As I listen to the song, I can tell Lilly's earlier appraisal of her own skills was not inaccurate. She's handling the instrument itself well enough, which is something I'm positive I wouldn't be able to do, and she tuned the instrument correctly, but the pace of the song is a bit unsteady, and I can clearly make out the occasional wrong note in there. Then again, it's also possible she's occasionally messing up due to the alcohol having diminished her hand coordination a bit. Suddenly, the song stops, and Lilly lets out a soft, but frustrated sigh. I curiously open my eyes and see a frown of concentration on Lilly's face. After a few moments however, her face relaxes again and she picks up where she left off.
The right notes must have slipped her mind for a few seconds. Memorizing an entire song seems like a massive task to me. I take advantage of the opportunity to quickly look Lilly over. She's still sitting in her usual spot on the couch, holding the cello in front of her. The fingers of her left hand are hard at work trying to keep up with the quick movements of the bow in her right hand. Her handling of the bow is remarkably fluid, considering the fact she's had several glasses of wine already.
As my gaze lowers slightly, I manage to suppress a gulp with supreme effort as I suddenly realize why Lilly wanted us to close our eyes. I remember reading once that the cello used to be considered an inappropriate instrument for women to play because the usual playing posture involves spreading the legs with the instrument between them. Nowadays women probably wear long dresses, but the knee-high summer skirt Lilly's been wearing this evening doesn't even remotely qualify as one. The cello is more than large enough to block the view of her panties, but I can definitely see way more of Lilly's long and shapely legs than anyone would consider appropriate.
Before this latest image can sink into my mind, I feel movement on the couch next to me and the next moment, I can see Hanako getting up and positioning herself in front of me. Getting the hint, I quickly close my eyes again. I don't feel her getting back on the couch though. Is she just going to stay in this position until Lilly stops playing? I cautiously take a peek and sure enough, Hanako is still in front of me, her arms spread wide as if to try and block as much of my view as possible. I fight to hold back a chuckle. Truth be told she looks more than a little silly. There's just something... exaggerated... about her disapproving pout as if she's trying just a little bit too hard to be intimidating, and the result is more cute than threatening.
I open my mouth to tell her to sit back down and assure her that I have eyes for nobody but her, but I'm pretty sure Lilly would immediately pick up any attempts at conversation and figure out what's going on here. I try to get my answer across to Hanako by using gestures, but she either doesn't understand their meaning or is simply refusing to pay attention to them.
Resorting to other means, I reach up, carefully take her face in my hands and bring it down until her eyes are at the same level as mine. I give her a soft kiss on the lips, making sure to keep it as quiet as I can. That makes her relax a bit, though she still shows no signs of sitting back on the couch next to me. My eyes wander along her body, and I quickly avert my eyes as she catches me staring down the neckline of her blouse for a moment. When I look back at her face, I'm taken aback by the change that has come over her expression. Her disapproving pout has made way for a broad and childish smile that makes me a bit wary. She moves a hand over my face as a gesture for me to close my eyes, which I reluctantly do. I concentrate, trying to pick up any sounds from her, but it's impossible to hear anything over Lilly's music.
Just when I consider taking another peek to see what she's up to, I feel a weight dropping down on my lap and when I open my eyes I can barely hold back a shocked gasp. What caught me off guard wasn't the fact that Hanako has straddled my lap; that much I felt the moment she lowered her hips, but what shocks me is the fact that she has unbuttoned over half the buttons of her blouse, giving me an ample view of her belly and chest while still hiding most of the scarring on her right side. I instinctively try to look past her to see if Lilly has noticed anything, but as I try to do so, Hanako takes my face in her hands and gently but firmly presses it to her chest.
Of all the thoughts that suddenly assault my brain at once, the first one is bizarrely the realization that I know a story (was it a book or a movie?) where a woman distracts a guard in exactly the same way. Come to think of it, distraction is probably the underlying thought behind Hanako's action. She's beating Lilly's distraction by offering a more tempting one.
How am I supposed to deal with THIS?
I didn't expect Hanako to be this bold, even after emptying a few glasses of wine. Lilly can't see us, but even so...
I can't just tell her out loud to get off my lap and button up her blouse. And Hanako's probably well aware of that. The circumstances effectively have me gagged.
I slowly turn my head to the side. Hanako's breasts aren't large enough to smother someone, but it's slightly less uncomfortable with my nose no longer pressing against her breastbone.
I wonder if this is what she gets like every time she's had too much to drink. She also got pretty clingy the last time. When I went to put her to bed that night, she latched onto me in a similar manner and wouldn't let go. I never asked her how much she remembered from that night and how much in control she was of her actions.
Making one last attempt to get Hanako off my lap, I brace myself and raise my hips, preparing to grab hold of Hanako in case she loses her balance. It doesn't have the intended effect though. My movement merely causes our crotches to firmly rub against each other and the sensation causes both of us to simultaneously let out a sharp breath. Startled by our mutual reaction, I hold my breath for several seconds, and when I look up at Hanako's face I can tell from the fact she's using one hand to cover her mouth that she did the same. When it's clear that Lilly didn't hear us, we both relax and Hanako once again presses my head to her chest, this time letting her chin rest on top of it and softly running her fingers through my hair. Though she's holding onto me pretty tightly, there's still a certain tenderness to the whole thing.
The wine has left me a bit fuzzy as well, but with some effort, I manage to collect my thoughts enough to assess the situation. This is a bit of a weird predicament, but there's probably no need to panic. As long as neither of us makes any sudden movements or sounds, Lilly's probably not going to notice what's happening in front of her. She'll soon finish her song and Hanako will get off my lap on her own since we'll have to put the cello back where we found it. I might as well enjoy the experience in the meantime.
Deciding to reciprocate Hanako's oddly expressed affection, I move my hands underneath her blouse, wrap my arms around her lower back and pull her closer. Hanako's body feels wonderfully warm. I can't exactly hear her heartbeat, even with my ear pressed against her chest, but I can faintly feel it. I'd be lying if I said I hated this. As my fingers detect the thin layer of perspiration on her back and the smell of her body enters my nostrils I can sense desire slowly welling up inside me. Hanako's method of 'seducing' me may be extremely unrefined, but I can't dispute its effectiveness.
I'm not sure how much time passed between the moment I decided to get a little bit more comfortable and the moment Lilly finishes the last notes of her song, but I have to admit I wouldn't have minded if it had lasted a bit longer. As it becomes clear that the song's really over, Hanako lets go of me and leans back a bit so we can both give Lilly a round of applause. Considering the fact she hasn't practiced in years, Lilly did rather well though one still wouldn't mistake her for a professional musician.
"Great performance, Lilly."
"Well done, Lillly."
I notice a slight slur in Hanako's voice, though it's not nearly as pronounced as it was during our last encounter with the bottle.
"Thank you, you two. I hope the occasional slip-ups weren't too grating."
Preparing to get up, Hanako slowly raises her hips. I can tell from the look on her face she wouldn't have minded this taking a little bit longer either.
"Not at all. In fact..."
I pause for a moment. I'm not sure if it's a wise idea to let the genie out of this particular bottle, but seeing that we got away with our previous moment of shared affection...
"I personally wouldn't mind an encore."
"I hope you're not making fun of me."
Lilly sounds a bit suspicious as if she's not completely convinced of my sincerity.
"It wasn't perfect, but all things considered it sounded pretty well. And it's cool getting a private performance from a friend."
"I'd... like to hear mmore too."
"One more time then. Close your eyes again please."
As I raise my head to give Hanako a knowing look I can't help but notice the glowing smile on her face as if I just proposed to her. I suddenly realize I've seen that type of triumphant smile before. It's an exaggerated version of the 'Hurray, I won!'-smile she shows whenever she wins a game we play together. I suddenly realize that by her slightly intoxicated logic this may very well have been a competition...she felt Lilly was encroaching on her territory and me allowing her to remain where she is for a little while longer confirmed to Hanako that she succesfully seduced me away from the 'competition'.
I can hear some ruffling behind Hanako as Lilly readies her instrument for a second song. Hanako softly takes my face in her hands, brings her face close to mine and when the first musical notes start vibrating in the air I find myself locked in a quiet kiss with her. We stay like this for several seconds until, during a particularly loud note, Hanako breaks it off and we let out a gasp that's hopefully drowned out by the music. I once again wrap my arms around her, and when we share another kiss, I notice that Hanako has started moving her hips a little. I give her a surprised look. She's taking it slightly farther than I anticipated. There's a playful smile on her face - broader than usual with just a tiny tinge of embarassment. Her face and upper chest look flushed, either from embarassment, intoxication or arousal. Probably a combination of all three.
I'm not sure whether to feel nervous from or excited by Hanako's bold approach. Her motion, a slow but steady grind, has caused a pleasant feeling to start spreading from my groin to the rest of my body and as a sense of arousal starts building up inside me, I find that, without having noticed it, I've started making small grinding movements with my own hips to match hers. I lean back to look at her face and I can see she's trying her utmost to avoid making any sounds. In fact, we're both going back and forth between holding our breath and exhaling sharply whenever Lilly's song picks up slightly in volume. It's somewhat of a reassurance that Hanako's still going out of her way to make sure Lilly can't hear us, even with her usual inhibitions lowered.
The question is how long we can keep this up. The experience is both pleasant and extremely frustrating at the same time. The friction caused by our nether regions rubbing against each other is starting to feel better with each passing moment and when I look at the way Hanako squeezes her jaw shut and closes her eyes every few seconds I can she very much feels the same thing. But neither of us dares to make even the slightest sound or move a single muscle except for those required to continue our grinding motion. At the same time, despite the fact we're in somebody else's living room, despite the fact our best friend is only a little more than two meters away from us, despite the fact a single loud gasp or moan could betray us, I can barely resist the temptation to kiss her passionately, to fondle her supple breasts, to touch her everywhere. I put my hands on her hips and press her down a little harder. As a result we both let out an involuntary sigh.
Suddenly, I can hear something behind Hanako and when I look in Lilly's direction, I notice she has abruptly stopped playing and has gotten up from the couch. My heart skips a beat and for a moment I worry I might end up having an episode right here on the spot. Did Lilly catch us?
"I... I think I hear a car outside. My parents must be home. I'd better put the cello back."
SHIT! This is bad. If Lilly's parents catch us the way we are now they'll probably either drown us in the nearby bay or ship us back to Japan in the cargo hold of a plane. Or maybe both. When I look at Hanako, who's in the process of getting off my lap, I notice she looks scared as well. Lilly has already started messing with the endpin's screw, but can't really get it loose. I hurry over to her, grab hold of the screw and give it a few hard twists until it's loose enough to dislodge the endpin. When I look back at Hanako, I notice she's frantically trying to button up her blouse, but her nervousness coupled with the effects of the wine she's had make her unable to get even a single button fastened. Somewhere in the house I can hear the sound of a door. We have to get out of here or this vacation will meet a very premature end. As if some divine entity has decided we still have business here, a semi-acceptable excuse suddenly finds its way into my brain. I quickly run over to Hanako who's still fumbling with her blouse.
"Lilly, I think it might be better to introduce ourselves to your father when we're completely sobered up. We don't want to create a bad first impression. Please excuse us for tonight."
"Ah... Hisao? Wait, what...?"
No time for discussion. We probably only have a few seconds left to spare. I grab Hanako's hand and make a mad dash for the exit.
"Good night, Lilly."
In our haste to get out of the room, up the stairs and into our guest room, we nearly trip over our own feet a few times. When we reach our room I throw open the door, pull Hanako inside, close the door and frantically lock it as if some demon from the netherworld has been chasing us. As I confirm that the door is really locked, it takes me a few seconds to realize we're safe. Man, what a screwup this could have been. I turn around to face Hanako, the both of us still panting heavily.
"We're... safe...I think. We... got away... with it."
We take a moment to catch our breath, look at each other as if to say 'Now what?' and then burst into an uncontrollable laughing fit. The situation is simply too ridiculous to grasp. When we have finally gotten the tension and adrenaline out of our system, I get close to Hanako and hug her gently. Should we go to bed now? If last time was anything to go by, we'll probably feel like crap in the morning. But I can't say I'm tired yet. And as I hold the still softly giggling Hanako, the warmth of her body brings back the feelings we shared in the living room earlier.
I'm probably not the only one feeling that way as Hanako hugs me back less than gently and presses herself against me like she did after her birthday party. This time, however, she raises her head and starts kissing me. In contrast to the few careful and quiet kisses we shared downstairs earlier, the ones we're exchanging now are passionate and filled with longing. A slight aftertaste of the wine we've had earlier fills my mouth as our tongues dance around in a fevered embrace, and I feel my head getting a little fuzzy again. I can feel her hands move underneath my shirt and stroking my back. Eager to return the favor, I move my hands underneath her blouse. As soon as I do so, she lets go of me and starts shaking her shoulders, trying to shake off her blouse without breaking our kiss. Since she's gotten slightly sweaty already, causing the blouse to stick to her body a bit, I decide to speed things up by taking it off myself. I raise my arms, hoping Hanako gets the message, and sure enough a few seconds later my shirt is pulled over my head and dropped at my feet. We resume our makeout session, and with more luck than skill I manage to get Hanako's bra off in a single try. We edge towards the bed step by step without breaking our embrace or our kisses and somehow manage to kick off our shoes on the way. Keeping one arm around Hanako's waist, I start fondling her left breast with the other hand, drawing a nasal moan out of her in the middle of our kissing.
When we finally reach the bed, there's only one thought on my mind. I want her. The desire she's awakened in me isn't going to be satisfied with mere kisses anymore. I feverishly try to undo the button of my pants. It seems to take an eternity. The moment I get it loose and unfasten my zipper, I feel two hands grab hold of my pants and pull them down in one go, taking my boxers along with them. Emboldened by Hanako's act, I reach out, unbutton her pants, and a moment later her pants and panties are around her ankles as well. With the last pieces of clothing (somewhat) out of the way, we indulge in the mutual hunger we feel. As we act out our desire, it strikes me how different this is from how we usually do this. Whenever we satisfied each other in the past, we made certain to build things up slowly and carefully, making sure to keep things tender and gradually explore more intimate areas as we proceeded. This is nothing like those other times. We're feverishly moving our hands across each other's body, almost at random as if we're possessed by an unbearable itch yet we can't find the correct spot to scratch. The wine we've had this evening is probably at least partially responsible, but I don't think that's all there is to it anymore. Is it the fact we were stimulating each other earlier while being forced to repress every signal our body was trying to let out? Or is it the fact we haven't done it in a month and we're both dying to change that? Taking a moment to finger her, I can instantly tell that she's ready. We were probably both ready the moment we dashed into this bedroom. I lift one of my legs, trying to get my pants off without taking my hands off Hanako's body. However the next moment, my leg gets stuck, I lose my balance and I nearly fall backwards. The only reason we remain standing is because Hanako manages to brace herself in time. That was close. I could have hit my head against the nearby dresser and broken my neck. What a pathetic way to go that'd be. We'd better do this another way. I turn to the bed and pull back the sheets.
"Hanako, ah let's get on the bed."
A feverish kiss, followed by a gasp.
Then one more.
Hanako gets onto our bed, crawls a little farther onto it and then starts wiggling her legs in an attempt to get rid of her pants. I nearly feel my heart stop at what I see before me. The sight of a thoroughly exposed Hanako, on all fours and completely naked safe for her socks and the pants and panties around her ankles, is a temptation I can't resist. I get on my knees on the bed behind her and carefully, yet firmly take hold of her hips.
The brief nod that follows is all I need. I put the tip of my member against her entrance, carefully use my fingers to brush her labia aside and then push myself forward and into her.
Hanako gasps in surprise as I enter her, and the intense pleasure I feel as her insides envelop me forces a loud moan out of me. It's soft and warm inside of her and from this position I can penetrate her slightly deeper than usual. I remember to check on Hanako, but notice she shows no signs of discomfort. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction as I thrust my hips back and forth, as if I've been staring at a wrapped present for days on end and finally get to open it. The pleasure that shoots through my hips is enough to cause my knees to buckle slightly, and I hold onto Hanako's hips for added support. I notice the sounds that Hanako's making are a bit louder and more unrestrained than usual. Wanting to pleasure her more, I bend over a bit and fondle her breast, then try to position my hand near the spot where we're joined, so I can finger her some more. As I feel my way around, I suddenly feel Hanako's hand over my own as she guides me to the right spot. It's a bit awkward since I can't move as easily while bending over her like I am. Still, Hanako's cute moans in response to the stimulation more than make up for that. As I feel my limit approaching, I take hold of Hanako's hand, which is still resting on top of my own and press it against the spot I was focussing on until now. She doesn't react immediately, and for a second I believe she's not going for it. Then she furiously starts rubbing and I firmly grab hold of her buttocks with both hands and start thrusting again. The sight of Hanako in front of me, the wonderful sensation that runs through me with each movement of my hips, the sound of our heavy breathing, even the sound of my body slapping against hers (which we usually find embarassing) all combine to push us towards our rapidly approaching climax. Shaking the last few shreds of embarassment from my mind, I give in to lust and give us the final push towards the inevitable.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:50 am
I wish I was dead.
Was it this bad the last time?
It might have been but there's no way to know for sure. Even digging through my memory feels like smashing my head into a wall. Or into a pile of broken glass. Or into a wall with broken glass embedded in it.
I grit my teeth as I try to bear the painful pounding inside my head. It doesn't really help, although I am getting slightly more aware of my surroundings. I notice a lot of light around me. A painful lot of light. Too much light. I roll onto my back, use both hands to shield my eyes and carefully open them. Even the small rays of light slipping through the cracks between my fingers manage to hurt my eyes, but I nevertheless keep them open. Eventually my vision has adapted enough for me to look around the room through squinted eyes. The torturing light turns out to be sunlight from the nearby window. My eye falls on the nearby curtain. If I could get to that curtain and close it that would make things a lot more bearable.
Of course, the curtain's too far to close from where I'm lying, so I'll have to get out of the bed and make my way over there which is easier said than done. My arms and legs feel like someone snuck up to me in my sleep and injected lead into my veins.
I really don't want to get out of bed, but that light isn't going away by itself.
I manage to make my way to the edge of the bed, but as I prepare to step out of the bed I notice that something is somehow keeping my legs stuck together. I pull away the covers just a little bit so my feet become visible and I notice that I'm still wearing my socks and that my boxers and pants are around my ankles. I groan softly in exasperation. The way I'm feeling right now, even the effort of having to pull up my pants and underwear comes across as an excruciating task. Still, I'll have to do it if I want to make it over to the window. Trying my hardest to ignore my body's protests, I manage to sit up, reach out and pull up my pants. The window is only four to five steps away, but it feels more like fifty. When I finally reach the window, I give a sharp pull on the curtain and sigh as the lighting in the room dims. It does little to diminish the throbbing sensation under my skull, but I do feel a bit of relief now that I can open my eyes without getting the sensation of someone rubbing them in with pepper extract.
Now that I can look around the room without squinting, I notice a motionless form on the bed. I faintly recall waking up partially lying on top of something warm and soft before rolling onto my back. Hanako's still largely covered by the bedsheets, but I can see her long dark hair stick out on one end and her socks and pants sticking out at the other end. I let out another soft groan. It hurts to think too much right now, but I manage to remember just enough of last night's events to blush a bit.
Despite feeling sick and exhausted, I hesitate to get back between the sweat-soaked sheets and opt to take a quick shower instead. The warm water running over me feels good although it does less to ease my hangover than I was hoping for. It does ease my hurting brain a bit, allowing me to think back on last night's events. It's not the first time a few drinks have left Hanako a bit clingy, but it's definitely the first time she's gone this far. It's not like I've been acting like the adult in the room though. After last time, I thought I'd be able to handle Hanako just fine, even if she got like this. But now it turns out that that Hanako is able to handle me just fine as well.
I get out of the shower, not really feeling any better but certainly feeling more awake. I still have a headache and feel rather exhausted. While it took me very little time to fall asleep, my sleep was restless for most of the night. I wonder if getting back into bed will be a good idea. I take a look at Hanako who's still lying on her stomach in exactly the same position as before and probably hasn't moved a muscle since I went to take my shower. Last night, after we finished, we pretty much collapsed on top of each other, and I somehow managed to get my hands on a sheet to pull over us. Under other circumstances, I'd have no seconds thoughts about getting back in bed. Hanako's sleepy smile in the morning is one of the most beautiful things in the world to wake up to. This morning, however, it's pretty likely she'll feel as queasy as I’m feeling right now, and I'm not so sure how she'll react to the memory of last night's events, but smiling about the whole thing will probably be the least likely reaction. I think the best thing for me to do is give her the opportunity to recall the whole thing herself and let it sink in without my presence adding an extreme amount of awkwardness to the situation. With some effort, I put on some clothes, unlock the door and leave our room.
As I close our bedroom door behind me, I realize I'm not even sure what to do now. I find that I even lack the energy to think up ways to keep busy. The pounding feeling inside my head has subsided to give way to a still slightly unpleasant throbbing, and my throat is unusually dry. I wonder if I'd be allowed to get something to drink from the fridge. While searching the kitchen for snacks last night, I remember having seen several bottled drinks there. While making my way down the staircase, I slowly become aware of music coming from somewhere in the house. As I stop to listen, I realize that I've heard both that song and that instrument before. I follow the melody to its source and end up in the living room where I see that the cello is now being played by its actual owner. Compared to yesterday, Karla is dressed a lot more casually this morning. Instead of her business suit, she's wearing a pair of sporty jeans and a light blouse. Upon noticing me, Lilly's mother gives me a cheerful nod and a smile.
"Good morning, Hisao."
"Good morning. I hope you don't mind an audience."
She makes a quick gesture with her head.
"I already have an audience, but I don't mind a larger one."
When I look behind me, I notice that the large couch on my side of the table isn't as unoccupied as it seemed when I entered the room. Lying on the couch with her eyes closed is Lilly. She's wearing the exact same clothes as yesterday, making me wonder if she's been to her room at all last night. She hasn't really acknowledged my presence since I entered the room, though with Lilly it's sometimes difficult to tell whether she's asleep or not since she also has her eyes closed half the time when she's awake.
With Lilly taking up all the space on the couch, I simply take a seat on one of its armrests and listen to Karla's playing. I recognize the song as the same melody Lilly played for us last night. Even in the rather sorry state I'm currently in, I can make out the subtle difference between Lilly's playing last night and Karla's performance right now. Somehow Karla's playing seems to flow more naturally, and there's an effortlessness about her movements that hints at quite a bit of experience. The melody itself is subdued and soothing to listen to, but also a bit melancholic. Eventually, the song ends, and I think about clapping for a moment, but then decide that the noise would probably hurt my brain and settle for an appreciative bow.
"That sounded good. Is it a Scottish piece?"
Karla shakes her head.
"The name of the song is 'Concord', and I believe it's originally Canadian. I picked it up before I first moved to Japan. It's always been one of my favorite pieces though it's kinda lacking without a piano accompaniment."
"Do you often practice in the mornings?"
Karla grins and shakes her head.
"I wasn't practicing. When I came home last night, I caught my daughter examining my cello, and she asked for a performance. I wasn't dressed for the occasion at the time, so I put it off until today, and when we found her on the couch this morning, I decided a morning concert was a nice way to wake her up."
"Is she awake now?"
Lilly answers my question by letting out an uncharacteristically loud yawn. Karla grins mischievously.
"'Awake' is probably stretching the definition."
Lilly groans softly and slowly sits up, gently massaging her forehead. Looks like what's ailing me is also wreaking havoc on Lilly. Wait... Did Karla just say that Lilly spent the night here in this very spot? I take a look and notice a particularly large drool stain on a part of the couch near Lilly's head that escaped my attention before.
"Did you say she slept on the couch? Why?"
"Beats me. She was rather tipsy when we came home last night, so we were quick to call it a night. We took her upstairs, and she mentioned wanting to take a lavatory break. Haha, I thought she was maybe going to offer a little prayer at the porcelain altar, so we decided not to wait until she was done and bid her goodnight. Her room was right next door, so we figured she'd be able to find her way there. But for some reason she decided to go back downstairs and pass out on the couch instead. The housekeeping staff found her here when they arrived. My husband has been really grumpy about that this morning."
Lilly groans as if even formulating words is already unbearably painful.
"Like I... said... before. My bedroom... door was... locked."
Karla shrugs her shoulders with a puzzled expression.
"She says her door was locked when she went for her bedroom, but when I checked this morning that didn't turn out to be the case."
I'm about to dismiss the whole thing when I suddenly remember something that Lilly told me yesterday.
"Lilly didn't sleep in that particular room the last time she stayed here, did she?"
"No, she stayed in the room you and Hanako are currently using. We decided to let you two use that room since it's larger and more suitable to accommodate two people."
If I remember correctly that restroom is situated right between our bedroom and Lilly's.
"I locked our door last night before we went to bed. Perhaps... err..."
Lilly doesn't respond, furrowing her brow instead as if trying extremely hard to remember her exact train of thought from the night before and not quite succeeding.
"Which door were you trying to open after you got out of the restroom? The one on your left or the one on your right?"
"You didn't forget that you changed rooms this time around, did you?"
Karla has watched the one-sided conversation with more than a small hint of amusement and takes this moment to chip in.
"Hahaha, you're lucky you locked your door last night, or you'd have had one hell of an awkward awakening."
She has no idea just how awkward.
Lilly seems to have given up trying to figure out how she ended up mistaking our room for hers and lets out another tortured yawn. Karla shrugs.
"Well, at least that little mystery is now solved. That leaves us with the matter of getting you back to the land of the living."
"Not convincingly so. Why don't you go and take a bath? It might make you feel better. Let me take you there."
Lilly slowly gets up from the couch, her movement stiff like an old-fashioned robot. I turn to Karla.
"So much for the effectiveness of using a cello as an alarm clock."
"My own mother used the the good ol' ladle and frying pan combination to get people out of bed. I should give that a try next time. I've always wanted to wake someone up that way."
That may very well be the cruelest thing I've heard in my entire life, and from her visible cringe, it appears that Lilly completely shares that impression.
"Please... don't... ever..."
Karla playfully chuckles at the comically terrified expression on her daughter's face and then takes her daughter's hand and starts guiding her towards the exit. Before leaving the room she turns around to address me.
"Just make yourself comfortable, Hisao. I'll be right back."
As Lilly and her mother leave the room, I take a seat on the couch Lilly was occupying earlier. Looks like Lilly's not in any better shape than I am, though it appears her parents at least remained unaware of last night's events. Lilly's mother didn't seem to mind the fact that we're all feeling rather queasy, although it seems her father didn't take it quite so well. I feel a bit bad about that. It seems unfair that Hanako and I got away with our little act last night, and Lilly might get into trouble for an innocent, if rather dumb, mistake. That's of later concern though. I should probably focus on how to act around Hanako when she wakes up. As I'm pondering the matter, I hear footsteps behind me and see Lilly's mom enter the room with a glass of water in her hands that she hands over to me.
"You're looking a bit worse for wear yourself, so I got you something to drink."
The water doesn't do much to dull the throbbing sensation in my head, but it eases my throat a bit and makes speaking a bit less painful. Karla sits down on the love seat across from me and starts putting her cello back into its case.
"Just give it a bit of time. You'll probably feel better in a few hours."
"I suppose there aren't any effective folk cures for this?"
"There's this old Scottish remedy of putting poultices of onions under the armpits to draw toxins out of the body. But I wouldn't recommend that."
"Last night we could already tell that Lilly had several glasses, so we left a message in the kitchen asking Allison to make and leave you some BLT sandwiches and plenty of juice in case you guys'd be suffering from a hangover. They'll help getting you back on your feet."
"They actually help?"
"They'll make you feel a little bit better."
"Ummm... Not to pry into your affairs, but... was your husband very upset about Lilly drinking?"
Karla frowns for a moment and gives me a sheepish look.
"He wasn't upset that you guys had a few glasses or even that you got a little drunk. We felt that if Lilly failed to mind her tolerance threshold, the resulting hangover would be enough of a punishment already. What rubbed him the wrong way was that it was the housekeeping staff who found Lilly sleeping on the couch this morning, and they seemed to find it extremely funny. My husband felt his daughter embarrassed him and caused him to lose face in the eyes of his personnel. "
"Is she going to get into trouble?"
"He said she's not going to be allowed to do any more drinking for the remainder of her stay here."
Knowing Lilly and how much she enjoys the occasional sip of wine, that seems extremely harsh, especially since getting her hands on wine back in Japan is going to be tough with Akira now having moved away. Of course, since Lilly's parents presumably don't know that about their daughter, they probably don't think it's that severe a punishment.
She looks at me.
"You think that's too severe, don't you?"
I don't think it's my place to tell parents how to deal with their children. Even if those parents haven't had contact with their children for years.
"I'm not sure."
Lilly's mother gives me a tired smile.
"My husband hails from a rather traditional Japanese family, and he was taught from an early age that causing a family member to look bad or embarrassing them in any way is pretty much the biggest sin you can possibly commit."
"I don't think Lilly would ever embarrass her parents on purpose."
"I don't think so either. My husband's been rather tired and anxious the last few weeks. Work-related stress, no doubt. He hasn't been sleeping well either. It's making him more irritable than he usually is. I'll talk to him later. He might change his mind."
She gives me a playful wink.
"You guys aren't looking like you're going to hit the bottle again anytime soon anyway..."
She has a point there. Just the idea of drinking alcohol again is enough to worsen my headache.
"...but enough about that for now. There's something I wanted to ask you."
All of a sudden, her playful look seems to have turned serious.
"As you know, we have a picnic scheduled this afternoon. I was thinking of combining it with a bit of physical activity. You two know how to ride a bike, don't you?"
I've never asked Hanako, but it's fairly safe to assume she knows how to ride one. Lilly on the other hand...
"I do and Hanako probably does too. But how about Lilly? She won't be sitting on the rear rack of your bike, will she?"
"Leave that to me. What I wanted to know is if you're up for it. Lilly didn't give me a lot of details, but I do know you've had an accident recently that resulted in a short hospital stay. Something to do with your heart? It was the reason Akira postponed her flight. There's a hospital only a few miles away from here, but I wager it's not among the sights you're planning on seeing during your stay here."
"Seems like a good goal to shoot for."
"Do you think you'll be able to handle it? The weather predictions for this afternoon say it's gonna be fairly hot, but we'll have plenty of time so we can take it as easy as we like."
I can't say I take to hot weather very well, but between the three of us I'm the only one working out on a daily basis. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm in better shape than Lilly and Hanako, despite my heart condition.
"I might be able to handle it. I work out nearly every morning at school. I've gotten a fairly decent idea of where my limits lie."
"You work out, huh? We have a home trainer in the attic. I like to take bike rides around the countryside when the weather's good, but I make a lot of use of it during the winter. If you want to continue your daily regimen you're more than welcome to use it."
"Thanks for the offer. I'll keep it in mind."
"If you think it won't be too much for you, we'll leave the car at home today."
She takes a look at her watch and gets up from the couch.
"I have to stop by the office for a few hours. Today's officially my day off, but I promised I'd drop by to ensure everything's going well. I have to make a little arrangement for our picnic trip too. I'll be back shortly after noon. Can I give you guys some advice?"
"Make sure to get rehydrated and restock on the nutrients. Help yourself to the sandwiches Allison left in the kitchen, drink plenty, get some fresh air and then get some additional rest. You'll feel a lot better afterwards."
As Karla leaves, her hand held high in a parting gesture, I take some time to reflect on what she said. What she suggested had better be nothing short of a miracle cure. We agreed to prepare the food for the picnic, and now there's a bicycle ride through the countryside to get ready for as well. The way I'm feeling right now, I don't really feel up for even one of these activities, but Karla's enthusiasm is hard to refuse. Fighting the lethargic sensation that's still weighing me down, I get up and make my way to the kitchen. Not hearing any sounds coming from there, I assume it to be empty and walk in letting out an unrestrained yawn that dies abruptly as the person standing near the kitchen sink unit turns around and gasps.
"Hanako! Ummm...I mean, good morning Hanako."
I hadn't expected Hanako to be up already. She probably went straight down to the kitchen to get something to drink. She doesn't look in much better shape than Lilly or myself, but as we spot each other, our hangovers are quickly made irrelevant by a more pressing matter. Looking at her promptly brings back the memories of last night's events, and I cannot help but blush a little. There's no questioning whether Hanako picked up on my reaction as she instantly flowers into a full blush herself, followed by a desperate whimper. At least this removes any doubt about whether either of us has had enough drinks last night to suffer a convenient memory loss, and with it my hopes of being able to settle this matter by simply denying it even happened in the first place are cruelly dashed. For a moment I can see Hanako's gaze dart around the room as if looking for an escape route, and upon concluding that I'm standing in front of the only exit to the room, she pitifully crosses her arms in front of her chest and lets her head sink, unable to look me in the eyes. I don't think there's ever been a more awkward moment between us, and we've had several over the course of the few months we've known each other.
How do you deal with a situation such as this?
Laugh about it?
Avoid the subject?
I'm probably not going to get a lot of input from Hanako on this one. She seems completely preoccupied with fighting the urge to bolt from the room. While I'm still deciding on how to act towards Hanako, I notice something moving from the corner of my eye, and when I look through the window I can see a person in her twenties approaching the house. She must be part of the cleaning staff. I look back at Hanako who has noticed the woman as well and is looking slightly panicked.
If people see us acting the way we currently are, they're surely going to suspect something fishy is going on. We'll need to get this matter settled before the picnic this afternoon. We're going to need some privacy. Maybe the nearby beach Lilly showed me during the initial tour she gave me. We could eat at the same time.
I notice the sandwiches Karla spoke about lying on the kitchen sink unit. I turn to Hanako and do my best to sound as casual as I can.
"Hanako, Lilly's mother said those sandwiches were prepared for us. We could have some drinks as well. I'd like to take a short walk to get some fresh air. Will you please join me?"
Hanako doesn't react at first, but right before I'm about to repeat my question she gives me a barely visible nod. I take a small shopping bag that's hanging from a hook on the wall, put several sandwiches inside and then open the fridge to look for drinks.
I'd really rather not address this matter at all, but if Lilly notices how awkward we are with each other right now, she'll almost certainly jump to conclusions. I don't think we'll have much of a choice but to settle matters before Lilly gets back. She was probably puzzled enough already by our sudden escape from the living room last night.
As I reach out for one of the several small bottles of juice labelled 'Irn-Bru' or something, I suddenly have a flash of insight.
What if Lilly heard us? We tried really hard not to make any sounds, but we couldn't supress everything. Her hearing can't be that good, can it? But she did hear the sound of her parents' car. I don't think I picked it up myself, and neither did Hanako. Crap! What were we thinking anyway?
Doing my best to put these thoughts aside, I help myself to a few of the bottles, put them in the bag, close the fridge and beckon Hanako to follow me outside.
Chapter 25 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:50 am
"This looks like a good spot."
The crisp morning air coupled with the gentle sound of the water lapping against the shore gives the area a calming atmosphere. There are a few large rocks nearby that seem perfect to use as a place to sit down. I look at Hanako and gesture her to sit down next to me. Since we left the kitchen she's been meekly following me without saying a single word like a bad pupil following a teacher to the detention room. Even as she sits down next to me, I notice she's sitting several paces away from me. Deciding that the elephant in the room can wait until after we've had breakfast, I take a bottle and a sandwich and hand them to Hanako who quietly takes them. As we sit there, nibbling our sandwiches and then flushing the bread and meat down with the soft drinks we got, I can tell from her posture that Hanako is slowly relaxing a little bit. I figure now would be a good moment to start a conversation.
"I guess we're both a little under the weather after yesterday. How are you feeling right now?"
"...M-My h-head hurts."
"Same here. You're not nauseous, are you?"
"A b-bit. But I c-can eat without b-being sick, I think."
"Me too, though the meat's a bit much. Lilly's mom said these sandwiches will ease hangovers though."
"I h-hope so."
"If it's a consolation, Lilly isn't any better off from the looks of it. At least we slept in a bed this night."
I briefly tell Hanako about Lilly spending the night on the couch.
"Heh, so it's a good thing I locked our door, or we'd have had a really uncomfortable moment in there."
That has to be the most joyless laugh I've ever heard out of Hanako. I'm not sure if this is something Hanako will be able to laugh about later, but she certainly hasn't reached that stage right now yet. Still, now that the subject's come up, it's probably best to press on.
"So... um... About what happened between us last night..."
Hanako lets out a dejected sigh that makes me feel guilty about even finishing my sentence.
"It's kinda awkward for me too, but Lilly's probably going to think strange stuff if we're this jumpy around one another all day long."
That seems to get through to Hanako since she turns to me and gives me a resigned nod.
"It's okay. I giddily went along with it. We're both equally to blame."
"But I... s-started it."
"You don't really see Lilly as a rival, do you? Lilly's far too loyal to you to even consider trying to steal me away from you. And I wouldn't trade you in for her either. She's a good friend. A wonderful friend. Like an older sister. But nothing more than that."
"I... I know."
I think Hanako's gotten to the point by now where she can believe my words if she stops to think about them rationally, but on some deeper level a part of her is probably still convinced that Lilly could easily seduce me away from her if she made even a half-hearted effort. Which is probably why she got so territorial when Lilly praised my looks. I'm positive, however, that that fear will eventually disappear as we continue our relationship.
"This could have created an awkward situation with Lilly's parents, but in the end we got away in time and nothing bad happened. That's what matters. I don't think any less of you after last night. The two of us will probably be able to laugh about this later."
Hanako doesn't seem too sure about that last part, but she still looks relieved by my words.
"I'm... h-happy about that, but... w-we still s-shouldn't have d-done what we d-did."
"Aside from the place where we started this, do you regret the act itself, Hanako?"
Her face turns as red as the tomatos on the sandwiches, but eventually she manages to softly shake her head.
"I... d-don't think s-so,b-but I... d-don't w-want to do it... l-like that ever again. Umm... Y-you...?"
Since we're boyfriend and girlfriend now and since we've had sex before, I assumed that what we did was as consentual as we could make it, but maybe I'm wrong about that. She seemed to be enjoying it a lot last night, but now that I think about it, I doubt a sober Hanako would ever let me do it with her in a position that puts just about all her scars on full display like that. She's still really sensitive about them.I hope I didn't overstep my bounds. That would give this whole thing a very bitter aftertaste.
"I can't exactly say I hated it, but I get that we got a little carried away. I enjoyed the act itself though."
"If... If your chest s-started hurting, w-would you have stopped?"
Suddenly I get where she's going with this. I hadn't even thought about that. But it's clear that Hanako did. At least, after the fact.
"I'd like to say I would have stopped in time, but I'm not so sure about it now that I think about it. "
"I'm... n-not sure about m-myself either, s-so..."
I recall what the nurse told me some time back when he gave me the talk about keeping the big head in charge at all times. That certainly wasn't the case last night. Damnit! Looks like that stunt in the living room wasn't even the most irresponsible thing we did that night. Given the way we went at it last night, I could have ended back in the hospital here. That would have been hard to explain. I really should have known better. Still, even though something could have happened, that wasn't the case. I put a hand on Hanako's shoulder.
"I get what you're saying. We took a risk that we shouldn't have taken. But nothing happened, so it's probably best not to worry about what could have occurred. There's no point in that. At least we now that know my heart can handle it."
I suddenly remember something Hanako said a few days earlier.
"I... guess this wasn't exactly the slow and romantic experience you wanted..."
Seems like Hanako remembers that as well, and she seems genuinely disappointed.
"...but let's take a rain check on it. We have weeks ahead of us, we have our own private bedroom and Lilly's not gonna be around all the time. I'm sure we'll get plenty of opportunities."
"Cheer up. Nobody but us knows about this little incident, and we'll just keep it that way. They say that shared secrets strengthen a couple's bond with one another."
I give Hanako a kiss on the cheek, and for the first time this morning, there's a little smile on her face.
"Okay. No telling anyone."
"How are you feeling right now?"
"My h-head still hurts."
"Let's take another sandwich and another soft drink."
"I'm not really that hungry."
"Lilly's mom said it helps against hangovers. Let's share this one."
I break the sandwich in two and give Hanako one half. After eating my half, I finish my bottle of juice. I notice Hanako has only finished half her bottle.
"You're not going to drink anymore?"
"One bottle was enough for me. I'm not r-really thirsty anymore."
We take a moment to just sit here and enjoy the fresh breeze blowing over the bay. It's still relatively early in the morning, and the picnic won't take place until after noon. I'm not really sure how long it'll take for Lilly and Hanako to prepare the snacks, but I doubt it'll take hours even in their current condition.
"I'm still kinda tired. What do you say we head back to our bedroom and get a few more hours of sleep. We'll probably feel better afterwards."
"What about the snacks?"
"It's not going to take hours, and I'll help out if necessary. I'll set the alarm function of my cell phone to wake us up at half past 11. Lilly's mother won't be back until noon anyway."
"Just a few hours then."
I take Hanako's hand, and we walk back to the mansion. As we enter, we're greeted by the housekeeper who informs us that Lilly went back to bed for a little while as well. Deciding to follow her example, we make our way up the stairs. Let's hope we'll feel better at noon.
"Are you certain you don't need my help preparing all of this? There's a truckload of food on this table."
"Very certain, Hisao. You know what they say. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. We might end up getting in each other's way."
"I could help Hanako sort all this stuff out."
"The offer's appreciated, Hisao, but I think it won't be necessary. If I can think of something, I will let you know."
I sigh softly and sit back down in the kitchen chair near the fridge. Lilly and Hanako do look like they can handle themselves with the picnic food, but I don't really like feeling like dead weight. Either Lilly's mother was right, and those sandwiches really helped or those hours of additional sleep worked their magic on us, but the gist of it is that all three of us are now feeling good enough to actually be looking forward to a little outing into the countryside. Nevertheless I can still feel the occasional painful throb dance around the insides of my skull, and I would welcome having something to do to distract from the sensation.
"Ummm, Lilly... What's a f-ficelle?"
The kitchen table is filled with enough ingredients to prepare a buffet of, from pieces of bread to bottles filled with stuff like mustard and vinegar to various pieces of fruit and vegetables. We spent the last 15 minutes unpacking everything in the shopping bags supposedly left here by the housekeeper, and now Hanako is frantically switching back and forth between checking the pieces of paper in her hand containing recipes and putting the various items in order.
"It's a thinner variation of a baguette; a French loaf of bread."
"Has the oven already reached the right temperature? I believe it should be at 200 degrees."
"Not just yet."
"We should put the bread in as soon as we can or we won't be able to finish the sandwiches in time."
"I'll keep an eye on it."
We ended up getting out of bed slightly later than planned, and as a result Lilly seems to have stepped up her usual pace a bit, carving loaves of bread so quickly it makes me feel it's a miracle she hasn't cut her fingers off yet. Hanako, in the meantime, is working hard at fulfilling her role as Lilly's first mate, repeatedly reading the various recipes out loud and putting all the ingredients in a specific order on the table while cutting up pieces of bread, fruit and vegetable whenever she has the chance.
"It'd be best if we made sure the ingredients for the tartines and sandwiches are ready by the time we take the bread out of the oven so we can apply the butter while the bread is still hot."
"For both the radish tartines and the avocado and ham sandwiches?"
"Do you think it's possible?"
"If we both work to get the avocado and radishes c-cut up in time. But we must make sure the water with the macaroni d-doesn't boil over."
Lilly turns her head in my general direction.
"Hisao, could you please keep an eye on the macaroni? It's supposed to cook for... ah... Hanako?"
"Mmm... Four more minutes."
"Four more minutes. If you could drain the water afterwards and put the macaroni in the bowl near the sink, that would be much appreciated."
"I'm on it. Anything else?"
"Not at the moment."
It's hardly active work, but it's better than nothing. I get up from my chair and get over to the kitchen island where a pan filled with water and macaroni is boiling on the fire.
"What more do we need again for the radish tartines, Hanako?"
"Ah... Six tablespoons of soft, salted butter, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Um... I was t-thinking that maybe we could add a bit of black pepper as well. We have plenty for the melon slaw."
"I'm sorry, Hanako, but for this occasion I'd like to stick strictly to the recipes we have. This is the first time my mother gets to experience my cooking."
"Oh... ummm... Okay."
That certainly explains why Lilly is taking this whole thing so seriously and why she insisted on Hanako playing merely a supportive role in the whole thing. This isn't just a picnic to her, but an opportunity to prove herself to her mother. It kind of makes sense that she doesn't want to throw an unnecessary risk into the mix by going along with Hanako's hit-and-miss culinary instincts. Fortunately, Hanako doesn't take Lilly's comment personally, or at least she doesn't show it.
I pour off the water and fill the bowl Lilly mentioned with the contents from the pan.
"I'm finished with the macaroni, Lilly. Where do you want me to put it?"
"Just leave it with Hanako, Hisao."
Before I can approach the kitchen table, a high-pitched whine from the oven draws our attention. Hanako gets up from her chair, places the bread she and Lilly prepared into the oven and then takes the bowl of macaroni from my hands. She places it on the table some distance away from Lilly and herself.
"Thank you, Hanako. Shall we proceed with the radishes for the tartines and the avocado and ham for the sandwiches? If it's not a problem with you, you can do the radishes and move on with the cucumber and pear for the melon slaw when you're done with them. I will handle the avocado, ham and shallots."
Having nothing more to do, I get back to watching Lilly and Hanako work. They do seem to work well together, and someone looking at Lilly without paying attention to her eyes probably wouldn't be able to tell that she's blind. Eventually, another sound from the oven alerts us to the fact the bread is ready, and after Hanako, armed with two oversized oven mitts, retrieves it she gets back to cutting up the vegetables and fruit while Lilly starts working on putting the sandwiches together.
"If you're still looking for something to do, would you be so kind as to get some cellophane wrapping from the drawer near the oven and wrap up the snacks as I finish them? Allison said that Mother left some saddlebags in the hallway. Would you...?"
"Sure, I'll go and get them."
I retrieve the saddlebags from the hallway, take a seat near Lilly and start wrapping up the snacks. With Hanako preparing the ingredients, Lilly putting everything together and me wrapping up the snacks and putting them in the bags, it's almost as if we're running a miniature assembly line though my activities take considerably less time, and I'm still spending a lot of time watching the girls perform their respective tasks.
"That should be all for the radish tartines. How far are you with the ingredients for the melon slaw, Hanako?"
"I'm finished with them."
"Good. Could you walk me through the steps one more time?"
"The s-shallots, mint, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper have to be whisked together. The pieces of pear, cucumber, jicama and watermelon are added afterwards."
As she says this, Hanako gets up and starts putting the various bowls, bottles and cans with ingredients in front of Lilly, occasionally thinking for a moment before swapping two. She finishes up by putting a large bowl and a whisk in front of Lilly.
"I put all the ingredients in front of you. Anything else you w-want me to do?"
"How far are the preparations for the macaroni salad?"
"Ah... Everything's done except for the cheese."
"If you could melt the cheese and mix it with the macaroni, that would probably save me a lot of time. I'll finish the rest once I'm done with the melon slaw."
With that, Hanako and Lilly get back to work, and since the melon slaw Lilly's working on will be contained in just one large bowl, there's not a lot for me to do until she finishes. As I watch Lilly getting started on the meal in front of her, something suddenly draws my attention. Lilly's hands are sweeping across the surface of the bowls, but she doesn't put her hands inside to feel the contents. Come to think of it; while she was working on the avocado and ham sandwiches, she also seemed to immediately know what bowl contained which ingredients yet I didn't hear Hanako instruct her beforehand.
"How do you know which bottles and bowls contain what? I don't recall Hanako telling you in advance."
Lilly's only answer is an amused smile. There's a little smile on Hanako's face too as if they're enjoying some private joke at my expense.
"It's not a secret, is it?"
Lilly lets out an amused giggle.
"Don't worry, Hisao. It's not. Hanako made sure to order the ingredients by type of container first and then alphabetically. The ingredients required for the first step were placed at ten o' clock from my point of view and those required for the second step were placed at two o' clock."
"You mean to say you two have got a system in place for ordering this kind of stuff?"
"We do. It's not the first time we've cooked together. Having a fixed location for everything isn't just important when cooking without sight. It's also essential in keeping your life in general in order when you're unable to see. Hanako knows almost exactly how I like things ordered, both in the kitchen and in my dorm room. She's one of the very few who do."
"So that's why you didn't want me helping her with this?"
"...Indeed. I appreciated the offer, but we weren't given a great deal of time to prepare everything, and it was important to work as efficiently as possible."
"I guess there are some things that are better left to the pros, huh?"
Lilly laughs cheerfully at that remark, even though it makes Hanako blush a little. Lilly opens her mouth to say something, but before she can do so she's interrupted by a sudden sound that I recognize as the ringtone from her cell phone.
"Please excuse me... Good morning. Lilly Satou speaking."
"Good morning, Mother."
I hear Lilly letting out a sigh at the obvious question.
"Yes, I feel much better now."
She puts down her phone for a moment and briefly turns her head in our direction.
"How about you?"
"I'm okay. My head still feels a little heavy, but nothing severe enough to stay in bed for."
"Mother?... We're all looking forward to this afternoon."
"No, we're in the kitchen right now. We've been preparing the food for the picnic."
"I'm sure Allison would have made some wonderful snacks too, but she's not the only person in the world who can cook. I'm sure it'll taste all the better for it."
"Half an hour? Yes, that's more than enough time."
"We will see you soon then. Bye."
"She'll be here in half an hour?"
"Yes, she's just left the office, but still needs to arrange our transportation for today."
"Half an hour isn't that much time to finish the remaining food."
Lilly replies with an eager smile on her face.
"Let's get started quickly then."
"It sounds like we're right on time."
As we exit the house, we hear the noise of a car approaching, and moments later we can see a car with an open trailer behind it coming up the driveway. Stopping the car near the garage door, Lilly's mother gets out and looks at our fully-packed saddlebags approvingly.
"Looks like you went all-out with the food. I can't wait to taste it. Well, I guess I'll have to since we'll still have to make our way over to a suitable picnic spot. Hisao, would you mind giving me a hand with the vehicles? They're kinda troublesome to handle on my own."
Lilly's mother walks up to the trailer, climbs inside and pulls one of the vehicles lying inside upright. I smile as I see what she's holding.
"Tandem bikes. Nice."
Lilly's mother smiles cheerfully.
"I figured I'd rent two of them so you and Hanako won't have trouble keeping up with us. It might take a bit of getting used to at first, but I'm sure you'll pick it up in no time."
I walk up to her, and together we lift the two bikes out of the trailer. Lilly's mom reaches inside the car, retrieves a plastic bag and takes four water bottles out of it.
"One water bottle per person isn't really all that much but we should have plenty of beverages to fall back on if needed and we might be able to refill on the way. Anybody's willing to go and fill these up?"
"I will do it. Perhaps you can get the saddlebags attached in the meantime?"
Lilly steps forward and takes the bag from her mother. As Lilly disappears into the house and we get started on putting the saddlebags on the tandems' baggage racks, Karla turns to me with her expression turning serious again.
"Hisao, yesterday's weather reports predicted reasonably warm weather for today, but the impression I got just by being outside for a little while is that they might have been off by several degrees. It's not too late to call this off and take the car. It has a pretty solid air conditioning system if I say so myself."
"I haven't had problems with my heart since I got out of the hospital. I'll probably be fine."
"It's not necessarily your heart you need to watch out for in this kind of weather. Have you experienced heat stress recently?"
"I've heard once that people with heart conditions run an increased risk of heat illnesses. A heat stroke may not sound as nasty or deadly as a heart attack, but it can still mess you up pretty badly."
I notice our discussion has attracted Hanako's attention, and she's currently looking at me with a slightly worried expression. It's true that I felt some signs of discomfort while taking walks through the city near Yamaku on hot days in the past, but I think prematurely calling off our bike ride is a bit of an overreaction.
"I'll be sure to drink sufficiently and give a call if I'm feeling unwell."
Lilly's mother gives a satisfied nod and then suddenly snaps her fingers.
"This might help as well. Just a second."
She walks over to the car and gets some items from the backseat. As she walks back to us, I notice she's carrying two large sun hats in addition to a cap, the latter of which is promptly pressed on my head. The sun hats, both of them made out of straw and each of them having a decorative ribbon wrapped around the top half, look very elegant. However, when I take off the cap to take a closer look at it, I can see it's a rather cheap piece of headwear that's probably part of a promotional campaign or something. I read the letters on the front and give Karla an unsure look.
"Boyd's bike rental?"
Lilly's mother smiles sheepishly.
"They gave me this one after I rented those two tandem bikes. The visor'll at least keep the sun out of your eyes."
That's probably its one redeeming quality. I hesitantly put it back on again and look at Hanako.
"This makes me look silly, doesn't it?"
Hanako quietly shakes her head, but the fact that she's using her hand to try and cover her smile indicates she's probably thinking something else entirely. Karla gives me a playful slap on the shoulder.
"I'd say it's still better than wearing a sun hat designed for females."
It's hard to argue with that. Neither of us seems to have much to add to the discussion so we focus on attaching the saddlebags to the bicycles until we see Lilly returning to us carrying four filled-up water bottles. Karla takes the bottles from her daughter, places them in the bottle cages located on the frame and hands her one of the sun hats she took out of the car. She then gestures us to take our bike. I turn to Hanako.
"So, do you want to go in the front or in the back?"
"What w-would you like?"
"I'll do the steering if you don't mind."
With that out of the way we both get in the saddle and I flip the kickstand.
"Alright, on the count of three... One... Two... Three."
That proved trickier than I thought. Keeping your balance is quite difficult when someone on the same bike is trying to do the same at the exact same moment. Lilly and her mother seem to be doing slightly better mostly due to Karla seeming better at anticipating her daughter's movements.
"Okay, let's try that again. Try to stay straight up, Hanako. Let me do the correcting. One... Two... Three."
Much better. As long as we keep moving at a decent pace we won't have to worry about our balance. Going around corners will still be tricky with such a long vehicle, so we'll just have to make sure to take wider turns. As we reach the end of the driveway, Karla stops her bike and gives us an approving look.
"It looks like you're doing okay. It might take some time to find a cadence that suits both of you, but I'm sure you'll figure out what works best."
"So where are we headed?"
"We'll go east to the village of Culloden, and then we'll head south from there."
"Lead the way then."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:51 am
"So we're heading for some old battlefield?"
"Well, that place is part of the local history so I was hoping I'd get an opportunity to show it to you. There's a monument in the middle of the moor, but I don't think having a picnic there is a good idea. Not enough shade."
After traversing the road through one of the nearby villages we're now crossing the countryside again with nothing but open fields all around us.
I don't think we've gone on for that many kilometers yet, but all of us (with the exception of Lilly's mother) are nevertheless starting to get a little winded. The wind provided some pleasant relief from the heat while we were riding through the streets of the village, but here in the middle of the open field it's strong enough to start wearing us out.
"Are you okay? We can take a break any time you like."
That's the second time Lilly's mother has asked me that in 5 minutes.
"I think I'll manage. I do hope that wind dies down soon though."
"It's a bit stronger than they predicted. It'll get less when we get to the road north of the moor since it's lined by a small forested area on one side."
Though the ride is more taxing than I anticipated, I can't deny I'm somewhat enjoying it. It feels good to engage in some physical activity after two days of mostly sitting and sleeping and the route so far has offered plenty of interesting sights. Karla's statement that she likes to take bike rides around the countryside in her free time has been confirmed several times while we were riding through the village, and several people who seemed to recognize her waved at us when we passed by.
"Damn, we might have to stop somewhere soon anyway. I see rationing water isn't really my strong suit."
As I notice my water bottle being nearly empty already, I mutter this to myself without intending anyone to hear it, but moments later I nevertheless feel something poke me in the back, and when I carefully look behind me I can see Hanako offering me hers. I nod in acknowledgement.
"One little sip then. But that's all."
I take a small sip from Hanako's bottle, which is still about half-full, and then hold it out behind me until I can feel it being taken from my hand.
The road goes on for a much longer time, and pedalling starts getting heavier and heavier. Finally, as we reach a wide open plain that looks different from the fields we've seen so far, Lilly's mom raises her hand as a sign to stop. She gets off her bike and makes a sweeping gesture in the air.
"What lies before you right here is the Culloden battlefield. About 260 years ago, this moor was the site of a rather brutal battle between the rebels attempting to help the exiled prince Charles Edward Stuart claim the British throne and the loyalist army led by the son of the British King at the time; the Duke of Cumberland. The battle has the dubious honor of being the last full-scale battle taking place in this country."
She does sound a bit like a tourist guide reciting stuff like this.
"I assume Scotland sided with prince Charles?"
"Some of the clans opposed him, but the Highlands area here was certainly one of the places containing a large number of supporters to his cause."
She smirks for a moment.
"Said cause being an absolute monarchy based on the Stuart dynasty's divine right to rule. Not exactly a popular point of view these days anymore, but the Stuart house has ruled this country for centuries so they had quite the following back in the day."
"So, who ended up the victor?"
"Well, the prince may have been many things, but a military genius he was not. Against the advice of his commanders, he went with a defensive strategy in a wide open marshland that hampered quick offensive charges while being faced with an opponent who had superior artillery. It worked about as well as you'd expect. In the end, the Stuart followers ended up slaughtered in less than an hour. Most football riots these days last longer."
"And the prince?"
"He got away to France, though he never attempted to organize another uprising, pretty much guaranteeing the eventual decline of the Stuart dynasty and marking the definite end of an era for Scotland. Many of his followers weren't so lucky though. The Duke of Cumberland was more concerned about squashing the insurrection than about appearing gracious in victory, and after the battle he had his soldiers search the battlefield for enemy survivors and execute anyone who was still capable of breathing. Afterwards his troops were sent out to hunt down the escaped enemy soldiers, and they were particularly vicious about it, burning suspect settlements to the ground and killing all soldiers believed to be rebels. All in all, not a day fondly remembered around here..."
As Lilly's mother finishes her story she looks in our direction and suddenly trails off.
"Hey, are you okay?"
"Eh, sure. Why?"
"I meant Hanako."
I look behind me and notice that unlike Lilly and me, Hanako hasn't gotten off the bike during Karla's story and something about her posture seems off. She's a bit hunched over her handlebar and she hangs her head as if she's on the verge of falling asleep.
She doesn't look or even sound okay. She lifts her leg in an attempt to get off the bike, but then wobbles a bit and the only reason she doesn't end up falling on her face is because I manage to make my way over to her and catch her before she loses her balance completely. Gently lowering her to the ground, I'm startled when I notice her complexion is paler than when we left, her forehead is covered by numerous tiny beads of sweat, and her breathing seems slightly shallower than it should be.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
Lilly's mother kneels down next to us and gives Hanako an analyzing look that makes her instinctively avert her head. Karla doesn't back off though, and after a few moments she turns to me.
"I think we just found our picnic spot. Let's head over to that patch of trees on the other side of the road, give her some shade and start unpacking things. Hisao, you get her there. Lilly, can you help me unpack the saddlebags?"
"Ah... Yes, of course."
I take one of Hanako's arms, put it around my neck and lift her up from the ground. Acting as her crutch, I walk her to the trees Lilly's mother pointed out and get her settled with her back leaning against the largest tree of the bunch. Karla moves the tandems over to our side of the road, and Lilly spreads the blanket and starts unpacking the various sandwiches and salads she and Hanako made earlier today. Suddenly, Lilly's mother takes a bottle from the blanket, holds it to her ear and shakes it a few times.
"Hmmm, did you happen to put ice cubes in this thermos bottle?"
"Yes. They were meant to go with the soft drinks we took along."
"Great. I'll borrow a few if you don't mind."
Lilly's mom takes a handkerchief out of her pocket, puts some icecubes on top of it which she chips into tiny pieces with the handle of one of the spoons we brought along, folds it and then hands it to Hanako.
"Just keep this pressed against your forehead and neck. It'll help."
"Help against what?"
Lilly's mother turns to me.
"It looks to me like she caught a minor case of heat exhaustion. Or at least the beginnings of one."
For a moment a stern expression appears on her face.
"When I said that it was important for you guys to drink plenty this morning after your little party last night, I wasn't joking around."
I hope she's not blaming me for Hanako's condition. If I had known, I wouldn't even have accepted a sip from her water bottle. Come to think of it, I really hope she wasn't saving half of her own bottle for me while neglecting herself. It's not something I'd completely put past Hanako.
"She did drink until she wasn't thirsty anymore this morning."
"Not being thirsty anymore and being properly rehydrated are two different things. Anyway, there's no point in griping about that now. I suggest we simply go on with the picnic and see how things proceed for now."
I can hear Hanako sighing in relief. I know she'd seriously feel bad if this picnic were to be cancelled over her. Lilly's mother gives her a determined look.
"But you'll be drinking an additional share of the beverages, and if you're not feeling any better within 30 minutes, I'm going to call someone to pick us up. Okay?"
Karla's words are emphasized by a rather strict nod from Lilly. Hanako's face drops a bit again, but she nevertheless nods meekly.
Lilly's mother relaxes upon hearing Hanako's reply and fishes the remaining food out of our saddlebags. She then raises a bottle of juice before tossing it to Hanako.
"Well cheers then."
Chapter 26 - cont.
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:51 am
"Could I have some more of that macaroni salad?"
Fortunately, the beverages, shade and cold handkerchief did end up improving Hanako's condition, and 30 minutes later our picnic is in full swing. Lilly has taken a seat next to Hanako, and both are lazily leaning back against the tree we're sitting under. Lilly's mother and I have made ourselves comfortable on the other ends of the blanket just out of range of the sun.
Hanako reaches out and hands Lilly's mother the bowl of macaroni salad. She really seems to like the stuff, which hasn't escaped Lilly's attention either.
"You seem to have a taste for it, Mother."
"It's delicious. What exactly are these little light-green pieces?"
Both Lilly and Hanako think for a moment.
"They're... um... c-chopped olives with pimiento."
"They really add to the flavor."
"You're a pretty good cook, dear."
Lilly beams upon hearing those words.
"Thank you. But Hanako deserves credit as well. She's put in a lot of work too."
For a moment, Hanako and I share a confused look. I could be mistaken but I could swear Lilly's mother looked at Hanako while delivering her compliment. But before any of us can say anything, Karla has already filled up the momentary silence.
"Thumbs up to both of you then."
Deciding not to dwell on the subject, I ask Lilly's mother the question that's been on my mind since the little history lesson she gave us earlier.
"You seem to know a lot about the area. Are you originally from Inverness?"
Lilly's mother nods proudly.
"Yep. Born and raised in the Highlands. Though before I moved to Japan, my work used to take me all over the UK."
She smiles playfully.
"If this is about those history lectures I've been throwing around; I've had practice in the last few days. I've been playing tour guide all weekend for that business delegation that came to visit."
Lilly cocks her head slightly.
"Akira has told us about that. It must have been... something major for you and Father to spend the whole weekend like this."
Lilly's mother gives her daughter a slightly guilty smile.
"Your father and I weren't happy about not being able to pick you guys up from the airport, but... Yes, it kind of was. Probably the biggest event that's happened to the company in over a decade."
"Akira mentioned a takeover."
Sensing that this subject is going over our heads, Lilly's mother looks at Hanako and me.
"I'm not sure how much Lilly and Akira have told you about the family business."
"Not much. Akira hardly ever talks about her job. I only know from Hanako that Akira's a lawyer in your husband's company."
Lilly's mother grins.
"It's not really his company, at least not yet, but he does run it for all practical purposes. Are you guys interested in a short summary?"
Karla grabs one of the sandwiches Lilly and Hanako prepared, takes a big bite out of it and thinks for a moment.
"The name of the company is Satou Medical Technology and it's a family company that was founded by my husband's grandfather. Eventually his son inherited the business and expanded it using capital provided by his two younger brothers who both married into banking families and went into the business of investment banking. The three of them are still the only members of the company's board of directors and officially have the final say on everything. In practice however, it's my husband, who was appointed CEO 6 years ago, who makes just about all the daily decisions and not the old men club in Japan. From what I've heard, their board meetings are little more than social events these days. None of them are really in a good condition anymore to go from business meeting to business meeting abroad to begin with."
Lilly cringes a bit at her mother's playful, and not overly respectful, choice of words, but doesn't interrupt her explanation.
"The company started out producing medical devices like EKG's and respirators for hospitals though nowadays we're also involved in the production of heart rate monitors and AEDs, which can be also sold to consumers and businesses."
She gives me a slightly awkward smile.
"I guess there's no need for me to explain those abbreviations, is there?"
"No, I guess not."
"Our company has had business contacts in the UK and in Inverness in particular for a long time, and eventually we managed to open a second branch by taking over an existing company here. There's a well-developed medical industry around these parts and the Scottish government has taken steps to stimulate the sector, so eventually our Scottish branch outgrew its Japanese counterpart. That's when the board decided to move head office to Scotland with my husband, as the family's heir, being instated here as CEO."
"And now you're planning to open another branch in the US?"
"It's not exactly a done deal yet, but that's what we're shooting for. Ever since we got here, my husband and I have been working hard at setting up a network of contacts in the US, and we're scheduled to travel there and take part in the final negotiations a few days after you guys return to Japan. If everything goes well, we'll be able to enter the North American market, and my husband will have honored an important family tradition."
Karla's face becomes more serious as she continues.
"The Satou family places a lot of pressure on its heirs to perform and perform well."
For less than a second she averts her eyes as if wanting to voice silent disapproval, but she then directs her gaze back to us.
"My husband's grandfather started the business and my father-in-law expanded it significantly with the opening and maturing of the Scotland branch as his crowning achievements. With another branch opening in yet another part of the world, my husband feels like he will have brought honor to his family and to the achievements of his predecessors. To say that this whole thing is extremely important to him is an understatement. It isn't just about work to him anymore, but about being able to face his family and the memory of his ancestor with pride. The Satous are kind of traditional, and family honor is a big thing with them. Heh, samurai spirit and all."
She's probably talking about her extended family as I know that neither Lilly nor Akira are happy about their parents having moved here.
"What's your job in the company? Are you your husband's secretary? You seem to be closely involved with his activities."
Lilly's mother laughs and then shakes her head.
"Heh, you think he'd take an office lady along to his business meetings? Him being married to his secretary would be kind of cliché, wouldn't it? It's actually not that far from the truth. Especially when we first moved here I often acted like his secretary while he was still getting the hang of western business culture. But my official position is being in charge of public relations. I have accumulated a fair bit of unofficial clout on the workfloor though. I've been extremely involved in this whole deal as well, which is why I'll be accompanying my husband in a few weeks to see this thing through."
I'm a bit surprised to hear that Lilly's mother's working alongside her husband - almost like an equal business parter from the sound of it. If the Satous are really this traditional, wouldn't they consider a married woman working to be inappropriate? Especially at such an influental position.
"Did you already work for the company before you moved here?"
Lilly's mother shakes her head.
"No, I've been a stay at home mom the whole time during my married life in Japan. I didn't even know I had a knack for this thing until I came back here and joined the PR department."
She pauses for a moment, takes a bite out her sandwich, sips from her can of soda and then fidgets a bit with the blanket before continuing. I recognize this gesture as an indication of unease, since Lilly occasionally shows the same trait when she's about to talk about an uncomfortable subject.
"Before our Inverness branch also became our head office, we used to have a local manager running things here. When head office relocated, the board determined that a Satou had to be in charge of it. Shortly after moving here, my husband indicated that he needed someone to help him bridge the culture gap between himself and his employees, so he that could become a better manager for his personnel. Someone with personal experience with both the Western and Japanese culture. Someone he felt he could trust and have his best interests at heart. He chose me to fill that role, the board eventually complied with his request, and I ended up answering his summons, eventually joining the PR department."
"I'm glad you've been doing so well for yourself, Mother."
I notice Karla's eyes are not directly looking at Lilly during her daughter's comforting words, and for a moment her smile seems extremely forced. Their migration is obviously still a sensitive subject to her.
"In a way, it's not very surprising you ended up performing so well. Your old job and your current one have much in common, after all."
Lilly's mother lets out a playful laugh at her daughter's remark.
"Hehehe, don't go telling that to any of my old colleagues. We used to believe that going into public relations was equal to selling your soul."
"If you don't mind me asking, what exactly was your previous occupation?"
Karla's face brightens as if she had been waiting for me to ask that question.
"Journalism. I used to be a business correspondent writing for the economic and business pages of The Herald, a newspaper located in Glasgow. Later, I moved to Japan and became a foreign correspondent for the BBC."
Journalism huh? That's quite the recurring topic these days. I can see Hanako, who's been quiet for pretty much the entire time we've been here, perking up ever so slightly at Karla's words.
I can tell that the conversation subject has caught Hanako's attention, but it's clear that she's not yet comfortable enough around Lilly's mother to ask her for details about her former job. Fortunately, Lilly takes this moment to come to Hanako's aid.
"Hanako has recently joined the newspaper club at Yamaku and has already been involved in the production of two issues. She seems to enjoy the activities so far and has been playing with the thought of studying journalism or something related to it."
Lilly's mother's smile grows brighter.
"Ah... Japanese school club life. Shame we didn't have a newspaper club at my old high school. That would have been fun."
She looks at Hanako with a curious twinkle in her eye.
"I suppose you didn't bring one of those issues along with you, did you? I would have liked to read a copy."
Hanako meekly shakes her head, but Lilly takes her handbag, zips it open and casually takes a copy of the lastest school newspaper out of it.
"Coincidentally, I happen to have one on me."
Lilly's mother chuckles briefly at the dumbfounded look on my and Hanako's faces and then takes the newspaper from her daughter. She takes a pair of reading glasses out of her pocket, puts them on and starts thumbing through it. While she's doing so, I roll my eyes at Lilly.
"That may very well have been the most inappropriate use of the word 'coincidentally' I've ever heard in my life. It isn't even a Braille edition for crying out loud."
Lilly grins mischieviously, but doesn't say anything back. Her mother, on the other hand, looks up from the paper.
"You also print your copies in Braille?"
"It's...p-pretty tough at times. W-We... ummm... c-convert the f-files with a computer program. The c-copyshop's Braille p-printer can then w-work with them. We h-have l-large font editions too... ah... f-for s-students with l-limited vision."
"That's pretty neat. Is it a lot of work making all those different editions?"
"The... ah... Braille e-edition can t-take a few hours. We usually... just p-print the large f-font edition on larger p-paper to s-save time."
Lilly's mother gives Hanako a slightly worried look. She's probably noticing how much Hanako is stumbling over her own words.
"I can get a bit carried away on the subject at times. Is it okay for me to be asking you these questions?"
Hanako immediately nods her head, not wanting her shyness to be taken the wrong way. Lilly's mother seems satisfied with that reaction and proceeds to skim through the paper. A few minutes later, she closes the newspaper and turns to Hanako again.
"It reads here that you were involved with both the editing and the writing. What articles did you work on?"
"Ummm... O-only one s-so far. The c-column about the science c-club."
Lilly's mom opens the newspaper again and starts reading through Hanako's column a second time. Hanako visibly tenses up a little bit, and she's looking at Karla with a slightly worried expression. Eventually, Lilly's mother closes the newspaper again.
"Would you be open to some constructive criticism, dear?"
Hanako's eyes widen for a moment before her face drops, and her gaze wanders towards her feet. Eventually though, she nods softly.
"First of all, the language use and sentence structure are good. I really can't complain about that. But I do have one question. Does your boyfriend happen to be a member of the club this article is talking about?"
Lilly's mother flashes us a cheeky grin as Hanako's mouth falls open for a moment.
"Haha, looks like I hit the bullseye."
"To be honest it was a bit of a guess. The impression I got from your article is that you were trying to convince readers to join the science club. You aren't blatant about it, but the message is still there when you read between the lines a bit. I figured you were trying to surprise your boyfriend. It's a really sweet gesture, but you need to be careful not to adopt bad habits."
"A journalist's primary duty is to report the news and inform the public. People like to think of the news as a tool to help them form their own opinion. If you subtly start making a case for something in your article, no matter how noble, people might become wary of reading your work because they don't like the idea of you trying to steer their opinion in a specific direction. Now, some news organisations are leaning heavier towards certain political mindsets than others, but as a rule you want to try and be as objective as possible. Especially as a journalist who is still starting out."
Wow, she's pretty passionate about this subject. Hanako seems taken aback by her response, but also somewhat impressed.
"Ummm... N-Naomi... I-I mean the editor-in-c-chief w-wanted to p-promote c-club membership."
"Really? Well... In that case, I guess it's alright. I could tell you to forget what I said, but I still think it's sound advice to keep in mind. Although... If you actively start promoting something, you're not really practicing journalism anymore, but...”
Lilly's mother trails off before completely finishing her sentence, but I realize with some amusement what she's trying to say and fail to resist a chuckle.
"You'd be practicing PR instead of journalism. Perhaps the two are closely related after all."
Lilly's mother lets out a sigh of defeat.
"I guess backed myself into a corner with that one. To tell you the truth, I'm not completely innocent myself. When my husband and I were still dating I wrote a series of articles about the Satou company, distributed over several magazines and newspapers here. Though I did put more effort than usual into making them as objective as I could."
Lilly smiles at her mother's remark.
"I never knew that. What did Father think of that?"
"It was a joint effort on our part. He supplied me with whatever information I needed, and I ended up letting his company take advantage of the network I built here over the years."
"I was also hoping it would give me a positive standing with my future in-laws."
"After our marriage my husband and I lived with his parents and grandmother for quite some time until we moved to a house two streets away from where they lived. Heh, they used to say that even when not living in the same home, extended family should still live near enough to carry over a bowl of hot soup. I think it's a Japanese proverb of some kind they were reciting."
She pauses briefly while thinking to herself for a moment.
"A bit ironic that they ended up giving my husband a job that sent him off to the other end of the earth, isn't it?"
"What became of them afterwards?"
"My husband's grandmother passed away before Lilly was born, and I doubt even Akira remembers much of her. The care of my in-laws was a bit of a problem when we moved, since it was also my husband's task as the oldest son in the household to take care of them. The company took priority though, and we ended up hiring housekeepers and a private nurse to look after them in our place."
"A private nurse?"
"Their physical condition started deteriorating around the time my father-in-law retired. In fact, his retirement was a result of something that took a major hit on his health. My husband decided to better be safe than sorry. In the end, they ended up moving to a smaller residence somewhere else shortly after we left. They're both still alive, but I don't think they get out much anymore."
Lilly smiles sadly.
"It's a shame. I was looking forward to getting to know Grandfather better after he finally got around to retiring as head of the company. He was absent so often while he was still working that I barely got to know him at all. It also felt strange at first to no longer have Grandmother drop in unexpected to see how we were doing or take us for walks like she had been doing for as long as I could remember. After they moved, contact faded out sooner than I expected."
Lilly's mother appears lost in thought for a moment after hearing her daughter's words but then turns back to us.
"Let's not dwell on depressing subjects for too long."
She gives Hanako a quick nod.
"Hanako, do you mind if I ask you another question?"
"Not everyone interested in journalism is drawn to it for the same reasons. Some simply want to be able to travel and see the world. Others do it out of idealism. There are probably a ton more reasons. I'm really curious about yours."
It's possible Hanako never really thought about that herself yet as she remains in thought for a long time before replying to Lilly's mom.
"I... enjoy working on our n-newspapers. Right now it's m-mostly editing and c-correcting, but it made me think... I'd... like to s-start w-writing myself. I usually get... g-good marks f-for essays."
"You like writing, huh? That's a pretty good motivation."
"But I... d-don't think I'd b-be a good journalist. I'm... r-really bad with p-people."
"I did notice you're rather soft-spoken. There are some ways around that though. I've had some colleagues who were rather introverted. They usually teamed up with a more talkative partner and conducted their interviews in pairs with one doing the talking and the other observing and taking the notes. Or they let their partner do the interviews while they did the research at the office."
Lilly takes this moment to chip in.
"Perhaps being out in the field approaching people would not be the ideal occupation for Hanako. If she likes writing so much, maybe she should try become a writer instead. But is there a specific study for that?"
"Are you talking about fiction? Writing fiction for a living is nice work if you can get it, but it's definitely not the most stable career in the world. Writing non-fiction is more predictable though. There are many people who want to publish something but lack either the time or the skills to write up something themselves, so they hire a ghost writer or biographer to do the job. Then there's copywriters, whose activities are somewhat related to what I do these days, content writers, report writers, technical writers and speech writers."
"That's... a l-lot of options."
"Indeed. On the journalistic side there are the options of editing, copy editing and research or fact checking. Now, there are probably studies that deal with these areas. Let me think..."
Lilly's mother absentmindedly twirls with one of her hair locks for a moment before suddenly snapping her fingers, causing Lilly to flinch.
"Please don't do that anymore, Mother. It's a really grating sound."
"Hmmm? Oh, alright. Anyway, dear, a lot of writers here have a background in either English or journalism. There are universities here that offer a degree in English and Journalism. That's one study, mind you. It covers various topics related to media in general, its role in society and various aspects of literature. There might even be an option to take a minor in creative writing. Now, I'd be VERY surprised if they didn't offer a similar degree in Japan. You should ask when you're back at Yamaku."
"Also remember that it always pays off to practice your writing skills. Have you ever engaged in any writing other than that column and essays for Japanese classes?"
Hanako softly shakes her head.
"N-No. I r-read a lot, but..."
"It pays off to be well-read, but it's no substitute for actual practice. Maybe this week would be a good moment to start."
"S-Start? I... ah... am working on a n-new column for the n-next newspaper, but..."
"I'd love to read it when it's done, but that wasn't really what I was talking about. This may be an intimate question, but... do you keep a diary or a journal?"
"Maybe you shoulder consider keeping one. At least for the time you're here. Not for peer-review of course, but simply to start some good habits."
"Yep. See it as writing your own little private newspaper summarizing everything that happens during your stay here. Take an hour or so a day to update it. Stick with that one hour so you train yourself to work within the bounds of a limited timespan. If you take it seriously, processing and sorting information about events as they happen and memorizing the relevant details while dismissing the unimportant clutter will quickly become a second nature to you. These are skills that both journalists and writers greatly benefit from. If you're interested I probably have an unused diary or two lying somewhere in the study or the attic. Maybe you could take pictures too."
Hanako seems to have trouble keeping up with Karla's enthusiasm, but eventually she nods with a small smile on her face.
"Maybe it's w-worth the t-try."
Lilly's mother sends us a triumphant grin and shoots a glance at the place where Hanako's handbag is lying.
"Excellent. Is that camera still in your bag, dear?"
"Good. Hisao, could you sit down next to her for a moment? Lilly, could you get a little closer?"
Lilly's mother takes Hanako's handbag, fishes the camera out of it and takes a few steps back to make certain that everything that's on the blanket is in frame. As Lilly and I take a seat on both sides of Hanako, Karla aims the camera at us.
"Smile people! It's essential to get front page pictures right."
If I readjusted my watch to Greenwich Mean Time correctly, it should be six o' clock right about now. Lilly and I are busy collecting the various bowls and plates that were strewn across the blanket and putting them back in the saddlebags. Hanako is still sitting in the spot she's been occupying all afternoon, gently rubbing her calves with a slightly uncomfortable expression on her face. She appeared alright during most of the picnic, but got slight cramps shortly before we decided to head back home. Lilly's mother is standing some distance away from us, engaged in a phone call on her cell phone.
"That hour-long journalism-based sales pitch... Was that all 'part of the plan'?"
Lilly puts her hand in front of her mouth to suppress a giggle.
"Would you believe me if I said it was not?"
"You'll at least have to tell me that with a straight face if you want to convince me."
Lilly chuckles briefly.
"Hanako told me about her plans for the future during one of our nights on the town a few weeks ago. I knew Mother used to be a journalist, so I hoped she'd have some advice for Hanako. That's also why I asked Naomi for an additional copy of the newspaper. But... I hadn't anticipated this."
"Not anticipated what?"
Lilly shows me a weary smile.
"You may not believe me, but before she left Japan Mother hardly ever spoke about her old profession at all. I was just as surprised by her passion as you were."
"That's kind of hard to believe."
Lilly pauses for a second, then briefly turns her head in Hanako's direction.
"Hanako must have been overwhelmed by Mother's reaction."
"Yeah she was, but she also seemed interested in what your mother had to say. That's certainly a good thing."
Having finished packing up, Lilly walks back to Hanako's location and sits down next to her best friend. I notice that Karla has finished her phone conversation while Lilly and I were talking and walk up to her.
"I know we're getting ready to head back, but I don't think Hanako's in good shape for another bike ride just yet."
"She's not hurting badly, is she?"
"She seems uncomfortable, but not in a lot of pain."
"We won’t be riding our bikes back. I phoned Allison a few minutes ago and she's on her way to pick us up."
Lilly's mother shoots a brief glance in Lilly's and Hanako's direction.
"Light heat cramps, it seems. They'll subside on their own. All she needs is some rest, a nutritious meal and plenty to drink. She'll have all of that when we get back home."
"Good thing we had shade, ice and drinks nearby."
"True. Maybe we shouldn't have focussed our concerns on just you the way we did."
She takes another brief glance at Hanako and then looks me straight in the eyes.
"Hisao, this is probably an intimate question, but... Hanako's scarring... It's not just on one side of her face, is it?"
I'm taken aback for a second by her sudden mention of a subject this delicate.
"She really doesn't like it when people bring it up."
"I can imagine. It’s not really morbid curiosity or anything. It’s just…"
She opens her mouth to say something, but then suddenly raises her arm and waves. When I turn around, I can see a car with a familiar trailer behind it approaching us from the west.
"I'll tell you later if you're still interested. The gist of it is that I just confirmed that I've been a total idiot today. And I sincerely apologize for that."
She walks over to the side of the road, exchanges some words with the housekeeper as she exits the car and then nods in my direction.
"Allison and I will handle the bikes and the saddlebags. You just get Hanako and Lilly in the car, okay? If all goes well, we'll be home in less than 15 minutes."
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:52 am
I'm woken from my sleep by the sunlight coming from the small gap between the curtains and the momentary stirring of the person sharing the bed with me. Letting out a yawn and rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, my attention shifts to the sleeping form of my boyfriend whom I've been using as a human hug pillow over the course of the last few nights. I cannot help but smile as I look upon his face. I was worried initially that with the combination of his jetlag and altered medication he was going to spend most of the nights wide awake, but after the first two nights he's been sleeping very peacefully. I carefully bring my face close to his until it's hovering mere centimeters above him.
If he wakes up now I'll probably startle him, and he'll end up headbutting me.
As I conclude that he's not going to wake up suddenly, I move in and carefully kiss the tip of his nose. With some amusement, I notice that he reflexively sniffs with his nose a few times in response and I giggle at this cute sight.
I turn around and look at the clock resting on one of the dressers. It appears to be eight o' clock in the morning right now. Looks like it's still early. I guess I could stay in bed and wait until Hisao wakes up so we can pamper each other a bit. Then again, there's something I've been planning to do for a while, and I've been putting it off for several mornings. I don't think I should keep postponing it, so I slowly get out of bed, get my clothes off the nearby chair, make my way over to our private little bathroom and take a quick shower. After drying myself off and finishing my daily ritual of stretching in order to get rid of my scarred areas' morning stiffness and putting moisturizer cream on them, I put on my clothes, take the photo camera out of my handbag and quietly sneak out of the room.
We've been here in Scotland for a little over a week, and so far I can say I'm enjoying our stay immensely. I decided to heed Karla's advice and start keeping a journal. I'm also aiming to take enough pictures to fill at least one of the memory cards Naomi gave me. One of the things I've wanted to take an ample amount of pictures of is the mansion we've been staying in to go with my diary, and I've been waiting for an opportunity to do so without being confronted by too many people. Early in the morning seems like a perfect time to do this.
I can photograph our bedroom at any time I like, so I decide to start with the landing outside our room and work my way to the patio from there. As I pass the door to Lilly's room, a thought occurs to me.
I'm not going to ask if I can enter the master bedroom, but maybe Lilly won't mind if I take some pictures of her room.
I take my time snapping pictures of the bathroom which, as Hisao mentioned to me on our first day, is traditional Japanese and looks quite a bit out of place in the western styled house. I make my way downstairs to the cozy living room, making sure not to miss the cello case and taking a mental note to ask Lilly if she can convince her mother to give us a demonstration of her musical talents one of the upcoming days and then proceed to the kitchen, which I believe is about as large as the kitchen at the orphanage despite this mansion having only two permanent residents. I hesitate for a moment before entering the study. Lilly's mother said it was okay for me to take pictures so it's not like I'll be violating any unwritten rules, but there's still something about the room that makes it feel vaguely off-limits. According to Lilly's mother, this is where her husband spends most of his time whenever he's at home.
The study itself feels very oriental and in some way vaguely reminds me of Miss Yumi's office. The floor is covered with traditional rice straw mats and the room itself is very sparsely decorated with a low table surrounded by cushions in the middle and a few modest wooden cabinets occupying the corner. Traditional Japanese shoji cover the windows, and one of the walls is decorated with several elegant wall scrolls containing carefully calligraphed kanji. The other wall is what draws most of my attention as it's almost entirely covered by a large bookcase containing what look like hundreds of books. Before I can aim my camera to take a picture of it, I'm startled by a cheerful voice behind me, and as I jump back and turn around in surprise, I can see a young woman in her twenties standing behind me. I can't recall her name, but I know she's part of the cleaning staff here. The maid gives me a curious glance, probably not having expected my reaction, and then repeats her greeting while probably trying not to stare past my hairlock. Maybe it's because she startled me and I didn't get the chance to carefully listen to her words, or maybe her accent is rather strong, but I can make neither heads nor tails of what she's saying, so I stammer out a reply.
"Ah... erm... E-excuse m-me? C-Could y-you repeat y-yours-self?"
The maid seems to have trouble picking up on what I'm saying. Would she consider it rude if I just get out of here?
"She is wishing you a good morning and hopes you had a pleasant night's rest."
A calm voice interrupts my plans for a hasty escape attempt, and the next moment a tall figure appears in the doorway behind the maid, who quickly steps aside with a quick bow.
"Ah... umm... G-Good m-morning, M-Mister Satou."
I make a stiff bow, mostly out of instinct, to which he responds with a graceful bow of his own.
"Good morning, Miss Ikezawa. I hope you do not mind if I repeat Miss Wilson's question."
Miss Wilson? Ah, the maid. I shyly nod in response.
"I... ah... slept w-well. Thank you. H-Have you?"
"Quite well, thank you."
He says something in English to the maid that I can't quite make out, but she smiles briefly, nods and then gets to work dusting the table.
"I apologize on behalf of Miss Wilson. She is originally from the countryside nearby, and her accent can be difficult to understand for those who are unaccustomed to the Highlands' dialect."
Lilly's father walks into the room, waits for the maid to finish cleaning the table, puts the laptop he was carrying down and then turns to me.
"Miss Ikezawa, I came here for the purpose of answering a few mails and verifying my schedule for today. Would it be a problem if I started addressing these matters? I am afraid I have a lot of work on my plate for today."
"S-Should I leave?"
"There is no need for you to. "
I turn around and ready my camera to take a picture of the windows and the shoji in front of them, waiting for the maid to finish cleaning them and leave. She suddenly seems to remember my presence again, looks me over and giggles. She then strikes a pose and nods in my direction to indicate it's okay to take a picture. A photo with a person in it, a maid no less, may actually be more interesting than just a picture of an empty room, so I raise the camera and press the shutter-release button on its top to take the picture. She then walks over to another spot in the room and strikes another pose. I chuckle to myself. She seems to enjoy acting as my model, so I take another picture, this time one of her pretending to dust the cabinets. It looks like she's getting into it for this time she takes up position near the bookcase and behind Mister Satou. Before I can aim the camera however, Lilly's father turns his head, gives her a stern look and whispers something to her, causing her to look a bit sheepish before walking out of the room, giggling to herself as if enjoying some joke I wasn't let in on.
Mister Satou watches her leave, a smirk appearing on his face for less than a second, and then his gaze turns stern again before refocussing on his laptop. I'm not quite sure what to think of what just happened. Upon realizing I'm not immediately resuming my previous activities, Mister Satou's gaze briefly shifts to me.
"I told her it may be better if she resumed her chores here at a later time. I will not pretend to know for certain what Miss Wilson found so amusing, but I have a slight suspicion."
"Ummm... W-was it me?"
He thinks for a moment as if needing some time to rehearse his answer and then replies.
"When I moved to Europe, I quickly learned that there are quite a few stereotypes about the Japanese circulating here. I have been able at times to point out that many of those stereotypes are either exaggerations or blatant falsehoods. *chuckle* One of these stereotypes happens to involve the... ah... inseparability of Japanese tourists and their photo cameras."
I blush a bit. Looks I just came across as a walking stereotype, like an obese American tourist in a cowboy hat and Hawaiian shirt asking for directions in English to the nearest McDonalds.
"Think nothing of it."
"Although I do hope she will at least still take my word for it that not all Japanese are covertly trained in ninjutsu during childhood."
I didn't quite pick up what he just mumbled to himself. His voice was too low to hear it clearly.
"If you need anything, please let me know."
"O-Okay, thank you."
Lilly's father once again starts typing on his computer, and I take a moment to look him over. Mister Satou is in many ways a sharp contrast with his wife. Appearance-wise, save for his above-average height, he looks just like the hundreds of salarymen you see every day around the city's train station. Sporting silver-grey hair, bespectacled and wearing a neat business suit, he is a dignified and extremely formal man in appearance, manners and speech. He's about as tall as his wife and although he's been very friendly in his interactions with us, there's nevertheless something stern about him. His polite and reserved tone seems almost jarring compared to the up-beat personality possessed by his wife. And unlike Karla's energetic and fit appearance, Mister Satou comes across as though he hasn't slept in weeks. Unless he always has bags under his eyes, I suspect he was merely being polite when he assured me he had a good night's rest. From what I've learned this week, he's been under a lot of work-related stress lately. And despite that, he's been rapidly typing on his laptop throughout our entire conversation, his eyes barely ever leaving the screen.
I turn around and get into position to take a shot of the scrolls adorning the wall, trying to fit them all into frame. As I do so, I let out a slight yawn that I quickly stifle with my hand upon remembering I'm not alone in the room.
"Are you usually an early riser, Miss Ikezawa?"
"Ummm... M-mostly. Earlier t-than Lilly."
"Sleeping in has never been a habit in this family. Lilly seems to be the only one who occasionally has trouble getting out of bed in the morning."
"I think... It m-makes s-some sense."
Lilly's father gives me a slightly puzzled frown.
"May I ask you to elaborate on that?"
"Early in t-the morning... It's u-usually the s-sunlight that w-wakes me up. But Lilly..."
"My daughter cannot see the sunlight and thus has only her biological clock to rely on. That certainly does make some sense. "
I nod quietly and walk up to the bookcase. I initially intended to merely take a quick photo of it, but when I look a little closer, I notice something I hadn't picked up before. I previously expected the books to be about management techniques or business practices, but a closer look reveals that the shelves are almost completely filled with Japanese fiction with only the occasional foreign title here and there. My interest piqued immediately, I eagerly start skimming the shelves and it turns out there are many authors and titles in there that I recognize.
"Do you approve of my collection, Miss Ikezawa?"
Mister Satou's voice drags me back to earth, and I realize with some embarassment I must have spent nearly 10 minutes checking the bookcase without saying a single word.
"Umm... Are y-you a c-collector?"
"What you see here is mostly a side effect of Inverness Library not really possessing any fiction in Japanese. I do borrow novels written by English or American authors there, but whenever I wish to read something written by a Japanese author, I have a copy imported from Japan. I prefer reading the original material over a translated copy."
I agree completely with that sentiment. It's nearly impossible to translate something and keep all the details and subtleties intact. Unfortunately, my English isn't good enough yet to comfortably read complete novels in English as a relaxation and grasp all the details. Hopefully it will be one day. What a world that would open up to me.
"It's very impressive."
"Think nothing of it. Is there anything in there by an author that you like?"
I think for a moment.
"Ummm... Is t-there anything by Haruki Murakami?"
Mister Satou replies with a nod that seems part confirmation and part approval.
"Near the lower left corner. I have most of his works with the exception of ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’, 'Kafka on the Shore' and 'Pinball, 1973'. Do you have a favorite title?"
"I... haven't r-read all his b-books yet, but I r-really liked 'Dance, Dance, Dance'. It’s… one of m-my favorite titles."
“Would you recommend it?”
"If you have not read it yet, and your tastes are anything like mine, you will probably like 'Sputnik Sweetheart' a lot. It happens to be one of my favorite titles."
"I haven't read it yet. I will k-keep it in mind. I'm s-still in the middle of another book."
"Do you mind if I ask what you're reading right now?"
"The... ummm... The Ark Sakura."
"By Kobo Abe? Have you read his work before?"
"J-Just one piece aside from this. I f-found it... interesting."
Interesting and thought-provoking, but a bit depressing at times, though that's probably for personal reasons. I wonder where Mister Satou is going with this conversation. I don't think he's trying to boast to me about his collection even though he'd have every right to brag in my eyes.
"If you run out of books to read during your stay here, please feel free to borrow whatever you like here. There is no need to ask permission beforehand. All I ask is that you return a book to the place where you found it after you are done with it."
"Wow... R-really? T-Thank you."
Wow! There's enough reading material here to last a year! This vacation just keeps getting better and better!
"No need to thank me. It is the least I can do as a host. Of course, now that you know this, please make certain not to spend all your time here reading. That would be a waste. "
"We're going to... t-take a small boat trip near some p-peninsula today."
"Chanonry Point, I assume. A very nice area to visit if you enjoy watching wildlife."
"I will not ruin the surprise, but you should take along a pair of binoculars before you leave. My wife owns a pair of them. Allison probably knows where they are. You should ask her."
Having finished taking pictures, I press the viewing button in order to see how the photos turned out. Although the camera's tiny screen won't show a great amount of detail, I can see that the angles and lighting turned out alright. Satisfied, I put the camera away.
"Umm... T-thanks for letting m-me t-take pictures."
Lilly's father smiles for a moment and then gives me a curious glance.
"If you do not mind me asking; are you interested in all the rooms in the house or merely those that stand out like a sore thumb?"
I blush a bit. I did pay the most attention to the bathroom and the study because of their sheer contrast to the rest of the house and now I feel found out.
"You would not be the first visitor to take note of the considerable difference in style between the oriental rooms and the rest of the house. We get strange looks from any visitor who is given a tour here. What can I say? I may have left Japan, but Japan has never truly left me. I find that these little touches go a long way in easing the occasional pangs of homesickness. I try to spend my time here whenever I have reading or work to do."
He turns to me for a moment as if suddenly remembering something.
"They do not have Japanese baths at Yamaku, do they?"
They don't. At least not in the dorms. We just have showers, though most of the showers have shower seats attached to the wall in order to accommodate students with mobility issues. They do have a few baths in the nursing staff building that are used for therapy, but I've never used them.
"You are free to use the bath while you are here. If you have not already done so, you should consider taking a soak some time. It is a great way to relax if you take the time for it - and have the time to spare."
The way he says it suggests that last part doesn't apply to him right now, and he's not particularly happy about it.
I think it's time for me to leave here and take a few shots of the patio and outside of the house. Maybe the nearby beach too. Before I can think about saying goodbye, Lilly's father closes his laptop, gets up and curtly bows to me.
"I am afraid I will have to take my leave, Miss Ikezawa."
Taking his laptop under his arm, he heads towards the door and turns around to address me one last time.
"It was good being able to speak Japanese for a little bit outside the business environment. My wife and I usually speak English here out of respect for the staff. I am also pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with the person who has been looking after my daughter. No doubt we will get the opportunity to speak some more when I am able to take some time off. Please enjoy the rest of your day and goodbye for now."
With that he turns around and exits the room, leaving me to digest what he just said.
How on earth should I have reacted to THAT?
Posted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 4:52 am
"I guess they're not here."
I put the binoculars down and giggle softly to myself. The idea that the "friends" I’ve made today would follow me all the way back to the shore near the Satou home is really childish, but a girl can dream. I take a look at my watch and notice it's half past eight. Hisao will still be busy for more than half an hour. Lilly and her mother will be gone for the rest of the evening and if last week was any indication, the same will be true for Lilly's father. I could go back to the mansion and read some more, but I kind of like it here.
This quiet place at the shore of the bay has become my private retreat spot. Karla's suggestion of keeping a diary turned out to be a pretty good idea and each day, some time after dinner, when Hisao goes up to the attic to use Karla's home trainer in order to keep his practice regimen going, I use that time to take a little private walk along the shoreline of Moray Firth, sit down here, collect my thoughts and write them down. The soft sound of the waves, the gentle breeze and the sight of the sun setting in the distance all serve to put my mind at ease.
I thumb through the pages of my little journal. I decided to reject Karla's idea of turning it into a private newspaper and go with a more personal angle. That also meant the diary's for my eyes only. Not immediately knowing anything else to write, I decide to re-read what I've already written and see if anything comes up that's worth writing down.
This day was almost entirely spent getting from Yamaku to the Satou residence in Inverness, Scotland. We assembled in Lilly's room in the morning, took the bus directly to the train station and then the train to the airport. We made sure to plan ahead for unexpected delays, but in the end it all ran smoothly. We made sure to do our baggage checkin as soon as we arrived and wasted no time getting through security. We went for something to eat and then hurried along to the gate. It turned out they let us board the flight before anyone else in economy class.
The flight itself took a long time, nearly 13 hours. London airport was even busier than Narita and it was quite the trip to the gate of our next plane. Fortunately, the second flight only took about an hour and Inverness Airport was really small compared to the other,. When we left the building, Akira was already waiting for us. She drove us to the Satou residence. Since we had already eaten something in London, we didn't waste any time getting to bed. After a trip that took nearly a day, we’d certainly earned it.
Musings: I wasn't looking forward to this day to begin with, but my first experience with the hassles of air travel was worse than I thought. If we take a walk into the city, I can at least tell myself that those crowds aren't going to bother me if I just keep my head down and stay on the move. Not so much here. The idea that there are people at every airport who are being paid to keep a look out for travellers showing 'unusual' behavior creeps me out like nothing else. Then there's the security gates. It's a bit depressing to have pretty much the whole world make it clear to you for nearly a decade that the sight of your face is an affront to their sensibilities, and then they still insist on you showing it completely unobscured. All in all, this was not a good day for me. I can't comment on much of the flight as I've been asleep for the biggest part of it.
Addendum: Now that I've been here a few days longer, I feel that I should mention that although I still dislike airports, I do think this vacation has been worth the stress of navigating them so far. Also, what Lilly said about how special an experience your first takeoff is couldn't be more on the mark. In fact, the second one wasn't any less exciting. It's hard to describe the feeling I got when the plane left the ground, and I could see the world slowly shrink beneath us until the only thing visible through the window was that ocean of clouds all around us. It felt... liberating in some way. As if I was leaving an old part of my life behind me and was on the edge of something new and exciting. I guess I'm doing just that - if only temporary. So I suppose it wasn't all bad though I still dread going through customs and security again when we return to Japan.
I learned something new about myself this morning. I'm pretty much immune to jet lag. I woke up around ten o' clock feeling fit as a fiddle. It seemed I was the only one. I took a long shower, applied my moisturizer and decided to try and finish 'The Temple of the Golden Pavilion' that I started on while on the plane to London. I could have gone exploring the house, but I preferred Lilly to be there when we'd introduce ourselves to her parents. I can't afford to make a poor first impression. I finished almost the entire book AND got several ideas for my article before Hisao finally woke up. It turns out he and Lilly had been awake for most of the night. The dinner we had at the start of the evening was delicious and much, much better than the food on the plane. Akira then came to pick us up to spend the evening inside a real Scottish pub. The atmosphere there reminded me of that visit to the jazz club before Hisao and I started dating. Lilly and Akira took part in and won a pub quiz, while Hisao and I took part in and both won a billiards game. Also, we met Lilly's mother! We just didn't know it was her at first. Back at the Satou residence we tried out the wine that Lilly won, hung out together and then went to bed.
Musings: Wow, the Satou residence is really large. I wonder if it doesn't feel extremely empty with just two people living there. Maybe that's secretly part of the reason they have housekeepers. Lilly's been trying to warm us up to the idea of exploring Inverness on our own. I don't think I'm confident enough yet to try a stilted conversation with some locals in order to ask for directions, but Hisao's English isn't going to get us out of a jam either. I think Lilly's enjoying the idea of us having to practice our English skills the hard way far more than she should. The town of Inverness is really impressive. The older buildings look so different from the ones in Japan. It's really starting to feel like we're on vacation.
Lilly performed a toast. I really envy her bond with Akira. They seem so close. Also, Akira suggests their parents are both workaholics. It explains why they couldn't pick us up from the airport the other day. Interesting tidbit: Lilly learned most of her homemaking skills from their old housekeeper. I wonder if she'd be comfortable with Akira telling us that. Billiards is great fun, but much more difficult than pool. Fortunately, this was a first time for both of us playing it. I told Hisao about what I'd like to do. Hisao has already figured out where he's going to go after graduation. I wonder if there's a university in his hometown of Chiba that I could attend. If we end up studying in different towns, maintaining our relationship is going to be really difficult. Also, meeting Lilly's mother was unexpected. Looks like she was toying with us a bit. I feel a bit embarrassed for not having made the connection myself because the family resemblance is quite striking. I wonder if this is what Lilly will eventually end up looking like when she's older. If so, she's a lucky person. There'll be a picnic tomorrow, and Lilly wants me to help her prepare the food. Hurray!
I woke up feeling extremely sick this morning. Shower didn't help much. Fresh air didn't help much. Swearing to my ancestors to never ever drink again didn't help much. I guess I really deserved this. At least I'm not the only one. Lilly and Hisao were apparently in bad shape too. Lilly got in trouble for passing out on the couch - AFTER her parents already escorted her upstairs. Hisao and I had sandwiches for breakfast, filled with meat, lettuce and tomato. It was really hard eating them while resisting the urge to throw them back up, but Hisao said they'd make us feel better. In the end we decided to sleep for a few more hours. Fortunately, I felt seriously better around noon. Lilly and I spent nearly an hour preparing picnic food which was fun and a good way to distract myself from the painful sensation in my head. Lilly's mother brought tandem bikes along. Riding them was a bit like playing that motorcycle arcade game with Hisao. It was tricky but fun. At first.
We ended up visiting some old battlefield, but I didn't quite catch most of what Lilly's mother told us about it. I got unwell during our bike ride, but it was kind of my own fault, so thankfully the picnic didn't end up cancelled over me. We learned that the company of Lilly's family makes medical equipment. And that Lilly's mother was told to come to Scotland just like Lilly was, though unlike her daughter she didn't end up staying at the last moment. I wonder how things would have played out if that had been the case. Also, Lilly's mother used to be a journalist. I got some nasty cramps near the end of the picnic, so Lilly's mother ended up calling the housekeeper to pick us up. I was given A LOT to drink during the picnic and over dinner that evening. I ended up going to bed early that night to recover from today.
Musings: I really should have remembered last night how terrible I felt that morning after I had wine for the first time, because apparently that first hangover didn't make enough of an impression to prevent me from making the same mistake again. I was worried things'd be awkward between Hisao and myself for the rest of the week, but fortunately we managed to settle things before we went on that picnic today. If I learned any lesson today it's that I should maybe worry less about Hisao and more about myself. Hisao may not take well to hot weather, but I don't either, and I was reminded of that today. Lilly's mother said it was heat exhaustion and she was probably right, but I think my body temperature was also just a little bit too high. It's been years since I've last experienced any real heat-related afflictions, so I guess I was becoming forgetful about the fact that I'm prone to them. I suppose this is what happens when you suddenly start getting out more after years of being a shut-in. I'd better be more careful in the future, lest it's me who ends up in the hospital here.
We also got to know Lilly's mother a little bit better today. She's apparently head of PR at the family company. She was relaxed enough while talking about the business, but I noticed she got tense when she talked about following her husband to Scotland. That's obviously still a sore point that she seemed eager to skip over. When my activities in the newspaper club came up, Lilly suddenly fished our latest newspaper out of her bag. What on earth? Hisao likes to say Shizune is the scheming type, but I'd say it runs in the family. If Lilly's intentions hadn’t been so good, these kinds of stunts would have scared me. And Lilly's mother used to be a journalist. How neat is that? And she likes to talk about it. A lot. Her enthusiasm on the subject is a bit overwhelming, but it's also pretty contagious. She suggested me to start keeping a journal and even gave me an old diary to use. I decided to follow her advice, so from now on I'll be writing a little bit about each day I'm here, and I'm going to write a bit for the first two days as well.
Before heading to bed last night, I was told that we'd be taking it easy for today, and I could sleep in to my heart's delight. I'm not someone who sleeps in a lot, but I did end up staying in bed until nearly noon. Not so much because I had trouble waking up, but because I decided to wake up my sleeping boyfriend in the only way that's appropriate when you're in a large bed, it's a beautiful sunny morning and you have plenty of time to spare - lazy morning cuddling. I didn't mind the fact at all that one thing lead to another. All in all, I had a great morning.
I was given my own tour of the house this afternoon. It's a really nice place. I asked if I could take some photos of its interior. Lilly and her mother said that was okay, and I could go anywhere I wanted. Maybe I'll do that tomorrow morning. Or some other time when it's still daytime but there aren't many people around. It'll be interesting to view my photos side by side. If I show pictures of the Japanese rooms to people, they might not believe they were made in the same house as the other ones. I also found out today that Lilly's mother has a home trainer that Hisao will be using for his daily practice.
Around four o' clock in the afternoon, we took a trip into the city to walk along the river Ness and visit St Andrews Cathedral. It was a beautiful church, though we didn't really get a lot of information on its history. I suppose it's still a church first and a tourist attraction second. The warmest part of the day was already over by the time we went into the city, but Lilly's mother nevertheless gave me her sun hat and said I could keep it for the remainder of my stay.
Musings: First of all, I really love the sun hat. It has a pretty wide brim, so it does an excellent job at hiding my facial scars and during the warm months it's more fitting than my own hat. It's also really elegant, and Hisao says that I look cute while wearing it. What more could I possibly wish for?
Lilly's mother really got going when the subject of her former job came up yesterday, and I was a little overwhelmed at first, but now that I've had a night to sleep on it, I think there was a lot of useful advice in what she said. I should ask the teacher in charge of the newspaper club, Mister Hoshino, if there's a study like the one Lilly's mother mentioned yesterday. I just hope I can work up the nerve to approach him about this. Then there's the career paths. My head was spinning when Lilly's mother was rattling off job options. I think fiction writer would be a dream come true to me. I've taken in so many books - how wonderful would it be to be able to return some of that. But Lilly's mother had a point in that it might not be the most stable career, and I think I really benefit from having some stability in my life. Maybe at some point when/if I share a home with someone who has a monthly income himself. (is it too early to be hoping for something like that?)
Technical writer seems like a solid and stable career, but I wonder if that kind of writing isn't too cold and lifeless for me. There's no personality in good technical writing. Biographer or ghost writer would be exciting. Imagine working closely with some celebrity who tells you all kinds of intimate things about his life that the rest of the world doesn't know about yet. But then you'd probably need a network and contacts in order to even get someone to approach you for such a job. I wonder what it would be like to be a speech writer. Imagine seeing hundreds of people listening to someone giving a rousing speech and knowing those people are really listening to and applauding your words. In the end though, copywriter or content writer may be the jobs that are easiest to get.
I can't really shake what Lilly's mother said about working with other people in order to work around your own shortcomings. Would I be able to practice journalism if I had someone like Naomi to do the interviews with me or for me and let her do the talking while I do the writing? That might just work. Lilly uses all sorts of tricks to work around her limits. Maybe I should take a page from her book and do the same. I wonder if Naomi would be up for a duo interview some time. I could always go into editing if things don't work out.
I can't believe I'm thinking about all these things. Not too long ago I had no clue on what to do with my life after Yamaku, and now I'm trying to eliminate options that all look attractive. I guess it's about time though. Lilly and Hisao already have their career path largely figured out. I can't lag behind too much. In the end, it probably doesn't matter if I don't have one particular job in mind at this point. If I know what study to go for, I'll probably have plenty of opportunities to see where my interests lie. Like Hisao. Still, I wonder if I should have another talk with Lilly's mother about all of this. Will it look weird if I approach her? Will I even be able to pull that off without turning into a stammering mess? Maybe it's better to ask Lilly to break the ice for me. I don’t think she’d mind.
Today is the first day Hisao and I have gone out without being accompanied by Lilly. We spent last evening preparing for today. We packed our lunches, the tourist guide and a map of the city and surrounding Highlands area. Lilly's mother gave each of us a bus card that we can use to take any of the bus lines in the area without having to pay the driver. I was a bit nervous to go out there without Lilly or her mother accompanying us, but the fact that Hisao was also a bit uneasy was a small comfort. Lilly's mom told us we could always call if we weren't sure how to get back. Good thing it didn't come to that. I'm not even sure how much reception we'd have in the middle of nowhere.
Having focussed on the cultural sights over the last two days, Hisao and I decided to get away from the city and take a nature-viewing trip for a change. We took the bus from the area near the Satou residence to the bus station in the center of Inverness and then took another bus to our destination. That bus ride took quite long - almost an hour. Fortunately, the bus drivers have been really helpful so far. When we show them our bus cards and then point out our destination on the map we brought along, they usually give us a little notice when we reach the bus stop where we need to get off.
Our destination for today was the hamlet of Tomich far to the south-west of Inverness. The village was built in a very charming style. It's called the Victorian style; named after one of the queens who ruled in that era. It seems most of the village's buildings used to be part of the local nobleman's estate, though the manor itself is now a ruin. Fun fact: the first golden retriever was bred in this village. The nobleman who lived here needed a dog who could retrieve game from almost anywhere during the hunt, be it the ground or a lake. (of which there are plenty in the area) So he ended up breeding a dog breed that loves both water and playing fetch.
The main attraction around here was the awe-inspiring waterfall slightly south of the village called Plodda Falls. We spent a lot of time just staring at it and taking pictures, and then we had a little picnic (nothing big this time, just the lunch we packed) near the falls. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking strolls through the nearby woods. It was really beautiful around there and so peaceful as well. Eventually we took the bus back to Inverness. We made our way back to the Satou residence without messing up, so kudos to us. Here's hoping we can keep this going. Also, before we went to bed this night, we met Lilly's father.
Musings: Lilly's father and mother are really different. I don't think the saying 'opposites attract' applies to Hisao and me, but it certainly seems true for them. I’ve always pictured Lilly's father as an intimidating figure who ruled his household with an iron fist, but he's actually not that bad; just a little bit stiff and stern. Okay, maybe more than a little stiff in his manners. He's also extremely polite and formal - much, much more so than Lilly. I don't think we'll be calling him by his first name anytime soon. It just doesn't seem appropriate.
He welcomed us to Scotland when we were introduced and told us to consider his home our own for the duration of our stay. Then he excused himself and retired to his study. From what I've heard, he's going to take a few days off within a week or two to spend some time with Lilly just like his wife has been doing, but in order to be able to afford that time off during this busy period at the office, he's been working massive overtime on an almost daily basis to compensate. He made a rather tired and restless impression on me when we met him. I hope he isn't going to burn himself out for our sake. I don't think Lilly would want that.
Hisao and I went to visit a castle today. There are several of them around the area near Inverness but the closest one, called Castle Stuart, has been turned into a hotel, so we couldn't really go there. Fortunately there was another one nearby; to the north-east of where the Satous live. It's called Cawdor Castle. The required bus trip was fortunately a lot shorter than the one to Tomich yesterday.
Cawdor Castle is really impressive. It feels like a place right out of a storybook. Speaking of which; this castle was apparently the home of the protagonist in one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. I haven't really read any of Shakespeare's works though Lilly's mother gave us a brief summary of the story this morning. It turns out that the real Macbeth never lived at this castle because it wasn't built yet when he was alive, though lots of tourists who visit this place don't seem to be aware of this.
We spent about an hour touring the castle and spent the rest of our time there walking the nature trail nearby and the castle's various beautiful gardens. I think our little walk through the flower garden was one of the most romantic moments of our vacation so far. Despite having brought our own lunch, we actually ended up buying a meal at the snackbar near the bus stop since I gave most of my sandwiches to the ducklings swimming in the nearby pond. I managed to lure a few of them close enough for a photo. They looked so extremely cute I still smile whenever I picture them in my mind. I can't wait to have that photo printed out.
Musings: While browsing through the camera's memory, I found out something embarrassing. Apparently Hisao took a picture of me while I was asleep in our bed. Perhaps he thought I looked cute while sleeping. That wasn't really the issue though. The problem was the fact that I wasn't wearing anything when he took that picture. The bedsheet covered most of me, but I could still see my face, my shoulders and the top of my back. Has he forgotten that this camera belongs to the newspaper club? What if Naomi had found that picture? I don't think she's the type to use this kind of thing as blackmail material against me, but I'd still have to deal with a spell of excruciating embarrassment.
On that note; as of this week our 'love life' seems to be back on track. I think I'm going to miss our bedroom here when we return to Japan and have to get back to sleeping in a cramped single bed, sneaking around the dorm in order to stay over at each other's place and worrying about bumping into each other's neighbors the morning after. Best to enjoy the time we have here. Note to self: don't leave my birth control pills anywhere near Hisao's collection of medication. He nearly took some by mistake. Hahaha, that'd have been awkward.
Naomi will be pleased. A true Scotsman has been spotted and photographed. Not just that but we also got to see how these traditional Scottish garments are made. We visited the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center as well as a shop specializing in Highland clothes today. In addition to the the exhibition there was also a viewing area where we could see craftsmen at work creating these pieces of clothing. It turns out there is no such thing as THE Scottish kilt; each clan used to have its own pattern as well as an accompanying belt with the clan sigil on the buckle and a decorated pouch (it has a name but I forgot what it was) to make up for the fact that kilts have no pockets. While we were at the Highland dress shop, Lilly and I also took the opportunity to try on a few Scottish dresses. I don't think anyone would ever mistake me for a local, but I the dresses looked very natural on Lilly. Hisao snapped some nice pictures of this event. There were a few nice affordable dresses there, but I don't think there'd be a point in me buying one. They stand out so much that I'd never be able to get myself to wear one in public.
Musings: I almost filled up my first memory card today and I'm thinking of having a few photos printed out when we visit the shopping center here. Of course, lots of the photos are about the same things shot from a slightly different angle, but I've nevertheless managed to capture most of my vacation on camera so far.
Aside from that long weekend in Hokkaido, I haven't had a real vacation in a decade. There were dates with Hisao or outings with Lilly that I enjoyed, but this feels different somehow. Or maybe I simply feel different. I'm not sure when it started; perhaps when Lilly's mother started talking about writing and journalism? Or maybe when I started keeping a journal and actively using my camera? It hit me today while I was browsing through the pictures stored on the camera already. I'm in quite a few of the pictures myself. To most people that would be logical, but that's not the case for me. I don't think there are many photos of me in existence at all. Most of the ones that existed before the fire were destroyed when our house burned down. I never liked the idea of people staring at a picture of me any more than people staring at me directly, so I’ve always tried to avoid being caught on camera whenever possible, even if that involved skipping class. I don't appear in the class photo of class 3-3 nor in any of the pictures from earlier years. Yet during this week I've allowed myself to be photographed more often than in the preceding 10 years combined. And I'm writing about everything that's happened too.
Photos used to be nothing more to me than a painful reminder of my disfigurement, but the ones recently taken are different. They're reminders of things I enjoyed. I realize now that that's probably also why I'm keeping a diary. I'm busy making memories. That's kind of new to me as well. When I still lived at the orphanage, I survived by focussing completely on the present. I tried to forget the events of yesterday and tried not to think about what would happen tomorrow. (both were often painful) And yet what I'm doing right now is doing what I can to make sure I won't forget what's happened here in Scotland so far, and I find myself dwelling on what the future will bring even at times when I'm trying to just enjoy the moment.
I realize I'm rambling. A lot is going on inside my head right now, and it's overwhelming and confusing me at times, but I don't think I completely hate it. I hope that by writing all of this down I can give it a place and then try to make sense of it later.
On a final note, when re-reading my recollection of the first day, I realize I maybe wasn't being completely fair. I did like the flight itself and our stay here so far has definitely been worth the stress of the trip so I'm going to try and write something positive about it after I finish this page. Maybe that's the key to sorting out my life. Writing down the precious memories and taking pictures of them in order to to keep them alive that way while letting the bad memories fade with time. Hmmm...
Today was another day off. We decided to go shopping in Inverness. There's an indoor market built in Victorian style located near the Ness. It's a really nice looking place filled with all kinds of small owner-operated shops, and the archways and colorful shop facades give the place an atmospheric old-fashioned charm. It was a little more crowded there than I would have liked, but my sun hat did a good job at obscuring the right side of my face. Among the shops we visited were candy stores, a bagpipe store (those things are really expensive), several tailor and clothing stores and a few gift shops. (I got Naomi a toy Nessie from one of them as a thanks for letting me borrow her camera. She did want to see the Loch Ness monster after all.) We also bought ingredients for tonight's dinner. Lilly and I will be making fruit cocktail tonight. Finally, we met up with Akira in a cafe located in the marketplace. It was nice catching up with her. Also, we (secretly) had a glass of wine there. Akira treated us to one after she heard that Lilly had been sentenced to a soda diet for the remainder of her stay. We made sure not to have more than one though, lest we'd be found out.
Musings: It sure was nice to meet up with Akira again, although I'm a bit surprised that it's been nearly a week since we last saw her. She and Lilly still have almost daily contact over the phone, but you'd say that this would be an ideal opportunity for them to spend lots of time together while they still can. Who knows how long it'll take before they can meet in person again after we return to Japan.
Akira says she's busy with work, and I'm sure that's true, but I also have the impression that she'd rather not visit the Satou residence or even be in the presence of her parents. I heard that she's living in a small apartment she's renting on the other side of Inverness. I feel bad that Hisao and I are staying in such luxury right now while Akira is living in such modest conditions, even though I'm pretty sure it's completely by her own choice. From what I've been able to tell, Akira doesn't like her parents and is still upset with them about the way they left her and Lilly in Japan to fend for themselves. She doesn't act openly hostile towards them most of the time, but she's definitely keeping them at arm's length. While she's been willing to let us drink alcohol before, I got the impression the main reason she treated us to a glass of wine was to spite her father. I don't think Lilly's happy with this, but she seems hesitant to try and force things. Well, that's Lilly for you. Still, it's a pity she can't spend time with both her parents and her sister at the same time. They're all really nice people on their own.
We went to visit the famed Loch Ness today. It's not the lake in Scotland that covers the largest area, but it's definitely the lake that contains the largest amount of water (it's much deeper than any other lake around here) so you could still argue that it's the largest lake in the country. The road to our destination ran parallel to the lake for nearly 10 kilometers, so we got plenty of opportunity to take pictures. Now about that destination...
The name of our destination is Grmblwarwmx. Actually the village's real name is Drumnadrochit, but as far as pronunciation goes that's the same thing in my mind. Infuriatingly enough, Lilly managed to get it right after a few tries. Karla promised Hisao and me that we'd be flying business class back to Japan if we could learn to say the name out loud three times without mispronouncing it before the end of our stay. Lilly promised to make us lunch for the rest of the school year if we could pull it off. That told us all we needed to know about our chances. We still tried for several kilometers though. Yes, the atmosphere in the car got quite silly.
We first made a stop by the Loch Ness Exhibition Center. It was a very impressive display showing some insight into the legend of the dinosaur-like creature that was reputedly living in the lake and also contained an overview of the various scientific expeditions that made attempts to verify Nessie's existence. Ultimately none of them ever found evidence, but like the ghosts that are said to inhabit the various castles in the region, it adds a nice touch of mystery to the place. After the exhibition center we took a nice hour-long boat trip on the lake. Afterwards, we drove to one of the sights we saw during the boat ride; the ruins of Urquhart Castle. It's a very impressive castle ruin that overlooks the lake. The view from up there was magnificent, especially from the top of its remaining tower. Lilly’s mother said this place held some very special memories for her, but wouldn’t elaborate further on it.
Musings: Today was another day we spent with Lilly's mother coming along. Watching her is kind of interesting. Physically she resembles Lilly quite a bit, but if I had to pick one daughter to compare her to, I'd still say she's more like Akira. (just a little bit more refined) I had always pictured Lilly's mother as an extremely refined noblewoman of some sort, but Karla is surprisingly down-to-earth and laid-back. She's also rather informal, and her casual attitude makes her pretty easy to talk to. It's actually kind of funny in a way, seeing a person with such a resemblence to Lilly talk like Akira often does.
But when I look at Lilly and her mother together, I still notice a difference. Even though Karla acts a lot like Akira, Lilly and Karla don't act like Lilly and Akira. Whenever she's with her sister, Lilly talks to her as if she’s talking to a good friend. The two are spontanous with each other and even like to tease each other whenever the opportunity presents itself, despite Akira being much older. Karla likes to tease Lilly on occasion as well, but Lilly seems unusually reserved when speaking to her mother directly. More reserved than she is around most people. I suppose it's somewhat understandable, seeing that they've been apart for such a long time, but it's still a bit odd.
I got out of bed early this morning in order to take pictures of the Satou residence. It's been on my to-do list for days, and I finally decided to stop putting it off. Lilly, Hisao and I had a trip planned this day, so staying in bed all morning wasn't an option to begin with. While visiting the study I spent some time in the presence of Lilly's father. We've barely seen him at all during our stay here. He leaves early and comes back late most of the time, and when he comes home, he often retreats to his study or goes straight to bed. I hadn't really spent any time in the study before, so I was unaware of this before but... The bookcase covering nearly the entire right wall is nearly completely filled with Japanese fiction! I think saying that Lilly's father is an avid reader is a massive understatement. He gave me permission to borrow any book I liked in case I got bored here. I wonder if it'd be selfish of me to secretly wish for a world-wide airline strike, just so I could stay here long enough to take him up on that offer. Before I left, he told me to get some binoculars. I wondered why at the time. It didn't take that long to find out.
Lilly, Hisao and I took a bus to the village of Avoch on the other side of the bay. Just like her father, Lilly wouldn't really go into detail. Avoch turned out to be a rather small harbor village and Lilly had arranged a boat trip from there. I didn't get why we'd be taking another boat trip after having taken one on Loch Ness the day before already, but the reason quickly became clear. Three words: Seals and dolphins! It turns out they live in the very bay on whose edge I've been sitting each evening. The binoculars I borrowed came in handy when the captain of our boat took us close to a seal colony near the peninsula we were heading for. Seeing them lying on the beach and occasionally clumsily flopping around, especially the little ones, just made my heart melt. So adorable! We didn't end up needing binoculars for the dolphins. At some point several of them started swimming around and under the boat, occasionally jumping above the water surface. We made a few marvelous pictures including one with me in it. The trip itself only took an hour, and I would have liked to take another, but unfortunately there was a rather large group waiting on the shore when we came back, and we didn't want to wait another hour for another go-around, so we took the bus to North Kessock, where a dolphin and seal center is located, instead.
We spent some more time at the center watching dolphins from both the vantage point and through the underwater cameras the center set up nearby. They also had underwater microphones installed so we could listen to the sounds they made while they were swimming nearby. One of the coworkers there seemed really eager to tell us about these animals - as if my interest hadn't been piqued enough as it was. When Lilly pried a bit, we learned he was so focussed on us because he already had us pegged for Japanese, and the center was run by the Whales and Dolphin Conservation charity organisation. He mentioned that Japan is one of the countries still engaged in the practice of whaling and Japanese fishermen kill thousands of dolphins and small whales every year, and he urged us to spread the word once we return home. That was kind of uncomfortable. I got the impression that that person thought we ate nothing but whale meat all day long, but I've never even tasted it and Lilly mentioned that the few times she had a taste, it didn't strike her as that good. Anyway, Lilly and I made the decision then and there to officially adopt one of the dolphins as a gesture of goodwill. (this was something they offered to visitors) Lilly will be paying the monthly fee to the center, and I will be paying back my share by treating Lilly to a free lunch each month. The person at the center was really impressed by our decision. So please welcome the latest member to our little family; Moonlight the bottlenose dolphin. We got a cotton bag, certificate with her name, a sticker, information guide and they gave us a really cute picture of our dolphin as a bonus. Lilly and her mother will be visiting a theater play this evening, so we decided to return to the Satou home without making any more detours.
Musings: When Lilly's father spoke to me this morning, he suggested taking a traditional bath if I had the time. It's natural for a host to go out of his way to accommodate his guest, but I wonder if that was all there was to it. I remember accompanying my mother to a public bath a few times in the past. I enjoyed it back then. I don't think I could stand entering a public bath these days anymore, no matter how much confidence I'd gain. In fact, I'm willing to bet I'd be denied entry because the owners would feel the sight of me would upset the other visitors too much. Did Lilly's father mean to imply that this would be an opportunity? The bathroom's large enough to accommodate six to eight people at once. It's kind of a public bath without the public. Should I give it a try for old times sake?
Not having anything else in mind to write down, I peer through the binoculars again to see if I can detect any movement in the water. A silly thought creeps into my mind and before I can reconsider the idea I whistle sharply on my fingers, cup my hands in front of my mouth and call out.
I grin. There won't be any response, of course, but I just felt like trying it.
I let out a high-pitched cry, spring to my feet and turn around. Standing behind me is Hisao, sporting a broad grin that would make the head nurse jealous. I quickly avert my eyes while trying to keep my rapidly emerging blush in check. It looks like he decided to look me up, heard me on his way over here and decided to sneak up on me. Hisao takes a moment to enjoy his own joke and then gives me a quick peck on the cheek to reassure me.
"So, did you spot any more dolphins?"
I quietly shake my head, still a bit embarrassed.
"I... d-don't think they c-come to this part of the b-bay often."
Hisao allows his eyes to skim the water himself and then turns back to me.
“Maybe your dolphin’s busy doing typical dolphin-stuff right now. Like… you know… playing volleyball with live sea turtles.”
I giggle at his words.
While Lilly and I were talking about how cute dolphins were earlier today, Hisao had to inject a pseudo-biology lesson into the conversation, and he said that dolphins are prone to what he called sociopathic tendencies at times. Lilly was quick to playfully insinuate that Hisao was merely being jealous, which he immediately denied. For some time I joined up with Lilly playfully ruffling Hisao’s feathers a bit. Hopefully he didn’t take that seriously.
"If your dolphin isn't around then maybe my company will do for the evening?"
I smile softly and nod. "I'm still d-dating you and not Moonlight."
As I look Hisao over, I suddenly realize something. He's still dressed in a shirt and gym shorts. That explains why he dropped by sooner than I expected him to.
"You d-didn't take a shower yet?"
He shakes his head.
"I was going to, but then I realized that since I have no plans for the evening and Lilly and her parents are away, I might as well go with something more extensive than a quick shower."
"You want to try out the bathroom?"
"Yeah. I mean, it's pretty large, and we have nothing but showers in the dorms at school. I don't think I should pass up an opportunity to have what's pretty much my own private bath house."
"I hope you have fun soaking."
From the hesitant look on his face, I can tell there's more he wants to say, but he isn't quite sure how to say it. I suddenly I get what he wants to ask. He didn't come here to tell me he was going to use the bath. He came here to invite me along. As I realize this, my fading blush quickly returns with a vengeance.
"How about it? I don't think you take these kinds of baths very often. Why not take advantage of the opportunity?"
Seeing that I wrote down the very same thing less than half an hour ago, it's difficult for me to argue against that.
"I... don't really handle hot b-baths very well."
"I checked out the bath before coming here and there's a control panel for the heater that allows you to set the water temperature to whatever you like. You don't have to if you don't want to, but I'd really like you to join me. Let's make it a very special occasion."