Without Fumio there would be no after-lunch Indian wrestling that day, so Kensuke thought instead he would go to the school library. Maybe there would be some new magazines. He returned his lunch tray and passed on through the doors at the far end of the cafeteria. Leaving behind the shouts and laughter that filled that room every day, he dashed off to buy a drink from the vending machines near the nurse’s room.
After a second or two of indecision, he settled on coffee milk and dropped a hundred yen into the coin slot. Taking the carton of coffee milk out of the chute, he realized that he now had only enough money left for a small ice cream cone after school. Well, no matter, he thought, opening the carton and taking a big gulp, leaving a milky brown mustache over his top lip.
Turning and moving off toward the library, Kensuke noticed Sachiko Arai standing about ten paces away. She was pretending to read a book, but was in fact watching Kensuke closely.
“Hello, Sachiko! You haven’t been at school since Monday. You been sick?”
“Thank you for asking, but no, I have not been sick. My family had to go to Kobe. Our relatives live there.” Sachiko’s voice was soft, and today seemed more restrained than usual.
“Oh yeah? Did they have a wedding, or something?”
Staring at the ground between them, slow to answer, Kensuke sensed something wrong. He wondered if he had blurted out something impolite. He was about to say he was sorry when Sachiko spoke.
“No, not a wedding…it was a funeral. There is terrible sadness in my aunt’s house, because last week she lost her daughter.” Sachiko’s voice had become even quieter and Kensuke had to lean closer to hear.
For a moment he felt embarrassed, not knowing how to respond to Sachiko’s words. He moved a step closer and pulling from his pocket a Rocket Bar, he extended his hand offering her the chocolate. Sachiko smiled, but shook her head to say no thanks.
“Sachiko-chan, here… Share this chocolate with me while we walk over to see the fish,” Kensuke said, referring to the sixty-liter aquarium with a collection of tropical fish in the library.
Sachiko accepted the Rocket Bar this time. Kensuke had boosted her spirits a little, and she gave back a wan smile. As they walked slowly along the path leading behind the playground to the library, Sachiko debated with herself whether or not to tell her friend about the cousin in Kobe. A sense of family privacy warned her against speaking about such to anyone outside the family. At the same time she was deeply confused and wanted the help of a friend who might help her understand the terrible thing that had happened in Kobe.
The cousin in Kobe, an eighteen year-old girl had flung herself from the roof of her school. This happened not at a high school, but at a cram school, a large preparatory school where as many as one hundred students crowded into a classroom, all struggling to prepare themselves for the next round of university entrance examinations. All the students were making a second or third attempt to pass the examinations they failed the first time around. Each student attended class with the fervent hope that next time would bring success, and open the doors to university.
Before jumping from the seventh floor of the school building, Sachiko’s cousin had removed all identification from her clothing, and left her schoolbag and shoes neatly aligned at the roof’s parapet. On her white blouse she had pinned a note reading, ‘I have passed the examination to heaven.’
The girl’s mother had wept bitterly at the revelation that no one, neither teacher nor classmates could put a name to her daughter’s face.
Keeping her voice even, speaking almost as if it were about a stranger, Sachiko told Kensuke the story of her cousin’s suicide. It wasn’t hard for Kensuke to read the pain in those words, no matter how calm the voice of his friend. They had stopped walking and were sitting on a bench beneath a large pine tree near the doors of the library. The bench was old and tattooed on every surface with the scratched names of students long gone from Tamade Primary School, and as she spoke, Sachiko ran her fingers over and over the worn markings, as though looking for an explanation in those old names. Kensuke listened quietly to her words, words that had begun to separate him from the carefree beginnings of afternoon.
“I am confused about why my cousin did such a thing. My mother has explained it to me, but it only makes me understand it less,” her plaint reaching out to Kensuke in the hope that he might help her understand this terrible action.
Unknown to Sachiko, her story of this cousin’s death in Kobe had taken Kensuke’s thoughts far away. He sat without speaking, unaware for the moment of the girl beside him. Beneath the quiet mask of his face his head thundered at the memory of a friend in Namba, crushed beneath the wheels of a speeding subway. Just like Sachiko’s cousin in Kobe, Kensuke’s friend had found the pressures of entrance exams too much to bear. But in his case it was entrance exams to a private junior high school. The girl in Kobe had been eighteen, the boy in Namba thirteen.
Kensuke had been devastated by the death of his Namba friend. It had brought to him an acute awareness of pressures he had not imagined, and that now lay on his own horizon. For several weeks before his friend had killed himself, Kensuke has noticed something troubling him. The days and weeks of study all aimed at passing one examination had not gone unnoticed, and he watched his friend grow sullen and retreat from friends. Then he began to skip his cram school classes and to stay away from home. He fought bitterly with his parents, a scene Kensuke unwillingly overheard from the back garden of their home. The last time he had seen Hiro, Kensuke noticed that all the light and life of his friend had drained away.
For days afterward, Kensuke had badgered his mother for an explanation of his friend’s motives. He did not understand the depth of such difficulties, for it was not in his experience. He was happy at school and unfamiliar with something like the pressure of examinations. For the first time he considered the possibility of such an examination hell, fearing that it could happen to him. Both mother and father did their best to calm Kensuke, but he was nonetheless left with a dread of entrance examinations.