With all the classmates working together, they cleaned the classroom, and then the hallway. The best part was racing from one end of the hall to the other, bent over damp rags which they held pressed to the floor. Four boys in a line racing to one end and then back left the floor shining clean. They rinsed the rags and hung them on a drying rod, then pounded the blackboard erasers against the wall of the maintenance shed.
With books packed snug in the satchel slung over his shoulders, Kensuke danced his way neatly through the press of students heading for the front gate. Halfway there he met Yûki and Teiji. Fumio had beat them all and was by then on his way to visit his grandmother in Mitaka. The three friends passed through the gate and walked off toward the ice cream shop for an ice cream cone. On the way, Yûki and Teiji changed their minds half a dozen times over which flavor to have that day. Kensuke never varied his choice, having always the chocolate.
“Hey, look at the crabs!” Teiji had dashed over to the baskets of shellfish in front of the fish market. “Look how big they are,” he shouted.
The crabs were twitching and pushing themselves through a mass of tangled legs and pincers, trying to find the water. They were large and brownish red with big pincers and tiny black peppercorn eyes.
“I bet you won’t pick that one up by the claws,” Yûki dared Teiji.
Teiji was reaching out for the crab when the man inside shouted through the open door. “Hey, you boys! Get away from those fish or I’ll come out there and stretch your ears for you.”
The three of them tore off down the street laughing and imitating the old man. The ice cream shop was just a block away and they shouted bets at each other as to who would get there first. Dodging in and out of other people on the street, and almost knocking a woman off her bicycle, they tumbled in the door of the shop arguing over who had gotten there first.
Inside, Mr Yamada was leaning over the counter wiping milk spots from one of the stools, and without raising his eyes he offered a booming hello to the boys. And then without so much as a breath began to tell them about his sister’s problem cooking the rice just right. He lived in the rear of the store with his sister, a living arrangement that from all appearances added a great deal of excitement to his days. Kensuke and the other boys thought he was a little odd, but they were fond of him nonetheless. He always treated them well and let them read the comics without buying them.
The three boys squeezed into a corner beside the rack of comic books, each working on an ice cream cone, catching drips before they ran down the cone, enjoying probably the happiest minutes of the day. Mr Yamada’s complaints about sisters and rice rolled on, but the boys were unhearing, far away in a world of comic book heroes.
Kensuke sat there on the floor reading for half an hour, then got up to go home. He said goodbye, but the only response came from Mr Yamada, his friends too deep in their comics to pay much attention to his leaving.
“Aoki-kun, you the smartest boy in the class?” Mr Yamada leaned on the counter, his chinned propped in one hand, a soapy rag in the other.
Like many of the old man’s questions, Kensuke thought this one too was a little weird. He wiped his hands on a handkerchief, stuffed it back in his pocket, stammered for a moment and then answered.
“I don’t think so, Mr Yamada. There are some pretty smart students in the class, but it would sure make my parents happy if I can become one of them.”
Mr Yamada’s eyes slowly narrowed to a frown, and giving Kensuke a long perplexed look, he grunted and turned to the rear of the shop. “Chikako!” he roared.
Kensuke slipped as quickly as possible out the door of the shop and as the door closed he heard again Mr Yamada’s loud voice calling his sister.
Walking along without much purpose and in no particular hurry, Kensuke looked at the faces that passed him on the street, and at others in the open fronted shops along the way. Some he knew, some were strangers. Many had an expression that betrayed hurry and impatience, something he had failed to notice before and now didn’t understand. Why was everyone in a hurry to get somewhere, or to finish what they were doing?
At the tender age of twelve, Kensuke didn’t yet recognize these expressions as something shaped by the furious pace of Japan’s economy, and was still unaware that Tamade Primary School was only the first step toward thrusting him into that speeding and impatient cycle.
Final pages tomorrow…