Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume31 Chapter16

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Memories of the Blue Umbrella[edit]

I wonder if the rain's stopped.

I idly pondered this as I handed the receipt to the customer.

"Thank-you."

As she gave a cursory nod and walked out, the neatly folded green and orange umbrella that the office lady held was still wet with moisture. As an input to my deliberation, it could go one of two ways. Was it folded because the rain had stopped, or was it folded because she'd entered the store?

The customers in the store were a girl wearing a local high-school uniform and a middle-aged man. Neither of them were holding an umbrella. Had they not brought an umbrella because it wasn't raining when they'd left home this morning, or had they gone out this evening because it had stopped raining? At any rate, it's the nature of a train station that you can travel a long distance without needing an umbrella, so I probably wouldn't learn much just by watching the customer's hands.

Well, I didn't really care whether it was raining or not just at that moment. What mattered to me was whether or not it would be raining in an hour's time.

"I'm sorry, the raisin-chocolate is sold out for today."

It was just after 7pm. My part time job at the bakery finished at 8. Incidentally, the raisin-chocolate had been a hit product for our store just recently – it sold out within 30 minutes of being put on sale at 3pm. Knowing that booms will always come to an end, the shop manager had a policy of not increasing the number of items of a well selling line. I think that's correct.

I was worried about the rain because I hadn't brought an umbrella with me.

It was Saturday, so my shift had started at 4pm. After attending lectures at university in the morning, I'd returned home, and it wasn't raining when I left again at 3:45 so I'd made the mistake of forgetting my umbrella. Since it was the rainy season, I was usually in the habit of taking a folding umbrella everywhere with me, but I'd put it in my handbag along with my textbooks. That was my downfall. When I left to go to my part-time job, naturally, I left my textbooks behind.

I realized I'd left my umbrella behind when it started spitting, but by that time I was already in sight of the station. If I'd turned around to go home, I'd have been late for work. So I dashed towards the train station.

Just as I arrived, a bus swept past me into the turn-around area. About half of the twenty passengers got off the bus and opened already wet umbrellas. It had been raining earlier, somewhere along this bus's route.

When I saw the last guy getting off the bus, I was a bit shocked.

I couldn't narrow the shock down to one specific thing – I think it was probably just a general shock.

I knew that guy, just a little bit. Since we both used the same train station, I'd seen him around from time to time. He never came into the store to buy bread, but I'd seen him walk past the front of the shop. I think we were about the same age. Importantly, he had the kind of face I liked. In other words, he was handsome. That was all I knew about him, so there was much more I didn't know.

The guy that got off the bus was carrying a blue umbrella. With a floral pattern. A lady's umbrella. Based on the design and color, it was probably a young girl's.

While I'd been a little disturbed by seeing this man with a lady's umbrella, the next moment I received an even bigger shock. After getting off the bus and reaching a covered area, he threw that umbrella away. Well, maybe he was just placing it there. He didn't actually throw it, he leaned it up against the wall, but then continued out through the ticket gate, leaving the umbrella where it was. To my eyes, he'd thrown it away. He'd thrown away the umbrella that didn't suit him at the train station.

That was, in general, a shock.

Leaving behind the gentle rain, I entered the bakery. But as a result of that, I couldn't help but notice the umbrellas the customers had when they came in. Particularly when they were bluish umbrellas.

I wonder if the rain's stopped.

I wonder if that umbrella's still in the same spot.

If the rain hasn't stopped when my shift finishes. And, if that umbrella is still in the place where it was abandoned – .

When I got to that point, I realized that I was thinking foolish thoughts.

Really, I wanted it to be raining. Because I wanted to pick up that umbrella and take it home.

"Put out the 'everything half-price' signs."

My manager's voice came from further back in the store. Looking at the clock, it was 7:30. Only 30 minutes until closing. I was serving customers at the time, so the other part-timer, a school-aged girl who had been slicing white bread, put the signs out.

After closing the shop at 8, checking the till, changing from my work uniform into my normal clothes in the locker room, it was 8:20pm.

"Good work today."

The manager always told us it was fine to take home as much of the unsold bread and pastries as we wanted, but I lived alone and there was only so much I could eat. But if I held back too much, it might look as though I thought the bakery's food was awful, which would also be bad. So I said, "I'll just take one," and looked inside the basket of unsold pastries.

"Ah, then you won't take this?"

The manager offered me a paper bag that had been stored on the shelves behind the register.

"It had been set aside as an order for one of our regular customers, but they rang and canceled it not long ago."

"Well, I'll take that then."

I thanked the manager and accepted the paper bag, then punched-out with my time card and left the store. The girl I'd been working with was still choosing a pastry, so I farewelled her with, "I'll see you next time."

I wondered what happened to that blue umbrella. I hurried across the wet and slippery train station floor.

I didn't care whether the rain had stopped or not. What I wanted was for the blue umbrella to still be there.

It had been four hours. It wouldn't be unusual for it to be gone.

Someone without an umbrella could have picked it up, or some kind person could have taken it to the station building or a police box. But that guy won't have returned to pick it up. Of that I was certain.

The umbrella was there. But it wasn't in exactly the same spot. It had moved about a metre. Since it was near the station entrance, that was probably because people had run into it, knocking it over, and then set it back up leaning against the wall. There was also the possibility that someone had borrowed it and then returned it.

At any rate, with my heart thumping, I touched the blue umbrella. I gripped the handle and gently opened it.

Luckily, it was raining lightly. I whispered to the umbrella, telling it that I'd take it to a police box tomorrow, then lifted it over my head and started to walk. Whoever the true owner of the umbrella was, it was surely not that guy from before.

As I left the train station, the man that I had once thought wonderful had become uninteresting. Why had I ever thought he was a good guy?

"I've still got a long way to go, when it comes to picking people."

I said to myself, and smiled. The blue flowers blooming on the umbrella seemed to be giggling with me too.

When I returned to my apartment and opened the paper bag from the manager, I found two raisin-chocolate breads inside. I'd been working there twice a week for about three months, and this was the first time I'd eaten them.

As for what happened to that blue umbrella, it disappeared from my place within the night.

I really had been intending to take it back the following day, but the rain had stopped so I left it out, opened, on my verandah to dry. And the following morning, it was gone.

My apartment's on the second floor, and it's not like it was underwear, so it was hard to imagine a thief taking it. There had been a strong wind that night, so it had probably been blown away.

I hope it bumped into somebody, provided it didn't hurt them.

From time to time I think about that blue umbrella.

I'm sorry I couldn't keep my promise.

Since it would be a miracle, perhaps one has to pray.

That it is returned to its rightful owner, no matter how many years that takes.

* * *

A blue umbrella had fallen onto the street on my path home from school. Lost property should be taken to the police box. I picked it up. It was a bit of a detour from my usual route, but there was a police box on the main street. Instead of following my usual path home, I turned one street earlier, in the opposite direction.

"I wonder if this really is lost property."

Although I'd started out in high spirits, I became a wee bit concerned. After all, the umbrella had certainly fallen, but it was stained with dirt. The frame wasn't broken, but there was a section where the blue material had come loose from the frame and flapped about.

"It could have come from a rubbish bin, or something."

But there weren't any rubbish bins along that road. Especially since the street I picked it up from was in a residential area.

"Ah, whatever."

At any rate, if I handed it to a policeman then my job would be done. It wasn't something I'd been ordered to do, but if pressed, I'd say it was to make the world a better place. When humans find something that's for the good of society, the order to do that comes from within.

However, being an ally of justice was never quite that easy.

"Oi."

Usually, an evil agency was out to block your path.

"…"

Well, that was problematic. Normally, you'd have to deal with a number of underlings first, but today the final boss had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

"You're from District A, aren't you? Why are you running around in District B?"

I didn't like this kid. Ishimaki-kun was in the same class as me, but he was a thug. Since we were in fifth grade of elementary school, he should have calmed down a bit, but he spent all his time teasing girls, teasing girls and teasing girls. Most of the time, you could substitute my name for 'girls' in that last sentence. But I wasn't about to back down.

"There's something I have to do."

"What is it?"

"What does it matter what it is?"

Does B district belong to you? Do I need your permission to walk here? In my mind I said these things, but they didn't come out of my mouth. I wasn't going to descend to his level to fight him. I, at least, wanted to maintain the composure expected of a fifth-grader.

When I walked on, ignoring him, Ishimaki snatched the umbrella out of my hand.

"Give that back."

"If you want it back, then tell me where you're going."

"No, way."

"Well, I'll just keep this then."

Ishimaki chuckled to himself.

That umbrella wasn't mine. So it was no skin off my nose if Ishimaki kept it. I had a small folding umbrella inside my satchel, so I wouldn't get wet even if it started raining, and when I returned home mom wouldn't ask me about the blue umbrella.

For a moment, I considered turning my back and going home. One turn around the corner and I'd be back on the street I had been on, and back in District A. If Ishimaki followed me, I could ask him, "Why are you running around in District A?"

However.

I felt a prick of pain in my chest.

Ishimaki wouldn't take the blue umbrella to the police box. I would not complete the task I had undertaken. That troubled me.

"Give it back."

I chased after Ishimaki as he ran away. He was undoubtedly pleased by my overreaction.

He left the street and ran across the pedestrian overpass. As someone who is always chosen for the athletics relay, I caught up to him in the middle of the bridge and we struggled for the umbrella.

Thinking that the blue umbrella was under attack from an evil agency, I desperately fought to retrieve it. Ishimaki probably just saw the blue umbrella as a blue umbrella, but having taken it he desperately sought to retain it.

We were both absorbed in what we were doing, and didn't consider how it had come to be like that. But just as I thought, "Ah," the open umbrella fluttered off into the air. That it remained like that and didn't fall onto the road was either a blessing or a curse. No, it was probably a blessing. If it had landed on the road, it may not just have been the umbrella that was damaged – if it had hit a bicycle then both the bicycle and its rider may have been injured too.

The blue umbrella was caught in one of the trees next to the pedestrian overpass. It was close, but not close enough that you could stretch your hand out from the overpass and reach it. On top of that, the tree looked to be completely unsuitable for climbing.

I felt despair, and cried. I wasn't able to protect world peace.

"I'm sorry."

Ishimaki said.

"I'm sorry."

After he'd said it a second time, I shook my head. The final boss had bowed his head. That would probably preserve world peace. But the tears wouldn't stop. Because the umbrella was still stuck in the tree.

"That wasn't mine."

I said to Ishimaki. I opened up to him, and asked what to do next. I told him that I'd come to District B so I could take it to the police box. I said what I'd earlier resolved not to tell him. In this way, I thought I'd gain the wisdom of the final boss.

"Let's call an adult."

The final boss's decision was quick.

"An adult?"

"All we can do here is cry. After all, we're only kids."

Ishimaki took my hand, and led me down off the pedestrian overpass. He looked less like a bully and more like someone trustworthy.

Indeed, I was only a child. The umbrella was only an umbrella that had fallen down, and the world wasn't going to end if it disappeared. That was just something I'd made up.

"If a kite gets stuck on an electric line, you call Tokyo Electric. But who has jurisdiction over the tree branches?"

After I grumbled this, he looked back at me and smiled.

"I dunno, so how about we go to the policeman like you'd planned?"

"Okay."

I was enticed into smiling too.

After explaining what had happened at the police box on the main street of District B, the policeman said, "Let's see what's happened first," and accompanied us back.

But by the time we'd returned, the umbrella was no longer there.

Ishimaki and I searched the surrounding area, but in the end we couldn't find the umbrella, so we spent some time playing in District B's park before going home.

* * *

The blue umbrella appeared before my eyes just as I was regretfully thinking, "I should have at least taken an umbrella when I left."

Technically speaking, the umbrella didn't appear before my eyes. It fell on me from above.

"I'm fine by myself."

I'd left home with that sharp parting remark, and within five minutes it had started raining lightly. If I'd turned left towards the train station when I left, I would have come across numerous shops selling umbrellas, but, unfortunately, I turned right and even the houses became fewer and farther between. It would normally be called a quiet residential neighborhood, but deep inside there's a small wood, of the type where ghosts might appear at night, and small fields were dotted between the houses. The clouds covered most of the sky, so it was dim and gloomy, but thankfully it was still early afternoon. Not yet the time of day when ghosts were likely to be moving around.

With the rain falling on me, I reluctantly ran towards a patch of greenery. It was too early to return home. If I didn't let at least an hour elapse, it wouldn't look good at all.

I knew everyone in the neighborhood back in the rural area where I'd grown up, so at times like this all I'd have to do was call out to someone and I'd be invited back to their house for tea, snacks and idle conversation. Call it the flavor of Tokyo, or society in general, but I didn't have any nearby acquaintances here. It was kind of sad.

The closest patch of greenery was a grove of mixed trees, containing a shrine to the god Inari. Or probably the other way around. Because the Inari shrine was there, the trees that surrounded it hadn't been cut down. At any rate, thanks to that god, I managed to more or less escape the rain. Soon enough the red torii arch came into view and I realized that the surrounding trees were fewer in number and scarcer in foliage than I had initially thought.

I was regretting it now, and it was too late to do anything about it, but I should have at least taken an umbrella when I left. Just then, a gust of wind blew, and an open umbrella fluttered down on top of me. I didn't even think about it. When the handle came into reach, I grabbed it. Since that's how you use an umbrella.

It was a blue umbrella. With a floral pattern, probably hydrangeas from the looks of it.

I surveyed the area, looking for its owner. But there was no one but me on the path. It must have flown here from somewhere else. It had been carried to me on the wind just now, but before that who knows how many modes of transportation it had taken. The cloth had come unstuck from one of the struts.

"Maybe the god Inari granted my wish for an umbrella."

As a start, I passed through the torii archway, and put my hands together in thanks. In that case, I briefly thought that I should have prayed for something else, but quickly reconsidered – it's not good to be greedy. Things could have gone bad if it had chosen a wicker basket.

Since I had obtained an umbrella, imperfect as it may be, there was no need for me to run around looking for a place to shelter from the rain. I could keep walking around the neighborhood until the residual heat dissipated.

But I didn't do that. My ears picked up a small sound from close by. It sounded more like an 'ahh' than a 'meow.'

"A cat?"

I squatted down and looked along the ground. Beside the shrine to the god Inari there was a cardboard box, and inside that were cats. One, two, … three cats.

It didn't really happen very often these days, but these cats had undoubtedly been abandoned. Outwardly, I remained calm as I looked down upon this clump of vitality, but inside I was just as surprised as I had been by the umbrella.

Just in case, I had another look around the area, but just like the umbrella's owner, there was no sign of the former owner of these kittens.

"Well then, what to do?"

The kittens hadn't just been born, as their eyes were open. Given their size, they'd probably finished weaning. There was a towel in the box instead of a blanket, but in spite of that they were probably still cold as they huddled together in the corner.

"Left in such a location, I doubt anyone would have noticed them."

While I certainly didn't approve of the dumping of new-born kittens, at least they could have put some more thought into where they left them. But then I tried to think of a better place, and nothing sprang to mind. I considered a main street, that had pedestrian traffic, but then I imagined the kittens getting out of the box and being attracted to the cars, and shook my head.

"Ahh, right."

As usual, the gears in my head don't spin that quickly, but it came to me. There was an animal hospital on the road I'd taken to get here. Talking to the veterinarian there would be the answer. Perhaps they'd be able to search for a new owner.

I retraced my steps. Although I'd called it an animal hospital, it was actually a small, private veterinary. I walked in through the gate, up the three stone steps and turned the doorknob, but the door didn't open.

"Not in?"

There was a notice beside the door. It said the veterinarian was on a training course and not seeing any customers for a week. The address and phone number of an animal hospital in the neighboring suburb was listed in case of emergency, but it was too far to walk and I had neither a phone nor any money, so I returned to the Inari shrine.

The cats were still in the same place as when I left. I squatted down, holding the umbrella over them.

I wanted to pat them, but I didn't. I knew that if I touched them, it would stir up my emotions.

I wanted to keep them, but I probably wouldn't be able to. Since I didn't even know what would become of me tomorrow, I was in no position to act irresponsibly.

"At the very least, I'd like to see you lot get a good home."

What if I took them home, temporarily? From there, could I get them to the animal hospital? Then I remembered that Kazuo had come by car. Kowtowing to her would be annoying, but she might be able to take them to the animal hospital.

Perhaps I saw a bit of myself in those kittens. I wanted to get somewhere warm and be given some milk.

With that decided, I stood up. I tapped my numb feet on the ground a couple of times and started walking, when I spotted a pink umbrella in the direction of the torii.

"Gran."

"Oh my."

When the umbrella was lifted slightly, the face that appeared belonged to my granddaughter, Misa.

"Mom and dad and aunty were all worried about you. Won't you come home?"

"Worried, huh."

"Of course they're worried. That's why we were having the conversation about living together in the first place, right?"

Misa was attending a university in the city. She was Kazuo's daughter.

"I'm fine by myself."

My husband died at the beginning of the year. I thought laying him to rest was all that was required, but it didn't take long for this to happen. They said I should go and live with them because they were worried about someone my age living on her own.

"You don't have to be by yourself though, right? When grandpa was alive, it was the two of you. But you don't want to leave the house that has all of your memories with him. I could see that."

"Maybe you're right. But both your parents and your aunt said they didn't want to move back in to my old, cramped house, so there's nothing that can be done about that."

"Aunty's husband works in Saitama, and they've bought an apartment 20 minutes away from his work."

"And your parents are in the middle of renovating their place."

"Mom's just finished the flower arranging classroom."

So if I were to live with either of them, I'd just be a burden on their household. And it would then only be a matter of time until the house that no-one was living in was put on the market. The house that we'd built from scratch, without any help from our parents, or anything like that. The house that we'd raised two children in.

"That's why I said I'd be fine by myself. I can still take care of myself."

"I suppose. When you put it that way, the next move is difficult."

Misa murmured, then as though she'd just noticed, she said, "Ah, kittens."

"What are they doing here?"

"What are they doing? They've been abandoned. Ah, don't pat them."

But before I could stop her, she'd done just that.

"So cute."

"Aaaah."

"Why can't I pat them?"

"If you get too attached, it makes it even harder to say goodbye."

"You speak from experience?"

"Indeed."

"Did you and grandpa have a cat at some point?"

"Just for a day."

Ever since I was a child, I'd wanted a cat. When I was in primary school, one of my classmates had a cat that gave birth to a litter of kittens, and I thought we could have one of them. But about the same time my older brother said he wanted a dog, and my father granted his request. His reasoning was that the dog could be a watchdog. I pleaded with him, saying that the cat could hunt mice, but he wouldn't listen. Our house didn't have enough mice to warrant an exterminator.

After we'd been married for a while, before we'd had any children but after we'd built the house, I asked my husband about getting a cat. He said that cats were old people's pets, and suggested we get a dog. It wasn't a big deal, but it hurt me and I ran out of the house. It brought back memories of my father getting my brother a dog, and made me far too sad.

I remembered. It hadn't been raining, but back then I'd come here too. My parents lived far away, so I'd had nowhere to go after a matrimonial quarrel either. When my husband found me here crying, he said we could get a cat. The following day, I answered a personal notice in the local paper from someone looking to give away kittens.

"Why just for a day?"

Misa asked.

"Because of your grandpa. He couldn't stop sneezing and crying."

"He was allergic to cats?"

"Yeah, but at the time we didn't use words like that. Your grandpa probably knew about it beforehand. But he was a man of the Showa era. He couldn't say that he had a weakness against cats. And if I wanted a cat so badly that it drove me to tears, then he intended to keep himself under control through sheer willpower."

"And so?"

"What else could I do? Tearfully, I took the kitten back."

While my husband was alive, that was both the first and the last time that I ran out of the house. He had shown he was willing to endure ill-health for my sake, and I loved him all the more for it.

"Gran. What if you kept them?"

"Huh?"

"The kittens. After all, grandpa said that cats were pets for old people, right? From here, you're heading down the highway to old-age, so why not keep them?"

"That's quite an interesting thing you've said, Misa. But even supposing I can look after myself from here on out, I don't know that I could handle a cat too."

Let alone three of them.

"Gran, earlier you said that you could take care of yourself."

Misa said. Indeed, I remembered saying that and nodded. Then she asked once more:

"But I guess adding three kittens would be tiring, right?"

"What are you saying?"

I had no idea where my granddaughter was trying to take this conversation. Probably because of my old age.

"So I'll come and help out, is what I'm trying to say. To take care of the cats."

"What do you mean?"

I was understanding less and less. How could I take these cats with me, when I'd already be imposing on one of my children to stay with them.

"Bit slow, huh? How about I live with you, gran. At your place, with the three kittens."

"Uh."

"Your place is closer to my university than home."

"So I wouldn't have to move out of my place?"

This was a bolt from the blue. I'd mostly given up hope, so was it okay to accept such a lucky opportunity? As I lapsed into silence, Misa looked me straight in the eye.

"My mom and dad persuaded me. Even aunty thought it was better if you didn't live alone … Or would you rather I not live with you?"

"How could I possibly refuse."

I hastily shook my head.

"You're my one and only darling granddaughter, Misa. Of course I'd be delighted for you to live with me."

"Then it's decided. Let's take these little guys home. I'll take the kittens, so you handle the umbrella, gran."

I nodded, then gave Misa the cardboard box and took her umbrella.

When she saw me close the blue umbrella and stand it up against the torii, Misa said:

"Isn't that your umbrella?"

It seemed she'd only just started to question how I could be holding an umbrella when I'd left the house carrying nothing.

"It was a gift from the god Inari."

"But if it was a gift from the god Inari, shouldn't you take it home?"

"It's fine, I'll leave it here."

I once again joined my hands in prayer, then left the Inari shrine.

"I've already received so much today."

It's not good to be greedy.

A darling granddaughter, and three kittens. And a precious house, packed with memories of my husband.

That was enough for me.

* * *

What's with that umbrella.

I was in the center of my studio apartment, drinking warm milk and looking at it.

That evening I'd suddenly received a phone call from my girlfriend Ritsuko, so I flew out of work at the usual time and raced to our appointed meeting place – a cafe at the train station. When I entered, Ritsuko started the conversation with, "Goodbye."

"Huh?"

I was only five minutes later than our agreed upon 6pm. To break up with your boyfriend of two and a half years because of that seemed a bit harsh. When I left the office I'd noticed that it was raining, but I'd endured a soaking as I ran there rather than returning for an umbrella. I considered voicing this complaint, but the reason for her "Goodbye" was obviously unrelated to my tardiness.

"I thought I'd go back to my parent's place."

On the seat beside her was a suitcase, much too large for a short trip. A blue umbrella was hooked over the back of the chair.

"What."

I was a bit relieved. When the waitress came around to take my order, I asked for a blended coffee, then consciously relaxed my posture.

Going back to her parent's place wasn't something Ritsuko did often, but she did do it on occasion. Like for the O-Bon festival, or for New Year's. We were currently in the middle of the rainy season, so about halfway between those two events, but Ritsuko's father had suffered an illness about six months prior and she was probably looking to go home more often.

But in that case, rather than, "Goodbye," she should have said, "I'm heading out, I'll be back." In that case, I could have cheerfully said, "Take care." I would even have helped her carry her heavy suitcase at least as far as the main Tokyo train station.

However.

"This isn't, "I'm heading out." This is "Goodbye.""

Ritsuko said slowly and precisely, as though admonishing a child who had been insensitive to others emotions.

"I think I've taken care of everything I need to do, and I'm moving out of Tokyo and back to my parent's place in Fukushima."

"Huh?"

"My father's not well, and my mother can't take care of the land on her own. Even though it's such a small field."

"…"

Ritsuko had said it was a small field, but I'd never been to her parent's place so I had no sense of whether that was true or not. My parent's home was in Kanagawa, in a low-density residential area; my father was a civil servant and my mother a housewife.

"I handed in my letter of resignation to my boss last week, and I've emptied my apartment."

Hold on a minute, I held up my hands to stop her. How could she decide something so important without talking to me about it.

"You've moved out then."

I was silenced.

"Cause you've been so busy lately, You-chan."

"I suppose."

I'd been busy with new-hire training, and so on. I hadn't even been to Ritsuko's apartment in the last two months either. But we talked on the phone every couple of days. If she was thinking of returning to her home town, she should have been able to find the ten seconds or so needed to mention it.

"Talking about it wouldn't have achieved anything."

Ritsuko put the straw to her mouth and drank from her iced milk-tea, which was considerably diluted by the melted ice. I wrapped my hands around my coffee, which had just arrived, and stared at the black liquid inside.

"Well, maybe that's true, but still."

If Ritsuko had decided to return to her parent's home, then I had no right to stop her. Back when we were at university, I was elevated from the position of 'junior' to that of 'boyfriend,' but I was neither her 'husband' nor 'fiance.'

But even so, I was unwilling to give in. Even if Ritsuko returned to her home-town, it's not as though long-distance relationships were unheard of. She didn't have to come to the conclusion that this was 'Goodbye.'

"It would only postpone the question. A long-distance relationship is fine, but how long would that go on for?"

The phrase, "Until marriage," floated through my mind.

"I'm going to take over my parent's farm in Fukushima. Since you've only just started your job in Tokyo, we won't get to spend any time together."

How many times had I said, "I suppose," as I sipped on the coffee. Everything Ritsuko had said was correct, and I was unable to refute her.

And yet I loved her. I still wanted to be with her. But if I said that, then she would ask, "So what do you want to do?" and I had no answer to that.

If Ritsuko were a man and I were a woman, then Ritsuko could have said, "Come with me." And I probably would have answered, "I'll follow you." I don't know.

"So because of all that, goodbye."

Ritsuko stood up. She must have done a quick calculation on the bullet train's departure time and realized she had to go. When she reached for the bill that had been left on the table, I said, "I'll get it." My gesture hadn't been intended as a farewell gift, but that's probably how it came across.

"Thanks. In return, you can take this umbrella."

Ritsuko handed me the umbrella which had been hooked over the back of the chair beside her.

"It doesn't look like you brought an umbrella with you, You-chan. And I can get to Tokyo station without getting wet. Who knows what the weather's doing in Fukushima."

"How should I get the umbrella back to you?"

No matter what, I wanted to remain connected to Ritsuko. I wanted to see her once more, using the umbrella as an excuse. I wanted to stay in touch with her. That's what I was thinking. I believed that if Ritsuko felt the same, that she'd let me return the umbrella to her.

However.

"You don't have to return it."

Ritsuko said.

"Huh?"

"I found it, near the trash, as I was heading out."

Ritsuko explained that she'd inadvertently packed her umbrella in with the rest of her luggage. She'd spotted the blue umbrella just as she was thinking about buying a plastic umbrella from a convenience store. Yesterday had been the collection day for non-burnable trash, but since it hadn't been properly put in the bin, it hadn't been collected. When she'd opened it, she'd seen that it was coming apart a bit, but not to the point that it was unusable. She'd picked it up and brought it here, thinking it would be fine to throw it away once she reached her parent's place.

"When you're done with it, just throw it out on non-burnable trash day."

As I received the umbrella, I thought, "And with that, my last bond to Ritsuko is cut." I sat, facing the blue umbrella and drinking my coffee in the cafe that no longer contained her. When the cup was empty, I took the umbrella and returned to the apartment where I lived alone.

What's with that umbrella.

My final memento of Ritsuko was a tattered umbrella. It was so funny I started to cry.

I opened the blue umbrella, and drank my warm milk.

The blue umbrella was still wet. So that I wouldn't be, it had shielded me from the rain.

Had it been thrown out on trash day, last week? That seemed kind of sad.

Ritsuko wouldn't be gone until the umbrella she gave me was gone. Naturally, I was acutely aware that the umbrella was not Ritsuko. But, somehow, it seemed like a friend to ease me through the pain of a broken heart.

"Right. Fukuzawa Yumi."

I gently stroked the umbrella. Fukuzawa Yumi was the umbrella's name. I hadn't given it that name. It was written on the handle. So I decided to call it Fukuzawa Yumi. It also had Lillian's Girls Academy written there, but calling my friend Lillian seemed a bit embarrassing.

With a name, it stirred even more emotion in me. I pulled on the fabric that had come loose from the frame. It wasn't massively torn. It was just that the thread that kept the fabric attached to the frame had been severed.

"Hold on a minute."

I fetched the lunchbox that served as a sewing kit and opened the lid. It looked like I'd be able to stitch it up with what was in there. I was always better at reattaching buttons than Ritsuko.

"Don't have that though."

The thread I had on hand was white, black, red, pink, and a gray one that I'd bought when a button came off the suit I'd been wearing to job interviews.

"Black and red are out."

I considered what would go better with the umbrella, white or pink, and decided on pink. White would have been less conspicuous, but pink was cuter.

"What should I do?"

As I performed the operation that was closer to attaching a snap fastener than a button, I talked to Fukuzawa Yumi.

"I really love Ritsuko. When she said she'd go out with me, I felt so happy I could die. When I told her this, she said, "You can't die. Let's eat some good food together." She cooked a stir-fry with vegetables that her dad had grown. It was sooo good. Ritsuko wasn't that great a cook – I make a better curry or yaki udon – but her stir-fried vegetables were really spectacular. I wonder if it was her dad's vegetables that made it that good."

After tying a knot and then cutting the thread, I put the needle back into the pincushion and idly looked up at the heavens.

"I guess now, it's her growing those vegetables."

For some reason, I really wanted to eat that. Ritsuko's stir-fry, made with vegetables grown at Ritsuko's parent's farm.

Outside, the rain fell.

The sound of rain was the sound of stir-fry.


The day after I'd been dumped was a Saturday, so thankfully I didn't have to go in to work. I stayed up all night talking to the umbrella and seeking its counsel, and when the sun rose in the east I jumped into bed. When I opened my eyes it was after 3pm, and, as expected, I was hungry. So I went to the convenience store and bought yaki soba, cup ramen and a bread roll with cheese kneaded into the dough.

It was sunny, for the first time in quite a while, but I still took Fukuzawa Yumi with me. Even while I was shopping, I didn't let go of it, carrying it over my arm. I was aware that I was using it as a safety blanket. I had nothing else to cling to. Even if it was just a single umbrella, it was better than nothing.

When I got home, I heated the yaki soba in the microwave oven and ate it.

At eight in the evening, I added hot water to the cup ramen and ate that.

I didn't turn on the TV, or the radio, or the computer.

Most of my time was spent solely thinking about Ritsuko.

Occasionally, I'd check my telephone. I stayed inside my apartment the entire time, but Ritsuko could have called while I was in the toilet, and I'd switch the answering machine off then back on, to check it was working. Of course, I was constantly checking my cell phone too.

Fukuzawa Yumi didn't say anything to me.

It'd silently stare at me, waiting until I found an answer.

When the morning came, I shaved for the first time in two days. After shaving, I felt a bit better. Thinking that it would make me feel even better again, I had a shower. Since that made me feel much better, I waited until I'd stopped sweating and put on a suit. And since I'd put on my suit, I thought I might as well head out.

After washing down the bread roll I bought yesterday with some tomato juice from the refrigerator, I headed out, taking only the blue umbrella, my wallet and a handkerchief. After buying a ticket for the bullet train from the nearest train station, I set out for Tokyo station. I had to take the bullet train, since I bought a ticket to Fukushima.

Like that, we were steadily drawn back together.

By the time I arrived in Fukushima station, it was almost three in the afternoon. I'd come to Fukushima thinking that it would cheer me up. If I'd stopped to think about what I was going to do when I arrived, then I know I never would have set out.

But now that I'd stepped off the train and was standing on the platform, I thought about what to do.

Ritsuko was somewhere on this soil. Just thinking about that was enough to make my chest swell. Obviously, I had the option of being satisfied with that and returning to Tokyo. But I didn't feel like settling for that.

I just wanted to hear her voice.

Even if she said, "Go home, I don't want to see you." At the very least, I thought I should phone her.

After I realized that I'd forgotten my cell phone, I searched for a public phone. I found one next to a shop, fed in some coins and punched in her number. Stupidly, I'd initially dialed the number for Ritsuko's apartment, so, naturally, no-one answered.

I forced myself to calm down. After I'd calmed down a bit, I remembered Ritsuko's cell phone number. I hung the umbrella over the side of a rubbish bin beside me, and pressed the buttons once more. One by one, carefully. Maybe she'd canceled her cell phone contract too. In that case, I'd have to call directory assistance and rely on Ritsuko's surname and address to get that number. After I'd thought of that option, I pressed the final button. After a few seconds of silence, I heard the call being made.

Ring ring, ring ring.

I thought it sounded a bit loud, and rather than coming from the left ear where I was holding the handset, the sound was being picked up by my right ear. The phone of some stranger walking through the station corridor must have coincidentally gone off. I sealed my right ear closed with a finger, and focused on the left ear. It too, had the unmistakeable sound of a call being made.

"… Hello."

The call connected. The voice was Ritsuko's.

"Who is it?"

Since I wasn't calling from home or from my mobile, Ritsuko wouldn't have known who it was. Her voice was clearly on guard.

"It's me."

"You-chan!? What's the matter?"

"Huh?"

I couldn't believe my ears. Why? Because I could hear Ritsuko's voice through my sealed right ear. On that note, what had happened to the ringing phone from earlier? In a daze, I surveyed the area around me.

"Hello, You-chan. What's wrong?"

This time I heard it through my left ear.

No way. No way – .

"Ritsuko, stop moving. No, go back down the corridor you were on."

I hung up the phone. Then I started running in the direction I'd heard that ring-tone coming from earlier.

There I saw Ritsuko walking in my direction, looking incredulous.

"Ritsuko."

I ran towards her, like I was meeting a relative I hadn't seen in twenty or fifty years.

"You-chan!"

When Ritsuko saw me, she started running too. In the middle of the train station hallway, we embraced each other tightly.

"What are you doing here?"

"My father kicked me out, telling me to talk things over with you properly. It was unfaithful of me to unilaterally declare our relationship over. I thought so too. I really regretted hurting your feelings. But I couldn't say, "Come back to the farm with me.""

"I know. I know. Don't cry."

I knew. That must have been why I went to Fukushima that day. I hugged Ritsuko tightly as she was soaked by those tears.

It wasn't the time to be worrying about what might happen in the future.

Whatever it took to stay connected to her, that's what I'd do.

For the time being that meant a long-distance relationship, but if we started talking about marriage then I was fine with moving to Fukushima and being her husband.

I'm not that tough a person, so I probably wouldn't be very good at farm work. In that case, I'd be a house-husband, and support Ritsuko.

At that point in time, my head was about to burst with all the thoughts swirling around inside, and I completely forgot about the blue umbrella.

But, even now, I still remember the name 'Fukuzawa Yumi' from time to time.

If I were to say this to Ritsuko, she'd say I was being too hasty, but if we have a daughter I've decided to name her 'Yumi.'

* * *

The June bride held a bouquet of hydrangea.

Although, since the color of hydrangeas change, they have the negative connotations of unfaithfulness and fickleness. Since the bride and groom both would have known this, they must have chosen them because they were confident that their love for each other was unshakeable, probably.

And, now, that bouquet is in my hands. Slightly relieved. It wasn't cracking up or anything, but it was probably a bit worn out from fulfilling its important duty as a bride's bouquet. It surely wanted to be put in a vase as quickly as possible, but it's a long way to my place in Tokyo. Both in distance and time.

I, too, was worn out. Doing Tokyo – Fukushima – (Wedding Reception) – Fukushima – Tokyo in a single day wasn't impossible, but it was exhausting.

I thought that, by all rights, I should sleep on the bullet train on the way home, but that wasn't going to happen either.

"Well then."

I fixed my makeup in the mirror of the train station restroom, then headed out. A young man, wearing formal clothes like myself, was waiting there.

"It's only one earlier, but I was able to get it changed."

Saying that, and handing me a ticket for the bullet train, was Nakamori-kun, a classmate of mine from high-school. A friend of the groom, he'd given a speech. I was a friend of the bride, and had manned the reception booth, but when he arrived I hadn't realized that it was Nakamori-kun standing before me until I saw the name on the gift envelope.

The friends of the bride and friends of the groom were seated at separate tables, so we didn't get a chance to talk at all during the reception. I passed on the after-party because I have work tomorrow, and when I headed for a taxi, Nakamori-kun came running after me, saying, "Mind if I come with you?" He said he was heading back to Tokyo too.

I said, "Go ahead," and settled into the cab. He wasn't a stranger, so it would be odd to refuse.

Just like that, we became traveling companions.

"Guess we don't have time to go to a cafe."

Nakamori-kun flipped over the hand he'd used to give me the ticket and looked at his watch. I pointed to a vending machine using the hand I hadn't received the ticket with.

"Do you want a canned coffee or something? My treat, since you paid for the taxi."

"Ah, I'll have oolong tea then. Thanks."

"Hot? Or cold?"

"Hot."

"Got it."

I raised my hand and headed off to the vending machine by myself.

Five years since graduation, his looks hadn't changed that much but, there was a different atmosphere about Nakamori-kun. During the taxi ride he'd said that his job was in sales, and maybe it was because of that that he was more outgoing, and more talkative than before. He'd been more brooding during high-school. He had a handsome face, but he always looked angry, and his reputation with the girls was not the best.

But, I knew. That it was just that Nakamori-kun was serious. And because he was serious, he would never attempt deceit. He wasn't the kind of person that smiled insincerely, or forced himself to conform with what everyone else was doing, or associated frivolously with others.

"Ah."

The vending machine didn't have hot oolong tea. It had cold oolong tea. And it had hot coffee. Which one to get? I should have asked him what his second choice was. Turning around, I saw that Nakamori-kun was a bit too far away to converse with. Should I go back? Or should I get him something random? No, this was for Nakamori-kun. He wouldn't appreciate randomness. I could buy one of each, and let him choose, but I wanted hot coffee, not his leftover.

Just as I was thinking about heading back to a place where I could talk to him, I spotted a shop just ahead. Maybe they'd have hot oolong tea there.

"Aota."

As I started to walk off, Nakamori-kun came chasing after me.

"What's the matter?"

"The vending machine didn't have hot oolong tea."

When I explained, he smiled wryly.

"Even after all these years, that part of you hasn't changed, huh."

"That part?"

"Your earnestness."

I didn't know if I should laugh, so I just nodded and kept walking.

Nakamori-kun walked with me. He wouldn't throw me away, saying, "I don't want to be with you anymore."

"Nakamori-kun."

I said, as I slowly walked.

"Way back when, the four of us used to hang out all the time, right."

Myself, Nakamori-kun, and today's leading couple. Myself and Miyo-chan were best friends, as were Nakamori-kun and Kamata-kun. The four of us would eat together at lunch, go home together, and hang out together on the weekends.

"You and I both knew that those two liked each other. Even before they confessed to each other. But we pretended we didn't, and continued to hang out together. But one day, you stopped, Nakamori-kun."

The delicate two-vs-two balance had been broken, but we didn't become a cheery bunch of three. As though trying to get me to stop hanging around, the other two finally started dating each other seriously.

"I felt I was doing the wrong thing by you, Aota. But I just couldn't take it any more. The way they were using us as an excuse for going so slowly."

I thought that Nakamori-kun had probably liked Miyo-chan. So he couldn't stomach the thought of pretending to just be friends. That's how I interpreted it.

"You were the same too."

I shook my head. I could gloss over it, but I wanted Nakamori-kun to know the truth.

"You know, it didn't really bother me. That they went slowly. Or, rather, I would have been fine with them taking it slowly forever. If it meant they kept inviting us, I wouldn't have minded if they never kissed. Or if it never went beyond that."

Nakamori-kun listened on in silence.

"And yet, they reached the goal-line. They kissed in front of us, at their wedding ceremony."

It was probably due to the passage of time, but my only response upon seeing them kiss in front of me was, "Hmm."

The shop had bottled hot oolong tea. I bought one of those, and a hot coffee for myself.

We were about to head back, when my eyes stopped on an umbrella that was leaning up against the rubbish bin. A blue hydrangea rain umbrella. The reason I stopped and picked it up was probably because it matched the bouquet of flowers I was holding. There was no-one that looked like its owner nearby. Everyone was walking about hurriedly.

My eyes fixed upon something that was written on the handle.

"What's the matter?"

Nakamori-kun came over to take a look.

"It's got 'Lillian' written here. 'Lillian's Girls Academy.' … That's a surprise."

"Lillian's Girls Academy? Ahh, that rich girl's school? But, why would you be surprised by that?"

"My father's a teacher there."

I felt the umbrella. It wasn't wet. But it hadn't been raining nearby recently either. Maybe its owner had set it down here and then forgotten about it. Well, first of all, was it really 'lost property?' Or was it 'abandoned property?' The more I thought about it, the more confused I became.

"… I wonder if I should take it."

I glanced at Nakamori-kun.

"Regardless of what I say, you've already made up your mind."

Precisely. If I'd left this umbrella here and gone home, it'd probably bother me. At the very least, I wouldn't want it to remain here. I just wanted someone to say that to.

"So, it's fine."

Nakamori-kun muttered. The proper thing was probably to take it to the nearest police box or the train station's lost property office. Even if I took it home, it may not find its way back to the original owner. Therefore, his "That's fine," referred to what was right for me. I was glad of that from Nakamori-kun.

I put my bottled coffee into my handbag, and carried my bouquet of hydrangea and matching umbrella back to the bullet train platform. Walking beside Nakamori-kun, my thoughts returned to our high-school days. Consequently, I wanted to explain to the Nakamori-kun of back then.

"Say, Nakamori-kun. There's probably something you're misunderstanding."

"What?"

"Who it was that I fancied."

"Yomi-chan, right?"

Without a moment's hesitation, he'd hit upon the correct answer and I was stunned into silence, unable to give the response that I'd prepared. But there was no need for that anyway.

"I knew, from watching you."

Even though he'd come up with that answer himself, he was confident in his knowledge.

Right. There was no way that I fancied Kamata-kun. And even though we were both girls, I loved Miyo-chan so much that it blurred the line of best friends. But Miyo-chan got herself a boyfriend, and I wanted an obstruction to stop us from drifting apart.

"And you?"

"Huh?"

"Who do you think I fancied?"

By saying that, he'd implied that it wasn't Miyo-chan.

"Don't tell me, Kamata-kun … !?"

Playing innocent, although that possibility was slightly less likely, and Nakamori-kun laughed as he refuted it.

"You."

"Huh?"

I'd never even considered that, and was honestly flustered. So much so that I unintentionally stopped walking.

"I ran away because I liked you. I didn't want to lose my best friend, but seeing you smiling in front of them became too painful."

Nakamori-kun took hold of my arm and started walking.

"Because I liked you, I knew who it was that your eyes followed."

I knew he only did that because we'd miss the bullet train if we stopped walking, but even so my heart still beat a little faster.

Even though he was talking about something from long ago.

Holding my arm as we steadily walked onwards, Nakamori-kun brooded. The unsociable teenage boy from back in high-school.

"I'm glad I met you today, Aota."

Nakamori-kun said, without turning around.

"I'm glad I summoned the courage to get in the taxi with you."

"Yeah."

I nodded. As I watched the back of his head.

"I'm glad."

There's just under two hours on the bullet train until we arrive back in Tokyo. Plenty of time to talk.

Inside my handbag, the bottle of coffee made a splashing sound.

The bouquet fluttered with laughter, the umbrella rustled in agreement.


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