Growing up, two brothers are told how well they get on; the elder brother moves away to study; the younger takes up the guitar, becomes famous; on a television in an izakaya, the elder brother sees his sibling again after a long absence
There were two brothers, two years apart in age, who got on very well.
At least, the people they knew would say the pair of them got on well, said it often in fact, but the boys themselves didn’t especially feel that way. As kids they often fought. They’d punch and kick and bite each other, and sometimes they’d end up with injuries. When the younger of the boys was about ten he threw a bike at his elder brother, who needed five stitches on his arm. That got them into serious trouble with their parents, and from that point on there were fewer scuffles.
The reason people often remarked on how well the two boys got on was almost certainly because they were always together. The boys’ parents worked at their grandfather’s factory, so the earliest they got home in the evening was seven, and some days they wouldn’t be back until nine or ten in the evening. The arrangement was that their mother would return to the house at lunchtime and prepare the boys’ dinner, so it would be waiting when they got home, but in busier periods that was hard to manage, and instead the boys would head out together to a local soba or Chinese restaurant, clutching the 1,000-yen note their mother had left them. On days when she didn’t leave any money, the elder of the two would make a simple meal like yakisoba.
In part because the younger brother had asthma, and didn’t especially like the outdoors, the two spent a lot of time inside. They would watch television, or take it in turns to read the dozens of volumes of manga they borrowed from one of their classmates, who had an extensive collection.
The elder brother performed well at school. He wasn’t exceptionally studious, per se, but he liked researching things and reading about subjects that interested him, and he found his lessons engaging. He was fairly sporty as well, and sometimes when he was absent from school, girls from his class would bring him notes, and speak with him animatedly before heading off home.
The younger brother disliked anything related to schoolwork. For a long time he found it hard to accept that a line of letters strung together actually meant anything. Numbers were even more difficult. To him they just looked like little diagrams, or patterns. He couldn’t play sport for an extended period of time, and wasn’t gifted at maintaining conversations, either. His parents fretted about him, and were forever telling his elder brother to keep an eye out for him, to help him when he could.
From the younger brother’s perspective, though, this attitude of his parents seemed like a rejection of who he was, a sign that they didn’t believe he was capable of anything, and left him angry. The only person who properly listened to him when he talked about the minutiae of a particular TV programme or manga series was his brother, and he appreciated it when his brother looked out for him. But his relatives, and the people from the neighbourhood, were always finding ways of comparing him with his sibling, saying, ‘And to think the older one is so good at everything!’ For this reason, the boy would occasionally lash out at his brother when they were out in public.
To the other boy, it seemed as though all their parents’ attention fell solely on his younger brother. Whether he performed well in his tests, or got picked for the relay team for sports day, his parents reacted without surprise, as if such things were expected of him. This brought about conflicted feelings in him. He was aware that his relatives and neighbours would say that all he ever did was study, that he was a goody two shoes. He also knew that his parents, who hoped that he would eventually take over the family factory, didn’t want him to go to a far-away university, or to study a subject that wasn’t practical in nature.
When the younger brother started middle school, his form teacher invited him to join the guitar club he ran, which was short on members. The boy had never touched an instrument up to that point, but he had fast fingers and perhaps something of a natural aptitude. He made rapid progress. His ability soon overtook that of the teacher himself, who had been in a fairly popular rock band when he was younger, and at the end of the second year the boy won second prize in a contest.
The boys’ parents were delighted to find that their younger son, whose future had been such a source of concern, had an unexpected talent, the discovery of which seemed to have given him a new lease of life. When people from the neighbourhood congratulated him or eyed him enviously, the parents would happily say that they’d known from a young age that something set him apart from other people.
While the younger of the two was being showered with attention, the elder brother, now in high school, devoted all his attention to his studies. His passion was astronomy. Ever since visiting the local planetarium as a small child with a friend’s family, and being overwhelmed by that glimpse of outer space, twinkling with so many points of light it almost made him feel nauseous, he’d dreamed of studying the distant stars. He would watch clips of astronauts over and over, standing inside their spaceships and explaining their scientific experiments, and he’d think that was what he wanted to do when he grew up. In high school he stopped hanging out so much with his classmates, spending his time instead either in the school or the public library, studying for his university exams. All his hard work paid off, and he went on to study at a national university in a far-off, rural part of the country. You could see the stars clearly there, unlike the industrial district where he’d grown up, and the university was home to the academic who’d written one of his favourite books. His parents opposed the move at first, but seeing that the boy’s mind was set, they eventually gave in. It helped that with the long-standing economic downturn, the future of the factory wasn’t looking very bright, and they were no longer sure if it was such a good idea to have their son take over. The boy looked into scholarships and living costs, and presented them with a written proposal, detailing how much of his outgoings he could cover if he took a part-time job.
The day the elder brother left for university, the younger had band practice, and he didn’t come to see him off. The elder brother was fine with that. And he found that living in this new place where he didn’t know anybody suited him. At university he wasn’t anybody’s son, or anyone’s older brother. He could see the stars, and nobody minded if he spent all day every day studying. Just as he’d anticipated, the academic who had written his favourite book was an enthusiastic and distinguished teacher, and the boy enjoyed their conversations. He got a part-time job in the cram school by the station, and that covered most of his living expenses.
The younger brother began seeing an older woman that he met at a gig. The woman was very beautiful, and a talented drummer, something of a local celebrity. The boy moved into her flat, and his most blissful moments were those he spent lying in the hammock strung up on her sizeable balcony, strumming his guitar.
The two brothers fell virtually out of touch. As a response to his childhood, the younger brother was full of a stubborn determination to prove that he could get by in life without his older brother, and the fact that he was making money and being showered with applause and praise was a source of satisfaction.
The elder brother thought less and less about his family and the place he’d grown up. Then one evening, shortly after beginning his PhD, he saw his brother on the TV screen in the izakaya where he’d gone for a drink with some other students from his research lab. It was a music programme, introducing up-and-coming new bands. His brother looked cool, he thought, playing the guitar on television like that. In a way, he seemed like a totally different person to the boy that he’d known, but he felt proud of him. Nobody in the izakaya knew it was his brother, though, and he didn’t say.
The elder brother took up a job as a teaching assistant at the university, and continued his research. One evening a woman showed up unexpectedly at his apartment. It was the end of autumn, and the temperature plummeted when night fell.
His brother had gone missing, the woman told him. It was the beautiful drummer that his brother had been living with for some time. She wore a plain black dress, but even so there was an air of glamour about her that stood out in this rural town. He invited her into his apartment, but she refused, stayed standing on his doorstep. She told him that his brother had left her apartment about two weeks ago, and she hadn’t heard from him since. There had been times in the past when he’d disappeared for a couple of days, but he’d never been gone for anything like this long. He was in a period of preparation before work started in earnest on the next album, so it was possible he’d decided to take a holiday, but still, she was concerned. She mentioned that he’d spoken about his older brother often, which came as a surprise. Apparently he used to say that, quite unlike himself, his elder brother was kind and generally good at everything, the source of much pride. The woman said that she’d been visiting a nearby town on tour with her band, and had decided to try paying a visit to this address, which she’d found in the brother’s diary. The elder brother had no idea why his younger brother would keep his address in his diary, when the two had never written, let alone visited each other.
The woman asked him not to mention anything about the disappearance to his parents. The younger brother was always saying that he didn’t want to cause them any trouble, she said. Like everything else the woman said, the elder brother found this description impossible to connect to the younger brother that he had known.
After the woman went home, he tried phoning his brother, but there was no answer. He called his parents, probing subtly for information, but they didn’t seem to know anything. The factory was cutting back in size, and his parents were exhausted.
It was about three months later that the woman called him. The younger brother had returned home a little while ago, she said. It turned out that he’d been off with someone he’d been seeing on the side, but the two of them had decided to give things another go. Oh I see, said the elder brother. Well, please say hello to him from me, and with that he put down the phone.
After that, a letter arrived from his younger brother. The brother didn’t mention women at all, talking instead about his trips to Vietnam and Thailand. Attached to the letter were two very touristy postcards.
A little while later, the elder brother heard the younger brother’s latest single on the radio. Of everything he’d heard by him so far, this was the song he liked the best.
Back when there was a fountain in the station concourse, a man known as Parka would spend all day sitting beside it; a woman he’d never met approached him one day, yelled at him
This story takes place back when there was still a fountain in the station concourse.
The fountain had a round tray-like object in its centre where the water came out, surrounded by a circular pool. The rim of the fountain was made of black stone, and there would always be people sitting on it as they waited for whomever they were supposed to be meeting. The bottom of the pool was strewn with coins people had tossed in there, shining darkly beneath the surface of the water, which rippled and glinted under the station’s fluorescent lights.
It wasn’t unusual back then for the man to spend all day beside the fountain. On the days when he had no work, which was to say most days, he tended to be close by. Occasionally he’d be moved on by a security guard or a member of staff, but back then they weren’t as heavy-handed as they are now, and mostly they let him be. The man wore a green windbreaker, and when he stepped outside the station he’d put the hood up, so people knew him as Parka. The men who called him Parka were also, like Parka, without any regular job or place to stay, sleeping in the vicinity of the station.
The economic situation was considerably better back then, and even those living in stations or on the street could find daywork. The daily wage wasn’t at all bad either. Parka saved up the money he earned and kept it, together with his possessions, in a coin locker in the station. He planned to leave the city and rent a place of his own when he’d saved enough.
Half a year went by of Parka hanging around by the fountain. At one point, a man with brawny arms who’d drifted in from nobody-knew began picking on him. He came along and kicked Parka while Parka was sleeping under the footbridge, mussed up his things, and for a while Parka had to avoid the station, but eventually the man was caught by the police and disappeared, and Parka came back.
One evening, Parka was perched on the edge of the fountain, lost in thought. It was early winter, and it looked cold outside. The station building shut out the wind, and during the evening rush, the sheer number of people passing through was enough to steam up the concourse.
Parka’s eyes traced the huge crowds of people streaming up to the ticket gates and then pouring out of them, the people cutting across the concourse to change lines, descending into the subway or crossing the footbridge, being absorbed into the bustle of the town that stretched beyond the reaches of the station. He took in the endless flow of people, appearing only to disappear. He didn’t focus on any particular individual, simply let them flow through his line of sight. He found that after a while people’s faces began to fade, that they came to seem like hoards of noppera-bō, faceless spirits gliding by. The sound of their footsteps eddied around him, like the noise of the waves or wind.
The person who addressed him was a slight man, a bit older, who everybody called Carp after the Hiroshima Carp baseball cap he wore. Carp settled down beside Parka.
‘Ah, you know,’ Parka said, glancing up at Carp’s wrinkled face, cast in shadow by the peak of his baseball cap. ‘Same as ever.’
As he spoke, Parka continued to watch the tide of people before him, and Carp followed his gaze, trying in vain to see what he was looking at.
‘Anything going on?’ Carp took a short cigarette out of his pocket. In those days, smoking was permitted even there on the concourse, but Carp didn’t light the cigarette, just rolled it between the fingers of his right hand.
Unsure of how to reply, Parka’s gaze alighted on the woman leaning against the column in front of him. She wore a plain grey suit, and was glaring at the clock above the fountain, presumably waiting on someone who hadn’t showed up. She looked a lot like his teacher from year five of primary school, he thought.
‘I was just thinking, someone I knew in primary school once told me he worked around here.’
Parka said this just for something to say, but once the words were out of his mouth, he had the feeling that someone had actually told him something of the sort, though he had no idea who it was, or when.
Carp laughed through his nose. ‘Well, that figures. This is the busiest part of town. There’s people doing all sorts here – shopping, eating, visiting love hotels, the whole caboodle.’
Carp had a loud voice, and a young man sitting along from Parka, most likely a student, turned to look in their direction. The black frames of his glasses were held together with Sellotape. Their gazes met, and the young man hurriedly looked away. The woman in the grey suit had moved away from the pillar and was walking towards the ticket gates, having evidently given up on whoever it was she was waiting for.
‘I guess so.’
Once again, Parka’s eyes roved around the space in front of him. There were so many people, it was impossible to know who to look at. The dusty air seemed to cut into the lining of his nose.
‘Even if he does work here, I guess he wouldn’t recognize me now.’
‘I was right popular with the girls when I was a student,’ said Carp. ‘Had ‘em fighting over me and everything, it was a right to-do.’ Apropos of nothing, Carp went on to tell Parka how there’d been a terrible scene between some girl who insisted on coming around to his boarding house every day to make him dinner and his girlfriend from back home.
‘Somehow I can see that. That you’d be popular when you were young, I mean.’
‘Really? What makes you think that? Tell me, tell me.’
‘Hmm, it’s like . . . You’ve got a way with words?’
‘Argh, that’s a half-hearted answer.’
A different voice burst in over their conversation. In front of Parka stood a woman in a white coat. She had a side parting, and wore pale blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick. It was a look shared by many women at that time.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ The woman looked just over thirty.
‘I’m just . . . I’m just sitting.’
Paying no mind to Parka’s obvious confusion, the woman carried on, furious.
‘Why are you giving me that look? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten who I am? I thought you were serious about me, after you said you’d take me to your house in Wakayama!’
‘I do have a grandma who lives in Wakayama, but . . .’
‘So you were just stringing me on! What an idiot I was, thinking you’d actually be in touch.’
‘Can I ask how you know me?’
‘Oh, this is too much! Kurata! Set nine, year three at Nishi High. I sat next to you, remember?’
‘Kurata . . . ?’
‘YUKO KURATA! Imagine forgetting my name! What an unfeeling man you are! Aren’t I right?’ The woman looked to Carp for agreement.
‘He can be a bit thick at times, this one.’
‘A bit!? I waited for you, you know. But I see now that I was a fool! So long!’
With that, the woman stormed off into the crowd and disappeared.
‘Well, well! A real looker, no? I can see you don’t do too badly with women yourself!’ Carp said, with a smirk.
‘I’ve honestly never seen her before,’ Parka said. ‘I went to an all-boys’ high school.’
‘Huh? Well who was she then?’
‘I think she must’ve mistaken me for someone else.’
‘I guess there’s no shortage of strange folk in this world.’ After all this time, Carp finally brought the cigarette to his lips.
Three months later, Parka rented an apartment with the money he’d saved, and began working for a construction company. Carp disappeared before then. Nobody knew where he’d gone. It was the norm among those who congregated by the fountain that nobody knew anything about anybody else.
Thirty years went by, and Parka rarely recalled that he’d ever been known as ‘Parka’. He lived in another prefecture. He didn’t have a family, but he wasn’t out of work, and got by.
For the first time in several years, Parka returned to that station where he’d once spent so much time. He was changing onto a high-speed train. The fountain had vanished a long time ago. The station had been renovated, and the station concourse itself was in a new location.
After an hour Parka got off his high-speed train at another station, near a large lake. There were apartment blocks in front of the station, and it looked altogether different from when Parka had left. His sister had got in touch with him for the first time in a decade to tell him that the house he’d once lived in was going to be demolished, and he’d decided to come and see it.
After a twenty-minute stroll, he arrived at his old house near the river.
The demolition was already underway. The house was cloaked in a white sheet, and with half of the building already gone, broken columns, beams, and the insides of rooms were exposed to the air. Moving closer, peeping through the cracks in the sheet, Parka saw a coin trapped beneath a cracked tile on the ground. The coin was small and bright silver – he couldn’t tell if it was a toy, or some kind of commemorative souvenir.
For reasons he couldn’t explain, Parka found himself thinking of the fountain, the coins that lay there at the bottom of the water. There had been occasions when he’d stared at those coins for hours on end. He’d spent entire days by that fountain, and not once had he seen anybody toss in a coin.
These two stories are taken from Tomoka Shibasaki’s A Hundred Years and a Day, a collection of thirty-three short stories.
Image © Adam Lusch
These stories are part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.