I'd planned to go back to Tokyo a couple of days after my grandmother's funeral to run down some leads for a new job. I was planning to move to a new apartment, too; I needed a change of scenery. As the days passed, though, it seemed like too much trouble to get off my butt and get going. To put a finer point on it, even if I'd wanted to get up and get going, I couldn't. I spent my time holed up in my old room, listening to those records, rereading old books, occasionally doing a little weeding in the garden. I didn't meet anybody, and the only people I talked to were members of my family.
One day my aunt dropped by and asked me to take my cousin to a new hospital. She should take him herself, she said, but something had come up on the day of the appointment and she couldn't. The hospital was near my old high school, so I knew where it was, and since I had nothing else going on, I couldn't very well refuse. My aunt handed me an envelope with some cash in it for us to use as lunch money.
This switch to a new hospital came about because the treatment he'd been getting at his old hospital hadn't done a thing to help. In fact, he was having more problems than ever. When my aunt complained to the doctor in charge, he suggested that the problem had more to do with the boy's home environment than anything medical, and the two of them went at it. Not that anybody really expected that changing hospitals would lead to a quick improvement in his hearing. Nobody said as much, but they'd pretty much given up hope that his condition would ever improve.
My cousin lived nearby, but I was just over a decade older than him and we had never been what you'd call close. When the relatives got together I might take him someplace or play with him, but that was the extent of it. Still, before long everyone started to look at my cousin and me as a pair, thinking that he was attached to me and that he was my favorite. For the longest time I couldn't figure out why. Now, though, seeing the way he tilted his head, his left ear aimed at me, I found it strangely touching. Like the sound of rain heard long ago, his awkwardness struck a chord with me. And I began to catch a glimpse of why our relatives wanted to bring us together.
The bus had passed by seven or eight bus stops when my cousin anxiously looked up at me again.
"Is it much farther?"
"Yeah, we still have a ways. It's a big hospital, so we won't miss it."
I casually watched as the wind from the open window gently rustled the brims of the old people's hats and the scarves around their necks. Who were these people? And where could they possibly be headed?
"Hey, are you going to work in my father's company?" my cousin asked.
I looked at him in surprise. His father, my uncle, ran a large printing company in Kobe. I'd never given the idea a thought, and nobody ever dropped a hint.
"Nobody's said anything about that," I said. "Why do you ask?"
My cousin blushed. "I just thought you might be," he said. "But why don't you? You wouldn't have to leave. And everybody'd be happy."
The taped message announced the next stop, but no one pushed the button to get off. Nobody was waiting to get on at the bus stop either.
"But there's stuff I have to do, so I have to go back to Tokyo," I said. My cousin nodded silently.
There wasn't a single thing I had to do. But I couldn't very well stay here.
The number of houses thinned out as the bus climbed the mountain slope. Thick branches began to throw a heavy shadow across the road. We passed by some foreign-looking houses, painted, with low walls in front. The cold breeze felt good. Each time the bus rounded a curve the sea down below popped into view, then disappeared. Until the bus pulled up at the hospital my cousin and I just stood there, watching the scenery go by.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Copyright (c) 2006 by Haruki Murakami
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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