"How do I pronounce your name?"
On a certain Monday after school, at the end of the semester, Mafuyu asked me that question. Soon after, the door of the classroom opened, revealing the school's courtyard right outside. The cries of the cicadas emanated from some unknown direction in the shade of the trees. It was quite irritating. I was pressing my face against the floor, trying to tighten the screws at the bottom of the door with a screwdriver. I thought I had heard wrong, so I lifted my body—
"What? Did you just say something?"
On the left-hand side of the narrow classroom, Mafuyu was sitting on the long desk next to the drum set. She was pressing the cold Oolong bottle I had just bought for her against her face. She's probably quite bad at dealing with the heat, huh? Not only was her face redder than usual, even the back of her neck—hidden under her maroon-colored hair—as well as her arms—hidden beneath the short sleeves of her summer uniform—was dyed a pale red. However, she wasn't sweating one bit. Her navy blue eyes seemed a little dazed.
"Your name. I still don't know how to pronounce your name."
How to pronounce my name? We're from the same class, we sit next to each other, and we're even together during club activities, and yet, she still doesn't know? But...... thinking about it a little deeper, there was probably no way for her to know. This girl had just come back from overseas not too long ago, so she probably wasn't that good with Kanji.
"Everyone calls you Nao this, Nao that—I have no idea how to pronounce the rest of your name. Naoki?"
"Nah, that's not it." She probably read it wrong. "Urm...... why are you asking this all of a sudden?"
"Because you are always addressing me directly by my name! It just feels unfair."
Unfair huh? With the current situation, I couldn't just change the way I addressed her—from "Mafuyu" to "Ebisawa-san"—even if she wanted me to (moreover, she'd get angry if I did). We'll probably be even more easily misunderstood if she calls me directly by my name too, right? But it wasn't like we weren't already misunderstood anyway.1
"...... It's pronounced Naomi. It sounds really girly, so everyone calls me Nao."
"I see. Naomi."
"Just trying it out. You don't like it?"
I didn't hate it, but...... it was a little embarrassing. I shifted my gaze away from Mafuyu's face and returned to squatting next to the door.
"Can you stop saying my name randomly if there's nothing going on?"
"No, I have a reason this time."
I lifted my head and saw Mafuyu gently shaking the bottle in her hand.
"That's something simple, so open it yourself."
Just as I was about to say that, I remembered her fingers were immobile. I placed the screwdriver down and walked to her side to twist open the cap. She took the bottle from me without even saying thanks, and took a huge gulp from it. Her expression changed immediately, and she stuck out her tongue in disgust.
"It's so bitter! There wasn't any sugar added to this Oolong tea. Idiot, why did you buy this kind?"
No, you don't normally add sugar to Oolong tea, yeah? Ah, hold on a second....... "Is this your first time drinking Oolong tea from Japan?" Well, she had been living abroad since she was young. And I recalled that, although iced Oolong tea originated from Japan, China became the major exporter of the tea later. I also heard that Oolong tea with sugar added to it had become mainstream in other countries.
"The one I drank during the China tour was really sweet! No, I can't drink this."
Mafuyu got off the desk and placed the bottle on the ground next to me.
"Here, you can have the rest."
I couldn't help but look at the opening of the bottle Mafuyu had drunk from, and then at her lips, wet from the tea she had drunk. After being together in the same club for about half a month, I did get to know more about her, and one of the things I learned was how insensitive she was when it came to things like this.
"But the Oolong tea I bought in America was sweet......"
She mumbled to herself as she made her way to a corner of the room. She opened the guitar case proficiently with her left hand and took out her favorite Stratocaster. The way she tuned was really unique—she used only her left hand. Her index finger gently pressed the nodal points, while her little finger plucked the strings. All her right hand did was support the body of the guitar; she didn't use the fingers on that hand at all.
In the end, it turned out the three fingers, aside from the thumb and index finger, on Mafuyu's right hand were completely immobile. According to the initial diagnosis of an American specialist, they probably needed quite a bit of time before they could return to normal. She may have to go overseas sometime in the future to get them treated.
Still...... In any case, Mafuyu came back from America.
Back to the high school I was studying at.
♩ ♯ ♫
It was pretty scary how fast the gossip in the magazines traveled. One month before Mafuyu left for America, several magazines had already published color images of Mafuyu on their covers. The movements of the girl piano prodigy, who had disappeared from the international stage two years ago, was well grasped by everyone, probably in no small part due to the fact that her father—the "world-renowned Ebisawa"—was travelling with her. Additionally, everyone also knew about her fingers.
It was said that, at the start of this month, when Mafuyu returned to Japan with her father, a lot of reporters had gathered at the airport. However, when her father went to retrieve their luggage, Mafuyu disappeared. Rumor was that she had been taken away by three unknown teenage boys and girls, and after some digging, the suspects were identified to be club members of a certain Folk Music Research Club that had a secret agenda. Is it really fine for us to be described like that......? After that, I made a call to Ebichiri, asking him to help explain everything to the media. He was fuming mad.
Half a month went by before things around Mafuyu finally died down.
The pianist Ebisawa Mafuyu had always been really silent, but now, she has her guitar. For her, the guitar was probably not something to escape to, but rather, another path to walk on.
After I was done with the door, I screwed the cap onto the Oolong tea bottle. Then, I stood up, walked to Mafuyu's side, and took out my bass.
♮ ♪ ♩
"So what's going on now? Why is Ebisawa directly addressing you as Naomi?"
Chiaki, who was late, asked that unhappily, then sat down on the chair of the drum set and guzzled down Mafuyu's leftover Oolong tea. As expected of a Judo black-belt—even though her body size was roughly the same as Mafuyu's, when she stared at me with her eyes opened wide, it felt like she could immediately grab me by the back of my neck, despite her being quite a considerable distance away from me. After much difficulty, I finally sealed the gap beneath the door, meaning we could finally switch on the air conditioning—however, there's already a gust of chilling air in here, so I don't really think the air conditioning is necessary.
The problem started with the Oolong tea. Chiaki spotted the bottle when she stepped into the classroom. "This is Nao's, right? Then I'll be drinking it!" And with that, she was about to take a huge gulp from it. Just then, however, Mafuyu said in a strangely angry voice, "I gave that to Naomi!" Why are you girls doing this? Please head outside if you want to quarrel!
"Look! Ever since he was young, Nao has been bullied because of how girly his name is, resulting in psychological trauma. When he hears someone call him by his given name, he becomes so frightened he actually pees his bed at night!" Bullshit! Stop fabricating my past as you please! "That's why I get everyone to call him Nao, so why is Ebisawa calling him by his given name?"
"Who knows?" Mafuyu answered without giving much of a damn. "I will address him however I please."
"Fine! Then I'll address Ebisawa as Mafuyu!"
"I asked you people to address me as that a long time ago."
Mafuyu still disliked it when others addressed her by her family name. It seemed she hadn't completely reconciled with her father yet.
"That won't do. There should be a more embarrassing name for you. Ebi-chan's already taken...... Hmm, since your name's Mafuyu...... how about Mafu-Mafu?"
"That sounds so awkward. People will definitely think you got my name wrong."
Using the floor tom as a table, Chiaki and Mafuyu continued their satire of each other. I felt the whole thing was rather silly, so I focused on tuning my bass. By the time I was done tuning and was about to plug my bass into the amplifiers, it seemed Mafuyu was already tired of arguing with Chiaki, who was saying "Mafu-Mafu" at every instance she could. Mafuyu directed her attention back to her guitar.
With her lips clamping the pick, she slipped her fingers—that could hardly muster any strength—into the loops of the pick, and in the next instant, swung her hand down with force. A series of sharp sounds leaped out from the Marshall amplifiers, like a gush of powerful flowing waters; the impact made me feel as though my spine were impaled by drills. My body trembled uncontrollably—I grasped my bass again with my sweaty palms.
Mafuyu didn't use any effects units, so it sounded just as it was: the guitar and the amplifiers—the rawest form of energy produced by combining the most basic technology of the Fender and Marshall companies. Hanon's <Virtuoso Piano - Exercise #43>—even though it should be a very lifeless tune—commonly used to practice finger techniques—the notes that flowed out of Mafuyu's guitar could never fail to accelerate the throbbing heart within me.
As I shifted my gaze back to my bass, I suddenly heard the sound of the cymbals entering. It integrated itself with Mafuyu's guitar while playing semiquavers, producing a rough metallic sound. The bass drum stomped in rowdily, as though it were ushering them along. The drum sticks in Chiaki's hands were moving rhythmically with great speed, and looked just like the wings of a dragonfly dancing in the air.
Mafuyu looked upwards suddenly and abruptly halted the performance. I thought Chiaki had stopped along with Mafuyu, but she was actually observing Mafuyu's breathing, and managed to ride on Mafuyu's tempo perfectly when Mafuyu resumed her play. So they're quarreling with their instruments after the earlier squabble? Well, recent practices have always started out on a similar note...... and it's all thanks to the club president who's always late! I held my breath and gently plucked the strings of my bass. I dove into my own notes amid the machine-gun-esque melody, and searched for my own space.
♩ ♯ ♩
Suddenly, the doors opened and a gush of hot air flowed into the room, interrupting the jam session.
"Morning comrades! So you guys are already ablaze? I'm really happy to see that!"
There was a tall slender silhouette at the entrance. Her eyes were sharp, just like those of the Queen of beasts. Her long jet-black hair was tied back due to the summer heat, making her look all the more impressive. She was the president of our Folk Music Research Club: Kagurazaka Kyouko-senpai.
Senpai didn't wear a bow-tie on top of her collar, and the top of her blouse was left unbuttoned, to a state that I had no idea where I should place my sight. She was carrying a guitar case on her shoulders. Seeing as how she was sweating quite a bit, she probably just arrived at school on her bicycle (if she had arrived here in the morning, she should've placed her guitar in the room first, like Mafuyu and me). This person's always like this, so how on earth did she manage to not repeat a year? And to top it off, she also didn't pay any tuition. That mystery was probably strange enough to be listed as one of the Seven Inconceivable Mysteries of our school.
"Comrade Ebisawa doesn't look quite happy today either—what a beautiful sight!" Senpai praised Mafuyu while walking past me to get close to her. Mafuyu had nowhere to run, so all she could do was watch helplessly as Senpai hugged her tightly and rubbed her cheeks against her own. Rather than feeling a sense of disgust, Mafuyu looked as though she was just embarrassed. She stared at me with a gaze crying for help, making me feel quite troubled as well.
"Ah, no worries, I didn't forget about you Comrade Aikawa! You hair seems slightly shorter? Hmm, you're still cute either way."
With that, Senpai hugged Chiaki's head and stroked her hair. Chiaki seemed really happy, and even buried the tip of her nose in Senpai's chest. I almost felt like saying "Sorry for interrupting," before just walking out of the classroom.
"Young man, you're the one who fixed the door?" Senpai suddenly directed the conversation to me.
"Eh? Ah. Y-Yeah."
Because the door couldn't be shut tight, noise could escape from the room through the slit below. Moreover, the slit also decreased the efficiency of the air conditioning.
"Well, it's great that the sounds won't escape the room anymore," Senpai looked at the door and spoke softly, "But that also means the air conditioning will become much cooler......"
What, isn't that something good? The best part about music clubs is that we can use the air conditioners during summer, no? Just then, Senpai released Chiaki and leaned towards me.
"One of the most beautiful scenes of Japan during the summer, is the white blouses of the young girls turning translucent and wet due to the sweat from their skin. However, due to the widespread use of air conditioning, these beautiful scenes are slowly disappearing from our sight. Young man, what do you think? If we're to practice without any air conditioning......"
"Please, just spare me from that! There's four people in this enclosed room, yeah!?"
It was one of the things I found out only after joining this club, which consisted of three girls and one guy...... and that was...... the fact that Kagurazaka-senpai really did like girls. I originally thought she was just joking, but the things this person says really are true.
"How about we all splash some water on ourselves before starting our practice?" Chiaki suggested.
"Definitely not! You'll damage the instruments like that," Mafuyu raised a surprisingly serious objection.
"Comrade Aihara, you don't get it. Sweat is not just water with salt, but blood that we proletarians bleed, all for the sake of revolution!"
Chiaki tilted her head—she probably had no idea what Senpai was talking about. Well, me too.
"Then how about we go to a cooler place to practice? I want to go to the beach!"
"How do you practice at the beach......"
"Nah, you can! In fact, I've already borrowed a villa."
Senpai suddenly said that, making me turn my head around in shock. A villa?
"A training camp in summer! We head out on the twenty-eighth of July, and it'll last three days and two nights. Since I've snatched the villa from a friend of mine, the accommodations will be totally free—moreover, the villa is located right next to the beach!"
With that, Senpai took a stack of A4-sized handouts—which she had made, unknown to all of us—out of a pocket in her guitar case. The words "Details for the Folk Music Research Club's summer camp" were written on it. I was rooted to the ground, due how sudden everything was.
"Wow, awesome! Nao, take a look, quickly!"
Chiaki stepped over the drum set and passed me the top sheet of the handouts. I absolutely couldn't comprehend why the handouts had to be printed in color, but the image of a white villa, standing in isolation next to the beach, over the backdrop of the evening sky, did look rather appealing.
"No, well...... wait, this is my first time hearing about the training camp. Did Senpai obtain permission from the teacher?"
"Nope! On the surface, it's just the four of us heading to the beach to play."
Is that fine...... Is that really alright?
"If we obtained permission from the school to organize an official training camp, the teacher-in-charge would have to come along as well, right? If so, things would be much more troublesome and complicated. Miss Maki is a beauty, and I do wish to see her in her swimsuit; however, recently, I haven't really been interested in people older than me."
"Eh? Ah, urm, what should I say—no wait!"
I slammed my hand on the cymbals next to me without a second thought. What the heck is this person saying!
"Why did you decide the date by yourself?"
"No worries. Comrade Aihara's swimming lessons fall on Mondays and Fridays, and I deliberately avoided the dates of Mafuyu's checkups. Young man should not have any special plans for the summer holidays, right?"
"What did you say?"
"Do you have anything planned?"
No, I don't. Sorry for that. Then again, how did that person manage to find out about our schedules for the summer holidays in such great detail?
"Nao, don't you want to participate? It's at the beach, you know? The beach!"
Chiaki said that enthusiastically as she repeatedly stepped on the pedals of the bass drum. I took another look at the photo of the villa. A training camp huh...... There'd be no adults around us, and we'd be in control of our time from morning till night—we could hold practices, have impromptu performances, and even play with fireworks at night. Seems pretty interesting...... No wait, hold on a second!
"Look, Senpai. You said you've already borrowed a villa, and that means there'll only be the four of us there, right?"
"Yeah! No caretakers. No rental fees. Though in return, we do have to clean up the villa."
"And that means we'll have to take care of our own food as well?"
"But of course."
Even though deep inside me, I already knew it would be pointless to ask, I still gave it a shot anyway.
"...... Senpai, do you know how to cook?"
Senpai shook her head as she flashed a slight smile. I sighed. Chiaki was totally hopeless at cooking, and with Mafuyu's fingers in that state......
"From what I've heard from Comrade Aihara, it seems you are quite adept at cooking, since you've been living together with your father for a long period of time. I'll be looking forward to it."
Ah, whatever. I'm the one who cooks the three meals when I'm at home during the holidays anyway. Though the portions have increased to four, the time and effort spent cooking would be the same as before. Moreover, if we were at the beach, even a simple bento would taste delicious.
Oh, are we gonna swim? Will they be wearing swimsuits? I've only seen Chiaki in the swimwear designated by the school. Senpai has a really good figure, so she may bring along something really flashy? As for Mafuyu, she doesn't even attend the swimming lessons...... No wait, calm down, me! We are going there to practice, not to swim and suntan ourselves!
Then, I realized something—Mafuyu hadn't said a single word. She was sitting on the desk and staring at the training camp handout, clutching it tightly with her hands. The expression on her face suggested that she was troubled by something. The guitar at her chest was about to slip down her knees.
"...... Comrade Ebisawa? What's wrong? Are the dates inconvenient for you?"
Mafuyu shook her head in reply to Senpai's question.
"If it's inconvenient for you, do tell me about it."
"It is nothing. Let's continue our practice."
After murmuring that in response, she stuffed the handout in the pocket of her guitar case, then grabbed the neck of her guitar. So there's really something bothering her? Does she not want to go to the training camp at the beach?
Kagurazaka-senpai didn't press any further either, and took out her own guitar as well.
I recalled that day—the things that happened on the day Mafuyu returned from America. The procedures for Mafuyu joining the club were completed in the female restroom at the Narita airport.
Back then, I was outside on lookout duty. What sort of expression was on Mafuyu's face when she signed the club application form? What did they talk about? I had absolutely no idea.
After returning to class, Mafuyu still wore a grumpy expression on her face, just like before; and she was as defensive as ever when it came to interacting with the rest of our classmates. Those classmates of mine, despite knowing about Mafuyu's fingers, still treated her as they did before she went to America, teasing her like she was some wild cat wary of humans.
Everything that happened before seemed like an illusion. Nothing had changed. The only difference was that Mafuyu had started to participate in club activities with us.
"Naomi, there's too much syncopation. It feels really uncomfortable."
"Naomi, stop being led away by my shuffle rhythms. Play your quavers properly."
During our practice, Mafuyu only complained about me—though part of the reason was because I was the person with the lousiest technique.
During these two weeks, the number of conversations between Mafuyu and I increased, though most of them were about things related to music, so I still didn't have the slightest idea about what Mafuyu was thinking when she was together with the band.