That morning, when Ryoji woke up, fired from sleep by a strident, but usual sound, he refrained from opening his eyes. He wanted to feel, all around him, in the thousand little sounds of the house, in the movements of the air, in the heat of the spots of light dancing on his face, the essence of this morning. It was the day of his fifteen. He felt the hard mat under his back, and the floor of the house, sometimes vibrating when a lost truck was passing in the street.
He heard his elder sister, already busy in the kitchen. He looked around. What he saw was far from luxury. Despite his young age, he was well aware of the fact that his family had become poorer in the recent years, and that, surreptitiously, the loss of unnecessary wealth had slowly given way to the lack of vital needs. But today, it little mattered.
He was going to meet Yoshino.
He had known the young girl for only a few months. He had met her before her high school closed, in a bookshop downtown. She was the sister of a friend of one of his, and he had tried to meet her regularly several times, in the street and in the shops where she got used to go.
At first, they just shared quick smiles until they finally got introduced to each other by respective friends : Yoshino was her name. He remembered this feeling when he had to leave her ; a spirit in turmoil, a particular stare and a long whisper.
Every single step was hardened by Yoshino’s parents. Her father worked at the local hospital as a doctor. Their family had seen their wealth grow over the years. They would not even have considered the possibility that one of their daughters might have some relationship with a boy who, from their view, could only be a disgraceful beggar to their family whatever his virtues.
However, he had managed to get closer to Yoshino. They shared some feigned intimacy by the darkness of the cinema, where the ticket clerc, to whom he sometimes did some favours, let him in freely. In the kabuki theatre, Ryoji had even been able to sit next to the girl ; but his joy had moved on shame when he compared his clothes, carefully prepared by his elder sister, to Yoshino’s.
Today, on his fifteenth birthday, the young girl, half serious, half laughing, had promised him a kiss. Under his shaved hair, Ryoji’s mind was purpled. It would be like in those foreign movies they watched, sometimes laughing to hide their embarrassment in front of the effusions of the stars on the movie screen. They had to meet early in the morning, behind the Shima Hospital, downtown. It was not seven o’clock yet and, on the bay, the rising sun caressed the ocean. He had time.
Smells, forgotten for too long, came to arouse his appetite. He smelt of real rice, not mixed to soya, and grilled fish. He swallowed his breakfast with delight, under the impenetrable glance and the unfailing smile of Yasuko, his elder sister.
Through her face, the joy of seeing her brother eat such an exceptional meal, and the sadness of knowing how far she had been reduced to get it, were conflicting each other. Since the loss of their eldest brother, Toshiro, their mother seemed to be dazed. She had no taste for anything. So, Yasuko had to take care of the daily life of the family. She had no news from her betrothed for several months, so she concentrated all her efforts and found strength to keep on living and offering a few moments of happiness to those she loved.
Ryoji lived north of the city, where the river flows one of its arms, describing a loop to the east. To reach Yoshino, he had to take a bus, then the tram, without paying his ticket. When on the way, he realized he had forgotten to thank Yasuko sufficiently for her attentions, and he felt miserable. He promised to make her understand how much he had appreciated the care she had taken to satisfy him, at his coming back. But for now, all his affection seemed to be directed only to another young woman.
He was waiting for his bus in a crowd which, as time was passing by, was growing on an on. The delay, which had been frequent in the recent years, was becoming unusual. With an increasing attention mixed with anguish, Ryoji was watching the great clock that adorned the shop window of a nearby watchmaker. Suddenly, a rumour, peddled by a travelling salesman, was heard through the small group : the bus had had an accident a few streets farther north and it could not go by any further. The group of adults scattered, some trying to hail some improbable taxi, some going on walking or others settling as comfortably as they could, waiting for the next bus tour.
For Ryoji, the world was crumbling. His feverish thoughts urged him to find a solution as soon as possible to rejoin the city center, and, through the disorder of feelings that began to oppress him, he thought of his comrade Yukio. Yukio had a bike!
Ryoji quickly went straight to his friend’s home, luckily rather close. He wanted to hurry, without running yet, for he feared of sweating over on his first date.
Reaching the threshold of the house, a miserable cube of wood and paper, which could not be distinguishable from those on the suburb of the town. This area could run the risk of being destroyed to prevent the danger of fires. He saw Yukio’s sister, whom he hopefully asked if his friend was in. Yukio was just up. When he told him he could not lend him his bike for the morning because his father needed it a little later, Ryoji felt a pain in his stomach. His distress was certainly so visible that Yukio finally offered him a ride to the beginning of the tram line.
‘— I pedal, hang behind me on the luggage rack, so the lady will not be repelled by your sweaty smell ! ’
Yukio had broken through him so much that Ryoji blushed out. In the small circle of his acquaintances, he was the only one who thought that his interest for Yoshino was not obvious.
Yukio spared no pains and, coming close to the docks, he rode south, where the river divided into three arms before reaching the sea. Gripping his companion, shaken by the jolts, Ryoji was now rushing down the alleys bordered by countless wooden houses added to paper parts. He seemed, as he crossed the powdery air of the dusty roads, that the whole town was nothing but a heap of dry wood and crumpled paper, ready to burst into flames, becoming as burning as his generous heart within his chest. He remembered the heat spreading inside him, in the conniving darkness of the movie theatre, when Yoshino had allowed her hand to linger on somehow with his own. He recalled with amusement an old song his father used to hum which, tirelessly repeated ‘ watch out for the fire, watch out for the fire… ’
Yukio crossed a bridge due east, and the sun dazzled Ryoji, pulling him out of his inner storm. ‘The tram!’ Yukio yelled, pointing, in the distance, to the elegant wooden shape of the castle, which bordered one of the first stations of the line. Yukio, sweating, left his friend with a frank smile. Ryoji did not have enough time to babble his thanks. His comrade, in a hurry, had already left away, shouting at him that he wanted to be the first to know what would happen with the girl, with all the saucy details …
* * * *
Yoshino awoke with an inner smile illuminating her morning. For a few weeks, a feeling had been growing inside for Ryoji. At the beginning, the young man had seemed ordinary and clumsy to her. But, with the time passing by, and their meetings which Ryoji staged with a touching clumsiness, she began to appreciate his company. To notice, his family was not the most shining. He was wearing his school uniform a little too often which made her think he probably did not have any other acceptable clothes. And yet, his love of life and his cheerfulness had been good to her. When she had heard of his approaching birthday, moved by an impromptu impulse of her heart, she had promised him a shameless kiss which she would not have thought possible to offer. What could have led her to such an end? Perhaps, the recent loss of one of her brothers had made her realize that she had to live, quickly. But Ryoji was so hesitant that she had to help him a little!
She carefully chose a very pale blue summer kimono, soberly decorated with darker patterns, reminding of the ocean. In order not to arouse any suspicion from her governess about her appearance, she pretended she wished to visit a nearby shrine. She had not donned her kimono for a long time. Since then, her body had changed, and the young woman draped in the silk with a sensual sweetness she had never tasted before.
It was not a lie for she had really planned to go to the shrine after her date anyway, maybe with Ryoji, who knows, if he had time. It would be a pleasure to walk together in the gardens, under the shade of the leaves, before reaching the hospital where, thanks to the influence of her father, she worked as a nurse’s assistant.
The building was very close so she set off without hurrying. The river reflected the summer sun, reminding of the past seasons, in the mountains near the torrents, with the family once united but who seemed to have torn apart over time. She felt strangely nostalgic, but also beautiful and light-hearted. When looking up at the sky, she imagined, in a prodigious leap, that she might have vanished into the blue.
* * * *
Ryoji was as shaken by the jolts of the tramway as he was exasperated by its slowness. Older highschool student groups crossed the tracks with no rush, as did traders and other vehicles, forcing the tram to continually slow down. Ryoji had crouched down on the platform at the back, hidden from the sight of the ticket inspector by the mass of passengers standing and clinging to the support bars of the wagon. However, a movement from the legs around indicated that the inspector was coming straight to him. So, taking advantage of another slowdown, Ryoji leaped out of the platform and quickly crossed the bridge that would lead him to the peninsula where the hospital was located. A wall clock indicated that it would soon be eight o’clock. He had only a few hundred meters to walk but he could be late if he did not hurry. So, he rushed along.
The sun, already high on that full summer day, sent back shafts of light on every shop window, blinding him regularly. The city was passing around, and he no longer felt the painful muscles of his legs, hardened by the joy inherent to the first pangs of desire. He wanted to laugh. He hurried with all his strength, without running, for he was worried about arriving breathless, whereas was instilling inside the fear of missing his first date. Yoshino would certainly wait for a few minutes. Today, everything had to be beautiful.
As a reward after a long wait, he discerned in the crowd, among so common outfits that they all looked as one, a touch of incongruous blue, like a piece of the sky on the street. It was Yoshino. He slowed down, crossing the last road that separated him from her. He finally came, ill-at-ease overwhelming with respect for the young girl.
* * * *
In the distance, Yoshino had seen Ryoji’s strange gait. He seemed to walk very quickly and yet undecided to run. ‘ Still so hesitant ’, she said to herself, delighted by this character trait she actually appreciated so much.
They both greeted each other in a strange solemnity, and Ryoji, astonished, realized that he had not even thought, for a while, of what he was going to say to Yoshino. Against all odds, it was her who decided to break the silence between them.
‘ — Did you find it easy to come here?
— Not really, everything went wrong. The bus had an accident and was cancelled. I had to run and ask Yukio to help me. Fortunately, he managed to ride me with his own bike to the tram…
— I would have like to see you on the bike ! It must have been funny!’
Ryoji looked down, embarrassed. Yoshino laughed a little. ‘Maybe I should give you your birthday present now,’ the young girl said, heading for the nearby piers.
Ryoji followed her, not forgetting to compliment her for the elegance of her outfit. Despite himself, the slow swaying of Yoshino’s hips in front of his eyes set his adolescent imagination on fire. When they arrived near the river, protected from the intruders by a white wall with its brightness facing the sun and almost hurt the eye, Ryoji offered his cheek to Yoshino. She was facing him. She naturally leaned forward and in a whisper said : ‘You are not a child anymore, you are fifteen now. My brother only lived a few years beyond his. I no longer want to be a child either, we have so little time for love’. Yoshino huddled into Ryoji’s dangling arms. Almost instinctively, he hugged the tender body of the girl. Their lips joined. For them both, the time stopped. They were young, handsome, invaded by a burning heat wave. For the first time, in the awakening of their senses, Ryoji and Yoshino felt the nascent promise of the quest for an absolute. Yoshino thought that the world could now come to an end.
Six hundred meters above the lover’s first kiss, a new sun kindled in the sky of Hiroshima. From their first-time embraced bodies, only remained a single blackish shadow on a whitewashed wall.