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Kenji lay in bed dreading the day’s study regime. Oh God, commercial law – the thought of it made him almost physically ill. This was not for him. He got up, determined to speak to his father. He rehearsed the scene as he brushed his teeth. Well, here goes, he told his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Later, he realised he should have known better than to bring it up again. It was the same old bone of contention. His father wouldn’t listen; instead he had given him a real tongue-lashing.
‘Do you think you are at the university to enjoy yourself, huh?’ Kurosawa senior had ended the tirade. ‘Surely you are aware of what it costs me, your education. Do you think my life is a bowl of cherries? You must learn to apply yourself, my son; life is not a game, you know. Grow up!’
Mr Kurosawa had left for work before Kenji could even think what to say next.
Appealing to his mother afterwards, trying to get her understanding, had not gone much better. Instead she had wept, implored him to try to please his father, to bury himself in his studies.
‘Please him you say, mother?’ shouted Kenji as he had flung out of the door. ‘Nothing I do will ever please him! Bury myself in study, you say. You always support him! I am drowning in study! I hate it!’
He walked on blindly, not caring where he went. How childish though, he realised, to take all this out on his mother. Kenji half hesitated; perhaps he should return and make it up with her. No – it wouldn’t change anything.
He walked down the street disconsolate, hands in pockets, muttering to himself. Kenji had no destination in mind; no possible way out of his problem presented itself. The very idea of doing any study today was intolerable.
Despite the weather – it had been a cold, overcast Tokyo day, grey and drizzling – he hung around the railway pedestrian overpass, looking down on the trains coming and going, people getting on and off trains; hurrying and scurrying like ants, he thought. All trapped, just as he was.
An airline poster on the platform behind the commuters showed one of those impossibly golden wide beaches, set with pandanus and mangroves; to the horizon, brilliant aqua water. Holiday in Australia, it beckoned. Kenji regarded it sourly. I bet they alter all that digitally; nowhere can really look like that. What bullshit.
That he was becoming increasingly cold and damp was a perverse comfort to him.
Kenji stared down at the streams of commuters. Like lemmings, plodding off to work. That this would one day also be his fate filled him with horror. On an impulse, Kenji began to examine the possibility of scaling the protective mesh at the sides of the foot-bridge. On reaching the top, it would be a simple matter to throw himself down; nicely timed to coincide with the next train. Instant oblivion. Bingo. Problem solved.
He stood there for a while, savouring the drama of this action. Considering it. At least it was a decisive move. His parents would see that he really had been desperate. The image of his father’s remorse gave him some small pleasure.
He would have to take off his shoes, Kenji decided. He glanced about then laughed. He had caught himself looking for somewhere to stash his good runners – in case somebody stole them!
He was standing there, head down, half laughing, half sobbing, with his fingers hooked in the mesh, when he heard a polite ‘Ahem’.
An old lady stood looking sternly at him. Although tiny, in a shabby grey raincoat and droopy hat, she nevertheless she had an indomitable gleam to her eye, and a very severe countenance.
‘I’ve been watching you. I hope you are not thinking of jumping down there, young man.’
‘Ah – no, no!’ stammered Kenji. ‘I – ah – you know, waiting for a friend –’
She cut him short. ‘Don’t tell lies; you were going to jump.’ Kenji felt transfixed by her beady eye. ‘This is happening far too much here.’ She was relentless. ‘That’s twice this year already, and you now the third. You should be ashamed of yourself.’
Not exactly ashamed, but Kenji was certainly beginning to feel embarrassed. Very embarrassed. People were watching the confrontation; several passersby had slowed, sensing some drama.
He was beginning to feel decidedly exposed, but the force of the old lady’s personality kept him pinned there, unable to get away.
‘No, no, really, lady!’ he protested. ‘Hey, I’m just a bit upset, had an argument with my father, okay? Me over the side? No way!’ And Kenji made to sidle off.
But now she had grabbed his sleeve. She had intuited his aim to escape. ‘You young people today, no internal fortitude. No guts!’ Here she surprised Kenji even more: she poked him sharply in the stomach with the stiff forefinger of her free hand. ‘Be a man. Take control of your own destiny.’ Letting go of his jacket, she said, ‘During the war, towards the end, we had to eat rats!’
As the little old lady turned and hobbled off, Kenji watched her go, stunned. She had only taken a few minutes, but he felt like he had been given a good shake.
Back to the grind. After that he had tried to give it one more go, but it was no use. His heart was not in it. In truth, he did as little work on his studies as possible, just enough to get by and keep his parents off his back, but he knew the day of reckoning would come.
When finally that day came, though, the reality didn’t seem as bad as the anticipation.
Kenji sat at the table, eyes down, as the long-awaited storm broke around him. His desperate last-ditch effort had been too little, too late of course. The exam results clutched in his father’s hand told the story.
He felt sort of detached, as though it didn’t really affect him at all. It was a sort of set piece, all going more or less as he had predicted. While his father raged, he let his attention drift off. He would have liked to take another piece of toast, but didn’t quite dare. He was only brought back to the situation by his father actually cuffing him.
‘Don’t just sit there like a great oaf! Answer me! What do you think you might do now, eh?’ his father demanded. ‘Perhaps you should go down to the fish market and get a labourer’s job, carrying fish. Maybe go and join the Defence Force as a common soldier. Have you considered garbage collection? No? Maybe you should! These are the sort of options for people who are unfortunately too poor to get a good education; also for those individuals too lazy to study.’ Kurosawa senior paused for breath. ‘Well, what have you got to say?’ he demanded.
‘I – I passed English,’ Kenji managed to mutter, wracking his brains for something to ease the situation.
‘So he passed English,’ his father said sarcastically, standing there with his hands on hips, his head nodding up and down. ‘What good do you think that will do you, huh? Answer me! Get you a job as an airport taxi driver, perhaps?’
The picture of the airline poster at the station flashed into Kenji’s mind. Kenji blurted out, talking quickly, ‘Perhaps I could go to Australia to improve my English. I’ve heard that there are special courses, not so expensive. Maybe with really good English I could find a career.’
‘Oh yes! Australia! Holiday country! I can imagine. Lying on the beach, doing nothing!’ Kenji kept his head down. ‘I suppose you think I must support you in this mad scheme? You think this costs nothing, eh? What could you do in Australia to support yourself? Answer me that.’
Kenji was half stunned; in a strange way, his father seemed to be almost considering his completely off-the-cuff proposal.
Totally at a loss, not having the faintest idea what one might do for a job in Australia, Kenji took a wild stab at an answer. ‘Maybe I could be a cowboy, something like that.’
After a long second or two staring at his son, Mr. Kurosawa walked over to the sideboard. Carefully he took up his briefcase and umbrella and walked to the door. He turned and looked at his wife and son, first one and then the other, both still sitting eyes down at the table. Neither dared to meet his gaze.
‘Marvellous! Your brilliant son! He
wants to go to Australia and become a cowboy!’
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