"Come on, then, Nakata-kun, there's no need to be so reserved!"
With that, Seigi's section chief pulled him through the four-panel redwood door to snack bar Stella. Inside were three cosy booths along one wall and a massive mahogany bar counter along the other. A giant plasma TV occupied the back wall directly across from the entrance.
A diminutive elderly gentleman stood in front of the TV, mic in hand, crooning a passable version of A Thousand Winds. On the screen, a shadowy crane's wings flapped against a grey-blue sky as a little green star bounced across the top of the karaoke lyrics in the order they were meant to be sung. The air smelled of cloying perfume, stale whiskey, and fresh cigarette smoke.
Seigi never went to such places usually, but the older management types always did, and it was rare for a junior executive like him to be invited. Whether he liked it or not, his progress at the company depended on his ability to hold his liquor -- and his tongue, after the drinking was over.
The section chief was obviously a regular here -- no sooner had they crossed the threshold than they were being led to "your usual spot, Ogawa-sama, everything is prepared" by a young woman in a peacock blue evening dress that clung to her slender figure like a second skin.
The usual spot was, of course, at the main bar counter, behind which stood a tall, refined-looking woman in her late forties, wearing makeup so thick she was stage-ready and looking like she owned the place. Which she most likely did; Seigi was willing to bet his year-end bonus that he was looking at the bar's mama-san.
"Ogawa-san, you're unusually early tonight," she said, surveying their little group of four. "And you've brought new friends. Welcome. I'm Sara." She had one of those smiles that could light up an entire room.
"Who are our neighbours tonight?" Ogawa-san asked, gesturing at the two seats to Seigi's left, closest to the karaoke setup. The one immediately next to Seigi was empty -- presumably, the singing old man's. A man sat in the other one, his back to the bar, watching the singer, who was just launching into the second verse.
The man on the bar stool turned around at Ogawa's words, and Seigi's stomach instantly shrank to the size of a bean. The man had wavy blond hair like fresh-spun silk framing an ethereally beautiful face with eyes like cold jewels.
Richard, Seigi sighed on the inside. He hadn't seen the man in close to a decade, and Richard didn't seem to have aged a single minute. Is he really human?
"Why, if it isn't Nakata Seigi," Richard said with a very slight, controlled smile.
The sound of his voice tugged at Seigi's heart. The last time he'd heard that voice, his life had been so different -- full of uncertainty and hope, love and beauty. When he became an old man and young people asked him about his carefree university days, Seigi would tell them all about the summer he'd spent working for the mysterious, beautiful foreigner in a Ginza jewellery shop. Those were some of his most cherished memories.
"R-Richard," Seigi managed. "How have you been?"
"Quite well, thank you. I'm a little bit surprised to see you at a place such as this."
"And I you," Seigi retorted. "I thought you avoided adult entertainment."
"I beg your pardon," Richard said, addressing Sara-san. "My former employee here has always been a bit of a brute."
Seigi blushed. "I didn't mean--"
"Oh, hush," Sara-san said. "Let the pretty one talk. I do so like your voice, Richard-san."
She smiled indulgently. "Of course."
Ogawa-san bellowed a hearty laugh. "You haven't even been here for five minutes and you're already getting on Sara-san's bad side, Nakata-kun. I didn't know you had such a mean streak!"
"You don't know the half of it," Richard put in. He got up from the stool, buttoned his suit jacket back up, and walked over to shake Ogawa-san's hand after a formal bow. "I am Richard Ranashinha de Vulpian. It's a wonderful pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Ogawa Shiyu, and the pleasure's all mine. How do you know our Nakata-kun? You said he used to work for you -- what is it that you do?"
"I worked part-time at his shop during my university days, that's all," Seigi offered. The last thing he wanted was for Ogawa-san to doubt his company loyalty.
"I run a jewellery shop in Ginza," Richard said to Ogawa-san, both of them ignoring Seigi completely. "Seigi did indeed work for me at one time."
So Richard had not only come back to Japan after abruptly closing up shop ten years ago, he had already re-opened Jewelry Etranger? Was it still called Jewelry Etranger? When had Richard returned? Why hadn't he sent Seigi at least a greeting message? Seigi had so many questions, but he was outranked from all angles, so all he could do was be quiet and listen to his managers and Richard making introductions and exchanging pleasantries.
Seigi sighed and helped himself to a handful of peanuts from a gold-rimmed white bowl Sara-san had set out on the gleaming counter in the meantime.
After graduating from university, he'd failed the civil servant examination twice and eventually joined the advertising division of Mizuki Holdings. He had been there ever since, working his way up through middle management. After eight years, he was a junior executive with a foot firmly on the next rung of the ladder. All he needed was for Ogawa-san to make the move up to division chief and recommend that Seigi lead the section. And if that required sitting in snack bars listening to old men sing old pop songs while his expensive, dry-clean-only suit soaked up the stench of tobacco smoke, he would gladly do it. He didn't really know why he was doing any of this, but having goals to focus on beat the hell out of reflecting on an empty, meaningless life.
And there I go again, Seigi thought,crushing a peanut between his teeth with too much aggression. He glanced at Richard just as A Thousand Winds faded out from the TV's speakers, giving way to the opening bars to Fukuyama Masaharu's First Love.
Seigi fought the urge to bolt. Of all the songs, why did it have to be that one, at this moment?
He and Shouko had been together through their university graduation, and when she went back to her hometown to do her in-class hours at her old elementary school, Seigi had assumed that she'd come back after that was done and get licensed as a teacher in Tokyo. They'd get a little place together and, once both of them had steady jobs and managed to put away some savings, they'd start talking about making things more permanent. A normal life, full of love and hope and beauty.
But two months into Shouko's teaching placement, she'd called him about having reconnected with the boyfriend she'd had all through junior high. They had been placed together at the elementary school, and then feelings thought long gone had come back into their hearts, and she was no longer interested in returning to Tokyo. And of course, she was so very sorry, but she couldn't pursue a relationship with her ex without first breaking up with Seigi. She had always been a fair-minded person.
We can't be friends any more,
We can't be lovers again, the old man sang, quite beautifully, and Seigi bit down on the wave of nausea working its way through all the izakaya snacks he'd had earlier. The first time he'd failed his civil servant exam had been because he'd lain prone in his bed for a week after the break-up phone call, listening to First Love on loop until the lyrics and the melody had filled his whole world.
The second time he'd failed had been because he'd no longer really cared about being a civil servant -- he'd stopped caring about much of anything. His friends were all around the country -- some even overseas -- living their best lives, and Seigi just felt frozen in time. The ring he'd bought for Shouko at a glitzy department store jewellery display still sat in its little black box in a disused cabinet above Seigi's refrigerator, next to his grandmother's old ring. She sent him New Year's cards every year -- last year's came with a photograph of a smiling Shouko holding a chubby-faced baby with the same angelic eyes as her.
No. Sitting here moping like a pathetic loser wasn't going to get him anywhere. Seigi swallowed the last of his peanuts and forced his attention back to his companions. The young woman who had brought them in had joined the party in the meantime -- unlike a hostess bar, where the customers were required to buy the women drinks, snack bar young ladies just came over to chat about this and that, perhaps flirt lightly, and make the guests feel at ease.
"Wow, Richard," the woman said as she gazed at the karaoke singer. "Your customer is a really talented singer."
"Indeed," Richard said, smiling at her in a way an elder brother would smile at his cute sister. "He wanted to go to a real Tokyo snack bar while he's here, so I took him to this place since Sara-san has always been so kind to my family." He shot a glance at Seigi. "Oh, part-timer-san, I see you've come out of your peanut-eating stupor," he added with a somewhat acidic tone.
Seigi was about to say that he was certainly not Richard's part-timer-san any more, but the nameless young woman gasped. "Is he the famous part-timer who broke your heart, Richard?"
Seigi's eyes widened as Richard's face drained of colour. He tugged at the knot in his tie with a troubled expression and glanced around the darkened interior. "Excuse me, I've just remembered an errand."
He strode out the door with swift elegance, leaving Seigi and the rest to stare after him.
Sara-san's eyes held such a withering stare that the young woman's expression of earnest surprise melted away, and she hurried off towards the restrooms.
Richard's customer kept on singing, seemingly oblivious of his companion's sudden departure, but Seigi was so shocked that he forgot all about the accursed song and all the terrible memories that went with it. What did she mean, the part timer who broke Richard's heart? After the summer of Seigi's second year at university, Richard had suddenly needed to close his shop and return to England. He'd given Seigi a generous severance payment, which later became the savings he'd used to purchase Shouko's ring, and Seigi had never heard from him again until they ran into each other.
Ogawa-san clapped Seigi on the shoulder. "Really, Nakata-kun? You turned down a guy who looks like that? You must really be a ladies' man through and through!" He laughed with gusto. "Me, I wouldn't mind at all if he wanted to have his way with me, am I right, Inakura?"
Inakura-san, a senior Accounting executive, echoed the laughter, a bit awkwardly. "What about your wife, chief?"
"Are you kidding me? She'd probably ask to watch!" The two of them clinked their whiskey glasses together and laughed again, louder this time.
Seigi wanted nothing more than to scream at them to stop saying such filthy things about Richard, but he was neither as drunk nor as powerful, so he held his tongue, just barely.
He'd never turned Richard down. Richard had never asked him for anything other than to diligently carry out the duties of a part-time worker at his shop. There had been that time Richard sent him an earnest-sounding confession over text, but that had been to teach Seigi a lesson about paying compliments carelessly. They'd discussed it at some length back then, and that had been the end of it.
He'd always thought that he and Richard had parted on good terms. But between Richard's prickly not-quite-hostility and the young woman's exclamation, it was abundantly clear to Seigi now that his memories -- the same memories he'd cherished all this time, even amid the void left by Shouko's betrayal -- were inaccurate.
[to be continued]