At the very start of April, the Toyonaka Campus was a hive of activity. The entrance ceremony that welcomed thousands upon thousands of first-year students ran well into lunch; and once it finally drew to a close, the first-years made a beeline for the nearest source of food. After many received an adequate feed, they milled about the grounds: some admired the cherry blossoms that were only a few days shy of full bloom; some exchanged contact details with the new friends they'd made; some were browsing club stands that had been set up in order to try and rake in some fresh meat for the new year.
I picked my way through the crowds, ducking around club recruiters and heading straight for the front gates. The energy in the air was unreal, and unlike anything I'd ever witnessed before. The only crowds I'd ever really seen with my own eyes were the crowds of mothers waiting in line to pay for goods during "rush hour" at the only grocery store in Mihama; it was really a wonder why I felt somewhat panicked, essentially drowning in a sea of young adults who were either fighting their way to a club table or fighting to get away from one. I lost count of the number of people I bumped into or collided with on the way to the main entrance.
Somehow, I made it to the crosswalks at the front of campus without getting physically maimed. I was a bundle of nerves, but whether it was from the exhilaration of having fought my way through an assemblage of my fellow peers, or whether it was due to the apprehension I felt towards my very first shift with this Shiraishi-kun, I couldn't quite tell. I'd just clued myself into thinking that it might have been a bit of both when I felt my phone starting to vibrate in my pocket. I fished it out and checked the caller ID: it was from my father.
When I picked up, he greeted me in a hushed whisper. "Hello? ?"
"Dad?" I asked rather sceptically. "Are you at work?"
He was chuckling on the other end of the line. "I'm due to go into a very long meeting, but I wanted to check in with you before I greet my demise. How are you settling in?"
I laughed at his mischievousness. For such a high-ranking employee, he was worryingly lax. "I've unpacked most of my things. The apartment's a good size, but—well, let's see if I'm still saying that when Mom comes around for a visit on the weekend."
"Where are you now?"
"Right now? I just left campus. The opening ceremony finished about ten minutes ago, so I'm heading to work now."
"I found a part-time job. There's a florist not far from campus. The owner was really desperate for workers, so she hired me."
He tutted. "Don't undersell yourself, -chan—I'm sure you'll be great."
In the background, I heard another voice faintly calling, "-san? Where are you?"
"That's my cue—got to go." My father said, his voice dropping to a barely audible whisper. "When your mom comes to visit you, pass on a message for me, will you?"
"Okay. What do you want me to sign?"
"Hmm... let's try, 'I miss your golden humour, dear!'"
"You're a real charmer, Dad."
He chuckled on the other end of the line. "I know."
The voice that had been calling for my father on the other end of the line got increasingly louder.
"Anyway—good luck at work, -chan." He said hastily.
"Okay. You too. Have fun at your meeting."
Then we hung up.
I had to run the rest of the way to work to make it on time.
- x -
When I arrived at the florist, I found a boy about my age there before me, sweeping the front steps of the shop. At first glance, he certainly looked like the sort of person who would be working at a florist: his hair was neat and well-maintained; his apron was ironed and kempt; his eyes were bright, and he looked legitimately content to be sweeping the doorstep to such a modest flower shop.
He raised his eyes to look at me when I drew closer and welcomed me with a practised, professional smile. Had I not been so accustomed to doing it myself, I might have mistaken his pleasant temperament as a sign of innate loveliness. "Hello. How may I help you today?"
"Hello." I said with as much amiability as I could muster. "Are you Shiraishi-san?"
It took him a few moments to realise that I was the new employee. He turned his eyes to the clock on the wall behind the counter, and his trained smile melted into a frown.
I looked at my own watch and raised my eyebrow at it. I was right on time according to both clocks—early, actually, according to mine.
Shiraishi knew this very well, but out of sheer politeness, he decided not to comment on it. He put his broom aside, put on a terse smile and said, "You must be -san."
"Nice to meet you." I think.
"It's nice to meet you too." He said. "Well—shall we get started?"
He led the way into the shop. As I trailed behind him, I wondered if it was just me, or if the air between us was a little more tense than it had been a couple of minutes ago. Surely he couldn't be annoyed that I'd arrived perfectly on time—could he?
Shiraishi explained that I would be working the register today: it was a simple matter of entering the prices that I was told to enter into the till, and putting the receipt on the counter for the customer to retrieve—everything else, he could do himself. If he was out back while any customers wandered into the shop, I was go to and get him. "I have to unload some of the new arrivals that are out back, but I want you to spend all of your free time today memorising the names, synonyms, scientific classifications, genera, characteristics, growing habits, flower meanings and prices of everything in the shop."
It took all of my effort not to look at him in disbelief. "R-right—of course." I said, unwilling to go from being on his bad side to being on his worst side.
We looked at each other for a few tense moments before slowly gravitating towards our separate stations.
I spent the better part of the morning trying to memorise flowers, their prices, and everything else that Shiraishi had asked me to do. A couple of customers came in while Shiraishi was working in the back of the shop, so I politely asked them to wait just one moment while I went to get him—but other than that, I spent the better part of my shift memorising the contents of the shop. While I did so, Shiraishi spent the better part of the shift making sure that the store was absolutely immaculate. He swept up stray flower petals; he organised displays in a manner that was artful, logical and minimal, and he shifted flower pots to ensure that their best side was captured from a front-viewing angle. We didn't spend a lot of time talking, despite how quiet the shop was.
At the end of the day, Shiraishi showed me how to close the shop. Once most of the procedures were done, he told me that I could clock out.
"Okay." I said, reluctant to argue. "Thanks for today."
"Good work, -san." He said back.
"I'll see you tomorrow?" I asked as I took off my apron. Part of me was hoping he'd say no.
"Yes, I'll teach you how to open tomorrow." He said politely. "See you bright and early, -san."
If he was trying to drop a hint, he wasn't being very subtle about it.
"Right—see you then." I said. Then I left.
I took the long route home, eager to get my mind off having to come back to work the next day and repeat the same painful process of being around Shiraishi. I sure hoped time could find some way to sweeten him, or I'd be better off saying goodbye to a pleasant working life.
- x -
When I rocked up at work ten minutes before my shift started the following morning, I was greeted by a much more pleasant Shiraishi. He had only just opened the door to the store when I'd come along. Perhaps he'd just been pleased that I'd found it within me to be extra punctual that morning—or perhaps it was just because he happened to be a morning person. Whatever it was that made him look that much brighter, I hoped that it would last.
Shiraishi instructed me on how to open, but when it came down to actually opening, there wasn't a whole lot for two people to do. Shiraishi asked me to take some plants outside to put on display, but he ended up correcting my work anyway, explaining that his actions merely sought to correct the "imbalance in the Feng Shui" that I'd unwillingly created. The only thing he really let me do by myself was sweep the store, which I made sure to do carefully and precisely enough that he wouldn't make me re-sweep the entire place.
In alliance with his wishes from yesterday, I spent the better part of the morning roaming through the shop, memorising all the different flowers and trying to stay out of his way. We didn't speak a whole lot, making the experience all the more discomforting.
This went on for a week.
It wasn't as if I hadn't tried to start a conversation with him—I'd done so on several occasions—but he was more interested in getting work done than pausing to have a conversation with me. In his eyes, there was always something to do, and I quickly realised that he would have preferred that I adopt a similar mindset. I decided to do what he wished, and—although it might have been my imagination—it seemed to make him that little bit more pleasant to work with.
On the Wednesday of the following week, I was glad to finish earlier than usual. I had let Satou know a few days prior that I had to be at university by one o'clock for class enrolment announcements, and she vowed be back at the shop by twelve. True to her word, she and her husband came into the shop after an exhausting morning arranging flowers at a nearby hotel. I was tidying up the counter while Shiraishi worked out back when I heard her call, "-chan, you can finish at twelve o'clock!"
"Okay—thank you for today." I said, taking off my apron.
She came inside with her husband and asked, "Where's Shiraishi-kun?"
"He's in the back somewhere, I think."
"Shiraishi-kun!" She called. "Finish at twelve o'clock!"
The reply came promptly. "Okay—thank you, Satou-san!"
It struck me as a little strange that both Shiraishi and I were finishing at the exact same time—at the café restaurant I used to work at, the manager always took care to stagger starting and finishing times—but I tried not to let it bother me as I went out back to hang up my apron and gather my belongings. I found Shiraishi doing the exact same thing. We exchanged an uncomfortable look as we walked out of the shop together for the very first time since working together.
For a while, things were quiet. Shiraishi walked stiffly, his eyes affixed to the road in front of him. He seemed to have no intention of starting a conversation with me, and admittedly, I didn't particularly want to talk to someone who seemed so unnecessarily guarded. But at the same time, I didn't want to start off on the wrong foot with a co-worker based on mere assumptions—there was the odd chance, after all, that Shiraishi could turn out to be much nicer than I gave him credit for. In an effort to get Shiraishi to loosen up—even if just a little—I decided to talk. "So... are you... going anywhere special?"
"Yes." He said, not looking at me. "I'm going to university—they're announcing the results for the class assignments today."
"… Could it be that you go to Osaka University?"
This caused him to look at me. "You too, -san?"
"Yeah, I'm starting as a first year here." I said. "What about you?"
We arrived at the Toyonaka Campus, where we were greeted by large, bustling crowds—not unlike the crowds from the day of the opening ceremony. Shiraishi and I, although reluctant to be in one another's presence, found ourselves walking the same way to find where the results were listed. It quickly came to my attention why."Are you doing Frontiers of Chemistry as well?" I asked, squinting at the board. Sure enough, I saw Shiraishi's name below the heading 'Frontiers of Chemistry I'.
"Yes." He said, sounding surprised. "Are you?"
"Yeah." I said.
"Hm." He said. "What other subjects are you doing?"
"Basic Neuropharmacology, Frontiers of Medicinal Chemistry, and Chemistry Experiments." I said. "What about you?"
"Basic Neuropharmacology, Frontiers of Medicinal Chemistry and Sports A." He said, frowning.
Three out of four, I thought. What a turn out.
After we registered for classes, Shiraishi was due back at the shop, and I was free to go home. For half of the walk we went the same way.
Just as the silence was about to get unbearable, Shiraishi and I came at a crossroads in our mutual journey. I was silently relieved when we said our goodbyes.
"I'll see you at work tomorrow." I said. "Bright and early."
"Bright and early." He agreed. "Goodbye, -san."
He headed back to the shop, and I headed off to Shibahara Station, eager to get to the grocery store on the way home before rush hour hit.
- x -
Shiraishi and I opened the store together again the following day—a day on which we shared many delightfully awkward hours of our time. Satou came to relieve us of our duties at twelve, at which point we were told to clock out and gather our things. We left the shop, shouting out goodbyes to Satou and her husband, before starting off for class.
Walking to class together was no better than working together, but I was determined to at least try to strike up a conversation with Shiraishi. Since we happened to be taking most of the same classes, there was an off chance that we might even end up having to sit next to one another at some point. Besides, I didn't know how much more of this awkwardness I could take.
"So..." I began. "Are you in Chemistry?"
He checked the time on his phone to make sure we were still running ahead of schedule before he dignified himself with a response. "Why do you ask?"
"You're doing a lot of Chemistry subjects, so I thought it was a possibility." I said. "Call it a baseless guess if you will."
"I'm doing Pharmacy." He said. Almost as soon as I heard those words, I felt my heart begin to sink ever so slightly. "What about you?"
"Same." I said.
"... Oh." He said. I assumed that he, like I had only moments earlier, realised that we might just be stuck together for the next six years.
We kept walking.
"What made you want to go into Pharmacy?" I asked, unwilling to back down.
This question made him look rather thoughtful. "Chemistry was my best subject in high school, so it made sense to pursue something I was good at."
"Is there a reason you didn't go into standalone Chemistry? It's much shorter than Pharmacy."
"I wanted to go into Organic Chemistry to begin with," he said, "but I felt that Pharmacy would allow me to be more immediately beneficial to society."
"That's pretty noble of you." I said in passing.
I'd only meant to make a simple observation based off his choice of words, but Shiraishi seemed to think that I'd complimented him. When I looked a bit more carefully at his face, I saw that he was fighting to hide a smile.
The more we walked and talked, the more Shiraishi began to relax—something I wouldn't have thought was possible after a week of working with him. Outside of the florist, he was much easier to have a conversation with—most likely because he had nothing better to do other than check the time on his phone and walk. By the time we reached the front gates of the campus, he'd eased into a noticeable smile (well, noticeable if you squinted), and walked with a bit more give in his step. It was a much better look on him than the stiff and austere expression he donned at work.
He loosened to the point where he felt comfortable enough to start a conversation with me. "What about you, -san—why did you decide to do Pharmacy?"
I hadn't expected him to start a conversation with me, so I must have looked a little baffled when I said, "Oh—well—um, I've always liked Health and Chemistry. Pharmacy just seemed like the best option to me."
"I see." Shiraishi mused aloud. "Surely there would have been more options for Health and Chemistry than just Pharmacy?"
"For a little while I was considering going into behavioural science." I said. "There wasn't enough Chemistry involved, so then I considered psychiatry, but... I never really thought I had the mental fortitude to do that."
"... I see." He said again. By the look on his face, he seemed to be under the impression that I most definitely had mental fortitude. I wasn't sure on what basis he chose to make that silent claim, but I wasn't about to rebuke him for words he'd never said.
Since we were on campus forty minutes before the lecture was about to start, Shiraishi decided to he would get something to eat before class and asked if I wanted to come. I didn't, but since I'd had such a small breakfast, I recognised that it wouldn't be a very bright idea to go into a two-hour lecture on an empty stomach—so I agreed to go the cafeteria with him.
Despite the fact that we'd actually managed to make conversation with one another on the way to uni, neither of us really knew how to sustain it throughout lunch. We spent the better part of it on our phones.
At ten to one, Shiraishi said that we should get going to class. I told him that I needed to go to the bathroom, even though I really didn't. He looked at the time on his phone, looking faintly distressed.
"It's okay, you can go on ahead." I said. "I'll catch up."
He looked torn between the need to be polite and wait for me, and the need to appease his obsessive punctuality. After a little bit of encouragement (from both me and the clock on his phone), he decided to go on ahead. I deliberately took my time in the bathroom, even stopping to get a drink on the way to class to make sure I was five minutes late.
When I slipped into the lecture theatre, I didn't stop to look for Shiraishi. Class had already started, so I simply went for an empty seat near the door I'd come in. I sat myself down next to a girl who looked like she'd sprinted from the other side of campus to make it to class on time. She grinned at me, and I fumbled to send a quick smile back her way. I hadn't expected a stranger to grin at me with such ease and fluidity, but I waved it off as Shiraishi's fault for making me have such low expectations of other people.
Both the friendly girl and I did our best to be attentive during the lecture, but once it was over, I decided to reach out and see if I could make my very first friend at university (since Shiraishi didn't really count as one).
"Chemistry's a rough life, huh?" I commented.
She agreed with a grin. "I think we could have made worse decisions."
"Let's see how long it takes for us to regret it." I said with a laugh. "I'm ."
"Akaishi Junko." She said. "Nice to meet you, ."
We talked as we gathered our things, and I quickly warmed to Junko's general forthrightness, and her jump-the-gun attitude when it came to formalities and honorifics. We had a refreshing chat about class and made jokes about how our semester could only go downhill from this point. I found out that Junko was born and bred in Osaka: she lived in a crowded house with her parents, paternal grandparents, younger brother and newly adopted dog a couple of wards away in Higashi-Nari. She'd gone to high school at a place called Shitenhouji—a school that shared grounds with the Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings, and a school that was oddly well-known in the area for being a bit of a joke. I laughed, thinking that she'd just been making an elaborate joke, but I quickly sobered once she whipped out Google Maps and showed me that she hadn't been kidding.
"Oh." I said.
I didn't have as many interesting stories to share with her about my own high school, other than the fact that it was a very small school in a very small town called Mihama. She asked me where it was, and the only answer I had for her was, "You know, I think it's somewhere on the east coast—"
I was interrupted by a light-hearted "Line!" that came from Junko's phone.
Junko opened up LINE and read the incoming message. Her eyes scanned the screen—then she looked up at me and said, "Some friends of mine are going off campus to get food. Wanna come?"
I didn't have anything better to do before I went to driving school later on that afternoon, so I agreed to go. Junko messaged her friends back, and then relayed to me that we were meeting up with them at the entrance of the building. We took our sweet time, and when we finally arrived, we saw a trio clustered by the entrance. Two of the faces were entirely unfamiliar, but the third—well, it was all too familiar.
"These are my friends." Junko said, gesturing to the two strangers and a startled-looking Shiraishi in turn.
In place of the many, many things that he could have done and said, Shiraishi chose to look disapprovingly at Junko and say, "Akaishi, you were three minutes late to class this morning."
"Really." She said, relatively disinterested.
"Really." He said, frowning at her disinterest.
Junko jokingly bowed to him. "Okay, Your Highness, I'm sorry if my tardiness was a fatal blow to our friendship." Then she turned to me and said with a grin, "Kura-chan hates it when people aren't early. If you're not at least five minutes early to class, he'll disown you as a friend."
"It's happened to me a couple of times before." One of the unfamiliar faces said.
"Same here." Said the other unfamiliar face.
"That's not true." Shiraishi said in an attempt to defend himself, although no one believed him.
The way he'd treated me on my first day working with him suddenly made a lot more sense.
"Come on, I'll introduce you to everyone." Junko said. She gestured to the first and second unfamiliar faces respectively and introduced them as Endo and Koyama. Then she gestured to Shiraishi and finished, "And this stick in the mud is Shiraishi Kuranosuke."
Neither of us wanted to be the first to tell Junko that we already knew each other—let alone worked together—so we just went with the flow and decided to start over.
"Nice to meet you." I said with a smile. "I'm ."
"Nice to meet you." He said in return. A much smaller smile tugged at the corners of his lips, but whether he did from his discomfort with the entire situation or because he was still salty at his friends for making fun of him only moments ago, I couldn't quite tell.
We decided to go to a family restaurant near Shibahara Station for a while so that we could talk and get to know each other. I found out that all four of them had known each other ever since middle school—with the exception of Junko and Shiraishi, who had known each other since elementary. Though the four of them appeared to get along famously from my standpoint, Koyama pointed out that they were all from different cliques. Junko was a chemistry student, through and through: she had spent her lunchtimes in the chemistry labs with her homeroom teacher and a bunch of other students doing experiments. She'd even been invited to participate in the International Chemistry Olympiad a couple of times. Although she'd considered doing engineering right out of high school, she decided to go into inorganic chemistry instead. She was doing the hardest General Ed subjects out of all of us.
Endo and Koyama were both majoring in organic chemistry and, although they didn't have many compatible interests outside of their major, their contrasting personalities allowed them to get on surprisingly well. Endo had been a starter on the baseball team in middle school, and when he went to high school, he joined the student council; Koyama had belonged to the Going Home After School Club and would often return to his house after class finished in order to keep studying his way to a migraine. Endo spent many of his efforts trying to help out around the school; Koyama helped his parents with some of their work duties. His mother was an elementary school teacher, so he spent a lot of time helping to mark test papers and make additional learning resources for the kids. His father was a doctor with his own practice, so Koyama also spent a lot of his time doing administerial and janitorial duties around the clinic. Endo had no clear idea where he wanted to go when he finished university; Koyama, on the other hand, made it very clear that he wanted to go abroad after graduation.
I wasn't sure what I was expecting to hear when Junko told me all about Shiraishi (since he was rather reluctant to do it himself), but I certainly wasn't expecting to hear that he'd been an athlete. He'd been playing tennis ever since they were in elementary school together at Minami Umeda, and he'd been captain of their school's tennis team for a total of four years—two years in a row in both middle and high school. He had taken their team to Nationals more than once and had been a nationally-ranked player for most of his academic career. Despite my former misgivings for him, I found myself exceedingly impressed that he was a nationally-ranked player, yet exceedingly disappointed that he'd chosen to confine himself to an undergraduate degree at an Osakan university. Junko told me that he studied Pharmacy, and for Shiraishi's sake, I pretended to be surprised.
"Really?" I said. "Me too."
"Oh." He said, and then gave me a very small smile. It was the most genuine and delightful expression I'd ever seen on his face.
"So are you part of the tennis team at Osaka U, too?" I asked. Part of me was encouraged to keep the conversation going now that he was in a good mood, and part of me was genuinely curious as to whether or not he was going to pursue tennis any further.
Shiraishi seemed surprised by my willingness to make conversation with him. "I'm taking it as a subject"—something I already knew—"but I didn't have any spare time to join the club. The, err, florist that I work at is really understaffed at the moment"—something else I already knew—"and I couldn't afford to let them struggle on their own."
"Kura-chan likes to take responsibility for other people." Junko explained. "He's been captain for so long that he doesn't know how to shake the habit of being a shoulder for people to lean on."
"That's not true." Shiraishi said in his own defence, but no one believed him.
"That's very noble of you." I said, remembering how well it had worked the last time I'd used those words on him. Their effect had yet to expire, it seemed, for I saw his lips tug up into a proper, genuine smile. I was the only one in the group who was able to experience the majesty of seeing such a smile on a face so usually austere; the others were too busy ordering food.
I stayed in the restaurant with the group for another hour or two, after which I decided to leave and go to driving school. "Bye—it was nice meeting you all." I said. "Though, if you're all taking Chemical Experiments, we'll probably see each other tomorrow anyway."
"That's true—but let me get your LINE so we can all get a station together." Junko said, phone already in hand. I brought up my QR code so she could scan it. "Okay, I'll start a group chat for us all."
She passed my QR code around the group so that everyone had a chance to scan it. When it reached Shiraishi, I was a little surprised to see that he scanned my code in one fluid motion before handing it back to me. I was a little taken aback by how little restraint he'd shown, given our history together.
I pushed thoughts of Shiraishi's obscure quirks and personality from my head as I said one last goodbye to my newfound group of friends and left for driving school.
- x -
I made sure to rock up to work the next morning fifteen minutes before my shift. I arrived so early that I had to sit and wait on the front step for Shiraishi to come and unlock the door (since I still had yet to be trusted with a key). When he came along looking like his usual kempt self, he looked a little surprised to see that I'd come so early. It melted away into a genuine smile. "Good morning, -san."
"Good morning, Shiraishi-san." I said. "You look like you're in a good mood today."
"Do I?" His voice was light and humoured. "It must be the weather. It's a very nice day today."
I checked the sky to make sure he wasn't just bluffing. There was a bit of a bite in the early morning air, but the sky was otherwise clear, and the weather otherwise fair. "I can't fault you there." I said agreeably.
We paused the conversation so that Shiraishi could unlock the door. We left our belongings out back and donned our aprons, ready to start the day. Shiraishi took some plants to display out front and arranged them accordingly while I swept the shop and prepared the register. After we finished opening procedures, we were left with no specific duties to do; so Shiraishi decided to go around the entire shop and straighten up the pots.
I remembered Junko saying yesterday that Shiraishi liked being responsible for other people, so before he started the straightening process, I decided to ask: "Is there anything in particular you'd like me to start the day with?"
He seemed surprised to hear me ask that—it was the first time I'd done it—but he responded all the same. "If you like, I can start to show you how to do prices on your own." He said. "That way, you don't need me hovering over your shoulder when you're manning the register. How does that sound?"
"That sounds great." I said, pleasantly surprised that he'd suddenly become so willing to teach me.
When given the chance, Shiraishi was a surprisingly good teacher. Although I'd never quite wanted to admit it before—perhaps due to the way he'd treated me in the past—he was articulate and straight to the points. He told me that, more often that not, we got special orders for arrangements. Each had a set price that either Satou or Shiraishi would confirm with me beforehand, but he told me how to make ballpark figures based on how much time and effort (and how many flowers) went into an arrangement.
"If the customer comes to pick up the flowers in person, then you put through the price that Satou-san leaves for you. She keeps a book of prices in the drawer beneath the counter here: you'll find the list of names and contact details of our customers, along with the specifications of their order." He said, showing me the book in the drawer in question. "If the customer wants us to deliver the flowers to them, we want to add a delivery charge of somewhere between one thousand and sixteen hundred yen."
He showed me how to use the EFTPOS terminal, and after we were done, he moved on to taking orders—both over the phone and in person. "We keep a list of things that you should remember to ask for when taking an order here." He said, pointing to an extremely worn piece of paper that was cello-taped to the counter. Then he pointed to piece of paper cello-taped next to it—it looked brand new. "This is a list of common recommendations for occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, declarations of love—that sort of thing—based on their flower language meaning and... other things. You won't be expected to take orders just yet, but if it's a quiet day and you see someone taking orders, try to pay attention to what they're doing so you can do it yourself. You'll get the hang of it eventually. Has everything that I've said to you made sense so far?"
"Perfect sense." I said. To prove that I wasn't bluffing, I summarised everything that he'd said to me in the past fifteen to twenty minutes and asked him to clarify any points on which I was mistaken. He had almost no corrections to make.
"Good." He said, looking pleased with my process. "You're a quick learner."
"A student is only as good as her teacher." I said, watching as Shiraishi turned to hide a bashful smile by turning away. If I'd known a week ago that compliments, punctuality, and attentiveness were all it took to make Shiraishi a pleasure to work with, I'd have done it a lot sooner.
He was in a much better mood once I reported that I was on the way to memorising every possible thing about every flower in the shop. He asked me to tell him what I knew, so I recited the names, synonyms, scientific classifications, genera, characteristics, growing habits, flower meanings, and prices of everything I'd managed to memorise across the week. I saw a faint look of pride on his face as I progressed through the list, and he recommended that I keep at it until I had the details of everything in the store down-pat. I promised to report back to him with my progress by the end of the week, and he said that he would hold me to it. I didn't doubt that he would.
The store was rather quiet that Friday — so quiet, in fact, that even Shiraishi was finding it hard to keep himself occupied in the absence of customers. There were only so many times he could sweep the shop floor, after all.
I almost jumped when I heard him ask out of nowhere, "How was driving school?"
He must have been talking about after I'd left the group (which Junko had affectionately dubbed "Chemistry Support Group (RIP)" over LINE) yesterday evening. It took me a couple of seconds to process the fact that Shiraishi—of all people—had decided to start a conversation with me.
"Oh." I said. "It was good, I think. I'm not great at parking, but I'm making the effort to go to driving school as often as I can—you know, so I can get the practice in."
Shiraishi paused thoughtfully. "You seem very eager to get your licence." He observed.
"Yeah—I just thought it might be more convenient if I had one." I said. "I'm from a town that's four and a half hours away from here by train, so not having a licence can be a little inconvenient."
"Oh?" That seemed to catch his attention. "Where are you from?"
"Mihama." I said. "In Mie Prefecture."
"Mihama... on the east coast?" He sounded just as surprised as I must have looked. "In the Minamimuro District, no?"
"You sure know your geography." I said. "It's a pretty small town."
"I've read about the sacred sites and pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountain Range." He said.
"Yeah, there are more mountains than people around where I live." I said, feeling both satisfied and deeply puzzled when he smiled at the joke. "They prove to be pretty inconvenient when it comes to getting to Osaka by public transport—you know, since the trains have to skirt the ranges and that—so if I want to go home to my parents, or if my parents want to come and see me, it's a little inconvenient for them."
"It must be a really pleasant commute, though." Shiraishi said, eager to be the optimist.
"I can't fault you there." I said, smiling sheepishly. "My mom really enjoys the train ride. She comes to visit me in Osaka every so often, but I'm not sure if she does it to check that I'm alive or if she just does it for the commute."
Shiraishi had to crack a smile at that. "That's very kind of your mother to come all the way out to Osaka to see you."
"She's usually at home alone, since my dad is always away on business trips and I'm here for uni, so I think she just comes to visit me because she has no one else to talk to." I said. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of people who have much patience when it come to communicating with my mother."
Shiraishi's interest piqued. "Is your mother not from Japan?"
I laughed as he looked at me more closely, perhaps attempting to inspect me for any physical indications of foreign descent. "No, she's very much Japanese. What I meant is that she's deaf."
His look changed to one of genuine surprise.
"She was born with it, so it's congenital." I said. "It's pretty profound, too, so she can't really hear a thing. That's not to say she can't communicate with anyone, though: she can read and write, she can sign, and she can read lips. It's really a wonder why no one makes the effort to communicate with her when she's trying so hard to make it possible for them."
He looked as though his spirits were starting to dampen, so I tried to lift them with a dash of optimism.
"It's not all bad news." I went on. "She keeps her patience and uses humour to deflect most of the inconsideration that comes her way. My dad's always been pretty salty towards the community about their lack of support, though. He's tried on multiple occasions to start interventions or con people into learning sign language, but it's only worked on a few people. I remember one time he decided to spread a rumour that my mom was hilarious and that her jokes were to die for, and it swayed a few lovers of comedy into learning JSL. Most people give up while they still have a chance—I guess their kindness is limited by their patience—but there are a few... um, Shiraishi-san, you're not crying, are you?"
"No, certainly not." He said, turning his back to me in an effort to hide his tears.
"Right..." I said, struggling to believing him.
After he managed to erase all evidence that he'd ever been crying, we resumed our conversation. We got talking about sign language: Shiraishi told me that he'd always wanted to study another language to "balance out his aptitudes", and one as visual and as kinaesthetic as sign language was somehow intriguing to him.
"I could teach you." I said simply.
He positively brightened at the idea. "Would you really?"
"Sure." I said, amused by his enthusiasm. "I'm always keen to share the love."
Though I couldn't claim to be a qualified teacher—or even as good a teacher as Shiraishi, for that matter—I taught him all the signs for the syllables in the alphabet. He was a quick learner, and he had all the syllables and syllabic combinations memorised in record time. He'd just started getting the hang of finger spelling when a middled-aged woman walked into the shop.
She looked tentative and unsure of herself as she ventured through the door. I got the impression that she would have been prepared to turn around at leave at the earliest sign of danger. Always eager to help out a customer in need, Shiraishi gracefully swooped over to greet her and dished out the smooth and well-rehearsed lines that I'd heard him say time and time again. After a quick exchange, he came to realise that the woman wasn't here as a customer—she was, in fact, here about the job advertisement.
"I see!" Shiraishi said, appearing to be either genuinely excited or genuinely relieved that they'd found another employee for the florist that he loved so dearly. As he continued to talk with the lady and answer her queries, I saw that behind his back, he was making strange movements with his hand.
No—he was signing at me.
Since I'd only taught him the syllables, he was only capable of spelling out what he wanted me to do. In seeing that I'd caught him halfway through the act, I had to watch him sign it a few more times before I figured out what he was trying to say: "Tell Satou-san."
I inconspicuously ducked out the back and used my cell phone to make a discreet call to Satou-san.
She seemed a little concerned to hear from me—much less hear from me on my cell number. "-chan? Why aren't you calling from the shop phone? Is everything alright?"
"Everything's fine." I said, and briefed her about the middle-aged woman who had turned up at the shop. "Shiraishi-san wanted me to be discreet about letting you know—she's still in the shop."
Satou barely gave herself time to say "I'll be over in ten minutes" before the line went dead. She arrived at the store about seven minutes later, walking in as though she'd coincidentally just come back from a delivery. She pretended to look surprised as Shiraishi introduced Satou to the woman who was interested in a full-time position at the shop. Satou smoothly introduced herself as the owner and inquired after the middle-aged woman's name.
"Hotori," said the woman.
Satou asked if the woman would follow her out back, and Hotori agreed to do so, looking a little bit nervous. Shiraishi gave her an encouraging smile, and I made some reassuring gestures at her—two things that she found herself warmed by before she followed Satou out the back.
The two emerged not that much longer later, at which point Satou grandly announced to Shiraishi and I that we had found our first new full-time employee. A very small part of me was sceptical by how quickly Satou had interviewed and subsequently hired her future manager, but I quickly reminded myself that we weren't in any position to be picky. A full-time employee meant a full-time employee, and a full-time employee meant less overtime for Shiraishi and myself.
Satou facilitated a friendly meeting between us and Hotori. We found out that, up until a few weeks ago, she had been a full-time housewife. Now that her youngest child had recently moved away to go to university in Tokyo, she had enough free time on her hands to do something more productive with herself. Shiraishi and I introduced ourselves as first year students at the local university; she smiled a warm and motherly smile in reply.
A little after twelve o'clock, Satou dismissed Shiraishi and I so that we could get something to eat and still make it to class on time. We both thanked her for her hard work, hung our aprons up, washed our hands, and left for class. Since we were running a little behind schedule (thanks to an unexpected albeit pleasant Hotori-shaped surprise), we stopped by the convenience store to pick up some lunch on the way to campus.
Our walk to class was much less awkward than it had been for the majority of the previous week—perhaps due to the fact that we now had things to talk about. We talked about how convenient it was that I'd shown Shiraishi the ways of finger spelling before Hotori walked in; we discussed how great it was and how things might change now that we had our first full-timer of the hiring season; Shiraishi considered the very real possibility that he might not have to exceed the legal working limit in order to keep the store afloat any longer.
At his request, I showed him some very basic signs. When our conversations lapsed into silences, he practised and asked me to correct him when he erred. He rarely did, so I rarely felt the need to speak. By the time we'd reached the front gate of the campus, he'd hardly made any mistakes.
Despite the jarring silence that lay between us, I felt oddly content to walk alongside him and watch him as he practised his signs. It was strange for me to feel that way in light of the discomfort that he'd made me feel when we were alone together. Judging from the calm and peaceful look on his face, perhaps it was fair to say that he felt the same way.
We walked until we reached the front of the Pharmacy building, where we met up with the other members of the Chemistry Support Group (RIP).
"You guys were together?" Endo asked, genuinely surprised that we'd both arrived at the same time. Junko and Koyama were wearing similar expressions with varying degrees of blatancy.
Shiraishi and I exchanged a glance. A look of faint panic rose to his eyes as he remembered that the other members of the group didn't know we worked together.
"We met up at the front gate." I said, in an effort to cover for Shiraishi's exceeding levels of awkwardness. "I ran into him on the way here."
"Really." Junko said.
Shiraishi avoided eye contact. "Really."
"Did you guys have lunch before you came?" She asked the two of us.
"I ate before I left home." I said.
"I picked up some bread from the convenience store on the way from work." Shiraishi said.
"Really." Junko said.
"Really." I said, more convincingly than Shiraishi had managed to.
There was a very painful silence—then Shiraishi felt the need to check his phone, and the tension was broken by collective laughter.
"Okay, okay, let's get going before Kuracchi gets agitated." Endo said.
"I feel fine, thank you." Shiraishi said, but no one believed him.
As we walked to the class, I came to the slow but sure realisation that not once on our way to campus did Shiraishi check his clock. His behaviour seemed so strange in light of the past week. A few days ago, he would have spent far more time checking his phone than he would have spent trying to keep up a conversation with me. Part of me began to wonder if he'd been so wrapped up in learning sign language that he'd forgotten all about his obsession with time, or if it were for some other reason. After a while of thinking, I realised that—whatever the reason—it didn't really matter. I'd somehow managed to become well and truly acquainted with Shiraishi's good side, and although he certainly had his quirks, there were some strangely likeable qualities to him, too.
Crosswalks: Fun fact: we call them pedestrian crossings in Australia, although I distinctly remember calling them zebra crossings when I was a kid.
LINE: For those of you that don't know, LINE is a wonderful cross-platform VoIP and instant messaging app made by Naver (http://line.me/en/). It's mostly used in East Asian countries, Spain, and Chile (apparently), but Princo and I still use this as our main method of communication LOL (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_(application)). One thing you should know about LINE is that they have a bunch of mascot characters (LINE Friends) that often feature in the free sticker sets they provide. Some of the most mascot characters that feature a role in this story are Moon, Brown and James, but I'll talk more about LINE in the commentary document.
EFTPOS: Not entirely sure if this is universal terminology or not so I thought I'd include it anyway. EFTPOS stands for "electronic funds transfer at point of sale", and it's basically a small machine that businesses use if customers want to pay by credit card, direct debit, or other kinds of cards that exist. "EFTPOS" is the name of a terminology that's been adopted all over the word, but in Australia and New Zealand, it's actually a brand name for a nelectronic payment ystem. This information was, of course, brought to you by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EFTPOS). (Princo: TLDR; what we all just call a credit card machine)
JSL: JSL is Japanese Sign Language, or as nihon shuwa (日本手話) in Japanese. There are two other main types of sign language in Japan, but JSL is the most dominant. Like most sign languages, JSL has a couple of other facets aside from simply signing, such as:
Ribbon: I really wonder if y'all understand just how much I enjoy writing Shitenhouji LOL.
Princo: Fun fact: I recall Ribbon telling me about calling crosswalks "zebra crossings" back in elementary school.
July 18, 2016.