Ever since she had returned from her New Year's trip home to Aomori, Mutsuko had been planning exactly what she would do to prepare for her next New Year's trip home.
It had hurt a little to say goodbye to her parents again, but the ache in her chest soon faded as her train rattled its way down the southbound track. From now on, she could write letters home and know that her parents would be reading them, and that any letters they sent to the Suzukis would go straight into her hands. She had bought souvenirs from Tokyo for her family that year with only a half-hearted sort of interest, more out of a sense of duty than for any real delight in the thought of giving. But as she stepped off the train and onto the platform at Ueno Station, she was already thinking hard about what she would get for them next year.
The money had to come first, naturally. She saved diligently from her salary, putting aside a few yen here and there whenever she could, and by the first of December she had plenty of savings to buy all of her planned gifts for her family, with just enough left over for proper thank-you gifts for the Suzukis and a special treat for Ippei-kun. The bags and parcels soon began to pile up in one corner of her room as she crossed each item off her mental list. Chocolate bars and tins of sweets, film magazines for her sisters and a whole carton of cigarettes for her father, even a little bottle of rose-scented French perfume for her mother to wear when they went to the shrine on New Year's Day. Best of all was a crate of wonderfully fragrant mikan, so sweet and delicious and such a rare holiday treat that she knew they would be gobbled up long before she boarded the train back to Tokyo. She would probably have trouble carrying all of her purchases without help, but it would be worth it to show her family how hard she was working for Suzuki Auto, and how good the Suzukis had been to her all year.
Indeed, Suzuki Auto had never been busier, especially as the colder weather took its toll on the older cars and motorbikes in the neighbourhood. The rest of December flew by in a rush of last-minute repair jobs, until the afternoon came when Suzuki-san finally had to order her to put down her wire cutters and go upstairs to pack her things for the morning train. Even his scolding had a cheerful note to it, though, and there were nothing but good thoughts in Mutsuko's head as she pulled out her suitcase.
She hummed softly to herself as she sorted and folded her warmest clothes. It wasn't long until the suitcase was full, crammed almost to bursting with her winter clothes and some of her precious gifts. But just as she was about to close the lid, she became aware that someone was hovering outside the half-open door to her room.
'Yes?' she called out, sitting back on her heels. Suzuki-san could sometimes be a bit nervous about coming into her room, even though she was always careful to keep the door firmly shut if she was changing clothes or taking a nap.
There was the soft sound of shuffling feet, and then Ippei poked his head around the edge of the door. His eyes went straight to her suitcase, and his lips pouted out in a frown that he didn't even try to disguise.
'Did you knock, Ippei-kun?' Mutsuko said. 'I'm sorry if I didn't hear you. You can come in if you want to -- I'm almost done packing.'
Ippei shuffled his feet some more, but finally inched into her room. He didn't sit down or close the door; instead, he leaned against the door frame, shoulders hunched, and scuffed one toe against the hallway floor.
'You're not gonna be here for New Year's again,' he said. It wasn't a question.
Mutsuko nodded. 'That's right. Your mother gave me the tickets last night.' The Suzukis had been even more generous this year, buying her train tickets so that she could arrive in Aomori on the day before New Year's Eve and have four whole days at home before returning to Tokyo. 'I'm leaving first thing tomorrow morning, right after breakfast.'
Ippei scuffed his toe some more, not looking at her. 'You're going back north.'
His choice of words -- back north, not back home -- made Mutsuko pause. 'I'll be able to see my parents and my siblings again, just like last year.' She pushed herself to her feet, and in a few steps she had crossed the room and squatted down so she could be on eye level with Ippei. 'What's wrong, Ippei-kun?'
'Wanted....' Ippei's breath hitched anxiously before he lifted his head and blurted out, 'I wanted to watch the big song battle with Roku-chan!'
'The song battle?' Mutsuko blinked. 'You mean the one on New Year's Eve?' She had almost forgotten about the annual NHK Red and White Song Contest, with its two competing teams of male and female performers singing their most popular songs to count down the last hours of the old year. It was fun to listen to, of course, but it hardly seemed like the sort of thing that Ippei would get worked up about. 'Did you watch it on the television here?'
'Uh-huh.' Ippei nodded. 'Junnosuke-kun and Chagawa-san and everybody came over and watched it with us, and all the time Mom was saying, Oh, Roku-chan would love that beautiful dress! and Dad was saying, Oh, doesn't Roku-chan really like that song? and I got to stay up all the way until midnight to hear the whole thing, and I really really really wanted you to be here to watch it with us this year, too!'
Mutsuko smiled at his description of their New Year's Eve, even as she felt tears stinging the corners of her eyes. She had listened to a little of the song battle on the radio as she helped her mother make the last of the New Year's soba, and hearing the music had made her think of how bright the lights of Tokyo would shine in the cold, crisp winter air. The thought of the Suzukis sitting around and talking about her even when she wasn't there, remembering things that she liked and thinking about things that she might like, made something warm and fluttery go tumbling over and over in her stomach. 'It sounds like you had a nice time watching it,' she said.
'You don't have a TV in Aomori, do you?'
'No, we don't. I don't think anyone in our town does, or at least not anyone I know.' Mutsuko's heart sank when Ippei's face fell -- but then a clever idea came to her. Perhaps if he had something to look forward to when she returned, he wouldn't feel so sad about her being gone. 'So you'll just have to watch it extra carefully for me!'
'Huh?' Ippei looked confused.
Mutsuko gave him her brightest smile. 'I'll be able to listen to it on the radio at home, but I won't be able to see the singers and their costumes. So if I listen to it in Aomori, and you watch it on the television here, when I get back you can tell me all about it. Can you do that for me?'
Ippei's brow furrowed as he pondered the idea. 'I don't like looking at the dresses,' he said, wrinkling his nose.
Mutsuko fought back a grin. 'Well, I suppose I could ask your mother to remember the dresses for me,' she declared, as if making a compromise. 'You just remember the songs, okay?'
Ippei looked relieved, and his whole face brightened. 'Okay,' he said. 'I bet the White team will win this year!'
'Oh, I think the Red team will win again.' Mutsuko waggled a finger at him. 'The ladies clearly had the best songs last year, and I can't imagine they'll lose.'
Ippei shook his head vigorously. 'Nuh-uh, it'll be White, and they'll get the audience vote as well as the most judges' votes!'
'All right, smarty-pants, let's see who's right!' Mutsuko said, with mock-indignation. 'I'll cheer for Red, and you cheer for White, and may the best team win!'
'Okay!' Ippei raised a finger as well, imitating her gesture -- but instead of waggling it, he suddenly tapped her on the nose, startling Mutsuko so much that she let out a squawk and toppled over backwards, arms and legs flailing like a turtle flipped wrong-side up. 'But it'll be White this year!' he crowed, and dashed out of the room.
'Ooh, get back here!' Mutsuko rolled over and scrambled to her feet, giving chase down the hall. Soon, she had caught up to him, and Ippei's laughter quickly gave way to shrieks as she tickled him into submission.
That was the start of their New Year's Eve tradition. In Aomori, Mutsuko would tune the radio to NHK early in the evening on New Year's Eve, and the Hoshino family would leave the song battle on all through dinner and during the washing-up, until the very last song had been sung and it was nearly time to go to their local shrine for the first visit of the new year. And when she returned to Tokyo, Ippei would wait until they sat down to dinner, and spend the entire meal telling her all about the costumes and sets and performances that the Suzukis had seen on the televised broadcast.
After the first year of their arrangement, Mutsuko began to look forward to Ippei's retelling almost as much as the New Year's Eve programme itself. He could carry a tune very well, and his ability to recall all of the contest's songs in order and in detail was truly remarkable. Moreover, he had a fantastic gift for mimicry, and he could reduce Mutsuko and the Suzukis to howling laughter with his ability to imitate some of the more over-the-top performers. For days afterward, all Ippei had to do was flutter his eyelashes girlishly, or wave a hand as if he were waving a fan, or thrust out his chest like a singer preparing to belt out a high note, and Mutsuko would nearly giggle herself sick remembering his descriptions of the performer he was mocking. Best of all, it gave her one more thing to look forward to every New Year -- it was a little piece of Tokyo that she could take with her to Aomori, something that would keep her from missing the Suzuki family when she was at home with her own. The music was the same on television and on the radio, in Tokyo and in Aomori, and it kept them together even when they were miles and miles apart.
She never imagined that one day the music itself might threaten to tear their tradition apart.
'So, Ippei-kun, are you ready for the big song battle? Only three more days -- do you think the White team will win again this year?'
Mutsuko asked the question as encouragingly as she could, but Ippei didn't look up from his food. He shovelled another hunk of rice and eel into his mouth and let the silence hang over the dinner table. Ever since he had started high school, it had been harder and harder to get him to talk over dinner -- he ate his food as fast as possible, said nothing unless he was directly spoken to, mumbled the most perfunctory thanks for the meal when his bowl was empty, and asked to be excused from the table. Some nights, he went straight to his room and closed the door; other nights, he went out for two or three hours with Junnosuke and the other Third Street boys. No matter what Ippei did, Suzuki-san never seemed to be pleased with it, and with each passing month their family meals were taken in increasingly strained silence.
Suzuki-okusan started to clear her throat, but it was Suzuki-san himself who actually broke the awkward pause with a sudden, forceful statement. 'I don't think we'll be watching it this year.'
Mutsuko nearly dropped her chopsticks. 'You...you're not planning to watch it? At all?'
'It's such a racket to have that television on for all hours,' Suzuki-san said, choosing to gaze at a spot on the wall somewhere over Mutsuko's left shoulder rather than meet her gaze. 'We'll probably go to the shrine early, before the crowds start to arrive. We'll be able to stop by and greet all the neighbours, thank them for their custom and wish them well for the coming year...it'll be a much better use of our time than sitting around here and rotting our brains with that noise.'
Ippei grunted, but said nothing.
Mutsuko darted a quick glance at Suzuki-okusan, just to gauge her reaction. The older woman had her head bent over the rice cooker, seemingly focused on scooping more rice from it into her bowl, but one look at her clenched jaw and stiff shoulders told Mutsuko all that she needed to know. Suzuki Tomoe was hardly a meek-mannered wife, and yet she knew all too well that there was no point in trying to argue with her husband when he spoke with such stubborn finality.
'Oh.' It was all that Mutsuko felt that she could say.
Ippei swallowed the last bit of his dinner, and plunked his bowl and chopsticks down onto the table.
'Not like I care, anyway,' he muttered darkly, and got to his feet. 'Thanks f'r the food, Mom. Gonna go upstairs.'
'You won't be playing that guitar of yours tonight!' Suzuki-san snapped as Ippei left the room. 'I don't care if you are on winter break -- you should be rewriting those history essays you did so badly on this term!'
'Dear, please...' his wife murmured, barely audible.
Suzuki-san scowled at her. 'Some of us in this family expect a little peace and quiet after dinner. And furthermore -- '
Mutsuko couldn't bear to hear him continue. 'Oh!' she exclaimed, suddenly sitting up straight. 'I almost forgot -- I need to pick up my new skirt from Takita-san. She said that she'd finish hemming it today, and I wanted to wear it home.' It wasn't a lie; the skirt was ready, though she hadn't actually been planning to wear it home, and it could just as easily have waited until after she'd returned. She looked over at Suzuki-okusan, hoping that her expression didn't seem too falsely cheerful. 'I'll just run over and get it now, ma'am, if that's all right?'
'That's fine, Roku-chan.' Suzuki-okusan gave her a tired smile. 'There's not much to wash up. I'll put the leftovers together for your snacks tomorrow.'
Mutsuko tried to make her own smile a pleasant one. 'Then please excuse me. And thank you for the meal.'
She slipped on her coat and stepped into her shoes, feeling both guilty and grateful for the chance to escape. Third Street was mostly empty at this hour, the darkened storefronts seeming hollow and cold compared with the warm coziness of the lights glowing from the living quarters on the floors above. Mutsuko was in no hurry to complete her errand, but her steps slowed even further as she walked past Chagawa-san's dimly-lit sweet shop.
Then, with a sudden burst of speed, she veered off her intended course and hurried to knock on the Chagawas' door.
Fortunately, the three of them had just finished their own dinner. Chagawa-san greeted her with his usual floundering attempts at courtesy, and Hiromi-san (Mutsuko still had a hard time thinking of her as Chagawa-okusan, even though it had been more than a year since the wedding) pressed a steaming cup of tea into her hands before she could think to refuse it. They were both clearly surprised by her unexpected visit -- and looked even more surprised when she asked if it would be all right if Junnosuke came with her to help her pick up a finished skirt from the Takita Dressmaking Shop.
She could hardly blame Chagawa-san and Hiromi-san for the baffled glance they exchanged. Her cheeks were burning with a flush that had as much to do with embarrassment as it did with the warmth of the tea and the chill of the air outside. Junnosuke, however, gave her his usual solemn nod, as if it were perfectly natural for Mutsuko to stop by his house on her own, after dinner, and ask him to accompany her on an errand that scarcely required an escort.
'Sure, I'll come along,' he said, setting his empty bowl aside. 'It's not that cold out -- I'll just grab a scarf or something.'
It was easy to confide in Junnosuke, even if he was several years younger than her. He always thought before he spoke, and he had a quiet, solemn way of listening to others that Mutsuko found comforting, something that she could hardly say about most of the young men she knew. More than that, though, he was Ippei's closest friend, even if the two of them had been spending somewhat less time together since they had entered high school. By the time they rounded the corner, she had told him about the harsh words that had soured their family dinner, and Suzuki-san's intentions to prevent Ippei from watching the song battle that New Year's Eve.
'Even if he acts like he doesn't care, I know he does,' she said as she finished her side of the story. 'I know that Suzuki-san wants him to spend more time on his studies, but I never thought....' She let her words fade away, because her throat was threatening to close up.
Junnosuke huffed out a frost-tipped breath, and tilted his head back to look up at the night sky. 'Ippei-kun told me that something like this might happen,' he said quietly. 'He's been thinking of keeping his guitar at my place instead of at home -- just in case the old man throws a real shit-fit one of these days and tries to smash it or something, he said.' He glanced over at Mutsuko, though the shadows made it difficult to read his expression. 'I don't think you were meant to know about it, but I suppose it's not a secret anymore.'
'Oh, Ippei-kun....' Mutsuko couldn't bring herself to be shocked by Junnosuke's imitation of Ippei's crude language. She was too horrified by the thought of Suzuki-san breaking Ippei's guitar -- or rather, the thought that Ippei believed that his father would be capable of doing something so cruel. 'I can't imagine that Suzuki-san would ever do something like that.'
'Probably not,' Junnosuke agreed, though he did not sound completely convinced. 'But the guitar's only part of it. Music is something that means a lot to him. It's the only thing he likes to talk about, when we're in school. And the Red and White Song Contest is a big part of that -- maybe even the biggest part. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the whole reason he looks forward to the end of the year.'
'I've been looking forward to it, too,' Mutsuko said softly. 'I always do, every year. It just won't be New Year's Eve without it.'
Junnosuke was silent, and Mutsuko had nothing more to say. They did not speak again until after Mutsuko had collected her skirt from Takita-san (with apologies for stopping by so late, and many good wishes for happiness in the new year) and even then their conversation was little more than a halting, soon-abandoned attempt on Mutsuko's part to ask how Junnosuke's studies were going. It was easier to walk without talking, holding their own troubled thoughts close to their hearts.
Junnosuke insisted on seeing her back home before going home himself, and Mutsuko did not try very hard to dissuade him. She found the gesture rather sweet, if oddly old-fashioned. But when they came to a stop outside Suzuki Auto, Junnosuke paused before bowing his farewells, and said, a little hesitantly:
'Roku-chan, can you do me a favour?'
There was more light on this part of the street, as they stood beneath the lamps illuminating the Suzuki Auto sign. Even so, Mutsuko still found it difficult to read Junnosuke's serious expression. 'If I can, then I'll try to do it,' she said, and tucked the paper-wrapped parcel holding her finished skirt more tightly under her arm. 'What kind of a favour?'
'Before you leave for the station, could you stop by my place? By yourself, if you can. I have something that I want to give to you -- I'll explain it when you come by.'
Mutsuko nodded. Whatever the favour was, it didn't sound terribly complicated. 'Okay,' she said. 'I'll do that.'
'Thanks.' For the first time that evening, Junnosuke smiled -- and it was such a welcome change from his usual seriousness that Mutsuko wanted to reach out and ruffle his hair, as she might have done when he and Ippei were much smaller. 'Oh, and one more thing. Don't pack anything too heavy in your suitcase, okay? You'll see what I mean when you come over.'
'Got it.' Mutsuko didn't mind waiting for an explanation; Junnosuke could always be trusted to provide one. And even if the favour did turn out to be more complicated than it sounded, Junnosuke's eyes were shining so eagerly that she could hardly think to refuse it. 'I'll stop by tomorrow afternoon.'
'Ippei-kun? May I come in?'
For a long moment, there was no answer, but then Mutsuko heard a shuffling on the other side of the door before a flat voice called out, 'Yeah.'
Mutsuko shifted the heavy black plastic case from her right hand to her left hand so she could open the door. Ippei was sprawled on his stomach on the bedroom floor, flipping through a battered Weekly Shounen Magazine. He let it fall shut as she entered the room and closed the door, but he didn't look over at her.
'I've got something for you.' Mutsuko carried the case over to him and knelt down next to him. She lowered her voice as she added, 'And I think you should open it right now, because I'll have to take it straight back to my room once you see what it is.'
She had hoped that her secretiveness would be enough to pique his interest, and she wasn't disappointed. Ippei rolled onto his side and looked up at her through the fringe of too-long dark hair that was constantly falling into his eyes these days. His gaze flickered between her and the case before it finally settled on her.
'Yeah?' he said.
Carefully, Mutsuko flipped the latch that held the case closed. She lifted the lid and turned the whole thing around, revealing one of the newest styles of personal tape recorder -- all knobs and dials and polished buttons, like something out of a science fiction movie, and crowned with its twin reels of magnetic tape.
'I couldn't record all of it, but I got as much of it as I could,' she said. 'It's this year's song contest.'
Ippei went from prone to upright in an instant, his hands scrabbling for the case. Mutsuko let him take it from her, and sat back while he ran his fingertips over the buttons and knobs, touching everything with a disbelieving reverence.
'Junnosuke-kun borrowed this from one of the boys in his juku class,' Mutsuko explained as Ippei pored over every inch of the recorder. 'The boy's family owns a record shop downtown. Junnosuke-kun gave it to me to record the song battle from the radio when I went home. He said that you could listen to it over at his place, if your -- ' She caught herself just in time. 'If you don't want to listen to it here.'
Ippei was so engrossed in his gift that he almost didn't seem to have heard her. Bit by bit, his hands stopped moving, and at last he closed the case and slid the latch back into place. When he finally lifted his head to look her straight in the eyes, there was no trace of the moody, withdrawn teenager that he had become since starting high school. There was only the miserable little boy who had wanted so badly to spend New Year's Eve with her, watching the annual song battle on a brand-new television and singing along with the performers until their throats were raw.
Wordlessly, Mutsuko opened her arms a little, and Ippei half-leaned and half-toppled into the offered hug. He was tall enough these days to rest his head on her shoulder, and she felt the collar of her blouse grow damp as she let him bury his face in the crook of her neck.
'Thanks, Roku-chan,' he whispered, the words a mere breath against her skin.
Mutsuko squeezed him gently, and let a tear or two of her own join the ones that had soaked into her blouse. 'Happy New Year, Ippei-kun.'