As suspected, the part where they were playing Kashmir was the most difficult for this chapter. I managed somehow. For now. The dreaded Chapter 13 can't come slow enough.
Enjoy. For now.
Three days later, in the evening, Chiaki brought the scores to my house.
"Why haven't you come to the roof in the past few days? You went home right after school today too! Senpai's really worried about you!"
As usual, the uniformed Chiaki climbed the tree in the courtyard and squeezed in through the window of my room. She said that as she shook a stack of handwritten scores in her hand.
I twirled the wires of my headphones and vaguely answered,
"Somehow, I don't feel too motivated these days."
"That's not something someone who lacks any motivation to begin with can say."
I became even more depressed. I climbed into my bed and pulled my blanket over my head.
"Sorry, my bad."
Chiaki sat next to my pillow and pulled the blanket away from my face. She then asked,
"Did Ebisawa say something to you again?"
I didn't reply, and instead, covered my face with my pillow. Since the day I went to apologize to Mafuyu, I haven't once touched my bass. My brain was a total mess.
"Hey, are you going to say things like you wanna quit?"
I had already prepared myself to endure Chiaki's punch or triangle choke, but instead, she looked up at the ceiling and said nothing for a long while.
"...... I thought we could finally start a band or something."
I heard her mumbling something. For a moment, I thought I was thinking too much of it. As I lifted my head to look at Chiaki's face, she pressed a score sheet into mine.
"Senpai spent so much effort converting that Beethoven piece into scores for the bass, all just for you!"
I lazily stared at the tadpoles dancing on the five-line staff.
"No, can't do it. I can't possibly play this piece of music."
"That's because you haven't practiced, right?"
Chiaki was absolutely right, so I lay myself on my bed and hid myself under the blanket. Suddenly, Chiaki pressed her entire body weight on an area near my waist, and began practicing drumming basics on my back. Crotchet, quaver, triplets, semiquaver...... she actually used her drum sticks, accurately hitting my back to the rhythm.
"Chiaki, that hurts!"
What's with the "I know"!? What sort of answer is that! She continued drumming the rhythms on my back while maintaining a fixed tempo. Before long, my mind became lax.
"All people feel hurt if they're hit directly in their heart."
I had no idea what she was talking about. Still, I began imagining the pain of my heart being drummed on. It's probably agonizing enough to make corpses jump out of their graves in pain.
I don't know if Chiaki was getting more and more into it, but she slowly began drumming some quavers. Somehow, it felt like my head was the cymbal and my right hand, the floor tom. Wait, stop—Miss Chiaki, that really hurts! Before long, the piece suddenly entered the chorus. She began lightly rapping semiquavers on my left shoulder, which served as a replacement for the snare drum.
"Chiaki, wait, that hurts! I said it hurts!"
I kept moving about beneath the blanket, but my opponent was a retired black belt in Judo—she knew exactly where she needed to apply force to render me immobile. In the end, I had to wait till she finished drumming the whole piece before I was freed from beneath her butt.
"Do you know what song that was?"
Chiaki asked me that question after I finally managed to escape from under the blanket. A naughty smile appeared on her face.
"Unicorn's <Hige to Boin>?" [TLNote: Unicorn is a jap rock band]
"Oh, you're quite sharp."
Though such cases are rare, just like the how <Stand by Me> can be recognized just by the bass line, some songs can be recognized instantly just by listening to the drums. Actually, this miracle might've happened purely because Chiaki and I had grown up listening to similar music since our days in kindergarten, before Unicorn disbanded.
"But sadly, the answer is <Asia no Junshin>."
"So you're just toying with me!?" To think I had thought of it as a miracle—doesn't that make me an idiot?
"Not at all. We still have to do our best, even if life is boring! I'll root for you, just a little."
With that, she grabbed the shoes she had placed on my desk, and jumped out the window...... why can't you just leave through the main door?
I was alone yet again. I sat on my bed and picked up the scores Chiaki left behind. The theme was really simple and the tempo was quite slow as well—I thought I could probably play it right off the bat. Up till the point where the second, third and fourth voices gradually overlapped, there was no change in the difficulty of the part I was supposed to play. However, the variation before that was much more complicated, and for the fugue, I actually had to play a melody as difficult as Mafuyu's, right till the very end. That's just impossible no matter how you look at it! I tossed the scores aside, lay down, and stared at the ceiling for a while. My back was still a little sore from Chiaki's drumming.
Things like how the pieces were too difficult, or how I had no motivation at all—they were all excuses. I knew that perfectly well. So, Chiaki might've known as well. I was just ashamed of myself. I didn't understand the situation surrounding Mafuyu at all, and yet, I enthusiastically challenged her to a fight. To get back the classroom so I could kill time after school—just for something as stupid as that? What an idiot I was. But that was even more reason why I couldn't give up at a point like this, or else I'd become an even bigger idiot than I already was.
I quickly grabbed the scores and went to the living room to take my bass out from its case.
As I was tuning the instrument, a string suddenly snapped in two. It felt like it was telling me I couldn't possibly do it.
I lay on the sofa and planned to just sleep it off, but the area on my back where Chiaki had drummed began to hurt again. And so, I stuffed the scores in the case, lifted the case onto my back and walked out the main door.
The skies were already growing dark when I reached Nagashima's Musical Instrument Store. Through a gap about as wide as a pencil, I could see all sorts of guitars displayed in the shop; they were glowing under the display lights. Somehow, the scene felt so nostalgic I almost teared from my eyes. I had only gone to the shop once, so why did I feel that way?
Kagurazaka-senpai was tending the store alone, as there were no customers. She was on the other side of the counter. Using a piece of yellow cloth, she carefully and tenderly cleaned the neck of a guitar that had its strings removed.
"Young man, here I am thinking it was about time for you to come! I'm really happy, yeah?"
Upon noticing me, she put the guitar down and stood up.
"You're here to buy strings for your bass, right?"
I jumped in shock and nodded my head in a daze. How did Senpai know?
"There's something I'll have to apologize to you for."
As she said that, she took out the bass strings from a rack and brought them to the side of the counter, which housed a lot of compartments.
"...... Which is?"
"I actually did something to the third string, so that it would snap more easily."
"Haa?" I gave a strange cry. "Why did you do that?"
"You burn-out really easily, right? I thought you might coop yourself up in your house if you started to get tired of it halfway through. If your string happened to snap right then...... See, isn't that a perfect excuse for you to come see me?"
"So let me pay for that!" Senpai smiled as she took three thousand-yen bills out of her wallet and put them in the cash register. Compared to strings for the guitar, strings for the bass are shockingly pricey, but the shop owners always help you change them. I was surprised, and for a moment, I couldn't speak. I had always thought tuning would cause the strings to wear easily, but in actual fact, the strings don't break that readily?
"What did you plan to do if I decided to give up on the bass because of the broken string?"
"Then there'd be nothing else I could do. I had thought about it before—I'll give up if things are not fated to be. However, you still came running to me, right?"
Senpai said that with a smiling face, so there was nothing much for me to say.
"You got the score?"
I nodded my head and took the score—which was hand-notated by Senpai—out from my bass case.
"So, you're not here to complain about how the score is too difficult for you, right?"
"No...... nothing." I moved my eyes away and cooked up a lie.
"How far have you played?"
"...... Up to about the fourth variation, but I've been stuck there ever since. I couldn't play the fugue at all, and I don't even think it's possible for me to do so."
Senpai quickly finished tuning the newly-strung bass and began to play the fugue while sitting on the counter. I listened to it with a complicated feeling.
The music that came from Mafuyu's guitar felt like it was directly shaved out from a giant pillar of ice. In contrast, Kagurazaka-senpai's performance felt like the frozen rays of winter—her music appears all of a sudden, and pierces right through the clouds. It was really unbelievable to hear such clear sounds flow smoothly, without any hiccups.
After she was done with her performance, Senpai returned the bass to me. For a while, I couldn't bring myself to face her.
"It's not that hard! I didn't use any special techniques either. Just reduce the tempo by half, and carefully play through each and every note."
I quietly muttered that with my head still lowered.
"Why can't you recruit Mafuyu by yourself? You play better than me anyway."
"Didn't I tell you already? It has to be you."
I shook my head weakly.
"Even if it's me, I can't converse much with Mafuyu either. She's not willing to tell me anything, and all I do is make her angry......"
Senpai took two round stools out from behind the counter, and placed them in the aisle displaying the guitars. She then pressed on my shoulders to make me sit down.
"It's not just that."
"...... Eh?" I lifted my head. Senpai shifted her sight away from my face slightly, letting her gaze slowly float upwards.
"That's not all there is to it. You see, before I knew about the existence of Ebisawa Mafuyu, I had already known about you."
I gradually found it difficult to breathe. What's Senpai talking about now?
"Young man, you're familiar with a music magazine called 'Friends of Musicians,' right? In the July issue, two years back, I read a critique that was published in it; the title was, 'Handel and the verses in the bible.' The article's roughly about how Handel's pieces, including those that aren't music, can all be interpreted as verses. Even though the logic's a little far-fetched, it still felt rather amazing. It's a rather touching article."
I was still dazed as I hugged my bass tightly with my arms.
Of course I know that article. It's because, that critique—
"I took a look at the name of the writer: it was Hikawa Tetsurou, a critic whom I was very familiar with. However, something didn't feel quite right. The article was written in English simple enough for middle school students to read, and the examples cited in it should not have existed in the middle school education Hikawa Tetsurou should have received, as he was already in his forties."
There's...... There's actually someone who notices something like that?
"That strange feeling caused me to shift my suspicion to the whole article. I brought out older magazines and scrutinized them, rereading every single critique written by Hikawa Tetsurou. Somehow, a few articles stood out from the rest, and all these articles shared the same weird feeling as well. I also searched through a few CD reviews and managed to find one for <Finlandia>, played by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Karajan in 1959."
I gulped. My dry throat was sore.
"However, I couldn't find any more concrete evidence after that, and I didn't know anyone from the publisher either. All I knew was that Hikawa Tetsurou had a child. Because, for some unknown reason, he had written about his son in quite a few of his articles, and had even written out his name. Therefore, when I saw that name in the booklet containing the names of all the newcomers—I guess you can understand how shocked I was, right?"
With a light smile on her face, Senpai prodded my nose with her finger.
"The criminal is you."
"...... Urm, what do you mean by criminal?"
"All my deductions are correct, right?"
Senpai suddenly moved her face close to mine, and I could only nod my head.
There was actually someone in this world who, just by reading the articles alone, could identify the articles I had written under Tetsurou's name.
"Therefore, I had already been paying attention to you for a long time, young man. I need a secretary in my revolutionary army, and I can't think of anyone that's more suitable for that position than you. Thus, I'm not asking you to just join along the way as I try to recruit Ebisawa Mafuyu."
Senpai placed her hands on my shoulders.
"—I want you."
Don't say something like that to me when you're at such a close distance and when we're all alone. My mind was a mess, and I couldn't say anything. In order to avoid Senpai's gaze, I turned my head away and packed my bass.
"However, for someone like me......"
I confirmed the touch of my case.
"It's not like the band will benefit from me joining. I can't play as well as Mafuyu, and I'll probably never catch up to her. All this time, I've...... always been listening to music by myself."
Senpai narrowed her eyes and stared at me for quite a while. She then suddenly diverted her gaze, and yelled behind me.
"Comrade Aihara, it's about time you show yourself. Want to come in?"
I turned my head around in shock. Chiaki was standing in the shadows of the few guitars next to the door. She quietly showed herself. There was a gentle expression on her face.
"You must have stalked young man all the way here, right? As expected of a fighter in my revolutionary army. You're quite adept at stealth missions as well."
"I didn't stalk him." Chiaki said that angrily and stomped all the way over.
"Senpai, you can't say things that'll frighten Nao!"
"That jealous look of yours is really cute too!"
Senpai patted Chiaki's head lovingly. I looked at Chiaki with a dumbfounded expression.
Did she really stalk me all the way here? Is that really true or not?
Chiaki glared at me while saying, "I just so happened to come here to take a look around, and it just so happened that Nao was already inside, so it was inconvenient for me to enter." Senpai consoled her by saying, "I understand, I understand."
"Comrade Aihara, did you bring your drum sticks along?"
"...... Drum sticks?" Chiaki tilted her head, then nodded.
"Mmm. I'll go wake up the sleeping store manager inside and borrow the key to the studio."
Senpai shifted her gaze to me, then formed a gun with her hand and fired a pretend shot at my chest.
"Young man, let me light your passion ablaze."
The third floor of Nagashima's Musical Instrument Store was modified into a studio for rent. There were two tightly-shut doors along the long and narrow passageway. After opening the door before me, I was greeted by a room four-and-a-half-tatami big. About half the room was occupied by the drums, with two giant guitar amplifiers standing on each side. There were also mikes and recording equipment, as well as an asphyxiating smell of smoke.
"I've specially allowed you guys in, all thanks to the benefits I receive as an employee here." And with that, Kagurazaka-senpai pushed me into the studio. Chiaki followed as well.
"Whoa— it's been a long time since I've played on real drums."
Chiaki sat in the middle of the drum set and was tuning the snare drum rather happily.
Kagurazaka-senpai then connected my bass and her guitar to the amplifiers. Senpai's guitar was a Gibson Les Paul, which was said to cost a million yen—though I had no idea whether that was true or not. If so, that was probably part of the old "Historic Collection" series. From the colors of the guitar, it should have been a replica of the 60's series?
I slung the strap of the bass across my shoulder, then plucked the string once timidly. An unbearable noise filled the small and cramped studio.
For some strange reason, I was led into this studio by her, just like that......
"There's no need for you to play something that's overly difficult, young man. You just have to follow the drums and play D in quavers, that's all."
Chiaki lifted her drum sticks high into the air and said, "Senpai, are you ready?"
The two of them exchanged glances for a second. At the exact instant the sound of the cymbals disappeared, I became surrounded by music that moved forward at a heavy pace. Chiaki began to hit a series of powerful quavers with the hi-hat, and on the drums, she was overlapping the quavers with triplets. The slowly-rising and screeching guitar riffs were like the faltering footsteps of a traveler heading towards the sea with a cane in his hand.
I tried tapping along to Chiaki's rhythm, then quietly strummed the bass. Initially, I couldn't believe that the low notes that were pressing up against my abdomen were actually coming from my bass. The three different melodies began to blend together stiffly, and entwined—
Then came the sound of a singing voice—
It was the voice of Kagurazaka-senpai.
It was like the whispers of the night in the desert—though her voice was slightly hoarse, it transmitted all the way to the horizon at the other end.
It was Led Zeppelin's <Kashmir>.
It was a song that I had heard countless times. I listened to this song in bed—deep in the middle of the night—on repeat, a countless number of times. And now, my fingers were etching out the pulse of the song.
In the areas the song fell silent, the guitar replied with a similar phrase of music. Chiaki maintained her footsteps and marched on continuously and endlessly. I already erased whatever Senpai had told me from my mind. When the guitar began playing the winding stretches of the Arabian-style music, I began searching for the low notes hidden within the song, and wove them out with my fingertips.
I really felt the song could continue on forever.
That was why, when the song finally stopped, I felt as though I were left alone in a desolate desert. The room was filled with a rumbling sound, but I could no longer determine whether that was just the noise, the echoes, or the memories of <Kashmir> that had seeped into my ears.
Chiaki's face was flushed red, and she stared at me, her forehead filled with sweat. A seemingly triumphant smile appeared on her face. I turned my sight away, and this time, the graceful sight of Kagurazaka-senpai appeared before my eyes.
I don't know why—but I couldn't look right into her face.
"...... Young man, what do you think the bass is?"
I slowly lifted my head. There was no smile on Senpai's face, but her gaze was gentle.
"If we're to view the band as a person, then the lead singer would be the head, and the guitar, the hands......"
Senpai moved her sight away from her hands and directed it towards Chiaki.
"If the drums were the legs, then which part do you think the bass represents?"
I couldn't answer Senpai's riddle. From the moment I was born, up till now, I had always assumed the role of someone who simply accepted things.
Senpai finally broke into a gentle smile, and quickly walked towards me. She placed her palm on my chest, which made me jump in shock. My body froze.
"It's this, young man."
As we stared face to face, Senpai looked straight into my eyes and continued,
"The heart. You understand now? Without you, we would not be able to move."
I was stunned speechless. I replied to her, not through words, but through the pulse of my heart.
If I were to view the band as a person.
I was not moving forward by following in their footsteps. As someone who placed himself in a sound shared with others for the very first time, that was something I was certain of. If I were to listen to the CD alone in my room, I probably would've never understood that.
Right then, I was probably thinking the same thing as Senpai. If only Mafuyu were here—
The sound of that guitar. If only it were here—
I gripped the neck of my bass tightly. I finally understood—that was my reason for playing the bass. It wasn't an excuse, but an actual reason—it was so I could transmit this blazing heat to Mafuyu.