I could feel the excitement building up in the meeting area. It was in the middle of winter and the piles of ice lying on the ground in the corners had not yet melted. No one had tried to build a snowman or even have a little bit of fun with the snow. The students around me turned their attention to the front. The person speaking was looking down at his notes. He looked up and began to talk in his own words. We had been hearing similar speeches almost every single day. They did not want us to cause any trouble. They wanted us to treat everything seriously and gain valuable experience. We had already helped out for two weeks in summer at various stores where our seniors worked in. This time it would be a month.
One of the reasons why we were required to participate was because they wanted us to follow their standards and raise the competition levels between stores. I was always confident that the store that I had grown up with was perfect in every imaginable way.
I did the morning stretching and running without any thought but the work that had to be completed throughout the next day. We gathered in the dining hall and felt grateful for the breakfast that had been prepared for us. We cleaned the dormitory building like monks. We had 40 minutes of Ancient Chinese Studies. After having home group, we had many lessons that lasted until the evenings. We cleaned the classrooms with respect and were finally allowed free time. Our evening meal was curry and rice. We felt like soldiers in the navy when we had curry. I cleaned the table, bed and closet as well as the four tatami mats of my room. While most people were brushing their teeth, i quickly went to the massive (public) bath and had a shower. The lights went off shortly after and I switched on the bedside lamp and the heater. Two of the patrolling teachers came in after knocking and one of them said, ‘Okita-kun, have a good sleep and do your best tomorrow.’ I smiled and thanked both of them for all the things that they had done for me.
Sitting on my bed, I turned off the heater and lamp in order to have a peaceful moment. I always felt that I had not had enough food. Somehow, I was beginning to miss my parents and sister. I loved the town in which I had grown up. My sister was a university student and wanted to become a science teacher. My little brother had died after doing too much judo while in year 1 of his junior high school. There was only me who did not have other available options and was a ‘worthy’ successor of my father’s Panasonic Shop.
It was due to the pressure of my parents that I had ended up at this boarding school. This decision had placed me on the road to becoming a shopkeeper with no way out. My entrance was sealed. It had been eight months since my enrolment and I had changed much during that time. The environment caused some people to become robots. Public holidays and some Sundays were the only days when we were allowed to go outside. The work experience program that would go on for a month was a relief for many of us. Our life could be compared with that of a prisoner or a monk.
I would be graduating the Panasonic Marketing School around March next year after gaining the last few qualifications. It would be good to return to my hometown and actually start working. The thought of running the store for over fifty years was frightening sometimes. But that itself was life. Repetition was necessary but each time things would be different. The customers would be different for instance.
I did like all the products that were sold at our store. The store was not the usual local electrical appliances store. The store was made up of four buildings. One was our house; next to it was the Panasonic Shop, then the shop that my father was planning to continue and lastly the historical building where the workmen employed by my father stored various parts and appliances in order to fix broken things. A large tearoom was located in my father’s shop where people sometimes rested. Many recycling boxes were located around the counter of the main store in order to promote sustainable usage of products. There was a certain blend between old and new, the past and the modern age; something that made it stand out even more.
There were buses waiting outside the school for the seniors to get to the stores. We were going to walk to our store with supervising teachers to show our willingness to work. We split into groups in order to not cause any trouble to other people using the footpath. It was quite a good feeling to walk as a group, in blue outfits. A sense of importance could be felt by all of us. It was a brisk walk and we did not talk to each other. All the new knowledge that we had gained was being revised in our heads. This was to make sure that we put into action all of the skills that we had acquired.
There were a few teenagers that had caught the eye of the students. They were dressed in casual clothes and seemed to be up to something. A few attempted to block the footpath. Several were smoking and others showed aggressive behaviour. We looked towards our teacher who pretended not to notice them.
‘Shall we rest at this park?’ the teacher said. We all immediately agreed.
There were stairs leading up to the park and we had a good view of what was going on from above.
‘We may be staying here for some time,’ the teacher said. ‘I suspect trouble going on below.’
‘What is your plan?’ asked the student next to me.
‘Speaking to these people won’t be of much use,’ the teacher said. ‘We will call the police as soon as they do something. One of us will have to go to the shop we were planning to do work experience in and inform them of our situation.’
We were all capable people. The teenagers outnumbered us greatly but posed no fear to us. We saw the teenagers leave the area after a while and decided that the problem was over. Our teacher thought differently. He sent five of us to go after them and ordered me to stay. Shortly afterwards, smoke began to curl and billow out of the window of the tall shop building in front of us.
‘Call the fire brigade,’ the teacher said. ‘We have to focus on the teenagers.’ There had been around fifteen of them. Not all of them would be successfully traced if we did not find at least one of them.
I jumped the whole set of stone stairs and raced across the road to the other side, where shouts and other noises were beginning to become louder. Most people had already escaped from the building. I felt the necessity to double check. All floors were filled with smoke and I realised that there was nothing that could be done. After getting out of the building feeling somewhat silly and lucky to be alive, a lady began to shout at me. I looked around for help from my teacher, but he wasn’t around. The lady was asking me whether I had seen any children. I realised that there had been victims. I could not think properly and almost fell back into the burning building. It was at that moment when the first fire trucks arrived at the scene.
‘Get away from this building! Everyone, it is going to collapse on you!’
We could all hear a loud noise coming from the front of the building. I allowed everyone to escape first. Looking up from directly below the front of the building, time seemed to go slower as the wall collapsed. It was already tilted at around 70°when I regained my confidence in myself. There were several people who had tripped and fallen. I pulled them back up onto their feet to allow them to escape and then carried two children with two hands before making my way across the road. Many people were facing their smartphones at me. I could think of nothing. The wall fell with a deafening crash onto several firefighters and just narrowly missed us.
I was disappointed to learn that no police had arrived yet. After recounting everything that I knew to them, I asked them to find my fellow students.
‘I need to get back to the Marketing School at the least,’ I said. ‘Events have not turned out as we had expected.’
I waited at the scene for the police to find my group members. People came up to me and thanked me for the assistance in escaping. Others were weeping. Bodies on stretchers were carried out from the entrance and guilt overwrote the virtuousness in my heart. I had never experienced arson first hand before. Moving my thoughts to other things, I realised that my daily exercising and overall toughness had helped me to survive. The school curriculum was too limited. It was only the basic foundations for storekeepers/electricians. More experiences of culture was needed. After graduating this school, I would have to continue my journey in seeking new discoveries.
Amidst the planning in my head, one officer came and said that all the students had been found safely pursuing their respective teenagers. Only the teachers could not be found.
‘Probably because they don’t wear the blue shirts or staff jumpers with the Panasonic logo on them,’ I said. ‘What do I have to do now?’
‘You won’t have to go to hospital, and we do not require further information from you,’ the officer said. ‘Therefore we have arranged for you to be transported back to your school.’
I wondered whether the teacher had deliberately run away in order to avoid putting his own life at risk. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about me. The media came in late, and had missed the collapsing of the wall. All anyone would ever know about the event was a deliberately set up fire and the firefighters. Heroes didn’t receive the public’s attention. Local electrical appliances storeowners and electricians protected their town. They knew the people well and provided excellent service. Profit was a secondary aim for us, and we did things for the people of our town because we liked to. We were close to volunteers. We were unknown to most but known to many.