"Look, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with you holding on like you do. I'm just saying that you don't need to worry about me."
"Can you tidy up the kitchen? There's something I've got to do upstairs." Machiko pointed up at the ceiling. The family lived on the second floor above the restaurant.
"Sure, no problem."
"See you later, then." Machiko started climbing the stairs in the back corner of the restaurant.
Yutaro shook his head feebly. He wasn't in the mood to go straight back to work, so he pulled up a chair and sat down. He could feel his back rounding into a slouch. Women are so much stronger than us! It was something he felt acutely now—and had felt countless times in the past.
Saori had been their firstborn. A big-eyed baby with glowing pink skin. Yutaro had long been convinced that he wanted his first child to be a boy, but that particular prejudice evaporated the instant Saori was born. She was the apple of his eye. No, she was more than that: He was ready to lay down his life for her.
Machiko was an integral part of running Namiki-ya, as their restaurant was called, so the restaurant became Saori's nursery. When the restaurant was busy, the regulars would often pick up Saori and bounce her on their knees.
Saori had been a healthy child and adored by everybody. All sorts of people from the neighborhood would greet her on her way to kindergarten. She would always return their greetings in her piping voice. Yutaro felt a surge of pride every time someone congratulated him on Saori's good manners.
Saori had been popular at elementary school and junior high school. When her homeroom teacher came to visit Machiko, she had said that "what made Ms. Namiki special was that she was nice to everyone, cheerful, and never made a fuss even when things got difficult."
Saori's test scores were not that good, but neither Yutaro nor Machiko were overly concerned. Saori was basically a serious and kind person who almost never caused them any grief or worry. She was also a lovely big sister who liked taking care of Natsumi, who was three years her junior.
Outside of school, Saori had one shining talent: She could sing. She'd liked singing as a very young child, but as the years went on, she started to display signs of exceptional talent. No matter how difficult a song was, she only needed to hear it once to memorize it, and she was never out of tune. That was when Yutaro first heard the phrase 'perfect pitch.' Saori, people told him, had it.
Saori got to display her talent at the neighborhood street festival that was held every autumn. While the main event was a grand parade with costumes and floats, there was also a singing contest, which the locals all looked forward to. Saori first took part as a fourth grader when her rendition of "My Heart Will Go On," the theme song of the movie Titanic, had amazed the audience. It was the first time he had seen his daughter really perform.
After that she was roped into performing at every autumn festival, becoming something of a local celebrity. The singing contest always attracted a good crowd, with plenty of people there specifically to hear Saori.
As she got older, Saori started helping out in the restaurant during the summer holidays.
Some of the more cynical customers would ask her what she was doing, helping out in a fusty old place like Namiki-ya. Didn't she know that a beautiful girl like her could make a lot of money working in a hostess club in central Tokyo? Even her parents had to admit that she had grown into a beautiful woman. She was like a flower in bloom; her presence alone was enough to transform and brighten the atmosphere of the restaurant. She attracted more and more customers to the place as people associated Namiki-ya with her.
When Saori was about fourteen, a man named Naoki Niikura came to the restaurant. His family, who were very well-off, were well-known in the neighborhood. As a young man, he had attempted a career as a musician, he explained. While that never quite panned out, he had plenty of connections in the music business. He switched his focus to the business side and now he owned several music studios in central Tokyo and was always looking for fresh talent. He went on to list a few of the singers he had discovered.
"Your daughter has what it takes to be a professional singer. I'd like you to let me manage her," Naoki Niikura said to Yutaro and Machiko.