Flatulence seemed to always occur at the worst times. In the supermarket, when you had a hard time deciding whether to buy mackerel, sea bass or cod. In the metro, on the way to school when it was getting cramped and you were hoping that the class teacher sitting three seats away from you would not discover your release. Even elevators, group study and exams were also few of the moments your stomach started to feel like butterflies trapped in a bottle.
Even today, this distress in his abdominal region had driven Taro Yamada to seek refuge in the place that even kings only visited alone. At least the kings who went to a boarding school in Northern Europe.
His stomach had been rumbling since last night, so he had hardly gotten a bite down in the morning. While his roommate, also a rather shy fellow, who had given him a long lecture about waste separation and energy saving when they met each other for the first time, had sawn down an entire forest last night, and Taro could not get a single minute of sleep. His belly groaned and ached, wailed and complained, but he didn’t even dare to go to the toilet of the room, fearing his roommate would be woken up by the loudly rattling defective fan or the equally loudly rattling wind orchestra coming from his buttocks.
While he was lying in bed, watching the moon shine through a gap in the curtain, he had missed Japan a lot. Japan, his home country, the land of electric toilets and vending machines, the land of etiquette bells which made gentle water sounds that could drown out even the worst flatulence, and the land of hot springs with the smell of rotten eggs, against which every diarrhea, no matter how bad, smelled as tenderly as a baby diaper.
So why was he, Taro Yamada, even here? It was cold and dark over here in Northern Europe, and while the cherry blossoms in Japan were migrating from Hiroshima towards Kyoto, he was on a small island still covered in ice in the Gulf of Bothnia.
The toilet seat, which Taro had been occupying for ten minutes, was also ice-cold. There was no control panel for the warmth of the toilet seat, and no cleaning water jet. At the toilet tank you could only choose whether to press the big or the small button.
Barbaric. Simply barbaric.
The toilet paper was not exempt. It It was gray and rough and scratchy, like a Viking had sliced it out of a piece of wood. No comparison to the one or two-layered papers from his homeland, which caressed his buttocks like a gentle rain of cherry blossoms.
Once more he could feel brutish complaints from the inside against his abdominal wall. Taro bent forward and breathed heavily, whimpering like a wounded puppy. Tears had formed in the corners of his eyes. He lifted his glasses a little and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
It couldn’t be true! Today the same thing happened as on the day of the entrance exams for high school!
He remembered exactly how he was studying like a madman last summer, then climbing Mount Fuji, then studying again and climbing Mount Fuji again. In the end, his grades were good enough to be admitted to his desired high school. But at the moment of the oral exam, he, Taro Yamada, 16 years old and the youngest son of a typical average Japanese family with three children, crapped out big time. Literally.
Never before in his life had he been so nervous that he had left before the teachers’ committee had even looked at him. His raging heart and belly roaring like a wild beast put a damper on his plans.
The next time he climbed Mount Fuji in the pouring rain, he couldn’t stop crying. Why was he such a coward? Why couldn’t he accept, like any other person, that sometimes in life you had to take a different path than the desired one, and that you had to at least try to get through it, even if you were nervous and about to fail? While he stood on a viewing platform and watched the autumn woods dressed in bright colors, vibrant and alive, something in him seemed to come alive as well. He clenched his fists, took a deep breath and shouted: “From now on I am strong and serious! Matchless and marvelous! Energetic and fearless! I will definitely change myself!” But when a group of Chinese and European tourists took a critical look at him shortly afterwards, his self-confidence crumbled into pieces again and he rushed to the nearest toilet house.
Just reminiscing about the embarrassing situation back then made Taro blush with shame. He wiped his eyes again. But this time he had to smile.
Yes, he was still a hopeless coward. But now he had at least made it to a toilet at the other end of the world.
Because he couldn’t get into his desired high school, he had fervently searched for something else. But the school websites he had visited had a boring selection of clubs. He found clubs for sports, music and literature, natural sciences and handicraft. But he neither wanted to knit nor dance, nor become world champion in Fortnite or Counter Strike.
Since he and his two big sisters had been watching TV and playing together ever since he could remember, Taro had only one wish: to become a hero. And over here, at this boarding school, in a place where the sun shone for just four hours a day in winter, his wish was about to come true. Because at Saint Claus Academy, there was not only a club for figure skating and cattle breeding, but also the one, the special one – the Super Club!
Encouraged by this thought, Taro ended his session. He took out his smartphone from his bag and looked at the clock. If he hurried, he could still make it to class in time. His lockscreen showed the image of a pair of female twins in short frilly dresses embroidered all over with sequins and pearls. The twins were accompanied by two cute plush dinosaurs.
Taro’s thoughts drifted away for a split second. He had visited one of their concerts shortly before his departure for Northern Europe. While Asami and Yumi were doing what they did best on stage, Peppi and Peppo, the two dinosaurs, were dancing on a 3D screen behind them. When he closed his eyes and focused on it, he could still smell the mixture of cotton candy and dry ice that filled the air of the concert hall.
He sighed and pressed the phone to his chest. “Asami, Yumi, I love you!”
The school bell rang and he blinked back to the present.
“Aaaaah!” Panicking, Taro wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth and stuffed his smartphone back into his bag. A small bottle, which he also carried around, clanked softly against it. He pressed the flush button one more time, made sure that his shirt was in his pants and his fly was closed properly, then pushed the door open and sprinted to the sink.
The soap dispenser on the right side was empty. His heart started to leap in his chest. On the left side there was only a small amount of liquid soap in the dispenser. As he soaped up his hands the best he could, he looked at his reflection in the mirror critically. To do so, he had to stand on his tiptoes, because someone must have thought it was a great idea to hang up the mirror only for people between one meter sixty-five and two meters tall.
He himself, without stretching, could only see his tired eyes and the slightly reddened tip of his nose - as well as another boy who stared at him with a sinister look. Taro let out a surprised cry. Since when had the other guy been standing there? His hands trembled as he washed them off. But maybe he had only imagined it, because as pale-white as the other guy was, he couldn’t possibly be a real person.
A ghost. Yes, exactly, a ghost. The male, European version of Hanako, the toilet-bound! No doubt the ghost was gone as soon as he turned around one more time.
Taro reached for the paper towels, dried his hands, and then lifted his school bag. He slowly turned around after he was finished.
“Good morning!” The ghost said in a firm voice.
Taro once again let out a frightened whimper. He had a lump in his throat, but he still tried to maintain etiquette and bow slightly. “G… Good m… morning!”
He didn’t dare look at the other boy, so he stared at his shoes. They were really fashionable, well-groomed sneakers in bright colors with reflective stripes, quite different from the average brown leather shoes that Taro wore. The ghost’s trousers told Taro that he had to be a student of the Saint Claus Academy too, even though he wore his shirt casually opened and the tie not around his neck but as a ribbon on his belt. Another cautious glance revealed a yellow T-shirt, several golden gangster-like necklaces, alabaster white skin, and almost snow-white, frizzy hair.
Taro had never seen such an immensely white person in his life before. The people from his home country usually had dark, almost black hair, dark eyes and a slightly olive skin.
Did the other boy have blue eyes and a big nose? Because that was what Americans and Europeans were supposed to have!
At least on television you always saw these kinds of people in the upper left or right corner of the screen, always nodding and smiling during a report, even though they didn’t understand a single word of Japanese. What was the colour of his eyes? When he carefully raised his view again, he squeaked for the third time. “I’m sorry!” He bowed hastily. His eyes … His eyes … They were… Grey … Red … Something was wrong with them! Yes, he definitely had to be a demon. A demon! And he, Taro, was at his mercy, because he was late on his first day at the new school. His stomach started to rumble again.
The other boy clicked his tongue “You should so.” He twitched his eyebrows and looked at Taro critically. His flickering gaze immediately made Taro become pale-white, too.
The boy took out a clipboard and turned a few pages. “You are Taro Yamada, right?” He began to squint as he read through the rest of the data. “Class 10-C, starting today as a part of the scholarship program of our school.” He grimaced with an unusual ease. “And late on his first day.”
“I’m sorry.” Taro raised his head mid-bow. He noticed that the other boy wore a red armband, which meant that he had to be an important member of the student council. There was a menacing roar in his belly. Taro became dizzy.
The grin grew wider. “Bag check,” the other boy commanded and made Taro hand him his navy blue shoulder bag with trembling hands. Taro was on the verge of throwing himself on the floor in front of him, begging for his life the old-fashioned Japanese way.
“Textbooks, a notepad, an electronic dictionary, a smartphone, a pencil case, oh …”, happily he reached into the bag and took out a glass bottle, “… bingo!”
Taro solidified into a pillar of salt. Until now he hadn’t even remembered he was carrying this bottle with him. It was as small as a teacup, sealed with a cork. An old sign around the bottleneck with handwritten Japanese characters read: “Only for the brave.” The liquid inside seemed clear, but when shook it turned into rainbow-coloured stardust.
The other boy laughed dirtily and patted him on the back lightly. “Bingo,” he repeated. “The little Japanese boy probably thought he could drink a little courage before class.” He swayed the bottle back and forth and watched the colour change with growing interest.
“No, that’s …” Taro kept pushing around. His heart was beating so loudly in his ears that he could hardly hear himself speak. A parting gift from my father. He couldn’t say it out loud.
The other guy pulled up his nose. “Yeah, that’s right, it’s orange juice, and I’m Santa Claus! Ho ho ho!” He gave him another pat on the back and forced him to leave the toilet with him. “I don’t care if you skip class, because we have a special class for kids like you. But alcohol?! Now that’s just too much!” He grabbed him by his left forearm and dragged him down the hall.
Taro could barely keep up with him. “That’s not true. This is a special aromatic elixir my father gave me to calm my stomach.” He staggered and stumbled, but the pale ghost boy did not untighten his grip. “I beg you, don’t take this bottle away from me!”
Taro’s pleas fell on deaf ears as the boy kept pulling him around.
Their path finally ended in front of an old dark brown wooden door. Taro was out of breath. The door creaked and groaned as it opened. Fifteen tired pairs of eyes immediately turned to him.
The teacher had put his feet on the table. He wore birkenstocks and wool socks, and slurped loudly from a coffee cup. “Ah, Ivan!” He turned around sluggishly and yawned. “Did you find another straggler?”
The pale boy beside him nodded and loosened his grip.
Taro rubbed his aching forearm and stared at the teacher first, then at Ivan, with a questioning look on his face. “Is this my class?” The whole sight was even more confusing and chaotic than Shinjuku Station during rush hour.
Ivan shook his head. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement.
The teacher wanted to take another sip from the coffee cup, but then realized it was empty. Sighing, he stood up and went to a small coffee maker on the windowsill.
The other pupils had since returned to their own interests, playing video games, reading adult magazines, or dozing away happily.
“No,” Ivan said. “This is the truant class.”