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Limbo by Andrew Wrigley

© Andrew Wrigley

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LIMBO



Tap, tap, tap.

Silence.

Tap, tap, tap.

A sound grows and takes shape until I recognise it. It is music. Not just music but Stravinsky. Les Cinq Doigts.

The room is white, brimming with cold translucence like a Hammershoi painting. Other than that, this white, white room is empty. Except that someone is playing the piano. I can see the piano but the pianist is hidden. In the stark light, the piano is so black it shines. I edge closer.

Beside the piano is a side table, covered in piles of sheet music. It clutters the room, unlike the piano and the music, that both belong in here.

I feel as washed out as the November light, as empty as Stravinsky’s chords.

The playing is beautiful. The essence of genius, I think with envy, is to make simplicity out of chaos.

I recognise the pianist from the shape he gives the music. It is Jonathan. The master of perfection, the stuff that egos are made of, especially his.

If Jonathon is here, where is Judy? There is nothing I can do, except wait and listen.

Tap, tap, tap.

There it is again! That sound…

Tap, tap, tap.

The strange tapping is in time with the music, a small seed of imperfection. Maybe Jonathan is human after all. I edge closer until I can see him. He shivers. He looks around him. He doesn’t look at me.

He never looks at me.

*

Jonathan is beginning to sweat like he always does before a concert. Not because of the stage lights or the packed auditorium, but because of the fear.

He is the perfect ear. His fame depends on it. And his ego depends on his fame. The critics call him a genius but he knows he isn’t. To reach perfection he has had to cut the soul out of his art. The critics only care for perfection and the audiences only care to agree with the critics. All Jonathan needs is to deliver perfection in every performance.

And so he sweats before each concert and if he is not playing in a concert he is in a limbo, waiting, the fear mounting with every passing second.

I hate him. I hate his perfect timing, his flawless execution. Oh, how I envy him, the conceited little brute, the spoilt brat.

Tap, tap, tap.

There it is! That sound again, almost inaudible yet rigidly in time with the music.

“Oh fuck, I forgot to cut my finger nails.”

Jonathan panics and starts searching through the piles of sheet music. He is looking for the small bag he takes everywhere with him. There is only one thing in the bag: a small sharp pair of platinum nail scissors. I know where it is. It’s on the side table, under the Chopin sheet music, hidden out of sight. I don’t move, I don’t tell him. I like the tapping, the gentle tap, tap, tap of his nails as he plays each key.

I listen beyond Jonathan’s playing. A trickle of awareness is growing like the murmur of an impatient audience.

Judy walks into the room and I could cry with relief. I was so scared that she would not be with him! Beautiful, heart-rending Judy. She smiles at Jonathan, forcing her eyes to be bright and encouraging, primed for appeasement the instant it is demanded. Jonathan, the monster, glares back at her, the sweat dripping off his chin. Plop, plop. Onto his bowtie and from there it falls again and runs, leaving a trail of dampness streaked down the front of his crisp white shirt.

“Where … did … you … put … my … nail … scissors?” he screams at her in a hysterical staccato.

Judy doesn’t even blink. I watch her, aching for her.

“Here they are, darling,” she says, still smiling digging his little bag out from under the pile of sheet music on the side table. “Goodness knows why you put them here.”

“I didn’t!” snarls Jonathan.

Judy smiles and hands him the bag. She knows better than to open the bag herself, she lets him have the last word.

Jonathan snatches the bag from her, whining like a small child when the zip gets stuck. It has only opened a fraction. He sticks two fingers into the slit and screams, dropping the bag on the floor.

“Look what you have done!” he shrieks at her, holding his right hand up. There is the tiniest prick of blood on one finger tip.

Judy picks up the bag, calmly opens it. She takes the nail scissors out and hands them to him. There is no sarcasm in her gesture, just a deep well of patience.

“I will get some cotton wool and spirits,” she says and turns to leave the room.

Jonathan cuts his nails.

His bottom lip protrudes in concentration. Poor Judy! I hate him, he has taken her away from me, the woman I love.

He cuts the nails on fingers one to five on the left hand, and then switches to the right hand. He is ambidextrous. One, two, three, four. A door slams somewhere. Jonathan looks up, listening for Judy.

Silence. Emptiness. The still white room.

He puts the scissors down on the side of the piano and starts playing again.

His right index finger smears a small streak of blood onto a black key.

The thin November light comes through the window, filtered and scattered by layers upon layers of frozen, stratospheric cloud. There is a fine grain quality to the light and it settles on the scene like a layer of dust. The light is completely still except on middle F#, where reflections swirl chaotically in Jonathan’s blood.

Jonathan sees none of this. He is searching, shifting through the music. I know what he is looking for in the empty chords. He is looking for what he has sacrificed to his ego, his false idol. He can’t find it. His frustration mounts. Music without a soul is nothing, like an ego without a self.

The blood dries and the reflections are gone. Jonathan plays on.

Tap, tap, tap.

I only just heard it, but it was there. Jonathan has heard it too. He stops playing and reaches for the scissors to cut the last nail on his right little finger. Finger number five, right hand. That was the one making the tapping sound all along.

The door opens and he looks up, to see Judy. She smiles at him, reassuringly. She has a bottle of spirits and handfuls of cotton wool. Jonathan puts down the scissors. She daubs his finger and he nods at the keyboard. She guesses what he wants.

Judy smiles and soaks a clean wad of cotton wool in spirits.

“Middle,” he snaps when she starts on one of the higher keys.

Judy smiles and cleans the correct key. It glistens briefly until the spirit evaporates.

Judy sweeps away the pale snippets of fingernail that are scattered all over the keys, catching them in her cupped left hand as they fall. How could he, of all people, do that to a piano?

“Five minutes,” says Judy. Jonathan nods, staring down at the keyboard, transfixed with nauseating fear. Jonathan flexes his fingers and starts playing again, this time harder, drowning out the murmur from the concert hall, just two doors away from where he is sitting. His sweating has settled into a steady flow and the damp stains have spread till they have almost disappeared. His shirt and waistcoat are completely drenched. There is a slight squelch as his right foot releases one of the pedals.

Jonathan glances at the tiny prick on his right index finger. He ignores Judy. She puts the nail scissors back in the little bag and leaves.

Jonathan wants to be alone.

*

“Oh, my god! Oh, my god!” Jonathan cries over and over again once Judy has left, holding his face in his hands.

In a sudden frenzy, he starts playing again. Jazz. Wonderful, free flowing Jazz, straight from the heart. Tears come to my eyes. It is beautiful. I almost forget how much I hate him.

Tap, tap, tap.

Ever so faint. Jonathan doesn’t hear it this time, the wild music drowns it out.

He plays for precisely four and a half minutes. Then he stops. He doesn’t need a clock. Like a savant, he doesn’t need to count the seconds.

Jonathan grabs the sheets and sheets of music he will play and starts his lonely walk towards the auditorium.

I want to laugh.

He didn’t cut that last fingernail!

*

The murmur of polite voices explodes into applause as he walks onto the stage, a sea of tone deaf grey faces tilted up to him adoringly. He bows and swings his right arm expansively, a majestic, arrogant gesture to encompass them all. His jacket is soaked through and as his arm swings he hosepipes droplets of sweat over the audience, as far back as the fifth row. He clasps his fist, greedily clutching all the adulation to his heart.

He bows again and sweat streams out of his long hair and splatters onto the floor with a swish. Jonathan is quite literally melting with fear.

He walks over to the piano and sits down. His long, slender, muscular fingers hover over the keyboard.

A hush falls. Jonathan strikes a note and his drenched index finger skids over the smooth ivory of middle C. He just holds it from slithering over into middle B. He sucks his breath in. Nearly…

It doesn’t matter. Not to this tone deaf audience, at least, who are drawn like moths to the candle of his celebrity. His fame is a mirror in which they admire the depth of their pockets. The music is just an accessory, something that others can’t afford.

The grey faced ladies shift their legs.

The grey faced men in black ties feel infinitely sad. All they have to show for a life of toil is their platinum plastic. Their eyes are so lonely.

A hush falls over the auditorium.

Jonathan starts playing. The world stops and listens. It can do little else: it is ensnared by the heartless beauty of a perfect song.

Tap, tap, tap.

Jonathan starts to scream and scream.

*

I wake up with Judy shaking me.

“Darling, wake up!”

“Judy?”

“Are you OK?”

“Yes, yes…”

I cannot see a thing in the pitch darkness but I know that my bedroom is full of the things that make my life real. Judy, the dog, the chest of drawers, yesterday’s clothes dumped on a chair, the dirty laundry basket with its sour scent. My life is all around me, filling every corner to bursting.

The dog stops snoring. It snuffles and shifts.

Tap, tap, tap.

I freeze. The dog pauses. I can sense it staring at me in the darkness. The flea bites him again.

Tap, tap, tap.

The dog’s hind leg rhythmically overshoots his left ear and his long nails, honed for digging, tap against the sides of his Bakelite dog box.

Tap, tap, tap. The dog shakes his head and gives up. The flea wins.

“Darling, what is it?” says Judy, fear replacing the hint of anger. She too has frozen.

“Sorry, Judy, sorry… I had a bad dream, darling, it’s nothing.”

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

“Yes, don’t worry.”

I roll over towards her. I nudge her over onto her side and snuggle up behind her. She complies, but only just.

She lies there listening to me, not at all convinced.

“What was it about?” she asks.

“What?”

“The dream.”

“It was nothing, just a bad dream,” I say. “Get some sleep…”

“Mmhhh.” Not convinced.

I pull myself closer to her and screw my eyes shut, caressing her pregnant belly.

“Are you scared?” she asks me.

“No.”

“Shall I tell you what I was dreaming about?” asks Judy.

“Yes.”

“I was dreaming about a little girl,” says Judy. “A ballerina, just like me.”

Judy is tense, waiting for me to say something. I know what she wants to hear, but I can’t say it. I just can’t.

“I’ll tell you all about my dream in the morning,” I say instead.

“Will you remember?”

“Yes.”

“Sure?”

“Yes.”

"Why not now?"

"It's four in the morning."

“Mmmhhh.” Her breathing starts to deepen.

I listen.

“Your breathing is the sweetest sound I have ever heard,” I whisper into her hair.

“Mmmhhh.”

I listen some more. She is going to sleep. The digital numerals of the alarm clock glow through her hair, giving her a stark green halo.

“I love you.”

“Mmmhhh.”

Silence.

Or rather, the dog snores. The November wind moans against the house. The TV aerial rattles against the chimney. The simple rhythms of our domesticity envelope us and it is the sweetest silence I have ever heard.

I close my eyes. I am going to be a father. For the rest of my life I will only dream in the third person. Make way, pave the way. I will sacrifice my ego just for him.

He will be a great pianist and I will be proud of him. I will call him Jonathan, like in the dream. I am an accomplished musician but nothing more. I teach, and for extra money, I do gigs in working men’s clubs, the kind of clubs where my father drank his beer. So there has been some progress, but Jonathan will be born under a different star. Music, music, music, it has always been our obsession, it is what brought us together. Music plugs the holes in our life.

Judy’s breathing is really deep now and its low slung see saw is getting regular and hypnotic. She is almost asleep but not quite. There is a tiny knot of tension in the small of her back. The sense of something out of place still ties her to the waking world. It needs to be spoken. I listen and wait.

Her breathing drops a notch, then another. The knot is beginning to loosen. I relax in sympathy. Soon I too will fall asleep but I am waiting for her to go first.

My mind begins to unravel, flirting with the remains of the dream, then hauling back to listen and wait for Judy to go first.

The rhythm of her breathing slows and slows. So does mine but she is faking it. I feel something in Judy uncoil, but I am too far gone to react.

Her voice, when she speaks, is rasping and cold.

“Who is Jonathan?”

*

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