A huge metal instrument, tubes and vibrating bars. I play. A side door opens. A man slips through, carrying something. He makes no effort to be quiet. He scans the stage, focuses on me. He stares. Glaring spotlights wink out, leaving me alone in an island of light. My solo. I sit, close my eyes, focus on the notes and the movements of my fingers.
The solo ends. I sit back, relax a little, my brain defocused, the muscle memory piloting my fingers through the harmony. I scan the rows below. Hard to see much but the whites of their eyes. No sign of the fellow now, not even lumbering under the bulk he carried. I wonder idly if he has been ejected for blocking the view.
A soft twanging sound. I look down quickly, checking all the parts of my instrument. I am aware of the myriad high-tension sounds which can indicate a critical failure. Nothing wrong. The harmonic twang again. I glance around, my hands still playing my part. There, in the wings. Out of sight of the crowd, but only a few metres from me, here under the lights.
He stares. He shifts his weight. He almost lunges onto the stage, stopping himself at the last moment. My fingers stumble, I miss a note. He moves his hands across his instrument again, producing the same off-key discord, barely audible of the sound of the orchestra and my own deeply resonant tune. I look up, catch up, my fingers flying. The conductor shoots me a glance and I resolve to ignore the fellow in the wings, to concentrate on the piece and my part in it. I have no interest whatever in learning of this fellow player with his broken instrument. What interest is it to me, what help could I give? Each is tuned to its player – nobody else could produce any usable sound from it. Nobody else could understand its feel, its unique harmonics. It’s strange enough that I’m here at all – this piece was written for a different player. I’m just on call, filling in.
Inevitably a realisation rises at the same time as the swell of the music. My thoughts are cleared while I focus on the complicated and scintillating motions of the finale. Though my sound can’t be much like that of the player I’ve replaced – who (of course) is the one standing almost close enough to reach – I do my best to follow the music, adding the unique sound expected of a player like me. I have no desire to overshadow the fellow I’ve replaced, but the piece needs the full use of my clumsy, beautiful instrument to succeed. I can sense him there, though, his stare boring holes into the side of my head, his body practically vibrating.
As I stand with the rest of the orchestra and we deliver the final crescendo – the music rolling and crashing through the air, obliterating all before it – in every single pause, I hear it. Every beat of silence is filled with the faint discordant springing sound from the wings. To me it seems to fill the whole room for the instant before we all crash back to life. I know it’s for me alone. I strain against the urge to look into the gloom beside the stage. I begin to sweat, nervous now, but with fingertips focused on the final notes.
The music rises and falls. Gradually the other instruments fade out, their players sit. Finally only I am left, the ponderous melody; the audience realise I was there all along, the respiration of the piece, at once constant and vital, easy to forget. This is the majesty of these complicated, unique, difficult instruments. Nobody but me could produce this sound. I try to ignore the man in the wings and give it my all.
My final note fades at the same instant the curtains fall, sweeping from the sides of the stage, suddenly shrouding us. There is a moment of silence in the dark before an explosion of rapturous applause. A thundering, clapping, stamping of feet, whistles, muffled by the heavy red velvet. Even as the curtain falls I am already looking to the wings, expecting a ghastly phantom in full charge, exhaling great infernal gouts. I cringe. Nothing there.
The side of stage is dark and conspicuously free of bitter, vengeful musicians. The vibrations continue as the audience shows its percussive appreciation for our work. I rise and step off stage before the curtain lifts again, revealing us for the crowd. I edge away, slowly, dodging around dark shapes as my eyes adjust to the gloom backstage.
Ahead a shaft of light. A fire door, ajar. Odd, since they are usually sprung and alarmed. I see a panel pulled from the wall, no red gleam of security lights. Something blocky with shining protrusions jammed in the door, holding it open. What else could it be – but the instrument. Odd to discard such a valuable and delicate item, no matter its condition. And it is valuable, and delicate, despite its size and bulk. So few can bother attuning themselves to the clumsy thing, let alone learning to goad any kind of harmonious sound out of it. Even fewer find composers to create music worthy of the difficulty of the machine. It took me months to attune myself to my own, years of training to approach anything like the professional level. I’m here today, lucky even as a stand-in, only after seventeen years of work. My unease grows, but I can’t help myself.
I push the door open and step carefully around the metal of the instrument. Up close, lit by faint starlight outside, I can see that it is thoroughly broken. Several of the long vibrato bars and bells are loose and protrude at odd angles. No wonder it was making such horrible sounds. Surely this damage is why I was called in to replace its player.
As I step out into the gloom behind the hall, I perceive a rush of movement and am suddenly face to face with my antagonist. I raise my instrument in front of my protectively, my arms shaking under its weight. He lunges toward me, eyes wild. A choked sound, arms wide. I knock his hands aside with the instrument as they close on me. Its resonant note rings from the alley walls.
Back to the door. Closed, locked. Did I knock the machine aside as I stepped through? It leans against the wall, nearby, forlorn and silent.
The man seems confused for a moment. His eyes flick to mine for a moment before he suddenly reaches for the instrument. I sidle away, back to the wall, and watch as he raises it above his head. He wobbles a little under its weight before lurching forward, bringing the twanging, gunmetal mass crashing to the ground. Springs ping into the darkness as the abused machine finally gives up. Bells and bars scatter to the bitumen in a discordant parody of music.
He looks down at the corpse of his instrument. A quiet hollow groan marks its passing. It lies silent. He starts to laugh, turns to look at me, back to the instrument, back to me, his eyes shining.
He runs, skipping, laughing, vaults over a chainlink fence and is gone. His footfalls fade and I am alone.
I breathe again. First breath since the fellow hefted his instrument. I feel the strap of my own on my shoulders. Flex my aching fingers. Think back. The years of training. Endless hours of practice. Days of careful tuning. Carefully learning compositions – weathering abuse. Berated for embellishments, or for playing too plainly. I realise that I haven’t enjoyed it for years. I can’t remember the last time I played because I wanted to. Got any enjoyment beyond the knowledge of another paycheck, another headline. The strap slips softly from my shoulder. My biceps clench, knuckles whiten.
I lift the instrument over my head.