Mar 062014

Atar Hadari

Marty sat with a pint at one of the thick brown benches outside the National Film Theatre and realised he’d no idea where his instrument was. He had been down to Gabriel’s Wharf for his tea and eaten a greasy crepe whose traces had left stains all along his palms. He could feel the grease when he rolled his hands on the dark counter. (Thick hands for a flautist; after all these years, he still felt like a thug amongst all those waifs and strays in ball gowns, playing wind.) He scanned the quarter mile each side of him and considered where the flute might be.

This wasn’t the first time. He’d left it once in the automatic loo at Leicester Square. When he’d gone back, a German tourist had been red-faced in handing it over to him as she’d emerged through the sliding metal door. Another time, when he’d left it in a restaurant while en route to the South Bank, he’d been lucky to find the waiter who’d served him was a music student from the Guildhall, and wanted names of reputable but cheap teachers to see on the side. He’d given him a card and waved gratefully, rushing for the river. Then there were the occasions, numerous beyond recall, when he’d left it within the Royal Festival Hall’s own precincts – the restaurant downstairs, the lobby bookshop, even the ledge on the building’s fifth-floor terrace from where you saw the sun get eaten by the river. Today, though, was serious; he was playing, not rehearsing – and a solo. He didn’t want to turn up late this time, he’d not get offered more.

He hustled back to Gabriel’s Wharf, the pint settling its foam down to the empty base behind him. Mimes were on the forecourt of the National Theatre. They looked through him. He looked through them. He rushed across the grass of the ITV studios and on to where shops sold kites that cost a week’s wages. He rushed to the bar where he’d had lunch. The table he’d sat at had no flute case on it. A waiter slouching by the till waiting for the evening’s crowds to start just shrugged when he enquired.

Skipping over the pavement back to the NFT, he veered between the aisles of the bookstalls parked along the river bank, looking for a case left on the floor, a hint of black skin in the shadows. He searched for familiar eyes among the booksellers. “You seen a flute?” he said to the youngest, a boy of twenty, maybe. The youth shook his head, scratched, and folded notes in his apron. He didn’t look up or meet Marty’s eyes.

He ran back to the coffee shop at the Royal Festival Hall. The little chocolates wrapped in green paper winked off a hundred orange cups waiting to be refilled. He scanned the small white tables in the lobby: no one waiting, no one drinking, no one carrying anything in black. He ran into the bookshop. The assistants were all on break. There were hordes of children, and old men and women with glasses draped around their necks on wires limped from one book stand to another and clucked over the cards. Where was the person in charge? He dashed from one end of the bookshop to the other, pushing old ladies against checkout counters and children against the music stands. No one had seen a flute.

It was twenty to eight. He was due to arrive at the stage door half an hour ago, allowing for his usual lateness, and to play in nineteen minutes’ time. To be on stage in tails in nineteen minutes. Could he borrow a flute? No. Perry, the first flute, was away – hence Marty’s solo tonight. And you didn’t have a second for the second. No flute if he didn’t bring his own.

He crossed the concrete to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Maybe Perry had left his spare. Perry was like that, a maniac about punctuality, professionalism, saliva in the mouthpiece. That’s why he was first flute and Marty was second. He slipped in the musicians’ entrance, past the porter who was sipping tea and didn’t stir, past the doors that opened onto endless corridors, down to the changing rooms and Perry’s locker with its shiny “Keep the Country Clear” sticker. He teased the padlock with a hair grip and the locker swung open. “Bless his cotton socks!” he sighed. Good thing the bugger had tonsillitis and was in hospital; if he’d gone on tour, he’d have taken the spare with him. He took the flute out of the locker and pulled the white crisp cotton sheath down. Thank God. The flute gleamed under the changing room’s dim fluorescents.

He tried its mouth. Cold as a trout’s arse. Even if you were first flute your mouthpiece was cold as a tit of stone in your mouth before you played in public. He pulled on his dress trousers and threw his dinner jacket over the white shirt he’d worn all day – no time to change collars. He pulled his tie on already done up – one thing he’d kept from comprehensive school that he doubted the rest could think their way through for all their cut-glass accents. They were elastic-bow-tie men.

He started up the stairs to concert hall level. His shoes! Brown shoes gleamed on the stairs at the bottom of his black, dinner-suited legs. Aaaagh. Skidding back down, crashing back to the changing room, he slung the shoes into his locker and crammed his toes into dress black slip-ons, slippery shiny things. Then click clack, click clack on the new heels upstairs to the main hall’s backstage dark. Panting like a horse. Through the waiting-room door with the red light to say they were playing and you should keep your trap shut – if he’d been on time, that bulb would still have been blessedly dark. Nearly there, nearly. Now. He burst through the double doors and the silence hit him.

Silence between the instruments. Not the silence between notes but pure silence. Nobody moves, nobody rustles. Not a single programme being squeezed in a plump hand, not a buttock shifting on a seat. Then the orchestor director’s voice:

“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for that moment of silence. When you lose a colleague, let alone one you work with daily, you lose something very much more than just a professional tie. We don’t like to think how much we rely on one another to make music. But we do. And today’s events bring that home to every one of us. Now, if you’ll turn to your programmes…”

Marty got on to the platform with the strings. The musical director had not been there when he’d walked through the waiting room, but now on stage he could see him, old watery eyes a little skewed under his horn-rimmed glasses, standing with the choirmaster listening to the orchestra director finishing his speech. He was pointing toward the soloist’s stand. Marty thought he could just make it. He was surprised no one had said anything. He had slipped in from the back, though. No one had seen him yet. The orchestor director was drawing to a close.

“We’re very grateful that our first flute, Chester Perry, despite considerable personal difficulty, has stepped in at the last moment.”

The audience’s heads turned towards the soloist’s stand, where Perry had suddenly appeared with a face the colour of strawberries that had begun to go off, a sort of greyish red.

Marty felt like hurling Perry’s own spare flute at the bastard. How could he? Who had the right to do this to a man?

“Once again, ladies and gentlemen, we ask you to put your hands together in tribute to Marty Walker, a great young talent who will be much missed. We’re sure that he’s with us very much in spirit, because he loved this place, and I’m sure he’ll be watching over our proceedings here tonight.”

“I’m here to bloody play!” Marty said. The orchestra director cleared his throat. “We don’t know what his troubles were. We don’t know how we could have helped him or what drove him to the desperate measures that he chose…”

Marty walked up to the director and tapped him on the back. “You can get Perry out of my chair,” he said, “that’s how you can help me. He’s dead on his feet. Look at him.”

“… but we hope, wherever he is, that he’s at peace and enjoying the music we make in his memory. Mr Perry, if you please. The flute concerto in E minor.”

“I’ve got my flute,” Marty said as the instruments rose to various shoulders, “I’m not that late. I’ll not be late again.”

The orchestra director and choirmaster, the musical director and staff, trooped down the side of the stage and back to the wings. The flute rose to Chester Perry’s mouth like a slowly turning knife. Under his chair, between his perfectly black shoes, was a flute case, all gleaming and black, and at its corner Marty could see the initials M.W.

As Marty leapt towards Chester he felt the river call him. First stars were glimmering on the Thames, and he felt the waves and saw the little fishes dart in between strings weighed down by lures. Chester Perry’s instrument glinted in the auditorium lights as Marty sank down into the river, holding a crepe that somebody’s light, thin-fingered hand had sprinkled with what the waiter, taking the tip and accepting that it was a prank – who knew with musicians? – had been assured was salt. And, when it was done, Chester Perry bowed and left the stage, wiping his mouthpiece and coughing a little cough, then walked out of the building in his perfect clothes. At the river he stopped and dropped a small brown bottle into the water with a piece of cardboard that, judging from the stains, some greasy crepe might have lain on. He coughed into his hand and walked on towards the underground, humming the overture of something Marty used to play. And he looked down at the lights playing on the water. Must be something in the air, he thought. I can feel a chill for all that it’s just days away from spring.

About the author