This story is by N. Ford and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
This happened all the time. It wasn’t something. Playing in an orchestra, a quartet, with any other musicians, was as close to making love as it got. A non-sexual sexual act. As the vibrations of the instruments, bows and strings, and the energy of the music, flowed through them and between them, they were connected in a passionate embrace. As she looked across the music stands at him, and he looked at her, the stands were not there, the sheet music was not there, the conductor was not there, there was not her instrument and his instrument, her bow and his bow, they were just one and moved together, and in that moment their edges were not there. It turned her on every time, climax was automatic, easy, she never wanted it to end, except that she knew underneath it all, she would be exhausted, spent, without remnant of surrender, nothing, clothes, skin, artifice, veneer, stripped and stripped away. It wasn’t anything. It was just the music. It was Puccini as her lover, not him. She dismissed his come-on.
The arms came down, rigid, tense, baton lightly gripped, and held. Held and held as the note played and played, hairs on the strings, hairs on the back of the neck. Some eyes watched, and some just felt, staring into the distance as they waited, confident they would feel it when it came. And then it did, the imperceptible final empty of the lungs, the push of the breath, and the flick of the wrist. Ninety-two musicians collapsed on their instruments, then slowly raised their eyes, smiling. It was done. Ninety-two hearts and heads remembered their loved ones, their shopping lists, the practice they hadn’t done, the dry cleaning that was waiting to be collected. The fact that they were people, and not just musicians. As she collected her music from the stand, she glanced up. Startled, she found the conductor looking at her. He raised an eyebrow. She raised both. He glanced at her left hand. Oh. She coloured, dropped her gaze, shook her head. Then the bile rose and she lifted her gaze, defiant this time. He turned away, and spoke to someone else.
She looked at her hands, and ran her fingers over the prominent veins on the back of one. What was it Henry had said all those years ago? No subcutaneous fat. That was it. Why on earth that prosaic comment had stuck in her mind, she did not know. He would do that. They would be having an easy conversation about something or other, and then he would say something odd like that, and she would wonder where he had read it, or heard it. It would sound like another voice popping into the conversation. Weird, jarring, offensive to a musical ear. She reached for her tea, drank, and put it down again. Wiggling her stiff fingers in a little ripple as she did so.
Musicians didn’t get up early. Nighttime was their time. Nighttime is the right time, to be with the one you love. A line from a song that had stuck in her mind. He had said it was her cello she loved. She could see him now, the earnest face with flickers of anger and hurt, twitching as it fought. Music told you which way to go. It knew already, you just had to be brave enough to to do it. Brave enough to feel what it was asking you, daring you to feel. Every time she picked up her instrument, she felt a little frightened, vulnerable and exposed. The closest she had ever got to that feeling was in bed with a man she truly cared for, but she was the musician, and she resented it when a man tried to play her. Was it brave to give up with Henry? She rippled her fingers again, little imperceptible clicks like tiny staccato sounded in her knuckles. Time for rehearsal.
Helen said hello. She said hello back as they fixed their spikes into the holders. Helen was her desk partner, but she was lead cellist. Helen played with excellent technique, she gave her that, and she supposed musicality. But she felt Helen lacked passion. When she played for Tosca, she was Tosca, and by the end of the piece would be more than ready to clutch Tosca’s hand and throw herself off the ramparts with her. Helen on the other hand, well. She eyed the glossy dark hair out of the corner of her eye, the neat blouse tucked into the neat trousers, finishing just above the neat shoes. Well. Perfection isn’t passion. She sat up in her seat as the conductor raised his baton.
What was wrong with her hands? Her hand holding the bow felt rigid and as if she might drop the bow, the hairs slid slightly down the string towards the bridge as she struggled to pull it across. She felt Helen’s eyes flick at her. Fuck off. You’re not having this seat, I’m lead cello. This time it was her left hand, as she pressed down with the pad of her third finger and rocked her hand and forearm in vibrato there was pain again, pain coming from stiffness extending down the finger into her wrist. Again it felt like she was going to lose control of her fingers and hand. She felt the prickle of cold sweat and adrenalin, knew Helen was eyeing her through the dark curtain of hair. It was a fight now. A fight and a race to the end. She needed to make it without failing, without going wrong, and then just wriggle and stretch out her fingers, then it would be alright.
But it wasn’t. It happened again. And again. She had caught Helen talking to the conductor, knew she was positioning herself to slide left and take her seat. If she wasn’t lead cellist, what was she? If she wasn’t…but she couldn’t go there. Where she had to go, was the doctor. And from the doctor she went to the hospital, for x-rays, for blood tests, and then there she was in the hard plastic chair in front of the consultant. She had become hysterical. For the first time in her life, truly hysterical. It wasn’t part of the music, it wasn’t where the notes took her, nor at an end when the notes came to an end. It gripped and tore at her and she couldn’t breathe. She gasped and gasped to get air into her lungs and was terrified. It had gone black, and she woke on a hard hospital bed in a quiet corner with a curtain around her. Uncomfortably hot. Moments later a nurse appeared around the curtain, and asked how she felt. I am dead, she replied.
That poor nurse, she reflected later when she was lying at home on her sofa. But how could she possibly understand. How could she understand that if I can’t play…and her eyes slid across the room to her cello lying on its side on the carpet, with its bow lying across it, bridging the smooth curves, lovers in repose. The light of the lamp by her head shone in the varnish on the wood, and her heart ached for how beautiful it was. She needed to feel it between her legs, the position that was so familiar she was surprised she didn’t sleep in it. She lifted her head carefully from the cushion, still a little dizzy and light-headed, stepped softly across the room, took hold of the cello by its neck, lifted the bow tenderly with the other hand, then sat gently back on the chair in front of her music stand. Placing the bow on the music stand, she lifted the bottom of the cello, and extended the spike. She sighed quietly as it nestled back between her knees, lightly touching the inside of her right thigh. Stared blindly ahead of her, not seeing the music on the stand. Then she began to melt and crumble, folding her arms around the cello, placing her forehead gently against the side of the fingerboard.
And that was when the music left her life. She left the orchestra, sending an email, because she didn’t want to see any of the people she had spent twelve years of her life with. No music played in her flat, she saw no one. She saw no one, because she was no one. She didn’t exist anymore. Her arthritic hands got worse and she struggled to dress herself or open a jar in the kitchen. No friends checked on her, because when social time was your work time, you socialised with those with whom you worked. No lover checked on her, because none had succeeded in displacing the music in her life. She had never considered that the music might leave. Never considered what she was without it. Her bed was cold, and empty.