This story is by Roy Turner and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Years ago I fell in love with someone I never met, someone I never could meet. Just to hear his name fills me with emotion.. Reminders of him are scattered around the house.
Ours was a musical family. My mother Victoria was principal singer with one of the leading opera companies. Father played the violin and was concertmaster in the orchestra. Sounds of them practising hour after hour filled our home, and my ears.
“Try that phrase again,” father would shout to mother as she struggled with a coloratura passage in a Rossini opera. Stopping abruptly, and tapping her fingers on the piano, she would call back, “I am trying, Maestro. There is a limit to what one’s voice can do. Rossini is a monster!”
Yet, it wasn’t Rossini or any other operatic composer who grabbed my attention. No. My days were filled with the music of Puccini. His tragic Tosca, his doomed Madama Butterfly, together with others, stirred my burgeoning emotions.
Giacomo Antonio Domenic Michele Secondo Maria Puccini became my friend.
I imagined sitting at his feet while he composed his operas. I pictured his pen gliding across the manuscript paper making tiny black dots, forming magnificent melodies. My childish imagination knew no bounds. I guess it was a love affair.
Memories of earlier days arise in my mind. Fall casts a golden glow through the music room window. I can see my mother’s fingers caressing the piano keys. I am twelve years old. She is singing Puccini’s ‘O My Beloved Father’. It’s beautiful, but today there is an air of melancholy. Recently she has become distant, remote, and quieter. She looks and sounds tired, no longer singing in the house for fun, only for practise. Her voice is weaker. Something is wrong. I sense it.
Half way through the aria, Mother stops playing. Notes hang in the air. There is a crash as she slumps forward. Her head hits the piano keys. The reverberating strings fall silent. I panic.
I call for father, but he doesn’t answer. I get to my feet and run down the hall. I reach for the handle of the study door. I stop. Father is talking to someone. I hesitate, the talking stops. I can’t delay any longer so I open the door.
Father is leaning against the bookshelf, his clothes are in a mess. A woman I recognise is pressing against him. They are kissing. Father’s hands are around her waist.
They see me, their faces flushed and guilty. The woman stares at me, a look of panic across her features. Iris, my mother’s travelling companion, best friend, and dresser, wipes father’s kiss from her lips. I feel nauseous. If I were a man I would grab her and drag her out into the street.
Father struggles for breath, flustered.
“Tristan! What are you doing coming in here without knocking? I’ve told you never to enter my study without permission.”
“It’s mother,” I say, “She’s collapsed and hit her head on ….”
Without waiting to hear more, father adjusts his clothes. He hurries from the room and goes to mother. The woman puts her hand on father’s desk to steady herself. She looks at me with a ‘don’t you tell’ look in her eyes, almost pleading.
I find father. He’s on the ‘phone, speaking to the operator. He tries to rouse mother, but there is no response. He lays her on the couch, strokes her hair. His free hand grabs mine. He doesn’t know what to do. ”God help us,” he cries between sobs. “I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Still mother does not respond. We have to wait for the paramedics to arrive. I shrink into a corner. I am afraid, afraid of what is happening, and afraid because of what I saw in the study. They hurry mother away in an ambulance, father with her. I see Iris making her escape down the drive.
It is hard to watch mother lying in a coma, lifeless and unresponsive. Father hardly ever visits, leaves me to talk to her and hold her hand. Week after week I go to the hospital. I am picked up after school and driven there by Richard, my godfather.
One time I overhear him and a nurse talking. “Do you think it was attempted suicide?” the nurse asks. “There’s been talk of prescription drugs, but someone said there wasn’t a note, so it may not have been.”
“Nobody is quite sure what caused the collapse,” replies Richard. “But I have my suspicions. Anyway, it’s a family matter.” He catches me listening and puts a finger to his lips and ushers the nurse away. Their attitude frightens me.
Mother would never try to kill herself and leave me alone, would she?
Each time I visit, mother remains quiet. The bedcovers rise and fall with the rhythm of her breathing. That’s the only sign of life. I want to shake her, bring her back to the world of the living but there’s nothing I can do.
“How’s my favourite visitor?”
A nurse pats me on the shoulder.
“Try to be positive, Tristan,” she says kindly. “I’ve seen lots of patients like your mother. With some it seemed hopeless, but they recovered. Keep talking to your Ma. She can hear you, you know. I’ve read about it. They’ve done trials and things.”
I ask Richard about this as he drives me home. He answers in his usual dry manner. “If the experts are right, and your mother can hear you, then you need to say or sing something to her whenever we visit.”
Puccini comes to mind. My favourite composer. Mother’s too.
“I’ve got an idea. Do you think the hospital would let me bring my stereo player with me and play mother some music? It might help.”
“Don’t see why not,” Richard replies, without much conviction. Perhaps he is just trying to make me feel better.
I set my stereo on the bedside table. I pop in a cassette. Puccini’s music fills the room with glorious sound.
“Listen to that, mother, our beloved Puccini. Remember the many times you sang that aria. Remember the stage, the lights, the audiences? Remember Mimi, Butterfly, Tosca?”
I squeeze her hand. It makes me feel less upset. She doesn’t react. Her pale face is expressionless. Seeing her lying there, wired up to various machines, grips my heart and the tears begin. I want my mother back. If she hears, she shows no sign, she doesn’t wake up.
A head appears around the door. It’s the nurse again. She is round, like a bouncy beach ball, wears flowery dresses and the same big smile. She sings in time with the music as she arranges the flowers I’ve brought for mother. “What a wonderful tune. Where does it come from?”
I laugh. “It’s Musetta’s aria From Puccini’s opera La Boheme.”
“Mmmm, never cared much for opera myself. But I guess I ought to give it a whirl if this is a sample. Gets me a-swayin’ for sure.”
“Mother’s an opera singer, you know.”
“That so?!” she says, eyes popping. “Ain’t that something else! Makes me feel sort of important, looking after a celebrity. Wait’ll I tell my kids.”
She strokes mother’s brow with her long brown fingers. “The good Lord knows you need time to recover,” she croons. “Enjoy your sleep. When you wake up, you’ll need all your strength to keep this sweet boy in his place.”
She turns to me. “Don’t you be a-worrying. You just keep playin’ that highbrow music. Your Ma will join in when she’s ready.”
Maybe the nurse is right. But clever doctors with all their skills can’t seem to do anything. Why should I think my beloved Puccini can work a miracle? Most of his operas end with him letting his heroines die. Admittedly, their music is ravishing, but they die in the end.
I am alone. What can I do? In desperation, I send out a challenge.
“Giacomo,” I say. “Forget about Mimi, Tosca and Butterfly. Here in the real world let your music breathe life into Victoria, my darling mother.”
Then I hear it! The next track on the cassette.
Floating through the air are the strains of ‘Nessun Dorma’, the great aria made famous by Pavarotti and the 1990 FIFA World Cup. It comes from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, where love finally melts the cold heart of the princess..
Excited, I take mother’s hand. “Nessun Dorma, mother! Nessun Dorma! ‘NONE SHALL SLEEP’!”
The English words hit me. I realise what Puccini is telling me. Mother will wake up!
Winter, spring and summer pass. Fall colours the landscape once more. We sit in the garden.
‘Are you alright?’ I ask mother.
“I’ll always be alright, as long as I have you.” she replies, contentedly.
“You have both of us, mother, Me and Puccini.”