Shelley the cello gave a great gusty sigh. ‘Well, Obi was quite a good oboe in his youth…’
‘Hunh, quite?!’ spluttered Obi. ‘Don’t listen to her: I was top-notch, kid, top-notch.’
‘…and, new, he was bought by a top conductor, a wonderful musician, for his talented grandson, Gabriel. Gabriel and Obi played together for many years. When the boy was sixteen, they reached the final of Young Musician of the Year. Unfortunately Obi’s reed caught on Gabriel’s jumper, splitting just as they were to go on stage. The boy grabbed his spare, which was not properly broken in. Despite this, Obi managed well. The piece went wonderfully…until a high E flat, which came out a disastrous squeak.’
‘Oh,’ I murmured in sympathy.
‘Things went from bad to worse,’ said Obi. ‘Gabriel, of course, had forgotten to clean me, so there was water under one of my keys. Every time he tried to play a C, it came out as a B. Not a thing in the world I could do about it. The piece was in B flat, so it sounded particularly bad….wincingly bad.’
‘On coming off stage,’ said Shelley, ‘Gabriel entered the Green Room, yanked Obi’s three pieces apart, pulled his arm back, and threw them at the wall, one at a time, with all his strength. He then just left him there, crumpled and smashed on the floor.’
I don’t quite know how I did this, but with superflutan effort I managed to pull air from the room to let out a small but gruesome howl. I couldn’t bear this story.
‘It wasn’t his fault,’ said Obi quickly. ‘He didn’t mean to do it..lovely lad..’
Gosh, was he extremely forgiving… or was he blind? In a flash, I wondered if I too had been blinded… about Lucy. When she had left me out, had it been that she felt too lazy to put me away? When she had left me at school, in a cold locker, for more than a week, had it been on purpose, to avoid practice? Yes, yes, I saw that it was true. I had cared about her a lot more than she had cared about me. As I realised these things, I felt all the light of my soul seeping out into the darkness around me.
‘Eventually another contestant gathered Obi up, wrapped his broken body in cloth, and took him to a repair shop.’
‘They, they managed, in the end….’ creaked Obi.
‘…They managed to patch him up, so he’d be fine for beginners, is what he’s trying to say.’
‘Yeah, so when I was taken out of my case, which was not often, I had to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’, and ‘Old MacDonald’, you know…’
We sighed. We did know.
‘….badly.…from playing Albinoni and Cimarosa.’ Obi sobbed. ‘Oh, how are the mighty fallen.’
Eventually we slept. The next day the flute-mender hummed tunes as he replaced my pads. I recognised one. Silvia and Madame had played it to us once. It was ‘L’Après-midi d’un Faune,’ by Debussy. I liked it so much I couldn’t help sparkling a little in time with his humming. When the mender had replaced all my pads he started to play. It was without warning and, not being ready, I squeaked nervously into harmonics. ‘Ooh, steady on, old thing,’ he said. He started playing the faun.
Oh, I can scarcely tell you what it felt like. The peace that suddenly envelops you. It’s instant and it’s out of this world. I had heard a nightingale sometimes outside Lucy’s window. It sounds like that. Or like the calm pools of water I had heard about as Lucy read aloud from Greek myths. Cool, limpid runs of notes tumble and fall. It feels like your mind is being stroked by an angel, which allows you to be full of wonder at the whole of creation.
The flute-mender stopped playing. ‘Hmm, you’re not so bad,’ he said. I tried to glint again at him. He picked up a silver cloth and gave me a polish. I heard a scratchy noise. He was writing something on card. ‘£250,’ he said. ‘Someone should buy you for that.’ He put me in the window on a stand. At least it was light. I could shine a tiny bit and glint at the world.
I stood there all day. The other flutes were mostly all new. Sweet babies, they knew nothing. They had not even played their first tune. I told them stories, of music and love and life, Yankee Doodle, Molly Malone, Morning has Broken, all of which I had learnt from the pieces I had played with Lucy. They sighed and longed for life.
For the night, I was taken out of the window and placed back on the workbench alongside other instruments. ‘Obi,’ I called.
He answered with a groan.
‘Do you know ‘L’Après-midi d’un Faune?’ ‘ I whispered.
He sighed. ‘Pearly, my dear! You are asking an OBOE! How could an OBOE not know the faun? I’ve played it with an orchestra, several times.’
‘But…it’s for flute, isn’t it?’ I asked.
‘The flute starts off,’ he answered, ‘but after a little while the flute hands over to the oboe…they share the melody.’
‘Can you…? Do you know…? Why is it so…wonderful?’ I asked him.
He sighed. ‘I’m getting you, lass….I know it’s special, but… nobody really knows.’
‘Is it..maybe…magic?’ I asked. I was scared he would laugh at me, but he didn’t.
‘That particular mixture and blend of notes sets the atoms buzzing at a frequency which activates something special in humans and in this world…’
‘But what is it, that special thing?’
‘It’s to do with ancient memories, the soul, freshness, childhood, perfection…the fact we all came from a star, something timeless and beyond us all….’
We all came from a star? Was that why I could bend light? ‘So…the faun…taps into all that, does it?’
‘The faun takes us back to before there was time. I think the composer managed to transcend, do you understand the word?.. transcend this world during the writing of it…Maybe he ate some dodgy mushrooms or something…. Ravel’s the best for that, makes the humans’ hearts soar…that’s one you should play.’ He hummed a snatch of it. ‘That’s the Daphnis and Chloe, have you tried that?’
‘I would, if only somebody could take me there,’ I said.
‘One day, somebody will,’ he promised. ‘Flute players can’t keep away from it. Not half of them can actually play it properly, mind…’
We talked about harmonics, resonance, tone, deep into the night, softly as the youngsters wanted rest.
The next day, I became aware of a new presence in the mender’s shop. All of us felt it. Dusk fell. We waited, straining our senses into the silence. ‘So…who are you?’ we whispered finally.
A low voice came through the darkness. ‘I am Alto…the story-teller.’ She sounded bigger than us, deeper and older. That night, all night, draughts whistled through her. She told stories of tunes: powerful melodies that change the world, that transfix and brainwash people. She told us of orchestral works, enormous concerts held in huge echoey spaces, the wonder of being an essential part of such creations of genius. As the night grew colder and darker, one of the older flutes beside me snatched at a passing current of air and managed to flutter, ‘Aaaltooo, teeell us about the Ooold Maaan’s Caaave.’
A shudder ran through the flutes. Everyone had heard vague rumours of the Old Man’s Cave. ‘Don’t even go there,’ groaned Obi. ‘Honest, you don’t want to know.’
‘Ohh….the Old Man’s Cave,’ murmured Alto, ignoring him. ‘I had a poor battered friend, a piccolo…tiny scrap of a thing, called Pixie. He’d been left for a couple of years, damp, in a mildewed case… finally got chucked to the Salvation Army. An old codger bought him for four pounds fifty. Then…this old man…’ Alto coughed and her voice dropped even lower, ‘… took my friend, took Pixie into this room, this…dungeon…’, we all strained to hear, ‘…full of the corpses of old instruments, all mutilated, deformed. He put Pixie into a vice, twisted him into a spiral, attached fishing wire and hung him off the ceiling….he had become a mobile.’
We gasped in horror, ‘A mobile?’ If I could have hidden my head under my cleaning cloth, I would have.
‘Too scary, too scary,’ snorted the trumpets.
‘Why do you torment yourselves so?’ hummed Obi. ‘Forget about the Old Man’s Cave. It’s just a story…only half true. Or not even slightly true.’
We moaned softly, traumatised to the core. The rising moon glanced through dusty panes. Alto was getting into her stride: ‘There, Pixie told me, hang flutes of all ages. Spinning grotesquely around in the half-light, they are forever split into head, foot, body. They no longer speak, no longer sing. Dying musical instruments fill the ceiling space. Floating head joints, foot joints, swinging piano keys, spinning mouth organs, deformed trombones, cracked OBOES!’
Obi, despite himself, gasped in fright.
‘Dented cymbals, tangled triangles, ripped bongoes….and the silence….the silence is appalling…’
Alto fell silent. We all held our breath, imagining the quietness of this grey world. ‘But why?’ squeaked a baby trumpet. ‘Why would he be so cruel?’
‘He doesn’t know it’s cruel. He’s an artist. He is making art out of redundant objects.’
We finally slept as dawn was feeling its way through the windows. After that night, I tuned out and tried to sleep when Alto was telling her horror stories, as they made me unhappy.
A week later a raspy-voiced fellow came in, in a bit of a hurry. ‘I just need a flute. Any flute.’
‘What do you want it for?’ asked our mender.
‘Oh, ensemble, improv, knockin around. Doesn’t have to be great.’
The flute-mender’s hand hovered over several flutes. I could just tell he was going to pick me. As his hand pulled me through the air I whistled, ‘See you again, Obi!’
‘Best, kid,’ said Obi from the window, glinting sunshine at me from his keys. ‘Bach sonatas every morning: it’s the best workout.’
‘Bye friends!’ I shrieked as I was pulled apart, put into my case and handed over. My life was about to change: I was to become a working flute.