MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE • by A P Charman

He was D44 and Linda was D45, and, not being the earliest to take their seats, they did the sideways shuffle, coats in hand with smiling apologies. He stowed his things and sat back to look around. The hall was impressively full for a lunchtime concert but the mutterings of the audience were subdued by the intimidating presence of a single grand piano, centred and spotlit.

He checked his watch and leaned towards his wife.

“How long is it? I have to be back by two.”

“It”s only half an hour. Relax.”

Linda kissed him pertly, leaned back in her chair and looked at the lonely piano. Jeremy sank down in his, blinking. He wondered if there were any kudos in the offhand mention of such a cultured lunchtime. “We saw Amy Plattsburgh the other day — that brilliant new pianist. It’s all improvisation. She’s quite amazing.”

The lights dimmed, the room broke into applause and then a skinny young woman in an evening gown shuffled onto the stage. As soon as she appeared, the applause suddenly gained commitment — there were even whistles.

Jeremy looked round at these people who had arrived with well-prepared adulation, but the pianist appeared to be oblivious to it. She sat on the stool with her head down and her face hidden by her long black hair, waiting without motion for the applause to stop. Once the noise had reduced to sporadic coughs, she raised her hands, and began.

At first it was like a child practising scales, but the complexity grew until there was melody, rhythm and structure. From there, branches grew, curled, were cut and began again. It became dainty, light, delicate. And then it went further — into sentimentality. And then, with a suddenness that had him jump in his seat, there was a crashing violence of bass and minor chords.

He stared at the pianist, watching her feet stamping on the pedals while her hands were punching the keys. It was so fast, so sudden and such a racket that he found himself squinting, trying to see if she was actually using fully-formed fists. Before he could decide, she found a new rhythm. It took over and, gradually, the thumping became a marching time and the discords dissolved and the minors went major and, bit by bit, everything turned back into sweetness and light.

It stayed there for a while, this time avoiding the sentimentality that had marred the earlier playing, and then the violence struck again. Again she was pounding the keys, striking discords, bashing out horrible jarring noises. And, once again, it ended with the reemergence of pace, turning slowly back into light and flowery music. And just as Jeremy was realising what relief it was each time the harmony returned, her hands came crashing down again.

And so it went through the cycle; each time the melody settled, it was brutalised. Light, delicate and feminine; violated. Melodious, rhythmical and harmonious; savaged. Floral, patterned and sequential; shattered; over and over.

It ended with the melodious part of the cycle being wistful. It was still a melody, but melancholy. The final flourish, presaged by a slowing, pausing, anticipating tease, seemed to Jeremy’s uneducated ear like a question.

Only when she had her hands in her lap and her head bowed did the audience know for sure she was done. They stood and clapped with cultured abandon. Jeremy remained seated, open-mouthed. With a yawning horror he realised that the light and delicate music was her. It was she who suffered the violence.

When Linda prodded him, scowling, waving at him to stand — like everyone else — he did so, but it was like witnessing a traffic accident that no-one else could see. The girl was bowing, straightfaced, untouched by the adulation. As the flowers streamed onstage, a man came out to collect them. He was well built and muscular with a close-cropped head of hair.

“That’s her manager, her uncle,” Linda called.

The uncle stood straight, grinned, and held the flowers up high; he was almost punching the air. Then he strode across to Amy, pulled her from her hunched position at the piano, put his arm around her and stood tall, drinking the applause.

Amy, by contrast, was quite still and unsmiling. She had not stepped away from her uncle, but neither had she embraced him. She was caught in the cell of his embrace, staring darkly out at the audience.

With growing shock, Jeremy realised that she wasn’t just staring — she was searching. Going now from row to row looking for someone. He dropped his hands, unable to clap any more. He knew exactly what she was looking for — someone who got the message in the music. It wasn’t just improvisation; it was a desperate, mute, coded plea. Jeremy looked from her — hunched, defeated shoulders, white soulless face — to her big-fisted uncle, and he knew with a leap of intuition that this man was the source of the violence in her music; that she was the subject.

When, at last, her eyes fell on his, she stopped searching. She stared right at him and kept staring while the applause went on. Even when the rapture began to falter and while she was being ushered off stage, she carried on staring at him like a calf from a cattle truck. Her uncle brought her back for a brief second curtain call; she stared at Jeremy again. Members of the audience glanced sideways at him. Then the curtains closed.

Within a few minutes they had been swept outside by the herd of concert leavers and Linda had directed them into the privacy of a cab.

Shaken out of his trance of horror, he told her about the violence, the uncle, the reason she stared at him. Linda smiled, indulging his provincial naiveté.

“Darling, she’s a performer; a dramatic performer, but don’t get carried away; it’s just a performance. Bless you for being so sweet.”


A P Charman writes short stories for adults and children and lives in Surrey with a partner and daughter.


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