This was a short story which I wrote to support the charity associated with the Chamber of Music publication. I haven’t written many short stories but this is one of which I’m rather proud.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Face pressed hard against the cold glass, I strain my eyes and squint to get a better look. My nose, squashed and misshapen, makes me look like a kid ogling sweets through a sweetie shop window, but I don’t care. Rhythmic palls of visible breath puff from my mouth and steam up the glass. Wiping away the condensation with the back of my glove doesn’t improve the distorted view of the shop’s display.
“It’s beautiful, Ryan,” I say, nudging him in the ribs with my elbow.
“Yeah, Max, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Does he mean it or does he just want me to stop poking him? When he says ‘look at the glorious shine on the wood’, I know he really means it.
What am I doing here, you may ask? Answer: the voice in my head brought me. Seriously, there is a voice which lives in my head. Not a malevolent voice, you understand, more of a guiding voice which helps me make important decisions. Mind you, my life would be better if my voice was smarter, because it’s guided me down some pretty stupid paths. Today it’s led me here, to the pawnshop.
You could own that violin, says my voice, if only you weren’t such a loser.
A confusing mixture of depression and joy washes over me. What’s this all about? I’ve never been in the least bit interested in making music, yet here I am, gazing in adoration at an expensive wooden fiddle. And my best friend’s been dragged along for the ride. Ryan’s younger than me, but only by a few weeks. People often ask if we’re twins. I guess we do look a lot alike with our long black hair, swarthy skin and dark brown eyes.
So here we stand, two eighteen-year-old lads gawking at, according to the little sign, an 1881 Charles Boullangier Fine Violin. A masterpiece of craftsmanship, the instrument’s beautiful curves stir memories of the voluptuous women who haunt my dreams; the sleek, black neck demands to be caressed, while the wood’s shimmering gleam gives the impression the thing’s alive. My eyes refuse to let go. I’m mesmerised.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds, proclaims the price tag dangling from the instrument’s neck. It might as well be nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand pounds, because I’ve never had anything like the amount of money needed to buy something like this. Right now, a grand total of four pounds and eighty-five pence jingles in my pocket.
“Come on,” says Ryan. “Let’s go see what’s happening in the park.”
I peel my face off the window and wipe away a dribble from the corner of my mouth.
Don’t walk away now, teases my voice. Why do you always give up so easily?
“Why don’t we buy it?” I say.
“You said it was the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen, so why don’t we buy it?”
“Because it’s nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds … duh.”
“I know, but we could work odd jobs, we could beg, borrow and maybe even steal a little. We only need to raise four hundred and fifty quid each,” I say, believing a rounded-down price said quickly won’t sound so daunting.
“That’s the daftest thing you’ve ever come up with. Even if we were able to raise the money – five hundred pounds each, by the way – what do we know about music? What do we know about playing the violin?”
“Listen, don’t make fun of me, but something weird is happening here, mate,” I say. “Something is drawing me to this instrument; something I can’t ignore. Anyway, we could learn to play. Look, there’s a book about learning to play… there, beside the violin.”
“Yeah, for another twenty quid. Why don’t we just buy lessons? I’m sure there’s someone out there who’d teach us for a grand or two.”
“I can’t explain, Ryan, but I feel a strange… ahmmm, force working on me,” I say. “It’s as if the fates are telling me this instrument is going to become an important part of my life – an important part of our lives.”
Ryan’s a sceptic who believes you make your own luck. He poo-poos the idea of greater forces being out there; forces which can help us on our journeys. He might be right. No force has been much help to me so far, and that includes my inner voice. Failure has been the story of my life: school, relationships, finding a job… I’ve failed at all of them. And I’ve been in trouble with the cops, just minor stuff like shoplifting, but it all adds to my parents’ disappointment. All they want is for me to earn some money and help the family climb out of the poverty trap we’re wallowing in. Of course, I should have a job by now. Of course, I should be contributing, but here I am walking the streets thinking about spending a thousand quid on a pipe dream. What the hell is wrong with me?
Before I drown in my own self-pity, Ryan derails my train of thought.
“The fates? You’re talking about the voices in your head, aren’t you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with listening to your inner voice. It’s like your conscience or…”
“Or a medical condition,” says Ryan.
“… or my guardian angel or, yes, the fates,” I say, ignoring Ryan.
“Yeah, and the ‘fates’ pointed you towards professional football.” Ryan makes air bunnies when he says ‘fates’ just to emphasise his contempt for the concept. “That didn’t end well, did it?”
“Only a broken leg stopped me. I used to be pretty good, so if it hadn’t been for the injury, who knows?”
“Yeah, and you can thank the ‘fates’ for that freak accident, eh?” Ryan makes air bunnies again.
BANG! We both jump and then drop into a crouch. My heart thumps in my chest as I scan the darkness. Drive-by shootings aren’t unknown in this area, but that wasn’t a gunshot. Tiny shards of glass tinkle to the ground, telling us that one of the light bulbs which had illuminated the sign above the pawnshop window has exploded. We both laugh nervously, a little embarrassed by our initial, rather ridiculous, reaction.
“I suppose that was a sign from ‘fate’,” says Ryan giving his air bunnies another outing. These bunnies are breeding like, well, rabbits.
“Even you’re half-thinking it was, aren’t you?” I say.
“No, but just to shut you up, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Why don’t we get the money together and buy the book? Let’s see how we feel then?”
“I love you, mate.”
“Steady, tiger,” he says as we walk off towards the park.
In only two days, we manage to gather twenty pounds.
“We want to buy the violin book in the window.”
The pawnbroker’s left hand fidgets with his collar while he eyes us up and down. Given the way we’re dressed, baggy jeans and matching hoodies, he probably reckons we’re here to rob him rather than buy a book on violins.
“One of you get out,” he says, concealing his right hand under the counter. Has he got a gun there? “One of you, out now.”
Ryan backs out of the shop. An ominous, dull, metallic thunk tells me the door’s locked behind him. I guess I’m trapped. The pawnbroker removes a brass padlock from the grill which divides the shop from the window display and reaches in for the book. My eyes are pulled to the violin.
Touch it, niggles my voice. You need to touch it, loser.
I reach out. The urge to hold the violin is irresistible.
WHAM! The pawnbroker smashes a baseball bat hard against the grill. Where the hell did the bat come from? Has this guy got weapons hidden all over the shop?
“No touching,” he says slamming the grill closed. “Now do you want this…?” He squints at the title. “The Unknown Secrets of Violin Playing?”
“This is for professionals,” he says, reading the inside cover of the book. “Listen: ‘Full instructions and hints for professional violin players who want to achieve perfect mastery of the instrument.’ Is this really what you want?”
“Yep,” I say, dropping twenty pound coins on the counter. “Me and my mate are both brilliant players, but we want to get even better… become professionals.”
He scoops up the money and slides the book over to me.
“People usually negotiate. I’d have taken fifteen quid, but you’re too late now.”
Waster. Five pounds wasted. Might as well have flushed it down the toilet. Why the hell can’t my inner voice be on my side?
“Don’t care,” I say. “I’ve more important things to worry about.”
“More important than money?”
“Well, more important than five quid, that’s for sure. We’re saving up for the violin.”
“The violin in the window? Ha! Where would you get that sort of money?”
“Don’t you worry about that, just tell me how much you’d take for it?” Negotiation lesson learnt.
“Nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds and not a penny less,” he says.
“You said people usually negotiate.”
“Some things are non-negotiable.”
Negotiation lesson learnt, eh? You couldn’t even negotiate five quid off the violin.
“Okay,” I say, ignoring the voice in my head. “But how about you keep the violin under the counter until we gather the money?”
“Can’t. If someone offers the price, then it’s gone. Business is business, son.”
“What if we give you the money as we get it, would you keep it then?”
“No can do, but I’ll tell you what, I won’t sell it for less than nine hundred and ninety-nine. Can’t say fairer than that.”
He’s not going to move on the issue, so I leave.
“Did you get the book?”
“Yep,” I say, not mentioning that I could’ve got it five quid cheaper.
“What have you got there?” demands Ryan’s mother as we sneak up the stairs in his house. An interrogation always follows Ryan’s outings with me. I guess she’s trying to make sure he isn’t getting himself in trouble. “The Unknown Secrets of Violin Playing? Let me see.”
She skim reads the first page and hands the book back to me.
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“No,” Ryan says. “We’re going to be violin impressionists. You just wait.”
“Impresarios,” I whisper in his ear while he leads the way to his room. My vocabulary was always better than his. I’d often thought the clever use of words might be my hidden talent – very well hidden some might say. Or is music going to be my thing? We’ll soon see.
Maybe you don’t have a hidden talent, did you even think of that?
Kneeling on the floor, we lay the book on the unmade bed. There’s a note on the title page, handwritten by the author. ‘Study well, my friend, embrace the joy of music, Ernst Meyer, 2 June 1847.’ A message from fate?
“Eighteen forty-seven?” says Ryan. “We couldn’t even afford an up-to-date book.”
The language is old-fashioned, or, to put it bluntly, it’s boring. We skip pages. We skip chapters. There’s no inspiration, no excitement, no enlightenment, all I’m getting are bone dry sentences… until the pictures in chapter twelve.
Chapter 12 – Variations of the Position of the Left Hand (Illustrated). Wow, and I mean WOW! The beautiful etchings demonstrate ‘The Normal Position’, ‘The Firm Position’, ‘The Free Position’ and ‘The Anticipating Position’. Wonderful. A few pages on, a diagram teaches me how to stretch my thumb – apparently, the most important exercise ever created for violinists. While I lose myself in the exercise, Ryan pulls the book away from me.
“This stuff’s boring,” he says. “Let’s move on.”
He flicks over pages. Every so often, I slap my palm on the book to stop him skipping past illustrations of the skills of the left hand.
“Whoa. Look at these pictures, they’re so beautiful,” I say, trying to get him as excited as I am.
Maybe I’m fascinated because I’m naturally left-handed. Ryan’s the opposite and seems drawn to pictures which illustrate the right hand. His favourite chapter is ‘The Management of the Bow’. It proclaims the bow provides the soul of the instrument and describes the perfect position of the elbow, the wrist, the thumb. Now, that stuff is boring.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say. “Why don’t I pull out the pages to do with the left hand? I’ll take them away and learn them. You concentrate on the right hand. Then we’ll swap pages.”
“Good idea,” he says, and we set about the task of dividing up the book.
In between working our butts off to get money, we study; although our excitement levels do drop when we ‘swap hands’. I just can’t muster up the same enthusiasm for the bowing nonsense and Ryan feels the same way about fingering.
Whittled sticks and carved scraps of wood give us everything we need to practise. My makeshift violin neck allows my fingers to perform every one of the recommended exercises while Ryan’s stick bow gives him something to wave about. Harsh, but fair, I think.
We practise, we earn, we study, we learn, and then we practise some more. My hard work is paying off. You wouldn’t believe the speed and deftness of my fingers as I let them run free up and down my makeshift violin neck. And to be fair, Ryan looks like a professional when he wields his ‘bow’.
Days pass into weeks, weeks into months. I’m exhausted, but my savings are accumulating into something worthwhile.
You’ll never make it. You’ll mess up before you have enough money.
My ringtone interrupts my third money count of the night and shuts up my stupid inner voice as well, thank God.
“Hey, Ryan, what’s up?”
“No easy way to say this, mate, so I’ll just tell you straight. My dad took all the money.”
“What?” Bile rises in my throat, my breathing stops.
“He found my money… says it’s about time I contributed to the house. Took the lot… took the whole two hundred and ninety pounds.”
The air bursts from my lungs as if I’ve been punched in the stomach.
My breathing is erratic, but at least I am breathing again. I can’t hear Ryan any more, the only voice I can hear now is my inner voice screaming abuse at me.
You’ve messed up again. Why can’t you do anything right?
I suck in lungfuls of air and slap the side of my head with my hand. Calm down, calm down. As if in the distance, I can hear Ryan talking. I need to concentrate on his voice.
“It’s all gone, mate, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The next day we meet up and decide that from now on, I’ll keep the money we earn. I’d cried myself to sleep the night before, but I’m not about to share that. Way too girly.
We’re sitting on a bench in the park discussing how we can rekindle our enthusiasm and start earning money again.
“At least we haven’t lost my three hundred and forty quid,” I say, putting on a brave face.
That’s when the miracle happens. It’s as if Lady Luck is smiling on us, or fate has decided we need a break. Ryan spots it first; a ten-pound note fluttering across the grass. As he chases it, I see another one, bobbing and ducking and diving in the wind. Ryan’s caught his and is holding it above his head, like a world champion showing off his trophy. I trap mine. More notes flutter past. In a couple of minutes we’ve gathered three hundred and ninety pounds, that’s more than what Ryan’s nightmare of a father stole. Happy days are here again.
Happy days are here again, echoes my inner voice. But not for long, I’ll bet.
Where did the money come from? We’ve no idea. There’s no one about, at least not until a youngster, maybe twelve, scoots round the corner on a skateboard. The handful of notes clasped in his hand attracts my attention. I grab him as he passes.
“Where’d you get the money, kid?”
“None of your business,” he says, struggling to free himself.
I slap him hard in the face. What the hell has come over me? A strange red mist has descended and is clouding my judgement. I really am seeing a red mist.
Hit him again, orders my voice.
“Last chance, dirtball, where’d you get the money?”
The boy’s crying. Another slap makes him cry harder. Ryan grabs my wrist, before I can give the child another whack.
“It just blew past me,” snivels the boy.
“It’s mine,” I say prising the money out of his fingers. “Now, bog off.”
I hit him a wallop on the back of the head for good measure as he speeds off on his board.
“That was a bit harsh,” says Ryan. “You’re the ‘what goes around, comes around’ guy. You’re messing with Karma. You’re asking for trouble.”
“Maybe,” I say as I count the kid’s money. “Whoa! Wait ‘til you hear this. When you add all the money together, guess what you get?”
“A karma knuckle sandwich?”
“No. When you add the three hundred and forty I’d saved to the three hundred and ninety which was blowin’ in the wind, we’ve seven hundred and thirty pounds. The kid had two hundred and seventy, which means…”
“Which means we’ve got a thousand pounds,” interrupts Ryan.
“Yep, we’ve got exactly a thousand pounds. Is that fate or what? Come on, mate, we’re going to the pawnshop to get our violin.”
We race, bumping and half-tripping each other as we go.
Go, Max, beat him, screams my voice. Don’t let him win.
There’s the shop and I’m ahead. Before I crash through the door, something in the window catches my eye, or rather, something not in the window catches my eye. There’s a space where the violin had been for the last four months. The beautiful instrument is gone.
I burst into the pawnshop.
“Where’s the violin?” I scream before I see an old man lifting the instrument out of its case – lifting my instrument out of its case.
“That’s my violin,” I yell, piling our collection of notes onto the counter. “Here’s the money.”
“This is beautiful,” says the old man, ignoring us. “I’ll take it. Can I pay by credit card?”
The pawnbroker eyes our money on the counter.
“I think I’d rather have cash,” he says.
“No problem,” says the old man pulling out his wallet and counting out a bunch of crisp, clean fifties which he sets beside our pile of crumpled notes.
“No,” I shout, “It’s not fair. You know we’ve been saving for this for months.”
Kill the old fool, screams my voice. Kill him.
“Here,” says the man to the pawnbroker. “Here’s an extra three hundred. That makes one thousand, three hundred and that’s my offer.”
Ryan roots around in his pocket. “And here’s another two pounds sixty to add to our thousand.”
“Not enough,” says the old man as he starts to pack the violin back into its case.
“Not so fast,” says the pawnbroker. “The price is a thousand pounds and you’re both offering that.”
“We had the money on the counter first,” I say.
“Yes, but I have the violin,” says the man. “I was about to buy it when you burst in and interrupted the deal.”
“I’ll tell you what,” says the pawnbroker. “Whoever can play it better can have it. That’s fair, I think.”
He winks at me. Is he remembering my story about being a magnificent musician, a near-professional musician? Does he think he’s giving me a clear run to the winning post?
You’re in big trouble now. Your stupidity’s caught up with you again.
My damned voice is right. I mean, I’ve never played a violin in my life. I’ve read the book and practised with my whittled sticks, but I haven’t so much as held a real instrument, never mind made music with one.
My body freezes, inside and out, as if a giant ice block has formed in my chest and the coldness is permeating through my very being. My heart slows to a near standstill, frozen by the cold at my core. Everything has slowed, except my breathing, which is now coming so quick, it’s making my head light as a helium balloon. Am I going to faint?
Fainting, that’s all we need. That’ll be the final straw in the idiotic scarecrow which is you.
While I try and get my breathing back to normal, Ryan argues some more about the unfairness of not selling us the violin, but after a bit of name-calling and finger-pointing, the pawnbroker insists that a music contest will decide the ownership issue.
“Let the games, or rather the concert, begin,” he says as he settles his elbows on the counter and lights a cigarette.
The old man goes first – after all, he has the violin. An intricate warm-up routine precedes an even more elaborate stretching session. This guy knows what he’s doing.
The bowing begins. He’s good. My God, to be honest, he’s great. I’ve never heard anything like it. Of course, truth be told, I’ve never heard a violin before. The old man bows and plucks and sways as his magnificent music fills the shop. Ryan and I actually clap when he finishes. We can’t help ourselves.
What the hell are you doing? You should be booing.
The pawnbroker sits rock-still, as if he can’t believe what he’s heard.
“My God, that was wonderful. I’ve never heard such sweet music.” His voice is shaky as he speaks. He’s been moved and moved good. “Your turn, boys, which one of you is going to play for your team?”
We exchange looks. How could either of us compete with what we’ve just heard? Why not concede defeat, before either of us has to suffer the humiliation of playing our virgin performance in front of this virtuoso?
Let it go, loser. You’ve failed again.
Before I can agree with the voice in my head, Ryan steps in.
“I’ll play,” he says. “Give me the violin.”
He tenses. He stretches. He flexes. He draws back the bow and starts to play. A melancholic melody fills the air. The sound is haunting, but it’s heartless because his fingering isn’t up to scratch. It’s brilliant for someone who’s never touched a violin before, but it’s a pale reflection of the music which the old man has just treated us to.
I reach across, placing my hand on his; his fingering hand. Everything stops; the fingering, the bow, the music. The instrument stays under his chin while I gently take his fingers off the neck and replace them with mine.
“Let me finger while you bow,” I say.
The sound is so exquisite, so uplifting, so perfect; I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Have angels descended from heaven with their harps?
This is the most fabulous music I’ve ever heard. My God, even my inner voice is moved. Unshed tears fill my eyes.
The pawnbroker is sobbing. So is the old man. Inspired, we take our music to an even higher level. My fingers dance up and down the neck of the instrument. Ryan bows like a man who’s been playing for a century. Here’s heart, here’s soul, here’s passion… even the devil himself couldn’t compete with this.
“Take the violin,” says the old man before we finish. “You deserve it.” He wipes tears from his face as he hands me his business card and leaves. “Call me. And by the way, that violin is worth at least three times what you’re paying for it.”
I finger the card. It reads ‘Menuhin Foundation’ and gives a phone number. It means nothing to me, so I stick it in my pocket.
Take the violin now, you’ve earned it, orders my voice.
Grabbing the neck of the violin, I try to wrest it from Ryan’s grip. It’s my turn for a solo. He’s had his go and failed.
He resists. “What the hell are you doing? Let go,” he shouts and tugs back.
Yanking harder, using both hands, I try to wrestle the instrument from his grip.
Punch him, punch him. This is your violin, shouts my voice.
I tug harder while Ryan swipes at my hands with the bow. I pull with all my strength, trying to wrench the violin from his grasp.
“Boys, boys,” screams the pawnbroker, but we’re not listening. Neither of us is going to give up our hold on the sweet, sweet violin.
The cracking sound startles me. The parting of the neck from the body surprises me even more. I stumble backwards still grasping the neck although now it’s only connected to the violin’s body by the strings. Ryan’s lost his balance too; he trips and tumbles to the floor. His shoulder lands on the body of the violin, crushing it. The bow’s also trapped under his bodyweight. A loud splintering sound tells me it’s gone the same way as the violin’s body, both smashed. The pair of us stop pulling. What’s the point now?
I offer Ryan my hand and help him up. Our crazy violence seems to have departed as quickly as it arrived. Maybe destroying the violin has brought us back to our senses.
“I’m sorry, mate.”
We hug. We are best friends, after all.
“I can’t believe you bloody idiots did that. You’ve trashed an amazing violin,” says the pawnbroker as he scoops our money off the counter. “Correction, you’ve trashed your amazing violin.”
We don’t even try and argue. The violin is ours and we wrecked it without anyone’s help. A thousand pounds’ worth of craftsmanship, destroyed in a moment of madness.
“But Lady Luck is smiling on you,” adds the pawnbroker.
“She’s spitting in our faces, more like,” I say. “I mean, where the hell is the luck? We’ve just smashed a thousand pound violin.”
“Well,” says the pawnbroker, “a few weeks ago, I found out that the book you bought is actually a valuable antique. I should have spotted its value. The fact that it was signed by the author should’ve given me a clue. Anyway, I can offer you twelve hundred quid for it, so you guys are going to come out ahead, despite your stupidity. Lady Luck’s smiling or what?”
I think back on our decision to divide the book into sections covering left and right hands. Dammit. Dammit all to hell.
Idiot. Only you could mess up such a stroke of luck. Only you could be such a total loser in this situation. Only you, pal, only you.
“No thanks,” I say, trying to ignore my voice. “I think we’ll hold on to the book.”
“Are you negotiating, son?”
This is the last straw. This is the ‘light the blue touch paper and retreat a safe distance’ moment. I explode. Everything around me is a target, I lash out at the shop counter and the grill which protects the window display. I swing a left and right hook at Ryan. I stamp on what’s left of the violin and kick the door until the hinges buckle. Nothing is safe from my rage.
“Get out,” screams the pawnbroker. His right hand is under the counter while his left holds his mobile to his ear. “I’m calling the cops. You’d better pray they get here before I kill you.”
Ryan drags me to the door. “Come on, we need to go, Max, we need to go, now.”
Don’t listen to him. Trash the place. Trash it good.
The cold, fresh air of the street takes the edge off my anger. One last kick at the pawnshop window is enough to calm my fury. Ryan grabs my shoulders.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I say, puffing and panting from my exertion.
“What goes around, comes around, eh?” says Ryan, referring back to the kid whose money we’d stolen in the park.
“You are okay, yeah?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I say “I think I just need some time on my own.”
“Probably the best thing for both of us. You take care. See you tomorrow.” He heads off home.
Gazing up at the sky, I wonder what’s going to become of me. It seems that violin playing isn’t to be my destiny. Instead, maybe this whole adventure is fate’s way of telling me about the value of books. Maybe I’m destined to be an author.
Author? Ha! Music was your only chance. Music was your true destiny, it was your dream. Ryan killed your dream. Ryan’s a dream-slayer. Dream-slayers should die.
Slapping my head hard to shut my voice up, I set off for home.
You’ll never have another dream, if that dream-slayer lives. The dream-slayer must die. Die!
Without making a conscious decision, I stop, turn and burst into a sprint… after Ryan.