Average

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

A young man must choose between his species and his art. His father's words might make all of the difference.

 

"You have to be kidding me. He's at it still?"

 

The leopard swung his burly frame through the kitchen door from the garage beyond. In his distraction he failed to remember the patches of engine oil adorning his overalls, and as a result the doorframe now bore clear evidence of his passage. His mate, hands still deep in the washing-up, glanced across at him; he only had to meet her eyes for a moment to realise his mistake.

 

"Oops! Sorry..."

 

She smiled back at him, slowly shaking her head as she finished with the last plate and reached for the towel. He stood there immobile while she dried herself off and came across to reach for the zipper of his overalls. With moves born of long practice she extricated him from the offending garment and flung it straight into the washer before it could make any further mess. On the wall nearby hung a freshly-laundered replacement, ready for him to start work again the next morning.

 

"What does it sound like to you, Marcus? Yes, he's still at it."

 

She reached automatically to the fridge, tossed him the bottle of beer he always enjoyed when he knocked off work for the day.

 

"Still the G minor? That scale was perfect three hours ago, and it's perfect now!"

 

Her softly rounded ears twitched minutely, her gaze turning down for a second.

 

"Oh. So it's not just been the scales, then."

 

She sighed, arm around his waist and head heavy on his shoulder.

 

"Let me guess. The Schumann again?"

 

"Yes, the Schumann. He won't give up on it, you know."

 

"Of course he won't. He's our son." He thought to lighten the mood a bit. "So, what's the damage this time? Are we looking at half a dozen keys, or a whole octave's worth?"

 

She drew away from him then and collapsed into one of the chairs by the dining-table, head lowered on her crossed arms. Her breathing became ragged as she fought back the sobs, and with that he set down the beer unopened, suddenly not wanting it any more. In an instant he was back beside her, calm hands rubbing at her shoulders, not caring that he was still grimy from his last repair.

 

"No my love, no, not this..."

 

She craned her neck back to him, eyes wet and desperate. There really weren't any words to say, not now; they'd used them all up, every last one, in the weeks and months before this evening.

 

At a loss, completely unable in that moment to do anything to help his mate, Marcus steeled himself for his only other recourse. His eyes fell on the kitchen's other door, the one that opened to the modest living-room that for the past five years had been his son's source of all pleasure in the world, and all of the pain; the room that was at once the young feline's prison and his dearest escape.

 


 

The last cadence of the presto finished in a triumphant flurry of semiquavers and three fortissimo chords, the power and resonance of the concert grand flooding the hall. It was done; he lifted his fingers from the keys and let the echoes fade. For long moments Marcus remained lost in the soundscape he'd created; the momentary silence that followed his performance didn't really register, nor the oddly restrained, rather polite applause that came after. It wasn't till the reviews appeared the next day that he remembered the silence and that clapping, at last making sense of both as the dead weight of the words settled upon him:

 

"Mr Paxman played with accomplished mastery of technique, but the moments of passion we'd so longed to hear were in short supply indeed."

 

"It was Salieri, Mozart's great rival, who spoke out most strongly in favour of the average, the mediocre. With this cold, workmanlike performance Mr Paxman suggests these sorry souls have at last found a new champion."

 

"A Beethoven sonata should be played as if the artist's life depends upon it. Mr Paxman's rendition made me think his paycheck was at stake, not his heart."

 


 

Vince had moved onto arpeggios now, long fingers rattling out the broken chords from one end of the keyboard to the other at a breakneck pace. Over and over, machine-precise, never an error; and then on to the next key in sequence to repeat the pattern once again. Five minutes to finish the exercise from this point, Marcus knew. He'd lean against the wall in the corner here and wait quietly by for his son to finish.

 

Crammed into a room that was really far too small for it was the family's only 'luxury' item: a six-foot-eight Bechstein grand. Except that it wasn't really a luxury at all, rather an essential tool of the trade. Oh gods, why did his son have to chose the piano? He's outgrown cheaper models years ago; now the price of continuing his development as a player was a little over twenty thousand pounds, and that for an example already half a century old. Dammit, the best makes of other instruments could be had for a small fraction of that!

 

Marcus knew the answer, of course. Since before his feet could reach the pedals Vince had wanted nothing more than to play the piano as his father did.

 

Or rather, to play as his father once had.

 

Of course Marcus didn't resent the cost, not really. How could he, when he knew all too keenly the joys that were clearly within his son's grasp, pleasures that he'd known himself at first hand? For when he played the music invaded him like a drug, holding welcome lordship over his fingers and mind for as long as the notes sounded, far more powerful and persuasive than anything that could be drunk or smoked or swallowed. It was, Marcus thought, no coincidence that his son had never strayed to alcohol or narcotics. His son simply felt no need, not with music by his side.

 

The study was done, and Vince glanced up at his father, seeming to notice him then for the first time. Then his eyes fell back to the keys, and his ears flat to his head.

 

"I'm really sorry, Dad..."

 

Marcus dared to glance at the keyboard. Sure enough, there were the score-marks, the deep gouges across the surfaces, black keys and white damaged without discrimination. More repairs, then.

 

And on the floor nearby, the well-annotated score of Kreisleriana torn practically to shreds.

 

"I was trying so hard to be careful, just like you said, trying not to... not to... to feel so strongly. But Schumann doesn't work that way. He just doesn't." A huge sigh, then. "Actually it doesn't work that way for any of the Romantics, but Schumann's the worst."

 

He looked down ruefully at the ruined score.

 

"Perhaps if I stick with Bach for a while..."

 

He trailed off, seeing his father slowly shaking his head.

 

"Nah. Didn't think so. Not Bach, not Beethoven –"

 

He struck a savage chord, and fresh carnage appeared across the keys.

 

"Not Debussy or Ravel –"  He flung out his broad hands in desperation. "– or any of the rest! Not while I've got these!"

 

He stared in terrible accusation at his fingers, to where the claws now extended a full inch beyond the callused pads. The claws that would, in their species, extend unbidden and beyond control, ten silent traitors, at any strong-felt emotion. The claws that not only rendered it impossible to play with any sensitivity, but would quite possibly tear a piano apart into the bargain.

 

Twenty years ago, Marcus had gone through the self same torment. But he'd found a fix – oh so proud he'd been back then, so pleased with himself, though it took him long enough to master. By keeping his emotions firmly under wraps the claws were kept at bay, and for a while his career flourished. Right up until the night of the muted, deadly applause and the reviews that had ended his professional life. Ironically, as a self-employed mechanic those same loathsome appendages had turned out to be rather useful. In time, they'd become the new tools of his trade.

 

"I – I've made a decision, Dad."

 

Marcus blinked back up at his son.

 

"I want to play, more than anything else. And I'm good at this – don't look at me that way, you know it! You taught me, for heaven's sake!"

 

The father had a horrible idea he knew where this was going. Vince was still staring at his fingerpads, the claws, damage done, having retreated to fight another day.

 

"I've got no use for them, Dad, none at all. With them, I'll only ever be average. Without them...well, who knows? And I'm eighteen now, I can decide for myself. I'm gonna do it." His voice shook only a little. "I'm gonna have the operation."

 

So that was it. His son had chosen mutilation. It was a step that Marcus had never been willing to take, not even for the music; to even consider it was practically taboo. To actually go ahead with it... well, the stigma would hard to bear indeed.

 

Worse for his son than to go without music?

 

And the father saw clearly then, right there in that moment that the claws didn't define his son, no matter how fervently some in their community would assert it. But perhaps... perhaps the music did.

 

"You're not saying 'no'."

 

"What?"

 

It had been his Vince's voice, small and shocked.

 

"I just noticed that you're not saying 'no'."

 

Marcus met his son's eyes, eyes that reminded him just how much his offspring still needed and valued him, eighteen years and all.

 

"I'm not saying 'no', son. In fact I'm not saying anything at all. Not until your mother's in here too. Then, we'll talk. Fair enough?"

 

"Yeah..." A moments pause, the slightest smile. "Yes. Fair enough."

 

The father walked dazed back over to the kitchen door, not knowing which would be the harder: the forthcoming conversation, or finding a good surgeon that they could even remotely afford.


Submitted: November 05, 2020

© Copyright 2020 Anhedral. All rights reserved.

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Comments

Ann Sepino

This was a beautiful story. There were so many metaphors relating to real life jammed in, as well as practical knowledge of music. It made the narrative feel more alive, compared to if the specifics had been brushed over. It ended at just the right moment too. Thanks for writing and sharing this with everyone. :)

Fri, November 6th, 2020 1:44pm

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