Authority, Catering, Children, Christmas, Classical Music, Conductor, Country House, Discipline, Education, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Mobile Phone, Music, Oboe, Orchestra, Second Violins, Shostakovich, The Devil
[“The Devil On Your Back,” a ghost story for Christmas, is about 15000 words long, and it will be serialised in seven parts over the Christmas holiday. Although Edinburgh is the customary setting for Tychy fiction, the orchestra featured in this story is not based upon the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, and any resemblance between the two is purely coincidental. Ed.]
I had been accorded the morning rehearsals, Honeydew was given the afternoons, and we would take turns with the hour-long evening sessions, in which the orchestra was invariably tired and unfocused. The ground floor of the Grange contained a dining room, a common room, and a games room, and when the latter had been emptied of its various apparatus, it had turned out to be large enough to accommodate both an imagined dais for the orchestra and a pool of flooring on which the children could leave their instrument cases. I had been assured that we could squeeze a small audience into the games room on the day of the concert, although it would be helpful if some of the parents would volunteer to stand.
On the first morning, I trotted the orchestra through Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and whilst I was determined to remain pleasant at such an early point in the week, their performance was so bad that I felt suddenly as if I had been punched in the face. I was fizzing with impatience, like somebody who knows that they should be doing better in a pub brawl. They had actually wandered through the Fifth Symphony. I ended up with my arms revolving in furious circles, like a man trying to drive forward several hundred sheep, until I finally hurled my baton somewhere into the woodwind section and screamed so loud that the entire orchestra was silenced in an instant.
“ABSOLUTE CRAP!” I bellowed. “HOW DARE YOU insult – INSULT! – me with such a piece of UTTER, UTTER CRAP!”
I swung away and traipsed about in my own space for a moment, before veering back to the shamefaced orchestra. My voice was now so gruff and choked that it sounded as if it belonged to somebody else. “That was so crap that I think I might send the whole lot of you home. Straight back home!”
The orchestra was impressed by this and they seemed to reflect for a moment on the likelihood of it happening. Was it constitutional? “Where’s the oboe?” I demanded.
Fred, the oboe player, looked up at me.
“Where were you?”
“I… I… was he-here…”
“We’re playing Shostakovich. Do you realise that? Are you so stupid that you don’t even know which piece we’re playing?”
Fred blinked. “I’m sorry sir…”
“Have you actually rehearsed this…?”
“Play it. Play your part now. I want everybody to sit here and listen to how crap your playing is, before I have you sent home…”
Fred mumbled something. He was now hiding behind the violas so that I could see only the crown of his head.
All of the air had been sucked out of the room. Everybody was staring straight ahead, as if it would be a breach of solidarity to even glance at the oboe player, but as his weedy melody rose out of the massiveness of the orchestra, like the sound of a single lawnmower suspended over suburbia, I was disappointed to hear that it was actually okay. I cut him off before anybody else noticed.
“PATHETIC! Second violins! Whenever I look at the second violins, all of your bows are going in different directions and at different speeds. One of you must be right….” This was a mistake – it seemed too much like a joke – and the tension was beginning to unwind. “AGAIN!” I roared.
The orchestra’s second attempt sounded a lot better, or at least it sounded a little like Shostakovich, and I began to try and take an interest in the music. But then something happened which blew everything sky high.
A mobile phone began to ring.
A jaunty little rhythm, like the devil’s laugh cutting through all the pageantry of a cathedral, making everything seem pompous and unnecessary. I wanted to break apart the phone, to feel it crack beneath my heel. I glimpsed a head dipping down to switch it off and I plunged straight into the orchestra – the music stands repulsing me like waves of thickets – the sound collapsing hugely around me, like a punctured bouncy castle. There were screams – the musicians were shooting up and then stepping back – I flung music stands out of my way and at one point over speedily ducking heads – there were ungainly gulps and snorts from the brass and the last of the music disintegrated as if into the morning light – there was a jangled crunch as I bashed mistakenly into a double bass, and then I knew who I was chasing – I could see them skirting back into the percussion – and I was darting neatly around various differently-sized drums in pursuit, but then there was nothing – just blank walls, a radiator, all dancing before me like a peal of laughter.
I returned to the front. “WHOSE PHONE?”
I can usually tell when an orchestra is lying to me, but this lot were suddenly indecipherable. I peered at them in frustration.
“A phone was ringing!” I found that I was breathless and reeling, and I was then afraid that the orchestra would sit there and watch me vomiting.
“If I find out whose phone was ringing, it will be destroyed. I don’t care how much it costs – I don’t even care how angry your parents will be – the phone will be returned to you in a hundred pieces.”
In hoarse soft pants, I was struggling to rope back my breath, as if it was an anchor at the bottom of the sea. I faced the orchestra and then all my senses seemed to stagger and register a gentle bump. The orchestra regarded me with an impossible lucidity, like a prostitute on the bed at 3am, and suddenly I had to tell them everything. “Listen,” I confided. “I need you. I need all of you. I deserve a good orchestra for once. At this point in my life, I just need to have a good orchestra. I deserve one. You understand? And so please – please make it work – please! – I deserve it.”
We went over Shostakovich for a third time, and then we rehearsed some solo parts, but I said little else for the remainder of the rehearsal.
I do not know if reports had reached Honeydew about what I was increasingly realising had been a catastrophic rehearsal, but at lunchtime he promptly volunteered to assume the rest of the day’s sessions. After lunch, I went for a walk by myself around the grounds and from the hills above the Grange I spied the shell of a little church peeping out from the woods at the edge of the estate. I deemed this worthy of future investigation. Since the Grange has been reduced to little more than a sports centre, all of the historical information about the property seems to have been almost purposefully forgotten, as if there was a danger that it would frighten away the canoeists and quad bikers. This church struck me as curious since it was in the middle of nowhere – a poor shepherd, it had apparently lost its parish.
Back at the Grange by nightfall, I was pleased to see that paella was on the menu for dinner, but, as far as I could tell, the meal which made its appearance under this title was little more than unadulterated brown rice. I complained to Tycienski – forgetting that I had resolved to be pleasant to him after the previous evening – but he looked very merry and there was a twinkle in his eye, until he too possibly remembered the need for diplomacy, and he explained that the council delivered each meal by lorry, and that they must have forgotten to include the rest of the ingredients for the paella. Yet the dessert turned out to be rice pudding – dollops of a glutinous and quite definitely brown substance – and the length of time between the removal of the dinner plates and the arrival of the pudding confirmed to my mind that Tycienski had merely recycled the leftovers from the last course.
The pupils were eager to flee from their plates to their final rehearsal of the day, and Honeydew worked very hard to raise everybody’s spirits. The orchestra was allowed to breeze through the theme from the James Bond movies and some of the more famous bits of Carmen. Honeydew is an old hand, and with his maternal instinct he had perceived that were reaching that stage when the initial novelty of the Grange had worn off and the pupils were beginning to be devilled by sad little aches for home. I was determined not to shout at anybody this evening and I was waiting in the common room once Honeydew’s rehearsal had finished, with my sunniest wintry smile and a stab at some friendly remarks. The pupils were hardly swarming all over me with affection, but I hoped that everybody appreciated how much of an effort I was making.
Tycienski had built a big fire in the hearth and everybody was settling under the spell of its whispered rumbling. But there was suddenly a great bolt of cold running naked through the room, leaving everybody shuddery and exhilarated. Tycienski was venturing out to fetch some more wood from a little outpost which stood in the darkness beyond the lawn. The door clapped shut and the night was again expelled.
I was playing draughts with Simon – a sad, slow child, who sits at the back of the second violins, and who appears always to have been abandoned by the other pupils. He is my only friend in the orchestra, which undoubtedly puts him at a tremendous disadvantage with the rest of the children, who are probably convinced that he is writing secret reports about them for me to read in the dead of night. He was now concentrating furiously on the draughts, although he had apparently concluded that it was forbidden to beat me, or to take any of my pieces, and he was at great pains to avoid such a mortifying eventuality.
Honeydew had seized the armchair on the other side of the room. Tycienski had made us both mugs of tea, but I had committed the strategic error of drinking all of my tea, and I was now left to reflect upon the fact that I had no idea where the kitchen was located. Two of the most dominant and energetic boys were vying at snooker, and most of the other pupils were watching them restlessly. An exclusive circle of girls was sitting pointedly apart from the rest of the children, like a court of princesses, but the rest of the children paid them no notice.
Simon took one of my pieces, but he apologised immediately and put it back. I frowned at him.
Tycienski entered the room, carrying a basket full of logs which looked vaguely like a theatrical prop. He seemed oddly alert and I glanced up as he approached.
“What is it Mr Tycienski?”
He could not contain a smile at what he considered an unnecessary formality – he would be probably quite happy if all the pupils called him “mate” – but he then looked very serious.
“I have seen a strange thing. I think that you should know.”
“A strange thing?”
Simon looked startled to find himself privilege to such high level information. I considered sending him away, before resolving to ignore him.
“I was returning to the Grange – coming across the lawn – when I saw a boy crouching under that window.”
He pointed at the window, which turned out to be directly between Honeydew’s armchair and my own. I cannot explain why, but I shrank back slightly, with an almost satisfying little thrill.
“A boy? Huddled outside in the cold?”
Tycienski nodded. “It looked as if he was listening to what everybody was saying in this room.”
“But it’s freezing outside!”
Tycienski agreed that it was.
“And – er – all of our pupils are in this room?” I looked around in dismay. We are supposed to know about these things.
“I did not recognise the boy as one of our pupils. He seemed a little younger. But I was not certain, of course…”
Everything about me seemed to shoot to the horizon and I was left helplessly behind, like a baby who has fallen out of the caravan. “He must be one of our pupils. Nobody lives around here for miles.”
Tycienski seemed to anticipate what was on the tip of my tongue. “I definitely saw this boy. I stopped to look at him.”
“But you did not call to him?”
It seemed that this thought had not occurred to Tycienski. “I did not.”
A boy, crouched under our window, listening to all that was said in this room!
Honeydew appeared beside my armchair and Tycienski apprised him of the new development. He looked perplexed, and this was possibly the first time that I had seen him seriously interested in anything.
“But all of our children are in here?”
“I’ll sort this out!” I snapped. But I was suddenly unwilling to abandon my armchair – it must be very cold outside! I was on my feet, gingerly beating a path to the door, preparing to hurl myself into the belly of the whale.
And it was horrible. Blasted half insensible, I padded a quick circuit around the Grange, careful to remain within shouting distance of its cosy civilisation. I struggled to keep the thought of the convivial hum within the common room aflame in my mind. I peered hopelessly across the lawn and into the woods. The night was quite harebrained with gales and the cold roared in my bones. The story of the boy was suddenly preposterous. No child, however mischievous, would be out of doors on a night as awful as this one. I fled back to the warmth of the house.
I tried to convince myself that Tycienski must be mistaken, but this seemed equally implausible. I was too embarrassed to accuse him of… to accuse him of what exactly? He was certainly not dreaming or joking, but it was inconceivable that he could have seen a child running abroad on such a godforsaken night. “He was not there,” I explained feebly, once back in my armchair, as if I had returned disappointed from an expedition to verify the reported sighting of a rare bird.
“If there is a child lost in the grounds, then we must find him! Or call the police!” Honeydew remonstrated in a curiously shrill voice.
I pretended that I had not heard him.
Our pupils turned in at nine. Tycienski had scoffed openly at such an early bedtime, and he had even contended that the children should be allowed to go to bed whenever they wanted to. Once we were ensconced in the cubby hole, Tycienski struck up a noisy conversation with Honeydew, which seemed to be intended solely to exclude me, and after less than five minutes of listening helplessly, I made my excuses and left for bed. My bedroom was as bare as a pantry cupboard, with only a little bed and a chest of drawers, but it seemed that this was now the nearest thing that I had to any sort of home.