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[“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.]

The wisest course of action for the next morning’s rehearsal would have been to commence work on Vaughn William’s Fantasia, but when the orchestra were assembled, I realised that I would only be comfortable after we had fastened our hold on the Shostakovich. The orchestra was for once on the ball and they delivered a polished, but not a particularly brilliant performance. I tried to enjoy their playing, but in the end I had to bring it to a stop.

“There is too much strings and they are getting under everybody’s feet. You mistake being loud with being strong. I tried to sweeten the strings and to coax out the woodwind, but most of you remained unresponsive. I appreciate that you need to learn the music – and, of course, here at the Grange we cannot offer you the opportunity to practice privately – but the most important thing is that I should always be able to see your eyes. The horns – I also felt that you were pulling the orchestra back. In fact, I would like to hear the horns by themselves.”

At the prospect of being ripped from all the orchestral foliage to be exposed in the daylight, the horn players became as massively alert as hunted animals. The rest of the orchestra immediately switched off, glad that the conductor was picking on somebody else. The strains of the horns now trembled before the orchestra with a sort of feeble dignity, whilst I brooded over this unimpressive demonstration.

“It just sounds rubbish,” I concluded finally. “Half-rehearsed, lazy, and without any sense of its place in the rest of the performance. And you are pulling the rest of the orchestra back, so that the music becomes slow and thick and I feel like I am wading through treacle…” I reached for the mug of tea on the bookshelf behind me.

“And now the cellos and the bass…”

But before I knew what I was doing, I had bellowed with total surprise, in an awful animal explosion of sound. My eyes dropped with amazement to the tea which now lay in bright pools at my feet, but I then turned back into myself. My lungs felt as if they were shrinking into the depths of my body, I was trying to splutter away the taste in my mouth, I had snorted fluid out of both nostrils and I was pawing frantically to wipe myself clean.

“Poison!” I blurted out, my eyes streaming, but I immediately knew that this sounded ridiculous. I recoiled from the spectacle that I was making of myself as if from a leaping white flame. The children were staring at me dumbfounded, and I fought desperately to achieve an impression of stern professionalism. But what had happened? For a few sweet moments, the orchestra seemed remote and indifferent – as if they had faded out to talk amongst themselves – or as if I was safely concealed from them behind some furniture – but then they were all on their feet and massed around me with concern. There is nothing more merciless than pity. Soon Tycienski had appeared and he was herding the orchestra back, whilst he lifted up my mug of tea to take a quick sniff.

“Whisky. Definitely whisky.”

I have no idea what whisky tastes like, but drinkers must be less sophisticated than pigs if their stomachs can accept something as awful as the contents of that teacup.

“What happened? Who put… who put that thing in my tea…?”

“It’s undiluted,” Tycienski corrected me. “There’s no tea in that mug.”

“Somebody has put whisky in my tea. Whilst I was conducting. It was tea a few seconds ago… But nobody could have got past me whilst I was here…” I found myself suddenly chasing my own tail with wonder.

Tycienski was particularly interested in this problem, rather like the spectator who cannot forget about a conjuring trick until he has established how it was done. “Until now, I would have assumed that there was no whisky on the premises…” He regarded the orchestra – whom had huddled into a sort of apprehensive circle – with mild surprise.

I loomed over the orchestra – the only way to regain the initiative was through sheer intimidation. My voice was now as big and as stony as a church. “Who did this – who played this sick, stupid joke? I want answers – NOW!”

Nobody volunteered themselves to be a spokesman. Indeed, the whole lot of them became as blank as rabbits. I skated over them all in a frenzy, trying to distinguish the most likely suspect, but however much I wanted to will into being a dastardly nemesis – who would be sneering fiendishly at their latest, if only, of course, short-term triumph – I could not put a face to the concept. All children are bad actors – with their little lying faces pointed at you like cheap flowers – their wide eyes and solemn mouths acting out an innocence which is as realistic as the personality of a doll. I sensed that these children now knew something, and that they knew it between themselves, as if by means of a signal on the air which was too high pitched for me to catch. Children! – their minds, their civilization, their secrets might as well be buried in some distant subterranean realm, like the bureaucracy established by devils. No man will ever set foot in their world.

Tycienski suggested that we should search their bags.

One by one, the orchestra emptied their pockets and rucksacks and instrument cases at my feet, whilst I scrutinised the successive offerings of nuggets of rosin – sweet papers – key rings – a shrivelled apple core which had incredibly produced several inches of a hairy green shoot – plastic flasks which reeked only of orange squash – a conspicuous absence of mobile phones, which were doubtlessly secreted in hot innermost pockets after my bloodcurdling threats to have them smashed – and, all in all, a hoard of worthless, unremarkable treasure.

Tycienski grew doubtful of these proceedings. “This is very expensive whisky,” he warned finally. “It is not the sort of stuff that children drink.” For a moment, I found it suddenly impossible to appear interested in the contents of the pupils’ pockets for any longer, but I had to continue the search in fairness to the children who had already been searched. I was convinced that we were barking up the wrong tree, although this was the only tree in the park. How had they done it? Reflecting upon Tycienski’s words, I envisaged the whisky as being once the property of a wealthy father – perhaps it had been pilfered from a mahogany drinks cabinet in an opulent Edwardian drawing room – but most of this orchestra looked as if they were likely to have Edwardian fathers with mahogany drinks cabinets.

By now, Honeydew had finally put in an appearance. He looked suitably gloomy at the news of the orchestra’s latest failing, but some nuance of his body language suggested that it was all very disappointing, but really nobody’s fault, rather like a spot of bad weather which was overshadowing a picnic. I found it tiresome how he always seemed more adult than myself.

The three of us retreated to the cubby hole to discuss the findings of the search, but it struck me that we were ultimately more concerned with projecting an appearance of dignified authority than with achieving any sort of control over the situation. I drew up a list of likely culprits, which turned out to be brief and unconvincing, and in the afternoon we formed a little committee and aimlessly interrogated the pupils on my list. After two hours, the only thing that we had established was that the tea had been transformed into whisky and that somebody must have been responsible. It was a miracle without a messiah.

“I’m angry that I’m no longer really angry,” I sighed to Tycienski who, no doubt anxious to keep in my good books, had been attentive to every detail of my investigation. “I know that one of them was behind the thing, but it all seems – impossible! I don‘t know where to begin.”

“Perhaps the thing was intended as a joke, but the children clammed up when they realised how serious it had become?”

“But if they had confessed to what they had done, we would have treated them fairly? Are they not happy with their work? They should be surely just as reluctant as we are to be torn from the music. I can’t understand it?”

Honeydew had scarcely uttered a word throughout the entire episode, maintaining his characteristic neutrality, but his doleful expression seemed to venture a concern that the rehearsals were falling behind. I have no doubt that he would have happily assumed the rest of the day’s rehearsals, but that he was wary of undermining my authority by doing this for two consecutive days. The orchestra was reconvened for four and after Honeydew had concluded his rehearsal, he descended in an anorak to announce that he was going for a walk, and that this was such an event that he would be missing dinner. I would have been otherwise annoyed by what seemed like taking too much of a liberty, but Honeydew had so far accrued a good deal of capital from being the most sensible and adult conductor, and I conceded that he was free to spend it.

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