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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 evening rehearsal was a weary affair and by the time that it was over I had admitted to myself that I had failed with this orchestra. They were like the overweight uncle who is sponsored to run a marathon – they would plod their way through the concert, hopefully without falling over or collapsing altogether, but it would not be a lovely spectacle. And at this moment in my life, what I really needed was a good orchestra. This lot scarcely broke into a sweat whilst they were playing, and most of them looked as if they were thinking about their next update on Facebook or the softness of Justin Bieber’s eyes whilst Shostakovich crashed around them. I felt sorry for them – they were a bunch of stupid young people who had been mistakenly arranged into the formation of an orchestra, rather than that of a hockey team or a branch of McDonald’s. It was the fault of the parents who had thought that their money could make their children into musicians – it was the fault of corrupt teachers who had encouraged unpromising children only because their parents always paid on time – it was the fault of the children who barely knew that they were alive.

Or maybe I was just tired. My own words came back to me: “Are they not happy with their work?” I was hit by the unpleasant possibility that most of these children had no real belief in myself, or in the orchestra, or even in the music – that they lived only for their own amusement and that they were entirely alienated from the aloof, abstract discipline of orchestral playing, which demanded ever more accomplished expressions of conformity, and which would never countenance them chipping in anything creative or original for themselves. Lost within the maelstrom, and each racing to keep going and to keep up, these children had never stood apart from the orchestra to hear the full, true sound of their own music. I was guilty of the assumption that an individual player is simply incomplete – these children were like artisans who had never seen their own city from a hilltop, to take pride in the power and the glory which had been in some way furthered by their own little personal endeavour.

But I had not played in a proper orchestra for almost two decades, and perhaps I had forgotten that these modern children had no opportunity to cultivate the same will to beauty with which I had once applied myself to orchestral playing. Most of these children were little more than actors who were struggling to achieve a convincing impersonation of musicians. But perhaps they were not merely disinterested, but antagonistic. Perhaps like chimpanzees holding a tea party, they had no genuine interest in upholding civilisation and notwithstanding their excitement at being included in the spectacle, they were ready to throw aside their teacups and start being beastly.

The orchestra was uneasy because I was smiling at them throughout the rehearsal, whilst I seemed hardly to have noticed their music. When the rehearsal was finished, we all retired to the common room, to be greeted by Tycienski and a roaring fire. I took my now customary place in the armchair, whilst everybody made sure that the other armchair was kept vacant for Honeydew. Simon asked me if I would like to play draughts and I believe that I nodded in agreement, but as I gave no thought to the game which was now unfolding before me, and as Simon was determined to ensure that I could not lose it, then the match was consigned to an interminable deadlock.

About an hour after we had withdrawn to the common room, the door burst open and Honeydew walked in, looking flushed and businesslike. Perhaps this preposterous man had spent the evening chasing a singe leaf though the meadows on the winter air. The room seemed to be refreshed by his arrival and everybody woke up slightly at the sight of him, but he was then unexpectedly at the foot of my chair.

“I’ve seen him!” Honeydew whispered significantly.

I looked away. “Mr Tycienski,” I shouted quietly across the room.

In a jiffy Tycienski was at my side. I nodded to Honeydew.

“I was walking towards the house, when I suddenly saw a small boy crouching under that window. And he really did look as if he was listening in to everything that was being said in this room… and it was almost as if… as if he was laughing.”

I could not help glancing to the window and registering the inevitable, delicious little shudder at the thought that he was still there – listening in on us!

“But surely you had the sense to call to him?”

Honeydew blinked. “I could only watch him. I was…”

Tycienski smiled faintly. “You were frightened that he would look up at you?”

“I was uncomfortable with attracting his attention.” It looked as if Honeydew would have liked to correct such an absurd statement, but that he did not know what to replace it with.

I was virtually triumphant – I had finally secured the title of the most sane conductor. “The last time that I went out to look for this boy, there was nothing there.”

I was tickled to note that this made Honeydew almost tetchy. “If he is not real, then as far as I am concerned the rest of the orchestra cannot be real!”

But I now had to ransack my brains for an idea about what to do – and I was discovering that they were entirely empty – when Tycienski unexpectedly took command. Yet he had turned to the pupils.

“Children! We need a box of Pringles, two little mirrors, and some sticky tape.”

Honeydew looked almost droll. “A periscope?”

Tycienski smiled. “Of course!”

Now I was annoyed. “If we are unable to talk to this boy, then what is the good of merely looking at him?”

“It’s for your benefit,” Tycieski countered smartly. “Since you are the only one who has yet to see him.”

There was an uncomfortable wait – during which Tycienski smiled foolishly to himself – until the children had finally retrieved the components of his periscope. “What is it for?” Becky, an indifferent flutist, asked.

“Mr Honeydew thought that he saw a badger on the lawn,” Tycienski lied with aplomb. He assembled the periscope with quick, deft hands, and I was again struck by his practicality.

“Mr Tycienski wants to catch the badger for tomorrow’s sandwiches,” Honeydew added gamely. This produced the desired squeals of delight from the congregating children.

The periscope was complete. “You first!” Tycienski handed me the periscope and I received it as unwillingly as if it was a tot of whisky which I was being made to swallow for a forfeit.

“Do we have to open the window?”

“If you get the right angle, then it won’t be necessary. Opening the window will scare him – the badger, I mean – away.”

I descended from my armchair and, with an unhappy look back at the rest of the room, I settled awkwardly on my knees beside the window. I raised the periscope so that it bobbed before the window pane, bumping gently against it like a cat’s paw.

I squinted with a brief discomfort into the night.

I was surprised by the sight of a violent, uncoordinated movement, and I watched uncomprehending for a moment, before I finally distinguished the object in view as a naked human body. A male body, kicking and gyrating and with the most vigorous part of himself pinned down. His legs hung from the air and, after absorbing the image for several seconds, I realised that they were tied to the overhanging branches of a tree with ropes, so that the kicks jerked and spun the whole body whilst the legs remained straight. Oddly, I was not particularly disconcerted to register that this scene was unfolding in the glowing light of early morning.

This kicking man had his arms forced apart by dumpy little figures, whom I first imagined were a horde of rampaging pigmies, but whom I finally recognised as mere children. They were apparently dressed in school uniform. Then a child moved partly to one side so that I could behold the man’s face, and through all of its awful rage and fear, I saw that it was my own.

I do not know why, but I looked up immediately at the penis, which flapped about hopelessly small and shrivelled, like a jumping cigarette butt. What happened next should be related quickly. The children – whom I increasingly picked out as being from my own orchestra – swarmed around the kicking man in a concerted effort, pulling him down and his arms further apart, until somebody approached him very cockily with a knife and sort of dug out his penis, leaving a gaping crater. After this, more of the children produced knives and they were blindly hacking and swiping at the castrated man, who proceeded to thrash more vehemently. Soon the figure was no longer recognisable as that of a human body.

I mean that I was no longer recognisable as a human body.

It always looked as if this was happening to somebody else, even when I caught glimpses of the semblance of my own face shining with shock, as if within a halo. The sounds of the vision seemed to have been lost. I then realised that all the children were dressed for a concert, with the boys wearing little bow ties.

I lowered the periscope. “What did you see?” Becky asked eagerly. “Can I look?”

“No!” I growled. Becky trembled and she then retreated hastily, fearing that she had made some unforgivable error.

“Did you see him?” Honeydew inquired with interest.

“There was nobody there.” Hearing a crack, I looked down and saw that I had broken the periscope in half with my fists.

Tycieski decided that the entertainment was over. “The mirrors were too small for the periscope to work, I’m afraid,” he informed the increasingly disenchanted gathering of children. “But if anybody snaps a badger out there on the lawn – with their mobile phone, of course – then I’ll give them a fiver.”

“We should perform for them,” Honeydew suggested. “Badgers like Vivaldi.”

I found my voice hiding in the back of my throat. “I saw nothing!”

I was stalking off towards the cubby hole, but then Honeydew was suddenly walking beside me.

“When I was in Joppa, the people at the post office asked me to give you this letter. They had had it for a while. I did not realise that our mail has to be collected in person.”

“Thanks,” I took the letter, immediately recognising the writing on the envelope as that of my wife.

I decided not to open the letter for several days. These things upset me – all of the silt at the bottom of my mind is thrown up, clouding all of my thoughts. I need an entire afternoon to process the letter, to live through the sequence of emotions which it releases. Yet once in my bedroom, I tore open the envelope in blind frustration and I gobbled up its contents:

I hope you are well, but we both must know that I am not. How can I be? How can you do this to me? After I have given you everything, told you everything? Every night I wait for the phone to ring – I don’t go out in the evenings any more, or if I do then I come running back half way through dinner to check if you have called me. You are hurting me so much – how can you be so cruel – ?

I read this blankly for a while, until I had reached the point where I had shrunken to a tiny figure, who was staggering blindly within the blizzard of my wife’s condemnation. But the conclusion of her letter has a particular relevance to our story:

I know that you will soon be at Joppa and if you do not call me then I will come to see you. Listening to one of your orchestras is now the nearest that I will get to ever feeling your love. I hope that things are going well for you – I haven’t seen you conduct since the book festival. I am actually looking forward to it. I miss you so much and I hope that you will call me soon.

There was a rap on the door. For a moment, I looked about for somewhere to hide – I imagined sliding under the bed and lying in the dust and the darkness until the intruder was gone.


It was Honeydew. He looked grimly determined, as if he had undertaken to empty a septic tank, until I finally grasped that he was trying to be friendly. Smiling with discomfort, he was searching about for somewhere to be seated and, finding that the bed offered the only opportunity, he landed heavily beside me. He looked me straight in the eye and, embarrassed, I glanced immediately away, before I finally turned invincible reinforced eyes back on him. Our eyes met like two hares boxing in a meadow, and they harmlessly rebuffed one another.

“Listen,” Honeydew confided. “I guess that things are not going… very smoothly. That little chap outside is certainly a puzzler.”

I was repulsed by this audacious and quite empty friendliness. The man was a weirdo and I wanted to experience as little of him as possible. I decided that I was a granite boulder which was being assailed by a flicker of rain, and I listened to him with infinite immovability.

“I think we need to work together. As a partnership. At times, it can seem like we are completely separate, but there is a danger with taking this too far and – well, what I’m trying to say is that if ever you need any help or support from me, then I’m here and – I hope that it cuts both ways?”

I nodded. “You’re right,” I decided, feeling curiously hollow.

At this point, Honeydew had reached the end of his script and he panicked. He stared about helplessly, finding himself with no strategy to extract himself from my bedroom. Perhaps he would have to stay here all night! I thought it would be charitable to pick him up by the scruff of the neck and fling him out of my room, but I then heard myself remark that there was a long day tomorrow and that it might be best if I had a crack at getting some sleep. Honeydew agreed gratefully. The door shut behind him and I was at last alone.