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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.]

Time was conspiring against us with a greater success than usual, and whilst I had previously wanted to obtain a professional soloist to perform the baritone part of Williams’ Fantasia, I was now forced to admit that any self-respecting musician would run a mile from this orchestra. The only solution was to find a recording of the baritone solo, for the orchestra to simply accompany, although it would be undoubtedly the lowest point of my career to conduct along to a CD. I consulted with Honeydew about this – imagining that this would please him after his earlier overture to teamwork – and he informed me that the Grange’s games room was equipped with a high-definition television screen, which could possibly display some video footage of the baritone performing. He suggested tastelessly that we could superimpose the audio of the baritone over something like a cartoon of a singing snowman, or some such vulgarity, and whilst I was, of course, outraged by this, Honeydew reasoned that it would be a good way to distract from the bumps and scrapings of such a raw orchestra. Perhaps he is not such a twerp after all.

I arrived at the games room slightly late, expecting to find the orchestra assembled and impatient to play, but almost all of the brass, half of the woodwind, and some of the leading string players were missing. For a brief moment I was unable to conceal my amazement. Dumbfounded, I considered running straight out of Grange’s front door and away over the hills. Yet I finally managed to address the orchestra in as bland a manner as possible.

“There are a lot of players missing this morning?”

Those who were present looked very keen, as if there was bound to be a great rumpus and they were very much looking forward to it. “They say that they are ill, sir.”

Recklessly, I allowed myself to be hopeful. There was some contagion at large – it would provide a rare occasion for me to parade a benevolent power and authority – perhaps we would even have an opportunity to abandon the concert. But I was kidding myself – some of the orchestra were smirking.

I really did need Honeydew now.

He appeared to be unfazed by the news. “What is wrong? Why didn’t anybody tell us?”

The children seemed happier to confide in Honeydew. “They say that they can’t get out of bed, sir.”

Honeydew glanced at me very quickly and it struck me that he was more worried about my welfare than that of the children. But it was too late – I had already realised what was amiss.

“This must be a very singular illness because all of those who have caught it are boys. All of them.” Sylvia – the only girl in the brass section – was the only one to have turned up this morning.

Honeydew wanted to fetch Tycienski, but he was unwilling to leave me alone with the orchestra. Yet I was already on my way to the dorms.

“If they really are unwell, then it will be difficult to get them to play,” Honeydew reasoned euphemistically. He was now running to keep up with me.

I crashed into the dorm, almost slamming the door off its hinges. We were greeted with a richly unpalatable odour – of stewed bed linen and musty bodies – the unmistakable aroma of male hibernation. I pounced on the nearest bed, which turned out to be occupied by Kenny, the first violinist and leader of the orchestra.

“Time to get up! Time to rehearse!” I pulled him to his feet, but he immediately ducked down to crouch on the floor. He was wearing only a pair of purple pants and his body looked painfully scrawny and childish.

“Stand up!”

“I can’t!”

“Stand up now!”

The bodies in the other beds remained still, but something in the air had changed very slightly, and it seemed that they were now totally awake and listening intently.

“I can’t do it sir. I can’t stand up.” Ducking forward like a cat, Kenny began to cough up little coils of vomit at my feet. Honeydew gazed at Kenny with infinite compassion, but he held back, preferring to keep me in view. I was now hurling myself about the room in a transport, like somebody in the middle of a ballet, pulling the children out of their beds and trying to shake them into action. They were soon all kneeling dishevelled on the floor, as if a guard was standing over them with a machine gun. It was when I kicked one of them to their feet that Honeydew addressed me slightly too loudly – with a note of warning – before I realised that he was actually talking to the children.

“We are both very, very disappointed in you. This is totally unacceptable.”

By now, I had noticed that Tycienski was also present. He called to us from the next segment of the dorm.

“I think that you should see this,” he reported. “They’ve drunk almost a whole bottle of this whisky, but… it’s like nothing that I’ve ever seen before.”

We came and looked at the collection of dusty black bottles at his feet. “They’re antique – possibly several hundred years old.”

We had finally established something, but I was not wholly certain what. “Ah, so they found these bottles somewhere on the premises? But where? This is a council facility – there are schools here every week – they can hardly have come across a completely undiscovered hiding place.”

“Unless they are archaeologists,” Tycienski laughed.

I glared at him.

“I’ll ask them what happened,” Honeydew returned to the circle of wilted children and he conversed briefly with them, before coming back with an answer.

“They say that the bottles were left in their dorm. On the beds.”

I pushed at Tycienski’s chest and he stepped back. “Did you do this? Are they paying you?”

Tycienski looked bemused. “This whisky costs thousands of pounds. It’s the sort of stuff that they bring out when the Tsar visits.”

“Do you know what I’m going to do?” I hissed. I roughly scooped up the bottles and then hurled one into the far wall. To my fury, it bounced harmlessly off the wall and landed on the bed below. I raised another one, but then Tycienski had pulled down my arm and with the world sliding around us, we fought blindly. Honeydew ran to the intervening door and shut it so the children in the first segment would not see us fighting. Gasping, I found that Tycienski had thrown me off, and I then saw that the bottle on the bed had cracked open and that a pool of whisky was collecting in the sheets. Running to the bed as gaily as a child on his way to capture the sea, Tycienski imprinted both of his hands into the whisky, before lifting them up to lick at his fingers with fascination.

“It’s like nothing on Earth. Like pure gold.”

“You are dismissed!” I roared.

Tycienski did not even blink. He was now slurping whisky out of a cupped hand.

“You have five minutes to leave the premises!”

I realised that I did not know how to make anybody leave the premises. Tycienski started to carefully transfer the spilled whisky into a vase which stood on the nearest bedside cabinet.

As far as Honeydew was concerned, the last five minutes had simply never happened. “What are we going to do?” he mused. “This is serious – we are running out of time.”

“We’re going to rehearse! That’s what we’re going to do!”

I sailed back into the first segment of the dorm, where I found the children trying to retreat to their beds, but I swept them on and down into the games room, with cuffs and kicks, even though half of them were still in their pants. Honeydew was flapping behind me, helpless to intervene. In the games room, the retrieved children were herded unwillingly towards their instrument cases. Many of the children who had been waiting in the orchestra held up their phones to film them, and I was on the point of roaring at them to put their phones away, but it then hit me that I was also being filmed and I suddenly did not know what to do.

I raised my baton, poised like a vengeful god over a disobedient city. Several of the children were sobbing to themselves, one was so unearthly white that he looked as if he was made out of marble, another could not stop being sick and he traipsed helplessly to and fro in his pyjamas, clutching his clarinet, and with vomit issuing from him as if from a pump, whilst the violins were scandalised that an apparition of their leader had appeared amongst them in his pants. I snarled, raising my baton for the second time, and the orchestra seemed to collect its wits and to forget the tribulations of its individual players.

With a deft little prod, I began to conduct.

Where had it come from? As true as beauty, it proclaimed more life than the brightest bird, the most vivid deer. Momentarily forgetting about the orchestra, I looked about for the source of the music. But then looking back at the orchestra with disbelief, I perceived that each player was utterly lost in their performance – even the violinist who was sitting in his pants and a cellist whose mouth was bubbling with vomit. My arms dropped uselessly to my sides. The orchestra was playing Prokofiev – the death of Juliet. It was impossible – they had never seen this music before – we had not ordered the manuscripts from the library, let alone brought them to the Grange.

I was lifted as if in the arms of love – the perfection of the music was living and  breathing – as fresh as a soaring landscape – as intricately, effortlessly synchronised as a river foaming over rocks – and I rose up to hang suspended on a wave of perfection, of beauty, of grace. My selfhood, the world, was now a speck of dust. I was in a realm beyond time, in a consciousness which was broader and finer than anything human. And then the spell was finally over. I sank to the floor. How had it happened? Was it a trick – a practical joke? Perhaps wily old Honeydew had been plotting this surprise for weeks – but how had he brought the orchestra to such discipline?

Perhaps they had only pretended to be so poor, in order to amaze me with this beauty. But it was impossible.

“Sir?” a voice asked. “Are you okay?” I could hear a deep sustained crying from somewhere. I was on my feet, acting out the performance of a genial conductor, issuing remarks about nothing in particular, but all the time I was searching frantically for an escape, an exit. Finally the orchestra seemed to release me and I was allowed to get all the way to my room, and to crash back into my bed without being disturbed.

I eventually realised that both Honeydew and Tycienski were watching me. Honeydew looked thoughtful, whilst Tycienski’s eyes were very bright. “I have a proposal,” Honeydew announced quietly.

I listened to the proposal. Honeydew wanted to assume complete command of the orchestra, but to retain me as a sort of adviser. Our authority would remain equal – but it would be directed into different fields. Whilst he was conducting, I would wander amongst the orchestra, observing things and offering my advice on bowing and phrasing. “You are our best conductor,” Honeydew pleaded, “but our time is running out, and we need to rehearse for the concert without any further… mishaps.”

It suddenly struck me that we were all in my bedroom. I found myself troubled by this. I sat up, my head now clearing.

“Let’s go downstairs. It must be almost time for lunch.”

Tycienski left in a reluctant hurry – it seemed that he had completely forgotten about lunch, and it requires a lot of work to engineer meals as cheap as the ones which he is feeding to us. Downstairs, the children were standing about vacantly, waiting for something to happen, and Honeydew convened a general meeting.

“I think that most of us are not up to rehearsing very much today, but it is important that we all keep working for the concert.” Most of the children were watching me rather than Honeydew, and some of them looked oddly impatient. “This afternoon we will all put in several hours of private practice. I know that the Grange is hardly designed for this, but we must each try and obtain as much private space as possible for ourselves to practice in. We all have a lot of work to do!”

The children nodded solemnly, in unhappy agreement. I wondered whether the ones whom I had expelled from the dorm had returned to their beds.

Lunch turned out to be a platter of what looked like Marmite on toast. Most of this fare remained untouched and half way through the meal, a large crowd of the children departed suddenly, in what seemed like a prearranged mass walkout. Honeydew and I watched without comment as the children left the Grange by the front door and proceeded down the great road which led out of the estate, presumably in the direction of Joppa village. Munching on my cold toast, I observed Honeydew flinch slightly as the lines of children disappeared past the gate.

The Grange had been abandoned. Wandering amongst its rooms, I occasionally came across a child curled up by themselves under a table or beside an armchair, playing forlorn little tunes on their instrument. They seemed to melt into the shadows as I passed.

Arriving at the window of the games room, I spotted a man walking up the road to the Grange, and I thought that I recognised him as the father of a lad from the brass section. Approaching the Grange, he looked wary. I heard him gain admission, and then there was shouting in the hallway and the voice of Tycienski angrily demanding calm. Honeydew collected me from the games room with the remark that it was a very nice day. I followed him like a child. We put on our coats and hats like children going out to play, before leaving the Grange by the back door.

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