[“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 could hardly make out the children in the darkness, but I could sense that they were watching me distrustfully. As I approached the fireplace, they all turned, in a single sudden movement, to keep me in view. I could not help wondering at these children – despite the unbearable cold, nobody had thought to build a fire – they obviously needed an adult to approve such a tremendous decision. I rolled logs into the hearth with my solitary claw and then a giant fire would dance furiously in my head for several minutes whilst I fussed over a succession of matches.
As the fire rumbled into life, I finally stood golden before the flames. Several of the children stepped back at the sight of me.
I snarled impatiently at them. “Fetch your instruments! Sit down!” I gestured in the air. “As you can see, I will be unable to conduct.” The orchestra approached the imaginary dais and settled restlessly in the gloom. I was mildly surprised by the rich, intricate hum as the children began to tune their instruments.
“We will be performing in concert tomorrow, and I think that we need to approach the problem of how to put on a show – of how to interest and entertain the audience. I want you to play something cheerful… lively…” I trailed off – I was not supposed to request music from the orchestra, but to tell them what to play. “One of Mr. Honeydew’s pieces?” I concluded.
A tiny voice rose out of the stirring darkness. “But we’re supposed to play them with him, sir?”
“We’re going to play one of his pieces,” I repeated angrily. “I can hardly conduct anyhow. It’s probably Carousel that you’re doing? We’ll play something from that. Who would like to conduct?”
The leader Kenny finally presented himself at the front of the orchestra. His breathing became quick and shallow as I took his right arm with my good hand and, between us, we began to beat out a rough time. The orchestra gradually fell in. Once they were into the piece – which rattled along with an unearthly jauntiness – I began to peer about the room to see if we had attracted the little boy. I went to the window and looked out across the shadows of the garden. On such a cold, lonely night, this sort of melody would appeal to a lost child.
“Louder!” I roared back at the orchestra. The music jolted into a greater vigour.
He was around here somewhere. I was prowling amongst the instrument cases, although very little was visible this far away from the fire.
A saxophone had been left lying across a chair – it presumably belonged to one of the children whom we had lost over the course of the day. I picked it up with my good hand, shuddering at the clammy metal, and I began to poke its knob of tubing into the darkness, prodding blindly.
It took me by surprise. The boy bolted, darting away from me like a disturbed animal. I began to clatter after him again, still clasping my saxophone.
The corridor waited in the darkness. Behind me, the orchestra were still limping jauntily along.
A door swung open ahead and we erupted into the night. My flesh stung in the cold air. I was now chasing the boy through the garden, incredibly managing to avoid falling over all of the things which were jumping into my way.
Yet suddenly alone on the lawn, spinning around helplessly, I froze.
I had never before noticed the screen which hung on the wall of the games room, but I could see it now through the window. It was flickering with bursts of white light, like the fluttering eyelids of a waking man, and then there was finally footage on the screen. There was the body in the grass, floating in huge, soft detail, and the figure of myself kneeling before the body and masturbating with a brisk fierceness. The orchestra played on, oblivious to the spectacle hanging above them, although Kenny, who was facing the screen directly, began to glance at it, starting with incomprehension.
The footage had settled on Honeydew’s face. I was running back to the house, pleading with any god who was listening that the door had not locked behind me. Once back in the games room, I hobbled up to the screen and began to pound at it with the only thing to hand – my saxophone. The music wobbled and then disintegrated to a puff of smoke as all of the orchestra put down their instruments and turned to watch me. The screen had cracked and it was now a fathomless blue. Eventually the light went out altogether, and I pulled down the tattered shards of the screen with my good hand.
I distinguished what looked like a mobile phone lying at my feet. I manoeuvred the battered stump of the saxophone over the mobile and brought it down massively, with all of my strength. I then smeared the phone about the floor until I was certain that it was completely crushed.
I returned to the front of the orchestra. “Not good enough!” I declared. “That is simply not professional! I don’t think that any of you are taking this seriously!”
I looked around at the orchestra, although I could perceive only the outlines of their heads in the darkness. “We are now going to rehearse! And you are going to play – you are going to play this music for the first time in your lives! And that means determination – it means discipline! It means putting everything into the music, sacrificing everything, so that you have nothing left – only a consciousness of the music! I have seen you play – I once had a vision of it – and I know what you can achieve! But it means discipline! Now we are going to play through the night – we are going to play until this music is good enough!”
I told Kenny that I would conduct one-handed, until the sensation had returned to my other arm, and he scuttled back to take his place at the head of the orchestra. “We will be playing Shostakovich and Vaughn Williams, and you will just have to sing the accompaniments yourselves until they sound right. One of you must take the baritone!”
We went over the music again and again, until it became gradually clearer and I began to feel confident enough to trust myself to the music, as if it were a boat which I was allowing to take my weight. Deep in the night, a great storm approached the Grange and it laid merciless siege. Soon the whole building was rattling from top to bottom, as the gales pounded on its walls to demand our surrender. But it was so cold that the children were glad to keep playing, and there came a point just before the dawn when they had achieved a complete mastery of the music, and they were finally taking pleasure in their own power and beauty. Like the image of a duchess being built and perfected within a canvas, there is a moment when the music begins to assume a life of its own. Outside it began to snow.
We concluded playing at about eleven in the morning. The concert would begin at two and we needed to work hard to be ready on time. I herded all of the children out into the snow and I told them to strip to their pants. There was a pressure hose curled up outside the gardeners’ shed and after pinning the pistol under my good elbow, I dragged it over to where the orchestra were waiting. The thing jumped in my hand with an icy snort, but I finally managed to train it on the children and they were soon tramping about under a shower of freezing water. There is nothing more invigorating – nothing which brings one any further to the edge of reality. The children faced me, bare and stark like an army of savages, and at that moment it looked as if they were capable of raising a city to the ground.
Back inside the Grange, I turned my attention to my arm. It was almost certainly broken, and the flesh was sodden with blood. After I had peeled away the remains of my shirt sleeve, some of the children helped me to nip the bone – with sharp little jiggles – back into place. There was an instant of pure, total pain, and I blacked out. When I revived, I vomited heavily and this made me feel better.
Venturing to the kitchen to forage for some breakfast, I found Tycienski and several other men apparently loading a white van with catering supplies. At the sight of me, the men scrambled into their van and it tore off.
“What the devil are you doing?” I screamed at Tycienski.
“Just getting rid of some food. It was possibly past its sell by date.” Tycienski regarded me with concern. “Are you okay?
After fumbling in my pockets, I stuffed a pile of banknotes into his hand. “Get us something good to eat. We deserve it. Go to the butchers and get some breakfast. And when you return, clear the games room and prepare it for the concert. We only have a couple of hours.”
At two o clock, I marched into the games room to be greeted by the sight of about a hundred parents. They looked so uneasy that if I had clapped my hands, they would have probably all run away on the spot. There were shards of the smashed television screen still hanging from the wall above the orchestra, the room was so cold that the audience had refused to take off their coats, and the children looked gaunt from their lack of sleep. But I could not clap my hands, of course, and I would only conduct the orchestra by glaring at the players and thumping my good fist on the music stand. I spotted my wife standing at the back of the audience – there were inevitably not enough seats – and I nodded curtly to her.
The performance was magnificent.