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Ode to a Boy Musician

By Lizzie Freestone

The boy begins.

His fingers dance down the black and white steps of the piano, harmony and melody in their movement alone. It is elegant, so fluid you could have mistaken his hands for dancers themselves; partner work impeccable, lifts held and controlled with ease. Wild turns and twists of the narrative song bring changes in rhythm, as the dancers stretch and plummet through the scales. Notes tumble over and over each other like acrobats, each striving to be more beautiful than the last. Movement twists and contorts itself into waves of sound and rhythm.

There’s a noise from outside. A car backfiring, perhaps. It doesn’t matter. The boy blinks once, twice. Back in this dim world. He sighs. The music stops.

The room is small, walls pasted with a dreary cream paper. On one wall- an oil painting. Black and green and grey swirled into life, trying to capture British spirit in the traditional (gloomy) manner. A man alone in the countryside imposes on the hills, his presence scattering shadows on the frost-greyed grass, dismal light illuminating all. He likes this painting, so naturally the boy doesn’t. (Which is why it’s been put in here, with the piano. Where the boy has to see it.) Overhead, birds screech- that’s how the painting tries to make you feel.

It has been nine minutes.

Nine minutes is a short amount of time when you think about it, but long enough when you have to practise stretching the little time you have to yourself. Nine minutes is enough to forget about him and his stupid paintings and the smell of his breath and his clothes when you have to wash them. So the boy forgets and begins to play again, the music louder now. There is a swell in the sound- a heart in arrhythmia, the gallop of horses, the drum of the battlefield, the scream of a people in combat. A crescendo. And then it creeps down again, softly, softly.

The melody twists into something else. A lullaby maybe? A song for lovers?

Creak.

The doorknob turns, tarnished silver breaking the spell of the music. The boy tenses, but he does not stop playing. To stop playing is to admit weakness, to admit fear. And he is afraid, at this point. He is afraid. But nothing in this world could persuade him to stop playing, even for a moment. This is his ground, and he will stand it.

To stop playing is to admit weakness, to admit fear.

The door opens, and a shadow falls on the wallpaper. The muscles in the boy’s neck stiffen, rock hard with stress. A scent of something sour, something sickly-sweet and volatile. Like vinegar, or urine-damp sawdust. The source is clear. The boy can feel warm breath on the back of his neck. He knows he must not flinch. His music twitches as he plays now; the rhythm uncomfortable, the lilt less defined. Shaky. But still, he plays. The boy knows that he must carry on playing, because he does not like the music- the solace it brings the boy or the talent which draws attention at school, means he cannot be left and forgotten. The music is the boy’s own quiet retaliation. And the man knows it.

He weaves notes into another tapestry, and gets lost all over again. He wanders through the song, marvelling at the beauty of the place. The melody is muted turquoise, cheerful but quiet, while the harmony is dark gold, strange and exotic and beautiful. He’s on a journey, away from this hateful place and towards another world, one strange and beautiful and bright.

When he snaps back to reality the room is dark. He is alone. His hands are cramped. He is cold and hungry. The man in the painting glares at him, cutting moonlight illuminating the coldness of thepicture.

There’s a small pile of something in the corner. Sheet music. It’s the one thing he’s permitted to buy, in this prison-of-a-house. Beneath it, an even smaller pile of something else – matchsticks.

He nearly has enough.

From what he’s heard, oil paint is flammable.

Canvas even more so.

Shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers' Award 2016

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