Inspired by a true event.
Sitting in the theatre wings, waiting for his number to be called, was close to the most terrifying feeling Kaylan had endured. The treasured cello between his knees his only source of comfort.
‘Didn’t I tell you they’ll take points off if you slouch like that?’ his mother whined as she straightened his bright red bow tie. ‘I only nag because I want what’s best for you honey.’
He wasn’t sure what that was anymore. At sixteen, winning a competition like this would almost guarantee a spot in the most elite music conservatorium in the country; and a placement there will surely foster a prosperous and fulfilling career. However fulfilment was something that felt distant to Kaylan for some time.
The nerves that rattled through his stomach weren’t the usual churn of excitement that enveloped his strings when he performed Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major.
Something was missing.
This wasn’t the first time Kaylan had felt like this. The past year, since he’d become known around town as the prodigy to watch, the pressure and expectation had begun to dilute the pure joy he had for the craft. As he waited in the wings, his mother still fussing and his peers fully focussed, he drifted in thought to a time he did feel that simple bliss that music delivered.
Seven years ago, Kaylan was a spritely, curious nine year old. He would often travel to the local shopping complex with his mother and absorb all the sights and sounds like a sponge. His desire to explore, on several occasions, had brought him into strife with his mother who would always find him wandering off.
On this particular day when mum was packing the car with loads of shopping, Kaylan heard a strange murmur of sounds nearby; something new, indescribable and positively alluring. His attention fixed on the huge town hall in front of him, and without care for consequence, he scuttled across the road to find out more.
A visiting orchestra were preparing to rehearse, as Kaylan peered cautiously through the huge front doors. Although the musicians were only tuning up, the glorious pings and plucks and hums that echoed around the ornate ceilings felt like a soothing bath to the young boy.
‘Excuse me?’ the gentle voice of an elderly lady beckoned from behind Kaylan. His trance abruptly ended as he spun around, feeling a sense of dread that he’d been caught doing something wrong.
‘Sorry.’ He muttered as he began to climb down the steps. The embarrassment washed over him like someone had pulled the plug to his blissful immersion.
‘Never apologise for anything that makes your heart sing young man.’ she spoke sternly.
Kaylan’s fear quickly dissolved as soon as he set eyes on her pleasant appearance that resonated as much as the sounds behind him. The only thing distinct from her infectious smile was the bright red scarf that draped over her hunched shoulders.
‘Do you like the orchestra?’ she quizzed but Kaylan only shrugged awkwardly.
‘What’s a orkeestra?’ Kaylan mispronounced and the old lady chuckled playfully.
She guided him to turn around and take another look at the musicians still tuning.
‘That my dear boy is an or-che-stra.’ she spoke slowly.
Kaylan gazed again in awe of the melodic dessert that he could almost taste until the old lady closed the door abruptly.
‘But they’re not quite ready.’ she explained. ‘We don’t want to interrupt their preparation for tonight’s performance.’
Kaylan couldn’t believe there was more to this incredible sensation, which would’ve satisfied his curiosities for a year, so he listened intently to her every word.
‘As luck would have it, I happen to have a spare ticket.’ she continued. ‘My silly old husband passed away a few months ago after we had bought them…’
From here the recollection was a little blurry for Kaylan. It was a mix of tuning instruments being drowned out by his mother’s screeching voice across the street wondering where he was. He does remember her thundering over the road as soon as she set eyes on them, but lucky for him the old lady had a way of dealing with her. Looking back he always felt she must’ve used magic on his mum, for that night he found himself sitting next to this complete stranger in the town hall, about to watch this thing called an orchestra.
Kaylan had his best clothes on that were usually saved for occasions like a family wedding or his nannas funeral; this he thought was a much better reason to get dressed up. He remembered the small detail of his bright red bow tie matching the old lady’s scarf and how his feet kept twitching nervously. Her hand gently patting his knee soon fixed that as she shared a smile with the anxious young man beside her.
The moment had begun. The musicians were in their seats having just finished their final tuning; which delighted Kaylan so much he wanted to burst out with applause. However he had a sense it wasn’t the time, and an inner knowing of much more to come.
That night was filled with such a foray of delights that Kaylan thought he might explode. He recalled a few times the old lady leaning in to whisper something about the different instruments playing, but all he could remember was fixing his attentions on just one.
Despite the melodic twittering of piccolos, flutes and clarinets, Kaylan was drawn to the deep murmur of the giant violin as he would call it. How it resonated through the middle of his chest made the pit of his stomach quiver. It was like seven years of his curious discoveries being replayed at once.
As the cellist began their solo piece, Kaylan’s feet began to spasm madly and his fingers unconsciously flicked about as if he was playing it himself. This time the old lady just smiled and allowed him to fidget. She knew he had been touched by something far greater; a moment that should never be tamed.
‘Thirty two.’ the judge called out from the auditorium. Kaylan looked down to the number on the lanyard around his neck. He knew he was thirty six but still needed to make sure. His confidence for anything had waned over the past six months to the point of doubting his own memory for such simple things, let alone remembering Beethoven. His feet began to twitch nervously as he tried desperately to switch off from his surroundings and the vibrant violinist currently on stage.
Remembering how his life took a new path from that night at the orchestra, he began to recall his most exciting Christmas when he was ten. The poorly wrapped cello was the biggest present he’d ever received. He knew now that it wasn’t Santa who had responded to his countless letters to the North Pole, but the feeling of acknowledgement was just as powerful.
‘Thirty three!’ The judge had to repeat as a young girl whizzed past Kaylan in the wings with her clarinet, and the stress of a grownup he thought to himself. Kaylan took another deep breath to find solace.
The next collection of memories were like a dramatic montage of a movie. The countless lessons with different teachers, the pressure of music exams, and mum insisting he practice while his friends were outside playing cricket on the street.
However this led to a pleasant time when he felt the ultimate triumph. At the green age of twelve, something no-one in his school had attained, Kaylan was invited to join the senior school band. Despite the ongoing correction from his music teachers, he always referred to it as the school orchestra; a resonance which had more meaning than they could understand.
Kaylan’s memory was patchy in places but he was very clear on one thing; he remembered how much he wanted to invite the old lady to see his first performance in an orchestra. It was less than a week away when he was struck with the inspiration to find her; a task that proved more difficult that any one of Bach’s six suites.
He never knew her name at the time and after that night at the community hall, he never saw her again. With his mother vaguely recalling nothing more than a slight inkling of her name, Kaylan was frustrated and felt incomplete without her there. He knew it seemed impossible to find this mysterious woman by Friday, but he had to try.
‘Thirty four!’ The judge’s voice boomed over the microphone as Kaylan’s eyes snapped open. The young clarinettist left the stage in tears as a tall boy confidently waited to go on.
Kaylan was always impressed with this fellow peer in previous exams; the way he carried his trombone with such grace and superiority. However, they were never friends as Kaylan’s cheery nature always seemed to grate the other lad; or so he felt. So in these events they kept their distance with a silent respect accompanied by the random competitive glance; however Kaylan never quite pulled it off as convincingly as he thought he should. Besides, right now his thoughts were filled with a memory which began to knot his stomach more than the looming audition.
With only three days to find the old lady Kaylan had tried everything. He would pass out flyers on the steps of the community hall to passer byes in hope that someone would remember her. His only words on the note were ‘Please, has anyone seen the nice old lady in the red scarf; who loves music.’
Despite his mother’s demand to practice, Kaylan was determined to solve this puzzle, for he felt it was his destiny to repay such an honourable debt.
No-one had come forward.
The night before his orchestral debut, Kaylan had fallen asleep on the steps of the hall. A group of other musicians were heading home as his mother carried him to the car, and nursed the tears ‘til morning.
The following day Kaylan performed with such grace, for he at least owed it to the old lady to turn up and try his hardest; ‘no matter what happens, you need to enjoy your gift.’
He wasn’t sure but it was pretty close to what he remembered her saying about the behaviour of a true musician.
Two days after the concert a young woman appeared on Kaylan’s doorstep to talk to his mother. Piercing this foggy memory was the gutted feeling in his stomach, having heard that she had died just a few months ago. He felt it was a cruel joke until the young woman was kind enough to take him to the gravesite. It finally became real to Kaylan that kind Mrs. Wesley was the guardian angel who changed his life, and who now lay quietly before him.
The resounding applause for the previous entrant with his trombone masterpiece disturbed Kaylan’s reminiscence; a moment he wasn’t glad to re-live. He writhed in discomfort and leapt out of his seat. Knowing he still had long enough before he had to perform, he excused himself to the toilet. Despite his mother’s concern in watching her son drag the cello with him, she also knew the routine that he’d adopted before each performance wasn’t something to disturb, so she let him go.
Lucky for Kaylan, and his mother’s nerves, thirty five’s performance on the piano took longer than expected; as had Kaylan. His restless mother could only hover in the wings, hoping the judges would take their time comparing notes before finally calling her son’s number.
‘Thirty six!’ The judge blurted out impatiently; sipping his fourth cup of coffee. The day had been long for all and it would take a surge of brilliance to put any light back into the judging panel’s eyes.
Kaylan had quite a task ahead of him. He knew it would take a measure of courage to rise beyond expectation, but opportunity had arrived as he felt the ominous calling that he hoped would regain his long lost fulfilment.
He took his seat with perfect posture as he nestled his beloved instrument between his knees. With a slight tremble of nervous excitement he suspended his bow, hovering just millimetres above the strings.
His mother sat motionless in the wings. A tear rolled down her cheek as the judges discreetly leaned into one another, whispering comments between themselves.
Kaylan felt the suspended silence around him. With his breath held back he was sure his heart had stopped beating, then with closed eyes he struck the first note.
Fellow contestants edged their way to the wings of the theatre, trying to catch a glimpse of the competition knowing full well that what was happening could affect their chances of securing the much sought after victory.
Kaylan continued to tremor along with such intensity. Despite the competition rules stating he had to choose one of the three movements, he plundered through the first and into the second with little regard. This was the way he played it best, the way it felt it should be shared; and regardless of the judge’s strict regulations, he knew it would mean more to Mrs Wesley.
The audience in the theatre had never expected this display and his mother continued to weep side stage; wondering how, after years of commitment, she found herself in such disbelief.
Kaylan’s back began to arch further as he could feel the crescendo approaching into the final movement; the Allegro fugato thundering through his veins. The final cadence within his reach brought an unexpected wind whooshing past, flicking his hair across his face. He didn’t flinch but allowed the emergence of a joyous smile; one which he hadn’t felt in years.
As the murmur in the auditorium grew, so did the pain in the pit of his mother’s stomach, as she gazed onto the empty stage where her son should’ve been. One judge gave an irritated nod to another who curtly shook his head.
‘Moving on to thirty seven.’ he sighed, adjusting his paperwork.
The back door to the hall was wide open; rocking back and forth with the gentle breeze.
The final harmonious note echoed into the silence that surrounded Kaylan as he finally opened his eyes; breathless. The soft wind continued for a moment and then disappeared. He graciously leant forward and placed his bow on top of Mrs Wesley’s headstone.
For the first time since that fateful evening seven years ago, Kaylan had rediscovered a pure delight that had long felt like a fading memory. A simple moment of unconditional generosity from a stranger had provided him with a gift for life; one which he knew he would never let go of again, and that which he was determined to pass onto others.