There are some tales which seem to defy the telling. It is as if they try to block the ears of the listener, to prevent the thoughts being heard, or as if a morbid sense of self-protection seeks to put barrier between tongue and air, to deny ideas a voice. Perhaps some stories are just too outlandish to be allowed to survive out in the chilly air, exposed to any number of cynical ears.
This location, The Black Lion, has heard any number of dubious tales in its time. These tobacco-darkened walls, tables scorched by misremembered matches and floors tacky with spilt ale have played silent host to all manner of stories over the years. And I thought I had heard them all, until that day that Gavin burst through the doors as if something nasty was biting at his heels.
‘Good lord,’ he muttered, banging the door open. He stood there in the entrance as snowflakes pattered around him. ‘Really, no, really?’
‘Please continue,’ I cried, ‘in your own time. Just as long as you close the infernal door!’
My intemperate suggestion cut no ice with him. He stood there yet, muttering towards his feet like one in the comfort of his own climate.
‘Just – there. Just – there. As bold as anything. As if it were nothing,’ he continued.
‘Gavin,’ I said, ‘outside are all the icicles of Siberia. Must we invite them all in?’
He recollected himself at this, and turned to me with an expression which suddenly made me wish I wasn’t alone.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It is you, is it? Well, it is certain my mind is troubled, and it would be a kindness to bring whisky.’
Diligently I brought this over, if for no other purpose than to quell the air of disorder which clung to him. It took a second whisky to do this, and he had a third in his hand before he felt able to give voice to his feelings.
‘Yes,’ he said at last, ‘here we are, in a normal saloon, two normal people living out their lives as is perfectly normal.’ His collar stuck out at an angle which gave me severe pain.
‘But what could have rattled you so?’ I asked. ‘In all these years of knowing you I have never seen you in such a flap.’
He paused, took another swallow and took a deep breath.
‘I never thought I would hear myself say these words, but – I have a story to tell.’
Ever the dutiful friend, I kept the drink flowing as he revealed his tale.
‘You are aware of course that I routinely play the piano in the restaurant of The Brown Bear?’
I did know this. It was not a place suited to my pocket, but I saw it as a place I might one day aspire to frequenting.
‘The money’s good. Eight guineas thruppence ha’penny per hour, to entertain the city’s elite who no doubt pay as much attention to my tinkling as they do to the inflated prices of the glasses they knock back as if tomorrow will never come. If only that were the case.’
He gulped back the remainder of his glass, looking with surprise at the fresh one I had put in front of him. He picked it up, gazing into its amber deeps.
‘But tonight. Tonight something was different. I can’t even put it into words. Something in the way George the head waiter greeted me, maybe. “Not the usual crowd tonight,” he said, grinning at me. This put me on edge, for reasons I cannot articulate, even before I had entered that room. And I don’t know if I imagined it, but did I see him look at something over my shoulder? Some sight which, when I turned my head to look, melted into the air?
‘So I was rattled, before I even took to the keys. Just an ordinary Tuesday evening, but already I was on the back foot. Though I would rather die than label myself a ‘professional’, I approached the evening’s task as a job like any other. I put all thoughts of mystery out of my head and focused on the keys alone. The trusty old blacks and whites who, from a chaos of wood, formed a poem of sound.
‘I played them all, every scale from A to G, major to minor. Wherever the muse took me, there I went. 3/4 time, 4/4 time. It was a standard Tuesday evening, after all.
‘It was when I paused between tunes, though, that was when things changed. I happened to look up. Perhaps you know there’s a mirror behind the piano, one which gives a view onto the entire room. Though perhaps you’ve never noticed it, as I had never noticed it, until now. I looked, in that moment, and I saw – well, who knows what I saw. Nothing tangible. Only a reminder that I was a temporal being performing a role whose every motion was a short-lived note against a cold and silent universe! Some shape I convinced myself without difficulty I had never seen.
‘I shook the heaviness from my head and played on. I played some low notes, some stately funereal chords, and some high notes, some carefree arpeggios, and fairly soon I was lost in the playing. In the moment I forgot my nerves and the keys obeyed my whims.
‘But then, once I had forgotten myself, and had let the music take me with it, I looked up again, and this was my fatal error. I don’t know how to say it. There was something. Though the parameters of my vision didn’t change, all the same something had shifted. I felt that something, some terrible thing was watching me. It could see me wherever I went, and I couldn’t hide.
‘As you know, I have never been one to shirk from difficulties. I didn’t stick with the pedestrian tunes they wanted me to play. If I was being watched I wanted to be noticed for the right reasons. Over the next hour I gave it everything I had. Every bass foundation, every trill with the right hand, I attacked each staidest tune with the vigour of one whose very breath would not outlast his fingers. I hammered those chords, slamming my fingers against the ivories as if every demon in Hell was breathing down my neck. I squeezed out barcarolles, exuded sonatas and thundered fugues as if Lucifer himself had appeared demanding an invite. And with each note I unconsciously yelled ‘Begone! Begone!
‘And of course I forgot. I found myself playing whatever I felt like, my hands flying over those keys. I could not tell you what they did, it was as if I were in another place.’
He took another sip.
‘I felt good to leave there. It felt like I had been drained of any tension, like the piano had taken the worst of me and now I was free. I forgot all my fears.
‘As to the sequel, well… Hardest of all is the knowing that – G-D! – anyone would think me mad if I told them what I am about to tell you.’
And that was when it happened. Gavin’s face had alerted me to the momentousness of the situation, and now he leaned over and – good God – he told me the worst of it.
Calmed by the feeling of a job well done, he had left The Brown Bear, walking through the lobby towards the main doors as always. But in the lobby he had paused and spotted something he could not understand. It did not make sense. It was only late in the evening, several drinks to the good, that he could justify just what he had seen. He leaned over and whispered in my ear…
I sat in silence for who knows how long. The relief on Gavin’s face had been obvious, as he unburdened himself of this tale. And when he left to go out into the sleet it was not as one who feared the elements. It was as if some heaviness had passed from him to me. As if telling his story had freed him. But I was not free of the consequences.
On leaving the hotel Gavin had seen not just something but someone. They had appeared when he was least prepared. He saw them across the lobby, three teenage girls.
(‘…comin’ at ya…’?)