Lara S Williams
Lara S. Williams is a British/Australian writer who has been published or has work appearing in over twenty international literary journals including Voiceworks, Cordite, Antipodes, Islet, Blue Crow, page seventeen, Magma, Island, Agenda, MiPOesias, Blue Fifth Review, Orbis and Neon. She is currently living in Seoul, South Korea, and spends most of her time writing and eating kimchi. She plays the saxophone somewhat haphazardly.
A Fugue To Happy Moments In Time
‘Son, your mother doesn’t understand like I do. You need this.’
‘I didn’t even apply, it’s a scholarship.’
‘So you’re looking a gift in the mouth?’
‘It’s to look a gift horse in the mouth.’
He concedes with a wave of his hand, sips his absinthe and lets out a loud exhalation. His foot taps to the beat of Paul Desmond’s ‘Take Five’ crackling from a stereo above the doorway; he gears himself up.
‘Hundreds of people apply to this school and ninety nine percent of them spend years beating themselves up because they didn’t make it. Waste money on extra tuition, books. But you don’t need that! They’re giving it to you on a plate. “Didn’t even apply”, good god, boy!’ Another sip of absinthe. He never uses the accompanying sugar.
‘You drink far too many of those,’ I wince.
‘Don’t change the subject. I won’t watch you turn them down.’ He slams the table with his fist.
I smile into my less abrasive vodka, turning the glass in the sun and watching smoky rainbows strike the cement. ‘Calm down. You know I‘m going. It‘s mum.’
He considers, tilting his head at an angle. Past his ear I see the café sign winking to a bookshop across the street.
‘Lie,’ he says.
‘I cannot lie to my mother.’
‘But I can.’
‘I don’t want to tell her some story. I want her to be happy for me.’ I kick at the ground. ‘There’s only so long she can use the same excuse to keep me here.’
‘Now that’s unkind,’ he replies. ‘You know how she feels. She lost her son.’
‘We all lost him. But I can’t stay home with her forever. I’m not him. I’m not a replacement!’
‘She worries. And you should be more understanding.’ He is flustered and I regret upsetting him.
‘Will you come visit me?’
‘Never.’ We are silent for some time and my father raises his hand and clicks, signalling for another drink. I smile and shake away a second vodka.
He chews his cheek and thinks. ‘I said I’d never go back to Paris.’
‘Bad memories?’ I ask.
‘No, my son, good!’ he replies explosively. ‘Good memories, excellent, the very best of my life.’
‘Then why stay away?’
He is serious now, eyebrows almost meeting at the bridge of his nose. A new absinthe appears and he pushes it aside, fearing the distraction.
‘Have you ever felt so utterly happy and content that you want to lie down and die, just to finish on a high?’
‘Not exactly. I think it would put a rather sour note on things.’
‘I have!’ He leans forward, eyes fixed on something beyond my ear. ‘Years ago in Paris, I played flute in a tiny restaurant. I don’t recall where it was.’ He waves his hand impatiently, continues, ‘blue window shutters upstairs. It was called ‘L’amour’. I met Gabriella, a Spanish student visiting for a study break.’ He looks at me. ‘She was sensational. Dark and quiet, didn’t ask questions. I finished playing and drank wine with her and the moon came out over the top of her perfect head.’ He pulls a white handkerchief from his pocket and lays it on the table, showing me the embroidery of a woman’s figure in light blue thread.
‘I always liked this.’ I touch the corner
‘You ever wonder where I got it? She gave it to me. One kiss and an eternal memory.’ He stops and shivers. ‘Paris will make you.’ He finishes the drink and I think for a moment he means to stay longer, get drunker. Instead he tumbles two bills onto the table and gestures to the book store opposite us. ‘Come with me. I’m getting you something.’
I’d been there many times before, always finding unpriced copies of penguin editions in boxes at the counter. I watch my father disappear in that direction, then return clutching a sheaf of lined paper.
‘I knew they had this here,’ he says. My fist fills with paper and he ushers me out onto the street. ‘Beautiful on the flute, that.’ As I look he digs in his pocket and unwraps a chocolate cigar.
‘Satie? Ah, Trois Gynopodies.’ I point the music at his mid-drift and nod my head. ‘Thank you.’
‘You can play that at your final performance.’ He sprays cocoa smoke around my ears.
‘I might not get that far.’
He backs away, jabbing his cigar in the air. ‘Course you will. You’ve got Satie.’
‘Can we go home?’ I walk beside him and finger the corners of my sheet music to sweat.
I arrived for orientation on the third of February, early on a snowy evening. My bags, bursting with music sheaves and polishing oil, slapped against my father’s flute, all pressed tightly to my thigh like a child. Already students milled around the entrance hall dragging cases, stands, trunks, coats and naked instruments. A rumble of languages filled the quiet spaces in the air. As I made my way to the dormitory a black boy with coloured beads in his hair dropped a saxophone and I heard the squealing snap of valves.
My room was a twin, the room mate not yet arrived. I put my flute on a narrow metal-framed bed and inspected the pine shelves above the head board. After lining up a few books and unpacking my pressed clothes I went to explore the grounds.
Outside I buttoned my overcoat and turned the corner of the building, heading for a varnished wooden gate set into the surrounding fence. Slipping through I entered a small courtyard dark with pine branches. Bird feeders and bony rose stems dangled from the wood and tangled together until the two became one impenetrable force. Fresh snow sat on the grass like carpet free of footprints and rain stain. A paved ring of brickwork clawed through, its only adornment a rusty iron bench.
Seated was a young woman tightening the string of a viola. She drew the bow across its face, listening closed-eyed. I thought her beautiful; haematite hair wound around the neck of her instrument, knuckles pink in the cold, finger tips white with string pressure. I approached, watching the slender arm slide back and forth. Her eyes opened when my heels clicked on the bricks.
‘Bonjour.’ She lowered her viola.
‘Don’t stop,’ I murmured.
She smiled and put the instrument away. I looked at the shape of her coat collar against the white throat. Her eyes were wet with large irises that rolled around the line of my face. I wanted to say something about her playing.
‘Embrasse-moi,’ she breathed in melodious baritone.
Snow settled on my head, melt running behind my ear and traversing the hairline to spread at the nape of my neck. Her breath clouded into my nostrils and I smelt cinnamon and tasted tiny speckles of snow on her cheeks. Her left elbow was remarkably warm, sheltered as it was in the curve of her body whilst playing.
The spotlight swoons across my flute and ignites trickling mirrors in the valves. I see a man, short and portly, standing at the front. He waves a familiar white handkerchief and his presence gives me a pleasurable jolt.
I hold the flute like a fine sword, feeling a brassy thrum beneath my fingers. The lights dim, signalling my introduction.
‘This piece,’ I announce, ‘is for my father, the flautist Albert Pewty who has come here, at great risk to himself, to hear me play Satie.’
He remains standing, a tweed apostle, and the smile he illicits transforms my piece from perfected mournful practises into notes bent warm and sweet. The performance is long, accompanied by piano. I dimly hear my own playing over the roar in my head.
Behind my body the concert‘s highlight appears: an enormous silver moon born from moulded ceramic and tiny shards of glass, thick like the bottom of a vodka tumbler. It lowers before the backdrop and lights hit it on all sides, sending moonlight in every direction.
I see my father sit abruptly. His face is shadowed and he lowers his head to rest on his chest. I end my piece, arms lifted level with the flute, an unusual and ungainly stance but one that allows my body help the music collapse into finish. I lower my shivering arms and bow.
When there is relative quiet on the other side of the curtain I return to the stage. Looking down I am surprised to see my father still sitting in place.
‘Dad!’ I call out. ‘I can’t believe you came.’ I rush to the edge and drop down, sit beside him. ‘Did you enjoy it?’
He doesn’t look at me. I reach out and touch his lapel, run the finger down his body, feel the warmth of flesh under his clothes.
‘Answer me.’ I look down and see his handkerchief on the floor, a footprint across its body. ‘Dad?’
He is dead at sixty three, captured in the final happiness he feared. I bow my head and press it into his neck. I wonder why he is so warm and I so cold.
‘I’m glad you came,’ I whisper.
The jazz saxophones were swinging, punching out a fast paced version of Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker’s Street’. The vocalist, a young man, was perched on a green stool, thin black moustache pointing at the drums balanced across his knees. I sat, head on chest, nodding out of time.
‘Vous desirez?’ The waitress repeated herself three times to my silence before giving up and leaving a menu on my table.
A woman opposite me lifted dark eyes to meet mine. She was wrinkled and very beautiful. There was an aura of contentment around her greying hair.
‘You’re sad,’ she said in a thick Spanish accent. ‘Would you like a drink?’
I lowered my head and nodded weakly. ‘Thank you. A vodka.’ I paused. ‘Actually, absinthe.’ The woman called to the waitress and she soon appeared bearing two glasses and a bottle.
‘Why aren’t you with other young ones, enjoying such a beautiful night?’ She looked up at the moon, now full, hanging above her silver-tinted head. I took the absinthe in my fingers, steeled myself, and swallowed.
‘I’m not much for company tonight. But thank you.’ I gestured with the empty glass and she dipped her head.
‘Drink, talk.‘ She sipped and threw a hand across her glowing head. ‘After all, you’re in ‘L’amour’.’
I turned my head to look at the peeling wood sign. The blue window shutters banged in the breeze. I clapped my hands together and laughed. ‘Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?’
The woman went to refill my glass.
‘No!’ I cried involuntarily, placing my hand across the rim. ‘One is enough. Just one.’
Her tongue reached out to caress her bottom lip in slow contemplation. ‘It is a beautiful night,’ she sighed. ‘I have met a beautiful, sad man. But I am happy. If I were any happier, I would die.’
I don’t hesitate. ‘You probably will.’
‘What an end to the world.’
The drums fell away and one single saxophone carried the tune. The same rough voice sang only to me. Felt only me.