You know what? I’m inconsistent. It’s my prerogative, definitely. So when Lisa suggested ‘Mystery’ for my ‘M’, the only thing I could think of was the next part of Anitra’s story – this time taking us back to a time between Shadows and Stardust, and The Wasted Minstrel. If you’ve not been following the thread of this story (which I intend to bring into fullness, and seek publication for) then do at least give Shadows and Stardust a quick squizz before you read this.
And my thanks again to Mandi, without whom there would be no story (and, in this instance, because she’s amazing and definitely bailed me out at the last moment, without her there also would be no beautiful, perfect image for the piece).
It was chuck-out time in the city. Pavements thronged with bodied dressed in their weekend best (and least per square inch), flitting between the post-midnight shadows and the shining, street-lit pools of orange, making everyone look like they’d been Tangoed.
Crowds of happy drunks were flooding out of the Soul Cellar, proliferating the street with high spirits and shouting – no scraps, no lairiness, just excitement and giddiness. When the music was that good, ill-temper held no sway, and the joint was well-known for having one of the lowest rates of violence in town.
I pressed forwards against the tide of students and professionals, all of whom seemed still to be buzzing with leftover chords. Step, step, sidestep, dodge, quick, quick, slow…and finally into the cloaked entrance, down the stone steps and into the corridor, now only thrumming with the low sound of voices.
Onwards, onwards towards the light, where the stage was being packed down as the band put their instruments to sleep, nestled in their velvet cases; towards the tables and tables of filth and garbage and spilled drinks and grimy empties which were my weekly chore and my utter delight; towards nirvana – to hear Anitra play.
Luis (the manager) had agreed, after some weeks of impassioned begging, that if Anitra was willing for me to come in and take charge of her clear-up shift whilst she played the piano, he wouldn’t hold it against me (or make it widely known that his establishment was playing host to a possible nutter, as clearly evidenced by the level of my infatuation with his waitress’s talent). He smiled indulgently each time I arrived, making some joke about my greedy ears and silly bargains.
It stopped being grating one night after he decided to see what all the fuss was about and poured himself a drink, propping himself against the bar as I began clearing the glassware into one of the carry-crates ready for the dishwasher. Anitra took her place at the piano, more self-conscious than usual and flubbing a few bars as her eyes flicked repeatedly over to Luis.
She began light, with Joplin and some show tunes, the bouncing rhythm of the music unclenching her hands as they jived across the keys, impromptu flourishes beginning to make themselves heard as she made the tunes her own. I clinked around as quietly as I could, not resisting the urge to dance my way between the tables, energised (in spite of the late hour) by the spirit of the music.
I watched, from the corner of my eye, smiling, hands dripping with hot, sudsy water as I wiped the tables down and she began to lose herself to the music. I saw her eyes turn inwards as her focus shifted away from us; away from the bar and the stage and the lateness of the hour; until her whole outer world had contracted to the size of the piano, and her inner world had expanded into glorious, endless sound as the music took her over.
It never stopped being magical, watching that happen. I never got lost as readily, but there were times when she’d play a piece which swept me up, too, and I’d stand, spellbound, my soul rushing through the bars, rippling up and down the octaves and flying from the tips of the crescendos into the perfect freedom of note-spangled creative space.
Over the best part of a year, this became my weekend ritual, whenever she worked, and Luis would often join us, the three of us developing an unconventional but deep friendship which existed in that one place, was born of, and centred around music.
We spoke at length of our musical loves, the latest chart-toppers, our opinions of concerts, orchestras, favourite songs and most-hated. We grew to understand one anothers’ moods and nuances, though we never delved beyond the context of that room and our purpose for being there.
Anitra’s playing, which accompanied our every evening together, reflecting the atmosphere with stormy, crashing pieces, or sparkling, butterfly-light ones, always leaving us cheered and more musically educated than we had been before.
She was improving, too, and one night I walked in as she and Luis were hi-fiving one another in excitement at something. She ran over and threw a quick hug around me, her eyes shining – someone had dropped out at the last minute and Luis had offered her the chance to play.
“It was incredible”, he confirmed “she captivated the entire place. They all stopped and just listened…”
I grinned back at Anitra, my eyes shining with the delightful knowledge that I’d had a small part to play in this happening – her music beginning to be listened to by a wider audience.
Even with the regular slot Luis now insisted on, and her growing local fame, Anitra never sought more. I didn’t understand it – her range was vast, and she was so accomplished. But whenever I suggested it, she’d close down and shut me out for a while, brooking no conversation on the topic.
Perhaps I was partly to blame. I don’t know.
Maybe more responsibility lay with Luis, who saw her each day for her shift. We’d both remarked to one another about the increasingly melancholy pieces Anitra was playing for us. Still beautiful, but rather than sending us soaring, she stretched our heartstrings with the music of anguish, plucking at them with pained, shivering notes which echoed around the room and left us in a thrill of vast, empty internal landscapes.
We were greedy – perhaps that was it. We gorged ourselves on her music and kept asking for more, begging like sad-eyed orphans for the bowls of our ears to be filled up to overflowing. Each time she acquiesced, we forgot ourselves and allowed ourselves to be taken away in the music, to whatever plane of stark beauty she chose, focussing on the sound and not its creator.
I turned up one night, pushing through the crowds in my usual excited anticipation, down the steps and into that corridor towards what had become my favourite room in the world, to find Luis running his fingers through his hair, looking strung out.
He saw me come in and his body sagged as fleeting panic (was it?) cast his face into shadow.
“She’s not with you then?”
“Who? What do you mean?”
His words, when they came, were laden with hurt and a tone of concern which belied only the very tip of the iceberg of emotion we were soon to feel:
“She’s gone. Anitra’s vanished…”