New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Dave Wakely of Buckinghamshire, England is the winner of the 59th Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 7, 2022.
photo via Piqsels
His Second Instrument
by Dave Wakely
[Devon, April 1981]
…..Geoff thought I was mad when I started up again after so long. Well, actually he thought it was geese, honking away in the yard like a traffic jam. He stood at the top of the steps, pyjama-top buttoned aslant and hair skew-whiff, plainly not sure what had come over me. We’ve never argued, not even when he lent across to turn off the car radio before he realised it’d been me talking, but I could see his thoughts. Humour the old girl, mate. She’s just playing jazz outside at dawn in her dressing-gown like any normal farmer’s wife.
…..“Years since you’ve blown that old thing, eh Gail?” he muttered with a saucy wink, pointing at my old sax and its half-perished leather strap. I’ve never been exactly flat-chested, but I’ve definitely stretched further these years than it ever will.
…..“Didn’t realise it was that loud, love – sorry,” I said. “But if Al’s friend wants lessons, who’m I to say no?”
…..I probably didn’t sound too sure, looking back. We’d talked about it, and he’d been encouraging. I knew it’d take a while to get my lip back in, get the fingers used to something more intricate than chicken-plucking, but it’s a lovely challenge to have, teaching someone. Bringing someone on. Just ‘cause I’ll never slip back into something fancy and wow a crowded room, that’s no reason to deny someone else the chance to weave a little magic. Can’t a woman with no kids of her own have a protégé?
…..Geoff was right, though. I might have been good once, but it had been a long time. Many a night I’d made a few quid round the London clubs, dodging the punters’ wandering hands when I squeezed through to the ladies. Kept the takings down my bra and a slap up my sleeve for anyone who tried it on. Not that Geoff was bold. If you wanted to make it sound romantic, you could say we had our first kiss by moonlight. In truth, it was a drunken snog on Ronnie Scott’s fire-escape. Seduced by his rustic charms and fruity accent, I was, and his big yokel belly-laugh. And who wouldn’t love a man who asked a Soho barman for a pint of cider top?
…..No matter what Geoff says, even in Bude I wouldn’t pass as glamorous these days. My wellies are stuffed out with his old rugger socks and I usually smell of chicken shit, but better this than that damp bloody flat back in Brixton. Than anywhere in Brixton right now, judging by the radio. Shocking business, them riots. I’m glad the young ones are down here for now, somewhere a bit safer.
…..Even at half-eight on a Saturday morning, Exeter seems hectic after Welcombe and the back roads. It’s almost city life again, even if some folk aren’t exactly early risers. I’ve had to get people out of bed dropping off fresh eggs at the organic café, and I’m expecting the same with Mark. He is a student, after all. Is ten o’clock late enough? I’ve already spent an hour parked up on the old quay, serenading the empty warehouses with some Lester Young. A few bars of I Cover the Waterfront certainly had the swans flapping the serenity out of their feathers.
…..Getting the fingers moving calmed my nerves a bit though, filling time till I can face some pasty hungover kid with bed-head hair stumbling about in his underpants. How do I introduce myself? We’ve only met the once, through Al and Jen. What if he’s forgotten my face? “Hello, remember me? I’m your friends’ lesbian aunt’s girlfriend’s sister.” It doesn’t seem quite the thing, not in Devon.
…..I park the van in the car park off Bartholomew Street West, grab the sax off the passenger seat and pull out the concert flyer he wrote directions on. Tiny italic handwriting, letters as regular as printer’s type.
…..Walk past Bart’s Tavern with the pub on your left, I read, and go down the steps by the sheet music shop. It must be three years since I was ‘round here, picking up an old Count Basie score and buying Flo and Linda dinner in Bart’s. There’s not many places roundabouts you can take two middle-aged London dykes for a pint, ‘specially if one of them’s Linda, but Bart’s was definitely one. Quite took me back, it did. Like the kind of London night you didn’t tell your Mum about the following morning.
…..I spot the steps, and descend into deep shade. I peer at Mark’s diagram, picking my way along a twisty alley to an old timbered house, tucked in an undergrowth of shadows the medieval lanes have thrown up around it. Someone’s improvised window-boxes from fruit crates and lashed them to the sills with wire, a few spring herbs starting to reach for the light. Somebody somewhere is playing gypsy jazz, madly-scrubbed guitars chasing a hare-brained violin round the hairpin bends of a tune with running in its legs. Not so loud it’ll offend anyone, but enough to get a toe tapping. Rowdy applause too, but it can’t be live, surely? Not this early?
…..As I go to knock, the door swings open and there’s Jen, long ginger hair freshly wet from washing and looking as surprised as me. Shouldn’t she be at art school in Penzance? I know she’s only nineteen but somehow she looks younger than she used to, as if life’s been kinder lately.
…..“Gail, Hi! I stayed over last night – there was a party at the Arts Centre.” She’s gabbling like she’s apologising to her Mum, like I’d censor her for daring to enjoy life. “I’m just nipping out to get some shopping, but I’ll be back in a bit. Steve’s cooking lunch if you’re staying? Go on up, Mark’s expecting you. Kitchen’s on the right.”
…..She shouts up the stairs to Mark to make himself decent and gives me a peck on the cheek before she disappears into the alleyways, some other tunnel back to our century.
…..As I turn into the kitchen, the thick old walls no longer muffle the music and the volume jumps like I’ve stepped into a nightclub. His back towards me, a tall blond young man in a dark green rugby-shirt and the tiniest white shorts is dancing like a dervish to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” exuberant curls swaying as skinny arms hug and twirl some invisible partner. It’s a boy’s body, the man he’ll evolve into still straining to break through its surface. I can see the sinews tensing in his calves, his bone-white thighs as taut as Geoff’s were back when we used to dance naked under the stars in the farmyard and scare the goats. I’m guessing he’s Steve, but he looks so happy in his reverie I haven’t the heart to interrupt him and ask.
…..He executes an extravagant swivel on a barefooted heel, one arm above his head and hips thrust forward like a matador… and suddenly realises he has company. I wanted to applaud, but it’s too late. He’s embarrassed now. His body freezes for a second as his face flushes before he scuttles across the room to turn the music down. In a moment, he’s transformed from gyrating gigolo to bumbling boy, all clumsy graces and desperate eagerness to please.
…..“Er… hi, um hello. Gosh, I’m sorry about that. You must be Mrs… er, oh God, he told me your name and…”
…..His voice is as surprising as his dancing, South African vowels I’ve not heard since the seventies, those days of exiled pianists and trumpet players making a new life in the speakeasies with the rest of the displaced. So what brought him to Exeter, I wonder? He seems an exotic find.
…..I just have time to extend a hand and say “Hi, I’m Gail” before he’s out of the door and onto the landing.
…..“Mark was just in the bath,” he calls back to me. “I’ll tell him that you’re here.”
…..I put my sax case down on a huge old oak table. Any varnish is long gone, but it’s as spick and span as the rest of the room. I’d expected student digs – posters everywhere, clothes on the floor and a health hazard for a sink – but I’d be proud of a floor this recently washed.
…..I plonk myself down on a creaky wooden chair by the window, a neat stack of sheet music in front of me annotated in those familiar tiny italics. ‘Slur’ is bracketed over a row of semi-quavers, ‘vib~’ beside a long held note. Nearby, a thick pile of law books sits next to a notepad smothered in a very different script, its letters sprawling, exuberant and energetic. There’s a Van Gogh wall calendar beside me, the month’s events annotated in one hand or the other: ‘Hot Club at Phoenix’ yesterday, ‘Sax lesson’ and ‘Jen and Al’ today, as tidily as if the words had been typeset.
…..The bolder hand has scrawled ‘Kelly’s service/CND Hyde Park Rally’ three Saturdays ago: the afternoon I’d met Mark. That had been my turn to be embarrassed, thinking Jen and Al had worn black as some kind of symbolic protest before Al told me they’d come to the march from a funeral. “A girl, an old school friend,” Jen had said, not wanting to spell out the details. Al stood behind her, miming a syringe going into an arm.
…..Apart from Jen saying Mark had asked her to talk me into being there once she’d told him I’d be in London that weekend, I don’t remember much about him. Just his dapper jauntily-worn trilby, the mumbling shy keenness underneath it, and how pleased he’d looked when I said I’d give teaching him a try. And now here he is, slicked back wet hair dripping down his sides into skin-tight black jeans as he wraps a towel round his shoulders.
…..“Steve, can you grab my t-shirt, I’ll just turn this off,” he’s saying through an open door, pulling the towel free to cover himself as he sees me.
…..“Hello again, Gail,” he says, a grin on his blushing face but still bashful as he reaches forward to shake my hand. After Steve’s exhibition, he seems so English, all restraint and self-consciousness. “Thanks so much for coming. I wasn’t sure you would.”
…..Steve hands him a t-shirt while I burble something about what a pleasure it is to be here, although I know I’m trying to stop my eyes following the hem of his shirt as it inches down over the trail of dark hair that leads down into his waistband. He’s so slight he’s barely a morsel, but sooner or later someone is going to devour him.
…..As I force myself to look to one side, I could swear Steve’s eyes are making the same journey. “Aren’t you going to tell her who the music is?” he asks, sounding more exasperated than curious. Mark nods coyly from side to side, busying himself with tucking in his t-shirt as his forehead tightens, creases drawn like the lines of a stave.
…..“It’s him, Gail. Isn’t he brilliant! I’d never heard him play before,” Steve is telling me. “Al and me took him to see this gypsy band in the pub and Al got him drunk and made him borrow the guy’s violin and join in.” He taps his nose conspiratorially and winks. “And I bribed the sound guy to bootleg it.”
…..He’s beaming at his friend with pride while Mark turns his head away like he wants to change the subject. I find the words before he does.
…..“So why saxophone lessons if you can already play one instrument that bloody well then, young man?”
…..Good old Gail, always saying it like it is. But it’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? It’s like Picasso asking you to teach him photography. ‘Why?’ doesn’t even start to cover it. And the poor lamb’s so bashful, staring at his hands and rolling his thumbs round each other. If there’s a man inside this one, he’s not ready to come out just yet.
…..“Well… violin is what I learned at school.” The words emerge as reluctantly as a periwinkle on the end of a pin. “It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s for classical music.” Pause. “For standing on a bandstand in dead men’s shoes.” Another pause. “I’m not sure I’m really the traditional type.” A pause, but a smile. “I mean, I was the one in the school orchestra with the Ziggy Stardust haircut.”
…..He looks up, his words giving him momentum, and gestures at a row of cassette cases by the tape deck. I scan their spines: Miles Davis I know, of course, and some of the others are names I’ve heard on Radio 3 but their music hasn’t made it here from London yet: Jan Garbarek, John Surman… All earnest young men, no doubt. Like the one across the table, still fiddling with his t-shirt till he’s as immaculate as a mannequin.
…..“So…” I hesitate. “What can I teach you? And how about I hear you play a bit first?”
…..The nodding is vertical this time and there’s more energy to it, although the hands are still fidgeting thirteen to the dozen. Eager to play to avoid making conversation but still afraid to look foolish. As if I’d judge anyone for trying.
…..Steve butts in. “You sort out your music – I’ll grab the sax for you. It’s by the bed, yes?”
…..Taking a seat, Mark fingers furrow-browed through the pile of scores until Steve reappears, two dirty tea mugs in one hand and a freshly polished sax in the other. “OK if I cook while you play?” he asks. He’s hovering ‘round us, just like Geoff used to stand in the wings when I played anywhere posh, pretending to read the paper but not wanting to miss a note.
…..Mark settles on an old Billy Strayhorn tune, “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” A beauty, I’m thinking. Played right, the chords move like a silk scarf in a breeze, the melody floating like a kingfisher over a stream. Sheer elegance, but a melancholy swoon of a song. Surely not the kind of choice you’d expect from a nineteen year old?
…..“So why this one?” Well, hark at Jo Blunt, eh?
…..“Because I can’t get it right,” he says, allowing himself a chuckle. The kid’s not lacking ambition, I’ll say that. Whatever else is in there, there’s some determination.
…..“Go on then – show me.”
…..He looks like a tortoise on the edge of being startled, wanting to pull its head back into its shell, but he lifts his sax and puts the reed to his lips. The notes come quietly at first, slowly gathering volume as his eyes dance between watching his fingers and glancing anxiously at me.
…..He plays the first verse straight, each note hit cleanly, timing split-second precise, but I can see his shoulders tense as he takes a breath before the second verse. There’s not much I could hope to teach him much about musicality, but a few lessons in relaxing wouldn’t go amiss.
…..The first glissando, that upward swoop he’s mastered so effortlessly with a bow on sheep-gut, is smooth enough. Just six tones up. But in my head I’m a few bars ahead where the note slides up a ninth, and I can see his grip stiffening as he works towards it. Those long slides are difficult. Not just one manoeuvre of tongue and breath and fingers but several, end on end and one into the other. His eyes dart up to meet mine and then clamp shut in concentration.
…..The note glides smoothly up two tones, catches its toe on the third and falls away in a sudden squawk. The mouthpiece drops from his lips as he stares at the floor.
…..“No, no – don’t stop. That was good. Stand up and try again. You’ll breathe better.”
…..He won’t look at me, just pauses for a moment as he gets to his feet and starts again. This time, he makes it up four tones before he panics, fumbles the fingering and bites down on the reed, stopping again.
…..“And again. Don’t be embarrassed, you can do it.”
…..The third and fourth attempts go no better and he’s really tensing up now. This song must have taken me a hundred attempts before I got anywhere near his standard, but in his head he’s sure he’ll never be good enough. I’m gesturing to him to relax, but his eyes avoid me.
…..“Keep your shoulders down,” I tell him. “When you start to tense up, you lift them – and then it all goes awry, doesn’t it?”
…..He’s nodding and blushing, a little ashamed, like the boy in school assembly who started to sing the second verse two beats before the choir. I need to find a different approach.
…..“Steve?” I ask, interrupting him from cooking whatever it is that smells so enticing. “Could you spare a moment to help? I’m going to play along with Mark. Why don’t you stand behind him and put your hands on his shoulders?”
…..He nods his curls, putting down his wooden spoon.
…..“Whenever you feel them start to lift, just gently – very gently – push them back down. Would that be ok?”
…..“Sure,” he says, running his hands under the tap and wiping them dry on his rugby-shirt.
…..“OK Mark, so we’re just going to play this together, round and round. Alright?”
…..Mark nods, and I see his shoulders soften a little as he feels the weight of Steve’s hands on them. I lift my sax out of its case and count us in slowly.
…..Each time, there are falters and glitches but I let him stop, go back a bar or two and start again. Once in a while, I see Steve’s fingertips press down very softly on his shoulders. Slowly, round by round, his playing gets stronger, more assured. We’re so absorbed, we haven’t even noticed Jen and Al come in, and I almost stop in surprise when they start to softly clap the beat to give us a measure to play against.
…..Whether it’s the repetition, the audience willing him on or just the sheer will to get it right, I can see Mark’s body start to move, swaying slightly to the tune’s arcs and curves. He’s starting to feel it rather than think it, starting to let himself. He’ll get there soon.
…..God knows how many more times we play it through but one time, as the long glissando comes around, I see him crouch into it like a cat preparing to jump onto a high fence. He lands it flawlessly, eyes closed. He doesn’t notice that I’ve stopped playing, that I’m just watching now. Doesn’t notice Steve laying plates and cutlery, or Jen and Al still standing by the sink, hands ready to break rhythm and applaud.
…..As he reaches the coda, the final sustained breathy note, we’re all clapping and whistling and he’s left standing, mouthpiece still pressed to lip, note dying away as he breaks into a red-faced grin.
…..I’m looking at Steve beaming over his shoulder and thinking to myself oh, for heaven’s sake just give him a great big hug, will you? I’m not your Mum, and even if I was I wouldn’t mind and I’m certainly not going to tell anyone. Christ, hold hands and snog if you want to – be happy, for the love of Pete. I could kiss the pair of them, they’re so sweet. Like two little runaways who’ve found their enchanted house in the forest.
…..“So…” I tell Mark as his blushing starts to fade, “a few months more practise, young fella, and then how about I introduce you to some mates of mine in Exeter, get you up on the bandstand maybe? And I want my name on the guest list for your first gig, alright?”
…..“Er, yeah. Ok – you’re on.” The embarrassment has faded, but he’s kept the smile. “And you’ll stay for lunch with us now, yeah?”
…..“Bobotje,” Steve leans in and explains, pulling the foil lid from a battered enamel baking dish. I could no more guess what’s in it that spell it, but it smells delicious. “A treat from home. He calls it lamb trifle, but it’s good stuff. You want, Gail?”
…..It is good, and I’m glad to have the food to concentrate on. They’re all in full flow now, Steve and Jen and Al asking me about playing in big bands, where the farm is, how I can live so far from the big lights. Nineteen year-olds in full flight, questions coming at me like panicked sheep through a gate.
…..The gypsy jazz is playing again and I want to get Mark talking about it, but he’s at the far end of the table, little more than an outline against the window. Even though he’s pretending not to listen, I swear he flinches whenever the violin misses a bend as the tune chicanes along. Today’s performance is over now: the turtle’s back in its shell.
…..I can hear Jen ribbing Mark and Steve for closeting themselves away with their books and their serious political debates, for not getting enough fresh air, and Steve fending her off, telling her about marches and demos.
…..“So when’s the last time you two stood on grass that wasn’t Hyde Park or the campus lawn?” she teases him. She points at Mark, almost accusingly. “He used to love the outdoors.”
…..“I don’t suppose…” I start to say, Steve’s expectant blue eyes turning to focus on me. “… that you two fellas would like a summer job with us on the farm this year, would you?”
…..I’ve forgotten my manners now, waving a forkful of minced lamb at him. We need spare hands to rebuild the old barns, and to help planting the vegetable crops we’ve planned.
…..“Free bed and board, free sax lessons – as long as you bring the recipe for this, mind. And young Steven with it, of course. You in too, Al?”
…..He glances at Mark, smiling, and then turns to me, giving me a thumbs up. Mark’s still in silhouette, perched on his chair like a starling on a fence, head turning from side to side as he watches the others one by one. As he turns to look at Al, there’s that grin again. More natural this time.
…..“And Jen,” I tell her, “we’ve an old piano I can get tuned up for you. Want to join us between terms?” I know how much the pair of them want to avoid going back to face their Dad.
…..She’s nodding too, trying not to answer with her mouth full. More of a lady than me, but then most girls are.
…..“You kidding me, Gail?” she says. “Where do we sign?”
Raised in South London, Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, poetry librarian, and editor in locations as disparate as Bucharest, Tirana and Milton Keynes. His writing has been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction and Bath Short Story awards, and appeared in Ambit, Best Gay Stories 2017, Chelsea Station, Fictive Dream, Glitterwolf, Holdfast, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Phare, Prole, Shooter, Token and Truffle Mag, amongst others. One of the organisers of Milton Keynes Literature Festival, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband and too many books, CDs and guitars. He tweets as @theverbalist
Listen to Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (with Johnny Hodges on saxophone) play Billy Strayhorn’s composition, “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”
Click here to read Short Fiction Contest-winning story #58 – “Mouth Organ,” by Emily Jon Tobias