“Bugger.” I stopped as we passed the wynd down to the harbour. “I left my books in the practice room.”
“Claire, seriously?” Even in the dark, I knew Theo was rolling his eyes. “Go back in the morning.”
“Can't; I need to make my notes tonight, they're from short loan. I have to take them back by ten tomorrow.”
Salted wind hissed over the cathedral walls. Harrison shifted the pile of Gilbert and Sullivan scores in his arms, clutching them across his body like a shield. “I'll walk back with you.”
“Don't be silly. I'll be five minutes, tops - I'll see you both back at the flat.”
I turned round and hurried back to Younger Hall before they could argue, trying not to look at the jagged half-tower and lumpen gravestones in the cathedral grounds. It wasn't that I believed in ghosts, exactly, but that old ruin changed in the dark. All warm solid walls and sweet grass and the melancholy embrace of history by day, at night it huddled under its black cloak like a hunted witch, watching the town from its prison of iron railings. The gates were locked to deter drunken student escapades, but as the sea breeze whispered through the ancient stones, the place seemed half alive. I imagined waking up one day to find it had got up and moved - perhaps wandered away to haunt another clifftop.
Somewhere in its crumbling skeleton, a seagull cawed. I picked up my pace.
Fortunately the Hall was still unlocked when I got there, although the lights were off. A gentle piano melody drifted from the left hand corridor. I flicked a switch, and checked the time as the strip lighting clunked and sputtered into life. Ten o'clock. Not late by student standards, but a funny time for piano practice.
I needed the left hand corridor anyway. Harrison, Theo and I had been using the end room, so I could easily glance in on the unknown pianist. They were very good, I realised as I got closer. The notes folded effortlessly over one another, curling into yearning phrases and soft, teasing questions. Gently the melody lilted and leaned like a spirit the musician had conjured, responding to its creator's demand with ideas of its own. A cool thrill prickled in the hollows of my neck and ran down my arms.
As I padded along the corridor, I realised that the music was drifting from an open door at the very end - our practice room. Moonlight streaked through the windows in silver bars, and I stopped in the doorway. I realised with a jolt that I recognised the pianist. I'd seen him at a couple of postgraduate social evenings; we'd never talked, but he was hard to miss and harder to forget. His face was like a Renaissance sculpture - Michaelangelo's David, kissed by a god and made alive. He was the subject of much giggling and speculation in the undergraduate community, and plenty of my fellow Mlitt students eyed his hard-lined beauty with longing, but he kept to himself and didn't have any teaching hours. I had a vague idea he was doing postdoctoral research in Philosophy.
He didn't seem to notice me. I breathed from my stomach, willing myself to be still.
In the cool white light he seemed luminous and unreal. His good looks, startling by day, were softened and heightened by the gentler touch of night. Stray threads of silver flecked his long black hair. I stared as his left hand picked out a swaying sequence of minor key chords, anchoring the melody shimmering in the instrument's upper range. His touch on the keys was confident and almost affectionate, as though the piano was an old friend he was sharing a story with. Slowly a bolder theme emerged from the eddying whirls - something ancient and reverent that tugged at me like a hook in my ribcage. My eyes drifted shut and I let the music do its work in my mind.
I saw an oscillating expanse of ocean, reaching out to a silver line where the stars dipped below the horizon. I imagined a gull swooping low and skimming the water with the tip of a wing. Ripples curved into a chevron across the satin surface. Ahead was a ship carved from white wood, and on the deck stood a man with streaming golden hair. His arm rested around a slight, dark woman whose cheeks were wet with tears. The melody opened up further, and I saw a white palace on a hill, surrounded by a marble city whose lines flowed so perfectly that it seemed to have grown out of the ground. Moonlight drenched the spires and turrets, and jewelled lanterns lit the streets. There was a harbour, I realised, and even now the golden-haired man and the weeping woman were docking; cries went up from the houses, and many ran to greet them, faces on fire with joy. I could almost smell the sweetness of the wind blowing in from the sea, taste the diamond-clear purity of the air...and then the melody twisted inwards, and I saw a lonely cloaked figure on a crumbling cliff, staring across the sea. Great fists of cloud curled tightly in the sky, dimming the stars. Slowly the soft notes faded into silence and grey.
I opened my eyes, acutely aware of my own breathing, of the weight of my feet on the floor. The pianist sat upright, eyes fixed on something I couldn't see. I raised my hand to knock on the door frame and was vaguely surprised to see I was shaking.
“You'll want your books back, I assume.”
I jumped. His voice had the same haunted, lyrical quality as the piece he'd just played. Again I felt the aching tug near my heart.
He turned and gave me an odd half-smile that didn't reach his eyes. “I don't bite.”
Swallowing, I edged into the room. “That piece - I didn't recognise it.”
He stroked the keys with the tip of one long finger. Up close, I saw that his right hand was horribly scarred, as though something had melted the flesh and twisted it back around the bone. “It still needs work.”
I wanted to tell him that it didn't need work, that both it and his playing were incredible, that I'd never heard anything like it and didn't expect to ever again, but no words made it from my brain to my mouth. Nothing I could say was enough.
He passed me my book bag. The heat of shyness prickled around my collarbone. “Thanks.” I held his eyes for a moment, willing him to understand what I meant by that single word.
He smiled at me properly this time, and the ache in my chest soared into a sweet melancholy. “You were a good listener. Thank you.”
I knew the past tense signalled a polite dismissal. He turned back to the piano, and I shouldered my bag and headed for home. The strange, whispering melody followed me down the corridor and into the night, and even when I was back in the flat with a whisky in hand and my library books spread across the table, threads of longing clung to me like a cobweb - as if I had lost something precious, and then forgotten what it was.
Nocturne: a night-piece, music that evokes a nocturnal mood.
Chapter end notes:
Initially I wasn't going to post this yet, as it's part of something longer, but on reflection I think it works as a standalone. Hope you enjoyed.
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