Escape, a Short Story

For Wednesday, a short story by writer Peter Vaughan

I can hear the atonal drone of laughter thrumming through the walls: my audience of, what, two thousand? It’s an army of murmuring patrons. They’ll be sitting at those white clothed tables, in the choir rows behind the stage and on the balcony tiers and in the gods. I can hear the thunder of their feet along the aisles, their neat shoes are like beaters on the timpani carpet skin, and their voices hiss through the two doors and staircase to the green room where I stare at these sheets of harmonic hieroglyphs. It’s sheet music, but it’s shit music. I have played this 30-minute piece perfectly, twice a day, for three weeks, but Christ I can’t remember what note it begins with. How does the fucking thing go? Dan, den, dun? Blank, I’ve gone blank. Check the notation. Of course: E. It starts with E, the fucking thing.

Oh god I wish I was back in the orchestra. I don’t want to play alone. I don’t want to be up there by myself, naked, but worse than naked. Look at this hideous instrument, the brass bell-end bend between my legs, and the squeaky pipes and stops; it’s like a metal snail, stuck on my chest. It’s like an octopus trying to kiss me, the mouthpiece, the reed, as hard as a beak. I’m lathered with sweat already, but I’m so cold; my hands are frozen. I’m going to die out there. Can I cancel? Can I run off? The stagehand would come to fetch me, only to find the instrument, the octopus, abandoned on the green room couch. There was a fire escape at the bottom of the stairs. Perhaps it is alarmed; I might get caught. I could invent an emergency. And somebody could cover for me; the place is full of show-offs, bloody know it alls and autistic virtuosos. I’d be making their day if I fucked off now. There’d be a fight between the aspiring bastards as to who gets to go on in my stead.

They’re knocking on the door. A waltz. Three beats, then a bar of silence. I could keep quiet. The beats will not simply be repeated; the stagehand will ease themselves, politely, into the room, and whisper, or perhaps they’ll just mouth the words, “You’re on in three minutes, Sebastian.” And I’ll have three minutes to live. What would you do if you had three more minutes to live? The door is opened, and I hold myself correctly; the stagehand is a young woman with green hair. Where am I? Who has green hair? What century am I in, holding this ridiculous instrument? But she whispers, nicely,

“Three minutes, now, Mr Bratley.” Okay, I’m coming. But I don’t move. I can’t breathe. She holds the clipboard, the stage-times, the program, to her chest. Oh god, I’m going to my death. I’m going to die on that stage. I’m going to haunt the rafters for decades. Future caretakers will say that the ghost of Sebastian Bratley moans among the rigging: ever since the night of his first solo show, when he squealed an E for thirty minutes, having forgotten the Asiatic scale.

“Would you like to follow me?” She asks, with great, generous hesitation, as though perhaps I only need ten seconds to invade the bare stage, as though I might only need a run-up, or a springboard. She probably thinks that I’m an artist, a fucking prodigy. Yes, shall we go? I pick up the sheets of music with too much force, and crease them. She smiles, awkwardly.

We walk down the corridor, or rather: I am led to the afterlife by a Death with green hair. She steams ahead, cutting through the empty air like a sound; her plimsolls softly clip-clop on the dull floor. I hang back, lumbering, as though the octopus has disrupted my balance, though that is entirely what it has done. I drift like a deep-sea diver in the old suits they wore, or an astronaut walking on the moon. My head is a giant helmet. Eventually she stops, at the top of the stairs, and waits for me. She fidgets with her sleeve, but is checking her watch, and says, almost against her will,

“Er, about two minutes.”

I have two minutes to live. What would you do with only two minutes left to live? Would you spend it doing something you do not want to do? Would you just lie down and think about life? Any spot would do; I could lie down here, and let these two minutes wave over me. Would you yell? I don’t want to yell; I don’t want to use any more energy that I absolutely have to. I find that I have caught her up. She leads me down the stairs. She almost offered me her hand, as though I were an invalid. I have crumbled in her estimation. Only one minute ago, she hadn’t dared to speak too loudly in my presence, but now she supplements my dignity by letting me tackle the steps by myself. She has seen the real me. The mask dropped off in the corridor. Perhaps, if I ask her to, she will carry me onto the stage. She might revert to obedient respect, or descend into charitable pity. I do not ask her, and she retracted her arm; she goes down, and holds open the door to stage left, backstage, where the anticipation is throbbing. I feel the heat of the audience. The stairwell door is the iron hatch of a furnace, and my eyes wince in the light and heat.

“You’re on in thirty seconds, Mr Bratley.” She quietly warns.

I have less than thirty seconds to live. The urge to throw myself at the wall, head first, rises like a dark cloud. I could faint. It would be so easy to faint; I might even hit my head on the corner of the step behind me. I could smash the instrument on the ground, damage it horribly, bend the tubes, snap the neck, plug the holes. The green-haired girl is looking at me like I’m a bleeding animal; she sees me for what I am. Why isn’t she helping me? She could close the door, lock the door. She could force me to cancel, she could push me down the stairs. Why hadn’t she pushed me down the stairs when she had the chance?

“That’s it,” she murmurs, consulting the clipboard, “you’re on, now.”

That’s it. I’m dead. I’m speechless. I’m breathless, now. I’m stiff. Rigor mortis has occurred immediately, and like a corpse in a morgue, I need to fart, I need to burp, I need to jolt, to throw an arm outward, randomly, but I’m dead now, and I can’t do anything.

“Are you alright?” She asks. I stare at her. I give her the look of death, but she doesn’t die. She shuts the hatch. “Are you okay?”

The stairwell door is an airlock on a spaceship, and suddenly, now that it is closed, I can feel, and speak, and all of infinite emptiness is on the other side. I can’t, I say.

“You can’t?” She says. I shake my head.

“You can’t perform?” I shake again.

“You can’t play that piece?” She points at the sheets in my clenched hand, and I continue to shake.

“You can’t play anything else?” She asks. I think, for a moment, about the other works that I used to know, in my suddenly nostalgic orchestra days. But nothing from then has carried over till now. I’m on my own, and I have nothing to play. I have nothing to say.

“Do you want to get out of here?” She asks. My face, a glacier of worry, melts into a river of gratitude.

“Yeah?” I nod; if I had a tail it would wag. “Okay. If you go down these stairs, there’s a fire exit at the bottom. Go on. Turn left at the end of the alleyway. You’ll see signs for the station.”

I am alive again. I breathe, my chest swells with air, and my heart begins to pump hot blood. I say to her, you mean I can just go? You don’t mind? What about the…

“Don’t worry about it, man. You take care of yourself, now.”

I want to kiss her. I want to hold her green head and laugh. I know that what she thinks of me is so pathetic, so humiliating, that in an hour or two I will want to die, and I will rue the last-gasp escape that she has allowed me. Yet, for now, I slink down the stairs, glancing over my shoulder like a truanting schoolboy. I leave the instrument by the fire exit, and I break into a jog until I reach the side street, where I blend into the commuters. It is night, already, and I feel invisible, ambling away from my grand, false ambition and shortfall of talent.

Peter Vaughan

The cover picture is a painting by Tim Fowler

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