La Croisée | A Short Story

Please enjoy my first foray into publishing my own creative fiction and short stories.

This one is for the spontaneity of life.

 

* * *

 

She could hear shuffling. Echoes of creaking seats from up high. Restrained whispers. An occasional snap from a camera shutter.

She strolled along with the other robed figures as they took to their positions. Below them, a flurry of activity under the cover of darkness. An escaped pluck from a string as the instrument it belonged to was settled gently. The clang of metal meeting timber. Hurried footsteps. An abnormally loud thud as a double bass hit the floor made her wince. Slowly, the stage became dead silent.

Lights flooded the stage as the concertmaster emerged. Applause rolled in as the tall man made his way through the amassed performers and bowed to the audience. With an assured smile, he turned to face the musicians. The hall hushed to a deafening silence once again.

With a swift flourish of his bow, a single oboe sounded, signaling the ensemble to start tuning.

As she stood motionless behind the orchestra, her insides were anything but. Her left arm felt like throwing the score book, her lungs forgot how to breathe, and her eyes lasered back and forth from the tubas, to the floodlights above them and to the blackened mass in front of them.

The concertmaster has taken his seat, holding the violin upright as he waited.

Applause erupted again to greet a more substantial man as he emerged also from backstage, baton in his right hand. Resting his left on the conductor’s podium, the man beamed and bowed to the audience, then faced the seated orchestra, both arms widened in a pose that likens to a joyous father, impatient to hug his returning sons.

She tightened her grip as she soundlessly opened her scorebook. A microphone stood unnervingly, mere centimeters from her throat. Silence befell for the final time.

The conductor swept his accomplices with a knowing glance: they’ve been through this before. They knew exactly what needed to be done.

His baton gripped with a thumb and finger, he swiped it like a wand.

The spell is cast.

 

What lies beyond the sea?
Does it lead to that distant country?
The small boat braved the waves,
And bobbed as it drifted off into the horizon,
To that unknown country beyond the sea.
What is visible beyond the sea’s end?
A sublime profile of your smiling face.

 

The hall echoed with shivering texture as the violinists hugged their instruments, bows tenderly kissing the strings. The flutes and clarinets layered their voices on top the bed of shimmering strings with chirping ostinatos.

“What…wha……wh……..” Alongside her fellow singers, she let her voice escape softly from her lungs. She and the sopranos led with the first line of the song, followed by the altos. Then the tenors. Then the bass.

A pleasant harmony trickled from the choir, onto and amongst the swirling soundscape. The conductor’s gestures were relaxed, flowing and delicate, signaling the ensemble to follow suit.

The lone oboe entered with her first solo. A pondering melody with a playful edge, navigating a complex beat with precision. The notes dripped with expressive vibrato, as the oboe gradually upped her tempo at the command of the conductor.

The atmosphere was changing. The oboe soon found herself joined by a rebellious flute, fighting for attention with her own choreography.

The flute was relentless with her seduction. A gorgeous melody waltzing over and under the oboe, flowery and graceful with its lyrical prose. But confident in her own ability to finish the show she started, the oboe continued her steady performance, unhindered by the attempted upstaging.

The conductor’s eyes leapt up towards the choir, gleaming with intensity. In a forward driving motion, he signaled the choir to begin their next lines.

“The small boat…” A minor and dissonant chord rang from a hundred amassed voices. It travels, echoes and caresses the concert hall, as it patiently resolved itself in a hopeful lament. “…beyond the sea.”

The scorebook in her hand was still at page one. Her limbs were frozen in place. She had God to thank that she hadn’t forgotten the lyrics and notes altogether. She could feel the choir’s next entry point coming fast, as well as her own solo. The only thing keeping her nerves in check was her iron-clad focus on the conductor.

Muted trumpets and French horns harmonized with the bassoons and cellos, joining the male voices of the choir in closing the first verse of the song. A gentle crescendo swelled as the rest of the orchestra and choir melts into the soundscape.

She could feel the entire hall responding to their call. A magnificent reverb as the entire ensemble was silenced by the conductor with a simple grabbing motion. That man always was appreciative of the dramatic.

 

*

 

She was greeted by a tall smiling figure in uniform, his hands balancing a wooden serving tray, adorned with an array of plates, bowls and bottles.

“Room service for 318?” He spoke with an accented prose. Upon thanking him, she moved aside to let him in.

With a quick glance around the messy hotel room, the waiter found a bare space on the coffee table and settled the tray, careful not to spill anything.

“Enjoying London so far, Ma’am?”

“Hmm? Oh, uh…yes. Surprisingly pleasant weather here.”

She signed the receipt in the checkbook and handed it to the waiter, thanking him once more before shutting the door, taking care not to let it slam. It was past midnight, after all.

Despite landing in Heathrow a hair after 1am, she didn’t feel a tingle of sleepiness, thanks to her body clock. She also didn’t feel particularly tired from the ten-hour flight. All she felt was hunger. A nonsensical craving to chew, slurp and crunch on something.

Having discovered the late-night room service menu next to the room phone, she saw fit to summon food to her new lair before shedding the outer layers of her clothing.

From her previous ventures overseas, she has learnt a few things regarding hotels. Ways to claw back a few coins, considering how undeniably overpriced the food and drinks can be. For instance: Six pounds for bottled water. Sixteen pounds for punch.

Instead, when she called, she asked for a jug of chilled water and a bucket of ice. They were free of charge as a curtesy. The ice made great company for the supermarket beer she bought on her way there.

Travelling solo was like a detoxing session. Her sloppy habits laid bare as she flopped onto the couch with nothing on but an undershirt and sweat pants, beer frothing in a glass, the ice tinkling like bells as she slurped.

 

*

 

What lies beyond the mountains?
Does it lead to that distant country?
Peach-pink Spring,
Ocean-blue Summer,
Autumn a fiery red hue,
Then came a snow-white Winter.
Seasons pass and change.

Majestic mountains,
O my dear mountains, please remain here,
So I can see you forever.

 

She was at the edge of the abyss. The ensemble erupted in a magnificent fortissimo as the conductor raised his left hand up high with impassioned gravitas. twelve bars.

She felt a hand pinch her sides. Lauren was standing next to her, eyeing her intensely and the scorebook in her hands, still stuck at page one. As if a loose gear was suddenly knocked back into place, her ice-cold hands jerked awkwardly, but still managed to find the correct page in the scorebook. She could see her entry point marked in bright red. Nine bars.

The orchestra fell silent. The conductor turned his attention solely to the choir. With another flick of his wrist, the singers opened the next segment with a minor chord, drenched in drama. Six bars.

She felt her eyes losing focus. She couldn’t fight it any longer. Taking three giant gulps of air through her mouth, she closed her eyes completely.

Three.

Two.

One.

 

*

 

The water was mercifully cold. And refreshing.

Granary Square felt awfully quiet for a public leisure square, especially considering she was visiting on a Friday afternoon. The concrete fountain made for an uncanny introduction, when she unknowingly walked into its midst while browsing her phone. The ensuing wake-up call was thankfully without any witnesses.

Her getaway in London was pleasantly uneventful thus far. She’s had enough of social obligations.

With her camera bag, she first sought after suburban street corners, elusive book stores and cafes tucked away from the huffing madness of urbanity. She found comfort in the effortless ambience of mundanity. Where mysteries stayed mysteries.

She had hoped to at least get a taste of London’s uniquity before she returned. To see for herself shades of history that would’ve been far out of reach for the comparatively youthful Melbourne.

Then there was people watching. A pastime made habit by her decade-old hobby ever since she was gifted with a camera by her father. When she did venture into the jungles of lives intertwined by the seduction of cities, her lone solitude was evermore important.

Her decision today to visit the surrounding shopping hotspots, art galleries and the Granary Square was sparked by a certain curiosity. A curiosity that cannot be explained.

She liked that about impulses. Sudden sparks of ambition and passion that can make a day more interesting. Such sparks were pure to her, compared to the tainted obligation of peer pressure.

Hoping to find a place to rest while her skirt dried in the light breeze, she settled on a patch of waterside grass overlooking an anchored boat, where she could hear live music.

Upon taking a closer look, she could see two men sitting on the boat, one with a saxophone, another a clarinet. Then she realized that the boat was a book barge.

‘Word on the Water’ was painted onto the side of the barge. She could see shelves of books peeking through the windows beneath the musicians. Beside the boat’s stern was a makeshift stand, lined with old vinyl records.

The barge was drawing a small crowd. Some parents led their excited kids into the base, where a treasure trove of stories laid dormant. Others joined her on the grass, content with just the music as their late afternoon company.

 

*

 

May this song travel far and wide,
To that distant country.
The day that you and I met,
Remains my most cherished memory.
Can you hear my song,
That crosses the mountains and seas?

Sing! The aria of Heavens and stars,
May this song travel far and wide,
To that distant country.

 

It was unnatural, hearing her own voice projected with such abnormal volume.

Feeling all ten thousand eyes staring at her, it was beyond excruciating to maintain her posture. Was her neck arched correctly for air flow? Were her feet not TOO curled? Were her legs far enough apart for balance? Was she BREATHING?

How did it come to this? was it supposed to be part of her life story, to one day command the attention of an entire concert hall?

The conductor stood still at his podium, hands cupped in front, motionless. The stage truly was hers and hers alone, at that moment.

Drenching herself with another mouthful of oxygen, she reached for that high note, praying to God.

“Now…just let it hang…you are doing great. Now count to ten…”

Breathe.

Breathe.

Breathe.

Her heart pounded ferociously as she remembered to restrain her voice projection for the next segment. Her character in the song is confessing her love, hoping with all her heart that her voice, her song, will one day be heard. Somehow…it was as if she knew this girl once…

“Sing! The aria of Heavens and stars…” The sopranos returned to the soundscape, along with the lone concertmaster with his violin solo.

The orchestra swelled in response to the choir. Once again, the concert hall was awash with a lyrical wave.

She spied the conductor sneaking a thumbs-up at her, before bringing the ensemble into a melodic trance. The performance concluded with one final crescendo.

 

*

 

She walked out of the elevator. Muffled sounds of tinkling pianos and trilling woodwinds can be heard further down a hallway of doors.

She could hear flipping pages and restrained voices on the other side of the door in front of her. Finding a chair placed beside the door, overlooking the cityscape expanse of Melbourne, she waited.

Breathe.

Breathe.

Breathe.

“Ah. Hello. Amy McKinley is it?” A mellow-voiced man greeted her at the door. “Nice to meet you, I’m Jacob, the assistant musical director. Please, come in.”

Standing beside a piano, the man exchanged a few words with the choir director next to him, who introduced herself as Sharon.

“Amy, thank you for agreeing to meet us for this audition. We would like to begin with a few questions before we go on to the vocal exercises and your audition performance,” said Sharon.

“What sparked your interest in joining a choir?”

She smiled.

“A recent experience in London regarding live music on a book barge, and me ending up joining the musicians for a sing-off.”

“You could call it a sudden spark of passion.”

 

* * *

 

The headline photograph was from my own trip to London last year.

This work is not to be duplicated & published in any external outlets without my express permission.

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