The lights were on backstage. They were a strange blue light, but not hard to see by. I worked my way around all of the chairs and music stands, microphones and instrument cases. The curtains were slightly parted in the middle; Joanne was onstage. She was my sister, older than me by a little more than a year. Her long fingers, the nails painted deep red, danced over the piano keys. The large, black, magnificent instrument was positioned exactly center stage; she was the main act, what everyone came to see. The rolling, plaintive melody leapt around the theater, but there was not a soul to hear it, except for me. My feet tapped the hollow stage as I made my way to her.
“That’s really nice, Jo,” I said.
“Thanks. Didn’t see you there.”
“I just came to see how you were doing.”
The spotlight on her grand piano was absolutely blinding. It filled my head with a fuzzy sensation, as if I had just fallen into a very confusing dream. The hundreds, probably thousands, of red velvet seats in the audience sparkled in the lights. They were intimidating enough without being full of people and their judgments. The stage terrified me. The lights, the people, and, of course, the fact that I had no stage-worthy talent to speak of. All of it was petrifying.
Joanne, however, had always had the dancing fingers and the lilting voice that allowed her to captivate people and gain the admiration of an entire crowd. As a young boy, I had looked up to her with such a fond adoration that I listened to her play and sing for hours and hours.
“Are you coming to see me tonight?” Joanne asked.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I answered with a wink.
“Good.” She smiled with her beautiful white smile. I wish I had the confidence of that smile. “Will you go up and turn the spotlight off? Just leave the house lights.”
“Yeah.” I hopped the distance from the stage to the floor of the theater. My shoes hit the luxurious red rug without a sound. Walking up the aisle, every seat I passed would soon be filled by a pompous young man with a showy woman on his arm and a one-hundred-dollar ticket to a night out to see the concert. There were shiny gold plates with seat numbers on them and gold lining on every seat. As soon as I passed through the door that said “Employees Only” on my way to the light and sound booth, the carpet became rough and gray. From the booth with its multitudes of switches and buttons, I could see Joanne still playing with her blue dress falling in waves around her knees. I switched off the spotlight and headed back down.
The spotlight no longer illuminated Joanne, but even in relative shadow, she glowed. I hoisted myself back on to the stage.
“Thanks, that light was making me sweat.”
“No problem,” I said, “But honestly, how are you not terrified by the prospect of hundreds of people watching you and judging you?”
“They’re not coming to judge, Tommy. They want to hear music and I know that I can give them that.”
“Yeah, I guess. I could never do it, though,” I said.
“Then, luckily, the task falls on me, not you.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You want some lunch? I’ll go out and get you some,” I offered.
“Thanks. I’d like that.” Joanne smiled that beautiful smile again. I smiled back with my rather disorderly, not so winning smile.
As I exited through the backstage door, I could hear the melancholic melody again, floating off into the theater.
The sun outside was blinding. It took me several long seconds to be able to see anything, and that was just enough time for an empty taxi to pass me by. I cursed quietly, but quickly caught the next one. It was not a long ride to Victoria Street, but I tipped the cabbie a little extra. He had a nice sort of Scottish accent.
I bought some tomato and cheese sandwiches, but before returning to the theater, I sat along the Victoria Embankment to eat my own sandwich. The cheese had a sharp taste that made my mouth revolt for a moment. It was nice when I got used to it.
Barges and boats of all shapes and sizes floated up the river and I watched each until it was out of sight. It was a beautiful blue-skied day and an abundance of tourists were taking advantage of it. People with thick international accents and dozens of languages passed me by. Children ran around and pointed excitedly at all the sights. Their parents snapped pictures with expensive digital cameras.
My parents hated cameras. In general they hated anything that would capture memories: pictures, videos, journals. I’d only seen them use a camera once.
When Joanne was eight, she had taken her first piano lesson. It was a resounding success, and we all discovered her exceptional talent for the instrument. The school instrumental concert was her first performance. My father had knelt in the aisle with his video camera as my mother directed him. “Get closer! No! Zoom in! Stop shaking it so much!” Their quibbles were the majority of the video; only the beginning and end were truly of my sister’s beautiful piano playing.
Even at age eight, she had commanded the stage, and her fingers had sung so eloquently that several audience members rose to their feet. My parents received countless congratulations on their virtuoso child.
“Joanne played beautifully!”
“Oh, didn’t she? Just splendid!” They would reply.
“And what about little Thomas? Does he play too?”
“No. But Joanne, she really has never played much before! Picked it up just like that! Barely a full month of lessons,” they would gush.
“Thomas should learn violin! They could play together! A little family duet.”
“No, he’s not musical at all.” And they would tousle my hair roughly.
They never meant to dismiss me; they loved me as any parents should. It was not their fault that now I was unable to make real headway in any talent or profession. I was dabbling in lighting, set design, and various backstage arts, but none did I find captivating or have any particular knack for. So my parents never pulled out a camera and pointed it at me. And that was fine.
I didn’t have such a keen dislike of capturing memories. I never had owned a camera of any worth or quality, but my phone was full of the faces of my few friends and moments worth remembering. Joanne was in most of the photos.
Victoria Embankment was so lively and bustling that I pulled my phone from my pocket and took several pictures of the beautiful sky and the happy children. The river twinkled in the noon sun and everyone was reveling in the joy of the day.
The phone rang as I took a picture of a passing barge.
“Hey, it’s Joanne.”
“Hi. Sorry I’m taking so long, I just stopped by Victoria Embankment for a second. I’ll be back in a second,” I said, stuffing the end of my sandwich in a nearby bin and looking around for a taxi.
“No, it’s fine. My cello player just bailed on me, said she can’t come on Friday. I phoned my agent, but he’s on vacation in Thailand or some place like that. He said to go to the Royal Academy of Music.”
“You don’t know a cello player that could fill in?”
“Several orchestras are touring in France and Spain right now and they’ve got all the good cellists.”
“I’ll have you a cellist, Jo. I promise.”
“Okay, I trust you. See you soon. And forget about lunch; this is more important.”
“Right. Bye,” I said, and hung up. I flagged a taxi in seconds flat and jumped in.
“Royal Academy of Music, please,” I called up to the cabbie. London traffic was bad today, and the plethora of tourists crossing the street slowed our route considerably. The cab got caught behind two double-decker buses, which moved slowly with constant stops.
We finally were able to exit the Victoria Embankment area and enter a less tourist-infested area. The Royal Academy of Music was not far then. As soon as we pulled up at the tall brick building I tossed the cabbie several pounds and ran in.
The front desk was occupied by an elderly woman with a tight bun and thin spectacles perched on her pointed nose. She eyed me severely as I entered in my jeans and dirty, ripped coat. She wore an immaculately cleaned and pressed black dress with a silver necklace.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“I need to speak to a cellist, please,” I said, out of breath from sprinting in from the cab.
“Do you have a lesson or an appointment with one?”
“No, I don’t. But it’s important.”
“If you’re not in the schedule, it’s unlikely that time can be made for you.”
“It will only be a minute.”
“I apologize for any inconvenience, but it can’t be accommodated.”
“I’m Joanne Davies’ brother,” I said, pulling my classical music trump card.
“Oh, really? Is she here?” The receptionist asked, peering interestedly at the door to see if Joanne would enter suddenly.
“No, but she needs a cellist, and she sent me to find one,” I said.
“I’m sure it is an honor for any cellist to play with Miss Davies. I’ll ask around,” she said, and stood. Her heels clicked, echoing on the hardwood floor as she made her way through the opulent halls. I followed her closely and she poked her head into several doors before opening one and admitting me.
“This is Miss Annabel Baker. She is one of our most accomplished cellists and has instructed some of our best students in recent years.”
Miss Annabel Baker sat behind a dark mahogany desk, its curling clawed feet clinging to the floor. Many music scores were scattered around her desk and she was wildly marking them up with a red pen. A beautiful cello stood on a stand by her desk and the bow still in her hand showed that it had been recently played.
“Miss Annabel, this is Joanne Davies’ brother . . . ”
“Thomas,” I said.
My breath caught when she looked up. She was very young for such a musician and really quite beautiful, and her wildly intense eyes pierced me suddenly.
“Nice to meet you,” she said and, stacking together some of her scores, stood to shake my hand.
“Mr. Davies is here to -” the woman said, but was interrupted.
“I’m sure he can tell me himself,” Miss Annabel Baker snapped, and ushered the receptionist out of her office.
Shutting the door with a definitive slam, Miss Baker offered me a seat. The chair was deep and cushiony and made me feel uncomfortably pampered. She reseated herself in her simple, straight-backed chair.
“So why are you here?”
“Well, as you heard, I’m Joanne Davies’s sister.”
“Yes, yes,” Miss Baker said impatiently.
“She has a concert on Friday night and her cellist bailed on her. She needs a substitute,” I explained.
“And you want me. I’m flattered.”
“Well, if you can do it. I mean, you’d have to prepare the pieces quickly. But you musicians are always very good at that so it shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.
“No, it shouldn’t.”
“So what time is it?” Miss Baker asked, pulling out a pen and a notebook.
“The call time is at five-thirty on Friday. At the Apollo.”
“Great. What pieces?”
I took a pen and wrote down the pieces that Joanne had put on the program.
They were mostly Brahms, and some Chopin, and Miss Baker smiled approvingly when she saw them.
“Good choices. I know all of this pretty well already,” Miss Baker said.
“Good. So, I’ll give you my number and you can call me if you need anything else.
Joanne has several practice times for the ensemble to meet in the afternoons. I think there’s one today at four o’ clock.”
“Okay, I can make it,” Miss Baker said, checking her schedule in a little black leather book. She handed me a pen and paper to put down my number and I offered her my hand to write her number on. Her fingers brushed me and then pressed the pen deep into my skin. She smiled and it reminded me of Joanne; the confidence brimming in her and pouring out in her smile.
“Thank you for doing this, Miss Baker,” I said.
“Any time. I’m very excited to play with your sister. And my name is Annabel. You can call me that.”
“Okay, Annabel.” She showed me out of her office and shook my hand fiercely before showing me to the door. Her grip was firm and when she turned to go back to her office, I watched her dark brown hair swish back and forth as her heels clicked back down the hallway.
Exiting into the sunlight, the number written on my hand glistening, I programmed it into my phone and snapped a photo of The Royal Academy of Music. Flagging another taxi, I made my way back through the tourist laden streets to the Apollo, where Joanne still sat at the piano. Brahms flew from her instrument. I stood concealed in the swishing black curtain for a while, just watching. When I made my way out on to the open expanse of the stage, Joanne stopped playing.
“Hey,” I said, and extended the sandwich that I had bought for her and had been carrying since sitting on the Victoria Embankment.
“Did you find someone?” she asked, taking the sandwich from me.
“Yeah. You’ll like her. She’s good.”
“You heard her play?”
“No,” I admitted, “but she seems good and is well respected. She’s from the Royal Academy of Music.”
“Annabel Baker,” I said.
“Oh, I’ve heard of her! That’s wonderful!” Joanne looked well pleased with my choice of cellist, although the receptionist at the Academy had truly made the choice. Joanne gave me all of the cello music and, sending me out to get it photocopied, went back to her intent practicing.
I made it back to the Apollo at exactly four o’ clock. My legs were tired from an hour or so of walking the streets of London in search of a photocopier. I had bought some coffee for Joanne and her ensemble of musicians and was carefully balancing them in a tray on my hand as I reentered the theater. Joanne was talking to her violist and harpist and pointing at numerous sheets of music as I entered. She barely looked up, her hand flying around the music and marking it up. I offered them all coffee. They said a quiet and distracted ‘thank you’ and went back to their conversation.
I sat in the front row of the Apollo Theatre, the plush red chair enveloping me, balancing the remaining coffee on my knee and clutching Annabel’s copy of the cello music to my chest. I could almost imagine her playing on that stage right now, her bow flying back and force in a passionate frenzy. Notes would billow from the instrument and with a final flourish, she would stand and bow to the impressed audience: just me.
After a couple minutes, the real Annabel Baker entered and unpacked her cello. I leapt up, almost spilling the coffee on the luxurious seats of the Apollo, and climbed on to the stage. She smiled and waved to me as I made my way across the stage to her.
“Coffee?” I offered the final cup to her.
“No, thanks, I don’t drink coffee. You can have it,” she said.
“Okay, you sure?” And when she nodded emphatically, I took a sip. “And here’s your music.”
“Do you work for your sister?” Annabel asked as she took the music gently from my hands and slipped it under her arm.
“Not really. I just help out,” I explained.
“What do you do then?”
“Well, uh, nothing right now. I’ve done lighting for some of my sister’s concerts. I did some stage managing for a theater company a while back.”
“So, you like backstage work? You’re the behind-the-scenes man?” Annabel
“I guess. I don’t love it, but it’s been good to me,” I said.
Annabel looked as if she had a hundred more question for me, but Joanne came over and introduced herself. Annabel and Joanne greeted each other very amiably, and the rehearsal began quickly.
I went up to the light booth and flicked on the stage lights. From my little booth, I couldn’t hear the beautiful music that flowed from the four instruments, but it seemed that I could almost see it. Joanne glistened in the spotlight and her piano shone. Light beamed off of every string of Annabel’s cello, and her hair caught the spotlight. A luminous halo seemed to form around her. I pulled out my phone and captured the pure angelic aura of the illuminated musician.
When I stepped again on to the floor of the theater, the music was immense and filled the whole room with its roiling notes. I sat again in the first row of the theater and watched the musicians play with such fiery intensity that it seemed to shake the walls. Notes cascaded around me and then resolved to a deafening, beautiful silence. The musicians sat poised to begin the next movement.
For the next hour, they played, discussed the tiny details of the music, and not once did any of them look at me. I had found long ago the passion with which Joanne and her friends played, and when they were doing so, they thought of little else. I did not clap at the end of pieces so as not to distract them. But finally, when the last piece on the program had been played immaculately, I saw Annabel look down from her haloed position on the stage and smile at me. I smiled back and gave her a thumbs up.
I ascended the stage again and praised Joanne and Annabel on their playing.
Their smiles told me that they appreciated it, even though they already knew how wonderful they were.
“You hardly even needed to practice those pieces,” I told Annabel.
“I knew them all pretty well. I teach most of them to my students regularly,” she said bashfully.
“Well, they sounded great.”
“So,” Annabel said as she began to pack her cello up again, “I was going to ask you, if you don’t love your work, do you have something that you love?”
“I’ve never been really great at anything. So I guess I haven’t found my passion yet.”
“You can be passionate about something you’re not great at. That means you can only get better. Do you think I was amazing the instant I picked up a cello?” Annabel asked.
“That’s all very inspiring, but I don’t have the natural talent for anything that I’m sure you have for cello,” I assured her.
“Well, you’re a good brother, I think.”
“I hope so.”
Annabel turned and zipped up her cello case and organized her music into a black folder before turning to me.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” she questioned.
“Tomorrow at four again.”
“Okay, I’ll see you then.” Annabel turned and her dark hair and long black cloak swished out of the stage door into the street beyond. I watched until the door snapped shut, encasing me in backstage darkness.
On the night of the concert, I ironed my shirt and chose a matching suit. I wore a yellow tie that took me several attempts to get right, and even then it was just passable. My hair resisted combing, but I combed it anyway, and in my mirror was someone who looked as if they belonged in the Apollo Theater to hear Joanne Davies and her ensemble play. The man in my mirror might even be able to tell Annabel Baker that she was beautiful without turning red.
I took a taxi to the Apollo and entered through the stage door forty-five minutes before the curtain opened. The backstage lights were off and I blundered through rows of music stands that clipped my elbows painfully before pulling the curtain aside. The musicians were sitting quietly together each studying their music. They then began to play together as beautifully as ever. Joanne saw me come up behind the group and waved them all to a halt. The music discordantly ceased and Joanne stood to talk to me. She waved the three others to go on practicing. I stood, slumping with my hands deep in my pockets, as Joanne approached me, pristinely dressed in a shimmering black dress with a ruby necklace that matched her blood red nails.
You’re dressed up,” she said simply.
“Shouldn’t I be?” I asked.
“Of course, it’s just not your usual look.”
“Well, I just wanted to say that Annabel’s great. She’s got all the music spot on and has been really professional about the short notice of the concert,” Joanne said.
“Yeah, she’s great. I’m glad you like her,” I responded, smiling.
“Well, I just wanted to thank you. I’ll get back to practicing. You can take a seat in the audience if you want. I got you a seat in the fifth row.”
“Thanks, Jo,” I said, and made my way down to my seat, waving to Annabel as I descended the stairs. She smiled and waved back.
I had a perfect view from my seat. I could see every musician perfectly and Annabel most of all. She was gazing at me as I took my seat, and our eyes met for just a second until the ensemble returned to rehearsing. I felt as if my suit and combed hair should give me confidence, but instead I felt incredibly out of place in this fancy theater among such distinguished musicians. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of Annabel with her bow flying through the air, singing beautiful pure notes. I took the picture discreetly, holding my phone casually to my chest and with a click Annabel was immortalized.
Fifteen minutes later, the ensemble finished practicing; people would soon be filing down the red-carpeted aisles to take their seats. Annabel descended the steps and sat beside me.
“Did we sound good?”
“Great. But you should go backstage. The audience will be here soon,” I advised.
“Not for a couple of minutes.”
“So, do you enjoy photography?” she asked. I blushed dramatically. I was so sure my photographing had been nonchalant.
“Sometimes I do.”
“Can I see the photo you took?”
“It’s not really very good,” I said.
“Because I’m not very good.”
“Well maybe you can show me later? I bet you’re better than you think,” she said and got up to leave as a few lone audience members arrived in the back of the theater.
“What are you doing after the concert?” I asked quickly, fearing that I would become overcome with fear if I waited to long.
“Nothing. Going home I suppose,” Annabel replied.
“You wanna get dinner?”
“I think it will be past dinner time.”
“Oh, yeah of course. You’re right,” I said turning away from her sheepishly.
“But who cares about that kind of thing? I’d love to.” I felt immediately inflated. Annabel Baker actually wanted to have dinner with me.
“Great,” I said and she ran off backstage.
The theater began to fill. The aisles bustled with talkative people. It was all of London’s well-dressed, elite, music appreciators. They stood upright and talked in unaffected accents and had neatly shined shoes. I almost looked like them. But my hair felt extremely uncombed and I could feel every crease in my pants that I had forgotten to iron. The air felt heavy around me; the opulent crowd seemed to wall me in. I slouched down in my seat, and stared deep into the curtains of the stage, which Annabel stood behind.
She was surely standing tall with her cello poised by her side, her long slender finger gripping the bow, her dark hair cascading its way down her back, shimmering and glowing. Her eyes would be filled with her fiery passion for music, and when she played, the audience would be stunned into immediate admiration.
The house lights dimmed and the spotlights that I had been turning on and off all week came on, worked by some unknown hand up in the light booth. The curtain parted to reveal Joanne’s regal grand piano and three chairs and music stands. After a welcome from the Apollo Theatre management, the musicians took the stage. The harpist entered, followed by the violist, and then Annabel. The audience clapped civilly for them; I clapped perhaps a little louder. Maybe Annabel could hear me clapping, but her eyes turned to me for a second as she took her bow and seated herself. Joanne entered last, the star of the show.
The audience went wild, in the most urbane way possible. Joanne Davies was known. The sophisticated and worldly members of London’s populace held her in high esteem. So did I.
All the musicians were seated. Their music was laid out on their stands, and they were poised, ready to play. The audience seemed to hold its breath; silence and stillness pervaded the theater for several long moments, and then the music began.
The audience was captivated. I had seen them play every piece before, but I was in awe of the power that radiated from the stage. Annabel had never looked more beautiful to me, and my ears hung on to each note from the cello until every other instrument faded away. Everything around Annabel seemed to be fuzzy and unimportant.
The first half of the concert slipped by without my noticing. Every time a piece ended, I clapped loudly. Not loud enough to be noticed, but more enthusiastically than my refined neighbors in the audience.
During intermission, I ran out of the theater and about two blocks to a flower stand. Pulling a pound from my wallet, I bought one long-stemmed red rose and carried in gently back to the theater. I rested it in my lap for the whole second half of the concert, stroking the petals and carefully touching the sharp thorns.
When the concert ended, everyone stood and applauded for several long minutes and many shouts of ‘Encore!’ I clapped delicately with the rose still in hand. When the audience began to move from their seats out of the doors at the back of the theater, I pushed through the crowd towards the stage, and scaling it quickly, I ran towards the curtain to go backstage. Enveloped in the folds of the curtain, I could see beautiful Annabel untightening her bow and laying her cello in its case. Joanne was talking quietly with her and they laughed together.
“So you are going to go out with Thomas?” Joanne was saying. Yes, she was. She had said she’d love to. With a glowing smile.
“Yeah, we’re going out right now.”
“He’s a good brother . . .” Joanne trailed off.
“He seems to be.”
“He’s never had a really serious girlfriend, if you’re wondering,” Joanne said.
“I’m not his girlfriend yet,” Annabel said, carefully putting her music back into its folder.
“Do you want to be?”
“I don’t know, Joanne. I haven’t even gone on a date with him.”
“Right, okay.” I didn’t want to step out from the deep shadow of the curtain. The rose bit my hand with its thorns.
“He’s not really you’re type, I think,” Joanne said.
“How do you know?” Annabel sounded a little annoyed.
“You know, he’s not a musician, or much of anything really. He’s really sweet, but you’re accomplished and I think he might be intimidated by that.”
I wasn’t intimidated. Annabel was passionate about her music and it was part of what made her attractive.
Annabel nodded slowly. “So? Do you not want me to go out with him?”
“He’s different than you. I just thought you’d go for someone more . . . professional. More put together. I’m not trying to make you cancel the date, I just don’t see it working out. And I don’t want Tommy to get hurt.”
“Well, it’s certainly not my intention to hurt him,” Annabel said steadily. It wasn’t Joanne’s business. I felt a sudden urge to step from behind the curtain and present Annabel with the rose, but the thorns pressed into my finger and I could not bring myself to do it.
“He gets hurt pretty easily. So if you think that it couldn’t work out at all, don’t even start.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Seriously, I’m trying to give you advice.”
“And I’m listening, Joanne.”
“Thomas isn’t strong. He’s never really been able to make decisions for himself, or even live his own life, so if you lead him on, it’s all on you.”
The soft curtain pressed against my face like a gentle hand. The air weighed a ton and was warm and humid. It slipped into my throat in a forced way. My suit seemed foolishly big on me, and I missed my ripped jacket that always felt like my own skin. I buried the head of the rose in my pocket. I could feel the fragile petals warp and snap in my fist and far away I could hear a cello case close up, each latch clicking like a camera.
Magda Andrews-Hoke is a 16-year-old sophomore at Germantown Friends School.