A serenade to the stars

Submitted into Contest #38 in response to: Write a story about someone learning how to play an instrument. ... view prompt



“Damn,” I mutter, twiddling the knobs of my cooker. Why couldn’t I cook anything? My dad would be laughing at me now, at my failed attempt to cook baked beans on toast; steam is billowing from the saucepan which holds the burnt beans and the toast under the grill is black like charcoal. This evening I hadn’t been able to resort to my usual microwaveable meal: unfortunately, the microwave is busted after one too many of those. So here I am, with my dilapidated cooking utensils, cursing whichever sod made kids leave home. Whoever he is, I’ll find him, and feed him my overdone beans on charred toast.

I slump down at my desk-turned-dining table and gaze in despair at my miserable dinner. Bear in mind how tolerant I am of bad cooking – I’m the only one who cooks for me – but even this has reached a new low. It’s with longing that I think of my mum’s food as I snap (yes, snap) the brittle toast and raise a piece to my mouth. Suddenly, a screeching fills the night. What the hell?


It’s coming from outside. I make my way to the meagre balcony that’s strangely attached to my flat and open the door. It’s already dark, and the city greets me: lights from windows of people who should shut their curtains (oh my, the things I’ve seen); the purr of engines stealing their way home; a buzz of indistinct noise that constitutes a million distant sounds. However, one aspect of my usual view is unexpected: the silhouette of a girl on the balcony adjacent to mine, serenading the stars with a violin. It would have been a romantic sight had it not been for the atrocious noise emanating to all within a mile’s radius.

It takes some effort for me not to snort too loudly: she really is trying, her arm valiantly sawing the bow across the violin. I enjoy the sight momentarily, before during a particularly ferocious gesture, her body sways in my direction and her eyes land on me. Even in this dull light, I can see her face colour as she abruptly halts her playing. 

“Were you watching me?” she demands defensively.

“No, I just wondered what the sound was.” Bad reply.

“Shut up. I know I’m bad, I’ve only just started.”

“You’re not that bad … for a beginner. I’m sure someone, somewhere, was enjoying your symphony.” She rolls her eyes.

“Well, clearly not you.” With that, she turns to head back into her flat. I feel bad: we have history, despite not knowing each other well. We have both moved in relatively recently. Our interactions have been more strained ever since she turned me down after I asked her out, and sometimes my sarcastic tongue can act as a defence mechanism … like now.

“Wait!” I call. She looks back, exasperatedly. “I – I’m bad at cooking.”

“This helps me, how?” I can’t blame her for sounding like she’s at the end of her tether.

“No – it’s just – I know what it’s like to be bad at something.”

“Keep digging that hole and you won’t be able to see out of it.”

“I can help you,” I blurt out. No going back now.

“Look, no offence – Jimbo?”

“Jason.” Damn her, she knows my name.

“Right. Jason. How could you possibly help me?”

“I can play the violin. I can play it well – I’m a music student. I could help you.” She tilts her head, considering.

“Is this a ploy to get into my pants?”

“No – no funny business. We can do it here, over the balconies.” This was the truth: I truly did want to help, and all I hoped for was friendship.

“Show me what you’ve got first.”

I nod, and retrieve my beloved violin from where it lay on my bed, laid aside after practise earlier. Under her speculation, I tuck it under my chin and a quieter melody fills the air.

“Not bad,” she praises. “Okay, Jimbo, you’ve got yourself a deal. One thing – you don’t think it’s too loud for other people if we play out here?”

“Well they’ve already heard you, haven’t they?” I smirk. She gives me the middle finger, and marches back inside.

“8 o’clock tomorrow, Jimbo, don’t be late.”

It’s the next evening and we must look a strange sight: two people, ten feet apart on two different balconies, one watching the other who is poised with a violin. I’ve never taught anyone to play the violin before, but I can remember my first lessons well enough.

“Okay, first things first. The strings: G, D, A, E. You know how to tune them?”

“Yep.” She twists the tuners.

“How tort is your bow? No, that’s too tight. Enough resin?” We continue in this manner for some time, and she begins to play, and I try to comment helpfully. 

This continues for several sessions; her irritation is paramount, and she is a difficult student. She detests criticism, and is keen to be professional standard after less than a week of lessons.

“Why does it sound so wobbly? How do you get yours to sound so good?” She scowls at me three lessons in as if the poor quality of her tone is my fault, jaw jutted out.

“All in good time, dearie.” I tap my finger to the side of my nose.

“Why are you so … urgh?”

“We speak English around here darling, except when playing Vivaldi, when we progress to Italian,” I say.

Unfortunately, her frustration translates into her playing. At times I have a lot of sympathy for her violin, as she treats it and the bow like a punchbag and boxing glove. Firstly, she prepares her bow with resin as vigorously as people scrub dandruff; then, she yanks the bow violently across the strings with a ferocity unseen amongst violinists. If only she could place her fingers on the fingerboard with as much accuracy as a boxer punches: her finger placement is nothing short of appalling, not helped by her untuned ear. Something about her determination, however, brings out a patience in me I didn’t know existed, even during times when we spend one fruitless hour after another endeavouring to attain one coherent scale.

One day, the impossible happens: in an unpredicted moment of glory, her sound flows like water and her bow is suddenly as seamless as velvet. We beam at each other over the ridiculous gap between our balconies, and if by doing so we wouldn’t have toppled to our deaths, I’m sure we would have hugged.

“I can’t believe this!” Jenna’s dancing joyfully around her balcony, arms spread wide and face upturned towards the heavens. I mimic praying, kneeling with my hands clasped together.

“Thank you, I knew this would happen someday!” I crow. Our happiness is delirious as it’s our first positive reward for her determination. If we didn’t look stupid before, we definitely do now: finishing with an air-high-five, we resume the session.

Two sessions later, her finger placement is no longer as shocking as it was. What a bloody relief.

“This means we can move onto second position, right?” She’s been asking this for a while.

“Yep … although the gaps do get closer together so we’ll see how this goes. You know how long it took you to grasp first.”

“If you were on my balcony, I’d whack you with my bow.” I know she’s joking, but my mind can’t help but zoom towards the underlying suggestion.

“If I was there, I’d get almost as much abuse as you inflict on that violin,” I shoot back. She sticks her tongue out at me (it probably would have been her middle finger if she’d had a hand free), but I’ll take it.

These sessions seem to keep occurring, and I’m not sure why. I think I might know on my part, but is her reasoning the same? Girls are so confusing: our banter is great, but she’s hard to read and I know more about a long deceased composer‘s reasons for composing his fifth concerto in a certain way than about romance anyway. She strikes me as someone who’d want to do things properly – is that why she turned me down the first time I asked her? Sometimes I think I can see her scowl soften, but into what? Friendship? I’d take that over our previous stilted awkwardness any day. Bloody hell, why am I sounding like a girl?

“Get your violin out.” She orders, one session. It might not have been an order, but I would have conceded regardless. “Let’s play something together.”

We both erect our music stands and check our strings are in tune.

“What do you want to play?” I ask. She could suggest anything, really.

“Vivaldi,” she suggests with a slight smile. I’m definitely turning into a girl – it’s touching that she remembers my stupid, sarcastic comment.

“You sure? Pretty fast, you know. Pretty fiddly. Lots of high notes.”

“Teach me then, isn’t that in your job description? And at least I haven’t got your chunky fingers.”

“These?!” I wave my hand at her in mock outrage. “These are musician’s fingers – fine and nimble – I think one examiner gave me a merit just for them. I played the piece so badly it couldn’t have been for anything else.”

“Whatever,” she snorts.

It’s like we’ve gone back to day one – I’m not sure she is ready for this piece. But her determination persists and by the end of the night she’s able to do a passable run-through. By the next session, her playing is so flawless that I’m convinced this indicates unseen progress.

“I’ve been practising,” she admits when I question this, flushing slightly. “I was kind of hoping – maybe we could play together, properly, this time?” This surprises me. 

“Oh, wow – um – sure.”

We both raise our bows atop our violins in preparation. Her foot taps, counting down from three, and we begin.

We’ve never played together before. For a long time I have been a solo violinist – solo everything really. This is partly why I offered to teach her – being away from home is lonely, and music has always been a huge part of my life. Sharing it with Jenna is amazing, incredible, indescribable; any synonym of the above. We’re playing as if we’ve done this for years, naturally adjusting our dynamics and speed to match the other, expressing emotions and understanding that we couldn’t do justice with words. The melodies are flowing, and like two tributaries joining, our tunes are uniting in the night air, this time a proper serenade to the stars, one which they deserve. Whoever brought us together – whether fate or another mystical figure or just coincidence – I’m grateful.

We finish and stare at one another across the ten foot gap.

“We don’t make a bad pair, if I do say so myself,” Jenna says frankly. I love this about her – she’s so straightforward. Not like some girls, who’d keep me guessing, scattering hints about what I should be saying.

“I’ve taught you well.”

“Actually, about that, do you think we should move out of the teacher/pupil role if you wanted to become more than duet partners? Because that would be weird.”

April 24, 2020 22:01

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