“Third row, third on the left.” The girl tore his ticket, then looked through Orlando Humphries as if he didn’t exist. Just as he liked.
Orlando made his way down the hallowed aisle of the Wigmore Hall, a small but prestigious concert hall in London, England. The room was buzzing, the audience chattering excitedly, flapping extortionately-priced programmes, smiling and waving to other concert-going friends and acquaintances, whether real or imagined. A number of oriental-looking men and women, dressed in smart suits and exuberant gowns respectively, dotted the audience. The atmosphere was electric. So-Young Lee’s first performance outside North Korea was in the offing.
Orlando took his seat, squeezing past a large man with a short white beard and a woman in red with enormously-fat bare arms. He sent a brief text to say he was in position then tried to relax, attempting to ignore the hubbub going on around him. Finally, the lights dimmed and an expectant hush fell over the audience.
A young woman came onto the stage to rapturous applause, clutching a shiny classical guitar and Orlando instantly fell in love, as did a sizeable percentage of the audience. High cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes and glossy hair, the colour of midnight. She gave a dazzling smile, then sat and began to fine tune her instrument. She stood up and bowed. In halting English, she spoke. “Good Eve-en-ing, Ladies and Gent-le-men.”
Orlando reminded himself he was on a serious mission. She would announce a change of program to show she was willing to defect. There were agents in place backstage ready to ‘distract’ the minders and hustle her into a waiting vehicle.
After some preamble the young woman said, “I sorry but on your program I change the Bach lute suite …”
Orland knew what was coming. ‘To Castillos de España suite by Federico Moreno Torroba.’
“To La Catedral by Agustín Barrios Mangoré.”
What the hell is she playing at? Orlando sat for fifty minutes, transfixed by Lee’s slender, flying fingers and preoccupied with her mixed message. Her carefully-shaped nails seemed barely to tickle the instrument yet filled the whole hall with mellifluous sound.
He texted his controller at the interval. A reply came back immediately: ‘Get backstage on the pretext of an autograph. Try to speak to her in person.’
Hmm. Easier said than done.
At the end, after endless bowing, leaving the stage and coming back again numerous times to rapturous applause, the young lady thankfully left the stage for good. He stood, waiting for the lady in red to move out of his way. “Excuse me, I’m in a hurry.”
Her husband, the man with the white beard, passed her an inhaler. “Now dear, four slow puffs.”
“Sorry, I need to get past.”
The man turned to him. “Patience is a virtue.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is, but I need to get past.”
The man held the woman’s huge bare arm as she put the inhaler in her mouth. “One ….”
Orlando pushed past nine people in the other direction, all fumbling under their seats for programs and coats and bags, and annoyed to have to stand up. He ran down towards a stage door. Nothing for it. He flashed a Home Office pass at an official who nodded knowingly and opened the door for him. Orlando found himself in a corridor with several doors.
A man in green overalls appeared from nowhere. “They’ve gone.” He gestured towards a door at the end of a shabby passageway that opened onto the road.
Orlando ran to the door and out onto the street. Two burly minders sat in the back seat of a limousine, So-Young Lee sandwiched between them. An equally burly chauffeur gave him a cursory glance then put his foot down and the limo roared off into the cold London night. To Orlando’s total astonishment there was a guitar case on the kerb. He opened it to the sweet smell of rosewood and the sight of Lee’s glossy instrument.
The man in green appeared. He passed Orlando a briefcase. “Looks like the young lady needs someone to return her guitar. She’s at the Grosvenor, room 211. We’ll be waiting outside. Everything you need is in that case.” A black cab pulled up.
Orlando climbed in, feeling the weight of responsibility. As the cab sped off, he opened the guitar case on his knee. He strummed the open strings softly, wondering at Lee’s unearthly ability to draw such beautiful music from the six silver moonbeams and nineteen frets. Underneath the instrument was an empty string packet. It showed a grinning, stylised tiger, printed in red, and the word Horangi. A Korean symbol of luck. He smiled, then felt inside the briefcase for the comforting cold metal. He didn’t need luck. Welcome to the West, Miss So-Young!
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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