The Stardust of a Song

(1600 words)

Say nothing when Ruth comes in, Brodie Somers told himself. There she was. Tall, slim, long blonde hair blowing in the freshening wind. She was laughing, smiling at him. Robbie McClelland, the wretched layabout, lolling in his open-top Mazda. With his black leather jacket and hair greased back, he looked like a reject from Happy Days. An all-round bad influence on his daughter, Brodie thought.
Ruth waved to Robbie as he roared off inland, down the little lane. Against the gulls calling, the waves rolling on the beach, and the rustling grass on the dunes, the intermittent noise of Robbie’s revving engine as he careered back into town was like an insult to the quiet countryside, like someone throwing a dog turd in your face. Brodie hurriedly put the binoculars away as the door opened and Ruth came in.
“Hello, Dad, what’ve you been up to?”
“Me, er, I’ve been going through the divorce papers.” He nodded to a briefcase on his desk. “I want to run them over to Fraser McLagan’s this afternoon, but I don’t like the look of this weather. The sea could be too rough for the boat out at the island.”
“It looks like thunder,” said Ruth, gazing out at the darkening sky. “I’m going to cycle over to grandma’s. See how she is.”
“That’s nice. Perhaps you’ll stay for supper?”
Ruth shook her head. “No, Robbie’s picking me up. We’re going to the cinema.”
Brodie gritted his teeth. “Look, why don’t you bring whatshisname, er, Robert, for dinner one evening. I’ll cook a haddock stew.” Better the devil you know, he thought.
Ruth looked down at the ground, biting her lip and playing with her hair. “I don’t know if he’d come.”
“Why on earth not?”
“He says you don’t like him.”
Perhaps he wasn’t as stupid as he looked, thought Brodie. “Oh, well, you can but ask.” He hesitated. “By the way, what happened with Howard?”
Ruth sighed, “He was boring, always talking about boats and fishing.”
“He seemed a nice young man to me.”
“He was all right, just not for me.”
Brodie took a briar pipe from a drawer, smiling inwardly at Ruth’s disapproving face. “Anyway, what’s whatshisname got planned? I’ve heard he hasn’t had a job for a year.”
Ruth bristled. “Yes, he has, he’s been helping in the kitchens up at the hotel.”
Brodie took out a tin of tobacco and prised the lid off, glorying in the pungent aroma. “Helping in a kitchen. Great career!”
“He’s going to buy a new drum kit, join a band, maybe he’ll be famous.”
Brodie began to tamp down the tobacco with a yellowed finger. “I won’t hold my breath.”
Ruth went to the door. “Look, Dad, I’m nineteen, I’m not a little girl anymore. I can go out with whoever I like.” She took a raincoat from a hook. “I’m getting out of here before you start stinking the place up with that.” She gestured towards his pipe, then was gone. There was a rumble of thunder.
Brodie looked in a mirror, pulling his cheek down below an eye. It looked bloodshot. Too much whisky, he thought. He felt like taking the boat out anyway, throwing caution to the wind, just to get some sea air. To hold the wheel against the heaving sea, taking command. More than he could command his own daughter, he thought with irony. Just then, an enormous crack of thunder made him drop his pipe. The sky was brown, as if someone had thrown a blanket over the world. He eyed an ominous cloud the colour of dark mud, just as a spear of lightning crashed down to the sea, closely followed by another roar of thunder. He hoped Ruth would be OK, but there were places to shelter along the way to her grandmother’s cottage. It wasn’t far in any case.
He sat at the old upright piano and lifted the lid. The cottage was a mile away from the nearest habitation; no neighbours to annoy. The keys were yellowing and the damper pedal creaked a bit, but the old girl could still play. He crashed down a C major 7th chord, then as another boom of thunder shook the cottage, he changed it to a C7 chord, then C9, then C11, then C13 and finally began to alter it, raising and flattening the fifth and the ninth.
Rain started to batter the window as Brodie began to hammer his way around the musical device known as the circle of fifths, harsh dissonant chords leading to a gentle, resolving chord, before the next sequence of discords began, going through the twelve keys of western music.
Lightning lit up the room and again thunder crashed overhead. He began to play one of his favourite chord sequences, altering the rhythm to answer the rain and the booming thunderclaps. With his right hand, he played a jarring, dissonant melody, humming the notes to himself as he played them. Whenever there was a clap of thunder, he would play an answering sequence of strange, atonal chords, playing them faster and faster each time, challenging the storm to do its worst.
The storm had begun to die down and Brodie found his right hand noodling out an old standard, whilst his left hand played the chords. He began to sing along with the wistful, meandering melody, though he was the first to admit he couldn’t sing.
Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights … dreaming of a song.”
He remembered a club in Edinburgh, decades earlier. You could smoke in those days, he recalled fondly, picturing whorls of smoke in the spotlights.
The melody haunts my reverie.”
It had been an ordinary club night, but at the end of the show, who should have appeared but none other than Sarah Vaughan. She’d been staying at a nearby hotel on her way to a big show, and Sarah being Sarah, couldn’t resist the sound of jazz, its beautiful strangeness pulling at her soul, like the mystic aroma of an Indian restaurant on a warm summer evening entices the sense of smell to distraction.
And I am once again with you … when our love was new.”
Of course, she couldn’t resist asking if she could sing a couple of numbers with the band, and it had been he, Brodie Somers, who’d had the ostensibly unenviable task of accompanying The Divine One. But he’d been so captivated by her dusky skin, glossy crimson lips and cascading dark locks, not to mention the famous contralto voice that soared like an albatross gliding over a limitless sea, that he hadn’t felt at all nervous.
And each kiss, an inspiration … but that was long ago.”
Suddenly, her final song was over, to deafening applause, and Brodie had found himself with almost no memory of what he’d just played. Then she’d been surrounded by well-wishers and autograph hunters, leaving Brodie sitting alone at the piano, disappointed that no one seemed interested in him anymore, but knowing in his heart that something very special had just occurred.
And now my consolation is in ….”
Brodie felt wind howling in through the opened door and turned, expecting Ruth, surprised to see Robbie. “Close the door, man!”
Robbie did so and stood, looking embarrassed. “Stardust.”
“What of it?”
“Oh, my gran used to sing it.”
Brodie grimaced. “I cannae sing.”
“I came to collect Ruth; we’re going to the cinema. Sorry, I’m a bit early. I didn’t know you could play the piano. I play the drums.”
Brodie closed the piano lid. “She’s gone to see her gran, no doubt this storm’s held her up.”
“Oh, er, I’ll come back later then.”
Close up, Brodie saw Robbie’s hair was more glossy than greasy. He relented. “Stay and have a dram o’ whisky wi’ me.” He poured two shots of amber liquid into short glasses. “What’s this about drums, man?”
“My dad was a jazz drummer. He taught me. He played with The Finlay McAlister Quartet.”
Brodie swished the whisky around his mouth like a mouthwash then swallowed it, the alcohol making him reel. “Never heard of ’em.”
“They were big in Dundee.”
“Yeah, they made some LPs. I’ve got them all.”
Brodie remembered the smoky club in Edinburgh where his own trio had played, Rory McCall on sax and old ‘Mac’ McKinnon on the tubs. Good times, but so long ago.
The door opened again to the fresh, clean smell of rain. It was Ruth. He realised the thunder had stopped, the sky was brightening and the rain easing off. “Hello, sweetheart, grandma OK?”
Ruth looked surprised to see Robbie there with her father. “Yeah, she’s fine. Should we go, Rob?”
Robbie went to the door. He turned to Brodie. “Er, Mr Somers, perhaps you’d like to come and jam with me and some jazz guys I know. Elvin Fraser on sax, Lachlan McGregor on guitar, and Jonno Brooke on bass. Elvin does vocals too. Up at the hotel, Wednesday nights at nine, that’s when we practice.”
“I’ll think about it.” Brodie examined his shoes. “Take care on the road, there might be floods.”
“I will Mr Somers, thanks for the whisky.” Robbie and Ruth left.
Brodie poured himself another drink and opened a cupboard. Buried at the back was a bundle of old sheet music, stowed away decades earlier and tied with ancient, knotted string. He took some scissors from a drawer, and a gulp of whisky then looked in the mirror and winked.
Please note: This is an extended version of the story, Jazz Guys, previously published on this blog in June 2020. It is featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III – 72 Little Stories

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