Nora Rohland

The Chinese Cellist and the Virgin

He was riding on horseback. The landscape looked like somewhere around Stonehenge. He was riding on a winding path up a grassy hill. Sheep were around him, too. Then suddenly he was on the top of the hill, his horse gone. He was running, stretching out his arms sideways like wings and plunged himself into the air. He was flying. Making swimming movements he circled up into the sky.

Fervent applause woke him. He opened his eyes wide and quickly glanced around him to see whether anyone had noticed he’d fallen asleep. All faces around him were turned towards the stage where the musicians and the director were bowing with radiant faces. People started getting up from their seats, shouting ‘bravo’, he dutifully clapped his hands. Beethoven it was tonight. The fifth.

Had Arsenal scored against Celtic yet? He checked his watch. Halftime. They must have scored! How much would he have loved to be in front of his telly tonight. But of course, Murphy’s law, tonight of all nights he had to be on duty.

All those snobs! Women in their black dresses, with expensive jewellery and smelling of expensive perfume, clinging to the arms of equally expensive looking husbands. Sitting there, legs elegantly folded, chins poised, eyes reverently turned towards the stage. If Arsenal was playing on that stage he’d understand their concentration and enthusiasm. But for Beethoven? Or any classical music for that matter. He would have brought earplugs but of course he wasn’t allowed. He and his colleagues were like pieces of furniture. For the snobs going to the concert they must belong entirely to the interior, like the flowers in front of the stage.

He’d watch the match on video as soon as he’d get home, even if it got late. He’d set the timer on the machine before he came in to work. Arsenal’s victory — they had to win! — would be safely on tape for him when he got home after the concert.

Applause was slowly ebbing away. People started to get up to get a glass of champagne or wine for the break. Halftime.

***

‘Hawley! Can I have a word please!’

‘Certainly, Colonel Bannister.’

‘Hawley, I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you on concert duty again this week. It would be Sam Taylor’s turn, but his wife’s very sick, so he can’t come into work for a while.’

‘Er…there isn’t anyone else who could…?’

‘No, Hawley, there isn’t. If there was I wouldn’t ask you, would I now?’

‘Of course not! I mean, of course I will take Sam’s shift then, Sir.’

‘Great, I knew you would, Hawley! Have a good week then! See you at the next drill!’

What a bastard! Smooth surface, always best manners, but icy cold if it served his ends. A career guy, one of those young upstarts who’d climbed the ladder quickly by being friends with the right people and stabbing the backs of those who were in his way to success.

Damn, he’d planned to meet the lads at the Crown, to have a few pints and a good chat. None of that then. Thilda’d sure be happy about the extra money, and so was he. But it wasn’t as if they couldn’t do without it.

***

The bell rang two times. He sat down in his seat in the front row next to the doors. The night was sold out. People were still streaming into the hall, squeezing through to their seats. Dvorak it was tonight. Some Cello concerto, he’d read on the poster while he was waiting in the foyer before. And a Japanese guy playing the cello. He’d chuckled at the name on the ad, Yo-Yo Ma. How about he’d call himself Jo-Jo Hawley!

The bell rang again, three times. A few latecomers slipped through the doors just before they were closed. The lights went down and a wave of applause greeted the incoming musicians. They all sat down, adjusting their notes and instruments. Next, the tuning sounds of the orchestra welled up. He knew the steps by heart by now, he’d sat through so many concerts. A great hush came over the hall. The low rushing of the central heating of the building was the only sound to be heard in the silence. Then another gush of applause resonated from the walls and ceiling of the hall and a small, almost delicate man carrying a cello made his way through the musicians and stood at the edge of the stage. He was wearing glasses. Wasn’t it the Chinese who usually wore glasses? The cellist bowed, sat down on his seat and with a fluid movement placed the cello between his knees, stretching his upper body and leaning the instrument’s neck against his shoulder.

The hall was silent again, expectation tangible.

With the first notes from the orchestra he prepared for the evening, slipping a little bit deeper in his seat closing his eyes and ears to his surroundings. Maybe he could go on dreaming his dream from last week. He vaguely remembered the pleasant feeling of flying through the air. At least tonight he wasn’t missing any important match. Although he missed the pints with the lads. They’d be through the third round by now at the Crown.

He bolted up in his seat eyes wide open. A voice was singing. It seemed to come out of the middle of the hall. It seemed to be inside and outside his body at the same time. He stared at the small cellist. His mouth didn’t move. It was the sound of the instrument. For a moment he couldn’t believe his ears, he was so sure that it had been a human voice. The Japanese wove a web of sound that seemed to acquire its own life, stretching and circling, filling the concert hall to the last corner.

The notes poured into him. They built a second skeleton inside him that held his body upright. He stretched out over the heads of the audience, circling with the clear sound of the cello, up, touching the ceiling, down again, around. The music stopped. His perception switched back to normal again. He felt the seat under him and his uniform jacket stretching too tightly over his beer belly. He blinked. Stared at the cellist. The second movement started and the cello’s voice carried him again. He expanded with the sound, left the music hall and went out into the night sky.

After the last notes of the third movement had dissolved into the hall people shot up from their seats screaming and clapping. For a brief moment he saw himself from outside. He’d jumped up from his seat, too, and was clapping his hands fervently. He’d only ever done that in Football matches. Then he was back inside his head again, glancing at the elegant, tall man beside him who was applauding and shouting ‘bravo’, wiping his cheeks with one hand in between.

He left the concert hall behind the elegant man whom he felt strangely connected with by enthusiasm for the performance. He shook his head slightly from side to side, to shake off the dizziness that shrouded his brain. His hands were still pulsing and a corner of his mind was utterly bewildered at himself.

***

She swore under her breath, the cardboard of the box had nearly cut her finger open. She lifted a pile of brand new, cellophane wrapped cds out onto the counter in front of her. The top one was by the young pianist whose name had been in everyone’s mouth since his performance at the ‘Young Artists Festival’ two weeks ago. Quite cute. But too young, she decided. And anyways, she wouldn’t really come across the likes of him. Most of the people coming to buy music in this section were above sixty, belonged to the ‘art crowd’ or were nerdy music students.

She had just grabbed the pile of cds to start putting them onto the shelves when the guy appeared in the arch separating the classical from the pop/rock area of the shop. She’d worked here for long enough to recognise ‘virgins’, people who looked — like this one — slightly scared and utterly lost at the first sight of the classical music section of HMV. This example looked particularly unused to being in a music shop. He wore a greasy leather jacket from which an impressive beer belly, covered by the ends of an Arsenal scarf, protruded. His face was divided into two halves by a well-groomed moustache. What on earth was an Arsenal fan doing in the classical music section?

‘S’cuse me sir, can I help you?’

‘Er… yes please. I, I’m looking for a Japanese musician.’

‘Classical?’

‘Er… yes, he, he plays the cello.’

‘Do you know his name, sir?’

‘Yeah, it’s a funny one, he’s called Yo-Yo Ma, imagine that! Being called Yo-Yo as your first name!’

‘Oh, that’s because he’s actually Chinese, sir. His works are over there. If you find anything you want to listen to just bring it up to the counter and I’ll put it on for you.’

‘Oh, right thanks, love.’

* * *

The clip just wouldn’t stay where she’d put it. She sighed exasperatedly and made a face at her own reflection.

‘And then he called me “love”!’

‘Ah, how bad is that?’

‘I know! He was so unbelievably out of place, I tell you! Have you found anything you wanna put on?’

‘Yeah, I like your black top with the lace.’

‘Go on, put it on. Black it’ll have to be for tonight anyways. I can’t understand people who go to a classical concert in their jeans! Although the guy from the shop would probably even wear his Arsenal scarf if he went to a concert.’

‘He surely would! Could you help me with my hair, I just can’t do it myself!’

‘Of course! Just finished mine. But I think we should be quick or else we’ll be late!’

* * *

They arrived well in time, queued to have their coats put up and their tickets checked and torn. They went up the broad marble stairs that led up to the concert hall. Both of them loved the expectant atmosphere, the humming of voices and looking at all the well dressed people. As a special treat they had gotten themselves balcony seats for tonight. They let themselves sink into the red velvet and glanced at each other with satisfaction.

‘Imagine Mr. Arsenal being…oh my god…’

‘What? What’s up?’

‘Look — there!’

‘Where, what are you talking about?’

‘Look at the front row in the parquet. To the very left on the last seat you can see the fire brigade guy, right?’

‘Yeah, there’s always one of them there…so?’

‘It’s him!’

‘You mean, the fire brigade guy is Mr. —’

‘Yes!’

‘So he’s not a virgin after all!’

***

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