Our 2015 writing competition set the challenge of producing a short story inspired by the theme ‘In the margins’. We were overwhelmed by the quality of the entries and our judges had a tough job choosing a winner but decided that Fellos by Libby Ruffle was deserving of 1st prize…
by Libby Ruffle
Four bars into a tuneless, out of time rendition of Il Toreadore, Nick lowered his baton. Gradually, the enthusiastic members of the Felixstowe Late Learners Orchestra (FELLOs) stopped bowing and looked at their conductor. Apart from the first violinist, 77-year-old Jill.
‘And, violins, that’s lovely, thank you-’
Jill played on, eyes closed, until the second violinist, Mary, tapped her gently on the shoulder. Finally becoming aware of her surroundings, Jill came to a stop with a small, ‘Oh.’
‘Super. Before we really get going, the Toreador is – yes, very strong – but also light. It’s ‘allegro molto moderato’ – lively, moderately fast. And it’s a simple four-four time. Let’s try again, don’t worry too much about the notes, watch my lead and remember… sharp but light.’
Unlike Nick’s West End theatre orchestra who – to demonstrate their attentiveness – stared at him to the point of discomfort, the Fellos were fixated on the page. They also tended towards individual creativity in their interpretation of what they read there.
After a further ten bars, Nick raised his eyebrows as a signal to stop. Gratifyingly, all the violas finished together. A couple of the cellos, carried away with being the solid heartbeat of the piece, were slower to catch on. Jill was last, looking rather cross at the interruption.
‘OK. At bars three, five and seven, I want you to take your pencils and draw a tiny pair of glasses in the margin. That’s your cue to look up. You should always be looking at me, really. I know that’s painful for some-’
Laughter and a couple of wolf whistles.
‘-but forget the notes. You’ll learn them soon enough. Look at me. So, glasses in the margin, bars three, five, seven.’
‘What’s he want us to write?’ said Jill.
‘Glasses.’ Mary offered her a pencil. ‘Just there, next to bar three. He wants us to look at him.’
‘I am looking at him. I can’t look at him and write. What am I writing?’
‘Glasses. To remind you to look up, not at the notes.’
‘How can I not look at the notes? How am I supposed to know where I am?’
Jill’s voice was as loud as her discordant playing and Mary blushed as she became aware of the entire orchestra staring at them.
‘OK,’ said Nick, ‘if you haven’t got a pencil or if you haven’t got time… In fact, just draw one set of glasses and a star at the other bars and fill it in later.’
‘Wine glasses?’ Jill asked.
‘Spectacles,’ said Nick. ‘But don’t worry now, Jill. Let’s go again from the top.’
Mary endeavoured to concentrate on keeping in synch with Nick’s steady one-two-three-four. But beside her Jill – after a bar glaring at her conductor – had reverted to her own timing. Mary wasn’t sure if it was three time or something else, but Jill clearly felt the Toreador needed to get a move on.
The baton came down again. Mary could have sworn she heard a sigh as Nick’s eyes appeared to look heavenwards.
‘Let’s try something different. Everyone turn your music over and look at me.’
Mary pretended not to hear Jill’s protestations.
‘I want you to watch my arms and follow the beat. Just on the A string. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four-’
Jill felt that a continual, fortissimo note on the E string was suitable accompaniment.
‘Cellos, I now want you to play a minim and two crotchets. Oo-ne, three four.’
The cellists, proud at being singled out, saw fit to add varying tones – some forte, some piano. Nick chose to ignore this, instead congratulating them on their rhythm. He aimed his ‘Good, well done’ directly at Mark, a slightly nervous grey-haired man. Mark had cautiously adopted a pianissimo approach, almost to the point of miming, but in perfect time. Delighted at being praised, he inadvertently executed a perfect glissando sul ponticello, unfortunately more suited to Hitchcock than Bizet.
Nick made a mental note to avoid eye contact with Mark during any performance. The inner jolt at the thought of a Fellos ‘performance’ brought his timing experiment to an abrupt halt. Half the orchestra followed; Jill and others caught up a little later.
‘Great. Well done. Just keep that rhythm. People may notice a wrong note, but it’ll be gone before they have time to wonder if it was one. Wrong beat and it will sound… bad.’
Mary wondered what wrong notes and wrong beats would sound like. And how long it would take to eradicate them. If at all.
‘Excellent. Next week, we might try switching some positions.’ Nick started to gather up his music and fold away his stand. ‘It’s completely standard to switch between first to second, say, violin-’
Mary wasn’t sure this was entirely true.
Jill finally switched her focus from her instrument to her conductor.
‘-and good for you to know all the parts and be able to play them all-’
In fact, Mary would be very surprised if Andre Rieu were ever asked to ‘have a go at fourth violin’…
Nick was almost at the door. All deliberation on Jill’s part was set aside. Mary was surprised how nimble she was as she sprang out of her chair.
‘So we may play around with Mary on first violin and Jill on second. Next week, then-’
He was through the door before Jill could speak. She turned to Mary.
‘What was that about first violin? I’m first violin.’
‘Of course. I think he just wants us to sort of practice everything.’
‘Well, I don’t need to practice your part, do I? Waste of time. No point your doing first either, is there?’
‘Erm, I shall enjoy practicing it all really. It’s lots of fun, don’t you think?’
‘Fun? It’s hard work if you’re going to do it properly-’
Mary pretended she had serious notes to write up as Jill muttered beside her. Next week… she wrote in the margin. Practice 1st part?
In 2014 Ed Broom won the short story competition with ‘According to their Peacefulness’. You can read his story here: Winning short story from 2014 -Ed Broom