The Angel of the Stories by John…
About this Feature
John Simmons has contributed two stories, Angel Wings and The Lady of the Plates, to Shortbread. We're delighted to announce that we will be featuring the collection, The Angel of the Stories, which will be published in book form in summer 2011. You can read them here first in an exclusive 20-week serialisation. The book will be illustrated by the internationally acclaimed Anita Klein, in a unique collaboration between writer and artist.
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The Angel of the Stories by John Simmons: Episode 18
2 years ago
Julia was walking uphill and out of town while the Mayor and Alfredo walked in the opposite direction. Neither of them noticed Julia, she might have been invisible. They were each lost in contrasting thoughts and occasional conversation. It was a one-sided dialogue with the Mayor doing nearly all the talking. Julia smiled, pleased that she could escape from it.
She carried on walking out of town, with no destination in mind. She simply wanted to go to a place where she wouldn’t be surrounded by people. Most of the time now she was not alone; she had no real wish to be alone for long. She met and talked with many people in the town and she enjoyed their company. But occasional periods of solitude became precious.
On the hill above the town she sat down on a rock covered with a springy layer of moss. From this comfortable seat, she gazed down on the town in the valley. From this distance, from this angle, she looked down at a town of rooftops. Many of the rooftops glinted in the sunshine, as if sending her coded messages. The glints of light came from windows and solar panels on the roofs. She tried to pinpoint her own rooftop but it was too far away.
She found it surprising that she could now hear the sound of the band playing, presumably in the town square.
* * *
Next day, and the days after, Alfredo was tormented by the need to write music. The Mayor had given him the book and the poem copied out from the book. He had read it and, to his own surprise, liked it. Even so, he wasn’t really sure of the meaning. Did that matter? He didn’t know and he didn’t want to ask the Mayor. He kept speaking the verse to himself:
When I’m no longer here
Keep the rooftops open,
So still my words can fly
Up to the heavens and the stars in the sky.
He hoped that music might emerge if he spoke the words in enough different ways. Sometimes he forced himself to write notes on manuscript paper but no recognisable music formed. Alfredo had played many of the instruments in the band and he realised that he needed to write for those instruments, mainly brass. But he had never composed music by playing the trumpet or cornet, and he began to wonder if he would be able to rise to this challenge.
His favourite instrument didn’t really play a part in the band. Alfredo picked up his guitar and started strumming chords rhythmically, giving at least the semblance of melody. But hard as he tried, the right music would not be summoned.
He rested his arms over the guitar so that he could read the poem again.
Keep the rooftops open
For I can hear the linnet singing to me in the tree.
He stopped reciting, enjoying the resonance of the rhythm in his head. He was listening for music to fly out of the words. Then he heard a songbird singing in the silence, soon echoed by the sound of a girl’s voice. The songbird trilled; the girl’s voice extended the notes into a melodious line. Alfredo listened and then he began humming. He strummed the guitar then picked out individual notes. From the linnet’s song, Alfredo plucked a tune on his guitar.
* * *
They had gathered again for their monthly dinner in the Candle restaurant. The Mayor, the Norwegian, the lawyer and the librarian. They were drinking sherry and eating olives before ordering their meal, when the Mayor lifted his hand to signal that he had something to say.
“Well, I did something.”
“So I heard,” said the lawyer.
“But,” the librarian shook her head, “I’m not sure if it gets us anywhere.”
“Why not?” asked the Mayor. “I’ve chosen the poem for Alfredo. Keep the rooftops open. A favourite of mine. Now he just has to make the music.”
“Impossible,” the lawyer almost shouted.
The Mayor shrugged. “You should trust Alfredo. He’s a talented boy.”
Just then they heard the sound of the band playing in the distance. They listened, not recognising the music.
“That’s a pretty tune,” said the Norwegian.
* * *
Alfredo was relieved that the first rehearsal was under way. He’d been worried that the music would be too difficult or too easy or too sad or even if it would seem like music at all. He really didn’t know what people would think of it and his nervousness spread to the band. But soon Federico picked up the tune on his trumpet and he played it with some feeling. The other musicians stopped to listen, partly to admire, partly to memorise the music. When Federico finished, the others clapped, and Alfredo allowed himself a smile.
“It’s good, Alfredo, I like it. Is that it? Can we go to the city and play it?”
“No, there’s more to be done, much more. But now let’s just play it through.”
And that was the first performance they listened to in the back room of the Candle restaurant.
The Norwegian asked: “Is it ours?”
* * *
Alfredo had written the music to accompany the poet’s words. But he couldn’t ask the band musicians to sing as well as play instruments.
He knew what he wanted because he’d written the music with voices singing inside his head, many voices but with one in particular, a voice like a bird’s weaving in between the other voices. It was the same kind of singing that he’d heard as a boy when his mother took him to harvest olives with the rest of his family. As the men and women worked among the olive trees they sang rhythmic songs that everyone could join in with.
So, that evening, after the rehearsal, Alfredo asked his mother if she could help. How? “A choir? You want a choir?”
Alfredo nodded. “And there are solo parts. So I need one really good singer for those.”
“I know who would be good. But I’m not sure if she would do it.”
On the following day, after much persuasion and much protesting, Julia was recruited into Isabella’s choir of olive harvesters. That evening she sang in rehearsal, faltering only for a moment when the band stopped playing to listen to her singing. Her voice filled the town hall.
* * *
A couple of weeks passed, and the band no longer had to learn the notes, the choir no longer had to read the words. They played together, instruments and voices mingling as one stream of music. It flowed, Julia’s voice part of the current, swimming and sometimes leaping, playing in its natural element. When they came to the final note there was silence, then they applauded each other until, with looks of embarrassment, they burst into laughter.
“Well,” said Alfredo. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Please,” said Federico. “Please just say we’re ready.”
They knew they were. Alfredo didn’t need to say a word.