By Ned Carter Miles
It’s likely Andrew Shapiro will never work again, will never play double bass in a half-filled venue for £100, never look out for the rare telling nod of the smug aficionado, never teach hopeless young aspirants their generation’s pop songs. This he’s been doing for fifty years, all the while waiting for his moment. In daydreams, this is when the one nodding head multiplies beyond count, and the momentum of approval grows exponentially. Its appeal isn’t success in itself, or fame, but that being in the world will no longer be an effort. For fifty years he’s struggled to keep a small flame burning just bright enough that others might see him. If that fire fuelled itself it would be something like freedom, but now there’s a virus, and a lockdown, and the flame looks to die out altogether. Andrew will struggle to be in the world until he isn’t.
He had a break once. These usually come to the kinds of people who get along well with others, which he never has. Since he was small, he’s found that interacting with people—especially those whose approval he wants—makes his throat tight and his breathing so shallow he sometimes has to gulp for air.
Performing’s easier. It maintains distance, implies structure. When he was twenty five, he played at a jam night in a well known bar in South London, and the singer of what is now and was not then a well-known rock band took notice and asked if Andrew would session with them for a new record. The singer was called Toby, and was the kind of person who puts others instantly at ease. Andrew wanted to play for his band, but also to be his friend. He practiced hard and when the time came he knew the material well.
On the day, Toby welcomed him into the studio, but the other band members were less open to him. In the enclosed space with them Andrew struggled to breath, and drew looks for it. Some of them had placed bottles of whisky on their amplifiers—probably an affectation—and in an effort either to fit in or calm his breathing, at lunch Andrew bought a bottle of his own from a corner store. By 3 ‘o’clock he had to be poured into a taxi, and after that Toby didn’t return his calls.
He makes a cup of coffee and sips before taking it through to Maggie. It tastes cheap and burned. At the threshold of the living room of her country house—formerly a working farm—he stops a moment and the steam floats in front of his eyes. He looks at her, rake-thin in the armchair. Maggie has one kidney, and not the one she was born with. She wouldn’t survive the virus.
At 71 years old and in mediocre health, Andrew probably wouldn’t either. He told his son James when lockdown began that he was staying with Maggie to look after her. This is partly true, but she’s also wealthy and her house is much more comfortable than the small, dark ex-council flat he bought in the nineties with money he’d inherited. He has a history of being patronized by women his age who’ve had more financial success than him. But this isn’t to say he isn’t fond of Maggie. He even feels something like love for her, but his capacity for those things has been dulled by time, like an eye behind a cataract, an artery blocked with cholesterol. She provides company as well as security, then, and these are things not abundant to jazz musicians.
For a lot of players, it’s possible, solitude comes from musicianship. The will to improve and need to practice leave time for little else. For Andrew, solitude came first.
He began to play jazz seriously after his embarrassment with Toby’s band, convincing himself most rock music was for posers who couldn’t really play their instruments. First he fell in love with Coltrane, Giant Steps. Every day for three months he’d give a few guitar lessons a week to make rent, and spend the rest of his time practicing that record’s changes in his room. He ate sardines, pilchards, toast; drank mostly water and, occasionally at night, a bottle of beer. While before he’d smoked joints and sometimes taken LSD, he gave up drugs. That’s why, on the night he had his vision, it came as such a surprise.
He was sat on a wooden chair facing his window. The sun had long since set and he hadn’t switched on the light, and his fingers ran over and over the fretboard with only the dim orange glow of a streetlamp to light them. At some point, on the dusty glass where his own reflection had long since dissolved into abstraction, he became aware of the smallest crack of perfect white. He kept playing, only now it didn’t feel like playing at all. He couldn’t feel his hands, and though his fingers moved faster and the light grew quickly to surround him, he was overcome with stillness.
When he stopped it was very late, and he was calmer than he’d ever been. The pain of loneliness was gone, and he fell into the soundest sleep of his life. The next day he met Cam.
“I made coffee,” Andrew says to Maggie, stepping into the living room.
“Thank you,” she looks up from her iPad, “Another 489 people yesterday.”
“I’ve told you about reading the news,” he hands her the cup.
“…and they say it’s going to get much worse.”
“Why don’t you entertain me, then?” She puts the cup on the side table and reaches for his hand, which he allows to hang in hers.
“There’s a lot to do.” He’s taken over most duties around the place since she’s had to ask her usual helper not to come anymore.
“It can wait. Why not play me something?”
“Maybe later.” For two weeks his bass guitar has been lying in its bag behind the sofa, waiting for the undertakers. When he glimpses it he feels anxious.
He makes to leave and she asks if he could check the pantry to see if anything essential’s missing, “They’re talking about supplies getting short,” she says. ”I’m worried we might not have enough.”
They have enough. Even without the substantial pre-isolation shopping trip and the expensive home-delivery service to which Maggie already subscribes. But he’s beginning to see that this is how her anxiety works, she’s calmed by abundance, like a baby at the breast. He remembers his son saying something about supermarkets once, that when Andrew and Cam were separating, he used to stop at the supermarket on the way home from school and walk around for hours. He might buy a cookie or something at the end of it, but really it was about abundance, safety. They don’t speak much anymore, though there have been a few calls since lockdown began. He wonders, for a moment, if James still does this. Andrew isn’t sure what makes him feel safe, but perhaps the first moments of change: the new place, new person, before complexity.
He takes a light from the porch and goes out to lock up the chicken coop. The birds have already put themselves to bed in their hutch, and when he lifts the roof they look up at him, blinking and twisting their necks in jerky motions on top of their plump bodies.
It isn’t fair to compare Maggie to a baby. She’s had several careers, was formerly a big TV producer before her company failed, and then set up what have until now been two successful businesses. She was also married for 25 years, and raised two children, Frances and Archie. Andrew hasn’t met either of them. In most ways Maggie’s more of an adult than he is, but appeasing her fear of solitude feels to him like swimming near the edge of a waterfall; if he allows himself to get too close he’ll be unable to escape its pull, and will eventually be plunged into something he can’t escape. It’s only in moments of extreme clarity that he considers his own fear of loneliness, or asks himself where, at 70 years old, he might escape to.
It isn’t that Andrew can’t love other people, but feeling love is never enough. Showing it takes time and attention, and he needs these to practice, to play, to be seen. With Cam it wasn’t so simple.
They met in the calm afterglow of his vision. He was a changed man then. She would come and go, warm when she was with him but making no promises. At first none of this made him anxious, but after a while he began to feel her benign indifference as a threat to his happiness, and sought to secure things between them. Eventually she fell in love with him and his interest waned, but only to the extent that hers waxed. They spent nearly twenty years trying to find a balance, and for ten years after they separated he kept trying alone, and then she died.
Ultimately, Andrew and Cam were both afraid to be alone. The difference was that she was capable of satisfaction. When he lost interest, she turned to friends, and later to their child, and was happy without his attention. He was never happy at all.
The other difference was that he had ambition, and she had none. Cam was happy to take whatever work would pay her basic needs, and have time to see people and be loved by them. Andrew wanted to be loved by people, but was frightened by them. Playing for audience and acclaim was not unlike quarantine, not unlike Maggie’s online shopping: a way of getting what you need while maintaining a safe distance.
When he comes inside, the old exposed boiler in Maggie’s porch is gurgling loudly—she must be running a bath—and the phone’s ringing. Reception out here’s spotty, and Andrew only bothers to turn his mobile on once a day. There are to be no gigs or teaching now. Andrew Shapiro will never work again. He answers the phone.
“Hello James.” He can’t remember giving his son this number.
“How’s life on Maggie’s farm?”
“Oh you know, okay. Keeping very busy here actually.”
James asks what’s keeping him busy, and Andrew gives him an account of the work that fills his days. Afterwards there’s silence. He’s never mastered the art of asking questions. Some people do this with genuine interest, and he admires them; others feign interest for the sake of charm. His position at least is honest: it never occurs to him to be interested, and he doesn’t ask. James used to pick him up on this. “Aren’t you going to ask me how I am?” he’d say. Then for a while he’d give his news without being asked, but with a mix of eagerness and resentment that Andrew found irritating. These days he either gives a matter of fact summary or simply ends the conversation, leaving Andrew with a sadness he can’t quite understand. Today, though, James seems relaxed, even chatty. “I’ve been playing a lot of piano,” he says.
“Is that right?”
“I think it’s time I learned to play properly, now I’ve got the chance.”
James has never been a good player. Andrew tried to teach him the guitar when he was a child, but it’s difficult to teach your children, or learn from your parents. Andrew remembers the weight of his own father’s frustration as he tried to teach him the proper way to kick a football.
“Well make sure you keep the practice up, or there isn’t any point.” He hears himself tell his 28 year old son.
“Yes, I know.” his 28 year old son says, sounding to him like a child.
“It’s strange,” Andrew places his palm on the gurgling boiler, feels its warmth, “I haven’t picked up an instrument since I’ve been here.”
“Maybe you should.”
“I was thinking,” James says, “at some point you could give me a lesson or two, over the phone or Skype or something?”
“I’d like that.”
“I love you,” Maggie says from behind her iPad as Andrew undresses for bed.
It isn’t that he doesn’t want to say it back, but somehow it seems kinder not to. In the years since Cam he’s jumped from partner to partner. The jumps have gotten harder as his back’s stiffened, and the exertion tires him more. “It’s going to be very hard for you here if you don’t love me too.” she says.
“I suppose it just seems strange to say it at my age,” he replies, and she’s silent as he gets into bed next to her.
He sleeps lightly. She isn’t touching him but he can feel her tension in the mattress, duvet, pillows. Around 2am she gets up, and before she leaves the room he sees the glow of her phone through his eyelids.
It feels like seconds before he’s woken up again by a loud crash. He gets quickly out of the bed but his legs are stiff and he takes small, faltering steps to the door. No lights are on and he feels along the wall for a switch—he isn’t yet familiar with the house—and all the time he hears a faint murmuring from below. He tries to call for Maggie but the muscles in his throat struggle. When he reaches the landing and the light switch, he sees her at the bottom of the stairs. Her legs are twisted and one foot is awkwardly propped on the bottom step. More worrying, from the top of the stairs he can see the short, usually grey hair at the back of her head is a dark red.
He skips steps the cartilage in his knees compressing painfully beneath him, and in the time it takes to reach her he figures the full gravity of the situation. He can’t take her to a hospital, or risk anyone coming to the house, but he can’t treat a fractured skull.
“What were you doing?” He tries not to shout.
“I was looking online to buy toilet paper.”
“Jesus Christ. We have toilet paper.”
His hand is under her shoulder now and he feels her go a little limp. “Hey hey hey,” he feels under her head for the source of the blood. She jolts to consciousness as his finger brushes the wound.
“Is anything broken?” He asks, becoming aware of how cold the stone floor is.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m going to try and get you upstairs.”
He shuffles a hand under the small of her back, another around her shoulders, and lifts. Her head rolls despite her efforts, and he brings his fingers up to the base of her skull, making sure to avoid the wound. The blood in her hair has dried quickly, which he finds encouraging, and holding her head like this he remembers—strangely—how Cam taught him to support James when he was a baby.
Maggie doesn’t weigh a lot, but carrying her into the bedroom he feels his age.
He lays her down gently and pulls a wicker chair to the side of the bed.
“How are you feeling?” He asks, terrified of her falling asleep and not waking up, of being stuck in this strange house with her body.
He takes his phone from the bedside table and sits back down, opens Google.
“I think I’m getting blood on the pillow,” she says, trying to sit up.
“That’s the least of your troubles. Just stay still for a moment, would you?”
He searches “concussion sleep,” and on a credible-looking website reads that people with suspected concussion can be allowed to sleep so long as they’re awake and able to hold a conversation, can walk, and don’t have dilated pupils. He isn’t going to make Maggie get up, but he switches on his phone’s built-in torch and shines it towards her eyes.
“Is that really necessary?” She says.
“I’d like to go to sleep.”
“Not quite yet,” he says, “tell me something.”
He tries to think of a question, something to ask her, but struggles. “What’s the best thing you remember?”
He recoils at how earnest, how invasive, this sounds. Then he wonders why he never asked it before—this meandering kind of question whose purpose isn’t to gather information, but to grow good feeling, the kind that new lovers ask in their first long nights. When did all that stop?
For a moment she looks surprised, but then smiles.
“My production company went bust I suppose around the mid-2000s,” she begins, “and it seemed like the end of the world to me. I’d put twenty years into it, sacrificed so much. I was devastated.”
“Doesn’t sound like the best thing,” he teases.
“No, but Archie was still a teenager then, maybe 17, and he was still at home. The first few months were awful. I was trying to tie up loose ends from the business and he’d come back from school and be moody and we’d argue a lot—bad, screaming fights. Then one weekend I finished with the business and I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I suggested we drive to the beach, just me and Archie. I’d given up on trying to get him to do things with me by then, but he said yes… was even enthusiastic. We walked along the shore, talked about him, what he wanted to do next, uni, things like that. He even told me about a girlfriend,” she pauses, “I think that’s one of the best things.”
“So that changed things for good, losing your company?”
“Changed you, made you a better person?”
“Who says I needed to be a better person?” This relieves his concern about her concussion.
“That’s not what I meant. Just… did your life change?”
“No, not really. I asked him to walk a few more times and after a while he started to say he was busy. Then I got busy too. I thought up the businesses and wanted to get them off the ground.” She nestled a little in the bed, “I think I’d like to go to sleep now.”
He knows he can safely let her sleep if she wants to. “So no grand epiphanies?” He asks.
“I don’t know if people really change that way.” Her eyelids are sinking, and he decides not to push further.
It’s strange how calm she is now, how free of the usual anxiety. As he listens to her breathing change and watches her head roll slightly to the side, he wonders if it’s the accident that’s done it, or something else. His own heart is beating normally. When she started telling him the story he still felt small waves of sickness, but as he gets up from the chair they’re gone. He’ll go downstairs for a drink before sleeping. Water. No, brandy.
Before leaving the room he thinks of kissing Maggie’s forehead.
Downstairs he heads straight for the narrow table where Maggie keeps her spirits. He pours a drink and glimpses, from the corner of his eye, the bass guitar in its case behind the sofa. He knows he won’t sleep for a while, so he puts his glass on Maggie’s coffee table and takes out the instrument.
His fingers are a little stiff at first. It’s incredible and frightening to him how quickly this has happened. The past weeks have been the longest he hasn’t played in maybe 30 years. There was a two-week holiday in France when James was eleven or twelve. He remembers Cam sat on a seawall in a large jumper, eating a pizza from a box, then James climbing up and sitting between her legs, and her wrapping her sleeves around him against the evening breeze coming off the sea. He remembers standing apart, looking at them, at the sea, apart; feeling restless, wishing he were practicing.
He thinks through etudes and exercises—something to loosen up the hands—and comes to those old Coltrane changes. Giant Steps, a classic.
He gets the lines under his fingers, plays the changes, and his mind begins to clear. He forgets about Cam and James and Maggie, about loneliness, about the now set impossibility of audience and acclaim. The last thing he’s conscious of is the glass of brandy, untouched. If he were still thinking, perhaps he’d think of all the time wasted, the impermanence of change, but a light starts to surround him, and a sense of peace, and he’s alone.
Ned Carter Miles is a writer and radio producer based in London. He is UK Desk Editor of ArtAsiaPacific Magazine and produces for the BBC and Audible. His stories have appeared in the Oxford Magazine, Wrong Quarterly, Pinched, and anthologies by Sampson and Low Press and Reflex Fiction.