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Fiction

Amy Finlay – fiction

The Recital

 

My name is Vincent Roberts and I am recounting to you the events that happened several years ago in the summer of 1998. My psychiatrist says that if I write it all down things might begin to make sense – as though I haven’t replayed it in my head hundreds, even thousands of times before. Oh and by the way, in case you are wondering, no, I am not crazy. My test results show that I have no signs of psychosis. I have been recommended several doctors, neurologists and mental health experts over the years and they all conclude I am certifiably in sound mind. No one believes my story – heck I wouldn’t either. Because it defies belief. I wish it were a lie, an elaborate fabrication, but those who know me best know I have no flair for imagination. I am committing my story to paper and I will be as detailed as I can. I invite you to judge for yourself the events that took place that strange summer of 98.

I had recently moved from Boston to the small town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. I have, had, been a classical pianist with the Boston symphony orchestra but an unfortunate repetitive back injury meant I had to take a period of leave to recover properly. This was a short-term arrangement, a sabbatical of sorts. I was annoyed. I had worked ceaselessly for several years and I am not being boastful when I say I had a growing reputation as a celebrated classical pianist. My injury however required time for recovery. Wanting a fresh start following a recent break up with my girlfriend Susan, I decided I needed a change of scenery so I asked around and before I knew it I had accepted a job as a professor at the Falmouth musical conservatoire. So that July I packed up my tiny apartment and headed to the cape, to the picturesque town of Falmouth.

I settled into life in Falmouth quickly. My colleagues were mostly like me, ex orchestral musicians, easy to get on with, the job undemanding. Sure, it wasn’t ground breaking work, I wasn’t teaching musical protegees, but I enjoyed this new pace of life compared to the demands of the orchestra back in the big city. I was beginning to see the appeal of the cape. On my free days I went swimming and surfing, heck I even started composing my own music with ambitions to record an album. A change is as good as a rest so they say. Life was good. That was until a phone call from Susan. We had split up a while back so I was surprised to hear from her. Her mother was sick. Very sick. She needed to see a cancer specialist in Canada but her health insurance wouldn’t cover it. In short Susan needed money and I knew it was serious because she was a proud woman who wouldn’t ask unless absolutely necessary. I wasn’t wealthy by any means but I told her I would do what I could. So when I saw a notice requiring a piano tutor for an eight grade student in the college one day I did not hesitate to apply. What I would give to turn back the clock and not apply for the job.

That evening I called the number on the advert and after a few rings a husky voice answered. It was a strange voice, unlike one I had ever heard before, female, raspy. She sounded old, perhaps retired. I said: ‘Hi my name is Vincent Roberts and I saw your advert for music tuition in the music school. I am a piano professor there and am interested in the position.’ There was a strangely long pause and finally the voice said ‘Mr Roberts, I am so glad you called. My name is Mrs Hale. I require a teacher for my niece – she is nine years old and plays at a level exception for her years.’

We discussed the details. Mrs Hale and her niece lived half an hour away in a house called ‘The Rectory’, on the other side of the cape where I had not been before. I was to come and meet them that Friday after work. Being new to town I didn’t exactly have a thriving social life so I didn’t mind working on the weekend. So off I set for The Rectory. Having lived in the city for so long I didn’t have a car so I resolved to get a bus after work. Packing up my desk around 6, the janitor Karl asked me what I was doing this weekend. He was polite, feigning an interest in me, a newcomer.

‘I got a tutoring job at The Rectory, west side of the cape,’ I replied.

With hindsight Karl’s reaction should have alerted me. His friendly face seemed to suddenly stiffen as though he had seen a ghost.

‘I thought that house was empty after the accident.’

‘What happened?’ I said, my interest piqued.

‘There was an accident there many years ago – a long time now – but as I say it must be sold and have new owners now.’ Karl replied, obviously keen to change the subject.

Karl’s reaction was somewhat troubling. Actually, more odd than troubling. But I quickly shrugged off the ill feeling – I was going to teach piano to a nine year old girl and her I assumed elderly aunt, so clearly there was no reason to be concerned.

I boarded a bus around 6.30 outside the college. Oddly there was no one at the stop waiting with me and odder still the bus completely empty when I got on. 6.30 was rush hour even in the cape. I was immediately uncomfortable with the bus driver. In Boston when you board a bus the drivers are nonchalant, they barely acknowledge you, but this driver was staring at me, staring intently, from the moment the bus pulled up. He was young, nineteen at most. Exceptionally clean cut wearing a polo shirt with a nametag that read ‘Brad’. In his youthful sharpness Brad looked like a milkman from the 1950s.

‘Coast road please,’ I said, handing him five bucks.

Brad did not drop his intense stare. ‘Single or return?’ He asked, his voice surprisingly baritone for one so young.

‘Return,’ I replied quickly. Now Brad was gazing intently into my eyes. Being so close to him I could smell something rancid. Trying to conceal my disgust and uncomfortable under his stare I longed for this exchange to end. Terrible business I thought I heard him say under his breath all the while still holding my gaze.

‘Pardon me?’ I said, confused.

‘Last bus back is at ten.’ I felt his eyes on me as I walked to the back of the bus and sat down. Jeeze, what a weird guy. Was Brad a college student driving buses on the side? He couldn’t have been older than 20, and why was he staring at me? I became very self-conscious that I had food on my face or something in my teeth. I tried to shrug off all thoughts of Brad and listen to my Walkman during the journey. I closed my eyes and listened to some music — classical of course. I must have dozed off because when I woke we were at the last stop which was my stop. To my surprise Brad hadn’t picked up any other passengers. Strange.

‘Last stop Coast Road,’ said Brad.

I picked up my coat and bag and headed to the front of the bus. I muttered ‘thanks’ purposely avoiding Brad’s stare which I could feel penetrating on me.

Suddenly Brad reached out and grabbed my arm frantically. I jerked back instinctively, his touch was ice cold, and a feeling of deep unpleasantness went through my whole body like an electric current.

‘It wasn’t my fault, I didn’t see,’ shouted Brad with pleadingly desperate eyes.

At this point I seriously considered if Brad had a mental disorder. Still reeling from his icy cold touch I somehow stammered, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

Then the bus door opened and I did not hesitate to exit it hastily. The bus drove off. God what had just happened? A maniac was driving that bus. I would get a cab home for sure. But why had Brad felt so cold? It was like the touch of a corpse, a cold that had gone through me, no human had ever felt like that before. Maybe he had a health problem, or was on drugs — he was clearly a maniac — grabbing a passenger. Then anger rose in me. What if I’d been a woman? I would call the bus company in the morning and issue a complaint.

I tried to shrug all thoughts of Brad and the bus off as I adjusted to my surroundings. Mrs Hale told me that The Rectory lay down a lane beside a dirt track. A weather vane in the distance would herald I was heading the right way. It was dusk now, I looked at my watch – it read 6.45pm. Following the instructions, I turned the corner and the house came into full view. I can only describe it as awesome. A grand pale blue Victorian house stood imposingly at the end of the lane. It was magnificent with a veranda and shutters. A baby grand would be in there I was sure.

When I made my way up to the porch Mrs Hale was standing there waiting for me. Or was it for me? She seemed to be gazing intently off into the distance. I didn’t notice from afar but up close she looked very strange. Mid fifties, long grey hair in a tight bun wearing white evening gloves and what appeared to be a hoop skirt with cherries on the pattern. She wore a pearl necklace, the kind I had seen my mother wear in old photographs. She looked like she could have been on the cover of good housekeeping.

‘How do you do, Mr Roberts? She said, extending her dainty hand to mine. ‘We are so glad you could join us this evening.’ A young girl with bright red hair appeared wearing a dress in a similarly antiquated style. ‘This is my niece Caroline, the pianist.’ At this introduction Caroline handed me a glass of lemonade with a courtesy and said ‘Good evening Mr Roberts’. A strangely formal way for a nine year old to act; it seemed there was something forced in this exchange. ‘You must be parched after your journey,’ Mrs Hale continued.

Truthfully my mouth was rather dry so I welcomed the lemonade which tasted both saccharine and homemade. I noticed that Mrs Hale and Caroline were not partaking, but not wanting to appear rude I downed the whole glass. A thought crossed my mind: maybe they were Mormons, it would explain the old-fashioned outfits and strange formality. The inside of the house was as impressive as the outside. I was led to the ‘music room’ as they called it. There was an old-fashioned golden music box on top of a mahogany dresser with a ballerina circling around the centre, playing what appeared to be a nursery rhyme. I had a feeling of deja vu, as thought I had heard the song somewhere before, something along the lines of ‘in this song you are forever mine.’

I was gazing at the box when Mrs Hale and Caroline re-entered the room. Now that my eyes were off the box I noticed how strange the room actually was. There was something other worldly about it, extremely antiquated. Forest green velvet drapes. An old timey gramophone. The table was a dark mahogany and there was what looked to me like doilies on the velvet chairs. There were photographs on an old-fashioned dresser of what I assumed were long deceased relatives. One stood out, a portrait of a young man clad in military regalia. The brief thought that Mrs Hale was a Vietnam widow crossed my mind.

‘Caroline would like to play a few pieces she has worked hard on, a recital, of sorts, for you’ Mrs Hale announced.

‘But not in here, come,’ she said, taking me by my arm and leading me into a dark hallway.

A recital by means of our first meeting was indeed strange, but I obliged, willingly.

Mrs Hale led me into a magnificent room solely lit by candlelight. There was a stage in the centre of the room. What I assumed to be a piano was covered by a dark cloth. Caroline took her position at the instrument on the stage and Mrs Hale drew back the cloth revealing as I had anticipated, a stunning baby grand piano. Not only was it opulent but it looked vintage, circa 1900. I couldn’t help but gasp at this decadent revelation. Mrs Hale seemed to appreciate my reaction.

‘This is quite something,’ I said.

‘Before the music commences, it is right for me to say a few words. My niece and I have been looking for quite some time to find a man of your particular talents for this very special performance. And I know you are the right person to appreciate this recital.’

In the candlelight Mrs Hale seemed to look considerably younger, radiant, even. Her pearl necklace illuminated in the darkness.

I must say that at this point whilst I found this situation all very odd I did not feel particularly scared — that came later.

Caroline commenced playing. Living up to her word she was indeed an exceptional talent, surpassing the talent of the students at the conservatoire. As the performance continued the darkness of the room seemed to envelope me and, as if the music had an intoxicating effect, I began to feel extremely drowsy. The melodic music enchanted me into a slumber like state to the point I almost forgot Mrs Hale was beside me, then I heard her whisper.

‘This is the final piece.’

Looking at her face it appeared her eyes were glowing red and she seemed to be in a trance like state, rocking back and forth on the chair, violently. ‘Mrs Hale,’ I said alarmed. ‘Are you all right?’ But she looked right through me, her eyes transfixed on some static spot on the piano. I noticed the tempo of the music had picked up quite considerably and Caroline’s frantic fingers were playing that same song I had heard coming from the music box earlier. Suddenly as the song grew to a crescendo Mrs Hale’s eyes closed and her breathing returned to normal, recovering from what at the time I assumed to be some kind of fit, then I could have sworn I heard her whisper goodbye Vincent.

What happened next I still cannot fathom even after all this time. I must have been asleep because when I regained consciousness there was no one in the room. The candles were still lit but Caroline and Mrs Hale were absent. My initial thoughts were that something in the lemonade had made me drowsy and I had embarrassingly fallen asleep during the recital and to spare me any embarrassment they had slipped out into another room. That or Mrs Hale had actually had some kind of fit and they were in the emergency room. But why not wake me if that was the case?

I walked back across the hallway and into the music room holding a candle. The lights seemed to be out in every room. I kept calling ‘Mrs Hale’, and ‘Caroline’ for what seemed like an eternity. I expected to find them waiting for me in one of the rooms but there was no one there. This was incredibly odd. I looked at my watch, quarter past midnight. How had I been there so long? I considered maybe I had been drugged, but why? I didn’t own anything valuable and they were clearly not in need of money. I looked in the kitchen, the reception room, and I kept calling out but there was no response. Then I felt scarred, what if they were in danger. I considered calling 911 but what would I say? There was no forced entry, no entry, no bodies.

Just two people disappeared from their own house.

I packed my bags to leave and saw a note on the table. It read ‘I knew you would enjoy this final performance Mr Roberts. Yours truly V. Hale.’ There was fifty dollars, but it wasn’t normal currency, but old money, the kind my grandmother had showed me when I was a kid. What was going on? Why had they paid me with old money? What was even more unsettling was the Mrs Hale’s pearl necklace was also sitting with the note, clearly intended for me. From what I had briefly seen of her, I did not imagine she would wear fake pearls, but why leave them for me? Not knowing what to do I took the pearls and the fifty, maybe I could get some money for Susan with them.

I resolved I would walk home as the bus was already ruled out and I didn’t know a number for a cab. I walked for probably an hour or so in the dark, only half certain I was heading in the right direction. The strange events of the night kept playing out in my head: the lemonade, the recital, the fit, the disappearance. It had been so odd. Around 1am a car pulled up beside me; it was Gerry, a student from my class. He was on his way back from performing at a wedding reception and had seen me walking beside the road. He gave me a ride home. Not prepared to explain the events of the evening least I look crazy I told him I was at a party at the old Rectory instead. That night I couldn’t sleep. I took the pearls and the fifty out of my pocket and placed them onto my dresser. I convinced myself that the morning would herald an explanation, I was certain Mrs Hale would call.

But no call came the next day. I called the number on the advert but it said ‘number not recognised’. Now I felt sick, I redialled it about five or so times painstakingly checking I was hitting the right digits, but it kept saying ‘number not recognised’. I considered returning to the house, I could hitch a ride with a co-worker, but then I’d need to tell them what happened and I didn’t know how I would even begin to explain. I called the hospital but no one with the name Hale had been admitted. I was agitated at work, couldn’t concentrate on anything. I needed answers. I knew there had been some kind of accident at the house many years ago, so I headed to the public records office to find out anything I could. ‘Do you have any information about the Old Rectory on Coast road?’ I asked at the desk. The lady returned with a file.

Inside there was a newspaper article from 1958 with the headline ‘Young girl and aunt killed by bus on way to music recital’. My blood ran cold. There was a photograph of Mrs Hale and Caroline in the exact same clothes they had worn the night of our recital. Under the photograph it read: ‘Caroline and Viola Hale pictured just before the accident.’ I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And then I noticed another photograph of the driver it read ‘Bus driver Brad Smyth (19) also killed’. It was the bus driver from my journey. I immediately ran to the bathroom and vomited. How could they be dead? I had spoken to them clear as day, then I remembered Brad’s icy cold touch…

Many years have passed since that July evening. I was never one to believe in ghosts or the supernatural but I can find no other conclusion to the events of that night. I have accepted that Caroline and Mrs Hale wanted an opportunity to perform for the final time, to someone who would appreciate the music, a chance they were robbed off in this earthly world. It took me a long time to play the piano again and when I do I never, ever, play on a baby grand.

 

🍃

 

Finlay holds a PhD in Irish literature from Queen’s university Belfast. Interested in the liminal space between fantasy and gothic, Finlay is an avid reader of horror and women’s fiction.

By Heavenly Flower Publishing

Bindweed Magazine publishes two anthologies each year: Midsummer Madness and Winter Wonderland. Bindweed is run as a not for profit, labour of love endeavour by an author/poet couple: Leilanie Stewart and Joseph Robert. Bindweed can be found at https://bindweedmagazine.wordpress.com

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