The Case of the Missing Instrument
fiction by Atar J. Hadari
He sat with a pint at one of the thick brown benches outside the National Film Theatre and realized he’d no idea where his instrument was. He had been down to the Wharf for his tea and eaten a greasy crêpe whose traces had left stains all along his palms. He could feel the grease when he rolled his hands on the dark counter. (Thick hands for a flautist, after all these years he still felt like a thug among all these waifs and strays in ball gowns, playing wind.) He scanned the quarter mile each side of him and considered where the flute might be.
Today as it happened this was serious—he was playing, not rehearsing—and a solo. A small part but alone and no one answering. He didn’t want to turn up late this time.
He hustled back to Gabriel’s Wharf, the pint settling its foam down to the empty base behind him. Mimes were on the forecourt of the National Theatre. They looked through him. He looked through them and countless tourist hordes, rushed across the grass of ITV’s news center, to the wharf and shops where kites cost a week’s wages, to the bar where he’d had lunch. He scanned the bench outside. A waiter slouching by the till waited for evening’s crowds to start. It was stolen or he’d left it elsewhere.
Skipping over the pavement back to the National Film Theatre, running eyes over the bookstalls parked along the river bank, he veered looking for a case left on the floor, a hint of black skin in the shadows, a bulge in someone’s bag. He searched for familiar eyes among the booksellers. They looked through him. “You seen a flute?” he said to the youngest, a boy of 20 maybe, looking after an older brother’s stall. The youth shook his head, scratched and folded notes into his apron.
He ran to the coffee shop at the Royal Festival Hall. The little chocolates wrapped in green paper winked off a hundred orange cups waiting to be re-filled. He scanned the small white tables in the lobby, no one waiting, no one carrying anything in black. He ran into the bookshop. Hordes of children and old men and women with glasses draped around their necks limped from one book stand to another. He dashed from one end of the bookshop to the other, pushing old ladies against checkout counters and children against the music stands.
He was due to arrive half an hour ago, allowing for his usual lateness, at the stage door, and to play in 19 minutes’ time. Could he borrow a flute? No—damn—Perry, the first flute, was away—hence Marty’s solo tonight. Being the second flute, you didn’t have a second. No flute if he didn’t bring his own. He may as well have left his testicle in a restaurant as turn up without his piece.
He would go to the lockers where Perry kept his things and check, maybe Perry left his spare. Perry was like that, a maniac about punctuality, professionalism. That’s why he was first flute and Marty was second. He slipped in the musicians’ entrance, past the porter who was sipping tea and didn’t stir, past doors that opened onto endless corridors, down to the changing rooms and Perry’s locker. Good thing the bugger had tonsillitis and stayed in hospital, else he’d have taken the spare away with him. Marty muttered as he teased the padlock open with a hair grip, Perry always carried a spare. The locker swung open. He took Perry’s spare flute and pulled the white crisp cotton sheath down. Thank God.
He pulled his dress pants on and the dinner jacket over the white shirt he’d worn all day—no time to change collars. He started up the stairs back to concert hall level. His shoes. Brown shoes gleamed on the stairs at the bottom of his dinner-suited legs. Aaaagh. Skidding back down stairs, crashing back to the changing room, slinging one shoe after another into the locker with a crash, he crammed his toes into dress black slip-ons. Click clack, click clack on the new heels upstairs, panting like a horse. Through the waiting room door with the red light to say you should keep your trap shut—if he’d been on time that bulb would still have been blessedly dark. Nearly there. Now. He bursts through the double doors and silence hits.
Silence between the instruments. Not silence between notes but pure silence. Nobody moves, nobody rustles. Not a single program being squeezed in a plump hand. Then the announcer’s voice. “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for that moment of silence. I think I speak for all of us when I say we appreciate it at least as much as his family does. When you lose a colleague, let alone one you work with daily, you lose much more than a professional tie. And today’s events bring that home to every one of us. Now, if you’ll turn to your programs…”
He got on to the platform. The musical director had not been there as he walked through the waiting room, and now he could see him, old watery eyes a little skewed under his horn-rim glasses, listening to the orchestra director finishing his speech. He was pointing toward the soloist’s stand. Marty thought he could just make it there before the first violin struck a note. He was surprised no one said anything. No one could see him yet.
“We’re very grateful that our first flute, Chester Perry, despite considerable personal difficulty with his throat, has stepped in at the last moment.” Marty followed the audience’s heads turning in a wave toward the soloist’s stand just ahead, where Perry sat with a face the color of strawberries that had begun to go off.
Marty felt like hurling Perry’s own spare flute at the bastard. How could he? Who had a right to do this to a man?
“Once again, ladies and gentlemen, we ask you to put your hands together in tribute to Marty Walker, a great and much missed young talent. We’re sure that he’s with us, wherever he is tonight, very much in spirit, because he loved this place and I’m sure he watches over our proceedings here tonight.”
“I’m here to bloody play!” Marty said. The orchestra director cleared his throat. “We don’t know how we could have helped him or what drove him to the desperate path he chose—” Marty walked up to the director’s back and tapped him under the shoulder. “You can get Perry out of my chair,” he said, “that’s how you can help me. He’s dead on his feet. Look at him.”
The orchestra director didn’t shrug, “We hope wherever he is, he’s at peace and enjoying the music we make in his memory. Mr. Perry if you please. The flute concerto in E minor.”
“I’ve got my flute,” Marty said as instruments all rose to various shoulders, “I’m not that late. I’ll not be late again.” The orchestra director and choir master were trooping down the side of the stage back to the wings, applause was filling up the auditorium where thousands of hands were clapping at the mention of his name, while the orchestra started to play in his memory and the flute rose to Chester Perry’s mouth like a slowly turning knife. Marty could see under his chair, between his perfectly black shoes, there was a flute case, all gleaming and black, and at its corner the gleaming initials M.W.
Marty leapt across to choke Perry but the flute rose at the end of Perry’s nimble wrists and Marty felt the river call him, where first stars were gleaming on the Thames. He felt the waves and saw little fishes dart between the weeds where strings catch, weighed down by lures from above. Chester Perry’s instrument gleamed in the auditorium lights and an audience’s roar of applause broke. Marty sank down into the river, holding a crêpe that somebody’s light, nimble-fingered hand had sprinkled with what he had said was salt to the waiter, who took the tip and accepted it as an office-mate’s prank. Who knew with musicians? And Perry bowed and left the stage, wiping his mouthpiece, coughing a little cough, then walked out of the building. He dropped a small brown bottle into the river, with a piece of cardboard that some greasy crêpe must have lain on, because it was still stained. He coughed into his hand and then walked on toward the underground, humming the overture of something Marty used to play. “This cold will be the death of me,” he said to nobody in particular, then tucked Marty’s flute case under his arm and broke into a trot.
Atar Hadari’s plays have won awards from the BBC, Arts Council of England, National Foundation of Jewish Culture (New York), European Association of Jewish Culture (Brussels), and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was Young Writer in Residence. His stories have been published in New York Stories, Witness, and Shooter and broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “Opening Lines.” His monthly bible translation columns appear in MOSAIC and previous pieces can be found at mosaicmagazine.com/author/atar-hadari.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.