TUESDAY: A Long Way from Wolverhampton

Valentines Week 2024 Contest
Second-place winner


Copyright is held by the author.

Luzern, Switzerland, Summer 2004
I COULD have chosen to strike up a conversation with any of the orchestra members, over 80 of us, or any of the many guests dressed formally for the meet-and-greet reception the orchestra’s sponsors put on. But I didn’t. Instead, I stood close enough to him that I could smell him — Marcus, that is, the oboe player — and totally tongue-tied.

The smell wasn’t body odour but something more chemical. A skin medication? He had acne, not bad, but still noticeable. Whatever the smell was, it wafted toward me. I wrinkled my nose, then immediately covered my face behind my hand, embarrassed and not wanting him to see my reaction. Gauche. I took a deep breath. There it was again. When I accidentally snorted, he regarded me quizzically and probably wondered why I was standing so close to him and the girl he was with, eavesdropping on their conversation. I wasn’t eavesdropping. I didn’t understand a word of the language they were speaking. I turned my head and tried to disguise my further embarrassment by sucking a glass of orange Fanta through a straw. It gurgled through the ice on the bottom. Also gauche. I glanced around at the others in the crowded ballroom. I saw no one else, but the girl Marcus was with on whom I could deflect attention. That wasn’t going to work.

I tried a nervous half-smile.

Was geht?” he said.

I interpreted this as, “What’s up?”“Nichts,” I said, hoping German was the right language and that “nichts” meant “nothing.”

This time, it was she who wrinkled her nose. At me. Which she accompanied with an icy, withering glare. Marcus twitched a bony shoulder beneath his ill-fitting dinner jacket. I took it to be the Central European equivalent of a Gallic shrug. I’d discovered his name earlier that day from the clarinettist who occupied the chair next to him and that he came from Prague. That was all. Other than I liked him. A lot. Gooey-on-the-insides much. He said something to the girl at his side in Czech. Or whatever. Something foreign. They turned their backs on me. The snub told me everything.

It was obvious what he saw in her. She was beautiful – flawless pale skin, thick, straw-blond hair tied back in a ponytail, clear blue eyes, a hint of gloss on her lips, and a small nose. Everything I didn’t have. She was nearly as tall as me but slimmer. Much slimmer. Large gold hoop earrings kissed the skin at the base of her swanlike neck. She wore black, as we all did, but somehow, she managed to carry it off better than anyone else at the reception. Her skimpy cocktail dress draped seamlessly over her lithe body without a hint of panty line. Thong. Gross. Thin spaghetti straps crisscrossed her long, narrow back with not so much as a mole to mar the smooth skin. Delicate black lace epaulettes covered her shoulders. Before she turned away, I saw a delicate gold necklace with a small crucifix at the top of her modest cleavage. Thin arms, slender wrists and long fingers were perfectly shaped for what she did.

She played in the first violins.

I took an instant dislike to her.

Not that I played the violin — I was a viola player from the time of my last growth spurt and could manage the size of the larger instrument, but like most viola players I knew, I started on the violin. The viola suited my temperament, though — shy and happiest in the background. It’s that sort of instrument, too — unnoticed for the most part, adding subtle depth without paying attention to itself. And if the viola is the wallflower of the orchestra, I was the wallflower’s wallflower.

At seventeen, I was the youngest of the twelve viola players in the best youth orchestra in the world, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. Claudio Abbado, the conductor and music director, had brought the orchestra together for the annual summer concert season. I don’t know how I was chosen from the thousands of applicants the examiners had winnowed out before being selected to audition. Or how I had passed the three auditions and interviews. Those lay behind me, a fog of recent history that left me bewildered. Here I was, in Luzern, intimidated and barely treading water among the laughing, outgoing orchestra members at the reception.

On the other hand, she played the violin with the same verve and dazzle as the smile she now directed at Marcus. I know. While I waited my turn that morning to perform my passage, the obbligato viola solo from Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, I’d heard her warming up by playing a few snatches from Paganini’s virtuoso showpiece, La Campanella. That she waited for Maestro Abbado himself to pass close by, stop and listen spoke volumes about her self-confidence. I heard enough to confirm that we occupied vastly different biospheres. Maestro Abbado smiled at her, nodded at me when she finished and strode away without a comment.

As her competition for Marcus, I was a cart horse in the Derby.

I don’t know how it happened. One minute, I was arm’s length from Marcus. The next, I was alone as the reception split into two, parting down the middle as if Moses had shouted, “Open, Sesame” or something at the Red Sea. For a moment, I stood alone in the light cast by the revolving mirrored ball above me in the ballroom. Help! I fled from the flickering light, searching the reception for a friendly face, only to realize that I knew no one by name apart from Marcus and the violist from Strasbourg who had the orchestra chair next to mine. I had never felt more alone or alienated.

I found a place by the wall and scrutinized the faces in the room. That’s when what was unusual about the reception hit me – I was the only person in the room who wasn’t white. I know classical music doesn’t attract many people of colour, at least not where I live. Still, growing up in the heavily multiracial English Midlands, we had many players in our local youth orchestra whose immediate heritage was primarily Caribbean or South Asian. Until that night, I hadn’t given it a second thought. I’d never been part of an all-white-but-me orchestra before. I stood out. I was different, and I longed to be anything but different. I couldn’t melt into the background. I wanted desperately to go home, back to gritty, hardscrabble, blue-collar Wolverhampton, where everybody had dirt under their fingernails from their dead-end factory jobs. I didn’t want to play the centrepiece of our summer concert program, Mahler’s 9th Symphony or any other selected pieces.

“It’s a bit of a jumble,” my mum said when she listened to it after I downloaded it to my MP3 player.

“It’s incredibly challenging,” I countered, sulking. “But you have to admit the adagio Fourth Movement is beyond sublime. I’m totally in love with it.”      

Unlike Marcus, Mum shrugged with both shoulders. “Of course, Dear.”

As inconspicuously as possible, I edged towards the table of warm phyllo pastries, canapés and light refreshments. Over another Fanta and something white and cheesy on a water biscuit, I almost convinced myself that my parents would be sympathetic if I quit. I could tell them Maestro Abbado picked on me, saying I couldn’t keep up with the others. Or my instrument wasn’t good enough for the orchestra. Or I made bowing and fingering mistakes. I told myself I didn’t want to spend the summer at the Luzern Festival or go on the tour of China, Japan and Taiwan with the orchestra in September. My parents would understand.

“No, they wouldn’t.” I heard a small, nagging voice and recognized it as my own. “Don’t lie to them. Or to yourself. And don’t flush the opportunity of a lifetime down the toilet.” I wallowed ankle-deep in self-pity for a few minutes, pondering my next step.

I was the oldest of three children. The gifted one. The one who would go places and make her parents proud. When they arrived in England from Sri Lanka to escape the war there eighteen years ago, my parents settled in Wolverhampton, with its dark factories and smoke-stained foundries, the dying relics of the heart and soul of the Industrial Revolution. There, amid the smokestacks and streets of identical, narrow-fronted, smoke-grimed, slate-roofed row houses, they would give their children a chance at a better life. They worked two jobs, sacrificed their present, borrowed and mortgaged their future to buy me my violin, and later my viola, and pay for extra music lessons – “And this is how you plan to repay them?” Right then, I didn’t need reminding or a scolding. Quitting wasn’t an option, no matter how desperately I wanted to.

I helped myself to another canapé with something pink and cheesy this time. It tasted no different from the others. Tears threatened to flood my eyes. When I couldn’t stop them, they spilled down my cheeks and left blotches on my black cocktail dress, not nearly as elegant as the one she wore. I was conscious of my hips being too broad, and no amount of slimming regimes had done a thing to improve them. And my waist could be quite a lot slimmer. If only I could fit into a size 10. It was only two sizes. All right, three. Perhaps if I didn’t eat breakfast, skipped lunch, and drank a protein shake for a month instead, I might squeeze into a size 12. Not that it worked when I tried before, but it had to be worth another shot. I popped another cheesy thing in my mouth and chewed absent-mindedly while I watched her and Marcus from a safe distance.

They turned away from each other. Marcus headed across the floor to where I queened over the soft drinks and canapé table alone. He ignored me while he helped himself to a paper plate and the half dozen bits and pieces I hadn’t yet devoured and then edged down the length of the table towards me. I held my breath. He stopped before he bumped into me.

Du bist alein?” His prominent Adam’s apple bobbed when he spoke. I detected a nervous shake in his voice. That smell I’d noticed earlier drifted across the narrow gap separating us.

“Alone?” I said, hopeful that was what ‘alein’ meant. The ‘Du bist’ bit I got first time.

Ja. Alein. Alone. Also, I speak a bit English.He held his thumb and fingertip a few millimetres apart as he smiled. I noticed his even, white teeth.

I tried to hide my relief that someone other than the show-off Irish timpanist spoke English. I struggled in any foreign language, but as most classical musicians do, I managed to get by with a smattering of rudimentary classroom French and a bit of German and Italian. I smiled, hoping it didn’t look like a grimace. Or that I had cheesy, flaky bits stuck between my teeth. Marcus didn’t back away.

“I saw you alone, and I wanted to be with you. I think you are like me; I don’t know the English word. Schüchtern?

I took a wild stab. “Shy?” It made sense. “Yes, I’m shy,” I said, returning his smile. “I don’t like crowds. All I want to do is play music.”

“I also. I am Marcus.”

“I’m Shree Gosine.”

“I play oboe and cor anglais.”

I didn’t let on that I knew. At rehearsal, I had heard Marcus play the mournful and eerily sexual English horn passage from Copland’s Quiet City (my Buddhist parents would be horrified if they knew I was aware of ‘sexual’ anything!). Somehow, he had managed to insinuate and weave the slinky notes of his passage through the muted trumpet players seated behind him.

That was this morning. Now, I stood next to a kindred soul. My stomach did a backflip. I was sure that if I touched him, we would both get an electric shock. I wanted to kiss him, not that he was good-looking or anything. He stood about six feet tall once he abandoned his hunch and stood upright, only a little taller than me, but skinny, weedy even. His fine, fair hair spilled over his too-large collar. His ears poked through his hair, sticking out from the sides of his head worse than Prince Charles’s. I contained my desire to laugh at them. Narrow, wire-framed glasses perched on the bridge of his long, thin nose. Very European. His cheek bore a small streak of dried blood from a razor nick. Everything about him screamed geek!

My tummy tingled. So did my toes. My bloodstream erupted with a surge of adrenalin.

“I’ve heard you play in the small orchestra this morning.” I searched for the right words. “So beautifully, so expressively and passionately,” I said, edging closer, wanting to invade his personal space without making it look obvious. The smell coming from him grew more apparent with each surreptitious slide step. I must have wrinkled my nose because that puzzled expression I’d seen earlier returned. He lifted an arm and sniffed the sleeve of his jacket. He arched his eyebrows. “This?” 

If a brown girl could visibly blush, I did. Gauche didn’t enter it. There and then, I wanted the world to swallow me without leaving a trace.


I gave him a puzzled, two-shouldered shrug and raised my hands to emphasize my hopelessness.


I shook my head.

“Balls of moth?”

This time, I could not stop the laugh from escaping. “Camphor. Mothballs.” I touched his sleeve. My fingers lingered a moment longer than strictly necessary. Neither of us suffered electrocution.

He nodded vigorously. “It is my father’s old smoking. I do not have one. One day,” he leaned closer and whispered, “when Russians leave my country, I will play in professional orchestra. Then, I will buy my own performing clothes. Those also are from my father.” He pulled his jacket open and tugged at his collar. “We are not the same size.” He uttered a light laugh, accompanied by one of those Central European shrugs. Our fingers touched briefly, then interlaced.

At that moment, Wolverhampton seemed as far away as Sri Lanka. We had a symphony to play. If I ever let go of his hand.


Image of Michael Joll

Michael Joll is a Canadian author of short stories, novels and radio drama, whose short stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. Published works include the short story collections, Perfect Execution and Other Stories, and Inspector Masters Investigates Persons of Interest, and the novels A Time to Love and A Time to Die, Gabrielle, and The Darkest Hours. His latest novel is due out this spring.

  1. Great story!
    I was captivated!

  2. Intriguing and beautifully written.

  3. So sweet.

  4. Michael is a master of crafting carefully constructed characters along with sublime plots. Thoroughly enjoyed his piece.

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