The Moment

Albert was nervous.

It was ironic; on the day he needed to be at his best, his trembling fingers left him feeling like a clumsy novice.  He stopped playing for a moment and set his instrument aside.  The wooden framed bed creaked beneath him as he shifted his weight. He leaned forward; cupping his face in his hands, and began to rock gently from side to side.  It was a motion that he had always found comforting. With his eyes covered in this way, he could usually focus better on the task ahead.

Except this time.  The regular creaking of the bed springs cut through his concentration, and only served to heighten his tension.

Albert cried out in frustration and leapt to his feet. The bed creaked behind him, triumphantly claiming the last word. He padded barefoot to the door and placed his forehead against the dark wood. A gentle, but perceptible draught blew past the frame, chilling him slightly and bringing up goose bumps. It was remarkable, he mused, that it could be so cold on such a sunny day.

He stood at the door for several minutes, his mind racing. Concentration was evading him this day.

The rise and fall of muffled voices reached him through the door. He heard people chattering excitedly, laughing brightly, and enjoying the day. The sounds irritated him. What right did they have to be so happy?  He knew the answer, of course. They were here simply to enjoy themselves, taking time away from whatever it was they did for rest and relaxation.  Albert felt a tinge of jealousy. His purpose was different; he was here to work. He was here for their benefit. Tonight the people out there would all be watching him working, struggling, and shaking with fright.

If the Quartet would let him perform, that is. He had to straighten himself out.  What if Bernard should call on him and see him shaking like an old man with the palsy? He pushed himself back from the door, and padded back towards the creaky bed. His Cello leaned against the wooden chair, patiently awaiting his return. Dear old Cello, he thought, his trusted companion for eight years now.

He remembered the awful, scratchy noises he had summoned from it on that first day. His generous Uncle George, certain that the boy had the talent to master the instrument: his dubious Father desperately resisting the urge to cram wax into his tortured ears.

His Mother had sat quietly in a sunlit corner of the sitting room, embroidering one of her innumerable pieces. Mother never spoke much in those days, except to chide him occasionally, and urge him to do as his Father demanded, but he loved her dearly. His eyes moistened as he remembered her departing words.

“Make us proud Darling,” she had whispered as his train began to move. He had wept like a child as her fingers had slipped away from his. He had looked back for her, but the platform and everyone on it were lost in the chaos of steam and noise.

“I will make you proud, Mother!” Albert grasped the Cello and sat, but not on the creaky bed. Instead he chose the wooden bedside chair. It groaned deeply as his weight settled on it. Wonderful, he thought, I have my very own inanimate orchestra right here.

His fingers settled into familiar positions, and the bow found the strings. The first few sounds set Albert’s teeth on edge, before he found his rhythm and more pleasing sounds finally began to flow. He allowed himself a tight smile.

Slowly he managed to settle into the mindset of a performer. In his mind, he was playing as a part of the Quartet, each of his fellow musicians adding their own distinctive sounds to the whole. The Quartet, playing as one, was greater than the sum of its parts. He imagined the heat of the lights, the appreciative noises of the audience, the flow of the music… which all vanished as he became aware of a loud banging noise.

The door flew open, and a gangly figure exploded into the room. Bertie was all arms and legs, and when he moved, he reminded Albert of a windmill with all the sails thrashing round in a gale. His hair was naturally curly, but today he had it slicked down with a parting in the centre.

“For goodness sake Al, why aren’t you out enjoying the sunshine?” Bertie exclaimed. “You should be out strolling around with the posh folks, not skulking in here.”

“It’s too cold out there, Bertie. That wind gives me goose bumps.”

“Yes it is rather bracing, I admit, but not too bad if you stay in the sun.”

“I have to practice,” Albert said quietly, his voice quavering just a little. “I’m all fingers and thumbs today.”

Bertie hooked his thumbs into his waistcoat, towering over the seated Albert. “Got a touch of the nerves, have you? Well, you sounded fine from outside, young fellow.”

Young fellow? Albert smiled. Bertie was exactly five weeks older than he was, but liked to play the worldly-wise adult.

“What’s this mothers meeting all about?” a voice said from behind Bertie’s imposing frame. “Are we planning a mutiny?”

“Oh hello, Bernie” Bertie looked round and down at the newcomer. “I was just telling Al not to be so stuffy and get outside for a bit of fresh air.”

“Fresh is the word for it.” Bernard frowned, glancing up at his friend. He hated the way the lofty chap abbreviated his friend’s names. Albert never seemed to mind, but it did seem somewhat over-familiar. It was an American mannerism, Bernard knew, although he was aware that until last week, his tall friend had never travelled any further than Southampton.

“I need to practice, Bernard, that’s all,” Albert muttered to the older man. Bernard was nearly twenty-four, five years senior to both of them. He had even been all the way out to America, and in Albert’s eyes, really did deserve some respect.

“Let’s hear you then… start with some scales.” Albert nodded, set his jaw and began to run off a few basic exercises. Bernard relaxed, enjoying the sound of the cello in what he considered to be expert hands. He folded his arms, crossed one leg in front of the other and mimed a comic lean against Bertie.

But Bertie stood completely still, rapt attention on his face. Bernard remained virtually motionless beside him, moving only to flick an errant blonde lock from his face. A light frown crept across Albert’s face as he concentrated on his task. The scales ended, and without missing a beat, Albert began to play something that Bernard didn’t recognise.

“Wait there, what was that?” Bernard suddenly shot upright. Realisation crossed the young cellists face, and the flow of music ceased abruptly.

“Oh, my!” Albert dropped his head in embarrassment.

“Yes, Al, what gives with the new piece?” Bertie chipped in.

Bernard frowned up at Bertie. What gives? He shook his head in dismay.

“It’s something I’ve been trying to put together myself. I usually start on it right after I finish my scales. Sorry — force of habit.”

Bernard gave him a curious look. “Keep working on it.” He said quietly. “I’d really like to hear it when it’s finished. In the meantime, keep practising. It’s obviously relaxing you. Right, Bertie?”

Bertie said nothing for a moment. He just stared at the now-silent cello. A nudge from Bernard brought him back to reality.

“Eh, what? Oh… yes, yes,” he muttered.

Bernard grinned conspiratorially at Albert, motioning upwards with his eyes to the heavens and tipping his head several times towards the taller man.

“Mmm?” managed Bertie.

“I said,” sighed Bernard, “that we ought to go out and see if we can find William, or tonight’s performance will be a trio!”

“See you tonight, at eight bells.” Bernard grinned at Albert, and pulled on Bertie’s arm, “Come on… Bertrand!” He led his seemingly dazed friend out through the door, closing it behind him.

Albert sat motionless, looking across at the door for a few moments; Bernard liked my piece! A smile slowly crept across the young mans face, and with it, the confidence to play without fear. Several weeks ago, he had been able to play – with a smaller audience admittedly. That was the moment he knew he could play the quartet, and play well.

Music flowed out from under his door for the rest of the day, almost without pause and drifted with the ever-present wind up into the slowly darkening sky. Mozart saw the sun to bed. Handel played the well-dressed sightseers to their evening meal. Mendelssohn went with their coffee. Albert R. Whittle, the son of a cotton mill owner, was beginning to play like the professional he burned to become.

At ten minutes to eight, a smartly dressed young man in black jacket and bow tie stepped into the cold wind with his trusty cello, and closed the door behind him. He gazed up at the star-studded sky, pierced by the four mighty funnels and shivered, not from fear, but from excitement.

He wanted to make an impression tonight. He was determined to give the audience something to talk about.

He hoped April 14th, 1912 would be remembered by these passengers for as long as they lived.

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