Short Story 3: One Man's Meat
A young man makes his escape with his love of music
This story is one of the shortlist for Saga Exceptional’s inaugural short story competition – there are four to choose from, and the winner will be the one that gets the most votes from our readers.
The ferry ramp hit the slipway at Armadale with a clang. Callum jumped down onto the quayside, almost losing his footing on the slippery surface. Turning up the collar of his jacket against the wind, he trudged towards the waiting bus as a sheep lorry trundled past him, its passengers bleating in greeting.
‘Where you headed laddie?’ The bus driver was gruff but friendly.
‘Can you drop me at the turnoff by the black croft on the way to Broadford?’
‘Aye, but there’s not much up there. You expected?’
Dumping his backpack on the seat behind the driver, Callum smiled and shook his head.
‘It’s fine. I know I don’t look like it, but I’m almost a local.’
The bus driver eyed his thin jacket and trainers with suspicion.
‘If you’re stopping, you’ll be needing warmer clothes than those. You’re a long way from London now.’
That’s for sure, thought Callum as the bus pulled away from the jetty and started up the steep road in the direction of his grandfather’s croft. But did he really look so much like a Londoner, after only five years? Dark clouds hung low over the mountains, but as the bus climbed higher Callum caught a glimpse of the bay and the low hills of the mainland shadowy in the distance.
The rain caught up with him just as the bus pulled away, and he had to run the hundred yards down the sheep track with his jacket over his head. The gate was rusted shut, so he scrambled over a gap in the low wall, ducking under the rusty strand of barbed wire flecked with sheep’s wool that snaked from a fence post. By the time he had retrieved the door key from above the lintel, raindrops were bouncing on the flagstone step and the track behind him was a muddy stream.
The croft smelled musty. The thick stone walls held the damp of many seasons. But the roof was solid, and there was a neat stack of peat under the coat hook in the hall. The kitchen range had been recently swept and was already laid with kindling. Once the fire took hold the low room warmed up quickly. Callum turned the kitchen tap which burped and shook for a few seconds before releasing a stream of peaty water into the old tin kettle. Setting the kettle on the range, he pulled teabags, a tin of soup and a loaf he’d bought in Mallaig from his pack. In his rush to make the morning ferry he’d forgotten to buy milk, or anything else to eat with the bread. Never mind, tomorrow he could hitch back into Armadale and buy supplies.
By the time he’d eaten, the rain had cleared. A broad shaft of sunlight sliced across the moody waters of the lochan below the croft, illuminating the deep purples and rusty browns of the autumn hillside beyond. Callum dragged the sagging armchair close to the window and stretched out his legs to prop his feet on the hearth rail where his wet socks gently steamed. He unscrewed the top of his hip flask and let the amber heat of the whisky warm him from the inside out.
He woke, hours later, stiff and cold. The fire had gone out and the night air was creeping into the kitchen through the gap under the door. Shivering, he dragged his weary body to the bedroom. Too tired to make up the bed, he pulled the thick bothy blankets over him, and oblivious to the lumpiness of the old feather pillows, he slept until he was woken late in the morning by a loud thumping on the door.
Blinking, he staggered to the door and opened it. He recognised Maureen at once. She was laden with shopping bags, and red in the face.
‘You’ve been away too long my lad. Magnus told me he’d brought a gangly lad from London up from the ferry yesterday on the bus. I said to myself, that’s going to be Callum. He also said you’d nae proper footwear, so he sent you these.’
She indicated a muddy pair of men’s walking boots on the doorstep beside her.
‘Now, give me a hand with these messages. My arms are after dropping off.’
She bustled past him into the kitchen and started unloading packets and tins into the cupboards.
‘Maureen, you shouldn’t have. I could have got these myself. I was going to go into Armadale today.’
She looked at him hard.
‘Not in those shoes,’ she indicated his battered trainers, ‘You would have sopping wet feet before you’d walked a mile. It’s my day for cleaning up at the Hotel so it’s on my way. And anyway, if you’re anything like your grandad you’ll nae have a clue what to get where.’
The last time he’d seen Maureen had been at his grandfather’s funeral in the bleak chapel on the hillside above the pier. He would have been twelve, and Maureen obviously thought he was still a child the way she was fussing around the kitchen.
Callum picked up his wallet from the kitchen table.
‘Thank you so much Maureen. What do I owe you for all this?’
Maureen slapped his hand away gently.
‘Now wheesht, dinnae be so daft. We’ve been cutting peat from your Grandad’s land for years. Just think of it as a wee welcome home present. Now, I’m going to have to get my skates on – the boat’s due at twelve and Agnes has a bunch of fishermen up from Glasgow that will be none too pleased if they’ve nae clean sheets to come to.’
She had gone before Callum had a chance to thank her properly. The fridge was fully stocked, and the kitchen table groaned with soap powder, toilet rolls, washing-up liquid, toothpaste, shaving foam – everything that he would have forgotten to buy on his aborted trip into Armadale. Callum smiled. It was good to be home, and so hard to believe that a random visit to a stranger’s shop just a few short months ago could have turned his life upside down. Now all he had to do was get ready for his visitor.
Callum had cycled past the shop every day on his way to work in King’s Cross, but the blinds were always drawn, and the front door closed. Peeping out from under the bottom edge of the dusty venetians was the unmistakeable shape of a piano leg. But there was nothing else to indicate what, if anything, was sold there. But then as he passed one evening in late January, he noticed that the front door of the shop was standing open, and light was spilling out onto the pavement. He had to take a look.
The light was coming from a fringed table lamp perched on a tall wooden counter towards the back of the shop. On a high stool facing him sat a short, bald man carefully polishing an oboe with a rag dipped in linseed oil. He was so intent on his work he didn’t look up until Callum had walked right up to the counter.
‘Oh, my lord, where did you spring from?’ The shopkeeper looked anxiously past Callum and out into the street. He seemed suspicious. ‘How can I help you? We’re not actually open right now. I just opened the door to give myself some air.’ He indicated the jar of linseed oil. ‘This stuff gives me a headache otherwise.’
Callum hesitated. He had no idea now why he had come into the shop or what to say to this strange, unfriendly little man. ‘I just…’ he began. ‘I just wanted to ask about that.’ He gestured towards the window where a baby grand piano stood, its back leg missing a wheel and precariously perched on a guitar case. He could tell it was old, but the mahogany wood of its lid shone in the lamplight.
‘I haven’t seen one in ages. Where did you get it from?’
The man climbed down off the stool and came around to look at him. Standing he barely came up to Callum’s elbow.
‘Why would you ask that? I have all the paperwork. Are you one of them?’
Callum shook his head firmly. ‘No, no, of course not. I used to be a music student.’
The man seemed relieved. ‘Oh, thank the Dickens for that. So hard to tell these days, the police don’t even look like the police anymore. And a man’s got to make a crust any way he can these days. Wouldn’t you agree?’
Callum opened his mouth to reply, but the shopkeeper had turned back to the counter and was tidying the piles of sheet music that threatened to spill off it onto the floor. When he turned back to Callum he was smiling.
‘That piano has seen better days I’m afraid. I try to keep it tuned, but it’s not ideal for it here, sunlight warps the wood, which is why I keep the blinds closed. That and the fact that all of the stuff in here is banned for sale to the public.’
Now that his eyes had become accustomed to the semi-darkness Callum could see that he and the shopkeeper were standing on the only clear patch of floor. To his right were a phalanx of cellos, many of them without strings and a stack of black cases which he assumed contained violins. On a high shelf above the counter were arranged a collection of metronomes in every design and style. An old school cupboard behind the door hung open to reveal a jumble of flutes, clarinets and oboes, some with keys missing. A tuba squatted on a lower shelf its horn bent out of shape.
It was like a treasure trove from another world, and to see it all here, piled in the dark, tugged at his heart. Callum’s had been the last cohort to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music before they shut down the course. Now the concert halls and practice rooms of the Academy and all the universities like it stood silent, the instruments cleared away to dusty graveyards like this one, and the buildings sub-divided into glass cubicles hung with blinking screens. The Liberal Arts Directive was designed to be a world-beating program to educate the next generation of digital-creatives, and music students were not part of the plan. Music graduates like Callum had been encouraged to re-train for this more productive future, which is why he had taken the job at the World Music Laboratory, composing background music for computer games. At least that way he had access to a keyboard. Music, as his manager took great delight in telling him, was all about the past – computers could already reproduce every melody ever written and combine it with any other. Callum, if he ever planned to amount to anything, would have to get his head out of the clouds and into the real world – coding was where it was at these days. And yet, here he was in Central London standing in the middle of a shop that stocked forgotten dreams. He couldn’t believe it.
‘How did you get all this stuff? I thought all these instruments were banned when Google established the music streaming directive.’
The shopkeeper chuckled.
‘Well, as my late wife would say. I’m a bit of a hoarder. I could never bear to throw anything away. It started as a hobby. I just had my old piano and a few bits from the school orchestra – I used to be a teacher. When I first retired, I used to take private pupils, but there’s no demand these days. And then I got myself a bit of a name as a collector. Sometimes museums still contact me, for repairs, restoration, things like that. It’s not encouraged, but it’s not yet illegal. Anyway, it’s not like I sell much. As I said, you’re lucky to find me open. The piano’s not for sale I’m afraid though. Sentimental value. You understand. Is there anything else I can help you with?’
‘I used to play a lot; piano was my instrument’ Callum heard himself saying. ‘I still play a bit – when I can. I’ve got a Suzuki keyboard, not a great one, one of the pedals sticks. I’ve always wanted a piano, a real piano, I mean. Could I leave you my details, and then you could let me know if you hear of one for sale?’
He pulled a World Music Library business card from his pocket and handed it to the shopkeeper who looked at it suspiciously and handed it back.
‘I can’t read that, it’s blank. You need one of those fancy scanners, never got round to buying one. Here, can you write it down I’ve got a pen somewhere. Wait a minute.’
He shuffled back to the counter and pulled a pen and an old receipt book from a drawer.
‘Here pop your details on this, but don’t hold your breath. Pianos are even rarer than horsehair.’ He grinned broadly at Callum. ‘And I’m always in need of that, all those need restringing.’ And he indicated a box of assorted violin and cello bows by Callum’s feet. Callum wrote his details in the receipt book and handed it back to the shopkeeper.
‘Now my top tip for that Suzuki of yours, try smearing a bit of that plant-based margarine they’re always trying to flog us, on the pedal hinge. Best use for it in my opinion.’
‘Thank you so much, Mr…?’, Callum hesitated.
‘Mr Finlay but my friends call me George. And you are?’
‘Callum, Callum Begley.’
‘Good to meet you Callum. Always a pleasure to meet a fellow musician. We’re a dying breed, don’t you know.’ He pulled a creased business card from his apron pocket.
’Now, here’s my number. If you want to come back one evening and put that piano through its paces, you’d be doing me a favour. Arthritis in my wrist, can’t reach the octave these days. Ring me before hand and I’ll open up for you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish that oboe, the British Library’s sending someone to collect it in the morning.’
As Callum left the shop, he noticed that George had bolted the door and pulled down the blinds so that from the street the shop looked dark once again. He realised for the first time that the shop had neither a name nor a street number. As he unchained his bike and started to pedal home, he wondered about the old man and how he managed to make a living from a shop that was always closed.
Every instrument has its quirks, and Callum knew it could take time before they revealed themselves. George’s piano had, as he said, seen better days, but apart from a squeaky pedal and a clunky high C it played pretty well. When the old man saw that Callum really was a serious musician, he found a tuning fork and did his best to get it back in tune. Although George still insisted that the piano was not for sale, he kept it well polished and there was always a selection of sheet music waiting on the stool when Callum arrived. At first Callum had been worried that someone would hear him playing and report them, but all the other shops in the street were boarded up and there was no passing traffic at all.
On warm spring evenings, George pulled a chair out onto the pavement to smoke his one cigarette of the day while Callum played. As the red sun dipped behind the flats opposite the park, and the pigeons settled in the treetops, it almost felt like the old days. They sat there, the tall young man bent over the keys, and the older one sitting head thrown back, eyes half-shut; both of them drinking in the music as it seeped out into the London street.
Callum found that having access to the piano had opened up something in him. For several weeks he sat up into the night scribbling in his manuscript book and trying out phrases on his keyboard, always with his headphones on, in case his flatmates heard him. At last, he had something he was happy with, a composition, a tune that he longed to try out on the piano.
Callum knew it was a risk, going to the shop on a Sunday afternoon, in daylight, without ringing ahead. But he just couldn’t wait. He had been careful to come the long way from his flat, stopping every few minutes to check that he hadn’t been followed. When he got there the shop was dark. He went to knock on the door and realising it wasn’t locked, he pushed it gently open.
‘Hi George, are you there? It’s me, Callum.’ The shopkeeper appeared suddenly from behind the door.
‘Come in, come in my boy. Be quick.’ George stuck his head out of the door and looked anxiously up and down the street before pulling Callum into the shop and locking the door behind him.
‘You didn’t tell anyone you were coming here, did you? You really must be careful.’
‘No, no, it’s fine. I checked but why are you so worried.’
The old man shrugged.
‘Probably nothing, just me being paranoid. Only on Tuesday, when the museum came to collect those flutes I’d been repairing, there was a strange car parked across the street. Government plates. Never seen it before. I thought maybe they were going to come in and check my repair paperwork, nothing to see there it’s all in order, but the man never got out of the car. He drove away after a few minutes. It had me really spooked.’
‘I’m just trying to keep under the radar in case they try and seize these instruments. A lot of them are made from tropical hardwood you know, in the days before the forests were endangered. I’ve seen it on the news, they’ve started to crack down, collecting wooden ‘artefacts’, they’re called now, to use as fuel in the new Biomass Generators. I’m probably breaking the law just by having them here.’
George pulled off his glasses and started to polish them quickly on a corner of his apron. When he looked up again, he was smiling.
‘Anyway, I’m glad you came. You look like you’ve got something to tell me.’
Callum pulled the sheaf of manuscript paper from the back pocket of his jeans and waved it in the air. ‘I think I might have something, and I’d like you to be the first to hear it.’
George clapped his hands delightedly. ‘Oh, a world premiere, how exciting. Wait here a minute I think I’ve got something back here I’ve been saving.’ He disappeared into the small office at the back of the shop and emerged a few minutes later with two bottles of beer, their sides wet with condensation. ‘There you go. We can have a little celebration to toast your success.’
Callum’s playing was hesitant at first. He took a few minutes to adjust to the heavier piano keys after the light touch of the keyboard. But soon he started to relax, and as his fingers flew across the keys, the musty shop, the beaming shopkeeper, the warm summer afternoon all disappeared.
He was back in the meadow below his grandfather’s croft, the ground ribbed with deep ridges where the peats had been cut, and the nodding grass sprinkled with wild orchid and cowslips. The meadow sloped down to the boggy shores of the lochan where an old rowboat rocked gently in the light breeze that ruffled the water into lapping folds. The sky above him was clear but purple clouds were gathering above the hills on the far shore and he could smell rain on the way.
A few black-faced sheep stood on the high ground behind the croft chomping contentedly on the new heather. He could hear the bleating demands of the early lambs, as they buried themselves in their mother’s wool, desperate to suckle. The spring sun was warm on his back. He shifted his feet as damp from the grass leached into his shoes.
Looking down, Callum was surprised to see his dry trainers resting on the piano’s pedals. George was standing a few feet away, wiping his glasses with a handkerchief.
‘Well, that was just wonderful. I haven’t heard music like that in, oh I don’t know how long. You said you were a musician, sonny, and you certainly are. There’s no mistaking talent like that.’
Callum, smiled, embarrassed at George’s emotion, and at his own intense feeling of being transported by the music back to the hills of Skye. He went back to the shop almost every Sunday after that, never telling his friends where he was going, and always returning with a sense of peace and a renewed enthusiasm for his escape plan.
One Sunday in late July he turned up at the usual time. He found the shop in darkness and the door locked. His knocks and calls through the letterbox went unanswered. Wary after Tom’s warning and not wanting to draw attention to himself, he pedalled slowly back to his flat.
He called George again three times that week, but the phone went straight to voicemail. As he cycled past the shop on Friday evening, he saw a large black removal van parked outside.
Two burly men were loading boxes of instruments into the back of the van, throwing them around as if they were so much firewood. Which, Callum thought bitterly, they probably would be soon. There was no sign of George or the piano.
There was no point trying to track George down online, as the man had somehow managed to have no digital profile whatsoever. Callum could only find a single photograph of the Mallorees Year 6 Orchestra, in the archives of the Kilburn Times, in which George was identified as George M Finlay, Head of Music.’ His face was blurred and there was no more information than the photo caption. His friend had just disappeared.
Callum was getting ready for work when the letter arrived. He noticed it on the doormat as he went to collect his cycle helmet from its hook by the door. He recognised the handwriting, and the letter had no stamp. His hands were all thumbs and as he ripped the envelope open, something shiny fell onto the floor. He recognised the small brass key that George had used to lock the piano lid each evening after Callum had finished playing. Also inside the envelope was a business card. He recognised the logo from the furniture vans he had seen outside the shop. There was an address but no telephone number.
‘I hope you know it’s going to cost me a bloody fortune. Getting someone to drive all the way up there. Two blokes probably. Don’t see what you want with it anyway. The licence to transport was a nightmare, everything in bloody triplicate.’ Callum waited as the man in overalls bent to unlock the roller shutter. He recognised the piano instantly, even covered with a blanket, its wonky back leg still balanced on the guitar case. It would be good to get that fixed at some point. He’d had to sell his bike and his keyboard to pay for the transport – luckily his bike was a fancy one.
Work had been surprised when he told them he was leaving. What, was he crazy? Was there even any broadband up there? What was he going to do with himself all day? They had heard the weather was awful. But Callum had made up his mind.
The removal van arrived on Skye two weeks after Callum. He was out oiling the gate when he saw its dark shape winding up the hill from the harbour. The two men swore a lot taking it down the track, and even more when it turned out that they needed to unscrew the legs to get it in through the door. Callum had moved the bed into the kitchen so that the piano could have pride of place in the bedroom, and he could see out across the lochan when he played. As the van disappeared back down the hill he sat down on the piano stool and his feet found the pedals. Reaching into his pocket he fitted the brass key into the lock and gently lifted the lid. Resting on the keys was a single sheet of piano music, Callum clipped it onto the music stand and began to play.
As the music rose from the piano it seemed to coat the stone walls of the croft and wrap itself around him. He was back in the shop full of dusty instruments and piles of sheet music on a sunny Sunday afternoon, visiting an old friend.
Saga Exceptional short story competition
This story is one of the shortlist for Saga Exceptional’s inaugural short story competition – there are four to choose from, and the winner will be the one that gets the most votes from our readers.
Written by Sally McEnallay
Sally McEnallay has an English degree from Oxford and an MA in Critical and Cultural Studies from the University of London. She has a drawer full of short stories and a background in publishing, but never seems to have any time to work on her writing. This might be because like lots of people she also has a family, a small dog, a garden and lots of other things that need doing. She’s passionate about the potential of stories to bring people together and when she’s not writing she’s reading.