[Dated January to March, 2017. I wrote this for inclusion in my friend and uni mate’s video game, which is available on Steam. It’s my first attempt at a horror short story, taking plenty of influence from Lovecraft. Although my novel (which isn’t available on Steam, or anywhere else yet) is styled as a horror, I found it more difficult to transfer that atmosphere to a short story, so don’t expect this one to be a frightfest or anything. Properly formatted PDF at the end.]
The cadence starts in C, but loses all tonal sense seconds later. The instrument it is played on does not exist. It has returned now. I have spent days preparing variations of sheet notation for the piece, and when played back on the piano, they have never even begun to come close to the scales that shift in the distance. Although I am sure that they had sounded right in my head. I am sure of it.
I started learning piano when I was seven. By age eleven, I could read and write music at a level that I had not achieved even in English and French. I was thirteen when I first played the piano I own today. It had belonged to my secondary school for as long as anyone there could remember, although it was not played by any of the music teachers, nor the blind pianist who came in every Friday morning to play for us during assembly. It was an orphan instrument, unloved, uncared for.
I felt its presence from that first music lesson; every key that I struck on the Casio keyboard seemed to resonate from the piano, not from the piece of cheap plastic in front of me. Every note was out of key.
The teacher told us that it was impossible to tune, not that they had not tried. Even the blind man had tried and failed. I asked why they kept it around. I never once heard a clear answer to that question, and my attempts to play it during class were met with refusal.
One day in my third year at the school, after classes had finished, we were called to the main hall for an announcement. As the droves of students made their way there, I slipped rank and made my way across the school grounds and over to the music hall, which stood alone next to the south gate. The door would not open. As I looked up, I noticed a window that I could get through. I climbed the outside of the building and pulled myself up onto the ledge, allowing myself to fall through the window and onto the floor of the music teacher’s office.
I walked down the stairs and into the classroom. The piano sat in the corner, dust on every inch of the housing and lid. I pulled over a chair, raised the lid and sat down. I played a note.
The note echoed its dissonance. I closed my eyes and let it in. I played another note, higher up. My left hand formed a chord. My right hand scaled up. That progression I now know so well. It sounded like nothing ever had to me. I could feel it crawling up the walls, crawling up my skin.
In the subsequent days, I tried to remember what notes I had played. Even with perfect pitch, I could not figure out how replicate the off-key phrases that I had played. But it was more than that: I could not hear what I had heard that day. I could feel it, but I could not hear it.
The piano was removed from the room. Nobody mentioned that it had been played, although the removal of the dust from its coat must have been noticed. A year later, me and another student were sent to the storage room under the main hall to retrieve some sports equipment. The piano was in the corner, behind stacks of newspapers and academic books. In my last year and a half at the school, I tried to get into the storage room a number of times, but to no avail. After that I attended a music college and then went on to study composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
It was around this time that I picked up the guitar. It gave me respite from sheet music, and with the help from a fuzz pedal and a glass slide I was brought closer to finding sounds similar to the music that permeated my evening and night-time thoughts. I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder that I had bought at a car-boot sale to create loops of noise, spending every moment that I had outside of my studies on this pastime, eventually even skipping lessons to partake in the dissonance. It did not ease my mind, and eventually I was asked to leave the university due to continuing noise complaints and a lack of attendance.
Two years later, I was working a desk job for a phone repair company. I had enjoyed the work as far as I could have, and I had thought neither of the music nor the piano for a number of months. I had been relaxing in bed with a book when I heard something outside. My neighbours often had parties, so I thought it must have been them starting another one up, despite their last one having been the night before. I was wrong. It was not their music. It was the notes.
It had finally returned to me. I sat up and took a writing pad from my desk and starting jotting down notes. But as soon as I had started writing, it was gone. I cursed my memory and went to sleep.
I woke up an hour or two later. The music was back. I had not heard it in my head: it was outside. Somewhere in the distance. I got up and dressed and ran out into the night, following the sound. But even as I ran on, the sound did not gain in volume, nor did it lessen. I walked the streets for an hour, but no turn took me any closer to my destination. I went home and slept, although the music kept its flow.
The next night it returned again. The same phrases. I set up my tape recorder and kept it running after I was asleep. When I played it back, I heard nothing.
This continued for the following months, and every attempt to find it or record it turned to nothing. It was at this time that I made a pact with myself: my life was in a rut, and as stable as my job was, I was not truly enjoying it, only pretending to, and so I decided that I would set myself upon the music that haunted me so, discover its secrets and then I would take it to the Royal Conservatoire and show them it, show them that nothing like this exists in the human spectrum of musical experience, that only I can play it, and request a grant to further explore these new modes. This would be my only way to success. It had to be.
I wrote hundreds, thousands of sheets of music, each work an attempt to recreate those sounds, each piece one that I would have once considered an opus but now saw as nothing but a failure. The last of my friends lost contact with me, growing tired of my constant and only focus. I quit my job and took my final month’s salary and travelled down to my old school. I met with the new headmaster, and questioned him about the old piano. He did not know of its existence, so I told him where he could find it. He replied that he was a busy man. My monetary offer changed his mind. In the evening of that day, the deliverymen carried the piano up to my room. I started playing immediately.
Nothing came out. Just sour, twisted notes that fell dead on my ears. I played for hours, to constant failure. I closed the lid and got into bed. Of course, that was when I heard it again, outside of the window. It was closer now, but only incrementally. I pulled the piano over to the window, tearing the carpet in places, and sat down again. As the impossible fugue started over, I played back to it. But still the notes collapsed as soon as they had left the instrument. I eventually had to stop at three in the morning after the next-door neighbour hammered against the wall.
I ignored the music and the piano for a week. On the seventh day, I received a phone call. My mother had died. I should have wept. I went down to attend the funeral and left before the wake. She left me her cottage in the will, so I made the correct arrangements and before long I was living just outside of Penrith, finally alone with my music.
The country air did my lungs a world of good after living in the damp of my old house for so long. I took daily walks, still continuing to ignore the music. But every night it got closer still, until finally I could not take it. I left the house and ran to the woods past which the music seemed to originate. I tripped over branch and root until I got to the other side of the trees. I looked out at the night sky. The stars bowed down over me. The music screamed. The shapes in the sky took the form of the notation, finally given to me, finally there for me to take for my own. I checked my pockets. I had left all of my pens and paper back in the house. I ran back, further harming myself on the way, spraining an ankle and bruising a wrist. I took my fountain pen and a large pad of paper and made the trip again, avoiding any more extensive damage. I stared at the sky. It was gone. Only the void welcomed me, even that seeming to stare me down in disgust.
The music had stopped. I was alone, truly alone. I walked back to the house and sat down at the piano and wracked my memory. I played for ten hours, until I finally slumped over the keyboard and passed out. I started to drink whiskey more, attempting to channel the music in some drunken fugue state. It did not work. Every day my body grew thinner. Food no longer had any taste, not after having seen the music so close to me and then losing it once and for all. The music did not play for many weeks. I was lost without it. I knew that when it returned, it would be for the final time.
Tonight, I was woken by the smallest of sounds, far beyond my window and over the horizon. Despite its distance, I could feel how loud it was. It continued to get closer, the spread of the sound multiplying and diffusing into the air. It is nearly right outside my window now. I feel that I now realise what it has been trying to tell me this entire time.
It seems to laugh. I feel it rattle the windows. There is not long left. I take my pen and pad and stumble through the corridors and throw my door open and allow myself to exit the house and be embraced by the cold air outside. But the air is not cold; in fact, there is no air. There is no view. Only blackness. And then the shapes emerge, that ghastly notation: it is all that there is left. I am the only one left, and I am the one who let it into this world. It should have never been heard. But as I start to write it down, I know that all of this, the sacrifice that I have made on behalf of everyone else, has been worth it. Nothing has ever existed that held such beauty. There is nothing but the notation. And as I finish writing it, as the pen scrapes across the paper for the last time, I know that the time has come. My purpose has been fulfilled. I was the gatekeeper, and I opened the door. All that is left now is the unending coda. The music will scream alone for eternity.
[PDF download link: Notation by AJ Tarrant]