Monica’s fingers danced from key to key, flirting from major to minor and back, transporting the family’s study to a time of tail coats and top hats, though torn jeans and hair like a bad hangover kept her rooted to the twenty-first. On Dad’s cluttered desk lay the official invitation to a musical talent competition unfolded beside its envelope, clawed open in excitement after it hit the floor a few hours earlier. More than just a piece of paper, this was a trigger, unleashing relentless determination. Monica played as though nothing else mattered. Then she hit a wrong key.
That hadn’t happened in ages. She muttered a mild “Damn.” Must have grazed it. A second time, the same wrong note but she was convinced she hadn’t touched it. By the fifth or sixth attempt, the irritating bum note made her roar through gritted teeth and bring down a pounding fist on the keys. The piano belched a low, gothic sounding chord.
The Mystery by legendary composer Antonio De Luca was one of her favourites. She had played it countless times on her own. To start making mistakes now was unthinkable. She retrieved her iPad from its perch on a low bookshelf aimed directly at her prior to practice. Film yourself, her lecturer at Uni advised. Correct posture improves confidence.
In the kitchen, she poured a glass of water and decided to watch her performance. Seated at the kitchen table, she started the footage, waiting for that cringing note. Her throat tightened when she saw the man.
“What the fuck?” Monica looked closer, her eyes adjusting to an elderly man dressed in an antiquated suit, clean shaven with white receding hair, neatly combed back. He should have blocked the painting hanging on the wall directly behind, but the glorious watercolour of a New York skyline shone through him. His head tilted upward with his eyes closed, hands held behind his back. He nodded to the music, listening, appreciating.
Then, she saw him take one hand, reach out and press the key, interrupting her play. When she restarted, again the elderly man reached out and pressed it, deliberately sabotaging her performance, and each attempt after that, by which time he was frowning, shaking his head. When Monica pounded her fist on the keys, he threw his arms up in the air in frustration.
Coercing herself back to the study, Monica cautiously looked inside, heart thumping like a kick drum. The piano and stool, cluttered desk, her semi-acoustic in the corner, bookcase, all the norm but no man. Front and back doors were locked. No one could have come in. She suddenly wanted out of the house. She had to show that video to someone. The first person who came to mind was Blair, so she sent a text.
You in the recording studio?
A comforting speedy reply: Yeah.
OK heading over now. Need 2 show u something.
The ghostly figure had filled her with a tension she was suppressing by pedalling fast through the west end, autumn chill blasting into her face as she biked her way to the University, iPad stuffed into her rucksack.
“Looks like a man,” said Blair, barely being allowed time to say hello to his bandmate before having exhibit number one shoved into his hands. Monica trusted Blair’s opinions, respecting him as a person and a musician. It hadn’t taken long for them to recognise one another’s passion for music after they met on the course. His tousled blond hair and glasses, a nod to Ed Sheerin, gave him that added something. Her eyes flitted from the screen to Blair. She saw the old man press the key and quickly noted Blair’s reaction.
“Did you see that?”
“I saw what it looked like,” he struggled to admit.
“Do you really think it’s a ghost?”
His eyes lit up. “If it is, this would be some article for the Uni mag.”
Monica rolled her eyes. She was looking for support rather than offering fodder for the Uni magazine’s music section.
“A ghost appearing in a student’s house. You’ve got to admit that would be awesome” he continued “and you’ve got the proof. Email that footage to me. I’ll see if I can upload it onto the site.”
“No. If I do that, people will think it’s rigged. I’m freaking out over this. It’s Tuesday. The competition is on Saturday. I need to nail this piece.” A tear threatened to escape. She wiped it quickly.
“You’re not worried about it, are you?” his tone softened.
“I wasn’t. I’ve been playing fine, but since the invitation came through this morning, I started making a total balls-up of it. And now all this. What does it want?”
“Maybe it’s the ghost of Antonio De Luca”, he suggested, jokingly “and he’s making sure you play it properly.”
She drew him her warning look. “Blair, I’m not in the mood.”
“You’re putting too much pressure on yourself. You’re a brilliant musician. You’re diverse, creative, you’ve written some fantastic stuff for the band.”
“A couple of lines. You do all the hard work. Credit where it’s due.”
“Monica, you can play this piece with your eyes shut. Forget that the competition is live on radio. Just play it” said Blair.
Moments of silence passed, until Monica closed her eyes and said quietly “I’m scared to go home now.”
“Why?” asked Blair. “It’s your house, not his.”
Blair’s statement of the obvious lifted her slightly and within an hour, she was back in the study, iPad once again placed on its bookshelf and set to record, guitar held protectively against her body, plugged in and turned up to the max. Fingers which earlier kissed the piano keys so delicately now pulled and thrashed steel strings with the utmost respect, knocking out enough heavy metal to chase away the most stubborn of ghosts, while at the same time creating a perfect therapy.
A playback of her few minutes’ private performance revealed no one in the room but herself.
“So is it all because of you?” her question directed at the innocent looking piano as she took her place on the stool. Fingertips traced along the grinning keyboard, touching the keys and no more, all the way from left to right then gently tinkled high notes. She waited a few moments before shaking herself back to life. “Okay, will we try again?” she muttered.
The high notes tinkled themselves in response. She leapt from the stool faster than she’d ever moved and bolted for the study door. It slammed itself shut barely a foot before she reached it. She grasped the handle, turned it and pulled. It held firmly as if locked. Two hands now pulled.
“Who’s there?” she yelled, wrenching at the handle.
A sharp hammering sounded consistently along with thundering piano keys, making Monica turn and see the piano’s fallboard open and close, slamming itself up and down, while groups of keys were plunged randomly, a composition of distorted chaos. BLEENG! BLONG! BLUNG! Her clenched fists battered at the door again and again, while screaming at someone to let her out. The noise was too much. The twenty-two year old covered her ears and watched as the baby grand had its child-like tantrum.
She screamed “STOP IT!”
Traces of the madness still fluttered in her ears as they adjusted themselves to a sudden silence. The piano sat in its place, pleading ignorance of any wrong doings. Monica approached it like she was walking to certain death. Seated, she looked at the sheet music and studied the little beats and half beats she had barely scanned before since she knew the piece so well. They didn’t look so sure of themselves now.
She looked behind. No one. Hands instinctively moved to their intro position and began. Her natural flow was difficult to attain when fingers treaded the keys carefully, waiting for that awkward section where the mood changed, just at that note. Again, she tried playing it exactly as it was on the sheet and the random key was struck. She knew for certain she hadn’t touched it. He was there.
She whispered to the unseen man “What do you want?”
The same key calmly pressed itself, making Monica flinch. And again. And again. Her face scrunched, trying to prevent herself from crying, eyes already filling up as she watched the key press itself down and up demandingly, over and over.
“Please,” her vocals next to nothing. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
The key pressed and paused momentarily, then continued its motion but more softly, encouragingly. She moved a trembling hand towards it. It stopped. She pressed it herself. Another key sounded close by, just once. Monica pressed it in response. Then another. She answered, and so this continued. When it was over, all the notes played in succession. Monica copied the pattern, their routine repeating several times until finally the keys stopped.
She fumbled through the pile of paperwork on her Father’s desk for a pen, then scored out printed notes, replacing them with the ones she was forced to play. A high chord tinkled satisfactorily, signalling her instructor’s approval and ending the tutorial. She found the door handle now turning easily, allowing her leave the room.
Curled up on the king-size in the comfort of her parents’ room, Monica entered ghosts, poltergeists, spirits; any words connected to the supernatural into Google, along with her house location, in the hope of finding some kind of phantom history of the property. Nothing.
We’ll be listening to the radio for you, darling, came a text from her parents. Good luck and see you Sunday.
A drawing of De Luca with three friends graced the composer’s official website’s home page. She looked long and hard at the untidy shoulder length white hair and beard, but was certain this was not her visitor.
A ping on her mobile signalled a message on Facebook along with a friend request.
Hello Monica. My name is Edmund Rossi. I got your Facebook link from your bio on the University website. I see you are playing ‘The Mystery’. I look forward to hearing it.
Rossi’s profile picture showed a man, possibly in his mid-fifties, neat hair greying at the sides and receding and with trimmed facial hair. Glasses completed an educated look.
Hi Edmund and thank you for the support she replied, accepting the friend request. Do you like classical?
Yes I do very much. Best of luck with it. A very brave piece to attempt.
Not really, she thought, as she typed a thank you. It had been pretty easy, at least until she started pushing for the competition.
The next three days’ practice sessions were flawless, nary a note out of place. She played exactly as the spectre demanded of her, not daring to stray, but with nagging doubt that it was correct. Saturday morning arrived too quickly and with little sleep on Friday night, she sat on the bus to the radio station, clinging together with caffeine and fear.
Meeting the other entrants with entry form in one hand, anticipating a live radio performance would normally have produced some elation in Monica. Instead, an uncomfortable feeling of impartiality gnawed, knowing that the sheet music grasped in her other hand bore little resemblance to what the judges had in front of them and that she’d probably already lost. In no time, she was seated at the piano scanning the competition judges in their X-Factor world, listening to their congratulations on her being selected to compete and waiting for their signal to begin. She played through to the end, the new keys and chords now as ingrained in her mind as they were scribbled on the page under duress.
“Well done. Thank you, Monica. You’ll find out the result within two weeks.”
She wanted nothing more than to go home but out of politeness, waited to hear the others and congratulate them when they were finished. The guitarist was really cool with an Eric Clapton vibe, the saxophone twins were funky, like two Mindi Abairs. The other three acts were okay. During the sets, her phone buzzed on silent, messages flooding in from supporters. It wasn’t until she was heading for the bus stop to go home that she checked and saw that Edmund Rossi was one of them.
Hello Monica. I heard your recital. Very well done indeed.
Thank you Edmund I appreciate it she typed, and within seconds of sending, noticed Rossi already replying.
Can I ask where you got the music?
She shook her head and sighed, still gutted from the competition, fully expecting this Rossi guy had noted the mistakes. It was in a book I bought but I know I messed up on some of it.
On the contrary, you played it perfectly. Could I possibly meet you and see the manuscript? I have something I’d very much like to show you. There’s a nice coffee shop in the west end called Tinderbox. I can meet you there.
The request was totally unexpected and on any other day, it would have received a polite declination, but a feeling from somewhere told her Rossi was more connected to the music than simply liking it. A public place would be safe for a meeting with a stranger and she frequented his suggested venue often so the staff knew her well.
In the Tinderbox café an hour later, Monica’s printed pages with corrections lay next to handwritten music on tattered paper, yellowed with age which fit into a plastic sleeve. Rossi sat opposite Monica, scrutinising both manuscripts after buying his latte and her hot white chocolate. She let him study in silence until he finally sat back on his chair and removed his glasses.
“Have a look” he instructed, turning them around for her to see. Her amendments matched the notes on Rossi’s music.
“This is unbelievable.” Rossi stated. “Do you know why?” He held up the plastic sleeve with his own sheets. “Because this is the original, and it’s the only version available. Your music sheet is a…shall we say an interpretation.”
“Oh” was all she could muster.
“Now, what I’d like to know” Rossi continued, “is why you changed the notes on your sheet.”
Five minutes talking with Edmund Rossi upon their initial meeting convinced Monica that he operated on logic, therefore ‘A ghost made me do it’ might not wash. She searched her mind for a half-decent response, stalling with a long sigh.
“Did you know that in the classical circuit, it’s nicknamed the cursed symphony?” asked Rossi.
“No one ever played it live. Anyone who tried always failed. There were reports of ghostly sightings scaring the musicians. It was recorded in studios but you’re the first one that I know of to play it live.”
Her full attention now on Rossi after his mentioning ‘ghostly sightings’, she repeated “Ghostly sightings?”
“Yes” confirmed Rossi.
“An actual ghost?”
“So they say.”
“Of a man?”
“I’m not sure what it looked like.”
“How do you know about all this?”
“This music was written by my Great Grandfather” said Rossi.
She looked at him, puzzled, arithmetic kicking into action. “Your Great Grandfather? But he’d never have been alive at the time this music was written.”
“Well really my Great, Great, Great, I’ll-stop-you-when-you-get-there Grandfather. I just use the one great.”
“So you’re related to Antonio De Luca?”
“Antonio De Luca did not compose that piece.”
Monica sat stunned by his statement.
“Mario Rossi composed it. He wrote various pieces but nothing ever caught the attention of the public. This was his last composition. Unfortunately he passed away before he had a chance to perform it and the music was never released. De Luca was his friend and fell in love with the piece, took it as his own and never once acknowledged Mario Rossi as the composer.”
“But it’s well known this is De Luca’s music” Monica countered.
“Yes, it’s well known, but it’s not his.”
“How do you know for sure?”
“The story has been passed down through the generations of my family.”
“Surely there was some sort of copyright issue.” she suggested.
“Sadly not” Rossi replied. “In those days, there was no copyright law like there is today. Composers composed and that was pretty much it. Plagiarism was frowned on but it happened. De Luca changed some parts so it wasn’t an exact copy. His version is the one we all know.”
Monica processed the onslaught of information. Of all the composers, De Luca was her favourite and she found herself torn between belief and disbelief. “Can you prove this?”
“Pointless. It happened over two hundred years ago. Where would you even start? To make any accusation would be tarnishing De Luca’s career, and he’s still widely respected in classical music. Aside from that, as soon as you mention a ghost, you’d be laughed at.”
“Has anyone in your family said what the ghost looked like?” she asked him.
“No. If it’s at all true, I imagine it would be Mario Rossi himself.”
“Is there a picture of him anywhere?”
“There’s a drawing of him with some friends on De Luca’s website. It’s on the home page. Mario Rossi is the one to the far right of the picture.”
She immediately loaded De Luca’s site on her phone, to the sketch of him with his friends, and to the figure of Mario Rossi. Her eyes widened in shock. With his short, neatly brushed hair, he was far more refined looking than De Luca and there was no doubt that it was the same man who had watched her play, one of the men she had never looked at properly each time she saw the drawing.
Oh fuck. Her breathing quickened. That’s him.
“You saw him, didn’t you?” Rossi’s voice rescued her from the brink of a panic attack. He smiled and threw his head back as though the greatest ever secret had been uncovered. “So it is true.”
“Wait, I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to” he interrupted. “I can tell. It’s the only part of the family tale I never really believed, but now I do.”
For several seconds, neither said a word.
“What are you thinking?” Rossi asked.
Monica stood up to leave. “I’m going to go. Thank you very much for the drink. When I get home, I’m going to send you something I recorded on my iPad.”
The two shook hands. “I’ll look forward to it” said Rossi and they both said their temporary goodbyes.
Outside, Monica hastened along the pavement already dialling on her phone.
“Blair, hi. When you get this, give me a call back. You know you were looking for an article for the mag? I’ve got something. And by the way, you better be ready. This is a big one.”
Andrew Newall lives near Falkirk in Scotland and writes short fiction in his spare time. He has had work placed in several competitions and published online and in print. His stories have appeared in Dark Tales, Open Pen, Black Petals and various other publications.