This story was inspired by one of Reedsy’s writing prompts: “Everyday, you sit at your window to watch a neighbor play a musical instrument. You can’t hear the music, but you’re transfixed by the musician’s expression.”
Michael popped twenty-eight codeine pills out of the blister pack and lined them up along the windowsill. After those bitches sided with Clara and got him fired, he was jobless, friendless, worthless. Time to do the world a favor and shuffle off.
But first, he wanted to watch her play, one last time. Michael checked his watch. Right on cue, the woman appeared at the window of the flat opposite and sat at the piano, showing off her elegant profile. Today, her eyes were downcast and she dabbed at her nose with a tissue, but when she tucked her dark hair behind her ears and placed her hands on the keys, he knew she wouldn’t disappoint. As she struck the first chord, the muscles in her upper arms flexing, her brow furrowed and her lip curled into a snarl.
The music didn’t carry across the narrow street. Soundproofing was one of the few things the developer of these flats had got right. The electric heating was too weak to take the edge off the chill in winter, gaps were opening up between the laminate flooring and the walls, and plaster was starting to crumble around the edges of the huge windows, but you didn’t hear a thing from the street outside. Privately, Michael likened it to living in a goldfish bowl, visible to everyone but your own ears deadened by water. He was drowning, right here in the middle of the city, and no-one cared.
Through his binoculars, the pianist frowned and wrinkled her lips, battering the piano with her slim fingers. Her shoulders heaved as she threw her bodyweight into the instrument, attacking it like a small woman pounding on the chest of a large man with her fists. Her pursed mouth broke apart, twisting into a sneer and then opening up like a sinkhole. She could be singing, but Michael preferred to imagine her roaring and howling like a wild animal.
The performance left her dripping sweat, her dark hair hanging in loose straggles around her face. Bitterly, Michael remembered how his ex’s ironed-flat hair had turned to frizz the one and only time they’d screwed. His guts cringed. On Facebook, Sarah was a high-flyer with a stomach washboard-flat even after two kids, while he was still the same loser she dated in high school, before she got her braces off.
Without a glance at the window, the woman stood, wiped her brow, and disappeared from view. Alone again, Michael’s gaze fell to the pills lined up along the windowsill. Time to get this over with.
Twenty-eight codeine should be enough to kill a man his size, barely over five foot and weedy to boot, but he’d always had a delicate stomach. As a kid, he’d puked on nearly every car journey, sending Dad apoplectic with rage. Nudging the first pill with his finger, Michael imagined the disappointment of waking in a pool of his own vomit. Another failure. He wouldn’t even be able to try again; the codeine was left over from a surgery he had last year and he couldn’t get more without a prescription.
He reached for his phone. According to several sites, a dose of antihistamines would stop the nausea and help him keep the pills down. Sighing, Michael pulled on his shoes and grabbed his keys and wallet. He was determined to do this one thing right, even if it killed him.
Just his luck. The pharmacist was tied up dealing with a fat woman who was kicking off because the brand of drugs in her prescription had changed. “It’s the same ingredients,” the pharmacist kept saying, but the fat woman was having none of it. Trying not to stare, Michael studied the back of the person in front of him in the queue. Her tangled dark hair reminded him of the pianist and he had to clasp his hands behind his back to avoid the temptation to caress it.
When the stranger glanced over her shoulder, Michael realized it was the pianist after all. “Hey,” he blurted out, and her dark eyes fixed on him. “You live opposite me,” he said. “I’ve seen you playing the piano.” Nice one, Michael. What a creep.
Her eyes scanned his face, the crooked nose and the dimple in his chin that he hated. “Yeah, maybe I’ve seen you coming in and out of the building.”
She held a box of tampons shyly by her hip. Could this get any more awkward? “I just came for antihistamines,” he said. “Hayfever.”
“Oh, I have that too. Summer is hell. You must be really sensitive if you’re getting symptoms already.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I am sensitive.”
The fat woman finally placated, the piano player approached the counter and gave her name: Jessica. As the pharmacist searched the shelves for Jessica’s prescription, Michael folded the name away for safekeeping.
Outside, he spotted Jessica strolling not far in front of him, her trim figure languid as a schoolgirl in summer. Through her tight jeans, one butt cheek and then the other swelled and relaxed as she stepped. Was she thinking what a creep he was? Imagine if he caught up with her, tapped her on the shoulder. Would she scream? Run? Make that disgusted face women often did when he touched them?
In a few hours, Michael would be dead. The thought surged through him, leaving him feeling as free as if he’d strapped on a pair of wings and jumped off a cliff. Fuck it. He ran up behind Jessica and gripped her elbow. “Hey.”
She turned, eyes startled wide.
“I want to hear you play.”
“The piano. You look so passionate,” his cheeks flushed hot at the word, “but I can’t hear from my flat.”
“Oh.” Her eyes flicked to the door of her building. Was she going to make a run for it? “If you really want to hear, I’m playing at the Fat Cat tomorrow at eight. It’s my first performance.”
She pulled her arm away. Was that a hint of a smile?
In the Fat Cat, Michael bought a pint and took a seat across the room from the piano. The seats were covered with worn upholstery; maroon paint peeled from the woodchip wallpaper, revealing spots of dark blue and yellow. He spotted Jessica clearing glasses from the tables on the other side of the bar. She wore a plain white blouse, tucked into her trousers in a way that accentuated her waist, and kept glancing at the piano. Michael sank lower in his seat. The pub wasn’t exactly busy, but he’d rather not draw the attention of the group of lads in the corner. Sure, they looked civilized enough now, in their designer shirts and tight jeans, but show weakness and they’d be baying for blood. He knew the type.
The barman tapped his watch. Jessica took a deep breath, dusted her hands on her pants, and strode to the piano. As she sat, Michael stared intently at her profile, waiting for the brow to crease, the lips to break into a scowl, and the music to flood out.
As people quieted and looked curiously at the pianist, her expression remained composed. Tentatively, the fingers of her left hand pressed a few timid chords from the piano, while the right tiptoed through a whispering, wandering melody. Her upper arms pressed into her sides, as if to take up as little space as possible. Her back was as stiff and straight as a maypole.
By the time Jessica began to sing, in a wobbly, nasal voice, the audience had turned back to their conversations, and Michael couldn’t hear the words over their noise. One of the lads trilled a mocking soprano and they all erupted in giggles. Michael clenched his glass and sank even lower in his seat.
After the set, he approached Jessica at the bar. “That was great.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she said, soaking up spilled beer with a grubby cloth.
“You didn’t look as… confident as when you play at home.”
“I know.” She scrubbed at an invisible stain. “Turns out I can only play when I’m angry.”
“Maybe you should get angry during your set.”
“I can’t. I worry people will think I’m crazy if I really let go, and it freezes me up.” Her eyes flicked to the barman. “Besides, he’ll never give me another chance.”
Afraid she was going to cry, Michael mumbled an apology and began to shuffle away. Suddenly, Jessica’s hand was on his arm.
“Look.” She scrawled her number on a beer mat and thrust it at him. “Now I have a point to prove. Come over tomorrow. Listen to me play. I’m good. I really am.”
When he got home, the codeine pills were still lined up along the windowsill. Michael drew the curtains in front of them. Not yet.
When Jessica yanked the door open, the first thing Michael noticed was a strong smell of whiskey on her breath. He immediately felt self-conscious, wondering whether he should have brought a bottle of something to drink. That was what you did when invited to people’s houses for dinner. Did the same rule apply to mid-afternoon piano recitals?
“Finally!” Jessica waved Michael into the flat and slammed the door behind him. “You want to hear me play? Sit there.” She pointed to an armchair piled high with books, which Michael started to move one by one onto the table. Sighing, Jessica shoved the stack off the seat. Books scattered broken-spined across the carpet. “Sit!”
The flat was crammed with boxes. A few were open, clothes spilling out, while others were still taped shut. Dirty plates and empty food packets covered the floor.
“How long have you lived here?” Michael asked, although he knew the answer: it had been two months and three days since she appeared at the window for the first time, back when he still had a job and believed that a woman could actually be attracted to him.
“You’re criticising me for not unpacking?”
Michael hurriedly shook his head.
“I don’t intend to stay in this dump for long,” she said. “But I had to take somewhere quickly after my ex and I broke up.” She kicked at a broken photo frame with her bare toes, making Michael flinch. “I couldn’t stand living with that know-it-all a minute longer.” Behind the broken glass, a blond man in sunglasses lolled on a beach, his shirt open just far enough to reveal six-pack abs. Smarmy git.
“That asshole,” she said, pacing back and forth as Michael slouched deeper into the armchair, “told me I couldn’t play. He said” — she swept papers off the top of the battered upright piano, toppling a glass which shattered on the ground — “I didn’t know anything about music. That I had no rhythm. He said my fingers were too stubby. Stubby!” She splayed her fingers a few inches in front of Michael’s nose. “Do they look stubby to you?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
Jessica flipped the keyboard cover. “I’ll show” — she thumped out the first chord — “that pretentious twat” — another chord, sharp this time — “just how wrong he is about me.”
The music was unlike anything Michael had heard before. Discordant yet beautiful. Chords clashed, biting into each other, vying for superiority, while a melody wailed overhead.
Jessica’s triceps flexed. Her bare feet grasped the pedals like claws as she stamped out her anger. Her dark hair frizzed around her face, where sweat and tears mingled, rivers flowing into each other. As the music built to a cacophony, Jessica opened her mouth and screamed.
As the final chord died away, Jessica pushed back the stool and sat with her elbows on her knees, head bowed, hair hanging to mid-shin, ribs expanding and contracting rapidly under her stretched shirt. Michael let out his breath. “Wow. That was incredible.” He began to laugh. “I don’t even want to kill myself any more.”
Jessica looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “You wanted to kill yourself?”
“I almost did. I lost my job. And it struck me that nobody would care if I wasn’t here. Everyone wants me gone, so why not go?” Why couldn’t he stop laughing? It was as if someone had released the neck of an inflated balloon, sending its breath spilling out.
“That’s so stupid.” Jessica jumped up. “Don’t kill yourself. Get angry! Show them you don’t need their crappy job!”
“Yeah!” He punched the air, only feeling slightly lame.
“Yeah!” Jessica’s fist shot straight into the air. “Seriously, you need to get angry. Stop turning it all in on yourself. People treat you like shit, don’t join in. Get back at them.”
Michael nodded. As soon as he got home, he scooped up the codeine pills and flushed them down the toilet. Jessica was right. He wasn’t the problem. If his co-workers hadn’t ganged up on him like the bullies at school, he’d still be working at Bailey & Brown. None of this was his fault.
Pulling on his jacket, Michael headed out to purchase the necessary supplies. When he got home, he waited until it got dark before leaving the flat again, this time loaded down with a heavy container. It took a long time to walk to his old office, but he didn’t want to risk taking a bus or taxi. Too many nosy people. Finally, he arrived to see Clara’s car sitting in the car park. That suck-up cow must be working late again. All he’d been trying to do was get her to have a life outside of work, encourage her to let her hair down, and she’d gone squealing to the boss, a cold bitch herself, claiming Michael had harassed her. He hadn’t even touched her anywhere that bad.
Michael set to work, jimmying open the conference room window that some idiot had lost the key for years ago. He soaked the carpet, leaning away to avoid breathing in the fumes. Retreating several paces, he slipped the lighter from his pocket. His final performance report was rolled lengthways and secured with a rubber band. Michael lit one end and hurled the burning baton into the building.
Woomph! The petrol-soaked carpet went up immediately, illuminating the window like someone had flicked the light switch. Michael stepped back from the heat, its promising intensity reminding him of Jessica’s opening chords. The fire alarm kicked in, a despondent wail rising with the smoke. Before he ran, Michael pulled out his phone and snapped a photo. Contact: Jessica. Send.
He ran until he could no longer hear the incriminating alarm, nor smell the smoke on the breeze. Leaning against a lamp post, he felt his phone buzz urgently against his thigh. He smiled. Jessica must be proud of him.