Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Empty Orchestra


The following story is the inaugural winner of the 2018 Buzz Words Short Story for Children Prize which was won by Jemma van de Nes. The judge who chose it from the 209 entries was Jackie French.

Empty Orchestra

The playground is like an orchestra. 
With his eyes closed, Nick can hear it all; the thumping bass of footsteps pounding across the bridge; the sizzle and crackle of static on the slide; the shrill whistle of the chain on the flying fox; the squeals of laughter from the girls in the cubby.
He imagines that he is the conductor of all this noise, banishing spiteful giggles and hurtful words with a swish of his baton.  It is so vivid - this image where he is in control of the music.  But what he really sees, when he opens his eyes, is the empty swing beside him.
He pumps his legs and reaches for the clouds with his toes and pictures a world where nobody calls him names, where adults don’t tell him to leave the house for the whole day and where everyone has someone to talk with.
He doesn’t talk much anymore. 
His mum said not to; that the reason they keep moving is nobody’s business. 
But he’d tell anyone if they stopped long enough to listen.
He still sings, though, because when he sings, he forgets.  The constant moving.  The new schools.  The couches he sleeps on.  
He swings and sings his song, the one he wrote for his dad.  His favourite part is: Your arms are the walls that hold us safe and tight.  When we find a home with you, everything will be alright. When he sings it, he hits notes so high he feels like he is flying. 
A girl climbs out of the cubby and hangs from the monkey bars by her legs.  Her hair cascades to the ground and swirls in tangled knots about her face.  She reaches her arms out wide, like she’s trying to hug the universe.
Who’d want to do that, he wonders?
She ignores her friends, who are still in the cubby, tapping at their phones.
But she smiles at him.
She has braces, too.
They swing together, on opposite sides of the playground – forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards – like a metronome keeping time.
Their own time.
And then, she’s on the swing beside him.
“That’s a pretty song,” she says, her voice a whisper on the breeze.  Her cheeks are flushed, and her hands are shaking.  “You should record yourself singing it, even just on your phone.”
Her feet skid along the ground and he thinks she’s leaving, so to cover her embarrassment he shares with her some of his own.
“I don’t have a phone,” he says.
“Lucky you,” she laughs.  “No mean messages from your friends.” 
He looks to the cubby and sees the girls whispering behind their hands.  “I guess,” he shrugs.  “But … I … we … don’t have a phone at all where I … where we’re staying … with one of mum’s friends.  She’s got two babies who cry all the time.  Mum said I had to get out of the house for the day so her friend could sleep when the babies do.  They said my singing is too loud so … I can’t go back to the house until mum gets home from work, which is at night, and I can’t ring her to check or anything.  I wish I had a phone.  I’d ring my dad every day, just to hear his voice.  He sends me postcards.  Which I … love … but I miss his voice.  He used to sing me to sleep.  Every night.  Even though I’m nearly twelve.  But he’ll be home soon.  Once he’s earned some money up north, we can find a place of our own.  The three of us.  That’ll be cool.  And I’ll be able to sing with my dad every day and I won’t have to stay in the park until dark.”
He’s said too much, and he squirms in his seat on the swing as the worry about sharing all the things his mum said not to tell anyone twists and turns into knots in his stomach. 
“Did you make that up?”
“No, I really can’t go back to the house until it gets dark.”
“I mean the song.  Did you write the song?”
He nods.
She takes a deep breath and kicks off.  She’s swinging again and he sighs with relief.
“There’s this thing,” she says, “at the community centre every Saturday.  They have Milo and biscuits and singing.  Like a choir.  My mum runs it.”  She rolls her eyes. “Sometimes they even have karaoke.  You should do it.  We could go.”
He smiles then because he knows from Japanese lessons at one of the schools he’s been to this year that karaoke means empty orchestra.
But he’s not empty.  Not anymore.
Her phone beeps.  She scrolls though the message and wipe her eyes.  He hears the wave of laughter from the girls – her friends – in the cubby.
She jumps off the swing.  It ricochets on the chain, shooting from side to side, like it doesn’t know where to go now that she isn’t part of it anymore.
“I’m Casey,” she says.  She turns to face him.  Waiting.
He can’t believe he just spilled his entire story and now he can’t even say his own name.
Casey is already running when he yells, “I’m Nick!”
He shouts so loudly, he thinks everyone on the playground will stop and look and laugh and point: at his tracksuit pants with the holes in the knees and his mismatched socks and his uneven hair cut that doesn’t hide the scratch on his cheek that he pretends is from his mum’s friend’s cat.
But they don’t hear or see him; he is invisible to them, like always.
Casey, though … she stops.
And rolls her eyes.
He’s beginning to like the eye roll.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says.  “I know you from school.  You sit at the front of my maths class.”
“I do?”
“You do.”
He’s had his head down and eyes to the ground since moving here, when all along he should’ve been looking up.
“Come on!” she laughs.  “Let’s go!  Before all the good biscuits are gone!”
Nick runs after her, his footsteps a drum beat on the path and soon they are side by side.  The huff of his breath is the woodwind. The swish of her hair in the breeze is the strings. The brush of their arms against each other’s is the percussion.  And he realises then that the magic is not in controlling the music, but in being part of it.
















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