Early morning, and the rising sun threw auburn and long shadows across the dull grey tarmac, giving it an ironically romantic feel. The car park was almost empty, but a deep blue Saab with cracked paint had been sitting there since last night, and the sun glinted in the worn radiator grill just as it filled the tears of its former occupants with glistening sheen. They were inside the hospital, listening to the patronising monotone of a doctor with long braided hair and dry eyes that had seen tears many times before. She nodded her head gently in acknowledgement of each successive outburst of half-heartedly restrained pain.
Admittedly, this was an unusual diagnosis to have to deliver. The child had CIPA, or Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis, an enormously rare disease, that was to have many horrible consequences for him. They would have to be extremely careful to keep him alive through his infant years, and at any rate he was unlikely to live past twenty-five. It was a poor prospect, alright.
Mr and Mrs Fleet remained in that same room for much of the morning, with varying levels of tearfulness, from the general trickle of overflow to the sudden waves as the information hit them again and again. Of course, this changed nothing to how much they loved him. He was their son, nothing could change that. In fact, it seemed to Dr Weinberg almost as though it made parents love their children more. Terminal diseases inspired a vicious resolve in them like nothing else, as though they were determined to concentrate a lifetime of love into whatever time they had available. In a way, it was rather childish: a bright child will count the days left until the end of the holidays, and attempt to cram as much recreational activity as possible into them. A mature, intelligent child will realise that the point of holidays is not to have a plan, that things can be enjoyed far more if unspoilt by constant attempts to raise them to the optimum.
The Fleets hobbled to the door, and when the time came for them to leave, Mrs Fleet held her baby like an ancient Alexandrian glass ornament. The Saab creaked its way out of the car park at funeral pace, and found its way back, trance-style, to its waiting garage.
One mellow afternoon, the thoroughly unsuitable indoor sole of Leonard Brown’s immaculate brogue found its footing on the lush green lawn of Amity College, Oxford. A former student himself, Leonard was as much in love with this lawn as he was with anything. Abandoning the shade of the stone cloisters in a leisurely fashion, he began to walk, with all the self-contentedness and slowness of a stroll, and all the confidence of a stride, across the lawn, relishing each step, breathing in the cool air, adoring it to his heart’s content. It was as inspiring as any symphony, refreshing as any drink, and it was at the climax of this satisfaction that Leonard collided suddenly with a thin and frail mass in the casual clothes of a student, though with a little more elegance to them, Leonard had to note.
The youth made embarrassed apologies in a slightly mousey tenor with a noticeable lisp. Leonard replied amicably with his own, and the youth finally looked up into his eyes. Leonard observed the youth’s face with a mixture of satisfaction and puzzlement, running his eyes over the skin that showed small but multiple scars and a slightly weather-beaten look, the eyes that blinked intelligently, and the close-cropped brown hair. Leonard held out a hand.
‘Samuel Fleet,’ the youth replied through his lisp, sounding slightly surprised, and adding hurriedly, ‘or Sam if you prefer.’ He instantly seemed to regret this decision, but Leonard laughed away his awkwardness. He bent to help Sam pick up the books he had dropped, and sent the youth on his hurried way.
Leonard sat himself on a wooden bench, twitched the lapels of his buttoned grey suit, and looked thoughtfully around. He was largely unchanged from this state when Sam, still looking awkward and slightly frightened, but with an air of determination, found him again. With genuine pleasure, Leonard invited him to sit beside him. Over the course of the next few hours, with exponentially decreasing awkwardness, the two talked. It transpired that they were naturally similarly inclined. Sam, they established, was an organ scholar from Eton, from which Leonard had also emerged a former pupil. He was reading music with distinctive results. Leonard was a matching-tie-and-handkerchief equity investor, but had inherited so much money from the early death of his father that he would be able to retire fairly soon, despite not even having reached his fortieth birthday. Since Leonard’s every pleasure in life came from classical music, it was on Sam that they focussed, quickly discovering that their ideas on what Leonard called “the real composers”, and the general mediocrity of modern music, were practically indistinguishable.
Each found something intriguing in the other. Despite his obvious superiority of musical skill, Sam felt that he could learn something about life from the older man. Leonard’s head was filled with ideas of hearing the youth perform, running his keen eyes again and again over the long, pale fingers that lay rigidly on the youth’s thighs, palms down, throughout the discussion. A small skill at the piano was sufficient for Leonard Brown, and the magnificent Steinweg Grand, again inherited from his father, that stood in pride of place in his living room was there for the use of others. Leonard felt no greater delight than that he derived from listening to others use it. Though Leonard had not yet heard the youth play, he was sure he would be the most fantastic new prodigy he had yet come across.
Like all others, that day of course wore out, metamorphosing first into a bright and burning selenehelion that had the physics students dashing about like particles of Bose-Einstein condensate, then into moonlight darkness. By this time the two men had parted, but they met again, and indeed again.
It was on one of the earlier of these occasions that Sam disclosed to Leonard the nature of his predicament. Like everyone Sam had told, Leonard was shocked, but he did not express the same unadulterated horror as most. He seemed touchingly troubled by the idea that their acquaintance would be short, especially for someone he had only just met. At the end of their meeting, following a long pause, Leonard gave his address and suggested Sam visit, to which the latter enthusiastically agreed.
When the day in question arrived, Sam was shown into a handsome living room with sober red carpets and large windows up above. He took the offered wingback chair, and after Leonard had lit a fire in the grate, they talked long about music. Leonard gave anecdotes about the concerts he had been to over his time, recalling with fondness in particular the recitals of the London Symphony Orchestra, and a cellist by the name of Steven Isserlis. Sam responded, at Leonard’s request, with details of his musical career, descriptions of his progress in learning, and his favourite composers and pieces. Leonard sat watching Sam’s uncharacteristically aged face, breathing heavily through his bushy discoloured-brown moustache. The youthful excitement of the scholar was still there, but the raw youthfulness was gone. Leonard therefore appreciated his maturity and regretted his premature feeling of age and wisdom in equal measure. It was with a heavy heart that Leonard finally stood, and gestured with a proud but not arrogant arm towards the far end of the room. There, a raised platform of beech stood out against the red carpets. On the platform stood the magnificent Steinweg Leonard had inherited.
With a gracious nod, as though he did not deserve the honour of playing the instrument, Sam crossed the room silently and mounted the platform. At Leonard’s request, he delicately opened the great wooden lid, and set it in place. He sat, lifted the key cover, and placed his fingers gently on the keys.
As Leonard sat, and watched the youth from beneath his thick eyebrows, Sam began to play the first movement of Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata, watching his own fingers with an almost painful-looking level of concentration. Leonard could not help but think this odd, having seen as many pianists as he had hardly looking at the keyboard at all, but he did not interrupt, and leaned back in his chair, as the youth worked through the three movements, his furious upright concentration not in the least impairing the beauty of his playing. From the slow, ever-present cycle of smooth triplets and simple overlaid melody of the first movement, lightly dancing through the second, and finally invoking from the deep bowels of the instrument a thunderstorm of pummelling and pounding in the third, Sam’s fingers coaxed, plucked, teased and tempted the music from wood and string, wrenching the powerful chords and arpeggios out from some dark recess in the final movement.
With the last chord, the youth did not rise, but began to examine his hands slowly and diligently, as though himself fascinated by his own skill. It only occurred to Leonard, with a thrill of pity that he quickly stifled, when he was halfway towards the piano. Sam had mentioned it to him in one of their discussions. Everything he did, anywhere he went, he had to check himself. He couldn’t feel pain or sweat. He wouldn’t notice if he sprained a wrist or sliced his leg open. In his childhood he had chewed his own mouth in the night without waking, resulting in his lisp. It was all he could do to keep track of things that went on during the day. Indeed, his chances were not good. Most CIPA patients died before reaching twenty-five of hyperthermia caused by the inability to sweat.
Leonard dragged himself out of this train of thought and joined Sam on the platform. Sam finally looked up. Despite the check he had just had to perform, his face still retained something of the modest self-satisfaction that must have flitted across his face as he finished.
‘Exquisite,’ Leonard told him. Sam smiled and thanked him quietly. Leonard determined his desire to play longer from his expression, clapped the youth gently on the back, and retreated to his chair. Sam followed with Bach’s Italian Concerto, and as the quavers climbed tauntingly, mischievously in groups of four, Leonard closed his eyes and felt the music consume his mind.
Over the years that passed, Leonard and Sam remained close friends. Leonard became something of a mentor to Sam, taking a great personal interest in Sam’s affliction. Though he could not claim to have any experience in dealing with the disease, Leonard’s instincts born of his other life experiences taught him to stress the importance of morale. He threw himself into positivity in their relationship, and maintained a constant awareness of the mood of the other.
Sam continued to visit Leonard at home to play, and it was not long before Leonard decided he had never heard his piano so well-played. Nevertheless he could not help but feel that something was held back. Something was missing from the recitals that Sam was completely capable of delivering.
Early on a Saturday morning, Samuel Fleet rang the bell of Leonard Brown’s house, and was not kept waiting in the cold long. He shrugged of his coat as he followed Leonard inside, and hung it up.
A fire was already crackling away in the grate, and as they sat, Leonard looked into the face that was illuminated opposite him. He had pondered the question long and hard, and wondered whether today he might broach the subject to him. However, Sam struck up a conversation on his studies, and Leonard was obliged to follow his lead.
The day passed on, and their constantly moving conversations carried them from the wingback chairs to a handsome antique table, pre-laid with what Leonard had identified on some other visit as his family silver. Leonard brought in a casserole he had been cooking and they sat in tall straight-back chairs to eat. Sam carefully poured water into glasses from a tall glass jug, and picked up his knife by the yellowed bone handle.
After lunch, Leonard turned to his usual chair, and Sam to the piano. He sat, and began to play. Leonard allowed his eyes to close as Rachmaninov’s genius began to rise in his ears, a cascade, tumbling down again and again. If he had not done so, he might have seen Sam make his mistake, as he reached a great crescendo, and his eyes screwed up, overpowered with emotion. He plunged deeper into the music, and his eyes flew open again as he executed a perfect trill up to the top registers of the piano.
When the piece finally finished with a roll of the bass notes, Sam stood, and without a word made for the kitchen. Leonard heard the tap running as he stood, and made to follow his friend. As he crossed the room, his eye caught a glimpse of something red. He started, and strode towards the piano.
A line of blood, clean and smooth as red glass, had been left along the edge of the wood just in front of the keys, and was already trickling down and dripping onto the floor.
‘SAM!’ Fleet bellowed as he turned quickly towards the kitchen.
Sam was silent as he allowed Leonard to bandage his hand where the palm had sliced open against the edge of the wood. He gave off an air of cold disappointment in himself. Leonard finished the bandage, and Sam slowly retrieved his hand.
‘I would like to pose a thought to you,’ Leonard began at last.
Sam made no sign that he had heard, but he could not have failed to.
‘I suggest that you regard this as a success.’
Sam looked sharply up at Leonard.
‘You are an extraordinary musician, Sam, and it pains me to see you holding yourself back. You played today as you should play.’
‘How can you say that?’ Sam demanded. ‘When you have just glued the pieces that I broke back together!’
‘Who is to say that will happen every time?’ Leonard replied. ‘Forgive me, but the time is now to decide. You will be lucky to live much longer, you must not treasure your time, you must use it. What sense is there in constant caution, if it forbids your deepest passions, your greatest desires, your greatest skills?’
Sam was silent.
George Dolby was a life-long friend of Leonard Brown. They had been at Oxford together, where they had shared many things, including a love of classical music, though it took all of Leonard’s self-restraint to stop him from arguing with George about his mutually exclusive, yet simultaneously held, love of modern music.
George came round often, though his wife was usually absent, away doing work of some kind or another. On this particular occasion he had mercifully neglected to bring the sunglasses that were usually perched on the top of his head. He stepped up to the door in a blue pullover and jeans, and rang the bell.
Leonard let him in, and the two of them went straight into the sitting room. Leonard made an offer of drinks, which George accepted gratefully, and when Leonard had returned with two gin and tonics, he asked to hear Leonard’s news.
‘Well, George,’ Leonard replied, ‘one thing’s been on my mind predominantly. It’s this young chap, Samuel Fleet.’
‘You’ve mentioned him a few times,’ George replied thoughtfully. ‘He’s the music scholar, isn’t he?’
‘That’s the one,’ Leonard answered. ‘But I told you about his disease, didn’t I?’
‘Only briefly,’ George said, scratching his head, straining to remember.
Leonard gave George a fuller description, involving much wincing from George, particularly when Leonard recounted the recent episode at the piano.
‘I have a theory about this, you see,’ Leonard said. ‘I think there’s something to be said for easing up on the over-carefulness. He’s got to make the most of his time. He may well be on his last few years.’
George pondered this in silence for a moment, his brow furrowed in what Leonard interpreted as a mixture of deep thought and deep, deep pity for the young prodigy.
‘How long can he be expected to live if he carries on as he is?’
The debate continued over lunch and into the afternoon. In general, George agreed with Leonard, and this only strengthened his resolve to talk to Sam about it again. When George finally shook hands and turned to step through the doorway out of the house, Leonard made his goodbyes, shut the door, and made straight for the phone.
‘I’m sorry, Leonard, but this time I’m afraid I can’t agree with you.’
Sam put the phone down. He checked his hands as usual, and then made for his living room.
Over the course of the next few weeks the thought of what Leonard had said kept coming to his mind. But each time he pushed it away. Leonard did not understand his position. He kept his head down and went on with life. In fact, he might never have taken Leonard’s advice had it not been for an incident several weeks after the phone call.
Sam had been walking down the street that led to the entrance of the faculty where he attended lectures. As usual he trod carefully, but paced fairly quickly. Ten yards in front of him, a brunette student was coming the other way. She had almost reached him when, with a cry, she tripped, and fell face down on the concrete. She scrabbled around to push her self into a sitting position. Sam covered the six steps to her quickly and held out a hand.
His eyes fell upon her face. With her well-kept flowing hair, full lips and pale complexion, she was undeniably very pretty, and her blue eyes seemed to sparkle slightly as she looked up at him. Without taking her eyes from his, she reached up, and took his hand.
With a slight ‘ah!’ of surprise, she let go instantly. Suddenly looking horrified, either at herself or at the expression on Sam’s face, she hurriedly pushed herself up, and scurried away, mumbling apologies in a scared voice.
With disgust, Sam examined the palm of his hand. The doctors called it lichenification. The skin of his palms was abnormally thick and calloused. With a snort, Sam carried on his way.
He didn’t know why it had been such a shock. The same reaction had taken place before. Nevertheless, the moment he got home, Sam made for the phone, and called Leonard.
‘You can do this, Sam,’ Leonard said encouragingly. He gripped the youth’s shoulders reassuringly, then retreated to his chair. Sam applied his fingers to the keys, and began. He concentrated every pore of his body on the music, every note, every harmony, he focussed on as fully as he could. And slowly, gradually, he felt something in his mind release, and his eyes snapped shut. His fingers flowed across the keyboard, stroking, lovingly caressing the keys of the great instrument.
The music began to climb in pitch, slowly making its way up the keyboard, and then Sam’s eyes opened wide and he let a cascade of notes all the way back down to the middle registers overflow from his fingers.
Leonard watched with a mixture of pain and joy, wondering whether the youth could really pull this off. With a final, powerful chord, Sam released the sustain pedal, and stood up. He checked himself. He was fine.
Leonard put his hands together, and began to clap.
Over the next few weeks, under the supervision of his mentor in Leonard, Sam began to relax, and release his energies. There was one further incident of Sam cutting himself as his hand descended the bass registers, his palm pushing all the time into the edge of the wood, but otherwise he was fine. Gradually it became his mindset to think of his old carefulness while playing as foolish. With this new philosophy constructed, he began to look with a new and unknown excitement towards an upcoming organ recital, in Windsor, a favourite location of his. Quickly it became in his mind a milestone, a test and demonstration of his new, unrestrained skill, and he practised with renewed vigour.
St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, was a fantastically beautiful building. On the outside it was a towering structure of brown stone and dark glass, looming over one of the castle’s entrance courtyards. On the inside, it was cavernous, designed to resemble and upturned boat hull, with a vast curved roof, the majestic, sweeping curves of the columns rising up to join the intricate pattern of carved stone that covered the ceiling, to which hundreds of painted wooden shields were bolted.
Leonard Brown had once noted that almost no one ever smiled in the chapel, an ironic mood for religion, he had always thought. Many times he had been there, for concerts of many kinds. The choristers from the St George’s School were always fantastic, but Brown’s preference was for the organ recitals, and none less than when Samuel Fleet was in the loft.
As he looked around, Leonard watched the stream of people filing into the chapel, canons from the church, people from the school, and outsiders, men, women and almost invariably bored-looking children, all shuffling their feet and keeping their voices low in the cavernous chapel. They were greeted by members of the clergy, draped in red and white, handing out programmes and pointing the way to seats magnificently, with their white cloaks draping down to the floor as they raised their arms.
Brown took his usual seat in the front row and looked at his programme. By the looks of things, all his favourite organ pieces were to be played, perhaps the best recital he would ever go to. He sighed contentedly and settled back in his chair, tapping his foot on the stone floor, causing echo after echo to reverberate around the great stone “hull”.
Finally, with the last arrivals scurrying to their seats, silence spread through the hall as a member of the clergy entered the chapel and made his way to the front pews. His aged lips parted in a smile and he began his monologue, asking the audience to turn of their phones and reminding them that applause was to be heard only once the whole recital had finished. Finally, he left his position, slowly, but with a stride.
The silence was now almost absolute. There was a single cough. Then the organ started. It was a beautiful, fantastic sound, loud as anything and sweeping, rolling and swirling, dancing and leaping. Leonard’s eyelids closed and the music penetrated him through every pore of his body. It was getting more and more powerful, the texture more and more complicated as ever more complex arrangements of notes came. The music grew and grew until it seemed the eardrums of any man would split, if not with sheer volume then with the wonder of the music. The melody was coursing over and through everything, unstoppable.
And then, all of a sudden, the sound completely ceased. But only for a moment. A fraction of a second later there was an ear-splitting, horrible chord, not only dissonant, but a wretched, shrieking cacophony. And it simply went on. It did not stop.
Leonard leapt to his feet and trotted towards the way out of the hall as fast as his legs would carry him. He knew where the loft was, he’d been up there before on a tour of the chapel. He burst through the door and heaved himself up the stairs two at a time, hardly noticing as he crashed into the organ assistant, who was tearing down in the other direction, knocking him backwards onto the steps. Ignoring him, Leonard covered the last few steps and charged into the organ loft.
Samuel Fleet was slumped over, still seated on the organ bench, his upper body having collapsed forward onto the manuals, his head on the topmost row of keys, the weight of his frail body pressing them down.
Leonard threw himself forwards and pulled him off the keys. Sam rolled off the organ bench onto the floor and Leonard fell to his knees beside him.
No moisture beaded his forehead, no dark patches were seen on his clothes. He had no sweat to give. The waistcoat he wore was almost comically neat, though his white shirt was ruffled from the fall onto the floor.
Even as Brown put his fingers to his Fleet’s neck, he knew.
Samuel Fleet had, finally, lived. And it had, finally, killed him.