October 2017: Anna Haldane - The Silver Whisper
September 2017: Olivia Dunnett - Whistling Monster
August 2017: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
July 2017: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts
Read Anna's winning story below. Think you can do better? Then subscribe monthly - or pay a one-off entry fee - and send us YOUR story:
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Also shortlisted :
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream
You can read previous winners in our very first issue of Dark Tales right up to Volume 16:
THE SILVER WHISPER
by Anna Haldane
There is nothing left to do. The brandy and wine glasses are washed, dried and put away. The gold-rimmed cups and china side plates are back in the cupboard. What else is there really to do?
Begonia buttons up her nettle-green cardigan and slumps into the nearest chair. Just finish this cuppa then time for bed. Another day done. Wasn’t so bad really. Could have been worse.
Might try to sleep with the light off tonight. It’s been five weary days, after all, and this the longest of them all. Bound to sleep this time. Besides, these things get easier apparently. With time.
She takes a sip of sweetened tea and stares out the window at a distant street lamp. On the table is the order-of-service, one of the many spares strewn about the house: Sergio’s face splashed across every page.
Shouldn’t have asked them to leave. She was weary of all the well-wishers, but ever since they left she feels she has shrunk – or the house has expanded – and the empty spaces are nagging at her.
That’s enough tea. She rubs her eyes fiercely and pours it away: rinses the mug but doesn’t wash it.
Too tired to sleep.
It’s hard to stop thinking about Sergio’s sounds. Perhaps it’s time to try to understand why all those people so loved his music. Strangers, friends and critics alike; they always enthused about how lyrical and natural he was when he played, whatever that meant. She pulls her sleeves down and dries her hands. Might listen to his recordings – really listen to them. Realise at last what she’s been missing all these years.
Sergio would like that.
Not been in the basement since Sergio died. Can’t remember the last time. Probably years ago.
The basement was his study, his studio; his sanctuary. He would vanish down there for hours most days and then just re-emerge in time for his supper, all dazed and quiet, as though he was in some kind of trance.
She goes to the hallway, tiptoeing, and hauls open the trap-door.
An icy gust breathes upwards from the vacant maw. The basement is hellish black.
Begonia clicks the switch. A naked lightbulb flickers. Fails. Then flickers again. Finally it stays on, dim and throbbing. So much dust and shadow down here, she can hardly see anything. It’s in the air – the dust - stinging her eyes and nostrils.
She picks her way down the step-ladder and finds the floor with her slippered feet. Every shuffling step causes something to snag at her cardigan or skirt: storage-chests, book cases, music stands, stools. She finds his desk and leans into it, coughing heavily against the disturbed dust.
What is she looking for again?
Music. This was where he played music. There are speakers and a microphone and a large electronic panel with all sorts of controls and buttons on it, cables snaking this way and that. That’s not what she’s after. A record or a tape or something she could play. Where did he keep those?
The bookcases are filled with labelled ring-binders. She recognises the names of some of the composers, hand-written on the spines, but there are dozens more she doesn’t.
Why didn’t she let him tell her more about them?
There is nothing in here she can play.
She’s turning to find the step-ladder, a little crestfallen. Where else would Sergio keep his recordings?
As she finds the first step with her foot, something catches Begonia’s eye. Did something just shimmer?
Oh. It’s just his violin. Still in its case. Funny that he kept it on his desk. Sergio had many instruments, but they’re all locked in the glass cabinet. Maybe he’d been doing something with it on the day… on the day he left.
She touches the case with a faltering hand. A film of fine silver dust coats the surface. Like it’s been here for years. Completely undisturbed. Perhaps he wasn’t doing anything with it after all. Maybe he just preferred to keep it out of the cabinet.
Not sure about the feel of this case. It’s strangely warm. Like a sleeping animal.
Beginning to wish she hadn’t come down here, she lifts her hand and spins away. Must’ve been the silver dust that shimmered. She doubts she’ll come back here again.
She expects to face the step ladder, but finds herself at the desk again. Pulled towards the violin. Or, rather, pushed towards it. It’s saying something to her. A silver whisper. A whisper that sounds so good to the ear. A nourishing trickle. But. But it’s a whisper she can’t understand. She can’t understand it.
Begonia snatches the violin case in both hands and, breathless with fright, fumbling with haste, scampers up the step-ladder. The violin is heavier than it looks and rattles inside its case.
Begonia turns the basement light off and closes the trapdoor.
Weak with relief, she staggers to the sitting room and slumps into the rocking chair. There she waits a while, doing nothing; willing her galloping heart to settle. She dares not look at it – the case - with it resting warmly on her lap. It could almost be a cat sleeping on her.
Begonia runs a thumb along the top. She can feel a substance, fine as talc, coat her thumb.
She opens the case.
It’s smaller than she expected - not much longer than a forearm – but, who knows, maybe all violins are this size. This one is beautiful. Smooth and lustrous, the gleaming wood is a gorgeous shade of russet brown. She slides a finger along the dark ebony neck, stroking the fine glittering silver strings.
Soft as a whisper the strings answer her.
She lifts the bow from the case and turns the bottom of the violin to her shoulder. This doesn’t feel right, so she moves it up a little to touch her chin. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and then lays the bow on the strings.
Like a sudden breeze the silver whisper returns, colder this time, stirring the air at her ear and neck, forcing her to shudder. She couldn’t breathe now if she wanted to.
Who is it? Sergio? It feels like him. She can’t speak.
The whisper wheels around her like a thread of gossamer; barely tangible, unfathomably strong.
In a fit of panic, she drags the bow across the strings. She can breathe again. She draws the bow back across. And - there - she breathes again. She repeats this – her eyes still fastened shut – drawing a sound, breathing, the opposite sound, breathing again. She dare not stop. Even as she weeps, the motion does not falter or cease.
A horrid sound.
The sound of heavy, dying wheezing. That same desperate sound: in and out, harsh and hurting, long and dreadful, like the worst two notes on a rasping accordion: raked cruelly in, drawn painfully out, over and over. Hideous. Hideous.
She fights not to hear that sound. Her arm moves mechanically up and mechanically down but she battles not to hear that excruciating discord.
It’s just sound. It’s nothing.
Find another sound. Quick! Find another sound. Oh, Christ, hurry! It’s … it’s … it’s … Ring a Ring o’ Roses.
And there. Quick as the thought. The fingers of Begonia’s left hand spread to different points on the neck of the violin. The discord stops. The bow begins to sing. Sweet as a lark it sings the tune. Begonia gasps. She’s playing it. Ring a Ring o’ Roses. She’s playing it. Over and over again she plays the nursery rhyme.
Oh, Christ. Oh Sergio. She can’t believe it. She’s playing. She’s actually playing!
Begonia does not stop with Ring a Ring o’ Roses. Needs to breathe. More melodies. She needs more melodies to play. She snatches at everything – sometimes only fragments of tunes, sometimes whole sections of her favourites – and, with no more than the thought, the tune is played – over and over – until another tune usurps it. For hours and hours and hours she plays, rocking her chair ever so gently in time with her music.
And then, like the interruption of a dream that could have gone on forever, the silver whisper fills Begonia’s mind, and, with a jolt, the music stops.
Begonia blinks open her eyes and glances at the window beside her. There’s no mistake. The window is dark for a looking-glass, but the image is unmistakable. She is definitely there, definitely holding a violin, definitely carrying it at her chin, with her bow poised like she’s played violin her whole life – frozen in position - as though waiting for her maestro to time her in.
She looks away and hurriedly sets the instrument back in its case, slamming it shut and pushing it underneath her chair with her heel.
Really ought to go to bed now.
Best keep the light on tonight after all.
That’s the first full night of sleep for almost a week… almost a year, really. Sergio’s health had been terrible since last February.
Begonia puts on her dressing gown and slippers and sneaks downstairs. She makes warily for the sitting room, nudging the door open. She peers inside.
Under the chair.
Her heartbeat quickens. She musters a deep breath. Into the room she goes, striding forth as boldly as she dares. She halts when she reaches her chair. A queer feeling floods her mind while she looks at the thing. It’s like seeing a spider or a mouse skitter across the kitchen floor. A disturbance. A flicker in the gut. A minor horror. She can’t help but freeze. Can’t bear to look at it. She just can’t.
Cringing, she fetches it with blind, unwilling hands. She’d forgotten how weirdly warm it is.
Begonia takes her seat and rests the case on her lap. She opens it. At once, as soon as she touches the wood, the silver whisper whirls around, icy as before, sending her breathless.
Begonia can’t breathe and the slowly circling chill numbs her a little.
Sergio. I only want to play a little. Do you understand? You need to let me stop sometimes. I will play as much as you want. But I need breaks. Rests.
She summons from her memory a sweet little sonata she never knew the name of. And, exactly as before, she plays the tune. She plays the melody three times and then she stops. She feels at the cusp of a dream and she smiles.
There. Thank you Sergio.
She returns the violin to its case and leaves her chair.
Penelope had been rather startled to hear from Auntie Begonia this morning. She’d been at Sergio’s wake yesterday. Briefly. But had to leave early. Rehearsals.
Funeral had gone better than expected. Uncle Sergio’s orchestra performing bits from his favourite Requiems was a nice touch: Faure’s “Sanctus” was his particular favourite. Sergio always said it was the sweetest farewell any man could wish for. She was sure he’d have liked it.
Auntie Begonia hadn’t elaborated on what exactly she wanted - which didn’t bode well. It was to be a surprise, was all she’d said. She needed Penelope … needed her … to come over as soon as she could. But why in Christ’s name call her of all people? And why so soon?
She hoped the old bird hadn’t taken a fall or something. Begonia had looked very unsteady yesterday. Understandable really.
Anyway. She’s here now.
She rang the doorbell and waited for an answer. She could smell the faint whiff of home-baking.
What did other people do in such circumstances? Smile? Act cheerful?
Penelope heard the jangle of keys and the movement of the door’s various locks. Soon the door drew inwards and Auntie Begonia peered, wincing, at her. She covered her eyes with her hand.
“Oh, how bright it is this afternoon, isn’t it dear?”
Penelope looked over her shoulder and screened her eyes. “Yes. Isn’t it.” She turned back again. She smiled. “How are you getting on Auntie?”
“I’m so glad you could come.” Begonia ushered Penelope in. “I’ve been doing a spot of baking. You still like cookies, don’t you dear?”
“Only when you make them, Auntie.” She shrugged off her coat and let Begonia guide her into the hallway. “So. What’s the big surprise then?” Penelope tried to ignore the anxiety swelling in her gut. “You’re not going to tell me it’s the cookies are you?”
“No dear. This way. I… I want to.” Begonia faltered before entering the sitting room. “I want your opinion on something.”
Sounds fair enough.
“Okay. But I hope it’s something exciting, Auntie. If it’s about new drapes or carpets or something I’m afraid you’ve asked the wrong girl.”
Christ. She hoped that didn’t sound insensitive.
“I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s exciting or not.”
Which probably means it’s not then.
Why did she need Penelope in particular? Begonia had other relatives to talk to - relatives more her age.
“Sit down. Sit down.” Begonia gestured to the sofa Penelope was standing beside. “I’m going to try to play you something,” she said, indicating the violin case.
Christ. So that’s what this is all about!
“And you can tell me… if…” Begonia walked to her rocking chair and sat in it. She kept her eyes on Penelope. “You tell me what you think.”
Penelope nodded. Oh, why the hell not. It’s better than talking about death and grief and all those sorts of things. She braced herself for the inevitable ear-splitting screech and squeak.
“Are you ready dear?” Begonia opened the case, lifting the violin and bow from inside.
Penelope nodded again. She smiled. She’d worn the same smile since she’d walked in. It had begun to ache. Could have done with that cuppa or a cookie after all – just to give her mouth something else to do.
“Just tell me if it’s rubbish.” Begonia set the case down on the floor and lifted the violin to her chin. “I want you to be honest with me.”
Poor old Auntie Begonia: this was going to be ghastly.
“I don’t know the name of this one. I’ve been playing it a bit this morning.” Begonia closed her eyes and began to play.
Penelope’s jaw plummeted the instant she heard the first notes from the Adagio Sostenuto from Moonlight Sonata.
But that’s… but that’s astonishing! That’s a piano piece! Wait. How the hell could she do that? Just play an arrangement of Moonlight as though it had always been written for violin. It’s ridiculous. It’s gorgeous. Gorgeous! It’ll only be the first movement though. She’ll have to stop soon. There’s no way she can do the Allegretto on a violin. She’d need to be like a…
Begonia carried on playing, proceeding onwards into the second movement; seamlessly easing from spiccato to legato and back.
… like a maestro.
All three movements were complete. The music had finished. Penelope sat in dumb, riveted, silence.
“So?” asked Begonia, opening her eyes.
Perhaps it was just the light, but Begonia’s complexion seemed pretty pale.
“What do you think? I… I can do more if you like?” Begonia was still holding the violin at her chin – her breath bated.
There was a tiredness to Begonia’s eyes that Penelope hadn’t noticed before. A redness.
Begonia didn’t wait for an answer. She re-set her posture and played again.
“I don’t know the name of this one either,” said Begonia. Her words burst out of her in a gasping rush.
Jesus Christ. It was only Mendelssohn’s bloody Violin Concerto in E. Only the exquisitely sweet yet shockingly violent Allegro Molto Appassionato! Her cadenza is superb! Where the hell did she learn to do those ricocheted arpeggios?
The music stopped again.
Begonia’s bow arm fell to her lap. She slumped forward; heaving in and out like she was half-drowned.
“What do you think Penelope, my dear?”
“Auntie.” Penelope struggled to find her voice. “That was astounding. Simply astounding. Christ.” She shook her head. This simply couldn’t be possible. “Where did you learn to play like that? Did Uncle Sergio teach you?”
Begonia smiled. “Watch your language, please, dear.” She gestured to the ceiling. “He hears you know.”
“But, Auntie, how did you learn? Did Uncle Sergio show you?”
“I suppose he did, dear.” Begonia shrugged. “Maybe he still does. Who knows? They never truly leave us, do they? Not really.”
She seemed very frail and very weak.
“Anyway, that’s enough of that. Time for tea and cookies.”
“Didn’t Sergio want you to perform?”
Begonia answered with a shrug. She looked away. “Let’s have that tea.”
After tea, Penelope readied herself to go. “You’re sure you don’t want me to call some people. Just for a chat?”
“No, no, dear. I’m not for that sort of thing.” Begonia followed Penelope to the door and opened it for her. “I’m glad you could come.”
It was a pale, misty twilight.
“I’m glad I came too. Really glad.” Penelope stepped outside and zipped up her coat.
“What is it?” Penelope searched Begonia’s eyes, but they were hidden in shadow.
“I have a question. A music question.”
“Okay.” Penelope beamed back at her Auntie. “Shoot.”
“You know how feebly I remember the names of things… music and composers.” She swallowed. “You know them all, don’t you dear?”
“Uh-huh. Most of them.”
Begonia glanced over her shoulder. She pulled the door to behind her and her voice fell to a whisper.
“What would you say is the longest piece of them all?”
“Off the top of my head…” Penelope mused. “You could do worse than Wagner. His Ring-Cycle is epic. It can take fifteen hours to play.”
“Fifteen hours?” Begonia swallowed hard and repeated the names over and over. “Wagner. The Ring-Cycle. Wagner. The Ring-Cycle. Wagner. The Ring-Cycle.”
Begonia seemed such a small old lady all of a sudden.
At last she nodded. “Thank you dear.” She edged backwards into the unlit hallway and started to close the door. “Thank you for coming.”
Copyright (c) Anna Haldane 2017