With trembling hands Mr Barley flipped open the metal clasps on the wooden box. He bowed his head in response to the resulting thud, a fragile smile tempting the corners of his mouth. The hinges rasped softly. They had remained unoiled for decades so it was no surprise. Holding his breath, Mr Barley gingerly removed the silk cloth covering the clarinet, the smell of African Blackwood and cork grease spilling out from the chest in waves.
‘Alice,’ Mr Barley murmured, inhaling deeply; unable to prevent tears from forming in the corners of his rheumy eyes. ‘Oh, Alice.’
Gently, as if cradling a new-born, Mr Barley lifted the pieces of the instrument out of their velvet-lined case, arranging them in size order on the table. He checked the mouthpiece first, already knowing the reed would need replacing; it had been at least fifty years after all. It was in no way as cracked and frangible as Mr Barley had expected, though he was still careful that it shouldn’t splinter or catch in his brittle thumbnail as he tenderly prised it from its setting. He selected an unused reed from the little cardboard box tucked down the side of the case, placing it onto his tongue. It tasted fresher than he could have reasonably hoped; like newly-cut bamboo, only less acrid.
Assembling the clarinet was as simple as it had always been, even with shivering, feeble fingers. Mr Barley tested the keys. They were still responsive to his touch. He wet his lips nervously, straightening his back and settling the antique instrument into position.
‘Let’s see what these old hands remember,’ Mr Barley whispered to himself, looking despondently down at his painfully swollen knuckles.
The first breath was a sigh of wind flowing through the clarinet, no note sounded, just a hum of air passing through the cylindrical wooden chamber. Mr Barley adjusted his mouth and tried again, this time with a firmer bottom lip. The unpleasant hiss of strained air escaping between his cracked, flaccid lips was his only reward.
His shoulders slumped but he determined to give it at least one more go. Inhaling deeply, Mr Barley screwed his wrinkled eyes shut and blew. His neck flushed red, purple veins bulged beneath his parchment skin. He failed to keep his cheeks taut, wasted air flapped flatulently from his mouth until he wheezed, utterly deflated. Mr Barley clutched the clarinet tightly, tilting his head back, gulping ragged breaths between fits of coughing.
His vision swam, the patterned ceiling revolving in a sickening spiral of flowers and filigree. The plum coving cavorted capriciously, the rawhide lampshade danced a nauseating tango, rhythmically at odds with the jarring rattle of the washing machine in the kitchen. Mr Barley pitched forward, colliding with the rim of the table, the hapless instrument slipped through his twitching fingers, clattering to the tiled floor. The chair screeched back as Mr Barley pushed away from the table. He struggled to his feet where the air could finally fill his lungs in cool, sweet draughts.
Minutes passed. Mr Barley heard only the pounding thrum of his heartbeat hot in his ears. He sank slowly back into the chair, shivering at the cold caress of his sweat sodden shirt. His throat burned as if flayed by countless whips; punishment for failed embouchure. ‘Alice?’ Mr Barley called, his voice hoarse, barely audible.
Mr Barley frowned, perplexed, ‘Alice?’ He tried again.
Consternation knitting his brow, Mr Barley swallowed deeply, preparing to rise. Jostling keys turned in the lock of the back door. Mr Barley spun in alarm, wincing at a sharp pain in his strained lungs. A silhouetted figure entered, wholly unfamiliar through the twisted glass windows of the kitchen door, wiping its shoes loudly on his mat. Mr Barley’s eyes were wide and he was still panting heavily.
‘S’only me, Mr Barley.’
‘Alice?’ Mr Barley questioned, hopefully.
There was a pause, then a blond-haired woman pushed into the living room. Mr Barley’s face dropped and he exhaled noisily.
‘Aw, not this again, Mr Barley.’ She sighed, holding her hands up. ‘We can’t be ‘aving this every day, now, can we?’
Mr Barley watched as the woman who wasn’t Alice bustled about his home, scooping up the clarinet with as little care as if it were simply a mislaid pencil. He winced as the African Blackwood scraped against the hard tile, hands clenching spasmodically.
‘I really don’t know why you insist on playing this thing every day, I’ve never once ’eard you get a good tune out of it, and it only ever upsets you,’ the intruder prattled on as she moved methodically through the room. ‘Honestly, lovey, you’d think you’d ’ave more sense, what at your age. Can’t afford to be getting your ticker all worked up, eh?
‘And what’s ’appened ’ere? You’ve gone and spilt something down the sofa that’s what. Cushion reeks of tea. S’wet through this is, it’ll need a good wash I reckon. Can you remember if it ’appened last night or this morning?’
Mr Barley wilted beneath the tirade of questions, shrinking back down into the chair, hands pressed firmly to his temples, eyes roving blankly.
‘Oh, you do look a right state, Mr Barley. Come on, love, I reckon you need a bath, that’ll ’elp you relax – and you can give your ’air a good rinse.’
Mr Barley flinched back as calloused hands seized his wrists, mouth flopping open as if to protest, his engorged tongue squirmed but no words came out.
‘You alright, love?’
Mr Barley’s throat closed, his arms trembled as he tried to pull free of the strange woman’s grasp. He turned his head to the side, straining away from his assailant, but her fingers were like iron.
‘Calm down, Mr Barley. S’only me.’ The woman’s voice was softer than it had been, but he didn’t recognise it.
‘No,’ he moaned, ‘Alice. Alice? Alice!’
‘Please, Mr Barley, come on now, you’re getting yourself all worked up. Stop rocking back like that, you know me; I come ’ere every day, love. I’m not going to ’urt you, Mr Barley, look at my uniform, you recognise that don’t you?’
‘Alice!’ Mr Barley screamed, head whipping from side to side, withered neck muscles straining, lips curled back into a feral snarl. ‘Alice! Help me, Alice, help me!’
‘Please, love, take some deep breaths, look at my uniform, Mr Barley, I’m ’ere and you’re safe. You know me, you know you do.’ The woman’s voice shook, her tone less soothing than it had been.
‘No!’ Mr Barley shrieked, flailing with his legs. Pain lanced through his foot as his toe connected with something hard. His attacker cursed, her fingers loosened and he wrenched his wrists out of her grip, grinning triumphantly. Carried by momentum, Mr Barley’s balance failed him as he tumbled out of the chair, collapsing to the floor. A concatenation of brilliant lightning exploded behind his eyelids accompanied by a violent cracking sound; whether it came from the arm pinned beneath his back or his skull bouncing on the unyielding floor, Mr Barley couldn’t be sure.
* * *
The incessant beeping annoyed Mr Barley. The grey hairs in his ears quivered, irritated by an electronic whirring, like that of wind rushing through a barely open window. His eyelids twitched, the sharp light of the room filtering pink through the thin veils of skin. Muffled voices in conversation disturbed him, he mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep and tried to roll on to his side. An uncomfortable tugging sensation in his nose made him catch his breath, pain erupted in his shoulder and his eyes snapped open.
Mr Barley snorted, unsuccessfully attempting to clear his nose of the unknown blockage. Breathing unsteadily, he tried to examine the room he was in. His eyes were slow to focus and his peripheral vision remained blurred. He blinked repeatedly, cautiously lifting his right hand to his face. He rubbed away the crusted sleep and massaged the crooks of his eyes, aware of something slapping lightly against his chest.
Frustrating minutes elapsed as Mr Barley squinted, endeavouring to discern what it was that was so accosting him. A thick, plastic tube hung down from his arm, one end boring into his wrinkled skin beneath a blue plaster. He regarded it with a bemused expression, noting how the wire shivered, suspended from his trembling wrist. He spent a long time studying the coarsely-woven, red sleeve bunched up by his elbow.
‘Those aren’t my pyjamas,’ Mr Barley croaked, his throat dry and cracked.
He swallowed slowly, looking around for something to quench his thirst. In one corner of the room he spied three small, plastic cups stacked neatly on a shelf above a porcelain sink. Mr Barley tried to sit up but fell back gasping, wrenching agony flaring in his shoulder. His eyes grew wide as he saw his entire left arm was wrapped in a white cast, a secure sling suspended from metal brackets in the ceiling holding it in place. A little red clip attached to the end of his index finger bobbed up and down as if nodding to him as he wiggled his fingers, grinning to himself.
The door opened; Mr Barley jumped as if he’d been a young boy caught in the act of doing something forbidden.
‘Dad?’ A rather plump woman clad in a blue cardigan and carrying a brown leather handbag named him as she entered.
Mr Barley was silent, examining her face. She certainly seemed familiar: those flushed cheeks dimpled and vibrant, her thin eyebrows sitting slightly too high on her forehead giving her a permanently startled expression, and that hair, mousy brown and piled in curled disarray atop her head. Mr Barley shook his head, as if trying to dislodge a memory that had become stuck somewhere almost inaccessible.
‘Dad?’ The woman repeated, ‘Dad, it’s me. Would you like some water?’
Mr Barley only nodded, not wanting to exacerbate his already parched throat. He observed the woman who’d called him Dad place her purse on the only chair in the room before delicately selecting a cup and filling it with water. There was something about the way she moved that niggled at him: her careful, precise steps, the way she held her arms in at her sides and constantly flicked her unruly hair from her eyes; he was almost certain he recognised her. He struggled up into a sitting position, grimacing at the jolts of discomfort searing through his shoulder.
‘Don’t drink too quickly now, just take small sips to begin with.’ Mr Barley’s daughter told him as she gently held the cup to his lips.
Mr Barley did as he was told, but even so he spluttered after swallowing the first time, spittle rattling in his tortured throat. The woman attending him stroked his wispy hair back onto his head, fondly looping the long strands behind his ears.
‘You gave me quite a scare this time, Dad,’ the woman said softly. ‘When the hospital told me you’d had a panic attack and kicked Nurse Perkins, I’d feared the worst. Then, when I got here and saw you, your entire arm wrapped in plaster and a respirator plugged into your nose, well, that wasn’t much of a relief, I can tell you.’
The mellifluous sound of her voice was soothing, the words babbling past Mr Barley as he lulled in the comfort of her familiarity. She continued to caress his head, gently cradling his skull, holding it close to her chest. Mr Barley inhaled, tasting his daughter’s scent, refreshing as a summer forest within the first few hours after heavy rainfall.
‘It’s wonderful to see you awake at last. For three weeks I’ve visited every day, praying your eyes would be open; each time wishing that when I walked in to your room I’d see you propped up against your pillows, eating from a plastic tray and watching As Time Goes By on the TV.’ His daughter sniffed, sedulously relinquishing her hold of her father, allowing him to sink back into the bed. ‘I know it’s silly, you haven’t even watched that show for years; I just wanted you to be well again.’
The woman gazed at Mr Barley for a long time, her eyes were pale blue, matching her cardigan, and suddenly Mr Barley was sure he knew who she was.
Something in the woman’s face crumbled, tears trickled down her cheeks, falling past her trembling bottom lip. She sank down onto the side of the bed, turning away from her father to study the vase of blooming carnations standing on the bedside table.
‘No, Dad,’ she said, exhaling loudly. ‘Mum isn’t here.’
Mr Barley chewed his bottom lip, aware that he’d upset this kind woman, but not sure how. He glanced about, trying to think of something he could say. His stare lingered upon the red sleeve folded up to his elbow.
‘These aren’t my pyjamas,’ he stated.
Mr Barley’s daughter turned her attention back to her father, worry shining through her watery eyes. ‘Yes, they are.’
Mr Barley shook his head, ‘no, I don’t have any red ones. Alice doesn’t like red.’
‘Oh, Dad,’ she choked, barely able to force the words past her lips. ‘Red was Mum’s favourite colour.’
Matthew Pither asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work