As a music production apprentice I had to do all the jobs no one else wanted. ‘Valuable industry experience’ they called it. My manager, Antoine – a pretentious name for a middle-aged guy from Basildon, if you ask me – was a nice enough guy, but he made sure you knew he was the boss.
‘You want to make it in the music business?’ he often asked me. ‘Then you’ve got to get your hands dirty.’
My hands were frequently getting dirty: covered in two-day old pizza sauce, spilled Coke and God only knows what else the technicians left behind. If I was going to get anywhere I had to just get on with it, even if I was the studio donkey. I found some bin bags and put my headphones on. Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major. I may be young, but I’ve got taste.
I was peeling pepperoni from a control panel when the graphic equalizers sprung to life. The arrows moved from green to red to green again, flicking back and forth. There was no way that should be happening. I slowly peered through the glass to the studio.
Sitting in front of the piano was a girl, around my age. Dark hair tumbled over her shoulders to a green sweater. Her sleeves pulled up to her knuckles, fingers emerging like tortoises from their shells to move slowly, delicately across the piano keys. I flicked a switch on the dashboard. The music she was playing drifted through the speakers like an Autumn breeze. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, No. 18. I’d never heard it played the way she did. Emotional, fragile, sorrowful. I wiped tears from my cheeks and tapped on the glass.
‘Hello?’ I said, but the girl didn’t move.
Antoine hadn’t mentioned any late sessions, and, beautiful as she was, I didn’t want to lose my job over her. I went through to the studio doorway and stood listening.
‘Hi,’ I finally said.
Her head snapped towards me, eyes wide. Her fingers slipped on the keyboard, leaving a discordant note ringing in the air. She clutched her hands together tightly, pain and fear scarring her face as thick drops of blood dripped from her fingers on to the keys of the piano.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said in a voice as melancholic as her music.
I reached for her hands, but she pulled away.
‘I’m sorry. I just wanted to help.’
‘You can’t help me.’ She stared at the piano.
‘I’m Paul,’ I told her. ‘What’s your name?’
Another crimson drop fell on the keys.
‘At least let me get you a plaster?’
She nodded slightly. I left to fetch the first aid box.
When I returned she was gone.
The following morning, I tried telling Antoine what had happened, but he was barely listening.
‘You’re not to bring girls back here again. Do I make myself clear?’
I protested my innocence, but being young and male, I apparently had only one thing on my mind.
I tried to forget about Gemma, but nothing I did could get her out of my head. Whenever I worked late on my own, I got in to the habit of switching on the intercom between the studio and the control room, just in case I got to hear her again. I’d think I could hear her music, but when I stopped to listen there was silence. I’d see her face reflected in surfaces, only to look around and no one was there. I’d remember the dark splashes of blood on the white keys.
It was three weeks before I saw her again. I was doing my usual tidying up when the music began. A strange expression crossed Gemma’s face when she saw me, so brief I almost missed it. An overwhelming sadness that quickly returned to mere melancholy. There’s a difference; it’s subtle, but there really is.
‘What happened?’ I asked her.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The last time I saw you, your hand bled. Then you disappeared and I didn’t see you again until now.’
She hid her hands in her lap.
‘Let me see. Please.’
I carefully took her hands in mine. I pulled her sleeve up to her wrist, exposing her bare skin. She turned tear-filled eyes away from me as I looked at her. Long scars marked the back of her hand. Some of the wounds looked old, but others seemed so fresh that they were almost bleeding.
‘Gemma…’ I whispered.
‘I mustn’t get it wrong,’ she replied. ‘It upsets him.’
I pulled her to me and held her in my arms.
I woke up on the floor of the studio. Gemma was gone.
Thoughts of Gemma and her music kept me awake every night after that. I needed to see her again, I craved her music, but she hadn’t returned to the studio for a couple of weeks. Antoine was no help, of course – I didn’t dare mention her again in case he fired me. He already thought I was slacking off because my mind wasn’t entirely on the job. Then, suddenly, I had an idea that was so simple, I was dumb-founded I hadn’t thought of it sooner.
6am, I let myself in to the studio. Using the office computer, I browsed the client database for anyone called Gemma. And there she was: photo, full name, date of birth – even her home address.
‘What are you doing here?’ Antoine demanded as he blustered in and saw me.
I hadn’t heard or seen him come in. Completely taken by surprise I blurted out the first thing that entered my head:
‘What are you doing here?’
‘You know I own this place, right?’ he reminded me.
Against all better judgement, I told Antoine exactly what had been going on. I prepared myself for being sacked or at least laughed out of the studio. Instead he stared at the photo of Gemma on the computer monitor, lost in some private thought.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s probably nothing.’ He stroked the bristles on his chin. ‘I always got a weird feeling about her.’
‘Weird how?’ I prompted when Antoine volunteered no further information.
‘I don’t know. She always seemed nervous. Took it badly when she even got a single note wrong – got very agitated.’ He stared at the screen for another long moment. ‘I think we need to go for a drive.’
We pulled up in front of Gemma’s house and sat looking at it for a moment.
‘Wait here,’ Antoine told me and hauled himself out of the car.
I watched as he walked to the front door and knocked. No response. He rang the bell. Nothing. He held his hands up to the window and peered in. A path around to the back of the house. Antoine followed it. I lost sight of him. I sat in the car waiting for what felt like forever, wiping condensation from the fogged up windows.
Suddenly the front door flew open. Antoine stumbled out, eyes wide, face white. I scrambled out of the car as he doubled over, head between his knees, and threw up.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Don’t go in there. Don’t go in.’
Being young, foolish and apparently a bit rebellious, I stepped through the front door, ignoring Antoine’s warning. He was in no fit state to do anything to stop me anyway. I stopped in the doorway, listening for anything beyond the sound of my own nervous breathing. There was a low buzzing sound and a strange scent in the air, but no sign of movement.
Then I heard a piano. Rachmaninoff. I slowly followed the sound of the music to the living room. In the corner of the room was a piano, and in front of the piano sat Gemma. Her fingers glided softly, the music disconcertingly familiar.
‘Gemma?’ I whispered.
I looked around and that’s when I saw them.
On the sofa were a man and a woman. The woman – presumably Gemma’s mother – had a dark crimson circle on her gut, her father a gun in his mouth. The back of his head was missing. Flies swarmed around the bodies. Gemma turned and looked at me. Her eyes were dark as ebony, her skin like ivory. Her gaze lifted to the ceiling behind me. I turned and saw a staircase. I knew she wanted me to go up there.
I climbed the stairs, my heart trying to escape through my ribs. On the landing I felt drawn to one particular room. I pushed open the door and stepped inside. Gemma’s room. I looked around. A piece of green sweater peered from the bottom of a closet. I opened the closet door. There was Gemma, slumped on the floor, eyes wide and lifeless, thick black bruises around her neck.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said.
The piano stopped. The sudden silence was the saddest thing I have ever heard.