The Man Who Only Liked Chopin
Frank sat smoking behind his turntable, same as always, watching the window. Mid-afternoon, and it was almost dark out there. The day had hardly been a day at all. A drop in temperature had brought the beginnings of a frost, and Unity Street glittered beneath the streetlights. The air had a Kind of Blue feel.
The other four shops on the parade were already closed, but he had put on the lava lamps and the electric fire. The music shop was warm and colorfully lit. At the counter, Maud the tattooist stood flicking through fanzines while Father Anthony made an origami flower. Saturday Kit had collected all the Emmylou Harrises and was trying to arrange them in alphabetical order without Frank noticing.
“I had no customers again,” said Maud, very loud. Even though Frank was at the back of the shop and she was at the front, there was technically no need to shout. The shops on Unity Street were only the size of a front room. “Are you listening?”
“You don’t look like you’re listening.”
Frank took off his headphones. Smiled. He felt laugh lines spring all over his face, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “See? I’m always listening.”
Maud made a noise like ham. Then she said, “One man called in, but it wasn’t for a tattoo. He just wanted directions to the new precinct.”
Father Anthony said he’d sold a paperweight in his gift shop. Also, a leather bookmark with the Lord’s Prayer stamped on it. He seemed more than happy about that.
“If it stays like this, I’ll be closed by summer.”
“You won’t, Maud. You’ll be fine.” They had this conversation all the time. She said how awful things were, and Frank said they weren’t, Maud, they weren’t. You two are like a stuck record, Kit told them, which might have been funny except that he said it every night, and besides, they weren’t a couple. Frank was very much a single man.
“Do you know how many funerals the undertakers have had?”
“Two. Two since Christmas. What’s wrong with people?”
“Maybe they’re not dying,” suggested Kit.
“Of course they’re dying. People don’t come here anymore. All they want is that crap on the High Street.”
Only last month the florist had gone. Her empty shop stood on one end of the parade like a bad tooth, and a few nights ago, the baker’s window—he was at the other end—had been defaced with slogans. Frank had fetched a bucket of soapy water but it took all morning to wash them off.
“There have always been shops on Unity Street,” said Father Anthony. “We’re a community. We belong here.”
Saturday Kit passed with a box of new 12-inch singles, narrowly missing a lava lamp. He seemed to have abandoned Emmylou Harris. “We had another shoplifter today,” he said, apropos of not very much at all. “First he flipped because we had no CDs. Then he asked to look at a record and made a run for it.”
“What was it this time?”
“Genesis. Invisible Touch.”
“What did you do, Frank?”
“Oh, he did the usual,” said Kit.
Yes, Frank had done the sort of thing he always did. He’d grabbed his old suede jacket and loped after the young man until he caught him at the bus stop. (What kind of thief waited for the number 11?) He’d said, between deep breaths, that he would call the police unless the lad came back and tried something new in the listening booth. He could keep the Genesis record if he wanted the thing so much, though it broke Frank’s heart that he was nicking the wrong one—their early stuff was tons better. He could have the album for nothing, and even the sleeve; “so long as you try ‘Fingal’s Cave.’ If you like Genesis, trust me. You’ll love Mendelssohn.”
“I wish you’d think about selling the new CDs,” said Father Anthony.
“Are you joking?” Kit laughed. “He’d rather die than sell CDs.”
Then the door opened and ding-dong: a new customer. Frank felt a ping of excitement.
A tidy, middle-aged man followed the Persian runner that led all the way to the turntable. Everything about this man seemed ordinary—his coat, his hair, even his ears—as if he had been deliberately assembled so that no one would look at him twice. Head bowed, he crept past the counter to his right, where Maud stood with Father Anthony and Kit, and behind them all the records stored in cardboard master bags. He passed the old wooden shelving to his left, the door that led up to Frank’s flat, the central table, and all the plastic crates piled with surplus stock. Not even a sideways glance at the patchwork of album sleeves and homemade posters thumbtacked by Kit all over the walls. At the turntable, he stopped and pulled out a handkerchief. His eyes were red dots.
“Are you all right?” Frank asked, in his boom of a voice. “How can I help you today?”
“The thing is, you see, I only like Chopin.”
Frank remembered now. This man had come in a few months ago. He had been looking for something to calm his nerves before his wedding.
“You bought the nocturnes,” he said.
The man wriggled his mouth. He didn’t seem used to the idea that anyone would remember him. “I’ve got myself in another spot of difficulty. I wondered if you might—find something else for me?” He had missed a patch on his chin when he was shaving. There was something lonesome about it, that scratchy patch of stubble, all on its own.
So Frank smiled because he always smiled when a customer asked for help. He asked the same questions he always asked. Did the man know what he was looking for? (Yes. Chopin.) Had he heard anything else that he liked? (Yes. Chopin.) Could he hum it? (No. He didn’t think he could.)
The man shot a look over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening, but they weren’t. Over the years, they’d seen everything in the music shop. There were the regular customers, of course, who came to find new records, but often people wanted something more. Frank had helped them through illness, grief, loss of confidence, and loss of jobs, as well as the more daily things like football results and the weather. Not that he knew about all those things, but really it was a matter of listening, and he had endless patience. As a boy, he could stand for hours with a piece of bread in his hand, hoping for a bird.
But the man was gazing at Frank. He was waiting.
“You just want me to find you the right record? You don’t know what, but so long as it’s Chopin, you’ll be OK?”
“Yes, yes,” said the man. That was it exactly.
So what did he need? Frank pushed away his fringe—it flopped straight back, but there it was, the thing had a life of its own—he cupped his chin in his hands and he listened as if he were trying to find a radio signal in the ether. Something beautiful? Something slow? He barely moved, he just listened.
But when it came, it was such a blast, it took Frank’s breath away. Of course. What this man needed wasn’t Chopin. It wasn’t even a nocturne. What he needed was—
“Wait!” Frank was already on his feet.
He lumbered around the shop, tugging out album sleeves, skirting past Kit and ducking his head to dodge a light fitting. He needed to find the right match for the music he had heard from the man who only liked Chopin. Piano, yes. He could hear piano. But the man needed something else as well. Something that was both tender and huge. Where would Frank find that? Beethoven? No, that would be too much. Beethoven might just floor a man like this one. What he needed was a good friend.
“Can I help you, Frank?” asked Kit. Actually he said “Ca’ I hel’?” because his eighteen-year-old mouth was full of chocolate biscuit. Kit wasn’t simple or even backward, as people sometimes suggested, he was just gauche and wildly overenthusiastic, raised in a small suburban house by a mother with dementia and a father who mainly watched television. Frank had grown fond of Kit in the last few years, in the way that he had once cared for his broken van and his mother’s record player. He found that if you treated him like a young terrier, sending him out for regular walks and occupying him with easy tasks, he was less liable to cause serious damage.
But what was the music he was looking for? What was it?
Frank wanted a song that would arrive like a little raft and carry this man safely home.
Piano. Yes. Brass? That could work. A voice? Maybe. Something powerful and passionate that could sound both complicated and yet so simple it was obvious—
That was it. He got it. He knew what the man needed. He swung behind the counter and pulled out the right record. But when he rushed back to his turntable, mumbling, “Side two, track five. This is it. Yes, this is the one!” the man gave a sigh that was almost a sob it was so desperate.
“No, no. Who’s this? Aretha Franklin?”
“ ‘Oh No Not My Baby.’ This is it. This is the song.”
“But I told you. I want Chopin. Pop isn’t going to help.”
“Aretha is soul. You can’t argue with Aretha.”
“Spirit in the Dark? No, no. I don’t want this record. It’s not what I came for.”
Frank looked down from his great height, while the man twisted and twisted his handkerchief. “I know it’s not what you want, but trust me, today it’s what you need. What have you got to lose?”
The man sent one last look in the direction of the door. Father Anthony gave a sympathetic shrug, as if to say, Why not? We’ve all been there.
“Go on, then,” said the man who only liked Chopin.
Kit sprang forward and led him to a listening booth, not exactly holding his hand, but leading the way with outstretched arms as if parts of the man were in danger of dropping off at any moment. Light bloomed from the lava lamps in shifting patterns of pink and apple green and gold. The booths were nothing like the ones in Woolworth’s—those were more like standing up in a hair dryer. Their headphones were so greasy, Maud said, you had to shower afterwards. No, these booths Frank had made himself from a pair of matching Victorian wardrobes of incredible magnitude he had spotted on a skip. He had sawn off the feet, removed the hanging rails and sets of drawers, and drilled small holes to connect each one with cable to his turntable. Frank had found two armchairs, small enough to fit inside, but comfortable. He had even polished the wood until it gleamed like black gloss paint, revealing a delicate inlay in the doors of mother-of-pearl birds and flowers. The booths were beautiful when you really looked.
The man stepped in and made a sideways shuffle—there was very little space; he was being asked to sit in a piece of bedroom furniture, after all—and took his place. Frank helped with the headphones and shut the door.
“Are you all right in there?”
“This won’t work,” the man called back. “I only like Chopin.”
At his turntable, Frank eased the record from its sleeve and lifted the stylus. Tick, tick went the needle, riding the grooves. He flicked the speaker switch so that it would play through the whole shop. Tick, tick—
Vinyl had a life of its own. All you could do was wait.
Oh No Not My Baby
Tick, tick. It was dark inside the booth, with a hushed feeling, like hiding in a cupboard. The silence fizzed.
Everyone had warned him. Be careful, they’d said. He just wouldn’t listen. So he asked her to marry him and he couldn’t believe his luck when she said yes—her so beautiful, him so ordinary. Then he took her a bottle of champagne after the wedding breakfast, and there she was, upside down in the honeymoon suite. At first he couldn’t work it out. He had to take a really good look. He saw a dress like a sticky meringue with four legs poking out, two with black socks, one with a garter. And then he realized. It was his new wife and his best man. He left the bottle on the floor, along with two glasses, and shut the door.
He couldn’t get that picture out of his head. He played Chopin, he took pills from the doctor, and none of it made a difference. He stopped going out; he cried at the drop of a hat. He felt so bad he called in sick at work.
The song started. A twang of guitar, a blast of horns, a chirruping “Sweet-sweet-ba-by” and then a bam-bam-bam-bam from percussion.
What was Frank thinking? This wasn’t the music he needed. He went to pull off the headphones—
“When ma friends tol’ me you had someone noo,” began the singer, this Aretha, her voice clear and steady, “I didn’ believe a single word was true.”
It was like meeting a stranger in the dark, saying to them, “You’ll never guess what?” and the stranger saying, “Hey, but that’s exactly how it is for me.”
He stopped thinking about his wife and his sadness and he listened to Aretha as if she were a voice inside his head.
She told him her story—something like this. Everyone said her man was a cheat; even her own mother said it. But Aretha wouldn’t believe them. He was not like those other boys who lead you on. Who tell you lies. She started the song calmly enough but by the time she got to the chorus she was practically screaming the words. Her voice was a little boat and the music was a Japanese wave, but Aretha kept riding it, up and down. It was downright pigheaded, the way she kept believing in him. There were strings, the bobble of the guitar, a horn riff, percussion, all telling her she was wrong—(“Wohhh!” shrilled the backing vocals, like a Greek chorus of girlfriends)—but no, she hung on tight. Her voice pulled the words this way and that, soaring up over the top and then scooping right down low. Aretha knew. She knew how desperate it felt, to love a cheat. How lonely.
He sat very, very still. And he listened.
It’s a Kind of Magic
Frank shook a cigarette from the packet, and as he smoked, he watched the door of the booth. He hoped he wasn’t wrong about this song. Sometimes all that people needed was to know they were not alone. Other times it was more a question of keeping them in touch with their feelings until they wore them out—people clung to what was familiar, even when it was painful.