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The PianoPlayer's Last Ride

By Marc Porter


Mingus. Good start. The man who had stopped to give Tom a lift had Charlie Mingus on the car stereo. One of the classic late fifties records, Tom wasn't sure which one.
‘Nice music,' he said.
The man turned and looked at him for rather longer than a driver should take his eyes from the road, and then slowly turned his head back again to look out at the darkening view ahead.
‘Dank u,' he finally said.
‘Ah,' Tom said, ‘you're German, right?' The man was not very talkative; now Tom knew that it was because he did not speak much English.
But he was wrong. ‘If you think that "dank u" is German, clearly you do not know German,' the man said.
'Or,' he added, ‘Dutch.'
‘Oh, you're Dutch!'
The man paused awhile, and then nodded.
Tom wanted to talk. He needed company right now, something to stop him thinking too much about things. He was determined to get this man to talk to him. Clearly, they shared an interest in jazz. They could talk about that.
‘So,' Tom said, ‘are you going to Birmingham for the jazz festival?' That was why Tom was going, although it seemed pointless now. He guessed this guy was going for that too: why else would a Dutchman go to Birmingham?
‘Not exactly,' he said.
Tom waited, but the man offered no explanation.
‘My name's Tom.' Surely the guy would at least tell him his name.
‘Yes,' he said instead, in the precise, careful manner of someone who has learnt English only at school. Tom put the unusual response down to the man's imperfect grasp of English, but even so, he thought the guy should have the courtesy to tell him his own name.
Tom looked out of the car window as the low rolling hills and scattered lights of the Home Counties slipped by. The English countryside was a gentle, friendly place in the daytime, but night was falling and the landscape seemed oddly menacing. Mingus's edgy, arhythmic bass also seemed to reflect the mood in the car, where Tom was aware of a tension he could not account for. He decided to try conversation again. He had chosen to hitch-hike because he felt the company might be more congenial than he would find on the train, but it wasn't working out that way.
'I should be playing in the festival,' he said, then realised that his own musical career was the one thing he did not want to talk about.
‘Yes,' the man said again. As before, it sounded as if he already knew what Tom had told him, and was simply agreeing with him. The silence between them grew, and somehow compelled Tom to go on.
‘I play in a trio,' he said. The man beside him nodded. ‘At least it was a trio,' Tom went on, ‘now it's a duo. My drummer...died last week.'
Tom looked at the driver. The thin intellectual forty-something face showed no emotion.
‘Did you know that?' Tom asked.
‘You saw it on the news or something?'
‘It was reported in Holland?' If the man said Yes again Tom felt about ready to hit this guy.
‘No,' he said. ‘I was in England.'
‘Oh, right.'
‘It was a tragic accident, yes?'
‘Yes,' Tom said. ‘He was my best friend.'
An awkward silence fell again. Tom wanted to change the subject.
‘We played in Holland once,' he said, ‘toured a few clubs. You have a great scene over there.'
‘We even got on television. They did some little programme about jazz, with a couple of American musicians who were passing through, and they wanted us to be on too. They were going to use some local band, but we hit town and they asked us instead, I guess because we were foreign. It was fun, but, you know, only Dutch TV. Well,' Tom realised he had said the wrong thing, ‘not that there's anything wrong with Dutch TV, of course.'
The Dutchman made no response. Tom looked out of his window again: darkness now was almost complete.
‘I wonder,' the driver said eventually, ‘how those musicians felt, when their chance to be on television in their own country was taken from them by a group of foreigners.'
‘Well,' Tom began, but had no answer.
‘They were probably very disappointed, wouldn't you say?'
‘Yeah, I guess they would have been.' Tom did not like this conversation.
‘Perhaps they would have felt that their only chance to become known and appreciated had gone forever.'
‘But there might be more chances...'
‘Yes, there might. But I wonder what the real reason was, that made the makers of the programme change their minds about who would play on the television.'
‘Um, well...'
‘Perhaps the...what is the word?...producer...yes, what if the producer of the show was influenced in some way by the foreign musicians? What if the producer was a woman, and she one of the musicians? Do you think something like that could happen?'
Tom had begun to sweat. His mouth was dry and he found himself unable to speak. He could think of nothing to say anyway.
‘I think someone might easily change their mind in those circumstances, don't you, Tom? I suppose that would be only human nature.'
‘Yeah,' Tom managed a hoarse whisper, ‘I suppose these things happen.'
‘Yes. They do. And that local band, you think perhaps they should have been philosophical about it, shrugged it off as "one of those things"?'
Tom did not answer.
‘But can you imagine, Tom, how one of those musicians might have felt if that television producer had been his girlfriend, if he had loved her, only to see some English pianoplayer come along and steal her away, and use her to get himself and his friends on television in place of the boyfriend and his group?'
Again Tom said nothing.
‘Perhaps he might have become depressed. Given up playing. Started drinking. Who knows?'
‘Well, I'd say maybe that would be an overreaction.'
‘Yes, perhaps you are right. But, you know, some people are more sensitive than us, my friend.'
‘Yes, I suppose so.'
‘My son, for example.'
Suddenly, Tom understood what was happening. He was very scared.
‘My son is dead, now. Like your drummer.'
Tom did not like the connection.
‘Unfortunately, your friend did not know why he died.'
Tom stared at the man beside him. ‘You killed him?'
‘You set up that accident?'
‘Yes. When did you last see the other member of your trio, Tom?'
‘Saturday. I phoned him this morning.'
‘He is dead now, too.'
‘Oh my God.'
‘He knew why he died. And know why you are going to die.'
Tom was frozen with fear. He had had fun with that woman, he had been so pleased with himself when she had put him on the TV show. It had all been a good laugh.
He felt the car speed up. He saw the bridge ahead. He knew that the Dutchman, who had not picked him up by accident, was preparing to die. He recognised the piece Mingus was starting to play, it was one he and the trio had played on Dutch television: Better Git It In Your Soul. It was his last thought.

Marc Porter About the author.

Marc Porter is an English writer and bookseller. When he was young his poetry was published in all sorts of obscure places.

At an older age he turned to the short story and the novel, and as you can see he is now published in places that are not at all obscure!

Marc died in 2002 and will be greatly missed.

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