Terry Baldock - Runner up

Competition: Mid-story Sentence Competition

Terry writes short stories, poetry and songs. He's been a winner, runner up and shortlisted in Writing Magazine’s and other competitions.
He spent a number of years living in Hong Kong and is a member of the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong (CASH).
He's currently working with his wife Annis on a novel set in Hong Kong in the sixties.
Basic guitar and limited singing skills have seen him recently venture into Open Mike nights at various venues, performing some of his own and well-known songs in an inimitable fashion, that often leaves the audience bemused. His short stories sometimes have a live music theme. Motto: ‘It doesn’t get any easier’.

Terry Baldock

Six String, Three Chord, Heartbreak

I hit the heartbreak chord. Fingers are like that. If you don’t think or lose your concentration, then they move automatically.
It’s there in every song, or almost, depending how you shape it, or how it shapes you. I know what it did to me. It took the shape of her. And every good thing, sad thing, wonder and pain were there in that arrangement of notes.
Once released, it resonated around the room. Hardly anyone seemed to notice. A few people, who may have been on the edge of tears, could have been pushed over. A small piece of the air in front of the stage shimmered, swirled, glowed then vanished. I seemed to be the only person to see it. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that nobody stepped out of it.
So what? a wrong chord, a wrong word, at my age that’s to be expected. There are so many memories in the brain which are not necessarily in the right order. Our unconscious mind can go to places that you don’t want to go. And that chord did it for me. I finished the number and thanked the audience. I was due to play another song, but nodded to Joe the m/c, that I needed to take a break. He asked if I was OK. I said I was, and that I would probably be able to do the second set.
I started to make my way towards the bar and met a man who looked at me with sad amazement.
‘Lucy made you suffer too?’ he asked. ‘That chord. Only she could play it.’
I looked at him and thought that he could be me. He was dressed for the winter weather outside, medium height, an Eric Clapton beard, trendy flat hat with straggly long grey hair hanging down over his ears. Thick coat, not designer jeans, a faded Radiohead T-shirt. He had that world- weary look that only seems to come from a broken heart.
‘You knew Lucy? And the chord?’
‘Lucy had such big hands. Long fingers. She could reach across four frets on her guitar. Four frets! Wonderful. I used to play with her.’ He sipped his beer. ‘Must have been before she met you.’
‘Oh no. I knew her at school. We grew up together. Drifted apart. But what about the chord. How did you know that?’
He put his drink down as more punters ordered theirs at the bar. ‘It could suck sadness out of the air and drop it into whatever song we sang. Wouldn’t you agree? And sucked other things too.’
I nodded. That was a good way of describing it.
‘Tell me about her. My name’s Freddie Moor. Maybe she mentioned me?’ ‘Freddie? She may have.’
‘So, tell me about her. And how you can play that chord. You’re probably not on until late in the second half? Over there will be quieter.’ I nodded. We made our way to the back of the pub. ‘She’s here, isn’t she?’
I looked around, shook my head, sat down and started to tell him. I needed to talk to someone who wouldn’t laugh at me. Someone who knew about guitar chords and who knew Lucy.
‘We first met at infant’s school, as it was called in those days. She was gangly - tall for her age,
with long arms, big hands and long fingers. Always had big hands and long fingers. I sat behind her in class. Hardly ever spoke, but she had something about her. Her body shape made her look a bit alien, and later, when films about Roswell, where they had allegedly found aliens, emerged with pictures of beings with long arms and fingers, she looked even more like them, or them like her. She wasn’t an alien. Not then anyway.’
Freddie nodded, as if agreeing.
‘Then junior school, where we were thrown together again in the same class. Never gelled, but we didn’t dislike each other.
Back then we had to take exams to sort out our secondary education. I passed, she didn’t. Separate ways school wise. Puberty crept in for me, but must have raced in for her, because the next time our paths crossed, she was beautiful. Truly wonderful. Still long arms, hands and fingers, but the rest of her body fitted her. No longer gangly. Just, well, ethereal. An enchantress.’
‘Not alien yet then.’ I wasn’t sure if Freddie was asking a question or making a statement. I looked at him as he said it. He must have known her very well to mention alien.
‘How did you know?’
‘About the alien thing?’ he asked.
I nodded.
‘Tell me more about Lucy. Then maybe you can answer that question yourself.’
‘Yeah, OK. So, we met again before I went to Uni. When I say met, I think she sought me out. It didn’t really seem like an accident.’
Freddie nodded with a ‘you too’ sort of look.
‘She played a mean guitar. Her hands were so big. I sang a bit. We formed a duo. Did some folk things and pop covers.’
‘Did you ever meet her parents?’ Freddie put down his drink.
I thought about that. ‘No, I don’t think I did. Odd that. What about you?’
He shook his head. ‘Don’t think she had any.’
The first act for the second half was tuning up. It would be a while before my second set.
‘No parents?’
‘Nah. Not here anyway. Maybe on the other side through the ‘shimmer’. Did you see it? I called it that. That’s when I thought she might be an alien.’
‘You saw it too!’
He nodded. ‘And it was here tonight wasn’t it?’ ‘Yeah. Shall I go on?’
He waved his near empty glass and nodded again.
‘OK. We started to become quite successful. Had a following. She was so good on stage. Charismatic. We had that song ‘six string, three chord, heartbreak’. You probably know it.’
‘Great song.’
‘Thanks. Everything was going well, until one night, she played that chord. Don’t know how she did it. I always thought it was impossible, the stretch of her hand. It changed everything. You know about the shimmer. Well it replaced happy with sad. It danced around as she sang and played. But only for a while, it faded away with the chord.’
‘Like tonight?’
‘Yeah. Only, for some reason, I was able to play that impossible sound. She took over my fingers, they stretched.’
‘And you could never record the chord, could you? Or replicate it on a synthesiser?’ ‘True. It was just for a guitar. Her guitar. This guitar.’
‘I thought it was hers. I tried to smash it once, but something stopped me.’
‘The shimmer?’
‘Yeah the shimmer. You know she vanished? How did you get the guitar?’
‘I noticed that she had dropped off the circuit. Thought she’d gone away somewhere. Maybe abroad. She gave it to me when we split.’
‘She was with me one night.’ Freddie looked up as the guy on stage started into a Bob Dylan number. ‘The police took a long time. Fat lot of use they were. Told them about the chord, and the weird thing, and the vanishing guy. They said I was on drugs.’
‘Someone vanished?’
‘’Yeah. We were doing an old blues thing, which was a bit of a dirge, but she made it more dirgey, is that a word?’
‘It is now.’
‘And she hit the chord, and the thing appeared. There was a guy that used to follow us around. When she hit that chord, I felt as if I could never love again. I could see the same in people’s eyes. True heartbreak. People started crying. The guy was sucked in and was gone. He was never found.’
‘Hence, the police?’
‘Yeah.’
‘And she disappeared as well?’
‘Yeah.’
‘Let me run something past you, OK?’
‘Yeah.’
‘This has never happened to me before – the chord thing. Only she could play that. Maybe with us two ex-partners here, she is trying to contact us.’
‘That’s a huge leap. You think that she’s here? Or on the other side of the shimmer.’
I nodded.
‘And the police thought I was on drugs.’
The singer was now doing a Paul Simon song. People were joining in.
‘We both thought she was alien. What if she was? She looked like one,’ I said. ‘True.’
‘Tell you what. I’ll go on next and see what happens.’
Freddie hesitated, then agreed.
I was moved up the list and started ‘six string, three chord, heartbreak’. It was going well. People were happy. Swaying. Singing along. Then I began to lose control of my fingers. They were growing. A faint green light started swirling in front of the stage. I knew what was happening. The guitar wanted the chord. I fought, but the music dragged me into the changes, it was building up. I could see Freddie trying to reach me through the crowd. Some were crying. Smiles gone. It was a smile stealer.
Then I hit the chord. The shimmer strengthened. People backed away. Freddie yelled and swore. He was up on the stage with me, but I couldn’t stop playing it, bang bang bang, and the swirling was like a gate, a portal, and she stepped out. Ghostly, ethereal, beautiful except for her ‘beyond sadness’ eyes.
Then Freddie was with me. Pulling at my hands. My fingers. He broke one. The pain was incredible, but I let go.
Her long arms reached out towards us. The shimmer was like a whirlwind. The guitar flew from me, narrowly missing Freddie. Lucy watched as it boogied its way into the circulating mass, still playing by itself. Then she jumped into it and ‘boom’, it was gone.
People recovered as if nothing had happened. Freddie and I tried to understand what we had just witnessed. It seemed impossible. Except that I had no guitar, and a broken finger.
There was a pin point of disappearing green light hovering in the air, and the sound of our song ‘six string, three chord, heartbreak’ fading into it. And that’s where it will stay forever.

 

Judges Comments

Six String, Three Chord, Heartbreak is the second of Terry Baldock's music-themed short stories to win a prize in a WM competition – this time with a highly original twist on the idea of an instrument possessed with a spirit of its own.

Terry's story is set at an open mic night, where the narrator is playing. His story of two old-timers bonding over their shared lost love is written with a spare poeticism that takes in, and makes sense of, a quirky mix that includes the otherworldly qualities of music, and aliens. What at first appears like a late-night, downbeat, folk-tinged encounter between two ageing musos is given an off-the-wall dimension by Terry's imaginative leap – fact that their shared experience involves a romantic partnership with an alien and then the narrator almost being sucked into a terrifying vortex.

Terry's writing, which has a deep, insightful style of its own, very successfully proves that providing the stories are carefully conceived and well-crafted, you can take risks with storytelling, blending elements of realism and fantasy to create something with a unique voice. The key line for the competition, 'how did you know?' is skilfully embedded so that Terry can take the story's alien theme a stage further and create a bond between the two men. Tinged with science fiction and grounded with a real sense of the live music scene, this story takes its readers on a strange trip into unknown realms that is exhilarating, thought-provoking and immensely enjoyable.

 

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