A child’s passion for music sustains his fight against pain
About the Author: Chen Shuyong 陈树泳
Chen Shuyong was born in 1986 and is one of the core members of Black and Blue Literature (黑蓝文学), an avant-garde literary group. He published a collection of short stories, Approaching Truth with a Wandering Mind (《走神的时刻接近真实》), in 2015.
The song ended, the music stopped.
Only then did the diners realize that there had been any music at all, that ever since they’d walked into this restaurant at the top of the hotel, piano music had continually poured from some inconspicuous corner as they ate. It was now more than a minute since it had stopped.
The music had been playing as they ignored its existence, nobody watching the pianist at his work, except for a young boy behind a tall potted plant in the entryway, standing with his back pressed against the wall. He peered through the leaves at the pianist, who was also in an alcove of plants, with a large dragon tree blocking the light from his shiny black piano. No light shone on him at all; it was night-time. Under the glass ceiling of the restaurant, all the lights were blazing except this corner where the pianist sat in the sumptuous foliage and played with his face in shadow. All that fell upon the pianist was the gaze of his son, far off. But he didn’t know his son was watching.
He finished playing and looked about. The pianist who was supposed to relieve him had yet to appear. After a minute passed, one customer complained to the waiter that the music had stopped. The waiter walked over to the pianist and told him to keep playing.
“My shift is over.”
The pianist told the waiter it was his son’s birthday, he’d already made reservations at another restaurant.
He asked why his colleague was late.
“I’ve already played 20 minutes of his shift.”
The waiter said: “Well, just play a bit longer. You can leave when he gets here, alright?”
The pianist refused.
The restaurant manager walked over. It was the first time any customers had ever demanded music while they dined. He asked what was going on.
The pianist explained.
“I switched this shift with him a week ago, we both agreed, my application was approved. I have to go now.”
The manager told him to keep playing; he would call the other pianist, tell him to hurry up.
The pianist still insisted he had to leave.
The manager called the other pianist, then and there. He looked at the diners, and a few tables looked back, waiting for the piano to start. He bowed apologetically at them as he talked on the phone.
The manager was unhappy. He warned that they would replace the piano later with a speaker system; then they’d never have to deal with this bullshit again.
The pianist ignored his threats. Even if he lost his job, he wasn’t going to play.
But he didn’t leave the piano either.
At this time, the boy’s mother appeared at the restaurant entrance. She put her hands on his shoulders and they both waited behind the green plants. She also worked at the hotel, as a maid. To make it to tonight’s dinner, she’d also switched shifts. She’d already changed out of her uniform and put on a decent outfit. Even at a high-end venue like this, they wouldn’t look askance at her simple dress.
She knew what was going on, but didn’t walk into the restaurant to pull her husband away. She looked at him and as he saw her, he stood up to leave.
The manager came up with a solution.
The pianist hesitated a bit, and walked through the leaves of the dragon tree toward his wife and child.
She knew that they weren’t about to leave.
They entered the restaurant together. The customers saw the three of them walking towards the piano. They thought that the woman in the frumpy dress was there to replace the pianist, but the manager blocked their way. These onlookers weren’t aware of the manager’s idea: get the pianist to play another half-hour, while they wait for his replacement, and then they could all dine at this restaurant, where he worked. It was much more upscale than the one they’d reserved, which would make a better memory for his son, and as for the cost? The manager would cover the cost. That is, half the cost.
Even at half-price, it wasn’t cheap, more than what they were originally going to spend. But the pianist and his wife had worked at the hotel for so long and never eaten there, just watched as customers dined beneath the stars under the glass ceiling. They talked it over; he thought it was a decent idea.
She wasn’t happy, but she went along with the plan. She saw her husband wanted to do it, so she went into the restaurant with him. The manager blocked their way again, and walked them behind the dragon tree. The boy trailed them like an appendage. Everyone seemed to have forgotten who the day was about. As they spoke, he timidly scratched at the trunk of the dragon tree, breaking its skin. It bled red sap, staining his nails.
The manager told them he was going to allow them to come back in half an hour—if they came in now, where would they sit? Although their clothing was alright, it wasn’t on the level of the other customers, and, well, let’s not talk about the clothing, it was more the state they were in, they looked tense, like they were about to argue a case in front of a court…
The woman cut him off, and told him to bring them two chairs. They would sit under the dragon tree and wait.
One of the branches of the tree had been twisted by the agitated child and was leaking red sap. They sat next to the piano, close by the dragon tree. Covered by the branches, it was hard to see that a mother and child were sitting there.
The pianist sighed as he began to play another song.
He knew that his son and wife were sitting by his side. The atmosphere felt different. He wasn’t afraid of distraction. He looked at them occasionally and smiled, wishing their expressions weren’t so heavy. What had happened was no big deal.
When he sat at the piano and placed his hands upon the keys, he could easily find the correct positions from muscle memory. He had no need to look at the sheet music, so he looked at his wife and child, and played the song for the two of them. His wife smiled back; his son wasn’t used to the setting, having only stood in the corridor with his back pressed against the wall. He perceived that this place was quite unlike any other he had been in his life. The sumptuous lights suddenly felt like an enormous burden as he looked at the other children his age, dining; how different he was from them, how they sat far, far away. He was frozen, hollow.
His parents were quite at ease, as they’d worked here for years, met and married here. Today was the first day that they’d brought their son into this place that he found so unfamiliar and did not understand. The father had another job, working at a piano store giving lessons. They didn’t have a piano at home, so on the weekends when he taught, he’d bring along his son and teach him. He was better than all the other students. The father had an idea—let the child play a song.
The song ended. He stopped playing.
From the corner of his eye the manager spied the pianist bending over his son, speaking. The child looked up at his father, and at his direction, he sat on the piano bench. The manager walked over to intervene, but after only a few steps, he slowed down; the playing had started. He smiled his approval of his technique at the child. He didn’t understand what was going on, but he was suddenly moved by the feelings in the little corner. Here was a family, a father and child playing for each other, for the mother. Nothing was amiss; as long as nothing went wrong, there needn’t be anything amiss.
The customers didn’t notice that the piano was being played by a 12-year-old child. As long as there was music, they forgot there was music. He played well and with concentration. He wasn’t frozen anymore. He was gripped by a new kind of tension, an emotion which he felt he had to let flow in the flawless music from his small hands. He almost forgot that his mother and father were there. His mother also relaxed, drinking in the sight of her son.
After he finished one song, his father indicated he could play another, any of the songs he’d learned, if he wanted to. He did, and he kept on working the keys.
The replacement pianist finally arrived, and when he saw the child play, he smiled.
“He plays quite well.”
He didn’t know this child, didn’t know that he was the son of the colleague that he was to replace, but he guessed it. Now that he was here, the pianist’s family didn’t complain to him, or appear dissatisfied. They’d almost forgotten he was coming. Now that he’d arrived, the place was given to him, and the other three stood to the side, looking for the manager.
The pianist made a beckoning motion, and the manager walked over.
He asked the manager where they should sit, and the manager considered this question for the first time. He looked around, and pointed to a table in the corner, quite out of the way.
There was nothing wrong with the table. It was in a corner of the restaurant’s terrace, 50 storeys high. It could be said it was the best table in the house, as one could look at the lights below and the stars above. As there wasn’t any glare from the restaurant lights, it actually had the clearest view of the sky.
The child was distracted. He was listening to the music emanating from behind the dragon tree.
“He hit a wrong note,” said the child.
The father wasn’t listening closely, didn’t hear which note was amiss. Everything sounded fine. They kept eating.
A while later, the child said again: “He hit a wrong note.”
The father listened carefully with his son, and after a minute, they heard a mistake at the same time.
“He’s really not that great.”
They kept eating.
The food was good and well made. It was a birthday dinner, but they didn’t spend too much time celebrating. It was like a regular meal, normal chitchat followed by silence as they struggled to find topics. But now and then, an expression of pride crossed both the father and mother’s faces.
“Another sour note.”
At this point the child began to fidget, and the father was surprised. Even while eating at such a nice restaurant, the son was focusing on the music. He also knew from playing at the restaurant every day that nobody really paid attention to the music. As long as there was the suggestion of music, they wouldn’t have to listen to it, like his son was doing.
His mother said to him: “Just concentrate on the meal, don’t worry about the piano.”
He lifted his head to look at his mother: “It’s such a nice piano, and he’s playing it wrong.”
“But nobody notices.”
He asked his father: “Can’t you tell him that he’s making all kinds of mistakes?”
His father was in a quandary. To show he cared about his son, and as it as his son’s birthday, he was willing to try. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up, but he didn’t know where the pianist had made mistakes, as he hadn’t been listening.
“Where did he mess up?” He stood by the table, listening carefully for an error. “Did you hear it?”
The son was excited; he hummed the segment that was just played and pointed out the error to his father. His father couldn’t hear it, and hesitated.
“How about I go with you?” his son asked.
The father looked at his wife.
She said: “I don’t understand any of this. You go with him.”
The mother stayed put, as the father and son went to talk to the pianist. They stood next to the piano and waited for him to finish the song. The pianist looked at them, not knowing why they had come. No matter what they had to say, he couldn’t stop playing. It wasn’t a classroom or private lesson where people would switch off and compare. Thus, as soon as he stopped playing, the father explained why they were there, that his son wanted to play something. He asked if his son could give it a try.
The pianist agreed.
They quickly swapped places, and the child started to play.
The father told his colleague that he’d made a few mistakes and his son took piano quite seriously, that to humor him, they had to let him play the piece again. The other pianist smiled, thinking nothing of it.
They listened to the child play.
He finished playing. He stopped, and looked up at the pianist.
“Did you hear it?”
The pianist said: “You play nicely, but lack energy.”
The music couldn’t stop for too long. He had the child give his seat back to him, as he had to continue playing.
He played another song, showing the child how to play with energy. He swayed his body back and forth, and smiled at the child. He poured himself into the music, but the child furrowed his brow.
He said to his father: “He’s not playing it right.”
But as to what wasn’t right, he couldn’t say. The boy wanted to play another song after this one was finished, but his father encouraged him to return to his seat. He was a good child, and joined his mother and father at the table.
They realized that their son was no longer eating. He couldn’t eat, as he was concentrated wholly on the music, as if he was focusing all his effort on finding incorrect notes. He said he was full. He took the napkin out from his collar, laid it on the table, and continued to listen to the music.
The parents continued to eat; they were almost at the end of the meal.
The father asked the waiter to bring the check, reminding him that the manager offered them a 50-percent discount. As they waited for the check, the child insisted that another note had been played incorrectly.
“We can’t bother him again,” said the father.
The child was distressed.
The mother said that others couldn’t hear the mistakes, and that it was no big deal if one or two notes were off. It was a piano in a restaurant, not a concert hall; it wasn’t that important.
The child said it was about the music, not the venue.
They didn’t want this rare chance of a meal to end on an unhappy note, and told the child they’d take him over one more time.
The father handed his wallet to his wife, and took his son over to the piano.
“Did I make another mistake?”
The other pianist smiled as he asked the child the question. The father smiled apologetically at his colleague. The pianist found the child interesting, and let him play another tune. The child started playing, but in his agitation and overconcentration, played some notes wrong himself.
The music stopped abruptly.
“It’s no big deal, keep playing,” said the pianist.
He started from the top.
The manager had heard the music stop twice, and came over to see what was going on.
As he walked over, the child began to play fluidly. Although he wasn’t satisfied with his own playing, he didn’t make any more mistakes.
The manager, pianist, and father all stood by the piano until he finished the song.
The father sighed a sigh of relief, made a display of contrition, and walked over to his wife who had paid the bill.
The music started again.
The boy began listening again, as if possessed. By this time they’d already walked out into the corridor. The child stopped, turned around and walked back. He ran along to the side of the dragon tree, as his father followed him. While he was still playing the song, the child told the pianist he’d made another mistake.
The child was becoming upset; he was disgusted with the pianist. It was all over his face. However, the pianist was no longer paying attention to him, thinking he was just there to cause mischief.
The father caught up to him, and the manager came over also. The song finished. The pianist started the next one, not giving the child an opportunity to butt in. The child heard another incorrect note, and began to scream.
The father covered his mouth. The customers were already looking over. The manager was very upset, and asked them to leave immediately. The father pulled his son away.
They got into the elevator and reached the ground floor. In the elevator, the child leaned upon his mother. She placed her hand on his shoulder and felt his body trembling. She waited with him as her husband went to change out of his suit, rubbing his back to comfort him.
The music rang out in his heart, the song looping over and over in his mind, the wrong note sounding at the same place with each repetition. He tried to correct the mistake in his mind, but the note sounded stronger each time. It seemed to affect the rest of the composition; it was a polluted song.
His father came out, saying nothing, and patted his son’s shoulder. The parents walked on either side of the child toward the entrance of the hotel.
He knew he couldn’t leave his lobby. Once he walked through that door, his chance was gone.
He wouldn’t leave. He begged his father to let him go up and play the piece again, just once, just one last time. He needed to hear it played correctly or else he’d go crazy, such a good song being destroyed like that.
His mother continued to gently rub his back, telling him to calm down.
He begged his father once more, saying he was the only one who could understand his wishes.
The father looked at his wife, but he hadn’t heard where the song was played wrong, or how it was wrong. Perhaps it was another note, or maybe there was a shift in the emphasis, or else he wouldn’t have heard. Maybe it was just his son creating a ruckus. He’d only heard once, just once, an error in the playing that he was sure was real, where the wrong key had been struck. He hadn’t heard any of the other “errors.”
He wanted to be done with this; there was no need to further disturb the other pianist or the restaurant patrons. But the child stubbornly refused to leave. He had discovered his father was no longer sympathetic.
His disappointment was transferred to his father, toward the man who had brought him into the world of music, who no longer understood his feelings.
He only wished for one thing, to be able to correct the error with his own hands. He couldn’t allow the error to persist, he had to correct it, he couldn’t let this melody keep sinking into his heart like a great fang.
He tugged at his father’s hand, pleading with him. For the first time, he felt his parents were a terrible burden. He felt he’d rather be without them. To be faced with such bitterness, he felt he’d rather not have been born.
Author’s Note: My inspiration for this story came from a line in Jean Baudrillard’s Cool Memories: “Nothing can match the loneliness of a pianist in a large hotel.” I magnified this loneliness and transferred it to a child who has perfect pitch. At his birthday dinner, he is tormented by the pianist’s bad notes and, at the same time, he torments his parents for it. He is cold and indifferent to everything but the music. He is not sad, nor does he give in. His passion for the music sustains his fight against the pain that is incomprehensible to other people.