Posted in An Exercise in Prose, Pure Fiction

Short Fiction: Melody and Counterpoint

bach violin sonata fasc
Violin Sonata (detail) – Johann Sebastian Bach

(Author’s Note:  The following story is part of a four-part tale called Glasgow Brownstone Blues which I originally posted as notes on Facebook and later via Tumblr and Scribd.  The stories will be posted in their proper reading order: Melody and Counterpoint, Comfort Zone, Comfort Food, and Sunday over the next few days.)

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe that relationships begin when two people are drawn together by something that no one else can see, hear, or, possibly, even feel.

You ever watch people lead each other out onto a dance floor?  You can tell whether or not they’re going to kill it with the moves by the way they respond to each other even before the music starts to play.  It’s like they’re moving to their own soundtrack, an overture of their own to lead them to the floor, hand in hand.  However, if they get all jerky and awkward before they’ve even taken that first step, it’s all over.  They’re doomed because one’s probably got the tango playing in her head while her partner’s got the boogie in his.  Yup, love don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, kids.

Which brings us to my housemates, now.  On one hand, you have Aïda, our unanimously elected housemother.  On the other side, you have Aaron who’s the youngest of us.  You take a look at them, a first glance, and you can immediately jump to the conclusion that they’ll be ripping out each other’s throats given half a chance.  She’s quiet, brooding, secretive, and positively seething with anger.  He’s loud, brash, much given to complaining rather vocally, and rather immature.  You put them together in one room, close the door, and immediately start praying that you don’t have to call an ambulance – or worse: an undertaker – within the next five minutes.

Well, that’s how Malachy and Carlisle see it.

I don’t.

It happened one night after one seriously taxing day.  Aïda came home from Strathclyde with her face looking stormier than the skies overhead.  She said nothing as she came in.  She hung up her scarf and coat on the peg near the front door, stowed her boots away in the rack on the other side, and padded into the house.

“You boys are early,” she said, breaking the uneasy silence that seemed to settle over us when she arrived.

“The lecturer was rather easy on us today,” I said, looking up from where I was setting words to music.  “Only, I now have a tune stuck in my head.”

“And what’s his excuse?” she asked me, jerking a thumb towards Aaron who was sulkily flipping through the pages of a script.

“It’s Tuesday, Aïda,” I reminded her.  “He doesn’t have any classes on Tuesdays.”

“Oh, yeah.  Right.”

“You look grumpier than usual,” Aaron suddenly chimed in as Aïda turned to go to the kitchen.  “I daresay you’ll be hitting the chips again.”

She spun around, indignation written all over her face.  But she said nothing, did nothing – and that scared me.  Women who don’t do anything, who don’t say anything – women who don’t act on impulse – are storing the scariness up for later.  She turned her nose up at us and marched into the kitchen.

“Don’t tease her, kid,” I told Aaron off.

“Can’t help it,” he replied bluntly, sinking deeper into the couch with his script.  “She’s fat and grumpy; she was asking for it.”

I glared at the boy, that sulky little piece of shit who had done nothing but complain since he arrived.

“Why are you deliberately going out of your way to make life unpleasant for all of us?” I snapped at him.

“Because I hate this freezing hell-hole and all I want to do is finish my course and leave it,” came the brutally frank reply.

I looked up sharply, meaning to scold him.  But I saw grief in the kid’s eyes, a sadness left unexpressed; it was a sorrow that turned sour because he kept it bottled within himself.  Apparently, there was something he wasn’t saying.  Whatever it was, it was practically spilling over.  It was not a healthy thing to do.

“I suggest you apologize to her,” I advised him quietly.  “I think she’s going through some stress right now.”

Aaron glared at me and suddenly got up.  “Who died and made you the boss of me?” he demanded (rather childishly, really) as he marched upstairs.

I sighed and went to the kitchen.  In there, Aïda was humming softly to herself as she separated eggs: the whites into a copper mixing bowl and the yolks into a smaller ceramic dish.  She had ingredients laid out: sugar, cornstarch, and some white vinegar were close at hand on the kitchen table.  On one of the counters, she had a carton of cream out and a punnet of mixed berries.

“I’m sorry you had to take that shit from him,” I said apologetically.

“You don’t have to apologize,” she said, not looking up from her work.  “You don’t have to take the cudgels up for me or stand up for the little bastard.”  When she finally did look up, there was a small, wan smile on her face.  “I’m used to it.”

“I take it you were bullied as a kid.”

“No, more like a lousy run of relationships,” she replied enigmatically.

As she worked, I noticed that she’d rolled her sleeves up to her elbows.  She had nice, well-rounded arms – or so I thought until I saw the scars crisscrossing her skin.

“Jesus Christ!” I swore, grabbing one of her arms.  “What happened?  Who did this to you?”

She looked at me quite calmly and pulled her arm out of my grasp.  “Self-inflicted,” she said, her voice oddly detached.  “Long story.”

I settled down on one of the kitchen chairs.  “Run it by me,” I said.  “I’ve got the time to listen.”

“Bad break-up,” she said with a slight shrug.  “He ditched me rather publicly for an old nemesis of mine, blamed me for it; said I never put out.  He called me ugly, old-fashioned – just about everything guys call a girl who won’t sleep with them.”  She took a whisk and began whipping the egg whites into froth.  “It was a blow, of course.  And, because it was so publicly done, I couldn’t face people.  I kept eating till I grew fat and all pasty-faced.  I felt numb, so I began cutting my arms, hoping I could still feel the pain.”

“You saw a shrink?” I asked, dropping my voice to a hushed tone.

 “Yeah, only the meds didn’t agree with me – I grew even number and I couldn’t get out of bed.”  She looked rather bitter.  “And the bloody shrink told me to stop writing and dancing.”

“So you stopped seeing the shrink.”

“I stopped seeing the shrink and won a scholarship to come to Glasgow for grad school.”  She threw me a small smile.  “And so: here I am.”

“I…  I didn’t know,” a third voice said.

We looked up and saw Aaron standing in the kitchen doorway.  He’d gone pale; he heard what had been said.

“Hey,” Aïda said, looking his way but not stopping what she was doing.

“I…”  He gulped nervously.  “I’m sorry.  I…  I shouldn’t have been such a little prick.”

“It’s okay, kid,” Aïda assured him, her smile growing slightly warmer.  “Like you said, you didn’t know.”

“Um, are you making a pavlova?” he asked her, sitting in the chair next to mine.

“Guess so.”  She grinned at him.  “Let me guess: favourite dessert of yours?”

He smiled sheepishly.  “Yeah,” he said.  “My mum used to make it for me.”  And suddenly, his expression became blank and guarded.  “She was supposed to make one for me before I flew over.  She’d gone out to get passion-fruit and mangoes from her favourite greengrocer…”  His voice trailed off; that was when Aïda and I realized that something must have happened to Aaron’s mother.

“Aaron?” I asked.

“She died,” came the blunt explanation.

“Oh my God,” Aïda gasped, suddenly pausing.

“She was run over by some drunk college kid,” he said, his face blank.  “A drunk driver – in the middle of the blooming afternoon!”

He just sat there, frozen, seemingly unable to fathom his mother’s death.  Then, he looked up.  “Don’t worry about me,” he said, his voice soft.  “I’ll manage, I think.”

“No wonder you’ve been all out of sorts,” I said, understanding now.

“I really am sorry I’ve been nothing but a big ball of snark,” he apologized.

“Just try not to snark again,” Aïda advised him.  “Make yourself useful, kid.”  She pushed the sugar bowl towards him.  “Measure out some of that and sprinkle it in while I’m making the meringue.”

I smiled and got up to go.  I noticed, however, that Aaron began humming the same song Aïda had been humming earlier.  It wasn’t a tune I was familiar with – and that, in itself, was weird because Iwas the music student and I prided myself on being familiar with some of the most obscure sounds in the world.  I stared at them.

Aïda was Filipino, Aaron was Aussie.  I knew that the former listened to classical music, Spanish flamenco tunes, Japanese samisen tracks, and popped-up string quartet sounds.  (Mainly because she used to be in ballet; I could tell by the graceful way she moved despite her plumpness.)  Aaron, on the other hand, was a rocker: Fall Out Boy, Kings of Leon, Linkin Park, and Metallica were what I usually heard him playing on his iPod.  (How did I know this?  The kid was my roommate and I could hear what he was listening to because he turned up the volume even if he wore headphones.)  I doubted if they ever listened to the same sort of music, so I was kind of flummoxed to hear him humming the same song.

I raised an eyebrow at this.  What is going on around here? I thought to myself.  But I tried not to let it bother me as I exited the kitchen and returned to my work in the front room.

May I just say that I was profoundly bothered when I heard the two of them laughing in the kitchen a while later.  My curiosity piqued, I decided to sneak a peek – just to be sure they were both still alive, you must understand – and found Aïda piling mounds of fluffy white meringue onto a circle traced on a sheet of waxed paper and set on a baking tray.  Aaron was at the stove, stirring something that smelled deliciously of lemon.

“Almost done?” I asked.

“Pav’s ready to go into the oven,” Aïda said, smiling as she plopped on the last of the meringue.  “How’s that lemon curd coming along, Aaron?”

“Thickening up nicely,” he replied.

“Nice!”  She slid the meringue into the oven, closing the door very carefully so that the airy mixture didn’t fall.  She washed up and put on a saucepan of milk to boil for hot chocolate.

“What are you guys humming?” I asked, finally unable to stop myself from asking.

“I don’t know,” Aïda admitted with a grin.  “I just made the tune up.”

“But you both know it!”

“It’s catchy,” Aaron said, not turning, so I couldn’t see his face.

“It’s what I used to hum to myself whenever I wanted to get my mind off things,” Aïda explained as she began whipping cream.

I said nothing, but I just watched as the two of them worked, these two people who were just at each other’s throats a moment before.  They were humming the same song, a small tune one of them came up to stave of stress and worry.  The atmosphere in the room seemed calmer than it had been earlier.

I blinked when the tune seemed to change and I gaped in shock when I realized that the tune had split into melody and counterpoint.  Aïda hummed the main theme; Aaron hummed accompaniment in a minor key.

What the fuck is going on here?!? I wondered.

The whipped cream was done and stashed back into the fridge.  Meanwhile, Aïda began mixing a new batch of cookies to see the lot of us through the week.  She sat down and began chopping up chocolate bars and Spanish almond nougat.  (We all swore by those cookies: the woman never held back on the chocolate, nougat, and whatever else it was she threw in there.  I winced when I remembered that Aaron had beaten me to the last cookie in the previous batch, the little bastard…)

“Don’t you have papers to write?” I asked, finally finding my voice.

“Done before I’d even left campus,” she said.

“Are you trying to lose weight, Aïda?” Aaron asked her as he took the pot off the stove and carefully poured its creamy, golden contents into a bowl on the table.

Trying is an understatement,” she chuckled.

“In that case, I’ll eat your share of those cookies,” he said, dimpling wickedly.

She looked up sharply and glared at him.  I could tell by the look on her face and knew at once she was torn between smashing his face in with the cookie tray she had close by and kissing the little bastard senseless.  As it happened, that glare wasn’t enough to wipe the fey smirk on Aaron’s face.  So, alas, there was a loud clang as she whacked him with the cookie tray.  Oh, well…

But Aaron actually laughed instead of losing his temper and Aïda couldn’t help but laugh as well.

I watched them and got all thoughtful.  I knew they were on the same frequency, the same wavelength. I knew they could hear each other, understand each other.  They were aware of those bitter, sharp thoughts that could not be given a voice lest people ended up dead – or, possibly, in bed together when they shouldn’t be.

Well, not yet, anyway.  In bed together, I mean.

I’m having a bit of a hard time explaining, but there they were: heart and soul, melody and counterpoint.  Two people who heard the same music in their heads and were in sync.

Not totally in sync as yet, of course.  But you lot do get my drift, yeah?



Midge started her career in PR writing at seventeen when she began drafting documentaries for a government-run television station in the Philippines. Since then, she made a career in advertising and public relations which ended in June 2016 These days, she works full time at Philippine Tatler as a features writer under the nom de guerre Marga Manlapig. Aside from what she does for a living and her poetry, she has turned her home kitchen into a personal culinary lab and is currently working on another novel. Follow her on Instagram at @midgekmanlapig.

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