By Violet Nesdoly
Nicola felt her heart begin to pound as they drove up to the big brick church where the music competition was going on. She took a deep breath. She wouldn’t think of last year. This year would be different!
She climbed out of the car and hugging her music book, walked with little Jennifer and her mom up the front steps, through the heavy wood door and into the foyer. At a table, a lady was collecting the contestants’ music for the adjudicator who judged the competition. Nicola handed in her Grade Nine piano book and picked up a program from the pile. There was her name, halfway through the afternoon today, the last one in the Modern Class competition. Then tomorrow, in the Bach Class, she played first thing in the morning. And there, sure enough, was Carroll Davis's name on the program, in both classes.
Following Jennifer and her mom to a seat in the auditorium she glanced around. There was Carroll's blond head, surrounded, as usual, by a group of girls her age. What she wouldn’t do to have a friend who was into classical music. None of the girls at her school were. Maybe if she did really well this year, Carroll would notice her and she’d be invited to join her musical clique.
The competition got underway. To keep her mind off the fluttering inside, Nicola found a pencil stub in the pew and ticked off the competitors' names on her program as they played. Then the Modern Class competition began and her hands went clammy. She listened closely as one by one the contestants played. She should be able to do at least as well.
When it was Carroll's turn, Nicola watched her walk to the grand piano, her blond hair swinging. She was confident, absolutely cool. She placed her hands efficiently on the keys, threw back her head and launched into her piece. She was good.
Now it was Nicola's turn.
Walking up the steps to the piano, she felt weightless, unreal. She slid onto the glossy bench and took a deep breath. She remembered what Miss Niles always said, Get comfortable. Settle yourself down. Take as long as you like. Nicola wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt, closed her eyes and focused on the first bars of her piece. Then, hands on the keys, it was time.
The notes came out strong and clear—until the third bar. Then everything went blank. Breathing deeply to calm her pounding heart and willing her hands to stop shaking, she began again. Again after the third bar, she couldn't go on. The melody was there in her head but her hands couldn’t find the notes. The auditorium was deathly still. In a panic, she attacked the music a third time. Again she got stuck.
"Would you like to try it with the music?" The adjudicator's voice broke the silence.
"Yes," Nicola whispered. She swallowed hard to keep the lump in her throat from coming out in a sob.
A glance at the familiar page explained it all. With shaking fingers she played the music through from beginning to end, hesitantly, mechanically, but this time in the right key.
She didn't remember walking back to her seat, what was played the rest of the afternoon or who played it. Instead her mind, like a carousel, went around and around. She’d messed up again, just like last year. Only then, she’d made just a little stumble. Today she’d been totally lost, and in music she’d worked on for months. How Carroll and her friends must be laughing.
Maybe, like last year, she should skip the rest of the competition again too. But if she wanted to go on with her music, she couldn’t avoid playing in public forever. There was her Grade 9 exam at the end of June and Miss Niles’ recital. The only way out was to drop piano altogether. But how would she ever face her mom, not to speak of Miss Niles? On the other hand, how could she ever face another humiliation like this afternoon’s?
The program was over. As they moved out with the crowd down the aisle, Nicola murmured to Jennifer, "I won't be coming tomorrow."
Jennifer’s eyes grew wide. "What will Miss Niles say?"
"I don't care," Nicola replied.
Behind her, she caught sight of Carroll and heard the girl beside her say, "You've got tomorrow wrapped up."
"I was just lucky that Nicola Henderson messed up." It was Carroll. "You know, she plays against me again tomorrow."
"She's good sometimes, but she’ll probably drop out again."
Nicola felt her face grow hot. So that’s what they thought of her. Well, they should talk. They didn't know what it felt like to fall flat on your face in front of the world. She did. Besides this piano thing, there was October when she'd quit volleyball when she couldn’t get her serve right, and just a few weeks ago she'd dropped out of public speaking the night of the competition. And now she was planning to totally quit music, though it was the thing she loved most. She hurried through the wide doors to where the spring air cooled her burning face.
* * *
The next morning, even before she was fully awake, Nicola sensed sadness. Slowly yesterday came back to her. She wasn't going to the competition today. She should be reveling in sheer relief. Instead she felt rotten. She rolled over, trying to drift back into sweet sleep.
The radio was playing downstairs and she heard her Mom stepping around the house in her clickey work shoes. Then the radio went off, the door slammed, the car started, faded …
… and there was silence.
She wasn’t going to fall back asleep. Might as well get ready for school.
It was only 7:30 when she came down the stairs. On the table Mom had left a note. "Hope today goes really well. Love, Mom." She crumpled it, trudged to the fridge and flung open the door. But it was too early for breakfast.
Usually she spent the first hour of the day at the piano. There was no point today. But like a magnet, the piano drew her. She went over, sat down on the familiar seat and placed her hands on the keys. Her fingers settled on the notes of the song she was to have played today and she began it softly. She loved playing Bach—the theme and each time it came in again, now in the left hand, now in the right, each forte, crescendo and decrescendo, the neat final note, like fitting the last piece into a complicated puzzle. Her hands rested motionless on the keys. She had worked hard and belonged at that piano this morning. Yet here she was, planning to throw it all away, about to add another item to her list of unfinished business.
She dropped her hands to her lap and squeezed her eyes shut, fighting off the wave of tears that tightened her throat. She hated how she felt about herself when she gave up. But quitting was really the only solution.
Or was it? As tears blurred the music in front of her, she had another thought. Suppose just this once, she didn’t quit? Suppose even if after yesterday, she went back and tried again —not for Mom or Miss Niles, not even for the friendship of Carroll and Co., but for herself. It would feel good to finish something she’d started, especially something she loved as much as piano.
But what if yesterday happened all over again? Just thinking about it made her hands go cold. She grabbed her music and flicked it open to the first page of the song. She’d make sure it didn’t! "Key of B=, left hand B=, right hand an octave higher," she muttered to herself. "Got to remember that! Key of B=."
She glanced at her watch. She still had time to phone Jennifer and get a ride to the church.
© 2001 by Violet Nesdoly. First published in On The Line
Violet Nesdoly writes for kids and adults from her home in British Columbia, Canada. Once long ago, the same thing happened to her as happened to Nicola in the story "Unfinished Business." Have you ever been embarrassed in public like that? What did you do?
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