Everything changed for Benji when he hit puberty and lost his incidental music.
Growing up, he was no different to any other kid. He played the same games, ate the same food and he was followed everywhere by the same simplistic, cheerful party pop. Sure, there were times when he ran through some minor keys, like when his parakeet got out of its cage and eaten by the neighbour’s cat, or when his mum caught his dad harmonising with the neighbour’s suggestive bossa-nova ambiance. But even after Mum started her new life as a soloist, Benji mostly bopped along with an untroubled heart and a C-D-F refrain in the air.
One week after his thirteenth birthday, his music went away. His friends Cally and Winston noticed it before Benji did.
“How come your music’s stopped?” asked Cally. She was taking a break from their soccer practise to peel open an orange. A warbling trombone wafted up from the mix of her usual upbeat swing number. “Are you feeling okay?”
Winston thundered the ball past Benji into the goal net. “He’s so dumb he think it’s the intermission!” A cymbal clash broke Winston’s soaring, horn-heavy fanfare. They all chuckled along.
Benji hadn’t even noticed the silence. Now it followed him everywhere.
His mother was even more worried. With a frantic oboe chorus buzzing in her wake, she raced Benji to the paediatric musicologist.
The doctor, his furrowed brow echoing with elegiac mountain pipe music, took blood samples and ran some basic scales tests. Benji’s music didn’t respond. The doctor referred him to a psychoacoustics specialist.
The specialist steered Benji into an acoustics chamber that could detect a pin drop or a dying man’s last chord. Nothing. In a baffled studio that damped every noise but Benji’s breathing, he took x-rays and brain scans and a few more blood samples.
Benji waited for hours, the only sounds his scared breathing and his mother’s muted, mournful chorus that sometimes swelled to a rousing reassurance of lively drums and brass.
Finally the specialist returned with images of Benji’s head. In time to a stern, staccato waltz, he tapped a ruler at a blue patch in the cross-section of Benji’s brain and recommended exploratory surgery.
Benji couldn’t tell whether the specialist’s jarring pitch changes meant that he was excited or confused.
Cally’s outrage expressed as atonal ascending scales, strident and brassy. “They’re going to cut your head open?”
Benji shrugged. “Nobody knows what’s wrong. I think they’re scared.” He tried to sound brave but not so much as an adventurous viola sounded forth. “They try not to be but my Mum says she can hear it in their trebles.”
Winston said, “They should just leave you alone. You don’t have to have music if you don’t want it.” But then he ran away, trailing a clatter of cowbells and plucked ukulele notes.
Benji thought it over. Winston was wrong. He wanted his music back.
Nurses wordlessly flitted around his hospital bed making efficient, business-like movements. They swept in and out of sight like ants disassembling a picnic to brisk, professional woodwinds.
As Benji breathed through the anaesthetist’s mask, their music wandered away from melody into tuneless contralto waves.
But Benji was aware of their timpani rumbles of submerged fear and the first dissonant strains of a bassoon as the surgeon arrived. Keys diverged and time signatures fell out of harmony as his eyes closed.
Benji knew before his eyelids began to unglue that the operation had failed. Nothing surrounded him but the soft hiss of a ventilator, the hum of indifferent machinery and the hushed buzz of human speech beyond too-thin walls.
He tried to squeeze his eyes shut but the darkness made the silence worse, a void that drained hope and fed despair. With a lump rising in his throat, he let the light in and looked around at the blue wall of vinyl curtains hanging around his bed. The curtain’s perimeter diverted around the back of an unoccupied chair. He felt its emptiness deep inside his stomach; he felt no hunger for the bowl of pale, spotted fruit in the bowl alongside his pillow.
Benji knew one thing. All the doctors and nurses hadn’t been able to figure out what happened to him. His music was gone. They didn’t know where it was and they didn’t know how to bring it back.
He thought about the last time he had cried. One afternoon a year ago, his father had said goodbye in a haze of endless regret, unstoppable tears and slow-strummed minor chords.
Without low, slurring strings rising with the lump in his throat, Benji didn’t remember how to cry.
The talkers came closer and now he could hear strains of concern, confusion and even some anger. He could hear violins darting in and out of their upper registers. His mother was nervous and upset. Benji steeled himself for the crashing peals of percussion and trills of flutes as she tried to hide her fear and disappointment.
Voices and shadows fell across the curtains and they parted for his mother and the surgeon. Benji met her eye. He tried to think of a way to tell her he was sorry.
Then all at once Benji’s mother’s music softened and transformed. A counter-melody cut through her distraught fugue, a chorus of violas laying down a bridge for a crisply-strummed guitar to appear.
Benji’s mother looked around in surprise, even a little alarm – she’d never made a sound like it. Next to her, the doctor’s face made the same expression. His music was falling into rhythm with hers. Guitars and a snappy drum fill, the kind that made Benji want to stamp his feet and wave his arms. Fun, happy music spilled out of them and filled his ears.
Benji smiled at his mother. He laughed at the doctor, and the nurses who ran in and the orderly who reached for him with big, trembling hands.
They were playing his song.
David Versace is a writer from Australia’s winter-blighted capital, Canberra. He is a slush-wrangler, proof reader and dealer in encouraging critiques. His work appears in the anthology “Next” (CSFG Publishing 2013) and in the forthcoming “The Lane of Unusual Traders” (Tiny Owl Press 2015). Twitter: @_Lexifab