Side A: Claudia
It was the way he called the children to order. Guys? he’d say, and let the word hang there imploringly. Guys? There was something
about Neville that made him easy to ignore. He seemed to know it. The pupils certainly sensed it. She’d found him intriguing at first. For some reason. Maybe it was the way his workshops hung precariously together. They always seemed about to collapse into anarchy. The teachers weren’t much help. They sat along the back wall of the classroom with their arms folded. It was as though they were willing him to fail. Neville couldn’t play an instrument. That was why Claudia and Nancy were there. Nancy played the cello, Claudia the flute. Neville would split the children into groups and they’d sing traditional rounds while the women watched, smiling. On a good day, with the right children, these songs could become quite complex. When the parts locked together, when the timing was just right, Neville would stamp his feet and beat a bunched fist against one thigh. Sometimes the teachers would unfold their arms. It was after just such a session that Claudia had agreed to go for a drink with him. Afterwards, impressed by his guilelessness, she’d consented to let him touch her breasts in the front of his old Polo. But that was last week. What had she started? Now Neville looked at her differently. Of course, he would! When he asked Claudia to demonstrate her instrument to the pupils, she now played a series of notes so devoid of melody that the children looked at her as though she was a fraud. What could she do? She wasn’t about to lead him on with something that could be misconstrued. Nevertheless, following her atonal flurries, Neville was always the first to burst into emphatic applause.
Side B: Neville
Neville thought he might be in love with Nancy, the cello player in his workshop group. But this was difficult because he’d started something with Claudia, the flautist, and now he couldn’t seem to get out of it. She’d make up these melodies for him – spontaneous compositions. Before, when he asked her to demonstrate her flute to the children, she’d play snippets of classical pieces: a bit of Gluck, or some Chaminade. But now it was all this avant garde stuff. She was trying to impress him. It was sad, really. How could she compete with Nancy? Black-haired, barefoot Nancy; legs indecently splayed to accommodate the girth of her instrument. Nancy, whose plump toes would writhe and pulse in time to the sonorous clusters of notes she cleaved from her strings. Nancy, who seemed to awaken, like a hypnotist’s volunteer – oblivious and mildly disorientated – at the end of every piece she played. Who thought nothing of levelling her bow mere millimetres from the face of some chattering child and barking for silence. The problem was that Nancy was as demanding of Neville as she was of the children for whom she played. After workshops, she’d corner him to offer unsolicited advice about behaviour management. Neville was working on it. He thought there had been some improvements. If the children occasionally tried to trip him up as he paced back and forth in front of them, it was only that they liked him enough to fool around with him. And if the teachers refused to get involved when one child tried to hit another with a clave or a triangle, it was only because they know he had it covered. But that feeling when the children sang! When it all came together. When they smiled and rocked back and forth and even the teachers stopped scowling for a moment or two.
Oliver Daltrey has previously published in ‘Notes from the Underground’ literary journal and has recently finished work on a contemporary campus novel. His favourite short story writers are Lorrie Moore, Richard Brautigan, Chekhov and Alice Munro.