FICTION // You are second best



This story is the inaugural work of short fiction published in CutCommon.

* * *


I couldn’t believe it.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive.”

I nodded my head in acknowledgement. “Can I try again?”

Nicholas turned from the window with a tight lip. “Go ahead.”

This passage was so difficult, but I had practised it more than enough over the past three weeks that it was now a breeze. Those semiquavers, the quick transitions between registers, and that pesky 7/8 bar flew past me as my fingers slalomed through the music; ending on a triumphant A that heralded its heroic conclusion.

Nicholas celebrated my success with a grimace.


I scanned my music with a frown. It’s not flat, I reflected.

“Can I just play the A?”

“Please do.”

His polite response erred me and I shivered slightly. I took a deep breath and played the A again. This time he won’t believe what he’s hearing, I thought. He’s crazy not to think I’m flat.


“Oh…” Imperfection washed over me. In my mind, I could feel something start to crumble.

Nicholas stood up. He took his glasses from his shirt pocket and placed them neatly on his nose. “Darling,” he phrased, “let me humour you, awhile. That note needs its core.” He turned and picked up his flute from the table. “Allow me to demonstrate.”

Despite his arrogance, I had to respect Nicholas. Though a teenage prodigy, he had worked hard for his talents and deserved all the praise he received. And did he show it; he played that passage as though he had plucked it from the air! The room shone with the brilliance of his sound, sparkling in his office like glitter, and never in my life had I heard an A shine the way his did.

After, Nicholas set down his flute on his desk and turned to me. The silence in the room spoke for itself.

“Wow,” I was stunned. “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“That you do, love. It’s a never-ending battle with you.”

“Wha-what do you mean?” My voice quivered.

Nicholas turned towards the window. It had been raining earlier, but the weather had settled so that dense afternoon clouds loomed over the music building. He spoke with his back to me.

“I must be blunt, sweetheart; you just haven’t got it.”

The statement pierced my heart and frightened my mind. You must stay together. Just hold on.

“We have spent too many hours discussing intonation and yet you still don’t understand. If it’s not intonation then it’s your rhythm, and if it’s not your rhythm it’s your tone, not your tone, your intonation again.”

I stared at the clock. 2:25pm – only 35 minutes left. You can get through this. Just don’t listen.

“Suppleness of tone, acute attention to rhythm, exceptional phrasing; these are all qualities of a good musician. A master, however, also knows how to play in tune.”

2:26pm. You can do it.

He turned away from the window and walked over to me. His eyes locked onto mine and I could not escape that stare, as hard as I tried.

“For a pupil of your calibre you need to be better. Audiences are not going to pay for second best.”

Hold on.

“And, at this moment -”

Don’t say it.

“- you are second best.”

I snatched my music from the stand and ran out of the room. Tears burst from my face and blinded my vision as I looked for the nearest empty practice room. Once I found one, I threw my belongings on the ground, slammed the door shut and wailed. What was a crumbling earlier was now a landslide, and despite my efforts it was impossible to pull myself together. Every moment with Nicholas was filled with criticism. I could never attain his standards when I played for him! I was never good enough; I will always be second best.

The wailing continued for a long time. I did not care if anyone could hear me. I did not care about anything except my grief.

After a while, the wailing changed to crying, then sobbing, and then a weary babbling when all my tears had been drained. My eyes were red and sore, and the tightness in my throat was agonising. I don’t want to keep playing anymore. I’m never going to be the best…

I picked myself up from the ground and opened the window blinds to be welcomed by a warm dusk light. The sky had cleared and the evening glow entered the room, caressing my face, wiping the remains of tears from my eyes. I was suddenly comforted by this atmosphere, and of the lingering hope that still burned inside of my conscience. 

I turned from the window and looked at my flute, which was lying on the table in the middle of the room. The dusk shone from my face onto the instrument and suddenly the light was refracted everywhere, creating dazzling sparkles and reflections. The walls, once plain white, now became a spectrum of colours; blues, greens, purples and reds spread across the space, flowing and mixing to create an unconceivable radiance. The flute blazed in a vivid sheen, the tarnished silver becoming closer to that of a pure white.

I was immediately struck by awe. It’s beautiful. How could something so simple become so complex…

In this moment, I had the urge to play that passage again. Walking to the instrument seemed daunting with flashbacks of self-doubt and criticism, but somehow the flute welcomed me into this space. It wanted to me to play it, to honour its purpose. I held it in my arms for a moment, unsure of my physical capacity, but through my strong willingness I brought it to my lips, took a breath, and blew.

The sound exploded in the space. It flowed everywhere, mingling and blending with the colours and lights within my eyes but also in my ears. The music became a living being, full of vivacity and energy with its own conscience, changing character as I played through the passage. A being, full of emotion and life, that I had created.

The triumphant final A sang out noble and sincere in a way that no hours of practice could ever replicate. This was what it meant to play the music; not to be the best, but to bring emotion. To bring life.

Down the hall, I felt the acknowledgement of a smile.


* * *

About the author

John Glover is a Melbourne-based flautist, teacher, and writer. He’s completing his Honours year in his Bachelor of Music at the University of Melbourne under the guidance of his teacher Andrew Macleod. John has worked as an arts administrator with Melbourne Youth Orchestras and his local music school, and has performed with various orchestras as a flautist around Melbourne. In his downtime, John loves to write creative fiction and dance Argentine Tango.


Featured image: virtually supine via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

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