(If you've only just arrived and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post, here.)
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Chapter Three concludes...
"What do you mean, he's still in France? He knows we're live tonight!" Skripasha Scricci was not taking the news well, on top of everything else.
Don Atello, himself a once-popular film actor now trying to make a living, was just relaying the message from his boss.
"Look, he said he's sorry but he'd heard the snow was bad here and he didn't want to risk getting stuck." Atello didn't understand the reasoning but making excuses...? Well, that was his job.
"'Getting stuck'? Whaddaya mean, 'getting stuck'?" Scricci screamed. "I'll show you 'getting stuck'..." Wasn't this the last thing he needed now? "Jumping Jesus Christ," he moaned, "what else'll go wrong with this bloody show?"
(Not wanting to tempt fate which hadn't been going well for him lately, Scricci decided maybe he ought to reconsider that.)
Wasn't it bad enough that the director had missed all the staff meetings? Now the famous Hugh Brissman was a no-show! At least before, he'd worked in an occasional Skype hook-up from southern France...
"Howie, I paid big bucks to you for a big name director, yeah? So where the hell is he, you wanker!" Max Grifter's team was responsible for hiring Hugh Brissman in the first place. "I'm surrounded by nothing but bloody prima donnas!"
Howard Cheatham, Grifter's on-site rep, stared Scricci down. "Yeah, you got that right..."
Brissman was in the South of France doing research on his next project and Atello knew he didn't give a rat's ass about Pimp My Prodigy which he felt beneath him, working with children. While his boss was checking out bikini-clad babes for a new reality show, he, a former super-hero, froze his ass off.
And since Grifter had hired Brissman who was getting paid 'the big bucks' – not that he was seeing any of it – now Cheatham turned on Atello as if he's the one ripping everybody off.
"Look, at least there's Sven." Atello sounded confidant. "He'll do a great job. Working for Brissman's given him lots of experience." Sven Galli was Brissman's assistant director, he explained, and worked well with kids.
Scricci let out one more scream before he stomped off down the hall.
"I didn't spend that money for a nobody."
He longed for the days when all he had to do was perform, back when he and his band were famous. And those concert gigs were loaded with memories, lording it over some orchestra.
"When I came to town," he told himself, "it was an event, man. Life didn't get any freakin' better than that."
The problem was, those 'good old days' couldn't have been that long ago, and he was way too young for this. Feeling nostalgic about the days of your youth – that was for Old Timers.
Skripasha Scricci could barely remember his birth name – something awful like Clay Potts – something he quickly shed after winning that contest.
"Who'da thought that would've opened up a whole new life for me, right?"
Wasn't that the point behind his Prodigy Project, giving other kids a chance? Even if it only lasted a few years...
Now he knew people were saying behind his back he was washed up, a former child star, forgotten, over the hill.
"Yeah, that drug bust didn't help," he knew, "but now I'm comin' back!"
He'll be performing his new song with the kids, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – 'Gloria's Sick but Rides the Bus on Mondays.'
It had been a giant leap from starving classical violinist to successful rocker and he wasn't about to give up now.
"No, it's time to reinvent myself once again: that's what it's all about."
His little bit of transcendent meditation was over as soon as he saw Holly Grayle, his chief judge, ready to explode. He could only imagine what the problem steaming toward him would probably be. No doubt the room she'd been assigned to here in Phlaumix's public wing was a square foot smaller than Desi Finado's. Her glory days were far beyond the hilltop, fading even quicker than his, but she could still be an amazing diva. For those who were now in their mid-20s, she'd been quite a force.
Her hair was in curlers and her make-up was not even half finished, yet she was wearing a voluminous pink kimono and her ruby-red stilettos with the four-inch heels ("yo, they're not from Kansas"). Before this gig was over, he knew someone's going to be found dead with one of those heels stuck in them.
"You've got to get me outta this place – if they find out I'm in a meth lab, it's back into rehab!" She was frantic, saying how she's been out of recovery for two weeks.
"Meth lab? Honey, what are you talking about? This ain't no meth lab!" He always thought she had a screw loose.
"When your assistant took me to my room – with all the silver hair? – she said this place is full of meth!"
"Meth? Good golly, Miss Holly, she meant there's lots of mathematics all over..."
Since there's no point explaining it to her – he barely understood it himself – he just put an arm around her shoulders, telling her not to worry, and guided her back to her make-up team. He could hear the clattering of her heels as she left, asking them, "how can a place be full of math?"
It was moments like this he could imagine, looking at everything around him, what it was like tap-dancing on the Titanic (though how you'd tap-dance to 'Nearer My God to Thee' remained a mystery).
Full of math or not, the place was certainly giving him the creeps, all this fussy architecture and these poncey paintings, whether it was meant to tap into the Downton Abbey crowd or not.
"Can't we get rid of at least some of these statues?" he complained. "Plus the stage needs to be more forward..."
The whole place was cluttered with all this artsy junk, even the floors, driving Scricci nuts no matter where he looked. Not only was everything off-kilter, doorways and stairs, it was so overwhelmingly overdone. The floors were abuzz with such intricate detail, it would confound a drunk and the ceilings, frankly, were not much better. Falling down, the poor drunk, discombobulated by the floor's intricate circles and doo-dads, would gaze into a ceiling where plaster encrustations framed vast paintings populated by gods and courtiers staring down on him disapprovingly.
The worst thing was, he complained, with all this busy-ness in the background, no one will see his really cool costumes, not to mention some pretty amazing lighting effects, gyrating wildly in the foreground. He wanted to gut the place and put in a bare, modern sound-stage but the contract they'd signed allowed no alterations.
Of course, the problem was they'll be playing that old-fashioned classical stuff, written by composers dead these two or three centuries where the audience should be swanning about in hoop skirts and powdered wigs. But that wasn't his kind of classical music – "no offense, Ye Olde Dudes" – not if you wanted modern-day people enjoying it.
Instead of lying there lifelessly like some cadaver, juice it up with synthesizers and guitars, and put in a rock beat. Then kids can get up and dance to it and really enjoy themselves.
"It's like some kinda huge, freakin' dissonance, innit," arguing his case to Steele, "seeing my vibrant vision against this gaudy dropback... I mean, drawback... wait – backdrop," he corrected himself. "No, I like 'drawback' better..."
But Steele wouldn't let him tear anything down, not even a single statue. There'd be no gutting, no modern sound-stage.
Steele's whole point was to prove you could combine the past and present (which, frankly, Scricci thought sounded like "diabolical materialism"), never mind they'd gotten it at a bargain through someone Holly Burton knew.
"That story about Romeo and Juliet," Scricci explained. "Everybody dies at the end. Is that what I paid good money for? No, you bloody well want her waking up before he offs and dies! That way, they all get up and party. Yo, par-tay! Gotta love it! That's how you sell tickets – ya gotta adapt!"
He saw another one of the judges, Destinée Knox, now heading his way, waving a bunch of papers and looking furious. She too once had delusions of a career before ending up at SHMRG. Destinée even had a recording contract years ago, making a handful of CDs though none of them ever made the charts. Of all the judges he could've chosen from, he hated to admit it, she was on the bottom of the list but even with zero recognition for the audience, she was a loyal agent.
It was her considerable responsibility to keep the other two judges 'on topic,' not forgetting the true purpose behind their decisions: choosing a winner from those most likely to become a lucrative cash cow who'll be sold on the international prodigy markets to audiences clamoring for buzz and sacrificed on the altar of corporate profitability.
Without a word, she thrust the papers in front of him, shaking convulsively, a list of the contestants and their repertoire. Most of them were performing scaled-down versions by his house arranger, Basil Dumbledown.
There was his favorite, a 12-year-old violinist from America named Carmen Miranda Reitz, knockin' 'em dead with his 'Sibelius Violin Concerto.'
She pointed to the bottom of the list, a name he'd previously overlooked: Antoinette Auvoir-Dubois, composer – 13 – USA...?
Scricci went ballistic.
"Jesus! What the bloody hell am I gonna do with a bleedin' composer!?"
Tabitha Rossa, suddenly turning around, found herself nearly treading on Canon Pettifogger's foot. Apologizing profusely, she stepped back, inadvertently knocking the teacup out of his hand. The tea almost splashed up against Aunt Frieda and Vexilla immediately ran over, frowning disapprovingly, to help clean up the mess.
Considerably shorter than either her mother or brother and dressed entirely in black, Tabitha seemed a perfect match for the vicar. It was years since she'd last seen him, but now he was unavoidable.
Tabitha had never been fond of Phlaumix Court, always considering it very gaudy, and was glad to marry an Italian businessman, Salvatore Rossa, son of an ancient aristocratic family with more position than money. But he died not long after their wedding, leaving her with considerable debt, and she's lived in perpetual mourning ever since.
"Are you coming back to live in England," the vicar asked, nodding politely, "or maybe staying only for your brother's wedding?" Underneath his smile, part of his professional demeanor, he couldn't recall her story. One prone to observing things, he noticed she was wearing no wedding ring as she handed him another cup of tea.
"Perhaps," the vicar added, "you will meet your husband at your brother's wedding? I've often heard of this happening, my child."
"I would be very surprised at that, vicar, considering he died years ago."
Once the vicar moved on, now going over to talk to Lady Vexilla, Sir Charles maneuvered himself to approach Cousin Tabitha. He tried engaging in the requisite small talk but found himself inordinately tongue-tied.
Tabitha made nothing out of what she heard, confusing bits and random pieces, but she nodded and smiled – and Charles beamed.
With that, he sat down at the piano and raised the keyboard's lid, playing a few arpeggios to get everyone's attention.
"Please pardon my humble interruption," gazing at Tabitha who nodded with some confusion.
"Every time I enter this old family home and see its numerous treasures," he began once the general hubbub died down, "I am reminded that not all its riches are merely works of art. In fact there is one, today, who has especially moved me to joy: to her, I dedicate my favorite romantic composition.
"As we gather to celebrate Cousin Burnson's wedding, I gaze upon sweet Tabitha and I'm struck by her quiet, soulful beauty, with thoughts about how happy I would be if she'd become my wife."
He immediately began pounding his way through Frédéric Chopin's overly familiar Military Polonaise (*), played quite unlike anyone ever heard it before.
Numerous eyebrows were immediately raised followed by hands being immediately placed over ears as everyone moved further away from the piano. Several teacups rattled ignominiously off their saucers and committed suicide upon the floor.
Flustered by Charles' unexpected attention, Tabitha quickly sidled over to her handsome brother, amused how little the cousins resembled each other.
"What just happened here, Burnson: he's kidding, right? I'm just having a nightmare?" It was impossible to ignore Charles' piano playing, rattling around between the walls. Burnson strained to hear what she was saying.
Charles, with his podgy face and expansive brow, his beady eyes and a mustache that brought the word 'feckless' to mind, smiled at Tabitha as he continued mangling Chopin, unaware he was sweating profusely.
Tabitha, never one for subtlety, covered her eyes, recoiling at the very idea of marrying Charles, much less bearing his son.
"I mean, honestly," Tabitha whispered, "look at him! Hell, just listen to him. How could he imagine I'd even be interested? I tell you, Burnie, name me your heir and I'll gladly poison him!"
As Charles faltered, unable to remember what key the second theme was in, he therefore resumed the onslaught from the beginning. Vexilla saw her chance and immediately stepped in, gently lowering the keyboard's cover.
"Thank you," she said, "for that unique rendering which I'm sure we'll be hearing in our heads for years to come."
Vexilla and Burnson attempted to start the applause though many guests looked shell-shocked. Charles stood and bowed from side to side. One guest dug a finger into her ear but apparently to no avail.
"Given news of Maestro Schnellenlauter's death earlier today," Vexilla continued as everyone murmured, "perhaps silence and contemplation would be more appropriate."
"Ah," Charles said, sitting down, "then I could play the 'Funeral March' Sonata."
"Thank you, but I think Chopin's suffered enough: I'm sure we all have..."
Vexilla leaned down, giving Aunt Frieda another hug.
Between the oppressiveness of the news and the chance Charles might resume playing, the gathering then began to break up quickly. Frieda had Minona wheel her out of the room and others quietly followed. Once the room began to clear out, Burnson went over to his cousin, again standing before the portrait, deep in thought.
After the vicar closed the door behind him, Burnson suggested they settle this and challenged him to a game of rock-paper-scissors. They stood in front of Sir Henry's portrait, barely a few feet apart.
As they pumped their forearms three times, counting, each then presented their gesture: Burnson, a rock; Charles, instead, a toy gun. He clicked his thumb like a pistol's hammer with a soft "ka-pew"-like noise.
Pulling his hand back, Charles blew imaginary smoke from his outstretched index finger. "I'm sorry, but gun beats rock every time."
Then he added, "don't mess with me, cousin," as Vector opened the doors, apologizing after finding anyone still in the room.
"I've come to collect the tea things, m'lord – it's of no importance whatsoever."
The cousins tried unsuccessfully to regain their composure and faced a new dilemma, each deferring to the other at the doorway. With their teeth clenched, they struggled shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to squeeze through the door.
"You must come to Quackerly for the shoot."
"Not in this lifetime, cousin," Burnson grunted back. "We'll dine in hell, first."
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to be continued... [This link should become active at 8am on Friday, July 15th.]
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(*) Chopin's "Military" Polonaise: The Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, not exactly the most romantic piece of music that might come to mind, though an example of music from the Romantic period of Classical Music.
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The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which you've no doubt figured out by now, is a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents of its story are more or less the product of the author's imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody, occasionally by personal experience. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used." Other places like Phlaumix Court and Umberton are purely fictional. Any similarity between characters and real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, but then, as Klavdia Klangfarben keeps quoting a former professor of hers, "Perception is everything." Yadda yadda yadda.
©2016 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train