Frankie clutched the bouquet of pale pink carnations, their petals quivering at the rush of wind from the approaching subway train. The car was fairly empty but Frankie chose to stand with the map right at his eyeline. He rarely went downtown so he had to keep an eye on it, in fear of missing his stop. It’s not every day your only daughter has her first performance as a member of the Toronto Philharmonic.
The train lurched forward. Frankie was forced to release his two-handed grip on the delicate flowers to hang on to the handle dangling just above his hat. Seven more stops.
“Arriving at Wellesley, Welles-ley Sta-tion. Doors will open on the left.” The computerized voice boomed over the speakers. A horde of schoolchildren in pressed plaid skirts and navy blazers rushed in. Their animated chatter almost drowned out the subsequent announcement that the doors were closing.
At Dundas Station, a couple entered the train — the young woman sipping on a creamy brown iced drink, while her beau was struggling to carry five hulking shopping bags. At King, several businessmen with suits and briefcases stepped on, expertly avoiding eye contact with the children. Two more stops.
The screech of the wheels on the tracks rang in Frankie’s ears as they pulled out of Union Station. The car had emptied as most passengers left to catch their connections via commuter rail or suburb-bound bus. One more stop, then he was to dismount at Osgoode and walk right into the Performing Arts Centre. Frankie straightened his tie, thankful that the tunnel turned the subway windows into mirrors.
His shoulder banged against the plastic partition. Why did we stop now? Turning away from the map above the door, he saw the young man setting the shopping bags down. The woman glanced at her watch and rolled her eyes.
The speaker crackled. Frankie was startled to hear the difference between the smooth voice announcing the stops and this gruff new voice. He barely made out the words “delay”, “apologize”, “inconvenience”, from the mumbles.
“No. It’s just one more stop,” Frankie bargained with himself. “Hell, I can walk it, we’re so close!” But they were trapped in the cold, dank tunnel. He looked around frantically. There was no way out of the train.
The first time he saw Eloise play was almost five years ago. It was what they call ‘chamber music’, so it was just a brass quintet, part of the pre-show for the full orchestra. Frankie was ushered into the choir loft. He marvelled at the cavernous hall, and pondered the effect of the high-domed ceiling on the room’s acoustics. The main hall was empty but he was one of a handful of patrons seated up behind the stage.
The musicians entered and took their seats, their backs towards the main hall. Eloise scanned the three rows in the loft until she locked eyes with her father, sitting bolt upright at the very end of the last row. She smiled at him, but there was a flash of something else in her eyes. Indignation, perhaps, at the fact that she had been playing in small recitals since she was fourteen, yet it took him till she was twenty-three to show up to one, and only because he had a job a block away and he had been at the receiving end of one of her mother’s trademark talking-to’s.
A pregnant pause loomed over the loft as the musicians prepared their instruments. Eloise handled her precious trombone with care and love. Frankie wondered whether it was the same one she had bought with her savings from working at the frozen yogurt shop. With guilt, he recalled the discussion he had had with her mother behind closed doors.
“A trombone? I’m already working two jobs to pay my share of the textbooks and other stuff she needs. Not some weird hobby she’ll drop by next month.”
“Fine. We don’t need your help anyway. Ellie will learn that she needs to earn everything in this world herself.”
Even though Frankie was at the top right corner of the loft, he heard her sharp deep inhale clear as day. Then it began. Frankie was awestruck at the sound that filled the hall, and the depth of the layers from the five instruments. What do they need a whole orchestra for if just these do the trick? His eyes had closed so as to focus all his efforts on his ears, willing them to take it all in, but as the music swelled, he turned to look at Eloise.
Her cheeks had flushed red and her left eyebrow was sharply arched up. It was like a cartoonish depiction of anger, and it made him almost audibly chuckle. Frankie was brought back to the days of her toddler tantrums. He remembered wishing for just one day of refuge, to get away from her terrible twos. But, somewhere along the way and through no fault of the girl’s, that single day stretched into weeks, months, years.
After the first piece, Eloise stepped up to the podium.
“This next piece is by local composer Gregory Armstrong. Whether you’re an avid jazz enthusiast or a hockey fanatic, as a Torontonian, you’re bound to have heard of Mr. Armstrong in one way or another.”
Her mouth was pulled into a taut smile as her eyes flitted from audience member to audience member. An unfamiliar tightness crystallized in Frankie’s throat. He recalled her panic attack over her middle school presentation on the Avro Arrow. He was proud of her for having gotten over the fear of public speaking that had so plagued her, or at least for feigning collectedness as she addressed the crowd of no more than thirty. It occurred to him that it might have helped that the topic this time was music, her true passion, rather than ‘some old aircraft that never even served its purpose’, as she had retorted to him when he had tried to quell her anxiety by instilling interest in the topic that was right up his alley.
“Though we aren’t going to be performing the catchy hockey theme song, you may recognize this next piece. If not by name, by the melody. Now, forgive me, my skills as a trombonist have never translated well into singing but I’ll try my best.” She waited until the good-natured laugh from the crowd died down and then began to sing. There were nods of recognition and even a few animated “oh’s!” from the audience. Relieved that the singing was over, Eloise continued with the introduction. She delighted in the opportunity offered by these chamber pre-shows to augment the musical performance with stories that breathed further life into pieces, offering a thread of connection to the audience.
“Although heralded as the best local composer, Mr. Armstrong stayed grounded. He carved out time in his busy schedule to attend the school district’s Music Makers Festival year after year. That was where I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Armstrong.” With a faraway look in her eyes, she described how she was encouraged by a friend to go up and introduce herself to the revered and beloved composer. He had told her that his father was initially dismayed when he decided to join the jazz band instead of continuing on the high school hockey team.
“How lucky are we as a society that he made that decision! Mr. Armstrong has clearly demonstrated his talent for the musical arts and I’m sure that he eventually made his father very proud. Now, we hope to share some of that immense talent with you.” She thought to herself that she hoped she’d made her own father proud as she returned to her place between the french horn and the trumpet.
The strange tightness in Frankie’s throat was back, but it was of a different nature this time. The handhold was temporarily rendered unnecessary in the stationary vehicle so he released it, switched the bouquet to his right hand and flicked his left up to check his watch. Four minutes till the performance began. Frankie had taken two buses earlier than the one necessary to be exactly on time, then transferred to the subway that had now betrayed him.
He considered sitting but quickly brushed the idea away as it would be an acceptance of an even longer delay. He tucked the flowers under his arm and produced his recently acquired smartphone from his pocket. He tried refreshing the orchestra’s website to check the start time of the show, willing it to be magically later than he knew it was as he typed the words. The page did not load.
“You’re not gonna get service in the tunnels, mister,” the young woman offered sympathetically. Frankie scowled and jammed the useless and alien device back where it came from. He pictured the print-out calendar on his fridge, heavily marked up in blue ink with this month’s jobs. Then, in bright red, scrawled in his spidery handwriting was “Eloise’s show, 8pm” on that day’s square. Frankie adjusted his hat, his trademark grey newsboy hat that he had reminded her to look out for in the audience. Realizing that they were now three minutes into the performance, he swallowed heavily. Suddenly, the crackly voice was back, silencing the whispers of the passengers.
“Attention customers on Line 1 Yonge-University, all service is suspended between St. Andrew and Queen’s Park due to a trespasser at track-level. Emergency response personnel have been dispatched. We apologize for the delay.”
With a hopeless sigh, Frankie plopped himself onto the nearest open seat. How long would it take the responders to get to the site? How long would it take to coax a reckless trespasser out of the way? His foot began tapping agitatedly. The lone remaining businessman turned to the source of the sudden noise and eyed the bouquet. Frankie looked up at him and realised that he mirrored his desperation to get to his destination. Frankie imagined the businessman was anxious to get home in time for dinner with the in-laws, wishing that he had also thought of bringing flowers to impress the wife for a change.
Frankie scratched his beard. His throat was getting dry. He hadn’t even realized it but his involuntary foot-tapping followed the beat of his favourite movement of the symphony that Eloise would be performing as he sat stuck on a subway train. After a brief ill-fated attempt to figure out the music application on his smartphone, he had made a trip to the old faithful shop kept by Eloise’s first trombone teacher. There, he was lucky enough to be lent a CD of the symphony from the teacher’s own personal music collection, as it was not in stock in the shop. He had introduced himself, insisting that she would remember him from all of five times when he had picked Eloise up over the four years she spent under her tutelage. The teacher had nodded and decided to loan him the CD, perhaps out of guilt for having poorly feigned remembrance, or perhaps because she was ready to get this cantankerous old man out of her shop and attend to the young student and his mother seeking a trumpet and maybe even a year of lessons.
After holding out for as long as he could, Frankie allowed himself another glance at his watch. His heart sank. It was now 8:16pm. He wondered how the fancy orchestra folk would treat a latecomer. What if he walked in and disturbed the entire performance and was not-so-kindly escorted out? Eloise would never forgive him for that. Worse yet, what if he missed the show altogether? Their relationship would not be salvageable as he was sure his explanations would be taken as excuses. They were excuses in the past — unsure of how to interact with his teenage daughter, he had cited extra jobs to circumvent her weekend stays. But not this time. Was it too late to make a change? The minutes trailed on. Frankie’s hat was precariously perched as he bent his head, weighed down with the scenarios of ruining his last chance to make it up to Eloise.
Suddenly, the train lurched forward. Frankie leapt to his feet. And almost immediately, he lost his balance as the train seemed to accelerate to compensate for lost time. He righted himself and checked to see that the carnations were unharmed.
Frankie was the first on the platform as the doors opened and the voice announced “Os-goode Sta-tion”. He dashed up the stairs. At street-level, he saw the glass façade of the Performing Arts Centre looming off to the right. Surely the underground entrance from the subway would be faster. But in his haste, Frankie missed the sign and took a wrong turn, ending up in a parking lot.
After doubling back, Frankie was panting by the time he got to the entrance of the building. Somewhere along the way he had lost his treasured hat, but it was too late to turn back now. Frankie looked around desperately for an attendant to let him in. To his horror, he realized the lobby was filled with patrons, milling about or lining up to order at the bar. Had he missed the entire show? Just then, a cheery voice sounded to his left.
“Well, you’re just in time for intermission, Sir. Can I scan your ticket?”
Frankie let out a breath he had not realized he was holding and shoved the ticket towards her. It bore a crease, dog-eared when he had roughly replaced his smartphone in the same pocket as the ticket.
Just as throngs of people were returning to the hall from long queues to the washroom, he was ushered into his seat in the first row of the mezzanine. He had wanted to secure front row seats on the main floor, regardless of their exorbitant price, but he thoughtfully realized that no matter how much he craned his neck from that position, he would not be able to see Eloise as the brass instruments were situated towards the back of the stage. Satisfied with his seat choice, he settled in and scanned the program.
“There’s my girl.” Frankie proudly announced to the tuxedoed gentleman beside him, pointing to Eloise’s name. The gentleman cocked an eyebrow and nodded in surprised approval. Frankie looked up as the musicians filed into their positions. He broke out into a broad grin once he spotted her, sleek and dignified in her concert black dress with her hair pulled neatly back.
The conductor strutted to centre stage and Eloise directed her gaze to the Maestro. He took a grand bow and the audience burst into a hearty round of applause. While the applause was dying down, Eloise scanned the audience for the grey newsboy cap. Frankie smiled earnestly at his daughter, sitting up in his seat and hoping to catch her eye. The conductor raised his hands. With a sigh of resignation, Eloise picked up her instrument.
The symphony began. It was an entirely different experience than listening to the CD on his way home from work. The weathered CD skipped during the second movement. But the orchestra boomed on.
Frankie was none the wiser about the terrain or nature of the planet, but in the movement, “Venus”, the twinkling strings brought on the air of a bright morning while the horns teased the character of looming mountains.
That Holst sure knew how to pair his instruments. The celesta complemented the delicate harps, which were reminiscent of butterflies fluttering on a cool breeze. The shape of the harps’ bodies even mirrored the butterflies’ wings. Yet the contrast was brought out by the grounding double bass. Just like the quick high-pitched violin notes were soothed with the deep brassy horns.
During “Saturn”, Frankie noticed the addition of an instrument that reminded him of a bell tolling. Or a grandfather clock. “Appropriate for the Bringer of Old Age,” he mused.
Frankie was confused to see Eloise discreetly stand up between movements. She left her tuba and sat at the organ. Originally, she had diversified to the tuba from the trombone to fit the needs of the orchestra and now it seems she moved into an entirely different instrument family, much to Frankie’s awe at his multi-talented child.
Just then, the eerie voices of the women’s choir crept through the backstage door held ajar. They swept through the vast hall and seemed to gain fervour as they reached Frankie’s ears, sending a chill down his spine. He was transfixed. The CD had not even come close to doing the live experience justice. Before he knew it, Frankie joined in the deafening applause at the end of the show. He even led the mezzanine into a standing ovation. It was then that she noticed him.
Frankie waited near the backstage entrance, clutching the now slightly wilting bouquet and perking up every time the door opened to reveal another celebrated musician or two. Finally, she emerged.