Billy raced down Augusta Avenue. He ducked under storefront awnings as small droplets of water began to fall from the sky. A large puff of smoke drifted in the air outside Bunner’s Bakeshop, cannabis and tobacco interlaced with the lingering scent of sugary baked goods.
At the end of the block was a poetry jazz cafe called The Midnight Hour, easily identified by the large mural painted next to the entryway. The painting depicted a strange man who held one finger to his lips as though he was hushing onlookers. Billy stared into the eyes of the mural’s familiar face and winked. He pulled his baseball cap further down so that it covered most of his face, and camouflaged himself amongst a group of disaffected teenagers.
The market was a small neighbourhood where even police officers went to bed at 11 o’clock. He might not end up in jail if he got caught sneaking into the bar, but his parents would certainly ground him for the foreseeable future. The owner would be inside, scanning the crowd to try and catch him. Fortunately, Billy had an accomplice.
Once inside, he hugged the wall as he inched towards the corner of the room. When he reached the empty space near the makeshift stage, he felt a firm hand grasp his shoulder and all of his muscles seized.
“Just what do you think you’re doing here, young man?”
Billy breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“Hey there, Nick.”
Nick smiled and released his grip to pat Billy on the back, nearly knocking the wind out of him. As the musicians entered through the back door and took their places on the stage, Nick returned to his post. Billy crept back towards the bar for a better view and watched as the musicians began their warm-up.
The trumpet player leaned against the piano, regaling the pianist and the bassist with a story, his voice muted by the excited chatter that filled the room. The bassist laughed and glanced briefly down at his instrument. None of the players showed signs of uneasiness, but the drummer seemed to have an unruly energy. A smirk crossed his face as he twirled his sticks and tapped one rapidly against his knee in anticipation. The audience members slowly took their seats and the room fell silent.
As soon as the musicians began to play, Billy felt his heart beating in his throat. He glanced back and forth between instruments as the musicians riffed off each other, throwing in unpredictable improvisations. Somehow, the composition sounded perfectly polished.
From across the room, Nick caught his eye and nodded in the other direction. Billy followed his gaze and spotted the owner who had now moved to be closer to the stage. His expression was sour, but Billy noticed him inadvertently tapping his feet. To ensure he wouldn’t be discovered, Billy shifted further along the wall. He couldn’t see the drummer as clearly from his new spot, but he was in perfect view of the alto sax. Sometimes Billy liked to imagine he was playing with them. Going on late night jam sessions, and taking breaks between sets in the back lane behind the bar. He’d always wondered what happened behind the scenes.
When Billy was little, he’d begged his parents for a pair of drumsticks. When he finally got his first pair, he played constantly, tapping them against every table and desk. He was often sent home from school with disapproving notes from his teacher. Even Billy’s parents didn’t approve of his beloved hobby, but he continued to practice whenever and wherever he could.
Eventually, when Billy was nine years old, a vinyl record store opened near his house. The day it opened, he spent hours listening to records in one of the listening booths. From then on, he visited the store every day to wander the stacks, absorbed in the wonderful world of jazz music. He first met Nick while browsing through a new shipment of Electro Swing albums, and discovered live jazz during his first visit to The Midnight Hour. He was lucky that Nick had taken a liking to him, or he would have been caught a long time ago.
Billy turned an empty crate upside down and climbed on top to regain an unobstructed view of the drummer, he could see that his mouth now formed a crooked grin. Stranger yet, he seemed to be looking directly at Billy. The drummer nodded his head and continued to play without missing a beat, his sticks moving rapidly across the set. His arms seemed to move independently from his body as though, if he moved them fast enough, his head might just float away into space.
Without thinking, Billy began to walk towards the stage. He weaved through tables, until he stood directly in front of the players. He’d never been that close to the musicians before. When he arrived at the front, the drummer’s smile widened and he motioned for Billy to join them on stage.
Billy wanted to join them, but his legs wouldn’t move; they were glued to the spot. He couldn’t tell if he was breathing properly. It felt as though time had slowed down and then come to an abrupt stop. The drummer began to laugh. Eventually, Billy managed to pick up one foot, then the other, and he slowly made his way over to the drum set. He could feel the hot lights on his face. Luckily the corner with the drum set was dimly lit. Standing awkwardly beside the drum kit, Billy looked out into the audience for the first time and saw everyone’s faces instead of their backs. In amongst the crowd, Billy spotted the owner who was now fuming. Directly beside him stood Nick, who held out a protective arm and muttered something with great intensity. The band had a captive audience. In the middle of the number, the drummer got up from his seat and passed Billy his sticks. Without a word, Billy accepted his spot and took a deep breath.
Later that evening, he sat outside the back door, surrounded by a circle of the band members. They all laughed as Billy told them about the creative ways he snuck into the bar almost every night.
“You were pretty good up there, kid.” the drummer commented.
Billy wanted to say so much more, but he resisted the urge. Instead, he sat in silence and listened. He tried his very best to memorize every detail of the best night of his life before it slipped through his fingers. The musicians talked amongst themselves for several minutes and then all got up to leave.
“Will we see you here next week, Billy?”
Billy smiled as he watched the band walk together down the back alley, dragging their feet on the cobblestones below. When Billy turned towards home, he felt as though he was walking on air.
This short story by Charlotte Taylor is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition.