Lily danced through the world. Often, the world danced through her. Melodies played in her mind, some thrilling and orchestral, others rhythmic and singular.
She was born, quiet and sombre, into a world that flashed its lights and thrust faces into her sharp eyes. She saw everything: the smiles of her parents welcoming her, the frowns of the nurses and doctors, the later grief invading and shattering her parents’ world.
The hospital visits, the wires and bleep tests, the headphones and the heavy expectation that weighed upon her – to hear something, to perfectly press the button at every high and low sound. Sounds that wailed, discordant, and vibrated with timbre. Ghostly machines.
As she grew, Lily exceeded her parent’s expectations. The sharp edges of their grief rounded, and eventually chipped away. To her, language was textured like the dry smooth pages of a book. It looked like the moving bows of lips, a vibrato in the throat, sound disturbing the silence of the air. If she looked away, it was inarticulate, wordless, language without context.
Inside her head, the tinnitus grew, a note for every unknown sound, firing neurons of light across her imagination. In the dark, the orchestra played. Strings wailed, pianos scaled, trumpets blasted. She heard snatches of pop songs on the radio or on a screen, their throbbing rhythm tattooing long after they were finished. Sounds came from nowhere, never ceasing, only fading into the background when her focus on the world around her sharpened. Bass lines followed the beating of her heart.
She was fifteen the day her life changed. It was one of those sticky, restless summer days. Azure sky, bright green leaves, the calico cat panting in the shade. Lily put down her book, stroking the pages, hung on a turn of phrase. Her mind drifted, and the melody began. Starting slow, a gentle violin. It built as the other instruments chimed in and she directed the orchestra to a powerful, climbing crescendo.
A noise and flash of movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention. Her mother, mouth in an ‘o’, a frown of confusion creasing her forehead.
‘Where is that noise coming from?’ were the fateful words her mother spoke.
She replied, ‘What noise?’
‘An orchestra. Can’t you hear it? It’s so loud. And it’s coming from everywhere.’ She frowned again. ‘A violin. Haunting.’
The violin finished its solo. Lily met her mother’s unfocussed eyes and smiled. A world of secrets hid behind it.
‘It’s finished. How strange,’ Lily’s mother said.
Her mother went inside, and Lily was left alone once again with her book, pondering the labyrinth of her own mind.
It was night when it happened again. This time, a woman singing the blues. Her rich, honeyed voice slid through the dark, ‘I believe my baby got a black cat bone, seem like everything I do, I do it wrong…’
The light in the hall came on, and the voice carried on. ‘You see I tried real hard to get along with that man of mine…’ Lily threw off the covers and emerged blinking into the hall. Her mother stood, listening. Her brows were drawn together and her lips pursed.
‘That music,’ she said. ‘Where is it coming from?’
They both stood in the hall. Her mother listening to the sultry blues saxophone and the beautiful velvet voice. ‘But it seemed like the harder I tried, the more he’d walk around cheatin’ and lyin’…’
Her father’s head peeked out from around the door with sleep tousled hair. Lily rubbed her eyes.
‘What does it sound like?’ she asked. The song trailed off.
‘It is – it was – like a jazz band were playing, right here.’
Another of Lily’s mysterious smiles acknowledged how peculiar life was. As she went back into her room, her hips swayed a little, unconsciously following the faded blues. Her mother switched the light off, and Lily drifted to sleep.
The morning began with Lily gliding downstairs, Bo the black cat racing down ahead of her. Her father was in the kitchen, reading the Saturday paper whilst he fried French toast. Warm cinnamon and the tang of olive oil filled the air. Lily sat down at the table, and pulled out the magazine supplement that came with the paper.
Absorbed in an interview with one of her favourite writers, a happy smooth rhythm started up in her head, peppy but gentle. Her feet tapped against the wooden floor. She got up to pour herself another cup of coffee, doing a little hop on the way. Her father was staring at her with narrowed eyes.
‘Morning, Dad. A little bit hungover?’
‘What song is that?’
‘It sounds a lot like a fifties pop song.’
The smell of burning distracted their attention, and her Dad flapped around, turning off the hob and opening the window.
‘I’ll have the burnt one,’ she said. She liked her toast a little burnt.
Her mother came in to see what the commotion was.
‘I could have sworn –’she paused. ‘What is it, Jack? Why can I smell burning?’
‘I heard music. Again.’
‘I thought you had the radio on?’
‘Look, maybe it’s the neighbours. I can go and have a chat with Miriam. Maybe Lewis is listening to music.’
‘I doubt he’d listen to music at 4am in the morning. He’s not the type to listen to blues and jazz – or – fifties pop. He’s seventeen, for chrissakes.’ Her Dad rubbed his head.
‘Yes, there is that. Orchestra yesterday too. Very odd.’
Lily poured herself a cup of coffee.
‘Perhaps we have a ghost?’ she said. She smiled at them, one eyebrow cocked.
‘Oh, Lil.’ Her Dad smiled. Her Mum walked up to the kettle and put some more water on.
‘I’ll pop round anyway. I need to give Miri something,’ her Mum said.
The morning faded into the afternoon, a long Saturday punctuated by words swirling around Lily’s head in a maelstrom of spindly black. Bo kept her company. She moved into the garden later on, the rainclouds having receded, the warmth of golden hour setting everything alight. The neighbour’s calico cat wandered up on to the patio. Bo stared daggers, but didn’t hiss. They had an uneasy truce. Lily smiled, and set her book down, taking another sip of her tea.
A head popped over the fence. Lily ignored Lewis’s challenging gaze. She knew what she would see – his black messy hair and intense grey eyes framed with sardonic eyebrows. She had made it clear she wasn’t interested. A powerful bass line built in her mind, an angry loud rock melody, belying her stiff posture.
‘Don’t hang around, ‘cause two’s a crowd, on my cloud…’
‘What do you want, Lewis?’ she said, turning her narrowed eyes onto him.
‘What’s that music? Your Mum came round today, asking about it. I have headphones. She was talking about orchestras and blues music. Not my kind of thing. Wow, that was really loud.’ He flashed her a grin.
‘Do you have, like, a hidden stereo or something?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ She took another sip of her tea. It was cold.
‘Look, just tell me. I won’t be mad, promise.’
‘No, you won’t. You’ve got that down already.’
‘Burn.’ He raised one of his eyebrows, not seeming the least bit offended. ‘Seriously though. Seriously. I know you like the blues.’
‘And?’ Lily stood up, ready to move back inside. The garden was getting dark.
‘Come on Lil. I’ve known you longer than that. Mum is on my back. Please. I’ll bear it if you just tell me what’s going on.’
‘Nothing’s going on. I don’t know anything about this music.’
Lewis rolled his eyes. ‘Fine, whatever. Catch you Monday.’
On Sunday evening, Lily’s parents both sported bloodshot eyes and frayed tempers. Her Dad spent two hours in the attic looking for hidden stereos, music boxes and tape-recorders. Her Mum had spoken again to Lewis over the garden fence and had stormed back in, not talking to her husband or daughter until Lily brought her a cup of camomile tea.
‘Look, Jack. Do you think it’s –’
‘I’ve been in that attic for two hours, Moira. I’m telling you, it’s not anything!’ He ran a hand through his hair, smearing his forehead with dirt.
Lily watched them over her open book.
‘Mum. Dad. It’s just music. Maybe it’ll go away if you just leave it alone.’
‘All due respect, Lil, you’re lucky you can’t hear it. Although – maybe your aids are on the fritz,’ her Dad said. He frowned. ‘It’s strange that you can’t hear it at all, darling.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that I’m not listening when it’s playing. I’ve been reading all weekend.’ A knot of annoyance worked its way into her chest.
‘We’re not blaming you. You just need to pay more attention –’
‘John! It’s got nothing to do with her.’
‘I’m going upstairs. I’ve had enough,’ she said.
A trail of pounding rock music followed in her wake. Her parents’ wide eyes watched her retreat.
In the library during last period, Lily browsed the stacks and decided to sit on the floor to read. She was at home surrounded by the musty smell of old books, quiet whispery voices hinting at unread stories. Lewis had shot her meaningful looks all the way through English whilst her oblivious support tutor had written her the class transcript. She shot out of class before he had a chance to catch up with her. It wasn’t that she didn’t like him. In fact, he was annoyingly attractive, so long as he didn’t open his mouth.
Lily had avoided her parents that morning, just shooting a goodbye before she left the house with a blueberry pop tart. She hadn’t wanted to find out if they had heard it again in the night, or if there had been another soundtrack to their morning. She didn’t see what the big deal was. She lived her life with music inside her head and had learnt to cope with it.
She pulled out her battered copy of Persuasion, and opened it to her favourite place, where Wentworth meets Anne after their long absence from each other. A shadow fell across the page. She recognised Lewis’s battered black Converse with soles he had coloured with black stripes. Gritting her teeth, she willed herself not to groan. Her eyes met his without flinching.
‘What? What do you want, Lewis?’
He sat down opposite her, without his usual smirk.
‘I think your house is haunted.’
She snorted. ‘And what makes you think that?’
‘All right. Don’t laugh. I heard your Mum talking to mine this morning. She heard music on and off last night. Then again this morning.’
‘Well, it isn’t like I’d be able to hear it.’
‘Obviously! I mean…’
She scowled. ‘Whatever.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that. Just – whatever’s going on, it’s like these weird disembodied voices. Like there’s a band playing and they can’t decide what stuff to play. I’ve got some info here -’ he thrust a pile of paper into her hands ‘that backs up my theory. A ghost band, right? How cool is that?’
‘You know how you sound right now?’
‘I’m not crazy. I’ve heard all this stuff about energy spots and time loops.’
She smiled. ‘Even if all this was possible –’ she waved the paper at him, ‘what could you do? Call the Ghostbusters?’
‘If you’d just look at the print-outs, you’ll find a do it yourself exorcism.’
‘Lewis, you’re kidding.’
He shot her one of his famous smirks. ‘What have you got to lose? It will shut our parents up if it’s actually successful.’
She sighed. He had a point. She couldn’t take any more of their bickering.
‘Fine. Meet me after, we’ll walk home.’
He stood up. ‘You need another copy of that book. It looks like it’s falling apart.’
She glared at him and he backed away with his hands up. He threw her a wink and she shook her head.
Lily hissed, frustrated. ‘How many more times do we have to do this?’
‘It was meant to work the first time!’ Lewis threw his hands up, spraying salt into the air.
A fast tempo orchestral piece started up. Lily glared at the table. Her parents weren’t going to be happy with the mess.
‘Can you hear that?’ asked Lewis.
‘No. I’m starting to think you’re all imagining it.’ She grinned.
‘Or that?’ he asked, as a humorous ditty rang out.
She shrugged. ‘Nope. All I can hear is your voice and the tinnitus.’
‘Oh yeah, you told me about the tinnitus.’ He froze.
‘What is it?’ She glanced around the room.
‘Uh. Tell me something, Lil.’ He raised one of his sardonic eyebrows.
‘Yeah, what? Hurry up, my parents will be back in half an hour. We’ve got to tidy up.’ She grabbed a bin bag.
‘This tinnitus, right? Didn’t you tell me it was some sort of music hallucination thing?’
‘Sometimes. More often nowadays. Why?’
‘Think about it. Seriously.’
She sighed. ‘Is this another one of your conspiracies?’
‘No. No, think about it. Remember, I heard that rock music in the garden? It was just you and me out there.’
Lily considered. Whilst she considered, a violin played a gentle lilt.
‘See? See? What did you hear in your head?’
‘Nothing really. It was – oh.’ Understanding dawned in her eyes. Lewis laughed.
‘You’re impossible, Lily.’
She smiled one of her enigmatic, mysterious smiles.
‘Want to dance?’ Lewis asked.
A slow blues song lit up the small space. ‘The moon may be high, but I can’t see a thing in the sky…’
Lily danced through the world, and took his hand.