The day could not have been more lovely, nor could the venue. Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens with it's wide, open spaces, perfectly manicured lawns and long, meandering avenues lined with majestic English Elms seemed the perfect place for the sounds of beautiful, classical music.
Andy felt surprisingly calm as he and the others made their way into the Gardens from where the taxi had dropped them off on Wellington Parade. It was a beautiful summer's day, not too warm, a light breeze kept the temperature even in the Gardens as it wafted through the trees, rustling the leaves. Andy was glad he had dressed appropriately - a linen shirt and pants and comfortable leather shoes which he had purchased in the City the previous day. He actually felt pleased with his appearance. He looked smart yet relaxed - a world away from the attire he would have once chosen to wear. As he walked across the manicured grounds Andt felt a strange sort of deja vu about this place, a sense of familiarity that had him smiling inwardly. The old maxim "in another life" came to mind. He had been to these gardens - he remembered them. Denny and Soneya spent many times here walking and talking, holding hands, laying on the grass in each others arms, kissing. This had been one of their places.
The group from the Consevatory had spent the weekend acquainting themselves with their new surroundings, after dealing with the inevitable jet lag from 15 hours in the air. They settled into their accomodation at the hotel that was not too far from the Gardens. They had explored the city, dined out in cosmopolitan eateries that Andy knew well - in that other life. They had gotten to know one another better - something that there had been barely enough time for since they'd left Chicago. Among them was the shy and painfully quiet Alistair Stephens who was a couple of years younger than Andy. Andy regarded him as technically suprerior to him as a guitarist. However Stephens had revealed during the trip that he was prone to bouts of stage fright so severe that they were nearly paralyzing. As such he had fairly low expectations for this competition. Annaliese Ingram was a tall red head with characteristically tight curls and a more easy going nature. Annaliese had attended competitions like this before and had won a number of prestigious awards both in Japan and in London. She had been among the top performers in Andy's class and one of the first selected for the Chicago delegation. Then there was Michyko. Both Andy and Michyko were the two first timers of the group. Michyko was a sweet girl, wide eyed and enthusiastic. She had become a sort of team motivator for them all. Whenever one of them was feeling apprhensive or anxious about their upcoming performance she was there offering encouragment and reassurance. Regardless of the outcome, they were here in this wonderful country, representing their school in an event that was truly prestigious. That alone was a significant achievement for all of them.
Today Andy alone would be performing in his heat and they had all come to cheer him on and provide moral support. Andy noted there was a steady build up of people coming into the Gardens to see today's performances. He noted large groups of friends and families who had set themselves up on the lawns of the gardens near to a historic spanish inspired conservatory that housed spectacular floral displays. People spread out on picnic blankets, served food from large wicker baskets filled with pre-prepared lunches, bottles of wine and champagne. Children ran bare foot on grass playing chasey, playing cricket or throwing a ball back and forth near to a natural amphitheater, where seating had been arranged for the Orchestra.
Andy was more than a little star struck that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra had been seconded to provide the accompaniment for several of the performers throughout the week. The orchestra was regarded as one of the finest in the world and just the thought that he might play with such an esteemed group – if he was lucky enough to make it through to the semi final round – made him feel giddy. Not even Denny had known that experience.
In this place of beauty and serenity, so far away from everything Andy had ever known, any residual apprehension he might have harbored fell away. He smiled at the familiarity he felt with these gardens. He took in the surroundings, the people gathering – visitors, family, friends and performers who were milling about already, chatting happily amongst themselves, sipping champagne and laughing. Andy marveled at how relaxed they seemed.
Michyko tapped Andy gently on the arm as his attention meandered on the audience around him so much so that he had begun drifting away from the group a little.
Andy blushed as he realized where his inattention had lead him. Michyko smiled warmly.
"You seem a little dazzled by all this" she observed cheerily.
"Yeah...I guess I am," he replied languidly. "Have you ever been in a more beautiful place?"
Michyko scanned around her and nodded in agreement.
"It is very pretty here. We're so lucky - don't you think?"
Andy regarded earnestly and smiled.
"Indeed" he answered simply. “I feel very fortunate”
“Are you nervous?” Michyko questioned him gently.
“Yeah...but not so much now. I feel surprisingly calm actually. I guess I've spent a lot of time mentally preparing myself. International flights seem great for that”
Michyko laughed at his little joke as the group made their way across to the registration marquee where today's performers were required to sign in and receive their performance schedule. Their was also a place there for them to leave their instruments until it was their turn to perform.
Andy was suddenly a little hesitant to leave his guitar there even though the area was guarded and secure. He slung his guitar bag off his shoulder and held it close until an attendant came over.
"Good morning. Shall I take that for you?" she asked cheerily.
"It will be safe here. We have plenty of eyes. Nothing will happen to it, I can assure you"
Andy reluctantly handed it over and watched as she placed it on a rack at the back of the marquee then returned with a ticket.
"Here you are. Now all you need to do is present that when you are ready and we'll have your guitar waiting for you"
Andy nodded silently then made his way over to the line of tables where the registration officers were handling the performers. Andy had already completed his paper work and took it from his pocket and handed it to a kindly man, who checked it over and ran a biro down a list before him.
"Andrew DeVries," he confirmed. "Here you are. You'll be required for the first group after the luncheon interval at one o'clock."
The man handed Andy a lanyard with a photo card of himself attached to it as well as a glossy folfer containing a booklet of the week's program. Andy took a moment to check the information on his identification then he examined the booklet.
Suddenly his eyes went wide.
There on the page was a description telling him that the concert series had been renamed as a memorial trophy - the Dennis Banister Memorial Trophy. Andy quickly opened the program he had been given and flicked through a couple of pages until his eyes fell across a photograph of a young man.
It was as though he were looking in a mirror.
The description beside Denny's photo read;
'This years emerging talent concert series has been named the Dennis Banister Memorial Trophy by Festival Director Jochen Zinski in honor of virtuoso guitarist Dennis Banister who lost his battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma early last year'.
Andy's heart thudded noisily in his head then and his palms became sweaty. The registration official looked up at Andy concerned seeing all of the color drain from Andy's face.
"Are you alright son? You look as though you've seen a ghost"
Andy shook his head and forced a smile. The irony wasn't lost on him.
"N...No, everything's fine" he answered, tripping over his words.
He continued to read the program as he stepped back from the registration table.
'In what is hoped will become a lasting tribute, the award will presented this year by Dennis' partner, Soneya Llewellyn'
His mouth went dry, he felt light headed and suddenly Andy felt as though the world was spinning out of control.
'Soneya's here!?' his mind shouted, reverberating throughout his brain. Instantly he began looking around him, scanning the gardens and the crowd looking for her – but of course he couldn't see her.
Other contestants were completing their own registrations for their own performances. Andy stepped back from the tent. Michyko noticed Andy standing alone and went over to him. She noticed his shocked expression.
"Andy...are you okay?" she asked, feeling worried for him all of a sudden. "You look sick"
Andy quickly regained his composure, wiping beads of sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve.
"I...I'm okay. I just thought I saw...someone I knew"
Andy checked his watch whilst still scanning the crowd, more discreetly this time. It was still only early so he had several hours to go before his own performance. They had the opportunity to mingle, watch the mornings concert heats or relax in the open air dining pavilion beyond the amphitheater where other entrants were relaxing. All the while his mind was asking 'Is she here, is she here?'
"You're not suddenly nervous again are you?" Michyko asked Andy as they headed across to the pavilion.
"A little I guess," he answered quietly, not quite truthfully. "I've chosen to go with an arrangement that isn't very well known so I hope I don't balls it up completely"
Michyko laughed sweetly.
"You love living on the edge aren't you" she remarked. "But I guess for someone of your talent, I guess that's where you flourish best huh?"
Andy regarded her with a lop sided smile, finally feeling himself beginning to relax.
"You seem to know me better than I do. What have you gone for?"
Michyko gulped a little and showed him a piece of sheet music she held.
"I've been practicing Paganini's Caprice in A Minor, the finale. It's been my obsession ever since I began playing the guitar. I've been practising it ever since I applied for the competition"
"That's a beautiful piece," Andy mused. "I'm sure you'll do well. You're bound to be better practiced than I am"
“Gosh I doubt that” Michyko laughed as they entered the Pavillion.
The Pavillion had been set up a little way beyond the conservatory in a fenced off area. There were tables and chairs, an open air bar and a dining area that provided catering to the performers, delegates and invited guests of the Festival. The group entered, ordered morning tea and seated themselves at a table. Andy regarded the program on the table, kept picking it up and studying it nervously. He kept looking around, searching their surroundings for her until their coffee's arrived. The others seemed to take it as a sign of his nervousness about performing rather than anything else and thankfully didn't question him about it. Finally the coffee's arrived and he finally diverted his attention away from the program and the group chatted for a while before the concert began. When the morning concert session began they wandered across to the lawns in front of the Conservatory to watch the performances. Right away, Andy knew the competition was going to be fierce.
Not far from the Pavillion another taxi pulled up against the curb. The doors opened and Soneya stepped out along with Denny's sister Joss. Soneya quickly paid the fare and the two women stepped forward surveying the Garden's and the growing crowds of people there.
Soneya put on a large sun hat and her sunglasses and looked over at Joss raising her eyebrow.
"You know, I haven't been among this many people in months," she commented.
Joss smiled breezily, brushed down her dress and took off her sandles as they crossed over the lawns towards the Festival's epicenter.
"Well today's the day that you're going to enjoy yourself - just for you. Okay?"
Joss took Soneya's hand and together they headed towards the stage area.
* * *
Andy collected his guitar from the tent and spent a little time adjusting the strings, tuning the guitar until he achieved what he felt was the best sound. He had done a good job in repair the guitar and despite the bullet hole it appeared almost brand new. Michyko kept him company as he walked across the lawn to just behind the stage area. He was glad for for her presence even though her enthusiasm was a little too much right now. He introduced himself to an official there who checked him off and wished him good luck. He felt the rush of adrenaline, his nerves sang like electric wires. This was it. All those long months of struggle, both with himself and with his gift had boiled down to this. He was never more focused as he was now.
Michyko squeezed his hand and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Good luck Andy” she said sincerely. “You'll be wonderful. You have come so far”
Andy smiled at Michyko and nodded, impressed by her observation.
“Thank you” he said quietly.
Stepping up onto the stage, Andy seated himself on the stool there and adjusted the microphone in front of him. He scanned the audience in front of who had turned their attention firmly to him waiting in anticipation - so different were they to the crowds that crammed into The Pub to hear him play. He looked for her in the crowd but could not see her.
Was she there?
He closed his eyes as he picked up the guitar hoping to feel her presence but he sensed nothing.
As birds chirped the tress and the breeze picked up ever do slightly, Andy began his preparatory breathing exercise waiting for the MC to finish his introduction of Andy to the audience. Andy's fingers hovered near the strings readying themselves to play, waiting for his cue.
The audience clapped politely – they sounded so distant in his ears. He began his piece "The Sounds Of Rain". Touching his fingers to the strings he sought that perfect first chord, found it efortlessly and launched himself - at first with a concentration so intense - for he was wary of faltering on the introductory refrain. Then he relaxed into it eliciting a sound from the weathered guitar that was all at once crisp and full and soulful, capturing vivid imagery of rainfall that rippled through the audience and caused them to sit up and take notice immediately. Before he was even fully into it, every head had turned towards him. Andy disappeared into the music moving with it, feeling completely in concert with Denny as the piece flowed from their collective memory and into his fingers translating it with effortless beauty and poise. Not once did he need to open his eyes - every sense was alive in lieu of his need to watch over his technique and his playing was flawless.
And in the audience, far from the stage, Soneya watched utterly hypnotized by the stranger who played before them. Her heart jumped as he began his performance. She knew the piece right away. It had been Denny's favorite - a piece which he'd told her was the first he'd ever learned when he had began playing the guitar as a boy. He had played it for her often, especially when they used to escape from the city to the beach house and spend long weekends there when it was raining - relaxing, holding one another, making love...
And everything about the stranger up on the stage now - from the way he held the guitar, the way he moved with the music to the exquisite sound he produced - touched off memories within her so intense that she was paralyzed before him. Their was something eerily familiar about his performance – something that she dared not allow herself to consider. Looking over at Soneya, Joss – who was as equally stunned - remained clear headed enough to notice than Soneya was utterly transfixed. Not even a gentle hand upon her shoulder could budge her attention from the performance.
As he progressed towards the final flourishes of flamenco Andy infused a gentle emotional intensity into his performance allowing it to lift both him and his audience towards the slowing conclusion of the piece where he trailed it softly away, his fingers softened their touch upon the strings until the music ended.
The audience was on their feet clapping and cheering and whistling enthusiastically as Andy relaxed back on his seat and opened his eyes lowering the guitar with a smile. A rush of endorphins surged through him and he knew he had achieved something very special. He nodded respectfully to the audience, kissed his guitar and threw a beaming glance down to Michyko, Annaliese and Alistair who clapped proudly. Then, finally he stood, bowed and stepped down onto the lawn where he was embraced by the others.
"Oh my god that was brilliant Andy!" Michyko squeaked as they moved away towards the tent where he had stored his guitar earlier.
"You definitely aced that," added Annaliese admiringly.
Andy breathed out through his cheeks and shivered.
"I think I need a beer" he said shakily.
* * *
The performers, delegates, officials and invited guests gathered in the pavillion at the end of the day to mingle, to dine and to enjoy a celebratory drink after what had been a hectic but successful day. In the warm and pleasant dusk of the Melbourne evening, where a beautiful sunset graced the city skyline Andy felt a little overwhelmed at the attention he was receiving. So many people had offered their congratulations on his performance and wished him well for the semi final. He had won convincingly – having been announced the second finalist for the day. He hadn't yet grasped the full realization that he was through. It was all too surreal. He had held a lovely, if a little surreal, conversation with Jochen Zinski who made a point of meeting both him and the other finalist from the day – a young french woman who had performed a interpretation of Handel's Harmonious Blacksmith by Mauro Giuliani. He'd felt that familiar twinge of deja vu in the presence of Denny's former mentor – amazed at how potent his memories were of his old life and friendship with the renowned artist. They talked easily and Zinski had been impressed by Andy's polite and gentle way.
Soneya and Joss were there too in another part of the pavillion mingling with some of Zinski's colleagues as they enjoyed horderves and champagne. Soneya was feeling considerably more relaxed now, possibly more as a result of the champagne than anything else but at least she felt as though she could enjoy herself. She discreetly scanned the crowd looking for the stranger who had made such an impression on everyone earlier in the afternoon. She had a name for him now – Andy DeVries – a Chicagoan apparently for whom this was his first appearance at any sort of festival of note. Though she hadn't sought him out overtly, so far this evening she hadn't seen him.
Her emotions were a mixture. She had been so moved by his performance – by everything about it and she was afraid to admit that she was intrigued by him. And with those feelings came potent pangs of guilt – a sense of betrayal to Denny. That she should even allow herself to be intrigued by any man so soon after...
...Soneya desperately tried to push those feelings deep down as she clutched her champagne flute tighter in her hand and smiled pleasantly at Zinski's secretary Grace whom had spear-headed the arrangements for Soneya to attend the Festival.
“Isn't this a lovely evening dear?” Grace commented in an awkward tone noticing that Soneya seemed a little uneasy. “Have you enjoyed the Festival so far?”
Soneya caught herself, flushed with embarrassment for having forgotten herself and smiled warmly at Grace.
“I have...very much, thank you” she replied. “ It's been a while since I've been amongst so many people in the one place”
Grace nodded touched her glass to Soneya's.
“I totally understand. I'm not given to large gatherings either, however Jochen insisted that the troops put in an appearance at least once or twice during the week to keep the sponsors happy”.
They shared a light laugh together and shared a surveying gaze across the open air pavillion.
“Jochen was so glad that you decided to come. Denny was a wonderful student”.
Soneya blinked at her. She nodded gracefully, looking down at the grass beneath her feet.
Grace offered a sad smile.
“I'm sorry. I...I didn't mean to...”
“No, no – it's fine really” Soneya said reassuringly. “It's nice to hear so many wonderful comments about him. I'm really rather flattered by all the attention”.
However the conversation seemed to stall then and Grace excused herself which didn't escape the notice of Joss who sidled upto Soneya soon there after.
“Are you okay” she queried.
Soneya shook her head dismissing it out of hand.
“Yes. It's okay. It's funny how – even now people want to treat you with kid gloves. I don'y mind so much”.
“Do you want to get out of here? I don't think they'll notice if we slip away quietly”
Soneya considered her near empty champagne glass and quiclky polished off the remainder. She then cast her eyes around the pavillion as though she were searching...
“You're intrigued by him aren't you?” Joss smiled knowingly. Soneya flinched and glared at her realizing that Joss had been watching her.
“No. God no,” Soneya retorted a little weakily. Her eyes darted all around their environs, everywhere but at Joss.
“Soneya” Joss said almost chidingly, squeezing her hand gently. “It's alright you know...to...you know"
Soneya gasped softly and pulled her hand away, recoiling at Joss's apparent insight.
“No it's not Joss. Don't say that”
Joss gazed at Soneya with empathy and warmth.
“Soneya...You can't hide yourself away forever you know. Put yourself out there – I mean it. I'm Denny's sister and I am ordering you to at least – have a look!”
She put an arm around Soneya and squeezed her close.
“Besides – I thought he was kinda cute”
Soneya glared sarcastically at Joss then handed her glass over.
“Can you just get me another drink please?”
Joss laughed and sought out a nearby waiter and procured two glasses of champagne while Soneya surveyed the gathering in the pavillion. In the near distance her eyes fell across him – the stranger – standing with a group of performers chatting.
Andy looked sideways just as he lifted his beer to his lips and saw her there across the crowd standing alone. In that instant Andy's heart felt as though it had leapt into his throat before it settled back again and time seemed to slow to a crawl. He froze, holding the bottle , unable to move. The dormant emotions that, until now, he had only felt as echoes of Denny's became his own and as they rose to the surface Andy felt overwhelmed by them. He wanted to run to her, hold her in his arms. The length of time since he had been taken from her suddenly became very tangible – how long had it been? Only Andy's conscience held him back and prevented him from doing something rash. He then wanted to run, to hide, to look away but he couldn't. He was utterly transfixed.
But then Andy realized that she hadn't looked away either. Soneya was as equally frozen where she stood. In that moment there seemed to be a sense of recognition from her. Had she recognized him?
Did she know it was Denny?
As Joss handed Soneya a new glass of champagne and she took it, she tilted her head and smiled awkwardly. Soneya raised her glass slightly towards him and mouthed 'congratulations'.
Then she made her way through the crowd towards him.
Andy felt his mind swirl.