Story for Circular Breathers
130 years after the construction of St Cecilia’s Anglican Church & 2 decades since it was repurposed as The Jam Jar (London’s #1 EuroFunk venue), this cavernous hall welcomes a new audience, one that neither worships nor dances, but just stands there videoing, live tweeting, drinking & yammering over the dissonant monotone issuing from the stage, a scene that would have been unthinkable 5 years ago but is now a fixture of “Britain’s abandoned arts scene” (The Guardian), an arid culturescape in which Sara – the one with the clarinet – would seize any opportunity, no matter how tacky & artless & reductive & totally degrading –
but she can’t spare the bandwidth for self-pity, not with £1,000–£5,000 on the line & Mr Conductor prowling amongst the chairs in his faux-horsehair wig & Cabaret makeup, drivelling into a baton-shaped mic as he monitors the 3 remaining musicians – tenor sax, trombone & Sara – whose rivals have fallen 1 by 1: the trumpeter stormed off after a distinct quaver at 06:03, a pregnant flutist was dragged backstage by the medic at 29:29, & the rest (08:50, 14:10, 21:12) are still slumped in their chairs, breathing long & deep of the deconsecrated air, gazing up at the cupola with its Parliament–Funkadelic mural & contemplating another Deliveroo shift or 2 or 3,000, a situation Mr Conductor once joked about in Glasgow after a fainting oboist had chipped a tooth – “If you want to offer your sympathies in person, just order UberEats after the show” – but there was some pushback so he now sticks to lighter topics: Strictly, football, “tromboner”, his brief tenure on Coronation Street – a trusty fund of patter he balances with the contestants’ backstories: “Hari had just made second sax when his orchestra folded – Hari today, gone tomorrow”; “Derek’s an avant-garde trombonist, so this racket sounds like Mozart to him”; & “Sara, our clarinettist cutie, is an aspiring jazz musician”, which is a pretty bleak summary of Sara’s career; it doesn’t reflect the strides she made after arriving in London 3 years ago, landing a job at a now-shuttered vegan café, building a reputation at open mics, guesting in 7 proper club gigs, 1 of which was reviewed by Jazzwise.com (pretty fucking good) – but then the scene went into what was advertised as a brief cryogenic freeze but transpired to be an Ice Age only giants could survive, so other than a trickle of at-home shifts transcribing focus groups (she knows HSBC’s next slogan & it’s shit), Sara’s had 0 income this year, leaving her with £104 & 2 options: 1. win this contest (£1,000 ≈ 2 months’ frugal living) or 2. return home to hope-not-hope Dad can hook her up at Essex Supplies, purveyors of cardboard straws & other disposable essentials, so it struck her as a pretty shitty omen when she overheard that after their 3-night Jam Jar engagement, Mr Conductor & co. are heading to Essex’s top jazz spot, The Boutique in Chelmsford, a pub at which Sara performed countless times before leaving for London & which now seems to be reaching out of the past to ensnare her, & she’s decided if she loses this contest, she’ll ask Mr Conductor for a lift, saving on train fare so she can spend her last weekend in London drinking every penny of her £104 –
and if she were to ask – just hypothetically, this is – Mr Conductor would gladly welcome a captive audience into his Skoda; he’d blether all down the A13 about his 9-episode Corrie arc, his useless agent, the inherent bias of divorce law, the way his jaw does this clicky thing since he got punched by a Glaswegian oboist – click click click – & about how this circular breathing show may be crass but isn’t without potential, like what if instead of holding a single note (the definition of monotony!), the competitors came on individually to play compositions without rests (Paganini, Bach, Reich), but no, no, no, the all-knowing philistine – ahem – producer has been at this for 2 years & “no audience wants 5 hours of classical music played at them”; they’d apparently rather endure 30+ minutes of atonal droning in the hopes that someone breaks the world record for circular breathing, a niche ability that so fascinates Mr Conductor, he’d tell Sara in the Skoda, that last week he took the advice of a digeridoo player (rare beast, guaranteed crowd-pleaser) & looped a rubber tube up his nostril & out his mouth, which made him sick in the Travelodge sink but helped him visualise the architecture of his airways, & he’d ask Sara how long she’d spent mastering the skill, to which she’d listlessly respond that she’d invested ~20 hours of her teens blowing bubbles through a bamboo straw until she could keep the water dancing for minutes on end because only then would the YouTube tutorial let her put her lips to the clarinet, whereupon it took for-fucking-ever until she could hold a clear, unwavering note for an extended period – but this would be all she’d share with Mr Conductor, whose matey persona in the car she’d find irreconcilable with his onstage cruelty; she wouldn’t disclose how she’d banked on circular breathing to give her an edge in London (which it did: Jazzwise praised her stamina) or how this contest had seemed like a personalised gift from God or how she’d spent all week trying the patience of her Bromley flatmates as she pursued the world record for longest-held note: 51:38, blown on a sax in 2017 by Femi Kuti (son of Fela Kuti), who himself had broken Kenny G’s record of 45:47, which was still 3 minutes longer than Sara’s best,
but she doesn’t need to make 51:38 tonight (although winning the full £5,000 would ≈ salvation); she just has to outlast Hari the saxophonist & Derek the “tromboner” to secure a 2-month reprieve from returning limp-tailed to Chelmsford, so when Hari’s timbre flags at the 35-minute mark, Sara’s heart swells with the realistic hope of victory – but she can’t let her adrenaline rise too sharply so she busies her mind with a breath-check: the continuous pull through her nostrils, then the mouth siphoning enough air to vibrate the reed while the rest dives into the famished lungs as they strain to oxygenate enough blood for the brain, which is currently cooperating but will eventually shut down the whole operation & take what it needs, usually with a semi-pleasurable spinning sensation & quick fade to black, after which Sara will wake up to failure, defeat, the fizzle of a dream – but these thoughts are unhelpful; she needs to drive them from her mind (along with Chelmsford & her £104 bank balance & the closures of her 2 fav jazz clubs & the vegan café) so she forces herself to visualise Mr Conductor announcing she’s broken Femi Kuti’s record, at which point she’ll stand (if she can) & slide from her E♭ into the opening glissando of “Rhapsody in Blue”, that glorious Gershwin trill that’s knocking at her lips, begging to be launched into the fab acoustics of The Jam Jar, & she’ll fly up with it, go twisting among the rafters, out above the city, smooth breeze on her forehead, Thames & bridges & traffic far below as she rides cool, invisible currents to the clouds & moon – but now the words “39 minutes into the hardest-fought…” bounce dully off her skull & she realises her thoughts have gone weird & the lights have dimmed & her gaze has drifted up to the cupola where the members of Parliament–Funkadelic melt into an undulating pool of colours & Mr Conductor’s swimming over cupping his ear like the Grinch & the din of the audience rises endlessly like a Shepard tone & the reed’s vibration rattles Sara’s eyes in their sockets all of which can only mean 1 thing but she’s gotta keep blowing gotta let this fucking thing play out because there’s no restarts no 2nd chance so just keep breathing & blowing & breathing blowing breathingblowingbreathing –
– Hari hits the stage face-first, sending a shockwave through Sara’s ballerina shoes, & as the medic jogs on, rolls the blue-faced saxophonist over & gives a thumbs up to Mr Conductor, Sara finds she’s still conscious, the lights have risen, Parliament–Funkadelic have re-formed & Mr Conductor is eying her with surprise & respect – “She’s still with us!” – & the audience bursts into applause that says she’s their favourite now, & Sara, who’s fainted ~30 times this week & has never returned from the brink like this, flaps her elbows & stamps her feet as her fallen foe climbs back onto his chair to recuperate (“We knew he was a survivor, didn’t we, folks? Hardy Hari!”), & as the audience roars again, Sara turns her eyes to Derek the avant-garde trombonist, scrutinising him for fatigue now that she’s refreshed & ready, like the timer’s just begun, but all she sees below his wiry eyebrows is a commitment that mirrors her own, & she wonders what would happen if they both reached 51:39 then stopped at the exact same moment: would they each get £5,000? or have to split it? & how could she communicate her plan to Derek? & would he go for it? –
at which point her cheeks swell taut & Derek’s eyes gleam as he looks to Mr Conductor for confirmation – “Looks like a technical malfunction for our clarinettist cutie” – & before Sara can even name what’s happened, she’s out.
Red Skoda, 22 miles from Chelmsford, 75mph.
All £104 of Sara’s liquified fortune sloshing in her gut.
Mr Conductor – Eric – has a gift for reading anyone’s silence as rapt engagement. He’s happy to monologue: “The all-knowing philistine,” “the architecture of my airways,” etc., etc. Outside, the landscape of Sara’s adolescence flies past in the wrong direction.
Hard not to puke. Puke or sob: both potentials grip her windpipe in little spasms. Hand on forehead, elbow on window, window rattling like a wrong-sized reed. The white noise of tyres on motorway. ’70s pop on the radio. The start of “Rhapsody in Blue” looping through her brain.
After Derek the trombonist fell sideways (46:52), Mr Conductor invited the audience to come back tomorrow, “when Femi Kuti’s record might – might, ladies and gentlemen, who knows? – finally be smashed by another batch of talented musicians, let’s hear it for them one last time”. Sara arranged her ride backstage, ascertained there were no openings for the Chelmsford contests, then dropped £52 on Lidl vodka and banged on all her flatmates’ doors: “Nicki! Saanvi! New girl! We’re drinking!” When she woke the next evening, she kicked off 33 hours of boozy Tube rides and depressing lasts: last drinks, last jams, last hugs, the last turn of the key to a bedsit she’d mistakenly thought she hated. Then bright and early at Mr Conductor’s Travelodge on Monday.
“But seriously, you’re one of the best I’ve seen,” says Eric, turning up Supertramp and talking louder. “57 shows I’ve done, 22 venues, and you’re up there. I mean, 46:10 is better than Kenny G. How long have you been practising?”
Not long enough, turns out. Not long enough that she could prevent her reed from becoming so swollen with saliva that it pressed against the mouthpiece, leaving the air nowhere to go, choking her, forcing her lips to retreat from the instrument: “A technical malfunction for our clarinettist cutie”.
Sara says about the bamboo straw, the bubbles, the YouTube tutorial, etc., and that’s all she says.
She closes her eyes and feels the weight of the clarinet case on her lap. Almost imperceptibly, the tendons in her hand tighten in turn as she imagines the fingering of “Rhapsody in Blue”. Mr Conductor rambles on about whatever, but it’s his words from Friday night that come to her, forcing themselves onto the Gershwin melody: “Aren’t they remarkable, ladies and gentlemen? Let’s give them a big hand, why don’t we?”
David Gerow’s fiction has appeared in The Malahat Review, Gutter, Hobart, Storgy, The Cardiff Review and elsewhere, and his plays have been staged at Oran Mor and the Traverse Theatre. He’s a DFA student at the University of Glasgow. He does not play the clarinet.