This is an old story that I've reworked for an upcoming short story competition. It's about a young girl who loves music and, on her 13th birthday, is given the best present she could ever have imagined. Not only is it a musical gift, but it might also hold a clue to finding the father who left not long after she was born.
Lizzie’s blue eyes widened as they came in one by one. She pressed her small, freckled nose against the window in the side of the brick wall. One hand reached up to twirl her curly red locks in anticipation. She could barely contain her excitement as they each took their places on the neatly aligned black chairs, opened their folders, and waited.
A tall woman with jet, black hair tied back in a ponytail entered the room in long, graceful strides. Everyone fell silent as she walked to the chair at the front of the stage and sat down. The violinist lifted the bow and began to move her arms in slow, deliberate arcs. Lizzie watched and listened, captivated by the beautiful sounds that flowed from the strings, imagining herself one day playing her own violin in an orchestra just like this one. She wasn’t sure how, but she was determined to make it happen. For her, there was something magical about making music. And it connected her to her dad.
Lizzie stopped by the conservatoire every Thursday afternoon on her way home from school to listen to the orchestra rehearse. Often she would get so caught up in the music, that she forgot the time and came home late. On those days her mum would gently chide her saying, ‘Anna Elizabeth, did you stop by the conservatoire again? It’s almost dark and you've got homework to do’. But she knew by her mum’s voice that she wasn’t really cross, even though she’d called her by her full name. Her mum was the only person who ever did that. To everyone else she was simply Lizzie. She smiled and gave her mum a hug. ‘Sorry Mum, but you know how much I love it when they play together! I promise I’ll finish quickly.’
Lizzie and her mum had lived in their small terrace house for as long as she could remember. She had no brothers or sisters and had never really known her dad. He’d left when she was very young, and it had been the two of them ever since. Although they were happy together, Lizzie longed to know more about him.
Her mum, Grace, was a slender woman with long, blonde hair who was fiercely protective of her daughter. She rarely spoke of Lizzie’s dad but, when she did, she would look at Lizzie and gently shake her head saying how she was so like John with music. John was her dad’s name. Grace had told Lizzie the story of how she’d first met her dad, but only once. They’d met at a small, underground jazz club in the city where he played violin with some other musicians. Her mum thought he seemed to dance and play at the same time, and brought the music to life in a way she’d not seen before. As soon as he’d finished, he’d come straight over to her table and asked if he could sit down. They’d talked all night and into the early hours of the next morning about music and art and all kinds of things, and she’d felt they would be together forever. Lizzie loved that story and replayed it over and over again, trying to build a picture of her dad in her mind.
She threw her school backpack on her bed and headed to the laundry at the back of the house and began folding the washing. Her thoughts drifted back to the music she’d heard that afternoon, and she dreamed again of playing her own violin in a professional orchestra, just like the one at the conservatoire. But Lizzie and her mum didn’t have a lot of money, and violins were expensive. Still. ‘One day. . . one day I’ll buy my own and make music come to life like you did dad,’ she whispered to herself.
She finished in the laundry and walked back up the hallway towards the kitchen to help make dinner. Lizzie stopped at the door of the living room because her mother was sitting at the dining table, hands resting on top of a rectangular box, wrapped in Lizzie’s favourite emerald green. She looked at her mum, and a wide grin spread across her face.
‘But it’s not ‘till tomorrow’.
‘I know’, replied her mum smiling, ‘but this is something I’ve been waiting to give to you for quite a while. And seeing as you’ll be 13 tomorrow, I think it’s time. Come. Open it.’
Lizzie sat down and carefully unwrapped the gift. Grace watched her beautiful daughter closely as she lifted the last of the paper, revealing a long box, with another oddly shaped box inside. Lizzie caught her breath. No! It couldn’t be! She looked from the box to her mum and back again, eyes wide in disbelief. She carefully snapped opened the latches and there, inside, lying on a bed of soft green velvet, was the most wonderful gift she had ever received. Gently, she picked it up, marveling at the beautiful brown wood that felt smooth and somehow familiar, beneath her fingers.
Tears sprang to Lizzie’s eyes. Grace explained. ‘The day your father left he had written a note. He placed it, along with his violin, in the middle of this dining table. In the note he wrote about lots of things, but the most important part said, I’m sorry mein lieber Lizzie, that I cannot stay to watch you grow into the amazing young woman I know you will be. But I leave you my violin as a gift, in the hope that one day, you will love music as much as I do. It is very special, just like you. Ich liebe dich.’
Her mum handed her the note. Lizzie gazed at the neat writing, trying to find her father somewhere, somehow, in the letters on the page. There were so many things she wanted to know, so many questions she wanted to ask. Why did he leave? Why did he leave the violin behind if it was so important to him? Did he really love music as much as she did? She didn’t understand some of the words and asked her mother what they meant. ‘The words are in German. Your dad was born in Berlin. They mean that he loved you very much.’She knew the other questions would have to wait. Right now Lizzie threw her arms around her mum, hugged her tight, and whispered, ‘Thank you.’
Later that night, when the house was quiet, Lizzie went over the words her dad had written all those years ago. She couldn’t sleep, so she slipped out of bed, turned on her bedside lamp, and examined the violin more closely. It was truly a beautiful thing. Lizzie turned it over and over. She held it to the light and slowly felt her way over the strings, the neck, the bridge and body, trying to imagine her dad playing it. . .
Wait! What is that? Was that a stamp on the inside? She squinted through the small, curved holes in the top. Lizzie could just make out words and a date - ariusCremona1711.
Beneath the stamp was a tiny, neatly-folded paper, which you wouldn’t see unless you were looking really hard. It was faded and slightly yellow, which meant it was old. Lizzie tiptoed to the kitchen and came back with a pair of tiny tweezers from the medical kit her mum kept in the pantry. Gently, she prized the note away from the wood and out through the hole.
She carefully opened the paper and was surprised to find a name – Gilbert Back 1935.
20a Sophienstrasse, Berlin. She knew Berlin was where her dad was born but she didn’t know her dad’s last name so - could this be her dad’s grandfather?
She needed to find out more and now! Lizzie pulled her laptop from her school backpack and logged on. She quickly typed in ‘Gilbert Back violinist Berlin 1935’. To her amazement she found him straight away. So he was a real person! And he’d been first violinist in a famous orchestra in Berlin just before World War II! She then typed in the stamped letters she’d seen on the inside of the violin. ‘ariuscremona1711’. Nothing. ‘Maybe if I separate them,’ she thought. Her jaw dropped. ‘No, no, no, this can’t be true,’ she whispered. She stared at the screen and then at the instrument lying beside her. Was this really one of the missing Stradivarius violins? They were worth millions!
Had Lizzie finally found two pieces of the puzzle that was her dad?
Lizzie's Violin. © Kerry Gittins 2020. All Rights Reserved.
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