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The Maestro

It wasn't an attractive noise Joel was making when I went backstage, but it was one I was used to. Kind of like a child mimicking a horse with their lips. It's a sound you'll often hear from a trumpet player when they want to loosen things up before they play.

He raised the horn and played some long notes, facing the bulkhead to hear them come back at him. I walked past and went up the stairs to the mezzanine level, where I kept my guitar. It used to live with me until a sleepwalking musician mistook it for the toilet a few cabin mates back. Time to change the strings and stretch them out a bit before the show. I pulled it from its case — my baby. My trusty PRS was a work of art, elegant contours, and a tobacco burst finish. I went about the tedious but necessary task, listening to Joel play his warm-ups with half an ear. After the long notes came the scales, then the arpeggios, then the high notes. He wasn't strong in the upper register, but that wasn't his job.

"Keep music live!" shouted one of the stage technicians after a particularly horrendous split note ricocheted off the bulkhead. I heard Joel swear.

Joel was our second trumpet player. Our first trumpet, Mason, was a different beast altogether. The first trumpet leads the horn section, and they get all the screaming highs. Joel's job was to play the jazz solos and take some of the pressure off the first. He was only young, not long out of music college, but he could improvise better than a lot of second trumpets I'd worked with.

Split. Split. Split. Then he nailed the note. Then another split.

"You'll get there!" I called out when I heard him turn the air blue with profanities.

The show that night was good. The young singers and dancers were in top form, and I was proud of them.

"I'm very sad to announce that we'll be losing our lovely production cast at the end of next cruise," said the Musical Director at the Entertainment Division meeting the next morning. "It's been a special cast, one of the best I've worked with in over twenty years at sea." Tony pushed his glasses further back on his button nose as he waited for the applause to die down. "And, of course, that means we have a new production cast joining this cruise. As you know, Entertainment is now in the hands of High C's Productions: not only will we have a new cast, but we will also have seven new shows. Musicians, I apologise in advance."

The next cruise was going to be hell. We'd be backing the outgoing cast's shows in the evenings while rehearsing with the incumbents on the new shows in the afternoons. Not to mention the guest cabaret artists that we had to play for. It was doubtful we would get a night off.

"The whole process will be overseen by High C's Company Musical Director," continued Tony. "I'm sure some of you know the name, Roger Barry." Some whistles and machine-gun bursts of chatter went up amongst the musicians. Joel looked at me and mouthed: "Who?"

"For those of you who don't know, Roger is a big-time West End MD. He's done Lloyd Webber and several other things in town, as well as touring shows for years. Now High C's have managed to attract him to their fold - I wish I were on what he's on." Most of the younger musicians were frothing with excitement by now. Joel looked at me again and pulled a face.

"We're also losing our lounge band, Meteor. Sorry to see you go, guys." More applause. "And we'll be welcoming the Dave Acker Trio. Joel, you'll love them. They might let you sit in, too."

After the meeting, we went for lunch in the crew mess. I sat with Joel. "So what's this trio, then?"

"Dave Acker," I said, "He's the drummer. Londoner. Great big band drummer and his jazz is outstanding. I heard he's got some new guys with him. The last ones got a bit fed up." Joel pulled a face. He did that a lot. "He's quite fond of the drink."

Turnaround day came. Southampton beckoned, but I hung around to say my final goodbyes to Meteor as they waited by the gangway to disembark. Tony had to stay onboard to bring on Roger Barry and the new cast. I walked past them on the quayside: a gaggle of young, athletic performers and an older, distinguished-looking man in a brown leather jacket. As I got to the end of the line of new crew members, I saw Dave Acker with his new musicians.

"Mick Manoukian!" Dave welcomed me with a bear hug. He wasn't a big man: wiry and balding, but his embrace was crushing. "Haven't seen you in ages. How goes it, my friend?" It was great to see him, but I wanted to get off and enjoy some of the last free time I could expect that cruise. "Here, before you go, let me introduce my new lads. This is Nirav." I shook hands with a tall, bespectacled young Indian man who was holding what could only be an electric upright bass inside a gig bag. "And our star piano player, Booker." Dave motioned to a thoughtful-looking black man in a baseball cap that read: US Navy, Vietnam Veteran.

"How's it going?" Booker greeted me with a smile that was the embodiment of courtesy. I don't know what I was expecting: Dave usually worked with young guys, but Booker must have been sixty if he was a day. Not only that, he was American.

I went into town and stocked up on new strings and bits of kit. It was going to be a long cruise, and I knew that our shore time in the upcoming ports would most likely be cancelled on account of the extra rehearsals. I didn't mind especially: I was a weatherbeaten pro and had done these ports so many times I could map them all out in my mind. Still, I would miss the late-night sail in Copenhagen. I saw Joel going into West Quay Shopping Centre with a group of young women from the Youth Department. He was besotted by one of them. Mary. She was a sweet young thing, pure as a first kiss.

"I saw you with Mary today," I said to him later while we set up in the theatre after drills.

His eyes clouded over, and he held his hands to his heart.

"You getting anywhere?"

He frowned, and I laughed.

"Never mind," I said. "There's always the shop manager. What's her name? Laura?"

Joel shot me a dire look, then gave me the finger.

"Okay, guys, listen up!" The MD called us to attention, and the orchestra turned away from setting up and came to the front of the stage. Tony was standing next to Roger Barry, who looked every bit the impresario. The leather jacket was gone, but his paisley silk shirt and jeans belied an aura of formidable command. "This is Roger Barry, the Company MD for High C's Productions."

"Hello everyone," said Roger, "I'm happy to be working with you. I've heard good things. I know you have to work in the evenings, but I will require you every day in the theatre at ten a.m. sharp. That means set up and ready to play, so please get here nice and early. I'm sorry you won't get much time ashore this cruise, but it can't be helped. The shows are challenging, and they must all open next cruise. The sheet music is available for you backstage to study in advance."

The first night was the last of our easy nights. We only had the Welcome Aboard Show, which was mostly the Cruise Director introducing his team and acclimatising the guests to the ship. After the show, the orchestra convened on the mezzanine, where the parts for the upcoming shows awaited us in large black folders. Roger hadn't exaggerated: these parts were tricky, but nothing that a good pro couldn't sight-read in rehearsal. Most of the band weren't taking any chances. They took their instruments to various corners of the theatre to go over the hazardous sections.

"What time is the trio playing?" Joel asked me.

"Hey!" shouted Mason, the lead trumpet player. "Don't you think you should have a look at your parts? You've got some flugelhorn to do, and the solos are all written out. None of your jazz here, mate."

"They're on now, but they've got two more sets. I'll see you up there in an hour," I said as I took my folder with me back to my cabin.

Joel missed the start of Dave's set. I was sitting in the Seascape Lounge, enjoying the last of the light through the windows. The trio started with a ballad, and they all could play. Guests drifted in during their reconnaissance of the ship, and most of them stayed spellbound. I was nursing my drink in a booth: musicians had deck privileges, so sitting there was not a problem, but we were supposed to give up tables and seats for guests if the need arose. At this rate, Joel wouldn't have a seat.

Then he appeared, looking forlorn. He sat next to me and ordered an orange juice from a bar server.

There was a blistering barrage from the drums that compelled all eyes and ears to the small stage. Dave's cheeky smile flashed at us, and his percussive pyrotechnics drew whoops and cheers from the audience. Then Nirav started pulsing a metronomic bass note: Dave began a fill on the snare drum, rolling towards us like a tsunami. When the wave broke in a crash of cymbal, Booker came in with a frenzied piano line that melted the fixtures and fittings of the lounge and caused Joel to re-evaluate his conception of jazz. The set that followed had Joel entranced. Since joining us, I'd seen his initial enthusiasm dwindle as he became accustomed to the workaday life of a cruise ship orchestra, and I had never seen the look of ecstasy that he now wore. Booker was a revelation, constantly re-inventing the melody and playing endless variations. As his improvisations grew in intensity, Dave hopped up and down on his drum stool, answering Booker's phrases with ferocious flurries. Nirav smiled serenely, holding the rhythm together with his eyes closed and head tilted, listening with his whole being.

At the end of their set, they came and joined us in the booth. Booker's slow walk to the table presented a curious contrast to the frenetic jazz titan we had just witnessed. He could have been a guest.

"Where did you find him?" I asked Dave as he beamed at me with his Cockney horse teeth.

"Agency," he replied. "I know, I can't believe my luck. He's a bit of a legend, actually. Played with some of the jazz greats back in the Sixties."

Joel introduced himself, and his face glowed with adoration.

"You were amazing," he said.

"Thanks, Joel," said Booker, that gentlemanly smile he'd exhibited earlier that day returning to his wizened face.

"Can I sit in on your next set?"

"You'd better ask the boss."

"Okay," said Dave. "But I hope you can play."

The first rehearsal didn't bode well.

The overture seemed easy enough until we got to the section where the horns came in. Roger listened for a moment from the front of the stage before gesturing to the sound technician. The click track stopped in my headphones, and I stopped playing.

"Second trumpet, is there a problem?"

"Sorry, I'm just not warmed up enough, yet," said Joel sheepishly. I looked over to see Mason piercing him with a contemptuous look.

"From the top," sighed Roger. I stiffened, ready to play. Four clicks in my headphones, and I came in with a power chord, tickled with a hint of whammy bar.

The horns bit went without incident this time. Ready for my solo. I took a breath, stomped pedal switches with my foot, and came in with a high, swooping wail.

The click stopped in my ears. I stopped playing. I looked up to see Roger bayoneting me with beady eyes.

"What are you doing?"

"It says guitar solo," I said, pointing at my chart.

"The guitar solo's on the track. You just keep playing power chords."

I looked over at Tony, and he shrugged.


"Now's not the time to be messing about," yelled Mason. "Roger Barry, mate. Roger Barry. Instead of going and playing with the jazz trio. . .which isn't your job. . .save your chops and nail the rehearsal."

Joel looked at his feet.

"You're making us all look bad. Get your shit together or go home. This isn't a jazz gig; this is a section gig."

"Take it easy, Mason," said Tony.

Mason grabbed his trumpet case and stormed out of the theatre. Joel gave the finger to the fire door in his wake.

"What was that all about?" I had my own grievance, and Tony was going to hear about it. His shoulders slumped as I walked over. "Guitar on track. Not a rhythm guitar part. My part. Why didn't the sound man pull it out?"

"He can't," said Tony, like a man waiting for a dropped plate to shatter at his feet.

"He can't?" Even I was shocked at the serrated edge in my voice.

"They're on the same track as the second keys and extra backing vocals," said Tony. "They can't fade it out. They'd lose too much."

Roger Barry smiled expansively at me when I saw him later. "Yes, I'm sorry about that," he said. "Frankly, we've installed this show on other ships, and the guitarists can never give us what we want. They usually don't have the right sounds, and sometimes they can't play the solos."

"I have the right sounds," I said. "I can play the solos."

Roger stroked his chin. "Well, it's too late to do anything about it now. I can't see High C's re-mixing the tracks over this. I know it's a big ask, but could you just bear with it in the meantime?"

I was looking through the music in my cabin when the phone rang. Tony summoned everyone to the office. "I've had some bad news, guys," he said, "I'm flying home tomorrow. My father-in-law's died and Gwen's in bits." We expressed our condolences. "It's the worst possible time, I know. But the good news is Roger has agreed to take over as MD until I get back. So he'll be running all the headliner acts from the piano. As for the current production shows, Mitch, you direct those. The click's pretty standard, and it'll help Roger out."

Roger played the hero pretty well. The new show company seemed nice enough, but they fawned over the impresario to a nauseating extent, mirrored by many in the orchestra. Roger powered through, but for all the impressive strokes on his resumé, he lacked Tony's touch, and he couldn't improvise for toffee. Still, he clearly had stamina. He conducted the rehearsals every morning without fail, then played the afternoon rehearsals for the evening shows and the shows themselves. A rumour was circulating in the Entertainments Department that he was being paid handsomely on top of his salary from High C's for the favour. The ports came and went with no shore leave, but the orchestra never complained. I swallowed my rage about the track, but it wouldn't digest.

Finally, we were given an afternoon's respite. The production team had a night off, and Roger agreed to give his cast a break. It was Copenhagen late sail, though we wouldn't be able to enjoy it fully: a big band night was scheduled in the Seascape Lounge to give the trio a night off. They deserved it. Their tenure so far had been incendiary, and they had captivated the guests. The Cruise Director was a champion of their work and angling to extend their contract.

"No can do," Dave told me as we sat outside a bar in the main square. "We're going to another ship straight after this." Joel and I had gone ashore with the trio for lunch, and the walk into town had rejuvenated me after the interminable run of shows and rehearsals.

"I really wish you were staying," said Joel. "Sitting in with you guys is the most fun I've had since I started."

Booker smiled. "Well, it's great to have you play," he said. "You can really blow through those changes. You're keeping an old man on his toes."

Joel's face lit up.

"I'm gonna come and hear you guys play later. But first, I need to get back to the ship and take a nap."

"I'll come with you," I said.

"I'm gonna hang out with Dave and Nirav," said Joel. "I'll see you onstage."

I walked with Booker back to the ship. We strolled at a far more leisurely pace than I was used to, but his company was mesmerising as he told me stories about sitting in with Coltrane. I was in no hurry to get back.

Joel never made it back.

He missed the first two sets. Mason had to do the job of two trumpet players, and for all his blistering high notes, he couldn't improvise with the same sophistication. Roger didn't seem concerned. He was focusing on his parts: he wasn't a natural jazzer. Between songs, he delivered a radio-deejay preamble to the guests down a microphone that was decidedly cheesy, but he seemed to be having fun.

Booker sat alone at a table at the back of the lounge. From time to time, guests approached to compliment him, and he was always gracious. He listened intently to everything we played, and I swear I saw a look of concern that I thought was for Joel.

When the third set came, Joel appeared in an un-ironed black shirt and trousers. He swayed as he stood in front of Roger, clearly drunk, making his apologies and telling some story about a taxi taking him to the airport instead of the seaport.

"Don't worry about it, Joel," said Roger. "Just get yourself ready."

Roger called every second trumpet feature in the big band pad. Not only that, he gave Joel a huge build-up down the mike before every song. Joel stood when it was time for his solos: he split notes, he lost focus, his melodic lines broke off mid-flow like the ramblings of an absent-minded raconteur.

"I'll take the trumpet solos, Rog," said Mason, desperately.

"No, Mason," said Roger. "This is Joel's set."

Joel floundered his way through to the end, seemingly oblivious to the grimaces of the guests when he played. That's bad. You know it's bad if the guests notice. After the gig, Joel sat in his chair, ignored by his bandmates. Mason and others ran over to Roger, hissing conspiratorial disassociations. As they left, I heard Roger say: "Yes, you can't teach professionalism."

I sat in the crew bar with the trio after the gig.

"That was nasty, what Roger did to Joel," said Booker, stroking his beer bottle. Dave and Nirav hadn't seen the gig: they were in the midst of a bender. Nirav rarely spoke, and his lopsided smile seemed to belong to another face."Why did you get that boy so drunk?" Booker no longer looked gentlemanly.

"He got himself drunk," protested Dave. "We went to a bar, I know. They do super-strength lager there, and he started hammering it."

"Joel doesn't drink," I said.

"Well, I think you're mistaken," laughed Dave. "At one point, he necked a pint and then threw it up in the same glass. Filled it right to the top. And then he ordered another." Nirav's face imploded at the memory.

"Kept saying how he hates this gig, that he just wants to play jazz, and that Roger Barry is a complete wanker." Booker was scowling now. It didn't suit him. "We tried to get him into a taxi twice, but he kept running back to the bar. And then he ran into a strip club."

I looked over at Joel, hunched over the bar under the watchful eye of Manny, the crew bartender.

"He's lucky he didn't get sacked," I said. "Some MDs would have him in front of the Cruise Director for this."

Suddenly the air seemed to grow lighter. Mary from Youth Staff took a seat at our table and favoured us with a smile. She looked over at Joel and then looked away.

"How are you, Mary?"

"Oh, fine," she said. "I went ashore with some of the girls. We went to Tivoli Gardens, it was ever so good. I've never been before. What did you do?"

"Not much," said Booker. "Saw the Little Mermaid. Had some lunch."

Dave and Nirav shared a look and burst out laughing.

"Well," said Nirav. "I watched Joel pull a dildo out of a stripper with his teeth."

Turnaround came and went, and the orchestra said their goodbyes to the old cast. I didn't go ashore. I went to the mezzanine and took my guitar. I played some scales and then some chords. That thing inside, that transports itself into the notes you play and makes them sizzle or snap, was asleep. It had felt that way ever since Roger Barry appeared. I thought about Joel. I had been Joel when I left college over a decade before. Before ships. All I wanted was to play jazz. As a guitarist on a ship, you'd better be able to play all styles. I had to make a convincing pass at soaring musical theatre melodies, screaming hard rock guitar, and even country pedal steel on occasion. I had to accompany singers with folky acoustic fingerpicking. As a guitarist in that world, you have to be a jack of all trades. I said that to Joel once. He gave me a look and said: "Master of none?" I liked to think I had mastered being a jack. I wore it as a badge of honour. Except now there were these backing tracks, choking up my bandwidth until I became a ghost.

Mason clomped up the steps with his trumpet case, which he opened on a worktop.

"You not going ashore?"

"Already got off early," he said. "Got some bits."

"Well, seven opening nights this cruise," I said. "And then it's done."

"I'll be sorry to see Roger go," he said wistfully. "It's great to work with someone on that level."

"Have you sounded him out for any work?"

"I have, actually. He said one of the touring shows is starting up again soon, and he'll put my name on the list for the Trumpet One chair. When that guy needs a break, maybe I can step in."

"Fantastic!" I was genuinely pleased for him. "That's the usual route for musicians to a West End gig. You'll be hanging around Covent Garden in no time."

The stage door opened downstairs, and we heard voices come into the backstage area.

"Yes, I told him there's nothing we can do about the track," said Roger Barry. "That's the thing with cruise ship musicians. You just can't take the risk. It's got to be perfect every time, no excuses." I peered over the mezzanine. He appeared to be giving a guided tour to some office bigwigs, probably from High C's. "And the band on here. Well, they're pretty good, in fact." Mason smiled. "But I couldn't see any of them in one of my orchestras. I mean, if they were right for our world, they'd be there already."

The first few opening nights came and went. It was easy by now. Everyone knew their parts and played them to perfection. Even if we hadn't, the track was so heavy with extra instrumentation I doubt anyone would have noticed. Roger was effervescent in his praise of our performance, but the outbreak of viral sycophancy had burned itself out after Mason related what he had heard from the mezzanine. Roger noticed the antipathy from the orchestra, and it unsettled him. He was far more accustomed to the puckering of lips in search of his buttocks.

Tony returned towards the end of the cruise. He played the final production show with no rehearsal, sight-reading the whole thing with barely a soundcheck to review the parts.

After the show, Tony held court in the crew bar, gratefully accepting drinks from the orchestra and the trio. "Right, lads and lasses," he said. "I've fixed it for a band showcase with the Cruise Director on the next to last night. We're going to combine the orchestra with the trio. I brought a lot of new charts, and it will mean some extra rehearsal." We all groaned. "No, this is our show. And we're going to ram it down Roger Barry's throat." The groans ceased, and we all listened grimly. "Two drummers, Mitch and Dave. Nirav on bass. Don't get excited Sarah, you don't get a night off. There's some congas backstage and other bits of kit. You still play percussion, right?"

Sarah, our bass player, beamed. "Excellent. I never get the chance to play percussion on ships."

"Booker, you are on the grand piano. I'll play the Hammond organ patch on my keyboard and some other bits. First rehearsal is tomorrow morning, so don't overdo it in here, tonight."

The rehearsals were extraordinary. We now had a 12-piece band of seasoned professionals. The arrangements that Tony had found were sophisticated Latin, funk, and jazz charts, complete with lush orchestrations that were written in such a way as to make us sound even bigger. The Cruise Director and Roger sat in the theatre, listening in awe. Booker's introductions to the ballads were sweeping, his improvisations inventive, and the solos he traded with the rest of us created an engaging conversation.

We were waiting backstage for the show to begin when Booker collapsed. Dave acted quickly, pushing concerned musicians back and moving sharp objects out of reach as the old man's spasms peaked and his eyelids fluttered. Then, just as quickly, it was over. Booker looked around him, perplexed as Dave and Nirav helped him to a chair.

"Get some water!" shouted Tony.

"Sorry, guys," said Booker. "I get these seizures sometimes. . . Haven't had one in years."

"Seizures?" Joel looked at Tony. "How did he get his medical?"

"The trio sign on with guest status," said Tony. "They don't need a medical."

Mason brought a plastic cup and handed it to Booker. "I'm okay now. I'm ready to play."

"Out of the question," said Tony. "You have to go to the medical centre, sir."

Booker looked up imploringly.

"Absolutely right," said Dave. "What if you have another one in the middle of the gig? You might bang your head on the piano or something, and we won't be close enough to help you. They'll look after you down there."

The Cruise Director held the show as an Entertainments Officer led Booker out of the stage door. Roger was promptly summoned backstage, and Tony explained the situation.

"We need you to take over my chair on second keys," he said. "I'll take over Booker on the grand piano."

"It's a bit short notice," said Roger, after a pause. "Perhaps there's another option. I can muster the singers, and they can go on with backing tracks."

"Look, Roger," Tony spoke very deliberately, but the reservoir of suppressed anger was apparent to those of us who knew him. "This is our show. We've worked hard on it. My lads and lasses have gone above and beyond for you while doing their regular gig at the same time. I know you stepped up to help out when I went home, but I'm asking you, please, to do it one more time."

Roger's unease was plain. He fidgeted like a schoolboy being called to account. "Well, I don't really do jazz, you see."

"Don't worry," said Tony. "The others will take most of your solos. You have one in the last number, and it's just a twelve-bar blues. Child's play. Keep it simple. Rhythmic, like Count Basie. Just a couple of notes."

"Okay," agreed Roger.

The show was a triumph. The blistering arrangements tore into the theatre, and everyone played to the peak of their ability. Roger was out of his depth, but we sidelined him, so it didn't matter. In the last number, Joel played a solo that scorched the air before passing the baton to Roger, whose pedestrian improvisation was functional, at best. Then I took my solo. Every trick I'd learned since first picking up a guitar somehow found its way into the choruses I took. Dave and Nirav beamed at me while Tony roared his appreciation as I unleashed a flurry of notes that soared to a dizzying crescendo. When we finished, the audience erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation that lasted for a full five minutes.

As we left by the stage door, all the singers and dancers were waiting to heap praise on Roger for his jazz playing. They seemed to think that Tony's virtuosic piano cadenzas had come from their maestro, and he did not disabuse them. They swept him off to the restaurant upstairs as we headed to the crew bar.

"Booker's fine," said Dave, as he came over to the high table in Bullshit Corner. "He's sleeping in the medical centre. He's just a bit disappointed he couldn't do the gig."

"He'll get over it," I said. "He's done much bigger gigs than this in his time."

The younger musicians had broken off to spread out around the bar, where starstruck crew their own age could pour praise on them. Tony was buying rounds for the rest of us.

"If you think about it," he said. "Roger's not that old. Why would you give up the conductor's baton on all those big-time shows to go and work for a second-rate production company like High C's?"

"Well," I smirked. "I, for one, will be glad to see the back of him."

We all tapped our plastic cups together before throwing back our drinks.

I watched Laura, the shop manager, sashay into the bar and take a seat next to Joel. She was at least ten years older than he was, but she exuded a sexual availability he would have to wait years for in Mary's gently unfolding womanhood. She played with her hair when he talked, and I could see him falling into her smile.

"Oh, to be young again," said Tony, as they left together.

Anglo-American author in Poland. ESL teacher, aspiring Polish speaker. Former cruise ship musician. Passionate about travel, music, coffee, and writing.