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Wonder about Yourself

When he was sixteen, Nathaniel Toussaint affected a general sadness, which he chose to reveal in his speech, his walk, his pained expression. He had no reason to do so, but he felt it appropriate, part of becoming a man. He enjoyed it.

When he heard Satie's Gnossienne Number One, he stopped trying to feel sad. He knew that no matter how he tried, he could never, ever be as sad as that music.

It was only then, when he had resolved to stop, that Nathaniel Toussaint began to feel genuinely sad. He cried when the music played, he cried because it stopped. He tried to listen to the second Gnossienne but it sounded happy, and that happiness made him feel guilty. He played the third Gnossienne but its inferiority made him despair.

Nathaniel Toussaint would not be able, he decided, to be happy again.

He lay in his bed, fantasing about a girl he called Eliza, who would make love to him with Number One playing in the background, thus neatly curing him of his sadness and his virginity in one velvet experience. But he knew that Eliza, if she existed, would never be able to penetrate the layers of despondency which had by now built around him. He knew he could not risk exposing Eliza, or anyone else, to such danger.

He talked to his priest, but when the priest heard Number One he agreed with Nathaniel and went into a rapid decline. That made Nathaniel feel worse. He talked to his teacher, but his teacher was a philistine, with no understanding of music or romance or emotion. He tried to introduce the boy, instead, to The Smiths.

"Now, this is sad," said the teacher. "Awesome and sad."

"No," said Nathaniel. "It's manufactured. I used to feel that way, too. Any fool can do that, it's not clever." His subsequent detention made Nathaniel feel more angry than sad, but still the deeper emotion persisted. It grew inside him. It knotted in his muscles and twisted in his veins.

His parents, although they liked Satie, grew to detest Number One. Late night renditions, at full volume, with the sound of Nathaniel sobbing in the background in four-four time, left them bewildered, anxious, and annoyed. They wanted to help their son but he seemed, increasingly, beyond their reach.

Nathaniel needed to know how anyone could write something so sad. He needed to know what Satie meant. He needed to know why such music existed.

Nathaniel grew isolated. He started to shuffle. He began to mumble. He developed a hunch, as though he were pulling up his shoulders to shelter his ears. People grew scared of the "Sad Boy." Newspaper reporters followed him, television crews filmed him. Psychologists queued up to examine him.

Nobody could excavate the real Nathaniel from his tomb of sadness.

His world began to shrink into those four minutes, thirty-two seconds of music. The melody took a life of its own, spiraling through the cells of his brain and infiltrating its neurons, until his entire consciousness was consumed. The music began to take a shape in his head, that of an old man, bald, with glasses, staring at him.

Gradually, the old man became real. He sat in the corner of Nathaniel's bedroom, watching the boy's developing sadness. The old man, too, wore an expression of forbearance. Together, they sat in breathless silence and listened to the Gnossienne until all three became One.

One night, about a year after Nathaniel had first heard Number One, the old man spoke. "Do you know what Satie wrote on the score for Number One?" he asked.

"No," said Nathaniel.

"He wrote 'Wonder about yourself.'"

"Are you Satie?"

"Good lord, no," said the old man. "That's what I'm trying to tell you, don't you see?"

"No."

But, from that night, the music began to sound different. Sometimes it seemed to run faster, sometimes slower; other times it felt almost like a waltz. Nathaniel still cried often, but after a month he knew that increasingly his tears were manufactured, as they had been in the beginning, before he had heard of Satie's Gnossienne Number One. There was a lightness in his chest. The world seemed to breathe colour. The air seemed to dance.

One evening, while Number One played in the background, as he talked on his mobile phone to a girl called Elizabeth, Nathaniel smiled.

Copyright 2006 by Tom Conoboy

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Tom ConoboyTom writes:
I'm not really sure where this story came from. I was listening to Gnossienne no. 1 on repeat one evening, feeling slightly sorry for myself, and it appeared on the screen. I'd say what I think the story means but, as the old man suggests, it might be better for the reader to "wonder about yourself."

Tom Conoboy is Scottish but now lives in England, where he works in local government. Over the years he has vacillated between playing the guitar and writing stories. Somewhat late in life he realised he was least bad at writing, and since the middle of 2005 he has been writing and submitting seriously. In the past eight months, Tom has placed in competitions at Mad Hatter's Review, JBWB, and Bright Lights Multimedia. He has also appeared in around twenty ezines and journals, including Defenestration, Reflection's Edge, Eclectica, and Prose Toad. He can be reached via email at: tomconoboy@excite.com.

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