The One-Armed Flute Player

By Ron Waywell

It was after Brenda was introduced to the one-armed flute player that Sergeant Bob Wilcox knew she was not for him. Strange, in a way, because it was their mutual love of music that originally brought them together.

On that day in 1947, Bob caught the train by the skin of his teeth. He tumbled into the forbidden first class carriage at Stafford determined to enjoy his last leave before Army demobilisation, and found himself opposite this smart young lady who sat there with an intriguing air of cool detachment. She glanced at him incuriously with hazel eyes and immediately returned to her paperback book.

When Bob saw that she was reading the recently published Penguin edition of Homer’s Iliad, he instinctively went into the pick-up routine. The opportunity was too good to miss.

Delving into his small pack, he produced a well-thumbed copy of the Odyssey and slapped it down on the Pullman table. "Snap!" he said.

The young lady looked up with a bored expression. "I beg your pardon," she said in an elocuted voice.

Bob flashed his most disarming grin. "Snap!" he repeated and pointed to the book. "Homer!"

She smiled. "Oh! I see." A rather supercilious smile. But Bob was in.

It was rather hard going at first—a stilted literary discussion—but when it came out that Bob was the pianist of the Battalion dance band, they were soon chatting away amicably. Her name was Brenda Forbes, and she too came from Warrington (Stockton Heath—the posh part, Bob registered). Although she was at present working as a secretary, she was ambitious to become a singer and was attending regular lessons.

Before the train reached Warrington they had exchanged addresses and Brenda had given Bob her phone number. And it developed from there.

Each Friday during his month’s disembarkation leave, Bob would set out from his parent’s cosy little terraced house in Bewsey and meet Brenda from the bus in town. Then they would take the train from Central Station to Manchester and spend a blissful evening listening to the Halle at the Free Trade Hall. At weekends they would walk in the Cheshire countryside and take every opportunity to further their relationship.

Towards the end of his leave, Bob was invited to meet Brenda’s parents, and he spent a most enjoyable afternoon accompanying Brenda’s singing at the Bechstein in the tastefully furnished drawing room.

After Bob rejoined his unit for his final spell of duty, they corresponded regularly, and it was arranged that Brenda should meets Bob’s parents at a party to celebrate his demobilisation.

In addition to Bob’s parents and two sisters, his elder brother Charlie was at the party. He was on leave from the Royal Marines and in his usual good spirits. Brenda seemed rather overwhelmed at first, but there was plenty to eat and drink and as everyone was very friendly, a party atmosphere soon prevailed.

It was the custom in Bob’s family that everyone had to perform a party piece at any celebration, and the battered upright piano was soon in full swing. Bob’s sister Connie did her famous impersonation of Gracie Fields; young Ivy played her latest set piece on the recorder;and Mum and Dad sang a duet, all to Bob’s accompaniment. Brenda sang "The Last Rose of Summer" (she’d been warned to bring music) and Bob played his polished version of "Laura."

And then it was Charlie’s turn. He had disappeared into the back room while Bob was playing, but as "Laura" came to an end, he returned wearing a long brown raincoat fully buttoned down the front. He had arranged it so that one of the arms of the coat was empty and his right arm hidden. In his visible hand he carried Ivy’s recorder.

In his usual exuberant manner, Charlie struck a pose and made an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen…. I give you ‘The One-Armed Flute Player.’ And before I start I tell you—I don’t want applause. Throw money instead. Come on Bob. Join in."

With that, Charlie, using his left hand, put the recorder to his mouth, flute fashion, and, pretending to play, intoned a lugubrious rendering of "Loch Lomond" that Bob soon picked up on the piano.

Towards the end of the song Charlie swung his head to and fro, searching the carpet in front of him. At this, Connie, who must have been in on the act, threw a handful of pennies.

The song came to an end, and Charlie bowed his thanks. Then he lowered his "flute" and stooped towards the money.

It took a moment for his audience to realise that the instrument had changed position. Quite naturally the index finger of his right hand had emerged from between the buttons of his raincoat just below waist level and had curled around the recorder while Charlie solemnly picked up the pennies. It was only as he retreated with a look of melancholy thanks that the audience realised the implication.

After a shocked pause Charlie’s mother was the first to react. " You dirty devil, you!" she cried. "Whatever will Brenda think?" And then everyone was laughing.

Things didn’t go so well for Bob and Brenda after that. Oh, they smiled together about Charlie’s party piece, but Brenda’s attitude had changed. When Bob volunteered for the Control Commission in Germany, they made no arrangements for the future.

Bob blamed Charlie for a while and wasn’t best pleased with Connie, but eventually became resigned.

As for Charlie, he was unrepentant. "Why, you’re best rid of her, kid," he said. "After all, if something like that shocked her, what would she do when she saw the real thing?"

Copyright 2001, Ron Waywell

About the Author

Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.

Ron Waywell passed away at the age of 86 in 2008.

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