I first saw the player one morning in May. Since everything started to happen back in 2020 – and let’s be honest, it’s still happening – I decided to build a morning walk along the beach into my daily routine. Now I know what you’re thinking – “If I lived that close to the beach, I wouldn’t need a global pandemic to get me out there enjoying it!” Guilty as charged. Sure, I’d taken a stroll or two along the beach in the past – mostly as a way to evangelise my town to any friends and family who came to visit, but I’d never really taken the time to appreciate it for what it was. These days, I do appreciate it, in lots of different ways, and I’m not too proud to admit that I’d been missing out.
Anyway, back to the player. Spring had not so much as sprung, as reluctantly rose from a crouch with aching limbs – but nonetheless, here was some real sun that I could feel on my face. It glistened on the waves as they gently lapped the sand and I was surprised that there was nobody else around. Usually there’s a dog walker or two, and I’d joined them as one of the morning regulars since starting my routine. Sorry, I’m going off on a tangent again. I guess I didn’t think I’d have that much to say but then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to anybody.
So, there he was on the beach. At first glance, I couldn’t make him out. it looked like some bizarre piece of ship wreckage sticking out of the sand, but as one of the few very small clouds in the sky passed over the sun, I got a clearer view. He was sat at a grand piano. At least, I think it was a grand. It certainly wasn’t one of those ones your grandmother used to have, or that you see in old Western movies. Unsurprisingly, I was instantly reminded of that film where a woman plays a piano on the beach. At first, I thought this was someone paying homage to that, or parodying it for some student film or sketch maybe? Transfixed, I continued to move closer, until I could make out the player. He had dark hair, and was wearing a suit – somehow this made everything seem even stranger, even though if he was sat there in surf shorts and flip flops, it would still have been strange.
Then there was the music. When I was working, back when everything was normal, I used to love to write while listening to music. I like all sorts of stuff, but instrumental music seemed to work best – soundtracks and classical mostly. So, I had a basic working knowledge of piano concertos, the classic stuff as well as the contemporary. And yes, the soundtrack for that film that this whole scene reminded me of sometimes featured. This was different though. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Sometimes, just for a fleeting moment, it sounded like some of Hayden’s chamber stuff, then I thought I could detect a bit of Rachmaninov, then what could have been one of the player’s own compositions – strangely discordant, with crazy time signatures, then off into some random honky-tonk. It was the weirdest thing, but even stranger was the fluidity with which he moved between every style, making it sound like one crazy continuous piece, that you all at once knew, but didn’t know at all.
That probably doesn’t make any sense to you, but it’s difficult to describe. I don’t really know why, but it started to make a little more sense to me when I got a little closer to the player. His suit wasn’t any kind of dinner suit, business suit or tuxedo that I had seen before. It seemed to shift before my eyes, like I couldn’t quite focus on it. For a couple of seconds, it looked like it was made of some kind of weird fabric that shimmered, reflecting the sun and casting radiant mini-rays all around. Then a moment later, it turned into a sport jacket and slacks, then into something so impenetrably black that I could make no creases or folds out at all.
By now I was about 10 feet away, taking all this in with growing incredulity.
“Hey!” I ventured. “Sounds great! Thanks for brightening up my morning!”
The instant it was out of my mouth, I wished I could have said something more profound than this jaunty herald. I suddenly got the sense that this was a pivotal moment of crucial significance, and what I said would matter.
I needn’t have worried. The player continued to play, oblivious to my presence. I stepped a little closer, and ventured round the piano, getting a frontal view as well as from both sides. The shifting suit continued to shift, and the man’s impassive face just maintained the same expression. When I was stood directly in front of him, he didn’t even register, but just appeared to look right through me. It’s so weird to say this now, but it was like his face was doing the same thing as his suit. One minute he looked like a handsome movie actor in a pivotal cinematic scene, the next he was a gaunt wretch of a thing, with eyes that…I can’t describe it…they just seemed to make him look like someone who’d seen things that nobody else had ever seen. Then at the next glance, he looked like everyone’s favourite jovial party host, rousing the guests with one of his good-natured renditions.
As I was pondering over the whole otherworldliness of the situation, a thought stuck me. What if somebody else comes along? What will they do? What will I do? Where I lived wasn’t a bad place to be, but there were still some deviant kids who liked to cause trouble – probably just out of boredom. What would happen if they showed up? Then, coming the other way, I could see a woman in the distance, striding along as a Golden Retriever bounded on ahead in search of the length of driftwood she’d just thrown in front of her. As she got closer, I recognised her as one of the morning walk regulars and took comfort in the fact that she at least wouldn’t do anything disruptive.
The dog had returned to her side now and as they drew closer, I got ready to make conversation, with an ‘I know, right?’ expression on my face. The fact that the dog didn’t do anything instantly made me curious. It walked right past the player – just for a fleeting moment turning its head quizzically in his direction, then plodded up to me. I absentmindedly scratched behind the dog’s ears as I watched its owner close the distance between us.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just saying hello!”
She did not acknowledge the player at all as she walked straight past him. Before I could stop myself I said:
“Can you not see him? The man at the piano?”
She looked at me quizzically, saying she didn’t know what I meant. I made some hurried correction, saying that I’d seen someone on the promenade playing the piano yesterday and did she see him? That seemed to make more sense to her and of course, she said that she hadn’t. Relieved that I hadn’t created a scene but more confused than ever, I made to look as if I was gazing whimsically out to sea, so she wouldn’t think I was being weird just standing there. She carried walking with her dog behind me and a carried on watching the player. There! A bit of Mozart was it? Then some sort of weird, free-form jazz thing, I don’t know, I can’t really describe what it was.
That was when the idea struck me. We have all this technology at our fingertips and take it for granted to the extent that we forget we even have it. I took my phone out of my pocket and held it up. I wish I hadn’t. When I looked at the player through my camera, it was as if we had both been transported to…I don’t know where, some strange dimension, it was like…well, it sounds like such a corny thing but it’s the best way I can describe it…It looked like the player was in Hell. I can’t unsee what I saw. He was surrounded by searing flames but the piano was completely untouched and his face remained impassive, at least until the flesh on it bubbled and melted, sliding off his skull before my eyes. Shouting out in horror, I pulled my camera away from my eyes and looked at him again. Everything was just the same as before, with him playing impassively away – with his face still very much intact. Despite what I’d just witnessed, I couldn’t help myself, and held my phone up once more, ready to drop it from my field of vision if the same thing happened again. This time there was no fire. Now, the player was sat in a stunningly beautiful glade, with shafts of golden sunlight streaming down through the trees and countless flowers blooming all around. Ah, I thought. So this is the Heaven version – of course, how silly of me.
I couldn’t make sense of anything and was a moment away from just turning on my heels and running – just to put some distance between myself and something I couldn’t possibly understand. But there was one more thing to try. I switched my phone camera to video setting and held it up again. This time, the player was sat in a barren dust bowl of a place, the air thick with some sort of strange cloud. It shifted momentarily and I could just make out the skeleton of some enormous building, something that looked ultra-modern, but that had also been in a state of ruin for hundreds of years. Whether this change of scenery was a result of me switching to video, or just a coincidence, I don’t know. What I did know is that I’d had enough. Backing away from the player until he was a good 30 feet away, I turned round and ran all the way home, clutching my phone.
All of a sudden, it felt like I was in possession of the most amazing thing in the world but also the most terrifying thing in the world. I went into my bedroom and gave myself a moment, then looked at my picture gallery. I don’t know if it was disappointment or relief I felt when the last two pictures I’d taken now showed as corrupt files. I almost didn’t bother trying to play the video, but I did.
I know this didn’t happen at the time – I was only filming for a few seconds – but I swear, when I played the video back this time, it was different. The player stopped playing. He looked up directly into the camera. At me. My heart almost leapt out of my chest as he spoke:
“What you do next will decide the future.”
And, for the couple of seconds that it took him to say this, his surroundings were brought into vivid detail. He was sat in some kind of haunting, apocalyptic landscape, the burnt-out remains of skyscrapers behind him, as a number of shambling figures lurched about in the distance. I attempted to play the video again, but just like the photos, it was now showing up as corrupted. I wish I could tell you that the first thing I did was run back out to the beach, but I didn’t. I lay for the rest of the day on top of my bed, in a state of high anxiety and turmoil, until sheer nervous exhaustion lured me into a deeply uneasy sleep, full of dreams, fire and screams. When I awoke, still feeling absolutely exhausted, I hurriedly put on my shoes and headed out to the beach once more. The player was gone.
I don’t know why I’m writing this now, weeks after. Nobody will believe me and I’m the only person who saw it, but I guess I just feel the need to document it all somehow. What did he mean? Who was he? Believe me, I’ve tried to make sense of it, but the whole thing is too much for my mind to comprehend. I must admit, I’d been losing focus in my life before the player arrived. At least now I have something to think about, and something to work for. After all, nobody needs to know where I got the idea from, do they?