Compliments and a Quartet

A young man, his sister, and her boyfriend (whom he extremely dislikes) are at a party in the 1920s. And, you can't have a party in the Jazz Age without the King and Queen of the flappers...

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1. Compliments and a Quartet

 

“Mr Carraway,” Frank said, smiling. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, John.”

    John Carraway smiled his pleasant little smile at Frank. “It’s good to have you, Frank. I’m assured you’ve met my wife, Alice.” He gestured to the petite lady to his left.

    “Of course, I could never forget.” Frank had turned his charm on so that the room was practically swimming in it. He would have had an excellent career as an actor, or perhaps a politician.

    Alice smiled at Frank politely. “I wish you the best of luck in your career, Frank. I think your music is some of the greatest I’ve ever heard.”

    Frank coloured, and bowed his head to her. “You’re too kind, Alice. Far too kind.” Julia squeezed his hand, and he glanced at the rest of us. “Oh! Yes. These are my friends, Ray, Hester and Roderick.” Turning his face slightly, Frank looked down at Julia with an expression straight from Romeo and Juliet. “This is my sun and stars, Julia.”

    Julia blushed from head to toe, clutching onto Frank’s arm. “You big softie,” she whispered into his jacket. “You romantic softie.”

    “Let’s get you onto the piano, Frankie,” said John Carraway. “Get this party truly started.” He led us away from the door and towards the grand piano, where two young boys dressed in sailor suits sat playing ‘Chopsticks’ with vigour. At one glimpse at Frank, they jumped off the stool, running from the room. He chuckled blithely, and sat down, playing a simple scale to get warmed up.

    It was as though the whole room fell silent with the first note. Once he had the attention, Frank churned out old classics, like ‘Swannee River’ or ‘Maggie May’. People started to talk, laugh, dance to the beat of Frank’s music. I tilted my head to the side to watch him play, his hands not curled in the proper position of piano playing, but flat and heavy handed. But whatever he lacked in finesse was made up for in emotion. He played ‘Sweet Caroline’ so bittersweetly, so heart wrenchingly filled with love that I had to check I was not crying - I was not, although, my eyes were watering slightly. My opinion of jazz was not my opinion on music. I simply preferred clean melodies to the trumpeting farce that was the music of the era. Frank could play piano, without a doubt.

    With a wink in my direction, Frank launched into Fur Elise without much warning. I smiled, and my sister grinned at me. “Well?” she asked, sipping her coca cola.

    “Well, if Frank can appreciate a good Beethoven, then I simply have to respect him,” I said, simply mesmerised by her gold hair.

    It was then the song abruptly changed. I flinched. Gone were the well manicured melodies of the romantic period, and in with the fast paced Charleston. Julia hooted, and clapped her hands with joy as the people around began to dance.

    “I say, he is rather good at the piano, isn’t he?” said a man that appeared behind me. “Capturing jazz perfectly - look at that emotion.”

    Julia beamed at the newcomer. “He’s perfect, in every way.”

    The man laughed, returning her smile. “Well, aren’t you a romantic,” he said. “The name’s Scott, Scott Fitzgerald.”

    Julia extended her hand to shake his, “Julia Lee, and this is my brother- Roddy, snap out of it!” she ordered, and I jerked out of my stupor of staring at Fitzgerald. “Anyone would think you were simple-minded.”

    “You... You’re F. Scott Fitzgerald?” I asked, staring at the auburn-haired man before me. “Of ‘Tender is the Night’ fame?”

    He laughed, and smiled at me with only the slightest hint of irritation. “Yes, why, yes. I take it you quite liked it?”

    “Liked it? I loved it!” I exclaimed, staring at Fitzgerald. I idolised him more than I had ever idolised another man on the planet. “It was just... beautiful.”

    He tilted his head to the side, and smiled kindly. “Well, thank you very much,” he said, looking touched. I was stunned - this was Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald.

    “See?” Julia laughed, elbowing me hard in the ribs. “I told you it was a good idea to come!”

I huffed, and turned to the side, keeping Fitzgerald in my view at all times. "Well, I didn't know that a legend would be here."

Fitzgerald mumbled into his drink, almost afraid to meet my gaze. "You flatter me."

"I really don't."

"Please!" Julia cried, shaking her head. "You a writer?" she asked Fitzgerald, and I coloured in shame of being related to her.

"Well, yes." Fitzgerald smiled, somewhat bemused by my sister's ignorance.

"What do you write? Novels?" she asked, sipping at her cola, still bouncing to the music. "Short stories? Magazines?" She leant forwards towards him, her voice pitched low, "Romance?"

He laughed. "A bit of all, really." Fitzgerald smiled at her, bemused by her exuberance. I took this opportunity to ask him more about his book, one that I was sure would become a touchstone for American literature until he could write something that could top it.

“Any ideas for another novel?” I asked, and he shook his head slightly, gaze drifting back over to where Frank was playing the tune to Lindey Hop on the piano.

“Not really. They just come to me, you see. The inspiration. I never expect it,” he hummed to himself in thought. “You know, the idea for ‘Tender’ came to me when I was stepping out of the bath, and my short stories often appear when I am driving through the city.”

“You can’t control it?” Julia asked, frowning. “I’d have thought you could, being so brilliant at writing.”

Fitzgerald laughed. “The mind is not a sink, Miss Lee. It’s more a...” he frowned, no doubt about to amaze us with the most beautiful and stunning words that had ever spewed forth from the lips of any man. “-More of a rain cloud, if you will, pouring with rain sometimes, the lightest of drizzles the other. And some days, no rain at all falls from the skies.”

“And some days, we get snow,” Julia added. “Completely out of the blue, like hailstorms in the Summer.”

Fitzgerald laughed happily, and clapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Well,” he said, a sweet smile curving his lips. “We’ll make a writer out of you yet. See here, Mr. Sales,” Fitzgerald said, turning to Frank by the piano, who nodded for the author to continue as he played. “This girl here has the loveliest way with words since myself. You should have her write your lyrics.”

Frank fixed Fitzgerald with a serious stare, his dancing fingers slowing to a stop over the chequered keys. “She is my lyrics. My melody. My pulse.”

Julia laughed, and scooted over next to him on the piano stool, throwing her arms around his neck, kissing him on the nose. “And you are my fool,” she said, smoothing her fingers against his suit. “My lovely, kind, charming fool.”

He stroked her hair, and I turned away in order to give them at least the illusion of privacy. Fitzgerald joined me, sitting down on the sofa and gestured for me to follow suit. “Is she your sister?” he asked.

I nodded. “My younger one. She’s the light of my life, and I wouldn’t swap her for the world.”

“That sounds lovely,” he said, although it obviously wasn’t. In order to change the subject, he twisted in his seat to face the crowd. “Have you met my wife, Zelda?”

“I hear she’s a lovely lady,” I said politely. “Very beautiful, if urban legends are to be believed.”

Fitzgerald smiled, no doubt picturing her swimming before him like a glow when you glared at the sun for too long. “Yes. They are to be believed. Zelda knocks all the balls out of the park.”

“Do I? Truly?”

We both turned to see a lady with lovely, curling blonde hair, and smiling blue eyes. She sat down next to Fitzgerald, and he drew her close to his chest, cradling her head as though it were the most beloved treasure. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he asked, and I nodded in response.

“So, I’m Zelda. Zelda Fitzgerald, but you probably knew that,” she said, extending her hand out. “You are?”

“Yes, I did know that. Erm - Roderick Lee,” I added, accepting her proffered hand.

“Nice to meet you, Roderick. Now, what do you think of Scott here’s new book?” she asked, leaning forwards conspiratorially.

Scott sighed, “Zelda, I told you, it embarrasses me to talk about it.”

She pouted, “Well, it doesn’t embarrass me. And I love telling people that my husband, Scott Fitzgerald, is a famous writer. And yes, he is the greatest writer ever, thankyouverymuch.” Zelda said this all to some sort of invisible audience, and I laughed at her antics. She was so full of life and happiness, like Julia. It was as though they were twins separated at birth.

“I love Scott’s book. I think it is the greatest, the great American novel,” I added for extra effect, and Scott groaned.

“There’s something terribly wrong with you if you can’t take a compliment,” Zelda informed her husband blatantly, and turned to me. “Tell me I’m beautiful,” she ordered.

“You’re beautiful,” I blurted immediately, slightly confused as to why she had told me to.

Zelda nodded in thanks, and smiled at Scott the way one did when introducing a toddler to a new word. “And that is how you take a compliment, Scott.”

He laughed, and drew her in so that the back of her head rested on his shoulder. “Well, thank you for the lesson, darling. Very eye-opening.” He smiled down at her, and turn his gaze to me. “So, Roderick, what is it you do?”

I shrugged. “Currently living on an allowance from my dad. I’ve been meaning to get a job, but-” I glanced around at the party for emphasis. “I’ve been kind of distracted.”

“What kind of job are you looking for? Maybe Scottie could hook you up with one of the papers,” Zelda said, breaking away from her husband to lean forwards into the conversation.

“I’d actually like to work in finance. Trading, or broking,” I said. “We used to live on a farm, and I’d handle most of the figures, check the coffer and things.” Fitzgerald grimaced. “I take it you don’t like that?”

He shrugged at me, looking straight into my eyes. “Well, finance has never had the liberation or freedom that writing has. Or the sense of pride. I never liked it. What college you from?”

I coloured, thinking over my college days that were spent holed up in my parent’s study. “Community college. Farm doesn’t pay for much.” I suddenly felt like the country mouse meeting the city mouse - Scott and Zelda, with their words and their passion. Then me... the little boy with no education.

“Anyone seen Hester?” Julia asked, appearing at my shoulder. “Oh,” she said, looking at Zelda. “Hello.”

Zelda smiled languidly, and stretched her hand out in greeting. “Zelda Fitzgerald, pleasure to meet you,” she said, and my sister accepted the proffered hand.

“Julia Lee, the pleasure’s all mine,” she smiled. Zelda and Julia shared a certain look, the type that read a great friendship looming ahead. I noticed how similar their hairs were - Zelda’s a natural blonde in finger waves, my sister a pale gold with short bouncing curls. “I simply love your dress.”

Fitzgerald laughed. “Come on, Roderick. Let’s leave the ladies to their fashion talk, and have a nice conversation about baseball.”

Zelda smiled, and my sister chuckled. “Oh, come, Scott,” Zelda said, stealing his glass from his hand. “You and I both know you can’t play baseball to save your life.”

“Neither can Roddy,” Julia added, and I sent a reprimanding glance her way. She giggled, buzzing from the sugar in the cola. “Well, it’s true. No need to go about denying what’s true, is there?”

I mumbled into my drink, and rolled my eyes, hiding a sense of sudden shame. Julia frowned at the lack of conversation. Zelda also seeming rather uncomfortable at the lull. Fitzgerald and I, however, were perfectly fine to sit in companionable silence.

“Come on,” Julia said. “Let’s go talk to Frank,” she decided with a smile, pulling Zelda up from the sofa.

“Frank?” Zelda asked. “Would that be the dashing young man on the piano?”

Julia smiled, nodding. “Yes. He’s Frank.”

Zelda grinned, and started to move towards the piano. “Well, then. By all means, let’s go talk to him.”

Frank was completely absorbed in his piece, brows furrowed as he rolled his fingers over the ebony and ivory keys. I had seen that look before on athletes running, writers stressing on a deadline, even drivers on a rough road. Julia waited patiently for him to finish, hovering just by the edge of his stool.

“Hello, darling,” she cooed, the second he finished with a glissando. Frank turned his head, grinning.

“Julia. And these are-?”

“Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, dear. You know, the writers?” Julia sat down next to him on the stool, and Frank frowned. “‘Tender is the Night’, I do believe.”

“Oh, wow,” Frank said, rising to shake Fitzgerald’s hand. “I loved that book. It was just so... passionate. And true.”

Fitzgerald smiled. “Thank you,” he said, and glanced at the piano. “How long have you played?”

Frank shrugged, “I learnt the organ first, and made the leap to piano when I was twelve. Not much of a difference,” he added, and played a quick rendition of ‘Here Comes the Bride’ for emphasis. “Except your ears don’t ring after.”

“Organ?” Zelda asked, raising her eyebrows. “Why would you play organ? Were you in a church?”

He shook his head. “I learnt it to accompany the school choir, plus the organ-master was an official name in our school.”

Fitzgerald laughed amiably. “I never got past the recorder,” he admitted. “Well done for sticking through with it.”

“Thank you,” Frank said, colouring slightly. An odd sound punctuated the air, and all of us turned to see what on Earth it could have been.

“That sounded like a wild animal!” laughed Zelda, a hand clutched to her chest. “Oh, Julia dear, are you alright?”

Julia was not meeting anyone’s eyes, her face red as she glared down at the floor. Frank chuckled. “Was that your stomach?” he asked in disbelief.

She nodded. “Hester neglected to stop for lunch, and it’s nearing five now. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and that was just a bit of toast.”

Frank tugged her upwards, and they moved over to the sofas. “Lets get some food in you, then. The deviled eggs are apparently delicious.”

The couple vanished into the crowd, leaving me alone with the Fitzgeralds. Zelda smiled at me, her white teeth matching the string of pearls laced about her neck. “So, Roddy. Where’re you from?”

“Down South,” I admitted, shaking my head. “I’m not used to big cities like this. I grew up on a farm.”

“Where down South?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Georgia?”

“Mississippi,” I corrected, smiling. “Born and bred fifteen minutes out of Jackson. You?”

“I had a friend that lived down in Jackson, once. Do you know anyone of the name Mabel Francs?” she asked me, ignoring my attempt to turn the question on her.

I shook my head, cheeks reddening. “No, sorry. Where are you from, Mrs. Fitzgerald?”

Zelda frowned. “Zelda, please. I can’t stand being called ‘Mrs. Fitzgerald’. Mrs Fitzgerald is my mother-in-law. When someone calls me that, I sound like a fusty old librarian in her late fifties, waiting for a pension. No, no, dear,” she said, fixing me with a stare. “Zelda will do just fine.”

“Where are you from, Zelda?” I rephrased, and she laughed happily, amused by my immediate response to her demand, like a butler to a mistress.

“Alabama,” she said, grinning. “I’ve been to Jackson a few times. Rather nice, but gets a bit too hot for my tastes in the Summer. Spring is lovely, though.”

“Yes,” I said, looking out over the crowds. “Yes it is.” There - a flash of deep blue and a head of dark hair. “I’m sorry, but you must excuse me.”

“Are we boring you?” Zelda asked as I turned to leave. Scott, who had been steadily draining a glass during our exchange, laughed quietly.

“I don’t think you could bore anyone, Zelda.” I answered seriously. “You’re that type of person.” And with that I left, hearing Scott’s laugh waft through the air at what I am assured to be a rather funny expression on Zelda’s face.

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