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Ashley's Guitar by Stella Tarakson
First Prize - Charlotte Duncan Award 2009

Sunlight streamed through Jessica's bedroom window and lit up the stage in a dazzling white glow. Jessica opened first one eye, and then the other. The early morning sun felt warm on her face. She smiled. It was time.

Dressed in a floaty pink nightgown, Jessica climbed out of bed and stepped barefoot onto the stage. Her heartbeat was a drum, and the wind that swooped and soared around the eves was a violin. In the distance, Jessica could hear the audience clapping and calling out her name: 'Jesse! Jesse! Jesse!' She didn't want to disappoint her fans.

Jessica started to dance. She spun and whirled and twirled. Her feet kept pace with the rising and falling cadences of the wind, and she moved like a feather buffeted by the breeze. Round and round she went, faster and faster, until the wind died down and the music stopped. Breathless, Jessica took a bow and the applause grew louder. She held up her hands in surrender - sorry, no more for today - and sank onto the stage floor, panting.

It had been one of her better performances, she decided with satisfaction. It was all so effortless. But it did not always feel that way. Some days the air was still and quiet, and her feet were like lead. Some days the stage was just an old rug, frayed around the edges, with a faded tea stain in the centre. On those days, Jessica did not dance. She would sit on the floor and listen to the silence, wondering whether she would ever hear Ashley's guitar again.

Ashley was Jessica's neighbour and best friend. Their bedrooms faced each other over the rickety wooden fence. If they opened their windows, they could talk to each other. Sometimes, late at night, they chatted when they should have been asleep. They talked about what they would do when they grew up. They were going to become famous musicians: Ashley would play guitar, and Jessica would dance and sing. They would perform all over the world. They would never eat broccoli ever again.

Ashley learnt to play the guitar when she was only five, and she used to practice morning and night. The sound of strumming was the last thing Jessica would hear when she closed her eyes at night, and the first thing to greet her in the morning. On the weekends, Ashley would bring her guitar to Jessica's house so they could rehearse their stage show: the show that would one day make them famous. Ashley's guitar was red and orange and gold and it sparkled on stage.

Several weeks had passed since Ashley's last visit and Jessica missed her. She missed the sound of her playing. She missed their secret late night conversations. There was only one thing for it - she would have to go and see her.

Jessica pulled on a sundress and her jazz ballet shoes and padded down the stairs.

Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and reading. 'Hello, sweetie, sleep well?' Mum said, looking up from her book.

'Fine, thanks,' Jessica said, offering her cheek for a good morning kiss.

'You're dressed early.'

'I'm going to see Ashley.'

Mum frowned, a look of anxiety crossing her face. 'I don't think that's a good idea. She needs her rest. Why don't you leave it for a little while? Maybe pop over in the afternoon.'

'I'm just going to say hello, that's all.'

'I really don't think -'

'Just hello. Only quickly.' Jessica folded her arms across her chest. 'I want to see her. I haven't seen her for ages.'

Mum sighed and ran a hand through her hair. 'Okay. But don't stay long. Just ...'

'Just what?'

'Just don't get too upset.'

Jessica did not answer. She tossed her head, spun on her toes and left the room. Why should she be upset? Ashley was ill, everyone knew that, but she would soon be better, and then they would dance and play again. Her mother was overreacting, that was all.

Ashley's father, Mr Nichols, looked older than usual when he answered his front door. His face was creased and there were dark circles under his eyes.

'Hi, Mr Nichols.'

'Hello, Jessica.'

'I've come to see Ashley. Can I come in, please?'

Mr Nichols hesitated. For a moment, it looked as if he were going to shut the door. Then he stepped back, opening the door wide. 'She's asleep,' he said. 'But you can see her for a few minutes if you're quiet.'

Jessica walked past him into the house. It had changed since her last visit. The house, which was once full of music and sunshine, was now dull and quiet and sad. The stillness enveloped Jessica like a hot heavy blanket and she paused at the stairway, suddenly uncertain.

'That's right,' said Mr Nichols, nodding. 'Up you go.'

Jessica crept up the stairs, fighting the urge to turn and run back home. She opened the door to Ashley's room, and paused while her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The blinds were drawn, and Jessica could make out a figure huddled up in bed, silent and small. Ashley's guitar stood in the corner, covered in dust.

'Ashley,' Jessica whispered.

There was no reply.

Jessica stepped closer to the bed. 'Ashley,' she said again, a little louder this time. 'Are you asleep?'

The figure stirred and rolled over. 'Jesse. Is that you?'

'It's me,' Jessica said, and walked up to her friend. 'Can you come and play?' But Jessica already knew the answer. Ashley's face was very white, and she had lost a lot of weight since Jessica had last seen her.

'I can't. I'm too tired.'

Jessica gulped. 'But you've got to. We haven't practised our show for ages. You might forget it.'

Ashley tried to sit up, the fell back, exhausted. 'Sorry.'

'Maybe tomorrow?'


Jessica turned and fled without another word. She ran straight past Mr Nichols, who was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. She ran out the front door and into her own house. She bolted straight to her room, and shut her blinds tightly so that she did not have to look at Ashley's window. Jessica glared at her rug as if it were to blame, then rolled it up and pushed it under her bed as far as it would go.

'Jessica,' her mother said, knocking on the door. 'Are you all right?'

'I'm fine,' Jessica said in a dull flat voice.

'I think we need to -'

'No. I want to be alone.'


'Leave me alone!'

There was silence for a few moments, then Jessica heard the sound of retreating footsteps.

Over the following days, her mother kept trying to talk about Ashley, but Jessica refused to listen. She knew her parents were worried and upset, but that just made Jessica feel angry. It wasn't fair. Only old people were supposed to get sick and die. It wasn't meant to happen to kids. It wasn't meant to happen to friends.

Jessica was sad for a very long time. She refused to open the blinds in her bedroom. She wouldn't listen to music. She wouldn't dance. She stopped going to her jazz ballet classes. A few times her mother tried to put the rug back in the middle of her room, but each time Jessica thrust it back under the bed.

One morning after the funeral, there was a knock on the door. The handle turned and Mr Nichols came in. He looked as if he hadn't slept for weeks, but he smiled weakly as he held something out. It was Ashley's guitar.

'Ashley wanted you to have it,' he said.

Jessica shook her head. 'I can't.'

'She said you'll need it when you're famous.'

'But she was meant to play it, not me.'

'Take the guitar,' Mr Nichols said gently. A tear slid down his cheek but he made no attempt to wipe it away. 'Don't let Ashley's dreams die.'

Jessica reached out and took it. The guitar felt warm and smooth and silky. Mr Nichols turned abruptly and left the room.

Jessica thought about what he had said. She thought about her friend, and how important music was to her. She looked at the guitar, still covered in dust. Ashley wouldn't have liked that. Jessica found a clean hanky and polished the guitar until it shone.

She paused, and then pulled up the blinds to let in the light. The guitar sparkled red and orange and gold in the sunshine. Jessica crawled under the bed, dragged out her stage and unrolled it. It glowed a dazzling white. Gently, she propped the guitar on top.

Jessica closed her eyes and listened. Far away, someone was softly strumming a guitar. The audience was clapping and calling out her name.

Jessica started to dance.

Copyright © 2009 Stella Tarakson.