'The XY Factor' by Susan Howe
My hands hover, ready to adjust the sound levels as the young tenor seizes the microphone for his final song. Ryan poses for his public, feet slightly apart, confidence rippling through every silk-clad muscle. He waits, extending the pleasure, tasting the tension that binds him to his audience, before nodding at the stage manager. The moan of a cello fills the studio and my throat constricts even though I’ve heard it many times before.
I glance across the stage and my concentration is momentarily broken. The other finalist is gazing at her rival with more admiration than he deserves. I’ve watched her devotion building, week by week. Recognising Amy’s talent, Ryan has kept her close, offering advice and support.
Following yesterday’s rehearsal, I overheard Ryan suggest that Amy might make use of the auto-tune to correct her less assured notes. She stiffened, sagged, and fled the room.
He appeared startled to find me within earshot and the triumphant gleam faded from his eyes.
“Hormones,” he said, with a wink.
I glared back.
He shrugged. “Just trying to help.”
I found Amy on the fire escape, hands covering her face. Feeling a sudden urge to protect her, I sat down and put my arm around her shoulders.
“Don’t listen to him. You’re the one person who doesn’t need help from technology. Take it from the expert.”
She blew her nose.
“Thanks, Sam. I’m being silly. It’s just nerves, I expect.”
Her lips wobbled into a smile and I helped her stand.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll be great.”
His moment has arrived. His eyes close as he sways to the rhythm, chest rising as he prepares for a crescendo that will tear at every soul. The judges’ expressions are a mixture of expectation and emotion. The congregation waits, transfixed.
Amy stands in the wings, tears coursing down her cheeks. She must realise that her sweet rendition of her own composition could never upstage Ryan’s charisma.
My attention switches back to the spotlight. There’s no doubt he’ll make it to the top, whether he wins tonight or not. The offers are already pouring in.
The music swells towards its climax and my fingers respond. Ryan extends his arms in a dramatic gesture and the note erupts.
A gasp and collective wince sweep the room as his pitch falls short of perfection. He registers the pain in every face and falters. He turns bewildered eyes towards me and I shake my head. He refused the auto-tune; it was out of my hands.
The audience claps but there is no standing ovation. Amy is pale and still. The judges frown and study their notes. Although the public has yet to cast its vote, we all know Ryan has lost.
He’ll survive. A glittering future stretches before him. One that may, or may not, include me.
In the meantime, I’ll try and make it up to him. Starting tonight - at my place.